Morale, Morality, and the “American Brothel”
As the United States committed increasing resources to the expanding Cold War in the 1950s, it struggled to identify and justify its role in Southeast Asia. Diplomats and advisors debated whether they should take on a more direct leadership role in Vietnam but dreaded the costs. With the funds the United States had already pumped into Indochina, however, they questioned whether it could afford to abandon its investment. After Diem and Ho Chi Minh, the charismatic North Vietnamese leader, failed to schedule reunification elections in 1956, Vietnam remained divided. Seeing the popularity of Ho, the United States feared that the South would succumb to communist takeover. Meanwhile, as more Americans arrived in Southeast Asia, more men ventured into bars and brothels against the wishes of the local government, setting up an international conflict.
In the decade after Diem’s ascendance, Americans overtook urban economies and laid the groundwork for political disputes over sexual behaviors that would shape the trajectory of the social and cultural wars in Vietnam. Concerns ranged widely from troop movements and political coups to fashion and the birth of the Vietnamese hippie movement. The long-term, large-scale American presence in Vietnam led to a resurgence of Western cultural influence. Black market trade in everything from prostitution to air conditioners and Coca-Cola linked the nations. Americans debated sexual encounters along with the war’s legality, politics, and economic influence. State-led and personal resistance did little to slow the changes as escalation engulfed South Vietnam. From 1955 until 1969, the political discourse over sex in Vietnam was characterized by American resistance to acknowledging the scope and severity of the prostitution industry on the one hand and the inability of the Vietnamese to enact effective policies to combat it on the other. Observers rarely discussed other types of personal relationships. Popular culture and Western ideas concerning proper social and sexual behavior intertwined with the war and became a foreign relations concern.
President Kennedy’s 1961 order sending additional nation-building advisors to Vietnam triggered a slow increase until the 1963 military coup and assassination of Diem further destabilized the region.1 American ground forces in Vietnam expanded to 23,300 by the end of 1964, marking an increase of roughly 7,000 men that year. The escalation following the contested Gulf of Tonkin incident that fall dwarfed these numbers.2 Within one year, the number of US service members in Vietnam reached 184,300. By October 1965, Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Cao Ky was expressing concern over the growing black market and pushed for the relocation of American troop barracks outside the cities.3 The Americans eventually acquiesced and moved out of Saigon, responding to social, security, and economic concerns.
The media published polarizing views on the subject. The American press often portrayed sex workers as a harmless diversion from an otherwise difficult conflict, reporting, for example, that prostitutes in miniskirts added “brilliant splashes of color to the drab, war-tinted thoroughfares.”4 Vietnamese newspapers of the same era reported on brothel raids and the theft, violence, corruption, and infiltration of Western culture into Vietnamese society associated with prostitution. Both nations understood that demand dictated the opportunities for women in urban spaces. The perception of the industry as harmless by Americans and as a risk to traditional life by some Vietnamese positioned women at a critical nexus where social and cultural exchange played a direct role in the ability of the two countries to work together. One nation’s need for morale building, which it saw satisfied by free and easy access to sex, faced off against the other’s proclaimed beliefs in a society anchored by strict moral values, as well as the desire to push back against an assertive ally.
The war took place amid a myriad of social and sexual upheavals worldwide. Faced with the creation of a new government infrastructure that would support his nation’s needs both politically and socially, Diem reached out to the political science and criminal justice faculty at Michigan State University (MSU), where he had worked while in exile. The team provided guidance on everything from the organization of administrative offices to the structure and regulation of the police force. The global sexual revolution of the long 1960s framed the ideologies of the Michigan State Advisory Group in shaping Diem’s anti-vice laws. Burgeoning civil rights movements, second-wave feminism, Cold War nuclear fears, the rise of the developing world, the spread of communism, and generational conflict manifested in debates over sexuality. Who slept with whom, and under what (marital) circumstances, formed a point of contention. As part of molding his “Great Society,” President Johnson supported birth control as a method for helping poor urban populations, and by 1965 the United States legalized the use of birth control pills for married couples. In roughly five years, the number of women taking “the pill” in the United States rose from half a million to over 6.5 million.5 By the time prostitution in Vietnam became front-page news back home, Americans were well acquainted with changing norms regarding sexual behavior, as they watched Congress struggle over whether and how to regulate sexuality.
The rise of brothel culture in South Vietnam came to epitomize service member–civilian relations. American resistance to participating in political discourse over sexual encounters allowed the industry to expand exponentially across South Vietnam, frustrating America’s ally. The congressional response to the problem of sex and the Vietnam War illustrates how the US government reacted to, or rather attempted to ignore, social policies. During the 1966 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam, committee chairman J. William Fulbright brought the idea of Saigon as an “American brothel” to the domestic public for the first time. The administration publicly pushed the issue aside as a non-priority, allowing the vice industry to grow unwieldy during the Johnson years. This in part derived from the United States’ failure to understand Vietnamese principles regarding sex and kinship, as well as from Diem’s Catholicism and the inability of the Americans to foresee that the war would evolve into a protracted conflict. These misunderstandings only added to an increasingly strained and distrustful relationship between the United States and the RVN.
Policing Vice in Saigon
When Diem secured power in the South, he knew he needed outside assistance to maintain that power. He called on an old friend, Professor Wesley Fishel from MSU, to help stabilize the RVN. Fishel had hired Diem as a government research consultant while he was exiled in the United States in 1951 and saw the young leader as a beacon of hope for the war-torn country.6 Diem called on his former colleagues to aid in outlining the new government. In 1955 a small number of faculty developed the MSU Vietnam Advisory Group, obtained the necessary permissions, and headed to Saigon.7
The MSU Vietnam Advisory Group’s contract with the RVN specified significant responsibilities for a foreign team to undertake. They included “establishing and operating a comprehensive research and reference program in the problems of government in Vietnam” to provide guidance on topics ranging from training police forces to the role and methods used by the president.8 In their effort to organize and stabilize the government, the MSU group engaged in dialog with Vietnamese politicians and explored issues related to Vietnamese culture. Their focus on civilian life marked a sharp contrast to the priorities of the French, who cared little for maintaining local values, but the studies did not do much to change the impact Americans would have on the region in the coming years. The MSU group hoped their research into Vietnamese life would help the leaders make more realistic policy changes. French perceptions of Vietnamese sexual behavior and cultural norms regarding gender, however, had lasting effects on outsiders’ views of Vietnam. Despite attempts to broaden Western understanding, colonial representations prevailed over the academic studies.
Diem asked the group to develop strategies to control expanding vice networks to restore what he saw as traditional order in the South and centralize power around his office. To achieve his goals, Diem pointed to internal threats. Ralph Turner, professor of criminalistics, along with Fishel, a professor of political science, engaged in extensive research on Vietnamese traditions. Cultural views toward women lingering from the colonial era concerned Turner and his staff, pointing to larger problems in reshaping not only how corruption functioned in Vietnam but also how Westerners engaged with Vietnamese people.
Part of Turner and Fishel’s research involved assessing the foreign sex trade industry which flourished in Vietnam prior to the passage of Diem’s 1959 Code of the Family and the Laws for the Protection of Morality in 1962. Their research turned up an advertisement for a Saigon “Girl of the Week Club,” an escort service for Western men that allowed officers to indulge in the city’s erotic nightlife without needing to enter a brothel. The flyer for this service, “Sex by Subscription,” illustrates the ubiquity of vice culture and sheds light on the sexual perceptions and expectations of officials working in Southeast Asia.9 How to change the vice culture, and thus change the way Western men interacted with local women, eluded Vietnam throughout its alliance with the United States.
The MSU Vietnam Advisory Group encouraged Foreign Service officers to bring their wives to Saigon. Venturing out to illicit brothels would become less respectable if men had family to return to each night.10 Briefing materials estimated that a quarter of a million American wives lived with their Foreign Service husbands abroad, and described their role as vital to the opertation of the “government, business firms, churches, and foundations.”11 Further emphasizing the importance of cultural influences, including literature, group leaders encouraged wives to travel to Southeast Asia to overcome the images portrayed in works like Greene’s The Quiet American or William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American (1958). Both novels painted American interests in a negative light and depicted American men in close relationships with Vietnamese women.
