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

 
01/30/1979
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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.

Transcript

Idea and experience of warfare in Asia

Cassette I - General Maxwell Taylor
Karnow:
You're following me, Elizabeth, huh?
Okay, Stan.
General Taylor, you served as a military attaché in China back in the 1930s. Were there any lessons you learned from that experience that were helpful later in Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well, as for that experience in China, I wouldn't, I wouldn't say so. First, I was there only about six months when the Japanese were moving into North China and my main business was watching the Japanese and seeing what I could learn from them.
I would say however my experience in Korea with the Chinese where we fought the Chinese and got some impression of their, of their combat capabilities. That, that was what was helpful and I must say it influenced me - wisely or unwisely - to rather anticipate the same kind of behavior on the part of the North Vietnamese.
Karnow:
Well, could you elaborate on that Korean War experience and what...how it served you later in Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well, the Chinese were very tough fighters. They knew how to use terrain. We had great advantages over them in artillery and in air. Yet they were able by patience to slip up at night just by moving a few yards one night and then the next night and get up so close and then rush us, that it nullified to a large extent the great fire power we had.
And they took great casualties doing it. So I was...all of my colleagues and I were very much impressed with the fighting capability of these Chinese and also, and that they posed a major future military problem in the Far East.
Actually the impact in South Vietnam was a little different, however, because I was thinking in terms of Hanoi, how they would react to the losses they were taking and was inclined to assume they also have their limit and when they realize that they're losing more than they can have any chance of ever gaining in compensation, that they, like the Chinese in Korea, will ask for an armistice, be reasonable at the table after a long debate and get out of the thing.
I was wrong about it in the sense that Hanoi took more losses than the Chinese ever would, took very heavy losses which they're paying for still but nonetheless they stuck it out and thereby uh, nullified to some extent the evaluations made in Saigon and also here in Washington.
Karnow:
If you had to compare the Chinese with the Vietnamese, that is the Chinese communists and the Vietnamese communists as...from a military point of view, what were the similarities and differences between them?
Taylor:
Well, I don't know I could be specific about that. The Chinese of course is a bigger man. The North Chinese especially are magnificent military types, if you want to speak in those terms. Whereas the deceptive thing about the South Vietnamese, the Viet Cong in particular is their smallness...they look so inoffensive, so impotent. Yet they were very tough indeed in a different way.
I would say as the military manpower of China is much more imposing of course on the global scene then any manpower or any military strength that can be developed in South Vietnam, although the latter is not...is by no means unimportant at the present time, given all the weapons they've acquired in the course of the Vietnam War.
Karnow:
In 1959 you resigned from the army. Presumption was that you objected to the Eisenhower administration's policy of massive retaliation. Did your resignation underline issues that would later emerge in Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well I certainly wasn't thinking about Vietnam in 1959 when I, correction, I retired because if you resign you don't get paid. Retired you get your pension. I was simply tired of the military service, spent four years of Chief of Staff, and quite happy to retire. I thought I was definitely drawing a final line through my military career and having a chance to develop my interests in the civil life. Unfortunately the Bay of Pigs came along in 1961 and interrupted all that and brought me back again.
Karnow:
But let me repose that question. You developed a thesis in the book that you wrote after your retirement, The Uncertain Trumpet, which was an argument against massive retaliation and a more flexible response. Did that thesis of yours later serve you in Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well, first, I wouldn't say it was a thesis because flexible response is simply the natural reaction of all leaders at all times in all history. They would like to have a lot of choices between what they want to do and what they must do. So that it was nothing...no great novelty about the, that concept.
The novelty was the fact that a great nation would think that they could take massive retaliation and impose a pax Americana. So the real question is why did the government ever take that point of view. So I was really...and furthermore in my book, The Uncertain Trumpet, really voiced the criticism which was spreading throughout the country and came in from many civil sources. I was borrowing from many critics of that particular policy.
Now in terms of Vietnam, no, except if they had told me Vietnam was coming, I would say this is a greater argument for not depending on ma—...uh, nuclear destruction in order to control a local situation. So I would say...I had been encouraged in other words in my thesis had I known Vietnam was coming.
