Vietnamese Eradication Efforts and the Americanization of Sexual Policy
Discussing the impact of American forces in 1966, General William C. Westmoreland, then commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), pinpointed the complexity of winning wars. “If the military aspects of this war could be separated from the political, social and economic—and they can’t,” he argued, “I’d say we have come a long way in a year.”1 What Westmoreland and his colleagues living in Vietnam had already recognized in 1966 few in Washington chose to fully acknowledge: the Americans couldn’t win with force alone. US nation-building efforts in South Vietnam focused on the countryside by securing hamlets or promoting the growth of hardier rice crops. Their practice of sidestepping urban problems when most US troops serving in-country lived and worked among civilians allowed economic inflation, corruption, and the sex trade to flourish.2 Westmoreland’s comment came after the first round of Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the legitimacy of the war in Vietnam, and only two months after the “American brothel” accusation. Still, the White House swept the significance of social issues aside as an irrelevant distraction.3 Sex, they felt, along with many others, was just part of war. As one newspaper reported, “Officials say the situation is nothing new—that all this has existed before, in Paris, Rome, Naples and the bombed-out cities of occupied Germany after World War II … and back into the mists of the history of war.”4
The Americans failed to recognize in those early days, however, that the sexual behavior of servicemen, and the ways they handled the issue, was woven into many aspects of South Vietnamese society and upset traditional social and power boundaries, as well as disrupted political relations. The American openness to a discourse on sexuality in the 1960s did little to mitigate the day-to-day practicalities of managing venereal disease, inflation, and violence caused by the bar culture that used sex, alcohol, and drugs to pull in as much money as possible from foreign troops. I occasionally use the term “sexual policy” or “politics” in this context to refer generally to any political or diplomatic exchanges among diplomats, government officials, and military leaders over the various kinds of sexual encounters and intimate interpersonal relationships that formed between foreign servicemen and civilians in South Vietnam, and their repercussions.5 This includes, but is not limited to, debates over the legality of prostitution and the penalties for the purchase of sex. In looking at the US-RVN relationship through the two allies’ diplomacy over sexual behavior, I argue that each nation wielded power in an attempt to assert its legitimacy and dominance in their alliance.
Foreign policy anxieties over the “American brothel” issue in 1966 evolved into a far more complicated series of concerns for President Richard Nixon and his advisors only a few years later. Skyrocketing venereal disease rates, rape, the plight of Amerasian orphans, rampant corruption, economic destabilization, and pleas to reunite lost lovers were some of the diverse elements of the political disagreements surrounding sexual encounters that officials would negotiate later in the war. Nixon, his generals, and his advisors struggled to recover from the repercussions of years of the Johnson administration’s half-heartedly following South Vietnam’s lead in addressing prostitution-related problems. The pattern in the early war years of largely unregulated sexual interactions negatively affected the United States’ relations with its Vietnamese ally and threatened to sabotage psychological warfare tactics aimed at bolstering American hopes of winning the “hearts and minds” of civilians.6
After 1969, Americans more actively contributed to sexual and social policy formation in Vietnam. As the war underwent military and political Vietnamization, social policies regarding GI-civilian personal relationships followed a reverse trajectory in the Nixon era, which I call the Americanization of sexual policy. This refers to efforts conducted by American military and diplomatic personnel to enact policies to curb the negative effects of sexual relationships between US servicemen and Vietnamese civilians. These efforts include, but are not limited to, attempts to manage increases in rates of prostitution, intercultural dating, marriage, rape, and children born to GI fathers and civilian mothers. By the late 1960s, the United States took a primarily offensive position with regard to new social policies, with an emphasis on prostitution. The Americans forced the Vietnamese into a reactionary response on account of the RVN’s inability to maintain political stability, the pressure to achieve military Vietnamization, and the failure to control and stabilize society in urban spaces. In turn, the size of the industry and the fundamental social disagreements with their allies over GI-civilian intimate relations challenged US military and government officials in a way the earlier wars of the twentieth century had not.7
Once Nixon inherited the Vietnam War, not much time passed before he faced questions on the fallout from the Johnson administration’s decision to ignore the significance of intercultural intimacy between American GIs and Vietnamese civilians. In August 1969, Al Aigner, a businessman visiting his son stationed in the city of Vung Tau, a location known for its bars and nightlife and often used for training or rest and relaxation purposes, wrote to Nixon to share his concerns about the impact of the war. In particular, Aigner seemed worried by the visible culture of corruption juxtaposed with “an awful lot of civilians riding their motor bikes all day long as though they didn’t have to work.” There were “obvious cases of poverty seen on the streets,” he reported, “but there is a great deal of money jingling in the pockets or purses of ‘B’ girls, pickpockets and prostitutes. The only crime acknowledged by the local Vietnamese is their failure to take more from the Americans.” He asked if Nixon had seen similar “distressing things” on his recent visit to South Vietnam. Domestic frustration with how the American presence spurred corruption yet failed to control social problems was a direct result of sexual policies in the early years of the war. By not acting on known issues regarding military interactions with civilians during the escalation years, American policy makers found themselves confronting a war culture steeped in corruption, anti-Americanism, and economic instability, as well as working at cross-purposes with their allies in the South on matters of sexuality and intercultural personal relations.
As the protracted nature of the war became clear by 1969, so too did the risks associated with GI-civilian sexual encounters in their many forms, but most notably prostitution, as Aigner’s letter highlights. Because of the Johnson era policy of grudging support for RVN anti-prostitution laws, including brothel closures and restrictions on the number of GIs allowed in urban centers, American officials took a more reactive stance and only marginally reduced these encounters. They assumed that GIs would inevitably engage in sexual relationships with the local women and there was little they could do to stop it.8 During the Nixon years, the far more active posture of the United States toward servicemen’s sexual behavior came about through necessity rooted in the repeated failures of more reactive US policies. In addition, Vietnamization of the war and a push toward negotiations shifted the emphasis in South Vietnam toward the postwar era and brought the economic realities of American spending and aid into sharp focus amid the growing antiwar movements after the 1968 Tet Offensive.9
The United States and South Vietnam sought to reconcile their concerns over GI-civilian intimate relations following the 1966 “brothel debate” through two primary means. First, both governments tried to repress the industry through the closure of bars, roundups of prostitutes, and restrictions on how American troops interacted with civilians. The US military, however, had little interest in fully pursuing a plan so potentially detrimental to troop morale. Conversely, they favored treating the associated problems of venereal disease and corruption. Americans established clinics, nominally for the care and treatment of local women as opposed to their more direct purpose of helping eliminate disease among servicemen.10 Clinic organizers hoped to create opportunities for the education and treatment of women operating illegally as sex workers, but occasionally they struggled to employ Vietnamese medical practitioners, who resisted any association with these illegal practices. In addition, the US military took steps to move R&R locations away from Vietnam. By sending troops abroad for trips known to encourage sex and spending, they limited the economic and social impacts within Vietnam caused by soldiers on leave. Policies shaped under the conflicting ideologies of South Vietnamese laws on morality and US military interest in morale led the nations to alternate leadership roles regarding social policy in their uneasy alliance.
