Much has been written about Vietnam. Our purpose here is not to review the long, tortured and tragic history of the build up, politics, military wins and loses, or the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Instead our purpose is to explore some of the ways that the Vietnam War affected rural America and the ways that U.S. agriculture affected Vietnam.
Traditionally, rural communities have been among the most patriotic in America and recent studies have suggested that rural recruits are joining the military and dying in Iraq at higher rates than urban residents. Today’s Army is an all-volunteer force.
During the Cold War, the government had enacted a draft system during peacetime for only the second time in U.S. history. (The first was right before the U.S. entered World War II.) From 1948 through 1973, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the military. At first, the system had a number of exemptions, the main one being an exemption for young men attending college. As the Vietnam War heated up, college enrollments soared. New small college campuses sprouted all over the country including in many rural communities. After the war was over many of those campuses died.
For instance, Wahoo, Nebraska – population around 3,600 in 1960 – opened a small liberal arts college in 1965 and named it John F. Kennedy College. It was able to attract a few hundred students for several years and the rumor was that most were from eastern states. It closed in 1975, after the educational deferment was abolished. In 11 states of the Midwest, there were 60s colleges that closed during the 1970s and early 80s.
In the early years of the war, a perception grew that rural, black, poor men were dying in larger proportions than their urban, white, rich brethren. So, in 1969, Congress did away with the education and other deferments and set up a lottery system. On December 1st, 366 blue plastic capsules were put into a hopper. Each capsule had a birth date in it – “January 1,” “January 2,” and so forth. Then, as radio, TV and film crews covered it, capsules were drawn and the dates were posted on a board. If your birth date was drawn first, you knew you were going to be drafted first. And you knew there was a good chance you were going to Vietnam unless you could get into a different branch of the military.
Recent studies have suggested that the draft lottery helped “democratize” the war drawing recruits to the military roughly equally from all segments of society.
John Turnbull (left) grew up in a family who were civilians working on a Navy base, so he always expected to join the military as a pilot. He ended up flying one of the “Huey” helicopters that made the Vietnam War so mobile. John saw some heavy action but he also took time to notice the agriculture of Vietnam. “Where we were flying was a large agricultural area,” he says. “It’s the Rice Bowl of Southeast Asia… [But] living conditions were really bad for most of those folks.”
Don Freeman (right) was serving in a reserve unit in York, Nebraska, and remembers watching coverage of the war. “The Vietnam War always haunted me,” he says now, “because it was so fresh. TV the same day. Live news.” As it happened, he was discharged less than a month before his reserved unit was called up to active duty in Vietnam, and sometimes regrets he didn’t reenlist to follow his unit. “Most of the people in the unit, I’d probably sworn in. And we went to summer camp together. You become more than just a unit. You become friends. And so, I felt that, yeah, I probably should have gone at that time.”
Farm labor. As in any war, the increased number of men (and increasingly women) in the military draws labor from farms and rural communities. That, in turn, hastens the move toward more mechanized agriculture.
During the Vietnam War years, rough 9 million people served in the military, compared with the 16 million who served during World War II. Of the 9 million, roughly 3 million served in the Southeast Asia area, and half of those actually saw combat in Vietnam.
By 1970, roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population was living on farms or in rural communities where hired hands would be hired from. So, using the 9 million figure, roughly 2.25 million men would have left rural communities for the military during the Vietnam era. The Vietnam War had a significant impact on the rural workforce.
In the 1960s, almost all farms were mechanized, but the war forced many farmers to become even more efficient by buying larger, more specialized machines and concentrating their operations on one main crop.
Economic costs. The Defense Department reported that the overall cost of the Vietnam war was $173 billion (equivalent to $770 billion in 2003 dollars). Veteran’s benefits and interest would add another $250 billion ($1 Trillion in 2003 dollars).
But the real cost of the war was its impact on the economy, including agriculture. After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson vowed to carry on JFK’s civil rights agenda and, after his own election, a host of social reforms known as the “Great Society.” Johnson announced a “War on Poverty” and tried to quietly escalate the war in Vietnam. It didn’t work. Eventually, Johnson had to admit that he was trying to pay for both “guns and butter,” meaning pay for both the war and domestic programs without a tax increase.
