North Vietnam's centralization of power

Tape 1, Side 1
Eleven, twelve. That tone is at uh eight d.b. below the peak level on the tape, should be zero on a v.u. meter and this tape’s recorded at seven and a half inches per second with sixty hertz neo-pilot sync. We’re working for WGBH t.v., this is the Vietnam Project. It's for show #13—Legacies. Uhm, it is an interview with Richard Holbrooke and is the 7th of July, 1983. We're on Sound Role 1, Camera Role 1, and Sound 1 is up.
What’s gonna show...
Richard, what were your expectations about the future in Vietnam and in US-Vietnam relations as of the end of April, 1975?
I never had any illusions about the nature of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. They were ruthless, they were determined; they were willing to pay any price to win the war. I had no doubt that they would be equally determined in unifying the country under their leadership, and in maintaining control.
I know of no case where that kind of governmental structure, that kind of communist government, voluntarily gives up power. The idea that the South could be independent of North Vietnam seemed to me to be fatuous and unrealistic from the beginning. The speed with which they unified the country did not surprise me. The concentration camps, in effect, the new economics zones, as they called them, which they set up did not surprise me.

U.S.-Vietnam relations after the war

As for Vietnamese-US relations, I think it was at best a very difficult road to create a reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam after the horrendous lacerating events of the previous decade.
But, it did seem to me that if it could be done on an equitable basis—one which did not in any way imply American approval of the behavior of the regime, but merely actions which were in America's own national interest that it was worth trying to do, provided, and this is the key thing, that it was part of an effort to achieve a genuine stability in that very turbulent part of the world—in Southeast Asia.
What kind of a Southeast Asian policy did the Carter Administration inherit?
In the beginning of 1977, you must remember, that it was only twenty months since the collapse of the American position in Indochina. The wounds were still very raw.
Carter came to office in a sense as our first post-Vietnam president. Not only had he not been involved in the war, he hadn't even taken positions in the war while he was governor of Georgia, and most of America was divided. Carter himself deeply wanted to have some major symbolic actions of reconciliation.
He had pledged during the campaign to the League of MIA Families that he would send a delegation to Hanoi to pursue the search for the counting of MIA families. In March of '77, he sent this team to Vietnam, headed by Leonard Woodcock who later became our Ambassador to China, and Mike Mansfield who later became our Ambassador to Japan.
This team talked to the Vietnamese about MIAs, and at the end of the trip, the President decided that, on the basis of their report, that although only limited progress had been made, a process was underway which would justify the beginning of talks between the United States and Vietnam moving towards the possibility of recognition between our two countries, and the establishment of diplomatic relations.
As it turned out, as we all know, nothing came of the final efforts. The negotiations between the two countries broke down after a very difficult year and a half because the Vietnamese insisted on making demands for aid in the first year which were unreasonable and unacceptable to the United States. And in the second year, they began a series of actions most notably, in my opinion, the forced exodus from Vietnam of the Boat People, the refugees on the South China Sea, which made it inconceivable that we could move forward with Vietnam.
You mentioned the...ah...the Woodcock mission was the MIA issue, the outstanding, difficulty between Vietnam and the United States from the beginning.
Sound 1, Fix 1, take two. (CLAPSTICKS).
The MIA issue was one of those horrible, ugly, emotional, difficult residues of war. Ah, there were 2,500 of the Americans who died in Vietnam who remained unaccounted for at the end of the war. Now that's four percent of the Americans who died in Vietnam. Compared to the twenty-two percent of Americans who died in Korea, and twenty-two percent of the Americans who died in World War II, whose bodies were never recovered—that's a remarkable percentage, and a tribute to the determination and skill of the United States Military in recovering the bodies of their dead.
However, pilots went down in the North, and other people were lost in the South whose bodies were never recovered. The assumption is that most of these people died—all of these people probably died. But, the League of MIA Families had a powerful, emotional issue which grabbed the souls of many Americans beyond the immediate families. President Ford and Doctor Kissinger had vetoed Vietnam's entry into the United Nations in 1975 and '76, based on this issue.
That linkage which was not in accordance with the UN charter, in any case, was bound to fail. The United States was eventually going to lose the vote in the UN for Vietnamese admission. We decided to pursue the MIA issue vigorously, but detach it from the United Nations' issue, and to give the Vietnamese an opportunity to talk to us constructively about stability in the region and about US-Vietnamese relations.
