FOR GOD'S SAKE, TELL US WHAT TO DO. WE WON THAT GOD-DAMNED WAR/ THEY WERE ALL MY BOYS
Before Vietnam, I was a professional soldier. And my whole life has been a preparation for what I was to find and what I was to do in Vietnam. In New Guinea, not really, an experience in this context. That was straight war against organized enemy in a conventional sense of the war. It was a jungle war and jungle wars are different from other wars. And to the extent that later on in Vietnam we were part way involved in an insurgency which was conducted in the jungle, yes, you could say that was an experience that did contributed. I thought that our jungle training center at Canungra, the purpose of which was to consolidate the traditions that we had during World War II were lost, and to evolve tactics and techniques which were appropriate to the possibility of further war. Now it just happened, almost by coincidence that while our government and our senior military authorities were coming to a decision to do that, we found ourselves involved in the war in Malaysia, so there I was on the one hand, reorienting the Australian Army and armed forces generally towards operations which were jungle and finding, while that reorientation was going on, that we were involved in a new strategic context which happened to be the context of insurgency. OK. Nothing was lost that we had this jungle training Center going and it became the model for the rest of the world. That was a plus and not even a neutral, it was a definite plus. If we had been continuing to organize and train and organize ourselves as in the past for war in the desert, then we'd have been rather behind. Prior to that time, and prior to the government taking the decision to orient itself in strategic decision to orient itself in jungle warfare, the Australian army's strategic role in the overall British context was on the outbreak of war, Australia rushes in and grabs the Suez canal. That was our job. That was absolutely vital to the future conduct of the Empire strategy in almost any foreseeable circumstance. Once we grabbed that then we could start to talk turkey. So that involved desert warfare, which we had some expertise in. We had been doing it for a long time. Now we were in jungle warfare, looking like losing and forgetting the things that we had learned very much the hard way in handling the Japanese. So I prepared this thing to make sure that that loss did not take place.
In Malaya, Mao's ideas were not entirely appropriate because the guerrillas in Malaya were Chinese. And the population in Malay was a blend of Chinese, Malay and Tamil Indians. And the unfortunate thing from the point of view of the Chinese guerrilla is that as a Chinese he was readily identifiable. He was even identifiable by smell; that is not a pejorative statement. We could smell them and they could smell us.
To them, we Australians certainly and Americans, I would suspect, too. We smell of mutton. You could pick up those human smells in the jungle. It is particularly a diet matter. You could smell the Japanese. You could smell any ethnic group with a very definite diet orientation. They all have a definite body odor, and again, not in the pejorative sense.
In Malaysia, we used fortified villages. They were organized. They had a surrounding fence. They had bodies of armed men inside them. But the fence was not the purpose of the fence was not really to keep the enemy out, it was to keep the locals in at times when they could have been used by the enemy. The main thing for the enemy, of course, was to get food from them. So we keep the locals in a controllable situation overnight so that he cannot feed the enemy -- either because he wants to or because he is terrified into doing it. A lot of people get funny ideas about how you fight insurgencies. There are the good guys, there are the bad guys. And people tend to think the fighting is either there or there. Well, it is not. The fighting is on the lines of communication. That's a loose sort of fighting, the area in the middle. I'm using the word fighting not necessarily wisely there, because most of the tactical operations upon which the strategic operations depended for their success, most of those operations were designed rather to bring pressure which would result in movement, not to wipe out the enemy. We got this unfortunate body count thing going in the Vietnam War and we had it in Malaya too. But we Australians always handled our guerrilla operations in Malaya, we didn't really set out to kill people. We didn't want to kill the enemy. We wanted to control the enemy. We wanted to convert him and bring him back into what we considered the correct mold.
A lot of the enemy with profound justification believed that they had taken the correct position. But we did not regard ten or a hundred or a thousand bodies on a certain day to be a measure of success. And that made our methods quite different from other peoples. To us the measure of success was that the traffic was flowing along the roads, that the commerce was running, that the new banks were being established in this and that village, and that people were putting money out and putting it in, and that kids were going to school and that the women were having healthy babies in the nearest township. That is what we called success.
I read the works of Mao and of Lenin. The little red book is really garbage, and I doubt that Mr. Mao himself understands the Little Red Book. I certainly didn't understand. Sun Tzu on war is worthwhile for anybody for anybody to study in any form of war that they may be operating. He is a military genius of the first magnitude. I believed and I still believe that the Chinese who started Communist operations in China and the Chinese who were in Burma and who modeled their operations on the philosophy of the Chinese communist operations. I believe they were people who had a pretty rotten deal from life, life as represented by the war lord, by the government, which, quite often is not necessarily a bad government by itself, but at least it was the authority that backed the landlord in doing what he was doing to make the peasants unhappy. Generally those peasants were simple decent people who had been pushed beyond endurance. And my methods, which means our methods, in this case, were to provide an alternative government that would be better than the government that they objected to and better than any government that they had been able to set up themselves. It is as simple and as difficult as that. You can say that in half a minute, but there is a hell of a lot more to it than just saying it.
When I came to Vietnam in 1962 and I saw that the South Vietnamese government had to undergo some fairly dramatic changes. I found Diem open to flexibility, and I found his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, not open to flexibility. We had a lot of personality problems there. Diem was big enough to recognize the existence of a brain other than his own. His brother Nhu was not. Nhu's field, there was room for only one genius, and he had monopolized that position. And if another genius happened to come along, he didn't regard that as a possible ally, he regarded that as a possible enemy. His reaction was defensive and he saw many threats around him. He alone seemed to know what his ultimate aims were. I got to know him well enough to have reason to believe that this ultimate aim was to overthrow his brother. And become the main political figure in the country. He of course would have denied that if that had been put to him. And in all fraternal simplicity, good brotherhood was denied, too. And he said to me on more than one occasion, "I will push him into the corner," of his brother. And then it got varied a little bit, he would say, "I will push him to the wall." We use a similar phrase of people being pushed to the wall and having no other place to go and so they have to conceded And he wanted brother Diem to be forced to accept and adopt the course of his brother, Nhu. I really do believe, and I can't put it any stronger than believe, because nobody can really know what was going on in the tortured mind of that man, Nhu was a smart fellow. But I do believe that he wanted supreme power for himself. But even if he were to accept that statement, he would immediately have modified it and said, "Yes, I do want it for myself, because I can see the direction that my brother is going is not the right one for the country and I am the only one who can administer the power in such a way as to bring a satisfactory outcome for the present situation." It's not too difficult to rationalize a situation like that.
When I arrived in Vietnam in 1962, there were only a few thousand American advisers there, and I saw no great problem in handling the situation then, nor indeed should there have been a problem. Poor old Paul Harkins, God bless him, he was almost at that point with me. I, when I finally appeared at his headquarters in my duel role of commanding the Australians and being his adviser on counterinsurgency, he went through a chronic little game, which we both knew that each other knew that it was a game, he proceeded to give me a short questioning on what I had been doing. Well, hell, he knew what I'd been doing. And I knew that he knew what I'd been doing. I knew he had a sheet that he had studied avidly telling him what I had been doing. And he questioned me. Where have you been? Burma? What were you doing there? I was running the war there. Oh, and what size mission did you have there? Oh, no size mission, just myself. Oh, well it must have been a pretty small war? Hell no, I said, it was the same size as this one. And I wasn't losing it."
How this happened in the first place. The CIA who used to keep a fairly close watch on what I was doing, they had a man who was practically my watchdog, but in a very friendly fashion. I knew and he knew that I knew that he was reporting what I was doing in detail. And the CIA knowing that they were doing the guts of the Vietnam operation, in spite of a military presence, the CIA presence, led by Colby and others later on. Later on they wanted me over there.
Now this was a catch in the whole thing. A lot of subsequent talk grew up about the need for many flags situation in the UN because up to that time, the unfortunate US representative in the UN had to stand up there rather alone and naked and be blasted from all sides from all nations, and so he wanted other people to be standing around and sharing some of this political weight that he had been carrying. But that was not what the CIA was really interested in. What they really wanted and needed as somebody who could really handle the war. And they wanted me. And they asked, they got Dean Rusk to ask our foreign minister, a fellow called Garfield Barwick. He was our foreign minister, at one of the SEATO meetings, Barwick was asked to get the Australian government to let the American government have Col. Serong. They wanted that, they wanted a package and that was me. In fact the wording was, "Col. Serong and a Few Men." I don't know what the few men was supposed to mean. And the Australian government by that time had been accustomed to having a foreign government ask for me by name.
It was not unusual for one government to ask another government for say a general 500 men or a Col and 20 men. But to ask for an individual, that was quite a step because in a funny way it almost involved a n intrusion into the privacy of the other country. Not an invasion of sovereignty not that, but it was just not done. You just didn't ask for an individual. But the Burmese, way back in 1957, they wanted a specific man and they asked for me personally and this was a hell of a shock to the system and the government. The Army was in disarray almost, they were horrified. And they were able to overcome the screams of dismay that were arising from the Army. Later on when America asked for me personally, which they had been through that exercise before, if we had not gone through the Burmese business, then I doubt very much that the Americans would have gotten to first base in asking for an individual. But as I say, we had gotten into the custom of regarding me as slightly unusual individual. And so American got what it wanted. And that was the CIA. They wanted me and they got me. To do that then, some dressing that would make it politically acceptable at home, we put together a small team of about 30 men, experts in their fields, and they went up there with me. The 30 men eventually grew to a group of about 200.They were the first Australians in and stayed there all the time and they were the last Australians out. They were by far the finest military contribution, in terms of performance, that ever made to any war anywhere. That little team, which never exceeded a thousand men, kept coming back and coming back, they were the most highly decorated unit in the history of British warfare. They counted up all sorts of decorations not only from Australian and British decorations, but others.
So they got me. And Harkins had gotten me, too. I don't think that Harkins particularly wanted me. He had his own staff and he had his own ideas about how the war should be run -- or rather his own lack of ideas on how the war should be run. And it is a matter of extreme difficulty to move an American military machine off a line that it has been running on, or rails. I really didn't expect that it would be easy to do that. I had a friend and colleague, Sir Robert Thompson, who had preceded me, a very good man in this business, he was running a British mission there. And British treat their people differently from the way Australians treat them. The British put a man in the field in the dark like that and the whole British machine is behind that individual spearhead of a person. In Australia we don't do that. We're a funny lot there. We tend to knock over our own tall poppies. We sort of wait for someone to raise his head and then say he has to be settled down. Even if the level is in the natural interest, we believe he has to be knocked down. Leveling for the sake of leveling. So I did not get anything like the support from Australia that Thompson got from Britain. The main support that I wanted from Australia was from my own Chief, the chief of the general staff. And I did get that. For as long as he remained. He left his position when I was only half way through my original assignment in Australia. He had been my chief during most of World War II, he was our chief of staff of our 6th division and I was the immediate man under him. He and I had a good relationship, he trusted me implicitly and I never let him down so his trust was justified. He gave me almost a free hand in Vietnam. But as far as the rest of the Armed Forces and the public, which was beginning to get a bit of the American infection of anti-Vietnam war, and the civil element of the military machine, and the civil element of the military machine is even stronger than your own, they are very strong, and I did not get anything like the support from them that I believe I should have got. And having said that I can reverse that again. And I can say I did get full support from the prime minister. The prime minister was never a problem for me. And he removed some problems that were in my way.
General Paul Harkins was the commander of MAAG. But he didn't command anything. No man at MACV or MAAG ever commanded anything. When Harkins was about to leave, somebody said to me, "What will his replacement be like, the replacement." And I said, "It will make no difference whatever. You could put a 12 year old boy in there because the way the system works, the paper is prepared in the middle echelons of the system, and it will eventually work its way up, and there it will be presented on the desk of someone, and at the very bottom of that paper will be two boxes, yes and no, and all someone has to do is take and check one box. And he's got to be right half the time. There are only two boxes to pick. And anybody can pick one or two boxes. And that is the way the system worked in Vietnam. And all possible was formed and to this day is formed at the mid levels of the staff.
