THE TEMPTATION OF TOM DOOLEY : HE WAS THE HEROIC JUNGLE DOCTOR OF INDOCHINA IN THE 1950S. BUT HE HAD A SECRET, AND TO PROTECT IT, HE HELPED LAUNCH THE FIRST DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN OF THE VIETNAM WAR.
One night last spring I lay sleepless and sweltering in the dying city of Haiphong, North Viet Nam, asking myself the question that has taunted so many young Americans caught in faraway places: “What in the hell am I doing here?” . . . Out there, in the makeshift refugee camp I had set up with U.S. Army tents, were more than 12,000 wretched, sick and horribly maimed Vietnamese, most of them either very young or very old. They were fleeing from the Communists of North Viet Nam, hoping to reach the doubtful security of Saigon. Before they came, more than 300,000 others had already passed through the camp. . . .
I was treating diseases that most of my classmates would ne v er encounter in a lifetime’s practice, performing operations which the textbooks never mention. What do you do for children who have had chopsticks driven into their inner ears? Or for old women whose collarbones have been shattered by rifle butts? Or for kids whose ears have been torn off with pincers? . . . At Notre Dame the priests had tried valiantly to teach me philosophy. But here in this Communist hellhole I had learned many more profound and practical facts about the true nature of man . . . . I knew now why organized godlessness can never kill the divine spark that burns within even the humblest human.
IN APRIL, 1956, MOST AMERICANS got their first glimpses of Vietnam through the eyes of a 27-year-old naval officer named Tom Dooley. The fevered, patriotic prose of his book, “Deliver Us From Evil,” filled 27 pages of Reader’s Digest with a first-hand account of Operation Passage to Freedom, the U.S. Navy boat-lift moving refugees from newly communist North Vietnam to the soon-to-be-democratic South.
The 1954 Geneva accords that ended French occupation of Vietnam had divided the country at the 17th Parallel and given U.S. Navy Task Force 90 a little less than a year to move an anticipated 1 million political refugees. It was an extraordinary undertaking, complicated by torrential rains, high winds and debilitating heat. The population of Dooley’s Haiphong camp swelled way beyond the task force’s ability to handle it as the operation moved ever-growing numbers of refugees, housed them at the port, examined them for contagious diseases and deloused them with DDT.
To many readers, Dooley’s book seemed to be more than a compelling chronicle of this operation; it reflected the sensibilities and concerns of a Cold War humanitarian and idealist. “All in Viet Nam dream and strive for freedom,” he had written, “the people who toil in the rice fields with backs bent double and faces turned to the brackish mud, the naked children playing in the monsoon, the little fruit sellers in the arroyos of the markets and the poor with amputated arm or hand outstretched. They have one dream: Freedom.”
The New Yorker’s reviewer, responding to such passages, declared it was as much poetry as documentary. And readers began passing the hat to answer Dooley’s appeal for American aid in Vietnam. “My meager resources in Indochina did not win the people’s hearts,” he wrote, “though they helped. What turned the trick were those words Day la vien tro My (‘This is American aid’)--and all that those words conveyed. I believe that in the long run such plain help can be the decisive factor in bringing about a victory for all the sacred things we stand for.”
But Dooley’s urgent pleas for aid were deliberately, strategically overblown. Although he may have been sincere in his desire to vanquish communism and help the Vietnamese, his crusade became, ultimately, integral to a covert CIA disinformation campaign. And the result of his propaganda, taken to its extreme interpretation, was no less than U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
DOOLEY WAS A LANKY YOUNG MAN with a remarkable resemblance to Gary Cooper and a propensity for exaggeration. He liked to tell people that his middle initial A stood for Anheuser, and that he was a scion of the brewing family. In fact, the A stood for Anthony, and his father was a railroad foundryman, a hard drinker who hoped that his namesake would become a prizefighter. But the younger Dooley was a flamboyant bon vivant who had stunned his friends and family by choosing to go into medicine. A Catholic, he may have chosen the profession largely as penance for his self-indulgence and other aspects of his character that didn’t square well with his church. He was brilliant but had no discipline, attending--but not graduating from--Notre Dame, then staying at the bottom of his class at St. Louis University Medical School, which admitted him on a special waiver. He would have flunked out of medical school if the dean, Melvin Casberg, had not been a family friend, and willing to press the administration board to let Dooley stay. “Tom did not fit well in the straitjacket of academic life,” recalls Casberg, a towering man with a resonant voice and gentle manner. “I told him, ‘Think, if you would only harness that energy, all the good you could do.’ ”
Dooley entered the Navy from medical school, spending a year at Camp Pendleton before being sent to Japan. When Operation Passage to Freedom needed a French-speaking medical officer, he was transferred to Task Force 90.
