In 1969 Col. Robert Rheault landed a long-coveted assignment in Vietnam: commanding the Green Berets, the daring U.S. Special Forces group championed by President Kennedy and glorified by John Wayne.
He had held the job for only three weeks, however, when a scandal broke — one that Time magazine would later call “second only to the My Lai killings.”
Rheault (pronounced Roe) and five of his men were accused of murder and conspiracy in the death of a suspected South Vietnamese double agent. When questioned by his superiors, Rheault said the man was away on a secret mission when in fact his body had already been dumped in the South China Sea.
The lie enraged Gen. Creighton Abrams Jr., the U.S. commander in Vietnam, who ordered courts-martial for Rheault and his subordinates. But a few months later, President Nixon’s Army secretary abruptly overruled the general and the charges were dropped, an extraordinary turn that not only deepened the mystery surrounding the case but allowed perplexing questions to fester about the morality of the Vietnam War.
“War,” Rheault once observed, “is a nasty business, with a lot of high-minded objectives, like freedom and fighting the aggressor, to justify killing people.”
A decorated West Pointer who helped rehabilitate traumatized Vietnam veterans after resigning from the Army, Rheault died Oct. 16 of natural causes at his home in Owls Head, Maine, said his wife, Susan St. John. He was 87.
He grew up amid great expectations. His mother was from a well-known Boston family and his father had been a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before finding success in finance. Born in Boston on Oct. 31, 1925, young Rheault spoke French with his family at the dinner table and graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, the exclusive New Hampshire prep school, before entering West Point in 1943.
He studied French at the Sorbonne, headed the French department at West Point, where he made captain, taught intelligence at Ft. Riley, Kan., and earned a Bronze Star during the Korean War.
Widely regarded as an officer on track to making general, he was a “scintillating leader with the aura of Lawrence of Arabia,” Jeff Stein wrote in “A Murder in Wartime,” a 1992 book about the Green Beret case.
In 1960 Rheault joined the Army’s Special Forces and quickly earned command of his own team, carrying out assignments in trouble spots including the East German border, Pakistan and China. He volunteered for Vietnam in 1964.
In the field for weeks at a time with 100 pounds of supplies on his back, he took extreme measures to lighten his load, including cutting off the handle of his toothbrush. He thought this was his own peculiar habit until he was searching the pack of a North Vietnamese prisoner who also had a sawed-off toothbrush.
The discovery made Rheault feel “that I had more in common with that man than with 90 percent of the American soldiers in-country at the time,” he recalled in the book “In Search of the Warrior Spirit” by Richard Strozzi-Heckler. After much consideration, he took the prisoner’s weapons away and let him go.
That decision did not weigh on him like one he faced in the early summer of 1969 as the new commander of Vietnam’s 4,500 Special Forces troops. The Green Berets worked closely with the CIA and a number of Vietnamese informants.
A string of Green Beret missions had been compromised and some Vietnamese operatives had disappeared or become unhelpful, heightening fears of an infiltrator that rose after a raid in Cambodia recovered a photograph of a known North Vietnamese intelligence agent talking with a group of men. Rheault’s officers believed they recognized one of the men as their informant, Thai Khac Chuyen.
Chuyen was interrogated for a week and reportedly failed a lie detector test. On June 20, 1969, three of Rheault’s men, believing they had the approval of local CIA officials, drugged Chuyen, wrapped him in chains and took him out to sea, where they shot him in the head. His body was never recovered.
A day later, a high-ranking CIA official warned Rheault’s group that killing the agent would have the “highest moral and flap potential.” But it was too late.
The ruse that Chuyen was on a secret mission collapsed when several of Rheault’s men confirmed the slaying under questioning by Abrams’ staff. Rheault, however, stuck to the cover story. Abrams, according to a Los Angeles Times account, flew into a rage and ordered Rheault’s arrest, even though the colonel had not been the one to pull the trigger.
The Army hid the affair from the public until lawyers hired by the accused began holding press conferences. The lawyers made it clear that if the trials proceeded, secrets would be exposed, including the role of the CIA, illegal forays into Cambodia and information portraying as commonplace the cold-blooded killing of double agents.
News accounts of the case inspired “Apocalypse Now” screenwriter John Milius to use Rheault as a model for the key character of Kurtz, a Green Beret colonel accused of murdering South Vietnamese double agents.
On Sept. 29, 1969, Army Secretary Stanley R. Resor, who earlier had backed the prosecutions, dismissed the case on grounds that the CIA’s refusal to let its agents testify would prevent a fair trial. According to the 1994 diaries of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, Resor had been pressured by the president and national security advisor Henry Kissinger, who wanted to avoid the political consequences of airing such dirty deeds.
The U.S. government later paid the widow of the Vietnamese agent a small pension, quelling her emotional protests outside the American Embassy in Saigon.
If there had been a trial, defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey said later, “the defendants would have become Abrams, [CIA Director Richard] Helms and Nixon. The only winner would have been North Vietnam.”
Other ramifications would only later become apparent.
Daniel Ellsberg, a defense analyst for Rand in Santa Monica, read a detailed reconstruction of the case in The Times on Sept. 30, 1969, that convinced him the government “at every level, from bottom to top,” was deceiving the American people. He decided then to leak the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret history of the war that intensified public dissent over U.S. involvement in Vietnam, embarrassed Nixon and provoked the Watergate burglaries that ultimately ended his presidency.
Although offered other posts, Rheault resigned from the Army in November 1969.
In 1971 he became an instructor for Outward Bound, the rigorous outdoor leadership program. It offered many of the same experiences as the Army — “hard work, great camaraderie, but without the shooting,” said his wife, who survives him along with a brother; three children from his first marriage, to Caroline Anna Young; two children from his second marriage, to St. John; and four grandchildren.
For 19 years, until his retirement in 2001, Rheault led a course for Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine. Among the expeditions he led was an ambitious 1989 trek in Uzbekistan that included veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
He rarely spoke about the tragic missteps that ended his military career. “I know he felt very bad about the whole thing, that this Vietnamese agent had been killed,” said Michael Heaney, a Vietnam veteran who taught at Outward Bound. “I don’t think he was ever sure whether the guy was a spy or not.... But he decided not to let it end his usefulness. He turned around and did good things the rest of his life.”