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Interview with Clark M. Clifford, 1981

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Summary
Clark Clifford served as Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. He discusses the effects of Eisenhower’s “domino theory” on his initial thinking about Vietnam and how this changed after he visited the country. He recalls behind–the-scenes efforts to convince the President to pursue peace after the Tet Offensive, and recalls Johnson’s announcement that he would not run for re-election in March of 1968. Finally, he describes the attitudes of the South Vietnamese toward American involvement and characterizes the war as, in his opinion, a mistake.
Topics
Communism, Military policy, Tet Offensive, 1968, War, cost of, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Escalation (Military science), Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Mass media and the war, Conscription, Imperialism, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements--United States, Attrition (military science), Vietnam History 1945-1975, Peace movements, Presidents--Messages, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States--History--1945-, Strategy (military science), Bombing, aerial, Vietnam--Politics and government, United States--Politics and government, Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
Tags (3)
Tet offensive, Tonkin Gulf Incidents, 1964, Vietnam (Republic)--History
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Transcript

Vietnam in relation to the domino theory

Vietnam
Clark Clifford
SR #2636
Tape 1, Side 1
(Tone)... That’s the reference tone at minus 8DB. This is the...Vietnam project film T888, WGBH Boston. It’s May 18th, 1981. This is Sound Roll #2636, starting with Camera Roll #665, Scene 15, Take 1...60-cycle reference tone, 7½ ips, 242 frames per second, mono recording.
Sound please. This is T-T888. Vietnam Tet. Starting Picture Roll 665. Sound Roll 2636. Marker. Slate 15. Take one. (clapsticks). Stand by just a moment.
Interviewer:
Go...go ahead.
Clifford:
I had consistently supported our country’s policy in Vietnam, from the beginning...I recall that in the, ah, late summer of 1967 (clears throat) President Johnson sent General Max Taylor and me...to call upon all the nations in Southeast Asia and in the Pacific with whom we were fighting the war. And...I had supposed that...that trip would merely confirm the wisdom of our policy. It was a very different experience for me. In visiting these countries who are our allies, I found that they did not have the same fear about the spread of communism in Southeast Asia that we had so sharply...here in the United States.
You’ll recall that General Eisenhower...or then President Eisenhower, had used the expression, the...Domino Theory. He was concerned that should Vietnam fall that then all of the other nations of Southeast Asia might topple one after another like dominos. And we had accepted that theory. (clears throat) So had the Congress in their vote on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The country, in the beginning I think, was very substantially behind the policy. I found in that late spring, er—or summer of 1967, that the countries much closer to the problem than we, did not have the same concerns as we.
It made me uneasy; it worried me. It wondered...made me wonder a little whether...or not the basis of our policy was correct. I came back then...along with General Maxwell Taylor; we wrote a report, submitted it to President Johnson; we had long talks with him, together, the three us. General Maxwell Taylor took rather a different view than I at the time...Uh, uh, I think to some extent I was influenced by his attitude that maybe I’d been attaching a little too much importance to some of these conversations. President Johnson seemed not impressed with some concerns that I had expressed to him at that time. So basically, I still supported our country’s policy. (clears throat) I didn—I maybe didn’t do it quite as enthusiastically as I had before.
Interviewer:
What impact did the Tet Offensives have on you?
Excuse me, Stanley, can you move a little bit to your left? Closer to Camera One?
What impact did the Tet offensive have on you? And...You had, after you became Secretary of Defense?
Clifford:
One reason...the main reason that I was not too concerned about...the uneasiness I had in the fall of ’67...was that the reports coming back from our military and civilian authorities in Vietnam were all exceedingly (clears throat) optimistic...about the progress that we were making in the war, and it looked like, possibly, we were getting near the end. It was toward the end of ’67 that...our military said, well, we can see the end of the tunnel at this time. And there was some talk that some of our men might even be back by Christmas. That has a great tendency to minimize and allay concerns that you might have because it seemed it was going very well in our favor.
When Tet came, it was a complete shock to me. I had not known that the North Vietnamese had that kind of strength. I might way, neither did our military. Neither did the President. I know of no one who anticipated that Tet could be the debacle that it turned out to be...The North Vietnamese moved into South Vietnam. They moved very fast...Many of the South Vietnamese troops were away on leave at the time, and it appeared as though an enemy that we thought was close to defeat...wasn’t at all. That it had great strength—it moved tens of thousands of well armed, well trained troops, and they moved very rapidly on the offensive. So that the Tet Offensive created deep concern in the United States because it indicated the war was nowhere near over, and it even might be that the North Vietnamese were doing better than we in the war.

Evaluating and opposing escalation in Vietnam

Interviewer:
After you became Secretary of Defense in March, 1968, eh, you told Harry McPherson, I’m quoting a line, “we have work to do.” What did you mean by that? Did you have a plan at that stage about what to do about the war?
Clifford:
I didn’t at the very beginning.
Interviewer:
...the subject please.
Clifford:
Um. When I went into the Pentagon, I still believed in our policy. Um. I, I, I recognized that Tet was a serious setback, but we’d had this policy for so long and it had become such an ingrained part of us, that I still believed in it. President Johnson appointed a task force as soon as I went into the Pentagon and named me chairman of the task force. The reason was that the military had specifically requested 206,000 more troops be sent to Vietnam. He wanted that analyzed, he wanted us to determine how the troops could be gathered and sent; what the social, political, economic impact might be on the United States. The first th—three or four weeks in the Pentagon, I gave most of my time to this examination in depth.
I know for three full days I spent down in the tank with the Joint Chiefs of Staff where you sit with all of the communications devices that go all over the world. We had long talks. How long would it take? They didn’t know. How many more troops would it take? They didn’t know. Would 206,000 answer the demand? They didn’t know. Might there be more? Yes, there might be more. So, when it was all over, I said, what is the plan to win the war in Vietnam? Well, the only plan is that ultimately the attrition will wear down the North Vietnamese and they will have had enough. Is there any indication that we’ve reached that point? No, there isn’t. As a result of that kind of interview and that kind of information, before the final examination was over and we submitted our report to President Johnson, I had turned against the war. I found out that we couldn’t win the war with the limitations that we had, which I thought were correct limitations, and I thought all we were going to do was just waste the lives of our men and our treasure out in the jungles of North and South Vietnam.
So that by time I reached that conclusion, I then decided that what I must do would be to get all of the strength that I could, because the mere fact that I had reached the conclusion was not very significant, because the decision really lay with President Johnson. I remember talking with Harry McPherson, I talked to people in the state like, in State Department, like Nick Katzenbach. We began to develop a group and I know that after a while the question would be very secretly, “is he with us?” That means is he part of this group that is ah organized and dedicated to changing Lyndon Johnson’s mind? It was almost like ah some very similar expression used in the French Revolution, is he with us, do you see. And, we finally worked together that way. Ah. I think I bore the brunt of it because it was appropriate that I should. And, starting in then, within a month or five weeks after I landed in the Pentagon, our major aim then began to change the policy of our country in Vietnam.
Interviewer:
What did you think of Rostow’s proposals? (clears throat) He was in favor of landing in the North during the Tet Offensive. Putting ground troops into the north. Could you recall some of your conversations with him?
Clifford:
Yes. Um. It was a question of sharp difference between him and me.
Interviewer:
I’m sorry, talk about...?
Clifford:
Yes. Of, of, of the ah, ah question raised by Mr. Rostow at one time was that we could win the war and what we should do is send our troops into North Vietnam, and he even had a plan. We would start naval vessels with marines and all and we would curve around in the China Sea and then come in about halfway up to Hanoi and then go through North Vietnam and cut a line right through North Vietnam so they no longer could get down into South Vietnam. It sounded like an excellent idea. It was, basically, fallacious. It was, in my opinion, a tragic approach to the problem. And, the background of it was for many years North Vietnam had had a mutual assistance pact with Red China, so that, that at any time North Vietnam was attacked by ground troops who were attempting to conquer North Vietnam, they could call upon the Red Chinese who would come to their assistance.
At that particular time, we questioned every prominent Southeast Asian and Far Eastern expert. They were absolutely unanimous in saying, if we invaded North Vietnam with American troops unquestionably, North Vietnam would ask for aid from China, it would be given, and we would then be embroiled in a land war in Southeast Asia with Red China which had no limitation as to the millions of men that they could put in the field against us. It seemed to me under the circumstances that was the worst possible move that could be gained. Greatly to President Johnson’s credit, he never really seriously considered doing that. He also, at the same time, never seriously considered the military recommendation that we go over and spread the war out in Cambodia. He thought only that made it a wider and larger war with more casualties on each side, and so he also refused to spread it into Cambodia, as he refused to spread it into North Vietnam.
Interviewer:
Let’s go back a moment to the task force...conclusions ...?
...please. Sure. (clears throat) Film. Very close to the end of the roll. Beeping. Camera roll runout.
Clifford:
...anyone got into.

Johnson's advisors, the Wise Men, and de-escalation

Interviewer:
The president’s reaction and your, your interplay with the president when....
Pick it up when he says okay.
Sound. This is T-888. Vietnam. Tet. Starting picture roll 666. Sound roll 2636. Slate 15. Take two. Clap sticks. Okay.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Clifford:
The task force spent two or three weeks investigating all of the factors with reference to the military demand for 206,000 more troops. I concluded, personally, that we should not send those troops. In the process I’d concluded that we must find a way to get out of Vietnam. I believe I had quite a lot to do (clears throat) with leading the task force in that direction and that was the thrust of the report that we made to President Johnson. The report was exceedingly disturbing to him. He had felt that we’d been heading in the right direction and now comes the report of this group, men in whom he had considerable confidence, that we should not only not send the troops, but that we should begin to wh—find a way to get out of Vietnam. In the process, we met daily. Sometimes we met twice a day. Um.
The relationship between him and me became very strained at that time, and it remained quite strained thereafter. He felt that when he had assigned me to the Pentagon post that I would be a strong resolute supporter of the previous policy and here I was crumbling before his very eyes, and it was exceedingly disturbing to him. At the same time, he was impressed by the fact, because we’d been friends for 20 years and had worked very closely and had had a very forthright relationship with each other. It had a very real impact on him, because within a month after the time that I first went there, and within a month perhaps after Tet, he made his speech of March 31, and that speech was almost a complete reversal of what the speech started out to be.
As a quick illustration, the first few sentences of that speech in the original draft said, I wish to talk about the war in Vietnam. That was the first sentence. By the time the speech was written and rewritten, we worked days on it before it was given, the first sentence read I wish to speak about peace in North Vietnam. Just a complete 180° turn, and then we talked about it. In that speech, as you know, he stated he was not going to send the 206,000 troops, but also the great shocker at the end of that speech was when he did something I had absolutely no previous word or warning about. He also announced to the American people at the end of that speech that he was not going to run again. We’d all assumed, of course, that he would run. He loved the job. He reveled in it. And, yet, he had reached that decision and announced it to the American people on March the 31st, 1968.
Interviewer:
Let me go back a moment, after the task for, force had met and while it was ah coming to a conclusion, it ‘s conclusions , ah, the president also consulted with a group known as the wise men. You supported his meeting with this group. What did you hope this meeting would accomplish?
Clifford:
He had met with them once before. Maybe a year before. And the wi, the group of wise men, some eleven or twelve senior advisors from different administrations, had advised him that his course was correct in Vietnam. After Tet, I’d come into contact with some of them. Men I knew. Dean Acheson, Ambassador Murphy, men ah men of that kind I’d come in contact. I found that Tet had bothered them really quite a lot.
So, ah, for a, additional contact showed that there were other members who might be in the process of changing their minds from their previous meeting of a year ago. So, it was suggested to President Johnson that while this difficult period was going on that he might call the wise men together. He called them together. They met in the late afternoon at the State and had a series of briefings. Then he came and had dinner with them and we spent the evening with the president. The result was all that some of us had hoped for because a substantial number of these men, a majority of these men had changed their mind about Vietnam, and it was an extra valuable block in the construction that we were doing in the effort to persuade President Johnson to change our country’s policy in Vietnam.
Fact is, he was so disturbed about the report that he got from the individual wise men, that the next day he had the military and State briefers in to see him personally to find out why it was that they might possibly have misled the wise men into the belief he learned from them that ah that they’d given a fair briefing and that the wise men had been terribly concerned about the results of Tet.
Interviewer:
Did he say anything to you personally, do you recall after he got the, this advice from the wise men?
Clifford:
Only that he thought that it was an unusual and curiously abrupt change of position. He was suspicious of it. He wasn’t ready to accept it, as it had been given. He thought that there might have been some diabolical plot, so that the briefings might have been planned or framed in some way to impress the so called wise men. That’s why I think it was the very next day, he called in General Abrams and three or four others and concluded that the briefings had been fair. But, he did not want to change the policy. It had been a policy that he lived with, I was with him one time in Cam Ranh Bay when we’d been at the, the um meeting in the Philippines, and he had them all there together and he said, gentlemen, I expect that you’ll nail the coon skin on the wall. That’s an old Texas expression and he wanted to win the war, and he wanted them to win the war, and now here was the group saying, Mr. President, stop trying to win the war. Start cutting back. Don’t send any more men. We think you ought to get out. It was a very bitter pill for him.
Interviewer:
Did he suspect that you might have ah poisoned the well to use a phrase, that he used at the time. When the wise men gave him advice he didn’t want?
Clifford:
That’s possible. I don’t think he ever charged me directly with it. But, ah, it’s possible that he felt that I might have been expounding my views to them in an effort to change their opinion. I think he probably learned that after a while. There wasn’t anything very secret about it.
Interviewer:
The Secretary of State had proposed about this time (clears throat) a partial bombing halt. Did you a, agree with that proposal or do you think we should have gone further and had a, a total bombing halt? Do you think he had some ulterior motive, Dean Rusk, in proposing that?
Clifford:
Dean Rusk and I’d been friends for a great many years. Since the Truman administration. Ah. When he proposed ah that partial bombing halt, I was unalterably opposed to it in that form. I felt that it wouldn’t do the job correctly. I thought it was piecemeal, there were some of those who thought that it might be offered ah on the basis that it would very likely be unsuccessful and then the president and his chief advisors could say to the American public, we’ve, see we’ve tried everything and it hasn’t worked, so, now let’s get on with the battle, and if the military wants more men, let’s send more men and let’s get on and win the war.
Interviewer:
Do you think the president really wanted to escalate the war after the Tet Offensive? Do you think that, (clears throat) that he saw the scenario the same way that Rusk did?
Clifford:
I believe that the ah the president’s hope still was to win the war. We’d been at it from the time that he took office in November of ’63, and here we were now in ’68, and he very much wanted to win it. At the same time, ahm, when his top advisors began to turn, it seems to me that he didn’t have much basis then to go against that advice and accept the military and put all those men back in there. Also, maybe even more important, he was exceedingly sensitive to the attitude of the people.
That’s when there were marches in the streets and big bonfires and young people opposing the war in Vietnam. Many of them leaving the country. Even giving up their citizenship to avoid it. There was the question of getting the men. You were going to have to call up ah hundreds of thousands of reservists to do this. There was great concern that the people would (sic) stand for it. It was going to cost billions of dollars more at a time when that would have been very, very unwise, because we were beginning to see the first symptoms of inflation setting in. So, there were any number of factors. There were also some political factors. Some of his democratic adversaries had begun to question the war and we had a, a, an election coming in November of that year, 1968. There were a number of factors that made him very uneasy about development.
Interviewer:
Could we go specifically to the speech? The speech is a very important turning point. On March 28, you ...
I think we better stop. Oh. (people talking in background). Beeping noise. Camera roll runout.
End of SR #2636. Tape 1, Side 1.
Vietnam
Clifford
SR #2637
Tape 1, Side 2

L.B.J.'s speech of March 31st, 1968

...for WGBH TV Boston. Sound roll 2637. I’m going on to camera roll 667. Scene 15. Take three. 60-cycle reference time. 7½ ips. 24 frames per second. Mono recording.
Clifford:
Tell me when to go ahead. Um. I’ll let you read the whole slate.
Okay. Synching Vietnam T-888 Tet. Camera Roll 667. Sound 2637. Slate 15. Take three. Hold it. Marker. Mark it. Clap sticks. Just a moment. Slate 16. Right.
Interviewer:
Go ahead with this question....
Clifford:
As oftentimes happens after an event that was as important as Tet, there will be different theories offered after an evaluation has taken place. The military made a determined effort to make it appear as though it had been an American victory. I have never been able to accept that. At the time of Tet, ah, the American people we re supposing that we were winning ah the war and then this massive attack by the enemy that was not supposed to have had anything like sufficient strength to bring off that offensive, meant that the war could go on forever almost. And, I construed it as the exceedingly serious setback for our cause. And, that, in my opinion, was very definitely the attitude of most of the American people at the time.
Interviewer:
I’d like you to talk about, if you could, the March 28th meeting ah at which you met with Rusk and Rostow, Bill Bundy, and Harry McPherson to review the speech the president was scheduled to make on March 31. What happened at that meeting? What was your reaction to the draft and the discussion?
Clifford:
With reference to the March 28 meeting ah, on the speech that was to be delivered on March 31, in order to understand the significance of that meeting, you’d have to know that from the [cough], time that Tet was over and from the time we had the task force operation during the month of March, the sides on the debate stiffened and sharpened. Some persons around the president felt that we should get on with the war, that we should send more troops and stay with it until we won.
Others felt as I did that this had been the final indication that the war was not going to be won and that we should begin to find the way out. With the speech coming, the importance of that speech became paramount. Submeetings were held, efforts were made to persuade this person and that person stand up under pressure and so forth. Let’s persuade the president to make the decision to begin to get out of Vietnam. Finally, the morning of the 28th came and we met in the office of the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, there were five or six persons there at the time.
We started in and we went through a draft of the speech. I thought the draft was dreadful. I thought that it was harsh. I thought that it talked about the continuation of the war. It talked about ah, Tet, how Tet could be resolved. There was some suggestion about sending some of the men, not the whole 206,000. To me, it needed much changing and much amendment. So, what was started out as a speech merely to go through and polish it became a deep seated divisive policy meeting until by the end of the morning, the whole matter was absolutely at sea again. There really was no speech. Some of us felt so strongly about it. The, other drafts were prepared.
We were very fortunate in having an ally in the White House, Harry McPherson. Extraordinarily able man who felt that ah we should withdraw from the war. So, that as the drafts proceeded, I think his influence was an important one and, by time we came to the final reading of the speech, the speech had changed very materially. Until it was no longer the warlike hawkish speech that it had been. Much more conciliatory than it had been, and even contained in it an offer to begin the kind of negotiation that some of us wished for so heartily.
Interviewer:
Now, could...
For a second. Turn it on. All set.. Come in. Marker. Scene 15. Take four. Mark it. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Just a moment. Okay. Okay.
Clifford:
When we finished the meeting of March 28 in the office of the Secretary of State, the speech was almost completely at sea. He was to give the speech just some three days later on the evening of March 31st. So, in that three-day period there was a furious effort made by each side in discussing it with the president, we had to continue to have meetings each day, and in bringing others in who had influence on the president in an effort to wean him away from the harsh draft that wa, had been written and present a more conciliatory approach to the problem.
So, that by time we sat down in the cabinet room on the afternoon of March the 31st to go through the final draft, the effort at persuasion with reference to President Johnson had pretty well been complete, and he had become persuaded that the draft that ah was more an amelioration than the other should be the draft that he should select. Um, I had learned that that was to be the draft that we were to go over. I had learned that from Harry McPherson that morning and I thought that it had been a signal victory. And, when we went through the speech ahm I thought that I might hear objections from those who had opposed that particular draft, but I think they felt that the battle was pretty well over, and that proved to be a polishing speech. He said nothing, however, about ahm the paragraph that he added in which he announced that he was not going to run again.
Interviewer:
What do you think ah prompted him to decide not to run again? Do you think the New Hampshire primary had something to do with it? Do you think the Tet Offensive had something to do with it?
Clifford:
I think not. Each person has his own theory about it. It was a very important, a dramatic decision that he made. I attribute 90% of the credit for that decision to Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. Keep in mind that ten years before he became president, he’d had a very, very serious coronary. I know his doctor. Doctor said that’s the worse coronary of any patient he ever had who lived. And, President Johnson lived. The repair was reasonably good.
But, he’d been through this very, very difficult five years and Mrs. Johnson wanted him very much to retire. She didn’t think he’d live through another term. She just kind of kept at it. Day after day. Week after week. And, I think she had more to do with persuading him than anybody else. I think all these others; political concerns, the war, he’d fought through all those. He was a very tough man. (chuckle) And, those, those didn’t frighten him. He expected the job to be tough and he would have gone right on with it. I think she persuaded him to quit.

Clifford announces the end of troop escalation in Vietnam

Interviewer:
Now, after he gives the speech on March 31st, (clears throat) and there’s a— he announces the partial bombing halt, he puts a lid ah on sending American troops, where does, where was this taking American policy, in , in, particularly what was havi—what did you see as your role, your task in directing American policy from the Defense Department at this stage?
Clifford:
What that decision really meant and ah I think a few of us sensed it at the time, it was a decision of profound importance. It meant that he was not going to go on and try to win the war. That’s what it meant. And, it meant then that, if he turned down the military request for the 206,000, and he put this conciliatory language in to try to start negotiations, then it became our job to do everything in our power to find some basis to start the negotiations, and as you may remember within oh, within a week after the delivery of the speech, we had a signal from the North Vietnamese that they were ready to start the talks.
Interviewer:
Now, what I, what I think we have to clarify here for a moment, weren’t you the one who made the announcement that the 206,000 troops would not be sent at a press conference?
Clifford:
That is possible. Um. I don’t remember the details of it. It’s so long ago, but...we had a series of press conferences all during th—this critical period and thereafter in which we tried to stay a bit ahead of the policy, and enunciate the policy that the president might move toward that wouldn’t be too difficult for him to move toward it, rrrr rather than just have a breach between the White House and the Pentagon. And, it seems to me, that at some time we began giving out signals that ah, ah, that this was not going to be done. I do not have a recollection of announcing that the 206,000 were not sent prior to his March the 31st speech.
Interviewer:
But, after his March the 31st speech, I don’t think he mentioned that in his March the 31st speech?
Clifford:
He may not have mentioned it in the March the 31st speech. I think I did it quite promptly after that and then began to direct the administration’s attention toward negotiations and how important that would be and the means by which we could get the talks started.
Interviewer:
But, (clears throat) when you...
To the end of roll. Okay, that’s all right.
When you made that speech...
Beeping noise. Camera roll runout. (voices in background) Camera roll 668. Okay. Synching Vietnam T888 Tet. Camera roll 668. Sound 2637. Scene 15. Take five. Mark it. Clap sticks.
Clifford:
In the speech of March 31st, the president did not make any specific remark regarding the 206,000 troops. But it was clear...to some of us that he was not going to send those troops, and in order to end speculation about it, as promptly as possible after he spoke I had a press conference and announced formally that the 206,000 troops were not to be sent. It ended all speculation. I had no playback from the White House. Ah. It seemed appropriate that ah, ah, it should be said, if that’s ah what he meant, and I assumed that that was what he meant from the tone of his speech on March the 31st. There were still those who very much wanted to. The military still thought the matter was hanging fire. That ended it. After that statement was made publicly there was no further comment about the 206,000 troops.
Interviewer:
But was it your intention in doing that, in giving that press conference, to preempt the president, or to limit his options?
Clifford:
No. It was to interpret what he had said, and I felt that it was the correct interpretation and as long as I felt that that was his policy, I felt that I had the right to enunciate it.
Interviewer:
And, there was no reaction from him about that?
Clifford:
I had none.
I didn’t get a chance to change my frame in there, but I’m not sure...That’s all right. Did you want that...together?

South Vietnamese attitudes towards American involvement

Interviewer:
Ah. You visited Saigon and met the leaders of South Vietnam. What kind of opi—what kind of impression did they make on you? Do you think they were pulling their own weight in fighting this war?
Clifford:
My attitude toward the leaders of South Vietnam ah went through a change through the years. I met them when I first went out in 1965 on an intelligence mission. The, I got to know them better in 1966 when I went back. Spent quite a lot of time with them in 1967. My attitude then was that they were doing reasonably well under very difficult circumstances. They’d not been very well trained for the task. Ah. The country was torn apart with this war and ah this massive American presence was exceedingly dislocating, as far as their economy and as far as their people were concerned. After a while, though, I found out ah that something existed that helped me reach my decision regarding Vietnam.
I found out that they had a different goal than the United Stated. I found out that really what they wanted was for the United Stated to take over the war. They wanted us to pay for the war, and they wanted us to fight the war. They wanted us to furnish the armament. They wanted us to furnish the men. And, as the war progressed whereas I was so anxious for it to end, I reached the conclusion that they were not anxious for it to end, because they felt that as time went on that very likely the strength of the North, North Vietnamese would diminish, and these South Vietnamese leaders would be able to consolidate their own power so that they could stay in power and if, by any chance, the war were to end suddenly ah, during the time they were there, they didn’t know what their own situation was. So, toward the end...of the period...that I was giving so much attention to, I concluded that we were working at odds. Here we had an ally that I was absolutely did not want the war to end. And, we wanted it very much to end. And, I made comments and statements so I became exceedingly unpopular with the leadership in South Vietnam.

