General Timmes (raw uncorrected from audio tape)
. . . I published in this one -- Army Magazine. I thought they were outstanding and when you ask me early impressions, it's very much influenced by conversations I had with Rosson, William Rosson, four star general, and he lives in the southern part of Virginia, the halfway portion.
Q. He was an army officer?
Yes, four star general. He one time commanded the troops in the first corps. Bill Rosson.
Q. You went to Vietnam for the first time when?
Q. Had you been in Southeast Asia before 1961?
No. I was in Korea '56 to '58. I finished the National War College, '56 and was designated to be the attache in Turkey. The reason for that is I had finished the four year Russian language and area course. '58 to '52, worked in the Pentagon in the intelligence portion and then went to the National War College and I was promoted out of the job of being attache in Turkey and sent to Korea instead. That was a year and a half. Got back from there and I was in the Pentagon when I was assigned as assistant division commander to the 101st under General Westmoreland. Stayed there until the summer of '61, went to Vietnam. First became the deputy MAG chief, General Lionel McGarr was the chief and I took McGarr's place, March '62.
Q. You became the MAG chief in March '62. At the time, as you assessed the situation and I suppose that's what your primary duty was. How did you assess it?
One of the first things I had to do after traveling around the country and a little feel, General Taylor as the representative for Kennedy came out. It was my job to brief him and take him around the country. I had been there only three months but the job was given to me. I don't think any comments are necessary, but it was given to me -- and I think I mentioned that in some of the articles. In three or less months I knew all about Vietnam.
Well, going with General Taylor influenced me a lot in my own impressions and then his. The first thing I think was General Taylor recommended to the President, nine divisions that they increase the Vietnamese divisions from nine to eleven or from seven to nine. At least two more. And that the advisers be increased from about 600 to thirty-two hundred, that the advisers be increased particularly at the battalion level. Formerly there was one adviser at the regimental level. There were some at the division. One at the regimental level and he was not permitted to go out into the field with the Vietnamese unit. Well General Taylor recommended that change. That we now have five advisers at each battalion and go out with the unit, stay with unit, advise them in combat. I think a big mistake at that time was that the communists were challenging the government not at the regular army level, but in the villages and the hamlets, and we were beefing up the wrong area. Beefing up two more divisions and a few regiments where we actually should have been doing something where the real contest was, which was at the village level, by increasing the police and the local force.\
Q. Did you tell Taylor that?
No. That's what I learned since then. I didn't tell Taylor that. But that became -- other people would mention things like that even at that time and it seemed to make sense.
Q. How about the popularity of President Diem? His remoteness from the populace, the police force under his brother . . .
That is all very, very true. He was not liked. He was very much liked when he first took over in '54. He could walk along the street and be cheered and actually was capable of doing that, but then he became more and more remote, more oppressive, and the religious factor had something to do with it. He's catholic and the Buddhists were very strong. Big Minh and many Buddhists were very much opposed to the president. I knew Big Minh [Gen. Duong Van Minh] very well. I would go into operations with him. I saw the president quite often too.
Q. Your impression of him, intelligent? Dedicated? Nationalist?
Yes, dedicated, nationalist, certainly intelligent. Maybe not a Thomas Aquinas, or an Aristotle, but he was average intelligence. He did antagonize people by -- he became concerned that coups would be engineered against him and he used repressive methods to prevent coups. One of the things that he did is the commanders were selected for loyalty to him and not for efficiency and this had a serious effect.
Q. Did you try to advise him, or was that not your job?
No, that was really not my job. I was chief of the advisers under McGarr. That was more his job. I was merely carrying out what I thought would be his orders. Then General Paul Harkins came, and it was his job and the ambassador. I was not at that level. I was advising at the corps level, the division level, province chiefs, because we had advisers at all those levels and I was going around checking our advisers at those levels.
Q. How was the war going at that time? Were you optimistic?
Yeah. I cover all those things in the articles(?) Would you care to read this thing and then you could fill in.
Q. Let me ask you just a couple of things more then. I read Frank Snepp's account of the exit of the president and talked to other individuals. Everyone told me you would disagree with his stories on the exit of the president. But there was another story too that John Madison told me that there was a rumor that at six o'clock on April 29th when the embassy was being evacuated, that the embassy would be shelled, and he said that exactly 6 o'clock an artillery shell went over the embassy and hit a building nearby and you came out and went to the telephone, called somebody and there was no more artillery fire.
I called Big Minh. But I don't know about this artillery fire. I don't remember that incident. But that morning I called Big Minh and asked him to talk to the communists and try to get them to lay off.
Q. He was in touch with them?
Q. And then they did lay off?
They did lay off. I doubt if it was as a result of Big Minh. I doubt that.
Q. Let me back up to the resignation of President Thieu. Were you privy to the discussions over the resignation?
I have to think about that. No I -- Martin called me down, as I recall, we got to get rid of Thieu. The 25th when he said I should get in touch with Thieu and see what kind of arrangements we could make. So I went to the Prime Minister's house, Tran Thien Khiem.. He's still around by the way. He went to Hong Kong. I had dinner with him and Cao Van Vien just before Vien left. And Kim was going to go to Hong Kong and be there some time. I would suspect he's back now.