He arrived in Haiphong as refugees were being loaded--thousands at a time--onto ships making the 700-mile trip south to Saigon. And he threw himself into his work with such vigor and conviction that he became known, perhaps facetiously but not without respect, as “the doctor who won the war in Indochina.”
Dooley was decorated twice before leaving Vietnam: once in Saigon, by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who gave him the highest commendation his country could bestow on a foreigner, and then by the U.S. Navy, which made him the youngest officer to receive the Legion of Merit, its highest peacetime honor.
Dooley distinguished himself in another way as well. While the “situation reports” commonly filed by medical commanders were blunt and straightforward accounts of the day’s work, Dooley’s were eloquent. The brass recognized that his chronicles, enlivening the dry details with dramatic descriptions and impassioned patriotic commentary, could boost morale. They sent them throughout the fleet so that everyone, from corpsmen to vice admirals, could read them.
Among those impressed with his writing was William Lederer, eventually renowned as co-author, with Eugene Burdick, of the book “The Ugly American.” Lederer was a press officer, attached to the admiralty, and he appreciated the public relations potential in bringing Dooley’s work to a wider audience. Who wouldn’t be moved by the story of a young doctor who had fought communism with penicillin or disarmed the communist Viet Minh with a smile? Lederer suggested that Dooley write a book.
Such a book would be just the tool the Navy needed to make Operation Passage to Freedom a success. Officially, the operation had a simple objective--moving hundreds of thousands of refugees and getting French weapons out of reach of the communists. But more important was its classified purpose: to create a strong constituency in South Vietnam for Diem, who had next to none. Catholic, like the reviled French, and just back from three years of exile in the United States, Diem was subject to suspicion that he was a puppet of his American mentor, Cardinal Francis Spellman, as well as the French and the U.S. Department of State.
The operation was a two-part attempt to bolster Diem. First, there was a psychological-warfare campaign organized by the CIA’s Edward Lansdale, aimed at frightening northern Catholics into fleeing south. This phase, involving such scare tactics as bombings falsely attributed to the Viet Minh and pamphlets warning that Catholics would be tortured or slain under communist leader Ho Chi Minh, was meant to stock the South with people who would vote for Diem and support his administration.
Phase 2 involved generating international press coverage of the flight of refugees. Of course, it would appear that the Catholics were leaving the North in spontaneous reaction to the ascendance of the Viet Minh. No one would know that their migration had been provoked by an American intelligence operation. Rather, the press would be encouraged to spotlight Saigon as the Ellis Island of the East and Diem as the last great hope for Indochina.
Together, the psychological warfare and publicity for the American-assisted evacuation would provide internal and external support for a weak, minority president who wouldn’t stand a chance without it. But the press had not come through. Distracted by the war for independence in Algiers, the media largely had ignored the whole operation.
In Dooley, the Navy found a media magnet. He was not only handsome and eloquent but also confident that vanquishing communism in Asia was a matter of showing people the benefits of the American way of life, and he could express this in a spirited, captivating and infectious way. The Navy granted him a leave to write his book. Dooley, an ambitious dreamer, soon had visions of parlaying any resulting publicity into a position as Navy surgeon general. And the Navy was prepared to distinguish his accounts with an official imprimatur. But they were not prepared to deal with the discovery that he was a homosexual.
That discovery, and the Navy’s threats to expose or censure him, would turn Dooley into a frightened pawn of U.S. policy-makers who were laying the groundwork for U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Together, the Navy and Tom Dooley would create a great American hero--and a great American deception.
