MODERATOR: I would like now to turn to Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke. The Vietnam War was the focus of Ambassador Holbrooke’s earliest years in public service. He joined the Foreign Service in 1962 and served in Vietnam from 1963 to 1966. He worked Vietnam issues at the Johnson White House from 1966 to 1968 and was a member of the American delegation to the Vietnam peace talks in Paris in 1968 and 1969. While serving in Vietnam, Ambassador Holbrooke drafted a prescient memorandum on challenges and problems associated with pacification and counterinsurgency. This memorandum can be found in the 1966 Vietnam Volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States. From 1977 to 1981, Ambassador Holbrooke served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. During the Clinton Administration, he held a series of high offices – Ambassador to Germany, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, and as a member of President Clinton’s cabinet in his capacity as Ambassador to the United Nations. He was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord.
Ambassador Holbrooke has made his mark outside government as well as managing editor of Foreign Policy from 1972 to 1977, as vice chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston, and as managing director of Lehman Brothers. His bestselling book, To End a War, published in 1999, and his role as co-author with Clark Clifford in Counsel to the President, published in 1992, are well-known to everyone in this audience. I am honored to invite Ambassador Holbrooke to address us today. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Thank you very much for inviting me here and thank you, Henry, for a remarkable and very valuable presentation this morning. First, I want to congratulate the Office of the Historian. The FRUS series on American foreign policy has been an absolutely indispensable document center for several generations. These volumes contain richly textured memos, documents, memcons, tapes, that leap off the page and bring to life forgotten events with contemporary relevance.
We should note, however, that in all likelihood, the volumes being released now will never be matched again, because after Watergate, the detailed recordkeeping of the past is not – was not possible anymore. And after the modern technologies which Hillary referred to, with emails and video teleconferences, documentation just isn’t what it used to be. Reading these volumes, dipping into them, is remarkable. Yesterday I found Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon discussing the North Vietnamese offensive, at which point they diverged into a detailed discussion of the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig in 1813 and whether Napoleon might have won or not. Nixon’s view was they could have; Henry’s view was it was inevitable Napoleon would lose. But that is the kind of texture you’re not going to find 30 years from now when FRUS is released. There’s also a very detailed discussion of an obscure event in World War I at another point.
So I congratulate the Historian and their office for this timely contribution and I’m honored to be part of the event. I’m even more honored to see that I’m now old enough to have something I wrote declassified. (Laughter.) In fact, it was declassified some time ago, but I wasn’t aware of it till recently. So I read through this memo, reread the memo that was just mentioned, and my first reaction was a very deep concern because I clearly wrote better then than I write now. And of course, I was very young. I was 25 years old, and I can’t believe I was that rude to my superiors. But what I said in it, I leave it to you to determine how that memo holds up.
I first met Henry Kissinger in 1965, when he visited Vietnam at the invitation of Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. He was at the time already a prominent Harvard professor, a great expert on international affairs. I was a 24-year-old junior Foreign Service officer assigned to the Embassy after having served in the lower Mekong Delta, and I had never heard of him. My friends and roommates, John Negroponte and Vladimir Lehovich, were sort of partial control officers for Henry on one or two of his trips, and I’ll leave them to describe the visits. All I knew then watching the way senior officials of the Johnson Administration treated Henry – and the fact that he was shortly to open a back-channel to Hanoi while still a professor at Harvard – meant that this was far more than just another Harvard professor.
That first encounter marked the beginning of a friendship that’s now 45 years old and great mutual respect, and I’m very gratified at what you said, Henry, marked by many areas of agreement and collaboration in China when I was Assistant Secretary for East Asia, and Germany when I was Ambassador, at the United Nations in our mutual efforts in regard to these ongoing issues, and a few areas of some disagreement, the most notable of which, of course, is the one that brings us here together today. Those differences have softened over the years, but we do still look at these issues from somewhat different perspectives. I’m not here today, however, to discuss that, but to discuss the books and, first, if you will permit, a brief comment about the narrative of my own experience which was so radically different because I started at the very bottom. It was my first assignment after I entered the Foreign Service.
I arrived at Saigon with Vladimir Lehovich on May 26th, 1963. We were greeted by a member of the Rural Affairs Team of AID. His name was Ralph Boynton (ph), if I remember correctly, and he told us to take off our ties and jackets because we were a shirtsleeves office. I stayed on Vietnam until the summer of 1966, serving first in the AID mission in Saigon as a provincial representative in the lower Mekong Delta; as a staff assistant to two ambassadors, Maxwell Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge; and as part of a special team in the Embassy under Ambassador – Deputy Ambassador William J. Porter, to integrate civilian-military affairs inside the Embassy. In 1966, I was reassigned to the White House to work on Vietnam as part of a special office, not entirely unlike my present job, focused on the civilian side of the war – the other war, as my boss, R.W. Komer, called it.
