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Interview with Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport) Taylor, 1979 [Part 3 of 4]

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Summary
Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport) Taylor, a United States Army General and diplomat, discusses briefly his Korean War experience and how that helped him in Vietnam. Taylor explains that when he first retired in 1959 he never thought the United States would become involved in Vietnam. Taylor recalls the Geneva Agreements in 1954 and that he disagreed with Eisenhower’s decision about Dien Bien Phu. Taylor also discusses his impressions of Diem and how Taylor alleges the United States pulled the rug out from Diem, which created chaos that Taylor inherited when he became ambassador. Taylor recalls the Tonkin Gulf and the lessons of Vietnam.
Topics
United States. Army. Chief of Staff, United States--Foreign relations--20th century, Korea--History, Military, Military assistance, American, Military relations, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Mass media and the war, United States--History--1945-, United States Politics and government 1945-1989, Vietnam--Politics and government, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Korean War, 1950-1953, Military art and science, Military history, Modern--20th century, Diplomats--United States, Offensive (Military science)
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Transcript

American support for the generals' coup

CASSETTE #3 - MAXWELL TAYLOR
Karnow:
Just for openers, if you may, if you would just repeat this about the difficulties of information, mentioning the forty-four different provinces, if you'd just make that statement we can use it...Go ahead.
Taylor:
Ready to go?
Karnow:
Yeah.
Taylor:
Ah, we mentioned the information problem several times. I can recall making many speeches in the United States after I returned as ambassador, trying to explain why these, the apparently contradictory views and reports coming out of Vietnam, by officials by the media, by various sources...why this confusion.
Well, there's really a very good reason for it. An inevitable development I would say of the situation, namely of forty-four provinces in South Vietnam and they're all different. They're different in climate, in geography, many times in ethnic, the ethnic background of the people. Some were urban, some were big cities, a great deal of rice land, great deal of forest.
The result is that there were not...there was not just a single war to be reported by officials and the press. There were really forty-four different wars and you could have, have an accurate reporter in each one of those provinces and get forty-four different reports coming to Washington and all would be right in their own way. Yet none a complete picture.
And at home then we committed the human fault...we saw on television as we did one time a Marine or soldier burning up a peasant's cottage. The feeling was, well, that's what the army and the Marines are doing, burning down people's houses. And that's a generalization from a single fact. Through a combination of those things they...the innate, the inherent complexity plus our over facile generalization we make for ourselves created many of the problems which, which plagued our leadership throughout the entire war.
Karnow:
In February of '64 you and McNamara went back to Vietnam and then the government in Vietnam was headed by Premier Nguyen Khanh. You discussed the possibility, the prospect of selective air and naval attacks against the north with him. First of all, what kind of reaction did he have to that notion?
Taylor:
As I recall we were, we were just feeling out with this new man who had not been in office very long what his reaction to that kind of thing...
Karnow:
Excuse me, could you mention his name when you...
Taylor:
General Khanh.
Karnow:
No, start again and mention his name. Could you start again and mention his name?
Taylor:
Well, insofar as our discussions with General Khanh is concerned, as I recall we were rather feeling out a new prime minister who we knew somewhat as an army officer, but we wanted to see how we'd feel about some of the policy issues we were debating ourselves. And one was the perennial question or the intermittent question of should or should we not use our air force against targets in North Vietnam. So it was just a feeler kind of discussion. We ha—we were not committed to either course of action and he turned out to be very enthusiastic. As I expected him to.
Karnow:
I just want to go back to one question about the coup against Diem, if I may. There's one thing I overlooked. As you look back, do you believe that we played a role that was responsible either directly or indirectly in the coup against Diem?
Taylor:
Well, yes, we certainly played a role in the sense of making it public knowledge that we were...ah, we were...if not disowning Diem, that we considered Diem thoroughly expendable. And the August 24 cable we discussed made it official to the senior generals.
