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Interview with Leslie H. Gelb, 1982

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Summary
Leslie Gelb served in the Defense Department in the late 1960s and later worked as a correspondent for the New York Times. He describes tensions within the Defense Department and recalls Robert McNamara’s 1967 testimony that the bombing of North Vietnam was not working as a turning point. He discusses how America’s lack of knowledge about Vietnam and its people shaped diplomacy. Finally, he describes inaccurate calculations on the part of General Westmoreland and how the Pentagon measured military success.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Tet Offensive, 1968, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Aerial operations, American, 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 War, 1961-1975--Psychological aspects, United States. Government organization and employees, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Public opinion
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Transcript

Stalemate between the American government and public over Vietnam

VIETNAM
Sound Roll #2715
Americanization
Interview with Leslie Gelb
Coming up an interview with Leslie Gelb.
Full sound.
Take.
Mark.
Leslie Gelb interview, Take one.
Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
Les, can we go back and invoke some of the mood in the Defense Department in 1966. How attitudes are changing towards the Vietnam War. Who was changing attitudes, what stage were they changing?
Gelb:
The Defense Department and I would say Washington as a whole was in a kind of twilight zone beginning in 1966-67, about the Vietnam War. Ah, in that process of reconciling their private, unofficial views with the official and public views. The official and public views were still that we were very much in this war, uh, things were getting better, uh, there was some positive end in sight.
The private view was, for the most part in most places, ah, already pessimistic. There was already this sense of stalemate, not victory. In the Pentagon itself, there was this, ah, rolling split between the civilians on the one side, and the military on the other. Ah, the military was still sticking ah, to the ah, assessment, basic assessment that if they could get more they could do better. They weren't really promising uh, a specific point where there would be victory, but they said you give us more fire power we'll produce better results. Ah, you let us do more in pacification, we'll pacify more villages. And the civilians beginning to say even more won't do it, and more will only mean stalemate at a higher level, uh, not victory. So this was the basic, uh, uh, kind of schizophrenia was developing at that time.
Interviewer:
And were there any turning points... were there any conflicts...
Excuse me. Before we go on to that point, would you just explain why they, why they felt that more wouldn't do it. Why the civilians thought that that—why they were skeptical. Just be specific...[inaudible]
Gelb:
The military I think just basically felt that more ah, fire power would mean better results, because that was their, their ethos, that's what they were trained to believe. If they believed otherwise they really couldn't be military men anymore. The civilians, on the other hand, ah, could step back from it. They weren't involved in uh, in a military career, they weren't involved in proving that military force could could solve the problem.
Ah, and they were able to step back from the experience and say just what have we achieved? We've ah, added doses of fire power, what has it brought us? We've changed strategy, nothing has really worked. Is anything going to work? They began in sum to learn something about Vietnam itself. Up until that point it had been uhm, the United States against the phantom. Now it was the United States against a Vietnamese enemy that took on some flesh and blood and a great deal of determination.

McNamara's doubts about the war

Interviewer:
How can you explain the uh, take and focus on McNamara for a moment here, here's a guy who had an investment, who had been optimistic for so long, how does he, how why and when does he begin to have doubts?
Gelb:
Well, he had been optimistic McNamara, about the war, but uh, my sense is that that optimism, ah, ah, faded fairly quickly, and that already by 19... by the end of 1962, 1963, McNamara himself began to have doubts. Now, he's a mystery man in all this. Uhm. And people always speculate when did McNamara really change his mind what changed his mind? And I don't think we really know the answers to it, and he hasn't unlocked this ah mystery for us either.
But if you look at the memos, that he was preparing in the Pentagon, send to the President, uhm, they already took on a somber cast in '63, '64 for sure. Ah, he was still arguing that ah, the the effort was a noble one, that it was very important to stop Communism in Vietnam, but he wasn't quite sure how to do it any more. The public face of McNamara was still positive the private face was beginning to have doubts. And these doubts emerged very strongly in 1966, and uh, unambiguously in 1967. In the spring of '67, McNamara went and testified before the uh, Senate Arms Services Committee, uhm, no this was the Senate sub committee, preparing the subcommittee...
Interviewer:
Yeah, do you just want to get a...
Gelb:
Yeah, in the... was it August?
Interviewer:
Just say in the middle of '67.
Gelb:
In the middle of 1967, McNamara crossed the line, and when he went to testify before the uh, the Senate Committee, on the effectiveness of the bombing. Now the testimony was uh, closed session, but when you go and testify before Congress, you're in effect speaking publicly. So McNamara was crossing his Rubicon at that point.
And he went there and he said to the senators that the bombing of North Vietnam is not working, that we are not bringing the North Vietnamese to their knees, and he didn't draw the the conclusion from that he didn't go the next step and say and therefore it's not clear that our basic strategy for the war to work, and that we've got to think whether or not we ought to be in there in the first place. He didn't go into that length, but he did say the bombing the the lynch pin of the war wasn't working, and would not work. And for the first time in effect, he separated himself from the uh, the position of the military, and from the former public of uh, McNamara.
Interviewer:
What was the military's reaction? Now we don't want to get too much into the Washington stuff, but...
Gelb:
Do you want to start?
Interviewer:
What was the, what was the reaction to McNamara...
Running. Marker.
Camera Roll 721. Take two.
Clapsticks.
Gelb:
The military was very upset by McNamara's testimony, and it uh, started a great deal of tension inside the building between the military and the civilians. Ah, because, uh, we were breaking ranks at that point. And it was a tension that was was to be maintained uh, right up to the break point at the time of Tet, in ah, in March of 1968, when the divisions at that point were just so deep, that it was very hard to to work with one another. Perspectives on the war had irrevocably parted.

The tense preparation for the Paris peace talks

Interviewer:
Would you go in, would you go back to your own experience with the...
Gelb:
I'll tell you there, there was a story uh, coming out of the um, uh, of the Tet Offensive, I think that shows...
Interviewer:
Excuse me, can you start that again?
Gelb:
Coming out of the Tet Offensive, ah, the beginning of negotiations in Paris, uh, you could feel that tension in the, in the Pentagon. And I remember one, one instance where we were all down in a general's office working on an inter agency study about our negotiating objectives.
Uhm, and the word had come down from Dean Rusk to this working group uh, in framing American negotiating objectives, for the Paris peace talks, do not in any way consider fall back positions. State only the true maximum American goals. And when these instructions were read to us at this um, meeting, uh, I bridled at them, said you know that's uh, that's not a serious way to go. Sure let's start the negotiations with our maximum position, but let's talk here realistically among ourselves. At which point, an admiral who was sitting next to me, popped up out of his seat and stuck his finger in my nose and says who are you negotiating for the Americans or the Communists?! This is what's been going on with you civilians for the last two years now! It was that kind of tension, it was palpable.

L.B.J. as central to the determination of the U.S. in Vietnam

Interviewer:
Would you go back to '67 when McNamara testifies, you said that he [inaudible] uh did you get any, could you get any vibrations in the Pentagon about what what position Johnson was taking, the president?
Gelb:
The, the...
Interviewer:
Hold, just hold it for a second. I think we'd better cut... Cut!
Turning. Marker.
Take three.
Clapsticks.
Gelb:
Ah, you couldn't do a days work in the Pentagon without thinking about Lyndon Johnson. And beginning in late '66, '67 the battle was on for Lyndon Johnson's mind. And, from our perspective, the civilians in the Pentagon, it was a question of Bob McNamara against all the rest of the President's advisors. Uh, and that it was uh, uh, up to McNamara to make this case and if he couldn't inside, no one could. But it was very clear that there was one man to convince it was Lyndon Johnson, and he wasn't thinking the same way about the war that we were.
Interviewer:
How do you think he was thinking? What kind of vibrations were you getting?
Gelb:
Well, these were vibrations, because, ah, ah, at that point in my life I was far from the inner circle, just looking in through the key holes. And ah, hearing the gossip about the uh, the meetings of the senior people. Uh, but from all accounts that we got inside the Pentagon Lyndon Johnson uh, was not about to give up the American commitment to the war. Nor was he about to do anything that appeared weak he didn't even want to stop the bombing because it would appear weak!
Uh, he didn't want to make, uh, uh, uh, forthcoming offers about negotiation, because it might look like, uh, we wanted to find an easy exit to the war. He had become convinced that it was critical to the pursuit of the war to convince the North Vietnamese that the United States was not about to cut and run. And he didn't want to give any signal in that direction what so ever. So as McNamara and the civilian part of the Pentagon and the press began to move into opposition of the war, Lyndon Johnson became even more resistant to any talk about the unwinability of the war. And McNamara's role at that point, the role of the civilians in the Pentagon, became ah, ah, much more tenuous, much more treacherous.

Development of American knowledge of the Vietnamese

Interviewer:
Would you go in uhmm...
Excuse me, I'd like to interrupt for a second. I just wanted to ask you in what ways um, did the enemy become flesh and blood, for, for people in Washington. Before we go on...[inaudible]
Gelb:
Well, one of the most important phenomenon ah, in the mid 60s, was Washington coming to terms, ah, with the Vietnamese and with a country called Vietnam, because up until that point, uh, we knew nothing about Vietnam, Southeast Asia. It was all landscape, not people. It was a place on a chess board, a piece in a, in a game of strategic power politics, not a um, place where there were ah, Cao Dai, North Vietnamese South Vietnamese, it it had no life to it at that point. Americans are peculiarly uhm, uhm, uneducated and insensitive to other cultures.
Interviewer:
Start Americans are [incomprehensible]
Gelb:
Americans are peculiarly uneducated and insensitive to foreign cultures. Uh, particularly uh, Asia. Oh, the word foreign couldn't be stronger ha ha, uh in the American vocabulary. We knew nothing about that place. And now we were beginning to see it. People were coming back from Vietnam, uh, the soldiers, the foreign service officers, the newsmen, and beginning to tell stories about what it was really like. Oh, to take away the abstraction, make it real. You know to me, and I think I was absolutely typical, uh, a foreign policy expert out of the uh, uh, Harvard establishment. Oh, I was a supporter of the war up until 1966. Um, the Munich analogy, domino theory, they're very real to me.
Uh, when I first came to Washington and went to work in the Senate, I got a letter from an, um, army officer who was commanding a battalion in Vietnam. And he said in the letter, uh that his troops were fighting valiantly, he was proud of the American soldier, but he was now convinced we could not win the war because he had, he had never seen an adversary fight as hard as the North Vietnamese were fighting. And he believed that it could only spring from the deepest sense of nationalism, and if that were the case we could never beat it. It was tales like that being told by, um, uh, the wandering journeyman, would now learn something. Finally we're bringing Washington to terms with the realities of Vietnam.