Now, I want to stress that the discussions with the Vietnamese that began in Paris in May of 1977 were discussions which were part of an overall framework that we had for a new post-Vietnam era in Asia. An era in which the United States was definitely going to remain a major power in Asia and the Pacific. But in which our presence would not solely be headlined and highlighted by a military involvement on the landmass of Asia.
We had inherited in 1977 a atmosphere of considerable chaos and drift in Asia. There was widespread doubt from Japan and Korea all the way down through Southeast Asia and the Archipelago about American intentions in the area.
Nixon and Ford had begun a historic relationship with the Chinese, but Southeast Asia felt abandoned in the aftermath of Vietnam; Japan and Korea didn't know what was going on; there were questions about the future of the American bases in the Philippines; and even the Australians and the New Zealanders were very worried.
We set out to reverse that trend by first reasserting America's involvement in the area; secondly, trying to integrate our China policy with Japan and Southeast Asia; third, asserting the importance—the primary importance—of Japan to the United States in the region. Fourth, dealing with the Philippine base problem, which took us two years, but we did negotiate a basis on which the United States will remain in those installations for the next decade or more—very important agreement; and moving towards full normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China; and also moving towards normalization of relations with Vietnam.
Now, of those items I mentioned, and there were some others like Micronesia in which we also made major progress on, of those items I mentioned, we achieved during Carter's four years as President all the original objectives of the United States except normalization of relations with Vietnam. The reason for that is critical and I want to stress that.
The Vietnamese took a position in 1977—an idiotic position, in my view, a self-defeating position which the American public understandably and instantaneously rejected that the United States had to pay up the money promised to the Vietnamese by Nixon in a letter he had sent them on February 1st, 1973, for 4 and 3/4 billion dollars of credits and grants.
Now, that letter was secret at the time. Nixon has subsequently disavowed it in effect by saying that it was linked to actions of the Vietnamese which never took place. And in any case, there was no—no possible ah ah ah no possibility that the American public, the Congress were going to give money to the Vietnamese. It just was not in the cards.
When the Vietnamese took that position in 1977, and the talks that I undertook with them in three rounds in Paris, I think that they doomed their chances. At the same time, the five Southeast Asian nations which form ASEAN—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia—those five nations had invited Vietnam to join ASEAN. The "empty seat for Vietnam" as it was called. The Vietnamese did not join, either.
So you can look back today on the period '77 and '78, up to about the summer of '78, as the chance for Vietnam to become a peaceful participant in Southeast Asia. Hanoi turned away.
The reason they turned away, in my view, had a great deal to do with their own political battle in Hanoi over whether they should lean towards Moscow, to strengthen themselves against their growing hostility with China, or whether they should move towards the Southeast Asian nations and become a member of the community.
The Moscow faction of the Communist Party in Hanoi won the battle. The pro-Chinese and the pro-American factions lost out completely. Inevitably, perhaps.
Ok. Change [inaudible]...And rolling...Camera role 2. Clapsticks.
The Vietnamese really blew an extraordinary opportunity in '77-78 to be a peaceful participant in Southeast Asia to have diplomatic relations with the United States. They chose instead, perhaps inevitably, to lean towards Moscow in a definitive manner. They were frightened of the Chinese.
Meanwhile, the United States had been negotiating secretly with China for normalization of our relations with China. As it turned out, we completed the process with China while the process with Vietnam collapsed. I think that there isn't—that it's very important to understand the reasons why the US and Vietnam did not proceed.
They were two-fold, and in my view, the blame lies in Hanoi—fully in Hanoi. In 1977, it was the Vietnamese demand for aid and credits as promised by Nixon, which no Americans—in Congress or the American public—was going to support.
And in 1978, it was their growing evidence of their brutality to their own people evidenced above all in the famous "Boat People Exodus" in which tens of thousands of people were induced or pushed out into the seas, often in very rickety and unseaworthy boats, trying to find sanctuary elsewhere.
So there was no way the United States could move forward with Hanoi. Today I think the die is cast. Vietnam has set itself up as Moscow's only real friend in East Asia, as a counterweight to its giant neighbor to the North.
The United States has decisively cast its lot in the direction of close relations with China. I think Hanoi made a phenomenal mistake during this period, and I—but I also believe that it's going to—it's very, very unlikely that the trend that developed in those decisive months at the end of '78 and the beginning of '79 will now be reversed.

