Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tom Polgar Remembers

Thomas Polgar
"We Were a Defeated Army"

The reason I went to Saigon was because the designated successor to CIA station chief Ted Shakley, who at that time had been in Saigon for over three years, was a fellow by the name of Joe Smith. At that point in time he was chief of station in Tokyo, one of our most prestigious positions and a former deputy chief of the Far East Division. That is the Far East Division under Bill Colby. A very logical choice. This was all signed, sealed and delivered. Joe Smith will take over from Shakley. At that point Joe Smith's father died. There is a family business in which a lot of people depend. There is nobody else to run it except Joe. So Joe retires and goes to the family business. The successor, which had been planned for two years is suddenly out the window. Joe Smith would have been in terms of background in Asia and background with the Far East Division, a very logical choice.
Now it wasn't exactly that I had been an unknown person. I had known CIA director Richard Helms at that point for some twenty five years and I worked for him in Berlin, I was chief of the German branch which was the apple of both Alan Dulles's and Helms' eye. I was GS-17 which is a pretty high rank. There are actually a lot of similarities between the type of activities I had handled as chief of collection for South America and the situation which confronted us in Vietnam. And perhaps most importantly, I was special assistant for four years to a fellow by the name of Lieutenant General Lucien Truscott, who was the coordinator of intelligence in Germany, among other things. In that capacity I had a great deal of experience working with the U.S. Military. And that had a lot more to do with it than the hijacking. I was chief of station in Buenos Aires when I learned that I had been picked as chief of station in Saigon.
I spoke Spanish. I spoke German. I spoke French. No Asian language. It was a major disadvantage but it was a disadvantage that all of us in the CIA share, because I think above the level of GS-12, which is a major, we had nobody who could speak Vietnamese.
As soon as I got there I made a real effort to meet Vietnamese other than those whom I would have contact with as part of my official responsibilities. I tried to meet people like the head of the bar association, head of the air lines, head of a pharmaceutical company, doctors, dentists, you know, so I would have a little feel for the society. It's a difficult thing. The problem was that I had a job that took eleven, twelve, fourteen hours a day sometimes.
It must look foolish in retrospect, but I had full faith that we would live up to our commitments in Vietnam. I thought that as long as Nixon was president North Vietnam would behave, more or less. I never expected complete cease fire like we had in Europe on May 8, 1945. I never expected that. It never happened either. But we did have for a considerable period, certainly throughout 1973 and the first half of 1974 what we used to call a "less fire." In other words, we had a situation where you didn't have a cease fire but you didn't have major military activity and a level of violence, sabotage, assassination, ambushes and so forth stayed within what we called very cynically "tolerable limits." It was a level of violence that both sides could sustain indefinitely, without any change in the political situation.
I think that had the North lived up to its part of the Paris Agreement there would have been no trouble with it. Even the presence of North Vietnamese troops in the South need not have been a problem. The troops that they were allowed to leave in place in the South had just gone through the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972 and when you come right down to it, they didn't get anything. So there they were, but they didn't get anywhere. I mean they had some jungle, they had some mountains, but at that point South Vietnam was in control of at least 95 percent of the population. And it was in control of all the economically productive zones of the country. And the fact that you had some North Vietnamese troops sharing the highlands with the tigers and snakes wasn't very exciting. I mean they certainly didn't have anything where they could even think of establishing a provisional capital.
The problem at that time was that Vietnam was simply part of a global problem that the United States was coping with on a continuing basis. Vietnam was one trick Nixon wanted to play out of his relations with the Russians and his relations with the Chinese and his relations with the American electorate. For the Vietnamese, of course, the Vietnam problem was 100 percent of their existence. They couldn't think in terms of anything else. This is exactly the problem we have with the Cubans today. We think about Cuba, you know, maybe five minutes every months. The Cubans think about their relationship to the U.S. all the time. So I don't think that the Americans and the Vietnamese were approaching the ending of the Vietnam War at all from the same or even from a similar perspective.
At the heart of the Paris Agreement was our commitment to replace losses suffered by the South Vietnamese in the post cease-fire period on a one for one basis. And we also had a large air force in Thailand with the explicit purpose of acting as a retaliatory force should that be necessary. And, indeed, I was in the room in San Clemente when President Nixon told President Thieu in April 1973 that should the North Vietnamese violate the essence of the Paris Agreement, our retaliation would be instant and brutal. I had no reason to doubt that. And neither did the North Vietnamese.
When we were in San Clemente in 1973, it was when President Thieu was invited to visit Nixon and he took along his chief of staff and a couple of other people and Ambassador Bunker came from the American side and he took along only two people. I was one of them. This was my first introduction to Erlichman, Haldeman, Ziegler and all that lovely crew. And I had no idea that all these people were going to be fired in a couple of years. And that Nixon would resign, in the end, too. I had no idea. I mean there they were still in all their glory. I had no idea at all during that first week in April that things were going to be as bad as they turned out to be. Nixon had just been reelected with a tremendous majority. Kissinger told me one day when we had breakfast alone, he referred to Haldeman as "a criminal." But because Kissinger was rather free with his insults, particularly when he was speaking to somebody he knew well. Kissinger could call somebody a criminal because he screwed up the seating at a dinner. So I didn't take it all that seriously.
Before I went out to Vietnam in 1972 I went to see the Secretary of Defense and I said, "Well, Mr. Secretary, you know I came to see you because I am really at a very crucial point in my career. I'm just turning fifty, I'm eligible to retire, I have three kids I've got to put through college. I can't take my family to Vietnam. How do you see things evolving there?" "Oh," he said, "you are going to have no problem at all." He said, "Vietnam is going to be just like Germany. We are going to be there with a residual force for forty years." And this was in January, 1972. Sure, we were going to reduce the number of troops there, but the American army certainly at that time proceeded on the assumption that there would be a residual force of between sixty and one hundred thousand people remaining in the country. Like Korea or like Germany.
And in fact Vietnam is the only place from which the American army pulled out once they went in. In Korea we stayed. In Germany we stayed.
The nature of the war in Vietnam was never understood by the American public. It was certainly never made clear by the American media.
In Vietnam I saw the distinctions very clearly between the individual newspaper reporters. And I saw what they were trying to do. Bob Shaplen was a good friend of mine. And what he was trying to do on the one hand was undone by his editors on the other hand. I have seen enough of the rough copy going out from people in Saigon and I have noticed the difference between what they wrote and what got printed. Shaplen, in particular, I thought tried to find a balance. And he told me at one point while he was there for the New Yorker, that for an entire year not a single one of his articles was published. And the editors explained to him that his articles that were favorable to South Vietnam could not be published. That was about 1973-1974. I know that he and the New Yorker parted company for a while. Some of the other journalists there were pretty bitter. The same thing happened with a correspondent from Time magazine, who felt that certain aspects of the situation in South Vietnam was not printed in the US. Time at one point instructed their man to write a story on the defection problem from the South Vietnamese army. Now certainly the South Vietnamese army had a defection problem. And he came to me for assistance. And I said, "Yes, I will give you the facts. But I will go one better than that. I will also give you the facts that we know about the defection problem in the North Vietnamese army." He said,"Oh, that's wonderful." Well, when the story came out, only the part about the South Vietnamese army was printed by Time.
Television was even worse in the sense that you spend half an hour on a story and they use a minute and a half.
So there were good and there were bad among the news people there. Frances Fitzgerald was about as dishonest as they come, though. I knew her father well. Her father was my boss and she and I saw a bit of each other. She was interesting as a woman. But as a journalist she was another one that if the news didn't fit, she wouldn't print it.
My own opinion that evolved over the period of my involvement in Vietnam is that we had put ourselves in the position of a doctor confronted by a patient who has a lot of rashes and a lot of lesions on his body and you start to treat each little rash and each different lesion and you don't address the question of what's causing it. And the fact is that the problem in South Vietnam was the war making potential of Hanoi. But we never addressed this questions of Hanoi's war making potential.
Let me tell you a story. In May the third or the fourth of 1972, and the South Vietnamese forces took Quang Tri which was the only province capital that fell to the North in the 1972 Easter Offensive. And they retook it and the following day I was at the Japanese Embassy reception honoring the Mikado's birthday and one of the invited guests there was the head of the Polish delegation on the ICC -- not to be confused with the later ICCS. And this Pole happened to be very experienced intelligence operative and also a man of the world. He was also at one time director of the Polish Airlines. So I say, "Well, what do you say to Quang Tri?" And he said, "Well, it's impressive but irrelevant." I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "It's irrelevant because South Vietnam will lose the war in Washington." He said that in May, 1972.
It was easy to read North Vietnam's intentions because the North Vietnamese did not keep their intentions secret. They kept briefing their own cadre to an astonishing detail as to what they were going to do. And it was a little bit like Hitler and Mein Kampf. They kept saying what they were going to do but we kept not believing them. And our national policy was simply not responsive to the intelligence we were gathering.
For example, we started to get reports from Hanoi in the fall of 1974 stating that now that Nixon was gone and we have a different ball game and we are going to have some tests here in the military sphere. I took that very very seriously. Starting in October 1974 when we got the plan for 1975 I remember I drove up to Bien Hoa to talk with my base chief in whose area this particular document was acquired. And we came to the conclusion that the language in this document was terribly similar to the COSVN 90 directive which came out a couple of months before the 1972 offensive.
One day I had an opportunity to ask Mr. Kissinger what he thought of our intelligence. Not speaking of Vietnam, but generally. He was getting this big flow of intelligence from CIA world wide at the time. What did he think of the value of it? And he thought for a moment and then he said, "Well, when it supports my policy, it's very useful." And I think we are here at the heart of the problem. It is that American policy is not formulated in response to what the intelligence shows. We first formulate the policy and then we try to find the intelligence to support it.
The three principal collectors of intelligence in Vietnam were Military Intelligence, the National Security Agency and the CIA. There was actually very little problem with that. There was no conflict between the intelligence that was being collected. We never had a situation where the DAO-DIA would say something entirely different from everyone else. And we coordinated very closely with Bill LeGro who was the intelligence chief for DAO throughout most of the period after the Paris Agreement. That was not a problem at all. The problem was that American policy was based on the premise that the Vietnam War was finished. The American forces were out and there was no way whatever that President Ford was going to risk his reelection chances by reintroducing American forces into Vietnam.
Already in 1974 we were not delivering supplies on time to the South Vietnamese. We were falling behind on our obligations. And I reported at that time that whenever the South Vietnamese lost their faith in American support, they would collapse. And I put the emphasis more on their faith --that is their morale -- than on the actual level of logistical support.
The Vietnamese could see a few things happening then. I mean a terrible blow to Vietnam, which I think most people will not think of, was the Arab Israeli war of 1973 when so much of what was previously destined for Vietnam went to Israel. And that sort of screwed up the whole Defense Department planning cycle.
Five things happened in 1973 with which Vietnam had nothing to do but which affected it very badly. The first was the Arab Israel War which diverted Defense Department attention and vital military supplies from Vietnam. The ensuing oil embargo and meteoric rise in crude oil prices had a most damaging impact on the South Vietnamese economy. The newly-renewed vulnerability of the US to foreign pressure produced a strong psychological reaction against continuing expensive foreign commitments. The overthrow of Salvador Allende by a military coup in Chile infuriated liberal and leftist opinion which worked off its frustration against South Vietnam. Congress increasingly disgusted with Watergate-related disclosures punished Nixon where it could, including in spheres related to Vietnam.
And I think Thieu knew very well that without the US he could not survive. I knew his nephew, Hoang Duc Nha very well. He was unique in that he was the only one in the entourage of the president who was educated in the United States. And Nha understood that a lot better, having spent four years in college in the US, he appreciated much more the mercurial nature of American politics and the ups and downs as a result of purely domestic pressures which really have nothing to do with the foreign substance but which had an impact on foreign relations. So he knew more than the others in power in Vietnam how our Congress works. After all, how could a man like Thieu appreciate how Congress works when he worked with his own parliament which was always subservient?
When Phuoc Long fell in early 1975 it was important not militarily, but it was terribly important as a symbol. It was a symbol of America's refusal to carry out this "massive and brutal retaliation" that Nixon had promised Thieu. The North was testing the water there and it kept getting more and more favorable and they kept getting in deeper and deeper.
Then the Congressional delegation came out. I thought the performance of Fraser and Abzug in that delegation was inexcusable. Abzug came into the room after they arrived and she asked, "Which one of you is Polgar?" And I identified myself, and she said, "Well, I've been warned against you."
There was a South Vietnamese student leader who was in prison and whose cause had become a bit of a cause celebre in the US. And Abzug said she wanted to interview him. But she first said he was dead and that they had killed him. I said, "No, the South Vietnamese don't do that. They can locate anybody who's in prison." She said, "Well, locate this one. " And we located him and he was in a jail up in MR 3 in Tuy Hoa. So she said she wanted to interview him and it was too far to go by car. It had to be on a helicopter. And the only time she could possibly see him was on a Sunday morning, which would have been an inconvenience for everybody, but all right. We arranged for the helicopter, arranged access to the jail and once it was all arranged, she just said, "Well, I'm no longer interested." And she never went to see him.
Millicent Fenwick was on that trip and she didn't have much sympathy for the Vietnamese war, but she behaved very properly. She went through the motions of listening to the briefings. But Abzug was terrible, and so was Fraser. For example, President Thieu invited the delegation to dinner and they simply failed to show up. Those two didn't show up. They didn't cancel or anything, but they just failed to show up. They came to the Prime Minister's reception which was before the President's dinner. But they didn't come to the President's dinner. The Ambassador invited the whole delegation to dinner the first night they were in Saigon. Everybody except Abzug showed up. And I was really disappointed because I had arranged to sit next to her!
I don't think anybody can say that the attack was expected on Ban Me Thuot on the fifth of March, but everybody in his right mind expected that there was going to be a major North Vietnamese attack in the Central Highlands. We had a prescription for the attack in writing, that is, how they would first cut the roads, which they did, how they would move these various divisions in, which they did, and incidentally that was never accepted by Washington. And it wasn't accepted because --well, we are getting here into an area of sources and methods which I'm not sure I can talk about -- but the fact of the matter is, that the Washington intelligence did not share the estimate that was coming out of Vietnam, both from the DAO and the CIA, that there would be a major offensive in 1975. They refused to believe it.
We had a lot of people telling us what was happening in the Central Highlands. All of them said that there was going to be a major offensive. We had a lot of sources that said that the offensive will kick off in the Central Highlands. But Washington just didn't believe it. And the South Vietnamese had no strategical concept of their own beyond putting a regiment here and a regiment there and a regiment there to defend. And the reinforced regiment that was in Ban Me Thuot was insufficient to cope with the situation. They were also very unlucky.
