"The American People Have No Stomach For It"
We had a long excruciating negotiation with the North Vietnamese in Paris. And after North Vietnam had generally accepted most of the provisions which gave them including a military presence in the South, they began to withdraw every concession they had made.
It was after the November session that we had to have a fundamental and agonizing reappraisal. After that the decision was made to mine Haiphong Harbor and bomb the North. We entered into the bombing of Hanoi. It was very controlled and constrained with B52s. And there was a heavy attrition of B52s and military men. Then some people took the position that they wanted to throw in the towel and so the tensions began immediately as to whether or not we could succeed with it. Tom Moorer was strong on this, an advocate of the program. But some of his subordinates were not.
At that point in the war, the popular base of the Administration totally disappeared. Congress was in recess. Messages poured into the White House and Congress wanted to return and start the impeachment process against the President or stop the action. This was the untenable position that President Nixon found himself in, total collapse of popular support. I saw the men around the President begin to blink. Men who had previously been staunch supporters of what we had been doing. Had we been able politically to continue with that bombing, there is no doubt that we could have extracted a priori concessions from Hanoi. But political realities were such that that just wasn't the case. And those who were blinking had their way. It was premature in my view.
Having said that, we were confronted with what was possible, and naturally once the bombing halted and the mining stopped, and we came to an agreement, what came out was a very tricky formula that left the North Vietnamese enclaves in the South. So the fundamental underpinnings of our agreement in Paris required a certain amount of continued determination by American officials. And for the agreement to be successful there would have to be enough clear headedness and character in our Congress to continue to support the South Vietnamese at the level at which they had become dependent. Also, vast promises were made to the South Vietnamese. And as a signatory power we reserved the right to apply sanctions in the event of violations.
No sooner had the ink dried on the Paris Accords than Congress signed a total bombing halt. That sent a message to Moscow and Hanoi that they had won. They could take what they wanted.
I was there with Nixon at that time and I got on the phone with Jerry Ford who was leader of the floor fight on the bombing halt and I said, "Dear God, What are you doing? Don't you know what this means." And simultaneously, there was a steady strangulation of the flow of supplies to the South Vietnamese. I was totally discouraged by the prospects of a successful outcome for South Vietnam or even of the retention of a status quo under those conditions.
I wasn't surprised in early 1975 by the loss of a province in South Vietnam to the North. I was NATO commander then in Brussels and I had a phone call from Mr. Nguyen Phu Duc, who had been a National Security Advisor for President Thieu, and he said, "The President's asked me to come see you." And he came up to my headquarters, and he said, "I have one question to ask you from President Thieu." And I said, "What is the question?" And he said, "If you had it to do all over again, would you sign the Treaty." And I told him, "You tell President Thieu the question is irrelevant because the outcome would have been the same in either event."
But with that question, I immediately knew that Thieu knew it was over. So I called Kissinger, the Secretary of State, on the secure line, and I said, "Henry, it's over." This was two months before the spring offensive by the North. I warned, "We are facing a watershed. The President has got to make a national speech. He has to go it before a joint session. He has to tell Hanoi that if they violate these accords we are going to resume military actions." And he said, "Al, that would be very difficult." So I got on a plane and flew back to Washington and requested a meeting with President Ford. I sat down with the President alone in his office. And I said, "Mr. President, you are facing your Waterloo. You have to behave like Harry Truman and get up there and do what's right. You may get rolled. But history will confirm that you are correct and you will be reelected. But if you fail you are finished and so is Vietnam. And so is our credibility."
And he said, "Al, I can't. The American people have no stomach for it."
And he was right. He was right.
I had to believe that was President Ford's greatest misjudgment, not the pardoning of Nixon. Because it was followed by a cascade of assaults on presidential power and the CIA investigation and all the investigations and all the total erosion of the power of foreign policy from the executive branch to Congress.
On the night of the 29th of April 1975, I followed the evacuation minute by minute. I had long since concluded that this had to happen. I felt a tremendous sadness in the national humiliation involved as it unfolded. I don't suppose I've ever had a greater sadness. Ever.
When I became Secretary of State under President Reagan all the experiences that we had starting in Korea and continued through Vietnam and almost every crisis we have had recently as a nation, left me with some very strong conclusions and attitudes. That is why I begged the President not to get into a covert operation in Nicaragua. That was a repetition of the same approach as Vietnam and it doesn't work. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You have to assess the importance of a problem for national security. Then you have to commit or not commit, but you cannot play this game of incrementalism, building slowly and allowing the other side to build slowly. And you have to know who the enemy is and where he is. If we mean business when our vital interests are involved, we cannot pursue a guns and butter policy. We should mobilize and we should martial all of our forces to eliminate the problem. You can't expect to go in and do something tough and still be loved by the American people because you don't disturb their tranquility. If Vietnam was really central to our vital interests, then we should have warned the Soviet Union what our position was and then we should have gone in and brutalized North Vietnam until they left the South alone. When blood is to be shed and lives are to be lost, there ain't no free lunch.
raw transcript from tapes
Alexander Haig. "THE AMERICAN PEOPLE HAVE NO STOMACH FOR IT"
i WAS IN Vietnam in 66 and 67. I came home in the summer of 67 and went to the military academy where I survived for about year and a half and then was assigned to the NSC staff with Kissinger. And in 69 up until the time I was in Europe in 74, I was of course very heavily involved in Southeast Asia and made several trips there for the president.
In 64 and 65 I was a military assistant to Bob McNamara and Cyrus Vance, working for both. So I had the unique opportunity o watching Vietnam from day one till the end. And having participated in both the national policy level both at the outset of the war and the termination of the war. And also having participated in the battlefield.
I wouldn't say I was a hawk on the war. And I don't really, I'm suspicious of those labels. At the outset of the trouble in Southeast Asia, which was triggered by a number of significant events and ultimately ended up with the landing of our Marines in Danang, I thought we were engaged in national self delusion. As we had been in Central America in an almost identical situation. That is that it wasn't a struggle for hearts and minds and it wasn't a struggle for social justice or a stark change in the direction of social justice. It was a superpower confrontation, straight up and down. It had all these other overtones, as they always do, and they were insignificant at the time. But they were not the essence of the problem. And it w s the US misjudgement at the time in 64 and 65 when these various irritating incidents came up, we had been involved of course had been involved before that in the Eisenhower and Kennedy period, we had 10 to 15,000 advisers there, they were conducting air strikes and leading South Vietnamese forces with Am pilots doing the job, and the real question was, and this gets into the incrementalism, if you decide that an issue is of vital national interest, if you make that conclusion, arriving at that judgement can only entail a very realistic and clear headed appraisal of what the issues there are before you draw tht conclusion.
For example, in the Johnson administration, we had a combination of 2 illusions. The first was that you could have business as usual with the Soviet Union when they are in the process of rigging the developing world and the other was that you could have guns and butter. and this came out of a perversion of flexible response in the Kennedy administration, the idea that you could somehow confine international conflict to a spectrum range from nuclear to conventional to that grey area of wars of national liberation, which could be essential be decided as a struggle for hearts and minds with special forces, meet the enemy on his own turf.
I thought the idea got perverted. We live in intellectual dialectics. When you engage in an extreme articulation of one approach, like massive retaliation in the Eisenhower administration, how did Ike settle Korea, he settled by threatening to drop a nuclear weapon. The US indirectly convinced the Soviet Union that it had to be settled. And there were complications at that time.
In the early 1960s the romance between Moscow and Beijing was drawing to a conclusion. and through the 60s those tensions grew and grew. And it so happened that in 1969 for example, even though we would accidentally drop bombs in mainland China, overshooting our targets in North Vietnam, the Chinese complained of it. But that was it.
