This Isn't About The Tom Dooley Who Hung Down His Head-- This Is The Other Tom Dooley
Growing up, CBS' weekly game show What's My Line? was one of the most popular shows on the relatively new television machine. It ran from 1950 to 1967 and won a bunch of Emmys and Golden Globes. By the time the above episode ran in 1959, the guest, Tom Dooley, had already had his major impact on the word stage, although in a role that certainly never came up on the show. To John Daley, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen-- and their audience-- young Dr. Dooley was a crusading physician running hospitals in the war-torn Laotian jungle.
When I was very young, Dooley had had a slightly earlier brush with fame-- as a tool of the CIA in the lead up to the American invasion of Vietnam. By the time the French were ready to admit they could no longer hold back Vietnamese nationalism and were ready to surrender the country to the victorious Ho Chi Minh, fully delusional right-wing American extremists, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA head Allen Dulles, NY Cardinal Francis Spellman were determined-- with President Eisenhower's backing-- to destroy Vietnam rather than see it fall to "the Communists." But Americans were sick of war-- World War II was still fresh in everyone's mind and the very unpopular Korean War was still smoldering. In his stupendous new book, The Brothers, Stephen Kinzer explains Tom Dooley's entry onto the world stage. The Dulles' man on the ground in Vietnam in the early '50s was Madison Avenue ad man turned CIA operative Ed Lansdale. The U.S. had embarked on a policy of undermining the Geneva Agreements that had guaranteed a free election in Vietnam once they realized Ho Chi Minh would win, according to Eisenhower's own estimates, by over 80%. The Dulles brothers, Lansdale and their teams got busy with a disinformation campaign meant to stir up religious, ethnic and regional strife that would undermine civil society entirely and create despair and panic throughout the country.
Lansdale, steeped in the principles of advertising and "pay-war<' occluded that the story of Operation Passage to Freedom would resonate more deeply if he could find a single figure to personify it. Americans associated the anti-Communist crusade with dour scolds like Foster, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Cardinal Spellman. Lansdale wished to give it a brighter face.Over the weekend, when Itay Hod exposed anti-gay hypocrite Aaron Schock (R-IL) as flamboyantly gay himself, on twitter follower of his asked if the media doesn't "have an OBLIGATION to expose his hypocrisy?" It certainly never dawned on anyone to bring it up publicly in regard to Tom Dooley when he was raising buckets of money for his various crusades in Southeast Asia while living high on the hog and seducing any young men he could get his hands on. (It wasn't that much later that the U.S. Army covered up Mitch McConnell's homosexual advances towards a young enlisted man when he was an officer at Ft Knox.) Much later, the NY Times published the first chapter of Dr. America-- The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961 by James Fischer. By that time, Dooley was no longer on the track towards Roman Catholic sainthood but his real story never really become as well known as the one the CIA pushed on the AMerican people while they were preparing the country for their war against the Vietnamese people. Dooley was as mentally ill as any garden variety closet case and an inveterate liar, hypocrite and self-promoter.
The face he chose belonged to a young man named Tom Dooley, a handsome young Notre Dame graduate [at least everyone thought he was a Notre Dame graduate] who had become a doctor, enlisted in the Navy, and thrown himself into the nobel mission of rescuing Christians from Ho. Within months of his arrival, Lansdale began steering journalists to him. They pounced on the human aspect f his story, and he quickly became a popular hero in the United States.
Americans admired Tom Dooley because he reflected them as they believed themselves to be. He was an idealist… In his best-selling book, Deliver Us From Evil, Dooley described Ho as "a Moscow puppet" who had launched his revolution "by disemboweling more than 1,000 native women in Hanoi." Fortunately for the Vietnamese, "our love and help were available, just because we were in the uniforms of the U.S. Navy." Dooley provided a narrative calculated to move the American soul: Christians in a foreign land were being brutalized by Communists; these Communists also wished harm to Americans; therefore, the United States must act.
"The American press reported on the million-person migration as if it were a spontaneous rejection of communism and the manifestation of a natural yearning of people for freedom," according to one study. "The media ported the typical refugee as a devout Catholic who wished to practice his or her religion freely. Newsreels depicted U.S. naval vessels crammed with hungry and huddled masses being transported to freedom by kindhearted and white-uniformed sailors of the U.S. Navy. Photographs showed the small, stooped, frightened, and bedraggled Vietnamese peasants finding safety in the arms of their big, clean, strong American protectors… What the American public was not told, however, is that much of what they were seeing and hearing was the result of a CIA-instigated propaganda campaign designed to frighten Catholics in North Vietnam and ti elicit sympathy for them in the United States."
The Tom Dooley story was a masterstroke for Allen, Lansdale, and the CIA. It might have been tarnished when Dooley was forced out of the Navy for homosexuality, but the facts were hushed up. A poll in the late 1950s found him to be one of the ten most admired people in the United States. For a time after his death in 1961, the Catholic Church considered canonizing him.
"As a key agent in the first disinformation campaign of the Vietnam War," one scholar wrote of Dooley, "he performed the crucial propaganda function of making the American people knowledgeable of and willing to fight Communism in Southeast Asia."
Between late December 1955 and the first week of 1956, Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III signed publishing agreements with Reader's Digest and the prestigious New York firm of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. To support the massive publicity campaign for his first book, Deliver Us from Evil, Dooley supplied "biographical" materials to his sponsors. His invention as a public figure was launched in these sketchy documents that, among other fictions, reported that he "completed his undergraduate work at the Sorbonne in Paris." For the remainder of his life Dooley revised and rewrote his life story with brazen disregard for consistency, as though his experience was meaningful only as it could be invoked to serve the demands of the moment. Given license to continually reinvent himself, he simply intensified patterns that had marked his earlier years. Between 1946 and 1958, for instance--in completing a series of passport applications--Dooley alternately listed his father's birthplace as Hannibal, Joplin, Springfield, or St. Louis, Missouri (Thomas A. Dooley Jr. was born in Moberly, Missouri, in 1885).In 1991, the L.A. Times outed him, posthumously, with a long piece by Diana Shaw, "The Temptation Of Tom Dooley: He Was The Heroic Jungle Doctor Of Indochina In The 1950s. But He Had A Secret, And To Protect It, He Helped Launch The First Disinformation Campaign Of The Vietnam War."
Between Dooley hagiography, timeless and eternal (a cover story in the Liguorian, a Catholic magazine, from June 1991 is virtually identical to devotional works written during his lifetime), and the resentful exposes that emerged in the wake of the Vietnam War, one might hope to discover the "historical" Tom Dooley. But the precelebrity, presainthood version is only faintly accessible to us, due in part to the influence Dooley's public image inevitably exerted on the memory of his friends and acquaintances.
Notre Dame students were not permitted to leave the campus overnight without letters of permission from their parents, yet Dooley frequently spent weekends with his sophisticated friends along the midwestern horse show and fox hunt circuit. He also spent a great deal of time at neighboring Saint Mary's College, a women's school where he played the piano and became a favorite of the college's poet-president, Sister M. Madeleva Wolff. He even made an appearance during 1944 in the chorus line at the fabled Empire Room of Chicago's Palmer House Hotel, where impresario Merriel Abbott booked the nation's most glamorous entertainers. The enormously popular chanteuse Hildegarde was rehearsing one afternoon for a performance when she saw a young man wheeling a piano across the stage of the Empire Room, histrionically wiping feigned perspiration from his brow. She introduced herself to the young collegian and on learning he was a Notre Dame student invited him to accompany her to the 2:00 A.M. "swinger's Mass" at St. Mary's Church in Chicago.
Dooley was able to appear in Hildegarde's chorus line because, while still in his teens, he had become a highly spirited participant in the homosexual subcultures of the American armed forces, the Catholic Church, the hunt circuit, and various urban centers including New York and Chicago. Hildegarde was herself a devout Catholic with a large gay following: her campy nightclub act was rife with allusions to "Kinsey's whimseys" (after 1948) and other euphemisms for homosexuals in currency among entertainers of the period. Allan Berube, the chronicler of gay life in World War II, noted that "although nightclub entertainment was never publicly identified as gay, such performers as Hildegarde and Tallulah Bankhead attracted a devoted gay following, sometimes dropping veiled hints or singing lyrics with double meanings directed at their admirers."
From the time that Dooley's homosexuality was first discussed publicly in 1989, it has been widely assumed that he must have suffered terribly for his sexuality. This view is not wholly unfounded, but it is equally true that from his adolescence onward, Tom Dooley made little effort to conceal his sexuality. He made frequent passes at male acquaintances; according to his classmate Michael Harrington, Tom had a sexual relationship with a young cleric that was anything but secretive, at least so far as Harrington was concerned. A gay friend who served with Dooley as a marine corpsman recalled that far from being confused or tormented by his sexuality, Tom confidently exploited his appeal to gay officers in order to receive choice assignments.
In fact Dooley's precocious talent for trumping military authority and protocol--often a function of his gay connections--may have caused him later to overestimate dangerously his own prowess. In Promises to Keep, Agnes Dooley proudly described Tom's coup in arranging for an impromptu visit by Hildegarde to the U.S. Navy Hospital at St. Alban's, where he was stationed in 1945: "Hildegarde had arrived on schedule, all right, but she refused to budge unless Corpsman Dooley personally escorted her through the hospital. Followed by all the Navy brass--`It was the first time in my life I preceded anyone of rank,' Tom wrote--Hildegarde took Tom's arm, went into Tom's ward, entertained Tom's patients, and then toured the entire hospital."
Several months after he had arrived in Laos, Dooley's mother wrote him that Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper and others were making snide allusions regarding Dooley's departure from the Navy. His mother offered to do anything she could to stop the rumors-- including calling the FBI to investigate their origin and arrest the instigators. He fired off a telegram to her, ordering her to do nothing. "This would be gravest error," he wrote. Surely it would; she would learn the truth.
Dooley followed up the telegram with a rambling letter saying he had known all along that his abrupt resignation would start rumors. But, he went on, no one who had read his book or heard him speak would believe such nonsense, implying that everyone knew that to be homosexual was blatantly at odds with being the man of action he was. The "slur on his family name" came with being a public figure; the fact that anyone should even bother to malign him was a measure of how big he had become. "I can take it, mother," he wrote, "and you should buck up and take it, too."
The rumors died before most people heard them, killed off by those who had invested in his image. The Navy issued denials-- restating that Dooley had resigned from the Navy only to continue his humanitarian work in Indochina. And Life ran a three-page spread, replete with photographs of the good doctor at work and at play. Churches, schools, and corporations went on with fund drives for Dooley, while Reader's Digest bid with other publications for exclusive rights to his next piece.
Within a year, Dooley came home, swinging through the country to solicit support. He had it in mind to franchise himself, to set up a foundation called MEDICO (Medical International Cooperation) to sustain a network of clinics throughout the developing world. He also intended to move farther north in Laos, near the Chinese border, so that he would be close to the action-- if any developed.
But during his move north, Dooley fell, knocking his shoulder and raising a lump that wouldn't recede. A few weeks later, he asked a visitor, the late William Van Valin, then a surgical resident, to remove the lump. Van Valin, jittery about operating on the famous doctor, performed the procedure nevertheless. "I did it under local," he said, "and Tom was wide awake and alert when I pulled the thing out of his chest." The "thing" was a wad the size of a golf ball, and pitch black. "Tom knew it was cancer, and that it was malignant."
Dooley dawdled before going home for more extensive surgery, and there are many who interpret the delay as a death wish. After all, Tom Dooley was fundamentally at odds with the very institutions and individuals sustaining him-- the church and the U.S. government. He knew he could count on them only as long as he was useful to them. Dr. Vincent J. Fontana, medical director of the New York Foundlings Hospital, remembers having dinner with Dooley when he came to New York for treatment. "We were sitting in a restaurant, and Dooley said, 'Nobody loves me,' " Fontana recalls.
He reacted with astonishment. "You get letters every day, from all over the world," he says he told Dooley. "Everyone loves you." But Dooley shook his head. Nobody could possibly love him, he thought, because nobody knew him. If they knew him, they would find him loathsome.
"Tom Dooley was never able to integrate his sexuality into his life in the way that many gay men in the professions were able to do back then," Fontana observes. "He gave in to the stigma and isolated himself."
Dooley parlayed his cancer treatment into a public-relations event. He invited CBS News to film his operation at New York's Sloan Kettering Medical Center, and the network dispatched cameras. On film, in contrast to the grave, stentorian CBS commentator Howard K. Smith, Dooley, painfully thin and wearing a bathrobe, was calm and straightforward. He has agreed to have his surgery broadcast, he said, to comfort other cancer victims and to promote MEDICO. The resulting footage, titled Biography of a Cancer, was broadcast nationally on April 21, 1960, and ended on a sanguine note. On television, Dooley's doctor told him he would survive for years. In fact, Dooley knew that he had a year, at most, to live.
In December, 1961, Dooley, emaciated, bent and insensible with pain, checked back into Sloan Kettering, where he celebrated his 34th birthday. According to Fontana, who was Spellman's physician at the time, Spellman went to see Dooley despite warnings from his advisers, who worried that it might lend credence to rumors about the cardinal's sexual orientation. Navy Surgeon General Bartholomew Hogan went to see Dooley as well, bringing with him a copy of Dooley's new discharge. The record would show, he told Dooley, that he had resigned with a grade of "honorable," not his original "less than honorable." And so it does.
On the day Tom Dooley died, his clinic in Laos was overrun by the Pathet Lao.
Thousands turned out for Dooley's funeral, in the snow, in St. Louis. President John F. Kennedy awarded him a posthumous Medal of Freedom. But given the demands of U.S. policy objectives and events in Vietnam and Laos, Dooley's message, that we need "works of peace," would have to be abandoned. The United States was preparing for war. And so he-- or who he was meant to be-- had to make way. He had served his purpose; the public now cared about a part of the world it had known nothing about before Dooley started pleading on its behalf.
Few doubted Dooley's motives as they were presented by him and the press-- the selflessness that made him remain a bachelor so that he could dedicate himself entirely to this cause. It seemed to them it must be a worthy cause indeed that would inspire him to sacrifice a promising career in the military so that he might devote himself to it. "He was a national hero and a national hazard," Lederer says. "It was his mammoth ego, his need for recognition, that helped get us into that mess over there."