Colonel Wm. Le Gro
COL. WM. LE GRO (BEGINNING OF INTERVIEW)
Q. . . . start at Ban Me Thuot, or must one go back to the 1973 Paris Agreement with the North Vietnamese left in the country. Was that what sealed the fate of South Vietnam?
Yes, I think you're right there. The fact that the South was limited in it's response to the aggression of North Vietnam.
I've given a lot of thought about the strategic balance that existed in Southeast Asia and I kind of start with the idea that the South being limited to fighting a defensive war was destined to be defeated. Whether or not they would have been defeated at Ban Me Thuot, or Saigon, or Xuan Lac it really doesn't matter. They were committed to try to defend the entire country with a force that was static, had very little mobility and they had no capability to make it larger. They couldn't create reserves. They had their strategic reserve committed in Military Region One almost from the very beginning. They had the marine division that was supposed to be reserved. It was up in Quong Tri. The airborne division, almost all of it, was in Thuy Thien? sp.). They had no reserve. The North was dedicated to overwhelming the South and they were going to do it one way or another and they had the advantage of the offensive. Just a simple principle, if you attack you have that one big advantage of the offensive.
They had sanctuary because we had to stop the bombing of the North. There's some evidence and I think it's pretty good, that had we continued that bombing much longer, we probably would have gotten a better treaty out of it, because they were pretty much on the ropes. But they had no constraints on their activities. They had Laos. They had sanctuaries in Cambodia. And they had the unwavering support of the Chinese and Soviets with all the
material and equipment that they could possibly use.
Q. What about enhance plus -- was that just a temporary aid?
That was our attempt to upgrade the South Vietnamese forces. It worked for a while. That's when we brought in more F5s and I guess we turned over some more artillery to them, perhaps more tanks. In the end it really didn't matter because this stuff was scattered all over the country anyway. We had no ability to focus their military power on anything that would be decisive, whereas the North had the advantage of getting -- they could attack as they did at Ban Me Thuot, with three divisions against one regiment. Now, had Phu maneuvered the Twenty-third Division rapidly enough down to Ban Me Thuot he might have held them off from Ban Me Thuot for a while. They were at Pleiku because he expected the attack at Pleiku. There was a minor attack at Pleiku, a diversion, so he elected to leave about two thirds of his division, the 23rd division, in the Pleiku area and moved too late to save Ban Me Thuot. As I say, Ban Me Thuot might have been saved had he had the whole division there.
Q. Saved only in the short run.
Yeah, only in the short run, because they say the North Vietnamese were not going to give up. They were going to attack and they could mass, as they did Phuc Luong Province headquarters and Song Be.
Q. Now was that a test? People say that was a test to see what the American response would be.
I don't really know if that was their motive, but they did find out what our response was, and that was nothing. We even maneuvered an aircraft carrier back into the South China Sea there and then denied that it was there as a response.
Q. Why the agreement to leaving that army in the South? Political pressure to get us out?
That was my reading of it. I think Kissinger went into this thing trying to get the best agreement he could, but he knew that whatever happened, he had two things to do. To get the United States out of there, and second to get the prisoners back. That's all that he could expect. And he even said in responding to some questions from the Press, they asked what's going to make the North Vietnamese honor this agreement, particularly with respect to forces in Laos, and in effect, he said, "Nothing. But putting more words in this agreement is not going to change it either."
You can put all you want into it about you can't do this or that, but unless you enforce it with power it doesn't make any difference.
Q. Were the Vietnamese wiser at that stage? Do you think Thieu and his general staff saw what would happen? What was their state of mind?
Their state of mind, I think, was simply, yes, it was a really bad deal, that they had agreed under duress to allow North Vietnamese to keep a major expeditionary force in South Vietnam and that was a bad deal. But, at least some of them believed that President Nixon's assurance was good, the assurance that the United States would respond with military force if the North violated the agreement. And we showed them that we were going to do it. We established an air base at Nakhon Phnom in Thailand. That was a big base, commanded by a four star Air Force officer. It was a major command. In fact we in DAO in my echelon of reporting went through NKP. It was called US Support Advisement. The fighter bombers were located there and the reconnaissance airplanes, but the B-52s were still a U Dapao. They were still available from Guam.
And USAG, General John Vogt's headquarters, Seventh Air Force, had responsibility for continuing the targeting planning and in fact they invited and brought over to NKP General Ngo Quang Truong, for one, of First Corps, to go over the target quotas. And they accepted Truong's ideas on where he would want the B-52s to strike if -- we had targeting there, we had targeting in Military Region Three, I worked on it myself. In fact we even used them. It was after the cease fire, while we still had authority to bomb in Cambodia. That wasn't cut off, I think, until June. We used B52 targeting right on the border between South Vietnam and Cambodia to support, primarily, the Mekong River convoys going up into Phnom Penh and also while we were about it, since we knew where the base areas were of the North Vietnamese army, right above the border area, we put them in there too, right along the Mekong and on the frontier.
So they had some reason to believe that we were serious. That if the North Vietnamese attacked in force, that we would come to their assistance with the bombing.
Q. What about with Watergate beginning to unfold--Nixon's resignation? Did that news reach Vietnam and make an impact on the Americans there or the Vietnamese there? Thieu didn't seem to understand what was going on.
I don't remember -- I wasn't prescient??? enough to say, "Well, this is the end of it." Nixon was out, so Ford or whoever followed -- we didn't worry about that. What we were primarily worried about at the Defense Attache Office with respect to United States policy, was what was going on in the Congress to keep trimming the military assistance program. They cut it down to such bare bones that our logisticians were screaming.
Q. What about the Congressional committee that came? McCloskey, Abzug - -
Abzug was the most ungracious, vile, rude. She was also nasty, mean spirited. That's her bag, I guess.
Q. You would think when you are on a fact-finding commission, you would --
She came prepared to condemn the south. Her only interest while she was there was to see political prisoners. And we thought that was kind of bizarre. Her's a country fighting for its existence. It's under siege. Anybody that has any knowledge of history knows that countries under siege take extreme measures against the political opposition. We've done it in this country.
Q. Newspaper editors who had been in prison--one whispered to McCloskey that he had been tortured. Then McCloskey told me that in Cambodia he asked to see some prisoners that had been taken and they didn't have any. And then it struck him that the our side weren't taking prisoners. But it didn't appear to him that that was what the war in Cambodia was like. Apparently our side was supposed to take prisoners while Phnom Penh was being besieged and their side didn't have to abide by that.
It was strange. I accompanied McCloskey everywhere, to the field. I didn't go around with him in Saigon. He wanted to go to the Delta and we went to the division headquarters and he wanted to see a prisoner of war. As it happened, they had just captured one. They happened to scarf some fellow up out of the canals as he was going down in a boat full of ammunition and something. They brought him in, very loosely tied with string, and McCloskey through an interpreter asked him who he was. He was a VC, had been in the outfit for ten years, was thirty-five years old and he was tired. He was being well-treated. There wasn't much to it, just a routine thing.
He wanted the same everywhere he went. He went up to the Twenty-Second Division headquarters in Binh Dinh, and the same thing. The division commander was kind of amused by it. He wanted to tell him about how he was fighting in the Lau Lat(???) Valley, and how the NVA Third Division was trying to fight out of the An Lao Valley and he had them blocked up there north of the Bong Son. And McCloskey wanted to talk to a prisoner.
Q. Why? Did anybody advise him he should talk to prisoners?
I don't know. I thought McCloskey was awfully bright. I saw him after the war, after I got back to Washington I called on him. I went over to talk to him in his office and we talked about those days. He was interested in what I was doing. But I never really quite understood his attitude.
Some of them seemed much more interested in the battles and in what we needed, what would change it if anything.
Q. When you were meeting with them did you see the writing on the wall, that there was no way they were going to recommend additional funding?
It was pretty much settled. Then after they left, President Ford sent General Weyand, Chief of Staff of the Army, and we talked to him.
Q. Why was he sending these people? There's two interpretations, one, he wanted to make sure he didn't get blamed for what happened eventually, that there was really no hope for that aid to come through. The second would be that it was under serious consideration.
He went to the Congress and asked for it. Whether he thought it was possible or not, I don't know. By that time, as I told Weyand, it's really too late for military assistance.
Q. Millicent Fenwick said we sent battleship after battleship, is one more going to save them? The Vietnamese seemed to think so. Speak to Vietnamese and they say just one more good B52 attack would have done it.