The Americanization of sexual policy took root as a result of pervasive corruption in South Vietnamese politics. Policies shifted from minimally successful Vietnamese eradication programs to a period of Americanization in which the US military and aid officials instituted education, control, and treatment programs to address prostitution-related problems. Sources from the Vietnamese National Archives in Ho Chi Minh City compliment American reporting and record keeping on venereal disease. Previously overlooked government reports concerning prostitution and health awareness indicate how the United States understood the combination of sex workers and recreation policies.
While the Americanization of sexual policies succeeded in establishing more clinics and monitoring tactics, it failed to stem disease rates, which did not improve until after troop numbers fell in 1973. In addition, the debates that typically took place among city-level officials and American aid or military health administrators only further strained the US-RVN relationship once Americans began more serious talks with North Vietnam about ending the war. On a national level, South Vietnam refused to back down on its official stance regarding prostitution, forcing American diplomats to go back to the negotiating table with local leaders over and over again. The discourse entwined morale and entertainment with sexuality, blurring the line between necessity and desire. Both governments feared the repercussions of limiting intercultural sexual encounters as much as they feared letting them continue.
Vietnamese Eradication Campaigns
The South Vietnamese government actively participated as an agent of social and cultural policy regarding the behavior of US servicemen in Vietnam, and not simply as a puppet state fulfilling American needs in exchange for military and financial support.11 As troop numbers in Vietnam grew, a focus on suppressing prostitution and brothel culture ranked high at the local level, with city mayors and police forces dictating day-to-day eradication operations. Cities nevertheless proved difficult to control. Daily attacks by Vietnamese leaders against intercultural sexual intimacy, specifically prostitution, encouraged a complex network of vice culture supported by police corruption as a result of the industry’s immense popularity and lucrativeness.
In its postcolonial laws, the administration of President Ngo Dinh Diem merged traditional Vietnamese conservatism toward sexuality with similar Western and Catholic views on prostitution. The administration had insisted that extramarital affairs threatened the core values professed by the young government.12 With Diem’s assassination, however, his opponents set to work undoing some of his restrictive policies by reopening bars and allowing dancing. Soldiers could again hear, and relate to, the hit song “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker.13 The new government opted, however, to keep prostitution illegal.
The loosening of restrictions did not last long after the arrival of American ground forces. The South Vietnamese leadership struggled to find a middle ground between repression and disorder. They pushed against the demand from foreigners for access to sex by upholding a set of desired moral standards through proactive anti-prostitution campaigns, strict intercultural marriage policies, and resistance to venereal disease campaigns, which they feared might be misconstrued by GIs as a sign of legalized prostitution. Even those at lower levels in the government stood up to Americans to an extent, although they typically acquiesced to some proposals as the war wore on. For example, bans on dancing came and went throughout the early war period.14 Nevertheless, many Vietnamese civilians, including peasant refugees who relocated to cities for safety, benefited financially from pursing relationships, sexual or otherwise, with Americans.15 Prostitution offered the fastest means to financial stability, but the unforeseen costs of the industry in terms of economics, health, and security prompted more political and military attention.
When the United States began sending combat troops to Vietnam in 1965, Vietnamese police forces in Saigon had already established a practice of regularly raiding bars and brothels frequented by foreign servicemen. Throughout early fall, nightly raids by Vietnamese police resulted in dozens of arrests of prostitutes and some brothel owners. In contrast, servicemen were simply sent back to their barracks. During an August brothel raid, police caught six women in the act of prostituting themselves. They took only the workers and the bar owner into custody but did not detain the male patrons.16 The placing of blame on the women for the repercussions of prostitution, such as disease, further heightened tensions. The raids, meant to discourage the popular Saigon nightlife, failed to hinder its growth. American money proved too powerful a lure, with many shop owners happy to accept US dollars or military currency. This contributed to the rise of a black market selling sex and goods, in addition to the growing culture of police protection and corruption funded by the inflationary economy. Fear of what might happen after the Americans inevitably left led some to suggest the government needed to enforce its laws more rigorously, but the urgency of financial need overpowered those attempts to make people see the big picture.17
Because of the anti-prostitution stance of the South Vietnamese, the United States reacted differently to the war and sexual relationships than it had in its recent experiences in France during World War II, the occupation of Japan, or the Korean War and its aftermath. American willingness to support Vietnamese efforts to shut down vice in some areas was seemingly opposed to the more open ideals concerning premarital sex popularized by the sexual revolution, but the politics of the alliance with South Vietnam and threats to the war effort caused by disease and anti-American sentiment drove the Americans to support limiting the scope of the industry. General Westmoreland initially allowed American forces to aid efforts to shut down bars in the cities, but at the same time gradually allowed a larger sex work presence around bases. In some instances, the US military helped bar owners move closer to military camps, or reorganized entertainment venues in secure areas like Long Binh, a base built outside Saigon in Bien Hoa to keep troops out of the city.18 The efforts to move brothels out of the cities and institute fines on violators did little to discourage Vietnamese civilians from participating in the practices. They simply relocated along with their patrons. New York Times reporters claimed that bar girls and brothel employees working near the larger bases occasionally received some treatment from the medics to obtain approval to continue selling their bodies to soldiers.
The crackdown on bars and brothels encouraged many to transfer to areas near bases, but most found they could simply return to their original locations along or near Tu Do Street at the epicenter of Saigon’s bar district within a matter of months.19 Foreigners faced little resistance to their efforts to go into the cities for sex entertainment. Vietnamese bar proprietors and madams viewed brothels set up near bases, like the infamous area known as Sin City in An Khe, as infringing on their profits since these brothels were largely condoned and controlled by the US military. The approved brothels required weekly checkups for employees and provided treatment for those infected with venereal disease.20 The “semi-official” brothels allowed by the US military around cities like An Khe and Pleiku failed to become an effective model for stamping out other forms of prostitution nationwide.21 Troops continued to pursue their entertainment in any establishment they visited.
