Saturday, December 15, 2012
Wolf Lehmann's Vietnam
Q. You said you arrived at Can Tho after the Paris Agreement.
In 1973. We arrived in the Mekong Delta in June of 1973. I took over there as the senior American at what was now an American Consulate General for the Mekong Delta. That corresponded to Military Region Four. And we were there until, I suppose it was March of 1974, when I was asked to come up to Saigon to be the Deputy Chief of Mission, or Deputy Ambassador.
Q. The situation down there, was there no serious Viet Cong problem?
Well, the whole Mekong Delta region, most of it was really quite peaceful, all the way up to the end in Vietnam. There were certain very strong pockets of North Vietnamese in the Delta area. One was in Chun Tin??? Province, for example. There was another area up close to the Cambodian border, and east of the Bassac River where they were rather heavily entrenched. There was an area Bin Long??? Province in the southern part of the Mekong Delta where there was a fairly strong pocket, and there was an area in what was commonly known as the U Min Forest. But most of the Delta was really quite peaceful, enjoyed by late 1973 and 1974 even a kind of rural prosperity.
Q. Much military action?
In certain spots like Chung Tin Province.
Q. But just guerrilla?
Well, no. It was not really guerrilla. They were North Vietnamese main force units, but they were not heavily equipped. You can say that in the whole Mekong Delta region the hostile forces, primarily North Vietnamese hostile forces, numbered about forty-five thousand. It was not a very large number when you consider that the Mekong Delta is a very densely, thickly populated region, and these groups were sort of broken up in these various spots as I indicated.
I used to spend part of every week when I was down there, away from Can Tho and out in the countryside in the provinces and the district towns. Used to go around there and in fact on some of these trips I took my wife along.
Q. So you went without much worry of terrorist assassination?
We went without much concern. We knew pretty much precisely where the North Vietnamese were and where they were not. We knew pretty precisely where you could go and where you couldn't go. Most of the places in the Delta you could go.
Q. The general American opinion is that they had terrified the populace wherever they were, so the populace never cooperated in helping root them out or find them. But it sounds like you didn't find that to be true.
No, that isn't true. And by and large the South Vietnamese military force in the Mekong Delta had control of the situation. With one exception they did not wipe out these North Vietnamese pockets I spoke about. There were a couple of exceptions to that. Before I came in, just at the time that the so-called cease fire went into effect in late February of 1973, the North Vietnamese engaged in a heavy land-grabbing operation close to the Cambodian border. And they made initially some advances, but then they were defeated by the South Vietnamese and thrown out.
And even later on, while I was down there, one North Vietnamese pocket was in the so-called Seven Mountains area, which is a series of small hills, which in the flat Mekong Delta are called mountains. But they were very rugged hills, lots of caves. And that was a stronghold for the North Vietnamese. Well it was sometime in late '73 or early '74 the South Vietnamese took that over and succeeded in driving them out of there.
This myth that the South Vietnamese were running away, or not in control is simply not to. And I think in the Delta that whole situation sort of remained that way until Saigon fell and the whole Delta, when Saigon had fallen, had no point in continuing.
Q. Was that the Vietnamese Seventh Division?
No, that was the Fourth Corps and had several divisions. I can't remember all the numbers.
Q. General Nam was the Corps commander when, the whole period?
No, he was not. When I came down there General Nhi??? was the corps commander and was the corps commander all the time I was there. In 1974 President Thieu made a change in Fourth Corps. And General Nam took his place. Of course General Nam committed suicide. General Nghi was captured.
Q. No morale problems when you were down there in the Vietnamese troops because of the Paris Agreement?
I think the morale of the South Vietnamese troops by and large was relatively high. Now they were suffering steady casualties in this kind of little fighting that was going on around these pockets all the time. So every week there would be some casualties, but the casualties were not very substantial and the kind of fighting that went on, as long as the South Vietnamese were still relatively well supplied, did not affect the morale particularly. They could have sustained that kind of operation almost indefinitely.
Q. There were no supply problems?
Not at that time.
Q. The two seemed to be tied together, the declining morale and declining supplies.
That came into play much later on and not so much in the Delta as it came in the heavy fighting up north and in the whole North Vietnamese advance from the north down to the south.
Q. These constant small casualties, that didn't erode the Vietnamese attitude the way it did the American attitude? Did the soldiers see an eventual end to North Vietnamese infiltration into the Delta area? Or did they see it as a perpetual war, somehting necessary forever?
Well, at that time it was kind of accepted as a problem for which there was no immediate end in sight, because part of the Paris Agreement to end the war and restore the peace in Vietnam was seriously deficient in one major respect. Insofar as it officially allowed by the terms of that agreement, the North Vietnamese to remain in South Vietnam. And along the Ho Chi Minh trail, along the . . .???ctr 105... over the mountainous jungles from North to South.
So that was a given fact of life there. By the terms of that agreement which Thieu had accepted--very reluctantly, but had accepted--they were allowed to remain there. There were a number of other aspects to the agreement, one of them that we the United States were permitted under the terms of the agreement as you know, to resupply the South Vietnamese on a one-for-one basis. One shell for every shell that was lost, one jeep for every one destroyed, one artillery piece and so forth for every one that might have been lost or destroyed. We never did that in Vietnam. Because we were too limited by budgetary limitations by what the Congress let us have to be able to do that, so we never did. We were very much aware of that all the time, and of course, the North Vietnamese, who were supposed to be under the same obligation, that is were under the terms of the agreement not to exceed the one-for-one replacement for lost equipment, or ammunition or guns or what have you in the south, didn't do that at all. They just violated the agreement from the beginning.
There was simply no way of checking on it.
Q. The agreement sounds -- what was wrong? What's the idea behind that? Were there secret accords?
No, there were no secret accords. The agreement, as I said, was in my view seriously flawed in several respects. The major aspect of it was the North Vietnamese retained their troops in the south. That was its major flaw. Nevertheless, if the agreement had been observed, then we would have a live Republic of South Vietnam today. But the fact, of course, was that the agreement was not observed by the other side, and we abdicated our will to insist that the agreement be enforced. You can't make any agreements with communists or any totalitarian like Hitler, unless you are determined at the same time to enforce that agreement in case it is violated by the other side. Other than that, communists, and Nazis and totalitarians regard negotiations and agreements, if I may take a little liberty with Clausewitz, as a continuation of war by other means. And that's all there is to it.
The agreement, if we insisted on enforcing it, might have been viable. But the Congress undercut our ability to enforce it by legislating against the reintroduction into Vietnam of any American forces under any circumstances within a month after the agreement was signed. So we had no clout to bring to bear. And the Congress then went on and progressively cut and cut the military assistance appropriations for Vietnam so that we never got anywhere near resupplying the South Vietnamese on a one-for-one basis.
Q. If we trace this back, do we get to the refusal to trust the military reporting? The credibility in the minds of Congress , of any military reporter was not there.
The time I'm talking about the American military were out of there completely.
Q. But there's a legacy of --
Yes, I agree with you. There was the whole legacy of the years and years that went before that that made it very difficult to deal with Congress on this issue. But there was also a very poor role played by American media and the American press on this. Because things were constantly misrepresented. That began as early as Tet '68, which in American psyche became an American defeat, which was really a massive defeat for the North Vietnamese insofar as it destroyed the Viet Cong infrastructure, the guerrilla structure in South Vietnam and really was almost entirely except for some intelligence operatives and individual terrorists acts, and entirely North Vietnamese main force action from that time on. So you have to also remember that American troops weren't pulled out just in early '73. American troops were drawn down to virtually nothing all during 1972, and the North Vietnamese Easter offensive in spring of 1972, after having made some initial headway way up north in Quang Tri, was in the end defeated entirely by South Vietnamese army forces. The only modification to that is that the South Vietnamese ground effort was strongly supported by American air force. That was important in defeating that North Vietnamese attack in the spring of 1972.
But the ground fighting in 1972 was all done by South Vietnamese forces, not by American.
Q. Was the Vietnamese air force incapable of giving the kind of close air support that the Americans gave?
Yeah. Well, the Vietnamese air forces never were quite as capable as the American air forces, the tactical air forces. They were not as strong or as good as American air forces are, but I would say that in 1974 or so they were reasonably capable.
Q. Were there reporters down on the Delta with you at that time?
My time in the Delta when we lived down there, moved around down there, no, there were no reporters stationed there. Occasionally one would come down for Saigon.
Q. Looking for something?
Well occasionally American reporters who were stationed in Saigon would come around just to look around, that's all. They would usually just come to Can Tho. Then sometimes, I think I talked to them occasionally, and some of my people did, then go and interview a few Vietnamese, and then they would go back. But other than this steady kind of low-level hostility going on in certain pockets of the Delta, there were no terribly dramatic actions going on. That would be the story. The story should be rural prosperity.
In 1974, we were reaching a situation, for example, where the country was almost back to being fully self-sufficient on rice. And in 1975, if things had gone on that way we might have had a small export surplus of rice, despite the fact that you had this kind of low-level hostility going on in the Delta and of course also in Military Regions Three and Two to some extent. Relatively little in Military Region One, up north because that was the sort of traditional front line situation. Forces actually facing each other. The rest of this was all jungle mountains, not a clear cut front line situation.
Q. Did you enjoy your stay down in Can Tho?
Yes, we did.
Q. Your wife lived there?
Yes. My wife came with me. She traveled places throughout the Delta also. In fact when we went to Saigon she took a trip way down to the end of the Delta to An Xuin????, which is the tip of the Delta. I think it was as late as Christmas '74 to visit some of orphanages, schools, and this kind of thing.
Q. Despite the lack of resupplying, when you left in March of 1974, did you have any misgivings at the time?
Well, by March of 1974 I was beginning to have misgivings. Of course we all were, but it was not so much because of the military situation anywhere in the country, it was because of deteriorating political situation here in the United States due to the Watergate crisis and how that would affect out ability to provide the necessary resupplies and continue the economic and military assistance to the South Vietnamese. So that came increasingly into play. And of course the great tragedy in all of Vietnam is that when the Watergate crisis came to a head in August of 1974, it resulted in pretty much the complete emasculation of the power of the American presidency. And in that kind of atmosphere back here, the Congress under tremendous pressure from the antiwar groups who really basically wanted the country to surrender to the communists, Congress cuts the guts out from the military assistance program and thus precipitated in August 1974 the decision by the North Vietnamese taken a few weeks later, in about September, to go for all out attack in 1975.
Now, we in fact predicted that. We predicted that in a long cable that I sent on August 13, 1974, and I'd be glad to give you a copy of that, incidentally, if you would like. I was charge at the embassy at the time, because Ambassador Martin was back here trying to fight the battle back here in Washington. And we predicted it at the time that the big cut in military aid that the Congress had made, especially in the house floor a few days before that, would likely precipitate a decision by the North Vietnamese to go ahead and try with a military option in early 1975. That's exactly what happened.
Q. They actually were hinging their decisions on our decisions.
The master plan originally was somewhat on the back burner. Of course Hanoi had never given up, you know. I'm not saying that. Hanoi had never given up their intent to unify the country under communist control, under their control. As I said earlier, they violated the Paris Agreement from the outset. They had never given up their intent. But they couldn't quite hack it earlier and they were hesitant about it. They had, as I pointed out in '72 been largely contained by South Vietnamese forces, not by American forces. And again, their last land-grabbing operation in early 1973 had been entirely defeated by South Vietnamese forces. The mass uprisings which they always predicted would take place in the south had not taken place. On the contrary, the population by and large was loyal to President Thieu. There were always a few loud exceptions, but it was by and large -- none of this had happened. But as they saw the American will or political capacity to continue effective support for the South Vietnamese erode in course of the Watergate crisis, they saw their opportunity.
