Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Lacy Wright's Vietnam
"Hope Springs Eternal"
I grew up in the Midwest, Springfield, Illinois. After college I studied in Rome for two and a half years to become a priest. Then quit. I went back and taught high school for a year in Chicago. I took the Foreign Service exam during that time and then went to the University of Chicago for a year in their Masters Program in International Relations. I did not finish that because I went into the Foreign Service at the beginning of 1968. In those days, anybody who could walk and chew gum at the same time and who went into Foreign Service was sent to Vietnam.
In those days, I would say for most of us who went in the foreign service, being sent to Vietnam was a bitter blow because nobody wanted to go to Vietnam. In fact, I would say that most of the people coming in at that time with me, were against the war with more or less a passion. Besides that, people were just plain scared. It was certainly the position I was in and I think it was a pretty general position. You knew there was a war going on and we didn't want to die young. Nonetheless, most of us were sent to Vietnam.
After that, an incredible transformation occurred because most of us who went to Vietnam ended up liking it. In fact, many people who went to Vietnam, including myself, went back again and did so willingly.
We learned Vietnamese at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington. There was a ten month course in Vietnamese and although my Vietnamese was not as good as that of some others, it was all right. As a matter of fact, you know, in spite of all you hear about Americans not understanding the country and so on, and of course there's much truth in that, in the area of languages, a very large number of Foreign Service officers and others did speak Vietnamese and spoke it very well. That could not be said of the French or certainly any other foreign group in Vietnam.
At the Foreign Service Institute there were not only people from the Foreign Service, although they were the most numerous, there were also army officers, majors, lieutenant colonels usually, as well as people from other agencies. And I think it's generally true to say that the army officers almost all, at least that we studied with, were too old to learn Vietnamese. They were in their forties. And almost none of them did. Not all of the foreign service officers learned Vietnamese, which is a difficult language, but a large number of them did, and a large number of them, after they went to Vietnam, went out and worked in the provinces and so really did eat and sleep with the Vietnamese and perfected their Vietnamese. And many of them speak it today.
I arrived in Vietnam in March of 1969 after spending a year learning Vietnamese and going through orientation.
I would say a number of things, some of them more noble than others, combined to make people like Vietnam. First of all, I think that even people who went there without much sympathy for the South Vietnamese government, when they came into contact with the people and worked with them, and worked with local officials, did develop a sympathy for them, and started identifying with them and started wishing them well, hoping they would win. And so I think people's sentiments changed in that regard.
They also became more familiar with the tactics of the other side and saw that there was a big difference between the communist side and this side, for all its flaws. And by the way, one of the things that all of us saw was that the South Vietnamese regime had a great number of flaws, but nonetheless I think we all developed a sympathy for them.
Secondly, you could kind of live an adventurous life on the cheap, in the sense that, for those of us who were civilians, most of us lived comfortable lives and most of us lived fairly safe lives. That wasn't always true. Some people were in dangerous areas, particularly people who lived in the provinces. But for most of us I think that there was just enough danger to make life interesting but not enough to be a real danger. So there was that. There was a sense of excitement. You were at the center of what was certainly the most interesting and controversial activity of that era.
And there were lots of women. You were in a time and place where the normal restraints were off. That of course has a perennial appeal.
So there were some good things and some bad things, or less noble things.
One of the interesting stories I like to tell is in 1973, when the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, the decision was made in the State Department to send a lot of Foreign Service Officers back to Vietnam. And when they did this at the Department, they felt they had to think up a lot of incentives to get people to go back. Here they were, they had uprooted a lot of us and sent us to Vietnam once, over a lot of objections, and certainly turmoil, and here they were going to do the same thing again. They were going to ask people to go back again. So they sat down and devised this package. And the first feature of it was you only had to go for six months. This was to monitor the observance of the peace accords. Then you got twenty-five percent more than your salary. During your six month stint you could take a trip home, or go anywhere else at equivalent cost. Since you were on the other side of the world, that meant you could go anywhere in the world you wanted.
And then at the other end of the spectrum after offering you all those incentives, they also said, if chosen, you've got to go. It's not optional. What they found out when they promulgated this, and I guess there were a hundred or so of us that they picked to go back, they found out everybody wanted to go back. They didn't have a bit of trouble getting people to go back. In fact they had people calling up the personnel department saying, "Hey, how come I'm not on the list to go back to Vietnam?"
