Galbraith, JK.



Nitze, Paul H

Tucker, R.


Interview with Clark Clifford


Q: It's about this time thatthe Tet events happened, Tet 1968. Can you tell me something about the shock of that? ...

A: Reports that we had been getting, the President had been getting from Vietnam, were really quite optimistic. There were reports coming in from the military and end of 1947 [sic] the military really felt quite secure that they would get their victory. There'd been a lot of North Vietnamese killed, according to our military. And there was a general feeling of euphoria in military circles and in our diplomatic circles. And then comes Tet. Now, Tet was a total surprise. Tet is a religious holiday in both Vietnams, and a very important holiday. You stay away from work, you go to your church, you worship all day and you cut yourself clear from worldly things. And that's what everybody thought would happen, isn't it? With really the most skilful kind of planning, the North Vietnamese launched their advance right after Tet started. Many regiments would have only half their men there, the rest had taken leave. Tet was the time when a lot of people left and went back and had their religious holiday with their family. So for a while the North Vietnamese were just swept right on through South Vietnam. It was a terrible shock. We'd been led to believe that - somebody, some general or some Ambassador had said that this was July, I guess it was, that perhaps we'd have our boys home by Christmas. Well, this beaten enemy that had been described as being so reduced in manpower that our troops were beginning to capture 15 year old boys who'd been mustered into the service - I never saw a 15 year old boy in the North Vietnamese army, but that was the word that got out. Everybody was feeling really quite good about it. Then came this great shock. I think they launched six advances at the same time, and our troops were really hard put. The South Vietnamese didn't want any part of it. Our troops took the van, time for a while there. And then in the enthusiasm of the moment the North Vietnamese had got themselves too extended and then our troops began to move into them and they killed them by the thousands. But the damage had been done, the American people lost all confidence in the war, they'd lost a great deal of confidence in President Johnson, and the war was anathema to the people of the United States. So.

Q: I believe that you yourself were very scathing about the failure of the intelligence community to come up with any knowledge at all that this event had happened. Indeed, I believe you compared it to other past intelligence failures. How much of a shock was Tet?

A: Almost complete. We were supposed to have been winning and the enemy did not have the troop power to mount an offensive, that was the general feeling. He had called in a group of top outside advisers who became known as the wise men. He called them in the end of the year, and they voted unanimously to stay the course in Vietnam and they just -


Q: Tell me about the wise old men and how their views began to change.

A: I think the first time he called them in could have been November or December of the preceding year. And they came - he had them come in about two o'clock. I wasn't in government, so I was one of the ten that was called in, and we were permitted to come in and go through the files and read reports and get oriented regarding the war. And we all had dinner together and had a chance to discuss it. And then he met with the wise men early the next morning, and they were all prepared. He went around and we were in the Cabinet Room, he went around after a preliminary statement and asked each man how he felt and what his reasoning was. And he went to everybody and I was last. But he was convinced that we should go on with the war, and that's what he wanted to hear. And so I really said a few things that I had said before. I did not think we would win. And then the vote was overwhelming in favour of staying the course, and it gave him a - quite a lift. Gave him more confidence, more enthusiasm for the war. And that was the general feeling that existed when Tet came. So you can see how violent the reaction would be. The American people thought they'd been misled by these optimistic reports. President Johnson was deeply concerned. He couldn't understand how they felt the way they did. So he called them back again, after Tet, and the vote had been almost unanimous before Tet in favour of keeping on with the war. It became almost unanimous against the war after they were called back. And his reaction, instead of profiting by it, it angered him greatly, and he felt that the military in some way had forsaken him and had improperly and mistakenly informed the wise men of the changes that had taken place. It got to the extent where he called one of the top Generals back and two or three aides, to find out, in his words, who had poisoned the well. There wasn't anybody poisoned the well. If we had - we were supposed to be defeating an enemy which could mount the kind of offensive that the North Vietnamese mounted, then we'd been misinformed for a long time. That's the way the American people felt, that's the way the wise men felt. And from my standpoint I thought it was a great forward step, because it relieved me of really the commitment I had to his old policy. So I went back to where I was before and began more and more to see if I could persuade him to change his mind on Vietnam. In the process I'm afraid I lost his friendship. But that's one of the prices you pay.

Q: Tell me about the President's decision not to seek re-election. Do you think his decision not to seek re-election was because of people like yourself and the wise old men and Tet?

A: Each person would have a private opinion on it. My own view is that Mrs Johnson had more to do with his decision than anybody else. He valued her judgement and she was opposed violently to his running again. He had served part of a term after President Kennedy had been assassinated, then he'd been elected in his own right in 1964, when he obtained an overwhelming victory. She said, 'you don't have anything else to prove. You're not going to live through another four years up here.' He'd had a very serious heart attack earlier. He'd made a recovery from it, but had lost a fair amount of his heart muscle. She said, 'you're not gonna live through it. You don't owe it to the government, you don't owe it to anybody else. It's gonna be a very difficult four years. Knock off. Let's go back to the ranch and take it easy. You've served your country well and faithfully.' And I think that had more to do than anybody else.