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Interview with Henry Cabot Lodge, 1979 [Part 2 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--History, Military--20th century, Presidents--Family, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--History--1945-, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’etat, 1963, Buddhism and politics, Buddhist monks, Diplomacy, Great Britain--History, Military--20th century, Malaya--History--Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960, Presidents, Counterinsurgency, Vaccines, International relations, Oppression, Culture and communication in Asia, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, United States--Armed Forces, Vietnam--Politics and government, United States--Politics and government
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Lodge's perception of Ngo Dinh Diem and the Nhu's

Lodge Interview
Vietnam Project
Side 2 in progress
Interviewer:
This is just uh...the warm-up for the cameras. Uh...As I recall you were talking about how you went to this counter-insurgency school and uh, then visted with uh Tran Van Chuong and his wife, the South Vietnamese ambassador in Washington. And when we get back onto uh sound, perhaps you could tell me about her, relate her comment about her prediction about the future in Vietnam. And then I want to go on a little bit and talk about instructions that uh...
Lodge:
You give the signal when this thing is on.
Stanley, tell a story.
Interviewer:
Oh gosh, I can't, I'm running out of stories.
I don't believe it.
Interviewer:
Um...I don't know, you've got to give me some kind of a uh an incentive to tell a story. You know, I'm basically a one-liner.
Lodge:
Well, you hold up your finger and I'll talk.
Interviewer:
Yeah, well then I'll tell us when to start. He wants me to tell some anecdotes, so they have this kind of Buster Keaton-like scene here of, of our, my talking to you without any sound, it's just to cut into it. Uh...
Okay.
Interviewer:
Okay?
Before you start [inaudible]...All right. No let it just keep going. Go ahead with your uh...
Interviewer:
Are we now on, are we now working?
We're on, let's go.
Interviewer:
Okay, uh...You were mentioning that you had talked with the South Vietnamese ambassador in Washington back in 1963 before you went to Saigon and his wife. Uh...What kind of a feeling did you get from them about the situation in Vietnam?
Lodge:
Well, I had an interview with Madame Tran Van Chuong, the wife of the Vietnamese ambassador and she is by the way a very brilliant woman and extremely well informed.
And she made the following remark to me. She said "unless they leave the country there is no power on earth that can prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Diem, of his brother Nhu, and of my daughter, Madame Nhu," because Madame Tran Van Chuong was the mother of Madame Nhu.
And she was not assassinated because she was out of the country, but her husband and her brother-in-law, Prime Minister Diem, were both assassinated.
Interviewer:
Did you think before you went to Saigon did you think that the government of Ngo Dinh Diem would have to be changed?
Lodge:
Yes, I was convinced of, that the Diem administration was in its terminal phases.
Interviewer:
This is before you went to Saigon?
Lodge:
No, this is after I'd been thereabout three weeks.
Interviewer:
No, but let's go back a moment. Prior to your departure for Saigon, what kind of opinion did you have about the situation from what you had, from your briefings?
Lodge:
Well, I had the impression that there were a certain number of Vietnamese who thought they had us hooked, they had the Americans hooked and that we couldn't...we couldn't nullify our ties to them even though we might want to. And I thought that was a very unhealthy state of affairs.
And one of the things that I worked on and that we did very soon after I arrived was to call off certain kinds of economic aid and that was uh...that was done not in order to get Diem, to give the green light to the generals as has been said. That was done in order to put pressure on Diem to send his brother away. We wanted to get his brother...President Kennedy in particular wanted to get Nhu out of the country.
Stop tape, please. I think we can uh, fix it...
Interviewer:
I want to go back to the period, if you would uh before you went to Saigon.
Lodge:
Of which I remember practically nothing.
Interviewer:
OK, well, let me raise this.
Lodge:
I'll try, I'll try.
Interviewer:
All right, but from the briefings that you had in Washington before you went to Saigon uh, did you think that the Diem government would have to be changed or that Nhu, brother Nhu and his wife would have to leave?
Lodge:
I didn't think we had enough uh clout to change the government but what I did think was that the government was in its terminal phase and that the natural forces of disintegration that were at work in Saigon was going to change it.
Interviewer:
What kind of instruction...?
Lodge:
And indeed that's what happened. Um...I got one instruction to...that the time had come to press the button. Well, I looked around and there wasn't any button. We were not as influential as some people thought we were and the, the thing that caused Diem and Nhu to leave was not anything we did. We were not made...we were not major figures in that coup.
Interviewer:
What instructions did you get from President Kennedy before you went to Saigon? Did he, do you recall what kind of instructions he gave you?
Lodge:
Well, he wanted me to go and see Diem as soon after my arrival as possible and that uh...and to tell him that he had to operate a better show than he was operating with the police shooting at the, at Buddhists in their pagodas and all those things going on. And he said I want to make the government stronger and I want to make it better and I'll help him in his efforts to do that.

The Buddhist Crisis

Interviewer:
Let me ask you to speculate on a point here. You know, Arthur Schlesinger has written that if Kennedy had gone into his second term, he would have withdrawn from Vietnam.
What's your opinion about that? Do you think he might have? Did you get any indication in your dealings with him that he might have?
Lodge:
I wouldn't have expected to see him just withdraw cold turkey. I don't think that would have been in his character. I think he would have tried to negotiate a way out. Which is a very different thing from just cutting and running.
Interviewer:
But also a different thing from escalating the war as we did later.
Lodge:
Oh yes. Entirely different, yeah.
Interviewer:
Let me ask another...about people you talked to in Washington before you left for Saigon, prior to your arrival to Saigon.
Did you get any feeling, or any kind of policy guidance from people like Averell Harriman or Roger Hilsman? Did you get any feeling for what they were thinking about the situation?
Lodge:
Well, of course I talked with Averell Harriman. He had a post in the State Department. I talked with Roger Hilsman. He was Assistant Secretary for uh...East Asia. And I knew that they had a very, very poor opinion of the Diem Administration. I knew that.
Interviewer:
And did that influence you in any way, in uh prior to your departure?
Lodge:
I felt that the opinion of Averell Harriman on a matter of that kind, the opinion of Roger Hilsman is worthy of a great deal of attention. And unless they're proven wrong, I'm inclined to assume that they were right.
Interviewer:
Now let's...I'd like to sort of get you now out to Vietnam. As you remember, on August 21, 1963 these Special Forces that were loyal to Ngo Dinh Nhu attacked the pagodas in South Vietnam and arrested more than a thousand Buddhists who were opposed to the Diem government.
And you arrived in Saigon the next day. Was it the attack against the pagodas that prompted you to go to Saigon immediately?
Lodge:
I got a...I was in Tokyo and the plan had been that I would visit a few embassies, Manila, maybe Singapore, on my way to Saigon.
Then came this brutal shooting of the people in the pagodas and the White House sent me a telegram which arrived in Tokyo in the middle of the night telling me to get on down to Saigon right away because there was a terrible situation there.
And so one of my assistants, Colonel Dunn, worked all night long getting the plane set up, and we flew all that day and got into Saigon as you say at night. I guess you were there.
Interviewer:
Do you know why, did you have a feeling why Washington wanted you there that quickly?
Lodge:
Well, they felt that I might have some influence on the situation. And I think I did have some.
Interviewer:
Do you think perhaps the attack on the pagodas was calculated to impress you as you were on your way out to Saigon? In other words, do you think the attack was staged to coincide with your appointment and your imminent arrival in Saigon?
Lodge:
That might have been. I've often thought of that but you can't tell. You don't know.
Interviewer:
But in any case, you arrived in Saigon. I remember the day vividly. What was your initial impression when you arrived in Saigon?
Lodge:
Well, my initial impression was that the government was really not in charge. There were...there was a curfew the way there was every night and at the cross streets you have soldiers standing at the cross streets. But you didn't get a feeling that the government had a really strong control and had roots that went down deep at all.
Interviewer:
Now, it was only a matter of days after your arrival that you were immediately communicating with Washington about the situation describing what was happening. How is it that you were able...this is a rather puzzling question when one looks back...how is it you were able to size up the situation as quickly as you did?
Was this your own intuition or was it a combination of that and advice from other people in the Embassy? How was it when we go back and read the cables we find you uh coming forth with analyses and opinion on the situation rather quickly?
Lodge:
Well, I had very good luck in that I made...I made two friends who were very remarkable men and had unusual opportunities to learn what was going on. One was Professor Patrick J. Honey of the University of London who I think is the only westerner I've ever heard of who could speak, read and write uh Vietnamese on very abstruse, philosophical subjects.
You meet occasionally an American who speaks fluent Vietnamese so that he can get himself a railroad ticket to somewhere, but a westerner who can talk fluent Vietnamese on abstruse, philosophical subjects is unusual. So he was one. And for some reason or other, the embassy had not been in touch with him.
Then the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Salvatore Asta, A-S-T-A. He turned out to be a remarkable source of the truth. As you know there are two million Roman Catholics with a corresponding number of priests. The priests are almost all Vietnamese. Uh...Archbishop Asta had very businesslike and effective relations with them, which any apostolic delegate would have.
