Interview with Paul C. Warnke, 1982

 
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Secretary of Defense for International Affairs under LBJ, Paul C. Warnke recalls the bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese. He states that one of the misjudgments that the United States made was that victory was more important to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese than to the Americans. Warnke recalls that even though the bombing was not working, there were no other solutions, so there was a reluctance in the administration to halt the bombing. He states that the turning point came when McNamara realized that the North Vietnamese wanted unification and saw the US as aliens. Warnke talks about his changing views regarding the war and that the US was in a tough situation since they were the ones invading a country, not trying to drive out invaders.

Transcript

The limits of force in Vietnam

VIETNAM
WARNKE
SR 2716
ch
Turning. Marker. Take one.
Interviewer:
To start in let's go back to this...I haven't even asked the question yet.
Warnke:
Ya.
Interviewer:
You want to hold this? Cut.
Turning. Marker. Take two. Claps.
Interviewer:
Okay. Just go ahead. That sense that we could bomb the North Vietnamese into submission.
Warnke:
Well, I think a fundamental misjudgment in Vietnam was that we didn't realize that victory was more important to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong than it was to us. So, we put ourselves in a position in which we thought that if we could inflict enough punishment that this would diminish the amount of support that was coming down from North Vietnam. Now, that turned out to be incorrect.
The North Vietnamese, the Vietnamese in general had the feeling that they were right. It was their country. We were wrong. That we were interfering in what was basically a nationalist movement and as a consequence they were going to stick it out and they figured they could stick it out longer than we could, because we had less at stake. I'd say that was the fundamental misjudgment.
Interviewer:
But, at the time, if one began to was there a perception at the time of this this ah futility?
Warnke:
No, I would say that feelings were very mixed with regard to whether or not the effort was futile. There were a number of people within the Johnson Administration who felt right up to the very end that all we needed to do was to exercise enough staying power, enough will, enough determination that we could prevail.
Certainly, people like Walt Rostow, I think, feel today that if we had engaged in something like an Inchon-type landing such as Douglas MacArthur did in Korea that that would have brought about victory. Now, I happen to think that was wrong because of the fundamental difference between the Korean situation and the Vietnam situation.

Using Vietnam as a defense against the Chinese threat

Interviewer:
How did it break down within the Defense Department when you were there?
Warnke:
Well, actually, I think that there was probably more suspicion about the the chances of success within the sta...within the Defense Department than there was within the State Department.
Dean Rusk you'll recall as late as, oh, I think it was 1968, was still talking about our presence in Vietnam as being necessary to prevent the Chinese threat. You remember he talked at one point about the specter or a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons.
I think one of the difficulties in the entire experience was that our rationale for being in Vietnam kept changing. I would say that the initial rationale was that you had these two communist giants, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, that naturally they were working together, and that as a consequence we had to be concerned about Chinese expansion in Asia.
We viewed it as though it was post World War II, and as though Vietnam were western Europe. And, one of the difficulties is that in foreign policy, you always tend to ah to reason by analogy. Now, we analogized the Chinese situation and Vietnam with the post war situation and our fears of Soviet expansion into western Europe and the analogy was imperfect as analogies always are.
VIETNAM
WARNKE
SR 2717
ch
This is a head of SR 2717 to pick up with Camera Roll 724 for WGBH, Vietnam Americanization, TVP 007 on this August 25, 1982. Continuing interview with Paul Warnke.
Marker. Take three. Claps.
Warnke:
The inappropriateness...
Interviewer:
Wait, I need the time to pan around.
Warnke:
Okay.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Warnke:
The ah inappropriateness, if you will, the lack of a basic rationale for our presence in Vietnam is shown in my opinion by the fact that the the given rationale continually changed.
I think initially our reason for intervening in Vietnam was the feeling that we had to contain China, that China was one of the two communist giants, that they acted as a monolith, that there was a danger of Chinese expansion. The domino theory was going to enable them to take over all of Southeast Asia and perhaps all of South Asia. As a consequence we had to contain China.
Now, that rationale began to disappear because it became obvious that there was this schism between Russia and China and that as a consequence we didn't have to worry about them acting together. In addition it became clear, that there was this traditional animosity between the Vietnamese, the Indochinese and the Chinese.
So, then our rationale changed. We began to think instead of just the strategic importance of the area and could we afford to have that vital area of the world dominated by communist governments.
And, then, eventually I think the rationale was sort of the sunk costs problem. We had invested so much. We had had so many American boys killed that you couldn't afford to have anything less than a success.
And, then you recall during the ah the Nixon Administration there was this constant talk about the the backlash of ah revulsion, disappointment, of disappointment, that we'd have a right-wing movement, that as a consequence we had to stick in there.

