"If Tomorrow Never Comes"
The first time I was seized by the notion that we were not peddling all the truth and maybe there was some smoke in what we were channeling back to Washington was in 1969 and 1970 right after I got to Vietnam. I was, like all fledgling analysts in Vietnam in those days, assigned to collect information that was passed to the CORDS(Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program. I did a study comparing the number of people we had supposedly killed in the Phoenix program with the number of communist cadre who were operating out there, and looking over the statistics I discovered that there was no slippage in the number of cadre operating, although we had supposedly killed or eliminated 20,000 of them. And I wrote up a little memo on this and sent it to the C0RDS people across town. William Colby was the head of the CORDS program at that time. And being completely naive, once having filed a memo, I expected to see some action on this. After all, this was a serious conclusion. We were killing somebody but they were not all Viet Cong!
And there was nothing but a deafening silence.
I wrote another memo and there was another deafening silence. I heard nothing more about it. I thought about it and I was troubled. But there was so much to be troubled by in Vietnam that one episode like that could pass and you could forget about it.
I remember being awakened in the mornings by the rumbling out along the border of Vietnam, north of Saigon. Everyone I knew at the agency knew this was the secret bombing going on and I didn't realize it was secret. Some of my journalist friends would say, "You know there is bombing going on up there." And I said, "I guess I can't talk about it. It sounds like bombing to me, too." And we would sit around in the evening, and I would go over to the Newsweek villa and they would bring out their various theories about what the US was doing, and they would bounce them off me. They were terribly upset by various government transgressions. And their indignation and concern began to be infectious. I began to ask questions around the Embassy. But I never pursued them very seriously. It was always easy to avoid going too far with anything, because you could always find something else to concern you. And more than that, it never profited you to ask too many questions. Stay quiet and stay content and you are promoted.
For someone in his late 20s who has not experienced very much excitement in the world it is very heady stuff to be brought into the confidence of the station chief, this was Ted Shakley who was the CIA station chief at the time. He began to use me and others in the analytical cockpit to do speeches for him. Shakley made his career in the agency in part because he was such a good presenter. He could juggle facts and make them all come out right. He used to send cables that we referred to as "Shakleygrams" back from Saigon, which were designed to show the progress of the war. He set the pace, he set the example for a lot of the people I was operating with in the Embassy in those days. It wasn't the truth that got you ahead, it was the mimicking of truth that got you ahead. Shakley always insisted on our meeting various quotas -- number of reports turned out, number of agents recruited, all were set. Some of our case officers down in the Delta tried to meet Shakley's quotas in recruitment by hiring any prospective agent who came within range, and if they saw a colonel on somebody's staff he would be hired for our staff. And what happened is that prospective agents caught on; they earned money from the agency by reading a South Vietnamese newspaper, translating it into English and giving us that information. Well, it turned out several years later, looking back on Shakley's reign, that roughly a hundred of the agents we had recruited at that time were in fact false agents. They had been people who actually had very little to give. And in fact had given us information we could have picked up if we had spoken Vietnamese, but there were few of us in the Embassy who did, so we were misled. We were duped.
That is the way some of us began to cut our teeth on the agency. We developed a quality in which our sense of truth and integrity was slightly off the mark. What you do is you begin to blink.
Let me explain the process.
There was a very dear friend of mine in the agency who had been in Vietnam a long time and his specialty was the South Vietnamese government. And he knew a lot of South Vietnamese politicians and he worked with them hand in glove and he knew a lot of them were corrupt and he knew that they were not as reliable or as faithful to Thieu as we thought, as we wanted to think. And I remember one day -- and I knew I was a done for when this happened, I was long gone -- I was writing a piece of analysis for the new station chief, who was Tom Polgar. And I went to this CIA man and I said, "I need some input, I need some information." And he said, "Frank, you have to write into this analysis that there is some corruption and that this man is corrupt and that he is corruptible and he is not sincere." And I said, "Wait a minute, You know it and I know it. I gotta tell you it's not sellable. I can't persuade Polgar to include that in the analysis. I can't get him to keep it there. So I can't write it in." I said, "I'll do my best somewhere to float it up the system. But I can't do it this time." So what happens is that you begin censoring yourself. You censor what is not sellable. Because you get weary if you are a young operative or a young analyst arguing against "Star-Wars" opposition that something ought to be included. The corruption issue and the security issue were crucial. I never thought that we adequately monitored the rock that was destroying the South Vietnamese will to fight. Occasionally I spoke up about it. Occasionally Pat Johnson did. At one point in 1974 she did an analysis on the morale problems in the South Vietnamese military. But it was virtually unrecognizable after Polgar stomped it. He pulverized it. I knew why he was doing it. He did it for the right reason in his eyes. He felt, I surmised, and I can't quote him directly on this, but I surmised that he felt that this would make it very difficult for us to get aid out of Congress if it ever got back to Washington. He refused to let us do maps on the security situation in the South Vietnamese countryside, maps showing where the communists were in control and where the government was in control. This issue was particularly relevant right after the ceasefire accords. We were looking toward a standstill ceasefire, the forces stopping in place. I thought that knowing where the other side was was important. But Polgar refused to allow us to do up this map. We did one and he said, "I never want to see it in a briefing," and he said, "I really don't want to see it updated." And he discouraged us from adding to the map. So it died. I stuck it up on a shelf and it never came out again.
So my passage of compromises will trace back a number of years and was reinforced or buttressed by subsequent experiences with Polgar. What happens is that if you are a young CIA operative and you are ambitious, which I was, and I had a lot of prospects, and Shakley knew me and Polgar began to use me for various purposes, and you say to yourself, as I think I even said to my CIA friend who suggested I add this stuff to the paper on corruption, "Look, you gotta compromise today. It's not a bad thing to compromise on the facts, because in that way you will amass political credit so that tomorrow you can make a difference. Hold your piece today and you begin to earn credit toward some sort of leverage tomorrow." Of course, tomorrow never comes. And you keep postponing the moment of truth, if you will.
And that's what happened.
Its a long march the bureaucrats march toward moral decrepitude. That happened a lot. And I think, in my case, I came very close to losing the capacity even to recognize that I was making the compromises.
I think it should be noted that our mind set on the cease fire situation was established very early on. The cease fire was conceived in duplicity -- Kissinger not telling the South Vietnamese that he was going to accede to the North Vietnamese' retaining a substantial force presence in South Vietnam. Kissinger also failed to alert the South Vietnamese even as of the day of the cease fire as to precisely the political terms of the agreement he negotiated for them in Paris. So the South Vietnamese stumbled into this cease fire without really knowing what they were facing and presumably assuming that there would be some cutback in the North Vietnamese presence. It's very hard to tell at this point. South Vietnamese documentation on this subject is pretty scarce.
Kissinger was also duplicitious with respect to Congress. He had not indicated to Congress--at least not publicly--that the American government would be expected to supply massive amounts of aid to the South Vietnamese and also some kind of reconstruction aid to the North Vietnamese. That was part of the understanding Kissinger had reached surreptitiously with the North Vietnamese--certainly they expected it. All of these underpinnings to the cease fire agreement went unnoted, so when accounts were called in, nobody was ready for them in Congress. That is to say, Congress was not preparred to vote the kind of massive aid to South Vietnam, coupled with the reconstruction aid to North Vietnam that probably would have been necessary to make the cease fire period work. A little more honesty up front, in short, could have probably conditioned both sides to a more responsive attitude to the terms of the cease fire agreement.
The duplicity continued on more fundamental levels, very early on. Right before the cease fire went into effect, the United States government rammed into South Vietnam under the Enhanced Plus Program, massive amounts of material so the South Vietnamese could withstand any North Vietnamese cease fire violations. This was not a violation of the cease fire agreement, since the agreement had not yet come into effect, at least not the letter of the agreement. But it certainly was a breach of the spirit of what had been discussed betweeen the two sides. Consequently it was no accident that the communists responded through the cease fire period and into the initial months of the cease fire by mounting their own Enhance Plus, reinforcing their own side so that they could withstand the coming cease-fire war which they rightly foresaw as being pretty intense. With Enhance Plus, they drew the conclusion that the South Vietnamese were not going to be encouraged by the Americans to play straight with the cease fire.
And in fact that was true. The South Vietnamese very early on began pushing into areas where their control was non existent or was extremely weak. And the North Vietnamese had anticipated a stand-still cease fire in place. During the early stages of the cease fire, I'm talking about the months up through May and June of 1973, the CIA and the Defense Attache's Office very studiously ignored the cease fire violations, the land-grabbing efforts of the South Vietnamese government or otherwise cast them simply as defensive, a response to North Vietnamese cease fire violations. This was a gross misstatement of what was taking place.
