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

Practically 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 disappear.

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 secretary.Dooley at Notre Dame, 1960

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.

bread.gifDooley 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 theological brightness.

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'."Umbrella.gif

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 Asia."

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.

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."

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 Asia.

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 pedigrees?

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.

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 More/Buy

 

The Dr. Tom Dooley Society is an organization for the medical alumni of Notre Dame University, dedicated to education, mentorship and global service to humanity.


 | Home | Books | e-books | Events | DVDs/CDs | Subscribe | Donate |


Culture Wars • 206 Marquette Avenue • South Bend, IN 46617 • Tel: (574) 289-9786 • Fax: (574) 289-1461
Copyright 1998