The Operation Tailwind tangle

Print edition : December 19, 1998

Washington's denials notwithstanding, the question remains: did the United States use the lethal nerve gas sarin in the Vietnam War?

IN July 1998, two key units of a giant American conglomerate, Cable News Network (CNN) and Time magazine, which modestly labelled themselves as the world's two great news organisations, were laid low and thrown into convulsions in full public view. The onslaught against them was led in person by William S. Cohen, Secretary of Defence in the Clinton Administration. The convulsions of the two were of such severity that one wondered whether Cohen had unleashed against them the verbal equivalent of the dreaded nerve gas sarin.

The Pentagon and its chief were not lacking in compassion and willingness to "forgive and forget" selectively. Confronted with the wrath of the Pentagon, CNN and Time tearfully retracted two serious allegations that they had made against the Pentagon and offered abject apologies. Magnanimous in victory, Cohen was content to let bygones be bygones. Apparently what he had used against the world's two great news organisations was merely the verbal equivalent of a potent tear gas of the "hidden persuader" category, and not that of sarin. Tear gas and nerve gas are important elements in this analysis of Pentagon's top-secret "black operation" codenamed Tailwind in neutral Laos in September 1970.

On June 7, 1998 CNN telecast a programme entitled "Valley of Death", which purported to expose shocking details about Operation Tailwind. Time, which had joined hands with CNN in sponsoring the programme, carried a print version of the story in its issue of June 15, 1998. Their reports alleged that in September 1970 the U.S. military establishment had authorised and implemented Operation Tailwind, which had as its objective the killing of U.S. soldiers who had defected to North Vietnam. The reports asserted that in the course of efforts to extricate the Tailwind team from the site of their incursion, U.S. aircraft used sarin against a group of advancing enemy soldiers. Time said: "Now, after the eight-month investigation, military officials with knowledge of the mission assert to... CNN and Time that the gas dropped 28 years ago in Laos was nerve gas, specifically sarin, the lethal agent used in the 1995 terrorist attack in a Tokyo subway that killed a dozen people."

The horrifying charges purveyed by CNN and Time were featured in newspapers around the world. A Pentagon official was quoted as saying that the U.S. military establishment "has found no documentary evidence to support CNN's claim that nerve gas of any type was used in Operation Tailwind." Cohen, who was in Europe at the time, found that the CNN telecast "had an impact certainly on the people I was dealing with" and immediately ordered a comprehensive investigation. He explained subsequently why such an investigation was necessary:

"CNN/Time said that the purpose of this (Tailwind) mission was to hunt and to kill U.S. defectors and that the United States used sarin, a lethal nerve gas, during the mission.

A section of the top-secret Command History 1970: Annex B.-

"...If true, the United States would have been in violation of its own policy against the use of lethal nerve gas, and out of step with international efforts to ban the use of deadly chemical weapons.... The charge would be used to discredit the United States' attempt to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Clearly the Pentagon and the U.S. establishment were determined that the two allegations made in the CNN-Time reports should be challenged and discredited to the maximum extent possible. Only time will tell whether any pressures were brought to bear on "the world's two great news organisations" to retract their allegations and to don sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate their repentance. At a 90-minute press conference in the Pentagon that a contrite CNN carried in full, Cohen declared that the exhaustive investigation completed on his instructions revealed "no evidence to support CNN/Time assertions." He said:

"With respect to defectors, no document, military order, after action report, briefing paper or official military history mentions pursuit of U.S. defectors as Tailwind's mission. There is no hint, nod, wink, or subliminal reference to such a mission.

"On the use of nerve gas, we found no evidence that sarin nerve gas was used or that it was ever transported to Vietnam, Laos, or Thailand. Sarin was stored in Okinawa at the time and remained there until 1971.

"...The Air Force pilots who provided air cover to Tailwind say they dropped tear gas, not nerve gas. ... The Marine Corps pilots who rescued Tailwind soliders from Laos deny that sarin was used."

It was a clever performance by the U.S. Secretary of Defence. He appeared convinced that he had demolished the two charges that had been levelled by CNN and Time. It was a relatively easy task; after viewing the CNN telecast and reading the Time article I had concluded that their inferences on the two points were shaky and that they had not provided any clinching evidence. Let us for the time being accept Cohen's contentions on the two points and take a closer look at Operation Tailwind.

