INT: Can you explain what Nu did, you say he corrupted the policy, what did he actually do?
RH: Well, he took the name strategic hamlet program, but instead of building strategic hamlets as an oil block with a twenty year program of gradually extending the secure areas, he put them all over the map and it became clear that his reasons were ideological. He was using the strategic hamlet name to further his own political party and his own political ambitions.
INT: Why were people so frightened of being in these hamlets?
RH: Because they were in exposed positions. I mean, if you build your hamlets at the edge of the secure area and gradually make your secure go out, that's one thing. But if, this being the secure area, you put it over here on the Cambodian border you know, where you're within walking distance of Vietcong battalions, you're very exposed. These are not regular troops, they're just villagers and he put these strategic hamlets in strategic military places where they had no defenses and no regular troops to defend them. See, a strategic hamlet was designed to prevent a five man Vietcong patrol from coming and getting food, you see. But it couldn't do anything against a battalion of Vietcong regulars and he put them in the midst of areas where the Vietcong battalions were permanently stationed.
INT: In one book I read, I'm not sure if it was yours, you said that one of the things that President Kennedy did was to repeatedly send Robert McNamara to Vietnam...
RH: Repeatedly what?
INT: Send Robert McNamara to Vietnam to...
RH: (Interrupts) Well, you have to understand Robert McNamara. We were going to an NSC meeting... Well, first of all I think you must understand that as far as Kennedy was concerned, Robert McNamara had... as doing something, we believed, that no President and no Secretary of Defense had succeeded in doing, that is to give civilian presidential control over war plans. I mean, nuclear war plans. Up to that time, the Pentagon had succeeded in preventing any President from knowing what was going on, you see, and actually during the latter part of the Eisenhower administration, the SIOP, the Strategic Integrated Operations Plan, before that time, if there had been a war, navy planes would have been over Moscow at the same time as air force planes were, shooting each other as much as the Russians, you see. But under Eisenhower that was changed and we had an integrated plan. Kennedy was the first President where the plan was effected and McNamara actually got enough control over the Pentagon so that the President knew what the strategic plans were. So President was going to forgive McNamara a great deal because of that, it was a great accomplishment. but what happened was that McNamara, we would have a National Security Council meeting and the State Department would be, say, taking one position, and he would take some other usually a war-mongering position, you know, something that would increase our involvement, send more ammunition, send more advisers, whatever increase our commitment. And the State Department and the White House would be opposed to it. And McNamara would say, I'll go to Vietnam and see for myself. Well, and you know, what he would do, what he would then turn to an aide and say, have an airplane on the strip to leave in half an hour, the trouble was we'd say, but Bob, you know, you're going to go out there, you're going to talk to the same people that are writing the cables we've just been reading, what (unintelligible) new, you know, I mean, you're not going to be able to talk to anybody that you haven't already talked to. Well, I got to see for myself. So, he'd fly out there and I'd be hard pressed to get one of my people to go, you know, a State Department representative, but we managed it. Then he would come back, after having talked to the people out there, and adopt the position we'd been arguing for all the time. He had this kind of idea that he had to go talk to people face to face himself. So all these trips were McNamara's idea, not Kennedy's idea. Kennedy sent Max Taylor and Walt Rostow out there at the very beginning and Kennedy sent Mike Forestall and me out there twice, but all the other trips were McNamara's idea.
INT: He had a special airplane, didn't he?
RH: Well, they called it a McNamara Special. Previous Secretaries of Defense had borrowed Air Force 1, which was the presidential plane, but he had this idea that he was going to save money, so he would have a tanker you know outfitted with bunks and those fellows had no insulation you see, so you couldn't hear each other think on a thing and you're screaming at each other. It was very interesting, Averill Harriman, who was very deaf, somehow the background noise he didn't hear, but he could hear your voice, so he'd say, quit shouting, quit shouting! The rest of us couldn't hear anything!
INT: In 1963 you commissioned a report on the Diem and the Diem regime and the Buddhist problem from Lewis Savice . Do you recall that?
RH: Well, Lewis Savice was the desk officer for Vietnam for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, yes.
INT: Why did you actually commission that report?
RH: You're misunderstanding. I was head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, it had offices of African affairs, Asian affairs and so on. Each of these offices had desk officers. Lewis Savice was the desk officer in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research for Vietnam, so all he did was write reports on Vietnam and this particular one you're thinking about was an assessment of the progress of the war and he and I and the others who - it was a joint effort, you know - decided the war was not going well. This caused a huge problem with McNamara, because he said, we in the Pentagon are the only ones who can decide whether the war's going well or not and he raised hell because he was trying to keep anybody from having any assessment about the success of the war effort except the Pentagon. Self-serving is what we call it.
INT: Tell me about the famous cable of August the twenty fourth, '63, how did that come about?
RH: Well, what happened was that American, I guess all countries, do not permit an out-going ambassador and an in-coming ambassador to be in the same country at the same time, for perfectly obvious reasons. what had happened was we were changing ambassadors and... Henry Cabot Lodge was going out and the......
INT: Noulting was going out...
