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

 
1979
cite
 

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.

Transcript

Early involvement in Vietnam and its plight

Lodge Interview
Vietnam Project
Okay. Go ahead.
Interviewer:
That would be particularly interesting if you could ah, recollect a little bit the difference between British colonialism, French colonialism and maybe that would get us a little bit into what you might, what your...
Lodge:
I've forgotten, Stan...
Interviewer:
Well, but, you know...
Lodge:
This happened in 1929.
Interviewer:
Well, that's only fifty years ago.
Lodge:
[Laughter]
Interviewer:
But something along the line—even if you just would speculate...
Lodge:
I can just tell you what it was, what my assignment was. But I can't for the life of me give you a comparison of the Dutch and the British...
Interviewer:
No. Well let's put it this way then. What about some recollections about what Saigon looked like, Vietnam looked like, what Saigon looked like. Uh, I remember you saying something how peaceful it was and so forth.
Lodge:
Yes, I can do that.
Interviewer:
Did you get any feel for, uh...and that might take us into a little bit about...
Lodge:
Reminds me of an afternoon in the United States Senate at the time that I was a member. And one senator was talking, and he said to the presiding officer, Mr. President, I've seen a lot of changes and I've been against them all.
Interviewer:
[Laughter]
Lodge:
That was the kind of colorful, picturesque character we used to have in the United States Senate in those days.
Interviewer:
That's a good one, you got one more?
Lodge:
Yes, I got one more, I got more than that. I remember the, reading about the visit of the British man of letters, Oscar Wilde, who came to this country. And in those days, when a distinguished foreigner would come, we always used to take him up to see Niagara Falls. That was the routine.
And they took Oscar Wilde up to see Niagara Falls, and he stood there with these huge torrents of water splashing down, and all the journalists watching carefully. And finally he turned to the journalists and he said in what we call an Oxford accent, he said, Frankly, it would be more impressive if it flowed the other way.
Interviewer:
[Laughter]
Lodge:
Well if I can make you fellas laugh, there's some hope.
[Inaudible]
Lodge:
She, she'll get up and walk through it any time.
Minnie, you're a big show-off, you know we're talking about you.
Lodge:
Oh yes.
Oh yes, look how proud, oh yes.
Lodge:
[Laughter] She does.
Interviewer:
Where are we having dinner tonight, Dick?
Lodge:
You notice the way she answers to her name.
Interviewer:
Is it the name or is it the sound of your voice—Minnie? Hello. Hey Minnie, Minnie, yeah.
Interviewer:
This is one of the differences between television and print journalism. You know, you're just not a, it's just not a notebook and a pencil, it's all paraphernalia.
Lodge:
That's right.
Interviewer:
And uh...I think the results are worth it, but there's a lot of preparation involved. And imagine what it's like when you make a real movie, you know, with all the takes and re-takes and so forth. Yeah, I'll just uh, this is just...Well it reminds me of my days in the United States Senate, uh...[Laughter].
No, it's really hard to get a feel for Washington these days, I'm living there now and it's uh, I mean it makes China-watching easy, you know, by comparison. It's, it's so diffuse and fragmented or confused. You know the polite word for confusion is pluralism. You can't really put your finger on quite who's, you know where the locus of authority is.
You got Andy Young says one thing, Brzezinski says something else, Vance says something else. Uh, and then, a lot of sort of other levels in the bureaucracy all talking and Congress coming in on the whole thing. It's uh, it's pretty hard to work, you know to figure out, and I sometimes I go to Europe a lot and uh, over there they have no idea what's going on in Washington. They can't figure it out.
Lodge:
No, I don't think in Europe they ever have, ever understood Washington.
Interviewer:
Well, they never understood separation of pow—...
Lodge:
There are the seagulls.
Okay, you ready, Mr. Ambassador?
Lodge:
Yes.
Stan, go ahead.
Interviewer:
Mr. Ambassador, you first visited Vietnam or Indochina as it was called in those days back in the 1920s. I wonder if you could you reminisce about that first trip and the impressions it made on you?
Lodge:
Well, I was a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and they wanted me to do a series of articles comparing the colonial system of the French in Indochina with the British system in Malaysia with the Dutch system in the Dutch East Indies and with the American system in the Philippines.
So I was making a tour of those, of those four countries. It was in 1929 by the way and we came up on the train from Bangkok to Batdambang in Cambodia, then we drove across Cambodia and across South Vietnam to uh Saigon.
The thing that I remember cause it was a long time ago now, was the tremendous peace and quiet. There was no uproar, there were no problems for the police, there was nothing of that kind. The only act of violence that I witnessed was one which my party committed against an enormous black snake. It must have been twelve feet long who started across the road and we ran over it. So as far as he was concerned the presence of Americans in Vietnam was not something welcome.
Interviewer:
Do you recall what kind of a judgment you uh had or what kind of impression you had of French colonialism?
Lodge:
Well, I had the impression in all of those countries that time was working against them. That uh...I remember Manuel Quezon's remark, the great Filipino leader, a remark that he made to a House Committee and I was there as a newspaperman, in which he said “I would rather live in a government run like hell by the Filipinos than run like heaven by the Americans.” And that is a very human impulse and I think it is still...has a lot of life to it.
Interviewer:
During the uh...During the Eisenhower administration, were you involved in any way in Vietnam policy? Did you uh, did you keep abreast of it? You were at the UN during that period.
Lodge:
Well, in my book which I...I like to display it to you here, I describe a talk with Eisenhower on the matter of seizing the United Nations with the Vietnam problem.
And he made a speech in which he said that the United States could not go on indefinitely being an Atlas and carrying all of these world problems on its shoulders. And that we ought to get together with the other countries to strengthen and improve and better the United Nations. That I do remember and that I described in this book.
Interviewer:
Did you yourself have any kind of ideas or policies as to how the UN could intervene in Vietnam?
Lodge:
Well, there was a big to do in the Eisenhower administration. Vice President Nixon took part and Admiral Radford took part, about uh sending US forces into...into Vietnam. And Eisenhower let them all talk and the upshot was he was against it and we didn't do it. It was just as simple as that.

Lodge's assistance in Vietnam under the Kennedy Administration

Interviewer:
Let's go on now to the period in which you went to Saigon as ambassador in 1963. Now President Kennedy announced your appointment as ambassador in June of '63.
Uh...You didn't actually go there until the following August. Could you describe the events that led to your appointment? Uh...How was the job arranged? How did you...how did President Kennedy know you were interested in the job.
Lodge:
I'll be glad to. I'll be glad to. sIn January, or December, I said to the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk that if events evolved in Vietnam so that young American military men were being fired at, then I would offer my services and would be very glad to do whatever I could.
And that was something I believed very deeply, that when young men are risking their lives, an older man, provided he's got the health, which thank God I did have, should make himself available in case his services are wanted.
So I said this to Dean Rusk and then I forgot all about it and then six months went by, seven months went by and the number...and the number of young men in uniform began to go up and some of them were being shot at and being killed and they took me...Dean Rusk and President Kennedy took me at my word.
And the President sent for me and I went into his office and he said I'd like to persuade you...this is the phrase he used, I'd like to persuade you to go to Vietnam. Well, I said, Mr. President, you're not going to have any trouble persuading me because I have already made it clear to Secretary Rusk that I am available. And that was how that happened.
Interviewer:
Do you...Were you aware at that time that it might have been to President Kennedy's advantage to have a Republican out there in Vietnam? I mean, you were still somebody at that time who was involved in politics.
Lodge:
Well, he didn't worry about it. He said this in a press, in a press conference. He was asked by a journalist, Mr. President, the sending of Henry Cabot Lodge who after all has been a political enemy of yours over the years at one point or another and sending him out to Saigon might raise some speculation that perhaps you're trying to keep this from being a political issue in 1964.
And Kennedy said, no, Ambassador Lodge wanted to go out to Saigon. If he were as ca there. He would have maybe liked to have some safe job but he is energetic and he has strong feelings about the United States and surprising as it seems, he put this ahead of his political career. Sometimes politicians do those things.
Interviewer:
Do you think that's an accurate description of the way you felt?
Lodge:
Oh, I don't...I knew what nobody could know as well as I did, that I was through with politics. It seems like a funny thing to say because I had had a big run in New Hampshire in '64, which I knew nothing about.
But I was not interested in politics and my desire was to serve. And be of some help to these young men. I, I, I spoke very fluent French, which was a very useful thing in Saigon at that time.
Interviewer:
Did you consult with General Eisenhower before you accepted the job?
Lodge:
Yes, yes, yes...I did both times because I went twice and he said I hate to see you take on such a tough one. But he said you have, you have got qualifications.
Interviewer:
Between the time that the appointment was announced and the time that you actually went out there, what did you do to prepare for this assignment? How did you spend those months?
Lodge:
Well, let's see...it was announced in June and I arrived there in August, so that really gave me a month and a half, and I went to this course that they gave in the government, training people for counter, what they called counter-insurgency, which I thought was a very unhappy phrase, but anyway, that's the phrase they used.
And then I had a tremendous succession of briefings in the, in the State Department and then I was given every kind of hypodermic injection known to man including one for the plague which produced a thing on my arm as big as an orange and very much the same color as an orange.
And all those things take up quite a bit of your time. And then I made some calls. I called on the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington and I also had a talk with Mrs. Tran Van Chuong. And...so the time went by very quickly.
Okay, stop please...We're at the end of a roll of tape so we're going to have to...