|North and South Vietnam, 1954-75|
I was fortunate to have survived the Vietnam War, and I'm proud that I was there.
The war dominated American politics and culture from the time U.S. combat units were committed in 1965 until its end in 1975. It was bitterly controversial, dividing the nation more deeply than any conflict since the Civil War. This was partially because television made it more vivid and immediate than previous wars. Yet, it was poorly understood, even by the participants. Half a century later, it remains so. And for people born after 1970, it isn't even a distant memoryjust a few (often inaccurate) pages in a school textbook, and perhaps an old movie or an occasional story from an aging veteran.
Therefore, before recounting some of my Vietnam experiences, I need to present a brief summary of the context in which they occurred.The Cold War Context
Why did the United States fight a war in Vietnam, suffering and inflicting such death and destruction in a far-away place that few Americans had heard of prior to the 1960s? This was a difficult question to answer at the time, and it's still hotly disputed. After a decade of direct professional involvement, and a lifetime of study and reflection, here's my response.
Vietnam, then part of French Indochina, first came to the attention of American policy-makers when it was occupied by Japan at the beginning of World War II. After Japan's defeat in 1945, the French re- occupied the colony, but they were ultimately defeated by a Communist-led insurgency and forced to withdraw in 1954. Many Vietnamese, however, especially in the southern half of Vietnam and among the 20% of the people who were Catholic, were strongly opposed to the Communists. Therefore, the 1954 peace agreement, concluded at an international conference in Geneva, set up two independent countries: a Communist state in the north led by Ho Chi Minh, and a Western-oriented state in the south led by Ngo Dinh Diem. About 150,000 Communist supporters in the south moved north, and about a million (mostly Catholic) nationalists moved from north to south, with assistance from the U.S. Navy.
In the years immediately following independence, leaders of both North and South Vietnam were preoccupied with establishing governments and consolidating their rule. A referendum to unify the country, called for in the Geneva Accords, never took place. The Communists were zealous in pursuing their long-term goal of a unified Vietnam under their rule, and when it became apparent they could not achieve it by political means, they launched an insurgency war in the south. It was nominally led by an indigenous southern "National Liberation Front," generally known as the Viet Cong. In reality, this organization was from its inception under the direct control of the Communist Party politburo in Hanoi.Growth of U.S. Involvement
The United States began providing military and economic assistance to newly-independent South Vietnam in 1954. However, under the Eisenhower Administration, this assistance remained modest in scale, with only a few hundred Americans in Vietnam to deliver it.
After the Viet Cong insurgency became a serious problem in 1960 and 1961, the new Kennedy Administration decided to dramatically increase U.S. assistance to South Vietnam. This policy was guided by the Cold War containment strategy and inspired by the President's pledge in his inaugural address to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." New measures included massive economic aid, direct military air, naval, and logistics support, and 16,000 U.S advisors integrated throughout South Vietnam's armed forces.
This effort at first slowed the insurgency's progress, but the Diem government experienced growing internal opposition, especially from a well-organized Buddhist political movement. Political instability undermined the government's counterinsurgency efforts, and its heavy-handed methods of controlling Buddhist demonstrations led to greater unrest and international condemnation.
In November 1963, South Vietnamese military leaders, with at least tacit approval from the U.S. Government, organized a coup in which President Diem and his powerful brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were murdered. However, the generals were not unified among themselves, and they failed to restore political stability. The war effort continued to flounder, and the Viet Cong steadily gained strength and territory.
Sensing the government's vulnerability, in 1964 Hanoi began sending increasing numbers of North Vietnamese Army regulars to join the fight in the South. The war's intensity grew. Casualties mounted, there were attacks on U.S. air bases and military barracks, and a car bomb heavily damaged the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The Johnson Administration was constrained from making any military response by the 1964 election, in which Johnson campaigned on limiting U.S. involvement in the war, as opposed to the more hawkish Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater.
By March 1965, the threat of South Vietnamese defeat had grown sufficiently great that the Administration sent the first ground combat units to Vietnam, to defend the American airbase and port at Danang. After a further policy review, President Johnson decided in July 1965 to send a full-scale American expeditionary force. This force grew rapidly, and it was able to check Communist gains, though not to reverse them, as Hanoi continued to build up its forces in the south as well. With this American support, the South Vietnamese government was able to restore political stability, under General Nguyen Van Thieu as President and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky as Prime Minister.
More than five decades distant from the decisions of the late 1950s and early 1960s that gradually led us into full-scale war in 1965, it can be hard to understand why these decisions were made. Indeed, if we focus only on Vietnam, they can seem irrational. It is only in the context of the Cold War that they make sense.
In those years the Communist threat was very real. The Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Mao's victory in China, the unprovoked invasion of South Korea, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cubathese were recent events at the forefront of policymakers' minds. They put these events into the framework of the lesson drawn from Western capitulation to Hitler's demands at Munich in 1938: Appeasement of dictators is dangerous. Communism seemed to be monolithic, on the march, attractive to the new countries emerging from colonialism, and highly threatening to American security and values. Their perceptions were reinforced by exaggerated assessments of Soviet military and economic strength. Moreover, Soviet leaders proclaimed a new Cold War strategy of "wars of national liberation," involving aggressive assistance to insurgencies in newly-independent countries designed to bring Communist regimes to power.
And now South Vietnam, whose support we had taken over from the French, had come under attack by an insurgency that was inspired, supported, and directed by Communist North Vietnam and ultimately (so it seemed) by its Soviet and Chinese sponsors. Surely, most Americans believed, it was time to draw the line and not let this new method of exporting Communisminsurgencysucceed.
By the late 1960s, some of these perceptions had begun to change. The Sino-Soviet split was recognized, and we were coming to understand that the conflict in Vietnam was not only Communist-led aggression but also a nationalist movement and the continuation of a civil war with roots deep in Vietnamese history. But by then we were fully at war, and we were committed to preserving South Vietnamese independence and avoiding a humiliating defeat that, it was believed, would undermine our ability to support other Cold War friends and allies.
Given this context, the decisions that led to war were not irrational. In fact, they were probably inevitable, even if, with 20-20 historical hindsight, they can be seen as mistaken.Assignment to Hué
Unburdened by any doubts about the policies that were deepening our involvement in the war, I arrived in Saigon in July 1965 eager to do my duty and contribute all I could to help win it. Although I was to be stationed at the U.S. Consulate in Hué, my principal job was to travel throughout the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam (which constituted I Corps) to prepare reports on the political, economic, and security situation for the Embassy's political section. Therefore, I spent my first two weeks in an orientation program with experienced political officers. Notable among them were Political Counselor Phil Habib, who later became Under Secretary of State, and John Negroponte, a fellow junior officer who eventually served in several Ambassadorial and Cabinet-level jobs, including Ambassador to the United Nations. John became one of the most distinguished Foreign Service Officers of our generation.
The Hué Consulate, housed in a two-story French colonial-era residence, was staffed by three Americans: Consul Sam Thomsen, me as Vice Consul, and a communicator/administrative support officer, Joe O'Neill.2
There were also three "Foreign Service National" (FSN) Vietnamese professional-level staff: political assistant Nguyen Van "Joe" Nghia, communications technician Nguyen Van Binh, and receptionist and translator Than-trong Tuy-Cam. I especially noticed Tuy-Cam, an attractive and unmarried young woman, but at first not as a romantic possibility, because I was engaged to Margie. However, after Margie broke off the engagement, I saw Tuy-Cam in a new light, and courtship began.
There were about a dozen other American civilians in Hué, working for CIA, USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), and USIA (U.S. Information Agency), along with a couple of hundred American military advisors to the Vietnamese First Division and local security forces.
Provincial Reporting Officer
During the rest of 1965, my work as a provincial reporting officer kept me outside of Hué half of the time, visiting the five I Corps provinces. Typically, I would spend a week or 10 days in a province, staying with the American military advisory teams in the province capital and in rural districts. I interviewed Vietnamese government officials, military commanders, local politicians, business and religious leaders, long-term foreign residents (mostly missionaries and French business people), and American military and civilian advisors. After each trip, I would return to Hué and prepare a cable to the Embassy covering security trends, internal politics, economic problems, and whatever else seemed important to the war effort.
These reports, from me and the other Embassy provincial reporters working out of Saigon and covering the rest of the country, tended to be more frank and less optimistic than the reporting coming through the U.S. military chain of command or from Vietnamese government officials. Even though the South Vietnamese and newly-arrived American combat forces were winning almost all of the battles and inflicting heavy casualties on enemy forces, the Communists, with an ever-growing flow of supplies and reinforcements from the North, were gradually increasing their control in rural areas. Moreover, refugees were becoming more numerous, attacks on bridges and other infrastructure were disrupting the economy, and non- Communist political opposition to the military government of President Thieu and Prime Minister Ky was mounting.
With my background in journalism, I was comfortable with this provincial reporting work. I also liked living in Hué, which was a popular destination for American official visitors from Saigon and Washington. The city remained secure from enemy attacks; and as Vietnam's pre-colonial capital, it was historic, exotic, and attractive, with a massive walled city, the royal palace, elaborate tombs of former emperors, and peaceful pagodas. Even though its days of imperial splendor were long past, it remained a major cultural, religious, and educational center.