FROM THE OUTSET, DOOLEY’S ambition made him a man who was eager to please. And while he may have set out to meticulously record his experiences in “Deliver Us From Evil,” he was encouraged throughout the writing process to make his story more dramatic, something he was happy to do. He met frequently with Lederer, and several times while the book was in production he also met with Spellman, heady stuff for a former altar boy from St. Louis. What his mentors wanted, it seemed, was a vivid story that would make it impossible for Americans to ignore what they both perceived to be the crisis taking shape in Vietnam. His editors had the same idea, responding to an early draft by requesting “a more dramatic and impressive picture of a young doctor suddenly faced with a colossal job--at once a doctor with tens of thousands of patients, an administrator of a difficult physical plant under heartbreaking conditions, etc. etc.”
The result was a highly charged piece of writing that put his book on the bestseller list, taking Vietnam from the edge of American awareness to the core of its consciousness--and making Tom Dooley a hero.
The book told of how he had treated children whose feet had been crushed to “moist bags of marbles” by soldiers, and of a priest who had had nails driven into his skull in a mockery of the crown of thorns of Jesus--sensational atrocities that found their way into the book reviews and into the hearts of readers.
The atrocities, he wrote, “seemed almost to have a religious significance. I was accustomed by now to patching up emasculated men and women whose breasts had been mutilated and even little children without fingers or hands. But more and more I was learning that these punishments were linked to the refugees’ belief in God.”
In one long passage, he described a priest who, he said, had been hung by his feet and beaten for defying a Viet Minh order to stop saying Mass at night. When Dooley encountered him, he was “lying on a bamboo stretcher, writhing in agony, his lips moving in silent prayer. When I pulled away the dirty blanket, I found that his body was a mass of blackened flesh from the shoulders to the knees. The belly was hard and distended, and the scrotum swollen to the size of a football. I gave him a shot of morphine and inserted a large needle in the scrotum in an attempt to draw off some of the fluid.”
Dooley provided a compelling catalogue of horrors. But, as U.S. officials knew early on, the horrors were completely unsubstantiated. None of Dooley’s correspondence, official or personal, describes the atrocities, that, in his book, he attributes to the communists. There are no corroborating accounts in the war diaries kept by Navy commanders nor in anything Dooley wrote during the operation.
The many letters he had mailed home from Haiphong describe dismal conditions to be expected as a consequence of a protracted war--squalor, disease and battle-related injuries. But there was no mention of atrocities, says Lederer, who now lives in Peacham, Vt., because “those things never happened. The atrocities he described in his books either never took place or were committed by the French. I traveled all over the country and never saw anything like them.” And he didn’t see Dooley’s accounts of the atrocities until after the book came out.
Norman Baker of Santa Fe Springs, who had been a corpsman under Dooley in Haiphong, says much the same thing. “If I’d found a priest hanging by his heels with nails hammered in his head, I’d have the whole camp hearing about it,” he says. “If those atrocities had occurred, human nature would make you talk about it at the time.” Curiously, Dooley never had.
Perhaps more understandable was the way he exaggerated his own importance in the relief effort--so much so that when his book came out, he became known as “Dr. America.” In truth, says Lederer, “he did some good stuff out there, but he was one of many”--and some were angered by his report. Onetime Voice of America reporter Ann Miller of Fountain Valley was one of 50 civil servants who sent a letter to Dooley’s publisher, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, protesting Dooley’s egocentric account, saying “he exaggerated his role in the refugee camps at the expense of the people who were working with him, many of whom did just as much, if not more, than he did.”
Dooley’s descriptions encouraged one more fundamentally flawed perception: He implied that most Vietnamese, like most of the refugees, were Catholic, when, in fact, fewer than 10% were. “The adults had children on their backs and by the hand, and even the older kids toted babies,” he wrote. “Across their shoulders they carried balance poles with shallow baskets at either end. There they had their meager belongings--clothing, rice bowls, heirlooms and, invariably, a crucifix.”
