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 Pentagon Papers must have been important in the search for truth, because here was the history of the war prepared by the government itself.

Yes, it was an intellectual step for me, very definitely. Let me give you just one example:

When we were young reporters in Vietnam in that period -- '62, '63 -- and the generals would tell us how they were winning the war, we thought they were lying to us. We considered these statements of fatuous optimism to be insults to our intelligence. We thought that they regarded us with contempt because we were reporters. We thought they had a grip on reality. When I got the Pentagon Papers, I began to realize that, just a moment, maybe these people believed these delusions. And then when I began to research the book, I discovered that it was absolutely true. I got the secret records of those strategy conferences in Honolulu, and here were these men, sitting in a guarded room under top-secret circumstances, and they were more optimistic than they had been with us in a press conference in Saigon! And it was, I don't want to use that slang phrase, but it was mind boggling in a way. I mean, it was like an explosion going off in your mind, because you realized, "My God, they believed in these delusions." We had a military and political leadership at that period which was genuinely deluded.

Your life intersected with Vann's at a point when he knew more than you knew, when you were in Vietnam, and then he went downhill from there, as we just discussed. Whereas your trajectory, after coming home to the United States, was up. Did it make a difference to be here, to see the opposition to the war?

It undoubtedly did make a difference, yes. Because first what happened was, when I went back to Vietnam in '65 to '66 for my third year there, I had gotten to love that country. That first war, as destructive as it was, it was nothing like what happened when the American army and the marine corps and the air force and the navy came in and started blowing that little country apart. And if you loved the country, it really upset you. The destruction of civilian hamlets, the killing and the wounding of civilians, became vastly greater than it had been before, and it was very upsetting; but I still couldn't bring myself to understand that the policy itself was wrong. But then, when I did get back to Washington, yes, undoubtedly I acquired the perspective to think about it. And I began, first, to realize that we were going to lose. That came home clearly to me, that we were going to lose. And then I realized also that this war was very damaging for this country. Not only were we going to lose it, but we were damaging ourselves and we were damaging Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos terribly. And so I began to re-think my own positions. The Pentagon Papers helped that too.

I was struck by your criticism of American foreign policy and I have some quotes here that I want to read to you. Of the U.S. military leadership, you write that the "dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces," had become "professionally arrogant," there was a "lack of imagination," and "moral and intellectual insensitivity." And of the American foreign policy elite, you write, "the elite had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success." Did these conclusions come at the end of the odyssey? The middle of the odyssey? When you were there? Or when you were here?

They came at about the middle of the odyssey, in terms of researching the book; not while I was in Vietnam.

When I was in Vietnam I thought that our system was rational. I think all Americans did. Remember Lyndon Johnson would say, "If you only had access to the top-secret information I have, you'd know we are winning this war." It was a question I'd discovered as I was researching the book and thinking my way through these issues. It was not a question of stupidity, it was a question of intelligent men behaving stupidly and of why they had behaved stupidly. Then I began to look at the American political and military leadership at that period and I realized that it had undergone a sea change in the whole post-World War II period. World War II had been such a tremendous success story for this country that the political and military leadership began to assume that they would prevail simply because of who they were. We were like the British at the turn of the 19th century. We were going to win simply because we were British. And I think that was true of the intellectual leadership of the country at the time, and, undoubtedly we now see, of the business leadership as well. These people had lost their sense of imagination, they couldn't think creatively, arrogance had replaced reality; those generals thought they were going to win simply because they were American generals. They'd lost the sense that they could lose. And when you look at the World War II leadership, and I've all my life been a student of military and political history, you saw men like Patton and Eisenhower and Marshall who had a very keen sense that they could lose, and so they were on the lookout all the time. Whereas these generals of Vietnam -- Westmoreland, Harkins, Taylor -- they couldn't conceive of losing. You also saw it in what happened to people in the book. John Vann in '62 and '63 tried to alert first General Harkins and then the leadership in Washington that we were losing the advisory war that Kennedy had started. He tried to do it first directly in his reports; Harkins wouldn't listen to him, so he turned to the reporters. Then when he got back to Washington he was scheduled to brief the Joint Chiefs, and Maxwell Taylor read his briefing and had it canceled. He didn't want to hear that information.

Later on, a brilliant Marine general named Victor Krulack who had been responsible, in a major way, for the landing craft of World War II -- a very "thinking" soldier who had been Vann's nemesis in that earlier period in that he'd gone along with Taylor and Harkins -- when the big American war started in '65, Krulack began to re-think it. He realized that this war-of-attrition strategy the American army generals wanted to follow was crazy, that we were not going to be able to kill these people off so fast that they would lose their will, that it wouldn't work. To use his term, "We'll attrit ourselves." We'll kill a whole lot of American soldiers and undercut the political capacity to wage the war at home. He tried to change the system. He went to McNamara with a paper saying, "Look, if we fight the war this way, we'll lose." McNamara wouldn't listen to him. He ended up a frustrated man. Then McNamara finally got frightened in 1967. He realized we were going to lose. He tried to convince Johnson of this; Johnson wouldn't listen to him, thinking he'd lost his nerve. Johnson thought Westmoreland was winning the war, and he fired McNamara. Then Johnson was destroyed, and in came Nixon. Nixon came up with another strategy: he's going to win. And Vietnam destroyed Nixon too. You realize that this system was ill. I call it the "disease of victory" that had come out of World War II. That's why the American system, our leadership system, victimized the American soldier in Vietnam. It had lost its grip on reality.

