Thursday, October 05, 2017

In Saigon with Chariton's John Baldridge, 1961

The late John Baldridge, editor and publisher for many years of the Chariton newspapers, did get around --- so it's not surprising that in 1961, just as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was accelerating during the Kennedy years, he landed in Saigon.

Baldridge and his wife, Eleanor Ann, had met John C. Caldwell, then of Nashville, Tenn., during the time they served together as civilians in Korea between World War II and the outbreak of the Korean War, when both families were forced to flee. The Caldwells settled in Nashville, Tenn., and he established himself there as an author, travel writer and international guide and lecturer.

Baldridge joined one of Caldwell's tours, a six-week around-the-world jaunt, during late September 1961 --- partly as guide and partly as tourist --- and returned home during mid-November after having visited, among other places, Japan, Formosa, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Nepal, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

Among the products of the tour was a series of articles published during October and November in the Chariton, Albia and Bloomfield family newspapers.

Just last night, I watched the second episode of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick film, The Vietnam War, which covered the Kennedy years. So it was especially interesting to read the following, published in The Chariton Leader of Nov. 7, 1961:


We left Manila, Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula of such poignant memory by Pan-Am 707 Jet for Saigon, South Viet Nam.

Here you find 2,500-year-old superstitions, 20th century progress in a French atmosphere, where a new nation strongly supported by the United States is having a desperate struggle for life.

People in Saigon are scared. You feel it in everyone you meet, and it is not safe to venture outside the city at night as no one can tell where the Viet Cong, or guerrilla communist army, will strike next. One man with whom I talked spoke in whispers so that waiters nearby could not hear.

Our rooms had been commandeered by the government for arriving U.S. troops, but shortly before our plane landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport, an older hotel made sufficient rooms available. The room supply was further diminished by the presence of Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor and his mission to seek ways to assist the government of President Ngo Diem.

American military personnel on the streets are all in civilian clothing but as airmen and others came back to the hotel in sweat-soaked dungarees, saying nothing, one knew they had not been idle. I haven't looked down the barrels of as many tommy guns since Korea as I did the day we toured Saigon. No one knows the size of our troop commitments, but they are substantial and growing. They are fighting and taking casualties along with the Vietnamese they train.

You will recall that the settlement at Geneva in 1954 gave North Viet Nam to the communists. The Republic of Viet Nam, in the south, was oriented toward the west and a million refugees fled south. Earlier, the French, who for about 100 years had governed the area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as French Indo-China, had been defeated. No one gave the new Republic more than six months to survive, but President Ngo Diem took over or defeated about 35 private armies, some religious, that the French had permitted and used, instituted a successful land reform, resettled the refugees and seven years later, the government is still in existence.

Today the nation is experiencing a cruel civil war because of invasion from the north backed by Soviet arms flown into the communist controlled areas of nearby Laos. The communist Viet Cong rules a great share of the nation at night, killing villagers, gaining support by the old communist tactics of promises combined with threats and the slaughter of those who oppose them.

In the past, American military aid has been channeled into an army equipped to fight a sizeable war, but not to combat guerrillas, but this is changing. We saw F-101 fighters of the Viet Nam Air Force taking off --- worthless jet equipment in the war that they are waging. But the Vietnamese are fighters, they are rapidly learning guerrilla methods with the help of U.S. ranger troops, and if it isn't too late ---- the ominous trend may be reversed.

An old friend whom we met by accident was pessimistic, but the military, with the natural optimism of Americans, say it will be done if the next few months can be gotten through. It is difficult. The invaders can retreat over the Laotian or North Viet Nam borders when things get hot, to return another day.

The communists failed politically in the face of land reform and freedom, now they resort to force. Without outside interference, there would be no war in Viet Nam.

Is it important? When Laos and Viet Nam go communist, then Thailand, Malaya and Indonesia cannot remain free --- or it is difficult to see how they could resist the tremendous pressure of Red China over a long period. And the natural resources of the area are of incalculable importance to the communist world --- tin, rubber, oil, rice.

There are grenades thrown and occasional casualties in Saigon. Two days before we arrived there had been a particularly bad torture murder a short distance from the city of the Viet Nam liaison officer with the International Control Commission set up at Geneva. A Colonel Nam was captured and his body savagely mutilated. The Control Commission is a farce because it has three members, Canada, Poland and India, and India always votes with Poland to do nothing.

So this potentially wealthy nation, with its rice, sugar, fruit, rubber and growing industries, with its Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, with its women with their wispy trousers under a long sleeved, high necked colorful dress slit to the hips, a combination of the alluring and the virtuous --- with its Cho Lon Chinese district where dentists extract teeth along the street and women applying bamboo leeches to bleed patients do a big business in curing all ills --- with its French influence reflected in the language and gardens, hopes for a miracle.

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