1968-69 AP Staffers in Saigon, Peter Arnett, Horst Fass, chief of Bureau George McArthur(standing) and Edwin Q. White
Q. How did you get your assignment to Vietnam, when was it?
In the first place, it was not unusual in that context. I'd covered the Korean War for three years. Then I tootled off to France so I covered part of the Algerian difficulty although primarily I had a desk job there.
Then I'd roamed in and out of the Middle East and this that and the other, so I was -- this was for the AP. I was a fairly veteran and senior type for the AP. And when Vietnam really broke out, I guess in late '63 early '64, I was in Manila, bureau chief there. And they kept calling back and forth, every time somebody'd get hurt, or for this that and the other, I'd have to go over to Saigon and sit there for a week, sometimes two weeks, sometimes a month. I got tired of it. Make up your mind. Either put me in Manila or put me in Saigon, because I can't handle both jobs. The job in Manila was largely business, chasing Chinese publishers and trying to get them to pay their bills.
But the Manila bureau was literally going to hell. It needed somebody to run it. And so when I told New York, I told Wes Gallagher, you either send me to Saigon -- I don't mind, I like Saigon. It doesn't bother me. It was a demotion but I didn't care. It was covering a war and I liked covering a war. So he made the logical choice, he sent me to Saigon and sent somebody else to chase the Chinese publishers in Manila. So I ended up permanently in Vietnam in March, early of 1965.
I was there when General Frederick Karch came trooping in with the Marines. That was really the beginning. I date Vietnam from that thing in my mind. Because the marines came trooping ashore that day, and they had not been told -- the guys out on the boats -- that this would not be a combat landing. And the guys on the beach, hell DaNang was as peaceful as this room right now. Not many shootings, the usual incidents.
So the ship, they had a ramp down there, they put one of these metal ramps down the beach and the colonel in command of the landing party was supposed to come up that ramp. And they had a lot of little Vietnamese ladies there with the owl's eyes and the leis and the whole thing. General Ky, General Thuy who was the warlord of I CORPS was there. All the brass was drawn up, and at the last old Joe Freed who was the correspondent for the New York Daily News, -- you've heard of him, he was the man who made an asshole of himself at all of the briefings. But he was there talking into his little microphone and I got the whole flavor of Vietnam. The colonel missed the ramp of course. So they sent a runner down, get the colonel up here to get his decorations and whatnot. The colonel made it all right, but the colonel had a radio man who was about five foot two inches tall. He had to get a waiver to get into the marines. And he was lugging that thirty-pound PRC 25 radio through the sand. You try running in sand, that's rough.
So they came running up like a bat out of hell about fifty yards. They finally got there, the little radio man is huffing and puffing, and the colonel looks mad as hell. "My troops are out there, I've got to take care of them." The troops are having a good time.
So they went through this ceremony and this that and the other and there's that little asshole Freed talking into his microphone. And he's talking into his microphone as though this is a combat landing. You know, "grim faced marines, digging foxholes, storming across the beaches." And Joe had none of the comic atmosphere if you will. This thing was farcical and could only have been treated as a farce. You had to write it as a farce when you did the story that day.
So I got an idea that one, Joe Freed was seeing what he wanted to see. I encountered that before, and I encountered it later many times. The marines didn't have their act together. They didn't have all the balls in the air. The guys on the beach didn't know what the guy in the gizmo -- anyway, the colonel went beck to his troops. They all ran ashore, oh twenty-five, fifty, hundred yards, started digging foxholes. Right at Red Beach in DaNang, guys were out there taking a bath having a good time, and -- Well the marines got there, took up their positions around the perimeter, then they marched up a mountain two days later, and the first marine casualties were heat stroke. They didn't get shot at. They went off on this patrol up Monkey Mountain, didn't make it up to the top, had two guys collapse of heat stroke, and came back. Those were the first two marine casualties.
But the point of it all is, I consider my arrival from that date, although I had been in Vietnam by that time several weeks. That in my mind, because it's such a benchmark of what later happened in Vietnam. Both the press and the military, it's all there if you in your mind reconstruct that landing in DaNang, which was really farcical. And it wasn't at all necessary, because Lyndon Johnson's rationale was he had to have Marines up there to protect the air base. Well I was living up there at the time with half a dozen other guys, we had a nice press billet out there, right at DaNang. It was sort of Northern Headquarters for the press. And there was no danger that we were going to lose that base. There was no doubt they could have raided anytime. And they were building up in the hinterlands a little bit. But the air base at DaNang was in no real danger, but what would have happened, and I think this motivated those people, if the Viet Cong get in there and blow up twenty-five million dollar airplane, for them that's quite a success. In terms of the overall war, that doesn't mean anything.
They had done that (at Bien Hoa) and they had done it over in Thailand. Obviously they were going to do it some day at DaNang. And I think that's what they were afraid of. The idea of losing the base, or of the Viet Cong holding DaNang or seriously threatening DaNang, that was balderdash.
Q. Did you share any "Can Do" attitude of anybody at that time? Did you find a misguided overoptimism?
I don't think the optimism at that time was misguided. There was a "can do" attitude, no question about that. And the American arrogance was there. The disregard for the Vietnamese.
Q. Did you share it at the time?
I suppose I did. Because --
Q. You certainly never foresaw a disintegrating --
Like Saigon? No. That's the thing, see, I went off the roof from the embassy in Saigon ten years later. I saw the Alpha and the Omega.
Q. Were you concerned in those early days by the briefings, the five o'clock follies. What about the press corps at that time, young, as David Halberstam phrased it, and eager and better educated than ever before?
I dispute that latter. What do you mean by education? Keyes Beech, people like that, before World War II came along had been a cub reporter. He had worked on newspapers, the usual cub reporter's education, which I consider far better than the ordinary university education for the first couple of years. The reporters that I had met in Korea and World War II were better educated in my mind, than the kids who were coming out in Vietnam, because the kids coming to Vietnam might have had a little book learning, a little of this a little of that, a smattering in most cases. But gee when I came out of college I didn't consider myself educated. I didn't get educated for another ten or fifteen years.
Q. Was Bernard Fall there at that time?
Yes. Bernard Fall, Charlie Moore, -- Donovan I can't place. I can't visualize him. But Perry, of Newsweek, who later got killed. Johnny Apple was there. He was an asshole. Halberstam was there, but left shortly thereafter.
Q. Generally as good as any press corps you'd been with in Korea or Algeria?
I guess so. Yes. They were just a bunch of average reporters, and at that time, remember this was '65. Halberstam of course had always had his own peculiar vision of Vietnam. From the very beginning. And Peter Arnett was another who had his own vision, because Peter was married to a disillusioned Vietnamese -- he's not any more. So some people like that had --in retrospect they turned out to be right.
Mal Brown, his wife was Vietnamese. Peter Collins came out of it better than the others did.
You had a few people there like Halberstam with a fixed vision of the war in '65. Most of the guys didn't have that. In 1965 everybody was still more or less just an ordinary reporter, go out and tell 'em what happens, and we'll worry about it later. The idea of the "journaliste engage" had not taken hold in America, although it had in France and in Britain. But the early reporters were not the journaliste engage.
Q. Did you find it confusing, the Buddhist crisis, the Vietnamese government, the kind of archaic workings of the Vietnamese government?
Well, I had -- I don't know whether you'd call it an advantage or not, but I'd gone through three years of Korea and a lot of time in North Africa and places like that, but in Korea primarily, where we had our difficulties with Syngman Rhee. We had corrupt government. You name it and in Korea we had it. We had the riots down on the prison islands. We had mismanaged military. I took this as a matter of course. This is the way wars are run. They're fucked up. So I never had -- but a lot of the young kids had when they got out here -- a sense of outrage. You can't do this. If they didn't get a jeep to go here, or if they didn't get a helicopter to go there, they were pissed off about the whole thing.
I was astounded at the degree of physical cooperation that we got. You know the idea of going out and covering the war by day in a helicopter and being back in Saigon at night to take a shower and get a decent meal. Now that, by my lights, was an ideal way of doing business. And if I missed a chopper one day, or didn't get to where I wanted to go, okay, they got other things to do with their choppers, so fine, I missed the chopper. I wasn't happy about it, but as I say, I wasn't outraged.
Q. Did you go over to the Ia Drang Valley with the first Air Cavalry?
No, a guy named John Engel was covering that. I was up almost that entire time, because I was the low man on the totem pole, in the sense of having arrived late, I got assigned up at I CORPS in DaNang and Hue and in that area, which was hardly glamorous.
Q. Did you go through Cam Ne with Morley Safer?
No, so I can't give you any eyewitness verification.
Q. The troops, relative to the troops you'd seen in Korea, had there been a qualitative change in the marines or the U.S. military?
Well, yes. The marines were all volunteers. And statistics will bear this out. You speak of education. This was the best educated army we ever put in the field. They were almost invariably high school graduates. Not always. But the impression I got was we had the most literate army that anybody has ever put in the field. You name it.
Q. Leadership too?
The leadership I was not impressed by. And that was another thing. Remember I had my baptism of fire, so to speak, in Korea. I had been in World War II but I never got shot at. World War II was the most peaceful war I ever went through. I was in the Navy, a swab jockey. And I was on a transport, and literally, I never got shot at in three years. I felt then and feel now sort of ashamed of the whole thing. Three years of war and never get shot at is sort of hard to pull off.
Q. You never got shot at until you were a correspondent
That's right, and in Korea. But in Korea remember, a lot of the officer corps, even the young officer corps, we had captains who were called back company commanders, who had World War II experience. And they were rough on their second lieutenants and the drain on the officer corps was not as quick and as lasting as it was in Vietnam. Which is the essence of a war. Company grade officers who were good, and your company commanders primarily in Korea and everyone of your battalion commanders was a World War II vet. Not only just a World War II vet, but a vet with combat experience.
Korea was fought pretty much by a professional army. Although a lot of those guys were reservists called back, and pissed off as a result of it. But they were not green troops going out there. This is the officer corps. The ordinary GI, of course was, but he was much better trained, better led, and morale in Korea was far better as a result of those organizational things. Which is why My Lai took place. You had a really screwed up division in the Americal up there.
