INTERVIEW WITH FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY MELVIN LAIRD (26/3/97)
(Preliminary talk not transcribed)
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Secretary, could I ask you to define what you mean by détente?
MELVIN LAIRD: Well, détente really was based upon three pillars that we annunciated over in the Department of Defense early in the Nixon Administration, as a matter of fact in the first three months. The three pillars on which détente was to be based was: strong partnerships with our allies and with our treaty friends all over the world. Secondly, a strong military posture as far as the United States was concerned. And third, a willingness to negotiate any place in the world, whether it be with the Soviet Union or with anyone else. We had a hand out to negotiate, but we were going to do it from a position of partnership strength, military strength, but always willing to negotiate. Détente is sometimes misunderstood by people. If I was having détente with my wife, we might be very close to a divorce, so you have to understand those three pillars upon which détente was based.
INT: To what extent did Soviet parity, or near-parity with the United States in the strategic missiles, make détente a necessity?
ML: Well, that third pillar, the willingness to negotiate. They had come to a position where they were a very strong power militarily; they had in some cases exceeded the strength of the United States as far as missile power was concerned and nuclear power was concerned, and it was a necessity for us to come to some sort of an agreement. That's why I pushed for the ABM, so that we would have something to bargain with them on, because they'd already gone ahead with their ABM around Moscow, and we redirected the ABM of the United States from a defense against China to a defense against the Soviet Union. It was important that we go forward with that. We only won by one vote in the United States Senate, or there wouldn't have been an ABM treaty at all.
INT: How much did Nixon himself push for détente? How much was détente, in the thinking you've outlined, a product of Nixon's own thinking?
ML: Very much so. He was very much in agreement with those three principles upon which détente would be based, and we outlined that in a paper that we sent to the President - I think it was around March of 1969 - basing our strategy on these three principles.
INT: How much of a hand do you think someone like Henry Kissinger, who was then his National Security Adviser, have in formulating these (.?.)?
ML: Very much. Henry Kissinger was a very important figure - there's no question about it. I'd known Henry for a long time; Henry had worked with me when I was chairman of the Republican Platform Committee. I had known Henry much longer than President Nixon. As a matter of fact, President Nixon met Henry at the Pierre Hotel after the election. And after he had been elected, Bryce Harlow and I were up there at the Pierre and suggested that Henry Kissinger come in; and he did come in and have a fine visit with President Nixon. But he played a very important role.
INT: Why did you select Kissinger?
ML: Well, I didn't select Kissinger, the President selected... I selected Kissinger when I was running the Republican Platform, as chairman of it, and I borrowed him through the courtesy of Nelson Rockefeller; I got in touch with Nelson Rockefeller and he made him available for a few weeks to help me as far as the Platform was concerned.
INT: Kissinger appears to have concentrated a lot of the power in formulating a defense policy and certainly a foreign policy in his own office. How did you react to that, when it became clear that he was actually quite a power behind the throne?
ML: Well, I never had any problems with Henry Kissinger. We had a lot of good debates. They were heated; sometimes he would win and sometimes I would win, but I always had an opportunity with the President to present my position. It's like the Cambodian bombing: I was all for bombing the sanctuaries in Cambodia, but I could not tell the President of the United States, the Secretary of State or the National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, that I could keep it secret; and I thought it would be a very bad thing if that came out at a later time - and I knew it would, because we had 12,000 people that had all that information, and you just can't keep secrets. I could have gone to the Hill and gotten that approved right on the Hill. I never lost a vote in the Congress of the United States while I was Secretary of Defense.
INT: Why do you think that Kissinger and Nixon wanted it kept secret?
ML: Well, I was in at the debates and I think you ought to ask Henry about that. I think Henry felt that it would have kind of a bad reaction as far as Sihanouk was concerned and as far as other nations were concerned. But I kept telling them that "It's going to come out: you can't keep something like that secret, and I think it'll do you great damage." They accused me, of course, at one time of leaking it to the New York Times that the bombing was going on, but they found out later that that accusation was not well founded and they apologized to me.
INT: Do you think that the Nixon White House was particularly paranoid in the way that it saw outsiders as possibly muscling in on decisions they were making about defense or (.?.)?
