"This will be final message from Saigon station"
April 3, 2014 4:20 AM   Subscribe

"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." -- On Monday, The Washington Post published the obituary of Tom Polgar, the last CIA head of station in Vietnam and linked to his memories of the years he spend in Vietnam and the final evacuation of Saigon, written in 2013 for the Pushing on blog, which is largely dedicated to the War on Vietnam and the fall of Saigon.
posted by MartinWisse (22 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
tl;dr
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:44 AM on April 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, this makes me wonder even more about the veracity of the news on the Middle East, considering i've had people who've been over there tell me that what I see on the news is nothing like reality.

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.

posted by sio42 at 4:54 AM on April 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


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.
posted by sio42 at 4:59 AM on April 3, 2014


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.

Wow, this is kind of incredible. Vietnam is a country of small businesses and entrepreneurs. Meeting these upper- and upper-middle-class people is not going to teach you much about the society as a whole. I've always thought our behavior in Vietnam reflected a lack of understanding of the culture and motivations for the opposition; maybe this is part of the reason why.

I thought that as long as Nixon was president North Vietnam would behave, more or less.

Wow, and the massive, nation-wide attacks on the biggest Vietnamese holiday (Tết) in 1968 didn't disabuse you of this notion? This would be akin to Western soldiers specifically planning to attack on Christmas morning.

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.

They killed ten thousand Americans, thus reducing the willingness of the Americans to fight. That was the purpose and goal, as is always the purpose and goal of insurgent armies who recruit via birthrate instead of needing to ship foreigners around the world.

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.

Defection from the North Vietnamese army led to replenishment of the guerrilla fighters; so did defection from the South Vietnamese army. These defectors didn't just disappear, they decided that they were on the wrong side (or with the wrong organization) and went underground.

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.

wow.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:00 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, this makes me wonder even more about the veracity of the news on the Middle East, considering i've had people who've been over there tell me that what I see on the news is nothing like reality.

The media introduces some bias, certainly, but in Vietnam the messaging from the government and former officials is more likely to be biased, I think, than the media at the end of the war. Based on history books and official accounts of how "winnable" the war was, I always had an impression of the Vietnam War that made it seem something like Korea; there was a sizable, viable South Vietnamese state and a sizable, viable North Vietnamese state, and we supported the South, right?

Well, then I went to Vietnam; and the "Iron Triangle," the place that is probably the most "typical" in terms of cultural depictions of the war (jungle, booby traps, tunnels, seemingly permanent bombing) is less than half an hour drive from Saigon. (Seriously, look at this map of Củ Chi.) Since realizing that, it has colored my perception of the war: I don't think South Vietnam was viable at all. It was a fiction propped up by our support.

So, take that as you will, but I tend to think that our media exaggerates in our favor, not vice versa, as Polgar argues.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:08 AM on April 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think that it's important to note that the real problem that Tom Polgar, the last CIA head of station in Vietnam had WRT "media bias" in reporting the Vietnam War is that they weren't printing what Tom Polgar, the last CIA head of station in Vietnam thought they should be printing. It's not impossible, by a long shot, that the editors realized that their reporters' source was Tom Polgar, the last CIA head of station in Vietnam, and used that in their editing decisions.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:51 AM on April 3, 2014 [7 favorites]


It's not impossible, by a long shot, that the editors realized that their reporters' source was Tom Polgar, the last CIA head of station in Vietnam, and used that in their editing decisions.

The many memoirs written by journalists who spent years there are a good counterpoint to this; the good journalists spent most of their time trying to dig below the simplistic propaganda coming from the CIA, embassy, and the US military.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:36 AM on April 3, 2014


But why would they print only the stuff about the south like he said they were doing? Weren't we trying to help the south? It seems like they were printing bad stuff about the south, from what he says, but not printing anything about the north.

Everytime I read something about.vietnam tho, I always realize how much I don't know, so I could be completely misunderstanding this.
posted by sio42 at 6:46 AM on April 3, 2014


I remember one of my parents in 2003 saying of Iraq II: "all they talk about is insurgents and car bombs, how come they don't talk about the schools and hospitals we're building over there?"
posted by absalom at 6:48 AM on April 3, 2014


But why would they print only the stuff about the south like he said they were doing? Weren't we trying to help the south?

His argument is that they painted too bleak a picture. The response to the widespread demoralization and desertion in the South Vietnamese army, for example, was to say, "Well, the North Vietnamese Army has a desertion problem too!"—which had no real basis in reality. The NVA was not the only enemy belligerent, and they had no manpower problems. Reality isn't always "balanced," and Polgar's team was pretty much as wrong as possible on this matter.

I remember one of my parents in 2003 saying of Iraq II: "all they talk about is insurgents and car bombs, how come they don't talk about the schools and hospitals we're building over there?"

Because the schools and hospitals are propaganda tools and are pretty irrelevant to the daily experience of the people. I mean, Iraq had schools and hospitals prior to the war. If we hadn't bombed everything, we wouldn't have needed to rebuild them.

Essentially, you could sit in your desert base and build a thousand empty schools and it would do no good if the people hate you so much that when you step outside there's always a grandmother willing to strap C4 to herself and blow you to Hell as you walk down the street. Same thing in Vietnam: "South Vietnam" loses its meaning when the most difficult, most intransigent insurgent stronghold (the Viet Cong were insurgents, the NVA was a conventional army) is 15 miles from Saigon and you can do nothing against it.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:07 AM on April 3, 2014 [6 favorites]


I've always thought our behavior in Vietnam reflected a lack of understanding of the culture and motivations for the opposition; maybe this is part of the reason why.

Thanks for the link. At this point, I'm pretty much fascinated with Vietnam, it's probably time to schedule a trip.

I think what I find so interesting about American involvement there is the number of modern military interventionist tactics that were on display there, especially before the war. Which is to say that while we refer to the whole thing as "a blunder" and "an embarrassment" in common parlance, it actually formed the modern American military playbook.

If you're already familiar with the broad strokes, I recommend catching a documentary on Netflix called The Man Nobody Knew that sheds light on former CIA Director William Colby, who among many other arguably good things, started the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, a series of locally-run CIA interrogation centers where VC were eventually tortured for intelligence. The documentary also talks a little bit about Kennedy's fascination with clandestine operations, the appointment of a strikingly tone-deaf Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador of Vietnam, the formulation on his part of a poorly-conceived coup, and the eventual assassination of Diem. Interestingly enough, Kennedy was assassinated only a few weeks later, so maybe that's why there's so much history hiding in Vietnam, especially with regards to what we were doing there before we decided to send troops.

Then there's Dirty Wars also on Netflix. If you can get past the self-indulgent narrator, it's quite a fascinating first-hand look at a journalist's attempts to explain non-reported attacks in the Middle East, and his eventual discovery of JSOC, only to later find the Americans hiding this special forces unit out in the open, under the guise of an "increased American presence" in places like Yemen and Somalia, even though we have no declared war there. This eventually puts us down the path of extra-judicially killing American citizens and their next of kin in countries where we are "making coordinated efforts at peace" and then patting ourselves on the back for it. So there you have it.
posted by phaedon at 7:41 AM on April 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


Looking forward to reading the link when I have the time. Just wanted to say right now that what really caught my eye in this FPP was this phrase:

"the War on Vietnam"

As far as I can recall, this is the first time I've ever read or heard that phrase. The "on" is key. Ever since I was a youngster, and the war was going on, and as I got a older and started worrying that I might be drafted and have to go there (the war ended when I was 16), and right up till this very day, I don't think I've ever heard anything but "the war in Vietnam".

Of course, the "in" is neutral. Just a geographic location indicator. The "on", though, is decidedly not neutral. And it reflects reality so much better. It tells the tale: the USA rained bloody war down on the Vietnamese people. Turned their little country into hell for 13 years or so, killing hundreds of thousands (some estimates run as high as 3 million). From now on, whenever I have occasion to discuss it or write about it, I'll use "the war on Vietnam".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:54 AM on April 3, 2014


This illustrates the single long-lasting message the government and military took from Vietnam: CONTROL THE MEDIA!

