I recently noticed that some time ago—more than a year—I left unfinished the story of my books that have received the Eric Hoffer Book Award. That award, among the many my books have received (I have a whole wall in my office dedicated to literary awards), went to two of my books, No-Accounts and Last of the Annamese.
No-Accounts received the award, an Honorable Mention, in 2017. That novel drew on my experience in taking care of AIDS patients at the height of the crisis. Over a period of five years, I had seven patients—all gay, all died. Their lives and deaths moved me so much that I wrote a novel about straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. It is my only published book not about Vietnam.
Last of the Annamese was awarded the runner-up Eric Hoffer Book Award in 2018, that is, the second-place prize. Annamese is another fiction-in-name-only novel. It tells the story of the fall of Saigon. Every event related in the book actually happened.
Evidence to date suggests that in my novels telling stories of events that really happened works well for me. Good thing. I’ve never been able to make up a story. I depend on my memory of the facts.
I’ve believed since I was six years old that I was born to write. My career has taught me that I can only tell the truth disguised as fiction. The awarding of the Eric Hoffer Book Award to my books suggests that I’m doing it right.
During the last week of April as I hunkered down in my office on the northern edge of Saigon amidst the artillery shelling of the North Vietnamese, statements from the U.S. government were at best noncommittal, at worst upbeat. Were my bosses in Washington reading what I was sending them? Did they even know what was going on?
The U.S. military knew. Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) at Pearl Harbor had dispatched the 7th Fleet to the South China Sea to evacuate Americans and some Vietnamese. Aboard were Marines, commanded by Colonel Al Gray, an officer I had known since he was a captain. Al and I had kept running into each other in South Vietnam starting in the early 1960s. In late April 1975, Al flew into Saigon from the 7th Fleet by helicopter and found me holed up in my office. He told me his mission—to evacuate friendlies—and assured me he’d get me safely out of the country. The evening of 29 April, he saved my life by getting me safely out of Saigon. He went on to become Commandant of the Marine Corps. Al Gray is a hero to every Marine I’ve ever met.
The ambassador never did call for an evacuation. He was countermanded from Washington in the predawn hours of 29 April 1975. By then it was too late to rescue the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers that had worked with the NSA organization. They were all killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. Those captured were sent to “re-education camps,” really concentration camps, where the death rate was very high.
Throughout those hideous days at the end, the U.S. government had little to say publicly and expressed mild surprise when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I’ll always be grateful to the military side of the government, and especially to the Marines. Without them, if left to the civilians, I’d have never survived.
Maybe readers will understand why I always capitalize Marines.
Knowing full well that the North Vietnamese would eventually conquer South Vietnam, the U.S. government nevertheless signed the peace accords with North Vietnam in January 1973. That agreement required the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam but left North Vietnamese forces in place. President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger, in preparing for the agreement, discussed what they needed to do to delay the fall of South Vietnam long enough that the U.S. public would not blame the them for the eventual debacle. They shaped the agreement for that purpose.
I was in Vietnam in 1974 and 1975 as head of the National Security Agency (NSA) covert operation whose purpose was to monitor the North Vietnamese. Working with the South Vietnamese, we intercepted North Vietnamese communications and reported the ever growing threat to South Vietnam. The U.S. government’s placid response alarmed me. Then, in April 1975, as the North Vietnamese pushed their attack on Saigon, American government officials said all was well, not much fighting was taking place. The city fell on 29 April, and I escaped under fire.
Some of the false optimism about Vietnam came from the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin. For reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, he was certain that the North Vietnamese would never attack Saigon. He reported to Congress in mid-1975, in the aftermath to the defeat, that he had been approached by the Hungarian member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS) who assured him that the North Vietnamese had no intention of assaulting Saigon. Rather, they wished to form a coalition government with all the patriotic forces in the south and rule jointly—this from a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. At the same time, I and other intelligence sources were reporting to him our overwhelming evidence that the attack was at hand.
Why didn’t Martin believe us? Certainly the unreliable assurances of a North Vietnamese ally could not have persuaded him. I can only surmise that he could not accept the loss of the war because his son had been killed in Vietnam and he couldn’t face the prospect that his son had died in vain.
The following is the text I’m using to announce my newest novel:
So it had come to this. August 2018. Trump in the White House, and Gene Westmoreland out on his ass.
Thus begins Tom Glenn’s political thriller, Secretocracy. Set in Washington, D.C. in 2018, the novel is about what the Trump administration does to a government executive who challenges it.
Senior budget reviewer Gene Westmoreland refuses to approve funds for a Trump administration initiative called Operation Firefang—building clandestine nuclear missile sites world-wide—on the grounds that it is illegal and violates treaty agreements. The administration attacks him. A general and a senator rebuke him, his phone is tapped, his car is tailed, and his adult son is trapped into a dangerous relationship. His boss, Clem, who opposes Firefang and refuses to fire Gene, is blackmailed and commits suicide. Now without protection, Gene is stripped of his security clearances and exiled to a warehouse to await termination. If he discloses what he knows, he will be prosecuted for revealing classified information.
As the administration does everything it can to force Gene to resign—to avoid firing him and risking a court case—his estranged wife, another woman he has rejected, and a hate-sick house mate join forces against him. The woman he loves and his son pull back from him as the threat against him grows and his reputation is tainted with stories of debauchery, circulated by the administration.
Then comes the November 2018 election. Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives. Gene’s luck changes.
Adelaide Books of New York will publish Secretocracy in March 2020.
After the evacuation of my family, things in Saigon went from bad to worse very quickly. After being holed up for days in my office without food and unable to rest due to North Vietnamese shelling, I finally escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. When I got back to the states in May 1975, I was a physical and mental wreck. Suffering from amoebic dysentery and pneumonia and with serious ear damage due to the shelling I was caught in at the end, I was also going through the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI)—panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, irrational rages, and depression. Because I held top-secret codeword-plus clearances from NSA, I couldn’t seek psychological help. If I had, I would have lost my clearances and my job, not something I could risk with a wife and four children to support.
When I reached Maryland, I telephoned my wife. She was in Massachusetts staying with her father. I begged her to come to Maryland. I told her I was ill and needed her. She said no. She and the children would not return to Maryland until we were able to occupy our house, leased to another family for three years, the presumed length of my Vietnam tour. I finally arranged to reoccupy the house the following July. Only then did she and the children return.
My wife’s refusal to help me when I was seriously ill demonstrated how little she cared for me. That was the beginning of the end of the marriage. We were divorced a few years later.
My wife could have been (and should have been) an asset to me in Vietnam. Instead, she was a liability. Other Americans found her superiority offensive. Although she taught school briefly during our second tour, she spent most of her time in leisurely pursuits, regaling herself as the boss’s wife. And after the fall of Saigon, she left me to struggle with my physical and mental maladies on my own.
She had so many opportunities to excel and do good. She ignored them. Her children and I suffered the consequences.
By March of 1975, it was clear to me that South Vietnam would soon fall to the communist North Vietnamese. Even though the U.S. ambassador had forbidden me to do it, I evacuated my staff and their families under various ruses. In early April, I told my wife that it was no longer safe for her and children to remain in Vietnam. She was incredulous. That morning she had attended a coffee at the embassy, and officials had told her and other dependents that there was no substance to rumors that Saigon was about to be attacked. I couldn’t persuade her to leave.
Finally, she agreed to go on three conditions she laid down: First, she could choose her own date of departure. I said, fine, as long as it was within the next five days. Second, she and the children would tour the world on the way back to the states, taking a month, even two months, to go all through Asia and Europe. I agreed. Her third condition was that she could buy a brand-new Buick station wagon as soon as she got back to the U.S. Frantic, I said yes.
Desperate to have her and the children safely out of the country, I got them tickets for Bangkok on 9 April. But the day before, a renegade South Vietnamese pilot bombed the presidential palace, very near our villa. My wife and children were terrified. Now she was more than ready to go, but on the morning of 9 April as I drove my family from downtown Saigon out to the airport on the northern edge of the city at Tan Son Nhat, I ran into multiple roadblocks. The South Vietnamese government had declared a curfew in response to the attack of the previous day. I finally had to pull rank to get through all the obstacles and get my family on a plane out of the country.
On my two PCS (permanent change of station) tours I had in Vietnam, my wife, who spoke Vietnamese and French (we met at NSA where we were both analysts), and my children were with me on what were called “accompanied tours.” In between were many TDY (temporary duty) trips, usually four to six months in length. These trips I took alone.
On the first accompanied tour, originally intended to be from 1963 to 1965, I had only one child, my daughter, Susan. Halfway through that tour, in 1964, the U.S. committed large contingents of military forces to the war, and my wife and daughter were sent home because it was no longer deemed safe for them to be there.
My second accompanied tour, beginning in 1974, ended in April 1975 when I evacuated my wife and now four children surreptitiously because I knew that Saigon was about to fall to the North Vietnamese. I got my family out of the country under false pretenses because the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, had forbidden me to evacuate members of my staff or families—he didn’t believe that the North Vietnamese would attack Saigon even though I provided him conclusive evidence that an assault was imminent. I evacuated my 43 subordinates and their wives and children living in Saigon in the same way.
While my children for the most part disliked living in Vietnam, my wife loved it. On both tours, we had three servants (a cook, a housekeeper, and a nanny) which freed my wife from all duties. She attended coffees and teas and played tennis, visited with other dependents, and shopped to her heart’s content. On the second tour, when I was head of the covert National Security Agency (NSA) operation in South Vietnam, she was Mrs. Chief, a role she loved.