But it was strictly in character with the way we would approach intelligence throughout the cease fire period. When I say "we" I'm talking really about all intelligence producers in Vietnam. We tended too much, I believe, to view intelligence as an instrument of policy rather than as a neutral commodity to be generated without political considerations or without taking political considerations into account. It became something to be used to reinforce political objectives. There was not enough of a divorce between policy and the intelligence in Vietnam. There never had been and this was quite true of the cease fire period.
We also studiously avoided addressing what might be done to bring into effect the various mechanisms envisioned under the cease-fire agreement. For instance, there was some discussion in the agreement of the possibility of setting up joint inspection teams, joint PRG-South Vietnamese government bodies, and since these various bodies would have in effect sanctified the various areas of control of the two sides. Our unwillingness to address the prospect of setting up these bodies, these cease fire political mechanisms, these joint groupings, had as its corrollary our unwillingness to look at the question of exactly what were the respective areas of control under communist forces and South Vietnamese forces.
In short, policy dictated precisely what our intellignece would focus on. We would not focus on areas of control, because in doing so we would have to accede to communist control something and therefore there was a basis for setting up or establishing some kind of political cease-fire groupings which had been envisioned in the Paris Accords. I recall quite vividly at one point a draft estimate that I put together on the prospects that the North and South Vietnamese might be able to get together to form the joint political mechanisms set up under the cease fire agreement or prescribed by the cease fire agreement. This estimate was considerably diluted by Polgar and did not address the issue. In short it said, as I recall the way the draft was finally worded, which was May, June, July 1973, somewhere early in the first summer of the cease fire period, the estimate said in effect that communists weren't interested in any kind of political accommodation. And basically the evidence didn't point that way. There were a number of questions one might have asked about this in view of the intelligence we had in hand. In short, we, immediately after the cease fire agreement, came to view this cease fire struggle in strictly military terms. And there was never much attention paid to the possibility of accommodating or even trying to accommodate the communists on the political level.
People will argue, and it was argued in Saigon, that the communists didn't mean to compromise, they meant to have the whole pie. Well, that's quite true, but it seemed to me that was a judgment that you had to weigh against the counterveiling intelligence. And we didn't often do that.
There was during the initial cease fire period a great euphoria in the Embassy, as I recall it. We were all very optimistic. We thought the cease fire might work. And as I think back over that period I'm not sure why. As I say, quite early, we in the Embassy made up our minds not to try to force Thieu or the South Vietnamese into accommodating the communists politically. And if that wasn't going to happen, and knowing what we did about how the South Vietnamese army had performed and not performed in the past, we should have been much more cautious in our optimism. But there was a terrible temptation -- and I say terrible because it was truly something infectious -- a temptation to be optimistic, to hope that this time the war was finally over. It was completely unrealistic and I was caught up in it too. I did think that somehow the war or our commitment in South Vietnam might be salvaged. This was in those early days of the cease fire.
We used to sit around the CIA quarters in Saigon, we in the Agency, and discuss how nice it would be to come back to Vietnam after we had all retired many years hence for vacations. And we all agreed that the beaches at Vung Tau or Nha Trang would be a major tourist spot. And from time to time, although I didn't have many breaks during this period, I was able to turn brief assignments in MR2 or MR3 into side trips to the coast. At one particular point Ken Moorefield and I went up to Nha Trang and we went snorkeling out around the reefs and the little islands off Nha Trang, taking note that the coral was dying. South Vietnamese soldiers had, for no reason, taken to fishing with hand grenades. They would drop hand grenades over the side of the boat and explode hand grenades and the fish killed by the explosions would then drift to the surface. The explosions were killing the coral as well as the fish. And I remembef Moorefield and I noting that this was sad, because one of South Vietnam's primary tourist attractions was being gratuitously obliterated. I bring this up simply by way of underscoring that there was true optimism and not connected necessarily with any reality in the Embassy in the early days of the cease fire period.
I guess my optimism was reinforced because for the first time after the cease fire, despite the land grabbing efforts of both sides, it became possible to travel around the country in your car. I would from time to time take a few hours on Sunday afternoon and drive down to Vung Tau. During my initial years in Vietnam from '69 to '71 that had never been possible. Only the French had dared risk that, and some crazy American soldiers. Nobody would take that Vung Tau highway. I did so and suddenly Vietnam took on a much more human dimension. I think a lot of Americans in the Embassy went through similar experiences. A country that had to this point had been basically a collection of fire support bases, or Volpar stops -- Volpars were the small planes the CIA used in Vietnam -- all disconnected, a broken mosaic. Suddenly for these American who had seen Vietnam as a broken mosaic, the pieces began to come together and we began to see the country as it was and began to see the beauty. It was very beguiling to do this, and I think probably in retrospect it was probably counterproductive in terms of the intelligence, because you allowed yourself, and you wanted to allow yourself to be lulled into the notion that all this would now last, that something could be done to make this newly glimpsed magic work. And it didn't help our intelligence estimates to feel this way.
My own optimism perhaps was most keenly felt within hours of the cease fire. The announcement of the cease fire accord in Paris, I went to see a North Vietnamese prisoner I was interrogating. He was a very high ranking official of the North Vietnamese intelligence service. I told him that this was a very happy day because our two sides were, it appeared, on the verge of peace. We had him in an air conditioned room and he sat there shivering and he said, "If you are telling me the truth, this is a happy day." He was speaking through and interpreter, or I may have been speaking to him in French--at this point I can't recall. He was suspicious of my underscoring my own conviction that this was a breakthrough, I told him about the American Civil War, what had happened in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The two sides had a very difficult time coming together, but that it happened eventually. He listened, I thought, in good humor and seemed to absorb what I was saying, seemed to accept that there was some possibility of accommodation between the two sides.
I also told him that he would be released in accordance with the terms of the cease fire agreement. He was not. He was kept in confinement until the last days of the war. And was killed by the South Vietnamese. Bill Johnson now says that he would have known about this if that had happened, or something to that effect. In reality, Bill Johnson had confirmed to me, when I was doing my book that the prisoner had been killed by the South Vietnamese, just a few hours before the communists moved into Saigon. And he also indicated -- I don't want to get into this in detail -- that the killing had been at least acquiesced in, not ordered, but acquiesced in, by the CIA
I admired Tom Polgar a lot, and what happened was that in late 1974, he and I began to tussle over several notions that for me went right to the heart of the conflict in Vietnam. And for once I began not to back off.
We got information in August 1974 from an incredibly good agent, that the Communists were going to start turning up the pressure, in fact, there was a major offensive in the offing. The agent also reported that the communists were looking toward a new standstill ceasefire. And the communists were bruiting the notion of maybe even some sort of coalition arrangement. I had been in Vietnam since 1969 and you develop a sense -- you know these reports, you know the sources at least generally -- and when something totally new slips in, you smell it. It's hard to explain. Well, this is what happened. Suddenly we had references to a standstill ceasefire - coalition arrangement mixed in with references to an increased level of military pressure, that had to send off alarms in anybody who had been looking at Vietnam for a long time. Now this report I felt was crucial. It told us something about Communist intentions that I thought we could exploit. If they were looking at standstill and a ceasefire, we ought to note this, bring it to the attention of policy makers and let policy makers take the next step.
Well, there was a problem. The problem was that we were in the midst of pushing and shoving with Congress over increased aid appropriations, or Congress had cut back and General John Murray was very concerned and so was Graham Martin about persuading Congress to restore some of the cuts that had occurred. It was not prudent, therefore, to make it appear that the communists might turn down the pressure, might be thinking in political terms. Anyone in his right mind would have known that was not consistent with a good game plan vis a vis Congress.
I didn't realize initially that I would encounter opposition from Polgar. But I did.
As we moved into September, Polgar began putting the emphasis on Communist military options to the point of almost ignoring the prospects on the political front. So the notion that the Communists might opt for some kind of standstill ceasefire got lost. And we were suddenly talking about another Armageddon. That's fine because there was plenty of intelligence to the effect that the communists were going to turn up the pressure. But what concerned me was the failure to note the other possibility, that all of this was keyed to some kind of political option that they had in mind for the first time. And I would write analyses and I would see the political discussion drop out. I would write again and see them drop out. By way of trying to get the option noticed I went to the USIA office. Polgar and Martin and others in the Embassy used the USIA office as a mechanism for releasing documents which would reinforce in the public and in the presses mind the notion that the communists were going to step up the pressure, because then you could take these sanitized declassified documents and hand them to Congress. And I was asked to write the preface documents in research notes for the series. So I wrote the preface in one series of these documents that had to do with coming military pressure. My preface included the notion that it might be geared to a political option. I sneaked out, in other words the notion, that the political option was there, that there was something in the offing. I would go to some of my friends in the press and told them, "Look, we are, I think, missing one thing in all this we tell you on the record in briefings. The one thing we're not telling you is that there is a rumor somewhere in all of this madness about a coming offensive, a rumor of a political option."
So in effect I was overstepping the rules. For me it was very modest, but it was an unusual effort to get what I felt was a very important kernel of truth out. Because it was quite obvious that South Vietnam was in terrible trouble.
In the first place, morale was collapsing. The South Vietnamese were in terrible shape in terms of morale. One can argue up, down and sideways whether it was cutbacks in US aid or the economic malaise. Both of these big factors were considered in our analyses. One thing that seemed not to be considered was the slippage of morale itself. We would talk about, well, if something doesn't improve, it will slip. That was the line we would take in analyses. But we wouldn't say that morale has collapsed already. There is a very fine distinction. You will find documents that will dispute this but the preponderance of the intelligence analyses that we did both in the Embassy and the CIA channels either ignored the morale problem or in some way caste it so as to make it appear that there was some hope for morale. This was the context in which Pat Johnson did her paper on morale. Polgar took it and he rewrote it and he gave it to Martin who published it as an on-the-record cable. In effect, it's a very strange document, saying that the South Vietnamese are breeding like rabbits and so they must be happy and so morale is not so bad. It was an extraordinary document and I've never seen anything else like it. CIA headquarters refused to disseminate it initially as a field appraisal, so it was sent back and Polgar redisseminated it with Martin's help through Embassy channels. So we failed to recognize adequately what terrible shape South Vietnamese morale was in. General Murray's people at DAO, I think, rang the alarms on this. But again the alarms seemed to have to do with whether or not an increase in US material would make a difference.
Soon after his arrival Martin circulated an informal memo through the Embassy and I heard this phrase repeated many times: He said, "We will not engage in any proctological examinations of the South Vietnamese body politic." Well, if you were a lower ranking agency official or State Department official in Saigon, you did not need any kind of coding device or decipher to know what that phrase meant. It meant that reportilng on South Vietnamese corruption, the security situation in the countryside, would not be welcome in the front office. Gradually that kind of reporting began to dry up or get pigeonholed. In the intelligence business, reports never entirely disappear. They may be retained in some dead file in Saigon. So there was information on corruption but it never got widely disseminated. And when we got around to doing analyses on South Vietnamese survivability, the corruption issue was repeatedly and consistently de-emphasized to the point that it made no difference to the analysis.
The same was true of the morale problems of the South Vietnamese Army. Only when it became convenient to suggest the South Vietnamese morale might be fragile and contingent on massive U.S. aid, did that kind of phrasing slip into our intelligence analyses. Very seldom did our analyses reflect what I felt to be the true situation which was that the South Vietnamese morale was subject to vicissitudes quite apart from massive U.S. infusions of aid. Sure, if we'd gone back in with lots of money and had virtually remade the South Vietnamese economy, morale would have improved, but nothing short of that-- That was never in the cards anyway--would have turned South Vietnamese morale around enough to make the South Vietnamese army an effective fighting force.
Martin and Tom Polgar were both very egotistical men, very self-confident men, very sure of their points of view. Polgar was, I think, a cold warrior in Martin's mold. He hated the communists, was suspicious of communism in general, and was very much a patriot, as Martin was. Very much a hawk, in Martin's sense. But Polgar could admire Martin's rhetorical capabilities and would even allow that the Ambassador is an expert at this. And he would look at certain cables, I recall, of Martin's, and he would comment to me something to the effect, "What a fine writer he is. What a marvelous expounder of our particular point of view." Gradually I came to feel that the straightest presentation of facts or points of view was the best way and that the subtleties that were the subtleties of our intelligence would not be welcome in the Ambassador's office.
Polgar was, none the less his own man. He was also an extremely remote individual. He was rough hewn. He was one not inclined to forego challenging Martin's presumptions. But Polgar tended generally to agree with Martin. He was a person who liked to manipulate words. He liked to play with information, not to bend it or twist it necessarily, but to play with it, to make it conform to his particular perspective. During the first year of the cease fire, as I began to operate as his principal briefer and as his drafter of cables and analyses, Polgar was easy to deal with except on the subject of corruption and security in the countryside. On the military side he and I saw eye to eye. I don't think that I often disagreed with him on the military side during the first year of the cease fire. I did tend to feel that he underplayed the South Vietnamese cease fire violations. And I was suspicious that this might be because he was trying to accommodate Martin's point of view. But I can't say that he ever told me that he was deliberately underplaying for that purpose. At Mission Council briefings where I would stand up and discuss what the intelligence said about communist intelligence, I functioned without any clearance, generally. I would get up and simply talk about the intelligence and it was a fairly straightforward briefing, initially. Only as we got into the cease fire period did Polgar then later begin to take me aside after the briefings and say "Let's not get into the issue of what the communists are saying about their political options." He'd say,"I'll brief the Ambassador on this." Personally, he said, "Don't get into it!"
The Big Debate at the time concerned the question of material. Are the South Vietnamese out of material? Are they on their last legs? If that were true then US input was absolutely essential. But what if they have stuff stashed away? And had corruption made it so impossible to bring to bear any rationalized logistical system?
Murray and the DAO in general took the position that the South Vietnamese were running out of material because the pipeline was dry and the storehouses were empty or there were no parts for airplanes or tanks. It was an interesting argument. And it was a very attractive one, politically. The problem was that there was fairly little evidence to support it.
I'll never forget being in DAO with Murray before his departure in August of 1974. I used to go out in the morning with Pat Johnson and other analysts, and we would stand through the DAO briefings, and the DAO briefing officers were just fine and very good at what they did, which was mostly manpower and logistics. They often didn't have access to our --the CIA-- political reports. Be that as it may, they were quite good. One of the briefing officers said to Murray, "I've just come back from a place in the Delta and they have no batteries for the radios that they're using." And Murray said, "That's impossible!" The officer said, "I can't explain why it's happened but they don't have batteries for their radios." And Murray, said, "But I made a requisition for them, I saw the batteries delivered, they were supposed to be there."
That summed it up, that exchange, banal as it sounds. It was one of the major problems. Murray in very good faith would get the material and put it in some South Vietnamese pipeline and it would disappear. There was no way to verify how much was disappearing, how much was being stashed away from forward combat areas. And I had argued this point many times with people from DAO and continued to insist that they had a flawed monitoring system because they relied on all the generals to report what materials were delivered. We were relying on the people to whom we were supplying materials and in some cases had a stake in not leveling with us. And if I had been a South Vietnamese general I would have not leveled with us, because I would have thought, "Why tell the Americans we have enough? Always tell them we need more!" There was an irrationality built into our trust of the South Vietnamese logistics experts that defies imagination.
Still another problem that we could never resolve was the question of whether or not the NVA were being resupplied at massive new levels by Russia and China and whether or not that was also a political issue. If they were getting increased aid, we should do the same for the South Vietnamese. A big debate in the intelligence community was the question of whether or not to use dollar values to assess supplies going to the NVA or the whether you assess it in tonnage terms. It had been the CIA's habit to attach dollar values to all the material going into North Vietnam and a lot of us over time had developed skepticism about this dollar value which could be manipulated in various ways. What is the value of a dollar equivalent to a North Vietnamese piaster? What it came down to was that there was not very good evidence, certainly in tonnage terms that the North Vietnamese were being massively supplied. There was also evidence from collateral sources that the North Vietnamese were having problems persuading the Soviets to buck them up.
So each of these crucial questions was charged politically, unbelievably charged. The answer to any of these questions might tip Congress the other way. So there was no rational debate on these essential questions that went to the heart of whether or not the South Vietnam could survive.
I began to lose some of my traditional deference to Polgar. I began to write more and more trying not to shift down the reigning hypotheses, but at the same time to cause people to think. I was not welcome at DAO. There had always been a rivalry between the CIA and the DAO. And since I was the most high-profile CIA briefer, and probably very brash with the military guys, I was universally disliked. At one time they tried to hang a press leak on me and shut me out of the DAO briefings.
What I objected to in the DAO analysis was the notion that the spotting of military material, armor, on the trail system, could be taken as an indication that the communists were going to attack. There were very few net assessments of communist strengths. It was one of the problems of this crucial period. DAO would infer upon spotting a tank that this tank would be used in an offensive or immediately. We had no net assessments stating that they needed to replace one tank or the cannon, if they needed a replacement. I objected to the DAO unwillingness to factor in political considerations, and particularly communist planning. Their intelligence on Communist intentions was lodged almost exclusively on hardware, hardware meaning offensive material. They did not for instance say, well, as certain material is coming down the system, maybe its replacement material. A certain number of men are coming down the system, maybe they're replacements to keep up their battalion strength. How many people have been killed that the communists need to keep up their battalion strength? Just to keep it up, not to mount and offensive? DAO didn't do that and I thought their analyses were dangerously simplistic.