That might have helped a great deal, sure, but we weren't talking in these terms. We were talking that we wanted another few shiploads of ammunition and bandages. We wanted plasma. We wanted to replenish the supply system of the Vietnamese army. That's really all we were asking for. But at that time I told General Weyand on two occasions I had private meetings -- I had known him in Vietnam in '66 and he knew me, so he listened -- Snepp says this in his book, but he has it wrong, because I told him about it -- I told him that we needed American firepower, fighter bombers as a minimum and that would be the only thing that could save it. They were closing in on Saigon by that time. B52s were fine, but we needed something a little more precise than that right now.
Q. B52s for tactical support, or B52s on Hanoi?
No, in South Vietnam, because they already had more divisions in South Vietnam than we had. You had plenty of targets in South Vietnam. You didn't have to go up and bomb rear areas then. Save that for later. There were concentrations of North Vietnamese divisions that were good targets. Not that we had any targeting done, because we didn't have any reconnaissance, but we could have. That's why we needed the fighter bombers and the "recon" airplanes to find out where they were for sure. If we don't get that, military assistance is irrelevant at that point.
Q. American fighter bombers with American pilots you mean?
Oh, sure. Off of carriers or from U Tapao.
Q. What did he say?
Well, he didn't commit himself. He just said that's interesting.
Q. But it never happened.
No. Wasn't there already a resolution in the Congress? They would have had to change Congress's mind about it.
Q. What about Thieu's decision to abandon the highlands and abandon the Montangnards in the highlands? Ky thought this was unforgivable. Was that whole series of decisions unwise or just misunderstood?
I think the decision -- of course that decision wasn't made until Ban Me Thuot was lost, and until the first effort at a counter attack failed. By that time the Three Twentieth NVA division, the Tenth and another division, three divisions, were then in the vicinity of Ban Me Thuot and Thieu thought that he could withdraw the--there were at least two tank battalions in Pleiku and about three or four regiments of Rangers that could be pulled out. And what remained of the Twenty-third Division. And get that back out to Nha Trang. The he could reposition to hold Nha Trang and to counter attack back and tack Ban Me Thuot. That was the idea, and I don't think there is anything wrong with that idea. If he hadn't tried to pull the people out of Pleiku, and Kontum, they would have been lost anyway. They were cut off. The two highways going into Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku and Kontum were cut. That's why they had to use the old Route 17. So I can't fault him on his attempt to make a withdrawal. I would fault him, and we did, on the execution by the commander.
Q. What about the provincials,
That I would say was part of the execution.
Q. Was it wise?
No, it was absolutely wrong thing to do. It was badly planned operation. He turned the planning over to his brigadier general. Phu was already in the hospital as I remember.
Q. Apparently it was just a flesh wound?
He wasn't seriously wounded, but I it was a psychological wound as much as anything else.
Q. He'd been captured at Dien Bien Phu evidently and that haunted him, the idea of being captured.
It's possible. I knew his G-2.
Q. You didn't have any input into that decision? Thieu was fairly reclusive by this time?
Start with this, the United States military there had no advisory responsibility, and we didn't try to get one. We were out of the advisory business. Even my boss, General Smith and General Murray before him made no attempt to give any strategic or tactical advice to the Vietnamese army. Their responsibilities were primarily managing the military assistance program, according to law. They had to answer to the Department of Defense and ultimately to the Congress about how the money was spent and where the equipment went and whether it was being used properly or not. All of the laws that govern the military assistance program, they were charged with seeing that they were followed.
Q. Did they have to answer to that international control commission of the Poles etc?
No, we didn't have to answer to them at all. Nobody answered to them. Poles, Hungarians, Canada then Iran, and Indonesia.
Q. Some of the Americans there said ICCS stood for I Can't Control Shit.
I never heard that. But yeah, that's right. Being divided ideologically as they were there was no consensus on anything that they inspected anyway. And the North Vietnamese kept them out of their sensitive areas. So the only area that they were looking at really, in any depth at all, was Tan Son Nhut, where we were bringing in stuff, so they checked all the cargo that we brought in. Otherwise they were up--I know in one case some Hungarians did some scouting for the North Vietnamese, turned over the information to them, up in the Da Nang area. They had taken pictures of the bridges and taken photos of the South Vietnamese garrisons and installations and all that. I talk about it in here.
Q. What about once the withdrawal starts, was the problem with the generals failure in spirit? or failure in courage? Did the generals leave command to the colonels and the colonels to the majors, etc?
I don't know what happened. I wasn't up there. But it's my impression that when it became apparent that they were going to be overrun, that most of the effort of the individual soldier was to try to save his family. The ARVN Third Division was responsible for the defense of Da Nang. As the pressure increased on them, and they began being moved back by the attack of two or three North Vietnamese divisions, I think they had a deterioration of command. Some people were deserting, because their families lived in Da Nang, the soldiers' families, non-commissioned officers, and officers too, I suppose, were going back into Da Nang to try to pick up their families and save them. That was one thing.
Now the Marines, their families were down in Saigon. The Marine Corps headquarters was in Xian close to Saigon. I don't know why they went on a rampage. I didn't even know they did for that matter. I don't know how bad it was. They made a fairly orderly withdrawal out of Hue. They moved back and moved on that spit of land and got around the Hai Van Pass and got into Da Nang in pretty good order, better than the ARVN First Division.
Q. Were you getting pictures, eye witness accounts from Da Nang at the time? Anybody from World Airways?
Part of the time. I may have seen pictures (of the 727) later, but I wasn't keeping track of those things very much. I was trying to keep track of the North Vietnamese and what they were doing, more than I could. We had no agents in the field. We had nobody to report on anything. We were cut down so severely and in the first part of April we began withdrawing our people anyway.
Q. Under the assumption that all would be lost?
Yeah. Under the assumption that if we didn't, they would get captured. I had a man in Pleiku, for instance, John Good, and he worked out of the Nha Trang Consul General's office, the Consul General of MR2, Monty Spear, and Monty called me and told me that he wanted me to pull John Good out of Pleiku. I wanted to leave him a couple more days, but -- I think Monty was right, it was time to pull him out, but while he was there, Good was sending us information so long as the communications held up, which was kind of a sometime thing. When we lost Ban Me Thuot we lost a big transmitter.
Q. These were open cities, Da Nang, Hue, Nha Trang -- just abandoned.
Well the South Vietnames fought pretty hard at Phan Rang.
They held the outskirts of Nha Trang for quite a while, a couple of Ranger battalions held there, but things collapsed behind them and they had to get out. They were overwhelmed by numbers. I don't fault them very much, because when you put in the artillery, the armor and the overwhelming infantry strength the North Vietnamese had against them, they didn't have any hope of survival.
Q. Were you expecting any proposal of partition?
No, I didn't expect it at all. I think it was a very false hope on the part of the Vietnamese that were talking about it. They weren't really talking about partition as much as they were talking about, this is the only line that we can hold. We're exhausted, we've pulled back the survivors of the division that we had north of Nha Trang. We've got them back now into the Vung Tau area, and we're trying to re-equip them, and to hold a line short -- well, the first idea was to anchor it on the coast near Nha Trang and to take Ban Me Thuot back and take the highlands and hold it there. But by that time they didn't have enough equipment that could do that.
Q. The collapse wasn't just the collapse, it was the capturing of all that American equipment at Da Nang. They captured a whole squadron of F5s.
I think there were A37s too. I don't know that there were any F5s captured at Da Nang. I think there were some left onthe ground in Pleiku.
Q. Ken Healey said he went by almost a whole squadron of F5s sitting there with ammunition. He said when he drove by them in his 727 he thought this was the end. No fuel, just sitting on the ground. So you were aware of what was falling into their hands, American equipment.
Pretty much, yeah.
Q. Did those planes bomb Saigon eventually? I'm still not sure who was bombing Saigon.
They were A37s that were used. They bombed Tan Son Nhut.
Q. Okay, it wasn't just a rocket attack. The civilians seemed to think it was a rocket attack.
Yes, they would think that because it's hard to see a fighter plane, with the smoke and everything. But yes, the evening of the 28th around six o'clock in the evening they came over Tan Son Nhut and dropped some bombs.
Q. Is there a point reached where you begin packing your own bags?
Yeah, I guess I came to that conclusion, I guess on the fourth of April. I think that's the date that I told General Smith that we should now evacuate all but our essential civilian employees. See, I had about two hundred civilian employees. Americans, and a half a dozen Vietnamese. But I'm talking about Americans. And a lot of these were women, stenographers, clerks, a few operations analysts, two or three of those, and I guess my chief of graphics in the intelligence branch was a woman. So I said we've got to get them out and get down to bare bones operation. Also any dependents that were there -- my wife was there, living in a little trailer next to Tan Son Nhut.
