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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewee: Stanley Karnow
Interviewer: Michael Gannon
G: Hello, I am Mike Gannon [Michael V. Gannon, retired Distinguished Service
Professor of History, former director of Early contact Period Studies, CLAS] and
this is Conversation. A landmark in the production of television documentaries
has been the thirteen part series called "Vietnam: A Television History." It was
shown on PBS last year and is being repeated on that network this year. It is
thorough because it is based on sound scholarship. It is comprehensive
because it uses film and tape from this country, from France, and from North
Vietnam. The series includes interviews with many of the principals in that very
difficult conflict. The script was written by Stanley Karnow, and while he wrote
the script, he authored a book which has a similar title -- Vietnam: A History.
Stanley Karnow, welcome to Conversation.
K: Thank you.
G: Welcome to the campus of the University of Florida. That was quite an
achievement to have developed with one hand a thirteen part television series
and with the other hand a very sound and impressive book. How long did it take
you to do this?
K: The television series was about six or seven years in the making; that is, we
conceived of the idea back in 1977. It being public television, we had to raise
money, which was very difficult. At the time that we were thinking about the
series, it occurred to me that a companion book would be a good idea.
Television is a medium of drama, of impressions, but it is not exactly a medium
for explanation and for interpretation. While a book cannot convey drama in the
same sense that film can, it does give you the elbow room to explain, to describe,
and to analyze. In other words, the book is not really a replay or a script of the
series; it is totally different. So I like to think that people who are watching the
series are also reading the book. Also there is a lot of myself in the book,
because I began to cover the Vietnam War long before it was called the Vietnam
War. It was called the Indochina War back in the days when the French were
there. The French were fighting out there to regain their colonial empire, which
was being challenged by the Viet Minh -- the communist led nationalist
movement. I was a reporter in Paris starting back in the early 1950s, and the
war, of course, was a major subject in those days. I began to cover the French
end of the war, and then in the late 1950s I went out to Asia as a correspondent
(I was still with Time magazine), and naturally began to get involved in Vietnam.
I was based out in Asia for eleven years and have been back [there] several
G: I think one of the finest things that you do in the book as well as in the television
series is give the historical background to what we now call the Vietnam War.
When we use that term, we mean the period of American involvement. But
really there was a lot of tension in Vietnam during France's century-long rule
there, and then [there was] about an eight year military conflict between the
French and the Viet Minh.
K: That is right. It broke out in 1946 and ended in 1954 when the French were
defeated at the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu. Our own involvement
overlapped in a sense [with that conflict]. Many Americans think that our
involvement began when the Marines landed in Vietnam in March of 1965, or
some people would say it began with the Kennedy administration. But when you
go back, you find that the first steps toward getting involved were made by the
Truman administration when President Truman and his secretary of state, Dean
Acheson, decided to help the French by giving them a grant of $15 million, which
was just a small amount of money in those days, but as Senator Dirkson's old
phrase went: a billion here and a billion there, and the next thing you know, it is
running into real money. When the French were defeated in 1954, we had paid
for 85 percent of their war, which was close to $3 billion. The money was
squandered, of course. So our involvement really reaches back to those days
when the French were defeated and Vietnam was divided into two zones; an
anti-communist government was set up in the South to oppose the communist
government in the North. We moved in to support that southern anti-communist
government. Of course, one thing led to another and our commitment deepened
so that by 1965 we sent in troops.
G: I wonder if our military people learned any lesson from what happened at Dien
Bien Phu when General Vo Nguyen Giap moved artillery up on the surrounding
hills and did it with labor that the French did not think they [the Vietnamese]
possessed. Just pure manual labor hauled those cannons up on the ridge lines
and from those positions they had the French cornered in that long valley. It
was preordained that a guerilla force had overwhelmed a very well equipped and
highly trained army.
K: It is an interesting thing to go back and look at the attitudes of the American
military leaders at that time. So many American senior officers, I think in
particular General Matthew Ridgeway [replaced General Douglas MacArthur as
commander of American forces during the Korean War], were very much against
our involvement in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were against it in the
mid-1950s. First of all, they did not consider Vietnam to be strategically vital to
the United States. If you look on a map, it is a peninsula; it goes nowhere. Also
they believed that the terrain was extremely difficult to fight in. There was jungle
and rice fields. Thirdly, senior veterans of the Korean War took from that
experience the lesson that we should not fight land wars in Asia. Remember
that the strategy of General [Douglas] MacArthur, who was a controversial
general but a very good general, during the Second World War was to fight on
the islands. He fought his way up through the islands of the Pacific, avoiding the
mainland of Asia. We became involved in Korea, and I think it was necessary to
become involved, but we learned a lesson in Korea -- Asia is a mass of people.
