INTERVIEW WITH JACK VALENTI
INTERVIEWER: So this is an interview with Jack Valenti on 3rd June 1996, we're in the Motion Picture Association headquarters and this is for the Cold War program on Vietnam. Is that all right? So Mr. Valenti, if we could start by looking at the Cold War subject, to what extent was the United States isolated in viewing Vietnam as a domino?
JACK VALENTI: Well, of course, as Edmund Burke once said, retrospective wisdom does make us all very intelligent.
At that time, the domino theory was very much alive in the United States and I don't know that it was seriously challenged anywhere in the world. I suppose that the French might have said something about that since 1954 they had been through, but General Eisenhower was the first one to come up with that.
In September of 1963 President Kennedy was interviewed by David Brinkley on television in America and was asked, do you believe in the domino theory and he said, I most assuredly do.
This theory insisted that if Vietnam fell and the drenching invasion from the north continued, that all of South East Asia would be put to hazard by this kind of domination.
Now the fact is, that it didn't happen, but it didn't happen for reasons which had nothing to do with the validity of the theory to begin with, so the domino theory was very much alive, no question about that.
INT: But do you think that it was something that became associated much more with the United States and that other countries, particularly as the Vietnam war progressed, started to diverge from that view?
JV: Well I suppose that the farther you get from a situation, you may take different views.
I think it's fair to say that most of the people in Asia believed it, because I know that I accompanied Vice President Humphrey in 1966, in February, on a nine nation Asian tour and we met with every leader in South East Asia and almost without exception they all believed that there was ruin ahead if we abandoned that area.
INT: And how do you think the perspectives on Vietnam, particularly with regard to the domino theory changed (unintelligible) different presidents from Ike through Kennedy to Johnson and Nixon? Do you think they saw it differently?
JV: Well I know that General Eisenhower didn't, because when Lyndon Johnson was President I was physically present for meetings that he had with the former President. Ike would fly from Gettysburg, the president and I would go to Andrews Airforce base and there on a Lear jet President Johnson would sit and talk with Eisenhower. Eisenhower supported him in every way and believed that what we were trying to do to
deter aggression in South East Asia was very much the right course of action to take. So as far as Eisenhower was concerned there, was diminution in his belief that this was a valid course.
INT: Now just turning to the beginning of the Vietnam war itself, there are people today who say that after the Diem coup, President Kennedy was planning to pull out of Vietnam, what do you think of that theory?
JV: Well, I've heard it expressed but no evidence for it as far as I am aware of and many of the Kennedy associates also believe that. I think that he was going to withdraw a thousand men as a kind of a gesture, just as when we stopped the bombing later on that was a gesture to see what kind of response it would elicit. But the men were never withdrawn. In the real sense, men were brought home after their tour of duty was done and they weren't replaced, but essentially that's a declaration advanced by a couple of Kennedy's aides, who were now dead, and there seems to be written documentation of it that I'm aware of or any historians aware of. The fact is that in 1962, Bobby Kennedy was in Saigon at a press conference and made it overwhelmingly clear when he passionately declared that the US would not abandon South East Asia, that we were there to protect democracy and freedom and as I said in September two months before President Kennedy was assassinated, he believed in the domino theory. So all of the evidence points to the fact that the Kennedy administration was staunch in its belief in what it was doing. And the unanswered question which has always lurked in the back of my mind and I think a lot of people who were hit deep in Vietnam at the time was, would President Johnson, whose total emphasis as President was on building a great society in the United States and who wanted more than anything else to deal with the vast and complex domestic issues which he felt were infecting the nation, would he have sent troops to Vietnam, if we had not had fifteen thousand six hundred soldiers there when he became President? Now that's one of those iffy speculative questions that will never be answered and you can make whatever judgements you chose. My own feeling was that if Kennedy had not made the commitment then Johnson would have no obligation to fulfil the commitment and therefore he would see no reason to pour troops in Vietnam as advisers otherwise, when he needed to have all the funds he could possibly gather to deal with the great society causes.
INT: Nonetheless, when Johnson came to power, he did substantially escalate the war in the space of a year or so. Why did he do that, did he need to?
JV: Well, you have to understand the environment in which all of this took place from a vantage point of thirty years sometimes we observe things mistily, but those of us who were there, I think understand it quite readily. First, Johnson had to demonstrate to the country on November twenty second 1963, when he took the oath office on Airforce 1, that while the light in the White House may flicker, the light in the White House never, never goes out and to do that he had to establish that the Kennedy legacy was intact, that it would be pursued and indeed four days later, he went before the Congress of the United States and he said, John Kennedy said, let us begin, I say let us continue. So he had to stay. Now after that, the question is how do you disengage? How do you leave when all displayed on the record is a moderate President's belief that we ought to stay there and deter aggression and a new President's commitment to redeem that legacy, how then do you just as we say in Texas haul ass out of there? The answer is there was no ready reason, or easy reason. And then we made what in retrospect probably was a bad decision, in which the military begin to tell President Johnson that we could win this war essentially on the cheap, by moving in, interdicting the forces from the north and then beginning some bombing in nineteen sixty five first at Playkoo and then later, that we would in time be able to restrain the North Vietnamese and probably then get them to a table where we could negotiate out. And so he begin to apply the pressure incrementally, on the advice of the military and Johnson took that advice, because as he used to say, a man is no better than his information, his information was coming from the military. They were offering him a way out which he desperately and passionately desired and the more and more that you get into deeper, the more unlikely it is that you can withdraw because if you did then the Barry Goldwater's of the world, and particularly those on the right of center politically would have said, Johnson you're a coward, you're the first American President to put your tail between your legs and run after we made a commitment for three Presidents and you foul that commitment. And that's what he would have faced in those current day political environs, so he kept on and finally of course, we got in so deep and never realized that the North Vietnamese were ready to make the same generation war, they weren't going to leave for another twenty five years or more and we didn't understand that. And so psychologically they beat us and in time the Johnson presidency was foundering.
INT: How did Johnson deal with opponents of this Vietnam policy because as time went on there seemed to be fewer and fewer actual opponents in the administration?
JV: I sat in on every meeting that took place in the White House in Vifrom November '6f3 until the time I departedin June of 1966. I didn't know of a single member of the Kennedy Johnson administration who took exception to what we were doing except George Ball, the Deputy Secretary of State and who freely and at the President's request, expressed those opposing remarks at almost every meeting that. He did not gain one supporter around that table. That doesn't mean he was right or wrong, it just means that the great reach of government officialdom was arrayed of the side of doing what we were doing and George Ball said that we can't win, we're getting mired down there and that we should cut our losses and get out. Now Johnson was attracted to that notion, to cut his losses and get out, but how to get out. I remember he used to... after his meeting we'd go into his office, the two of us, and he'd lean back in his chair, put his hands over his face and say, God if I could just get Ho Chi Minh to a table, he and I could come and reason together his famous saying from Isaiah. Johnson believed if he could just sit across that table, that he could work this out with Ho Chi Minh. The trouble was he couldn't get Ho Chi Minh to the table. Now if you can't negotiate how do you extricate yourself, that was the conundrum, the riddle that was just unfathomable.