General EDWARD LANSDALE
. . . Korea and Vietnam. The military don't agree with that at all. They don't understand that we're up against people whose principles are to fight toward a political end to that war militarily. And we never have that policy toward political ends. The military never understood that.
I remember in Vietnam they used to come at me and scream at me -- we'd go through a place and fight for it and make it safe again and we should immediately pacify it. I said, "Yeah, you mean you go out and kill a brother or son or uncle of something, or father and then give a dollar to the family and pacify places. I don't agree to that. The other side is waging a people's war and you aren't. And they'll beat you every time on it. They are out propagandizing and getting people to come along with them and you aren't.
Q. Did you come back and tell this to the Joint Chiefs or anyone?
Q. Were they receptive?
Q. Bruce Palmer said the same thing.
He'd learned there, but he'd been with Bunker before. He had learned some things. He was a very good commander out there, I thought. He was trying to do the right thing.
Q, When did you come back?
I went out in '65 to '68. As a civilian. I had retired from the military. I was State Department reserve. They took me in and gave me the rank of minister on Cabot Lodge's staff.
Q. When you look back and try to trace and find the root of the failure, would you say the assassination of Diem and the American complicity in that was a big blunder?
It wasn't the first big blunder, but it was a blunder and a big one. But Diem himself had forgotten -- we were close friends, I was advising him almost daily originally, and I was trying to teach him democracy and starting it there. But there was always something -- his one brother Nhu was essentially not a good influence on him. But he'd been asked by his father to look out for his younger brother, Nhu had. He always had him close to him. But Nhu fancied himself as an intellectual, I guess. But handled intelligence for him, mainly political intelligence, and I think what happened was, finally Diem got to relying on his brother to tell him what was going on in the country rather than going out and eyeballing it. And the last time I saw Diem was '61 and I visited there. The first time that Nhu sat in on our conversation. I'd ask Diem a question and Nhu would answer it. And I would say, I'm not talking to you, it's your brother.
Q. Were they very astute individuals?
Nhu was but he had a lot of false ideas. That was his trouble. Diem loved Vietnam. I'll tell you a little bit about him, because I knew him quite well. He loved his country and the Americans were coming in with all sorts of aid and wanting to do things, and they'd talk to him, have a meeting with him, and after one or two statements of theirs and questions, he'd catch on they didn't know something about the country. So he'd take time to tell them about it and they'd come back and tell me, "You go in to ask a question or say something and you're there for an hour. What a bore." And I'd say, "No, he's trying to get you to understand what you are doing here." And I used to love listening to him. I'd push him to tell me about certain places and he'd go back in history and tell me about the people and the cultures. And talk for hours and I'd sit there. If I had to go to the bathroom I'd tell him to stop a minute and let me --
Q. Stanley Karnow makes a point of saying that he was very wordy and went on and on.
Well, he was, and he had a delightful sense of humor, a real witty person. I remember the French were mad at me for trying to start at the bottom and they thought I was mocking their defeat out there by Vietnam and Diem had a photograph taken aboard ship. I said that's a good photograph, please give me a copy, so he's autographing it and saying "To Ed Lansdale, a lover of the French who gets along very well." I said, "Don't put that down." That's the sort of wit he had.
Other people never saw that, but between us that was going all the time. He was a humble person. He would sit at the dinner table with his family, his brother and sister in law and their children and so on, and people around the palace would sometimes serve him last, and serve the Nhus before him. But he'd say, "Don't I get anything to eat? I'm hungry." So they'd serve me soup and I'd move my soup plate over and say "Take mine." He'd say, "No, no, I just want some food."
Q. What about the people who succeeded him? Were any of them very capable? Ky, Thieu, Minh?
They didn't understand governing. So it's a tragedy out there. Thieu showed glimpses of leadership, but I never undrstood how the other military generals stepped back and let him become president. Ky was very bitter about it. And when they were elected president and vice-president, they didn't talk to each other. And their offices were next door. I'd go in and see Ky and said, "Go down the hall and see Thieu. He's lonesome. He needs you to talk to. He's got different views. He needs the help." He wouldn't do it.
Thieu I'd say, "Go and see Ky. You need him."
Q. Was it disconcerting to you to see this type of thing?
Yes, it was.
Q. Did you ever give up hope?
No. No. Well, I sort of did, but I liked the people enough and I wanted to see them have something going for them, so --
Q. What about the other side, did you ever meet General Giap?
No. I'd like to have met Le Duan He was the thinker for the politburo and the group there.
Q. And you never met Tran Van Tra in the south?
Q. What was your estimation of the other side? When I teach students it's difficult to explain what keeps coming across on television, why the persistence of the other side, for twenty years they continued to send troops south that would fight with such enthusiasm.
Well, it was a communist goal or dream that they all shared in order to have a nation, they think. They really fooled themselves on that. Constantly having aims to go for. When you fight and lose or win or whatever you go through experiences and say, well, we still have this ahead of us. They have political cadres, people all down through both political and military organizations who keep the spirits alive and who keep teaching it. The communist troops go into combat and they have a cadre along, a little cadre who reports up a separate chain of command up to the top side, and they keep the troops very much aware of it. But after combat they call the troops in and each man has to get up and explain what he did wrong in battle. It often takes the form of "I had thoughts, I was a little afraid of this." and, "I should have gone forward, but everybody was being killed next to me, so I didn't. I let my comrades down that night."
If you go through that once, the next time you're in, you're thinking, "Well, I'll have to explain this, so I'm going to do better."
Q. Did the North Koreans do this too?
That's a communist method.
Q. Was there any effort on our part to build something similar tothis in the ARVN? OR doesn't it work with freedom?
No, we haven't. But we should have had something close to it. Westmoreland, finally read Mao and he understood some of Mao and he put out little leaflets for the troops to carry in their pockets of Mao's ten rules, and so on. How to behave with people, not that they ever did. He was hoping, but that's the closest he ever came to it. Originally when the Vietnamese army started and the ARVN first got in there and the French were still there, the first thing they let me do with the Vietnamese army was psychological warfare. I was trying to build that up to mean something to them, more than that you can't see the enemy, but also among their own troops I was trying to teach them how to behave with people, and so on. And I was trying to get them to set up a command that would be separate going on up to the top and still serving down at battalion level, and they couldn['t understand the chain of command correctly on that.
Q. Somebody told me the ideology of South Vietnam was corruption. But not an insidious type of corruption, but corruption that worked. People did favors for each other, paid each other off. People did things for money . He found it was difficult to find individuals in the general staff, for example, who were motivated by real patriotism. But they didn't need it, he didn't think, because the kind of ---\
Not true. That was an exception that became too prevalent. Thieu, and to an extent Ky, but not too much Ky, but Thieu and some of the others allowed corruption and a lot of the commanders out in corps areas were corrupt. And province chiefs became corrupt. But it was only to get along and do their jobs, mostly.
But there are other people in the army, other that generals, and so forth, that were just the other way, almost Puritan in their concept of honesty, and so on. One of them was General Tang, who I used to advise, and I'd -- I didn't want to travel around provinces with him because I said, "Don't have an American by your side, because the other Vietnamese will think you are just speaking for the Americans. You should speak for yourself." So I'd get him to tell me everything he saw and we'd talk about it and I'd say, "Did you do this?" "No, I didn't." And I'd say, "Do you think it's a good idea?" And he'd say, "Yeah, next time I'll do it."
Q. What was your experience with American television correspondents? As a commander in a zone would you give free access?
No. I would not. I think it was a mistake to cover the war as deeply as they did and expose the people at home to all the killing and the gory details that came out. It would be at the dinner hour or something. I came back a couple of times and I was shocked at what I was seeing. They were seeing a war of a few combat troops and weren't getting an in depth thing of why things were happening. It was always, "This is the way war is." And the American public hadn't experienced war like that since the Civil War and so they were getting the negative side that anybody would hate, seen on the tv screen.
Q. Did you talk to any of the correspondents about it?
Yeah. Some of them I liked. Some of them I didn't. Because some of them hated the war and told me as much. They were going out and doing their work to show why they hated it.
Q. Hated war, or just that war?
That war. Their generation. But some of them, one was the New York Times correspondent, was up in Hue and during the fighting in the Tet Offensive the enemy had gotten in and the Marines were fighting against the enemy there and the Marines were evacuating their wounded across the Perfume River and took him with them. And he hated the war, he was very much opposed to it. And the VC started shooting from the banks of the river at these wounded and the wounded were picking up their rifles and shooting back. And they looked at him sitting there looking down his nose at them and one of them said, "Are you just going to sit there with people shooting at you?" And he said, "No", and he picked up a rifle from a wounded guy who couldn't even lift a rifle, and shot at the enemy. He got back to Saigon and looked me up right away and he said, "My father is dead. My editor wouldn't understand but I've got to talk to somebody. I'll talk to you." He told me what he had done and said, "Did I do the right thing?" I told him, "When someone is shooting at you, you can shoot back at them." And I said, "You owed it to the Marines being taken out who had been wounded already. They really couldn't defend themselves very well. And you were able-bodied and sitting there getting a free ride from them."