In 1967-68, I had a confusing and overlapping set of assignments. I was assigned simultaneously while still on the White House staff to be part of a small secret task force in the Office of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Our assignment was to assemble all the files on Vietnam and write a full history of the war even as it was going on. We weren’t quite sure of the purpose, but our top-secret project, of course, ended up on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post as the Pentagon Papers and provoked one of the epic struggles in American history in the Supreme Court.
I then went on to work for Nick Katzenbach, who was Deputy Secretary of State – it was then called Under Secretary, but it was the Deputy Secretary job – on Vietnam. And on March 31st, 1968, I worked on Lyndon B. Johnson’s withdrawal speech with one of his great advisors, Harry McPherson, who is here with us today. I never knew, of course, about the famous ending. I worked on the Vietnam part of the speech with Harry. That speech also opened the door for the first direct talks with Hanoi. And when Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance were sent to Paris along with our great Foreign Service leader Phil Habib, they asked me to join the team along with John Negroponte. And for the next 15 months, I lived in Paris as part of the team that struggled unsuccessfully to find a path to peace, until on January 20th, 1969, we handed off to the new administration, and Henry picked up the story precisely from that point.
Finally, in 1969, with Richard Nixon in the White House, I left my seven years of service on Vietnam and went on to other fields, first in Morocco as Peace Corps director, then private life, then back to the government as Jimmy Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, where fate and destiny led me back to Paris in 1977 and 1978 to conduct our effort to normalize relations with Vietnam. That effort also failed, to my deep regret to this day. Had we been able to normalize relations under Jimmy Carter instead of having to wait until the Clinton Administration, I think the path that we’re now on would have taken place earlier.
But leaving Vietnam behind did not mean getting it out of one’s system. It stayed with me, even though I didn’t think about it much. Also, I formed friendships of a lifetime, and many of those people are here today. I see in this room my oldest friend from high school, David Rusk, and his son Richie; my first boss in Vietnam Rufus Phillips, whose own book, Why Vietnam Matters, I was honored to write the preface to and which I recommend to any of you who want to drill down more deeply; and although he’s just left a few minutes ago, my other roommate in Saigon, John Negroponte, who also was my deputy in East Asia and my successor at the United Nations.
So these relationships go on a very long way. There’s Harry McPherson, my dear friend from the Johnson White House, and many other familiar faces as I look around the room. I see Morley Safer, Marvin Kalb, Bernie Kalb, and so many others of you who I knew in the journalistic corps.
Of course, some people who should be here today are not – Stan Karnow, Les Gelb, Frank Wisner, Peter Tarnoff – all dear friends from Saigon days, except Gelb who never set foot in the country but thinks he knew more about it than we do, and he probably did. Stan, Les, Frank, and Peter all should be here today. I talked with all of them this week and I wish they were part of this event.
As I leaf through the thousands of pages of documents and cables in these remarkable and important books, memories are triggered, many voices I haven’t heard in years, some still forever, leap off the page and forgotten arguments briefly come back to life. A question still hangs over us, never quite answered: What did it all mean? This was, after all, the greatest domestic debate over foreign policy in American history then and up to today. It divided the government, it divided the city, it divided the nation, it divided individual families.
While American soldiers died in Vietnam, Americans of the same age demonstrated and rioted over the war. Some left the country. The divisive anger entered American life. All that was two generations ago. Yet another question persists: Is the Vietnam syndrome over? Consider that the last American soldiers left Saigon 35 years ago and the vast majority of our troops left two years earlier. Think about it. The distance separating us in this room from the helicopters taking the last Americans out of Saigon is greater than the distance between that day in April of 1975 and Pearl Harbor.
In more personal terms, the distance from today to my arrival in Vietnam in May of 1963 is greater than from that day to the U.S. entry into World War I. And I thought if I met somebody who remembered World War I when I was in Vietnam, I thought I was talking to somebody from another world. Think about it. If you’re 40 years old today, you were born in 1970, two years after the 1968 Tet Offensive. You were five when the war finally ended. You probably know almost nothing about the war itself except that it happened. You see it in bumper posters on TV, flashbacks. Your parents probably rarely mention it except as part of a cultural experience that was called the ‘60s and included Woodstock and other – and the Beatles and all these other things. And yet Vietnam is still used as a metaphor by both the left and the right to justify wholly different situations.
