Reflections on the Vietnam War

Reflections on the Vietnam War

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Bloomberg Radio's Irv Chapman, the U.S. Energy Security Council's Robert C. McFarlane, and George Washington University's John Prados joins the Kissinger Institute's J. Stapleton Roy to reflect on the legacy of the Vietnam War on the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. The panelists consider  the war's enduring political, economic, strategic, and cultural effects. Over the course of the discussion, the speakers additionally consider the war's effect on relations between the United States and Vietnam, and on U.S. military planning. 

ROY: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm Stapleton Roy and I'm going to be presiding over our session which is going to look at the fall of Saigon, which occurred three days from now 40 years ago.

I was with the National War College on a trip to the Middle East and we had just—we were visiting Pakistan and India when that final harried helicopter evacuation from our embassy took place. And quite frankly, it looked like the collapse of our policy in Asia. This had been the big event shaping our Asian involvement and it had ended in the most ignominious way possible. And we were all worried about the potential consequences.

We're all familiar with the law of unintended consequences, and I think in most cases we think that the unintended consequences are negative. But the curious thing about the collapse of our policy in Vietnam in 1975 was that it ushered in 30 years during which Asia transformed itself from a war ground between the communist world and the free world, if you will, into a unified cooperative region.

And who's to say whether that would have happened if we hadn't been involved in Vietnam, but you can't say. So if you're critical of the war and think we shouldn't have gotten involved, it's a legitimate position. But at the same time the outcome of a failed policy turned out to actually be very beneficial from the standpoint of U.S. relations.

We have a star-studded panel to look at it here. Irv Chapman, 60 years as a journalist, if I'm not mistaken. I read something referring to 60 years as a journalist, at least 10 of those were spent as a foreign correspondent. He visited Vietnam off and on before the fall of Saigon, and you were there just weeks before the fall itself, if I'm not mistaken.

Colonel McFarlane, Bud McFarlane, graduate of Annapolis, two combat tours in Vietnam, so he has some experience of the war itself as a participant. He went on, of course, to become the national security adviser to President Reagan and earlier had been the military assistant to Henry Kissinger and was involved in the early, very sensitive stage in the first half of the '70s before we had diplomatic relations in accompanying Dr. Kissinger to China. So he has extensive personal exposure to Vietnam and extensive exposure to policy-making at the highest levels.

John Prados is a historian, almost 20 books, or is it more than 20 now?

PRADOS: Close to 25.

ROY: Close to 25, many of them have been detailed looks at U.S. wars, both declared and undeclared wars. And you began researching Vietnam 50 years ago. Has published several big books on the Vietnam War, I have one at my desk, it's about that thick and it's packed with useful information.

So we come at this issue from very different backgrounds. And I think it might be useful to start by asking each of our panelists briefly to say why you think the fall of Saigon was significant. What would—what would your assessment—can you compare your assessment at the time and your assessment now 40 years later only take a few minutes in each case because there are some big other issues that we need to explore before we get to questions from the audience? This session incidentally is on the record, just in case that wasn't pointed out before.

Irving, why don't we start with you?

CHAPMAN: Good. I started in Washington in the closing days of the Eisenhower administration on whose watch the French failed in Vietnam, a place called Dien Bien Phu. And President Eisenhower did not come on a rescue mission to support them.

But John F. Kennedy was a believer in the need to shore up Southeast Asia. He said he believed in the so-called dominoes, that is starting with the neighboring country, which he called Laos, which I think the Kennedy School of Government has corrected in the interim, and he sent the first U.S. advisers, some 16,000 in number.

Now, I first set foot in Vietnam following in the—in the Johnson administration following Hubert Humphrey who made a tour of the Far East. And I looked at a photograph the other day of Tan Son Nhat Airport and a farewell ceremony. There was a hand-lettered sign that said "see you again in victory." Not "mission accomplished," but sort of.

I followed Lyndon Johnson when he went to Vietnam and said the troops would nail the coonskin to the wall and then went on to see the Pope in Rome, who did not like the war at all and didn't state that he would receive Johnson until the last minute and the plane landed.