These forces were very good for local peace keeping and were very good auxiliaries when you were on the offensive. But it is quite right that these were not troops that were trained or equipped to fight main force units reinforced with armor. After the fall of Ban Me Thuot, Thieu met with General Pham Van Phu at the Cam Ranh Bay conference and called for a withdrawal from the Central Highlands. That meeting was held, I believe on a Friday. Phu put the process in the works on Saturday. I got my first word of it Saturday morning. I chased Charles Timmes out to the JGS -- the Joint General Staff and told him, "I don't know what the hell is going on." I sent my other top level assistant to see General Dang Van Quang, Thieu's security advisor and to ask Quang what was going on in Mr2. Quang reported, "You know, the situation isn't good. We don't seem to be able to reopen roads and we are very worried about the situation and will have to shift some troops around, but nothing is going on in MR 2." Quang apparently didn't know Phu was evacuating. Timmes went out to JGS and he couldn't find General Cao Van Vien, chairman of the JGS and on the whole it was a rather Saturday-type of atmosphere out there. But he found General Tran Dinh Tho who was chief of operations and he asked him what was happening in MR2. And Tho said, "Nothing is happening that you don't already know." The JGS apparently had no idea that Phu was evacuating. I got my report directly from Pleiku. Wolf Lehmann was on some errand and Joe Bennett, the political officer, was at the dentist. So I called up the consul general in MR2,Moncrieff Spear, and said, "You better get your people out of Pleiku because I understand they are evacuating." And he said, "You're crazy." He's sitting in Nha Trang, on the coast. I said, "No, I have reason to believe this is happening." And he said, "Are you ordering me to evacuate Pleiku?" And I said, "Now you know I can't do that. But I can conclude that it would be a smart thing to do."
The point I'm making here is that what General Phu did, whatever his previous merits might have been, that morning was totally uncoordinated. He didn't even tell the Consul General to whom he would have to hold an obligation, he was the principal representative of the US in MR2. Quang didn't know about it. I mean had there been something going on Quang would have looked like a busy man that morning but he was just killing time on a Saturday morning. And Tho, the Chief of Operations didn't know.
What happened, in my judgement, is that Phu initiated a course of action misunderstanding what President Thieu had in mind. and without knowing anything about how difficult it was to do actually. The fact is that there is no such thing as a successful evacuation. Every evacuation becomes a tremendous fiasco sooner or later.
Then the North Vietnamese caught up with Phu's evacuation. North Vietnamese tanks were able to come up a side road and to meet the column at Phu Bon. And there was a slaughter.
Before the Cam Ranh conference I already went on record with Washington saying that the game is over. I remember talking to one of my closest contacts in this context, and I will not mention his name, a man in whom I have confidence, and he told me that South Vietnam cannot digest the loss of Ban Me Thuot and the loss of the highlands which he thought was the inevitable consequence of the loss of Ban Me Thuot. He was a general officer.
At that point nothing was happening in MR1. Then disaster there. Thieu made the decision to withdraw both the Marines and the Airborne from MR1. And that of course pulled out the rug from under any plans of General Ngo Quang Truong to make a stand there. And then as it turned out the Marine division was lost and totally useless because first they were ordered to retreat and then they were ordered to turn around and go back, and that was just an impossible military move. So in fact the Marine division lost part of its equipment because it was impossible to extricate the equipment from the refugee stream. By this time of course Thieu was awash in the ocean and is grasping for straws. But it made no difference what he would have done at that point. The game was over.
I firmly believed that the moment the Vietnamese got the impression that we were going to run, everything would collapse. I completely agreed with Martin on that point.
The Ambassador had left the country with the Congressional delegation because they had a plane and he could fly for free. He also felt that he could lobby some of the congressmen and then he was going to go back and to testify to Congress. Now it is my understanding that when he was in Washington, they detected a condition that required immediate surgery and this is what delayed his return. And because they didn't want a great production of the fact that he needed surgery, he went down to North Carolina. The State Department didn't even know how to get hold of him. And he was a very secretive man. He returned at the end of March, just prior to the fall of Danang and the C5A crash.
When they sent the orphans out on the C5A, that was strictly a public relations proposition. Mr. Dan, who was a medical doctor, deputy prime minister and minister of health, felt, that they had to do something about the orphans. And Ambassador Martin and some of his advisors felt that having all these orphans arrived in the US en masse would sort of generate public sympathy, a big human interest story. At the same time the Defense Attache Office had a lot of female employees, and they were already in a sort of quasi-evacuation posture, but bureaucratically you couldn't give people travel orders because the US was not in an evacuation posture. And who's going to pay for their air transport from Vietnam? The US? So I thought, well, I could put them on this empty military plane and designate them as escorts for the orphans, you know, and it doesn't involve any transfer of cash. So different people for different reasons decided to take advantage of the availability of this large plane. Now it so happens that my wife went out as an orphan escort, but she happened to go out on a civilian plane. Cathay Pacific. Just about the same day that this C5A crashed.
At that point I had two CIA doctors on my staff and when the plane crashed they took the bodies, all these little babies, and took them to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Saigon. One of my doctors had the presence of mind to take along a camera, and he took a lot of pictures of the mangled bodies. And I showed them to the Ambassador and the Ambassador considered for a long time whether or not to have these pictures published. But he made the conclusion that these terrible pictures, all of them very clear and in beautiful living color showing these mangled bodies of women and children, instead of generating sympathy would cause a reverse and the dropping of morale. That's precisely what was happening in DAO at the time. So they were not published.
A couple of days before Thieu's resignation, one of the senior Hungarian officers with the ICCS came to me and said, "Look, you must be a realist. You must know that this war is lost." I said, "Okay. I admit the war is lost." And he said, "Every lost war must have political consequences." I said, "I agree with you." He said, "These political consequences are obviously going to be bitter. But there is no interest in the side which I represent" -- and he left it open to who he represented, "to unduly humiliate the United States. Maybe something can be worked out not to change the outcome of the war, that's finished, but to permit an ending which would not be" -- again to use his words -- "unduly humiliating to the United States."
I asked, "What have you got in mind?" "Well," he said, "you know we are out at Tan Son Nhut talking to our North Vietnamese colleagues. We have people in Hanoi. I have the impression that perhaps something could be worked out along the following lines. Thieu must resign. The United States must pledge non-intervention in South Vietnamese affairs beyond the maintenance of a normal Embassy structure. And in South Vietnam the government must be created consisting of people that the North Vietnamese find acceptable. These are the essential problems."
I said, "Well, thank you very much." I said, "I will naturally report our conversation. I will discuss it with the Ambassador so we can get it back to Washington. And I will be back to you. And while we are awaiting the answer from Washington, would you be kind enough to talk to your friends again and find out who might be some of the people that they would consider acceptable in the government?"
A couple of days later Thieu resigned. I went back to my Hungarian friend and I said, "Look, I have delivered on your first point. We still don't have a definitive answer. Have you got any suggestion as to people's names."
And he said, "Well, as a matter of fact, I do. But I am very poor on Vietnamese names, he said, "so I wrote them all down. " So he got out the little notebook and he started reading me some names, all of whom registered with me. I said, "That's very interesting. I will of course follow up on our previous conversation and I'll get back to you." But he said, "I have an additional word from my colleagues here and they tell me that when they said you must move fast, they meant within a matter of days, not weeks."
Let me say at this point that the Ambassador was very favorably inclined. He thought that this was something that we could do something with. But we got a very negative reaction from Kissinger. Kissinger did not want to have any negotiations.
Then on the 26th or the 27th of April we saw each other gain, and he said, "Well, I think it's now too late." In other words, the moment that they considered favorable to make some kind of deal had passed. The reason I'm telling you this is because I can't emphasize in strong enough terms that there never was any deal and we never did anything that the other side has asked us to do, because in fact Thieu's resignation came about for reasons totally different from this, except that I pretended to them that we had something to do with it.
They wanted to avoid an undue humiliation of the United States. But the deal was off in the sense that the Hungarians did not feel any longer that they could contribute anything to making a deal.
It was on a Monday that Thieu resigned, the 21st of April. The Ambassador didn't talk Thieu into resigning, but by the 19th of April, when the Ambassador talked to the President, it was perfectly obvious that he had lost the confidence of everybody, that everybody felt that he was in the way of any kind of settlement, of any kind of decent cease fire, that you simply couldn't do any thing with Thieu around.
One day the Ambassador called me to his office and said he had just come from seeing President Huong and the President was very uncomfortable with the continuing presence of Thieu in the country. He thought that Thieu's presence diluted his authority and that he, Huong, was paralyzed in trying to do something as long as Thieu was there. And he urgently turned to Ambassador Martin because the US alone was in a position to do something about this. And getting President Thieu out of the country must be done in total secrecy. Well, Ambassador Martin, very logically, when he hears total secrecy thinks of the CIA, and so he told me this and said, "Can You do it?" I said, "Yes, I can do it, Mr. Ambassador. But under conditions. You leave me alone. You give me the task and let me do it but let's not have a committee approach on this. Okay." This must have been about the 24th.
Things went very fast after that. I knew where I could get the right airplane. I used General Timmes as the principal point of contact. By this time Thieu was staying out at his villa at the Joint General Staff compound. The senior Vietnamese generals had a villa compound at Tan Son Nhut. And we agreed on a plan of action. At this point we had a couple of things to worry about. We had to worry about public opinion. We also had to worry about some undisciplined South Vietnamese military interference, some junior officer taking into his head to make history. And we also had to worry about the presence of the police blocks all along the road leading to Tan Son Nhut which had nothing to do with Thieu, but they were always there, so we cooked up a story that we were going to pretend to go to a party at the JGS compound. We organized a couple of standard black American sedans, including the Ambassador's car, my car, my deputy's car, enough to carry ten or twelve people plus drivers plus Timmes plus myself plus luggage. Although we specified that everybody could carry only one piece of luggage. And we made arrangements that everybody was going to meet at the prime minister's house, prime minister Khiem. We agreed to meet at Khiem's house in the villa compound because first it was the biggest house and second less attention would be paid to him than to Thieu. And it was agreed that we were going to fly a plane to Taiwan, where Thieu's brother was ambassador, so he could make a deal with the Taiwan authorities to let everybody in. And prime minister Khiem was a former ambassador to Taiwan so he had his own connections. And picking Taiwan as a destination, I was also influenced by the fact that this was a DC-6 and this was about as far as it could go without refueling.
So I picked what I considered my best and most reliable and steadiest people as drivers. Obviously, I don't want to use any Vietnamese drivers in this. And Frank Snepp was one of the drivers. Timmes was one of the passengers because his rank prevented him from driving a car and my rank prevented me from driving a car. Then I arranged to get a police colonel who was also a military colonel and I said, "I want a guy with a commanding presence " just in case there were any questions from the guards. I didn't think there would be because when people see four American sedans driven by Americans they say this is a big deal and they recognize the Ambassador's car they say the Ambassador's coming to a meeting here. So sure enough we never had any trouble, but I had this police/army colonel just in case and then we loaded the cars up. We didn't know who Thieu was going to bring. We knew that Thieu himself was going to go and that Khiem was going to go, but we didn't know who the others were going to be. So we brought along a lot of blind documentation and Charlie Timmes was filling them out by hand, you know, writing in people's names on the documents, which we kept and gave to the plane's captain and said, "When you arrive in Taiwan we are going to notify US military authorities and you have to ask to speak to the senior US military and give him this envelope which has all the documentation."
In the meantime another car took the Ambassador directly to the plane because he wanted to say goodbye to Thieu. I said to the Ambassador, "I don't want to drive with you around town. That's an additional risk." So I think in fact we changed cars. I gave my car to the Ambassador and I took the Ambassador's car with me. And so everything worked like a Swiss watch as was usually the case when we decided to run an operation on our own. And we delivered everybody safely to the aircraft, loaded them up, and they took off.
I rode with the Prime Minister. I didn't ride with Thieu. I think General Timmes rode with Thieu. It was very subdued, no crying. The families had already gone. In fact I was surprised. I was surprised because of all the people who were closely associated with Thieu, only one he took with him on the flight was the former prime minister, Khiem, which was particularly funny because for a couple of years before you could hear in any Saigon coffee house rumors about how Thieu and Khiem had parted ways, one was going to throw the other out, and so forth. Of course, I never credited that because in fact I had a very good relationship with the Prime Minister and I always considered him a loyal servant of Thieu. There were a total of 14 people that night for the flight, all of them men.
I was concerned that an unpleasant incident could happen if somebody knew that Thieu was in the motorcade. But I figured that the Vietnamese know the difference between the four important looking American embassy vehicles and Thieu's normal method of moving around town, which was in an old Mercedes. It was after dark and I thought that for people to interfere with four American vehicles would be very unlikely. The lead vehicle was the Ambassador's armored Chevrolet Caprice, in which I rode. But I had this police colonel with me. My biggest problem was what happens if a police blockade asks people to identify themselves and turn their floodlights on us. Because at that point they would recognize Thieu and the Prime Minister. But as it happens, when the four important looking cars came to the police block, you know, everybody came to attention and saluted; that's what I expected would happen. As a matter of fact, knowing a little bit about this kind of psychology I once brought out a very important defector from East Berlin in a big car like that, figuring that when the Soviets see this car they will salute. And they did.
Thieu didn't take any gold out with him that night. That story is just bullshit. Of course he didn't. Nobody in his right mind packs gold in such a way that it is loose in a suitcase, for gosh sake, I mean, I've had a Vietnamese friend who took out gold and I know this gold is packed very tightly and surrounded with all kinds of clothing and rubber bands and tape. Nobody wants to hear coins loosely rattling around in a bag.
In fact the Vietnamese gold reserve stayed in the country and was still there when the North Vietnamese Army arrived. The Vietnamese National Bank had the gold reserve and this was valued at eighteen to twenty million dollars. But in fact it was a lot more, because for reasons of their own, the gold price was stated in terms of thirty five dollars to the ounce, which was the price at which the Vietnamese got it before Nixon devalued the dollar in 1971. But at that point gold was about $170 to the ounce. So you could say it was probably worth three or four times as much as the stated value. Now here we were in a period when credit of South Vietnam around the world was nonexistent, and Congress was slowing up the aid requests or denying them altogether. And, as usual, when it came to a hot idea, Ambassador Martin came up with one. He thought that South Vietnam should send its gold to the United States Federal Reserve and pledge this gold as a collateral against arms purchases on credit. Well, Thieu accepted the idea. So at that point the Swiss Air Freight trade carrier, Basel Air, which is a subsidiary of Swiss Air, happened to have a plane in Saigon. The South Vietnamese went to Basel Air and said, "We have this gold that we intend to ship to the Federal Reserve. Will you take it as a regular commercial consignment?" And the Swiss thought about it for a day or two and said, no, they would not take it. And they wouldn't take it for insurance reasons. They said there's no way they could get insurance to cover $70 million dollars of gold coming out of Saigon. So then they went to the U.S. Air Force. It was discussed at the National Security Council. The U.S. Air force can easily take out a ton and a half of gold, but you cannot get commercial insurance if it goes on a military plane, period.
So then the hot potato was passed into the lap of the State Department lawyers. All this time the gold is sitting in the National Bank in Saigon. How can we get insurance for this shipment if it goes by military plane? Now this is a kind of topic that can keep lawyers busy for many a day. In the meantime, Thieu resigned, and we got a new crew in, and Huong at first said, well, let's ship it -- one day he says let's ship it but the next day he says let's not ship it, and then finally he comes down on the advice of his minister of economic affairs, Mr. Nguyen Van Hao, Denny Ellerman's friend. He came down to the conclusion that it was best to keep the gold there because the situation was now changed since Ambassador Martin first happened to talk about it and even if we got more American military aid with the help of this gold it cannot arrive here in time to do any good, and we look better if we keep the gold in the country. So the gold stayed in the country.
And Thieu didn't take any of it out and didn't carry gold in his suitcase either. It was completely dark when we got to the plane. The aircraft only had its running light on. The only lights that we had were the running lights of the cars and we drove to the plane that night without headlights.