An important part of our duties at the Consulate was hosting and briefing these visitors. One of them was Henry Kissinger, a young Harvard professor whose books and articles on national security policy were highly influential. He had been hired by the Johnson Administration as a consultant to provide recommendations on Vietnam. In three years, he was to become one of my professors and then my boss.
|Thich Tri Quang|
The Buddhist Struggle Movement
After a period of calm in 1965, internal political tensions within South Vietnam were mounting in early 1966, especially in Hué and Danang. The opposition to the still-military government of President Thieu and Prime Minister Ky was led by Thich3 Tri Quang. He was a charismatic monk based in Hué who had also been a leader in the uprising that led to the 1963 overthrow of President Diem. He directed the radical half of the organized political Buddhist movement, whose strength was predominantly in the I Corps region. Tri Quang was popular among the country's students, especially those at Hué University. He was also politically allied with the I Corps commander in Danang, Lt. Gen. Thi, and he had strong influence with the Vietnamese troops in the region via his control over the Buddhist military chaplains.
When anti-government demonstrations began in February, as Acting Consul and the only FSO at the post, I had to end my provincial reporting trips to other provinces and remain in Hué, which was Tri Quang's headquarters and the center of the growing political unrest.
This was a heavy responsibility for a young FSO-7, my rank at the time, which is comparable to a first lieutenant in the military. I was reporting from the focal point of what was becoming a major crisis for South Vietnam and for U.S. Vietnam policy. I dealt directly with Thich Tri Quang, as well as with senior government officials and military commanders in the region, many of whom were participants (or at least sympathizers) in what became known as the "Buddhist Struggle Movement." The Struggle drew heavy press and TV coverage in the United States and raised deep concerns at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, as it increasingly disrupted the war effort.
Next to the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Struggle was the most important event behind the erosion of American public and Congressional support for the Johnson Administration's Vietnam policy.
The Struggle became more intense and dangerous with the dismissal on March 10 of the I Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Thi, who supported Tri Quang. After his dismissal, he came to Hué and stayed for the duration of the crisis. Thi had been well on the way to establishing himself as a warlord, defying or ignoring direct orders from the central government. He was popular in I Corps, and his removal immediately set off massive demonstrations and strikes throughout the region.
By the end of March there was evidence that the Viet Cong had infiltrated the Struggle, and its message became increasingly anti- American, with demands that the U.S. Government remove President Thieu and Prime Minister Ky from power. Ominously, by early April, large numbers of soldiers, policemen, and civil servants were joining anti-government demonstrations in Hué and Danang. On April 6, the Embassy decided to evacuate "non-essential" U.S. Government civilians from I Corps and advised all private citizens to leave. Bob Shaplen, one of the most perceptive American reporters covering the war, wrote in The New Yorker on April 16, "In many years here, I have never seen the morale of both the South Vietnamese and the Americans descend so close to a state of panic."
In this situation, my daily cables from Hué to the Embassy received lots of attention, and most were forwarded directly to Washington. Some were read by, or at least summarized for, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other top-level officials, including President Johnson. An example was the cable I wrote the night of May 17, recounting the dramatic, extraordinary events of that day.May 17, a Day to Remember
The newly-appointed commander of I Corps, Maj. Gen. Huynh Van Cao, had scheduled a visit that morning to the ARVN First Division in Hué. I went to Division headquarters, together with the senior American advisors to the Division, for the arrival ceremony. Of the whole Division staff, only six officers, the highest ranking of whom was a major, turned out to welcome their new Corps commander. The rest, including the Division commander, refused to appear. At the conclusion of the abbreviated ceremony and briefing, Gen. Cao and his American advisors hurried to their waiting U.S. helicopter. Just as the helicopter lifted off the ground, an ARVN lieutenant began firing at it. The American door gunner on the helicopter returned fire, killing the lieutenant and two other First Division soldiers. It was later established that this was part of an organized plot to assassinate Gen. Cao, which was poorly executed and thus unsuccessful.
After witnessing these events, I got in my car, the official Consulate black Plymouth sedan with a U.S. flag on the fender, to drive back to the office. A few hundred yards outside the First Division compound I encountered a mob of several hundred students, who had been holding a demonstration downtown. They had been informed of Gen. Cao's visit and were on their way to Division headquarters to confront him. The mob filled the street, and I had to stop the car and sit there for a quarter of an hour as they passed by, beating on the car and shouting anti-American slogans. They tried to open the locked car, but didn't break the windows.
When the last of the demonstrators had passed, I returned to the Consulate to pick up Tuy-Cam to accompany me for an appointment with Thich Tri Quang at his pagoda. He did not speak French, and I needed her to serve as interpreter. The previous week, Tri Quang had sent a message through me to President Johnson, asking us to oust President Thieu and Prime Minister Ky and replace them with people acceptable to the Struggle Movement. (We found this more than a little ironic, since one of the principal demands of the Struggle was that Americans cease interfering in internal Vietnamese affairs!) The purpose of my appointment was to deliver President Johnson's response. My instructions in delivering it, as described to a New York Times correspondent and reported in the May 18 edition, were: "Mr. Bullington has been told to be neither overly cordial nor overly cool and to tell Tri Quang that the United States hoped he and the Premier would be able to come to some understanding."
By the time we reached the pagoda, Tri Quang had gotten word of the incident at First Division headquarters. According to his version, the American helicopter gunner had, without provocation, fired on and killed pro-Struggle soldiers. He was furious about this, rejected my eye-witness account that the Vietnamese lieutenant had fired first, and found it difficult to listen to my counsel of moderation.
Before our conversation came to an end, prolonged small arms fire broke out near the pagoda, and Tri Quang told Tuy-Cam and me to leave right away for our safety. We did so. A few hundred yards from
the pagoda we were stopped by a roadblock manned by armed Buddhist students. They were agitated and pointed their weapons at us. After telling them we had just met with Thich Tri Quang to deliver a message from President Johnson, we persuaded them to let us pass. We later determined that the gunfire was between these students, who had been joined by some soldiers and policemen, and an armed militia group from a nearby Catholic neighborhood.
After finally returning to the Consulate, I wrote a lengthy cable reporting all thisthe assassination attempt on the new I Corps commander, the massive student demonstration I had encountered, delivering the President's message to Tri Quang, and the Buddhist- Catholic firefight in the middle of Hué. It was the most interesting and widely read cable I ever wrote.
By this time the Embassy realized that additional diplomatic representation was needed in Hué, and that a junior officer on his first overseas assignment should no longer be left to handle the situation alone. Consequently, in a couple of days the deputy chief of the political section, Tom Corcoran, arrived to be Consul. Tom had spent two weeks in April on temporary duty in Hué, but now his assignment was to be permanent, or at least long-term. He was a senior officer with extensive Vietnam experience, including as our last Consul in Hanoi, until the post was closed in 1955 following the Communist victory over the French. I welcomed Tom's arrival, and he became a friend and mentor, as well as my boss.
Moreover, Tom brought with him a cable, addressed personally to me, from Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The text of the cable read:
It is always gratifying to me to learn that our young Foreign Service Officers have the courage to grasp the initiative and respond to situations with intelligence and alacrity. Congratulations to you and your colleagues for your performance in Hué during the period you were at the helm.
It is exceedingly rare for a junior FSO to receive a personal message of any kind from the Secretary of State. I was thrilled.Burning of the Consulate
There had been a lull in Struggle activities in mid April, following a government-organized national political convention in Saigon. The convention was well attended and representative. It adopted most of the Buddhist demands, including an election within five months for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, followed by a speedy return to civilian government. At Tri Quang's urging, anti-government demonstrations ceased for a time. However, moves by Struggle leaders to consolidate their extensive power in I Corps, countered by government moves to re-assert its authority, soon re-ignited hostilities.
In Hué, some 2,000 students were formed into a "Death Volunteers Association" and were given weapons by the First Division commander, Brig. Gen. Pham Xuan Nhuan. (It was members of this group that Tuy- Cam and I encountered at the roadblock on May 17.) Throughout I Corps, many government officials and military officers considered loyal to the government were purged. Evidence mounted that the Viet Cong had infiltrated the Struggle leadership. The region was again slipping into a state of open insurrection.On May 15, the government airlifted 1,500 Vietnamese Marines and paratroopers into Danang. They achieved surprise and quickly occupied most of the city, with only sporadic resistance. However, Struggle fighters were able to regroup around two pagodas, and a lengthy standoff ensued. Tri Quang and other militant Struggle leaders pictured this operation as an unprovoked attack on the Buddhist religion and a betrayal of the agreement to return to civilian government. With most of the First Division on their side, the Strugglers began preparations to defend Hué militarily.
In Danang, after efforts to negotiate the dissidents' surrender proved unsuccessful, the Marines and paratroopers attacked and overran their positions following some sharp fighting. The city was quickly secured, government control was restored, and the Struggle in that part of I Corps collapsed as an organized force.
These developments in Danang made the Strugglers in Hué even more hostile to the government and its American backers. Security in the city deteriorated further, and large groups of students and Buddhist monks and nuns alternated in daily demonstrations in front of the Consulate. Several American reporters came to cover the action, which was front page news in the United States.
