Hiam, Michael

Buy the book, Who the Hell Are We Fighting?


C. Michael Hiam lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife and two daughters. His first book is Who the Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars. Since Vietnam is one of Tom's areas of interest, we take a step outside our usual subject matter to bring you this interview, in which Erik Hansen and Michael Hiam talk about the book.

tompeters.com asks …

Michael, who is Sam Adams?

MH: Sam Adams was raised by boarding schools, slouched through Harvard undergraduate, served in the Navy, and attended Harvard Law School, where he either dropped out or was kicked out after his second year. He got married, moved to Washington, D.C., applied to some government agencies, and was accepted into the CIA’s junior officer training program. The agency was enormous at the time but very few were accepted into this career-track training program.

At the age of 30, he joined the agency and loved it. His first assignment was on the Congo desk. At the time, the Congo was a backwater of the Cold War. He never went to the Congo; everything was done from headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

This was around 1964?

MH: That’s right. There were, at the time, two sides of the agency, the clandestine side and the analytical side. Sam went into the analytical side. It was pretty much a two-man team running the Congo desk. Very quickly, Sam was writing pieces for the President’s daily intelligence report, which was phenomenal. He loved that.

Then, when the Congo settled down, Sam agitated for a change. He threatened to go to the espionage side of the agency. The analytical side thought that they had a great man in Sam Adams. So they put him onto a new endeavor: Vietnam.

As an analyst on Vietnam, he was assigned to look at the morale of the Viet Cong. He went to Vietnam four times; two were extended research visits. He interviewed captured Viet Cong insurgents. Examining the statistics, he found vast numbers of defections and desertions. He returned to Langley, optimistic that things would prevail for the U.S. in Vietnam because the Viet Cong were abandoning the Communist fight and coming over to the U.S. cause.

But he later came to the conclusion that we were not winning the war. Everybody was telling him, “You’re crazy. Maybe the Viet Cong are coming over in those numbers, but vast swaths of the countryside are dominated by the Communists.” Very quickly, he realized that the base statistics for the size of the Viet Cong enemy in Vietnam were grossly low. So, while the numbers were maybe around 250,000, he and his colleagues at the agency felt that, in fact, within South Vietnam there were perhaps 500,000 to 600,000 Viet Cong, which would explain why the enemy could accept such a high desertion and defection rate and still be very capable.

Sam, with agency backing, began to press this issue, and things came to a head in 1967. That’s when President Johnson was looking forward to winning the elections in 1968. He wanted to take the war off the table as a potentially contentious issue. So he launched what was called the Success Offensive, a public relations campaign.

Every year, the intelligence community had a national intelligence estimate. Usually, it’s a good faith effort of the intelligence community, both civilian and military, to get together and come up with an estimate on a given problem. It could be wheat production or oil production or someone’s capabilities to invade a neighbor, that kind of thing.

Every year during the Vietnam War, there was a special national intelligence estimate on the enemy’s will and capabilities to continue the fight. Since it was a war of attrition, the numbers mattered.

Sam found that the military command under General Westmoreland in Saigon, backed up by the American embassy in Saigon, was doing everything that it could to keep the official numbers of the enemy combatants in South Vietnam as low as possible, both through statistical manipulation and through outright deception.

Because they had to make it look like we were winning this war of attrition. If these numbers were too high, not only would it look like we weren’t winning, but the press would have a field day, and support for the war would dwindle.

MH: Exactly. Of course, the national intelligence estimate process is a highly classified affair, but the press was aware that it was going on. In order to keep the numbers artificially low, Westmoreland’s intelligence people decided to only count the North Vietnamese soldiers who had come south to fight, and what the Viet Cong in South Vietnam termed their main and local forces. These were people who were full-time and looked like soldiers, for the most part. Westmoreland’s command said, “These are the only people that we’re fighting.”

Anybody who knew anything about guerilla warfare, including Sam, said “Absolutely not.” The whole concept of Communist guerilla warfare as created and espoused by Mao Zedong, is that the guerilla force is an ocean among the people. Sure, there are full-time fighters, but then there’s political infrastructure, political officers who are armed, and hundreds of thousands of support troops. There’s a vast array of guerillas, what they called special people’s forces.

You have Viet Cong operatives who are doing this part-time and they don’t have guns, but maybe they have grenades—

MH: That’s right. The Viet Cong structure in South Vietnam was a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid were the main forces who looked like real soldiers. As the pyramid gets wider towards the bottom, it basically never ends. It’s infinity. You may have people who just dig a trench for a few hours a month.