Now, General Dung, the North Vietnamese commander, in fact has confirmed publicly what I just said in his account of what he calls the great spring victory, with which every historian ought to be thoroughly familiar. He confirms that their reading of the American political situation decided them to go ahead and go for it in early '75. I can pin that decision down, frankly, almost to some time in September 1974.
Q. What motivated your long cable?
What precipitated it was the House action reducing the fiscal year 1975 military assistance level in Vietnam down to what we considered entirely inadequate.
Q. You said that they would respond by --
We said -- I went through this message first, the first few paragraphs deal with the military effects of the reduced assistance level, which I discussed with General Murray who was our defense attache and who administered that particular program. And it said that the remaining funds would leave no funds for any vestment??? items, and at that particular funding level which we were going to have from the Congress, ammunition stocks would steadily be drawn down. Present levels of fighting even with stringent economies, which of course involve additional casualties, -- some intelligence indicators now suggest a good possibility of a major North Vietnamese offensive effort in early 1975, which will be just about the time that these shortages will become most severe. There are similar drastic effects on POL, that's petroleum, requirements, medical programs, subsistence, spare parts and communications, air support and naval operations.
But apart from the practical effects the worst damage of a reduction of military assistance on the order of magnitude suggested by the House, would be political and psychological. That was the point. And it is evident that Hanoi has been disappointed in its expectation that very quickly after the withdrawal of American forces and military advisers, South Vietnam would fall into its hands. After in Hanoi's view it was a colonialist war. But this has not happened. There has been no collapse and Hanoi has been taken aback by that fact as well as the persistent failure for the constantly predicted mass uprisings to occur.
Q. The cable went to whom?
The cable went to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the military commands.
Q. What was the response?
There was no response to this cable. They lost the fight back here on Capitol Hill. The military assistance program was gutted. Later on in the fall of 1974, the economic assistance programs which were a separate appropriation from the military were also reduced sharply, so Hanoi, by these signals and by the utter impotence of the White House in the light of the Watergate crisis to be able to do anything --
Q. Ford came in promising to keep all the commitments of the Nixon administration -- do you think that was impossible for a President. Do you think even had there been no change in the executive branch that the Congress was on the long road of reaction at this time?
I think Congress was basically responding only to a very vocal minority of the public. Americans weren't being killed in Vietnam any more. The only Americans at risk were the likes of us, who were taking a little risk, but we weren't losing any Americans anymore. So Congress responded basically to a very well organized and orchestrated minority in this country. I don't think they were responding to the public at all. In light of what I called earlier the impotence of the Presidency induced by the Watergate situation, the White House could not overcome that. If you never had Watergate and everything else equal, the outcome would have been something different. I don't know what that something different would have been, but President Nixon had a lot of guts in dealing with this whole issue. He had the guts in the fall of 1972 to undertake the big bombing offensive against North Vietnam, which exhausted the North Vietnamese air defense. They were twelve hours away or less from being totally open with no air defense in 1972.
This is what brought them back to the bargaining table and finally got Le Duc Tho??? to sign the agreement. That's what got them back, the so-called December air offensive bombing of North Vietnam was so effective that the only reason they came back to sign the agreement, because the North Vietnamese air defenses were at the point of utter exhaustion. Less than twelve hours and we could have roamed those skies with impunity. That's why they came back and signed the agreement.
That's why I say, if you never had Watergate and the impotence of the American presidency that that disaster brought with it, you wouldn't in the first place have had a decision by the North Vietnamese to go for it at the time they made that decision in 1974.
Q. Do you believe if they would not have gone for it in 1974, that they would have eventually given it up? I have a vision that they would have gone for it in 1978, or '82.
Nobody can tell. They might have tried later on, but --
Q. I think giving up that idea would have undermined the government itself, because the government hinged its legitimacy on the desire to join the country.
It did. And if you had had the kind of situation that came in the country in most of the . . .?? war, at least the early part of it, the first six, seven months, you would have had a situation where slowly South Vietnam would actually grow stronger. So they would have been in a worse position had they waited, you see. Things worked out their way very well.
Nobody can say what would have happen. All I can tell you is if you never had that Watergate, you would have had something else happen in Vietnam. What that would have been, I'm not prepared to say.
Q. Ky said when he talked to Nixon, Nixon said we would have done something different, I don't know whether it would have worked.
Well, we probably would have. This man, after all, Richard Nixon won that 1972 election on the issue of Vietnam and by an overwhelming margin. What really is the odd thing about this is that Nixon won that election by an overwhelming margin against McGovern on the issue of Vietnam, so he came in very powerful.
Q. But his issue was Peace With Honor. And I don't know how one interprets that. We got the peace and we got the honor with the exchange of the POWs, but --
That's all we got.
Q. Did you want the position at the embassy in March '74 when you were called up there?
Deputy Chief of Mission. In Vietnam it was called Deputy Ambassador. So that was the Number Two senior position for the entire official American presence in Vietnam. I was just a Foreign Service Officer going to another job, because that's what the ambassador wanted.
Q. Martin requested you. You had worked with him before in Thailand, hadn't you?
I had not been in Thailand. I had known about Ambassador Martin, of course, before. I never worked for him before, but before I came to Vietnam, I had been the political adviser of the U.S. European Command while Graham Martin was American Ambassador in Italy. And we rather worked together on some things that involved the NATO alliance.
Q. Was it sad leaving Can Tho? Do you get accustomed, or an affection for an area like that?
Well, the Delta occupies a very warm place in my heart. I kind of love the Delta. I'm not the only one. It affects other people that way. I kind of love the place. Life was reasonable for us. Not excessively comfortable, but reasonable for us. In a sense it was with regret. On the other hand, it was a move up for me. You never turn down an up.
Q. What was the situation in March when you arrive?
I went to sort of major responsibility for the American effort throughout the country instead of just only in the Delta. What I did even before I got there I spent some time in the rest of the country as soon as I knew I was going to move, to get myself familiarized with the rest of the country and what was going on in DaNang, and Hue, and Na Trang.
I didn't get to Pleiku. I was supposed to but I had to go off somewhere else because something else came up.
I didn't get to Ban Me Thuot myself either. It was all supposed to be one trip and had to be cancelled because I needed to go back to Saigon for a meeting. But I did go out in the countryside.
Q. We had intelligence reporting that was fairly good from Kantum, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, did we not?
Yes. I think we had, on the whole, good intelligence reporting all around. One thing that did catch both the Vietnamese and us with some surprise was the sudden attack on Ban Me Thuot in March of '75.
Q. What about before that? Go back to the Phuc Luong province, in late December of '74.
Phuc Luong was the first provincial capital to fall to the North Vietnamese.
Q. Within the embassy itself was there major concern about that?
I think there was major mounting concern that we had as we went into the fall of 1974. There was mounting concern in the embassy during the fall of 1974 and the fall of Phuc Luong was definitely cause for some concern. But the signs kept mounting and the intelligence kept getting harder and harder that the North Vietnamese would start a major offensive in early 1975, which they did.
One of the events, incidentally, in the sequence, is the Soviet military mission visit to Hanoi before Christmas of 1974. I think it was December 16th. It was about ten days before Christmas of 1974, when a large Soviet military mission headed by the Deputy Defense Minister, Marshall Kudikov?? who subsequently became the Warsaw Pact commander for Soviet Forces in Europe, visited Hanoi ostensibly for Vietnamese Army Day. They stayed there for a week. It was a very large mission, and although our intelligence on it was spotty, it was quite evident that the main purpose of that mission was to put the final touches on whatever arrangements existed between Hanoi and Moscow for Soviet resupply of ammunition, tanks, guns, what have you.
I sent a message on that too, in which I tried to stir up some interest in that particular subject.
Q. It was not a secret visit then?
It was -- they said very little about it. They made a brief announcement about it. We had some other information about it which I can't go into.
Q. Were the Chinese still visiting and supplying?
No, the Chinese were already kind of in a process of backing off. Things had not deteriorated to the point that they did later on.
Q. Colonel Vu Von Loc insisted to me that Phuc Luong should have and could have been retaken, but he said there was a political decision made in Saigon that if it wasn't perhaps this would put pressure on Congress to reconsider increasing supplies.
Were there rumors or thoughts that Thieu was playing a fairly risky game waiting for an emergency situation to use as a pivotal point in getting American aid?
I think that's stretching it a little too much.
Q. Thieu always assumed that his reserve units were in America, in that he would call up the reserves that were needed and that was false reasoning so in the end reserves never were called in.
I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean by "Reserves", Americans coming back?
Q. Yeah, at least the B52s coming back.
Thieu was as well aware as the rest of us were that the Congress had legislated against the reintroduction of any American forces. That's why he felt he couldn't take any chances.
Q. He understood American politics, you believe, from your meetings with him? Or appreciated the situation?
By and large he did. I am not sure that he fully appreciated the extent to which Watergate had eroded the power of the White House, To prevail in a politically controversial situation is a concept that is very hard for other people to understand. He understood that it weakened considerably. Nixon's resignation was for him a great dissapointment and a great disaster because he had great confidence in Nixon's ability to prevail and if necessary support them effectively. And therefore Nixon's resignation was a letdown psychologically for him.
Q. There were stories told to me that Cao Van Vien did not want to be the chief of the joint general staff and consequently there was not the enthusiasm, motivation, interest there that there should have been. He said if you are going to win a war you need an overall commander who wants to be there and is enthusiastic. Lack of motivation. Were you aware of any problems in the military leadership?
Well we were aware of the fact that it wasn't quite as strong at the top level as perhaps would have been desirable. That's true. But that was up to the Vietnamese to decide. We were out of this war. WE were no longer participants in it, and going way back I personally think our original mistake was to Americanize that war many years earlier, but we had done it and having done it we should have prevailed in it. Nixon of course brought it back to be a Vietnamese war.
Yes we were aware that it was quite as strong in the military leadership as it could have been, but it was up to them to decide.
Q. American press, talk about Corruption. Colonel LeGro told me it was no more corrupt than Chicago.
I agree with that one hundred per cent. I think Chicago in some days earlier was more corrupt than Vietnam ever was. And so was Jersey City when Mayor Hague was there. And you are talking about an Asiatic country where the values are a little bit different from us. You do business in a different way in the East and in Asia. Yes there was some corruption, but this talk about the corrupt regime was sheer nonsense. You can always find an example of corruption. I can find corruption right here in Montgomery County if I want to. I can find it in all kinds of American government situations. I can find examples of all sorts of corruption. This was used by the anti-Vietnamese activists, the Hanoi clients here in this country, to try and discredit the regime.
Q. Some of the reporters were in country for years and years. Why didn't they try to put this in --
I don't know what motivates reporters any more. I don't keep up on that, especially not editors. Yes, it should have been in perspective. I would say, yes, okay, there's been some corruption.
I'm a veteran of the Second World War. I was in Italy during the war. I tell you there was a hell of a lot of corruption that included Americans. Convoys used to disappear. Truckloads full of fuel and rations used to disappear near Naples. That has been worked by Hanoi's friends.
Q. But you never saw it as a problem related to the collapse?
((((End of Side A, Tape 1))) (((Begin Side B, Tape 1)))
. . . You can probably find an instance where that happened. That becomes the generality.
