INTERVIEW WITH ROGER HILSMAN
INT: It's June the eighth and I'm interviewing Roger Hilsman, for the Cold War series, first of all the program about Vietnam. So, if we can start off, can I ask you first, what was President Kennedy's attitude to Vietnam? Why did he choose Vietnam as a place to make a stand?
ROGER HILSMAN: He did not choose to make Vietnam a stand, that's the whole point. The long answer is that Kennedy was a Catholic, Ngu Dinh Diem was a Catholic, the President of Vietnam and when Ngu Dinh Diem became President of Vietnam, American Catholics generally thought that this was a wonderful hero and should be backed. He came out there... Kennedy went out to Vietnam as a young Foreign Service officer and met as a young congressman, I should say, and met a young Foreign Service officer who was the head of their action section in the embassy. And this guy said that he didn't believe that a Catholic, surrounded by Catholics in a country that was ninety five per cent Bhuddist was going to make it, and this shook Kennedy, as a very young congressman, a great deal. And many years later when he had decided... I mean, he used to say to me - I was Assistant Secretary for the Far East, so I was in charge of Vietnam - and he used to say to me, we'll do everything we can to help them, but we will not fight, we will not send an American soldier to fight. And I said, well, you know, I said, I agree with you, but why did you reach this conclusion, 'cos he knew nothing about (unintelligible), he told me this story that he'd been out in Vietnam as a young congressman and the man who influenced him became a great friend, but he said, I've thought about that very deeply and we'll give 'em all the help we can, all the aid, all the arms, but we won't fight there.
INT: So presumably he was torn against making an anti-Communist stand...
RH: (Interrupts) Well, what I'm trying to suggest is that Kennedy started off as a young man, a young congressman, very pro-Ngu Dinh Diem, shaken as a young congressman in this belief that Ngu Dinh Diem could win and then the whole business of the Bay of Pigs, if that had not happened first, it might have been different. But Kennedy kept saying, you know, how can I ask the American people to fight in Vietnam, nine thousand miles away and not fight in Cuba ninety miles away? So he was determined to give all the help he could, but not to fight. And as I say, he learned. The one thing about Jack Kennedy, all the Kennedys, were that they learned. He started off being kind of a Hawk on Vietnam. He then decided that it wasn't a go, you know, that it was a morass and a swamp, he decided then to gi... but he made it clear to me - I was Assistant Secretary, so I was in charge of Asia, including Vietnam - and he made it very clear to me that your job is to do everything you can to help the Vietnamese, but not get us into a war and some of the worst situations that I had with him were just because of that. One day, for example, the New York Times, with malice aforethought, had two little boxes on the front page, one of them - this was before there were any American troops there, you know, - one of them says 'American general visits Vietnam' some brigadier general, and the other little box says, 'South Vietnamese forces lose the battle at Upok '. Well, Kennedy called me up and just screamed, before breakfast he called me, when he was reading the paper and he could be quite profane and he was quite profane over this and he said, why did you let that blankety blank blank blank general go out there, don't you know we want to keep as low a profile as we can, why did you allow that? And when he paused for breath, I said, look, Mr. President, I'm Assistant Secretary of State, not Defense, I didn't know there was any general going out there, nobody told me this. And he said, oh, and bam went the phone. Well, that afternoon, a National Security memorandum came out and it's very straightforward. It said, no officer of general or flag rank will visit Vietnam without the written permission of the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, which was me.
INT: What sort of conflict did he envisage it was going to be, was this...
RH: Did what?
INT: What sort of conflict did Kennedy envisage it was going to be? There was this counter-insurgency idea.
