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Interview with Henry Cabot Lodge, 1979 [Part 4 of 5]

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Summary
Henry Cabot Lodge was a United States Senator from Massachusetts, and Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1963 – 1964. He viewed South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem as an ineffective leader, and tacitly supported the coup that overthrew him. Mr. Lodge discusses the circumstances of his appointment as Ambassador, and his impressions of Vietnam prior to going. He recounts the advice and instruction he received from other advisers, especially regarding Diem, and details his role in the events surrounding the coup. He describes Diem’s personality and his own view of the war after the coup.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam (Republic), Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’etat, 1963, Diplomacy, Economic assistance--Vietnam, Economic sanctions, Vietnamese reunification question (1954-1976), Presidents, International relations, Buddhist sculpture, Culture and communication in Asia, Vietnam--History--19th century, Vietnam--History, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, United States--History--1945-, United States--History, Military--20th century, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--Politics and government, United States--Armed Forces, Vietnam--Politics and government
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Transcript

Impressions of Diem and his brother Nhu

Interviewer:
...cigarettes all the time, he kept switching...
Lodge:
Oh, one after the other. He was a...
Interviewer:
Could you mention that?
Lodge:
Oh, yeah. He was a chain smoker.
Interviewer:
Yeah. But he didn't smoke them down. He's just light 'em and put 'em out, and then light 'em...
Lodge:
Yeah.
Interviewer:
Ready?
Go ahead.
I just want to go back, Mr. Ambassador, and ask you about these meetings that you had with President Diem. What was it like sitting there with him?
Lodge:
He had this office where he received foreign visitors and he had a big armchair and a table with a tea set on it and you had a big armchair and a table and the difference between the two tables though, were rather important because the tea that was in front of me contained a diuretic which created an irresistible urge to do that thing which nobody else can do for you. And I gather his tea was not the same kind of tea that I had. So he sat there chain-smoking cigarettes, one right after the other, and I sat there with this urge growing on me and it grew so strong that finally I had to leave and I never took another cup of tea in his palace again.
Interviewer:
What about his...umm..his smoking? I wish you could describe that...
Lodge:
Well, he'd light a cigarette and take one or two puffs and then put it down. He kept on doing that all the time so he must have...in that way he must have smoked a great many.