Q. You said the attack on Ban Me Thuot came as a surprise.
Yes that was a very well-concealed operation. They did that very well. A good military operation. They had built up their forces on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We knew and the Vietnamese knew, in general about the buildup, and kept some track of it. But the actual attack on Ban Me Thuot, the time when it took place, the vigor with which it took place, came as somewhat of a surprise.
There was more thought given to attacks on Pleiku and Kontum than on Ban Me Thuot. And there was more concern about Pleiku and Kontum than there had been about Ban Me Thuot.
Q. What happened in the embassy?
Martin was gone.
Q. Prior to that attack was the Congressional delegation that visited Cambodia and Vietnam. What about that? I usually get some colorful reactions to that.
You're going to get some more colorful reactions to it.
Let me refresh my memory on the dates. One thing that did survive is my appointment calendar.
I can show you pictures of that, pictures of myself and Bella Abzug which is a laugh.
Phil Habib was accompanying them. The first of the Congressmen arrived on Monday, February 24th. That was McCloskey and Senator Bartlett. What resulted was kind of a circus at the airport as the American press mobbed them and accused me of having tried to keep the Congressmen away from the press, which wasn't true, just because the North Vietnamese wouldn't let the press go out on the tarmac to the steps at the airplane, but rather brought the Congressmen to the VIP thing where the press was. This wasn't cause for objections from the press, that they couldn't go out on the tarmac.
Those two arrived that day and the rest of them arrived a couple of days later. Ten o'clock on February 27th, the entire delegation arrived including such luminaries as Bella Abzug, Millicent Fenwick, Congressman Fraser of Minnesota. The leadership was Congressman **** from Georgia. There was a congressman from New York, but I can't remember who it was. And they stayed there in Vietnam and made a side trip to Cambodia, until the whole group left on the evening of March Two, Sunday. Ambassador Martin was going back with the group at that time.
Q. McCloskey went up into MR 1, went down in the Delta, -- LeGro went with him and all he wanted to do was see POWs and didn't want to hear the briefings. Vu Van Loc was in charge of doing the briefings for them in Saigon and he said he did all the maps and charts and then got the word they didn't want to see it. And up in MR 1 McCloskey said he admired General Truong, but at the same time found the situation to be hopeless because Truong was facing such heavy forces across the DMZ that in case they ever came down -- McCloskey came away with very grim feelings about the whole situation. I think this was his fifth trip to Vietnam.
Well I'm a little surprised to hear you say that because it had been my impression that McCloskey was rather favorably impressed by the military situation.
Q. He said he was in places; he said he was ???? in MR 1. He said he thought that Truong was one of most capable military commanders he had ever talked to, but in other regions he didn't see how -- he thought he saw an impending collapse. He came home and he thought the country was lost no matter what we put into it. Cambodia he wanted to support because he thought if Phnom Penh fell it was the kind of war where there would be the greatest slaughter in Asia.
I know McCloskey, like some of the rest of them, not all of them, not Fred Bartlett, they took things seriously, McCloskey to a lesser extent but he sort of refused briefings and really looking at the situation as Bill LeGro's told you. And of course some of the others, notably Fraser and Abzug, for them the whole visit was nothing but a simple occasion to try and whip up domestic anti-Vietnam feelings in the United States. That's what they were using it for. The fact that some of their assistants showed up early to arrange contrived meetings with so-called dissidents, and Abzug took every possible occasion she could simply to embarrass both the South Vietnamese and us, the American embassy as much as she could.
Q. McCloskey said he found Graham Martin to be demented. Completely out of touch with reality.
Q. He found Thomas Polgar completely incapable of telling the truth.
That's also nonsense. And I would add that I had quite run in with McCloskey myself at my house because part of the program I think the evening before their departure, was an occasion for the whole group to meet with as many non-official Americans in the area as possible, the Voluntary Relief Agency people and business people, and others. I invited them all to my house and the Congressional delegation came. The evening broke up in the end with a terrible argument between me and McCloskey because McCloskey kept talking about, like the rest of them, about all these terribly alleged human rights violations by the South Vietnamese because they wanted to lock up people who were trying to bomb them. That's a human rights violation, you see. And so we got into a terrific argument, McCloskey and I, and he threatened to subpoena me and get me up in front of his committee and I told him well go ahead, just do that. I never heard from him. He's a very erratic type. Blows hot and cold.
Q. The delegation as a group was there to investigate
The whole thing started with good intentions. In a last ditch effort here in Washington to see if they couldn't mount some better Congressional support for providing the Vietnamese some official support. It backfired. When you have a delegation loaded with people like Fraser and Abzug who were totally dedicated to destroying South Vietnam practically, that's what those people were dedicated to.
Q. You had never her before, had you?
I had never met her before and I never hope to meet her again.
Q. Was she civil? LeGro said she wasn't even civil to him.
No, she wasn't civil. I will show you my picture.
Q. Did you ever get a key to her animosity?
She's a left-wing ideologue, always has been. To her the left can do nothing wrong, and communists are better than the alternative. Somehow, I've never been able to figure these people out, but she is one of those.
Q. When they left with Martin, you were left in charge?
Yeah, I was in charge then for the rest of the month. Again, the North Vietnamese, knowing everything that goes on that we do, had ceased any heavy military operation just before the Congressional Delegation arrived. And they resumed them again on, I think it was about the seventh, eighth of March. The delegation left on March 2, five days later they resumed their heavy military operations. Meanwhile they kept very quite while that group was there.
Q. McCloskey was ready to leave with a positive attitude and he said he was in the jail visiting the journalist and the little girl
Oh, yes, the big thing for many of them was to visit the prisons where these alleged "political" prisoners were being held by the repressive corrupt Thieu regime. Never mind that the North Vietnamese were trying to take over the whole country, you've got to go and visit the so-called political prisoners.
We prevailed upon the Vietnamese to let them do this. I put personally a lot of pressure on the Vietnamese to go ahead. I was embarrassed about it, but I insisted, please let them go ahead and do this. And of course, in those so-called political prisoners, who were Viet Cong agents, naturally, we prevailed upon the Vietnamese to allow these people to talk privately with the committee. And naturally they would defend something like this. I'm not going to say that no Vietnamese ever beat up somebody in jail, like New York cops do that. I'm not going to say that. But the notion that there was widespread torture is nonsense. Tempers are hot.
I went througt the second world war. I have seen Americans beat up and kill on a couple occasions. I once in a fit of temper hit a prisoner myself, but this is -- not good -- but--
Q. But McCloskey felt the credibility of everything he'd been told.
This is a state of mind I can't fathom.
Q. General Weyand came right after that. Did he come back with Martin?
They came back -- during March Ambassador Martin was in Washington and on 3 o'clock in the morning on March 28th both Ambassador Martin and General Weyand returned. That was one night I didn't get any sleep at all because everything was going to hell up in the war.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Ed Daly's people's statements about what the embassy was doing on the 28th and the 29th. I did an interview with Jan Wollett and I cut if off short because I didn't put at the end what the interpretation by the World people was. I put down only what they experienced, not what they assumed had happened. When Ban Me Thuot fell, there was counter attack and didn't succeed.
Yes a small one and it didn't succeed. It petered out very quickly.
Q. At Cam Ranh -- Cao Van Vien, Thieu go up to Cam Ranh, call down Phu, don't confer with him, give him an order, to withdraw from the highlands. When he went home he walked into the house in Pleiku, the dinner table was set, he walked over and kicked the table over , the chairs around, and everybody was just shocked. He said, That's it. So that remains a mystery. Was there any inkling that decision would be made?
There was no consultation with us on that decision. But that is not something that gives me any problems in any way I resent. I don't do that. That meeting took place on Friday, March 14, up there at which time the decision was made to abandon the Central Highlands. I had an appointment to see Thieu at 9 o'clock Saturday morning March 15th. In other words, shortly after he had come back from that meeting. I saw Thieu at 9 o'clock that morning to give him a message either from Ambassador Martin or the President, I've forgotten which, but I'd been asked to convey. And we discussed the situation at the time. He did not directly tell me at that time of the decision he had made, but he hinted at it. He hinted that he didn't think the situation in the Central Highlands was tenable and that struck me and I returned right back to the office at the time. I no sooner got to the office than I got a call from Marty Spear??? up in Na Trang confirming to me that the decision had been made to abandon Pleiku and Kontum. Just a little bit later, Polgar the station chief came in, and he'd gotten the same word also that a decision had been made. That was on Saturday the 15th of March.
In light of that, so everything came together for me. I then gave orders to Spear up in Nha Trang to immediately proceed with evacuating all the Americans and the Vietnamese employees that we had up in Kontum and Pleiku and I told Jacobsen to go ahead and arrange necessary air -- give that priority with Air America. That was done and I sent off a telegram to the State Department that I had given those orders and that it would be completed by nightfall.
Q. Why untenable? There was no heavy action around there.
You're right on that. But that's not it. You've got to consider the geography of Vietnam. What Thieu had come up to was a conclusion that given the lack of adequate American aid, given the capture of Ban Me Thuot and the failure of the counter offensive, he felt he didn't have any other choice but to revive what had been thought of at various times early in the Vietnam story, incidentally, of giving up the entire northern part of the country and trying instead to use his limited resources to defend a truncated South Vietnam along an east west line roughly a little north of Da Lat to the coast.
Q. But he didn't give up MR 1?
No, he made up his mind at that time but he didn't give the orders until later.
Q. It would seem to me that MR1 could establish and maintain a perimeter. No matter how bad the situation DaNang could be like a Pu Sna perimeter. He thought they could hold out around DaNang be supplied by sea until they broke out of it.
I can understand that viewpoint, but you would have to confirm with Thieu rather with me. I don't think Thieu thought that was feasible. And that he thought the only thing to do given the exist in military political circumstances was to take the losses of the entire northern part of the country and try to save a truncated Vietnam, including DaLat, Nha Trang on south, Saigon and the Delta. And that holding a perimeter around DaNang I don't think he thought feasible. He needed troops and resources, he thought, to defend the rest of the country.
But he didn't give that order at that time. He only gave the order to abandon Pleiku and Kontum. And of course that turned out to be a disaster down the disastrous Route 7B.
It turned out to be a disaster for several reasons. One is, no planning, very short notice. Make that decision on Friday and do it right away. That was one.
You know that Route 7B was in terrible shape. That's the second reason.
The reason it turned out to be a disaster was because, and there the military credit has to go to the other side, the North Vietnamese were extremely effectively organized. We're not talking about a guerrilla war, we're talking about a main force war. They were mobile, they had C3 command control, communications, and Intelligence. Their communications were superb. They found out very quickly what was going on. They could react fast and make a shambles of the attempt to extract forces from Pleiku and Kontum.
Q. A Vietnamese Lt. Col. told me they had a spy in general headquarters --
Well, that may be true. I didn't know that. The North Vietnamese intelligence was good but it wasn't only that kind of intelligence, it was also signal intelligence, technical intelligence.
Q. What was your feeling about the decision when you heard it?
Well, I discussed the decision on Saturday morning when we were going through all this act -- I discussed the decision with Thieu in more detail on the following Thursday. 1650 in the afternoon. He gave me his rationale for it at the time. And at that time incidentally, it quite clearly conveyed to me that it would be followed by further decisions in MR 1. He was very distressed by the fact the operation had gone very badly in the withdrawal from Kontum and Pleiku. Very upset and distressed about it. I don't blame him. Any withdrawal operation, retrograde operation is a difficult military operation to begin with.