Q. What happened on the fourth?
I don't think there was any specific thing that happened. It was just a buildup of realizing that we weren't going to get any assistance from the United States and that we had just made our intelligence estimate and I was talked out of saying that we've only got a month to go. My analysts were a little more optimistic than I was. They thought we might hold out until June--my intelligence analysts that worked for me. We had just published our monthly intelligence report. We'd come down that it was lost.
So I sent my wife home that day by Pan Am and I told General Smith we ought to clean out. The problem with that was, you see, we put a lot of our women on that C5 that went out with the orphans and it crashed. It got out over the South China Sea and the rear door fell off and crashed into the elevators of the airplane--that is, the tail section and damaged it to the point that the pilot had to turn back for Tan Son Nhut and almost made it. He landed in the rice paddy and burned. I lost twelve or thirteen of my civilian employees in that, all women.
I kept my own personal secretary until the very last, but I sent out all the rest.
Q. What do you think at the time. Does something like that immobilize you? Put you in a darker mood? Does one just despair of everything?
I guess to some people. It doesn't to me. I've been in a lot of battles in a lot of wars.
Q. But this wasn't really our fight any more.
Of course I was distraught as anyone else would be. These people we knew.
Q. Nobody to blame?
No. Well, I guess in that particular case you'd find out the fellow that was supposed to close the rear door and didn't do it properly. But he was probably killed anyway.
Q. That plane was never hit by a SAM?
There were a remarkable number of survivors. Almost the entire crew, everybody that was in the forward part of the airplane survived because the nose broke off.
Q. Daley's people say a lot of the orphans they were supposed to take out were put on that plane and they should have gone on their plane. Did you have any opinion about Daley and his people at that time?
I didn't even know what he was doing. We were very involved in reporting the battles and in running our own evacuation. I was chief of operations as well as chief of intelligence at that time. But fortunately General Smith organized a "task force" or a special staff section to handle the nuts and bolts of the evacuation. That worked very well. The attaches from Saigon did an awfully good job in organizing that thing and keeping it running.
Q. What about Graham Martin during all of this? Was he in touch with reality?
I think he was. I saw him virtually every day. He asked me to come down and give him my views. The only thing that I had doubts about from the very beginning of this period was that he was getting some information that he thought indicated that the North was ready to hold and have what might be an orderly capitulation and I never believed it. I don't recall discussing it with him directly in those terms, but there was nothing that we could offer the North to cause them to take anything short of the clear victory that they knew was in their grasp. What have you got to give, how do you convince them not to do that? The only thing you could do was say we're going to bomb the hell out of you if you don't, and we weren't about to say that. There wasn't anything to trade off. That's why I thought it was a futile hope. I think Snepp thinks it could have been done.
Q. Some of the Vietnamese seem to think Martin strung them along concerning American intervention, or American aid.
Well, he tried awfully hard to convince the President and the Congress that we needed it. I think he worked awfully hard to try to get that done, and maybe he had an idea that he might succeed. He failed, but I sure don't fault him for that, he tried hard.
Q. What about his failure to organize the evacuation until the last moment?
I don't think that's a valid complaint. Under the circumstances where he was trying to convince the South Vietnamese that we were going to help, and all was not lost, and to keep the good fight going, it would have been extremely deleterious to morale if we had started a visible evacuation under those conditions. You can't do both. You either hold or you get out.
He allowed us, I thought much to his credit, allowed us at DAO to begin sending people out. People we told him should get out. And we did a lot of planning. I didn't get much cooperation out of his people at the embassy compiling lists so we could do any reasonable planning on how many airplanes we needed, but after a while we got that under way too. In fact it really didn't get started well until General Smith organized that team to handle it. Then we got cooperation.
Q. What about Thieu's resignation, then the fall of Xuan Loc on the 21st. Did that impress you at all?
Q. Did you watch his address on television in which he blamed the Americans?
No. I didn't have a television. I had one in my trailer, but I never looked at it.
Q. Ky seems to think if he could have come in he could have rallied.
I don't think Ky had any constituency. He had some in the Air Force, but the Army didn't trust him.
Q. So it wasn't really a failure just of leadership. It was simply mathematical, they were overwhelmed by numbers.
Overwhelmed, out done, out maneuvered. As I say, you've got the advantage of mass.
Q. So President Thieu did some things wrong, but no matter it would have in the end come to the same conclusion.
That's my opinion. The only way to have defeated the North Vietnamese would have been to attack them directly. I recall--that is, at that time. Earlier perhaps they may have been persuaded, had the United States strategy in Vietnam been conducted a little bit differently from the very early days, such as not putting up any longer with that facade of Lao neutrality that Harriman thought was so precious. The 1968 Accords, which followed earlier accords, '63 or '61, which we didn't really observe, in fact, anyway. We had people operating in Laos all the while, but we never did it overtly.
Q. Both Ky and Chung and other Vietnamese, too, tell me the United States did not want to win the war. Winning would have been simple, bomb the dikes during the rainy season around Hanoi. Ky told me he had been trying to convince the Americans of that since 1965.
Maybe. I don't think that's very decisive at all. Beside the fact that it's an inhumane way to fight a war and not in the style of the United States to do it that way. We always tried to fight the military forces of the other country, not the civilians.
I know, World War II in Europe was different. We were initially responding to the German bombing of England. So that was a tit for tat sort of thing. If you read the bombing survey following World War II you find the bombing of Germany was not decisive. It could have been avoided. It didn't make much difference, in other words. In any case --
Q. It's interesting to hear you say it would be inhumane. The Vietnamese didn't think in those terms. They would think tit for tat. There's an army in the South being supplied, killing their people, and so the only way to respond would be to destroy the agriculture of the North temporarily.
Besides the fact it's inhumane, I don't think we would. For one thing I don't know if they could hit the dikes and really destroyed them that easily. They're awfully big dikes. You could drop a heck of a lot of bombs on them and they could repair them. It was kind of like trying to bomb all the bridges. They could still repair the bridges, and they did. Our U.S. Navy and Air Force devoted an awful lot of time and energy and blood to trying to destroy the bridges and they did a great job, but each time . . .
End of Side A, Begin Side B.
. . . we could have done it. When I was working on the Army staff in Plans and Operations in 1964, '65, I worked on a plan, the invasion of Vinh. We would put a force in Vinh, and another one which I thought was even more effective and less costly was where we put a corps across Route 9 from Lao Bao on the South Vietnamese border over to Suvannakhet on the Mekong River. We figured it would take about a corps force. That would effectively block the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Let the South Vietnamese army handle the blocking from Lao Bao over to the coast. In those days that was not politically feasible anyway. Although it was a well-designed military plan. The Chief of Staff of the Army thought it was good, and he brought it up at meetings of Joint Chiefs of Staff from time to time as a member of the Joint Chiefs, but General Wheeler who was then the chairman, as far as I know, never brought it up seriously to the President. It would have had to be a Presidential decision. The President was still operating with the strategy that we could bomb them, reduce their will to continue by ever increasing pressure-- I've read that boilerplate so much on these plans-- that they would finally cave in and stop, decide it wasn't worthwhile. We on the army staff, primarily in operations, thought that that was not going to work.
Q. That was Rostow's idea.
Rostow and Bundy.
Q. Of course they didn't know that much about the military.
They didn't know much about the North Vietnamese stubbornness either, and their devotion to their cause.
Q. Had we invaded and taken Hanoi, Haiphong, taken the coastal cities, would we have been any more successful than the French who also held them throughout.
Only if we had put in enough force to do the job. And there was another part of the equation there that the political leadership was most concerned about and that was would the Chinese then enter the war?
Q. The Vietnamese think that's an illusion. They don't take it seriously.
But the Vietnamese who say that was an illusion weren't responsible for the decision either. You have to put yourself in President Johnson's place too. He might have said let's do that, but all somebody would have to say would be what if the Chinese enter the war?
Q. Ky said Rusk was always asking him what he thought the Chinese would do. He didn't understand the obsession with the Chinese.
The obsession probably came in large measure from recent experience in Korea.
Q. At that time there weren't forty Russian divisions on the Chinese border. He said you let a million Chinese into North Vietnam, who's going to make them go? He thought the North Vietnamese themselves would resist the Chinese coming in. You think the China consideration --
I don't think it was valid. I don't think they would have done it. I don't think they would have done anything unless you started operations right up on their border. But what I'm trying to say is that, also, I wasn't responsible. The President had to make that decision and if he erred, he erred on the side of conservatism. He didn't want to go too far. The Chinese at that time were building a network of roads in northern Laos. The Chinese communists had about two or three regiments including anti-aircraft artillery in northern Laos and this was, of course, at the so-called invitation of the government so we couldn't complain about that very much. But we were concerned about it. Because this was not far from Dien Bien Phu and the North Vietnamese border. And there's a pretty good road that goes right from there to North Vietnam. So there was a potential for Chinese intervention.
