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Published August 04 2012

Unlikely witness to history

BISMARCK – One of North Dakota’s most popular governors had no doubt he was the target of a 1967 assassination plot in Vietnam.

The near-death experience happened on a trip former Gov. Bill Guy initially didn’t want to go on.

As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, archived documents and newspaper clippings from the 1960s and 1970s bring to life North Dakota’s role in that history.

The official papers of Guy, now 92 and living in West Fargo, are housed at the State Historical Society here and provide an in-depth look at the struggle of being a leader during a tumultuous time.

Forty-five years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson asked Guy to join a delegation going to South Vietnam to observe that country’s first presidential election.

Guy was “stunned” to get Johnson’s request to go to Vietnam “because I had no desire to do so.

“I had always thought that we had made a mistake in becoming involved in South Viet Nam (sic),” Guy wrote in September 1967 in a statement of observations about the war.

Guy, a Democrat who was North Dakota’s governor from 1961 to 1973, had told Johnson of his opposition to the war less than four months before the request.

“Two years ago, I thought our course of action in South Viet Nam was correct,” Guy wrote to Johnson on April 27, 1967. “Today, I am convinced that conditions and changing events have made continued fighting by our United States forces in South Viet Nam wrong.”

In a 1968 news release, Guy discussed the “grave misgivings” he had in 1966 after the United States stepped up its role in Vietnam.

“In my judgment, the grave social problems at home rated a higher priority than we might be able to give them in the face of rising commitments of manpower and tax money in South East (sic) Asia,” he said at the time.

Guy’s opposition to war stemmed in part from losing a brother in a Japanese prison camp and nearly losing his own life when his destroyer was sunk by a Japanese dive bomber during World War II.

“I believed that war was a very unsatisfactory way for men to settle their differences,” Guy wrote on Sept. 15, 1967.

But he realized he needed to agree to Johnson’s request.

“What was being asked of me was very small compared to what was being asked of our troops in South Viet Nam, and was even smaller compared to the burden that the president was bearing day by day. And so I agreed to go,” Guy wrote in 1967.

In a recent interview, former first lady Jean Guy of West Fargo remembered the home phone calls her husband received during the war.

“We would get calls at night from concerned parents,” she said.

Guy’s official papers include copies of condolence letters he wrote to families whose sons were killed in Vietnam and letters from North Dakotans opposing the war. There were 198 North Dakotans killed in the conflict.

Guy, who was chairman of the National Governor’s Conference, joined 21 others on the trip to Vietnam and wrote later about Johnson’s motive for sending the delegation.

“He knew there would be reporters from all around the globe covering the election seeking to determine how honest and legitimate it would be,” Guy wrote on Nov. 1, 2005 in an account of the trip submitted to the State Historical Society. “The United States must show its determination that the democracy President Johnson sought so urgently would result in a new government in Viet Nam that would justify the terrible loss in lives and resources the United States had invested.”

Guy and the delegation arrived at a U.S. military airport in Saigon on Aug. 30, 1967. Ten candidates were running for president of South Vietnam. The ballots included the candidates’ pictures and party logos so “the large number of illiterate voters would not be scared away by not being able to read,” Guy wrote in his Nov. 1, 2005, account of the trip.

He and Sen. George Murphy, R-Calif., were scheduled to observe the Sept. 3 election together at polling places in Tuy Hoa along the coast.

But they had to wait for a Bismarck TV journalist who was in Vietnam at the time covering North Dakota service members. Jess Cooper of KFYR had heard Guy was in the country and wanted to join up with his tour.

Guy and Murphy credited Cooper’s late arrival for potentially saving their lives.

Before heading to their first polling site, Guy heard a boom and saw a large ball of smoke rise in the distance.

He later realized a Viet Cong bomb went off at their first scheduled stop, killing three Vietnamese citizens and injuring dozens of others.

“Both the time and the place were right to the minute. The bomb was definitely meant for us,” Guy said in a Sept. 4, 1967, story in the Chicago Tribune.

“If we hadn’t gotten fouled up in our schedule, we could have been killed,” Murphy said in a Sept. 4, 1967, United Press International story.

The Viet Cong wanted to scare people from the polls and create the impression that people didn’t support their government, Guy wrote in a letter to Johnson four days after the incident. But the strategy didn’t work and more than 80 percent of registered voters turned out, Guy said.

A tent went up to replace the bombed polling site, and ballots were recovered or replaced, he said.

“The poll was closed for 45 minutes while the dead were removed and the wounded were cared for. Many of the wounded stayed to vote or returned later in their bandages to vote,” Guy wrote to Johnson. “The blood drying in the dust and splattered on the walls spoke of the high price these people are willing to pay for the right to run their government by democratic process.”

The trip made the self-described “dove” realize the United States couldn’t suddenly pull out of Vietnam.

“Should the United States, through the dissatisfaction and dissension at home, be forced to surrender or withdraw, we would probably only be delaying a future, more serious confrontation,” he wrote on Sept. 15, 1967.

He also wrote Johnson on Sept. 7, 1967, to say the first presidential election in South Vietnam would not have been possible if the United States had turned away.

But Guy would spend the remaining years of his governorship pressing Johnson and President Richard Nixon for a plan to de-escalate the war and eventually withdraw.

Just a few weeks after returning home from Vietnam, Guy hoped the lessons of the war would be remembered to prevent a similar situation in the future.

“I hope that the profound aftermath of the Vietnam conflict will be the realization by all nations of futility of war in obtaining lasting peace,” he wrote.

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications