Thursday, December 6, 2012

Arthur Kobler's Vietnam

"All This Effort and All the Blood Spilled"

My first tour in Vietnam was 1969 to 1971. I was down in the Delta at that time with the CORDS(Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program. I was district advisor. And then at the end of 1970 I was transferred up to the Embassy where I worked in the Joint Economic Office. I returned to Washington in mid 1971. In 1973 when the Paris Peace Agreement was signed, I was sent back to Vietnam with about 50 of my colleagues who spoke Vietnamese and we were sent down to the provinces that we had previously worked in to monitor the cease fire. I suppose it's a measure of the naivete of the US government at that time, given the meetings saying that our jobs would be basically as political observers and that the Viet Cong would come out of the woodwork, almost literally, and run for political office and there would be elections and a new political ball game beginning. And so we all went back with rather high expectations reflecting our own naivete as well. At least I did, thinking that somehow the situation would be different. But very soon it became clear that there was no change in the situation, except that US troops were withdrawing.
I spent six months down in the Delta and after that transferred again up to the Embassy to the Economic Section and again. And I was there till the very last day.
In the Delta, at the beginning we saw a rather high level of violence. The war was going on quite intensely. There was virtually no change from the wartime situation that we had recalled from 1971. But there was a tremendous psychological change and of course that US troops were pulling out and US air support was being withdrawn as well. The psychological change was rather stark for me. When I left Saigon in 1971 and left the Delta, I left a country that was at the height of the American presence, in terms of the effectiveness of our war effort, the effectiveness of economic policies and political reform, all the way down to the village level. This whole pacification program as well as the volume of the military efforts had seemed to be making distinct progress and the country and the economy was beginning to grow, the land reform program was a success and it was one of the unsung achievements of the South Vietnamese government that they carried out one of the most remarkable and far reaching land reform programs of any government in this region. And it had a clear economic pay off. Because rice production in the Delta increased to such an extent that by 1975, in the economic section, we were projecting that South Vietnam was at the point of self sufficiency. We were expecting it to be self sufficient in rice in 1975, meaning that the US would not have to import any more PL 480, food for peace program supplies, any more. So that was the situation in 1971.
When I came back in 1973, Vietnam had been through the disaster of the Spring Easter offensive and was now faced with the US military withdrawal and which itself would not have been a big a blow to the Vietnamese had it not been for the decline in the aid that the US was providing, both military and economic. In 1973 the oil crisis occurred, where oil priced quadrupled in a few months and we had an explosion in commodity prices around the world and a highly inflationary economic situation, so that at that time, US aid was declining in absolute dollar terms, and when you translate that into real dollar terms with the quadruple of oil prices and other commodity prices and the general inflation that occurred, the real value of our aid was declining much more sharply. And this reflected itself down at the grass roots level. By mid 1973, it was clear that the Vietnamese were far less confident. People that I talked to, district officials and province chiefs whom I knew, had lost their nerve. It was clear. If they had not lost their nerve, they had become terribly demoralized. They were confronted with a situation where the war was continuing to go on, they were sending their troops out on night patrols, regional forces, and regular forces and popular forces, they were getting into combat situations with the VC just as they had prior to the peace being signed. But the difference was that if they got into a contact, and they called for artillery support, the military command did not respond, because they were husbanding their artillery for larger engagements. And if their troops got wounded and they called in for a helicopter medivac, the helicopter medivac did not respond because they were conserving the fuel, which had now quadrupled in price. So this is the kind of situation that became terribly demoralizing for the South Vietnamese Army. And so the declining level of real aid that we were conveying to them was having a rippling effect all the way down to the battlefield, to the grunt down there fighting. And it greatly affected the combat effectiveness of the ARVN and totally changed their attitude. In 1971 they were aggressive swaggering, confident. In mid 1973 they were, the same people, beaten. It was a night and day change in attitude. It was a demoralized group. And they were not demoralized because US troops were pulling out, they were demoralized because the US was not fulfilling the commitment that it made to maintain the level of material support. So they had fewer bullets, they had less gasoline, they had fewer materials, they had less economic aid dollars, to face a situation which was no less violent, in terms of the war going on, than it had been before 1973.
