By Andy Mannix
By Caleb Hannan
By Olivia LaVecchia
By CP Staff
By Aaron Rupar
By Jacob Wheeler
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Aaron Rupar
his is the nightmare, according to the man who still dreams it. The cell is dark. No shadows. The air feels like ice. The cement floor is hard against his hip bones, which jut from his withered body. It hurts to cough. It hurts to move. He's been here for three years, in the same position--knees up against his chest, arms around his legs, head down, half squatting, half paralyzed, trying not to think. The iron shackles driven into his legs seem by now part of his own body. In time his skin has healed around the contraption. Once, sometimes twice a day, he leans over to eat a bowl of rice with his fingers. It tastes like nothing. He first has the nightmare while he is still living it, in the Quyet Tien prison camp in North Vietnam, in the spring of 1975. The Americans have gone home, or so the guard tells him. Saigon has fallen. The war is over.
Two decades later, Nguyen Cao Son is sitting on the couch in his small St. Paul apartment, knees up against his chest, arms around his legs, head down, telling the nightmare of his imprisonment as a POW from 1968 until 1982. Fourteen years. When Son looks up, the afternoon light coming in through the west window causes him to squint. His voice shakes and stops. Henry Mai, the interpreter seated between us, casts around for words to make sense of the scene in a language Son barely speaks or follows. In this dream, Mai tells me, the prisoner is starving. He is being kept in what is known as the dark room. His memory of this time is not clear--he has what you might call black holes in his mind. What happens next? The guard comes. Son is in the corner, under a thin blanket, sleeping. Because his body has become so shrunken, so small for a man, the guard can't see its shape and calls for help, thinking the prisoner has escaped. When the other guard comes, the two pull off the blanket and find him there. They lift him up, but he is too weak even to stand. So he kneels.
The prison we are talking about no longer exists, the way Alcatraz or Dachau no longer exist. True, remnants of the walls of Quyet Tien are still there, and the guard towers, the fences, the interrogation rooms--but the grounds are vacant, and the POWs who were kept there during and long after the war in Southeast Asia are gone now, dead or, like Son, living the time again in memory. His story is an extraordinary one, shared by nearly 500 of his fellow South Vietnamese who were recruited to carry out covert spy missions during the war--first, beginning in 1960, by the Central Intelligence Agency, and then, from early 1964 on, by Defense Department officers under direction of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, and the White House: men, shadow figures, who directed and trained the Special Forces teams that made commando raids into the north. Men whose names Son still doesn't know.
The teams' purpose, spelled out in recently declassified documents at the National Archives in Washington, was to conduct the war's most top-secret operations across the 17th Parallel: sabotage, surveillance, psychological harassment, raids. Between 1961 and 1968, 456 of these commandos were sent on what were later understood to be one-way missions. Without exception, they were captured soon after they hit the ground, most of them to be tried in public on espionage charges in Hanoi and sentenced to death or imprisonment with hard labor. Nearly 400 of them actually survived up to 27 years in prison camps before being freed as late as 1988--15 years after the Paris Peace Accords, 13 years after the fall of Saigon. As Son found out soon after his release, no one in the American government, his employer, ever mentioned the Special Forces captives during the peace talks. Not once.
Instead they were left behind, ignored and eventually forgotten, to endure solitary confinement, malnourishment, malaria, shackling, and frequent rounds of torture in an archipelago of North Vietnamese detention camps. Like Son, those who did live through it were finally freed to a world into which their country no longer existed. Some went back home to find that their parents had died years ago, their wives had remarried, and their children, in at least one commando's case, believed them to be ghosts.
Others left by boat to refugee camps in Thailand or Malaysia, only to have their applications for asylum denied by U.S. immigration workers on the grounds that their stories weren't "credible," that "no prior association with the United States has been proved." The State Department, they were told, could supply no evidence of their military service, no proof that they were ever trained for any covert operations run by the American government before or during the war. Officially, they had been disappeared from history.
What Son and his fellow commandos also learned was that soon after their trials, which were broadcast on Radio Hanoi and monitored by American agents in Saigon, they were routinely written off as dead in the military ledgers--an exercise one researcher recently called "U.S. officials at the highest levels abandoning their own soldiers by killing them off on paper." In fact, Washington knew that every single Special Forces team dropped into the north had been captured and that hundreds of soldiers were still alive. At a private hearing in 1969, the American officer in charge of secret operations in Saigon told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "we reduced the number... gradually by declaring so many of them dead each month until we had written them off and removed them from the monthly payroll." In keeping with this policy, the commandos' families were paid what was called a "death gratuity," often amounting to little more than $200 and delivered with condolences from the U.S. military. Son's father carried a photograph of his son to a Buddhist temple in Saigon and left it there, on the altar, in memory of his dead.
