Mr. Engelmann, my apologies both for the tardiness of this reply and for the rather cumbersome means of communication that we are adopting. I couldn't somehow get to your questions when I was bouncing on and off of airplanes and trains and boats in Asia. I did like your piece on the fall of Saigon in the Washington Post Magazine, and I look forward to seeing your book. I only that my contribution is not too late to be of some value to you.
I think, incidentally, that the animosity within the press corps that you cite in your letter is due in good part to the fact that it was such an unhappy war for the press. I'm aware that technically at least there are no happy wars, although, of course there are, but what I mean is that the press, particularly those of us who covered the conflict for a long time found itself politicized. I assume you've read the accounts of the reunion in the regimental call of the 69th Infantry in New York, which occurred last year. Animosity there was indeed.
Now to your questions:
My own association in Southeast Asia began, I suppose, in 1954, but I first came to Asia in 1951, where I covered the Korean War. I went to Singapore in 1954 on a Ford Foundation grant to study overseas Chinese and to Saigon and Haiphong for the first time in 1955 in connection with that study and some reporting I was doing. For your convenience I'll enclose a resume which should give you an idea of my background for your purposes.
No, I didn't get to Vietnam before 1955. I did however, spend about a week in Haiphong as the French were withdrawing. If I recall correctly that was in March 1955. Incidentally, the DC6 from Saigon stopped at a little place called Touraine and I remember having a rather good French sausage there. The terminal was a small, for a terminal, wooden shack. The place later became DaNang. Presumably it was DaNang all along, but we know under the name of DaNang.
In Haiphong I saw the French marching out, piling, as they said at the time, everything from cartons of toilet paper to many many cases of wine, to tanks and artillery, directly onto ships bound for France. Very little war material was left for the Vietnamese, and of course the Vietnamese army hardly existed at that point. I'm talking about the South Vietnamese obviously. I did interview Cogny, Rene??, who was a very impressive general, but who was already at the betrayal of the French cause in Indochina. Curiously Cogny, to the best of my knowledge, never participated in the Algerian nonsense, or any of the other expressions of discontent by the French army over the outcome in Indochina. He did, however, speak scathingly of Raull Salon??? who had been his commanding officer, and said flatly that Dien Bien Phu had been picked as the site of the decisive battle because it was the junction of the opium roots and Salon was well into the opium trade. I have heard nothing since that time to indicate that Cogny was not telling the truth.
Question No. 3: Yes, I did witness the American buildup after 1965. I thought at the time that it was excessive and that the Americans were piling too many men into too small a place with too constricted an idea of what their objectives were. Parenthetically in this context, I was opposed to the American commitment in Vietnam. If you look at Newsweek for November of 1961, you will find the first of the Diem must go articles under my byline. I am, to this day, not sure whether I was right or wrong, particularly when I contemplate the ebb and flow of coups and leaders that followed Diem's overthrow. Certainly, I deplore, indeed lamented since I was fond of him, the murder of Diem with the connivance -- connivance isn't a strong enough word, on the orders of Kennedy carried out by Henry Cabot Lodge
Let me say parenthetically here, that there is a good deal of background material which I'm not necessarily going to send to you. One of the main pieces from my point of view, that is my own personal documentation, is a piece I did in Encounter in October, I believe, of 1981, on the press and the Vietnam War. If you have not seen it, please let me know and I'll either send you a copy or tell you where you can get one.
Now with regard to your question on the American buildup after 1965. My own personal reaction was as I have said above. In addition to that, I went back, if I recall correctly, to Saigon for the first time since 1962, in early 1966, February or March, I'm not sure when. I'd been in Europe from '62 to '65, and when I returned the Los Angeles Times -- certainly you will find if you have the time or the research people to assist you, a number of pieces I wrote on my first return, including one in Saigon, which if I recall correctly, said that going back to Saigon was like visiting a once-loved woman in the hospital after she'd been in a terrible accident. Again if you can't find these pieces I'll try to shake them loose for you and see if I can find them in my files, but I hope you can do it yourself.
I cite that piece on Saigon particularly, although it was surrounded by another of others touching on the same subject, because it discussed the terrible confusion created by American bureaucracy even that early on.