Cohen focussed attention exclusively on the two issues on which he was interested in rebutting CNN and Time. He did not offer any concrete information on the actual Tailwind mission. He did not provide any details of the acts perpetrated by the U.S. team in its four-day murderous intrusion into the territory of a neutral country, nor did he refute the description of some of those acts given by CNN and Time. He prudently chose to remain silent on such matters because they had been mentioned in a top-secret official history of the expedition. The reporters covering his press conference did not press him on these issues. Cohen's aim was to close the lid on Operation Tailwind and the U.S. media followed his lead.

A mangrove forest, about 960 km from Saigon, before the U.S. forces started spraying forests with "herbicides" in 1965.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THE principal and authoritative source for this analysis is the top-secret "Command History 1970: Annex B" prepared under instructions from the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Forces, Pacific (CINCPAC). Annex B tersely chronicles the operations of an elite formation of commandos that the Pentagon euphemistically called the "Studies and Observations Group" (SOG). The Chief of the SOG, Col. John F. Sadler of the U.S. Army, described the highly "sensitive" nature of the information in Annex B thus:

This document contains information affecting the security of the United States within the meaning of the Espionage Laws, Title 18, U.S. Code Sections 793 and 794.... The information presented in this document is to be treated with the utmost discretion. Under no circumstances shall possession thereof be transferred, or the information contained therein be imparted to personnel other than those whose duties specifically require knowledge thereof. Information provided to any individual will be the minimum required in the performance of his duties.

Tailwind was an SOG operation and was described in Annex B. Photocopies of selected pages of Annex B are shown on Pages 64 and 65. Certain descriptive passages from the CNN-Time reports that had not been refuted or contradicted by Cohen or, to the best of my knowledge, by any other Pentagon official, will supplement the military-style information given in Annex B. For instance, Cohen did not refute the following description of what the SOG was and the functions that it was trained and expected to perform:

Based in Kontum, South Vietnam, the men involved in Operation Tailwind were known as a SOG team... Officially SOG units did not exist, but they were America's fiercest warriors, conducting classified "black operations" with unconventional weapons and unusual targets. They did little studying and a lot of fighting. According to SOG veterans, they had no rules of engagement; anything was permissible as long as it was deniable.

According to Annex B, the decision to launch Operation Tailwind was made on September 4, 1970 and the venture was to be "in support of a larger CAS/CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) operation near Chavane, Laos." No indication was given on what the CIA mission was. Cohen revealed that Tailwind was designed to divert the attention of the enemy from "the forces that were marshalled in that region" for a CIA operation codenamed Gauntlet. Cohen did not say why the CIA had marshalled forces for "a larger operation" than Tailwind in an obscure corner of neutral Laos. The reporters attending his press conference did not pose any questions on whether the CIA's Operation Gauntlet was concerned, among other things, with hunting down U.S. defectors or looking for U.S. prisoners of war.

ONE important U.S. policymaker of the time, who is still around in Washington and who would have had a major say in the decision to unleash Tailwind, is Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon. Kissinger chaired a subcommittee of the National Security Council which had been set up shortly after Nixon entered the White House. Kissinger named the subcommittee as the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG). The WSAG was concerned with contingency planning and, subject to presidential approval, its recommendations were of decisive importance.

The key role that Kissinger played and his high evaluation of his own thoroughness in exploring all aspects of any proposed action are brought out in a comment that he made about commando raids by U.S. troops: "A President, and even more so his National Security Adviser, must take nothing on faith; they must question every assumption, every presumption and probe every alleged fact." That comment, made by Kissinger with regard to another commando operation a few weeks after Tailwind, indicates that Tailwind too must have received his close scrutiny before it was approved by the WSAG.

A mangrove forest that was sprayed with "herbicides", a 1970 picture.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The timing of Tailwind is significant as it brings out Kissinger's carrot-and-stick strategy in his approach towards the North Vietnamese regime. (The strategy prolonged the war for three years, brought death and disability to thousands of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese, ravaged three countries of Indochina, drained the U.S. treasury of billions of dollars and, as a final irony, earned Kissinger the Nobel Prize for Peace.)

From July 1970 Kissinger had tried to arrange a secret meeting in Paris with North Vietnam's key intermediary, Le Duc Tho. Eventually Hanoi agreed to hold such a meeting on the outskirts of Paris on September 7, 1970, but indicated that its emissary would be Xuan Thuy instead of Le Duc Tho. The WSAG's decision that Tailwind should be launched was conveyed to the U.S. military commander in Saigon on September 4, 1970.