At the time I didn't make any leaps of judgement and say that the end is here or anything like that. But I saw with my own eyes that certainly the situation was dramatically worse than it had been in 1971 and the South Vietnamese could not survive unless there was tremendous infusion of aid. And I didn't foresee that coming. This is the time when Nixon was getting more and more bogged down by the Watergate situation and the opposition to the war was growing in intensity, so it didn't look as though the US was going to respond with more aid. So the situation kept deteriorating, and you could see it from 1973 and it kept getting worse. And the South Vietnamese had their own international problems, and corruption became a more serious problem. I suppose in a situation where you are imposing greater and greater austerity on the people, where there are less resources to go around, then corruption becomes a more serious problem, because there is less pie to distribute. It was definitely a corrosive factor near the end. It was a serious problem, but even in that period, I remember talking with businessmen, American businessmen, and I met a lot of them who traveled throughout the region, and they said corruption is bad in Vietnam, but it's not nearly as bad as in other countries in the region, compared say to Indonesia or Thailand. Corruption in Vietnam is much less. So this issue of corruption is blown far out of proportion. It was not a regime that was corrupt to it's core. It was a regime that certainly had corruption in it, like any other third world regime and many first world regimes, they are corrupt as well, but certainly any developing country with the problems they had, with the low level of development, would have serious problems with corruption. But in relative terms, it was far less than other countries in the region.
The Congressional delegation that came in the spring of 1975 I remember distinctly. I believe that none of them recommending more aid for South Vietnam. None at all. I think the group's composition was an insult. Bella Abzug, she was totally cynical and totally antagonistic, and a grandstander, first rate, who was did not even have the decency and the common courtesy to honor an appointment that she had with President Thieu. I remember that. This whole delegation was invited to call on President Thieu. She didn't show up. I mean this is the way people behave who have their minds already made up.
Whatever you think of Thieu as a leader, he was nonetheless, the leader of South Vietnam. One of my distinct impressions when I went with some of these congressional delegates to call on Thieu was that he was a beaten man. I mean he had lost his nerve. And I remembered seeing him in the early 1970s and there was such a contrast. Everywhere I went from the top level down to the district people I had known, the change in their attitudes, and even in their physical appearance in those years was very dramatic. Thieu was an old man by 1975. He had aged dramatically, and his whole attitude was one of a man who had lost confidence in himself and in the future.
In February, when the invasion began, I thought that was the end. I was convinced right then that it was all over. I was convinced that the US would not respond with any aid, and that the Vietnamese military had lost its nerve, they were realistic in the sense that they knew that the only way to beat back this invasion was with air power in addition to ground troops. But if they did not have the air power, then they were outgunned. The NVA was coming down with more artillery, more firepower, more manpower, than the South Vietnamese had. Very simply, they were outgunned. It was not just a small guerilla force coming down and attacking. These were conventional armies and the NVA was better equipped. So I was convinced in February, but perhaps I should have been convinced before that.
Nobody had expected a frontal assault at that time. I guess nobody expected a huge offensive. If one province falls, then you expect them to start chipping away at another district or province, and maybe it falls. But nobody could have forecast that this invasion would turn into a massive route, which it did and in a period of two months it was all over. Not even the NVA expected that. They say that in their own writings. And certainly I didn't expect that.
Once it started in February, I knew it was all over in my own mind. However, in the Embassy there was a good deal of discussion of the partition business. There was a good deal of basically kidding ourselves --talking about various options and how Vietnam could survive with just three and four corps. And it was all fantasizing. It wasn't realistic.
The Deputy Chief of Mission, Lehmann, led the fantasy, I think. In a situation like this it is sometimes difficult to separate out your own personal analysis of the situation and to make a realistic analysis of the situation as distinct from the role you have to play in it. They are sometimes distinct.
Now the role of the Embassy had to be projecting confidence that there was going to be a solution to the situation and that the US was supporting the South Vietnamese. Our role was to help to maintain confidence, to avoid a panic. But sometimes, people in positions of high officials, and even middle level officials, get these roles confused, and start believing their own propaganda. We said that we're confident things are going to stabilize, and the US is opposed to this invasion, and we're going to support the South Vietnamese government. Well, this is just propaganda. This had nothing at all to do with reality. But it was a line that we were obliged to take for the sake of our Embassy and Americans there and for our friends in Vietnam. We didn't want a panic situation. If Ambassador Martin said the war is over and the Congress is unlikely to provide any more aid and President Nixon has been removed from office, and President Ford really doesn't have a mandate to do anything, and he's certainly not going to send in any B52s to help out, so we're folding up our tent --well, that would have led to chaos, it would have been irresponsible. And yet there was an atmosphere in the Embassy that this propaganda was sort of believed by a lot of people in the Embassy, and we were acting out studies on how Vietnam would survive after partitioning first corps and two corps.