The plane was a propeller driven American DC-6, the latest American propeller driven plane. It had been used in happier times and I had flown on it and that is why I remembered it existed. When Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker married Ambassador Carol Lace, who was at that time ambassador in Nepal, Bunker at that point was in his seventies, and he broke the news to President Lyndon Johnson and he said, "You know, I'm going to have a problem, I don't want to resign the ambassadorship in Saigon and Carol who is a career FSO is getting this appointment as ambassador, which is very rare for a woman to be an ambassador, she doesn't want to pass that up? How can you help us?" And Johnson said, "By golly, if a man your age is still interested in keeping contact on a regular basis with his new wife, I'm going to get you an airplane." So Johnson dug up this old DC 6 and gave it to Bunker and he indeed used it to fly up to Katmandu. And on one occasion he took me with him. It was a nicely furnished plane inside, but very slow, a prop plane. It belonged to the U.S. Air Force and when Ambassador Bunker and Carol Lace left Nepal they stationed it in Thailand for the use of the Air Force brass. I remembered that the plane existed and I said, "Well, that's the plane that we are going to get because if you bring in a big jet it causes too much commotion."
The last big international cocktail party I went to in Saigon was that night. It as held at the residence of the Polish Ambassador and the occasion was to introduce the newly arrived head of the Polish political section to the Saigon diplomatic corps. And everybody was there. All the Ambassadors were invited who were still in Saigon, and the newly arrived Pole said he was very anxious to meet me. He was very anxious to get together, he said, obviously we are in a changing situation. He would like to have my views on the situation and we made a luncheon date for a week from that day. That would have been on the first of May. He said first he had to do this and in a week he wanted to have lunch. And that's the way it was left. I fully expected to be there on the first of May to meet my Polish colleague, among other things.
Ambassador Martin was not much of a party goer, but he said that night because of everything and the nervousness of the city, "I am going to go to the party, too, but let's go in separate cars. So at the airport we switched cars and I first went back to the office to file a cable --I wrote the cable before and then just radioed in saying a code word that my deputy and I agreed on. Everything is in a day's work, that's how I felt about sending Thieu out.
On the day we left Saigon I was about as depressed as you can get without suffering a sort of collapse.
The final act opened on a Monday. Monday evening was bad. Duong Van Minh got inaugurated on that night, and just as he was giving his acceptance speech, this tremendous storm broke over Saigon. And it rained heavily. It was a little early because we were not yet in the rainy season. Then came the converted planes. You know, the American planes with the fifty gallon extra gasoline tanks, flown by pilots under North Vietnamese control, and they bombed Tan Son Nhut. At that point we were all still in the office, although it was maybe about seven o clock. We were all in the office because there wasn't all that much to do in Saigon by that time, in the evening. Second because of the time differences, at that point, I think it was exactly twelve hours, when it was evening in Saigon, it was just morning in Washington. So we wanted to get out the maximum amount of message traffic to keep Washington informed as they opened for business.
There we were, all still in the office when we heard all this shooting and took a dive under the desks and tables, and I remember I was at that particular point in the room of the chief reports officer. And the reports officers are the people who prepare the intelligence reports which then go in the telegraphic form. But we pride ourselves that these things, even in an emergency, must be properly edited and in good English, you know, like a good newspaper. And there we are under the tables, I met several people under the tables and I'll never forget this, there was an attractive young lady reports officer there and from under the tables she reached out and brought down her typewriter and she started typing, you know, "To Washington from Saigon, situation report as of 1900 hours local. Explosions of unknown origin rocked downtown. While it's still going on around us, nobody knows what's happening."
Pretty soon it was established what was happening, which we properly took as the North Vietnamese answer to Minh's inauguration speech. You know, he said he's going to fight on and says all kinds of stupidity that he wouldn't have said a month ago. I think it was a real illustration of the Peter Principle. Everybody rises to his ultimate level of incompetence.
Despite the raid, everything in Saigon was functioning beautifully at that time. It was one of the paradoxes in that last week that really everything was functioning. Electricity was functioning, the telephone was working, the food supply was o.k., except for maybe a shortage of some lettuce.
I went to bed late that night only to be awakened around four thirty by the sound of explosions again. And this sounded like pretty heavy incoming stuff. I called my duty officer at the Embassy -- this was a CIA duty officer. We had separate duty officers at the Embassy. The Embassy duty officer had to be on call and of course we had Marines there all the time. But in the CIA traditionally,and in Saigon in particular, we always had two officers who were physically present in the Embassy at all times. Not on call, but there. So I figured he would be the logical person to call. And I said, "What do you know?" And he said he didn't know much at that point, but that artillery was hitting Tan Son Nhut, that the Marines had gone up on the roof, and from the roof they could see fires burning and that he was in touch with his counterpart at the DAO but it was too dark yet, they didn't know anything definitive. But the first thing was that the damage was considerable. And that two Marines had been killed.
So I said, "All right, it sounds pretty bad to me. It's a good thing you're on duty." He happened to be our chief finance officer. I said, "Prepare departure envelopes." Departure envelopes were envelopes with some instructions or maybe telephone numbers of American Embassies and other places in East Asia. And in each departure envelope was supposed to be stuffed fifteen hundred dollars in American currency and some other currencies we had on hand. The idea was that everybody gets one of those envelopes, and somehow he will make his way out if he gets separated, he will make his way somewhere safe. I said, "You better start stuffing those envelopes." And I told him I would come to the Embassy.
And I then went to the Embassy. In fact, I was the first officer there. By then the Marines had more reports from the DAO. And based on that I felt the Embassy should be mobilized. I called the Ambassador and I said, "I'm terribly sorry to call you at this time in the morning -- he couldn't have been sleeping for more than three hours --"I'm terribly sorry to call you but I really think you ought to come in." Well, he said, he would. And meanwhile we had a mechanism where you call one man and he's supposed to call four people and those people are supposed to call four people and so on. So we put that system into motion. And the Ambassador was in very bad shape that morning. I mean bad shape physically. He had an extreme case of bronchitis, which once we got to the warship we found out was bronchial pneumonia. And he was very hoarse and he could hardly talk. He could whisper, but the whisper wouldn't carry. He was mentally 100 percent alert. He just couldn't talk, so when Kissinger called us on the telephone, he couldn't make himself understood over those scrambled telephones, so he would whisper something and I would tell it to Kissinger. But he could hear Kissinger perfectly well.
So that's how the day started. And it went on like that. He went out to Tan Son Nhut because being Graham Martin, you know, he only had a couple of Air Force Generals at the air field, but he wouldn't accept their version of whether or not you could land planes. He had to see for himself.
When the morning started, the pilots with the Seventh Fleet were ready, the helicopters were fueled, everything was set to go. Then that morning around 8:30 or close to that, we got the instruction that we were not going to evacuate. That we were going to reduce the size of the Embassy, that we were going to keep an Embassy in Saigon, that the Embassy was going to number about a hundred and eighty people and fifty of those hundred and eighty should be CIA. But that CIA in that group should assume the responsibility for all Embassy communications. And other Embassy section chiefs would get their orders --economic section, eight people, political section, sixteen people, medical people, finance section, administrative section -- from Washington. Presumably from Kissinger to the Ambassador. I've never seen it in writing but I got my instructions delivered to me orally by the Ambassador that morning. Fifty CIA people including responsibility for Embassy communications. So I go back to my office, called a meeting of my senior people, and at this point I still had something like over 200 CIA people on the premises. I said, "Fellows, we have to reduce to fifty and we've got to have a bigger than normal slice for communications to handle Embassy traffic. Now let's figure out which fifty people we want. Start with me," I said. And now this is not a simple matter because unlike naval officers, CIA officers are not interchangeable. People have different specialties. One is a reports officers, one is an operations officer, one is an analyst, I got to have a mixture of linguistic talent. I got to keep some Vietnamese speakers. I got to keep a couple of Polish speakers to deal with the Poles at the ICCS. I wouldn't have any problem with Hungarian speakers because we didn't have any other than myself. So for a couple of hours I was out of circulation, working on this. I had to consider whose tour was about up anyway, because if a man is supposed to go home the first of May, I'm not going to keep him. Or even if he's supposed to go home on the first of July, I'm not going to keep him. And we had people's family situations to consider, since we may be in a bad situation, like we were in Hanoi in 1954 when we had an American consulate up there and the people were kept for a couple of months in effect incommunicado, although not as hostages. They were effectively locked up and in the compound but nobody bothered them.
The same word went to the fleet, too, you know, that the Embassy's staying. Well, there was this commander of the fleet, Admiral Noel Geyler. He is not a political analyst. He said, "Well, the Embassy's staying. Pilots go back to bed." The gasoline was taken out of the helicopters because you don't store aircraft on a ship with gasoline in them. They got taken off the flight deck and put down below.
This was nine o clock in the morning. Or maybe a little later. So then the order finally came at 11:30 that we were in fact going to evacuate everybody. I didn't know when the order went to this Admiral. Ambassador Martin got it about 11:30. Brent Scowcroft must have notified the Pentagon, presumably, but this is night time in Washington, you know, maybe the guy who was supposed to get it was out. I don't know when the Admiral got it. But I talked to him on the ship later and I asked, "What happened?" He said, "Nothing happened. The moment I got the order there was going to be an evacuation, I ordered the planes fueled. I ordered up the pilots, but then we got this request that there must be a Marine security force landed in Saigon to help with the evacuation. Well, the Marines don't happen to be on the copter carrier. So we had to start ferrying these Marines from all the different ships to where they can get into the choppers. All this takes time."
So, you know, if you ask me was I surprised by what happened, I wasn't surprised. I have very skeptical opinion of the American military's ability to operate on short-notice emergency. It's a very bureaucratic set up. Now you would have thought that given everything that happened in Saigon in the previous twenty-four hours the Marines would have been near the choppers, not spread out over the ocean in different ships.
Then another thing happened that was perhaps not foreseeable. Once the word got around in Saigon that the Americans were leaving such a mass of people formed around the Embassy that surface travel became impossible around the Embassy. It was possible in other parts of town, but not around the Embassy. So the idea that we are going to have convoys of buses leaving the Embassy and ferrying people out to DAO was out of the question, because had we opened the gates wide enough to let the buses out, these people would have just stormed the Embassy.
We had to start to destroy files long before that morning. Systematically destroy files. In CIA we had a very good rule that anything that is in the field must have a duplicate in the US. So at any time if a CIA station loses all its files, it's not more than a small inconvenience. So we destroyed all those and as a matter of fact, in the last hours that we had there, we went through offices very methodically destroying anything that would suggest that certain Vietnamese shall we say had a close relationship with us. I had a Vietnamese friend who painted a picture and signed it. We made sure that all such things were destroyed. And also the Vietnamese were very enthusiastic about handing out plaques to commemorate your visit. Well we made sure that all those things were destroyed.
As for the famous Tamarind tree, in all the meetings I attended in the Embassy, I never heard any discussion about the Tamarind tree coming down. Now I felt very sentimental about that Tamarind tree because it was proof of absolute rank in the Embassy. There was a parking space under the tree, which meant that your car was in the shade all day instead of sitting out, which some did, and getting furnace-like temperatures. So having had a parking space under the tamarind tree -- and the Ambassador's car was parked there -- was a proof of rank in the Embassy. Naturally we felt very strongly about the tamarind tree because it performed a valuable function. But seriously, in connection with the evacuation, never once have I heard anybody say anything about it. But it was perfectly obvious that if we were going to land large helicopters in the Embassy parking lot, the tree that stands in the middle of the parking lot has to come down. That's so obvious that it isn't subject to any discussion.
Once the Ambassador had left the Embassy, the next morning, there was no point in my staying there. And my communicators couldn't leave as long as I was there. And my deputy said he wouldn't leave as long as I was there. And a couple of people would say, "Well, we won't leave as long as you are here." Well, you try to send people out in reverse order of essentiality. At that particular point. And when I say at that point they were not essential, this was no derogatory connotation. I mean, obviously, certain people's jobs ended before other people's jobs. Really, at that point we could send most of our reports officers home because they didn't have anything more to do. I could send everybody home whose responsibility was MR1, 2, or 3. They had nothing else to do. I would still have my people in the Delta, because I didn't know what was going to happen in the Delta. I would send the administrative people home. I didn't need a personnel officer any more.
And that is how we decided who left and when It went very smoothly. We never felt that there was any risk of being overrun. Absolutely not.
Perhaps the last big incident that happened concerning myself and my people was when we lifted these Vietnamese across the wall.
At that point the Embassy was surrounded, literally, by tens of thousands of people and it was very difficult to even approach the Embassy because of the masses there. But we had some people on the outside that we desperately felt we needed to evacuate, such people as the chief of communications intelligence, the deputy chief of special police, which was in fact the political police. We had the wife and children of a lieutenant general in charge of psychological warfare. We had the Defense Minister, Tran Van Don, in the group. We had the chief of protocol and his family, all outside the Embassy. How are we going to get them evacuated?
I was able to communicate with them. Don managed to load on a helicopter off the roof of an apartment building that was not a designated helicopter site and that's a story, too. At that point when you say who were the people who stayed to the last, at that point I still had with me in Saigon, a couple of pretty determined and brawny types with whom I was able to get on the Embassy fence and we physically were lifting these people across. And we had a couple of military officers in the crowd with whom we had a deal that if they pick out of the crowd the people that we want, then in the end we will lift them in and they can go too. Well we did that. We made deals like that with the police all through the day. We were able to move people through the city of Saigon by making deals with police officers and saying, "Put your families in among these people and when we safely put them on the plane or safely put them on the bus then we are going to take you too. That worked very well.
Our arrangements with the police were more friendly because we knew these people and we trusted them and they trusted us. But it was very funny because on that last day some of the people that we were able to evacuate were escorted to their evacuation points in convoys run by these white motor bikes of the presidential security force. They were escorting the people to various gathering points.
In the Embassy courtyard, we had our embassy sedans, and we faced them toward the center of the parking lot when it got dark and they ran their engines and turned on their headlights and as long as there was gasoline, or as long as the battery held out they had lights there.
Then we got word to go, the Ambassador was finally told, "You must be on this plane." But the first word we got told us that we were going to go on a chopper in the parking lot so we all went downstairs and found out that was wrong. And they subsequently changed their plan and said, "No, it's going to be from the roof after all."
I was not one of the people who was wedded to Vietnam. I didn't have a great emotional attachment to it like some of my colleagues who really fell in love with the country. But in the end, seeing how it ended, I thought that we really did a miserable job for these people and they would have been much better off if we had never gone there in the first place.
It was really quite dark when we left. Out toward Tan Son Nhut you could see a few fires, but basically the city had its normal night time picture. The street lights were on, the traffic lights were working. It was a very eerie thing and this was what so unusual about those last days. I'm not speaking only for the last night, but any of the last weeks in Saigon. They were so unreal because everything appeared to be so normal. It wasn't like the long siege of Warsaw, you know. A day before the collapse you could still go to restaurants and get a very nice meal and a good wine.
Nobody fired at us on the way out. And that's another thing. The North Vietnamese are a rational people. They are not like Shiite Muslims. The North Vietnamese are rational. And the last thing in the world they wanted to do was to create an incident that would provide a peg for American intervention. Because if they had killed the Ambassador that would have been maybe a little too much even for Congress.
Our reception on the Blue Ridge showed the American military at its worst. They started out by searching everybody. I think the Ambassador was the only one who was not searched. They searched us and they searched our belongings. And in normal peace time I far outranked the admiral commanding the ship.
Nobody objected, though. We were tired. We were pretty placid. And we were a defeated army.