Continuation of bombing in the absence of alternative ideas

Interviewer:
To go back to the bombing, if, looking back at that particular time ah when you and other civilians in the Defense Department...
Warnke:
Yes.
Interviewer:
...began to turn off a little on the bombing ah...could you go back and recall how you began to change your views and if you couldn't bomb them into submission or into compromise what was the alternative?
Warnke:
Well, the problem, of course, was that nobody could see an alternative to the bombing and, therefore the bombing continued even though that wasn't working either, but since nothing else was more promising there was a reluctance to discontinue the bombing. Now, I think one of the watershed events was the appearance that Secretary McNamara gave before the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee in the ah late summer of 1968, '67 it was, right. In the late summer of 1967. In which he tried to point out the futility of...
Interviewer:
Let's just change lenses there, if you didn't get a chance to, so we can get that. Back up to one of the watershed events, I think.
Warnke:
So, one of the watershed events was the testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in August of 1967 before the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee. Now, at that point, there was an awful lot of pressure for us to increase the bombing campaign in North Vietnam.
Ah, the then minority leader of the house, Gerald Ford, gave a speech in which he kept repeating why are we pulling our air force punch and the theory, I think, of a lot of people within the Senate, within the House of Representatives, was that if we stepped up the bombing this would put an end to the ability of North Vietnam to support the war in the south.
Now, as Secretary McNamara pointed out and what our studies indicated was that stepping up the bombing just increased the amount that the North Vietnamese had to put into the top of the funnel, but they could get out at the bottom of the funnel the pitifully little that was necessary in order for them to continue to support the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam, and that therefore, no intensity of bombing was going to prevent the re-supply and the re-enforcement of the forces within South Vietnam.
Now, of course there was one alternative. You could have engaged in the kind of bombing of North Vietnam that would have devastated the society totally. You could have bombed the dams. You could have destroyed the population. I suppose you could have used nuclear weapons. We, I think, fortunately, have the good judgment, had the basic humanity not to consider that kind of a bombing campaign.

The impossibility of battling nationalism instead of communism

Interviewer:
Could you go back and describe McNamara's evolution and what kind of influences were working on him. Were you and other people around him urging him to take the position he did in '67?
Warnke:
As I understood the evolution of Secretary McNamara's views, I think initially that he accepted the general principles that we had to intervene in Vietnam in order to prevent a takeover by the communists, and by the communists we were thinking of the communist monolith.
I think as time went on it became apparent to him that we were dealing with a very different sort of a situation and that essentially we had intervened in a civil war, in a nationalist movement and that as a consequence we couldn't handle the situation the way were able to handle the containment of the Soviet Union and then I think he began to realize that there was not this identity of interest between the two communist giants and that, therefore, we ought to consider whether or not we were doing more damage to ourselves and to the people of Vietnam than we were doing any good to American security interests.
Interviewer:
But just to go into sort of of...Just let me interrupt a second. I wonder if you could explain why you thought that it was nationalism. What made him think that that was the predominating influence at the time?
Warnke:
I believe that ah Secretary McNamara and others within the Johnson Administration became more and more convinced that what we were dealing with was not outside aggression but instead a a type of Vietnamese nationalism that really wanted the unification of the country, that regarded us not as protectors, not as liberators but as as aliens, as people that had no reason to be there.
Now, obviously, there were some within South Vietnam who did feel that they wanted to avoid being under a communist rule. For the most part that was the the more educated, some of those that had been brought up really in the French tradition.
But, as far as the rank and file of the people were concerned, I don't think that they supported the American effort and when that became apparent then really what you were faced with was a question as to whether or not you were willing to engage in an indefinite occupation of a foreign land.
It wasn't like freeing the French. It wasn't even like driving the Germans out of Italy. We were trying to drive the Vietnamese out of Vietnam and that's a loser.
Interviewer:
How did you yourself, how did your own views change on this?
Warnke:
Well, when I went into the Defense Department in 1966 I had distinct reservations about the propriety of our presence and our activities in Vietnam and as I became more and more aware of the situation those those doubts really hardened into a conviction. I thought that there was no way in which we could achieve a useful result, and that as a consequence we ought to try for a political solution.