QUESTION 4: Yes, I met a great number of American civilian and military leaders in Vietnam. I'll try to analyze them for you on the following understanding: You are free to use my judgments without attribution to me or identification. If it should become important to you in the course of writing to identify me as the source I'd appreciate your letting me see exactly what you intend to attribute to me. I say this primarily not because I'm afraid of offending, but because I think I can speak more freely this way. In other words, on background, not on the record for the moment.
I'll go down a list now of the people who come to mind most immediately:
Maxwell Taylor who came over on a couple of missions in '62 for Kennedy was a very bright general. I knew him first in Korea in the closing days when we were separated by the enormous distance that lies between a very junior reporter and a very senior commander in chief. I did not ever get to know him terribly well, but I was always impressed by him. There is only one small niggle in the back of my mind. Was I so impressed by Taylor's intelligence, quickness and general learning because one expects so little of a general in those areas that anything is better than nothing, particularly in comparison to his fellow generals. In other words, rather like Dr. Johnson on a woman's preaching--a dog walking on its hind legs--I simply don't know.
General Lightening Joe Collins who was special ambassador either before or after chief of staff of the army, was a more conventional general, quick, snappy, with a degree of political savvy developed by appointments in the political military field, but not terribly impressive. I did not feel that either Taylor or Collins certainly ever began to grasp the complexities of the Vietnamese people, let alone the complexities of the Vietnamese history. For our rather straightforward American generals the devious character of the Vietnamese and Vietnamese society was almost unimaginable much less penetrable. Worse, Taylor, and I believe Collins, had dealt with other Asians, the rather straightforward Koreans, so that they were conditioned against believing that there could be so many different layers of deception and deviousness and misdirection as is the common practice in Vietnam.
I met a few of the other ambassadors earlier. Frederick Nolting comes to mind. Nolting was a rather good chap and I had a long talk with him about the third day after he arrived in Saigon. I remember telling John Anspacher, his PIO, that it was important that I see Nolting as early as possible. He replied that after all the Ambassador was very busy and I'd just have to wait. And I said to him that he didn't quite understand that it was more important for Nolting to see me than me to see Nolting. Given that message Nolting did see me. The reason for my urgent request was that I had spent about almost ten hours with Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu a day earlier. You might, incidentally, if you are interested, find several pieces I did on those meetings several years later when I was writing a column for the L.A. Times between 1970 and 1972. I'm not sure of the exact year.
At any rate, I went to see Nolting at my request, and he wondered why I'd come to see him and was a little impatient. And I told him that I had spent this time with Diem and that one thing had come through clearly to me. I attempted to show him what I meant by citing specific remarks. And that was very simple, that Diem was infuriated at the American establishment top to bottom because he believed it was inhibiting his sovereignty and it was interfering with his conduct of the war. In many cases he was, to my knowledge, right. In others it was a matter of judgement. But I told Nolting, in any event, that it seemed to me that Diem's attitude made it impossible for the United States to work with him unless his attitude was changed enormously. Nolting did not agree, but went on to become one of the greatest Diem supporters of all.
HENRY CABOT LODGE I did not like. I thought he was supercilious, silly too, and really unprofessional and not terribly interested in what was happening in Vietnam except for the opportunities it gave him to display his command of French. How polished his French was, I cannot judge, but he thought it was wonderful and even the Frenchmen in Saigon agreed for obvious reasons.
Lodge was also sometimes remarkably clumsy and always self-indulgent. As I have indicated, I do not believe he had any deep understanding of the situation in Vietnam, let alone Vietnam as a nation or culture, or its people. His closest contact was the young lady, a manicurist, I think but I'm not sure, whom he used to squire around when his wife was in Bangkok. The exodus to Bangkok, incidentally, before fancied danger to American wives was greeted with cheers by their husbands. This was about '61, I'd say, quite early on, but I'm hazy on that date. I remember attending a party with Lodge at the home of Dick McCarthy who was head of USIS. I was staying with Dick McCarthy and Ben Fordney the press attache at the time. They were old friends and it had nothing to do with whether I was subservient to them or following the offical line. As a matter of fact, at the time I definitely was not following the official line, far from it.
Lodge, knowing that I would be at a party that Fordney and McCarthy were giving the next day, sent me a message which Fordney delivered with some embarrassment. I was to understand, the Ambassador told me through proxy, that the party was a social occasion, that anything that he said at the party would not be for attribution or use. I told Ben that I was fully aware what a social occasion was. The party duly took place, and Lodge was present with his manicurist who was dressed in the most transparent Chongsam I've ever seen. It looked as if it were made of cellophane. The next day I got a telephone call from Fordney saying the Ambassador wants to know why you avoided him all night.