The fascinating thing was that you had these old ladies in the hamlet that were, by night, digging trenches and putting the sharpened sticks in there—

MH: The punji sticks.

Right. And they accounted for about 20 percent of U.S. casualties.

MH: If not much more. In some areas, it would have been much higher than that. I interviewed a former Marine officer who read my book and liked it. In his province, which was in a supposedly pacified area of Vietnam, there wasn’t any active fighting going on. Yet tanks were still being blown up and G.I.s’ legs were still being blown off. At the time he said, “Look, I see all these civilians around me. Somebody’s got to be doing this.”

That was an enormous political fight. The long and the short of it was that the CIA under Richard Helms wasn’t interested in fighting this battle. This was the military’s war; it wasn’t the CIA’s war. As an aside, the agency was never enthusiastic about Vietnam. Some of them had been studying Vietnam since the rise of Ho Chi Minh—actually knew him during World War II—and never really thought that being in Vietnam was a particularly good idea.

I learned from reading your book about the disconnectedness between the CIA and the military. I always imagined that they were all in this together. It was a surprise to hear you say that the CIA—which I think of as the people who are looking at the bigger picture as opposed to the military, who’s looking at the next battle—didn’t see Vietnam as a place to particularly worry about.

MH: Yes, that’s entirely right. The CIA devoted very few resources to Vietnam. Another aside, people were sent to Vietnam who weren’t wanted or needed in Langley; it was a bit of housecleaning. Undoubtedly, there were some very good people there as well. But in general, Vietnam was never high on the agency’s priority list.

That’s interesting.

MH: Helms knew that Vietnam was this horrible political hot potato. He isolated it within the agency and created a special office that would take care of Vietnam for him. So, Helms and the agency hierarchy were not interested in fighting this battle. They were fully willing to believe that Sam Adams’ estimates were correct. But the point was, why fight? It’s a thankless task. This made Sam very, very upset. This all probably would have just been an obscure tale of bureaucratic infighting were it not for the Tet Offensive, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The agency capitulated to the military. The national estimate—a classified document—went to members of Congress and Johnson. Then, a sanitized version was released to the press.

Sam fought for the number to be reported at 500,000 or 600,000. Westmoreland insisted it was 297,000. But then before that went to Congress, it ended up down at 250,000?

MH: Even lower. I think it was 214,000 at the very last minute; there was some horse trading behind the scenes.


MH: The tragic punch line was that the estimate came out in late November of ’67. The Tet Offensive happened at the end of January ’68. The Tet Offensive was a countrywide activation of the entire Communist apparatus. It was not only the main and local forces, but it was also the political cadre, the members of the secret Communist government infrastructure, the secret self-defense forces; all the elements. Someone put the figure at perhaps 400,000.

This came as a shock to the military, the political establishment in Washington, and, of course, the U.S. How could this happen?

And for the first time ever, Vietnam became a very strange war. The war had never really been in the cities; it had always been in the countryside for the most part. Saigon and the big cities were safe places. With Tet, for the first time the Communists were showing up in Saigon. They briefly took over the U.S. Embassy, which was a complete shock. There was fighting in the streets.

There’s no question from any serious historian that this was the turning point. Before Tet, the U.S. policymakers were looking for every excuse to stay in Vietnam. After Tet, everybody was looking for a way out.

Later it’s revealed that somebody had some information about this upcoming offensive. It was one instance of massive numbers of people ignoring stuff just because it didn’t fit into their world view.

MH: That’s entirely so.

You noted that the people in Da Nang took it seriously and that was the one place where they actually rebuffed the attack.

MH: That’s right. And there was a U.S. general who was responsible for security around Saigon who took it seriously. Without orders, he deployed his troops into the field before the offensive. If he had not done that, there’s a possibility that Saigon could have fallen. That’s one of those interesting historical “what ifs.” So yes, there were some who took this seriously.

People who are critics of Sam—and they’re allowed to be—confuse the issue of the timing and warning of the Tet Offensive. Many of them say that everybody knew that there was going to be this offensive. In fact, every year there was an offensive; a great uprising was part and parcel of the Communist philosophy.

But Sam never said that he was going to predict when the trigger was going to be pulled. He was saying that the gun was much bigger than was being reported. People criticized Sam, but that’s not what Sam was about. He didn’t have anything to do with estimating an offensive.

The Tet Offensive was, without question, a tremendous military success for the U.S., and a tremendous defeat for the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. In essence, this great pyramid was pretty much blown away. I’m not an expert, but there’s a lot of scholarly debate about whether or not that Communist secret organization ever was able to resurrect itself.

Oddly enough, after the Tet Offensive, it was basically the North Vietnamese who ran the war. It then became a war more like the war that General Westmoreland always wanted, which was one of regular troops coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam. But the problem was that the U.S. military and the political leadership in Washington had, of course, lost all credibility. No one believed them from then on.

There were so many real Viet Cong casualties that they were greater than the number of Viet Cong carried officially on the books by Westmoreland’s command. So, then they had to go through this intellectually dishonest exercise of manipulating the old numbers so that they would jive with the new casualty numbers.

That seems bizarre looking at it from this distance.

MH: It certainly does. After the Tet Offensive, the CIA under Helms said that they were disgusted with this. They divorced themselves from the military on the estimate. They went right back to their old number of 500,000 to 600,000. After Tet, the CIA said, “We’re not going to get in bed with those guys again. We are not going to be corrupt. From now on, we’re going to tell the truth,” which they did. But it was too late by that point.

But on the human side of the story, Sam, being very idealistic and naïve, essentially fought a battle within the agency to have people fired, to have what happened both exposed and investigated. He left the agency and wrote a book.

There were people in the military that Sam always admired. One of them was Colonel Gains Hawkins. As I mentioned, Sam had quite a patrician upbringing. And one of his greatest allies was this crusty colonel from Mississippi who literally grew up barefoot, smoked from the age of 13 on, and was a career Army officer. Sam would see him in Vietnam and Hawkins always told Sam, “Look Sam, everybody knows that you’re right. But we’re basically being ordered to lie.”

When Sam began his book, he went down to Mississippi to visit Hawkins and learned a huge amount about what had happened behind the scenes. They had this amazing friendship. Sam could be a very trying guy, because he wasn’t always attentive to other people’s positions and the fact that they had careers and maybe pensions that they wanted to protect. He used, sometimes with, sometimes without Hawkins’ permission, Hawkins’ own story about what happened.

So they ended up having a falling out.

MH: They had a falling out briefly during the Pentagon Papers trial. Sam went to Ellsberg’s trial. Ellsberg is the guy who released the Pentagon Papers including the 1967 estimate that was edited after Tet. Sam went to the trial and said, “How could this man be releasing information that’s critical to the U.S. when it’s just lies?”

At that time, Gains Hawkins wasn’t still in the military, but he wasn’t prepared to give testimony that would back Sam up. He was subpoenaed, but—he admitted this—basically lied. The Ellsberg defense team didn’t trust him enough to put him on the stand. But when it came time to do the CBS documentary some years later, Hawkins allowed himself to be interviewed—as a way to redeem himself, perhaps.

What’s your personal connection to this story?

MH: Sam and my father were best friends; Sam was my godfather. I spent a lot of time with Sam and his wife and son, Clayton, on their farm in Virginia.

Sam was a wonderful guy. He told us that he was writing this tell-all book, which didn’t come out year after year, despite his claims to the contrary. As his biographer, I’m very sorry I didn’t take notes or ask him more questions when I spent time with him. Then he died, age 55, perhaps of a broken heart.

From what?

MH: He was always on the cusp of success. Perhaps he was grandiose, but Sam very much believed that there was an enormous conspiracy, that probably came from the White House, where Johnson or Rostow was directing Westmoreland to fudge the numbers. All the surviving principals who would have known about that were deposed at trial and denied everything. It’s a realm of the story that is not going to be known.

Westmoreland dropped out in the last week of a four-month trial versus CBS, his lawyer knowing that they couldn’t win, but declared victory. CBS, being a corporate entity, wasn’t interested in creating any more waves and didn’t apologize to Westmoreland, but appropriately said that they never intended to impugn his honor. The whole issue was complicated. No one likes the Vietnam War.

People were still smarting from it at the time of the Westmoreland vs. CBS trial in 1985.

MH: Absolutely. This was a very painful thing; it concerned deception. There was tremendous interest. It’s a very famous trial, both for journalistic reasons and also for military and historical reasons.

After the trial, everybody went on with their lives. It was Sam’s last hurrah. He didn’t have a real need to be vindicated, but I think a jury verdict would have been very helpful to him. He didn’t have a job. Clearly the book at this point wasn’t going to happen. The book represented his life’s work. How do you end your life’s work? What do you do after you’ve ended your life’s work?

When you started this project, did people say, “Vietnam is ancient history”?

