the pivotal battle of Ap Bac in 1963, a significant early defeat for the American and South Vietnamese forces. In 1970, Vann shifted Swango to Chau Doc province, noting that since Go Cong had been successfully pacified, Swango “must be bored.”
While the full history of AID’s involvement in Vietnam remains murky, the CORDS operation embraced both military and civilian operations. During Swango’s tenure, CORDS was staffed in part by CIA agents, many with military backgrounds. The CIA also ran the Phoenix Program, a “pacification” project that overlapped and sometimes merged with CORDS operations until 1969, when responsibility for Phoenix was transferred to the military. The Phoenix Program gained notoriety for torturing and executing suspected Viet Cong agents operating in the South. Bob and Michaellater told others that their father was in the CIA and served in the Phoenix Program—“murdering people and burning villages,” as antiwar Bob described it—but while he surely would have known the extent of CIA activity and counterinsurgency operations in his region, there’s nothing to suggest that Virgil was directly involved. On the contrary, his colleagues and friends in Vietnam at the time say that Swango was a bona fide AID official who oversaw agriculture and civilian development projects and believed passionately in the American cause.
In 1972, Virgil Swango prepared a lengthy report on his activities in Vietnam, which is relentlessly optimistic and, with benefit of hindsight, almost touchingly naive. “While Free World Military forces battle the enemy with guns and grenades,” he wrote, “there is an equally vital, if less publicized, battle underway. No less than 40 nations of the Free World are involved in this battle—the struggle against hunger, poverty, ignorance and fear. Each success in this field makes the enemy’s appeal weaker, and makes the job of the fighting man easier.”
To his colleagues in Vietnam, Virgil made no mention of a family in Quincy. He lived in a mobile home decorated with knickknacks he’d picked up during vacations in Southeast Asia. One plaque quoted the chronically inebriated W. C. Fields: “Water? Who drinks water? Fish fuck in it!” There were no family photographs. Virgil drank heavily and liked to socialize with colleagues. They knew he had been married more than once, but not that he still had a wife or children.
Perhaps the reason for his silence was that he was living with a Vietnamese woman. According to a family member in Quincy in whom he confided, he had fallen in love. He made brief, sporadic visits to Muriel and the boys only out of a sense of duty. After he was featured on the NBC Nightly News in 1972, the Herald-Whig ran a brief article about his being on TV. Interviewed by the paper, Muriel said she hadn’t known he was going to be on television and hadn’t seen the program.
Back in Quincy, there was almost a sense of relief among his sons that Virgil had returned to Vietnam for what seemed an indefinite stay. Since the incident at the Presidio, relations between husband and wife had been even cooler than usual. On his visits homehe seemed restless and eager to return. He told his wife and sons little about his life or activities in Vietnam. He maintained that disclosing details of his work, even to his family, would be a breach of security, but his reticence may have fostered the boys’ speculation that he was engaged in violent CIA-directed exploits. As the boys grew older and more independent, they increasingly resented their father’s military strictures.
Once they moved back to Quincy, the semblance of a family life steadily eroded. Muriel gave up on the family meal, preferring to spend her evening hours bowling or playing bridge with friends—two activities she pursued avidly. She left a supply of TV dinners in the freezer, and the boys simply heated their own meals whenever they wanted, almost never sitting down together. One