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Interview with Paul N. McCloskey, 1981

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Summary
Former Republican politician from California, Paul (Pete) McCloskey, talks about the 1973 vote that ended US involvement in the Vietnam War. McCloskey believes that it was the gradual increase in the number of certain Congressmen, who had been elected on the platform of opposing excessive presidential power, that changed the course of American policy in Vietnam. He also recalls that when he was elected in 1967, his constituency was still in favor of the war, but that in 1969, after the Tet Offensive, public opinion began to turn. McCloskey also relates how, during the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, Kissinger wanted to make sure that a decent interval would elapse before Saigon fell, in order for it to appear the US had lived up to its obligation.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States--History--1945-, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Watergate Affair, 1972-1974, War finance--Law and legislation, Ambassadors, United States. War Powers Resolution, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Prisoners and prisons, American, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnamese reunification question (1954-1976), War and emergency powers--United States, United States--Foreign relations, United States--Politics and government, Vietnam--Politics and government, United States. Congress
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Transcript

The War Powers Act

Vietnam, Sen. Paul N. McCloskey, Snd. Roll 2419, CN
This is a head of Snd. Roll 1 to go with the head of Camera Roll 1 for WGBH Vietnam Project, TVP013, Final Days. At the head of this roll are several seconds of reference tone recorded at minus ADB a thousand hertz on a Nagra three and we’re using an internal crystal operating at 60 hertz to go with a camera speed of 24 frames per second. Again this is the head of Snd. Roll 1 to go with the head of Camera Roll 1. Coming us is an interview with Congressman Paul N. McCloskey from California.
Slate one. Take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Stand by just a moment...go ahead.
Okay.
McCloskey:
Well, the vote that finally ended the war occurred really about June 25 of 1973, you know. We’d gotten our troops home. The prisoners had been returned and the issue was whether or not the Congress would support the continued bombing in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and it came up on an amendment and that amendment was defeated 204 to 204, a tie vote. So, it took every congressman voting to end what had been going on then for seven years. Nine years, really.
That vote was preceded by a debate in which I took great pride because Gerry Ford had stood up as the minority leader and said that it was our, his understanding that if we voted one way, the president would not continue the bombing past August 15.
And, I had about thirty Congressmen looking to me for what we should do because the vote involved continuing to allow the bombing for another two months on the chance that we could finally end it on August 15.
And, I said to Gerry that ah look that term, it is my understanding is a lawyer’s term, which means you don’t really know whether he will stop the bombing on August 15 if we give him the power to continue it.
And, Gerry went into the Republican cloak room, called Sam Clemente came out in about three minutes in the closing minutes of the debate, took the will and said I want to assure the go...the gentleman from California that I’ve talked with the President of the United States. If the vote goes this way, the bombing will cease on August 15 and we have his commitment not to continue it thereafter.
Well, that was fine and the amendment tied 204 to 204 and a lot of my colleagues painfully gave permission to continue the bombing for another eight weeks with a lot of people being killed in order to end it on the 15th.
But, the crucial thing occurred, I think, in October or November when things weren’t going well and the administration wanted to resume the bombing and the Defense Department lawyers told the president initially and the White House said they thought they had the power to go back and bomb as a presidential prerogative.
And, then, they looked at this debate between Gerry and myself and the dialogue on the floor and said, no, the congressional history is clear. The commitment that the president made not to resume the bombing is part of the law of this country, as a result of that dialogue. That makes you feel you’ve done something for the country in the painful years here in Washington.
Interviewer:
Do you think that the, the struggle of the war powers was really a struggle about Vietnam or was it more a power struggle between Congress and the weakened executive, an executive weakened by Watergate?
McCloskey:
Well, I think there’s no question that the War Powers Act would never have been enacted had it not been for the public disaffection from Lyndon Johnson running the war and then Richard Nixon running the war. Remember, Nixon was elected with a plan to end the war and it turned out the plan was to increase the bombing.
And, what happened in all of those years, ah, 1968, 1970, 1972, Congressmen ran for office on the pledge that they would check and balance either the abuse of power by Lyndon Johnson or the crookedness of power of Richard Nixon.
So, you had a Congress gradually shifting towards congressional domination in foreign affairs rather than acceptance of a bipartisan support of the president. And, I don’t think that vote in June of 1973 would have occurred cutting off the bombing had it not been for that gradual increase in the number of Congressmen who had been elected on the basis of opposing an excessive presidential power.
There’s another factor that was involved and that is that Congress had always before declared war when the United States got into war. In this case, we had been beguiled by what turned out to be a rather ah mistaken information into granting the president the power to make war yet without declaring it. Without committing the country to a war. And, without a declaration of war, the responsibility rested with the president.
So, the War Powers Act was essentially a, an act of conscience by a Congress that, having given the president too much power, was now inclined to show the public that we were prepared to limit presidential power.
Ah, whether the War Powers Act is right or wrong, I’m not sure. It ah, it can be argued that it gives the president the power that he never should exercise without a declaration of war and clearly it's somewhat illusory to say that after thirty days, we are going to change the nature of an action. That would depend on public opinion, not on our vote.