So you get down to Vietnam, the very first thing I noticed in Vietnam, was that the platoon leaders were by and large, were lousy. I knew a company commander out there named Mike Peck, who was a very good guy. He operated down in the Delta for a year without any commissioned officers in his company. He ran them out. He ran his whole company with non-commissioned officers. He was the only officer in that company. Because these were kids coming out of OCSs with no combat experience and getting into a very grim area without proper training, not being told anything. There weren't any handbooks around there as to how you operate in the Delta, or how you operate here -- each place had its own peculiar area. Mike ran all his officers off. He said you stay back at the battalion cp. I don't want you to endanger my troops.
That was very frequently the case. You didn't find many company commanders running off their platoon leaders. But their attitudes were quite similar. I had things happen to me down in the Delta -- I speak a little French, because I've served in France. I went out on a two company operation where they had to use me as an interpreter because nobody else was with them. Not a soul in those two companies could speak Vietnamese and we were sweeping up in there. So insofar as I could this early in the war I served as an interpreter for that bunch. If it hadn't been for me they'd have rounded up ten jillion more.
Q. What about your early assessment of the enemy?
Well, the Viet Cong, of course, at that time in '65 and this continued through '68, were probably the probably the best led and best indigenous fighters the world has ever known. They were fighting in their own country. They were southerners up until 1968, southerners to a man. They were fighting for a cause. You might not have agreed with that cause, but they were fighting for a cause. And their tactics were superb. The old hit and run, nothing new about that, but they netted -- if you read about guerrilla warfare, the Viet Cong began to make mistakes after 1968, some very serious mistakes. One of the things you do if you're really a guerrilla and you're operating light, you don't capture equipment and you don't capture people either. A fifty caliber machine gun -- the Viet Cong's eyes would almost roll back when they saw a fifty caliber machine gun. They wouldn't capture it. They would destroy it. If they couldn't destroy it they'd leave it. They wouldn't come in and pick up loot, or military equipment like that if it didn't fit in with their commander's idea of "move fast, hit hard, and get the hell out." They just didn't make mistakes like that. You could see evidence of it everywhere. They didn't leave bodies in the field. That was very rare. That's why the body counts got so screwed up out there in the eyes of the military. They knew they'd killed a couple of guys. You'd see the blood trails. They weren't panicked in combat all the time. But when they got in a fire fight, .... unclear 256 ctr ... they'd go out after the fire fight and there'd be nothing there. The platoon commander, or the company commander, he's got to report himself some body count. And frequently he did. And the body count in my opinion was not false. But the idea is, he couldn't produce any bodies. Because part of the Viet Cong modus operandi, they moved in an moved out, took care of their own.
And that was another thing just like the marines, you take care of your wounded. No matter how rough it is, you get them out of there. And the Viet Cong did all of those things by the book. It was obvious they had superb field level commanders. That's about all you could tell from the other side. I don't think in ten years in Vietnam, that in a guerrilla situation down in the Delta, or places like that, that I ever to my knowledge or provably shall we say, laid eyes on a Viet Cong. When you'd get up in Hue where the fighting later in the war was organized, you'd see the occasional enemy soldier. Down in the Delta, where I operated a good bit of the time, I don't think I ever laid eyes on a Viet Cong in a combat mode. I knew some of those guys I was seeing walking in the rice paddies as ordinary farmers, I knew that they were Viet Cong. I couldn't prove it, nobody could arrest them. But what I'm saying, in a battle situation you just didn't see those little bastards unless you were right in the dugout, which I was not going to be as a correspondent. Most GIs very seldom saw a Viet Cong in that day and age.
Q. But you thought the army and marines had the capability however, of dealing with that type of insurgency militarily, I guess.
Q. What about the NVA, the regular NVA and their capabilities.
Once again, you had a different situation. In l968 in Tet we wiped out most of the indigenous Viet Cong. So from 1968 on the enemy leadership was almost totally not only North Vietnamese in terms of its motivation, but North Vietnamese in terms of the ethnic guy on the spot. And there was a very noticeable change in the way that Hanoi was fighting the war. They were using big units, battalion size or better. They were using communications. They would get themselves trapped because they would try and take equipment that they couldn't really use, twenty millimeter cannon, armed personnel carrier -- they tried to lug that stuff off and all it did was burden them down. They couldn't use that shit. It was like the most valued item for them to capture was an American officer's 45 pistol. When you captured a Viet Cong with a 45 pistol you knew he was a ranking officer. That was their badge. The NVA -- I'm really not qualified except in a very general sense to comment on the leadership, but I can tell you a story that reflects more on that leadership than anything else. And this had to do with the Ia Drang battle and how -- you know Wilfred Burchett. He was communist to the core, but I had been friendly with Wilfred. We were very good friends ever since the days of Korea when he used to come down from the north at Pan Mun Jom. to cover the peace talks, and we'd come up from the south. There were two attitudes toward the communist correspondents. Some of the guys wouldn't even speak to them. Other of us would fraternize, if you will, and pick up what we could. I belonged to the latter group and became friendly with Wilfred and it paid me back many times over the years. He gave me a lot of stories over the years. And the funny thing about him is, he would never tell you anything that provably was untrue. If Wilfred told you something, you'd know either it was true, or you're damn well never going to prove it untrue. Those were his parameters.
So after the Ia Drang battle I happened to be over at Phnom Penh covering something and Wilfred was stationed over there, and he of course had the best relationship. So we're out drinking one night, went out with his wife and got boozed up, as we figured we did as both of us were given to the sauce, and so we were talking about Ia Drang and Wilfred -- I said, "Well the body count was so and so, we killed so many and Carpenter was a hero, the helicopter had proved its ability in jungle warfare in moving troops from A to B with great speed, and so forth." And Wilfred conceded all of that to be absolutely true, but he said what Giap had done in Ia Drang, and if you will remember this period of the war when they were beginning to send in big units and we were beginning to send in big units, and it was a situation on both sides where you had to sort of make up your tactics as you went along, and test the other side to see what they were capable of.
Wilfred said what Giap wanted to know was to find out if big units, meaning battalions and regiments could operate under absolute under absolute total American air superiority, helicopters, and what it would cost them to do so. He squandered roughly about four regiments up in the Ia Drang, but he found out what he wanted to know, that he could do it, he could maintain his communications, and he could inflict heavy losses on the Americans. So from Hanoi's point of view, Ia Drang was a victory for them. They had learned what they wanted to learn. They learned they could operate under a blanket of American helicopters.
Q. But with extremely heavy casualties, and it didn't bother them.
Casualties never bothered Hanoi. Casual population doesn't bother them today. They've got too many. They had too many then. So losing people was never of any concern. Losing trained people, sure that was always of some concern to the people up north, but losing cannon fodder, they had it and they were willing to use it. And quite cynically and callously in the Ia Drang they used it. My recollection is that they lost four regiments up there. And Wilfred did not deny this over in Phnom Penh during our boozy conversation. They took horrendous casualties. Of course Wilfred would never give me a figure or anything like that, because we didn't talk like that. But he conceded the fact that yes, the carnage had been absolutely terrifying. But no matter, they had found out what they wanted to know.
Q. Did you see progress in '65 - 68' up until Tet? As the buildup of war correspondents came also?
Q. Was there a change in the press corps as it became crowded?
Well I think the peak was about fourteen hundred. But a lot of those were geeks, and hangers on and anybody and everybody who came out there. All you had to do was present a letter from any newspaper anywhere in the world and you could be accredited as a free lancer. So all these guys, -- and the left wing, they would invent organizations, sometimes they didn't have to invent them. The Indochina Resources Center, I think Pacifica Press was one. If you had graduated from UCLA, hell if you had matriculated or even passed by the school, you could go out to Saigon and get yourself technically a job with Pacifica News Service. They'd write you the letter and you'd go down and get your accreditation, which entitled you to whatever a quote "bonafide" correspondent was getting, because the army in its beautiful wisdom was not going to get into that fight of sorting out who was and who was not a correspondent. They were very pissed off about this, understand. They didn't like it, but they considered there was nothing they could do about it. If the "Press", that peculiar entity said that this guy was a journalist, he was a journalist. So they'd give him the necessary cards, he could go to the PX -- you'll excuse me, I don't want to use any names, because some of the young kids were very nice young kids. There were kids who came out there, stayed high for eighteen months, made a living at the PX where for all practical purposes you could buy a carton of cigarettes, swap that for a good bit out there, the black market flourished. A kid using his PX connections could subsist in Saigon. And Saigon at that time, marijuana was, and to this day is, I'm sure, so plentiful that it was like buying cigarettes from a machine. And for those kids, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old, this was one long high. And in addition to being high, they were being moral. Good god, that's almost as good as sex.
Q. Did they write? Was it published?
They would write. As I say, Pacifica News Service. There was a great left wing underground, semi-underground press and it was absorbing all this material. These kids never got paid for it, because this stuff never generated anything. It was not really that good. And in point of actual fact, they never even turned up any stories. I mean, My Lai was laying there to be picked up for years. And this vast coterie of young kids, of radical left wingers -- they were not newsmen in that sense.
Q. What about this as the first television war? Your impression of the tv crews that first arrived out there? They were there fairly early. Walter Cronkite was there in '65, and then the other ones came along.
Yeah, they all got their ticket punched out there. And for most of them that's what it shaped up as.
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Q. . . . that's what television people say.
Well, that's what television people say. And what people did, they got their impressions from television. Such news as they got they got from the printed word. But television guys will tell you this, their phrase was they go out for the "boom booms". Most of them would come out there three months, six months, the good ones -- and some of the bad ones -- would come back for a tour say three months later. They'd go off and rest up from the horrors of the war and then come back. But most of the tv guys out there, the guys out in the field, and I'll give them credit for this, they were taking chances that a print journalist wouldn't take because he didn't have to take. I don't have to stand up with a ball point in my hands and impress my readers. They do. They've got to have something in the background. Well, usually you can get something in the background that's fairly safe, but occasionally you can't. Artillery's always going off in a war, so you get yourself properly positioned and the background looks fairly ferocious. But they did take an awful lot of chances, but they went for the boom boom. And when you've got a determined young man whose career is on the line out to get boom booms, he's going to get them for you.
You spoke of the Buddhist crisis. I'll give you a perfect example of the boom booms and this type of reporting. We're out at the pagoda -- I can't even remember the name of the pagoda -- during one of the Buddhist crises, because there were about six. And the police had teargassed the joint and the Buddhist had left, and then they formed up again with a lot of street kids and they were marching down the street and they were heading down toward the palace, which was about a mile away. I ran over on a side street because I wanted to get ahead of the procession. I got on a side street parallel to the main street roughly a hundred yards away, and I was so fascinated I said, I'll do this as a story. I walked that side street all the way while the procession was going on a hundred yards away. There were Vietnamese leading their daily lives, doing the cooking, repairing bicycles, paddling the kids, washing their laundry. It was as though that thing a hundred yards away was not transpiring. And that side street personified -- symbolized -- the rest of Saigon, a city of about three million people, of whom maybe say five thousand were wrapped up in the events on that little street and the other two million or so were leading their daily lives. And that is pretty much what went on in Vietnam for ten years. The reporting back here was the boom booms. The boom booms almost never -- I mean the Tet offensive, and the second mini-Tet, and a few other things up in the north in the invasion zone, that took place in the '72, '73 year -- that would sometimes tie up the whole nation, attract the attention of the whole nation. All those varying periods would take up say six months of time in a ten year period. The other nine years and six months most people were like us considering the current political campaign in the United States. It's not really important right now. It might be important next month, or more likely eight months from now, but can I tick off the democratic candidates? Do I want to? No.
In Saigon a war is going on but it doesn't affect me right now at this precise moment. It might next month, and when it does I'll pay attention to it, but not until then. And that is the way most Vietnamese lived. You can't live ten years at war. That doesn't happen.
Also there's another aspect of this about the television. People say that America was impressed because the war was brought into their living rooms. My contention is precisely the contrary. I assure you that if war was brought into your living room every night for ten years, you'd do something about it. You would not accept war in your living room every night for ten years. Until you've heard those things going off, boom, boom, boom, and the smell and the stink and all of that, you don't have any impression of what war is like. You couldn't get it from a television machine. It won't even approach the decibel count of a fire fight. And then you get a real battle going on and that thing would -- phhewww. And then you get the smell, the blood dripping down. You can't get your hands dirty on that thing. That's my feeling. What television was bringing into America was a vicarious mini-circus which was obviously bad, but had no relation to war, because if it had a relation to war, America would have waked up. You don't sit in your living room and watch a war. You sit in your living room and watch theater. And that's what America saw for ten years, was theater. As concocted by these young kids on three month jaunts, with never any depth to it, never any meaning to it, never any correlation with even American policy world-wide, and this that and the other.
And then of course you compound that by the stupidity of your leadership in Washington and elsewhere and the ordinary bungling of war, which, as I say, I was conditioned to as any GI is conditioned. The fact that things are fucked up is not going to really upset you. But you combine all those factors and all of them are very serious factors in this war, and what do you get back here, a feeling of disgust more than anything else. That was my impression. I was over there, not here. And I'm sort of glad of that. But it gave me a view of the war that's totally different from anybody's back here, because I saw a war. There's never any mistake in my mind that that was a war.
Q. A winnable war?
A winnable war, yes. In point of fact, old Vietnam hands get together and kick this one around. It's now generally conceded that we won in 1968 and I went touring the Delta after -- I was in Hue doing the whole hoop-de-do in Tet.
Q. So did you break the story on the 3,000 people who --
I did. The New York Times wouldn't even run my byline.
Q. Tell me about that, what happened?
They ran the story, the New York Times did, but my recollection is it was buried on an inside page. I then still working for the AP and they ran it without the byline. But I was the first one to -- I went up to Hue -- once again, it's very easy to do. Because I was in Korea I had a different attitude towards the military than a lot of the guys did. They were so openly critical. And I make no bones about the fact that I was, am, and will remain anti-communist. I don't like the communists, period, paragraph. And so I was prepared to see things that they weren't prepared to see. And when I got up into Hue -- I was actually up in Khe Sanh when it started and I flew down and got into Hue real quick. I had known from my own reading and knowledge of the area what was going on up there politically speaking. This was a situation that the communists were not going to pass up.
So I started going around interviewing people and it very quickly became apparent they had gone -- the Viet Cong -- had gone from door to door, usually the man had a clipboard, usually he had brief dossiers on people who were in certain houses. They were prepared, district by district in Hue, to go and search for certain people. And I quickly found that out. I got two old Catholic priests up there, an American diplomat who had hidden out, so at the end of about six days I had enough put together of what they were doing to these people, taking them off, shooting them. Actual eyewitnesses to executions, stuff like that. Don't misunderstand me. I didn't have the definitive story, but I had the story about massacres in Hue, I knew that the massacres had taken place, I knew that the Secret Police had come in and had really finetooth-combed that portion of the city they controlled, which was almost all of it, and had carted off literally thousands of people. They never reappeared, and the mass graves, in the sense they found them later -- I had one grave with about three hundred people in it. That's my recollection.
Q. Did the editors back here believe you?
They did. I'll show you some things over here. These are bound volumes of study papers that we did. They're primarily communists documents themselves and we published those things periodically, USIS did. The Americans would put this out as handouts -- they didn't handle it too well -- but I'm a voracious reader anyhow. I read every one of those things.
One, as I say, I'm anti-communist, and if you're anti anything, the primary rule is to know your enemy. So I was prepared for that kind of thing. It's like, I read Mein Kampf before World War II also. That's just the way I am. Most of the correspondents who went out there, they totally ignored that. They wouldn't be caught dead reading that stuff. But they didn't want to know. They had their mind set and to them the Viet Cong conformed to certain ideals and whatnot, and the idea that that group of people could have an absolutely fatal flaw -- which to my mind they did -- which came out after the war, that didn't occur to most of the correspondents. So when they would encounter something like this, they didn't know how to handle it.
Now back in the United States it was even worse. So the story of the Hue massacres, it practically had to be sold over a period of time, and to this day it's not accepted. The idea, shall we say, that the Hue massacres overshadow My Lai, when in my mind, the Hue massacres were done systematically by an evil system. They went in there to literally slay their enemies in cold blood. In its worst construction, My Lai is not like that. My Lai is a bunch of incompetent troops who lost their heads. It had no reflection whatsoever on the political leadership of the United States although it says a great deal about the flaws in the leadership in the U. S. Military, because they promoted this guy -- the guy that went off and was commandant at West Point. That ought to say something about the American military too. The man who was the divisional commander at the time of My Lai. This was when they engaged in the cover up, which in my mind was more atrocious than the atrocity. I can understand green kids under a bad company commander going ape shit. People go ape shit in a war, I've seen that happen too many times. I've shit in my pants myself. You understand that kind of thing. You might not like it, but the crime of My Lai was the cover up engaged in by the U.S. Army.
And General Dean, who pretty well uncovered the cover up, his career was ruined as a result. That says something about the American army.
Q. George, was there a point --
You asked me if we could win or lose. In 1968 after Tet we won in the South, but the military will tell you this, you have to reinforce victory. If you don't reinforce victory it goes right through your hands. We did not reinforce victory. Westmoreland, you'll excuse me, was a very nice fellow, but he was a boy scout, he was a by-the-book soldier, and although I liked the man personally -- I don't admire him, but I like him personally -- he didn't know what the hell was going on out there. He never did, really. He fought a good war by his lights, he was an honorable man. But that doesn't alter the fact that he didn't know what was going on, and to this day he doesn't know that he didn't. I've talked to him from time to time. I'm polite to him, and I like him, and I've got an inscribed copy of his report over there, autographed. But he didn't know what was going on.
In addition to that he had to work through the South Vietnamese military. If we had gotten off our ass after TET the Viet Cong would have been eliminated in the Delta area, but we sat on our ass for two months, and they sat out there in the jungle in wonderment that we were leaving them alone. At the end of two months, being, as I say, a very competent people, they had rebuilt their structure. NVA fillers were coming into the Delta. So in two months they had a military structure back in business. If we had moved out and the South Vietnamese had moved out, -- the South Vietnamese were in a state of shock. They weren't going to move out. They were safe. They had lived through it and actually they had won a victory, so they were drinking an awful lot of beer and having a good time.
But you could drive roads in the Delta at the end of TET that you would not have dared to drive six weeks before. And I drove all the way from Saigon down to Mi Tho and over to Ken Tho??? in a jeep. Absolutely untouched, unthreatened by anybody.
So we let that victory just fritter away.
Q. It sounds like there was a lack of definition of mission.
Well, that's precisely it. If you don't have a mission in any particular sense, then your mission is to survive. Military commanders are pretty good on that one and surviving doesn't necessarily mean taking the fight to the enemy. If not so much a mission, there was no philosophy. The philosophy out there, insofar as there was a philosophy, if you are in the field against an armed enemy, then your goal is to destroy that man's fighting capability. And you don't rest until you've done so. You don't declare little pauses and recesses. You go out and fight until you've destroyed his military ability to destroy you. But that philosophy was doubtless known to Westmoreland, he'd gone to West Point. But he'd been so institutionalized by the time he got his fourth star, and remember out there you were fighting a war in every province that had an individual character to it. It required two things, one of which Westmoreland had to have that concept and he had to work at it twenty-four hours a day. He had to fight -- it was like playing multi-dimensional chess. And Westy is not a multi-dimensional man. He just can't handle it. He could handle the supplies; he could handle the logistics; he could handle body count; and a war of attrition, and this that and the other, but ask him to make a rug out of all the varying threads is to ask more than the man is capable of doing.
