California Congressman Pete McCloskey in Vietnam, 1975
"BOY, I'M GOING TO GIVE YOU THE WHOLE STORY"
The purpose of the Congressional trip to Indochina in February of '75 was to look at the situation in Vietnam and Cambodia because President Gerald Ford was asking Congress at that time for $222 million for Cambodia and $300 million for Vietnam. He encouraged us to go. He was asking Congress for the money, saying "We know about it and Congress doesn't." So he encouraged Congressmen to go over. I went initially with Senator Dewey Bartlett. We were only there for a couple of days when six other members of Congress joined us: Bill Chappell, who was on the Armed Service Committee was one, Bella Abzug was another and John Flynt, Don Fraser, John Murtha and Millicent Fenwick. And Phil Habib was there, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. So there were eight of us from Congress on the trip and my recollection is we finally on the way home tried to put down our impressions and views and split about four to four, four hawks and four doves.
We were supposed to examine the situation there and then apprise President Ford, who wanted the Congress to vote this money.
I had several things I wanted to do on that trip. One was to compare the situation in 1975 with what I had seen in 1970. The IV Corps situation down in the Delta, the III Corps area right outside Saigon, II Corps area in either Pleiku or Kontum, and the I Corps was in Da Nang. I wanted to see the order of battle -- our lineup against the other side, the South against the North. I wanted to check the morale of the South Vietnamese and I wanted to see the will to fight of the North Vietnamese.
The money that the President was asking for was for additional military support in Vietnam. The South Vietnamese army, as I recall, outnumbered the North Vietnamese something like 740,000 men under arms for the South and the North never had more than 450,000. The South had interior lines of communication. They were defending a fairly long area, but there were interior lines of communication. I recall, however, the statistic that the South was using thirteen times as much artillery as the North which meant they were firing tremendous amounts of artillery and much of this money was for artillery shells.
I'd been a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in Korea. After that I stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve and had specialized in counter-insurgency.
I was about the only member of Congress who went to Vietnam four times. I had been elected in 1967 as the first Republican elected as opposing the Vietnam War. When I first ran for Congress they asked me what is my position on Vietnam and I said I didn't think we ought to be there. I concluded it was the wrong place to fight, wrong terrain, wrong enemy. We just squander American resources trying to fight such a war.
I was elected December of '67, and again in the tough Republican Primary six months later, in June of '68. I had a fairly easy general election in '68 and a very tough primary again in '70 and fairly easy general election. Then in '71 and '72 I ran against Nixon. In '72 I had a terrible primary because there were two people against me. In June of '74 I had a really tough primary where a guy said Nixon ought to be supported and I was urging Nixon be impeached.
Well, Nixon resigned and Ford came in, and in '75 I made that trip.
I thought it was inevitable that South Vietnam would fall when the United States got out.
What I thought was essentially this: I thought that the division of Vietnam in 1954 had been an artificial division. Everybody thought the Vietnamese should be united. One of the things that affected me the first time I went to Vietnam in 1967 was that all over Vietnam in these little village, regional, district offices the map they used of Vietnam was all of Vietnam. The southerners never conceded there was just a South Vietnam. Whenever you looked at the map of Vietnam, even in the south, it was the map of the whole country, not just this artificial division. Obviously every Vietnamese thought of his country as one country, so the question was could the United States support an artificial division and create a new country? We did and called it "nation building".
I was prepared when I went over there to accept the possibility that we could create a new nation in South Vietnam if they had the will to fight. They had more people than the north. They had the interior lines of defense. If you looked at the order of battle there were thirteen North Vietnamese divisions and sixteen South Vietnamese division. There was an army, an air force and a navy in the south. There wasn't in the North. We were giving all this money and aid and assistance. We were training them to use our weapons and methods. The whole question was, could the will to fight of the South Vietnamese overcome the will of the North Vietnamese?
The thing was the generals were telling us one thing about the quality of the South Vietnamese army, the lieutenants and the advisors who worked at the local level were telling us a completely different story. Sure there were some crack South Vietnamese fighting units, the Marines, Paratroopers were good, tough, able. But the ordinary ARVN people were people who didn't want to fight, didn't have a motivation to fight. The Popular Forces on the government side were people who were pressed into service, who really didn't hate the Viet Cong that much. It was clear from the very beginning that there were leaks all through the establishment. Viet Cong permeated all through the government forces. No Marine commander I knew from the first time I went there to the end, would ever announce his plan of battle in any way that could be determined by the Vietnamese ally because they knew it would leak.
But I would submit to you that Kissinger and everybody else knew from about 1971 on that sooner or later the South Vietnamese were going to collapse. Now that doesn't in any way take away from the validity of the South Vietnamese leaders saying, "If you god damn Americans had fought this war like you fought in Europe, we could have prevailed. If you'd gone into North Vietnam and captured their cities and driven them into the underbrush." My argument to that was, sure we could have done that. We could have destroyed the dikes in the Red River delta. We could have destroyed Hanoi. We could have carpet bombed and wiped out every city of more than a hundred people. But once we had done it and won, and once we had left the country, what was going to happen? The forces in the country were going to govern that had the faith of the people, or had the means of getting popular support.
