Respect for Subordinates: Leadership (3)

When I first arrived in Saigon on my last tour in 1974, my guys and I established our modus operandi. My predecessor had been a martinet. He insisted that the men wear ties to work when the standard office apparel in that tropical climate was a white short-sleeve dress shirt with no tie. That meant that NSA employees, even though working under cover, stood out—they were the only ones in ties.

Their previous boss had also disapproved of partying and sexual relations outside of marriage and ordered his security chief to surveil the men (especially those single or there without their families) during their off-hours. They fiercely resented the intrusion into their privacy. As soon as I had one foot in the door, they were flooding me with stories of the previous chief’s shadowing orders.

Many of these men and I were on a first-name basis. We had known each other for more than ten years. We’d worked together at NSA and in Vietnam intercepting and exploiting the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese. Unlike my predecessor, I was a down-and-dirty signals intelligence grub who, like my subordinates, had done everything from intercept to traffic analysis and translation of North Vietnamese communications. I’d spent more time in field (that is, in Vietnam) than any of them. They respected me, and I respected them. More to the point, we were brothers in the same clan.

Within a week of arriving on-station, I called an all-hands meeting. I told the men that ties were no longer required, and surveillance of them would cease forthwith. They were mature adults, trained in security as well their signals intelligence discipline. I would trust them to use good judgment in their private lives that were, frankly, none of my business. The room, filled with men and one woman (my secretary, Suzy), was all smiles.

More tomorrow.

Respect for Subordinates: Leadership (2)

What happened between me and the 43 men who worked for me in Saigon during the last days of the Vietnam war was the result of my having learned, early in my career, that leadership works far better than management. Leadership means serving one’s subordinates, supporting and uplifting the followers, encouraging them to be the best they can be; management means keeping them under control. Leadership promotes respect and even love; management incites dislike and hostility. Leadership assumes burgeoning competence in subordinates; management presupposes ineptitude. Leadership is for people; managements is for things.

Leadership demands humility, the recognition that the leader’s job is to attend to the needs of the followers. His job is to serve.

The men working for me in Saigon were seasoned experts. Sixteen of them were communicators who maintained links between us and the rest of the world. The rest were mostly analysts that carried out our signals intelligence mission. All of them were topnotch in their discipline. They worked harder and longer hours than I had any right to expect. My job was not to control them but to support them in every way I could.

And that’s what I did. I made a point of asking them what I could do to make their jobs easier. I spent my time trying to improve their transportation and housing. I did the best I could to establish good working conditions at the office. I encouraged them and rewarded them. I left the fulfillment of our mission to them. My mission was to take care of them.

In short, I treated them with the respect they deserved.

More tomorrow.

Respect for Subordinates: Leadership

My recent posts about my early years in Vietnam and my emotions during the fall of Saigon got me to thinking about the guys who worked for me in Vietnam and the relationship we established. The best evidence I have of how that relationship worked is a plaque my guys gave me about a year after the fall of Saigon at a dinner where we all gathered to reminisce. Across the top are the words “Last Man Out Award.” Below that is a brass eagle and the following:


The fall of Saigon will always remain a monumental tragedy in U.S. history. This is to finally recognize your exceptional leadership while safely evacuating all your employees and the closing down amid the danger and chaos of those final days.

[Signed] The Women and Men and Dependents of F46

End of quote. “F46” was our unclassified designator.

That plaque hangs on my “bragging wall,” the spot where I display memorabilia I’m most proud of. I see the plaque—and remember—every day.

My First Assignment to Vietnam (2)

I arrived in Saigon on my first tour there in 1962, just after the formation of a new entity named Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). It replaced the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG), and I worked in the J2 (intelligence) office of MACV. My job was amalgamating highly classified material, mostly signals intelligence, with other intelligence sources (principally captured documents and POW interrogations) to produced “finished intelligence” on the North Vietnamese efforts to conquer South Vietnam.

As a result of my assignment to MACV, I spent most of my time in Saigon. My trips to the field were to visit small U.S. military posts throughout the country. But both in Saigon and in the field, I quickly learned that the northern dialect of Vietnamese, which I had learned, was very different from the southern and central dialects. I finally got to the point that I could converse with southerners, but the central dialect still confounds me. Fortunately, all speakers of the central dialect I have encountered were proficient in the southern dialect. And the written language is unaffected by dialect.

I loved the work. It challenged me intellectually and linguistically. When my four-month tour was up, I returned to the U.S., gathered my wife and child, and returned to Vietnam for a full three-year tour in 1963. Before that tour was over, the U.S. had begun committing military to combat. I found myself in the midst of a shooting war.

My First Assignment to Vietnam

The story of how I got to Vietnam the first time is complicated. When I graduated from college, I wanted to study Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. The best language school in the world at the time (and probably still today) was the Army Language School (ALS, later named the Defense Language Institute) at Monterey, California. So I enlisted in the army with the proviso that I would be assigned to study at ALS. I looked forward to six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study each night, five days a week, for a full year in intensive study of Chinese.

But when I arrived at the school, the army told me that I was not to study Chinese, but something called Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—in those days (1959), we didn’t call that part of the world Vietnam; we called it French Indochina. But I was now a soldier, and I was required to obey commands, so I settled in for a year of intensive study of this thing called Vietnamese. All my instructors spoke the northern dialect, the vernacular of the country besieging South Vietnam.

When I graduated, I asked the army to send me to Vietnam. The answer was no. The army had almost nothing going on there in 1960. Besides, I graduated first in my class. That meant I had to be assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I had never heard of NSA and had no idea of what I would be doing there.

I arrived at NSA early in 1960 and was immediately put to work translating intercepted North Vietnamese messages. Later I worked on code recovery and was schooled in intelligence analysis, among other disciplines. I loved the work and often stayed beyond quitting time to do more of it. At the same time. I enrolled in intensive Chinese language classes at Georgetown University.

By the time my enlistment ended in 1961, I was proficient in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French (which I had taught myself as a child). NSA immediately hired me. In 1962, the agency sent me to Vietnam for the first time. It was TDY (temporary duty, that is less than a full tour) of four months.

More tomorrow.

Emotions during the Fall of Saigon

People who learn of my travails during the fall of Saigon, as I struggled to get my men and their wives and children out of the country safely, often remark on my stamina and courage. None of that rings true to me.

Looking back on what happened, it was a remarkable feat. Forbidden by the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, to evacuate my men and their families, I did it anyway, using every ruse I could think of to get them on planes out of Vietnam. I and the two men who volunteered to stay with me to the end were stranded in our office suite on the northern edge of Saigon as the North Vietnamese attacked. We went without sleep and food for days on end. I finally got my two guys on a helicopter out of the country on the afternoon of 29 April 1975 after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. I went out that night under fire.

It obviously required a lot of nerve and resilience to accomplish my mission of seeing to it that none of my men or their families were killed or wounded. But I don’t remember it that way.

What stands out in my memory was my unflagging stubbornness. I was doggedly committed to assuring the escape of all the people I was responsible for. I remember my frustration when my efforts were blocked and I had to try alternatives. I remember my fury at the ambassador for endangering my people. I remember my exhilaration when Bob and Gary, the two guys who stayed with me, finally flew out to a ship of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea.

But I have no memories of being afraid or exhausted or hungry. I suppose that, in my mind, none of that mattered. The experience took a toll: after I escaped under fire and finally got back to the world (the U.S.), I was diagnosed with ear damage from the shelling we were subjected to, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, insufficient diet, and muscle fatigue.

I’m reminded of a text I read long ago about a man preparing to face overwhelming odds as he looked in the mirror. He saw an image of himself trembling with fear and pale with terror. He called that the picture of a hero.

That sounds like a description of me not before but after the fall of Saigon. I had lost so much weight that I looked emaciated. I was wearing clothes I’d been in for days on end. I needed a haircut and a shave, and my face was lined. People who knew me as a healthy man were shocked at my appearance. But I don’t remember any of that. I remember the quiet satisfaction of knowing that all my men, their wives, and their children, escaped unharmed.

That’s the emotion that stays with me still.