Chas Freeman was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and consulted frequently with General Norman Schwarzkopf and others on the conduct of the war. In this segment, he discusses his frustrations in dealing with Washington, his preoccupation with “visitor management”, his lack of respect for the media which covered the war, and the absence of a war termination strategy, which meant that the war never really ended and nothing was fully resolved. Read more
It was the first major foreign policy crisis for the U.S. since the end of the Cold War. Iraq, which had built up the fourth-largest army in the world with U.S. assistance, was heavily in debt after its costly eight-year war with Iran. It pressured Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to forgive its debts, but they refused. Iraq had claimed, since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1932, that Kuwait was rightfully Iraqi territory, and accused Kuwait of exceeding its OPEC quotas for oil production.
This all came to a head in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a major supplier of oil to the United States, and also threatened Saudi Arabia. In the last months of 1990, the United States participated in the defense of Saudi Arabia in a deployment known as Operation Desert Shield. Read more
The U.S. and SOUTHCOM had spent considerable time and effort planning for the invasion and had mapped out several places where Noriega could potentially be hiding, the chief one being the house of a mistress. However, he wasn’t in any of them as he had been tipped off. Now the U.S. military and the embassy had to react to a very different scenario than previously imagined. In Part II, John Bushnell, who was Chargé d’Affaires in Panama from 1989 until 1992, discusses briefing members of the opposition at a dinner just hours before the invasion and finding a way to swear them in as the new government; the attack on the U.S. embassy and how he was shot; the psychological operations, including rock music, used against Noriega when he was holed up at the Vatican’s Nunicature; and the celebrations in the streets of Panama after he finally turned himself in.
Beginning in the middle of the 1980s, relations between General Manuel Noriega, Panama’s de facto leader, and the United States started to deteriorate. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan pressured him with several drug-related indictments in U.S. courts; however, Noriega did not give in. As relations continued to spiral downward, Noriega shifted his allegiance towards the Soviet bloc, soliciting and receiving military aid from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya.
In May 1989, an alliance of opposition parties counted results from the Panamanian national elections, which showed their candidate, Guillermo Endara, defeating pro-Noriega Carlos Duque by nearly 3-to-1. Endara was beaten up by Noriega supporters the next day while Noriega declared the election null and void. On December 15, the Panamanian general assembly passed a resolution declaring that U.S. actions had caused a state of war to exist with Panama. Then on December 16, four U.S. military personnel were stopped at a roadblock outside Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) headquarters; the PDF opened fire as they attempted to flee an angry mob. One soldier, Lt. Paz, was fatally wounded. President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama, to commence at 0100 on December 20. Read more
Philip Habib (February 25, 1920 – May 25, 1992) was a career diplomat known for his work in Vietnam, South Korea and the Middle East. The New York Times described him as “the outstanding professional diplomat of his generation in the United States.” Habib was Lebanese-American and raised in Brooklyn by Lebanese Maronite Catholic parents. He graduated with a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Berkeley in 1952 then entered the Foreign Service. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1967–1969 and was part of the Vietnamese peace talk delegation in 1968. He was Ambassador to South Korea (1971–1974), Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1974–1976), and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1976–1978), during which time he was the chief mediator between Israel and Egypt in the Camp David Peace Accord.
Habib retired from the Foreign Service after suffering a third heart attack but soon returned to public service in 1979 as a special adviser and in 1981 was sent as special envoy by Ronald Reagan to mediate the Lebanese Civil War. Habib negotiated a peace agreement that allowed the PLO to evacuate the besieged city of Beirut.
In 1982 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest official honor given to a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government. John Boykin’s biography of Habib, “Cursed is the Peacemaker” focuses largely on Habib’s mediation between Israel and Lebanon during their war in 1982. In 2006, Habib was featured on a U.S. postage stamp, one of a block of six featuring prominent diplomats.
In these excerpts, he talks about his beginnings doing crop reports, the measures taken to avoid the media during the Paris Peace Talks, the breakthrough in negotiations that was undone at the last minute, his heart attack, and the frustrations during the Lebanon negotiations in the 1980s that led to his eventual resignation.
The Economics of the Peach Market
HABIB: I went straight to the Ph.D….. While I was in Berkeley, I was a research associate assistant to one of the professors. We d
id research on various crop problems. My first publication — I was the co-author of a pamphlet issued by the University of California on the asparagus situation, or the spinach situation in California. I was the co-author, I had done the statistical research.
Q: Filed in the Library of Congress?