Before I go on to the next phase, which is the post-'65 phase, let me recall that an awful lot of people put their fingers into the Vietnam pie. I assume you've heard the famous story about Jack Kennedy's talking to General Victor Krulac of the Marines and Joe Mendenhall of the State Department after a fact finding mission. His question was, "Were you two gentlemen in the same country?" Among those putting their fingers into the pie were Bobby Kennedy, with whom I discussed Vietnam while flying from Bali to Ogor above Jakarta in a Czech-made copy of the Convair Metropolitan, that didn't get over the mountain, unlike the American-made Metropolitan that flew the rest of the press corps. I've forgotten why I was given the special privileges. It was something to do with a story I was doing for Newsweek at the time. At any rate, I read Bobby my version of what was going on in Vietnam at the time, which was basically the idea that Diem was far too committed to his anti-American position and also far too isolated from the Vietnamese people behind his palace servants, and that really the Americans should take a close look at the entire situation again. As I've said, I'm not quite sure to this day whether I was right in feeling Diem had the gut -- I remain confident in the analysis at the time. At any rate, Bobby rushed off to Vietnam at his next stop of his trip, in '61 again I believe, and turned the entire establishment upside down. I was at the time gratified that Bobby had listened. What came out of the sort of "stirring of the waters" I have no idea. Generally I have no idea. In this case my intervention was very small, indeed a minute, part of the pressure that built up so that Jack Kennedy through Henry Cabot Lodge and the CIA conspired in the coup that deposed Diem and at the very least acquiesced in his murder. I do not remember my own role at the time with any great happiness, small and minor as it was.
As I said, at that period I was opposed to further American intervention and it was already seven years since I'd first been to Vietnam. Let me put in here the fact that my experience in Vietnam covers a long period from 1955 until early 1975. I was not present for the final act. I did spend periods of two to three months, I think three and a half months is the longest time I ever spent at one go. Whether this experience is better than, equal to, or less than valid as a base for analysis than the experience of someone who spent two years in country continuously aside from breaks for R and R and holidays, I simply don't know.
But let me come to the period after '66. During the nine years from '66 to '75, I visited the country repeatedly, even when I was based in Munich writing a foreign affairs column. I'm still talking, of course, about the people. I'll try to give you a few thumbnail sketches.
ROBERT COMER who was with the rank of ambassador. Everybody seemed to have the rank of ambassador or deputy ambassador. Like for instance Sam Berger, who was a deputy ambassador, a tough little character with a labor background from New York, who I think was one of our better people. COMER later became Ambassador to Turkey, I believe, and was a very intelligent New Frontiersman. I sometimes wonder if he didn't play back what one wanted to hear. He was in charge of the CORDS??? Program. If I remembered I'd tell you what it was but I'm sure you got it from ten other people what the acronym stands for. I was at the time interested in the social and economic revolution that was being wrought in South Vietnam by the American presence. The impact on the society and the minds of the people, and even the social structure was naturally immense. A tremendous amount of wealth, energy, and for want of a better word, moral direction, by which I mean new ideas as to what people should do, was put in the country by the massive American presence. And COMER, who was very bright, I used to see him repeatedly, was convinced that this social revolution was making a new Vietnam. I expressed doubt because I'm not quite sure whether I put the idea into his head or he put it into mine. Obviously I should prefer that he put it into mine because otherwise I would be replaying my own thoughts. At any rate, there was an awful lot of razzmatazz about the operation, the essential business of public relations, which seems to be the greatest American accomplishment except when it collapses as it finally did in Vietnam. Comer was responsible for such things as HES, Hamlet Evaluation System, which was, with some justification, derided. The system attempted to take the temperature of every hamlet in Vietnam and classify it, if I recall correctly, as totally Viet Cong dominated, occasionally Viet Cong influenced, weak influence, and running all the way to totally government controlled. Charts and figures were produced.
Now there was nothing wrong with this essentially. It gave an idea of where we were going but to take the body count literally, to me in private, since I rarely saw people on the record, COMER would criticize the system. But in public he tended to point with pride. The same criticism of course applies to the body count which was to a large extent produced because Americans demanded that the figures be quantified -- that progress be quantified. The great American obsession with things you can show in quantities.