The DAO and the Pentagon uniformly would do analyses this way, not net assessments, but gross assessments, using manpower figures to suggest communist planning. The CIA's intelligence was always much better in the political area, I mean strategic political. We had sources within the communist command, we had multiple ways of looking at the communist side, aside from the flow of material and manpower. And DAO had so often cried wolf that the urgency of the situation had become lost on policy makers in Washington. They would just say, "Oh, that's DAO doing it again." Every month the DAO assessment was issued, and they'd have a briefing and publish it as an assessment, they'd always put an edge on it that I thought was overly bellicose. I'm certainly no dove. I think of myself as a fairly good intelligence analyst and a pragmatist. Sure, you get a warning that the Communists may come over the hill. Having done that you have to weigh in other factors. What are the conditioning considerations, what are the limitations that they face? What problems do the North Vietnamese face? What are the factions in the politburo? That means you should weigh in analyses of their intentions. And DAO never did that.
And so going into this crucial late 1974 period, DAO had dulled the senses of CIA people who were their audience at times, and I think they had dulled their own senses.
The drum fire that had been so much a part of the noise level out at DAO made things even more difficult within the Embassy. Nobody disputed that the Communists were going to turn up the pressure. The question was how much and how far and what did they want. As the pressure began to intensify in late 1974 so did the drum fire in the Embassy, and I was writing analyses for Polgar which reflected the increasing warning signals. But it became so difficult to write these analyses, because I kept trying to weave into them the line that maybe there was something they were after, maybe they are looking to a political objective, maybe they aren't coming over the hill. And it turns out that I was right. It turns out that Van Tien Dung says in his memoirs that this was the period in which they were testing. They were seeing how far they could go and then they would ratchet up the pressure a little more. He admits that there was no plan for a general offensive. And this was precisely what my analysis was and that of the other analysts in the CIA cockpit. But not at DAO. The communist plan was not to seize Saigon in 1975. It was to test and to look toward increasing the pressure if they could.
Le Duan was, I think, in a very delicate position. We got intelligence in December from a very good source. General Smith may not have seen this report. The intelligence was mind boggling. What it held was that the Communists were already picking candidates or sites for a new PRG capital in the South. I had never seen that in reports before, and certainly not in the reports from the source we were tapping into. It was stunning. It was like the piece of intelligence I noted just before the Paris Peace Accords, when I saw in a public statement by the North Vietnamese that they were no longer demanding Thieu's withdrawal before they signed the agreement. That kind of thinking just stopped you if you were familiar with the hieroglyphics of North Vietnamese planning.
I brought the intelligence to the attention of the Mission Council, which was Martin's regular weekly meeting. And Polgar would shoot that kind of thing down. He would say, "We're not going to believe that sort of thing," or "it's not important." And it became very discouraging when you try to put forward this kind of intelligence, and it was always written off. Now that critical piece of information came right before the Communist probe at Song Be. And the analysis of what we predicted was that the Communists would attack there. And we got it right.
And of course after they hit Song Be they proved to themselves that we would not intervene. Thieu drew the same conclusion. And he began to think about tacking, but much too late. There had been discussion all along, from the period mid 1974 to 1975, of shucking off unneeded territory. But it was a dirty word. We were not to discuss this with anyone. We were not to try to elicit intelligence on the shucking off of unneeded territory. We were told not to talk to the French offices or the Australian -- Ted Serong -- who was broaching this to Thieu. We were not to elicit information on this one, because once you put it in channels it might get to Congress.
Here was something the South Vietnamese were considering, here is something the Communists were considering, we were getting reflections of it in this intelligence burst in 1974 saying they might stand for a ceasefire. The communists would move into it and stand still.
When you talk about setting up a capital in a certain territory and that is your territory this is our territory, that's a different environment entirely. When Song Be fell the escalation began, and then the Communist planning shifted. And so did our analyses. I no longer felt the Communists were going for a political settlement. And the opportunity was lost. Whatever the Communists were looking at was possible within the wedge of time between August of 1974 and early 1975 was lost, and it was terrible because we could have put the brakes on the Communist side by some clever maneuver exceeding to a standstill ceasefire. The other question was if we could get the South Vietnamese to buy it. Certainly if we had made that initiative and pursued that, and it had become public, it would have been very hard to get Congress to vote additional aid. For public relations reasons we downplayed it and I think that for local reasons we caused it to be flushed out of the intelligence picture. And these were important indicators that could have given us some new lease or second lease or third lease on the life of Saigon.
In late 1974 I began to leak news to the press in Saigon. And I said, "Look, we're not getting into the intelligence channels, some of this stuff is not being emphasized." I almost am certain that I talked to Robert Shaplen at this time because he wrote that there was a political option that was not being looked at. I was becoming really, from the agency's standpoint, insubordinate. But nobody knew it. And there was so much going on. And I was doing rather important stuff for the Agency. Because one of the things that Polgar had done, he had cranked me into a very very important operation that we running into North Vietnam. The details I can't even begin to discuss. Suffice to say that it was an informal operation. It was very productive. To me it was the peak of my career.
I can't give you any details on this. But it was a very very productive operation. So much so that we began to look at ways to get the information into regular channels. It was so sensitive that it was not even put into regular reporting channels. So I began to generate within the Embassy through State Department channels sort of a sanitized version of some of the intelligence we were getting so that more people would get a look at it. And I worked with State Department officers on it. And Polgar even began censoring that. Censoring by saying, "I don't like going out with that report. Everything must point in one direction." So when we talk of this particular State Department outlook that was right about communist planning, maybe taking into consideration a political option, it would somehow not get passed on.
Anyway, I was becoming very restless. And I was traveling around the country doing lots of briefings with South Vietnamese generals. And the sense of unreality was amazing. You'd go around and you'd discover with the South Vietnamese generals that they had no strategic intelligence. I was walking in, and I was a relatively middle level Embassy person, very young looking, and I would walk in and tell the corps commander that we had intelligence on this and this and this, and he would be nonplused, he wouldn't know. I would be his first word. That was stunning to me. I was sent out several times in the 1974-75 period. Col. Hoang Ngoc Lung, who was head of intelligence for the Joint General Staff was in DAO's pocket and I don't know what he was doing. I'm not saying that ARVN headquarters wasn't informed. I mean the officers up in the corps areas, they were baffled. And in early 1975, I was briefing General Nguyen Van Toan in MR III, and it was news what I was telling him, about overall communist planning and about what he could expect in his corps. And I think it came down to the South Vietnamese military staff being unwilling to share intelligence, which was power. I encountered this with General Pham Van Phu up in MR II, also.
If they had the facts, they would have understood the seriousness of the situation. But they were playing another game.
In early March I was sent out of Vietnam to meet some informants from North Vietnam. That was during the period when right before the strike on Ban Me Thuot, and I came back with very bleak information from North Vietnam, meaning that they were going for broke. That was my first sensation: there was no pulling back. I'm not talking about political options any more. That's gone. The Communists are now escalating way beyond the notion of setting up a province capital. By the end of January, when Song Be fell in Phuoc Long, we washed out of our analyses and I no longer felt that they would go for any kind of political option.
As the military situation began deteriorating through March, I did a piece of analysis based on the information we had in hand. And I miscalled, to my everlasting regret, the target of the thrust of the next communist offensive. Like many other people I thought it would crash in the Pleiku-Kontum area. And we missed entirely the Ban Me Thuot front. Looking at what we knew of communist force movements I drew up an estimate in early March noting that probably the communists would try in the Highlands to isolate Ban Me Thuot, but not attack it. We did not know that over three NVA divisions were poised outside of Ban Me Thuot. Our failure to ascertain this led to a gross misestimate of commmunist intentions in the immediate area. There were some indicators, and you can always go back and say we should have looked closer at this or that. But it was not emphasized at DAO and neither did the agency. We were misled by one thing. We had become totally reliant on sensitive intelligence sources, meaning radio intercepts, technical intelligence sources. The communists realized this and were deceiving us.
General Dung says that they had a headquarters radio, and we saw it and picked up on it and we thought his headquarters was there. But it wasn't.
