A long-running psychological warfare battle over an alleged Viet Cong martyr grew to resemble MAD magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy”
The cultivation of heroes can be critical in a society at war. In early 1967 Barry Zorthian, the head of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office, which was responsible for U.S. psychological warfare operations in Vietnam, had just been lamenting the South’s dearth of heroes when a startling discovery gave his organization an extraordinary opportunity to steal one from the North Vietnamese. So began, in the shadows of combat, a fierce and curious psychological war that raged for years around one young, shy Viet Cong volunteer named Nguyen Van Be, whom the Communists revered as a martyred war hero. Although this battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese is little remembered today—indeed, at the time it was mostly ignored by the Western press and unknown to most American soldiers—it may have been the largest battle in the annals of modern psychological warfare operations (PSYOPS). While making Nguyen Van Be a household name and iconic figure for millions of South and North Vietnamese, it also revealed the limits on even the most sophisticated practitioners of psychological warfare when they are strangers in another land.
According to Communist legend, Be entered the pantheon of heroes on May 30, 1966. A skinny teenager who had left his rural Mekong Delta home to join the Viet Cong, Be was helping transport arms and ammunition to the front in Kien Giang Province when his unit was spotted and surrounded by 49 Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) M-113 armored personnel carriers.
As the story goes, following a fierce fight, Be was captured, tortured and ordered to demonstrate how the various sorts of mines he had been transporting worked. Feigning compliance with the orders, Be began showing how the mines were to work, when suddenly he grabbed a 20-pound “claymore type” mine and, as he shouted,“Long live the National Liberation Front and down with American Imperialists!” struck it against one of the M-113s. The ensuing explosion, it was said, set off piles of nearby mines, killing Be and more than 50 ARVN and a dozen U.S. advisers. Soon, the inspirational story of Be’s heroism surfaced and spread like a wildfire across North Vietnam and among Viet Cong cadre. As a Time article noted in early 1967:
The greatest Communist folk hero to emerge from the Viet Nam war is Nguyen Van Be. His death is recorded in poem, song and story throughout North Viet Nam and among the Viet Cong. Prompted by Hanoi’s radio and newspapers, North Vietnamese school children compare his deeds to “a thousand thunderbolts.” His picture, taken when he was a guerrilla, has become a pinup among the Viet Cong, who name squads after him and hold periods of silent meditation to gain strength from his example.
Time also reported that a statue portraying Be holding the mine over his head, just before he entered martyrdom, had been erected in downtown Hanoi, and hundreds of streets and buildings were renamed for him throughout North Vietnam.
I was a correspondent in Vietnam for ABC News when, in February 1967, the “martyred” Be turned up—alive and well—in a Saigon prison. Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) officials could hardly believe their luck. “Nguyen Van Be was perhaps our prize capture of the war,” recalled Monta Osborne, chief of field development for the Chieu Hoi, or Open Arms, program, run by JUSPAO to encourage defection byViet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters.“Be had been played up by the North Vietnamese as one of the great heroes of the war,”Osborne said,“and all the young men of North Vietnam had been exhorted to emulate his heroism.” But in fact, Be had been captured and was being held in an ARVN POW camp. Osborne’s team quickly got Be out of the POW camp and set about preparing him to discredit all that Hanoi had said about him— meeting the press, speaking on radio and TV, and “authoring” leaflets, millions of which would be dropped over North Vietnam and VC-controlled areas in the South.
Prior to Be’s appearance at JUSPAO’s official daily briefing in early March, Don Rochlen, a top PSYOPS officer leading the Be campaign briefed me on the situation. He explained how, with the help of a U.S. Army company, he went deep inside Viet Cong–held territory to the Delta village of Kim Son to find and rescue members of Be’s family, who would surely become targets of retaliation when the Communists’ story of Be’s martyrdom was challenged. With Be’s mother, father and four siblings safely removed to Saigon, Rochlen was ready for Be’s star appearance before the Saigon press corps.
The soft-spoken Be looked healthy and, through an interpreter, answered reporters’ questions. He explained how his unit’s encounter with ARVN and U.S. troops lasted only a few minutes and that he never got to fire a shot. Instead, he said, he dove into a canal to escape but was captured by an enemy soldier who grabbed him by the hair. He claimed he was the only one from his unit taken prisoner.
