April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (6)

Continuing the story of the fall of Saigon:

After helping the Vietnamese family to escape, I risked another trip through Saigon’s mobbed streets to check on a South Vietnamese signals intelligence officer I had worked with on and off for years. I wanted to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the evacuation order was given, something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me in and served me tea.

He told me that his wife, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. That included him. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops—no evacuation order had been issued—and she wouldn’t leave without him. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when the Communists’ tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. “I will shoot my three children, then I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.”

He didn’t escape at the end, and I have no doubt that he carried out his plan. Many other South Vietnamese officers did precisely what he described.

That left one more requisite foray. I got through the hordes to the embassy and pleaded with Ambassador Graham Martin to evacuate everybody as soon as possible, citing signals intelligence evidence that an assault on Saigon was imminent. I repeated what I had already reported hourly to him, that Saigon was surrounded by sixteen to eighteen North Vietnamese divisions, poised to strike. Communist troops less than two kilometers north of my office at the airport were awaiting the command to attack.

The Ambassador put his arm around my shoulder and guided me to the door. “Young man, when you’re older, you’ll understand these things better.” He showed me out. The briefing was over.

Frantic, I went down the hall to the office of the CIA Chief of Station, Tom Polgar. He laughed at my frenzy and showed me a cable to Washington the Ambassador had released that morning. It stated that the signals intelligence evidence of a forthcoming assault could be disregarded. It was all due to the Communists’ skillful use of “communications deception.” Stunned, I asked Tom what evidence he had of communications deception. He waved my question away and bet me a bottle of champagne, chateau and vintage of my choice, that he and I would both still be in Saigon a year hence, still at our desks, still doing business as usual.

Even though I ran into Polgar months later in the U.S., he never made good on that bet.

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (5)

Continuing my recounting of the saga of the fall of Saigon and my role in it. From here on, I will be relying on my article that appeared in the Atticus Review on February 9, 2016.

By mid-April 1975, despite the Ambassador’s refusal to call for an evacuation, outgoing commercial airlines leaving Vietnam were choked with passengers, and U.S. Air Force C-130 and C-141 transports daily carted hundreds of Vietnamese and Americans out of the country. The embassy made a point of explaining that their departure was not an evacuation. It was a reduction in force to free up resources to help the Republic of Vietnam.

I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to get out and about—the crowds in the streets were becoming larger and more menacing. Some of the men, in ragged Republic of Vietnam military uniforms, were armed. I knew the danger, but several trips were crucial. I told my Vietnamese driver, who usually ferried me around town, to use his U.S. pass to drive his family onto the military side of Tan Son Nhat in the black sedan assigned to me, a Ford Galaxy with diplomatic plates and American flags, and escape while they still could. Then I took over the sedan. Armed with my .38, I drove it rather than my small Japanese car, foolishly believing that the impressive official vehicle would ward off the massed refugees.

I had it exactly backwards.

The sedan attracted the most desperate of those seeking evacuation. I was mobbed once, but when I bared my teeth and leveled the .38, the crowd pulled back just enough for me to force my way through.

One trek was to help a Vietnamese family related to our house servants to get into the air base at Tan Son Nhat so that they could find a way out of the country via a departing U.S. military aircraft. Because South Vietnamese guards at the gates would allow no one to pass without official identification, the family members hid in the trunk and on the floor by the back seat of the sedan, covered with blankets. The guard admitted me without incident. The family managed to get on a C-130 and fly to Guam. Much later, they contacted me in the states to thank me.

More next time.

The U.S.: Abandoners

As even a casual reader of this blog is aware, I have a long history of time in Vietnam. Over a thirteen year period, I spent more time there than I did in the U.S. I spoke the language like a native and was sometimes mistaken on the telephone for a Vietnamese. I loved the Vietnamese people, a spunky, generous, shrewd, and sentient nation.

During my Vietnam years, I watched as the U.S. gradually turned away from South Vietnam. First we pulled out our troops, then reduced our financial and matériel support, and finally stopped all aid, leaving our South Vietnamese allies to their own devices while their enemy, the North Vietnamese, continued to receive full support from Russia and China. The result was the tragic defeat and subjugation of the South Vietnamese. The downfall came after more than 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and over 58,000 U.S. troops died in battle. Civilian deaths are believed to be many times those numbers.

In later years, we withdrew from Iraq. We did the same thing in Syria, abandoning the Kurds. The pattern becomes clear: the U.S. will stay and support a country as long as the policy is popular, then withdraw when opposition grows.

The U.S has somewhere around 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan—a few more or a few less depending on which source one relies on. That’s down from 100,000 at the peak of the war. And now, President Biden has reported plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by next September 11. The press reports grave concern that the Taliban will rise again and eventually take control. As far as I know there are no current plans to cease financial and matériel aid, but if we follow our usual practice, we will eventually end all help.

The pattern is clear for all to see. The U.S. can’t be depended upon to stick around over the long term. And yet we did do that in Korea. We have kept our troops in South Korea and maintained our financial and matériel assistance to that country for well over sixty years. The result—unlike that in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere—is a flourishing democracy on the Korean peninsula.

I know it’s unrealistic to insist that the U.S. continue its military presence and fiscal backing everywhere. But I believe we can do a much better job than we have so far. We need to find a more effective way to provide military and economic assistance. The survival of democracy worldwide depends on it.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (4)

Continuing my series of posts on the fall of Saigon 46 years ago this month:

On 17 April 1975, I was in my office, which was now doubled as my bedroom and stoveless kitchen, reading the latest messages and reports before I burnbagged them when one of my comms guys came in with a news dispatch—he wanted me to see it right away: Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, had fallen to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists allied to North Vietnam.

I knew the end was near. Saigon would be the next to fall. But the U.S. ambassador in Saigon continued insisting that the North Vietnamese had no intention of attacking Saigon, based on assurances from the Hungarian member of the International Commission for Control and Supervision.

My stateside boss, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), sent me a message ordering me to close down the operation and get everybody out before someone got killed. The ambassador still wouldn’t hear of it. I continued pushing hard to get all my people out of the country using any pretext I could think of.

On 22 April, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated that the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) wouldn’t last more than a week. But the White House accepted the ambassador’s conviction that Saigon would not be attacked. No evacuation was ordered.

I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my chances of survival were slim. But I was so focused on assuring that none of my subordinates were killed or wounded that I didn’t have time to consider my own situation.

More next time.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (3)

Continuing the series of posts about the fall of Saigon forty-six years ago in April 1975:

Because the U. S. ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) had forbidden me from evacuating my people, I lied about the rationale for their travel abroad. That took some doing. One day I asked my staff to book a flight out for one of my subordinates the next morning. The only flight available was to New Delhi. I ordered them to send that subordinate out on that flight with the justification of “business travel.” A staff member said that was a violation of the rules because we had no business affiliations in Delhi. I ordered him to do it anyway. When he balked again, I yelled at him. He ended up doing as I insisted.

By the next day, he and other staff members had become experts at phony justifications for travel out of the country. Thanks to their craftiness, the ambassador never caught on that I was flagrantly violating his orders and all my subordinates escaped and survived.

I knew I couldn’t leave—the ambassador wouldn’t allow it—so as I snuck my subordinates out of the country, I asked for two volunteers to stay with me to the end. I needed a communicator who could keep me in touch our employer, the National Security Agency (NSA), back in the states, and with the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC). And I needed a maintenance man who could keep the communications working. Most of the sixteen men who worked in my comms shop said they’d like to volunteer, but they felt they owed it to their wives and children not to risk their lives.

Then two brave men stepped forward. Their names are now declassified so I can tell you who they were. Bob Hartley was the communicator; Gary Hickman was the maintenance guy. I explained the danger to Bob and Gary. I said we might be bombarded or attacked by the North Vietnamese. Despite the serious danger, they agreed to stay.

As long as I live, I’ll admire, no, I’ll love those two guys for their raw courage. They risked their lives because I asked them to.

More next time.

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.

My Flag

I’ve been meaning, ever since I moved to my new house in Columbia, Maryland, almost two years ago, to hang an American flag from the front of my garage, facing the street. So I bought a flag of the right size, about five feet long and three feet wide. Then I tried to find a pole to hang it on. No luck. No local stores the right size. So I put the flag aside and started shopping online for a five-by-three flag that came with an appropriate poll. No luck. Next I looked in the catalogue of the American Legion, of which I am a proud member, and found exactly the right flag that came with a pole of the right length. I ordered it. It came. I hung it on the garage in front of my house.

Readers may not understand why a flag was so important to me. I should explain that I see myself as a patriot. I was willing to put my life on the line for my nation as part of my work as a signals intelligence spy on and off for thirteen years in Vietnam and, after the fall of Saigon, in other parts of the world. I believed deeply, to the very core of my being, that I was doing urgently needed work in defense of my beloved homeland.

So the stars and stripes are sacred to me. It is with both pride and love that I display the paramount symbol of my country in front of my house. May my beautiful flag portray to all who see it where my heart lies.

Lost in a Strange City

As I have mentioned several times in this blog, my work during the thirteen years I was in Vietnam has been largely declassified at my behest, but my assignments after the fall of Saigon in April 1975 remain classified. During my time in Vietnam, I had established a reputation for being very effective at working on the battlefield and supporting military units in combat with information derived from secretly intercepted enemy radio communications. So in the years after the fall of Vietnam to the communists, I was sent to a number of different places around the world to do the same kind of work. My knowledge of seven languages other than English served me in good stead.

Without revealing any classified information, I can tell of one of my adventures in a foreign city that will remain nameless. I was assigned to work for several months out of the U.S. embassy in that city. My cover was that I was an equipment repairman sent to work temporarily in the embassy, so I wore the clothes of a working man.

One afternoon when I had time off, I decided to go on a sightseeing walk through the city. For several hours I tramped through the streets marveling at the strangeness and beauty of the ancient metropolis. As the sun reached toward the horizon, I figured I’d better head back and realized that I had lost my way. For an hour or so, I wandered, searching for familiar streets but found none. The fact that I spoke the language of the country was classified, but speakers of English were few and far between. To find my way back, I had to ask for directions in the country’s native language.

It worked. People on the street were more than happy help out a lost stranger, obviously an American, and were complimented that I’d gone to the trouble of learning their language. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t as far from the embassy as I thought. As soon as I arrived, I went straight to the director of security and confessed that I had violated regulations by speaking the local language in public. He was more than a little amused. With a grin he couldn’t hide, he told me he’d let it go this time but don’t ever do it again.

I didn’t. I’d learned my lesson.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (2)

As April progresses, I’ll be continuing my recounting of the events of April 1975 when I lived through the fall of Saigon. This post is the second of my remembrances.

After I evacuated my wife and four children on 9 April, I paid the three servants we’d had (a maid, a cook, and a nanny for the children) multiple times the wages due them and suggested they move out. I knew that, with the city under siege, none of us would be safe in a residential villa. First I moved to the Brinks Batchelor Officer Quarters (BOQ) in downtown Saigon but soon realized I’d need to be with my men at my office around the clock. The office was in the DAO Building on the northern edge of the city. So I moved there. I set up a cot in the front office (my office) of our office suite. The cot sat between the two flags that stood beside my desk, the stars and stripes and the orange and gold flag of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

Freed from the time-consuming commute through the city now mobbed by refugees as the North Vietnamese came closer each day, I spent full time arranging for my 43 subordinates and their families to leave Vietnam. American Ambassador Graham Martin, the final authority for all Americans in Vietnam, refused to call for an evacuation. The Hungarian member of the ICCS (International Commission for Control and Supervision, a group set up to monitor the so-called cease fire supposedly in effect) had persuaded him that the North Vietnamese had no intentions of attacking Saigon. Rather, they wanted to form a coalition government “with all patriotic forces” and rule jointly. This from a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. I repeatedly told hm of the overwhelming evidence from the intercept of North Vietnamese communications that an attack was imminent and urged him to start an evacuation as soon as possible. He refused to believe my warnings and forbade me to send my people out of country.

I disobeyed him and flagrantly violated his orders. To safely evacuate my people, I lied and cheated and stole to find ways to get them on planes flying out of Vietnam. Some I sent out on fake vacations, others on phony business travel, still others on bogus home leave.

More next time.

Surrounded by Beauty

At this time of year, I am reminded that I live a life surrounded on every side by beauty. To start  with, my house is filled to overflowing with beautiful pieces of art from all over the world gathered during my years of working abroad. Two of my favorite pieces typify the splendor: a copy of the head of the Virgin from Michelangelo’s Pietá hangs on the wall above my reading chair in the sunroom. And a replica of the head of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti stands in an honored spot in my piano room.

But all that pales beside the magnificence of spring. Everywhere I look these days, I see the blooms of the season bursting forth. All around the pond at the back of my house are trees in white, pink, and red bloom. Below them are forsythia heavy with yellow blossoms. Then there are white and yellow daffodils waving in the gentle spring breezes. Nearby are azaleas, apple and cherry trees, and flowering quince. And the tulips are up, ready to loom.

In short, everywhere I turn I find the glory of new life springing forth. I know that it will be followed by the blaze of summer color, the melancholy of autumn, and the desolation of winter. I will be reminded again that the seasons are a metaphor for the ages of human life. I will be forced to remember that I am far into the winter of my allotted time on earth. But I’ll be comforted knowing that I’ll be around for more springs in years ahead.