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Interview with William Egan Colby, 1981

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Summary
William Colby was a high-ranking CIA officer during the Vietnam War. He would later direct the Agency. Here he recalls the CIA’s assessment of the Vietnam War in 1965 and the failure of the US to anticipate the Tet Offensive. He discusses the Phoenix Program, which he directed, describing its impact on the War. Finally, he recounts events surrounding the Fall of Saigon and the end of the War, and reflects on the success or failure of US strategy in Vietnam.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--United States, Military art and science, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam--Politics and government, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Escalation (Military science), Vietnam--Politics and government--1945-1975, United States--Politics and government, United States. Central Intelligence Agency
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Transcript

CIA assessment of the Vietnam War in 1965

Vietnam, Colby, SR #2867
This is another role in the Vietnam Project. July 16, 1981. This is the interview with William Colby. Tone minus 8. 50 cycle volts. 25 rpm's per second. Roll number on this is 2867, and there's, like all these interviews, seems to be a howling gale from the air conditioner which we can do nothing at all about. It has been mentioned to Martin, the director.
All right. One, take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
What was the CIA assessment of the situation in '65, and what was their, the CIA's attitude toward the introduction of troops and the relationship to bombing in the north?
Colby:
Well, in 1965, I think the CIA felt that the situation in Vietnam was in a high degree of chaos because of the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem and the confusion that followed it. There were bad governments and weak governments that followed in a kind of revolving door situation. With that, and the fact that we were aware that the North Vietnamese were sending regular troop units down from about October of '64 on, it was quite clear in our minds that the, the fall of Vietnam, South Vietnam would occur, probably by the end of 1965 or early 1966.
Ah. We felt that the, the situation in Vietnam was so weak and the, the North Vietnamese exploitation of that weakness was such that they, the victory would have been to the enemy, unless we put substantial U.S. combat forces in to establish a screen behind which something could be built in South Vietnam. We Americans had brought about chaos by the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem - I think the most stupid thing we did in Vietnam. But nonetheless, the fact was ah that we felt that if you put troops in and put up a screen, then you could rebuild some kind of a governmental structure in Vietnam behind that screen.
Interviewer:
Do you think it was necessary (clears throat) to initiate a massive bombing of the north, as you put in those American troops?
Colby:
Well, I never really personally had much to do with the bombing of the north ah philosophy or the, even the practical decisions about it. Ah. There was a feeling in American officialdom that we should do to the north what they were doing to our friends in the south, and ah, that the vehicle was the bombing. I always thought that the key to the war in Vietnam was in the villages of Vietnam, that to the degree to which the villagers took their own responsibility to protect themselves you would not have a guerrilla base for the enemy and you would not have the kind of chaos that otherwise would exist. I felt the bombing of the north was kind of irrelevant to that major strategic objective.

Failure of the U.S. to anticipate the Tet Offensive

Interviewer:
What did the CIA know about the 1968 Tet Offensive in advance, and what was done about it?
Colby:
Well, I think it was just, it was general intelligence appreciation by the military and by ourselves that there was an attack coming. General Weyand who was in command of the troops north of Saigon moved a division down to the neighborhood of Saigon to help protect it against the anticipated attack.
Ah. There were other tactical indications of of attack in various places, but I think honestly nobody really anticipated the, the countrywide spread of attack of the south that occurred and the extent of it. Of course, the fact was that ah we did not anticipate it because we didn't fr—frankly think that th—the ah, the communists had the capability of conducting a successful nationwide attack, and, in fact, of course, they didn't because that nationwide attack failed.
Ah. The South Vietnamese army, the South Vietnamese government held in the face of that attack and threw it back after a few days, after a few weeks in the Hue areas. So, the attack actually failed, and was a total failure from the communist point of view, but I don't think that the, our anticipation was that it would be as widespread as it was, and it was the widespread character of it that gave it the psychological effect which turned a military defeat for the communists into a major psychological victory on the TV screens of the world.

The Phoenix Program

Interviewer:
What was the Phoenix Program? What was its purpose? How did it operate? How big was the Viet Cong apparatus? How many Americans were involved?
Colby:
Well, to explain the Phoenix Program, you really have to understand what the Pacification Program was because you can't explain the Phoenix without understanding Pacification. As I've said previously, I always thought that the key to the war in Vietnam was the war in the villages. Between the secret communist apparatus and their recruits and the government apparatus and the people of the villages.
The question was which direction was, which direction would the people go. Would they go toward the communist apparatus or would they go toward the government? Now, in that it was essential I felt and a number of my friends felt to develop the capability of the people in the villages to contribute to the protection of their villages against outside marauders, against outside problems, and it, one of the key features, for example, of the Pacification Program was the arming of the villagers.
Now, when we suggested that in, right after Tet in 1968, a lot of people thought it was a very foolish idea, indeed, to give guns to the villagers, as they might turn those guns on the government. They might use them internecine warfare and all the rest, but President Thieu saw that it was essential to give those villagers the conviction that they had a role in the protection of their community and to take the chance as to which direction they would point those guns.
We gave out half million guns to the villagers in Vietnam. Not to the police, not to the soldiers, but to the villagers in Vietnam, to stand guard once or twice a week at night and protect their village. They weren't very good soldiers but it did involve them in the effort.
Now, Pacification involved a lot of other programs. The election of local village chiefs instead of their appointment by some distant bureaucrat. The development of the Land Reform Program which spread the ownership of the land to the peasants as against the old landlords, the building of schools, development of the whole refugee program and the re-settlement of the refugees in the areas from which they had come and were now able to go back thanks to having some local security.
Now, one of these programs was the Phoenix Program and that program was designed to improve on the, on the government's side, the nature of the struggle run between the government structure and the illegal secret communist apparatus. Now that struggle had gone on for a number of years in the chaotic period of the mid-'60s, and a lot of bad things had been done on both sides.
But, we decided that the only way to have this kind of a necessary fight between the government and the secret apparatus which was throwing the, the grenades into the village places and bombing the buses on their way to the market place in the morning, the only way to conduct that fight was to run it through decent intelligence systems which would cooperate and exchange information and not have each intelligence service running off in its own direction dealing with its own things, and not develop a McCarthy like feeling that a, a mere accusation that somebody is a communist is enough to take action against him.
Instead, we said first, you have to get the different intelligence agencies to work together, to pool their information and share their information. And, secondly, you have to set up some standards of what the evidence is on these people instead of just an allegation that a man is a communist. We set up a structure ABC, A for leaders, B for cadres, C for followers, and then said we aren't interested in collecting information on the followers. That's of no interest whatsoever.
We've got to find out precise information. We need three separate reports to have a dossier so that we begin to identify who a particular leader is, what his job is, where he is, what he does. That sort of thing. And, then we then developed a, an understanding of the secret apparatus, a political order of battle, if you will, so that we could understand...
Take one. Clap sticks.
Colby:
So, the, the development of a political order of battle to understand the specific nature of the enemy, the secret enemy that we were facing, as well as we tried to understand the military order of battle. The military units we were facing.
Now, in the process, of course, this requires a lot of training in how to keep dossiers, how to conduct interrogations in a decent manner, because that's essential. We built various ah, ah, places for interrogations. We arranged that they be decently housed and taken care of while they're in there waiting for interrogation.
We did training in interrogation techniques with the obvious message that if you want to get good information, you'd better use good intel—interrogation techniques, because if you use bad techniques, you'll get bad information. If you torture, you'll get what you want to hear or you'll get something that the fellow invents. If you're clever about your interrogation and use sophisticated systems, you'll learn what the truth is and you'll learn it without any abuse.
Now, these were the training programs we went through, these were the actions we took. Ah. We ah said that ah the purpose of this was to develop this kind of detailed information about who the leaders of the enemy apparatus were. And, we then turned that over to the police forces, to the military and to others.
And, if we heard and knew through our intelligence that there was going to be a meeting of the province committee at a certain forest at night, certainly the military would set up an assault to go out and try to capture and shoot at, if necessary, that committee meeting. Now, we would go out ah a, a, a, the unit would go out with the idea that they wanted to get the people alive, because, obviously, if you get a committee meeting at a province level, you've got people who know things. They're, obviously, much more valuable to you alive than dead, and therefore, the incentive was to capture them so that they could be interrogated, so that we could mo—learn more about them.
Now, we also had a program of try to invite these people to rally. We put up posters in various parts of Vietnam with the picture of the individual and description of who he was. Wanted posters, like the old Jesse James ones, but a little different; because at the bottom of the poster, it said very clearly, "and Mr. James, if you will turn yourself in, you will be freed of any punishment for anything you may have done while you were on the other side." And, 17,000 of those people turned themselves in. Rallied to the government as a result of our program. We knew who they were and what they'd been doing.
Now, some 28,000 were captured as well in various kinds of capture. Military capture, police capture, all sorts of things. And, 20,000 of the names that we had collected we found were killed. Now, it's on that basis that the people have made totally false accusations that this was a program of assassination. Not true.
What this was was that we had the names from our intelligence collection, and when there was a battle outside the village some night and people were killed on both sides, we went out in the morning to find out who had been killed on which side and sure enough Mr. Nu Wiem who was down as the local guerrilla chief he had been killed in that fight, but he certainly hadn't been assassinated. He'd been killed in a military fight, but he hadn't rallied, and he hadn't been captured. He'd been killed. And, so that was the phrase used. Killed. That's what had happened to the, that individual.
Now, I'm not gonna say that there was nobody wrongfully killed in all of Vietnam during all the years of the Phoenix Program. But, I do say that the purpose and the effect of the Phoenix Program was to reduce and eliminate as far as possible the abuses on the government, although not on the enemy side.
Now, the reason I can say this is that we put out very clear directives that this would not be a program of assassination. I wrote them myself. We've said in the, in the directives that if anybody finds something going on that he, that does not meet the standards of the laws of war, he is to report them to me, and I received some reports of people who had been wrongfully killed. There was one official came in and killed a captive and we found out later that the reason he killed him was because he had killed members of his own family a few ye, a few months before, but he did the wrong thing and I complained about it to the prime minister and that official was thrown out of his job.
Now, we made it very clear that we were not gonna countence—countenance bad behavior because of the moral aspects, and because of the effectiveness aspects. It just doesn't work.
Interviewer:
Just, could you be a little more precise on how the program, the identification, cases of torture, and so forth were in the hands of the Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese. Now how did your directive actually work? I mean, Americans weren't there to see this happening and report it. Could you be sure that it was working?
Colby:
Well, to be sure that this, ah, system was working, we didn't just issue the directives and hope that everything would be alright. Ah, we knew that the Vietnamese alone might do some things. But, there were an awful lot of Americans present in the Phoenix Program Advisory Force.
The Phoenix Program was a Vietnamese program - Phung Hoang. But we had advisors. And we had a few civilians, a very few civilians in the advisory force and about five hundred American officers and soldiers who were trained specifically in preparation to go live at a little local district somewhere to help them develop the dossiers, to help them develop the order of battle on the political side.
Now those five hundred odd officers and men were around at the local level as this sort of thing w—as this whole program was going on. We had advisors with the police, we had advisors with the, with the uh, local forces, we had advisors with the little teams out in the country, we had lots of advisors. And so I think we really did know.
As I say, I'm not gonna say nothing ever happened that was wrong. But I repeat that the purpose and the effect was to reduce it to an absolute minimum in a country that, in a very intense, bitter, deadly struggle between the Communist apparatus trying to overthrow the government and kill it. And, on the other hand, the government apparatus trying to work with and support the people in this larger program development and giving them a part and a role in the operation.
Now the interesting thing about it, of course, is the post war assessment of this. Because we used to be a little frustrated as to how well this was working. And some of our officers out in the countryside were concerned that there was too much statistics, and it wasn't enough real, and so forth. The complaint was one of effectiveness.
But in the years since the 1975, I have heard several references to North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese communists who account, who state that in their mind the most, the toughest period that they faced in the whole period of the war from 1960 to 1975 was the period from 1968 to '72 when the Phoenix Program was at work.
Now I know that's true because we had information at the time that that provincial committee no longer met in the province. It met over the Cambodian border someplace. It had lost its contacts with the people. They didn't have their links in to the villages and to the communities they previously had had before the Pacification and the Phoenix Program.
I reiterate that the Phoenix Program was only a piece of the larger Pacification Program, and alone it wouldn't have worked. Because the key to the Phoenix Program was the support of the people against the enemy apparatus.
If the people had wanted to go with the enemy apparatus, they would've gone. But since the people didn't want the enemy apparatus, and they could contribute their information, their intelligence on where these people were, who they were - this enabled the program to work quite effectively at least as the enemy says.