Now in 1971, I spent three months in Vietnam, and I had come then not from Washington, but from Moscow. And it wasn't the so-called free world, but compared to Moscow it was the free world. For example, the big story at that time was an election and there were three dozen newspapers in Saigon. One was a government mouthpiece, the others all said that the election was being rigged and they didn't like it. That was very un-Soviet, un-communist and very free.

And you'd go to the University of Saigon and interview students and the answers you'd get would be not that much different from Berkeley in terms of their theorizing. Why are you Americans here? Well, you must have discovered oil offshore.

Well, the Americans and the Russians decided at the altar to divide the world and Vietnam was slipping from the American grasp, they had to—they had to come in. And the U.S. aid had created something of a middle class, a bell-shaped curve, in what was the Agrarian part of the country. And you'd see these people who bureaucrats or working for the foreign companies or school teachers or translators for the military and the family and all would pile onto a motor scooter imported from Japan and go to the zoo on the weekend, women trailing these lovely (inaudible).

And the feeling was, was there a way to keep this thing going into the free world? And the last story I did before I rotated out of the three-month assignment was about this middle class and what would become of them if the communists came roaring down, remembering that when the communists took the northern half, refugees streamed south and some of these same people, the ones we're talking about, and others, of course, had grown up in the interim.

Well, the story that I did went on the Saturday evening news at 11:15 p.m., long weeks thereafter because political economic conjectures are not what excite broadcast news editors.

Well, I went to Vietnam again in 1975 when I was the Tokyo bureau chief. My assignment was to take a cameraman down and look at the situation. And we saw kind of a sleepy town down south in Saigon, people going about their business at the market. One woman...

ROY: Is it accurate to say, because you were there in early '75 and the fall of Saigon was in April 30th, but I believe that when you were there there was no intimation that the position of South Vietnam was about to collapse?

CHAPMAN: No. Not only that, but the anchor at the time Harry Reasoner, after the story played—and that did play on the evening news because it was assigned by their executive producer—did a commentary which he and his co-anchors took turns doing, in which he said, in essence, how many more years will we send a correspondent and camera crew down to Saigon to examine this situation of stasis?

Well, we didn't know and he didn't know that at that moment practically the high command of the North Vietnamese general staff was plotting the Blitzkrieg that less than half a year later sent the tanks crashing through the gates of the palace. And nevermind the free world for the Saigon people, the only ones who experienced it were the ones who successfully got on the boats and the airlifts. And then I went on and covered those airlifts.

ROY: OK. Let's move to Colonel McFarlane. Bud?

MCFARLANE: My own exposure in Vietnam was, as you said, as bookends. I commanded a unit in the first landing in '65 and then 10 years later was in the White House talking sorrowfully to Ambassador Graham Martin as they literally evacuated the embassy and lifted off.

The poignancy and more of that moment and drawing lessons from both what might have been and what was reality includes the point you implied at the beginning, Ambassador Roy, in saying that it is fair to say, I think, that that investment of lives, treasure did buy time for the countries of Southeast Asia, a time of consolidation, improving institutions, economic growth and coping with communist insurgencies here and there, Indonesia notably, but growing stronger. And from that respite, prospering phenomenally after the war.

For me, the second significance at the loss was how profoundly important it is that a president be able to define why are we in this fight, how are we going to prevail and maintain popular support and, through that popular support, congressional support.

For as you know, by the late '60s, though we had entered the war poorly prepared militarily—we had been training for a conventional land war in Europe—but we did learn, learn about counterinsurgency. And I cite as evidence of that the Tet Offensive in which not one of the combined action platoon locations where we and the Vietnamese were building villages and doing effective counterinsurgent warfare, not one of them fell during the Tet Offensive.

But to read the press, you'd have thought we lost, lost badly, and that tone of reporting on the war totally misguided and erroneous conditioned the decline of American support for the war, which especially after Watergate and the 1975 midterm elections which turned heavily Democratic, eliminated our ability to fulfill our pledges to the South Vietnamese and the Paris accords. And the effort failed.

So a time of great contradictions, a war we could have won and did on the battlefield, lost through loss of credibility and failure to be able to maintain political support at the grassroots in America or in the Congress.

