Douglas Pike, 77; Historian, Archivist of the Vietnam War
Douglas Pike, a leading historian of the Vietnam War known especially for his authoritative writing about the Viet Cong, died Monday at a hospital in Lubbock, Texas. He was 77.
Pike suffered a stroke in November and never fully recovered, said his wife, Myrna.
He was the author of eight books on Vietnam. His 1966 volume, “Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam,” established his credentials as a scholar on the then still-unfolding war.
His work drew heavily on his own impressive trove of documents amassed during the 15 years he spent tracking the Viet Cong as a U.S. foreign service officer in Asia. Among the estimated 7 million pages of documents he collected are 15,000 books, 15,000 monographs and 3,000 slides.
The archive includes a complete set of the original Pentagon Papers, secret correspondence between American ambassadors and U.S. presidents, and thousands of captured enemy documents.
“He left the materials that will make it possible for future generations of students to formulate their own questions and their own answers” about one of the most vexing of America’s wars, said James Reckner, director of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, where most of Pike’s collection is housed.
“All of the competing perceptions of the nature, course and purpose of the war are represented” in his archive, Pike said in 1988. “This is particularly valuable, since most of what Americans know about the war is very parochial.”
Pike was born in Cass Lake, Minn., the son of a house builder and a schoolteacher. He grew up in Minot, N.D., where later his plans to become a journalist were interrupted by World War II. He entered the Army Signal Corps and served in the South Pacific. He was among the first American troops in Japan at the end of the war, and wrote about the destruction of Hiroshima for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
After the war he studied journalism at the University of North Dakota, then worked as a writer for the United Nations in South Korea. In 1953 he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He later earned a master’s in international communications from American University.
In 1960 he became a foreign service officer with the United States Information Agency and was assigned to what was then Saigon. The Viet Cong was formed the month he arrived, “and we grew up together,” he noted in the preface to his 1986 book, “PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam.” Even after he was reassigned to Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and other Asian outposts, he continued his research on Vietnam and witnessed most of the war’s most searing events.
“Viet Cong” was his first book-length work on the war, written in 1965, just as the American buildup in the Southeast Asian nation was beginning. It was a landmark work describing the origins and purposes of the Viet Cong, based in part on documents seized from the National Liberation Front and on the many hours he spent interviewing Viet Cong defectors and prisoners.
Pike later investigated the Hue massacre, which unfolded over 24 days in February 1968 during the Tet offensive. His findings, reported on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and other papers in 1969, described the slaughter of an estimated 6,000 civilians and concluded that nearly all the killing was dictated by North Vietnamese leaders for political purposes. His report was attacked by critics of the war.
Soon after starting his foreign service Pike established himself as an expert on the Viet Cong, conducting research on his own time. Gradually he assumed broader responsibilities.
At one point in the mid-1960s he ran a unit conducting psychological warfare. An exchange he had with an American general that was reported in David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” took place during a meeting on the importance of psychological warfare.
The general said his job was to kill members of the Viet Cong. But Pike, already the historian, interjected that the French had killed many Vietnamese fighters during their protracted conflict there and still lost the war.
“Didn’t kill enough,” the general replied.
In “PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam,” Pike traced the development of what had become by then one of the world’s largest armies, from its beginnings at the end of World War II to the mid-1980s, when it had more than 1 million members.
Pike wrote that the American dilemma in Vietnam was compounded by an utter ignorance of the mentality of the North Vietnamese high command and strategy and the failure to understand its concept of armed and political struggle.
The United States, he wrote, was faced with “a strategy for which there is no known proven counterstrategy.”
Pike retired from the foreign service in 1982 and joined the staff of UC Berkeley, where he established the Indochina Archive.
He also began to publish the quarterly Indochina Chronology, a bible for Indochina scholars and observers that contained comprehensive updates on events in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. He produced the publication until he became ill late last year.
Budget problems at Berkeley led Pike to take a job at Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center in 1997.
Although he considered himself a liberal, he did not strike other liberals as one of their own, Reckner said.
“He was always sensitive to the fact there were no blacks and whites in Vietnam, just shades of gray. So when people criticized him, the response he preferred most was, ‘Well, you may be right.’ He was kind of disarming.”
In addition to his wife, Pike is survived by his sons, Ethan of Washington, D.C., and Andrew of Las Vegas; and his daughter, Victoria Pike Bond of Pleasant Hill, Calif.