At the briefing, the press corps was shown samples of the 7 million leaflets and 100,000 posters about to be distributed by JUSPAO to prove that Be was alive. Some showed Be posing beside Communist newspapers headlining his fictitious martyrdom. A song had even been written debunking the myth of Be as a hero:“They know no better, I’m still here, but the rumor was spread that I have died and with many embellishments to my life they added, for the purpose of propaganda.” Officials told reporters that recordings of the song and Be’s own voice proclaiming the lie of his martyrdom were to blanket South Vietnam via radio and loudspeakers mounted on helicopters. Drama teams were to spread throughout the countryside, telling the “truth about Nguyen Van Be.” It all seemed to be a well-planned counterattack to discredit the powerful myth and thus the Communist leadership.
Although Nguyen Van Be is a common name in rural areas in the Delta, it appeared the Communists did not confuse his identity. Rather, since Be had been reported missing in combat and was presumed dead, they assumed any story manufactured about him would carry with it the ring of credibility.
After the briefing, I filed a few radio reports and shipped film of Be’s testimony to ABC News in New York, but it wasn’t used on the evening news. Pacification stories and talking heads were hard to get on the air in the States, where the suits who controlled the TV networks made it clear they preferred “bang-bang” stories of American troops in combat. But in Vietnam, a full-fledged propaganda war, with Be at the center, was about to erupt.
The Communists quickly countered the allied PSYOPS offensive, aggressively attacking reports that Be was alive, explaining they were simply “American fabrications.” Radio Hanoi broadcast a commentary titled “A Dirty Psychological Warfare Trick,”which claimed:“The psychological warfare organs of the Americans and their lackeys in Saigon employed every trick to invent a story of the appearance of Nguyen Van Be in their prison. The Thieu-Ky clique’s psychological warfare minister held a press conference during which Be appeared before journalists who questioned him. This time they picked an intact, good-looking man. They taught him what to say.”
The Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan proclaimed:“It is not necessary to look for Be’s replacement in the documents and files of the CIA. Zorthian has merely resorted to Hollywood techniques of selecting actors and the medical art of changing facial traits as applied in Hong Kong and Japan.”
As the first anniversary of Be’s “death” neared, North Vietnamese newspapers were filled with celebratory articles, his biography was published, a feature film was reportedly released and another statue of him erected in Hanoi.
Upping the ante, the Communist Party offered a 2-millionpiaster reward ($17,000) to any “patriot” who would assassinate the “fake” Nguyen Van Be and warned that any member of his family or neighbors who claimed that Be was alive would be killed.
With a PSYOPS war fully engaged, JUSPAO devised a plan to deliver a knockout blow through an elaborately choreographed media event. Rochlen told me,“We’re going to nail this myth of Be once and for all by bringing him back to his home village and showing everyone that the VC are lying about this hero’s death.”
On April 21, 1967, four companies of the U.S.9th Infantry Division,along with ARVN and regional forces, landed at the village of Kim Son, south of Saigon, to secure the VC-infested area. Soon after, about 30 newspaper and TV journalists from the Saigon press corps were choppered into the village by JUSPAO with Be and his family members. As we descended to a grassy plain next to the village, it looked as if a festival was in progress. Rice and gifts were being unloaded and distributed to villagers. There were strolling musicians and even clowns entertaining as peasants lined up outside a tent where Army medics were pulling bad teeth and giving out medicine. The villagers, most of whom had never seen an armed American soldier before, appeared amused and puzzled.
Finally they were called to assemble around a makeshift stage, and with great fanfare, Nguyen Van Be and family were brought out and introduced. As the amusement on the villagers’ faces faded to quizzical stares, a South Vietnamese PSYOPS officer, working the crowd like a carnival barker, tried to gin up enthusiasm for the miraculous return of Be—but nobody recognized him! Only one old man claimed to recognize Be—but as someone who lived in a nearby hamlet. However, there is often little contact, or even a road, between isolated hamlets. What became readily obvious to embarrassed officials, and to the scoffing press, was that Be had been taken to the wrong hamlet. Scrambling to rescue the situation,Army commanders considered airlifting the troops to secure the correct hamlet, but decided it was too late in the day and too dangerous to mount a new operation.
In my narration sent with film of the events, titled, “U.S. Psywar Goof,”I called the operation“the largest assault on a Viet Cong village ever mounted for the press. Although this village was held by the allies for a few hours while the futile charade was acted out, there’s little doubt where the loyalties of most of the villagers lie. Many of them are no doubt Viet Cong agents. Even if some had recognized Be and his family it could have resulted in severe punishment by the Viet Cong for those who spoke up.”
