Monday, December 17, 2012
Denny Ellerman's Vietnam
"A Cruel Sideshow"
I reported to Quantico for Marine officers training after graduation from Princeton in 1964. About November, 1965, I received orders to proceed immediately to Camp Pendleton and there became part of sort of an advance party to form some interrogation translation teams. I was then sent to Monterey to Vietnamese school for three months with the other members of this team, had a quickie course in Vietnamese, and then we were shipped over to Chu Lai to the First Marine Division. I was there 13 months from April 1966 to May 1967 in Chu Lai and Danang. About a month of that was in interrogation. Then I got pulled up to the G2 to be briefing officer and sort of order-of-battle officer in the division G2. And that's where I spent the rest of my tour.
At the end of the tour in Vietnam and the end of my three years in the Marine corps, I spent some time traveling and doing some teaching. I applied to graduate school, went to Harvard in economics from the fall of 1968 until 1972, and then went to France to do research for my PhD dissertation. At that time he I was looking for a job since my graduate education was over. My name came to the Secretary of Defense's Office, this was the time of the peace treaty, early 1973. They had to reduce to 50 military at MACV, and they had had an assistant chief of staff, a one-star general in economic affairs, and a whole staff of competent economists there, guys in the military who had masters or PhDs in economics. They had been there largely to manage and monitor the economic effect of the American military presence in Vietnam. Now the idea was to civilianize that and pare it down. They were looking for a young person to go over, and they saw me and I had experience in the Marine Corps and had a Harvard PhD in economics. So I was hired. That was in April 1973 and I came out to DAO and worked for General Murray as the DAO staff economist. And I succeeded this group at MACV and I stayed there for thirteen months. When I was there I got an offer to come back to the NSC staff at the White House and take over the Vietnam economic part of the NSC staff, dealing with economic aid and military aid. I came back in May 1974 and started work on the NSC staff and was there 4 or 5 months, when Ambassador Martin offered me the position as the minister-counsel for economic affairs. He had come in when I was working for Murray, and he had become the Ambassador, and I got to know him. I was out on a visit to Vietnam and Martin offered me this job and it was a phenomenal position for someone 34. After a lot of agonizing and persuading my wife, I accepted, and then arrived back in Vietnam for what was to be the third tour, a three year tour, in March 1975, with wife, kids and family dog.
We arrived in country four days before the attack on Ban Me Thuot. Less than 30 days later my wife and kids took off for shopping trip to Hong Kong from which they couldn't return. And less than 30 days after that I was out on a helicopter and that was the end of my Vietnam experience.
When I first went to Vietnam, I would have been amazed that I could ever return when there weren't American troops all around. I remember thinking then that we were not winning the war. We had a superior force and there was no question that if we wanted to take and hold ground we could take and hold ground. The real question was whether the South Vietnamese could ever perform. There were serious problems then in joint exercises, and the general attitude was that most Marines didn't want to have anything to do with the South Vietnamese Army, the South Vietnamese Second Division. And I can remember general Krulak coming around at times and asking at headquarters why Marines were not willing to cooperate with ARVN and the answer was that whenever we went out on joint patrols they would suddenly disappear and the flank would be uncovered and all sorts of things, and whenever we had joint exercises they were always fully compromised. We always felt they were compromised through intelligence. But my feeling was that we could stay there and pacify areas and then move on and turn them over to Civilian Action Patrols and so on, and sure enough as soon as you did you'd have to come back and pacify again.
I never really saw that there was a national interest in Vietnam. There were, it was clear to me, a lot of assumptions about what was going on in Vietnam and they were all totally wrong. And concepts of what could and what could not be done that were totally erroneous, and a lot of requirements like the bombing things and generating targets for B52s -- well there weren't any targets and so they would generate them anyway because they had to fly, that was the attitude. I guess I returned from that experience being against the war. But certainly, I always characterized myself as an unrepentant veteran. I could never swallow the anti-war thing, you know, the "I've-been-misled-by-my-nation" or "something-went-wrong-with-our-society" thing. I mean that's just bullshit. Basically, here was a case where I thought errors had been made at least from a high political level. And it didn't seem to me that things were headed anywhere. There was, when I was out there a lot of optimism and can-do type attitudes and I didn't think people were really thinking things through. But on the other hand it wasn't the fault of the people there, and the whole anti-war attitude which was a moral critique, and the comfortable moralizing about Vietnam, well I didn't and don't like it. It was very clear that the people we were fighting were communists and they were trying to take over the country. You know, before I went over there I heard that the other side was a sort of liberation movement and there weren't any North Vietnamese in the South and our government was misleading us. Well, my God, you get over there and, of course I was in intelligence, and good Lord, you see right away that this was an out and out invasion by the North Vietnamese. It was more complicated than the Germans invading France in 1940, but this certainly was not just an indigenous uprising getting a little assistance from the North. As a result of what I saw over them I became very unsympathetic to the anti-war movement. But on the same token, it was not my role as a captain in the Marine Corps to decide these issues, but as an individual it was very clear to me that we should be getting out and that we did not have any sort of national interest at stake and it was never clear that we were willing to do what was required to win the war, and I'm not even sure we really could have. Maybe we could, but if you just sit there and expend lives and let them throw whatever they want to throw against that line and we'll sacrifice the lives that are needed, but we won't do anything to hit the other side to get them to stop totally, then it's meaningless. And I have subsequently come to think that all of that is an immoral approach to this sort of limited warfare. Its very comfortable and its nice, but I'm not sure it's really moral.