Q. What about Russian reaction? No consideration at all?
Well, I can remember that the chief of staff of the Army was concerned about the Russian intervention.
Q. Johnson was always concerned about that too. Afraid that some American plane would bomb a Russian ship in Haiphong.
I remember that was in '64 or '65 that the Navy staff came up with their first whack at mining Haiphong harbor. The Navy was a great advocate of that. Now each service has it's own bias based upon their own capabilities and they want to exercise these capabilities if they can. The Air Force was all for bombing. The Navy aviation branch liked the bombing idea too. I guess the brown shoe navy wanted to use the mines, and the Army wanted to use the corps of three divisions of infantry. It's a natural bias. It doesn't say that they're parochial in a derogatory sense, but they know what they can do and they want to try it.
So the Navy came in with a plan to mine Haiphong Harbor, and I was all in favor of it. It was my responsibility to brief these plans to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Johnson. I remember this in particular I told him I thought was a good idea. The Navy had it well worked out. They could do it with minimal casualties. In fact they probably wouldn't lose any airplanes at all. They put in the mines by air and effectively seal off Haiphong Harbor. His rejoinder was well, what do we do if the Soviet Navy mines Skagerak? That's something I hadn't thought of, up in the Baltic Sea, that's the pass between Denmark and Norway? I don't really think the Soviet Union would react to our mining of a little harbor in Southeast Asia with a major international violation, cutting off sea traffic into Sweden and Norway. I don't know whether he was being facetious or not, but he did tell me very firmly he didn't want us to put that plan in.
Q. Can you tell me about your last days in Vietnam and what your fears were, what your eyes were seeing?
I left on the night of the 29th. I guess it started on the night of the 28th when they bombed Tan Son Nhut. That afternoon Tan Son Nhut gates were jammed with people trying to leave. Much to their credit, the South Vietnamese police and Air Police were keeping order at Tan Son Nhut. Nobody was climbing the fence or breaking down gates. They were checking their passes as they came in. Routine.
On the 28th I went down to the embassy and talked to Ambassador Martin, and I was able to get my driver and able to get through the gate -- a real crowd, very slow getting through, but we managed to get down to the embassy and I had a discussion with him about the situation. He wanted to know what I knew about where the forces were and how much more time, and I gave him the best I could, because I had all through this time had daily meetings with the J2 of the JGS, Colonel Hoang Ngoc Lung. In fact, I've got Lung's battle map.
I got back in the afternoon, I guess, from the embassy. My driver, a Chinese Vietnamese, said his little boy was in the hospital with pneumonia and he wanted to go home early and I said go ahead, get your family together and come on back so we can evacuate. This guy had started his career -- he is a Hainan Chinese from Hainan Island. When the Chinese communists took over Hainan, he went to North Vietnam to Vinh. He was a grocery man, opened a little store. It seems all the Chinese I know have a store, they all sell something to somebody. So he had a store there. And the communists took over North Vietnam and he came down to Bin Dinh Province--the worst place he could pick, probably the strongest communist organization in South Vietnam, I suppose, in those days was in Bin Dinh. They confiscated his store, took all his stuff, so he came down to Saigon. He had about six or seven kids and he began working for the Americans. He drove all of the J2s at MACV. That's how I inherited him. In fact, I was J2 MACV for a week or two at the end, when MACV was phasing out. He came to me and asked me if he could drive for me and I said sure.
So he went off to get his kid out of the hospital and I never saw him. He couldn't get back. He had a little motorbike. Then the bombing started, which lasted twenty minutes or so. I was also chief of the mess there. I was running the command mess and I got some money from the finance and paid off all my Vietnamese in dollars. I didn't want to pay them in piasters, all those that were still there. A lot of them I had already sent out and were already in Guam. Anybody of our employees who wanted to go. One young lady, one of our waitresses I had known for a couple years didn't want to go because she had three children and a mother. She came and said good-bye. My American secretary--I told her it wasn't safe for her to go back to Saigon, to stay in my trailer that night. I had what they call a mobile home now, I guess. It was rather small, had only one bedroom, and no cooking facilities. So she said she'd stay. That night she stayed on the couch.
It was in the middle of the night the rockets started coming in to Tan Son Nhut, and artillery. I think everything that hit our area was rockets and we were hearing things that sounded like artillery. One hit the gym where we were doing the processing of the refugees about two hundreds yards from my trailer. Blew the roof off of it, but miraculously nobody was hurt. Another one hit on the road junction about three hundred yards in the other direction and killed two marines. One hit the side of General Smith's house and knocked the wall off, but again, nobody was hurt. There was somebody sleeping right there and the wall just disappeared. So El Tanner, my secretary and I, left there about four o'clock and went back to the office. In the meantime I had -- I guess it was that afternoon General Smith told me to go over and get General Diem who was the chief of the Joint General Staff and tell him it was time. We'd already sent Diem's wife and family out. And he told me to get Diem. So I still had my driver and went over there and picked up Diem and Lung and Tau, the J3, the three of them. And an aide, I think, Diem's aide, or he may have come in his own car.
I flew General Diem out to the Blue Ridge in a helicopter, went with him and then came back. Then I got a place of Tau and Lung to sleep right there on the compound. And I wanted to keep Lung with me and Tho with me because Tho(T-h-o) was the J3 the Operations Officer and Lung was the Intelligence Officer. We also brought in the Vietnamese Lt. Colonel who was responsible for security at Tan Son Nhut.
So El Tanner and I came back that morning, the 29th. Lung and Tho reported in to the operations center. I had an operations center three or four times the size of this room and adjacent to that we had what we called the bunker. It was underground and was protected from air strikes and artillery fire. It was in there that General Smith had brought in the guys from the fleet who were handling the evacuation, the Marines. They were right next to my operations. They brought in their communications. It was a very smooth operation.
Q. They didn't actually establish their perimeter until the afternoon, two o'clock.
Probably not. We were pretty secure. The Vietnamese army were still there. Part of the Airborne Division was right adjacent to us. -- I never felt any danger of being imminently overrun. Maybe I should have, but I didn't. I never felt that. There was intermittent artillery fire falling around us, about every twenty minutes or so another shell would go off.
Lung, and I and Tho and this colonel from security, and I had about three or four of my own people still there--I'd sent everybody else out. I sent El Tanner, my secretary, out on the first helicopter that morning, probably about nine o'clock. Ellen Tanner. There were no more women left. Tho and Lung kept contact by telephone with a few people as long as the lines were still open, and could keep track of the movement of the North Vietnamese forces as they were coming closer and closer to Saigon. The last place I remember was Go Bot? There was a cemetery up there and part of the airborne division and other locals were fighting about three miles north of the air base.
Q. Is there a bridge and a river on the north side of Saigon where they reach a certain bridge?
Yeah, that's the bridge over the Saigon River. By a place we called "Newport" as I remember. And then there's another bridge over the Song Be. I guess it was the bridge over the Song Be that the fighting was on.
We kept track for a while and then I think the Ambassador called from downtown and he wanted to talk to me and I told him they were getting awfully close and it was time for everybody to leave. And he said he'd like to come out and look at the situation and talk to me. So he came out. And it must have been quite a trip for him because Saigon was in such a turmoil then and it was so hard to get through, and yet he did it. It was remarkable. Even getting through that gate was a job because of all the traffic there and the police trying to keep order.
But he came out and came down to the operations center and Lung talked to him and so did I, and told him where they were, and showed him on the map our latest reports of where they were. And he could see clearly that that was it. He wanted to continue the evacuation by fixed wing airplanes and General Smith told him it couldn't be done. They couldn't use the airstrip any more, they had to do it 100 per cent helicopters. It seems to me he went out and looked. I think he got in the back of his car and went out to the air strip and saw the shambles out there.
Then he went into my -- I had the only telephone that was a scrambler that was left, we had destroyed everything else. He went in my office and called Brent Scowcroft who was in the National Security Adviser to Ford and he told him that he wanted to activate that particular plan to go by helicopter.
Q. Oh, I thought he had been ordered to do it.
The way I read it then, was that he was telling Scowcroft the situation and recommending that we do that and Scowcroft said to go ahead. Then he left. He was sick, too, very run down, had a terrible cold, bordering on pneumonia. After the evacuation he went to Rome and was very sick, almost died. It might have been incipient cancer. He got cancer and was getting sick then. That might have been what was starting.
