Other Reflections on the Vietnam War
as told to
How to Lose A War
Let me tell you how the Vietnam war was lost. It’s quite simple. It was all my fault. It happened this way. My wife and I were living in Saigon in early 1975. We used to drive from Saigon to Dalat on the weekends. Dalat was a mountain resort town, and you drive through narrow mountain valleys that are very dark all day, and the sun seldom comes through. This makes it very propitious for growing orchids. An orchid, as you may know, is a symbiotic plant, a parasite. It lives on other plants. It thrives on trees on the bark and it does not grow on the ground. It draws its sustenance from other living organisms. The Vietnamese regard it as an ominous sort of plant. In the US we prize orchids highly, the top of the class in flowers. But they are not so highly regarded in much of Asia. Growing them is a very lucrative business in the tropics, however, and I should say they rally are magnificent looking flowers.
So one day on the way back from Dalat my wife said we should stop and pick some orchids. They were growing on trees up the mountainside along the road. So we stopped and she got out and the kids got out. And she found this huge beautiful black orchid. We dug it out and potted it and brought it back to Saigon and hung it that evening in the shadows of the front porch.
And the next thing you know on the following morning our Cambodian doorman and the Vietnamese guard who operated the front gate was just horrified when he saw the orchid and he told us this was very bad luck. “You must not keep this here,” they told us. “You must get rid of it.” But we sort of ignored them and the next day they both reported in sick.
Then we had this Chinese couple working for us and they too came to us and said, “Do you know what you have done? This was very bad luck.” Again we acknowledged their advice but kept the orchid. The next day they told us that their arthritis was beginning to affect them and they weren't feeling too well. And of course it was due to the black orchid.
Now we may think this is a lot of nonsense, but it sure isn't to them. And so we decided to get rid of it. I put it in the car and, thinking it was a shame to destroy such a beautiful plant, I took it to the Embassy and I hung it on a tree in the front and then left.
This was about three months before the end of the war. The Vietnamese that I knew believed there certainly was a direct connection here between the orchid in the Embassy and the fall of South Vietnam. Without that orchid at the Embassy, who can say how the war might have turned out. But when I placed that orchid on the grounds of the embassy, well, for many people, the fate of South Vietnam was sealed. And it was my fault.
Now that may sound illogical to some. But it was not illogical to the thinking of many Vietnamese in high positions and on the street, that I knew. Remember, I had seen things in Vietnam happen that defy logic. That was but one of them. Haunted houses in Saigon were another thing. We had this house -- the Embassy had rented a house that was built over the site of a police interrogation station that the Japanese had built and they had allegedly tortured people to death there and the ground was soaked with blood and the house was said to be haunted. We rented this about 1960. And we were not the first American family that lived there. We learned of one American family who lived there not long before us. Shortly after they moved in the wife was sent home as an alcoholic and a diabetic. This was discovered when the husband was found to be bringing her a bottle of gin and a box of chocolates each noon. They moved them out and another young couple came in, a young Foreign Service officer and his wife. They were just married and she was a nurse from Indiana. And for reasons we don't know, cultural shock or something, she just went around the bend, and she's still in a mental facility in Washington today. And that was many years ago.
I remember seeing our executive officer a short time later after we moved in and asking him about the house, and I asked him if he believed it was haunted and he said, “No, of course not.” But he was unwilling to live there himself. Now nobody really believed this stuff, but you see things happen again and again and what you realize is that the Vietnamese believe this.
I recall also a Washington Post editorial in the late 1980s about riots in India when there was a conjunction of six stars that happens only once ever 6000 years, and in India this was seen as the end of the world, and the thrust of the editorial was that we had finally decided the issue of whether the stars determine men's fate. Obviously they do. The point is, that if people believe these things, it makes a big difference.
Everybody in Vietnam it seemed was superstitious, even General Nguyen Ca Ky and President Nguyen Van Thieu and the entire general staff. This isn't a Jean Dixon type of thing. One of my friends was a Vietnamese who was the last mayor of free Hanoi, and he was a very well educated man. And as a gift to me, he said he would have my horoscope caste. And he did, and it is about seven pages of my life divided into ten year slices. What the stars said of course was very elaborate and there was an enormous amount of interpretation, and all this. The necromancer only wanted to know my date of birth and hour of birth, and I asked Central Standard or what, so I told him this information, and he cast the whole thing with that information. And when he had interpreted this, he said, “I see you are an only child but were not always an only child.” And this was true. I had a brother who died of whooping cough when I was two and he was one. And he said, “I see that your father died peacefully and your mother died in agony.” Now this was true, too. My mother died of cancer my father died of a stroke. Then he said, “I also see that you have or will have three children.” And I said, “I got you there, I don't have any children.” Now, you know how many children I have now? I have three. We wanted two but we have three. This type of thing does give you pause. It really does.
I was born in Cass Lake, Minnesota. After high school I went into the Army and was assigned to the Signal Corps. I was part of the force that occupied Japan after the surrender. I was there for two years. When I came home and returned to school, studying journalism at the University of South Dakota. I worked for the UN in Korea as a civilian and during the Korean War and had a series of radio and newspaper jobs in Asia while trying to get on as a regular foreign correspondent. I came back to the US and earned a BA in journalism at the University of California in Berkeley. My last job on the outside – outside government, I mean -- was with the Washington Star. Then I was recruited by the foreign service.
I had known people in the foreign service in Korea, and they had been asked by higher ups for the names of others they thought they might be interested in working for them and I was recommended and they contacted me. The salary was twice what it was at the Star, and that impressed me. The Star at that time had only one foreign correspondent and he owned the newspaper, so my chances of going abroad weren't that good. So I decided to take this job.
There was a screw up though. You go through exams and security checks, and I went through all of this, and there were about 12 of us in this class. I quit my job, and other people had come to Washington and we were waiting to be sworn in, and there was rhubarb on the hill in which this Arthur Larsen made this speech -- he was director of US Information Agency -- saying the New Deal was an alien philosophy and he was called before the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Lyndon Johnson was on the committee, and Larsen got snotty about this, so Johnson cut the budget ten percent across the board. And so we all got notices, “Dear John,” saying they were sorry they couldn't hire us because they didn't have the money.
So I was out on the street again and went back to school. I got my MA at American University, and then I got a call from VOA, asking if I would like a job there. They said I could start that week. I already had the security clearance. I took the job and they assigned me to the White House and I was covering the Eisenhower press conferences with my old friends from the Star. I worked there for about a year, then in 1960 the foreign service had money and they called me and said now they could hire me.
Careers, as I found, are all accidental, anyway. So this moment in 1960 when I went into the foreign service they saw I had been in Asia a number of years and I could have Vientiane, Seoul or Saigon. I had been in Korea during the worst part of the war and I wanted no more of it. I didn't know where Vientiane was so I said, “All right I'll take Saigon.”
I arrived in Saigon in 1960. I had planned at that point on going back to college and getting a PhD. I had been specializing in was the communication of ideas in underdeveloped societies without a mass media. In other words I wanted to know how ideas are communicated, word of mouth, rumors, peddlers and social organizations, churches and so on in less technologically developed societies -- societies without television or radios interested me. And I wanted to study the dynamics of information dissemination in those societies. I'd started on this earlier when I earned my MA. I expected to continue on academically but then but then I decided to go this other route with the foreign service.
When I got to Saigon, the National Liberation Front(NLF) was just being formed. So on my own at first I got interested in this movement and how they communicated ideas. They had no radio -- they didn't have mass media as such, so I wanted to learn how they used their organization to spread their messages and so on. I began to collect their propaganda leaflets that I would analyze for themes, appeals, targets and so on. I wanted to see precisely how they organized and mobilized people. I had a lock on this for about three years. Even the CIA had nobody assigned to the Vietcong -- which is a commentary in itself.
