Comparison of the revolutions in the Philippines and Vietnam

General Ed Lansdale
Cassette #1
...French resistance period. Or of...I shouldn't exaggerate the fights. I mean, at one...a couple of confrontations. And ah, the confrontation took place but it didn't take place with him, it took place with somebody else, you know, when he was...
I've, I've never heard that.
When he was in the French Resistance, he was under the orders of a British agent and the British agent did have a confrontation with De Gaulle and Lou tells a vivid story about how they were both there, but Lou wasn't there. Lou was in the hospital in Toulouse with what is generally known as a social disease.
Yeah. That I believe.
And all kinds of other things. I had a long interview with his first wife, which is something.
It looks fine on this monitor. Let me show me a close-up. Now a wide one. All right, it's rolling. Speed. That's fine.
Okay? Your assignment to Vietnam in 1954 was largely based on your success in helping the Philippine government to fight its pro-communist guerrillas. First, how did you get the assignment to Vietnam, and do you think the Philippine experience was relevant to Vietnam?
The difference between my experience in the Philippines and the experience in Vietnam have many similarities and some very sharp differences that were important. I have visited Vietnam as part of a mission to check on the needs of the French forces fighting there in 1953.
And later that year I was at a meeting in the Pentagon that was called by President Eisenhower and was chaired by the Secretary of Defense that had John Foster Dulles in it.
And as they were talking about the results of our visit earlier in the year, John Foster Dulles, in replying to some question that was asked there, turned around, looked at me, and said, "Well, we're going to send Ed over to Indochina and don't you want to go." I said, "Well I really don't, but if I could work with the Vietnamese rather than work with French, why I would be willing to go over and try and help out, but what is it you want me to do."
He said, "I would like you to do the same thing you did in the Philippines," so that was the similarity. The differences were quite marked. In the Philippines we were working with a government that had elective officials against an enemy that was trying to overthrow them and set up a new political system.
In Vietnam, the officials in South Vietnam were either foreign — meaning French — or were appointed Vietnamese, so that the association and image that they gave to the people was not of being their own officials but of being appointed and of strangers, foreigners. This is in a country that had a very deep suspicion of foreigners, even those who had been around among them for so long as the French had been.
And as the Geneva Convention met and was deciding on the terms of the peace in Vietnam, the French made political sounds that they were going to move out. But what that meant was they would move out almost an entire government leadership structure, not only in Saigon but out in the provinces.
So in the Philippines I had helped the Philippine government and...govern well and helped the armed forces bring back essentially enough peace to have the government operate in favor of the people. And, in Vietnam a whole government structure was leaving the country and the people out in the countryside had heard of Saigon, some of them had visited there.
But to them it didn't represent a government, and the structure had a great vacuum in it, so that the problems became very sharply different. The enemy, strangely enough, had remained very much the same type of an enemy, had grown much bigger in fighting against the French forces, but had started life as a...about the same number, same size as the Communist party and its armed forces in the Philippines, but had grown oh, about three or four times as large by the time I'd gotten there, and kept growing all the time.
And I had had successes with the Philippine Communists; I've never had the successes with the Vietnamese ones. (Cough) Among the other contrasts on...that were the problems that I had to deal with almost immediately in Vietnam was to help the Vietnamese take over and govern themselves, and they needed some encouragement and some guidance on that. So that as struggles would take place out in the provinces there needed to be something other than a foreign element, meaning people from a big city - the capitol city of Saigon, coming out to the countryside to work with the farmers and the rice paddy people out in the provinces.
In the Philippines, the problems had devolved into essentially military and political types: the military to protect the people, and political to really represent the people, to let the people feel that it was their own choice of people that were governing them.
I went to the Philippines the second time to help in the Huk rebellion in 1950 and at that time the Huk guerrillas, the communist guerrillas, had achieved considerable success in dominating the provinces around Manila, but they had done so by claiming to the people that the elected government had not won fairly in elections so that one of the big things that took place in the Philippines was advising the army to get in on the electoral process and helping the commission on election there maintain the law according to what was on the books.
So that they became, in effect, not poll watchers but guardians of the sanctity of secret balloting. (Cough) And the big turning points in the campaign against the communists there came about during two elections — the first one was a by-election in 1951, when governors and mayors of cities were elected, and the armed forces made sure that there wasn't fraud around the polling places, and people who were running and who actually won the votes and were most popular were elected.
In this the people could clearly see that the government was theirs and was representing them, and had no use for people who were asking them not to vote and saying that their votes wouldn't be counted and that the government should be overthrown. In effect, the people said, "well we voted, our votes were counted, these are our people and it's our government and we aren't going to help to overthrow it."
There is no such feeling at all in Vietnam, the people said, who is that in Saigon — they're French, they're foreigners, we want them out of the country. And they didn't want to side with the communists by the time I got there. They had seen the communist organization and most of them preferred to sit on the fence, and I think the great majority of people just wished that everybody would go away and leave them alone.