Even if brothels were not overtly sanctioned by the US government, the military still attempted to control servicemen’s actions outside the city centers. Following Fulbright’s “brothel” claims in 1966, South Vietnamese welfare minister Tran Ngoc Lien revitalized efforts to eradicate prostitution with a large-scale operation to “transfer” Saigon’s prostitutes to a “suburban colony,” where they would be “kept in an enclosed area, away from the population and under medical control.”22 In line with the South Vietnamese government’s interest in eliminating vice, the minister predicted that isolation would help eradicate prostitution and provide an occupational purgatory before the women moved on to “earn a normal living.” An Irish nun working at a rehabilitation center in Vinh Long outside Saigon felt that programs like Tran’s were in keeping with the desires of common Vietnamese citizens. She told reporters, “[Prostitution is] out of control now in Saigon and I think the Vietnamese resent it more than anything else about the expanding of the war, more even than the bombing.”23 The profitability of the industry overpowered the moral discomfort, however. Supporters of the trade took part in bold public demonstrations against Tran’s program in the streets of Saigon. Reports suggest that over six hundred Vietnamese protested his plan to move the industry away from the cities where it flourished. They saw Tran’s relocation effort as an underhanded attempt to “legalize” prostitution under state control, stripping profits from individual business owners.
Government efforts persisted the following year when, in December 1967, the new minister of social welfare, Nguyen Phuc Que, proposed a similar plan to relocate the brothels outside city limits. Under Nguyen’s plan, all visitors, including Americans and Vietnamese, would be required to pay a fee directly to the South Vietnamese government.24 As with the 1966 plan, large sectors of the population adamantly opposed the transition. The relocation of sex work outside the city would eliminate the potential of private profits for bar and brothel owners who relied on American spending. With the addition of fees, the owners worried that the government was cutting them out of one of the few profitable options for surviving in South Vietnam’s inflationary wartime economy.
Solving the difficult problem of soldiers engaging in sex entertainment forced the Americans to accommodate some changes in 1967, but they tried to remain publicly quiet on the issue. With troop numbers increasing and Vietnamese officials pressuring them to reduce the negative impact of US servicemen in the cities, Americans set to work building a massive base at Long Binh outside Saigon. Two hundred workers representing a reported fifty thousand bar girls and taxi dancers marched to protest General Westmoreland’s decision.25 His military-directed program, nicknamed “Operation M.O.O.S.E.,” standing for “Move Out of Saigon Expeditiously,” sought to improve relations between the Americans and Vietnamese by providing them each with space.26 Although the program reduced the number of troops in Saigon from 71,000 to 36,000 with plans for further cuts, it failed to eliminate the industry, which continued to flourish in the city as well as in nearby Vung Tau and near the Long Binh complex designed specifically to reduce the pressure of the war on the capital.
The method of separating servicemen and civilians in Operation M.O.O.S.E. marked the US military’s first major effort to use distance as a means of solving nagging social problems. Attempts to end prostitution and shutter brothels continued throughout the war, including a project in March 1972 to close one hundred bars and move them to an area outside the city near the joint American–South Vietnamese Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Saigon’s mayor, Du Kien Thieu, initiated the effort with an order for the bars in downtown Saigon and its Chinatown neighborhood of Cholon to either move or close. By this point, it seems, several of the bars had taken heed of the warnings to leave downtown Saigon, but the industry continued to flourish until the Americans began their drawdown in 1973.27
Enough service members remained in or moved through the cities, however, that bar owners felt their industry was safe even in the wake of M.O.O.S.E. and subsequent separation efforts. Years after Vietnamese eradication efforts gave way to marginally more successful US-led education and containment, a bar owner reflected, “They’ve tried to close us down for years but we are still in business.”28 After repeated failures, businesses no longer feared government crackdowns, only the prospect of the Americans, and American money, leaving town. Mixed civilian reactions to eradication efforts, including protest marches in Saigon, reflect the complexity of the industry’s impact on South Vietnam’s social structure.29 Not recognizing the disadvantages of the growing industry through the mid-1960s, the US military acceded to Vietnamese requests by reducing troop numbers in hopes that it might strengthen the relationship, but at the same time contributed to establishing bars nearer to bases and failed to punish servicemen who violated the laws. The military’s disregard for the Vietnamese legal structures around prostitution exemplifies the war-long struggle to collaborate effectively on social issues.30
The Vietnamese National Archives shed light on the level of concern within the South Vietnamese government by indicating that the elimination efforts extended beyond the day-to-day attempts to clean up cities from brothel raids to transitions, pointing to the desire for a more long-term plan. An undated transcript from a workshop titled “Seminar on the Eradication of Prostitution” describes a hearing in which participants questioned witnesses about their ages and the nationality of the patrons served in bars. The workshop suggests that the participants viewed Americans as the leading source of demand creating the prostitution problem. They highlighted several bars and neighborhoods in downtown Saigon known for employing sex workers and participating in illicit activities.31 Discussants, however, recognized that restrictions against overt advertising for prostitution consistently proved unable to achieve the goal of vice eradication and only sent the industry further underground.32 Still, the focus on social problems remained centered on eradication rather than changing the laws. This persisted despite repeated failures and the thriving corruption culture of an industry known for steep profits tied to the influx of American goods and inflationary spending.33
In the United States, public and government concern over the industry remained low. The global press and antiwar movements noted the growing prominence of social issues like prostitution in Vietnam, but Johnson continued to downplay the severity of vice and corruption, fearing they might tarnish the American image abroad.34 The long-standing US tradition of intimately engaging with civilian populations abroad, including the large numbers of World War II war brides and the availability of prostitution after the Korean War, helped his case and caused many to scoff at and belittle Fulbright’s 1966 “brothel” accusation and its repercussions.35 The perceived connections between sex work and police or political corruption resonated more for the United States in 1966 than the pragmatic considerations of venereal disease that eventually took precedence in the eradication campaign.36
Regarding prostitution’s close relationship with corruption, Johnson redirected the media to domestic problems, downplaying the importance of the private actions of GIs. At a rally in Beaumont, Texas, when asked about corruption in Vietnam, Johnson proclaimed, “Certainly they have corruption and we also have it in Boston, in New York, in Washington and in Johnson City. Somebody is stealing something in Beaumont right now.”37 In contrast to the administration’s downplaying of vice, antiwar advocates used the issue in their favor. Democratic senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska argued that corruption in Vietnam was so widespread that “it is shielded by its very pervasiveness.38 For the White House, the goal became not to eliminate the problems but rather to make them “less obvious” to outsiders.39 Corrupt activities including prostitution proved difficult—and in relation to morale, undesirable—to root out. With domestic civil rights and antiwar movements growing, the seemingly faraway social issues appeared more acceptable for Johnson to dismiss.
Anti-American sentiments directly linked to involvement with civilian populations, however, created tensions over how to balance the US-RVN alliance with the practical need to raise military morale. The US military had to reconcile the need to keep troops safe in the face of loose health regulations and anti-American hostility with their belief that prostitution was necessary for morale.40 Once Richard Nixon took office in 1969, advisors in his Vietnam Information Group closely monitored Vietnamese sources of anti-Americanism from protests against troops’ presence in the cities to the rising popularity of hippie culture and the “minijupe.”41 The thigh-flashing skirts represented an abandonment of modest traditional styles in Vietnam that many associated with the more conservative ao dai tunic and slacks. A 1967 report on the health knowledge of prostitutes reported that this trend had not yet enveloped all young Vietnamese women but particularly targeted the generation of city girls coming of age during the war.42
On the ground in Vietnam, and without manpower to fully shut down all transactions, South Vietnamese and American military police worked to limit interactions between civilians and troops. While this was seemingly contrary to the entire point of their presence in Vietnam, advisors worried that GIs in cities presented acute risks to the US Cold War strategy of using psychological warfare to promote Western democracy among local populations. The war economy flourished through the proliferation of a culture of prostitution, drinking, drugs, and corruption. While not all soldiers partook of the available entertainments, enough did to keep the industries profitable. In addition, the combination of alcohol and drugs with service members living on edge and with access to firearms occasionally led to poor judgment, even violence. Violent attacks or negligent harm caused through drunk driving incidents only added to an already tense political relationship.43 Military leadership maintained that prostitution would take place regardless of eradication efforts, but compounding factors made it clear that vice could not grow unchecked.
The public made the logical leap that the behavior of forces in the cities reflected their level of respect for civilians across the country, and mistreatment bred anti-American sentiment and contributed to the necessity of keeping troops controlled in urban spaces. Several contested shooting deaths of civilians around the coastal city of Qui Nhon, for instance, motivated the South Vietnamese minister of national defense, Nguyen Van Vy, to send hostile letters to Commanding General Creighton Abrams demanding that Americans curb the numbers of men allowed into cities.44 The more US servicemen entered cities and villages to visit bars, the greater the risk they would engage negatively with civilians. In addition, he recommended designating certain areas completely off limits, something that cities across South Vietnam had tried different ways since 1967.45 He feared “this bubbled situation may boil into a fiery explosion beyond our control” if civilian protests led to infighting between the allies. GIs feared attacks on brothels, and rumors flourished about undercover National Liberation Front (NLF) guerrillas working as prostitutes or hostesses to launch attacks or obtain information.46 Police in Soc Trang arrested a young woman, Nguyen Thi Nga, in April 1965 for posing as a bar girl to elicit information from helicopter pilots with the US Army’s 121st Aviation Company.47 With GIs letting their guard down in public spaces, and often under the influence of alcohol, women infiltrating bars served as excellent operatives for the NLF. Stories like that of Nguyen’s arrest incited intrigue, but for the military, the primary forms of safety regulations related to venereal disease.
Reports consistently illustrating the repercussions of ignoring how social problems influenced the trajectory of the war undermined efforts by figures like Secretary of Defense McNamara to minimize the impact of the prostitution industry in South Vietnam. In early 1967, General Earle Wheeler warned Congress that venereal disease rates among military men in Vietnam were already ten times higher than stateside. The general expressed surprise at these numbers but admitted that the military’s efforts to reduce the risks were “not eminently successful.”48 The rate of 280.7 infections per thousand men in Vietnam represented high numbers even for the American military. During the Korean War, the rates had grown as high as 193 per thousand in 1952 but remained far lower than those in Vietnam.49 Gavin Hart’s research on venereal disease shows slightly lower rates among Americans, with levels near 230 per thousand in 1970, but reaching 292 per thousand among Australian troops in Vietnam.50 Wheeler placed the blame for these high numbers on the soldiers themselves, suggesting that the large percentage of young soldiers, those under the age of twenty-five, accounted for most of the behavior. He also suggested that troop morality was responsible for much of the problem, arguing that brief military training could not be expected to alter recruits’ desires.
Both medical and social concerns over the repercussions of the booming prostitution industry received more attention in Vietnam than in the United States. The heightened levels of venereal disease brought vice culture and the impact of American servicemen on Vietnamese women to the attention of those who sought a clearer understanding of who these women were. The 1967 study on the health knowledge of prostitutes reported that 50 percent of the roughly five thousand women treated at the Venereal Disease Control Center tested positive. The women seen at the clinic were those who had been arrested by Vietnamese police on suspicion of solicitation. They were then held and treated if necessary. Although the clinic claimed to provide education as part of the treatment, most of the patients were repeat offenders, indicating incomplete or ineffective means of imparting the information to the women and girls who came into the clinic.51 Laws also limited what medical providers could distribute. Likely on account of the prohibition on contraceptive sales, for example, 62 percent of women surveyed reported that they did not use any form of prophylactic while working. Few recognized the symptoms of venereal diseases or understood how they were contracted. Mostly they feared the financial consequences of getting sick or pregnant.52
The study relied on testimony from sixty women interviewed by a female Vietnamese social worker. The use of a Vietnamese woman who was not a government official to conduct the survey increased the likelihood that the women would give honest answers, but the illegal nature of their work may have influenced the results. In addition, the survey-style questionnaire format limited their answers. Nevertheless, the survey still has a lot to offer. It provides useful information on the demographics, the socioeconomic status, and the basic understanding of health care among prostitutes. Only 28 percent of the respondents were over the age of twenty-five, and many were as young as fifteen, a sign of the desperate need many felt at a very young age to support themselves or their families. Those surveyed had extremely low education and literacy rates, with only 2 percent having had more than five years of schooling. Home lives were equally desperate. Most lived in overcrowded conditions with fewer than 10 percent having their own room. Ninety-one percent did not even have running water in the home.
Bar girls and prostitutes created the fantasy image of an unmarried woman catering to the desires of a soldier in need of comfort, but survey respondents rarely fell into this category. Seventy percent reported being married, and 62 percent had at least one child, though the report did not indicate if these children were fathered by spouses or customers.53 Doubts over their long-term prospects for being able to marry and have children worried many of the women. The respondents’ ignorance about the risks of their profession did not mean that they were oblivious to them. Almost all of those surveyed feared contracting a venereal disease.54 As a tangible negative physical and financial consequence of engaging in sex work, disease—and their fears of it—provided US military and civilian aid workers with a receptive audience for their envisioned treatment and education programs.