Marius Burke, Air America, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam 1963-1975. As part of our duties we carried the ICCS teams (Poles, Hungarians, Indonesians and Iranians) all over the country including denied areas. We had two of our helicopters shot down in the process; all aboard one were lost and the other group were captured but released a few days later. I remember flying out of Pleiku. We would overnight at the base where the Poles and Hungarians also were housed and would see them at the club at night. The Poles were generally standoffish but for the most part the Hungarians were quite friendly. In fact, we were invited to the head of their delegation’s quarters on a few occasions. I am sure they were looking for information but we stayed with mundane subjects such as stamp collecting, etc. But he was very hospitable.

Fast forward to mid April, ’75. I was busy working on setting up roof top landing areas based on my experiences during the evacuations in Danang and Nha Trang. Concerned about having adequate fuel supplies, we located an abandoned USAID apartment building in Saigon and removed all access to the roof top so we could position drummed fuel for emergency use should our supply at the airport be lost. I had just finished dropping off one load when the tower called me and said orders had been given to shoot me down if I went back there. A day or so later, while attending a meeting at the Embassy, Ambassador Martin came up to me and said, I was unnecessarily upsetting folks with what I was doing and if it didn’t stop he would have me thrown out of the country. He went on further to say that he had information that Saigon was off limits to the North Vietnamese and they would never come in. Learning that Polgar was Hungarian and of the understanding that he was on good terms with the head of the Hungarian delegation, I suspected that Martin’s comments emanated from Polgar. Did not realize that he was living only about an hour away here in Florida. Would have liked to have been able to sit down and chat with him about that.

We Cried When We Realized That It Was All Over

Vu Thi Kim Vinh
"We Cried When We Realized That It Was All Over"