The MSU group kept a copy of Harlan Cleveland’s 1959 Harper’s magazine article “The Pretty Americans (How Wives Behave Overseas)” in their files. The piece reinforced gender norms for women’s roles in the Foreign Service. Cleveland argued that wives traveling to the decolonizing world were not merely welcome but necessary. Bringing families enabled officials and advisors to manage their day-to-day lives, avoid entanglements with local women, and conduct their work in a way that the US government and public would approve of. He instructed wives to be “good will ambassadors,” and told husbands not to worry, as their wives would adjust quickly to “their abundance of servants and little else.”12 The tongue-in-cheek attitude of the article brought levity to a situation in which women with comfortable suburban lives were preparing for a world with few luxuries. Illustrations accompanying the article presented mothers as capable warriors, kneeling protectively over their children, swatting mosquitos out of the air in an action that mirrored the woman’s role in Southeast Asia of protecting her husband from perceived threats against the American nuclear family.
Still, the influx of wives failed to stop prostitution. The “Sex by Subscription” brochure advised husbands, with racist innuendo, that “they must be discreet” if they bring their wives, because “scandal has wrecked more homes and careers in Foreign Service than you can shake a chopstick at.”13 The advertisement targeted married men, warning that they could not enjoy the “thousands of slender ‘Annamites’ ” in the same open manner as the “bachelor soldier or clerk” working in Saigon. The service promised that it could deliver women to hotels or private apartments at a desired time on a subscription basis. The advertisement credited the “canny French colonialists” who had learned their way around the sex trade for making the program possible. For about $15 US, the service would send three different women over the course of a week.14 The program offered both fantasy and convenience.
To ease the mind of the subscriber, “Sex by Subscription” walked potential clients through their forthcoming encounter with the woman they might hire. She would arrive dressed in a way meant to avoid intimidating the man. As part of her paid service, she would help him through the awkward first moments of contact. The advertisement assured the reader that the woman, after all, was a professional. After “siesta time” was over, the flyer advised the client to call his wife and casually inform her of the official luncheon he had attended. The service could meet the perceived sexual needs of a Foreign Service official with the utmost ease and discretion.
The depiction of civilian women as sex objects in the advertisement indicates the language deemed acceptable for Foreign Service officials at the time. “Sex by Subscription” refers to women as “dolls” who arrive “dressed in European clothes” to make them appear more accessible to their clients. In much the same way that interwar colonial exposition organizers used Josephine Baker to serve as a bridge between Indochina and the West, the flyer marketed prostitutes as an exotic fantasy, but not overly so. The advertisement described ethnic differences among Southeast Asian women not to correct a uniform eroticized Asian stereotype but rather in dehumanizing language that treated different national backgrounds as sexualized traits. It defined each ethnicity with characteristics the founders of the service hoped might make the women attractive to Western men. It portrayed Annamites as slender, Cambodians as voluptuous, and Laotians as sensual.15 While these distinctions reveal little about the actual nature of Southeast Asian women, they say quite a bit about how foreign advisors viewed them. Prostitution may have been hidden from wives and families, but it was an omnipresent element of society for Western men living and working in South Vietnam.
As a member of MSU’s Vietnam Advisory Group, Ralph Turner facilitated the establishment of public administration offices including police administration. Beginning in 1955, the university sent American specialists to work alongside Vietnamese personnel for “in-service training, consultation, academic instruction, and research.”16 Diem’s administration listed American aid control as the primary responsibility for police administration officials, but their services helped design and establish South Vietnamese police forces in and around Saigon. While the MSU group employed a small staff in Saigon, expanding to fifty-one by 1957, they shaped daily life through the establishment and training of the South Vietnamese police forces.
Intercultural interactions with the West had long impacted Vietnamese society, but with the exit of the French and a young government balancing on uneasy footing, the possibilities for change seemed more palpable.17 Through his firm handling of corruption, Diem established dominance but recognized that it could not last without a powerful infrastructure. During the same period when he invited the MSU group, he worked to eliminate the Binh Xuyen crime syndicate from its position of control at the head of the police and security agency.18 Furthermore, Diem established what Jessica Chapman has called a “culture of fear” as he used violence to eliminate “seedling parties” that threatened his leadership.19
Social and moral legislation designed to strengthen traditional social structures, limit corruption, and weed out vice only drove the problem underground and made eradication more elusive. In a series of talks, Carl Rumpf from MSU spoke with locals at the Civil Guard Academy near Vung Tau, a popular resort area known for vice. Gambling and prostitution, Rumpf argued, “greatly increases the task of policing.”20 Not all gambling was illegal. Citizens participated in legalized forms of horse racing and the national lottery, but types of gambling varied from place to place, creating struggles to differentiate one kind from another. The government maintained that “communities in which gambling flourishes attract criminals,” putting it on a par with prostitution as a threat.21 Despite the social problems caused by gambling, it at least had fewer physical repercussions than prostitution, like venereal disease.22 Regardless of the known risk of corruption through bribes and influence peddling, the high profits continued to tempt proprietors, reinforcing the need for policing.23 The MSU group recruited and trained Vietnamese citizens, hiring police and former tax collectors, known for settling debts, for a vice squad to grapple with social concerns.24 In the dedicated vice crimes division, the officers collected intelligence, tracked potential violators, and worked undercover with informants. Focusing on the head of vice organizations, they hoped to avoid the cyclical process of arresting “expendable” employees, which failed to solve the problem.25
To monitor prostitution, the MSU group stressed that leadership needed to be aware of the potential for corruption within police ranks. They recommended hiring small units that reported directly to the chief of police, a tactic some American departments used to curb similar problems. Rumpf warned that “mayors, councilmen, and high police officials” might get caught up in the industry, creating more hurdles to the joint efforts to control gambling and prostitution.26 The small units would consist of plainclothes male officers, and female officers in a limited role, working undercover to gather evidence and relieve paid informants.27 To protect officers, Rumpf directed the agency to transfer them regularly so as to avoid notoriety in dens, bars, or brothels. He also shared the concerns of the Vietnamese about licensing prostitution. He referenced failed American World War II programs focused on tracking medical records for working girls, which promoted separation and prophylactic stations.28 Two decades later, the debate looked much the same. Disease and corruption had increased in tandem with the American presence. MSU’s influence faded as the federal government escalated the war, but the group’s role in shaping South Vietnam’s early response to vice foreshadowed problems that persisted throughout the war.
The legacy of Diem and Madame Nhu’s morality laws far outlasted their control over South Vietnam. The November 1963 assassination of Diem and his brother led to Nhu’s exile and a crisis of leadership. In Washington, the post-coup volatility coupled with President Kennedy’s assassination only weeks later put American goals in Vietnam at risk. Three Vietnamese military leaders took power in quick succession following the coup, but none could control the political instability until General Nguyen Van Thieu took the reins of the National Leadership Committee in 1965.29 These uncertain circumstances placed Lyndon Johnson and his advisors on the path to choosing war in 1964.30 Their decision began a transition from advisors to soldiers. As the South veered toward conflict with the North, its morality laws bred conflict with the South’s allies. Many of the laws served as a rejection of Westernized culture associated with colonialism while endorsing the beliefs of the majority population of Vietnamese Catholics who had relocated to the South during the division of Vietnam.31
With their history as advisors to the French, US officials failed to foresee how firmly the Vietnamese leadership would push back against prostitution. Volatility in the countryside caused civilians, predominantly young women, to move to cities seeking physical and financial security. At the same time, the numbers of American forces swelled to nearly eight times their previous size between December 1964 and December 1965.32 Their visibility was especially notable since the US military also preferred the safety and logistical advantages of urban spaces over jungle terrain. Americans built bases in cities, including Saigon, Da Nang, Pleiku, and Vung Tau.33 Bars and massage parlors targeting service members flourished, and their advertisements littered English-language newspapers and travel guides. Most deployments passed through Saigon, as field soldiers also cycled through on temporary leave or on their way in and out of the country. Prior to the 1968 Tet Offensive, few attacks occurred in cities. Confrontations at American establishments were not completely unknown, however. By late 1965, hotel and bar violence from brawls to bombings resulted in disruptions and casualties that put Saigon officials on alert.34 The increasing population of Americans and concurrent inflation destabilized the economy, but some found ways to profit off GIs flaunting expendable income. Saigon represented the first major settlement of American forces and served as the location where political, economic, and social changes took root.
Locally, the rapid turnover of post-Diem governments stopped when General Thieu and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky took control of the military junta in 1965. They won a highly contested election in 1967, establishing Thieu as president, an office he would hold through the end of the war.35 As Mark Atwood Lawrence argues, however, the 1965 ascension of two figures with no previous political experience convinced the United States of the RVN’s instability and motivated increased deployments.36 During these years of transition, city-level officials were left to struggle with vice as military disagreements between Thieu, Ky, and the United States pulled the focus away from social welfare issues.37
Johnson’s landslide presidential election victory in 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin incident put him in position to pursue far more aggressive Cold War policies.38 By the end of 1965, the United States deployed 190,000 troops to Vietnam. The number soared to 400,000 by the end of 1966 and continued to rise.39 This abstract timeline of American escalation shows the steep influx of troops but ignores their impact on society. In addition to the military lens, viewing the war from the perspective of non-state actors illuminates the tangible effects of deployed service members and their interactions with civilians, providing a better understanding of what the governments and militaries were responding to with their policies. Because of American escalation, the social climate in South Vietnamese cities changed dramatically to cater to the needs and desires of US service members.
