Thursday, December 6, 2012
Philip Habib Remembers Vietnam
"A LOT OF PEOPLE LOST THEIR LIVES FOR NOTHING"
In the spring of 1975 North Vietnam had the capacity to invade South Vietnam irrespective of any international agreements prior to that. After all, what they did, very simply, was to launch a full-force, full-scale offensive with a regular army. That is what won the war. They did it while we were cutting back on our aid to South Vietnam. With Nixon out of the White House after Watergate there was no way of enforcing the Paris Agreement. Nixon had promised Thieu, of course, that if the agreement was violated then we'd at least resume the bombing and that we would make North Vietnam suffer. We wouldn't allow them, in other words, to do exactly what they eventually did because we would act. But when the threat of action became noncredible, then the North Vietnamese were free to act. They tested our credibility with a couple of jabs in 1974 and discovered that we did nothing and that they could do as they wished militarily. And so they simply decided to go for broke in 1975.
Some people saw it coming. Some people presumed when it really got underway -- in the fall of 1974 there were already people saying, "OK, it's over, it's finished." In fact, I was very pessimistic myself by that time because of the pure inability of the military to provide adequate assistance. We were trying to get aid for them -- I was up on the hill day after day --and General Fred Weyand testified and asked for aid. But Congress was not willing to extend aid. That was all. It was a carry over from previous disillusionment with the war. There was this feeling that, "We are not going to put up anything any more." After all, Congress had been asked over all those years for money and men and they were just not going to put up any more. When you look at it I think that was a very important factor in why Congress didn't want to put up any more money. There was this attitude, you know, "We're out of this thing, lets not get back into it, to hell with it, we don't care what happens." That kind of mood was prevalent in Congress.
Also, I would say, they were captives, in a way, of their own criticism of the Thieu government. I mean, really, in 1975, how could Bella Abzug change her mind on the war? Then there were some reasonable sensible Congressman -- and there were some on that trip to Vietnam in that category -- who felt we ought to be keeping our word and who believed if South Vietnam was going to go down then at least it should not go down by virtue of our not keeping our word and our not putting up several million dollars. That feeling was there in 1975, too. Very much so. Those who supported the Ford Administration had that feeling. "All right," they were saying, "we are going to meet our obligations. We'll provide the money and if it goes down then nobody can say it went down because we didn't provide the money." That was true of Bill Chappell and Jack Murtha and others. I think that was also true of Pete McCloskey then, too. Pete was divided in his feeling in 1975. Now he may not be today, but he was then. He was reluctant to go against his earlier views that this was the wrong war in the wrong place and so on. But at the same time, he's a pretty decent fellow, and he was saying, "If they're going to go down it should be because they won't fight but not because they can't fight back and I don't want to see that." Now Don Fraser, on the other hand, was honest and very sincere and he had been against the war for a very long time and he wanted us out of there. And also I think he was put off by what Graham Martin had been saying.
For a good part of the time in 1974 and the spring of 1975, Graham Martin was in Washington. He stayed in Washington. He just stayed and he stayed, on the argument that he had to convince Congress to provide more aid, that was always his argument, until finally, some of us got very upset and we got Kissinger, in effect, to tell him to get back to his post.
I know there was this period when he hung around Washington and we thought he ought to be out in the field, some of us, and he kept thinking that only he could persuade Congress. But he was wrong. Nobody could persuade Congress. I mean, hell, I went up with him a few times at that time. But Congress was adamant, or at least a majority of Congress was adamant. A sufficient number were adamant on the committees in Congress. We couldn't get anywhere with Congress. All I know is that we were trying very hard in the face of imminent catastrophe, and people like myself believed that we had to give it the best try. I guess it was a question of our keeping our word. It was a question of doing what one could in a catastrophic situation.
Martin was selected as Ambassador to Vietnam because Nixon knew him well. That is why he was selected. That of course goes back to a visit that Nixon made to Thailand in 1965. I've heard this story many times. In 1965 when Graham was in Thailand and Graham entertained Nixon there and Graham predicted that some day Nixon would be president. So anyway, they got along very well and when Nixon became president he named Martin Ambassador to South Vietnam. He seemed to have the qualifications to succeed. He had served in that area of the world. He had been a senior ambassador and so on.
But you'll get total controversy on Graham Martin. Guys who worked for him, who were his boys, were loyal to him, and everybody else despises him. And that is the way it is.
It's his character that makes him controversial, I think. He's a strange man. A strange man. Martin is a cold calculating man, with a very keen mind, but calculating. A very careful calculator. You've got to talk to a lot of people before you'll every begin to understand Graham Martin. And then you might discover that you still not understand him. He's not an easy man to understand.
And with the Congressional delegation, he did no good. There was this incident with Martin that just cleared the entire delegation. They had this briefing for the delegation. And at the end of the briefing, Martin said words to this effect, I think Frank Snepp got this second hand, but I was there as an observer, and toward the end of the meeting Martin predicted what was going to happen, and I forget his exact words, but he was very upbeat and he said, "I can tell you this is going to happen because I've been in this business for 40 years and I've never been wrong." I swear, that's what he said. And we walked out of that room and Don Fraser turned to me and said, "Did you hear that?" It had been a factual briefing and Polgar and the other people reported, but Graham went over very bad with the delegation. He was just too much. "I know it, you better listen to me and that's the way it is." I know what its really like, I know more than you do and besides I've been in this business for 40 years and never been wrong." Now you can say that to a guy like Don Fraser and Don will just look at you. Don is a very thoughtful man, a very fine person. I may have differed with him many times, we've had our arguments, but we've also had our agreements. But you know, that sort of thing just doesn't go over with a guy like Don. Bella Abzug just about had a fit with that statement. Even friendly guys like Bill Chappell and Jack Murtha were upset with Martin, too. And Millicent Fenwick, who was also open minded and very sincere and decent and very hard working was upset with Martin.
The Congressional delegation as a whole was completely put off by Martin. I mean if Pete McCloskey thought Martin was demented, can you imagine what they talked about among themselves when I wasn't listening? It was bad enough when I was trying to calm them down a little bit and to not make it so personality oriented and to talk about realities, you know.
I accompanied the delegation to Cambodia then. It was obviously lost. When we landed in Cambodia enemy artillery was already landing on the other end of the air field. The Ambassador was sitting in a bunker next to the airfield, to greet our plane as we parked next to the bunker. That's how bad it was. Cambodia was finished. Everybody knew that. The only question was, how soon is it going to happen? How soon are the going to come across the airfield and into the town? They did soon after we left.
It was all very simple what had happened in Cambodia. Very simple. The North Vietnamese had just decided to put the pressure on, to sweep into Cambodia and take it over. And they did. Very simple. There was nothing to stop them. B52s didn't stop them. B52 raids can't take the place of ground troops. Any general will tell you that. You gotta be on the ground. You gotta have men on the ground. B52s can do a hell of a lot to disrupt and break up, and they can take care of supply lines and that sort of thing. But B52s can't ever take the place of men on the ground.
Up until 1974-75, the Vietnamese were using Cambodia as a sanctuary for South Vietnam. But then, whey they were winning in Vietnam, they just decided, "Well, let's do the whole thing now!" and so they diverted some of their forces and the forces allied with them, the Khmer Rouge, to finish off what was left of Cambodia. That was no task for them. Militarily it was a walk through. The whole idea, the center of attention, was always Vietnam. Having a friendly government in Cambodia was just designed to make it more difficult for the Vietnamese to use Cambodia in order to operate in Vietnam. That's the way I saw it at the time and the way that the strategists saw it. But the real war had to be fought in Vietnam. By the time that delegation arrived in Cambodia the war was over in Cambodia.
The whole thing -- Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos -- was tragic. It was a tragic episode. Millions of people lost their lives for nothing. In the end. In the end, now. It wasn't for nothing at the time. People who want to criticize the war in Vietnam forget the purposes that led us into it in the first place, which were not unusual in the American foreign policy scheme of things for that period -- and they were certainly justifiable in those terms. After all, why was it that the war was supported for so long in Congress? Because it was expressed in terms that were justifiable in those days, in the mid-1960s. The disillusionment didn't come until the whole country turned sour on the war because of the ineffectiveness of what we were doing. It went on too long, we weren't winning, and we had this daily television horror night after night on the news.
