The Cassandra Effect

Last Monday I did, remotely, my presentation on the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands. It was one of the bloodiest battles during the Vietnam war, and I was right in the middle of it. I was there to provide signals intelligence support to the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. My memory of those days is sad and bitter—so many were killed because my warning about the North Vietnamese forces hidden in the mountains and preparing to attack us was ignored.

I coined the term the Cassandra Effect to describe what it was like to foretell what the enemy was going to do and not being believed. Cassandra, according to Greek myth, was a Trojan woman blessed by the gods with the ability to foretell the future and cursed by the gods that no one would believe her. Repeatedly during the thirteen years I spent more time in Vietnam than in the U.S., I knew from intercepting the radio communications of the North Vietnamese what their next moves would be. So often my warnings fell on deaf ears.

The worst of those times came at the end of the war in April 1975. By then I was the National Security Agency (NSA) station chief in Saigon. I warned Graham Martin, the American ambassador, about overwhelming evidence showing that Saigon was about to be attacked. He refused to believe me and didn’t call for an evacuation of the thousands of American civilians still in the city, along with our South Vietnamese counterparts. When the North Vietnamese attacked a few days later, the city descended into panic. I escaped under fire. My South Vietnamese partners, the men I was working with intercepting and explopiting North Vietnamese communications, weren’t so lucky. Some 2,700 of them were killed or captured and sent to so-called “re-education” camps—really concentration camps.

So the stories I tell about the Cassandra Effect are bitter. I’m no longer an active spy, long since retired. But I’m told by those still in the business that we learned by our mistakes and that intelligence is now acted upon. My impression is that that changed for the worse during the Trump administration but that we are mending rapidly under Biden.

I can only hope for the best.

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