The Defining Generation
Defining the New
The 12 young men who fought the horrible battle for Nam Dong were NOT Green Berets. A green beret is a hat, or more appropriately, the headgear that became an authorized part of the uniform of America’s Special Forces soldiers. The hat did not define the men; rather it defined a new kind of soldier. The brave young men, who worked and trained to wear the Green Beret defined the hat. Around the world in general, and in Vietnam specifically, their dedication and courage defined it well.
Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, Americans watched with both apprehension and confidence as United States Special Forces soldiers were among the first ground troops to begin operations in Afghanistan. Within a matter of weeks we saw an armed enemy crumble beneath the combination of American technology in the air, and the training and determination of our Special Forces soldiers on the ground. It is hard to believe that, in the 1960s, the men of the elite Green Berets’ greatest battle for survival was at home.
The military establishment is among our most highly traditional segments of society and as such, one of the most resistant to change. American air power experienced its own struggle for survival in the years preceding World War II. Men like Eddie Rickenbacker, Billy Mitchell, General Kenneth N. Walker, and other proponents of an increased role for US military air operations, were deemed radical by traditional military leaders of "older generations." World War II vindicated these pioneers, and led to the establishment of the United States Air Force.
After World War II, born out of such successful experiences as the OSS, Marine Raiders, and Airborne Infantry, Special Forces took on roles of new importance. As the Pentagon struggled to find a way to deal with this small segment of its command at Fort Bragg, the future of Army Special Forces was tenuous at best. Much as early pilots had needed vocal proponents like Mitchell and Rickenbacker to promote their cause in the halls of government and the bastions of military power, in the early days the Army Special Forces needed champions of its own to secure its place in the future of the American military.
The young American President who took the oath of office in January 1961 became the first powerful voice for the Green Berets. Though he certainly didn’t end the Pentagon’s suspicion and often even outright antagonism towards these unconventional young soldiers, his support gave the Green Berets a powerful ally. While inside the Pentagon traditionalists continued to battle any plans for such elite units, none dared outwardly to defy the Commander in Chief.
At Fort Bragg, Lieutenant General William Yarborough continued to accept volunteers for his Special Forces experiment. Training was rigorous, demanding, and uncommonly different, causing a high washout rate. Those who survived became the very best America had to offer. Still, these soldiers were often ridiculed by regular Army troops when they were seen wearing their green berets. Some laughingly called them "Girl Scouts" for their distinctive headgear, which at worst, others referred to as the "faggot hat." Of course, no one EVER used such terminology to the face of a Special Forces soldier.
The mission of the Special
Forces, echoed in their motto, is to "Free the Oppressed." This
they accomplished not only by armed resistance of the enemies of the
oppressed, but also by first "winning the hearts and minds" of
those they would free. While these men trained for the humanitarian
missions that would achieve this goal on a global scale, they had yet to
win the hearts and minds of their own Nation.
Robert Robin Moore, Jr.
Robert Lowell Moore, Jr. was a member of what would later become known as The Greatest Generation. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on Halloween night in 1925, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the closing days of World War II, flying 14 missions in a B-17 bomber.
The war in Europe ended in time for 20-year old Moore to return home and register for classes at Harvard, which he did. Graduating in 1949, along the way he became friends with a fellow Harvard student who shared both his first name and his home state. More than a decade later that friendship with Robert F. Kennedy would become pivotal to the Special Forces’ task of winning the hearts and minds of America.
Upon graduation from Harvard Robert Robin Moore went to New York to become a producer in the new broadcast media of television, while his father, Robert Moore, Sr., was building his Sheraton Hotel chain. Robin produced some of television’s earliest game shows and even hosted his own program, "Dining Out". The latter effort, sponsored by Canada Dry, gave the young man ample opportunity to enjoy some of the finest restaurants in New York City, the subject of his broadcast.
In 1953 Robin left New York but not television, to help his father. For the next eight years he helped expand the successful hotel chain as Vice President of the Advertising Market. In his spare time he was daydreaming and mentally returning to television for the subject matter of his first book, Pitchman.