You are dealing with hordes, to use the old phrase, and in reality they are
hordes. When we crossed the thirty-eighth parallel in Korea in October of 1950,
we were confronted with Chinese coming over to fight us, in addition to North
Koreans. Of course, that was a deadlocked war; it went on until some kind of
armistice was achieved. That experience taught these men that land wars in
Asia are almost impossible [to win], because you are up against so many enemy
troops. So as they looked to Vietnam, many of those veterans of the Korean
War said, let's stay out of it. I think it is a mistake for people to blame the
military. The military takes orders from the president of the United States, and
as President Truman used to say, the buck stops here. So it is the president
who is basically responsible.
G: Do you believe that President Eisenhower seriously contemplated using nuclear
weapons at the battle of Dien Bien Phu?
K: I do not think so. I have researched that in detail. What happened essentially
was that there was a Pentagon study that suggested that three tactical nuclear
weapons could be used, bear in mind that the Pentagon is always studying
G: There are contingency plans for every possible thing.
K: That is right. There is a plan for the invasion of Canada or the secession of
Florida. [laughter] So that is one thing. Also I am sure that [Eisenhower]
realized that to use them would have been politically unacceptable in the world.
But there again, if you look back at the documents, General Ridgeway, who was
then the army chief of staff and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned
that even if you used tactical nuclear weapons, you would still have to send in
ground troops. If I remember correctly, his estimate was, if we are going to get
involved, it would take twelve divisions without nuclear weapons and perhaps
eight divisions with nuclear weapons. So the idea of just using bombs, dusting
off your hands, and going home is unthinkable.
G: Last year on this program, I had the opportunity to chat with General William
Westmoreland [commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968; was army
chief of staff from 1968-1972] about the strategy that he followed during his time
as commander in chief of U.S. forces_ -- military assistance [in] Vietnam. I
asked him in particular about a study recently published at the army war college
in Carlyle Barracks, which made the point at its beginning that here was a war
in which we won every battle and yet lost the war. He said, yes, that is correct in
essence. We did win every full-pitched battle in which we engaged, but we were
unable to sustain a front which was longer than the front we had to fight in
Europe during the Second World War. [The front in Vietnam] extended from the
DMZ [demilitarized zone], all down the Laos and Cambodia borders. He said we
just did not have enough men.
K: I know the study was written by Colonel Harry Summers. General
Westmoreland's objective was to bring to bear so much firepower, the full
weight of America's industrial might, that he would grind down the enemy and
force the communist leadership to surrender. I think what he misunderstood
was that we were up against an enemy that was prepared to take almost
unlimited losses. The problem with Westmoreland was that he looked at the war
as an American. He made a statement, which I quote in my book saying, "If
General Vo," referring to the communist commander, "were an American general,
he would have been dismissed overnight for taking those kind of losses." Vo
was not an American general, that is just the point. You cannot go into a totally
alien environment, a different culture, and bring to it your own concepts and think
that the other side believes the same thing you do. What we were up against,
as I said, was this enemy taking these vast losses. Since Vietnam was not a
fight for territory, since it was an attempt to grind down the enemy, you could kill
5,000 enemy troops in an area at a given time, come back to the same area six
months later, and find another 5,000. The enemy took something like 600,000
or 700,000 men who were either lost or killed between 1965 and 1973. If you
put it in population terms, that is like our losing ten or twelve million men. And still
they kept on going. You were in Vietnam in 1968 during the Tet Offensive
[massive surprise offensive launched by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong on
the cities and towns of South Vietnam]. They took tremendous losses in that.
50,000 or 60,000 of their men were killed in a month.
G: General Westmoreland sought certain pitched battle situations in which he could
achieve this attrition; Kaesong being one that he planned very carefully. Yet, I
have always thought that was an inconclusive battle.
K: Of course, it was. I do not think that he sought Kaesong as much as they lured
him into Kaesong. There were a whole series of battles that took place in the
highlands near the Cambodian border or just south of the demilitarized zone. I
think they were deliberately staged by the communists to draw the American
forces away from the coast and cities in preparation for the Tet Offensive, which
took place at the end of January 1968. During the Tet Offensive, the Vietcong
forces, mostly southern communist forces, hit every town and city in the country.
They wanted to get the Americans away from those cities and into the highlands.
In other words, I think that Kaesong was basically a diversion on their part. It
was a long battle; the communists took terrible losses from our B52s. Their
whole objective was to keep the Americans away from populated areas.