There was also the concern with an uprising and for the safety of the Americans there. This is why I sympathize with the Embassy having to take a public posture of confidence. Now in retrospect it is easy to say you have to distinguish between objective analysis of the situation and public posture. It's very easy to say that. But at what point do you say, "We're going to say we're confident,"' but in your private meetings in the Embassy you say, "The ball game's over boys and we've got to start preparing for the worst." You have to be concerned that what you are saying in these meetings, is going to get out to everybody in the mission, and eventually it is going to get outside the mission. And so there is a dilemma as to how you deal with a situation like that. And this is why I really resent Frank Snepp's account of what went on. He was unfair, brutally unfair, to Ambassador Martin. Martin in a way was doing the only thing that he could do, which was to maintain a good front. Meanwhile, Martin did not obstruct what was going on sort of behind his back, or under his nose. And that is, the evacuation effort, which I was very heavily involved in personally -- Getting people out, getting lists together, ferrying them to the airport, putting them on planes, getting around Vietnamese government paper work requirements, making deals with various Vietnamese officials in order to facilitate the movement of people out and then arranging to take care of them and their families. All of these things were going on underneath the facade of business as usual and, you know, "we're here for the long haul."
As for my personal safety, I never felt threatened until the night before I left when they bombed the airport. Around six that evening I was driving a bus load of people out to the airport. It was just dusk. And I saw these planes flying over and there were explosions at the airport, and I obviously was very close to the front gate of Tan Son Nhut, and I turned around at that point and headed back to the safe house in the middle of town and let the people out of the bus and said, "We'll be back in touch with you, but for the time being the evacuation has been suspended." And that night I went back to my home. By this time my family had been evacuated -- three weeks earlier -- and I was living alone in this small villa, and there was artillery firing all night all around town. I don't think any artillery came into the center of town. Nonetheless, it came close enough so that it worried me and I slept in the bathroom, underneath the stairway, which I thought was one of the safest spots in the house. I certainly wasn't going to sleep up in the second floor bedroom right beneath the roof of the house. So that was the only time I was worried.
The next morning I got a call that the evacuation was beginning. I had a car, and I spent the rest of that day, driving around town, picking up people, bringing them into the Embassy. They had cut down the tamarind tree in the parking lot, and large groups of people were brought into the club area, where there was a swimming pool and a restaurant in the back, and then we started taking people out by groups on the helicopters. The helicopters initially started coming into the Embassy parking lot the tree was cut down.
I remember among those people that I had lunch with that day in the restaurant, near the pool, was the former finance minister of South Vietnam, Chau Kim Nhan. And I said I was very happy he was there and I was looking forward to seeing him in the states, and I shook his hand and said goodbye, and left and proceeded to go out and bring other people in, and later that night I left myself, and when I got to the states, weeks later, I learned that Chau Kim Nhan never did get out, and that for some reason he waited and waited and waited and that evening around dark, they stopped the helicopters coming in to the parking lot, and they basically ended that program of taking people out. For those people waiting in the swimming pool area there was no longer a way out. Chau Kim Nhan waited patiently for his turn but his turn never came. Here was the former minister of finance of South Vietnam, just waiting there. And after waiting for a time, he just went home. A couple of days later he did get out, on a ship. He made it to a refugee camp and finally got to the states.
I left from the Embassy on the evening of the 29th. During the day we were burning classified materials, and they were destroying equipment with sledge hammers. People were just pounding away destroying whatever they could find. We were even burning money. The whole Embassy staff was involved in this.
For a whole two months, from the time the invasion began, there was a sense of unreality to all of this. I felt almost stunned. I had almost no emotion because things were happening so fast, and the pace of the city had noticeably picked up. People were rushing around, there was a din of noise, and a bustling in the town, a nervousness in the town, that was perceptible, that was tangible, and I was racing around like everyone else, notifying friends, trying to help people get out, and I did very little of my work in the economic section at that time. I spent most of my time working on the evacuation, despite the fact that the Embassy was by all rights operating as usual. But there were some of us working full time on angles to get people out. And, at the beginning, we said we were going to start evacuating dependents of the Embassy staff, and some of us who were involved in this were worried about our Vietnamese local staff. And we started thinking about this and started working angles, how to get some of our people out as early as possible. There was one girl in particular on our economic section, a lovely young girl, who was very loyal to us, very intelligent, very hard working, and we thought highly of her, and we wanted to take care of her. And I sent her out as I just wrote up papers saying she was the fiance of a friend who was in our economic section a couple of years before, and who was unmarried. So It sounded plausible. I put her name down as a fiance and we sent her out with her mother. And she settled in Minnesota and is doing very well today.
My wife is Vietnamese. I sent my wife and daughter out on April 5th. They went out on a commercial flight. Then the extended family went later. There was no program for sending them all out at the same time. The extended family, and the evacuation of extended family members, was a separate program, because the extended family people did not have passports, for example, and they had to have authorization from the Vietnamese government to leave. That was a separate problem that had to be worked on, and that didn't happen until a couple of weeks later when the extended family members were allowed to leave under special authority. And then my mother in law who had been living with us, along with my wife's sister and brother in law and their six children and brother-- they left, on the 21st, the day after Thieu resigned. I remember that vividly, being at the airport and listening to his resignation speech.
But there was an air of unreality to this too because I remember at that day, too, there was a General Binh, head of the South Vietnamese engineers, a very aggressive and energetic young guy, who was sending off his family, and here were these guys out there, senior officers, sending their families off, and they were staying behind to fight. There was this feeling that somehow, they were going to put up this great resistance and this war was going to be won and their families would come back in a few weeks. And we sent out my family. My mother in law. And I said to her, "Don't worry. You'll be back in a few weeks. We're just going to send you on a vacation to Hawaii." And that's the way I got her out. Otherwise she would not have wanted to leave. So, there was a lot of this attitude. Again, it's a question of, in your mind you know it's over. But, somehow you can't admit it publicly. And so you've got to show that things are all right, that the war effort's continuing, we're going to free the soldiers to fight without worrying about their family's welfare, and of course this is nonsense. Your family is gone, and you're not going to fight because you don't want to have your family fending for themselves in this foreign country. I mean, it's even worse when your family's gone. If your family is there, you are going to fight more furiously to protect your family. But once your family is gone and in a safe haven, your fighting will, I think, is less. And I think there is a perversity about this. You know we thought we were doing these guys a favor, we were in fact by getting their families out, but we certainly weren't steeling them to fight any harder. And this was a game we were playing with ourselves, the air of unreality at that time.
George Jacobson and the Deputy Chief of Mission Lehmann were handling our evacuation in the Embassy itself. We were moving from the first floor up to the second and third and fourth. We were evacuating each floor gradually. And they were just taking us in order, I guess, section by section, and when it came the turn of the economic section to leave, I left. This was in the early evening.
I was talking on the telephone to people until the last moment I left. I was telling people, even after we stopped the helicopters coming in to the Embassy to take out regular friends of ours, we still had barges coming into Saigon harbor that were taking people out to the fleet. So I was calling people, telling them, "For God's sake, it's all over, get down to the barges and get out." We had sent out some people that day with bundles of Vietnamese currency, to pay off the police to open up the roads, because there was a curfew at this time, and we were trying to get people down to the barges. But here again is the unreality of the situation. There were so many people in these last few days, when it was obvious to anybody who stopped to think, rationally, that there was no hope. And they had better get out. There were so many people who would not believe this. And some who I called up and I said, "Look, we're leaving. You have to come now. This is your last chance. Get down to those barges and get out to an American boat" and they said, "Well, I haven't sold my house yet. I've got some business to wrap up. And I'm not ready to just yet." And these were people who believed that there was going to be perhaps a coalition government, that they'll have at least a period of time in which they could set their family affairs straight, and convert their property into convertible currency or gold or whatever, and they could get out if necessary. So they were not all that anxious to leave. There were a lot of these people These people tended to be southerners. Now the northerners I knew, had no hesitation whatsoever about leaving. I had people, colonels in the army, who came to my house trembling with fear, crying, weeping, asking me to help them get out. These people had come from the North in 1954 and had absolutely no hesitation about leaving. This must have had parallels to China in 1949, where a lot of people got caught, thinking that Mao was an agrarian reformer and there would be a coalition government and you could retain private property and they could still go on doing their business and things wouldn't be so bad and so they'd stick around. It was a terrible mistake.