Relations with Thich Tri Quang

Interviewer:
I want to raise the name of another Vietnamese that you met during this period. You remember when the Buddhist leader Thich Tri Quang took asylum in the American Embassy and...did you get to know him during this period?
Lodge:
Oh yes, indeed I did. We became friends and he sent me this ah...he sent me this statue of Buddha and with a letter in Vietnamese and an English translation "I should like to present you with this small Buddhist statue which according to traditional symbolism, represents the spirit of self-contentment that comes from doing good deeds for others. In light of your deeds here in Vietnam, you are most deserving of such self-contentment. On behalf of not only myself but also some ten million countrymen who have benefited from your actions during your stay here, I thank you and wish you and your wife happiness."
Interviewer:
What kind of a person was he? What kind of impression did he make on you?
Lodge:
He was a very sharp, clever, determined, energetic man. And he detested what Diem was doing. He...he was very suspicious by nature.
And he wrote me that letter and sent me this statue and then he turned on me later when I came back for my second tour and because according to a Chinese Buddhist that I talked with, they believe that if two men have been associated together in a very...in a very difficult and hazardous enterprise the way Thich Tri Quang and I were, that one of those men can ask for anything he wants from the other man. And the man will get it. And he wanted me to get rid...I don't know if it was General Khanh or who it was, and when I said, well, I can't possibly overthrow General Khanh. I haven't got the power and I haven't got the instructions. And he thereupon took a great dislike to me and when I left, I never saw him.
Interviewer:
You didn't get another Buddha the second time.
Lodge:
I didn't get another Buddha. Well, there wasn't any second time. I saw him at a monastery in Da Nang and that's when he and I really disagreed because to me as an American government official, well, the idea that I can go around throwing people over and putting people in was absolutely preposterous.
Interviewer:
Let me ask you one thing. If you could take him, and you talked to him at some length, and this was during a period when the Buddhists were very much in agitation and ferment against the Diem government, did he strike you as more of a religious man or more of a politician? How would you describe him?
Lodge:
Thich Tri Quang?
Interviewer:
Yeah.
Lodge:
Well, he was both. We've seen that.
Interviewer:
Could you elaborate a little on that?
Lodge:
No, I could not. I'm not going to even if I could. He was very much interested in politics and he was very much interested in the Buddhist religion and they all worked in together as far as he was concerned.
Interviewer:
Did you consider that he had a good deal of political savvy, that he was smart politically?
Lodge:
He was smart but the Buddhist organization was not very modern and he couldn't...he couldn't do all the things he wanted to do.
Interviewer:
Let me touch on another point about this period. You remember the Polish representative of the International Control Commission is a man by the name of Maneli.
Lodge:
No...yes, yes, that's right. I hardly knew him.
Interviewer:
But we know now that he was talking to the French ambassador, Roger Lalouette about the possibility of a deal between Saigon and Hanoi. And they got Nhu interested in this. Maneli said that the communists were interested in making a deal and Nhu seemed to express some interest. Did you know about this at the time?
Lodge:
No. No, and of course Lalouette left three or four days after I arrived.
Interviewer:
But Maneli has said and he has written...
Lodge:
And I never...I think I may have just met Maneli very casually and informally somewhere but I never knew him. I got to know his successor, Lewandowski.
Interviewer:
Well, that's later, yes.
Lodge:
That's later.
Interviewer:
That's the marigold operation.
Lodge:
I got to know him very well.
Interviewer:
But let me just go back in this point. Did you have any hints at the time that Brother Nhu and maybe even Diem, being under pressure from the United States, might have entertained the idea of some kind of a deal with the north?
Lodge:
They might have thought about it. And...and it...it...something might have been worked out, I suppose, at one point. All those things are worth remembering and following up on.
Lodge:
Well, let's, let's...
Lodge:
But I never knew any...to me it was just a rumor without any basis. I never saw a piece of paper, I never saw...I never heard of any words, anything.
Interviewer:
But let me just put it to you that Maneli has said and has described in some detail these contacts although they didn't go very far. But let's go back and speculate in retrospect. Do you think we would have been much better off in the end if some deal had been made between the south and the north? That could have been made?
Lodge:
Well, through most of Vietnamese history, the north and the south have not been united. In 1802 was the first time that North and South Vietnam were put together and that was with the help of the French under the Emperor Gia Long. Most of the time as far as I can read Vietnamese history, there was the north, which was Ton...what was that name...
Lodge:
Tonkin.
Lodge:
Tonkin. Tonkin was the north, Annam was the middle and Cochinchina was the bottom third. That's the way it was most of the time.

Lodge's view of the war's progress

Interviewer:
Let me raise another incident that happened about this time in early September. You remember President Kennedy sent General Krulak and Joseph Mendenhall to Vietnam they returned with and contradictory opinions. You remember what the president said...
Lodge:
He said have you visited the same countries.
Interviewer:
I wonder if you could repeat that.
Lodge:
I wasn't there.
Interviewer:
Ah, anyway...
Lodge:
I wasn't there. Well, I was in Saigon when Mendenhall and Krulak arrived but this story about President Kennedy saying have you men been to the same country, that was something I heard later. That was in Washington.
Interviewer:
Right. Now...
Lodge:
I hardly ever was in Washington.
Interviewer:
But in retrospect looking back, did that...the idea that the President sent these two men to assess the situation as later he would send Maxwell Taylor and McNamara, did this give you the impression that the president was still undecided about what to do about Vietnam? Did you get the impression he was looking for some kind of a policy on Vietnam?
Lodge:
Well, he...yes, I think he was...I think it was very normal for a president when he's got a very very tough, complicated problem always to look, keep on looking, and see if he can't get some kind of a solution that's better than the one he's trying to get. And yes, I think he was looking and I think it is understandable that he should constantly have an open mind and listen to any new ideas that might come to him.
Interviewer:
Well, what was the purpose to your recollection, the purpose to the mission of McNamara and Taylor later in September? Why did they come out to Vietnam, do you remember?
Lodge:
Well, McNamara used to go two or three times a year because as Secretary of Defense he was interested in a wide set of things, particularly as Secretary Rusk was perfectly willing to let McNamara be very active in Vietnam, as I think Secretary Rusk felt that he had enough to do with all his other duties.
Interviewer:
Now you remember that, I mean was there...Do you think that sending McNamara and Taylor to Vietnam had anything to do with differences on policy between State and Defense?
Lodge:
No.
Interviewer:
Or between you and Harkins?
Lodge:
I don't think so. I think McNamara and Rusk got along very well. And Westmoreland and I got along very well. And there was that unfortunate misunderstanding with General Harkins that really was not...really wasn't my fault because I was instructed not to tell him these secrets.
Interviewer:
Well, when McNamara and Taylor when their mission ended, they wrote a report in which they said that the military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress. Would you agree with that conclusion?
Lodge:
What was the date of that?
Interviewer:
In September of 1963.
Lodge:
Well, no. That was the Vietnamese military.
Interviewer:
They said...they wrote a report in which they said...
Lodge:
Because the American military at that time were advisors, I think.
Interviewer:
Yeah, okay. The Vietnamese military. They wrote the report and said the military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress. Now, would you agree that this was a fair assessment, that the Vietnamese were making progress militarily?
Lodge:
From what I could learn, I would be inclined to doubt it.
Interviewer:
Because you later wrote in a message to McGeorge Bundy that no successive government could bungle the war as badly as Diem had. I think you thought that Diem was doing a bad job militarily. They also after their mission announced the decision to withdraw a thousand American advisors before the end of the year. What was the point of that?
Lodge:
I don't know. I never heard that before. A thousand American advisors were withdrawn?
Interviewer:
No, they announced the plan to withdraw the American advisors.
Lodge:
Who did?
Interviewer:
McNamara and Taylor, or the president did after they returned. You don't remember that?
Lodge:
I've forgotten about that.

