INT: So you mean he was unable to persuade Ho Chi Minh to go to the negotiating table, why do you think that was? Was it a matter of not understanding the Vietnamese way of thinking do you think?
JV: Well, I don't pretend to be an expert on Vietnamese mind-set. from what I have read since and it's just that the North Vietnamese out-lasted the French, they've out-lasted everybody and when you can send soldiers into battle with a rifle and a bag of rice and a bandoleer of ammunition and send them out without any support group of any kind and have them endure in the jungles that they knew so well, that Ho Chi Minh believed in his heart that no matter how much mechanized technology the Americans threw at him in the (unintelligible) terrain of Vietnam, he could out-last us, it's as simple as that.
INT: Was there never a feeling that he might... you know that Ho Chi Minh might be resistant to negotiate because the North Vietnamese presumably did want an end?
JV: Well they tried everything. All sorts of people served us intermediaries, both publicly and covertly. No-one was ever able to make that kind of bridge, to fill in that chasm, though we desperately tried, because President Johnson knew that absent on some kind of negotiation and absent of all our victories, how on earth do you get out of there.
INT: A lot of people have said with hindsight that the advisors, the Johnson cabinet, and the Kennedy cabinet for that matter, were people who were very confident about their own ability to make judgements and they didn't take enough notice of what was happening, they didn't listen enough to advice from others perhaps in Saigon what do you think's the truth of that?
JV: Well you have to understand that every single man around that table was chosen by John Kennedy. Johnson did not change Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense or any of the other secretaries of the army, navy, the air force, none of that. The only new people he administrated was a new director of the CIA, but other than that, these were... the National Security adviser, anyone, these were Kennedy selected people and I think they were extraordinarily intelligent. As David Halberstan described him in his book, the best and the brightest, and I think there was a kind of (unintelligible) about their own powers of analysis and judgement and that promoted the war. So that what you have is a group of people who had initially put forward the strategy and a President succeeding a gallant, popular, moderate President who's determined to follow, and you wind all that together and what you have is a cylinder of preconceived notions and I think later on, unsuitable military information coming back from Vietnam that didn't jive with what the facts were, but at the time we didn't know that.
INT: There's a quote in Halberstan's book of you for making a remark about MacNamara, I don't know if your remember. You were commenting on MacNamara's ability to calculate?
JV: I have to say Lyndon Johnson was absolutely transfixed by MacNamara, there was a lightening swift computer quality to the MacNamara mind where he could absorb all sorts of complex statistical information and then like a print out from a computer chuck it out. the words and figures marching in serried ranks, it was performance after performance that bordered on the magical. Now I've often wondered when MacNamara would say, yes we have seventeen thousand six hundred and twenty men and twenty seven air waves and this, whether it was right numbers or not, nobody ever checked them, but the certainty with which they were voiced and the confidence that he displayed was mesmerizing, it really was and I think both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson found him a remarkable intellectual.
INT: In the early days of the Johnson administration how much do you think that MacNamara called the shots on the policy towards Vietnam?
JV: I cannot certify this because I know that obviously the Joint Chiefs conferred with MacNamara, the President communicated with the Joint Chiefs through MacNamara and therefore I'm not privy to the inner sanctum conversations in the Pentagon between the Joint Chiefs and the young Turks around MacNamara and the defense secretary himself, I don't know. All I know is when we had presentations about military policy while General Wheeler and other military were there, it was MacNamara who made the presentation and of course Wheeler was there for questions under back up or confirmation, but essentially he was the guide and the presenter of the policy and the strategic vision of the Pentagon that time.
INT: How aware do you think that the Johnson administration was of the Sino-Soviet split that was happening and that perhaps Communism was not model, that there was Chinese Communism and there was Russian Communism and there was even Vietnamese Communism?
JV: If I had to order up a one mistake that was made, as I look back on it, it was the lack of energy and deliberation and thought that was given into the culture and the history and the contradictory strains that ran throughout Asia. I remember that there was a historian named Falk whose... I had read about it and I thought it would be a good idea if President Johnson met with him, because he seemed to be the foremost historian and sightful prober into the Vietnamese and the South Asian mind and I was not able to arrange that meeting for reasons which are sort of lost in my memory, but I always thought that we neglected this side of the equation and dealt too much in military and diplomacy and not enough into the soft underbelly of a country's culture, it's history, how it regarded its land and its traditions and its myths and its legends and without factoring that in, I think that we had a missing piece of the puzzle. I don't know what would have happened if we had done so, but I do believe that it would be useful.
