IT IS SPRING, 1966. Henry Cabot Lodge is U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Gen. William Westmoreland COMUSMACV. Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky are sharing Saigon's authority, what authority it has. The Americans are on their way to making South Vietnam the 51st state. With 300,000 U.S. troops in the south, the end is not in sight.
The war is not going well, but it is not going badly either; there is a kind of exhilaration at MACV, the American Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. On New Year's Day the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade predicts that the war will be over by the Fourth of July. It is possible, just barely, to believe in a victory of some kind for the "free world forces." Perhaps a negotiated settlement, or a coalition government; but it all seems unlikely.
The Buddhists have formed their struggle committees and the major cities of the South -- Saigon, Danang, Hue -- are in turmoil. The story is the political story. Can Thieu and Ky keep the government glued together?
If South Vietnam is Weimar, Saigon is Berlin. The city, not yet psychotic, has retained much of its charm from earlier days. U.S. officials live in graceful villas attended by servants inside and out. Everyone works extremely hard; plays hard, too. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and, as the casualties mount, darkening. The American community is showing signs of strain.
What follows are notes I made at the time. I found them the other day in a forgotten folder. I have edited them, protecting the identities of friends, where they needed protecting. I confess I don't know what to make of these notes, fragmentary as they are -- gnomic, self-conscious, unbalanced, often uncharitable.
There is little in these notes of the way we went about our business, the trips to the field, the interviews, the briefings. It is all after-hours stuff, but perhaps that too can shed light. Nineteen years ago. And it doesn't feel like yesterday.
January 17. Sitting in an airy, sparsely furnished room, like the dormitory commons at school, talking with three AID officials about the course of the war and the possibilities of pacification. The large black fans beating like bats against the night heat. There are four of us, plus a Vietnamese girl in a white and purple ao dai. The light is bad. There are too few lamps. The host is solicitous for the first drink. He himself is not a drinker so he loses interest, and after a while we fetch our own. We talk of the Delta and what is happening there.
One of the officials says, "Well, yes, we are here in Vietnam. Perhaps, at some other time, we would be doing the same things in some other country. Singapore, perhaps, or Greenwich, Connecticut."
Nothing seems to register. The fighting? Not much talk of that. The pacification? So slowly. First steps in a journey of a thousand miles.
"Don't be taken in by all the bull----," he says.
All this reminds me of a foreign office briefing, where all European developments are discussed in terms of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and all things in the Middle East began with the demise of the pharoahs. Nothing new or fresh. Nothing changes. It is now as it was then and will be forever and ever, amen.
Harvard men are Yale men with worry lines except these three don't even have worry lines.
Nor do they seem interested in the Vietnamese girl. They talked to her as if she were an official spokesman which, for all I know, she bloody well may have been. She expressed admiration for Madame Nhu.
Undated. The soldiers. God forbid if the world should ever come under the control of soldiers. Ky, "a dedicated anticommunist and a patriot." So am I, and it doesn't have anything to do with whether or not I am a good journalist. Neither has it anything to do with whether or not Ky is a good prime minister. Maybe it was a mistake, all those political-science courses at West Point. They all think they're Bismarck. Better if they didn't think about politics at all, just stick to ordnance and where to place the battalion.
February 24. No one knew the colonel was drunk.
He had been drinking for so long no one noticed it. He drank something that looked like apple juice, but was whiskey. He had been like that for two weeks. In Honolulu, doctors told him he would die if he continued to drink. So he came back to Saigon and went on the wagon. Then his son was wounded in action and he began to drink again. He was making life hell for the people at MACV.
Lunch at J.'s villa, catered by Arc en Ciel. A long wait between courses. Eight of us at table. The colonel turned to Dean Brelis and said, "You were in the OSS."
One of the women thought he was talking to me and said, laughing, "You weren't in the OSS."
The colonel said, "Christ, no! Just would've liked to've been in the OSS. But he wasn't." His voice was loud and belligerent, and there was a strained silence. He said, "Listen, Just. Get off my ass. Just get off my back or I am going to take you outside and clean your ass. Just get off my back, Just. I know H. and when I get back to Washington I am going to get your job."
All this out of the blue. I had only met him once before, but something I had written must have infuriated him. I said, "I'll remember that, Colonel."
"You'd better remember it. Come outside, just give me a chance."
He was old enough to be my father. I turned to the man on my right and said, "What's going on?" Let it go, the man said. He told me about the colonel's son, and Honolulu. The courses began to arrive and then the colonel's attention was elsewhere. He was talking to one of the women. He said, "Beautiful girl. Mos' beautiful girl in the world. Are we on a two-way street?"
"It looks like a dead end," she said.
Later that afternoon, the party a disagreeable memory, the colonel called and offered a dignified apology. You could have cleaned my clock, he said. I said probably not. He said, "I can't imagine what got into me."
Undated. B.'s wife. After a time she began to get migraine headaches. They got very bad, and she took to her bed, looked after by one of the boys on the floor. At the time, her husband was upcountry. She stayed in bed for days, with headaches so bad she thought her head would spin off. She said they would be home by next Christmas, that was all there was to it. I will be home by next Christmas. But it is now only March, and there are nine months to go.
Undated. Very late at night. I said, "answer me this. Is it true that AP guys have to sell the service as well as write the news?"
"It's the best training in the world. You have to know how to write letters to the home office. If a man can't do that, he isn't going to be a very good reporter.