After the ceasefire in 1973, NSA and whatever military people run the surveillance system, National Reconnaissance Office, they all shifted their priorities, so Vietnam got fewer priorities, so we had less coverage in terms of radio intercepts and aerial photography. And occasionally DAO would send out planes with derring do and with Minox cameras and get photos of troops. But intelligence coverage diminished. And we lost track of American prisoners of war. We used to maintain such absolute vital coverage that if an American was picked up in Cambodia, we could track him. I recall very vividly after Dana Stone and Sean Flynn were picked up, we had fixes on them and knew almost at the point where they disappeared, that is died. We had indications that they were thrashing around, that they were in communist hands. So the cutback in technical intelligence coverage was crucial.
Contributing to our failure to detect communist movements in the Highlands of Vietnam and in particular movements around Ban Me Thuot, was CIA corruption two years before. The chief CIA officer in the MR2 area, and by the way, by the time the final offensive kicked off he was no longer there for the reason I will explain. But we discovered that the chief CIA officer in MR2 area had been digging into the cookie jar. Operational funds earmarked for the development of intelligence networks in the highlands and elsewhere in MR2 had been diverted to this officer's own personal use. He had not accounted for them. Nor had the intelligence networks they were meant to pay for been developed. So this man's corruption, in effect, had deprived us of important sources of information in the very area where the communists were to attack first. What happened to this intelligence officer? After his malfeasance had been uncovered he had been removed and sent home to CIA headquarters where he had been reprimanded and retired. But he had not been prosecuted. The CIA seldom, at least up to that time, had prosecuted people who were caught committing unethical acts, or doing inappropriate things, because of the possibility that that might embarrass the agency as a whole.
Well I don't think that it's exaggerating to say that this man's corruption helped blind us in a very vital area, that we might have known more about communist intentions if he had used the operational funds as they had been intended.
As the communists were preparing to strike at Ban Me Thuot, President Thieu was making important adjustments in his own strategic plans. In view of the United States' failure to respond to the Phuoc Long debacle, and also in view of some very noncommittal responses he had received from the U.S. Embassy as to future U.S. intentions, Thieu moved into a new phase of strategy called "light at the top, heavy at the bottom". He had not told the CIA or his military contacts at DAO, nor had his military officers told the contacts there of this plan. So none of us were ready for the withdrawal from Kontum and Pleiku, which was to set in motion the unraveling of South Vietnam.
I remember very well the Saturday morning when we got our first word that South Vietnamese forces were pulling out of Kontum and Pleiku. As Polgar has indicated publicly, we had an agent inside the military structure in those provinces. Let's leave it at that. And so through him we would get word of the withdrawal. At the time the withdrawal began, I was briefing Polgar in his office and Wolfgang Lehmann who was substituting for Martin who was away in Washington visiting a dentist. It was a leisurely Saturday as Saturdays go in those days. We were all on high alert but I had been hoping to get away that afternoon and to spend a couple of hours at the swimming pool. I desperately needed to relax. I had been extremely busy over the past few weeks.
I was briefing Polgar, basically, on the disposition of communist forces, what we had just received on communist plans. Basically the intelligence was not very explicit. It didn't carry us much beyond what we had known two or three days ago. We were trying to keep track of the situation in Ban Me Thuot and that was difficult. Intelligence was coming out only sporadically. We were briefing one of the State Department's new arrivals in Saigon. Suddenly the secretary came in with a report from Pleiku and Polgar literally bolted out of the room to try to find Lehmann. When he couldn't, and I recall him racing around the office all during the afternoon, he tried to get in touch with the principal consul general in MR2 in Nha Trang to get a clarification and put pressure on him to pull the plug on the American presence in Kontum and Pleiku.
Over the next few days, as we literally saw the South Vietnamese army in the Central Highland disintegrate on Route 7B to the coast, Polgar's mood changed dramatically and I recall his making a reference to the withdrawal as being like a circus gone crazy. Nobody seemed to be able to impose any order on the withdrawing South Vietnamese forces from the highlands. Our briefing maps in the CIA cockpit very close to Polgar's office were literally bleeding from a thousand cuts. To indicate the advancing North Vietnamese army we were streaking the maps with red and it was almost impossible to keep track of the situation on the maps because the situation was deteriorating so quickly. I had seen this happen in 1972 during the communist offensive. At that time developments occurred so quickly that you couldn't be sure you were on top of them. And there is a strange feeling that overtakes an intelligence outfit in such circumstances. Suddenly you have a feeling you'd like to throw all the intelligence away and go into another business. You feel utterly futile and literally wasted. And that's how I think we began to feel in the analytical shop at CIA station during those days as we watched the South Vietnamese army disintegrate.
During this mid-March period I used to stumble back to my apartment well after nightfall. I had a maid who was part French. She spoke French and she would, as she prepared my meal, based on what she'd picked up in the Saigon market-- and you could look at the table and tell that we were in trouble, because the supply of various foods was beginning to narrow. She knew something was terribly wrong. Parts of her family were in the military up country, and she would look at me imploringly, as if to importune me into telling her about the situation. I couldn't do it. I studiously avoided discussing with her what was going on because I didn't want to admit it to myself. But the estimates I was now turning out -- and by the second or third week in March I was generating estimates at an unprecedented one a day--the tone of these estimates were all in one direction now. For the first time in my experience in Vietnam I was beginning to look to the prospect of some kind of decisive defeat for the South Vietnamese.
The last weeks of the war were truly traumatic. I never slept more than four hours a night. And sometimes I went for days without sleeping.
By mid-March the CIA and the DAO were much at loggerheads which didn't help anybody. We had different interests and different focuses, I think. I don't think CIA people went back to DAO for their briefings any longer. They didn't have time to. We were so overextended. And I say, we, I mean the analytical bunch. At the CIA we were pretty confident of our intelligence at that point. Martin was pretty resistant to the pooling of intelligence in the Embassy, almost like a South Vietnamese, he didn't want too much information in anybody's hands or too much power for an individual, I suppose. He covered the waterfront himself, though.
We operated in little pools, very isolated. To complicate things, Martin was continuing to beat the drum for additional aid, even when it became manifestly apparent that the South Vietnamese army was almost incapable of using the aid that it had.
The question was, how much can you get from American Congress? That question was key to our handling of the Congressional delegation that showed up.
Senator Sam Nunn was there in January. But we would not publicly concede how dangerous the situation was to visitors at that point. I know that in my briefings to visitors, and I briefed them all, it was always upbeat. And I would sit there and go for the dog and pony show, and they would just stare. and I was expected to say, as I was standing up there by the maps, half truths; not lies, but half truths, easy to explain.
I'd say, "The communists have infiltrated 60,000 men. So you can draw the conclusion we are looking toward increased military activity here." But you couldn't say that they had lost or withdrawn 60,000 men. And I became very good at it and did it very smoothly. And it became a very very cynical exercise.
Seldom was I ever put in the situation of having to contradict Polgar publicly. One time that happened was when, during the visit of the Congressional delegates in early 1975, Polgar invited me to brief Congressman McCloskey. Polgar led off with some familiar rhetoric about the communists planning major initiatives in the weeks ahead. He seemed to me to lay it on extremely heavy, pointing out or hinting that there was some kind of general offensive definitely in the works, and we did not know this at the time. And he also, I felt, gave much too much credence that the South Vietnamese could somehow withstand the coming pressure. He provided an echo in other words of the recent cable he had sent to Washington concerning Thieu's survivability and the likelihood he would run for re-election. I sat there wondering how I could somehow get the conversation back on track. You have to imagine this kind of session. It took place in Polgar's villa and we had had beer brought in and we were sort of sitting around a semicircle. I had all of my maps and pointers there. It was all very very informal, and it would have been very difficult to say anything critical of Polgar's point of view without being forced to get into real detail. Well I managed to do it. I managed to point out to McCloskey that we had seen escalating attacks in the past year and that we might see strikes in places like Tay Ninh and other areas in the weeks ahead. This was after Phuoc Long so Tay Ninh was now the focus of our concern.
Somehow I managed to convince the people who sat in on that briefing that I had taken a more honest line than Polgar. I'm not sure what was more honest, but in any case, that was the impression. So very soon I got word, sometime that afternoon, that representative Don Fraser and Millicent Fenwick and several of their aides wanted to talk with me and some other people in the Embassy. I agreed to do so with a friend of mine who was also in the agency. We sat down with Fraser and Fenwick and laterally with Bella Abzug--she was not in on the principal meeting. We talked about the situation very very candidly. Polgar was not in on this session, and I feel that probably my friend and I got an extremely grim view across to the congressmen. Don Fraser was blown away. Bob Boettcher, his staff aid was sitting in on it. I told him the truth. I told him that there was terrible corruption. The corruption had reached the point where the army and the command couldn't pull itself together, it couldn't pull in one direction. Thieu was indeed incarcerating political opponents. These weren't communists. And I gave him the bleakest possible picture of the military situation. And I didn't think that frankly aid would pull it out this time. It was very very black. I was led to believe by some of the staffers who were present that that briefing of mine and the other CIA officer without Polgar helped to solidify the very grim estimate that the congressional delegation went away with of the military situation and the strategic picture.
