“Launch Operation Frequent Manhood!”: Duke and the Vietnam Syndrome. (The Gonzo Chronicles, Part Three)

….and we’re back.

This blog was on hiatus because I was busy having cancer. Things are looking much better now, and I will be updating the site on a regular basis with my regular mix of Doonesbury history and essays about other comics that grab my attention.

Moving forward, I’ll be looking at Duke’s tenure with the State Department, examining his late-1970s time as U.S. ambassador to China. But before we get to Beijing, we need to wind up Duke’s stint as governor of American Samoa. As I wrote previously, this episode transformed Duke from an uncomplicated Hunter S. Thompson caricature to an embodiment of America’s worst traits: “excess, racism, greed, self-interest, and [a] ground ethos of amorality.” At the same time, the Samoan arc revealed much about the dynamics of American colonial rule, notably a belief in the racial inferiority of the colonised and a “lack of commitment to the responsibilities of governing.

Recently, far-right pundit Candace Owens wondered if the United States should invade Australia in order to liberate Aussies from a “totalitarian regime” following the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions Down Under. Owens’s proposal echoes a Doonesbury incident set in motion in equal parts by America’s neglectful approach to colonial governance and Duke’s fundamentally unstable character. In February 1975, Duke’s jurisdiction experienced a string of natural disasters including “a hurricane, a locust plague, a famine, a volcano eruption” and a snowstorm. Duke “spent a week pleading with those morons in Washington” for emergency relief, only to be rewarded for his efforts by the Peace Corps sending “a dozen math teachers.” Looking for a way to get Washington’s attention, Duke decided to invade Australia, an operation that hinged on forces being able to “seize the key tennis camps near Sydney.

Duke ultimately backed off on that plan, instead creating a more localized incident by seizing a cruise ship and holding the passengers hostage in order “to make those yo-yos in Washington sit up and notice us

The fun begins. Doonesbury, 10 June 1975

The ensuing debacle established Duke’s enduring predilection for insane plots, a trait which allowed Garry Trudeau to comment on current events by injecting Duke into unfolding historical moments. In 1979 Duke was caught parachuting into Iran in a plot to bribe a local official on behalf of Universal Petroleum. The arc merged with ongoing events when Iranian students seized the American embassy, leading to a hostage crisis that lasted for fourteen months, with Duke being released in exchange for “Iranian assets totalling $300.” Duke’s 1982 plan to use the proceeds of a cocaine deal to finance a movie about automotive entrepreneur John DeLorean with the proceeds of a cocaine deal was inspired by DeLorean’s own arrest for trafficking coke.

Like the Iran and DeLorean arcs, the cruise ship incident was based on current events: the drawn-out end of America’s involvement in Vietnam, a theme Trudeau has explored throughout the strip’s history. As Duke’s time in colonial administration was ending, GBT wrote extensively about the end of the war. In May 1975, we met Kim Rosenthal, later Kim Doonesbury, the last orphaned refugee to leave Vietnam and some of the thousands of other war refugees looking to make America their new home. In between those arcs Phred landed a sweet government gig in a newly-reunited Vietnam while Mike and Mark conducted their ”Indochina autopsy,” a sequence that poked the open wounds that the war had left on the American psyche. Most poignant was a strip in which Phred wonders about B.D.’s reaction to the war’s catastrophic finale; the wordless final panel captures an American soldier’s uncomprehending grief.

Duke’s cruise ship stunt was a commentary on the “Vietnam Syndrome,” a political shift that found policy-makers seeking to reestablish American military credibility abroad while confronted by a public with limited taste for deadly overseas misadventures, especially when the desired outcome seemed poorly-defined and uncertain. Trudeau had already written about the Vietnam Syndrome before the seizure of the cruise ship. In May, he depicted a meeting between President Ford and “the ambassadors from the capitals of the free world.” Ford assured allies that the U.S. was “still prepared to do for France or Britain or Israel” what they had done for Vietnam: “intervene in [their] civil wars and kill and maim millions of [their] citizens.”