Then our action in cutting off or slowing down the flow of various forms of economic aid to Diem. That was a public fact. So insofar as telling the Diem enemies, of which there were many, that if you go for him and replace him, that's all right with us. Now that doesn't say whether the quality of the replacement is also a factor in which you have an interest, but its just really a blank check to move ahead and make a change in government.
Karnow:
Again in retrospect, you...excuse me, again in retrospect, do you think that because we got involved in the internal situation in encouraging his opposition, that this had the effect of deepening our commitment to Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well, anything you do deepens your commitment. I've often had to, reflected on the fact that the American interest in Vietnam, how real was it. Well, it changed from month to month and year to year. It...The longer you were there the greater our interest in the sense we had made a greater stake, we had put more of our prestige on the line, our reputation on the line, so it was an accumulative thing like a snowball. So our interests were constantly increasing although in terms of physical things you might weigh and evaluate in in price, they might stay unchanged. These intangibles were tremendously important. Now that's part of your question, what, I missed that.
Karnow:
Well, I'm saying. Would you go back again...the encouragement to Diem's opponents, direct or indirect...the question really was did it get us deeper, more deeply involved in Vietnam?
Taylor:
Yes, my answer is yes for the reason that it did...our responsibility for the overthrow and the murder of Diem certainly contributed to our obligation to South Vietnam. When I was ambassador there, I often said it must be Homeric justice I'm sent there because in some sense I took part in this thing.
But I have been asked in later years that since the conditions were so chaotic, political conditions. I faced five different premiers in a year, in thirteen months. Five different sets of generals, five different sets of province governors. There were just, you can just imagine the problem in a country where the leadership is so limited and you don't have fall-back talent that you are simply putting experienced men to follow experienced men every two or three months.
Well, why in a time like that, Taylor, didn't you recommend that we call this thing off? Well, I would say there are several good reasons to me and I went over this at the time, thinking about it. One was that we have not used all our resources. We still have many things we can do to help the situation, especially the use of air in North Vietnam.
But I think the other part of it was the guilt of having contributed to its chaos by our actions in '63 in encouraging the downfall of Vietnam. But these people were not all responsible for this. We certainly contributed a part of it and we ought to carry that burden forward. And the third thing was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution which means lots of different things to senators apparently, but to the ambassador in Saigon in August of '64 it said Taylor, we're on a course of action that is vital to the United States. Pull up your socks and do better. You've been trying all right but try harder. So that's the third reason. I couldn't possibly then send a cable back, I think the cause is lost.

Taylor's assignment to the American Mission in Vietnam

Karnow:
When you were appointed ambassador in June of 1964, what did President Johnson tell you? This is really getting a point...what did Johnson want?
Taylor:
I wish you'd asked me first how did you get the job.
Karnow:
All right, let's go back. How did you get the job?
Taylor:
Well, you recall that Cabot Lodge was the ambassador and to the surprise of a lot of people and to Cabot's surprise, in the republican presidential in New Hampshire, he came out first. So there was a great feeling among Republicans and many people, Cabot's friends, not Republicans, that he ought to come back and run the course. You'd be a fine choice for president.
So the president said that's fine, get him back...a little like replacing Diem...now that Cabot's gone who's going to take his place. Well, there's a great silence and the president asked all of us to recommend people. I put in a name and other people put in names and the names seemed to satisfy him. And then Dean Rusk announced he was available, be glad to take the job.
The president thanked him and McNamara said I'd be glad to volunteer also and at some other time Bobby Kennedy volunteered. Well, Taylor, try Chairman of the Joint Chiefs...this is interesting...they're all good men. One morning Bob McNamara said the president thinks its funny that you haven't volunteered.
Well, I said, Bob, I can't back out of anything if all the rest of you are volunteering, I will too. Then I got a call over that you're accepted. So then the press came around after the announcement had been made. They all said how did you get this job over Rusk and McNamara and Bobby Kennedy and so on. What did you have that they didn't have. I said I had just one quality: expendability.
