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.