But I didn't like the way a lot of the correspondents out there came and said, "This is what I believe and nothing I can see out here or do is going to change my mind." And the set mind, they were poisoning people with their ideas by not letting what's happening change their minds.
Q. Did you when you wrote your books and came back here and spoke to Congressmen or politicians, did you find yourself having much of an impact, or were people not listening to you?
I don't think they listened. Some of them did. A religious student recently got his doctoral degree and he wrote his thesis on Hubert Humphrey. He was worried about why Hubert Humphrey took the stand on Vietnam he did when he ran for President. And he finally decided I influenced Hubert Humphrey and he came to me and he interviewed me about this. I thought a great deal of Hubert Humphrey and he supported what I was doing and had imagination and so forth and I used to talk to him about it. But he used to take me out on the Hill to talk to the Senators and so on, and I did my best to tell them there what was different.
At my house out in Saigon I had been encouraging Vietnamese to make folk songs to lift the hearts of the people that were fighting for generations. Too much war really drags people down. The Vietnamese is a tonal language and they'd sit there and we'd tape them as they were playing and they'd make their compositions, the music and the words, harmonize, and I wound up with all sorts of tapes. And when I'd do that with the Vietnamese, sometimes the Americans would come in and one of them told me it was the first war he'd ever been in and writing folk country music. And I'd say, "Write what happens to you. Things happen and I'd love to hear what you do." So he'd come in with his combat boots all muddy, chopper in, with a guitar and say "Listen to this tune. I just wrote what happened to me last night." And he'd get stomping his feet, get rhythm and play songs. Finally he started writing, he said, "It's my first war. It's the first time I've ever written music. It's wonderful." He was close to some of the senators. So I sent a tape of that, and some of the Vietnamese songs, songs of the emotions of the people in the war, both civilian and military, both Vietnamese and Americans, back to President Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Foreign Relations Committee Senator. I was trying to educate them so they could make better decisions. Also the Joint Chiefs. And I got acknowledgements back. Secretaries or somebody were acknowledging it, but I didn't think they were ever listened to. It's too bad, because you could really catch on to what was happening.
After I came back I gave it to the Library of Congress. And then I collected the songs of all the Americans out there and I put together a collection of about a hundred and fifty songs.
Q. Where are they?
In the Library of Congress.
Q. They weren't ever published?
No, oh no. These are the raw feelings of people, still in combat. I was trying to get them to look twice at that people and also at the Americans and their experiences. It was surprising how much emotion would still come through. I wish we'd done that in every war.
Q. You were a personal friend of John Kennedy? In looking back at Kennedy and Vietnam, particularly the use of Green Berets, I constantly get the feeling that he wasn't quite sure what was going on. In other words, Kennedy was trying to demonstrate something to the Russians, or to the communists, but Vietnam itself I always get the feeling he didn't take that seriously. He never really took much time to understand it. Am I wrong on that?
Partially. He had visited out there years before when the French were around yet, and he was very aware of the place and the people.
Q. He even said Laos is the place where freedom would be tested.
If the Bay of Pigs had not happened, would Kennedy ever have committed sixteen thousand advisors to Vietnam? In other words, was it just part of a historical process?
I think it was. It was strange. Washington officially reacted in a very strange way to Vietnam. Everybody wanted to be an expert and they didn't have the experience to be. So I'd been giving lectures and mimeographed them and sent them off and people would take one of my lectures, a few terms out of it, and have a whole course in a college, say, and they'd claim that they knew best. It was the same really, they fooled themselves. And I was trying to get them to look at what they were doing and really help Vietnam as we could. I was against our sending combat troops there. Advisors yeah, but to a lesser degree.
Q. How about the air power?
Q. Because without them there wouldn't have been Marines sent to Da Nang and Bien Hoa, I guess. And without the Marines going in --
Well, I don't know.
Q. Could it have ended any other way?
Yeah. We could have worked real hard to start a government of the people, by the people and for the people. And the Vietnamese would love that. That was ???Dr. T... goal when he came in.
Q. And that was possible to do, given the old structure of Vietnamese society?
Oh, yes. If it was worked at. But with all the Americans being there, the Vietnamese, a few of them finally learned a little English, but in the Philippines the U.S. Army had gone in and started a public school system in English and that's why the Filipinos speak English. First of all the non-coms were teaching it at the turn of the century. And the Army's forgotten all about that. Out in Vietnam, the movies and tv, for example, made in Hollywood, spoken in French with English subtitles. What a crazy system and we let that go and did nothing to touch the culture, to make our ideas, political ideas and so forth, understood.