Later, I recall, we met the delegation at Polgar's house, and they asked questions coming out of the session I had earlier. Their questions led Polgar, I think, to suspect that I had given them the darkest possible picture of what was going on. So much so, and I think that it got to Martin too, that the briefers were pulled out of the last session the visitors had with Martin, the CIA briefers. That was very unusual. And so our negative assessment was missing and Fraser and the others left with really only Martin's version of reality, and I'm sure they didn't buy it. In fact I know they didn't.
On Martin himself, I have written extensively on him, but I might give you a few thoughts. Martin was a kaleidoscopic man. He was an individual who was a cold warrior of the old stripe. He lost an adopted son in Vietnam. The kid had been killed in combat in the highlands, I believe. And he was the last man in the world to give Vietnam up for dead. He was almost, in a sense, a tragic figure. He had to see the American commitment in Vietnam carried through to a successful conclusion. He had to believe that the South Vietnamese were worth saving.
That being said, he was also a Southerner. He tended with the sort of mind set of the Southern patrician, or would-be patrician, to be a bit patronizing toward those we would help. I recall sitting with him one day at the Ambassador's villa in Saigon. I had become close to Martin largely because of Martin's daughter whom I had gotten to know. I was sitting with Martin and he was talking about the South Vietnamese and he said something to the effect that we must do what we can for the South Vietnamese as we had to do what we could for the "darkies" in the South. He didn't use "blacks" and he didn't use "Negro", he used "darkies". He said we must help them find their strengths. That thought stuck with me, because being a southerner of a different stripe, I found any hit of racism terribly noxious and here it seemed to me was an expression, if not of racism, of a kind of paternalism which had been its corrollary in the South I had known. What did I say to the Ambassador? Well, I tried, I believe in this particular meeting simply to convey my sense that the South Vietnamese were a complex people.
I also pointed out to him, not merely on this occasion but on several occasions, that we were not doing in the CIA station the kind of in depth analysis on South Vietnamese stengths or weaknesses I felt we ought to be doing. But Martin had very firm views on this. He was willing to get information from almost any sources so long as it did not seem to rub up against his point of view. He was a very opinionated ambassador. He was so opinionated and so seized with his sense of place that when DAO failed to sit him at one of their briefings in the principal chair at the head of the table, or the loop of the horseshoe, he took offense and never thereafter attended DAO military briefings.
I was very much a Southern Boy, I had been nurtured on discipline and respect for authority. I was not one of these people who could easily throw the gauntlet right directly in my superiors face. I genuinely like Polgar and Martin. So it is not in my nature to say,"Jesus, we shouldn't be lying to these people in this way."
I lived a monkish existence at this time. It's very strange, nobody to talk to but the people I was working immediately with. Pat Johnson was becoming extremely nervous. So much so that she was eventually sent home. Polgar sent her home because she was on the verge of nervous exhaustion. We were all working around the clock and its a wonder any of us got any rest. After Ban Me Thuot I slept almost never, and would go two nights in row without sleep. I was not conditioned to do what I should have done. I should have grabbed Polgar by the shirt and screamed at him, "For God's sake why don't we look at the intelligence." My strategy was always to try to reason both sides out. Do what the bureaucrat does, go with the flow. Don't rock the boat if you can help it. Always listen to everybody else's point of view. And I did. And things continued to get worse and worse. I was telling these journalists on the sly that we were in a terrible situation. And that aid would not save it. That is where I diverged and others diverged from the standard line being handed out in the Embassy.
The Americans were telling Thieu that we had the option of using the air force in Thailand. But they didn't understand the War Powers Act. This business of threatening them with B52s just wouldn't work. Where would you have bombed? By then they would not have severed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Everything the North needed was already in South Vietnam. By December they already had in South Vietnam a huge array of forces. By the end of January they were coming down the Trail and coming across the DMZ. The manpower statistics of flow on the trail were extremely depressing. We discussed the use of B52s and we did in fact review the War Powers Act and the notion that you would have to do something very extreme.
During those last weeks we had a specialist in from CIA headquarters in Washington to look over various grids that might have been used as guides for the bombing of North Vietnamese forces. There was some contingency planning within the CIA analytical section and the station with respect to the possibility of using air power against the communist forces in Vietnam.
I was not actively involved in that planning, but I must say that my fellow analytical colleagues were pretty much amused by the prospect -- amused in a grim way over the prospect of possible bombing of North Vietnamese forces because it seemed certainly as of mid-April, that there were no clear or clean targets. The North Vietnamese had already rammed down their infiltration system massive reinforcements. There were only one or two divisions still unaccounted for among those that made up the North Vietnamese order of battle. So bombing the infiltration routes would have been by that point pretty futile.
And reinvolvement of American forces in any shape or form would have been extreme, and we took that as a given in the agency's cockpit. We also felt that talk of using B52s was dangerous for Thieu. Because Thieu thought that military planning should be keyed to the Americans coming in and helping them.
And the bombing of North Vietnamese forces inside South Vietnam would have been quite difficult as well, because that would have meant targeting a lot of populated areas, say in the Highlands, or in MR 1 where there was an eruption of refugees flowing toward the coast or down the coast into Saigon-controlled areas. In other words it would have been quite impossible to bring to bear massive air strikes, or even select air strikes on North Vietnamese targets in South Vietnam without risking massive civilian casualties.
The old shibboleth that we could have jacked up South Vietnamese morale by using bombers wasn't viable. I think South Vietnamese morale ceased to exist as a plus in mid 1974. I don't' think it varied with the show of American force. After all, whose morale are you talking about. The generals' morale? If you bring in air power it would have made the generals feel just fine. Would it then jack up the morale of the poor guy down in the trenches who may benefit from it? Bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail? Do you put out special additions of the Saigon Post saying what you're doing? I find it very difficult to understand how in 2 months time, beginning with Ban Me Thuot, with the army literally unraveling, you could have stopped the unraveling by bombing something. When that army began streaming out of the highlands, I think the North Vietnamese figured it was the beginning of the end and it was all over. Van Tien Dung says that is when they began figure on winning in the dry season.
The North Vietnamese intelligence was very good. They had several possible sources among our people. They certainly were on top of key moves almost before the Americans. When Thieu decided to begin shuffling forces and opted for "light at the top and heavy at the bottom," they had that almost before we did. I think the North Vietnamese used their intelligence splendidly. But they also were surprised by the unraveling of ARVN, and I think a tension was set up between General Dung or some of the other field commanders who wanted to push push push and some of the members of the Politburo or Central Committee, who wanted a cautious strategy of moving ahead.
You can argue that if we had made a show of force even with the army unraveling from the highlands, maybe we could have caused the North Vietnamese to pull up short. They had almost their entire army in the South. They had only two divisions waiting to come in. If you bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail, you have only two divisions to halt from coming into the fray. They had fielded most of their forces. Anyway, it is a chess player's move. I can tell you at the time, and Polgar was right on, there was no problem here, once that Ban Me Thuot fell and that army began coming out of the highlands in pieces, he was insistent that we emphasize what he thought was happening and that was that this was the end. I think he held in mind and paid lip service to a notion that aid might have saved the day and turned it around. I would go in and do the analysis for him, and I say these are my thoughts and here are my notes, what points do we emphasize? And he would, "Well, I want to add to the end of the analysis or put something up top about this, and I'll do it back channel here pumping up what you put in the front channel stuff," and that would be it. I could almost do an analysis without going to him and asking him what was going on, I was so in sync with him. He would probably dispute that now, but it was true and it was quite uncanny. I would almost know how he would go at a subject. And in this period beginning really in late February, we were thinking, we were very much looking the same way, he was pointing the direction and I was following along. And he was all gloom, but he kept holding in reserve something that I didn't agree with. He thought that if we gave the South Vietnamese x dollars of aid it might help. And I think this ultimately created a last hope, the last best hope. And it made it very difficult when it came time to step up an evacuation plan. How do you step up evacuation planning when you're still holding out that last best hope?
Polgar was putting the best face on the situation because he said he didn't want to precipitate panic and that would accelerate the unraveling. But there was the flip side, and that was nobody was prepared for what happened. It was like a Kafkaesque world. People seemed to be out of touch with reality. You knew there was a problem when the Vietnamese who was supposed to cook your meals no longer showed up. But otherwise the pressures somehow impinged only very slowly, the reality impinged only very slowly on people in the Embassy.