HABIB: I filed in a lot of places. There’s another one on the premium peach market in California. My first publication, however, was as co-author of the spinach situation in California. At any rate, it was not bad training in terms of economic reporting in the Foreign Service. Let’s face it. I later wrote hundreds of crop reports as an economic reporting officer in my first post in the Foreign Service…. I was assistant agriculture attaché in Canada.
On Avoiding the Media during the Paris Peace Talks
HABIB: I was assigned temporary duty and I was there all the time, never left except for briefing trips back home. We started out living at the Crillon Hotel and after seven or eight months of eating out all the time, I rented a little pad, a two and a half room pad up in an old house about five minutes from the embassy. I could fall out of bed and be in the embassy in five minutes if anything happened, and we began the negotiations. The negotiations were for the purpose of a total bombing halt, and to negotiate the end of war.
From our standpoint, we were willing to go for a total bombing halt, but we wanted to get a proper negotiation going including the South Vietnamese. We had South Vietnamese liaison guys there in Paris. But the actual negotiations were between us and the North Vietnamese. We started in May and by the fall of that year we had negotiated the total bombing halt under conditions of bringing about full fledged negotiations, and also with certain understandings as to what would not be done. It’s beginning to fade from my memory, but it’s still quite clear what we did, including such things as no major attacks on cities. We had all sorts of things which were quite clear from what had gone on in the negotiations.
We had two levels of negotiations. We had the formal talks every Thursday. We would convene at the Majestic Hotel at Avenue Kleber. The delegation would file into this magnificent conference hall, and we’d sit there and read statements to each other, and go out and talk to the TV cameras, and go back to the office and meet again the next Thursday.
Well, that went on for a while, and obviously we weren’t going to do anything under that spotlight, so we had a couple of private meetings, and then we set up the formal secret negotiations. They had a safe house, and we had a safe house. Our safe house was staffed by the CIA, but with Defense people living there, and a couple of secretaries took care of the safe house. And they had a safe house which was supplied to them by the French Communist Party. Sometimes we’d meet in our safe house, sometimes we’d meet in their safe house.
HABIB: [Theirs was on the] outside, on the fringe of the city. That was the Kissinger thing. Now, we ran it secretly. Nobody knew, nobody had a clue where they were. They knew that something was wrong, but couldn’t figure out what. I remember one CBS reporter said, “Now we’ve figured it out, you’re meeting on a houseboat on the Seine.” Yes, that’s right, on a houseboat, you get a rowboat and follow us out. They never discovered it, and why? We ran it, we were professionals. Nothing ever leaked from them, or from us. We had a whole series of good meetings.
Q: Maintaining secrecy on both sides.
HABIB: That’s right, and we held I don’t know how many dozens of these meetings until we negotiated the terms of understanding. As a matter of fact, they were finally initialed and signed on the last day, but I wasn’t there. When they were finalized and initialed I had been ordered back to brief the president, because there was a lot going on back here. So I came back to Washington to brief people here on where things stood. I didn’t attend the last secret meetings with Harriman and Vance, which was the only time that they allowed photographs up until that time. There were photographs taken at the last meeting. I don’t have a copy because I wasn’t there — one of the photographs I really would have liked to have because I had been one of the players right from the beginning.
Cy Vance and I had carried on most of the secret negotiations. We would bring Harriman in for the key ones. Cy and I had meeting after meeting, and a couple of times I had meetings alone, at the last stages when we were drafting terms in getting the agreement on the shape of the table. All that was done in that period under the secret negotiation.
Q: So you would have the press come around for those once-a-week meetings.
HABIB: That’s right. The press was there for the once-a-week meetings.
The time when the press arrived, after the formal once-a-week negotiations, with nothing going on, we were having intensive 7-8-hour-long meetings with the Vietnamese that the press knew nothing about. Now the way we managed it, I set up the system.
For example, let’s say the meeting was in our safe house–we had a safe house in a place called St. Cloud. We had one somewhere else and a third one in another place, then the Vietnamese had a safe house out at Choissy-le-Roi. Harriman would stay out in Auteuil. Vance would be at the embassy with me. We had a CIA guy, with an unmarked car rented by this CIA guy. He was not a guy from the station. He was a special guy brought in nobody knew….
He would rent a private car. He would park the car up by the Madeleine. The meetings usually consisted of Harriman, Vance, and myself, John Negroponte and Dave Engel, Bill Jordan. Negroponte and Engel would do the notes, and I would take notes too. If it was just Vance, it would be Vance, myself, and probably Negroponte, the three of us, or maybe Engel would.
Q: Did you each talk in your own language and then use a translator?
HABIB: That’s right. They wouldn’t negotiate in French. They wouldn’t do it even in the big meetings, they would not negotiate in French. The only time they would speak French and negotiate was privately. One night I had the deputy guy over for dinner at my apartment, and we spoke French….
At any rate, the guy would park the car up there at a given hour; let’s say the meeting was going to be at 10:00, a half-hour drive or so. At 9:00 Dave Engel, carrying the documents in a satchel, would wander up toward the Madeleine, get into the car, the driver would then drive down and he would go up the Champs-Elysées.
Meanwhile, Cy Vance and I would go out the back door of the embassy and we would walk as if we were taking a stroll in the park along the Champs-Elysées, and at a given moment we would be at the curb on a certain spot on the Champs-Elysées, the car would stop, and he and I would get in the car, and we would then drive out to where Ambassador Harriman would be outside of a flower shop at a certain time. We would pick him up and we would head out. Of course, nobody knew where the hell we were going.
“The war would have been over much sooner”
We did that from May until October, and then we finished the negotiations. We finished them actually in October. Of course, at that point we thought we were going to be a big success. Of course, Harriman was very anxious to get this done before the elections to avert, as he put it, the greatest disaster: Richard Nixon. That was the way he felt. So he was doing everything to get Humphrey elected.
Vance was marvelous. They were very political. Of course, we stayed out of the politics. In fact, I think most of those at the meetings wanted to get it done before the election too, because the Vietnamese were being stubborn as hell. From May, June, July, August, they wouldn’t give a thing. And all of a sudden, one day, we had been pressing them: What would we get if we gave a total bombing halt? For the total bombing halt we wanted, specific things had to happen. And finally, one day, the head of their delegation, a member of the Politburo, said to Harriman and Vance, “If we do so and so and so, will you stop the bombing?” At that point, you knew you had it.
It was just that stubbornness and reading reams of propaganda bullshit, even in the secret talks. They finally agreed to what we needed, and what we wanted, and the deal was cooked. And then something happened.
Q: Before the election.
HABIB: Before the election. First of all somebody got to [South Vietnamese President Ngyuen Van] Thieu on behalf of Nixon and said, “Don’t agree, come to Paris.”
It was done right here in Washington. A Republican went to a famous woman called Anna Chennault. Anna Chennault went to the Vietnamese and told the Vietnamese, “We’ll get a better deal under Nixon.” So Thieu refused to accept the agreement and sent a delegation to Paris. Clark Clifford was fit to be tied, particularly Clark. Harriman was about to climb the wall. Well finally, of course, the election was held and Humphrey lost.
Q: It could have turned out differently.
HABIB: That’s correct. I’m convinced that if Humphrey had won the election the war would have been over much sooner. I know what we were going to negotiate under Harriman and Vance, and that was not what we negotiated under the later generation, basically under Henry Kissinger and Nixon.
Kissinger was somewhat familiar because he had been a consultant. As a matter of fact, the great article that Kissinger had written about the negotiations, he really stole that from us. It was in the form of a briefing which I gave him in Paris before he wrote the article. It was exactly the position that I had in some way espoused. And also I had written a special paper for Harriman on what to do about getting the negotiations on track, which he was going to buy.
Of course, the election was held and a new group came along. First of all, Henry Cabot Lodge was appointed head. You couldn’t get the thing cranked up until after the inauguration, which meant you marked time until January. Meanwhile the Vietnamese agreed to come, so they formed their delegation, and the Viet Cong came with their delegation.
Q: I remember the table problem.
HABIB: A round table, with no sides, our side, your side, was the formula we used. It was a simple thing to arrange. People said it took them three months to decide on the shape of the table, that was a bunch of shit. We knew what the table was going to be from the beginning; it was going to be a round table. It was the only way you were going to solve the problem. We knew that but we had to go through this whole routine of satisfying the South Vietnamese, and beating down the arguments of the North Vietnamese who wanted the VC [Viet Cong] as an equal delegation. They talked about a four-party negotiation, and we talked about an “our side, your side” negotiation.
We finally resolved the problem by a round table. We knew we were going to do that. But you couldn’t solve anything when you didn’t have delegations. And then we had an election and we had to wait until the new administration was in. The new administration appointed Cabot Lodge as head of the delegation and, of course, he had a so-called number two called Walsh, a lawyer from New York who didn’t know anything about the problem. He was a Republican lawyer from New York who was in the early Nixon administration. But Cabot insisted that I had to remain. At this point I wanted my just rewards. I could have an embassy anywhere I wanted; I might as well get an embassy….