On April 24, 1995, John Mattes, an attorney based in Miami who served on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government in federal court on behalf of Son and 280 other commandos who were captured or executed or died behind bars while employed in the American military's clandestine war against North Vietnam. In essence, the suit demands that back wages be paid by the United States to these Special Forces soldiers (or their estates) who were on the secret payroll during their captivity. Broken down, the total claim of $20 million amounts to $2,000 for each year each commando spent in prison, with the remaining balance reserved for future claims. In September of last year, the Department of Justice told the court that, after some investigation, its staff could find no evidence at all that the U.S. government had any obligation to pay--no contracts, no records, no proof.
"That is an outright lie, and these men who've come back from the dead are living testimony to the blood on American hands," Mattes says of his clients, referred to in the suit as the Lost Army Commandos. "There's not a single administration over the last 30 years that isn't complicit in this crime. And what is this crime? It is the absolute desertion by American military commanders of their own troops. It is the killing off of soldiers on paper--right down the list--by bureaucrats whose job it was to make sure this secret war never came to light. They were left behind to rot, surrounded by a silence that's lasted three decades. So I've been fighting this cover-up for men who officially don't exist, who went on missions that officially never happened. Listen, whatever conspiracy theories you may have about your government, forget them--this story is dark beyond the darkest imagination. And it would be unspeakable, except that it must be said for the sake of historical truth. And for some kind of late, very late, justice for these men."
Setting straight the historical record is, by all indications, something the Defense and Justice departments, the CIA, and most retired intelligence officers who served in Southeast Asia are not eager to do. As the case unfolds and top-secret documents continue to come to light, it appears that Nguyen Cao Son's story is part of a larger narrative that puts the lie to the accepted--nearly mythic--version of American involvement in the Vietnam war.
That version began taking shape in 1970, when Daniel Ellsberg turned over to the New York Times a stack of files, subsequently known as the Pentagon Papers, which he'd pulled together while in South Vietnam targeting drop sites for the Special Forces secret missions under a directive called Operation Plan 34-Alpha (OPLAN 34-A). What Ellsberg left out of that material was any mention of these missions, of the soldiers who were hired to carry them out, and of their role in escalating the war. As early as 1965 this covert spy program, which cost the Defense Department over $20 million that year, was judged by the very men in charge of it to be an utter failure. By the time Son's team was dropped into the north three years later, not a single commando who had gone before him had ever returned alive. And no one with any knowledge of their fate ever assumed they would.
From the helicopter a thousand feet above the Long Dai river, the landing site looked clear to Son--no border guards in sight, an easy drop. He'd run through the routine dozens of times before at the training camp in Da Nang. Jump. Pull back. Drop. Land and roll. The other five commandos on his team, Strata 120, were right behind him, single file, supplies on their backs, one with a radio, one with a code book, waiting for the signal. Go. They jumped and floated, 10 seconds, 20, aiming on the map for the black X.
They hit ground in heavy brush, rolled, and froze. The plan from there was to stake out the surrounding terrain and, if it checked out safe, to set up camp with a hillside vantage over the village of Long Mo along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The team's American trainer believed the Viet Cong were using the area as a way station before infiltrating south across the border. Just hours before the drop, Strata 120 again received instructions to note any traffic along the route and report back to headquarters. The whole mission, they were told, would take at most one, maybe two weeks. Just signal by radio when you're ready to come home. In and out. Quick and clean.
But the mission turned dirty fast. Soon after landing, one team member took his gear in the early morning and stole down to the river to fish. The others waited at camp, under cover on the slope. Then, out of nowhere, a rifle fired and Son heard voices in the distance below. In that moment, he remembers, "I knew my fellow soldier was shot, and that we were discovered somehow. We ran up the hill to escape. We were followed for many days that way, trying to hide." Three days after the first attack, Strata 120's team leader was shot and killed. The four remaining commandos, with Second Lieutenant Son now in charge, abandoned their leader's body and fled further up the hill, leaving their supply packs, maps, and the damaged radio behind. What happened to him next, Son says, was like a character in a story falling asleep and beginning to dream the dream that would haunt him until he died--and years later, to haunt him after he'd returned from the dead.
