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Interview with Eldridge Durbrow, 1979 [Part 1 of 2]

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Summary
United States Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1957 to 1961, Elbridge Durbow describes his first impressions of Saigon, comparing it to a southern French provincial town. Durbrow talks about his first meeting with Ngo Dinh Diem and the differences in personality between Diem and his brother Nhu. Durbrow supported the idea that the US should stand behind Diem and continues on to describe the 1960 attempted coup against Diem. Durbrow also recalls the role the Chinese played in the Vietnam conflict and the lessons learned from Vietnam.
Topics
Presidents--Family, Escalation (Military science), Democracy--Developing countries, Economic development, Religion and politics, Military assistance, American, Ambassadors, Counterinsurgency, Diplomacy, Diplomats, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’état, 1960, International relations, United States--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam--Politics and government, United States--Politics and government
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Transcript

Growth in advisors and attention from Washington (continued)

Durbrow:
...that they got the publicity, they got the ah, self ah, immolation jobs and so forth, attract attention that the many press corps coming out of there said, "Vietnam is 80 percent Buddhist, 10 percent Catholic.
Diem is a Catholic, he hates the Buddhists." And I will say this quite categorically: He was the most tolerant devout Catholic I've ever known. About other religions. He was.
Interviewer:
Okay?
Interviewer:
Are we all set?
Interviewer:
Yeah. Let's go. Wait a sec. Let me just get my cigarette...
Interviewer:
When the Kennedy administration took over when you were still ambassador and stayed on, did you get any feeling of what President Kennedy wanted in Vietnam?
Durbrow:
Well I think the best way to answer that question about what Kennedy wanted in Vietnam was what he said in his speech of March 23, 1961 about Laos and Indochina in general.
When all this push was going on, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was really rolling pretty well then in the Plaine des Jarres and all the other things and he gave a very pointed description of that at a press conference with a map and all that sort of business, saying what's happening in Laos is against our good friends in South Vietnam, they're stepping up the operations there, etc. etc. etc.
And he was very much concerned about what was going on and the whole Indochina peninsula and said so. Why he backed away from that I don't know, of course. But the Bay of Pigs took place the next month and I think probably is the reason why he didn't follow through on all the things he was saying he was going to do.
And actually uh, in June of that year, there was another speech...I've forgotten where it was but that can be checked, he said we might even have to put American combat troops in. A passing remark, but he was thinking in those terms.
And, as I said, that...when he put that note on our counterinsurgency plan, "why so little," he knew that we should have much more equipment, better training and so forth, to help Vietnam face the increased military problem they were running into from the North in 1960, '61.
Interviewer:
Do you think it would have been preferable to put American combat troops into Vietnam earlier?
Durbrow:
Might have but I don't know. On that score my...

Centrality of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to winning the war

Interviewer:
You've gotta repeat the comment.
Durbrow:
Whether we should have put combat troops in when I was there or shortly thereafter, maybe so. But the point I think is important, either put troops in combat or don't. When you put them in, don't put them in to pussyfoot and not try to win the war.
Well we did go in there finally in '65, that's exactly what we did. Hold back this, don't do that, don't attack the North, don't do this, don't mine the harbors, ah graduated escalation, graduated response, all these catch phrases, that this allowed the enemy to attack and you hit them hard they do regroup, go back again, hit harder. Then you upped it.
We should have taken the offensive and said boys, get out of here. Go on over into Laos, into Cambodia immediately because for some reason people forgot about this famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. They couldn't come down the coast. Just physically, it's too darn narrow and you can defend it so easily.
The Ap-, mountains were too rugged, had to go into the plains of Laos and Cambodia, duck in through the passes to get supplies and then down there.
They should have gone in to Laos immediately and Cambodia immediately. I said in 1960 Sihanouk admitted to Bill Trimble and me that there are thousands and thousands of Viet Minh troops there and he couldn't do anything about it.
So if we're going to put troops in, go in to win and don't do this graduated response, McNamara and electric line or to prevent the guys coming across the DMZ. They were by passing the DMZ. They were coming in the side through Laos and Cambodia. Should have gone in there immediately and cut that off.
Interviewer:
So you think we should have had American ground troops in the three areas of Indochina very early on.
Durbrow:
Not necessarily our troops but let the Viet Minh, let the Vietnamese, the ARVN go in there. We didn't want to send our troops in. But cut that Ho Chi Minh Trail.
That's where they kept their operations going. It was the lifeline for all their supplies, their men and everything. And it didn't necessarily have to put our troops in but why not encourage and urge and get our Viet...er, ARVN South Vietnamese troops to go in there.
Interviewer:
I'm sorry, are you getting that dog?
If you could just repeat those last couple of thoughts you had about putting South Vietnamese in.
Durbrow:
When we did find out that they were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a big way, early on we knew about it. As I repeat again, beginning in '59 they started reopening it, refurbishing it, sending in more troops down which should encourage our ARVN friends to go into Laos and Souvanna Phouma wouldn't admit it publicly but he told us privately if you want to go in there and do this, well, I can't handle it. This is in Laos, now, in the Plaine des Jarres.
I'll make all kinds of noises but please help out. We didn't. We kept our sanctuary, let them have the sanctuary and we kept in the boundaries of South Vietnam til Nixon went in and that was too darned late.
Johnson should have gone in and that was where they were building up their cadre, they were taking their R and R, they had their headquarters in Cambodia and others in Laos.
And if you're going to fight a war, go in and win it but don't let them use other men, in neutral countries territory, to refurbish, regroup, re-supply and so forth and you sit there losing their men as they come across the Vietnamese frontier and finally lost the war.