Failure of American bombing as central strategy

Interviewer:
That's pretty good. Could you go back for a moment, let's talk a little bit about the assessment...bombing of the North. How is this considered unim—important to break the morale and second, second to stop the supplies and why it [inaudible]...
Gelb:
Well, the bombing of North Vietnam was considered a lynch pin of the whole war strategy for two reasons. Ah, first, it was the way you applied pressure and caused pain in North Vietnam itself. Secondly, uhm, it was supposedly the way you cut off the necessary flow of supplies from North Vietnam to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops fighting in South Vietnam. Interdiction was the key term. And it looked to us that even though we were stepping up the bombing, almost month by month, that there was no impact on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military activities in the South!
So we had to ask the question was the interdiction campaign working at all? Was the bombing strategy sensible? So we started to make the calculations of how much uh, supplies would have to come from North to South to keep a hundred and fifty thousand troops in the field and fighting, producing as much devastation as they were. And we had a pretty good fix on how many trucks the North Vietnamese were sending down.
We had a lot of sensors throughout the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Laos into ah, ah, into Vietnam. And we figured that ah, ah, if they sent over the course of a week let's say, something on the order of fifty trucks, fifty to one hundred trucks, that they only had to get through ten to twenty of those trucks to provide enough material to support the level of fighting that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were carrying out in the South. And we further estimated...
VIETNAM
LESLIE GELB
SR 2716
Vietnam interview with Leslie Gelb.
Turning. This is a head of SR 2716 to go with the head of Camera Roll 722, WGBH Vietnam Americanization TVP 007. Directed by Drew Pearson. This is August 25 and we're continuing an interview with Leslie Gelb.
Turning. Marker. Number 0722. Take four. Claps.
Interviewer:
Okay. Let's go back to the interdiction infiltration.
Gelb:
Right. The question was to figure out why the arming and interdiction campaign wasn't working. And, to do that we have to make a calculation about how many trucks North Vietnamese were sending into the south each week and how many they actually needed to get through in order to maintain a certain level of military activity, and we estimated as I remember it something like fifty to a hundred trucks a week and that they only needed to get though ten or twenty of those trucks to maintain just that level of military activity that they they had been carrying out. Ah.
And, we estimated that based on past experience there was no way we could eliminate those ah that twenty percent. No matter how bombing effective was they were going to get at least that through ah for war supplies. As far as food was concerned, ah, we estimated that they were, in effect, living off the land and that the people in the south were providing them with the food that they were requisitioning with, requisitioning it. In other words, the interdiction campaign was not working and would not work.
But, this was not a battle, an argument that was won, with one memo. We wrote that memo making that point virtually every month for two years. A cable would come in from Westmoreland, General Westmoreland and General Abrams from Vietnam very highly classified cable showing how the bombing was making a difference and ah that memo was to be forwarded to President Johnson, we would have to do one to go on top of it saying it really wasn't working. And, the argument never ended.

Americanization of the war

Interviewer:
To what extent did the political situation in the south affect thinking in Washington in the Pentagon? There was a political turmoil. There was a Buddhist crisis. How did that get factored in?
Gelb:
Well, Vietnamese politics, I think was factored in even before the military situation. It was something people became cognizant of ah with the start of the Kennedy administration. And, there was always the search to find the ideal Vietnamese/American. Ah. The president of Vietnam ah who could run the country like we run the United States. And, we and the Vietnamese started to... play this game of musical chairs that really didn't end until President Thieu was elected. He had some reasonable longevity.
But, up to that point there was no one who satisfied us enough, and therefore, no one who could satisfy the Vietnamese military. So, there was this political knowledge in the course of sense that if you find me the right man and we can begin to turn things around. It was this illusion of the conquering hero waiting off stage. Ah. There wasn't until later a deeper sense of Vietnamese politics. Ah. The sense that maybe there would be nobody who could really pull the South together into a war effort that would work, that the country was too fractionalized, that we had taken over the war to such a degree that there would be no one who could come to power in the south who could escape our taint, who could be other than Amen, an American puppet. That the war had been so Americanized that we couldn't find a Vietnamese hero.
Interviewer:
Just one... Can you just touch on one thing which—the actual frame of mind— you said this is a very unique kind of situation where you're in a situation where you you have the appropriate of colonialism without the advantages of colonialism, did Americans in Washington at the time feel that America was running a war or, do you feel America was running it but there were so many constraints because one had to operate through the [inaudible].
Gelb:
I think in '66 '67 there was already the clear sense that it was our war, that we had taken it over and that the South Vietnamese were merely an adjunct. You know, we really wanted to make them better but you couldn't count on them. Ah. Only after the Tet Offensive in '68 does the push come on to de Americanize the war and begin to turn it over to the South Vietnamese, but for the three years or so preceding there was no thought of doing that seriously.