Generals who have criticized Westmoreland, notably General [James] Gavin and
even General Maxwell Taylor, feel, in retrospect, that perhaps military strategy
might have been better if the Americans had stayed in enclaves along the coast,
instead of trying to fight the enemy in the jungles and in the highlands where you
were really fighting the enemy on his own terrain and on his own terms.
G: I think that Summers makes the point that we would have used our forces to
greater advantage if we had used the ARVIN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam],
the South Vietnamese army, to seal the frontiers and then let the U.S. forces
wipe up the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and the Viet Cong in the interior. I
wonder if that would have worked. In your view, do you think it would have?
K: Harry Summers is a good friend of mine, and I do not mind criticizing him
because we have debated together. I just think it was an unwinnable war.
Summers's theory is that if we had cut across and stopped the infiltration south, it
would have isolated the guerrillas and they could have been mopped up. It is a
nice theory, but I do not think basically that we could have easily stopped that
infiltration. The area is really a very dense area. It is very nice to look at on a
map, but when you get down into those jungles, it really is a terrible area in which
to fight. Another thing incidentally is that the air power strategically was a
failure. Tactically, air power was very strong. When the B52s operated in
battles in support of troops, they were very effective. But when they bombed,
let's say bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail to stop the equipment from moving down,
it really did not make that much difference. If the communists sent a hundred
trucks down and they lost ninety of the trucks, there was still enough equipment
in the other ten to keep that war going.
G: What were some of the successes of that war? Do you think that the helicopter
warfare devised by the First Air Calvary, for example, was successful? What
about the riverine warfare that we conducted in the delta? Can you think of
some examples where we did succeed?
K: That is exactly the point that Harry Summers made in the quote that you said
earlier. He recounts in his book that he turned to a communist colonel after the
war and said, you know we won every battle. And the communist colonel said,
yes, that may be true, but it is irrelevant. Everything you mentioned was
successful. The riverine troops were successful, the helicopters were
successful, the tactical bombing was successful. We won every battle, as Harry
Summers said, but strategically it added up to nothing or added up to defeat
essentially, because there was no let up in the determination or fanaticism, if you
want to use that word, of the communist troops to keep coming down. The
whole concept and the whole objective of victory and unification of Vietnam was
almost a sacred objective to them, and they were prepared to take those losses.
I have just one other point in reference to General Westmoreland and my
criticism of him. He has said, well, they took those losses because Asians do
not have the same view of human life that we do; [In response] to which I would
point to the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War in which 20,000 Americans on
both sides were killed in one day. In the Battle of the Somme [a costly and
largely unsuccessful Allied offensive on the Western Front during World War I],
50,000 British troops were killed in the first hour. With our pretenses to human
values, we have slaughtered our boys in the same kind of way.
G: That is a telling point. Stanley, let's turn to Central America for a moment. Do
you see any similarities between the beginnings of our involvement in Vietnam
and the initiatives that our country has taken over the last several years in El
Salvador, and principally in Nicaragua and Honduras. I am thinking of the
rebels, the Contra force, that we seem to have either organized or certainly
K: I went down to Central America to look around. I cannot claim any expertise,
but I sniffed the air a bit to see whether I smelled the same smells from Vietnam
days. I basically felt, and this tends to be impressionistic, that Central America
is not Southeast Asia. It is totally different there -- the people are different, their
history is different. They certainly did not have the colonial experience in the
same way that Southeast Asia did. The Spanish conquest was totally different
than, in the case of Vietnam, [France's colonization]. They did not inherent
institutions from the West the way Vietnam did (interestingly, even today the
older generation of communists in Vietnam are very Frenchified because of their
French education). I see vast differences on the ground between Vietnam and
Central America. But Washington is still Washington, and that is where I see the
similarities. I see a similarity in the administration's attempt to fit the Central
American situation into the global context of America's confrontation with the
Soviet Union, which is exactly what we did in the early days of Vietnam. It is as
if to say that there would not be any trouble down in Central America if the
Russians and Cubans were not meddling there, which I think is wrong. I think
that given the situations in those places in Central America, there would be great
unrest there, [despite any "meddling" by either the Russians or the Cubans],
because those places are going through changes. Another similarity from the
viewpoint of Washington is the tendency to put the emphasis on military activity
and ignore, as least minimize, political, social, and economic approaches, which I
think are the foundations of the unrest and the turbulence down there. Among
other things, I see in this administration, which does have a kind of Pollyannish
view of things, an illusion that somehow Central America is going to turn back the
clock and everything will be nice and stable and sweet. Those are areas in
turmoil. They are undergoing changes. There is not spontaneous revolution [in
Central America], but the people there are looking for some change. I think it is
going to continue, and we have to deal with that. It seems to me that over the
years there has always been some U.S. plan for Latin America. The Roosevelt
administration had the Good Neighbor policy, Kennedy had the Alliance for
Progress, and all of them have amounted to very little. For some strange reason
we have ignored Latin America. But then as it seems to become a crisis, we
think that we can deal with the situation in a year or two years. These are
situations that have been decades in the making.