Karnow:
What kind of instructions or what did Lyndon Johnson say to you as you were going out there. Did he give you any idea of what he really wanted in Vietnam?
Taylor:
I can't say that he did in the sense that he sat down man to man, because we'd been talking this for a year together at least, so that this was, we knew each other's thoughts and I didn't need any instructions, really. I guess two or three points of thumb [incomprehensible]. One is he insisted I write him a letter. Every...
Karnow:
I'm sorry, when you. When you say these three, could you mention Johnson's name?
Taylor:
Yeah, President Johnson asked me to send a personal...a letter to him at the end of every week. A wire, a letter...a wire, a cable. That became a major chore as Friday came around and I'd say what the hell has happened in the last week that I will tell the president. Cables go in, everything goes in but his point was, and not a bad one...there's so much literature that flows into the White House and any major headquarters in Washington that the question of selecting out those important things is very, very important and usually staff officers do that. That is a filtering out process to the president's door, successive layers of staff who say well, he's not interested in this, maybe he ought to have that and eventually he gets the cable.
Well, to have the man on the ground to say I think the most important things were so and so, it has some value. But I was surprised and it was rather a chore, I must say. The other was an agreement I had with him which I raised, which was I'd like to have the authority to come back to you, come back to Washington at least every other month.
I'd seen how easy it was for Saigon in spite of all the cables to have these kinds of break of real understanding such as occurred in August of sixty, '63...and just to come back to mend fences in the government itself and also Congress to get the reports.
So I did that. I think one month I didn't make it because...one date I didn't make because of a coup, but every time I came back I had the satisfaction from directly the president all the way up to his advisors and then going up on the hill and talking to the Congress. So that was a very valuable privilege to have which I prized.
Karnow:
Still, uh, to go back to this question again...even though you spoke to the president over a number of months and years, or even just...what was your general impression or feeling of what President Johnson's objective was in Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well, exactly what all his predecessors had been he...he wanted to get the North, the North Vietnamese off the backs of South Vietnam and let the Vietnamese pick their own kind of government. Simple as that. No one ever took it that simply but that was the core thought in every president I worked with on Vietnam. And it goes back to Eisenhower.

The Tonkin Gulf Incident and Resolution

Karnow:
Uh, since you mentioned the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, can we go back and explore the incidents that led up to the Tonkin Gulf, to the activities. I gather there was something published, called 34A Operations. Could you describe them and what was our responsibility?
Taylor:
Well, the 34A Operation was again a very...a very primitive third rate effort to do something to hurt the enemy in his own territory. Just as I raised the point that was one of the ultimate reasons for our bombing program. And what our advisors helped the navy...the very small navy of South Vietnam to take some patrol boat kind of vessels...every one was kind of a mixture but the general patrol boat type.
Put on very simple weapons, just an ordinary infantry mortar...could put a base plate down on the deck and use it. Machine guns, things of that sort, and then do such harassing things operations as was possible up and down the coast. And this went on for several months. I don't recall exactly when it was started. It never had any real effect. I thought it made the Vietnamese who knew something about it, made them feel a little bit better. But it certainly was not any major operation and I can't conceive of it ever being linked with the Tonkin Gulf though I know that linkage has been attempted in the past.
Karnow:
What actually happened in the Tonkin Gulf Incident?
Taylor:
Well, I wasn't there. I was in Saigon and of course I was notified by the ambassador and we were getting cables...intercepts, we weren't getting cables, we were getting intercepts of the traffic, that [incomprehensible] going back and forth from the ships to other ships.
Voice:
Excuse me, we just lost the light.
Karnow:
A light just went out.
Voice:
Camera man spoke too soon.
Gotta watch that. Okay, Stan.
Karnow:
General, what was the Tonkin Incident?
Taylor:
Well, I'm a poor one to testify on the Tonkin Gulf because I was ambassador in Saigon and very much interested in...as everyone else was with the intercepts that we received from ships involved in the incident. As I recall we had great difficulty in understanding the cables, the intercepts. Apparently the authorities in Washington did.