Karnow:
But in the 1950s you were Chief of Staff of the army. We were involved in Vietnam to a certain extent in support of the French. Were there any other kind of US activities in Vietnam during the 1950s that you knew about, that you could tell us about?
Taylor:
When I became Chief of Staff in 1955...so from '53 to '55 I was in Korea, in a sense in the same neighborhood though really in nautical miles of course it's a long way down to Saigon. But I was looking over my shoulder to some extent trying to sense the situation.
And finally in the fall of '55 I took a trip down there from Vietnam, from Korea, just to talk to the people on the ground. This was after the Geneva Accords, at least the decision had been, was being carried out of moving the population by request either from the north to the south, and I first saw Saigon.
My recollection to this day is Saigon surrounded by camps of the Vietnamese living in the north who had opted to come south and get out of the communist world. That was my first view of it...that area, in which I, not realizing at the time I was going to spend a great deal of my life involved directly or indirectly with the events that developed there.
Karnow:
I mean If you look back from that perspective, really of that period, did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that we would get involved in Vietnam to the degree we did?
Taylor:
It never occurred to me to dream I would or I wouldn't. It was just one of those things that didn't occur to me to think about.
Karnow:
What was the Never Again Club, and do you consider yourself a, a member of it, if I could use that word?
Taylor:
Of what?
Karnow:
The Never...What was the Never Again Club that's been in...?
Taylor:
I never knew there was such a thing. I read about it but I never knew of it. This is that various generals have been saying we should never, never get involved in a land war on the continent of Asia. I would say...I would be, I would add to that I was in the club that said never get involved in any war anywhere if you don't have to.
But as curiously enough, I think General MacArthur for example is reported to have said to President Kennedy to warn him against getting involved in the continent of Asia. Yet I don't know of any general that worked harder to get deeply involved than General MacArthur. Perhaps that was after-the-fact wisdom, I'm not sure.
Karnow:
Well let me put the question differently. Generally it's supposed that the Never Again Club were generals who had served in Korea and said let's not get involved in a ground war.
Taylor:
I never heard of any general ever saying that in connection with Korea. All of us saw the frustrations of a limited war and I wrote some of them on the subject when I left Korea, recording some of the impressions I had about Korea.
Some of those I reflected upon later in Vietnam. One is the uh, the capability, the military capability the Asian population were trained for. Their endurance, their patience, all the qualities I just mentioned previously about the Chinese and verified again in Vietnam.
And furthermore, having worked with the Korean army, the importance of American officers to start thinking more and more about their possible role as training foreign nations, in particular friendly nations in Asia so that there was always a, I would say give-and-take in my own mind between the experience of Vietnam, of Korea and Vietnam, based largely on an impression of the problems of fighting in the far east and also, I might add, the inapplicability of much of our sophisticated equipment, either for Korea or for Vietnam.
For that reason I'm concerned today in seeing us again to be focusing our attention on war in Western Europe and seeing the tremendously exper—expensive equipment that's bought by the army, the navy, the air force for that purpose, disregarding a fact which...we're in a chaotic period, I think, in history where they used to have limited force and limited places is far more probable than any other kind of military engagement.
Karnow:
But to go back to this point again about not getting involved on the ground, or getting involved on the ground in a limited war such as Korea, perhaps Vietnam, would there be certain kinds of conditions that you would attach to getting involved like...
Taylor:
Well I certainly would now. You see, in Korea we never...in the army we never really felt the home reaction to any great degree. We had the draft throughout the war. The 8th Army that I commanded was a mixture of volunteers and of draft.
I was frequently asked, can you tell...was there much difference between the performance of the volunteer and the selective service men. I said I can't tell any difference at all and furthermore I do little things. When we have a decoration ceremony for soldiers getting various awards for conduct in battle that I check on some of them and find they're a mixture.
Furthermore, I see no ethnic difficulty. Their difference in bravery as demonstrated in that way. So that the whole...they just, the whole, the whole issue always came back to me as how do we learn more about the Asian mentality and how to prepare ourselves for future situations?
Karnow:
But to carry that on, you were speaking about the experience in Korea. Now could you carry that on to the experience in Vietnam? Did you have a different kind of American soldier in Vietnam?
Taylor:
Now bear in mind my direct experience in Vietnam ended when I left as ambassador in '65 when our troops were just starting to come. So I didn't...I never had that on-the-ground sureness of feel for the combat situation in Vietnam that I had in Korea.
I would say that the first troops we sent in to Vietnam were essentially all regulars and there was no problem at all until their time ran out. Then the rotation issue which was with us in Korea and in Vietnam took hold and shifted the composition so drastically that it was very hard to generalize about how did the American soldier behave without putting a time frame on what time frame we're talking about. I would say at the outset the limited that I saw, they looked very good and adapted themselves to jungle warfare much faster than I expected.
Karnow:
And the later troops?
Taylor:
Beg your pardon?
Karnow:
And the later troops uh, that went in?
Taylor:
Well, apparently it was...it was...it was mixed. My son was over, commanded a company of infantrymen, my old division and all the time he was there, there was no problem at all other than that you had a hell of a dirty war to fight. But this uh indication of indiscipline, fragging of officers, that sort of thing...I never saw and...nor did this next generation of the Taylors ever see. But it certainly had occurred.

Taylor's return to service in the emergence of the Vietnam conflict

Karnow:
If you look back on it, what do you think about our decision to go into Vietnam after the Geneva agreements in 1954?
Taylor:
Well, now, you'll have to ask what decision are we talking about. There were three or four critical turning points of decision. The first you suggest was General Eisenhower's quite very modest response to the new president Diem for assistance, and his agreement to provide economic and very limited military advisory aid.
That was of course the nose of the camel, you might say, moving in. And then there were other turning points, four of five of them, where our other presidents had to make other decisions but still retaining their basic thought which went throughout our entire policy. We're there for a simple thing. Self-determination for South Vietnam and ability to live as an independent state.
Karnow:
Let me go back one step. You recall when the French asked us for help in...during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and there were various recommendations in favor of the French request. But General Eisenhower vetoed the French request.
Taylor:
Well, General, General Ridgeway also opposed it very violently.
Karnow:
What would have been your attitude towards it?
Taylor:
I would have been with General Ridgeway against President Eisenhower. Absolute nonsense to ever think of going into Dien Bien Phu at that time. Incredible that anyone would be serious about it.
Here was the French garrison surrounded on all sides by the Viet Cong to the point where they couldn't get out, only occasional aircraft could fly in, and to think you could go in there and drop...I think they proposed a nuclear weapon, for example. I don't know who they were going to liberate and who they were going to kill. It was completely incredible that serious men talked about it and thank goodness no such eh, advice was followed.
Karnow:
What were the reasons of your going back into the government under President Kennedy? Could you describe the, what happened?
Taylor:
Well, as I think I mentioned, I was happily engaged as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, building the place. Just getting into it...on the job only a few months when the Bay of Pigs occurred and to my great surprise President Kennedy, whom I'd barely met, called me to Washington to...for the purpose of, investigating is hardly the term...really studying the Bay of Pigs, find out what had happened because the participants themselves didn't know entirely, exactly.
And tell him what the cause of failure were. Well, I accepted that task with Robert Kennedy, Allen Dulles, the head of CIA and Admiral Arleigh Burke, who was then Chief of Naval Operations. And we spent about a month going into the Bay of Pigs and then submitted our report.
Toward the end of our report was being reached and the president asked me to come on active duty. And there was some discussion. I told him I didn't want to come on active duty unless it was in a military capacity. I had no feeling of obligation in any other task, but I couldn't reject a call in military since the government had spent a lot of years and money trying to make a soldier out of me. And hence I came back in July 1, 1961 to become the so-called military representative of the President in the White House which was really his advisor on military and intelligence matters.
Karnow:
Do you think from a political or even a psychological point of view the failure of the beg—Bay of Pigs in some way made the president more cautious about Vietnam?
Taylor:
Made him more cautious or more aggressive?
Karnow:
Well, either way. More aggressive about being involved militarily and more cautious about possibly losing Vietnam.
Taylor:
There's no question but that the Bay of Pigs affected President Kennedy very, very deeply. When I came back to Washington after the Bay of Pigs affair, the report was over, he was troubled with Laos. Laos looked more difficult than Vietnam at that time and it was being recommended, I think the joint chiefs recommended the use of military force either as a preventative, as a deterrent or being ready to use the MAAGs here in Laos and he turned to me and he said, "Imagine me, I just lost a battle down in Cuba. And they want me to get into Laos."
So in that sense, it did make him cautious, but at the same time in the case of the Cuban missile crisis I felt he was never going to back out of that because he couldn't afford to take another defeat. So I think he had two forces pulling on him. As he looked at Southeast Asia, one that...is a long way off, I'd just like to go in but he had the Truman doctrine and the policy of his predecessor before him. It made it very hard not to do something. And uh, then to that, to that inclination was added this consideration, shall I look more timid than my predecessors.
Karnow:
One thing seems to be a little inconsistent even when one looks back on it, that he was very much in favor of a neutral solution in Laos, but...
Taylor:
He was in favor if that's all he could get.
Karnow:
I'm sorry, I'd like to repeat that...I mean if you would...we'll do that over again because I want to...He was in favor of a neutral sal...He was in favor of a neutral solution in Laos and yet he was opposed to a neutral solution in South Vietnam and it seems like there was an inconsistency there.
Taylor:
No, I would say not, because Laos was so remote, so difficult to get to, such a mess from all points of view that the neutral solution which was obtained looked very fragile and anything like as durable as it turned out to be. And was accepted again simply as a "pis aller"—it was the best he could do. Whereas in the case of Vietnam, the problems looked much easier and actually were than any serious involvement in Laos and furthermore the stake was greater. The importance was much greater.
Karnow:
How do you recall that the president and his staff including yourself looked at Vietnam in those days in 1961? What was the viewpoint toward Vietnam?
Taylor:
Well, I had not really studied it closely, as you rather suggest, until I came back in '61 although as I indicated from Korea, I was watching what was going on to some extent. But really focusing on it I had not done.
I would say most of us had the feeling, well, it's a long way off and let's not get deeply involved. And I had that definite feeling. I can recall the days when I was Deputy Chief of Staff, at the Chief of Staff meeting, there was the general feeling of that, that's too far for our military arm and the interest, the military interest is zero in that area.
Karnow:
Well, according to our research, in the spring of 1961 the Joint Chiefs and the Pentagon concluded that 40,000 American troops would be needed to defeat the Communists in South Vietnam and 128,000 more if there was intervention either by North Vietnam or China. Were you involved in the, in this study?
Taylor:
I've heard that quoted. I don't recall ever being aware of that report. It was made, certainly, but it was before I got involved in it and it was never cited as the holy writ that everyone accepted. It sounds incredibly an understatement of the problem as we look at it now.

Taylor's October 1961 trip to Vietnam

Karnow:
Let's go up to spring of 1961 where you'd written that you resisted going to Vietnam but then later you accepted to go on the mission with Walt Rostow and Staley in October. Why did you resist at first and then change your mind?
Taylor:
Well, it was...I don't...I wouldn't describe my action that way. I said I will...the President one morning in the early summer...he ran into me in the hall, or I ran into him in the hall of the White House. He had a letter...he said how do I answer this letter and put it in my hands and and walked away. It was a letter from Diem asking for an increase in the army of 60,000, something of that sort.
And I looked it over and realized what I had and [incomprehensible] told him, it will take me some time to answer this question. First of all I'll have to ask the question, what's the policy of the United States going to be in South Vietnam. How much...what stake are we willing to put into it.
And that question started then an internal debate which carried on until late September over just what are we willing to do, how far are we willing to go. And hence we were willing to give...which allowed the President to give me a directive. I could say yes, I can take that and do my best to discharge it.
Karnow:
Well, that leads me to two questions. Could you describe the debate a more? Who was on what side in that debate?
Taylor:
Well, it wasn't a case of taking up sides. It was just deliberate uncertainty as to just where we should go. It really mattered a great deal to call in all the people who had been out there, who... McGarr for example came back. Two or three others came back. The Vice President went out. And getting all these reports in and then reflecting on what do we have and what shall we do about it.
Karnow:
And when you did go out, you say you went out with a directive. Did you go out with an idea of what you were going to find or did you go out to do a study?
Taylor:
Well, I certainly studied and lis–talked to everyone and prepared myself as thoroughly as I could. I certainly had not made up my own mind as to what I was going to do. I tried deliberately not to do that. Ah, so I would say that I was as well prepared as I could be but I had no predilections.
Karnow:
I remembered the Vice President's trip in that period. I covered it. Uh. What kind of influence did he have? What kind of position did he come back with? This was Vice President Johnson at the time. And to what degree did that influence the administration?
Taylor:
I never heard him make his report. I read his report after that and talked to him occasionally about Vietnam when I came back from the October trip with Rostow. Ah he was very much interested and I spent quite a period going over what we had found and why we reached certain conclusions.
I would say he was very much interested and I would say what we call on the hawkish side. He had no doubt in his mind that this was an area of importance, that uh, it fell clearly within our policy which extended from the Truman doctrine. So I would say that he was a, he was a...he wanted action but he himself didn't know exactly what form.
Karnow:
Why did you...how did you determine the composition of the mission. I mean one thing that's been noted is there weren't any senior State Department people on that group. It was you and ah...
Taylor:
Well, first, it was my mission. My mission. I took the entire responsibility for it and for...entire responsibility for the for—for the report. I was very happy to have Walt Rostow who had been following the Vietnam situation from the start of the Kennedy Administration. So there's no question there.
Then what...whom else that I wanted. I simply wanted a strong representative recommended by the principal agencies involved. State, Defense, JCS, CIA, AID...I guess, I'm not sure. In other words, it was just...I requested a representative from the heads of these departments and took who they sent. They sent some very good men.
Karnow:
Who from the State Department person?
Taylor:
I'd have to get the list out...if I start now I will hesitate. But they're all good men, they were not the senior ones but they were just the kind I wanted. Able to get out and do hard work and then come back and write a report which they turned into me and they had the right...their report went in appended to mine although it was not strictly speaking a part of the report.
Karnow:
Did the President Kennedy give you some instructions before you left?
Taylor:
Well in the sense, we talked about it a great deal. I knew what was on his mind. I knew that he didn't... see, President Diem had requested American troops in the meantime. I knew he didn't want to send any American troops in, there was no doubt about that.
And that he was also stressed as he put in the actual draft of my directive, which is a public document now, that...reminding me, which I didn't need to be reminded, that this was their war over there and we were not to do things that they could do themselves. So I would say that it was those two principal things that stood out, not to have American troops get involved and secondly, be sure that we didn't let them take over their job if they could do it.

Diem's early reception of Taylor and his ideas

Karnow:
Now, when you arrived in Saigon on the 18th of October, and you had a long meeting with Diem. A couple of things...the first thing is, this was I think the first time you met with Diem, wasn't it?
Taylor:
No, I had met Diem when I came down in 1955. I'd met him before.
Karnow:
Could you tell us what your impressions of him were? What kind of man...how did he strike you?
Taylor:
Well, he was in a very unusual...
Karnow:
I'm sorry, could you start again and say, "Diem struck me in this way..."
Taylor:
How's that?
Karnow:
When you start it.
Taylor:
Well, Diem struck me this way, an impression which as I give it to you now resulted not from one interview but from many I had from 1955 until his death. First, he was a short little man, a nice, a clean looking man. Always wore a white linen suit or a sharkskin suit.
And you would call on him and he'd put you down and he'd start smoking. He was a chain smoker. He'd allow you to ask a couple of questions about how are things doing, so to speak, and then he took off on almost a monologue. He would go on as long as four hours in French.
He would start back at the beginning of things when Noah released his first two South Vietnamese and carried it forward to all the wars against the Chinese, against the French and so on. And then finally about the end of the third hour then he'd be getting up into the present time that you'd come to talk about and then for about an hour you were more or less current I found it impossible to divert that. I would try by going in saying I've just been talking to the MAAG chief and the ambassador and they've been very good for me and they'd given me a general outline. I just wanted to get your...hear from you about how you feel about those things.
No luck. He had to go back to the wheel and start inventing it and coming all the way up through time. He would get a sort of half trance where he'd look as if he were kind of nodding himself, as he recited over these events. There was no repetition, it was a clear statement of history I suspect, although terribly hard to put up with if you had a tight schedule and you had to get a plane day after tomorrow to get back to Washington to give a report.
I was always very much impressed with him, though, that he was a man of great integrity. I don't think with all his enemies -he had lots of them - anyone ever charged him with anything that could be called corruption unless it's corrupt to like your kinfolk so to speak and keep yourself surrounded with them.
He had great courage. He had a feeling that sooner or later the Communists would get him. Sometime he'd say, Someday they're going to shoot me right there, and then he'd go ahead from there and tell about it. I found when I got in a position of trying to persuade him to do things, as we all did from time to time, he was a very stubborn fellow.
Uh, I think many times much wiser than we Americans...we'd come and say look, Mr. President, you must broaden the base of your government. You have a narrow group largely of your cronies and you'll never have the popular support around that basis. And he'd say well, general, have you any names to suggest?
By that time, I was prepared and I would tick off three or four and I'd say well the first one...he is really a Sinophile basically. He likes the Chinese. Then the next one...he is corrupt...he is known all over Saigon as being corrupt. The third was involved in the plot against my life in 1960. Well, he had some pretty doggone good reasons, I would say, for all those names.
Yet day after day, at least week after week, Americans, they'd be coming in to tell him how to run his country. He got tired of that and I'm sure much of the advice he was getting was he felt was so inapplicable to his real problem.
The result was that he could hardly listen to the things that he should listen to, and he became more and more difficult to get any reasonable things...I would say some of the things I was told to ask him were not reasonable, but when you got down to the real, the real question of his preservation, the success of his forces. Again here was a foreigner coming, even though he knew the foreigner, and, let's go slow. So it was that, that resistance to American advice which developed a great animosity here in Washington. Our bureaucrats who never but set foot there decided long in advance that Diem must go, that we could never succeed with him. And that built up to a climax with the Buddhist affair in '63 when eventually, directly or indirectly, we pulled the rug from under Diem, the chaos which I inherited as ambassador.
Karnow:
But doesn't that raise a question really, the question of whether one can work through a client government...I mean we as westerners in one culture working through a government that's of another culture.
Taylor:
It does, it does indeed. Why didn't we get somebody better than Diem? Don't think there was no lack of effort to find someone...civilian, military, Buddhist, Hoa Hao, anything. We were looking for George Washington under every mango grove in the whole country.
But there were just simply hard to find and never were found as a matter of fact. So the absence of leadership in South Vietnam was a tremendous problem which we never appreciated till we got into this thing as deeply as we did say by 1963.
Karnow:
You recall that Lyndon Johnson when he was Vice President referred to Diem as the Winston Churchill of Asia.
Taylor:
That was rather rhetorical I would say. I would never give him those high marks but looking back on him I would say he was one of the truly...truly...men of integrity and character I met in Vietnam.
Karnow:
Did you meet his brother Nhu and Nhu's wife?
Taylor:
I just met him and I met her but I never had any real official dealing with him.
Karnow:
Now could you go back...could you recall to us what that conversation was about and what was the substance of that first meeting in October when you were on this very crucial mission?
Taylor:
Well, I can assure you I've had a lot of conversations and I can't give you other than the general...just knowing what I was doing, that it was then to see him and announce why I was there, convey message from President Kennedy which was simply really to repeat why I was sent out there. We wanted to be helpful.