As of the first of April I had talked once again to one of our sources in North Vietnam. They had indicated that the North Vietnamese were going for broke, they were looking for blood, there was no chance for a negotiated settlement, no chance for a political fix and that we had better start thinking about contingency planning. During the next few days we began receiving tactical indicators that the North Vietnamese were maneuvering into position to launch themselves toward Saigon. So my gloom was deepening.
The C5A crash didn't affect me that much because I think I was already so gloomy that that was just one more horrible indicator that we were in big trouble. Within a day of the plane going down, a day later, we got from an agent I was talking to but not running, an agent who was inside the communist command in the South, the agent was run by Martin, inside COSVN, he gave us information indicating that the communists were in effect going for broke. And he said that all of the talk of negotiations was shadow play. This kept cropping up in intelligence. And Polgar, finally, when he refused to send out one report this way said, "Well, we've seen it so often."
Sure enough we began picking up indicators about the end of the first week in April, there was talk of negotiations, but it wasn't stated explicitly in the initial report, that the tone of negotiations was purely for show. But all the indicators coming from various directions indicated that political byplay was just that. And way beyond that the Communists might be moving into position to target Saigon. That they were going to push this offensive to the limit. And sure enough when you look at Dung's memoirs you see that the communists did opt for winning it by May, before Ho Chi Minh's birthday. So our intelligence was really quite incredible within that time frame.
If you ask me if I saw the C5A as traumatic, yes I did, and the flights out of Danang were horrifying, not because they showed that our systems wouldn't work, that was always questionable. It proved that Americans would panic, that they would break under the strain, that you could not be certain of their reaction. The shock that went through the Embassy when we heard about that C5A crash -- I was in the radio room, the operations room when they began reading the names of the casualties on the C5A crash, and it was deathly silent, just the sound of the radio was the only sound in the room. And I felt that someone was sort of reading a benediction on the American presence in Vietnam when that happened. Then there was this eruption of, "My God, what do we do next?" from people all around me. And I thought, "My God, what are we going to be doing?" And there was the same general reaction when a plane attacked the presidential palace. There was then panic in the Embassy. And I think Martin was right about this. He cabled home and he was complaining about panic reflected in various channels. Alan Carter seemed to be overly anxious. And I'm not sure he wasn't right in being that way. And the reason for this overreaction from time to time was because the general community had been given some pap about, don't worry about this or that. It seemed to me there was an edge of irrationality that began to set-in in people's reaction, and that frightened me. Because I figured there was only one way we were gong to get out and that was to put a lid on people's emotions.
I think we lied to people too often before that. The fear of the Vietnamese turning on the Americans was so overdrawn. We had one or two reports that that might happen. I think that DAO was getting it from Lung, and I think some of the Vietnamese were doing it for reasons quite personal -- they wanted to get the hell out of the country and they thought the government would collapse. We had a report that Ky might turn on us. But the question was, how would it occur. It's hard to know what he felt from time to time. And the notion was, what would the Vietnamese do if they panicked? It meant the closing down of all evacuation channels. And it means that nobody gets out. That's why there was no panic on the last day to speak of. The South Vietnamese stood by because they knew this was the last launching pad and they knew that if they didn't stand back nobody would get out.
I think there was concern that there might be an uprising in the army. There were troops stationed out near Tan Son Nhut, and the airforce would have brought havoc with an air strike on Tan Son Nhut or DAO. I found it very difficult to believe that the South Vietnamese could muster enough planes, but one or two might have turned on the Americans.
My feeling was, and I argued at that time, I spoke with Polgar, that if we didn't start a rationalized evacuation plan, we might have panic. I gotta tell you, those kinds of discussions were fleeting. The main discussions focused on when the communists were going to attack and whether or not a political settlement was a possibility.
Pat Johnson and I began writing through the first week in April. We wrote analyses every moment. I'd never turned out that many before. Just pummeling headquarters. On about the 13th, Polgar and his number 2 called me in to write an analysis saying that no evacuation was possible. The analysis took the line that a large scale evacuation was becoming increasingly impossible. That any effort to move out over highways to the coast, would fall under communist interdiction efforts, since there were indications that the Communists had moved three battalions into the area of Vung Tau.
I wrote an analysis that went to Washington, and I think Polgar maneuvered cleverly here, it was designed to strengthen the hand of those who thought that Martin ought to begin taking more seriously the prospect of negotiations happening. It was all in a very strange flux period.
I wrote a cable for Polgar on the importance of getting rid of Thieu. This was in early April. Polgar thought that if we got rid of Thieu it would open the way, I suppose, for some sort of political fix. I thought we were saying get rid of Thieu because there was no chance for anything. It was all done. This leads me to what I think was the most crucial error we made, that is this notion, and it was fed by Tran Van Don, it was fed by Polgar's contacts, it was fed by the communist delegation at Tan Son Nhut, the notion that there was the chance for a political fix and the effects it had on our planning. Because it was a chaotic time, it is hard to take one strand and pull it out.
What happened was, the French began encouraging us in that view for their own reasons, that there would be a political fix. This notion seemed just fine to Martin. Martin latched onto the idea that there was some sort of fig leaf political arrangement we could make with the communists because I think he felt there was still a chance for Saigon and that there was still a chance for the South Vietnamese army. Polgar locked onto the idea of a political fix, because it was obvious to me he knew that it was over, he knew that this business of aid wouldn't do it, and that making a political fix would be the only thing that would save us, after my doomsday projection that an evacuation wouldn't work. It had to be. So when Brochand approached him, in the Cercle Sportif and told him that maybe there was a chance for a political fix, a Greek Tragedy almost began to impose itself on Polgar's reality, I think, and reality began to become a Greek Tragedy. For all the most humane reasons, in order to save lives and to save the Vietnamese, he became distracted. I know he argues that he didn't become distracted, that evacuation planning continued within the Embassy, that CIA evacuation planning continued, and that he tried to get Colby to step up and send additional planes, but there was no central direction. Polgar was somewhere else. He was focused on this. And that was the problem.
Meanwhile, there were several Vietnamese I knew that I wanted to get out fairly early. And I went to the man in the agency set up who had been assigned to help put together some sort of evacuation list. I said I want to put some people on and he said, "It's no use. We've got people on this list who shouldn't be there and there is no official list and we can't get any priority or direction from Polgar's office." And that was the problem. People were going off in several different directions. It was a terribly complicated problem we had. No exit papers for the Vietnamese we wanted to get out. Martin didn't want to evacuate the families of generals or generals themselves because that might create an unraveling of South Vietnamese morale. Largely the evacuation efforts took on a very parochial nature. You had the DAO taking out bar girls, friends, what have you. Look, the more the merrier, let's get them out. But nobody would sit down and say, Lets do something about it. Now Polgar, to his credit, recognized the problem, and cabled CIA Headquarters and said, "Martin doesn't seem to realize the need to set up an immediate step up of the evacuation process." True. The problem, was that Polgar suffered from the same problem. And particularly as we got into mid April, people were not moving out of the station and Polgar would not order them out. People were staying behind to try to arrange the evacuation of their Vietnamese friends, or they weren't sufficiently apprised of the danger, despite the problem of Tan Son Nhut and the downing of the C5A and the bombing attack on the palace, and somehow by mid April it had not sunk in that we were on the edge of disaster.
So people were not moving with any due haste to get out, even if they had been declared nonessential. You can understand why for all the logical reasons, nobody wanted to admit that we were finished.
The fact is it didn't happen and we didn't see steam put into the evacuation. And then I started to get into another hassle with the powers that be. First, at the end March, we stopped giving briefings to Martin. I gave one of the last military briefings to him. Polgar would go in and talk to him from time to time. But Martin was getting a fragmented picture. I remember seeing him when he had just come back from Washington in early April and telling him that the highlands were falling, the northern part of the country was literally disintegrating, and I went into him and said, "Ambassador Martin, you know we've lost these units here, the South Vietnamese Army doesn't exist here." And Martin said to me, "How do you know that?"
That stopped me. Because I'm an intelligence officer drawing on all sources and its a little strange at this late date after so many years of briefing to be asked how do I know what I am telling him on a map. I said, "Well sir, we have this and this and this source." And he said, "I don't believe it. I have my own information."
Well, I was so stunned. That I just blew it. I feel in retrospect it was a vital chance lost when I should have said, "Oh come on, Ambassador Martin, you're full of it." But I didn't. I left. And I went back to Polgar and I said,"He doesn't buy this," or something to that effect.
