As he prepared to leave Japan in 1952, at the end of a seven-year
assignment, William J. Sebald developed misgivings about his new
post as Ambassador to Burma.
Sebald's worries centered on a band of 12,000 Nationalist Chinese
troops who were squatting on Burmese territory in defiance of the
Burmese Government. The Nationalist troops had fled to Burma in 1949
as the Chinese Communists advanced toward victory. The troops made
one concerted effort to return by force to Yunnan, their native
province in China. But they were easily turned back, and settled
down in Burma to a life of banditry and opium-running.
The Burmese Government demanded that they lay down their arms, but
the Nationalist troops repulsed the sporadic efforts of the Burmese
Army to subdue them. In the more recent fighting they had displayed
new equipment and a greater sense of discipline. And they had just
acquired a new commander, General Li Mi, an intelligence officer who
was spotted commuting between Formosa and Burma by way of a landing
strip in Thailand. just across Burma's southeastern border.
To the Burmese Government, burdened by catastrophic World War II
destruction and continuous domestic rebellions, the Nationalist
troops had long been an intolerable foreign nuisance. Now, revived
as a military force, they became a menace to Burmese independence.
The troops might easily provide a pretext for an invasion by the
Communist Chinese or a coup by the 300,000 Burmese Communists.
Officially, Burma pleaded with the United States to apply pressure
on Formosa to withdraw the troops. Unofficially, Burmese officials
accused the CIA of supporting the troops as a force that could
conduct raids into China or threaten military retaliation if Burma
adopted a more conciliatory policy toward Peking.
Ambassador Sebald had spent more than a third of his fifty years as
a naval officer and diplomat in the Far East. He knew he would have
trouble enough with a touchy new nation of ancient oriental ways
without being undermined by another agency of his own government.
On home-leave in Washington, Sebald demanded assurances from his
superiors that the CIA was not supporting the Nationalist troops. He
was told emphatically that the United States was in no way involved.
From the very first days of his two-year assignment in Rangoon,
Sebald regularly warned Washington that the troops threatened
Burma's very existence as a parliamentary democracy which was
friendly to the West. If United States relations were not to turn
completely sour, he insisted, the Nationalists would have to be
removed. Each time, the State Department responded that the United
States was not involved and that Burma should logically complain to
Dutifully, Sebald passed along these assurances to the Burmese
Foreign Office. But he never succeeded in convincing the Burmese of
American innocence. The most determined of the skeptics was General
Ne Win, who as Chief of Staff of the Army was leading the battle
against the guerrillas. Fresh from a meeting with his field
commanders, Ne Win confronted Sebald at a diplomatic gathering and
angrily demanded action on the Nationalist troops. When Sebald
started to launch into his standard disclaimer of United States
involvement the general cut him short.
"Mr. Ambassador," he asserted firmly in his best colonial English,
"I have it cold. If I were you, I'd just keep quiet."
As Sebald was to learn, and as high United States officials now
frankly admit, Ne Win was indeed correct. The CIA was intimately
involved with the Nationalist troops, but Sebald's superiors -- men
just below John Foster Dulles -- were officially ignorant of the
fact. Knowledge of the project was so closely held within the CIA,
that it even escaped the notice of Robert Amory, the deputy director
for intelligence. He was not normally informed about the covert side
of the agency's operations but he usually received some information
about major projects on an unofficial basis. Yet on Burma he could
honestly protest to his colleagues in other branches of the
government that the CIA was innocent.
Though Sebald was never able to secure an official admission from
Washington, he discovered through personal investigation on the
scene that the CIA's involvement was an open secret in sophisticated
circles in Bangkok, Thailand. There, he learned, the CIA planned and
directed the operation under the guise of running Sea Supply, a
trading company with the cable address "Hatchet."
In Rangoon public resentment at the CIA's role became so pervasive
that the most irrelevant incidents -- an isolated shooting, a power
failure -- were routinely ascribed to American meddling. Sebald
persisted in his denials, but by March, 1953, they had turned so
threadbare that Burma threw the issue into the United Nations.
In New Delhi, Chester Bowles, finishing his first tour as Ambassador
to India, had also been beset by the rumors. To silence the
anti-American rumbling, Bowles, like Sebald, sought assurances from
Washington. The response was the same: the United States was not
involved in any way. Bowles conveyed this message to Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru, who stated publicly that, on Bowles' word, he had
convinced himself that the United States was not supporting the
At the UN, Burma produced captured directives from Taipeh to the
Chinese guerrillas, but Nationalist China insisted it had "no
control over the Yunnan Anti-Communist and National Salvation Army."
At the same time, it conceded paradoxically that Taipeh did have
"some influence over General Li Mi" and would exercise its "moral
influence" to resolve the problem.
With the UN on the verge of an embarrassing inquest and the
Nationalist Chinese in a more conciliatory mood, Sebald's pleas
finally began to be heard in Washington. He was instructed to offer
the services of the United States in mediating the issue between
Burma and Taipeh.
In May the United States suggested that Burma, Nationalist China and
Thailand join with it in a four-power conference to discuss the
problem. After first balking at sitting down with Nationalist China,
Burma finally agreed. A four-nation joint military commission
convened in Bangkok on May 22. Full accord on an evacuation plan was
reached on June 22. The procedure called for the Nationalist
guerrillas to cross over into Thailand for removal to Formosa within
three or four weeks.
But the guerrillas refused to leave unless ordered to do so by Li
Mi. When the commission demanded his presence in Bangkok, the
general pleaded illness, then announced he would under no condition
order his troops out.
Negotiations and fighting continued inconclusively throughout the
summer of 1953, and Burma again brought the issue before the UN in
"Without meaning to be ungrateful," said the chief Burma delegate, U
Myint Thein, "I venture to state that in dealing with authorities on
Formosa, moral pressure is not enough. If something more than that,
such as the threat of an ouster from their seat in the United
Nations, were conveyed to the authorities on Formosa, or if the
United States would go a step further and threaten to suspend aid, I
assure you the Kuomintang army would disappear overnight."
Nevertheless, Burma agreed reluctantly to a cease-fire when
Nationalist China pledged to disavow the guerrillas and cut off all
aid to them after those willing to be evacuated had started out by
way of Thailand. The withdrawal, which began on November 5, was
disturbing to the Burmese from the start. The Thai police were under
the control of General Pao, the Interior Minister, who was involved
with the guerrillas' in the opium trade. And he refused to allow
Burmese representatives to accompany other members of the joint
military commission to the staging areas.
The suspicions of the Burmese were stirred anew when "Wild Bill"
Donovan, the wartime boss of the OSS and then Ambassador to
Thailand, arrived on the scene, flags waving, to lead out the
The evacuation dragged on through the winter of 1953-1954. It was
largely bungled, in the view of U.S. officials in Rangoon, mainly
because Washington failed to exert enough pressure on Taipeh. About
7,000 persons were flown to Formosa, but a high percentage of them
were women, children and crippled noncombatants.
On May 30, 1954, Li Mi announced from Taipeh the dissolution of the
Yunnan Anti-Communist and National Salvation Army, but by July
fighting had resumed between the guerrillas and the Burmese Army.
Burma returned to the UN but soon realized that the evacuation of
the previous winter "represented the limit of what could be
accomplished by international action." On October 15 the issue was
discussed in the UN for the last time.
Sebald resigned as ambassador on November 1, citing the ill health
of his wife, and returned to Washington as Deputy Assistant
Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. He was to spend the next
three years struggling to open lines of communication between the
State Department and the CIA so that the left hand of the United
States might know what the right hand was up to in its international
But the repercussions of the CIA's operation remained to complicate
United States relations in Burma. Despite the long and painful
negotiations, half of the Nationalist guerrillas, and the best of
them, were still deployed in Burma. They joined with other rebel
factions and skirmished repeatedly with the Burmese Army. It was not
until January of 1961 that they were driven into Thailand and Laos.