In order to be helpful we had to have access to certain facts. We had to get a clear picture of many parts of the situation which were certainly very muggy as viewed from...murky...as viewed from Washington. So it is no...those generalities rather than anything very specific. Then we went about our business doing all the fanning out of all our personnel to each on individual tasks for several days, then came back together.
We had, Rostow and the ambassador and I reached our agreement among ourselves as what looked like the way we ought to go. Then we went back to Diem and tried out the various ideas we had on him before we returned.

Taylor's proposals to Diem

Karnow:
Could you recall some of those ideas?
Taylor:
Yes, those are the principal points which appeared in my report which again is a public document. The first was, at least to me the most startling revelation was one which I knew existed but had never estimated the magnitude. The lack of quality, you might say the complete absence of reliable information on Vietnam.
That over the years we'd been receiving volumes of reports out of Saigon. We'd been keeping charts and maps and graphs very wisely and solemnly in the offices of the various departments, yet the data upon which they were based were non-existent or thoroughly unreliable.
So the very first thing was to let's get some system set up that winnows out the facts from the fiction and improves the quality. What had been happening of course was the government was very primitive. They didn't keep any records that a modern government would. When an economist here would want the estimate on the rice crop in the Mekong Valley next month, they hadn't the foggiest idea what it was.
So...yet nonetheless our rather limited representation in Saigon, all they could do was to go to the government, pose the question, take the answer and put it on the cable. I always felt they had not done their complete duty in not warning Washington. Here's your answer but don't take it too seriously. No one was underlining the things that I was seeing for the first time.
Hence I go back to your original question. The first thing that struck me was let's get going on improving the intelligence organization, getting our own people out here that know how to organize intelligence. They had at least seven intelligence agencies reporting seven different stories to that government that was then asked to give us one back to Washington.
So that was number one. Number two was related to that too. We could see also the ineffectiveness of all the departments of government. Especially the administration, the housekeeping kind of thing. If they would take and use one or two good Americans who are really good administrators and just let the Americans sit in there and help them get themselves straightened out, that could help. I would break in and say in the intelligence field we accomplished this pretty well. We had lots of intelligence people to go out and Diem welcomed it. He knew he was very weak in intelligence.
He didn't like this business of having an assistant say in the treasury, or in the foreign...foreign affairs. Things of that sort. So that aspect never really developed but in intelligence, yes. So it was improved administration, especially intelligence, that was number one. Number two was the fact that the army was following the French practices of static posts. They were going out and sitting in various villages all over the country and almost letting the Viet Cong run...move about almost at will except at the hours of daylight on the main road.
Well, the answer there was first let's get our own mission geared up and make this a major drive in their training in their advice and stop that. And get mobile...get a mobile type of force capable of moving about and stirring things up. And then let us help by providing helicopters and light aircraft. So that was another thing.
The same was true of a border...some sort of a border patrol. The Montagnards had a capability that had never been used. Let's see if we can't get some kind of a border guard that...it cannot plug up the infiltration but at least report infiltration. These are just obvious things that you could decide almost back at Washington without being there.
The most...the most difficult one was the shall we recommend any military...any military...any American units as apart from American military individuals who would by our recommendations increase considerably in their advisory role. As I told you, I knew very well that President Kennedy didn't want a recommendation on troops and I had no predilection that way in the slightest.
But starting in...at CINCPAC in Honolulu in my talks with every American official and every Vietnamese official, they all said we'll never get off the ground here unless we have some American military presence.
To cut the story short, the final recommendation made and I didn't mention the fact that when I got there the Mekong was in full flood, the greatest flood in the century. You get in an airplane and start heading south from Saigon and all you see was just muddy water all the way out, only houses here and there.
So in itself it was a national disaster of major importance. So my...my final recommendation was a straddle, deliberately a straddle. I labeled it a straddle. That they need very badly engineer troops and bulldozers and the kind of equipment we have once the waters subside to help dig...help them dig out. We have the chance to put in a logistic task force of engineer communications men...medi—medicos...that can do an excellent public works kind of job and at the same time fly the flag and have only the combat infantry just to protect them if they need any protection going about.
