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The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam
By Zalin Grant
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Edward Lansdale was dying, and we both knew it. I had begun my research for this book a few weeks earlier, in the summer of 1986, and I'd telephoned Lansdale without much hope that he would cooperate with me. He had taken some hard licks from journalists in the years following the war. But after I described my project, he grew enthusiastic and invited me to his home in McLean, Virginia, the next day. I had already scheduled another appointment, but we arranged to meet later in the week, and when I arrived he was anxious to get started. After taking one look at him, I knew that it was only a matter of months, if not weeks; and his wife, Pat, who also knew, was dedicated to making sure that he did not exhaust himself. Thus began several days of difficult and intensive interviews, with Lansdale cheerfully giving it his all, as I tried to reconcile my conflicting desires not to drain too much of his precious energy while taking advantage of his willingness to be extraordinarily candid.

Lansdale had met Pat Kelly (née Yapcinco) during his tour in the Philippines. She was of mixed Chinese and Filipino blood, the widow of an Irish-Filipino who had died during World War Two. She was working as a journalist when Lansdale met her, and she later took a job with the United States Information Service. Landsale arranged for her temporary transfer to Saigon after he arrived in 1954, and they continued their friendship. After his first wife died nearly twenty years later, they were married. It seemed appropriate that Pat Yapcinco Lansdale, an Asian, was destined to care for, in his final years, the man who so uncomromisingly had loved Asians.

Lansdale, I discovered, was enthusiastic about my project because I had mentioned that I intended to portray a Vietnamese side to the story, something rarely found in other books on the war, and would focus on the personal actions of the Americans involved in pacification, not on the kind of bureaucratic details that he detested. A formal biography of him by a military historian was already in the works, but Lansdale believed to the end that the emphasis should be on the Vietnamese, and the day we finished our interviews he inscribed his memoirs, In the Midst of Wars, to me this way: "To Zalin Grant, who also has a deep affection for the Vietnamese and is still writing books about their long war." He died eight months later, on February 23, 1987.

Unlike Lansdale, William Colby was in good health, but he seemed to be suffering, in his quiet way, from a case of boredom, as he went through the motions of working as an international lawyer. Colby had returned from Vietnam and had been appointed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, only to be caught in the congressional tornado that uprooted the CIA in the mid-1970s. Colby was fired by the Ford administration, apparently at the urging of Henry Kissinger, not for practicing the craft of duplicity that had been turned into a low art form during the Nixon-Kissinger years, but for not being duplicitous enough when dealing with the elected representatives of the American people. Opinion at the CIA was split about Colby's tenure as director, with some intelligence officers frankly hating his guts and charging that he had destroyed the agency, and others contending that he had done the right things as an honorable man.

Whatever Colby's reputation at CIA headquarters, it was hard to find anyone who had known him in Vietnam, journalist or government official, who had very much bad to say about him. In fact, he was considered such a straight arrow by the Vietnam crowd that the gossip about him after the war concerned his divorce and remarriage. Colby the good Catholic--divorced? Worse, as Colby obviously and painfully saw it, were the lingering rumors that his daughter Catherine, who died of complications resulting from anorexia in 1973 at age twenty-four, had in effect committed suicide in protest against her father's role in the Phoenix program. Colby was frequently confronted by this charge when he spoke at colleges and universities after his return from Vietnam. His most difficult moment, he told me, came one day at Princeton when a girl stood to accuse him of being an assassin and the reason why Catherine had committed suicide. He was shocked, Colby said, because the student resembled his daughter and even had the same red hair. Colby tried to explain that Catherine had suffered from epilepsy as a child, which led to a troubled adolescence, complicated by poor vision (and an operation for crossed eyes that wasn't entirely successful), and that in reality her happiest moments had been spent in Saigon. His explanation was confirmed by friends of the family, and no one who knew the Colbys gave credence to the rumors, though Colby's sensitivity to the tragedy and his continuing need to set the story straight perhaps suggested, understandably, the remorse of an absentee father.

A number of other former officials I interviewed were, like Colby, fighting their own boredom and letdown form the war and trying to put a brave face on it. George (Jake) Jacobson, who had served as Colby's deputy in the pacification program, asked me to tell everybody that he was thoroughly enjoying retirement and drinking a lot of scotch, though I suspected that only part of his statement was totally true. He died before this book was completed.

Lou Conein, too claimed that supreme happiness was to be found sitting in his suburban Virginia home doing nothing. Actually Conein told me that he was spending his time reading the Bible from beginning to end. When I relayed this startling bit of news to several of Conein's friends, they laughed and said, "Same ol' Lou--still doing the unexpected." Conein was in and out of the news in the years following his return from Vietnam. He was closely identified with the Diem coup; and then E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative whom he'd known in the OSS, called him to the White House at the time Daniel Ellsberg was under investigation for stealing the Pentagon Papers. Hunt was head of the "Plumbers," the group that carried out the Watergate burglary and set in motion the events that brought Richard Nixon down. Hunt's idea was to get Conein drunk, while secretly tape recording the lowdown on Ellsberg. But Conein, as he told me with relish, turned the tables on Hunt--or rather drank him under the table--and the ploy failed. Similarly, Conein proved too slippery for Hunt when Nixon's agents tried to link him to a plan to discredit the Kennedys by forging documents about the Diem coup. Conein served for a time with the drug enforcement agency and them retired completely from government service. His wife, Elyette, became a successful real estate agent.

Conein was in poor health when we talked. He had suffered a minor stroke not long before, and all the years of hard living were etched in his face. But, although the springy step was gone, the go-to-hell attitude was not. After I turned off the tape recorder, we were speaking about the publicity he had received, much of it negative, and he said, "I don't care what the sons of bitches write about me. Nobody can hurt me now."

Daniel Ellsberg, who lived in California near Berkeley with his wife, Patricia Marx, and their young son, Michael, had evolved into the professional man of protest. The very thing that made Ellsberg an interesting personality--his complex and contradictory intellect--worked against his ever truly succeeding as a protester who could inspire others by word or deed, though I had no doubt that given his energy and dedication he would wind up in some sort of book of records for the most demonstrations attended, most times arrested. One might have assumed that Ellsberg's apostasy on the war would have cost him the friendship of those with whom he had once served in Vietnam, but I discovered that, to a man, all of them continued to like him, especially Lansdale, even if they did not necessarily agree with what he had done.

The one person (besides Colby) in this account who actively disliked Ellsberg and his stand on the war died before his time--at least according to a book of memoirs published in 1989 by a former Vietnam correspondent, who wrote, "Keyes Beech, who had covered so many wars, passed away peacefully in his sleep." The journalists who knew Beech were appalled by the error, but Keyes himself, tough as ever, just laughed. Beech thought that the reporter, who was against the war, never got much straight, anyway. The premature obituary proved not far off the mark, however. Beech died the following year, in February 1990, at age seventy-six.

Happily, not all the stories about the people who had left the war concerned death and boredom. Some of them were doing just fine. Mike Dunn became the head of the Can Manufacturers Institute in Washington; Barry Zorthian also worked in a plush office, sometimes giving lectures and attending conferences for the "cottage industry," as he called it, that had grown up around the Vietnam War. Rufus Phillips still had his business, and Stuart Methven was connected to a defense-related think tank. Vint Lawrence had carved out a reputation as a Washington-based artist and illustrator.

Even after so many years, Chau was still on the minds of many of them. During my interviews, when we talked about him, the moment often tuned emotional. Some of the Americans looked away at the mention of his name; several of them were ready to cry. Chau had become a symbol to them, a symbol of everything that had been lost in Vietnam. I, too, felt tears welling in my eyes as we spoke. But the tears, I knew, were not so much for Chau, as for ourselves.

Next -- Special Report: Left Behind in Laos?