American support for the French in Vietnam

Looking back do you think... (Cough) Looking back do you think it was a mistake for the United States to have supported the French as far back, starting as far back as 1950?
A mistake in supporting the French...1950...really not. I think that there were factors in our consideration of helping the French that went far beyond Vietnam and what the French were trying to do there. Don't forget they'd been our allies in World War II.
We had very close cultural and economic ties with France. We were helping them bring some order and stabilization in a place that they said that they were going to get out of and leave there and make independent. This is what they told us and I think that their eventual intention was to do that.
There was a great deal of misgiving in Washington, as far as I could gather, about doing more than giving them some supplies and material things and not getting any further involved for ourselves.
Were you involved at all or in Washington at the time the Eisenhower Administration when a decision had to be made over whether to help the French at Dien Bien Phu? You remember that the...
I was in the Philippines at the time and do not have any first-hand knowledge at all about the decision on Dien Bien Phu.
Could I ask you opinion. Do you think we should have helped the French at Dien Bien Phu?
Help the French at Dien Bien Phu...Uh, I think we were correct in our decision to stay out. I think we would have gotten involved in...pulled in sort of backwards and had very little say about how things should be done.
And we would have been caught in some combat action that we could neither control our own forces or those other forces involved. And uh, I don't think we could have saved the French at that time.

The American Mission in South Vietnam

Now, you went to, you went to Saigon at the head of the Saigon military mission, was this early 1954?
I went there in, uh, let's see, I think it was May. Towards the summer of '54. I was in Manila at the time. President Magsaysay of the Philippines had asked me to come in and help him on some of his work with Congress there, many of whom were close friends of mine in the Philippines.
And this was on his broad programs of work that he was trying to do inside the country, of social change that he was trying to bring about. And I got a...orders in while I was there to proceed immediately to Saigon. And I was appointed temporarily as an assistant attaché to the Air Force, and it wasn't until I got there and talked with General O'Daniel who was head of our military mission in Saigon at the time who asked me to also come out and help him with this MAAG problems of training, uh not training at the time, of checking on military support to the Vietnamese.
What was Saigon like in those days, in early spring of '54?
Um, it was war time, yet, when I was there. There was lots of evidence on the streets of military traffic. The French had a great love of messengers on motorcycles, so you would notice in the heavily clogged traffic of bicycles and small French cars and taxis, and cyclos, which are the rickshaws, motorized rickshaws of Vietnam, suddenly these motorcycles of a French soldier hunkered down over the handlebars and wearing a helmet and going as fast as he could, weaving in and out of traffic, delivering some sort of message from one headquarters to another.
Many more trees than later in the American times of the war, and with lots of foliage out, some how or other seeming more peaceful than it became later on, and a less hurried atmosphere as far as the Vietnamese were concerned. Many of the residents of Saigon in those days felt themselves to be fence-sitters.
They wanted no part of either side in the war, and went about their usual business so that the sidewalks were crowded with people socializing and talking around the public bumps and in the marketplaces there was a much more leisurely...outside of seeing the military on the streets it was a peaceful scene, the war was very remote to them.
It's been said that Saigon in those days was maybe one of the most corrupt cities in the world...
That and peace go hand in hand, unfortunately in anything, see. Saigon was corrupt, but corrupt in the sense that you'd see in any civilization in that there were ways to beat the rules of the game of government. And in Saigon in those days the corruption was the world-wide one of gangsterism, of prostitution, of gambling, of normal illegal acts, the legality of any government.
Later on, the corruption changed and became something quite else, that ate away at the Vietnamese armed forces and more in the terms of graft than in Saigon in those days. There was in the earlier Saigon, there was usually in the downtown streets or around some of the side streets you could get a heady whiff of opium on the air, there were opium-smoking circles that many of the Vietnamese and many of French who were in the town would go over and have a pipe of an afternoon and thought nothing of it.
What was the Saigon military mission? That was an organization that you set up, wasn't it?
It was one that I set up, uh...
I'm sorry, could you start by saying "I set up the Saigon military mission."
I set up the Saigon military mission to have a mom and pop for a group of very unconventional military people that I'd brought together who manned the direct aid section of our military advisory group to work directly with Vietnamese on a wide variety of subjects including the psychological operations of the Vietnamese army.
And maintained help up in Hanoi to the refugee program while it was going on and also performed some advisory duties into the civil government of Vietnam. And these were all military people but their duties were a little bit apart from the ordinary military duties, to fit a very peculiar need at the time. When the need was largely resolved, the mission was disbanded.
Was that group responsible to...under the American military or under the CIA?
It was really responsible back to several people in Washington including the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, the CIA, and to the Chiefs of Staff of the various services. Essentially the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Well, and the other members of the group, were you getting paid by the CIA, or by the State Department...who was paying you?
Some of them were paid by CIA. I was paid by the Air Force. I was a regular Air Force officer, a number of the others were regular officers and were paid by their services, their military services while they were there. Some were in the State Department, were paid by State as foreign service officers.
Ah, the main difficulty with this type of a thing is that we were against an enemy in a struggle, an enemy that was halfway acknowledged by the United States - the Communists forces - who had an organization for which we had no counterpart on our side. They had a cadre, a political cadre, a military cadre, who were often the same person, doing things that were way beyond the very formal type of organization that the United States had for such a struggle.
And something was needed on our side that could counterpart them, to make sure that everything that we did, or as much as possible of what we did, would be effective. Because some of their military leaders were more political leaders than they were military. Or if not, if they were as good a military leader, such as General Giap, they had a very good political sense and would do things for political effect.
And as most of Giap's battles were for the political psychological effect for what he did. And we had, none of our people, the ambassador at the time, the generals that we had out there, the economic chiefs were people who saw themselves other than the roles assigned them in Washington. Not as ambassador-general, or general-ambassador or anything like that, but as playing a very straight role as Americans do.