The demand for sex resulted in a dynamic prostitution culture, built on Western expectations about Asian women and the accessibility of their bodies to foreigners derived from the observations of French colonizers and the United States’ prior experiences as a colonizer or occupier. In addition, changing global views toward sexual and social behavior encouraged an increasingly open dialog regarding sexuality. Money flowed into cities, inflated economies, upset communities, and set the stage for disputes over sexual and social policies. The negative effects provided ammunition for opposition propaganda. As a communist leaflet dropped in Saigon described it, the “American presence is synonymous with aggression, terrorism, arson, pilferage, outrage, widespread inflation, developing prostitution and a harder life for people in the cities.… Elephants are being brought in to trample on the family tomb.”40 The United States’ presence quickly altered large areas of Vietnamese life.
From viewpoints ingrained in military training to what they saw on the streets of Saigon, service members’ attitudes derived from both their initial expectations and the realities of war. GIs stationed near cities experienced daily contact with civilians competing to sell goods or services that ranged from washing laundry to sex. Servicemen wanted prostitutes for the experience itself and to disconnect from life at war. Responding to demand, Vietnamese women and procurers flooded the market. Back home, servicemen’s behavior provided news editors with sensational human interest stories. As more Americans landed in Vietnam and purchased prohibited sex, carnal encounters between the two populations increasingly threatened the US-RVN political and military alliance, put civilians at risk, and ultimately changed the way all sides fought and remembered the war.41
American cultural conceptions of Vietnam contributed to social disagreements. Military training embedded ideologies of dominance and the compartmentalizing of trauma in the minds of service members. In general, soldiers in a war zone need to be able to kill enemy forces and complete assigned tasks without hesitation. To achieve this, the military leadership designed training programs to prepare service members to follow orders, believe in the necessity of their actions, react quickly on their feet, and sharpen their physical abilities.42 Patriarchal themes in Vietnam-era military training ingrained a belief in American supremacy and dominance.43 The military encouraged a masculine culture prominent in Cold War politics more generally, for example, by adopting feminized representations of Ho Chi Minh.44 Johnson and many of his advisors viewed Vietnam as a nation that needed to be rescued from the evils of communism, with a population of sensual women and weak men.45 The well-worn stories of Johnson’s phallic confidence and his desire to emasculate Ho Chi Minh, someone who mindfully projected an asexual uncle image, exemplify some of the more overt promotions of masculinity during the war.46
The focus on Johnson, however, ignores the larger importance of gender in determining the trajectory of Cold War policy established in the historiography. Robert Dean and Kyle Cuordileone in their respective studies have illustrated how cultures of masculinity dictated interactions and shaped decision making.47 As scholars increasingly acknowledge the role of gender in war making, they are only beginning to examine the impact of sexuality. During the Vietnam War, open sexuality lost much of its shock value in the United States as the nation entered the liberated era of the late 1960s. It shocked even fewer in the Foreign Service, who promoted sex as a perk. Many still abstained, to be sure, but available women provided a welcome distraction to men heading off to war. Illustrating the acceptability of prostitution in the minds of the American military leadership, Major Bill Arthur wrote to reassure his replacement, Colonel Paul W. Child Jr., in 1969 that he was confident Child could make “anyplace fairly livable” but encouraged him to “find booze and women” to ease the transition.48
The military had long accepted the belief that soldiers away from home would engage in affairs with civilians.49 Basic training even prepared soldiers for the encounters. Kyle Longley argues that for ordinary combat soldiers, drill instructors promoted a hyper-masculine culture anchored in heterosexuality through the common use of sexualized language; thus officers called new, untrained recruits “girls,” “ladies,” or “pussies.” They inculcated ideologies of perceived dominance over women, or other men outside their brotherhood.50 The cult of masculinity prepared men not only to fight and kill but also to compartmentalize their war experiences. The civilians they would encounter in Vietnam, they were taught, were weak, in need of masculine protection, and feminine overall. This enfeeblement partially contributed to the scale of the sex industry in South Vietnam and the behavior of its patrons. Expectations, boredom, excess money, peer pressure, and dehumanization all represent critical factors in the expansion of the sex trade.
Drill instructors berated those who performed poorly in boot camp by questioning their sexuality or their attachments to home. In his memoir, veteran John Ketwig recalled how instructors used sex to isolate the men and then rebuild them into their new military identity. For example, instructors would tell recruits to forget their girlfriends back home, who were already sleeping with their best friends.51 Shifting their focus away from home encouraged GIs to concentrate on the war that waited for them. Reflecting on the experiences of gay servicemen during the war, Dr. Robert Rankin described sailors who attempted suicide over mistreatment or guilt related to their sexuality.52 For others, deliberately hiding their sexual orientation and remaining silent was the only way to avoid ridicule from their peers and even discharge.53
From the colonial period to the American war in Vietnam, popular culture created an expectation that exotic Asian women awaited Western men. Madame Nhu’s bans on lewd activities including dancing, prostitution, and adultery placed newly forged relationships with civilian women under scrutiny.54 The open sexual exchange seen in other US war and postwar environments in France, Japan, the Philippines, and Korea took on a different character in Vietnam. Political and social corruption together with larger structural and military problems resulted in the development of an illicit sex industry. The increasing numbers of foreign soldiers, primarily Americans, elevated the demand for prostitution at the same time the expanding war limited other opportunities for young women and drove them into the cities for safety.
By 1967, the US deputy for pacification in Vietnam, Robert Komer, estimated that more than one-third of the South Vietnamese population lived in urban areas.55 The population of Saigon had increased 35 percent during the war. Saigon’s size and position as a US and RVN stronghold contributed to its population boom of mostly young women. Women did not face conscription into the military like men, and many elders chose to remain on ancestral lands, leaving young women to head to the cities in search of employment.56 Hoang Loc, an RVN air force officer and poet, evokes the fear he felt when his former lover was evacuated from Hoi An, a historic coastal city south of Da Nang. In “On Getting the News of My Old Lover’s Evacuation from Hoi An,” he begins:
Loc builds on the urgency of the residents’ plight throughout the poem but ends with the grief that both soldiers and civilians feel when forced to abandon their homes:
Loc’s writings, and poems by other Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers, emphasize the distance Vietnamese citizens felt from their homes because of the war.
Most of the peasants entering the cities, Komer’s report claimed, came from “the lowest income categories.”58 Less than two years into the war, population shifts had altered community dynamics enough to threaten public outreach programs by associating American service members with social corruption. Komer’s report, addressed to Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Robert Weaver, recognized that the Americans had designed pacification and military efforts to focus on the countryside, not the cities. Thus, urban areas “lagged far behind” and needed immediate attention. He appealed to Weaver to find an approach that would address social problems and not simply engineering ones.59 The American military’s focus on infrastructure and rebuilding alone failed to come to terms with the issues that threatened to destabilize Vietnamese cities.
Urban development in South Vietnam was directly linked to the rise of intercultural intimate encounters and the ensuing foreign policy concerns. Refugees relocated for security, infrastructure, and steady employment. An observer and advisor in Saigon, John H. Nixon, urged the US mission on pacification efforts that if they hoped to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese public, they needed to provide material support to the RVN.60 He argued that community engagement was the only option for establishing long-term stabilization and popular support. Housing projects, traffic, and storm drainage ranked high in priority for maintaining peace in the cities. His suggestions addressed preexisting issues as well as new ones like inflation and vehicle accidents. Americans needed to show they supported South Vietnam as a nation and were not simply using it to accomplish military and ideological foreign policy goals. The economy of prostitution, however, quickly overwhelmed cities, overshadowing these other urban problems.
The GI Economy
During the period of escalation, neighborhood bar girls serving food or pushing drinks became a regular sight across Saigon. Some women unofficially worked as prostitutes, using the title “bar girl” as a euphemism to avoid arrest, while others simply worked as hostesses without the intent to engage in sexual exchange with customers. With most men forced to fight in the war, women and children had more opportunities to work than before, but the rapid population growth and economic instability still meant more workers than jobs. Working as a bar girl, particularly one willing to act as a prostitute, meant higher wages with less education. The high demand for sex work, however, led to an imbalance of power that left women and girls vulnerable to abuse.