Q. You did not yet foresee any deep doom?
We foresaw increasing doom. Obviously it became now more and more doubtful that the country could survive. I have a note here that March 20 when I saw Thieu, that's the same time that the DaNang perimeter was going to be established. That attempt was going to be made.
It was not our role to provide him advice. We were not in position to do that.
Q. Did he ever solicit advice?
No he didn't solicit our advice on that kind of strategic decision and I don't blame him. He was beginning to sense he was being let down, we were cutting our aid and economic assistance. We had gone through this damn agony with the congressional delegation that insulted him, in fact, left and right and in Vietnamese. He saw no other choice but to resurrect this old option, which was an earlier option. He had been advised at one time some years earlier by, not an American, but another nationality, by an Australian, to consider that as an option.
Q. As the situation deteriorated, you were in contact with Martin in Washington?
Well, I was in contact with Washington all the time. He was in and out of town. I was in contact through the regular channels all the time as the situation deteriorated. As it deteriorated badly, of course, and we took our people out of Hue first, and initially had them go back in for the day from DaNang, just that we wanted to keep a presence as long as the Vietnamese were there.
Q. Weren't one of your people captured up in Kontum?
No, in Ban Me Thuot. One of our AID people was captured and we tried to recover him. Speer flew up there in an airplane to see if there was any way we could try and recover him. We got him back eventually. But that's why I had them pull out people first in Hue. I wouldn't let them stay overnight as things got bad. But they'd come back in in a helicopter the next day from DaNang to their offices until we finally had to take them out because Hue was falling.
Q. When the order to pull out of there and DaNang comes, and the Ed Daley situation -- can you tell me from mid-April --
I don't have any use for Mr. Daley at all.
Q. What was wrong? His public relations were good, even though he insulted reporters and waved his gun at them at the Caravel Hotel one night. What he was trying to do was bring some refugees out of DaNang. Is that not correct?
We were all bringing refugees out of DaNang. And as long as he, and for a little while in the beginning he operated within the general framework of bringing some refugees out of DaNang. Although he made a great big nuisance of himself. In fact he wasn't sober a good part of the time. I think everybody knows that, and waved guns around. But as long as he kept -- and he did that for a few days -- within the framework of others it was all right. We were also bringing people out of DaNang.
Q. He was lucid. His airline was running the Air Vietnam routes and they were running rice to Cambodia --
I don't know whether World was or Flying Tigers.
Q. But his sobriety did not affect the effectiveness of that work?
No, as long as he was operating that it was all right. But the point was, I was in constant close touch with Francis in DaNang as this thing was deteriorating more and more and it reached a point where all control was lost over the airfield at DaNang. It was just overrun with people. You couldn't bring airplanes in any more. And it was at this point that Daly engage in that disastrous thing without any clearance or authorization taking off with an airplane, going into DaNang. They managed to land all right, but they killed people going out. Okay, they had people on board that they got out, but they killed people going out running down that runway.
Q. They said they waited all night for clearance and clearance finally came in the morning.
They did not get any clearance for that last flight. They went without clearance.
I would have got a call from one of our people at the airport who was running most of the resupply operation --
Q. The people who told me the story were the World people, the pilot, the flight engineer. But they didn't get it first hand. They were getting it from Daley. They reason they went up late, 10:30 in the morning -- somebody told them that the Ambassador could not be awakened to give them clearance to go up.
The ambassador wasn't even there at the time. They were talking about me. It was nonsense. That's just not true. In the first place it wasn't up to us to give flight clearance anyway. It was up to the Vietnamese airport authorities at Tan Son Nhut to give flight clearance. They knew what the situation was in DaNang. We knew what it was.
Q. When did you hear about what was happening with that plane?
As soon as I found out, I don't quite remember what day that was. I think that was the 29th. They called me from the airport, furious, and told me that he had taken off without clearance for DaNang. I got a hold of Francis. I was still able to get a hold of him in DaNang. He had three planes taking off. And I remember Francis saying "Oh, shit." He knew that the field wasn't workable any more and at that time was desperately trying to get whatever he had left down to the port, the boats and the barges.
Q. At the time did you hear when they got hit on the ground, when they --
I'm sorry. Incidentally, let me take one thing back. This was March 29th. The day before or two days, because -- let me take it back a little bit. On March 27th in the evening we knew all control was lost at the airport, I went to see the Prime Minister at 6:15 in the evening Thursday March 27th out at the JGS compound to talk to him about getting a hold of General Truong to see if he couldn't organized a enough military force up there in DaNang to get control of that air field again. While I was there he got a line to General Truong, a radio link, and they talked about it, it was in Vietnamese and I didn't follow it, I didn't speak Vietnamese, but the essence of it was the Prime Minister told me that Truong would try. That was the evening of Thursday March 27th.
I went back to work at the embassy until late at night. I got a couple hours sleep. At three o'clock the next morning, General Weyand and Ambassador Martin came in and I was out at the airport to meet them. I don't remember whether I got out of my clothes that night. That whole day on Friday the 28th we were having the final pullout on Vietnam. That's the time at one point I lost Francis. I couldn't get a hold of him. A couple of his people who were aboard a boat didn't know where he was. We then found out he was aboard a Vietnamese navy ship and I finally got a radio link to one of his people on a barge to tell them to get off and get out of there and not worry about Francis. They had lost touch with Francis but I found out where he was. So this Daley thing couldn't have been then.
Q. It went out on the news here on Easter Sunday.
I don't have any problem with Mr. Daley and World Air as long as they were operating within the framework. If they were donating airplanes that was fine. But that particular action was irresponsible, utterly irresponsible and should have never taken place.
Q. Do you think he provoked some of the violence up there?
It was terrible. I did not see a videotape. I saw some still photos.
Q. It made a terrific impact on the American public. As a matter of fact, the videotape won three awards. Then his baby lift operation, in the midst of all this confusion --
The baby lift operation was something different, you know. The baby lift operation was started as an organized thing we were all for and in fact we began, we say it now, we didn't admit it then, we began to use the baby lift operation to some extent to begin evacuating our women, because what we did --
Q. Well I'm talking about Daley's World baby lift. The World baby lift just got one plane out a 727 and I think it took off in the dark, no clearance from the tower.
There was no clearance from anybody on that. That was another sort of independent operation. This was more for show of Mr. Daley and World Air than anything else. I frankly resent that kind of free wheeling.
Q. Did the embassy ask him to get out? Or did the order come from higher up? Who asked them.
I think the Vietnamese did.
Q. The orphan lift-- the C5A crash --
That was probably -- talk about dark moments in my life, this was one of the saddest. It was one of the grimmest moments in my life.
Q. Did you have any of your staff on that plane?
We had people on that. It was April 4th. The orphan lift was a good thing to begin with. It was done by voluntary agencies with our blessings. It was(n't) supposed to be an organized thing. We were completely supportive of it and wanted to do it. We did use it to begin evacuating our own women. We said all these children need escorts. They didn't need that many, but we used it, because we didn't want to talk about evacuation. We used it nevertheless for that purpose. Of course then the C5A on the 4th takes off and there's a terrible accident, which is also a story in itself, because I got word in a phone call that the accident had happened, that they were using every available Air America helicopter to recover people. We had to think immediately not only about the people -- that was working all right -- but we had to think about the political repercussions of the accident. That was one of these things happened again, some Air Force General back here in Washington let it be known that could only happen because of some enemy action or sabotage, which was infuriating. Because if you had this word get out, enemy action or sabotage this would add to the panic possibility in the city. And our first word was that it was neither one of those. That turned out to be true later on.
What had happened was that either structural failure or a human failure and I'm not prepared to say which. One of those rear doors hadn't been latched properly, flew off, damaged the stabilizer of the airplane so that the man could hardly maneuver the plane. He did an extraordinary job crash landing it as he did in those paddies. But the result of it was that all the people on the lower deck were dead. The ones in the upper one survived. But we couldn't take this business that this was sabotage or enemy action. It wasn't.
So I was on the telephone with the White House staff here to knock this nonsense off. The Air Force couldn't dream that one of its favorite toys, the C5A could possibly have a structural problem or that it could be a human failure or crew failure.
Q. What were the political repercussions?
Well, we were able to contain that rather quickly. We got this guy shut up, you see. And said the proper thing that there was going to be an investigation, but there was no indication that this was hostile action. It wasn't. So we got it under control.
Q. Were there political repercussions in Vietnam since these were Vietnamese children?
The lift went on then, you know.
Q. You weren't here to see the anti-war propaganda that these were kidnapped children that we were bringing out.
I heard that. Horrible, yeah.
Q. Some of the Vietnamese told me that the broadcast from BBC and Voice of America caused a good deal of panic because they were announcing North Vietnamese positions, victories and so on had taken place and some of the troops heard these or heard rumors and panicked on the way down from the Highlands and DaNang. They were saying on BBC that DaNang had fallen before it fell. Certain other places had fallen before they fell, so there was a just a total collapse of discipline of the troops when they heard these things. Were you aware of that?
I've heard of this before and I think there was a couple of instance of that. I'm a little bit vague. I think we weighed in hard and fast on knocking anything like that off of Voice of America. I did hear of that. I don't think it played as much of a role.
(((End of side B, Tape 1))))
((((go to Lehman2 for remainder of interview)))
LEHMAN2 (Tape 2, side A, Wolf Lehmann interview))
. . . that begins earlier. That begins on March 24th. On March 24th I sent a message to Washington saying don't ship any more people over here. Anybody on their way, hold them. And I may want some more, but submit the individual names and positions they are supposed to go to first for approval. It was our intention not to approve any.
That was March 24. March 26, I sent another message saying that I wanted immediate authority and I wanted it in Saigon nowhere else, to ship out as I saw fit some family, dependents, and household goods. That was never answered.
I wanted the authority. Authority of this kind involving commitments of money is something that Washington is very reluctant to grant anybody in the field. But I wanted it there. Well, it was never answered. There were some bureaucratic questions being raised and the thing was never resolved. But anyway I did that as early as that.
Evacuation actual, I date with the beginning of the orphan lift because we were beginning to use it for that purpose. So contrary to what a lot of people said, we began evacuation the beginning of April, reducing people even in late March.
Q. Was Ken Moorefield in charge of any of this?
Well, Ken Moorefield was just another embassy officer. One of dozens and dozens of officers. He was not in charge of anything except at one point later on I did put him in charge of processing the papers of some Vietnamese that we were taking out. That was later in April. Making sure we were getting the right ones out and not the wrong ones. And also he helped out in a physical way on the final day. But so did a lot of other people.
Q. Bill Laurie, was the CIA analysis of the situation that you were getting useful? Was the work of people like Frank Snepp, Polgar, useful? Bill Laurie told me he thought they were incredible. They were underestimating the capability and strength of the North Vietnamese Army's division, their ability to coordinate armor, ground troops, and he did not think they were doing a good job, or the job that they should do. Did you have any problems with their analysis?
Q. There was no Pearl Harbor type surprise?
No. We had basically two locally controlled means of getting intelligence. One was the CIA station and the other one was Bill LeGro's intelligence operation at the Defense Attache Compound. There were mechanisms for constant interchange between those two. Also we had field reporting from the consulates as long as they lasted. There was constant interchange between those two. Sure, occasionally there would be little disagreements with one detailed aspect or another detailed aspect, but there were no basic disagreements on what was by and large happening. Occasionally somethin would come in false. For example, in the Nha Trang area the station picked up an imminent attack on Nha Trang that got me very excited, very worried, and turned out to be false information. In fact I had Speer come down from -- fly down in an airplane in the afternoon and go right back to go over the situation. It turned out to be false and they later admitted it. But these are little things. There weren't any basic, or in any way meaningful disagreements on the bigger picture as it was happening.
There's a tendency -- Laurie was the analyst in Kontum (Can Tho)). I would advise you talk to Bill LeGro about that. It looks a little different from a guy down below.
He was upset by Snepp's book and so were a lot of other people including myself. Snepp was an analyst for the station and was used by us as the briefer to brief us on the military situation, but he wasn't the only one. There was plenty of chance for interchange. LeGro would be at the briefings. There weren't any basic differences as to what was happening. Details, yes.
Q. Were you being besieged by this time in early April by Vietnamese seeking passage out of the country, or some kind of visa?
First of all, Vietnamese had to, in order to leave the country, get an exit visa from the Vietnamese government. But no, we were not besieged. There were a few individuals.
Q. They got their exit visa from the Vietnamese but they had to get the visa to get into the United States.
That brings up another point, you see. You can't just bring foreigners into the United States by flying them in, as you know. And as a matter of fact, we didn't actually get any formal authority to send any Vietnamese to the United States until the 25th of April.
Q. This would include Guam, Wake, Subic?
We had been doing some of this anyway, to Guam, to Subic. Subic was a problem because it happens to be not United States territory, it happens to be the Philippines and the Philippines don't like other people shipping foreigners into their country. And we were doing so. And we were doing it to Guam without knowing what we were going to do next, because we didn't get any formal authority until the 25th of April and then we got authority to ship up to 35,000 Vietnamese into the United States.
We brought a hundred and thirty five.
Q. Were the American citizens who were there, including those in the news bureaus, were they a problem for you?
Yeah. They were -- the Americans were a problem because all April beginning on the fourth of April we were trying to cut down the number of Americans. We were trying to get them out. Insofar as it was embassy people, U.S. Government people, and dependents, we had the control, we could tell them to get out. But we had a hell of a lot of Americans in the country after all these years, thousands of them who were not government employees, contractors, private business people, retirees. A lot of these folks, including contractors and retirees, had acquired Vietnamese families, except they acquired Vietnamese families without the benefit of law. Common Law wives. And the Vietnamese and the extended family, you don't just come with a common law wife and children of that particular union, you come with a mother and a father and cousins and brothers and sisters, and if you consider that the average Vietnamese family has seven children, you can see what you get into. And what we ran into trying to get these people out was that they wouldn't leave without these Vietnamese families that they had acquired and we didn't have any authority to take them anywhere. So we had a terrible time.
We had no authority to ship these people anywhere, but they wouldn't go without them. So we found ways and means and they were frankly of questionable legality to try and do some of this. And we did some of it.
Q. What about the category of Vietnamese at risk?
Categories of Vietnamese at risk were virtually endless. There were a number of categories. First of all, direct employees, and there we had to start with the ones that were in most sensitive positions. There were some at the Defense Attache Office and some of those we took out very early as a matter of fact. I've forgotten when, but some went out very early.
Then you are talking about, of course, government officials; talking about military people particularly close to us. You're talking about relatives of Americans. You're talking about people like the labor leaders, Tran Can Phu???? and some of his people. You're talking about all of this. So we had this divided, the responsibility for this divided among various parts of the mission. The Defense Attache was responsible for at least getting the remaining military people out. The labor attache would worry about the labor people. That's how we had the thing divided. It's not true we had no plan. Yeah, we missed people, yeah, that's perfectly true. There was a plan and there was a system. But again we had no authority to ship.
Then you had the other situation, you can't have Vietnamese citizens leave the country without permission of the Vietnamese government. And we are trying to do several things. We are trying to keep a Vietnamese government functioning and in authority as long as possible, knowing that we're facing the end. You've got to keep that structure functioning. You've got to keep order. You've got to prevent chaos.
So while we were in fact evacuating people, we kept yelling that we were not conducting an evacuation.
Q. Speer said his wife went shopping every day very prominently so everyone would see that she was still there.
We brought it to the end. I don't want to cry, but Martin and the rest of us did things like kept all our pictures hanging on the walls because the moment you take that off, and start packing, oh, the Deputy Ambassador is packing up, like a wildfire -- that's how we left all our personal things behind. God knows who's got it. I hope the servants. We had to do things like this. And we were flying people out on C130s and commercial aircraft, and every time somebody back here in Washington would say "evacuation" I would get on the damn phone and yell at them to tell them to stop talking about an evacuation.
Q. You were working with President Ford and to Ford with Brent Ssowcroft.
That's the White House staff.
Q. Was he your direct liaison for the evacuation?
Well it was supposed to be the State Department, but -- it was Kissinger but it was the East Asian bureau with Phil Habib and then he had a deputy who was in charge of Vietnam.
Q. Were the channels working efficiently, effectively?
The channels were working sometimes and sometimes they weren't and if I had to get something done immediately I would grab the phone and call the White House staff. For example, one thing happening during this hectic period in April, suddenly the FAA types in Honolulu decide without a word to anyone to declare that Tan Son Nhut is no longer safe for commercial aircraft and they announce this publicly. Well at the very same time I'm holding Pan Am's feet to the fire to keep flying in and out so we could keep using the commercial aircraft. So this had to be reversed and there was no point in going to the State Department which would be in a meeting the next day, I would go to the White House and say "You give those bastards an order to immediately rescind that thing." I got it done within four hours.
Things of this kind you had to move very fast. The channels were working but we were in such a tight situation that I sometimes bypassed the channels.
Q. Did you have a timetable that you assumed the end would come?
No we didn't have a timetable. Our overall evacuation plan called for everything, first priority, use commercial airlift as long as possible, second, use military fixed wing aircraft as long as you can, and only in the end do you go to what in the evacuation plan was option Four, operation Frequent Wind, which was the helicopter lift. We did that basically. And we kept flying C130s, the military, back and forth to Guam, Subic --
Q. A lot of these were going out without many people on board?
Well, the C130s went out full, but what would happen on the commercial aircraft, they'd way overbook even more than normal, but then the people wouldn't show up. They wouldn't show up, a lot of the Vietnamese, because they couldn't get the exit permits, or they changed their minds. That's how you often had airplanes going out not loaded when they should have been loaded. But the main point of it all is, when you add it all up, we got a hundred and thirty-five thousand people out. Of those, about half we took out in commercial aircraft, in military fixed wing aircraft and in the helicopters, and a small number in barges in that waterway. The others, the other half, came out because we facilitated their leaving, mostly by boat, but we didn't physically take them. We picked them up with the fleet outside. But that's the bottom line.
Q. Were you concerned when you saw the evacuation of Phnom Penh operation Eagle Pull?
Operation Eagle Pull--some people says that was a nice orderly operation as compared to Vietnam. Of course it was. You are talking about a handful of Americans, a hundred and forty or hundred and fifty Cambodians. Everybody else was left to themselves. We are talking tens of thousands. The two things have no similarity. They were totally different problems. Because some guy was remarking why didn't they do in Saigon like they did in Phnom Penh, give everybody a little card -- as a matter of fact we thought of something like that and just rejected it outright. If you tried to hand all the people that we would like to get out something like that, within hours everybody in Saigon would have had a duplicate of that card. That was no way to do that.
We quite systematically processed a lot of people for fixed wing evacuation, mostly military with the cooperation of the Vietnamese authorities, as long as we could keep them functioning. Especially in the second half of April. We started around the clock C130 flights at some point, I'm not quite sure when that was.
Q. What kind of work day were you putting in at that time?
Well, on the average twenty-hour days.
Q. How about the health of Ambassador Martin?
Writers make a good deal of that, and they make more of it than needed. He was not feeling well, but he was not in very poor health.
Q. What was happening in your relations with Thieu? Battle of Xuan Loc, his resignation -- your conferences with him. Did his resignation come as a surprise?
No, well after Ambassador Martin got back on the 28th I myself didn't see Thieu again, because the senior man would see him. He saw Thieu several times, but I don't have the precise dates down here.
Backtrack now, the C130 flights began on April 21st, round the clock.
Thieu, of course, was evacuated by the 25th. He resigned on the 21st.
Q. In Ky's autobiography he insisted that the embassy was supporting Thieu and warning anybody who might attempt a coup or try to destabilize the government. . . what was the relationship between the embassy and President Thieu? Did he ask for anything that we could not deliver, any guarantees, before his resignation? Was his resignation timed with any conversation or decision by the embassy or was it his own timing?
We were strongly supportive of Thieu. We took great care that we were not caught in any Diem like situation where that would have encouraged a coup against Thieu. We couldn't possibly have that happen and we made that very clear we didn't want anything like that going on. We weren't going to have a repetition of that business. As to his resignation, it was largely his decision. I think we agreed at the time he did it that the time had come for him to go ahead and do that. We certainly didn't raise any objection to it and I think if anything we didn't push him into it, but it was certainly made clear that we quite agreed with him.
Q. What about discussions of his safety?
We told him we would take care of him. We flew him out.
Q. What about those who accompanied him in his party? I've talked to Major Tran Toc Thuy??? who was the air force aide to him at a fairly low level. But Kim, the Prime Minister, Cao Van Vien?? , their families and they went to Taiwan. Any logic to there rather than Clark or Guam? That's another country.
That arrangement was made rather quickly. You can ask why not Thieu to the United States? A, he didn't want to, and I think for good reason. He's bitter and I don't blame him. He didn't want to -- some of the other countries would have been problems, like the Philippines. I think Taiwan was ready to cooperate in this thing and it was always understood that he would not stay there. So that's the way that ended up.
Q. He did not doubt, in spite of the inability of America to come through on some of its other promises, he did not doubt our giving him security?
No, I think he understood we could do that, we had enough decency left in us to do that.
Q. The decision to bring out the chief of the general staff, was that a wise one at the time?
I don't remember when they brought him out.
Q. He came out with Thieu.
That's right, I'd forgotten that.
Q. To me that would be demoralizing.
I'd forgotten about that frankly.
Q. Frank Snepp carried the bags, Conien, was it, drove the car. Colonel Tran, and Captain Pham, bodyguards.
I don't have those details. As far as the Ambassador and I were concerned, knowing we were going to take Thieu out we turned it over to Polgar to do it.
Q. Extended families ..
I can't remember.
Q. President Hung comes in and seems to be not very effective.
No, totally ineffective. Huong comes in, Big Minh comes in. Huong was really quite ineffective.
Q. Were you on top of things when Minh came in?
Q. I guess you were worried about personal safety -- approaching Bien Hoa, that's getting fairly close. And Newport Bridge on the 28th.
Q. The bombing of the Presidential Palace, April 8th?
Oh, yeah, April 8th, the attack on the Presidential Palace.
Q. Was it a surprise or not? Some Air Force people say, well, you got to have one or two people who are turncoats --
That's right. Well, of course you know that palace was close to the embassy, and this was in the afternoon and we're in there operating, trying to get things done, and all hell breaks loose. The anti-aircraft guns in the palace grounds go off. It took a little while to try and figure out what had happened, but the it did turn out fairly shortly they were a couple of dissident pilots.