Interestingly, that war also enabled the military because we did learn how to wage counterinsurgency warfare, to leave the war totally bitter, bitter at the loss when we knew we had won it, but so bitter that we threw out everything that we knew about counterinsurgency warfare, knowledge that would have done us a lot of good in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Finally, however, a lesson we didn't learn and should have before going into Iraq was how very, very hard it is to influence change in a different culture. Ten years in Vietnam was a time in which the notion, romantic as it was from President Kennedy, that we could nurture and ultimately see adopted, if not Jeffersonian level of democracy, at least pluralism, and it was not to be.

And I wonder if 2003 if anybody thought about that 10-year investment in the White House before we went into Iraq so confident it would be a walk in the park. A lot of lessons that should have been learned that weren't. A lot that were that were neglected. We should do better than that.

ROY: Thank you. Mr. Prados?

PRADOS: I must say, not to get into a discussion of this, but the Combined Action Company at Khe Sanh Village was overrun in the Tet Offensive.

Anyway, I was an exemplar, if you like, of the American citizen, the man in the streets. I was in school at the time. I was going to go fight the war; I wanted to win the war. That's why I started researching Vietnam and what turned me around actually was the revolution, not to use that word too lightly, of 1968, the upheaval, not just the Tet Offensive, but, you know, the upheaval in American politics, the assassination of King. It was just enough to turn people over.

And I transformed from somebody who wanted to apply to West Point to somebody who marched against the war. And my feeling when April 30th, 1975 came actually was one of relief, because this was a tragedy and it had destroyed my country and turned people against people and now it was finally going to end.

ROY: We've had, each of us up here, had a different experience in looking at the war, but I'd like to tease out the question. I joined the foreign service in the middle of the 1950s, just in time for the second inauguration of President Eisenhower. And my first embassy assignment was in Bangkok in 1959. And I can remember the scale of our effort and the level of anxiety over the possibility of communist expansion in Southeast Asia. And they had guerrilla forces scattered around at various parts. They had them in the Philippines, they had them in Malaysia, they had them in parts of Thailand, so it was a dicey situation.

In retrospect, many Americans have concluded that we shouldn't have gone into the war because we didn't accomplish our declared goals and the costs were too high. My question is, could American leaders have kept us out of the war, given the fact that we didn't think then with the assurance that we can with historical hindsight? In other words, there was concern about dominoes falling in the '50s and '60s and this concern was shared by Southeast Asian leaders.

So we were trying and we had been dealt the shock of the loss of China, if you will, and the potential—and Indonesia was dicey at the time under Sukarno. So in other words, this was a time when people were really nervous about further expansion of the communist world.

Bud, maybe you could comment on it. You were inside the policy process. Knowing what we do know about the costs of the war and the fact that we weren't able to achieve our declared goals, do you think that there was a possibility that our presidents at the time could have steered us away from involvement?

MCFARLANE: The answer is a three-credit course, I think. It would have been awfully hard. Popular concerns, to the extent Americans get excited about foreign affairs, were exactly as you say, that we were facing this, if not tide of communist expansion, that that was the threat. Imperial ambition in both the Soviet Union and China, or so it was portrayed, would move through the countries of Southeast Asia and ultimately be at our doorstep, so it would not have been easy to turn that around.

However, there were sources of opposing views that were not trivial. President Eisenhower, who, as you know, never get involved in a land war in Asia, that it simply would be a quagmire that we would ultimately lose at great cost, it would have taken a great depth of knowledge on the part of the president, and that didn't exist at the time.

President Kennedy had the foresight, I think, to want to explore how hard would it be and sent the original Special Forces in significant numbers there, I think more to learn than to establish an outcome, a victory or loss either way, but to learn before making a strategic judgment about it. But he was taken from us before that had a significant input at the part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the civilian side of the government.

PRADOS: I agree with Colonel McFarlane that there was a difficult situation going on here and the time frame was wrong. I think you have to go back a lot before Mr. Eisenhower before there's a chance of avoiding war in Vietnam.

The problem for our country was really one of alliance politics, and I'm talking now about Western Europe, not about East Asia, and our relations with France in the era right after World War II, because that is when the key opportunity passed us by and Harry Truman was the president. It was Truman's fate to be faced with this decision that he could not take, and once he had failed to make that choice a lot of what happened afterwards was foreordained.

The French were very successful in terms of convincing us, the United States, that the war in Indochina was about communism, not about French colonialism. And once the United States approved military aid and recognized French Indochina as a battle of the Cold War, then the die was cast for what happened afterwards.

Dwight Eisenhower was not the president who was going to avoid a U.S. involvement in Indochina. In fact, he had almost involved us there at the time of Dien Bien Phu.

CHAPMAN: Well, Lyndon Johnson famously said in a telephone conversation that became part of history to one of his Senate allies that he was not going to be the first Democratic president who lost a country to communism looking back at what happened to China, although historians again at that time suggested it would have taken 15 American divisions to do anything about China and the American public attitude at the end of World War II was bring the boys home and as fast as you can.

And in fact, in 1967, you mentioned Indonesia, the communist insurrection was put down. And so an interesting question in retrospect whether the domino theory at that point could have been nailed shut in its coffin and an exit strategy undertaken even then.

In terms of public opinion about the war, the first couple of years, as Johnson escalated slowly and tried to make the case, public opinion favored what he was doing. And the journalism of the time—television, newspapers—the people who favored the war and the people who opposed the war took from exactly the same reporting what they wanted to take that would back up their view.

As time went on, of course, that changed. And in terms of the military and public opinion, General Westmoreland speaking at the National Press Club in Washington said that the Vietcong had no ability - the North Vietnamese and their allies—to penetrate the cities of South Vietnam. And only a short time after, the Tet Offensive proved—whether it was won or lost by the good guys—proved that they did have the ability, and that helped to discredit.

And then the military briefing sessions, you know, the reporters in these bureaus at the time, there were three, four, five, six depending on the news organization, some would go up country every day, one at least would stay behind, attend the press briefing at 5 p.m. every day in the Rex Hotel auditorium. And there would be a military briefer describing what information he had been provided. And then somebody inevitably in the—talking about the war was going hot and heavy would stand up and say, no, no, no, wait a minute, Major, I just came back from there and that's not what happened.

And remember, the journalists who won the Pulitzer Prizes in the early stages of the war didn't come at it with the attitude that this was a stupid mistake. Quite the contrary, they came from the states feeling that there was a case for intervention, but then they observed the feeling of the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese government was that the government was incompetent, incapable of defeating the corruption, it was based on what family and whatever, and that the South Vietnamese had not created within themselves a feeling that this was a country, we have a country from here on down that is worth giving your life to defend and fending off the other guys.

ROY: I want to open things to the audience. But before I do so, a very brief question. Assuming that in January '75 we were past the point where we could have salvaged a South Vietnamese government, the invasion hadn't been launched yet, but the North Vietnamese had the capability to do so and were preparing to do so and our Congress was not prepared to support the countermeasures that our policy people wanted to take, if I recall accurately. My question is, was there a way for us to have managed our exit from Vietnam more smoothly—

CHAPMAN: Oh, wow, yes.

ROY:—so we didn't up with the chaos at the end.

CHAPMAN: Yes. Yes, quite so. In fact, the exit strategy by the business companies and the others and the non-government organizations began quite a while before the final fall of Saigon. Commercial flights were still available to Hong Kong and Bangkok and other places.

PRADOS: I think you two were talking about a different—different sorts of exit strategies.

CHAPMAN: Yes, they put their staffs on them. And at the very end, they started chartering planes. The three American networks chartered an aircraft from Air Vietnam and put their entire staffs with extended families, something like 69 people, on a flight to the Philippines. And Clark Air Force Base initially was set up to receive people fleeing Vietnam. That was later moved to Guam where more extensive facilities were available.

And Ambassador Martin, whose name we've heard, seemed to believe that the South Vietnamese would hold off the invasion and delayed getting the embassy staff involved. And many of them were left behind in this chaotic last-minute situation. And I wrote at the time that if you were Vietnamese it would have been better for you to have worked for the Bank of America than the United States of America.

ROY: Bud, did you have a sense on that?

MCFARLANE: Well, I think...

ROY: If you'd been put in charge of Vietnam policy in January '75, would you have been able to handle things more smoothly?