On May 26, a student mob attacked and burned the U. S. Information Service library and cultural center, after the police unit assigned to protect it had fled. We immediately decided to evacuate all remaining American civilians in the city except Tom Corcoran and me, Consulate communicator Maurice Brooks, and a couple of CIA officers. When this was accomplished, we all moved into the compound housing the American military advisors to the First Division, from which we did what political reporting and intelligence gathering we could, even though movement about the city was dangerous and hence limited. We continued to maintain contact with our loyal and courageous Vietnamese staff, including Tuy-Cam, who provided vital information about the rapidly evolving situation.
On June 1, the U.S. Consulate was sacked and burned. As described by the Associated Press:
A mob of about 1000 screaming students attacked the two- story Consulate building just before noon, ripped down portraits of President Johnson and carried off two U.S. flags as the building burned . A company of Vietnamese Army troops fled when the students marched on the Consulate.
Tom Corcoran, Maurice Brooks, and I were safely inside the U.S. military compound, and the only casualties from the incident were several students who were injured by the explosion of some of our propane tanks that were in a storage shed adjacent to the Consulate. We shed no tears for them.Government Control Restored
After the burning of the Consulate, while the most radical of the Strugglers continued demonstrations and other protest activities, the more moderate elements who had been allied with them, including some Buddhist monks and senior officers of the First Division, as well as former I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Thi, began seeking reconciliation with the government or dropped out of sight. We assessed that Tri Quang and the Struggle Movement had never achieved the support of the majority of the people of Hué, although for several weeks they had clearly become the strongest of several political forces in the city. Moreover, on June 1 the government reconfirmed its commitment to a fall election by requesting United Nations observers to monitor it.
On June 9, a 400-man police unit from Saigon, soon reinforced by elements of the Marine and Airborne troops that had re-asserted government control in Danang, began moving into Hué. There was little resistance, as the most militant student leaders fled to rural areas to join (or in some cases re-join) the Viet Cong, and Tri Quang was taken to Saigon and put under house arrest. One of the leading American journalists, Frances Fitzgerald, wrote in the August issue of The Atlantic: "The Struggle dissolved as rapidly as it had taken shape." Although we didn't recognize it at the time, this marked the effective end of Tri Quang and the Buddhist movement as a powerful political force in Vietnam.
In late June, a decision was made not to re-build the Consulate in Hué but to relocate the post to Danang, with Tom Corcoran as Consul General. I was assigned to Saigon as staff aide to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Our Vietnamese staff was transferred to Danang, with the exception of Tuy-Cam, who accepted a job in the economic section of the Embassy in Saigon. This facilitated continuation of our courtship.
Both Tom Corcoran and I were given State Department Superior Honor Awards for our service in Hué. The citation on my award reads:
For extraordinary performance in the best traditions of the Foreign Service during the recent mob action in Hué, in which the USIS library and Consulate were sacked and burned. His response to the situation in which not only was his personal safety gravely threatened but in which also American interests were vitally involved, demonstrated great courage, initiative and intelligence.
Together with the personal commendation cable from Secretary Rusk and positive performance evaluations by my bosses, this assured promotions in both 1966 and 1967, to FSO-5 (equivalent to the military rank of major).
|Students burning the American Cultural Center in Hue, May, 1966||
Buddhist monks demonstrating at the Consulate, May 1966.
Meeting with student protesters at the Consulate, May 1966.
Students burning the Consulate, June 1, 1966.
|The U.S. Embassy in Saigon (above), where I was Ambassador Lodge's aide in 1966-67, was badly damaged by a car bomb in 1965.
In late 1967, it was relocated to a new building (below), which was attacked, but never penetrated, by a VC sapper team during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Receiving Superior Honor Award from Ambassador Lodge
- August, 1966.
Only in a few of the largest and most important U.S. Embassies do the ambassadors have personal staff aides, and by 1966 Saigon was at the top of the list in both size and importance. The job of staff aide to Ambassador Lodge was high profile and coveted by all the junior officers in the Embassy, and I was delighted to be selected for it. Although it involved no policy-making or command responsibility, it put me at the right hand of a major American political leader and a principal actor in the country's most vital international engagement at the time. The work was intense, interesting, and important.
Here is how Ambassador Lodge described the job in my performance evaluation:
This officer screens all cables, memoranda, letters and other papers which come to my office, deciding what I should see, what can be discarded, and what can be taken up with someone else. Similarly, he screens telephone calls and visitors, protecting me from cranks and others whom I need not talk to nor see, and, together with me, making and keeping the schedule of those I do see. He drafts replies, either for my signature or his own, for most of my correspondence; and I sometimes call on him to do substantive drafting, such as portions of my weekly report to the President. He is responsible for maintaining liaison with the Mission Coordinator, the Political Counselor, and other senior members of the Mission on a wide variety of matters with which I am concerned; and he exercises day to day supervision over my secretarial assistant and my receptionist, and over the workings of my office. Finally, he serves as a sort of utility man, taking care of many diverse chores at my direction, such as scheduling the small jet aircraft which is assigned for my use, preparing suggested guest lists, and assisting with representation at large social functions.
Party at Ed Lansdale's house in Saigon - September, 1966.
I'm playing the guitar.
Distributing roofing material to refugees at Cam Lo - April, 1967.
The "Boston Brahmin" family of Henry Cabot Lodge was one of New England's wealthiest and most politically powerful, and he had a distinguished career. He was elected U.S. Senator from Massachusetts in 1936, but resigned his Senate seat in 1944 for active duty in the Army, including combat action in France. He remained in the Army Reserve after the war, and eventually rose to the rank of major general. He was again elected to the Senate in 1946, and was Dwight Eisenhower's campaign manager in 1952, but he lost his own Senate re-election campaign that year to John F. Kennedy. Eisenhower appointed him Ambassador to the United Nations in 1953, where he remained until he resigned in 1960 to become Richard Nixon's Vice Presidential running-mate in the election that was narrowly won by Kennedy. His subsequent appointments as Ambassador to South Vietnam, first by Kennedy in 1961-63 and then by Lyndon Johnson in 1965-67, represented both confidence in his ability and desire to consolidate Republican support for the war effort.
I admired and liked Lodge, found him to be a demanding but reasonable boss, and learned a great deal during the seven months I was his aide. He appreciated my service, and wrote in my performance report that I was "an absolutely first-rate officerintelligent, courageous and high-minded. He has already rendered distinguished servicewill surely do so in the future. It is inspiring to see young men of his quality entering the U.S. Government service."
In December 1966, Lodge went home for a month of consultations and vacation. This left me with nothing to do, so I asked to return temporarily to my previous work as a provincial reporter. An experiment designed to make U.S. combat units and advisors more effective in supporting long-term "pacification" (the term most commonly used to describe what would today be called counterinsurgency), had recently gotten underway in Long An province, a short distance southwest of Saigon, and I was sent to assess its progress.
The experiment involved putting Army Colonel Sam Wilson, who had been Lodge's military assistant and Mission Coordinator at the Embassy, in command of both the American military and civilian advisors who were responsible for pacification in the province. I spent two weeks in Long An and wrote a positive evaluation of the experiment's impact. When he returned, Lodge forwarded my report to Washington and summarized it in his weekly cable to President Johnson. The Long An experiment influenced the President's March 1967 decision to extend this structural model for the pacification program nationwide, in the joint civil-military organization eventually named CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), of which I was soon to become a member.4
My personal life in Saigon was marked by continuing courtship of Tuy- Cam, who was working at the Embassy and living with her Uncle Thuan, a senior South Vietnamese judge and former Governor of the Central Highlands region. However, in early 1967 our relationship was temporarily broken off when she backed away from my attempt to intensify it with a good-night kiss after bringing her home from a dinner date. I turned instead to intensified partying with a couple of colleagues from Hué who had also been transferred to Saigon, CIA officer Joe Murphy and U.S. Information Agency officer Bill Stubbs, who were to become two of my closest lifelong friends. We were regulars at "Mimi's Flamboyant" and other bars along Tu Do Street.Ed Lansdale, and Songs of the Vietnam War
An important relationship that developed during my time as Lodge's staff aide was with Ed Lansdale, one of the leading American practitioners and theorists of counterinsurgency warfare during the 1950s and 1960s. As a young Army officer in World War II, Ed had served in Europe with OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to CIA), and following the war he was assigned to the Philippines as an intelligence officer. He was integrated into the newly-formed U.S. Air Force, from which he retired as a major general in 1963. In the early 1950s, he became the principal advisor to Philippine Defense Minister (later President) Ramon Magsaysay in the successful counterinsurgency campaign that defeated the Communist-led Hukbalahap rebellion. Then, in 1954-57, he was transferred to Vietnam, where he helped President Ngo Dien Diem launch the new South Vietnamese government and provided guidance for its initially successful counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts. It was in the Philippines and these early years in Vietnam that Lansdale developed his basic theory that Communist revolution was best countered by democratic revolution, which required emphasis on political, social, and economic development as well as military and police operations.