President Nixon saw this, to his everlasting credit it was his intellectual drive that drove us to the normalization process with the Chinese. I think I made the point in my book, after the discussions I had with Zhou En Lai in 1972 and conveyed to the NSC staff with whom I was working or to the press when I was divulging things, I made it pretty clear that the Chinese didn't want us to lose in Vietnam. And I was treated like a maniac, people could n't they just rejected it out of hand. They wre total victims of the experiences of Korea.
The facts are that the debacle of 1975 never matured into the domino theory that people used to talk about because of the Chinese. Not because of our wisdom. But because of the Chinese. they restrained the Vietnamese. I was in touch with them all the time I was in NATO and they'd tell me that they lost 50,000 men in their fight with the Vietnamese, they were totally ill prepared and ill-equipped and they went in there and the Vietnamese ground them up, and they survived only by expending blood and manpower.
We should have known all along what the Chinese were thinking on Vietnam and we didn't. That concern with the Korea example dominated policy circles in the US.
People who say that it is immoral to bomb the dikes in the North are oblivious of the insanity of that approach. My thesis was that we had to brutalize North Vietnam.
In 64 and 65, it was my view that we needed a very careful calculation of whether or not our vital interests were at stake in Vietnam. A similar analysis had been made in the Eisenhower administration, and the conclusion made as that this was not an area where we should be bogged down in a ground war and this was not an area that was vital where we were concerned. It was Matt Ridgway who convinced Eisenhower of this. And Nixon was very vigorous as vice president to get in there. Today he waffles a little on how. Matt Ridgway on the other hand convinced Eisenhower not to do it. And Eisenhower reconfirmed him.
What I felt in 1964 and 9165 was that again this was an open ended quagmire, that the only way we could at that juncture in East West relations, bring that situation to a halt without war was to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that we knew reality. And it was Soviet equipment, support, direction. And the Soviet Union was contributing to its support to Hanoi, but the bottom line was that they couldn't do what they were doing, that is to match everything we did in incremental ways, to shore up the Diem regime first and what followed after. It was my feeling that if we felt, and I wasn't sitting in on the highest policy decisions at that time, we had to convinced the Soviet Union that we considered this be an issue of vital interest, and we were willing to do whatever was necessary to include a total fracturization with the Soviet Union, such as they were, in order to have both sides pinned down there.
If we the US mean business, and that means we are not gong to pursue a guns and butter policy, we will mobilize and we will martial forces to eliminate the problem.
The Chinese would have had problems with us coming into North Vietnam. But with the proper dialogue they were manageable problems. That gets you back to the misjudgments of Korea. What was the great misjudgment of Korea? Misreading the Chinese card. Not only did we -- a very important failure of intelligence, which was understandable in Korea because we had a reshuffling and the CIA was created and military intelligence was castrated from its spheres of responsibility, MacArthur couldn't, was suddenly disenfranchised from conducting intelligence in China and it was given to the CIA. That's how many mistakes were made in the Korean War. Not only did we put our forces in the UN command in Korea but also draw a circle around the Straits of Formosa, what the Chinese saw in this was a double pincher, crossing the Yalu and a sending of Nationalist forces across the strait of Formosa.
Even at the early point in 1950, there were stirring of tension between Moscow and Beijing. They were both battling for hegemony in Pyongyang, and the Russians clearly prevailed, they had the money and the resources. The point here is what you do is to understand the true source of the problem. And we didn't. Or we deluded ourselves with respect to it. There is a great deal of populism in the conduct of Am foreign policy and that populism as early as 64 and 65 was presented the White House with the contradiction of going on with the Great Society program or disrupt the entire nation and present a crisis on the issue of South Vietnam. That was self delusion. We would draw these little ultimatums to Hanoi, after the Gulf of Tonkin, and that was probably one of the greatest anomalies in the history of Am intelligence, and I happen to believe that the North never did attack our ships, and again high technology that we hadn't learned to absorb because I looked to the errors of the Gulf of Tonkin when the president is given information from the NSA with unrefined intelligence from which he drew the conclusion that our vessels were under attack. but subsequent analysis and investigation convinced me that it never happened.