But on top of that, Archbishop Asta was a very magnetic, dynamic man and he had many, many personal friends. So these Vietnamese priests, most of whom were in very close touch with the people, were able to give him an extraordinary picture of the situation.
Then there was a Buddhist priest, Quang Lien, L-I-E-N, the uh, this is, I'm relying on my memory which is a long time back and these Vietnamese names are very hard to remember. But he had the unique distinction I think of being a Buddhist priest who was a graduate of Yale.
And he spoke good English, he could write well in English and he was the one that the high-ranking Buddhist clergy would use all the time on anything that had to do with the Americans. So I was very lucky in very quick order to get in touch with those three very remarkably qualified men. All three could deserve the title of experts.
Interviewer:
Now, just the day, about the day after your arrival, two South Vietnamese generals, Le Van Kim and Tran Van Don, made contact with two CIA representatives in Saigon, Rufus Phillips and Lucien Conein and the generals wanted to know whether the United States would support the army in a coup against Diem and Nhu.
Was this the first time that members of the American mission discussed the subject of a coup with senior South Vietnamese officers?
Lodge:
No, I discussed it with uh, um, with Tran Van Don.
Interviewer:
That early?
Lodge:
Yeah. Well he spoke to me about it and he, he was the one, I think some high ranking Vietnamese and I think it was Tran Van Don, said that they didn't have much confidence in our, in the discretion of the Americans. That the Americans are people who like to talk all the time. They blabber, blabber, blabber and talk, talk, talk and you can't keep anything secret.
And there's no point in even talking about bringing about a change of government unless there's...unless the Americans develop a certain amount of discretion.
Interviewer:
I think if, going back over the sequence, your talk with Tran Van Don was after this meeting between Don...
Lodge:
I couldn't tell you. It was at the airport.
Interviewer:
Not on your arrival but at a later stage at the airport.
Lodge:
Not long after my arrival.
Interviewer:
But to go back to the CIA contacts with the generals, do you recall whether they had made contacts prior to your arrival in Saigon, or were these the first contacts that were made?
Lodge:
I don't know. I know they had not made contacts who with Mr. Quang Lien, the Buddhist who went to Yale.
And they had not made contact with Professor Honey and they had not made contact with Salvatore...Bishop Salvatore Asta, which I thought then was quite uh noteworthy.
Interviewer:
Well, if you don't mind taking you through this kind of a day-by-day thing I know that it's not easy to remember all of the details. But on August 24, which was less than forty-eight hours after you arrived in Saigon, you cabled to Washington that Nhu was behind the raids on the pagodas and that he probably had the full support of Diem.
Now how did you reach this judgment? How did you know that, what was behind the coup, the raid on the pagodas at that stage?
Lodge:
I can't remember.I, I, I can't remember.
Interviewer:
Well, let me ask you this question: Do you think at this stage...?
Lodge:
I'm sure it's true, I mean it could not, with the way that government was set up, a thing like that couldn't have happened without Nhu knowing about it.
Interviewer:
Well, let me ask this question: At that stage do you think it was possible that Nhu could be removed without removing Diem or did you think that both of them had to go?
Lodge:
I thought uh the removal of Nhu was one of those things that is frightfully,.frightfully desirable and as a practical matter there's absolutely no chance of its taking place, because the brother Diem would never do it.
Interviewer:
But then did you feel that Diem would have to go too?
Lodge:
Oh, I'd, I had instructions from Washington about Diem and Nhu.
Interviewer:
Okay, let's...We can go on to that because I have the text here of the cable of August 24.
Lodge:
Yeah.
Interviewer:
Now, on August 24 a cable was sent to you from Washington and I just want, if I may just for the sake of the record read a couple of passages from it.
It said, The United States government cannot tolerate the situation in which power lies in Nhu's hands. Diem must be given a chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with the best military and political personalities available.
If, in spite of all your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.
And then a little later it says, We are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem. You may tell the appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown of the central government mechanism." And according to...
Stop, please. I realize this is an important question, but we're going to run out of time before uh...
Interviewer:
The tape, you mean?
Yeah, tape. So I think the thing to do is change reels now...
Interviewer:
All right, change it. I'll do it over again. It's just the reel; we have to change the tape. What I'd like to do here, Cabot, is sort of engage you in a discussion about these, thes back and forth of this, if you would.
Lodge:
To the extent that I can, sure.
Interviewer:
We're not asking you to do the impossible.
Interviewer:
I wrote down what's in here.
End of Side #2
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