East Auditorium, George C. Marshall Conference Center
September 30, 2010
AMBASSADOR BRYNN: Dr. Carland, when he – he’s going to come up and offer some words of discipline. (Laughter.)
DR. CARLAND: Actually, I’m going to call Erin Mahan’s panel to the fore and they’re going to be very disciplined.
While the panel is assembling, I call your attention to the title of the panel, “With Friends Like These,” which was suggested by Professor Logevall. So I want you to know he gets credit or blame.
Thank you. It was quite a treat to hear Deputy Negroponte talk about the four decades plus of his career and how Vietnam started part of his career and influenced him as time went on. For the rest of the day, we’re going to be listening to and hearing from scholars who have done – who are doing new research, groundbreaking research, on the way we look at and understand the role of the United States and the history of its policy in the Vietnam War.
The chairman of this panel is Dr. Erin Mahan. She’s Chief Historian at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She is also author of Kennedy, de Gaulle, and Western Europe. Earlier, she was at this office. She was chief of the Division of Arms Control, Asia, and Africa, where she edited several volumes in the Foreign Relations series. Thus, Erin is an old friend and one we welcome back with affection.
Now, I will return – turn it over to you to introduce and exercise discipline. (Laughter.)
DR. MAHAN: If only I had been able to exercise that discipline when I was the division chief for John and others and had those FRUS volumes out a few years before now. But that said, it is indeed a pleasure to return to the Department. And as John pointed out, I did work closely on the last three Vietnam volumes before my departure in 2008.
But as I sat in the audience yesterday and today, I am reminded that there are really two valuable vantage points that help us understand the major events of the Vietnam War and the policy decisions that helped shape them. One can be provided by those who were deeply involved and close up, Dr. Kissinger in the making of Vietnam War policy, and those young, on-the-scene Vietnam roommates, John Negroponte and Richard Holbrooke.
The other valuable vantage point, though, is provided by those who have the advantage and the benefit of distance and time, the historians. And we’re fortunate this morning to have three distinguished historians who write from the wider international context by using multinational archival sources.
Our first speaker, Edward Miller, is a professor of history at DartmouthCollege. He is currently completing a book on the early years of the United States alliance with South Vietnam. This book is based on extensive research in archival collections in the United States, but also in France and Vietnam. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies and the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. He received his Ph.D. in History in 2004 from Harvard University, and he will speak to us this morning about “A House Divided: Nhu and the Can Lao Party and the Internal Politics of the Diem Regime, 1954 to 1960.”
PROF. MILLER: Thanks, Erin. I’ll lend my voice to the chorus of thanks to John Carland and the Historian’s Office for organizing this conference. It’s a particular honor to begin the pointy-headed portion of the conference this morning.
My topic today is one of the most famous and infamous political parties in modern Vietnamese history. The official name of this party was the Can Lao Nhan vi Cach Mang Dang. The official English translation was The Revolutionary Personalist Labor Party. But to both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese, it was known simply as the Can Lao Party. The Can Lao was a key part of the security apparatus of the Ngo Dinh Diem government in South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963. Eligibility to join the party was based on loyalty to Diem and to the Ngo family. The existence of the Can Lao was officially acknowledged, but most of its members kept their affiliation secret, in large part because Can Lao members served as informants for the regime throughout the Vietnamese state, army, and other institutions. The party also had other functions. It promoted the official ideology of the Diem government, known as personalism, controlled a network of business interests. It carried out a variety of covert political and intelligence missions.
Now, all of this has long been known and acknowledged in the scholarship on the Vietnam War and on the Diem period. However, to date, historians have not made much of an effort to actually investigate the party and to kind of peel back the layers of secrecy in which it was shrouded. So this paper is a preliminary attempt to do that. In trying to do this, I’ve made use some American materials, including some documents in the FRUS volumes. Especially the Vietnam Volume for 1958-1960 has a lot of interesting documents, revealing documents, about the Can Lao and its organization. In addition, there are some very valuable recently declassified materials. Thomas Ahern, a CIA historian, published a study of the agency’s relationship with the Ngo brothers. It’s called CIA and the House of Ngo. That is available for free download on the CIA’s FOIA website. It was declassified about a year ago. So I’ve drawn on that.
But as Erin indicated, I’ve also drawn on other non-American sources. There are a lot of French sources in the French military and diplomatic archives on the Can Lao. The French actually maintained a very good intelligence network in South Vietnam after 1954. I’ve also made use of a lot of Vietnamese materials, including the memoirs of former members of the Can Lao. And as Erin said, this is extracted from a larger book project that I’m working on in the entire history of the Diem government.
As far as what I’m going to talk about today, I’m going to really briefly talk about the origins of the party in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and then I’m going to focus on the period from 1954 to 1960, what you might think of as the formative years of the Can Lao.
Does everyone have the handout? There is – I printed out – okay, great.
About the origins of the Can Lao, it’s sometimes suggested that the Can Lao was the creation of the CIA or some other U.S. Government agency. This simply isn’t true. The Can Lao emerged out of the political activities of Ngo Dinh Nhu during the late ’40s and early 1950s. During this time, Diem was not in Vietnam. He was in exile, self-imposed exile in the U.S. and Europe. Nhu, however, his younger brother, remained behind in Vietnam and undertook various activities on his behalf. One activity that Nhu was engaged in was the establishment of a group in the highlands town of Da Lat in southern Vietnam around 1949. This group basically started off as a philosophy seminar, and the large picture on one side of the handout is a picture of that group. In that picture, you’ll see Ngo Dinh Nhu. You’ll also see a French priest by the name of Father Ferdinand Parrell. Parrell and Nhu were both very interested in the philosophical doctrine of personalism that was associated with, among other people, a French philosopher by the name of Emmanuel Mounier. And personalism would subsequently become the official doctrine not only of the Can Lao Party but also the Diem government.
Now, those of you who know something about the history of the Diem government know that personalism was known as something very abstruse, very hard to understand. But that doesn't mean it was meaningless or gibberish. I think that personalism did mean something to Diem and to Nhu and to members of their close circle, and therefore it’s significant.
On the one hand, personalism was very anti-communist. It was very critical of Marxist collectivism. But it was also very critical of liberalism, especially liberal individualism. And so Mounier’s efforts in constructing this doctrine of personalism was basically an attempt to split the difference, to try to find some sort of middle ground, a communitarian ideal. The problem was translating that notion of a middle ground or a third way into a positive program of action. This was the thing that the Diem government consistently had trouble doing. Nevertheless, personalism is important for understanding, I think, especially the thinking of Ngo Dinh Nhu during this early period.
In addition to this philosophizing, Nhu was also very busy in the early ’50s networking. He and Father Parrell eventually expanded this seminar into an Indochina-wide operation. They held a series of larger events, public events in Hanoi and Saigon and other cities, and these events attracted the attention of a lot of prominent Vietnamese anticommunists. And Nhu subsequently forged relationships with many of these anticommunists and was able to recruit several of them into the Can Lao.
The organization that became the Can Lao wasn’t actually formed until 1953. And at the time it first emerged, it was really just a loose coalition. There were intellectuals, political activists, a few military officers in the Vietnamese National Army. There were a lot of Catholics in the Can Lao at this time, but there were actually a lot of prominent non-Catholics as well. And one of the interesting things about the Can Lao is it becomes relatively more Catholic after 1954.
This was the situation, then, in the spring of 1954 when the CIA became involved in the Can Lao for the first time. The CIA’s Saigon station had been in contact with Ngo Dinh Nhu since 1951, but at first the station viewed Nhu mainly as just a source of information about the Saigon political scene. It’s only in the spring of 1954, just before Ngo Dinh Diem takes power as the leader of what becomes South Vietnam, that the station proposes to upgrade its relationship with Nhu. The key figure here was an individual station officer by the name of Paul Harwood, who was the head of the covert action branch. Harwood found out about the Can Lao from Nhu and he proposed to help him turn it into a covert political action operation. And this began a long period of CIA involvement with the Can Lao and affiliated organizations that really lasted, off and on, until the early 1960s.