I was there on my first tour for a year and a half. Those were the years in which a lot of progress was made in pacification. Pacification had two aspects -- getting rid of the communists and making life better for people and there really was a lot of progress there in both areas. And that progress, I guess in broad terms, started after the Tet offensive, the failed Tet offensive in 1968, and continued for several years. So much so that in large parts of the Delta one was very safe.
For example, when I was in the Delta, during this time, there were sixteen provinces in the Delta, and I was in every one of them. There was no enemy activity there. And it was like this in large parts of the Delta and became progressively safer. At first, when I returned, my attitude was a kind of naive optimism. Everyone was so delighted that the war was over, or at least that there was this hiatus and there was this new possibility for peace, despite the fact it was clear that the peace agreement was not perfect. I guess hope springs eternal and people, including myself, were hopeful that somehow this would be made to work.
Well, don't forget that at that point there were still a lot of Americans there. It was after that point that we started to pull out in really large numbers. So at that point, there was still all the prosperity there was before. It was from then on that things started to go down hill and that they really started to have severe economic problems and severe military supply problems and severe morale problems.
At the beginning of '73 I was out in the province in the central Delta called Chuong Thien. I was there for a month or two. And then I went up to Can Tho which is the capital of the Delta and also the capital of the military region and at that point we founded in the Delta, as well as in other military regions, a Consulate General. That was Consulate General of Can Tho. So I was one of about sixteen Foreign Service officers who worked under the Consul General.
At the end of six months when a lot of other people went back, I stayed and I became the head of the political section in the Consulate General, and the number two person, the Deputy Consul General. At that point the new Consul General was Wolfe Lehmann, who eventually became the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy.
AT that time in the Delta, the situation actually got worse. There's no two ways about that. In spring of '74 I would say, I was the acting Consul General then, and our consulate did an analysis of the military situation. It was a long one about sixteen pages. It was sent to Saigon. And it was very pessimistic. We had a lot of facts and figures in there about desertions, about lack of supplies, and about morale, which was going down. There were clear signs at that point that after having done quite well in the Delta in 1973, that in spring of '74 things were starting to go downhill.
Also that at the same time Cambodia was in the process of being taken over by the Khmer Rouge and we were a bit on the fringes of that. One of the little known and fascinating features of that period is that there were a number of Cambodian refugees who were fleeing the Khmer Rouge and I guess the war in general, who were coming down into South Vietnam, into Kien Giang province and being put up there. And one of the officers at our consulate general did several long and very perceptive reports about the basis of talks with these refugees. What came out of them clearly was that the Khmer Rouge, who eventually took over Cambodia and were responsible for killing a couple of million Cambodians, were even at that point doing what they later became famous for doing. They were killing people in the areas that they took over in a very very brutal way. And this was being documented as far back at 1974.
But it didn't get much publicity. I think we did publicize it from Washington to a certain degree, but I also remember that people like Sidney Schanberg of the New York Times dismissed these reports as American propaganda. And I think that generally speaking, people who were not totally averse to seeing the other side take over were of the view that this was just more American slanting of the news, or outright propaganda which was meant to put the other side in as bad a light as possible.
I left the Delta in the September of 1974. My duties at that point were very much inwardly directed in the sense that I was the deputy chief of the internal unit in the political section. Our job was to follow internal Vietnamese politics. .
As to the visit of the Congressional delegation in early 1975, I mostly briefed them in my area of specialty. They did not come to me to ask how Thieu was doing, or whether he should stay in power, or anything like that, but rather to talk about the role of the political parties and the role of different political figures such as the famous Father Thanh headed the anti-corruption group. Those were the things I was involved with and those were the kind of things that I would have been talking to them about.
The whole question of repression and political prisoners was a question that was not new. That existed and it was of some concern. I would say also, however, that the overwhelming focus at that point was not on that, but was rather on the survival of the country. Now where this is important though in political terms needless to say it was always important in human terms, especially if you're the guy in jail. But where it's important in political terms was that these congressional delegations were people who were coming out to make some hard judgments about the Thieu regime and about out commitment to it and about whether we ought to continue to support it.
People like Don Fraser were people of very liberal sentiments and they were looking for were signs that the Thieu government was corrupt or wasn't corrupt. I think again, probably they made the same mistake that we Americans tended to make all through the war, which was to focus on the sins of the Thieu regime and there were such sins, and fail properly to balance it against the characteristics which were much more obnoxious on the other side, and to think sufficiently about what would happen if the other side took over.
