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Interview with Henry Cabot Lodge, 1979 [Part 3 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
Culture and communication in Asia, Presidents, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--History--1945-, United States--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’etat, 1963, Diplomacy, Telegraph, International relations, United States--Politics and government, United States--Armed Forces, Vietnam--Politics and government
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Transcript

Lodge and the American position on the coup

Side #3
Interviewer:
Now on Mr. Ambassador on August 24 a telegram was sent to you from Washington. I'd like to read some passages from it.
It said the US government cannot tolerate a situation in which power lies in Nhu's hands. Diem must be given a chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with the best military and political personalities available.
If, inspite of all your efforts Diem ren, remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possiblity that Diem himself cannot be preserved.
And a little while later it says we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell the appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown of the central government mechanism.
Now on the next day after receiving this, according to the documents, your reply to Washington said that you believed that the chance of Diem's meeting our demands are virtually nil.
Therefore, er, according to this telegram you sent to Washington, you proposed that we go straight to the generals with our demands without informing Diem and you would tell them we are prepared to have Diem without Nhu but it is in effect up to them to decide whether to keep him.
And if I can go on just to one more cable that you sent to the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, on the 29th of August you say, "We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back. The overthrow of the Diem government. There is no possibility in my view that the war can be won under the Diem administration. Still less that Diem or any member of his family can govern the country in a way to gain the support of the people who count, not to mention the American people. So that I am personally in full agreement with the policy which I was instructed to carry out which is the earlier telegram. The chance of bringing off a general's coup depends on them to some extent but it depends at least as much on us. We should proceed to make an all out effort to get the generals to move promptly."
Now did this in fact lead us to support the overthrow of the Diem government? How would you explain these telegrams in terms of what we actually did and our responsibility the situation at that time?
Lodge:
I don't remember part of that last part. Ummm my, I do remember my instructions from President Kennedy, which was not to thwart the attempts of certain persons to overthrow the government. Not to help them. Not to assist them in their planning. But not to thwart their attempts to have the coup and as far as I'm concerned that was US government policy because it was given to me personally by President Kennedy.
Interviewer:
But in the telegram that you sent to Secretary of State Rusk in which you say "we are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back", the overthrow of the Diem government, aren’t we in a...
Lodge:
Well, this was said before the telegram...
(Video recording malfunction)
Interviewer:
...Yes, she was. She left in early September.
Lodge:
Well, I never saw her. I never saw her. Yes, she was in Vietnam but I didn't see her. And then she went to that meeting in Yugoslavia.
(Video recording malfunction)
Interviewer:
Given these, this cable traffic that was going back and forth, starting with the telegram of August 24 in which uhh Washington tells you that we...uhh suggests to you that we have to get rid of Diem unless he can get rid of his brother and you're answering that there's very little chance, virtually no chance you say, that Diem will get rid of his brother and then in a later cable you...ah talk about making an all-out effort to get the generals to move promptly on a coup. How would you define our responsibility in this whole series of events that was about to unfold? Could you spell it out a little bit for me, Mr. Ambassador?
Lodge:
Well, we had assumed responsibility. I suppose that you could legally make a case that under the terms of the SEATO treaty umm...we had a status...we had a status in the, in Southeast Asia that justified our um resisting attempts by one country to take over another country. I suppose you could do that. But the, the responsibility in the United States was very unclear, certainly.
Interviewer:
But I'm talking about the responsibility for the events that led up to the coup against Diem. How would you define our role in that?
Lodge:
That, that came out of Washington. And we had one role up until August 30, which was a role in which we were very disapproving, very critical of the government and were talking about taking very far-reaching steps to either to reform the government or get rid of it. That's phase one.
Phase two is after the 30th of August when the early telegrams were canceled and it was marked by a great reluctance on our part to get too heavily involved and that's when President Kennedy instructed me not to thwart what they were doing, leave them alone, let them go ahead and do what they want.
There's a definite demarcation line between events before the telegram of cancellation and events after the telegram of cancellation.