One of the reasons that the CIA decided to get involved in the Can Lao is that at this moment, Nhu was preparing to reorganize the party to make it more structured and into a more powerful political tool. And what he did is he created three new organizations associated with the Can Lao. So I want to just briefly talk about those organizations and their leadership.
The first of these, some of you may be familiar with, was something called the National Revolutionary Movement. The NRM was an overt political organization; that is, it operated openly. It was a mass mobilization organization. It was supposed to be the vehicle that the regime could use to enlist ordinary Vietnamese to support it. The NRM used various propaganda and psychological techniques to do this, organized a lot of pro-regime rallies, speeches, indoctrination sessions. And it eventually built a network all the way into the countryside down to the village level. The NRM played a key role in something called the Denounce Communism Campaign, which was a major mass mobilization campaign launched in 1955.
Now, ostensibly, the NRM was an independent political party, but in reality, it was controlled by high-ranking Can Lao members and it was really a Can Lao front organization. The key figure in the NRM in these years was a fellow by the name of Tran Chanh Thanh. And if you look on the reverse of the handout, you’ll see a picture of him there. Tin was both the chairman of the National Revolutionary Movement and the Diem regime’s minister of information. So he was basically the regime’s top propagandist during its early years. Like the Ngo brothers, he was from Central Vietnam. Interestingly enough, he was not a Catholic. Another interesting thing about Tin is that he was a former Viet Minh official. He had joined the Viet Minh in 1945. He actually served for a few years as an official in Ho Chi Minh’s government before becoming disillusioned. He eventually finds himself in Saigon in the early ’50s and that’s where he hooks up with Nhu and becomes a founding member of the Can Lao.
During 1955, ’56, Tin builds this extensive propaganda system in South Vietnam, and in the process he becomes very powerful. A lot of reports in Vietnam – South Vietnam in 1955 have Tin as the most powerful figure in South Vietnam who is not a member of the Ngo family. So for a moment, anyways, he becomes quite influential.
The second Can Lao-affiliated organization that Nhu set up in the first year Diem was in office was something called the North-South Interregional Headquarters. The Vietnamese name for this was Lien Ky Bo Nam Bac Viet, which was simply shortened to Lien Ky. LienKy was very different from the National Revolutionary Movement. For one thing, it was much smaller. It was a secret organization. It consisted only of Can Lao members, and it was given a number of responsibilities that had to do with the internal operations of the party. The most important of these responsibilities was fundraising. Starting in 1955, the Lien Ky begins to build a Can Lao-controlled business network, and this would eventually grow into a pretty substantial business empire, to the point that the Can Lao became involved in many, if not most, of the major businesses and industries in South Vietnam.
The man chosen by Nhu to run the Lien Ky was Huynh Van Lang. A picture of him also appears on the handout. He was very young. He was only about 26 years old in 1955 but he had a few qualities that recommended him to Nhu. He was a Catholic. He was from the Mekong Delta. He had an advanced degree in economics. He was just back from foreign study abroad, so that appealed to Nhu. He was not previously a member of the Can Lao. However, he had participated in the Da Lat seminar. If you turn back to that picture of the seminar, you look all the way on the left side of the picture, that individual there is a young Huynh Van Lang. So he actually knew something about personalism, which Nhu found appealing.
Lang is actually still alive. I interviewed him and – a couple of years ago. He explained to me how he built this Lien Ky business network. I’m not going to bore you with the gory details here, but basically, he had a job – he had a day job as the head of the Office of Foreign Exchange, and he was able to funnel some of the money that his office collected as fines for illegal currency transactions. He was able to funnel some of this into the Lien Ky operations. And in the process, he was able to build up this network of businesses.
The last organization that Nhu set up in the mid-1950s under Can Lao auspices was the rather innocuously named Bureau of Political and Social Research. This organization was set up as an official South Vietnamese Government agency, so it actually – again, it was not technically secret. It was an open agency. Unlike other parts of the Can Lao, this agency was almost always referred to by its French name, and specifically by its French acronym, S-E-P-E S, pronounced “say-pay.” The official mission of SEPES was vetting applicants for government jobs. But in reality, SEPES had a much broader brief; it undertook a wide range of covert missions. It conducted espionage and intelligence on North Vietnam, counterintelligence against communist operatives in South Vietnam, surveillance of the Vietnamese state, bureaucracy, and army, mostly conducted by SEPES. There was the vetting of new members of the Can Lao, training and indoctrination, also various kinds of fundraising – for example, the selling of import and export licenses. And finally, SEPES also was involved in the arrest – investigation, arrest, detention of suspected enemies of the regime, including a network of special prisons.
The head of SEPES was an individual by the name of Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen. He was widely known simply as Dr. Tuyen. He was a Catholic from North Vietnam. He was a former seminarian. He had also studied medicine. He never actually practiced as a doctor, but because he had studied medicine, everybody referred to him as Dr. Tuyen. Physically, he was very small in stature. The picture on the handout perhaps doesn’t quite do justice to him. Apparently, he weighed less than a hundred pounds. But he cast a large shadow over the South Vietnamese landscape. He was a very influential figure for a time. During the first Indochina War, he became involved in anticommunist intrigues in Catholic areas in North Vietnam. This was how he first met the Ngo brothers. He was subsequently recruited by them in 1954 and then appointed to head SEPES in 1955.
So that, in a nutshell, are three of the key Can Lao organizations set up by Nhu. I want to make just two observations about them. First of all, it’s important to recognize that these three organizations only operated in the southern part of South Vietnam, that is the old Cochinchina, basically the area around Saigon and the Mekong Delta. This is because the Central Vietnam branch of the Can Lao was under Ngo Dinh Can, another of the Ngo brothers, and more on that in a moment.
The other point to make here is that the CIA had relationships with all three of these organizations. Starting with Paul Harwood and continuing under his successors, the CIA provided funding and training to Tin and the National Revolutionary Movement. They also provided support to Tran Kim Tuyen and SEPES in part because they wanted to collaborate on intelligence collection with SEPES. CIA also had a relationship with Huynh Van Lang. It appears that this didn’t involve actual material support, but they definitely knew who he was and were in contact with him.
So the CIA is definitely involved in the Can Lao. Despite this, the CIA does not get what it wants out of Can Lao. And the history by Thomas Ahern that I mentioned earlier really makes this quite clear. And the question that this raises, of course, is why? Why doesn’t this work out the way the CIA wants it to? The agency concluded that Nhu just had different priorities, that he wasn’t really interested in collaborating with them. My own view is I don’t think this is quite right. I think that, actually, U.S. officials and Ngo Dinh Nhu were actually not that far apart on their goals for the Can Lao. I think they both agreed that making the Can Lao into a covert political action organization was a desirable goal. Building mass support for the regime, that was a good thing as far as Nhu was concerned. In 1958 – this is actually from a document in the first volume – Elbridge Dubrow, the American ambassador to South Vietnam, said that he, quote, “has no objection to having the Can Lao help run the country and coordinate discipline and developments.”
So the problem here is not that the Americans are trying to promote democratic ideals and Nhu is authoritarian. I think the problems had to do with certain features of the Can Lao and the way in which Nhu set up the party. And very briefly speaking, I think there were two general types of problems with the Can Lao. One was ideological; the other set of problems was organizational. Regarding the ideological problems, there’s no evidence that this doctrine of personalism ever had abroad appeal in South Vietnam. And as a matter of fact, there’s not really any evidence that anybody outside of Diem and Nhu and a few other – a small handful of regime supporters could actually understand what Nhu meant by personalism.
I haven’t found many actual Can Lao documents in the Saigon archives but, however, one that I did find from 1960 was a training document on sort of the basics of personalism. And it seemed to suggest that it was important for the membership to get a refresher course on this because no one in the organization really understood what its official philosophy was. So ideologically, I think, this was a problem for the Can Lao.