Opportunities to profit off the American presence extended beyond bars and brothels. Skilled laborers benefited from the presence of service members who also acted as tourists. Luxury items such as embroidery and silks brought in large revenues.61 English-language newspapers advertised souvenirs and cars with special payment options and shipping to the United States.62 Companies capitalized on the paychecks, youth, and impulses of troops. Black market activities increased and contributed to inflation. Sellers accessed imported items sold at the post exchanges through American contacts or theft, which placed them at an advantage over merchants who sold domestic goods. While all prices increased during the war, rare items generated considerably higher profits. By 1966, black market sugar and flowers already earned ten to twenty times more money for sellers than they were making off local items two years prior. Overall daily earnings increased drastically from roughly $10 to $50 VN on standard goods in 1964 with black-market items reaching $100 to $200 VN or higher by 1966.63
Sellers without access to Americans suffered from their inability to tap into the new market. One Vietnamese woman reported that she cried when her husband told her to give up selling goods and stay home to care for her children since their daughter now earned enough money to maintain the entire family. She feared being bored, lonely, and unable to contribute financially to her family.64 Many did whatever they could to evolve with the market. Allen E. Goodman and Lawrence M. Franks of the Southeast Asian Development Advisory Group interviewed a man in Da Nang who told them: “I came here selling bananas, now I sell stereos and radios. If I have to, I can sell bananas again but I shall never leave the city.”65 South Vietnamese civilians adapted to survive the changes brought on by the war.
Goodman and Franks surmised that smaller villages felt the impact of the war more than larger cities, but for those moving from the countryside, the transition to life in Saigon presented striking challenges.66 One’s livelihood, Neil Sheehan bleakly argued, often relied on finding a job serving Americans’ needs or begging on the streets near refugee slums. He described the prostitution industry as he once saw it depicted in an unnamed Saigon newspaper, at the top of the new social hierarchy.67 With prostitution on top, all other traditional careers and families of wealth struggled to find their new place. Sheehan recalled asking a Vietnamese reporter about the meaning of some words written on the sidewalk near a pile of garbage. The reporter told him it said, “This is the fruit of American aid.”68
Both American and Vietnamese servicemen hired prostitutes. One woman interviewed by a researcher feared that Vietnamese men who were already failing to care for their families would be distracted by available women they met while on patrol. She argued that the threat was “emphasized when the young men go away from home into the military and must find recreation at the bars where they meet and fall in love with bar girls.”69 The interviewee recalled hearing about a Vietnamese serviceman who brought a second wife into his family but kept her in separate housing. The second wife, a former bar girl, arrived pregnant at his family home. His first wife left him, but after the bar girl was killed in an accident, she returned to raise the young woman’s child in her place.
The mobility of women in this account relies on the man in their life. The bar girl was able to marry out of her work in service because of her relationship with the Vietnamese soldier. The first wife left her husband but ultimately could not escape her ties to him and returned out of a sense of duty. As the war progressed, more women gained mobility and agency in urban spaces. Women from the lower classes now had the potential to earn higher incomes depending on their willingness to work with or for Americans. While sex work remained illegal, the industry offered women an income without relying on a spouse or family member to support them, though many remained married to Vietnamese men or owed debts to pimps.70 The new openness regarding extramarital sex and prostitution reflected two distinct causes: the pragmatism of poverty in a wartime economy and the establishment of sexually liberated countercultural ideals as part of the global trend.
Pervasive Sex Markets
Urban spaces changed radically in the late 1960s to accommodate social and economic shifts, as well as the ascension of “women, taxi drivers, and pedicab pimps” to become some of the highest-paid members of Vietnamese society.71 Service and entertainment industries targeted troops in need of distractions and morale building. The illegality of the practices resulted in coded advertising, prison threats, and a complex network of protection services established by women and their employers to avoid imprisonment or fines.
According to a 1967 survey, bar girls and older women represented the two wealthiest categories of women in South Vietnam, but this was not consistent across the industry.72 Staffed with mainly lower-class, poorly educated, or recently relocated snack bar girls, taxi dancers, and hostesses, Saigon’s bars and clubs recruited young women and girls by offering loans or apartments that they would pay off through their work. Not all establishments expected or advertised sexual exchange, but the potential for extra earnings lured workers with the promise of a quick way out of debt, whether officially or unofficially. Other bars explicitly sold sex as a service, with prostitutes cycling through clients on a timed fee schedule.73 Once a woman was in the system, however, leaving life as a bar girl proved difficult. President Thieu underplayed the struggles of women and girls who found themselves trapped in the sex trade, telling diplomats at the American embassy that “as far as immorality is concerned, this would not happen without the Vietnamese girls who don’t have to behave in this way if they do not want to.”74 The reliance on barkeepers or madams for financial support illustrates how the system used coercion to prevent women from leaving.
Many servicemen recalled sexual encounters in their memoirs, yet few acknowledged how the industry might have negatively impacted the Vietnamese women who worked in it. Instead, they discuss moments of human contact amid days of military chaos or mundane rear echelon work. The sex industry provided them with a break from their daily routine, first-time experiences they felt brought them into manhood, or at least delivered on the promises of basic training. As with any bedroom story, navigating through bragging or guilt-ridden memories requires skepticism. Many reflections come from men trying to work through their experiences of what developed into a far less popularly supported conflict than either World War II or the Korean War. While personal accounts can be problematic, they have significant value when examined through the lens of memory. Vietnam War memoirs that mention sexual encounters with civilians share many similarities. In almost all accounts, for instance, men recall the overwhelming accessibility of sex.
Authors also note that sexual exchanges in Vietnam were far less joyful and carefree than portrayed in films like Full Metal Jacket. In Kubrick’s telling, prostitutes are shown in a sympathetic light as either sick or pimped out by a third party. Regardless of the women’s plight, the GIs are pleased with their experiences. Postwar writings, in contrast, highlight the bleaker side of the industry. The notable poet and Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa wrote about bar girls in multiple poems. Komunyakaa’s “Saigon Bar Girls, 1975” sheds light on the grim reality faced by prostitutes. In this instance, he looks at women still working in the latter days of the war, after most US servicemen have returned home:
In many ways, Komunyakaa’s work mirrors what Senator Fulbright feared the fatal impact would be when the Americans left:
Komunyakaa captures the contrast between the physical intimacy and yet the detachment felt by the actors. In his eyes, prostitution offered an exciting experience, but he ignores the loss of opportunity it meant for the women and girls. As a representation of Saigon’s wartime society, prostitutes are portrayed as a population defeated by the social conditions of war and unable to overcome their circumstances.
The language barrier and a lack of interest often prevented GIs from communicating with sex workers in meaningful ways, leaving their civilian companions silent both at the time and in most postwar representations of them. Whether in film, poetry, or literature, the women have very limited speaking parts. Wendy Wilder Larsen, an American civilian and poet living in Saigon, reflected in jest on how Westerners imagined the perspective of Vietnamese bar girls:
This purposefully crass oversimplification of the female perspective points to the glaring absence of Vietnamese women’s voices in our memory of the war. Rather than hearing from them, Americans heard about them.
Uncovering the voices of Vietnamese women and girls brings a different perspective to the study of brothel culture and helps uncover what made the industry so influential on foreign relations. While women’s voices are not always present in the records, careful readings of those that are available help complicate the simplistic perception of all Vietnamese women happily serving American soldiers. In her account of Vietnamese life during the war, Mai Phuong describes an interaction with an older male cyclo driver who insists on telling her, a well-dressed woman, about the plight of his family and his need to work in service though he once owned land. Forced into the city after the war destroyed his village, the driver fears that he will not be able to marry off his three daughters to men who will stay in their ancestral home. He laments: “My wife and I worry ourselves to death that they will be tempted by city life and run away to become bar girls, marry American soldiers, and then become prostitutes. That would shame our ancestors, and how would I face them when my time comes to reunite with them? You see, Miss, thousands of girls now make their living the shameful way.”78 Phuong understood, since many of her friends lived with Americans while she grew frustrated waiting for her Vietnamese husband to return from the front. About the other women, she wrote that she “felt sorry for them, knowing their lives had been affected by the war and their futures would be uncertain.”79 Phuong writes about herself in the third person throughout the book, blurring the lines between memoir and fiction, but her account adds agency to women’s choices, although she recognizes that she and her peers suffer in different ways.
