American civilians in Saigon 1963: U.S. still making war to negate peace efforts

Reading/Booksigning: Sat., Apr. 21, 4pm, Third House Books, 113 N. Main St., Gainesville

by Kathy Connor Dobronyi

When Americans think of Vietnam, they think of the Vietnam War. Vietnam was divided into two countries in 1954 under the
Geneva Accords, a treaty that ended the colony of French Indochina. Although the division was temporary, the United States supported a permanent state in the south under President Ngo Dinh Diem, an ardent anti-communist.

Beginning in 1954, the United States spent billions in foreign aid for the new country. Vietnam represented a massive investment by the United States of more than $28.5 billion in economic and security assistance designed to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, an essential part of countering communists influence.

The U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) oversaw substantial development aid for a number of projects. To improve commercial trade, Tan Son Nhut Airport was expanded, roads and bridges were constructed, and canals were widened and dredged.

On the eve of the Vietnam War in 1963, there were approximately 4,000 American civilians living in Saigon. Most were working for the U.S. State Department in the diplomatic corps, foreign aid workers and secret agencies. Distribution of billions of U.S. dollars was coordinated with President Ngo Dinh Diem’s government and USOM (U.S. Overseas Mission) a program that slowly evolved into USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development).

There were 1,800 military dependents and 500 military personnel. I was one of those dependents, and my father, Major Bobby D. Connor, was one of the military advisers assigned to the 3rd RRU for two years.

Although most Americans lived in Saigon neighborhoods in apartments or walled duplexes and houses, some lived in the JDP Compound near Ton San Nhut Airport. The facility was initially built for Johnson, Drake, and Piper employees and the families in 1954. When their contract ended in 1962, the JDP Compound became home to American missionaries and State Department employees.

In 1963, Saigon was a very dangerous place for Americans. There were always rumors of bombings and kidnappings. The Capital Kinh-Do, an American theater newly opened in June, 1963 was first bombed in September with 200 American women and children in attendance. A second bombing destroyed the facility, killed three soldiers and injured many civilians in February 1964.

Although the lives of American civilians were threatened by Viet Cong terrorist attacks, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge believed their presence showed that Americans didn’t cut and run, and that we could protect our own. By February 1965, American dependents were officially evacuated.

In the first decade of the Republic of Vietnam (1954-64), we primarily invested in peace, with money spent creating a strong trading partner. In the second decade, we invested in war (1965-75), destroying all that we had built in the previous years.

On March 8, 1965, the Vietnam War officially began when 3,500 Marines, the first U.S. combat troops, landed at Da Nang.

The Vietnam War was fought in an era of restrictions set up by the nuclear threat of the Cold War. During WWII the United States focused on total war pitting total virtue against total evil. In the Cold War, our actions were restricted because this type of total war was impossible.

In the decades following the end of the Vietnam War, we’ve continued to invest more financial aid in war than in peace to insure strong trading partners. There were more than 4,000 American civilians, men, women, and children in Saigon in 1963. They were there to hide the fact that the U.S. government was building a war where their peace efforts would be negated.

Was this period the beginning of the modern era of foreign aid where our troops invade first, followed by economic and infrastructure peace building?

Kathy Connor Dobronyi is the author of “Under the Wings of a Good Luck Phoenix: Memoir of an American Girl Saigon 1963.”

There will be a reading and book signing with the author at Third House Books on Saturday, April 21 at 4 pm. 

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