Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A.
Dooley, 1927-1961, by James T. Fisher, University of Massachusetts Press,
1997, 304 pages, reviewed by James Sullivan, Culture Wars, February 1998
everybody in my generation has a Tom Dooley anecdote. My brother-in-law, for
example, told me that his decision to become a physician "was greatly
influenced" by the Jungle Doctor. "Whatever happened to him,"
he added, alluding to that brief period (1955-1960) when Dooley became a
legend in a corner of the world known as Southeast Asia, and then seemed to
On June 5, 1960, Dr. Tom Dooley received an
honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame, upstaging such
eminences on the podium as Giovanni Cardinal Montini, Archbishop of Milan
(three years away from becoming Pope Paul VI), and President Dwight D.
Eisenhower. "Where's Tom Dooley," said Eisenhower to Theodore
Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame, "I want to talk to him." They
did talk. All through lunch Dooley told Eisenhower about his MEDICO operation
in Laos. Six months later, on January 18, 1961, he would die in a hospital
bed in New York City, the victim of cancer. Kneeling alone by his bedside,
praying the rosary, was Teresa Gallagher, a girl from Queens, unmarried, a
secretary at Metropolitan Life Insurance, Dooley's confidant and volunteer
My own remembrance of Dooley was bound up
with Junior year of high school, 1964. I had just transferred to the Catholic
school in the city from the public school in the suburbs. Sister Mary
Magdalene, my homeroom teacher, a tall woman, lean and taught with high cheek
bones and a reddened face that flashed out from her starched mantle, adored
Tom Dooley. He was, she told those of us in Room 317, the Catholic model whom
we should emulate. In my mind, now, it's hard to separate Dooley from Sister
Mary Magdalene. Her presentation of him to the class always had an underlying
aspect of nervous anxiety. This agitated enthusiasm made Dooley difficult to
approach, giving him a higher than thou quality. As I grew older and lived
through the upheavals of post conciliar Catholicism, I looked back on those
days in Room 317 and wondered if the frenetic action-apostolate that Sister
Mary Magdalene espoused, didn't also contain a certain disease, a
presentiment of trouble underneath.
Dr. America has helped to shed light on the
cause of my vague feelings of disturbance in Room 317. It has also revealed a
great deal about Tom Dooley that very few of us could know in 1964, things
that would have rung with a hard dissonance when compared to the hagiographic
portrait that was then drawn of the Doctor in Catholic circles. This book
also confirms his many admirable qualities, ones that Sister Mary Magdalene
was not slow to point out to her charges in Room 317.
Tom Dooley was, in the words of James T.
Fisher "a complex individual who persisted in the effort to reconcile
wildly conflicting impulses, for the sake of his audience as well as for
himself." He had a devotional side, including frequent Mass attendance,
recitation of the rosary, and a devotion to the Little Flower. On the other
hand , he was an active homosexual, who, according to classmate Michael
Harrington never attempted to hide his same-sex orientation. Even after
cancer surgery in 1960, Dooley resorted to the 2nd floor of Bangkok's Erawan
Hotel, a "central preserve of his gay life in Southeast Asia." While
his memory is enshrined at Notre Dame with a plaque of one of his letters to
Father Hesburgh at the Grotto, he left the University without receiving a
degree, and was restive of school authority while there. A charismatic
speaker, who could bring any audience to tears with his uncanny ability to
portray the suffering Vietnamese and Laotian people, he traveled first-class
and ran up a lavish tab at the Waldorf when he was in town.
While Dooley attained to an iconic status
not only among American Catholics, but the wider society as well, he was also
an instrument in the hands of the (so called) Vietnam Lobby, a group of
public relations executives, former socialists turned anti- communist,
shadowy military figures and CIA operatives. These folks, none of whom were
Catholic, ardently desired a Catholic figure who might be a bridge from
American non-sectarian anti-communism to the fiercely Catholic leader in
South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Indeed, if this book has a sub-plot, it centers
on the creation of Dr. Tom Dooley by a coalition of secular humanitarians and
Madison Avenue types ("Ivy Leaguers", to borrow a pejorative from
Senator McCarthy), for the purpose of exporting a vision of a pluralistic
democracy (unfreighted with any religious baggage) to a corner of the world
known as Indochina. And if this sub-plot has an underlying theme, it is that
these same anti- communist liberals were also an anti-Catholic elite who
found themselves in the queer position of defending an intransigently
Catholic president in South Vietnam. While most of the radical liberals of
the 60's (the New Left) thought the Vietnam War was a product of the
machinations of the State Department and Cardinal Spellman, Fisher shows how
Dooley's handlers-recondite names like, Leo Cherne, Joseph Buttinger, Harold
Oram, and Angier Biddle Duke-were themselves on the anti-Catholic side of the
ethno- religious wars of the late '50s.