Buy the 17th Martin was being so nudged by Washington to do something that he was beginning to straighten out the evacuation and he made the worst possible choice. He put somebody in charge of the evacuation planning who knew nothing about it. There was no coordination among the CIA people, people in the ranks and were trying to get people out, and when people came to me I told them go out to DAO and get in the lines. There is a friend of mine out there, get in his line and see what you can do. And that is what happened. There were so many things that happened in that period, and it's very hard to convey the real sense of futility, on my part. I felt as though I was at a funeral and everybody was sort of bearing each other up and I was stumbling forward hoping that I could get enough of my Vietnamese on an aircraft. But I didn't. I became obsessed with the idea of somebody realizing that there was no hope for a political fix. Just to get somebody to look at it a second time. I was writing an analysis every second, and talking to various people around the station, but it seemed to be a futile exercise.
I wasn't worried about me. I was worried about the Vietnamese I had known since 1969 getting out of the country. And it became particularly apparent that that wasn't going to happen, especially if were people were banking on some sort of political fix. That was the thrust of the analysis that I did for Polgar on April 8th, that said the evacuation options were very difficult. The military came to the same conclusion. CINCPAC came to the notion that you would have to infiltrate huge numbers of military forces to secure landing areas and that wasn't feasible so what do you do then?
I had a sense of slowly sinking into mud and there would be no extraction from it. And the Vietnamese were with me.
But I did something that was so terrible, and I didn't write about in the book or didn't tell the whole story of it. A few days before the evacuation, a very good friend of mine called, a Vietnamese friend of mine, and asked if I would help her get out of the country, and basically I said I can't help you right now I'm too busy. I'm writing another report. And she called later and she couldn't get out and shortly after that she killed herself. I thought about this a lot. The fact is we had all become fixed in our ways on some bureaucratic consideration, some mechanistic consideration. Getting a report out, getting Washington to believe that there would be a political fix. We forgot one thing. We were dealing with human beings there. You can't postpone that if their lives are on the line. You've got to do something about that. For all of my concern about getting the evacuation rationalized and pulled together and so forth, when the moment of truth occurred, when my friend called up, I was too busy, I was too busy writing another report.
My moment of epiphany came when I was coming off the roof of the Embassy in a helicopter, and as the helicopter banked up over the side of the Embassy, I could see down the streets and in the Embassy court, there were a lot of Vietnamese who would not get out.
I suddenly had this feeling that I had, for bureaucratic reasons, or whatever, some good, some very bad, been party to an awful betrayal of a lot of things I believed in and I had to make amends. I had to make amends first of all by getting the truth out in some way, shape or form. Getting the people to look at what happened. My initial feeling was something I hated to articulate, because you don't do it in the intelligence business. You don't talk about morality or making atonement for something you've done. But that was one of my senses. I wanted to confess--not to the outside world -- but to understand what the devil had gone wrong and how could we leave behind all these thousands of human beings and not understand them. How could anybody do it?
My intelligence senses had been so honed that there had to be an explanation. There had to be an explanation for this. You don't leave a country by way of helicopter in the middle of the night off the embassy roof with the enemy poised at the gates of the city. And that's it. And you analyze what the hell has happened, particularly if you feel guilty about it.
I went from Subic Bay at Polgar's direction to Thailand and I interviewed people who were still coming out of Vietnam. I was gathering the first intelligence on what the communists had done after they came in just six days before. Within seven days I was in Thailand doing it.
It was a nightmare.
Six days before I had seen all of these faces and now I was reading what had happened to them. I ran into an agent we had been running in Vietnam. He had managed to escape on his own. He said to me, "Will you help me go back in and rescue people? Will you set it up to get the CIA to back us?" And I went around the embassy in Thailand waiting for somebody to respond positively. By then I had generated lots of very hand-wringing reports about what had happened in Vietnam. I talked to journalists and that sort of thing, who had come out of Vietnam late. And I think CIA headquarters was tired of the hand-wringing. Already the CIA was immersed in congressional investigations. The last thing they needed was another scandal. Every report generated on the fall of Vietnam was one more potential scandal.
And I thought to myself, Gee, if we can just generate enough information on what terrible things happened, the Agency will get behind sending people back in to pull some of these people out.
It was a very pragmatic -- in other words, getting the truth out, or getting the facts, became for me a very pragmatic thing. I thought, Well we can focus attention on this and maybe get people out and the agency won't let it happen again. But I got back to CIA headquarters and it was as if Vietnam had been buried. It was very strange. I arrived late because I'd been in Thailand by that point and was sort of making my way back slowly. I didn't make my way back for two months after the evacuation. And I'd experienced all this stuff in Thailand.
When I showed up, maybe Vietnam had been on the front burner when everybody else showed, but when I got there it was "What? Vietnam? We got other problems." So that's when I began agitating into a different posture. My determination to write the book came very late. I really felt we would get an after-action report done on the inside and I went through various moves to get something done, but nobody could take authority for authorizing an after-action. "Why, gee, Frank, go to somebody else." I went to talk to George Carver and he said he didn't have the authority to do it. I went to Polgar, "Well, go to somebody else, I don't have the authority to authorize it either." "Great if you want to do it Frank, but I don't have the authority." It was like trying to nail Jello to the wall.
So that's what happened. I never approached Daniel Ellsberg's passion and I never was disillusioned with the Agency. I was disillusioned with a lot of the people I worked with. But I understood them. I presume to say I understood Polgar. I understood why it was hard for him to come to grips with what had happened. And I understand why he made some of the mis-calls he did. I'd like to try to understand why I made some of the ones I did. It was a horrible experience for a young person, being there at the moment of surrender. Old men rationalize their way in and rationalize their way out, and if you were a young GI you ended up dying for some of those rationalizations. If you're an intelligence officer you were a hell of a lot luckier. You never risked getting killed -- not much anyway. The only thing you ended up doing was, as the old men rationalized, you ended up lying to yourself and becoming more and more like the old men, becoming a bureaucrat, a yes man, becoming a guy who would march in lockstep. And the guy who next time around in the next Embassy crisis, or the next evacuation, would again postpone leaving for too long.
I think anybody who is not haunted by what happened in the end in Vietnam has got something very wrong with him. The people I worry about are the ones who go around saying, "What? What evacuation?" Anybody with the least sensitivity or concern for other human beings will be haunted and worse for it. The trick is not to be paralyzed. And everybody who was there I'm sure has his own way of exorcising the ghosts. For me it was the most natural thing in the world to write, because that's what I had been doing the entire war. I'd been an analyst dealing with information. I had to make one more stab at understanding what had gone wrong. Some of the others who engaged in disinformation during the war, I think, conjured up fantasies about what went on. I think as time goes on, a lot of the military people must in some way justify the performance of the military and end up justifying the institution which they love and which they feel--I've never felt this way--was disgraced by the war. So they overcompensate. This to me is madness.
I thought the CIA would in some way redeem itself. I think the Agency's performance was hideous. I'm not talking about Polgar's. Polgar, believe it or not, I had a lot of compassion for him, and I tried to write the book that way, to sound not carping, although some people said I'm carping. The point is, the Agency should have known better. Colby should have done more. All these people built their careers on Vietnam and what happened in the end is that we either had silence or finger pointing and nobody ever took responsibility for their actions, it seemed to me.
And Kissinger's the top of the list. I am simply appalled at his capacity for shunting the blame on somebody else. Martin has been excoriated by people who pretended to be on his side, or who had at least muted their criticism of him and let him function to do the terrible things they now criticize him for. Like Habib. Habib hated Martin, I am led to understand by people who work with Habib. Kissinger thought Martin was batty during the last days of the war. Why the hell didn't they pull Martin out? Now they are quite willing to make snide remarks, critical remarks about Martin. Well, they might have saved some lives if they had made those critical remarks when it counted. It's very easy to snipe at the old man from the hedgerows of anonymity. That's what's happened. Or at such a distance he can't defend himself. For God's sake, I criticize him so he can defend himself. These people the Habibs and the Kissingers, I think, are cowardly.
Frankly I'm much happier that somebody like Martin and certainly Polgar was in Saigon than the Habibs and Kissingers. At least they had the courage to stand up for what they believed in. And they've taken a lot of heat for it.
In any event, the saddest thing, I think, about the Vietnam War is that the recriminations have overtaken the lessons. And unfortunately my writings about the end of the Vietnam War have been taken to be an act of recrimination. In fact it was not meant that way at all. It was meant as a very presumptuous way, perhaps, of trying to get the accounting done that nobody seemed to want to do. I think if we'd all done it, we'd all put our thoughts down at that time. And we would have been in better shape.
I visit the Vietnam Memorial now whenever I'm in Washington. I don't go there by way of flagellating myself. I go there by way of tribute, because I think the veterans were badly treated. It's our way of doing homage to them