So when I left Vietnam the first time, I was an unrepentant veteran. I felt no regrets about going or having been there. I was not an anti-war veteran. I did not think we had any business being there, we didn't have any national interest being there, and if we really did we should be doing more than the half-way measures that we were doing there. And I felt that we weren't making any progress. All of that was vindicated in the Tet offensive. I mean when that happened that was no mystery to any of us. I can remember that we wondered why the North Vietnamese and VC didn't come in and blow up the bridges in Danang. We felt they had the capability to do that and yet they didn't do that.
This was always a big intelligence question was to why they didn't do what they could do. Our way of thinking was if you can do something then you do it. And they had a more patient attitude, a different theory of war and approach to it, a Maoist, communist theory of war. I think there were people around who recognized that and understood.
When I went back to Harvard it was an interesting experience, in 1968 and 1969. Being against the war as such but in an intellectual approach and finding all the other people who were against the war were unsympathetic unless you were willing to buy their whole outlook, and confess and repent and then if you disagreed, as far as they were concerned you might as well be for the war.
I was a little more optimistic in 1973, and if someone told me in 1967 that I would come back in seven years and there would not be one American division around to keep me in place, I never would have believed that. And yet here we were with a Vietnamese Army and the Americans were gone, no American troops on the ground and the country had not been taken over by the Communists. Vietnam had an extraordinary demand placed on it in the 60s and then pulled out in the 70s and all the employment that had been servicing American troops and the military establishment was taken away. So the problem was adjusting from an economic standpoint to that. Our role, our concern at the DAO was reporting what was going on and that was done at the Embassy and USAID. Then we had programs to see if the military supplies from the United States could be manufactured in Vietnam. We wanted to have them procured in country and have the military demand create the industry or the capability in country to produce those goods. So we were involved in that sort of thing. But it seemed that it never really worked.
I was there for a year at the DAO and the country was making good progress and going through a wrenching transformation. And I wrote a lot of reports that a lot of people liked about the progress that was being made. Rice production was going up, people were moving out of the cities and into the countryside and it was going back to a way of life that was in many ways not what it had been for many people, but in many ways there was no alternative for many people. The employment that was provided by the Americans disappeared and people then needed jobs.
When I came back in 1975, the Vietnamese had created some sort of economic mega-ministry, headed by this guy named Nguyen Van Hao, a little older than me at that time, a bright fellow who had not been in the mainstream before. I went over maybe a week or two after I got back there, after the attack on Ban Me Thuot. Sort of courtesy call, and that's when Hao sort of laid out this whole scheme on how they were going to abandon the Highlands. This was a courtesy call I made, remember. Here I was and he laid this scheme out and he wanted to know what the opinion of the American Embassy was on this. And I told him I didn't know. And I don't know why he laid this whole scheme on me. I hadn't heard anything about it before and I went back and reported it to Lehmann and he wrote up a cable and sent it back to Martin. Polgar and Lehmann had heard something about it before.
Hao wanted to know what was the opinion of our leaders. We cabled to Martin and Martin sent back a classic "Martingram" that concluded it wasn't appropriate for us to give an opinion on the validity of the subject, but he would give one piece of advice and that was, "Whatever you decide to do, do it well." And I went back a week later to see Hao and give him this message.
And he asked me if I knew why they had decided to broach it to the Embassy through me. And he said, "Well, it's because you come from the White House." And he kept asking how people in the White House would react and so on. And I was thinking, "Good Lord, I was in a back office at the White House with zero interest in Vietnam then, and yet here is a man representing high officials in the government, and their view is that there were a lot of people in the White House thinking about Vietnam and thinking about this sort of thing." And I thought, "Oh Boy, how far from the truth that is!"