In addition to these ideological problems, there were also organizational issues. From the outset, the Can Lao was beset by factionalism. Different parts of the party were in fierce and bitter competition with each other. This factionalism was not an accidental phenomenon. It was, rather, a function of the way in which Nhu set up the party. It’s sometimes suggested that the Can Lao was organized according to Leninist principles. The idea here is that Nhu, despite the fact he was an anticommunist, actually borrowed Leninist organizing strategies. I don’t think this is correct. In a Leninist party, you have ultimately a very centralized organization. The Can Lao never had a politburo or a central committee. In many ways, Nhu did the opposite. He set up these different organizations in ways that were basically guaranteed to pit them against each other.
So these three organizations that I mentioned had very contentious relationships almost from the beginning. For example, starting in about 1956, Jun Jiang Tin finds himself on the receiving end of a smear campaign, which is ultimately traced back to Dr. Tuyen and SEPES. He gets criticized in newspapers controlled by Tuyen. This touches off a fight that basically lasts until 1960. As a result of this, Tin is ousted as head of the National Revolutionary Movement. He manages to stay on as Information minister until 1960, but at that point he’s finally outmaneuvered by Tuyen and he is sent to his new job as South Vietnamese ambassador to Tunisia, considerably less glamorous than his former position.
Huynh Van Lang also has found himself in a fight with Dr. Tuyen. In 1958, Nhu told Lang he was dissolving the Lien Ky. Lang does some digging and he discovers that Nhu is responding to some complaints lodged against him by Dr. Tuyen. So there was a lot contention here within these organizations set up by Nhu.
On top of this, there was another major rivalry for control of the Can Lao, which took place within the Ngo family. And here, the antagonists were Ngo Dinh Nhu on the one hand and the other brother I mentioned earlier, Ngo Dinh Can. Since 1954, as I mentioned, the party had had this geographical division of power. Nhu ran the south and and Ngo Dinh Can was supreme in the center. At first, Can was okay with just running Central Vietnam, but about 1957 he starts muscling in on Nhu’s territory. He sends his loyalists as province chiefs to take over provinces in the Mekong Delta. He also expanded his covert apparatus in the south. He sends his own agents to Saigon and they start actually competing and clashing with some of Nhu’s men. Several members of Huynh Van Lang group are arrested, jailed for several months for a pro-Ngo Dinh Can province chief, and Jun Kim Tuyen and SEPES actually have to pull back their organization, their operations to kind of make room for Can.
Now, in the long run, this bid by Can to take sole control of the Can Lao did not succeed. In about 1960, Can’s influence falls off very precipitously and Nhu makes a big comeback. And this is very important for the subsequent history of the Diem regime because Nhu is very influential, really a dominant figure in the regime from 1960 on. I’m not going to go into the reasons for this comeback. If we want to explore it in the q-and-a, we can certainly do that. But suffice it to say that the long-term effects of this are very significant for the Diem regime. These rivalries among the Ngo brothers will continue to affect the regime all the way down to its downfall in 1963.
By way of conclusion, let me just make three points here. The first point is that, as I indicated, the Can Lao was a profoundly factionalized organization. And this has big implications for how we understand South Vietnamese politics during the Diem period. Contrary to the popular view, the Can Lao was not this super-centralized Leninist party. There was these divisions among Can Lao organizations set up by Nhu. And then on top of that, there was this rivalry between Nhu and Can.
The second point here is that the dealings of the Central Intelligence Agency with the Can Lao need to be understood in light of this factionalism. The CIA was definitely aware of these contests within the Can Lao, but they seem to have been very slow to understand how these rivalries were affecting and undermining their ambitions for the party.
The last and in some ways the most important point has to do with the long-term implications for the history of the Diem regime from these findings about the Can Lao. In this paper, I don’t discuss 1963 and the events leading to the downfall of the Diem regime, but I will here give you just one interesting factoid about that period. In 1963, as I’m sure you all know, there was a big crisis in South Vietnam and there was a great deal of coup plotting going on against the Diem regime. There were three coup plots in progress in the fall of ’63 that were deemed to be particularly substantial or serious. The first plot, of course, is the one that succeeded. This was led by top generals in the South Vietnamese army. The ringleaders of this plot were generals like Tan Van Don and Tran Van Minh. They were not Can Lao members. However, in order for their plot to succeed, they had to recruit military officers who were members of the Can Lao. And the most important of these was a general by the name of Ton That Dinh, who was the commander of the Saigon region. So that first plot did have an important Can Lao element to it.
The other two plots that were in progress in the fall of 1963, one was led by Huynh Van Lang, the former chief of the Lien Ky. And the other was headed by none other than Dr. Tuyen, who by 1963 was completely on the outs with Nhu. So I think what this suggests is that the Can Lao is really important in the history of the Diem regime, but it’s important in a way – in a political way which I don’t think we’ve quite understood yet, and hopefully, we’ll learn more about as more research is done on this subject.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MAHAN: Professor Miller has clearly shown his grasp of the intricacies of the Vietnamese – South Vietnamese bureaucracy, and I know I look forward to his forthcoming book.
Our second speaker is also a prolific writer. Effie Pedaliu is a senior lecturer in international history at the University of West England at Bristol. She received her Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and –
(Audio cuts off.)
DR. MAHAN: (In progress.) Her long list of publications is in the biographical insert, so I won’t repeat them all here, but she’s written on a variety of subjects from British and – the British reconstruction of post-fascist Italian armed forces all the way to human rights and foreign policy issues with Wilson and the Greek dictators. And today she will address the divergences between the United States and its NATO allies over what was at stake in Vietnam.
PROF. PEDALIU: Hi. I, too, would like to thank John Carland and everyone at the Office of the Historian for organizing this intellectually – actually another one of these intellectually scintillating conferences, and thank you for the kind invitation. Usually, I talk through my papers. Today, I shall read it. Hopefully, that way I can keep to the time. This is a severely pruned down version of the original one, so I still hope it retains some coherence.
The Vietnam War, it influenced not only the United States, but also the domestic stability, security, and wellbeing of its NATO allies in Europe. It was at the height of the Gaullist challenge that President Johnson tried to internationalize the conflict in Vietnam with the More Flags Initiative. According to Fred Logevall, More Flags had been intended to strengthen America’s hand both internationally and domestically, and thereby legitimize the American intervention to prop up the wobbly regime in Saigon. Secretary of State Dean Rusk took the campaign for More Flags to the North Atlantic Council in The Hague in May 1964. He found all his NATO allies rather circumspect on venturing beyond economic support to South Vietnam.
The adoption of semantical [sic] strategies of containment had committed the United States to a zero-sum game around the world that could not advance – allow the advance of communism anywhere. In this respect, Vietnam was not that much different than Greece had been in 1947. Unlike Greece, the United States ended up committing troops to Vietnam and thus making it a test of its credibility as an ally. However, to put things in perspective, the United States was not the only country that was concerned about the situation in Southeast Asia. Britain was involved there, trying to stem back the Indonesian confrontation with Malaysia. And initially, the British judged that the two situations did not differ that much.
It is true that the Europeans had initially encouraged American involvement in Vietnam as a means of mitigating the volatility of decolonization and containing any Soviet or Chinese advances. However, the Europeans, at this point in time, they did not wish to see the expansion of the Americanization of the war, nor did they wish to contribute militarily. The European allies were appalled by de Gaulle’s behavior in using American discomfort in Vietnam to score points in NATO, but they, too, believed that no Western power could win this war.
Also, long-running, preexisting European dissatisfaction with the consultation deficit existing within NATO merged with concerns over Vietnam. For the European ex-colonial powers, attitudes towards Vietnam were also shaped by – was shaped by a complex set of issues, including, to some degree, bitterness over American past attitudes and behavior. These governments were now pressed by the Third Worldism of the vociferous European left and the disenchantment of the average European citizen over the state of newly decolonized countries. This made it impossible to commit conscripts to fight a war that was not considered intrinsic to their own national security.
The NATO Europeans saw the central front as essential, and they were not prepared to compromise the transatlantic bargain struck at the height of the Korean War that Western Europe remained the key area for the defense of the free world. To them, the strategic concept of the domino effect seemed unlikely. France had left the Maghreb and North Africa had not gone communist. By 1965, Indonesia had dealt with its internal challenges with efficient brutality.
The Europeans also did not perceive China as a threat. However, there was palpable concern in European capitals that the Americanization of the war could spark off a Korean-style Chinese intervention. Manlio Brosio, the Secretary General of NATO, thought it likely that NATO would be gravely affected if Vietnam were to lead to a substantial reduction of American forces in Europe. This was a major security concern. For example, the Low and Nordic countries were worried that any decrease in American troops would speed up the Soviet naval buildup in the North Sea. The NATO allies were to see their fears of a drawdown of American troops materialize. By 1972, there were 21 percent fewer American troops there than there had been in 1964.
Most Europeans laid the blame for the drift towards the Americanization of the Vietnam War down to Flexible Response, which they saw as an open-ended policy that diverted America away from the primary battleground in its flanks. Thus Denmark and Norway opposed the multilateral nuclear force on the grounds that it had the potential to upset the Nordic balance. The European NATO allies felt that the – sorry – the dependability of the United States was becoming less certain. The death of the MLF in December 1964 came just too late to make good to the damage it had done to allied unity.
Less than a month after the announcement of the More Flags program in late May 1964, President Johnson made his – one of his first allusions to bridge-building with the Soviet Union. European capitals saw it as a sign that the United States was diverting its attention away from Europe and also a second détente at the worst possible terms. The Europeans did not want a direct dialogue between the superpowers with allies excluded. Moreover, by December 1964, they were convinced, according to British Foreign Office, that South Vietnam was further than ever from victory, or in Konrad Adenauer’s words, Vietnam was a disaster. The Johnson Administration was not prepared to change its time scale, nor willing to take European advice.
By 1967, Vietnam had become a taboo in NATO meetings. The unleashing of Rolling Thunder was felt deeply in Europe, too. But still, all European governments, apart from France, stood by the United States diplomatically, despite the huge political costs. European public opinion began to turn firmly against the war. The Europeans saw just one solution to the impasse: the end of the war through a compromised peace. However, rumors that the collapse of Marigold, then Sunflower, had been intentional led many European leaders, fairly or unfairly, to doubt the honesty of American actions. The events of the Prague Spring in August 1968 were seen by the European allies as an affirmation that the danger to world peace lay in Europe and not Southeast Asia.
By 1967, a tumult of street protests signified a perceptible shift in European electoral politics. Traditional systems of government came under pressure from radical parties and demands for more inclusive politics. These pressures stretched from the north, in the Low and Nordic countries, to the south in Italy and Greece. In Greece, the democratic quarter was to collapse from the insecurities détente had sown in rightwing and paramilitary circles. In Italy, the war impacted on the cohesion of the faction-rivened party, the ruling party, Democracia Christiana and compounded the general political instability the country was experiencing.
In Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, Vietnam intersected with the profound change in how politics was practiced. In Great Britain, Sir Michael Palliser wrote – an assistant, diplomat, and Wilson’s private secretary – wrote in 1965, that the feeling against the War in Vietnam was so strong that Labor regarded it as the most immoral act since the Holocaust. So NATO itself came under the microscope of European public opinion. Those against the war came to question not only their government’s silence over Vietnam but also that of NATO’s, and also its toleration of dictatorships within its ranks. In Denmark, this manifested itself in pressure to hold a referendum in 1969 over the country’s continued membership of NATO. In The Netherlands, a faction of the Labor Party directly questioned the validity of the country’s continued membership.
The Americans realized the damage Vietnam was causing to the alliance. And both Johnson – the Johnson and Nixon administrations, took active steps to repair it. Johnson was to prove himself, as Tom Schwartz has shown beyond any doubt, to be a consummate diplomat when it came to the protection of NATO. By ignoring de Gaulle’s provocation in 1966, he showed up the French leader to his fellow Europeans as the odd man out. And by introducing the Nuclear Planning Group, he was able to repair some of the damage caused in transatlantic relations. Johnson defended NATO against his American – its American detractors and the Mansfield resolution. He too, like Kennedy before him, refused to make Vietnam the litmus test of the loyalty of America’s allies and did not allow the equilibrium reached with the Harmel Report of a détente and the alliance’s future to be derailed by Vietnam.
NATO suffered during the years of Vietnam, but it did not unravel because the European Economic Community countries all fell behind the Dutch Socialist Foreign Minister Max van der Stoel, who said that the search for European-based defense arrangements should not seek to replace NATO, which would be absolutely irresponsible.
America felt lonely about Vietnam, according to a British Foreign Office report. The reality was, however, that American great leaders offered up support publicly, despite the political cost to them and their parties, a position which they were able to maintain until 1971, when the Norwegian Labor Party became the first one to break ranks.
All European NATO members tried to mitigate the lack of military support by offering economic and development aid to South Vietnam. Britain offered up the Thompson mission from 1961 to 1965 and counterinsurgency, military, and police training in British jungle schools, infrastructural assistance, and support. Germany offered direct financial support which, according to the British, was impressive – medical support, loans, and technical assistance. The Netherlands offered training facilities in Holland, and experts. Greece offered military medical teams, pharmaceutical and surgical equipment. Belgium and Turkey offered medicines. Denmark provided technical assistance, medical supplies, and training for South Vietnamese nurses. De Gaulle had clearly exaggerated when he claimed that Europe was paying for the war in Vietnam, but as Zimmerman has shown, the Europeans shouldered some of the costs of the war, especially in terms of monetary implications and currency instability that developed as the Bretton Woods system collapsed under the Nixon Administration.
Brosio and his successor, Luns, ensured that the issue of Vietnam was not discussed by the allies unless the United States wanted it, and also that no NATO communiqué was allowed to reflect the tensions within NATO over the war. Perhaps all this support was not spontaneous enough and in sufficient quantities for the United States to make the public statement it needed to appease its own public opinion. Johnson’s fear that the United States would be portrayed as a colonialist power if European NATO allies did not offer visible support had been ill-judged.
How could the reintroduction of erstwhile colonial powers in a recently decolonized region have helped to offer an aura for legitimacy or moral crusade to the activities of a self-professed anti-colonialist power – superpower? Even if it could have helped marginally with the United States domestic public opinion, the negative effects in Europe would have been so detrimental as to counteract any benefit. Europe could not help at this time, and the United States would have not found itself in a more comfortable place if it had. The problem had been South Vietnam and its government. Had the European NATO allies said to the United States, in Vietnam, the United States had lived up to its commitments, but there was no limit – but there was a limit to what could be done if the other partner to a commitment was unable to do its share and turned out to be not viable.
Instead of a conclusion, because I don’t have the time, I would like to wind up this presentation with Dean Rusk’s word, which – who, in my opinion, really described relations, the transatlantic relation at this time, at the time of Vietnam, in an acute – an astute manner. He said, “The mood of isolationism in the United States and Europe were feeding off each other. People in the United States were turning away from Europe because Europe was not helping in Vietnam. People in Europe were turning away from the United States because they did not want to get involved there.”
Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MAHAN: These papers are so interesting, I hate to keep putting this slip of paper saying, “Please conclude, five minutes,” but I guess that the DoD tradition. Thank you, Dr. Pedaliu, for your insightful paper, which shows us that the impact of the Vietnam War was truly global.
And our third and last paper should serve as a good complement to Ambassador Tran and Dr. Ha’s presentations yesterday on North Viet – the North Vietnamese war effort. Dr. Wiest has written a groundbreaking study on the South Vietnamese military and the U.S. alliance with the Republic of Vietnam. He’s a distinguished professor in the humanities and a professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He’s also the founding director of the Center for the Study of War and Society.
In about – since 1992, Dr. Wiest has also been active in international education and has developed an award-winning Vietnam study abroad program. He will speak today about the South Vietnamese military effort and the U.S. alliance with the Republic of Vietnam.
PROF. WIEST: Like – excuse me – like everybody else, I want to thank Dr. Carland and the Historian’s Office here. I get 15 minutes to talk about 10 years of research and a really fat book and all its conclusions. I guess there’s no solution but to get after it, as we like to say. I’ll apologize in advance, too, for my Mississippi accent. If you need a translator, I guess the translator things will still work. (Laughter.)