On the ninth day, maybe the 10th--he lost track in the heat--cover jets and a rescue helicopter started circling patterns over the hill, hoping to spot the party. But it seemed to him that every time the aircraft got close, the border patrol hunting Son's men down got closer. At night, they lit what flares they had left to signal their position, but the fires just gave them away and they had to move within minutes. "When there was still hope left," Son says, "we tried to save our strength. When we were hungry or thirsty, we cut banana trees that have juice inside and drank that. Then we put the trunk back, so the Communists couldn't track us. Also we dug in the ground for roots to eat. We survived like that, the way we were taught by the Americans."
The team split in half, two heading in one direction, Son and the radio operator in the other. At 6:00 in the evening, on the 18th day on the ground, they were captured in an ambush. Son surrendered his AK-47, his Colt pistol, and the few supplies left in his pockets. The next day all four were transported to the capital and locked in two-man holding cells at the prison that came to be known as the Hanoi Hilton, or Hoa Lo, a phrase that in English means big oven. There, in the spring of 1968, after a three-hour trial that ended in a 20-year sentence, Son joined dozens of American POWs and other South Vietnamese commandos who'd been captured as far back as 1961. Two months later, the last of 52 Special Forces teams parachuted into North Vietnam and, upon its immediate capture, the secret army was terminated.
On that day, over 400 commandos were stranded across the border. No one, even now, knows the exact number. Many had already died in detention, and their graves were never marked or found. In 1969, the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned an internal study that listed the fate of nearly every team inserted into the north. It reads like a litany: ATLAS, March '61, 2 KIA, 2 captured. DIDO, June '61, doubled, played (meaning captured and turned as double-agents operating their radios under Hanoi's control). EROS, June '62, doubled, played. EASY, August '63, reinforcement. LOTUS, May '64, captured, tried by NV. SCORPION, BUFFALO, BOONE, captured. HADLEY, January '67, could not locate.... The list also reads like an alarm sounding the program's absolute failure--one which the CIA, the Defense Department, and two American presidents did not heed.
"Regardless of why it was done, continuing to toss bodies across the border is without a doubt the most callous disregard for human life that happened during the war," says Sedgwick Tourison, author of the 1995 book Secret Army, Secret War, which spells out in detail the only account of the Special Forces operations ever to be published. "The men in charge of this thing were the most morally corrupt group of individuals at the command level," he goes on. "My view is that if they'd only been dealing with American soldiers, they would have been court martialled. The fact that they later deserted these men and left them to die in some godforsaken hell hole only adds another dimension to the whole horror."
Between 1961 and 1974, Tourison spent eight years in South Vietnam and Laos as the Army's chief interrogation officer, conducting hundreds of interview hours with North Vietnamese POWs in an effort to find out how Hanoi had broken the spy ring almost from day one and why the U.S. military continued a program so fundamentally flawed that those who ran it regarded it at times as laughable--a fatal joke on those who signed up for it. What he learned then, and later from retired U.S. intelligence leaders, is what he now calls "a hard lesson in cynicism, even for a man like me who has seen so much death come from war."
The horrors of that lesson are in the details. Many of the early Special Forces teams were dropped in the wrong location, way off target, without medical supplies or adequate food, into populated areas, and into the hands of the waiting border patrols. After being "doubled and turned," nearly every imprisoned radio operator was made to send deceptive signals back to headquarters--"all's well, send instructions" or "bridge blown up, recruiting new agents"--none of them true, but in all creating the fictional impression of a network of free agents that the CIA and the Pentagon believed to be operating behind enemy lines. That belief, says Tourison, may have been a convenient justification to keep the secret army funded and its statistics optimistic, and later, to argue in favor of massive escalation after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. But other OPLAN 34-A policies were more bald in their purpose: In 1964 and 1965, 170 American-trained agents whom the U.S. commander in charge viewed as "dirty"--that is, unreliable as spies--were dropped over the border on what were privately intended to be suicide missions. Col. Clyde Russell later reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the move was successful, that he did in fact "get rid of them all" and replaced them with new, "cleaner" recruits. Of the 170, all were captured, imprisoned, or executed on the spot. The same fate awaited the "clean" recruits, among them Nguyen Cao Son, over the next three years.