The 1967 study also offers a look into the mindset of Vietnamese prostitutes arrested by South Vietnamese police in Saigon. They likely worked on the streets and not in brothels, where madams or owners paid bribes for their protection. Throughout Vietnam the sex trade varied dramatically, with uneven access to care or knowledge about repercussions. From bar girls who worked in some of the rare air-conditioned locations in Saigon to alley sex workers or those sold by their families, the diversity complicated the formation of policies and treatment programs. While those working in elite clubs profited greatly during the war, those working the streets often subsisted day-to-day.55 The statistics on health knowledge provided an alarming data set for the American government to digest concerning the percentage of prostitutes who did not comprehend how venereal disease spread or what the symptoms looked like. The lack of control over the industry in Vietnam presented a risk to the health of the numerous soldiers who visited the women for their services. Prostitution, social corruption, and increasing levels of violence spread rapidly throughout South Vietnam, and the hotly debated discourse over the treatment of venereal disease illustrates that both governments took notice.
To maintain a positive image of GI behavior in Vietnam, military leadership considered how to keep the troops safe and happy during their inevitable contact with civilians. Safety risks came in many forms, from the diseases caused by unsafe sexual practices to the security weaknesses caused by the distracted and often intoxicated soldiers. Brothels provided NLF infiltrators with targets that represented both the indulgences of the West and capitalism as well as intimate violations of Vietnamese women by Americans. For US officials, the concern over America’s image abroad played a role in maintaining a safe environment for soldiers. Primarily, the South Vietnamese complained about the impact of the American presence on the economy and daily life, and American officials worried that this resentment could develop into open hostility.56
The potential for prostitution to attract negative attention from allies, antiwar protesters, or communist publications criticizing the behavior of Westerners in Southeast Asia compounded the negative repercussions of US-Vietnamese intimacy.57 The NLF’s Liberation Radio broadcasted reports condemning the industry as a “humiliating scourge” as early as 1965.58 In 1966, Nguyen Huu Duong published a book in Vietnamese titled To Prostitute Oneself: A Social Evil? A Career? A Form of Slavery? debating the varying perspectives arising as a new mass of foreigners moved into a space long associated with French rule in Vietnam, thus linking the Americans to images of colonialism.59 The following year, in 1967, the Vietnamese Women’s Union published another report on the problem. United Press International, a news agency known for its coverage of global civil rights, ran a story on the sharp rise in venereal disease in areas with high concentrations of American GIs. The Vietnamese Women’s Union shared their story and reported on the seemingly unchecked rise in disease in an issue of its anti-American publication Women of Vietnam warning against encounters with foreign servicemen. The reports highlighted the spread of venereal disease and physical abuse of Vietnamese women and girls to illustrate how Vietnamese citizens were doubly victimized by both the war and their military allies.
The spread of venereal disease and its links to prostitution provided useful propaganda against the American presence in South Vietnam. The relationship between disease and prostitution, critics argued, threatened not just the dignity of Vietnamese women and girls but the future of the Vietnamese race. Opponents of prostitution were concerned about both the births of thousands of mixed-race children and the permanent damage to reproductive organs caused by venereal disease. In response to growing unease, sympathetic South Vietnamese took matters into their own hands, holding public forums to discuss how to handle their problems in the future. They established the Committee in Defense of the Rights and Dignity of Vietnamese Women, a domestically developed program to educate women and girls about their options for finding work.60
In the wake of increasingly negative attention, the US military made efforts to establish “friendship councils” to open a dialog between the Vietnamese public on the one hand and the American military command and GIs on the other. The military also limited the number of service members stationed in the cities or allowed out of the barracks. They established recreation facilities for soldiers away from the city centers with pools and athletic spaces to encourage other distractions.61 At the same time, contemporary Western media clashed over the social impact of the war as much as they clashed over the war itself. Some portrayed the industry as harmless, reporting that the prostitutes simply added a fun distraction from the bleak realities of war, while others feared what would happen to the women and girls who pursued relationships with servicemen or worked in the sex trade after the United States withdrew its forces.62
To reach an agreement over prostitution in South Vietnam, the allied governments had to strike a balance between one nation’s concerns for morale and the other’s concerns over morality. Early efforts at collaboration failed to stabilize vice problems. The demonstrated lack of engaged American interest in eradicating prostitution and the industry’s overall profitability prevented its complete elimination. Monitoring local police efforts, the American embassy viewed South Vietnamese anti-vice efforts as a travesty, noting that “the force also ‘protects’ most of [the city’s] bars and brothels.”63 While eradication remained the official party line in South Vietnam, enforcement failed spectacularly. With the Vietnamese government unable to control the behavior of its police force, the American military recognized they should press the issue.
Within South Vietnam, the rise of a “protection” culture surrounding powerful bar and brothel owners allowed sex work to continue to flourish despite its illegality. Over the course of a two-year study, the Vietnamese arrested 604 members of their own police force for alleged misconduct and reported that many received some form of punishment for their actions. Statistics show that of these 604 cases, 286 involved specific corruption allegations.64 While incidents were not limited to prostitution, the United States used the issue of police corruption to illustrate its concerns over the legitimacy and stability of the RVN. From early in the war, determining how to maneuver between internal corrupt practices and external American pressures played a part in the continued struggle over setting South Vietnam’s policies regarding sexual behavior.
In their efforts to enforce the ban on vice industries, however, Vietnamese mayors and police forces occasionally found support among the civilian population. Editors of the Saigon Post reported their concerns as early as 1965 in an opinion piece about what American involvement with Vietnamese women might result in, especially after the Americans inevitably left the country.65 Other civilians reported resentment toward officials connected to corruption scandals, which they believed stemmed from cooperating with the Americans. For one thing, the atmosphere of political instability bred corruption and led to numerous leadership changes in South Vietnamese local politics. In one fall 1967 case reported by the Vietnam Information Group, Vung Tau ousted its mayor, Lieutenant Colonel Ho Nhat Quan, after twenty-six months in office on charges of corruption. The citizens reported a deep distrust for local government during the war, but they blamed the United States’ influence, not the Americans themselves.66 Public concerns over corruption extended beyond high-level dealings in power, money, and real estate to more mundane problems involving licensing, gambling, draft evasion, and prostitution.
The American embassy in Saigon’s 1967 report on the case sheds light of the depth of police corruption through records on the various Vung Tau rackets. In two years of military escalation, clandestine prostitution had infiltrated all of Vietnamese society. Protection occurred on many levels, from dealing directly with the police to paying military security who would intervene in the event of a police raid. In other instances, security men were paid simply to serve as lookouts for police and to oversee the safety of the women in the bars, who risked abuse at the hands of intoxicated customers. Brothel workers in Vung Tau paid military officers or the local police monthly fees for protection to avoid time in jail or rehabilitation centers, on top of the fees for rent or debt repayment to their madams or pimps. One woman complained indignantly about rumors of potential raids, saying: “In this place we are all sponsored by the paratroopers. Every month, each of us pay [sic] them one thousand piasters, and our Madam pays them four thousand. So—how dare the police search here?!”67 Some women were instructed to take policemen as their lovers to avoid trouble, in the hope that the personal connection could help them avoid arrest or fines. During regular prostitution roundups, police could step in and claim a relationship, either familial or sexual, with protected women to prevent their arrest.
The rise of a protection culture around the prostitution industry allowed it to continue flourishing regardless of the seemingly perpetual eradication efforts proposed by President Thieu. The constant undermining of official policy by Vietnamese civilians and police encouraged US patronage of what appeared to be an only nominally illicit industry. Recurrent government attempts to shut down bars and brothels, especially in central Saigon and Vung Tau, failed to impact the profitable culture of sex work for troops stationed in or visiting the rear echelon of combat. Even if law enforcement targeted and closed bars or brothels, illegal establishments continued to resurface throughout the duration of the war.
Faced with newspaper reports and television programs devoted to coverage of the mounting corruption problem, officials failed to make progress in their attempts to clean up, as they saw it, the culture of South Vietnam. Taking a hard line in 1968, Prime Minister, and later President, Tran Van Huong made a controversial attempt to allow for the legal prosecution of corruption crimes. His work, along with similar efforts across the South, contributed to a purge of local police, government, and business leaders.68 His concerns, formerly classified State Department cables reported, likely resulted from the truth the population saw in this statement. Local police often knew best where to find illicit operations, leading some to turn to corruption. Police-involved corruption was highly concentrated in cities with large installations of American forces. In a report to the South Vietnamese government, Senator Bui Van Giai reported that the population continued to distrust the police because of their involvement in the various corruption rings in the cities.69 Paid protection from bars and brothels accounted for a portion of unlawful police activity in cities as far from Saigon as Da Nang. The National Police claimed to be actively engaged in anti-corruption activities, but they had little impact on the prostitution industry.70 Without a concerted attempt to control American GIs and their behavior, South Vietnamese efforts to control and eliminate prostitution failed.
By the early 1970s, Thieu’s focus shifted to the 1971 presidential election and to maintaining a voice in the peace negotiations in Paris. Still, during this period Thieu remained concerned about social problems in South Vietnam, and once again his office called for closing bars, but as in prior years, the efforts ultimately failed to create significant change.71 Prostitution only aggravated the already tense alliance, further weakened by instances like the contested shooting deaths of civilians mentioned earlier.72 Still, inflation provided the primary language for the Vietnamese to discuss the industry in a way the American government would understand. Meeting with Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger in 1971, Thieu listed three necessities if South Vietnam was to win the war: air support, army support, and long-range economic assistance.73
As we have seen, the American influence on economic inflation directly linked prostitution with black markets. The United States, for the most part, maintained its position regarding social issues, continuing to promote discretion over all else, but found this passive stance increasingly problematic. Concerns related to social issues grew more pronounced as the war continued and were compounded by dire statistics related to death tolls and bombings. The Nixon administration acknowledged that it would need to engage South Vietnamese social and economic polices more directly than its predecessors had.
The Americanization of Social Policies
In the face of rising health, economic, security, and political concerns, along with failing South Vietnamese eradication efforts, the United States military continued its focus on education and treatment. US medics who monitored the effects of prostitution on troops throughout Asia kept their expectations about what politicians and military officials could do to stop it low. At a medical leadership seminar for the different US military service branches in 1966, officers gave a brief synopsis of the problems observed in their units or regions. While discussing whether venereal disease was transmitted from prostitutes to GIs or the other way around, participants at the meeting acknowledged their situation with a sense of futility. One officer, speaking on behalf of the air force, lamented: “For the Air Force VD is a problem. But the Air Force can’t clean up Saigon—the French and Vietnamese together couldn’t do it. We have just accepted it as a fact of life.” In response, another officer settled the issue: “I think that is what we all should do.”74 The exchange illustrates their view that the military could do little to stop prostitution and reinforced the Johnson administration’s decision to intervene as little as possible.
With up to 75 percent of GIs engaging in sexual relations with Vietnamese civilians and disease rates increasing by the late 1960s, however, it became inevitable that the military would have to reassess its training methods on infectious diseases. A study conducted at a US Air Force hospital in 1970–71 reported twenty-five hospitalizations for severe cases of venereal disease over a six-month period, with roughly four hundred cases treated per year in that one hospital alone.75 The US military used soldiers’ repeated, but statistically unfounded, concerns over syphilis as the core of their new training programs. Syphilis represented an average of only 2 percent of all venereal disease cases in Vietnam. Unlike gonorrhea or chlamydia, however, syphilis could not be cured before the patient returned home, and it had devastating, long-lasting effects. This enabled the military to remind soldiers that a single encounter at a brothel or with a street prostitute or bar girl could haunt them for their entire life. Building on these fears, the Department of Defense developed a training film in 1969 to educate soldiers on the potentially traumatic and enduring effects of having unprotected intercourse in Vietnam.76 Closing the bars had failed, but perhaps they could scare the men away from them.
After a trip to the region in 1968, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown passed along the information about the shockingly high venereal disease rates among soldiers to Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, who then passed them to Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. McConnell.77 The information train created a sense of urgency in the State Department to produce a better means of educating the troops about the risks associated with venereal disease. While the “American brothel” had already been accepted in the minds of observers, the persistent rise of disease rates, and the potential implications for military readiness, prodded Department of Defense officials into action. They knew they could not prevent intimate encounters between GIs and civilians, and that many of the conscripted service members would not relate to a message about ensuring military readiness, so instead they chose to focus on the potentially distracting and dangerous personal medical consequences for men in the field.
The film they commissioned, Where the Girls Are: VD in Southeast Asia, promoted abstinence as the safest option for soldiers, but it also stressed the importance of protection for those who ignored their guidance and indulged in Vietnam’s nightlife. The short video follows a young GI, Pete, through the Vietnamese urban nightlife. Officers and doctors have advised him to avoid the scene altogether, but another GI persuades him to visit a bar and then a sauna, where he contracts gonorrhea. Following that encounter, the doctor warns him to change his ways before things become worse. Just as Pete is preparing to move on with his life back in the States and makes plans marry his girlfriend, Julie, the doctor informs him by phone that he has contracted syphilis. The mention of syphilis devastates Pete and his dreams for the perfect American life. We do not know if he has already had sex with Julie, possibly infecting her, or if he simply fears telling her about the disease she would inevitably contract should they marry. The film ends on a note of uncertainty about Pete’s future, but the viewer senses that he will likely be spending it alone. The film’s campy portrayal of bars and military life aside, the military hoped this updated training video would force GIs to face the possible repercussions of their sexual behavior.78
In addition to the pressure to create a system of venereal disease identification and treatment in South Vietnam, the United States sought to manage R&R sites across the country. As with their campaign against prostitution and venereal disease, the military hoped that shutting down some R&R sites would improve security as well as sexual and social politics. They targeted the corruption-ridden R&R sites in Vung Tau for potential early closures in 1970.79 Since their attempts at education had failed to create any meaningful change, American military officials needed to explore alternative suppression options. The simplest method, separating service members from prostitutes, mirrored earlier Vietnamese eradication efforts without the legal structure.