Q. The communists didn't have a real time table, until maybe the late 60s. Or did you feel they did, the country would be lost at any moment?
I did originally. When they were pushing for a plebiscite and South Vietnam as we knew it then was really run by the French and all the provincial officials were French and the army was stacked by the French. The Vietnamese Army had been just a part of the French army and didn't know how to run things themselves. They knew at the battalion level. So it wasn't that the communists were running things out in the countryside, but nobody was. And there was no feeling of unity.
So right at the beginning the thing to do was to train people how to rule themselves and help them along. But let them do it their own way. And Americans are never that patient to sit back and teach. And I think we made a mistake then, but I was worried that the plebiscite would come along and they had organized cadres from the North and they'd come down south and hold a plebiscite and rule the polling places. They were really freedom-loving people in the south. And how to give them a chance to express themselves was the problem.
I started the first veterans organization out there. And I made them sound off to the government, wanting this, or "why don't we do this?" and so on, just to start the process, because I figured somebody that risks his life to fight had a right when he came back home again to say what he wanted in the place. Jim went along. He was going out in the country and I'd wouldn't go with him, but I'd say, take pictures. He'd showed me the pictures. I'd see him standing up on the road talking to a guy kneeling. I said, never do that. Face-to-face. You aren't superior to him. Think of his rights.
The two years I was advising him, the communists kept their hands off there because he was growing popular. The communists were leaving south Vietnam and I'd gotten the army to behave themselves and the government to start doing things for the people. So when the communists left, trying to get children to take up north with them and train them and send them back down, the people would spit on them and hiss and so on. It's something that's never been understood or told.
Q. Legally they were trying to take kids?
Illegally. They were kidnapping. They had Polish and Russian liberty ships that the U.S. had lend-leased to the Soviets. They were all rusty old hulks, taking their troops north. They were trying to kidnap children and train them and come on back. In the training, Ho Chi Minh himself gave the final exams for singling agents that come back politically in the south, when they started the VC and so on. And cadre who had been trained up in the north. Showing how political thinking they all were. That's why Ho Chi Minh came in and gave the exam before they left to make sure they knew what to do. I can't think of a single leader on our side that could do the same thing. None of our presidents, or prime ministers, or so on, that understand enough the demands on such a person to give them an exam and be capable of doing it.
Q. I guess Johnson, in the mid-sixties said "farewell" to some of the troops. He went to Vietnam too, to talk directly --
Well, he was following military directions. And thinking militarily, but that wasn't an military war. The military never understood that.
Q. When the Paris Agreement was finally signed. Did you consider that to be a sell-out?
Yes. I thought Kissinger and Habib took the cheap way out.
Q. An inevitable sell-out, a political inevitability?
Q. It's difficult to imagine an alternative considering the political situation at the time.
At home here, yes. I agree with that. It had to be done, politically, but I think we sold short.
Q. At what point did you sense metaphorically kiss Vietnam good-bye? At what point did you know?
Right at the end. Not until the end. The north had invaded down there heavily before when we pulled our troops out, and the Vietnamese had fought back and beat them, tanks and so on, armor and artillery. They fought very hard. So I thought they'd keep up that spirit. But our air was there to help them. But the Vietnamese themselves were doing most of the fighting.
Q. Did you make any appearances in the spring of 1975 before a Congressional committee, or before anybody in the request for more aid?
Q. Where were you then?
I was in Washington. I joined the Vietnamese in a demonstration in front of the White House and they had a candle-light demonstration, very peaceful, a few thousand of them and Americans with Vietnamese families, and so forth. And I took Pat with me and they thought she was Vietnamese and they wanted her to speak to them. I told her go up and talk in Tagalog, Philippine talk.
((His wife??: I remember that group of the ambassador, Quong, and Diem and the newspaper people, Spence Davis, had a group of people in the fall of 1975 and were trying to reach President Ford and he was playing golf?)))
Oh that was right after that demonstration. The press paid no attention to it. The New York Times called me and asked if I would write a piece for them and I said I would because it was a demonstration and the President paid no attention, and some people who are allies of ours are going down the drain. We've got to do something. They gave me the whole page -- I just wrote a brief article--and they gave me the whole page and drew a Statue of Liberty on it, trying to jibe our government into doing something. So we met, I called my group together at the house, and President Ford was in Palm Springs playing golf and the next day he was going over to San Diego. So I got the correspondents who were with him, and friends of mine were correspondents, and I said "Let's ring him up and ask him some pertinent questions on this." Then I sent him a wire with the answers. I didn't say it was going to be in the Press Conference, but "Why don't you consider this?" So he got to San Diego and here all the press was asking questions that I had the answers in this telegram, so we finally got evacuation of some of our Vietnamese friends from Vietnam.