"Okay, so American commanders in charge of this didn't get it, or they didn't want to get it: The secret army was a bust from the start," Tourison says of the whole program. "Captured agents, in prison and controlled by Hanoi, were sending back counterfeit messages. Nobody knew what was real and what was fake. So what does the U.S. military do? It sends in reinforcements, more fresh teams, more disposable Asian bodies. What they didn't know, or didn't care to know, was that there was a mole in the system alerting the North Vietnamese about the exact time and location of every drop. The border patrol practically rolled out the red carpet to greet these guys. It was a mess. And no one stopped it. We were just stumbling around, thinking we were smarter than these guys up north because they wore rubber sandals and pissed on the bark of a tree. We screwed up. And that screw-up, which was criminal and morally beyond the pale, is what made the war unwinnable: We were too busy screwing our own friends to win. Nguyen Cao Son spent 14 years hard time, maximum security, beaten, starved, because of that mistake."
When I ask Son whether he'd been told by his American trainers what happened to previous Special Forces teams, he shakes his head. He turns to our interpreter and begins speaking rapidly in Vietnamese. He says, Henry Mai tells me, that many teams went before, but no one ever told him where they went. Or when they went. Or if they returned. He says that at Hoa Lo he did not see any other commando, only American pilots who were shot down. He says he would see them when the guards came and took him for interrogation. He says that later, in the worst years, he was with the other commandos--up to the end. He says it is a miracle he has survived this. Son shifts his position on the couch, causing the hem of his trousers to ride up his ankle and expose the old scars. "It is a miracle," he says then, in broken English. "A miracle for me to be alive. A miracle. I think it is a miracle."
In 1970, Son was transferred from Hoa Lo to Camp #1, Pho Lu prison, in a northern province along the Chinese border. Within a year, nearly all the captured commandos were concentrated there and in two other state-controlled camps. By 1972 the Special Forces POW count at Pho Lu had swelled to 167. It was also in 1970 that, according to Tourison, all key documents surrounding the secret army--payroll records, death gratuity receipts, funding ledgers that decades later would implicate the U.S. government in a massive cover-up of the program--were gathered into boxes labeled TOP SECRET TIGER and stored in locked safes, where they were soon forgotten or alleged to have been destroyed. And with that, all evidence--the bodies of 456 commandos, and the paperwork to track them--vanished.
Meanwhile, says Son, "the condition at Camp #1 was a terrible thing. To describe this, I can't do it. Then suddenly, I think in 1972, in the early spring, we began to get some food. And cigarettes. And good clothes. We had no newspaper or radio, but the Communists got us together for brainwashing. They said we would soon be released. This was like playing a game." Outside the prison, the war had come to a tentative standstill. Rumors of a permanent cease-fire started hitting the press and President Nixon, in that election year, issued the promise of a conditional American "withdrawal with honor" from Southeast Asia. In November, peace talks in Paris sketched out a cease-fire plan calling for the exchange and repatriation of all prisoners of war. Son believes that this agreement, signed into effect on January 27, 1973, was responsible for the improvement in conditions that soon took place at Pho Lu--the luxury of cigarettes, the cloth they were given to sew into clothing, the fattening up of starving prisoners.
In the wake of the Paris Peace Accords, thousands of POWs changed hands and returned home. American prisoners held at Hoa Lo and other camps in the north were turned over to U.S. envoys at Hanoi and shipped out to the Philippines, the last of them on April 1, 1973. Many had been held in close quarters, even sharing cell blocks, with Special Forces agents. But if anyone reported those left behind to American negotiators, the reports were ignored. In April, a priority list of Americans and foreign nationals still unaccounted for was submitted to the North Vietnamese government. Not one commando's name showed up on that list, or on any subsequent list. Neither the South Vietnamese nor the U.S. government, who employed the Special Forces POWs and knew that most were still alive, ever bargained for their release.
"During that time," Son says, "we waited and waited. I see now that I was betrayed. But then I didn't know. We expected to be free. We thought maybe they didn't reach an agreement yet. So we waited. And then we waited. And then we saw that this hope was gone." In June of that year, realizing that the priority list didn't include them, the Special Forces inmates organized a hunger strike that sent the prison security onto high alert. Back-up guards unleashed attack dogs into the barracks and beat the protesters into unconsciousness with their assault rifles. In a matter of days, some were shackled together into makeshift chain gangs and some were thrown into isolation cells. The strike leaders were interrogated and tortured. Soon after, the Hanoi regime ordered the prisoners at Pho Lu scattered into a series of camps still under construction--camps that would operate at maximum capacity, in secret, for the next 15 years.
