The Environmental Impact of the Vietnam War

A look at the environmental damage of the war in Vietnam, and Smokey the Bear's career in commercialism.
By Mike Kiernan
September/October 1972
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Chemical herbicides caused untold damage to South Vietnam during the Vietnam war.

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Environmental Damage in Vietnam

Imagine a television newscaster announcing daily developments in the Indochina war by saying: "And in Quang Tri Province today, U.S. bombers knocked out 5,000 trees and killed 35 water buffalo while a South Vietnamese armored column rolled over 300 acres of rice paddies. North Vietnamese shelling disrupted 18 irrigation systems and demolished a forest known for its rare jungle parrots."

Such a bulletin is not likely. The human toll in Vietnam is so staggering—the mayhem so terrible—that accounts of what is done to the land rarely receive the attention they deserve.

No accurate records have been kept to determine the exact extent of the ecocide committed in Indochina. But Dr. Arthur Westing, a professor of biology who interrupted his teaching at Windham College, Vt., to lead an expedition of scientists to South Vietnam, estimates that The U.S. Air Command alone has created 26 million craters with its bombing of South Vietnam over the last eight years.

The U.S. Army admits that chemical herbicides have been sprayed over one-seventh of South Vietnam's total land mass in strengths ten times more potent than ever used for commercial application in the United States.

Although the Army stopped massive doses of herbicides in early 1971, scientists say it will be years before they can estimate the damage done. At present they fear the herbicides will eventually cause birth defects, plant mutations, death and deformity.

The irony is that the land in North Vietnam remains in relatively better shape than the land in the South. The truth is the U.S. has reaped far greater havoc on its ally than on its enemy.

Senator Gaylord Nelson, whose complaints throughout 1969 and 1970 helped force the military to phase out the use of chemical herbicides, has introduced the Vietnam War Ecological Assessment Act of 1972. The bill provides that the U.S. finally get down to the task of determining exactly what has been done to Vietnam's environment. The bill, however, is so unpopular in the Senate that it's not likely to get a hearing.

The Truth About Smokey the Bear

Smokey the Bear, the legendary forest ranger, has become the government's merchant prince of conservation. Smokey, who first appeared twenty years ago wearing dungarees and a weather-beaten hat, now can afford Brooks Brothers suits. The latest government report on Smokey's earnings reveals that the bear made more than $200,000 last year in royalty payments for his creators the Department of Agriculture.

Smokey, who works hard for his two hundred grand a year, peddles enough items to fill several counters in a department store. The government has sold forty Smokey the Bear commercial licenses and his approving face appears on dolls, comic books, milk jugs, belts, T-shirts, ash trays and a wide range of other items.

The government refers to Smokey's lucrative sideline as "an orderly commercial educational support program." A more appropriate phrase might be: commercial overkill.

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