The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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August 29, 2009

As the last scion of the Kennedy family is being laid to rest, it seems appropriate that I have reached the point in my narrative where the news of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination reached us in Vietnam.

Sunday, 9 June 1968

Dear Family~

Needless to say, the news here much of this week has been largely concerned with the sad events in Los Angeles, et. seq., and has tended to overshadow the local news. The local news is getting stale anyhow, as the VC continue to shell Saigon night after night. Nothing has come in as close to me as the two on the 19th of May.

Early in the week, the news centered on the unfortunate accident in Cho Lon, where a US Helicopter-fired rocket misfired and killed six high officers of the national police, and wounded several others, including the (now former) Mayor of Saigon. The first reports were that this was a VC shell that had hit; investigation indicated shortly however that this was not so, and close examination of the shell fragments, and investigation of the pilots involved, eventually revealed beyond doubt that it was one of our own “strays”. It was not a unique sort of accident, of course, but the reaction has been pretty unfavorable.

Word of the Los Angeles debacle reached us at Long Binh late in the afternoon Wednesday, First reports were hopelessly confused, but by evening it was clear to me that a miracle would be required for Bobby to survive. I stayed at home (with a cold) on Thursday. I awoke late in the afternoon as a BBC broadcast was coming to a close, and the announcer stated that the foregoing program had been prepared before the unfortunate death of Senator Kennedy: this was my first confirmation of what I knew was to be. I tuned to VOA, which was playing dirges, so I had to wait until the local 5 PM news to get the details.

All of the applicable descriptive adjectives have long since been used to describe this latest turn of events. Over here, where violence is daily bread, the impact has not been nearly so great as I’m sure it was at home. The Vietnamese have been very cool towards Kennedy anyway, so other than the official condolences, not much beyond the facts have been forthcoming in the papers. Thursday morning the funeral cortege for the VN officers mentioned earlier passed my balcony, and I felt very sure then that before the day was over I would hear of the necessity for a similar event in Washington.

Now, of course, it is all over but the shouting. That is, this particular episode is over—but I predict there will be much more violence along the same lines before the next election at home. All the weeping and wailing  and gnashing of teeth about the “upsurge of violence” in the US seems to me to miss the point completely. There in nothing new about it. American history, from the war for independence onward is not noticeably less violent than the history of other countries. What bothers me is the fact that murder, homicide and so forth is often tacitly, if not openly condoned in some circumstances, while acts that are substantively the same are condemned in other circumstances. Where was the great hue and cry when shooting or lynching Negroes was even more commonplace than it is today? Where was the period of “official mourning” for the twelve children killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church? The cortege and pompous burial for Medger Evers?

I certainly agree with President Johnson and the many others that seem to have concluded that there is something wrong with america today—something that finds its expression in assassinations, riots, and so forth. But I think I’d disagree with many about the causes of the wrongness. The American Ethic has too long denied the essential humanness of all people, and the people within its borders particularly. Organized religion has for centuries been promulgating a body of doctrine that simply fails to take into account the fact that humans are, first and foremost, humans. much of this doctrine found its way into our federal structure (the colonisation of america was initiated, after all, by a persecuted religious sect which proceeded to become as adept at persecution as those who drove then from England): the constitution is shot through with examples of pseudo-religious beliefs translated into a formula for government. And through the years, a vast body of legend has been built into american history that grants to the american people something very close to actual divinity. So powerfully imbued have we become with our feelings of God-given superiority that we have even undertaken to export the commodity.

Future historians may well record the 1960s as a decade in which america finally realized that the credibility gap between its facade of liberty and equality and justice and pacifism and the edifice of actuality became so wide that the entire structure collapsed. Examples of our duplicity in the world today are myriad, and all the world is beginning to take notice. Lately, even large segments of our own population have been taking notice too. Everywhere our “Do as we say, not as we do” approach is being rejected—quite appropriately, I think. Our future as a nation, or as a world power, hangs now in a delicate balance, and it remains to be seen whether we will really pull in our horns, gird ourselves, admit our mistakes, and set about to bring into reality the “american dream”—which is still no more than a dream—or whether we will close our eyes once again to the oppression, inequality, injustice and belligerence that have brought us to our current sorry state.

