INT: It might have been a continuity, but we were looking previously at the possibility of continued withdrawal, with everybody out by 1965 - I mean, the reverse seemed to be happening very quickly.
RM: No, no, I don't believe so. I don't think there was any change in, I'll call it hawkishness, in Johnson's mind between the time he was Vice President and President, or in the minds of those who were associated with him and who had been advisers to President Kennedy. I think it was continuity, in the sense that the objective was to prevent the dominoes from falling; the objective was to avoid an erosion of the security of the West. And what happened greater contradiction between... Kennedy's two conditions: number one, we had to prevent loss of Vietnam in order to avoid erosion of Western security; and number two, it was a Vietnamese war that could only be won by the Vietnamese, and the US was there solely to provide training and logistical support. Now, when those two conditions, or premises, if you will, came into conflict, something had to give. They hadn't fully come into conflict during President Kennedy's presidency, and it wasn't for some months after President Johnson took over that they fully came into conflict. But when they did, he in a sense had to choose: was he prepared to give up South Vietnam and run the risk that Eisenhower pointed to: the dominoes would fall; or if the South Vietnamese couldn't prevent that loss, was he prepared to put in US combat troops, which violated Kennedy's belief that it was a Vietnamese war that only the South Vietnamese could win? And when he came to that point... perhaps he didn't see it quite as clearly as I am expressing it, but when he came to that point, he said in effect: "I'm going to prevent the loss of South Vietnam, I'm going to prevent the dominoes from falling, I'm going to maintain the security of the West, and I'm going to put in US troops to do it." Now the decision wasn't as clear-cut at the time as I've made it sound today, but that was essentially the choice.
INT: And yet, from what we were discussing earlier, you seem to be suggesting that Kennedy didn't see Vietnam as the big domino anymore.
INT: Was that not so?
RM: No, no, no - I don't want to suggest that. What I want to suggest is what I said in my book; I would speculate. Kennedy hadn't said before he died whether, faced with the loss of Vietnam, he would withdraw; but I believe today that had he faced that choice, he would have withdrawn rather than substitute US combat troops for Vietnamese forces, to save South Vietnam. I think he would have concluded (Coughs) that US combat troops could not save Vietnam if Vietnam troops couldn't save it. That was the statement he in effect made publicly before his death, (Clears throat) but at that time he hadn't had to choose between losing Vietnam, on the one hand, or putting in US combat troops on the other. Had he faced the decision, I think he would have accepted the loss of Vietnam and refused to put in US combat troops. (Coughs)
(Offer of water)
INT:We've referred, a little bit earlier, to the continual changes in regimes that happened after Diem was toppled. How did these changes of regime affect President Johnson and yourself and policy? Did they have no effect at all? What did they do to your...?
RM: We were deeply disturbed, deeply disturbed; and the President, as a politician, was determined to do everything he possiblycould to stabilise that government politically. He in effect sent me over there at one time, on one visit with Max Taylor, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs. He said, "I want to see you across that country on TV every day, supporting the President of Vietnam. We have got to stabilise that government." But there are limitations to what external military force can do. External military force cannot reconstruct a failed state, and Vietnam, during much of that period, was a failed state politically. We didn't recognise it as such; we didn't understand the limitations of what we could accomplish, but that is a fact. But he was determined to do everything within his power - economic power, political power, military power - to stabilise that nation politically. It proved impossible.
INT: I want to move briefly on to the Tonkin Gulf. At the time, Sir, what made you think that the second Tonkin Gulf attack had taken place, and do you think, in retrospect, that it did?
RM: Well, first, we were certain at the time that the first attack took place. I believe the date was August 2nd, 1964. We made every effort to be certain that we were right, one way or the other - it had occurred or it hadn't occurred. And it was reported that there were shell fragments, North Vietnamese shell fragments, on the deck of the US destroyer Madox. I actually sent a person out to pick up the shell fragments and bring them to my office, to be sure that the attack did occur. I am confident that it did; I was confident then, I am confident today. That was the August 2nd attack. On August 4th, it was reported another attack occurred. It was not clear then that that attack had occurred. We made every... possible effort to determine whether it had or not. I was in direct communication with the Commander-in-Chief of all of our forces in the Pacific, SINCPAC, by telephone several times during that day, to find out whether it had or hadn't occurred. He had reports from the commanders of the destroyers on the scene; they had what were known as sonar readings: these are sound readings; there were eyewitness reports, and ultimately it was concluded that almost certainly the attack had occurred. But even at the time there was some recognition of a margin of ror, so we thought it highly probable but not entirely certain. And because it was highly probable, and because even if it hadn't occurred, there was strong feeling we should have responded to the first attack, which we were positive had occurred, President Johnson decided to respond to the second. I think it is now clear it did not occur. I asked General Zhia myself, when I visited Hanoi in November of 1995, whether it had occurred, and he said no. I accept that.
INT: Moving on - you know more than me, obviously, just how the Tonkin Gulf incident was argued over. Senator Fullbright, of course, questioned you quite firmly on this. I believe your own belief is that the question of deception doesn't arise, but the question of the misuse of the Tonkin Gulf reso... What do you mean by that, the "misuse" of the...?
RM: ... Was Congress misled regarding the Tonkin Gulf resolution? Did they misunderstand the resolution? My answer is: yes and no. The resolution is very clear; the English language is clear in its expression in the resolution. The resolution gave full authority to the President to take the nation to war in Southeast Asia. Senator Cooper from Kentucky asked Senator Fullbright, who was the floor manager during the debate, "Does this resolution mean the President will have the authority to take the nation to war in Southeast Asia?" And Senator Fullbright said, "Yes." So there was no misunderstanding on that. But the Senate had been led to believe the President wouldn't use that authority without seeking further counsel from the Senate - which he didn't. And in that sense, I think they were misled. In any event, it was a very serious error on the part of the Johnson Administration. We did not fully debate the actions that led to the introduction of 500,000 troops, either with the Congress or with the public. And that's one of the major lessons: no president should ever take this nation to war without full public debate in the Congress and/or in the public.
INT: Why wasn't it debated, why wasn't it taken...?
RM: Well, that's a very good question, and... the answer is that both the hawks and the doves wished to avoid the debate. At one point, President Johnson asked, I'll call it the leader of the hawks and the leader of the doves in the Senate: "Should we go back and ask the Senate to debate whether we should or shouldn't introduce US forces, using the authority already granted to us by the Tonkin Gulf Resolution?" And both the hawks and the doves said, "No, don't bring it back - it'll tear us apart." And they were right in one sense. They were wrong on their conclusion that the resolution should not have been debated, retroactively; ... they were right it would have torn them apart. Why would it have torn them apart? Because the nation was divided at that time. Throughout the seven years I was in the Defence Department on Vietnam, the nation was divided. The majority of the people, the press and the Congress, throughout the seven years, up until early 1968, were in favour of preventing the fall of Vietnam, because they believed in the Domino Theory, and they were prepared to send US troops and carrying on US combat operations in Vietnam to prevent that loss. But there was a growing minority, and had the issue actually been debated, it would have torn the Congress apart, and that was one of the reasons why the hawks and doves agreed it shouldn't be debated. Beyond that, the President was fearful that if he raised this issue for public debate, the right wing - and I don't use the word pejoratively... ... Let me leave out the word "right", "right wing" - let me say that there were many in the country and many in the Congress who believed that we should go all-out militarily to overcome North Vietnam, including invading North Vietnam... and bombing it to the point of genocide. And that was a very powerful force in the society, and the President was fearful that if he engaged in public debate, that that force would prevail; and he was determined - and as a matter of fact, I was determined - to avoid the risks that would follow from applying unlimited military force. In addition to a terrible loss of life that would have resulted from that, there was the risk of engaging China and the Soviet Union in the war overtly; they were covertly supplying logistical support to North Vietnam, but there was a risk of overt confrontation between the US and China and the Soviet Union, overt military confrontation, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. On one or two occasions, the chiefs recommended US military intervention in North Vietnam, and stated that they recognised this might lead to Chinese and/or Soviet military response, in which case, they said, "we might have to consider the use of nuclear weapons." The President was determined to avoid it, I was determined to avoid it. He was fearful public debate would lead to greater pressure for that, and that's one of the reasons - not the only reason, but one of the reasons - he avoided public debate.
INT: By January 27th, I think it was, 1965, you and Bundy were urging military action, which led ...
RM: No, not quite.
INT: Not quite?
RM: Well, let's go off the camera for a second.