Allegations that U.S. special forces used nerve gas against suspected deserters and enemy troops in Laos during the Vietnam War could not come at a more critical time. In the wake of the South Asian nuclear tests and the U.S. failure to rally support for a strong international reaction, American leadership in halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction faces serious challenge. Further damage to Washington's credibility could weaken U.S. leadership to the point where it is all too easily ignored.
An eight-month investigation by CNN and Time magazine has concluded that despite a public declaration by President Nixon in November 1969 that the United States would never be the first to employ lethal or incapacitating chemicals as a method of warfare, U.S. special forces did so repeatedly in 1970 during secret operations in Laos. At the time of the alleged attacks, the United States had signed but not yet ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons in war. The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states that signing a treaty denotes agreement to refrain from acts that would defeat its object and purposes, which would clearly be the case if chemical weapons were used. Thus, U.S. military operations involving nerve agents, if they occurred, were violations of international law.
The Pentagon, while claiming that it currently has no evidence to substantiate the CNN/Time allegations, has pledged to investigate them. If it turns out that the U.S. did use chemical weapons in Laos, an open admission would be damaging but not fatal to U.S. moral authority in seeking to prevent outlaw states such as Iraq and Libya from acquiring and using these indiscriminate and inhumane weapons. What would be truly fatal is the perception that the United States carried out an illicit operation in 1970 and then tried to cover it up in 1998.
The United States can ill afford such a blow to its international credibility. Controlling the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction relies heavily on the existence of international norms that designate certain methods of warfare as so cruel and indiscriminate as to be beyond the pale of civilized behavior. Such norms go beyond simple calculations of national interest and are buttressed by a sense of moral conviction. If the United States loses its moral authority on chemical weapons, its ability to exert a positive and restraining influence on other countries will be damaged beyond repair.
To preserve American credibility, President Clinton should establish a commission with the mandate to conduct a vigorous and impartial investigation into the allegations of chemical weapons use during the Vietnam War. The Defense Department's disastrous internal investigation of chemical weapons exposures during the 1991 Gulf War should make clear that this investigation must be carried out not by Pentagon bureaucrats but by an independent and impartial body made up of historians, scientists and other nongovernmental experts. The commission must have full access to all relevant information, classified and unclassified.
Evidence must be presented openly, so it can be subjected to public scrutiny. Above all, whatever embarrassing or unpleasant truths may emerge from the inquest, outside observers must not be able to charge that there was a cover-up in conducting it. Only by fully clarifying this matter can the United States retain the moral authority it needs to wage the long-term struggle against the spread of toxic arms and other weapons of mass destruction.