On Buddha’s birthday, May 19, 1970, five of us marched into the American Embassy, led by Big Boris.
The ramrod Marine at the reception desk scowled as he led us to the conference room. We had barely settled into our chairs before the Ambassador entered, all handshakes and smiles, a consummate professional. He had a craggy face, hair turning silver at the temples, and bushy, black, Groucho Marx eyebrows behind his glasses.
As soon as Unger took his seat at the head of the conference table, we stood up and moved to the other end, leaving him sitting alone. Unger looked surprised but quickly recovered.“Why don’t you gentlemen start the conversation,” he suggested dryly.
“With pleasure, Mr. Ambassador,” Boris replied.
He walked down to the other end of the table and presented Unger with a copy of our “Open Letter to the American Ambassador.” We were putting him and the administration he served on trial.
“Mr. Ambassador, we charge the Nixon administration with committing six counts of criminal stupidity,” Boris announced. One by one, we stood up and took turns ticking them off, Boris standing guard over the accused.
I told Unger we were on the wrong side of history. When the Vietnamese overthrew their French colonial masters after World War II, we should have embraced their cause, and other anti-colonial movements throughout Asia as well. Instead, we let the communists champion them. And when the Vietnamese fell into a civil war, we compounded our mistake, doing what General Douglas MacArthur warned President John F. Kennedy never to do – fight a land war in Asia.
Robert said we were ill-equipped as white-skinned Westerners to wage a guerilla war for the hearts and minds of the Asian Vietnamese – “gooks, dinks and slopes,” as American soldiers called them. We didn’t speak their language, didn’t share their religion, knew almost nothing about their history and culture.
Billy raised the shameful My Lai massacre. When we got frustrated by an elusive foe, we eventually snapped and committed atrocities. On March 16, 1968, soldiers from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, including poorly-trained, 90-day-wonder, second lieutenant William Calley, deliberately and methodically slaughtered 347 unarmed elderly men, women and children. The massacre was only stopped by a courageous, 24-year old American helicopter pilot who threatened to turn his gunship on Charlie Company if they continued killing.
Boris compared America to Nazi Germany. I didn’t agree, but I understood his anger. We were carpet-bombing and napalming villages, running assassination programs, and poisoning people and water supplies with millions of gallons of highly toxic Agent Orange to defoliate the countryside, leaving behind a legacy of birth defects and a permanent reservoir of hatred towards America.
Peter had traveled the farthest to join the protest – a 12-hour, 470-mile train ride down from Chiang Mai – and spoke next. He accused America of moral hypocrisy, claiming to defend freedom in Southeast Asia while propping up murderous despots in our own backyard like Haitian dictator Doc Duvalier. “Papa Doc” murdered over 30,000 opponents of his government but we turned a blind eye to the killings because he was a bulwark against communism in the volatile Caribbean.
Dave hammered that Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia only further divided an America already on the verge of civil war over Vietnam.
Boris returned to our side of the table and sat down. “How do you respond to the charges, Mr. Ambassador,” Boris demanded. Unger looked at us for a moment, as if trying to decide how to handle this bit of annoying street theater. We stared back.
It’s not easy to tell when a professional diplomat is telling the truth or simply setting a trap. In Unger’s case, perhaps he was doing both. The ambassador replied that he accepted some points, rejected others, and found many a matter of opinion. He sounded surprisingly sympathetic, and may have been. We later learned some in the State Department even accused him of “going native.” Still, he dutifully defended Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. It was necessary to wind down the Vietnam war next door and bring the boys home. By striking at the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers using Cambodia as a cross-border refuge to wage war against South Vietnam, the U.S. was helping the South Vietnamese government survive on its own, thus speeding up the “Vietnamization” of the war – turning over the fighting to the South Vietnamese and allowing U.S. troops to pull out.
“I appreciate your sharing your opinions,” he declared, concluding our two-hour stand-off by offering Boris his hand. “I’ll make sure the President gets a copy of your letter.”
“He can read it in the Washington Post,” Boris told him.
Unger stiffened, the smile vanished. He gave Boris a dagger look that was all business.
“I would strongly advise against sending it to the Post. The Thai government won’t respond kindly to that, and the fate of the Peace Corp program in Thailand will be out of my hands.”
It was a clear threat, deftly delivered, without raising his voice.
Peter tried to end things on a friendly note. “If you’re ever get to Chiang Mai, Ambassador, come see me.”
“If you’re still there,” Ungar replied grimly.