Neil Sheehan Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Remembering the Vietnam War; Conversation with Neil Sheehan, 11/14/88 by Harry Kreisler

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The American Dilemma in Vietnam

Your book is the story of John Paul Vann. His decline, his tragedy, his end, comes after an evolution of his thinking on the war. But even at the beginning, very early, he is advising, and you quote him, "to take over command of this operation lock, stock, and barrel." So, in part, that was his frustration. He felt that he knew how to win the war and the people in Washington didn't understand how to win it.

John always believed that if you fought the war the right way you could win the war. In those early years, he had a keener grasp of reality than any American I knew in Vietnam, any other American official. His first year there was as a military advisor, and he'd seen things then in mainly military terms, but when he came back as a civilian advisor in the pacification program, he then began to rethink. And he realized that the Saigon regime we were supporting was corrupt; that it was the remainder of the French colonial system; that it had no roots in the society. And so the only way, he felt, we could win the war in Vietnam was to take over the country and re-make the society -- what he called, "harness the revolution," that is, the social revolution that was going on in the countryside, which the communists were using as fuel for the engine of their own war. He wanted to carry out land reform. He wanted to stop the corruption. He wanted to give the Vietnamese a government they could believe in, and he felt the only way you could do that was to take it over, because if you simply tried to work through the Vietnamese regime, it would never change. They were incapable of changing, and no matter what force the United States applied, we would always be building on sand, because ultimately, Vietnamese would have to run this country, and if it was these Vietnamese in Saigon, they wouldn't be able to run anything, the place would collapse.

Interestingly enough, he said in a letter that he was convinced that everything the NLF was doing was the right way to go, that the great majority of the people support it. At one point towards the end of this quote he says, "If I were a lad of eighteen faced with the same choice -- whether to support the [Saigon government] or the NLF -- and a member of a rural community, I would surely choose the NLF."

Yes, he said that, it was an extraordinary letter to a general friend of his back home; that's when he'd come back and he began to realize the social, political, and cultural dimension of the thing. He could do that. John turned out to be a lot more complicated than I had ever imagined. The more I learned of him, the more he fascinated me and the more he was a metaphor for this war. I discovered when I began to research the book that the John Vann I thought I knew, I didn't really know at all. He had a terrible childhood, his mother was a part-time prostitute in Norfolk, Virginia, and he was illegitimate and worse than that, she had rejected him. This was during the Depression with terrible poverty, and he had raised himself up out of this childhood by sheer force of will, and had become an officer in the Air Corps first during World War II and transferred to the infantry. Having his background, his origins, the poverty of his own childhood, gave him the capacity to identify with these Vietnamese in the countryside who were struggling against a system that denied them any social advancement or any social justice. And that's why he could write that, he could say, "If I were eighteen years old, I'd join the Viet Cong," because he could feel that. Most Americans couldn't.

By the end of the book, his great tragedy is that he seems to know less than he knew in the beginning.

Yes, he lost the sense of reality because he couldn't give up on the war. After Tet '68 -- the surprise communist offensive at Tet in 1968, when the will of the American population to continue the war was broken -- John couldn't give up on it at that point, he had invested too much in it. First of all, he was a marvelous soldier, a natural leader of men in war, he was fearless and he had an indomitable will to win. He was not only intellectually convinced that he could win, it was part of his character. He found it impossible to admit defeat. And secondly, he'd become somebody by 1968. He was somebody important in Vietnam. And thirdly, he had this dark personal side. He was a compulsive womanizer, this had come out of the childhood, and he could exercise that side of himself in Vietnam. So he couldn't give up on the war. And so he began to rationalize what was happening. He began to say, "We don't need to stop the corruption any more." You see, at Tet '68, the Viet Cong guerrillas were mostly destroyed, but he said, "Well, they're the major threat, we can handle the North Vietnamese army because they won't have the political capacity of the guerrillas. We don't have to have such a competent government. We can handle it with American power." And then he began to rationalize, and he came up with a number of those ideas that Nixon incorporated in the "Vietnamization" program. This man who advocated using a rifle, because you mentioned that quote earlier, "We can't use a knife so will have to use a rifle, because it's the most discriminating weapon," in the end, in 1972, when he stopped the big North Vietnamese offensive at Kontum, he was calling in the B-52s.

Next page: John Paul Vann's Mysterious Death

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