The reason for the distortion was obvious. It would be hard to muster support for Diem in a country where he was at odds with 90% of the population and was considered a relic of a French regime despised by those wanting independence. By writing as though the Catholics’ fears of persecution were shared by all Vietnamese, Dooley made a compelling case that Americans should be actively concerned for the fate of that country. As journalist Robert Scheer would observe in an article published 10 years later, “Tom Dooley’s major achievement . . . was to convince the American public that the U.S. must come to the aid of these people and to help them maintain their freedom under God and Diem.”
The protests about the book’s veracity were ignored. Tom Dooley’s editor, Robert Giroux, had an idea that the book wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. “But,” he says, “it had the essence of truth.” And given the Cold War climate, he observes, that was just as good.
The Navy, for its part, had wholeheartedly endorsed the book--Adm. Arleigh A. Burke, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, had even written the introduction. If the Navy had any qualms about the truth of Dooley’s accounts, they went unexpressed. And the book, when it was released, was a runaway bestseller.
WHEN DOOLEY RETURNED FROM HIS BOOK leave, he was given a desk job at Bethesda Naval Hospital instead of being put back on active duty. Baffled, he volunteered for a lecture tour to spread the word about what Operation Passage to Freedom had accomplished. And when the tour was abruptly canceled in Seattle three months later, he learned why the Navy had not returned him to his old post: It had received a tip that Dooley was gay.
During his tour, detectives from the Office of Naval Intelligence had tailed Dooley, and their final report runs to 700 pages. It represents hundreds of hours spent rifling through his briefcase, engaging him in leading and suggestive conversations and listening at bars and hotel-room doors. At the Statler Hotel in New York, Dooley was observed entering the bar. “He (Dooley) immediately stood beside a young fellow in civilian clothes,” the informant reported, “and struck up a conversation, the following statements of which were overheard:
“Subject (Dooley): ‘Are you married? Are you a Roman Catholic? Do you go to church often?’
” . . . Subject and civilian left the bar and proceeded to subject’s room.”
If Navy investigators had simply wanted to prove Dooley was homosexual, what they produced was overkill. It seems they were after more--proof that his conduct would damage the Navy. Proof, in other words, that he wasn’t fit to serve.
The youngest officer to have received the Legion of Merit would be discarded without honor, but also without the public humiliation that usually accompanies such a dismissal.
Customarily, the Navy casts off homosexuals in a deliberately demeaning manner--stripping them of their bars in front of an assembly of officers and enlisted men. But the Navy couldn’t dismiss Dooley that way. In fact, it couldn’t even acknowledge that it had let him go. It had decorated the man and endorsed his book, and both would be worthless to them if the young doctor’s sexual orientation were known. So Dooley and the officers charged with his dismissal concocted an alibi. Dooley would announce that he was leaving the Navy in order to serve the people of Vietnam in his own way.
“The brass say I’m more Navy now that I’m out than when I was in,” Dooley wrote to console his mother, though he couldn’t have wanted her to understand exactly what he meant by that. The Navy could ruin him now. The investigations had destroyed his dream of becoming Navy surgeon general. And, with a simple lapse of discretion, it could devastate any dreams he might replace it with.
The Navy had no intention of dissociating itself from Dooley.
THE BEST-SELLING AUTHOR never disappeared from the public eye. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy sent Dooley on a promotional tour, and he won over audiences wherever he went. He was especially eager to appeal to those with enough money and influence to help him return to Vietnam--he was ready to go back.
Despite the publicity and accolades, and for all the spirit and good humor he showed before a crowd, Dooley had been living with humiliation since the Navy had discharged him, says Ted Werner, a longtime friend and, briefly, Dooley’s pilot in Laos. Dooley had become accustomed to praise and admiration during the evacuation, and now he felt rejected and betrayed, his patriotism in question. “The Vietnamese loved him,” Werner says, “and Dooley would want to be where he was so loved and appreciated.”
Early in Dooley’s promotional tour, he stopped at the Willard Hotel in Washington to address the lobbying group American Friends of Vietnam. There, he met two men who could help him get back to Vietnam: Leo Cherne and Angier Biddle-Duke. Cherne, a longstanding member of the President’s advisory board on intelligence, was president of the International Rescue Committee, an organization devoted to helping certain political refugees escape persecution.