For many economists, the last truly good years in the U.S. were 1962-65 when there was almost full employment, low inflation and a favorable balance of trade. During those years, farm price supports continued to prop up rural incomes and keep food prices low.
But the escalation of the war fueled inflation and also increased food prices. Johnson finally asked Congress for a tax increase in 1968, but Congress insisted that the “surcharge” would be implemented only if Johnson cut $6 billion from domestic spending. The tax increase slowed the U.S. economy.
In addition, spending on the Vietnam war hurt the U.S. balance of trade, and that led to an international monetary crisis and threat to U.S. gold reserves in 1967-68.
Many of the problems were left to the Nixon and Ford administrations to deal with. A hike in food prices, in particular, led to wage and price controls from 1971-73, an embargo on exports of soybeans and cottonseed and a freeze on beef prices in 1973. All of those actions, precipitated by the Vietnam War, hurt farmers.
The “ecocide” of Vietnam. In Vietnam, American military strategists set out to deliberately destroy much of the farmland and rice paddies that fed the enemy and the jungle environment that hid their troops. The tools were a massive bombing campaign and technology borrowed from American agricultural innovation – powerful chemical herbicides. Critics charge that this was a policy of conventional and chemical warfare that created the “ecocide” of Vietnam – the destruction of entire ecology of vast regions.
Vietnam was the most heavily bombed country in history. Between 1964 and 1975, there were over 7.5 million tons of bombs and other ordinance dropped on North and South Vietnam. That compares with 2.1 million tons of munitions during all of World War II and 454,000 tons during the Korean War.
To supply all those bombs, WWII-era munitions plants, like the Hastings (Nebraska) Naval Ammunitions Depot had to be reopened and start building bombs again.
One of the effects of the bombing was the destruction of a vast irrigation system that captured monsoon rains and distributed the water to rice paddies for a string of villages. In addition, as early as 1961, the Kennedy administration approved the use of chemical weapons – herbicides – to destroy the rice crops of enemy-held areas. As a result of the bombing and the chemical weapons, Vietnam went from being a net exporter of rice (48,563 metric tons exported in 1965) to a net importer of rice the next year. By 1968, Vietnam was importing over 677,000 tons of rice to feed its people.
From the fields, the military shifted its attention to the forests of the jungles. Guerrilla fighters need to be hard to find to be successful, and in Vietnam that meant hiding in the dense jungles. So, the U.S. military commissioned agricultural chemical companies Dow and Monsanto to develop powerful new herbicides to completely kill vegetation in enemy areas. They came up with Agents Pink, Green, Purple, Blue, White and – most famously – Agent Orange. This last chemical was one of the most powerful because it contained dioxin. Dioxin was soon shown to be a cancer-causing agent.
The U.S. soldiers and airmen who worked on “Operation Ranch Hand” borrowed a familiar Smokey the Bear saying and gave it an ironic twist – “Only we can prevent forests.”
The U.S. sprayed over 20 million U.S. gallons of herbicide over 6 million acres of South Vietnam. The cost to the environment was apparent to anyone who flew over Vietnam. Vast stretches of formerly lush vegetation were nude.
A 1970 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science claimed that Operation Ranch Hand had deprived some 600,000 Vietnamese of their normal food supply. The report said chemical agents had destroyed $500 million worth of hardwood, and that 400,000 acres of mangrove forests were now lifeless swamps. The destruction of mangrove forests killed seafood, as well.
There were also human consequences of the chemical attack. While the chemical companies dispute the links between dioxin exposure and specific human diseases, they agreed to pay a $180 million settlement into a fund to help compensate veterans who may have been affected by Agent Orange. Also, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs assumes that when any Vietnam vet show up with one of three forms of cancer or two skins diseases that veteran was exposed to Agent Orange and is entitled to compensation.
Also, a 1997 Wall Street Journal article reported that up to 500,000 children were born in South Vietnam with dioxin-related deformities – a rate four times higher than in the former North Vietnam. Recently, the government of Vietnam has asked the U.S. to compensate Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange exposure, but the U.S. has refused.
Agriculture played in large role in the Vietnam war. Vietnamese agriculture was a target. American agricultural innovation provided a powerful chemical weapons for the war. And American agriculture was affected by the draining of farm labor and the war’s impact on the overall economy.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.