Saigon: A Gentleman’s Tour

I can’t tell you the name of my predecessor as chief of the NSA covert operation in Saigon—it’s still classified. But I can pass on his advice to me. He told me when I arrived in Saigon in 1974 with my family that an assignment in Vietnam was now “a gentleman’s tour.” The war was over. The job of us NSAers was to advise the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, and to work with the South Vietnamese government to monitor the North Vietnamese.

Assignment to Vietnam no longer meant an unaccompanied tour. We were now encouraged to bring our families. Many of us, including me, did. For three of my children, it was their first time in Vietnam. For my eldest, it was her second time—she’d been with her mother and me from 1963 almost to 1965.

But Saigon, where my family lived, had changed. When I first arrived in 1962, Saigon really was the Paris of the Orient. Half the signs on shops and the street names were French, the French population was still large, and French was as commonly spoken as Vietnamese. The city had a leisurely feel. No one seemed to be in a hurry. The cafés, bistros, and night clubs were full.

By 1974, war had scarred Saigon. The French were gone. Disabled soldiers, dismembered and disfigured, begged on the street corners. Poverty, well hidden in earlier years, was now on full display. Terrorist incidents were on the rise, and the sound of shelling sometimes echoed over the city.

More tomorrow.

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