They left behind them, however, a new source of embarrassment to the
incoming administration of President Kennedy. As the Burmese
advanced, they discovered a cache of U.S.-made equipment, and the
following month they shot down a U.S. World War II Liberator bomber
en route from Formosa with supplies for the guerrillas.
The captured arms included five tons of ammunition packed in crates
which bore the handclasp label of the "United States aid program.
The discovery sent 10,000 demonstrators into the streets outside the
American Embassy in Rangoon. Three persons were killed and sixty
seriously injured before troops brought the situation under control.
Premier U Nu called a press conference and blamed the United States
for the continued support of the guerrillas.
Three U.S. military attaches were quickly dispatched to inspect the
captured equipment. They reported that the ammunition crates bore
coded markings, which were forwarded to Washington for scrutiny.
"If we can trace these weapons back," said an embassy official, "and
show that they were given to Taiwan, the United States will have a
strong case against Chiang Kai-shek for violating our aid
Taipeh refused to accept responsibility. It insisted the weapons had
been supplied by the "Free China Relief Association" and flown to
the guerrillas in private planes. The United States filed no formal
charges against Nationalist China.
Behind the scenes, however, W. Averell Harriman, the new Assistant
Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, moved quickly and
forcefully. He was a bitter opponent of the United States policy in
Asia during the Eisenhower years, particularly John Foster Dulles'
decision to "unleash Chiang."
Harriman considered the Dulles decision a form of theatrics.
Harriman felt that there was no hope of returning Chiang to the
mainland but that Dulles was forced, nonetheless, to commit the
United States to a policy of rolling back the Bamboo Curtain in
order to redeem his pledges to Nationalist China and the domestic
right wing. In Harriman's view, Dulles' decision led inevitably to
the transfer of responsibility for Southeast Asian affairs from the
traditional diplomatists in the State Department to the more
militant operatives in the Pentagon and the CIA.
With the full backing of President Kennedy, Harriman set out to
reverse the situation without delay. When informed of the new
guerrilla incident in Burma, he directed that Taipeh be firmly
impressed with the fact that such ventures were no longer to be
tolerated by the United States.
The Nationalist Chinese quickly announced on March 5 that they would
do their utmost to evacuate the remaining guerrillas.
But Harriman's forceful action had little effect in dispelling
Burma's suspicions about United States policy. And conditions took a
turn for the worse on March 2, 1962, when General Ne Win seized the
government in a bloodless army coup. Ne Win had intervened briefly
in 1958 to restore order and assure a fair election (the government
was returned to civilian control early in 1960). In 1962, however,
the general came to power with a determination to move the nation to
the Left and to reduce its traditional ties of friendship with the
Burma's economy was rapidly becoming more socialistic: the rice
industry, source of 70 percent of the nation's foreign exchange
earnings, was nationalized; private banks, domestic and foreign,
were turned into "peoples' banks"; and most Western aid projects
were rejected. Communist China was invited in with 300 economic
experts, an $84,000,000 development loan and technical assistance
for twenty-five projects.
Burma, which had been created in the image of the Western
democracies in 1948, was, a decade and a half later, turning toward
Peking. In 1952, when Ne Win rebuked Sebald for the CIA's role in
support of the guerrillas, Burma was struggling to maintain its
neutrality despite the ominous closeness of a powerful and
aggressive Communist neighbor, Now, with Ne Win in control, Burma
found its independence increasingly threatened.
The leftward turn of Burma's policy might have baffled the American
people, but it should not have puzzled the American Government.
Back to Contents
"SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE"
THE INDONESIAN anti-aircraft fire hit the rebel B-26 and the
two-engine bomber plunged toward the sea, its right wing aflame. The
pilot, an American named Allen Lawrence Pope, jumped clear and his
parachute opened cleanly. But as he drifted down onto a small coral
reef, the chute caught a coconut tree and Pope's right leg was
It was May 18, 1958, and the twenty-nine-year-old pilot had just
completed a bombing and strafing run on the Ambon Island airstrip in
the Moluccas, 1,500 miles from Indonesia's capital at Jakarta. It
was a dangerous mission and Pope had carried it off successfully.
But when the Indonesians announced his capture, Ambassador Howard P.
Jones promptly dismissed him as "a private American citizen involved
as a paid soldier of fortune."
The ambassador was echoing the words of the President of the United
States. Three weeks before Pope was shot down, Dwight D. Eisenhower
had emphatically denied charges that the United States was
supporting the rebellion against President Sukarno.
"Our policy," he said, at a press conference on April 30, "is one of
careful neutrality and proper deportment all the way through so as
not to be taking sides where it is none of our business.
"Now on the other hand, every rebellion that I have ever heard of
has its soldiers of fortune. You can start even back to reading your
Richard Harding Davis. People were going out looking for a good
fight and getting into it, sometimes in the hope of pay, and
sometimes just for the heck of the thing. That is probably going to
happen every time you have a rebellion."
But Pope was no freebooting soldier of fortune. He was flying for
the CIA, which was secretly supporting the rebels who were trying to
Neither Pope nor the United States was ever to admit any of this --
even after his release from an Indonesian jail in the summer of
1962. But Sukarno and the Indonesian Government were fully aware of
what had happened. And that awareness fundamentally influenced their
official and private attitude toward the United States. Many
high-ranking American officials -- including President Kennedy --
admitted it within the inner circles of the government, but it is
not something that they were ever likely to give public voice to.
Allen Pope, a six-foot-one, 195-pound Korean War ace, was the son of
a moderately prosperous fruit grower in Perrine, just south of
Miami. From boyhood he was active and aggressive, much attracted by
the challenge of physical danger. He attended the University of
Florida for two years but left to bust broncos in Texas. He
volunteered early for the Korean War, flew fifty-five night missions
over Communist lines as a first lieutenant in the Air Force, and was
awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war Pope returned to Texas, got married, had a daughter,
and was divorced. He worked for a local airline but found it dull
stuff compared with the excitement he had experienced as a combat
pilot in the Far East. And so in March of 1954 Pope signed on with
Civil Air Transport, an avowedly civilian airline based on Formosa.
He spent two months flying through Communist flak to drop supplies
to the French at Dienbienphu. CAT grew out of the Flying Tigers and
inherited much of its technique and swagger.
Pope found the outfit congenial. After Dienbienphu he renewed his
contract, rising in three years to the rank of captain with a salary
of $1,000 a month. He met his second wife, Yvonne, a Pan American
stewardess, in Hong Kong. They settled down in a small French villa
outside Saigon and had two boys.
Big-game hunting in the jungles of South Vietnam was their most
daring diversion. Pope was ready for an even more dangerous
challenge when the CIA approached him in December, 1957. The
proposition was that he would fly a B-26 for the Indonesian rebels,
who were seeking to topple Sukarno. A half-dozen planes were to be
ferried in and out of the rebel airstrip at Menado in the North
Celebes from the U.S. Air Force Base at Clark Field near Manila. In
the Philippines the planes would be safe from counterattack by
Sukarno's air force.
The idea of returning to combat intrigued Pope, and he signed up.
His first mission, a ferrying hop from the Philippines to the North
Celebes, took place on April 28, 1958. That was two days before
President Eisenhower offered his comments about "soldiers of
fortune" and promised "careful neutrality ... We will unquestionably
assure [the Indonesian Government] through the State Department," he
declared, "that our deportment will continue to be correct."