Optimism of the U.S. military regarding the war

Interviewer:
Did you get a sense in Washington that, again '66 '67 that there was a race here, ah, a race to win the war because if we didn't win or show signs of winning, the domestic, political pressure was going to build up against the war?
Gelb:
It was important I think from '65 on to show progress because it was generally understood in the government that unless we did show progress that the American people would begin to question the war and tire of the war very quickly. As I said before, it was clearly understood, especially in the White House that the only chance you had of winning was to convince the North Vietnamese that we had staying power, that we were prepared to outlast them. Unlike the French in the 1950's. So, if the American people got a glimmer of the war's fundamental unwinability, then there would be very little help of our staying the course.
Interviewer:
In the Pentagon ah who believed Westmoreland when he kept saying he sees the light at the end of the tunnel and turned the corner? I mean, how, how did you assess Westmoreland's role within that framework?
Gelb:
Well, on a spectrum of pessimist to optimist ah Westmoreland and maybe Walt Rostow were at that extreme of optimist who really felt that things were working out, that every day in every way things were getting better and better. There weren't many like them especially by 1967 when it came to official memoranda, yes. the official Westmoreland position was represented by the joint chiefs of staff and by the military. But, when it came to those small meetings or lunches where you'd have serious, honest conversations ah the military people showed virtually the same kind of pessimism as the civilians.
Interviewer:
But, to make sure we don't get into a contradiction here did they share the pessimism but they have different prescriptions about how to deal with it.
Gelb:
Well, they did share the pessimism about about the situation in... the military shared the military's pessimism about the situation in Vietnam. In private conversations, not in the official memos, ah, but they also backed ah their boss' prescription for that. Ah. Namely, to do more which was different from our prescription which was to do less and de Americanize the war.
Our argument at that time, beginning at the end of '67 '68 was, in effect, that the only way to maintain American support for the war, the only way we'd have any chance of keeping any American troops there was to begin to get them out. To begin to turn the war over to the Vietnamese, to show, in fact, by deeds, not just by words, that ah there was an end in sight for American involvement, that there was an end to the tremendous high cost of the war for the United States in lives and dollars.
Interviewer:
To go back to Westmoreland though for a moment, did you get the sense as you saw what his his reporting and his statements did you get the sense in Washington that this is something he really believed or that it was something that he was doing because Lyndon Johnson wanted him to...
Gelb:
I was of the feeling that Westmoreland was a a true believer, a general optimist and that he was not doing this simply to ah be Lyndon Johnson's boy scout.
Interviewer:
Go back a moment to the prescription civilians which is, in a sense, Vietnamization before Americanization started. Was there a faction in the in the Pentagon that was for withdrawal instead of just get out?
Gelb:
There was no group in the Pentagon in 1967, '68 that simply said get out, that the war is lost and we've got to bring our troops home. Now, I don't know whether people felt that in their hearts, whether they secretly believed we just ought to get out. I suspect not. I think that came much later, '69 '70 thereafter.
Wild track. Still turning.
No matter how effective the bombing was...