Durbrow's transition out of South Vietnam

Interviewer:
Let's go back to uh January 1961 when General Lansdale visited Vietnam, and he wrote a report that was critical of both the American mission and Diem.
And one thing he said in his report is if the right Americans influence Diem in the right way, then Diem would respond by making reforms. What do you think about this comment?
Durbrow:
I know, of course I know him very well.
Interviewer:
Let's start with...
Durbrow:
Bob Lansdale's visit in January 1961...I talked to him about the problems and so forth and I'd seen the report. I think that he felt that maybe I'd gone a little too rough on Diem.
I mentioned earlier that talks in September 1960 and in December and October as well, two or three times, I've forgotten the exact dates.
And ah, we hadn't really stepped up our military build up to help them then so Diem I'm sure in talking to Lansdale said that they tell me to do this, tell me to do that but the Viet Minh are getting stronger and stronger every day and they haven't helped me out. Well, Diem knew we were working on the CIP, the counter intelligence plan. We'd told him that.
But he wasn't sure. He'd have trouble getting even those helicopters I mentioned earlier about a year before, and he was feeling that he was being let down on the real threat he had which was stepped up Viet Minh operations in his country, in battalion level and that sort of thing.
So he wasn't feeling too happy about me I guess. One thing I would defend myself on, not that it makes any difference, but I guess it was Halberstam said that the last six months I was there I didn't see Diem, I never saw him, he wouldn't speak to me or receive me.
Where he got that I don't know. But I saw him every time I wanted to, sometimes twice a week. When I left he did me the honor, maybe because I by that time I'd been there so long I was the Ancient Mariner or something, but I was the dean of the corps by just longevity. That's how you get to be the dean of the corps and he gave me two farewell dinners. Maybe he wanted to get rid of me, make sure...gave me two of them. But he gave me a very fancy one with the chief of staff and the Nhus and two or three others like the foreign minister, my wife, then a big one. And then the foreign minister gave me a big splash with the diplomatic corps.
And I saw him...see, his election took place on the 2nd of May and my departure was timed to where...to stay til after that was over and I left on the 3rd. Cause I was assigned...I had home leave coming up. But this idea that he didn't see me, he didn't like some of the things I said to him but I saw him all the time in the last six months I was there.
Interviewer:
You know that Lansdale recommended that you be replaced. That was part of the recommendation. Did you think that was interference in your activities?
Durbrow:
I don't think he knew that I'd been replaced already.
Interviewer:
I'm sorry...
Durbrow:
I'm sorry...The recommendation by Colonel Landale, Lansdale that I be replaced...I had been already ordered to Paris. I was there four years plus by that time and I had developed this sinus trouble I mentioned earlier...that's why I have a hoarse throat right now.
And it was getting so bad that I had...my face broke out all over and I...they couldn't find out what it was. And after four years I asked to be transferred, incidentally, and uh family reasons and others, I was on my way out by the time Lansdale left.
Interviewer:
Do you think that as the Kennedy administration came in and you were departing and being replaced by Ambassador Nolting, that the Kennedy administration wanted to treat Diem more gently than you had?
Durbrow:
Yes, I think they did.
Interviewer:
You don't have to repeat the question. But if you would just use...
Durbrow:
I think Kennedy and his advisors when they took over in '61 thought that they might take a new tack, better take a new tack with Diem. I'd been fairly firm with him. I asked for instructions and I got them from the department, try to get him to do this, that and the other thing and it hadn't been too successful.
So they thought well, let's try a new tactic. Fritz Nolting came over there and he painted it the other way to be more forthcoming, encouraging and so on and not so critical of Diem and Nhu. And maybe that was a better way to do it, I don't know. But they did do it, there was no question about it.
Interviewer:
But in retrospect do you think it was a better way?
Durbrow:
Naturally I did it the other way so I don't go along with that, but I could have been wrong. You can't see the woods from the trees sometimes so I'd been there four years and I couldn't see the big picture.
Interviewer:
Well, as you look back as someone who was involved very early in the Vietnam situation, what different approach do you think could have been taken to Vietnam?
Durbrow:
You mean, when, when I was there?
Interviewer:
No, starting back in the '50s. Do you think the approach we took to Vietnam was the correct one or do you think American policy towards Vietnam could have been different and if so in what way?
Durbrow:
Well, it was a question of whether we tried to prevent them from being absorbed by Hanoi or not. It was as simple as that and if you don't want to be absorbed you got to give them some military aid, not just economic aid. They needed that too as well, of course.
All the destruction of the war and that sort of thing. But if you're going to aid them, go in and aid them fully but don't do it in a half-baked way. That's what I'm afraid we did particularly after '65 with the military going in there.

Significance of the Buddhist crisis

Interviewer:
Did you in any way see or perceive the seeds of the Buddhist crisis that was going to develop in 1963 that eventually overthrew Diem?
Durbrow:
No, I, the Buddhist crisis was something that was completely misunderstood, badly reported and factually wrong. Vietnam contrary to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Ceylon, they are really one hundred percent almost Buddhist countries.
Vietnam is not a Buddhist country. There are only about ten percent Buddhists in Vietnam and there are about ten percent Catholics and the Vietnamese developed over the years their own indigenous religion which doesn't have any real hierarchy and that sort of thing.
It's a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism and some Buddhist tenets. Family worship, ancestor worship and that sort of thing, and bringing food to the graves and all those Confucian type of philosophy. But they are not Buddhists. Now those few active Buddhists, Thich Ton Tran and some of them, did a beautiful job in getting the outside world to feel that this Catholic, President Ngo Dinh Diem, hated the Buddhists so much and he was in a small minority group of religious believers.
And he wanted to do away with the majority 80 percent Buddhist, which was not true at all. And the self-immolations and those things, I wasn't there then but I talked to some of my friends in the press, particularly, and I understand that they...I'm exaggerating but some correspondent...come down to 42nd and Broadway tomorrow in Saigon and you'll see somebody burn themself up. They got the cameras all out and go down there and sure enough, there it was. So...it was screened that night all over the world and there it was, the Buddhists were being persecuted and prosecuted and treated very meanly. That they were trying to raise the devil with Diem, of course they were but they were not...they were a small minority.

Diem's overthrow and Durbrow's relationship to Madame Nhu

Interviewer:
Do you think the United States was responsible for the overthrow and the murder of Diem?
Durbrow:
We didn't try to stop it. I was not there of course but...Who killed Diem...Of course he was killed I'm sure by the two officers that killed him in the truck, having been captured over in Cho Lon. But I don't think we gave him the kind of protection we should have given him or backed him up enough.
I was not there then of course and it was a very serious thing that happened, but I think and I'm going to say this categorically. I think the press that Diem is getting '62, '63...was very, very wrong, that he was a dictator in his shell and never moved.
I don't know whether he went out in the country after I left. I traveled all over Vietnam when I was there, not only I did but the rest of the diplomatic corps would take us on all these junkets to the middle of nowhere and we'd camp out in little places in...down in the riverine area, the swamp, the mangrove swamps. He traveled all over the country. He himself with his entourage without the diplomatic corps going around with him, did the same thing.
Maybe he became more of a recluse later on...I wasn't there, but I think it was too bad we didn't give him better protection because he was a Vietnamese patriot, he was not the corrupt person that everybody thinks, as far as I'm concerned, who had all these reports, had this bank account in Switzerland and a couple of...Nhu did and Diem did and the building officers did.
Well if they did, they lost the keys or lost the numbers of the box because when I was in Paris...I was sent to Paris to the NATO conference after that, and Mrs. Nhu after her husband was killed came to Paris where she joined Diem's younger brother, Luyen, who had been the ambassador in London, who had eleven children.
Mrs. Nhu with her two children and eleven Luyen children lived in bigger French apartment not too far from where I lived and one of our staff from the NATO staff American delegation lived just below them.
And I got, she wouldn't invite me...she didn't like me but his wife and he were invited up for tea a couple of times and got to know them. And they were camping out in this place...that Swiss bank account was as fat as it was, they'd had a much better place. She finally had to give up Paris and she moved down to Frascati outside of Rome where Diem's oldest brother, the archbishop, uh Thuc, took care of her. So as far as I know she's still there.
Interviewer:
Why did Madame Nhu dislike you?
Durbrow:
Because she knew I wass...Madame Nhu, she...I guess antagonized almost everybody. Of course you know the story about what she did about one wife. She was a member of the legislature in Vietnam and she was the original ERA gal in Vietnam.
She pushed through the assembly, the government a bill that said men could only have one wife. The old rules, the Buddhists...not the Buddhists but the Confucianists, the Chinese type of family make up, you could have up to three wives.
She antagonized all the men in Vietnam naturally for that, so she had quite a few enemies. She knew I was talking rather firmly with her brother, her brother-in-law and with her husband too. I had many talks with him and at small intime dinner parties I had some discussion with her too. She had very positive ideas and I didn't agree with them all so she didn't look me up when she got to Paris.
Interviewer:
Do you remember any particular dispute that you had with her?
Durbrow:
Gee, off hand I can't, I'm sorry. But she, she knew a lot of things that were going on. One thing I can remember,this is with her brother too there was the Diem political party. The Can Lao and it was not a real political party. It was a secret organization. That's one of the things I suggested. Upon two or three occasions Diem might do something about this.
That gave birth to lots of rumors. All kinds of crazy rumors. In my some fifteen to twenty posts after thirty-eight years with the foreign service, I never ran into a worse rumor factory than Rue Catina. Radio Catina. That was on the main street in Saigon.
Just fantastic rumors. So we said that a lot of these rumors the Can Lao party is a secret party, why don't you open it up and let people know it isn't all this sinister and secret and manipulating and all. So I did get in a discussion with her on the Can Lao party.
Interviewer:
And she said...
Durbrow:
She argued that it wasn't that way at all, I was wrong, all that sort of thing.

Lessons from the war

Interviewer:
Just a last point. Looking back on it all, what do you think the lessons of Vietnam are? What should we have learned from Vietnam?
Durbrow:
The exact opposite thing that we've learned.
Interviewer:
Better start again.
Durbrow:
What we should have learned from Vietnam. The exact opposite of what has happened to us. No more Vietnams. That accounts for Angola, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran today. Name it.
We're not going to get mixed up in things like Vietnam so we let our Marxist-Leninist friends take over here there and elsewhere and they're doing a very good job. I repeat as I said before we either should have gone into Vietnam or not gone in. That's a decision we have to make.
If you decide to go in, go in and do a job and don't do a half-baked job with this graduated response. That was the McNamara response and I got to the NATO council, I found that's the thing they're trying to sell to the NATO council in Europe. Graduated response.
Don't antagonize the enemy. If he hits you hard you hit him back with a powder puff or double powder puff because he was particular mean that day. That's not the way they respect you behind the curtain. You know, I spent six years in Moscow so I think I know something about their type of operations.
And Vietnam was one of those things which causes more darn trouble than anything I can recall in my whole lifetime. And not doing a darn thing about it because it can't be another Vietnam. And we didn't try to win that one.