I think it was Denny Ellerman who came to me at the end and said, "It's time to go, Art." I got up, I remember, with a great deal of reluctance. You don't want to leave. You don't want to admit that it's over, even though you know its over. I didn't want to leave. But I knew this was it. And I knew that President Ford had ordered the evacuation and this was it. And I made a point of going up to the Ambassador's office before I left and I wanted to shake his hand and to commiserate with him. And I did that. And I shook his hand and told him what a terrible moment this was for America and for Vietnam. And he said, "Well, we've done the best we could."
He looked terribly tired than. And when he got on the ship he became sick almost immediately. With a respiratory ailment. And there were people standing on the stairways waiting to go. I remember the mayor of Saigon, Do Kien Nhieu. He was there that night. There were a number of Vietnamese, and the former foreign minister, Tran Van Lam, who went to Australia, was there.
I didn't feel a tremendous amount of emotion at that time. I felt enough emotion to feel compelled to go and shake the ambassador's hand and say how terrible I felt and say goodbye to him. But I was numb throughout these couple of months.
The helicopter ride was less than an hour --about 45 minutes --out to the ship. We got on the ship and we went down to the bowels of the ship, in a sort of a dormitory type area, and with a lot of the senior staff down there. And I remember asking friends and people on the ship, to wake me up when the Ambassador came out. I must have arrived out at the ship at 9 that evening. And the Ambassador arrived about 4 or 5 in the morning.
The next day, we sort of sat around on the ship's deck, and listened to the radio, and there was all this communist propaganda coming out of Saigon and the surrender was announced around 10 in the morning. We stayed two or three days off the coast, picking up refugees coming out, boat people.
And then we had a huge barbecue. There was a band playing, and -- this just blew my mind. These sailors, of course, they didn't know what was happening. They were 18 and 19 year old kids. And they didn't give a damn, they didn't really have a sense of the history of this, of what was going on and the great tragedy of what was going on. And they had a big barbecue, with rock music blaring away and with hot dogs and hamburgers. And I remember, this was one thing that made me so numb. It was just so bizarre.
Nguyen Cao Ky was on our ship, I learned. I had a feeling of tremendous resentment towards him because he arrived on the ship on the morning of the 30th. But I think he had left Saigon even before I did. And I remember vividly watching the tv in those last days. And he made a speech about how he was going to stay and fight until the very end. It was a great speech. And almost within a couple of days he was gone. And he was on the Blue Ridge. And they treated him like a head of state. He was given a state room on the ship, while the rest of the Embassy Staff, including all the senior counsellors of the staff, were down in the dormitory. I don't feel bad at all about having been in a dormitory. But what I really resented was that this guy was a real buffoon, to my mind, and he was treated with such great deference. And I remember feeling terribly bitter about that. I know that they had security concerns because we had Vietnamese on the boat as well, other Vietnamese. And they didn't want to put him with the other Vietnamese, because he would have been killed, probably. They were concerned about that. Ky was a buffoon and I have absolutely no respect for the man. He represents the kind of hypocrisy that deceived the Vietnamese people.
I give a lot of credit to Nguyen Van Thieu, I have a lot of respect for him. Although the man clearly lost his nerve after 1973 as far as I could see. And he was not the same person in those last two years, he was not the leader that they needed in Vietnam. He had a premonition that things were going to end badly, I think, and just lost his nerve and his imagination and was not projecting the image of the confident leader. If there was ever a chance to survive, he was not the person to take advantage of that. And it was a tragedy because he did a good job as president during his first term. But Ky was an individual that I lost respect for. He was getting breakfast in bed and room service on the ship.
I recall moping around the ship, and I started to think, "Oh, my God. It's all over. All this effort and all the blood spilled." Then I really started feeling depressed, and I felt very badly for a very long time.