RH: Well, as I say, he went through several stages on Vietnam, you know, I mean he... originally what... you must remember that the very first thing that happened, Ngu Dinh Diem asks for help and so Kennedy sends out General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow to visit the country. They come back and in their recommendation, top secret, is not only do we give them a lot of aid, but we sent ten thousand American troops out there to form a fence, you see, between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. and Kennedy had that stricken from their cable and tried to prevent it from being circulated within the government, American government. I had a fight about that, because I was Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and I was cut out, I wasn't allowed to see it and when I heard about it, I yelled bloody murder but he was determined not to get involved with American troops. No bombing, no ground forces, and so long as he was alive, that was the policy. Then, towards the end of his life, in the fall of '63, he beat McNamara to beat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a withdrawal plan. At that time, we had only sixteen thousand five hundred Americans in the country, they were not troops, they were advisers and the plan, which was finally approved in the fall of '63, was to withdraw those, all of them. And the only troops... only people we'd have had there would be marine guards, ten of them, for the embassy. Before Kennedy was killed, the first thousand of the sixteen thousand five hundred were withdrawn. If Kennedy had lived, the other sixteen thousand five hundred or fifteen thousand five hundred would have been withdrawn within three or four months.
INT: So you're pretty convinced then that Kennedy wanted to end the war?
RH: It's not that I'm convinced. This was... the documents are there, you see, and I didn't say he wanted to end the war, he said he wanted to withdraw from it. First of all, from the beginning, he was determined that it not be an American war, that he would not bomb the North, he would not send troops. But then after …you remember the Buddhist crisis in the spring of '63, this convinced Kennedy that Ngu Dinh Diem had no chance of winning and that we best we get out. So, he used that as an excuse, beat on McNamara to beat on the JCS to develop a withdrawal plan. The plan was made, he approved the plan and the first one thousand of the sixteen thousand five hundred were withdrawn before Kennedy was killed. If he had lived, the other sixteen thousand would have been out of there within three or four months.
INT: Still in the Kennedys, if I can ask about your... You made a visit in 1962 to Vietnam and one of the things you say in your book is that you thought that at that time the strategic hamlet idea might be viable. What did you think about it?
RH: Well, if you could remember that in Malaya, the British tried all sorts of things against the Communist insurgency, jungle based Communist insurgency, and failed over and over again. Finally, under a man named R.K.G. Thompson, they hit upon what they called a strategic hamlet program. In a sense what they did was, they took villages and fortified them, and then controlled the flow of rice and food and ammunition and so on and so forth. And it took a long time, this so-called strategy, but it worked. Now what happened in Vietnam was that R.K.G. Thompson was the liaison officer from the British and after his experience in Malaya, why he was absolute wonderful choice, he tried to persuade Ngu Dinh Diem and company to adopt a strategic hamlet program. It would have taken twenty years, but it would have worked. Instead of chasing Communist troops all over the jungles, you would have slowly enlarged the secure areas, like an oil block with strategic hamlets moving out. It would have taken twenty years, but it was an oil block approach, na killing approach, you see. And when I went out there in this time, this idea had been sold to Ngu Dinh Diem, we thought. but what happened was that his brother Nu, took over and the strategic hamlet program and what we discovered shortly afterwards... I mean, at that first visit, was a time when R.K.G. Thompson had just persuaded Diem to adopt the program. My second visit, a year later we found that brother Nu had taken over and had just corrupted it entirely. Instead of an oil block, he was putting these hamlets right out at the Cambodian border the most vulnerable place... When the helicopter visited one of these strategic hamlets, people from the village clung on to the landing gear of the helicopter and were falling off at a hundred and fifty feet, two hundred feet, trying to get out of there. So the second visit, we became convinced that the idea, the concept was great and had worked in Malaya and if it had been carried out, it would have worked in Vietnam, I believe, or if anything would have worked, that had a better chance. But brother Nu so corrupted it, you see, that it was useless, worse than useless, it hastened the end.
INT: Can you just explain what he did and what he...
RH: (Interrupts) Well he gave... what he did was, instead of an oil block approach where you start at the sea from very secure areas and you move out fortifying villages and doing all sorts of intelligence work...