L.B.J. the politician, in Clifford's words

Interviewer:
How about your, (clears throat), did your differences with Lyndon Johnson affect your personal relations with him and how?
Clifford:
Yes. Um. We’d been really very close friends for a great many years, and when he came into the presidency back in November of’63, the first day he called me over to talk about the White House and the organization of the White House. And I had a long and close relationship with him as an informal advisor and...there were other positions that he wanted me to perform that I thought weren’t appropriate under the circumstances until I went on into the Pentagon. But, when we re—reached this point, after Tet, and went through this extraordinarily difficult proceeding of changing a policy that our country had had maybe for seven or eight years, and he was reluctant to change the policy, ahm, I felt that it was my responsibility to keep at it as hard as I could to change the policy. It disturbed him a lot and um it affected our relationship, unfortunately. And, we weren’t near the friends afterwards that we were before. Now, he did not doubt ahhh my sincerity. He didn’t doubt my loyalty to him. It was just that I’d put him through such a terribly difficult period, and he couldn’t quite forgive me for it.
Interviewer:
What kind of a man was Lyndon Johnson? What made him tick? Can you give us a brief...?
Clifford:
Oh, ho, yes. He was one of the most fascinating men that had ever been in government. He was a man of enormous power. It—it—he—he you sensed it. It, It, it exuded from him. It just started out and spread all out. He’d walk into a—a group and you sensed the power had come into the group. He loved the presidency. He loved the exercise of power. He had the best concept of the potentiality of the president of, I guess, maybe of any president we’ve ever had. He knew the presidency well.
He’d been in the House, he’d been in the Senate. He’d worked with various presidents, and he utilized the tools of the presidency exceedingly well. He got along fine with Congress. He knew how to get his program through. Lyndon Johnson had the best domestic program of any president we’ve ever had. Iiii, certainly it was as good as that of Franklin Roosevelt, and he would have been one of our most illustrious presidents had it not been for the tragedy of Vietnam, and I think, maybe he sensed that he was caught up on one of those great disasters that occur, not only to countries, but occur to the world, and he could not extricate it—himself from it. A very likable man. You had to go through periods in which you might disagree with him and then for days or even weeks no call would come in. Very cold and all. But, after a while, the list of people with whom he conferred and confided got smaller and smaller and smaller. And, there were many times ah in that period that he and I might disagree and he got over that period of resenting it until we came to this great issue of all.

The mistake of Vietnam

Interviewer:
Looking back (clears throat). (voices in background) Looking back, (clears throat) how would you qualify Vietnam? I mean, you, you use the phrase before, countries make mistakes, just the way people do?
Clifford:
I’ve been asked from time to time what...my...present opinion is of Vietnam, and we look back on it now from the vantage point of from 1968 for instance to 1981, thirteen years. I can see why we applied the principal to Vietnam. It appeared so clearly to be another effort at communist expansionism. An, I think we had the right theory, but it’s very clear to me now that we misapplied it. This was not an effort on the part of communists to expand and communize all of Southeast Asia. Instead of being ah conspiratorial effort on the part of the Soviets and the Red Chinese, it really, by looking at it carefully later on, it really was more of a civil war between North and South Vietnam.
It is my belief that our country made a mistake by going into Vietnam. I think we would have done better to stay out. We could have watched it a while and had we watched it longer, I think we would have seen it more clearly. Countries make mistakes. We made an honest mistake. Countries, to a great extent, are like human beings. They’ll make honest mistakes. We made an honest mistake. I feel no sense of shame about it. Nor, should our country feel any sense of shame. We felt we were doing what was necessary. We had nothing to gain by going in. We asked for no territory. We asked for no advantage. We went in because we thought we were doing it for the purposes of the nations involved and really for all humanity. It proved not to be a sound basis.
Interviewer:
That’s fine. That’s very good. That’s very good.
Beeping noise. End of SR #2637.
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