I came to the study of the Vietnam War as an outsider. I was trained as a historian of World War One and did a lot of my original research in World War One and came to the study of Vietnam very accidentally by becoming close to several veterans and taking those veterans to Vietnam on a study abroad course. And while I was there in Vietnam in the year 2000, I ran into and came to know several Vietnamese and got entranced by their side of their war. I specifically got entranced by the South Vietnamese side of the war. And when I came home, I began to think about it, began to research on it, and found out that that side of the war is all too often ignored. Very little is often written about it. And again, just as a historical outsider, it seemed to me that that didn’t make much sense. It seemed to me, again as an outsider, that this was their war to win or to lose, that American forces were not going to be able to make strategic sustainability. That was up to South Vietnam to do that. So it struck me that instead of ignoring it or blaming South Vietnam, perhaps we ought to examine it a little more closely, especially its military.
I discovered that the one major school of thought that existed really, and then we’re beginning to – a number of historians are beginning to change this, but the existing school of thought pretty much said that South Vietnam and its military were so fatally flawed and weak that there was never any hope, and why bother to study them at all? And certainly, when you look at the South Vietnamese Government and the military, you discover a lot of the basics. They were ham-fisted, they were often incompetent, they were often saddled with graft, and they struggled to create any kind of sense of a true nationalism.
The ARVN itself, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, was very often poorly led and prone to very bad mistakes, if you follow some of its battle histories. All these things are certainly well-known. But even as an outsider beginning to familiarize myself with this topic, I noticed pretty quickly that just on the surface of it, perhaps that initial idea that the South Vietnamese state and government and its military were so badly flawed that there’s no reason to look at it was perhaps wrong. South Vietnam fought for every day of its existence from 1954 to 1975, never had a day at peace. That’s an awful long war. The South Vietnamese suffered about 200,000 military deaths and a much greater number of that, civilian deaths. The war was long and arduous, in fact more long and arduous than any war we’ve ever faced. After the war was over, 1.5 million South Vietnamese fled. Hundreds of thousands spent time in prison camps. Just as an outside observer, it struck me that this is simply not the story of a nation that didn’t bother to fight. These guys fought and seemingly fought hard.
So then, okay, I was brought to another question. Why didn’t they win? If they fought hard, why didn’t they win? After all, they had us, the world’s leading superpower, on their side. That seems to be a pretty good combination. So in – what I wanted to look at was the alliance between us and them and see why this alliance that seems very powerful on its surface failed to achieve victory. And the reasons for that failure, if you delve into them deeply, are really complex and have an awful lot to do with our actions and their actions. It was an alliance failure; it wasn’t simply a South Vietnamese failure.
To get into it more deeply, to begin to make some conclusions about it, I’ll start off with some generalizations. First off, the South Vietnamese military leadership and the leadership of the state was too tied to a colonial past, it was too corrupt, and too incompetent to deserve the sacrifice – first to get the sacrifice, and then to be deserving of the ongoing sacrifice of its own people. That’s a bad card to play.
Second, our aid to this flawed system, while it was well-intentioned, was – we had the effect of establishing a South Vietnamese military that was too American in nature, a South Vietnamese military that had little connection to South Vietnamese or Vietnamese social realities. We helped create an ARVN around standard infantry divisions that relied on lavish logistic support, the primacy of firepower and technology to achieve victory, all the things the American military relies to achieve victory. And these are simply not sustainable in a South Vietnamese system. If we’re there, they’re sustainable; if we’re not, well, then the situation’s a little different.
Our intervention in the war in1965, instead of fixing that problem, made it worse. Essentially, what happened was that the U.S. forces came in, and Ambassador Negroponte pointed this out this morning, instead of working with the ARVN and help to make them sustainable, we shoved them to one side and said we’ll win the war for you. Instead of making an ARVN capable of surviving, we just pushed them aside and was going to do the war for them. What this did was it marginalized the need for reform in the South Vietnamese Government and the South Vietnamese military. Reform for them was going to be painful and would take a long time. It turned out they didn’t think they needed to. We would come along and save them, no matter how bad they wound up becoming.
So the policy of the Americans before 1968 actually had – what we created was an ARVN that really didn’t see the need for reform and was built to fight alongside American forces, not to fight or survive on its own. It was only after 1968, when the U.S. was a little more concerned about exiting the conflict than creating an ARVN that was meant to survive, that we did put some effort into that. But in my argument, it was too little, too late.
General Ngo Quang Truong, perhaps the best commander – field commander in the ARVN, who commanded the ARVN 1st Division for most of my research, had the following quote: “Entering the war with a posture and disposition of a fire brigade, the Americans rushed around to save the Vietnamese house from destruction but took too little interest in caring for the victims. Only after they realized that the victims, too, should be made firefighters to save their own houses did the Americans really set about caring for them. Valuable time was lost. And by the time the victims could get on their own feet and began to move forward a couple steps after recovery, the fire brigade was recalled to the home station. It was too little, too late.”
My research also focuses on – well, it focuses basically on the lives of two very important, I think, Vietnamese officers, a gentleman named Pham Van Dinh and another gentleman named Tran Ngoc Hue. They both served, beginning as – in 1961 for one and 1963 for the other, as platoon leaders. And by the end of the war, one was a regimental commander and the other one was a battalion commander. They both served in I Corps at the northern part of South Vietnam. So looking at their lives, I’m able to see the tactical flow of the American alliance at the combat level for pretty much the entire war, making some more detailed conclusions by looking at their lives.
First off, from the very beginning, both men, like many of their American advisors, thought that we and they were fighting the wrong war. They both favored much more of a counterinsurgency type war, that they were left by cold by idea of search-and-destroy, that they would move through an area, defeat or run off whatever forces happened to be there and then leave, and then leave the Viet Cong infrastructure in place to continue ruling that area.
In 1967, Pham Van Dinh, the elder of my two soldiers that I focus on, was made part of a very interesting experiment. His – he was a battalion commander at the time. His battalion was made organic to a South Vietnamese district, Huong Dien District, just north of the city of Hue. That meant it slept with the people, it worked with the people, it became part of the people, it helped with the harvest. It was made organic to the area. Within six months, and this area was “overrun” – quote, unquote – by Viet Cong. Within six months, the entire area had been pacified. In living with the people, they were able to identify and eradicate the VC infrastructure. And to put it bluntly, Viet Cong main force units avoided the area. They didn’t want to tangle with a resident ARVN battalion.
So an area that had been Viet Cong-dominated goes to being pacified, and really pacified, not the fake pacified that we’re often familiar with HES reports, within six months. But after that six months was over, the battalion was removed. It had taken too many boots away from search-and-destroy. It was put back in a search-and-destroy mode. And then one year later, this battalion is going to have to go back to Huong Dien District with American Airborne and fight of the most bitter battles of the entire war because this area once again goes into becoming hardcore VC.
Some other things that my research was able to point out: First off, I would argue that much of our tactical history of the Vietnam War is simply wrong. If you look at most of the great stories about great battles, whether they be from the Ia Drang Valley on one end or even after we leave on the other, you see American forces doing big things. And what’s usually missing from the picture are the ARVN. They were there before we got there, they fought in every major battle while we were there, and they fought in the ones after we left, too. And usually, you can’t find them in any book. And I’ll just use two examples, two examples that – of battles that my commanders fought in and that they were central to.
If you pick up any book on the Tet Offensive in 1968 – and by the way, I advise you to pick up Jim Willbanks’s book on the Tet Offensive in 1968. It doesn’t have this problem. Most other books do. You see the American forces specifically in HueCity, the city that almost all the way fell to NVA and VC action. And you see a few brave American Marines, and there were a few brave American Marines – all this stuff is true – defending the MACV compound and then beginning a very slow, long struggle to retake the city in house-to-house fighting. And that’s what you see, brave American Marines doing what Marines have done through history. And they’ve done that – that they certainly do this. The Marines free the city of Hue south of the PerfumeRiver and losing 147 killed in the process.