When I got back to the states, I went to Harvard for a year, for sort of decompression, and I was in the Kennedy School up there and took an MBA course. During the fall of Saigon, the Harvard students were dancing in the streets, rejoicing at the victory of the North Vietnamese. And then there were these communist sympathizers, Vietnamese communist sympathizers, who had been cultivated by Harvard. They were on the faculty up there, teaching and studying. There was a guy named Ngo Vinh Long. I met him, and I remember that son of a bitch well. He was one of the leaders in the anti-war movement. He was obviously a communist supporter. And when I asked him, "You know the war's over now. Aren't you going back to serve your fatherland?" He said, "Oh, no!" That was the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, he brought his mother over later. His mother and his whole family were boat people. He wouldn't dare go back. And it was this kind of thing that made me even more bitter than ever. Then there was this linguist up at MIT, Noam Chomsky, who was just a rabid anti-war critic. And when I heard him, he had just not the slightest understanding of what the North Vietnamese were all about and what their purposes were and what was happening in Vietnam after the North won. Every evil attribute of humanity he attributed to South Vietnam. And he dismissed any suggestion that there was anything wrong with the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese, oh, they were Robin Hood.
So for a long time I did not want to talk about Vietnam or even to think about it. During that first year at Harvard, though, I did a seminar paper in a US foreign policy class. I decided to try to write a paper on the fall of Saigon and my impressions from a policy point of view. The paper was making the point, which I believed then and still believe, that there was never 100 percent assurance that Vietnam would survive but there was a chance. Then the combination of the Watergate problem in the US and the fact that the president was forced to resign and he lost his executive mandate and Gerald Ford had no executive mandate and so we had a leaderless government, in effect, that was unable to make decisions, that was unable to fulfill clear cut commitments to the South Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese recognized this and recognized that the US credibility was non-existent. The credibility of the US threat of retaliation no longer existed. And this opened the door for a takeover. And with the combination of the obvious decline in US aid, and the World international economic situation, all of these factors, created a situation where the North Vietnamese, who were by this time getting more aid from the Soviets and the Chinese than the South was from us, had the upper hand and took advantage of it.
Nixon was at the height of his popularity and executive power, right at 1973 at his inauguration, and he had established his credibility as a man who was willing to take risky and unpopular decisions, which he did during Christmas in 1972, and it had an immediate effect of the North Vietnamese perceptions of him. So despite the fact that the anti-war movement was continuing and gaining, Nixon was a man, who if he had not been defeated by the Watergate issue, was prepared to take unpopular decisions. He had a strategic view. And he was acting on the basis of that view and on the basis of commitments that he had made. And the North Vietnamese believed this. But by the time he was overthrown his successor had no mandate and no credibility and had not even been elected. So, then it became a fait accompli, the fall of Saigon and the end of the war.
For a long time I didn't want to think about Vietnam because it was painful to think about it and because I know, still to this day, there are these general perceptions that people have about the war, that it was a totally wrong-headed policy that led us into Vietnam and we were totally misguided and we were totally at fault. And I don't want to get into arguments with people about that any more.
I don't want to argue any more about who was right and who was wrong in Vietnam. It is inescapably true that the communists have grossly mismanaged that country. They won the war and lost the peace. They have shown themselves to be incompetent. And there is a need for them to change their policies in the direction of a more market-oriented economy. That is the only way you can develop a country. Socialism has proven to be a massive failure.
The Communists in Vietnam thought they had religion. They were like religious fanatics. And they realized that their religion was empty and had no meaning for their people's lives, except to make it worse.
I would some day like to go back to Vietnam and work in an Embassy there. For me it would be logical, and sort of completing a life cycle, I think. I was deeply involved and deeply committed to Vietnam. I have strong ideas about what we were doing there. I have strong ideas about what we did there. And I won't change those views. However, we are in a new ball game today, and we have major interests in Southeast Asia. And Vietnam is an important country there. And just as we did with China in 1972 we have to move as a country towards a more rational and self-interested view in Vietnam, rather than an emotional and ideological one. We cannot forever ignore this country.
I think there comes a point when people like myself and the Vietnamese, too, have to overcome the bitterness and resentment that we have and try to create a relationship that will be more constructive and better for future generations of Vietnamese and Americans.

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