Monday, December 17, 2012

Jean Sauvageot Remembers Vietnam

Jean Sauvageot.

"Take Off Your Uniform and Come Home"

My feeling when I finally saw the Paris Agreement in its final form was sort of, "Kiss Vietnam goodbye." In fact, I was pessimistic even before the treaty was signed. But after the Agreement was signed I figured that Hanoi felt that it was only a matter of time until they could take over the South. I don't think they themselves knew by which route they would take over the South. I think they felt that at some point they could perhaps take the South over by predominantly military means or perhaps, depending how things evolved, there would be more emphasis on the political struggle, supported by military pressure and proselytizing and terrorist activities and the whole spectrum of weapons in the communist arsenal. And I don't think that in 1973 the Hanoi government itself knew by exactly which of those routes they would take over.
When South Vietnam was forced to fight the poor man's war due to the reduction of logistical support, then the future was fairly easy to see. I remember one time a just on the eve of the signing of the Paris Agreement, in early 1973, some of us, some of the old Vietnam hands had supper with deputy Ambassador Charles Whitehouse, and during that supper we discussed a number of things such as the efficacy or lack thereof of certain South Vietnamese military units, observations about the government and so on. After the dinner Whitehouse asked the $64 question, which was, "What is the future of South Vietnam?" He was very shocked, he said by what he heard, because among the participants, only one believed that a noncommunist South Vietnam would survive. All of the others of us were only arguing among ourselves about how long it would take to unravel. I was the only one that erred on the side of pessimism, giving it about one year. Another person who was very close to me hit it right about on the mark with an estimate of about two years. And then others were giving it three, four or five years. But what was shocking to Whitehouse was that only one of this group of people with long experience in country, and for whom he had a high regard felt that it would last.
Although I was pessimistic I used to tell my South Vietnamese friends that some day the US was going to leave South Vietnam, really leave it. And my personal emphasis to my best South Vietnamese friends was that they really had to make Vietnamization work. No one should delude himself that the US could stay in Vietnam indefinitely. Or, having once left that it could feasibly return, given domestic politics. And I used to tell my friends that one could not fully understand how the US got involved in Vietnam in the first place without a good understanding of domestic politics in America. If you relied only on geopolitics, the explanation would be insufficient. You have to get into domestic politics, the relations and the competition between the Republican and Democratic parties and all this kind of thing to understand it, and by the same token one would want to make a prognosis about Vietnam in the post-American involvement, then one also would have to understand the domestic American politics by which the US would day leave, and what the likely politics would be after it left. Failing to take those factors into account was very dangerous.
I'll give you another illustration of this. One of my temporary duty assignments was in Vietnam from December 26, 1974, until about January 17,1975. Now at that time my permanent assignment was at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth, Kansas. But I left Leavenworth to team up with an officer from the DIA to make an assessment of the situation, and the reason for this was that many people in Washington were getting increasingly skeptical of Ambassador Martin's reporting from Saigon, as to whether it was really realistic or not. And so it was decided to send a couple of people to take look. Now, during this period of TDY, we went all over the country and talked to people from Vietnamese generals down through the field grades to enlisted men in the military, village chiefs, hamlet chiefs, a very wide cross section of Vietnamese society, and a number of Americans. During this period I had occasion to meet with an old friend of mine, General Tran Van Hai, who was the at that time the division commander of the 7th division in Me Tho, and I had a long supper with General Hai. We had a long conversation about many things, very private. And he told me about an experience of his when he was the director of national police, as a colonel. He told me about interviews he had conducted of Vietnamese communist cadre who the national police captured and how he had interviewed them over a period of time. And he used to ask them who they honestly believed could win the war. And most of the Hanoi cadre men forthrightly stated that their side would win, not the South Vietnamese. And so he always asked them why. Over a period of time he built a little matrix of their prototypical answers, the answers that he most frequently got. And the reasons that they gave were these: First, they said that Hanoi would win because the North had political unity and the South was factionalized; Second was that the South suffered from endemic corruption and that the