"Yes, but does he have to do that and write at the same time? Why can't someone be hired to sell the service?"
"Because it's his job. It's his job to do that. And if he does it well, he is damned popular with the home office. When I did it, in Scandinavia, the first thing I did was to get the salaries of everyone around town raised. I think I've answered your question. Have I answered your question?"
"Well, why can't he just write?"
"It isn't his job. He has to do the other."
"I love the AP. It is an organization with great integrity."
March 31. Women at war. Everything gets taken from them, little given. In a war men feel responsibility only to the war, and must walk a tight line so as not to become distracted. Women have complaints and make demands. They end up cheated and wonder if they are being used . . . .
Undated. C. working on pacification as the country ignites with fury and upheaval. He is one of the Americans caught in the syndrome of having spent so much energy and good will here, and now unwilling to admit that most of it has gone for nothing. The Vietnamese, with a native cynicism, are not charitable themselves and so are deeply suspicious of charity in others. It would be naive to say that America's role here is essentially one motivated by charity. But charity is an element, the American spirit to build, improve, spread the word, take up the free man's burden. So when you expend all that energy and all that talent, and if you are an American, you don't want to admit hopelessness.
Undated. A. said, apropos of nothing: "It is like building up to a state of grace."
Undated. Don O.'s anecdote. Reporters standing around in the dusty courtyard of the Danang press center. A tiny single-engine plane flies over, drops a single leaflet which pinwheels to earth. The reporters rush over and pick up the leaflet, which is in Vietnamese. The reporters examine the document, turning it over and over. One assumes that the aircraft was GVN, but who knows. No one can read the document so they do not know if it is an appeal for demonstrations or an appeal for calm. A Vietnamese walked over and read the leaflet and smiled. The reporters crowded around. What does it say? The Vietnamese smiled and shrugged. He did not speak English so he did not understand the question. The reporters went back to their morning coffee.
Undated. Dinner at La Paprika, four men, two women. Three of them talking about Georgetown in identical accents. A girl they know has gotten married and no one knows why. Apparently love is not an issue, and no one knew what was.
"Well, one day she was married," one women said.
"One day she wasn't married and the next day she was engaged, and then married."
"Like that," she said.
"Who was the guy?"
"I don't know," she said furiously.
April 5. One of those funny evenings at the K's.
K.'s wife is such a nice woman, and so depressed
about Saigon. Even the golf course is closed off now, and when I told her that she ran the best French restaurant in town she smiled sadly and said no, she did not, but that she would do better next time.
In deference to K.'s wife, we were trying not to talk about the war. Arnaud was talking about Paris, how he hated it. Sol and me arguing about how long it took to drive from Lisbon to Malaga. This went on for five minutes, and then we were back to Topic A, the latest casualty figures, and whether I Corps was more pacified than II Corps, and who was the better general, and who admired the French colonialists, and finally Arnaud said, "Americans reign supreme in the world today."
Undated. Dinner with Nguyen Xuan Oanh ("Jack Owen") at the Caravelle, just the two of us. Jack looked at his entrecote and observed that the air war in the north has no relevance. It is no great victory when U.S. pilots knock 10 Migs out of the sky. "The problem is not the North Vietnamese army but the South Vietnamese government."
Undated. Lunch at W.'s. Two drinks before the cold plate. P. and I, a provincial representative, a general, two civilian officials. One of the civilians said, "Must have 15 minutes of good, hard talk. No holds barred. Very important."
The dialogue rises and falls like Harold Pinter's. Pauses, silences and incomplete sentences. Each statement followed by an implicit question mark, and a suggestion of truculence.
There is trouble, questions of diversion of material from the port and a statement made here or in Washington. Unclear which. Decision, apparently, is to write it here and have it read in Washington. But it was a problem, getting it done. And then there was the business last night when he left the office at 6:40. Was supposed to sign off on a USAID cable, and he went home and asked the secretaries to call him and they didn't call him and the cable was sent anyway. This capped a long series of troubles, so he went to his boss.
"Well, look, T. If you feel that way about it, you ought to request my transfer. You ought to suggest that they just get rid of me."
"Christ," T. is supposed to have said, "I'm not thinking of anything like that. It's . . . just that . . . "
"Well," he said, "You know I have a little money, not much. I have a little bit of money, made from a business I sold years ago. It would keep me four, five years, until I could find something. But it means I can be independent, you know, not like a lot of the people here. The only thing is, it would have to be for a good cause, me quitting on principle. I mean, I would have to go to my family with a good explanation. They would have to understand that it wasn't just a flight from something."
I have no idea what he is talking about.
He returned to Vietnam and the central fact of China wanting to exercise her "hegenomy." He repeated it several times, "hegenomy."
Then he went back to the other. "I have got an independent income. It's independent, and it means that I can talk back, if I want to."
Undated. The tourists, the ones on TDY, think you are not paying full attention. They have wives back in the United States or in Hong Kong and they come here and spend 24 hours a day at Vietnam. They see a liaison that you have made and they figure that you are not paying full attention to business. They do not know that paying attention to business 24 hours a day has driven some men here very close to psychosis. But there are complications to everything.
April 12. This is a difficult job. Not because of the danger and the tension but because there is so little that you know. You are continually operating on instinct, which is good for the instinct, but not, I should think, for the readers.
December 22. Remember the anchor salesman from Maine.