Saigon And The Vietnam War: US Infiltration of Snooty French Club Le Cercle Sportif Blocked.
Above Photo: Le Cercle Sportif members relax around the pool. (© Life)
On a recent visit to Saigon I went in search of the former Le Cercle Sportif club, a little-known and little-visited relic of the Vietnam War. Of course the exclusive exercise, sporting and social club was a pillar of French colonial society well before the war, but I was armed with knowledge that linked it in a small way to the conflict, which is why I wanted to visit.
Le Cercle Sportif was established in 1896 as an exclusive club for French colonial society in Saigon, although other members of Saigon’s elite, such as US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, were also frequenters of the outdoor swimming pool (“the pride of Saigon”) in the 1960s. Prominent members of the South Vietnamese political and military elite also frequented the club, which by then had a large library and reading room for lazier (or more intellectual) members.
There were also elite balls held at the Cercle Sportif, especially around the swimming pool, the annual Spring Ball being a highlight of Saigon’s social calendar.
After the French administration was kicked out of Vietnam in 1954, the Cercle Sportif continued to function as an upmarket sports club where the local and foreign elite still mingled.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the club eventually became known as the Ho Chi Minh City Labour Culture Palace and nowadays, although it is considerably more run-down than when it was the epicenter of Saigon’s upmarket social world, the club still remains one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most popular sports and recreation facilities.
Today the former club house is better-known to Saigon’s modern visitors as the venue of an immensely popular water puppet theatre.
During the Vietnam War, former CIA operative Jack Jolis was working for Military Intelligence in downtown Saigon. At one point he unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate Le Cercle Sportif. This is what happened, in his own words:
My failed attempt to gain membership to Le Cercle Sportif was undoubtedly the most farcical episode in my career as an intel officer, either military or later, with the Agency. But in my/our defense, it was a really only a sort of half-arsed afterthought from the beginning — my C.O., Col. Lee, heard me mention one night at our Officer’s Club that in civilian life I had lived in Paris and was a member of the rather posh “Racing Club” there, and so he said “With all your fancy-dan Froggish pretensions, lieutenant, why don’t you see if you can’t join the Cercle, here — far as I know we’ve never managed to penetrate that goddamn place, and who knows what scuttlebutt you could pick up there — course you’d need to pass yourself off as a Frog — think you can do that?”
“Normally, sure” I said, “but with this military haircut it makes it damn tricky — and not without a pretty elaborate cover story and backstop.”
“Well, it’s not worth that — just get into some civvies and …. wing it. Improvise, lieutenant. You’re a good bullshitter, if you’re anything.”
So I did as I was told. But in retrospect I never had a chance — my vague and flimsy cover-story of being an “unaffiliated civilian American post-graduate student looking for business opportunities” was patently absurd, and if the Cercle’s Secretary was generous and didn’t think I was an outright lunatic, he might have supposed I was with the Agency…
I don’t know, but I do know that when I invited him to call Paris and check with the Racing Club to confirm my bona fides, he declined to go through the considerable expense and bother to do that. Instead, he smilingly thanked me and said that they were “not accepting candidacies from Americans, even American civilians, at this time.”
The reason for joining the Cercle was basically to see if there was any anti-Americanism on the part of the French movers and shakers in Saigon/Vietnam at the time that we ought to be worried about. I mean, the normal disdain that the French have for Americans we just took for granted, but we were interested to learn if there might not be anything a bit more, perhaps “active” that we ought to know about.
It was thought that if I played the role of a typical anti-American civilian American “graduate student” (of which there were plenty back home, at the time, yelling their fool heads off), I might even be able to winkle out anything dangerously sinister, if there was any. But we were never to know, were we….
This was an idea cooked up by our own little counter-intelligence, “Psy-ops” shop, and had nothing to do with the specific Catholic targets in the Vietnamese-French non-“upper crust” communities that Gen. Abrams later had in mind.
Being rejected worked out rather well in the end, when, some months later I was called upon by Gen. Abrams to re-don my civvies and go underground with various French and Vietnamese Catholic civilians, when my membership in the Cercle might conceivably then have proved to be a complication.
Unfortunately I never got to see all that much of the club — my one actual visit beyond its outside walls consisted of a single “interview” with the Secretary which took place in a paneled office off that capacious pool, so I did get a gander at that (and some delectable round-eyed bikini-ed demoiselles lounging around it), but I never actually saw le tennis, for example. (although I could hear the pok-pok-pok of balls being hit thereupon).
On being shown the photos accompanying this article, from my modern-day visit, Jack said:
“I don’t know what the ruling commies are doing with the Cercle these days, but if those pictures are indicative of how the place still looks, I give them props for at least not having messed-about with that classic poolside architecture.”
(Some of the above historical photos were gratefully sourced from Rene Poziat and saigon-vietnam.fr)
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