Editor's Note: Kevin Buckley joined NEWSWEEK in 1963 and has been a magazine correspondent and editor ever since. He was the last editor of GEO, the first of LEAR's ("the magazine for the woman who wasn't born yesterday") and author of "PANAMA-The Whole Story," published in 1991. Since 1992, he has been executive editor and contributing editor of PLAYBOY. Between 1968 and 1972 he was a NEWSWEEK correspondent and bureau chief in Saigon. Al Chambers
"The Saigon Yale Club"
By Kevin Buckley
New York City
July 15, 2004
I started this posting content to fulfill a single assignment: to recall what happened when I brought up John Kerry's name at a meeting of the Yale Club of Saigon in 1971. But reminiscence has its own domino effect. Readers should consider what follows as a note-in-a-bottle to a person I am virtually certain was a classmate, and who was, as best I can remember, present at the events I will describe. If you recognize yourself, let's have a drink!
First, a word about the Yale Club of Saigon. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker (Yale 1916) kept noticing Yale graduates in Vietnam and invited about a dozen of us to his residence for dinner sometime in 1968 or early 1969. Bunker repeated the courtesy at least three of four times while I was in Vietnam. Of all the surreal scenes that abounded in Saigon, the ambassador's Yale dinner parties were the most pleasant. Bunker was a very generous, amusing host. Over the years, the guests were foreign service officers, AID people, reporters, adventurers, anthropologists, clergymen, and men in uniform, including very recent graduates and the very senior. There were always generous drinks and boisterous dinner table conversations. Bunker liked to recite risque limericks, often about Harvard, during dessert. Then he ushered us all to his living room where we sang Yale songs and watched film of the previous football season. Once, I explained the concept of the first down to a curious Buddhist monk, in his saffron robe, who had been in the graduate school.
Kerry's name came up at the meeting of May 31, 1971 when, I think, but can't be certain, that "Classmate," who worked at the embassy, was present. (There were many young Americans in Saigon, and, it seemed, as many social circles as the Yale campus. I recall only fleeting but amiable encounters with "Classmate" in both places.) Kerry was a new celebrity "back in the world." As one of the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he had recently testified to congress, uttering the timeless question: "Who wants to be the last to die for a mistake?"
During the cocktail hour, I said: "Mr. Ambassador, it's too bad young John Kerry isn't with us here tonight. He seems to be making a lot of sense."
"Oh Kevin," the ambassador said, "if he knew what I knew, he wouldn't be talking that way."
I suppose I should have asked just what it was that the ambassador knew, but I didn't. "If he knew what I knew" was an idiom and tool, popular among U.S. officials, from the beginning of the Vietnam war to the end, employed to try to discredit a critic. If I had pressed him, Bunker would almost certainly have said that his information was secret, much too secret to disclose.
A young army captain, in uniform, listened quietly. I vividly remember that he stirred a brimming martini with his forefinger and, licking it, addressed our host. "Mr. Ambassador, with all due respect, what you know is obviously complete bullshit."
There was a remarkable silence, except for squawking military police radio talk that drifted in on the sultry Saigon air, from outside Bunker's heavily guarded villa. The young captain's Combat Infantryman's Badge seemed to glow.
"Ahhh," said the unflappable Bunker, "shall we have dinner?"
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