| "Did Richard Nixon---then
Citizen Nixon---jump-start the Vietnam War on a secret mission to Saigon
in 1964? The following piece suggests that he may have. The story originally
appeared in Nixon: An Oliver Stone Film, edited by Eric Hamburg (Hyperion,
New York, 1995)."
one of the most mysterious incidents in the Vietnam War, and I can't get
it out of my mind.
It was the spring of 1964,
and the former Vice President of the United States, who was also the next
President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, was standing in a jungle
clearing northwest of Saigon, negotiating with a man who, to all appearances,
was a Vietcong lieutenant. Wearing battle fatigues "with no identification,"
Nixon was flanked by military bodyguards whose mission was so secret that,
when they returned to Saigon, their clothing was burned. 
At the time, Nixon
had been out of public office (though not out of politics) for more than
three years. After losing the Presidential election in 1960 and the California
gubernatorial race in 1962, he'd gone into private practice as an attorney
with the Mudge, Rose law firm, subsiding into what amounted to an enforced
retirement from the world's stage. It's all the more surprising, then, to
find this political castoff on a secret mission in the Orient - only a few
months after the Kennedy and Diem assassinations.
Not that Nixon was
a stranger to intrigue. On the contrary, his political career might easily
be graphed as a parabola of Cold War conspiracies. As a Red-baiting congressman
in the forties, he'd made the most of a lovely "photo opportunity" by uncovering
stolen State Department secrets - in a Maryland pumpkin field. In the fifties,
while Vice President, he'd run a stable of spooks - actually run them
- in an off-the-books operation to destroy the Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle
Onassis.  In that operation,
Nixon acted as a case officer to Robert Maheu (himself a linkman between
the CIA and the Mafia)  and
a former Washington Post reporter named John Gerrity. Gerrity later
recalled that "Nixon more or less invented the Mission Impossible speech,
and he gave it to us right there, in the White House. You know the spiel,
the one that begins, 'Your assignment, gentlemen, should you choose to accept
it. . . ." Years afterward,
when the Eisenhower Administration was drawing to a close, then Vice President
Nixon served as the de facto focal point officer for the Administration's
plans to overthrow Fidel Castro. In that role, he was in regular contact
with the CIA and with some of the darker precincts of the Pentagon.
It's fair to say,
then, that Richard M. Nixon knew what he was doing when it came to covert
operations - but what was he doing in the jungle in 1964?
The story surfaced,
briefly, some 20 years later, when the New York Times reported that
Nixon, "while on a private trip to Vietnam in 1964, met secretly with the
Vietcong and ransomed five American prisoners of war for bars of gold. :
. ."  In reporting this, the
Times relied upon a report published in the catalog of
a Massachusetts autograph dealer. The dealer was selling a handwritten note
that Nixon had given to one of his bodyguards. The note read, “To Hollis
Kimmons with appreciation for his protection for my helicopter ride in Vietnam,
from Richard Nixon."
The value of the note was increased by
the circumstances that generated it, circumstances that Sergeant Kimmons
described in the catalog:
|When Nixon arrived
at Ton Son Nhut Airport in Saigon, Sergeant Kimmons was assigned to security
detail and was accompanying Nixon on all excursions away from the 145th Aviation
Battalion where Nixon was staying. On the second day, Nixon dressed in Army
fatigues with no identification and climbed aboard a helicopter with Sergeant
Kimmons and a crew of four. 
They proceeded to Phuoc
Binh, a village northwest of Saigon, where they met with Father Wa, a go-between
that arranged the exchange of the gold for U. S. prisoners. The following
day, Nixon and his party departed for An Loc, a village south of Phuoc Binh,
where in a clearing somewhere in this area Nixon met with a Vietcong lieutenant
who established a price for the return of five U.S. prisoners.
A location for the exchange
was arranged and the crew departed for Saigon. Later the same day, the crew,
this time without Nixon because of the extreme danger, departed for Phumi
Kriek, a village across the border in Cambodia. A box loaded with gold bars
so heavy it took three men to lift it on the helicopter accompanied the crew.
At the exchange point,
five U.S. servicemen were rustled out of the jungle accompanied by several
armed soldiers. The box of gold was unloaded and checked by the Vietcong
lieutenant and the exchange was made without incident. The crew and rescued
prisoners immediately departed for Saigon, and they were sent to the hospital
upon their arrival.