Shift in public and Congressional attitudes towards the Vietnam War

Interviewer:
Moving along a little bit now in the story, when we began to cut back aid to Vietnam from billions to hundreds of millions, do you remember what kinds of reactions you heard at the time in Congress and from co...your constituents? When we, we began to reduce aid to Vietnam?
McCloskey:
Well, I was elected in 1967. I think I was the first Republican elected opposing the war and my constituency, two to one, favored the war in 1967. What turned public opinion around was 1969, the heavy casualties in the Tet Offensive and the recognition that somebody’d been lying to us that the Viet Cong had all been wiped out by our great military successes.
And, by 1971 I think public opinion was solidly opposed to the war in most parts of the country. Now, that didn’t mean that Congressmen were prepared to vote to end the war. Once a congressman takes a position in ’67, it’s hard for him to admit a mistake cause he...in 1971. It wasn’t until 1973 that really the opposition crystallized. Ah.
We were still operating on the history and the tradition of WWII in Vietnam, Korea that Congress should support a president, that once a war is started Congress’s obligation is to support the president. It wasn’t really ‘til the last troops were out of Vietnam that we finally ah recognized public opinion and voted to end the war. Congress is generally a year or two behind shifts in American public opinion. Maybe three or four years.

Continued support for the war

Interviewer:
Were you lobbied by South Vietnamese diplomats or by the administration in 1973?
McCloskey:
No. I think by 1973 I had firmly established myself on the enemy’s list and the Nixon Administration didn’t bother to lobby, lobby me on the Vietnam War any longer, and I can’t recall ever being lobbied by the South Vietnamese. I went to ah South Vietnam three times while the war was going. Once right after I was elected in ’67, once in ’70 and once in ’71, and on each occasion trying to get the truth of what was happening in Vietnam you had to buck your own government and the South Vietnamese government. Neither government wanted congressman to know the truth of what was happening in Vietnam.
Interviewer:
Ambassador Graham Martin testified before Congress on aid to Vietnam in early 1975. Do you recall his testimony?
McCloskey:
I rep...recall both his testimony and recall visiting Graham Martin about two months before Saigon fell...
Interviewer:
We’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s talk first about his testimony. He gave very grave warnings. He was very worried about the fate of South Vietnam. Did Congress take his warning seriously or were you distrustful as a body of what he had to say? Can you describe your reaction to and other Congressmen’s reaction to his, to Graham Martin’s testimony?
McCloskey:
Well, I think by 1975 Graham Martin was recognized as a man who had been a great patriot and had been an effective soldier and statesman in his day, but had passed beyond ah almost into senility. Graham Martin’s comments were emotional.
They were, in many ways, related to a previous decade. They no longer, I think, persuaded anybody of the reality of the situation in Vietnam. In fact, I think, even in the administration, there was the feeling that they were getting the ramblings of a man who had become almost demented on the subject by late March and April when Vietnam finally fell, and there was grave criticism of Martin that his colored, rose colored glasses ah exposition of the situation in Vietnam had materially led to the problems that finally occurred when Vietnam fell.
Interviewer:
But, in January he was here. Was there already that feeling about him during the testimony hearing?
McCloskey:
I don’t know that in January when he came over here there was the appreciation that the man had passed beyond the realm of reason. I don’t, I remember he was highly emotional. I think he talked about the communist enemy controlling the press ah that you couldn’t get the truth of Vietnam. That was uh an indication that he had just ah tipped over the balance of reality.