My friend Robert Thompson, he hadn't quite caught on to that. And his standard of operating was to produce his ideas and rush straight to the top, mostly to Harkins and to the Ambassador, slap his paper right there and he had the full authority of the British government behind him and he would say, "That is what I believe." That was absolutely fatal, because as soon as that was done, it was picked up and given to the staff, went down to the middle levels, and there because it was NIV, not invented here, and they immediately tore the whole thing to pieces. And nothing that Thompson ever did ever have anywhere. It was always ripped to shreds before it got to acceptance as policy. I thought it was obviously not the way to go.
I operated differently from that. I would take it to people in the mid levels, and let them become convinced that it was their own idea anyway, and eventually Harkins would sign off on it and it would become government policy or MACV policy, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. But it could be applied only in matters of very high strategic functioning because it would take three or four months for that process. You could not take immediate actions in a system like that. It is something that you have to develop slowly. So I had some success in areas where I could influence general strategic policy. No a lot of success directly and immediately in ground level stuff. But that was where, fortunately, my boys came in. This team that I brought up with me. Because the deployment of them, I had them scattered around the countryside, in addition to being advisers to units as integrated into parts of the military organization, they were also running some of the major training establishments. I would tell them what to do and they would tell the Vietnamese what to do, and we were therefore able to get a lot of our training techniques to work with the Vietnamese. And they were quite different from the general American approach to these problems.
The Americans were getting around to it to, because they had seen my course and my school in Canungra. They were doing similar things even at Fort Bragg. I remained in the belief throughout those earlier stages, when things looked like they were going bad, that the war could be won. We didn't lose that war. We won that war finally, with the so-called Easter Offensive of 1972. In that offensive, the ARVN Armed forces with the assistance of a component of the American air force, issued a tremendous thrashing to the entire North Vietnamese Army and drove them back to the peripheries of the country. And that time, the NVA was so badly hurt by their failed Easter Offensive that they had to sue for peace. And that is how we got their treaty. The Paris Agreement itself was not a bad document. It was patchy, but it would have been all right if both sides had stuck to it. It would even have been all right if the North Vietnamese themselves had not stuck to it. The problem was that we didn't stick to it. We told the South Vietnamese that, what each side said, the magic phrase was that there would be a one for one replacement of materials. We won that god-damned war in Easter in 1972. And having won the war and having forced the North to sign the peace agreement, and then working with lots of trouble in the turbulent peace situation. And we could have had our side survive if only we had given the ammunition. The war changed its location. The war was then no longer a war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam as to who was going to control the country, the war became the White House and the Congress as to who was going to control America. And in the course of that war, Congress sold the whole bloody shooting box down the river by cutting and cutting and showing its power and gradually eroding the administrations capability to logistically support the ongoing operations in Vietnam. And we got to the stage where there was no more ammunition to fire. Later on people found certain quantities of ammunition here and there. That means nothing. You have to have ammunition where you want it. You have to have ammunition where the fighting is. You can't have ammunition in one place and make any difference in another place where the shooting is going on.
The final fate of Vietnam, the war having been won, the final fate of Vietnam was reverse, completely, by the almost unilateral defaulting by Congress on the agreement in Paris.
I don't think much of General Vo Nguyen Giap. I recognize his abilities. He was a worthy opponent. But I could handle Giap. I could handle him long enough. He was a damn good opponent. And his armed forces, the Viet Cong, if you like to regard them as part of his units, they didn't think of themselves as part of his forces but we certainly did, and the NVA, by any standard or any system of reckoning, they had to be considered worthy opponents. If you beat them in a battle, you could look to your operation with some satisfaction. But Giap didn't win the war. He had his successes. But they didn't win the war and he didn't win the war. We just gave them Vietnam, that's what happened and that's what people don't realize. I got there in 1962 and I left there in 1975. When Westmoreland asked for combat troops in 1965, I was there and I had part in that decision. We had 11 battalions of national reserves from the Vietnamese armed forces, and over the turn of the year, 1964, 1965, battle by battle and one by one the entire national reserve was wiped out. And there was nothing, in the end, standing between us, and I mean us, I had my family there and the whole administration, the ambassador and soon, there was nothing standing between us and total disaster. So the South Vietnamese were beaten down and the reserve, and it was critical reserve, was all wiped out. And so there had to be something to hold back the communist forces at that stage, and the entry of the Marines and the first army elements thereafter was an essential agreement. But having stabilized the situation by so doing, then what was the next move. This is where we went wrong. There was a clear choice between going back to and on with the original strategy of the CIA with my assistance had worked out, to put the war in the hands of the Vietnamese, where they did the fighting and we did the logistics with special guidance from special forces types. That, I believe and I still believe, was the way to go.
It was the only war we had at that time and it was a jolly good war, too. There were people making very good names for themselves at that time on the field in Vietnam. And the People back in the US were very unhappy about this because their careers were being sacrificed. That was the factor that caused the great policy directive of doing it the Army way rather than do it the CIA Way. I look back at that on the one critical decision in the Vietnam War where we went wrong. Now, mind what I said ten minutes ago, I said where we went wrong. I didn't say where we failed. I said where we went wrong. We didn't fail. We won. Even in those conditions we got the South Vietnamese to whip the north Vietnamese and they did. It was after that where we cut them off. There were many disasters, too. In Lam Son 719 you are talking pure Vietnamese politics. We had Do Cao Tri was running Third Corps. He was in a position, while he was running Third Corps, to overthrow the government at any time he chose, and he had been occupied with this thought. There were other groups of people behind him in this group trying to give him the nudge. Now a schoolboy could anybody could count could see that the operation needed two more divisions if it was going to be successful. But Do Cao Tri had the divisions, and he wouldn't give them up, and because he sat on the only two divisions that had a possibility for incorporation in that operation, that was pure Vietnam politics in its dirtiest form.
Well, there is no question in the Easter Offensive, that the B52s did have a massive effect during that time. But I never did consider that they were an essential element. A most desirable element, a most convenient element, a saving force where stupidity had led us into error, always you could call on the B52s to make good the mistakes you made, if you like. We had ever good reason to be grateful to those gentlemen up there at their 30,000 feet plus, but an essential element, no. In a way, they were almost dangerous in that they made it too easy and they allowed us to be too stupid and we, and if there had been no B52s we would have gotten rid of a lot of commanders a lot earlier and we might have had some better general level field command, which is what we really had needed. This whole things has been attributed to FDR, don't tell me what you're against, tell me what you're for. That's a good idea. We did have, though, Diem for something. His doctrine of "personalism" was misinterpreted by the west at exactly the wrong time. But it was a decent enough, good enough doctrine, like other doctrines that have a good deal of fault in the way in which they are implemented on the ground. But so does Democracy.
I think not, that Thieu was the man who could lead SVN to victory. About six months after Diem was assassinated I was talking to Dave Smith, who was in the Saigon station of the CIA at the time, when Doug Richardson was running the station at the time. A good hard working CIA member. And he said, "You know, Ted, the funniest thing happened today. I and a few other fellows were out in a village not far from Saigon, 20 or 30 miles out, and we were walking around the villages and on the walls of the houses were photographs of Ngo Dinh Diem. And we say to the man of the house, "Why have you got that photograph of Diem on the wall?" And they would say to us, why not, he is our president. And poor Dave thought that the president thought that the people there didn't realize that Diem was dead. The fact that there might be some deep and philosophical message in that didn't occur to him. There was no success for that came up through the revolving door of leadership in Vietnam and the cabinets and governments in those few years that followed that would have ever had their photographs on anybody's wall. He was a figure with charisma, he was a figure that could have rivaled the popularity of Ho Chi Minh. And that would have been no small thing since even the people who were politically and intellectually opposed to Ho, they did so with an acknowledgement of the man's magnificent capabilities.
Thieu wasn't even highly regarded as a soldier. I'm groping to think of anything of military significance that Thieu ever did. Certainly nothing leaps into mind. Napoleon figure of the time was this Do Cao Tri and he was the one who looked as though he might have achieved a personality account, a following, but the was sitting back biding his time, but he bided his time too long, because somebody put something in his helicopter and he crashed. Even that was funny. Because I inherited his wife after that. I mean that in the nicest sense. But, she was being worked on by a number of people who would come to her and say that she would expect to receive a message from the great man from behind the grave, and that the would give the word to her when there was supposed to be a rising. I was closer to her than just about anybody else, and I was required to develop a situation in which when and if she ever received a message from him, she would tell me before she would tell anybody else. And in fact I never did get that message until the day I evacuated the little darling from the country and it was all closed down then. There was no such message, but what worried me was that it would not have been too difficult to cook up a situation in which she believed she was getting a message. Getting messages from the graves from dead generals is a common exercise in Vietnam. There was a fellow who was a chief surgeon down in the hospital at Cholon. He was attacked and thrown off the balcony and killed. The people who did it were never caught. So I had some of my people working on that matter. But it emerged that there was more too it to that. Because this individual had various stages of recovery and some of his patients were the bad guys. And there was a little girl, about 12, who liked to go in for a bit of this table raping business you know. And one day she had just come home from school and she was sitting at a table, as she tells the story, and she hears a voice and the voice says, I am Dr. whoever he was." Now I want you to tell all the steel father and your father will know what to do, and the voice then gave a list of three or four treatments of this man's patients who were in the Cholon hospital. Now you don't need to be any great brain to work out that somebody had got at the fellow and he told him. They had that information, and now they found a way of getting that information and found a way to put it in the clean machine and saved the patients without disclosing their own identify.
Anybody's hold in Vietnam was relatively precarious and was dependent to a great deal to positive support from Washington, guaranteed. That is what Thieu's power and hold depended upon at that time. Washington's support. If anybody, it was like the mantle of God, you know, if you didn't hold the mantel of God you might as well pack up. His old was precarious, he knew that this hold was precarious and his main task in his own eyes was to maintain that hold as best he could. His way to maintain that hold was to juggling his generals. Nothing new about that, people have been doing that for 7000 years, going back to the Pharaoh's.
We were never greatly concerned about any of the American leadership in Vietnam, Congressmen or Ambassadors or Generals, being attacked or assassinated. I don't think there was, I don't have any memory of a great number of bodyguards for Thieu. And I have been asked about it at times, and my slightly cynical and cruel comment was that the NVA would not be such fools as to remove someone who was one of their greatest asset in South Vietnam. Who the hell would want to knock off a Cabot Lodge or a Martin. The profits that one derived from getting to a leadership position in the North were nowhere near the profits that one did in fact derive from the corruption system that was available in the South. A great deal of what we see in the West as what appeared to be political dissatisfaction with the leadership in the South was not political in its generally accepted sense, but among the higher echelons of the community, the game was not being loaded right, they weren't getting the cuts that they thought they should be getting.
Corruption. Narrowly focused on the street market it wasn't much. But that was never accepted by the VN because that would have meant that the people who were getting the profits from it would not get it. People who were really in on the corruption weren't going to interfere with a woman sitting on the sidewalk trying to sell stolen goods for a few piaster. I didn't see corruption crippling the war effort. I didn't and I don't think it did. I don't think it did the war effort any good, but I don't think it damaged it to a level we call crippling either. No.
