by Allen Keiswetter
I knew Vietnam would be my first tour when I joined the US Foreign Service fifty years ago this coming June at age 23. I served there for 18 months (April 1968 to October 1969) as part of Civilian Operations for Revolutionary Development Support. Known as CORDS, it was a US civilian military organization assisting South Vietnamese pacification programs.I had an uneasy beginning; things both at home and in Vietnam seemed to be unravelling. The Tet offensive in early 1968 delayed my departure from Washington for two months. En route, I transited Honolulu where I saw LBJ on TV in the airport lounge announcing that he was not going to run for reelection. On arrival in Saigon, I learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated and that rioting was rocking Washington D.C.
Moreover, no one met me at the Tan San Nhut airport, and a CORDS contractor I met on the plane offered a ride to the in-processing center. While I waited alone in his Jeep as he dropped his luggage at his apartment, two Vietnamese boys riding tandem on a motorcycle pulled up to the driver’s window; the one in back aimed a pistol at me. I ducked, but he didn’t fire.
A bit shaken by the events of the day, that evening I sought refuge in my hotel room and recalled the counterterrorism training I had had at Fort Belvoir, especially an exhibit of a pair of shears affixed to the bottom of a toilet seat aimed at castrating unsuspecting users. As I was inspecting every detail of my hotel room, including the toilet seat, there was a knock at the door. It turned out to be a lady of the night; I wasn’t interested.
Stationed first at Four Corps headquarters in Can Tho in the Delta and then in Two Corps Headquarters in Nha Tran on the central coast, I worked in the Chieu Hoi Program that urged defections from the Viet Cong. I prepared reports and traveled in the provinces to troubleshoot problems. Not long after I arrived in Can Tho, I accompanied an Armed Propaganda Team consisting of a dozen VC defectors on a mission to “rally” their former cohorts in Vinh Long Province. After several hours of patrolling, we discovered an abandoned VC information booth; it was a setup, and the VC immediately pinned us down with AK-47 fire. We sought protection behind a dike where I lost a shoe in the rice patty mud. We had a choice: we could either stand our ground and await help, or we could retreat along the same path as we had come. We chose the latter. I tried to be totally circumspect as I limped along with one shoe on the way back. I noticed the house where we had had lunch was now vacated, and I guessed that our host had undoubtedly passed to the VC the polaroid picture he had taken of me supposedly because of my interesting chopstick technique. It was with great relief I spotted the vanguard of the rescue South Vietnamese forces across a girder of a bombed bridge. We made it back safely.
As I wrote my parents, this incident made me think of the meaning of life, especially death. Ironically, I received my draft notice at this time; ultimately, my Kansas draft board decided I did not need to be recycled to Vietnam in uniform; I could stay there as a Foreign Service Officer.
I was transferred to Nha Trang after six months. My arrival on a small Air America flight was as exciting as my arrival at Tan San Nhut. While I was met by a person with whom I was to share a villa for the next year, the two of us sped through the streets as a US Airforce plane broadcast overhead “Code Red” warning of an imminent attack. As in Saigon, nothing adverse happened. Nha Tran was a beautiful city presided over by a large Buddha on a mountain overlooking the city’s magnificent beaches dotted with small shacks selling seafood.
Two Corps also included Dalat, the mountain resort where only French lived during the colonial period. While staying at the Dalat Palace Hotel, I awoke one morning to the sounds of Vietnamese Boy Scouts practicing semaphores and speaking French with a peculiar Vietnamese accent in which “oui” is pronounced the same as the Vietnamese city Hue. I spoke little Vietnamese because I was weeded out of the Vietnamese language training after two weeks when the Foreign Service Institute linguists reached the same conclusion I had told them on enrollment: I am tone deaf. Thus, I fulfilled my language requirement in French, not Vietnamese, before leaving for Vietnam. It was occasionally useful in places such as Dalat.
Professionally, Vietnam jump-started my career through quick promotions and early responsibilities, even though I did not see the inside of a US Embassy as a diplomat until six years later. The assignment of Foreign Service Officers to political military tasks in Vietnam set a pattern culminating in about a quarter of the current Foreign Service having now served in similar situations in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. In recent years the Department of State has also created the Bureau for Conflict Stability Operations to plan for such contingencies. Twenty Foreign Service officers have died in the line of duty since 9/11, including Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya.
Politically, I went to Vietnam thinking it was a mistake, and I came back still thinking that it was so but with first-hand experience to bolster my views. On the plane as I was departing Saigon at the completion of my tour, I pondered what my reception would be back in the US and found apt the last line of Robert Frost’s poem Into My Own: “They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.”
This seeming confidence, even arrogance, about my understanding of the Vietnam situation confronted the home reality some weeks later when I was caught up in a demonstration at Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. To me it seemed appalling both that the protestors had little understanding of the complexities of the situation and that the police had resorted to tear gas to break up the rally. Not long after that, I showed my naiveté more obviously; along with several dozen other young FSOs I signed a petition opposing the US incursion into Cambodia. I added my name at lunchtime while walking around the Department of State Building, and by evening the petition was headline news. The next day while at home with a cold, I was summoned to meet with Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson; the caller told me I would be there if I valued my career. The meeting was combative: Undersecretary Johnson said he had never in his forty-year career seen such a breach of confidence between the White House and the Foreign Service; the young FSOs replied that in all their lives they had never seen such a breach between the White House and the American people. Years later I learned that President Nixon had wanted us fired, and in fact Undersecretary Johnson had saved our careers by telling Nixon that these FSOs were his colleagues and he would deal with the problem. As documents have since shown, Secretary of State Rogers and Secretary of Defense Laird had both argued against the Cambodia operation, too.
In 2008, I returned to Vietnam with my wife visiting Saigon, Nha Tran, and Hanoi. The Vietnamese people graciously welcomed us with no discernable rancor. Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, seemed much the same. Nha Tran was greatly changed. A formal sculpture garden had replaced the seafood shacks on the beaches along the Corniche; tall buildings blocked the view of the Buddha overlooking the city; and Nha Tran was preparing to host the Miss Universe contest.
In a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s house in Hanoi, I puzzled anew how we could have gotten the Vietnam War so wrong. After 36 years in the Foreign Service and another decade as a Scholar at the Middle East Institute, it is clear to me that we have not yet mastered the lessons of intervention. Quagmire can be spelled many ways; success, at least in the short term, only a few.