Americans and Vietnamese culture

But in this description, your group was a group of Americans trying to get into this military-cum-political role whereas on the Communist side, they were Vietnamese, so they had a kind of nationalistic credential. I mean, who...
Which we didn't. Ah...
I think we should go back and...Repeat the subject there, you know.
Our group were different from the communist side in that the communists were Vietnamese and we were Americans and we were acting as advisors to the Vietnamese, and the important, essential point in that is, we were asking the Vietnamese to do things that were best for their country and almost entirely were asking them to do things their style, rather than ours, based on their culture, their feelings of morality and principles that they believed in, but to do it for their country. And primarily other than technical advice, which we gave at times, we were urging them to see the problem whole, that they were looking at, because many of the Vietnamese that we were dealing with had no experience or very little experience in, for example, public administration.
The military officers were by and large city boys who had to operate in the countryside and hadn't known farming, hadn't known the mores and background of rice paddy farmers and little villagers and so on, so that we stepped out of the role of having them do things American ways for American reasons or for our own country but were urging them to do things for their country, Vietnamese style, and in their way.
But you described our Vietnamese as being largely city, urban types. In many ways weren't they just as foreign in the countryside of Vietnam as we were?
The officials and officers in particular of the Vietnamese government and armed forces were city boys mainly because they needed at least a high school education to hold a job, or to be an officer. The high schools were very far and few between in the ex-colony. The uh, I forget how many high schools, but there were very, very few of them. In order to get an education, you would have to go to a city and go to a high school.
There was one university in Vietnam, the University at Hanoi, again, it only had city people because it took money to go to school, it took residence in a city while you were going to school, and even if you had come from the countryside, as a young person, you would have to move into the city and grow up essentially in a city, picking up city ways and a city outlook on life.
So that when they would get out in the countryside, this was mostly new to them. And the people of Vietnam out in the countryside are xenophobic, and particularly so in the places where most of the combat took place in Vietnam, and where even people from the next village sometimes were looked on as foreigners. So when people came in who dressed differently, who had different faces, different skin coloration, they were definitely foreign.
And it took people from that own vicinity to be accepted by them. That changed gradually as later as Americans fought out in the countryside as they became familiar figures to the Vietnamese but there was a little bit of that still inside them - the Vietnam villagers - a little bit of hesitancy with any stranger.

Ngo Dinh Diem's flaws

You were a special advisor to Ngo Dinh Diem uh, in those days. What was he like, and how would you describe his understanding of the situation in Vietnam.
I got to know Ngo Dinh Diem shortly after he came to Vietnam, returned to it in 1954 as the appointed Prime Minister for Emperor Bao Dai. And I became very close to him in sort of an accidental way and was never his official advisor. We became very close friends, and I'd give him advice on many many subjects with considerable guidance and discussions beforehand with U.S. officials, I might add.
But I had never heard of Diem before I went to Vietnam and he wasn't there when I was serving there in the earlier parts of '54. But word came that this man was coming in as Prime Minister and I recall our Ambassador at the time asking me what I knew about him. I told him I'd never heard of him and he said he knew practically nothing about him, he'd just had a few brief notes on his biography.
And I went off to find out about him from Vietnamese I knew. A number of them knew a great deal about him and they either liked him fully and no holds barred, a hundred percent for him or a hundred percent against him. He was a man of controversy. Those who were for him said that he was a very honest person, very acceptable to them as being a person of intensely high morality.
Those who didn't like him said he's stupid. So they wouldn't fault him for anything other than they felt he didn't know enough. They felt that he wouldn't be corrupt, that he wouldn't condone graft, that he was a stickler, morally. But they all knew him. There wasn't a person that I talked to that didn't know a great deal about him.
And (cough) they also told me that he had been an administrator in the provinces before and had made a name for himself by the very strict but very thorough administration of problems for the Vietnamese who then had a court at Hue. He was due in at the airport, Tan Son Nhut Airport one day and I was invited as part of the diplomatic group to go out and receive him.
As I started out towards the airport the streets were just lined with mobs of people and I got a sudden impulse to go off to the side and watch his arrival from the streets among the people rather than out with the diplomatic crowd out at the airport. So I pulled in and I parked my car and got out and stood with the mobs on the sidewalks.
And we waited and waited and waited for something to happen and nothing did and his flight apparently had been delayed and the diplomatic reception out at the airport took a long time, but all of a sudden down the street we could hear a noise of motorcycles coming and everybody said "he's coming." So they were hoisting kids up on their shoulders, and everybody crowding up to see him, I along with them, and suddenly past us at about sixty miles an hour came a motorcycle escort and a closed car. You couldn't see anybody in it.
And it went by and everybody started asking, "Was that him?" "Did he come in?" And tremendous disappointment at not seeing him. Here was a tremendously enthusiastic, friendly crowd of people who didn't get to see the show that they wanted to, or to cheer the man. I felt that this had been a terrible mistake on somebody's part, of letting a man come in at a very dark hour in his country's history, and doing it in a sort of secretively and very security-minded, as though he didn't want to get close to the people at all, and stay away.
So I went down afterwards to our embassy and talked to the Ambassador and also talked to the chief of MAAG, General O'Daniel, and told them that I felt he had made a tremendous mistake and if somebody was advising him about the people, why to make that sort of mistake, he must be making mistakes on other things.
And I had been traveling all over the country talking with all sorts of Vietnamese and I knew what they wanted to see this man do, and if our American officials wouldn't mind I'd like to write down some very short notes in outline for this man and go up and give them to him. They told me that they wanted to see what I was going to say first so I went to work and stayed up all night writing a very short paper, four or five pages, of notions on economics, on administration out in the countryside, of agricultural needs and some reforms that could be made, and all of the things that the Vietnamese had been telling me of what they wanted this man to do.
So I showed it to our officials, they told me go ahead, that I couldn't do as an official US document, but if I wanted to present it on my own, and make sure that he knew it was on my own, go ahead with it. I didn't speak French so I got the head of USIA, the US Information Agency, George Hellyer to come along with me and act as an interpreter for me.
So we went over to the Government Palace where the Prime Minister was and the building was almost deserted, there were a few people wandering around in the halls, but I couldn't see anything that said "The Prime Minister's Office" or any guards on the door to ask questions of. But one person hurrying along, I stopped and asked for the Prime Minister and he said, "He's upstairs."
So we climbed up stairs and there was nobody in the hall up there but there was a door ajar and I stuck my head in and there was a small-statured roly-poly person sitting there and the first thing I noticed was that his feet weren't touching the floor when he was sitting and he was pulled up at a table, and I asked him where the Prime Minister's office was, and he said that he was the Prime Minister. This was the way I met Diem.
And I told him about being with the crowds, watching his arrival, and I felt that some advisor of his was making a terrible mistake of keeping him away from the people, and that I had had the good fortune of being able to travel around the country and talk to a lot of Vietnamese and I'd put together some notes on my own that more or less said in outline what the people expected of him, and would he mind if I gave them to him.
