* * *
I will insist at the beginning that this is not a war story.
There have been plenty of those and will be many more, appalling
stories of nineteen-year-olds breaking down, frightened out
of their wits, or engaging in acts of unimaginable gallantry; and
often all three at the same time. The war stories were from a
different period, later on, when the war became an epidemic,
a plague like the Black Death. Society was paralyzed by fear.
Order broke down. Duty and honor were forgotten in the rush
to survive. Commanders deserted their units, friends turned their
backs. Among the population, individual burials were replaced
by burials en masse. The American morgue was expanded again
and again. Aircraft that brought fresh troops returned with coffins.
I remember watching a doctor perform an autopsy while
humming through his teeth, the identical note repeated monotonously.
His fingers were rigid as iron.
When he saw me, he looked up and whispered, Bring out your
But that time was not my time. That time was later on, when
things went to hell generally, and the best of us lost all heart.
My time was early days, when civilians still held a measure of
authority. We were startled by the beauty of the country, and
surprised at its size. It looked so small on our world maps, not
much larger than New England. We understood that in Vietnam
Americans would add a dimension to their identity. Isn't identity
always altered by its surroundings and the task at hand? So this
is a different cut of history, a civilian cut, without feats of arms
or battlefield chaos. If love depends on faith, think of my narrative
as a kind of romance, the story of one man with a bad
conscience and another with no conscience and the Frenchman
and his wife who lived in the parallel world, the one we thought
was a mirage from the century before, a bankrupt colonial milieu
that offered so many possibilities, as Dicky Rostok said.
We went to Vietnam because we wanted to. We were not drafted.
We were encouraged to volunteer and if our applications were
denied, we applied again. We arrived jet-lagged at Tan Son Nhut
airport where someone met us and hurried us off to wherever we
were billeted, usually a villa on one of the wide residential boulevards
that reminded everyone of a French provincial city. Even
the plane trees looked imported. And later that day we showed
up for work at one of the agencies or the embassy or Lansdale's
outfit or the Llewellyn Group and briefed an exercise that
had much in common with initiation into a secret society, Skull
and Bones or the Masons. We learned a new language, one that
excluded outsiders. We lived with one eye on Washington and
the other on Hanoi, and the Washington eye was the good eye.
The effort that was what we called the war, The Effort was
existential, meaning in a steady state of becoming. War aims
were revised month to month and often week to week, to keep
our adversary off balance.
There were thousands of us recruited from all over the government,
from foundations, think tanks, and universities, too;
even police departments. Sydney Parade had worked for a foundation
while Dicky Rostok was a foreign service officer, as was I.
A few of us went at once to the countryside, where we administered
various aid programs in collaboration with our Vietnamese
counterparts. We worked harder than we had ever worked in
our lives, or would ever work again. We were drunk on work.
Work was passion. We were in it for the long haul, and from the
beginning we swam upstream.
We reorganized their finances. We built roads, bridges, schools,
and airstrips. We distributed medicine and arranged for army
doctors to vaccinate the children and conduct clinics for the sick.
Our agronomists devised new ways to cultivate and harvest rice
and then introduced a miracle strain that grew beautifully but
did not taste the way Vietnamese expected rice to taste; so it was
grown and harvested and left to rot or exported to India. We
performed these chores every day, all the while trying to discover
what it was that kept the war going, even accelerating, month to
month. The success of the enemy seemed to defy logic. We had so
much and they had so little; our nineteen-year-olds were supported
by an arsenal beyond the imagination of the guerrillas
facing them. Or so we imagined, as we know next to nothing of
their personalities, their biographies, where they had gone to
school, where they were born, whether they were married or
single, what animated them beyond the struggle for unification,
a political ideal that could not account for their tenacious will;
think of Brady's photographs of the Union infantry. So we wrote
letters home describing Buddha's face. We described Vietnam as
we would describe the character of a human being we had never
seen but was famous nonetheless, an introverted personality replete
with legend, rumor, and innuendo.
After a few months, friends and family dropped their pretense
of polite curiosity. They had their own urgent inquiries. How are
things actually? The reports on the evening news are so confusing,
we can't make head nor tail of them. Are we winning this
war or losing it? Give us your opinion. Your letters are ambiguous!
Please give us the straight story, what's happening out there
really? What's the story behind the scenes? And later still, We
hope you know how much everyone here is behind you boys
and what you're doing in Vietnam. It sounds awful. We all appreciate
the effort. Is everything all right with you? Keep your
head down. Hurry home.
