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tv   Vietnam War Commanders in Chief  CSPAN  May 30, 2016 12:00am-1:06am EDT

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12:01 am up next on the presidency. presidential aides to discuss the role of lyndon johnson and richard nixon during the vietnam war. alexander butterfield and tom johnson explore the foreign policies of the presidents they worked for. emotional burdens they faced during the conflict. part of the three-day conference at the lyndon b. johnson presidential library. it is called the vietnam war summit. you can find schedule information at this program is about an hour. >> please welcome the director of the lbj presidential library.
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mark: on may 22, 1971 the crowd assembled on the university of texas grounds to dedicate this library. 2100 antiwar protesters were kept from interrupting the proceedings by a phalanx of highway patrolman. their chance of no more war carried by high winds and accompanied by the pounding of trashcan lids were clearly heard. by former president lyndon johnson and his assembled guests including president nixon. it was an apt metaphor. the vietnam war had filtered into the administrations of both
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johnson and nixon. when johnson took his turn at the podium he proclaimed it is all here. the story of our time. with the bark off. there is no record of mistake or an unpleasantness or criticism that is not included in the files here. he wanted us to learn from them to build a better america. the lbj presidential library hosted the historic civil rights summit to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the civil rights act of 1964. lbj had championed that had signed into law. four u.s. presidents attended the conference. president obama, george w. bush
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clinton and carter. along with many civil rights heroes. just as we celebrated the feats of civil rights is altogether fitting that we in keeping with president johnson's vision take a substantive unvarnished look at the vietnam war. our goal is to shed new light on the war and its lessons and legacy. it is also our intent to recognize and courage and sacrifice of the men and women who served in vietnam. the dark cloud of the vietnam war hung over this country long after the last shots were fired area of the passage of years
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offers greater perspective. to look at it with the bark off may help us to move on stronger and more united. we open this summit with a series of three panel discussions. commanders in chief. we will explore the role the presidents played in the war. how their leadership affected its outcome. h w brands is a best-selling author.
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several of his books have been bestsellers and to work finalist for a pulitzer prize. alexander butterfield joined the air force in 1949 and commanded the squadron of low-level reconnaissance aircraft in the vietnam war. he was awarded the distinguished flying cross. he went on to serve as deputy assistant to president nixon. after serving the white house he was appointed as the administrator of the federal aviation administration. tom johnson was in the first class of white house fellows in
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1965. he remained there for the balance of johnson's administration. he is chairman emeritus of the lbj foundation board of trustees. moderating the discussion is brian sweeney. editor of texas monthly. ladies and gentlemen please welcome our guests. [applause] [applause] >> thank you for that. thank you to all of you for being here. i take particular pride in
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having been fortunate enough to having been part of the civil rights event. we learned a lot with the community coming together. i like to pay welcome to the patriots who served in the military overseas. thank you for being here today and being part of this conference. [applause] to give an overview of what role the leaders in the white house plays with the decisions they made that shaped american foreign policy. our growing and deeper involvement in vietnam. through the lens of the johnson and nixon administrations. going back to the global
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realignment after world war ii. to the ministration of president truman. give us a sense of what the world was like starting back down. what was the chain of events that came forward that would've put pressure on subsequent administrations to give us a sense of how leaders were thinking at that time. >> there are two movements that came out of world war ii. the first was the anti-colonial movement. countries that have been colonies of european powers wanted their independence. world war ii taught them that
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they could demand it. and they can expect to achieve it. that was one aspect of what would be the long-running vietnam issue. the emerging cold war. the cold war pitted the united states and its allies against the power of the soviet union and its allies and the philosophy of communism. if either of these had been in existence alone than american involvement in vietnam would either not occurred what occurred quite differently. the problem for american presidents truman eisenhower kennedy johnson nixon and ford, in american history we have traditionally supported anti-colonial nationalist movements. to the extent that ho chi minh was leading a nationalist movement unites states was inclined to support them.
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we had supported ho chi minh during world war ii. but they were not silly nationalist, they were communists. harry truman gave a speech in 1947 in which outlines the truman doctrine. he said the world is divided into the democracy sphere atmosphere of communism. and if you are on the communist side we are against you. truman was not thinking about vietnam at the time. he was looking about greece and turkey. he laid the philosophical basis for intervention against communism. the korean war broke out in 1950.
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it heightened the threat of connie's imagination. american aid would go directly to in a china. the united states first gets involved in vietnam, headed taken the position it is supporting anti-communist position in vietnam. dwight eisenhower becomes president in 1953. eisenhower's the opportunity and the inclination to get more deeply involved. partly because eisenhower was a military man and he understood what military force can and can't accomplish. he kept his distance. he didn't send troops.
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john kennedy is now president. by this time the force of the revolution in vietnam is gaining strength. kennedy, lacking eisenhower's military background, felt greater pressure to follow the advice of his military advisers who said we need to send military force into vietnam. or we will risk losing vietnam to communism. i will stop here. the premises on which the united states initially sided with the anti-communist forces in vietnam were an artifact of the 1940's. what was not outlandish to believe that communism was it unified threat to the united states and a victory for communism anywhere was a threat to democracy everywhere. by the 1960's that was coming
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into question. because harry truman and dwight eisenhower and john kennedy had laid down this marker they felt obliged to live up to this promise. >> i want to reinforce what is justin said. i especially was like to urge you to read a book called the brothers. it is i think the finest book on how we got to where we were and to some extent where we are. john forster dulles actually rejected and went over ho chi minh to try to look at ways of perhaps we can work together. united states and that governments and it was
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forcefully rejected on our side. the brothers. >> alex you had been a military advisers secretary mcnamara. you have been a veteran served overseas. before you came into the crucible of the white house, what we are personal opinions about vietnam? >> i was in the junior rotc. and the senior rtc in georgia. those of us in the south i felt a special obligation to serve. i also felt that presidents do
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the right thing. i have a strong belief. the presidents do what was right for the nation. >> and other presidents want to do the right thing. my vietnam experience really began in the fall of 1959. i was a senior aide to a great guy named rosie o'donnell. the four start chief of home based in hawaii. he said to me one of your jobs will be to see to it that we never stay on this island more than 30 days. our beach was the far east. over 33 months.
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we made eight or nine trips a year to the far east. we must always hit vietnam. because of its importance at that time. we would meet with president diem as well as our ambassador and some of their aides. the command, little man,
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medium-sized men. all the generals. fred nolting. general o'donnell and made. i was like a fly on the wall. the news was never good. it was always a surprise attack or the supplies were still coming down the ho chi minh trail. they needed a more modern type of aircraft. on each occasion we would promise a more advanced training equipment.
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some other kind of like airplane. not a very fast combat airplane. in this jungle warfare everything was different. radius of turn meant everything. the better the radius of turn. you can operate that over the ground forces. that's what we did. on the next visit wasn't working out for a well and we said no american pilots will be in there. we said ok will elect american pilots be in the backseat but they can't touch the controls. we recognize that is an ongoing problem. this led right into the best and the brightest area. we were on the phone all the
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time. he was over in the white house and i was in the pentagon. that is when the best and the brightest were doing their damnedest with this thing trying to figure it out. no one could really get a handle on it. we just underestimated we could not understand, be resolved that they had in the persistence they had. the determination. the vietcong, i am talking about. >> in an effort to get inside the heads of the presidents.
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what was the options that were available to them. what was their information. i want to jump off on two things. we can never quite get a handle on it. that is one thing i want to explore little bit is this notion of where the presidents ever really able to control the events or to the events control them? did they make proactive decisions or reactive decisions? you mentioned president diem. when you think of the national tragedy that we suffered with the killing of president kennedy he already had his eye on
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certain things they were very important, civil rights and the tax bill. but johnson was also trying to manage events in vietnam. the united states was aware of or had approved of the assassination of diem. can you put yourself inside president johnson's head and say how he was handling this information, what options were available? tom: my role during those years was primarily that of a notetaker. during the past six weeks with the help of a young georgia tech senior i have gone through several hundred of the notes that i took that were transcribed and sent to the obj library. it is taken was 50 years for me
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to get all of them. many of them are accepted significantly. there have been deletions made by the cia and others. i am relying on my notes. this is only a small portion of the notes in answering this question. we had treaties that down this to come to the defense of the nations that were signatories to it. the leader of singapore said that he thought that all of southeast asia could fall if we did not protect south vietnam.
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it was the view of many people at that time. the domino theory. president johnson always worried about china and russia intervening on the side of the north vietnamese. especially if we accidentally bombed russian or chinese ships in the hanoi or haiphong harbor. he often said it will be a young pilot from johnson city texas who will accidentally start world war iii. the experience of korea where
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the chinese came down en masse to support the north koreans was constantly with him. the worry that we might in a chinese airspace. it was there. lbj anguished about that war. every single day. that is not an overstatement. the daily body counts. the calls either to or from the situation room often match 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. to see if the carrier pilots had returned. the regular tuesday lunch meeting that almost always consisted of the secretary of defense secretary of state the cia director the national
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security advisor the press secretary and a notetaker. [laughter] specific bombing targets were reviewed with him. he did not want to bomb the dikes . he did not wish to bomb the cities. he did not wish to bomb the food sources. only military targets. deeply personal. he had two sons in law in combat zone areas. letters and tapes that were sent back to his daughters were at times confiscated by president johnson or one of us and he would listen to them piece of the best report he had in vietnam was chuck robb. he said more than once i am dammed if i do and i am dammed if i don't. as he considered troop
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escalations, halts, bombing intensification. he wanted his commanders in the field especially general westmoreland to have the troops and the munitions that they needed until with 500,000 troops on the ground general westmoreland in 1968 asked for 200,000 more. at that point on the advice of a group of wise men he assembled and clark clifford he said he would not approve that request. issue out about what was his biggest single word in the war. it was that we might have another incident for the french were overrun by the north
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vietnamese. the loss of that base led to the french losing the war. khe sanh was in such grave danger in 1968 with divisions of north vietnamese troops assembled in the area. they developed a contingency plan for the tactical use of nuclear weapons. >> my understanding from some of the interviews, governor connally among them, suggested you win the war by winning it. if that required nuclear weapons then so be it.
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so there was a wide range of advice. >> i assure you from being in the room that president johnson never would have used nuclear weapons. he demanded a written letter from all members of the joint chiefs of staff, a formal written document which is here in this library from the joint chiefs of staff assuring him in writing that khe sanh would not be overrun. we had a new fragmentation weapon that was used to have much like the top -- type of weapon, the so-called barrel bomb.
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>> when lyndon johnson took off the table the possibility of invading north vietnam he basically insured that united states could never definitively when the war. it had to keep fighting to avoid losing the war. johnson did this for very good reasons. he was in the senate in 1951 harry truman allowed the invasion of north korea that brought the chinese into the war. the 1960's china nuclear weapons. if the united states found itself directly up against china in the 1960's it could have been world war iii with nuclear weapons. he was not going to go there.
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>> we've talked about the possibility of escalation and a land war. could we come back to an earlier part of the administration, the momentous summer of 1964 were president johnson has not yet run for reelection. he is being very careful about how he is handling things. moving ahead with the tax bill and the civil rights act. it was a little bit trickier to manage. did that set the stage for something in terms of the way that we were explaining to the american people what was happening or not happening. what later became known as the credibility gap this erosion of america's belief that what they were hearing was accurate. that the american people were
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not going to believe despite being told this was a military victory for the north. it was very difficult to accept that. you are a president but not fully present. still in president kennedy's shadow. in a sense of wanting to fulfill some of the legacies that he had set forth. he didn't want to run from any commitments that president kennedy had made. tom: i arrived in 1965. so all of my information is based on the records that are here and are at the pentagon.
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clearly the tonkin incidents played a significant role in the decision to dramatically increase and i think we will all go to our graves with different versions of that event. larry levinson is very trusted attorney, he reviewed that and worked for joe califano, to understand the decision-making process and the politics of the time. senator goldwater was taking such very strong military positions. as you know were answered by the little girl pulling the pedals
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off the daisy. as a nuclear mushroom cloud erupted in the background. you had this incredible group of people who were just felt we've been successful virtually every war. america's military power prior to that was just so awesome. it was unbelievable. we never released fully our capability in vietnam. the little statements the johnson made about not sending american boys to fight a war that should be for by asians. that was a significant part of the credit of the issue. >> lyndon johnson was a grudging cold warrior. he went into politics for domestic reasons. he wanted to build the great society. he couldn't afford to lose vietnam because he is a once he started losing vietnam he would lose congress. nor was he willing to go all out
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and put anything else aside and put the country on a war footing and saying do first. he had two very good reasons for not doing that. a concern that the war in vietnam would escalate into a war between the united states and soviet union and/or china. and no point did anybody in the white house think that vietnam was worth a war with the soviet union or china. the other thing, johnson and nixon understood that the american people were going to devote only so much in the way of resources and energy and time to vietnam. the basic problem was that was very difficult to make the case that vietnam was intrinsically important to american security. it had some importance but the importance lay in its relation
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to american credibility. if the united states had said we're going to defend south vietnam, then one of the germans going to think. what will the allies think. allies that are more important to the united states. johnson wasn't the one that made those promises. those promises were made by harry truman and dwight eisenhower and john kennedy. johnson was the inheritor of those promises. but because those promises have been made to think he could simply ignore them. it would've been politically impossible for johnson to say, this is a bad place for america to be involved in. going to pull the troops out. he could not have done that politically. >> that is the way that johnson saw it. that is the way that most of those that he trusted the most in the congress and around him
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in the cabinet felt. the shouts of hey hey lbj how many kids you kill today could be heard in the white house. i'm never forget driving out one evening as the protesters shouted at him. hey hey lbj how many kids did you kill today? he said i just wish that they knew that i want peace as much as they do. he wanted peace as much as anyone.
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i mean that. this was not a man who was a hawk or a dove. he was a person looking to do what was right. he continued to say it's not doing was right is knowing what to write. he was trying to navigate through these issues. using secret channels one of which was the philadelphia channel where this relatively young professor from harvard made contact with a group of french in paris to conduct back channel discussions with hanoi. lbj so wanted to get ho chi minh in a room and negotiate with them the same way he negotiated
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with everett dirksen and gerald ford. he was accustomed to that hands-on negotiation process. the will in america to stay the course continued to erode. there was an unshakable will coming from hanoi despite the bombings despite the loss of life. the americans never lost a battle. not in tet. never did american forces lose a battle in that war. there were setbacks and there were huge casualties.
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[applause] to those of you who served and died, people like jan scruggs that were served and were wounded. we ou an incredible amount of debt and as you visit thailand and laos and singapore of the places today there are many people who think that communism could've replaced the kind of democracy that flourishes there. i guess we will never know. alexander: your comment about the 1964. and the gulf of tonkin. august 4 of 64. when the two destroyers were presumably attacked.
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they said they were under attack. that happens to be the last day that i was there. i was commanding all the low and medium level reconnaissance forces. in southeast asia, including laos and thailand. that is the day i left. we took off at 6:00 and flew back to okinawa which was my home base. i had no idea what the president's thinking was at that time. fast forwarding to when i was there in washington in 1965. when i do tom. the best and the brightest were doing their damnedest we felt we
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had no choice. increase the size of the forces. by 1968 just prior to make some taking office there were 543,000 people there. we were losing 300 soldiers a week. president nixon, and i have read some of the things he wrote during the campaign. he knew very well that i was going to be something huge. that he would have to deal with. although i will say he devoted the first couple of months of his presidency to visit europe and was europe centric in his thinking.
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only in march that he start the secret bombing of cambodia. another country and that was serious business. tom: we had gotten covertly earlier. alexander: but the bombing proceeded what we put our people in their one year later. a number of people on the national security council staff quit. the reason for kent state. students all over with demonstrating. nixon quickly got into the vietnam problems that went with it. kent state was huge because for students were killed.
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that was may 4 19 70. the secret bombing started in 1969 right after next and took office. ice to say we were paranoid about communism. ever since the cold war. today we don't think very seriously at all. we did then based on the theory that international communism insists on, isn't being universal. with its universal that is to say that we are for the overthrow of your country. that is the reason that we try to avoid if we can these little
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countries becoming communist. if your neighbor became communist the thought was that there was all the more chance that you would. i saw a letter, speech that john kennedy gave back when he was a senator long before he was president, in 1956. giving a speech to the friends of vietnam. a speech given by jfk to the american confederation of friends of vietnam. he was actually passionate about vietnam. and about president diem. he was he was a real soldier. he did a lot of good things.
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he was the first president of vietnam. he believed in peace. he stood up to the communists. he didn't want any monkey business on his staff. he was very open about that. he was the first president of the republic of south vietnam from 1955. kennedy's speech talks about vietnam being the cornerstone of democracy in asia. and laos and thailand and cambodia and even japan and the philippines were really at risk if south vietnam didn't hold fast. he was all for it. tom: president nixon and
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president johnson were very much together on that. president nixon's positions in 1968 were far more aligned with johnson then at times with the positions of vice president hubert humphrey. there are many examples of that with speeches that brought tension between humphrey and johnson. when nixon took office continued to confer with president johnson. he had a jet star sent to bergstrom every friday with a packet of materials from kissinger and general haig, briefing papers for president johnson to read. just as president johnson
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conferred secretly with dwight eisenhower. there was a continuity there. you can argue it one way or the other. we do not want to go with the massive b-52s. those sanctuaries contained significant numbers of north vietnamese soldiers. it was reinforcements to attack americans. those two countries proclaimed to be neutral. they were not neutral and all. they were providing shelter for
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the north vietnamese. it was a very tough decision to escalate. i know many of the veterans out here think we should have gone absolutely to the mat but the china issue and many others, far more complicated. >> let's talk a little bit about 1968, which was ultimately a very dark challenging year for the united states. we had assassinations at home. growing civil unrest march 68. he announced he would not accept the nomination for another term. president johnson having won a landslide in the mandate in 1964. we saw in 1968 was whisker thin
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between richard nixon and hubert humphrey. there was a political impossibility of pulling out of that point. was there another way coming after that. was he obliged to stay the course? alexander: nixon laid out very clearly during his campaign in 1968 that he didn't want it to be, he wanted an honorable peace.
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he faced up to the fact that we're going to have to deal with the vietnamese and his idea then, he had it in 1968. he put it to the test. it did seem to work. vietnamization. we would gradually withdraw but only as our training of the viennese people and supplying them with arms and munitions and better weapons and that sort of thing. as we gave them better weapons we would pull out. he did that june 8, 1969, he pulled out 25,000 was the initial thing.
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then in september 40,000. in december another 45,000. sweet pulled out of 115,000 in that first year state in 1969. presumably the vietnamese were taking over more of the battle. one thing we haven't mentioned everyone wonders why the french lost it in 1954. they were starting to fight these trench warfare battles in the jungle. putting so many times on an elephant's back and go through the jungle. the jungle was used to their advantage. you can fly over there and see.
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we continue to do that letter of kennedy's with a speech he gave in 1956 praising the country and commending south vietnam. he likens the u.s. forces to a volunteer fire department. when they come in and put out the fire and they are able to go to the next fire. they leave the people who are now homeless to clean up the mess and rebuild. we go on to another conflagration. tom: i think you and i are good are friends that can hit you with a hardball. there was controversy about this one. in 1968 we were working to get the parties to the conference
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table in paris. from explained reasons the south vietnamese pullback and showed reluctance. can you tell us today, you were not there in 1968. tell us about that episode and what you know about it? historians are still trying to sort it out. alexander: i know and i quite well. she was delivering a message for nixon. >> having access to free officials and south vietnam there is a real question as to whether or not there was interference by the nixon campaign in the peace process.
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if you take this off the table and nixon is elected you will get a better deal from president nixon. there were a lot of stories to that effect. one was on the nixon presidential library website. you have any insight into that? alexander: i know she ended up not speaking to nixon. she was very upset with him. anna. >> something similar was alleged against the reagan campaign of 1980. that they had contacted tehran and said if you keep the hostages until after the election you will get a better deal from the new administration in the case of reagan is not clear whether this had any authorization. in the case of 1968 you didn't
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have to be a political genius if you were the leader south vietnam to thank, we are going to get a new president anyway. there's no point in going out on the land for president was going to be leaving office. let's hold out and see what we get from the new president. i don't think it's that important. common sense would say don't give any concessions because you are going to deal with a new president and there might be a new ballgame. the transition from johnson to nixon. nixon was going to initiate the policy of detente. he was going to go to the russians and the chinese separately. the basic premise the truman and eisenhower had used to justify american intervention was that
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the communist movement in the world was essentially a monolith. a victory for any communist party in any part of the world was a victory for the soviet union itself. by the late 60's richard nixon was the first president to acknowledge and try to exploit the communist movement had come apart. there's no reason to think that a communist victory in vietnam would augment the strength of the soviet union. in fact there was probably a reason to think it might be just the opposite. but even these were aligned with the chinese that the russians. he was trying to split the communist countries and get them to withdraw their support for north vietnam. they were getting resupplied from the soviet union. if nixon could talk moscow and beijing into withdrawing their support that the plan of the
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vietnam policy of the troops pulling out that was feasible. in fact he never did get the soviets and the chinese to go along with it. tom: one major elephant in this room. the role of the media. early on if you were to sample the american press which i've tried to do there was enormous support from the publishers of america who were very pro-american intervention. many of the early correspondence were reporting a more favorable story about it. thanks to some extraordinary reporting, peter arnett is an example.
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up prize-winning reporter for the associated press. incredible photographers that were there. television and print. those images on the cover of life magazine. the impact of television. dan rather will be a part of this program. as you know. as those images continues to come across on the tvs and in the newspapers of america it had profound impact on the policymakers. profound impact on the people in the streets. i am glad that we have as much of the program that is to calm that will look at the impact of the media because it was extraordinary. >> that is a nice place to leave it. we could go on for another hour easily but we are at the end of our time. thank you gentlemen.
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thanks to the lbj library. please give a big hand to our guests. alexander butterfield, tom johnson and h.w. bill brands. thank you for joining us. thank you very much. [applause]
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