So Vietnam is behind us, right? It’s history now to be debated among experts, to be used and abused by polemicists. There have been so many other major events, foreign adventures, and crises since then. And for today’s America, we’re defined – this generation is defined by 9/11, not Vietnam. That is this generation’s event and it carries a wholly different meaning and context for all of us.
Yet Vietnam will not go away, and I don’t just mean these documents. The Vietnam War Memorial just a few blocks here, designed by a then-unknown Yale art student named Maya Lin, is the most visited monument in Washington. On every major anniversary of April 30th, 1975, there’s a renewed debate over who lost Vietnam. I can imagine that on the 50th anniversary of that day, in 2025, they’ll wheel onto the Today Show the last surviving veterans of the war and the antiwar movement, but then they’re going to start yelling at each other and beating each other over the head with their canes.
Of course, it’s more serious than that. Behind the continued debate among experts about whether the war could have been won, a debate that will never be resolved, lies another question of even greater importance: What are the lessons of Vietnam? In fact, as I said earlier, what was that war all about? This too will be debated and I’ll offer – I’ll endeavor to offer a brief personal answer to my own question. As they say, the following does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Government.
It is still difficult to say in light of those American heroes whose names are engraved just a few blocks from here on that memorial. But I must conclude that our goals in Vietnam did not justify the immense costs of the war. Nor do I believe that success was denied to us because of domestic events and lack of patience on the part of the American public. This is a popular myth that’s gained great currency in the last 30 years.
But the fact is that the American people were astonishingly patient and supportive of the war, as was Congress until near the end, for most of the 14 years that this war went on despite its immense costs in lives and treasure. And I say 14 years despite recent statements that it was an eight-year war, because this war started, as Richie Rusk mentioned, in 1961 for Americans. Small it seemed at the time, but by the time Vladimir and I landed in Saigon, there were already 12,000 Americans on the ground, 45 Americans had died by the time we got there. Vlad and I thought, God, that’s a lot of troops, that’s a lot of deaths. When we left, it was 550,000 troops and the number of dead were immensely growing, but it was a 14-year war, from 1961 to 1975.
Americans usually support their commander-in-chiefs in wars, and that’s why they did this here. Americans are patriotic and loyal, and they have confidence that the United States Government knows what it’s doing. But in Vietnam, this confidence was ultimately misplaced as we pursued a policy that would have denied Vietnam to the enemy only as long as our ground troops remained, but would not have left the Saigon government strong enough to survive on its own. When we send our young men and women overseas to fight for their country, we must be sure they’re really fighting for our vital national security interests.
Those for whom I worked had no doubt of that. Vietnam was part of a global Sino-Soviet movement designed to erode our interests and to spread a doctrine dangerous to our nation’s national security. If we didn’t fight there, we would fight elsewhere close to home. Our leaders in the ‘60s and ‘70s were the men of World War II, Korea, and the Cold War. They had fought in the Pacific. They had fought in Europe. They had fought in Korea. They had seen the Chinese cross the Yalu in Korea, and they feared a similar event in Vietnam. They were insufficiently aware of the effect of the Sino-Soviet split on Vietnam.
Dean Rusk was typical – I’m speaking now of my first Secretary of State – whose son David, as I mentioned earlier, was my best friend, and who I must stress was the reason – one of the two reasons I joined the Foreign Service, because Dean Rusk had spoken to our high school class and said, “Consider the Foreign Service as a career.” I was then misguided enough to think I wanted to be a journalist, but I overcame that. (Laughter.)
So I look back at Dean Rusk with the greatest personal respect and affection, a seminal figure in my life. He had fought in the China-Burma-India campaign in World War II. He had been Assistant Secretary of State for what was then called the Far East at the time of the Korean War. And while he harbored deep internal doubts about the war, doubts that are reflected in Richie Rusk’s fantastic book in which Richie convinced Dean Rusk to break with a lifetime of tradition – Dean Rusk had said he would never write his memoirs. George Marshall was his model and Marshall had left this building – we’re in the Marshall Center right now – Marshall had left this building, taking only his calendar with him, and Dean Rusk had said he would follow that. But Richie, who had disagreed with his father over Vietnam, had convinced him to – for closure and a very important book was thus produced.
And – but while Dean Rusk harbored deep internal doubts about the war, he felt an absolute obligation to support the troops and the President’s policy. He believed deeply in the theory of American invincibility, something I would emphasize to a younger generation, was instilled in every one of us in high school in those days, in those far away days, when we were taught and endlessly reminded that America had never lost a war. All the strength of Dean Rusk’s convictions – convictions we all still would like to be able to hold, of course – were inadequate to the fact that on the ground, as we slid deeper and deeper into the morass, and later as it spread to Cambodia.
