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Interview with Roger Hilsman, 1981

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Summary
Roger Hilsman worked in the Kennedy Administration, first as director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and then as the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. He was criticized for drafting a cable on behalf of President Kennedy to the American Ambassador to South Vietnam instructing the Ambassador to give direct support to the opponents of President Ngo Dinh Diem. He describes the Kennedy White House as youthful and confident but shaken when Soviet Premier Khrushchev announced his support for insurgencies around the world. He says this announcement paved the way for the US counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam. Hilsman says he tried to convince Kennedy that the way to fight guerillas was with guerillas themselves. He also recounts Kennedy’s distaste for sending American troops into Vietnam. He describes meeting with South Vietnamese leadership in the early 1960’s, the mixed signals they received, and a lack of political support for their policies. He says Kennedy was desperate to get America out of Vietnam.
Topics
Catholics, Asian, Ap Bac, Battle of, Ap Bac, Vietnam, 1963, Communism, Counterinsurgency, Ambassadors, Discrimination--Religious aspects--Buddhism, Escalation (Military science), Self-immolation, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’etat, 1960, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’etat, 1963, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Military assistance, American, Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973, Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963, Ngo, Dinh Nhu, 1901-1963, Ngo, Dinh Diem, 1901-1963
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Transcript

Khrushchev's call for global insurgency and the Kennedy Administration's response

VIETNAM
Hilsman
SR 2413
Tape 1 Side 1
This is May the 11th 1981. WGBH Vietnam. This is sound roll number 2413. Go along with picture roll 424. There's a reference -8db coming up.
Tone.
There is a hiss for alignment.
Hiss.
Hum it's me.
Thought I was hearing radiators.
Start of scene 588. Camera roll 424. 2413 Sound roll number. Beep beep. Hoarse beep.
Interviewer:
Describe for us the mood, the attitude of the Kennedy Administration at the beginning.
Hilsman:
I think that ah, it was a mood of ah, self-confidence certainly, or of competency. Ah, most of them were rather young for an administration, but still had had a lot of experiences of of various kinds. They were the war generation. They were the people who had been through World War II. They were used to command. Ah, they were rather knowledgeable, and I think that they were both confident and they had purpose, determination. They were going to move things. They were going to move the nation...to...in Kennedy's phrase.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Interviewer:
Here you have an absolute. You're, you're an intelligent talker.
Laughs.
Beep.
Wrong way.
Blowing sound.
Beep.
Interviewer:
Would you describe JFK's response to that speech?
Hilsman:
Well, Khrushchev made a speech two weeks before Kennedy's inauguration, January 6, as I recall. And in a very real sense, it was a declaration of war, by means of wars of national liberation, by means of counterinsurgen...of by ah insurgency, guerrilla warfares. Kennedy...
Interviewer:
Let's do it again so that you don't stumble over it.
Hilsman:
Okay. Okay.
Interviewer:
Take a pause and then start.
Hilsman:
'Bout two weeks before the inauguration, Khrushchev made a speech on January 6, in which he really declared war by means of guerrilla ah insurgency wars, all over the world. Kennedy's reaction was to take it very, very seriously.
And he would say that we ah, we've been thinking and talking about nuclear war and about limited conventional wars such as Korea, but what we're being threatened with, ah, both in fact and in words, Khrushchev's speech, is guerrilla war. And he asked all of us, everybody in the administration, to read that speech, and think about that problem.
Interviewer:
Um, and what. This led him to this proposal ah, this proposed program of counterinsurgency?
Hilsman:
Well I think that what it really lead to, was it led ah everyone in the administration to realize that he thought that this was what Khrushchev was threatening, both in word and in deed, and that we ought to do something about it. So all of us, ah, devoted our minds to the problem, and I think, eh, so you see you don't get a concerted and planned effort all over the administration, coordinated by the White House, but you get people, ah, in the Pentagon, people in the intelligence community, people in the State Department, ah, people in the White House staff thinking about the problem, each of them coming at it from a different direction.
Thinking some of them in political terms, some in military terms, some in economic terms. And eventually it began to come together into what has been dubbed counterinsurgency, but we...never used that word.
Interviewer:
What was the increase, what, this program that came together? Can you describe it in some...
Hilsman:
Well...
Interviewer:
Okay, go on.
Hilsman:
The program ah that came together is awfully hard to ah, to describe as if it were a coordinated plan. It was not. Ah, and it is awful hard to describe it in terms of a, of an absolute agreed consensun, consensus, it was not. For example, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I don't think, every really came to grips with it, or understood it...
Interviewer:
How about telling it...
Hilsman:
Although...
Interviewer:
...in terms of Kennedy's style, in terms of how it connected with what he was interested in.
Hilsman:
Well...ah, I...the...all right. In terms of what Kennedy was interested in, it was that you do not meet an insurgency or a guerrilla, a Communist led guerrilla warfare in military terms. It is not a military problem. That's what the Joint Chiefs of Staff never understood. There were people in the military who understood that, especially in the special forces. There goes your fuse...
Interviewer:
Stop, that was wonderful...
Laughs.
Beep beep.
590 coming up.
Hoarse beep.
Interviewer:
With the JFK pro...ah, style counterinsurgency.
Hilsman:
Well it had several elements. Ah, you can't say that it was a coordinated program, but if you take it the way Kennedy saw it, and not take into account the disagreements in the Pentagon and so on. The first element was that it was not military, that you don't deal with guerrilla warfare ah with military means.
This is the hearts and minds of the people, ah, s-sl-slogan, but it was essentially a political problem, that you had to deal with it politically. If you use military force, you would recruit more Viet Cong than you would kill, so...stay away from the military. Now the JCS never understood this. There were elements in the Pentagon who did. Some of the special forces, though the high command misused the special forces. The special forces were supposed to train native peoples, and the high command used them as troops.
But...no military. There was to be a political approach, to try to get the country organized so that it was a nation. Second, economic. Ah, land reform. Ah, all of the things, ah, that would, ah, let's say eliminate social discontent. Ah, Kennedy saw the insurgency as a anti-colonial, essentially nationalist movement, feeding on social discontent. So you don't shoot people.
You don't bomb villages, you don't shell villages. You try to remove the causes of social discontent. And you try to build nationalism. Now, the corollary to this of course is that you can't do this with Americans. You can't use uh...Americans to build Vietnamese nationalists. Vietnamese must do it, or it cannot be done. That's what Kennedy used to, meant when he used to say, "It is their war. They must win it or lose it. We can only help them."
Interviewer:
Why do you think that counterinsurgency appealed to Kennedy, and in fact to the country at that time?
Hilsman:
Well I'm not so sure that it appealed to the country. Ah, our our biggest problem was that after Kennedy had ah decided upon and we had taken a number of steps to articulate this, I remember he had me give a speech, which ah, to a hospital association, because it just happened to be (chuckles) the first invitation we got. And then we reproduced this in hundreds of thousands of copies, and sent it all over.
But our most frustrating part was that a year later, ah, we were ah, Kennedy sent Mike Forrestal and me out to ah Vietnam, and to our utter surprise and dismay, not only were the Vietnamese not following the program that Kennedy had outlined, but neither were most of the Americans. Either in the aid Program or in the military.
And, and our biggest problem was to try to, to communicate, to articulate the program, and get the people on the ground to to carry it out. And we never did succeed.
Interviewer:
Stop. Cut, please.
Beep.
Um.
Um hum. All right.
Start 591 coming up. 591.
Low beep.
Hilsman:
I said that the program was not only not military, but it was deliberately to de emphasize the military. However, the special forces were to have a role. The major role...I suppose I had something to do with this, because I had been a guerrilla leader in World War II. And I used to say that the way to fight the guerrilla was with guerrillas. And I disbelieved that you could by bombing, ah, have any effect on the supplies coming down through the Ho Chi Minh trails.
And my idea was that the role of the special forces were to train Vietnamese to behave as guerrillas, harassing the supply lines down through the mountains of the, ah, the Viet Cong. And the special American special forces were to train their special forces to do that. Ah, they were, ah, ag, trained in the languages and trained to do that.
Ah, that was our intention. That was probably the only military content in what has been called the counterinsurgency program. To our dismay ah, that is not the way that the regular Vietnamese and high command American military used the special forces. Ah, guerrillas to be used to in ah, interdict supply lines should be moving. You know, never sleeping two nights in the same place.
Instead, the special forces, the Vietnamese special forces, were put in bases, and they were like fortresses, which is just the exact opposite of the way they should have been used. There were just a series of, of, of a disappointments or of ah, where the program as Kennedy thought he was articulating it, by the time it got out into the field, between either the American military or the American economic aid advisors, or the Vietnamese, it would get twisted around. So...it became very frustrating to to Kennedy.
Interviewer:
Stop please.

J.F.K.'s dread of committing combat forces in Vietnam

Beep.
Um.
This is, ah, 592 coming up. 592.
Interviewer:
Now you want me to repeat this?
Low beep.
Interviewer:
Tell me what Kennedy's reaction was to this this third recommendation.
Hilsman:
The third recommendation of the Taylor-Rostow report was that, that, that we, that United States send 10,000 combat troops there. Taylor and Rostow had the idea that they would sort of be a, a wall of troops to prevent the North from sending troops down. By that time, of course, you see. Ah, in the first place, Laos was the first problem. And this came along only after Diem requested a mission much later.
And there were only Southerners. That is, the guerrillas, the Viet Cong were not northern troops at this time. But yet Taylor and Rostow's third recommendation was that we send 10,000 Americans to sort of create a wall across the peninsula to prevent more infiltrators coming down.
Kennedy was horrified, I think, is is a proper word for it. So much so that he, ah, he really overreacted, and tried to...He was deathly afraid that, that it would get out that he had said no American troops, and that, ah, the opposition would say Kennedy's soft on Communism. He was willing to give them aid and advisors, but no American troops.
So he suppressed that part of the report. And he suppressed it so much so that he said that nobody could see the report who hadn't seen a cable that was...the president eyes only. This caused a lot of problems, because, ah, there were people in the government like myself, you see, who had a legitimate right to see that. And, ah, so he got into a lot a, President Kennedy got into a lot a trouble. We're out of film right now.
Interviewer:
Yeah. I think we've got...
Beep, beep.
Interviewer:
I think we've got. Well let's pick that up.
Hilsman:
Okay.
Okay. This is the change in camera rolls. We're going to Camera Roll 425. And we're starting with 593 on 425.
Low beep.
Interviewer:
Again, Kennedy's response to...
Hilsman:
Kennedy's response to the third recommendation, which was to send 10,000 American troops, was, well, he was horrified. And he tried to suppress it. If anything, he overreacted, ah, because he was so afraid, ah, that when he said no to American troops. He was willing to give advisors. He was willing to send economic aid, but no American troops. But he was afraid that when he said no, that it would leak.
The opposition would call him soft on Communism, and so on. So he tried to suppress it. Ah, this caused a lot of problems, because people who, ah, what he said was that nobody could see the report who hadn't seen an eyes only to the President cable from Taylor and Rostow.
And there were a lot of people in the government who had every right to be involved in it, whose bureaus had to be consulted, who were denied access to the report. And it caused a lot of trouble, until it finally got sorted out. But he was...horrified at the thought that, ah, that they would recommend American troops. He was determined ah, to keep it a very low profile.
Interviewer:
And the second recommendation, which he did agree to, was to put in more materiel, more, ah, helicopters in particular. Do you think that this signaled ah...Could you talk about this materiel. And did that signal a deeper commitment?
Hilsman:
Well, there's no question that, that any increase is a deeper commitment. Ah, and ah, b but a commitment to what, of course, is always the ah the the problem here. Kennedy, I think, was perfectly willing to give aid and advisors. He used to say, I've forgotten the exact figure now, but there are seventy some odd countries, or eighty some odd countries that we have, are giving aid to and are sending advisors to.
So he didn't see that as by any means a commitment to anything beyond that. But, but he certainly saw that that got us involved. Ah, and ah, he did that with his eyes open. I don't think there's any question of that. But, but he, he always felt that, that the ah, or at least he made me believe that he felt that the line beyond which he would not go was American troops, American combat forces. And there is an enormous difference between advisors and combat forces. (Laughs) I might assure you.

Hilsman's report to J.F.K. on Vietnam

Interviewer:
You visited South Vietnam in early 1962.
Hilsman:
Yes.
Interviewer:
In January 1962. Um, and this is where you become introduced to the strategic hamlet concept from Mr. Thompson.
Hilsman:
R.K.G. Thompson.
Interviewer:
Right. Could you talk about that introduction? Why you believed it would work, and how this influenced Kennedy, how you came back with the ideas?
Hilsman:
Well, I had done a guerrilla in World War II, so I had some knowledge of, of the the village life, and the way guerrillas worked, and so on. R.K.G. Thompson had been in Malaya, and their successful counterinsurgency program, which was based on, as he said, the supply lines run not from Peking to Vietnam, but they run from the villages out to, ah, to the guerrilla groups.
So you cut those supply lines, and the guerrillas are intimidating the villages, so you have to protect the villagers. That was the idea. That you cut the supply lines between the villages and the guerrillas, and you protect the villagers, so that they are, they have some confidence. They're n-they're not, they're not always under, under a gun.
This made sense to me. It was also political. That is in the sense that you win these people, by economic development, by nationalism, by land reform, and all this. That was the emphasis. It was the emphasis that from my own experience in Burma I knew would work, that military things don't work in, in a situation like that. Thompson was preaching this. Later, many years later during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, Thompson became ah, a hawk, and became quite a different kind of person, or at least his policies advocated. But at that time, he was saying, don't introduce fancier weapons. Don't give give 'em bigger machine guns. (Laughs) You know.
Pork and pigs, and food and cement, and things like this, and intelligence work are the important things. So it made a lot of sense to me. And ah I came back, and ah, ah, ah, reported first to General Taylor. And said there are some things in here that our own military people are not going to like, and I wanted to tell you first. And he said, no you you have every, you should tell the president, you owe it to the president.
And so I wrote it. I told the president, and and what I thought was going wrong, what we ought to do. And he asked me to write it up, and it was written up as "A Strategic Concept for Vietnam." And circulated, but it was never given any official status, in the sense that the JCS or the National Security Council never put its im...imprimatur on it, or anything like that.
Interviewer:
But Kennedy was, ah, impressed, interested by the...
Hilsman:
Oh, yes. Very definitely. Well, eh, you see, I think hi...I don't want to give you the impression that I was teaching Kennedy any more than...I learned as much from him as, as I taught him. I had been a guerrilla leader, that's true, but he had gone out to Vietnam as a young Congressman, and, ah, there he had, ah, met Ed Gullion, who was number three man in the Embassy, and Ed Gullion, when he was a young Congressman, and Gullion was a, was a FSO-3, had told him that the Diem family, ah, was, ah, Frenchified, and that the struggle here was really a nationalist struggle, not a Communist struggle, and that, to be very leery of it. That's when he was a, not even a Senator, you see.
So I just want to stress that although I had some things to give to Kennedy, I learned a lot from him (laughs) too, about Southeast Asia.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Beep.
This is ah 594 coming up. 594. Camera roll 425.
Low beep.
Hilsman:
After I gave Kennedy a...report on what I...
Interviewer:
[Inaudible]. Okay...
Hilsman:
Now? After I gave Kennedy a report on what I thought I'd learned from R.G.K. Thompson, and from traveling around Vietnam the concept of strategic hamlets and making political and not military he asked me to write it up. And it was circulated. Though as I say it was not made an official document, which approved by the National Security Council, but he, he made me, had me circulate it. He also had me go around and brief Robert Kennedy, ah, who was very interested, and very responsive, and Lyndon Johnson.
The, I've always thought that there was a misfortune here, because I arrived in Lyndon Johnson's office in the midst of a crisis in, in Texas politics. And so I would start to talk, and every two or three minutes the phone would ring from Texas. There was some local (laughs) crisis in his support. And I never got his full attention. But for two hours every two minutes we were interrupted by the phone calls.
And, ah, well others around. Ah, Washington. I remember, he also told me to go and brief the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The look of dismay on my face when he said that caused him to laugh and say to General Taylor, ah, "And make sure that the Joint Chiefs of Staff understand (laughs) that Roger Hilsman is not undercutting them, that this (laughs)..." I was a little afraid (laughs) that it would look like I was pre-empting their job.
Interviewer:
Cut.

Significance of the defeat by the Communists at Ap Bac

Beep beep.
Interviewer:
And whether or not he...
595, 595
Interviewer:
...told the president that the military out there would...
Low beep.
Hilsman:
The Ap Bac battle I was of course not, I didn't see it or anything like that. I was in Saigon. Either it happened, either the day before I got there, or the day or the day after. My impression of it is perhaps a little different than some. I had a very strong impression was that what was happening here was that Ngo Dinh Diem was ordering his military to refrain from heavy battles, and to minimize casualties, not to really engage, to to keep at arm's length.
And ah the American advisors, particularly the advisor in question, who was a very dramatic person, ah, were pressing the the the military to lock horns. Ah, so therefore I had a distinct impression that the local commanders were getting conflicting signals.
And I'll tell you quite frankly, I thought that that ah, that Diem was giving the right signal, that that that you you should avoid battles, and until you had a solid base with the people, and I so reported. Ah, but ah. There were, the, there were all sorts of interpretations about this. I think the American press interpreted it that the Vietnamese were incompetent.
I think some of the American military interpreted it that they were, that the Vietnamese military were incompetent. Ah, but I got a very strong impression that there was a political element in this, ah in a different view between Diem and others. Now, ah, I want to stress again that I'm not saying that Diem was saying, "Cool it, don't engage in battles, keep the casualties downs," for the same reasons that we were. We were so that you could have, we were advising no military action if possible, so that you could win the political war.
I think Diem was thinking of something else again, politics in a different sense. Ah, that is, that his own position vis-à-vis ah, various political factions in Vietnam.
Interviewer:
What about the conflict between the American military point of view where they're saying it was a great victory, we won it only the next day, and the American press's reaction, saying it was a total disaster.
Hilsman:
I don't really have any private information on the particular battle of that conflict. That conflict certainly existed. I had of course, was a West Point graduate, so there were a lot of officers out there who had been classmates of mine at West Point.
They were at about the Colonel level at that time. And they privately reported to me all the time of being reprimanded by General Harkins for giving a less than optimistic view to the press and to the Secretary of Defense.
They, ah, they said that ah, that that General Harkins had reprimanded them when they emphasized or reported to the Secretary of Defense or people like myself that the Vietnamese army was not as good as it was supposed to be.
Interviewer:
They were sort of, ah, agreeing with...you're sort of um agreeing then with the press analysis...
Beep, beep.
Interviewer:
...more than you know.
Hilsman:
Yeah. Except that I ah...

The Strategic Hamlet Program and Ngo Dinh Nhu's megalomania

VIETNAM
HILSMAN INTERVIEW
SR 2414
This is, ah, May 11th, 1981. This is, ah Vietnam. We're doing a continuation of ah, ah, interview with Roger Hilsman. This is sound roll 2414. We're starting camera roll 426. Vietnam. Here's a reference coming up at 8DB.
Long beep.
Here's a hiss for alignment.
Hiss.
[Brief unintelligible sound.]
Low beep.
Interviewer:
What did you conclude in this 1963 trip about the progress of strategic hamlets now being by run by Nhu?
Hilsman:
My conclusion about the strategic hamlets in the '63 trip was that it had been ah completely corrupted by brother Nhu. That he had taken command of it and control of it, had completely distorted it in every sense. Ah, first of all, the the the the whole idea of the strategic hamlet program was to protect the villagers. To give them a feeling of confidence.
That they could work for the government, resist the guerrillas without fear, ah, of retaliation. Ah, it it also ah ah it was political, not military. He had ah, he was to start with very secure areas, where the people were very loyal, very anti Communist, and spread slowly out like an oil blot to less secure areas.
He put it right, he put strategic hamlets right on the Cambodian border, the most insecure places you could possible imagine. Where the people had no confidence, couldn't be protected. He used it for ideological purposes, ah, to, ah, you know as a vehicle for this crazy ideology that the the the brothers ah Diem and Nhu had.
He used it for his own personal power. It had no relationship at all to what we had had in mind. And indeed and some of them were, aah, as some press people said, concentration camps. It was completely the opposite of what we recommended. And I g-I got back and and told President Kennedy that it was, it was just being ah twisted out of all proportion, and that it was not working and would not work.
Interviewer:
Could you tell me the story that that, ah, you told me last time about on this visit seeing Nhu and and the dinner with him....
Hilsman:
Oh D, ah, brother Nhu had a dinner party for us. It was ah, a wild thing, because in, I don't mean wild in the sense of ah, ah, it was wild in the ideas that he was presenting. It was a very demure dinner, ah, actually, with a lot of lovely ah Vietnamese dishes.
But he started talking about invading Thailand and invading Laos and saying you must go back and tell your president that now is, this is the God-given opportunity to, ah, seize all of Southeast Asia.
Ah, and, ah, it was like talking to a crazy man. You know, I I I thought he was ah, we later had reports that he was heavily on opium. And I am perfectly prepared to believe it, from, from the results of that. Those were grandiose, ah, Hitlerian, ah, ideas, of ah megalomania.
Interviewer:
Cut.

The Buddhists' development of political power

Beep.
This is 597 coming up, on camera roll 426.
Hilsman:
...use TV, just like McCarthy learned. Ha.
Low beep.
Interviewer:
Do it again. Tell us about about the the the beginning of the Buddhist crisis and nobody knew anything about..
Hilsman:
You want? Just go right ahead? Well, the Buddhist crisis began in a bizarre way. What had happened was that Diem had gone up to Hue, for his, one of his brothers was an arch bishop...of the Catholic Church, and they were having a, ah, twenty-fifth anniversary. And there were Catholic fla...flags in the parade. And Diem was very angry, because he was saying that ah to build nationalism, no flags should be displayed except Vietnamese flags.
So about three weeks later, the Buddhists had a parade for the two thousand and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Buddha, and displayed Buddhist flags. And, ah, the province chief having been chewed out by President Diem two or three weeks later, ah, tried to take the flags away, and a couple of people were killed. That's the way the Buddhist crisis started, you see, it started with the Catholic parade.
But what happened was that we then then desperately tried to find out what political power is exercised by the Buddhists in Vietnam. We asked the CIA, they didn't know. We asked American academics, and they didn't know. We found an American who was a Buddhist and a vice president of the International Buddhist Society, who worked for the American government. He didn't know. He could tell you how many Buddhist angels could stand on a pin, but he could not tell you the political power.
I later talked to Ngo Dinh Diem about this and I began to realize that Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the country, really didn't know what political power the Buddhists had. And then I eventually achieved some wisdom when I, it began to dawn on me that the Buddhists didn't know.
That the Buddhists ah, bit, tasted a little political blood, bit harder, tasted more political blood, and then finally began to use American television. They would, ah, none of them spoke English, but their signs were all in English. And every time the planned a demonstration or a Buddhist committed, ah, burned himself to death, ah they would call up the American press and say be at the corner of such and such and such and such a street at such and such a time. And they would appear, and ah, so they learned to use the American press media for political purposes. They learned how to develop political power as they went along.
Interviewer:
Tell me about the the administration. Ah, tell me about Kennedy's reaction to these immolations.
Hilsman:
Well, Kennedy, like everyone else, was horrified. I mean it was a, it was a dramatic and, and ah, and it made a point, of course, that that ah ah, a point that that we knew intellectually but perhaps not emotionally. And that is that the, the Vietnamese elite, Ngo Dinh Diem and the others were essentially Catholic, Frenchified, they were Vietnamese, but they were really not of the people in in a truly national sense. They were not Vietnamese.
They were Vietnamese nationalists, there's no doubt about that. But they were so Frenchified, a different religion, that they were out of touch with the people. Now we knew this intellectually, but this taught it to us emotionally that couldn't have been more vivid. And I think that, ah, Kennedy really went through three phases on Southeast Asia.
The first phase was merely about Laos, where he was quite hawkish. Ah, those were the first few months of of the administration. Then the next period was the the the what you call counterinsurgency, and what we thought of as as trying through political and economic means to build a nation that was loyal to a government.
But he always used to say, knowing that it was essentially a nationalist struggle, you see, that that Americans couldn't do it. Foreigners couldn't do it. It had to be Vietnamese. We had to be behind the scenes, we had to be helping, but we couldn't get out in front. He knew this.
The Buddhist crisis and the immolations I think convinced him that the South Vietnamese, that is, the government, Ngo Dinh Diem and Nhu, were not going to be able to bring it off. And therefore, from the middle of the Buddhist crisis. I would say certainly certainly from the time that Brother Nhu's special forces beat up the pagodas and killed Buddhist priests and nuns, in a country that's 98 percent Buddhist.
Ah, from that moment, I think Kennedy, certainly he made it very clear to me, had only, had a third policy, and that was to find a way out as quickly as possible. And he reiterated over and over to me, remember Laos. Remember Laos. Now, I knew what he meant. Find a negotiated settlement. Get us out. And before he was killed, he ordered the withdrawal of the first 1000, ah, American advisors.
Interviewer:
Cut.

The denoument of Ngo Dinh Diem's decline

Hilsman:
...and Lodge called for...
[Indecipherable speech.]
Beep, beep.
[More indecipherable speech.]
597 coming up. 597.
Now is 598 coming up.
Low beep.
Interviewer:
Picking up the story from the cable from Lodge.
Hilsman:
The cable from Lodge, the August 24th cable, what happened was that the generals came to Conein, who was their CIA contact and said they had information that Diem and Nhu were going to arrest and execute them, and that they were considering ah removing Diem and Nhu, and putting in a new government, a coup d'etat. And what would the United States attitude be? This arrived on Saturday morning.
Ah, we drafted a fairly standard cable, which goes out of Washington to one country or another in the world (laughs) almost every week, saying that we would examine a new government on its own merits, but that this had to be their affair. This was not something that we could be involved in.
Ah, this was sent to Rusk through secure channels at the UN. He made some changes--sharpened it a little bit, really--it went to Hyannis Port. President Kennedy approved it. General Taylor, Maxwell Taylor approved it. Uh.
McNamara was out of town, but his deputy, Kil—Gilpatric approved it. Ah, McCone was out of town, but his deputy, Richard Helms approved it, and it went out. Ah, the next episode was that McNamara got back, and Monday morning apparently complained about it. Kennedy called an NSC meeting.
And said, look, the cable has gotten to Lodge, but it has not gone to the Vietnamese generals. No word has been given to them. We can just send a single word, "Cancel." And he went around the table.
"Mr. McNamara, do you wish to cancel that cable?" "Mr. McCone, do you wish to cancel the cable?" And, and nobody wished to cancel the cable. Ah, but that coup never happened, because apparently, we later learned, that one or another of the generals, ah, didn't want to go ahead, or felt that the information was insufficient, and so nothing ever happened with that coup. The coup that occurred on November 1st had no relationship to the August 24th events.
Interviewer:
Good. Cut.
Beep.
Interviewer:
Very very tightly done.
Hilsman:
...underestimated...
599 corning up.
Interviewer:
Speaking of the NSC meeting, what is...
Beep.
Hilsman:
Well, Kennedy on Cronkite's program said that there must be a change in policy and in personnel. Now, what he meant by that was that the government of Ngo Dinh Diem had to stop being anti-Buddhist in a Buddhist country and had to stop beating up priests and nuns.
And second, that Nhu who was smoking opium and was wild ah had to be removed, sent his ambassador to Paris or something. Now, the issue really came down to it, are you willing to pursue policies that will bring about a change in policy in personnel at the risk of a coup or aren't you, because you might not succeed in keeping Diem with a different policy and getting rid of Nhu. What you might end up with, by the same actions on your part, is a coup d'état which you lose Diem as well. And, that's what the issue came down to.
Beeping. Start of camera roll 427. 427.
Coming up on 600. Beeps. Second slate.
Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Kennedy's reaction to the coup and the to the deaths.
Hilsman:
He was ah, shocked. Ah, totally shocked. Ah, he ah, you know, the, the Vietnamese tried to pretend it was suicide, but Kennedy being Catholic, and they being Catholics, he said it couldn't be. Ah, he was really deeply shocked that they would be so brutal.
Interviewer:
Did you see, did you hear him express any of this?
Hilsman:
Yes, I did. Yes, I did.
Interviewer:
Tell me that story?
Hilsman:
Well, it was ah, ah, ah, I, I, I, I wasn't there when he was, first learned it, but within twenty-four hours or so I was due to give a background a luncheon briefing to the Overseas Press Club in Washington, and so I, I went by the White House to talk to him about this and ah, so the subject came up you see. And he was still, this was twenty-four hours later I suppose.
And he was still deeply shocked that, that, that...And, you know, we, were worried, buy thi, this time he and I and the others were eh were worried that they might take vengeance against the children of Nhu and so we were, I was ah at his instructions were, was moving heaven and earth to, to get them out of the country. Ah, we did. I don't know that anything would have happened to them, but we were certainly by this time afraid that something would happen to them.
Interviewer:
Ah. Was Kennedy shocked at the coup also?
Hilsman:
Well, we were, we were really quite surprised. Ah. That, that is, by this time there had been so much coup plotting for so many years, a, we were all sort of inured to these reports and ah, you know, you, you, you were terribly skeptical ah of this. Th, there wasn't a week that went by that theren't one, two, three or four reports. So no one really believed it ah.
If you have any doubts of this ah as, you know, the story of Diem had this habit of occasionally you would drop by to pay a courtesy call for fifteen minutes and he would start talking and would talk for six hours. So, it was sort of standard operating procedure that you always were very careful not to drink any coffee before going to visit Mr. Diem for fifteen minutes or and to go to the bathroom, cause you might be there six hours.
But, ah, at a elev, this coup was scheduled for 1:00. We later discovered and the battalions were en route to the palace when ah Admiral Felt and Ambassador Nolting paid a courtesy call.
Interviewer:
Lodge.
Hilsman:
Lodge. Ya. Ambassador ah, ah, Lodge.
Interviewer:
The coup was scheduled.
Hilsman:
Well, we later learned that the coup was scheduled for 1:00 which means that the battalions were marching ah from early in the morning and were scheduled to arrive at the palace at 1:00. But, ah, Admiral Felt, CINCPAC Commander in Chief Pacific had this habit of popping in on Saigon and he had popped in and he wo, he and Ambassador Lodge went to the palace at 11:00 a.m. with General Don to pay a fifteen minute courtesy call, not knowing whether they would be kept for fifteen minutes or six hours and ah they were kept only fifteen minutes.
And, as they got to the airport, and ah, ah, Don felt, Admiral Felt got on the plane and said I've never seen General Don so nervous. Well, the reason was that Don knew that the battalions were marching and could not be stopped, and it was 11:00 a.m. and within two hours the battalion, so here we had the American Ambassador and the Commander in Chief of the American Pacific fleet sitting in the palace with battalions coming in every direction, but we didn't know it. Obviously, (chuckles) never have let Ambassador Lodge or Admiral Felt go there if we had known the coup was scheduled.
Interviewer:
Oh, so, we didn't know that, when the coup would happen? We were really somewhat skeptical that one would happen? But, do you think in retrospect that there was a US responsibility?
Hilsman:
Oh, look, we didn't know, we knew a lot about coup plotting or at least we got a lot of intelligence about coup plotting. Ninety-nine percent of the coup that were plotted never happened and so that most of us were terribly skeptical of it.
This particular coup we certainly knew that some of these generals were plotting. We did not know one was scheduled for November 1, as my story about Admiral Felt and Ambassador Lodge will illustrate.
Ah. Most of us really didn't believe it would happen. Ah. People would talk about ah ah ah trying, you know, trying to, to, to encourage a coup is like pushing a piece of cooked spaghetti, but I have no doubt in my mind that things that we did encouraged a coup.
President Kennedy on Walter Cronkite's program in full view of the whole world saying there must be changes in policy and personnel is bound to encourage a coup. We all knew that. You, there's nothing that you can do that disapproves of Ngo Dinh Diem that doesn't encourage a coup. So, there, of course, we, of course, this, this encourages a coup.
As it turned out, interestingly enough, something happened. I later learned, years later in talking to the Vietnamese generals and, and politicians, I learned that something happened that we had no realization of at all. Probably had more to do to encourage a coup than anything else. And, that was Ambassador Lodge and ah John Richardson, the CIA Chief, had a falling out.
Apparently, it had nothing to with ah anything, you know. It was unrelated to these matters and, ah, Lodge called for, rrrr, asked for Richardson's recall, but Richardson was close to Nhu and apparently the generals interpreted this as a signal but we never intended it so.
So, you know, eh, yes, almost anything you do is going to be interpreted and picked over in these countries ah either favorably or unfavorably. So, I would say, but, but, you know in a very real sense the ultimate responsibility for the coup lay with President Ngo Dinh Diem, because he did things that we told him over and over and over again that if he did them, we would have to publicly disapprove of them, and that this would encourage a coup and he said, I know.
Now, he went ahead and did them, and we had to publicly disapprove of the. There was no choice. American people is not going to stand still for, for, and let you be silent when one of your allies kills Buddhist nuns and priests. We had to condemn in publicly. And, that encouraged coups. It's as simple as that.
Interviewer:
Cut.

R.F.K.'s summary of the American failure in Vietnam

Beep 601 coming up. MOS. There was no sound 601. In terms of continuity we'll call it ah 602 coming up. So, there is no 601. Sound slate.
Hilsman:
Looking back and trying to say what mistakes did we make, I, I think Bobby Kennedy put ah, into words the biggest mistake. And that is, that I'm talking now in terms of our program of winning the people, the political and not military. I think the biggest mistake the United States made was making it a war.
But, in the counterinsurgency program, Bobby Kennedy said that the biggest mistake was that we underestimated the thickness of the cultural crust of Vietnamese society, that we were really calling for a ah, social revolution.
We were calling for a, a new way of life. Ah, ah. Land reform, and ah an end to the domineering ah, mandarin rule and all of this, an, and it was just ah 2000 years too thick ah, for any ah quick solution or any quick social change and Robert Kennedy was the one who put that into words and in retrospect, I think, that was the major ah, assumption of the counterinsurgency program that was flawed, that it was a much bigger task than we realized.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Beep.
Get a little room tone for you.
Room tone. There's more room tone than I thought.
End of Hilsman, SR #2414.
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