From they military and government point of view, Vietnam was largely lost as a result of newsmen who were trying to create a narrative of failure and military disaster.

As a result, you have the Gulf Wars, where reporters ate heavily managed so they couldn't go off on their own and dilute the message. And initially at least, it worked.
posted by happyroach at 8:45 AM on April 3, 2014


Vietnam wasn't then, and isn't now, a small country. Geographically, it's larger than Italy or the United Kingdom, and not much smaller than Germany or Japan. Demographically, it had approximately 45 million people in 1970, relative to 200 million in the US or 50 million in France. Today, it is home to around 87 million people (13th largest in the world), relative to 309 million in the US and 62 million in France.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:24 AM on April 3, 2014


Turned their little country into hell for 13 years or so...

Worse when you consider the whole duration. They were at war for 30 years, from 1945 to 1975, against the French and the Americans. Also worth noting is that, as Monday, stony Monday said, it's not a small country. It's about 1100 km (700 mi) between HCMC (Saigon) and Hanoi, roughly the distance from Seattle to San Francisco.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:58 AM on April 3, 2014


Because the schools and hospitals are propaganda tools and are pretty irrelevant to the daily experience of the people. I mean, Iraq had schools and hospitals prior to the war. If we hadn't bombed everything, we wouldn't have needed to rebuild them.

If you could get beyond your own desire to lecture and condescend, you'd realize my comment was not a refutation but a statement of plus ça change. The exact same tropes about media bias were trotted out during the Iraq occupation by Fox News, et al.
posted by absalom at 10:39 AM on April 3, 2014


If you could get beyond your own desire to lecture and condescend...

This is a topic that I am close to, and reading the interview with Polgar annoyed me, so I probably came across as strident. Sorry. On the other hand, try stating what you mean clearly, the first time; then you wouldn't need to insult me because I misread your comment.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:21 PM on April 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah I wasn't clear on that either.

Anyways....Sonic meat machine: is there a good book you'd recommend about Vietnam? Like an overview that would talk about major events as each side saw it?
posted by sio42 at 2:59 PM on April 3, 2014


There are a lot of good books on Vietnam from the American side. I don't know the best overview and survey, as I usually read more narrative books (like Dispatches by Herr or The Quiet American by Greene, a novel). I believe War Without Fronts has a good reputation among historians, but I haven't read it myself. A Vietnam War Reader is interesting, if a bit dry (it is a scholarly book) and includes the widest variety of perspectives of which I am aware.

A lot fewer from the Vietnamese side, sadly. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh is the highest-regarded, I think. There's also When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, but I haven't read it yet.

I think it's more interesting to read about the general context for the war, so I like Understanding Vietnam, which is a general history of the place. There's also a thin Oxford overview called Southeast Asia in World History that I quite like.

Further afield, Chris Hedges' book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning really helped me to understand some of the first-person narratives like Herr's on a different level. (Hedges is a great deal more self-aware than the semi-macho, stoned-out-of-their-minds correspondents of the Vietnam War.) I'd also recommend some of the contemporary anti-war literature like Chomsky.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:43 PM on April 3, 2014


cool. thanks sonic meat machine!

Understanding Vietnam sounds like what i was looking for and seems like a good start.

(and something good to spend my amazon kindle settlement credit on!)
posted by sio42 at 4:53 PM on April 3, 2014


Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History is a good overview. It's the basis for PBS's Vietnam: A Television History, which is available on YouTube. (Parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven).
posted by kirkaracha at 9:11 PM on April 3, 2014


I haven't read it yet, but Nick Turse's book Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam has been getting a lot of attention lately. Here's Chris Hedges's review of the book.

And here's Turse on Moyers & Company.
posted by homunculus at 12:12 AM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


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