ML: They were a little too secretive on things like that. I think we could have avoided a lot of the demonstrations. We had a good program going; I had presented the Vietnamization program to start with, drawing troops from that area of the world. When I became Secretary of Defense, there were 550,000 men on the ground in Vietnam, another 1,200,000 in Asia, in the Navy and the Air Force, supporting this operation. It was a big war, and each month that I was there I reduced the level of personnel and reduced the activity and... through the Vietnamization program. We also had done away with the draft deferments for college students; we set up a lottery system on the draft, and we moved to the all-volunteer force - and, by the way, we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of the all-volunteer force this year in the United States, and it's been a very successful program and I'm very proud that I was there as Secretary of Defense to start it. We have the finest men and women in our military services that we've ever had: the best educated, the best equipped, and they have the best morale that our military has ever had.
INT: What was the purpose behind Vietnamization? Could you (Overlap) say something about that?
ML: (Overlap) The Vietnamization program was to turn over the war in Vietnam to the South Vietnamese and give them the responsibility, for during the McNamara period and during the Johnson and Kennedy period, we had Americanized that operation over in Vietnam, starting when Eisenhower left office, there were only 353 military people in Vietnam wearing the United States uniform. That number kept escalating, and then Kennedy raised it up to about 55,000, and then it kept getting up on a rapidly escalating basis, and they gradually took over the war and they Americanized it. And so "Vietnamization" was the term that I coined in order to get people thinking about the responsibilities that the Vietnamese had there; and it would have worked if we would have continued to support them, but we didn't.
INT: And how exactly did you see Vietnamization working from the point of view of American aid to Vietnam? How was that going to work?
ML: Well, as you know, in the Paris Accord it was decided that the United States would continue to support militarily, with arms, ammunition and supplies on a replacement basis, the South Vietnamese military. And the Russians were to do the same thing. The problem is that the Russians went forward and increased their support. As a matter of fact, in that 1973 and seventy... that period of time, they'd gone up to over $2 billion of support activities, that went far beyond replacements of ammunition supplies for the North Vietnamese. So they had lived by that accord. But we did not even fulfil our responsibility in '74. As you know, I was not there in the Defense Department at the time, buthe $300 million that was needed for replacement parts and so forth was defeated in the United States Congress. That broke the back and the morale of the South Vietnamese forces.
INT: I'm going to take you back...
(Request to incorporate question in answer)
INT: I'm going to take you back to the decision to launch a ground invasion in Cambodia in April 1970. What were the considerations that lay behind that decision?
ML: Well, the decision was made after considerable discussion with the Secretary of State Mr. Kissinger, President Nixon and myself, to have some ground excursions over in the various areas along the border of Cambodia. I personally felt that we should use the Cambodian forces exclusively for that purpose, because I wanted to give them a test. But of course, Nixon and Secretary Kissinger, in a telephone conversation which was scrambled, very scrambled, with General Abrahams, wanted General Abrahams to promise that it would be 100% successful if only the South Vietnamese forces were used. Well, General Abrahams couldn't make a promise like that, and so they said, "Well, as long as he can't promise it'll be successful, we're going to use some American forces." And so it was decided to use some American forces in that operation.
INT: What were your objections to...?
ML: Well, I wanted to test the South Vietnamese military, and I felt that we had been training them well and I felt that it was time that they be given a test on their own; and I felt that they would be very successful, and that it would be better from the standpoint of the public here in the United States, where I was having a hard time getting support in the Congress; I was winning with my votes in the Congress, but they were close, and the public was not supporting that war. President Nixon was elected to office in 1968 on the basis that he could do something about the war in Vietnam, and I felt always that it was necessary for us to move to a conclusion of that war, because that is the manner in which he had been elected President of the United States.
INT: I'll just ask you again exactly who it was you discussed the proposal [with] to invade Cambodia in April 1973.
ML: The invasion of Cambodia was discussed very thoroughly with President Nixon, Secretary of State Bill Rogers, and National Defense Adviser Henry Kissinger and myself. As a matter of fact, they even went to the point where they called General Abrahams, (unclear name) Abrahams, who was our commander in Vietnam, and asked him the question whether he could assure success if American troops weren't used, if the Vietnamese could assure success of an operation like that. He answered that he could not promise success, as any military commander would on an operation like that, if only the South Vietnamese were used. He wasn't asked the question, though, if you could have success if Americans and South Vietnamese were used. He wouldn't have promised success even then, because he felt that he could be successful but he could not make an all-out promise.
INT: How concerned were you that in order to pursue this operation you theoretically had to breach the neutrality of a neighboring country like Cambodia?
ML: Well, I was never concerned about the neutrality of Cambodia in those areas, because that was occupied territory of the North Vietnamese. There was no question: we had very good intelligence, we had good photography, and that was occupied territory of the North Vietnamese, and the sovereignty of Cambodia had been given up to the North Vietnamese by their occupation.