Sometimes people in the field would pick up propaganda leaflets and send them over to me. And I soon became known as the resident expert on the Vietcong. After three years on this I asked the department for sabbatical to go back to the US to do a book. We had some people from MIT who had come through Saigon and encouraged me to do this. I got the grant and went back and originally I was going to do the book about the communication matrix, but people in Washington said I should do it on the Viet Cong. And so I did. It was translated into 15 languages. It was published by the MIT Press, my first book, Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam(1965).
It's dated now. The cut off in research was 1963 and the NLF was emasculated after the war and the North took over.
Getting to Know Ngo Dinh Diem
As to the government of South Vietnam, I can say only that I always had doubts about South Vietnam being something permanent. I can remember, when we were met at the airport – we were on the first 707 flight to Saigon and we went straight through from Baltimore -- and my friend met us at the airport and took my wife and me us to the hotel, and he was one of these pessimistic people telling me, "This place isn't going to last. It's about all over. This place is going down the tubes and I mean fast, coming apart at the seams."
We had people like that in Vietnam, people who were privately pessimistic and publicly optimistic. But in fact nobody really saw ahead very far on either side. Nobody clearly saw the course of the war. I would argue and I like to point out to my intelligence community friends that every major development in Asia in modern times from Pearl Harbor and including Pearl Harbor, was largely unanticipated by anybody. You show me anybody who in writing predicted the Cultural Revolution in China, the Japanese economic miracle, the destruction of the Indonesia Communist Party, the advent of the Korean War or the course of it, the Chinese intervention in Korea, the Vietminh war and the defeat of the French as it was called by some, and the advent, outcome and course of the Vietnam War. The whole of Asia is full of one damn historical event after another that nobody in the US saw coming. You can not go back and see in print anything or anybody who says this is coming. Not journalists, not government analysts, intelligence people, academics, not anybody. This is not a criticism, mind you. We were not omnipotent nor omniscient on events in Asia and we ought to disabuse ourselves of that notion. And Vietnam has been particularly just one god damn thing after another that nobody expected.
My approach to problems in Vietnam was always one of skepticism. I had enough journalistic training to be skeptical of those at the top of the heap saying its all going down the tubes.
When we arrived at our hotel my wife asked me, “Do you think what he said is true?” And I said, “We've come a long way to be in a bug out, if it is. But no I don't think it's true. I don't think events happen that quickly that decisively”
With respect to the President Ngo Dinh Diem government that was in power at that time, well the is that we maneuvered and pushed and levered Diem into his position against the wishes of the old hands, especially the Francophiles and the old hands in Vietnam. At the Geneva conference of 1954, the Russians and the Chinese convinced Ho’s followers that he could settle for half a country when he wanted a whole country on the grounds that Diem couldn't last. All the smart money in 54 said Diem couldn't last. Most of the Americans said that Diem couldn't last. And that's why it became “the Diem miracle” when Diem did last. You predict something is going to happen and then it doesn't and you call it a miracle as in the case of Diem. You say God damn it's a miracle, when you're wrong. They then went the opposite way and said he could do anything and could apply laws of political science and so on. There was great euphoria then that Diem was the man for the job in Vietnam.
I watched the demise of the Diem government in 1963 and wrote at the time that what someone had to do in Vietnam to be a successful leader was to juggle organizations and factions and play one organization against another and use one organization to slay another and merge organizations to drown your opponents and so on. Ho Chi Minh was a master at this. Diem was not. He had no skills and no abilities in this at all. So what Diem started doing and a lot of people in the same position and inadequate to the needs would do is he began to alienate one major social group after another in Vietnam. He began with the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, then he alienated the ex-Vietnminh as well as the communists and the non communists, the academics, and he went right down the line, as with his strategic hamlet program, he alienated most of the villagers, he appointed Catholics to major positions and he alienated southern gentry. Any politician or president or ruler who is in office a long time will accumulate enemies, an inevitable process. If you're skilled, however, you don't make enough enemies to do yourself in. When Diem took on the Buddhists in 1963, well, that was the point of no return. Anybody who knew anything about Vietnam -- and all the press knew this, David Halbertstatm in particular, said that Diem had to come to terms with the Buddhists. But Diem didn't. His strategy was to try to smash them. He was the victim of bad advice from his brother in law Ngo Dinh Nhu and Nhu’s wife. I heard from a friend of mine that Madame Nhu would storm around the palace shouting, “You've got to smash these Buddhists, smash them!” And Diem would say, “The Americans don't think I should”. And she would shout, “They said don't smash the Cao Dai and we did it and it worked and they said don't smash the Hoa Hao and we did it and it worked”
It was this kind of advice along with the idea of solidarity in the family that put Diem on the course that led to his own destruction. The Buddhists also maximized their political advantage and that had to be dealt with. There was this militant, almost fundamentalist group among the Buddhists, and this was unusual for Buddhism. But a skilled leader could deal with this. You cannot easily alleviate an insurgency where you've got a formidable enemy out there in the jungle who are just waiting to flatten you, a force that is well organized and well mobilized. You cannot within your own society alienate too many.
In August 1963, before the coup, an ARVN major, a good friend of mine, came to me and said, “They have just arrested my sister. She is a Buddhist and she is 13 years old. What should I do?”
And I said, “I don't know. You’ve just got to follow your conscience.” But what I saw in it was, “There goes the officer corps. Now what have you got left?”
At the end it was estimated by people within the Catholic church that 40 percent of the Catholics had even turned against Diem. Just before the end came, Duong Van “Big” Minh said to his fellow officers before he joined in plotting this action, “I don't want the Vietnamese army fighting itself, so I'm not going to be part of this unless we have all the general officers approve of it. So they sent these emissaries out to the generals and asked, “How do you feel about this coup?” And every one of them said that they endorsed it. Then Diem got word of this and we in the embassy got word of this and everybody in town knew about it. The coup operation was called BRAVO, that was the name the rebels gave it. And so Diem and Nhu said, “We'll stage this counter coup called BRAVO II and smoke these guys out.” That's why it was 4 in the afternoon, and I was standing in the outer office of the Embassy with Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and he was talking to Diem on the phone and Diem was saying everything is going fine. Lodge said, “I'll take you to the airport and I guarantee I can get you out of here.”. And Lodge hung up the phone and said, "He said, everything is going fine. What does he mean by that?"
I think John Kennedy had sent out Ambassador Lodge to try to get Nhu and Madame Nhu out of the country. Whether that would have accomplished anything, I don't know. It was probably too late by the time he arrived.
We didn't know that he had this BRAVO II counter-coup operation. He thought the good guys were going to come zinging in from the provinces and save him. And at 4 in the afternoon he was on the radio appealing for his people to come to his aid. And Lou Conein of the CIA came in. He had been working with Big Minh. And Conein learned that Diem was on the radio appealing for help. “But he's using the power from the main source, so we'll just pull the power source and cut him off,” Conein said to Big Minh. And Big Minh said to Conein, “Never mind, nobody's coming. Let him talk.”
We had individual advisors all over the military units, and their instructions in coup conditions was to report in every hour, and if we didn't hear from them we were to assume that they were immobilized and that unit was on the move. And we kept hearing from them so we knew that everything was all right.
Diem and Nhu died because they were sort of typically Vietnamese -- too smart by half. They thought they could outmaneuver the coup. They thought that Tran Van Minh, who was out at Tan Sa Nhut, would come zinging in to save them. On the morning of the 3rd of November Minh was invited to Tan Son Nhut for this birthday party. They invited him there for lunch at 12 and the tanks started going by and he asked what was happening, and the other officers present said, “Oh we forgot to tell you we moved the coup up a day.”