Agents and opponents of the Phoenix Program

Interviewer:
Did you sense in the Americans who were working for you any sort of conflict in, in, in value systems, or you did put out a memo suggesting that people didn't want to get involved in police work of this sort. Could you talk about that?
Colby:
Well, I uh, the Americans, of course, were only there for a year in most cases, and this was one of the major problems of the American presence in Vietnam. The advisors would come in and 365 days later they'd be on a plane heading home. So they would rush in with their ideas about how everything ought to be done.
The Vietnamese had lived there for years. They'd gone through this bitter brutal struggle for ten, fifteen years. And they even, their fathers had gone through it before them, uh during the time of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And they, the, uh, Americans then were frequently very anxious for instant results, and the Vietnamese a little more relaxed, a little more inclined to take Sunday off, uh whereas the Americans didn't understand why anybody would take Sunday off during a war.
Now there were some differences in that regard. We were very fortunate, however, in the officers we had in the program, the Pacification Support Program, we were very fortunate in that their ability to relate to the Vietnamese province district local chiefs around the country. I did a lot of travel around the country. I spent two nights a week outside of Saigon someplace in the countryside.
Interviewer:
Stop for a moment, we're about to run out.
Time 868. Vietnam Project.
Interviewer:
Pick it up in this thing about who, what were the, we're not using the term Viet Cong. Please, say please.
Clap stick.
Colby:
Well, of course this, uh, the struggle of the Phoenix Program was between the government and its, uh, structure and the population and the villages and so forth against a secret communist apparatus that was trying to organize and trying to conduct terrorist attacks in the villages to assert their control.
I remember going through a refugee one camp, one day, refugee camp one day and I kicked, and happened to kick something on the, in the dirt, and it was the remains of a of a mortar, an 82 millimeter communist mortar, which they had sent into the refugee camp to try to drive the people out of the refugee camp so that they could get a hold of them and use them out in the back country.
Well it was that kind of an attack, a secret apparatus that conducts that kind of attack that the Phoenix Program was aimed at, to identify who these people were, what they were operating as, what their programs were, who they were getting at, where they lived in the in the communities or out in the forest, and then arrest them or get them to rally if we could get, if they could convince them to do so.
Interviewer:
But in many cases they would be a part of the village structures just like everybody else. I mean, they weren't aliens.
Colby:
Well, a lot of them, many times they were actually alien to the villagers, yes. Because, uh, after all, when a, when a, if a five man squad walks into a village, and it's the only five men in the village that have a gun, then they're going to dominate the village. And what they can then do is recruit, proselyte, conscript, whatever. And the purpose of our program was to give the village ten guns so that that five man squad couldn't walk in.
Now, if the village wanted to let em in, there's nothing those ten guns could've done about it. But the fact was that the ten guns were held by chil—kids, teenagers and young men and women in the village. And they were used to keep that kind of marauding squad out. Now it was our purpose to know where the squad came from, where its base was, who participated in it, where, who were their contacts, cause they had, sure they did have individual secret contacts in the communities, who they were, and arrest them because they were assisting this force aimed at disrupting and destroying the government and its relationships with the villagers.

Impact of the Phoenix and Passification Programs in Vietnam and the U.S.

Interviewer:
What kind of impact did the (cough) sort of the wash of the Phoenix thing have in the States? I mean you had to come back and testify, and so forth. I wonder if you would discuss the extent to which you thought it fueled anti-war sentiment.
Colby:
Well it certainly added a little to it, the allegation, well, the, the, kind of stories that came out of Vietnam certainly added a little to the problems of dealing with public confidence about Vietnam. When you got stories that there were assassinations and mass assassinations, and all that, that didn't help at all. Of course, it affected public confidence and its government and and public uh, feeling about what we were doing in Vietnam.
I came back in 1970 and re, re, ah ah testified under oath for about a whole week with a whole group of my fellows from the national level down to the local village level, American advisors, about our program and we included testimony about Phoenix in that.
Ah, very interestingly the day we testified there was a story in the Washington Post by a very good reporter, who had gone around the previous two weeks looking to find out whether Phoenix was a program of assassination. And his article in that story, in that paper that day was that, uh, no he hadn't found it. He, he, he could find no evidence that it was any kind of a program of that nature. Now, he wasn't saying that nothing wrong ever happened either. But if it had been the other kind of a program, I guarantee you that a reporter of his excellence would've found out a great deal about it.
Now, I then testified again in 1971 about it in great detail. Ah, I testified again on my own confirmation hearings in 1973 and I think that, uh, by this kind of frank testimony about it, I think we reduced what could otherwise have become a very dangerous uh, accusation of misbehavior by American, by the American representatives in Vietnam. Because we had the answers. We did know the facts. And we knew that the charges were wrong, were gross, errant exaggerations and were not accurate.
Interviewer:
I want to take you up to the beginning of the Nixon administration and the report, the study you called NSSM-1, in which the CIA takes a very pessimistic view of pacification and says progress is more statistical than real. Did you share that view?
Colby:
Well not entirely, no. Uh, the, the CIA view in the early part of the administration, of the Nixon administration, was critical of the amount of statistical reporting in Vietnam, certainly, and uh I shared that. I, I didn't necessarily believe every number I ever read in Vietnam, and there were lots of numbers there, I'll tell ya.
But at the same time I thought that the people sitting in the ivory towers back here in Washington were being a little too distant from the reality of the nature of the war there, and that uh their feeling that the statistics may not have been right, then meant that the program wasn't right. The fact is that I did enough travel around Vietnam for all of three and a half years I was there, from '68 to'71, to be able to give you a very good contrast between when I first arrived right after the Tet Offensive, and I would go to some provincial capitol and I would come down directly from the sky in a helicopter into the capitol ringed with barbed wire and with tanks and everything else to guard it during the night and we would be mortared and shot at during the night.
And three years later I would go not to that provincial capital, I'd go to some little village out at the end of nowhere and we'd go for a ride up the canal at midnight alone, three or four of us, five or six of us. John Vann and I drove across the delta on a couple of motorcycles with nobody with us on Tet 1971.
This was the contrast that, and it hadn't been that the enemy had been killed, the same people who had been in the enemy forces were still standing up at the head of that canal in nondescript clothes, with guns. But they were our guns. And when they saw us they waved to us. Now that's what happened with the Pacification Program, that between '68 and '72 it really practically eliminated the guerrilla forces in Vietnam.
Now that was best shown by the attack in 1972 by the North, which took place at three places along the frontier. They didn't have any problem of guerrillas back in the country as a whole. We were able to move one whole Vietnamese division out of the delta up to meet one of those frontier attacks up the north of Saigon without any worry of guerrillas in the delta, which uh, in 1968 had almost controlled the delta.
Now, this was the, the effectiveness of the Para—of the Pacification Program, independent of the numbers. We had the numbers, you, I used the numbers to help me understand what was happening to compare trends, to compare provinces, to compare problems in different areas.
But the key was what was happening on the ground. And when you saw the difference between the road running to to the delta, or the road being open, uh, up into Central Vietnam, uh, in 1971 and that same road being totally closed in 1968, you saw a def—definition of what the success of the Pacification Program was.

Decline of U.S. resolve in Vietnam

Interviewer:
After the cease-fire in '73 one sees the Nixon administration shifting attention away from Vietnam to Europe and other areas. Do you think that was justified? Do you think that there was, the Nixon administration became overly complacent or do you think it was a ploy to sweep Vietnam under the rug? Could you comment on this?
Colby:
Well I think they had achieved the, uh in 1960, '73, they had achieved the uh, the uh agreement, the peace agreement. I think it properly deserved a time of trying to apply it. We certainly abided by it on our side.
We were looking to the North Vietnamese to abide by it on their side. Of course, they didn't as, as we know, but we, we've, initially in that initial period I think it was perfectly appropriate for us to abide by it and to expect the North Vietnamese to abide by it as well.
I don't think it was turning away of attention. You didn't need as much attention as when we had POWs in the north, when we had troops on the ground, it didn't need the kind of attention. And there were other problems in the world that needed, needed some attention.
Interviewer:
How did Watergate...
We're running out of film. Four. Take one. Clap stick.
Colby:
Watergate had obviously some impact on the outcome in Vietnam. Uh, I think it can best be said that it limited the power of the President to act in in Vietnam at the time of the 1975 attack by the North. Uh, the interesting contrast is to compare the attacks by North Vietnam on South Vietnam in 1972 from those in 1975.
The 1972 one took place at three places along the border, it was met almost exclusively by, exclusively by ah, Vietnamese forces with very few Americans involved. Uh, they had some tactical mistakes and suffered some losses. But they held. And they threw the North Vietnamese back.
Now the, in 1975 they were attacked again at almost the same areas with another military attack, there were new guerrillas in either case even though North Vietnamese commander uh, says that practically in his account of the action. But, in 1975 they had some tactical errors and it snowballed, and the place fell apart. Now, what are the, is the real difference between the two events?
I think there are two major differences. One, in 1972 the United States was still supplying massive logistic support to South Vietnam to enable it to defend itself, permitting it to conduct a forward defense way up in the hills with the helicopters, with the, with the, with the weaponry, and so forth. By 1975 we had squeezed down the available logistic support for the Vietnamese to the point where they could only fire a gun once a day or so. And they were trying to husband their, some of their their ammunition for the main fight, which they saw coming in 1976 at the time of our elections.
Now at the last minute the Congress asked the, the administration asked the Congress for more logistic support for Vietnam and the Congress refused it. Now that really didn't relate much to Watergate.
But the part that related to Watergate was that in 1972 President Nixon felt perfectly capable of turning the B52s loose on the North Vietnamese forces attacking South Vietnam. These North Vietnamese military units, the tanks, the artillery, all the rest.
In 1975 there was no chance that President Ford could have turned the B52s loose on North Vietnam, on the North Vietnamese forces, not North Vietnam, but on the forces coming over the border. That, I think, is the big difference.

Vietnamization's potential in retrospect

Interviewer:
Does that mean then that Vietnamization, as that word, really was contingent on the, on the continuation of American logistical support and air support?
Colby:
Well, if this North Vietnamese are receiving large amounts of tanks and artillery, ammunition and so forth from the Soviet Union and China, then the South Vietnamese are going to need large amounts of tanks, and artillery, ammunition and so forth from the United States. Yes, it was dependent upon our continued support. But not on continued American military presence.
That's what was not necessary and uh I think that the, there was a very good chance that the South Vietnam would be there today still struggling against North Vietnamese attacks if we had continued our logistic support and if our President had been able to provide some air attack in support of the forces when they were attacked from the North.
Interviewer:
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about (cough) the problems of the CIA domestically, tangentially related to Vietnam, if you want, because things like the break in at Ellsberg's...
Colby:
Well, the CIA problems were a logical follow on the anti-war movement, the Vietnam problems and, the difficulties that the American government got into with respect to Vietnam, with respect to Watergate, and then the final explosion about the CIA in 1974 and 5.
Now, uh in the CIA case, uh, a few incidents were taken to indicate that CIA was running amuck like a rogue elephant and all the rest of it. Uh, when the investigations were finished, the final report indicated that CIA wasn't running amuck, it was operating under control of our Presidents over history, that there had been a few cases, and really few and far between, where CIA in 25 years had stepped over its proper bounds.
Uh, and that there's certain operations that had gone on in the past that CIA should not have done like the attempts to assassinate Mr. Castro. But one of the conclusions of the committees that went into this was a rather interesting one that barely shows up, which is that no foreign leader was ever assassinated by CIA. Now, there wasn't for lack of trying in Castro's case, but uh, but that's I think the problem of exaggeration of intense emotionalism. Now that is a direct fallout of the whole period of the anti-war movement and the Vietnam and the mistake, I think, of sending large military forces to fight what should've been a villagers' struggle.
Uh, I think that there were several times in Vietnam where the South Vietnamese government could've won if it had had a proper American support. I think President Diem had at least a half chance of winning without sending large American forces in. But our solution was to go and overthrow him and lead to his death. I think that was the stupidest thing we did in Vietnam.
But we also, I think, had a, the problem that when they fell under attack in the '75 period we refused to give them the weapons they needed to defend themselves. If you give, train an army in American tactics and give them American weapons and refuse them American logistics, you're condemning them to weakness.

Information sharing within the U.S. government concerning the war

Interviewer:
You mention in your book the (cough), Kissinger's holding information very tightly uh, so that you had complaints by CIA analysts. Was that hampering in any way the assessments of the situation after '73, '74?
Colby:
I don't think so, no. I also said in my book that I understood exactly what, uh, the, no, alright.
When Mr. Kissinger withheld some of this information I indicated in my book that I accepted the problem the Washington was leaking like a sieve, there was no way he could have conducted a real negotiation if the material were spreading all over the place. And I sympathized with his control and management of the, of the information.
It did deprive certain of the analysts of some information from time to time. But I don't think that affected their overall judgment of what was happening in Vietnam.
Interviewer:
Did the CIA have accurate information and was it analyzing that information accurately of the communist buildup in '74, early '75?
Colby:
Oh yes, I think very, the CIA in late '74 made an assessment about what would happen in '75. And its curious that it's almost word for word what the North Vietnamese commander, General Dung, writes in his account was the plan of the North Vietnamese forces at that time.
They said that we will gather our forces and make an attack in early '75. Now it won't be our main attack. Ah, we'll save our main attack for 1976, because that's when we'll really be, have a chance of doing it. But, of course, if we have a target of opportunity, and if the thing looks a little weaker, we'll go right ahead.
Well, that's precisely what happened, and that was precisely what the CIA analysis before the fact was. That the North Vietnamese would try an attack, that they would not try one all the way, but if they had a tar, target of opportunity, they'd exploit it and go all the way.
Interviewer:
Do you think that that analysis, which is a kind of a warning, was getting heeded at the top levels by Nixon and Kissinger?
Colby:
Oh yes. It was clearly, and by, well not Mr. Nixon then, uh, uh, ju—President Ford. President Ford made the appeals to Congress for the logistics to enable the South Vietnamese to meet this assault. It was quite clear that it was coming.
And we were urging increased uh aid, military aid to South Vietnam to enable them to stand up against the North Vietnamese, who were refusing to follow the agreement they had reached in 1973. Who were refusing to stay out of South Vietnam, to remove their forces, and they instead were preparing an assault.
Interviewer:
How did you feel about the reporting from the embassy in Saigon? Given this, this prediction that the CIA was making about this coming assault, Graham Martin's reporting out of Saigon seemed to be much more optimistic.
Colby:
You'll find that any man in a fight who's got any spark in him, and I think Ambassador Martin qualifies, is apt to take a fairly positive approach toward the fight he's in. Ah, you don't put people in front line jobs to sit and quaver and wonder about whether they can do it. You put them in to assert the leadership, the strength, that enables them to fight, and that enables them sometimes to win when the odds are against them.
The ability of somebody back in Washington to make an independent assessment without that tension of feeling that is also there, and the CIA estimates about the likely collapse of Saigon, uh, preceded, of course, the position of the field. But that's a normal thing. Uh, that's that's happened all over the world in battles for centuries.
Interviewer:
But he was minimizing...
Stop for....
END TAPE
Vietnam, Colby, SR #2869, T-876. 269. Clap stick.
Interviewer:
Just address this question that warnings that the allegation of warnings that comes back that were optimistic...?
Colby:
I know there were allegations that Washington was not being warned that there was censorship, and so forth. The fact is the way information and intelligence moves today, one man can't censor the reporting of a, of a situation. We have too many alternate ways to find out of what's happening. They come in from all sorts of sources.
And, therefore, our judgments in Washington were made on the whole of our reporting, not single sourced reporting from the Embassy or anywhere else. Uh, I don't know whether there was little more optimistic in the Embassy or not. I do know that my own estimates given to the National Security Council in the last month or two of the war were clearly indicating that it was going down very rapidly.

Fall and evacuation of Saigon

Interviewer:
What about the plan to evacuate Saigon? Do you think that could've been done earlier, especially since a lot of people were connected to the CIA? Left behind.
Colby:
Oh, when you're involved in the collapse of a nation, be it the nation of France in 1940, or Germany in 1945, there are all sorts of improvements you could make on the way it was handled, uh, by the defeated nation. Uh, clearly it would have been perfect to have a perfect evacuation of Saigon. Uh, but when you're facing the Saigon problem, the question was, whether to declare the evacuation too early and create a panic and nobody get out, or too late and nobody get out.
Now, the actual record was that all the Americans and 130,000 Vietnamese got out. Now that's not a bad number. Certainly it did not include everybody. It didn't include friends of mine, it didn't include families of people that I know. But, nonetheless, it's not a bad number.
Interviewer:
What about in the whole question of evacuation of the Vietnamese who got out, the, I wonder if you'd speak to the allegation the wrong Vietnamese got out in large numbers. There were a lot of people who were in a most sensitive position did not get out.
Colby:
Some wrong Vietnamese got out. They got on boats and went off on their own. Some, some right Vietnamese got out. Uh, that's what happens when you have an evacuation of that nature. You didn't stand at the beaches of Dunkirk deciding whether each one who got aboard those boats was the right one.
I'm sure there were some cooks and bakers who got out, and uh, other people that didn't get out. And that's the fact of an evacuation of that sort. And it's inevitable in that sort of a situation. And it's also inevitable that not every fella that should get out did get out. Not a chance, no. The question, I think, goes back to, however, how many got out? And 130,000 is not a bad number.
Interviewer:
Did you believe, what was your feeling about Thieu's ability to hold? And also, did you think there was any prospect of negotiated settlement.
Colby:
Well, I never did think there was much prospect of a real negotiation with the North Vietnamese. I thought that the North Vietnamese would continue to attack South Vietnam periodically, '72, '75, '78, whatever. Uh, and the question for South Vietnam's safety just as South Korea's safety was to be strong enough to hold off that kind of attack and eventually convince the other side not to attack because it wouldn't work. That was the long term hope for Vietnam.
It did mean having logistic support, the continued support by the Americans of that position. I think we've done it in Korea, and very well. I think we should've done it in Vietnam. And I think it would've worked in Vietnam. But, instead we decided not to support the Vietnamese when they were under attack, and they went down.