But what’s missing is the ARVN. The ARVN was there fighting. Both of my guys were there fighting. Tran Ngoc Hue led the Hoc Bao Company, a rapid reaction force that did the most to defend the city. And then Tran Ngoc Hue led the Second Battalion of the Third Regiment, which did much of the fighting to retake the city. It was the ARVN that re-took most of the city, especially the citadel. And just some small numbers for you: ARVN forces lost 357 dead and inflicted 2,642 battle deaths on the NVA. And these are American numbers, so probably not cooked South Vietnamese numbers. So the fighting in Tet in the city of Hue isn’t simply an American battle, which most books portray it as.
Another of the most – my most famous incident of this – excuse me, my favorite, not most famous – incident of this in my book is Hamburger Hill, which has kind of gone down as – in utter legend and even film in American history. And the typical view of the battle is that the Third Battalion of the 187th under its hard-charging commander, Tiger Honeycutt, fought up this forlorn hillside for 10 days against really stiff NVA resistance, and right as it was about to lose its last man, it broke through the final bunkers and took the top of the hill. And yay, the movie can end with a celebration. The truth of the matter is a little different. It was actually the Second Battalion of the Third ARVN Division under Pham Van Dinh that reached the top of the hill first. They advanced before the American units, they got there before the American units, they radioed that they were up there, and the Americans ordered them off. And they said if you don’t leave, we’re going to shell you; this is an American battle to win, this is not your battle to win.
And it took me a long time to actually prove that, to find the exact documents for that, but that is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. To me, this incident points out a number of things about the American-ARVN alliance, especially its fragility. What had they done? Exactly what we asked them to, fight well in a battle. Show initiative. Achieve something meaningful. And when they did that, our national or military psyche was so fragile that we had to tell them that, no. And by the way, the ARVN noticed very much, too, that they got no coverage after Tet, perhaps their biggest victory ever in their history. And all they see in the American coverage of this is the American coverage of Tet, nothing about South Vietnamese victories. So I would argue we have to put the ARVN in the battlefield histories to get the battles right.
Wow, five minutes. I like that. (Laughter.) I can talk real fast, as you can already see.
My argument, then, would be that what we have here at this stage in the war is the exact ARVN we were trying to create, an ARVN that fought well alongside us, an ARVN that used American firepower and American logistics to achieve its victories and achieve victories that we often don’t write about. Of course, what happens then is we tend to – our histories of the war tend to get even thinner because we tend to back out after ’69. American consciousness about the war tends to fall. But South Vietnamese consciousness about the war tends to really rise because they’re now in trouble. Their two biggest battles, Operation Lam Son 719, the invasion of Laos, and the Easter Offensive are post- most American consciousness of this war.
And I think they’re very instructive to Operation Lam Son 719, the invasion of Laos in 1971 is the first ARVN main force operation outside South Vietnamese borders. It’s 17,000 ARVN soldiers against 60,000 NVA defenders. Turns out the NVA didn’t run away like they had in Cambodia the year before and like our planners hoped. They stood and fought. And the South Vietnamese are cut to ribbons. Half of them are – half of the 17,000 that are put into this are killed. And what you see is South Vietnamese junior officers, South Vietnamese enlisted men, fighting very well and very hard. Tran Ngoc Hue was a battalion commander in his own right at this time, commanding the Second Battalion of the Second Regiment. And the story of his battalion is kind of – well, it’s a little more than typical. His battalion was inserted at Tchepone, all the way into Laos as far as we went, and had to fight its way back out. It was surrounded six times and 26 people survived. These men fought hard. The individual fighting man in South Vietnam was pretty good, as were some – many of the low-level leaders. But if you look at the top levels, everything fell apart. In fits of petulance, people complaining and screaming at each other, the top-level command fell apart.
On the ground, the ARVN didn’t have its usual link to American firepower because the American advisors didn’t go with them, so even that went awry. So in – what do we see in Lam Son 719? An ARVN that’s capable of fighting but an ARVN that is monumentally poorly led still. And you see the same thing again in 1972 with the America – excuse me, the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. I have – this is when something very important happens to Pham Van Dinh. He is defending Camp Carroll along the DMZ and his battered remnants of his regiment are ensconced on Camp Carroll and they’re surrounded by three NVA divisions. He radios back to his commander, his corps commander, General Lam, and says, “Okay, I’m stuck here. What do I do?” And Lam says, “Well, you fight to the end. And by the way, I have to hang up now because I’m late for my afternoon tennis match.”
Dinh had, I think kind of rightfully for South Vietnamese officers, thought there were two chances of victory: A) the U.S. would provide them a shield, a military shield, and behind that shield the South Vietnamese Government had to reform and make itself capable of survival. What he saw in 1972 was the shield was gone. American ground forces didn’t play a role in this. And he saw that the South Vietnamese Government in the person of General Lam wasn’t worth his sacrifice. He saw that the war was going to end in a different way than he’d hoped, and he surrenders and actually defects to the North Vietnamese military.
In essence, what does the Easter Offensive then prove? I think it actually goes on and proves, then, another counterpoint. The South Vietnamese, with American aid, lavish American firepower, lavish American support with its advisors – I’m sorry, they paved the North Vietnamese offensive. The North Vietnamese offensive peters out at An Loc, peters out at HueCity, and then the ARVN move back, taking back most of the land. ARVN is going to suffer about 8,000 dead. The NVA are going to suffer, like, 40,000 dead. In essence, what does this show? It shows that the American alliance with the South Vietnamese was actually working as we defined it. With South Vietnamese manpower and American firepower, we were tactically effective. Tactically effective, not strategically.
And of course, what happens is the very next year, American firepower is gone. And the year after that, American monetary support is gone. And the South Vietnamese military is left in a situation it was never designed to be in, a situation of being on its own. It was always meant to be an alliance military fighting with us in a situation in which the enemy was, hopefully, defeated and gone. The enemy is still there. The alliance partner’s gone. And the South Vietnamese military is simply, in my view, not Vietnamese enough to survive much longer.
So in conclusion, really quickly, I think that – what can we learn from just looking at these two guys’ lives and taking thoughts from them? First off, the South Vietnamese military is not just a parody. It perhaps is deserving of some kind of historical inquiry. A second thing I think that’s perhaps worth noting is that this South Vietnamese military finds itself at a really uncomfortable confluence of events. It serves a South Vietnamese Government that’s bad and that doesn’t see the need to change. It’s also serving an American definition of a war, and America leaves that war and leaves the South Vietnamese military in a very difficult place.
So is this the conclusion of history about the ARVN? No, I think it’s the introduction. A lot more historical work needs to be done on the ARVN. And despite bringing up these questions, perhaps that work will get started and other people will take it forward.
Thank you. (Applause.) start here:
DR. MAHAN: Although I’m tempted to exercise the chair’s prerogative to make a few comments, I shall refrain because we have as our commentator of the panel a scholar who’s far more knowledgeable and preeminent than I, and a very humble man and who’s shown me – I’ve observed over the years the historians who submit the shortest bios are usually the most accomplished in their field. So do not reflect – his bio does not reflect everything he has done. He’s the author of numerous books and articles on the struggle for Vietnam, and he’s currently completing a work on the study of the First Indochina War and the roots of U.S. involvement. I welcome Fred Logevall, who is a friend and will give you a superb summary and tie these papers together.
PROF. LOGEVALL: A superb commentary is what I now have to give. I’m grateful to be here. I want to also extend my thanks to organizers.
You know, I’m always conscious when I’ve attended a conference or I am attending a conference on the Vietnam War, and I’ve attended a few, that I have a kind of contradictory impulse during the conference. On the one hand, I’m reminded of what the Victorian era novelist Lytton Strachey said about the history of Victorian England. He said, “That history can never be written. We know too much about it.” (Laughter.) And I have that feeling when I’m here, but I also have the contradictory feeling, which is, man, there is so much more that we need to learn about this conflict. There’s so much new research that needs to be done.
And I’ve just finished – as Erin was saying, I’ve just finished writing a history of the French war and then the transition from the French to the Americans. And I’ve had even in writing that book, which I’m embarrassed to say is a very long book, I’ve had those contradictory feelings. On the one hand, there is just so much here, so much information, so much knowledge, and yet there is so much more also that I’d like to know that I don’t know.