My mother delivered me in Tay Ninh in 1961 then brought me back to Saigon. We were Catholic. My parents had ten children and I was the middle. I have six older sisters, two brothers and one younger sister. But now I have only one older brother. One brother died four years ago, from an intestinal infection when he was in a refugee camp in Malaysia. He had an operation there after his escape. Then he came here and got an infection and died from it. After the fifth operation he died, he was 27 years old at that time.
I remember the war going on when I was small. Because I used to go with my mother to visit my dad when he was in the Army at that time he was in Binh Dung province. And when I was a kid I got sick for a few months and I lived with my dad so the army doctor could take care of me. The things that make me think of the war time and danger are things from 1968, the year that the Communists attacked during the Tet celebration. My parents and our family had just had lunch and my father received a phone call from the general and he had to hurry back to the army to his post. So we were really worried because it was the New Year time and everybody celebrated and had a good time. But that time we had only mother with us and we knew nothing of what might happen to my dad. We lived in fear and we just prayed during the Tet celebration. My mother really worshipped my father. And we prayed that everything would be over soon. My father was a Lieutenant Colonel.
I am very proud of my dad. He had retired before 1975. After he fought in 1968 he received many certificates and awards from Nixon and Westmoreland, because he was the one who took back Binh Dung province and opened the road for other troops so the communists Binh Duong were defeated. He was a very brave man. After that he retired. It was too political, he thought. And he preferred to retire rather than play politics. He had traveled a lot. He could speak English and French and he was familiar with America because he had been here for some special training.
My father never believed that the Communists could win. When we heard rumors about the Communist victories in 1974 and 1975 he wasn't concerned and so we didn't worry either. Even when they came so close to Saigon, we didn't worry because my father believed that the Communists would never win. We just didn't believe it.
My sister got married to a guy whose father was rich. His father knew a lot of officers who worked in the Thieu government and he knew what was happening. And this guy told my dad that he had better pack his clothes and collect all his money and leave the country because it was hopeless because the allies would not were not going to help us. This was at the beginning of April. Even after the 21st we still did not believe it because we didn't think there was a way we could lose, we had strong army and a strong military and we could not lose. Even though we did not like the Thieu government, we did not like the Communists either. And we were confused, too, at that time. We heard rumors that the Communists were coming and that they would establish a new government, but we had nothing else to believe in, no middle way to choose to fight for. We fought, though, because we were forced, to. But we were very tired of the war, too. We were afraid that if the Communists took over, our family and our lives would be in danger. We did not want to see Vietnam become red. The problem was, after mid-April, all the important people in the government started to become refugees, and it made everything chaotic at that time. Everybody got scared. After the first wave of refugees left the country, the high ranks, and then their relatives and their families, and many people panicked.
My uncle worked in the ICCS, and he arranged for people to become refugees and arranged the time when they could go to the airport and get on the planes to leave. And people started to panic and when we lost Ban Me Thuot and then Nha Trang. People panicked more and more. My family started to try to find a way to leave. And it was only because we saw other people going. They left us there. The Vietnamese family is very close to each other. If one family moves, and the others don't go your life will be empty and sad without relatives around. So when relatives started to leave, our other relatives started to leave, too. But we got stuck because we had too many options and we could not choose one. My sister worked in an American bank at that time. She said her bank would be evacuated and they would take her with them and they would accept one more person with her. So we chose another sister to go with her. And another sister, the one who married the son of the rich man, she wanted to go and to take her baby. She went earlier and when she got to Tan Son Nhut she found that anybody could go who could get through the gate to the airport, without limit, so she tried to telephone us to come to the airport, but the line at the phone was a long one and she could not get to the phone to call us. Had she gotten through we could have left with her. She had her own baby of about 8 months, and she had another baby from my other sister. And she had to feed them. She flew out that night to Guam. After that my family had a tragedy after tragedy. My brother in law did not know that his parents left without him. When he went home nobody was home. He panicked and came to us because he had come back to Saigon without permission. He was in the air force. We had to hide him and find a way for him to leave first.
And at that time my uncle, who worked in the ICCS, tried to help him and put him on the list. But because most of the people knew that he was the son of a millionaire, they thought that if he left he would bring a lot of gold and American money with him, and somebody told on him. That person told the police at Tan Son Nhut that he was a pilot and there was a law that no soldier could leave Vietnam without permission and if they caught him they could shoot him without trial or anything. He got caught. He got caught on April 27. Because of him we got stuck. My mother was a very nice and brave woman with a golden heart. Sometimes she cared for people more than her own children. She thought that he needed help and she said that she could not go and we could not go as long as he was in trouble and unless she saw him walk up to a helicopter to leave the country.
So on the 28th, my sister, who was his wife, she left the country because she was pregnant, she went first. My mother asked me if I wanted to go with my sister to take care of her because she was six months pregnant. I said I would do that, but my younger sister was closer to her and she cried when she saw her sister leaving. And so I was so stupid and I said that I would let her go in my place. That one decision cost me five years of living with the communists. So I said, "You want to go, then go in my place."
The problem was my uncle. he did not want at first to help the relatives, but rather some people who were richer than us. They gave him dollars and they gave him gold. So he postponed the time when we would leave. And he put strangers in our place when they gave him gold. I don't blame him because he needed money. Who knew what would happen the next day? And he had to take care of his family and he needed money. He planned to be one of the last to leave.
When he came home he said, "Oh, God! I could have put you on the flight today, too. There were three cancellations. But I didn't have the time to do it." My mother was angry and asked why he did that to us. He just said he didn't have time.
He got left behind, too. On the 29th, the last day. On the 29th he came home and he cried and he said, "Its hopeless." My mother was shocked and asked why and he said that all of the ICCS members left without him. There was a big crowd at Tan Son Nhut and he could not get through the gate and get into the helicopter. All the other ICCS members could not wait and they left without him.
My sister called a friend who worked in the American Embassy but her phone was disconnected. So we all finally went to the Embassy and there was a very big crowd. That was on the 29th. People were crying and fighting to get into the gate. Other people knew that some families had left and they went into the houses and looted them, refrigerators and furniture and so on. These people were in the streets. There was little traffic in the street, but mostly there were those carrying the goods of people who had left.
We went to the Embassy and when we got there we knew for sure that there was no way to get in. I was not afraid at the time as much as I was numb. I just felt angry and upset, but not scared or afraid. I kept thinking, "This was not fair!" But who said that life is fair? I could not understand why this was happening to my people.
The question was no longer "why" because it had to be like this. On the 30th the house collapsed from many factors.
It was raining, I remember, because my parents said that we could not stand out on the rain and so we went home and tried to find another way out of the country. And also we wanted to go home because we thought that the looters might go into our house if we were gone for too long. And we didn't want to go home to nothing. But after that, later on, my father didn't want to leave the country because he still had his mother back in North Vietnam and I knew that he wanted to see her. And he said that now if it happened at least he would have a chance to see his mother and his sister who were living in the North. This was an irony because he could not see her, he was in a concentration camp when she died after the war was over.
On the 29th we turned on the television to watch the last show by the last free government and we heard Vu Van Mau and he was condemning the Americans and he ordered them out of the country. We saw some of the radical students also who worked for the Communists secretly and he had got out from the jail and he came on the screen and he said something like now is the time for the youth and the students to prepare for the new happy things in a reunified Vietnam. At that time I still hoped that I am so naive that the people didn't betray what they said would happen. I still thought that the others loved my country to and that perhaps everything would be all right.
In the early morning of April 30th I didn't see troops in the street. About 9:00 am we turned on the radio and General Minh said that he didn't want the soldiers to fight any more. He announced that the war was over.
About noon I heard the troops and the jeeps as they drove past my house with flags. I went up to the terrace to see them. The first thing we did after seeing them was to change clothes. We changed into all black clothes. We heard a rumor that they didn't like people who dressed nice, that meant that you had money and they would kill you.
General Minh announced that he would not be president anymore and we knew that was it. We cried when we realized that it was all over. My dad cried too. I was the one who had to burn all of the papers and the certificates that my father got from the Americans and from the government -- from Thieu and Nixon and Westmoreland and from all of those who thanked my father for what he did. All of the photos that my dad kept as souvenirs I had to burn, all of them. And I burned them and cried. I went up to the terrace and saw the last plane leaving the country, a C 130, and I watched it trying to take off. And I saw it explode in the sky. A DC3. I saw it try to take off and it rose in the sky and when it was in the sky I saw a missile hit it and it exploded and we saw the debris and the bodies fall out of the sky and back to the ground. That was on the morning of the 30th.
We saw a helicopter that flew to a physician's house. He was a physician in the army and chairman of the hospital for the soldiers who were wounded. The helicopter flew to his house and tried to take him, but he could not get onto it because the rope was not long enough. The helicopter came to his house and stayed over the house but he could not get into it and so it left him behind. Many people tried to find away to go, and here was a man who had a way and could not get into the helicopter.
After April 30 you could still leave Vietnam easily. The winners still celebrated their victory and they did not exercise much control over the sea. So people could still go. My parents tried to pay a boat to take our family. But on the way some Communist soldiers were hitch hiking and my parents talked to them, and they said that everything would be all right and that there would be no bloodbath. And my parents asked them about being sent to concentration camps if you were in the army and they said, "No! No! No! Everything will be all right." And they told us about how beautiful the North Vietnamese girls were and how much nicer they dressed than the South Vietnamese girls. They said that there would be no revenge. They said, "Don't make us out to be monsters because we aren't." My parents were talked to very nice to the Communists.
But now I have to say that the first day of May was a very sad day. The day was very heavy and sobering. The electricity was out on that day and the Communists could not fix it. We heard on the radio the voice of a Northerner, very high pitched and loud, and he condemned America and the people who cooperated with them. He humiliated us by saying that we had been the servants and the dogs to the American government because we had worked with them and against the Communists. And we were very hurt to hear that.
It was very dangerous to go outside at that time because the people still broke into houses when they thought people moved away. it was very chaotic at that time. And many of the people had guns and took things from other people in the street and so it was frightening.
I had a bicycle at that time. I went for a ride. I saw some of the South Vietnamese soldiers. They had taken off their uniforms. And they were crying. Some of the people had seen them, and those people, during this transition from the old to the new, were chasing the soldiers and throwing things at them and hitting them to try to make themselves look good to the new government. It was very embarrassing to me, as a child, to see something like that. I felt sick when I saw that. And these same people cheered the communist soldiers and hugged them like their long lost brothers. I was surprised when I saw that and I felt so bad, also.
At that time if your family had some one who worked for the government in the North, even just a regular soldier, you tried to remember if you knew anybody in the new government so you could feel safe at last, and say, "Oh, we have somebody who fought against South Vietnamese!" That psychology confused me because before that time you dare not say that you knew someone in the North or had a relative fighting in the other army. Nobody told anybody that but immediately everybody knew that and knew what to do. Everybody as suddenly wearing the North Vietnamese flag, the Viet Cong flag. The flag was a security or a credit card that could save your life at last. Everybody had a flag of the Vietcong. Nobody announced it but everybody knew it. It made me scared because the people were so scared that they seemed to lose their sanity, their reason, they could not think any more. I had a blue shirt that I loved but we had to tear it up to make a flag and I cried when we did that, and I remember how silly it was. My brother was athletic and he had a pair of shorts that were yellow and we used them to cut the star from and we then made the flag and hung it in front of the house. And once that flag was up the family felt safe. Everybody seemed to do that and the atmosphere was a lot different. People seemed at that time suddenly to look at the world a different way.
The liberators used a strange language, even though it was Vietnamese. And some of the people started to imitate that accent. It was so strange.
After a week they divided us into sections and we had a political guy on our block and he told us about Marxism and Leninism and we had to discuss it in a meeting. And what was humiliating about this was that they made us criticize ourselves. Even my father at these meetings had to criticize his own behavior. I remember at this first meeting. He had to say that he killed innocent people. But I knew he didn't kill innocent people because if he didn't kill them they would kill him. But he said that he was a guilty man and he asked for forgiveness for killing what he called an innocent people. And I watched him cry in front of them. And it was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I had to do the same thing but I didn't have to write it down. And I said that I didn't want my parents to be the way that they were. This was after listening to the guy who talked about Marxism/Leninism and the sacrifices of the North to liberate the South. So I said that I hated people like my parents who did what they did. I said that to survive.

The Most Magical Night of My Whole Life

Karen Eastman
Volunteer Worker at Kai Tak Refugee Camp, Hong Kong

"The Most Magical Night of My Whole Life."

I took a job at the open camp teaching English to the refugees who will shortly be going to America. And the first night I came out here to the camp, all of the electricity was out. So we had to hold our class by candle light. I couldn't do much, just by candle light, and so I asked my students to tell me their life stories. That way, I thought, we would get to know each other a little better.
So they started to tell their life stories. And they started to talk about the war and losing the war and life under the Communists. And then they told about going into the South China Sea in these little boats, not knowing if they would live or die, holding their children and praying and getting lost and drifting in the Sea night after night. And you know I sat there listening to them talking and it was, I believe, the most magical night of my whole life. The stories they told and the bravery and the heroism that these simple people had just gave me chills. I'll never forget that night, as long as I live. And I'll never forget any of these people. Ever.

