INTERVIEW WITH WALT ROSTOW
INTERVIEWER: I'll just introduce you first of all so that we.. have an ident on the tape. This is Friday June 7th and I'm interviewing Dr Walt Rostow for the Vietnam War program in the Cold War series. If I could start by asking you, sir, going back to 1961, why do you think that Kennedy chose you and Taylor to go to Vietnam, to look at the situation there?
WALT ROSTOW: Well, to start with Kennedy, he met with Eisenhower the day before his inaugural and Eisenhower spoke to him about balance of payments and (unintelligible)...
BREAK IN TAPE
WALT ROSTOW: Well, at the meeting that Eisenhower had with Kennedy the day before the inaugural, he talked at length about the balance of payments -- which was much on his mind -- and Laos, which was much on his mind. But he never mentioned the word Vietnam. 'Bout the second Thursday after I came to work with Kennedy, we had we received a document from Ed Lansdale which was a pic.. a picture of Vietnam as he saw it on a visit back to Vietnam, he'd been there before, and it portrayed the situation disintegrating and it was.. and Kennedy looked up after I'd made him read the whole text, he said 'this is the worst one we've got, isn't it'. Eisenhower never mentioned La.. uh, the word Vietnam to him. But the truth was that since '58, they had been in... infiltrating South Vietnamese who had been taken to the North trained and re-infiltrated along with certain North Vietnamese. And the situation within Vietnam was very slowly disintegrating. Uh, this was not unexpected because if you gave anybody access -- as we gave access via Laos to the North Vietnamese -- it takes roughly 15 soldiers to control 1 guerrilla and so long as the war was a guerrilla war, that's the way it was. Yeah, so, he.. wanted Maxwell Taylor, who was a great solider, to go out to Vietnam and he wanted me also to go out with him and we had a team of about 12 and but he assigned the.. Asia, Southeast Asia to me. Mac Bundy had his assignments in Germany and Cuba and so on.
INT: Now when you went to Vietnam in '61, what did you find, what was your assessment and what did you...?
WR: (overlap) Well, the assessment was that.. it was a.. they were slow.. slowly disintegrating, they needed help to meet.. to meet the infiltrators but it was a interesting generational split between Diem and his brother Nu -- and I spent a whole afternoon with Nu and really got to know him -- and the young fellas coming ..(unintelligible).. in the military, in agriculture, in the universities and so on who were part of a new generation. And it was age split. It was very much like the age-split in Korea. Syngman Rhee, a man of integrity who.. survived against the Japanese and just as Diem had survived against the French, had been a.. in a monastery in New Jersey most of the time. But the it was very much a split of generations and Diem didn't know how to handle, in my view at least, this younger group of technocrats in the Army and in the agriculture and so on. But he turned to me, partly as a.. I think as an expert so-called on the under-developed countries which arose out of a book I write, was 'Ages of Economic Growth' and he's.. he said 'what is your advice?'. And I had a long colloquy with him, the only time I spoke up at this meeting with Taylor and the.. was.. the advice was 'rely on the younger generation of technocrats' and I went on to.. give.. explain the virtues I saw in these.. these men. And he said 'they talk a good game but they don't do anything. So the only way you could run this country is this way' -- and he picked up the phone, held it to his ear -- and I wanted Lansdale to stay there as an adviser to Diem because he had a wonderful gift of treating people from under-developed... developed countries with dignity so that they didn't feel snowed by the West and all this. He really felt their problems were as complicated as being, let's say, president of the United States. And the long and short of it was I lost on that to the bureaucracy.
INT: Would you stop there..
BREAK IN TAPE
INT: Can you just explain.. what do you mean, 'you lost to the bureaucracy'?
WR: Well, they did not send Lansdale out as an.. uh, adviser to Diem. That would have, indeed, created a complication for the b.. bureaucracy which is the.. that... that's what the ambassador was meant to be. But I felt that the only way to heal this be.. this gap between Diem and the technocrats, the younger generation, was to have an American adviser, because he had shown that he had quite a lot of influence over Diem and Diem trusted him and this personal trust was a great asset.
INT: As a result of your report.. I mean, it put Vietnam much higher up the political timetable, lot more in the center of the agenda, and you did recommend increasing aid to advisers to Vietnam, did you not?
