On June 13, 1971, the New York Times published the “Pentagon Papers,” the Defense Department’s secret, classified history of America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1971.
It exposed how we bumbled into the war, how President Johnson deliberately expanded it even after promising not to, and how the government continued to lie and hide the truth from Congress and the American people. The reported attack on Aug. 4, 1964 by the North Vietnamese on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin – the incident which led Congress to give President Johnson a blank check to pursue the war – possibly never happened. Nixon tried to block their publication. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against him.
The Vietnam story was shifting to Washington D.C. Freelance journalist assignments in Indochina were disappearing, bureaus were starting to close, the media were following the troops home. The Bangkok World started rethinking its expansion plans. I never got to work full-time for Dispatch News. By the time I finished my Peace Corps assignment, it was financially on the ropes. But Mike Morrow and I did chase one last story together in Thailand.
On the evening of Nov. 17, 1971, Radio Thailand broke into its regular programming and started airing martial music. Mike heard it first. “It’s a coup d’etat,” he yelled over the phone. “Meet me at the Atlanta Hotel as soon as you can.”
Minutes after Mike called, the music stopped and an announcer in a flat, unemotional voice made it official. A Revolutionary Party comprised of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police had seized power. Military units outside Bangkok were ordered to remain in their barracks. People were asked not to be frightened. Foreigners would be protected. The Revolutionary Party assured the country that His Majesty the King and the royal family were under their safe protection from unnamed evil persons who wished the monarchy ill. Martial law was imposed on the whole country.
I threw my Nikon in a bag along with a pocket radio to monitor Radio Thailand, picked up Mike on my Triumph, and we headed for the Parliament building. We knew the coup group would move on it immediately. MPs had become more restive, bolder in criticizing Thailand’s dangerous alliance with a stumbling United States, and were demanding more democratic freedoms.
Shopkeepers were shuttering their stores, people hurrying home, as we drove through the darkened streets. A police car with flashing lights passed us on Rajdamnern Boulevard, heading the other way. In my mirror, I saw it slow down and start to do a U-turn, so I cut down a side street and took the back way to the National Assembly.
We found a half-dozen tanks guarding the gates, their long barrels aimed down the plaza to discourage demonstrations. Their crews were chatting with a trio of policemen sitting in a nearby Jeep. Mike hopped off the back seat and walked over to see if he could interview someone. I pulled out my Nikon and started loading low-light Tri-X. A soldier in a beret standing in the turret of one of the tanks shouted in Thai for me to stop.
“Haam thaai ruup!” No photos! No photos!
I pretended I didn’t understand. When I had the camera loaded, I gave him a big smile and a thumbs up. He hesitated, unsure what to do, then struck a Patton pose. I helped Mike finish his interview and we trotted back to my bike.
“Check Radio Thailand,” Mike said. “What are they saying now?”
I clicked it on and tried to translate. A lot of the Thai words weren’t in my vocabulary. Probably political terms. But the gist was there. Parliament was closed down. The Constitution was suspended. Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn was boss, but it was a family affair. Gen. “Porky” Praphat Charusathian, Thanom’s deputy prime minister, was in on it too. His daughter was married to Thanom’s son Narong.
“Same old group” I told Mike. “They’re simply tightening their grip.”
We dashed by Chitralada Palace, King Bhumibol’s residence, where security seemed normal; the same calm reigned over at Metropolitan Police Headquarters. Paratroopers in machine-gun jeeps guarded key intersections. Several waved at us to stop, but we kept moving. I still had Col. Samure’s card.
We checked various military barracks, TV stations, key government offices. No angry demonstrators in the streets, only a knot of confused students congregating at Thammasat University. It was a fait accompli.
“We’ve got enough,” Mike finally shouted in my ear. “Head for the Post Office.”
The General Post Office offered the only reliable international communication links available to the public in the Kingdom. But had Thanom shut the lines down? We flew across town to New Road, Mike hanging on tight. When we got there, it was too late. The Army had secured all transmitting and receiving equipment, and soldiers manned a machine gun on the roof of the four-story building. Mike was undeterred.
“Let’s try,” he said. Mike knew a side entrance.
We sprinted up the stairs and discovered to our surprise that international operators were still on the job and in business. The building was guarded, but nobody had ordered them to stop transmissions. Then it dawned on me.
“They’re not worried about foreign journalists like us,” I told Mike. “They’re just there to stop a counter-coup by any other faction.”
Mike was telegraphing his story to Dispatch when I suddenly remembered my unlocked bike – if a khamoy grabbed it, we’d be walking home. I raced back down the stairs and found it still parked in the shadows. I sat on the seat and waited for Mike to finish. It was November, winter. The night was pleasantly cool and eerily quiet. The coup had shut down traffic and sent people scurrying home. There were no horns blaring, no rackety roht-tuk-tuks, no noisy raan ahaans filled with loud drinkers. It must have been what Bangkok was like fifty years before I got there.
I leaned back and put the radio to my ear. The announcer was explaining to anyone still awake why the military had ended Thailand’s brief experiment with democracy. The coup leaders blamed members of Parliament who were attempting to sabotage and obstruct the work of the military-led government; students who were staging demonstrations; labor unrest and strikes; and the fast-changing political situation in Southeast Asia. All contributed to an increasing threat to national security. They had to act to save the country.
I didn’t buy the coup, but I understood their fear. Thailand had bet the farm on America winning in Vietnam and we were heading home with our tail between our legs. The chickens were coming home to roost for them as well as us.