Ky and Thieu and all of that set of guys from Diem on were always propped up with American assistance. None of them were popular figures in South Vietnam itself, as Ho Chi Minh was in the North.
Before I went on that trip I had gotten this information that these political prisoners, these journalists had all been arrested and were being tortured. So I wanted to see them in their prison and talk to them. When I got there Graham Martin --we got there a little early -- Graham Martin, I think, felt that I was a challenge.
So he had some briefings prepared for me. One was by the CIA station chief, Tom Polgar. Hell, what you look for in an intelligence officer in any branch of the service is a dispassionate appraisal of enemy capability, not intentions, but capability, what can they do? I could guess at what their intentions are, but enemy capability is the key. But Polgar gave us this line of crap that the enemy had no capability, that our people were so strong. I left that briefing and went up to I CORPS and I met the commanding general there, Ngo Quang Truong.
It was my interview with him that led me to come back and say to Ford and Kissinger, "You can't win. They can break through whenever they choose to do so." Truong may remember this. I'd gone to see him personally because a friend told me he was the finest general of the Vietnamese Army. And he was.
Truong was sitting up at I Corps -- bear in mind I Corps was five provinces on the coast including the DMZ. At one time we had had something like five American divisions fighting in and around the area. The First Marine Division reinforced the First Air Cav, and God knows what else. Here was Truong sitting there, and my recollection is that of maybe thirteen South Vietnamese divisions, he had maybe three lined up against maybe three North Vietnamese divisions, but right on the border. And he had just lost, because Thieu had gotten panicked, his crack outfit, which had been pulled south to defend against a coup in Saigon. And Truong -- I'm a Marine Corps colonel and I'm talking to a Vietnamese general, and I knew the terrain -- told me "no way". He pointed out on the map and told me, "If they want to commit a division here or here, I can't defend. I've got one division down here at Quang Ngai, I've got another one up here at Da Nang. I've got another at the DMZ. They have the capacity if they want to commit the troops, to break through at any point in the area."
Well, they ultimately chose to make their breakthrough in II CORPS. But as he pointed out, anywhere in his perimeter there was no way he could defend. Because they had the choice. It's one of those rules of war, you concentrate your strength where the enemy is weak.
The other thing, if you ever watched one of these South Vietnamese units, you saw the officers in the rear. You saw the dependence on artillery fighting, the refusal to aggressively patrol -- all of the things we'd been trying to teach them, when our guys left they went back to the hunker in, dig in and negotiate. There were a lot of private truces I think between Vietnamese units on both sides.
The other guy that affected me was a guy who commanded III Corps, General Toan. I went over to him and I looked at the casualties and at the the ratio of artillery ammunition he was using and the enemy was using. Graham Martin is telling me without artillery we can't win. And this guy is showing me that he fired nine thousand and six hundred rounds -- and you know every enemy round that came in was numbered -- the disparity was so clear that the South Vietnamese did not want to fight an aggressive infantry war.
So between what the guy said in III Corps and what the guy said in I Corps, -- there was no way, looking at the order of battle in the I and III Corps area that those people could defend.
My feeling in Vietnam was it was a lost cause, that the other three hundred million wouldn't make any difference because there was no way to remedy what was there on the ground.
Martin made a real effort with me. He took me everywhere, ushered me into his private chambers, said, "Boy I'm going to give you the whole story." He was the retired army colonel reliving his youth. Polgar had given us a line of shit. And Graham Martin had become demented. I really thought he was demented.
I don't know that anybody predicted the collapse of South Vietnam, but they could have because of the psychology of the thing. The thing that surprised me was the North Vietnamese pouring in their reserve divisions. Usually they didn't attack until they'd done the sand table exercise. They were very very cautious. But they apparently knew that they had enough hidden strength in the South and enough discipline, because they poured in everything they had in 1975.
Then I requested a meeting with some journalists who had been imprisoned in Saigon. President Thieu was very kind gave me a special dispensation to get into that prison and to meet these young Vietnamese.
The prison was one of these deals with little tiny cells that we built for them. And the twenty journalists that had been arrested -- including one woman, I think -- were all in contiguous cells. And I said, "Look, we hear these rumors and I'd like to dispel the rumors." So I got a pass, and went to the building. But in each case when we would talk with the prisoner, the Vietnamese prison guard would be there, ramrod straight South Vietnamese and listen to the conversation.
And I spoke with this girl and I think two to three of us went into this room with her --at least one more congressman and me, and when we left the room, the Vietnamese guy went out first, and somebody else was between me and him. So for just a brief instant I was out of his view and the interview had concluded. She took the opportunity to whisper to me. She said, "This isn't true. They beat us every day. They beat me very much." And she had told an entirely different story through the interpreter when they were there.
So my feeling was that the whole thing had been staged, that all the other prisoners we talked to had similarly been told, "When the congressmen come you will tell them this or that."
