The Chopstick Torture
Lansdale’s first priority was to make preparations for the evacuation of anyone who wanted to leave North Vietnam, which under the Geneva Accords had to be completed by October 10, 1954. The French were expecting no more than 30,000 people, but by early August 1954 some 120,000 refugees had already streamed into Hanoi and Haiphong, and a seemingly endless flow of refugees kept arriving every day. The populations of entire Catholic villages in the North were leaving en masse, dragging all their belongings with them. The French did not have the resources to transport more than a small fraction, and the American ambassador in Saigon, Donald Heath, was, in the words of a subordinate, “cool to the prospect of saddling the already shaky Diem regime with the logistic and political problems inherent in a major influx from the North.”
Lansdale argued that by encouraging migration, the United States could undermine the Vietminh by showing how unpopular their rule was while bolstering South Vietnam with anti-Communist newcomers. On August 5, 1954, at his urging, Heath telegrammed Washington, “It is our considered judgment here that this vitally important mass movement of non-Communist population from North Vietnam will be a failure with political and psychological repercussions that may well be disastrous unless US steps boldly and strongly forward and deals with problem.” Lansdale later said he had written the telegram himself, using “‘hard sell’ tactics to put it over,” while also sending his own personal appeal to Allen Dulles.
Thus was born what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom. The U.S. Navy assembled a flotilla of vessels to ferry refugees south. Lansdale persuaded the French, using American funds, to hire Civil Air Transport to evacuate refugees by air. (CAT was a CIA-run airline that in 1959 would be renamed Air America.) Lansdale was “very mindful of the Palestinian refugees, and how badly that had been handled,” with the Palestinians settling after the birth of Israel in squalid refugee camps in neighboring Arab states, where they became ripe for radicalization. Therefore, he insisted, the newcomers should be integrated into South Vietnamese society rather than sent to refugee camps.
The first U.S. Navy ship transporting refugees left Haiphong, a gritty industrial center and railroad hub as well as an important port, on August 17, 1954. Howard Simpson, an American embassy information officer, traveled to Hanoi to accompany one such shipload south. The journey began, he wrote, when “trucks arrived in a din of squeaking brakes, banking tailgates, and authoritative shouting” to discharge eighteen hundred refugees at Haiphong harbor. “Old men and women, their high cheekbones straining at wrinkled flesh, had to be lifted out of the truck by the more able. Bare-bottomed children tottered around the base of the truck, grasping their parents, who were loaded down with household effects, sleeping mats, and fire-blackened pots.” Once onboard, they were deloused and “served generous portions of rice from huge stainless-steel vats.” Families camped out on the open decks. Children, wearing sailor hats and baseball caps, were given chewing gum and Hershey bars by American sailors. Navy doctors treated tuberculosis and malnutrition. At night a screen was rigged up and “the mesmerized refugees watched the glittering productions of Hollywood, murmuring, clucking their tongues and laughing at the international language of slapstick.”
When the refugee ship steamed into Saigon three days later, it was met by a delegation of American embassy and military wives in dresses, hats, and gloves. As if greeting new neighbors next door, they handed out welcome gifts to each family—“several bananas and a large, cellophane-wrapped block of American cheese.” The Vietnamese politely took what they were offered, but within twenty-four hours the complaints started coming back—the “American soap . . . didn’t produce suds or clean properly.” “When the refugees finally discovered they were dealing with cheese,” Simpson wrote, “they sold it to middlemen, who in turn sold it to Saigon’s street merchants, who sold it back to Americans at an inflated price. For months, toasted cheese hors d’oeuvres were a feature at official American receptions in Saigon.”
Though the undertaking had its comical, clash-of-culture aspects, Operation Passage to Freedom was an undoubted success. Some nine hundred thousand refugees moved south, roughly two-thirds of them Catholics, while only thirty thousand people—mostly Vietminh cadres—went north. “By 1956,” notes one historian, “the Diocese of Saigon had more Catholics than Paris or Rome.” Not only did these Catholics enlarge Ngo Dinh Diem’s political base, but their departure from the Communist-dominated North was a propaganda windfall for the “Free World.”
Numerous Western publications exuberantly covered the exodus from the North. Most influential of all was a best-selling memoir, Deliver Us from Evil, written by a young U.S. Navy doctor named Thomas Dooley who had provided medical care for northerners. He recounted not only the altruism of American sailors taking care of woebegone refugees but also the supposedly fiendish “Oriental tortures” being perpetuated behind the “Bamboo Curtain” that were causing so many people to flee. One of his most lurid anecdotes concerned the fate suffered by students who had attended a Catholic class: Vietminh soldiers jammed wooden chopsticks into their ears, piercing their eardrums, to ensure they could never hear any religious teaching again. “The shrieking of the children could be heard all over the village,” Dooley wrote.
First appearing in April 1956 in Reader’s Digest, at the time the world’s best-selling magazine with twenty million subscribers, and then published as a book in its own right, Deliver Us from Evil became the very first best seller to come out of Vietnam. It influenced how a whole generation of Americans thought about the country. By 1960, the book’s young, handsome, Catholic author had become one of the ten most-admired people in the United States—right up there with Albert Schweitzer and Winston Churchill. Many called him Dr. America, as if he were a superhero like Captain America.
But there was more to the story than most readers realized. In the first place, Dr. Dooley was not the paragon of Catholic rectitude that he was made out to be. He was a homosexual who was forced to resign from the Navy for his sexual behavior in 1956. Given that homosexuality was still a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Dooley might have been court-martialed had he not been so useful in publicizing the Navy’s success in Operation Passage to Freedom. According to many of those who worked with him, Dooley was also a consummate “bullshit artist” who exaggerated his own role in helping Vietnamese refugees and simply made up many of the atrocity stories about the Vietminh. His book was written with the help of Captain William Lederer, a Navy public affairs officer and a friend of Lansdale’s, yet even Lederer was to say, “The atrocities he described . . . either never took place or were committed by the French.”
