Dr. Tom Dooley was a unique example of the somewhat eccentric adventurers who are occasionally drawn to the international health field. His short life of thirty-four years was packed with heavily publicized exploits in Vietnam and Laos. His passionate anticommunist rhetoric in the 1950s mobilized ordinary Americans to support military action in Southeast Asia. He became a “Pop Star Saint” because of mistaken identification with the song “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.” His highly unorthodox behavior made him one of the most effective but also most unpredictable proponents of American efforts to assist health programs overseas. The organization that supported Dooley’s jungle work, Medico, was transformed into the Dooley Foundation, and its subsequent good works have followed a less erratic course than Dooley’s own career.
Dooley’s erratic behavior as a “playboy socialite” almost kept him from graduating from medical school in St. Louis. His first Navy assignment swept him up in the “Passage to Freedom,” which transported more than 200,000 (mostly Catholic) refugees from North Vietnam to Saigon as the borders were closing after partition. His first book, Deliver Us from Evil, describing the care of these refugees, was a powerful (though greatly exaggerated) tale that helped convince Americans to resist Communist expansion in Vietnam. This book gained a large and committed following, especially among American Catholics.
Dooley was pressured to resign from the Navy because of open homosexual behavior. He found a career, however, in the dramatic role of a “jungle doctor,” starting small, low-cost hospitals in areas of intense conflict along the Laotian-Chinese border. Again, highly dramaticized tales led to a second best-seller, The Edge of Tomorrow, and a third, The Night They Burned the Mountain. His public speaking tours were massively popular.
Fisher’s balanced presentation presents Dooley’s unique strengths and weaknesses. A clear description of his accomplishments reflects the great impact he had on Cold War history. In addition to the problems he experienced because of his sexual orientation, there were constant conflicts with most authority figures. Fisher carefully analyzes Dooley’s relationships with CIA objectives, and his quarrels with U.S. government officials in embassies and foreign aid organizations. His efforts to provide health care were simplistic and violated most of the principles of international health work, even at that early stage in understanding what is sustainable.
In spite of excessive detail in early chapters about Catholic church history, the book is well written and has very complete documentation of sources.