And so we failed the first test. Our beloved nation sent into battle soldiers without a clear determination of what they could accomplish and they misjudged the stakes. And then we couldn’t get out, as Henry spoke already to that point.
We fought bravely under very difficult conditions. But success was not achievable. Those who advocated more escalation or something called, “staying the course,” were advocating something that would have led only to a greater and more costly disaster afterwards. Let me, therefore, be very clear. In my view, this wasn’t about resources and it certainly wasn’t about the patience of the American people or actions by journalists who were often accused of being unpatriotic when they were doing their job.
I’m ready to consider the argument, popular in many circles, that more force, more rapidly applied, might have brought a greater readiness by Hanoi to agree to end the war on what might have appeared to be better terms at the time. I also believe that the half measures advocated with such force by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were a disaster, regardless of what point you held. But I cannot escape the feeling that in the end, whatever we did, the long-term outcome would have been the same. And ironically, that outcome is precisely the one that Secretary Clinton outlined to you earlier this morning as she talked about the remarkable state today of U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
When I returned to Saigon and Hanoi a few years ago as chairman of the Asia Society to host a business development conference, I stood in the square in Saigon in front of the old opera house between the Continental Hotel, the scene of a memorable bombing in Graham Greene’s magnificent novel, The Quiet American, and looked at the new buildings rising around us – buildings with logos familiar to all of us: American Express, Citicorp, Sony – and a subversive ironic thought crept into my mind: If General Westmoreland, who had died before these dramatic changes became apparent, were to be suddenly brought back to that very spot, he’d look around and say, “By God, we won.” (Laughter.)
So, my friends, we arrive here today in the spirit of reconciliation evoked by Hillary and Henry, with a hope that we have indeed learned something from this long, sad, tragic event.
Thank you. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Ambassador Holbrooke is at the ready to take questions. We want to keep on schedule so that we finish up this part of the presentation by 11 o’clock. Gentlemen, do you have your microphones at the ready?
Raise your hand if you have –
QUESTION: My name is Harish Mehta and I’m from the University of Toronto. The question is – and this question originally I wanted to kind of direct at Dr. Kissinger, but I didn’t get the chance. And the question really is, we haven’t really focused a great deal on the diplomatic efforts of North Vietnam, and not just the traditional channels of diplomacy which are formal diplomacy, but say the non-traditional channels of diplomacy that is informal or amateur diplomacy. The question really is: What’s your assessment of informal channels of North Vietnamese diplomacy, and that – did the kind of non-traditional North Vietnamese diplomacy have any impact at all in influencing American decision making?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: This is a very interesting – this is a very interesting question, and it refers to something that now has a name, but didn’t in the 1960s – track-two diplomacy. And there were three or four different versions of this. At the highest level was track two conducted with the official sanction and support of the U.S. Government. Henry Kissinger conducted the single-most important of those channels as a private citizen at Harvard. So he was well prepared for what happened. He had contacts which are well recorded in the Pentagon papers and elsewhere, with people who had direct access to Ho Chi Minh and also through the polls. Those were really important semi – those were sanctioned. Secondly, were serious people who had contacts and did it in a quiet way and kept the U.S. Government informed. And third, were a lot of people who wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize just by going out and visiting Hanoi and coming back with public statements. That was my first encounter with this particular form of track two.
Today, it’s just part of the – it’s part of the ether. There’s so many more NGOs today. One of the biggest changes in American foreign policy is the rise of NGOs, and many of them just set out wherever the problem is to go out and fix it. Sometimes they’ve been very useful, like in Aceh and Indonesia. Other places they’ve been utterly useless and sometimes used by people to pretend flexibility when flexibility is not there.
QUESTION: Ambassador – good morning, Ambassador Holbrooke. My name is (inaudible) Ba (ph) from the Special Guerilla Veterans and Family of USA in St. Paul, and also from Long Tieng Academy. I realize that this conference was going to be talking about the American (inaudible) experience in Southeast Asia, but looking at the program I do not see anything in regard to the covert operation in Laos, and byproduct of that being – I mean, I’m a byproduct of that experience, and I just wondered what is your take. And I would also like to also pose this question to Dr. Kissinger, too, but I didn’t have the opportunity, and I’d like to see what is your perspective in regard to the covert operation inside Laos.
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, the – I – there are two days to go in this conference and I think that level of specifism I’m going to leave to someone else. I was not involved in the covert operations at all in Laos. I was aware of them, of course, because they were not really very covert, and there were tens of thousands of people up there in the Plaine des Jarres. We had secret bases which were not secret, and – but I can’t evaluate it. When you look at Laos today and you compare it to President Kennedy’s then-famous press conference where he came to this building to the Dean Acheson Auditorium, and talked about how Laos is a small, faraway country, but it’s vital to our national security interests, which was in March of 1961, and then you compare it to the realities, you have to ask yourself what kind of mindset. And this was not a partisan thing; everyone agreed with it. President Eisenhower, in his outgoing meeting with President – President-elect Kennedy had told him how critical Laos was, and then you think about it today and you say, “What was this about?” A landlocked country which, in the end, found its own inevitable destiny based on geography.
So I would rather not get into the details of this very famous issue. But if any of you are interested in the legacy of it, go see Clint Eastwood’s movie Gran Torino, because the people in that movie and the whole visuals – that’s the Hmong who did all this with us – is this remarkable movie and I strongly recommend it.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m Bob McMahon from Ohio State. Ambassador Holbrooke, I wanted to ask you a broader question. So much of the rationale for U.S. involvement and the slowness of American withdrawal from Vietnam revolved around the issue that America’s global credibility was at stake in Vietnam – credibility vis-à-vis allies; they wouldn’t trust us if the United States left an ally to fend for itself, or enemies would be emboldened. You know the arguments. I – just from the perspective of 2010 and with all the diplomatic issues that you’ve dealt with since then, how do you think this credibility argument holds up? Does it stand the test of time? Was it exaggerated? Was it reasonable?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: It’s an immensely difficult question to answer because you’re quite right, and Henry already made it clear in his remarks, that this was a core concern, not only for the Nixon Administration, but for its predecessors and then onward into the Ford Administration. And there’s no doubt that what happens in one area affects the perception of the nation everywhere.
What one has to measure is the – is if you can’t achieve your objective, and it’s my view that we could never have achieved our stated objective in Vietnam – which was to keep South Vietnam a separate independent state – without continual presence of ground troops. And if you can’t achieve that, you can disagree with that premise. People have written books taking the opposite point of view. But if you accept that premise, then you have to simply say, as I said in my remarks, that the costs over time would have just gotten greater and greater.
Our cause – there was nothing wrong with our cause in Vietnam. Those of us who signed up or were sent there did not question our goal. But sometimes, even the world’s greatest power can’t achieve its goal. And on that basis, I think you have to evaluate policy. This is a very difficult problem, and it’s never more difficult than when your soldiers are being shot at.
QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke, thank you so much for your comments. I think the purpose of the foreign relations volumes is not only to set the record straight, but to give us a digest of issues so that – to help us in foreign policy decisions that we make later down the road. And you were on the field in – on the ground in Vietnam, as you said, looking at this through the portal of civilian – the civilian dimensions of the war, like your task today. And it would be interesting to know, both positively and negatively, what your experiences in doing that in Vietnam, how those have affected the way you’ve organized your teams work today in Afghanistan.
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I was wondering how long we could avoid that question. (Laughter.) And it has to be a friend who asks it, right? Steve, that’s a – of course, I’ve thought about it a lot. And so let me start by making a very simple statement about then and now.
There are many structural similarities between the two situations, but there is a fundamental strategic difference. And there’s a fundamental difference about how we got involved. In Afghanistan, we entered the war because we were attacked in the most serious attack on American soil in history, and the nation unanimously on a bipartisan basis, without any significant dissent, myself certainly included, felt that we had to go into Afghanistan because the people who were in charge of the country had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and could not remain there. And whatever happened after that, the root cause of our entry into Afghanistan was instantaneous, Pearl Harbor- like and totally justified.
We slid into Vietnam accidentally. Little known fact, Eisenhower already had advisory troops there before Kennedy became President. Eisenhower had told the president-elect not only about Laos, in response to this gentleman’s question, but also about the importance of Vietnam. It was Eisenhower who laid out the domino theory which became the dominant metaphor of the war and which turned out to be false. The dominoes didn’t fall unless you count Cambodia and Laos, which were part of the strategic space.
And so we slid in a thousand soldiers under Eisenhower, at the time of President Kennedy’s death, maybe 15,000, 16,000, at the time Lyndon Johnson left office, over 500,000, and then the drawdowns that Henry described. So we slid in.
Had people sat down and said, you know, we’re going to go in there, we’re going to end up with 500,000 troops, I cannot imagine any administration, any political system would have agreed to that intervention. But as Henry pointed out, that’s the hand that they were dealt on January 20th, 1969. And so that is a – that is the fundamental difference.