That was a tragedy. I felt awful that time. I knew so many Vietnamese and I couldn't reach them or anything, and couldn't get them out.
Q. Have many come out as boat people?
Oh, yes. One just left Vietnam, I got him into Virginia.
Q. In listening and talking to people in the eleven years since then, do you get the feeling anybody's learned much from it? Has the Army learned anything? The politicians?
Some individuals have. I was in meetings in Defense in the Pentagon with a group on aid to El Salavador and it was real strange. We were going over the aid program and sitting next to me was an Air Force general I had known, and he looked at it and he started exploding and said, "Don't send bombs there. You never use bombers against a civilian population like that to cope with guerrillas." And I turned around, "My god, are you in the Air Force?" And he said, "Yes." And I gave him a hug and said, "That's music to my ears." And an Army general sitting next to me was the same way. And the group took the thing and ripped it apart. One of the civilians sitting there said, "We're talking that way because we feel free with you here. He said, "I grew up in the Philippines when you were fighting the Huks out there. I felt like this all my life since then. Thank you for being here." So there are people that learned.
Q. How about the public?
Well they change their opinions. It's a changing thing. The younger generation coming up now is looking more philosophically at the background. They didn't live through it. And certainly your students are very different than those some years ago.
Q. The courses we're teaching now wouldn't have been taught then. I teach a class on the Vietnam War from French Colonization in the 1880s down to 1975. At San Jose State University. Five years ago we probably would have had protesters there. After 10 years it's too late . . . .
(((ENd of side a, begin side B.)))
. . . I've been critical of the way we did things, but a fellow, I think it was Ohio State or some place, put out a book of Washington Post articles about the Vietnam War and he asked me to write a forward to it. They published at the University of Wisconsin. I thought the Washington Post was very biased so I put on the forward -- I looked back at the war and I thought, supposing we'd fought the political war and really taken the President and the Executive branch of the U.S. Government ?? that's supposed to have ??? on Hanoi and really seen them. We had two very political presidents dealing directly with combat in Vietnam, Johnson and Nixon, and whatever else you think of them, they were political animals. Neither one of them fought the political war. They fought a military war and let the military do the thinking for them. But I took what Le Duan said was the strategy from Hanoi and took and showed what we should have done up there. And that was sort of fun, to plant second thoughts on the war. The editor was a little taken aback by my forward but they finally published. I said, "We've got to have something to show what an American should have been thinking and what the possibilities were. I don't want to just be critical. I want to explain how you do something like that."
Q. Did John Paul Vann have it down right?
No. He was in love with the Vietnamese. He tried to help them and spent his life there really. When he finished his military career he came back and was in the army in the Pentagon, the Chief of Staff called me up. I was serving there in the Secretary of Defense's staff at the time. He said, "John Paul Vann has come in and is very critical of the Army and very critical of what we're doing. He's in our hair here. I think he's a good man. Will you please take him on your staff for a time and try to save him?"
Vann did some things that I liked. He was very critical of a general who was a friend of mine out there, the way he fought the VC and --
Q. Van was attached to the 7th ARVN Division wasn't he?
No, this was somebody else. The guy had a big family. And when Diem was overthrown he'd been close to Diem and he was in a bad way. And John Paul Vann went to the bank and took out his savings and sent them to him to help his family, so he was looking down and very critical of people but he had a big heart towards them. He took one of my men out and taught him how to go in the provinces --he was one of the people really outspoken against the war after he came back. Ellsberg. He was a young intellectual, became very close to Van. He came back and said, "Gee Vann has taught me to go through these villages, and maybe there's an ambush and you throw grenades towards these homes." I said, "Gee, I'd kick his butt for teaching you that. That's the wrong thing to do. Supposing a kid was playing there?" But that's the way Ellsberg was.
Then John Paul Vann got him in close to some of the girls out there. Ellsberg was a great lover, always had a different girl. And he used to go in combat. I said, "You aren't supposed to go. You're a civilian." "No, no, no. Let me." And then his wife now was a Marx of the Marx toy company, and she was very much against the war. She came out there.
Q. To his wife: Were you in Vietnam too?
I was there in the early days. I was working in the USIS. But I was based in Manila. I stayed in Manila but I went to Saigon. I was with the documentary motion pictures. Saigon didn't have the facilities, so they used Manila to back up Saigon and I used to go there two or three times a year. It was in the early days.
Q. Did you learn Vietnamese?
Lansdale: No. I'm not very good in languages.