Then he left. As soon as he left, I think that's about the time I told Lung and Tho to go. And they left. I stayed with my few troops and General Smith until about eight or nine o'clock. We were the last of the DAO to leave that office. By that time we had about two platoons of Marines in there and they were wiring the building for demolition. I spent a few minutes back there making sure that our secure communications equipment was destroyed. I had a sledge hammer, busted it.
Q. What about the papers?
Well, we were in pretty good shape. In January of that year we began shredding all of our intelligence stuff. I put everything on microfilm, brought in a soldier from Fort Shafter, Army Pacific, to run a microfilm machine and he photographed all that stuff. As soon as he photographed it, we destroyed it. We had very little in intelligence to destroy, only current stuff. There was quite a bit more in my operations side, but I had a shredding operating right there.
Q. Did you witness the demolition of the compound?
No, they did that after we left. Burned a lot of twenty dollar bills. We had a big truckload of bills. In fact we did that in the morning. I put my secretary in charge of that.
We had a finance office there. It was actually a Navy finance office. We were, by some peculiar bureaucratic decision, the Navy was responsible for all administrative support for the Defense Attache Office. They pass that around from service to service, I guess. So we had a finance office and I don't know whether they had just received this big shipment of bills or not, but they had it. It was a four-wheel truck like they use in a warehouse stacked with wooden boxes filled with twenty dollar bills. They really looked like ammunition crates. There was no way to evacuate it, so we took it out in a courtyard inside the DAO building there and we had some burn barrels there and we were pitching the twenty dollar bills into the burn barrel. They had to break the boxes open otherwise the stuff wouldn't have burned. They were all packaged up. It was bizarre.
I went out to check on them just to see that everything was going right. They were doing the job very well. We had some good folks over there.
Q. So you flew out on a helicopter?
Yeah, on a Marine Corps helicopter. General Smith, I and my chief of operations, Colonel Hal Hodges, and there may have been two or three other officers, and just a handful of civilians. And then we loaded the rest of the aircraft with Vietnamese. We flew out to the carrier Midway. They took the Vietnamese off the Midway by the way, and brought them to another ship. We stayed on the Midway.
Q. A company of Marines was accidentally evacuated to the Midway. They were supposed to be going to another ship. They came in at night. The Captain said he's not going to get out until he gets on his own ship, but they wouldn't take them off. So they went to Thailand with the Midway to pick up F4s or F5s.
They probably had a landing ship out there.
Q. Any thoughts when you were lifting off? Any mental regrets?
Oh, sure. Just despair.
Q. Did you get a last look?
Well, it was dark.
Q. Could you see the firing going on around?
No, not much. You could see a flash here and there. It looked very quiet. I didn't see any anti-aircraft fire. I don't think we were shot at.
Q. Fear of SAMs or anything?
Q. Did you stay low to avoid SAMs? Or was it just a normal flight out?
It seemed kind of a normal flight. I don't think there were -- there were some SA 7s, the hand held missiles there, but they hadn't brought any what I would call a SAM down there. There were some of those hand-held heat seeking missiles.
Q. But flares could take care of those if you were fast enough.
That was the way they usually tried to avoid them. And I don't know whether we kicked out any flares or not.
Q. Was there a feeling of relief once you cleared the coast?
Not on my part. I wasn't afraid of anything about the flight. I was very sad.
Q. Any discussions on the helicopter?
No. You know how noisy it was.
Q. You were on the Midway the next morning when all those Vietnamese helicopters showed up then?
Yeah. Helicopters and one most interesting landing was made by a little O 1.
Q. Major Ly Bung was his name with his wife and five children.
They came piling out of that airplane. He made a nice landing.
Q. The Marines were watching it on tv below deck and they said they cheered when he landed because they thought that was really an impossible landing.
Well, the captain turned the ship into the wind. They cooperated.
Q. Were you amazed to see the helicopters come out that morning when they came out of the overcast?
I don't know. I might have been below deck.
Q. The photographer said he thought they were dust specks on his camera and he put it down to wipe it and looked up and couldn't believe how many were coming out. Where were they coming from?
Probably Tan Son Nhut. I really don't know. Or down in the Delta. From Can Tho, My Tho. Vung Tau was probably still open.
I had a friend who -- the J2 of the Vietnamese Air Force flew his little Cessna all the way from Tan Son Nhut to U Tapao Thailand. Almost ran out of gas. He climbed, got altitude and cut down to a very lean mixture, but the gas gauge was registering zero.
Q. You were on the Midway when Ky landed the next day? Did you see that?
No. I had met Ky in '66 when he was Premier. That's the only contact I ever had.
Q. You weren't up on the flight deck when he landed? He was ferried over after a couple of hours to the Blue Ridge.
I saw his helicopter below deck. They kept the helicopter.
Q. He said he took his pistol off and put it on the seat, left it on the helicopter and that's the last he ever saw of it, because he said he didn't want to surrender it to anybody. That would have been a final humiliation, so before he got out he left it there.
When we landed on the Midway, the first thing they did was usher us to the Sergeant of Arms and have us turn in our pistols. I turned in my 45 and had a little 38 police special. I got receipts but I didn't pick them up again.
Q. What was the mood on the Midway? Or was it just business as usual?
I think only among us who had come from DAO. We were the only ones who felt very deeply about it, because after all we had been in the ball game for a long time. These sailors and the officers on the ship were just doing their job. Very well, too.
Q. How long did you stay on it?
Well, we fooled around in the South China Sea picking up survivors for about two days, I guess, and then we said out for Thailand. They took us off the ship, on helicopters again, into U Tapao, and then put us on a bus to Bangkok. In Bangkok they put us in the Indira Hotel. None of us had any clothes really, any uniforms of any kind. I was wearing a khaki uniform, suntan, and it was filthy. It was practically black. I left my fatigues. I figured I didn't need them for anything. I didn't travel in fatigues anyway.
Q. What about your personal things? Did you bring out a suitcase?
I brought out a large briefcase.
Q. What happened to your furnishings in your trailer?
The furnishing belonged to the government. I lost my library and all my phonograph records. I had a little stereo system there and lost all of that stuff. Actually I started packing that stuff up about three days before the fall. I figured that now I could do it and nobody was going to wonder if I was going to leave early. So I had the packers come in and crate all that stuff up. It was still in crates in my trailer when I left.
Q. The trailer wasn't destroyed by the demolition?
I imagine some communist probably got it. We managed to save some things because we had some in the Philippines. My wife had quarters in the Philippines for a while and we did manage to save that stuff, but everything else we had we had shipped home --several things I needed, like my library--around the first of April, I guess. It arrived in Oakland California, actually in a warehouse in Emeryville and was burned to ground. So everything we shipped home was either left in Vietnam or burned in Emeryville. That was the crowning blow. A guy from Oakland Army Base called me up and said they had some bad news. I said what could be bad now?
Q. Were you compensated for any of the stuff you left behind?
Oh, sure. I had insurance to start with and whatever the insurance didn't pay the government pays the rest.
Q. After ten years have your feelings changed much? What should have been done? What have we learned?
I can only talk in generalities I think, about something like that. I'd say that there should have been a clear statement of national purpose of what we wanted to achieve. Now maybe that was done, maybe they did say, "All we want to do is stop the North from taking over the South." I guess that's a political objective. That was stated a number of times. Then the political leadership should have gone to the military leadership and said, "How do we do that? Here's what we want to accomplish, what are the military objectives that you could seize that would accomplish this political objective?" Then the military would take the problem up with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and planners and say "Here's what we think you ought to do, and this is what it's going to cost. We think you'll have to put a blockade across Tchepone. We think you should mine Haiphong Harbor. We think you ought to put a beachhead in Vinh, cut off the Mu Gia Pass. And we think that if you accomplish those military objective -- I'm talking hypothetically -- that we can convince the North that it's not worth the candle. They have been blocked. Let the South sort out its own problems with the Viet Cong. Support them the best way you can economically, and politically so that they will achieve their own form of independence."
The politicians should then ask what that would cost militarily. Then the military says, "This takes sixteen army divisions in action, and it takes three fourths of the Pacific Fleet. Mobilization of the reserves so far as the Army and Air Force is concerned. Federalization of these National Guard divisions. Declaration of war, perhaps. That's what it takes."
And then the politician comes back and says, "I don't think it's worth it. If that' what it's going to cost, maybe you shouldn't even try it." Or maybe he says, "Yeah, it's worth it. Go ahead and do it."
Q. What about the political consequences of not trying? In a sense you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.
That's the tremendous advantage that the communist way has. It makes it awfully expensive to try to counter it. We're facing a similar situation in Nicaragua. If you said, "Okay it's not really very important." The next is El Salvador --
So that's my idea of how national policy should be formed when it involves the military.
Q. Why wasn't it, in your estimation?
I don't know.
Q. Vietnam kind of petered in and petered out, nobody knew what was around the corner. Eisenhower, Kennedy --
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. . . I don't think Lyndon Johnson had any strategic sense at all. He was a consummate politician. He could manipulate people, but I don't believe he had any real vision of what was right, what should be done in international relations at all.
Q. Who was he listening to? Was he listening to bad advice?
I think he was listening to bad advice, the advice of McGeorge Bundy, and people like that. Not that they're stupid. Far from that, but I don't believe that they understood the tenacity of the North Vietnamese. They didn't really appreciate how unswerving they were in devotion to their cause.
Q. You don't use the word "fanatical".
I don't think they're fanatical. I think they're true believers, in a sense.
Q. But true believers who couldn't have their minds changed. Was there much discussion in the military that we have to convince the JCS, have to convince the President to do certain things?
Let's put it this way, on the Army staff I think there was. The people I worked with were convinced that you can't win a war with air power. Again, you can say that's a parochial view. Well, maybe it is, but it stems from our training and our education in military schools, so we just decided that the surest way to come to a decision was to put some people on the ground and take over. Now, the Air Force had, I guess they had a case to prove. They wanted to show it the other way. Curtis LeMay is the greatest advocate of strategic bombing. He was Chief of Staff of the Air Force during that period, and he was convinced that you could bomb them into submission. And you can't say that he was wrong. We never really tried it. The rejoinder of the Air Force would be that we did it, but we didn't do it with the tonnage and massive sudden attack, overwhelming attack that should be used. We'd do it for a little while and then there'd be a hue and cry that you can't do that to innocent civilians and so on, so we'd stop for a while. There was a series of bombing halts.
Q. By the time serious bombing, say the Christmas bombing, it was too late, the air defenses were too great, were they not?
Yeah. We began taking heavy losses. You still could have done it though. There was a great clamor in the United States protesting the Christmas bombing too. Then you had folks like Jane Fonda going up there and telling her listeners that American prisoners were meeting any difficulty, prisoners of war were treated well.
Q. Dennis Chambers who was a prisoner of war for seven years, says he was never beaten so hard as when Jane Fonda came out.
We had a lot of people that spoke --
Q. These people weren't disloyal. Is this the fault of government remaining ambiguous as to what it was doing, is that why the anti-war movement? Because the people who were in the anti-war movement weren't really disloyal, but so many of them had facts wrong. Whose fault is that? There seemed to be so much deception, beginning with Johnson, particularly with the Gulf of Tonkin, which still seems kind of fishy --
Sure. I was on the Army staff when that happened tool. I saw paper from the Army side and it smelled to me. But the Navy staff was supporting it and the Air Force staff was supporting it. I'm sure that my chief, General Johnson, didn't believe it either.
Q. I don't think L. Johnson believed it eventually either.
Anyway, that's the reason it was easy for President Johnson to follow the advice of McGeorge Bundy, because he didn't want to mobilize. The Army was telling him, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Wheeler, were telling him, if you use any more of U.S. forces there we have to mobilize. And they almost wrecked the Army by not doing it. Our support forces were down to almost zero. If we had a major problem in Europe at the time they would have been in very serious trouble. The draw down of the stocks in Europe was very serious.
Q. Some people say the Russians and Chinese couldn't have hoped for anything better than Vietnam. We drained away all of our strength in an inconsequential place. And the Army was the service that was really being hurt. Because we're the guys that have to supply all the logistical backup to everybody else. We're the ones that have the responsibility for petroleum, ammunition to fire and everything.
Q. Was Vietnam the place to draw the line?
I think it was. I think it was the right thing to do even at that. I think also that if we had not drawn the line, the situation that developed in Indonesia might have gone an entirely different way. They overthrew the communists there.
Q. That was '65, before American combat troops were actually committed, wasn't it?
In '65, we were there and fighting. I got there in '66. So I think the effect of the American stand in Vietnam was pretty important. I think the effect would have been to defray??? whatever semblance of republican or democratic popular government in the whole southeast Asia.
Q. At what point does someone ask the JCS what it will cost.
Should this have been Kennedy? Timing seems to be so important. People today say the Christmas bombing came too lat, it should have come five years earlier. At what point do you you decide that this is a commitment? Kennedy was only insofar as sixteen thousand troops, and Johnson's committed for a half a million.
I think, being human beings, and possessed of the limited intellect that we are, we couldn't really see what was going to happen. And Kennedy's initial idea was based upon the assumption that if you stop the insurgency in the South, you'd have the problem solved. And as a matter of fact, by the end of the war, the insurgency had been stopped. The South Vietnamese themselves won the war against the Viet Cong. That problem was gone. Tet was the real big slaughter but from there on things got better. There were a lot of places in Vietnam where if it had not been for the North Vietnamese Army you would have been very safe.
Q. Ky seemed to believe that was right. The war had to be won in the North or it would continue forever in the South.
So in the beginning Kennedy was on the right track with the Special Forces and the emphasis on nation-building and all that. But he didn't foresee, and I don't think anyone foresaw, that the North Vietnamese would develop a force of some fourteen regular Army divisions with tanks and hundred thirty millimeter guns and develop a conventional war capability that would outclass that of the South. They lost the battles in the villages and hamlets to a large degree, and having done that they decided that's not the way to go. In fact, they came to that realization pretty thoroughly in 1973. They had to send in the main force. You can't beat with the guerrilla force any more.
Q. It would have been politically possible to do everything you say, to mobilize the reserves and get a declaration of war? Some people say the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed with only two dissenting votes, so certainly declaration of war--
Perhaps at that time it could have. I don't know. I was in no position. I didn't study that political problem. I was completely out of touch with the political reality.
Q. But you had not doubts that the importance was never overemphasized?
I still think it was important. I still think that it had profound effect on what happened in the Philippines in the way that they maintained control of their communist insurgency all through that period. It's out of hand now, in the Philippines, --
Q. Is Thailand now in greater danger than it was in 1975?
Oh, I think it is. But I never thought that Thailand was in great danger anyway. The fact that the Vietnamese now have a common frontier with Thailand, I think we have to assume is a greater danger than when they had the buffer of Cambodia and Laos between them.
Q. Is Malaya, Singapore, in more danger? Do you believe in the domino theory?
I think it's slow and insidious. I wouldn't put my finger on Malaysia now, or Singapore because they made such a remarkable recovery economically since the twelve year war they had there. We used to think though, and I think with some justification, that if Vietnam fell to the communists it would be much more difficult in time of war to keep any sea lanes open. And that's true. You have to think about that too. Not just thinking about whether Malaysia is going to be communist or not, but can the United States Navy be secure in sailing through the Straits of Malacca or Straits of Lombok. Now the Soviet Union has a major naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. And Cam Ranh Bay is only one thousand air miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Q. Were the North Vietnamese Communists -- they seemed to come off in the Press as nationalists first, communists second. And I noticed that many military people particularly, don't buy that.
Not that at all. I think all Vietnamese are nationalists. All the ones I know were very happy to see the French leave. They had no love for the French. They are proud of their centuries old record of fighting the Chinese particularly. They themselves practically wiped out the Khmer that lived there and pushed them and took a large chunk of land from them, from the Cambodian empire, and they decimated the other natives there. So they are very nationalistic people. But those were communists too. You put that together and you see the results.
Q. Were Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong pulling their own strings? Or was someone else?
No. I think they were a part of the ideology of the communist movement and they could rely, as they knew, on material and political support from the Soviet Union particularly. The fact that they were nationalists doesn't diminish at all their devotion to a totalitarian society. And there's a lot of Vietnamese that I know that would rather be free, have individual liberties and the idea of communism taken in the abstract isn't even interesting. The point is, is it totalitarian or not, is it a repressive regime. Never mind the economic arguments about means of production and all the rest of the mickey mouse that comes into the Marxist theory. The point is that they imposed a rigid will on every aspect of the existence. That's what the Vietnamese that I know can't live with.
Q. There were no boat people before '75. That's what Ky pointed out.
There's not great truckloads of Vietnamese going home either. There are still thousands of them in those gulags.
Q. What do you foresee for the future of Vietnam? Do you think when Ky says that he will be home in a free Vietnam in his own lifetime -- I know he's serious about it. I hate to say anything counter, he gets so worked up. He says it's not his grandchildren who will go, but his eyes will look on Saigon again too. You don't think so?
No. I do know some Vietnamese who are involved in a liberation movement.
Q. Vang Pao up in Montana. They're having a big convention down in Griswold. He's down there. Apparently there's a Vietnamese army on the border of Thailand. I don't know how serious that is.