The schism within the Defense Department over Vietnam strategy

Interviewer:
Could you describe, were were there others like you? Were you a group? Was there a cabal within the Defense Department?
Warnke:
There was not a cabal because I think of a cabal as being something that operates secretly, of those who had views similar to mine, had no hesitation about expressing those views in any of the meetings of which took place. Of course, meetings constantly took place.
Interviewer:
Could you describe some of the conflict that was going on particularly between the civilians and the military in the Defense Department even though they may have had similarly pessimistic different prescriptions.
Warnke:
I'd say the fundamental difference between the views of the civilian side of the Pentagon and the military side of the Pentagon was that the military side tended to feel that a military solution was possible, that if given enough in the way of support, given enough in the way of troops, that we could, in fact, work our will on Vietnam.
Now, that doesn't mean that they felt that as a policy manner that this was something that had to be done, but they were being asked to bring about a military solution and they felt that that military solution was possible provided we were prepared to put enough effort into it.
Interviewer:
And, the other view?
Warnke:
I think the other view was that ah I believe that the other view, the view that was held by a number of the civilians in the Pentagon was that no matter what we did we wouldn't be able to bring a final conclusion to the military conflict and that what we were faced with instead was an indefinite military occupation of South Vietnam.
Interviewer:
At what stage do you think you and others in the Defense Department began to feel perceive that this was a deadlock situation?
Warnke:
I believe that at the time that I came into the Pentagon in 1966, I think it was the summer of 1966, that a number of people within the administration had already reached the conclusion that this was essentially a stalemate. Now, one of the difficulties, of course, was that the ah the president by that point felt himself to be very much committed, that he felt, I think, that perhaps his place in history was going to be determined by whether or not he had been able to nail the coonskin on the wall, as he used to put it from time to time in his exhortations to the troops.
Now, I was told by a number of people that President Johnson had very serious reservations about getting more deeply involved in Vietnam, but I think you have to look back at the situation that existed when he took office. When he took office he had not had much experience in national security or foreign policy affairs. He was primarily an expert on the on the domestic side, and he found himself with a group that had been put together by John Kennedy whom he admired as a foreign policy expert, and it was a pretty formidable group. You had Dean Rusk, you had Robert McNamara.

Johnson's inner conflict over Vietnam strategy

Camera Roll 725. Take four.
Claps.
Warnke:
It seemed to me...
Interviewer:
Sorry.
Warnke:
It seemed...Right?
Interviewer:
Good.
Warnke:
It seemed to me that President Johnson was schizoid about Vietnam. In the first place he was too realistic, too practical, too cynical a man to really believe that we could create a replica of American democracy in the lower part of the Indochinese Peninsula.
But, yet, at the same time he found himself in a situation in which he had made a massive American commitment of money, of the lives of American troops, and he hated the idea that he might be a loser so that part of the time he was pessimistic, part of the time he was gung-ho, and I think that that's reflected in the events of 1967-1968. I think right up through the end of 1967 he had some hope that the light, in fact, at the end of the tunnel was real and that we were going to be able to uh, to find it.
But, then, came along Tet which militarily I've been told, was told at the time, was a defeat for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. But, nonetheless, it shattered the illusion that we were making steady progress towards winning the hearts and minds of the people.
And, then, you remember that he made his speech at the end of March of 1968 in which he announced a cutback of the bombing of North Vietnam and then ended by announcing his own unwillingness to run again. Well, if you look at what happened after that, I think you can see that he was, in fact, of two minds about Vietnam.
Although he never said in the speech that this was putting a permanent lid on American participation in Vietnam, nonetheless he never corrected the later statements of Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, who by that time had taken over from McNamara.
It was almost as though he was letting Secretary Clifford put up a trial balloon and see if anybody would shoot it down, and yet at the same time he couldn't bring himself to ah bring about a total cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam even though the North Vietnamese were giving signals during all of that period of time that this could bring about ah prompt and productive negotiations.