Among the refugees the group had assisted was Ngo Dinh Diem, finding him sanctuary with Spellman, then arranging his return to Saigon as an “unofficial” adviser. Biddle-Duke, chairman of the IRC, agreed with Cherne that Dooley would be an asset to their campaign to win more U.S. support for their protege.
Dooley thought his popularity--his celebrity--would free him from the Navy’s grasp. But he was wrong. Cherne and Biddle-Duke knew about the Navy’s intelligence report, and what they knew--and what they observed for themselves--made them nervous. Dooley was often indiscreet; he might, if left on his own, inadvertently give himself away and sabotage the very campaign he was meant to advance. They asked Gilbert Jonas, a publicist and executive secretary of their allied group, American Friends of Vietnam, to spend two days with him--to help him stifle the “telltale” mannerisms and to bring him up to date on foreign policy objectives.
Jonas recalls that Dooley was a quick but stubborn study. “He thought our goals and means were too complicated. He really believed we could fight off the communists with apple pie and Louisville sluggers.” Dooley did indeed think that squelching communism was a simple matter of providing people with things many Americans take for granted, such as decent food, housing, medical care. “If America as a nation ignores the Asian’s physical needs while handing him pious platitudes, we justify the communists’ characterization of our religion as ‘the opiate of the people’ and ‘pie in the sky by and by,’ ” he had written. And now he planned to go back to South Vietnam, to prove his theory and show up the Navy at the same time.
But the International Rescue Committee had something else in mind, and Dooley, dependent on its sponsorship, couldn’t make a move without it. At an IRC dinner, ostensibly in his honor, Dooley was told that Operation Brotherhood, a CIA-trained Filipino medical corps, already had Vietnam’s health-care needs covered. Then he was introduced to the ambassador from Laos, Ourot Souvannavong, who invited him to open a clinic near his capital city, Vientiane.
The ambassador made a good case for coming to his country; the communist Pathet Lao was gaining strength, and the Geneva accords barred foreign armies from the nation. The Pathet Lao were saying that the Vientiane administration was slavishly bound to the colonialist United States. The government wanted to fight that image with a visible, effective demonstration of U.S. good will.
The “suggestion” that Dooley go to Laos, made at a dinner arranged by potential sponsors, smacked of coercion. He wasn’t in a position to defy them or to deny them anything. Both his affiliation with the rescue committee and his need to overcome the shame of his discharge for “less than honorable” reasons made him beholden to people who had the power to make him or break him and who would exploit his penchant for exploiting himself.
One of those people was Edward Lansdale, the CIA’s chief “psychological warfare” operative in Vietnam. Lansdale knew about Dooley’s discharge and his desire to return to Indochina. He had also watched Dooley on the docks in Haiphong and knew that, with his energy and humor, he could be an effective “agent of influence,” a propaganda vehicle. Lansdale said he believed that Dooley would be useful in Laos, and it was he who passed this on to the rescue committee, which, in turn, brought in the Laotian health minister to make his appeal.
Dooley’s “independent mission” to Laos, then, was not independent of the CIA or the Navy. Dooley was too much of a loose cannon to be trusted with substantial intelligence responsibilities, but as an eloquent anti-communist committed to peace by means of human services, he could be counted on generally to fire in the right direction. Dooley was useful as a spokesman and a symbol, and, to some degree, as a spy and a courier. In return for his support, the Navy wanted “situation reports.” Likewise, the rescue committee asked him to dispatch weekly “Letters from Laos.”
The CIA asked him for help of a different order: The agency wanted him to take weapons, along with his pharmaceutical supplies and surgical gear, so he could bury caches of arms that agents could use to mobilize local militia. His task would be to promote his clinics as outposts of peace, all the while covertly preparing for battle and giving induction exams to Laotian boys to clear them for service in the militia. Dooley’s clinics were early mobilization efforts--in a part of Indochina that was meant to be neutral.
Much of Dooley’s Vientiane clinic project was a sham. Dooley’s assistants were untrained and unqualified to give him the kind of help he would need to operate a legitimate clinic. His medicine chest was full of pills and elixirs that had been donated by Pfizer, a drug manufacturer, because they had expired and were no longer legal to sell in the United States. Yet feature stories in Life, Look, Newsweek and Time presented Dooley as an ideal role model in features titled “The Splendid American,” “Do-it-Yourself Samaritan” and “The Schweitzer of Asia.” (According to Ann Miller, Schweitzer was not flattered by the comparison. He considered Dooley a dilettante and a charlatan.)
Dennis Shepard, who spent several months with Dooley as a volunteer in Laos, remembers that Dooley would round up as many of his former patients as he could whenever potential sponsors came to tour the clinic, giving the impression that he had a full and active hospital. In fact, he handled few cases, and the hospital was largely empty. According to Shepard, Miller and others, local CIA officers came by often to find out if Dooley had picked up anything about the movement of Chinese troops. They also came, Shepard remembers Dooley telling him, to ensure that the weapons Dooley had brought up with his medical supplies were well-hidden and secure. Shepard adds that he thought Dooley, always after a way to inflate his importance, may have been bluffing. But home movies Dooley took of his move to Nam Tha show a boatload of rifles, jealously guarded by his escorts--armed members of the Laotian militia.
According to Ted Werner, Dooley exaggerated too much to be really useful to the CIA. “They would ask me to report on certain things when I was up there visiting Dooley, which was an indication to me they weren’t relying on him in that sense,” he says. Yet the weapons cache made the clinic an outpost of sorts, in contrast to its publicized purpose.
And the clinic was publicized. It made sensational copy, as this lead from a New York Daily News story suggests: “I have come halfway around the world to report one of the most dramatic stories in modern medicine. An incredible journey in Laos to within five miles of the Red Chinese border took me to the primitive land where Dr. Thomas A. Dooley operates a hospital at Nam Tha.”
Before long, Dooley had become a familiar and favorite guest on radio and television talk shows, including the popular programs hosted by Arthur Godfrey and Jack Paar. He had his own radio show, broadcast over KMOX, St. Louis, ostensibly recorded each week in Laos. But according to Werner, who was present at several recording sessions, Dooley often set up his tape recorder during idle moments--wherever he happened to be--and improvised his “true” stories of life at the clinic while Werner and others faked ambient jungle sounds. Dooley was even the celebrated guest on “This Is Your Life.” Once again, his audience was deceived. While the program usually lured the celebrant on a ruse, Werner says that Dooley’s appearance was made with his knowledge and direction. Unwitting viewers didn’t know that Dooley’s reaction--utter surprise--wasn’t spontaneous.
In short, Dooley was everywhere--and more often in the United States than with patients in his clinic. He had the kind of celebrity typically associated with television and movie stars. Naturally, this drew some unsettling inquiries as well.
Several months after he had arrived in Laos, Dooley’s mother wrote him that Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper and others were making snide allusions regarding Dooley’s departure from the Navy. His mother offered to do anything she could to stop the rumors--including calling the FBI to investigate their origin and arrest the instigators. He fired off a telegram to her, ordering her to do nothing. “This would be gravest error,” he wrote. Surely it would; she would learn the truth.
Dooley followed up the telegram with a rambling letter saying he had known all along that his abrupt resignation would start rumors. But, he went on, no one who had read his book or heard him speak would believe such nonsense, implying that everyone knew that to be homosexual was blatantly at odds with being the man of action he was. The “slur on his family name” came with being a public figure; the fact that anyone should even bother to malign him was a measure of how big he had become. “I can take it, mother,” he wrote, “and you should buck up and take it, too.”
The rumors died before most people heard them, killed off by those who had invested in his image. The Navy issued denials--restating that Dooley had resigned from the Navy only to continue his humanitarian work in Indochina. And Life ran a three-page spread, replete with photographs of the good doctor at work and at play. Churches, schools, and corporations went on with fund drives for Dooley, while Reader’s Digest bid with other publications for exclusive rights to his next piece.
Within a year, Dooley came home, swinging through the country to solicit support. He had it in mind to franchise himself, to set up a foundation called MEDICO (Medical International Cooperation) to sustain a network of clinics throughout the developing world. He also intended to move farther north in Laos, near the Chinese border, so that he would be close to the action--if any developed.