To fulfill the sexual desires of GIs while reducing tensions with the South Vietnamese government, the Americans began to promote out-of-country R&R destinations over iconic Vietnamese locations like China Beach.80 Not only were locations like China Beach a social risk because of the clandestine nature of prostitution in Vietnam, but also they created strategic targets for attacking Americans who might be otherwise distracted. In the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive in particular, service members found their ability to enter and have contact with civilians in urban spaces in Vietnam limited by security personnel.81 R&R locations in Thailand offered safer options as well as a legal prostitution industry that attracted many servicemen on leave.82 Better still, married men were encouraged to spend their leave in Hawaii, where they could visit their wives.83 Promoting foreign R&R locations worked as a pressure-release valve for the building tension between the United States and South Vietnam.
To better control venereal disease rates in Vietnam, preventive medicine units (PMUs) were assigned to limit the spread of communicable disease, and USARV (United States Army, Vietnam) officials responsible for command health experimented with strict “off limits” periods for urban spaces.84 PMUs in Vietnam could take jabs at their own service, with one veteran remembering: “Both units [the Twentieth and 172nd PMU] were somewhat irreverently M*A*S*H-like. It was standard for all military units to stencil their identity below the windshields on their jeeps. For a short time, the 172nd … had ‘CLAP CONTROL’ on their jeeps until the combat command that was over [at] the Pleiku base objected strenuously and forced the removal of that from the 172nd jeeps.”85 In Da Nang, officials lifted restrictions for one month to track any changes. Previously steady rates of roughly 150 monthly cases of venereal disease infections among service members spiked to 500. After the restrictions were reinstated, the rate dropped to 250 cases the following month. The correlation between GI-civilian contact and venereal disease demonstrated the popularity and morale benefits of wartime intimacy but also the risks. Infection rates remained low as long as the men avoided contact with urban women and girls, linking disease to the local population in their minds. US officials thus focused sexual policy in Vietnam on female health and cleanliness.
Vung Tau developed a similar reputation to Da Nang. In a 1968 survey trip to the area, Petty Officer First Class Blair Sheire, working in the epidemiology section of the Twentieth Preventive Medicine Unit, reported on the steady stream of bar girls who solicited him in bars and along the streets. When he refused their offers, some simply moved on to another man in the bar, while others taunted him. Cryptically, and likely with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, Sheire concluded that the survey proved “interesting” and recommended regular follow-ups.86 One year later, a similar trip report showed that venereal disease rates had increased threefold in just three months. The memo, from Captain William Fisherman of the Medical Corps, recommended keeping records for each case reported. His suggestion was rejected, but the reports of rising disease levels encouraged medical officers to push for some change. Fisherman noted that a doctor in Saigon and the senior advisor for MACCORDS (Military Assistance Command, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) planned to meet with and seek approval from local government to provide free medical treatment for Vietnamese nationals.87
Debates over social disruption weighed on the alliance between the United States and South Vietnam, already strained from mutual distrust during the fledgling peace talks. Throughout the Nixon era, American policy makers took a more active stance than their predecessors toward finding solutions to social problems in the slowing war, but their methods met resistance from Vietnamese politicians. On August 21, 1969, Nguyen Van Tinh, the mayor of Vung Tau, boldly replied to American requests for easing prostitution regulations and demands for more venereal disease treatment programs with a curt memo standing his ground. In his statement, he reiterated that the Vietnamese government forbade sex work, and thus the solutions proposed by the American Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) advisors to monitor the practices “cannot be realized.”88 He also firmly condemned the actions of US Medical Team number twenty, which had entered local establishments to pressure snack bar girls into seeking care. The team reportedly questioned working girls and even “examined their vaginas” for signs of disease. For the Americans, the checks represented safety and modernity, while the Vietnamese official clearly saw the exams as an intimate violation of the women and a sign of off-handed disregard for Vietnamese laws.89
Local health procedures for licensing restaurant waitresses, bar girls, and hostesses provided a potential means of monitoring women likely to offer sex as a service without overtly identifying them as prostitutes. In the late 1960s, American development officers saw a way to use this process to their advantage. The Vietnamese government required service industry workers, like bar girls, to obtain sanitation permits similar in principle to a food-handling license. Many bars in South Vietnam, however, did not even serve food but simply used the term “restaurant” to circumvent legal restrictions.90 American military and aid workers viewed the permits, and the required medical examinations, as a means of controlling the spread of diseases among women and girls not working near bases. Lawrence Swain of the American pacification CORDS program proposed issuing new versions of sanitation cards to anyone working in service industries, since many were known prostitutes.91 This version of the card would require regular visits with a doctor to check for illness or venereal disease, and the doctor would mark the card for those who were free from disease. Women and girls who failed their medical exam would have their card revoked for the duration of their treatment.
The mayor of Vung Tau doubted the assertion of an American medical specialist that bar owners and bar girls appreciated the examinations and treatment performed by US medical teams. Rather, the mayor asserted, their interference in bar culture had created a “bad rumor … that all manpower and facilities of the RVN Public Health Service have been utilized to protect health condition for US militarymen only and not to protect the local Vietnamese people as majority.”92 For the most part, this seemed true. The Department of State’s Agency for International Development (USAID) eventually worked out an agreement to send in a female envoy to provide information that might help Vietnamese women take a more active role in politics and the economy, but this occurred months after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the start of troop withdrawal.93 During the years of active conflict, protecting the health of US servicemen took precedence in managing sexual behavior. Venereal disease seemed best contained by stopping its spread at the source, which the advisors’ previous experiences and experiments in Da Nang and Vung Tau incorrectly suggested comprised only the women.