Anyway, I thought Comer was a pretty good guy. He was also a dedicated careerist and a wonderful manipulator of people and facts. In a way, I think, one had to be for that kind of job.
GENERAL WILLIAM WESTMORELAND was quite a different character. They used to call him the Eagle Scout, and he looked like an eagle scout, as you know. He also manifested the painful combination of dedication, naivete and bewilderment. I still think it is characteristic of the best eagle scouts. I spent a fair amount of time with Westmoreland over the years. In part I believe because after 1966 I was convinced that however mistaken the American commitment to Vietnam had made it a vital national interest. I was a little uncomfortable, as I think I've written elsewhere, in going along in general with the official line, but I was consoled by the fact that previously when most of my colleagues had been for the involvement I was against it, and when most of them were against it, rather belatedly I felt I was however reluctantly, for it.
At any rate, as I said, coming in from the outside with various grandiose, high powered introductions, Westmoreland was prepared to give me a lot of time. Also, I listened and as I said, I found him rather bewildered. The last week before he left I spent several hours with him. I shall never forget his producing a map of Vietnam with an overlay showing some sort of engagements and saying it had been prepared at his request by his military history section and General Westmoreland said, you see, you've got to show them we're fighting on a front longer than the one we fought on in France. I couldn't obviously say, General look, it's nothing to do with it. It is not a guerrilla war, of course, in spite of what the communists say. It was a war of regular units, but those regular units were not fighting in a long line. Nobody's trying to hold a line. They are trying to hold pockets of territory which is quite a different thing, and they are trying to break our morale, just as we are trying to break their morale. And yet despite his naivete, despite the fact that Abrams who succeeded him was a much more able man and at least more down to earth to us correspondents, Westmoreland presided over the buildup that did succeed in grinding down the North Vietnamese on the ground. He did not -- that isn't his fault, but the American effort obviously did not succeed in grinding down the North Vietnamese will, which is the real issue.
Barry Zorthian, clever. Genial, essentially again a flyboy a man inclined to wing it. You ask Barry a question he almost always had an answer. Often the answer was made up on the spot by Barry -- quite often. It would differ from the actual fact as one would discover by further research. To do any research, because I'd go to the people and seen them themselves, because in the American establishment particularly, there was no problem seeing people.
BILL COLBY who later became head of the CIA, they all enjoyed their perks. They were at least Code Six for helicopter priorities, which is comparable to a full colonel. It was to them at least, a fun war. Colby, cold bureaucratic, yet I found when I spent a couple of days with him going around his possessions, quite open and open minded. What I see in the papers, he later turned into an arch bureaucratic infighter in Washington. That was not the impression I had then. But again, my impression was rather superficial. I knew him over a period of time, spent some days with him, but didn't really know him well enough to make any kind of final judgement.
With ELLSWORTH BUNKER the perennial ambassador I must declare an interest. I first met him when he was in India and I was stationed in 1956 when he came there as ambassador, and I had just opened a Newsweek bureau there. . . . was another ambassador in Nepal. I had a rather tenuous old connection. An uncle of hers had been a teacher of mine in high school, a teacher of whom I had been very fond, and he'd been very good to me. We generally liked each other, although of course he was so much older. I remember telling him once he didn't know anything about India because he lived in a glass bellow provided for diplomats, particularly for ambassadors, whereas I although living a lot better than 99% of the Indians, was nonetheless exposed to vagaries and the problems of living in the country rather than on the country. He tended to agree.
In Vietnam I used to see him year after year and I still believe that he never lied to me. Sometimes he wouldn't answer questions. Perhaps the fondness was reciprocated. And I found him canny, shrewd, a good servant of Washington, but one who ould make his own point when he had to, and although you could never tell from his attitude, he became more and more . . .???? Bunker, I felt, stood out above all the others. Intelligent, with a degree of compassion hidden behind a rather rock-ribbed New England manner. Yes, I know that he wasn' from New England originally, but he did attend Yale with Averill Harriman a class or two apart, which is rather odd. And of course, odd because he and Harriman didn't get on politically in their views of Vietnam.
But he did get on well with the Vietnamese. As you are aware, Asians do venerate age.
I've just noticed that parts of this tape seem to be getting too fast and some too slow, it's a new tape recorder. I hope you'll be able to manage. I can't go back an do it again.
(BUNKER) was very unhappy when he had to put the pressure on Thieu to accede to the 1973 accords.
I do not believed that Bunker ever lied to me. One can't be absolutely sure, but I think it most unlikely. From time to time he would simply not answer questions, which I think was the honest way to deal with it. How much misdirection he exerted on me I don't know and over the years I don't recall any high degree of misdirection. This of course was because I'd known him a long time and he knew that I was fundamentally sympathetic to him as a human being and to what he was trying to do. I was not out to do a hatchet job on him.
((End of side A)))
((BEGIN side B)))
I'm trying on the other side now, I hope it will work. I'll test it. If it becomes too impossible I'll get a new tape or something . . .
Your next question, Number Five deals with the accuracy and so on of the press. I really feel that I've covered that question pretty well and I don't really want to get into the question of who were the best journalists and so on. It's a very personal matter and as you have noted if you read that piece I did, you will see that I deliberately refrain from mentioning names. Also of course I am prejudiced in favor of my own group, in this case that's the people who've been around Asia long enough to know what was happening. Why don't you say if you want to come back to me with any specific questions about the press after you've read my piece.
Thieu, Ky, any South Vietnamese leaders, what did I think of them? Question number 6. I'm trying to recall. I met a great number. A man with a beard, I don't remember meeting who was installed and disappeared during the period I was away from 1962 to 1966, about a three year period. I'm not suggesting his installation and removal had anything to do with my absence.
Well, of course, Diem above all is the man who symbolized Vietnam to me, the man who used to, we were told, sit in his palace quite alone deciding whether to grant visas to journalists. At the time it seemed rather a mad way to operate a country. Nowadays one wonders if one is a despot or demi-despot as he was at the most, what better way to defend ones despotism than to try to keep the press out. But Diem was a terribly impressive man, awkward physically, round, rotund is a good description. Strange smoothness of features that one associates with monks, and he was celibate. Perhaps he never quite grew up. As you knew Diem was not precisely the American candidate, although he was later called that. He was sheltered by the Maryknolls, fathers at Ossning where he used to wash dishes, not that they forced him to. He only came back really to a great extent over the protests of people like Lightening Joe Collins who were almost entirely in the hands of the French and who therefore resisted Diem because the French didn't like him. I'm going back to pre-1955 now. I know that by reports, not directly. He was a fanatic, totally devoted to his country. A celibate, as I said. He was also totally devoted to his family. As you are aware his brother was the Archbishop of Hue if I recall correctly. Ngo Dinh Can and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu was chief of staff and closest confident and his sister-in-law was the famous Madame Nhu who spoke of Buddhist barbecues.
And yet I found in my dealings with him, which center for me around that one six and a half hour interview, I found him a remarkably dedicated, fanatical perhaps, dedicated to his people and to his own way of doing things. He lacked the flexibility necessary to deal with the Americans, who so often can insist on their way of doing things. But he pointed in his discussions with me and I'm sure in his discussion with hundreds of other people, to a fundamental flaw in all American policy in Asia, which is . . .??unclear?? outcome and a rather, sometimes I think sinister . . . Thailand once put it, "You Americans all think you are supermen. You think only an American can fire an M-16 rifle or fly a 104. It isn't true. You try to do everything yourself or make us do it your way." Diem very much resented the interference perhaps well meaning but certainly officious Americans in the way he was running his country.
On the other hand, occasionally his resistance to American way led him into even graver error. Sir Robert Thompson, who became famous for his performance in Malaya at one point, headed a British mission, which convinced Diem in the early 60s that the way to manage the problem of Vietnam was to copy British experience in Malaya, which had nothing to do with . . . strategic hamlets modeled on the new villages in Malaya, which incidentally were not concentration camps where I saw them. In Malaya they had been into the jungle spying and those villages were intended to deny food to the guerrillas and the British "CTs", communist terrorists by controlling the civilian population and the food they could take in and out of there. Barbed wire enclosed new villages and the British did cut down on food for the the CTs. Growing or finding food in the jungle is very difficult business.
But Diem attempted to create what he called "Strategic Hamlets" in very food-rich areas like the Mekong Delta. It was a pointless exercise to say the least.
At any rate I find Diem the most impressive of the lot and as I've indicated earlier I have my qualms about the extent to which my own writing played a role in his being allowed to be destroyed.