In Asia, as far as power goes once it starts to slip away then it is very hard if not impossible to get it back. Efforts at rehabilitation seldom if ever work.
When Diem and Nhu left the Independence Palace, word of this got out almost immediately. Stanley Karnow came to me soon after that and said, “Let's go to Cholon, I think I know where Diem and Nhu are.” And he had the address of this Chinese warehouse. We drove around and around and finally we came to this warehouse. Karnow knocked on the door and this guy answered and Karnow asked, "Are Diem and Nhu here?" And the guy said, "No" and slammed the door.
As it turned out they had been there. And they left. They had gone across the street to a church. They called coup headquarters when they should have called the American Embassy. And Lou Conein, of all people, answered the phone. He handed it to Big Minh. He asked where they were and they said were at this church. He turned to this Lt Col and said where they were and he sent an armored car to get them and bring them back. That guy got in the car got them and shot them. In fact, of all the people in the room that is the one guy(Captain Nguyen Van Nhung) that should not have been sent to get them. This guy’s whole family had been tortured and suffered under Diem. One of his brothers had been tortured to death(later the next year Nhung was himself murdered in his own garden with a single pistol shot to the back of the head).
The allegation has always been that Big Minh knew this full well. Minh of course denied this and said he was surprised by the murder.
After Diem I had the feeling after that the situation in Vietnam was like a stock market. It was not all a downhill skid. It was up and down and up and down. We were close to victory a couple of times and right at the gates of defeat twice. The war was just about lost in early 1965. We were within weeks of losing that war, and everybody knew that on both sides. I still don't know how we pulled things out in 1965. I don't know if anybody really does because we were within weeks of losing that war. We were just hanging on then. But the course of the war went up and down again and there were times when you thought things when were going well and other times when you thought they were going to hell. I argued at the time that victory in Vietnam would go to the side that got the best organized, stayed the best organized, and most successfully disorganized the other side. I saw the NLF as an organizational steam roller out there in the jungle. And Diem was never equal to it ever. Particularly when he was deliberately destabilizing the South. After Diem, in organizational terms it was much much worse in terms of the government organization. We seemed to forever be going through another coup. A government would come in and replace all the province chiefs. Another would come in and replace all the province chiefs again and this happened over and over.
I remember I had an appointment with the Tay Ninh province chief and it was set up for two weeks in the future. And when I finally went there he had been replaced and a new province chief had been appointed that morning. I arrived about the same time the new province chief did. And we went inside his office and he turned to me and he said, "Do you know where the men's room is here?" And I said, “Yes, down the hall to the left” And I went in and sat down and thought, "Jesus Christ, here's a province chief who doesn't even know even know where the men's room in his own office is.” And he was out of there in a month. You can't run a government like that.
Why We Fight
In studying the unfolding of the war I learned not to look at battles lost and won. There is an irony involved in this in that if you lose the battle you will lose the war but if you win the battle you do not win the war. You merely set the stage for organization, mobilization, solving social problems and so on. So there is an irony or law in most guerrilla wars that if they don't lose, they win. So you have to neutralize them or hold them off, but victory in the final analysis will come with dealing with both their organizational efforts among the people, their efforts to destabilize the government and their waging of low intensity conflict. And it is questionable to me if outsiders can deal with this completely. It has to be done essentially by the indigenous population, by the people.
There is a serious limitation to what foreigners in a xenophobic society like Vietnam can do. And there are sharp limits to what we can do in countries like Vietnam – where there is a suspicion and fear of outsiders.
I wanted to learn what made the communists tick. I concluded, in studying the other side, that there was no one answer as to what motivated them.. The Northerners fought in the name of unification. Although when I interviewed them I had trouble here. I'd ask them what they were doing down here in the South and they would say, "We've come to liberate and unify the holy fatherland." And I’d say, “You don't really care about that do you? It's an abstraction.” And they'd say, “Well, why I really came here is because my friends are here, I was sent here, my family expects me to come here too.” In other words I found that enemy soldiers were motivated primarily by social pressure. It was the same reason many Americans were there. It's the whole system that sends them there. It doesn't mean you don't believe in it. But it is the organization of the system and the ambience of the system that puts you there.
The idea that the military fights for abstract reasons like patriotism or flag or country is a relatively new idea in the history of man. For most of mankind’s history, before Napoleon, you fought for loot, you fought for blood, you fought to recover some God's tomb, you fought for your liege lord, you fought for the blood of your clan. You didn't fight for a geographic area bounded by abstract geographic lines. Even today, some of the best fighting forces fight not for these abstract reasons. The American Marines, for example, they don't get these "Why We Fight" films. They are the best and they fight because they are the best damn man in the best damn unit in the world. The French Foreign Legion fights for esprit de corps. There is this spirit within the corps that motivates the soldier.
When Diem was overthrown that was the revolution for a lot of Viet Cong. That was why they fought, many believed. They’d won. We got numerous defections from the Southern Viet Cong right after that. They thought that everything they fought for had been accomplished. And we also got numerous defections from high level party cadres. Some of the most impressive Vietnamese I have ever talked to defected. And I’d ask them why they fought, and the answer was that they didn't understand many question. Some, however, said something like, “This was my outfit, this is what we did. We were professionals.” “What about democracy?” I’d ask. And they said, “Oh, yes, I'm for that” and so on. But the official communist party rhetoric was that they were fighting for land reform and so on. But for these wizened 60 year old men who had been fighting their whole lives, that just didn't wash. I found that they were mostly apolitical, they had no interest or little knowledge of communism and what it was.
I had assumed that these guys were Marxists to various degrees. That was probably because they said they were and Hanoi said they were. But then I realized that this was just sand in my fingers. There was nothing to hold this together. You'd say to a guy, "You're a member of the party?" And he would say, “Yes, I actually have a card.” And I’d ask him, “Do you believe that the history of all former societies is the history of class conflict?” And he’d, “I don't know what that means.” And I’d say, “How about dialectical materialism, historical determinism, religion the opiate of the people?” And he’d say, “Yes, no, maybe.” And I'd say, “You’re really a lousy communist. How did you get into the party? You are really a don't know a thing about communism.” And he'd say, “Well the party cadre who examined me told me what the questions would be and what the answers should be.” And I said “You don't think there's anything wrong with that?” And he'd say, “No, you don't have to know anything about communism to be a good communist.”
I don't know how many times I'd heard that. That's quite different from communism in the west, in Moscow. In theory, if you master Marxism Leninism, you are infallible. You can interpret history, you can interpret all historical phenomena. You are Olympian. But communism on its way from Moscow to Hanoi underwent a sea change. Yet here was a guy who was willing to go out and fight and die for this, and yet in my mind he was not a communist at all. Communism was like some icon on the wall. It was semi-religion for him, it was taken on faith. Ho Chi Minh had identified with Marxism and Communism. And Ho was the spirit of Vietnam to them. And so they said they were Marxists and communists, too.
How We Fight
But anyway the rot in the southern structure, political and military, had gone too far, and in their New Year's Day message in 1965, the National Liberation Front announced. "The War will be over this year.” That was the only time they ever said that. The New Year messages always said they were advancing toward victory, but in January of 1965 they said the war would be over this year. Then when the US started to build up its forces, they said it was too late, and they announced, the greater the American involvement the greater will be their collapse. It took time to get our forces into the country in significant numbers. The Ia Drang Valley in November of 1965 was a test of our strength that year and they wanted to know if the strategies used against the French would be used against the Americans, and they decided they would not and a new strategy would be required.