Q. Did you suspect it was a coup?
You ask yourself the question, is it dissident pilots in a coup attempt? Or is it a North Vietnamese attack, you see. It took a little while to sort that out.
Q. Were you worried about your own safety at the time?
No. I never worried about my own safety. I've been in a war.
Q. What about the newsmen getting out. Were they cooperative on getting out? Brian Ellis, the CBS Vietnamese employees.
Our view of it was, we'll take you guys out if you want to go out. They knew where to report to. And many of them did. Some of them had in that last hectic day when things were on the knife's edge of chaos, and panic in Saigon, they had a hard time getting back into the embassy. But everybody who wanted to made it. In fact, every American who wanted to, made it. Every single one, except one, and that was a contractor and we recovered him later on, he admitted he had made a mistake. It was his fault.
We got out every single American in that country and a lot of foreigners incidentally, in addition to the Vietnamese we took out. Italians, all sorts of foreigners, Germans. Some of them had left early on, but those that remained we took out the last day, and we took out every American except for some who didn't want to go.
Now therein is also a bit of a story. Among those Americans we took out were seven prison inmates that were serving sentences in Vietnamese prisons for various crimes including rape and murder. The Vietnamese turned them over to us, our consulate people, a few days before. Six of them reported to evacuation points and were taken out and I guess roam this country now. One decided he was going to stay there and disappear. He's not the only one. There was a fellow that comes to mind who voluntarily stayed that was up north. He was one of the American Friends Service Committee people and they'd been sort of loyal friends of the North Vietnamese and this fellow was to be evacuated and he jumped over the wall and disappeared to await his friends. He came out about a half a year later, I remember an article in Newsweek, having discovered to his great amazement that he was dealing with communists. I always thought that was funny.
Q. But the criminal was never heard from again?
As far as I know, I don't know. I know of the seven we had in prison, only six showed up to be taken out and the seventh disappeared.
Q. Some of the Vietnamese air force people told me that in the end they believed that their families were taken out first -- they thought it was for their safety, but in the end they thought the Americans had a dual motivation and that was they did not want the Vietnamese air force to turn on the Americans. General Minh told me this, and Lt. Col. Nguyen Vinh both had their families evacuated and they said they thought that was a way the Americans prevented the air force from turning. And when the U.S. then ordered some of the Vietnamese air force people out, they had to come out, they said, because their families were out. Did you ever sense a dual motivation?
No, that was not out motive. That's not true. I would reject that outright. Our motive was strictly to assure the men themselves that we had taken care of their families.
Q. Even Kissinger mentioned the fear of a bloodbath by the Vietnamese turning on us.
Oh, this was certainly a major consideration of this government. Much of what we did for which we were so heavily criticized, the point was we had to keep Vietnamese authority functioning somehow. We didn't have any force in the country. We had no way to make our will prevail. We had to keep Vietnamese authority functioning. We had to keep Vietnamese authority cooperative with us and we had to prevent civilian panic that would have made a shambles of any evacuation. And finally we were very much concerned about some of the military leadership saying if we're going to go down you Americans are going to go down with us. And we're going to stop you.
In fact, we had some very hard intelligence on at least one senior military officer in command of the necessary units who had that in mind. And the prospect of having this whole thing end in that kind of a confrontation with Americans being prevented from leaving by Vietnamese military came very close in some ways. That was just too horrible to contemplate. It was this kind of consideration that governed everything that we did, that made things look rather disorderly, much more disorderly than they really were. And of course that never occurred to some of the critics of this thing.
Q. Kissinger's estimate was based on hard intelligence?
Yes. We had certain hard intelligence.
Q. Was this nipped in the bud by a family being evacuated, or not?
I don't think I'd make that particular link.
Q. How about your wife? and Ambassador Martin's wife? When did you start worrying?
By late in the last week we had evacuated virtually all family members and dependents. There were only a few wives left. My wife was one of them. So on, I think it was the 22nd or 21st, I gave Ambassador Martin a little note saying that Thursday, April 24, I was having a small U.S. Army light aircraft from Thailand show up at the Air America and take out the following: and I listed Mrs. Martin, Mrs. Lehmann, Mrs. Bennett, the political consulate's wife, and one other wife whom I've forgotten and two small children. We had small children left of an officer who was divorced-- and that's a very sad story -- he didn't have any wife there and he still had those two kids left. So on Thursday, April 24 -- Graham Martin struck out his wife from my note. That was his decision. So on Thursday, April 24, I had Odette put these other two ladies and the small kids put on the small airplane very quietly, we didn't want people to know. My household, unfortunately, knew. They were told they were just going for the weekend. To Thailand, Bangkok.
Q. From that point on, tell me about just your personal experiences. Did you think you had through May?
Oh, no. We knew the end was coming, at any moment. Those last few days, this is now April 24th, -- on about the 25th and 26th the following Friday and Saturday, we had kind of a lull setting in over the battlefield. There seemed to be kind of a stop to North Vietnamese offensive operations. I was trying to figure out just what this was, because there were two possibilities. This was a strictly military thing, a certain amount of regrouping and reorganization, which in the end I think it was. But related to that was of course the consideration that maybe they would halt just short of the city and would go for some sort of coalition government which they said they wanted to, as a pure facade, of course, as a pure political gimmick.
Now contrary to a lot of things that had been said. That was no something that I was in any way hoping for. In fact, I was hoping it would not be the case, and the reason for that was that if Hanoi had done that, you would have set up a big hue and cry in this country about we should support this new coalition government which would simply be nothing more than a facade.
So I frankly was hoping they never would do that. I was hoping they would smash into the thing with tanks and artillery and motorized infantry as they did, so at least the thing would be clear. Some people made a lot of this that the embassy was deluding itself that this would happen. It never drove anything having to do with evacuation to begin with. We were prepared in planning, in case the other would happen, that we would perhaps leave a small staff behind, probably with myself in charge and a half dozen other people. But those were people who were the last ones to go anyway. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the evacuation. I mention this because there was this lull in battlefield activity for almost three days there, which was a little puzzling and could have been a political decision by the North Vietnamese to do it this other way.
I think we will never quite know whether they really considered this or not until we get to the archives in Hanoi and I'm not going to be around and probably neither are you when we do that. But I think looking back on it and analyzing it later on, it was pretty much a military decision that caused that lull.
So we had this lull on Friday and Saturday, the 26th, and the night from Saturday to Sunday even, and most of Sunday was --the 28th, I'm talking local time now, was kind of quiet. And all through the weekend, and all day Sunday, and at night Saturday to Sunday we are continuing the C130 flights moving people out. On Sunday afternoon at about six o'clock, there was the air attack on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut airfield.
This is what you've had described as my being pushed to war -- but let me tell you what happened. I was in my office operating, working about six o'clock, when I was notified by one of the people in the embassy compound, one of the people that was loading buses of Vietnamese evacuees being processed in the compound for movement out to the airfield that there was a holdup out there because some of the guards had refused to get on the buses because they were tired and wanted to eat. Would I please come over and straighten this out.
So I left my office and went down across to the swimming pool area where the processing was taking place to see what the hell the problem was and straighten it out. Just about as I get there, the air strike starts out at Tan Son Nhut. In fact, I could see the planes making their bomb runs over the roofs. And a certain amount of anti-aircraft fire starts, including the gunners over at the palace grounds -- at god knows what, because they weren't anywhere near. And there was a bit of consternation among the crowd, and some of the marines got a little bit excited and were very concerned, rightly so, about people's safety and herded everybody into the restaurant building and tried to herd me in too. They were very concerned about my safety as the deputy. It was all very touching. But some of this was a little over done. I'm a veteran of a war. I've been shot at during the second world war by the greatest experts in the business, and indeed if you are shot at . . . .
((End of Side A, Tape 2)))
((Begin Side B.)))
. . . I was not that concerned about immediate safety and some of the marines touching concern for my own safety was a little bit overdone. But in any event I knew there was something happening at Tan Son Nhut that would mute the business of sending more people out there right now to be loaded on airplanes until we found out what was going on. So I went back to my office and on the way back -- and this is where the famous story about the tree -- you've heard that story -- on my way back I passed this big tamarind tree, beautiful thing, in the courtyard and I see one of our seabees chopping at that thing with an ax. That's got a huge trunk. Now we always knew we had to take the tree down if we were going to operate helicopters from the courtyard. But the tree was also visible from the street and this was an action visible from the street. So I came in back of the chancery building and there was this security officer and I told the security officer to have this guy knock this off. Bring him in some power saws and equipment to do this but don't do it until you get the word, because, again, we don't want panic.
This was not a symbol of Graham Martin. I don't think he even knew about this. I went back up to my office. I forgot about the tree. I knew we had to take the tree down if we were going to operate. I also knew we were not going to start helicopter lifts that night. We were not going to do that. No matter what happened, we were not going to do that. We knew what the military situation was. I go back up to my office and forget about the tree. I hear later somebody during the night cut a little bit more into it. That's all right. I don't care. The next morning it was still standing. And when the word that we made the decision to go for the helicopter lift, one of the first things I said to the administrative officer was, "Now tell them to take down the tree." The tree was taken down hours before the first helicopter could arrive.
Q. You didn't have to worry about knocking a wall down or anything, did you?
No, we didn't have to do that. The helicopter lift operation out of the embassy courtyard was a difficult one because there were walls around there. It was a tough job for the pilots to get up over them.
Q. Butler said something about you getting knocked down, knocked into the doorway of the cafeteria, and you said, "Oh, Jesus Christ."
That's not true. I don't even remember getting knocked down or anything of this kind. I don't know where he got that from. I saw that (in the book). I don't know where this man got this from. I was there. The marines were herding people who were waiting outside into the building with, as I say, a little more concern than was really warranted by the situation. But I didn't get knocked down.
I went back to the office and we immediately got on this thing finding out what was going on. Yes, it was the DAO, of course, who were on the scene, and we did find out that there had been this air strike that had done quite a bit of damage to the flight line and that we could not continue any C130 operations any more that evening. So that was suspended for the evening.
Then Ambassador Martin and I both remained in the embassy, I guess until about midnight that night, working. At about that time, I think it was about midnight, he and I got together and we decided that he and I had better go home and try and get a few hours' sleep. And meanwhile have the staff operating, wrapping up their final plans for bus routes to pick up people the next day in case we would go to the helicopter lift. So the staff did that all that night. We set up the staff and they worked out the final details of who to put where, at what time early in the morning, and having buses.
Q. The buses belonged to whom?
The buses belonged to -- we had an AID mission there.
Q. I heard a lot of complaints about the drivers not knowing where to go or how to drive.
Some of the drivers were American embassy officers. They didn't know how to drive very well. That's true. But they did a great job.
Q. So only that late you set up the evacuation points?
No, I'm sorry. The points had been set up before, but there were always some final details to wrap up.
Q. The marines had already come in and surveyed the situation, too, marine intelligence people?
They had come in a month and a half before.
Q. They looked for landing sites --
Somewhere around here I've got a note -- yeah all that had been handled a month and a half before. The staff operating that night was just final details.
Q. Who made the decision to play "White Christmas?"
That was one of those things. We had the station, it could be automated. You could walk away from it and just set the tape.
Q. But that song? Anybody listening in the middle of April and hearing "White Christmas" would think this was something unusual. If one wanted to keep the evacuation relatively secret that was not a wise choice?
At that point you couldn't keep it a secret any more. When you were going to go to that you weren't keeping it secret.