The 1975 Congressional Delegation to Vietnam

McCloskey:
But, the real question in Congress that was raised by his testimony, the Ford Administration was then trying to get Congress to vote more money for Vietnam and Cambodia and a number of us went to Vietnam and Cambodia in late February and early March to try to appraise the situation, to test against what Martin had been saying what the reality was.
Ah, that visit there were ah eight of us in that delegation. I think we came back split four to four. Four of us thought that Vietnam was going to be lost whatever happened. I made a report to the president to that effect.
And, that Cambodia was on its last legs. And I had recommended in opposition to any position I’d ever taken before that we give Cambodia some assistance to get them into the monsoon season because it looked to me that there would be a massacre in Cambodia if the Khmer Rouge took over.
But, Khmer Rouge ah, we were at the end of February and the first few days of March. At that time ah Vietnam was not threatened. The Vietnamese had not started their offensive. And, Martin was saying the Vietnamese can stand. All you gotta do is give them more ammunition and more equipment. Cambodia was clearly on the verge of falling and there was going to be a terrible massacre and there ultimately was.
Voices in background inaudible.
Go to camera roll number two. In turn. Marker. Slate two. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Could you tell us about that trip in 1975?
McCloskey:
Well, the trip in 1975 was cast against a request by President Ford for the Congress, as I recall, to give three hundred and fifty million to Vietnam, and something like a hundred and fifty million to Cambodia. Primarily in artillery information, spare parts, ah, artillery ammunition and spare parts.
And, I went there with Senator Dewey Bartlett of Oklahoma. We got there a few days earlier than the other six members of Congress and I was looking at it, frankly, as a retired marine colonel. I had commanded the counterinsurgency school at Camp Pendleton. I had studied to fight in Vietnam. I had volunteered to fight in Vietnam in 1965. Most of my friends were in the marines that had fought there through those seven years of war.
And I wanted to get a fair appraisal of what the order of battle was. The South Vietnamese against the North Vietnamese. We couldn’t get it in the embassy.In fact, Graham Martin and his CIA agency station chief, a man named Polgar, gave us a very rosy picture, and it was clear that they were advocating the fact that they wanted the South Vietnamese to survive rather than describing dispassionately whether the South Vietnamese could survive.
And, I then went out to talk with the Vietnamese generals in each of the Four corps areas and looked at the order of battle and what I found was that in III Corps which is down around Saigon in the central part of the country the is...the odds were fairly even and the Delta they were fairly even.
In II Corps, however, and in I corps, the five northern provinces, they had taken a division out of I Corps to protect Saigon and there were just not enough troops in I Corps or in II Corps to defend should the North Vietnamese commit their reserve.
And, the North Vietnamese general who was one of the finest they had up in Da Nang pointed to this group of eight reserve North Vietnamese divisions and pointed out that if they committed any two of them either in II Corps or I Corps that they could cut in half the northern half of Vietnam. And, he was powerless to stop them.
Interviewer:
I think you misspoke yourself. You said a North Vietnamese general was giving the...
McCloskey:
I’m sorry a South Vietnamese ah...
Interviewer:
Just start with a South Vietnamese general that was...?
McCloskey:
Yeah. The, the key to the situation was up in the northern half of the country. I Corps, the northern five provinces that started at the North Vietnamese border came down to Hue and Da Nang and ah those provinces and then II Corps which was the Central Highlands in the mountains and the South Vietnamese general who was probably the best man they had and was picked to be the commander of the northern corps against the DMZ for that reason pointed out that he did not have enough troops if the North Vietnamese should choose to commit even two or some six reserve divisions that they had in North Vietnam.
And, as you looked at the lines of supply and the line of battle, the order of battle, it was clear that the Vietnamese had the ability to strike through and cut North Vietnam in half. Well, they ultimately did that exactly, I think, about a month after I came back and I said this to Gerry Ford and to Kissinger in the Oval Office. I said, look, there is no way the South Vietnamese can win. It isn’t artillery information. It’s just when and how the North Vietnamese will choose to attack.
Well, they made that attack, if you recall, I think ah in the middle of March about two weeks after we got back there and within two weeks the entire northern part had broken and from then on the North Vietnamese committed all of their reserves and they knocked South Vietnam out in by April 30th.
But, the, the interesting part of that was that Graham Martin, the Ambassador, and his chief station chief were incapable of giving a fair appraisal to a visiting team of Congressmen sent there to appraise the situation. They were so emotionally wrapped up in the desire to save South Vietnam. You know, that we’d spent years building a new nation. And, their involvement in that was so great that they weren’t capable of doing what an intelligence officer’s main job is. To give you a fair appraisal of both the pluses and minuses of a situation, and the minute we spent, the minute Polgar, the CIA Chief, got into his explanation, it became quite clear he was evaluator of intelligence. And, that, that I think materially hurt us and hurt the South Vietnamese who relied on us, many of whom were left behind because of the speed with which that collapse occurred.