Of course there was no straight story in the sense of a narrative
that began in one place and ended in another. Nothing was
deliberately withheld; very little was known. This was exhilarating,
as if we were explorers in a land at the very margins of the
known world. We argued all the time, unraveling the legend
from the rumor and the rumor from the innuendo; and it was
Parade who suggested that we were imprisoned in our own language,
tone deaf to possibility. Parade thought the VC led the
charmed life of the unicorn, the beast of myth that could be
neither caught by man nor touched by a weapon. Rostok scoffed
at that. There was no such thing as a charmed life. There was
nothing on this earth that could not be tamed, given money
enough and time.
We ventured far afield to discover the logic to events. Perhaps
all occupation forces find themselves at odds with their hosts,
knowing at once that they are but a veneer to another, more
natural life, a life in-country that goes on as it has gone on for
centuries, a life as teeming and fluid and uncontrolled as the life
beneath the surface of the great oceans. We came to understand
that there was a uniform world parallel to the artificial world we
inhabited. Ours was swarming with shadows, dancing and fluctuating
day to day while the parallel world was symmetrical and
anchored, prophetic in a way that ours was not. It was this world
we had to enter in order to discover the nature of the resistance,
meaning a reliable estimate of the situation. We only wanted to
know where we stood, not so much to ask.
In the meantime there was an infrastructure to be built and a
bureaucracy to be put in place. The first was impossible without
the second, and it was the second to which Rostok devoted his
energies. He wanted his lines of authority to be unequivocal.
Sooner or later, Llewellyn Group, generously funded, superbly
organized, and staffed with the best minds, would discover a
means to infiltrate the parallel world and decipher it so many
possibilities, as Rostok said.
He had a flattened nose, perhaps evidence of a youthful fistfight,
and an unpleasant high-pitched laugh. He was always in motion,
his hands describing arcs, his head turtling forward as he inquired,
Huh? Huh? His memory was phenomenal, always an
asset in management, but he seemed unaware that an overactive
memory often blinded one to the circumstances of the present.
Rostok was not at all bookish, but that's often the case with men
of action. Those books he had read he invested with an almost
mystical significance; probably he believed that the mere fact of
his acquaintance gave them a kind of grandeur. Voodoo, Sydney
One of his favorites was Joseph Conrad, not the Conrad of the
African jungles but the Conrad of the open Asian seas, the coming-of-age
Conrad who was always conscious of the shadow line
between youth and maturity. Rostok believed that Conrad had a
particular purchase on the delusions that attended men organizing
themselves in difficult or dangerous situations. He liked to
recall Conrad's story of the marvelous sailing ship Tweed, a
vessel heavy and graceless to look at but of extraordinary speed.
In the middle of the last century she bested the steam mailboat
from Hong Kong to Singapore by an astounding day and a half.
No one knew what there was about the Tweed that accounted
for her exceptional spank, perhaps the shape and weight of the
keel, perhaps the placement of the masts, perhaps the ratio of sail
to the length and breadth of the hull. She was built somewhere in
the West Indies, teak throughout, the best of her breed and soon
to be left behind by the iron steamers. Such was her fame, and
such her mystery and allure, that officers of British men-of-war
came aboard to look at her whenever they shared a port. They
took meticulous measurements, they interviewed all hands, but
no one ever discovered her secret.
The Tweed's former skipper, Captain S --, thought he
knew. When Conrad met the captain he had transferred from the
Tweed to another ship, but his former command continued to
hold his allegiance. Captain S -- told Conrad that she never
made a decent passage after he left her helm. It was obvious that
his superb seamanship was the reason for her great success and
without him the Tweed was just another lumbering coaster. This
was the mystical union between ship and skipper, each ennobling
the other. Captain S -- looked on the sailing ship Tweed as
Rodin looked on a fat block of granite.
Something pathetic in it, Conrad observed.
And perhaps just the least bit dangerous.
But Rostok held with the captain.
My first posting abroad was in the consular section, Saigon, and
it was there that I met Dede Griffith, as she was known then.
Dede was already seeing Claude Armand, in effect dividing her
time between the tiny USIA office on Nguyen Hue Street and
Plantation Louver. When Claude was occupied I used to take her
to dinner at Guillaume Tell or Ramuncho, and in due course
we became good friends. Everyone liked Dede. When she and
Claude were married, I gave her away and never was a woman
happier to replace one name with another. Thereafter she was
Dede Armand and very quickly she dropped from sight, at least
from the sight of the American community, growing each day. Of
course I am the moron who failed to notify the lads upstairs
when Dede came to renew her passport.
