On this day 40 years ago the United States military “bugged out” of Saigon, leaving South Vietnam to fall to its communist invaders from the north.
There are stories in many newspapers across the country today marking this anniversary, but few if any refer to the anniversary by the name most veterans actually use: Bug Out Day. Not even stories penned by Vietnam-era veterans.
I’m not sure how the event got that ignoble appellation, but perhaps it came from Henry Kissinger. Here is a clip from a HistoryNet account of White House talks:
“Declassified transcripts of the meeting reveal Kissinger’s candid assessment of the unfolding situation in Phnom Penh and Saigon: ‘We have two nutty ambassadors. Dean wants to bug out. Martin wants a new version of the Easter Rebellion. He is supporting Thieu too strongly.’
“(President Gerald) Ford asked his secretary of state, ‘Supposing Ike, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon were president, what would they have done?’ Kissinger responded, ‘Kennedy would have ratted out. Nixon may have bombed, he was vicious in these things.’
“‘How about Johnson?’ asked Ford.
“‘He wouldn’t have bugged out,’ replied Kissinger. ‘His advisers would have tried to bug out.’
“Then Ford took a shot at President Kennedy: ‘Without appearing to do so, Kennedy probably would have bugged out, with some famous statement that would have disguised it.'”
The Vietnam police action, it never was a real war, altered the lives of millions of Baby Boomers, who were either drafted, dodged the draft in one way or another or joined the military to avoid the draft. I joined the Air Force, the branch of the military where the officers were the ones being shot at.
They told me my high test scores guaranteed me my pick of jobs. I picked journalism. No, you have to make three choices, they said, but you’ll get your top pick for sure. So I picked something else and my third pick was intelligence. Yes, I was sent to Denver to train for intelligence. I can’t tell you what planes our Air Force flies, but I can tell you what planes the Soviet Union had. We used to joke that there are three kinds of intelligence — human, animal and military, in that order.
After months of waiting for my top secret security clearance, apparently the FBI had a hard time finding anyone in the backwoods of north Texas to vouch for my character and integrity, I was shipped out to Thailand to work on McNamara’s Wall.
Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, some histories claim it was never built, though I seem to recall spending a year with my thumb in a chink of that wall.
Robert Strange McNamara was secretary of defense in the late 1960s. In his autobiography “In Retrospect,” he said he had misgivings about the conduct of the war as early as 1967, which, coincidentally, was about when his Air Force decided to send me to Nahkon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base — Naked Fanny, as we called it, which was a short but perilous bus ride to the town of Nahkon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong River just across from Laos, where Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor kept the Singha in the ice cream freezer — to work on his wall.
For me and thousands of others whose lives were changed, it might have been better for him to express his misgivings sooner.
My little piece of McNamara’s war deserved only a brief mention on page 246 of his book (The braces are mine, parens are his.):
“They concluded the bombing [of the Ho Chi Minh freeway, as we called it] had indeed been ineffective and recommended building a ‘barrier’ as an alternative means of checking infiltration. This concept, which had first come to my attention in the spring of 1966, would involve laying down a complex belt of mines and sensors across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian panhandle to the west. (the sensors would guide our attack aircraft to enemy forces on the move.) The barrier would be costly [that was the most secret aspect of the whole damned thing], but because our bombing was ineffective, I authorized it … Once it was put in place, the barrier was intended to increase infiltration losses. And it did.”
His intelligence from people with brass on their shoulders, and mine from inside a computer-filled, air-conditioned tin shed in the jungle, tended to differ.
Each of those sensors was said to cost the same as a Volkswagen beetle, which then was about $2,000. They would drop a series of them from aircraft. Some sensed seismic motion, some sound, some smell. How a jungle dwelling Loatian smelled any different than an infiltrating Viet Cong with his heavily laden bicycle was a mystery to the enlisted men manning the computers.
In those computers we kept track of what was being bombed, secondary explosions and fires, even sightings of POWs, which the F4s were supposed to avoid. But based on the assumption the POWs were moved frequently, the sightings were to be scrubbed after five days. After a while, not being a fan of assumptions or bombing of POWs, I stopped removing them. But someone else would later.
It was all so antiseptic, so high-tech compared to what was on the ground, beneath the three-tiered canopy of jungle, in the mud and the rain, the insects and the snakes.
McNamara said the project came to be known as McNamara Line, without mentioning the derisive allusion to the Maginot Line. We just called it McNamara’s Wall.
To this day I wonder if there was not some cosmic joke in the fact that as we walked from our monsoon-soaked hooches to that tin shed the lizards in the trees would make a mocking call that distinctly sounded like: “(Expletive) you.”
Thankfully, my wife’s uncle, who was in the military police on the base while I was there, never came around when we went over to the Jolly Greens’ (the guys who dangled from helicopters to rescue downed pilots in Laos) hooches to drink beer and smoke our nickel bags. Yes, a walnut-sized wad of seeds and stems wrapped in newspaper cost one baht, a 20th of a dollar.
The fact that the whole operation and its billion-dollar-plus price tag were top secret made it clear to me who the enemy really was. Those Viet Cong on bicycles didn’t care what it cost, though perhaps the taxpayers might, but it was secret.
By the time Saigon fell, I had finished college on the G.I. Bill and was working as a city editor at a small Texas daily newspaper. After working in an outfit were information was on a need to know basis, I had chosen to work in a field where the watchword was right to know. So, I guess you could say it changed my life, as I’m sure it did many others, including the 58,000 whose lives it ended prematurely.
Forty years later, is it pointless to ask what might have been?