Freedom or Death

Nguyen Thien Khang
Freedom or Death

I am a former naval officer with the South Vietnamese military forces. After the war, the communists sent me to a reeducation camp far in the north. I was in the camp with Le Minh Dao, who led the South Vietnamese forces at the battle of Xuan Loc in April, 1975, and prevented them from coming into Saigon for several days. He is still in the reeducation camp today, fifteen years after the war has ended. I found, strangely, the communists still today are very much afraid of him.
When the communists came into Saigon my wife burned all of my IDs and photographs and all of my records. I no longer had the addresses of my friends in America, or even the address of the military school I attended there.
My wife and one of my children are still in Vietnam, in Saigon. I came out with my son. I had to pay three taels of gold to boat owners to get out of Vietnam.
I got out only on my 5th try. I paid for the first four trips, but on each trip the Coast Guard caught us and turned us back.
When I left on the boat with my son, my wife and I knew it would be risky and we knew that we might night ever see each other alive again. So we had a special last goodbye, a special day of prayer before I left with my son. I am a Christian and I prayed every day at sea, and the Buddhists prayed every day also. Let me tell you, on the boats in the South China Sea, there is a lot of praying. A lot.
On the second day we were at sea, the boat started to leak badly and the motor stopped, and I concluded that we were all going to die.
After that we drifted for ten days and ran out of food and water. The weather was very bad. It rained and there were huge waves and we thought we would be capsized and all be lost. At the same time a ship passed us by and then another. I remember a Dutch ship stopped on the 8th of September at 1:00 AM. How can I forget that? We built a fire on the deck of our ship from our clothes and from rags and we poured diesel fuel on it and then lit it. And we waved a white shirt and put a red cross and SOS on it -- there had been one small can of red paint on the boat. I spoke English and the Dutch spoke English. The captain was a good man and the crew was very good to us. If they had sailed away, I know we would have died. But that captain was a good man. In face, I just received a letter from the captain the other day.
When we were drifting in the South China Sea, out of food and out of water, seven ships passed us. Seven ships! Some of them came up to us and shined their lights and then saw us and sailed away, even after we begged them to help us. There were 134 people on our boat. Finally, the Dutch ship stopped and picked us up.
It's funny. They brought us to Hong Kong and we were immediately granted refugee status. If a ship from another country picks you up in the South China Sea and brings you here you are then a refugee. The unlucky Vietnamese are the ones who make it all the way here in their own boats. If they are lucky in the sea they are unlucky here, because then they are considered illegal immigrants and are placed in the closed camps to be screened and probably sent back to Vietnam. Isn't that strange?
So I am here in the Kai Tak open camp now waiting to go to America.
But the unlucky ones, the ones that the Hong Kong government and the British are going to send back, I know that they will not go back without resisting. There will be violence here. For sure!
The North Vietnamese who are here make a lot of trouble, and I don't understand it. They are selfish people. They take too much hot water, they take too much food, they never thank about anybody else. They never share with others, never think of the others. I think they have lived too long under a communist government. They don't want to work and the local people don't want to hire them. They let those of us in the open camps work outside. But when you go to an employer and want a job here, the first thing he asks is, "Are you from the North or the South?" They don't want to hire people from the North because they are too lazy and they are very bad workers. Too much communism, I guess.
Some of the North Vietnamese who are here even escaped from jail in the North and then escaped from the country. I really don't think that many of the Northerners are political refugees.
It is just unfortunate for them all that they won the war. After the war they saw us, and they saw the South and they saw what freedom had been like -- and they wanted, then, what they had taken away from us. When they could not have it, they no longer wanted to stay in the country. They lived too long under the communists, and they saw what their lives had become when they compared their lives to ours. They started to run away from the army and from the North and now they have run away from the country. But they are being sent back.
I talk to them. I talk to them all the time. They say they just can't understand Communism in Vietnam any more. They just can't understand it. They are often unaware of what is happening in Eastern Europe and in Russia. But I hear about it and I know what is happening. And I am not surprised at all.
The Northerners also are not well educated either. All they know about America is, they say, that America is rich and free. And so they want to go some place that is rich and free. They want to go to America. They are not angry about America because of the war. They don't even care about the war and they don't think anybody else does, either. These Communists, my God, they just never learn, do they? They never learn.
I can tell you this, though, from living under Communist rule. You cannot trust the Communists. They are ruthless and they are strong in Vietnam. Whenever a resistance movement starts to develop, they are discovered and the people are arrested right away.
There is still a great difference in Vietnam between the North and the South. In 1988 there was a famine in the North but not in the South. Communism hasn't worked in the South but it hasn't worked in the North for a longer time.
I have no faith or hope that I will ever return to Vietnam. No, never. I never thought about changing my mind when I decided to leave the country. Freedom or death. That's what my wife and I agreed to before I left. Freedom or death. It is that simple.

How I Became General George Marshall and a Television Star

in The People's Republic of China


The Dream of the Tan Flower


Larry Engelmann
January 1989

Getting ready for my closeup!