almost lost a medical career entirely. Graduating near the bottom of his
class at St. Louis University Medical School he was forced to repeat his
senior year. Even worse, he was deemed too immature to begin a residency and
was required to extend his internship an additional six months. Impulsive and
rebellious, habitually late or absent from class, Tom was far likelier to be
found at the Bridlespur Hunt Club than in the amphitheater of the medical
school; horses, not cadavers were what people remember about him during these
years. Still, through some powerful pleading from two St. Louis physicians,
Tom obtained an appointment in April, 1953 to the Navy Medical College as a
lieutenant. He was about to walk on to the world stage.
Dooley's assignment on the USS Montague
brought him to Vietnam in the late summer of 1954. The French had been
defeated by the communist Viet Minh at the battle of Dien Bien Phu earlier in
the Spring. The protocols at Geneva in July of 1954 allowed the transfer of
inhabitants of North and South Vietnam who desired to relocate to one sector
or the other. This window would remain open until May of 1955. Thus commenced
the flight of refugees from North Vietnam to South Vietnam known as Operation
Passage to Freedom. Arriving on the USS Montague, Lieutenant Dooley was
assigned to act as an interpreter between the French, on whose vessels the
Catholic and anti-communist refugees from the North were being delivered, and
the Americans who were providing the LSM's, landing craft which would ferry
the refugees to safe harbor in the South. Although the United States refused
to sign the Geneva accords of 1954, there was a strong desire on the part of
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to cooperate in the refugee effort and
demonstrate to the world the resolve of America to stop the spread of
communism in Southeast Asia.
Although Dooley was strongly anti-communist,
with a view that linked the political liberation of Catholics in North
Vietnam with a Catholic philosophy which saw the destructive implications of
dialectical materialism, he also realized the opportunities for
self-promotion which the refugee operation would afford him. To Fisher, the
Dooley of Operation Passage to Freedom was a person determined to recoup his
reputation after the medical school debacle. No sooner is he involved in
boarding the refugees onto the LSM's than he found time to send letters to
the St. Louis Globe-Democrat recounting as newsworthy the refugee operation.
In letters home to his mother he also confides that he is an operative of the
US Navy, sent to help set up an epidemiological laboratory for the study of
various indigenous parasites and bacteria.
Yet Dooley's own efforts to enhance his
image were outdone by others who found him terribly useful to their purposes.
There was Lt. Col. Edward Lansdale, an iconoclast and a loner, who was given
a wide berth by C.I.A. regulars, yet was specifically requested by Allen
Dulles, CIA Director, to be the man on the ground who could help Diem. A
former ad executive from San Francisco, Lansdale was in South Vietnam
awaiting Diem's arrival. Yet he needed a way of making the authoritarian Diem
palatable to a stateside audience that had grown weary of the protracted
involvement of America in the Korean conflict. In Dr. Tom Dooley, Lansdale
found the kind of young go-getter, who could be a conduit between the
Catholic refugees in the North and the wise-cracking American journalists
both in Vietnam and back home who could see a human interest story when it
came their way.
There also was the International Rescue
Committee (IRC) and the American Friends of Vietnam (AFV), two organizations
described by James Fisher as made up of "leftist entrepreneurs bent on
expanding their markets abroad in the immediate post-McCarthy era."
Imbued with a "messianic liberalism," the two groups had
interlocking memberships, and were made up in many instances of former
socialists who had shed their anti-fascist orientation and now turned
anti-communist. Harold Oram, for example, was head of the American Friends of
Vietnam, an organization that boasted John F. Kennedy and Mike Mansfield, two
notable Catholic democrats. Yet Oram did publicity work for Planned
Parenthood and hired Peter White, grandson of the renowned New York
architect, Stanford White, to work on the Diem account. Peter White and his
wife, both Catholics, had a large family and were part of the Catholic
intellectual revival of the post war years. Their friends included the
writers Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, and Edward Rice, founding editor of
Jubilee, a Catholic monthly of high church graphics and literary and
White also tried to deliver the liberals of
Commonweal to Diem's cause, but many of them were in full-flight from the
specter of Joe McCarthy and his perceived American Catholic power base.
