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Interview with Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport) Taylor, 1979 [Part 1 of 4]

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Summary
Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport) Taylor, a United States Army General and diplomat, discusses briefly his Korean War experience and how that helped him in Vietnam. Taylor explains that when he first retired in 1959 he never thought the United States would become involved in Vietnam. Taylor recalls the Geneva Agreements in 1954 and that he disagreed with Eisenhower’s decision about Dien Bien Phu. Taylor also discusses his impressions of Diem and how Taylor alleges the United States pulled the rug out from Diem, which created chaos that Taylor inherited when he became ambassador. Taylor recalls the Tonkin Gulf and the lessons of Vietnam.
Topics
Military assistance, American, Military relations, Vietnam--Politics and government, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Korean War, 1950-1953, China--History, Military 1949-, Military art and science, Military history, Modern--20th century, Diplomats--United States, United States. Army. Chief of Staff, United States Politics and government 1945-1989, United States--Foreign relations--20th century, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Mass media and the war, Offensive (Military science), Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States--History--1945-, Korea--History, Military
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Transcript

Diem's request for an increase in American troops, continued

Maxwell Taylor Interview Part Two
(Talking in the background)
Voice:
Okay, Stan.
Karnow:
Could I ask you to touch back on that point about Diem's request for American...more American forces during your meeting?
Taylor:
Uh, when I went to Saigon in October of '61 shortly before that time - I'm sorry I can't give you dates - President Diem has asked through the ambassador for American forces to help.
As I recall...I'm quite sure he never asked specifically for how many or what kind. But he was in this...he felt the pressure of the war of national liberation which was being reflected in the increase of the guerrilla activities in and about Saigon and elsewhere throughout the countryside, to the point that he felt apparently that he needed American forces represented in his area. So that when I got there, that request was on file so to speak although it was never made in any...in any...with any great emphasis as the, an appeal to the President of the United States.
Karnow:
Diem as you certainly knew was an intensely nationalistic leader. Did you perceive in any way that he also might have sensed that if he had more American forces there, it would undermine his credibility as a nationalist?
Taylor:
I'm not sure because I would say that in the time frame we're discussing, in fact in his lifetime the number...there was never any proposal for any large number of American forces as forces to come in. It is true that as a result of the implementation of the recommendations of my mission in '61, the individuals, American individuals in South Vietnam increased from about 800 to around 17,000.
Now, he was perfectly happy with that so far as I ever saw. You had the events of '65 taking place when...shall we bring in battalions and eventually division, I don't know. I don't know. But I would suspect that the situation had become so pressing at, by '65 he would probably have taken the same point of view as the prime minister did who had to approve the introduction of these forces in '65.
Karnow:
During that trip, I gather you also saw General Duong Van Minh, Big Minh...
Taylor:
Yeah.
Taylor:
...uh, discussed Diem and the situation with him. First, what kind of an impression did Minh make on you?
Taylor:
Minh made a very fine impression on the tennis court. He was an excellent tennis player and I liked very much to play with him. He was an affable fellow and good company, but I was soon to discover first he was a constant complainer, everything was wrong, all his colleagues were ineffective, whether civilians or military, he alone was, stood for virtue, integrity, and reliability and so on.
Unfortunately, time proved that he had no great character, that he did not stand up under pressure. He avoided responsibilities and was not that great leader. We had a real feeling that he might be the man that should succeed Diem. He was the most conspicuous candidate, I would say, for Diem's position in terms of apparent leadership, but he was a great disappointment in the end.

American morale and escalation

Karnow:
Earlier in describing some of the things that you discussed...some of the things that were needed, better intelligence in Vietnam, better administration and so forth, jumping ahead a bit to a larger American presence in Vietnam, even the period after 1965, did we really ever get that in Vietnam? Did we ever really understand what was going on in Vietnam?
Taylor:
There's no quick general answer to that. We understood some things quite well and some things we didn't understand at all. I would say the semi-generalization that pure military intelligence was not bad, that in spite of the jungles and in various ways we discovered ways of knowing in general what the enemy was doing.
In general how he was being reinforced, in general where he was coming up. You recall the famous Tet Offensive. I had the task of investigating for the president's intelligence advisory board, was there a surprise there, a failure of intelligence. And I would say that in terms of our American troops there was no surprise except in the details, the exact hour and the exact time and exact place.
But there was no commander, no American commander at that time in Vietnam who said he failed in his mission because his intelligence was bad. So I would say on the military side, never perfect but acceptable. Where we did fail and probably inevitably failed was ever getting to find out what really the popular opinion was, what did the peasant think about out there in the rice paddy.
Things that even the politicians of the country had never—had no answer for. There was such a difference between the urban dweller who was...had been Gallicized by the presence with the French, and the primitive peasants who really didn't know what politics were, wanted quiet and the chance to raise a family and to grow his, his rice. So in that...in the social political field in that sense our intelligence was always bad.
Karnow:
Now if you had to weigh those two factors, I mean could one wage a war in a place where you had military advantages but as you say, on the social and political level, we were pretty much operating in the dark, which element was more important?
Taylor:
If either is lacking, don't go. No, the availability of sound intelligence certainly is a prerequisite for any decision affecting American activities of any, of any importance. Economic or anything else. And that's pretty good when we're dealing, say with European countries or the major countries of Asia. But when you get into primitive countries today, where our national policy has the same problems and frequently fails on account of lack of intelligence.
Karnow:
I want to quote a statement from the report if I may, and get your comment on it. The report said the risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of South Vietnam are present but are not impressive. North Vietnam is extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing, a weakness that should be exploited diplomatically in convincing Hanoi to lay off South Vietnam.
Both North Vietnam and the Chinese communists would face severe logistical difficulties in trying to maintain strong forces in the field in Southeast Asia, difficulties which we share but by no means to the same degree.
Taylor:
Which report are you..is that coming from?
Karnow:
This is the result of your nineteen-six...I mean, this is I think quoted in your 1961...
Taylor:
Well, it's not in my part of the report. It may be in one of the annexes. Not that I disagree with it, the language doesn't sound quite familiar to my ear.
Karnow:
Well A) I just want to ask how this judgment was reached and in retrospect how you...what you think of that judgment.
Taylor:
Insofar as vulnerability of North Vietnam to bombing, I was right there and events proved me right.
Karnow:
Could you elaborate on it?
Taylor:
Well, finally when we used our air effectively by President Nixon as a matter of fact, that finally brought Hanoi to the conference table which was the primary objective of the bombing in the first place. I was often asked, "Why are we bombing Vietnam?" during the war.
Well, one, so that the enemy will feel some of the pain he's been inflicting on South Vietnam for years and continues to do so. The second, to remind him of his vulnerability, remind him of his vulnerability, the price he is going to have to pay unless he changes his ways.
Well, those are two good reasons I would say and unfortunately on the second there was so much timidity in the use of our force, the constant bombing pauses and say now let's wait and watch the enemy reaction, they became convinced that under...until the...'73...'72 I guess, that the Americans weren't serious about this and they could live through, they could take what they were getting and they could continue to do so. But when finally when President Nixon put the heat on them and with our modern weapons, they were very quick to come scrambling to the table.
Karnow:
So in a sense you think that if we had been...if we started bombing earlier and heavier, we could have forced a settlement earlier.
Taylor:
I was always in between the hawks and the doves on the bombing. I was for the bombing because the weapon...the only weapon we hadn't used and were not, certainly not getting any place say by '64, in the south, without doing something else.
We had this weapon which we had every reason to use, and we should use it. I accepted the arguments of say, Dean Rusk and his colleagues that we don't know what effect this will have on the Soviet Union or in China. We don't know what they have a mutual support treaty and we're not sure of the terms of it.
The last thing we want to do is to widen this war so let's go slow. Well, that's fine. let's go slow but once you had enough experience and feel, that was visible, that the likelihood of, of, of the Soviet Union or China coming in was very, very slight. Then to go faster, warning in advance, here comes another wave, we're going to raise the level of pressure next month and look out, and it's going to be worse the following month unless you come to the table and talk this thing over. I was for that. Unfortunately that went much too slow.
Karnow:
But given your experience in Korea, did you at, in any way at the time, were you concerned in any way the Chinese might come in and...?
Taylor:
No, I was not. I...we used to talk...you see, there's so many of those senior South Vietnamese who were North Vietnamese or the Annamites from the center. I...I knew where they all came from and I'd ask them from time to time just to see what a regional effect would be. What do you think the chances are of Chinese coming in to help North Vietnam?
Well, they said, not a chance in the world. I said why not. They said North Vietnam would never would never want them in, would never ask for it. And related to that seems incredible perhaps but then I would ask them at another time, "what about having Chiang Kai Shek send a Chinese division down?" I was asking from Washington.
Oh, God's sakes no, don't do that. Why not? They're Chinamen! The Chinese, where they...were the traditional enemy of every Vietnamese and are today. And I was convinced that was a very real thing and as far as Hanoi was concerned, they wanted no Chinese or Soviet...had no chance of getting Soviets.
Karnow:
On the other hand, certainly one of the responses as we began to escalate the war later - I'm getting ahead of myself - was more and more North Vietnamese began to go into the south.
Taylor:
More troops. Oh yes, yes. Apparently that's... That's the way things have been going on for a long time and there, just civil war, if you want to call it, or at least trans-border warfare between the three parts of South...of Vietnam. The Mekong Delta, Annam, and the Cochinchina in the south was again a long traditional relationship.
And I found that the Vietnamese in the south, or even thought they...they...that many of their colleagues were from...were outlanders in that sense, they had a very low opinion of anyone who was not from that particular third of the country and rather suspicious of him.
Karnow:
Now again in the report, when the recommendation was made to send American forces into Vietnam, there was a warning that the United States must be prepared for contingencies that might arise from the enemy's reaction to this and the report goes on to say that the initiative of taking...sending forces in, American forces, should not be undertaken unless you were prepared to deal with any escalation that the communists might choose to impose in reaction to this. Now at the time did you...what kind of reaction did you anticipate?
Taylor:
I didn't anticipate any. That was one of the...somebody's annex...who put it in...a valid opinion to raise. I don't share it. Didn't share it then.
Karnow:
You didn't expect any reaction?
Taylor:
Not for what we were recommending, no.
Karnow:
Also in the report there was a recommendation...
Taylor:
Don't say...that's not in the report. It's an appendix to the report.
Karnow:
The appendix. I'm sorry. Well...
Taylor:
It was very clear at the outset. I was going to file a report and the report I signed was the report. Then I invited...I'm very happy to have all the opinions of everyone in my party be put in...it wasn't any great deviation. I found nothing shocking in any...anybody says...sometime they said it in different languages, whatever...
Karnow:
Again either in the report or in annex, I'm not sure now, a recommendation that the United States should become a “limited partner” in the war rather than occupied merely in an advisory position. Do you recall that?
Taylor:
Well, we felt that psychologically that our point of view should be that we are moving in to a partnership relation. That was simply a descriptive term, not in a sense we're going to draw up a contract or any of that sort. That was the only way that I can recall ever using the term.
Karnow:
Now that would have given us certain command functions.
Taylor:
No...let me make that clear. If that...if that phrase you said...we never went into the command relationship at all, that was...we didn't know we were going to have anything to command, really. We did only in the sense that the MAAG, the mission was going to have a much greater job and had to be increased and we put General Harkins, the four star general into head it. But in terms of the actual structure and the relationship of the American military and the South Vietnamese military, we made no judgment and expressed no opinion.
Karnow:
Afterwards at a meeting of the National Security Council, President Kennedy is quoted as saying that he's getting static from Congress about sending the possibility of sending American forces into Vietnam. Do you recall at that period that you might have felt that Congressional opposition or attitudes was a n—was a problem as far as Vietnam is concerned?
Taylor:
I didn't hear that particular...I didn't hear that statement of the President. There's many things one doesn't hear in the National Security Council meeting. So I couldn't comment on that. I had no special feeling but Congress was...as far as I could see viewed the situation there pretty much the way the administration was. And I might add that when I was ambassador and came back, I reported every time I came back, which was four or five times a year, to Congress, and even then found a great sympathy on the part of Congress.

The rise of counterinsurgency in reality and ideology

Karnow:
In 1962 you became chairman of a task force called a special counter insurgency group...
Taylor:
Mm.
Karnow:
...is that correct? Uh, could you describe what was the purpose of this group and how did it relate to Vietnam policy?
Taylor:
Well, it really had no direct...
Karnow:
I'm sorry, could you repeat...Excuse me, could I just ask you to repeat the title of the group?
Taylor:
Yes. As for the special group counter insurgency, it's purpose really was to make preparations against the outbreak of another Vietnam. In other words, it was recognized that the war of national liberation was a new tactic or technique or combination on the part of the communist world which needed to be examined very closely.
As we were discovering it was very effective as a way of turning the flank of conventional military force and hence we, this is President Kennedy's own idea, to have something like this...he described it to me and I translated what he wanted into that committee and the directive which set it up.
And its purpose was to examine countries that were around the world which were showing Communist penetration where this kind of thing might flare up as we were, which we were trying to suppress at great cost in Vietnam itself. Its direct impact on Vietnam as such was negligible.
Karnow:
Could you spell out one thing: when, in the concept, in the concept of counter insurgency, who were going to be the counter insurgents, the Americans or the local people?
Taylor:
Well, there's an unhappy choice of terms; the answer is the use of insurgency fed from an outside communist source, presumably communist not necessarily so, for the purpose of overturning a friendly government.
Karnow:
Now what were the, who were the counter insurgents going to be, Americans who went in there?
Taylor:
Ideally, there'd be no Americans except advisors who had helped. Helped in things like growing better crops, things of that sort, making...raising the standard of living. It was far a, it was far from the bellicose organization that its title perhaps suggests. It was really to emphasize raising the internal conditions of a country so it's not vulnerable to what's going on in Vietnam.
Karnow:
But looking back in retrospect, whatever your, your concept may have been, there was kind of a counter insurgency fad that took over for awhile in the early '60s.
Taylor:
Oh there was. The President of the United States was breathing on the back of my neck and I was breathing on the backs of eight people who came in to see me once a week and that went out and things happened. And it was all to the good so far as I saw. In the case of the military it was to pay more attention to guerrilla warfare, becau—we didn't know we were going to get into this thing but we obviously might and furthermore to build up the special forces which had been originally organized oddly enough to carry forward the experiences gained in working with guerrillas behind enemy's lines. But it resulted in producing a type of specialist, very valuable, for use in Vietnam or to teach the other countries to develop types like that to assist them, in counter guerrilla operations if they have any.
Karnow:
Now, by, by 1963 Harkins, Ambassador Nolting, McNamara and I think yourself were persuaded that the military situation in South Vietnam was improving, was rather good. Now you still hold, looking back, that you think it had improved at that stage?
Taylor:
Yes. Yes, this was when the period of the growth of the anti Diem feeling in the United States and in Vietnam. In the case of Vietnam largely the Buddhist element, the Tri Quang Buddhists who were stirring up trouble and creating the impression here in the United States that most monks were burning themselves in protest to the tyranny of Diem, which was far from the truth.
But in that period of course the question was how does the army view this? Well, the army was easy to check on because we had American officers all through the place and we never take the word of one American, so we could go out and get a view of fifty American officers fifty different places. So we were quite reasonably sure of what the army was thinking of what the army was thinking of doing. We found the army was almost untouched by all this.
This was a street affair, largely in Hue and Saigon and that meanwhile, in terms of the statistics which...by which we tried to keep a record and there are statistics for it, in a guerrilla war are very hard to establish for reliability, nevertheless, things were moving slowly forward. And we never said victory is at hand but its amazing that it had not been affected when we got the impression here in the United States, the whole place was a bit like Iran is now.
Karnow:
Well, there were some dissenters on this. Someone like John Paul Vann, for example, was telling the press that the situation was bad...
Taylor:
...you're talking about—he is, he's a reliable fellow. I'm sure it was. But, that's the old question of forty-four provinces.
Karnow:
As you recall in the summer of 1963, Henry Cabot Lodge went out to replace Nolting as ambassador. Do you have any opinion about that? Was that in any way a change of one's attitu—of the administration's attitude?
Taylor:
No, Nolting had been out for quite a while as I recall...he requested it himself. He had worked very hard, he was entitled to relief and it's hard to decide who to send but there was nothing special in the terms of a change of policy.
Karnow:
Of course he himself looked back on it...that period rather bitterly, feeling that...
Taylor:
Well, he's talking about the events that followed after he left. But I don't know, I haven't asked him...I never asked him the question you ask me. But I, I, looking back on the record, I don't think there was anything...he was quite prepared to come back. He wasn't prepared for the events that followed when he, soon as he got out.

The August 24 cable

Karnow:
I'd like to get into this famous and controversial telegram of August 24, 1963 which you've described, but of course you haven't done it on camera. Could you tell us about that from how it all came about and your role or lack of role in it, the famous telegram that s...
Taylor:
The Buddhist developments in Saigon were a great concern in official circles. It became a major topic in the press. You recall the headlines and pictures and so on...giving the impression the whole place was coming apart. And so there were questions, what are you going to do about this.
Well, by that time the anti Diem group in government which had been building up slowly was very strong and there were...many were saying that just, we said last year we can't get...we can't move forward with Diem, we must get rid of Diem. And then those of my inclination said well, Diem isn't...isn't satisfactory.
But for heavens sake let's find...let's get somebody better or at least as good before we change. Well, that resulted in a sort of stalemate here in the council of the president. He held the same feelings, he had the uncertainties on both sides of the argument, but what are we going to do about it.
Um, mean, so...I'm trying to get the order of events, you know...the first steps were what you might expect, putting more pressure on Diem to change his ways because it appeared that the Buddhists were reacting and the support...the popular support, such as they got was a result of the...what was called the tyrannical control of Diem and his unwillingness to share power with anyone other than his brother Nhu and a few other people.
So let's...let's try to get him to change. And furthermore, the feeling was that the police were getting unduly brutal in putting down the Buddhist affair. So again let's tell him to lay off this thing. Use another method. Well, these were relayed to him by Nolting and the results were far from satisfactory.
And finally after one demonstration, Diem's police were extremely being brutal, either...at the time allegedly killed a number of people in Hue and also a number in Saigon. There was a great feeling that Diem was not following what we were doing, he was ignoring it and hence that we should be exploring possibilities in the military to see whether anyone would come forward and replace Diem.
So it was in that atmosphere that Cabot Lodge was sent over to Vietnam. He took no directive that I know of to change policy but he no sooner got there than he got the cable that you mention. That was the reaction of a group in Washington to events which indicated that indeed Diem was flaunting our advice and going in the opposite direction in the brutal handling of the Buddhists. This cable was sent out as you know as the record shows...
Karnow:
Do you remember who signed that?
Taylor:
I know now. I didn't at the time. What I'm telling you I learned after the fact in many cases because...Ah, well, you want to say how...my involvement was this. That on a Saturday...on a Saturday evening, I think the 24th was Saturday...I was called by the officer in the Pentagon who dealt with Vietnam that a cable had gone out to Saigon and gave me very roughly what was inside of it. I thought at once it was a very, very important cable.
Also Roz Gilpatrick, either a little before or a little after called me to tell me that he had been informed of the dispatch of the cable which was the same one, that he had not cleared it but it had gone out anyway. I said who has cleared it? Well, the answer was the president was at Hyannis Port, Rusk and McNamara and McCone and Bundy all were out of town.
So the cable as I learned later...didn't know at that time...had originated in...I think Hilsman was the first name on it, then Harriman and then Ball...to Cabot Lodge. It left in a way that it could not be really revoked because we couldn't get the senior people. I knew it was a...I'll call it an in run in the sense it gave instructions to Lodge which I as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had never discussed Roswell Gilpatrick told me the same thing.
So it was not until Monday morning that we could get all the principals together and decide what to do. By that time Ambassador Lodge had received it and had started implementing it which amounted to telling the generals that the United States would support them in a coup and that was that.
Karnow:
It's been reported that General Krulak endorsed the cable on your behalf. Is that correct?
Taylor:
I...you ask General Krulak. He never had a chance to [incomprehensible] by them...
Karnow:
Well what, this was a particularly difficult period.
Taylor:
It was because it broke the Kennedy family right down the line, which is a very tragic thing. It had all been such a good team together ever since the Cuban Missile Crises and there the family was split right down the middle.
Karnow:
When you say the family, you mean the administration?
Taylor:
The official family. The Kennedy group of advisors.
Karnow:
Could you recall, was there any kind of tension and recrimination within the group?
Taylor:
Tremen—you mean...when? Before or after the cable?
Karnow:
After.
Taylor:
Not in the presence of the president but it was...a very...a very cold...very cold place to be. My only comment was it was the first time I've known that it's a good idea to turn over the selection of the head of a foreign state to a bunch of generals you don't know.
Karnow:
Would you describe some of the atmosphere in that administration in Washington after that?
Taylor:
I think...it varies with individuals. Before the President of course everyone behaved as they should. I never knew what people like Secretary Rusk, McNamara [inaudible] about it, cause this was undercutting their vital role as primary advisers to the president.
Karnow:
In retrospect, there were two kind of arguments. One was that everybody was saying the real culprit in Vietnam is Nhu, the brother Nhu and there were some people saying you can't get rid of Nhu because Diem won't let him go. That was the Nolting argument, then the other argument was which was more or less the Lodge argument, well, if Diem won't get rid of Nhu, let's get rid of both of them.
Taylor:
Yeah, and that's what happened.

The coup against Diem

Karnow:
And if you recall, what was your attitude at the time?
Taylor:
Well, there's always...Diem is not perfect. But...let's not do anything...let's not vacate that chair without knowing who's going to sit down in it. It's the height of irresponsibility to take any other point of view. I would have, incidentally McNamara...you may be coming to this...I think it was in October of '63 that we were asked to...these generals still didn't take any action on the cable and McNamara and I were sent over to talk to find out what was really going on and had a great problem trying to get information from Big Minh to see what happened. Even had a tennis game on the hottest day while McNamara sat and sweat on the side of the court hoping to get Diem to tell us what was really going on, and got no insight at all into what the generals really intended as late as October.
Karnow:
I'm sorry, could you repeat that because as I remember you played tennis with Big Minh in order to speak to Big Minh. You said you were trying to speak to Diem, if I understood you. I think you used, you used the word Diem when I think you meant Minh.
Taylor:
I, excuse me if I didn't, yes...
Karnow:
Could you just repeat that?
Taylor:
Minh, Minh is just, General Minh and General Minh who are the tennis player.
Karnow:
Could you describe that tennis game? Which you...I know that was organized by Conein so...
Taylor:
It was comical because Bob McNamara and I had felt that Minh was really...he was not willing to be the man that would take over this task. He knew what was going on at least. And actually his American liaison officer, the man who was supposed to be sort of executive officer for Minh, had indicated he had wanted to see me.
So with that encouragement I dated him up for tennis and told him McNamara would be along. That would indicate that this was more than just a social event. We went out to the officers club in Saigon and played on a hard tenni—tennis court, doubles. Bob McNamara watched it and we'd played about a set and he'd come steaming out and make some lemonade, Bob would edge over and Minh still talking about his forehand and that last shot. Then McNamara did it again and another set and came back steaming more and finally went to the club to have a strong drink.
Still not a word...[incomprehensible] all the hints except my turning to Minh and saying why don't you talk about what we felt we were going to talk about. So we got absolutely nothing from it and went back and reported to Washington roughly that as far as we could see, no general was really serious because we had other contacts with other generals lesser lights and the same thing. There were no sign of real determination. Yet on November 1st as history showed, they did blow up and Minh was in the middle of it.
Karnow:
During that period, did you, looking back on that period, you know they were sort of, you know it was an on again off again sort of thing. You had that August telegram, then Lodge responded very enthusiastically as I recall to the idea of a coup. Then there was another telegram telling Lodge to cool off and...Lodge seemed to have gone ahead. He seemed to have gotten very enthusiastic about the idea of a coup. If you can recall, do you think he was beginning to operate on his own out there?
Taylor:
Well, he certainly received that cable with enthusiasm because...
Karnow:
I'm sorry, could you mention...
Taylor:
I couldn't, I couldn't understand the cable.
Karnow:
I'm sorry, could you mention General Lodge's name when you answer?
Taylor:
I would say that Ambassador Lodge certainly felt it was the right course of action because he acted enthusiastically when he received the August 24 cable. Now that cable is written in a way that I couldn't understand its language and neither could any of the group around the president on Monday morning when we tried to go over it. So it raised many questions. What has been said? What are the implications? And so to quiet them down then, a cable, I don't recall the exact text of it, was, let's go slow until we agree on what we're telling these fellers, because it was a very badly drafted cable.
Karnow:
But did you begin to feel that Lodge was going ahead on his own and...?
Taylor:
Not reading that cable, unless he was told to ignore the cable. Then, that, that of course was debated. To ignore the cable, he couldn't ignore it because the generals would be around talking about the cable. He can't say oh by the way that cable, don't pay any attention to that. Because he had revealed the fact that here the United States government is saying Diem is not longer our man, he's an open game for a successful coup. That's in rough language what it amounted to.
You can't ignore that statement really, the effect of it, after you've made it. So that we never got around to telling Lodge to withdraw the cable but as you...you jog my memory...it was more to go slow until we find out where we're really going and what are we committed to.
Karnow:
Well, one particular thing was the president gave Lodge the authority to stop...cut off certain aid programs.
Taylor:
Yeah.
Karnow:
Now that was supposed to, I mean...the Vietnamese saw that as a signal that we were supporting the coup. And he in fact did that.
Taylor:
That's one of...one of the revealing action he took. That was uh authorized.
Karnow:
But in a sense, wasn't this giving an unusual amount of authority to an ambassador to make that decision?
Taylor:
I don't think so. It never struck me as being unusual. Somebody had to run the show. And that was becoming difficult because we found that the ambassador and Harkins weren't talking to each other. And so the military was getting...Harkins's cables were indicating a lack of knowledge of some of the things coming to the government through the ambassadorial things. And somebody had to run it and obviously it was the ambassador.
Karnow:
I was going to ask you this question about the differences in Harkins and Lodge. When you went out there in...on your mission with McNamara, did you look into this difference of views between the two of them?
Taylor:
Now uh this is the October visit?
Karnow:
Yes.
Taylor:
Well, we certainly talked about it, each one and in the company of them, but not in the...in the sense of saying that...well, I think it was just indicating concern that the two didn't seem to be exchanging information without trying to pick who was responsible for it. But it was a very worrisome situation which we certainly indicated. I don't recall exactly what words.

Intensification of the Vietnam War

Karnow:
One of the recommendations, one of the statements that was made, either while you were in Saigon or after you returned...I think McNamara made it, was that a thousand American troops would be, 1,000 American troops would be recalled from Vietnam at the end of '63 and that the military mission there would be completed by the end of 1965. What was the purpose of that statement?
Taylor:
That was a subtlety that backfired.
Karnow:
Could you, go back and describe...
Taylor:
Well, you see, in this pressure on Diem we all had the feeling he's ignoring us because he thinks we're locked to him. That we can't do without him. And hence we will continue to support him and he can go his own merry way or, slowly or rapidly or correctly or incorrectly as he chooses. And we have to bring home to the fact that we're not...he doesn't have a permanent lien on the United States government.
And Bob and I together, I don't recall who took the initiative, said let's decide if...assuming that the progress we've made militarily from A to B, B being the present time, is projected forward, when can we get...when have we reasonable grounds to believe that we will get enough military security to allow stability of the government and hence to proceed. And consider that to be a point when we would start getting out.
Well, with, with the...advice of the staff officers of various types, we decided in two years we ought to be able to do that. And then in addition to that, how can we...we can tell Diem that but he won't believe that we really mean it. Unless we we do something tangible. Well I think Bob who said let's...take out some men. We'll take out a thousand men and so that was...that was the basis of it. It was really a one form of convincing Diem that we meant business and they were not going to spend the rest of the decade sitting out there helping him if he was not going to do the things we thought he ought to do.
Well, you can't...you can't put that and turn it over to the press when you get back...we put it over as a situation, military situation seemed favorable enough to allow this, that's something like that. And it did look pretty silly. It looks pretty silly now as you pose the question to me but it wasn't really. It had to get his attention.
Karnow:
I was there at the time. I can recall that all of Vietnam seemed to be in flames with coup talk and rumors and the statement looked like one of extraordinary optimism in the middle of a crumbling situation.
Taylor:
I think you're justified in that, in that expression, not knowing the sagacity which was behind the decision.
Karnow:
Which, it sort of leads to the next question really because there's been some things written...Kenny O'Donnell and Schlesinger and Harriman offer the notion that, that President Kennedy probably would have gotten out of Vietnam if he had lived, possibly in a second term. What do you think about that?