To this day Kissinger remains dazzled by what he regards as the brilliance of his own tactical concept: seek a meeting in Paris with the enemy to talk peace and simultaneously organise a below-the-belt blow at the enemy in Laos so that it is more reasonable in the next round of talks. Tailwind would be a reminder to Hanoi of the discomfort that Washington would continue to mete out to it if it persisted in "unreasonableness". At the secret meeting in Paris on September 7, Kissinger could only win acceptance from Hanoi's emissary for a second meeting on September 27. Operation Tailwind began on September 11 and lasted for four days.

The September 27 meeting produced no results. It was followed by a speech by President Nixon in which he offered to end all bombing operations in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and to participate in an international conference to bring about an end to all military operations by both sides, mutual withdrawal of forces, and an opportunity for the South Vietnamese people to determine their own future. The rejection of the proposal by Hanoi led Kissinger's WSAG to authorise two days of B-52 bombing of "North Vietnamese installations" and a Tailwind-type commando raid on a facility barely 32 km from Hanoi that was believed to hold 60 U.S. prisoners of war.

ON September 11, 1970, four large Marine Corps transport helicopters took off from a U.S. military base in the South Vietnamese town of Kontum. They carried 16 U.S. soldiers of the SOG and about 105 members of the Montagnard tribal community from Vietnam's mountainous areas, who had been hired and trained by U.S. military instructors. The raiders were to be dropped at a pre-designated location about 100 km away in Laos. The transport helicopters were escorted by 12 Cobra helicopter gunships and two back-up helicopters. The members of the assault force were equipped with gas masks, which indicates that the use of some sort of gas during the raid was anticipated.

The helicopters encountered some small-arms fire when they dropped the Tailwind team in the chosen Laotian location. This indicates that the arrival of the commandos had been noticed by hostile elements on the ground and that the latter had neither heavy anti-aircraft guns nor any air support. Their number too must have been small because they had apparently fallen back without engaging the intruders. Annex B thus describes the initial actions of the Tailwind commandos on that first day of the raid:

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The company moved northwest 600 metres where they encountered a series of hootches (makeshift sheds) used for the storage of 140mm rockets, 82mm mortar ammunition, 23mm AAA ammunition, B-40 rockets, small arms ammunition, and approximately 40 dismantled bicycles. Charges with delay fuses were placed on the 140mm rockets and the company moved northwest 1,500 metres.

The raiders remained there for five hours during which they claim to have recorded about 100 secondary explosions when the charges with delay fuses that they had planted in the "hootches" began functioning.

Subsequently, Annex B stated, the Tailwind commandos made contact with the enemy, estimated to number around 40 persons. After nightfall, the number increased to an estimated 100 to 150. To keep the enemy at bay "fire support continued to be provided by Spectre (C-130) gunships." Some members of the team who had sustained injuries were picked up and flown back by rescue helicopters. The exact chronology of developments during the next three days is not clearly brought out in Annex B, after its description of Tailwind's first exploit of destroying a few unguarded hootches purportedly containing assorted ammunition of unspecified quantity as also 40 dismantled bicycles. The feat is unlikely to find a place in the annals of commando raids, but the next "exploit" should indeed find mention as a case of mindless barbarity. Choosing to be silent on that aspect, Annex B provides the following description:

Contact was again made with enemy units. This time they seemed to be defending. The company advanced on the enemy who withdrew beyond a battalion-sized base camp containing 8,000 kilograms of rice as well as numerous hootches and latrines. There was evidence that the area had been used as a truck park and maintenance point as some vehicle parts were found. A 120mm mortar was found and destroyed.

Annex B made no reference to any casualties inflicted on enemy soldiers or other human beings who might have come in Tailwind's way in the so-called "battalion-sized base camp." But the next paragraph in its report on the total casualties of the enemy during Operation Tailwind says: "144 enemy KIA" (killed in action). Where did the 144 bodies come from?

The clue is to be found in the unrefuted part of CNN's investigative report. Its account leads to the plausible inference that the so-called "battalion-sized base camp" was a village from which most of the enemy soldiers posted in the location had withdrawn. The CNN investigators state:

The village raid lasted no more than 10 minutes. The body count, according to Captain Eugene McCurley, the officer in charge, was "upwards of 100". Sergeant Mike Hagen says, "The majority of the people were not combat personnel. The few infantry people they had we overran immediately. We basically destroyed everything there."