WR: We.. we.. aid.. military aid, advisers and we recommended that we put some troops in case they did what we... they shouldn't do in Tukor which is cut the country in half and if they did this.. if they did that, they came.. they came down from the mountains to.. to the sea, we wanted some American troops to be flown in. Uh, Kennedy, who was much influenced by McArthur and generally took the view that he didn't want to put troops in unless he was forced to made a compromise and had a.. battalion of marines put offshore. In... in other words, he missed the point that was.. that Taylor and made it, that without putting men.. additional men -- aside from the trainers and the advisers, military advisers - uh, he didn't put any regular troops in at that time.
INT: Do you think that the support for Diem ought to have been coupled with more.. serious support for his reforms, or sanctions if you didn't carry through those reforms?
WR: Well, he was.. a difficult man to deal with and he dealt with his.. this younger generation with some difficulty but despite that -- as a Communist Australian Communist news... newspaperman said -- '1962 was your year'. Things got better in that year I.. that as.. The real problem, though, in Vietnam, the one that I was took a strong stand, quietly, about was that we gave him an open frontier and they have a free... free run except for the bombing of the trails and that kind of thing which exacted a certain percentage loss for them, that.. si.. since the Napoleonic wars, nobody has won a guerrilla war with an open frontier. Uh, Napoleon took his first defeat from the British in the Peninsula because the British were able to supply the guerrillas. Uh, the British went out in Malaya because they.. the infiltrators had no way to get into the country. It was a narrow neck. Uh, the Philippines was successful because, again, the infiltrators couldn't get in because it was an island, a group of islands. But, De Gaulle lost in North Africa because Tunisia and Algeria were open-end sources of supplies and I.. had that simple lesson of guerrilla war borne in on me on the work I'd done in the past and I had taken the view that we.. we had a very tough battle on our hands, very tough if we left an open frontier. And that was a real toll, militarily.
INT: You say in one of your books that the biggest mistake that the Kennedy administration was not to prosecute the Laos accords?
WR: Yes we should've insisted on the Laos accords. Right away.. remember... member they came.. uh, Bekiham came to town and I wrote a long memo at that time to the President -- I was in the State Department. I said that you had to put it to Bekiham that you regarded the agreement of Harriman and the Soviet Ambassador at that time with whom he dealt on the Laos agreements in Geneva and the agreement was that the Soviets would make sure that nobody crossed illegally, a third party, La.. which was Laos. And that if you.. if we did.. didn't act at that time in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we would have to act in a 'waning situation'. That was the exact phrase I used back then. And I have the greatest compassion for Kennedy and I was a planner for the... uh, at the Cuban Missile.. Missile Crisis and to jumpfrom that terrible crisis into another one was too much to ask of a democracy Ithink. But nevertheless, that too came true.
INT: How much did you all see the.. how much were you all wedded to the Domino Theory?
WR: It isn't that we were wedded to it. I resent it really, the blandness with which you use that phrase and gave it. There was nobody in Asia who had the slightest doubt about the Domino Theory. The quarrel about the quote Domino Theory was a product of the debates of the 1960s about Vietnam, which were perfectly proper debate in.. in a democracy, but it was limited to America. People in Asia knew that the war in A.. uh, in Vietnam was a war for the future of South-east Asia, right down to the Molucca Straits at Singapore and the New Zealanders knew it, the Australians knew it, they wrote about it - that's why they were there beside us in Vietnam. And this of course became much more concrete with Sukarno leaving the UN early in '65 and he took up with Adiette who was a Communist in Indonesia. He cut his ties with the UN the US and he thought that the Chinese were going to win. And that was the occasion where LBJ had to make up his mind - was he gonna fight for Southeast Asia or was he not? And but. the Li Quang Yu in Singapore has made no bones about.. he took from.. all the way through. He was like a Greek chorus speaking at certain moments in this. He knew that the whole future of democracy in Southeast Asia and the orientation of Southeast Asia was at stake. And that's what the war was about. It was the.. Southeast Asia treaty, not a Vietnam treaty. It was a.. serial plan. 5 which we inherited from the military was from the defense of Southeast Asia via Laos ...(unintelligible).. why Laos was the important.. the (unintelligible) supporter of the Eisenhower Administration. So it wasn't a question of being taken by the Domino Theory. This was a war about Southeast Asia.