But Sukarno was not to be easily convinced. A shrewd,
fifty-six-year-old politician, he was a revolutionary socialist who
led his predominantly Moslem people to independence after 350 years
of Dutch rule. Sukarno knew he was deeply distrusted by the
conservative, businesslike administration in Washington. A mercurial
leader, he was spellbinding on the stump but erratic in the affairs
of state. He was also a ladies' man (official Indonesian
publications spoke openly of his "partiality for feminine charm" and
quoted movie-magazine gossip linking him with such film stars as
Gina Lollobrigida and Joan Crawford) and has had four wives.
In particular, Sukarno was aware of Washington's understandable
annoyance with his sudden turn toward the Left: he had just
expropriated most of the private holdings of the Dutch and had vowed
to drive them out of West lrian (New Guinea); he had requested
Russian arms; and he had brought the Communists into his new
From the start of its independence in 1949 until 1951 Indonesia was
a parliamentary democracy. The power of the central government was
balanced and diffused by the local powers of Indonesia's six major
and 3,000 minor islands stretching in a 3,000-mile arc from the
Malayan peninsula. But in February, 1957, on his return from a tour
of Russia and the satellites, Sukarno declared parliamentary
democracy to be a failure in Indonesia. He said it did not suit a
sharply divided nation of close to 100,000,-000 people. Besides, the
government could not successfully exclude a Communist Party with
over 1,000,000 members.
"I can't and won't ride a three-legged horse," Sukarno declared. His
solution was to decree the creation of a "Guided Democracy," It gave
him semi-dictatorial powers while granting major concessions to the
Communists and the Army.
The Eisenhower Administration feared that Sukarno would fall
completely under Communist domination. And that, of course, would be
a genuine disaster for the United States. Although its per capita
income of $60 was one of the lowest in the world, Indonesia's
bountiful supply of rubber, oil and tin made it potentially the
third richest nation in the world. And located between the Indian
Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, Asia and Australia, it commanded one of
the world's principal lines of communication.
Many of Indonesia's political leaders, particularly those outside of
Java, shared Washington's apprehensions about Sukarno's compromises
with the Communists. And many in the CIA and the State Department
saw merit in supporting these dissident elements. Even if Sukarno
were not overthrown, they argued, it might be possible for Sumatra,
Indonesia's big oil producer, to secede, thereby protecting private
American and Dutch holdings. At the very least, the pressures of
rebellion might loosen Sukarno's ties with the Communists and force
him to move to the Right. At best, the Army, headed by General Abdul
Haris Nasution, an anti-Communist, might come over to the rebels and
force wholesale changes to the liking of the United States.
On February 15, 1958, a Revolutionary Council at Padang, Sumatra,
proclaimed a new government under the leadership of Dr. Sjafruddin
Prawiranegara, a forty-seven-year-old Moslem party leader and former
governor of the Bank of Indonesia. A multi-party cabinet was
established, with representation from Java, Sumatra and Celebes.
"There is no cause for alarm or anxiety. Like
other countries, Indonesia has its ups and downs."
General Nasution promptly asserted his allegiance by dishonorably
discharging six high-ranking officers who had sided with the rebels.
A week later Indonesian Air Force planes bombed and strafed two
radio broadcasting stations in Padang and another in Bukittinggi,
the revolutionary capital forty-five miles inland. The attack,
carried out by four old U.S. planes, succeeded in silencing the
In testimony to Congress early in March, John Foster Dulles
reiterated the United States pledge of strict neutrality.
pursuing what I trust is a correct course from the point of
international law," he said. "And we are not intervening in the
internal affairs of this country ..."
On March 12 Jakarta announced that it had launched a paratroop
invasion of Sumatra, and the next week the rebels formally appealed
for American arms. They also asked the United States and the
Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to recognize the revolutionary
On April 1 Dulles declared:
"The United States views this trouble in
Sumatra as an internal matter. We try to be absolutely correct in
our international proceedings and attitude toward it. And I would
not want to say anything which might be looked upon as a departure
from that high standard."
A week later, commenting on Indonesia's announcement that it was
purchasing a hundred planes and other weapons from Communist Poland,
Yugoslavia and Czechoslavakia, State Department spokesman Lincoln
"We regret that Indonesia turned to the Communist
bloc to buy arms for possible use in killing Indonesians who openly
opposed the growing influence of Communism in Indonesia."
Jakarta responded angrily that it had turned to the Communists only
after the United States had refused to allow Indonesia to buy
$120,000,000 worth of American weapons. Dulles confirmed the fact
the same day but claimed the Indonesians were rebuffed because they
apparently intended to use the weapons to oust the Dutch from West
"Later, when the Sumatra revolt broke out," Dulles added, "it did
not seem wise to the United States to be in the position of
supplying arms to either side of that revolution ...
"It is still our view that the situation there is primarily an
internal one and we intend to conform scrupulously to the principles
of international law that apply to such a situation."
During the night of April 11, some 2,000 Indonesian Army troops
launched an offensive against the rebels in northwest Sumatra, and
at sunrise on April 18 a paratroop and amphibious attack was hurled
against Padang. Twelve hours later, after modest resistance, the
rebel city fell. Turning his troops inland toward Bukittinggi,
Nasution declared he was "in the final stage of crushing the armed
Throughout that month Jakarta reported a series of rebel air attacks
against the central government, but it was not until April 30 that
the United States was implicated. Premier Djuanda Kartawidjaja then
asserted that he had proof of "overt foreign assistance" to the
rebels in the form of planes and automatic weapons.
"As a consequence of the actions taken by the United States and
Taiwan adventurers," Djuanda commented, "there has emerged a strong
feeling of indignation amongst the armed forces and the people of
Indonesia against the United States and Taiwan. And if this is
permitted to develop it will only have a disastrous effect in the
relationships between Indonesia and the United States."
Sukarno accused the United States of direct intervention and warned
Washington "not to play with fire in Indonesia ... let not a lack of
understanding by America lead to a third war ...
"We could easily have asked for volunteers from outside," he
declared in a slightly veiled allusion to a secret offer of pilots
by Peking. "We could wink an eye and they would come. We could have
thousands of volunteers, but we will meet the rebels with our own
On May 7, three days after the fall of Bukittinggi,* the Indonesian
military command charged that the rebels had been supplied weapons
and ammunition with the knowledge and direction of the United
States. The military command cited an April 3 telegram to the
Revolutionary Government from the "American Sales Company" of San
Francisco. Robert Hirsch, head of the company, confirmed that he had
offered to sell the arms to the rebels but said he had done so
without clearing it with the State Department. In any case, he said,
the arms were of Italian make and none had been delivered.
The State Department flatly denied the accusation, and the New York
Times editorialized indignantly on May 9:
"It is unfortunate that high officials of the Indonesian Government
have given further circulation to the false report that the United
States Government was sanctioning aid to Indonesia's rebels. The
position of the United States Government has been made plain, again
and again. Our Secretary of State was emphatic in his declaration
that this country would not deviate from a correct neutrality. The
President himself, in a news conference, reiterated this position
but reminded his auditors, and presumably the Indonesians, that this
government has no control over soldiers of fortune ...
"It is always convenient for a self-consciously nationalistic
government to cry out against 'outside interference' when anything
goes wrong. Jakarta ... may have an unusually sensitive conscience.
But its cause is not promoted by charges that are manifestly false
"It is no secret that most Americans have little sympathy for
President Sukarno's 'guided democracy' and his enthusiasm to have
Communist participation in his government ...
"But the United States is not ready ... to step in to help overthrow
a constituted government. Those are the hard facts. Jakarta does not
help its case, here, by ignoring them."
The following week, one day after the United States officially
proposed a cease-fire, Allen Pope was shot down while flying for the
rebels and the CIA. However, the Indonesian Government withheld for
nine days the fact that an American pilot had been captured. On May
18 it announced only that a rebel B-26 had been shot down.