I knew the members of Llewellyn Group. It was hard to miss
them, Rostok swaggering about the city like a Roman proconsul,
though it was difficult to know exactly what he did, his specific
brief, his place in the bureaucratic scheme of things. I got to
know Sydney Parade very well because I was the one detailed to
drive to Tay Thanh to tell him that his father had died. He was
terribly upset at the news, it was obvious they were very close.
Sydney had his father's photograph in his desk next to the IN and
OUT boxes. He invited me to stay for a drink and dinner and we
spent the evening talking about his father and about the Armands.
In the course of that evening and other evenings, I learned what
he and Rostok were up to. Sydney spoke openly with me, probably
because I was a junior consular official with no friends in
high places and no motive to tell tales; not that there were many
to tell. Also, Sydney was short. When his father died, he had only
one month remaining in-country. Or, as he peevishly reminded
me, twenty-eight days, seven hours, and umpty-ump minutes. I
was short, too, but I wasn't counting the days.
I returned to the State Department after three years in Saigon.
And by 1974 I was back there, a little more seasoned now after
tours in Foggy Bottom, Morocco, and the Philippines. I was
assigned to the political section of Embassy Saigon a kind of
morbid practical joke, since by 1974 there were no politics, only
the promise of more war despite the secretary's personal assurance:
"Peace is at hand." In a way he was right, but it wasn't
the peace he had promised and it wasn't at hand. At last, with
American troops mostly withdrawn, the civilians were in charge
once again. That meant we occupied the wheelhouse as the ship
drifted toward the shoals.
It is the simple truth that I was one of the last Americans to
leave from the roof of Embassy Saigon on April 30, 1975, our
day of dishonor and of rough justice, too. We had been at it
for so long, and when the end came it was almost with relief;
we don't have to do this anymore. For as long as I live on this
earth I will remember the bitter odor of smoldering greenbacks. I
thought of burning fruit. I stood at the door of the strongroom
watching an overweight marine sergeant feed the stacks of currency
into a makeshift fire, the smoke of thousands of dollars
filling the corridor. He whistled while he worked. I hoped the
stench would reach Washington, D.C., and remain there for a
generation. I remember the patience and courtesy of the staff
crowded on the narrow stairs leading to the roof, the dark jokes
and hesitant laughter, everyone listening to the crash of explosives
advancing from the northwest. We knew we were present at
the end of something momentous, and not only a lost war or lost
innocence, either. That's a European idea, and they're welcome
to it. I believe we knew on that day that our choices had been
reduced to two: fear of the known or fear of the unknown, and
for the rest of our lives we would fear the known thing.
Vietnam. You kept meeting the same people as you moved
from post to post, diplomats you had served with, and of course
the foreign correspondents. We were all connoisseurs of Third
World adversity. I remember vividly a party I gave a few years
ago. We sat up very late, about a dozen of us, diplomats and
journalists; all of us had served in Vietnam during the early days.
We made our bones in Vietnam, as American gangsters like to
say and none of us went home. It is equally true that none of
our careers suffered, far from it. Service in the war gave you a leg
up the ladder, even though, as seems so obvious now but wasn't
obvious then, we were searching in a dark room for a black hat
that wasn't there. And the same was true for the soldiers, at least
for the officers. We survived and our reputations survived with
us, and we, most of us, went on to succeed handsomely in the
wider world. There is some irony here but no need to dwell upon
it. The ironies of the effort are well known.
Yet for some of us the episode was only that, a brief wrestle in
a dark room, a distant memory, so distant that whatever pleasure
or pain there was has been forgotten. The foreign correspondents
went on to other wars in other regions and we, too. We
were there with them. Some of them and some of us finally gave
up on the Third World we had been at the roulette table for
too long, unsuccessfully playing the same number and moved
on to senior positions in London or Paris or Washington, or out
of the business altogether, into banking or public relations, lobbying,
consulting, where we could use the friendships we'd made
and the valuable knowledge we'd gathered. The wars and famines
were for younger men and women with faster feet and uncrowded
personal lives and a powerful appetite for the unknown
I was always surprised at those who were able to move on
easily from Vietnam, the war one more experience in a lifetime
of experiences, neither the worst nor the least. So vivid then, it
receded, leaving only fugitive souvenirs and a few friendships.
