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An Embassy at War: Labor Management in South Vietnam

The roles of embassies and their staff vary greatly by countries and regions, though few can claim themselves to be as unique in their responsibilities as the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War. In Saigon, the embassy went beyond serving as a representative of the U.S. diplomatic mission and as a haven for U.S. citizens, and even functioned as part of a parallel government with management responsibilities that ranged from local Vietnamese employees to military affairs.

Streets of Saigon, 1967 | Wikimedia Commons
Streets of Saigon, 1967 | Wikimedia Commons

As the embassy transitioned, so too did its personnel who increasingly saw their duties expanded greatly to ensure the smooth functioning of the embassy and mission.

By 1966, the Vietnam War was in full force. Just a year earlier in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had authorized American boots on the ground, landing 3,500 marines in South Vietnam—a number that would rapidly increase to over 200,000 by the end of the year. Attacks on U.S. government installations, military and otherwise, were also increasing, and the need for American intervention on behalf of South Vietnam became ever more apparent. Over the years coups, military juntas, and corruption took its toll on the South Vietnamese government, which couldn’t stabilize, and weakened it as time passed. In the midst of all this chaos and transformation, the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam began to function as a hub providing broad support for the Saigon government, encompassing military and other matters in its daily functions.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see while serving as a Labor Attaché Robert Senser was at the head of managing the human resources of the embassy and the thousands of American, Korean, Vietnamese, and other nationals employed by the U.S. government. During his tenure, he helped to chair committees such as the Civilian Manpower Committee, worked to resolve disputes between worker unions and contractors, and supported development programs such as USAID. His work in Vietnam in support of worker’s rights and solving labor disputes took place as U.S. intervention reached its most intense phase from 1966 to 1972, helping to navigate the complex world of labor-management in a chaotic time.

Robert Senser’s interview was conducted by Don R. Kienzle on June 6, 1995.

Read Senser’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Leon Cao

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Excerpts:

“The Embassy was a part of a parallel government; it included most of the military.”

Role of the Embassy and Attaché: Labor Attaché. We had an Assistant Labor Attaché. Somebody should write up the whole Vietnam experience, not just Labor Attaché. But the role of the Embassy was like no other Embassy, at least at that time. Basically, it was a parallel government in Vietnam. The Embassy was a part of a parallel government; it included most of the military. So the role of a Labor Attaché was partly that of a manager. The Labor Attaché
always had a role in what is called the Civilian Manpower Committee. The United States at that time employed a lot of Vietnamese in the military and various components, so there were always policy issues. Should there be a wage increase? Terms of employment. I served either as Secretary or Chairman at different times of that committee. The Ambassador would have to approve that. But usually it was well cleared so that, it was not just the United States as direct hire, but it was mostly the contractors, really. The contractors like RMK-BRJ.

“I went to a meeting of their organizing committee in one of the towns—probably Da Nang. I simply gave a supportive speech; essentially a pro-union speech.”

Labor Disputes: Well, that was the name of the company—RMK-BRJ. It was Raymond International, Morrison-Knudsen, Brown & Root, and J.A. Jones Construction. Fragments of it still exist, I notice, in the paper. Not the whole case. It was a Texas deal LBJ supported. They had close ties. So those were big issues.

Now related to that, though it was not really on the agenda of what was called the Civilian Manpower Committee, was the right of workers in American-owned enterprises to join unions. I remember I was invited to give a speech. I went to a meeting of their organizing committee in one of the towns—probably Da Nang. I simply gave a supportive speech; essentially a pro-union speech. The contractor was really mad. Didn’t say it to me, but talked to Phil Habib about it. Phil was very understanding. He said, “Why don’t you talk to him?” I talked to them, but you know, nothing ever came of it. I don’t think they organized either, probably because it was stomped out. That issue came up again with the Shell Company. A union guy who was a friend of mine called me and told me that the workers were on strike at Shell. Again, I got burned. Not burned, but criticized because I tried to get the steering guy to make a phone call to Da Nang to call off the strike. Their only communication was through the company. The company wouldn’t let them call. They were suspicious of them. But anyway, at my level, that provoked a letter. I wish I’d kept my report on it and Phil’s. By that time, Phil was Assistant Secretary of State and saw a copy in Washington. I wish I’d kept that because it was quite an episode.