NHU, Nhu was mad in an egocentric way. The world revolved around Nhu who invented a doctrine called Can Lao, personalism. A kind of Asian-French right wing 1930s semi-fascist doctrine which had very little to do with the problems of Vietnam.
KY, I think I used to meet at cocktail parties. I don't recall ever having interviewed him as such. He was cocky, shallow, courageous and intelligent, like so many fly boys in Asia, starting with General Chennault, believed that air power could solve all problems, whether it was repelling invasions or conducting an election.
HUNG, I've forgotten the rest of his name, but he was prime minister, and then I think he became president very briefly for a day. He was the one who turned the country over to the communists because Thieu had already taken off. Hung I found bluff, hard to tell how intelligent he was, but an old fashioned sort of Vietnamese. He reminded me of Chinese. He was bigger than most Vietnamese, fleshier, taller, and more direct. I recall an interview with Hung, I don't know the year, but if you are going to do any kind of search it should be easy now. I imagine with computerization you'll find an article. Usually I went to see Hung, not on the record. He was was Prime Minister at the time. And he said a couple of things that interested me. I believe this is 1969, but I'm not sure. It could have been earlier.
He said that they were always prepared to talk with the Viet Cong. That is, the Vietnamese government, but Article Four of the Constitution forbade their speaking with a communist organization. And I said, "Well, look, they say they are not communists." And he said, "Yeah, that's right." And in the same discussion, he later suggested that it was time for the Americans to begin thinking about withdrawing, turning more of the burden over to the Vietnamese, which meant of course, more weapons as well. That incidentally was a constant theme, as I've indicated earlier, of most Asians' approaches to the Vietnam war and other issues.
Again parenthetically, I remember one German saying--this was in Europe just before I came back to Asia--and he said, you know, Americans have moved into Vietnam. They are doing everything including collecting the garbage.
Hung said "Look it's time for you people to begin to disengage. We can take care of it." You know, slow transition. This was, of course, Vietnamization. And I said to Hung, "Can I have those two things on the record?" And we worked out what he wanted to say and I wrote a piece which the L.A. Times duly gave prominence to. Curiously the Washington Post waited a day to run the piece. They got it through the joint news service. And then ran it with a disclaimer and a sort of knock-down by Murray Marder I believe, on the same page. A very peculiar journalism to knock down your own story at the same time it was running. However that's a side issue.
You see most of these Vietnamese were trapped between the communists on the north with absolutely implacable will, and the Americans who were changeable, capricious, officious, and yet very strong willed about the way they wanted to see things done. In the late 60s, early 70s, Thieu decided he was going to have an election and he did even though he was advised by the Americans not to. Well the reason of course was to demonstrate to Americans that he could run a reasonably free election. He ran a reasonably fair election but it wasn't really something you want to do in a country that is in the middle of a war. It was a response to indirect American pressure whatever the Americans said about not wanting to hold an election.
One of the problems of the Vietnamese leaders is they never had time to mature as leaders. Even the American president who is engaged always in worrying about his party's popularity in the next election has a certain solidity of tenure, obviously, and a certain security so he can get on with governing or meeting problems, to a certain extent. The Vietnamese, particularly in the atmosphere of coup and counter-coup and so on, rarely had time to get into governing. He was too busy maintaining his position. The thing that marked the Vietnamese leader was the fact that he was able to get and retain power. Not what he did with power, because he never had time to. They never had time to mature. On the one hand they were under the communist pressure; on the other hand they were under American pressure. And of course with the French they had very few opportunities to grow up. Not many Vietnamese generals had been sergeants. Very few had been lieutenants in the French Army. I think one or two had higher rank, but very few indeed. And this was the pattern. The French indeed did do everything. Perhaps they didn't collect the garbage, but they did everything else.
I'll never forget how startled I was, I'm not sure about this, but the French actually were sergeants of police who were French, which never would have occurred in the British service. So Vietnamese didn't have any time to gain experience, much less confidence, and this was a constant pressure. Very difficult indeed.
At a lower level, BUI was head of the trade union. The same thing, he was busy balancing himself. He really had very little to do with trade unions, which, of course, to a certain extent were a puppet, that is a front organization. But on the other hand, he would defy the government from time to time, but you saw no sense of continuity, no sense that people would be in the same place next time you came around. They were in and out. The best analogy I can think of was the gatekeeper analogy, which particularly the last year or two, that each general, each politician would hold a certain position for a while, to make his money and then get out. And we created that situation, which leads me into the PARIS AGREEMENT.
At the time, I did not, I must admit, think that it was fatal. And the reason for not thinking it was fatal is the following:
(Parenthetically I just obtained some new batteries and I trust that the rest will be a little less eccentric.)))
Even in remote Vietnam or Asia we were very much aware of the pressure upon the Administration at home. After all, I had heard Lyndon Johnson's abdication speech in 1968 in Wellington, New Zealand, where I was covering a SEATO meeting. I also felt at the time that it was time for the Americans to begin withdrawing, or to continue withdrawing. That if the Vietnamese couldn't make it by this time, they would never be able to make it. Moreover, I'd been seeing Kissinger regularly and had some idea of the difficulties involved. However, the clincher as far as I was concerned came a little later in a talk with Kissinger in Hong Kong.
I remember greeting him by offering him my congratulations on one of the greatest feats of prestidigitation that I had ever seen. And I said it was a very interesting agreement, but really didn't mean anything. And he smiled and made several points, one of which was, that the agreement had been deliberately made as complex as possible so that a single violation of the agreement would not result in a confrontation. But he added that the true guarantor of the integrity of South Vietnam was external to the agreement, that is, the North Vietnamese had been told in terms they could not mistake, quoth he, that resumption of any kind of large-scale action would at the very least bring American air power in in great force. Since American air power had been the chief factor in stopping the drive in the northern provinces the previous year, this was a potent threat.
The same guarantee had been made to Thieu. In addition, Thieu had been promised that the flow of American war material would continue. On that basis, and not possessing the ability to foresee Watergate, I was perforce content. I believe, if I recall correctly, that the pieces I did at the time of the agreement were a little too kind to the administration. I'm a bit sorry about that now. I might add that the agreement need not, and I still believe this, have been fatal had the promises been kept in both respects. As you know, the supply of American material dwindled to one-third and in certain categories one-ninth of what the Vietnamese, let alone the Americans had been receiving before the withdrawal.
QUESTION 8: I see 1968 Tet as the turning point of the Vietnamese war. It was a turning point militarily for the Viet Cong, who were virtually destroyed. It was a turning point psychologically for the Americans as witness Johnson's abdication. In hindsight I can see that very clearly. I did not at the time believe that it would have such an immense effect. Again I would refer you to some of my copy. I checked this. I was in Hong Kong and I was told to stay in Hong Kong and cover the North Vietnamese radio. And on the fifth day after the attack I was already writing that Hanoi was not claiming victory, indeed quite the contrary.
Given that perception, which was true on the ground, I was still, if not complacent, I still had some confidence.
QUESTION 9: I was not stationed in Vietnam, remember. I used to go down as often as was necessary or when I particularly wished to. Particularly when I was writing a column. But I had other responsibilities, even when I was sent back to Hong Kong from Munich. All of Southeast Asia plus China was a fairly big beat. I did not go back to Vietnam when the L.A. Times coverage was beefed up because I had a very minor operation on my head which became infected and was advised that it wasn't a good idea to expose it to the traumas of Vietnam. I don't know to this day whether I am sorry or glad that I wasn't there for the final days. Actually I spent a good deal of those weeks sending money to Vietnam for various people from the states using me as a conduit to get money to Vietnamese, that is greenbacks, who could use it to get out of the country.
NUMBER 10: I was in Hong Kong when the pullout came and I was shattered. Vietnam remains a very tender subject as far as I am concerned. I don't know when the turning point in Vietnam came. I do know that Vietnam was the turning point for the pax Americana which had begun in 1945. That's p-a-x, not p-o-x.
I was in and out of Cambodia and Laos, but mostly in the early days. I spent some time in Cambodia in 1973. I hadn't seen Sihanouk in many years. My feelings about that were that the situation was precipitated in Cambodia and to a lesser extent in Laos by the fact that the Ho Chi Minh trails ran through those countries. Sihanouk had little choice but to go along with the communists who had much larger forces in his country than he himself had. In addition he was bribed by munitions for his own army and the like. In retrospect Sihanouk with all his quirks and strange performances, saxophones and the like, looks better and better. He was a particularly Asian statesman, the god king who was allowed vagaries not permitted to a normal mortal. But until the Vietnamese invasion which he could not stem, which no one could stem, he said he did survive.