What these papers remind us is that the United States, for all of its central importance in the struggle for Vietnam after 1945 – and I do want to underscore that central importance in my view of the United States from the very beginning in 1945 right to end. For all of its importance in that larger struggle, what these papers, I think, show is that the United States nevertheless encountered demonstrations of the limits of its power and its influence. Here we’re not talking about the DRV, we’re not talking about the Viet Cong, the Pathet Lao, the Khmer Rouge. We’re not talking about the Chinese or the Soviets. No, in fact, what we’re talking about in each case in these papers, we’re talking about allies, we’re talking about partners within South Vietnam and among Western – in this case, Western European governments.
Now, I do think it’s important to note at the outset that in important respects, the relationships in question worked, arguably worked remarkably well, at least for a time. Thus, for example, in May 1957 when Ngo Dinh Diem paid a triumphant visit to the United States, was even treated to tickertape parade up Broadway, U.S. ties with the Diem regime appeared to many observers to be succeeding marvelously well, though to be sure, as I examine in this – in my current book, even at that point in the spring of 1957, the bilateral relationship was in many respects beset by deep underlying problems.
Likewise, with respect to American diplomacy with respect to Western Europe, as Effie examines in her paper, one could argue that Americans did surprisingly well by some measures, at least through the end of the 1960s. I’ll come back to that in a moment. And the ARVN, which is the subject of Andy Wiest’s paper, of course experienced tremendous expansion with major American assistance and could point to achievements, as Andy has articulated – incomplete achievements, fleeting in many respects, but nevertheless real.
That said, a common theme in these papers, as I suggested a moment ago – a common theme is that the United States did not at any point in the period under discussion, at any point after 1954 – the United States did not have a monopoly on agency. And I think that’s a point, by the way, that has remarkable contemporary resonance with respect to our current two wars that we’re engaged in today.
Henry Kissinger, yesterday when he was here, spoke about the limits, about how Vietnam was from – was Americans’ first experience with the limits of its power in foreign policy. I think that’s probably a debatable assertion. One could argue, for example, that Korea demonstrated the limits for the United States as well. But he’s certainly correct when we think about the papers under discussion today.
Now, Ed Miller, in his paper, gives us welcome attention to the Can Lao, the covert political apparatus, or really semi-covert, that was the Ngo family’s main instrument of rule and whose members, many of them Catholics, held principal posts in the government, in the bureaucracy, as well as in the officer corps and police. And as Ed shows in the paper, the reach of the Can Lao extended into virtually every facet of South Vietnamese political life. And the paper makes several points, and I’ll just race through them briefly. I’m conscious of our time and will cut some of the things I had prepared to talk about here.
Some of the points that Ed makes here confirm my own sense of what was going on at the time, but they’re nevertheless very important because he provides corroborating evidence. Thus we learn, for example, that the Can Lao was corrupt and repressive, that it was not created by or controlled by the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency, that the party was in some respects Ngo Dinh Nhu’s baby through and through. And Ed further shows that the Can Lao was a key pillar of the Ngo family’s power in South Vietnam, but that it was always – and he emphasizes this point, I think, quite well – always an entity permeated by factional schisms, by careerist ambitions, by internal disputes.
One of the things that would be interesting to have Ed talk about, if we have any time this morning, would be to have Ed talk to us a little bit about something that I think it will be a feature in his forthcoming book, namely Nhu’s role in stoking the tensions in U.S.-South Vietnamese relations, tensions that arguably were there from the very beginning in 1954 and certainly were there to some extent from 1954, but increased later. As the 1950s drew to a close, American leverage with Diem, not high to begin with, had declined further. Try as U.S. officials might to get him to broaden his government, to show more sensitivity to the needs of his people, to show greater tolerance for the expression of political opposition, they got nowhere. Instead, Diem, his sense of idealism and his utter confidence in his own political instincts wholly uimpaired, turned increasingly inward, relying almost exclusively on an ever-shrinking circle of confidants, headed by none other than, of course, Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother.
And I’m interested in this – in Nhu’s role. He, like many of Vietnam’s French-educated intellectuals, had contempt for the rich and brash Anglo-Saxons, whom he considered dull and unsophisticated. He contemptuously remarked to an ARVN officer at one point that while the French might have been our colonial masters, but at least they understand Vietnam, whereas the United States, quote, “helps us with a lot of money but doesn’t know anything about Vietnamese affairs.” So I’d be interested in hearing Ed talk a little bit of more that, if we have a chance. Now, more to be said there but I’m going to skip ahead.
Effie’s paper is about, as you’ve heard, the U.S., its European allies, and the Vietnam War. And from ’65 to ’74, she focuses in particular on the mid 1960s. And as she rightly notes in her introduction, the effects of the war were global. This paper helps to show that. And she traces here how America’s NATO allies in particular came to differ with Washington over the war. I think she’s right to remind us that European governments, by and large, were not hostile to American policy in Vietnam – possible exception being the French. Most European leaders were sympathetic to what Washington was trying to achieve in Vietnam, namely the preservation of an independent, non-communist government in the South. They also shared with Washington a desire to check possible Chinese expansion in the region. Nevertheless, as Effie shows, these governments resisted what in many cases was strong and persistent American pressure to become militarily involved.
And here are the reasons I think are interesting. Number one, these leaders were skeptical that a lasting military victory could be achieved, especially in view of the perceived weakness of the Saigon government and the apathy and war-wariness of the Southern populous. Second – and maybe this a point that Effie could have made somewhat more strongly – second, these Western European officials also doubted that the outcome in Vietnam was actually of central national security importance. The domino theory, as she notes, had become moot to a great many Americans by the time you get into the early and mid-1960s. Third, for these governments, there were also potential domestic political implications and costs to be paid if you committed manpower to a faraway struggle whose importance to their nation’s security was at best open to question. That is to say, Vietnam was simply not worth the price of a military commitment for these governments.
Now, just a quick point here. Washington, of course, proceeds with escalation, even though its so-called More Flags program, More Flags attempt, fails quite miserably. It proceeds with escalation anyway, as we all know. And this, I think, is an important point because what it demonstrates, among other things, is that these governments, despite their misgivings, were by and large – Charles de Gaulle and Paris being the exception – by and large unwilling to oppose Washington on the war, which means, I think, that you can argue that American diplomacy in many respects was actually remarkably successful on Vietnam in this respect. Washington persuaded these leaders to keep their reservations private, which meant that Lyndon Johnson and his aides could argue, inaccurately but with little fear of protest, that the Vietnam War was a war fought on behalf of the free world with the support of the free world. I’d be interested to know what Effie makes of this argument.
I’m going to just say a quick word here about Andy’s paper, in the interest of time. Of course, the focus is on ARVN, as we’ve just heard. And he argues that only by understanding South Vietnam and by understanding the role in this case of the military can we really begin to get a comprehensive understanding of the war itself. The South Vietnamese army, he argues strongly, must be a central part of the story. Now, he elaborates these points, I think, quite well, and he gives particular attention, as you’ve heard, to two junior officers.
He’s, I think, perhaps a little bit – and Andy can speak to this if he gets a chance – uncertain about America’s ally in Vietnam and what it achieved and what it didn’t achieve. I think this is understandable, particularly if this is fairly early on in Andy’s research. He notes that the ARVN fought well, with tenacity, on some occasions, but not other occasions. He says at several points in the paper that it was too weak to stand on its own. He writes the ARVN, quote, “was often poorly-led and mistake-prone. All of these things are well known and go without saying.” Later on, he writes, “The South Vietnamese military leadership was too tied to a colonial past, too corrupt, too incompetent to deserve the ongoing sacrifice of its own people.” So there’s a tension here that Andy, I hope, can work out or at least further explain and would, I think, give the paper and the larger book project a great deal of potential, because he’s certainly right that this is a subject matter that we need to look at further.