Q. Then he was replaced by Abrams -- what about Abrams?
Abrams was in my mind, was the best general that I have ever known. He was a superb man. But Abrams, was also, unfortunately for him, probably one of the smartest four star generals we ever had, and by the time Abrams took over, he knew that the opportunity for a military victory had probably gone. I say he knew that, I deduced that he knew that, but he would never confess it to me, although he's confessed a great deal to me. He took over and he started waging the individual fights. Fred Weyand who followed him was then his deputy, and Fred Weyand also was an up-from-the-ranks general, and they knew that America was not going to sustain the losses that would have then been required. Abrams very first act, and this is something that reflects on his capacity as a commander in a negative way, but not as a human being, but his very first order was to Fred Weyand. There was a fight going on in the outskirts of Saigon at that time and Fred Weyand in compliance with Westmoreland's directive was getting ready to storm the area and take it and get them out of there. Abrams countermanded -- Abrams took over at noon, and within the hour had Weyand on the phone and countermanded that order. He said go in there slow and easy and save the kids. In other words, don't take casualties.
Well, when your four-star commander out there, his philosophy has become "don't take casualties", you have a man who is being guided, excuse me, by negative principles. Commendable as it is, to save people's lives, winning the war is what you are after. And that was what displayed to me that Abrams from that point on was no longer dedicated to "winning the war". And certainly not by the tactics that Westmoreland had employed. He stopped a lot of this search and destroy stuff. He concentrated on pacification, and once again, by late 1971 and early '72, which is one reason they went to the peace table -- we had the war won again. At that point it was so costly for the North Vietnamese to operate in the South, the air power was hurting them so much on the trail and it's popular nowadays to sneer at air power on the trail, but that's not true. And the B52s were sometimes monumentally effective. Whole regiments would disappear from the order of battle up in Hanoi and they knew that a B52 had gotten them. So in 1972 we had it once again -- we had won the war.
Vietnamization would have worked but it required, and historians will argue, but it required a will on our part to continue to support the South Vietnamese. That will was obviously lacking. It required on the part of the Vietnamese an organizational governmental structure that at least made some sense back here in Washington. Bui Deim will tell you now, in retrospect, he questions whether the Vietnamese were ever capable of creating that entity under the circumstances. But what Bui Diem will not question, what no Vietnamese will question in my opinion, if we had continued to give them the arms, the ammunition, that war would have still been going on. Those were very funny people. They didn't sustain the casualty rates they did for ten years by not having any idea what they wanted. They had a pretty good idea of what they wanted, and what they wanted was for those assholes to go home. They were incapable of bringing that about, but they didn't want those assholes down there. Even the French agreed that popular opinion by 1972, '73 was overwhelming pro-nationalist, pro-American if you will. But in Saigon itself and among the Buddhists, that small segment of the population, the communists were able to exploit that in what must be credited to be a masterful fashion. Every time we'd win something on the ground they'd take it away on the other field.
You get yourself into a philosophical battle there on how can you win under those circumstances and then you have to accept a certain number of givens which are not necessarily there. But when people say the war couldn't be won, bullshit. Curt LeMay would have won it. He would have won it in a way that I found unacceptable, but he would have won it. Theoretically that war was winnable in ten jillion different ways. But we didn't.
Q. What about the Press demoralizing the public, or preparing the public to be demoralized -- did the Press prepare the ground for not accepting the necessary casualties ?
I don't think there's any doubt about it. And you've been to the Vietnam memorial. I don't know whether you've noticed, but you know that the names are up there in chronological fashion and when you walk down into that pit and you get right at the angle you are in an area in space and time when we were losing 500 kids a week. And that's where that memorial -- I weep when I go down there, I can't stand it, to walk into the depths of that war??(wall??) and you can see casualties going up, casualties going down. I don't know how I got started on that, but when you realize that America was losing five hundred kids a week, well, that's pretty grim stuff you're talking about.
With that to work with, you can argue, did the Press prepare America for 500, for the price? No. Once again, anecdotal evidence. The New York Times sends Gloria Emerson to Vietnam as a "correspondent". She had a press card just like mine. And for one year Gloria Emerson writes for the New York Times, and her stories are never labeled opinion, editorial, you name it. For one year she systematically sets out to denigrate anything and everything South Vietnamese. She never found a single thing in Vietnam which she liked. Nothing. She never found anything that was going well. She never liked a single South Vietnamese military officer. She never liked a single American military officer. She never found anything out there of which she approved. You go back and read one year of Gloria Emerson. And she was presented as a correspondent. This was not labeled. This is not Tom Paine the pamphleteer. This is Gloria Emerson the correspondent for the New York Times.
Go speak to Joe Treaster who was a fairly reasonable man at the time, and trying to report stories in which there was an occasional good thing. Gloria Emerson's career flourished, Joe Treaster's career languished. He was with the New York Times. Gloria Emerson is my favorite example of preparing the American public for this. Well, that kind of stuff, in New York, it has its effect. My point is that Gloria Emerson's one year coverage of Vietnam, from her point of view, was accurate. But I'm damned if I want that kind of history taught to my kid. And if you consider as Creighton ?? Abrams, as journalism as instant history, I don't want that instant history to be taught to the American public. I find it objectionable.
Q. What about the correspondents who went to the North, Mary McCarthy, Harrison Salisbury -- were they mistaken in that? Would you have liked to have gone North yourself?
The likelihood of my being invited was so remote that -- of course I would have gone and delighted in it -- but the likelihood was so remote as to -- Wilfred Burchett was the man who got visas into the North for everybody. If you wanted to get a visa into the North go see Wilfrd Burchett. Wilfred Burchett and I are the best of boozing pals, and I mentioned going to the north and Wilfred laughed. It was not something we seriously discussed, because we knew that I was not going. He was going to stop me.
Because we talked communism, anti-communism, all the time. And we were up front with our biases, prejudices, beliefs, or what-have-you. And Wilfred would have shot me down the very minute I filed the application, and said so. It was ludicrous to think about it. Furthermore Wilfred vetted every one of those guys that went in. Harrison Salisbury, sure, I think I'd let him in. I'm not going to pass judgement on Harrison Salisbury, but if I'd been in Wilfred's position, letting correspondents in, I want to accomplish certain purposes, I would let them in. And I'm sure that for the North Vietnamese, they accomplished the purposes that they were sent in for, which I think in retrospect, in my opinion, was simply to show that those people up there are not ogres.
(((End of side b, Tape 1. ))))
((begin tape 2, side a)))
. . . if you'll read those volumes back there, they have always been and are today, amazingly candid about their own shortcomings in a bureaucratic sense. You can do anything up there so long as you don't blame the vanguard party for it. But their self-criticism has always been reasonably accurate and often very pointed. So why are the Vietnamese likely to fear something from us? We send correspondents up there, they say well you know their economic policies don't make much sense, and so on, but that's bland poppycock to those people up there. It doesn't bother them at all. It's not even as bad as their saying about themselves in their own papers.
Q. What about people going to the other side -- Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden. Animosity still -- that hadn't happened in Korea, or before --
Well, it happened in one sense in Korea. You remember there were twenty-one Americans who would not come back, and I happened to be in a fortunate position of interviewing all twenty-one, because I was friendly with Wilfred and he set it up. That was the kind of benefit you got. It would serve his purpose, and it served my purpose. So I interviewed all those twenty-one.
But you know about Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. I know Tom Hayden. Tom Hayden is a slave dealer, and I'll say it in public and to his face.
Q. In what degree?
I went over -- where I first met Tom Hayden, once again Wilfred was mixed up in that -- they had arranged the return of three or two captured Americans, and Tom Hayden had set it up back here. I've forgotten what the propaganda ploy of the moment was, but Tom Hayden showed up at Phnom Penh to majordomo this affair and to get maximum press coverage out of it. He would appear down at the Hotel Royale and have his little miniature press conferences and this that and the other. And as I say, he was literally selling those three GIs. If that's not a slave trader, I don't know what it. He was dealing in bodies.
But he was also staying with Wilfred Burchett, and I'm nothing if not a competent correspondent, excuse me for blowing my own horn, so I got to know Tom Hayden. Tom Hayden had to borrow a suit from Wilfred. It didn't fit him very well. Because he'd come out in such a hurry from New York --
I covered that thing throughout, and once again, there was a little press conference at the end, and it was restricted to oh, a half a dozen of us who had had our noses up Wilfred's ass for years and he was paying back old friends. And one of the high points of my career--six of us had the staged press conference -- he knew I was going to write it was rigged, but he didn't care. They were getting the mileage. He had that press conference. It went on for about an hour. And I came out of there, --it was held in a little villa in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and I came running out where I had my care outside, I was heading off to the cable office with My typewriter. I was filing sort of on the way. And all the other correspondents standing outside, and there's Stanley Karnow whom I've known and had mixed feelings about for many years. And Stan is yelling, "What did they say?" And I said, "Fuck you." And ran for the cable office.
But anyhow, that was my first experience with Tom Hayden. In 1969 I went to work for the L.A. Times, and Tom Hayden used to call the Times at least once a week and speak to the boss and try to get him to fire me. And he called all the executives in the Times, trying to get them to fire me. To no avail, obviously.
Q.. Was there a point at which you changed about the way this thing was going to end? Was the Paris Agreement pivotal for you?
No, it was before the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement cemented it in my mind that it was down the tubes then. I think that I made up my mind -- it was about that time. I say I made up my mind -- I never made up my mind. I was up and down depending on the evidence of the day at any given moment as to whether it could or could not be done. I always felt that it would be nice if we could pull it off because there were about twenty-five million people there that, as I say, didn't want the bad folks to come trooping down and impose upon them a government they didn't want. I just decided we didn't have the will and a lot of this came from General Murray. General Murray had a lot to do with my own thinking because I was on very good terms with Murray and he was telling me about the ammunition and how things were going, and it was going very badly. I then came to the conclusion, which I sort of held until the end at that point. That, all right, if we're not going to pull it off, then let's get the hell out of here totally, and in toto. Because at that point it became sinful. You're simply killing more people and you're not accomplishing anything.
I felt up until about 1972, I can't pin it down exactly, that something might be accomplished, that a southern entity outside of the Hanoi orbit might be maintained. And you didn't find anybody in a position of responsibility in Saigon outside of ideologues like Graham Martin--he might give you his grand scheme for the war -- ordinary people thought of it in terms like I've just enunciated, that we're trying to salvage something out of this horrendous wreck and the only thing that was salvageable would be some kind of entity that would allow these people to flourish, and some kind of a free enterprise society, because they are a tremendously industrious people. They don't fit into anybody's mold. The southerners are totally unlike the northerners.
And you couldn't write that during the war either. If you wrote that there was an ethnic difference in Vietnam itself, you were laughed out of town in Washington. The French were much more sophisticated about this. They knew it. They knew that the northerners had certain characteristics and the southerners had certain characteristics and part of my current belief, and my belief then, and I came to the conclusion as Ambassador M. . . ?? the French Ambassador at that time, who was one of the more perspicacious men, that the northerners are going to find the south indigestible. And that is precisely what has happened. No matter, they still cannot refrain from supping the forbidden fruit. But the North is not going to digest the South. It's just not going to happen.
In the Christian Science Monitor there was an interview with the editor of Hanoi's intellectual journal, and the upshot, the thrust of that -- there's a very knowledgeable man, speaking very candidly, says it's going to take another fifteen years to get their act in order. Remember that's a North Vietnamese saying that, not George McArthur. What he's saying is, we've got a severe case of indigestion now, and I don't see it going away.
One thing I did--I think everybody did at the time, sort of felt like I did--that having given up hope, and a lot of the Vietnamese gave up hope too, but not all of them by any matter of means, but I felt the North would be a little bit more understanding when it came down, because there was a feeling in Saigon at the time among those who stayed, "All right, we gave it our best shot, and we lost. Now let's see what we can do to build the country and to get over this. And if we're going to have to put up with these asshole communists we'll do it. We'll take orders, we'll do whatever they please, if they're just reasonable men in any shape, form or degree." The South was ready, almost to a man, to cooperate with any kind of reasonable occupation. And the North squandered that opportunity for stupid ideological reasons. They felt they had to engage in a certain amount of education, this that and the other. They took off more of their friends than their enemies.
Q. The period after the Paris Agreement --
Yeah, I stayed to '75. The final night on the choppers.
Q. When did you find you might be packing your bags soon.
I'd have to go back and review the series of those battles. But I think it had to take place shortly after Ban Me Thuot.
Q. You were still flying around the country at that time?
Oh, yes. I wouldn't have lived there for ten years if I felt my life was in imminent danger. You accept a certain amount of hazard but I was a fairly cagey old goat by then, I knew how to take care of myself, and I avoided getting into a pitched battle with the North Vietnamese. I never saw much point in that.
Q. Did you go up to Kan Thu?? and Pleiku and look at the forces there?
I've been in Kontum. I've been in Pleiku. I don't think I was there during that period.
Q. I was just wondering if you agreed with Murray's assessment that they were getting in supply difficulty.
I knew they were in tremendous supply difficulty at that time. And I knew that from -- one of my great and good friends was Pete Kama-- he was up there at that time as an adviser. Pete Kama is not, shall we say, the brightest guy that ever came walking down the road, but Pete Cama's got street smarts. And when it came to the military, he could just look around and tell you whether it's good or bad. You didn't have to have a long drawn out conversation with Pete Kama. You say, "Pete, how's it going?" He says, "Bad." Fine. You didn't need to know any more. Pete said it was bad.
I had a lot of friends out there, not as good a Pete, because the "Pineapple", he was a very rare person. But I talked to people like that all the time. You knew it was bad. And then I was on excellent terms with General Murray and that had to enter into my thinking. So I can't say after this battle or that battle, but when it began to crumble in the highlands --
Q. Did you go up to cover the trail of tears?
No, I did not. If you'll excuse me, I don't have to cover a retreat. I knew it was taking place.
Q. Did you fly up to DaNang or Hue?
Yeah, I flew up to DaNang. I flew up to Hue in that period. But when the final collapse started up, I was back and forth and all over the country.
Q. Was there danger?
Well, once again, your timing had to be good. And that's something that-- you had to be sort of a baseball player. You get in and get out. If you get out twenty-four hours before the place collapses, your timing is good. My timing was always superb.
Q. What did you think of the way the Embassy was handling things at that time? Was the ambassador on top of things, acquitting himself well?
??Unclear oh, yes.
Q. Let's go back to the Congressional delegation.
Millicent Fenwick -- I had a ruptured ulcer at the same time, because of Bella Abzug. I was over in Phnom Penh and this was -- boy I cut my timing about as sharp as it could be. The day they were in Phnom Penh was the day the last civilian aircraft left Phnom Penh. They had a military aircraft down at one end of the field and this was Bella and Phil Habib, McCloskey, Millicent with her pipe, that whole bunch. They were over there. That place was well down the tubes.
But I went out to the airport to catch my plane and the damn thing had been cancelled. In addition to cancelling the plane, me and my driver got rocketed on the way out there, so I wasn't in any good mood. But I went back into that back corner of the field where I knew the C47s were. Phil Habib is an old friend of mine, so I said, Phil I've got to have a ride on that plane to get back to Saigon. So he says, Okay, we've got plenty of room. So I clambered aboard the plane and I was sitting right behind Bella Abzug, and I forgot who the Washington Post guy was, but Bella, the Washington Post guy, and two or three other guys -- it's only a fifty minute flight back to Saigon, and they were saying things up there -- I didn't join in the conversation at all. But they were so shallow and vapid, and had nothing to do with what was going on over in Phnom Penh. There was no doubt that they were right that the place was going down the tubes, but it made me so mad when I came back and filed my story. That night I had a ruptured ulcer. I went around to a friend's house with Eva and had a drink and keeled over. And I'd lived with that ulcer for twenty years. So that night it got me. And I always blame it on Bella Abzug. Perhaps I'm being uncharitable.
Q. You said the Ambassador was acquitting himself well?
Oh, no. To the contrary. Remember also, if you look into this, at the time the final offensive began, Graham Martin was back in the United States, and my wife Eva was his secretary. She won't talk to you, incidentally. She's never talked to anybody. But they had the -- Graham Martin, --this is backtracking a little bit -- he and I got to be friendly enemies, and we're still friendly enemies. I saw him in North Carolina about six weeks ago. Went down there and spent the night with him. But the night before he left for the states, he said there is no way that South Vietnam can be defeated militarily. And although I phrased it more politely I told him he was full of shit.
Having left me with that pearl of wisdom, he then departed for the United States. He was gone for about four weeks, is my recollection. Didn't even leave word where he was. Washington is trying to find him. Eva's calling all over Carolina from Saigon trying to locate him. So he comes back and DaNang is in the process of collapse at that time. Graham's first reaction to anything is, "I'll go there and I'll personally lead the troops." He would be the worst troop leader the world has ever known. But his first reaction was to get up to DaNang. I want to go up to DaNang, I'll bring order. And he was argued out of that by the calmer heads in the embassy.
A half a dozen other times he wanted to do that. The final day when the whole knows that Tan Son Nhut has been blown to shit, he's got to get in his limousine and go ride the runway out there, serving no purpose whatsoever, but he had to report to the President, "I've seen the runway and it's unusable." I could have told him that from five miles away. The god damn rocketing jolted me out of bed that night. You didn't listen to that without knowing precisely what is going on, if you've been around it. And Graham knew, but he had to grandstand. So he comes back right in the middle of that shit.
In retrospect I'm inclined to agree with part of it. He said we, the Americans, couldn't give the impression that they were bugging out. So he gave everybody orders, disregarded politely in many instances, that they were not to ship their goods out. They were not to do a damn thing. So life at the embassy maintained its regular pace. ANd I'll say one thing for Graham. He lost ever damn thing that he owned. His wedding pictures, things like that, silver frames -- you know the stuff, you go into an ambassadors house and all those pictures of him and Harry J. Horseshit, signed "to my dear friend Graham." All of that was gone. Everything that Graham had in terms of momentos. I'm positive.
Q. General Vaughn told me he brought that stuff out, that Fred Weyand brought that stuff out.
Fred Weyand wasn't there at the time. He was out on that study trip. Well, he could have taken some things out.
Q. The reason is upset Vaughn was because Vaughn's housekeeper came to him and said are the Americans leaving? And Vaughn was trying to keep the position that we weren't so nobody would panic. The housekeeper said the Martin's housekeeper said that General Weyand had brought back a lot of the valuables and momentos of the Martins.
That's not true. I mean, he may have brought back a pearl necklace, a wedding ring, or something like that, because I'm in their house. I've been in their house ten thousand times and you don't see any of those things. In fact, we've chatted about this same subject with Dorothy, not Graham. Dorothy always beats me around the ears. We didn't get out a goddamn thing. If you know Graham's wife -- Graham's a devious son of a bitch -- his wife Dorothy is one of the sweetest nicest ladies you'll ever know, who's hardly capable of an untruth. She'll just blab it out. And if they had gotten anything out -- I brought their goddamn dog out.
They may have gotten the odd one. In their house in North Carolina you see no evidence of it. Dorothy beats my ear about it all the time. And Graham is just sitting there looking glum as he always does. So the likelihood they got out anything of significance in my mind is remote. He may have gotten out some stock certificates, something like that.
Q. It could all be just a rumor too, because it was the housekeeper talking.
Q. Tell me about your leaving. You watched the North coming closer and closer. You depended on the embassy to get you out. I know when I interviewed Colonel Madison, he said that one of the problems was that the embassy was not responsible for the press corps, getting them out safely.
Well, that's not true.
Q. Well, legal responsibility for getting them out.
Well, none of us cared much about the legalities of anything at that moment.
Q. Did you foresee a collapse by the end of the month, or what?
I don't make any claims to prescience as to the exact date, but let's say I knew that within two weeks that it was going to happen. I didn't know how it was going to happen. At that time I still felt that I'd fly out on a C130 from Tan Son Nhut. But I didn't know. I knew also that all the guys in the press corps were making up their own minds. And those guys that made up their minds to stay, bless their hearts, I'm all for them. George Esper, people like that, were very brave guys. At that time, remember, I had just come out of the hospital where I had that ruptured ulcer and I could barely hobble around the last month I was there. So I delude myself that perhaps I would have stayed if I had been in reasonable shape. I made up my mind two weeks before the end that when the time came I was getting out. And Eva of course helped me in that decision. Despite the fact that I did not feel there would be a blood bath in Saigon, I didn't think it was going to be too gentle either. I was rather surprised at how gentle it was toward the newspaper type.