We spent too much time in Vietnam criticizing what was wrong with our own side rather than balancing that against the other side. I can remember a good friend of mine from a big magazine saying to him, "Why don't you guys write more about North Vietnam?" His answer was, and I think it could have been the answer from a lot of others, was, "Well, everybody knows the North Vietnamese are bad guys. They know that they're a communist society and know what communist societies are like. You don't need to keep telling that to people. Besides that they are hard to get access to." Which was true. Both are true. But I'm afraid that with that attitude and modus operandi, what it produced for the American people and others was a very negative image of the Thieu regime on one hand and a very blurred or a non-image of the other side on the other hand. In fact even worse than that, because it left it up to the publicists like Jane Fonda to lionize the other side. So often instead of appearing slightly negative they appeared to be good.
During that time Ambassador Martin left for the U.S. and the debacle in the Central Highlands occurred while he was gone. As I understand it he was being very optimistic back in Washington, unwarrantedly so, possibly because he wasn't on the spot and didn't see what was happening. Of course, this is an interesting subject. That is, the role of Ambassador Martin and the way he tried to keep things together.
Needless to say, when you are in a situation like this, you have to be extremely careful of what you say. And Ambassador Martin was. He was regarded as a bellweather, as a symbol. What he did had symbolic importance. So I think before one analyzes or criticizes him you've got to make sure that you look at his activities in that light. And when you do, of course, you'll see he had to be optimistic. Once Ambassador Martin started going around being pessimistic, then it was really all over. So when you are in a situation like that there is only one way to be, and that's optimistic. I think that's the first thing to be said. Also to be said is that Ambassador Martin did explain our involvement in Vietnam and what we were there for and why we needed to hold on, probably in better and more cogent terms than anybody else did or could. I heard him do that a few times and he was very impressive.
I think where the Ambassador didn't do as well as he could and should have, was in his relations with the press. I'm not saying the press never did anything wrong, in fact I think they did a lot wrong. I also believe that Ambassador Martin failed to handle the press as well as he could have. He antagonized them. He made people who were already antagonistic toward him and towards our involvement even more antagonistic. I think that could have been handled a lot better. I don't know if it would have affected the final outcome. It might not, but it certainly didn't do us any good and it turned people who were already prone to be critical of us into people who were even more critical.
It was hard, often, to tell with Martin when he was saying things for public consumption and how much he believed and he had to try to put the best face on things. And he did. To what degree he believed it, I don't know. I'm not sure anybody knows. And now we know that one of the things that was in his mind was the hope that there could be a negotiated, face-saving settlement that would not be much more than a disguised defeat. It would at least allow the city to be evacuated and people to leave the country who needed to. We also know now that that was a forlorn hope, probably never stood any chance of being inplemented. But it was one of the things that was in his mind when he was trying very hard to hold things together.
There were so many of these small operations in early April designed to get certain people out of the country without much notice. My job, given to me by Ambassador Martin, was to assist in the getting out the Vietnamese relatives of Americans. Don't forget that we had a number of Foreign Service Officers that were married to Vietnamese, whose families lived in Saigon, or elsewhere in the country. Many of those people at that point were bombarding the State Department with requests to help their families to get them out of there. Needless to say those people would have been very much at risk.
During those last ten days or so we were so incredibly busy doing this, operating from different safe houses that I would just go home at night dead. In fact one of my great regrets still is that I never wrote anything down, but at the end of the day you'd be so exhausted that you just couldn't do anything. That continued all the way up until the last day.
On April 29th I got up early because of the noise of the airport being bombed. I lived at that point about a half block from the embassy, so I got up early and went into the embassy, not knowing at that point that this was the last day. I got in there and it soon became clear that this was the last day and we were pulling out all the stops.
Early that morning several of us were calling around to all of the Vietnamese that were in our pipeline and that were supposed to come to the embassy or one of the safe houses, to try to direct them to various places in the city so they could be picked up.
Everything was absolutely quiet on the streets because there was a twenty-four hour curfew in effect, so there was not a soul moving at that point. I left the embassy and got into a car and went over to the safe house we'd used the previous day in order to get the list of names that we had been using because I remembered thinking we would be back the next day, so I'd left it in the house. I wanted to get that list so it didn't fall into the wrong hands. That went off without a hitch. I went and came back with no problem.
Then we were up in the ambassador's suite of offices a little bit later and Alan Carter was there wondering--he had a couple of Americans as well as a large number of Vietnamese over in the USIA compound and he was wondering how he was going to get them out of there, at least get the two Americans out. I'd just been out, so I knew you could go out, no problem, so I told him I would be glad to go get them. I went back over there and got them and came back, in a car. Still no problem. The streets were deserted. In fact, we were kind of milling around that morning, I guess about eight o'clock or so and a protestant minister, an Englishman appeared at the gate of our embassy looking in. He said, "What's the situation like?" I said, "It's getting bad, you'd better come in here. There's going to be an evaacuation. This place is going to be jumping pretty soon." He said, "Oh, I don't want to be any trouble."