Phuong’s account provides more proof that, for Americans, finding access to sex in Saigon was not difficult during the war, and even less so before the 1968 Tet Offensive resulted in limitations on the movements of off-duty servicemen. Restaurants, clubs, and massage parlors advertised extensively in English-language newspapers and travel guides. Service members arrived in Saigon armed with decades of cultural representations of Vietnam as a sex tourism destination and fresh warnings about engaging with locals from their military training. While some sought and found love on deployment, others simply sought physical contact. David Holland, an MP in Saigon, recalls, “Sex was a big part of my year in Saigon.” He pushes aside the notion of “good-hearted whores” for a more pragmatic explanation: “I went basically for the sex, and the whores went basically for my money.”80 Holland never feared venereal disease or felt obliged to abstain for moral reasons. His use of the term “whores” also indicates the dehumanization of the workers, whom many GIs viewed as merely a part of the military entertainment system.
The once illustrious status of Saigon as the Paris of the Orient faded as the city’s establishments were rebranded to reflect familiar American names and food like burgers and fries. Bar owners borrowed the names of American cities from New York to San Francisco to entice soldiers with reminders of home. Bars and brothels peddled time with women or girls, just as street vendors sold statuettes or silk mementos. Meredith Lair convincingly argues, “In Vietnam, consumerism was a force so powerful that military authorities could not excise it from the lives and will of the soldiers they led; they did not even try.”81 Even while picking up bar girls, servicemen were accosted to make purchases, including the infamous “Saigon Tea,” which some bars required soldiers to keep buying for their “dates.”82 The cost of the non-alcoholic, watered-down tea added up as the men became intoxicated on beer or liquor and spent more freely. One newspaper reported the cost of a glass at $2.70 in February 1966, equal to the price of “two whiskies or five glasses of beer.”83 The combination of alcohol and women encouraged men to overspend, making bar girls, and especially their proprietors, wealthy by South Vietnamese standards in the mid-1960s.
The travel guide Saigon Roundup contributed to the “tourist” soldier culture by highlighting bars as world-class attractions offering options for rest and relaxation.84 “The loveliness of pretty girls,” like the food and architecture, became part of the lure of Saigon as a destination to entice young men to enlist.85 Once in country, advertisements encouraged the men to spend their leave in the cities rather than leaving Vietnam for rest and recuperation (R&R) elsewhere. Americans stationed in or near Saigon could visit the locations advertised in the guides in the early years of US involvement, before their impact on the economy and the fear of attacks pushed troops onto bases outside the city. Comparing issues of Saigon Roundup from the early to mid-1960s, one finds that the cover art shifts from wholesome images to ones selling overt sexuality.86 The March 1966 issue, for example, shows a young woman in heavy makeup dancing in a bare-midriff top with baubles hanging from her breasts. The caption reads, “Miss Clementine performing in American Military bases Mess and NCO.”87 Traditional imagery of a quiet garden and modest female figure, albeit one still selling her beauty, depicted in 1962 is a far cry from the overtly sexualized entertainment figure on the cover in 1966.
Likewise, the popular English-language Saigon Post newspaper advertised entertainment venues around town. Along with tourist magazines such as Saigon Roundup, the Saigon Post targeted Americans in its promotion of venues with names like American Bar or Cowboy Bar. Bars touted their hostesses, music, and air conditioning. Often the ability to speak “fluent” or “beautiful” English was featured in the descriptions. Always, however, the ads boasted about the beauty, youth, and grace of the hostesses. The Intimate Bar offered charm and a friendly atmosphere.88 The popular Salvador American Bar, which advertised in the Post throughout the war, promised “young and attractive waitresses satisfying service.”89 The Palace American Bar publicized “lovely and excellent hostesses.” To the right of this advertisement in the same issue, the White Horse American Bar competed with “the best looking Bargirls in Dakao.”90 Servicemen looking for a relaxing sexual encounter could visit the various steam and Turkish bath parlors throughout the city, which invited men to “enjoy private tub with pretty girls massage.”91 Bath parlors were especially known for sex work. The poet Doug Anderson recalls the comfort found in bathhouses in his poem “Purification,” where he describes a fifteen-year-old mother of three in Taiwan who bathes the narrator, a soldier on leave, and then lactates when he puts her nipple to his mouth. He depicts the scene, while disturbing to a contemporary reader, as one of immense solace, ending: “I want to be this child’s child. / I will sleep for the first time in days.”92 Although women and girls clearly represented a major draw to soldiers, some establishments hoped to distance themselves from the trade. These venues advertised musical entertainment and explicitly told readers “no hostesses” to avoid any misunderstandings. Despite the efforts of the South Vietnamese government, men had plenty of options for entertainment, sexual or otherwise, on any given night in the city.
As the war escalated, advertisements became more conspicuously sexual and numerous, filling newspapers and even venturing onto the front page. Some aspects remained constant, such as the importance of enjoying a relaxing time in a secure environment, while the advertisements for brothels became more overt. In a later publication from January 1969, for example, a Saigon madam known as Miss Lee offered to help Americans meet young girls for whatever purpose they desired.93 The interchangeable nature of office work, companionship, and prostitution in some circles reflected the loosening of sexual taboos over the years. Examining the overt presence of procurable women in advertising and popular culture, however, can distract us from the large proportion of the population who adamantly opposed intercultural relationships with Americans.
Western journalists in Vietnam reported on access to sex in their writings at the time, as well as in their memoirs years later. As reporters, not military, they often had the opportunity to interact with civilians more closely. Ron Steinman of NBC reflected that for him, Saigon represented a “center for glitz and corruption.”94 Expanding on this, he described the impact on Vietnamese culture far more negatively than most other memoirs or contemporary advertisements. He wrote:
The portrayals of nightlife, sex, and drugs recur throughout the literature, but Steinman’s description of “once shy” girls with “no pride in their heritage” makes sweeping judgments about the lives and circumstances of sex workers. While Steinman pities the women, his depiction places blame on all parties. The women at the center of his story and their role in making the industry flourish further a two-dimensional prostitute trope common in literature and film.
Vietnamese women’s views of prostitution illuminate the crucial roles played by race, class, war migration, and feminism in their decisions to work with or for American soldiers. Brothel owners and madams used race to segregate clients, creating a hierarchy of who worked in which locations. Bar and brothel owners catered to prevalent strains of racism within American military culture, leading to mostly segregated bars with only a few catering to a racially mixed clientele.96 South Vietnamese police licensed bars in the cities and included flags for all allied countries on the posted notices, acknowledging their universal popularity but ignoring the realities of exclusion that existed.97 Racism drove African American GIs seeking sex into the Khanh Hoi neighborhood of Saigon, which had served Senegalese troops during the French era.98 Segregation in bars contributed to the division and meaning of space in South Vietnamese urban areas. As one reporter noted, “Although Negro and white soldiers can be seen together in Saigon bars, a more common sight is a group of whites headed for Tu Do Street and a group of Negroes bound for the Khanh Hoi sections on the waterfront.”99 Segregated brothels also meant a lesser status for the women who catered to African American GIs. They tended to receive less medical care and education on contraception, leading to higher rates of infection and pregnancy.
Segregation did not prevent access to sex workers. African American soldiers did report, however, that their access to sex was less private than in the brothels and bars that catered to white troops. Soldiers in the field recalled purchasing prostitutes who simply lay in ditches for lines of waiting GIs, or perhaps had a location behind a wall or a water buffalo.100 Soldiers frequenting the infamous “Sin City” vice district outside the military base at An Khe reported taking women out behind fences for sex. The exchanges were not always monetary, either, since giving military currency to locals was illegal. Demonstrating the desperation of some sex workers, one African American soldier reported that he traded a C-ration dinner instead of cash.101
Despite the segregation imposed in many of the bars and brothels marked “White Only,” it was easy for African American soldiers to find sex. After being turned away by the “mama-san” who employed the bar girls, the soldiers needed only to walk down the street to find other women willing to offer sexual services. In his poem “Tu Do Street,” Komunyakaa referenced the eponymous street in Saigon known for its nightlife, recalling:
Even though Komunyakaa could not simply walk into any bar in Saigon and pay for the services of a hostess for a few hours or the night, his account illustrates the relative ease of purchasing the services of prostitutes. Nevertheless, the need to resort to side streets and makeshift outdoor brothels for sex placed African Americans apart from whites in ways that were, in other contexts, no longer legal in the United States. These methods, while seemingly catering to the prejudices of white service members, indicate how Vietnamese women working in bars and brothels forged the rules and geography of the sex industry. By segregating, they kept racist clients satisfied and increased their profits. In turn, this led to a stratification of prostitutes, with those who worked the streets at a lower social level than those working at bars and other establishments.
The geography of Vietnamese sex markets, whether brothels, bars, or a stretch of grass alongside a road, offered diverse, ample possibilities. The purchases could be public or private. In one instance, Specialist Robert E. Holcomb remembered being first in line for a girl, the term he uses to describe the prostitute, grimacing beside a ditch. Once undressed, Holcomb found he could not perform with other men watching him.103 Other recollections describe private brothels for officers or well-paying foreigners with privacy and a high-class experience.104 These establishments carefully selected their clientele and remained discreet.
Given the various types of prostitution, not all proved lucrative. Even when women and girls did profit, they struggled to support themselves in the long run. Women’s rights promoters denounced the prostitution industry as creating a “spiral of dependency and corruption” that would inevitably benefit only the Americans.105 The impact of the sex industry on Vietnamese culture does not seem to have been a consideration for soldiers. Rather, prostitution and bar girls appear simply to have been accepted as part of South Vietnamese culture, as much as ao dai tunics. For servicemen, sex with local women represented one of the most desirable forms of recreation and a rite of passage during their tour of duty. Convenience often dictated what forms of sexual encounters Americans sought, but rarely did these encounters strike them as something that might be illegal.106 Sex was ubiquitous, and punishment was minimal. The risk of contracting an incurable disease seems to have been a far greater threat than a formal reprimand. Among the ranks, troops viewed exchanges involving intercourse and fellatio as socially acceptable interactions and nothing that seemed out of the norm during their deployment.107 Veterans recall the ease of access to the industry without any awareness that they might have been unsettling local society. Sex offered an opportunity to de-stress and was readily available behind the front lines.
The American Morale Problem
Even when faced with evidence of economic inflation, widespread corruption, and powerful vice industries, before 1967 the American military leadership did not see the booming prostitution industry as much of a problem. Only after venereal disease rates rose did officers become alarmed. For local leaders, the issues compounded to create higher levels of concern. For one thing, prostitution violated RVN laws and challenged cultural taboos. The disregard for these laws seemed, for many observers in South Vietnam, to mirror a wider problem of American disregard for Vietnamese interests. In addition, the North Vietnamese certainly used this message in their propaganda, denouncing Americans as predators preying on Vietnamese women.108 Even among Western supporters, intimate violations of Vietnamese mores created a point of tension and a principle that they deemed worth defending.
The problems divided Vietnamese citizens, who both struggled because of the sex industry and relied on it to feed their families. While the Americans faced an official Vietnamese policy of eradication, they also heard from lower-level officials that the industry was not off limits. In one report collected by a women’s group, a South Vietnamese government employee stated: “The Americans need girls; we need dollars. Why should we refrain from the exchange? It’s an inexhaustible source of U.S. dollars for the state.”109 With so much confusion and political corruption within the RVN leadership, the United States managed for several years to avoid the foreign relations risks of taking a hard line on sexual and social policy.
Numerous issues unfolded out of the massive influx of US service members in Vietnam in the years after 1964. In his study of the 2.5 million enlisted men who served in Vietnam, 80 percent of whom grew up in working-class families, Christian Appy argues that those individuals came from a milieu already accustomed to doing the “dirty work” of society.110 The military struggled to manage chronic morale problems among conscripted soldiers serving in harsh conditions year after year. As the advertisements discussed earlier illustrate, sex entertainment proved a popular distraction for soldiers. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu has convincingly argued that “racialized and sexualized depictions of Asian women, used to foster male bonding among U.S. soldiers, guided American military policies and practices in Southeast Asia—in the brothels and in the general prosecution of war,” as part of the strategy to keep up morale.111
Plans for maintaining control over South Vietnamese society, in particular the sex industry, relied on carefully policing and arresting prostitutes but not the men they served. While foreign military expansion in the region upset the local culture, the military showed little understanding of how sexual interactions in the Vietnam War differed from the experience in previous conflicts Americans had fought in Asia. Thus, the military leadership failed to see how open engagement in sexual relationships with civilians might imperil the war effort. As a result, the concern for Americans was restricted to minimizing coverage of these issues in the press. The early effects of wartime intercultural intimacy laid the foundation for later problems that would demand the attention of policy makers on both sides of the US-RVN alliance.
Concerns over morale surfaced early in Vietnam and escalated as the conflict appeared to devolve into a war of attrition. By the end of the decade, particularly after the Tet Offensive, Americans saw a need to shut down or heavily regulate the practice of R&R in Vietnam. Military leadership felt that this would help reduce prostitution problems while ensuring that the men would remain where they needed to be when not on leave.112 They hoped the promise of efficient R&R would control the impulse to break curfew or move outside approved troop areas. GIs flying out of the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, for example, could not go into the city. Rather, they had to remain in the area for departing R&R flights.113
While out on R&R, servicemen were instructed to be respectful and “maintain the best possible appearance at all times” by refraining from “loud, boisterous conduct and profane language.”114 Depending on the location, the military might have to inform soldiers about restrictions enforced in different nations. Australia and Singapore prohibited Playboy magazine, for example.115 From public intoxication to sex with local women, men were warned that poor GI behavior abroad could risk diplomatic relations with US allies throughout the Pacific. Negative actions weighed on the image of America more than the positive acts performed by soldiers who helped direct traffic or build schools in Vietnam, requiring more top-down oversight to help prevent such consequences. To assist with social and cultural education, the Department of Defense (DoD) published pocket guides to R&R locations. These included warnings to abide by the customs of local population. The DoD’s Pocket Guide to the Philippines clearly references GIs’ interactions with women, cautioning: “While young people in the cities are more modern in their ways, your behavior toward young ladies anywhere in the Philippines is expected to be formal. Don’t overstep the bounds of Filipino custom and propriety.”116 The instructions indicate that US officials had some awareness of the potential for soldiers’ social behavior to impact perceptions of the United States abroad; but while viewing the Philippines as a site for R&R, the military shared Major General Arthur MacArthur’s turn-of-the-century thoughts on the futility of trying to stop soldiers from indulging.117
Morale-building programs within Vietnam meant to raise the spirits of the troops used sex to sell performances by women, including Playboy Bunnies flown around the world as part of the entertainment.118 Some celebrities generated more enthusiasm than others. In a note scratched on a memo attached to the itinerary for a USO show, a Colonel MacDonald of the 101st Airborne Division posed two questions. Before asking if the recipient knew whether the show was coordinated with another unit, he demanded, “Who the hell is Gary Vincent?” in reference to the star of television’s The Virginian, Gary Vinson.119 The male actor did not seem to offer much excitement compared to more popular female performers. Military control over entertainment grew more important after the Tet Offensive both for safety and as part of the effort to better control venereal disease during the Nixon Administration.
Relations with local women sparked outrage and calls for change among many Vietnamese. In a January 1966 editorial in the Saigon Post, editor Dat To wrote: “In countries where wars drag on, societies are shaken to their foundations and vices mushroom. Vietnam is no exception to the rule.”120 His comment sheds light not only on what was happening in Saigon by 1966 but also on how it related to previous US sex policies in the Pacific. “Experiences,” he offered, “can be learnt from both Japan and Korea, but unfortunately, previous governments had done nothing to cure the disease let alone to prevent it. Even now, measures are taken on a temporary basis, aimed at solving urgent cases only.”121 Lamenting the state of Vietnamese society, he concluded: “We cannot help noticing an overall change in the order of social values. New ones have replaced old ones, we may say. It is no longer proper to divide our society into 4 classes (students, farmers, workers and merchants) as our ancestors did before, but it is also heartbreaking to see the new social values based on the capability of money making! It is time for the responsible authorities to pay attention to more social reforms. Leaders of a country must be also vanguard combatants on this social front.”122 Dat To’s concerns, and those of numerous others in Vietnam, contributed to the first official American response to the problem of sexual policies in the Vietnam War.