But there was no doubt in my mind what evidence I got that there had been an attack on the, on our ships. And my surprise was we didn't retaliate at once. We had been discussing retaliation with bombing for some time out of Saigon for different purposes and here apparently was an attack on the high seas on one or more of our naval ships so that there seemed to be every reason to retaliate.
It was convenient for one thing and secondly it was an event for which retaliation was appropriate. So my only surprise was that they waited for a second one. Now which one was bona fide, if any, or were both of them bona fide, I know to this day it seems to me that the evidence indicates that one clearly was and the other is rather doubtful.
But as it came to me in Saigon there had been at least one attack, we assumed two attacks and hence the retaliation took place is quite understandable. Now then the Tonkin Gulf Resolution itself as I read it was an amazing thing because I was very much surprised to find everybody except two senators signed such a blank check which it was. It went way beyond what I thought the importance of the mission was. So that was to me the surprising thing. Nonetheless I took it very seriously as being a major endorsement of our policy.
Karnow:
Now, how did you regard the Tonkin Gulf Resolution? Did you regard it as something useful as far as...
Taylor:
Well, I...I didn't see it...if I had put myself in the president's shoes, I don't recall I did, I would see he had a goldmine if you want to call it that in terms of authorization from Congress. As ambassador frankly that point didn't occur to me. It did occur to me as being an indication of the depth and the strength of our policy and that if I were thinking about recommending getting out of there, which I really, I wasn't, as I've already indicated, that I would certainly have stopped thinking about it right then.
Karnow:
Well let me put it somewhat differently. Do you think that the war could have been prosecuted in a, differently and perhaps from your point of view in a better way if there had been a straightforward declaration of war?
Taylor:
I didn't see it then. In postwar reflection I would say that we should have declared war if we were going to carry this thing forward as we did. Now having said that I must say I sat in many debates listening to them among the State Department discussing it with the president generally and no one knew the arguments against the declaration of war and they seemed to make reasonable sense.
But having seen how...recognized now that the American people really don't, won't take an undeclared war and imposing those restraints which we habitually have accepted in time of regular war, if indeed we're going to take upon any place, we better formally so...and with complete concurrence of the representative, the president and Congress, of the people and Congress.
Karnow:
Would you outline some of the pros and cons. What would have been the advantages of declaring war?
Taylor:
Well, I can see it now the advantages are indicated, there's no question about we are at war and that justifies the military actions we're taking, it makes unquestionable the duty of a young man called upon to serve his country, to serve his country. It removes all the nebulous aspects of our involvement in Vietnam.
On the other hand, if the arguments against it was whom do we declare war against. Well, we can't declare war against the Viet Cong. They don't exist as an entity in, for international society. We declare war on Hanoi? Well, then that raises the question of, does that mean, what effect would that have now on the Soviets and on China, again the linkage of mutual defense treaties.
So those...and then another argument that when you have a formal war you have to end it formally, you have to have a declaration of peace and negotiations. Many of us had the feeling I did and I think most of my colleagues. This... This thing is not something that formalized. It's going to die down, it's going to be gradual suppression and it'll go down and it'll go out like a slow-burning fire. So whereas that termination would have been made more complicated if you had a formal war in existence at the time. So those were the general [incomprehensible]...
Karnow:
A propos of that, who did you, at the time who did you think, you think we were really fighting in Vietnam. As you recall many of the arguments put forth about going into Vietnam was that it would really...the real enemy was China and we were there to stop the, to deter the Chinese...
Taylor:
I never heard any official ever express that view. Ho Chi Minh was the man who was running that and we knew he was running it. And because of the fear of China which I mentioned before, we generally accepted the fact of being a puppet of China didn't make any sense. And he wasn't a puppet of China.
Karnow:
Well in fact, as you recall, Dean Rusk once said we were there to prevent the Chinese from coming down...
Taylor:
I never heard that. I'm ashamed I've...I never heard him express that view. I, certainly not generally held by anybody, no.

Bien Hoa and American reprisal

Karnow:
On August 18 of 1964 according to the record, you sent the cable to Washington suggesting that we develop a pa...On August 18, 1964 you cabled Washington suggesting we develop a posture of maximum readiness for deliberate escalation of pressure against North Vietnam starting, using January 1st of 1965 as a target date. Now at the same time the president was running for election ah, and was publicly saying that he was against the wider war. Did you see any inconsistency between your position and the president's?
Taylor:
I didn't have any feeling. I was involved in election. I was responsible for giving the best advice I could. I was certainly aware of the fact when I recommended a retaliation for the attack on Bien Hoa airfield which you may be coming to later. But that was just before the election and they expect him to get an affirmative out of that was stretching my imagination. Stretching my hopes at least.
Karnow:
In any case, you had a good deal of support in Washington for your recommendations in that cable of August 18. Rusk, McNamara...
Taylor:
Well, these were just preparations obviously. This was not...oh you mean...the cable you're referring to...
Karnow:
The recommendations were supported by people in Washington.
Taylor:
I suppose so.
Karnow:
And Bundy was sent the memo to the president saying that the communists need to be shown that we and the South Vietnamese are not sitting back after the Tonkin Gulf Incident. And it continued. The main [incomprehensible] of the question is the extent to which we should add elements to the above actions, which was reprisal, that would tend deliberately to invoke a North Vietnamese reaction and consequent retaliation by us. In other words, a form of double escalation if you want. Now this memo had been interpreted afterwards as kind of an attempt by us to pick a deliberate fight with the North Vietnamese. How would you explain it?
Taylor:
I never saw that. You're telling me something I never heard about. That particular...Bundy's memorandum.
Karnow:
What about the gist of it? Does that seem to you to be reasonable?
Taylor:
Uh, well, the fact that he was commenting to the president on it, that he took an action of that sort, it'd be normal in this case in his position if that's what you means.
Karnow:
Well, let me put the question differently then. Were we in fact trying to create conditions...?
Taylor:
Not that I'm aware of. We didn't have to. They gave us plenty of...plenty of causes. As the record will show, I recommended at least twice bombing for Bien Hoa and for the Brink barracks in Saigon. I believe one more before Pleiku came up when Bundy was on the ground and retaliation by air was justified. So we had...maybe Mac didn't know it at the time he was going to get these opportunities. I don't know about this. But it never occurred to me you had to look for...to create a provocation because they were provocative enough and they will come around in due course.
Karnow:
Let me ask you one question again. There's been some analysis that consistent with your belief that in the dangers of putting American ground troops into Asia without some ability to strike at sanctuaries, that in fact the trade off was that your agreement, yours and the JCS agreement was that we would only accept the introduction of American combat forces if North Vietnam was bombed. Is that, is that fair?
Taylor:
No, no. That's complete nonsense. First, it just doesn't hold up on the logical end. I was always after a certain point when I found the depth we were in when I got there as ambassador, that we must use our air. The question was how, when and under what circumstances.
On the ground I always had the feeling that we're ideally placed as long as we had Marines over the horizon, off Da Nang, able to call in if an unexpected crisis came up in Da Nang or anyplace else. I'd have liked to have kept it that way. But as circumstance developed that wasn't good enough because the enemy was pressing harder all the time and put too much pressure on the north. I had to back away from that position.

Taylor's relations with Diem's successors

Karnow:
I wonder if you could talk about your relationship with Nguyen Khanh who was the prime minister at least during your, in your first few months as ambassador and then successive prime ministers. You might mention how many you were...
Taylor:
Well, I'd have to get my own calendar to be sure I didn't miss any. Khanh was the first one whom I had known as a brigadier general. Rather...obviously a bright number but no one I'd ever pick to be in the front rank of the leadership. Yet after Big Minh's coup that overthrew ...resulted in the death of Diem and his brother, Minh and his gang were just not bright enough to keep ahead of Khanh who was brighter than anybody and pretty soon they found they were on the street out of a job and here was the obscure Khanh.
McNamara and I went over to speak to Khanh and look him over and I don't know that we learned much more than we did before except we talked to him about subjects which we never discussed with him, matters of government, relations in the North, relations in the United States, future plans for military operations and found he was a very bright fellow who had been thinking about all these things. So our thought was well, maybe this man might be the fellow for us.
Well, again, our hopes were disappointed because although Khanh was bright he had absolutely no character, intriguing and maneuvering against everybody including his best friend and certainly against the Americans. And eventually he was thrown out with my enthusias—my quiet, I hope noiseless, cheers by his own colleagues and he was sent on his way with a few thousand dollars in his pocket and told not to come back a far as I know he has never gone back.
Well then there were three... there were really three others...really four others until we ended with Ky...
Karnow:
Thieu. Ky and Thieu.
Taylor:
Thieu. General Thieu and General Ky combination which then with slight adjustments carried on until the very disaster at the end. So that was a very hectic period, there were essentially five different governments I dealt with in thirteen months.
Karnow:
To go back to Khanh, there was a moment that I recall, there was quite a bust up with Khanh over a thing called the Vung Tao Charter when he tried to grab control of the government. Could you recall some of the...
Taylor:
Well, I can't give it to you in detail. This was a charter he drew up himself and without any real discussion with the Americans and really imposed it. And it st—it made his position particularly strong. We Americans, and we had the full documents and could study it, saw what he was up to and didn't like it particularly but I wouldn't say we didn't feel we could oppose it because maybe this might give him the support he would require to make a go of his position.
So I would say that was not a major issue. It was a case when we saw how he was always moving a little faster than anybody else and a little ahead of the procession...something to assist Khanh. And as it was a tip off to his way of doing business, I would say.
The overthrow of the Council of Elders was what created the great disturbance because this was a gross violation of understanding they had with me, and that really led us to decide we can't use Khanh and passed the word on to the general, whenever you're tired of Khanh, we are too.
Karnow:
Again, we were getting deeper into Vietnam and...
Taylor:
Yeah...when you're in the ship you have to...and your life's at stake, you have to pick the pilot, or at least you have a say in the pilot.
Karnow:
So then we were kind of getting into curiously a sort of situation where we had the responsibilities of being a colonial power with not all the advantages of being a colonial power.
Taylor:
That might be a good statement. I hadn't thought of it in those terms. Now uh meanwhile there was no question about our dedication to principle. We wanted to get out. Don't think we wanted to stay there. But in order to get the thing over with and to get the thing over with we had to have leadership and we found none ready made. So we had to have apprentice leaders and we had to coddle them and protect them, hopefully until they could take over for themselves.
Karnow:
Did you have any shouting matches with Khanh?
Taylor:
Have what?
Karnow:
Any shouting matches with Khanh or any real moments of confrontation with him?
Taylor:
I told him very calmly that we had decided that we could dispense with him and he better make his plans on that basis.
Karnow:
Uh, as I re—...
Taylor:
You never lose your temper with an Oriental in my judgment. That shows lack of self-control and loss of face.
Karnow:
As I recall, there was another incident where you got yourself into a confrontation with Ky, as I recall. Am I correct about that? And some of the younger generals.
Taylor:
Yes, you're thinking about...this is the outcome at the time of the...Khanh's decision to overthrow the council of elders. He wouldn't come to tell me himself what had happened. He sent four generals, including Thieu, Ky, the chief of naval operations whose name I can't recall and General Thi, I think was the fourth one.
And Alex Johnson and I both received...we had agreed we were really going to tell them in hard cold terms what this meant, that this meant that they were rejecting the assistance, their ally and their ally was just tired of it and they can't, could not count on our assistance, if that's the way they're going to behave. Actually, it went off without any voice being raised but then they went back and reported to Khanh and Khanh was the one who showed great indignation that his officers had been treated so badly by the ambassador and that's what the public noise was about.
