How the Dulles brothers, the CIA and the U.S. Navy conspired to turn a decent man into a deceitful spreader of disinformation in support of the Vietnam War
The Cold War birthed imaginary nations like East Germany and West Germany, North Korea and South Korea. By 1954 Hồ Chí Minh had defeated Vietnam’s French colonial masters. President Dwight Eisenhower was worried that Vietnam would be Mao Zedong’s first Domino.
The 1956 Geneva Accords drew a temporary line at Vietnam’s 17th parallel to allow combatants from either side to relocate. Within two years, there was to be an election to decide the fate of one country, Vietnam. President Eisenhower fretted that the popular Hồ Chí Minh, a national hero for ousting the French, would surely win the election. So the United States ignored the Geneva Accords and created an us-versus-them Cold War construct of a “free” South Vietnam versus a “Communist” North Vietnam.
The Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, were at the height of their power, having just overthrown the governments of Iran and Guatemala. Now they hoped to work their magic on a poor little country in Southeast Asia. Using the compliant “Operation Mockingbird” U.S. media, the brothers running the CIA and the State Department invented a “good” South Vietnam and a “bad” North Vietnam. The good South Vietnam was ruled by a devout Catholic who promised he would be a democrat. The bad North Vietnam was an unspeakable communist place, which rubbed shoulders with Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev.
The American public became mesmerized by this good versus bad story when a blockbuster book appeared in 1956 by a telegenic young graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Following a Moses-leading-the-Israelites-to-deliverance storyline, the book told the heart-tugging story of how the valiant U.S. Navy rescued Catholic Vietnamese from bad North Vietnam and evacuated them to the Catholic-ruled good South Vietnam.
The author/front man for this propaganda was a U.S. Navy doctor who graduated from the St. Louis University medical school named Thomas A. Dooley III. Dooley’s best-selling collection of Cold War propaganda was entitled: Deliver Us From Evil: The Fantastic Experiences of a Navy Doctor Among Terrorized Vietnamese Victims of the Communists.
Dooley became a media star and soon the third most admired man in the U.S. after the Pope and the President. To millions of Americans, Dooley was “Dr. America,” a medical do-gooder out to save Asians from themselves.
After France’s defeats in WWII, Pope Pius XII had been concerned about the Catholic Church’s influence in Catholic France’s colony of Vietnam. Pope Pius consulted Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman of New York. The two had worked closely in the Vatican with the Archbishop of Huế, Pierre Martin Ngô Đình, whose brother was the devout Catholic Ngô Đình Diệm.
Cardinal Spellman was not only America’s highest-ranking Catholic, but as the Apostolic Vicar for the United States Armed Forces; he had pull with Washington. The U.S. at the time was undergoing a religious revival, with record numbers attending church. Patriotic Catholics like Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Fulton Sheen were not going to let the Red Tide spread to Vietnam.
Cardinal Spellman introduced Ngô Đình Diệm to other powerful American Catholics who wound up supporting him. They included: Senator Joseph McCarthy, future President John F. Kennedy, Senator Mike Mansfield and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
In the 1930s and 1940s, American Protestants had failed to sustain a Christian president in China—Chiang Kai-Shek lost China’s civil war–though helped get Syngman Rhee into power in South Korea. In the 1950s a rising wave of influential Catholics would now try to get a Catholic, Ngô Đình Diệm, installed in Vietnam.
Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam.
— John F. Kennedy speech, “America’s Stake in Vietnam” at the American Friends of Vietnam convention, Washington, D.C., June 1, 1956.
“Vietnamese Catholic leaders exercise a major political influence … Vietnamese clergy have demonstrated leadership in organizing resistance among the Christians against communism.”
—-National Security Council.
“Diem is the most prominent Catholic leader in Vietnam, perhaps the most popular personality in the country after Hồ Chí Minh. He may have Vatican support.”
—State Department’s Division of Philippine and Southeast Asian Affairs.
A lobbying organization led by Catholics named the “American Friends of Vietnam” arose. Journalists Robert Scheer and Warren Hinckle wrote that “it maneuvered the Eisenhower administration and the American press into supporting the rootless, unpopular and hopeless regime of a despot and believed it was all an exercise in democracy.”
Cardinal Spellman presented Diệm as South Vietnam’s great democratic hope to Dean Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs in the Eisenhower State Department, who became a staunch supporter of the Vietnam lobby.
In January 1951, Rusk enunciated the Domino Theory:
“It is generally acknowledged that if Indochina were to fall … Burma and Thailand would follow suit almost immediately. Thereafter, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Indonesia, India, and the others to remain outside the Soviet-dominated Asian Bloc. Therefore, the Department’s policy in Indochina takes on particular importance for, in a sense, it is the keystone of our policy in the rest of Southeast Asia.”
Late in his life, Secretary of Defense McNamara admitted that the Domino Theory was a mere belief, that no high-level U.S. group ever examined it for accuracy, and that the American press accepted it without challenge.