I had even been asked after that by a number of Viet Cong as to why the war didn't end in 1965. They were right up against victory in 1965, then they began to recede. They pulled back when the Americans started arriving. In the South, they didn’t get it. The fact is that General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi was very hesitant, and he pulled back, and there were a series of test engagements -- Ia Drang valley was a classic test --he threw a unit against the American First Cavalry Division just to see what would happen. The North sent were skilled battled hardened troops up against 18 year old American kids who never before been in combat. And they found that the Americans had an incredible ability just to throw out lead and put up sheer walls of fire power along with mobility and vertical envelopment. They had staying power. A company commander could pick up the phone and call the Pentagon, they believed. General Giap concluded that technology had revolutionized warfare, especially the helicopter, and what worked against the French would not work against the Americans. And he had to come up with a new strategy and he spent a long time, several years trying to work this out. That is what saved us in 1965. There were people in Hanoi pushing to just going ahead and hitting the Americans everywhere. But not Giap. Remember that even the Ia Drang was not strategically important. It was fought only because the Vietnamese wanted to fight it.
The Northern buildup really began in late 1964, when they began pumping more forces down the trail because they sensed the end was near, and they wanted their people on the spot. They didn't want another 1954, they didn't want to win the war and lose the peace. They were afraid the VC would make a separate peace and then couldn't enforce it or the VC might take over and keep them out.
Our response was incremental escalation.
North and South
The North Vietnamese prisoners of war I interviewed in the mid-1960s would always say they were fighting for unification. And the South Vietnamese VC prisoners would always say they were fighting or justice and democracy.
There were dramatic and very sharp differences between the north and the south. The communist party cadres would smooth this over.
That helps explain why after Diem was overthrown we got massive defectiona. Maybe 40 percent of the Viet Cong, all the Cao Dai and all the Hoa Hao. They had defined revolution not as a socio political change, but as getting rid of Diem, and when Diem was gone, the Revolution was over. These Southerners were bourgeois revolutionists as far as the North was concerned. The North was always afraid of a sellout. So they began sending these troops down early to have them on the spot when the end came. As the war spread and the American presence increased, the relations between the two got out of whack. They needed more men and they couldn't get them in the South, and so they sent them down from the North. So in 1965, the PLAF(Southern insurgents) fought maybe 90 percent of the day to day battles. By 1972, about 90 percent was the North, PAVN(Northerners). So the war shifted in terms of personnel, the Northern presence became greater and the number of VC got proportionately smaller. The war passed over to become a Northern War and it passed from a guerilla war activity to a regular force war, a limited small scale war.
The fundamental spirit of the Vietnamese is nationalism. The basic thinking of a Vietnamese is that originally there were these 100 tribes of south China. The Han came and assimilated all of these except the Nam Viets and they moved out of South China into the Red River Valley. And the Chinese came after them and for 1000 years they resisted this assimilation. That explains their relation with the Chinese today. The fact is that they stole the whole civilization from the Chinese, architecture, language, literature. They will tell you though that the cultures grew up simultaneously and it didn't. There is a great racial pride in this, a Vietnamese identity. They see themselves as distinct and unique.
And in addition to this they are very martial. They are the Prussians of Asia. They see their martial spirit and they know this has cultivated a Praetorian attitude among them. North and South Vietnamese are really hard as nails type semi-fanatic. And they see this spirit as essentially defensive. They see themselves as not aggressive and so unlike the Prussians. The Vietnamese do not do that. Everything they have ever done they put in terms of resistance to something.
Man for man I don't think you can make a judgment that will hold up under scrutiny about soldiers in the North and the South. You have this regionalism in Vietnam, North, Central and South. It is like caste in India. You cannot understand Vietnamese politics without considering this geographic regionalism. Usually, in other countries it is North and South. But in Vietnam it is three regions. Northerners see themselves as modern, rational and progressive. Central Vietnamese see themselves as cultural, and the only ones who understand Vietnamese literature. In the South they see themselves as pacifistic and more in touch with nature. The Southerners see the northerners as money hungry and more sharp in business. And both see the Central as vague speaking, overly intellectual. And the Northern and Central Vietnamese see the southerners as lazy and dirty and anti-mechanical.
My language teachers in Vietnam and most of my friends actually had come from the North. And they kept up this steady patter trying to convince me of their evaluation of southerners. I was in a gas station with a northern friend, and this guy was trying to put air in the tire and he did it wrong and all the air came out, and my friend turned to me and said, “You are looking at a typical southerner.”
I came into office one morning with another northerner, and I said good morning to my secretary and asked, “What did you do on the weekend?” And she said, “I went out on a hill and thought about nature.” And we went into my office and shut the door, and my friend turned to me, and said, "Isn't that typical of a southerner. Thinking about nature?"
I knew a southerner in the prime minister’s office and he told me, “All the trouble here is the hot headed northerners. If they only had patience like the southerners, the French would have left here like the British left India and we would have had none of these wars.”
I would never write this, but it does seem to me that there is a greater martial quality in northerners and they are more disciplined, and this goes way way back. After all in every country you are going to get some differences. The New Englanders and the Virginia Planters and the pioneers in Minnesota. We have some of these differences. It is a slippery thing to deal with and it is awfully hard to come to solid judgments. But there is something to this notion that the northerners were simply better soldiers for various reasons, cultural and specific terms of their own lives.
I spent a lot of time in Chu Hoi(Viet Cong who had come over to the Saigon regime’s side) and POW camps. My specialty was the other side. I was the American government’s chief expert on the Viet Cong. And I was trying for years to try to understand what makes them tick. .
Given what I learned about the other side I concluded that our decision in 1965 to begin air strikes was questionable because it had marginal effect. I think after Korea we were sold a bill of goods by the Air Force. They said that in Vietnam they could stop stuff coming down from the North to the South and they never could. They were never short of anything on the other side -- so the notion of B52s or any kind of strike was marginal.
This is my evaluation since the end of the war -- I was just a little guy in the woodwork then. Ambassador Ellsworth, Bunker is the only guy who ever called me in and asked me anything, and General Creighton Abrams was the first general to do that. I was younger and respectful of the notion that they are in the upper ranks and they know what they're doing. The American Army is impressive, you know. When they came in force in 1965 with this attitude, “You civilians have been mucking around here for five years and you haven't been able to do it, so just step aside and we'll show you how to do it.”
And for several months I bought that. I thought, well, I guess they are right. We really have made a mess of things and they are going to do it. The turnaround came about months later when I started going out to the field and I met these nice young army majors and captains and they said,, “Oh you're from the Embassy and you know about these psychological warfare things.” Well, you know it really isn't the way I thought it would be out here. They would say, “Would you write down a few words here and on a leaflet and we'll drop it on them and then they'll quit.” They somehow had the idea that I had the answers and the military wasn't the answer to it. That was very dismaying for me because I concluded, “Hell these guys aren't any better than we are in trying to end this stuff.”
It was the nature of the war that we didn't understand. We never really put the resources into understanding what the other side was all about and what they were trying to do. You look at the Pentagon Papers, nothing of substance is in there about the other side. If Robert McNamara wanted to know what the North Vietnamese thought of being bombed, he put himself in their place, and thought, “If you bomb them a lot they won't like it and they'll quit the war.” Very logical. But Ho Chi Minh was not Robert McNamara. It's what Aldous Huxley called Vincible Ignorance. It is something that you don't know, you realize you don't know but you think it doesn't make any difference. It should perhaps go on a large tombstone in Vietnam.
I sort of dimly appreciated this at the time. But like most people staying in the woodwork, I just figured somebody knew more about this than I did and they would do something about it. And then I found out they didn't by then it was too late.
