Ambassador William Colby, "Turning Points in the Vietnam War"  


Keynote Speech, 2nd Triennial Vietnam Symposium

The Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University

April 18, 1996

Thank you very much, Don [Dr. Donald R. Walker], and President [Donald] Haragan, and Admiral Zumwalt, Mr. Mayor, all the good friends here, General Khanh, Ambassador Bui Diem, our equal friends. It is a great pleasure to be here in West Texas. Yes, they did get me here with three bottles of some of the best wine I’ve had. Believe me I’ve looked around all over France for it and particularly when I was behind the lines, they weren’t shipping very much around the rest of the world, [laughter] so they had some pretty good ones there at the time which we managed to do away with.

But it is with great pleasure, we mentioned here earlier today that great gentleman from this region, Congressman [George] Mahon, that I worked with very closely. He was one of the most respected Congressmen in all of Congress, a great gentleman, a great representative of this area, no question about it. So it’s always a great pleasure to come back and see the great open spaces, the clear air that you have out here, even though you don’t have very much water in it this year. [Light laughter].

When asked to give a keynote, you sort of wonder what you are going to say about a keynote for a meeting such as this. We have had a bunch of discussions, pretty lively ones, good ones, and I think they have been fun for everybody. So, at this point, how do you give a keynote? And I thought maybe I could go back on one of our discussions as to whether we are trying to achieve a Truth in History or whether we are trying to achieve the Might Have Beens of History, and neither of those is totally satisfactory, whether we want to achieve the Lessons of History, and I’ve decided what we really want to achieve is the Turning Points of History. Without a precondition that if we had done it differently it would have been better or worse, but what are some of the key turning points. I think that can be the subject of a conference at which we can all sort of focus on some of those key events of a long period for our country dealing with another country in that far away Southeast Asian territory. When I look back on one of those key turning points, well, I’ll dismiss the time of the USS Constitution‘s visit to Danang Bay, that was a long time ago and I don’t think it had much relevance to what has happened since, but it did, as you may have known, certainly the Navy people know about it, and I think modern history and America’s relationship with Vietnam can essentially start at the end of World War II.

One of the real key turning points as we heard earlier, the O.S.S. had a team working with Ho Chi Minh. The aidman on the team saved Ho’s life by saving him from a severe case of diarrhea at one point and with that saving of his life, we preserved the life of a man who led the campaign against us. I don’t think any American is ashamed of saving Ho’s life, for that reason. It is very American to do that. The O.S.S. team that was there were young officers that were enthusiastic, picking up Ho’s reference to the American Declaration of Independence and his statement of the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam. Now we are saying wait a minute, this is not bad. It evoked a certain interest from Roosevelt who said the French had been in Indochina for 100 years, and the people are worse off than when they got here. Roosevelt’s concept was a bit, maybe we could have a period of tutelage. Was this a turning point? It certainly was. A turning point caused by the death of President Roosevelt. A turning point caused by the rise of the Red Army in Eastern Europe, which attracted President Truman’s attention as the most serious problem he faced. If that turning point had gone the other way in either of those situations, it could have been a major change. I won’t say what the change would be, but it certainly counts as one of the big turning points. We debated whether Ho Chi Minh was a communist or a nationalist, obviously he was both. But would he have been a Tito in Asia? Did we understand the antagonism between the Vietnamese and the Chinese, which had gone on for thousands of years which was mentioned earlier today that would have encouraged the growth of the Titoist approach in Southeast Asia? This is a turning point of the first regard.

Then we essentially stayed out of it for a bit while the French and Ho fought it out until the French were in serious straits and the question was whether the United States should go in for direct support of the French in the final days of 1954. Whether the United States should put troops in, whether the United States should use its air power, whether the United States should support with massive military resources directly rather than indirectly through supporting the French Army in France? Should we even think or contemplate using a nuclear weapon? And that was a turning point. It came out that President Eisenhower decided no, but it certainly was a turning point because it would have been very different if it had not gone that way. A subject of considerable interest of looking of how that turning point turned out that way.

Moving ahead from there, the next turning point, 1955-56, when an untried administrator was chosen to be the Prime Minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and who was a son of a mandarin in the court of Hue. He had been educated as a Catholic, he almost became a priest, some people called him a monk, in any case. He was named because he had a nationalist record, that he had struggled for the independence of his country against the French. He had refused posts to which the French wanted to assign him because he said, "I will not be just a subordinate to French colonialism." It sounded pretty good. So when he was named the Prime Minister in a last minute hope to save South Vietnam, we began to support it. A turning point of considerable importance. A turning point which said that the United States’ refusal to sign the Geneva Agreement of 1954, was followed by a commitment to help this new South Vietnam to help it survive and to take on a little direction.

A turning point followed the next year when President Diem took a look at the population and said there are 18 million inhabitants of North Vietnam and only 14 million inhabitants of South Vietnam. No, I will not go ahead with the elections called for in the Geneva Accord to unify Vietnam because it has to become a communist country. A turning point where it launched off on an independent position, and John Foster Dulles at the time decided we would throw a large amount of economic assistance into this new struggling South Vietnam. A turning point of considerable magnitude, accompanied by a letter by President Eisenhower asserting his full support of an independent South Vietnam.

Then another turning point in 1958 when Le Xuan, one of the leaders of North Vietnam, made a trip down to South Vietnam, came back and said, you know, the situation is serious there. The Diem regime seems to be taking off. The whole world had expected South Vietnam to fall in our lap, in about 2 or 3 years, but yet it seems to be showing some vitality. The government, the social programs, the economic aid program, economic growth - we’ve got to do something fellas, when he got back to Hanoi. So they decided to start the second Indochina War. They are quite frank about it, at this point. They identify that the reason the transportation corps was named the 559 was it just happened to be the fifth month of 1959. That was why they started the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail at that time to go back to the people’s war that they had so successfully run against the French. A turning point of considerable importance.

How did they come to that conclusion? What was the reaction in South Vietnam and what was the reaction in the United States? A major turning point for the Americans - who looked back on the last war they fought in Asia in Korea, and said, "You know, we may be faced with a war here in Vietnam and our last experience was in Korea. So let’s prepare to fight it. We fought that one to a draw. That’s our national interest is not to win, we do not want to go to the Yalu again and bring the Chinese in on us. We just want to stop them and maybe divide the country, and let the competition between the economic and social growth in the south then compete with communist stagnation in the north." A turning point that we decided, yes, we would support South Vietnam against this new attack, and yes, we would prepare it for a Korean style of attack. A turning point of considerable magnitude. A turning point which reflected, in my mind, the fact that we hadn’t read about the work or writings of Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and some of the other leaders as to what kind of war they wanted to fight. They wanted to fight a people’s war and not a Korean War. But, we didn’t read those. We didn’t hoist them aboard so we were prepared. A major turning point in our experience in Vietnam.

In 1960 - the situation gets a little worse. We begin to send more advisors, more support. We have an argument with the government of Vietnam as to whether what we should do with the forces: build up the forces, build up the defenses, or does South Vietnam need a more democratic government? Our ambassador in 1960 said that if there isn’t more of a turn for democracy here, the situation would get worse and we have to think about alternate leaders for South Vietnam, and a telegram to the Department of State. A major turning point in American thinking that we didn’t just support the constituted government but we were thinking if necessary, we would have to turn to an alternate government. And as early as 1960, we were thinking in those terms.

In 1961, a few turning points, as some of the CIA people were trying out some experiments in village defense up in the mountain areas and some of the Catholic villages around. I remember a priest in one Delta village commenting to me one time as he was caught describing the defense group he was developing in his little village that at the last Diocese meeting of the priests of his Diocese, they were comparing the relative merits of the M-16 and the AK-47. I thought a rather strange subject for discussion among priests at their annual retreat, but nonetheless, a fairly practical one at that time. But a turning point that we were beginning to develop the elements of a strategy.

But it was then in 1961, taken as another turning point when the government of South Vietnam took it on as one of their major strategies, developed a concept they called the Strategic Hamlet. The idea of developing hamlets that would develop their own defense, their own identity as communities, and that this would not be the imposition of military force on them but turning to the people to support and an effort to defend themselves in that sense. A turning point that the government accept a major strategy for their program, and in 1962, it seemed to be working - seemed to be moving ahead. As the communists identified in some of their internal statements that this was a very dangerous initiative.


for a change, in terms of getting some initiative against the enemy.

In 1963, of course, a major turning point, in the explosion of the predecessor of the Ayatollah Khomeni, Thich Thi Quang, some of the Buddhists there were upset at the modernizing tendencies of this secular government and this Catholic government, that they wanted to go back to the fundamentals of Buddhist society and do away with this modernist trend. As I say, a predecessor of the Ayatollah Khomeni. It worked. The government handled it badly, a turning point, alleging that it was all communist inspired which it wasn’t, but nonetheless handling it badly, trying to suppress the Buddhists, initially, and a turning point in the American attitude. A liberal Democratic President faced with the problem of being the main support of a government which aroused such protests from its citizens that its local priests went out and poured gasoline on themselves and burned themselves so that Life magazine would run a color picture on its cover of this horrible event. A turning point in the American psyche about Vietnam. This is too horrible to contemplate in a way. A major turning point.

A turning point in the arrival of Cabot Lodge as the new Ambassador, preceded by the government’s raid on pagodas to try to suppress Buddhist priests in their protests. A masterpiece of bad timing by the government to try to face the new Ambassador with a fait accomplet so he couldn’t give them any more lectures in Democracy. The party would have been over. A major failure to recognize the character of Cabot Lodge, the reaction he would have when he ran into the attempt to preempt his influence and his ability to direct what was happening.

And then of course, the big turning point, the Americans turn hostile to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem they had originally supported. They first encouraged a possible coup, and then supported a real Coup, to overthrow the President Diem. Well, the discussion that we can’t win the war with President Diem because of this protest in the country, and therefore, let’s get some new leadership. A turning point of major importance. I am sure the Americans did not contemplate the death of Diem, but one of the fascinating things for one that went through the arguments of all about whether to sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem was that I don’t remember one serious discussion in all that time about who would succeed President Diem as the leader of Vietnam. The communists viewed his overthrow as a gift from heaven from us. They were absolutely baffled by how that had happened. They could not understand it a bit. The Americans did not intend his death, it happened, and the option of his coming back was the taken away, a turning point.

The government, thereafter, various turning points as revolving door governments followed for a couple of years, total chaos and confusion. The abandonment of the strategy of the village efforts by the new government which, after all, could not take on the major strategy of the predecessor government. And a turning point downwards in 1964 and 1965.

Followed in late 1964 by the decision in North Vietnam to move regular troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which again was something we picked out of our air waves and our intelligence sources but since has been amply confirmed by statements by the North Vietnamese that that is actually when they began to send their major units down for the coup de grace in South Vietnam.

A turning point in 1965 when our government was told that undoubtedly South Vietnam will fall by the end of 1965 that was the fate that is here. We have a new President by then. A major turning point. It is easy to talk about what might have happened if President Kennedy would have lived, whether he would have kept up his efforts until the ‘64 elections, and then gradually reduced down to an advisory and special forces operation or whether he would have gone ahead with the same kind of history as Mr.. Johnson. It is not very useful to discuss what these options were. There were lots of them, but as a major turning point, it is certainly with the death of President Kennedy was a major turning point.

And then the decision of President Johnson in the middle of 1965. Should we essentially give up or should we send our troops to stabilize the situation. And then the decision in that turning point of well, let’s not face it directly. Let’s start some bombing to show our will, to send some messages. And let’s send some Marines in to protect the air bases, not to fight, but just to protect the air bases from which our aircraft are going. This was a turning point of a refusal to be frank about what our requirements were, what our needs were, and what our decision actually turned out to be. Again, you can fool around with the alternatives, but the fact is that that decision, of course, was a major turning point.

I happen to think there was another major turning point that year, which has just become visible in recent months really. That was Mr. McNamara’s decision in 1965 according to his own testimony that the war could not be won, a flat statement by him. The war could not be won. And yet Secretary of Defense McNamara remained in office for three more years, sending all those young men out to fight and get killed. I find that the most astounding statement of ministerial irresponsibility I have heard of for many, many years. I don’t ask that he join an anti-war movement or protest publicly, but he certainly had to get the hell out of that job. No question. [Applause.] But that is a turning point. He didn’t. Suppose he had. Suppose you would have had an opening of the real debate as to what our strategy should be, what we should do? Instead we strolled along, a little bit here, Rolling Thunder, the first bomb to the 18th parallel, and then to the 19th parallel, and then to the 20th parallel. And this was all designed to send a message to Ho Chi Minh and his friends. If you want to send a message, why don’t you just send it in an envelope, don’t use a bomber. [Laughter, applause.] To use a bomb, use a bomber, what’s the whole purpose of it? Not to send a message. Anyway, ‘65 was a period of that beginning. That essentially went on in a slow set of escalations.

Until 1967, another turning point and this was one that wasn’t much perceived at the time, except by the people out there, that it seemed we had finally developed some stability, some sense of strategy. That we had a constitutional government after 3 years of total confusion in South Vietnam. There was an elected president, a national assembly, the elements of constitutional government, stable government. Sure, they were military doing it, but that was true all over Asia, too. That was nothing surprising. That the Americans had organized themselves to conduct a joint civil/military campaign strategy. That we had gotten this rather strange character called CORDS put together thanks to "Blowtorch" Komer. [Laughter.] And he was a blowtorch, but it wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t been, I’ll guarantee you. It was his fire and drive that put over this concept of a civilian service working under a military command conducting a civilian program in conjunction with large numbers of military officers working in it. CORDS at its maximum had about 5,000 military and about 1,000 civilians. So you can see the balance and yet the leadership and function was not aimed at the enemy. It was aimed at the people, to try to encourage the people to identify with their communities, to defend their communities, to give them the means to defend and to develop their communities. A turning point in 1967, which so encouraged Ambassador Bunker and General Westmoreland, who came home and said we have reached a turning point. It really has turned for the better . They thought so, and I think in fact it had.

And then the big turning point that we all know about, the Tet Offensive. We can debate about how much we anticipated it or not, it does not matter. It hit the American public like a pail of cold water. It was THE principle turning point in American opinion towards the war. It crystallized the attitude this place is too far away, too complicated, we don’t understand it, we’re getting a lot of people are getting killed, and we don’t seem to be able to do anything good about it. And that was the start of the real American rejection of the experience. Now the question as to whether that was a planned result out of the communist attack or whether it was a happenstance result of a communist attack that wanted to achieve the general uprising and failed miserably is kind of irrelevant because it turned out to be a major turning point.

But then the next turning point, 1968-69, the change in our strategy. The development of Mr. Nixon’s secret plan. I don’t think he had a secret plan, but out of that he developed a plan that made a certain amount of sense. It consisted of essentially three words, Vietnamization, build the Vietnamese forces so that they can defend themselves with American support but without the Americans. At the same time, Vietnamization meant gradually reducing American forces in the country. Don’t abandon it but on the other hand, no more and certainly reduce them. It began, Vietnamization, a several year program. Pacification, go at the countryside as a major element of our strategy, to organize the countryside, to build up the villages so they can defend themselves and develop themselves. Don’t worry about the enemy and that part of the program, just build up the defenses, use the tactical defense in a strategic offensive. With the oil spots spreading the defense more and more, until you don’t kill the enemy, you recruit him into the community so he plays a role in the community. The third element of the strategy turned out to be Negotiation. Serious negotiations starting secret negotiations, Henry Kissinger sneaking in and out of Paris, and so forth, beginning to talk with the North Vietnamese, about how can we settle this darn thing. Getting the lies and the bologna passed back once in a while but keeping at it. And those three programs going on for the next several years.

And the next turning point in my mind is the year 1972. In 1972 when the Vietnamization program had pretty well run its course, where the Vietnamese army has been armed, and trained and strengthened to do the job, that it should do to be able to defend its country, (I mean the Army and Navy, excuse me Admiral, I mean, the Military.) The Pacification program has essentially eliminated the guerrilla problem in most of the countryside and in particular, the rich breadbasket of the Delta in the south, and the negotiations are coming to some kind of a near conclusion. And the North Vietnamese decide the things are going very badly. That they seemed to have lost the People’s War, and it is time to turn to the Soldiers’ War. So a major soldier’s assault at three points of the Vietnamese frontier: the DMZ, up around Kontum, and further south around An Loc. Regular forces come over the border in the most traditional form of Korean attack. Divisions, tanks, armor, motor transport, all the rest. They punch into South Vietnam, and they are stopped. They are stopped by the Vietnamese forces. Yes some Vietnamese units broke rank, had the usual scandal in the newspapers about that. But essentially that attacked stopped. Over the next several months, those attacks were thrown back over the border. A major turning point. The Americans, not involved on the ground as troops, no Americans involved as combat units at that point. American contribution, yes, a major one. In the major, logistics, because if you train a foreign army to use American weapons and American tactics, you have to give them American logistics or it isn’t going to work. And they were giving the logistics in massive amounts, and American air power which was used very generously from the Navy and the B-52’s, and which finally had real targets in military units and tanks and artillery and things like that. And that assault across the frontier was thrown back in each of the three areas. It took another couple months to throw it back in Quang Tri but it was essentially thrown back. A major turning point. I call it "Victory" because if our national objective was a South Vietnam that could defend itself with American support and air power but not Americans fighting on the ground, I thought that was our national objective. It had been our national objective all along, and it seemed to have worked.

It worked so much that we went on to finish the last of the three strategies, the negotiation. We had some very stiff negotiations over the next several months and negotiations as stiff with the South Vietnamese government as they were with the enemy. No question about it. And we punctuated the final elements in negotiation with what Mr. Nixon referred to later as the kind of bombing that he should have done in 1969 rather than waiting until 1972, in an interview by David Frost. Though here we reached an agreement, the South Vietnamese after complaining about it, were forced to sign it, no question about it. They had doubts about it. They didn’t think it would really work. We couldn’t be sure it would work. Our President gave President Thieu a letter that said if you don’t sign this treaty, we are not going to support South Vietnam more, but if you sign this treaty, we guarantee you that if the North Vietnamese do not comply with it, the United States will react with full force - and that is a direct quote by Mr. Nixon to President Thieu.

So it looked like we were home free. Our prisoners came home to be met with great appreciation for their sacrifice for our country and their fine discipline and morale during the miserable period they spent there. We considered we had reached an honorable end to the war and the Vietnam war was indeed over. In that sense, all we had to do was to make sure the final agreement was actually complied with and then the South Vietnamese had a real chance being able to launch the kind of economic and social development we have seen the results of in such places like Korea and Taiwan, and out distance the North in a matter of five or ten years in a breathtaking course of development as one of the Asian tigers, as we since called them . Looked pretty good.

And then of course we had a bit of a problem. We had a Congress elected in 1972 which was fed up to the teeth with the war; we had a President that broke down over Watergate; we had a Congress that was so insistent that we not get into military adventures, that they passed a War Powers Act, that the President could not use our military forces without a very complicated process, involving a potential Congressional veto.

And the North Vietnamese looked at that and they came, of course, eventually to another turning point in the Spring of 1975. And they cranked up another formal military attack, at almost the same three points. We were unable to pass the legislation despite our entreaties to Congress to provide the logistic support that we had promised. President Ford had no chance of fulfilling President Nixon’s promise to President Thieu both because of the War Powers Act and because of the weakened Presidency after Watergate. So that attack started and with the lack of any assurance of American support --not participation, but support-- the South Vietnamese forces collapsed in almost exactly the same way the French forces collapsed in 1940 and just disappeared. This was a turning point. It wasn’t the last one, though.

We have had turning points since then. We had the turning ning point of how we handled the refugees from Vietnam, how we’ve handled the refugees from Laos. We have had the turning point of how we handled the abominations of Khmer Rouge. We had the turning point of the way that we have gradually convinced the North Vietnamese that they won the war and lost the peace. They’ve watched the Chinese example and decided maybe they better open their economy if they are not going to be left a million miles behind the rest of Asia and their colleagues. And we have had the turning point of their gradually opening toward a decent relationship with Asia and a membership in ASEAN. They are still a very mandarin run society by the communist party members who are as draconian today as they were all along. We did manage to get many of the people who worked with us in Vietnam out not just the 130,000 at the time of the Fall of Vietnam but the 200,000 in the Orderly Departure, since that time coming out by airplane instead of on leaky boats. We had the problems of handling the great refugee flow in those leaky boats. It isn’t perfect but the million or so Vietnamese in our country can now testify to the fact that our country did receive them and is now benefiting from the fact that their children seem to be winning all the valedictorian awards in our schools. [Light Laughter, applause.]

So here were the turning points that led to this. I think as a keynote I would just offer this list, and ask us to look at each of the turning points and ask these graduate students to see why we made these decisions, why we made some of these, what were the implications, what were the alternatives that faced the decision makers at the time. Were these sensible decisions, were they wrong decisions? I think that sort of thing that our study of this history can result.

I am delighted to be here in West Texas, almost in the middle of the country so it is convenient to everybody. It is not in an effete East that wants to forget the whole Vietnam experience. We are out here where real Americans live, and I think we will see some very interesting studies of these various turning points over the next 10, 20, 30 years. I think we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Jim Reckner for his energy and effort in putting together this Center. And I would like to express our appreciation to him. [Applause.]


Thank you.


LCDR JAMES RECKNER: (taking back the microphone) What I want to know is that the first time you’ve been bugged, sir?


Well, thank you very much Mr. Colby. It’s always our honor to have you as our guest at Texas Tech and we’ve been honored with your continued and lively support of our endeavor here and that goes for the many members of the National Council. Ambassador Diem is here. He’s a member. And Douglas Pike, not just a member but a generous donor of his magnificent collection of Vietnam documents to the Archive of the Vietnam Conflict at Texas Tech. And there are a few others not here with us today unfortunately. I can only say what we have achieved, we have achieved because we’ve developed a team and that team will continue working. We have a goal. We’re going to get there and I hope, in the years ahead, we can provide all of you with the kind of service you would expect from the first rate research facility that the Texas Tech Vietnam Center will become.


[Benediction omitted]




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