Karnow:
There was at the time in Saigon somebody who I gather was keeping contact with...a CIA man who was keeping contact with some of these people, Conein...
Taylor:
Conein, that bum? Excuse me, take that off the record. He never had any authority to me whatsoever and I had him sent home.
Karnow:
In other words, you didn't use him.
Taylor:
Never. Never. I found he was getting his hand in and say I will be your go-between and I said I assured him I didn't need a go-between.
Karnow:
But he was trying to move in on...
Taylor:
He was trying to do something, I gather he...that relationship he had with Lodge, I wasn't s—that was my understanding.
Karnow:
Lodge used him with the general?
Taylor:
I believe Lodge took him back when Lodge went back as ambassador.
Karnow:
He wasn't there during your tenure as ambassador?
Taylor:
He was for a short while.
Karnow:
Now after the, the Bien Hoa...
Taylor:
Listen, I don't want that word bum to be put in there. Get that out...
Karnow:
Listen, I know Conein very well and I've been calling him a bum for years.
Taylor:
I call a lot of people that in a friendly way, but...
Karnow:
Let me go back to this point about the difficulty of...it might be worth making the point you made before. Restating it. The difficulty of working through a surrogate government. I remember you mentioned when the lights were off the problem with Dr. Quat, his reservations about troops being put in, I mean the ideas that his own nationalist credibility might be undermined to some extent. Could you discuss that a little bit?
Taylor:
Well, this came up when...in fifty-fi—in '65 when indeed the decision was and had been made to start putting the Marines ashore at Da Nang, the first units for which clearance was required. As ambassador quite properly I was told to go to the Prime Minister, Dr. Quat.
Dr. Quat is a very fine, intelligent physician...he was a medical doctor...had no political experience but a very good man, but very rough...very rough weather and very rough company as prime minister. But he was very conscientious and he had never thought about this before...one of the numerous ones had just come on the job.
He had never thought about it and his first reaction was similar to what mine had been. Is this a good idea, that apart from what General Westmoreland says...he needed the Marines, which was the prime reason for our decision the white faces come to defend us? People...aren't they going to think these are the French back? This maybe will work against us.
Well, I conceded that there was a possibility he was really the man to tell me that we Americans had thought of that and we were very slow in doing this and hadn't decided to raise it, hadn't offered these to him, except for the fact that we are now convinced that Da Nang was his real danger. There was not enough strength in that area.
The enemy was building up and now we needed to have divisions, not just small units, that we cannot feel that was safe and he knew what it means to the country if Da Nang suddenly fell in the hands of the enemy. When he said let me reflect on it and I thought [incomprehensible] went overnight. I went back and he reflected and he said I agree with you. But I thought that was very sensible reaction...considering this was a...apparently, I think hitting for the first time, it was an honest effort to think the thing through.

Complications of escalation

Karnow:
There's one thing that I think we laymen don't understand when we get into this question of preparation for bombing. At what stage was North Vietnam targeted, was it, everything all prepared in advance.
Taylor:
I can't give you in detail but in the normal military way that long before anyone was really pressing on the decision on bombing, any prudent commander, the air force commander in South Vietnam and certainly CINCPAC out in Honolulu has got...looked over every possible target over there and is programmed 'em and has put them down on maps and tried to get as much information as he can so he'd be ready to accept them as targets. I didn't see that happen but I'm sure it did.
Karnow:
After the Bien Hoa attack on November 1st, you remember you recommended reprisal bombing, President Johnson replied asking if you wanted to assign ground troops to...
Taylor:
That surprised me.
Karnow:
...to defend bases. What was your reaction, could you repeat...?
Taylor:
I was very much surprised...
Karnow:
I'm sorry, could you start again?
Taylor:
When I recommended retaliatory air strikes for the bombing of Bien Hoa airbase which was occupied largely by American aircraft and the losses in personnel were all American...this was the first time the enemy ever attacked a major military installation of the Americans. A change of tactics.