As for the media, television, all of us at the time, I think, felt that the guys in the field were looking for the sensational, and when the mood of the country turned anti-war, particularly about 67-68, even 65-66, there was a certain uneasiness with the war, but in 67-68 it really turned, and then those guys really began feeding that sentiment with negative reporting because this was the kind of story that got them in the news and on the news. That gets you your 5 minutes and your $500 bonus. In 65-66, the bonz burning days, why did a photographer prop up a burned bonz and restart the fire so that he could get another picture of it? That happened. That's a famous story. The photographer arrived late and the thing had already happened, so they propped him up again and poured some more gas on him so the photographer could get some pictures of the flames around him. Ask somebody about that story. He re-lit him so they could get a picture of the flames. That is not a apocryphal story. That's a true story. Why did the press do things like that? That's sanctioned. That gets you your time on the air. So what you look for is you look for the aberrations. You report rumors because the rumors fit the concept of what is wanted. And it gets to be a snowball. The momentum of the reporting, negative reporting, say about the Vietnamese government. There was a momentum to that.
The whole political process in Vietnam was never well reported. And yet there was a major effort to try to get popular participation in the decision making process in the government, to democratize. At the same time there was the constant willingness to put the negative rather than the positive on the air when it became popular to report the negative. You see what I mean? There was a snowball effect involved.
Nguyen Van Thieu was just a staff man. But I don't think you could question his intention or his desire to maintain an independent South Vietnam. He wasn't particularly effective. But he also wasn't totally corrupt, as he was often made out to be in the press. He was astute, intelligent and a very thoughtful man, and hard working, up early, worked late, very very hard working. But the American press was down on him. You know he had some disadvantages with the press. He didn't speak English very well, he wasn't at ease with the guys with the foreign press and I could see why he wasn't and I could see why the press was down on him. The war was being lost. Nguyen Cao Ky, of course, was another character in his early days, when he was prime minister, when he was really the top dog. When they changed positions, then Ky changed. But when he was prime minister and was apparently running things -- although he really wasn't --he seemed to be the boss -- he was a fine boy then, no doubt about it. But the press -- well, those pearl handled pistols, jump suits, Hansel-and-Gretel-in-the-forest -- you remember that. Well, Ky was better than that. He was a very courageous guy, tops, fine, courageous guy. He was willing to fight. So I don't bad mouth Ky or Thieu. Neither of them. I think they were both men who were victims of circumstances beyond their control. Maybe they weren't big enough for the job, but they weren't cowards, either. Thieu and Ky were both courageous men who depended on us for a great deal. And in the end Thieu has every right to be bitter because he was promised by us certain things -- by Nixon --when we sold him on the Paris Agreement.
I had no misgivings about the Paris Agreement. Kissinger brought me down to South Vietnam when he came out to sell the final agreement. I was ambassador to Crete at the time and Kissinger asked me to fly down, I had just had a heart attack not long before that but I flew down anyway. And I went over it with Kissinger, article by article, and clause by clause and I told him under the circumstances it was the best we could do, and that was true. That was true. But I told him he was gonna have difficulty with the Vietnamese, and he did, but in the end we had to have our way, and we did.
Of course the Agreement left the North Vietnamese Army in place in the South. But at the time --at that time --the presumption was that eventually there would be some type of political compromise and then they would withdraw. They were not allowed to reinforce, under the agreement.
I saw what we were aiming toward, following 1968, we were aiming toward an independent South Vietnam, but one in which certain compromises would have to be made and there would have been a sharing, if not of power then at least of the political process, between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese government, with the North Vietnamese going along with it. The North would want an end to the war and they would want to play for the longer run, we felt. That would be what they would get out of the agreement, that's the best you could get out of it. You have to realize, we were not gonna win the war! Remember that! It wasn't like Korea. In Korea you defeated the enemy. In South Vietnam you couldn't defeat the enemy. Korea was defeated. People forget that. In the sense that after having come down with the Chinese they were pushed back to the 38th parallel and then the war was there, in their own territory . They couldn't win, they had been overrun and destroyed, they had to settle for what they got. And so there was an agreement and the agreement held in Korea.