On the 25th the ambassador said it's about time that Thieu leave. What arrangement could I make? So I went to Khiem's house and we called the president and I said to make arrangements for you to leave. And we talked various possibilities. I said we could get a helicopter on the roof of the palace. He didn't think that was necessary. He said how about he would come to his JGS headquarters and that would be Khiem's place and have a cocktail party and from there go to the airfield. So I arranged for three limousines. I got Frank Snepp to drive one of them. And we made the arrangement what time we would be there at Khiem's place, about 6 o'clock. So Ambassador Martin took a limousine and went to the airfield -- and you know this part, I'm sure -- to the dark area where the place -- and the three of us went in three limousines to Khiem's house. Thieu came, we had a drink, we prepared all the legal documents. Tom Polgar (CIA Base Chief, Saigon) and myself. Polgar said, well, how do you want us to go? And I said, Mr. Polgar, you drive with Khiem and some of his entourage in the first. I'll go with the President in the second and some hangers-on in the third. In the second, Frank Snepp was driving. I said, Mr. President, this is one of our people. He's been around here a long time so he will be the driver. And then we set out, all three of us and as we came to the guard at the airfield I suggested the president put his head down and the two of us on both sides, I forget who was on the other side, we talked to the guard and went through and they never saw the president. Then we went to the place where the ambassador was and I saw them loading on the bags and I never saw, -- as Frank Snepp says in his book -- big bags with heavy ... I never saw that. Possibly I could be wrong and didn't notice, but I thought I was aware of everything that was going on, because if word had gotten out about the president leaving it could have been --
Q. Were you afraid of an assassination attempt?
Concerned about it.
Q. From Ky?
No I didn't think about Ky. First of all, the VC and then some -- primarily the VC I was concerned about. If they knew-- the intelligence wasn't too good our part, very good on that point. There were other things I was concerned about, the guard.
Q. What did you do after Thieu had left?
I went into the vehicle with Ambassador Graham Martin and Polgar and we drove back. Khiem asked me to send a cable to the embassy in Hong Kong that they were arriving and when they would about arrive so they would be met. We did all that.
Q. How did Thieu feel at this time?
He seemed cheerful enough, strange to say when I introduced him to Frank Snepp he said, "How long have you been around?" and he and I talked very pleasantly as though this was an outing.
Q. What was the point of him leaving the country?
I think one of the things were that we were trying to push Big Minh to be the president. It would be inappropriate for the former president to be here at that time if not really in opposition. Second, I'm sure there was a lot of pressure by the ambassador for him to leave. The ambassador told me "It's time for Thieu to leave." And I should arrange for it.
Q. He was still living in the presidential palace?
That's right. On the 25th was when he left the presidential palace.
Q. The rest of his family went out by other routes, I guess. Who else was in his entourage that evening?
""""unclear at 241 ctr """"
Q. Cao Van Vien was still in the country?
Let me see, how did he get out? Refresh my mind on that.
Q. General Vinh Loc became chairman of the Joint General Staff, but I didn't know whether Cao Van Vien went at that time.
I helped somebody out. Who was that? I had him stay at my house at night on the 28th and leave the 29th. I have to think about who it was.
Q. I can leave and read this over lunch and come back this afternoon.
Break at ctr. 256.
Resume at ctr 167.
Q. I noticed in one statement your wife said "We've lived here and - - -
The deputy to McNamara, assistant secretary of Defense.
Q. So you were living out at Tan Son Nhut?
Not at Tan Son Nhut. In the town.
Q. You had Vietnamese housekeepers?
Q. Did you yourself feel you were not getting the proper understanding of the culture of the people? Did you ever feel that lack?
Yes, very much so. I'm afraid that we and the advisers, unfortunately -- and I don't know what the answer to it is -- were very poorly prepared for the job that we undertook. We did not really understand the people. And it hurt most of all in the fact that we were slaves to the stories that they related to us of what happened. We couldn't challenge them because we didn't know any better ourselves. We didn't have the language. We didn't know the culture, and we had to pretty well accept what they told us.
Q. But didn't an understanding come gradually?
Oh sure, it came gradually, understanding much better. For example when I got back in '67, '68, '69, and I was interviewing the commanders from all levels, I was certainly able to discern much better what they were telling me. Able to compare stories with what others told me. Able to compare the story that the advisers themselves told me. And we had a better chance to come up with a true story. But at the beginning it didn't have this advantage.
Q. Didn't most of the advisers speak Vietnamese?
No, very few. Hardly anyone could speak it as manageable. Sure we'd know a few words, "hello, how are you".
Q. Out in the field, the special forces and so on didn't either?
Q. Your emphasis on the Buddhist idea that you never say or do anything to discourage your neighbor.
Yes, I forgot that. That was very prevalent. The question you asked about President Diem -- well as you know he was mandarin type. It was not for him to go to people to influence the people to support the government. The people are fortunate enough to have a man like him to be their leader and therefore it's their responsibility. And that was prevalent until he was executed. And the fact of his brother made it worse for him. His brother antagonized as many people -- let me give you an example:
When we started this strategic program in 1962, the brother would go around to the province chiefs and say this province chief over here has accomplished so much. How much have you accomplished? And of course one was competing with the other. Out lie the other. And Nhu I guess didn't know any better, and we would be somewhat fooled but not to that extent.
Then the religious problem in that he antagonized many of the Buddhists. But furthermore Madam Nhu (wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, brother of Ngo Dinh Diem) in attempting I must say, to do a good thing, trying to liberate women having the husband more faithful to their wives, and she therefore antagonized an awful lot of people. That's one thing we seldom think about. But that is one of the reasons why Madam Nhu was so hated.
Q. Did you meet her personally?
Q. Did you get along with her?
Sure. But I didn't meet her that often. Only socially. She was nice and polite, that's all I can say.
Q. He comes off in videotapes as being almost mentally unbalanced.
Yes. What is Personalism? I've studied Catholic philosophy and I'll be damned if I understand what he's talking about. But he antagonized so many people.
Q. There was an effort to separate the two -- Nhu and Diem for a while.
That was the effort of the ambassadors, Frederick Nolting and Henry Cabot Lodge. I don't know if they were successful.
Q. What was the hold of one on the other?
Family loyalty and knowing that they were in a hostile environment I think they clung to each other. I would suspect it was that. That's what I thought at the time.
Q. The coup and the murder in '63. When did you realize that a coup was being hatched, etc?
There was a parade on national day, 26 of November and at this parade where some of Nhu's young soldiers that he was using, like Boy Scouts, and they were parading. And I happened to be sitting between, of all people, Big Minh and Tran Van Don. They told me after this that the coup was already planned and here I am sitting next to them. This happened in October 1963 right before the coup. I didn't know about it until it actually started.
Admiral Harry Felt happened to be in Saigon at the time, and we were briefing him. Tran Van Don was the man to escort Admiral Felt to the airstrip and we of course went with him. Troops were off the street and there was something very strange going on. And a short time after that they took the radio station and I think that was the start of it. I had no knowledge of it prior to that. Although the air was full of it. As a matter of fact I remember speaking to the archbishop, the papal delegate to Vietnam, some months before and he kept saying "got to get rid of Diem, just ineffective, no leadership as far as the people are concerned. He can't bring the people behind the government to support them. He can't do anything to defeat communism."
Q. Were you surprised at the murder?
Very much surprised. And I know the man that did it. It was the major who was the aide of Big Minh. I would see Big Minh very often. I played tennis with him a lot. But as an adviser and he was in charge of the field command, which was no command. He had no troops. He wasn't permitted to leave Saigon except with the permission of the president, so he was very much opposed to the president, as well as his whole entourage, a lot of people I knew, just hated Diem. And constantly would talk about the country must get rid of him some way or other.
Q. But there were no assassination attempts on Diem. Is this not part of the Vietnamese character?
I can't answer that part of the question. But as far -- yes there was -- the airborne ran a coup in 1960.
Q. I thought of his murder, just one to one. No other top political aides were attempted assassinations, nor you guys.
I went all over the place. The only danger we would be warned about would be the VC, because on their radios they would make threats. That was all. But otherwise I think there were two attempts on the president.
Q. Were you optimistic despite the shock of the assassination, did you feel the with Minh coming to power was a step forward?
For a very, very short time, and let me tell you why. After Minh took power, he changed all the police chiefs, all those people and as a result the strategic hamlet program that we foolishly thought was going so well, we discovered how actually poorly it actually was doing.
(((End of side a, Tape 1, ctr. 481)))
((Begin side b)))
. . . all Vietnam government controlled turned out not to be so.
Q. Well even Minh denounced him, said his concentration discredited him even further himself.
And also the opposition to the opposition to the president used this argument of the strategic hamlet program as a way of concentrating the people, putting them in concentration camps. There was a lot of opposition from that viewpoint too.
Q. Then Big Minh goes and Nguyen Khanh comes in, and as you said in your article, all the province chiefs are changed again.
If I could on from that to something else. Two of these magnificent mistakes that we made. I don't mean "magnificent", I mean foolish mistakes we made, one I indicated before. That is that we were fighting the wrong people in the wrong place. The communists were challenging the government at the village level. They were taking over the countryside slowly but gradually. We didn't realize this, and instead of concentrating getting weapons to the police, getting weapons to the local militia we were preparing divisions that did not know how to cope with this problem. They were only wanting to fight against regular forces. This partly comes from their French training. The regular army felt it was beneath their dignity to go into the villages and the hamlets. They wanted to fight regular forces. And they were not capable of doing the job. And that's where we made a big mistake. And that error lasted throughout the war.
The second thing is, talking about Minh, about the president, Minh, Nguyen Khanh, and Thieu. At that time there was absolutely no leadership in the country and this was the wrong time to introduce American soldiers. How could we expect American soldiers to do what the government for itself could not do, get the people behind the government efforts to eliminate the communists. We as soldiers certainly couldn't do that. So this was not the time to introduce, when President Johnson brought in American troops. And you know it was General Harkins who kept preaching this. He left in '64, but he kept saying it'd be wrong to bring out American troops, because the government at this time has no leadership.
Q. Wasn't there a fear that if American troops were not introduced that indeed the country would fall.
Indeed that's very. very true. It probably was a mistake to bring in American troops, because without proper leadership, without getting the people behind them there was very little chance of ever defeating communism. However, that fact that they did come prevented them from coming and taking over there in '65 and '66.
Q. Westmoreland asked for the initial marines simply to protect the air bases so Rolling Thunder could continue. Were you against the idea of Rolling Thunder?
At this time I was not against it. I didn't realize this as I'm thinking over this thing I'm beginning to realize -- I did realize after a while, our first mistake that we were not fighting the proper enemy. And what brought that on is people from Washington would come and watch some of the gigantic operations. We'd be in a helicopter or a plane watching regular army making some attack going through some area that didn't mean much. And I remember on at least two occasions. "Is this what you really should be doing, shouldn't you have people out there that are fighting right in the area where these things, the villages and hamlets, are taking place?" That made me think.
Q. The introduction of regular American forces, on the other hand, came almost simultaneously with the introduction of regular North Vietnamese forces. By our introducing, they introduced a division, and then the war did come.
You're right about that, of course, but in the overall picture when you think what we went there for, to liberate them from the communists, that the question is, would it ever have been possible to do?
Q. What do you think?
Let me go to another thing -- Well, first of all, I should answer that . . .
Q. Well we can come back. Earlier you didn't say you were pessimistic.
No I was optimistic up until the coup. Only the coup when I realized how mistaken we were. And of course you couldn't be optimistic.
Q. These mistakes were irreversible?
At that time I thought they were irreversible.
Q. How about all the talk of winning the hearts and minds --
And I'm an optimistic guy and we can do it no matter how difficult it is. I'm that kind of guy anyway. So when I reflect and think about it, it's a different story. Another grave mistake that I think we made, this is in the Vietnamization program. When the American troops first came the feeling seemed to be, Vietnamese get out of our way, we can't rely on you, we're going to fight and win this war. And that was very very true when I got back in '67, '68. Then the Tet offensive made people think a little bit. But after that, eventually as the Vietnamization program did combine, I think that you can gather from this that I thought that program started much to late, but effective, that the Vietnamese troops began to have confidence in themselves, were learning and the commanders had confidence in their ability. The Americans seemed to say, get out of our way, if we had you on our flank we know our flank won't hold. We had definitely that feeling, in my opinion.
Q. How about the non-government, non-military people, when you had contact with them, were you convinced that there was anticommunist sentiment in the countryside, or did the people just wish to be let alone or be on the winning side?
I'd say that latter part. They wanted to be on the winning side. I don't think the government was effective in explaining the dangers of communism.
Q. What was your analysis of the other side? Did you have access to intelligence information and what was your estimate of individuals like General Vo Nguyen Giap or even Ho Chi Minh, or Pham Van Dong. Were they logical individuals? Or brilliant tacticians and propagandists?
I never thought in this part, because when I was over there the second time, that was really not my province.
Q. Was anybody assessing the enemy?
I'm sure that General Westmoreland's G-2 was doing just that. And I would see reports. But as far as the leadership of the three people that you mentioned, I can't comment.
Q. The motivation of the Vietnamese army was adequate? Wasn't a demoralized force?
It certainly was, as I stated in here, starting in '74.
Q. Before that, in the 60s, you thought it was growing?
It was growing, getting better, the leadership was getting better. As advisers from 61 to 64 there were so many errors that the leaders didn't check their people's lack of initiative, that they didn't seem to have a conscientious to pursue this, and that was a big big problem for the advisers. And we were not too successful and we reported these things. And the reason we weren't too successful is that the advisers were advisers at only, had no command responsibility or authority.
Q. What about political control, from Washington? Too much? Not enough latitude?
Talking about Vietnam, first of all, I think it would have been up to the Ambassador and the United States to sell to President Diem and Thieu to allow more power to the advisers. We went with what we had. I could do nothing about getting more. They knew -- we stressed all the time -- all we can do is advise. As a matter of fact, that's what we were told. "You are advisers only. You cannot command." And as a matter of fact, I don't know how capable we would have been in commanding. You don't know the language among the troops. They certainly aren't going to pay attention to Americans, they are going to pay attention to their own commander. And their commander knew that we had no command authority. The best authority that we did have is we would write reports on our counterpart that went up the line. The Americans would show our report to the next higher commander, so we had some leverage that way, but far -- our capability depended on how we could sell ourselves, the effectiveness of our advice depended on it.
Q. What was your official position after Westmoreland came in?
He came in in February, and he only became commander in chief after I left. And of course I worked for the Agency, so my boss was --
Q. Out of uniform.
That's right. Not military. But as I went around the country, and frankly what I did is go around, find out what the situation was in each province, talk to the province chief, let him explain to me how he saw the situation, how he saw his capability against the enemy. And this is what I reported with my own comments. Then what he told me I always went to the American counterpart and told him so I could get feedback, so I could get both. And this is the things I would report.
Q. You were there in the Agency longer than anybody else. Everybody else came and went. Ted Shackley came, Tom Polgar came, Frank Snepp came and left.
There was a fellow by the name of John King for a short time and Lou Lappin???. Shackley took Lou Lappin's place. Lou Lappin was the deputy to John King.
Q. What was your specialty in the agency?
My specialty was to go around the whole country, come back on weekends and write reports.
Q. Someone like Snepp reported to whom?
Snepp worked in the office. He reported to Polgar. I would send in my reports . . unclear at 184 ctr . . . I would talk to Bill Johnson a little, what are you interested in? So when I would go around I could ask these people.
Q. Did corruption begin to bother you at any point? Did you begin to see it as crippling the war effort?
Yes, very much so in the Fourth Corps for example. Very bad corruption in the Fourth Corps. That was always a factor, but in Korea it was just as bad. I was chief of staff of KMAC in Korea. The problem constantly bring in things by ship and people that would get their portion out of it. That fact of life, this is one thing you grow up with over there, knowing it occurs.
Q. Did it fatally cripple the war effort?
Yes, I think it did. Particularly in the Fourth Corps, the morale was very very poor. I'm saying this because I've heard this from various commanders, more so than in other places. It was just as true in other places.
Q. Was Tet offensive an intelligence failure?
Let me say about the Tet offensive. It was an intelligence failure in that I was told by the G-2 of the 3rd division that this is going to happen in Bien Hoa, this is going to happen, be careful. And just as he said it, it did.
Q. So it came to late to do anything about it.
Well they didn't do anything about it, didn't prepare for the holiday. Didn't take stringent steps to do something about it.
Q. When you came back and forth in those years between the United States and Vietnam, what did you think of the peace movement here?
I served here three years. Very much troubled. I remember I had to give a talk at the University of Maryland, of all places, I talked about Vietnam in an optimistic framework that we stick with it we're going to get this thing, and I was very optimistic. It sounds in retrospect when I think about these things that I realize that it wasn't all that good as I had hoped it was. But if it’s the job, you go and do it. That's the kind of character I am.
Talking at the University of Maryland, when I got there, this evening -- this was for all their students, there was big crowd lined up all laying down. There was a lady with a baby and there was a big paper machete bomb, and they heckled me but I took it for fun and we all had fun. Georgetown, the same thing happened at the law school. This was in '64, '65, '66. I'd say it was about '65. I would speak at various places.
Q. What about the Congressional attitude?
I didn't get involved.
Q. But reading the papers, did you think we had --
Sure, but also I had a job at the Pentagon which was all-consuming. I read the papers to know what's going on. But I'm worried about what I'm trying to do. I'm a worrying guy.
Q. You went back after the Paris Agreements then?
I went back in July '67. I retired May the First '67 from then I went through school with the Agency until July '67.
Q. And then you went back to Vietnam?
That's what I mean. I retired. Went to the Agency to prepare for Vietnam. Had some instruction and then got there in July. And stayed until the 29th of April '75. And I got out that night on the last helicopter.
Q. The Paris Agreement and the pressures on Thieu. Were you aware of the pressures on him by Nixon and others?
Sure. And President Thieu told me after this is over, I saw him in Taipei after he went out, then we got out and went on the 7th Fleet to the Philippines. From the Philippines by plane to Taipei. And I saw Khiem there, Tran Van Khiem, and also the president. The president said to me, "If you can't believe a promise by the President of the United States, who can you believe?"
Q. In the end it's funny he would blame us --
What's expected -- he asked for it???unclear at 279 ctr???.
Q. The B-52s, you didn't, you never expected America to come back in, did you?
Well I was concentrating on other things.
Q. Did you think the Paris Agreement was a sellout?
I think so now. Again I must say, this was not my forte. I was concentrating on my business and just reading generally what was happening.
Q. At what point did you begin to see yourself as in a position where you were winding down, that you were going to start closing shop? Phuoc Long?
Not with Phuoc Long. I would say when the first -- even Ban Me Thuot I thought could be rectified. I was traveling all around at that time beefing up the generals, very much so. When First Corps, Ngo Quan Truong, when he faded out, that was the end. As it turned out that was. I remember even going to Bien Hoa just a few days before it was over thinking we could still --- went to the 18th division and thinking we still might be able to hold. I remember talking to the 22nd Division commander, Niem, and he seemed to think they could hold the Fourth Corps and the area around Saigon. And of course, you're optimistic, pushing them. That's part of my job. Even though you know that the curtain is coming down. But nevertheless you don't admit it to them, or hardly to yourself.
Q. When the congressional delegation came out there in March -- Bella Abzug and Pete McCloskey . . .
McCloskey, I saw him up in the First Corps.
Q. Were you disappointed by the conclusions they were drawing?
Very very much so. Particularly McCloskey.
Q. Why, he seems to be the most reasonable.
But still I felt he was not doing full justice, and the chances are he was, but I was so gung ho, keeping them in there, that some of those people were really doing a good job. The commander of the Third Division was doing an outstanding job. Hinh. The commander of the second was Nhut? , the First was Diem and the commander of the First Corps was Truong. Some of those people, Hinh, particularly, and Nhut, I thought did a good job. Diem, his division broke.
Q. When the order to withdraw from the central highlands came, it took you by surprise, didn't it?
Very much so.
Q. But you had been traveling around investigating all of the corps, right?
I had been talking to Phu.
Q. How did you ever find out about it? Did somebody wake you up in the night and say, you know they're withdrawing?
That's right. That's just the way it happened, but it wasn't the middle of the night, it was early in the morning and Polgar came to me and said "Look what's happening here." I dashed out to JGS and tried to find out and talk to Cao Van Vien. And that was the facts. By the way the person that came to my house and asked for asylum on the 28th, and the morning took him to the embassy and put him on the helicopter, he was the one that was in charge of the marines. The deputy to Cao Van Vien. (Note: that would be LTG Dong Van Khuyen)
Q. You were sympathetic towards those who were fleeing
I helped them . . . ??? ctr 377.
Q. In retrospect were things like planting a bug in the presidential palace in order to listen to President Thieu, a mistake or just a way the business had to be done?
I think it's the business had to be done. What mistake could that be?
Q. If he had discovered it couldn't it have made the situation worse?
That's right. But it had to be done. I think so.
Q. Was there fear that he would form a coalition government or what?
No, I think just to find out so that we would be in the know as we all had difficulty in knowing what the situation is. Anything that assists in knowing what the situation is, because the man and his friends, they're all Buddhists . . .
Q. Well General Murray told me he listened to some of the tapes and he said they were funny because he didn't think Thieu was that concerned or serious about what was going on and it was almost a joke when he listened. April 21st, Xuan Loc falls and Thieu resigns. You were sure by then that everything was gone and that you would be leaving the country. Was your wife still there?
No. Two weeks before I pushed her on a plane and she didn't want to go because the Vietnamese women were crying on her shoulder and she was crying right back at them.
Q. Did a lot of people come to you for help to get out?
Yes. Particularly at the end.
Q. Were you able to help?
Yes, I think I helped a lot.
Q. Getting them on commercial flights or what?
Military planes, getting them down to Tan Son Nhut at that time.
Q. Taking Thieu to the airport ... you did not expect Ky or somebody to come forward and rally the people, did you?
No, because I thought we kept this really quiet.
Q. No after he left.
After this there was still great danger about Ky. I went to see him to be sure to continue to warn him not to pull off a coup, but it would have been too late anyway. He and the 3rd Corps commander who happened to be Toan, there was a danger that they might try something at the last minute, but bag could anything like that have come? What could have happened? In retrospect, suppose they did, so what? It was all over anyway.
Q. Where were you when you heard that Frequent Wind was going into operation. White Christmas on the radio. The evacuation of Saigon.
On the 28th, which is Monday, I remember I saw Big Minh for a long time, I had a very important session with Big Minh at the direction of the Ambassador. And I still kept going around seeing different people.
Q. What did you talk about with Minh?
Well, knowing that he was going to be the president, my idea was to try to advise him, possibilities to emulate . . .
(((End of Side B, Tape 1_)))
((Begin Side A, Tape 2)))
. .. that the Fourth Corps could hold out, because three divisions were still viable. The 22nd Division from the Second Corps was down in that area was viable. It seemed that there might be a possibility of a compromise, hopefully. Of course that was silly, but you dream of anything possible.
Q. What was his response to this? Did he seem like a fighter?
He also was optimistic.
Q. Later in the pictures when we see him surrendering he looks so tired and crushed.
That day was the 30th. I'm talking about the 28th. Just taking over President, and there still seemed to be hope and we were pushing him to the limit to hold out.
Q. Were you misled by the French or by the Hungarians or Poles or anything, into thinking that there would not be tanks rolling into the city? You never thought there would be a coalition, a settlement, anything like that?
I was optimistic and hoping there was. That was my job. Trying to get Minh to do what we thought he might be capable of doing, not knowing how much influence he had with the communists. You know that saved a lot of bloodshed if they could come to some agreement. That would be ideal. That was what we were trying on the 28th. The next morning my driver didn't come back. In fact, early in the morning I talked to Ky on the phone and we heard the artillery, that big 130 artillery rounds which sounded like it came from Tan Son Nhut airport. So I called Ky to find out if it's true that's where they're landing and he said it was only too true. Well that was the end obviously.
Q. Did you go to the embassy?
Let's see. My driver didn't come back. I drove.
Q. Left your personal belongings at home?
I went back home for that. But anyway I drove to the embassy and then went to see Minh again about the situation. This is now on the last morning, and tried to get him to use his influence so that they wouldn't hit the town and artillery us.
Q. So he was the conduit to the other side?
I don't know how effectively, but he was.
Q. Did he say he had contact with the other side?
I asked him wouldn't he contact the other side? And he said he would. Then I called him later in the day again. And that was our last conversation, later in the afternoon. In the morning, I went to Big Minh's house first, and he only had a short time with me, I remember, he had an appointment with the French ambassador. And then I assisted in getting other people out that afternoon, bringing them to different places. Using whatever influence we could to get them out. But I had no more chauffeur, so I was driving about. And I noticed when I came out of Minh's place, there were no more police on the street. And when I took the car and went to my house and had lunch, took a small bag with my toilet articles, pajamas, or something, and I said, "I'll be back for dinner." I didn't want to say good-bye to them. "I'll be back at 5 o'clock." or something like that.
Q. This was your housekeeper?
Yes. They probably knew I wouldn't be back. I knew I wouldn't be. Then that night, eight, nine o'clock, something like that, it was already dark, we got on a helicopter from the roof. I went back to the embassy, couldn't park in the embassy at all. Parked across the street on a tennis court. Walked in, had difficulty getting in.
Q. Once you got in was it chaos inside or fairly well organized?
Were the marines there by that time?
The marines had been all day around the outside. Everything was in order. No problem. People tried to get over the fence, but they were pushed off by the marines. As far as we were concerned, we were burning papers and doing all those kind of things. So everything was very regular. And even when it got dark going up to the roof and being on line to get to the helicopter everything was placid.
Q. Who was on the helicopter when you left?
A marine helicopter -- Frank Snepp of all people. I was sitting next to Frank Snepp. Some other people, a Vietnamese that we got into the gate. We knew they were coming, I went down to the gate and got the marine to clear the people away to get them in. It was a general and his wife. I think it was just his wife. The family was gone. Got her out, the family was left behind, very sad.
Q. Was there any conversation on the stairwell, or on the helicopter?
No, just normal conversation. Nothing particularly -- not excited. I went down out in the street and still didn't feel any trepidation. We were getting out and they seemed to be knowing we were getting out and letting us get out. They could have turned artillery onto the embassy or into town but what would they have accomplished?
Q. So you don't remember making a call about 6 o'clock asking him to make sure they held off the fire.
I knew it was late in the afternoon. I thought it was a little before then.
Q. But you still had telephone contact?
That was the end. Right then they chopped the telephone off. I made the call and that was the last call.
Q. Were there telephone calls coming into the embassy at that time to you from people wanting to get out?
Yes, there were.
Q. Were you able to help?
Q. How was Ambassador Martin acquitting himself at that time? Some people told me he was ill and Wolf Lehmann was handling everything.
I think I saw him the last day. I thought he was acquitting himself fine.
Q. He wasn't ill?
Not that I was aware of. If I did it was only short, to tell him I saw Minh, or something like that.
Q. As the helicopter went out, you had no special thoughts about being at a particularly important intersection of history, did you?
I felt very very sad. That was my feeling. I'd been there so long, knew so many people, so many died. That was the all-consuming thought of mine.
Q. Did you ask yourself why it was ending this way?
Well, as it turned out it was the only possible way under the circumstances.
Q. Were the seeds of the end sown from the start?
And don't think I was smart enough to realize that initially, in '61 of course the error had been made from about '55 on when we should have been concentrating on the village and the hamlet. But there were many circumstances to excuse this. First of all, there's an army in existence, that's their purpose. The French trained them. They were trained a certain way and we didn't realize how it should be done, didn't realize we should be turning these troops around.
Then there was another thing too. Up at North Vietnam they still had the regular troops at Dien Bien Phu so you had to have two capabilities, the regular army as well as fighting the communists where they were challenging us, which was in the hamlet and village.
Q. Did you get together with the others at the fleet and have a post-combat get together?
Sure. And I started writing, making notes while it was all fresh in my mind, for want of something better to do. Otherwise we were just looking over watching helicopters come, people in boats and all that sort of thing.
Q. You went to Taiwan then, saw President Thieu and then back to Washington?
That's right. My wife and I. I went through Europe, I think. I remember going to see our son who was with the 8th Division commanded by General Mabry??? who was chief of staff and he asked me to brief his staff and his son, which I did with a quick overnight thinking about what I was going to say.
Q. What did you tell them?
Primarily what had happened, what could have happened. Of course, I was extremely dumbfounded by our Congress. That was a dominating thought. That was the dominating though all the way through the middle of '74, that they're cutting us down, that the morale of the troops and the officers was going down because we were not giving them equipment. For them to take an objective was so much more costly because they didn't have the ammunition and didn't have the artillery, didn't have the bombs. That they were still fighting effectively but everything was getting more costly. And this was causing morale problems. I remember about November, December, some Vietnamese major, I think, he said to me I should be concerned about my life. The officers are getting angry at the Americans for not providing them with the equipment.
Q. What was the difference in your view between our attitude towards Korea, where we still have troops today, and Vietnam?
Perhaps if the president had been more effective in selling what we were doing in Vietnam, the situation -- they might have supported. Suppose the Senate would not have been effective in cutting down all the aid, then suppose we gave them the aid that we had previously given to them, a billion and a half. If that had continued, I can see that the Vietnamese forces certainly would have been able to hold out much longer. Now the question you and I have is would they have eventually made it. I don't know what to say. The tenacity of the communists probably could not be offset by a less dynamic people. I'm just thinking now.
Q. You retired from the Agency when?
Right after that.
Q. Do you ever get together with the people from those days?
I do go to luncheons just to see them and have a talk. That's pleasant.
Q. Did you visit the Vietnam memorial?
The only thing I did was actually have a spade and dug -- a lot of us were asked before to dig up the ground. I haven't been back to see it. I've passed there often but I didn't walk down and look for anybody's name.
Q. You have no special feelings about it? Or are your feelings too deep to go down and look at it?
No not really. My feelings are with the Vietnamese. I was working with the Vietnamese. And when I was with the Agency I didn't have any troops under me that I was responsible for. And there were very few casualties in the Agency. When I was senior adviser, that's different. We did lose some. And that's a trauma, but that happened so long ago --
Q. What about the public today. Have you seen any of these movies, Platoon?
I haven't seen them. I love classical music, my wife and I go to the symphony and the opera and that's about it, ballet. But I haven't seen hardly any movies.
Q. Do you think about Vietnamese much anymore?
Sure. I've given quite some talks about it. But right now I'm preparing to give a talk on Normandy. So I'm thinking all about that.
