By Heather Marie Stur
John Allan de Cerna was 41 years old in 1964, and he wanted to help the Republic of Vietnam fight the communists. So he wrote a letter to General Nguyen Khanh, head of state and prime minister of the RVN, a.k.a. “South Vietnam,” offering his services. De Cerna was an experienced pilot, having flown missions in Europe during World War II, which landed him in a German POW camp for a year and a half. After the war, he worked for “U.S.A. security services” throughout Asia, including stints in Korea and Laos, he wrote. When his Laos assignment ended, de Cerna joined a private business in West Germany, but he wanted to get back into the fight against communism, he explained in his letter. He asked to come to Saigon, at his own expense and without rank or pay, to join South Vietnam’s armed forces as a soldier or a pilot. “Herewith I would like to offer my service, my knowledge, and if necessary my life to your government in your fight against the communist forces which are trying to destroy the liberty and democracy of your beloved land Vietnam,” de Cerna wrote in his impassioned letter to Khanh.
I discovered de Cerna’s letter, along with similar ones from two other American men, while doing research at Vietnam’s National Archives II (Trung tâm Lưu trữ Quốc gia II) here in Ho Chi Minh City. James E. Brittain, a 21-year-old Chicago native, wrote to Khanh in 1964 asking for admission to flight school so that he could eventually be commissioned into the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF). According to his letter, Brittain had served two years in the U.S. Air Force and was honorably discharged in 1961. Also in 1964, Patrick Lee Miller wrote a brief letter asking to “enlist in your National Armed Forces” because he was “very interested in helping your country combat the communists.” Miller stated in his letter that he had been “rejected by the United States Army for certain health reasons.” I did not find any letters or other documentation indicating a response from the RVN government or military, so what happened to these three men remains a mystery to me.
Their letters got me thinking about mercenaries, adventurers, ideological passions, and the thrill of the exotic that could lure a man (or a woman) to a faraway land to fight for a nation that is not theirs. Not necessarily mercenaries—de Cerna stated in his letter that he would serve without pay—the men reminded me of those who have joined the French Foreign Legion or those who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Alan Seeger, an American poet and uncle of Pete Seeger, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 so he could fight for the Allied cause in World War I. In 1936, George Orwell went to Spain to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. About 2,800 Americans served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain’s civil war, in support of the republicans. Patrick Miller, in his letter to the RVN, asked if there was a “United States Volunteer Organization” going to Vietnam. Perhaps he was thinking of the Flying Tigers, the 1st American Volunteer Group that joined the Chinese Air Force against Japan during World War II. Ideology, adventure, and escape have motivated those who joined these groups. Orwell was quoted as having announced, “I have come to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism,” when he arrived in Barcelona; Neil Tweedie, writer for The Telegraph of London, described legionnaires as men trying to escape failed marriages and unemployment.1
Although we can only know so much about de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, through their letters to Khanh, placing the letters in the context of the early 1960s can provide some guidance about what might have motived these men. They all sought to join RVN armed forces in early 1964, an important year in the history of the Vietnam War. The year began with Khanh leading a coup which deposed General Duong Van Minh, who had headed the coup that took down Ngo Dinh Diem the previous November. The U.S. had not yet begun sending combat troops to Vietnam, but American military personnel were advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as it battled the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF or VC). In the U.S., Americans were still grappling with the assassination of President Kennedy, and we can speculate that de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller might have been inspired by Kennedy’s call to Americans to serve their country. At 21 years old, Brittain, especially, was part of the generation that Kennedy’s idealism motivated. It was also the year in which Barry Goldwater, a staunch anticommunist, announced his candidacy for the presidency, and both de Cerna and Miller wrote that they wanted to help the RVN fight communism.
American culture may have motivated de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, too. Pop culture aimed at men and boys in the early 1960s emphasized adventure and frontier fantasies, from westerns to pulp magazines such as True, For Men Only, and Man’s Life. GI Joe action figures made their debut in 1964.2 It seems quite possible that both politics and culture influenced the men’s desire to go to Vietnam. Based on their letters, we cannot know for sure, but if we analyze them in their historical context, what we can conclude is that in the early 1960s, the longing for an adventure in faraway Vietnam, as well as a sense of duty to battle communism, likely inhabited the dreams of numerous American men.
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011) and is currently working on a book about Saigon intellectuals in the Republic of Vietnam. Stur is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she is a visiting professor in the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City.
1 For Orwell’s quote, see George Orwell, Orwell in Spain (New York: Penguin Classics, 2001) 7. Regarding the French Foreign Legion, see Neil Tweedie, “The French Foreign Legion – the last option for those desperate to escape the UK,” The Telegraph, Dec. 3, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/3546207/The-French-Foreign-Legion-the-last-option-for-those-desperate-to-escape-the-UK.html
2 Tom Engelhardt and Richard Slotkin have written notable books about violence and war in American Cold War culture. See Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007); Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).