But structurally there are obvious similarities. And leafing through these books here, they leap out at you. Many of the programs that are being followed, many of the basic doctrines are the same ones that we were trying to apply in Vietnam. And I believe in history. I think history is continuous. It doesn’t begin or end on Pearl Harbor Day or the day Lyndon Johnson withdraws from the presidency or on 9/11. You have to learn from the past but not be imprisoned by it. You need to take counsel of history but never be imprisoned by it.
So this is not Vietnam, but there’s a lot to learn. And it’s not an accident that David Petraeus, my counterpart for the first year-and-a-half of this Administration, until he went back to Kabul, had written his Ph.D. thesis at Princeton about this, about the war, and he and I have talked many times about it.
QUESTION: Hello. I’m Marty Phillips from the School of Oriental and African Studies. I just want to draw a little on the first question about informal diplomacy and also upon your perhaps work on civilian impacts of the war early on. To what extent was the civilian relationships that were constructed in Southeast Asia before perhaps the Vietnam War in the early part of the ‘50s, ‘60s important such as the People to People Program, the Peace Corps? And to what extent did those have an impact on U.S. Foreign Policy?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: To what effect did the peace efforts have an impact on the policy?
QUESTION: No. To what extent did the construction of relationships between civilians, be it U.S. civilians and civilians –
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: You mean track two?
QUESTION: Track two diplomacy, but also --
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The truth – can I be honest with you?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: My memory is almost none.
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I think that track two was very – there are interesting track twos today in regard to several issues that are ongoing in the U.S. Government. But the track two phrase wasn’t yet heard of. The people who were doing it – there wasn’t a structure for it. And I have no memory of any of these people making a difference except in the case of somebody like Henry Kissinger and a handful of others whose private diplomacy never revealed, never ending up on the op-ed page in The New York Times, were the first indirect channels. And –
QUESTION: So maybe I could just –
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: – that’s a whole – but I don’t think that this made much difference for policy. I’m not saying it was good or bad, I’m just answering your question.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering to what extent how important you think the relationships between U.S. civilians, be it through policies like the People-to-People Program from 1954 and with the Peace Corps with local populations in Southeast Asian countries, how important that was in forwarding U.S. policy during the period?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: You’re talking about Vietnam? North Vietnam?
QUESTION: Well, I’m talking about Southeast Asia as a whole.
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, Southeast Asia is different. Other than North Vietnam we had very important relationships with the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia. Japan was and remains our most important ally in the Pacific. We didn’t yet have contacts yet with the People’s Republic of China. And the people – I believe in people-to-people diplomacy and contacts. I spent six years as Chairman of Asia Society stimulating those. I really believe in them. But they – but vis-à-vis the North Vietnamese, Hanoi between 1961 and 1973, I think very little except for these special private channels that I mentioned earlier.
But I don’t want to discourage anyone in this room, people-to-people diplomacy – it’s not really diplomacy it’s people-to-people communications are always valuable whether it’s the cultural exchange programs that we all love and which the State Department is reviving as much as they can within the limits of our budget, exchange programs. These are tremendously valuable and I’m a very strong supporter of the exchange programs including with the military. I think bringing military officers to the United States from other countries, while it carries some risks and has been the subject of a lot of heated legislation is a net plus in growing ties. If you’re not in contact with people, you lose touch and you begin to stigmatize them. So I love those programs, but don’t confuse them with ending the war in Vietnam because they didn’t play a role in that.
QUESTION: One of the most heartbreaking –
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Harry, stand up.
QUESTION: – (from Harry McPherson) I remember is the one between Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell in 1964, which is on the Johnson tape. And both the new President and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Services Committee, a man who had always supported the large American role in the world, both of them said this war is not worth the death of one more American soldier. And Johnson said, “It makes me sick to send anybody into this war.” Russell said, “Wars like this don’t matter anymore. We and the Russians can blow each other up with missiles, with atomic warheads. These little wars don’t matter.” Well, you listen for maybe 15, 20 minutes to this conversation and you think maybe something dramatic is going to happen. But suddenly Johnson says, “But they would kill us if I got out.” And “they” means the Republicans. It could have even meant Robert Kennedy who was a very strong supporter of the war. And Johnson was always apprehensive about where Kennedy would come out.
I have a question. We are all familiar with the dilemma of presidents caught in this situation. There’s a huge argument today about whether, and there will probably always be, about whether John Kennedy, had he remained President, would have withdrawn from Vietnam. Always the danger is that public opinion will be dramatically affected for the worse for the President. Is that still the situation? After our experience in Vietnam, is the current President and all other Presidents, are they forever doomed to stay in once a commitment it seems to be called for because to pull out would evidence cowardice or fecklessness?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: For those of you who didn’t know who just asked the question, that’s Harry McPherson, who was my best friend in the Johnson White House and one of LBJ’s closest advisors. And this is a very important question with contemporary relevance. And Harry, I would say no, I don’t think presidents are bound by that imperative. But presidents, as you know better than anyone else in this room – you and Henry because you’re the two people in the room who were closest to the two presidents who played the key role in this drama we’re talking about today – presidents are many different things at once. They’re commander-in-chief. They’re chief executive of the federal bureaucracy. They are the leaders of the country and symbolic in specific ways. And they’re also head of their party. And no president can disaggregate those issues.
I don’t worry about those issues. We have our job. Our job is the civilian part of the effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And a lot of my team are here today. I’m very proud of them. Many of you in this room know them. They’re the best team I’ve ever had. But we don’t sit around talking about that issue. We sit around trying to figure out how to make the civilian programs work as well as they can. And here, by the way, the lessons for me personally – the lessons of – that people like Vladimir and I had in the Mekong Delta working for Rufus are very relevant. Rufus taught us how to drill wells which, by the way, Rufus didn’t know how to do either. (Laughter.) So that’s our job. We don’t sit around debating that issue.
But if you’re the President of the United States and you’re in the situation room, whether you’re named Johnson or Nixon or Ford or George W. Bush or Barack Obama, whoever you are as President, you have to integrate all these things. You know that. And people are coming at you from every direction. That’s why we always talk about the loneliness of the presidency at the moment of decision. These are tough decisions. And having had the privilege of sitting there watching President Obama coming into office and immediately on the second day in office having to confront these issues because the military said we need more troops immediately, immediately – and there was no choice. If you don’t give them, we’re out of it.
I’m talking about the first 21,000. Then coming back with an unexpected request from General McChrystal for an additional 40,000 and confronting every option that the American public was debating publicly, we were aware of every pro, every con, every up side, every down side. And you know, but he has to make the final decision under our system of government. To be sure, it requires the support of the American people. It requires the support of the Congress. That’s the essence of a successful foreign policy. And in Vietnam, in the end, the public was lost.
But to go to the core of your question having set the predicate, no, the President is not bound by that single imperative, but it is a legitimate factor that has to be considered.
Oh, a friendly –
QUESTION: Edith Lederer from the Associated Press. I’m a Vietnam War correspondent, and I also covered the ambassador when he was at the United Nations.
You have an incredibly unique perspective on the world from your career. And we’ve been listening to a lot of questions and statements about the lessons of the Vietnam War. And I wonder if you could look at not only your job today but the rest of the world and sort of tell us whether you think the lessons of the Vietnam War are being remembered, or are they perhaps being forgotten. And are there possibly some Vietnams lurking in the future?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, Edie, it’s good to see you again. And of course, I think the retrospective on Vietnam is going through many cycles, but people don’t talk about it a lot anymore in the level of detail we’re going to be talking about it here for the next two days. They talk about it in metaphoric terms; we can’t have another Vietnam. Or alternatively, we would have won in Vietnam if we’d put in more military force, more military pressure. Rufus addresses this in his book, Why Vietnam Matters, which I strongly recommend to you. But don’t overdo the lessons of history, but learn from them.
I do not believe that you’re going to solve today’s problems by having another debate about what went right and what didn’t go right in Vietnam. It’s just not possible. You can’t extrapolate from Southeast Asia in 1965 to South Asia in 2010. But you can learn a lot by respecting history, and that’s why we’re here today.
MODERATOR: I have to play the role of grim timekeeper, so one more question – short – question and not a statement. Thank you.
QUESTION: When you were helping to write the speech in which Lyndon Johnson announced the narrowing of the bombing of North Vietnam, was there any awareness when the speech was being written that what was going to happen was that there would be more bombing just restricted to a narrower section of North Vietnam? And if there was no thought at all of this when the speech was being written, what was the reaction in the White House when that turned out to be? What happened?
AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Gosh, that’s a really good question and it goes to the level of detail that I was going to avoid here. (Laughter.) But because it’s so deep in my heart, I would like to address it. And speaking very personally about it, Harry McPherson may have a different view because he was a primary drafter of the speech, whereas I was just chatting with Harry about some details.
To be sure everyone understands the importance of the question, confronted with an incredible domestic crisis, and prior to withdrawing, we are designing the speech. I’m the smallest fry in the room, but Harry is the primary drafter. But Harry doesn’t know the end of the speech; this is critical. Harry does not know that Lyndon Johnson’s going to withdraw. And the President decides to cut a compromise between stopping the bombing entirely and continuing the bombing. He is confronted with a request from General Westmoreland for an additional 206,000 troops. We’re going to 550; Westie wants over 750,000 troops.