Protracted War, Temporary Peace
The northerners were fighting a protracted war. They argued for what they called the 50 year war, but they didn't really mean it and they didn't expect it. And nobody living out their in the mangrove swamp away from his family with no food and lousy medical care believed it either. If some guy comes in from headquarters and says, “Comrades, I want to talk to you about the 50 year war," -- well, they just didn't do that. What they did was to say was, “ Victory is over the next hill.” And it was a credible ploy. Because our view in Vietnam all through this thing was that a decisive decision, some way, good or bad, was fairly near.
Nobody in the North or the South in 1960 imagined things would be the way they were in 1974. But what kept the guerrillas going was the prospect of one more hill, one more battle and we're home free.
That view to a large extent was shared by us in Saigon. But after 1968 when Johnson threw in the towel, I thought it was just a matter of time before everything was lost because it was our policy after that to disengage and to get out. After 1968 we were fighting to get out. What else could you conclude?
Yet we didn't want just to walk away. We wanted to get out under certain circumstances. But that’s not much of an objective in warfare. I am still surprised that Richard Nixon got away with what he did, kept us in the war a hell of a lot longer than I thought he would or than Hanoi thought he would.
I was in Saigon while the peace talks were going on in Paris. We had begun talks in 1968 but I remained unaware of the secret talks Kissinger was carrying on simultaneously. And quite frequently those of us in Saigon paid no attention to what was going on in Paris. We wished them luck, but we had no faith in their ability to end the war in Paris. We thought the talks were primarily for American public relations and world opinion, but the notion that the war could be settled on the basis of compromise on both sides just was just not realistic. You see I felt always that the North Vietnamese negotiating style was never to compromise. I still believe that.
After all remember what happened when they compromised in Geneva in 1954. The Russians leaned on them heavily probably in Geneva making a deal with the French to scuttle EDC. The Chinese were pushing the spirit of Bandung at the time. So both big powers leaned on Ho Chi Minh to accept half a loaf, and the argument they used was that all of Vietnam would be his in two years anyway. Ho may have deferred to this in some way or he was just a totally committed Marxist. I really think he figured he had no choice. He had the Americans, the French, the Russians and the Chinese against him. But there were people in Hanoi, like Le Duan, going around town, denouncing the Geneva agreement at the time. We won the damn war, they complained, and now we're going to lose the peace. Whether they did this because they are loyal surrogates of communism or that they had no choice, I don't know. But they were adamant about never compromising again.
I used to work with Kissinger in policy planning, and I remember kicking the issue of the treaty around. And I was trying at the time to get a handle on things. Kissinger was telling people two things from one day to the next. On the Paris Agreement of 1973 that ended American military engagement in Vietnam he would tell one person, “This is the best agreement we can get and it's not that bad, and it has all the prospects for succeeding.” And the next day he was saying, “It’s s a fig leaf, it's a decent interval and it won't hold.” And these were both actually honest assessments. That's how many of us felt throughout the war, sometimes we'd think things were going better and sometimes things were worse and then better and then worse again.
One of my colleagues, Dan Ellsberg was the worst of these vacillators . Sometimes one day he'd be euphoric and say, “Now we're winning the war! “ And then a week later he'd bee down in the dumps and saying, “We can’t win it.” The fact is, as we all found out, there were too many factors to evaluate. What Kissinger thought, I think, is that what he got at Paris was the best we can get and we have to get out of the war. This is doing too much damage to the American system and this is the best deal I could cut to get out. And we've got to cut our losses. And whether it works or not is irrelevant because we have to get out. What he said alter was that is that it was a very good shot and Watergate sabotaged it and air power could have done it for us at the end. On the other hand, the Paris Agreement did leave 60,000 North Vietnamese forces in the south(the Paris agreement of 1973 provided for a unilateral American withdrawal and the North Vietnamese forces in the South remaining in place) and that proved to be a cancer. Kissinger felt if there was strict adherence to the Paris Agreement there would be attrition and the North Vietnamese would gradually get out. On the other hand nobody really expected them to adhere to the letter of the Paris agreement. I know I didn't and I don't think Kissinger did either. So there you have it! Go figure!
My problem at that time was that I was not paying much attention to South Vietnam. I was still trying to figure out North Vietnam, why they went to Paris, what was the logic of their negotiating position, what was the factional infighting. I was very surprised they moved in the direction of making a settlement with us. For a long time they moved back and forth, and it was a very agonizing time for them, we know now.
I did not realize what was going on in the South. But my Vietnamese friends were saying, "The fact is you Americans have carried us long enough. And we've reached the point where we've got to do this on our own. And we think we can do it on our own. If you take an objective balance of forces, manpower, tanks, firepower, it is more or less equal. In fact, we have an advantage -- we have air power and they don't have airpower. On balance everything is going for us, we couldn't ask for anything more."
And I bought that, I accepted it as truth. At the time I think there were a lot of people in the military and the government who believed this. There was some anxiety, but we on the whole believed it.
The Dark Side
But there is a darker character of the Vietnamese psyche. Nobody has ever done much on this. They Vietnamese culture has been skewed through clandestinism in politics and the syndrome of betrayal which is endemic in the society. There has developed a sense of dependency toward the outside world and this has manifested itself in political terms. You see this in the fact that every major political movement in Vietnam in the 20th Century has had a direct connection, a kind of umbilical cord to an outside source of sustenance and support. The Nationalists with Kuomintang in China, the Dai Viets with Japan, the Buddhists with the Ceylonese, the Marxists and Stalinists with Moscow and Beijing, the South Vietnamese with the US. Every organization in Vietnam has had this umbilical chord.
And it is unlike other countries. In India the leaders had connections with the left in London. But the idea was that they were going to make or break on what they did in India themselves. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, have always had the idea that somebody else is going to deliver what they want to them. Ho Chi Minh was out of his country for 40 years trying to get somebody to deliver his country to him -- Sun Yat Sen, the French left, the Americans in WWII, the Chinese, the Russians and so on. This is a psychic dependency, and it exists irrespective of material objectives, military balance of forces or whatever. It means that you do not think you can sustain yourself without this outside support.
I wrote this in Washington about five years after the war. I had been out in an alley in Cleveland Park teaching my son to ride a bicycle. I would run beside the bike and hang onto the seat, and I was running along hanging onto the seat. And he asked, “Are you hanging on?” And I wasn't and he kept going. And he shouted, “Are you hanging on?” and he turned and saw I wasn't and he fell off. The thing is he could ride that bike without me hanging on but he didn't think he could.
This paralleled by the South Vietnamese psychic dependence on American support. I had the sense of this was because of what the Vietnamese told me and what they told themselves, “We can do this without the Americans. We need to do this and we can do it,” they said. But every mother jack of them didn't believe it. And so when the very first real military test came in Ban Me Thuot(in the spring of 1975), they just crumbled.
And it was total surprise to us. It seemed to make no sense.
I was back in policy planning in State from January 1975 on. The last four months of the war I spent in DC. And when the North Vietnamese attacks came we asked what was happening in Phuoc Long province because the Northern Army just pounced on them and took the province. And they said, “It’s an aberration.” They were not prepared for this but they said, “It is one of a kind, it won't happen again. Then came the Northern the build up in the Central Highlands around Ban Me Thout. There was lots of intelligence, the South got lots of reinforcements up there. They were all ready for the attack. And then the god damned thing fell in a day
And that was really the last battle of the Vietnam war. After that the South Vietnamese military just completely came undone. So we sat in Washington, the Ingersoll Committee(a group within the State Department that met regularly with Undersecretary of State Robert Ingersoll), the so called “death-watch committee,” and asked, “What the hell happened?” The South Vietnamese Army that stood and fought under far worse conditions in the past now didn't stand and fight at all. And I thought of this umbilical cord idea, but it sounded to esoteric. But in retrospect I think it comes closer to any explanation than any other I've ever heard.