Taylor:
Well, any president if he lived long enough could have gotten out of Vietnam. It depends on the circumstances.
Karnow:
Well, but he was, would have thought it was poor investment.
Taylor:
Well, I've been asked that. I decline to say what a dead man who can't defend himself might have done. I would just add I can't imagine Jack Kennedy or any Kennedy being a voluntary loser.
Karnow:
On, in January '64 there was a memo to McNamara proposing using South Vietnamese troops in Laos, bombing North Vietnam, mining North Vietnamese harbors, commando raids into North Vietnam. And a proposal that the United States take over tactical direction of the war and operations against North Vietnam. Were you involved in...
Karnow:
'64?
Karnow:
January 22, 1964?
Taylor:
I was in Vietnam at the time and I don't...I've had this question asked and I don't recall ever seeing a document on the subject. Many of these points you've mentioned were discussed over and over again.
Karnow:
Well, let's assume that these points were discussed or proposed as, you were then chairman of JCS in January, '64.
Taylor:
Ah, no in January sixty...Yes, you're right. I would have been. Yes, I bound to know about it...
Karnow:
Yeah.
Taylor:
But I don't recall a piece of paper, I just remember the subject.
Karnow:
Well, can we discuss the subject? Was this sort of floated...were you supporting this notion or...
Taylor:
Well, again, what are the points because I'm not sure...
Karnow:
One was using South Vietnamese troops in Laos.
Taylor:
No, I would never have supported that. At the time we couldn't afford it.
Karnow:
Bombing North Vietnam and mining North Vietnamese harbors.
Taylor:
Yes, it depends on when. I've always been for that.
Karnow:
Could you spell out that one and then we'll go on to the next one? Do you feel we should have been bombing North Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well, as I indicated to you, back in '61, that '61 report carries the prescient observation that if indeed the methods that we're proposing in '61 aren't necessary, we may have to go to the source of our troubles, which is in Hanoi and by using airpower.
So that this is not a new idea. Again, this is something that had been a constant consideration. Should we do it, should we do it, what are the advantages, what are the pros and cons. By this time in '64 I would have said it was time...it was time to start bombing and I picked that thought up when I became ambassador.
Karnow:
What about the United States taking over the war at that stage?
Taylor:
I...No, I can't remember that at all. Certainly that was...for example, of course Westmoreland was...Harkins was still there. Harkins has never proposed that. And Westmoreland when he became commander always rejected anything like that. He liked the really...the advisory relationship he had and felt that taking command would be a mistake.
Karnow:
Uh, during this period and in effect after President Johnson, Lyndon Johnson became president, it seemed back in Washington the focus of the priority and direction of the war shifted out of the state department and more into the White House and defense department. You got more involved, McNamara, Rostow and actually people like Harriman, Hilsman and so forth had less to do with Vietnam. Do you recall that?
Taylor:
Well, I would have said that the general feeling around town in government circles felt that in the Kennedy Administration that Bob McNamara was really the fellow that was running the war. McNamara's war, you recall. I'm sure he didn't appreciate it then or now but the fact was he was the most aggressive administrator in Washington, a very able man.
And furthermore the military task was much easier than the political economic psychological aspect of the war. This business of using military power is pretty crude and pretty simple. You don't have all the nuances involved in these other aspects and uses of other kinds of power. So that the military was always ahead, ahead in the sense that a decision would be taken which involved military action and an action on the part of a political authority, on the part of the economic authority let's say.
Well, it was just by the nature of the thing, that the organization available to military structures, the command structure in which ready resources, transport, the military would get out in front. And so were many times guilty of...they were accused of, charged of quite properly getting out and freeing areas from the Viet Cong and not having the exploitation forces to come in and take over.
So I would have said that was the general criticism, certainly well into the Johnson administration. I think the personality of the president, the personal action of the president became more noticeable because of LBJ's method. He was...he liked to be cabled. He liked to crack whips and he'd call up personally all around town and needle the officials on this or that. So in that sense he was more conspicuously in charge. But there's no question but what President Kennedy was in charge. He simply did it in a different way.
Karnow:
Excuse me...cut please.
Cut.
END OF SIDE #2.
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