The failed negotiation with Nguyen Co Thach

It's been written—stated, that in the fall of 1978 ah you and Thach had virtually reached an agreement on the terms for beginning the process of recognition, and that something happened to prevent that going forward. Is there any substance to that?
In the fall of 19—in the fall of 1978, ah I continued under Presidential instructions, my talks in New York with Nguyen Co Thach. We met several times and in the second of our meetings here in New York, Thach dropped the demand the Vietnamese had maintained for the previous three years that the United States pay war reparations or aide to Vietnam as the price of recognition.
When he dropped that demand he thought that the way was now clear for immediate progress. This was at the beginning of October 1978. And we met on 23rd Street in the Vietnamese Mission to the UN on the Waterside Towers facing the East River. I remember the meetings very clearly because for four or five hours, over two sessions, Thach had continued to demand aid. He kept saying, "We want the aid, we want the aid."
We had already heard from Intelligence and even through public statements that the Vietnamese were ready to drop the demand, but Thach didn't drop it. And, finally I said to him, "You know, this is silly. We're wasting our time. Let's—let's, ah—let's call it off." And Thach said, "Wait a second, supposing we dropped our demand for aid, are we ready to move ahead right away?"
And I said, "Are you dropping your demand for aid?" And Thach said, "Yes, let's move right away." And I said, "Well, I'm delighted to know that you have made this decision. This moves us forward past this hurdle, but I cannot make commitments in this room to, on the next stage. I have to consult with the Secretary of State, and with the President." Thach said, "No, let's sign a piece of paper right now."
I said "No, I can't sign a piece of paper, but I will report that your government has now dropped your demand for aid. And my deputy, Robert Oakley, will be back in touch with you." I went back to the ah United Nations headquarters for the United States, Vance was—Vance took a suite at the UN Plaza Hotel in New York each year for the General Assembly, as do his successors as Secretary of State.
And I talked to Vance and he sent the President a message, and we understood at that point that the Vietnamese had, after eighteen months, met the American conditions as outlined at the beginning. But, a very serious additional set of factors were now appearing. The Boat People were pouring out into Southeast Asian waters, into the South China Sea. And there was a worldwide uproar.
Our Intelligence showed the Vietnamese massing on the Cambodian border with the high probability of some kind of major military adventure. We were moving forward very rapidly in our discussions with the Chinese, in secret. And, on November 2, while we were in the process of reviewing what we should do, the Vietnamese and the Russians signed a treaty of peace and friendship, with considerable ceremony in Moscow between Brezhnev and Pham Van Dong.
This series of events made us decide what we ought to—ought to go slow. The Vietnamese suddenly were pushing us for the first time. Now why were they pushing us? My theory then, and my theory now, is that the Vietnamese had made a decision early in '78 that they were going to move very sharply towards Moscow. And they were trying for one last attempt to get into a closer relationship with the United States at the same time.
They saw a chance if they could achieve that of perhaps putting a monkey wrench in Sino-American relations. But they misplayed their hand terribly, and I think that the mistakes they made at that time are the seeds of the continuing instability in Southeast Asia today. Particularly along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Informing the U.S. on atrocities in Cambodia

During this same period, what kind of intelligence were you getting about events inside Cambodia?
We knew from the beginning of the Carter Administration on, that horrible things were happening in Cambodia. There had been almost no public attention to them. But we had people in the American Embassy in Bangkok who were going up to on the Thai-Cambodian border and doing interviews, and when we had unmasked enough information in the spring of '77, I went up to the House of Representatives and testified in public session on the atrocities of Cambodia. I was the first American official of any Administration to publicly discuss what President Carter later and correctly named the worst human rights violations in the world.
The...I was the first American official of either party of any administration to publicly testify on what President Carter later and correctly called the worst human rights violations in the world. The dimensions of them were never precisely clear to us but the enormous size of it, the holocaust nature, of what was happening was clear.
And it was, it was, it was and remains, one of the most appalling events in recent world history.

