It was touching to see Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger back on the tube again during the Hainan confrontation, with Brzezinski recommending to Jim Lehrer’s audience that Kissinger be appointed supreme envoy and mediator for the resolution of the crisis. He wasn’t completely clear on the credentials Kissinger would be employing: his usual ones as middleman and facilitator for US corporations in China (and chief justifier of the Tiananmen Square bloodbath in 1989) or his consummate skill as a handler of touchy moments on the Asian mainland. As it happens, the last time US citizens were "held hostage" within the orbit of China, Kissinger committed yet another in a long series of the commingled crimes and blunders that have been the milestones of his career.
An extraordinary new book by Ralph Wetterhahn, The Last Battle: The Mayaguez Incident and the End of the Vietnam War (forthcoming from Carroll & Graf), unpacks the entirety of the official claims made at the time, to the effect that swift and decisive action saved the crew of the merchant ship Mayaguez, taught the Khmer Rouge a lesson and restored American "credibility" at the close of the Indochina debacle. The names of those lost in the recapture of the Mayaguez in May 1975 are the last names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, so a good deal of emotional and ideological credibility is invested in the idea that they did not die in vain. As recently as last year, this triumphal myth was featured at the Republican National Convention. And now, some of the political dinosaurs of the Ford Administration, notably Donald Rumsfeld, are back in the Washington saddle with, so to speak, a vengeance. Ralph Wetterhahn now shows that:
(1) The crew of the Mayaguez was never held on Koh Tang island, the island that was invaded by the US Marine Corps.
(2) The Cambodians had announced that they intended to return the vessel, and had indeed done so while the bombardment of Cambodian territory was continuing, during which time the crew was being held unharmed on quite another island, named Rong Sam Lem. President Ford’s statement, claiming credit for the release and attributing it to the intervention on the wrong island, was knowingly false.
(3) American casualties were larger than has ever been admitted; twenty-three men were pointlessly sacrificed in a helicopter crash in Thailand that was never acknowledged as part of the operation. Thus, sixty-four servicemen were killed to free forty sailors who had already been let go, and who were not and never had been at the advertised location.
(4) As a result of the panic and disorder, three Marines were left behind alive on Koh Tang island, and later captured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. You will not find the names of Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall or Pvt. Danny Marshall on any memorial. For a long time they didn’t have any official existence.
It didn’t surprise me to find that Henry Kissinger had at every stage argued for the most grandiose and hysterical response, forever puffing smoke and speaking of "American will." It seems to have been his idea to drop a BLU-82 bomb on the center of Koh Tang island; a 15,000-pound device that was the largest nonnuclear weapon in the US arsenal.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, Ford and Rumsfeld were appearing at a black-tie dinner and arguing about when and how to claim the credit, and whether to interrupt the Johnny Carson show for a presidential announcement, while Kissinger, whose diplomacy with the press may be his single greatest accomplishment, was spreading the myth of a successful combined operation. The best evidence now is that the Mayaguez was seized without orders by a rogue Khmer Rouge unit, and that there was no dispute that could not have been arbitrated by simple diplomacy.
With the help of the admirable William Triplett, late of Capital Style magazine, I can add one more detail to this history of lethal fiasco. In December 1997 Triplett interviewed James Schlesinger, Ford’s Secretary of Defense, for the publication of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Schlesinger recalled two discussions that occurred at the initial National Security Council meeting on the Mayaguez. The first was a demand by Kissinger to use B-52 bombers against Cambodia at once; a suggestion that was eventually overruled. However, Secretary Schlesinger was not able to prevent a decision being made to sink all ships spotted in the vicinity of Koh Tang island. Here’s the relevant extract of the verbatim interview:
When I got [back] to the Pentagon…. I said that before any ships are sunk, our pilots should fly low over the ships and see what they could see, particularly if there were any [Mayaguez] crew members aboard. If they did see them, they were to report back immediately before doing anything. In the course of flying over the area, one of our Navy pilots called back saying that he saw "Caucasians" aboard a ship coming off Koh Tang. Or he thought he saw that. It later turned out that every member of the Mayaguez crew was on that ship….
Q: Did you apprise the White House of this ship with the Caucasians aboard?
A: Yes, indeed.
Q: And it was then that the White House said to sink it?
A: Yes, the White House said, "We told you to sink all ships, so sink it!"
By stalling for three hours, Schlesinger managed to avoid committing this atrocity.
I have just published my own book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso, $22), and was intending to exploit this column to get you to buy a copy or two. It has some good Mayaguez stuff in it, as well as the goods on Chile, Bangladesh, Timor and much besides. However, I cede the laurels to Wetterhahn, whose book deserves the highest praise and the widest circulation.