I wrapped up my report, which never made the cut for the ABC Evening News, by saying: “The villagers have a last laugh and go back to work in their rice paddies. Be goes back to the safety of prison in Saigon. American PSYOPS warriors go back to their maps and planning boards, having lost face by a mistake of geography and lack of prior checking with Vietnamese sources. In psywar you can never afford to be wrong about anything. It was a bold move to bring Be back to his village, still controlled by the Viet Cong, but as in any military operation, one slipup and the battle is lost. Be had been asked to identify his home on a U.S. military map. He pointed to what he thought was his Kim Son hamlet. Unfortunately, Be had never in his life seen a map before. Don North, ABC News, in Kim Son village.”
The only story on the snafu to make the U.S. papers the next day was written by Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett. Under the head “Map Error Makes Saigon Psywar Faces Red,”Arnett wrote,“A widespread failure to understand or learn about the Vietnamese culture may have inhibited American PSYOPS warriors in their quest for hearts and minds.”
Frank Scotton, who spent 12 years in field operations for the U.S. Information Agency recalled,“This sort of mistake was frequent on our part during the war, for two reasons: We were working with maps that never seemed to have the correct place names, and there was always considerable confusion, especially among Americans, as to the difference between village and hamlet.”
Putting an inglorious cap on the Kim Son debacle, John Campbell, a civilian psychological warfare adviser with JUSPAO, reported the next day that all files concerning Be had disappeared: “Someone in our own organization was a Viet Cong operative. [He] cleaned out all our documentation on Nguyen Van Be.”
With egg on their faces, the Americans in JUSPAO reportedly were divided on whether to continue the Be campaign at all. As one official observed, “One of the effects of our exposé of Nguyen Van Be has been to stimulate the Communists to step up their Be emulation campaign, which is not to our advantage.”
But the psywar over Be persisted for years. The Americans dropped tons of leaflets each year on May 30, the date Be was allegedly killed, in a continuing campaign to undermine the martyr claim and expose the deceptive nature of the Communists. It was largely in vain, as research revealed that most Vietnamese, North and South, believed the real Be was indeed dead and the living Be an imposter.
Indeed, the Be mythology only grew with each anniversary and each effort by the U.S. to discredit it. To further solidify the legacy, in February 1971, Nguyen Van Be’s status was elevated to that of other key revolutionary heroes with his depiction on a North Vietnamese postage stamp.
JUSPAO’s lucky find should have led to a loss of credibility for the Communists, but the myth of Nguyen Van Be was only buttressed by the U.S. psywar missteps intended to expose it.
Bill Lenderking, a senior JUSPAO official from 1968 to 1970, said of Don Rochlen, who organized the Be operation:“I admire Don for what he tried to do and feel the overall failures were not his fault, despite the screw up….Don was operating on the basis of many flawed conceptual judgments, and the factors militating against success were just too enormous. It seems to me that both sides lied regularly. Our side repeatedly made promises it could not keep, hyping ‘returnees’ and making claims that simply were not true.”
Scotton, the longest-serving U.S. agent in pacification and psychological warfare, has also acknowledged failures.“We failed PSYOPS because fundamentally we were simply applying tactical, mechanical procedural approaches in a political environment where one side had a clear cause: to unify the country and defeat the French toady remnants. And our side had no attractive energizing political cause at all. Of course on our part, damn few knew and understood Vietnamese history and culture; so Americans lacked recognition of what motivated the opponent and assumed that resources and techniques could bring about acceptable performance by those we supported. The higher the level of officialdom, the greater the extent of ignorance.”
The inability of U.S. forces in Vietnam to win the psywar battle over Nguyen Van Be could be seen as a portent of serious problems to come as Americans went to war in other societies and cultures they did not effectively understand.
As the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid wrote in Baghdad during the Iraq War:“The Americans would always be strangers in another land; they would never see all the layers and shades of meaning. Our televisable notions never captured the haunting, ambivalent and bitter complexity of even one conversation during the war or in its shadow.”
Ironically, today there is not a single street or building in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City still named after the alleged hero Nguyen Van Be. Efforts to determine the ultimate fate of Be by this reporter have yet to turn up a clue. It may be that even as they lied and misled their own people, the North Vietnamese psychological warriors were secretly embarrassed by their own mistakes in the Be affair and—in the best Communist tradition—welcomed the first opportunity to erase him.
Don North was a freelance photographer and later a staff war correspondent for ABC and NBC in Vietnam for more than four years.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.