Nevertheless, with Pope in Indonesian hands things began to move
rapidly in Washington. Within five days: (1) the State Department
approved the sale to Indonesia for local currency of 37,000 tons of
sorely needed rice; (2) the United States lifted an embargo on
$1,000,000 in small arms, aircraft parts and radio equipment --
destined for Indonesia but frozen since the start of the rebellion;
and (3) Dulles called in the Indonesian ambassador, Dr. Mukarto
Notowidigdo, for a twenty-minute meeting.
"I am definitely convinced," said the ambassador with a big smile as
he emerged, "that relations are improving."
But the Indonesian Army was not prepared to remain permanently
silent about Pope. On May 27 a news conference was called in Jakarta
by Lieutenant Colonel Herman Pieters, Commander of the Moluccas and
West Irian Military Command at Ambon. He announced that Pope had
been shot down on May 18 while flying a bombing mission for the
rebels under a $10,000 contract.
Pieters displayed documents and identification papers showing Pope
had served in the U.S. Air Force and as a pilot for CAT. He said
Philippine pesos, 28,000 Indonesian rupiahs, and U.S. scrip for use
at American military installations were also found on the American
pilot. Pieters said 300 to 400 Americans, Filipinos and Nationalist
Chinese were aiding the rebels, but he did not mention the CIA.
Many Indonesian officials were outraged by Pope's activities, and
accused him of bombing the marketplace in Ambon on May 15. A large
number of civilians, church bound on Ascension Thursday, were killed
in the raid on the predominantly Christian community. But the
government did its best to suppress public demonstrations.
Pope was given good medical treatment, and he could be seen sunning
himself on the porch of a private, blue bungalow in the mountains of
Central Java. Although the Communists were urging a speedy trial,
Sukarno also saw advantages in sunning himself -- in the growing
warmth of United States policy. Pope's trial was delayed for
nineteen months while Sukarno kept him a hostage to continued
Late the next year, however, Sukarno found himself in a quarrel with
Peking over his decision to bar Chinese aliens from doing business
outside of the main cities of Indonesia. The powerful Indonesian
Communist Party was aroused over the issue and Sukarno may have felt
the need to placate them.
Pope was brought to trial before a military court on December 28,
1959. He was accused of flying six bombing raids for the rebels and
killing twenty-three Indonesians, seventeen of them members of the
armed forces. The maximum penalty was death.
During the trial, which dragged on for four months, Pope pleaded not
guilty. He admitted to flying only one combat mission, that of May
18, 1958. The other flights, he testified, were of a reconnaissance
or non-combat nature. Contrary to the assertion that he had signed a
$10,000 contract, Pope insisted he got only $200 a flight.
The court introduced a diary taken from Pope after his capture. It
contained detailed entries of various bombing missions. Pope
contended it listed the activities of all the rebel pilots, not just
his. He replied to the same effect when confronted with a pre-trial
confession, noting that he had refused to sign it.
Asked what his "real motive" had been in joining the rebels, Pope
replied: "Your honor, I have been fighting the Communists since I
was twenty-two years old -- first in Korea and later Dienbienphu ...
"I am not responsible for the death of one Indonesian-armed or
unarmed," he asserted in his closing plea. "I have served long
enough as a target of the Communist press, which has been demanding
the death sentence for me."
On April 29, 1960, the court handed down the death sentence, but it
seemed unlikely that the penalty would be imposed. It had not once
been invoked since Indonesia gained its independence eleven years
Pope appealed the sentence the following November, and when it was
upheld by the Appeals Court, he took the case to the Military
Supreme Court. Mrs. Pope made a personal appeal to Sukarno on
December 28 during the first of two trips to Indonesia, but she was
offered no great encouragement despite the prospect of improved
relations between Sukarno and President-elect Kennedy.
Sukarno received an invitation to visit Washington a month after
Kennedy took office. The Indonesian leader had been feted by
President Eisenhower during a state visit to the United States in
1956; and he had more or less forced a second meeting with
Eisenhower at the United Nations in the fall of 1960. But on most of
his trips to the United States, Sukarno felt snubbed. Kennedy's
invitation clearly flattered and pleased him.
The two men sat down together at the White House the week after the
Bay of Pigs. The meeting went well enough, but Kennedy was
preoccupied with the CIA's latest failure at attempted revolution.
During the visit Kennedy commented to one of his aides: No wonder
Sukarno doesn't like us very much. He has to sit down with people
who tried to overthrow him.
Still Sukarno seemed favorably disposed toward the new Kennedy
Administration. The following February, during a good-will tour of
Indonesia, Robert Kennedy asked Sukarno to release Pope. (Secret
negotiations were then far advanced for the exchange the next week
of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and Soviet spy Rudolph I. Abel. And
the White House was favorably impressed with the tight-lipped Mr.
Pope as contrasted with Powers, a CIA pilot who talked freely about
Sukarno's first reaction to Robert Kennedy's request was to reject
it out of hand, but when the Attorney General persisted, he agreed
to take it under consideration. Six months later, on July 2, 1962,
Pope was freed from prison without prior notice and taken to the
American Embassy for interrogation by Ambassador Jones and other
officials. Then he was put aboard a Military Air Transport Service
plane and flown back to the United States.
Pope was hidden away for seven weeks and the State Department did
not reveal his release until August 22. Pope insisted there had been
no secret questioning (such as that to which Powers was subjected by
the CIA on his return from Russia). The State Department's
explanation of the long silence was that Pope had asked that the
release be kept secret so he could have a quiet rendezvous with his
Back in Miami, Pope settled down to what outwardly seemed to be a
happy relationship with his family; but in December, Mrs. Pope filed
for divorce, charging him with "extreme cruelty" and "habitual
indulgence in a violent and ungovernable temper."
At the divorce hearing on July 2, 1963, Mrs. Pope testified that on
his return from Indonesia, her husband insisted upon keeping a
loaded .38-caliber pistol by their bedside, despite the potential
danger to their two young boys. She also asserted that Pope had sent
her only $450 since he had left her seven months before.
Mrs. Pope made no mention in the proceedings of her husband's work
for the CIA. A security agent of the government had warned her that
it would be detrimental to her case if she talked about her
husband's missions. She did not, and Pope did not contest the
"There's an awful lot of cloak-and-dagger mixed up in this," said
her Miami lawyer, Louis M. Jepeway, who otherwise refused to talk
about the case. "I can understand it, but I don't have to like it."
Mrs. Pope won the divorce and custody of the children on grounds of
cruelty. But she received no financial settlement because Pope was
declared outside the jurisdiction of the court.
On December 4, 1962, Pope had put his things in storage -- some
personal items, ten stuffed birds, four animal heads, one stuffed
animal, antelope antlers and water-buffalo horns. Then he left the
country to go to work for Southern Air Transport. The Pentagon
described this airline as a civilian operation holding a $3,718,433
Air Force contract to move "mixed cargo and passenger loads on Far
East inter-island routes." Its home address was listed as PO Box
48-1260, Miami International Airport. Its overseas address was PO
Box 12124, Taipeh, Formosa.
However, when asked what sort of work Southern Air Transport did,
the company's Miami attorney explained that it was a small cargo
line which simply "flies chickens from the Virgin Islands."
The attorney was Alex E. Carlson, the lawyer for the Double-Chek
Corporation that had hired the American pilots who flew at the Bay
* The rebels then moved their capital to Menado, which fell late in
Back to Contents
Winthrop G. Brown had been Ambassador to Laos for less than three
weeks when the right-wing military government, created by the CIA
and the Pentagon at a cost of $300,000,000, was overthrown without a
shot by a twenty-six-year-old Army captain named Kong Le.
Brown, a tall, thin, gray-haired Yankee, had been transferred from
New Delhi on short notice with only a superficial knowledge of the
long, tortured and expensive history of the United States experiment
in Laos. Yet even a quick look convinced him that the CIA and its
Pentagon allies were wrong in their assessment of the captain.