The Paris agreement provided for division in Vietnam and it provided for some political compromises, but the agreement did not provide that the North would overrun the South militarily and win a total victory. Now that's what the agreement didn't provide. So there was nothing inherently wrong with the agreement, you could argue that the agreement should have been done this way or that way with certain clauses, that it should have been done sooner or later or whatever, but inherent to the circumstances, the question was: Could you get any more and still stop the war. That answer was no. And there was pressure on the administration at the time to stop the war.
We had gone through the Christmas bombings in 1972. But we couldn't keep that up. People say it demonstrated we could win! What they hell are they talking about? You gonna go back and lose another 15 or 20 B52s and get another 5,000 demonstrations in the US? What the hell are they talking about? Bomb them back into the stone age as General LeMay suggested? The North had been bombed for years! Now the Christmas bombing was massive and it was urban. And undoubtedly Kissinger may be right when he says it brought Le Duc Tho back to the bargaining table in Paris and it got him to go along with things Kissinger wanted to modify in the original agreement. That's what it succeeded in doing. But from the North Vietnamese position, they still had an agreement that they knew they could win with in time.
What did the North Vietnamese want? They wanted to get us out. They wanted to stop the war and they wanted to take it to a different phase. They knew that once we were out of it completely we were never going to come back in.
It was a fair bet on their part. And by 1974 they were correct because Nixon was out because of Watergate and he was the man who was going to get them. And besides, just take the evidence of Ford's experience in Cambodia. Ford couldn't get any more money. They saw that. And so by 1974 they knew that they could now go for the Big Casino. So in the fall of 1974 they began the final offensive. That's what they did! Now in 1973 when they signed the Agreement, they wanted to stop the war, and they wanted to get us completely out of the war. They succeeded. So from their standpoint, it didn't surprise me that Le Duc Tho conceded to Kissinger what he wanted. He would have conceded anyway, with or without the Christmas bombing. In my mind the Christmas bombing speeded up his decision, that's all it did. But, sure, they realized that Nixon was prepared to brutalize them a little bit. That's what he did do in the Christmas bombings.
In order to win the war you had to do things that the American people were not prepared to do. And public opinion turned against the war. And in the final analysis foreign policy in the US has to have the support of public opinion or it doesn't succeed. We cannot have a foreign policy that's contrary to public opinion.
The American people turned against the war. That doesn't mean they favored the North, by any means at all. Only a very few people ever got to the point where they said, "Oh, the North Vietnamese are a great group of people, we ought to support them." There were a couple of people who went to North Vietnam and then talked about how great it was, but that was entirely belched. Those were people who were taken in and then there weren't many of them.
At the end of April, when Saigon fell, I was busy trying to see how many goddamned planes we could get in, ships we could get in, people we could get out and where they hell they were and what was taking so long. I was working. Working. We were working. We weren't retrospecting at that time. There was fear of a catastrophe.
But we were all working, everybody was working when President Minh surrendered. We were more concerned with refugees and evacuation than with anything else.
I felt no sense at that moment that this was a turning point in history. I was working too hard to think about it. You get caught up, at moments like that, with your function. Your job. After its all over, you have after thoughts, that's when you think about it, when it's over. But if you are busy doing your work you don't have time to think about these things. You're busy sitting there with a thousand messages coming in and you are on a direct line to Saigon, and you are talking to this guy and you are talking about here and now.
I think we would have started the evacuation sooner and finished it sooner. But the prevailing point of view was that you couldn't do it that way. Up to a point. Then that point came and they were told, get out! That's it.
Nobody was optimistic at that time -- well, almost nobody was optimistic at that time. We were getting silly statements like, "Oh, they'll form a line at Xuan Loc, and they'll hold, and it'll be better because they'll have shorter lines." That was one of Graham Martin's line. Well, none of us in Washington believed that, none of us. I didn't for minute. I never used that argument.
Now the business of actually getting people out was an area of great controversy. There was a period when there was very substantial differences of opinion between Washington and Saigon, with Washington saying, "Get out!" and wanting to get our people out and Graham was saying, "Oh, if we do that there'll be panic." But there was already panic anyway, so what difference did it make?
Now Kissinger went both ways on this. When he'd talk with me he'd listen to me and I'd say, "Get 'em out now." But Graham Martin would give him this blast about panic. So Kissinger was of two minds, take it from me. He may say he was for delay, and that's the face he would show to some of the people he talked to. But in the final analysis he went along with me.
