Nguyen Cao Son and his fellow South Vietnamese soldiers were part of a secret U.S. spy commando force--so secret, in fact, that the American government turned its back and let him spend 14 years in North Vietnamese prison camps.
The question remains: Why did the CIA, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and officials in the highest echelons of the U.S. government fight this lawsuit for over four years? In Mattes's mind, the answer is deceptively simple: "I think the main issues here were the historical truth about the origins and conduct of the Vietnam war. That part, after all the litigation, is clear. But in terms of national security, the story that's come out is overwhelmingly complex. It is now known that we launched a secret army of saboteurs and spies into the north prior to the Gulf of Tonkin. The official justification for getting into the war was that the U.S. was provoked. That's just not the whole truth." In fact, the U.S.S. Maddox, anchored in international waters off the coast of North Vietnam on August 4, 1964, was attacked by torpedoes just hours after a clandestine raid by Special Forces commandos on shore. That raid, as Sedgwick Tourison learned in later interviews with Viet Cong POWs, put Hanoi on red alert, as it had been several times since 1961 when the secret army infiltration began. The August 4 assault on the Maddox, he says, was carried out in response to the secret attack, which led immediately to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. That resolution became the legal basis for a massive escalation of U.S. combat troops in Southeast Asia. And on that basis, tens of thousands of South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian soldiers and civilians died between 1964 and the 1973 ceasefire.
The question translates differently for Nguyen Cao Son: Nearly three decades after he was first recruited by the American military in Saigon, after 14 year as a prisoner of war, how much is his life worth? "For a man's life, even if you do nothing, even if you are not forgotten in a prison camp, I think maybe you are worth more than $2,000 a year," Son says, leaning forward over the table where he has laid out three tea cups--one for himself, one for his interpreter, and one for his guest--and a small plate of crackers he can't manage to eat. "I am still wondering about this. With a democracy, I don't know how to think about what is fair." We don't say anything for a long time. And then Son holds up his cup, nods his head, and offers a short toast in his own language.