From Vietnam to Alabama: Special Agents
By David Curry
August 1971 marked a crucial month in what would become the longest war in U.S. history. The Nixon doctrine of Vietnamization was replacing the failed Kennedy-Johnson doctrine of "winning hearts and minds." For the American people, the war seemed to have dragged on interminably or been forgotten. That past spring, anti-war demonstrators including Vietnam Veterans Against the War had brought the nation's capital to a halt, more than once. In the coming fall, mutinying GIs would just as frequently bring parts of the war to a halt. Attica had happened. George Jackson was killed allegedly attempting to escape from prison. It was a month in my life when I would be personally involved in one of the many personal confrontations between individuals that would ultimately connect into the Vietnam experience.
The confrontation was between a freshly promoted captain in one of the "cush" jobs in the war and a private with one of the worst assignments in a war full of bad assignments.
The private had only a few months before been a civilian. As a community college student, his activities varied as much as his interests. One day, he'd joined a friend in passing out leaflets in support of Black Panthers who were on trial. Most days, though, he just hung out with one or more of his close friends. They drove around a lot, ate fast food, and, being without an identifiable girlfriend, may have dreamed of the possibility or an opportunity. All this, and more, was in the thick FBI file that had arrived on the captain's desk. The report included a thorough background check on the pamphlet. It had been printed on a Progressive Labor Party press. The pamphlet had denounced the U.S. system of justice, capitalism, and imperialism including the war in Vietnam.
Along with surveillance reports and official records checks on the student pamphleteer, the file being read by the captain also included an interview transcript in which the FBI had approached the student with an opportunity to "cooperate fully" with the agency's ongoing investigations of anti-American activities by radical organizations. Offered a chance to be of service to his country as an undercover informant, the private-to-be politely refused. The report also contained copies of the selective service records facilitating the conscription of the fledgling radical into the U.S. Army. All of these pages were, of course, sanctified with the official stamp "SECRET." A second set of interview transcripts in the file described efforts by military intelligence agents in cooperation with the FBI to recruit the newly made private into undercover service within the military stateside. After all, these agents could effectively make the case that a private with no security clearance might end up in the worst of assignments in Vietnam. The private had continued to quietly refuse to cooperate.
There was little information in the file about what the private without a security clearance had been doing at the fire base just a few miles outside An Khe in Binh Dinh province. But one of the captain's colleagues jokingly speculated it wasn't much more than burning shit and dodging sniper rounds.
The captain and his counterintelligence unit moved and lived with fabricated civilian identities in the variety of places covered by John Paul Vann's II Corps headquarters command. The team of agents discussed the best way to turn the recalcitrant young private into an asset for the good of the nation. Ultimately, they decided that the former resort city of Nha Trang would be the best location for the interview.
Orders were sent and the unknowing private was ordered to report to the temporary barracks at II Corps headquarters in the compound of the Grand Hotel in Nha Trang. From the compound, the private could see, hear, and smell one of the most beautiful beaches in the South China Sea. A military intelligence clerk, himself wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a civilian identity, greeted the private and made sure he knew how to get to the base PX while he waited, still without information, to see what would happen next.
As the clerk informed the captain and the other agents on the detail, the private must be enjoying himself. For example, he had been able to receive most of his six months of mail and packages from home that had been delayed there at headquarters. The plan was, of course, to give him a maximum taste of the good life that his stubbornness had forced him to leave behind.
On the third day, it was decided that the two best interviewers from the detachment would surprise the private with the subject interview. They knew he was taking a nap in the empty barracks after lunch. The two agents were able to walk right up to his bunk before they called him to attention.
Swinging down from the top bunk, the private looked amazingly clean-cut for an enlisted grunt in Vietnam. His nineteen-year-old face was bespeckled by acne that the captain was glad had finally started to leave his own twenty-two-year-old face. The captain told the private to be at ease, but there was no way that the private could guess the ranks of these men who quickly flashed badges and credentials and identified themselves as "special agents." Both agents wore neatly pressed civilian clothes, visible holstered thirty-eights, and glaring expressions to match. The captain thought the private was lucky not knowing that the older and larger agent was really an E-6 who routinely boasted how in his former duties as a stateside military policeman he had already killed two misguided GIs in the line of duty and was always ready to kill a third. The older agent informed the private that the agents had a few questions for him, but, keeping with standard operating procedure, that he had the right to refuse to answer any of the questions. Still standing by his temporary bunk, the private spoke softly, but clearly. "I will not answer any of your questions, sir." Taken aback, the captain said, "In that case, that will be all, private." And without any show of emotion, the special agents walked out of the barracks. Within an hour, the clerk in the Hawaiian shirt returned to get the private on his way back to his fire base by nightfall.
In the fall of 1972, the fire base where the private was assigned was one of the several locations where GIs refused to go on patrols. It was a base where officers and NCOs were fragged. Before the end of the fall of 1972, the new policy that U.S. troops would no longer go on routine patrols was invoked.
I don't know what part that "radical" private may have played in those actions, because I was elsewhere. With his simple courage, the young private had sapped away a little more of my rapidly fading enthusiasm for the war. Within a week, I wrote a letter resigning from active duty. I received a response from the Assistant Secretary of the Army accepting my resignation contingent on my completing my tour in Vietnam. The II Corps headquarters military intelligence detachment "stood down" in the next months, and I was transferred to the Special Operations Battalion in Saigon to finish my tour. On the day that I was released from active duty, I found a phone number and called Vietnam Veterans Against the War from the San Francisco airport.
Almost ten years later, my being a captain in counterintelligence was on the other side of several years of anti-war and civil rights activism. I was being targeted by one of the first major investigations of radical vets in Alabama under the Reagan administration. I met my lawyer at a coffee shop in Mobile, Alabama, across the street from another coffee shop where my scheduled interview with special agents representing the FBI, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, the DEA, and the Veterans Administration was to take place. Even having my friend and lawyer by my side, my fear at facing those stern agents of the state was considerable. It made me wonder how much more courage it had taken for a nineteen-year-old private standing alone, facing a return to six more months of potential harm, to face such men. But in my case, at least, that private had taught me how to answer the first question that I was asked.
David Curry is a staff member of the national office of VVAW, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, and author of Sunshine Patriots: Punishment and the Vietnam Offender and co-author of Confronting Gangs: Crime and Community.