The social and cultural transitions of the 1960s resonated just as powerfully in the world of foreign affairs. Failed efforts to slow prostitution mirrored the larger failure to resist the impact of Western culture on South Vietnamese society. Youth embraced Western music, television, clothing, and luxury goods. Many of the concerns about how young Vietnamese in the cities embraced the West carried over from the French colonial era, but the metropolitan population boom exacerbated the shift. The American embassy in Saigon reported, “Tight trousers and miniskirts, long hair, brightly colored shirts, [‘mod’] sunglasses and boots—these are the garb of the young urban Vietnamese.”123 Coupled with changes in urban space, assimilation into transplanted American culture disconnected Vietnamese youth from their cultural heritage. In addition, anti-Americanism flourished in Vietnamese populations resistant to the cultural takeover, particularly women’s organizations. The fashions and behaviors that shocked socially conservative Vietnamese disturbed many Americans as well.124 Film and print media, including Playboy magazine, delivered sexuality for mass consumption.125 In 1964 Pearl S. Buck wrote in Ladies’ Home Journal about “our new ethics of sex” and what she saw as a women’s revolution.126 Americans finally found themselves willing to talk about sexual experimentation in public, placing them at the center of the sexual revolution. For Buck, however, the revolution identified women as sex objects within the culture, which reinforced patriarchy and limited mobility for women.127
By the time the sexual revolution merged with the economic and demographic realities of the war in Vietnam, extramarital sex had lost much of its earlier taboo.128 More than in any prior war, news cameras broadcast the conflict into homes around the world. In addition to battles and troop movements, the press captured images of eroticized bar girls.129 The simultaneous rise in the feminist and women’s rights movements challenged the intentions and realities of the growing sex industry in Vietnam. Supporters worked with Vietnamese women’s groups to protest the practices and the treatment of women, who they felt were left without other options in the war economy. For the US military, the changing social and cultural climate resulted in a dialog over the wartime sex industry like none they had ever experienced before.
The scorn for Western ideas about sexuality and their impact on Vietnamese women even found its way into local papers through the Ly Ly the Lovely comic strip that ran in the Saigon Post throughout 1965. The comic portrayed a frivolous girl more focused on fashion, money, and tall handsome men, presumably foreigners, than on traditional suitors her parents encouraged. In the comic strip, drawn by Duc Khanh, Ly Ly moves through life with little consideration for the hardships she places on her family. In one strip, she seduces a math tutor her parents have hired to help her with her studies, much to their dismay.130 In another, she is asked about her engagement. She responds that she had broken it, but when asked why she still wears her fiancé’s ring, she shallowly replies, “I don’t like him, but I still like his ring.”131 Reflecting on the changing fashions of the time, Duc Khanh often showed Ly Ly in flashy clothes or accessories. She even complains of a sore neck from sleeping while sitting up to maintain her Western-style bouffant hairdo.132 Throughout the various panels, she uses men for money, her parents fear she is pregnant, and when they can’t change her behavior, even her mother attempts to fit in with her Westernizing daughter by wearing a short dress and heels.133 Read as a commentary on the impact of American escalation, the character Ly Ly represents a fear of feminine susceptibility to the Westernization and sexualization of Vietnam.
In one of the most blatant commentaries about the risks of associating with Western culture, Ly Ly visits a doctor, who says, “I am happy to tell you, madam, that you are expecting.” Appearing stunned by the news, she exclaims: “How terrible! I am not married.” In the final panel of the strip, the doctor flatly rephrases his assessment: “Well, I am sorry to tell you you are going to be an unmarried mother.”134 The lack of compassion in the strip creates a heaviness that was absent from earlier installments, and rather than the humor coming from the frivolousness of the character, the joke is seemingly finally on Ly Ly for her behavior. Ly Ly the Lovely ran daily in early 1965 but tapered off toward the end of the year and was replaced by American comics. Running Dennis the Menace appealed to a broader American readership and eliminated the Vietnamese social commentary.
The sex industry, however, had less to do with societal openness toward sexuality in South Vietnam than it did with grabbing for quick profits, which made it inherently unstable. The industry proved particularly vulnerable to attacks from women’s groups, which linked their cause to that of feminists worldwide in order to gain support for their protests. In a 1969 interview with the woman’s magazine Phu Nhu Vietnam (meaning “Vietnamese Woman”), Mrs. Nguyen Dinh Chi, vice president of the Hue Alliance of the Popular, Democratic, and Peace-Loving Forces of Vietnam, railed against the “cowboyism” and “social diseases” brought in by Americans. She argued that their presence had turned hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women into bar girls and prostitutes.135 The only option, she assured readers, was for women in the cities to rise up in support of the war against the United States and the administration of Thieu and Ky in the South. The American feminist organization Women Strike for Peace sent Cynthia Fredrick to Saigon that same year to evaluate life on the ground. She reported on the encouraging rise in women’s unions attempting to shed light on the impact of the war on women and girls, and most notably on the rise of sex work.136 By building a bridge between their interests and those of women in America, antiwar women in Vietnam added a new front in their ongoing resistance to the troubling foreign relations and health impacts of prostitution on the war effort.
Women’s groups refused to differentiate between prostitution and the effects of the war itself. In their publications, they equated anti-American activities concerned with the levels of civilian casualties with those criticizing the Westernization of youth.137 The war grew bloodier and the identity of enemy forces less straightforward after the 1968 Tet Offensive in cities across South Vietnam. Chaos and confusion fueled the distrust that compounded anti-American sentiment motivated by everything from bombings and napalm attacks to sexual behavior and fashion. As the war progressed, risks to the lives of US service members and the civilians who worked with or near them increased in urban areas, forcing military leadership to limit GIs’ movements by imposing curfews. In addition, the losing battle to control the medical repercussions by treating only one party to sexual encounters, the servicemen, allowed disease to spread and compounded the difficulty of managing military readiness. The interwoven threats to health and security forced the United States to alter its policies on prostitution, an industry so synonymous with warfare that medical advisors had passively accepted it as “a fact of life” in 1966.138
Sex work, and prostitution in particular, pervaded the American political dialog about the Vietnam War in 1966. After the initial Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the legality of the war, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas famously brought reports of Saigon as an “American brothel” to national attention for the first time. Congress quickly swept the issue aside as an irrelevant distraction. Sex, politicians and military leaders felt, was simply a part of war.139 As efforts to downplay the industry and its effects on foreign relations failed, prostitution continued to raise concern and inspire debate as it escalated along with the conflict.140 While the struggle within the alliance stretched far beyond the question of intercultural sexual intimacy, unease grew out of the Americans’ lack of interest in enforcing RVN laws regarding sex, despite their promises to do otherwise.141 In part, early US policies toward sexual relations illustrates how the confident nature of American power prevented US officials from taking into consideration the importance of culture and sexuality in shaping the attitudes of the Vietnamese toward their allies.
Armed forces in Vietnam viewed sexual encounters with prostitutes as normative behavior. Studies about the experiences of Australian soldiers revealed that 72 percent of single and 50 percent of married troops admitted to having intercourse with a prostitute during their tour of duty there.142 Married men reported fewer encounters than their single counterparts, but the numbers still indicate that a large percentage participated in sexual affairs and were willing to admit it. By the later 1960s, the venereal disease rates in Vietnam outpaced the dramatic levels in Korea a decade previously and matched rates not seen since the World War I era.143 In light of the hundreds of thousands of troops sent to Vietnam over the course of the war, it is easy to see how the business of selling one’s body for sex could become such a profitable career option for struggling Vietnamese women. By the middle of the war, the industry had left its mark.
The debate over sexual encounters in Vietnam entered into mainstream discourse with Senator Fulbright’s controversial speech at Johns Hopkins University, “The Arrogance of Power,” and his claim three days later, on May 8, 1966, that Saigon was “both literally and figuratively … an American brothel.”144 Fulbright’s brothel accusation came in the wake of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings questioning the United States’ role and purpose in Vietnam, which began in February 1966 to bring attention to the conflict and limit escalation. CBS and NBC aired the hearings at midday, but CBS president Frank Stanton bowed to pressure from the Johnson administration to temporarily stop airing live coverage to show noncontroversial reruns of I Love Lucy instead.145 Attempts to push the hearings off the air could not stem the interest of American audiences, however, who remained riveted for months to come.
