General Schwarzkopf’s return to Vietnam more than 20 years after his second combat tour brought him closure—and a mysterious threat of bloodshed.
IN 1991 THE FACE OF U.S. MILITARY POWER WAS GENERAL NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF. Burly and brusque, “Stormin’ Norman” led Coalition forces exceeding 700,000 in a swift, overpowering clash with Iraqi forces, ending the invasion of Kuwait in just six weeks. Schwarzkopf’s skillful campaign drew on a lifetime of experience within the U.S. military, including extensive combat in the Vietnam War.
From the age of 12, he had traveled with his father, an Army adviser, to Tehran, where he learned how important it is to understand local ways. When proudly offered a roasted sheep’s eye during his father’s visit with tribal leaders, he swallowed it whole, an unforgettable lesson in building trust. He would do the same two decades later, tossing back Scotch mixed with pig’s blood during a meeting with Vietnamese colleagues. Schwarzkopf, a West Point instructor turned adviser, had seen a lot of the world, but Vietnam was where he learned when to bend, when to buck and when to be brave. Six weeks into his tour, the 30-year-old Schwarzkopf clashed with his higher-ups after finding out there was no local air support for a helicopter assault that had been ordered. He refused to carry out so dangerous a mission so poorly planned—and was rewarded with a promotion to major. In 1969, serving as battalion commander during his second tour, he repeatedly risked his life to protect his men. When a land mine injured one of his troops, Schwarzkopf— already wounded—threw himself over the man to prevent him from moving and potentially setting off other mines. Another time he was injured so badly he returned home in a hip-to-shoulder body cast.
Seeing America’s faltering support for the war, however, nearly drove him out of the military. But “the Bear” remained and by 1988 had been awarded the post of commander in chief of the U.S. Army Central Command. He was confident, but not cocky. Following Operation Desert Storm he was quoted as saying, “Analysts write about war as if it’s a ballet…like it’s choreographed ahead of time, and when the orchestra strikes up and starts playing, everyone goes out there and plays a set piece.” In reality, he added, “what happens is, the orchestra starts playing and some son of a bitch climbs out of the orchestra pit with a bayonet and starts chasing you around the stage. And the choreography goes right out the window.”
Schwarzkopf retired after the Gulf War ended, and in 1993 he agreed to return to Vietnam with Dan Rather for a CBS News special. In the following pages, a producer of the program, Rick Fredericksen, recalls that trip and Schwarzkopf’s mixed emotions on returning to the land where he first saw battle.
The flattering obituaries of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf last December outlined a soldier’s remarkable military career, forged in Vietnam and concluding with the impressive Gulf War victory. One detail missing in all of the tributes was a small but noteworthy chapter in the Army general’s life: his final trip to Vietnam.
The visit began to take shape early in 1993, when the general had star power beyond his four-star rank. He had finished his autobiography and had even been mentioned as a potential presidential contender.Then 57,the national hero was a hot commodity, and CBS News producers in New York hatched a plan to take him back to Vietnam. Coincidentally, I was in Ho Chi Minh City, filing stories for the network on the 25th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, when a message was slipped under my door at the Continental Hotel. It was from Joel Bernstein, a unit producer for CBS News. He wanted my help on a special program involving two of the most famous men in America: the iconic Gulf War general and CBS News anchor Dan Rather. For both, it would be their first trip back to Vietnam since the 1960s, when Schwarzkopf was an adviser for a task force of South Vietnamese paratroopers and Rather was a young reporter.
Bernstein described the documentary as“part history lesson and part nostalgia.”There would be an advance trip to scout out the itinerary, followed by the visit with two camera crews taping segments all over Vietnam. Since I was based in Bangkok and already had eight years of reporting experience from the old war zone, I was tapped to be a field producer for the project.
A skeptical Vietnamese government raised some issues that needed to be resolved before top leaders would give the green light. They sought assurance that General Schwarzkopf would not be wearing his military uniform. He’d retired two years earlier, but the Foreign Ministry wanted it understood that some Vietnamese might be uncomfortable at the sight of an American officer in combat fatigues. They also requested his résumé. We inquired about using a helicopter for a couple of stops in remote areas, but the Vietnamese refused to permit the use of U.S. choppers, so we would have to hire an old Soviet model piloted by the Vietnamese military. Schwarzkopf was apprehensive about his safety on that aircraft. He also realized how ironic it would be if he became a civilian casualty in Vietnam after surviving two tours of duty in the Army. It turns out the Vietnamese were thrilled to have us come, and these expensive VIP visits were a major source of foreign income for their battered economy.