You don't make much in your analysis of this failure of the anti-communism of the leadership. It's really the arrogance of power that is the thrust of the analysis. Is that a fair comment?

It was the arrogance of power. Anti-communism contributed to it in the sense that because of their mind-set, they wanted to see the world in black and white, they didn't want to see any shades of gray, and so you got a simple-minded anti-communism. I mean, you begin with Acheson and Truman backing the French attempt to reconquer Indochina in '45. And you go on though those years and you find Acheson totally incapable of realizing that yes, Ho Chi Minh is a communist, he's not a democrat, he's not an agrarian reformer, he kills his enemies; but he's a nationalist. They couldn't relate the Tito phenomenon to the communist world as a whole. In other words, communist countries were destined to behave as differently from each other as right-wing dictatorships had. Our statesmen ignored that. They didn't ever really consider that possibility. When the Sino-Soviet split occurred, they ignored it. I think their instincts led them to look for simple-minded solutions and they then followed those simple-minded solutions to our grief.

And the cost for people in Vietnam was that they were really out of the calculation that our leaders were making. You refer to a study done by a top aide to McNamara, John McNaughton, in which he laid out the percentages of why we had to remain there and he said: 70% to prevent the appearance of our defeat, 20% to keep this area from China, and only 10% to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life. So that the bottom line was that we completely lost sight of, and in fact destroyed, many of the people there who were living there.

Yes, and the people we were allegedly going to save. I think you have to remember that Americans saw their purpose as so innately good that they could excuse the pain they would inflict on others to carry out those purposes. Because the purposes were so good, they would justify this pain we were inflicting on other people. McNaughton was quantifying it. Those were the priorities. It wasn't that there wasn't a threat from the Soviet Union, obviously there were real threats in the world; but what happened was that they were unable to distinguish between Stalin and Ho and Mao, etc. There was an inability to see these countries as historical entities.

When you were leaving your assignment in Vietnam, you went out for a day with General Westmoreland on a tour and you raised the question of the cost to the Vietnamese people of the bombing.

He said, "Yes, Neil." I had asked him about the civilian casualties from the bombing and shelling and if he was troubled by it and he said, "Yes, Neil, there's a problem, but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn't it?" I realized then that he knew the effect and didn't mind; that they were deliberately emptying the countryside with bombing and shelling. He didn't mind the fact that he was generating millions of refugees (it was called "generating refugees"). In fact, a Harvard scholar named Samuel Huntington later on called this "forced urbanization," and described it as a way to win wars of national liberation. He didn't come up with the idea, he was describing what was happening. Again, I think, the American thought that his purposes were so innately good that they justified this pain he was inflicting on other people. He didn't think of it. And obviously, racism was involved in this, racism towards Asians. You remember all those phrases about how "these people" -- Asians -- don't value human life like we do. Well if you spend any time around them, you discover that they love their children just as much as we love ours. That is certainly true of the Vietnamese. It was American racism but more than that, it was also this belief that our purposes are always good and that therefore whatever we want to do is right and good, is just, and is justified.

One of the great achievements of your book is the vignettes and profiles of individuals who were trapped in the war. There was a young aide to Vann, Douglas Ramsey, who knew the Vietnamese and then was captured by the Vietnamese. Tell us a little about the learning experience that he had in seven years of captivity.

That was an extraordinary thing because Doug Ramsey was Vann's assistant in a province west of Saigon, a very insecure province that was dominated by the communists in '65 and '66. Ramsey was one of the few Americans in Vietnam who spoke Vietnamese fluently, he was a brilliant young man, a foreign service officer who volunteered to work out in the countryside. And then Vann left and he was captured, and on the way to the prison camp they stopped for a meal when they got to the rain forest. One of the guerrillas escorting him was a 16-year-old farm boy. And he asked Ramsey, "Why are you Americans making war in this country?" And Ramsey gave him one of the standard explanations of the time; he said, "I realize this is very painful for you, but we're stopping the Chinese from expanding and taking over the rest of Southeast Asia because you people are pawns of the Chinese." And the kid looked at him and he said, "You're crazy. We're not going to let the Chinese into this country. Just because we share the same form of government with them doesn't mean we're going to let them run us; they're our traditional enemy." And Ramsey started arguing with the boy, and the two older guerrillas, one of whom was an officer, broke in and they said, "You're wrong and the boy's right." And they proceeded to give Ramsey a lesson in Vietnamese history about how the Chinese were their traditional enemies and how they had beaten off invasions from China. And Ramsey realized then, on his way to the prison camp that afternoon -- and the poor man underwent seven years in jungle prison camps, he had a most incredible ordeal -- he realized on his way to the prison camp that this whole concept that we were stopping the Chinese in Southeast Asia was, as he called it, "ashes." That these people were the best barrier you could ask for against Chinese expansionism into Southeast Asia. And of course, as soon as we were defeated in Vietnam and left in '75, the historic animosity reasserted itself in Vietnam and the communist dynasty of China invaded Vietnam, just as every other dynasty that came to power in China invaded Vietnam. The unthinkable occurred: two communist countries went to war with each other.

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