I received a telephone call from Mr. Wu late in the morning. He said he had to see me right away. It was urgent. When I asked him what it was about he said he couldn't tell me on the phone. He had to come up to my apartment and tell me in person. I told him to come up.
Wu Yingen -- Mr. Wu -- was not the superintendent of my apartment building in Nanjing. He, nevertheless, did everything that needed doing -- and more -- inside as well as outside the building. If I found myself suddenly without hot water or electricity -- a not uncommon experience in the People's Republic of China last year --then I simply summoned Mr. Wu. If I needed a good tailor or barber or cobbler, Mr. Wu had his name and address. If I needed hotel accommodations in Shanghai or Beijing or Tianjin Mr. Wu arranged it. If I wanted anything -- a plane ticket or a train ticket or a taxi -- Wu was the man to see. If I had a package at the post office that needed to be picked up, I went to Wu. Not only would he pick it up for me, it was also quite obvious that, before it was delivered, he opened the package and examined the contents before rewrapping it, often somewhat carelessly. Several times, after he'd taken letters from me to mail at the post office half a mile away, he asked me about the names of people I'd mentioned in my sealed letters under the pretext of wishing to learn more colloquial English. "Is Kiki another way of saying 'Erika' in English?' he asked after returning from the post office one afternoon. Erika/Kiki is my youngest daughter. And on another occasion, "Mr. Larry, who is Mr. Ralph? And why do you worry about him?" Ralph, mentioned in a letter to my daughter, was my dearly beloved and faithful dog. Mr. Wu seemed not at all embarrassed to let me know he read my incoming and outgoing mail. After all, as he was fond of saying, it was his country and I was merely another "foreign expert" come to visit for a few months. There were several times, however, when Mr. Wu clearly slipped up and after reading the mail of residents of our apartment building, put the letter back into the wrong envelope. We American residents, consequently, were occasionally surprised to receive a letter from a parent or sibling that began with someone else's name, such as "Dear Sam" and proceeded to fill us on on the weather in Massachusetts when the writer had lived all of his life in Minnesota. One afternoon, during lunch, one of my friends received a letter from his mother that had been written in Swedish! Odd, he thought, since his mother did not speak a word of Swedish and had never been east the state of Ohio. Wu's English, although almost competent, was usually punctuated with grammatical and logical errors. He was the author, he confidentially boasted to me once, of the huge banner stretched across the front of my apartment building on the afternoon I arrived in Nanjing. It proclaimed, WARMLY WELCOME FOREIGN EXPERTS and HOT WATER 24 HOURS EACH DAY STARTING AT 8 AM. With Mr. Wu, wonders and audacity were without limit.
Mr. Wu stood five feet two inches in his worn and archless People's Liberation Army surplus khaki sneakers. Yet he had a distinctive authoritative strut to his walk, a peculiar pseudo-military affectation that gave him the illusion of being larger and stronger than he actually was. Although I am more than a foot taller than Mr. Wu and I have to look down into his eyes when I talk to him, I often have the strange sensation that he is looking down into my eyes. It is one of the more obvious of the several survival qualities that have served Wu so well over the years in the People's Republic of China, a nation of sharply shifting political winds: he can project or retract stature to suit the moment.
Over time, Mr. Wu's seemingly ubiquitous and sometimes creepy presence, led several foreign experts to request a "job description" for the man from an expected "higher authority" within the university where we were employed to teach. There was no response to the request. We learned later from our students that Wu's position was that of "political commissar." And as for the chain of command, we were told, Wu had been head of the Red Guards during the early days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966-67 and had one afternoon following a rally, lead a group of his fellow Red Guards to the office of the man who was now allegedly his superior in the university, seized him at his desk and flung him out a second story window. The man survived, barely. And after the death of Mao the man returned to teaching and administering in the University. Yet, despite his own job title, it was clear to us who wielded real power in the university and who did not.
Wu has a rich mane of jet black hair that he parts on the right side and teases to droop rakishly across his forehead and temple. His large rheumy brown eyes twinkle brightly when he was delighted and turn away instantly when he was displeased. His slightly fractured English is delivered in rapid and clipped phrases like someone reading a textbook out loud for the first time. His tone is even and serious until he says something remotely humorous. Then he pauses for a moment, tips his head back slightly, and touches off his carefully calibrated, high-pitched staccato laugh, like that of a mechanical doll or a politician. Wu's Chinese is equally hurried, clipped, unusually loud and punctuated with interjections like "Lau hau!" and "Lau da!" --the peculiar patois of Shanghai. The Chinese who speak the official elegant northern Mandarin dialect or the more melodious and tonal Cantonese of south China describe the speech of the Shanghainese like Wu as "Tse-tse, tsa-tsa" -- a clucking, clattering noise. The Shanghainese pay little attention to such derogatory descriptions. They are, after all, the "New Yorkers" of China; they are notoriously outspoken in their self-praise, describing themselves as more stylish, cultured, cosmopolitan and intelligent than their fellow countrymen. What they call culture, however, Beijing and Guangzhou call conceit.
I have seen Mr. Wu in many different parts of this city. I have seen him walking, or on a bicycle or in a taxi. And on a couple of occasions I have seen him leave and return in a large chauffeured limousine with curtains in the windows. I have seen him in the halls late at night -- after midnight -- and I have seen him outside performing Tai Chi before 6:00 in the morning. I have seen him listening in on telephone conversations and writing down the return addresses from letters that he distributes for the postman. I have never seen him asleep or tired. I have never seen him yawn. He is always busy. And when Mr. Wu takes time out from his busy schedule to see me, it is never unimportant.
I opened my door slightly and awaited his familiar triple rap and affable salutation, "Hello, Mr. Lar-ly. Are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here, Mr. Wu, come in," I responded.
Mr. Wu prefers to bury his real business in his third or fourth question.
"How are you feeling?"
"Is the cold weather bothering you?"
"No. I just wear a sweater under my sweatshirt."
"Would you like to be a television star?"
"Would I what?"
"Would you like to be a television star?"
Wu reached out and grabbed my hand, like someone congratulating a new father. "Would you like to be a television star, Mr. Lar-ly? There is a television production company here from Shanghai making a television series on Chinese history. The producer is a friend of mine. He called me for help. He needs someone to play General Marshall -- General George Marshall. You know, Marshall-Plan Marshall! I told them you could play General Marshall. Do you want to be a big television star and play General Marshall."
"Well," I said, suddenly disoriented by this proposal. "I guess so. But I've never acted before."
"Oh, anybody can act," Mr. Wu said. "They'll be here to pick you up at 3:00 PM. Be downstairs."
Before I could ask another question Mr. Wu was out the door and starting down the hall.
"Mr. Wu," I yelled. "How long will this take? What should I wear?"
"Not long," he said without looking back. "What you have on," he said, disappearing down the stairs.
When I went downstairs at 3:00 PM, there was Mr. Wu, smiling broadly and his eyes twinkling, standing with two young men in leather jackets, Levis and dark glasses who studied me carefully as I approached. When I was only a few steps away they turned to Mr. Wu and patted him on the back. "Lau hau!" they said to Mr. Wu. "Lau hau!"("Excellent!") Then they turned to me and said in unison, "Once more, warmly welcome to China, General Marshall. Warmly welcome." We all laughed. Mr. Wu saluted me and then escorted the three of us out the door.
Wu arranged for three other Americans to make their screen debut in this big-budget Shanghai production. While I was to play General George Marshall, Pam Yatsko of Bedford, Massachusetts, was to play Marshall's secretary, Peter Bagley of Oklahoma City, was to play Marshall's driver and James Anderson, of Guilford, Connecticut, was to play a young American diplomat or journalist, --nobody seemed quite sure which--who accompanied Marshall to China in 1946. All three of these young Americans are students at the Johns Hopkins University - Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing. All are fluent in Mandarin but none had ever acted before. Mr. Wu had contacted each of them and offered them parts in the film.
Pam, Peter and James had already been picked up by the two leather-jacketed production assistants, Limin and Weinian, and were waiting for us, scrunched together in the rear fold-down seat of a Chinese microbus, a vehicle propelled by a motorcycle engine and with a seating capacity slightly less than that of an old Volkswagen Beetle. I squeezed into the back seat, partly on and partly beside the other three Americans, Limin and Weinian jumped in the front seat and raced north up Zhongshan Beilu, one of the main avenues of Nanjing, honking constantly at pedestrians and other drivers, weaving in and out of the traffic of bicycles, automobiles, rattling, articulated-buses, trucks, wagons and workers jogging up and down and across the street with huge baskets and bundles tied on the ends of long bamboo poles. During the twenty-minute race to the set, Limin and Weinian chatted with each other in Shanghainese and in a pretty good imitation of Mandarin tried to fill us in on the details of the production in which we were to make our screen debut.
The film, the explained, was part of an important mini-series being made Shanghai Television(STV), the second largest television network in China. The chief producer of the series is Xu Junhai and the director is Xia Xiaomin, both men well-known for their successful, lavish and dramatic productions in the past decade.
STV produces 80 programs a year and the 12-part series currently being filmed, we were told, was to be the centerpiece and the most costly production of next season. The mini-series was budgeted at 600,000 Yuan(the official exchange rate in the PRC is 3.7 Yuan to the dollar; the unofficial black market rate is 7.1 to the dollar) and our episode, the seventh of the twelve was expected to cost about 65,000 Yuan.
The series was titled "The Dream of the Tan Flower"("Tan Hua Meng") and was adapted from a best-selling book of the same title by Chen Juan, a Hong Kong writer who grew up in Nanjing. It deals primarily with the last years of the Kuomintang --the Chinese Nationalists and Chiang Kai-shek -- on the mainland of China and in their capital at Nanjing. A "tan flower," we learned later, is a Chinese flower that blossoms once and then only very briefly. After that it dies. As far as we could find, there is no exact English translation for "tan flower." The term is used idiomatically by the Chinese to refer to anything that is fragile and fleeting. Roughly speaking it may mean "a flash in the pan."
We learned later that the series is intended as a visual centerpiece in the rewriting of history that was taking place in those heady days in China just before the flowering of the democracy movement and its premature death at Tiananmen Square in June. There are two reasons for the revision, one having to do with the international situation and the other with China's internal problems.
Internationally, the PRC at that time was gearing up rapidly for a solution to the "Taiwan problem" through peaceful reunification. In 1997 Hong Kong will be returned to Chinese control by the British and Macao in 1999 by the Portuguese. That leaves Taiwan as the last outpost to be repossessed by the Communist government here and the fulfillment of Mao Zedong's 1936 announced goal of unifying all Chinese national territories(in 1936 Taiwan was under the control of the Japanese). Outer Mongolia, Tibet, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan were the "lost territories" that Mao sought to recover.
Quite obviously, the Chinese would prefer a peaceful reunification, like that arranged for Macao and Hong Kong. With that in mind, in 1987 they began to allow tourists from Taiwan to visit the mainland. And last spring, with crowds of Taiwanese businessmen and tourists in Beijing and Shanghai and other cities, the government was trying to soften the harsh historical image of the Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang that they had fed the public, in books and speeches and films, for forty years. The winds of doctrine appeared to be shifting to suit the intention of the government.
The filmed version of "The Dream of the Tan Flower" points out that the Kuomintang, in its last years in China, faced overwhelming internal and external problems. Runaway inflation threatened the economy, and corruption permeated the government. In those years, the Kuomintang had many faces -- war lords, patriots, nationalists, brutes and profiteers. The situation was complex and the Kuomintang was not, as they are often portrayed, just a gang of thugs. Good men and women in the organization --patriots -- were forced into impossible situations by the times; people were often captives of history, in the control of events beyond their individual comprehension. "The Dream of the Tan Flower" would attempt to show how well-intentioned men and women might become prisoners of events and be led astray rather than how evil men systematically exploited and brutalized their own people. No one knew while the film was being made, how that same theme might apply, tragically, to the events of the spring and early summer in Beijing.
The other, unstated, reason for the series "No one knew while the film was being made, how that same theme might apply, tragically, to the events of the spring and early summer in Beijing."seemed obvious. Many of the problems that the Kuomintang faced paralleled roughly the problems of Deng Xiaoping's government. Inflation, unemployment, corruption and despair were all growing here; the students and workers in the streets and the public squares complained about it and the newspapers decried it. But nobody seemed capable of doing much about it at the moment. Many of the forces that derailed the Kuomintang threatened to paralyze the government of Deng and his inner circle. "The Dream of the Tan Flower" illustrated that the political and economic world is not a simple one and that patriots need time to confront, control and direct it.
After our race through the streets of Nanjing we drove through the stone arch at the entrance to a long driveway leading to a large mansion. Our segment of the miniseries was being shot in the imposing Nanjing Guest House of the Democratic Association(Minzhu Dang or M.D.). The M.D. is one of the eight political parties authorized in China before the Tiananmen massacre. The Guest House, which serves as the headquarters for the M.D., was at one time used for official functions by the Kuomintang when Nanjing was the capital of this country. The Guest House was constructed in the traditional style of Beijing's celebrated imperial buildings. It is a two story brick and stone structure with a sharply angled and ornately tiled emerald roof attached to the building with brightly painted and polished bracket sets. Inside the building, the long ceiling beams are meticulously decorated with historical scenes, fantastic animals and elegant designs in vivid vermilion, turquoise, ocher, green, ginger and gold that evoke the distant days when Chinese emperors, gentry and war lords erected similar architectural masterpieces and monstrosities throughout the Middle Kingdom.
But it is not simply the appearance of the structure that drew us back in time that afternoon. It was the group milling around in the courtyard that startled us. A full platoon of uniformed Kuomintang soldiers, all armed with rifles, was in various positions of repose as we drove up. It seemed for an instant that we had ridden in a time machine disguised as a microbus and had arrived abruptly in the midst of moment forty years ago; suddenly and without warning we had entered the stronghold of the last garrison of the Kuomintang in China. The effect was stunning. Nothing betrayed the fact that this was 1989 and not 1946. Nothing, that is, except the startled spectators crowded in the back of the microbus.
Some of the soldiers were standing around talking, others were seated on the steps or on the grass smoking cigarettes. They turned and stared at us as we carefully maneuvered our way out of the microbus and then, were escorted through their ranks and into the Guest House.
Inside, too, the scene was extraordinary. The ballroom, just separated from the entryway by an elegantly etched crystal rococo screen, was set for a banquet, with long mahogany tables on three sides of the room and stools for musicians directly across from a row of chairs placed in front of a large fireplace. At one end of the room behind one table a half dozen uniformed Kuomintang generals were seated. At the end of the table sat an actress playing Soong Meiling, the legendary beautiful wife of Chiang Kai-shek. At the other end of the room, behind a table facing the generals were their wives, dressed in formal chinese costumes for the festivities. Several chairs on one side of the fireplace were occupied by other Kuomintang generals and a female military officer. Three empty chairs, on the other side of the fire place, we were told, were for General Marshall, his secretary and an American journalist or diplomat.
The filming was suspended for a moment when we entered the room. We were introduced to producer Xu Junhai who was wearing a down jacket and a beret. James, Peter and I were ushered into an adjacent room for our costumes and makeup. Pam was taken further down the hallway to a restroom that served as her private dressing room.
James Anderson was told again that he was to be either an American journalist or an American diplomat. The producer said James was a diplomat, the director said he was a journalist the director's assistant said each at different times. But one thing was certain, no matter which of these two roles he was to play, the Chinese assumed that the get up for it would be the same -- a powder blue business suit, brown oxfords, a white shirt and tie. Peter Bagley was to play General Marshall's driver. He was given an American military uniform. The shirt he was to wear was two inches too small in the neck -- only a minor problem for the wardrobe magicians. Bagley was instructed to make a very large knot with his tie to cover the neck gap in the collar. Bagley's scene, outside, was to be filmed in semi-darkness, he was told. So there was room for error in his attire. I hoped so, since I noticed that the insignia on his uniform was from the Boy Scouts of America. But, in the semi-darkness, who could tell?
The wardrobe people seemed quite excited by the prospect of dressing me to be General George Marshall. And they believed that they had the proper uniform for me.
What was uncanny about this is that, except for Bagley's insignia, the uniforms and decorations appeared to be authentic American military issue. Later we guessed where they might have been picked up -- in Korea, perhaps, or in Vietnam in the late 1940s or in Nanjing after the Communists entered the city in April, 1949?
I was given a tan shirt that was the proper fit in the neck but was several inches too short in the sleeves. Never mind, the wardrobe man told me. The sleeves of the jacket would be long enough to cover my bare wrists. And indeed, as I tried on the jacket, amazingly, it fit almost perfectly. The pants, on the other hand, did not. They were at least ten inches too large in the waist and about two inches too long in length. A long belt and the folding of the waist band took care of the top of the pants -- the jacket, again, served to cover the ill-fitting pants. And the length was probably good, the wardroom man said, since he had no dark socks for me -- a rare oversight -- and I would have to wear my white cotton socks with a NIKE logo on the side along with a pair of black military shoes. The shoes were size 9 and I wear a size 11. It took several minutes for me to curl my toes and squeeze my feet into the old leather shoes and when they were finally on and the wardrobe people applauded, I stood up and announced that I could wear the shoes only if I did not have to walk far. They promised I would not have to walk far. Then they had me sit and pulled the pants cuffs down far enough to make sure they would hide the NIKE socks.
A few moments later, in the uniform of a five star general then, I was led off to the make-up room. Everywhere I walked(painfully) on the set after that, people seemed to snap to attention. Already, I enjoyed acting.
