The Murk of Vietnam in 1963, And a Family Romance, Too

My Father the Spy is a tracking down of the old man, who’s poised somewhere between public and private life, deep in secrets. There are two reasons for writing this sort of memoir: as redistribution of generational power (revenge); or as inquiry (adventure). The former tends to come from the gut; the latter is sometimes too cerebral. Either way, the art lies in revealing something subtle about what’s crudely called “love-hate” relationships. If a detail or two is added to history, so much the better.

There was no darker love-hate relationship in recent American history than the one between the United States and South Vietnam. John Richardson, the father who’s the subject of this book, was at the center of that relationship when it turned murderous: He was the C.I.A. station chief in Saigon. Indeed, the hinge of My Father the Spy is Washington’s green light in late August 1963, encouraging dissident South Vietnamese generals to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his Mephistophelean brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. In the bargain (surprise!), Diem and Nhu were executed. That was three weeks before John F. Kennedy’s assassination—a sequence that Lyndon B. Johnson, for one, never got out of his head.

The author was a boy of 8 in 1963, living in Saigon but in no way attracted to the top-level intrigue of his father’s milieu. He preferred to go native: As a 4-year-old during Richardson’s C.I.A. term in Athens, the boy spoke Greek better than English; as a confrontational teenager when his father served in Saigon and Seoul, he learned a lot about the Asian drug trade.

Richardson père was a self-styled man of discretion, a reflective career-C.I.A. patriot, a devotee of Montaigne, Orwell and Marcus Aurelius. And yet, his son notes, he wasn’t always master of his own rules. He earned spurs for being decisive on the job and was sometimes stubborn on principle. But there was a wobble: He was ambivalent about the young Nazis he met in the 1930’s. (Who were we to throw stones? What about lynchings in the American South?) Two decades later, as C.I.A. station chief in Athens, he wept after our ambassador told him he’d exceeded his authority.

For a man with these traits, Saigon in 1963 was a doomed place. New Frontiersmen a cut below cabinet level cleared the track for the coup d’état against Diem in an infamous cable on a weekend in late August when top officials were all out of town. The wheels paused, but they couldn’t be stopped. Meanwhile, Kennedy had just picked as the new ambassador to South Vietnam Republican eminence Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who’d inherited arrogance as well as his U.S. Senate seat from his father. Kennedy was looking for “statesmanship,” but the candid second agenda was cover from Republican attacks as the President pondered his awful Vietnam dilemma: to be in or not to be in.

Even Kennedy’s most gung-ho team members hadn’t counted on Lodge—who went into work late and took afternoon naps—being so eager to get the increasingly uncontrollable Diem and Nhu out of power, and the ambitious Vietnamese generals (who would take orders from a true Brahmin) in. Richardson, representing the C.I.A., was deeply skeptical: “Military juntas are notoriously unstable,” he told a hawkish reporter, and a coup would require replacing every one of the Diem regime’s 41 provincial chiefs. But Richardson, whose job description included liaison with Nhu, carried the burden of appearing too close to the regime.

Among the witnesses (players, some charged) were David Halberstam of The New York Times and Neil Sheehan of United Press. Mr. Halberstam wrote in 1965 that Richardson was “a good man, honest and dedicated.” He told the author recently that his father was (in the author’s words) “in an unbearable situation, a faithful servant of a flawed policy.” Mr. Sheehan echoes his old colleague: “When you look at the fact that your Dad worked with [the Diem regime’s] police, who were torturers … your Dad was working on the assumption that this was the lesser of two evils.”

But Kennedy’s “bear-any-burden” men had decided that the brutal Ngo brothers—who were raiding Buddhist pagodas, ridiculing Buddhist priests who burned themselves alive and opening lines to Hanoi—had to go.

Ambassador Lodge also wanted Richardson out—and fast—as an exponent of past policies, not to mention as paymaster to Nhu and Co. Just then—end of August 1963—Richardson made an influential about-face that helped resolve top-level second thoughts in Washington about encouraging the coup. “Situation here has reached point of no return,” he cabled the home office. William Colby, Richardson’s predecessor in Saigon, a C.I.A. chieftain headed for the directorship, was stunned by this change of view on the part of his trusted point man; he said it didn’t “compute.”

And it does not in fact compute—not unless one factors in certain clues provided by his son, who early on refers to “my father, the humble warrior.” In a long-buried note entitled “Worst Episode of My CIA Service,” Richardson himself wonders: “Why didn’t I protest more?” His list of possible answers includes this: “Machine gunner image—carrying out orders mentality.

Lodge nonetheless got his way: Richardson was recalled to Washington “for consultations” midway between the green light for the coup and the bloody event itself. The family mess spiraled down from there. Richardson père to fils: “You’re headed for trouble! You’re always looking for the easy way out!” In fact, the father, sidelined, was himself close to the edge—into the sauce, into “his secret nest of sorrows.” But it’s to the son’s credit that he doesn’t make this simply a crisis involving Me and Dad. It was as Shakespearean a turning point as the nation ever experienced. In all the murk between Saigon and Washington in 1963, just about the only point two generations of scholars agree on is that once “we” overthrew Diem and Nhu, the U.S. was in Vietnam as never before. Thus the reams of speculation about what Kennedy would have done and what Johnson felt tortured about doing take second place to the blunt fact of the coup.