Q. Were you living in an apartment?
I had a house, number 10 Alexander de Rhodes.
Q. Who briefed the press on Frequent Wind? Did you go to a briefing for the press?
No. Eva and I were living together. It was no great secret. And I knew I was going to wait until she got out. As I say, it just never entered my mind. I never attended a briefing or that kind of thing. I knew that Brian Ellis, the CBS guy, was doing Trojan work in getting out Vietnamese employees. I was aware that these things were going on. But in terms of my own personal departure, I simply wasn't concerned.
Q. What about somebody harming Eva, grabbing her. Not let her out.
Her house was about two blocks from the embassy. It was right only three doors down from Graham Martin. The security in her neighborhood was pretty tight. But if you'll excuse me, she never gave that a thought. I never gave that a thought, that somebody might have kidnapped Eva.
Q. I guess detain them would be the proper word. If a cadre was in the city.
The Viet Cong who are accused of being devious, are not really very devious.
I'll tell you a Graham Martin story. Charles Timmes was the man who was the big go-between because Timmes had disobeyed orders. I don't know whether Timmes told you this. When Graham Martin arrived there he gave orders that all contacts with Vietnamese opposition leaders cease. The only official contact with anybody was to be Graham Martin. Well, Timmes said, "Piss on that," and he continued to see Big (Duong Van) Minh and continued to see a vast number of the people he had been seeing all along. But he just did it very low key and kept quiet about it. Well, Graham Martin, as I say, didn't have much follow-through either. He gave those orders and assumed they were going to be obeyed. But if he'd known more about his embassy and about Vietnam he would have known they were not going to be obeyed. The embassy was a nest of conspirators. We'd lived ten years in a conspiracy. So everybody had his own circle of things. I was a conspirator. Eva was a conspirator. Eva, right underneath Graham Martin's nose, was organizing the evacuation of ten jillion people.
Q. Someone said Vietnam never had a government, they had a conspiracy.
That's a good phrase. It was a series of sort of concentric conspiracies going on all of the time. But the night we left that day we had spent the night at Eva's house and got up that morning -- we got up at three o'clock in the morning when they shelled Tan Son Nhut. And we both had had shoulder bags ready for a week and we knew that was it. So Eva being Eva, she went in and got an extra pair of shoes--ladies can't go anywhere without shoes, and she took her shoulder bag and she drove off to the embassy about five thirty in the morning, because she knew it was going to get started early. Then I followed her about half an hour later, went by my house, had a little breakfast, and kissed my cook, gave him all the money I had, and then I drove to the embassy in my little Volkswagen. This was about six thirty and it was still wide open there. So I parked the Volkswagen and went out in the city with an embassy type, whose name, unfortunately, I can't recall. He and I patrolled the city until about noon. And when we came back we had trouble getting in the embassy. He had the big official car and pass, and so the marines cooperated to get us in. They were keeping everybody else out.
Then about twelve o'clock I got in there. I didn't go out again. By that time it was a sea of humanity. Eva was up on the seventh floor. I stayed downstairs. I didn't want to bother her, and I didn't want to bother Graham, although I could have gone up there any time I wanted. So I stayed down there taking notes and watching all manner of funny things. The Filipinos whom we were evacuating showed up in two big vans and had all their stereo equipment. They had a bass fiddle and all that shit. Well the security guy, Garrett, he said, Junk that shit. And the Filipinos were practically in tears.
The Japanese ambassador drove up to pay a courtesy call, and came up, he was wearing a bullet proof vest and a white helmet. It was a hilarious day. It was a farcical day. It was just like the beginning. They wouldn't cut down the tree -- can we cut down the tree -- no, you can't cut down the tree. Well finally they said, well we're going to cut down that fucking tree, I don't care what Graham says. I don't think we got the tree down until about ten o'clock in the morning. I don't remember ...
I avoided Martin's office. Finally about 9:30 in the evening, it was dark and obviously the circle was getting tighter and tighter all the time, and there was nobody coming and going and I couldn't do anything, so I said, well, I'll go up to Eva's office and spend the rest of the time with her and see what's going on. So I went up to her office, I'd say it was about nine thirty, and there were a half dozen guys in there. The consul, who had an old guardsman's mustache, I've forgotten his name, he went over and got half a bottle of gin, and some guy brought about that much in a bottle of scotch. They raided the embassy. This was no cocktail party. This was a wake. We were sitting there with paper cups having a drink, and we all needed it bad. I don't think anybody had more than two.
(((End of SIDE A, TAPE 2.))))
((Go to MCARTHR2 file)))
GEORGE MCARTHUR, FILE 2 (mcarthr2)
((Side B, Tape 2)))
. . . toward the end Polgar and Graham hated one another. Polgar had been the faithful servant for a long time and in the end he said, "I better put some distance between myself and that man, because that man is trouble." So Polgar began to go his own way. Graham, on the other hand, was trying to blame everything on Polgar. And he called me into his office and he started to talk about Polgar, and he says, "If it hadn't been for that son of a bitch Polgar, . . .." Polgar down at the end of the hall saw me go into Martin's office and he came running down there, and at that point Graham cut off the conversation.
When we got out on the troop ships the same thing. Polgar spent half of his time on the troop ships where we were when we were evacuated, watching Martin. Martin didn't get to the press to poison the press with stories about Polgar, and vice versa. Martin left with all those documents -- you know about that. Well, he got those because he was afraid he was going to get into a pissing match with Kissinger or with the CIA and those documents had the ammunition that he felt he would need. That's why he stole those documents.
Q. Were you the one who wrote that he said one day he was going to get Kissinger --
Well, I wrote several stories at that time saying this is what's going on. You got the Kissinger camp. You got the CIA camp. The Martin camp. And they're all dumping on one another. And everybody is trying to blame everybody. When we get back to the states, of course, you quickly discovered back here that nobody wanted an investigation of anything. The idea that a major defeat -- in Britain we'd have had an imperial commission -- in the United States you didn't even have a congressional hearing. Not one. Nothing.
I mean, you've got malefactors, people who fucked up, no question about it, and that includes Polgar and Martin and the whole bunch. It would have made Watergate look pale. They all had dirty linen that they wanted to hang out. Everybody was ready to blame everybody else. As it turned they didn't have to blame anybody, because neither the Congress, nor the Presidency, nor the press, nor anybody else wanted to investigate. And they never have.
After that experience with Polgar, Graham and I come out and once again I go over and stand by Eva's desk, Polgar disappears, Graham goes back into his office, he comes back and it's about ten in the evening. And he turns to my wife and he said, "Miss Kim, I don't think I'll have any more dictation today. Why don't you go?" Those were his parting words to Eva that night.
Well, after that she got her bag. The evacuation chute was a stairwell right by the office so we just went over and got in that stairwell and went up. I was going to get out with her. One of the guys who was with us was Lacy Wright???.
Lacy was a real Terry and the Pirates type. That little fellow, that big, had been doing fantastic things. He's a brave little bastard. He sat there and had a drink with us in that office, and then we all got into line together. I don't know whether he was drinking with us or not. I know that we were in the line with Lacy. Martin's poodle is tied up in there and I'd learned to like that poodle a little bit, named Nit Noi. Thai for little bit. Nit Noi was a great favorite of Janet who is his daughter, who was a good friend of mine, and Dorothy, and that son of a bitch Graham was going to leave Nit Noi there. He denies it, but I knew he was going to leave Nit Noi there. I said do you want me to take the dog out? He said, "I'd sure appreciate it." So I got Nit Noi on the leash and -- I didn't feel bad about displacing somebody else. I knew that the doctor downstairs had a miniature doxy he had put in his bag and he kept the little miniature doxy doped up all day long because he didn't know when he was going to have to leave and they didn't want the dog barking. So the little doxy was sleeping in the bag, and I knew the doctor. Well he showed me the doxy because he knew I had doxies too. Slept right through the evacuation.
When we went through the chain and finally got up and got aboard our helicopter, then Eva was sitting on my right and Lacy was sitting on my left, and I was holding Nit Noi in my lap. Incidentally, Nit Noi is black. They didn't even see Nit Noy. I mean I could have carried a 105 howitzer on there. People did not see details at that moment. I could have carried your mother-in-law, I could have carried an elephant on there. It wouldn't have made any difference. It was just get aboard that chopper and get out. So taking out the Ambassadors dog, which caused me grief on the carrier, but that's something else again.
When we got on the chopper and it took off, and of course I'm a newspaper type and I'm looking down at the streets and there was literally a ring of fire around Saigon. The dumps out at Bien Hoa were going up. It was a fireworks display surpassing anything that you're ever going to see. And I'm checking out spots on the ground, this that and the other, thinking what I'll do if we go down. We have to circle for about five minutes because they sent us out in pairs and we were waiting for the second chopper to get off the roof, say five minutes -- probably was sixty seconds but it seemed like a longer period.
But as we're circling there and I'm drinking in this spectacle which is the end of ten years of my human experience, and the adrenalin was flowing through me, I couldn't have gone to sleep, and I didn't sleep at all that night, as a matter of fact. I look over, the minute we took off, Lacy Wright passed out. He was so tired that when the emotional tension, he didn't have to work any more, there was nothing more for Lacy Wright to do -- he hadn't slept in about four days, that tremendous scene that overwhelmed me, Lacy couldn't have cared less. He went to sleep and all he wanted to do was sleep. And if we hadn't waked him up at the carrier he'd have slept on the way back. We got him off and he was a sleep walker when we got him off on the carrier, I believe the Midway.