MCFARLANE: I think it was handled as well as it could have been. The time to have avoided a catastrophe was before breaking into the Watergate Hotel. But I'm not being facetious. I think the Vietnamization plan, which was underwritten by the Paris peace accords, that provided that the United States would continue to maintain the force levels and equipment and to enable the South Vietnamese army to prevent the North from coming down, and the plan was going all right, but it required critically continued appropriations. By '75, it needed $700 million a year, which doesn't seem like a lot, but it was at the time.

But with the break-in at Watergate and the ensuing resignation of the vice president and then the president and then the midterm election which was heavily Democrat in the result, and the frustration with the Republican Party removed any hope of support for that funding and implementation of the Paris peace accords.

ROY: You know, you've raised a very important point, because we were going through one of the most severe political crises in our history, a president resigning from office for the first time, we had a president who had been appointed as vice president and who had then inherited the presidency, Dr. Kissinger was both secretary of state and national security adviser until November '75, so during this period you had those positions combined.

So it's fair to conclude that in thinking about our behavior in Vietnam we had to take into account that our leaders were dealing with very extraordinary events in the United States at the same time that were, in some ways, unrelated to Vietnam and, in some ways, perhaps were collateral consequences of the loss of confidence in government that went along with Vietnam.

Do you want to add anything? Otherwise I'll go...

PRADOS: I very much agree that there were collateral consequences that played both ways. And there are other issues that have nothing to do with either the United States or Vietnam that played a key role in these events. And I'm thinking in particular here of the Arab oil embargo of late 1973 and into 1974, because what that instantly did was to devalue U.S. aid to South Vietnam. No matter what the amount of the aid was, it was instantly soaked up by the increased price in fuel.

And worse than that, actually, for a time in there the OPEC countries were deliberately refusing to sell oil to South Vietnam specifically. They were mounting an oil boycott of Southeast Asia.

The problems of that were so intractable that almost by itself that made a step-level shift in the seriousness of the South Vietnamese situation.

CHAPMAN: If I could be permitted one little anecdote. The cameraman who went with me in 1975, a young American from San Francisco, went back a couple of years later when there were U.S. congressional delegations coming to look for the missing in action. And after doing the story one day, he went to a bar on what used to be called Tuso (ph) Street. And a young Vietnamese about his own age came up to him, he told me later, and said, you know, when you Americans were here fighting we laid back, we didn't see any reason to really, really get into the fight with you, and now, now we realize what we lost.

ROY: OK. Thank you.

Let's go to the audience for questions. A word of caution. We are dealing with arguably the most controversial war in American history. I'm going to you for questions, please, not statements. If you want to make statements on the Vietnam War, please find another occasion. I'd like to use—please keep your questions short. If you want to direct them to a particular member of the panel, that's fine; otherwise, we can allocate that up here in terms of who's best qualified to do it.

Please wait for the microphone, identify yourself and ask your question. Thank you. We'll begin here.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) It seems to me that we went to Vietnam without knowing the culture. We didn't have any experts. What lessons have we learned from that experience?

ROY: We went to Vietnam without knowing the culture, the language, what lessons do we draw from that experience? I think you touched on that, probably all three of you can comment on it.

PRADOS: Well, my quick response to that was that's a lesson that we need to relearn repeatedly. I think that, in 2003, there was a critical lack in the United States government of Arabic, Persian, Farsi language capability, there was very limited cultural understanding of the Middle East in general, but Iraq, Afghanistan in particular.

In that sense, we replicated the Vietnamese experience with this recent round of wars.

CHAPMAN: I think anybody who's worked in any of a number of countries you could name, including the ones that we've been talking about, gets to understand the relationships among the people of those countries, which go back thousands of years. I mean, we have an old town here that's 220 years old. If you see (Alstadt ?) or the equivalent of a local language, it's very old and it governs how people think about themselves versus their family, their community, their government, the outside world, their tribe. And nationalism and tribalism are enormously important in so many places and it's not something that's part of our normal upbringing. And you need specialized folks who understand all of this.

I know that the State Department has done its best. And didn't the State Department have a 500-page manual on how to do nation-building after Saddam Hussein so there is some knowledge available, but sometimes not applied because politicians are, among others, the people who believe what I said about...