The impossibility of South Vietnam winning the war

Interviewer:
Wasn’t it hard for you to ah you fought there, many of your friends had fought there, to really, just resign yourself to to the fact that it was going to go under. To be able to say, you know, that we, yes it was going to go under and we have to let it happen. There’s nothing you can do. Is that what you were going to say?
McCloskey:
Well, by 1975 there were no US troops in Vietnam and you remember Henry Kissinger later said that the whole purpose of US involvement in Vietnam had been to stay there long enough so that when South Vietnam finally fell the United States would not be blamed for a lack of resolve.
Our troops had been pulled out in 1973 (clears throat). By 1975 it was clear that without US troops going back in, the South Vietnamese were going to fall. And, sure, there’s a futility. There’s a futility of 55,000 Americans dead and another two million that are probably suffering mental illness right today because of the US effort in Vietnam that came to naught.
But, all that demonstrates is another lesson of history. Now, I opposed Vietnam as a marine who had fought in Korea primarily because the Marine Corps teaching, the people I fought under in Korea; General MacArthur, General Ridgeway said never get involved in a land war on the Asian Continent again unless you’re prepared to suffer the same loss of life and casualties that an oriental enemy is prepared to suffer. They don’t care about human life. The North Vietnamese cheerfully would lose a million people to rid their country as they saw it of foreign mercenaries.
And, we were not prepared to lose 50,000 men dead in support of a country unless that country could support itself. And, the ultimate test of whether South Vietnam could succeed was whether South Vietnam had the will and the desire to succeed.
Even when they fell, we were giving them thirteen times as much artillery information as the North Vietnam an...ah in ammunition as the North Vietnamese had. The North Vietnamese never had more than five hundred thousand people in their army. The South Vietnamese had 750,000. It was the corruption in South Vietnam and the lack of will to fight that ultimately cost them their country and no American should feel badly about it.
Interviewer:
Let’s go over that and and...in fact, we should cut...cause this is a big one.
Cut. Turning. Marker. Three. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Okay.
McCloskey:
Well, by 1975, we, of course, had been out of the war for two years. I watched the ARVN army fight in 1969, ’68, 1970, 1971, and there was no question that, while they had some good units, the individual ARVN soldier was never motivated really to fight.
We had built their army in our image. Like the United States Army where they had required a lot of motor transport, a lot of artillery support. They were getting thirteen times, for example, the number of artillery shells that the North Vietnamese had.
But, trying to build an American type army with skill and with nobility and with fire power to fight in that kind of terrain was to put that kind of army at a disadvantage. It’s like the British were at a disadvantage when they came into the forests of America in our Revolutionary War.
And, lean, hungry people who don’t need much food who use weapons that they can carry on their backs are much more valuable in that kind of terrain than armies that require trucks and tanks and huge numbers of artillery shells. We had built a South Vietnamese army. Tried to build it in our own image. They didn’t have the will nor the ability to do that. And, consequently, I think we led them down to the path of their own destruction.
Interviewer:
But, by ’75 they were up against tanks and enemy artillery on the other side?
McCloskey:
But, by no means that...the numbers that we had. Even in the final days when the war ended, they had much more artillery, much more armor, much more of the equipment of war. The North Vietnamese never did use an air force, for example, in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese had an air force.
North Vietnamese never had a navy. The South Vietnamese had a navy. They had more people than the North Vietnamese. What they didn’t have and the priceless ingredient of any military organization is the will to fight, and the discipline to fight. And the discipline to take casualties and come back and go for more.
Once the South Vietnamese cracked they fled in confusion. And, you saw the ignominious spectacle of an army larger than those attacking them. With more weapons than those attacking them absolutely collapsing. And, that is just up here. That’s the will to fight. They never did have it. We could never build it into them. They were fighting for a commercial proposition. The North Vietnamese were fighting out of patriotism to restore control of their country.

