INT: But they were recycled, I believe, with other people...
RM: No, no, the net force was drawn down by a thousand.
INT: OK. What led him to this view that by this period of time, by December '63, things are likely to be moving so well? I mean, what was it, how...?
RM: Well, it's not quite the situation. There were three groups of individuals among his advisers. One group believed that the situation was moving so well that we could make a statement that we'd begin withdrawals and complete them by the end of '65. Another group believed that the situation wasn't moving that well, but that our mission was solely training and logistics; we'd been there long enough to complete the training, if the South Vietnamese were capable of absorbing it, and if we hadn't proven successful, it's because we were incapable of accomplishing that mission and therefore we were justified in beginning withdrawal. The third group believed we hadn't reached the point where we were justified in withdrawing, and we shouldn't withdraw. Kennedy listened to the debate, and finally sided with those who believed that either we had succeeded, or were succeeding, (Coughs) and therefore could begin our withdrawal, or alternatively we hadn't succeeded, but that our mission was solely training and logistics, and if we hadn't succeeded, we'd been there long enough to test our ability to succeed, and if we weren't succeeding we should begin the withdrawal because it was impossible to accomplish that mission. In any event, he made the decision that day, and he did announce it. It was highly contested.
INT: At about this time, however, there are really severe things happening. The support for Diem, who you yourself had met, millions of dollars had been pumped in, and yet things are going against him - he's had trouble with the Buddhists, things are moving bad, and the Administration is looking at moves for alternative ways of seeing how Vietnam is governed. Now, at this point you have the first of the cable... I don't want to carry on at great length about the cable - I know that Hilsman has been asked about it - none the less, at a later meeting, I believe President Kennedy did ask all of you, his senior colleagues, what should be the attitude about the cable that had gone off: should it stay there on the table, should basically the United States say yes, it was willing to aid and abet those who followed in Diem's wake? You, I believe, were one of those who supported that. Why did you think that that cable should stand at that time?
RM: I didn't think the cable should stand. Let's go off the tape again.
RM: Now let me stop just again one second, because you might want to follow that up.
INT: ... In August of '63, a cable goes off, indicating that America would support a regime which came after Diem, or which indeed toppled Diem, and nothing happened until November. Can you tell me something about that period of time, why the cable went off?
RM: The cable was sent because there was widespread disorder in Vietnam at the time. The Buddhists had put pressure on the regime, the regime had responded brutally; there were killings, there was clear disorder. And some members of the Kennedy Administration believed it would be impossible, in the face of that disorder, for the South Vietnamese to mount an effective response to the effort of North Vietnam to take control of the South. And those individuals who feared the loss of South Vietnam to North Vietnam, believed in the Domino Theory, and they believed that with this disorder, unless efforts were made to stop it, the dominoes would fall. It was that line of reasoning, and therefore they concluded it would be necessary to get rid of Diem, the President, who had failed to prevent the disorder, and they were therefore prepared to see the US support military officers who, it was rumoured, were anxious to carry out a coup against Diem. Others in the US Government felt exactly the opposite: they were fearful of the disorders and the effect of them on the military effort, but they saw no stability resulting from eliminating Diem. It was not at all clear that anyone else could come in and control the country, stabilise it politically, and therefore there was tremendous opposition from that group to any effort by the US to support coup proposals among the South Vietnamese military. This debate raged between the two sides, those who favoured support for a South Vietnamese coup against Diem, and those who opposed it, and debate raged between the time the cable went out in August and I think it was November 2nd, the date of the coup.
INT: Do you think more should have been done? Do you think the cable should have been withdrawn?
RM: I believe that not just the cable should have been withdrawn, but I believe the US should not have given support to a coup. I think, in hindsight, most would agree with that conclusion. It was not a universal conclusion at the time, by any means.
INT: It seems, again looking with hindsight, those of us who weren't i... it actually seems really incredible arrogance on behalf of the United States to presume that, on the basis of the Domino Theory, it can change regimes in quite this way, or facilitate a change.
RM: Well, I think one of the things it showed was thatwe didn't know either our opponents - in this case the North Vietnamese - or even our allies - in this case the South Vietnamese. I don't think we knew the society, I don't think we knew the leaders, I don't think we knew who was likely to follow Diem. This was one reason that those who opposed the coup among Kennedy's advisers, one reason they opposed it. They couldn't get any indication of who was likely to follow, or whether the regime would be stable. And of course, what ultimately happened was, the regimes that followed Diem were not stable. It was like a revolving door: prime ministers were going in and out every few months or few weeks, over a period of time. But we as leaders, we as a society, did not properly understand, fully understand, as I suggest, either our allies or our opponents.
INT: Diem's assassination was followed, in historical terms, by an even greater tragedy: the tragedy of President Kennedy's assassination.
RM: May I stop you there one second? Do you want to ask about what would have happened if Diem...
(A bit of discussion, not transcribed)
INT: Supposing Diem hadn't been assassinated, what might have happened? Supposing he hadn't been toppled.
RM: Well, first let me say I don't know. , but I've thought about it often. I thought about it before he was killed... ... which was one of the reasons I was concerned about the coup, but I've thought about it often afterwards. And I'm only speculating now, but as I have learned more about the Vietnamese - and when I say that, I mean not just the North Vietnamese, but about the South Vietnamese - I've sensed the strong nationalism, the strong motivation that nationalism was to both the South and the North, and the strong nationalistic feelings of their leaders, Ho Chi Minh and Diem. Had Diem lived, I'm inclined to think he would neither have requested nor accepted the introduction of large numbers of US combat forces. He would not have wished to put his nation in a sense under the control of a foreign power, even a friendly foreign power. I think the war would have taken a totally different course. Now that is only speculation, but I think it's an important point, because if I'm correct, it shows we didn't understand even our allies, much less our opponents. And this is one of the major lessons of the conflict.
INT: Supposing you're right in that, wouldn't that have not suggested that maybe Diem would have been willing to have looked at a third course, a neutralist approach to Vietnam? Wouldn't this then have been just a worry in the Domino Theory, if he'd offered a neutralist line?
RM: Hanoi issued a report a year or so ago. After years of study, they concluded 3,200,000 Vietnamese - North, South, military, civilian - were killed. We lost 58,000 killed. I'm inclined to believe each of us - they, the North, and we, the US - missed opportunities to prevent the war or terminate it without that tragic loss of life, and with neither one of us materially differently off today than we are. Now why did we miss those opportunities? Well, one of the reasons is that at least we in the US didn't understand either North or South, and we particularly didn't recognise that the war was largely, if not almost solely, a civil war. (Pause) And I think our failure to recognise that was a major factor leading to our behaviour over that period, not just of the seven years I was in office, but in the five or six years of the Nixon Administration that followed the Johnson Administration.
INT: Diem was killed. Then, as I say, in historical terms even more tragically, there was President Kennedy's assassination. Now your book is quite clear, I think, on Kennedy's disenchantment with the war. A change of presidents could perhaps have helped the possibility of US disengagement. I wonder, why didn't it? And why do you appear (inaudible words) to have become hawkish again in terms of the way the military (inaudible)? What caused that changeover in '63-64?
RM: In effect there wasn't a change, or at least there wasn't a policy. President Johnson, as Vice President under President Kennedy, had not been deeply involved in Vietnam. He'd visited Vietnam once or twice; he had been in many of the meetings, but he wasn't a major participant in them. But he in effect had inherited a war; he was determined to carry on Kennedy's policies, for a variety of reasons, and in a variety of areas: civil rights, but also in connection with Vietnam. Moreover, he had inherited Kennedy's advisers: the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence, National Security Adviser, Chairman of Joint Chiefs, and so on. So I think it was a continuity, rather than a change, that was represented by President Johnson succeeding President Kennedy.