Robert Hartmann [Counselor to President Gerald Ford]
"A War That is Finished As Far As America Is Concerned"
The Tulane University speech on April 23, 1975, came at a time when the South Vietnamese were crumbling and we were drawing down our people in Saigon. The only issue at the time was protecting the allies who were still with us and getting our people out as safely as possible. The decision to get out, was made before this speech. But the timing of this hinged on the fact that if we just suddenly announced that we were pulling out, there was every reason to believe that the South Vietnamese might turn on us and try to prevent us from getting out. They still had control of the airport and the roads around Saigon.
We were in a holding position. The President had previously gone to the Congress and asked them for more money, which was basically money that would prop up the South Vietnamese government so we could get an orderly withdrawal, but the Congress didn't see it our way and didn't give us the money. This was after General Fred Weyand went out and came back and his assessment was rather bleak. He said in order just to hold any part of South Vietnam, even Saigon, we would have to put in more support. It wasn't a case of putting in troops but having air support from carriers committed to the thing and that would be a rather big commitment, which the Congress and the country would not have supported. They were not in the mood to support that anymore. And probably it would only delay the inevitable outcome. We weren't willing to start the whole thing over again from square one. Nobody was. So at this point it was a matter of simply how we were going to get out, not if we were going to get out.
In our early discussions about this speech had the President said to me that he wanted to focus on the future in the speech and not on the past. He wanted to tell these young people --and presumably the kids at Tulane would be less hysterical about the war than other campuses, but this anti-Vietnam contagion was all over the campuses in the country -- he wanted rather than to chew over the past and to try to justify the war, he wanted to talk about what this generation was going to be able to do in the future. He wanted to put the war behind us. And he said to me conversationally, just off the top of his head, "I don't know why we have to spend so much time worrying about a war that's over as far as we're concerned." And I said, "Well, then why don't you just say that." We were looking for a basic theme for his speech.
And he said, "Well, I don't think Henry [Kissinger] would like it." And I said, "Well, what do you care whether Henry likes it or not? You're the President and if that's the way you feel, say it. Sometime at some point it has to be said, and you're the one that has to say it, so why not now?" And he said, "Well, I'll think about it but you go ahead and see what you can put on paper. Now don't tell anybody about it."
Obviously, he kind of liked the idea. But he wanted to try it out on Henry and others in the military first and see what the reaction would be.
Milton Friedman really wrote the speech, and then I went over it. And at first we left out the section about the war being over. The rest of the speech dealt with the limitless opportunities for young people on college campuses who could do positive things rather than just protest. There was nothing more to protest, we wrote, so they should get on with the business of making a better world.
We had a custom of circulating these speeches around in the White House to the people who had some interest in them and also to those who needed to have some advance notion of what the President was going to say so they wouldn't be taken by surprise and would be able to have some reaction when they wre asked about it. And the people we circulated it to varied from time to time depending on the nature of the speech and the subject matter of the speech. But there was always a certain small group we circulated it to and they would make notes on the copy and we would accommodate them if we could, and if I didn't like what they wanted to change I would take it in to the President and let him decide. These were all cabinet level top White House staff. staff. And they usually included people dealing with foreign policy and the military --the Secretary of State and the National Security people in the White House, which for practical purposes was the same thing. Now Kissinger was Secretary of State at the time and Brent Scowcroft was the National Security Advisor and at that time and he and Kissinger had worked together a long time and their thoughts were similar. Scowcroft was aware of what he didn't have to show Kissinger and what he had better show Kissinger.
This particular speech sailed through without any accretions because it was really just a kind of commencement address sort of thing, nothing for anybody to raise their eyebrows about. And so nobody had any big great comment on the thing. Milt had the speech done and redone after everybody commented on it and we set off on the airplane for New Orleans. We had given the speech to the press people and the President went over it and edited it on the plane. He always made a few changes himself. While we were on the plane Milt and I went in I worked out this one paragraph of the speech that declared Vietnam "a war that 's over as far as America is concerned." And the President ok'd that real quick and I knew just where we were going to stick it in and we did. Now the statement had not been in the copy that had circulated initially, but it was in the text that was passed out just before he made the speech. It was put in there so innocuously that the traveling press didn't think it was as sensational as it turned out to be. If you read that in the middle of a long text, as the press did, you wouldn't see it as a very sensational statement in the context of the time. Everybody knew we were getting out of Vietnam.
It was a very warm crowd, and they were whooping and hollering in the basketball stadium there and they gave the President a good warm welcome and they gave him some applause here and there when he spoke. At first he made a couple of jokes about football or something. And then when he got to this line about Vietnam and he said, "Today America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned." Well, he didn't even finish the sentence before the cheering began. And the place just erupted. The kids jumped up and down and were whooping and hollering, and it took the press by surprise because they hadn't underlined that in their text. And so everything else he said was lost. That was the story. He quieted them down and then they whooped it up some more. It was almost like a national convention crowd. I wasn't really surprised. I think I was surprised by the intensity of it, but I wasn't surprised that the kids picked it up. Because that is what they were supposed to do. That was just what they were waiting to hear somebody say. So, that was the story and of course.
The President was delighted by the way it had gone over, and he got on the plane and he was highly elated by the success of this trip, as presidents become because they do like to hear the rafters ring. Then somebody sent word up to the President's cabin that the press would like to talk to him on the flight back to Washington. Ron Nessen passed the word up and I, "Wait a minute. There is no way you can top this. And I wouldn't do it if I were you. Let this thing stand and talk to them tomorrow because there's no way to make it any better." But the President brushed this all aside and said he was going to go back and he was more tha a match for the press anyway. Most presidents think they are and most of the time they are. So he went back to the press section of the plane and I tagged along with him and they started asking him questions and one of them was, in effect, "Did you realize or did you mean what you said and did you know nobody's ever said that before?" And he said, "Yes, there has to be an end to these things sometime and even though things didn't turn out as well as he hoped, this was the end."
Then somebody asked, "Did Kissinger approve of this speech." And he said,"No!"
President's never like to have it suggested that other people tell them what to say or not to say, particularly Kissinger who was prone to do that. The President said, "No. Absolutely Not."
So that is when we really got in trouble. And I interrupted him and I said, "Mr President, we did circulate this speech as we always do to those who normally see the speeches in advance and I believe that General Scowcroft signed off on it. And we assume from that it had the approval of the foreign policy people.". I think Kissinger was out of town when we circulated the speech. But that was just a coincidence. We didn't plan to circulate it at that moment for that reason. And besides, at that time the line hadn't been in the speech, in the first draft that was circulated and that Scowcroft received.
The President reacted to my words as if to say, "Keep your mouth shut while I'm having a press conference. I don't need to be coached."
The next morning back in the White House my phone rang and it was the President and he said, "Bob, Secretary Kissinger is here" -- and he had kind of a chuckle in his voice since he knew he would be and I knew he would be -- "and would you mind coming in and bringing Milt Friedman with you." Now Milt Friedman was sleeping late this day, and I had the office right down the hall there in the west wing. And I said, "Mr. President, I'll be right in." So then I got hold of Paul Theiss, who was the editor of the speech-writing department. He didn't really have much to do with this circus, but I wanted some company. And I wanted a witness with me.
Kissinger didn't intimidate me. After all I knew who the guilty party was in this, but I wasn't about to say so. So if Kissinger was going to be mad at somebody preferably it should be Friedman or maybe me, but I wasn't gonna betray the President to him.
So Theiss came running over and we went into the oval office and Kissinger was pacing up and down on the rug in front of the President's desk. And the President said, "Bob, the Secretary is concerned about something in our speech yesterday that he said he had no advance knowledge of." And, I said, "Well, we circulated it to General Scowcroft, and we didn't know for sure whether he'd seen it or not but his initials are just as good as anybody's in this room." And the President knew and I knew that this wasn't in there at the time. But Kissinger didn't know that. And I said, "Of course, you made some minor changes on the airplane, as you always do." And then Henry ranted and raved and said, "This has go to stop. I can't hold my head up in front of all these ambassadors with a major statement like this and I don't know about it. I've just lost face." So when he got through the President looked over at me and said, "Well I think it's an unfortunate misunderstanding, the system slipped up somehow. Just be sure, Bob, that this never happens again."
So I said, "Yes, sir!" and Paul said, Yes, sir!" and we looked properly cowed and repentant and the meeting broke up.
Kissinger was in a fine temper tantrum. He was inclined to blame Friedman, who had done the basic speech, for sneaking this line in at the last minute. And, if I remember it right, and pounded on the President' desk and denounced Friedman. He didn't denounce me on this occasion -- he tried that several times before.
The President directed the final evacuation plan at 11:00 PM Washington time on April 28th, that is when they finally told Martin, who was resisting the idea of hauling down the flag to do it and get out. I was in the White House during the evacuation. It was very tense, the last days. The Americans were all crowded in the Embassy, and the crowd outside was pounding at the gate, and they just had a few Marines in there, which wasn't enough really if the mob had gotten out of control. The mob wasn't hostile, they just wanted to get out of the country too.
Ford became disenchanted with the war way back when Johnson was President. He had always been in favor of a massive offensive and end it in a month. But the Vietnam War was lost before Ford became President. His main concern concern about Vietnam became getting us out in a reasonably acceptable way.
In the end there was some satisfaction that we got them all out with only two Marine casualties.
There was a concern after this that we would be considered an unreliable ally. However, our European allies had been whooping and hollering for us to get out of there. And we paid our attention to them.
The process of getting out of Vietnam was all bound up also with the larger move on the larger board of normalizing relations with China. The Chinese wanted us to get out of Vietnam, since then there would be no excuse for the Russians to be messing around there. We fought half that war out there with the mistaken impression that the Russians and the Chinese were enthusiastically supporting North Vietnam. But the fact was that the Russians that were supporting North Vietnamese and the Chinese were just making some little gestures of support. The Chinese didn't want the Russians down there. But now the Russians are still there and the Chinese are still worried about it.