South Vietnam's dependency on the U.S. commitment

Interviewer:
Do you think that the South Vietnamese had become too dependent on the United States as certain South Vietnamese have said since then?
Colby:
No, I don't think they were too dependent, the, the South Vietnamese were not too dependent on the United States in the latter days of the war. They were the ones who were dying. They were the ones who were suffering the casualties. It wasn't Americans. After '72 most Americans were gone from Vietnam, a few advisors, but uh, that's about all.
So, the real people carrying on the fight in Vietnam were Vietnamese. And I think you can see by the 600,000 or more who have taken off in leaky boats to get away from the society that succeeded South Vietnam, that there's an awful lot of Vietnamese who really didn't want to live under communist rule, and don't want to today, and will take the risk of their lives and piracy, and everything else to get away from it.
Interviewer:
I just want to rephrase that question. You say you think they were too dependent on the United States. Do you think that in retrospect, the Vietnamization should have started sooner, that the fact that a half million American troops went in there and fought the war, indirectly weakened the South Vietnamese so that they weren't developing their own?
Colby:
Well, I think that the half million American troops was not the answer to Vietnam. I've always felt that. Certainly I thought we should've supported Vietnam. We should've supported President Diem, we should've supported President Thieu to do the fighting. We could have some troops in to help, uh, as a screen. But for several years after we put our troops there we really hadn't figured out that the real nature of the war was at the villages.
It wasn't until President Thieu put Pacification as his primary strategy in 1968 that we really began to make progress in the real nature of the war there. The intervening four years were just confusion and chaos. Until we set, had a government set up and got a strategy adopted and understand it, it took us entirely too long to do that.
In the process the Vietnamese uh, many times they were pushed aside by the eager American looking to go out and shoot somebody when the whole problem wasn't to shoot somebody, the whole problem was to build up some village so it could take care of itself.

Impact of the Mayagüez Incident

Interviewer:
I want to just ask you about the Mayagüez incident. How do you explain that reaction? How do you think it, how do you relate it to the fall of South Vietnam?
Colby:
Well obviously it's related the Mayagüez obviously related in a way to the fall of Saigon, it came after it shortly. And the government, when faced with a direct assault on an American ship, reacted properly in the protecting of an American ship. If an American ship is attacked tomorrow by some country around the world, I hope we'll react forcefully against that, because I think it's important that we protect ourselves.
Obviously, the, the uh, atmospherics of the spring of 1975 were related to the fall of Vietnam. And I, you can't deny that, of course. But I still say that whether you had the fall of Vietnam or not, if some American ship were under assault by an unfriendly country, that we ought to take steps to protect it. We used to do that in the Barbary Coast in the early 1800's. And we were the leading force in the world that sent the forces to the Barbary Coast to protect international shipping and our own shipping.

Possible actions by the U.S. at the end of the war

Six. Take One. Clap stick.
Colby:
In the latter months, uh, just before the end, of course, there were a lot of rumors about, ah, possible coups, possible changes, all the rest of it. Our government was trying, through its international contacts - Kissinger and others - to try to arrange a negotiated settlement.
Uh, I frankly never had much hope that a negotiated settlement would occur, because I didn't think that North Vietnamese had any particular incentive for it. But I certainly didn't want CIA to mix up any possible process that the rest of our government was trying to conduct. And, therefore, I, I opposed any kind of encouragement of a coup for two reasons.
First, it might upset that negotiation element. And, secondly, we had gone through that once in 1963 where we encouraged the generals to overthrow President Diem. And I thought that was a disaster, and I certainly didn't want to see anything like that repeated.

The secret war in Laos

Interviewer:
Could we take you back to Laos now. And could you tell us a little bit about the quote "secret army" of Vang Pao?
Colby:
Right, right. In Laos, of course, we had had a confrontation with the Soviet Union in 1960, '60. The Soviet air force was flying in the hills of Northern Laos, and Soviet advisors were present, North Vietnamese were being helped to ah, ah move into Laos. Uh, we began to support some tribal forces up in the north in Laos with our transport aircraft, with advisors, and so forth.
President Kennedy and Prime Minister Khrushchev decided in Vienna in 1961 that if they were going to have confrontations, Laos was the wrong place to do it. So they made an agreement. And they got an agreement of fifteen nations to agree to keep their hands out of Laos, and we withdrew our forces and our programs and the Soviets withdrew their forces and their activities. And we isolated that, that struggle from the American-Soviet relationship.
Now the North Vietnamese had about 7,000 soldiers in Northern Laos at that time and they reviewed, they removed exactly forty of them. Ah, leaving the remainder there. And after a month or two they began to resume the process of kicking the Lao around.
Now President Kennedy at that point had a problem. Was he going to let them get away with it, with what that implied, with what they could do elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and so forth. Was he going to send American forces back there and resume a confrontation with the Soviet Union, which would've had to have reacted in that fashion, if we had overtly sent a force back there. And he didn't want to do either of those.
So he asked the CIA if they could help these people in Laos, up in the hills, to defend themselves against the North Vietnamese forces moving into their country. And we did. We sent over the next ten years a large CIA program of about two to three hundred officers, uh, a few millions of dollars of logistics, ah weaponry, communications, air support, uh, transport support, and all the rest of it. Not, uh, not combat air. And we assisted those Lao to fight off the North Vietnamese for the next ten years while the North Vietnamese forces...
Sorry. Just pick it up. You just said about the...
Set seven. Take one. Clap stick.
Interviewer:
Okay, want to just pick it up? Where were we? Logistics?
Colby:
We provided the logistics, the air support, uh, the transport, the communications, ammunition, weaponry, and so forth, while the North Vietnam — while the North Vietnamese forces grew from 7 to 70,000. These tribal forces up in the country that were supported by CIA, not the Royal Lao Army, which stayed right down in the comfortable valley and almost never heard a shot fired in anger, but the forces supported by CIA held that increased force off for about ten years. Now, I think that's a pretty good record.
When we got to the end of the ten years, we made another agreement with the North Vietnamese that we would all withdraw our forces from Laos. And we did withdraw all our activity from Laos and the North Vietnamese, once again, withdrew one piece of it. They, this time they withdrew a whole division and left two divisions there. And in a few months they resumed the effort against the Laos and in a few months they took over Laos. And at, have, have total control of it today as a puppet, uh, country. Because CIA at that point was not asked to help out.
Now, I happen to think that's the way that one should conduct oneself in this kind of a situation. You help the local people to fight the kind of a war that they're faced with. You don't go in and displace them and fight your own war. You don't tell them that they have to run a military war when they're really involved in a guerrilla fight. I think this is the way that CIA showed that it can do things.
Now, this had to be a secret during this time - it was called the secret war. It wasn't much of a secret to the North Vietnamese or anybody else, cause it was going on. But the reason it was secret was an important diplomatic fact. If it could be denied, or just not mentioned, the Soviet Union wouldn't object. And they didn't object.
They kept an embassy in Vientiane the capital of Laos the entire ten years. They didn't raise any issue. It never created a Soviet-American confrontation. It was a way in which the Soviet Union and America could conduct their affairs on their own level while the Lao protected themselves from the North Vietnamese with American help.

U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War in hindsight

Interviewer:
Let me go back, nevertheless, to one sort of retrospective question about Vietnam. What could've been different - without repeating here, we've already talked about the Diem thing — was it a winnable situation? What was, in your estimation, the best one could've hoped for?
Colby:
Well, the best one could've hoped for was the strategic hamlet program in early 1960s, would have increasingly developed itself. It was by far from perfect, don't get me wrong, it had a lot of problems in it. But they were problems that were being fixed, and they, they had the momentum - a prime, a very strong North Viet—North Vietnamese symp—North Vietnamese sympathizer, Mr. Burchett from Australia once said that 1962 belonged to the government, because the government had the initiative in the in the war, in the struggle for South Vietnam, not bothering North Vietnam, that's not the problem.
So that the, the continuation of that program offered the opportunity for a containment of the North Vietnamese effort to create a rebellion in South Vietnam. Now that was turned off by the Buddhist explosion, which diverted the government and then the overthrow of the government with American complicity decided in the White House of the United States, not by CIA, by the White House. Now, I think that was a mistake. And I think that ended any chance for the success of the strategic hamlet program.
I have always believed that the government had successfully suppressed the Buddhist revolt by, uh, before the overthrow. But the reaction in America to that suppression was such that it, uh, it was refused and it led to the overthrow. You might compare it a little bit, and a similar kind of development occurred when the Shah of Iran was faced by a religious revolt. He did not put it down. He made particular points not to.
And I think that Vietnamese experience, the experience of Ngo Dinh Diem, had a, a bearing in his thinking. That if he had put it down the way President Diem put that one down, and that wasn't much brutality or anything, they just put, arrested them and held them down. But he did put it down. Then we could've continued the war in ah, South Vietnam along sensible lines of the strategic hamlets and never have had 500,000 American soldiers. I'm not sure that that would've occurred that way. But I think there was at least a 50 percent chance that it could've come out that way and we would've saved 50,000 American lives.
Checking the room for the interview with William Colby. Ventilation noise.
END OF SR #2869.
END OF TAPED INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM COLBY.
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