Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Conein, the 'Lawrence' of Vietnam

One of the most dramatic and consequential events of the Vietnam War was the November ’63 coup that overthrew the Diem regime. Lucien ‘Lulu’ Conein, aka ‘Three-fingered Luigi’, was the key American agent involved in the coup; Jeff Sharlet was cast in a significant peripheral role.

Born in Paris, raised in Kansas City by an aunt, young Conein left to join the French Army, but when France fell to Germany in 1940 he escaped back to the States and enlisted in the US Army. Since he was fluent in French, he was transferred to the nascent Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), under General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. He and other operatives began weapons and explosives training and intense physical conditioning at covert OSS facilities in the US.

Transferred to a remote base in the Scottish highlands, thence to Milton Hall in England, Conein and comrades joined the clandestine multinational Operation Jedburgh (Jeds): Personnel of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the OSS, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), as well as the Dutch and Belgian Armies in exile, were parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, Holland, and Belgium in support of the allied invasion of Europe in ‘44. Their mission was to conduct sabotage and guerrilla warfare, and lead local resistance forces in actions to slow down German units countering the allies. The ‘Jeds’ worked in teams of three commanded by a French or OSS officer with a French, Belgian, or Dutch deputy; and a radio operator they called the ‘pianist’. They had personal weapons, M1 carbines, Colts, sabotage equipment, a field radio, and 500 code phrases written on pieces of silk.

The first Jed team to infiltrate Occupied Europe left an RAF base on a British Halifax bomber at 2300 hours, 5 June ’44, in advance of the D-Day Normandy landings followed by 92 other teams comprised of roughly 280 commandos as the allies advanced. As Eisenhower and Churchill commented in postwar writings, they did their job well. Team Mark with Capt. Conein, who was aptly codenamed ‘Intrepide’, dropped into the Bordeaux region in mid-August, their task to coordinate with the FFI’s Brigade Armagnac. Conein’s team also fought alongside the Corsican Brotherhood, a tough Mafia-style outfit. After Paris was liberated, General De Gaulle, head of the Free French, ordered all OSS-SOE teams out of France. The later historian, Arthur Schlesinger, then an OSS staffer sent out to recall the teams, described the scene at Brigade Armagnac in his memoir:

It all reminded one of a movie. The French officers were perfectly
cast. Colonel Max Celerier was a Claude Rains type. … The younger
officers were handsome fellows in various cinematic styles. The
American Jedburgh attached to the Brigade was out of the movies
too. Accompanied by a blonde mistress in FFI uniform, he regaled
us with cynical and improbable tales of derring, the stories growing
more extravagant the more Armagnac he consumed. His name was
Lucien Conein.

After Germany surrendered, spring ’45, Conein and several other Jeds were transferred to the Asian theater, to French Indochina, as part of an OSS team working in Hanoi. They worked with French Foreign Legion and anti-communist Vietnamese to drive out the remaining Japanese forces. Following Japan’s surrender, Conein, standing near Ho Chi Minh addressing an enormous crowd in Hanoi’s main square, heard him proclaim Vietnam’s independence from France by paraphrasing the US Declaration of Independence, “All men are born equal: The creator has given us inviolable rights, life, liberty, and happiness!”

Back in the States in ’47, Conein became a charter member of the newly-created CIA, but retained his Army rank as cover during his subsequent shadowy career. In the early ‘50s the CIA assigned him to West Germany; he ran the Nuremberg Station in the very building where the war crimes trials were held. His job: to infiltrate agents into nearby Communist Czechoslovakia. As a senior Army officer later in the ‘50’s, he commanded a Special Forces unit, the ‘Green Berets’ formed in 1952.

However, Conein’s most eventful duties of the decade took him back to Hanoi in ’54 where he was initially seconded to Colonel Lansdale, the legendary counter-insurgency expert. Conein’s cover was to arrange air transport for northerners fleeing the Viet Minh Communist-nationalist movement, but his actual task was to sabotage the victorious Viet Minh takeover of northern Vietnam by creating a stay-behind setup for possible guerrilla resistance. He and his agents carried out sabotage against the public transportation system and buried weapons and explosives to equip a possible uprising against the Communist regime. For the latter caper, Conein came up with the novel idea of packing military hardware into coffins then buried in cemeteries.

Returning to the south in ’55, Conein worked with Lansdale’s Military Mission in Saigon where he ran into old comrades-in-arms from the Corsican Brotherhood then running the opium trade in Southeast Asia. The Lansdale Mission helped President Diem consolidate power in South Vietnam. The French were pulling out, but not at all happy the Americans were taking over; there followed mysterious attacks on US personnel and their property in Saigon. When Friedrich Reinhardt, the new US Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, arrived, Lansdale tried to persuade him to fortify his residence against the aggrieved French, but without success. Conein’s solution: driving home one evening from dinner, he directed his wife to steer past the ambassador’s house where he tossed a live grenade on the front lawn. The next day Ambassador Reinhardt acceded to Lansdale’s suggestion.