After a combing operation in a paddyfield in October 1965, South Vietnamese soldiers take two wounded Vietcong men to a waiting helicopter.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Spotter aircraft circling overhead while the carnage occurred instructed the Tailwind team to proceed to a specified location from where it would be picked up by helicopters for the return journey to a base in South Vietnam.

IT was during the "extraction" of the Tailwind team that it came under some enemy fire. The gas attack acknowledged by Cohen took place at that time. Annex B's version indicates the gas attack thus: "The company, still receiving small arms and B-40 rocket fire, then moved to an extraction HLZ (helicopter landing zone). Thirty-six sets of TAC AIR were used during the extraction." Juxtaposing available information, the inference is made that the "sets" were canisters of some sort of gas which, according to Cohen, was only "tear gas". Leaving aside the charge made by CNN investigators that the gas used was sarin, look at the unrefuted description of the episode given by them:

As the enemy closed in, the commandos were told to don their "funny faces", the M-17 gas masks. Then came the explosions of the gas canisters.... The gas spread towards the Americans, though the downwash of the chopper blades was pushing it away. Some of the gas masks had been damaged in the four-day battle, some had been discarded, and some were too big for the diminutive Montagnards.... Some of the Americans began vomiting violently.

The CNN investigators did not concern themselves with what the effect of the gas was on "the diminutive Montagnards" whose gas masks were ill-fitting or damaged. They quoted a platoon leader's description of what he saw on the ground as his rescue helicopter lifted off: "All I see are bodies. They are not fighting anymore. They are just lying, some on their sides, some on their backs. They are no longer combatants." There were no American bodies left behind on the ground. However, as will be explained shortly, some of the bodies could have been those of "the diminutive Montagnards". Since, according to Cohen, the chemical agent used was only "tear gas" and not the lethal sarin, was it possible that some of those Montagnards were alive but unconscious - and were not picked up by the rescue helicopters?

It is important to raise some issues briefly, starting with Cohen's assertion that only "tear gas" was used during the operation. The term "tear gas" brings to mind a rather innocuous chemical repellent used by policemen to disperse unruly crowds; the victims are seen to suffer a short spell of acute discomfort but are not thrown into convulsions or rendered unconscious or injured bodily. Was the chemical agent used during the rescue of the Tailwind team exactly the same as what was familiar to the public as tear gas? Newspersons should have questioned Cohen closely on its exact chemical composition and on whether it was concentrated or diluted and, if so, to what extent.

The questions are relevant since the international community is aware of the fact that the Pentagon had waged chemical warfare in Vietnam during 1961-1971, under what was euphemistically depicted as the "herbicide programme". Studies of that programme had shown that six different types of chemical agents, representing a total of 19,195,369 gallons, were "disseminated" on Vietnam. "Agent Orange", which accounted for over 60 per cent of the "herbicides" sprayed on Vietnam, was stated to contain "relatively high levels of an exceedingly poisonous contaminant known as dioxin". It is thus evident that tear gases, like "herbicides", may be of various kinds and of varying levels of toxicity. Cohen should have been asked whether tests had been conducted in public or private sector laboratories prior to 1970 on the effects of the exact kind of "tear gas" used in Operation Tailwind and what the results of those tests were.

Henry Kissinger welcoming a negotiator from North Vietnam in Paris in May 1973.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THE next issue relates to casualties suffered by the Tailwind team. Cohen mentioned that all 16 U.S. members of the team had returned safely to the base in South Vietnam and cited as conclusive proof that no lethal gas had been used during the operation. He made no reference to the 140 Montagnards in the team. "Sixteen Americans fought steadily for four days.... All got out alive," said Cohen. "I think all Americans should know that the 16 men who conducted the mission were heroes," he added. What happened to the Montagnards? According to Annex B, while four C-53 helicopters were used for the initial airlift to Laos, only three C-53s were needed to extract the Tailwind team for the return journey to South Vietnam, indicating that there must have been some casualties among the Montagnards. CNN investigators stated that "as many as 60 of the Montagnards died in Operation Tailwind, but all 16 Americans got out alive." The Montagnards might have volunteered for, or might have been assigned, hazardous tasks. Cohen said proudly that all the U.S. members of the Tailwind team had received injuries; it is reasonable to assume that several Montagnards who escaped death might have sustained injuries. The Montagnards were sought after, used and sacrificed; afterwards they were erased from Washington's memory.