Durbrow's advice to Diem

Interviewer:
That's fine. I want to if you have anything...
Durbrow:
Nothing at all. In that sense. They were the big businessmen, they made all the money, much more than the Vietnamese as they did in Malaysia. I was in Malaysia before that, you know.
Interviewer:
You think that's going...
Well, alright. But I mean thats...
What do you have before we...
You think you could just spell out...
Durbrow:
Sure. Sure I can. Yeah. Fine.
Interviewer:
What specific changes did you recommend to Diem?
Durbrow:
I made some big ones, some small ones. What changes did I make to Diem...I made several in heart to heart talks I had with him. There were many of them. One was on the Can Lao party.
To not have a secret party because they were working against the people or not working against the people or conspiring to do this or that and the other thing. The rumor said they were so why not undo that one. Please, Mr. President, you've got some big decisions to make, please don't tie yourself down on the minutiae. You work about seventeen or eighteen hours a day...
Interviewer:
Hold it. [inaudible]
Durbrow:
Maybe so. I don't know.
Interviewer:
Alright. You want to take that from the top?
Yes, just, just start it though. We don't need the question.
Go ahead.
Durbrow:
I talked to Diem about many things, in delegating authority, giving as a chief of staff in general. Give generals more leeway to operate instead of trying to do it all himself. He tried to hold everything, all the cards in his own hand and he couldn't do a good job on any of it.
We wanted to get him to do something about setting up a press code that the...for the newspapers there. There were about twenty-five different newspapers. Each fellow that had two nickels to push together could put out a paper and say any darned thing he wanted and Diem didn't like it so he confiscated it. (cough)
He'd confiscate it and things of that kind. To allow the assembly to use some initiative, not have him tell them exactly what bills he wanted to have passed and that sort of thing, and open up so the people got more sense of participation.
Now you couldn't have Jeffersonian democracy either in Vietnam or in the Philippines. We tried it and it didn't work and most of those countries in Asia, they're not...they don't understand it. Seed can be planted but it takes generations for it to grow and blossom and flourish.
And we tried to do it and we had an assembly, they had elections. They weren't our type of elections but they got the feel, they had some say, you could pass vote and express your will one way or the other. And it was that sort of thing I tried to get him to do and he did some of them but not all of them.
Interviewer:
When you talked to Diem and talked firmly to Diem, what was his reaction? Did you get into arguments with him? Did he resent this or did he take it calmly?
Durbrow:
He's an Oriental. He took it calmly but obviously you could feel and you could see from his expression and his replies that he didn't like it all. But he took it. He could have asked me to kicked out any day...as a persona non grata. He didn't like what I was saying and I say, I stayed there four years and I had many frank talks with him even before but the franker ones came in '60, '61.

Role of the Chinese in Vietnam

Interviewer:
What role did the Chinese play in Vietnam?
Durbrow:
There are about a million Chinese in Vietnam. They're most, only in the cities. As you know in Southeast Asia, the overseas Chinese are the businessmen of that part of the world. Before I was sent to Vietnam I was in Malaysia.
And the Malays are in the majority down there though they're just the majority of the as a matter of fact. The Chinese are right behind them and they run all the business. They're more astute, they're better businessmen, they've got more drive and are better entrepreneurs.
The Vietnamese aren't very good at that either so the Chinese are very glad to play ball with Diem basically, do business, make money, run the movie houses and the shops, the better shops and that sort of thing. And they didn't get mixed up in the internal politics except to protect their own interests.
Interviewer:
I think that's it, unless...That's fine. Very good. A silent shot. Well if all the interviews went as smoothly as this one did we'd have no problems.
Durbrow:
Well thank you very much. Hope I'm some help.
Interviewer:
No it's very good.
Durbrow:
Oh good. Oh oh.
Interviewer:
Then I got this other job, which keeps me busy and I'm enjoying it. Enjoying life.
Interviewer:
Where you going to move to?
Durbrow:
Well somewhere in the San Francisco area, both my wife and I were raised out there. So, a lot of friends, family and so forth. I guess I got in harness, stayed in the harness too long and I can't get out.
Interviewer:
Yeah, well, I don't know I sometimes think about it might be nice to move some place else. My wife is from California, she says let's go somewhere where the weather is, you can play tennis every day.
Interviewer:
Yeah, my wife doesn't like this weather whatsoever. And she still doesn't drive in the snow, she's just snowbound unless I drive her around.
Interviewer:
But the only place I'd like to move to outside of Washington is Boston.
Durbrow:
That's kind of cold and wet.
Interviewer:
I love Boston, I mean I like it here too, but I would...well if I had to make a change I think I would uh...well uh, yeah I've been in and out of there for years.
Durbrow:
Oh, you have?
Interviewer:
Well I went to college...
Durbrow:
Where'd you come from originally?
Interviewer:
New York. And uh...which I would not like to go to.
Durbrow:
I used to love to go to New York when I was in New Haven. I'd go down there on the week, the weekend, whenever I had the chance and loved it and now it's gone completely to pot's far as I'm concerned. It's dirty, it's dangerous, it's lousy.
Interviewer:
Yeah, well you go in for a couple of days. Okay? Is that it? That's all you need huh?
End of Durbrow interview.
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