But during his move north, Dooley fell, knocking his shoulder and raising a lump that wouldn’t recede. A few weeks later, he asked a visitor, the late William Van Valin, then a surgical resident, to remove the lump. Van Valin, jittery about operating on the famous doctor, performed the procedure nevertheless. “I did it under local,” he said, “and Tom was wide awake and alert when I pulled the thing out of his chest.” The “thing” was a wad the size of a golf ball, and pitch black. “Tom knew it was cancer, and that it was malignant.”
Dooley dawdled before going home for more extensive surgery, and there are many who interpret the delay as a death wish. After all, Tom Dooley was fundamentally at odds with the very institutions and individuals sustaining him--the church and the U.S. government. He knew he could count on them only as long as he was useful to them. Dr. Vincent J. Fontana, medical director of the New York Foundlings Hospital, remembers having dinner with Dooley when he came to New York for treatment. “We were sitting in a restaurant, and Dooley said, ‘Nobody loves me,’ ” Fontana recalls.
He reacted with astonishment. “You get letters every day, from all over the world,” he says he told Dooley. “Everyone loves you.” But Dooley shook his head. Nobody could possibly love him, he thought, because nobody knew him. If they knew him, they would find him loathsome.
“Tom Dooley was never able to integrate his sexuality into his life in the way that many gay men in the professions were able to do back then,” Fontana observes. “He gave in to the stigma and isolated himself.”
Dooley parlayed his cancer treatment into a public-relations event. He invited CBS News to film his operation at New York’s Sloan Kettering Medical Center, and the network dispatched cameras. On film, in contrast to the grave, stentorian CBS commentator Howard K. Smith, Dooley, painfully thin and wearing a bathrobe, was calm and straightforward. He has agreed to have his surgery broadcast, he said, to comfort other cancer victims and to promote MEDICO. The resulting footage, titled “Biography of a Cancer,” was broadcast nationally on April 21, 1960, and ended on a sanguine note. On television, Dooley’s doctor told him he would survive for years. In fact, Dooley knew that he had a year, at most, to live.
Dooley’s popularity soared after the show. By 1961, he ranked third on the Gallup poll’s list of the 10 men most admired by Americans, behind President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Pope. He received hundreds of thousands of dollars for MEDICO, which was to be his living legacy.
In December, 1961, Dooley, emaciated, bent and insensible with pain, checked back into Sloan Kettering, where he celebrated his 34th birthday. According to Fontana, who was Spellman’s physician at the time, Spellman went to see Dooley despite warnings from his advisers, who worried that it might lend credence to rumors about the cardinal’s sexual orientation. Navy Surgeon General Bartholomew Hogan went to see Dooley as well, bringing with him a copy of Dooley’s new discharge. The record would show, he told Dooley, that he had resigned with a grade of “honorable,” not his original “less than honorable.” And so it does.
On the day Tom Dooley died, his clinic in Laos was overrun by the Pathet Lao.
Thousands turned out for Dooley’s funeral, in the snow, in St. Louis. President John F. Kennedy awarded him a posthumous Medal of Freedom. But given the demands of U.S. policy objectives and events in Vietnam and Laos, Dooley’s message, that we need “works of peace,” would have to be abandoned. The United States was preparing for war. And so he--or who he was meant to be--had to make way. He had served his purpose; the public now cared about a part of the world it had known nothing about before Dooley started pleading on its behalf.
Few doubted Dooley’s motives as they were presented by him and the press--the selflessness that made him remain a bachelor so that he could dedicate himself entirely to this cause. It seemed to them it must be a worthy cause indeed that would inspire him to sacrifice a promising career in the military so that he might devote himself to it. “He was a national hero and a national hazard,” Lederer says. “It was his mammoth ego, his need for recognition, that helped get us into that mess over there.”
Excerpts from “Deliver Us From Evil: The Story of Viet Nam’s Flight to Freedom,” by Thomas A. Dooley, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. 1956 by Thomas A. Dooley. All rights reserved.
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