Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars is the story Sam’s incomplete memoir War of Numbers could not deliver. Sam Adams died suddenly in 1988 at the age of 54. Sam was a gifted analyst at the CIA. Author C. Michael Hiam delivers a well written narrative of Sam’s life.
Sam displayed the uncommon trait of speaking truth to power. As history often suggests Sam was in the right place at the right time.
His truth revealed outcomes that pitted him against the White House, MACV and even senior leadership within the CIA.
What also made Sam unique was his inability to backdown to the highest offices in the government. Sam created a point of great turmoil by discovering and confronting repeated MACV intelligence failures. His analysis was not supported by CIA Director Richard Helms. Nobody wants to make their boss look bad.
Haim traces Sam’s life from Harvard to a rising star within the CIA to a disillusioned analyst. War of Numbers did not shed light on Sam’s death. Realizing Haim was going to address his passing at the close of the book I dreaded the final chapter to the life of Sam Adams.
Yet when confronted with the aftermath of Tet, MACV revealed an attitude equal to French military officers Christian de Castries, René Cogny and Pierre Langlais at Dien Bien Phu. They ignored very accurate French intelligence regarding the buildup of cannon fire in the surrounding hills prior to the assault.
Major General Joseph McChristian, assistant chief of staff for intelligence in the Department of the Army also predicted Tet along with other CIA analysts. Yet US military officers Daniel Graham, Phillip Davison, and J. Barrie Williams are responsible for MACV’s intelligence failures in the mid to late 1960s. They each clashed with Sam and denied his analysis two years prior to Tet. Afterward continued to deny his numbers holding steadfast to an enemy count unchanged for three years. MACV’s faulty Viet Cong order of battle cost American forces dearly in the opening stages of the Tet Offensive. Then Cronkite gave his opinion. And the war was lost to the American public.
Sam worked long hours within CIA headquarters and traveling to Vietnam (at the cost of his marriage) to author an accurate report of the Viet Cong Order of Battle.
Sam was able to collaborate across CIA and MACV intelligence teams to data mine captured documents. Those revealed more accurate numbers of their enemy and details to their organizational structure.
These collaborations within the CIA also revealed plans coded as ‘N-Day’ that developed into the Tet Offensive. Sam gained a great, deep respect for Lt. Gains Hawkins at MACV. Both War of Numbers and Haim shed light on Sam’s admiration for their collaboration efforts. Sam was deeply saddened by the death of Col. Hawkins from lung cancer.
The pinnacle event for Sam was the MACV and CIA agreement in 1967 for the order of battle. Hotly debated within both CIA and MACV, the document developed twenty-two drafts culminating in the CIA’s SNIE 14.3-67 (PDF link) in which Director Richard Helms sidelined Adams and agreed with MACV’s original interpretation of the Viet Cong’s strength in South Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive proved Sam’s research painfully correct. Regardless of the Tet outcome the entire war shifted. Shockingly MACV continued their original 1967 count was equal to the Viet Cong forces that overran the country.
After departing the CIA’s Vietnam intelligence unit where he worked for ten years Sam began researching the Cambodian communist Order of Battle. Again his research would reveal misinterpretations of communist strength that would lead to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
Adams finally departed the CIA and would later become a consultant to CBS News magazine 60 Minutes in their documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception which aired in January 1982.
60 minutes held General Westmoreland applied political pressure within MACV to show congress progress made against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Stunned by the outcome of the broadcast Westmoreland sued CBS for $120 million in the libel case knows as Westmoreland vs. CBS. Sam Adams was named a defendant.
At the trial fellow CIA analysts and military officers testified to his genuine passion for truth and preventing the loss of American soldiers. This outcome was Sam’s reward for his service. He was viewed as a hero within the CIA with the exception of Helms and his senior leadership. Hiam provides good insights and details to Sam’s role in the trial, his testimony and then his final days following the trial’s outcome.
The lessons of Sam’s life and efforts to speak truth to power ring today. Beginning in 2002, retired CIA officers have established the Sam Adams Award “to reward intelligence officials who demonstrated a commitment to truth and integrity, no matter the consequences.”
Sam Adams, an American patriot thankfully led a life well lived.