G: Yes. Over the course of many decades, we have allied ourselves with dictators
and despots in Latin America, and that is not a political statement -- that is an
historical statement. And now we are dealing with a much more fluid and
dynamic set of societies in Central America. So I suppose we should expect to
see some amount of revolution, some change as you say, that is perhaps rapid
and threatening to the neighbors of states such as Nicaragua and El Salvador.
K: It is interesting to go [to Central America] through Mexico. Mexico is much more
threatened by an upheaval in Central America than we are, and yet the Mexicans
are looking for some kind of compromise and, in many ways, are tangling with us
over what they think we should be doing.
G: Yes. They have a burgeoning population that is almost out of control, and yet
they have maintained a certain stability. I do not know what it is in Mexico that
has led to their success in that, but it is quite remarkable is it not?
K: As Napoleon's mother said, let's hope it lasts. By the end of the century, I think
Mexico City is going to have a population of thirty to thirty-five million people. I
do not know what the total population will be [of Mexico], but I think that it really is
going to be a very intense situation. They seemed to be less concerned about
what is happening in Central America -- in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras,
and Guatemala -- than we are.
G: Yes, that is quite remarkable. Of course, they have had a better relationship
with Cuba over the years than we have had. Perhaps they do not feel as
threatened by Cuba as we do.
K: I think we have an opportunity to cut a deal with Cuba too. All the signals that
we are getting from [Fidel] Castro [political leader of Cuba] is that he would like to
find some way of working out a compromise. He certainly is not going to be
easy to deal with. But I think he wants trade, and he might want some kind of
aid. I certainly think that he must want to find some way of diluting his
dependence on the Soviet Union. At least it is worth exploring. In fact, we are
talking to the Cubans right now in New York over the question of that massive
refugee influx [in Miami]. So we are negotiating with them on technical matters.
G: It would be very interesting if Fidel Castro agreed to take back some of the Mariel
refugees. We would like to send a number back, because allegedly many of
those refugees are criminals.
K: He made his gesture to Jesse Jackson [ran for the Democratic presidential
nomination in 1984; leader of the Rainbow Coalition] of letting some Americans
out of jail, which is what they are discussing in these talks. I would think that it
would be a very strong political gesture by President Reagan to offer to meet with
Castro. He is meeting with [Andrei Andreevich] Gromyko [Soviet foreign affairs
minister, 1957-1985]. Remember that President Eisenhower in the 1952
presidential campaign offered to go to Korea to solve the Korean War. For more
than cosmetic reasons, I think there is certainly a possibility of dealing with
G: Stanley, before we close, I want to ask, is your book Vietnam: A History one of
the last books we will see about Vietnam? Or do you believe that we are going
to see a continued proliferation of books on Vietnam, not only serious studies
such as your own, but novels and other writings? There just seems to be an
explosion of work right now about that war.
K: I think it certainly will continue, and it will continue into future generations.
People for whom Vietnam will be a vague memory will be writing books about it,
just as people today are writing books about the Civil War, the American
Revolution, and the Peloponnesian Wars [fought between the two leading
city-states in ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, from 431-404 BC].
G: But Vietnam has a particularly grave aspect about it. It being the only war that, as
many people say, we lost. I do not know if that is the correct terminology, but
that is the way many people feel. And it inflicts itself upon our consciousness in
a way that some of our earlier wars have not.
K: That is true. I think, of course, that it is one of the major experiences of our
history. There is an old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." I
feel as if I did live through interesting times.
G: I think we have been cursed in that respect. Stanley, thank you very much for
being with me on the program. I want to repeat that you are the author of
Vietnam: A History. I think it is a remarkable piece of work and very well
balanced in its treatment of that war. You are also the writer of the thirteen part
series -- Vietnam: A Television History, which played for the first time on PBS last
year and is being repeated on many PBS stations around the United States at
this time and as a matter of fact on this particular station, WUFT TV Channel 5,
Gainesville. Stanley, thank you for being with me on Conversations.
K: Thank you, Mike.