RH: Noulting was coming out and Lodge was going in. So, those two and the Assistant Secretary for the Far East met in Hawaii and Noulting had just come out and Lodge was just going in, so the three of us met there to confer about what we were going to do. And we had heard rumors that brother Nu and Ngu DDiem were going to beat up the pagodas. The Buddhists had been protesting and there had been an incident where the Buddhists had flown a Buddhist flag and Ngu Dinh Diem had ordered that no flags be flown except that of South Vietnam. The troops opened fire, killed a number of Buddhists. So we had heard a rumor following this that Ngu Dinh Diem and his brother Nu were going to beat up the pagodas, and so Noulting had gone in and told President Diem that if they attacked with troops these pagodas that the United States would have to denounce them, would have to condemn it in a public broadcast, in a public statement. the minute Noulting was out of the country, they attacked the pagodas and the news came in on the clipper when the three of us... you know, on the ticker the three of us standing there and Noulting kept saying, but he promised me, he promised me. And so that was in August. The next day I went back to Washington and when I arrived there, Lodge had arrived in Vietnam and Lodge sent the cable saying that the Vietnamese generals had come to him and said that they had information that Ngu Dinh Diem was going to order their arrest and execution, he was going to kill the generals and they wanted the American blessing if they felt that they had to protect themselves, pull a coup d'état. And so on August twenty fourth we wrote a cable. Now you must understand that in those days or maybe still, you get cables like that from some part of the country or the world or the other almost every week and as a kind of standard reply, you say the United States cannot participate in anything like this, we cannot aid it, we cannot do anything to be involved and we will examine any new government on its own merits. So we drafted such a cable. Well, actually McNamara was out of town, Rusk was in New York at the UN and Kennedy was at Hyannis Port. we couldn't reach McNamara, but we reached Kennedy and Rusk. Rusk strengthened the cable by putting in a paragraph that say that if brother Nu and Diem succeed in taking Saigon, we will endeavor to support the war effort through the port of Hwai. Well, that got down to one sentence, but it made the cable quite different, because it got us a little more deeply more involved. So when that cable arrived in Saigon, the cable said, go to Diem and tell him that we think his brother Nu ought to be made ambassador to Paris, something to get him out of the country, that he's causing the trouble - this was the beat up of the pagodas, you see, and there were several unarmed priests and nuns were killed in that raid on the pagodas. So Lodge said, I will do nothing until I hear from you, because if I go to Diem as you instruct me to do and ask him to remove his brother Nu, he will immediately arrest the generals and execute them. So, Monday morning, there was a meeting of the NSC and Kennedy came in, rather upset, and what he's upset about became very quickly known, because John McCone, head of CIA, and Bob McNamara, both of whom were out of town, you see, when this was done and their deputies had signed the cable, were upset and were sort of leading a rebellion. So Kennedy came in upset, because his government was split and what he said was, all right, nothing has happened, Lodge has not carried out the instructions of the cable, so we have three choices. We can go with the cable as written, the August twenty fourth cable, we can... withdraw it, nothing has happened at all, or we can modify it as Lodge recommends, which is that he do everything except see Ngu Dinh Diem, not visit him. Well, Kennedy then did something I have never seen him do before or since, and that is he then
INT: They presumably took that as a sort of green light from Kennedy to...
INT: They presumably took that as a sort of green light from Kennedy to...
RH: (Interrupts) Well, nothing happened as a matter of fact, so it wasn't a green light, because we later discovered, many, many months later that one of the generals or two or three of them, I don't know, refused to go along with it, so nothing happened, there was no coup. The coup that finally occurred was a quite different one with different people, some of the same generals, but not some of the same generals and in that case, on November first, they did not tell the United States government anything, the did not consult us in any way. The first we heard about it was the liaison officer from CIA to the military, the Vietnamese military, was a man named Koneen and on November first, Koneen got a call and said come to the Vietnamese military headquarters and he arrived there and they said, the coup is in progress, the troops are on the march, they're going... this was about eleven o'clock, the troops had started at nine and they were due to arrive at twelve or shortly thereafter. Well, one of the things that was... So, the two, the August twenty fourth cable and the November first coup were totally unrelated. Nothing happened in August. But once there's a kind of funny story about this, which is... and if you have any doubt that the United States government didn't know about this, I will tell you the following story.... the Sinkpak Admiral - Jeez, I've forgotten his name now...... well the Commander in Chief of the Pacific fleet was an admiral based in Hawaii and he had an annoying habit of surveying his domain without notice. He would arrive in Saigon without any notice and depart and so but you see when the Commander in Chief of the American Pacific forces visits Saigon or any other country, he at least has the sense to offer to make a courtesy call on the Chief of State. Well, the problem was that... and so the ambassador has to accompany him, you see. Well, the problem is that Ngu Dinh Diem was a talker and you would have a fifteen-minute courtesy call and you might have to be there four hours as he delivers his monologue. So it's standard practice in the American embassy that anybody that had any reason to call on Ngu Dinh Diem always refrained from drinking anything, any liquid for several hours in advance and evacuated before he went, because he's liable to be there four or five hours, you see. Well, they arrived there and the... here you have the President of the country, the American ambassador and the American Commander of the Pacific in Ngu Dinh Diem's office and in fact there are battalions converging on the palace, due to arrive within the hour. Now if we had known anything about this, we'd have never allowed those people to be at target zero, you see. And when they got out the airport... the admiral said to the ambassador, he said, you know, I've never seen as a (unintelligible) General Don, the Commanding General of the Vietnamese forces, was there, he said, I've never seen him so nervous, he was sweating like a pig and he's chewing gum and everything else and we later learned why he was sweating like a pig, because here he had the American ambassador and... in Sinkpak in President Diem's office when the troops were already on the move.