Escalation 4

Despite the gossamer image that they projected in their silk ao dais, women played an important role in the corruption, using the positions of their husbands as a means to deal in gold, commodities and prop¬erty. Even today in Vietnam, the wives of Communist generals com¬mandeer military aircraft to fly from Hanoi to Saigon in order to loot the former southern capital of its residual treasures.
Inflation soared to dizzying peaks during the war, and the dwindling value of the South Vietnamese piaster fueled an epic black market in currency that drained America of millions of dollars a year. Various remedies were introduced, like readjusting exchange rates and issuing special scrip to GIs, but to no avail. The United States was bilked by imaginative “irregularities,” as the euphemism went, such as fake invoices for supplies that were never delivered. At one point, for instance, American investigators estimated that the amount of cement earmarked for Vietnam in a single year could have paved over the entire country. And the theft from PXs and American warehouses was so extensive that not only cigarettes, whiskey, hair spray and other consumer items but rifles, ammunition, helmets and flak jackets were for sale on street corners. Whole consignments of furniture, typewriters and fire extinguishers disappeared without a trace. Before he was caught, a Saigon truck driver spent two days vainly seeking a customer for a stolen computer worth more than $2 million.
To American officials under pressure to wage the war, however, the colossal waste was simply a factor in the equation. “The way we’re squandering money here, we could probably buy off the Vietcong at five hundred dollars a head,” I once said jokingly to Robert Komer.
“We’ve staffed it,” he snapped back. “Twenty-five hundred dollars a head.”
Judging from their destinies, though, numbers of senior South Vietnamese were either too honest or too incompetent to enrich them¬selves. General Tran Van Don arrived nearly penniless in the United States in 1975; Ky opened a modest liquor store in California despite his alleged gains, while Bui Diem, the ambassador to Washington, ran a Jewish delicatessen there before obtaining a teaching post at a nearby university.
But the graft and bribery corroded the Saigon regime less than did its almost total reliance on the United States. Even so, the South Vietnamese relationship with the Americans following the U.S. com¬bat commitment in 1965 was peculiar, complex and ambivalent.
Sensitive to Communist charges of “neocolonialism,” the United States formally upheld the integrity of the Saigon government. With America’s prestige and his own reputation at stake, however, Lyndon Johnson wanted the war prosecuted urgently and efficiently. So the concept of cooperation with the South Vietnamese evaporated—ex¬cept to a few romantics like General Edward Lansdale, who was back in Vietnam in a vague advisory job, still clinging to the dream of counterinsurgency. Now it was an American war, with Americans drafting the military operations and American soldiers bearing the brunt of the fighting. Thousands more American “specialists” were also assigned to the countryside to supervise pacification programs ranging from training local self-defense units to distributing irrigation pumps to peasants and dispensing health care to children. The United States, in short, was determined to save South Vietnam despite the shaky Saigon leadership.
South Vietnamese officials, aware that their survival depended on the United States, quickly adapted to the overwhelming American presence. Province chiefs, for example, learned to curry favor with their American advisers by entertaining them with dinners and girls— and especially by furnishing them with glowing progress reports that served to win the Americans promotions. Many South Vietnamese army officers also retained a mentalite de colonise from their days in the French forces, and they willingly submitted to American direction. General Buu Vien recalled after the war that nothing had boosted the morale of his colleagues more than the approbation of their U.S. advisers: “They never failed to mention how much they were appre¬ciated by their American counterparts, as though appreciation by American advisers was evidence of their success.”
This attitude characterized the highest echelons of the Saigon re¬gime. Bui Diem observed after the war that Nguyen Van Thieu, the head of state, had “always considered the American factor the most important element—if not the vital one—in every problem he had to solve, whether it concerned the future of the country or his own political future.” Prime Minister Ky shared the feeling, and he basked in the approval of the Americans. At a conference in Honolulu in February 1966, for instance, he delivered an address before President Johnson in pure Great Society language, pledging to carry out a “social revolution” that would guarantee everyone in South Vietnam “respect and dignity, and a chance for himself and his children to live in an atmosphere where all is not disappointment, despair and dejection.” Elated by the echo of his own voice, Johnson leaned toward Ky after the speech and said: “Boy, you speak just like an American.” Ky reveled in the praise—as did his American advisers, who had of course written the speech for him.
But while they recognized their reliance on the United States, the South Vietnamese leaders also perceived that they were abdicating their credibility to an enemy that could justifiably claim to represent Vietnamese nationalist legitimacy. They repeatedly tried to assert their sovereignty by defying the Americans in disputes that often resembled quarrels between an adolescent and a parent. They would sulk or rebel or maneuver mysteriously, their petulance betraying an uncomfortable sense of dependence and frustration with the growing American in¬trusion into their affairs. The more they resisted American guidance, however, the more the U.S. commanders bypassed them in the plan¬ning and pursuit of the war. Soon the Saigon government became little more than a facade, and its irrelevance augured its doom.
Johnson had improvised the Honolulu conference on the spur of the moment in order to divert media attention away from Senator Fulbright, who had scheduled televised hearings on Vietnam that, Johnson feared, would heighten public doubts about the war. The meeting opened with neither adequate preparation nor even a precise agenda. Johnson, undaunted by such details, used it as a pulpit from which to exhort American and South Vietnamese officials to win the war—telling them in Texas style that he wanted “coonskins on the wall.” He also extolled Ky, who returned to Vietnam, his vanity inflated, to upset the country’s delicate political balance. Listening to the rhetoric and observing its aftermath, I was reminded of a similar sequence of events five years before, when Johnson, then vice-presi¬dent, had unwittingly fueled Ngo Dinh Diem’s delusions of grandeur by exalting him as the “Winston Churchill of Asia.”

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