I’ve been writing this column in The Free Press for 16 years now — next week will be the anniversary of my first column, written in response to 9/11.

In the late ’60s, I spent three years in Vietnam — cliche or not, certainly the most formative years of my life. Yet I’ve never written a word about Vietnam.

Until now. Ken Burns’ incredible documentary these last two weeks on the Vietnam War has focused my attention, like many of my generation, back to those lost years.

I joined the Foreign Service in late summer of ’65, a year out of college; within six months I was headed to Saigon.

It turned out that what Washington thought it needed — once LBJ had made his commitment to win the Vietnam War — was a bunch of young, unmarried types in the countryside in Vietnam. The Pacification Program, as it was christened, was the answer. That — and half a million American soldiers.

In the spring of ’66 I landed at Tan Son Nhut, Saigon’s increasingly busy airport. Within a few days, I was flown by Air America — the US already had its own little airline flying American civilians around Vietnam — to Phan Thiet, the capital of a province a couple of hundred miles up the coast from Saigon, where I was to be on loan to USAID (the Agency for International Development).

Despite the rapidly accelerating war — 3,500 US soldiers were sent to Vietnam in early 1965; three years later, there were 550,000 — Vietnam was a casual place then. Or, at least, our pacification effort, “to win the hearts and minds’’ of the Vietnamese, was pretty casual. The AID outfit in Phan Thiet was unaware of my assignment when I showed up. So they sent me to an isolated area some 100 “klicks’’ (the vernacular for kilometers) inland where I would live with an American military unit (MACV) who were training local Vietnamese how to fight.

The MACV guys weren’t exactly expecting me either, but at least they had a free bunk, use of a jeep, and good relations with the local Vietnamese district chiefs. It was a beautiful place, at the foot of the mountains, rice paddies stretching some 20 or 30 klicks to the South China Sea. Two district capitals were adjacent to each other, one a mixture of local montagnards and pro-French tribes who had been relocated to the south after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The other district was ethnic Chams, the last remnant of the old Champa empire, which had thrived a thousand years earlier.

A school had just been built with AID funds, a single-story, large one-room affair; its dedication had been planned for shortly after I arrived. As, now, the local AID rep, I was to share the platform with the Vietnamese province chief, who flew in on an American helicopter, which landed near the new school built with American money and blew its roof off. Welcome to Vietnam.

There was a small village adjacent to the MACV training camp with a single bar; it was off-limits to the MACV unit, but not to me, and not to the Special Forces guys who had their own camp about 30 klicks away. They had to launch a road-clearing operation to get into town, but as there wasn’t a lot going on at their camp, I’d occasionally run into them at the bar.

Once, probably after a few beers, I went back with a couple of them to their camp — a little change of scenery. The problem was, without a road-clearing operation, I was stuck there. Luckily, a few days later, one of their montagnard troops thought they had spotted a couple of Vietcong in the hills above the camp, so they called in an airstrike from the US airbase up the coast. A single-engine spotter plane soon landed on the short, grassy runway to get info about the Vietcong’s whereabouts. I ran out and hitched a ride on it.

 


The pilot asked me to spot for him. It was empty; it was no-man’s land. If there were Vietcong, they’d lay low during the day and only move around at night. I kept telling the pilot there was nothing down there, nothing I could see, but by then our F-4s were circling high overhead: “Look, just anything, an old hooch, a water buffalo, a lean-to. If you don’t use ’em, they won’t come next time when you really need ’em.”

So, every couple of minutes, I’d point in some direction; he’d fire down a rocket, and the jets would swoop in and let loose their bombs. When the pilot dropped me off, he asked me to help him fill out the form stating what the jets had hit. “Come on,” I laughed, “you know there was nothing.” “Oh, for chrissake,” he replied, a little exasperated, “you’re gonna say you called ’em in for no reason.…”

There were a bunch of young State Department, Agency, AID guys in the field in those days. We’d run into one another occasionally in Saigon; they all had similar stories.

Early in ’67, after nearly a year in the field, I was assigned to the embassy in Saigon, working initially for the head 

of the newly revised pacification effort, the awkwardly named CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support); and my last year for Ambassador Bunker. He was a wonderful man, a consummate diplomat, a Cold War veteran.

So many memories from those years. But two stand out, one of some significance, the other of none at all. The insignificant one first: there was an international organization called the ICC, the International Control Commission. It had been formed at the time of the Geneva Accords in the mid-’50s, to oversee Vietnam following the French defeat. Based in Saigon, it consisted of Canada, Poland and India. So far as I could see, it had no role at all, but once a year, the Polish representative of the commission would call on the American ambassador.

That particular year, about five minutes after the Polish representative had gone into Bunker’s office for his annual call, a cable came in saying that the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. Too incredible a coincidence: I immediately barged into the ambassador’s office, apologized for interrupting but said I had news that I was certain both would be interested in. I read the cable, excused myself. Five minutes later, another one arrived, pointing out that the Soviets had been joined by members of the Warsaw Pact, including obviously Poland. I was quickly back in Ambassador Bunker’s office to read that news. The Pole was heading out the door before I was.

By the fall of ’68, the Paris peace talks with Hanoi had been under way for nearly six months. A week or so before the presidential elections, the White House informed Bunker that Richard Nixon was plotting with Vietnam’s President Thieu against Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. Intercepts had revealed that Nixon had been encouraging Thieu to stall on the peace efforts in Paris, promising that when he became president, he would assure a total victory for South Vietnam. If, somehow, Nixon’s behavior could have been leaked to the press without revealing the US was listening in on Thieu’s phone calls, Nixon would never have become president. That night I went to the wedding of a Vietnamese friend. Life went on, in the midst of war and treachery.

A week later, Nixon was elected president. He, and his self-important sidekick Henry Kissinger, continued the war for another six years. I was out of there in the spring of ’69.

If JFK, LBJ, and Nixon — the first, a young but sophisticated internationalist; the second, a consummate legislator; the third, a dishonest politician, but Eisenhower’s vice-president for eight years — gave us Vietnam, what, one wonders, will Donald Trump give us?