It couldn't be shrugged off I felt as just another incident of the war. It was something new and it was an excellent reason to have a retaliatory strike. Unfortunately it was the day before election and that was turned down. As you mentioned, the president's cabling in declining, then sugges—then asked would I be interested in I think it was troops to guard air bases.
Ah, it was a large factor. In other words, it was more related to the Bien Hoa in the senses that it proposed using American troops for this purpose. Well, I was very much surprised because it seemed so much more difficult to offer American troops to come to take over that task than it was what I had been turned down on. I was very much surprised. But it tipped off something to me that I...the [incomprehensible] of the president's was far further down the road in his thinking with regards to the use of American ground forces than I was.
Karnow:
In other words uh, he was campaigning on one platform and thinking about something else...
Taylor:
I'm sure he was. He's bound to have been thinking about...he should have been...it had been not only inefficiency but inadequacy as a leader not to be thinking about it for a long time and I suppose now that...it's not entirely inconsistent to say as a politician, as of today I have no plans to bring in American troops.
Karnow:
You were back in Washington in late November, November 27 and feeling rather gloomy about the future. And...there seems to have been a little sort of a change here. Earlier the consensus in Washington had been that you need a stable government in Saigon as a precondition for bombing and later the attitude was the weakness of the government of Saigon was a reason for the bombing. What was the change here and...?
Taylor:
This was a Washington manufactured thesis, that you can't bomb unless your government's stable. I never understood that. I said yesterday when the president said that or the secretary of state, that I'd never believed it. However, I certainly agreed it was highly desirable to get a stable government regardless of why you're doing it.
So it was not a major issue. But when you saw that you were not getting stable, the morale of the country was going down, the strength of the enemy was building up and still you had an unused weapon of great potential value and not to use it was complete nonsense. And that, so I simply was voicing for the first time an objection to a slogan if you want to call it that had been used to hold down the...the...those who were keen or enthusiastic to use the air power.
Voice:
Stan. Excuse me for a moment. Stan, would you reach forward and tuck the mic uh, the general's mic cable under his jacket.
Taylor:
Ah ha.
Voice:
It slipped out somehow.
Taylor:
How's that, all right?
Voice:
Thank you.
Karnow:
After your meeting with Johnson in uh, November of '64, there was a memo to him recommending a gradual bombing campaign aimed at persuading North Vietnam to reduce its support for the Viet Cong. Curiously, Lyndon Johnson decided to consult allies rather than consult Congress on this. Do you think it was a mistake not for him not to have gone to Congress about bombing or do you think that...?
Taylor:
Well, certainly at that stage, there was no reason to. This was the recommendation of a program which might or might not be implemented. I'm not sure. As I recall, I don't think there's any particular reason on that particular point in time but certainly before he decided to embark on this, he should have talked to the leadership. I was always surprised that the president with his great reputation for political savoir-faire turned out to do things that even a simple soldier would think is mishandling your Congress.
Karnow:
In January of '65 you were asked if you wanted ground troops...I think there was a state department request. At any rate, your reply according to the record was that ground troops might make the South Vietnamese slacken their efforts.
Taylor:
Yes, I remember my reply but I don't remember what triggered the cable. There's no question about my opinion...was that let's not bring in ground forces until we have to and as of January I didn't think we'd have to.
Karnow:
Could you, was it because you felt they would slacken their efforts?
Taylor:
No, that they might slacken their efforts. They might think they the French, thismight work against us. But most important of all once you get into this business, how do you turn back. [Incomprehensible] blind about the danger of that first soldier or marine coming ashore. I certainly wasn't. And it was that aspect that you'll find I think the cables show, that once that decision was made the Marines started coming ashore. As far as I was concerned that's that. Let's go, boys, as fast as we can receive these troops logistically and have a real mission for them. But up until that first Marine went ashore, I was against it until it was really necessary.
Karnow:
Well...
END OF CASSETTE #3
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