I said again, "You'd really better get in here." So he did and he was taken out by helicopter. He was one of the kind of self-effacing guys, here you are in the middle of this tremendous maelstrom and this guy says, I don't want to be any problem.
At about noon, I guess, we had to go out and start picking people up and bringing them in. At this point there swings into operation an idea which turned out to be a godsend. This was the idea of using the barges to take Vietnamese down the river. This was the idea of a couple of guys, one of who was Mel Chatman. They came up with this idea a week or two before, and I think everybody thought it was a kind of hairbrained idea, but in the absence of any inertia to the contrary they went ahead and made these preparations and they had these barges waiting.
So all day long from noon until I stopped at about 3:30, I was going with a friend, Joe McBride, in these minivans, and we would go to these places and bring these people back to the barges. I'll never forget the first trip that I made with my van, it was packed to the gills with these people and we first of all had to go down and find the barge. That wasn't to easy the first time. You had to go down, go across the bridge, and get into the harbor area, go along a road there and finally find this place. We had a hard time getting across the bridge because by that time people were starting to come out and the city was really turning frenetic at that point. I didn't think we were going to get across that bridge. It was starting to be a big traffic jam. We just barely made it and I figured it would probably be the last trip and we wouldn't be able to get through again.
However, what I was told happened was that somebody came along from the embassy with a fistful of money and gave it to the policman who was directing traffic and paid him to stand there and direct traffic. Pretty soon things were moving again and I got back and went back again and again to the house and brought people back. That was really a heart-rending experience because we had a lot of people coming that day to the house, and of course all of them desperate to leave and all of them knowing by then that it was all over. You could see the helicopters coming overhead and it was also clear that there were more people congregated at this house than we were going to be able to take, Joe and I. I'll never forget the last run that I made. People were starting to desperately try to get aboard these vans and I had to almost get violent to keep order. I'll never forget one man, old man, who voluntarily stood aside and helped me calm people down, and he himself didn't try to get on the bus. He said, "Don't worry, don't worry, he'll be back." I think knowing full well that I wasn't going to be back. And he was right. I was told by the embassy that it was the last run and to come in.
I phoned in from the house and Eva Kim told me to come in.
Later that evening, while I was in the Embassy I got a phone call from a guy in the city --he seemed to be on a street somewhere. And he said, here I am, they told me to be here. I guess he was at a safe house. And he said they told him to meet at such and such a place and nobody ever came. I'm at such and such a spot -- he was on the street, not at a safe house. And I said the only thing he could do was go down to the barges.
But you see by then, everybody was afraid to go out. It was the old syndrome as long as you were with an American you felt a lot safer and that you were going to get through. People were afraid to go down just on their own. Who knows what would have happened? But I tried to convince this guy that that was his chance and it was a good chance.
I left the Embassy about 9 or 10 on the night of the 29th.
There wasn't any priority. I could pretty much have left when I wanted. At that point, helicopters would come in and anybody who wanted to and was ready could just go up to the roof. So about 9 I figured well, why not now? There was no reason to stay any longer.
One of the things I'll never forget was after we left and the helicopter circled out over the city you could look out to the west and see Long Binh base burning. A huge huge fire. Long Binh was one of our largest bases in Vietnam. I guess that watching it be consumed by fire summed everything up for me. Everything that we had tried to do was going up, literally, in flames. And also, of course, you had to think of all the people you were leaving behind, which was a tremendous number.
Today I think remember all the people we left behind. I think about how vindictive the other side has been. Even though it does seem there was not a blood bath in the sense that there was in Cambodia, nonetheless, there were plenty of people killed and after all this time there are still people in reeducation camps who have been there for years.
During the Vietnam War nobody ever left Vietnam in a boat. During all what the world thought were horrible years of war, nobody tried to escape from Vietnam. Since 1975, what is it now, a million and a half people have left. They are still leaving. Twenty-five thousand people a year are still leaving Vietnam by boat, not to mention three thousand or so per year who escape by land by coming across Cambodia.
Since the end of the war, in watching what the communists have done in Vietnam and in Cambodia, most people now recognize that when our government said we were fighting a bunch of really nasty guys, that turned out to be the case.