This was evident that night in my villa when we fell to talking of
the early days of the Effort, the mid-1960s, before things went to
hell and the plague arrived. Naturally we reminisced about our
many blunders and about personalities, both the living and the
dead. Six of us in the room remembered everyone mentioned,
looks, job, eccentricities. Anecdote followed anecdote. I opened
another bottle of cognac.
When someone said, Whatever happened to Dicky Rostok?, I
did not reply. I wanted to hear what the others knew, because
Rostok had gone to considerable trouble not to make himself the
black hat in the dark room.
One of the journalists laughed, not unkindly. He said that
Rostok had stayed on in Vietnam until early 1968. Then, with
his usual exquisite sense of timing, he resigned from the foreign
service and went home. About two days before the Tet Offensive.
Can you believe it?
Yes, I said.
You mean he knew?
Rostok had a nose, I said.
I saw him in Switzerland not long after the war, the journalist
went on. He was running some stock fund, living very well in
Zurich. He tried to get me into the fund but I didn't have any
money and told him so. Mistake, he said. His fund was one of
the most successful in Europe and friends always got a discount.
He said he had turned down an ambassadorship because he
needed to make money. He had a new wife. And the new wife
had expensive tastes. Then he went into insurance, selling life
insurance to GIs, as I remember. But there was something not
quite right about the way he went about it. There were complaints
and an investigation. A congressional committee held
hearings but nothing came of them.
Funeral insurance, I said.
Was it funeral?
Black limousines, a bronze coffin, a gravesite in the cemetery
of your choice, a Spanish veil for your mother, and an entertainment
allowance for the party afterward. There were other
benefits but I forget what they were. He made a lot of money
before the company folded, 1970 was a great year for him.
I don't know anything about that, the journalist said. I never
knew him well in the war. But when anything hush-hush was
going on I'd pay him a call and he'd give me some help. Dicky
liked ink. Dicky had time for you. And that paid off for him. I
was thinking that we all learned a lot in Vietnam, especially at
the beginning when we pulled together, trying to find our way.
No one wanted to be left behind. Rostok was good where it
counted. I can't remember the name of that outfit of his
Llewellyn Group, I said.
Yes, the Llewellyns. They were spooks, weren't they?
They weren't spooks, I said.
I thought they were spooks. They acted like spooks. Rostok
had a deputy, wouldn't give us dick when we came around for
information. What was his name?
Sydney Parade, I said.
Yes, Parade. Whatever happened to him?
One of the other journalists cleared his throat and said irritably,
Who the hell was Sydney Parade?
Friend of Dicky Rostok's, I said mischievously.
I don't remember any Parade.
He went into teaching, I said. But I did not add that he'd
retired and now spent his days alone on an island off Cape Cod,
reading his books, watching the evening news, and sketching the
pier that adjoined his house, one line drawing after another.
Sydney believed in repetition.
The reporter shrugged; he had no interest in anyone who had
gone into teaching.
Sydney was only there for a year, I said.
Just a bit player in the war.
So the end of my narrative has come at the beginning, as if
you are standing at a distance and hear the echo of the bells and
can only guess at their size and location. It is always necessary
to look forward and backward at the same time. Only in that
way can we preserve our identities and live truthfully. You know
the end of things as well as I do. We cannot pretend not to know
them or deny that they exist. When we relate events from the
past we know the results and must acknowledge them, whether
or not they bring us understanding, or consolation, or shame.
The year is 1965, before the Effort, begun so modestly, turned
into something monstrous. Take the measurements, interview all
hands, and there's still a mystery at the heart of it. Sydney Parade
told me Rostok's version of Conrad's tale of the Tweed and her
dangerous skipper, and some of the other stories that appear in
this book. Sydney was not always kind to himself, owning to his
bad conscience and, by his own admission, to his naïveté in the
beginning. Rostok was usually straight with the facts, though his
ego got in the way of everything he did and didn't do. I have
always believed that a mountainous ego resulted from an absence
I play no part in this narrative and will shortly disappear from
it. I would not be writing it now except for my position in the
middle of things. I was the only one in-country intimate with the
four principals, Rostok, Parade, the Frenchman, and the Frenchman's
wife yes, and Gutterman, too. Do not forget for a moment
that I was also present in Vietnam years later, when the
country was unified by force, and Rostok and Parade were long