There is no change in the work status, and none is looked for. PA&E may try to pull some hanky-panky again this year about our employee contracts, which will give me precisely the “out” I need: but if they don’t do this, I shall certainly resign before too long, unless the situation changes radically with the award of the new parent contract with the Army July 1.

I’ve been investigating the proposed trip through Cambodia. The Vice Consul here points out the necessity of being very careful on such a trip, since we are not diplomatically represented there, but explains that there is nothing she can do to prevent the trip. Tourist Visas to Cambodia are issued through the Australian Embassy here, and I haven’t had the chance to see them yet. Ordinarily, Thailand requires no visa, but it may be that one would be required for persons entering Thailand from Caniodia, so I shall have to contact the Thai Embassy as well. The plan is still very hazy and no dates are set. Having my Cambodian friend along as a guide should prevent any major mistakes that might conceivably involve me with authorities. Air Vietnam has regular flights to Phnom Penh.

As I start this third page, I realise there isn’t much to add to what I’ve put into the previous two.

The weather is getting consistently wetter, with storms just about every day. Rob can now testify to the wetness of our rains, and to the lightning accompanying! I mentioned earlier that I finally succombed to a Vietnamese cold, and find it remarkably similar to the US variety (though this may be an imported cold for all I know!) It is about over now.

Mail was delayed this week, and I didn’t go to LB Saturday—went to CM0 instead—so I suspect letters will be waiting for me Monday AM. My last letter from Dad was 5/26, containing the copy for Rob (he got it OK).

That’s about 30 for this week: as usual, I hope this letter finds you all well.



It was slowly dawning on me that I was involved in a boondoggle, and the likelihood was great I would not complete my contract. I began to formulate a plan to ride my motorcycle from Saigon to Phnom Penh: the main reason for doing so was to get to and see the Temple complex at Angkor. I had seen all the pictures in old issues of the National Geographic, and had seen the pictures my brother Todd had brought back when he visited the temples in 1958. I wanted to see this for myself, and in Saigon was only a few hundred kilometers away from them.

I was also becoming critical of our lack of progress in the war itself. Within a few weeks of my arrival, I came to the conclusion we should never have gotten mixed up in this business at all: but it seemed to me that now that we were there, we should identify our objectives and then get on with the job. With the VC close enough to shell Saigon daily, I felt we were not actually getting anywhere: we should either “shit, or get off the pot!”

IF this sounds familiar, think “Iraq” or “Afghanistan”!

Wednesday, 12 June 1968

Dear Everyone~

I don’t generally write during the week, but I suppose you’ve all been hearing the reports of the VC shelling of downtown Saigon, and may be worried about me.

The curfew hours were changed Sunday to 2100 to 0600 in precincts 1, 2, and 3: I am in 2. Consequently, somewhat more people were about at 6:15 Monday morning than normally. I was not among them, however, since our bus schedule had not yet been changed, and I was more or less asleep (the alarm had rung at 6) when the first rocket hit. It was the one that landed in front of City Hall, and the nearest [to me] of all: none of the rockets in this barrage actually came as close as the two mortars that hit on May 19. But the 122 mm rockets are a bit bigger, and do much more damage…

I got up and went out on the balcony, where at first I could not identify the peculiar whistling sound I heard. It wasn’t long before I realized it was rockets overhead, so I went back inside! All 25 of them arrived in a space of about ten minutes. As one does these days here, I calmly set about shaving and within a half hour after it was over was in the Rex having breakfast.

The rocket that landed near the Rex set two cars afire, demolishing both, ignited gas pumps in front of a garage, and blew out windows for a large area around. The one that landed against the Indian Consulate on Tu Do did a lot more damage, and killed two old women asleep in the adjacent doorway. Two others landed nearby that one, but hit nothing of consequence.

