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Wednesday, 22 August 2018 21:17

Clete Roberts interviews Roger Hilsman on Vietnam (1983)

Transcript, courtesy of David Giglio and Our Hidden History, of an interview with Roger Hilsman, who confirms that JFK's policy concerning Vietnam was essentially different from Johnson's. Note that he made these statements in 1983, nearly a decade before the publication of John Newman's book.

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We have also appended an important addendum, another interview with Hilsman from 1969.


The following is a transcript of an interview at the 1983 USC conference entitled “Vietnam Reconsidered”. Clete Roberts was a local newscaster in Los Angeles. This interview occurred a year before his death. The cameraman for the interview was the Oscar-winning activist cinematographer Haskell Wexler. This interview is important because it took place almost ten years before the publication of John Newman’s book, JFK and Vietnam. But it shows Kennedy’s attitude toward that conflict was just as Newman depicted it.

Clete Roberts, correspondent
Ian Masters, Producer, Director
Michael Rose, Producer
Haskell Wexler, Camera (along with others)
Susan Cope, Sound
Eric Vollmer, Coordinator
Anne Vermillion, Coordinator

Vietnam Reconsidered Conference, USC, 1983

 

Clete Roberts:

Let's see. When you were Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs what was going on in Vietnam at that particular time?

Roger Hilsman:

Well, I started off with the Kennedy administration as being Assistant Secretary for Research and Intelligence, and then when Averell Harriman was promoted to be Under Secretary, I became Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs. So the last 14, 15 months of the Kennedy administration, I was head of the Far East. What was going on was that Kennedy had followed the Eisenhower policy of giving aid and advisors to the South Vietnamese, but Kennedy was absolutely opposed to bombing North Vietnam or sending American troops. Kennedy was killed, I stayed on and I pursued Kennedy's policy and Mr. Johnson, President Johnson disagreed. He and I quarreled about this, he wanted to bomb the North and send American troops in, I was opposed to it. As it happened, I resigned, but I beat him to the punch by about two hours. I think he would have fired me if I hadn't resigned. So that gives you the basic picture.

Roberts:

Well, I suppose this question ought to be asked. Who got us into the Vietnam War?

Roger Hilsman:

Well, you can ... If you start at the very beginning, in the middle of World War Two, OSS, which I was a member of, had liaison officers with Ho Chi Minh and we were helping Ho Chi Minh. Then as the Cold War heated up, or the Cold War got involved, increasingly Vietnam got involved with the Cold War. And during the Truman administration, we began to help the French and so on. In the Kennedy administration, Kennedy started off something of a hawk, but as things progressed, he became convinced of two things. One is that it was not a world communist thrust, that it was a nationalist Vietnamese anti-colonialst thing, and that therefore we should help the South Vietnamese with aid and maybe advisors, but that we should never get American troops involved.

When Kennedy was killed the balance of power shifted to a group of people, Lyndon Johnson, Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk, Bob McNamara, who saw it not as an anti-colonialist nationalist movement, but as a world communist movement, you see. And they, for ideological reasons or, I would argue, for a misunderstanding of the nature of the struggle, made it an American war. So is that a capsule version?

Roberts:

You spoke a moment ago of being at odds, at loggerheads, with President Johnson, but what does a State department official, an official in the position you were in, what do you do when you get to loggerheads with the administration or with a policy you can't live with? Do you just quit or do you take it to the press, to the public? Now you could have done it, but you're arguing with the President of the United States, I understand that.

Roger Hilsman:

That's right. Well, I want to be responsive to your question and how to do so. Averell Harriman was Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and I was Assistant Secretary for Research and Intelligence, and Kennedy promoted him to be Under Secretary of State and promoted me to Averell's job. And I remember a press man said to me that I think this is a wonderful appointment. And I said, "Well, why? Do you admire us that much?" And he said, "No. Both you and Averell are free men. Averell is a free man because he's got $500 million. You're a free man because you've got a PhD in International Politics and you can always go back to teaching at a university." So he said, "I am confident that you guys will quit if push comes to shove, and you'll do so publicly." And I think this is true.

For example, one of the best Foreign Service officers, I've never said this publicly, but I'm willing to do so now, one of the best Foreign Service officers in my day was Marshall Green in the Far East. He was Consul General at Hong Kong and I think that I can prove that I thought he was good because I brought him back to be my deputy. But some years later, in the Nixon administration he was made Assistant Secretary. I thought that was a terrible mistake.

Roberts:

Because he was a career man?

Roger Hilsman:

Because he was a career man, you see. Now when Nixon worked the rapprochement with China, the Assistant Secretary of State, Marshall Green, read about it in the newspapers. He had no alternative career. You see, if I had been Assistant Secretary at the time, or Averell Harriman, Nixon wouldn't have dared to have done this without consulting the State department because he would know that either Averell or I would have marched out of our office, we'd have gone down to the first floor, we'd have called a press conference in front of TV, and we'd have resigned publicly with a blast. It would have cost him. Marshall Green can't do that, a career Foreign Service can't do that.

So I think what I'm saying is that an Assistant Secretary who is a political appointee, who is the President's man, yes, but because he's the President's man, he can say to the President, "You can't do this without consulting the experts. You can't go off on your own, you've got to consult the experts. If you don't consult the experts, I'll blast you and I'll blast you publicly." And I think it's important that people at that second level, or third level, you see the Assistant Secretary of State level, be free men, be people who are able to blast and the President has to know. You see, he stands between the experts and the President so that the President has to consult the experts or otherwise he'll pay the price.

Roberts:

And that is done only by going to the press?

Roger Hilsman:

I think it's true.

Roberts:

No other way?

Roger Hilsman:

There's no other way. This is ... The press are perhaps being used in this sense, but not unfairly.

Roberts:

Talking earlier with George Reedy who was Press Secretary, as you know, for President Johnson, he told us that after Johnson came into office, into Washington D.C., that he felt that he was at a loss of what to do about Vietnam. And there was a meeting ...

Roger Hilsman:

That Vietnam was ... That Johnson was at a loss?

Roberts:

At a loss initially in what to do about it.

Roger Hilsman:

I don't think that's true.

Roberts:

That he felt it ... At a meeting that he attended, that he was looking, he, Johnson, was looking for signals from the Kennedy people about which way to go. And he felt that perhaps Johnson had misinterpreted what the Kennedy people were saying to him.

Roger Hilsman:

Well, George Reedy is a very old friend, I've known him for 25 years, I respect him a great deal, but I would have to say that George was, he was the public relations guy, so he was not involved in the substantive discussions and therefore I beg to disagree. When Johnson was Vice President, he attended a number of meetings, National Security Council meetings at which I was the Assistant Secretary. You see, I was responsible for all of Asian policy. The President made the decisions, the Secretary of State made the decisions, but I was the person who made the recommendations and who carried out their decisions. So I was in a key position.

And I would say that those meetings, George was not at those meetings, and long before the President was killed, when LBJ was Vice President, it became very clear to us that LBJ had a viewpoint, a position, that he was a hawk if you will. That he thought that, whereas Kennedy felt we should support the South Vietnamese with aid and with advisors, but that it was basically not a world communist struggle, it was not the communist bloc against America. It was a nationalist anti-colonialist movement, we should help them certainly, but we should not get any Americans killed, we should not make a war out of it. Johnson had a world ideological view of it that this was a struggle between the communist world and the West, and I think he's been proved wrong because they won, and the world hasn't changed that much, we're still here, thank God. But I think that Johnson, long before Kennedy was killed, a year before, in those meetings, made it very clear that he saw it as a cataclysmic struggle between good and evil, that he saw it in ideological terms.

Johnson saw Vietnam as a struggle between the communist world and the non-communist world; whereas Kennedy saw it, I think correctly, as history will show us, as a nationalist anti-colonialist movement, which really had no effect on the survival of the United States. Johnson saw it as Armageddon, you see, and I think Johnson clearly was shown to be wrong.

Roberts:

After you left your position in the administration and you watched Vietnam, what did you think of the quality of the reporting that was coming out of there?

Roger Hilsman:

I'm moved to not answer your question just yet, but another question first. One of the things that has troubled me all my life is that, you see, Bobby Kennedy, Jack Kennedy, George Ball, me, Mike Forrestal, saw this as a nationalist anti-colonialist movement, whereas a lot of others saw it as this world shaking event where the communist world was going to dominate and dominoes and all the rest. And one of the things that has bothered me ever since, and that was the question I thought you were asking, was have you examined your soul? Was there anything that you could have done? 'Cause you see, with hindsight it turns out we were right. Is there anything I could have done to have stopped this that I didn't do? If I had been successful, there would be 55,000 Americans alive that are not alive, and about a million Vietnamese. And that one I have struggled over. I can't think of what I could have done. It was ... I tried, I tried endlessly to try to convince Johnson that this was not Armageddon, this was not something that we should spend all these American lives on, and I failed. I don't know what I would have done otherwise.

Roger Hilsman:

But now to go to your question, could the press have done anything differently?

Roberts:

My question, yes. And what they did do, what do you think of it?

Roger Hilsman:

Well, to tell you the honest to God truth, I don't think any of us did a good job. I mean, I think there were a few of us in government who saw it as history shows it was. It was not ordered by Moscow or Peking. It was not Armageddon. There were some of us who saw it that way. We failed in convincing Lyndon. Now Jack Kennedy saw it that way, we didn't need to convince him, he convinced us. He deserves the most credit. So I think that some of us saw it that way, there were a few in the press, but basically I think that it can be said equally of the press, the policy makers, the foreign service, the CIA, anybody you name, that they failed to understand what was going on.

The press, in my judgment, never addressed themselves to the question of what is the nature of this struggle? You see, they assumed that it was a world communist movement. It wasn't, it was a nationalist anti-colonialist movement. The press got themselves involved in the day by day business. What happened yesterday? How many Americans were killed? It was the Ernie Pyle sort of thing, you see. They accepted the overall rationale of the war, the press did, without question, and they concentrated on the Ernie Pyle level of the grunt, of the soldier. And I think they failed the American people, I think they failed the American policy makers, they didn't ask the right questions. They didn't ask the fundamental questions. I think that's true of the press, I think that's true of the policy makers. I'm not focusing on the press, I don't think the press caused the war or the press is responsible. I just think the press, like the CIA and the foreign service and the policy makers, failed to ask the right questions. I can understand why the press did because they've got to make the next deadline, they've got to make the next thing. But there's a tendency in the press to hype things, to push it up.

And by the way, the most severe critics of the press are the press. For example, go to the Iran hostage situation. We now know that the militants who seized the embassy didn't intend to hold it for more than 24 hours. They held it for 444 days. The reason they held it was because the press hyped it, and they got world publicity that they never dreamed of. And Scotty Reston is the man who is the most critical of this. As he says, it was the sonorous toning of the days on the evening news, "This is the 344th day of the captivity of the hostages." As my ... As Scotty Reston, I'm quoting Scotty Reston. And who was saying this? It was the Ayatollah Cronkite, you see. And there's a real reason to believe that those hostages stayed 442 days more than they should have because guys like Cronkite hyped it. I think this is a fair criticism.

So what I'm saying is that I think we're all culpable. We all failed to analyze Vietnam correctly. I think the press has a peculiar guilt in that they hyped it, they blew it up.


Addendum

This interview from 1969 contains, among other things, two very important pieces of information. On page 7, Hilsman says Bobby Kennedy wanted to negotiate out of Vietnam in 1963. On page 21, he states JFK was thinking of recognizing Red China in 1961.


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