"I was moved with the first nine prisoners in April to Quang Ninh and then to Quyet Tien," Son remembers, and the memory of that time, as he begins to tell it, lines his usually expressionless face with fatigue. "Before, we sawed logs every day for hours and hours. But here, it was the dark room. It was the nightmare starting here. My feet were shackled for three and a half years. Never for one day did I think I would come out. I thought nothing except I would die in this camp. There is no mattress, just plain concrete. To lay down was very cold on my back. Every night, I don't lay down. I can't. By the end, maybe 100 more came to this camp. Some were local criminals the Communists arrested and some commandos. Then in April 1975, I heard that they took over Saigon but I did not believe it. Only on Labor Day, May 1, they used the public address system to say it was true. Many of the prisoners cried. Maybe they had kept us alive so as to have an exchange of prisoners again. That was the only hope for us to be free. Now I thought it's over. It is over for me."
Between 1975, when Saigon surrendered and Vietnam was unified, and 1982, when he was finally released, Son survived six concentration camps. Tuyen Quang. Ha Dong. Thanh Phong. Others with names he never knew. Through most of that time, he was unable to stand--like the other Special Forces agents still in captivity, too weak from malnutrition and too crippled by shackling. At one camp, he was assigned in the afternoon to a cell in which the previous prisoner had died that morning and whose blanket, still wet, was left on the floor. At another, three POWs died of starvation in the cells beside him. When hostilities between Vietnam and China flared up along the border in the late 1970s, Son remembers a transport truck coming to clear the whole camp out overnight. "The truck was covered, so no one looking could see inside. We were very weak and some had to be carried. We were shackled to the truck, all day, so people just threw up in there and urinated in there. The road was full of bumps--very hard on me because my bones stuck out so far."
In August 1982, a guard came to Son's cell with a list of inmates scheduled for release. His name was on it. Fourteen years after the day he first set foot in Hoa Lo prison, he made his way across the courtyard of Thanh Phong, holding onto the cinderblock walls for support, and passed through the gate. Son's aunt, who lived in Hanoi, was waiting for him there. He weighed less than 100 pounds. His body had shrunk several inches to a height of just over five feet. His muscles were withered and atrophied from repeated bouts of malaria, infections, and dysentery. Just months before, Son had been given clearance to contact his family by mail, though all correspondence was censored by prison officials. In the first of several letters to his brothers and sisters in Saigon, he wrote: "I am here in this camp. I am healthy and very good. The government treats me very well."
It is shameful to surrender. This Nguyen Cao Son still believes, as every soldier believes. Even when his team and the dozens of teams dropped over the border before him had no choice but to surrender, it is shameful, now, to live with the idea that had they fought back, had they been willing to die there on the spot, had they refused to be doubled and turned, perhaps the war would have ended as predicted: the Communists defeated, his country still on the map, the Americans going into a future without their own shameful legacy of a lost war. That war has been talked about, fictionalized, filmed, studied, and memorialized in black granite for so many years that to have its specter raised again now, in this lawsuit and in the black holes of Son's own mind, is like picking at a very old scar--a scar the survivors all still suffer, though some with the knowledge that theirs were inflicted not only by their enemies but by their friends.
Son survived his ordeal this way: by not thinking. And when he couldn't not think, by sleeping--one of the only available ways in the camps to stay human. When he came back into the world, barely human, most of what he remembered about it had changed. The Americans he once worked for were gone. His father was dead. His grandmother, who on the advice of a psychic had believed for years that Son was still alive, was dead. His photograph, taken down from the altar and returned to his sister's house, showed the face of a man so young, so brilliant, as to be someone else, an eternity ago. During that time, he says, he couldn't sleep well. He couldn't stop thinking.
In 1987, Son paid three ounces of gold to a stranger--the price of a boat ride to Malaysia--in the hope of, as he tells it now, "buying my escape to a place where I could tell my story, end my life as a ghost, and become free." He spent four months at a refugee camp in Malaysia, under the auspices of the United Nations. From there, he was transferred for a six-month stay in the Philippines, into another holding pattern during which he was granted an interview with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Unlike dozens of other former commandos, the agents there believed his story, at least enough to stamp his file and permit him passage to the United States. Ten of his Special Forces comrades died while waiting for their requests to be approved. Nearly 30 other commandos or their families are still stranded in Vietnam, a shame no U.S. government official has yet been willing or able to solve.
A year after leaving Vietnam, Son arrived in St. Paul to stay with an aunt who sponsored his entry into the States. He moved into the St. Anthony highrise and signed up for courses at the Brown Institute, figuring that his military training might serve him in the electronics field. But after a few months working, Son says, the agonizing pain in his legs and spine made it hard to stand up on the job. In 1992, at age 45, he applied for a disability hearing with the Social Security Administration. The report from that meeting, supplied by his attorney in the Lost Commando lawsuit, describes Son's mental and physical condition at the time. It reads, "The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder was assigned four years ago when the claimant was experiencing disruptive sleep with nightmares, had intrusive recollections, had startle response, and felt estranged from family. He also had depressive symptoms including poor appetite with weight loss and easy fatigue.... During his 14 years of prison experience in North Vietnam he was a victim of forced labor, prolonged nutritional deprivation and exposure, head trauma from beatings, repeated attempts at forced false confessions and other self-recrimination, as well as brainwashing techniques.... During the past three and a half years, the claimant has continued to show active signs of post-traumatic stress disorder which wax and wane, often with changes in season or in response to anniversaries of events while imprisoned." During these acute episodes, it goes on, Son suffered episodes of abdominal pain, vomiting, panic attacks, trembling, psychomotor retardation, and thoughts of suicide--symptoms that still afflict him. The hearing committee granted Son disabled status and Social Security payments five months later.
"With Son, what you see is typical of what exists across the board with these commandos," attorney John Mattes said from his office in Miami last week. "Aside from the fact that many of them, when put into shackles, were literally crucified, they've found it almost impossible to live in the aftermath. And by that, I mean not only the physical distress, but living with the knowledge that their sacrifice for the American government has gone unrecognized. But these men aren't going away. This story is real. And someone, in an official capacity, must come forward to account for all these lives that have been disposed of like garbage and ruined."
In 1992, Mattes accepted an invitation to serve as investigative counsel to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The panel's task was to study the possibility that American POWs were still alive in Vietnam--a claim, politically popular at the time, for which Mattes and his colleagues found not a shred of evidence. They did learn, however, of the existence of dozens of boxes labeled TOP SECRET TIGER--"a trailer truck full"--in storage at the National Archives. In the course of the most sweeping declassification effort in recent history, Mattes, on June 6, 1996, discovered over 500,000 documents that directly contradicted denials by opposing counsel, in U.S. federal claims court, that no secret army, no Special Forces, no captured commandos, were ever on American government's payroll during the Vietnam War.
"This was after months of litigation, remember, during which the government tried to dismiss the case on the grounds that that my clients had missed the statute of limitations deadline," Mattes says, offering a kind absurd chuckle that he admits, in the next breath, is in keeping with the Orwellian nature of the defense argument. "Well, these men happened to be rotting away in prison during that time. With that in mind, fast forward to the Archives: Here I was, in the early afternoon of June 6, staring at the payroll records for these men who were randomly written off as dead. What did they say? Killed in Action. I'd just come from a packed courtroom full of colonels and intelligence types who were very interested in this case because, as it turns out, they'd signed off on these documents! In them were death certificates for commandos I'd been with the week before. The next day, I walked into court and said, 'Judge, the men in this room murdered my clients on paper. They lied to the court, they lied to the American people for 30 years, and as a result their own soldiers lost the better part of their lives.
"'Judge, here's the proof,' I said. 'Here's the records: the contracts, the death gratuity receipts. My clients were on duty when they were killed off on paper. Judge, the fraud on this court comes from the highest levels of the Department of Justice. The only question now is what this court is going to do about the criminal conduct of the United States government.'" Immediately, Mattes goes on, "The judge ordered everyone into his chambers. I'd never seen the men who came into that room before in my life. They were people from the military and intelligence communities, the men who run our country."
On June 9, the story broke in the Sunday editions of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. On June 12, Mattes presented his case to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and briefed Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, in private. The following day, Kerry alerted the National Security Council about the claims, and by the end of the week his staff had drafted a bill to force the payment of back wages to the commandos and their survivors. That Saturday, the Clinton administration agreed to support the bill. Four days later, just after noon, the bill was introduced on the Senate floor and passed on a unanimous vote. On October 4, President Clinton awarded $20 million in back pay to the Lost Army Commandos as part of a routine bill funding the U.S. Department of Defense.
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.
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