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265. Memorandum From the Assistant Director, Far East (Neilson), to the Director of the United States Information Agency (Murrow)1


  • Use of Defoliants in VietNam

I am informed that the Department of Defense has drafted a memorandum to the White House seeking the President’s decision on the use of defoliants in VietNam.2 The Secretary of State’s concurrence is to be sought before submission to the President.

A member of my staff saw the memorandum in the Viet-Nam Task Force office yesterday. No copies were available.

The memo, briefly, lists two principal objectives in using defoliants: Deny food to Viet Cong units; establish a denuded area along Viet-Nam borders (with Cambodia, or Laos, or both) to check Viet Cong infiltration. Also listed are negative factors, mainly psychological, which should be taken into consideration in the decision-making process.

The status of this controversial subject thus is: The Government of VietNam, the U.S. Country Team in Saigon and the Department of Defense urge employment of defoliant as an effective tactic to hinder Viet Cong depredations. In proposing the action, consideration [Page 642]was given to so-called public relations or psychological factors. For instance, tests on foliage in or around Saigon would be made publicly to demonstrate that the chemicals employed are not harmful to humans and animals; the GVN itself would mount a publicity campaign explaining the security benefits which would accrue; unmarked aircraft piloted by “civilians” would be employed in spraying flights to guard against charges that “American military adventurists” are involved; etc.

I don’t know whether the following factors have been taken into consideration thus far in the decision-making process in Washington:

The use of chemical weaponry in an Asian country could create such a storm of criticism that possible short-range military advantages on the ground in Viet-Nam might be outweighed by a harvest of ill-will deleterious to certain long-ranged goals in Viet-Nam and the region (Southeast Asia).
The communist bloc will, of course, make great propaganda capital of this undertaking by “the U.S. and its stooge Diem.” We all recall the propaganda circus created by the communists on alleged U.S. use of “germ warfare” in Korea on the basis of fabricated evidence.

I am no military strategist or tactician, although I did learn a few things about chemical or bacteriological warfare (most of it harrassing) at the Air War College. Perhaps defoliation can be a critical factor in exposing Viet Cong strongholds and destroying Viet Cong food supplies. If it is, and must be used, we can take the psychological bumps which are certain to be dealt to us. But the spectre of charges that “U.S. imperialists are waging germ warfare on Asians” haunts me.

The decision is to be left to the President. I recommend you discuss the subject in its varied ramifications with Walt Rostow.

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 306,USIA/TOP Files: FRC 67 A 222, IAF Defoliation 1963. Secret. A note on the source text indicates that copies were sent to Wilson, Sorenson (IOP), and Slaton (IAF). The source text is Sorenson’s copy and bears his typewritten name in the margin and the handwritten notation, “TCS. Must reading. BY.” “BY” has not been identified.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 264.