Here the Johnson-Kennedy backstory is vital; actually, it’s history’s lead. (Curiously, Johnson is missing from this book—except for an odd moment in the spring of 1953 when his parents, back from a Vienna posting, went up to the Capitol to meet then-Senator Johnson—“huge behind his desk,” the author’s mother recalled—and rented the Johnsons’ Washington house for the summer.)

In Saigon in 1961, Vice President Johnson hailed Ngo Dinh Diem as the “Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia,” also the F.D.R. With no influence over events in the fall of 1963, L.B.J. nevertheless made known his dim view of the plans to force out Diem. He told his friend, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, in the spring of 1964 that the coup was “a tragic mistake. It was awful and we’ve lost everything”—by which he seems to have meant order, and some strategy for leaving Vietnam to its own fate (which is what Russell, among others, urged him to do). Indeed, in one of his unbound moments that season, baring his haunted sense of internal conflict about the Kennedy brothers, Johnson is alleged to have wondered aloud (in a way guaranteed to get back to Robert Kennedy) whether J.F.K.’s assassination “may have been divine retribution” for the U.S. role in the assassination of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961—and of Diem in 1963.

John Richardson was not exactly one of spycraft’s blue bloods, those Yale- and Harvard-trained lawyers and literary scholars who filled the ranks of the C.I.A.’s wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Born in 1913 in Burma (his father was an itinerant oil driller who left him a tidy bit of oil-well private income), “Jocko” Richardson followed Richard M. Nixon through Whittier College, immersing himself in philosophy and literature. He moved up to Berkeley to graduate, knocked around Europe in the 30’s, returned for graduate work at Berkeley, and had himself a splendid war in Italy in military counterintelligence.

As the war ended, Richardson proved nimble in handling Nazi spies and collaborators; he skipped rapidly between assignments in Salzburg, Trieste and Vienna. He was solid C.I.A. material by the time the latter morphed out of the O.S.S. In Vienna as C.I.A. station chief, oaths of secrecy taken, he met Eleanore Koch, 11 years his junior, an attractive young woman with a master’s degree from Columbia and a brother in Richardson’s circle. Eleanore proved adept at the C.I.A.-wife game, as explained to the author by one of her counterparts: Q: “What was it like being married to a spy?”

A: “Oh, was I married to a spy?”

Children followed: a daughter in 1952, then John Jr. in 1954, back in Washington. But after his film-noir sleuthing in Mitteleuropa, Richardson was restless in the nation’s capital, and a year later he was posted to Athens, another Cold War hot spot. From there, he tossed back offers of the London station as “just liaison” and Switzerland as “too boring.” “The Communists were on the move in Asia,” his son explains, “so that’s where he wanted to be—where the action was.” After Manila in the late 1950’s, Saigon was a logical next step.

In the wake of Vietnam, Richardson became a textbook hawk, heartbroken that Nixon had to resign in 1974. But before that, like many in the C.I.A. ranks, he’d been a liberal internationalist—he voted for J.F.K. in 1960. Norman Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita had been on his reading list, along with the classics.

He could counsel his frisky daughter with an eye for the G.I.’s at various postings, “Sex is natural.” He told his son, “Don’t be an ugly American,” and tolerated adolescent rebellion to the point of feeding him Beckett and Camus. He sent his boy to a dubious small college in the hills of Hawaii with a motorcycle—on the condition that he register it (instead, he smashed it up royally).

When post-Watergate Congressional committees were investigating C.I.A. “dirty tricks,” Richardson, who was falling apart in retirement in Mexico, testified in secret. His son was looking for answers, too: “I ask him about the blood on his hands. I’m thinking in a general sense of Diem and the war. But he looks hurt and puzzled …. Later Mom gets angry at me. ‘He never killed anyone or ordered anyone to be killed,’ she says. ‘You know that.’”

But who knows what? One day, Richardson told his son: “Ambassador Lodge said he didn’t have an airplane available to take President Diem out of the country, basically allowing the murder to take place. And Lodge must have gone to Kennedy for approval. He’s never gone this far before, never come so close to open rebellion.”

Throughout, the son’s posture is Telemachus–meets–James Dean. His memoir is written from the gut, but as an Outward Bound adventure. Years of research, sweat and heart-wrenching reflection have gone into My Father the Spy. He’s read much of the voluminous Vietnam literature, immersed himself in classified archives and worked painstakingly with letters his father wrote to select confidantes. Part of his book’s success lies in his quest to read the nuanced language of manipulation and self-deception that men of power employ. He finds “a cache of cryptic notes,” including lines about “abandoned allies” (he probably means the Montagnard tribesmen): “one of the keenest pangs of defeat …. Nat’l interest—cold-blooded. Cut our losses but written in human blood.” The notes are in his father’s handwriting. The author asks him, “What does it mean, Dad?” But the ex-spy has already slipped far into Graham Greene land: “Looking at things in retrospect … corruption is one of the cultural aspects of all of Asia …. And Mexico. And Chicago.”

Having begun his memoir with his father’s lingering death from a host of illnesses, the author returns at last to the deathbed scene. The father “hisses out his frustration: ‘I—can’t—die’”; neither can the son let go. He rages at the secrets heading for the grave, at the riddles of generation and character, at the judgmental David Halberstam. That all goes on too long—my only complaint.

This is an honest and good book. John Richardson, memoirist, no longer needs to carry John Richardson, spy, on his back: He’s home.

Michael Janeway, professor of journalism and arts at Columbia, is the author of The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power from FDR to LBJ (Columbia University Press). The Murk of Vietnam in 1963,  And a Family Romance, Too