Once our survey expedition was approved, we flew into Vietnam to explore possible recording locations and interviews. It was determined that Rather and Schwarzkopf would be filmed at the entrance of the old Saigon Presidential Palace, where the first Communist tank arrived on April 30, 1975. Other stops would include Hanoi, memorable battlefields, the Cu Chi tunnels and, of course, the deserted U.S. Embassy. We were given access to just about everything we had asked for, except Cam Ranh Bay, the American naval facility that had become a strategic base for the Russian fleet. We made hotel bookings, lined up interviews and reserved our favorite Vietnamese press guides, two vans and a couple of day trips by helicopter.
As his plane approached Tan Son Nhut Airport, 23 years after his Vietnam tour had ended, Schwarzkopf muttered to himself, “Why am I here?” His mind flashed back to the sheer terror of a minefield at the Batangan Peninsula, where a series of detonations killed and maimed several of his men, and where Schwarzkopf himself took shrapnel in the chest. He told Rather,“I always said I wanted to come back, but it’s tough.”As the CBS contingent cleared customs and immigration, the world-famous travelers were largely anonymous. We had 14 rooms at the Rex Hotel in Saigon; one was solely for the blank tapes, batteries and cases of other TV equipment.
On one of our first nights, we all gathered at the Rex roof garden, where a local reporter found us. When he approached Schwarzkopf and asked for an interview, the general snapped back, “Can’t you see we’re eating? You’ll have to wait till we’re through.” The reporter had just met the “Stormin’ Norman”side of the general. The young man sat obediently at a nearby table and ultimately got his exclusive.
It wasn’t long before we were on Tu Do. The street has had many names; rue Catinat during author Graham Greene’s time. But for American Vietnam veterans, it will always be Tu Do. When Schwarzkopf and Rather walked the tree-lined street, it looked much as it did when they were young. Enjoying the stroll, the general said, “This hasn’t changed a bit,” then pointed out where he got his first Vietnamese haircut. But, 20 years after U.S. ground troops had left, Tu Do’s rowdy bar scene had vanished. In his autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, Schwarzkopf remembered innocently drinking Biere “33” with friends and buying “Saigon tea” for the bar girls:“We’d joke with them, play gin rummy and tic-tac-toe, and eventually get up and leave.”
Our first trip outside Ho Chi Minh City was to the Bong Son plains. Schwarzkopf held on tight as the old Soviet helicopter shuddered into the place where he had been wounded the first time.As an adviser in 1966, Major Schwarzkopf was with ARVN soldiers crossing a rice field when automatic gunfire opened up. He was hit in the left arm and suffered multiple lacerations.
“The whole side of my face was bleeding and I’m sure they thought I was gone,” he said. We had photos showing him in bandages and smoking a cigarette, looking a bit John Wayne-ish. Rather would later call Schwarzkopf a true believer in the war during the early years, when he felt the United States was helping the South Vietnamese government survive. Three years later, Schwarzkopf was back, as a lieutenant colonel, leading an Americal Division battalion. He remembered his arrival at Landing Zone Bayonet.“It looked like a gypsy camp, with peace symbols, hammocks and rusty weapons.” He straightened out the unit, but said he had to turn into a “flaming son of a bitch” to do it.
The next morning, producer Bernstein was visibly upset, and told me,“Our delegation has been threatened with bloodshed.” He showed me two handwritten letters: one addressed to Rather, the other to CBS“Management.”The message was chilling:“We will not let the CBS News camera crew carry out its film coverage in Vietnam, and you will be completely responsible. There will be unforeseeable happenings; there could be bloodshed for honor.” Bernstein took this threat seriously. The letters further demanded thousands of dollars, or gold. We were fearful of a potential attack, even a possible assassination attempt against Schwarzkopf. Bernstein told our press guides, who relayed our worst fears to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry. The situation seemed to cool quickly after the Vietnamese told us we should not worry; they seemed to have insight into the circumstances and gave us reassurance. Nonetheless, we remained vigilant.
The general and the anchorman were the stars of the documentary, so they spent a good deal of time on camera discussing various aspects of the war. On the helipad of the abandoned U.S. Embassy, they relived the war’s chaotic final hours. When filming shifted to the nearby Presidential Palace, the banter between co-hosts was especially revealing. Schwarzkopf said he was in Alaska when he heard that North Vietnamese troops had overrun Saigon and entered the palace grounds. “I cried like a baby,” he said. “I got out a bottle of Scotch and I got drunk. I don’t say that proudly, it’s just reality.”