NUMBER 12, your last question, I don't have that much tape left but I'll see what I can do. I think the lessons of Vietnam are fairly clear. One, above all, identify your objectives when you engage in a political or military action. As a result of fuzziness of the American purposes in Vietnam, American actions were equally fuzzy. We never knew quite what we wanted and we therefore never knew what we could reasonably expect to attain.
The second lesson is don't get involved piecemeal, which may be a corollary to the first. Don't get involved unless you are reasonably sure that you can succeed in your objective. Again a corollary of the first.
The third lesson is the techniques of propaganda have altered very little since Lenin, which is really only an arbitrary beginning. And the same tactics which worked for him, which worked for Mao Zedong, also worked for Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam.
I won't go on too much because I'm just going to repeat my piece on the press in Vietnam. The same student demonstrations, contrived martyrdoms, attacks upon the so-called morality or immorality of the war, those are the classic tactics and they worked. They worked, in fact, better than they've ever worked before.
Now this may sound very hard to you, but there is no such thing as morality or immorality in a conflict. Or if I put it another way, all wars are dirty wars. All wars are immoral and inevitably the way they are fought makes them even more immoral. Some wars are, however, necessary from the viewpoint of national interest because our international system, like our national system depends ultimately upon the sanction of force. I note this with sorrow, not with any particular glee. In fact, with great sorrow, but that's the way it is. And I don't believe recognizing something makes one an advocate of it. I recognize that certain wars are necessary, I do not advocate wars.
The final lesson flowing from what I've just spoken about, this is on the grand strategic level, is that Roosevelt was quite right in waiting for the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor or perhaps enticing the Japanese into the attack, or maneuvering them into that attack. Though I don't believe he knew where it was going to come or anything like that, he certainly provoked it. And of course the reason for that was unless some enormous incident like that had occurred some tremendous Causus Belli , the American people would not go along with a major war effort. We discovered that in Vietnam. Unless the drums were beating and the trumpets were blaring and the banners were waving against the clouds, the American people simply were not interested. Indeed they were turned against the war by the nature of its reporting, which to repeat myself, made Vietnam to appear to be a particularly dirty war, whereas it was just another very nasty conflict between human beings.
From an Asian point of view of course, the chief lesson is, don't depend on the United States. So far, in spite of the, shall we say, ragged American performance in Vietnam, particularly the manner of withdrawal, the dominoes have only fallen as far as Cambodia and Laos, which were expected, of course, because those countries were under communist domination during the war.
A combination of other factors has utilized the time the Vietnam War bought. The result is more stability and more prosperity throughout the rest of Asia, but there is also a very strange situation. On the one hand, America is looked upon with suspicion. On the other hand there is fear of American recession from Asia. Perhaps the most curious thing is that the Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese victors, have ended up rather isolated in Asia. The Chinese are against them, Russia is against them, and of course, their own people appear to be against their maladroit handling of administration and the economy.
The final lesson from an American point of view, is the same lesson that I remembered writing about in 1964 before the commitment. In 1964 I was opposed to that commitment. I did a piece for the New Leader that year. I did a number but I can't remember which one this was in particular, saying that one of the things about the United States was that it had never learned how to fight political wars. That is the kind of war the British used to fight on the northeast frontier, a war to hold certain boundaries, not to enlarge boundaries, a war to preserve the status quo, not a war to humiliate and punish the opponent. Quick expeditions perhaps, but protracted wars, no. The American people don't have the patience. Presented with a daily rundown on exactly what is happening in a war in a daily set of horror pictures, it seems to me that the American people have no stomach for any kind of protracted political conflict. I don't know that I blame them. America is still very far away from the rest of the world and appears very secure.
So I suppose the answer is, don't get into political wars, because you can't win them. Korea, yes, but that was relatively brief and did not create the disorder at home that Vietnam did. But Vietnam, no. This does not mean that I go along with the people who scream "No more Vietnams" and therefore feel the United States should engage in no action whatsoever abroad that involves any military commitment. I would only repeat my previous points. Know what you want, then determine whether you have the capability to achieve it. And move fast, before the patience of the people in the Congress is exhausted.
Finally, don't go in for macho gestures, or grandstanding, like Ronald Reagan in Lebanon or in the Persian Gulf at the moment.
If there is any more that you want, or if I have been unclear, do come back to me. I hope that this is of some value to you and I look forward to seeing your book.
((End of side b at ctr 262.)))