The Geneva Accords required elections to bring about Vietnam’s unification in 1956. President Eisenhower believed Hồ Chí Minh would win 80 percent of the vote. Diệm was a Catholic in a Buddhist country; he couldn’t beat Hồ Chí Minh in a fair election. Another provision of the Geneva Accords established a 300-day period during which civilians could freely move from one zone to the other. The U.S. seized the opportunity.
Many Vietnamese Catholics had collaborated with the Catholic French. The victorious Vietnamese moved against the Catholic collaborators, confiscating Church property and arresting priests. For these Catholic collaborationists, moving south to Diệm’s Catholic regime made sense. The interests of the Vatican, the United States and Diệm converged upon maximizing the number of Catholics moving south and propagandizing it as the Moses-like U.S. Navy leading the fleeing Catholics to the promised land.
Colonel Edward Lansdale, the CIA’s man in Saigon coaching President Diệm, created Operation Passage to Freedom as a modern-day Dunkirk of Catholics fleeing Communism.
In August 1954, U.S. Navy Dr. Dooley arrived in North Vietnam. Fluent in French, Dooley acted as interpreter for the transfer of Vietnamese from French to U.S. ships. Dooley kept notes and Navy commanders were soon distributing his emotional reports to boost morale. U.S. Navy Public Information Officer William Lederer—later famous as co-author of The Ugly American—urged Dooley to keep a journal. Lederer helped Dooley turn it into a manuscript and introduced Dooley to senior editors at the Reader’s Digest who helped get his story published. Deliver Us From Evil became a blockbuster bestseller and Dooley a media star as Dr. America.
According to Deliver Us From Evil, Hồ Chí Minh’s North Vietnam was a very bad place. For the crime of praying, Hồ’s minions “often would tear an ear partially off with a pincer like a pair of pliers and leave the ear dangling.” Dooley wrote that the head of a Christian movement was burned alive. He claimed to have witnessed cruel atrocities, like the class of seven children and a teacher reading the Bible … Hồ’s followers pulled the teacher’s tongue out with a pliers. Each student had chopsticks rammed into their ears. Another horrific tale was that of a Vietnamese priest who was hung from a “crude wooden beam” and beaten with bamboo for hours, becoming “a mass of blackened flesh from the shoulders to the knees.” Dooley saw another priest with a crown of nails embedded in his skull, which Dooley described as a communist version of Christ’s Crown of Thorns.
Nobody else but Dr. Dooley witnessed these atrocities. Miraculously, he nursed all these tortured souls back to health. The doctor never explained how he repaired the brains of children penetrated by chopsticks. Deliver Us From Evil contains thirty-two photographs, none showing victims of the atrocities Dr. Dooley claimed. Not one of the many thousands of Americans who served with Dooley witnessed similar atrocities.
Dooley’s mentor, William Lederer, remembers: “Those things never happened. The atrocities he described never took place … I traveled all over the country and never saw anything like them.” Norman Baker served as a Navy Corpsman under Dooley. Corpsman Baker remembers: “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. If those atrocities had occurred, human nature would make you talk about it all the time.”
Deliver Us From Evil was more than a nationwide bestseller, it was a blockbuster, by far the most popular American tract on Vietnam and the only book about that country most 1950s Americans would ever read. Its articulate author was a handsome, dashing Dr. America out of central casting who sold Americans on their benevolent role in Vietnam.
Secretary of State Dulles praised Operation Passage to Freedom as a Moses-like deliverance from evil: “In Viet-Nam, a line was drawn at the Seventeenth Parallel. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed it, fleeing to the South … The driving force was a longing for religious freedom.”
Secretary Dulles failed to mention other “driving forces” for this CIA-inspired fake news, like the historical fact that the overpopulated north had for ages sent northerners to the south; or that the CIA paid each refugee $89 to people enjoying a yearly per capita income of $85; or the thousands of secret CIA-authored leaflets distributed in Hanoi warning Catholics that their churches would be firebombed and that the U.S. was about to drop an atom bomb on their heads.
Dooley was the Catholic face of America’s benevolent intentions in Vietnam. As the subtitle to Deliver Us From Evil explained, he was a doctor who fought disease and Communism in Asia.
American minds were a blank slate about Vietnam and Dooley painted a fairy tale of evil Communists and the benevolent U.S. Navy as saviors, and a “lived-happily-ever-after” narrative about Catholics safely within Diệm’s realm. Incredibly, many Americans came to believe that the Buddhist Vietnam was Catholic. For his contribution Dooley was honored by his government.
When the U.S. Navy discovered that Dooley was gay, he was allowed to further his benevolent front as a doctor at jungle hospitals he helped establish in CIA-controlled Laos with financing from his books, from President Eisenhower, and fundraising tours.
The hospitals were designed to “win the hearts and minds” of Laotians in order to pry them away from the pro-communist Pathet Lao. It had led the liberation movement against France and won Laos’s 1958 elections, which the CIA overturned. Dooley collaborated all along with the CIA, providing information on communist activities while writing his propaganda tracts.