The young paratrooper and his battalion of 300 men had taken over
the capital city of Vientiane in a pre-dawn coup on August 9, 1960.
They had not been paid in three months and were tired of being the
only fighting unit in the quasi-pacifist army of 25,000. Kong Le was
personally outraged by the high-living, CIA-backed regime of General
Phoumi Nosavan. He decided to strike while Phoumi and his cabinet
were out of town inspecting a sandalwood tree that was to be turned
into a burial urn for the late king.
The CIA and the American military mission viewed the coup with
horror. They considered Kong Le to be Communist-inspired, despite
his many battles against the pro-Communist Pathet Lao. But
Ambassador Brown, a fifty-three-year-old former Wall Street lawyer
who tried to see things with detachment and a fresh eye, was
inclined to accept the American-trained paratrooper for what he
purported to be: a fine troop commander who lived with his men and
shared their rations; a patriot weary of civil war.
"I have fought for many years," Kong Le said. "I have killed many
men. I have never seen a foreigner die."
Laos is a pastoral land, blessed with magnificent scenery -- soaring
mountains, swift rivers, verdant valleys -- and populated by a
strange mixture of isolated tribes alike only in their distaste for
physical labor. It is the "Land of the Million Elephants," whose
only cash crop is opium, and whose people are 85 percent illiterate.
Almost all Laotians are Buddhists, peace-loving by instinct and
precept. In battle, to the dismay of their American advisers, they
were accustomed to aiming high in the expectation that the enemy
would respond in kind.
In 1960 the principal attraction of Phoumi's royal army to a recruit
was the pay -- $130 a year, twice the average national income.
Although United States aid had amounted to about $25 a head for the
two million Laotians, military pay was about all that filtered down
to the average citizen. More than three fourths of the money went to
equip a modern, motorized army in a nation all but devoid of paved
roads. All of this, as formulated by John Foster Dulles, was meant
to convert Laos from a neutral nation, vulnerable to left-wing
pressures, into a military bastion against Communism.
When the French withdrew in 1954, after a futile eight-year war with
the Vietnamese Communists, a neutralist government had been
organized under Prince Souvanna Phouma, a cheerful, pipe-smoking,
French-educated engineer. He held power for four years,
unsuccessfully struggling to integrate the two Communist Pathet Lao
provinces into the central government. Then, in 1958, after
Communist election gains and signs of military infiltration by the
North Vietnamese, he resigned.
Souvanna was followed by a series of right-wing governments in which
General Phoumi emerged as the strong-man. Finally, Phoumi succeeded
in easing out Premier Phoui Sananikone, an able man with advanced
ideas about grass-roots aid and Village development; he was also
firmly non- Communist but he had too many independent notions for
the CIA. He was replaced by Tiao Somsanith, a thoroughly pliable
Phoumi then rigged the 1960 elections -- not one Pathet Lao was
elected -- and settled in for a long, U.S.-financed tenure. Even
Kong Le's coup failed to dim his vision of permanent affluence. He
still had his army intact with him at Savannakhet in the south. And
he was unshakably convinced that the United States would put him
back in power. As tangible support for that conviction, Phoumi could
point to the personal contact man the CIA kept by his side.
He was Jack Hazey, an ex-OSS man and former French Legionnaire whose
face was half shot away during World War II. Occasionally, Hazey
would be challenged for being out of step with public statements of
U.S. policy. Clearly implying that he was under higher, secret
orders, Hazey would retort: "I don't give a damn what they say."
The conflict between the public and secret definitions of United
States policy on Laos was particularly pronounced in the summer of
1960. Shortly after Phoumi and his puppet Premier were ousted, Kong
Le called back Souvanna Phouma to form a coalition government. To
reduce the chances of discord, Souvanna then asked Phoumi to join
the government as Vice-Premier and Minister of Defense.
Ambassador Brown dashed off a cable to Washington urging unqualified
support for Souvanna's new government.*1 But the CIA and the State
Department decided to hedge: they announced formal recognition of Souvanna but continued substantive support for Phoumi. The decision
served to reinforce Phoumi's conviction that the CIA and the
American military mission would in the end put him back in power.
Brown persuaded himself that he had the complete backing of the CIA
station chief, Gordon L. Jorgensen, and the leaders of the military
mission; but Washington's ambivalent policy put the ambassador in an
embarrassing predicament. He tried to make the best of it by seeking
out Souvanna and asking him if he had any objections to the
continued support of Phoumi by the United States. No, the princely
Premier replied, provided the equipment was not used against him; he
would need Phoumi's army to fend off the Pathet Lao.
Brown then sent emissaries to Phoumi, assuring him that Souvanna was
not scheming to deprive him of his U.S. aid and pleading with him at
least to return to Vientiane and negotiate. But this man who had
been highly regarded by the CIA and the Pentagon for his fighting
qualities was afraid of venturing beyond his closely guarded
stronghold. He had a broken line in the palm of his hand and a
fortuneteller had once warned him that he would die violently. Even
under maximum security he wore a bullet-proof vest during all his
Confronted by Phoumi's intransigence, Souvanna began to despair of
his ability to carry on. He called in the Western ambassadors in
mid-September and warned them that he urgently needed the support of
the royal army. "I am at the end of my capacity to lead," he told
Souvanna's government was also in dire need of rice and oil, which
had been cut off by a blockade imposed by Thailand's military
strongman, Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, a close friend of Phoumi.
Washington said it was entreating Sarit to lift the blockade, but
the vise continued to tighten around Souvanna.
Early in October, J. Graham Parsons, former Ambassador to Laos and
then Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, flew to
Vientiane and demanded that Souvanna sever his relations with the
Pathet Lao. This amounted to a demand that the neutralist government
abandon its neutrality. Souvanna refused.
Then a high-level mission from the Pentagon, including John N.
Irwin, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs,
arrived for secret talks with Phoumi.
Souvanna concluded that the United States was in the process of
withdrawing all support from the neutralist government and again
throwing its full power behind Phoumi. Early in December he made a
final and unsuccessful appeal to Brown for rice and oil. In
desperation, Souvanna turned to the Russians, who saw an
irresistible opportunity: to achieve political dominance in Laos at
a cut rate and, at the same time, to replace the Chinese as the
principal Communist influence in Southeast Asia. Without delay the
Soviets started an airlift from Hanoi on December 11, 1960.*2
Two days earlier Phoumi had ordered his troops northward; and on
December 18 the royal army recaptured Vientiane. Souvanna fled to
Cambodia and Kong Le retreated to the north, distributing close to
10,000 American rifles to the Pathet Lao along the way.
Phoumi quickly established a government, naming Prince Boun Oum, a
middle-aged playboy, as Premier. But despite his recent military
success, Phoumi failed to pursue Kong Le. Instead, he settled back
into his old ways. He had never been within fifty miles of the front
lines and he saw no need to break with this tradition.
The Russians, meantime, were moving in substantial amounts of
weapons by air and truck. And the North Vietnamese began to
infiltrate crack guerrilla troops in support of the Pathet Lao. Kong
Le joined forces with them, and by early 1961 he had captured the
strategic Plain of Jars with its key airstrip fifty miles from North
By the time President Kennedy was inaugurated, on January 20, it
seemed as if only the introduction of U.S. troops could keep the
Pathet Lao from overrunning Vientiane and the Mekong River Valley
separating Laos from Thailand. Kennedy was so informed by President
Eisenhower and Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates, Jr., in his first
Laos briefing on January 19. Eisenhower apologized for leaving such
One of Kennedy's first official acts was to ask his military
advisers to draw up a plan for saving Laos. They recommended that an
Allied force, including U.S. troops, take over the defense of
Vientiane under the sanction of the Southeast Asia Treaty
Organization. The idea was to free Phoumi's army for a full-fledged
campaign in the Plain of Jars.