They could have stopped the North on that route 21 to the sea, through mountain passes. They could have stopped tanks coming down that. I don't buy any military reasons for the collapse of the South. You have to explain it in psychological terms. There was this feeling that the Americans have abandoned us and so everybody is telling himself we can do it but in his heart of hearts he knows he can't. And when the first test comes they fall apart.
You have to explain of course why the South Vietnamese stood and fought in 1968 and in 1972. You had three major offenses in the north, center and south, and there was not one single incident of a unit deserting or a unit cutting and running. And it was TET 1968 when half their forces were on leave or drunk, and yet in these cases, as at An Loc they stood and fought under incredible circumstances. In big and little battles, and village defense forces stood and fought, and the general record is this tenacious experience. Yet in the last offensive of the war there was no standing and fighting at all.
And what really cultivates this theory of dependence in my thinking is General Giap’s reaction to the collapse of the Army of South Vietnam in the Central Highlands around Ban Me Thuot. We were getting high level intercepts from Hanoi to the field, and the substance of which was, “You people are advancing too fast, you're being sucked in, we want you to slow down, it s a trap, slow down, consolidate your advance.” And commanders in the field were saying, “No, really, it's all crumbling.” And the command center responded, “No, no it's a trap.”
I can understand Hanoi's thinking on this. The performance of ARVN was way out of sync with anything they had known in the past. I do not believe they crumbled just because the North had tanks. It was because of the psychology of the commanders and the rank and file alike. The feeling that, “We are alone. We have been abandoned by the Americans. We are really alone.” And like my boy on his bicycle, they found when they were alone that they didn’t really believe in themselves.
The argument that they ran out of supplies is not true. They did not run out of guns or bullets or anything else. They still had $5 million worth of war material when the war was over. I thank God that it didn't go because they ran out of supplies. They were going to run out at the rate of expenditure. And that is a factor, I think. But I think if you have a lot of material and the enemy is coming, the tendency is to use it up.
I went into this "we ran out of ammunition" explanation a month after the war ended. I was invited to the Army War College to give a speech on why we lost the War. The fact is I didn't have the slightest idea why we lost the war. I went through all the literature I could find, mostly newspaper columnists. And I extracted 23 reasons -- all separate explanations -- for why we lost the war. All of which had some validity but none of which would stand by itself. I took the list to work and I went through it. And then I was hoping against hope when I gave the lecture that nobody would say, “Well what is the right answer?” And the first thing you know, somebody says, “Oh, it's 14 and 2, that's it.” And somebody else said, “No is 12 and 5.” And the whole rest of this thing is a bull session in which they argued about those 23 reasons. But I came to believe that all of these really in part explain, but none alone explain it.
There is nobody who can give you a single reason as to why it all happened this way. History doesn't happen like that. There are always multiple causes and multiple results. The notion that there is a single reason is just wrong. You know, there are many popular one-cause theories. Congress cut off funds for the war. That's why the whole war was lost, some said. They point to Congress, especially the right wing. And then there was the corruption in South Vietnam. And then the press was responsible. All of these are right and all are wrong. But still there are devils in the details.
The River of No Return
I was at State during the evacuation. We met every night at 5PM. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ingersoll met with us. The group consisted of people reading telegrams and saying, "Christ, listen to this." This was at the start of February. As Ingersoll said, we're just heading down a river of no return.” It was very clear that there was nothing within the realm of reality that could be done to stop it.
After it was all over and the war was lost, I realized that there were things going on in Saigon, a sort of mind set if you will, attitudes in the Embassy that we weren't fully aware of in Washington. That is a syndrome all through the war. There was the world of the war in Saigon and there was the world of the war in Washington. And they were sometimes quite different and some of the time it was a war of ideas and concepts and intentions and understanding among the Americans. There was a very sharp disassociation there. In Vietnam we thought, let them handle the anti-war movement in the US, that's their problem. We have our own problems here. What was happening in Washington had no connection to us out there, we assumed. And the same was true in Washington I found later. I remember coming back and having dinner with a writer for the Washington Post, And everyone was sitting there -- it was a small group of say half a dozen people -talking about Vietnam for almost an hour. And I realized after a while that hadn't said a word. Suddenly it occurred to me that they were talking about the Vietnam war as they perceived it in Washington. And it seemed almost irrelevant for me to say, “Wait a minute, let me tell you what is happening out there in Vietnam.” And what the White House and the Pentagon and the CIA were doing didn’t appear to include opinions from those of us on the scene in Vietnam.
Washington was a self contained and insular world. That, I came to see, was a very common thing, a Washington conceit and parochialism. Wherever you are is important. This kind of thinking and policy planning involves a very serious error, and someday we need to have somebody do something about this institutionalized thinking along lines of departmentalization.
We suffered from that in Washington, especially when people started coming back from Vietnam. Frank Snepp, the controversial CIA analyst in Saigon and author of Decent Interval, worked for me at one time. My last job in Vietnam was to run an inter agency task force on North Vietnam. It was as if we had an embassy in Hanoi and we'd have had a political session and this would have been it. And we followed events and did analysis. And Frank was the CIA representative. When he came back to write Decent Interval he came over and interviewed me and never used anything I ever said. But that was the first time I was really aware of the significance of what was called the Hungarian fix and Wolfgang Lehmann's efforts within the Embassy in Saigon to work through the Hungarians to get a settlement. And I tried to think back and think what did and what I was thinking and doing at that time, and I remember then that I didn't think much of this hokey idea that the Hungarians were going to persuade the North Vietnamese to call off the their campaign against the South and save Saigon. But people in Vietnam apparently took it very seriously – Tom Polgar(CIA Station Chief), Graham Martin(US Ambassador) and Lehmann(Deputy Chief of Mission and Assistant to Ambassador Martin) all took it seriously. And then after the war I had long sessions with Martin and found that people correct themselves and even correct their own minds, they begin to think that's not what they really thought back then. They could pass a lie detector test on it. It is a sort of mental shifting of gears or something. There apparently was a great deal of seriousness about some sort of true decent interval out there and it didn't happen and so later it was very hard to see it as a serious opportunity. But because it didn't happen and it's hard to believe people took it seriously. And that is what explains to some degree Martin's procrastination about evacuation plans for Saigon. Afterwards, it is interesting to point out, he didn't use that argument at all. He made no reference to a Hungarian fix. He just said he didn't want to trigger panic.
War Planners and the Peace Movement
I expected the fall of South Vietnam to come in 1976. But not because it was an American election year. Some people point out that all the major campaigns in Vietnam came from the communists in the year of American elections. 64, 68, 72. Again, that’s ethnocentricity, we believe our enemies do these things because of our elections. Remember Walt Rostow said one time in the White House that a certain battle was taking place in Vietnam because the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was considering an appropriations bill. And I said, “Oh, come on.” And he said, “Yes, it’s true. They follow these things very closely.” That’s typical ethnocentricity. You think the whole world acts because of something you are doing in Washington.
I think the understanding was that the American troops were pulling out and if the North resumed the war in a major way American air power would return. And because of that they North and the VC began this war of the flags –taking areas away from the other side, villages and hamlets and parts of provinces and running up their flag and that makes air power irrelevant. With the occupied zones all mixed up you can’t use massive air power.
My conclusions about the end coming in 1976 came from a lot of captured documents and intelligence from 1973 on, and very hard stuff, on the last hurrah, the major offensive coming in 1976. There was no security classification on this at all. Everybody knew it. And the problem was that either this was really in the works or this was just part of the psychological warfare in their camp. So I thought they were definitely planning on this, but at the same time I knew I could never be 100 percent sure of it.