That was the triggering mechanism for the war. In the period following that, the bombing of the Brinks Hotel, the president and the men around the president was calling on, so they sent the chief of staff of the army over in the early spring of 1965, to make an assessment and a number of recommendations as to what they should do. That was General Harold Johnson. Before he went, like all prudent bureaucrats, he had assessments made by the JCS, the Army Staff and asked what the traffic would bear. As I recall that some 33 measures that ranged the gamut from increasing logistics and money for the South Vietnamese, to mobilizing divisions and moving those divisions to the west coast and Wash would indicate to Moscow that we really meant business.
When Johnson came back he had a list that eliminated every one of the options. And we started a very incremental involvement, landing the Marines in Danang and going on from that.
The military itself was split on these things as they are today. The realities of the battlefield are related to political realities in other places.
Men of my generation were so intimately involved in the development of the country, from the early days in Hanoi and through 1945, the whole thing was our lives. Our whole lives were there. Everything we had worked for.
Peace movement in US: In 64 and 65 it was nearly nonexistent, the war was popular, The Gulf of Tonnkin Resolution passed and everybody wanted to stand tall. And it was very typical of the American demeanor. The problem didn't start to develop until 66 when the casualty lists began developing, and then TET, of course.
These things are part of the American scene.
Today I feel more convinced of the correctness of the position I took at that time. And I was a little bit persona non grata, I got along well with McNamara, Vance, Joe Califano, and I was just convinced that in the long run we were going about this the wrong way and they were doing the wrong thing and in the long run it would become a cropper.
In this instance, and it had far more to do with the Soviet Union and their assessment of our demeanor on this question, than it had to do with victory on the battlefield. Sometimes you can make a demonstration of military power. There again, the actions in Vietnam, is as distorted and wrong as the misjudgments that led us to take those principles. The military arm is the servant of national policy. And on occasion it can and will be used. There is no contract with the national interest to stay it will establish the conditions under which they will be utilized.
I saw the casualty lists growing with a vengeance. I saw it on the battlefield, and saw it as a regimental commander. Very disturbing. As deputy commandant of West Point, watch these fine youngster leave West Point and then come back in body bags. Leave in June and come back in October, 4-5 a week. I presided over every one of those dreadful ceremonies. It was a dreadful thing. But that get's us back to misjudgment. I happen to believe that at that time and even today, we know that the real source of the problem is the Soviet Union. We cannot delude ourselves with macho actions. We either have to decide whether we can risk east west relations in a fundamental way and convince them of that and then make very fundamental judgments when it comes to these problems. And we have to discover whether or not the issue is a casus belli for the Russians. Now in Southeast Asia the issue was not a casus belli for the Russians. In Central America it isn't. In Poland it is. In Afghanistan is a gray area. So the whole range of actions must be determined fundmentally by these sort of assessments from day one.
When I really believe and continue to believe when we intervened, had we taken demonstrable steps and warned the Soviet Union that this was not going to be tolerable, that there would have been a negotiation between the Soviet Union and Washington and the problem would have been resolved, and the it would have been a confined struggle in the region.
I had strong misgivings about continued Am presence in Vietnam by 1972. We had a long excruciating negotiation with the Vietnamese in Paris. And after the NVN had generally accepted most of the provisions which gave them a presence in the South and then they began to withdraw every concession they had made. That was against the backdrop of detente.
It was after November session we had to have a fundamental and agonizing reappraisal. After that the decision was made to mine Haiphong Harbor and bomb the North. We entered into that bombing of Hanoi, it was very controlled and constrained with B52s, first for 72 hours, then a heavy attrition of B52s and military men. Then some took the position that they wanted to throw in the towel and so the tensions began immediately as to whether or not we could succeed with it. Tom Moorer was strong on this, advocate of the program. And some of his subordinates were not.
Immediately because at that point in the war, the popular base totally disappeared. This was some years after TET. We then were confronted with Congress was in recess. Messages poured into the White House and Congress wanted to return and start impeachment process against the President or stop the action. This was the untenable position that Pres Nixon found himself in, total collapse of ppular support. I saw the men around the president begin to blink. Men who had prior been staunch supporters of what we had been doing. Had we been able politically to continue with that bombing, that we could have extracted a priori concessions from Hanoi on the agreement. But political realities were such that that just wasn't the case. And those who were blinking had their way. It was premature in my view.
Having said that, we were confronted with what was possible, and naturally once the bombing halted and the mining stopped, and we came to an agreement and what came out was a very tricky formula that left the VN enclaves in the South, the fundamental underpinnings of our agreement in Paris required a certain amount of optimism for Am officials: 1. There would be enough clear headedness and character in our Congress to continue to support the SVN at a level at which they had become dependent. And vast promises were made to the SVN, but it required a pipeline to fill that was substantial 2) we had totally abandoned our nationhood. As a signatory power were served the right to apply sanctions in the event of violation. No sooner had the ink dried on the Paris Accord than Congress signed a total bombing halt. That sent a message to Moscow and Hanoi that they had won. And I was there with Nixon and I got on the phone with Jerry Ford who was leader of the floor fight and said, Dear God, What are you doing. Don't you know what this means. And simultaneously, a steady strangulation of this flow of supplies. And I was totally discouraged by the prospects of a successful outcome or even of the retention of a status quo under those conditions.
I wasn't surprised in late winter of 1975, I was NATO commander, I had a phone call from Mr. Duc, who was National Security Adviser for President Thieu, and he said the President's asked me to come see you. And he came up to my headquarters, and he said I have one question to ask you from President Thieu. And I said what is the question. And He said, If you had it to do all over again, would you sign the Treaty. And I told him, You tell Pres Thieu the question is irrelevant because the outcome would have been the same in either event. But that question, I immediately knew that Thieu knew it was over. So I called Kissinger, S of S on the secure line, and I said, "Henry, it's over." This was two months before the invasion by the North. I said we are facing a watershed. The President has got to make a national speech. he has to go it before a joint session. He has to tell Hanoi that if they violate these accords we are going to resume military actions. And he said, "Al, that would be very difficult." So I got on a plane and flew home and requested a meeting with President Ford. I sat down with President Ford alone in his office. And I said, Mr President, you are facing your Waterloo. You have to behave like Harry Truman and get up there and do what's right. You may get rolled. But history will confirm that you are correct and you will be reelected. But if you fail you are finished and so is Vietnam. And so is our credibility."
And he said, "The American people have no stomach for it."
And he was right. He was right.
I had to believe that was the famous misjudgment, not the pardoning of Nixon. Because it was followed by a cascade of assaults on presidential power and with the CIA investigation and all the investigations and all the total erosion of the power of foreign policy from executive branch to Congress.
On the night of the 29th I followed the evacuation. I was in Europe at the time. I had long since concluded that this had to happen. There was a tremendous sadness in the national humiliation involved. I don't suppose I've ever had a greater sadness. Ever. But it was stretched over a very long period of time for me.
When I became Sec of State all the experiences that we had in begun in Korea and continued through almost every crisis we have had as a nation, left me with some very strong conclusions and attitudes. That is why I begged the President not to into a cover operation in Nicaragua. That was a repetition of the same approach as Vietnam and it doesn't work. Have your cake and eat it too. Go on and do something tough and still be loved by the American people because you don't disturb their tranquility. When blood is to be shed and lives are to be lost, there ain't no free lunch. And you've got to assess these issues very very carefully. In many cases it will cause you to recoil from involvement in the first place.
I have been to the memorial. I remember all the controversy over it's design. I think it has probably long since dispelled all reservations about it because it is a unique and powerful monument and appropriate in every way.