And so LBJ decides, on advice of everyone, to narrow the bombing, to– the southern neck of North Vietnam. so he’ll bomb only up to the 20th parallel, instead of going all the way up to Hanoi-Haiphong, as had been the case.
Then he unexpectedly withdraws from the 1968 race, in the same speech, and says he wants to give the rest of his presidency to the cause of peace. I can’t speak for Harry, but I can tell you that had I realized he was not going to run again, and that he had only nine or ten months left in his presidency, I would have said this is nuts; if you’re going to make such a gesture, stop all the bombing and try to use all your remaining time to negotiate.
So what happened? We got the Vietnamese answer, four days later, on the same day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, on the same day the streets of the city on 16th Street were aflame – and I could see it as I crossed the Key Bridge. Today, it is hard to imagine the drama in the city then. On the same day, the North Vietnamese sent us a message that they’re ready to have talks with us, but only on our ending the rest of the bombing. It is not the big headline of the day because of the riots going on in Washington and all over the country and the unbelievable drama of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
We then spend one month arguing about where we’re going to have the talks. They want them in Warsaw, we want them in Geneva. President Johnson says I’ll go anywhere except Paris. (Laughter.) He didn’t trust the French, so we ended up in Paris, which was perfectly fine with me. I’d rather live in Paris for a year than Geneva anyway. Somebody even suggested an Indonesian ship. It was wild. For one month while people are fighting, we’re arguing about where to meet.
In early May, the advance team arrives. John Negroponte was part of the advance team. And Harriman and Rusk, Habib, and about 10 of us start the negotiation. The North Vietnamese say, “We will only talk to you about cessation of the rest of the bombing.” And we say, “No, we want to talk about the whole war.” They say no. This is all very public. They say, “No, we got to talk about just the bombing, and when you stop the bombing, then we’ll talk about other things.”
And this drives Harriman and Vance, who really want to try to use the time to end the war, up the wall. But the ambassador in Saigon, a formidable man named Ellsworth Bunker, and the national security adviser, Walt Rostow, take a very hard line. My boss, Nick Katzenbach, joins the new Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford in pushing the Harriman-Vance line, and the U.S. Government comes to a deep split, and the summer drifts away with tragedy. Robert F. Kennedy enters the race; he’s killed in Los Angeles.
It was a summer that was unbelievable in its drama. We had the Chicago Convention. At one point, I remember sitting with Henry Kissinger on a beach in Martha’s Vineyard, during the Chicago Convention. And watching this destruction of the Democratic Party in Chicago and Nixon having the nomination, Henry says, “This is the end of me. Nelson Rockefeller and Hubert Humphrey are being destroyed. I’ll never serve in the government again.” (Laughter.) As he said earlier, he really said this; I was there.
The summer drifts on and Hubert Humphrey is desperate for us to move forward. Lyndon Johnson is torn; he doesn’t know whether to hand off the war to a successor, or make a gesture for peace which would require him to stop all the bombing. Dean Rusk finally comes up with the solution – a very elegant, technical solution. Since Hanoi will not agree to what will follow the talks and we won’t agree to stop unilaterally, Dean Rusk comes up with a very artful phrasing: We are ready to stop all the bombing on the firm expectation that X, Y, and Z will occur. The North Vietnamese indicate their concurrence; it’s a formula we called Phase A-Phase B.
And this is why, sometimes, it’s fun to be a diplomat, because sometimes a diplomat can make a difference, with, well, diplomatic skills. And with that compromise, President Johnson, five days before the ‘68 election, announces the cessation of all the bombing. This gets completely mixed up with the presidential campaign in ways that I’m not going to revisit here because they’ve been written about in many books and remain extremely controversial. Richard Nixon wins the election by less than 500,000 votes. And remember, there was a third-party candidate in the race, George Wallace.
So, Johnson’s presidency ends without having achieved anything from his own gesture. This was a classic case of not integrating policy. Had we known that Lyndon Johnson was going to end his career, we would have said to him end all the bombing and use the next 10 months to negotiate. So he lost his window and passes the mess on to the next administration, never testing whether we could have actually made negotiating progress.
So I can say, in the annals of tragedies in American foreign policy, the failure to integrate the political side of the brain with the policy side, lost us an entire year and made the next administration’s task all the more difficult. And they, in turn, ultimately got a lesser deal at greater cost after five more years of war – a deal that collapsed within sixteen months. It’s a heartbreak, and a lesson I’ve always carried with me for the rest of my life in everything else I’ve ever done.