I would just conclude with a note of skepticism, I guess, which is that we see a pattern developing fairly early on in the conflict, which is that the Viet Cong, like their Viet Minh forerunners, liked to operate at night and in the bush. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam, with its formidable U.S.-supplied firepower, was afraid of the night and the jungle, just as the French Union forces had been. Virtually no ARVN officers had fought on the side of the Viet Minh in the earlier struggle. Most, indeed, had served under the French. A clear majority was from privileged backgrounds, well-to-do, urban, disdainful of the peasantry that still made up the vast bulk of the Vietnamese populous, real problems here that I think would be interesting to explore further if we get a chance.
I had a concluding section which was going to deal with counterinsurgency, and as Andy suggested, his two – the two junior officers that he focuses on in particular argue that what the United States and the ARVN should have done was paid more attention to counterinsurgency strategy, focused more on counterinsurgency. I have real personal doubts about whether such a strategy could have achieved, never mind the fact that the counterinsurgency is also a very capacious term that can mean a great many things. Let it just be said that I don’t think myself that had – thinking counterfactually, had in fact the ARVN and the U.S. military adopted such a counterinsurgency strategy – COIN, to use the current phrase – earlier, that it would have made an appreciable difference in the end. David Elliott, I think, articulated my basic position on this yesterday.
And so as we are at 11:26, and I apologize for this, I will conclude there and just thank the presenters and thank all of you for paying attention. Sorry. (Applause.)
DR. MAHAN: We do have a few minutes – can you hear me? We do have a few minutes – questions. The one thing standing between you and lunch are your own questions, so that can be a reminder to keep the form of your question as an inquiry and not a long commentary. So with that, I will – the microphones are ready and --
QUESTION: Hi. Rufus Phillips. I think – and this is a problem of how much detail do you get into. But as somebody who lived through that ’54 into ’56 period, we made a lot of fundamental mistakes, and we don’t get much of that coming out. I missed in Professor Miller’s the question of whether there was any dispute on the American side about the support that we gave to the Can Lao. There was. And the same thing on the whole question of how we converted ARVN. We made the decision then to make ARVN into a regular army, a copy of the U.S. Army, to prevent an invasion across the 17th parallel.
So we start out, in my opinion, after some initial success, in the wrong direction in a number of areas. And not only that, but when you talk about giving advice to Diem, if your ambassador is completely antagonistic to Diem, you ensure that that advice is not going to be given. So there’s a personal side to how history works itself out that sometimes doesn’t come through, and maybe we don’t have enough time for it. But I really would like to ask Professor Miller to comment on the question of American backing for the Can Lao, because there was – and there was another judgment idea there that did not get taken into account.
PROF. MILLER: You’re alluding to the opposition of Edward Lansdale --
PROF. MILLER: -- to the idea of the CIA relationship with the Can Lao. And, yeah, you’re absolutely correct. He did oppose it. And this – on the American side, this is a function of the division between Lansdale’s Saigon Military Mission, which you will remember, and the regular CIA station, this very anomalous situation in Saigon in ’54 and ’55, where we essentially had two CIA stations, and they did have very different ideas about how to go about supporting this.
As you said, Lansdale loses that particular argument. So it’s an important part of the story, but what I was trying to focus on here was the history of the party as it unfolded and the regular CIA station, first under Harwood and then continuing under some of his successors like Blaufarb and Colby. So, yeah, there was more to it than I can put into a 20-minute presentation, but that’s why you can buy the book when it comes out. (Laughter.)
PROF. WIEST: And if you want me to comment about the military stuff at the beginning, when the Americans are advising the South Vietnamese military more than they are anything else, there are some pretty big arguments, with Diem often thinking that counterinsurgency following in more of a Vietnamese type path would be the way to go, but that those arguments do not win the day. The American pile of money that threatens to keep coming is overwhelming.
And to – a very quick question of the commentator, was this stuff sustainable? Could South Vietnam have won with this military not as it was structured? So we got off to a wrong foot and had the wrong leaders. I think that a big thing that would have changed that – had a younger cadre of leadership represented by the two guys that I’m – that I write about that only knew American support, not French support, only knew more modern types of – it was – if you ask them and they say, well, three more years, that’s what they all say. Three more years, we would have gotten old – Ngo Quang Truong being the lead example. Here’s a nonpolitical general rising to power, and they saw him as their great hope, and more people like him. But it didn’t happen.
QUESTION: I had a question up here. Lionel Rosenblatt’s my name. I wondered in terms of Professor Wiest, your commentary on ARVN, whether you had also looked at the wider array of GVN programs. We’re going to talk about that this afternoon, I guess, on the counterinsurgency side. I think that there is a chance that ARVN and these other programs could have succeeded if the U.S. withdrawal had occurred more rapidly, actually. Did the Vietnam Special Studies Group ever come up in Kissinger’s presentation yesterday, the SSG?
I was a member of the group. I guess it’s unclassified today, but a group of us went back in 1970 to assess conditions in the provinces in which we’d served. And we concluded that ARVN could make it and the GVN could make it with a certain short list of U.S. support items which, of course, were not provided. But that ought to be a part of the history of our relationship with the Vietnamese. A study was made by the White House under Kissinger’s tutelage. We dealt directly with Abrams and the ambassador, of course. And those recommendations are somewhere in the archives and ought to be looked at. Thank you.
PROF. WIEST: The study I did was actually fairly narrow, so I didn’t have a chance to look at those. But the South Vietnamese officers that I interviewed, and there were several of them, universally said that Vietnamization should have started in around 1966, that the war should have been more Vietnamese and less American, and that would have been a positive plus for them.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) the declassified documents (inaudible).
PROF. WIEST: Thank you.
DR. MAHAN: (Inaudible) master of ceremonies (inaudible) no more time for questions?
DR. CARLAND: One more.
DR. MAHAN: One more. Okay, let someone who hasn’t asked a question. Okay, sir. But please make it less a comment and a question please.
QUESTION: Absolutely. Mr. Wiest, (inaudible). Being from Georgia and you from Mississippi, I understood you perfectly. (Laughter.) Don’t be apologizing for your accent. It’s these people here that have the accent. (Laughter.)
PROF. WIEST: Thank you.
QUESTION: But thanks so much for your paper and spelling out in some detail how well ARVN – some of the ARVN forces fought. And I’m sure there were very good people in those units and supporting the American effort. I knew a bunch in Vietnam – in Alaska, where I lived 14 years, very impressive people. Just overall, I just don’t – I question whether or not on the South Vietnamese side there was anything comparable that could stand up to what Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh, and the regular units and all those people that put together this tremendous effort. It’s just another version, a variation of Dr. Kissinger’s theme that, well, we could have won the war but it all fell apart back here at home. And we do have other Vietnamese people in the room, these folks that gave these marvelous presentations. Is there time for any or one of them to just comment very briefly on your paper?
PROF. WIEST: And just really quickly, I do agree that the South Vietnamese military as it’s structured is not going to survive, and it doesn’t. It collapses in record speed. And another thing I would ask you to do is check out Jim Willbanks’s book on An Loc, the siege there. The South Vietnamese military is this wonderful eclectic mix of great units, awful units, and units somewhere in the middle, some units that are easily the match of American units, some units that can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag. And it usually comes down to leadership, who is physically leading them, and that’s a real mixed bag in the ARVN. So it’s a very flawed institution. But perhaps with a different beginning, as we get back to, it could have been different, but it certainly wasn’t.
PROF. PEDALIU: Do I have time to respond to that –
DR. CARLAND: Okay. Go ahead.
PROF. PEDALIU: Thank you. Now, Fred, you are quite right. The Americans were successful in keeping the Europeans on board during this time. However, what is the point here is that the Europeans from very early on expressed to the Americans their misgivings. And their fear was that the Cold War could be lost in Europe because of the situation and the popular unrest in Europe at this particular time.
The other thing is that there was a semantic difference when Americans and Europeans talked about the free world at this particular time. The Europeans are thinking of the West and the Americans are talking about the free world. And that becomes more and more acute as the Vietnam War continues.
DR. CARLAND: You can finish.
DR. MAHAN: Well, it is lunchtime, so I suggest we just – a round of applause for our panelists and our – (applause).