What did the Tailwind commandos accomplish? "The documents that they captured provided an intelligence bonanza," Cohen claimed. In the absence of any evidence of what exactly the bonanza was, Cohen's statement appears to be a figment of his imagination. Annex B of the top-secret official history makes no reference whatever to any documents "captured" by the U.S. raiders in the obscure Laotian village that they ravaged. In the preface to Annex B, its compiler and "SOG Historian" Lt. Commander Mark H. Waggoner says that the document records "significant accomplishments" of the operations conducted by the SOG. The accomplishments mentioned in Annex B are the following: destruction of a single 120mm mortar, 40 dismantled bicycles, several latrines and hootches, miscellaneous ammunition of no significant volume, and 8,000 kg of rice. Annex B makes no mention of documents containing valuable intelligence information triumphantly captured and brought back by the SOG. Cohen's "bonanza" reminds one of the 1970 cartoon by Bill Mauldin, a perceptive chronicler of the tribulations of the U.S. soldier, that lampooned the U.S. forays into Laos and Cambodia. Neither the cartoonist nor even the U.S. Congress had any knowledge of Tailwind. The cartoon reflected the disenchantment among growing segments of the U.S. public and the Congress with their country's protracted and costly military adventure in Vietnam. They were baffled and angered over the continuing sacrifice of American lives despite Nixon's announced course of "Vietnamisation" and the progressive reduction of U.S. troops in Vietnam.

The hypothesis is that Operation Tailwind had very much less to do with any significant military objectives than with Henry Kissinger's schedule for holding secret talks with the North Vietnamese. He did not expect that the first or several subsequent rounds of talks could evoke the kind of concessions that he desired from the North Vietnamese. He was driven by his "concept" that commando raids and bombings, along with continued economic pressures, would progressively bring about a softening of Hanoi's negotiating posture. He and Nixon were "made for each other" and they convinced themselves that such a course was a realistic effort "to achieve an honourable exit from the war". The human cost of the actions they initiated hardly figured in their confabulations. It is not surprising that Kissinger remained unconcerned over the fate of the Montagnards who had been sent into Laos as part of the Tailwind team.

Conserving his energies for bold conceptualisation and for efforts to influence the President, Kissinger did not worry even about death of or injury to the U.S. soldiers who were dropped into hostile territory during raids such as Tailwind. After each raid, an officer of the Pentagon briefed the National Security Adviser. No information is available on the briefing after Tailwind. But there is Kissinger's own account of a briefing after the next raid on a North Vietnamese installation 32 km from Hanoi, ordered after Kissinger's fruitless second meeting with the North Vietnamese emissary. Kissinger provides a sample of what he himself characterised as his "warped sense of humour".

When the briefing officer reported that the operation had been a complete failure, the National Security Adviser did not make anxious enquiries about the fate of the U.S. commandos. Kissinger says: "I told him (the Pentagon official) not to apologise, that no doubt they had brought back a baby water buffalo, and the North Vietnamese were going crazy trying to figure out why we had mounted a big operation for that purpose." So exalted was Kissinger's position as the chief policy formulator that the Pentagon urgently called for full information on the baby water buffalo and was dismayed when the troops in the field reported that they "knew nothing about any kidnapped baby water buffalo". What happened subsequently is thus recounted by Kissinger: "The Pentagon refused to believe I had made my comment lightly. Back went a cable (to Vietnam) asking to make sure by checking the helicopter for buffalo dung."

Perhaps after the briefing by the Pentagon official, the National Security Adviser busied himself with conceptualising the next commando raid and the next bombing mission that he should push through the WSAG. His moves would send U.S. boys - and Meos, Montagnards, Vietnamese and Thais - "into the valley of Death, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell," to borrow the words of poet Alfred Tennyson. The producers of the "Valley of Death", who were fired by CNN, have said that they wrote two letters to Kissinger seeking information on Tailwind but received no response. They telephoned him several times but their calls were not returned. The usually voluble Kissinger believes that "silence is golden" as far as Operation Tailwind is concerned.

Dr. M.S. Venkataramani is former Dean and Professor of American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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