Cabot came and we began sort of floundering around. At that point Henry Kissinger entered the negotiations by deciding that he’s going to run the secret negotiating…. He had Dick Walters, who was then the military attaché, set up the goddamn negotiation, and said nothing to us. Henry lacked confidence in the secrecy of the Foreign Service. Here I had run the secret negotiations, and he knew me. He knew me for a long time. Hell, I knew him when he was at Harvard.
And yet, instead of getting me to set up the secret negotiations, he gets a military attaché, this secretive fellow called Dick Walters, to set up the negotiations through a Frenchmen, mind you, who was a friend of Kissinger’s. I should say his wife was a friend of Kissinger’s, a guy called Jean Sainteny who was an old Indo-Chinese hand.
He gets the goddamn first secret meeting with them set up through Walters and Sainteny in Sainteny’s apartment. And they go to the meeting and Henry thinks Walters is going to do the interpreting and speak French. He finds out the guys won’t speak French in the negotiations. So he didn’t have them, instead of taking my man, Dave Engel, whom I had offered him. I said to him I knew that they were doing this. He had with him Winston Lord, Tony Lake, and this character, Walters. None of them knew anything about anything at that point compared to us…. I had Dave Engel, I had John Negroponte, I had Dick Holbrooke, Dick Smyser, and he decided to do it this way. Of course, he soon learned that he had to have Dave Engel.
Years later, years later, John Negroponte was head of the delegation, but he was working for Kissinger, not for me. He was on the NSC at that time. He wouldn’t use the mechanism that we had…. They ended up by not being secret. Lodge left because he didn’t want to hang around any longer. I became acting head of the division and lasted about nine months, and then they decided to make it appear as if we were upgrading our interest and had David Bruce come. David lasted several months; I forget how long. He was there for about nine months, and he got fed up and he left. I was acting again, and then I finally broke loose and went as ambassador to Korea….
“Professor Kissinger, you don’t know a goddamn thing about this place”
Q: Had Kissinger come on missions to Vietnam while you were there?
. The first time I met him was when he came to Vietnam. You probably never heard him tell that story about the time I threw him out of my office. The first time he ever came in, the first time I ever saw him. He was a professor and Henry Cabot Lodge called me in and said that Johnson was sending this professor out. Did I know this Professor Kissinger? I said, I don’t know him but I know who he is, he’s written that book that everybody knew about, Nuclear weapons and Foreign Policy.
So this guy shows up at my door one morning. I was in one of my particular moods, so I looked at him and said, “Professor, you don’t know a goddamn thing about this place. I’m a very busy fellow. If you want to learn something about it, I’ll give you a couple of my guys who know the language, know the country. You go around the country, spend a couple of weeks looking the situation over, then you come back and I’ll have time to talk to you. In the meantime, get the hell out of my office.”
That’s exactly the way I greeted him. He tells the story all the time. I literally told him to get the hell out of my office, I didn’t have time for him. But he followed my advice. As a matter of fact, I gave him Dave Engel, and I gave him Vlad Lehovich to take him around, take him up country and show him around. I think John Negroponte went with him too to show him a little bit about what the hell the war was all about. Interesting enough, Henry hated to fly, you know, at that time. He was literally pained flying, but he would do it. He would grit his teeth and he’d go up in these goddamn little airplanes and flit around the countryside. Then he came back and we became very good friends.
Having a Heart Attack before a White House Meeting
I was due at the White House for breakfast, [Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin, [Secretary of State] Cy Vance and the president. And I had told Cy the night before when we got in to Andrews, “I’ll meet you at the office at 7:00 and we’ll go over together.” But I got to the office at 7:00 and barely made it to the room, collapsed, and they called an ambulance and I got hauled out to Walter Reed. So I didn’t make the breakfast with Begin and the president. They put me in intensive care in Walter Reed….
Q: They had your file.
HABIB: Yes, and I had a [cardiac] arrest that day. They had sedated me so they shocked me back with the paddles. They
kept me there for a few days, and by golly I had another arrest. I got over it, and they put me on a lot of pills, I was taking at one time something like 36 pills, each a different kind, in one day. I’d have to get up in the middle of the night and take a pill.
They were trying to adjust the rhythm of my heart by pills. What had happened, of course, the first heart attack left a scar and a bulge in my heart and that would always stay with me, and the pain. So the next thing I know, they said I’m in the hospital recuperating and when I recuperated I came back to the Department. Oh well, now you can go back to work, other people do.