MH: No. For people who were involved in Vietnam, perhaps like Tom was, that was not the most important thing in life, but it was the most important historical thing in their life. They were part of history. In most cases—even those who were hostile to Sam—people were pleased as Pete that somebody was writing a book about this.

On the other side, there was some tension when my manuscript was going around. The Ellsberg biography had just come out. That had not done well. There were a lot of books relating an enormous oral history of the Vietnam War from every side. They hadn’t done well.

But it’s a much larger story. It’s about a whistleblower. What lessons were learned? Here we are now in Iraq. Theoretically, we’re there because of falsified intelligence—

MH: Certainly there’s outright lying and deception. But I doubt that was the case for most people, both with the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and also with the Sam Adams controversy. People have careers. You don’t get to be a general unless you’re a politician. It’s the case of giving higher-ups what they want. And I’m sure it happens at both a conscious level and an unconscious level. Sam could never understand that.

Clearly, he was a very single-minded guy.

MH: People in the agency were very frightened of Sam. He let it be known that he was a person of independent means and he wasn’t in the job for the money. He wasn’t somebody who was playing by the normal rules.

In that regard, he was brilliant. He certainly was a babe out of the woods when he tried to get Westmoreland court-martialed.

He was blinded by his own passion about this?

MH: I think he was also very much a Victorian personality. The schools he attended in his youth were set up to teach young men—who would later become the leaders of the country and captains of industry—the highest ethics.

Someone said he was a “Thoreau type.”

MH: Exactly. And he was, without question, obsessed about this. But that didn’t extend to other parts of his personality. He could be very pragmatic. I’ll give you an example. When we drove over a dark, dirt country road behind his house in Virginia, he told me that, unfortunately, people had been using the road as a dump and he was upset about this. He told me that one night he happened upon a truck stopped on this road. There were a couple of local rednecks throwing bales of wrapped coil into the woods. Sam realized that, first of all, they shouldn’t be doing this, and secondly, if the coils ever unraveled and got tangled in the woods of Virginia, you could never get them out.

Most whistleblowers would get the person’s license plate number and go tell the sheriff. But Sam said, “I got out of the car and said, ‘Oh, I see that these bales of wire have fallen off your truck. Here, let me help you.'”

He said they gave each other this odd look and then said, “Okay, sure.” With their help, he loaded the bales and off they went. That was a pragmatic, excellent solution.

In that same light, he learned how to use the media very effectively when he wasn’t getting any traction with the normal chain of command at the CIA.

MH: That’s another criticism of Sam, which is true. He had this noblesse oblige. I think that he thought that since he was an Adams, someone of privilege, that he had a right to leak information. I tried to be a conservative biographer, and in the book I don’t go out on a limb with speculation. But I would guess that where I report that Sam leaked things to Seymour Hersh, there was a lot more that I just don’t know about. So I don’t know whether that was the tip of the iceberg.

It makes perfect sense. The guy believed he was telling the truth; he had to let people know.

On the front of your book, there’s a quote, “Had Sam Adams been successful in getting the truth out, tens of thousands of lives would not have been shattered in Vietnam.”

MH: Just like in Iraq, if policymakers were told the true scope of the problem … This is what Sam said. Sam was never for or against the Vietnam War; he was probably more for it. He loved intelligence and the agency. His whole point was, “The purpose of intelligence is to get the truth to the best of one’s ability, whatever that truth might be, to the policymakers. And then you may disagree with the policymakers, but from that point on, it’s up to the policymakers to take good information and do what they will with it.”

Sam certainly felt that if people before Tet were aware of the magnitude of the enemy threat, perhaps there would have been a different policy. Perhaps it would have been to wind down the war because we couldn’t win it, or wind it up, having perhaps a surge, to use a contemporary term.

There are many things that could have happened. If we had, therefore, fought a smaller or more intelligent war, then tens of thousands of lives would not have been lost. We lost more people after Tet than before Tet; things got much worse. I think ’68 and ’69 were very bloody years for the U.S. Basically, we had to re-learn the lessons of the war after Tet. It could have been quite a different war. I don’t think anybody would seriously say that we were going to win it. But we perhaps didn’t have to fight it quite the way that we did.

What are you working on now?

MH: I’m foolish enough to have started another book. It’s a biography of Eddie Shore, who was a colorful Bruins hockey player from ’26 to ’39. He’s somewhat like Sam. He was very much his own person and a man of tremendous integrity.

I’ll be looking forward to that. Thanks so much for your time.

MH: Thank you, Erik.