Fulbright, a staunch opponent of US involvement, used sensational stories and compelling sound bites to build sentiment against the war. He argued that Vietnamese citizens resented “the disruptive effect of our strong culture upon their fragile one” and cited reports of men forced to send their wives and daughters out to support themselves as bar girls and mistresses. He diagnosed the problem of oversaturating Vietnamese society with American influence as one of “fatal impact.” Fulbright identified this impact “of the rich and strong on the poor and weak” as a primary cause of resistance to American power in the region. He in part blamed Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had boasted about supplying 9.2 pounds of goods per day for each GI, much of which ended up on the black market.146
On May 11, Fulbright took his allegations to McNamara directly during the secretary of defense’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When asked to comment on the “brothel” allegation, McNamara “displayed indignation” at the question. He countered: “I don’t think we ought to characterize our men by that name.… I don’t think we ought to characterize the city by that name. I haven’t been to Saigon since November but it wasn’t a brothel then and I don’t think that it is today.” He concluded: “I don’t mean there are not prostitutes in Saigon. There are prostitutes in Washington. And I don’t mean that servicemen don’t patronize prostitutes there just as they do in the U.S. But nobody has called Washington a brothel.”147 Later studies would prove that the numbers of prostitutes in Vietnam were significantly higher than at home, but McNamara was angered by the effort to shift attention away from his prepared testimony, which dealt with the effects of bombings on the morale of the National Liberation Front.148
The debate over the “American brothel” accelerated on May 17, when Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota asked that Fulbright’s speech be introduced into the Congressional Record.149 This sparked a whirlwind of press coverage on the issue, highlighting America’s shifting cultural anxieties regarding war and sexuality. Fulbright later claimed to regret his depiction of Saigon as an “American brothel,” but the damage was done. He apologized for the way the media had reported his statements but did not deny that the statements were true. Media reports stated that Fulbright had spoken against the troops, but he contended that he was referring instead to “the inevitable impact on a fragile Asian society of Western soldiers … behaving in the way that is to be expected of men at war.” Although he claimed to regret the statement and its negative implications on servicemen, he reiterated his concerns and the convincing accounts he had read.150 Prostitution had become a significant part of the war’s culture, and the American military, critics said, ought to compensate for the activities of its soldiers. Sex in Vietnam would no longer be simply an acceptable means of morale building for the United States but instead became a delicate point of contention over morale versus morality, discretion versus elimination, and the importance of safety and national interests on all sides.
Those who tuned in to the Vietnam hearings witnessed the confusion and contradictions of members of government struggling over the US role in Vietnam and the world at large. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee brought several star witnesses, ranging from the so-called “father” of containment theory, George Kennan, who opposed the war, to the then retired army general Maxwell Taylor, who had advised on much of the government’s Vietnam policy since 1961. Time magazine expressed disappointment over the hearings in late February. “It might, and should,” Time reported, “have been a historic debate, a solemn, searching in quiry [sic] into the fundamental aims, origins and prospects of America’s deepening commitment to a land war in Asia.”151 Rather, the hearings had fallen short of this ideal, raising only limited concern over the war and sparking a reactionary defensiveness in Washington regarding the necessity of the American presence in Vietnam.
The media covered reaction to Fulbright’s claims throughout the summer of 1966 in articles ranging from the supportive to the sensational. Immediately following his initial charges, the New York Times reported the opinion of Mrs. Oswald B. Lord, who worked on various presidential committees related to women, foreign aid, and the International Cooperation Year. She also had experience working with the United Nations. On the basis of her recent visits to Vietnam, Mrs. Lord found Fulbright’s claims to be false. She argued that the GIs she had witnessed were helping at orphanages and rehabilitation centers, “not in town with the bar girls.”152 Time magazine approached the issue in a different way with a tongue-in-cheek jab at Fulbright’s home state of Arkansas. In response to McNamara’s argument that the media should not focus on prostitution in Vietnam because the same vices existed in the United States, Time reported: “For that matter, not everyone in Fulbright’s own Arkansas cities of Little Rock and Hot Springs patronizes prostitutes either, though there is an abundance of whores, ranging from massage-parlor employees ($5) to $200-a-night hotel call girls. And at Little Rock Air Force Base, every airman so inclined knows that he has only to call FRANKLIN 4–2181, ask for ‘Rocket’ or ‘Houston,’ and find out if ‘the ice is on.’ The price of ice starts at $15 a dish.”153 Time and others poked quite a bit of fun at Fulbright’s morality claims amid a sexual revolution, but as the war escalated, this booming industry and its expanding clientele of American patrons would only add more fuel to the fires of dissent.
The media presented GIs as being generally frustrated with Fulbright’s focus on the moral implications of prostitution rather than the morale of soldiers. On June 3, Time ran a letter from Joseph P. Nye Jr., a private first class in the Marine Corps in Hue. Nye wrote: “Washington’s biggest problem concerning GIs in Viet Nam is their morale. It is not unlike the problem the U.S. had in the Korean War, and the good Senator isn’t helping.”154 Access to sex offered one of the most effective morale boosters with the lowest overhead for the armed forces. Military leaders subscribing to this view saw Fulbright’s denunciation of prostitution not as an indication of his dismay over the immorality of the war or the dehumanization of Vietnamese women and girls but as a personal attack against soldiers and their actions.
The 1967 exposé Saigon After Dark, written under the pseudonym Philip Marnais, provided a gritty and often uncomfortable account of the industry as seen from the perspective of a brothel patron.155 Marnais’s book invited readers to judge for themselves if Fulbright’s claim that Saigon was an American brothel was true.156 He argued: “To an observer in Saigon it appears incredible that such a debate could have occurred in the first place. Saigon is obviously an American brothel, just as ten years ago it was a French brothel and ten years from now, if the Communists win, it will be a Chinese brothel.”157 Like other accounts from the time, Marnais’s stressed the ease of access and the lack of moral standards in war that made the industry so pervasive.
The “American brothel” accusations eventually fell out of the public discourse without much attention from the domestic press. The military had long condoned, and even organized access to, prostitutes for GIs.158 They openly promoted sexuality in Vietnam through events such as Playboy Playmate “kissing tours” and sexualized USO performances, but prostitution proved more difficult to negotiate since the military had no control over local civilian populations.159 For the most part, the American public showed limited concern over GI interactions with Vietnamese civilians. The South Vietnamese government, however, openly condemned and fought to shut down the industry. Many US government officials held the view that in a war in which over a quarter of the soldiers were conscripts, a little morale boost could go a long way. Military leaders felt limited in their options, recognizing that sexuality and war had long gone hand in hand.160 By 1967, the American leadership recognized prostitution as problematic, and added this concern to their struggles against wartime corruption, inflation, and disease in Vietnam.
While the sexual revolution brought more open ideas regarding sexuality and changed the way the public discussed it, the military had long accepted that soldiers away from home would engage in sexual relationships with civilians.161 The demand for sexual entertainment in Vietnam, while considerable, was not new. The combined promotion of masculinity in Vietnam War–era military training and expendable income among troops seeking out distractions made prostitution a popular business.162 Bar girls typically had some degree of choice in who they interacted with, but this was not always the case. Usually the workers owed money to the owner of the bar for rented space or drinks and worked to repay it. Young women fleeing to the cities for opportunities saw relationships with GIs as a chance for survival. Not all women who engaged in intimate relationships with Americans did so as prostitutes, but many outsiders viewed them as such. The rapid expansion of the industry following the Americanization of the conflict constitutes an unsurprising repercussion of the Vietnam War, but the scope of the industry presented new challenges that few scholars have explored from a policy perspective.163 Scholars agree that the conditions of war favor promiscuity, but in Vietnam, levels reached new heights and became part of the war culture and reportage.164 Demand for entertainment drove the industry into the mainstream despite morality laws, prohibitions on prostitution, and vice squads put in place under the Diem family.165
In the wake of American escalation, unpoliced growth led to inflation and a flourishing market for vice. Loosening global ideas about the roles of women paired with the need to support families to make prostitution not just a means to earn money but a way for some women to climb the social ladder. Disease, abuse, and other dangers nevertheless made prostitution a job entailing considerable risk. For GIs, lingering colonial ideas about the sensual nature of Asian women, added to the already intense sexual desires of wartime, created a consistent demand regardless of prohibition. For servicemen, the women became part of the geography of their tours in Vietnam. Citing a French adage, “There are no crazy professions, only crazy people,” a Vietnamese study assessing the validity of prostitution as a career used this rationale to explain why the French allowed the practice.166 To many Vietnamese citizens, Americans’ behavior and cultural impact mirrored that of their colonial predecessors. By 1966 the United States and its South Vietnamese allies found themselves locked in a battle over the legitimacy of sexual policies.
On the domestic political stage, the 1966 Fulbright hearings and the description of Saigon as an “American brothel” had little immediate effect but eventually succeeded in raising awareness of US social policies in Vietnam. As Meredith Lair has suggested, the Johnson administration’s initial response to managing the military’s social behavior consisted of little more than a “nod and a wink.”167 Broaching the topic in the US news media, however, put the overlapping of sexuality and war up for discussion. As news outlets steadily reported on the theme of intercultural sexual intimacy in the wake of the hearings, the South Vietnamese increased their police assault against illegal vices like prostitution and gambling. With Congress refusing to act, the military leadership took some steps to limit GI-civilian interactions but still allowed the contact to continue. Leaders in Washington did not acknowledge until years later that an outcome much like the “fatal impact” Fulbright had predicted seriously threatened the war effort and required them to adopt a more aggressive stance toward their treatment of sexual encounters.