Q. Why not just say over the Radio that "Frequent Wind" is l---
No, you don't want to do that either. I just reject that -- that's not a valid criticism.
Q. What about the fear of SAMs on the flights out?
Let me go back a little bit and get this a little bit in order.
So we decide we had too many life and death decisions to make the next day probably, we'd better get some sleep while the staff wrapped up the final details. I didn't get back actually until about two o'clock, I guess, to my house. And couldn't really go to sleep very much. Dozed off for a while. Then heard loud explosions about four or a little after four o'clock in the Tan Son Nhut area. And sure enough fifteen minutes later got the telephone call that there had been a rocket attack on the Defense Attache Compound and two marines were killed in a direct hit.
So a little after that, about 5:30 or so, I went back to the chancery and as daylight broke, everybody assembled and then, of course, the ambassador drove out to Tan Son Nhut to talk personally with General Smith and to personally look at the situation out there to make a decision whether we could resume C-130 fixed wing flights or had to finally do it.
Graham Martin wanted to have a personal look to make that final decision. And he came back, after that, got on the telephone with Washington and that's when the decision was made.
Q. I think he got on the phone at the DAO, didn't he?
He and I talked about this before. I wasn't out there. I was running things at the embassy.
Q. He got the call from Scowcroft at the DAO, LeGro told me he got on the phone at the DAO because that was the only secured phone that they had, in LeGro's office.
As far as I was concerned, I got the word when he came back and was on the phone with Washington. And in fact one of our staff people was in with him on his other phone with Washington. As soon as he came back was on the phone with Washington, and then came out of his office and into mine and said, "This is it." Gave me the word.
I went back into Graham Martin's office and I said, "I've just been told that this is it. We are going to go for Option Four, Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation." And he said, "Yes."
And I immediately went out, because we had the senior staff assembled outside the office. I told them that this was it, and they fanned out to do their thing. And that was the way it worked then.
Now, the original plan of Option Four was, that the first helicopters from the fleet bringing in some additional marines to secure the two evacuation sites which were Tan Son Nhut Defense Attache Office and the Embassy compound itself, was supposed to come in one hour after the word "go", H plus One. That did not happen. Unfortunately, they were about three hours late. And I found out afterwards that that happened because of a mixup out in the fleet where they had to get the marines that were supposed to come in were on some ships, and the helicopters were on another, and they had to do some cross loading to get the thing together. That's why they were three hours later than they should have been. That was the thing that cost us some in the end.
It's unfortunate, but the three hour delay created a problem. But leave that aside for the moment. On that final evacuation, the first priority was to evacuate the people of the Defense Attache Compound, everybody out there. Everybody who had been brought out there to be evacuated, and Priority Two was the embassy chancery itself. The main embassy buildings. It's several buildings and a swimming pool.
So except for this three hour delay, which cost us later, that is the way it went. Now into the night already, the suggestion was made by General Carey in a phone conversation with me, that we perhaps might stop the helicopter lift for the rest of the night and then resume at first light. We said no to that. We said we can't stop. We've got to keep going. So the decision was made to keep going.
Meanwhile, of course, while this was going on, the whole situation around the embassy is getting more and more tenuous. There are masses of people surrounding, all through the night. We finally got in an additional platoon or so of Marines flown into the compound-- The tree was out of the way long before.-- to help out the marine guards that we had in the embassy, just to secure our embassy compound, because people were trying to come over the walls. It was very very touchy.
By and large it proceeded that way. The DAO operation was closed down after they got everybody out and from then on the lift went out only from the embassy for what remained. At about 12:15 Greenwich time, I have here, -- let me backtrack a little bit-- about midnight or a little after we got definite word about the limited number of additional sorties we would have from the fleet. I think the number was thirteen. We were told it would be thirteen more sorties and that was it, except for extracting the marine force. That was to be on top of that.
Q. Did that come as a surprise?
No, no. But it wasn't quite enough considering the number of people we had in the Embassy compound, mostly Vietnamese and some Koreans. Not many Americans left. We had an exchange on that issue but were told flatly, that was it. Thirteen more missions and then no more other than to extract the marines. And 29, 12:15 Greenwich time, whatever time that was, and that may be a little bit wrong, we sent our final message from the remaining communications gear, and the message read, "Plan to close mission about zero four thirty, thirty April local time due to necessity to destroy comol gear, this is the last message from Embassy Saigon. " Sent that message. That was sent manually and then the communicator took the sledge hammer and whatever else he does to destroy the communications gear. And he was evacuated. We were not out of total communications then, however, because the marines who were loading the helicopters had back pack radios, had communications with the fleet. And it was over that network that at about four o'clock or so, we received peremptory order saying that the White House has now directed that the Ambassador and remaining staff should leave on the next helicopter. We didn't quite do that, but at about a little before five o'clock the time had come for everybody to leave. I sort of took a last look at the courtyard, talked to the marine major down there, and we still had about two hundred and fifty Vietnamese and some Koreans also. And the marine major and I agreed that it would take just three more sorties from the big helicopters to get those people out. But those we were not going to have. That was due to the delay at the beginning of the operation. That is how those people -- and it's not 400 or 500 as some are saying,-- it was about two hundred fifty were left behind.
Now there was a good number of Koreans among those. Those were later recovered and repatriated through the help of the Japanese particularly. They maintained an office in Saigon. They stayed there. So I don't feel too bad about that. But I do feel about leaving those people, but it was, as I say, due to that delay, and the fuss that's been made out of it and some other things obscures the fact that what we did leave behind in Vietnam was nineteen million people. That's the real story. The U.S. left behind nineteen million people.
So, back to our departure: At about five o'clock in the morning we went up to the roof, the Ambassador and I and the remaining senior staff people, and a helicopter put down on the roof. The lighter helicopters were landing on the roof. The heavier ones were in the courtyard. The CH46s were landing on the roof. And the helicopter put down and Ambassador Martin, I guess accompanied by Tom Polgar and George Jacobson started moving towards the helicopter and the rest of us kind of followed. The crew chief had his helicopter already loaded and he knew he had his man, so he waved the rest of us back. And that chopper took off. There was another one hovering nearby, and he came down. After a while I just sat there with about six of the remaining staff members in the stairwell saying to myself, indeed as I think somebody has reported, now the Ambassador having left I'm back in charge and maybe I'll change my mind about it. A last attempt at humor. I hadn't had hardly any sleep in four days.
But we sat there. The other chopper put down, and the very capable young marine major who was running that marine operation there was using the chopper communications to coordinate the extraction plan for the marines with the fleet, which was the last act. So we just sat there for about twenty minutes and we took off about 5:20 in the morning. After that, of course, that ended the official presence and the only thing that the marines could do then was extract themselves, which they did in the next couple of hours.
Q. Was Ken Morefield with you?
Ken left on the next one, with the marines. He was helping with the loading up on the roof.
Q. On the way out, did you look out? What did you think and see?
On the way out, there was some weather forming so you could see some lightening, local thunderstorms. We could see the lights of the approaching North Vietnamese convoys approaching the city. Some of the fleet fighters could be seen off in the distance still covering the rest of us. Although nobody shot at us at any time, but I could see the columns approaching the city with their lights on.
Q. Any fires around?
No. I don't recall any. But that brings up an earlier thing. We were burning our last papers in a big can on the roof at night and it got quite windy and at one point we got a little concerned that we would start a fire up there. But no, I'm not going to say there were no fires, but I don't think there were and if there was it was not significant.
I don't know what route he took. I don't think he went out over Vung Tau. I think he went more to the south.
Q. What were your thoughts, reflections?
It was a flight on which the chopper was packed with the rest of the staff and remaining civilian guards, mission warden guards, and it was utterly silent except for the rotors of the engine. I don't think I said a word on the way out and I don't think anybody else did. I've been asked about the emotion and I think it was tremendous sadness.
Q. Anybody cry?
I got close. I don't think anybody did. You sort of mix utter exhaustion with sadness, great sadness.
Q. At the 19 million left behind?
Yes. Later that turned a little bit more to anger, which I still have, about the way this country mismanaged.
Q. Where did you land?
We went to an LPD? called the "Denver", just about daylight, day just beginning to break. We stayed on the Denver a while. We lay off there to pick up the people on the boats for the next few days.
Q. So you didn't see Martin for a while?
No. I sent one of our officers, Bronson McKinley, over to the Blue Ridge in a helicopter to see Martin to make a determination whether I should move over to the Blue Ridge also or stay where I was. The decision was made that I would stay where I was with the other staff on the Denver rather than go over to the Blue Ridge.
Q. In those last hours there were no problems?
Well, there were problems. No surprising one. I can tell you about problems, yeah.
One of the problems was at one point during the night it started to rain a little bit. We're talking the end of April and it's beginning to turn towards monsoon. I was kind of surprised the effect a little bit of water had on the weight of a helicopter, because those big helicopters, CH 53s, were landing in a courtyard and we were loading them, seventy people on those helicopters, overloading. Many of them little people, Vietnamese, but -- There was one point where a loaded one was loaded so heavy and it was raining a little bit and the helicopter was wet and the guy couldn't get off. He had to lift up close to vertical to clear the walls, and he couldn't get off. And I had an immediate great concern that we would have a crashed helicopter in the courtyard which would have prevented us from landing any more in the courtyard. Well they handled it well, taking people off until it got light enough so he could get off. Maybe there was something mechanical with that chopper too, but I don't know.
The fire we were a little concerned about that I mentioned before (on the roof, in the wind). Some time later it was said in connection with the Tehran disaster that Tehran was the biggest intelligence loss since the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon. That's a bunch of nonsense. We didn't lose any files at all. We shipped all of them out and destroyed the last ones, destroyed the crypto gear, destroyed everything. We didn't lose anything. I always resent that. You didn't see any things being printed by the North Vietnamese with American documents.
Q. When did Mrs. Martin come out?
When we decided on the helicopter lift we took out the remaining wives. She was the only one, and another who was working. Our two secretaries, Jane Josenka and Eva Kim, George McArthur's wife now. As soon as the word went, we took out Mrs. Martin and the other wife that had been working. The two secretaries we kept for a while until it was time for them to go. That was already night. It was dark. We sent the two girls out along with my secretary, Jane Josenka, her husband was working at the embassy, the assistant administrative officer. We needed him around. We sent both of them out together. And Eva Kim, along with George McArthur. They're now married. He works at U.S. News and World Report.
Q. Stu Herrington was there and everybody remembers him speaking in Vietnamese on the ground saying don't worry, we'll get you all out.
I don't remember that. Some time during the night, for a while, we had a lot of people -- again remember the embassy compound is an inner compound with a chancery and some walls around it, and there's a narrow passage to another compound where there was a restaurant and swimming pool and walls around that.
There was a point during the night that the whole thing was surrounded by mobs of people outside. At one point we cleared out the inner compound by the swimming pool and pulled everybody that was left into the inner compound with the chancery itself to have a smaller area to guard with the marines we had left. That other part filled up right away with people coming over the walls.
Q. Some of the Vietnamese told me they had a boat because the fishermen told them the 7th Fleet was grouping out in the China Sea as early as the beginning of April.
Some of the ships were out for the Cambodian thing.
Q. They had been spotted by fishermen who started preparing to get their families out.
Some of our ships were out for the Cambodian thing. And as a matter of fact, while Eagle Pull was building up, I at one point tried to get TACCOM, in fact I talked to Guyler??? on the telephone in Honolulu. I wanted to get TACOM to give me some helicopters to base at Cam Ranh to help with the evacuation of DaNang. And they wouldn't do that because they said they couldn't pull them away and not have them available in case they had to use them in Phnom Penh.