My staff, and the CIA people were saying, "Look, you've got to get our people out. It's gone to far. There's just no way that this can in any way be saved. It's too late."
So in the end it could have been done a lot easier if it had been done a lot earlier. Without that last-minute scramble with the helicopters off the roof and people down below beating on the gates. There was a better way to do it. But that's still very controversial.
Martin had to fulfill obligations to people he'd been working with and a lot of people got left behind. Ordinarily, we would have just gotten out, but we had all these obligations.
And the whole idea of the South Vietnamese suddenly turning on us, that was just bullshit. Did they? I never believed that, not for a minute. I know the Vietnamese. Martin never knew the Vietnamese. He never talked to the Vietnamese. He didn't know them. He didn't know five Vietnamese. He never talked to them. Never saw them. Talk to his staff. Ask them how many Vietnamese he knew, how many he talked to. Where did he ever travel in Vietnam and who did he meet? He didn't know anything about Vietnam. He was a man who worked with paper and sat in his office. He worked with paper. He is a strange man. A strange, strange man. A brilliant mind, but a strange man.
I think, in conclusion, Vietnam was a noble cause, we did a great deal. I don't know if we did the best we could, but we did a great deal, we did all that could be expected of us --let me put it that way. And we weren't prepared to make it the most important war or the most important element of our foreign policy. If we had we would have invaded North Vietnam. In 1968 when Westmoreland asked for 207,000 more men, he didn't get them. And why didn't he get them? Because the powers that be in Washington realized that we couldn't support that because of public opinion. I was Bill Bundy's deputy at that time and I was in those discussions, I was in the meetings at the Pentagon, so I know what the decisions were then and how they were made and why. In 1961 and 1965 we had confidence that we could succeed and we could build up South Vietnam and we could defeat the enemy and we could prevail. All of those things were part of the mystique of that period. It's not hard to recreate the thinking process that got us into the war. It was very natural part of that period -- we thought we would pay any price and bear any burden, as John Kennedy said. Kennedy produced the Green Berets and the idea that you could do this and do that. I don't find that so strange to contemplate in retrospect.
I visited the Vietnam Memorial soon after it was put up. It's a very stark reminder. It's a marvelous memorial, I think. It's a stark memorial and its a reminder of the losses that we suffered in that war. And you think that, when you see it, the US is not always omnipotent. We didn't succeed. We didn't achieve what we set out to achieve in Vietnam and there is no doubt that Vietnam was a setback for American foreign policy and there is no question that millions of people suffered because of that setback. But they didn't suffer because of what we did. They suffered because of what others had done and because of what others were determined to do. I still go back to an analysis of what we stood for, what we were trying to do. What kind of world we were trying to create? It was part of our striving in that direction, part of our general foreign policy objectives in that period. And by and large I don't find it difficult to support American foreign policy objectives. I don't find it difficult at all. I understand the underlying factors that produce American foreign policy -- the sense of idealism, national interests, a sense of purpose, a sense of what kind of world we want to see. I don't find fault with the American public, even. I often speak on this subject and I say that in the mass the American people came down on the right side in Vietnam. And in the mass, in the end of the Vietnam War the politicians had to listen to the American people and the American people decided that Vietnam was not a war that they wanted to continue to be involved in. That's a decision they have a right to make and they made it. The American public made that decision, and who the hell is anybody else to deny that? To me that was the final element of the war. The decision of the American people not to pursue the war any longer.
I've seen three wars we were involved in and I've seen others we were not involved in. I'm not interested in hostilities, I'm not interested in people killing people. I'm interested in the peace process and negotiation. I'm not interested in war anymore. War is just an expression of failure of diplomacy and the failure of foreign policy and the failure of national effort. We ought to be able to be better than that and to not have to go to war.
Most differences can be settled by negotiation, and that means you gotta be prepared to make some compromises once in a while. Negotiation means compromise. Every negotiation has to be a compromise to be successful. You can win at the conference table what you can't win on the battlefield. Of course you can, you can resolve an issue and you can get a satisfactory conclusion which you may not be able to get on the battlefield.
We won the battles. But we didn't win the war. The war was more than the battles. After all the North lost battle after battle after battle. And look what happened.