And thereby kill three or four birds with one stone. We can try out a reaction to foreign troops, we can see does our presence have any obvious effect, is the information that that group will get from their working, is that helpful in the intelligence section. And that was the, that was my recommendation, a logistic force for those purposes. I never...I never...the number 8000 is always attached to it. Actually I never put any number on it. I went back and gave it to the Pentagon and said if indeed the president approves of force for this purpose, what will it amount to and and their estimate was about 8000.
That was the only recommendation that was not approved at once by the president and his advisors. It was polemical, controversial...I shared in the controversy. The pros and cons I can make a list pretty well balanced, but I said this recommends the best judgment of people out in Viet—in Saigon. It was never really disapproved but was just put on the table and never...and deferred until later when it was overcome by...or overtaken by events.
Karnow:
Do you recall what President Kennedy said, the words he used, in response to that recommendation?
Taylor:
He never just said a word. We talked about it around the conference table with these people several times...had been to the Pentagon views, the State Department views, so it was one of these rather collegial kind of discussions that took place. He never showed...he never showed any...never took a side yet everybody knew he didn't like it.
But he recognized there was some merit in it but hoped he wouldn't...would...there...the advice he got from the Pentagon is not...is not enough. You need more. And State was never keen about it although Dean Rusk at the outset seemed to, seemed to support it.

Diem's request for an increase in American troops

Karnow:
Of course the introduction of troops would have been a violation of the Geneva Agreements, but did you...did the administration consider that the Geneva Agreements...
Taylor:
No, we were, we were violating the Geneva Agreement in the sense in increasing the numbers of our advisors...the numbers of advisors personnel was around 800 I think when we went there. And a year and a half later it was about 17,000. So this...there was a lot...when I mentioned it, made the distinction between individuals and units, there are many, many individuals, reinforcement of individuals implicit in the recommendation apart from that logistic force.
Karnow:
But what uh the question really is, at that stage, did we consider that the Geneva Agreements were dead anyway?
Taylor:
It was in point of fact, yes. You're quite right. By these actions of approving it it was disregarding it at that point.
Karnow:
Ah excuse me, I wonder if you could repeat that...Geneva Agreements.
Yeah. Could you just give us the noun so that...
Taylor:
Give you what?
Karnow:
I mean, could you repeat that you considered that the Geneva Agreements were already dead by then.
Taylor:
For practical purposes, the Geneva Accords insofar as it restrained the numbers of people we could have in South Vietnam was a dead letter and really was not a s—...I never heard that particular argu...that point being used as an argument against what we were doing.
Karnow:
In other words, by this stage he had already discarded the Geneva Agreements?
Taylor:
We had what?
Karnow:
Already considered that they were dead.
Taylor:
Yes, because...of course our answer would have been they were dead long before that because North...the North Vietnamese had violated the agreement by never allowing the inspections implicit...upon which the whole agreement was conditional.
Karnow:
During your discussions of, with Diem at that stage, do you recall his attitudes toward the solution in Laos, the neutral solution?
Taylor:
They were very much afraid of it.
Karnow:
Could you describe that?
Taylor:
They were very much afraid...the morale was very low in Saigon when I got there for three reasons. One was the increase of the Viet Cong activity, which had grown up very deeply since the...1959 when without our being aware of it, Hanoi had really declared a war of national liberation. They'd used this term but it didn't mean anything to us.
But we saw it meant a great deal to them by the increased activity, the infiltration of more and more assistance from North Vietnam. So that was one cause for low morale, was the increased success of the enemy, the Viet Cong. The second one was the great flood.
And the third was Laos, because to them that agreement we finally reached which they were....which was just in the course of completion when I arrived, worried them very much. They felt that that was...that's really giving Laos to the Communists and for a while it looked as if it were, if that would be the outcome. It turned out better than they knew. But nonetheless, both Diem and all...I hardly met an official that didn't express concern about the course of our negotiations.
Karnow:
Could I ask you to repeat one...
Voice:
Cut.
(End Part One)