Internal struggles in the U.S. Government regarding foreign policy

Did the tensions and differences between the National Security Council and State Department have any significant influence either on the positions taken on the Vietnam or Cambodia during this period?
There was a difference between Vance and Brzezinski over Vietnam, which Brzezinski I think, unfairly exaggerates and accentuates in his book. Vance doesn't even mention it in his book.
The President personally approved all instructions concerning Vietnam, and that's all that really mattered in the long run. But if you want to get more detailed about it, what happened was that Brzezinski originally participated fully in all decisions concerning Vietnam, and in the fall of 1978, he came to the conclusion, as the rest of us did, that we should slow up, and perhaps stop entirely on movement with Vietnam.
But Brzezinski was at that point in a tremendous battle with Vance and with the State Department over larger issues, and therefore, this probably took on a personal quality of him, so that he went so far as to suggest in his recent book of memoirs, he went so far as to suggest that Vance and I went further with the Vietnamese than he or the President wanted.
But the written record shows absolutely clearly two things. One, everything that the State Department did was under direct, explicit presidential instructions. And number two, we didn't go further than other people wanted, because in the end we didn't go anywhere. We were in agreement that you could not make progress in the US Vietnamese relations under the conditions of the Vietnamese brutality towards refugees, and growing evidence of an impending invasion of Cambodia and a Vietnamese-Russian treaty all taking place in a short period of time.
So, yes, of course there was a Brzezinski/Vance NSC-State Department problem over Vietnam. There was a problem on all, on almost everything by the end of 1978. Soviet-American relations were the centerpiece of the dispute within the Carter Administration. Those are short carriages, aren't they?
Okay, this is Sound Roll Number Two of WGBH T.V. It’s Viet, number Thirteen Legacies. We're on Camera Roll Number three, and sound Four is up.
Caller number Sound Four.
I just want to finish the previous point. There was a continuing NSC, White House, Vance/Brezinski problem centered around US-Soviet relations, which by the latter part of '78, had really erupted into a kind of a non-stop grinding guerrilla war.
Vietnam and China, like Afghanistan and Ethiopia were theaters of that central conflict. And, it did not affect policy outcomes on specific things in Vietnam, remotely to the extent which might be suggested by some people. Everyone understood that you couldn't move forward with the Vietnamese in the conditions that prevailed at the end of 1978.

