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The Temptation Of Tom Dooley : He Was The Heroic Jungle Doctor Of Indochina In The 1950s. But He Had A Secret, And To Protect It, He Helped Launch The First Disinformation Campaign Of The Vietnam War.

December 15, 1991|DIANA SHAW | Diana Shaw is a writer, and a researcher for the movie industry.

One night last spring I lay sleepless and sweltering in the dying city of Haiphong, North Viet Nam, asking myself the question that has taunted so many young Americans caught in faraway places: "What in the hell am I doing here?" . . . Out there, in the makeshift refugee camp I had set up with U.S. Army tents, were more than 12,000 wretched, sick and horribly maimed Vietnamese, most of them either very young or very old. They were fleeing from the Communists of North Viet Nam, hoping to reach the doubtful security of Saigon. Before they came, more than 300,000 others had already passed through the camp. . . .

I was treating diseases that most of my classmates would ne v er encounter in a lifetime's practice, performing operations which the textbooks never mention. What do you do for children who have had chopsticks driven into their inner ears? Or for old women whose collarbones have been shattered by rifle butts? Or for kids whose ears have been torn off with pincers? . . . At Notre Dame the priests had tried valiantly to teach me philosophy. But here in this Communist hellhole I had learned many more profound and practical facts about the true nature of man . . . . I knew now why organized godlessness can never kill the divine spark that burns within even the humblest human.

IN APRIL, 1956, MOST AMERICANS got their first glimpses of Vietnam through the eyes of a 27-year-old naval officer named Tom Dooley. The fevered, patriotic prose of his book, "Deliver Us From Evil," filled 27 pages of Reader's Digest with a first-hand account of Operation Passage to Freedom, the U.S. Navy boat-lift moving refugees from newly communist North Vietnam to the soon-to-be-democratic South.

The 1954 Geneva accords that ended French occupation of Vietnam had divided the country at the 17th Parallel and given U.S. Navy Task Force 90 a little less than a year to move an anticipated 1 million political refugees. It was an extraordinary undertaking, complicated by torrential rains, high winds and debilitating heat. The population of Dooley's Haiphong camp swelled way beyond the task force's ability to handle it as the operation moved ever-growing numbers of refugees, housed them at the port, examined them for contagious diseases and deloused them with DDT.

To many readers, Dooley's book seemed to be more than a compelling chronicle of this operation; it reflected the sensibilities and concerns of a Cold War humanitarian and idealist. "All in Viet Nam dream and strive for freedom," he had written, "the people who toil in the rice fields with backs bent double and faces turned to the brackish mud, the naked children playing in the monsoon, the little fruit sellers in the arroyos of the markets and the poor with amputated arm or hand outstretched. They have one dream: Freedom."

The New Yorker's reviewer, responding to such passages, declared it was as much poetry as documentary. And readers began passing the hat to answer Dooley's appeal for American aid in Vietnam. "My meager resources in Indochina did not win the people's hearts," he wrote, "though they helped. What turned the trick were those words Day la vien tro My ('This is American aid')--and all that those words conveyed. I believe that in the long run such plain help can be the decisive factor in bringing about a victory for all the sacred things we stand for."

But Dooley's urgent pleas for aid were deliberately, strategically overblown. Although he may have been sincere in his desire to vanquish communism and help the Vietnamese, his crusade became, ultimately, integral to a covert CIA disinformation campaign. And the result of his propaganda, taken to its extreme interpretation, was no less than U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

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