Author-signed bookplate in my 1956 hardcover edition of Deliver Us From Evil
Dr. Tom Dooley’s acclaimed books recount the medical and humanitarian miracles he wrought as a Navy medic in North Vietnam. His rousing descriptions of how he witnessed Communist atrocities, healed the sick, and aided legions of Catholic Vietnamese refugees, made Americans swell with patriotic pride and resolve to put an end to the evil. As the Cold War heated up, Dr. Dooley’s hair-raising anti-Communist vitriol was raising the curtain on expanding U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in Vietnam.
As a fifth grader in 1958, I was amused that there was a song on the radio called “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” that was not about the bestselling author. But more to the point, as an impressionable young American and a Cub Scout for several months, I was horrified at how atheist Viet Minh Communists were torturing innocent Vietnamese Catholics seeking religious freedom. Dr. Dooley described in gory detail how Communists shoved chopsticks in children’s ears to keep them from hearing prayers, how they tortured priests by pounding nails into heads, and how they punished hundreds of Vietnamese women by disemboweling them for being Catholic. These indignities were akin to what we kids paid to see in the Medieval Torture Section of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Times Square. But being that this was happening in real time, and not in the Middle Ages, the Communists’ torture of Vietnam’s Catholics seemed even more egregious.
Although Dooley’s books are found on non-fiction and history shelves, it’s now known that some of his purplest prose, including his descriptions of wholesale torture techniques, was pure fiction. There’s a body of research illustrating that a lot of what Dooley wrote was exaggerated or fictionalized. In a post-Vietnam War light, one now sees Dooley’s tales of his own awe-inspiring exploits as propaganda, a literary form in its own right. The Pentagon Papers notes that Dooley was not only a doctor; he was an intelligence operative.
In fact the author William J. Lederer was in Saigon working for the C.I,A, when he first heard about Dooley’s work with refugees from Communism in Haiphong. Lederer encouraged Dooley to popularize his experience in books and actually helped edit some chapters. It is no mere coincidence that the harmonica-playing character of Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American is based on Air Force Lt. Col. Edwin Lansdale, the C.I.A. chief in Saigon who recruited both Lederer and Dooley as propagandists for the anti-Communist cause. In The Ugly American, Lederer fictionalized Dooley as the good-guy hero Father John Finian, further blurring the line between fact and fiction.
Dooley the author did a good job of portraying himself as a selfless hero. Imagine that a handsome Navy medic from Missouri, scarcely 30 years old, could do so much to counter the scourge of Communism! It all seemed too good to be true and in fact, U.S. diplomats in Hanoi sent an alarm to the U.S.I.S., signaling their doubts that Dooley had done in real life what his character did in his bestselling books. The diplomatic report that doused water on Dooley’s doings was kept classified for decades, until after the Vietnam War.
After leaving the Navy, Dooley remained an icon of anti-Communism and American do-goodism, raising funds for hospitals and orphanages in Laos and Vietnam, appearing on TV frequently while bound to a contract with The Reader’s Digest that made him ubiquitous in that publication celebrating American values.
Dooley died of cancer on his 33rd birthday. Despite the falsehoods in his non-fiction, he left a true legacy in the form of the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation, which set up clinics and hospitals in rural and remote parts of Laos. A New York Times article published in 1964 eulogized him in this way: “Tom Dooley continues to live in the hearts of the deprived people of Asia. His life and the continuing program of the Dooley foundation stand for the best in American traditions.” Thankfully, there is some truth to his fiction.