Sergeant Kimmons's mission
was secret, and there were no written orders for his duty during this period.
His clothes were destroyed as well as the film in his camera, and he signed
an agreement not to reveal this incident for 20 years. Nixon's note to him
was hurriedly written at the conclusion of his assignment to guard Nixon
on the following day. 
That Nixon traveled to Vietnam in 1964 is a matter of fact. He departed the
United States in late March on a round-the-world trip that took him, first,
to Beirut, and then to Karachi, Calcutta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Saigon.
There, he dined with the American Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, who had
been his running mate in the 1960 Presidential race. In the days that followed,
Nixon helicoptered into the countryside,  and then continued on to Hong Kong, Manila, Taiwan,
and Tokyo before returning home.  Nixon later wrote that the purpose of the trip was to
meet with Mudge, Rose clients and foreign leaders. Contemporary reports make
it obvious, however, that the real purpose of the trip was to drum up international
support for what was about to become America's massive intervention in Vietnam.
There is nothing in
the Times' account to suggest that the exchange of gold on April 3
was in any way relevant to the impending escalation of the war, but the possibility
is an intriguing one. The Times' article is anything but conclusive.
On the contrary, it simply parrots the cover story that Sergeant Kimmons
had been given, while at the same time neglecting to identify the mission's
middleman, the so-called “Father Wa.”
According to the Pentagon,
which kept meticulous records of American prisoners of war, the POW release
that Sergeant Kimmons described could not have occurred. The few Americans
in captivity in 1964 were all accounted for in 1965---and most of them were
still in cages. (Even so, we needn't rely on the Pentagon to give the lie
to Nixon's cover story. Whatever else may be said about Richard Nixon, he
was a consummate politician and, if he'd risked his life to rescue American
prisoners of war, we'd have heard about it - if not in 1964, then most definitely
in 1968.) As for the identity of “Father Wa,” Sergeant Kimmons (and the Times)
fell victim to phonetics. Far more than an anonymous interpreter, the Rev.
Nguyen Loc Hoa was a legendary figure in Vietnam. A bespectacled Catholic
priest whose black cassock was usually cinched with a web ammo belt and a
pair of holstered .45s, he was the symbol of militant anti-Communism in the
south.  Twenty years before,
he'd fought a successful guerrilla war against the Japanese in China. Soon
afterward, and as a colonel in the Chinese Nationalist Army, he'd battled
Mao Tse Tung's Communist insurgency. Driven from China, he and two thousand
followers lived for a while in Cambodia before moving to a mangrove swamp
in the Mekong Delta---where they set up a village and went to war against
Father Hoa's story
was told in an article that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post,
a few months after President Kennedy took office. Entitled "The Report the
President Wanted Published," the piece was published under peculiar circumstances.
Authored by "An American Officer" whose identity could not be made public
"for professional reasons," 
the article was in fact written by Gen. Edward Lansdale, an Air Force-CIA
officer whose counterinsurgency theories and practice had inspired at least
two books (The Ugly American and The Quiet American).  According to. Lansdale, President
Kennedy personally telephoned him to ask that he arrange for publication
of what, until then, had been a secret report.
The article, and a
follow-up piece that came out a year later, were blatant propaganda.  In sentimentalizing Father
Hoa's ferocious anti-Communism while demonizing the Vietcong, the articles
did much to prepare the American public for the larger war to come.
Kennedy's motives may have been in pushing General Lansdale to publish his
secret report, Nixon's visit to the jungle is even more mysterious. Why should
a former Vice President of the United States, accompanied by a legendary
guerrilla fighter with excellent ties to the CIA, dress up in battle fatigues
and adopt a cover story to facilitate a journey into the Vietnamese bush?
The answer, obviously, is to make a very secret deal. But if, as we've discovered,
Nixon was engaged in something other than ransoming prisoners, what was he
buying with so much gold-and who were those guys that came out of the jungle
near Phumi Kriek?
reports of the top-secret Military Assistance Command/Studies and Observations
Group (MACSOG) raise the possibility that Nixon's mission may have had to
do with OPLAN 34-A. This was a covert operation to undermine the North Vietnamese
by inserting "specially trained" Vietnamese commandos behind enemy lines.
 The operation was run by
the CIA from 1961 to 1963, and by the Pentagon from 1964 to 1967. We're told
that the activity was paid for with money the CIA had received from the U.S.
Navy and then laundered offshore. 
Since Nixon's mission
had nothing to do with prisoners of war, it seems likely indeed that the
Americans who dashed from the jungle at Phumi Kriek were CIA operatives or
paramilitaries. This likelihood, coupled with the large amount of untraceable
gold, suggests a mission of surpassing sensitivity - which, in turn, suggests
But what makes the
incident at Phumi Kriek seem important, however, is not just the secrecy
that surrounded it, or even the large amount of gold that was involved. It
is, instead, the presence of Richard Nixon. Why him? What could such an outre
politician have possibly brought to a covert operation in Vietnam?
The answer, of course,
is nothing - except his face. Which is to say, the unmistakable face of American
political authority. With Richard Milhous Nixon present at the negotiations,
and with the fabled Father Hoa as his interpreter, the supposed "Vietcong
lieutenant" (himself, perhaps, a MACSOG operative) would never have questioned
the legitimacy of the mission on which he was being sent. He would have known
that, no matter how improbable, the mission was sanctioned by the highest
echelons of the American government.
But what can that
mission have been?
With Nixon, Hoa, and
Kimmons dead, one can only speculate. But it's worth noting that four months
after the meeting at Phumi Kriek, OPLAN 34-A commando raids were carried
out against the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, an
American destroyer, the Maddox, was attacked in the Gulf by North
Vietnamese patrol boats - which led, almost instantly, to American air raids
on North Vietnam and the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, escalating
America's involvement in the war.
In his recent mea
culpa,  former Secretary
of Defense Robert S. McNamara writes that the attack on the Maddox
was "so irrational" that "some believed the 34-A operations had played a
role in triggering North Vietnam's actions." Though McNamara does not say
so, his implication is clear: OPLAN 34-A operatives deliberately
provoked the North Vietnamese and, in so doing, transformed "a small, out-of-the-way
conflict into a full-bore war." 
If that is what happened,
it's understandable that OPLAN 34-A operations should be so secret that their
very existence was omitted from the Pentagon Papers.  What's less clear is whether or not Richard M. Nixon
was directly involved in the secret funding of operations that may well have
jump-started the Vietnam War.
1. "Secret Nixon Vietnam
Trip Reported," New York Times, Feb. 17, 1985. Click
here to return.
2. Jim Hougan, Spooks (New York: Morrow,
1978), pp. 286-306. Onassis was targeted because of an agreement he'd reached
with the Saudi government, monopolizing the export of oil from Saudi Arabia.
Click here to return.
3. Hougan, Spooks, pp. 286-300, and
Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, Empire (New York: Norton, 1979),
pp. 282-285. Click here to return.
4. Hougan's interview with Gerrity. Click here to return.
5. “Secret Nixon Vietnam Trip Reported,"
p. 3. Click here to return.
6. Fatigues typically have the owner's last
name sewn on a plaquet on the breast. Click here to return.
7. The Times article quotes from a
catalog printed by Templeton, Massachusetts, autograph dealer Paul C. Richards.Click here to return.
8. New York Times, Apr. 3, 1964. Click here to return.
9. RN: The Memoirs of Richard M. Nixon
(New York, Touchstone, 1990), pp. 256-258, and article sin the following
editions of the New York Times, covering his trip: March 23-28,
1964; March 30-31, 1964; April 2-10, 1964; and April 16, 1964. Click here to return.
10. Ibid. Click
here to return.
11. Cecil Currey, Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet
American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), p.220. Click
here to return.
12. An American Officer, "The Report the
President Wanted Published," Saturday Evening Post, May 20, 1961, p. 31.
Click here to return.
13. Currey, Edward Lansdale, p. 225. Click here to return.
14. Don Schanche, "Father Hoa's Little War,"
Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 17, 1962. Click here to return.
15. "Once Commandos for U.S., Vietnamese
Are Now Barred," New York Times, Apr. 14, 1995, p.1. Click here to return.
16. Ibid. Click
here to return.
17. Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The
Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), p. 133. Click here to return.
18. "Once Commandos for the U.S. . . . ,"
p. 1. Click here to return.
19. This, according to Sedwick Tourison,
a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst, who called OPLAN 34-A operations
"the secret" of the Vietnam War ("Once Commandos for the U.S....," p. 1).
Click here to return.