The events of the generals' coup

Interviewer:
Let me go back into the point that you raised earlier about the economic sanctions against the Diem government. You recommended that the commercial...that eighteen million dollars of the commercial import program be deferred and it was in fact deferred. Could you explain how this aid program worked? What was the commercial import program?
Lodge:
We had a program whereby we would send into Vietnam all sorts of the necessities of life. Milk, canned food of all kinds, a wide variety...agricultural implements, a wide variety of useful things. It was a tremendously popular program and it meant a great deal to the country. And when I was...when I started thinking about it I used to shiver at the thought of what it would mean if this program was ended. So what I had in mind did not involve ending the program at all. It involved suspending a few items just enough to worry them.
Interviewer:
And what was the purpose of suspending these items?
Lodge:
And the purpose of suspending the items was to get Diem to send Nhu away. Now the first time that we started cutting down on the export program, the import program, I got a call from a very low official in the Vietnamese Department of Agriculture and I refused to receive him. So he went to my assistant. And my assistant told him that the normal thing on something like this was for the Prime Minister Mr. Diem to talk to me.
Well, they didn't like that at all and finally this last night of his life when we were up in Da Lat sitting in front of an open fire incidentally, that's when he said oh by the way, he said, I've changed my mind about the commercial import programs and we will talk about it.
Which...and I had written...I have it here to this day. I had written a letter to publish in the press as to why I was resuming commercial imports. And we were like two boys on bicycles playing chicken and he gave way first.
Interviewer:
But you say that the purpose of suspending the program was to put pressure on Diem.
Lodge:
Yeah.
Lodge:
But it also was interpreted at the time as a green light to the generals.
Lodge:
No. well, I don't...I don't go with that.
Interviewer:
That may not have been your purpose but would you acknowledge that they interpreted it that way?
Lodge:
No, they didn't. I don't think they did interpret it that way because...and General Tran Van Don and General Minh, these generals...I used to see them all the time, and they couldn't possibly have been under any kind of doubt as to what I was doing because I told them what I was doing.
Interviewer:
Now. On October 5 President Kennedy sent you a message saying that no initiative should now be taken to give any covert encouragement to a coup but efforts should be made to identify possible alternative leadership. What did that mean? What was your understanding?
Lodge:
Well, we ought to make a survey of the country and see if there were men who had some prospects of ability. I mean, there was General Khanh for instance and there was General Thieu who later became president and may remain president for many years. And he was the one who organized the coup against General Don and General Minh. And there was...there was a list of Vietnamese generals that were generally considered to be of above average ability.
Interviewer:
Now you also following that message you told Conein, the CIA man, to tell the generals that the United States will not thwart a coup, according to the records, and Washington also told you according to the records, that the United States should not thwart a coup if it offers a prospect of a more effective fight against the communists. So in a sense do you think the President at this stage was beginning to come around to the idea that maybe a coup might be necessary if it improved the chances of fighting against the communists?
Lodge:
I don't know. That's...all I know was not to thwart. I...you know...I couldn't know all of the president's innermost thoughts...
Interviewer:
Sorry to stop you right in the middle of this, but he ran out of tape. Perhaps we could start the next roll of tape at the same...
[Out of tape.]
Enter the timecode: