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.


During his State of the Union speech, President Trump spoke of socialism as if it were a form of evil: “Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. . . . Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

But we, as Americans, have already put strong socialist measures into our governing structure. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that is, food stamps), Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security as about as socialist as you can get, and they are very popular programs.

Trump appears to be equating socialism with communism. But those who accept socialism do not propose government dictatorship. What they favor is broader sharing among all members of a society in the benefits of that society. These days, that means assuring health care for all, no matter how impoverished, and guaranteeing a minimum income for all.

The United States stands out from other western democracies by its failure to provide medical care and protection from poverty for its people. Government support for and provision of health care is virtually universal among all other advanced nations today. To a lesser degree, protection from poverty is widespread.

My sense is that the U.S. slowness in adopting socialistic measures comes in large part from our devotion to capitalism and our deification of rugged individualism. We admire the strong, look down on the weak. And yet the religions most of us accept—Christianity and Judaism—teach us to succor the weak and the poor. We revere the biblical quotes from the New Testament that tell us “The poor you will have always with you” and “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Old Testament tells us that “The meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

We are, in short, at odds with ourselves. It’s long since time that we moved toward the benefits socialism can offer us. Newly elected Democrats are already pushing in that direction.

The Palette and the Page Exhibit

I announced here several days ago, in a blog post titled “Boots,” that my combat boots from Vietnam are the subject of a photograph on display at the Palette and the Page, an art/bookshop in Elkton, Maryland. In that post, I included the URL for a Facebook page on the subject,

I didn’t mention that on display below the photo are the boots, a plaque my men gave me after the fall of Saigon to thank me for getting them and their wives and children safely out of the country before Saigon fell, and a ceramic elephant I bought in Vietnam. But the focus is on the picture of the boots hanging on the wall above those objects.

I find that photograph, taken by Ann Gonzalez-Yager, deeply moving. It speaks of forlornness and loss. The boots, as Ann portrayed them, reflect my own sorrow over the men killed by my side in combat and the final loss of Vietnam in which so many thousands died. The empty boots, sitting side by side, evoke a sense of desolation. If I didn’t know the story behind the photo, I would believe that these are the boots of a soldier killed in combat.

It is as though my own grief is on display.

Graham Martin (2)

Why in 1975 did the top embassy officials in Saigon, led by Ambassador Graham Martin, insist on rejecting the irrefutable evidence that the attack on the city was at hand? In my article about the fall of Saigon (“Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,”, I surmise that the leaders at the embassy were subject to a condition now called Groupthink Syndrome, defined as firm ideology, immune to fact, shared by all members of a coterie. Tom Polgar, the CIA chief of station, and other senior embassy officials, in other words, joined the ambassador in a fantasy contradicted by the facts. That Saigon would ever fall to the communists was, to them, unthinkable.

Ambassador Martin was the instigator of that fantasy. Readers ask me why he firmly believed that no attack was forthcoming. I conjecture that he was misled by his own conviction, almost a religious faith. To him, the very idea that the Vietnamese Communist flag would ever fly over Saigon was inconceivable. My guess is that he held that belief because his son had died in combat in Vietnam, and he could not countenance the notion that his son’s death had been in vain.

But that is no more than speculation. To this day I am left wondering why he acted as he did. His refusal to accept the evidence of a forthcoming attack and his failure to call for an evacuation resulted in multiple thousands of deaths. The 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with my organization were abandoned when we Americans withdrew in chaos on 29 April 1975. They were all either killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. And because the ambassador refused to allow me or my men to be evacuated, I lied, cheated, and stole to get them and their wives and children all out safely. I myself escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.

To this day, Martin’s reasoning remains a mystery.


The Palette and the Page in Elkton, Maryland, currently has on display the results of collaborations of artists of different disciplines. Among them are a photo of the army combat camouflage boots I wore when I was providing signals intelligence support to units in combat all over South Vietnam. On all those missions, I was under cover as an enlisted member of the unit I was supporting and dressed in fatigues to make me indistinguishable from the troops. As far as I know, the North Vietnamese never discovered that they had a spy in their midst on the battlefield.

Patti, one of the owners of the Palette and the Page, has posted that photo on Facebook. You can see it and read her commentary at

Graham Martin

I have narrated in detail in this blog the story of Graham Martin, the last U.S. ambassador in South Vietnam. He refused to allow me to evacuate my people when the fall of Saigon was imminent. He didn’t believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the North Vietnamese would attack the city.

I’m regularly asked why Martin was so wrongheaded. My answer is that I honestly don’t know. I warned him that signals intelligence left no doubt that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. I’ve learned in recent years that CIA analysts at the embassy were also alerting him and their boss, CIA chief of station Tom Polgar, that the assault was about to begin. Neither Polgar nor Martin believed the warning.

Months after the fall of Vietnam to the communists, Martin testified before Congress that he had been approached by the Hungarian member of the ICCS (International Committee for Control and Supervision, a group established in 1973 to monitor the so-called cease fire) who told him that the North Vietnamese had no intention of attacking Saigon. Instead, according to this man, they wanted to form a coalition government with all patriotic forces and rule jointly. This man was a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. Martin believed him in the face of overwhelming evidence that the attack was imminent.

More tomorrow.