A highlight for me was to accompany the general to a private residence in Ho Chi Minh City. Only a few of us got to witness the poignant meeting between Schwarzkopf and General Nguyen Xuan Trang, the former South Vietnamese army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. Trang had endured 12 years in harsh reeducation camps after Saigon fell. Now, Schwarzkopf had become his lifeline to authorities who could get his family of eight to the United States. Trang, then nearly 70, had gathered his wife, children and grandchildren to greet the American legend and seek his influence. They’d set out cake and brewed tea for this crucial meeting. To watch Schwarzkopf embrace and comfort the family was magical. As an ARVN adviser in 1965-66, he’d come to respect the South Vietnamese military, even living with patrols out in the boonies rather than returning to the comforts of a base camp at night. I suspect General Trang knew about Schwarzkopf’s reputation, and the admiration appeared to be reciprocal.
After several days of working around the general, I realized I was calling him “sir,” in addition to “General Schwarzkopf.” As a former Marine NCO, it just seemed the proper thing to do, and I respected him a great deal. After the meeting with Trang, as the family looked on, the general was barking orders to me as if I was still in uniform: “When you get back to Bangkok, contact the proper immigration authorities and tell them General Schwarzkopf would like to see this family become Americans.” The last I heard was that Trang, his wife and two sons had been cleared for resettlement.
Schwarzkopf had fought the North Vietnamese, but once he finally arrived in the former enemy capital city he sounded underwhelmed: “It turns out it’s just another city.” In Hanoi, Bernstein and I had found a museum that we scheduled for one of the Rather-Schwarzkopf dialogues. This place was filled with battlefield memorabilia: American helmets, uniforms, a .45-caliber pistol carried by a pilot, M-16s—just about anything a soldier would take into the field.
On the day of filming, a van was already positioned so the camera crew could capture Schwarzkopf stepping out of his car in front of an outdoor exhibit that displayed aircraft wreckage, including an immense chunk of a B-52 bomber wing, complete with the U.S. Air Force insignia. The general’s black sedan pulled up and stopped. We could see an animated discussion taking place inside. After a minute, the car backed away and left. Schwarzkopf had commanded young men just like those who probably died in this jagged heap of metal. He wasn’t about to appear before North Vietnamese war trophies.
Later, we were able to catch a glimpse of contemporary Vietnam at Hanoi’s Foreign Language Institute.A group of students, most of them too young to have firsthand memories of the war, crowded around our cameras. One girl told Rather of the war, “It is something very painful that we try to forget.”Others were eager to earn money, enter business and make a fortune. The encounter was enlightening. It was almost as if the United States had won the culture war.
On our last day in Hanoi, as Schwarzkopf prepared for filming, his mind processed his latest adventure in Vietnam, knowing it could be his last. He and Rather would tape their final discussion behind the ornate government building that everyone called the “guest house,” formerly the French governor’s residence. The takes featured the scene that closed out the documentary. Like many vets who have come back, Schwarzkopf said: “The bottom line is, the war is over. It really wasn’t over till I came back.” He told Rather that the war was part of our nation’s history, and perhaps future military and political decisions will be based on what was learned here.“If that’s the case, then it’s not all for nothing.” That’s how the program ended.
By the time we returned to Ho Chi Minh City, I’d come face to face with the men who had threatened us: disgruntled former Vietnamese employees of CBS News who’d been demanding their final paychecks since the end of the war. It turns out they had voluntarily gone to the Vietnamese Press Center soon after their letters were delivered to our hotel. One of the men signed his name, with address, so perhaps they felt they went too far with the threat. I assured them that CBS would follow up, and our trip concluded without incident.
Fourteen years after CBS Reports: Schwarzkopf in Vietnam, A Soldier Returns aired in June 1993, I was curious if the general was aware that a threat of violence had been made against our group. I sent him an e-mail and his assistant answered:“He said he was never informed of any threat and really didn’t believe it ever happened.” Perhaps he just preferred to remember all the positive things about his civilian “tour of duty” to Vietnam. Those close to him believe the general returned home contented. “He was so glad he made the trip,” according to his daughter Cynthia. His executive assistant, Lynn Williams, said: “He was thrilled. It was a very special visit for him.”
The general’s Vietnam visit also worked in favor of the frustrated former employees who’d threatened bloodshed. While CBS knew about the payroll legacy, it could not settle up because of the U.S. trade embargo. When sanctions were lifted in 1994, I returned to Ho Chi Minh City, sneaking in $20,000 to make the payments directly to them. Had we gone through the government, most would have been taken in tax. Two Vietnamese cameramen, a driver and an interpreter, thanks to Schwarzkopf’s third tour, finally got their last payday, with generous interest.
Marine veteran Rick Fredericksen served as editor and newscaster at the American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon in 1969-70 and a civilian reporter in Southeast Asia for 10 years. He is the author of After the Hanoi Hilton: An Accounting.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.