My work on this indicates that there was in Hanoi in the politburo level a factional balance that had been arguing doctrine all through the war. One group within the politburo put the main emphasis on military efforts. These big unit regular force strategists had pretty much had their day by 1975. But my feeling was that nonetheless they got approval for the 1972 Easter Offensive despite very desperate opposition. And their idea was that if it didn’t work they would resume political organization in the South and so when the Easter offensive did fail, that’s why they became more pliable in Paris and events in the next few years went the way they did. The documents that we saw indicated that General Giap and the others were preparing the blue prints for the last hurrah. What prevented them from being persuasive was the fear that the US would return to the war at some level. “You can’t trust the Americans,” they thought, “to do what they say they will or will not do.”
But when Watergate came and Nixon was becoming increasingly beleaguered, then the hard-line faction in Hanoi said, “OK, we can go for one more campaign, the last hurrah, in 1976 and this will do it.” And then in late 1974, the military command in the north was getting very restive. They dreamed up this limited offensive in the northern half of Phuoc Luong province, partly to position them in advance for the 1976 offensive. Phuoc Luong went much better than they expected, they took the whole province. They were emboldened by this and they planned a second limited offensive in the Ban Me Thout region in the spring of 1975, and that went so well they kept pushing forward. The rest was ad hoc. There was no major planning. They tried to read back into this that there was a great plan. And they tried to pick up some of the contingency plans they had for 1976. But it was not their intention to begin the last hurrah until 1976. What happened in 1975 was a surprise to us and to them.
Generals Giap and Tran Van Tra were very puzzled as to why they won the war. They didn’t win it when they expected and the way that they expected to win it. They are confident that they would win, but they didn’t expect the South just to crumble. And I still can’t explain it. All these books that have been written, I still haven’t seen one that is convincing on this reasoning as to why Vietnam fell.
The Northerners argued later that they really did win from political organization within the south and particularly among the southern military. Some 35,000 communist cadres had been working on the Army of South Vietnam for years and they smuggled leaflets into foot lockers and they would get people to question soldiers with old women and so on asking them, “Why are you on the wrong side?” and so on. This worked in the end they now say. Their propaganda was a big success.
Others take the opposite tack and say that it was the regular Northern armed forces that did it. Yet they did have all these cadres all these years working among the enemy. So how do you evaluate these things. The worked to destroy faith in the war in the US and in South Vietnam, and they took the tack that the American effort was never for justice and democracy, and they said that we Americans were not the real enemy, it was landlords and corrupt generals, and so we Americans shouldn’t even be fighting. And some of that fed into the anti-war movement in the US. How much of it was due to Hanoi and how much was not, you never know. And did it really make any difference? There is no way to tell. Even in the peace movement in the US there was disagreement. Some believe that they helped end the war and others say that they didn’t shorten it by a single day.
In Saigon we got the 7 o clock news and all the Washington papers and we watched and we read and we were aware of what was going on in the US and in Washington and we tended to underestimate its importance until very late. My focus of interest was much narrower. I looked at the anti-war movement and tried to study it and then applied it to the North Vietnamese thinking, asking how they reacted to it and how they estimated it. I monitored their feeling very closely. I am of the conclusion that they saw the antiwar movement as a bourgeois movement and unreliable and untrustworthy, and they saw it as a sort of pseudo drama, as some Americans acting out their fantasies but not understanding anything about Vietnam. But most of all, a conclusion I came to at the time is that their basis for reading of the antiwar movement was that it was too weak, too unreliable, and too susceptible to counter measures. You stop drafting college students and you take the guts out of it. It was just too undependable for them to rely on it. So it was a kind of marginal benefit. If it could help them fine and if not they didn’t depend on it. They didn’t take it very seriously and they didn’t think it was going to deliver very much.
And, General Giap, Probably never really thought about it. But what he said was the only way we’re going to win is on the ground and in the south.
They were always aware of the antiwar movement and they funded it through Sweden and they surely encouraged it. But as to the question of it’s effect on their thinking and planning, I don’t think it meant much. The problem with the antiwar movement is that it was part of a broader cultural revolution in this country in which everything was changing – race, the role of women, styles of dress and hair and music.
There were times when I was reading about the peace movement in the newspapers and I felt I was reading about a country I didn’t know anything about. It if was happening in Finland or something I would understand it, but it was happening in my own country and I didn’t get it.
14. A Myth-encrusted War
The first Frenchman I ever met in 1960 was a nutty plantation owner in Saigon and he had a roll of blueprints on how to take out the dikes in North Vietnam. And he had been trying to see this ever since the Vietminh won in 1954. And I didn't know whether his blueprints were real or not and what he was bothering me with them. But he thought this would work. But I don't think it would have, well, I have this general sense that punitive actions in themselves, considering the Vietnamese psyche and its history, I don't think punitive measures alone, unless you are thinking of the threat of a nuclear broom to sweep out the country, would ever have worked. They said they were prepared to fight a fifty year war. What we should have said is, “All right , you want to fight a fifty year war, we'll fight a fifty year war.” If we could have convinced them that we were prepared to do that -- to stay for the long haul -- their big military unit people would have been out and the protracted conflict people would have reevaluated and said, “We can win in the political arena but not on the battlefield”, and then the war as we knew it would have been over. We would then have to face the efforts to join the country through other means. But that didn’t happen.
Johnson's throwing g in the towel in 1968 was big blunder. Both for Americans and for South Vietnam. The irony of the TET offensive of 1968 was that General Giap said it was going to be militarily decisive. And it was going to be a 9 month campaign in three stages. It started with limited small regular force strategy and then independent fighting methods, little attacks throughout the country, and then larger assaults and finally in the 3rd stage they expected another decisive Dienbienphu at Khe Sanh. But in the middle of the second phase it became clear that this was not going to work there was no general uprising among the people of the South and the Americans and the South Vietnamese were just gutting the PLA while the People’s Army of Vietnam sat on their asses out in the boondocks. And it was at that point that Johnson threw in the towel. And I can just hear the opposition to Giap, saying, “You see, that's the way you do it. You do it in Washington. You win in Washington you don't win in the South, Your campaign for all it's stupidity has proved what we’re saying."
And so until the spring of 1972 the opposition to Giap had their way and they went back to guerilla war, a sort of super guerilla campaign and that didn't work. They had gone through so many strategies and none of them worked, and what sustained them was the faith that we Americans wouldn't stay there.
When the surrender of the South came -- and maybe there is a deep psychological explanation for this – but I cannot where I was. During the final days of the crumbling of everything in South Vietnam, I would go home at night and watch the evening news at 7 and sip a martini and slowly getting snockered. I don't drink that much but I did then. It was because of my emotional attachment to the cause in the South. I recall a lot of people went around the bend at that time who were deeply committed to South Vietnam.
I had an experience just a little thing, that was quite enlightening to me. When I went to Vietnam in 1960 I had the Kennedy spirit. We will pay any price and bear any burden. It seemed so logical then. In my college days we had gone through this great debate within international relations as to whether you serve idealism or utilitarianism or pragmatism, In other words which do you serve: pure idealism or narrow national interest. This was the great debate and I was on the idealistic side. I believed on the moral basis for foreign policy. And that seemed to set me in very well with Vietnam. I had some doubts. I was an idealistic type person and I had great faith in being able to save South Vietnam. My basic motive was in thinking that I am here with the others to try to put things right. Now what that means varies from individual to individual. And you had the notion that there were things there that needed to be put right, there was a communist insurgency and there was a dictatorial government. If you take these in order, going communist is an irreversible process, and as long as we could keep the commmunists out you could make a decent government down the line in Vietnam. I was very strongly involved in this. I shared all the feelings that people like David Halberstam had for people like President Diem. We had exactly the same attitude toward Diem, somewhat simplistic, I see now. But when Diem was gone, I saw, well now at last we can get on with the business of winning the war and winning the peace. So Big Minh and the military troika came in and my wife and I went off to Tokyo on R and R. And I remember this so clearly, we were having lunch with some friends, and we came out on the front veranda of this hotel, and there was a newspaper kiosk there including Stars and Stripes. I was taking to my friend and my wife was looking at the headlines, and tears started coming out her eyes, and I looked at the paper and there was this headline, “Coup in Vietnam, Big Minh overthrown.” And we had so much faith in this new government putting things right. Now I didn't start to cry but I had something of the same instant reaction, just a feeling of utter dismay and utter helplessness. And that was followed by another feeling of, “What the hell, I'm an American and not a Vietnamese. Why do I care this much. Do I do any body any good with that kind of emotional involvement. It bothered me that I had this reaction. I didn't expect to have it. And I thought that a doctor operating on a patient cares if he saves his patients life but he doesn't get emotionally involved in it. And I said I had to do the same thing. So I consciously cultivated that. Deliberately. I had a reputation for being a cold fish. There would be another coup de tat, and people would come into the office and I'd be working on my stamp collection. And they'd ask what I'm doing. And I'd say what the hell am I supposed to do? Wait till the coup's over and see who wins. It was as though I didn't care and in a way I didn't care.
And that is why when the end came it destroyed George Jacobson and Martin and Frank Snepp in another way, I have a friend who lives in the desert in Nevada and another who lives in Paraguay and people who are just basket cases because of this. And it has left scars on so many people. Well, I emerged from that in a very healthy mental condition. And I am convinced it is because of the deliberate psychological game that you play, I'm sure that a surgeon involved in a life or death event where he really care's but he cannot let his emotions rule him influence him otherwise he'll do a bad job, those last the fall of Vietnam is a total blank in my mind. The memory of it is just another day. And yet it shouldn't have been that way. I can't even remember what I did that day.
My studies have gone on. And now I look on it as a major blip in the history of Vietnam. Now I am consumed with what has happened since then.
I have a sharp emotional emotional edge that I have to be careful when the Vietnamese come in here and start complaining about the Americans losing the war for them. Now here is an emigre who has lost his country, and I really don't want to go over and kick him in the balls but I just have to steel myself and stop myself from saying, "You son of a bitch you lost your country yourself. We did more than was ever expected. Ask any other Southeast Asian. Ask Lee Kwan Yew. Or anybody. They'll say, “Christ you Americans did more than anybody could have. You should have no guilt or no regrets at all.” And you read some of these books in just these whiney Vietnamese, this Truong Nhu Tang(Vietcong Memoir). I just savaged that book in the new review. He is a Francophile who blames the American for everything. Then he had the temerity to sit next to me in a Congressional hearing and ask Steven Solarz to fund an army to take Vietnam for him. After he fought for 20 years to defeat us here. That's a Vietnamese characteristic and they don't mean to be as mean spirited or malicious as they seem. But that's a thin edge with me. I have to really steel myself to not blow my top with Vietnamese who dump on the Americans. I know it's just an out. Among My friends in Washington are East Europeans and they tend to blame the US for the countries Roosevelt gave away at Yalta. I guess if I lost my homeland I would look for someone to blame it on too. Everybody does that. I couldn't really fully accept the blame myself. You have to have a scapegoat to rationalize and blame it on.
Today Vietnam is myth encrusted. It is filled with misinformation and historical fictions and but increasingly writing on Vietnam, does not deal with VN itself. Something I am trying to do is to encourage the Vietnamese to do more writing.
The initial impact in our government was a sort of Gone with The Wind Syndrome. There is this famous scene in the film where Scarlet O'Hara is sitting in Tara remembering the cotillions and the balls and the servants come in and tell her that the roof leaks and the plumbing doesn't work. And she has that famous line, "I won't think about it today. I'll think about it tomorrow." Well, that's exactly what happened in Washington to people like Henry Kissinger. There was not a refusal to think about it, but the idea that I'll think about it tomorrow. And in a way this is part of the human mind's ability to protect itself. They say you cannot entertain thoughts that are so devastating that they will destroy the mind. And there was that kind of turning off. That's burned out now. And it seems to have burned out faster than I expected. But now the US has to take Vietnam out of the closet of its subconscious and examine it more than it has done. And to me it's not going to be as painful an effort as a lot of people think. But I don't think this country will regain its full psychic health until it looks the Vietnam experience in the face and see it for what it was. I'm not sure what it was, to be honest. But it doesn't make too much difference how you see. it. If you see it as a total failure, all right. But you just have to circumnavigate it and do this collectively. And I think that is happening. In some ways it's happening. It’ss skewed in the films. But they do tend to make an effort to look at it.
This has been my whole life and I have just been absorbed in it. And I have a terrible time with undergraduates, I'll spend a day in the first class asking them how they see Vietnam. They don't know what the correct answer to that question is. They don't know much about it. They are taking the course because they are curious. They have this visual image from popular films, a mixture from several visual images, and that's it. All puzzling. A surrealistic madness.
A little like my early feelings about World War I. Have you ever seen the play, "Oh, What a Lovely War." On the stage it's particularly effective. All these figures come on of various nationalities and in the back of the stage there is one of these Times Square news things in which it gives the casualties all the way through. They give you grand totals every now and then. Then it portrays these generals, which is fairly accurate, who are just sort of mindless in this meat grinder type of warfare.
I was in the middle of the Vietnam and I was sitting there thinking how big the war was and yet here is some weekend on a river in Belgium in which 69,000 men were killed. And it just left you with a kind of feeling that it was just insanity. And yet I'm sure if I'd have been there at the time it would not have seemed that insane to me. These people weren't insane, these generals and these prime ministers and they weren't utter brutes, they were more or less normal human beings and this made more or less sense to them in the necessity of the time and yet looking back on it, it is mere insanity.
You tend to have that reaction to almost every war if you study warfare. If you go back 3 or 400 years you find there are no wars that make any sense at all. You try to see if a war made any difference through who won. You know that the visceral feelings in Europe are still very strong over, say, Napoleon’s wars. And it did make a difference then and it still does. I still think WWII was a terribly important war and we had to win but maybe some day people will look back and say it didn't make any difference who won.
When I went to the Vietnam Memorial, it seemed to me to be right. One of the myths of the Vietnam war is the magnitude of the war and the other is this lunar landscape myth. The view people have of it is that it was extraordinarily costly in lives. And it wasn't. And the memorial is this huge seemingly endless list of names. But I'm not sure that's bad. For a civilian who hates war I have spent a significant.part of my life studying warfare. And I don't think there is such a thing as a good war or a bad war. Their only criterion is subjective. The good war is the one they thought they should be fought, the bad war they don't. However, there is a test and that is necessity. Some wars have to be fought and some wars don't have to be fought. This is easy to say but hard to see. World War II was a necessary war. Churchill said it was an unnecessary war but in the sense that it need not have happened. The British and French had gotten rid of Hitler the war might not have happened. But once it reached the point ti did it was a necessary war. I think the Civil War was necessary war -- either we were one country or we would be a Balkanaized fragmented country. That was necessary. The Spanish American war wasn't necessary. World War I doesn't at all seem necessary. The Korean War seems to be necessary but I am less certain of that now. The Vietnam war -- well, the jury for me is still out. The fact that we didn't win it doesn't mean much. The military take the pragmatic view, if you can't win a war then its not worth fighting. I think that oversimplifies it. I dont' have the answer, but I know what the question is. The question is, Was the Vietnam War necessary? A lot of Asians will tell us that it is necessary. Indonesians say that, they'd be communists today if it wasn't for the war. But this is all speculation in the stock market of history. Maybe in the long run our whole relationship with China is what it is because of the Vietnam War. It might be totally different without the war, and we might still not have relations.