Interviewer:
But given the position we were in in Vietnam, our support for the government, and so forth, the dependence of the government and of the army on us, if we are...if our position is that we are not thwarting a coup, isn't it really very similar to encouraging a coup?
Lodge:
Well, ah...I don't think they looked at it that way.
Interviewer:
How did you look at it?
Lodge:
I don't think they looked at it that way. Ah...well, I was very glad when the telegram of August 30 arrived canceling these previous telegrams, which I was beginning to think were ill-advised and rather hot-headed.
So I welcomed that cancellation and I thought we didn't know enough and we didn't have enough muscle to throw our weight around in Saigon. And the instruction to not to thwart, let them do it, we can't do it anyway, let them do it was not...was a fairly wise course for us to follow. I remember feeling when that cancellation telegram arrived, I remember feeling that that ah, was a wise move on Washington's part.
Interviewer:
But let me go back to the telegram of August 29 that you sent to Secretary of State Rusk in which you said, "there is no possibility in my view that the war can be won under the Diem administration." Now...
Lodge:
Well, this is before the telegram of cancellation.
Interviewer:
Yes, but that was not a policy statement you were making, it was an observation you were making. Now after the August 30 telegram came along, did you change your opinion? Did you think it was possible that the war could be won under the Diem administration or do you still...?
Lodge:
I was thinking it less and less. You've got to remember that I had just arrived. I was just off the boat, so to speak, and I'd luckily gotten myself in touch with some very, very wise, well-informed people but I was...I was absorbing knowledge all day long, every day, and all my thoughts were in the process of revision.
Interviewer:
But when you sent this telegram to Secretary Rusk saying there's no possibility that the war can be won under a Diem administration...
Lodge:
Yes.
Interviewer:
You believed that at the time.
Lodge:
Oh, yes.
Interviewer:
And did you continue to believe that?
Lodge:
I continued to believe that, yes.
Interviewer:
But then isn't the logic of that...doesn't the logic follow that if the war could not be won under a Diem administration, the administration had to be changed or the United States had to withdraw, one or the other.
Lodge:
Well, you had to try to get them out and nobody had ever figured a way to get him out and yeah, that's what you want to do but this sad veil of tears through which we're walking, you want to do lots of things and you can't do them.
Interviewer:
What I'm trying to establish here is whether you believed, whether you thought you could do it or not, whether you believed the Diem government had to go.
Lodge:
Oh, I thought...I thought it was...I'll put it this way: I thought it was in its terminal phase and that if we didn't do anything, they would, they'd destroy themselves.
Interviewer:
So you were, you concluded as of August 29 that the Diem government was going to topple in any case?
Lodge:
It was in its terminal phase, yes. Yes, I thought so.
Interviewer:
Now...
Lodge:
I thought so and I so reported.
Interviewer:
Now, could you conceive also...uh
Lodge:
And that opinion was based on a great many reports from well-informed Vietnamese people all over the country.
Interviewer:
But also looking back at your telegram to Rusk in which you say, "we should proceed to make an all out effort to get the generals to move promptly," at that point you were actually advocating that we do something about it.
Lodge:
Well, I don't remember that.

Impressions of Diem and his brother Nhu

Interviewer:
Well, let me go back to talk about your meeting with Diem uhh...when you presented your credentials on August 26. What kind of impression did he make on you? What was the setting and how...could, do you recall a little bit what that meeting was like?
Lodge:
Well, the meeting was held in the Gia Long Palace and he had a chair and a table with a teapot on it. And I had a chair and a table with a teapot on it. And I brought up this question that President Kennedy wanted me to bring up, of getting Nhu out of the country and of appointing new people and bettering and improving and strengthening the government.
And he absolutely refused to discuss any of the things that I was instructed to discuss. And it gave me a little jolt, frankly. I think that when an ambassador goes to call on a chief of state and he has been instructed by the President to bring up certain things, the chief of state ought to at least talk about them. But he wouldn't talk about them at all and he looked up at the ceiling and he’d start talking about absolutely irrelevant subjects and I really wasn't accomplishing anything.
