Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Peter Brush - Doctor Tom Dooley


© 2001

The notion that America is God's country has laid a firm hand on the history of the United States. This hand was there in the beginning, when John Winthrop told his Puritans that God both approved of and participated in their voyage to the New World. It was evident in 1961, in the inaugural address of President Kennedy, when he pledged to help the struggling peoples around the globe, noting our beliefs came from the hand of God, and on earth God's work must be our own. [1] And so in the early 1960s we redoubled our commitment to Vietnam as part of our crusade against Communism.

JFK was not the first to see our role in Vietnam through missionary eyes. A decade earlier the U.S. helped the Vietnamese leader Diem become the prime minister of South Vietnam. Jean Baptiste Ngo Dinh Diem was a favorite of influential American politicians (such as Senator John Kennedy) as well as the American Catholic Church. Diem assumed power in 1954, the year Vietnam was temporarily divided by the Geneva Accords. Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam, was more popular among the Vietnamese than Diem. It did not help that Diem, a religious Catholic who had taken the vow of celibacy, was leader of a country overwhelmingly Buddhist.

The Geneva Accords called for elections to bring about unification in 1956. This presented the Diem regime with problems. If allowed, the Communists would win the elections (President Eisenhower felt Ho Chi Minh would win 80 percent of the vote).[2] Diem had little recognition or support among South Vietnamese, which meant allowing elections could make it impossible for him to hold onto his leadership position.[3] However, another provision of the accords established a 300-day period during which civilians could freely move from one zone to the another. This presented Diem and his American supporters with an opportunity.

Northern communists saw Vietnamese Catholics as collaborators. They confiscated church property and arrested priests. Since most of these Catholics fought with the French against the Viet Minh and the Catholic leadership was hostile to Ho Chi Minh, relocating to the south under a Catholic regime was attractive to them. It was in the interest of the Catholic Church, the government of South Vietnam, and its American sponsors to maximize the number of Catholics moving south. The effort to move refugees from north to south (1954-1955) was dubbed Operation Passage to Freedom. This is where Tom Dooley enters the picture.

Dooley was educated in Catholic schools in St. Louis. He attended summer camps run by Benedictine monks and, according to his biographer, focused his energies generally on the Catholic society of St. Louis.[4] Dooley attended the University of Norte Dame for a few semesters, then entered the medical school at St. Louis University. He received his medical degree in 1953 and was admitted to the U.S. Navy Medical Corps. Lieutenant (j.g.) Dooley interned at Camp Pendleton, California and on July 14, 1954, was ordered to report to the USS Montague in the Philippines.[5]

As signers of the Geneva accords, the refugee transfer was primarily a French responsibility. Diem concluded the French could not handle the task without assistance and advised the US ambassador that help would be needed in transporting anti-Communist Vietnamese to the southern zone. In August 1954, the USS Montague sailed to Ha Long Bay, south of Haiphong, and began assisting in the movement of refugees to Saigon. Dooley, fluent in French, acted as interpreter as the Vietnamese were transferred from French to U.S. vessels. In September Dooley was dispatched ashore as part of an effort to established medical facilities at Haiphong and otherwise assist the French and Vietnamese.

Dooley wrote about his experiences. He proved to be a gifted writer. His descriptions were not the dry and straightforward sort typically found in military situation reports; rather, they were passionate and eloquent. Navy commanders distributed them widely around the fleet in order to boost morale. William Lederer, public information officer for the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, saw the potential of making Dooley's observations available to a wider audience. (Lederer later achieved fame as co-author of The Ugly American). Lederer urged Dooley to keep a journal, helped him turn it into a manuscript, and introduced Dooley to senior editors at the Reader's Digest who helped get his story published. Ultimately Deliver Us from Evil became a best seller.