Five rockets landed across Cong Ly Street from the SE corner of the palace grounds, doing heavy damage to three large residences. One of these had every tile of the entire roof blown clear off, leaving all the wood and concrete structural members intact—a curious thing. About 6 landed near the intersection of Gia Long and Le Van Duyet, and it was there that a large number of people were killed and injured.

For some reason our bus didn’t come that morning, so I walked around in the afternoon to see the destruction brought on by this attack. Not very pleasant, though one should always bear in mind that vast areas of North Vietnam must look far worse by now.

The reaction here is almost universally one of puzzlement as to why we don’t retaliate by breaking off the Paris talks and/or bombing Hanoi. It’s a good question, for which I have no better answer than anyone else. There’s been a good deal of wry commenting on Westy’s parting remark about the shellings being “militarily insignificant”, a remark that to my way of thinking indicates the distance that separates the military mind from a reasonable mind.

The very day that [Robert]  Kennedy was shot, I had spent the morning composing a letter to Senator McCarthy, indicating why I was supporting his candidacy and suggesting some areas that seem to me to need attention in the years ahead. I have never sent the letter (I planned to polish it up a bit first), but now I think I shall have to re-write it altogether.

Dad’s remark in his last letter to the effect that I seem to be getting a bit more hawkish is true enough—though I hadn’t realized it showed that much. I realized myself how my thinking had changed when I completed the aforementioned letter to Senator McCarthy, and found I had advocated bringing the war to a rapid conclusion through massive strikes at all strategic targets in the North that we have so assiduously protected so far. I see only two alternatives to this, however: 1) the whole sad affair will drag on and on and on and on, no one really winning or losing anything, as is essentially the case so far, except billions of dollars and thousands of people… or 2) the pull-out. Now, the pull-out of itself is not such a bad idea, though the alterations in world-wide alignments that would result might be quite startling; but a pull-out here would almost certainly see a repeat performance of the whole mess on some other soil.

If one accepts the inevitability of a direct confrontation with either Russia or China, it seems to me prudent to get it over with before either has a chance to build up further towards it. The question is, if we were to attempt to bring Hanoi to its knees (and I don’t really doubt we could do it smartly and quickly if we put our mind to it), would either China or Russia interfere at this time? I think that a close study of History would reveal that neither country in this case would risk a world-wide conflict—at this time—in support of what is essentially an insignificant country like NVN. Ho Chi Minh has been walking a tight-rope between Peking and Moscow for some time, and not entirely pleasing either one. Taking into account growing animosity between Mao and Kosygan at the present time, I don’t believe either would rally to Hanoi’s side strongly—at this time. I keep saying at this time because I think timing is important here. Whichever power succeeds in making the largest propaganda victory out of continuing to hold the US at bay in Asia may ultimately turn out to be the winner in this part of the world: if we are really serious about containing BOTH the Chinese and the Soviet influence within present borders, then we should by all means get on with it, and sheer military superiority is (either now or later) going to be the only way we can succeed. The history of “negotiations” with the Communist countries does not indicate any degree of optimism is justified in that method of containing Communism: even a casual look at Korea or the Middle East will confirm this.

Of course, if one has serious reservations, as I do, about the necessity or desirability of keeping Asia entirely free of communism, the foregoing argument is invalidated, and a pull-out here is the only answer. One of the more-or-less rhetorical questions I put to Sen. McCarthy was, “Does our paranoid fear of communism really square with the fact that millions of people are better off today under it than they were under some previous from of government?”

Recent events in the US strongly reinforce my belief that McCarthy may be the best choice we have. I was glad to hear today that some Senator has been pointing his finger at such american traditions as war toys, horror movies, shoot-em-up TV programs and the like. He overlooked the fact that we have maintained HUGE armies throughout our period of existence, thus training virtually every man in the arts of war for nearly two centuries. The effect of this I think is important.

If I fill up this page, there won’t be anything to report this weekend, so I’ll close this now and get to bed: our bus is running earlier now, so I have to go to bed earlier, too.

Love to all~


Forty years later, we all know what happened to Senator McCarthy!

More letters to follow. . .



Written by Bruce

December 13th, 2009 at 11:05 am

Posted in Saigon 1968,VietNam