And I said, no, I don’t think so. I’ll take some time off to see if I can get my health back. So I went out to Stanford as Diplomat in Residence.
The Lebanese Civil War – “That’s when I resigned for the last time”
There was practically no evidence of any hostile action from Lebanese territory directly into Israel. The Israelis won’t admit that, but it’s true. We kept track of those damn things. Now, they had this plan, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon had this plan that had been made in Lebanon to crush the Palestinian movement. That’s what he told me when he told me about this plan, and showed me what it was.
I told him it was no goddamn good, and I was right, but he didn’t pay any attention. The next day you know the war is on and everything that goes with it. At that point we began to question, how do you stop the war? I had eleven ceasefires, then the twelfth one. Sometimes a ceasefire would last for a day, sometimes an hour, sometimes three days, it never would last.
And it was not always the Arabs’ fault. The Israelis had this strange notion that if you declared a ceasefire you could move your troops around. So they would accept the ceasefire and then they would move their troops, and the other guys would shoot at them and they’d say, “They broke the ceasefire.” I once said to the prime minister, a friend of the defense minister and the foreign minister, that I was going to have to get this new definition of a ceasefire written up in the annals of the War College.
But that’s wh
at happened. I was terribly busy running from country to country. Trying to get the Saudis and the Syrians to do things, talking to the Syrians directly to get them clued in, keeping the Israelis on board, flying in and around and up and down. It wasn’t too bad.
Well, I then got to talk ceasefire and it held [for a while] but I got to a point where I was really fed up with the senselessness that was going on. I had practically got an agreement with the PLO and the Syrians to get their troops out of Beirut. I was negotiating the details and what follows and all that, and still the Israelis were hitting the cities.
So I used to call Washington up on a secure line and said I wanted to talk to the Secretary. When they got the Secretary on the phone, I said, “Now this has got to stop. Its just can’t go on this way.” He said, “What do you recommend?”
I said, “I recommend the President pick up the telephone and talk to Menachem Begin.”
That’s what happened. That led to a disengagement of forces, and bringing in the multinational force and a ceasefire that held long enough to get an election in Lebanon. Things seemed to be going in the right direction, and the war started all over again.
At that point, we were in negotiation involving Israel, the Lebanese, a negotiation which I opposed. The Israelis insisted they wanted a negotiation. So I’m not getting anywhere. I went to the president and secretary and said, “My idea is that I should go over there now with a solution and say, ‘Look, fellows, tell me what you want and we’ll put it together’.”
I talked to the Lebanese; they were all right, I had a pretty good understanding with agreement to them. I go to Israel and I had the whole cabinet, the senior members of the cabinet. I started talking about my ideas…and Sharif pulled out a piece of paper and he said, in effect we’re way ahead of you, we’ve got this working paper with the Lebanese, this is the start of the settlement [talks] in Washington.
I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t know anything about it. I had not been in that part of the world in several months. I was out in California….
At any rate, it was a bad turn of events. So we began plodding back to the negotiations, and finally got them through. By the time they were finished, they weren’t worth the paper they were written on, because they obviously couldn’t be implemented. I remember I used to sometimes say to the Lebanese, you can’t demand this. You can’t demand [that] because if you do the Syrians won’t accept it. They wanted to get the maximum benefits to justify the war. But by now the war had turned sour. Those attitudes were very sour towards the war.
Q: And the Syrians were very proud of their negative reality.
HABIB: All of this took so much time. The Syrians get reinforced…. The Israelis supported the Christians; they supported that other group. The fighting began to stir up again. After the agreement was signed I was going over to Syria to talk with Assad.
I got the word back that I wasn’t welcome because I had misled him in the early days on the ceasefire. I didn’t mislead him. The Israelis would agree to the terms and then they would break them. But he held that against me.
Q: That you had deceived him on the ceasefire.
HABIB: So I said to the President, well, if he doesn’t want to see me — that’s when I resigned for the last time.
Jonestown, Guyana was the scene of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history. On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, 909 members of the People’s Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in a “revolutionary suicide.” They included over 200 murdered children. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, by Temple members at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. It was the largest mass suicide in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001. Read more
George Ball was the Under Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He supported the 1963 overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1968, where he passionately criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. However, he is most known for his opposition to the escalation of the Vietnam War.