Dooley's accounts of the plight of the Vietnamese refugees were frequently coupled with religious references. For the crime of listening to the Lord's Prayer, the Viet Minh "often would tear an ear partially off with a pincer like a pair of pliers and leave the ear dangling." For Vietnamese Catholics who experienced this torture only from the other ear would they "ever hear words, evil or holy." [6] A Vietnamese named Cham was burned alive by the Communists because he was the head of a Christian youth movement.[7] The Viet Minh held a class for children in a village courtyard. Seven children were ordered to sit on the ground, hands tied behind their backs. The students had been reading the catechism. As punishment, Viet Minh guards grasped the head of each child and, with all their strength, rammed chopsticks into both ears. The teacher of these students had his tongue pulled out with pliers, then cut off at the tip with a bayonet.

According to Dooley, a Vietnamese priest was punished for holding mass in the evening instead of in the morning (which was permitted). He was hung from a "crude wooden beam" and beaten with bamboo for hours in order to beat the evil out of him. The result was "a mass of blackened flesh from the shoulders to the knees." The priest's scrotum was swollen to the size of a football. Another priest received punishment similar to that of "the Saviour of Whom he preached" when the Viet Minh drove eight nails into his head. The nails were large enough, and pounded with sufficient force, to embed themselves in the priest's skull. Dooley claimed this was the Communist version of Jesus Christ's Crown of Thorns. Amazingly, none of these refugees died; all were brought back to health by Dr. Dooley.[8]

By May, 1955 the period for refugee transfer was ending. French and American military personnel pulled out of Haiphong. The Catholic mission was almost empty, the nuns and priests sent south. The pride of the mission was a statute of Our Lady of Fatima, given to Haiphong Catholics by the Pope. Dooley wanted to send the statute south with the Catholics. The remaining priest said no, that the statue must stay.

We climbed up on the little altar and literally kidnapped the statute. We wrapped it in an American Aid blanket which was on the jeep's floor and whisked it out to the airport . . . . And that's how our Blessed Lady of Fatima, with a boost from American Aid, made the passage to freedom.[9]

Coincidental with the humanitarian operation, and unknown to Dooley, was a political operation by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that would occupy Dooley for the duration of the refugee transfer mission. This CIA operation had two elements: maximize the number of refugees heading south, and generate international coverage of their plight. In June 1954, the CIA sent Lt. Col. Edward Lansdale to Vietnam as chief of the covert action Saigon Military Mission.

Lansdale noted the North had a greater population than the South. This fact alone could affect the outcome of any elections. Originally, Diem expected no more than ten thousand refugees while the French planned on moving thirty thousand. Lansdale set his sights on two million.[10] Convinced, Diem gave Lansdale authorization to persuade people in the North to abandon their homes. In order to accomplish this, they must be made to believe conditions in the North would become unbearable.

A major psychological warfare effort was launched. South Vietnamese soldiers dressed in civilian clothes were sent north to spread rumors: The Viet Minh made a deal to permit Chinese soldiers to enter Vietnam. These soldiers were raping and stealing. A leaflet was distributed instructing shopkeepers to prepare to have their inventories confiscated by the Communist government. Refugee registration tripled soon after the leaflet appeared. Lansdale hired astrologers who predicted imminent disasters for Viet Minh leaders and a long period of prosperity for the South.[11] Priests warned their flocks that "God and the Virgin have gone South; only the Devil remains in the North."[12] Stories of torture were spread. American embassy officer Howard Simpson recalled arguing with Lansdale over the story about Vietnamese children who had their ear drums ruptured with chopsticks during a torture session. To Simpson, the account did not ring true. When questioned, Lansdale "flashed his all-knowing smile and changed the subject."[13] Eventually almost one million North Vietnamese moved south, for reasons both real and imagined. Resettled in the south, especially around Saigon, they eventually came to hold a disproportionate share of high military and government positions in the Diem government.[14]

Articles on the Operation Passage to Freedom appeared in several Department of State Bulletin's, Life, Look, National Geographic, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Time, and U. S. News. In May, 1955 President Diem personally decorated Dooley for his "outstanding work" in the refugee camps of the north. Unknown to Dooley, none other than Lansdale had inspired Diem to bestow the award -- the citation had come directly from Lansdale's own typewriter.[15]

In late May, Dooley sailed for Japan. While en route he worked on the manuscript that would become Deliver Us from Evil. Upon arrival at the navy base he received a hero's welcome. The Navy provided a dictating machine and a battery of military secretaries who typed the manuscript as fast as he could talk. Lederer, a friend of Lansdale, helped with the manuscript. The Navy awarded Dooley the Legion of Merit and assigned him to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda.