While we were getting into our costumes we were joined in the dressing room by Zhou Yemang, a good looking young man who plays the lead in "The Dream of the Tan Flower." Yemang has starred in a dozen other major television features and had traveled abroad to make films. He had worked in Australia and in the United States, he said, and so had several of the other performers in the company. Some of them had also played roles in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," which was filmed in Shanghai. The best-known of the performers, and Yemang was one of that select group, were better known and more revered in China, he said, than even Joan Chen, the celebrated expatriate actress of "The Last Emperor." They lived a life of privilege in China, with their own apartments and access to a car and a driver. They are featured regularly in stories in the newspapers and in fan magazines. Their income is very limited, by American standards, but their fame is comparable to that of an American Superstar. And their audience, in a country of more than one-billion, is several times larger. Yemang had picked up some of the affectations of American celebrities; although it was early evening and we were inside, he continued to wear his sunglasses. Whenever he took out a cigarette, someone nearby quickly stepped forward and lit it for him. I do not believe that Yemang himself even carries matches or a lighter. He has not need to. He is a star.
Yemang was joined shortly by the director, Xie Xiaomin, a slightly built and intense man who wore black Adidas sneakers, Levis and a smartly tailored leather jacket zipped nearly to the throat. Under the jacket he wore he wore an American sweatshirt and a long silk scarf. Xiaomin seemed pleased by my appearance and my agreement to play the part of General Marshall in his film. He sat down, lit his own cigarette and carefully filled us in on the story.
In 1946, he said, General Marshall had been in China trying to patch up differences between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Before he departed from Nanjing, the Kuomintang threw a party for him in the very building where the filming was taking place. Every effort had been made to make the film historically accurate. Marshall, Xiaomin said, was a fan of Chinese opera. And so the Kuomintang had arranged for a private performance by two opera stars shortly before Marshall departed for Washington. During the performance, however, someone stole General Marshall's car. The Kuomintang insisted that the car thief was a Communist, and they thereby hoped, through the incident, to embarrass both Marshall and the Communists. Xiaomin, however, said that most Chinese believed that the Kuomintang had hired someone to steal the car and tried to manipulate the incident into a major international scandal. The episode that he were filming was the story of the stolen car and Marshall's last days in Nanjing in 1946. The woman who worked as the chief make up artist for Shanghai TV was a legendary miracle worker, he said. She is "by far the best make up artist in Shanghai," Xiaomin told us. She, however, obviously chose to perform no miracles on herself. She wore no makeup at all and her own hair looked as though she had just walked through a wind tunnel before entering the building.
She sat me down in a chair, put a towel around my neck and then placed a black and white photograph of George Marshall next to me on a table. Now I look nothing like General Marshall. Nothing at all. First, I am 24 years younger than Marshall was in 1946 when the episode in Nanjing took place. Second, I am several inches taller, about ten pounds heavier, and have different coloring from Marshall.
That did not deter the make up woman. She went to work energetically, powdering my face and lining my eyes and combing my hair and continually referring to the Marshall photograph. She applied makeup for about twenty minutes, stepped back and examined her masterpiece several dozen times and then went to work again. When she was finally done, she called over the director and the producer, both pronounced he work "Lau Hau!" - Excellent -- and patted her and me on the shoulder. Then she held a mirror up to me with one hand and the photograph of Marshall with the other. Just as I had imagined, I looked like myself in makeup with my hair parted on the right rather than the left side. There was no resemblance at all between the face in the mirror and the face in the photograph. Yet when I stood up and walked onto the set, the other of the actors and actresses applauded "General Marshall."
There were no photographs available of Marshall's driver, the diplomat or journalist, or of Marshall's secretary, so the make up woman used her imagination with James, Peter and Pam. Peter and James looked fairly normal -- that is, exactly like themselves in makeup-- after a session with the make up artist. Pam presented a problem. The make up woman painted Pam's lips so red and so liberally that Pam appeared to be someone's version of a military tart rather than a general's officious secretary. Since she had no name on the set, it seemed perfectly appropriate for us to call her "Hot Lips" for the rest of the evening, a nickname she accepted in good humor -- one of the prices of stardom.
As soon as we were properly made up and ready to "act," it was announced that there would be a break in the filming. The director had just completed a rather arduous scene and the performers wanted a rest. The director suggested that his assistant take the four American performers out to a restaurant for dinner. And so in full makeup and costumes we were squeezed back into the microbus and drove several miles to a large, busy restaurant.
I can only imagine what passed through the minds of the customers of the restaurant when we walked in. Already seated in the place at that time were a group of People's Liberation Army(PLA) officers, several policemen and a score of civilians. The restaurant went suddenly silent as a five star American general, a diplomat or journalist, a military tart, a soldier with boy-scout insignia and a Chinese guide speaking Shanghainese walked in and sat down. Chinese restaurants are usually quite boisterous with conversation and laughter. This one was dead silent. We sat down and still the only noise in the restaurant was some animated whispering. I suspect that somewhere in the restaurant, perhaps back in the kitchen, someone must have checked the calendar to make sure it was indeed 1989.
During the next 45 minutes, while we ate and talked about the film, everyone else in the restaurant remained quiet. We tried our best to ignore the stares of those around us. We thought of perhaps standing up to explain that we were making a movie. But we didn't. The other patrons listened quite attentively to our conversation, trying to pick up clues to our identity or our peculiar brand of lunacy, and seldom looked away. Before leaving, we discussed stopping by the table of the PLA officers for a moment to ask if they might direct us to Chiang Kai-shek's headquarters. But we decided against that, having obviously confused them enough already.
When arrived back on the set, the director was ready to shoot our scenes.
As he explained it to us, a party was thrown by the Kuomintang for General Marshall in 1946. Marshall was an informed fan of Kun Ju, the traditional form of Chinese opera and the form after which the modern Beijing Opera patterned itself. I was to sit next to the actor playing General Tan En Bo, with James on my right and Pam seated behind James. Then two young women in ornate costumes would perform a scene from an opera. Since I (Marshall) was a big fan, after watching and listening for a few minutes, I was to start tapping my fingers on my right knee in time to the music. The other generals in the room, on seeing this, were to do the same. Finally, a few minutes later, I was to applaud the performers, and the Kuomintang generals, still watching me, were to applaud along with me and then stop at the moment I stopped. Throughout this detailed briefing, the director continually referred to the script, held by his assistant.
After walking through the scene and positioning the cameras, an assistant to the director came out and stood before the main camera with her clap board. The scene number and other information was chalked on the board. She paused for a moment and then clapped the top down on the board. The director barked out his directions:
"Zhunbei!"(Get ready!).
"Bu yao shuo hua!"(Quiet onthe set!).
"Kaishe!"(Roll 'em).
There was a three count beat from the orchestra, the music began and the two young opera performers began to pixilate across the floor, with that stylized pattern of pauses and glides that is peculiar to the Chinese opera. They sang in a hyper-falsetto, gradually telling a story.
I sat, as the director had instructed me, far back in my chair in a slight slouch, and never took my eyes from the moving dancers.
I began to tap my fingers on my knee. The others followed. Then I applauded and the others in the room imitated me.
"Tingzhi!"(Cut), the director's voice rang out.
Mr. Xiaomin was not happy with my applause. He said that while my knee tapping was nearly perfect, the position of my hands when I applauded was all wrong. He wanted me to bend my elbows a little more, hold my hands up and away from my body and the clap the fingers of my left hand against the palm of my right. He demonstrated. I watched. He asked to see me do it. I did it. He applauded my applause and returned to his position across the room and to my left.
During these momentary interruptions, Soong Meiling stood and stretched and smoothed out her long gown, which was split up each side to slightly above the knee. When she stood, I noticed that she was wearing brightly colored long underwear beneath her gown. She had rolled up the bottoms to mid calf and when she sat down, the camera only filmed her from the front, so the longjohns did not appear on film.
The assistant director slapped down her clapper.
"Bu yao shuo hua!"
The music began. The singing began. I acted.
I sat and watched the dancers again. I began to tap my knee. I applauded.
"Tingzhi!" Mr. Xiaomin called out. "Tingzhi!" His tone now was one of mild frustration and slightly hostile amusement.
He walked to my chair and announced that this time I had begun to applaud too early. Try again.
"Zhunbei!" he cried as he walked away from my chair.
"Bu yao shuo hua!"
This time the music commenced, I listened, I looked, I began to tap on my knee, but before I could begin my applause, there was loud shouting just on the other side of the screen dividing the ballroom from the veranda. Several of the actors stopped and turned to see what was the matter. The orchestra stopped playing. The performers dropped their hands and turned toward the screen.
"Bu yao shuo hua!" Xiaomin cried.
The racket continued. "Sa zhr ti la!" he shouted. "SA ZHR TI LA!"(What's going on!)
The cameraman stood up from behind his camera and looked around.
"Tingzhi!" Xiaomin cried out.
Peter Bagley had been going through a rehearsal for his part with the assistant to the director and other actors on the steps outside the Guest House when the fight began and he saw it all from its unhappy a beginning to its bizarre end.
What was supposed to happen was that Peter was supposed to ask for my car and Zhou Yemang was supposed to run up to him and tell him that the car had been stolen. But just as Yemang ran up the stairs, another car pulled up carrying a group of officials from the Democratic Association(M.D.). They interrupted the rehearsal and really didn't care. They proceeded to walk up the stairs past Peter and Yemang and almost made it to the door before the assistant to the director stopped them.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked them.
"We are going inside. We live here," the leader of the group responded. "And who are you?"
"We're making a movie here," the assistant to the director replied. "And you are forbidden to go on the set."
"What set?" the M.D. official asked. "I live here. Let me in!"
"If you live here," the assistant to the director replied, "then what is your room number?"
Stunned for a moment, the M.D. official tried to remember his room number. Then he lost his patience. "There are no room numbers here. I live on the second floor. Let me in."
He began to push his way past the assistant to the director, who held him back for a moment and then shouted out an order. "Help me!" The platoon of Kuomintang soldiers, who had been standing around watching, suddenly swung into action and with their rifles barred the door. The shouting and profanity mounted. One of the M.D. officials ran out to the street where he hailed a policeman and a passing PLA officer. They rushed up to the pushing match at the door. The PLA officer tried to position himself between the Kuomintang soldiers and the Association members. One of the members fell down and was being trampled beneath the feet of the Kuomintang, howling out in both pain and political outrage as he scrambled frantically to get out from beneath the boots of the soldiers. The assistant to the director had his beret knocked off and the leader of the Association lost his glasses in the fray. The poor PLA officer had not been trained for this kind of war, and he didn't know which group to face, the increasingly irritated Kuomintang or the raging Democratic Association officials.
Suddenly the director and the gaggle of curious Kuomintang generals and their wives and Soong Meiling arrived on the scene behind the soldiers and began shouting orders, clarifications and insults. One particularly determined M.D. member, in a low crouch at about knee level, made it through the soldiers and the generals and came crashing through the hallway and into the screen behind the set. It tipped and began to fall, but was caught by the members of the orchestra.
The director surrendered at this point.
All right, he said. All right. They could come inside, all of them. But they would have to be quiet and they would have to go to their rooms. They could not disrupt the set.
The six MD officials marched in, straightening their clothes and their glasses, combing their hair. They surveyed the set in the ballroom and stopped. They watched. They planted their feet on the floor. The did not go to their rooms. They would not be moved. For the remainder of the evening the stayed right where the were, just inside the door, and watched in fascination as General George Marshall and a dozen Kuomintang generals and their wives, and Soong Meiling, were entertained by an opera troupe in the Guest House of the Democratic Association.
Again we repeated the scene. Xiaomin thought it was fine. But he wanted to shoot it from different angles. We repeated the scene. The camera rolled past the dancers. The camera panned in on each Chinese general and on each American. It panned in on Soong Mei Ling. It panned in on General Marshall and on the diplomat or journalist and on the military tart. The camera filmed from a low angle and from a high angle. And each time the music of the opera set the pace of the scene.
I attempted during these scenes to keep the bottoms of my pants pulled down far enough to hide my white socks somewhat in the way that Soong Meiling hid her longjohns. But I was unsuccessful. In the still shots later, there sat General Marshall, perfectly uniformed and made up, wearing NIKE athletic socks under his military uniform. Someone might guess, one day, upon seeing the "Dream of the Tan Flower," that either Marshall was an avid jogger, or stylistically, in a bizarre way, he was either a hick or a trend setter.
During one of the shootings, at exactly 10:00 PM, the alarm on James Anderson's digital watch went off and ruined the scene. The director heard the rhythmic beeping of the watch and stopped. He walked directly to James, pulled up the sleeve of the jacket of the rather sheepish young diplomat or journalist, and then asked James to remove the watch. Peter held it off the set for the remainder of the shooting.
We stopped filming shortly after 11:00 pm. When we had finished with our scenes, the Chinese actors asked to be photographed with the American performers. Many of them wanted to be photographed alone with the famous General Marshall. In those photographs I am standing up straight, so the white socks do not show. I tried to look as distinguished as these actors imagined General Marshall might have looked in 1946. And from the appreciative handshakes and backslaps I received, I would conclude that I was somewhat successful.
We changed back into our civilian clothes and then proceeded back to the microbus. Nearly everyone on the set thanked us several times over. The assistant to the director had release forms for each of us to sign, and then he gave us each 30 Yuan in cash for the work on the film.
He said he thought the filming went well. He thought we had performed our roles convincingly.
We gave him our addresses and phone numbers and he told us that the film would be on Shanghai Television in the spring. In late February he would contact each of us, he promised, and we would be able to buy a taped copy of the episode.
I asked him how large he thought the audience would be for this mini-series. "Oh, maybe 200 or 300 million people," he said. "Maybe even more."
When I expressed amazement at the size of the STV audience, he laughed and said, "Yes, you're a big star now. Big star, General Marshall. Everyone in China will see you."
"And everyone in China will see my white socks," I thought.
Then, was we entered the car in the darkness outside the Guest House, he placed his hand on my shoulder and shook my hand one last time. "Thank you, General Marshall," he said with mock seriousness. Then he turned and bolted up the stairs and back into the Guest House.
On the way back to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, we talked and laughed about the day's filming. We were tired and we were cold by that time -- the Guest House had been unheated and the temperature outside and inside was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Soong Meiling's longjohns had been unstylish but practical.
As we raced back down Zhongshan Beilu, which was nearly abandoned at this time, I thought about the complete zaniness of the day as well as the seriousness of it. For a few hours I had been a representative of my country and I had portrayed as well as I could a commanding American figure at a pivotal moment in history. And for a few hours all four of us had played feature roles in a production intended to facilitate the fulfillment of Mao Zedong's program to reunify China. John Foster Dulles and Joe McCarthy, I was absolutely certain, would not have been amused by our performances.
No doubt the American segment of "The Dream of the Tan Flower" was brief and would run, at most, for a few minutes. I hoped that in those few moments the Shanghai Television Network had accomplished with this group of amateur American performers what it had set out to do. And I hoped the result of the film would be positive. I hoped that when Mr. Xu Junhai produced another historical epic requiring an American general, he would call Mr. Wu and Mr. Wu would once again call me. I also hoped that my acting career would not be like that brief blooming of the tan flower. I hoped there would be a second chance, a time when I might use what I had learned in this, the first of my film appearances in China. Next time I would wear dark socks.
As we pulled up to the apartment, Mr. Wu was waiting for me just inside the door. He wore a big grin. Before the microbus stopped I waved out the window to him.
Mr. Wu snapped to attention and saluted. Then he turned and marched down the hallway and disappeared into the darkness.
I never had the chance to see my performance as General Marshall on Chinese television. Along with thousands of other Americans, my stay in China was cut short by the tragedy of June 4, 1989, and I left the troubled country. For the next year I heard nothing about "The Dream of the Tan Flower" and I assumed it had been scrapped. But then, much to my surprise, I received a letter from a friend in Beijing in mid June of this year. She told me that as the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre approached, she and her friends had waited for some sort of special television programming to commemorate or perhaps explain away the national tragedy. And one night, just before the anniversary, she wrote, as she was watching a lengthy Chinese drama, suddenly there I was on the television screen, seated in the great hall of the Guest House in Nanjing, Chinese words flowing gracefully out of my mouth thanks to the dubbing department of STV, as I applauded the opera stars of China in the final years of the rule of the doomed Kuomintang in China.
My friend told me that the program, meant to pacify and entertain the Chinese public while the authorities braced for the appearance of an illegal celebration of the Tiananmen incident, reminded her of how fleeting so many things can be in China: the Kuomintang, the democracy movement, the film careers of a foreign experts. And the dictatorship of brutal old men. She told me that she cried as she saw the film remembering China in the spring of 1989 and the dreams of all the tan flowers that had bloomed and been crushed but would, no doubt, bloom again in another kinder spring.

James Anderson pre-movie star days