Writing in Commonweal in 1954, James O'Gara warned that "the hard core
of Catholic support for McCarthy...has the same emotional roots as support
for Father Coughlin in the thirties." Catholic liberals of the period
were also alarmed about outbreaks of anti- Semitism coming from the Right.
But Fisher concludes "that the McCarthyites reserved their greatest
scorn not for Jews but the Anglo elites...the East Coast aristocrats who
populated the IRC." According to Fisher, "the culture wars of the
period were fought primarily between Catholics and a rather loosely defined
coalition of liberal Protestants, Jews, and assorted secularists who saw the
growing Catholic population as a threat to their cherished notions about a
wall separating church and state ... since the Church appeared monolithic in
its authority, Catholicism was generally equated with what would only later
be tagged the 'religious right'."
In Dooley, Leo Cherne, director of the IRC
and Harold Oram saw a Catholic superstar who appeared to combine on the one
hand, a devotional Catholicism which linked him to traditional sources of Catholic
piety yet also reflected a "newer" Catholic internationalist
spirit. While anti-communist, Dooley would have the theological tint of a
low-key ecumenist who could speak across the cultural divide.
The refugee operation in Vietnam was
recounted in Dooley's first book, Deliver Us From Evil. In Fisher's view, the
book was nothing less than a propaganda piece "pure and simple."
Although there is evidence to show that the editors at Reader's Digest
Condensed Books sought to shape the book and Operation Passage to Freedom as
the story of "one lone American doctor," it is not clear who may
have been directing the book deal initially. Lansdale had gotten the National
Order of Vietnam for Dooley, presented to him by Diem in May of 1956, and
Lansdale's friend, William Lederer, co-author ofThe Ugly American, received a
note from DeWitt Wallace thanking him for steering Dooley to the Digest. Even
at the time of the book's publication, however, FBI files disclose that
individuals who had worked with Dooley complained that he had minimized the
help that the French had given in the operation, and that the book was a
product of self-aggrandizement.
Dooley's Navy career came to an end on March
28, 1956. Under investigation for homosexual activity by the Office of Naval
Intelligence (ONI), he was forced to resign. Reports of his homosexuality had
been circulating since the summer of 1954; it was rumored that he had seduced
the son of an admiral during a stay at Yokosuka, Japan, just before shipping
out to Vietnam. The ONI probe began in January, 1956. By March of that year,
they had compiled a convincing dossier on Dooley, including sex acts with
informants, and were about to proceed against him when he abruptly resigned.
Admirers of Dooley have suggested that he may have had "tendencies"
yet sought to live chastely. Even Randy Shilts, who outed Dooley in a book in
1989 on homosexuals in the military, believed that Dooley led a deliberately
closeted life because he adhered strictly to the teachings of the Church. Yet
both of these views are wrong. Fisher states: "he (Dooley) was in fact
an extraordinarily active gay man who was considered one of the great sex
symbols of his era — a figure well-known in sophisticated gay circles as
far-flung as Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and the capitals of Southeast
Working in Bethesda, Maryland as a hospital
intern in 1952, Dooley was picked up by a German airline steward who took him
to the home of one of the leading Washington homosexuals. Dooley quickly
became a favorite of the group which included theater people and musicians.
Rock Hudson's future manager was among them. Dooley was described within gay
circles as "mesmerizing" and "one of the most charming people
you would ever want to meet." The topic of Dooley's homosexuality remained
hidden from public scrutiny; this was the mid 1950s after all. Yet, Fisher
quotes one unnamed source as saying that Dooley told him that the Catholic
Church's teaching on homosexuality "was simply wrong." Another
source revealed that Dooley regarded his homosexuality "as a gift,"
that homosexual relations were, for him, a way to elevate the gray existence
of those not so blessed with charm and good looks. Toward the end of his
life, Dooley's appeals for support in his clinics in Laos contained what Fisher
calls a "homoeroticized mysticism." And the Doctor's recruitment of
young men, especially at Notre Dame, make us wonder about the roots of what
will later be termed "the homosexual network" in the Catholic
Church in America.
As Dooley's naval career was
self-destructing, his new role of Jungle Doctor was about to take off. The
presses were rolling out the pages of Deliver Us From Evil just as the ONI
was tightening its investigation. Within three weeks after his resignation from
the Navy, Dooley announced to a reporter who had questioned him about his
Navy status, "next September under the auspices of the International
Rescue Committee I'm returning for six months to Laos....Walt Disney has
given me a little movie projector....we're going to take lots of white sailor
hats, baseballs, ball-point pens... and Sears Roebuck catalogs to show these
people a little bit of what America is like."
Leo Cherne admired Dooley. Unlike William J.
Casey, Cherne's Irish Catholic protege, Dooley had a cosmopolitan flair.
Cherne and Dooley had classical music in common. Dooley could entertain on
the piano-a poor man's George Shearing-and weave popular melodies and
classical motifs together. His suits were European cut. Cherne told Casey
biographer, Joseph E. Persico, that his understudy was "to the right of
Attila the Hun...one hundred per cent for Franco and one hundred per cent
against the Loyalists. To understand this you had to understand his
Catholicism." In Dooley, Cherne found no vestiges of the ethno-religious
conflicts of the 1930s that sometimes marked relations between the Irish and
the Jews in New York. Dooley was a new kind of Catholic, and not unlike
Cherne, looking to "win acclaim with cultural and political
elites." Both men felt themselves to be deserving of "insider"
status. Cherne would accomplish this as a seasoned pro within the sector of
humanitarian aid projects, while Dooley would do this by his "pretty
brilliance" as Catholic folk hero.
Dooley's homosexuality was known to the IRC.
Angier Biddle Duke had been informed by Admiral Burke about the ONI
investigation but was assured that "it won't be a problem for you."
Based on Dooley's habits, one wonders why the Admiral had such confidence;
nevertheless, other things worried Duke, in particular Dooley's spending
habits and carelessness with receipts. When Duke attempted to caution Tom
about the need to curtail excessive spending, which would threaten the
tax-exempt status of the IRC, Dooley retorted with "chickenshit."
Yet among Catholics, who had been inspired
by Deliver Us From Evil, Dooley's charismatic power was intense. Sixth
graders at Our Lady of Victory Academy in Tarrytown, New York wrote to Dooley
to tell him that they were going "to adopt" a child from Southeast
Asia and name him "Thomas Anthony." A third grader penned, simply:
"You are just like Jesus." Placing his life within a gospel
context, a nun from Tulsa, Oklahoma said that, "You can be certain that
when you reach the end of the road you will hear the words of welcome from
Our Divine Savior Himself, 'Come you blessed one and possess the kingdom of
heaven...'" Sister M. Madeleva Wolff of Saint Mary's at Notre Dame wrote
to Teresa Gallagher to say that Dooley had spent his finest hours by bearing
the suffering "in his members" (referring to the cancer, which
finally killed him).
From 1956 through 1959, the IRC funded
MEDICO, Dooley's clinic operations in Laos. MEDICO was never simply Dooley's
private apostolate. Through its board and its connections with Washington foreign
aid sources and later with the CIA, it was bigger than Dooley. Yet it also
relied on Dooley's star-power. During sorties back to the States he undertook
fabulously successful fundraising events. In Boston, Billy Sullivan, new
owner of the fledgling Patriots football club, presented Dooley with a
sterling silver tray. "Let's fill it," he challenged the audience,
and people rushed up to litter the tray with bills of large denominations. On
November 16, 1959, Dooley gave a memorable address at Hollywood High School,
sponsored by Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. The audience was
overwhelmingly Catholic, including the actresses, Jeannette MacDonald and
Eleanor Powell, both known for their commitment to Catholic causes. "We
are not interested in conversions," said Dooley, casting an eye toward
the president of IHM. "I have no desire, dear Sister, to make any of my
happy little Buddhist monks into mackerel-snapping Irish Catholics." The
audience roared in shock and delight, evidently aware, as Fisher correctly
observes, that they were also praying at the end of Mass for the conversion
of Russia and "the pagans" in communist dominated countries in
Dooley's ability to combine cold war piety,
yet also catch the wave of what would become post-conciliar religious
indifferentism was a high-wire act in 1959. At the outset of the address at
Hollywood High School, he had begun with imprecations to "the glory of
God and St. Therese," yet, as Fisher suggests, his audience was also
ready for "another message," one that would be fixed on his
star-power, while putting in low-key any missiological responsibilities to
the non-Christian world. Here, Dooley presages a theme which would recur
throughout the '60s and '70s in Catholic circles; the triumph of an active life,
unhinged from doctrinal and spiritual fonts. Surely, Dooley could not be
labelled an "activist apostate," as many of his co-religionists
would be in the late '60s; his faith, although warring was not yet his
persona as a celebrity quite possibly served to fill a vacuum where the
security of belief ought to have been.
In 1959, Dooley underwent surgery for
malignant melanoma. A mole had been removed from his chest in 1957, but by
1959 the cancer had metastasized. By this time the IRC had decided to part company
with MEDICO, a decision motivated as much by internal problems within its
membership, as by Dooley's unpredictability. Yet Tom's faithful, led by
Teresa Gallagher (now being paid by Met Life to be Dooley's secretary) and
Paul Hellmuth, a Catholic and Boston lawyer from the prestigious firm of Hale
and Doer, sought to help him to continue the work, relying on providence and
the charisma of the now-ailing doctor. Dooley died on January 18, 1961 at
Memorial Hospital in New York. Cardinal Spellman had visited him the day
before, leaving with tears in his eyes. Kennedy would shortly sound the call
for The Peace Corps and invoke Dooley's memory.
In 1970, a priest began a movement to press
for his canonization. It never achieved lift off. No doubt it would have
given work to any number of Devils Advocates. Of course, the stalled
canonization movement was in many respects a tribute to the Church, that in
the matter of saint-making things proceed quietly, not by the engine of
Madison Avenue. Not that this dead end would, itself, deny the good that Dr.
Tom Dooley did. He was genuinely loved by the Laotian people, who dubbed him
Thanh Mo America, Dr. America. And this love was definitely returned by
Dooley. For all his vainglory, and self-centeredness, he did set personal
high standards for MEDICO physicians, and sought to make of his Operation
Laos, a people to people project. He serves, in a strange way, as a morality
tale about the Catholic self-promoter. Having given a thousand performances
before audiences all over the world, he died having failed to achieve any
lasting, personal intimacy with others. His iconic role was a substitute for
the homelier task of real friendship. Today, we see many lesser Catholic
self-promoters, who can only dream about the corridors of power that Dooley
travelled. Presidents, future popes, and premiers wanted to talk to Tom
Dooley. Yet if the Jungle Doctor is today reduced to the marginalia of
history (not to slight this excellent biography), where will those lesser
promoters be remembered?
The book sheds much light on the interstices
between the humanitarian lobbyists and their organizations and the State
Department and foreign service professionals that Dooley reserved his special
ire. Fisher provides some needed revisionist history on the origins of U.S.
involvement in South Vietnam and the sponsorship of Ngo Dinh Diem. Taking
issue with the New Left variant, that the war was the product of the
machinations of Cardinal Spellman and the U.S. foreign policy elites, Fisher
reveals the web of old left anti-communists, themselves anti- Catholic in
many respects, who attempted to build an ecumenical coalition to support the
Catholic president of what they hoped would become a secular, pluralist,
democracy in Southeast Asia. The question in all of this remains: were
Catholics duped by the anti- communist agenda of people like Leo Cherne and
Angier Biddle Duke? Was Vietnam a staging ground, not for a Christian
confrontation with Communism but for the implementation of a pluralist
democracy by foreign aid elites with impeccable liberal and socialist
In Fisher's telling it, what might be called
the "Catholic interest" was bent to serve the coalition of New
Leader-type liberals. Dooley's non-denominational appeal was central in advancing
this agenda, since the kind of power base that Leo Cherne wanted to establish
would hardly have occurred if a markedly Catholic presence obtained.
The topic of Dooley's homosexuality remained hidden from
public scrutiny; this was the mid 1950s after all. Yet, Fisher quotes one
unnamed source as saying that Dooley told him that the Catholic Church's
teaching on homosexuality "was simply wrong."
Reviewed in Culture Wars, February 1998, by James Sullivan
Requiem for a Whale Rider by E. Michael Jones.
SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau died after the 12,000 pound bull killer whale
grabbed her from a feeding platform and dragged her underwater. Saying
"she died doing what she loved," her sister assured a reporter that
"Dawn wouldn't want anything done to the whale now blamed in her
death." The reason women risk their
lives by riding whales goes deeper. Riding whales in Florida, like riding bulls
in Minoan Crete, is a religious ritual. As the image of Europa on the Bull
shows, riding an animal is a vaguely sexual act that bespeaks approval, but
also union, which confers on the rider the innocence of the ridden animal.
Finding only momentary relief from guilt, those burdened with an uneasy
conscience force themselves on the animals whose innocence and approval they
crave until an unpredictable mechanism goes off in the animal and the animal
kills the human who sought its approval. e-book. $2.99. Read