Dooley was an important person: he provided the first images of Vietnam for most Americans. But how accurate a witness was he? According to Dooley's biographer, Deliver Us from Evil "was a work of propaganda." [16] It contains 32 pages of photos. None show the victims of atrocities. The horrors he described in his book were unsubstantiated. There was no mention of the atrocities in his personal or official correspondence from his time in Vietnam. No corroborating accounts exist in the diaries kept by naval commanders who knew of Dooley's work. His mentor, William Lederer, says sharply, "those things never happened. The atrocities he described never took place . . . . I traveled all over the country and never saw anything like them."

Norman Baker was a corpsman under Dooley in Haiphong during the refugee transfer. Baker's account confirms Lederer's, not Dooley's: "If I'd found a priest hanging by his heels with nails hammered in his head, I'd have the whole camp hearing about it. If those atrocities had occurred, human nature would make you talk about it all the time." But Dooley never did. Daniel Redmond, another Operation Passage to Freedom veteran, is more blunt in his assessment of Dooley, calling him a "bullshit artist."[17]

Upon return from his book writing leave, Dooley went on a Navy-sponsored tour to spread the word about Operation Passage to Freedom. Agents from the Office of Naval Intelligence secretly followed him. They compiled a 700-page report documenting his homosexual behavior. Normally the Navy dismissed gays in a humiliating ceremony in front of officers and enlisted men. But Dooley was a hero. A compromise was reached whereby Dooley announced he was leaving the Navy in order to continue his humanitarian work. He never left the public eye. When the ambassador from Laos invited him to open a clinic there, Dooley agreed. He continued to work for the CIA while in Laos.[18] During stints in the United States Dooley appeared on radio and television shows. His popularity soared; he became one of the most admired men by Americans (behind Pope John XXIII but ahead of General Douglas MacArthur.)[19]

In 1959 Dooley was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a lethal form of skin cancer. Ever the showman, Dooley invited NBC News to film his cancer treatment at New York's Sloan Kettering Medical Center. "Biography of a Cancer" was televised nationally on April 21, 1960. The treatment was unsuccessful. Dooley died the following year. That same day the Pathet Lao overran his clinic in Laos.

Tom Dooley, both an instrument of U.S. foreign policy and a national hero, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Freedom. The Catholic Church briefly considered him for sainthood. As a key agent in the first disinformation campaign of the Vietnam War, he performed the crucial propaganda function of making the American public knowledgeable of and willing to fight Communism in Southeast Asia.

For futher reading, see James T. Fisher, Dr. America : The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997).

[1] Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, 1961. Washington, USGPO: 1962, pp. 1-3.

[2] Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate for Change (Garden City, N.Y.:, Doubleday, 1963), p. 372.

[3] Robert Scheer, "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley" in Ramparts Vietnam Primer (San Francisco : Ramparts, 1966?), pp. 14-15.

[4] James T. Fisher, Dr. America : The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), p. 19.

[5] Fisher, p. 35.

[6] Thomas A. Dooley, Deliver Us From Evil (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1956), p. 11.

[7] Ibid., p. 137.

[8] Ibid. Chapter XV contains Dooley's most detailed descriptions of refugee torture by the Viet Minh.

[9] Ibid., pp. 200-201.

[10] Cecil B. Currey, Edward Lansdale : The Unquiet American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), p. 156.

[11] Ibid., p. 158.

[12] Scheer, p 14.

[13] Howard R. Simpson, Tiger in the Barbed Wire (Washington: Brassey's, 1992), p. 127.

[14] Scheer, p. 20.

[15] Fisher, p. 60.

[16] Ibid., p. 71, 74.

[17] Diana Shaw, "The Temptation of Tom Dooley," Los Angeles Times Magazine, December 15, 1991, p. 45. Also Fisher, Ibid., pp. 79-80.

[18] Shaw, p. 46, 50. Fisher, p. 188.

[19] Gallup Poll, "Most Admired Man," December 25, 1959.

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