Relations with the press corps. I don't regard the loss of Vietnamese the fall of the press corps. The press corps generally did a very bad job in Vietnam. Part of it was due to economic pressure and Time wanted to sell more copies than Newsweek and the New York Times wanted to sell more copies than the Washington Post and so on, and that's understandable enough. It's not unforgivable. The boys themselves were mutually competitive. Now when this all started, when I first got there in early 1962, the press corps were middle aged gentlemen, not really capable of getting out and following actions in the field. They would sit back and write learned dispatches on that and most of what they wrote was good and accurate. But they were, in their context in their day, capable people. But when the war started to become a war of movement, and wars of movement have to be followed, and these chaps just didn't have the legs for that. To follow the war. And they were replaced by the young fellows who had the legs, but experience and judgment they did not have. Also they did not have any sense of responsibility. They were almost totally amoral. Not immoral. Amoral. They were concerned with who would win the next Pulitzer Prize. It had to be me and not you. And they were fiercely competitive. That was the press corps we saw. But we saw it, and we had the power to handle it. We handled press corps before. In the big wars we fought. That, I've spoken about this in many places in the states. What we should have done was to have a controlled press. And thought of them as part of the technique of war. But oh dear, oh dear, you should see the anguish that such words created in America. They were shocked at this. Oh, dear. They just couldn't believe that we said something like that. We got a good example of the reverse of that with the Falkland Islands operation. That is what we should have done in Vietnam but we didn't So you've got this situation where the press man, and particularly the TV man, went for the spectacular because the spectacular was salable. There is the field. There are the buffalo grazing on the field. There is the burning house. And the burning house in the total scene, the economy of the country, that was nothing compared to the burning. The real economy of the country is the peaceful movement of the grazing buffalo. What newsman is going to photograph the grazing buffalo when he can photograph the burning house. We were photographing burning houses all over the place. I got to know almost all of the newsmen very well because I was to them an essential checking in point. I didn't have any cause for complaint about their attitude to me personally, but their stories didn't quite cover me that way, there wasn't anything odd about me. We did have some trouble with some of the events they covered. And I must say that a lot of it came from the Australians. They were particularly bad about that. They had, ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission government show, they were very bad indeed about that. Especially in the technique of commission. That you would give them, what, you would consider, I would consider, a balanced account of a particular matter that they had raised. And they then took what they wanted. And the result of course was quite different, frequently, from the truth of what was going on.
One little example, is the death of Ngo Dinh Diem on a program which we called "Four Corners" in Australia. There was a popular belief then, that Diem and his brother had escaped via a tunnel from the palace and had gone off to Cholon. But the fact of the matter was that they walked out of the palace and got into a motor car and that drove them to Cholon. From the front door of the palace. So the "Four Corners" man got a call, Gerard Lyons, an English person working for the ABC, and gets himself into a standing room only passage way, which led to a machine gun post on the wall of the palace. And, "Here we are. We are now standing in the tunnel down which Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother escaped." A small matter. It didn't shake the destiny of the world, but it did indicate the morality, or the lack of it, in the press. I think, I would like to think that I was and am realistic about them (the Asians). I don't think of any persons as members of a race. I think of persons as persons. If they happen to be members of one race or another, I don't give a person a character because of his race. Now, having said that, I qualify it, by saying that there are in all races certain characteristics, and the Vietnamese have one most unfortunate. All, North, South and Central. They are appalling liars. They are the most awful liars. But one has to be fair about this. They acknowledge that themselves. And they will tell you, don't place too much reliance on us, we are awful liars. And I think maybe, their whole philosophy about things is maybe a little bit better, certainly more practical than ours. We elevate truth to an absolute state. We elevate it, and we don't always go by what we've elevated. Because one or two of us may be guilty of a peccadillo here or there. But regard truth as absolute. But they do not regard truth as absolute, at all. They regard as one element in the seasoning of a dish that he is preparing. And they put in a little more truth or a little less truth, according to how the situation develops. Where this is not totally is that he knows and the fellow he's talking to, the other Vietnamese, is well aware of this, and he is doing the same thing. So I don't feel terribly badly about this. Although one has seen the occasional Caucasian walking into that like walking into the dark.
You don't necessarily put any credibility in their military reports at all. You never put a lot of credibility in any one report from any one group of people ever in war. You have multiple reports. You wouldn't last very long if you had to rely on one person to do things like that.
By the summer of 1973, there was no honeymoon period. The violations of the Paris Agreement, started, literally, within minutes of the Cease Fire Period. And they never lost their momentum. The violations business was a fact of life that we lived with and adjusted to. It was more or less serious, depending upon our ability to tactically handle the violations at that point or this point. Now that, at least, was a matter of availability of ammunition. So I wasn't ready to go home. No. It was, I was not at that stage convinced that the Congress would do what it eventually did. President Thieu didn't either. He was a True Believer, right up almost to the very end. He still believed that the magic shipload of whatever would come along; and I think he held out longer in his belief than anybody else. I had given up believing I suppose about September of 1974. That was about my cutoff day.
About June or July of 1974, I don't think there is an inconsistency there. I thought it as manageable. I thought I could handle it myself, if it were necessary for me to handle it. The fact that that a Vietnamese General was going off, didn't make a great deal of difference in my life or not.
At that time I was an adviser to the Joint General Staff. General Phu was a dead loss as a corps commander. He screwed around with moving his men around Pleiku. The men he had around Ban Me Thuot he moved up to Pleiku. He was just about to move it back down to Ban Me Thuot, completely ignoring the fact that the most critically placed North Vietnamese Division, was just over the border in Cambodia from Ban Me Thuot anyway. And everybody else knew it was there.
Then, given the final order of Thieu to that part of the country to withdraw, Phu's behavior was disgraceful. It wasn't a matter of his troops abandoning him, it was a matter of him abandoning his own troops.
The generals bought positions. The physical purchasing was all a matter buying jobs rather than buying the others. The situation was one of personal political allegiance. What Thieu would do was to juggle people around who he thought would or would not assist him. He was putting them where he thought they were most useful politically to him.