While weighing the advice, Kennedy ordered the Seventh Fleet within
striking distance of Laos and promised Phoumi substantial new
support if his troops would show some determination to fight.
Early in March, however, a royal army detachment was easily routed
from a key position commanding the principal highway in northern
Laos. The new administration became skeptical of Phoumi at the
The Allied occupation plan was further undermined when the British,
French and other SEATO powers (with the exception of Thailand)
balked at providing troops. In addition, the President could not
obtain assurances from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that U.S. forces
would be able to save Laos without resort to tactical nuclear
In a nationally televised news conference on March 23 Kennedy warned
that the Western powers would "have to consider their response" if
the Communist attack continued in Laos. The clear implication was
that the United States was prepared to intervene with military
force. But, privately, the President told Harriman that he decidedly
did not want to be faced with the prospect of using troops, that he
wanted a political settlement.
On April 1 the Russians, apparently wary of a direct confrontation
with the United States, agreed in principle to a British proposal
for a cease-fire. The next month a fourteen-nation conference on
Laos was convened in Geneva. And in the only meeting of minds at
their talk in Vienna in June, Kennedy and Khrushchev promised to
work for a neutral and independent Laos.
By November the outlines of an agreement had been reached at Geneva:
Souvanna Phouma was to be recalled to create a neutralist government
including the three Laotian factions, the pro-Western royalists, the
neutrals and the pro-Communist Pathet Lao.
But once again Phoumi balked. He refused to relinquish the Defense
and Interior Ministries, as was decreed at Geneva. If he held out
long enough, he reasoned, the CIA and the Pentagon would again come
to his rescue.
President Kennedy rebuked him in private messages, but Phoumi
steadfastly refused to submit. Had he not been told in 1960 that the
United States was determined to have him join Souvanna's coalition?
And in the end had not the CIA and the Pentagon supported him in his
return to power? And, as in 1960, were not the CIA representatives
still with him?
Washington was reluctant to yank out the CIA men abruptly.
Precipitate action could only diminish the agency's prestige and
usefulness. But Phoumi was proving so intractable that McCone,
acting on Harriman's recommendation, ordered Hazey out of the
country early in 1962.*3
Nevertheless, Phoumi's reliance on the CIA had become so firmly
ingrained that he could not be budged, even after the United States
cut off its $3,000,000-a-month budgetary assistance to his
government in February of 1962.
That spring Phoumi began a large-scale reinforcement of Nam Tha, an
outpost deep in Pathet Lao territory, twenty miles from the Chinese
border. Ambassador Brown warned him personally that the
reinforcement was provocative and that the royal troops were so
badly deployed that they would be an easy mark for the Pathet Lao.
In May, Brown's admonition proved accurate. The Communists
retaliated against the build-up, smashed into Nam Tha and sent
Phoumi's troops in wild retreat. Two of his front-line generals
commandeered the only two jeeps in the area and fled into Thailand.
The Nam Tha rout finally convinced Phoumi that he could not go it
alone; and the Pathet Lao, verging on a complete take-over, halted
when President Kennedy ordered 5,000 U .S. troops to take up
positions in Thailand near the Laos border on May 15.
The three Laotian factions finally agreed to the coalition
government on June 11 and the Geneva Accords were signed on July 23.
In October the United States withdrew the 666 military advisers
assigned to Phoumi's army.
But Communist North Vietnam failed to comply with the Geneva
agreement. It refused to withdraw about 5,000 troops stationed in
Laos in support of the Pathet Lao. On March 30, 1963, the Communists
launched a new offensive which brought much of the Plain of Jars
under their control.
The United States responded predictably: the Seventh Fleet took up
position in the South China Sea off Vietnam; some 3,000 troops were
sent to Thailand for much-publicized war games; and Harriman flew to
Moscow to confer with Khrushchev. The Russian leader reaffirmed his
support for a neutral and independent Laos. He also seemed to agree
with Harriman that the Pathet Lao was responsible for the renewed
fighting. It was clear that Moscow had lost control of the situation
in Laos to Peking and Hanoi.
At the same time, United States policy makers were becoming
increasingly convinced that Laos was not the right place to take a
stand in Southeast Asia. The assessment of the Kennedy
Administration was that most of the country, particularly the
northern regions, would never be of much use to anyone.
Administration officials were fond of debunking the Dulles policy
with the quip: "Laos will never be a bastion of anything." The
administration felt, nonetheless, that certain areas would have to
be retained at all cost: Vientiane and the Mekong Valley. But it
opposed the use of U.S. troops on any large scale.
In the event the neutralist government was about to be completely
overwhelmed, the official plan, as it was outlined at a briefing of
Pentagon officials by Dean Rusk, called for the movement of a modest
American force into Vientiane. This would be designed to provoke a
diplomatic test of the Geneva Accords. Failing in that, the United
States was prepared to strike against North Vietnam as dramatic
evidence that the Communist forces in Laos could advance farther
only at the risk of a major war.
So it was that by the start of 1964 after a decade of humiliating
reverses and the expenditure of close to half a billion dollars,
United States policy had come full circle: during the 1950s Souvanna
Phouma and his plan for a neutral Laos had been opposed with all the
power of the Invisible Government; now the United States was ready
to settle for even less than it could have had five years earlier at
a fraction of the cost.
*1 Later, Brown's only regret was that, restrained by a newcomer's
caution, he did not make the recommendation even more strong. A key
diplomat agreed: "Now we'd gladly pay $100,000,000 for that
Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi M. Pushkin told Harriman at the
Laotian talks in Geneva in 1961 that the airlift had been organized
and executed on the highest priority of any peacetime operation
since the Russian Revolution.
Hazey was then stationed in Bangkok, where he could be called upon
quickly in a crisis.
Back to Contents
THE SECRET WAR
WHEN NGO DINH DIEM was deposed and assassinated in an Army coup on
November 1, 1963, a bloody, frustrating decade came to a close for
the Invisible Government.
For nearly ten years the intelligence and espionage operatives of
the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department had been intimately
involved with Diem, attempting at every turn to shore him up as a
buffer against Communism in Vietnam. But in his last months the
Buddhist majority rose against the repressive policies of Diem, a
Roman Catholic, and the Invisible Government was forced to
reconsider its single-minded support. Now, with Diem dead, those
very American agencies which had helped him stay in power for so
long were accused by his supporters of having directed his downfall.
At the beginning, the Invisible Government had high hopes for Diem.
In 1954, at the age of fifty- three, the pudgy five-foot, five-inch
aristocrat returned to Vietnam from a self-imposed exile to become
Emperor Bao Dai's Premier. He had served under Bao Dai in the early
1930s, but quit as Minister of the Interior when he discovered the
government was a puppet for the French. The Japanese twice offered
Diem the premiership during World War II, but he refused.
When the French returned after the war, he resumed his anti-colonial
activities. He left the country in 1950, eventually taking up
residence at the Maryknoll Seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey (he had
studied briefly for the priesthood as a boy). He lobbied against
United States aid to the French in Indochina and warned against Ho
Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese Communist guerrilla leader.
Shortly after Diem's return to Vietnam, the French Army was routed
at Dienbienphu and the Communists seemed on the verge of total
victory in Indochina. President Eisenhower, aware of Ho Chi Minh's
popularity,*1 was looking for an anti-Communist who might stem the
Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles were impressed by Ramon
Magsaysay's successful campaign against the Communist Huk guerrillas
in the Philippines. They thought the same tactics might work in
Vietnam and requested a briefing by Edward Lansdale, an Air Force
colonel who had been a key figure in the CIA-directed operation in
support of Magsaysay.