ROY: An interesting point on it. In Thailand in our language program we studied Thai. Our embassy in Saigon was staffed with French speakers. They studied French, not Vietnamese and many of them were Europeanists who didn't have Asian experience because they had the French language and that was the requirement for assignment there.

And we were discussing this among ourselves at the time. Wasn't it wrong that we weren't trying to understand Vietnam better by getting past the French language and into Vietnamese? But at that point, our understanding of the importance of language was still developing.


QUESTION: Allan Wendt. I was in Vietnam for four years during the war. But just a quick comment. At State, we did train a lot of people in Vietnamese. Later on there was a 10-month language program at the Foreign Service Institute and many went. I tried to study Vietnamese myself, but at that time, this was 1967, they said you'll do fine with French which I did speak.

But my question is this. To any or all of the panelists, could we have gotten a better outcome based on the military situation in Vietnam after Abrams replaced Westmoreland? Setting aside the anti-war movement and all that, just looking at the situation on the ground in Vietnam, could we have gotten a better outcome?

PRADOS: I'll take that. No is the short answer, and I'll tell you why. What happened in the course of Tet was that the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam had an internal revolution, right? The consequences of Tet on their side was to debilitate the National Liberation Front. Whether or not that was a strategy or a policy or it was designed or this was competition between the North and the South, we don't know enough to answer that question.

But what we do know is that the North Vietnamese army was the main instrument left to Hanoi after Tet. And because of that, there was an automatic shift on their side to conventional tactics in a situation where the United States had overplayed its hand and was then required to retreat. This was Vietnamization.

And as soon as you had Vietnamization, you had an open situation that was visible to Hanoi where if they held their hand, the Americans would eventually be too weak to fight.

So two things happened: One, the war shifted from pacification-centered to conventional forces-centered; and the second one that North Vietnam saw that its main line strategy was to delay until the United States weakened.

We actually have evidence for this. A North Vietnamese general who was recalled to Hanoi in mid 1969 Le Trong Tan, you may have heard of him, he was the same one who fought us in Laos in '71, goes back to North Vietnam for consultations in the summer of '69 and a diary of his is captured. And the diary actually contains language that says if we hold off fighting for now the Americans will weaken and then we can have a free hand.

MCFARLANE: I disagree slightly. I think the Vietnamese (inaudible) has acknowledged that had the Americans continued to use their strategic advantage, which was air power, that we would have prevailed against the North Vietnamese government. Indeed, in Christmas of '72, it was decisive in bringing the Vietnamese back to the table and in getting the Paris peace accords concluded in '73 in January. However, the loss really turned on the inability under the terms of the treaty for us to fulfill what we committed to do. And that was a political loss that had nothing to do with really the terms of the Paris accords or the battlefield condition.

ROY: Well, foreign policy has to maintain its domestic base...

MCFARLANE: Absolutely.

ROY: ...or it's hard to implement it. Yes?

QUESTION: My name is Ira Wolf. I was struck by Ambassador Roy's introductory comments and I apologize if I'm misinterpreting what you said that the 10 years of fighting in Vietnam provided a stability for the region that allowed for the economic explosion subsequently. I've never heard that before, perhaps Professor Prados or others could give some comments of whether that rings true to you.


PRADOS: I would say I can understand perfectly well that there was a lot of pent-up investment that was halted because the Vietnam War was going on, that could occur afterwards. And I could understand also that certain political developments were arrested by the fact of the Vietnam War.

But actually, my position on that is that—oh, and by the way, this is a point of view that was popularized by Walt Rostow in the '80s and early '90s actually as an argument against McNamara and his analysis in his memoir.

But anyway, that aside, I think that to postulate that the Vietnam War was this great, you know, outbreak of wonderfulness leaves us in danger of mistaking consequence for purpose and forgetting that in fact the United States lost this war. We are in danger of forgetting the United States lost this war and not prettily.

ROY: You didn't capture exactly what I said. My point was that an unanticipated consequence of the collapse of our position, which resulted in a unified Vietnam, was that Asia ended the division between the communists and the free world over the subsequent period and that created conditions for the rapid economic growth in the period.