Truong was getting a lot of American support, and Thieu was playing a game with the Americans trying to insure that they would give the logistic support that they had promised and which he firmly believed they would continue to deliver. Now Thieu was no dummy, he was pretty smart, and he could see if he didn't at least make some gestures toward the sort of things that Americans thought were necessary, his prospects for getting logistical support would erode. Then and now I regard the position of Truong there as a gesture to appease the Americans. I couldn't give chapter or verse for that. Who knows what went on in the mid of Thieu.
I visited each of the Military Regions. The morale was not high, but it was high enough. They had not that long before, thrashed, completely thrashed the NVA Army.
I never ran across any drug problems to any degree that caused me any concern. Not to any degree to which it was evident in the American forces. The three people over the years, the people I had been watching, were the Americans, the Vietnamese and the Australians. The in my eyes, the Americans were by far the most addicted. The Australians were not at all, they're addicted to beer and not to heroine. But I never took the Vietnamese heroin problem any more serious than the long pre-existing opium problems. To me the heroine problem was just an extension of the opium problem and about the same dimension.
My plan, heavy at the bottom and light at the top. The first problem with it is the political problem. Thieu said he would never surrender an inch of territory to the North, but that was simply a piece of rhetoric. I, let me go back to my connections in this regard. Three or four years prior to the collapse, my main area of interest, not to say the thing that took most of time, was that I used to run the strategy portion of the curriculum at the national defense college. And in that I had master/pupil relationship to the brightest of all the young fellows who were moving up into the higher ranks of the Vietnamese Armed Forces. They were all my boys.
Two years before the end, the president gave out instructions that honor student of that particular year, it was a 12 month course, the president would decide what was the next job of the honor student of that class. And that year, the honor student was a Navy captain named Nguyen Van Anh. The President sent for him two hours after the graduation, and two hours after the President sent for him, he was at the front door of my establishment, saying, "My God, I've just appointed minister for planning. What do I do next?"
So I said, "I'll tell you what you can do. Sit down." And so I took care of the new minister. That was a fairly typical thing. Again, the last naval fought by the Vietnamese Navy was done under my direction, to shoot their way out of Saigon on the very last day, while all of this fun was going on at the American Embassy, I had about 40 people I had put down with their families into the Naval Compound, and God Damn, the Naval commander wouldn't shoot. He wouldn't order what was left of the Vietnamese Navy, they were huddled together, he wouldn't order them to go down and link up with the Seventh Fleet. He knew and we all knew that by that time both sides of the river lined with communist artillery and he would literally have to blast his way down. And one thought that he might have given it a go.
Well, at about that time, Big Minh became president, and I managed to get my hands on Nguyen Van Anh and a fellow called Tran Van Lieu, who had been chief of police at one time, before the notorious Nguyen Ngoc Loan. And those two were my little planning group for this operation. And we managed to get our hands on Anh's son in law, who was an Army Lt. Col. And so, I sent these three characters up to the Palace to hold of Big Minh and tell him what was going on and told him, "The admiral must be ordered to bring the fleet down the river." And Minh said, "God bless you all. This is probably the last order I shall ever give, but, yes, this is the order. The fleet will fight its way out."
And it did. There were funny things going on in other places at that time. In Phu Quoc we had some Australian C130s at that time doing some rescue work and they were programmed to go to Phu Quoc and it was a little operation that I had to abort that was planning to hijack some of those C130s and to use them for some of the people who were there.
I had all of these young fellows, there were about 30 classes of people, and so year after year I had 30 and 30 and 30 of the best and the brightest and most senior Vietnamese officers who were my pupils. And the net result of all of that finally was quite a tragic one, and only about five or six days before the end.
About ten o clock at night. It was supposed to be at 8 o clock on that night. This was 10 o clock. And there was a great array of lights outside my place and the old gardener, went down to the gates, and in comes a stream of jeeps. And one of my people came down and said, there is a big gathering of Vietnamese senior officers who want to talk to you. So I told them to bring them in and brought them into my upstairs office and we sat down. And I asked, "What is it?" Most of them I knew quite well. None of them looked at me, all of them had their eyes fixed on the ground and shuffled their feet, and finally one self-appointed spokesman said, "The president has left the country." and I said, "Well, I knew that." And they said, "The commander in chief is in his office and no word goes in and no word goes out."
And I said, "Why are you telling me all this." And they didn't say anything for a while.
Then he said nothing for a while, looked around the group, a few seemed to nod their heads and he got up his courage and said, "For God's sake, tell us what to do." And I said, "You, in effect, are appointing me de facto commander in chief of the Vietnamese Armed Forces." And he said, "We don't give a damn what you call it, but tell us what to do."
So I give them then, which I subsequently confirmed, and I'll repeat that not that it did very much good, some instructions, which resulted in the last two great battles. One down in Southwest on Route 4 and the other out to the Northwest. All I was trying to do, really, was trying to maintain a situation in which by having some coherence on the ground, that the soldiers, who were bearing the brunt of all these battles, had some chance of saving their own lives, rather than be massacred when their damned officers deserted them, which was happening all along the track. So I don't regard that as a great military intervention in what was by then a fairly irretrievable disaster of a situation.
But it was a symptomatic of and an interesting example of the relationship between myself and the military. On the withdrawal from the Central Highlands. I did not in this work with the president. I worked with the prime minister. And he and a middle man, another minister, and this man came around to my place and we sat beside the swimming pool behind my house, and they I had weeks before one basic discussion with the prime minister on the overall strategy of this thing in which he accepted that it was the only thing to do. And he said it was going to be extremely difficult to sell to the president. I said that I believed that I could myself sell it to the President, but I was not prepared to go over his head and the decent thing for me to do, so I would leave it to his judgment as to when other methods should be applied to get the president to accept the plan.
Now, the word that I was getting back through the prime minister and his leg man the other minister, was that the president had accepted the philosophy, and it was, at that point, not what you could rightly call a plan. It was a statement of a strategic philosophy. It wasn't down in black in white to do this on such and such a day. The only thing that was specific was the date, which was absolutely the last date by which it had to be started. I believe I said the 15th of February it had to be started. It had to be started by that date.