Lucien Conein

Much later, in 1963, Lt. Col. Conein was attached to the Saigon CIA Station; as cover he was US military adviser to the government of South Vietnam. That spring a series of Buddhist self-immolations protested the Catholic Diem regime’s repressive policies. President Kennedy (JFK), by then heavily invested in the Diem government both politically and militarily, was concerned about the effect of the grisly street scenes as well as the regime’s human rights image abroad on political stability and the prosecution of the war against the Viet Cong in the south.

At the annual July 4th American Embassy reception for senior US personnel and South Vietnamese notables, Nguyen Don, a former Vietnamese comrade-in-arms of Conein’s from ’45, now a general, approached him about the Diem regime’s harsh treatment of the Buddhists as well as its extensive corruption. Speaking in French, Don discreetly asked Conein if he could find out what the US attitude would be to a military coup against Diem. Conein dutifully reported the conversation to his superiors in the embassy, and word went back to Washington.

In August, the Administration covertly ‘green-lighted’ the South Vietnamese military’s coup planning via Conein and sent in a new high-profile ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, to oversee the situation. JFK set up a special secret executive committee (Ex-Comm) modeled after the Cuban Missile Crisis Ex-Comm of the previous year. Comprised of key cabinet officers and national security officials, the coup Ex-Comm, which met in the White House with the President in the chair, evaluated incoming information on coup planning from Vietnam.

Arthur Schlesinger in his memoir continued: “I was not to hear that name [Conein] again for nearly twenty years. One day in 1963, someone in the Kennedy White House told me that the CIA’s liaison between Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the South Vietnamese generals plotting to overthrow Diem was called Lucien Conein.” With tension and anxiety mounting in Washington over the coup, a key cable from Ambassador Lodge referenced Colonel Conein, prompting JFK to ask who he was. Secretary of Defense McNamara, anxious about US involvement being dependent on a sole channel of information, replied that Conein was a kind of T.E. Lawrence character.

Meanwhile, soon after JFK gave the ‘green light’, Brother Jeff and a small team of Army Security Agency (ASA) Vietnamese linguists were quickly flown into Saigon from Clark AFB in the Philippines. They were set up in a corner of a US signals base west of the capital near a ville called Phu Lam. Their mission: to electronically monitor all communications among the plotting generals. Every 24 hours the intelligence product of the op was shipped by air back to the National Security Agency (NSA), ASA’s parent organization in DC, for evaluation and transmittal to the White House Ex-Comm. JFK wanted to know what the generals were saying when Conein wasn’t present. Later called to testify before Congress in the ‘70’s, Conein alluded to the ASA’s Phu Lam op as a backup on what the generals were up to when they occasionally got cold feet and broke off contact with him.

Antennas at Army Signals base, Phu Lam ‘63

Forty-eight hours before the coup began, General Don asked Conein to come to the general staff HQ as the US liaison. Leaving a Special Forces team to guard his family in case things went awry, Conein joined the generals. He carried with him a suitcase filled with 3 million piasters (about $42,000), his ivory-handled .357 Magnum, and a radio for contact with the embassy. The coup went off on November 1, 1963, and very soon the plotters prevailed. They consummated the takeover with the execution, unexpected by the US, of President Diem and his unpopular brother Nhu, chief of the secret police.

Jeff and the ASA team were pulled out, but Lucien Conein was in and out of the country for next several years through a series of subsequent military coups until he finally got in trouble. A thoroughly conscientious clandestine operative, Conein was a hell raiser off duty. One day in ‘66, one of my college friends, a CIA man on his Vietnam tour, came into Saigon from a stay in the field and headed for the Duc Hotel, a kind of Agency bachelor officer’s quarters, for a good meal. Taking a table in the dining room, he spotted Conein, with whom he had a nodding relationship, at the bar with friends having a raucous time. Conein and pals later went up to the hotel roof, sending some heavy concrete ornaments crashing dangerously into the street. As a result, Conein was reassigned to Phu Bai, the CIA’s most distant outpost from the capital which he dubbed ‘Phu Elba’. The following year he left the CIA and returned to the States where he lent his experience to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Decades later the Conein family landed in an upscale Washington suburb, coincidentally next door to one of my former students, who came to know the old soldier socially, remembering him as a fascinating raconteur. Lucien Conein died in 1998 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery, his many medals conferred by four grateful nations on display. In a fitting epitaph, Stanley Karnow, the historian of Vietnam who had known Conein for nearly 40 years, wrote that in the wake of the Cold War at the end of the 20th c., “He was out of his time. [Conein] was the swashbuckling soldier of fortune – the guy who ceased to exist except in fiction.”

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