And I explained I was doing this strictly on my own, as an American who had done this unofficially. So he took the paper and then he was reading and I said, well, I brought my friend here, with me George Hellyer who can read it to you in French and translate it. So George reached over and took this document and he held it like this to read it and then he held it way on out and George said "I forgot my glasses, see, and I can't see the typing on this thing." So Diem took off his glasses and put them on George and George then read it.
And this was the start of a relationship that brought me in to see a part of him that I have never heard from anybody else, of a friendship that showed a character who was extremely different from journalists' views, from diplomatic views, of the man. I saw a family man, because I was invited to dine at times with the family, in which he wasn't the oldest brother and he wasn't the boss of the country or anything, he was just one of the members of the family who you'd reach over if you wanted to grab a piece of food across his place and so on.
A man with a delightful sense of humor. Here had been pictured all along as a remote mandarin type and he had a delightful wit. His humor was so dry that you'd have to look at him sometimes to catch whether he was pulling your leg or being sort of stupid about something, and I'd catch that little glint in his eye and...
Which reminds me, the man had a tremendous look of intelligence and spark of life in his eyes, they were the most important part of his features. There was always a sparkle and little gleam there and he'd catch the humor and so forth when he'd find something very funny and was holding himself in and sort of laughing inside at something. To an otherwise sort of roly-poly type of a person this distinguished him from others of the same stature and in any walk of life.
(Sneeze) To what extent did he take your advice, and to what extent do you think that he...if you can give us some anecdotes of advice that you gave him that he took and maybe if we can project a little bit to the future, were there any flaws in him that eventually contributed to his downfall?
The advice that I gave him was usually on a current problem that beset him. And he would, I would ask him to describe the problem to me, and get him talking about not only the problem but how a Vietnamese who loved his country and was trying to serve the people should ideally resolve the problem.
This type of a discussion would usually let him get his ideas sorted out and in some order, and in some order of priority, so that he would feel that something must be done, and would undertake something that was Vietnamese and his own. So that the taking of advice wasn't so much taking my advice but was taking his own advice as re-described by me and sorted out and put in some shape.
Frequently he would ask me how things would look to other countries and I would answer that as best as I could and we would get into considerable discussions of social philosophies and so forth, including the Vietnamese approach to problems. So that he would take the advice because it was his own. I don't think he ever really dissembled to me on that, it wasn't that type of a relationship. There was no need for him to be dishonest at all in any way, nor on my part. We had extremely frank discussions on things.
Could you remember some examples?
One of the problems that he had personally was that he was steeped in a Vietnamese mandarin tradition and I recall one time - he was also an amateur photographer, he ran his own darkroom in the palace — but he was showing me some pictures taken of a visit to the provinces which was something I was always urging him to do, to get out and talk to people.
And as he did this I said, "well shame on you, you've got these farmers out in the field, taking off their hats, and you're talking down to them. And they must be bowing or something there, look, and you can't get the truth from a man whose eyes you can't see and who you aren't looking in his face and having a really man to man conversation.
So tell them to keep their hats on, tell them who you are and talk to them. When you start showing me pictures of you doing that I'll think that you start learning what your own people want and they won't tell you anything just to have you go away and feel happy. But you'll be getting the truth from them." He started doing that. And he would do dangerous things, for his personal security.
The first time that we got him down to the Mekong area, where we were trying to get the government re-established in areas that the enemy had left under the Geneva Accords, and had left a big gap in administration and so forth, it's a region of swamps and rivers and streams and so on. And Diem got in a boat and started rowing down a stream and there were tall grasses all along the banks, and of course there were guerrilla, enemy guerrillas nearby.
And he said no I haven't done this for a long time. He enjoyed it. He rowed over to some farmers and talked to them and asked what things were happening there. But the main thing about him was that he was getting over some habits that had been with him all of his life. I think that he mostly wanted to be a student-monk. To live in a monastery someplace and to do research and studies with probably history was his major subject.
His main work in those days at the Palace was done not in his office, not in any of the formal rooms of the administrative palace where he was, but in a little tiny alcove off of his bedroom, which...a place that two of us when we talked our knees would touch together, like we're doing now, and a much smaller space than this.
But he had all sorts of books and official documents and everything stacked from the floor to the ceiling, and he had a little tiny clear space on the table where he could do some writing, but so crowded in by books and papers and so on that you hardly see how the man could work there. And I thought well this is his monastery, this little monk's alcove, this is part of the man, the shy retiring person who has been forced into the limelight and to the foreground and doesn't really like it but he's happiest when he's in a place like this.
Just one point, could you mention...
We're cutting to change tapes.
End Part One