Ostensibly that was the reason. That is what he said, "Because I had come from the White House" and he asked me what would be the view of people in the White House. I couldn't sit there and offer more than what Martin said. In fact, people in the White House didn't give a God damn whether they did it or not.
There was a big debate in the American community that at some stage we should come in and bomb and support and that sort of thing. I always thought it was nonsense. And it was Martin's feeling also that they have to decide, we're pulling out. Martin was really an anti-war guy, I don't think people realize that. But he is a very private man. He had a very traditional point of view, one I was in full agreement with, and it was that it was not our duty to decide for the Vietnamese what is best for them. Martin happened to believe that the biggest mistake we made in Vietnam was to condoning the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem. Because when you get morally engaged in supporting people you eventually get pulled in more and more.
Martin was a very private man, but his feeling was that we are not fundamentally responsible to make sure that the South Vietnamese are not taken over by the communists. We'll do everything in the world to help them. But we are getting out and make no mistake, we are getting out! We will do everything we can to help them defeat the North Vietnamese Army. Now there were a lot of people in the Embassy who said no to that, who said, essentially, if they end up screwing up, we will save them, we will do what is necessary to save them from themselves. But that was clearly not the Ambassador's view.
In late March, about the 28th or 29th, I remember I went over one evening to Martin's residence, and I remember him telling me at that time that it was all over. He was getting all the cables and reports on the chaos in Danang. And I remember distinctly him saying, "It's all over." He said it in a matter of fact way. He always gave the impression of being tired, even though he wasn't. That was just his manner. His personality. He had the sense of a man who had seen an enormous amount of life and had seen his own share of personal tragedy and so on. And he sort of had an outlook on life which indicated that nothing would surprise him.
I never felt that we wouldn't get out. Lehmann asked me at some point, "Would you like to send your family out?" And he said, "Send them out to Hong Kong on a shopping trip and don't bring them back." All of this you see was hush hush. We did not want to announce that we were evacuating. Don't tell anybody. We do not want to announce that we are evacuating. We are thinning down the ranks. There were people getting reassigned to the States. Your mother died and you had to go back for the funeral, and that kind of excuse. So my family left, and my wife and children knew that they might not come back. They were not clear that they wouldn't, but there was that possibility. They were to stay there until we saw what would happen. We wanted to get the numbers down in case we all had to leave in a hurry.
My last three weeks in Vietnam were spent organizing and getting people out of the country. But we didn't get everybody out that we wanted. A lot of intelligence types and so on were left. I have the impression that we should have done more and gotten these people out. In a situation like that, when a certain individual got left who shouldn't have, you think it was due to an idiotic decision, but those are really just the vagaries of situations like that. Anyone who has ever been in combat understands that. Little decisions become very fateful for particular individuals, but that doesn't extend to the fundamental strategy or the fundamental policy. When I called my house on the morning that we evacuated, it was filled with people who got stranded there that morning. My house had been used as a safe haven, we evacuated people and they were informed to be at a certain place at a certain time, so they came into these American compounds and then a bus would come in and pick them up and take them to the airport. And at my place every night I had 50 or 60 people there and a bus would come and take them out. Now the last night the airport got bombed, and all these people were in the house and I came home from work that night and the house was jam packed and they had been told to be there at that time. And then that night there was an Embassy mission council meeting about midnight and we met and that was when the decision was made to go. So we were told to go back to our homes and to be back at the embassy at five in the morning. I went home and then returned the next morning. There was one man who became the self-appointed leader of all the people there and I talked to him and told him that they could not get out of the airport they had to get down to the river and there would be some barges waiting for them. I told the household staff where I left caches of money for them and told them that if they wanted to get out they could go on the barges. Then I said goodbye and I never saw them again. One was an older woman, who stayed I think, and others had friends and families in the Delta.
The NVA had SAMS out around Saigon where they could shoot down the evacuation. But during the evacuation there was a military presence in Saigon like you've never seen, the jets up in the sky and the helicopter gunships all around Saigon for military suppression. I don't think there was any hostile fire. I gather there was an agreement negotiated through the Soviets too that the NVA would not fire SAMs and we would have a certain amount of time, but still these planes were up there with the radar on and if the SAMS shoot they have to lock on with radar and the pilots had orders to wipe them out if the did. It was all up there. You had these helicopter gunships cruising all over the city where the evacuation helicopters were going and they were just watching, and that was to make sure that nobody tried to take any potshots at us.
