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Interview with Henry Cabot Lodge, 1979 [Part 1 of 5]

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Summary
Henry Cabot Lodge was a United States Senator from Massachusetts, and Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1963 – 1964. He viewed South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem as an ineffective leader, and tacitly supported the coup that overthrew him. Mr. Lodge discusses the circumstances of his appointment as Ambassador, and his impressions of Vietnam prior to going. He recounts the advice and instruction he received from other advisers, especially regarding Diem, and details his role in the events surrounding the coup. He describes Diem’s personality and his own view of the war after the coup.
Topics
United States--Politics and government, United States--Armed Forces, Vietnam--Politics and government, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--History--1945-, United States--History, Military--20th century, International relations, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’etat, 1963, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Great Britain--History, Military--20th century, Malaya--History--Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960, Presidents, Counterinsurgency, Vaccines, Diplomacy
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Transcript

The events of the generals' coup

Cassette side #5
Interviewer:
Okay? I want to ask you...I'm jumping ahead a little here. Remember that you had a trip planned to Washington on October 31st and you said you were going because you...there was something so important that you couldn't entrust it to the cables. Do you remember that?
Lodge:
I remember going to Washington right after the coup.
Interviewer:
But this is before the coup. You were planning to go to Washington.
Lodge:
Planning, but it wasn't a firm plan.
Interviewer:
But you said that there was something you had to go for that you could not entrust to the cables according to the records. Do you remember what that was?
Lodge:
What are these records you're citing?
Interviewer:
Well, the stuff that's in the Pentagon Papers.
Lodge:
Well, I don't take that at face value. I don't remember that. I remember going to Washington. I remember the president...he says it here, asking me to return. "I look forward to your own visit to Washington so that you and I can review the whole situation together face to face. Your message makes a fitting ending to the weekly reports that you have sent. From now on I think we should be in touch as either of us feels the need. Your own leadership in pulling together and directing the whole American operation in South Vietnam has been of the greatest importance. You should know that this achievement is recognized throughout the government." Now when...when Diem began to suspect that a coup was being planned, he called me in and...
Interviewer:
This was the morning of November 1st?
Lodge:
Yeah, I think so.
Interviewer:
When you went with Admiral Felt?
Lodge:
Admiral Felt? Yes. And...he...he...Diem said whenever the American...I said I'm coming to say goodbye because I'm going back to Washington for one of my regular visits. Well, he said, every time the American ambassador leaves Saigon, there is an attempt to have a coup.
And he said there's one being organized now. And he said these coup plotters are much more intelligent than they usually are because instead of having one plan being organized in one place by one group, they have a lot of different plans being organized by a lot of different people in a lot of different places. And I don't know which is the real one. That's usually when I can tell. But I can't tell which is the real one.
Interviewer:
Did you know at that stage that the coup was about to take place?
Lodge:
Oh I suspected it. I was very well informed.
Interviewer:
But had the generals told you that they would stage it?
Lodge:
They would stage...they didn't tell us when. But Tran Van Don told me that it was definitely going to take place and then I had other information...I've forgotten where I got it...so that Washington was very well informed. Then we had Conein in the telephone booth out there at the Joint Chiefs, the Vietnamese Joint Chiefs, who was giving us a word-by-word account of what he could see out of the telephone booth.
Interviewer:
But the morning that you and Admiral Felt went to see Diem...
Lodge:
Yes.
Interviewer:
...you knew that the coup was about to take place against him.
Lodge:
Well, I knew that a coup was about to take place but I didn't know when.
Interviewer:
Well, let me ask you a question of, of...
Lodge:
And Diem never said anything to me about not going to Washington.
Interviewer:
Well, let me ask you this question. When we recognize a government and we know that a coup is about to take place against that government, are we under any obligation to inform that government that we know there's a plot to overthrow it?
Lodge:
No. I don't think so. That's often been discussed, but I don't think so.
Interviewer:
So you think that its a question of what?
Lodge:
He knew...you can see by what I told you, he knew that a coup was being planned and he was...I bet you he had every possible resource that he had at his disposal out trying to find out where they were and how to destroy it.
Interviewer:
How did he seem to you in the face of this knowledge. Did he seem calm or nervous? How would you describe...
Lodge:
Just the same. Calm. Just the same. He was very self possessed in manner.
Interviewer:
What did you do after that, after that meeting? How did you spend that day, knowing...
Lodge:
Well, this was about noon, you see. Admiral Felt left and that left me alone with Prime Minister Diem and then I went home because I had better communications in my house which had some land around it than I did in the chancellery in the office.
And I went home and my wife was there and Mike Dunn and his wife, and his two sons had just arrived. So we all sat down to lunch. And it was just a little after one when we heard the first shell go off. And then we went up on the roof and you could see the planes dropping bombs and you could see the troops starting to come down the street and the thing was really on.
Interviewer:
Do you remember what your own feeling was at seeing all that?
Lodge:
Well, my whole feeling...well, I'd sort of been living with it for many...several weeks so I wasn't...I can't say I was surprised but of course you're always...it's always a very interesting thing to see people shooting. And you wonder when you get to that point you wonder what the next step is going to be.
Interviewer:
Was it at your home that Diem called you that afternoon?
Lodge:
Yes, about four o'clock. He telephoned me at the residence and he said they've started the coup and he said I want to know what the attitude of the United States government is. Well, I said, its four o'clock in the morning in Washington and I don't know what the attitude is. Oh, he said, you must have an idea. No, I said, I haven't, but I said I'm very alarmed about your personal safety and I have taken steps so that you can be made titular chief of state in a new government or that you can be flown out of the country to some safe place or else, I said, I offer you asylum here in the residence. He said no. He said I'm going to restore order here. Je vais ramener loi, or something like that.
Interviewer:
Let me...in a sense when he asked you this question of what the attitude in the United States was, you were then operating on the policy that we will not thwart a coup.
Lodge:
Yeah.
Interviewer:
So when you said to him, it's too early in the morning to call Washington, that is Washington time, you were in a sense being loyal to the policy which was we will not thwart a coup.
Lodge:
Well, I thought so. I thought I was. That's what I wanted to be.
Interviewer:
So...
Lodge:
They could have, you see...they could have gotten somebody up in Washington in the next three or four hours and there was time to get word to me so that I could get it to him or something.
Interviewer:
But Washington...since you knew a coup was coming, did you have any contingency plan for rescuing Diem, for example? Did you have an aircraft prepared?
Lodge:
We did. We had a, we had a...that was the plane we took the Nhu children out in. With Foreign Service officer Frederick Flott, F-L-O-double T...Here now, two hundred and ten...
Interviewer:
Well, was there any effort to get Diem to the airport beyond that telephone call?
Lodge:
No. Not that I know of. Mr. Flott fetched the Nhu children from Da Lat and accompanied them in a special United States government plane, that is what we had. From Saigon to Bangkok where they took a commercial flight to Rome. Because they had no passports I took it upon myself to issue them an impressive looking travel document.
You know, I was in a state of mind issuing someone a passport was just nothing to me. It was the sensible thing to do. In which it said they were indeed the children of Ngo Dinh Nhu to which the Italian ambassador, Giovanni d'Orlandi affixed an Italian visa. He could see the picture. This document was on thick, expensive looking paper on which scrolls, eagles and stars had been engraved and was resourcefully prepared for me by my aide, Kenneth Rogers.
Interviewer:
What was your...When did you learn that Diem and Nhu had been killed?
Lodge:
Oh, I knew it very soon. I knew it very soon. I mean, within minutes after he was killed I got the word.
Interviewer:
And what...
Lodge:
He...he and his brother left the palace. The Gia Long Palace and went in this underground passageway to this Chinese merchant house in Cho Lon, the Chinese section of Saigon. And in the morning they went into the Roman Catholic Chinese church and when they came out, there were armed men and an armored car and they were pushed into the armored car and I believe shot inside the armored car.
Interviewer:
Have you ever ascertained who shot them or who gave the order to shoot them?
Lodge:
I've never ascertained whether it was a private revenge of some sort or whether it was a decision by the new government.
Interviewer:
You've never tried to find out?
Lodge:
Oh, I couldn't find out.
Interviewer:
What was your own feeling...
Interviewer:
Well, I tried to find out. I tried to find out with discretion but I couldn't have it advertised all over Saigon that I was looking for the murderer.
Interviewer:
What was your reaction when you learned? Do you recall how you felt when you learned?
Lodge:
I was horrified. I was absolutely horrified. It's a very shocking thing if you have been talking with a man on one day and the next day he's been shot to death.
Lodge:
Did you ever have, did you...
Lodge:
Terrible. Particularly as I had friendly feelings towards him.
Interviewer:
In this case, did you...when it all ended and it ended in this manner, did you feel that the United States had some responsibility in it?
Lodge:
Well, I'd have a hard time telling you how.
Interviewer:
Could you try?
Lodge:
I'm trying now.
Interviewer:
I mean, do you think, when we look back...
Lodge:
Could we have stopped it?
Interviewer:
Could we have stopped it?
Lodge:
I don't think so. I don't think we could possibly have stopped it.
Interviewer:
Yet in a sense even by not thwarting it, we did give it a little bit of a push in an indirect way let's assume.
Lodge:
Well, they knew that we weren't thwarting and they can draw the conclusion from that, that we wouldn't be disappointed if a coup took place. But having a coup and murdering Diem are two separate things. And they have many a coup where nobody gets murdered and nobody gets wounded.
Interviewer:
But the fact that it was a possibility in the course of a coup that we were not totally...it was not totally alien to us, do you think that gave us some...
Lodge:
The what?
Interviewer:
The coup was not totally alien to us. In other words, since we were not thwarting it, we were giving it some indirect...
Lodge:
Well, I don't accept the theory that whenever you stay at home and mind your own business and whenever you don't go out into the country side to put down a lot of people that may disagree with you, that you're doing something wrong. I don't think...we're...we have to carry the whole burden of all these things on our shoulders. I really don't.
Interviewer:
But in this situation it wasn't as if we were staying at home. We were supporting the government, we had a role in the Vietnam situation.
Lodge:
Oh, we had had a role alright.
Interviewer:
Okay, so therefore we were somehow committed to the whole Vietnam picture. We were in a sense interfering or intervening in this.
Lodge:
I don't think we were committed. I really don't. Committing is a very specific sharp focused word. The thing was more nebulous than that.
Interviewer:
Well, let me ask you this question. What did you think would happen after Diem was overthrown. I mean at the time it happened and you were looking ahead, do you think that...
Lodge:
I thought Big Minh and Tran Van Don would become...and I guess Le Van Kim, wasn't that Tran Van Don's brother-in-law...that right? I think...I thought those three would take control of the government and that's what I expected. And I was expecting to try to help them, insofar as they wanted it and insofar as I could.
Interviewer:
And what did you feel about their performance in the month that followed?
Lodge:
Well, they began and then they were thrown out by General Thieu.
Interviewer:
Khanh.
Lodge:
Yes, but General Thieu did all the thinking.
Interviewer:
But, ah...
Lodge:
Thieu...
Interviewer:
Let's go back...
Lodge:
Quite a....
Interviewer:
Going back a moment. Did you have expectations for General Minh after he took over? Do you think he would do a good job of prosecuting the war? Big Minh?
Lodge:
Well, I don't think I want to talk about that.
Interviewer:
Well let me, come on, it's history.
Interviewer:
I know, but...
Interviewer:
And he's in Saigon.
Lodge:
But the French have a saying, all truth is not suitable for being stated.
Interviewer:
Well let me depersonalize it...
Lodge:
There are lots of things that are true that you're not going to say to me and I'm not going to say to you.
Interviewer:
I'll tell you anything. Lets depersonalize it. Did you have expectations that the generals, without mentioning Minh in particular, were going to be better suited to prosecuting the war than Diem had been. Did you have hopes for them?
Lodge:
I had hopes. I'm an optimistic type. I had hopes.
Interviewer:
And?
Lodge:
And they got off to a start of sorts. And then General Thieu put them in the bag.
Interviewer:
Now after the coup took place which you say was masterminded by General Thieu but General Khanh was the front man for it. Ah...
Lodge:
This is the January coup...
Interviewer:
Yeah, the January coup. Afterwards there's again a document of yours in which you ah...expressed the view that Generals Don...Tran Van Don and Le Van Kim might have been going toward a neutral solution, that they might have since they were connected with the French...did that seem to be a justification?
Lodge:
I didn't see any sign of that. I didn't see any sign of that. I was looking for it but I didn't see it.
Interviewer:
But again, the documents that are contained in the Pentagon papers...it's indicated that Ambassador d'Orlandi suggested to you that these two generals were close to the French and...
Lodge:
Well, there's a certain mentality that if anybody speaks French, they say he's close to the French. I speak French and at the UN French speaking ambassadors have been very much annoyed with me because I didn't vote with the French speaking countries. Well, speaking a language doesn't mean that your political policy is going to be determined by that language.

The war in hindsight

Interviewer:
Let me ask you one sort of...maybe one or two overall questions. At that time did you ever imagine that the United States would be drawn into the war to the extent that it was?
Lodge:
Into the Vietnam war?
Interviewer:
Yeah. Was it within your imagination at the end of 1963 that we'd ever have a half million troops in Vietnam?
Lodge:
Well I didin't think...no, I didn't think that was going to happen. And I didn't think...I was looking for a solution that was primarily non-military. And where the central effort was to try to find and locate what Ho Chi Minh called the guerrilla infrastructure, and not to try to have another infantry type war with armor and artillery and all that.
That's what...because I had studied the job with British had done in Malaysia and you may remember after they'd been there four years they were able to fix a date six years...six years away and say that is the date on which all the communists are going to be out and the country is going to have its independence.
And what they did was slower than what we did in Vietnam, but it was durable and gave them the victory.
Interviewer:
But, could we have done that with the kind of Vietnamese government we had to work with?
END OF LODGE INTERVIEW
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