Well, three weeks after the 15th of February, my little minister friend came around and told me what the situation was and said, "What do we do now?"
And I said, "You got to be crazy! You've got the effrontery to come here and ask me what we do now. I told you that this all had to be started by the 15th of February. That was three weeks ago. I said, "Go back and tell the prime minister to tell the president in case he doesn't know, the war is over. The war has been over for three weeks. What's going on now is just tidying up by the North Vietnamese. The war is finished, god damn it!" And he said, "But my God, we are still here."
And I said, "I know you're here, I can count. But I repeat. The war is over." "How do we tell that to the President?" "That's your problem," I said. I have not maintained any records of this nor any great thinking about it. For a lot of people this was the one great thing in their lives. That wasn't what it was for me. It was just another series of events in which this was an important one.
For six months after I came out of Vietnam I was in a sort of mental block. Literally people wouldn't believe it because they would mention something or somebody's name and I would say what was that or who was that. And they'd give me a funny odd look. But these are your friends, you know them."
So then, these days, don't have at my disposal, if you ask me to verify a certain point, I can't turn to a certain page and say that on a certain day I did that and made that note and so.
Such memory as I have of it was more related to the Congress in Washington than it was to events in Vietnam. It is pretty vague, but that is how I remember it.
My family had left Vietnam in January in 1975. All families, not just mine, all families of the associated groups there had been evacuated early. At the end, I never thought of staying on. But I never at any stage contemplated standing at the main gate of my house with a gun in my hand saying, "Come and arrest me." I considered that the opposition, if it had been in their hands, could make things extremely unpleasant for me. I thought I could do better by removing myself. My intention was, amusingly, was to walk out over Cambodia. I had contemplated having the access to the American facility there. When I was making that sort of planning, the American were giving out quite clearly that they were not taking out any foreigners and this would be purely an American evacuation. And it stayed that way until a long way --right up to nearly the last day. With thousands hammering outside the gates of the American Embassy itself But by that time, all the people I was concerned with, I had gotten them down to the Navy and ready to board the boat. It wasn't all the comforting at that time, because I was waiting for Big Minh to say go out to sea.
And then I got stuck in the most ridiculous situation. There was a Vietnamese of extremely sensitive political connection. A real hot potato of a man, whose name shall remain anonymous, who came around to my house one night, two or three nights before the end. I had two houses at that time I had my own residence and I also had access to another residence that I could make use of to evacuate residence of the manager of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank.
And this chap comes around bringing a Vietnamese woman, who was a very high official in the education department, who had just that day come back from Singapore. She had comeback on what must have been the last aircraft to come back into Vietnam. She had been on some sort of a mission down there. And she came back to discover that her husband and her children had all flown the cooper, she had no idea where they were, and the house was empty and had been raided by some loving relatives, and she immediately appealed to this Vietnamese fellow, who was a friend of the family, and he said, "I can't do anything. I am leaving tonight on a secret South Korean Plane which is going to fly me and several other people to Seoul. I wonder if General Serong will look after you.
Well, beggars can't be choosers. She didn't have much choice anyway. She came up with him. And he said, "Will you look after her." And said, "Hell, I'm looking after about 40 people now, so 41 is not going to make much difference. Pitch her in with the rest and I'll help her." So there it was. Finally, we got to the stage where we were getting ready to go shoot our way down the river. And this little guy, he says, well, I'm not taking part in any naval battle. But all the others were households under the domination of fathers of the house. They could all come on down with their kids. And this one was on her own and she was not about to come along on her own and be going down the river and get shot at. And I thought, "God, now I'm stuck with this one. I can't leave her on her own. After all, I told the fellow I'd look after her." I had a plan to go across Cambodia with this platoon of soldiers and we were going to go across Cambodia as a group. But what does this military commander do. He does not only not bring the platoon of soldiers, but he brings his grandmother, his baby, and I asked "How in the hell am I going to get a baby across Cambodia." But I am still stuck with this woman. I had just finished my last arrangements down at the navy yard. "Goodbye George. See you in the US or whatever. God, bless you all." And they asked what about you. And I told them I still had some unfinished business.
So walking past the American Embassy, this damned big crowd outside the gate. I was driving a little Toyota at the time. And I said, "Look at this." And suddenly I hear a voice from one of the towers on the Embassy wall, "Ted!" And there I see a character from the State Department. He says, "Ted! What you doing down there." I said, just looking around. He said, "Do you want to come in here." "No, not particularly." "We've got a problem." "The Ambassador wants us to get Diem out of the country. And we don't know what he looks like. Can you find him for us." I said Are you crazy. With all the resources you've got, I presume you've been to his house, for God's sake, or his office. If you can't find him, how the hell do you think I can find him. And just as he says that, a car pulls up in the rear and I add, "Here he is." And this fellow shows up.
And I said, you get the gate around on the side, g et some Marines to open it up and I'll bring him around. And I did. And he had no trouble getting in through the gate. And I took him up to old Graham Martin. And Martin says, "Hello, Ted. What are you doing here." And I said, "Well, I've got this clown of yours here that you wanted evacuated, and I just got him for you, now evacuate him." And he said, "Oh, God yes, put him on the next helicopter." And off he goes and he disappears. And Graham says, "What are you gonna do." You're coming out with us aren't you.
And I said, "How can I come out with you. You just got a lot of bloody order saying that nobody but Americans will be allowed out of here." And he says, "That doesn't apply to you. You’re one of us." And I said, "I’m stuck with this bloody Vietnamese woman. " And Graham said, "Can you make her an Australian." It so happened that I had been in the Australian Embassy on the Thursday before, and as a good provident staff officer, I took the opportunity of going through the building and removing letterheads. And I thereby appointed myself honorary Australian Consul General. I had a stamp and paper. And I made this woman an Australian citizen and I took her back to the Embassy that evening. And we went back to the Embassy and were taken from the roof of the Embassy and landed on some American ship in the South China Sea. And I got her as far as Sydney and she did catch up with her family eventually. We left not from the roof from what had been a lawn at the Embassy where they had chopped down a tree.
I had been in several operations like that. We had some torrid times in Burma, too. I don't think it was anything quite as big as this, on a smaller scale, but nonetheless, a fairly awkward situation.
I was aware of the historical significance of what was happening at that time. I had forecast all the damned events months before, so I had no misgivings about what was happening. This was no surprise to me. All I could see when we took off were a lot of other sad Vietnamese faces around me and a couple of worthy marines there and there, each with his hands on a machine gun, and I guess that was a good enough sight for me. I didn't need any more sad looks around Saigon.
I think it was a matter of shock rather than sadness at the time. I believed then that I was operationally fully capable. I now believe that I was not as fully capable at that time as I thought I was then. I was certainly capable enough to do whatever needed to be done at that time. But I don't think I could have handled a good deal more than I was handling at the time.
For several months afterwards I was incapable of recognizing people's faces or calling them to mind. After about six months they slowly came back in, people like General Don, who became the minister of defense near the end. But for a while I couldn't remember him at all.
Tran Van Don was the leader in the foolish group who believed in almost in a religious sense that at some psychological moment that some great mastermind in Paris would determine, that Paris would step in and take control of the situation and "don't you worry boys, everything will be all right." Then there were guys like Ky talking about fighting it out over Saigon. But I don't think it would take very much to talk a boy like Ky out of an idea like that.
A most interesting creature. I have no time for Ky. There was one thing. Ky took his own part in this, which adds to the record. Of all of the helicopters that flew from land to the seventh fleet, only one asked to be refueled to go back. And there was only one. And it was not Ky's. And he never returned and he never thought about returning. Frank was just a small boy in the CIA, a small boy. An analyst. And the information the CIA got was not analyzed correctly.
I have wondered about that. Most of the people concerned, certainly Polgar, knew what I knew and what judgments I had formed as a result of that knowledge. I told everybody who cared to listen that the blow would be struck first at Ban Me Thuot and I said when it would be struck. That seemed clear. Now, unkindly, I guessed, that a great deal of the CIA effort, since I made that assessment, was aimed at trying to demolish that assessment. I have no evidence to support that. It's just a judgment, and most of my judgments in that sort of thing are fairly right because I'm a pretty miserable character myself and I know their minds work. But I think they had a vested interest. They had a long standing situation there that went right back to the Tet offensive, it seems to me. John McCone, after the death of Diem, he came out like a raging lion, and went around his myrmidons, and gathered them all together and asked, "What the hell happened." And the boys, including Dave Smith, who was my informative of about what I will tell you now, Dave said, we all set out things and told him what had happened, and he looked around the gathering and he said, "Ted Serong us all that six months ago. Now, I am now giving you an order. When he speaks, you will listen. Because the record is now long and clear. He has been consistently right and all the others have been consistently wrong." Now that is something that is fairly hard to live with within the organization. By the time it was not counterinsurgency, in the last years of the operation. What it would have taken to win in Vietnam, an absolute guarantee, firmly insured logistic support. That is all it would have taken to win in Vietnam. Guaranteed support so they didn't have to look over the shoulder and wonder if the next bullet would arrive and where it was coming from. When it becomes militarily impossible to win, one's ability to rationalize politically crystallizes marvelously. And that is precisely what Gorbachev is doing right to win Russia. The bombing campaign in the North affected them. It is just a myth to say that it didn't. Oh, yes it did. Yes it did. We should have earlier and harder air attacked North Vietnam. My assessment of the Chinese and the Russians at that time was wrong. I believed then that there would have been Chinese reaction to it. Based on the evidence that I've got now, I believe that the Chinese would not have done anything that would have materially affected the situation. Because they themselves were terribly upset about the Russians. They learned some horrible lessons in Korea, the 7th division in particular, based in Yunnan, it left Yunnan as a full strength division and went to Korea and came home with 21 people. The whole division was wiped out. And they talk about that to this day. They have not forgotten Korea. They don't think about it the way that we think they think about it. I reckon now that anybody who has to ask the question, "Can we trust the Americans as an ally will never understand the answer." It leaves many countries in a very bad situation. I have no personal bitter feelings about what the US did in pulling the plug on Vietnam. I used to give rather snide little lectures on the subject of Congress withholding funds from Vietnam. And it ran something like this: What is the attitude of a minor country in alliance with a major power, say of Australia with the United States. And I would then go on to say, it is something like a climbing pair in the snowy Alps. And there is George and there is Tom. They went together on the rope and George fell over the side and is hanging there and screaming and Tom doesn't have a full grip here. At what stage does Tom cut himself loose and let George fall. And I would then put it to the audience and ask them at what stage would they cut themselves loose. And they would come up with different answers. And I told them that morally he never cuts himself loose. He goes over the side with him. And I could never get an American audience to agree with that. But now I believe that they were right and I was wrong. And their inability to accept that. The major country with its other bigger responsibilities, it is not entitled to make this magnificent sacrifice. It owes it to others to cut the rope somehow. And that is what the United States was forced to do in Vietnam. Painful as it was. To cut that rope. I'm not mad about what happened. I have never heard of a war from the siege of Troy down to the present that was conducted in such a way that everybody could be happy about all the strategic decisions that were undertaken. With the possible exception of Alexander. The way that he handled his operations is probably the closest that one would get to genius. The way that he handled his immense lines of communication, all of that great distance and potential difficulty. He handled it all perfectly. A little trouble here a little assassination there.
I look at communism and anticommunism as evil and good. I look at its expression in the North of Vietnam as being evil. I don't necessarily look at the individual soldiers as evil people. In fact, I've known enough about them to know that many of them were good people and worthy opponents. In fact, most people that I fought against in wars were not evil at all. They were rather decent chaps, really. The communists had a lot of propaganda out about me. They said I was a baby eater. And they used to attribute all sorts of horrible things to me. Having gone through all that trouble they would love to make an example of me, I'm sure. So I don't think I'll ever go back to Vietnam.