I think they are deadly serious and they're devoted to the cause. But I don't give them much chance. Who's going to support them?
Q. You don't think it's possible for them to do what the Viet Cong did -- but then the Viet Cong didn't do that much eventually without outside aid.
That's right. And also these people aren't organized with the same skill. They don't even play by the same rules.
Q. In our lifetime Vietnam will be communist?
Well, it's hard to predict something like that.
Q. But you don't think the structure would crumble because it's antithetical to the Vietnamese way of life, or anything like that?
No. I don't think that the average citizen of Czechoslovakia is happy with his lot either, or any place else in Eastern Europe, but you don't see them successful in opposing power structure. The Poles have come perilously close to that, but there's a reckoning there too.
Q. So you see the whole Vietnamese story as not simply a tragedy -- is it a learning experience for the Americans and a tragedy for the Vietnamese? Obviously it's a tragedy for the 57,000 Americans also.
It's a tragedy for the Vietnamese and for those who loved the Vietnamese. It's a greater tragedy I thought for Americans, because we abandoned an ally. That's pretty hard to take.
Q. Snepp's statement of the 250 people in the courtyard --
Did you read Stu Herrington's book?
Q. I have not read Dawson's or Herrington's books yet.
Herrington wrote the most moving accurate account of those final days. He was at the embassy. I was at DAO. I hardly ever saw him. He worked for me for the first six months we were there. He was a remarkable young captain and he knew the Vietnamese language so well that they thought he must have been Vietnamese. People just couldn't believe how he could converse. His book is terrific.
Another one that I'd recommend from the standpoint of strategy and why we lost and all of the elements is Harry Summers book.
Q. Summers did not seem to take into consideration the world geopolitics. Never considered the Russians or the Chinese.
Considering the Vietnam theater of the war I thought he was right on, but he never seemed to think that Johnson or Kennedy should think of anything except Vietnam.
I think that's a valid criticism. He lived next door to me there in Tan Son Nhut.
Q. I think the most touching statement to come out of the war I read in Harry Summers's book, at the beginning of a chapter, "When people ask me why I went to Vietnam, I reply 'you should know. You sent me'." I've always kept that in mind.
I am writing for people who number one are not interested, and number two are today in their twenties and when they were teenagers were more concerned about the Patty Hearst kidnapping which was going on in the United States when Saigon fell. What should I tell those people? What can you tell them we should have learned? What's important ten years later?
I guess quite a few things come to mind and one of them is, when you commit United States forces to action, you must do it with a clear sense of purpose and must do it to win. It sounds trite and has been said before, but I think it's absolutely true.
Q. But in the real world -- we end up with something like Lebanon where you have to make decisions in the dark. You almost have to commit troops and you don't know what your cause is, who your side is and what tomorrow will bring.
I'm not sure Lebanon is a good example because the stated purpose, and I think it's true, the purpose was not to fight, they were there to protect a withdrawal, and later to keep the airfield open I suppose. Now that's questionable though, come to think of it. You want to protect the airfield but you cannot go beyond it. It doesn't make any tactical sense.
Q. They always come up with "We want to send a message".
We were trying to send messages all through the Vietnam War too. That was the purpose of the bombing. Our resolve -- they talked about resolve a lot and all these beautiful paragraphs that started these strategic papers that I used to work on. People would write these and then come down to the end, and how we were going to do that, and it was always something I felt was fairly ineffective, we're going to send another aircraft over and burn more bridges and this and that. That's going to prove that we are serious. We bombed the Mu Gia Pass because it's the big flat hillside. The guys would come out at night and fill up the holes. We did that so long and it was so tiresome. Then when we went in, the First Division, we had a good mission, and we worked at it. We went out and picked fights with main force VC units and later NVA.
Q. You kicked their ass in the Ia Drang Valley?
Yeah, that was a big one. And then we fought a number of engagements up Route 13 and punished them badly every time. Drove them back into Cambodia. But we couldn't pursue them and finish them off. Poor Nixon, as soon as he tried that there was this hue and cry you're dragging Cambodia into the war. Just sophistry, just stupid statements like that bugged me, because these guys were coming across the border, but you couldn't go.
I remember there was a river--
Q. Sihanouk made that so complex, because what was he? Besides being self-serving and for Sihanouk nobody can every quite figure out who he stands for. That's one of the problems with the Cambodians now, is they can't figure out what our side is. It certainly is not Pol Pot, and I'm not so sure it's Sihanouk.
They've really got a dilemma there. You want to run the Vietnamese out of Cambodia, so you turn it over to the Khmer Rouge? That's a wonderful idea.
Q. The domino principle doesn't work out there, because nationalism seems to be more important.
People were predicting, talking about dominoes, that if Vietnam fell, then North Vietnam would take over Laos and Cambodia, and they've done it. It wouldn't matter who was there. As far as Laos is concerned, they controlled perhaps three fourths of Laos anyway.
Q. Getting back to the kids today, who I am writing for and addressing. There's a real curiosity about Vietnam. And people want to learn, because they want to hear about it and unfortunately it's often the wrong people who are telling about it. It's people who don't know anything about it who are the ones most willing to talk.
Or that have a real ax to grind. Of course maybe I did too.
Q. The President's get a chance to write their own book, get a million dollar advance and explain why everybody else was wrong, so I wonder when I write a piece like this what eventually I tell them. In Vietnam we learned ...
Another thing we learned is when you fight a war, you should do it at least partly in the absence of television cameras. I think the Press is even taking credit for turning people.
Q. They can say whatever they want.
I think it's true when you take film in battle and see people being hurt, killed, and show it on your television shows at night, people aren't going to think war is a glorious experience for a young man to take part in. They don't have the same patriotic feeling that they did when we fought World War II.
Q. I sometimes wonder when you watch that you think, "Look at them out there doing that. I should be there too." I think it's a sword that cuts two ways. I never did meet a person who became disillusioned about the war by watching it on television. I think when the body bags came home, when the taxes went up, that hit people harder than television. Michael Arlen, of the New Yorker, pointed out that after watching a thousand hours of Vietnam he didn't think there was one American who could write a single logical sentence about what he saw. He used the metaphor, watching the Vietnam War on television is like a child looking into a room through a keyhole. You see people walking back and forth every now and then, but you don't know what they are doing, what they are talking about, what is going on. And it's difficult, and doesn't emotionally engage you.
But it's pretty nasty looking and discouraging. And the coverage the press gave to the anti-war movement, any time anybody picked up a banner the cameras were there. In fact they didn't pick them up until they knew the cameras were rolling.
Q. That actually turned so many people off to the anti-war movement, seeing the scruffy people and the tactics they were using, particularly in '68, that again it was a two-edged sword.
The people in the press help propagate the view the press helped end the war. They are always self-serving.
But you think like in Grenada it's important to have a press blackout?
Yeah. I think that was a wise move.
Q. Dangerous move?
No. From the standpoint of what?
Q. The people should be aware of what we are doing. If we aren't going to do anything that needs to be hidden why should we hide it away?
You can't defend that entirely on the grounds of military security either. In part, but not much. But I do believe that you give them a summary of what happened.
Q. Perhaps the British in the Falklands had the best view, the Press pool, limiting to a certain number. On the Press itself, were the journalists you worked with aware, had been in the country long enough?
A lot of them. There was a huge press pool there, but the leaders, the ones that I saw and I didn't see hardly any, were knowledgeable. They had been for a long time. Guys like Peter Arnett, Halberstam . . . Joe Alsop -- that was my first tour, I spent days with him.
Q. When I tell teenagers who are going to go into the military today, looking back on that chapter of history. It is so much easier to define for them what the Second World War or the First World War is about. But on this one, do you think it is simple?
South Vietnam was a country which had a legitimate to exist independent of the North despite the fact that in 1954 there were supposed to be elections set up and the country unified. Do you think that if legitimacy was correct, as a country after '56?
I think so. I think the United States took the right tack in not signing the Geneva Accords. They wouldn't do anything to disturb it, but they thought it was, in effect they said it wasn't a good deal. I think they had a legitimate right to declare themselves independent. And historically you can support that with the truth -- well, the ethnic divisions between the North and South. They do consider themselves quite distinct.
Q. They look different. Thieu was a southerner and when you look at Thieu and Ky standing side by side you almost have a picture of the contrast.
Truong, the guy with the Air Force, was a southern Catholic, and Leung was a northern buddhist and they got along fine.
Q. You were never bothered then by the legitimacy of our side.
I think that we were right.