Lansdale was called back from the Philippines to appear before a
special panel of intelligence and foreign-policy officials,
including Foster Dulles. He emerged from the meeting with a mandate
from Dulles to find a popular leader in Vietnam and throw the
support of the Invisible Government behind him.
Lansdale arrived in Saigon just after the fall of Dienbienphu and
found political and military chaos. He canvassed the various
factions in the city and the countryside and concluded that Diem
alone had enough backing to salvage the situation. He met with Diem
almost daily, working out elaborate plans for bolstering the regime.
He operated more or less independently of the American mission
assigned to Saigon, although he communicated with Washington through
CIA channels (the agency maintained a separate operation with a
station chief and a large staff).
Lansdale's free-wheeling activities in Vietnam provoked a mixed
reaction. To some, he seemed the best type of American abroad, a man
who understood the problems of the people and worked diligently to
help them. He was so represented under a pseudonym in the book The
Ugly American. To others, he was the naive American who, failing to
appreciate the subtleties of a foreign culture, precipitated
bloodshed and chaos. Graham Greene patterned the protagonist in The
Quiet American after him.
Lansdale thrust himself into the middle of Vietnam's' many
intrigues. In the fall of 1954 he got wind of a plan by several
high-ranking Vietnamese Army officers to stage a coup against Diem.
He alerted Washington, and General J. Lawton Collins, former Army
Chief of Staff, was rushed to Saigon as Eisenhower's personal envoy
to help Diem put down the uprising.
The coup failed, but Collins became skeptical of the stability of
the Diem regime. He favored a proposal to create a coalition
government, which would represent all the power elements and
factions in the country. The proposal was sponsored by the French,
who were maneuvering to salvage their waning influence in the
affairs of Indochina.
In the spring of 1955 Diem moved against the Binh Xuyen, a
quasi-criminal sect which controlled the Saigon police. He ordered
his troops to take over the gambling, opium and prostitution quarter
run by the Binh Xuyen. But elements of the French Army which had not
yet been evacuated from the country intervened for the avowed
purpose of preserving order and preventing bloodshed. Collins sided
with the French and a truce was declared.
Lansdale fired off a message to Washington through the CIA channel,
taking strong exception to Collins' decision. Lansdale argued that
Diem's move against the Binh Xuyen had broad popular support. He
also discounted the fears of Collins and U.S. Army Intelligence that
Diem's troops would turn against the regime.
Collins returned to Washington for consultation, then flew back to
Saigon with the impression that his views would be sustained. But in
his absence Lansdale had obtained a reaffirmation of the policy of
support for Diem. Furious, Collins accused Lansdale of "mutiny." But
the die was cast. Assured of the complete backing of the United
States Government, Diem crushed the Binh Xuyen and the other warlike
Then, at Lansdale's urging, Diem agreed to hold a referendum
designed to give the regime a popular legitimacy. The ballot
presented a choice between Diem and Emperor Bao Dai, who had been
discredited as a tool of the French. Diem polled 98 percent of the
vote on October 23, 1955, and was declared President of Vietnam. His
brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was established as his official political
Some measure of stability had now been achieved in South Vietnam.
But Diem and Nhu refused to grant political freedom to the
opposition parties, despite Lansdale's warning that the country
would be plagued by conspiracy if legitimate parties were not
permitted to operate openly.
Lansdale made a special trip to Washington in an effort to induce
the Dulles brothers to apply pressure on Diem to institute political
reforms in South Vietnam. But Lansdale failed. He was told that it
had been decided that Diem provided the only practical alternative
to a Communist takeover, and that he was to be supported without
Overruled, Lansdale lost his influence as the unofficial emissary of
the Invisible Government in Vietnam. Thereafter, the CIA took his
place as the secret link with the Diem regime. A CIA man was ordered
to establish liaison with Nhu. It was the start of an intimate
relationship which was to last until 1963.
During the next few years the United States committed itself
increasingly to the support of the regime. More than a billion
dollars in military and economic aid was provided between 1955 and
1960. But it was not until 1961 that the commitment became complete.
In the early years of Diem's role the Communist Viet-Cong conducted
only a hit-and-run guerrilla campaign against him. In 1959, however,
the Vietcong operations were greatly expanded. Two theories have
been advanced in explanation. The official theory of the State
Department was that Diem was bringing off a political and economic
"miracle" and the Communists could not bear the contrast to their
bad showing in North Vietnam.
Diem's critics offered a conflicting theory. They claimed the
populace had become so disaffected by Diem's repression that the
Communists decided the time was ripe for action. In 1960 a group of
young, discontented Army officers felt the same way. They attempted
a coup but Diem put them down without serious difficulty.*2
In any event, conditions had so disintegrated by 1961 that Diem's
government was master of only a third of the territory of South
Vietnam. In May of that year President Kennedy sent Vice- President
Johnson to Saigon.
On May 13 Johnson and Diem issued a joint communique stating that
aid would be provided for Vietnam on an expanded and accelerated
basis. The United States agreed to underwrite the cost of an
increase in the Vietnamese Army from 150,000 to 170,000 men, and to
equip and support the entire 68,000-man Civil Guard (armed police)
and the 70,000-man Self-Defense Corps.
But the Vietcong continued to advance, and in October, 1961, Kennedy
sent General Maxwell D. Taylor to make "an educated military guess"
as to what would be needed to salvage the situation.
Taylor recommended a greatly increased program of military aid. He
also saw an imperative need for reform within the Army. He cited the
political activities of the top military, failure to delegate enough
authority to field commanders, and discrimination against younger
officers on political and religious grounds.
Diem balked at Taylor's reforms and implied he might turn elsewhere
for aid. However, on December 7 he applied for assistance, and the
United States again came to his support.
No limit was placed on the aid either in terms of money or of men.
In effect, the United States committed itself to a massive build-up
for an undeclared war. At the same time, the administration took
great precautions to keep the build-up a secret, perhaps because it
violated the letter of the Geneva Accords,*3 perhaps because of the
domestic political danger if Americans were sent into another Asian
When the new U.S. Military Assistance Command was created on
February 8, 1962, about 4,000 American military men were already
serving secretly in Vietnam. However, the Pentagon refused to
comment on the troop level and attempted to imply that the 685-man
Geneva ceiling was still in effect.
Additional thousands of troops poured into Vietnam, but the Defense
Department continued the deception until June. Then Rear Admiral
Luther C. (Pickles) Heinz, who was coordinating the operation for
Defense Secretary McNamara at the Pentagon, permitted press
spokesmen to say that "several thousand" U.S. military men were in
Vietnam on "temporary duty."
In January, 1963, McNamara provided the first official figure. In
testimony before Congress he confirmed that 11,000 troops were in
Vietnam. But the Pentagon quickly reverted to generalities; asked in
July to comment on reports from Saigon that the troop level had
reached 14,000, it said that was "about the right order of
The Pentagon also went to great lengths to obscure the fact that
U.S. military men were involved in combat -- leading troops, and
flying helicopters and planes. The official view was that the
Americans were in Vietnam purely in "an advisory and training
capacity." Despite eyewitness reports to the contrary, the Pentagon
insisted that American troops were firing only in self-defense.
Military information officers were forced to ludicrous extremes in
denying the obvious. When an aircraft carrier sailed up the Saigon
River jammed with helicopters, a public information officer was
compelled to say: "I don't see any aircraft carrier."
There was a great deal more that was not seen. In 1961 a campaign
had been quietly started to put 90 percent of South Vietnam's
15,000,000 people into 11,000 strategic hamlets or fortified
villages. The program, patterned after the successful "new villages"
of the British anti-guerrilla campaign in Malaya, was designed to
protect the peasants against Vietcong terror.