Turn off your machine and I'll tell you a story --
Q. Let me leave it on and I won't use it --
Kate Webb was a UPI correspondent, and Kate and I had been great and good friends for years in Vietnam. Kate was in the Philippines and she'd come out on the carriers to meet people and cover that part of the story for UPI. Kate shacked up with an officer on the Midway -- as was Kate's wont, she brought the booze and he brought his organ and the two got together. But since she had gotten there early they had assigned her a stateroom, so when she saw Eva and I come off the chopper, Kate came up to me and gave me a key and said, "It's on so-and-so deck, that's the number. You can stay there tonight." You can imagine. There were people all over the decks, fighting for billets, this that and the other. So Eva and I snuck down real quick and we got in that officer's cabin and locked the god damn door and we shacked up on the Midway. This was about one or two o'clock in the morning.
Well, the next day they threw me out of the cabin, but I didn't care. It didn't make any difference. But if Kate hadn't greeted me -- as I say, I didn't sleep until twenty-four hours later. I couldn't.
Q. They took you off the Midway?
Yeah they took us to the Blue Ridge and then they took us back to the Midway because the Midway was going to be one of the first ships into Subic and obviously all the correspondents wanted to be on the first ship to Subic. They were losing our copy like made. When I got to Subic they hadn't received one damn word that I'd filed. The Navy said they were going to provide communications -- and never believe that. Don't file your book by Navy communications. So I was lucky I had saved my "blacks"????, so as soon as we got to Manila I just started refiling all that stuff. I stayed busy for two days refiling stuff that I had filed from the ship.
Q. Was there a big emotional letdown in the days following?
Of course. It lasted for a year or longer. And almost everybody who had been there in that period -- remember I'd been there for ten years. Eva had been there for twelve. George Jacobson had been there for fifteen. Our good friends were people who were not the fly-by-nights, but people that we had known, dedicated people most of them, who had been there a long period of time. So among that group of people, people like Lacy Wright who are still wrapped in refugee -- who are still wrapped up in the Vietnam thing. It wasn't what the GIs call post-stress whatnot, but when you've devoted ten years of your life to a story and the story ain't no story anymore, you're going to have a tremendous letdown. That's one of the reasons I retired. I can't write about Vietnam to this day. I've tried and can't do it.
Q. A lot of people just never recovered -- Wolf Lehman, Moncrief Speer, --
Wolf Lehmann, Moncrief Speer, George Jacobson -- Jacobson was the mission coordilnator out there. He had held ten . . . jobs. He's so bitter that I can't talk to him anymore.
Joe Bennett was the political officer out there. He had the clout of a feather duster. Joe Bennett never realized what happened to him.
Cal Miller I don't know well.
I don't think any of those people will ever recover. Define the word "recover" a little bit better. They'll certainly not get over it. They'll carry it to their grave and it will affect them. It affects me and the way I treat people. My tolerance for certain things, intolerance for others. It changed my character, not 180 degrees, but I took a sharp turn.
Q. Towards cynicism?
I don't think it was toward or away from any specific things. I suffer fools less well now than I did before.
The other side of the coin, I don't get angry anymore. I don't get angry since 1975. You couldn't make me angry. You could hit me on the head with a baseball bat and I'd call you names, but you wouldn't make me angry. I just don't get angry. I don't think I have the capacity for that kind of emotion.
Q. A sense of fatalism?
I've always been a fatalist, but I'm sure it deepened that tendency in my psyche.
Q. Less patriotic?
Oh, I'm more patriotic than anything. Patriotic in the sense I never want to see that happen again.
Q. Sense of betrayal?
Oh, I have very much a sense of betrayal, because I know we betrayed them. I know Bui Diem, I know Murray, I know the promises we made and the promises we were unable to keep. The betrayal may not have been intended, but it still was there.
Q. Did you have a sense that you yourself were betrayed by the political leaders?
No, I never expected much from them anyhow. But it was not a sense of betrayal so much as the deepest kind of disappointment, that you've committed something when you're a kid that's just so bad that you're ashamed to face your mom and pop, you want to go out and hide, you want to run away. I didn't want to face myself, I didn't want to face a lot of people. I felt an awful lot like the CIA man I talked to out there who left fairly early in the game, and he said he left because he'd reached the point that he didn't like to talk to anybody about anything that he didn't know what they were going to say already anyhow -- about Vietnam. Because he was a really knowledgeable man. He knew where the bodies were buried. I belonged to that group of people like Timmes, we talked to one another in a form of code. You didn't have to go through great convolutions to explain that the people out in the -- the NVA, VC were bad people. You didn't have to go into great philosophical convolutions that communism is not necessarily a beautiful system in government. This code that a lot of these people had was simplified and also helped you get by with people like Graham Martin. I could talk to Graham Martin when other people couldn't, because I accepted about fifty percent of his givens. . . . (telephone call interruption)
But I wasn't going to argue with Graham Martin about whether communism is good or bad. I know that Graham is no arch reactionary, he stands about a hundred degrees to the right of me, but no matter. We didn't have to argue about it.
Q. How about betrayal by your fellow journalists? Did you become disgusted with your profession?
Well, disappointment is more the word. I had lived with this condition for five years at the time. Remember I had been bureau chief of the AP and restraining some of my younger colleagues had just been a pain in the ass. I remember one young kid came out there and he turned in a lead one night that just said, "Surrounded Saigon . . so and so." And then he got into a long argument with me about whether Saigon was surrounded or not. I said, "Look, I'll get in the car and drive you down to My Tho, that's forty miles south, right now. I says if they're surrounded, it's a pretty big ring. But he insisted that since the Viet Cong controlled the countryside by night and they were then lobbing shells into Saigon, that the city was surrounded. I said, Well you're not going to say it. So he had to soften it.
I had fights like that all the time with people who were not trying to write things that were wrong, but who were just convinced in their own mind that certain simplifications were acceptable. And I wouldn't accept them as the bureau chief in AP. Then when I went to work for the LA Times, and I won't go into names in this particular instance, but I had an experience with a member of our staff who wanted to do certain things and I was not going to permit that, so I didn't.
This had been a running battle with me for five or six years. I've never been one to accept the conventional wisdom, but there was a journalistic wisdom that permitted certain people to say anything they wanted about Vietnam. And it persists to this day. Errors in fact were accepted. You can refer to the embassy compound out there as "gold-plated" -- use the phraseology they used to describe -- well I considered that slipshod and slapdash reporting. The press was generally guilty of a vast amount of that.
But the other part of the trail of disgust -- I'm not particularly proud, as I said earlier, of people like Gloria Emerson and there were a lot of them out there. Morley Safer is not one of my heroes. Walter Cronkite is not one of my heroes. When he broadcast in Hue he arranged to have a shelling of the ridge line behind him. This was his famous trip when he changed his mind. Bullshit. He'd made up his mind before he ever came out there. But the Marines staged a shelling at four in the afternoon and he's up on top of our mission building in Hue doing his stand-upper, wearing a fucking bullet proof vest and a tin pot. And I'm up there doing my laundry. Shit. It was a four story building and you had to hang it out to dry and nobody else was going to do it for you.
Q. What motivated them to do that?
That's one of the questions I ask myself repeatedly and continually. Why I see things from a certain perspective and Harry Horseshit over there sees them from a totally different perspective, I don't know. But I know that a lot of those guys went out there and covered a far different war than I covered.
Q. Did you continue to write as a journalist when you got home?
Oh yeah. I continued to write. I went back out to Southeast Asia and I covered Bangkok, and I did the refugees out of Phnom Penh which people wouldn't believe either. I went to Thailand because that was the center, and I wanted to tidy up the story, so to speak. I stayed in Thailand for three years and then I retired. But I didn't do a good job in Thailand. I just didn't have much zip. People weren't believing the stories I was writing. They wouldn't believe Pol Pot's tendencies in Cambodia.
This was public knowledge a year before somehow or other America exploded with it. It was the Readers Digest book and a few things like that. All you had to do was read AP and UP. They were filing virtually two or three paragraphs a day. I was filing it. A lot of other people were filing it. It didn't mean anything because the mindset in America at the time was, well, we lost the war, one, we don't want to pay any attention, and two, other communists are not that bad. Pol Pot has to be a nice little fellow, crackpot maybe, but can't be all bad. I'd written stories about the ruthlessness of the Khmer Rouge--and this too is a part of the public record--way back, I guess about '66,'67,'68.
Horst Fass and I went over there and found a camp that caused him some difficulty one time. At the time Stuckey said there weren't any such camps. But I'd been reporting that stuff all along. I had not been reporting it, I think, with the vigor I should have. When I went to Thailand--one reason I retired is that I didn't feel I was doing a good job anymore. I wanted to go somewhere else.
Q. Did Eva go with you to Thailand?
No, she went down to Singapore. She worked -- that was the best we could do at the time. She tried to get Bangkok, and I wasn't ready to quit at the time, and she wasn't ready to quit. Her job was better than mine. Still is.
Q. The CIA were notorious womanizers in Vietnam and always were trying to cover up their own personal lives with their intelligence. Thus you couldn't depend on them much. Did you have the feeling that there were a lot of incompetents manning important posts there, people not quite as dedicated to their professions?
The womanizing, Murray was absolutely right. And the two prime examples are ***** and *****. They would fuck everything in sight and tried to. That's no great secret. Any CIA billet on any given night, the sound of the fucking was as loud as the shell fire from outside the town.
Q. --and then tried to cover up what they were doing?
Well, that gets into something that Murray would know about and that I would not necessarily know about. I could say this, even with Snepp, who betrayed me, the sneaky son of a bitch. Snepp was a very good CIA officer out there. But he was not as important at he said. He used to give briefings on the order of battle. He was very accurate and very good. And he a captain who was his assistant and the two of them were far more reliable than anybody else I knew. I'd go out there regularly and make no bones about it. When Ted Shakley was the station chief out there, he was superb. He knew everything that was going on at the front. He was replaced by Polgar.
I didn't trust Polgar. Not that I didn't trust him in the sense -- I didn't trust Polgar's judgement. I never did. Polgar, as you well know, is a Hungarian anti-communist. Anti-communists come in different breeds. And the middle European anti-communist -- you know Darkness at Noon, the Death of a Dream, Ignacio Silone -- I just don't trust their judgement. They're so wrapped around the axle that they're no good. But this is one of the reasons that he was sent out there, is that the agency knew, man if you are looking for an anti-communist, you got one. And you can send him out there with Graham Martin, you got another one. So they ought to work together. And in point of fact they worked very well together up until the last six weeks, I would say.
But I'm really not in a position to judge whether people in specific jobs were competent. I know that at the end, there were an awful lot of incompetents showed up because of the way they fucked up their own evacuation scheme, leaving people here, and this that and the other, and didn't even get out the Korean CIA chief who may still be in the slammer.
And their reaction to Snepp's book is another one. There was an awful lot of incompetence in the CIA. Now whether it was significant, vital, widespread, that's the kind of judgement I can't make. The people that I came in contact with were usually exceptionally competent people.
Q. What about someone saying that too many of the press sat around the Caravelle smoking **** and making up stories? Is there any truth or is that sour grapes?
I think a lot of that is sour grapes. But the people who gave rise to that kind of thing was, say, Joe Freed, who didn't smoke incidentally, or drink, but Joe never left Saigon except for that trip to Hue -- well when I say he didn't leave Saigon, Joe would fly out to a division CP in the daytime, fly back, get himself a lot of hometowners, because he strung for ten jillion little radio stations. The PIO up there would line up six guys, Joe would get off there with his tape recorder, interview six guys, fly back to Saigon. So people like Joe there were. People who never left Saigon for any practical purpose. Never went out in the boonies.
Q. But a lot of journalists had cause to be proud for the way they filed stories --
Yeah, and that aspect of it. The networks, the news agencies, the major papers, their guys were out covering the stories. Now how well they did, I have to leave to somebody else to judge. People like the New York Times, they had six and eight people out there from time to time. They had Charlie Moore who was very good. They had Gloria Emerson, who was deplorable. I liked Fox Butterfield. I feel about Mal Browne the same way I feel about Polgar. I don't trust his judgement. I don't think he's got all the oars in the water and I don't think he ever did. But don't put that in.
Q. You visited the Vietnam Memorial. Do you do it regularly?
It's not too overwhelming. But I cry every time I go down there. I take people down there regularly. In fact if I have a visitor in this town, I'm going to take him down to the Vietnam Memorial. It's just on my tour. If you live in Washington, people come to see you. I take them down there on a regular basis.
I don't have any feelings about avoiding it. And when I cry -- I cry in movies as far as that goes.
Q. Appropriate design?
Yeah. Eva and I were prepared to dislike it in the beginning when we were just reading writings and before you saw it. We were both against it. And then after we experienced it, we were for it. We both think it just -- and she won't go. She's been twice and that's all.
I think if it really came to it, say if one of her favorite relatives came to town, she'd go again. But she doesn't approach that thing casually.
Q. Did you like the three soldiers statue?
Yeah, we talked to the guy who did that. He was out at Kais's one night for dinner and we talked to him. I find it thoroughly fitting. And I even like the flag up there with the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps around it. It's a place where those vets that feel that way can go up and salute.
I find the professional veterans down there disgusting. I'd like to get a Viet Cong patrol and go down there one night and wipe them out, and take great delight in doing it. They detract from that.
I love the way the conventional statuary is done because he decided --this is from our conversation -- he decided he couldn't make and artistic statement, it was not appropriate. It was not going to be grand, twelve feet tall or anything like that. So what he did and he pulled it off, was meticulous attention to detail. And talking to the GIs the first thing I noticed where one of the GIS has his dog tag in his boots. You have two dog tags, you never wore them both together. You'd wear one around your neck and you'd put one somewhere else. If they blew your head off, they'd find your leg and your momma would know where the body was. And you look at that GI down there, and he's got his dog tags in his boot and his other one around.
The M 16s they're carrying, he accomplished his purpose by capturing the realism. And he did an absolutely artistic job in the faces. The thousand mile stare. In my mind he over-exaggerated that, but that's artistic license and I will grant him that. A lot of kids did have that stare from time to time. Not all the time, obviously. But as a representative of the GIs out there, that statue is beautifully done.
Q. Should there be one like that for Korea?
It's too late for that kind of thing. And Korea was totally different type of war. Korea was not an emotional war.
Q. What about the Vietnam movies? Apocalypse now, Rambo --
I went out to see Pete Kama when they were making Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. Shit, they had a fire fight up there and Pete and I are sitting underneath the table in this fucking mud hut hut. They fired off more ammunition than we did in all of Vietnam. We were laughing our ass off. And there's old Coppola hanging out of that chopper, the great peacenik up there, and he was obviously getting his jollies from commanding his troops in the field. I'll guarantee you he came up there. I know it.
(((End of Tape 2, side 2.)))
((Tape 3, side A))
Q. . . . heard about it? Oliver Stone or what?
Well Oliver Stone for one thing. He did one movie about the war. The movie he did was pretty much the central highlands, say about circa 1967. And I guess for poetic license he has to jam atrocities in there and he has to get everything that took place in a ten year war in one movie. That's a lie right there. When you've only got two hours and you devote X amount of time to atrocities you've already given atrocities too much. You want to find out about atrocities, go down to the Judge Advocate General's. He'll give you a list of the people we court marshaled for doing things like that. About the only army in the world that ever did so. Starting in 1965, and I attended. We had trials. GI went ape shit, sure he didn't get a light sentence, but chances are he would do time in Leavenworth if it was bad enough. And Leavenworth was populated throughout that ten year period with people we had sent back there ourselves. You find one guy in Hanoi who's doing time for shooting an American and I will give you my income for the rest of my life. Well Mr. Stone obviously does not approach this movie with that in mind. I say it's a sense of balance. Mr. Stone says, Well I couldn't get that in, time dozen things, so and so, and the atrocities are very important. If the atrocities are important, then it's worth doing right. If it's not worth doing right, I don't want to have any part of it. And he didn't do it right.
His protagonists in there, hell, you couldn't have found two protagonists like that without any difficulty in Vietnam. Henry Kissinger said, in 1965, everything you say about Vietnam is right. The problem is to sort out what's relevant. And it's true. He could have made a movie ten time that bad. It would have been just as right. He could have had his kids going absolutely ape shit as they did in My Lai and sticking bayonets in babies, and that would have been right too. Or he could have done my movie and done a Caine Mutiny court martial. That would have been right too. But his movie leaves the impression with the ordinary viewing public -- his movie doesn't do anything at all to clear up the misperceptions about the war. It does everything to enhance the misperceptions about the war. Including this horseshit mythology that the war is being brought to you and you are being permitted to watch the war. You're not being permitted to watch the war, and you should praise the Lord that you are not being allowed to do so. Because is he had done a two hour movie about the war, people would have run. All you have to do is wheel one tank in that theater and fire it one time, and as I say, let the decibel count reverberate down the tiers of people. They'll run. They're not going to sit there to watch a movie about the war.
So Mr. Stone in my mind is intellectually dishonest. He doesn't even try to do a story about the war.
Q. What are the lessons of Vietnam, the applications of their conclusions to Central America or elsewhere?
Mr. Caputo said that very pithily. I think he is a very smart guy. I've read some of his stuff and sort of respect it. But the one central lesson about Vietnam -- well there are a number -- one is it should be patently obvious to people who make policy around here that the American attention span is not going to encompass ten years. Whether we like it or not, our diplomatic foreign policy goals have to be obtainable within a fairly short period of time. That means you don't want to elect a president who's a dreamer, because a dreamer is going to get you in trouble. That's a sort of a lesson, whether we apply that lesson, I don't know. Jerry Hart had a good run at it and if ever there's been a dreamer it was him.
The lessons that you can actually apply to your dealings with your own government. That's what you are asking -- one of the negative reactions was that there was a long period of time, no American policy that involved the use of force at all and we are still very hesitant to use force, as doubtless we should be. But to continually approach, as Senator Pell, to approach every question that comes up with a negative view toward that use of force, in fact means that your government is not permitted to use force except in the clandestine manner that is now getting us into trouble. You take away from the President certain options that should be there. And they should be there within a rational context, not in the pressure cooker context of "we lost in Vietnam". No question we lost in Vietnam. But you can argue whether we lost in Vietnam because we didn't apply enough force.
The central lesson is a very fuzzy thing. When is your government going to be permitted to act in your name, in a rational way toward a very threatening world? When you try and divide it down and say we shouldn't go to war unless Congress approves it. Well, you'll excuse me, the day before Pearl Harbor, if you'd put it to the Congress of the United States, Roosevelt would have been ridden out of town on a rail. The destroyer deal, although he did accomplish it openly, was in defiance of public opinion. I don't want to place that kind of restriction on my policy makers despite the fact I deplore their stupidity frequently. But we have placed so much baggage around the use of force, and we've tainted our military in such a way that we can't handle that question rationally as a government right now. And regaining our options, in my mind, is the lesson of Vietnam.
That doesn't make much of a Caputo-like quote. And I sort of like his better. Let's just not pick on the Vietnamese next time.
Q. George, are you an optimistic person about the future?
No. There are certain things that you refuse to do. And long long ago I made up my mind that I do not permit myself to hate people. That's the most negative emotion in the world. That accomplishes absolutely nothing. I don't hate Hitler. I don't hate anybody. I dislike some of them intensely, including Bella Abzug, but hate is not an emotion I can honestly say -- I don't hate Daniel Ortega one bit in the world. In fact, I'd like to have a drink with him. . . . And then I'd poison him.
So you say am I an optimist? I don not permit myself to live in a world where the United States of America is not going to exist as free nation. I rule out that option. It just doesn't exist for me. Furthermore, I'm sixty-three years old and the likelihood is that it would during my period. I don't have children.
Q. Oh, I thought that was your son (a picture?)
No, that kid is Jason Shaplen, you know Bob Shaplen, the New Yorker?
He was one of the four old farts out there. Keyes Beech, myself, Bud Merrick, and Bob Shaplen. Jason is spending the summer with me. He's going to be an intern for Senator Bradley. He too is a Vietnam brat of sorts.
Q. I hope I didn't leave anything out.
I don't know. I've got to get out of here and go play poker in an hour.
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