Did Dooley concoct these horrors from whole cloth, or was he merely passing along rumors that he had heard? Some light is shed on this question by the embassy information officer Howard Simpson. He recalled having an argument in 1954 with none other than Edward Lansdale “over a propaganda story” he had heard while visiting the North “about village children whose eardrums had been ruptured by the insertion of chopsticks during a Vietminh torture session.” Simpson was as anti-Communist as the next American, but he had been in Vietnam since 1952 and “there was something about the account that didn’t ring true. I had seen and heard enough of torture by both sides during my time in the field. Chopsticks had never featured as a preferred instrument. There were many more direct, simple, and horrifying methods.” When questioned, however, “Lansdale only flashed his all-knowing smile and changed the subject.”
The implication is that Lansdale and his team spread the chopstick story and that it was then picked up by Dooley. This is plausible, even probable, because Lansdale was using every psywar technique in his repertoire to encourage emigration to the South and many of them were even more fanciful and lurid than the chopstick torture.
One “black psywar strike in Hanoi” of which Lansdale was particularly proud involved leaflets purportedly “signed by the Vietminh instructing Tonkinese [northern Vietnamese] on how to behave for the Vietminh takeover of the Hanoi region”—including instructions to make an inventory of their personal property so that the Vietminh would know how much to confiscate. Lansdale bragged that “the day following the distribution of these leaflets, refugee registration tripled. Two days later Vietminh currency was worth half the value prior to the leaflets.” In a midcentury forerunner of “fake news,” another handbill showed a picture of Hanoi with three circles of nuclear annihilation superimposed on it, implying that it was about to be atomic-bombed by the United States. Other fliers claimed “Christ Has Gone to the South” and “The Virgin Mary Has Departed from the North.”
When Polish and Russian ships arrived in the South to transport Vietminh sympathizers to the North, a pamphlet, attributed to a nonexistent Vietminh Resistance Committee, reassured “the Vietminh they would be kept safe below decks from imperialist air and submarine attacks, and requested that warm clothing be brought.” This was accompanied by a “rumor campaign that the Vietminh were being sent into China as railroad laborers.” Because this propaganda painted such a “scary picture” of life in the North, Lansdale claimed, “there was a really significant refusal to go North”—not on the part of hardened Vietminh operatives, many of whom were ordered to remain behind in any case, but, rather, among the impressionable teenagers whom Hanoi hoped to lure north for insurgent training and subsequent infiltration back into the South.
To bolster morale in the South, Lansdale’s team had a Vietnamese agent, a refugee journalist from the North, prepare a series of “Thomas Paine type” essays “on Vietnamese patriotism” that appeared in a newspaper owned by a Vietnamese woman who was “the mistress of an anti-American French civilian.” “Despite anti-American remarks by her boy friend,” Lansdale wrote, “we had helped her keep her paper from being closed by the government . . . and she found it profitable to heed our advice on the editorial content of her paper.” The Saigon Military Mission even hired a soothsayer to produce an almanac that predicted good fortune for the South and calamitous tidings for the North. So popular did this eight-page publication become that the CIA made a profit on it that was used to fund refugee resettlement.
Many of these propaganda products were distributed in the South by Vietnamese soldiers in plain clothes; others were infiltrated into the North and distributed by North Vietnamese agents. One of these local agents, who happened to be the chief of police in Hanoi, was arrested by French police after an early-morning car chase through the city; the phony “Vietminh” posters that he was distributing were so convincing that he was held as a suspected Vietminh operative. Lansdale had to ask Diem, who thought the police chief was a “traitor,” to intercede with the French to get him released.
The French were not the only ones fooled by Lansdale’s black propaganda. In the summer of 1954, Lansdale received orders from CIA headquarters in Washington to investigate intelligence “that three Chinese Communist divisions had crossed the border into North Vietnam.” He found that the reports originated with a rumor campaign that had been started by the South Vietnamese army’s G-5, at his suggestion, to create the impression that the Vietminh were tools of Chinese imperialists. “Officials in Washington let it be known subsequently,” Lansdale said, “that they did not appreciate the joke.”
Lansdale was later to deny that his propaganda efforts were responsible for the exodus of refugees from North to South Vietnam. “People don’t leave ancestral homes that they care a lot about without a very good reason, particularly in Asia,” he said. “So it took tremendous personal fear to get them to leave, and when a million of them did it, it wasn’t just words and propaganda making them do it.” But Lansdale’s propaganda unquestionably did help—as did his efforts to facilitate their movement. Bernard Fall, a leading authority on Vietnam, would write, “Although there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese would have fled Communist domination in any case, the mass flight was admittedly the result of an extremely intensive, well-conducted, and, in terms of its objective, very successful American psychological warfare operation.”
Lansdale followed up this initial success by publicizing the fact that Vietnamese were voting with their feet against Communism, a “propaganda job” assisted by other CIA stations around the Far East. There is no evidence that Tom Dooley ever became a CIA “asset,” but even if he was not on the payroll, Lansdale helped to spread his story far and wide. This included persuading Diem to award a medal to Dooley along with other Americans who participated in the sealift. Lansdale typed up the proclamation himself. Unfortunately, “Dr. America” did not have long to enjoy his fame; he was to die of cancer in 1961, at age thirty-four.
Excerpted from The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot. © 2018 by Max Boot. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.