Many claimed credit for introducing the strategic-hamlet idea to
Vietnam, including Nhu, who said he launched it with the blessing of
the CIA (a former CIA man ran the program for the Agency for
International Development). By 1964 more than three fourths of the
Vietnamese were listed as being protected by the hamlets. But many
of the peasants were forced into the program against their will and
many of the forts were easily penetrated by the Communists.
The Communists had also been successful in keeping open a supply
route from North Vietnam. Although the Vietcong's best weapons were
captured U.S. equipment, they received some additional supplies by
infiltration through Communist-held Laos, which borders on both
halves of Vietnam.
To cut the supply routes, the CIA decided to train the Montagnards,
primitive mountain tribesmen, as scouts and border guards. They were
induced to exchange their spears and bows and arrows for modern
weapons, including Swedish Schneisers (light machine guns).
Between 1961 and the start of 1963 the cost of the Montagnard
program rose from $150,000 to $4,500,000. The CIA achieved
considerable success in sealing the border, but in the process
perhaps created a Trojan horse: ten percent of the trained
Montagnards were judged to be Vietcong sympathizers, and the
Vietnamese, who regarded the tribesmen as subhumans, were fearful
that the weapons eventually would be used against them.
The Montagnard training was carried out by the Vietnamese Special
Forces, an elite corps created by the CIA along the lines of the
U.S. Army Special Forces. The CIA organized the Special Forces for
the regime well before the 1961 build-up and supported them at the
rate of $3,000,000 a year. They were chosen for their toughness and
rugged appearance. They were trained in airborne and ranger tactics
and were originally designed to be used in raids into Laos and North
Vietnam. But inevitably they fell under the control of Nhu, who held
the bulk of them in Saigon as storm troopers for the defense of the
By 1963 more than 16,000 American military men were in Vietnam.
United States aid had reached $3,000,000,000, and was running at an
average of $1,500,000 a day. The government declared itself
confident that victory was in sight despite the popular discontent
with Diem's rule.
Two Vietnamese Air Force pilots had bombed Diem's palace in
February, 1962. But the State Department discounted the significance
of the attack: "The question of how much popular support Diem enjoys
should be considered in terms of how much popular support his
opponents command. Neither of the recent non-Communist attempts
[1960 and 1962] to overthrow him appeared to have any significant
degree of popular support." 
Admiral Harry D. Felt, the commander of the U.S. forces in the
Pacific, predicted the South Vietnamese would triumph over the
Communists by 1966. And only a month before Diem was toppled,
President Kennedy and the National Security Council stated that "the
United States military task can be completed by the end of 1965."
But there were skeptics. In 1963 Senator Mike Mansfield returned
from a tour of Vietnam and declared:
"What is most disturbing is
that Vietnam now appears to be, as it was [in 1955], only at the
beginning of a beginning in coping with its grave inner problems.
All of the current difficulties existed in 1955 along with hope and
energy to meet them ... yet, substantially the same difficulties
remain if indeed they have not been compounded." 
The GIs in the
rice paddies summed it up in a slogan: "We can't win, but it's not
absolutely essential to pick today to lose."
This slogan reflected the awareness of many Americans in Vietnam
that Diem's popular support, always tenuous, was rapidly
disintegrating. The discontent broke into the open on May 8, 1963,
in Hue, Diem's ancestral home, when the Buddhists staged a
demonstration against the regime's ban on the flying of their flag.
Diem's troops opened fire, killing nine marchers. And in an effort
to arouse world opinion, Buddhist monks responded by burning
themselves to death in the streets in a series of spectacular public
protests. Madame Nhu, Diem's sister-in-law, ridiculed the suicides
as politically inspired "monk barbecue shows."
Diem was warned privately that the United States would condemn his
treatment of the Buddhists unless he redressed their grievances. But
to all outward appearances it seemed as if the United States might
be supporting the Buddhist repressions. For on August 2 Nhu sent the
Special Forces in a raid on the Buddhist pagodas. Hundreds of
Buddhists were jailed and scores were killed and wounded in a brutal
attack by forces which many Vietnamese knew were supported by CIA
Immediately after the raids, Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican
vice-presidential candidate in 1960, arrived in Saigon to be the new
ambassador, replacing Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., who had been
closely identified with the regime. Lodge quickly made it clear to
Diem that the United States wanted his brother and Madame Nhu
removed from power. After nearly a decade of support for the regime,
the United States was reassessing its position.
Even though the CIA decided to continue its $250,000-a-month subsidy
to the Special Forces during September, the funds were cut off in
October. And on October 4 the CIA station chief in Saigon, John H.
Richardson, was recalled to Washington at Lodge's request.
Richardson, a dapper, bald man with heavy horn-rimmed glasses, had
served as the CIA's personal link with Nhu. He was also close to
most of the regime's top officials, including those in the secret
police. From his small second-floor office in the American Embassy,
Richardson directed the agency's multifarious activities in Vietnam.
A hard liner, he had little use for Diem's opponents, and was the
very symbol of the Invisible Government's commitment to the regime.
As long as he remained in Vietnam, it was all but impossible to
convince either Diem or his enemies of any change in United States
When Richardson was recalled, many took it as evidence that the CIA
had been operating on its own in Vietnam in defiance of orders from
Washington. But President Kennedy assured a news conference on
October 9 that the "CIA has not carried out independent activities
but has operated under close control." The implication was clear
that Richardson's recall reflected a shift in policy, not
displeasure with insubordination.
The implication was not lost on Nhu. He charged on October 17 that
the CIA was plotting with the Buddhists to overthrow the regime.
"Day and night," he declared, "these people came and urged the
Buddhists to stage a coup. It is incomprehensible to me why the CIA,
which had backed a winning program, should reverse itself."
The coup against the regime came on November 1, but it was by the
Army, not the Buddhists. Diem and Nhu were assassinated. The United
States denied any complicity in the coup or the deaths. But Madame
Nhu, who had been in the United States bitterly attacking the
Kennedy Administration, indicated her belief that her husband and
brother-in-law had been "treacherously killed with either the
official or unofficial blessing of the American Government ... No
one," she said, "can seriously believe in the disclaimer that the
Americans have nothing to do with the present situation in Vietnam."
The United States repeated its denial. But at least one
distinguished American remained uneasy. President Eisenhower sought
assurances on the assassinations before floating a trial balloon for
Ambassador Lodge as the Republican nominee for President in 1964:
"General Eisenhower wanted to be assured on one paramount question,"
said Felix Belair in the New York Times on December 7, 1963. "He
wanted to know of the ambassador whether anyone would ever be able
to charge, with any hope of making it stick, that he had had any
responsibility, even indirectly, in the assassination of President
Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam and of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.
"Mr. Lodge was emphatic on the point. He said he had feared for the
personal safety of the two men if the military coup was successful
in that country. He said there was irrefutable proof that he had
twice offered them asylum in the United States Embassy and that
President Diem had refused the offer for them both."
What was intriguing about this account was the statement that
President Eisenhower found it necessary to make an inquiry of this
nature. But the former President, after all, had an intimate
understanding of the tactics and workings of the Invisible
*1 In his book, Mandate for Change, Eisenhower wrote: "I have never
talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indo-Chinese
affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the
time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would
have voted for Ho Chi Minh."
In April, 1963. at the start of the CIA's reassessment of its
links with the regime, Nhu accused the agency of being involved in
the 1960 uprising. But the commander of the rebels, Colonel Nguyen
Chanh Thi, who fled to Cambodia, said U.S. intelligence men tried to
discourage the coup and persuaded the rebels not to kill Diem.
The United States did not formally subscribe to the Geneva
Accords, which divided Indochina into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam
after Dienbienphu. But Bedell Smith, the delegate to the
negotiations, declared the United States would abide by them. The
Accords set a limit of 685 on the number of U.S. military men
permitted in Indochina.
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