Q. In retrospect to the loss of Vietnam, when we think of the lessons, people apply Vietnam to Central America.
And of course that does hardly apply. The distance from here to Vietnam, first of all, is about thirteen thousand. This is on our border. I think if the President -- I'm facetiously saying -- the President ought to take some of the military units from the various states and put them down on the Mexican Texas border and those senators that are losing all the revenue and all at he people that are complain that you are moving the units down there, that would be more akin to the danger that possibly could occur. But I'm saying if the President as Commander in Chief, took Fort Dix or what have you, and moved it down there and say the communist threat is down there, -- this is facetious of course -- but I believe that there is no comparison. I don't see how it can be, because the danger in Nicaragua where the communists are is so close to Mexico and Mexico could easily be influenced I would think. Honduras, Costa Rica. They seem quite firmly entrenched in democracy, at least their governments do now. But with a strengthening of Nicaragua they would be dominoes I would think.
Q. In Vietnam it was Laos and Cambodia and it stopped. In retrospect --
In retrospect you know the fact that it might have been wrong to send the American troops there in '65. That gave Indonesia and all those countries a chance to build up their own democracy, and maybe that's the reason there were no dominoes. With the American troops stopping the communists up until '75 this gave some of those countries a chance to recover and to realize the danger and do something about it. A possibility.
Q. Strange bedfellows Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia. I guess we can say anti-communism was built up, but hardly democracy.
Anti-communism is what I'm thinking of.
Q. Is that the way to go? We look at individuals like Cuba and wonder if things had turned out differently if we had remained in diplomatic relations if we had kept trade. If we kept a diplomatic presence in Vietnam and continued just trade -- there was no reason really for the Ambassador and for many people to leave and if we had kept a presence and kept contact, perhaps things would have been tempered.
Possibly in the very long run but not in the immediate. Because the tenaciousness of communists as we learned in Vietnam is just tremendous. Imagine those people in the tunnels. Did you know that the communist command, COSVN was directly right very close to the 25th Division, was on top of it. But to live under those conditions, that is discipline.
Q. Why do they have it and we Americans sometimes have it and sometimes not. Certainly difficult to duplicate it in other areas.
They have that firm authoritarian, from their government maybe. The Russian troops, in World War II, how they could lay out in those fields and almost freeze to death, let the Germans go over them and then spring to life. That takes devotion. That takes some kind of character.
Q. So you have respect for the enemy.
Q. Some individuals tell me that after Vietnam was lost, the real strategy in Asia never changed. The strategic losses were negligible. There was no great disaster there, no closing off of the straits of Malacca . . . The Russians came down to Cam Ranh, but so what?
Not so what? The Russians moving down, isn't there great danger that they are going to get further down and have a strong influence in the Pacific Ocean there? Which is dangerous for our navy. What is the place I'm thinking of -- Fiji. And there's one place if the navy loses the harbor rights it would have a deleterious effect. I just read that the other day.
Q. Vietnam was worth the price of money and lives? A noble cause?
Yes, I think it was a noble cause. I feel strongly that it was a noble cause.
Q. And worth a large part of your life, too.
But I'm a professional soldier, so what? That's part of my job. To be involved. You wouldn't want to be left out. It's funny, I was studying Russian, '48 to '52, Korea occurred and we were just in Germany on the third year, this is 1950. And as soon as it started I wrote back to Washington, I'd like to be relieved of being a student here and be assigned over there. They in effect said, "Keep your nose in the books and don't bother us." But I felt left out. After all, when you are a soldier you want to share with the other soldiers.
Q. The political leadership was how much of a problem? Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Ford -- did you perceive the political leadership not giving enough power to the military on the scene?
I must say that my job wasn't at that level. I was concentrating, so all that I would give you was my impressions from the newspapers. So I shouldn't waste your time.
Q. Were you there when Johnson came out?
I just missed him. I forget what happened, but I did miss Johnson. When he was the Vice-president. I remember his secretary, Juanita Roberts had a sign, "I'm a cuddler." And Johnson went by and remarked about the sign that she was a cuddler. I might have been on leave.
Q. Congressmen were constantly coming out on fact-finding tours.
And we had to entertain them an awful lot.
Q. Were they educated by the trips? Or were they a waste of taxpayer's dollars.
No, we certainly did our best to educate them. All of us did.
Q. I heard people say they would fly up to Two Corps, or I Corps, and spend a day there and come back and think they had been really close friends with generals and everything.
Q. An exercise in illusion.
Q. The lessons of Vietnam, can you put it in a couple of statements? Other than what you already said.
One thing that we thought important and might not to you is lessons learned in each bit of combat. When we are advisers again this is extremely important thing to bring to the people we are advising. What mistakes they've made in combat and try to correct them. That's not the big picture that you asked for. That's something I learned.
Q. How about the big one? I have daughters in high school who are studying Vietnam, and it seems if there are lessons they are muddled.
Lessons like the second one I mentioned. Introduction of the U.S. troops. Third, if we're fighting with an ally we shouldn't downgrade the ally. We Americans are going to take this over, you are just on security, watch the villages. Now we're in charge. That was a real mistake, I think.
Another would be to really learn the culture and the language. The language is so important. We never conquered that and that would be most difficult. Have advisers study one year six hours a day would help but probably would not be enough. I say that studying Russian at that level. Vietnamese is still just as hard.
Q. Still today the colleges have almost nobody studying Chinese, or Korean or Japanese. And one would think that these would be absolutely essential. Or Russian.
Languages, I think, certainly in Korea and Vietnam certainly were stumbling blocks.
Q. In Central America, Spanish.
They have more Spanish speakers, of course.
Q. Thank you.
(((End of interview at side A, Tape 2, ctr 431)))