Vet Seeks Book Business With Vietnam

January 27, 1991|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff writer

Even now, more than two decades after he left behind the steamy jungles half a world away, Wick Tourison knows many who remain there still think of him as the enemy.

That doesn't surprise him much. Afterall, last time he set foot on Vietnamese soil, in 1967, he had served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer who interrogated prisoners of war.

During a two-year span, the 50-year-old Crofton resident came face to face with the enemy thousands of times, firing questions in Vietnamese at suspected Viet Cong, doing his best to sort the lies from the truth as the lives of American troops hung in the balance.

Now, Tourison's gripping account of those experiences has just been released, and a second book dealing with Vietnamese spies will be published next year.

And ironically, as POWs again have made front-page news, Tourison hopes to return to Vietnam. This time, though, to open trade.

One of the first U.S. citizens taking advantage of eased trade restrictions with Vietnam, Tourison has taken steps toward importing Vietnamese books and dictionaries for American colleges and exporting American cookbooks, encyclopedias and computer software for Vietnamese consumers.

Not everybody has welcomed the idea.

In Vietnam, "Every time I do something, they say, 'Aha! It's a CIA plot,' " hesays. His ideas drew more than a few suspicious looks from top U.S. officials at the Treasury Department, too. No one had ever approachedthem with such proposals.

"Bitterness dies very slowly," Tourison says. "The problem with Vietnam is it isn't a war that we won. A lotof fingers of blame are pointed here, there and everywhere. As far as I'm concerned, that's immaterial. Where do we go from here? My interest is doing that trade which is legally permissible, not smuggling or going out and buying guns."

For Tourison, the war ended long ago. Like a true military man, he went to Saigon to do a job, he says,and the job is done. Since then, he and his wife, Ping, whom he met in Saigon, have opened a jewelry store in Annapolis and raised three sons. He has written two books stemming from his experiences, with others in the works.

He harbors no hatred for the people of Vietnam.He's baffled by those who do.

"A lot of us who served in Vietnam or in Southeast Asia do not hate all Vietnamese," he says. "We also are loyal, proud, dedicated Americans, whether liberal or conservative. I have no problem with going back and doing business."

Since Saigon's surrender in 1975, a U.S. trade embargo has prohibited Americans from engaging in just about all forms of commercial relations withVietnam. However, the embargo permits Americans to visit Vietnam, meet with Vietnamese officials, collect information and even enter intonon-binding agreements.

In 1988, Congress passed an exception to the embargo that allows U.S. citizens to import or export books, newspapers, magazines, videotapes, musical cassettes, records, dictionaries and maps and tourism information.

It also permits citizens to act as agents through which Vietnamese-Americans can send money to relatives in Vietnam.

As a result of the exception, Cable News Network installed a satellite dish in Vietnam.

To Tourison, the legal loophole meant opportunity. After all, Army intelligence work during two tours in Saigon had immersed him in the country's culture and language.

"I'm proud of America," he says. "This is my home. But my wife is from Vietnam. One of my three sons was born in Thailand. I've lived eight years in that part of the world. It has an attraction for me."

Within several months after Tourison approached Treasury officials in 1989, the department approved his business ideas and authorized him to establish an office in Vietnam for sending family remittances.

Similar approval has come more slowly from Vietnamese officials, some of whom Tourison met with more than a year ago when they visited the United States. Still, Tourison has been encouraged by recent letters from officials who have invited him to Hanoi.

For now, Tourison devotes most of his time to his writing.

Random House has released his first book, "Talking With Victor Charlie," which he intendedas a memoir for his children when he wrote it in 1967.

The book is the first since World War II to describe military intelligence operations from the point of view of someone who conducted them. In some cases, interrogators processed up to 80,000 people in a matter of weeks.

During Operation Cedar Falls in Ben Suc, a hamlet and Viet Cong sanctuary on the Saigon River, Tourison came face to face with a prisoner who revealed that he'd almost shot Tourison several days earlier. Only fear of uncovering his hiding place and opening himself to an air attack had stopped him from firing.

That knowledge left Tourison cold, though the threat of death never seemed far. Tourison's family lived with him in Saigon at that time. He recalls his 3-year-oldson sitting on his shoulders, watching the flares from air strikes three miles from their house light up the sky.

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