Holbrooke on the negativity of U.S.-Vietnamese relations

My next question was: are there, are there net benefits or losses for the United States in the current impasse with Vietnam.
I think the current impasse between the United States and Vietnam is not really to anyone's benefit, but it is unchangeable given the present realities. That is to say, the Vietnamese are allowing the Soviet Union to use Cam Ranh Bay, Da Nang, and other important areas as rather permanent 365-day a year installations for the Soviet Navy and Soviet Intelligence.
That is a clear Soviet attempt to change the balance of power in an area of the world—the area between Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Australia—where they don't have any business changing the balance. So the Vietnamese had to deal with that problem.
Secondly, the Vietnamese are still on the Thai border with the Vietnamese Army, as part of their occupation of Cambodia. That is a fact which has to be rectified. Unless the ASEAN nations of Southeast Asia can get together and work out with Hanoi a way to lower the tension, the problem of US-Vietnamese relations is not going to change.
Finally, the Vietnamese keep holding us accountable for their own problems with their neighbor to the north. And Sino-Vietnamese relations are not an American problem. That's between Hanoi and Peking. And frankly, if it comes down in the end to a brutal choice in America's national interest between Vietnam and China, the choice is easy.
China is a great nation of immense importance to the United States strategically, politically, economically, and all sorts of other ways. The improvement in Sino-American relations in the Carter years, an improvement which has been disrupted by the mismanagement of that issues under the Reagan Administration, but which is still vital to our strategic interests, is of far greater importance to us than Vietnam.
On the other hand, if the Vietnamese were willing to deal with the real issues, of stability in the region, and the Soviet role in the region that’s stimulated by them, then perhaps at some future date the US and Vietnamese can move towards what is in the long run obviously desirable, some form of continuing government to government relations with Vietnam which are part—and I want to stress this—of Hanoi's willingness to be a cooperative member of Southeast Asia, and not a disruptive element. Obviously, this would be desirable.
Is there no respect at all in which the United States can be faulted for any aspect of the failure to reach some kind of a relationship with Vietnam post-war?
I'm not sure I follow what you mean. The United States...
In your description of the negotiations, all of the errors seem to have been made by the Vietnamese.
I don't see what the United States should have done differently. In May of 1977, and again in June, and again in December of 1977, I went to Paris and offered the Vietnamese mutual recognition with no strings attached and we told them we would drop our veto of them in the United Nations.
They in turn demanded aid. The reason, the obstacle to progress was entirely in Hanoi. Carter had given me the most generous instructions. Carter had handed, not handed, had offered a olive branch to Hanoi, and they wanted the olive branch to be draped with dollar bills.
That was clearly Hanoi's fault. And the second phase, when Hanoi, after a year and a half of very obstreperous behavior, finally dropped its demand for aid, they had created an entirely new strategic situation with the boat people, refugees, with the treaty with the Viet, Russian, with the impending invasion of Cambodia.
If the United States had moved then, we would have disrupted our entire position in East Asia, from Korea and Japan, all the way down to Australia. We had to deal with Vietnam in the context of the whole region. That was critical. We did so.
Everything else in the region went well and moved forward. This part of it didn't because of the Vietnamese behavior. Now I am not going to be, I'm not going to cry over spilled milk, or do a mea culpa here. We tried very hard to do something in a way that would be consistent with our national interest, and our national honor. The inability to achieve it was not an American failure. It was a Vietnamese mistake.
Uh, just have one last question, and that is was there anything about the Bangkok meeting with Thach that is worthy of comment.
No, I happened to be in Bangkok on a trip, Thach happened to be there. Thach and I had had a cordial, professional relationship, and we thought it would be useful to have an additional talk. But it was of no consequence.
Any anecdotes at all about your negotiating with either Hang or Thach that might be of interest to people, insights into their character, or...
The Vietnamese were tough negotiators. They were not linear negotiators who give an inch away at a time. They hold to very tough, maximum positions, until the very last moment. And then they're apt to retreat very rapidly. It's not, in my view, an efficient way to negotiate. A more effective way to negotiate is to move inch by inch, a step by one side, a step by another side, to build up confidence, to build up momentum.
That's not the Vietnamese style. They, I am quite certain in my own mind, that in the first three rounds in Paris my Vietnamese opposite number had absolutely no negotiating flexibility from Hanoi. He was given instructions which were hopeless and futile. When Thach came to New York, he had flexibility. But even then, I don't think he used it with as much skill as he might have.
Ah...he is, however, a very shrewd negotiator. And having negotiated with Kissinger and myself and other Americans, he knows how to handle negotiations. One curious thing about the Vietnamese which has never been adequately understood by the public or the press. They have a very constant style of being more conciliatory and flexible in their statements and their style with journalists and visitors and in public than they are in private with negotiations.
This is precisely the opposite of most countries. The Chinese, for example, take very firm positions in public, very principled positions. In private, they're very serious and they can, if required, show flexibility in tactics if their principles are maintained. The Vietnamese are the opposite.
Now I have negotiated with the Vietnamese on and off since the Spring of 1968 now. And they are very tough negotiators, but I'm not sure that they're as skilled as they might be in achieving their objectives. In any case, be that as it may, they have handled themselves very badly in the one period that they had a chance to make progress: 1977-78.
And now it's over. There's nothing more they can do. There's, I see no lights at the end of this particular tunnel. On the other hand, this tunnel doesn't involve American soldiers shooting and being shot at in Southeast Asia, so it's not as bad as it used to be.
Cut. Thank you.
Okay, what followed is a little room tone in the office. The busy office where Mr. Holbrooke was recorded.
End room tone.