“It was a good union, although there were some people who were suspect in some way. But the issue became sensitive when they had a strike.”

Vietnamese Unions and Strikes: They [the Vietnamese] had a union in (inaudible). It was a good union, although there were some people who were suspect in some way. But the issue became sensitive when they had a strike.

It was a wage strike. The union leadership in the federation (this was one affiliate) were supportive and yet they thought the technique was wrong, and they wanted to moderate it. But this effort to communicate with their own people was not looked on very kindly. Especially since I drove this guy to the company’s grounds in my car, and we drove away together, and that was the complicity of [supporting the strike].

I think the strike ended normally. It was one of those things where there’s a flare and it’s no longer a big issue. The union survived and was always very active and probably had some of the better leaders in the country.

“You had to have money. I didn’t have any money. Once in a while, I could get a trip for somebody to the United States and a few other things, but the resources were with AID.”

AID Programs: Yeah, I was there on two Labor Attaché tours. I was there also with AID in (inaudible). Of course, there were parts of the country that were battlefields or occupied or in control of the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese combined. But we traveled. We used Air America. So there was quite a bit of movement.

Well, one of AID’s trade union development programs was with the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor. They gave tremendous assistance in terms of projects, staff and so on. There was a realization that you need a peoples’ movement too; so the United States Government, in various arms, was supporting political parties and so on. Yeah, but because AID had its own office. You had to have money. I didn’t have any money. Once in a while, I could get a trip for somebody to the United States and a few other things, but the resources were with AID.

“We gave people enough of a severance pay that even when they, the boat people, those Vietnamese who escaped either by boat or by air, could draw on that severance pay when they came to the United States.”

           
Spraying of defoliation agent over farmland in the Mekong Delta | Wikimedia Commons
Spraying of defoliation agent over farmland in the Mekong Delta | Wikimedia Commons

Contract Issues: One issue was the extent to which the United States Government and its contractors should rely on Koreans and Filipinos to work because we were wanting to have the support of the Korean government—the South Korean government—and the Philippines. We would make deals with them to hire their workers. That put them into competition with the Vietnamese. There were plenty of Vietnamese women and some men too, older men, who were in need of work, and were hired. So there was tension over to what extent should we give more of a priority to the Vietnamese than we did to the Koreans. The wage issue came up.

Defoliation was an issue that I got involved in because, actually, it was a French rubber plantation owner who made a series of complaints. I recall going out with him, a military officer. There were some rules about how wide from the road you could destroy private property to make a secure passage. In other words, cut down rubber trees and other foliage. The military were a little over it, but they had followed the rules. But in general, I did get involved on the side of those people in the mission and within the military establishment who felt there was too much defoliation going on. When I left there I met with one or two people and they asked me (inaudible). They said, “Any ideas on?” I said, “I think we’re leaning too much on defoliation.” It was Colby—Ambassador Colby. He said, “Well, you’re not the only one.” So, I was involved in it, but I can’t say—except for certain issues—we got involved in the whole issues of severance pay, for instance, for Vietnamese.

The Economic Counselor—I had his support—Chuck Cooper. We gave people enough of a severance pay that even when they, the boat people, those Vietnamese who escaped either by boat or by air, could draw on that severance pay when they came to the United States. So it had an effect and it helped some of them make the transition in a better way than if they had to rely immediately on charity, which they had to anyway, or welfare or whatever. So those were sort of the pragmatic things.

“…does the U.S. have the capability, the confidence, the perseverance, the ingenuity, to run a parallel government? One of the two or three indicators that say “no,” how can you run a government and a war…”

The War and Commitment: Well, there are a lot of things to be said about the Vietnam War …. My own thinking—even while I was there, what tour was that, certainly by my second Embassy tour, I felt a sense of—there are several issues. Should the United States have been there? That’s one issue. The other issue, which is not seriously discussed or analyzed, is does the U.S. have the capability, the confidence, the perseverance, the ingenuity, to run a parallel government? One of the two or three indicators that say “no,” how can you run a government and a war when you have tours of duty in the military that are actually, in effect, six months? Actually, they are longer, but basically they would switch people every six months.

Continuity. In terms of contacts, also the will, because it requires a will and a sacrifice. To me, it’s sort of obvious, the United States’ commitment. Whether it should have been a commitment, is, as I say, a separate issue. But what was the nature of the commitment? Was it always considered, really, beyond the pale? It’s not considered terrible that American bodies are buried in the Philippines, or in France, or many other places in the world, but right from the start it was not acceptable to have American bodies buried in Vietnam. How much does that prove? To me, it’s one of those indicators. There is a difference about it. About dying and sacrificing in Vietnam than in sacrificing to defend France, let us say. It’s not a question of whether we were there. There should have been commitment, but whether the commitment was of a nature that could be sustained. I’m not interested in revisiting that whole thing. That was my feeling at that time and the reflection from time to time about it since then.

“So we never used the English translation or the Vietnamese translation. We were using the French.”

French Influence in Labor: There was a trade union person there in French times; in fact, even we, even Americans, the State Department referred to it “The Vietnamese Confederation of Labor,” CVT. So we never used the English translation or the Vietnamese translation. We were using the French. It was known everywhere by that, throughout the world, historically. It kept being used that way, so it was never transferred over. The old French symbols were retained. Some [Vietnamese Union Leaders] of them [were trained in France]. They had long ties and support with the Christian Trade Union Movement out of Brussels, which later became the World Confederation of Labor, WCL. But the AFL/CIO became more involved AAFLI (Asian American Free Labor Institute) was established. The first office of AAFLI was in Saigon.

“It was very unusual. It took a little bit of persuading the ICFTU.”

International Unions: Remember, it was called the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions. The initials could be transposed with the ICFDU and it was the ICFTU. That is always a typographical problem. A problem with scanning it. But then they changed it, not for that reason, to the World Confederation of Labor, because they wanted to have a broader—and they did have—a broader scope than just Christians. They had contacts in Indonesia and many other parts of Asia long before, when the ICFTU had some or none. This is true in Vietnam. Then later the CVT, the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor, acquired dual membership. It became a member of the ICFTU, too. It was very unusual. It took a little bit of persuading the ICFTU. I guess the United States—the AFL/CIO did it. But anyway, it was done. The CVT was determined not to disown the people who gave them their support over these years, so they insisted on keeping that. Of course, it was beneficial to them, too, because there was a regional organization at that time called The Brotherhood of Asian Trade Unions—BATU. The CVT shared that. Tran Quoc Buu was President. It gave him broader prestige and gave Vietnam broader prestige because he would explain the problem of democracy and freedom into a broader audience.

“ When you have a large U.S. stake in a country, the role of the embassy changes and so does the role of whoever covers labor.”

Role of the Embassy: …I gave a speech once at a Labor Attaché Conference about the activist role of the Trade Union. Because mostly the feeling is you’re a reporting officer and there is a different role there and I tried to conceptualize that. That’s an important issue, especially in a country where we don’t have parallel government that I know of anywhere. When you have a large U.S. stake in a country, the role of the embassy changes and so does the role of whoever covers labor.

Q: Was the Embassy sending clear signals that it wanted an effective trade union movement?

SENSER: Oh yeah.

Q: Even though these trade unions might want to negotiate with some of the contractors that were there?

SENSER: Yeah, but you see, that wasn’t a big issue because the CVT—the left would say it was housebroken—in a sense that they realized there was a war on. They would keep their efforts within the context of the existing situation, so they were not wild, except this sort of thing would happen occasionally. The Air America employees organized and the manager refused to meet with them. There was a Mission Council meeting on this and I was doing the job of settling the strike. Well, it was really very simple. I said, “You guys should meet with ‘em.” The CIA, who was in charge of the airline, some of their people there who were mad at me, pissed off at me, but he did and the strike ended.

Very often it’s recognition. One of the things you learn, from my experience in the field, is very often money is almost a side issue. It becomes a symbol of something, but it’s basically that somebody is there to talk with you to solve problems, which may include money, but often does not. Anyway, the crisis passed. They had some kind of working relationship. Whatever happened later, I’m not sure.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA, Loyola University 1960–1964
Joined the Foreign Service 1961
Saigon, Japan—Labor Attaché 1966–1972
Washington, DC—Special Assistant to the Secretary for International Labor Affairs 1973–1972
Brussels, Belgium—USEC 1976–1980
Bonn, Germany—Labor Counselor 1980–1983