Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961

Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961
By James T. Fisher
A volume in the series “Culture, Politics, and the Cold War”
Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1997
Hardcover, Pp. 304ISBN 1-55849-067-1LC 96-48652
Paperback , New Ed ed. (1998), Pp. 336ISBN 1-55849-154-6
Hardcover $35.00; Paperback $24.95 
Review-essay by Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Alma, Michigan 
Three common myths need to be demolished for American Roman Catholics if we are to become less dominated by pop-culture and historically inaccurate superficiality.
The first is the saccharine myth of “Good Pope John”. The historical Roncalli is different from the Roncalli who was hijacked by the media to remake the Catholic Church in its own image and likeness. John was actually so traditional that he even restored some things that Pius XII had removed from the lengthy papal coronation ceremony. The Latin text of the Synod of Rome of 1960 is enough to illustrate that he was no liberal-progressive in any sense which we understand those labels. His personal Journal of a Soul (Image; New Ed ed., 1999) shows us a devotional man, not an ideological reformer. The apostolic constitution Veterum sapientiae (February 1962) regarding the promotion and use of Latin, signed on the high altar of St. Peter’s, was forgotten before the ink dried. John’s priority for Vatican II was the revision of canon law. Recent documentation brought to light this accurate view of the historical Roncalli. A book by Marco Roncalli was published in Italian by Mondadori in 2006, entitled Giovanni XXIII ― Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Una vita nella storia (John XXIII ― Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Life in History). Look for the real Roncalli there, not in the myth-perpetuating biography by Peter and Margaret Hebblethwaite (Doubleday, 1987; revised by Margaret for Continuum International, 2000). If it is true that Good Pope John desired a new Pentecost, he certainly would have rejected the horrific Apocalypse which came instead.
The second is the myth of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first “Catholic” president. This myth is easy to dismantle. A massive biography by Michael O’Brien, John F. Kennedy: a biography (New York: Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press, 2005) makes it even easier. Kennedy’s personal heritage may have been that of a cultural Catholic, but he was not much of a believing Christian. As a sitting president, this unfaithful husband impregnated a woman, Judith Campbell Exner, and through associates procured an abortion for her at Chicago’s Grant Hospital in January 1963. Judith describes it in My Story (Grove Press, 1977). Kennedy’s sexual appetite has been described as “voracious”. His collaboration with the Mafia and with Sam Giancana in particular, probably cost him his life. Antoinette Giancana and her co-authors produced JFK and Sam (Cumberland House Publishing, 2005) to tell that story. Dirty politics and payoffs were Kennedy’s trade. The Camelot icon of the Kennedy generation may now be pulled down in a way similar to those statues of Saddam which we saw despoiled in Baghdad not long ago.
The third myth was exposed ten years ago by James T. Fisher whose Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961 needs close attention. Although criticism started while Dooley was still alive (p. 230, 254-256) and J. Edgar Hoover avoided being seen in public with Dooley (p. 241), the author tells us that Dooley’s public unfrocking appeared in a 1965 issue of the leftist magazine Ramparts. The Fisher contribution adds and synthesizes much more from both archival and later published material.
Dr. Tom Dooley was a useful pawn for the CIA, especially to gain the support of Catholics in America, and his alleged philanthropy was compromised by his homosexual promiscuity. Fisher says: “…he was in fact an extraordinarily active gay man who was considered one of the great underground sex symbols of his era―a figure well-known in sophisticated gay circles as far-flung as Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and the capitals of Southeast Asia.” (p. 83)
Like Kennedy of our second myth, he was “a good Catholic” too, from the point of view that when he died young of cancer, he was fortified on his deathbed by the sacraments of Mother Church. Protestants sometimes call this “cheap grace”. Had he lived longer, perceptions might have been less mythologized.
Thanks in part to the Kingston Trio, this 1950s idol―a “medical Elvis for Catholics”― did not catapult his notoriety all by himself. He had a lot of help entering the imagination of American Catholicism―and he certainly enjoyed it once he was there. He was a marionette of the CIA and especially of Edward G. Lansdale, the local operative in Vietnam. Fisher refers to “Tom Dooley’s stunning metamorphosis from potential sex criminal to secular saint.” (p. 96). The metamorphosis was possible only because of Dooley’s availability for political ends.