INT: Was there a real fear that China would come into the war?
JV: Yes, the President was worried about China and Russia. He didn't know. In Korea nobody thought the Chinese were going to cross the alley with a million men and we were caught by surprise. And I remember time after time, when the military would suggest mining Haiphong or sending in war planes to bomb Haiphong, he said hell no, he said, some damn aviator will drop a bomb down on Russian smoke stack and then I've got World War Three on my hands. He resolutely resisted mining Haiphong, that didn't happen of course until President Nixon came in. In the back of his mind was this dread nightmare that some blunder, some piece of mischief over which he had no control would cause either China or Russia to explode and then he really would be in the soup and this tormented him.
INT: Indonesia was going Communist about this time as well, was that something that effected the decision-making?
JV: I'm not aware tit was, it might have been in the State Department and some othe international policy plan over there, the answer is I don't know. I did not find it brought up in any of the meetings that I was in and as I said I was in all of them so if it was brought up it was minor theatre.
INT: Moving on to the position of South Vietnam itself, Johnson was frustrated with the instability of the South Vietnamese government wasn't he? How did he sort of react to that?
JV: Well, first he was genuinely displeased with what he thought was the (unintelligible) and... in October of 1963 and believed that he had condoned it with the rebellious generals and as a result the fall of Diem, for whatever purposes you want to describe to him as a human being and as a leader, his downfall then ushered in a series of kind... (unintelligible) kids, the Three Stooges kind of thing, one government coming in after another, falling like dry leaves in the wind. And I can remember sitting with him one day when he got news that there was another coup in Vietnam and another general has ascended to the power platform and he frustrated said, hot-damn I'm getting sick and tired of this Goddamn coup shit in Vietnam, it's got to stop. The instability of the Vietnamese government, it's lack of cohesion in drawing its people together, as we look back, obviously played a large role in the demoralization of that country. and I think probably was one of the largest factors in leaving us feeling neglected in that country.
INT: There are Vietnamese today, Vietnamese scholars today, who will say that the South Vietnamese governments of the time were actually trying to deal with Hanoi, to find some sort of rapprochement with Hanoi and that the reason that there were lots of coups was because the American government wouldn't have that, they didn't want any agreements to be made.
JV: Well, I dispute that, though I don't have any ready proof to give you. Because I do know that beginning, after the election of Johnson of '64, his sole motivation was to get out. Now when he began to apply expert pressure and particularly when we crossed the Rubicon in July of 1965, when we began meetings in July twentieth with the President's press conference on July twenty eight, those meetings began when Secretary MacNamara and General Wheeler came back from Vietnam to present their recommendations to the President. And their recommendations were that we pour in up to a hundred and seventy five thousand troops and in short, give the war a totally new deadly complexion. From that moment on, Johnson's hope was, his desire, his passion, was either through this military pressure to bring the North Vietnamese to a negotiating table. Now if there was a rapprochement to be made, that would have accomplished that purpose, I will say to you without contradiction that Lyndon Johnson would have leaped on it like a trout going after a fly.
INT: Another thing that is said as well is that those who were in charge in South Vietnam didn't actually know what was happening. For instance, they didn't know troops were going to land?
JV: That's quite possible. I think we're finding out now there's a lot of things we didn't know were going on in Vietnam and probably some of the correspondents there from the various publications around the world, probably knew more about what was actually happening and though they wrote about it, they weren't believed at the time. Keep in mind that throughout '64 and 1965 and 1966, the general public in America supported what we were doing. The administrative organs, the New York Times, the Washington Post, were very much supportive of the President's course of action. It was only toward the end of 1966 and the (unintelligible) of 1967 that the unrest began, led mostly by college students and began to feed this dissident infection. But at that time, Johnson believed that the application of military strength would allow him to force them to the table. Keep in mind it was in May of 1964 that he announced his great society. And 1965 was... and '66 was the eighty-ninth congress. The accomplishments of Johnson's domestic achievements were massive, revolutionary, unheard of in the history of this country, but they required billions of dollars to deploy in the field and he realized that, and that's why I'm saying to you, bottom line, he knew that there were two trains on the same track, one going north and one going east. One was the (unintelligible) and the second was the great society and its cost and he was trying to avoid that collision at all costs. So, that's the mind-set, that's the environment, the landscape as it existed.