But the girl was tired and crying, but she didn't have any outward signs of beating that I could tell. But as I say, it just happened as this guy walked out of the room before me and she whispered, "They beat us."
My recollection is we divided either five to three or four to four as to whether we ought to vote for more aid. I said nothing for South Vietnam because they are going to fall. I said we ought to get something for the Cambodians because if they fell there would be a massacre.
We went to Cambodia for a day. And I was appalled. What happened in Cambodia was entirely different from Vietnam.
Phil Habib was our escort. We landed at that airport at Phnom Penh and we knew that it was sporadically shelled. I don't remember any shells landing while we were there, but just before some did and just after. Even Bella Abzug was a little shook to come landing into this thing with a lot of burned-out aircraft lying over in the fringes. They get us out and pushed in cars and rush us through the streets of Phnom Penh to the embassy where we did our first briefing. We knew we had to leave that night. They had evacuated all but a few of the embassy personnel.
We had two formal briefings. We had one by Lon Nol, this kind of funny little caricature walked in the room and sat down, we got his plea for help. But at the embassy they told us that there were forty thousand Cambodian troops inside the perimeter around Phnom Penh, and the estimated strength of the Khmer Rouge outside the perimeter was was sixty thousand. This was a nation of six million. And you wondered if there's only that many and you've got all superbly trained Cambodians equipped with all this material, why can't we hold them off?
So I said to the Ambassador that I had enough briefings and I wondered if I could go out and tour the front lines. I had a captain who was a military attache with a jeep and we roared off to see the front lines. We roared off through the rice paddies and came up and went to division headquarters first and then we went to a regimental headquarters, and I asked to talk with a battalion commander or somebody in a company. At each headquarters I went I said I'd like to talk with some of your prisoners, the Khmer Rouge, and they'd say "We haven't got any." Finally I got down to the battalion level and these guys were dressed in these black camouflage uniforms and they were in a little pagoda. There was a monk there with these guys in yellow robes walking around in the background, and this company was bivouacked in this sort of tree line. It was a company that had been pulled back in the rear but was scheduled to go back as soon as they were paid. I asked this major about prisoners, and he said, "We don't take prisoners. When we get a prisoner, we eat him."
The captain explained to me that when they kill a soldier, everybody takes his knife and cuts a piece of his flesh and eats it thinking he gets strength from the flesh of your enemy. I thought, "Jesus Christ, what's going to happen when the perimeter falls? You've got two million people in there."
When I came back I said, "For Christ's sake give these people enough money to last through the monsoon so they can disperse and get out of Phnom Penh, because when it falls, after the Khmer Rouge had been having all their prisoners eaten I'd thought they'd massacre everybody in the city." That's why I came back and made that speech and practically got run out of Stanford and San Francisco. How could I be against the war and want to give money to Cambodia? "If we don't give money to Cambodia it's wholesale slaughter," I predicted. This was March. Cambodia fell about mid-April, as I remember. And there was a slaughter.
I came back and with Phil Habib held a press conference to say we thought they ought to give money to Cambodia, just to hold off through the monsoon season. I could not accept giving money to Vietnam. But Habib pleaded with me and a guy from the Defense Department begged me to support the funds and I just couldn't do it. It was just a question of time with Vietnam. It was a lost cause.
But I made a written report and gave it to Gerald Ford when I came back that essentially was concurred in by at least three and maybe four members of the delegation.
One thing that was in that report was the conclusion that we needed accurate intelligence. I believed the intelligence apparatus in Vietnam had become biased and was an advocate. From a military standpoint your intelligence officers are supposed to give you the bad news, not the good news. With this guy Thomas Polgar it was all good news. "We were winning and were going to win."
I then met personally with Kissinger and Ford in the oval office. I remember Ford turning to Kissinger and asking if there was any chance that I was right. Kissinger said, "No way, Vietnam can hold out for years." He said they had good morale and good fighting ability and they were well trained and all they needed was that money for supplies and equipment and replacement parts and so on.
My impression was that President Ford believed him and didn't accept what I said. I gave my report to the President in early March. They attacked in the Central Highlands within a week. And then the South came apart. I said something like this was going to happen and it was just a question of time. Just a matter of time, I said. Then they attacked and the newspapers were filled with the news for the next six weeks from Cambodia and Vietnam.
I don't have any quarrel at all with the South Vietnamese. I'd be very bitter toward everybody, particularly toward those of us who were coming over an making a judgement as to whether they ought to get another 20 or 50 million dollars. But the question to ask them is how could they delude themselves as to the fighting quality of their own people? How could they collapse around Saigon? Look at the numbers. How could it happen?
I think what we did in Vietnam was a disaster and a tragedy, and I thought when we got to the point where we backed out and were unwilling to die on the ground but kept dropping B52 bombs, it was an outrage. If the South Vietnamese had been able to make it on their own, more power to them. The fact that they were not able to make it on their own is not necessarily the fault of anybody but their own generals.