Failure of American negotiations with North Vietnam in 1975

Interviewer:
That’s very good. Let’s start from ah Judy has a suggestion for a question. I want to...
Turn. Marker. Four. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Could you tell us about this meeting in 1975...?
McCloskey:
Well, it was a meeting between the ah the peace groups. Ah. You know, the Canadians, I think the Poles, and one other nation had a supervisory group and there were discussions between both the Viet Cong representatives and the North Vietnamese and between the South Vietnamese and American representatives.
So, they let the visiting eight Congressmen sit in around this big square table, and it was quite a sight. Bella Abzug, and Millicent Fenwick and six men from the US congressional Delegation.
At that meeting quite frankly the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong came across hard, tough and mean, and there was no way to talk with them or deal with them. What it did indicate first is you never want to negotiate with the communists unless you’re as strong as they are or stronger. You can’t deal with these people except from strength.
And, the second thing that I remember ah Dewey Bartlett ah who had one of those POW bracelets and was trying to make the point that we wanted the information about our MIAs and the POW’s and, and absolute unyielding ah lack of consideration on the other side. Human life, obviously, meant nothing to them. Prisoners or whatever happened to prisoners has never meant much to the communist world. Ah. When the Soviets lost prisoners in Germany, they didn’t want them back after the war.
They felt that they had been corrupted. They had been sold an alien philosophy or brain washed in captivity. They didn’t want them back, and it was hard for the North Vietnamese from that point of view to understand an American’s concern for human life. For the recovery of prisoners. Or information about MIA’s.
Voices in background are inaudible.
Beep. Beep. Sound changers. End of Snd. Roll 2419.

Watergate and the end of aerial bombing in North Vietnam

Vietnam. Snd. Roll 2420. Sen. Paul N. McCloskey. Head of Snd. Roll two. It will go with the head of camera roll number three, WGBH, Vietname Project, TVP013. Continuing the interview with Congressman McCloskey.
Turn. Mark Five. Clap sticks. Stand by.
McCloskey:
No, I think that that vote on June 25 of 1975 that denied the president the right to keep bombing probably...
Interviewer:
73. Start again.
McCloskey:
I’m sorry. Okay. No, I, I think that that vote ah on June 25, 1973 that really ended the president’s power to continue the war probably would not have ended it except for Watergate. Watergate had been ongoing, then the trial of Hunt had been in the papers since January. The vote was June 25. Ah. John Dean had made his revelations then. The president was under attack.
Clearly, I think, there was enough shaking about the president’s position to probably have switched a couple of those votes of the 204 that it took to finally end the war.

Inevitability of the fall of South Vietnam

Interviewer:
Last question. Do you think when the peace agreement was signed, was it your view that we were merely seeking a decent interval? That we would then let South Vietnam go or was there hope in your mind and in other Congressmen’s minds that they could hang on on their own with aid from us?
McCloskey:
Well, there was never any question in my mind but that it was just a question of time. That the South Vietnamese alone did not have the will to fight no matter what we gave them. Without our bombing that they were ultimately going to fall sooner or later. The position that Henry Kissinger had taken was that a decent interval should elapse before South Vietnam fell because in Kissinger ’s point of view, the important thing was to satisfy the world that the United States lived up to its obligations and that the world should not feel that South Vietnam fell because the United States had lost the will to fight. We had lost the will to fight. None of us wanted to, to continue that war. Clearly, the American people wouldn’t support it, but Kissinger wanted the world to think that it would be the South Vietnamese who folded not the United States resolve. That was the crucial thing. If you look back to the Pentagon Papers, even in McNamara’s time, when he asked Assistant Secretary McNaughton to appraise why are we in Vietnam.
And, the common view that we were there to help the South Vietnamese wasn’t the reason at all. It was 10 percent to help the South Vietnamese. 20 percent to hold off the north, eh, to hold off the Chinese, which turned out to be ridiculous because the Chinese don’t like the Vietnamese and vice versa. But, 70 percent, and this was back, way back in 1964 when McNaughton recommended to the Secretary of Defense, seventy percent of our purpose in Vietnam was to save American face.
And, that is the tragedy of Vietnam that we would ever go to war to preserve a principle and yet not be willing to to suffer the casualties involved. And, that’s why many of us opposed the war and I think that that is the the absolute definition of the tragedy of Vietnam. That we were willing to fight to save American face and clearly that wasn’t going to last very long, but, once we were out of there, I think it was just a question of time and when the South Vietnamese would ultimately fail. We had tried to build up a straw man.
It wasn’t like Korea. In South Korea, the Koreans had the will and the resolve to maintain their independence. In South Vietnam, there were enough Viet Cong people around. There was enough corruption in the South Vietnamese government that we never were able to build the resolve of a new nation.
Interviewer:
Thank you very much.
McCloskey:
Okay.
Interviewer:
Cut.
End room tone. McCloskey interview.
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