After several jobs in the Pentagon, including as Assistant Secretary for Special Operations, Lansdale was sent back to Vietnam in 1965-68 as an assistant to Ambassador Lodge. He was influential in strengthening South Vietnamese pacification programs, which had deteriorated following Diem's overthrow in 1963. However, with the arrival of U.S. combat units in 1965, pacification became increasingly marginalized by strategic focus on attrition of enemy forces in conventional "search and destroy" operations. Lansdale became marginalized as well.
During this period, Lansdale regularly hosted parties in his Saigon home, at which Prime Minister Ky and other senior Vietnamese leaders were frequent guests. I was invited to many of them. Since Lansdale believed that music could make an important psychological contribution to national morale and the war effort, entertainment for these events was often provided by Pham Duy, a famous folksinger and composer of patriotic songs. Along with a few other Americans, I had written some songs about our perspectives on the war, and we sometimes performed them to supplement Pham Duy's programs. A member of Lansdale's team made a recording of these songs, with background narration, which Ed sent to Washington as a sort of musical report on the war's progress (or lack thereof).
I continued this relationship with Lansdale when we were in Washington after 1968, until his death in 1987. He became a friend and mentor as well as one of my professional heroes and an inspiration for much of my subsequent thinking and writing about counterinsurgency warfare and expeditionary diplomacy.
It was through Ed that I met Dr. Lydia Fish, a Buffalo State University (New York) professor of anthropology and folklorist specializing in folksongs of the military, primarily during the Vietnam War. In addition to collecting hundreds of these songs, Lydia had put together a group of several of the people who had written and sung them, which I was invited to join. I did several performances with this group during the 1980s and 1990s, including at the Smithsonian in Washington, Hampden-Sydney and other colleges and universities, and the officers club at Fort Myer.5Back to Washington, Very Briefly
My tour of duty in Saigon ended in February 1967, and I returned to the U.S. for assignment to Porto Alegre, Brazil, via six months of Portuguese language training. After a few days in Chattanooga, I arrived in Washington just in time for a major snowstorm. I was cold, lonesome, and unenthusiastic about Brazil. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to return to Vietnam. That was where the action was, and that was where I really wanted to be.
In this case, my personal desires were consistent with State Department priorities and the need to staff a still-growing presence in Vietnam. When I informed friends at the Saigon Embassy that I wanted to return for a field assignment in pacification operations, their request for my re-assignment was promptly approved. By mid March, I was back in Saigon.
North to Quang Tri
Because of the senior-level contacts I had made as Lodge's aide, I had an unusual opportunity to choose among several available positions. I wanted an operational job in the field, not staff work in Saigon or at a Corps-level headquarters, and I decided on a position as deputy USAID representative in Quang Tri, the province immediately to the south of the border with North Vietnam.6
My professional reasons for choosing this position were: (1) it would give me program implementation, management, and supervisory responsibility; and (2) Quang Tri was one of the country's most strategically important provinces, where the war was especially intense, so there was likely to be a good deal of excitement. Today, at age 76, it seems strange to say that, but then, at 26, it really was the way I felt.
Beyond the professional reasons, moreover, I had a personal motivation for wanting to work in I Corps. Shortly before I had left Saigon, Tuy-Cam had been recruited for a job at the U.S. Consulate General in Danang. I found that I was missing her, and I wanted a chance to renew the romance. Quang Tri was the closest place to Danang with an appropriate job opening, and since the I Corps pacification program headquarters was in Danang, I knew I would be able to visit frequently. I stopped in Danang on the way to Quang Tri; we had lunch, and the flame was rekindled. By November, I had asked her to marry me, and she had agreed.
When I arrived in Quang Tri in late March, 1967, the provincial capital (where most of the U.S. advisors were located) had been attacked the previous night by an enemy raiding force. Though none of the Americans had been hurt, there were several casualties among the South Vietnamese defenders, and parts of the provincial offices were badly damaged. It seemed I was going to have all the excitement I wanted, and perhaps more.
I also found that my assignment as deputy USAID representative had been suspended. Instead, I had been detached to work directly under Ambassador Barney Koren, the civilian deputy to the Marine commander in Danang, on a special project to relocate some 15,000 Vietnamese civilians from the southern half of the "Demilitarized Zone" (DMZ) along the border. They were to be moved to Cam Lo, on Route 9 west of the town of Dong Ha, where a site would have to be prepared to house them. ARVN Colonel Do Khien Nhieu, who had previously been Mayor of Saigon, was put in charge of the relocation project, and I was to be his American counterpart.
DMZ and Northern Quang Tri Province
The McNamara Line
The reason for relocating these civilians out of the DMZ was the imminent construction of what came to be known as the "McNamara Line," since its principal champion was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. This was to be a barrier across South Vietnam from the sea to the mountainous area near the Laos border, designed to block the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops and supplies. Based on an idea sold to McNamara by Harvard and MIT academics, it was to consist of a bulldozed 500-meter strip with mine fields, ditches, and barbed wire, supplemented by high-tech electronic devices that would detect movement and alert defensive units stationed in a series of strongpoints just behind the line. These units could then destroy the infiltrators with artillery and airstrikes. It was thought that intensified airstrikes in the mountainous area to the west, extending across Laos, could interdict North Vietnamese efforts to simply go around the barrier and continue infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
U.S. military leaders, from Washington to the Marine commanders in I Corps, were skeptical of this plan throughout its development, and they had recommended against it. They felt there were insufficient ground troops available to support it, and they wanted to use their forces in mobile operations, not static defense. McNamara overruled their objections and ordered implementation of the plan. Marine units and Navy Seabees (engineers) were directed to begin construction of the barrier in the summer of 1967.
As things turned out, very little construction was accomplished, because of heavy NVA attacks throughout northern Quang Tri province beginning in September and continuing through the Tet Offensive in early 1968. By the summer of 1968, the barrier project was deemed impractical and was abandoned in favor of mobile operations. An official account published by the Defense Department in 2011, called the McNamara Line:
...a metaphor for the Secretary's arbitrary, highly personal, and aggressive management style that bypassed normal procedures and sometimes ignored experts to get things done. He had adopted an idea from civilian academics, forced a reluctant military to implement it, opted for technology over experience, launched the project quickly and with minimum coordination, rejected informed criticism, insisted available forces sufficed for the effort, and poured millions of dollars into a system that proceeded by fits and starts.7
Those of us on the ground in Quang Tri in the spring of 1967 could not foresee that the McNamara Line project would be a failure, and we were barely (if at all) aware of the controversy surrounding it. Our orders were to prepare for it, including by relocating the 15,000 people then living along the Ben Hai River in the southern DMZ to the relative safety of Cam Lo, south of Route 9.
These people were almost all Catholics originally from the North, who had fled south of the Ben Hai River in 1954 ahead of the Communist takeover. Led by a dynamic Vietnamese priest, they were well- organized and strongly anti-Communist, and they readily agreed to relocate to Cam Lo. The first problems we faced were to organize transportation, secure the move from North Vietnamese attack, and arrange for water, food, and housing in Cam Lo. Both Colonel Nhieu and I realized that this was well beyond the capacity of the South Vietnamese provincial authorities and their available military forces, so we had to turn to the U.S. Marines for transportation and security, and to USAID for food, roofing material, a well-drilling machine, and other supplies and equipment. The Marines assigned a colonel to work with Colonel Nhieu and me, and the three of us directed the move until its successful completion in late May. Prime Minister Ky came to visit the Cam Lo site and presented us with medals for our work.
Because my boss for this project, Ambassador Koren, was in Danang and communication with him was limited, I operated with almost total independence, a role that I relished. Together with my time as Acting Consul in Hué and my experience as editor of The Plainsman, this reinforced my inclination to seek out leadership positions in which I had considerable autonomy as well as responsibility. I was convinced that this was my best path to both job satisfaction and career success.
After the Cam Lo project, I returned to Quang Tri in June to work in what had the previous month become CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), the reorganized American joint civil-military pacification program.CORDS in Quang Tri
Prior to the CORDS reorganization, all the American civilians in the field, outside Saigon, reported to their home-agency section of the Embassy, primarily State, CIA, USAID, and USIA. All of the American military advisors to the Vietnamese regulars (ARVN) and territorial units (militia-like RF, PF, and PSDFRegional Force, Popular Force and People's Self-Defense Force), as well as the U.S. combat units, reported to MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) in Saigon through four corps headquarters headed by three-star generals. In Saigon, there was some coordination on pacification between the Embassy and MACV, but it was very limited. In the field, outside Saigon, there was no organized, structural linkage between the American military and civilians. In practice, there was some civil-military cooperation, but it was informal and ad hoc, often developed over a few beers at the officers club.
Under CORDS, the MACV commander, General Westmoreland, was given a new civilian deputy who was to be in charge not only of the American civilians in the field, but also of the U.S. military advisors to the Vietnamese territorial forces, who were primarily responsible for providing security at the village level. Moreover, each of the three-star
U.S. corps commanders was given a new civilian deputy for CORDS. Thus, they now had three hats: commander of the U.S. combat units in the corps area, senior advisor to the Vietnamese Corps Commander, and commander of the civil-military CORDS teams in each province and district. Half of the CORDS team leaders, called Province Senior Advisors (PSAs), were Army colonels with civilian deputies; the other half were civilians with Army lieutenant colonels as deputies.
In Quang Tri, our CORDS team had about 150 total staff. The PSA, Bob Brewer, was a CIA officer who had served in the 101st Airborne in World War II as a member of the unit immortalized in Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers book and the TV miniseries of 2001. Bob's deputy was an Army lieutenant colonel, Joe Semoe (killed in combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive). I was a second-level deputy, in charge of most of the civilian aspects of pacification.
In a scholarly book about pacification,8 CORDS was described as:
...a mixture of civilians and military, from headquarters in Saigon to the districts....Each level would have a single manager to establish a single chain of command as well as designate one official voice at each level for dealing with the South Vietnamese government. That manager would integrate civilian and military planning, programming, operations, evaluations, logistics, and communications.
This integration even included writing official performance evaluations. For example, my 12-person staff in Quang Tri included not only State and USAID civilians, but also two Army captains and three sergeants. I wrote the captains' performance reports, and I was evaluated by the PSA, a CIA officer. He was evaluated by the I Corps Deputy for CORDS, a State Department Foreign Service Officer, who was in turn evaluated by a Marine general.
Now, all U.S. programs and activities outside Saigon, except American combat units and some clandestine operations, came under the operational control of CORDS, which was an integral part of MACV. This included the American military advisors to the Vietnamese territorial forces (RF, PF, PSDF), the Phoenix program to attack the Viet Cong political-military and administrative infrastructure, the Chieu Hoi program to encourage and re-integrate VC defectors, agricultural and other development programs, the care and feeding of refugees -- in other words, the full range of counterinsurgency efforts.
This was true civil-military integration, of a sort never achieved by the U.S. government before or since. It was the only time in U.S. history that civilians in a wartime field organization actually commanded U.S. military personnel and resources. Most importantly, after several months of civilians and military working closely together in CORDS, we became unified, not just on the organization chart, but in spirit. It was no longer "us and them," but just "us." This unification was especially evident at the province and district levels, the "tip of the spear," where it mattered most.
A new and more effective pacification strategy was implemented following the 1968 Tet Offensive, emphasizing population security rather than enemy attrition and body counts, and replacing "search and destroy" operations with the concept of "clear, hold, and build." The CORDS structure facilitated its effective implementation and the ultimate success of the counterinsurgency part of the war.
From June 1967 to March 1968, I was a counterinsurgent with CORDS/Quang Tri, working with Vietnamese military and civilian officials on small development projects such as schools and clinics, psywar operations to encourage enemy defectors, refugee relief and resettlement, technical support for agricultural and public health programs, and monthly reports assessing security in the countryside. This was primarily field work, not office work, and I enjoyed it. I also
enjoyed visiting CORDS regional headquarters (and Tuy-Cam) in Danang once a month.
However, Quang Tri was the scene of intense fighting during this period -- in fact, the most intense of any of the country's 44 provinces (as measured by casualties, frequency of enemy attacks, tonnage of bombs dropped in airstrikes, etc.). This pervasive combat limited the scope and effectiveness of our counterinsurgency efforts, sometimes destroying the province's physical and organizational infrastructure faster than we could build it.The Battle of Hué, Tet 1968
The 1968 Tet Offensive, which began January 30 and continued until the end of February, was the most dramatic, intense, and important event of the Vietnam War. The Battle of Hué was the bloodiest, most destructive, and most decisive of the dozens of battles that were part of the Tet Offensive. Tuy-Cam and I were both there, in Hué, during the battle. It was the most memorable experience of our lives, an experience we are fortunate to have survived. To tell our story, I first need to outline the background of the Tet Offensive and describe the Battle of Hué.9
From its beginning in the late 1950s as an insurgency, fought primarily by South Vietnamese Communists with the direction and support of the government of North Vietnam, the war had escalated with the introduction of regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units in 1964 and American ground combat units in 1965. There was increasingly heavy fighting, but neither side had been able to achieve decisive advantage. By 1967, the war had become a bloody stalemate.
In the spring of 1967, the Communist Party politburo in Hanoi decided to break this stalemate, and began sending additional forces southward down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The plan was to draw U.S. units to the peripheral areas of South Vietnam and then attack and occupy the major cities and population centers. This, the Communist leaders believed, would induce much of the South Vietnamese military to defect or desert and spark a popular uprising of the South Vietnamese people against their government, thus bringing the war to a speedy and victorious conclusion.
At the same time, in response to waning domestic support for the war, the Johnson Administration launched an effort to convince the American people that its policies were succeeding. In a National Press Club speech in November, 1967, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, said that the Communists were: "…unable to mount a major offensive….I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing."
As a result of this good-news campaign, the American public as well as the U.S. military and political leadership were profoundly shocked by the Tet Offensive. As with many other intelligence failures, there were ample warnings of a massive enemy attack, but they were either disbelieved or ignored. The dots were not connected.
Also contributing to the surprise was that the attacks came at Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration, an important family and religious holiday that began January 30. For all Vietnamese, Tet is like Christmas, New Year's Eve, and Thanksgiving all combined in one massive holiday. As in past years, both sides had declared a three-day Tet truce, and in the past such truces had been fairly well observed.
But in 1968, on January 30 and 31, Communist forces struck more than 100 South Vietnamese towns and cities. In spite of the surprise they achieved, the attacks were contained, primarily by South Vietnamese forces, and were soon beaten back with massive casualties inflicted on the attackers. Nowhere were there South Vietnamese military defections or the popular uprisings expected by the Communists.
One exception to this pattern of quick Communist repulses was Saigon, where the attack included the spectacular but unsuccessful effort to occupy the U.S. Embassy, and fighting continued in parts of the city for nine days.
The other exception was Hué.
Hué was South Vietnam's third largest city, but it had no particular economic or military importance. Although there had been much heavy fighting nearby, Hué had heretofore been left in peace. It had been the capital of the Vietnamese emperors, and it was still the historical, cultural, educational, and religious heart of the country. Its symbolic and psychological importance made Hué a potentially decisive target for the Vietnamese Communists.
Hué was physically two adjacent cities, bisected by the Perfume River. On the north bank was the old, traditional city, mostly within the Citadel, a huge, square fortress nearly two miles on each side, surrounded by a moat and a 20-foot-high wall that was 60 to 200 feet thick. In addition to crowded homes and small shops along narrow streets, the Citadel contained the imperial palace and the headquarters of the ARVN First Division. On the south bank was the modern city, built mostly during the French colonial period, containing attractive villas, government offices, medical facilities, Hué University, and U.S. civilian and military offices, notably the MACV compound. This was a converted hotel housing some 200 American military advisors to the First Division and other South Vietnamese forces in the region.
A painting of Vietnamese women and schoolgirls in traditional dress (ao dai) strolling by a lotus pond inside the grounds of the imperial palace.
The MACV compound in Hué. During the Tet attack, about 200 resident advisors and administrative personnel defended it from NVA attacks.
Approximately 8000 Communist troops, mostly regular NVA units, attacked Hué in the predawn hours of January 31, beginning with a rocket and mortar barrage. [See map, previous page.] Since there were almost no combat forces in Hué to resist them, they quickly occupied the entire city, both north and south. However, there were two critical exceptions, where their repeated attacks were repulsed.
In the Citadel, ARVN First Division commander Ngo Quang Truong was the only South Vietnamese or U.S. general both to foresee the Tet attack and to prepare for it as best he could. Although all his combat maneuver battalions were stationed well outside of Hué and couldn't be relocated to the city in time, on January 30 Truong had cancelled all leaves, placed the division on full alert, and assembled all available troops at the division headquarters compound. These were mostly clerks, trainees, and rear-echelon logistics types, plus the Division reconnaissance company with about 100 combat-ready soldiers. One of the best generals on either side in the Vietnam War, Truong managed with this motley force to hold off the entire NVA 6th Regiment and keep open a route by which he could be reinforced.
On the south side, the 200 Americans in MACV were able to prevent their surrounded compound from being overrun by an attacking NVA force of two battalions, about 1,000 men. But it was clear they could not hold out long without reinforcement.
The approximately 20 American civilians in the city were isolated in their houses, and most were gradually killed or captured in the next few days.
U.S. reinforcements would have to come from Phu Bai, a large base five miles south of Hué. However, on January 31 the situation in Hué was obscured not only by heavy clouds and a cold drizzle but also by the fog of war, which took a week to clear sufficiently for the U.S. higher command to have a realistic understanding of the situation. Although physically nearby, Phu Bai was separated from Hué by a wall of misinformation and disbelief.
Consequently, only one Marine company was sent to the city on January 31, with orders to reinforce the First Division and MACV compounds. No one at Phu Bai realized that all of Hué had been occupied by 8,000 North Vietnamese. The company barely managed to fight its way into MACV, taking heavy casualties along the way.
On February 2, two additional Marine companies were sent to Hué from Phu Bai, and on February 4 two more were sent, all of them having to fight their way into MACV and its expanding defensive perimeter. By this time, General Truong had managed to call in three of his battalions from rural areas and to stabilize the situation around First Division headquarters, so it was decided in Saigon that the task of retaking Hué would be divided, with ARVN forces responsible for the Citadel and U.S. Marines responsible for the south side of the city.
Thus five Marine companies, organized in two small battalions, began the arduous task of clearing southern Hué of a determined, dug-in enemy that greatly outnumbered them, fighting street by street and house by house. This was deadly, destructive urban combat of a sort the U.S. military had not engaged in since the Battle of Seoul during the Korean War, and for which the Marines were not trained. But they improvised, learned quickly, and broke the back of North Vietnamese resistance by February 10, although serious fighting continued until late February.
General Truong's fight in the Citadel had not been progressing as well as that of the Marines on the south side of the city. This was because the NVA had been able to bring in as many or more reinforcements as had the ARVN high command. In spite of their determined attacks, after two weeks the ARVN forces were essentially stalemated. So, with the south side battle largely won, it was decided to send U.S. troops to help them. A fresh Marine battalion from Phu Bai arrived in the Citadel February 13.
The Marines found the fight to be just as difficult as had their South Vietnamese allies, and over the next two weeks they took heavy casualties. But with help from the Third Brigade of the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division, which in fighting west of the city managed to cut off the flow of NVA reinforcements and supplies, the Marines and ARVN forces prevailed.
On February 24, ARVN troops replaced the giant VC flag that had flown over the Citadel and dominated the Hué skyline since January 31 with the South Vietnamese flag. Hué was declared secure on February 26, and the beaten remnants of the NVA attacking force withdrew into their base areas along the Laotian border.Impact of the Battle
During the Battle of Hué, friendly forces suffered more than 600 killed and nearly 4,000 wounded. About two-thirds of these casualties were South Vietnamese. The U.S. Marine casualty rate was nearly 50% in each of the three battalions committed.
Of the 8,000-man NVA attacking force, approximately 5,000 were killed. This estimate was thought by the mistrustful American press to be exaggerated, but after the war it was confirmed by North Vietnamese leaders to be accurate.
As for the people of Hué, during the course of the war no city in either North or South Vietnam suffered so much bloodshed and destruction for so long as did Hué and its 140,000 residents. By the end of the battle, much of the city was in ruins, and 116,000 people had to leave their homes as refugees.
About 6,000 civilians were killed during the Battle of Hué, but only half of them lost their lives to what in more recent years has been called "collateral damage," as an unintended result of the combat. The rest, nearly 3,000 people, were executed by the Communists, usually shot in the back of the head, but often bludgeoned and buried alive, in the war's worst atrocity. The victims were political leaders, city officials, civil servants, teachers, priests, policemen, and several Americans and other foreigners.
Both the Tet Offensive and its greatest battle, Hué, were disastrous military defeats for the Communists. The Viet Cong insurgency never recovered, and it took four years, until 1972, to rebuild the North Vietnamese Army to the point of mounting a comparable countrywide offensive. Far from defecting, as the politburo had expected, South Vietnamese forces fought valiantly; instead of sparking a popular uprising against the government, the attacks strengthened opposition against the Communists.
But the American and South Vietnamese military victory within South Vietnam was historically insignificant compared to the impact of Tet within the United States, particularly the prolonged combat in Saigon and especially in Hué, which was massively covered by the press and generally portrayed as American and South Vietnamese failure if not outright defeat. For example, after CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite visited Hué, he said in an hour-long special broadcast:
We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds….We are mired in a stalemate that can only be ended by negotiation, not victory.
On hearing this, President Johnson exclaimed, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the American people!"
The psychological and political impact of the Tet Offensive, and especially the Battle of Hué, on the leadership and people of the United States was decisive in determining the outcome of the war.
Father Jim, Behind Enemy Lines
Tuy-Cam and I had long planned to meet at her family home in Hué for what was to be her last Tet before our marriage and departure for the United States. So, on January 30 I flew from Quang Tri to Hué on the Air America shuttle flight and proceeded to her home for a Tet dinner with the family. Joining us was Steve Haukness, a Foreign Service communicator and one of Tuy-Cam's colleagues at the Danang Consulate General who was visiting Hué as a tourist, and one of my Foreign Service Officer classmates, Steve Miller, who was working in Hué as a "psywar" officer with the U.S. Information Agency.
After dinner, Haukness and Miller went to Miller's house, and I went to the municipal power plant, where I had been invited to stay in a guest cottage by a French friend, Albert Istivie, whose company operated the power plants in both Hué and Quang Tri. I was awakened by the NVA rocket and mortar barrage that began at 3 a.m. It was noisy, but I had experienced such attacks before and could tell that the shells weren't falling nearby. I didn't perceive myself to be in any great danger, and after the noise abated, I drifted back to sleep.
When I awoke about 7 a.m., all was quiet, so I dressed and went into the power plant in search of my friend, Albert. When I found him he quickly took me to a window and directed my attention to a group of NVA soldiers in the courtyard I had just crossed. He told me they had occupied the whole city and seemed prepared to stay. This was startling news. There had been attacks on cities before, but only as raids – enemy forces were always gone by dawn to return to their rural sanctuaries.
Albert told me to go back to the guest cottage and wait, and he would try to find a way to move me out of the power plant compound that evening, noting that it would be mortally dangerous for us both if I were discovered by the NVA. I re-crossed the courtyard – the soldiers,
if they noticed me, must have thought I was a Frenchman working at the plantand spent a very, very long day pondering the situation.
About 6 p.m. there was a knock on the door. I was extremely relieved to find that it was Albert and not the North Vietnamese. He told me to await his signalscratching his headfrom the far side of the courtyard, and then walk across. The signal soon came. As I crossed I noted the NVA were grouped at one end, eating their supper. They again let me cross unmolested. Albert led me out a back door and over some fences to the home of a French priest, Father Cressonier, who had agreed to take me in.
Father Cressonier had been in Hué for 35 years. He welcomed me and introduced me to his other guest, Father Poncet, a younger priest who had been evacuated to Hué from his post in Khe Sanh, where another major battle was then raging. He gave me a black gown and a set of beads, and told me that if the Communists came to the house, we would claim that I was a visiting Canadian priest. While my French was good, it would have been obvious to anyone fluent in the language that I wasn't a native speaker.
So, for the next nine days I became a Catholic priest in Communist- occupied Hué. For a Tennessee hillbilly raised in the Church of Christ, this in itself was a memorable adventure! We were fortunate that the Communist cadre who were combing the city for enemies never came to the house, so we didn't have to test the Canadian story.
At first, we thought it would only be a day or two before friendly forces re-took the city, but as the days wore on we could always see the huge VC flag flying from the Citadel just across the river. From the sounds of battle, however, we could tell that the fighting was getting closer, a realization that was dramatized by a mortar round that heavily damaged the second floor of the house. We were downstairs at the time it hit and were uninjured.Rescue by Hotel/2/5
Finally, on February 8, I heard the sound of American voices, moving in our direction. Albert had visited that morning to let us know the NVA troops in the power plant had left during the night, so we didn't anticipate any fighting as the Marines moved in. I climbed to the demolished second floor, and when I spotted the Marines I gave a thumbs-up sign to let them know I was American. It was Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. When they got to the house they radioed the company commander, Captain Ron Christmas, to come.
I introduced the Captain and his men to the priests and Albert, and briefed them on all I knew. So as not to advertise to neighbors that the priests had been hiding an American, the Marines wrapped me in a blanket and carried me out as if I were a wounded Marine. They took me to the MACV compound, which was now secure except for mortar attacks, where I spent the next two nights.
While at MACV, I was interviewed by Washington Post reporter Peter Braestrup, and he included an account of my rescue in his story about the Hué battle. That's how my parents found out I was still alive. They had been informed by the State Department that I was missing, so they were greatly relieved when they saw the Washington Post report, via the Chattanooga Times, that I had been rescued.
On February 10, I found space on a medical evacuation helicopter to Danang and reported to the U.S. Consulate General and CORDS headquarters. After a much needed bath, some hot food, and sleep, and writing a report on what I had observed in Hué, I told my bosses I had to go back to look for Tuy-Cam. They said no, as the battle was still raging and it was much too dangerous. I decided to disregard these orders and go anyway. I found a friendly Army helicopter pilot at the Danang airbase and hitched a ride, flying into Hué on February 14.Tuy-Cam's Ordeal
While I was hiding with the priests, Tuy-Cam was having a more difficult experience. Two of her brothers, both South Vietnamese military officers, were home on leave and hid in the attic when the city was occupied. Tuy-Cam, as a U.S. Government employee, was also in grave danger. NVA soldiers frequently came to the house demanding food, and local VC cadre came to look for enemies and give propaganda lectures. Amazingly, the brothers in the attic were not discovered, and Tuy-Cam was not identified.
Although Tuy-Cam's house was only a few hundred yards from that of Father Cressonier, it was on the other side of the Phu Cam canal, a barrier that the Marines didn't cross until five days after my liberation. When they did cross it, on February 13, the shelling in that neighborhood became intense. After their house was hit by a mortar round, Tuy-Cam and her family decided they had to flee. They went with other refugees to a nearby pagoda, but a group of NVA and VC came and took away her two brothers as well as others among the refugees whom they considered enemies. Tuy-Cam again escaped, because the chief monk of the pagoda, Thich Chon Thuc, hid her under the Buddha altar. The next day, the family fled again, this time to a refugee camp at Hué University, near the MACV compound.
