Recently I came across an old picture of me when I was in kindergarten. I think it was the first day of school, as my father took the picture in 1950. We were living at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as my father was a career Army officer and combat veteran from the 16 months he spent in North Africa fighting the Germans. He had profound PTSD, and the entire family inherited it.
As you can see in the picture, I am holding a school notebook with a picture of John Wayne on the cover. Little did I know, John Wayne was preparing me for Viet Nam.
Very few World War II veterans talked about the war, so they let John Wayne talk for them. Of course, John was never in a war, because Hollywood propaganda war movies were more important.
In 1968, John Wayne directed a movie called, “The Green Berets.” It was the same year that American soldiers went into the village of My Lai and massacred 504 Vietnamese civilians, including 182 women (17 of them pregnant), 173 children, and 60 old men.
John Wayne never knew this, nor would he have ever believed it. You don’t believe things that annihilate your core belief system. John Wayne was a powerful brand name, and that trademark sent my generation to Viet Nam.
A friend of mine, Brian Willson, who witnessed atrocities in Viet Nam had this to say when he looked into the dead eyes of a Vietnamese woman still holding three dead children in her arms after napalm was dropped: ” In that moment, and it only took a second, I got it.” In that moment, he knew he was the enemy in Viet Nam.
So, here we are again on Memorial Day, which should be called Forgetful Day. When I look at that picture of me holding that John Wayne notebook, I realize just how far I have traveled in comprehending the unspeakable truth.
Obama’s recent remarks indicate that the former president needs remedial instruction in the law. Happily, this has now been offered by Sidney Powell, a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law and attorney for Gen. Michael Flynn. Will Obama be able to swallow his pride and correct his inaccurate statements about legal precedents regarding Flynn? Or will he let them stand in Nixonian-type variant; as in, “If a (former) president says it’s illegal, that means it’s illegal.”
A crisis of conscience in Vietnam led McGehee to conclude that the agency was “a malevolent force” and to lay it bare in a memoir, “Deadly Deceits.” That memoir of 25 years with the C.I.A. chronicled operations in Southeast Asia and his realization that U.S. efforts in Vietnam were doomed.
Ralph W. McGehee, a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine crusades in Vietnam who went to war against the C.I.A. itself, died May 2 at an assisted-living facility in Falmouth, Maine. He was 92. The cause was Covid-19, his son, Dan McGehee, said.
Mr. McGehee’s 1983 memoir, “Deadly Deceits,” was a scathing critique, a chronicle of the C.I.A.’s Cold War covert operations in Southeast Asia and his dawning realization that the American cause in Vietnam was doomed. He recalled his epiphany: At the end of 1968, he sat drinking alone in a sparsely furnished villa outside Saigon, listening to a tragic pop song, “The End of the World,” as helicopter gunships circled overhead and B-52s dropped bombs in the distance.
“My idealism, my patriotism, my ambition, my plans to be a good intelligence officer to help my country fight the Communist scourge — what the hell had happened?” he wrote. “Why did we have to bomb the people we were trying to save? Why were we napalming young children? Why did the C.I.A., my employer for 16 years, report lies instead of the truth?” He struggled to answer those questions for the rest of his life.
After growing up on the South Side of Chicago, starring on Notre Dame’s undefeated college football teams from 1946 to 1949, failing a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, and working as a management trainee at Montgomery Ward, he received a telegram from out of the blue in January 1952. It asked: Would you like to serve your country in an unusual way? Football players, given their brawn and affinity for teamwork, were prime candidates for paramilitary missions, in the eyes of the C.I.A.
The Korean War was at its height and the C.I.A., founded in 1947, was expanding exponentially, from 200 officers in the beginning to roughly 15,000 in 1952, with some 50 overseas stations and a budget exceeding $5 billion in today’s money. The agency searched frantically for Americans capable of conducting covert operations overseas.
Mr. McGehee made the grade. After training and indoctrination, the agency sent him out into the world. Serving over the years in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and South Vietnam, he confronted confounding problems: for example, a richly compensated foreign agent from Taiwan whose highly touted secret reports on Communist China were based on nothing but newspaper clippings. In northern Thailand, he worked on counterinsurgency operations with opium-smoking hill tribesmen, to little avail. He tried, with some success, to train the Thai national police to gather intelligence.
Mr. McGehee rose to the very middle of the C.I.A.’s ranks, and in 1968 he landed in Saigon to work in liaison with the chief of the secret police. He then faced a spiritual crisis. The war was going badly for the United States, and as bad turned to worse, it shattered him. He questioned America’s role in the world, the C.I.A.’s role in Vietnam, his role in the C.I.A., and his very existence. He wrote that he had contemplated unfurling a banner reading “THE C.I.A. LIES” and then killing himself to protest the war.
As a football star at Notre Dame, Mr. McGehee had the kind of talent the C.I.A. was looking for. By 1973, after he returned to headquarters, labeled a malcontent and relegated to a backwater desk, the agency confronted its own existential crisis. The wars of Watergate would breach the ramparts of its secrecy. Cold War skeletons tumbled from the closet: assassination plots, covert support for autocrats, spying on Americans. Presidents had approved such exploits in secret, but the C.I.A. was blamed and shamed. By the time he retired in 1977, Mr. McGehee was convinced that the agency was a malevolent force.
“Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the C.I.A.” appeared six years later, after the agency had sought and won significant deletions. Though C.I.A. veterans had published memoirs since the 1960s, few had accused the agency of distorting intelligence to deceive American presidents and the American public to protect its power.
“The American people are the primary target audience of its lies,” Mr. McGehee wrote. Now-declassified Cold War records tell a more complicated story. The C.I.A.’s primary audience was presidents, not the public. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon had rejected the C.I.A.’s pessimistic reporting on Vietnam, telling the American people that victory, or peace with honor, was at hand when it wasn’t. The presidents, their national security advisers and the Pentagon had pressured the C.I.A. to confirm their political preconceptions. Sometimes the agency bent to their will, but not often.
Those records do bear out Mr. McGehee’s critique that the C.I.A. had neglected the gathering and analysis of intelligence, its founding mission, in favor of bold covert operations that changed the world, often for the worse, especially in the years leading up to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, approved by President John F. Kennedy, in 1961.
Ralph Walter McGehee Jr. was born in Moline, Ill., on April 9, 1928. His parents managed an apartment complex, his mother as a bookkeeper and his father as a maintenance man.
His wife of 63 years, Norma (Galbreath) McGehee, died in 2012. In addition to his son Dan (who is also known as Keenan Dakota), his survivors include another son, Scott; two daughters, Jean Marteski and Peggy McGehee Horton; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In later years Mr. McGehee developed and maintained CIABASE, an online collection of open-source information, and gave lectures, occasionally laced with conspiracy theories. He once told a reporter for The New York Times that he realized that his book would not change the C.I.A. But, he said, “I guess I justify myself by thinking that I fought for what I thought was right.”