I left the Embassy about midnight. Martin didn't leave until early the next morning. I didn't bring anything, not even a single bag. I left everything behind. The instructions we received after the mission council meeting stated that we were to come back tomorrow as though we were going to work and we were not to give anybody any reason to think that an evacuation was going on. So I got up and had breakfast and the driver came at the appointed hour, and I took my briefcase. That was it.
I left from the Embassy roof and people were coming up the stairs and we were just inserted in the line.
I think back on that experience quite a lot. My three tours in Vietnam -- that was my Vietnam experience. I look at in a broad way, and I think leaving on a helicopter was about as good a way as any to leave the country. I was there with the first troops that landed in Chu Lai and then left from the Embassy roof by helicopter. That was a symbolic ending after 9 years of being in and out of Vietnam and never being far from it in the even in the United States.
We landed on the Blue Ridge about 1 or 2 in the morning and they issued us a basic sort of dungarees and shirts. I just had my suit and my brief case. The next morning we just sort of laid around on the decks and people talked about what was going on and what people heard and what happened to the barges and if they would make it and all the ships coming out. Then after about two or three days the evacuation just stopped. The Blue Ridge was the command ship and I remember being conscious of the fact that we stayed there because of boats coming out from shore and we were picking them up and putting the people on board. They were coming out from the Mekong Delta and Saigon and so on, and the helicopters would go out and direct them as to where to head and where the flotilla was. And then suddenly it just stopped and there were not more boats or craft coming out. Then we set sail for Subic Bay.
On the Blue Ridge we talked about what happened and about the times we had there. I don't recall chatting much with Martin, but he was cogent and he was always given to talking about the historic nature of things.
There were many people in the Embassy who were very passionately attached to Vietnam. And I think that Martin came in for a great amount of criticism from these people because he was very detached. His views were pretty much mine. We never had long discussions about what he thought of this or that. But whenever we did discuss he would say something like, "It's a terrible mistake to be here, but we're here and we're going to leave in a manner that is orderly. The guiding rule is that we were leaving. And we were going to leave in a manner so that no one will ever say that the United States does not do its utmost to support its allies. But it will not save them from themselves." His idea was that whatever was necessary to support the ally we would do. But let it never be said that we let an ally down. We will not, however, fight the war for them. We will supply them and support them as long as they are willing to fight. Martin was sort of the point man in American support for the Vietnamese at a time when Kissinger and the White House and all these guys in congress are saying, "Cut 'em off! Cut 'em off!" Even in the last weeks we had these guys from Congress coming in and asking, "What are you doing to help the refugees in the communist areas? And whatever you're doing you're not doing right and we're here investigating for congress" and so on and on and on. Here you are trying to do our damndest to get everything in order and here they are saying whatever you're doing you're not doing it right and that type of thing.
I never thought the White House expended the chips that they had in the last years in Vietnam, but that was part of the game going on. Congress may not have given what was needed and there was always this need. But maybe they could have gotten by with what they had. There was this whole aspect of theatrics and images and poses of supporting the Vietnamese. And Martin was placed in the role of the preeminent American supporter of the Vietnamese, at least in the public eye. And he came in for an enormous whack because of it. You know, people said "he's unrealistic and he doesn't know what's going on" and so on. Well that just wasn't true.
The story of the relationship between Martin and Kissinger would be a fascinated one. But I don't think it will ever be told. Just what the sort of understanding and relation was there is intriguing. In my own view both Kissinger and Martin agreed that Vietnam was a cruel sideshow, and the interests of the United States were to get the hell out. Vietnam was running the center of American foreign policy, and there were more important issues around. Martin's role was to take the flak, and Kissinger was not to get involved. Martin was to advocate and Kissinger was to stay clear. Martin was to be the supporter, and if it ever came apart, Kissinger told him, "We are not going to send the troops or the bombers back in and we will do whatever we can to support the Vietnamese, but it is up to them. And Graham, that is your job -- to give that impression that that is what we are doing." That was the scenario.
I visited the Vietnam Memorial once. I feel pretty emotional about it. I don't view it as a tourist attraction. And I never went back again. It makes the statement that its intended to make, the notion that those who died gave the most, but it is also intended to be to all those who were there and who served. It may have been a misguided policy that put us in Vietnam, but these men served and they served nobly in what I believe was a noble cause. And I don't see how people can take much pride in the so-called "liberation of Vietnam" at this time.