Despite their efforts to keep relations with the South Vietnamese government positive, the Americans’ focus on the health and security of their own troops did not outwardly discourage service members from having relations with civilians, nor did it encourage locals to cooperate with eradication efforts.94 Resisting the power of the industry, Vung Tau’s mayor continued his protests against the idea of sanitation cards for months, reiterating fears of violating the constitution.95 As the allies talked past each other, the Americans moved boldly ahead with some of their initiatives, like building a venereal disease clinic in the Le Loi Hospital in Vung Tau and hiring a joint American-Vietnamese team to treat infected patients. They opened the clinic in the hospital located directly next door to the barracks of the military police, who oversaw many of the prostitution cases from the American side.
By March of 1970, the mayor acquiesced to the growing pressure to allow the licensing of service workers in the name of public health. Reports in April that the Americans had previously considered making the entire city “off limits” likely spurred his decision, as the impact on the local economy would be severe.96 He began revoking the license cards of sick hostesses and accepted the more organized system of monitoring prostitution in Vung Tau. Still, the mayor had reservations about the decision. Under pressure to approve the measures, he attended a special meeting in March 1970 where he continued to express his opposition:
The decision to institute and enforce sanitation cards predicated on venereal disease examinations created an opportunity for Americans in Vung Tau. The plan not only established a dialog with local leadership to discuss sex work but also tied in with their efforts to negotiate sexual politics in a way that accomplished their goals of reducing disease while not overtly violating Vietnamese laws.
In the southern city of Can Tho, a similar debate between the US military, USAID, and Vietnamese city officials over the institution of sanitation cards boiled over in 1971. USAID officials working through friendly Vietnamese channels received permission to open a venereal disease clinic, to the dismay of Dr. Le Van Khoa, the minister of public health for the region, who resented the Americans’ correspondence with Dr. Luu Huu Loc, the chief of anti–venereal disease efforts, who did not have the authority to sign agreements. Like the mayor of Vung Tau, Khoa stressed that prostitution remained unconstitutional in Vietnam, and the links between disease and sex work placed clinic employees at legal risk. In addition, Khoa objected, in a letter dated June 26, 1970, that closing bars in Can Tho to “teach Vietnames [sic] peole [sic] a lesson” about the role of Americans in sustaining the local economy was a “big dishonor of [the] Vietnamese people.” Khoa suggested to American officials that they step up control efforts amid Vietnamese pressures to close American-endorsed clinics. By switching the focus from venereal disease to communicable diseases, clinics in Can Tho could examine snack bar girls every sixth months as part of their regular health exam.98 American pressure for change appears to have been more effective, however, as two weeks later, Khoa sent a telegram asking the minister of health in Saigon to issue a decree for an allocated “[pilot] place of anti VD in Can Tho” and copied the American CORDS official in the region.99 As in Vung Tau, only through a prolonged process of negotiation could the United States and Can Tho reach an agreement over every element of the prostitution problem, from what to label it to how to negotiate government restrictions.
The institution of sanitation cards and communicable disease clinics marked a few moments of compliance between the two governments, but ones in which the United States took a more active role. Significantly, US CORDS officials attempted to work with local governments like that in Vung Tau or Can Tho to handle the most detrimental repercussions of prostitution, at least from the American perspective: disease. Venereal disease remained rampant through the end of the war, but its existence provided government and military officials with a way to discuss the problem of prostitution without directly challenging the Vietnamese constitution. Managing venereal disease instead provided both sides with a loophole to better control the full impact of sexual encounters between the two populations. The longer the war went on, the less clear it became when it might end. When the United States put out a more rigorous effort to hinder prostitution and all its effects, they found the Vietnamese willing to concede on certain issues but overall committed to their de jure anti-prostitution stance.
Prostitution remained a constant threat to health, security, and even morality as well as a source of recreation throughout the war. The scenes reported in the Saigon papers in the days following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 suggested a sense of despair among those who had capitalized on Saigon’s role as a GI playground. According to the journalist Charles Mohr: “Vice is a depressed industry in Saigon… . The charm is gone.” Bar girls reportedly gathered together on the roof of the once illustrious Continental Palace Hotel, where they had worked since the government shut down many of the bars in downtown Saigon. The group watched as their primary source of income and protection against strict morality laws flooded out of the city to return home.100 As the decade-long conflict that turned American politics and Vietnamese life upside down began to draw to a close, reports in the popular press on the fate of prostitutes illustrate how severely initial efforts to limit the effects of Americans on South Vietnam had failed.101 Fulbright’s fear of “fatal impact” seemed not too far from the truth for those who had previously supported themselves on the war economy.
In the wake of Fulbright’s “brothel” claims in 1966, South Vietnam and the United States struggled for years to find a balance between fighting a war, stabilizing social problems, and maintaining the power dynamics of their alliance. Disagreements between the allies rooted in deep-seated cultural beliefs and pragmatic necessity led to an unexpected foreign policy dispute as state and non-state actors attempted to negotiate their stance on intercultural sexual intimacy in urban spaces. Despite conflicting points of view on acceptable public behavior regarding Westernization and related inflationary problems, Vietnamese civilians engaged in intimate relationships with US servicemen, whether through acts of prostitution or through long-term committed relationships resulting in marriage, and these relationships represented a threat to tradition, local authority, and the legitimacy of the state. As the war progressed, the impact of open wartime sexuality also created undeniable threats to public health, urban security, and international politics.
South Vietnamese officials, however, held their ground in relation to the way American GIs interacted with civilians. Where Americans sought morale building, the Vietnamese sought to follow a morality-based constitution, and where Americans sought discretion to ignore social issues, the Vietnamese sought eradication. Repeated failures and limited solutions marked their efforts to cooperate across such conflicting points of view. Forbidding soldiers to hire prostitutes not only represented an unrealistic goal but also risked dealing a serious blow to troop morale and an exceedingly powerful vice culture.102 In their efforts to sweep aside the initial characterization of Saigon as a brothel, US policy makers overlooked a significant element of the war’s culture, and their subsequent struggles to handle the problems illustrate the power of intercultural relationships during wartime to create foreign relations obstacles.
The opposing approaches to venereal disease treatment and the Americanization of social behavior exemplified shifting views about the social and cultural elements of warfare. The efforts to repress the sex industry had significant and lasting day-to-day impacts on the lives of service members and civilians who participated in the Vietnam War in the rear echelon of combat. By the end of the 1960s, Washington recognized that it could no longer sweep the “American brothel” aside. Reworked training materials, stricter limitations on boundaries, limited R&R opportunities in Vietnam, and the imposition of education and control programs by US military and aid workers on Vietnamese civilians marked the Americans’ revitalized efforts to limit the negative effects of an industry that was so effective in improving morale. With the RVN unable or unwilling to enact significant change, the Americans pressured their ally for changes they approved of to control prostitution. But the industry proved far more critical to the maintenance of daily military operations than Americans, from congressmen to journalists, initially believed.