Hồ Chí Minh’s Appeals to the U.S.

I’ve mentioned in passing earlier in this blog Hồ Chí Minh’s approaches to the U.S. at the end of World War II. He appealed to the U.S. repeatedly to assist Vietnam in its quest for independence and freedom from French colonialism.

In 1945, Hồ sent two letters to President Truman, five letters to the U.S. Secretary of State, James Byrnes, and one telegram to Byrnes. The next year he dispatched two more letters and a telegram to Truman.

As far as I can determine, Hồ never received a reply.

Hồ at that point was more nationalist than communist. His driving ambition was independence for Vietnam. When the U.S. failed to respond, he turned to China and the USSR. Both nations provided him assistance and support—material, financial, and political—and Hồ and his Việt Minh* movement became decidedly communist.

Hồ’s outreach to the U.S. made good sense. We had historically opposed colonialism and supported independence for all nations of the world, as befitted us given our own history. Hồ expected that we would no more support French occupation of Vietnam than we did German occupation of France. Nevertheless, we sided with the French. And by 1964, when we introduced troops into Vietnam, we had become vehemently anti-communist and supported the non-communist government of South Vietnam against the communist government of the North under Hồ.

How different history would have been had we responded favorably to Hồ’s pleas in the mid-1940s.

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* Việt Minh is shorthand for Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội, the Alliance for the Independence of Vietnam, a national coalition of various political parties throughout Vietnam.

Do All Memories Have to Hurt?

The title of this blog post is taken from Last of the Annamese. It’s the question the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself as Saigon falls. It’s my question, too.

As readers of my blog know, I escaped under fire as Saigon fell. Then and earlier in my thirteen-year odyssey to, from, and through Vietnam, I witnessed and participated in events so grisly that my psyche suffered permanent damaged. These days we call that wound Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. I’m not alone. The majority of men in combat in Vietnam shows signs of the disease. The number of suicides among Vietnam vets exceeds the number killed in combat.

I call it Post-Traumatic Stress Injury rather than disorder because it’s clear to me that the disease is not a case of the brain or mind having arbitrarily gone awry but the direct result of an external wound inflicted in the psyche. It never goes away. It never weakens. The man or woman thus afflicted has only one option: learn to cope.

So, yes, all memories of Vietnam have to hurt. Even my happy memories—of working with the troops and the fun we had together—hurt when I remember those who were killed by my side in gruesome ways I can’t talk about even today. My recollection of my friendship with a South Vietnamese officer and his family turns sad when I remember that he shot his three children, his wife, and himself rather than be captured by the North Vietnamese. The happy times I spent with the South Vietnamese enlisted men darken when I remind myself that 2700 of them were abandoned by the U.S. and were then killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

My memories still hurt today. They always will.

Vietnam Vets: Hear Our Story Now

We’re getting old and dying off. We won’t be around much longer. If you want to know what we know about what happened, you’d better ask soon.

I’m talking about Vietnam vets. Most are now in their sixties and seventies. A few of us are even older. And a lot of us have died. Our memories, our knowledge of what actually happened, the searing experiences that changed us forever, won’t be around much longer.

That’s why I write and speak publicly every chance I get. I want people to know what took place during a war that altered U.S. history in ways few other wars have. For decades neither I nor my comrades in arms talked about Vietnam. It was a shameful time in our history, best forgotten. Even now, according to my younger friends, history classes in our schools leave out the story of Vietnam.

My novel, Last of the Annamese, fiction in name only as one review put it, relates my experience of living through the fall of Saigon. So does my presentation, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,” that I will have given more than fifty times by the end of the year. My novel The Trion Syndrome, describes the life of a Vietnam vet suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. And my Friendly Casualties, a novel-in-stories, tells of the war from a variety off perspectives.  I want people to know what happened.

Time is getting short. Ask us while we’re still here.

My Callsign in Vietnam

Between 1962 and 1973, when I provided direct signals intelligence support to U.S. army and Marine combat units in South Vietnam, I worked under cover as a member of the unit I was supporting. The purpose was to assure that the North Vietnamese didn’t discover that a civilian spy was in their midst. I dressed in military uniform, cut my hair like the troops, and worked beside them on the battlefield.

In 2015, when Maryland Public Television (MPT) interviewed me as one of the sixteen Vietnam vets to be featured in its three-part documentary, Maryland Vietnam War Stories, my identity as an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) while in Vietnam was still classified. So I simply didn’t say who my parent organization was. MPT found photos of me in both army and Marine uniforms. Confused, they finally decided I must have been an army intelligence officer.

The troops I worked with found my presence among them hilarious. Not only was I a civilian but, frequently, I outranked their commanding officer. I went by my own name, Tom Glenn, but when the troops discovered my payroll signature was Thomas L. Glenn III, they couldn’t stop laughing. I had worked hard to get them to call me “Tom,” and not “Mr. Glenn.” Now they started razzing me by calling me “TG3.” That became my radio callsign. I used it throughout my years of supporting units in combat.

The sad part of the story is that some of the guys who so enjoyed my presence and name died by my side during combat. I’ll never get over that. I’m drawn again to the question asked by the protagonist of my novel, Last of the Annamese, my story of the fall of Saigon told as fiction: “Do all memories have to hurt?”

Dak To: Fifty Years Ago

The publication of my article on the battle of Dak To in the New York Times forced me to recognize that it has been fifty years since I worked with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in that conflict. I was in the Vietnam highlands doing signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of the communications of the invading North Vietnamese—in support of U.S. forces.

The highlands is a mountainous area along the Laotian and Cambodian borders populated by few Vietnamese and many Montagnard tribesmen. The name, Dak To, is not Vietnamese but is derived from one of the Montagnard languages—there were many tribes, each with its own language. The Vietnamese attempted render the name as Vietnamese, slightly changing its spelling and adding tones and diacritical marks so that it became Đắc Tô. For me, it remained a Montagnard name.

As I mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’m surprised and somewhat resentful when my writing about my own experiences is termed “historical.” I am, after all, alive and kicking. I don’t feel like a figure from the past. And the Vietnam war doesn’t seem all that long ago.

But there it is. The battle began more than fifty years ago, on 4 November 1967. It was one of the bloodiest of the war, engulfing not only Kontum Province, where Dak To is located, but the entire highlands. Yet in the end, no territory changed hands. And my memory of it is as sharp as if it were yesterday.

Readers can find my article at  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region

Major General Phạm Văn Phú

On 9 March 1975, I accompanied my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general, on a trip to I Corps and II Corps, the northern half of South Vietnam. During a courtesy call with the commander of II Corps, Major General Phạm Văn Phú, things turned sour. The general I was traveling with and the II Corps intelligence staff chief tried to persuade General Phú that Ban Mê Thuột, in Darlac province to the south, would be the first target of the Communist campaign in the highlands. Intercept of North Vietnamese communications made that clear. The II Corps Commander was unpersuaded. He doubted that the North Vietnamese were preparing to strike, and if they were, II Corps headquarters would be the logical focus of the offensive. After all, he was the most important man in the highlands, and he was at II Corps headquarters in Pleiku.

I described the confrontation that I witnessed that day in the scene quoted below from Last of the Annamese. General Tri is the fictionalized version of General Phú.

Smoke blurred the features of the room. Cigarettes, two of them still burning, littered the deck. The snakelike man behind the desk, a lit cigarette in hand, gave no indication that he knew eight people were standing before him. He went on reading, smiling at the document in his hands. Without looking up he made a single sound, and the officers sat in a row of chairs facing the desk. Chuck hurriedly joined them. The adjutant served tea.

Chuck squinted through the smoke at the man reading. His fatigue’s name tag read TRI, and his shoulders bore the two stars of a major general. The slant of his egg-shaped bald head drew the eye to his mouth, the lips closed, the corners turned up. Something about his smile activated the tingle low in Chuck’s spine. It was a sardonic smile, a sneer.

Tri raised his eyes and said, “Thanh.” Thanh stood at attention, his eyes downcast, and spoke several sentences. Then he turned to Chuck. “Mister Griffin, I introduce you to General Tri.” Chuck jumped to his feet.

Tri fixed Chuck in his gaze. “I am honored to meet you, Mister Griffin.”

Chuck started to answer, but Tri shifted back to Thanh and went on speaking. He gestured to Chuck to sit, tossed away his cigarette, and lit another.

Throughout the exchange, the smile never left Tri’s face. Maybe it was less an expression than a facial feature. His eyes remained half closed, as though in disdain for the colonel in front of him. His speech, marked by viperous hisses, cut through the smoke.

Chuck’s weariness, aggravated by the smarting of his eyes, lulled him . . . . A bark from Tri jarred him awake. The general was glaring at Thanh. Liem stood and spoke quietly, his eyes averted. Thanh’s voice, pitched low, repeated Liem’s words. He looked directly into Tri’s eyes, his gestures calm, and pointed to the large II Corps map on the wall. Liem moved to it and waved circles around Ban Mê Thuột, in Darlac Province, directly south of Pleiku. The smile left Tri’s face for the first time. He directed half a dozen sentences at Thanh with undisguised hostility. The interview was over.

End of quote. Even though General Phú didn’t believe the forecast that the North Vietnamese would launch their offensive in the highlands with Ban Mê Thuột as the first objective, Ban Mê Thuột fell days later, followed by the rest of the northern half of South Vietnam. General Phú escaped to Saigon. He committed suicide there on 30 April when the North Vietnamese took the city.

Amerasian Orphans in Vietnam

In my novel, Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck, regularly spends time with orphans at Cité Paul-Marie, an orphanage in Saigon. He is particularly fond of a tiny crippled Amerasian boy to whom the nuns have given the French name of Philippe. Chuck calls him “Pipsqueak,” and the child, trying to repeat the sound Chuck makes, calls Chuck “Pee-kwee.” Chuck’s housemate can’t see how Chuck can stand to be with the misshapen children whom he calls as “manglemorphs.” But Chuck finds them deeply moving and does all he can to make them smile.

Neither the orphanage nor the orphans named in the novel are real, but both are based on fact. During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, I regularly spent time with the mixed-race orphans, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women, at a real orphanage run by Vietnamese nuns who spoke only French and gave the children French names. Where the children came from, how old they were, and their reals names remained a mystery. I suspected that the nuns didn’t know the children’s origin, names, or ages. These were helpless infants whose parents had abandoned them or had died in the war.

I was devastated by the 4 April 1975 crash of first flight of Operation BABYLIFT, a program sponsored by President Ford to move as many orphans as possible to the U.S. before the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon. Seventy-eight orphans were killed in the crash. I expressed my grief by attributing it to Chuck in the following passage from late in the novel:

“Chuck remembered the feel of Philippe’s tiny body pressed against his chest. Pee-Kwee. He forced himself to contemplate the unbearable—Philippe suffocating in the airless cargo hold and then crushed by the plane’s collision with the earth. Chuck welcomed the grief. No one else would mourn the death of the Amerasian ‘manglemorph’  whose real name nobody knew.”

As Chuck asks himself early and again late in the book, and as I ask myself: Do all memories have to hurt?