Q. Air America also cooperated?
Well, Air America was ours, was a proprietory(sic) line. We used Air America helicopters, some C42s, Porter, which was a short takeoff and landing Swiss aircraft, and we had a couple of small executive turboprops. Those were all used for evacuation. The fixed wing had to go to airfields. The helicopters we used the last day, partly in the beginning of the day of the 29th to move people from pickup points to Tan Son Nhut, and in the end to take people direct out to the fleet. But that was the end of the role for the Air America helicopters. After that it was all military helicopters.
Q. You had mentioned "one of our SEABEES". Do you mean that in the official word Seabee?
That was part of our security complement. We had a few Seabees as part of our embassy security organization.
Q. Were you ever worried about any of the crafts being shot at or shot down?
Yes, there were some small arm shots fired by panicking soldiers around the embassy, that were a little troublesome. But they didn't do any damage. Some of them may have been shot at a helicopter or two, but they didn't do anything.
As far as hostile, North Vietnamese are concerned, SAMs or something of that kind, yes we were concerned, but not too much so because we had pretty well come to the conclusion that they were not going to interfere.
There was no official agreement on that. The fleet was prepared to react in case they did interfere. They did fly some fighters off the carriers to keep track of things and were prepared to react. There was no official understanding, but I think we all understood that they probably didn't plan to do that. It would have been very counterproductive for them to try that. I damn near wish they had done it so we would have a ????ctr 493??? belly.
Q. A Vietnamese pilot told me he looked down on the convoy coming in and said, B52s could have wiped out the entire North Vietnamese army on the 29th and 30th.
Not B52s. I saw them too. They weren't spaced to get away from air attacks. They were just bumper to bumper.
Q. On those days, the 29th and 30th, you were just supervising people in the embassy?
Make decisions. Dozens of decisions to make all the time. You do this, or you do that, you know. That whole day, even those last few days, my total time was pretty well devoted to evacuation more than anything else.
Q. On the Denver was there any talk or reflection during the next day or so?
I'm glad you asked me that question. Yes, all sorts of questions. People were in a bit of trauma and I could see that. They didn't have anything to do, so I, in fact, in order to give them something to do, and for no other reason, started holding staff meetings. And one of the guys who gave me the greatest concern, because he sat there on the deck staring into space, was Frank Snepp. So I had him resume his normal function of giving a briefing to us once or twice a day -- I guess we got down to once a day. Collecting news from broadcasts or anything that we got on the ship and give a briefing. There wasn't any purpose to this at all, except a couple of little things I had to do. There were a couple of secretaries on board and they could do that. Like cables I had to deal with. But this other stuff I had no rationale and I did it only to give people something to do, and Snepp was one of my concerns. All the time, I think, this guy was really sitting there thinking how he was going to write a book.
Q. He wasn't thinking about committing suicide. Were you worried about anybody?
I was worried about people, yes I was. Because I could see the depression, and it was, I guess, up to me. So we did that, we had some card games going, and I did some make-work things.
Q. How were you treated? Henry Hicks told me he knew right away that something was wrong when he found the officers on the Blue Ridge treating him as though he had some kind of disease. In other words, they in some way were treating the embassy and DAO people as though they had failed at something. He said, "My god we just succeeded in evacuating all those people."
It's a little bit the same thing as happens to veterans. I must say I didn't have much of that feeling on the Denver. Although on the part of the crew, I think they treated everybody quite well. As soon as they found out who I was they made some special accommodation for me because the ship was pretty damn crowded. They kicked a couple of marine officers out of a cabin so I could have a private room.
Q. Snepp, you were worried because he was so morose?
Yeah, the guy was sitting there -- I can see this to this day, on the deck staring into space. I saw this a little bit on some other people and that's why I did various things. Finding out everybody who was on board, gave them things to do. And trumped up a couple of things that were really unnecessary.
Q. Ten years later as you talk to people and listen to people, you saw the way the networks covered the ten years since the fall, has much been learned?
No. I see very little or hardly anything being learned. Meg Greenfield, about two months ago, rather predicted this in something she wrote in Newsweek in her column and I guess the Washington Post. She thought that unfortunate that despite all the masses of paper which was going to appear and broadcasts, in the end we were going to come through all of this remembrance of the tenth anniversary having learned very little. I think that's true. I think most of what I've seen doesn't make -- adds hardly anything. The sad fact of the matter is that virtually nothing exists today to give accurate history about the whole complicated Vietnam experience. I think Richard Nixon's book basically is correct in the broad sense as to what happened. Of course, Richard Nixon, understandably, does not dwell a great deal on the fact that Watergate weakened the Presidency to a point where it couldn't be very effective in this controversy here. I think that's one of the things that's accurate.
As I mentioned earlier, on the military side, the thing that Harry Summers does is good stuff on the military side. On the military side, again, William Legro's account of the Vietnamese military actions in the last two years, I think that's a good thing. But on the whole history, there's hardly anything. Very little. Gunther Levy's???? book probably isn't one of the better ones, but it too has a lot of inaccuracies.
There is a fertile field for historians here and by god they got to do it sometime. It can't be done on the television screens either. The PBS television series is a disaster as far as I'm concerned.
Q. Speer, wrote "Many reasons why, the American involvement in Vietnam" is regarded by respected scholars of Vietnam as the most balanced account of the war --
I don't know that one. I haven't seen it. Maybe it is, but I don't know what it deals with. The reasons why, my own view of it is certainly the one that morally it was absolutely the right thing. There's no question about it. All you have to do is look at the piles of refugees and genocide in Cambodia which was not our fault, contrary to William Shawcroft has it. Boat people, million refugees, creeping annexation of Cambodia by Vietnamese, playing protectorate of Laos, Soviet military presence in the South China Sea that never existed before, intelligence presence. Sure morally it was the right thing.
Mistakes were made all along the line. The first one was the one with Diem by the Kennedy administration. That was a bad mistake. He was an effective leader and we contributed to his downfall and inadvertently to his murder. That was certainly the first mistake.
Basically the cause was morally absolutely right. It was probably not the right time to Americanize that war. But once we did Americanize it, by god we should have carried through with it.
Q. What went wrong with the news men? Do you have any idea?
Again it's such a long story.
Q. They were on the team, so to speak, for many years.
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((Begin tape 3, side A)))
. . . I'd been in the press relations business many years ago, and I remember the days when we had very good relationships between us government people and newsmen. It was a long time ago, in the fifties. There were days when you could really discuss things with complete candor and when you get to the point where something couldn't be said, it was understood and you could work it out. All that went by the board in Vietnam. I think it's a combination of things, a complicated story and a combination of things. Part of it is the generation. I think there was a crop of newsmen brought up that just became hostile to anything that the government does. I don't think the government is without fault either on this. To some extent there probably was a certain amount of deception, especially in the early days. But that's not really it.
And I think to another extent there is an attitude on the part of many people in journalism, a kind of a what they call "liberal" which I would prefer to call more left-wing bias, that I think tends to be rather widely prevalent in the profession of journalism. They tended to view this whole Vietnam thing as if somehow Ho Chi Minh and revolutionaries are the good boys, Robin Hoods who want to take away from the rich. It's an anti-colonial war anyway, which in the beginning with the French it was, but certainly was not later on. An many South Vietnamese were former Viet Minh who fought against the French, many of the officers. It was not a colonialist war any more.
And I think basically there is that kind of bias in much of the profession. And then you get all the other things, the shortcomings of television. Television is not a medium to convey complicated and complex things to the American public. Ten second analysis of what is happening is nonsense. And I think there is left-wing bias in much of the editorial, in journalism and generally in publishing. How the Tet Offensive was turned into a political defeat for the United States is an interesting matter.
And then there are the pictures. In the heat of war all sorts of people say things. There's a story Ben Tre down in the Delta with a fellow saying "We'll have to destroy the town to save it." First of all it's doubtful he ever said that. Peter Bastrum has a book on how the news media treated the Tet offensive.
And you had the thing of General Loan. Nobody ever explains what happened there. Nobody ever explains that sometimes prisoners have been shot before. I have seen Americans in the heat of battle shoot German prisoners. I saw one almost as close to me as you are right now on the Anzio beachhead. His buddy had just been killed so he picks up his gun and points it at the prisoner and cuts him in half with his tommy gun. Nobody explains that.
Then you get the picture of the little girl, the big GI standing in front and napalm flames in the background, trying to burn the little girl. Who incidentally survived, I understand, and is here.
There were leadership mistakes too. Johnson, it was a bad business.
Q. The people who made the bad decisions weren't the ones who paid the price. The people who paid were the --
The people who paid the price were those who held the dirty end of the stick.
McNamara is a kind of a tragic figure in this. He made very serious mistakes. Once that decision was made to Americanize that war, which probably was a mistake to begin with, but once it was made we should have carried on that war.
I happened to be in the Defense Department for a while in 1965 to 1968 in International Security Affairs, and I used to see John McNaughton who was then my boss as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, for whom I was working, not on Vietnam, I was in Europe. I used to see him sit there and pick individual targets in Vietnam. Now what in the hell is an Assistant Secretary of Defense doing picking bombing targets in Vietnam? None of these things should have been done.
If you were going to go and Americanize the war, you could have gone out and won it. We never should have declared North Vietnam immune and let ships come in and out of Haiphong harbor. If we were going to do it, do it.
So when Nixon came in he had no other choices left than to try what he did try to do and almost succeeded in doing.
Q. Tell me about your own personal background.
Born in Berlin, came to this country in 1934 when my family came to this country. My having pulled out of the Nazi regime. I'm from a ???? Family. My father was a German professor of archaeology at the University of Heidelberg and University of Minster. We left Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power, were in Italy for a while, and came to this country in 1934. He became a professor at New York University School of Fine Arts. I grew up in New Rochelle, New York. Went to school there. Went to Haverford College in 1940, went off to war in 1942, into the army. Went to North Africa, but after the campaign was over, then to Italy in December or so of 1943, took part in the Anzio Beachhead landing. I was a second lieutenant then. I was with the ranger force. They were destroyed at the beachhead and I was attached as a prisoner of war interrogator with a British division for a brief while because their man had been wounded. Then went back to the main front to serve the rest of the war with the 88th infantry division. Mark Clark's fifth army.
Q. Did you finish college after?
I didn't go back for a degree. I took various courses, but because I stayed in the army a little while after the war I went to -- I was an intelligence officer for a while, I speak German and Italian and some French. I stayed in the army for a while in Austria and then went out of the army and joined the State Department of Foreign Service in 1951.
1951 we served in Austria, Vienna. At the embassy in Rome, in Geneva, I was back here in the State Department, the Bureau of European Affairs on NATO business from 1958 to '62. I was at the U.S. Mission to the European Communities in Brussels. Then I had some more training as a senior officer. Then I was in the Defense Department as I mentioned briefly, '65-'68 and back to the State Department in nuclear business, and in the State Department as political advisor to the U.S. Commander in Chief in Europe. Then I went to Vietnam. After Vietnam my last overseas was American consul general in Frankfurt until late '79.
I am retired now.
September 18, 1921. Ich bin ein Berliner.
The whole thing was so long and so complicated, I don't know if you've forgotten anything. I've written things -- like predicting what may happen.
End of interview at about ctr 160. Tape turned off at ctr 320.