On February 14, Tuy-Cam came to MACV to seek news about me. Learning that I had survived and was evacuated to Danang, she went to the nearby helicopter pad to try to get to Danang as well. She hadn't been there long before a helicopter landed and I got off it. Our reunion was emotional! Appropriately, it was on Valentine's Day.
We stayed on in Hué a couple of days to help take care of Tuy-Cam's family, and then returned to our jobs in Quang Tri and Danang.
|NVA troops in Hué. They were tough opponents.||Attending a wounded Marine during a pause in the battle.|
Hué after Tet battle
TOP: Physical destruction.
CENTER: Fleeing refugees.
|BOTTOM: Re-burying victims of Communist massacre.|
The U.S. Consulate building, left, and Father Cresonnier's house, right, were repaired after the war, and are now used as government offices.
A Wartime Marriage
We were married as previously scheduled, on March 16, but at the U.S. Consulate General in Danang rather than in a traditional Vietnamese ceremony at Hué, as we had planned. The road between Hué and Danang had just been reopened, so Tuy-Cam's mother and several family members were able to attend. Also included were our colleagues from the Consulate General and CORDS, as well as a few American friends who flew in from Saigon. My best man was Joe Murphy, a CIA officer who had been stationed with me in Hué in 1965-66. To some extent inspired by my example, in 1969 Joe married a Vietnamese woman, Trinh. We continued our close friendship with Joe and Trinh, and served together with them in Burma as well as in Washington. They retired in Williamsburg, and influenced our decision to retire there as well.
The wedding was a happy occasion, but the war and the loss of many friends and relatives in the Tet Offensive was still on everyone's mind.
Tuy-Cam's two brothers were never found, and were doubtless executed by the NVA.
As for the two American friends who had dinner with us the night of the attack, Steve Miller's body was found a few days after the end of the battle, hands tied behind his back and a bullet hole in the back of his head. Tuy-Cam and I delivered his ashes to his widow in Washington after our arrival there in May. Steve Haukness' body wasn't found until many years later.
My French friend, Albert, stayed on in Hué, working at the power plant, but he was forced to flee to France after the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975.
Father Cressonier and Father Poncet, having refused my offer of evacuation by the Marines because they wanted to stay and minister to their flock, were murdered by Viet Cong cadre the next day, after leaving the house to help refugees at a nearby church.
Ron Christmas, the commander of the Marine company that liberated me, was seriously wounded towards the end of the battle, but after two years of hospitalization and therapy he went on to a distinguished Marine Corps career, retiring as a lieutenant general. In retirement, he served as the first president of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, responsible for creating the Marine Museum at Quantico. In 2008, Tuy- Cam and I visited the museum and had lunch with Ron, the first time I had seen him since 1968. It was an emotional reunion.
Ron was one of the heroes of the Battle of Hué, for which he was awarded the Navy Cross. Tuy-Cam and I merely survived it. We owe our survival to Ron and the other Marines and ARVN soldiers who liberated the city, and we remain deeply grateful to them, as well as to the three Frenchmen, Albert and the two priests, who sheltered me, and to the monk who hid Tuy-Cam at the pagoda. We can never repay our debt of gratitude to these people.
The day after the wedding, we flew to Saigon, where it took two weeks to get Tuy-Cam's exit visa from the Vietnamese government. We then proceeded to Washington via honeymoon stops in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and a visit with my family in Chattanooga.Married Life
The groom stands out among Tuy-Cam's family, at our wedding on March 16, 1968, at the U.S. Consulate General in Danang.
Cutting the wedding cake.
Welcome to Chattanooga by my parents, April 1968.
In those days, moreover, racism was more common and interracial marriages were rare. Neither of us knew what sort of issues that might bring.10 While American attitudes were evolving rapidly in the 1960s, State Department policy still required that a Foreign Service Officer who planned to marry a non-citizen had to submit a letter of resignation, which, it was understood, would be accepted or declined depending on the Department's assessment of the "suitability" of the prospective spouse. In my case, the resignation was not accepted (although the official letter informing me of that was not approved until March 22, a week after our marriage). Nonetheless, the policy created uncertainty about my career prospects.
Vietnamese attitudes toward marriage to a foreigner were also negative, particularly in traditional, culturally conservative families such as Tuy-Cam's. However, my status as a professional diplomat helped our case for winning the family's approval, as did the prophecy by a Chinese soothsayer at her birth that she would marry a foreigner and live outside Vietnam.
Beyond the obvious differences in nationality, culture, race, language, etc., our family backgrounds were also very different. In fact, American and Vietnamese definitions of the meaning of "family" are widely divergent. Americans think of a core mother-father-children unit, probably with active ties to grandparents and a few aunts, uncles, and first cousins. Vietnamese, on the other hand, have a much broader concept of family, extending back several generations and with ties, at least in principle and often in fact, to distant relations of whom Americans would typically be unaware. Vietnamese also share the Confucian concept of reverence (early Christian missionaries called it "worship") for their ancestors, and they maintain household altars where they pray and conduct rituals to honor them.
Tuy-Cam is the eldest of 10 children in an urban, middle class family. Her father, who had been a mid-ranking officer in the government security service, had died in 1962, leaving the family with very limited resources. His ancestral family, the Than-trong, was well-known and respected from the time of the Vietnamese emperors for service as court mandarins and government officials. Tuy-Cam's mother was a member of the royal family, but since the emperors typically had many wives and dozens of children, by the mid-Twentieth Century the royal family had become so numerous that it no longer had much practical distinction. With the abdication of the last emperor, Bao Dai, in 1954, it became no more than an historic artifact.
I soon discovered that Tuy-Cam's extended family included many distinguished people, including former Ambassadors to the United States and United Nations, the governor of the central bank, and three South Vietnamese generals. We became friends with several of them.
One of Tuy-Cam's sisters was in graduate school on a Fulbright scholarship at Pennsylvania State University when South Vietnam fell in 1975, and on completing her studies she moved to the developing Vietnamese diaspora community (now the largest in the United States) in the Westminster/Fountain Valley area of Orange County, California. She and her husband were joined in 1977 by another sister and her husband, who fled Vietnam as "boat people" and landed in Hong Kong. (We were in Burma at the time, and Tuy-Cam went to Hong Kong to facilitate their onward movement to California.) Tuy-Cam's mother and two unmarried sisters were unsuccessful in repeated attempts to leave Vietnam with the boat people migration, but were able to come to Orange County in 1985 under the "orderly departure program" negotiated between the Vietnamese and U.S. governments. Two married sisters and Tuy-Cam's only surviving brother, who was still a young boy at the time of the Tet Offensive, chose not to emigrate to the United States. They remain in Vietnam, where we visited them in 2007 for the first time since the end of the war.
While we experienced the occasional misunderstandings and need for adjustments that I assume are common to all newlyweds, our marriage proved strong from the beginning, as love and shared values outweighed the cultural and other differences. Moreover, the relationship was forged in war and tempered by powerful mutual experiences, notably including the Tet Offensive, that gave us both self-confidence and confidence in each other.
Tuy-Cam adapted quickly and well to America and the Foreign Service lifestyle. She was soon comfortable in her role as the wife of an American diplomat, while at the same time retaining close ties to her family and Vietnamese culture. The marriage had a positive, not negative, impact on my career, enabling me to achieve a degree of success that would not have been possible without Tuy-Cam and her support as my lifelong partner.
Concerns about racial issues, moreover, proved unfounded. Even my very Southern family in Tennessee and Alabama, as well as my Auburn friends, welcomed and accepted Tuy-Cam immediately and without reservation. There was some initial curiosity, since few of them had ever met an Asian or even seen one except in movies, but it was not negative or in any way hostile. If we ever encountered racial prejudice against Tuy-Cam, it was too insignificant to be noticed by either of us.
My next assignment was to a year of mid-career training at Harvard, to get a Master in Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government. This was one of the most coveted assignments available to an officer of my rank. I had hoped to go to graduate school some day; to do so at Harvard, with tuition fully paid, while continuing to receive my normal salary, was beyond my fondest dreams. On top of that, the Department arranged my selection for a "Career Education Award" from the National Institute of Public Affairs. This amounted to a $1000 grant and a week-long seminar at Williamsburg, together with the 49 other NIPA award winners from across the country.
The Harvard assignment was an unstated reward for my three years of service in Vietnam and a gesture of compensation for my Tet Offensive ordeal in Hué; but it also represented, I'm convinced, an effort by the Foreign Service "system" to remove a bit more of the Tennessee and Alabama red from my neck and make me a better fit for the still-elitist Foreign Service culture. It did give me a great educational credential and increased my social self-confidence, but the red has never faded. I was not comfortable at Harvard and developed no emotional ties to it. I remain an Auburn man and a redneck hillbilly at heart.
We spent the summer of 1968 in Washington, where I worked as a vacation fill-in and extra hand on the State Department Vietnam desk and made a two-week speaking tour for the Bureau of Public Affairs to discuss U.S. policy and the situation in Vietnam at schools and civic organizations. In September we settled in a three-room Cambridge apartment near the Harvard campus. Tuy-Cam got a job cataloging books in the Widener Library, and I began my studies. The MPA curriculum included two required courses on government administration, but I could choose the other six courses from among any of Harvard's graduate-level offerings for which I was qualified.
The most important of my Harvard courses was National Security Policy, taught by Henry Kissinger. I had met him when he visited Hué in 1965 as a consultant. Now, in 1968, in addition to teaching at Harvard he was an advisor to New York Governor (and Republican presidential aspirant) Nelson Rockefeller. His course had well over 100 students, so I had little personal contact with him. After winning the 1968 election, Richard Nixon selected Kissinger as National Security Advisor. I had no idea that he would become my boss in less than a year.
Although I learned a lot at Harvard and enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, my overall experience there was not pleasant. By 1968, the United States was embroiled in the most heated internal political conflict of the Twentieth Century, involving a social and cultural revolution focused domestically on civil rights, and internationally on
U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. Along with other universities, Harvard was a principal battleground of that conflict.
Anti-war protests engulfed the Harvard campus throughout most of the 1968-69 academic year, and I was the target of nasty remarks by classmates who became aware of my Vietnam service. In April, radical protesters led by Students for a Democratic Society occupied the main administration building in Harvard yard and forcibly expelled the administrators and staff. Their demands included ending ROTC at Harvard, and they burned books of professors who were seen as supportive of the war, including Kissinger. When the administration finally called in local police to expel them, the students assaulted and spat on the officers, and then claimed police brutality when the officers dragged them out of the building. This incident was followed by a student strike, which effectively closed the university for a week.
I found the protesters disgusting, and I was dismayed by the pusillanimous reaction of the university leadership and most of the faculty to their provocations. (One of the professors, Henry Rosovsky, subsequently called Harvard in the late 1960s "an academic Munich."11) However, there was nothing I could do about the situation, so I grew a hippie-like beard, avoided confrontations, and got on with my studies.
As a student at Auburn, I thought of myself as a liberal and was considered by most of my peers to be a far-left radical. At Harvard, I was called a war-monger and a reactionary, and I saw that I had little in common with the liberalism that dominated the campus. I decided that I was really a moderate centrist, and there I have remained.Assignment to INR
Following graduation from Harvard in June 1969, we returned to Washington for my assignment as an intelligence analyst in the Vietnam section of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). We moved into an Arlington apartment, along with our newly-acquired toy poodle, Ti-Ti. Tuy-Cam got a job as a Vietnamese instructor at the CIA language school, work that she found enjoyable and at which she excelled.
Although at first I liked my job, serious problems soon developed. The head of the INR Vietnam office, my boss, who was a career Civil Service (not Foreign Service) officer, turned out to be the worst supervisor I ever had, before or since. He was woefully lacking in leadership ability or even basic inter-personal skills. Even though he had never spent any significant time in Vietnam, he considered himself an expert whose opinions on Vietnamese matters were not to be challenged. Moreover, those opinions were firmly rooted in the anti-war ideology that had become dominant in academia, and his analysis of developments and trends in Vietnam reflected that point of view. He rejected most of my papers without comment or explanation.
Before long, I discovered that all five of my fellow Vietnam analysts had similar problems with this man. However, our individual and (eventually) joint appeals to senior INR officers for corrective action produced only expressions of sympathy and counsels of patience.
My salvation came in September, when INR received a directive to furnish an analyst for the Vietnam Special Studies Group (VSSG), a newly-created National Security Council project that was to undertake a long-term study of pacification.12 Because of my experience with CORDS in Quang Tri, plus my connection to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger as one of his students at Harvard, I was able to get myself assigned to this project.
Pacification Progress and the VSSG
Until 1968, although U.S. and South Vietnamese conventional combat forces won almost all of their battles, the pacification effort had not been successful in wresting control of the countryside from the Viet Cong. In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, however, enemy forces were weakened by heavy losses, and the U.S. and South Vietnamese commands intensified their focus on pacification. This involved a new population-centric (as opposed to enemy-centric) strategy in which clear-and-hold operations replaced search-and-destroy operations. Progress was now measured by improved security in the villages rather than by body counts following battles, and the previously disjointed U.S. structure for implementing pacification was unified into a much more effective civil-military organization called CORDS. [See the previous account of my 1967-68 assignment to CORDS in Quang Tri.]
Soon, there were signs of progress, and by 1969, the change was noted in Washington. However, there was still mistrust of the official reporting from Saigon, which had long been viewed as overly optimistic, especially after the shock of Tet 1968 made General Westmoreland's 1967 claims of steady progress and diminishing enemy capability look out of touch with reality.
The new Nixon Administration recognized the importance of pacification in successfully implementing its strategy of gradually withdrawing U.S. combat forces, strengthening the government, and achieving a ceasefire that would leave the South Vietnamese in a position to maintain their independence. Thus, Kissinger ordered a thorough study of the situation in the Vietnamese countryside to be undertaken by the NSC, and the VSSG was created for this purpose. Managed by a senior NSC staff member, the study team included two CIA officers, three military officers, a Defense Department civilian, and me, representing State. All of us had Vietnam experience. It was made clear from the beginning that we were to conduct the study and develop our conclusions as independent analysts working for the NSC, not as representatives of our home agencies.
Experienced bureaucrats will recognize that this mandate was problematic, particularly in view of my ongoing conflict with my boss in INR. For the purposes of the VSSG project, which for eight months became my full-time job, he was not in practice my boss, although he didn't see it that way. Forced to choose between his instructions and those of Henry Kissinger, I chose the latter. This worked out fine until my annual performance evaluation, written by my INR boss, which nearly ended my Foreign Service career.
We began the study with a review of pacification-related reporting from Saigon, including the Hamlet Evaluation System monthly reports from each province and district, prepared by American advisors. From this review, we developed a "control indicator" that gave a realistic picture of population control in the countryside. We further validated the analysis and our indicator by in-depth studies of 12 key provinces, including three-to-four-week field visits to each of these provinces by the VSSG analysts. I visited Quang Tri and Thua Thien (the province of which Hué was the capital).
Our study concluded that the VC controlled about 50% of the rural population in 1967, while the government controlled just under 20%. The rest was contested. The government controlled all of the urban population, which was 38% of the total. By mid 1968, the study found, government control of rural areas began to rise rapidly, with corresponding VC losses. And by early 1970, the VC retained control of only 8% of the population, while the government controlled 62% of the rural population as well as all the urban population, or more than 75% of the total.
The final VSSG report, for which I was asked to write the initial draft, was completed on April 15, 1970.13 The war's trajectory from 1970 to its end in 1975 generally bore out the accuracy of its assessment.
The report lent credibility to the Administration's Vietnamization policy and its hopes that a Korea-like ceasefire agreement could be reached, leaving in place an independent South Vietnam able to defend itself with limited U.S. assistance. These hopes foundered on the erosion of domestic political support for the war, the self-inflicted wounds of Watergate, and the ultimate refusal of Congress to provide continued support for South Vietnam following the 1973 Paris Agreement.
[Note 1 is in an earlier chapter in the book, not part of this excerpt.]
2. In September, the U.S. Marine commander in Danang, Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt, requested Embassy help in dealing with the Vietnamese government, and particularly with his highly politicized counterpart, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi, the I Corps commander. Sam Thomsen was transferred to Danang to become Gen. Walt's Political Advisor. He was replaced by a political officer from Saigon, Walt Lundy, who remained in Hué until December. Beginning in January 1966, I was left in charge of the post as Acting Consul until late May, when the deputy chief of the Saigon political section, Tom Corcoran, was sent to Hué as Consul.
3. "Thich" (pronounced like "tick") is the new family name, indicating "children of the Buddha," that is applied to those entering the monkhood. It was often translated in English as "the Venerable."
4. Hunt, Richard A., Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam's Hearts and Minds, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1995, pp. 86-87.
5. Two of my songs were included in Next Stop is Vietnam: The War on Record, 1961-2008. This is a 13-CD "anthology of the Vietnam War's musical legacy" that was published in 2010 by Bear Family Records in Germany.
6. South Vietnam was administratively divided into 44 provinces, each of which had American military and civilian advisory teams in the case of Quang Tri, about 150 people in allto work alongside South Vietnamese military and government "counterparts" in pacification, i.e., counterinsurgency, operations.
7. Drea, Edward J., McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965-69. Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington, DC, 2011.
8. Hunt, Richard A., Pacification, Westview Press, 1995, p.88.
9. For a detailed account of the battle, see Fire in the Streets (1991), by Eric Hammel. He includes our story in the book.
10. It was only in 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court had invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage (Loving vs. Virginia). However, such laws remained on the books in many states until 2000, when the last of them, in Alabama, was repealed.
11. Harvard Magazine, January/February 2016, p. 30.
12. "Pacification, " or what is today most often called counterinsurgency, refers to unconventional warfare, a conflict that is political and psychological as well as military, a sometimes shadowy struggle with guerrilla forces and small units for control of the countryside and the support of the population.
13. This now-declassified report, entitled "The Situation in the Countryside," is available in archives of Vietnam War material. I obtained a copy from the library of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. For a detailed discussion of the VSSG, see my article in Small Wars Journal, March 23, 2012, "Assessing Pacification in Vietnam: We Won the Counterinsurgency War."