The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

5. South Vietnam: Narcotics in the Nation's Service

THE BLOODY Saigon street fighting of April-May 1955 marked the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of direct American intervention in Vietnam. When the First Indochina War-came to an end, the French government had planned to withdraw its forces gradually over a two- or three-year period in order to protect its substantial political and economic interests in southern Vietnam. The armistice concluded at Geneva, Switzerland, in July 1954 called for the French Expeditionary Corps to withdraw into the southern half of Vietnam for two years, until an all-Vietnam referendum determined the nation's political future. Convinced that Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Viet Minh were going to score an overwhelming electoral victory, the French began negotiating a diplomatic understanding with the government in Hanoi. (1) But America's moralistic cold warriors were not quite so flexible. Speaking before the American Legion Convention several weeks after the signing of the Geneva Accords, New York's influential Catholic prelate, Cardinal Spellman, warned that, "If Geneva and what was agreed upon there means anything at all, it means . . . taps for the buried hopes of freedom in Southeast Asia! Taps for the newly betrayed millions of Indochinese who must now learn the awful facts of slavery from their eager Communist masters!" (2)

Rather than surrendering southern Vietnam to the "Red rulers' godless goons," the Eisenhower administration decided to create a new nation where none had existed before. Looking back on America's postGeneva policies from the vantage point of the mid 1960s, the Pentagon Papers concluded that South Vietnam "was essentially the creation of the United States":

"Without U.S. support Diem almost certainly could not have consolidated his hold on the South during 1955 and 1956.

Without the threat of U.S. intervention, South Vietnam could not have refused to even discuss the elections called for in 1956 under the Geneva settlement without being immediately overrun by Viet Minh armies.

Without U.S. aid in the years following, the Diem regime certainly, and independent South Vietnam almost as certainly, could not have survived." (3)

The French had little enthusiasm for this emerging nation and its premier, and so the French had to go. Pressured by American military aid cutbacks and prodded by the Diem regime, the French stepped up their troop withdrawals. By April 1956 the once mighty French Expeditionary Corps had been reduced to less than 5,000 men, and American officers had taken over their jobs as advisers to the Vietnamese army. (4) The Americans criticized the french as hopelessly "colonialist" in their attitudes, and French officials retorted that the Americans were naive During this difficult transition period one French official denounced "the meddling Americans who, in their incorrigible guilelessness, believed that once the French Army leaves, Vietnamese independence will burst forth for all to see." (5)

Although this French official was doubtlessly biased, he was also correct. There was a certain naiveness, a certain innocent freshness, surrounding many of the American officials who poured into Saigon in the mid 1950s. The patron saint of America's antiCommunist crusade in South Vietnam was a young navy doctor named Thomas A. Dooley. After spending a year in Vietnam helping refugees in 1954-1955, Dr. Tom Dooley returned to the United States for a whirlwind tour to build support for Premier Diem and his new nation. Dooley declared that France "had a political and economic stake in keeping the native masses backward, submissive and ignorant," and praised Diem as "a man who never bowed to the French." (6) But Dr. Dooley was not just delivering South Vietnam from the "organized godlessness" of the "new Red imperialism," he was offering them the American way. Every time he dispensed medicine to a refugee, he told the Vietnamese "This is American aid." (7) And when the Cosmevo Ambulator Company of Paterson, New Jersey, sent an artificial limb for a young refugee girl, he told her it was "an American leg."(8)

Although Dr. Dooley's national chauvinism seems somewhat childish today, it was fairly widely shared by Americans serving in South Vietnam. Even the CIA's tactician, General Lansdale, seems to have been a strong ideologue. Writing of his experiences in Saigon during this period, General Lansdale later said:

"I went far beyond the usual bounds given a military man after I discovered just what the people on these battlegrounds needed to guard against and what to keep strong.... I took my American beliefs with me into these Asian struggles, as Tom Paine would have done."(9)

The attitude of these crusaders was so strong that it pervaded the press at the time. President Diem's repressive dictatorship became a "one man democracy." Life magazine hailed him as "the Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam," and a 1956 Saturday Evening Post article began: "Two years ago at Geneva, South Vietnam was virtually sold down the river to the Communists. Today the spunky little Asian country is back on its own feet, thanks to a mandarin in a sharkskin suit who's upsetting the Red timetable! (10)

But America's fall from innocence was not long in coming. Only seven years after these journalistic accolades were published, the U.S. Embassy and the CIA-in fact, some of the same CIA agents who had fought for him in 1955-engineered a coup that toppled Diem and left him murdered in the back of an armored personnel carrier. (11) And by 1965 the United States found itself fighting a war that was almost a carbon copy of France's colonial war. The U.S. Embassy was trying to manipulate the same clique of corrupt Saigon politicos that had confounded the French in their day. The U.S. army looked just like the French Expeditionary Corps to most Vietnamese. Instead of Senegalese and Moroccan colonial levies, the U.S. army was assisted by Thai and South Korean troops. The U.S. special forces (the "Green Berets") were assigned to train exactly the same hill tribe mercenaries that the French MACG (the "Red Berets") had recruited ten years earlier.

Given the striking similarities between the French and American war machines, it is hardly surprising that the broad outlines of "Operation X" reemerged after U.S. intervention. As the CIA became involved in Laos in the early 1960s it became aware of the truth of Colonel Trinquier's axiom, "To have the Meo, one must buy their opium." (12) At a time when there was no ground or air transport to and from the mountains of Laos except CIA aircraft, opium continued to flow out of the villages of Laos to transit points such as Long Tieng. There, government air forces, this time Vietnamese and Lao instead of French, transported narcotics to Saigon, where parties associated with Vietnamese political leaders were involved in the domestic distribution and arranged for export to Europe through Corsican syndicates. And just as the French high commissioner had found it politically expedient to overlook the Binh Xuyen's involvement in Saigon's opium trade, the U.S. Embassy, as part of its unqualified support of the Thieu-Ky regime, looked the other way when presented with evidence that members of the regime are involved in the GI heroin traffic. While American complicity is certainly much less conscious and overt than that of the French a decade earlier, this time it was not just opium -but morphine and heroin as well-and the consequences were far more serious. After a decade of American military intervention, Southeast Asia has become the source of 70 percent of the world's illicit opium and the major supplier of raw-materials for America's booming heroin market.