At the same time he was quite a prepossessing man. He was rather a nice looking man and he was very polite and correct and...I thought it was deplorable that he wouldn't answer the questions that I was bringing from President Kennedy. I thought that was deplorable. But I also at the same time I sensed that he was a man of great courage and great convictions and he if necessary he would go down fighting for his country, which of course is what he did.
Interviewer:
Did you try to impress on him the need to get rid of his brother Nhu and his cabinet?
Lodge:
Oh yes. Oh, he didn't like that at all. You could see a cloud pass over his face when I suggested that.
Interviewer:
What kind of feeling did you have in those early days about the way he ran that country?
Lodge:
Well, he was not a man of executive ability. He was a man who'd been sort of a loner all of his life and he had plenty of courage. He'd meet an issue, he'd give orders and all that. But I didn't feel that he was on top of things in this country.
Interviewer:
One of the styles of government of his was highly personal, wasn't it? Could you describe that?
Lodge:
Was what?
Interviewer:
Highly personal. The way he ran the government, he didn’t trust anybody.
Lodge:
Oh yes, he didn't trust anybody. There was...we were hoping that after Mrs. Nhu had left the country which we were hoping for and which did happen and after Nhu was limited to strategic hamlets, that Mr. Thuan, T-H-U-A-N, would become Prime Minister.
A man who had trustworthiness written all over him. You could just look at his face and you could see that he was absolutely trustworthy. And yet...and would have been very advantageous to Diem to have him in because he was the last kind of man to connive and try to usurp or anything like that. But nothing ever happened.
Interviewer:
Did you...you had a couple of meetings with Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem's brother. What kind of impression did he make on you?
Lodge:
Well, he was bright and had great big beautiful white teeth and he talked about the possibility of his resigning, which I didn't take very seriously and just devoting himself to the strategic hamlets. Well, if he stayed on and ran the strategic hamlets, he'd be just as much of a menace as he had been being situated the way he was. So I didn't get...I didn't get that impression of ruggedness and trustworthiness that I had gotten from Mr. Thuan, for instance.
Interviewer:
Now at the same time you were grappling with the Vietnamese and trying to get them to do things, one gathers that you were also having some problems with the American mission itself.
And looking back at the documents it seems that you...that ah, General Harkins, who was the chief US military man in Saigon didn't always see eye to eye with you on all these issues, especially on the question of Diem and Nhu and whether they should go or stay. Did this, did this...did you feel you were having difficulties here with General Harkins?
Lodge:
Well, I don't think a difference of opinion means a difficulty. I mean, if you spent your life in a forum the way I have, the Massachusetts Legislature and the United States Senate and the UN, every day is spent cheek by jowl with people that you disagree with. But for that reason you don't get all hot and bothered and angry and so forth.
Ahh...I could perfectly well understand that General Harkins was put out because he wasn't informed on the plans that President Kennedy had in mind. Now the reason I didn't give him that information all about Nhu and all that, the reason I didn't give him that information was because I had been solemnly instructed by none other than the President of the United States not to tell anybody in Saigon about his telegram to me, or my telegrams to him, or anything about what anybody said in Washington about all these things.
And of course the President has an absolute right to use one of his subordinates to uh to carry the load and relieve him of the details and if he wants me to be the one that says no, I can't give you this information ahh...even if it makes an enemy for me, why, that's how its going to be.
Interviewer:
But there was one stage...
Lodge:
Then, then another thing was that the President...Kennedy's view of the place of the CIA in the scheme of things in Saigon was quite different from what it had been before when Ambassador Nolting was there.
And and I knew that the President, Kennedy, wanted to get the CIA out of the picture insofar as this ah...covert war was concerned. He didn't...there was a Vietnamese CIA man that we were building up all the time. Well, President Kennedy didn't want any more of that and at the same time we didn't want anybody pinning it on him, but why should he. So I made it clear we didn't...we weren't going to go on with having a Vietnamese CIA in the Vietnamese government, and of course that creates feelings. But if you're not prepared to take a little rough weather, you better not go into these things, anyway.
Interviewer:
Well, in...
Okay, can we stop there? I think we're at the end of a roll.
Going very well.
Enter the timecode: