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Catawba College Professor's Memories and Letters Evolve into Book

December 05, 2005

Category: Academics, Faculty, Mathematics


Paul BakerFor almost 20 years, Catawba College Mathematics Professor Dr. Paul Baker repressed memories of the year he spent as an intelligence officer in Vietnam. But while he was recovering from a back operation in 1988, he discovered he "could think about that time" again. And, he realized he had a primary source of information about that time in his life – his daily letters to his wife.

Baker has woven his memories and those letters into a four-volume, 1,000-page tome called "A Shadowy Passage," which he calls "autobiographical fiction."   Others, including former King of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk (1941-2005) call Baker's work "a persuasive account ofEvents in Cambodia prior to the Coup d'Etat of Lon Nol" which could only have been written by someone with "an intimate knowledge ofEvents in Cambodia in 1969-1970."

A Shadowy PassageBaker himself says his book "discusses a period of history which has been overshadowed by just about everything else" and is sort of a cautionary tale.  "I've written it because I hope people can learn some things and not make the same mistakes that we did back then."

He felt some urgency to first publish Part II of the book, "A Shadowy Passage / Cambodia: The Subversion," due to the ill health of King Sihanouk who abdicated his throne in October.  Sihanouk actually read Baker's work and wrote a foreword to it that is included in the published work.

In the 1960s, Baker attended undergraduate school on a U.S. Navy Scholarship, and he and wife Nancy were enrolled together in graduate school while Baker served in the Navy.  His two tours of duty were compressed into one – in 1968, while he was in Vietnam on a destroyer, his wife Nancy stayed stateside and gave birth to their first daughter; and then in 1969, he was in Saigon as a Cambodian analyst for Navy Covert Intelligence while his wife moved to Australia with their daughter to get away from the nightly body count on the 6 p.m. news. The book is dedicated to Nancy with whom Baker writes he is "still in love" after 39 years of marriage.

Paul BakerThe main character of Baker's work is Lawrence Becker who bears a striking resemblance to the author – mild-mannered, unassuming, unerringly polite, intelligent, analytical, and much more comfortable using his brain than a gun.   Becker finds himself vying for accurate intelligence against the likes of sneaky CIA types, Cambodians plotting the overthrow of King Sihanouk, friendly Viet Cong, along with British and Australian military agents.  His naiveté about the intelligence community, indeed his openness and willingness to embrace the Cambodian and other Asian cultures, prove to be among his greatest assets in doing his job well.  He breaks rules that a career intelligence officer would not dare to alter.

Becker is chastised by Gary, his trainer, commanding officer, and friend in one passage from the book for his rogue tactics which proved effective in recruiting a spy for his network.

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Gary chuckled.   "When you pulled it off, all was quickly forgiven."  After a moment, he added with a serious tone in his voice, "But I don't want to be around when you fail. Memories of past successes are short, and you do break a lot of rules.  Do try to be a little more – conservative."  

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Becker, as the real-life Baker, speaks French, Vietnamese, and some Khmer, has a penchant for numbers, a knack for memorization and recall, and an uncanny ability to work through and around the bureaucracy of the time to get his job done.  He recruits and dispatches intelligence agents to spy on the movements of Viet Cong who slip across the border into Cambodia.  And daily, he pens letters to his wife to unwind after a long day in his secure office while other military peers imbibe, philander and disparage the locals.

In one scene from the book, a Viet Cong intelligence agent, Madame Tau, arranges a meeting with Becker in Phnom Penh to warn him of a planned CIA-financed coup attempt against King Sihanouk by his own loyalists. Her summary of the pending situation to Becker is a logical analysis of what actually did occur in that country:

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You are intelligent enough to see that it would be disaster for the Cambodian people for Anti-Vietnamese forces to seize control of Cambodia.  This country cannot force us out.   In fact, they cannot even defend themselves.Only Sihanouk's policy of ignoring us has kept us from forcing our presence on the Khmers. We don't want Cambodia; we want Vietnam.

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The coup d'etat forced King Sihanouk into exile in March 1970.   U.S. troops crossed the border into Cambodia a month later.  Thereafter, misery did rain down on the Cambodian people for almost two decades at the hands of the ruling Khmer Rouge and it was a misery that was personal for Baker.

"I foresaw that overthrowing Sihanouk would be a disaster.  I saw it coming and my analysis proved true.  It was horrible.  Everyone lost someone or was running and hiding from the Khmer Rouge.  It touched not part of the population, but every single person in that country," Baker explains.

"I am not ashamed of America, but ashamed of some of the things people did in the name of America.  Now the hurts – people I knew who were killed – don't hurt so badly after all of these years.  I don't have the immense void I did in 1970."

Today, not only his book, but his annual mission trips to visit and minister to orphans in Cambodia are both methods for Baker to do penance for America's involvement in the fate of their country.  

"It's been a growth process certainly in which I've come to grips with my successes and failures during that time," he notes.  "I've come to hold human life as much more precious than I did when I was first in Vietnam.  The real fruition of my growth is working with the orphans in Phnom Penh when I can bring some hope to a hopeless situation. Cambodia now has the very unfortunate distinction of having the highest per capita handicapped population of any country in the world due to the mines left behind after years of conflict."  

Copies of Part II of Baker's book, printed by Charlotte-based Catawba Publishing Company, are available at www.catawbapublishing.com.