Late in the '50s Robin’s duties took him to the Caribbean to establish additional hotels for his father. During this period the successful entrepreneur who really wanted to be a writer, had occasion to witness the insurgent warfare sweeping Cuba. After personally meeting Fidel Castro, Robin began writing a non-fiction book chronicling the Cuban communist dictator's guerrilla campaign to enslave that Caribbean Island. The story was told in his 1961 release, The Devil To Pay. Shortly thereafter, he wrote his third novel, Hotel Tomayne, about the family’s hotel business. With three books under his belt Robin Moore was beginning to realize his dreams of becoming a successful author.
Robin had personally witnessed the effects of guerilla warfare in the Caribbean; it was a subject that continued to interest him beyond what he had written in his second book. As he planned for his fourth work he took note of a little-known group of American guerilla fighters that wore a distinctive green beret. With his subject matter discovered, he set out to research the Army Special Forces…and quickly learned that elite unit's primary foe was higher echelons of established American military authority. The politicians and generals, who had lived through massive World War II invasions by entire divisions, were quite uncomfortable with the small, elite and unconventional A-Teams that trained at Fort Bragg. They certainly didn’t want to give this highly independent and somewhat rebellious upstart segment of the Army any positive publicity.
Determined to get his story, Robin appealed for help from the United States Attorney General, friend and former Harvard classmate Robert Kennedy. With a powerful friend on his side Robin was able to make contact with the Special Forces Commander, General William P. Yarborough. The General and Robin quickly developed a friendship that lasted them a lifetime, but friendship aside, General Yarborough was firm in his demands. If Robin Moore wanted to research the Special Forces he would first have to train with them. That was fine with Robin, he wanted to do more than write about them; he wanted to BE one of them. To proactively thwart anticipated opposition from traditional military commanders, Kennedy arranged for Robin to meet with several Pentagon officials. Ultimately however, it was the young writer’s research into Castro’s own brand of guerilla warfare that resulted in Pentagon brass grudgingly consenting to his effort. In 1963 Robin Moore reported to Fort Bragg as a civilian, to train with the Army’s elite.
Robin Moore’s training was possible only because of efforts in his behalf by Robert Kennedy and General Yarborough, and came with the knowledge and assent of the President himself. That didn’t make Moore special at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he endured the rigors of Army Jump School. Neither did it cut him any slack at the Special forces "Q" course where, at 37 years of age, he was old enough to be a father to some of the younger men who trained with him. "That’s when all my years of running paid off," Moore said in a 2001 interview. "I think my age also gave some encouragement to the younger men. They would watch me and say, ’If HE can do it, then I can do it’."
Robin trained with the Special Forces for nearly a year with the intent to serve with them in Vietnam. His training was nearing a conclusion in the fall when he quickly learned how determined the U.S. Army brass was to keep him from writing his book. On November 22, 1963, the most powerful supporter of the Special Forces, President John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Two days later Robin Moore’s security clearance was revoked. It was a Pentagon effort to deny him the opportunity to serve in Vietnam, and to hopefully quash his efforts to write a book about the Green Berets.
Fortunately for Robin Moore, and even more fortunately for the future of American military operations around the world, General Yarborough stood by the man who would ultimately become the only civilian to ever write about the Green Berets by becoming one of them. Robin Moore arrived in Vietnam on January 2, 1964.
In Vietnam the brave men of the Green Berets wore two hats. One was the hat of the combat soldier, highly trained in unconventional warfare and able to bring rapid destruction on an armed enemy. The other was a hat of mercy, helping the people of South Vietnam build their communities. Green Berets assisted local tribesmen in building schools and educating their children. They also helped them dig wells to provide potable water, and even taught them how to cultivate their fields for more productive harvests. Furthermore, every A-team had at least two men who were trained as medics, and these were busy combating disease, injuries, and the wounds of war suffered by Vietnamese natives.
As a writer in Vietnam, Robin Moore wore THREE hats. While he diligently recorded the events that would provide reference for the book to follow, he also performed the duties of a Special Forces soldier on foreign soil. He especially enjoyed the missions of medical mercy, working with the medics and members of his A-Teams to heal the bodies of the oppressed.
Robin Moore, although a civilian, was also a combat soldier. "The teams liked to have me around because it gave them an extra trained gun," he says. "Yes, I carried a gun over there, and more than once I had to fight my way out of an ambush." To the men of the Special Forces in Vietnam, Robin Moore wasn’t a writer along for a story. He was a brother, a fellow soldier, a Green Beret.