Both John F. Kennedy and his father Joseph P. were members in the 1950s of what first was called “The Indochina Lobby” and then later was known as The Vietnam Lobby. Other members included Cardinal Francis Spellman, Edward G. Lansdale [who was the model for Colonel Hillendale in the 1958 best-seller The Ugly American, while Dooley was the model for John X. Finian (p. 178)], and Dr. Tom Dooley. (p. 97; 169.) Among other agenda items, the lobby protected Ngo Dinh Diem and promoted active American involvement to support the Republic of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
After an internal military investigation, Dooley was about to be cashiered from the United States Navy for his compulsive homosexual behavior. Aware of the sting operation against him, he instead resigned from the navy saying this was necessary so he could return to Indochina, especially Laos, as a sort of secular medical missionary. He added that one day he might return to the uniform, obviously an unlikely possibility from the viewpoint of the navy. (p. 237-238) The official date of his discharge from the navy was March 28, 1956. (p. 90)
In reality, Dooley was “hired” as a publicity agent for a project sponsored by the CIA and its ally the IRC, the International Rescue Committee. Dooley was chosen because of his potential appeal to the Catholic constituency in America. “His work was strictly show business” and “Laos saved him from personal as well as professional tragedy.” (p. 182) Unfortunately for Dooley, the American ambassador and nearly every American in Laos “knew the circumstances of Dooley’s ouster from the navy, and also shared the latest gossip of Dooley’s antics in Saigon, Bangkok, and Hong Kong, which reportedly included brushes with the law over his fairly conspicuous homosexual carousings.” (p. 188) High-ranking Eisenhower administration officials regarded Thomas A. Dooley with “disdain, cynicism, disgust, and even contempt….” (p. 187)
Dooley succeeded Senator Joseph McCarthy as the Catholic anticommunist folk hero. He claimed on the one hand that he did not agree with McCarthy’s politics, but then referred to meetings with McCarthy during which the senator warned him that he, Dooley, might expect some day to be smeared by sinister communist designs. That is how Dooley provided a ready- made cover story when his homosexual activity was about to become public knowledge (p. 140-141; 162). The communists were out to get him.
Dr. Tom Dooley had a definite “philosophy of mission” for Laos. (p. 171) He did not want to be seen as a missionary, but rather as a postcolonial and postdenominational humanitarian. That being said, he tried to hitch his work to that of Dr. Albert Schweitzer who “really” was a missionary in the older nineteenth century sense. Although Schweitzer was an unorthodox and skeptical Liberal Protestant who had won the Nobel Peace Prize (he denied the Resurrection of Christ, for example), Dooley invented various ways to bask in Schweitzer’s reflected glory. The author of Dr. America makes an effort to separate fact from fiction on this point, but he admits Dooley’s wild imagination expressed in the archival documents is enigmatic. There is no proof Dooley ever met Schweitzer. (p. 152) A female admirer of Dooley said he was “a mixture of ‘The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit’ and Mother Cabrini.” (p. 182)
Dooley wrote three books in his Laos period. Even though they were masterminded by his editors and publishers, they served as excellent propaganda pieces for his career. (p. 74)
First serialized in The Reader’s Digest in 1955-1956, Deliver us From Evil was about the transfer of refugees, mostly Catholics, from Haiphong in the north to South Vietnam. Then there was The Edge of Tomorrow in 1958. This was the cover story for his shift to a civilian vocation. (p. 92) The third and most successful book was The Night They Burned the Mountain (1960). Published in the year before Dooley’s death, this book showed the excellence of his work in Laos, especially the founding of MEDICO in February 1958, and compared it more favorably to any form of “foreign aid”. A fourth book, The Night of the Same Day, was never completed. Fisher says the surviving fragments “reveal much about Dooley’s method of composition as well as his turn toward a more explicit homoerotic mysticism.” (p. 243)
Dr. America is part of a series on “culture, politics, and the Cold War”. Fisher proposes that Dr. Dooley was a transitional figure between Senator McCarthy and President Kennedy. McCarthy appealed to the negative, ghetto-style Catholic, whereas Dooley was a positive symbol leading Catholics into the mainstream and even appealing to the mainstream itself. By the end of Dooley’s career, it was possible to elect a “Catholic” president in America.
Published as “Common Myths About Three Catholics” in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, vol. 108, no. 2 (November 2007): 56-59. Review-essay.

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