My Predecessor in Saigon (2)

Saigon, 1975: A piquant detail about the effect of my predecessor’s management style came from one of the guys who arrived not long before the end in Saigon as a replacement for another man returning to the states. In the room that the departing man had lived in, the new man found a drawer full of the most hideous and outrageous neckties he’d ever seen. The staff, as it turned out, had met the boss’s demand that they wear ties, but they expressed their disapproval by wearing the most outlandish ones they could find. As I later learned, Americans in Saigon all knew who the NSA people were by their wild ties.

As it became clear that Saigon was going to fall, I turned my full attention to getting my guys and the wives and children of the married men out of the country. The ambassador, persuaded that the North Vietnamese would never attack Saigon, despite the overwhelming evidence I was providing him, forbade me to evacuate my men and their families. So I used every ruse I could think of to get them out. I lied and cheated and stole. But I succeeded. All 43 of my men and all the families were gone by the time I escaped under fire on the night of 29 April after the North Vietnamese were in the streets of the city.

In my concern for my men, I made an error. I managed when I should have led. To wit: I withheld from them that the ambassador wouldn’t allow them to leave the country. And until very recently, I thought I had succeeded in keeping that unpleasant news from them. Then, toward the end of last year. I had lunch one day with one of my former subordinates. He told me they all knew about the ambassador’s order. They had read my outgoing eyes-only messages to my boss, General Lew Allen, the Director of NSA, telling him of my problem and what I was doing to solve it—sending people out under false pretenses. My guys were a lot smarter—and more devious—than I had given them credit for.

After all but two of my men were evacuated, I finally got them out on a helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I went out that night. We hadn’t slept and had barely eaten the last week we were holed up in the office as the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon. By the time I arrived in Honolulu toward the middle of May, still wearing the clothes I’d been evacuated in, I was suffering from amoebic dysentery and pneumonia as a result of prolonged sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, and muscle fatigue. My predecessor, now the NSA chief in Hawaii, met me at the airport. He took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.”

I’m not being coy about not giving the name of my predecessor. It’s still classified.

2 thoughts on “My Predecessor in Saigon (2)”

  1. Two points on your post today, Tom:

    First, you note that “I withheld from them that the ambassador wouldn’t allow them to leave the country. And until very recently, I thought I had succeeded in keeping that unpleasant news from them.”

    You knew you were leading a group of intelligence professionals; these folks did not apply their skills only to the incoming traffic, but (as all NSA employees) delighted in determining what senior leadership was trying to shield from them. Intelligence analysis of the office happenings was a game we all played, generally with very good success. In the tight environment you had in Saigon, there was no way this group of professional intelligence analysts would fail to reconstruct the underlying events.

    Second, during my tenure at NSA, I was constantly baffled by how managers were selected. I knew a number of outstanding leaders there, and at least as many who had been promoted well beyond their Peter Principle level. I could never resolve how such disparate types could emerge from the same promotion system

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    1. You’re quite right, John. Of course they could figure it out. I should have known better.

      On your other point: NSA management was chosen for like-mindedness. The men who resembled the boss the most were the ones who replaced him. I was had a one-on-one with the deputy director. He asked why my group was so successful. I said that I encouraged creativity. He said that was fine as long as I kept everyone under control.

      I was never popular with the upper management. Every promotion I got was given begrudgingly.

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