The second issue is one that Lee Guan Yu always held, which was, without that 10-year period during which we were involved in Vietnam, Southeast Asia was not strong enough to have withstood the potential of communist expansion. So he always believed that while it was a costly sacrifice for us, without that, Southeast Asia could not have stood on its own feet as it was able to do after 1975. That's his position. I'll be the presider rather than the (inaudible). Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Good evening. Doug Ollivant with Mantid International. Forty years is a long time. I'm a lot closer to 50 than to 40, but the events that you're describing on stage occurred, at best, when I was in grade school, some of them before I was born, so I don't have a strong affect about the Vietnam War. It's like the French Revolution or the Battle of Hastings.


What would you want to—you know, the people who staff the next White House will, in the main, be younger than me and likewise not be tarred or educated by this in any way. Specifically for the next White House staff, what would you want them to take away from the experience that you all had at various levels?

MCFARLANE: I think that you live in a democracy. And I don't mean to be pedantic. I think the loss of that war turned heavily on the inability of two presidents to define why are we here, what interests is at stake, what is our strategy and how do we intend to prevail. They have to do that and maintain a constant, consistent statement of purpose that doesn't change from, in Vietnam, one day self-determination, the next day some form of pluralism, and then changing message on the evening news.

Unless you can do that, you're not going to prevail in any enterprise maintaining three constituencies behind you: the American people, the U.S. Congress and allies. And both our presidents of that conflict were unable to do that.

President Nixon had conceived and was already writing publicly about his wish or belief that we ought to open ties or talks at least with China. I wouldn't say he was anxious to get out of Vietnam, but believed that the strategic interests of the United States was in deterring the Soviet Union and exploiting an opportunity in time and place in China to engage and thereby tie down 45 divisions on the Chinese border that would not be in Western Europe. And it was a sound vision.

But it did also impact his sense of priority for finding a way to end our involvement in Vietnam.

CHAPMAN: The Office of Military History in the U.S. Army wrote a very exhaustive study of the Vietnam War, the military, the media, public opinion. And its premise was that there were serious flaws in the strategy of escalation that Lyndon Johnson embarked upon in his hope of keeping public opinion with him and keeping the Russians and Chinese out of active participation in the war.

But their conclusion was that the U.S. public opinion was lost gradually, but finally decisively as the casualties mounted. They said the same thing had happened in the Korean War, but when the casualties went up by the 10,000, 20,000 all the way to 50,000, their view was that nothing would have brought the American public on the side of pursuing the war any further.

PRADOS: So I have also made the argument that there was a mismatch between strategy and the situation and what our purpose was in Southeast Asia. And I think that there are two elements to that. One of them goes back to this gentleman's question about the knowledge that we have for societies and cultures and languages and our ability to understand what works in a particular country or does not. And the other one is the actual nature of the conflict and the kinds of tactics that are possible to be employed by United States forces, OK?

And to get the right triangulation between area knowledge and general strategic and operational military knowledge, to conduct a foreign adventure, that's what you need your White House staff to have. What you can do to encourage that really it's about employing the best people and having those people be flexible in terms of how they think and how they approach situations and how they reach out for expertise in the larger society.

ROY: Yes?

QUESTION: I wanted to go back to Professor...

ROY: Could you identify yourself, please?

QUESTION: Diana Lady Dougan, CSIS, among other places, and former State Department official. I wanted to go back to your reference to the French because it reminds me that even though we can self-flagellate with good reason for our lack of language skills and culture, the political context in which we engage in a lot of wars ends up being a major issue that I don't think is attended to enough.

And by way of confession, I was first in Saigon in 1951 and I remember it. And I was back again briefly in 1955 with my mother. And I remember seeing these soldiers at the airport and they were sitting on the ground, which was not either European or American style. And I suddenly realized these were American soldiers. And someone said—well, my mother in fact said, why are they here? Oh, the answer was, they're just advisers.

But the question becomes historically there is the narrative that Ho Chi Minh really just wanted to get rid of the French and he would have been happy to make a deal with us and we fast-forward to the Middle East and people who, like Chalabi...

ROY: Diana, we only have a little bit of time. Could we get to the question?