The basis of optimistic reporting on Vietnam

Interviewer:
Let me go back to '67 for a moment.
Warnke:
Ya.
Interviewer:
Viewed from the Pentagon what was the attitude and the view towards the optimistic statements that Westmoreland was making, ah did he really believe it or was he doing it because that's what Johnson wanted him to do?
Warnke:
You'll remember that in the ah late fall of 1967 that General Westmoreland and Ambassador Bunker carne back to the United States and gave really very optimistic reports. I think that there's no doubt of the sincerity of those reports, as I was over there in the summer of 1967 and that was their view. They thought we wore making steady progress, that we had turned the corner, that there was going to be sort of like Greece after World War II, and that there would now be growing stability. But, ah, unfortunately that didn't turn out to be a correct analysis of the situation.
Interviewer:
What went wrong with their analysis?
Warnke:
I think that again they underestimated the determination of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to gain control over the entire country, and that they thought perhaps that they were now prepared to accept the inevitability that they would have to ah restrain their ambitions. But, then, Tet came along and as I pointed out, it didn't matter what the military result of Tet was, what it did was to demonstrate that we were nowhere near the end of the tunnel, and that we were faced with, as I mentioned before, the prospect of remaining in Vietnam indefinitely.

American unwillingness to destroy Vietnam

Interviewer:
Let's go one more...one more point. We have Westmoreland during this whole period talking about a strategy of attrition...
Warnke:
Yes.
Interviewer:
That we were going to grind down the enemy. I wonder if you could comment on that. Where did this come from? Was this a reflection of Pentagon thinking, of joint chiefs' thinking?
Warnke:
I think that the ah the genesis of the body count theory of winning the war was that nobody could see any other way in which we could win it. It was basically the same premise as we had with regard to the bombing of North Vietnam, that we could cost them so heavily that they would quit.
Now, that was the only way that anybody could see of bringing the war to an end because you couldn't do it by conquering territory cause once you conquered the territory unless you maintained your military presence there, that territory would revert to hostile hands.
It wasn't like entering a friendly country and pushing out the invaders. We were the invaders, and as a consequence the only way anybody could see the war ever ending with the result that we wanted was to make the North Vietnamese quit, and there was no way of making the North Vietnamese quit because they weren't reasonable.
They wouldn't accept the fact that they were going to be punished and that as a consequence they ought to quit. The only way you could end that war was to kill them all, and as I mentioned, fortunately, we weren't prepared to engage in genocide.
Interviewer:
Let's change the lens. Would you just repeat the last part. Don't say "as I mentioned before" because we may not...
Warnke:
Right.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Warnke:
Where where do you want me to begin?
Interviewer:
We weren't prepared to...
Warnke:
Yeah. In view of the fact that we couldn't inflict enough punishment upon them to make them exercise their reason and stop what we referred to as their aggression in the south, then the only answer was genocide, to kill them all. To bomb the dams, destroy the population, destroy the entire structure of the society. We weren't prepared to do that.
Interviewer:
Was there a school in the Pentagon that wanted to bomb, wanted to bomb the dikes and do all that?
Warnke:
I don't recall anybody in a responsible policy position advocating the kind of devastation of North Vietnam that might have prevented them from conducting their their effort in the south. There were, of course, ah frequent suggestions that we ought to enlarge the battlefield.
There were talks about an Inchon type landing in North Vietnam. There were talks about ah invading Cambodia, invading Laos and stepping up the bombing of North Vietnam but never with the idea of trying to destroy the ah, the population so that they couldn't continue the struggle.
Interviewer:
We come back in a circle here. When you admit that we can't do it, then it's an admission even at that time that there was really no exit to the whole thing, no way to end it.
Warnke:
There wasn't. I mean, no, that's what that eventually I think history proved that to be the case. We talked during the 1970's about Vietnamizing the war and we did. Unfortunately, those that Vietnamized it turned out to be on the other side, and once we eliminated the American military presence then the inevitable took place. It would have taken place at whatever point the American military presence was eliminated.
Interviewer:
Okay. Cut.