Establishing America’s willingness to use deadly force abroad was central to Washington’s response to Duke’s manufactured crisis. Henry Kissinger reflexively called for America to “stomp” the Samoans. Given how seriously Vietnam had damaged its credibility, America had to “put the world on notice” that it was no longer “Mr. Nice Paper Tiger.” Convinced by Kissinger’s rhetoric, President Ford authorized “Operation Frequent Manhood,” a plan to invade American Samoa to free the hostages. The code-name is a direct reference to the plan to remove American citizens and their South Vietnamese collaborators during the fall of Saigon: Operation Frequent Wind. With “Frequent Manhood,” America would no more appear emasculated on the world stage.

“Operation Frequent Manhood,” Doonesbury, 17 June 1975
The Vietnam Syndrome in Action. Doonesbury, 18 June 1975.

The effects of the emerging Vietnam Syndrome are revealed in the Marines’ attitude as they set out to free the hostages. After one Marine asks if they are expected to “sustain heavy casualties,” the entire unit hesitates to go into action, needing clarification of the rationale for the attack and reassurance that the stakes of the mission were “something [they] could believe in.

A comedy of errors ensues, as the Marines wander the Pacific from Fiji to Tahiti, unable to locate American Samoa. By the time they get to Pago-Pago, Duke has released his hostages, though he does allow the Marines to stage a mock invasion in order to boost morale. In retaliation to Duke’s actions (and as a “warning to North Korea”) the United States engages in “a little punitive bombing,” and drops “Bluebell,” “the largest conventional bomb we’ve got,” on American Samoa, destroying a tuna cannery, “the only industry on the whole island.”

“Bluebell” is a reference to 15,000 lb. bomb officially designated as BLU-82, (nicknamed the “Daisy Cutter”) at the time the one of the most powerful non-nuclear weapons ever built. Tellingly, a Daisy Cutter was deployed in the Mayaguez incident, the last armed action of the Vietnam era, which took place off the coast of Cambodia in May 1975, just days after the fall of Saigon. The incident, which involved an operation to free the crew of the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant ship that had been seized by Cambodia’s newly-instituted Khmer Rouge regime, was the ultimate inspiration for the “Frequent Manhood” arc. (Perhaps coincidentally, one of the heroes of the battle, Fofo Tuitele, was from American Samoa.)

The Mayaguez operation was beset by a dynamic that had contributed to the development of the Vietnam Syndrome in the first place: soldiers giving their lives in a futile cause. By the time American forces went into action, the kidnapped crew had already been released – as was the case with the ship Duke seized. Tragically, while military incompetence on the funny pages led to nothing worse than a boat-full of Marines wandering lost from one Pacific island to another, some forty American servicemen died in an assault on Cambodia’s Koh Tang Island, the assumed location of the hostages. Horrifically, three Marines were left behind, murdered by the Khmer Rouge after the White House cancelled a rescue operation.

The Vietnam Syndrome shaped American foreign policy until the early 1990s war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, an event that would profoundly affect how GBT wrote about America’s military and the wars it fights. Duke, meanwhile would continue to find himself at the centre of geopolitical developments. His time in Samoa established him, and by extension America on the world stage, as a decidedly unsavoury character.

Things would only get worse in Beijing. Stay tuned.

It’s really good to be back. Thanks for reading.

CODA:

Duke’s final days in American Samoa saw the introduction of three characters who would go on to play important roles in Doonesbury history. I’m going to simply note their debuts here, and will return to their stories somewhere down the road.

After his time in China, Duke became manager of the Washington Redskins football team. One of his players was an American Samoan named Lenny “Lava-Lava” Fali. As governor of American Samoa, Duke arranges for Lava-Lava to go to Walden, where he plays with B.D. and Zonker before jumping ship to the NFL.

In September 1975, Duke briefly returns to the States in order to resume his career with Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone’s editor, Jann Wenner, assigns Duke to cover the marriage of Greg Allman and Cher. Disgusted at the prospect of working in celebrity journalism, Duke pawns off an assignment to Zonker, sending him to cover a Gregg Allman recording session. While Zonk misses Allman, he does end up meeting Doonesbury’s resident rock star, Jimmy Thudpucker, who remains a regular character.

Duke returns to Pago-Pago after American Samoa’s Minister of Ecology discovers oil off the colony’s shores. The discovery brought Jim Andrews, the president of Universal Petroleum to American Samoa. Andrews, who is named for the founder of Universal Press Syndicate (now Andrews McMeel Syndication), the company that distributed Doonesbury, often appeared in the strip when corporate culture or the politics of oil were the topic.

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