QUESTION: Yeah. But anyway, why is it that we continue to bet on advice and counsel from people who have very special interests and we've had—I was referencing Chalabi in Iraq—that why was it not more transparent in many regards that we were getting into the French Colonial War as opposed to a war at that time, which was quite as domino-effect a war? And are we going to learn any lessons from recent times?

PRADOS: Well, I think there were some particular aspects of that situation that gave the French an advantage and to go back to large-scale diplomatic issues. Really, this is about West German rearmament, you know. The NATO Alliance could not face a Soviet threat across the north German plane without an active and armed West German army.

And I will say that from 1948 through 1955 or so the central issue in alliance relations with the United States was how to handle a German rearmament within the alliance framework. And one, two even, of the devices to do that were French inventions, the European Defense Community Treaty and before that the Lisbon force goals, right?

And both of those, they could use them to manipulate U.S. foreign policy and also to keep us preoccupied with these European issues and attributing less importance to the Indochina issue because here's this other interest which is so much more important or whatever.

ROY: Yes?

QUESTION: My name is Hong Win (ph) and I'm with the BBC Vietnamese in London; I'm visiting Washington, D.C. So I just would like to have your comments on the current U.S. policy towards Vietnam, how they are being affected by the war itself and how do you think the foreign policy should be.

And I also would like to go back to the American Civil War 150 years ago and if you can draw any parallels between the two civil wars, because after 1973 then it was indeed a civil war between the North and the South.

ROY: Irvin?

CHAPMAN: U.S. policy toward Vietnam right now is one of complete 180-degree turn because the Vietnamese are asking the Americans to help them to withstand the Chinese threat which was the original fear and now it's come full circle.

As far as the rest is concerned, we revisited Vietnam a very few years ago and found that there are some 400 American companies that are trying to do business there, that there is American and other, International Chamber of Commerce. One business guy said that the Vietnamese standard of workmanship exceeds the Chinese and they were moving production of the most intricate things that they made to Vietnam. And there was Intel and other tech companies were trying to set up shop there. And Unilever and Proctor & Gamble competing to sell detergent.

But the main thing that you take away from a visit to that part of the world is that they won their war and they lost their economy and fell 25 years behind the reset of the surging East Asia that you've been referring to.

ROY: Second half of the question, should our experience with the American Civil War have enabled us better to understand the Vietnamese civil war?

CHAPMAN: I can't imagine because, first of all, our experience with the Civil War isn't over yet. I mean, we still—just to see what happened in Baltimore today, so I'm not sure that there are lessons to be drawn because of the rather different circumstances and the ideology involved in the two situations.

I mean, there are other examples all over Europe where people fought over the years, not just the French and the Germans, but factions within France, within Germany and so on. And it took generations to overcome and to unify countries that have only been unified after the late 19th century and so on. But I'm not a historian. I can just tell you what happened today.

ROY: Bud, do you have a view on this?

MCFARLANE: An important legacy issue from the war was prisoners of war are missing and though most of them came home in '73 there were almost 2,000 who didn't. And yet, to answer your question, today the progress in getting a final, full accounting is moving much more smoothly than it has in the past and I think will be overcome.

And so the other potential sources of bitterness I think are being swept away and we're delighted to see Vietnam become a pluralistic or normal country.

ROY: A very short question, we only have a minute.


ROY: I prefer a question, please, sir. Yes?

QUESTION: So the Soviet Union collapsed and Asia is secure and prosperous. Is it possible that maybe we didn't know what success looked like back then?

CHAPMAN: I wish the Soviet Union had collapsed for good, it hadn't, it hasn't, it's been reconstituted. And obviously, the prosperity of East Asia with the enormous amount of trade that's going on and the thrust for a Transpacific Partnership trade agreement are all marvelous developments that everybody recognizes as being the kind of success that you refer to.

PRADOS: There's a different problem with that, too, and that is, what kind of success are you looking at? You know, in terms of the frame of reference of leaders who made the choices to get into this war, there was a view that prosecuting the Cold War against the Soviet Union was the purpose of the activity. There was a different view that what was going on in Vietnam was a revolution and the United States was standing in front of a revolutionary wave in an era that was characterized by a massive global wave of de-colonization and anti-colonization and a whole string of revolutions.

ROY: Thank you. And thank all of you for joining us tonight.



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