North did not, at least of any magnitude; and third, they said was the difference in the nature of foreign support that the North received and that the South received. They said that the American support might be more effective than the Chinese and the Soviet support for the North on a temporary basis in that the Americans provided very modern weapons and very modern fire power and sent a half a million of their own troops to do a lot of the fighting and that was a help to South Vietnam in the short run. But these cadres said that the thing that they understood was that the Americans could not stay forever. Some day they would leave. The South Vietnamese being used to fighting the war with half a million troops in country and with all the support mechanisms, the air and everything, would suffer "lethal withdrawal symptoms," when they were withdrawn, and that would create the opportunity by which the North would be able to seize South Vietnam. And I would say that was a very prophetic analysis.
When I got into South Vietnam in late December in 1974, I had a very early audience with Ambassador Martin, and Ambassador Martin told me that there was no more effective Southern Communists in the Delta, that it was just North Vietnamese Army units controlling the action. But frankly that was not what I saw when I went down there. And in fact general Hai told me specifically that the that there were still local cadre that were committing acts of sabotage against his installations. Those, he said were not NVA, they were locals with legitimate South Vietnamese identification cards. In the end if things are going badly in a war situation it is hard to see how a protracted coverup of the truth can serve our interests. But at least covering it up among those who are responsible for public policy, for the implementation of the war effort, that kind of coverup could never be justified and could never be effective.
In Vietnam we had no press censorship as we did in WWII when we were involved in a struggle for our own survival. We really did play into the hands of a totalitarian adversary, such as Hanoi and its supporters like the Soviet Union and China, which in their own countries totally control the press. They learned the art of playing to the foreign press. They learned the art of disinformation as it applied to the Vietnam situation, so that many prestigious publications in the west were carrying basically the Hanoi line.
I was not endeared to the press in Vietnam. But I may have a broader perspective than some of the people who are very bitter in their denunciations of the press, some of it richly deserved. But I think it is very simplistic to say that the press did us in in Vietnam, because to say that almost asks more questions than it answers. In the first place it makes the generic mistake of attributing the loss of Vietnam to a single agency or a single causative factor, which is itself ridiculous because in fact there were many factors at play. Some of these were interrelated factors themselves. You get into methodological problems of assessing multicolinearity, the interrelationship among independent variables, and if people don't think in those methodological terms, it is difficult to bring a rigorous analysis to a phenomenon as complex as the fall of South Vietnam. However, having said that, the press really was culpable, in my view, towards the end of the war. But people who do nothing but dump on the role of the press in Vietnam display a very short memory because as a matter of fact, I believe if you look back at a number of American publication in the early days of Vietnam involvement, you would find the press almost uniformly supportive of our effort. So they did not start out negatively. They became negative later. And I remember now reading in various magazines, Life, Time, Newsweek, a number of articles that were quite laudatory of our efforts in Vietnam. And it would be not at all unusual for editors of a magazine to send a reporter or a reporter and a photographer to follow some American advisor around and do a really nice write up for the hometown paper. Here's Captain So and So of the Special forces or somebody advising a Vietnamese battalion and they would say very nice things about what we were trying to do in Vietnam and it was very positive and very upbeat.
And people forget that, often they were probably very young at that time. The press turned against the war later. And frankly, some of their later opposition was as unexamined and as superficial as perhaps their early support was. One could hardly say that it was rigorously analytical in all the dynamics involved either early or late in the war.
You don't want to tar everybody with the same brush, of course. I had good contacts with some very fine journalists throughout the war. People I had very much respect for. But having said that, they certainly did our effort a tremendous amount of damage, once they turned against the war. But to put it in perspective, you have to realize that much of the rhetoric that responsible officials in Washington and Saigon put out about the war was incredible, insulting to the intelligence. Many of the things that were happening on the ground didn't compute, that is they didn't correlate to what journalists could see on the ground. So the relationship became more and more adversarial. I remember one example where a briefer at MACV gave a precise body count in a briefing that resulted from an air strike, and somebody asked the airspeed and altitude of the jet fighters delivering the airstrike over a jungle canopy. It was so many hundreds of knots and a thousand or more feet up in the air, and of course the next question was obviously, then how did the pilot render this count through the jungle at this speed and this altitude and speed. And people get their backs up on things of that sort. And people get angry, they know they're being given a line, and they start looking for dirt, and all that sort of thing. But again this calls into question a lot of other things that bear on this. We should not get involved in a serious effort to guarantee, to aid and abet, the national survival of another country unless we do it to win. And if the decision is made that it is important enough to US interests to keep Nicaragua, for example, from going communist, or from being a country dominated by Cuban or Soviet interests, or if the decision is made to keep South Vietnam or South Korea out of the hands of the communists, then the whole range of measures necessary to insure success need to be taken or you don't do it. And it seems that unless you put our economy in the case of South Vietnam, on more of a war time footing, at the same time, unless you're willing to control access by the press, censorship if you will, for that war zone, then you will probably not be successful.
So the message is that we gotta go in with a war-winning strategy when we go into these places and be very circumspect about where you go in.
When I came back to Washington early 1975, the report of the trip to Vietnam was written by an officer from the DIA. I only contributed trip reports to him. And I gave him the results of interviews that I had conducted independently with a number of Vietnamese.
My personal conclusion was more pessimistic than the report that came out, although the report itself was disturbing enough. And it made a big correction for Martin's reporting. But my personal conclusion was that things were going to fall apart very fast. Even while I was there they took the province capital of Phuoc Long. I'll tell you some of the things I based my impression on. One thing is, the South Vietnamese were already fighting the poor man's war. Denied adequate logistical support they had to ration ammunition in a way that they never had before. They were fighting the poor man's war while the North was increasingly strong and rich in its fire power. The Defense Attache, General John Murray, in his end-of-the-tour report, predicted in the summer of 1974 that there would be a virtually irresistible violent large scale North Vietnamese invasion and he was looking at it from the standpoint of what he could see. The North Vietnamese were training to do this. In their improvements and in their logistical posture, in their pipelines of petroleum going into the South, with their logistical network, and he could see their improvements through his intelligence gathering. He could see the improvements in their conduct of fire and maneuver, the coordination among infantry and artillery and armor branches, which they were sorely lacking in 1972 when they failed in their effort to take over the South. But he could see all these things and put them together, being a man of eminently sound mind and all, he was one of those guys who believed that if it looks like an elephant and it sounds like an elephant then you're probably looking at an elephant. And he said they were coming and that they were going to strike with violent power. He knew this, Murray knew this, and he was very pessimistic and very sad as he left in the summer of 1974. And when I got there the situation had further deteriorated. And in this same context, Congress was denying even a $300 million supplement. And that had another bad impact on the morale of the South Vietnamese. Which is not to say that I believe that the $300 million supplement would have rescued them. But not having it was still another kick in the teeth. And then another thing, in my direct interviews I saw such a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, it reminds you about the old saw of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. They were on a downward spiral, they didn't have enough, yet they were making very poor use of what they had.
I'll give you a little story of the hand grenades. It's a little story but it tells you a lot. I had heard that there was a village down in Dinh Tuong province in the Delta. The village chief was described as a very heroic figure who had been marshalling his paramilitary forces, the popular forces, to stand up to the night raids of the Vietnamese communists. But he was fighting a losing battle and he suffered from many desertions in the ranks of the popular forces. It must have been that 2/3s of them deserted. Now a Vietnamese friend of mine that used to work with me when I was in Vietnam persuaded me to drive out there to take a look and meet this guy. I was frankly worried about doing it. Simply because having relocated my family in the US I didn't want to get knocked off at the end of the war or something, but he convinced me that I really wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't go out there. I loaded him up in an old civilian car, you couldn't go any more than about ten miles an hour, and we drove on little dirt road with big pot holes and everything. We got out there and I met this village chief and talked to him and he was really a tremendous person, and he was resigned to dying in that village, resisting the communists. But he explained that one of the reasons that people were deserting was that he could not give them adequate supplies of ammunition. And a case in point was hand grenades. The district commander would not issue him enough hand grenades. He could not provide more than one or two grenades per popular force soldiers going on night patrols, which resulted in people not wanting to go night patrols. He felt that the district commander had sufficient stocks but was reluctant to hand them out to the district and hamlet level. The story is worth telling in that I found this pattern many many places. I found district chiefs with mortars who wouldn't let their mortars out to villages to use. They felt they had to keep the mortars up in the district compound to protect the district. So if you don't let your front line troops have the equipment because you feel it's too scarce and you want to hoard it for yourself, you simply exacerbate the process of erosion by which the communists quickly arrive at your doorstep.
Now, I went up to Saigon several times, and one of my stops in the Defense Attach Office, to meet with Major General Homer Smith and told him that story. And that led him to introduce me to another major general who had just come in from Bangkok. He had a lot of computer printouts that showed stockage levels. And what he really told me in effect was that the story that I was telling him couldn't be relevant to anything in the war because he had his computer printouts that showed that the stockage levels of hand grenades in South Vietnam exceeded the highest levels ever, and they had plenty of them. And of course my response was that I knew nothing about the computer printout and second I would not deny the figures that he had in them, but that was what was irrelevant. What was relevant was not how many grenades existed in South Vietnam. What was relevant was that they were not being passed out to the troops and the political and psychological implications of that. I could envision communist North Vietnamese taking over South Vietnam with high stockages of a whole lot of things in the South, which they did. But this was the kind of surrealism that confronted me on a number of occasions.
Then in addition to that a lot of Vietnamese told me stories that a lot of them didn't feel that there was any use in continuing the struggle any more against the North. I had a full Colonel tell me that his troops were not going to fight if the North Vietnamese came in force, because the perception was that they would die uselessly. There was no more effective American support, they had been abandoned and the North was getting stronger and stronger. I had stories of parents telling their young sons, "If the North Vietnamese come in force, take off your uniform and come home, because it's not worth it." Now that was a departure from the past. They did not previously tell their sons that. Some may have, but never on a significant scale. But there was more and more of that. And when you see this and hear this over and over during a two week TDY and you know something is amiss.
It would be very hard for any South Vietnamese parent or soldier to convey that kind of information to a Vietnamese official. I was a nonthreatening figure and a trusted person, somebody who could be trusted to keep secrets, and they indicated to me this terrible deterioration of morale.
So when the end finally came in late April of 1975 I had a feeling of great tragedy and of not unexpected tragedy. You have to remember, however, there were a lot of people who had been in Vietnam many years, even more than a decade, who knew the Vietnamese well in some ways, and yet remained optimistic almost right up to the end. Personal optimists, in other words. They weren't deceiving other people, they were deceiving themselves. I had close friends who told me that they thought I was too pessimistic, and of course my feeling always was that I hoped they were right and I was wrong. But unfortunately that wasn't the case. So I find the loss of South Vietnam personally to be something that bothers me more and more rather than less and less as time passes. Time is supposed to heal all wounds. But for me it doesn't. I was able to deal with it in the short term since I had predicted it and expected it. But after a while the reality of what has happened sets in. And the feeling of deep sadness that descends at that moment is permanent. It's not going to go away.

1 comment:

possum said...

That no one, a number of years later, has commented, is itself a sort of judgment on the will to forget what we--our political leadership--did in abandoning South Vietnam. As he makes clear without actually stating it, much of the deficiencies in the GVNs/RVNAF behavior and performance derived from our own profligacy starting early-on and our later defaults toward the end. Col. Sauvageot is a seminal figure in the interpretation of the war, and the currents and counter-currents as it entered its various stages.