Westmoreland's unsound calculations of infiltration from the North

Turn. Mark it please. Camera roll 723. Take five. Claps.
Interviewer:
Just a moment...
Gelb:
In making the calculations about the interdiction campaign, it wasn't that we knew better than Westmoreland or we knew some secrets he didn't know or had information he didn't have. We used his own figures to prove that he was wrong.
Interviewer:
Did you get in through... excuse me, could we have that again. I'll do it on a different lens size so it will cut with what went before...Go ahead.
Gelb:
In making calculations about the interdiction campaign it wasn't that we had secrets and information that Westmoreland didn't have, we used his own information to prove that he was wrong.
Interviewer:
Could you go ah for a moment to tell me about the interdiction of supplies. Ah. What about the infiltration of troops from the north? What was happening as this bombing campaign was going? Were they increasing? To what extent were they increasing?
Gelb:
A major battle inside the US government in '67 and '68 was over the enemy order of battle, and that was tied to two things. One, how many we thought we were killing in the south, and two how many we thought we were killing on their way down from the north to the south, and by everyone's calculations back in Washington, the figures being sent in from Saigon could not be right, that if they were right, if Westmoreland's figures were correct, they, er, we should have faced no enemy in the south. They should have been all dead a long time ago.
But, the fact was they weren't dead, and the order of battle, enemy order of battle remained fairly constant throughout. Ah. That meant that ah ah ah something was wrong, seriously wrong in Westmoreland's calculations, and we all assumed that, and every month I think it was, the systems analysis section of the Pentagon ah in conjunction with one of the officers where I worked would produce a single sheet of paper that said across the top ah North Vietnamese, regular forces, ah Viet Cong regular, Viet Cong irregulars and down the side would say Westmoreland's estimate, CIA estimate, Systems Analysis estimate. So, we were well aware of the different calculations from the beginning and I think also agreed that Westmoreland's figures could not be correct.
Interviewer:
What, in fact was wrong with the figures?
Gelb:
Ah. It ah...
Interviewer:
Change lens here...[inaudible]
Gelb:
It greatly overestimated, Westmoreland's figures greatly overestimated the number of North Vietnamese being killed on the way down and the number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong being killed in the south.

Indicators of American effectiveness in Vietnam

Interviewer:
That gets us into this whole question, we just touched on it, as seen from Washington; the body count as your measurement. If I could just make a suggestion here, since this was a different kind of war from any other war we fought where you don't have front lines, if you push back, you're not pushing back like across Europe. You have to find some measure, all right, the body count becomes the only measurement you can have to tell whether you're winning or losing, etc., and what does that do for you?
Gelb:
Well, there were two principal measures. One was body count and the other was village pacification, hamlet pacification. Ah. On the body count, the military services never really let go of it. Long after the civilians stopped paying much attention to it. Ah. When we began to get the after action reports, the detailed reports of the commanders, it was very clear that they, a lot of them were trying to be honest, and that the official counts were much higher than what these guys actually found when they went to the scene afterwards and saw exactly what damage had been done. So, the body count, I think faded as a major public indicator ah in 1967, '68. Lost credibility.
Interviewer:
And pacification. Go ahead.
Gelb:
The Pacification Program was, in part, to pacify Vietnam and part to pacify American critics of Vietnam, ah, because the American critics at that point in time were still not saying get out. There were very few people saying get out of Vietnam. They were saying we're fighting the war the wrong way, that we had to win the hearts and minds of the people and the best way to do this is through an effective pacification program.
So, the ah the CIA in conjunction with the State Department and others worked up this elaborate grading system for ah hamlets and villages in south Vietnam and one of the major games began became to show that more and more hamlets were passing from the ah F,D and C categories, the low grades, into the B and A categories. Hamlets where we felt the ah American position, position of the Saigon government was secured.
Interviewer:
You know, from what you're saying so much of what we know ah the Americanization of the war is also becomes the bureaucratization of the war. I wonder if you could go into that. The the the tremendous bureaucratic apparatus etc. that gets overlaid in this whole thing. Or am I wrong?
Gelb:
Well, sure, the more troops we had in Vietnam, the greater the bureaucracy to keep track of them. And, we found that that was a very difficult thing to do. At any given point in time as I recollect ah we could not estimate ah the number of American troops actually in Vietnam to have been 25,000 of the real figure. There were just so many comings and goings all the time. So, ya, there was a bureaucracy to ah ah ah keep chart of that war in Vietnam. Every bit as elaborate, every bit as hooked up as a patient in a ah emergency heart unit.
Head. Room tone. Thank you.
Turning
End of interview with Gelb on SR 2716.
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