Q. And you thought the South Vietnamese government was right.
I think they were right. I get very upset when I hear people talk about the repressive Thieu government, because I know dozens of folks, South Vietnamese civilians, military, who thought that their freedoms under Thieu were quite remarkable. If you wanted to get on the bus and go from Saigon to Can Tho, you didn't need a pass. If you wanted to open a fruit stand, you didn't have a permit. The mail service worked. Sure the cop on the beat might be ripping you off a little bit, there was petty corruption that you see in many other societies. You see it in Boston even, or Chicago. So all this issue about corruption and repression to me is a false issue and irrelevant. Certainly there was corruption. There's corruption now. The communists are terribly corrupt, as they are in the Soviet Union, plenty of evidence of it. But it had nothing as far as I'm concerned. It deserves a footnote in any story.
Q. You told me when you are going to commit your forces, you should do it to win. But then if we turn around and try to draw the analogy in say, El Salvador. How do you commit yourself? The communists seem to have the advantage there.
We have a built in problem, or obstacle to overcome. That is, we are a free society and we want to do things in accord with international law, standards of international conduct. We don't really want to invade anybody, but if it's the last resort to protect our own borders. And we're faced with an adversary who doesn't fight by those rules. The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. They saw the thing was going to go possibly a little bit liberal, so they went in assisted in the assassination of the chief of state, put in their own guy and armies to back it up. They can do things like that. That's the sort of thing, practically speaking, we should have done years ago in Cuba, probably, and now in Nicaragua. But I know that politically and even ethically insofar as Americans are concerned, you can't do things like that. You don't have that option. If a President said, "Now it's time to invade Nicaragua," how far would he get? It's actually what we should do. You could give the military a mission like that and they could have Nicaragua under control in a few weeks.
Q. In Vietnam, did the military leaders, Johnson, Kennedy, did they give a crap about the Vietnamese people, or were we there for us? And when it was no longer beneficial for us, then we sold them down the river. Was there a point when we really cared about them? I know that when you are there and do see it, you do care. But did you get the feeling that the people who visited, McNamara, Bundy, whoever, did they really care about the Vietnamese being free? Or is that a pawn?
It would be hard for me to judge how they really felt about it.
Q. It seems that way in the end. We got out because it was no longer beneficial to us.
I've often felt that our military leadership, that is the Joint Chiefs themselves, should have taken a much stronger stand when this incremental commitment started. General Wheeler should have gone to the President and said, "I can't support this. This is the wrong way to do it." Or, General Johnson, he had statutory authority to go to the President himself, that is, the Chief of Staff of the Army. He never did it.
I talked to him about it later, long after he retired and I was over at the War College, and he put it to me that he had thought about it, about giving his resignation and resigning the Joint Chiefs, but he said, "You know, Bill, who would have replaced me? What would the next man do? He'd do the same thing I'm required to do now. I feel I can best serve the Army, because I know what's going on. And my resignation would be perhaps a symbolic gesture that the President might or might not take seriously." So he didn't feel that his resignation was the thing to do, although he admitted he had thought about it during this period where he was having to draw down the Army's base in order to support the thing over there. And he just saw the casualties beginning to mount, with no end in sight.
I don't know if the other Chiefs felt the same. I think a couple of them were out to prove the point what you could do with air power. So they weren't as concerned.
Q. It's difficult to explain why 58,000 died and Vietnam was lost anyway. It's one of those things, like a tar baby. The reason for being engaged is because you are engaged.
It's hard to disengage. It's hard to know when. That's what I give Kissinger great credit for. Not very many soldiers think very highly of Kissinger, but I think he was masterful in bringing that thing to an end when he did, under the conditions that he did. I'm sure he was not under any delusion that this thing would in the long term work to South Vietnam's advantage. I don't believe he ever held that notion. I think he's too smart for that and that he did the pragmatic thing. He knew that he didn't have much time. He had to end it and he did it.
Q. What motivates the North Vietnamese communists? Do you believe in evil? Is that a term you use?
I do, yeah. I think there are some real bad people in the world. I've known some. I would say there are some just naturally bad people in the Army. But I think in the case of the Vietnamese, once they got their revolution moving in North Vietnam and enjoyed the prerogatives of power, absolute power, that's what keeps the inner circle of the communist party going anywhere it exists, the realization that you do hold power and that it's nice. It's a very comfortable feeling and there's nobody that can effectively challenge you if you keep it that way. And it can only exist in a situation that is dynamic and keeps moving forward, getting more power and doesn't allow any dissent. Any time there's a crack in the structure you've got to cement it up and keep your power base firm. In order to keep it firm you've got to keep it growing.
Q. So it's not an evil vision of the world dominated by communists. It's more personal.
I think it's entirely personal. I think that falls true for the folks in the Kremlin too. Once they taste that power.
Q. As you speak to people, neighbors, friends, groups, the War College, do Americans adequately understand the nature of communism?
I think it's a big problem. I think you'll find you can talk to people who say, well, after all it is is a political economic theory for the control of the means of production, and labor and so on. It's an ideal way to organize a society. The way Marx said. Of course I would disagree to start with, but that's the way I think a lot of people see communism, as a theory. I don't see it as a theory, I see it as a very practical and very powerful way to organize a society where you control all, not only the means of production, but the people, the thought, the movement, and there isn't any political activity outside the party. Once you've got that accomplished, there's nothing you can't do. Put people in insane asylums . . .
Q. I think the public is quite generous --
There are people up where I live that think that they can make some impact on world peace by sending their children over to school in Oslo and starting some exchange program. Have some twelve year old kids come over Port Angeles??? from Kiev and send kids over there and everything will be cool. It's such an irrational naive way to look at the way the thing's organized. ANd the communists over there in the Kremlin, they agree that's great, let's send some little kids over there. They are all pretty blue eyes, blond hair and lovable, and teach them to speak English.
Q. You don't strike me as a pessimist. The experience of Vietnam, did it change your view of the world? Was there a watershed in your life that made you look at the world differently now?
I don't think it changed my view about much.
Q. Are you optimistic?
I think I'm a realist. I took great issue with Snepp. We were very practical. He claims I started predicting the great offensive from the very start and I didn't and I have the documents to prove -- I have every summary I ever put out and I know exactly what we said from month to month. I wasn't even pessimistic about Vietnam. I believed that the Vietnamese forces that we put in the field were unit for unit and man for man, better than the other side put in the field. And I know they were. They proved it many times.
Q. And the officer corps was equal to theirs?
Oh, I think they ---
((End of side A. Begin side B)..
. . . as I said at the beginning, it was difference in the mission of the two armies. One had the mission to attack and destroy South Vietnamese forces, and they could do it piecemeal. The attack at Ban Me Thuot.
Q. You agree with Napoleon then, the ultimate result of defensive warfare is surrender.
Yeah, sure. You can defend for a long time effectively with a well-planned well-executed defense, but it doesn't mean victory.
Q. If you go out on a basketball court with a team that plays great defense, you're going to lose.
That's a very apt simile. You can defend for a long time, but you're never going to win.
Q. Are you teaching anywhere?
Q. Do you go out to speak to various groups?
I haven't been asked. I'm so far away from everybody that -- well, Harry Summers asked me to take over -- well, he gets asked a lot, and he wrote to me and asked if I would like to take over some of his speakings and I said, yes, I would, but I haven't heard anything. And I think it's because I'm so far away from where people want people to speak. You can't get any farther away than the northern Michigan peninsula.
Q. Where did you grow up?
Oakland. I went to school in Oakland and the University of California, Berkeley.
Q. Were you in the ROTC?
No, I was drafted as a private in 1943, right after I graduated from the University. I majored in political science. I spent the whole World War II as a private in the infantry. I wound up the war, I had a machine gun section. In the Pacific Fleet. Then I was out -- I stayed in the enlisted Reserve Corps. I figured that if we went to war again I'd want to go back in at least as a staff sergeant, so I kept that up. And then in '49 I decided --the Army had a program that if you had, I think, two years of active duty and two years of college, they'd give you a commission as a second Lieutenant and went down to Fort Benning and went through their basic officer course down there and was commissioned. And a couple of years later made regular army.
I stayed in from then on.
Q. Is it possible to go higher than colonel without going to West Point?
Oh, yeah. General Weyand was University of California.
Q. I didn't know how closed the rank of general would be.
No, it's not closed off that way at all. General Marshall was -- there's many many generals.
Q. I've had many friends who've gone to Quantico in the Marines and -- I guess they never aspired to anything above captain or major. But I sometimes wondered if it was necessary to go somewhere.
I think the Marine Corps and the Navy had traditions where it was much more difficult for a "maverick" in their forces to get anywhere, but the Army never did that. It was, I would say, a much more democratic, egalitarian force. It really belongs to the people.
(((End of interview at ctr. 48)))