Luckily for Dooley’s legacy, he died of melanoma in 1961 at the age of 34 before the slaughter in Indochina began, so his role as the benevolent doorman has been lost in time. Americans didn’t realize it in the 1950s, but Dr. Tom Dooley had paved the way for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and the resulting three million deaths.
Dr. America died a national hero and a grateful government awarded him a posthumous Medal of Freedom. The Catholic Church considered Dooley for sainthood but backed off when his CIA ties came to light. The University of Notre Dame honors Dr. America with a statue of Dooley in his trademark humanitarian pose, gazing at little children.
Dr. America had convinced Americans that Operation Passage to Freedom was a success. History tells us it was one of the CIA’s many disasters. The majority Buddhist Vietnamese population in the south resented the northern Catholic carpetbaggers who took their land and enriched themselves through their religious connection to the corrupt Catholic President Diệm. The “Buddhist crisis,” which would bedevil President Kennedy, was just around the corner.
South Vietnam was not a stand-alone country. It arose, not organically from the wishes of the people, but was imposed from afar by the distant CIA, entirely dependent on U.S. funds. It had no history, no roots and was truly a puppet state lacking legitimacy in the Vietnamese mind.
Dr. Tom Dooley helped the U.S. Government convince Americans that there was a good place called South Vietnam and a bad North Vietnam. Millions died over the CIA’s fake-news narrative that there were two countries, with the bad North invading the good South. I was quickly disabused of this notion when I met eighty-five-year-old Mr. Hoang Cong Van, who had spent 27 years fighting the French and Americans.
Mr. Van lives in Quang Tri province, just south of the 17th parallel, which Dr. America had persuaded the American public was an international border between two countries. Mr. Van chuckled as he told me:
You Americans had such big imaginations. You drew a line across my province and declared it the border between two countries. Suddenly there was a “North Vietnam” and a “South Vietnam!” Suddenly I needed a visa to visit my uncle just a few kilometers away who lived in another country! You Americans convinced yourselves that there were two countries. But you didn’t convince us. I never thought my uncle lived in a different country than me. There was only one Vietnam. There will always be one Vietnam. Look at my feet, Mr. Bradley. My feet are on my floor, which is atop my property. I am a Vietnamese and this land is Vietnamese. But at one time there were U.S. Marine bunkers here. America thought this was their property! I broke the bunkers with my own hands to build this house. Such imaginations, the Americans.
Seth Jacobs, “‘Our System Demands the Supreme Being’: The U.S. Religious Revival and the ‘Diem Experiment,’ 1954-1955,” Diplomatic History, 25, 4 (Fall 2001), 591. ↑
Jacobs, “Our System Demands the Supreme Being,” 610. ↑
Jacobs, “Our System Demands the Supreme Being,” 612. ↑
Robert Scheer and Warren Hinckle, “The ‘Vietnam Lobby,’” Ramparts, July 1965, reprinted in A Vietnam Primer, published by the editors of Ramparts Magazine. ↑
See Robert Scheer, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” Ramparts, January 1965, republished in A Vietnam Primer, published by the editors of Ramparts Magazine, 12-22. ↑
See Gareth Porter, “How the U.S. Navy Sold the Vietnam War,” Truthdig, March 27, 2019, https://www.truthdig.com/articles/how-the-u-s-navy-made-tom-dooley-a-tool-to-sell-the-vietnam-war/. ↑
Diana Shaw, “The Temptation of Tom Dooley,” Los Angeles Times Magazine, December 15, 1991, p. 45. See also James Fisher, Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998)), 79-80. Six U.S. officials who were stationed in the Hanoi-Haiphong area during Dooley’s tour of duty submitted a lengthy, albeit secret, exposé to the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1956 in which they held that Deliver Us From Evil was “not the truth” and that the accounts of Vietminh atrocities were “nonfactual and exaggerated.” The exposé was declassified only in the late 1980s. Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 50. ↑
Jacobs, “‘Our System Demands the Supreme Being,’” 618. Harold Stassen, Eisenhower’s Mutual Security Administration director, claimed that the operation was “the biggest, fastest, most humane movement of civilians and military personnel in history…a graphic demonstration of the United States’ real concern for the plight of unfortunate peoples.” ↑
See Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War, with a new introduction by Alfred W. McCoy (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013); Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). ↑
Jim Trautman, “Tom Dooley Secretly Helped the CIA,” HistoryNet, October 2020, https://www.historynet.com/dooley.htm ↑
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About the Author
James Bradley hosts the podcast Untold Pacific, featuring stories from his decades of experience in Asia.
James is the author of the New York Times #1 best-selling book, Flags of Our Fathers (2000) that was made into a movie by Stephen Spielberg and Clint Eastwood.
Bradley wrote three other critically acclaimed books about the United States in Asia: Flyboys, The Imperial Cruise and The China Mirage.
Listen to his podcast at