Robin Moore fulfilled a soldier’s normal tour of duty in Vietnam and returned home in June to write his book. As the manuscript progressed, he also wrote an article about Special Forces Operations in Vietnam that was published in U.S. News and World Report. That article sparked the attention of Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. It was another in those unusual twists of fate that set the stage for events yet to unfold. The man who was serving as Republican minority leader, Gerald Ford, invited Robin to the Capitol to share his observations about the growing action in Vietnam with the Committee. Robin set his pen aside long enough to do so.
Several events early in 1965 set the stage for the tremendous success Robin Moore would see in his book, The Green Berets. In February 1965, public opinion polls showed that 80% of the American public approved of U.S. Military involvement in Vietnam, despite the fact that few Americans knew anything about the brewing conflict.
On March 8 President Johnson sent the first combat troops to Vietnam (where the number of American military advisors already numbered 23,000 men). Three weeks after the first 3,500 Marines arrived to defend the American air base at DaNang, the President authorized the commitment of two more Marine battalions and secretly authorized the commencement of offensive operations. By the time The Green Berets reached bookstores in the late spring, the Vietnam conflict had become a WAR, albeit an undeclared war.
Moore’s newest book gave the American public its first real glimpse into what was happening in Vietnam. For the parents of young men already serving there, or of an age that might call them to service, it gave the war a sense of purpose. For a generation that was coming of age, one that was questioning traditions of the past and rising in opposition to authority, the book provided an unusual hero. The philosophy of the Special Forces is that of an independent, unconventional, "damn the rules and get it done" role model the young could identify with, and dream to emulate. It seemed that all of America loved Robin’s exciting tales of the Green Beret, and the book became an immediate best seller.
As Robin pondered his sudden success, once again his dream world collided with the realities of the traditions of the past and old men "set in their ways." General Bud Underwood summoned America’s favorite new author to the Pentagon for an important meeting. The Army was not at all happy with a book that glorified that independent thinking, unorthodox operating, bastard child of the U.S. Military.
When Robin arrived at the Pentagon, General Underwood informed him that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was preparing to prosecute him under the Secrecy Act. The General pointed to a copy of The Green Berets, clearly marked with several bright red tabs. "Each of those tabs marks a top secret piece of information (revealed in the book)," General Underwood announced.
The statement caught Robin Moore completely off guard. From the earliest days when he began his crusade to join and chronicle the story of the Special Forces, he knew he would face opposition from the military establishment. Now, with his book in print and selling out in bookstores around the Nation, he was brutally aware of just how far that opposition would go. As he reached out to pick up the marked copy of his book, General Underwood quickly snatched it up and growled, "This book is classified."
The continued popularity of The Green Berets was only the first step towards defining a new type of soldier, and a new manner of warfare (though guerrilla warfare is actually as old as war itself). In the year that followed release of the book, Robin returned to Vietnam to report on the war for Hearst Headline Service, and joined with Al Capp of L’il Abner fame and Capp’s brother Jerry in creating a series of Sunday comics titled Tales of the Green Berets. The strip ran for a year from April 1966 to April 1977.
In the winter of 1965 when Robin returned to New York from his coverage of the war for Hearst he received an unexpected visitor. When I interviewed him in 2001 he chuckled as he recalled, "I discovered Barry Sadler when he went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) from Wolmack Hospital at Ft. Bragg to find me in New York and seek my help in getting his song published." When you reflect on the results of that unusual event, one must wonder who really discovered whom. In many ways it was almost like some fate had decreed that the lives of the two would become interwoven to create, grow and perpetuate a legend for future generations.
Sources and Notes:
Moore passed away on February 21, 2008. He was buried with full military
one of the thousands of young high school students enamored by Robin
Moore's The Green Berets in the 1960s, the opportunity to interview
this great writer 30 years later was a privilege and personal thrill. The
fact that in his excitement this author failed to push the
"record" button on the tape recorder aside, Mr. Moore's patience
and candor made it an interview quite easy to remember. Mr. Moore's
personal insights into the life of Barry Sadler were also most helpful in
writing that segment of this chapter.
for this and the following chapter were:
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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