On July 1, 1965, Ball submitted a memo to President Johnson titled “A Compromise Solution for South Vietnam.” It began bluntly: “The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong. No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong, or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundred thousand white, foreign (U.S.) troops we deploy.” Ball advised that the United States not commit any more troops, restrict the combat role of those already in place, and seek to negotiate a way out of the war.
As Ball was submitting his memo, the U.S. air base at Da Nang came under attack by the Viet Cong for the first time. The attack on Da Nang and the weakness of the Saigon regime convinced Johnson that he had to do something to stop the communists. While Ball recommended a negotiated settlement, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urged the President to “expand promptly and substantially” the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam. Johnson ultimately accepted McNamara’s recommendation. On July 22, just three weeks after Ball submitted his memo, LBJ authorized a total of 44 U.S. battalions for commitment in South Vietnam, a decision that led to a massive escalation of the war. There had been fewer than ten U.S. Army and Marine battalions in South Vietnam at this time. Eventually there would be more than 540,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam.
In this 1971 interview, part of the ADST collection courtesy of the National Archives and Records Service at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Ball recounts his lonely opposition to escalating the Vietnam War, starting in 1964. You can read other Moments from the Vietnam War.
“McNamara was absolutely horrified”
Q: I’ve had people tell me that Vietnam didn’t really engage [LBJ] probably until after the 1964 election. Of course, now we’re being told that all these decisions had occurred before then.
BALL: That’s absolute nonsense. They weren’t decisions. What was happening was that after he got the legislative program through, or even before, he became immediately involved in the election campaign, the convention and the campaign. The Tonkin Gulf [incident] occurred in the middle of that, in August. I remember at the end of September I had become so deeply concerned about the situation in Vietnam that I sat down during the nights — because I couldn’t do this in the office and I couldn’t use any staff — and dictated a memorandum which turned out to be about 75 pages long… This was a memorandum that challenged every assumption of our Vietnam policy. And then the second section was a kind of plan for disengaging….
It got to the White House. What happened on that was that the memorandum was written the last week of September. It took me about two weeks, because, as I say, I’d get up at three or four in the morning–I had a dictating machine in my house–and I would go into the library there and dictate through the night.
I had a very strong conviction that I should never treat with the President on an ex parte basis. So I sent a copy of this to McNamara (at left), and one to Rusk, and one to Mac Bundy. I think there were only five copies made, altogether. McNamara, in particular, was absolutely horrified. He treated it like a poisonous snake. The idea that people would put these kinds of things down on paper!
We met then for two Saturday afternoons to discuss this thing. As I say, the general attitude of the conferees was to treat it as something that really shouldn’t have been done. Although I think that Rusk and Bundy were more tolerant of my effort to put it on paper than Bob was. He really just regarded it as next to treason, that this had been put down on paper.
“It was an unwinnable war”
Q: Was anybody else saying such things at that? Anybody in a senior position?
BALL: No. None of them. Not at all.
I didn’t press to show it to the President, because he was occupied with the campaign at that time. But about the first of January, after the election, Bill Moyers was over for lunch with me one day, and I gave this to Bill. He read it, and he says that this was the beginning of his conversion on the Vietnamese issue. So then I said, “Well, if you feel that this is something serious, I had intended it for the President, and I want to give it to the President.” Which he did.
And the President read it not once, but twice, so he told me, and he was very impressed, or shaken, by it. So he insisted that we sit down and start arguments. Well, that was the beginning of a process I then employed, because then I wrote the President every few weeks setting forth, in effect, what I thought were quite serious, reasoned memoranda which were difficult to do because, as I say, I had to do them all myself.
But each one was addressed at some particular proposal for escalation, challenging the proposal and arguing that we were losing the war, that it was an unwinnable war, that the whole objective was an unattainable objective, that we could commit any number of–500,000 I think was the figure I used at one point in a memorandum–and that we still would not win. All the reasons I’ve set forth. And each time I ended up, “Therefore we should cut our losses,” that this would be the consequence in short-term problems, but in long-term we would gain by it, which I set forth in relation to each country: countries in the Far East, countries in Europe, the neutralist countries, and so on.
The President always read these things. And the reason I know he read them is because he always insisted on having a meeting then, and he would call on me to present my views, which I would do. The reason I know he read them was that he would sit there without looking at them and he’d say, “Now, George, you say on page nine” so-and-so. “I don’t see how you can possibly defend that.” So then I’d defend it. “And on page fourteen you say” so-and-so….
“The impetus toward escalation never came from Lyndon Johnson”
Q: Did they ever occasion, in being presented that frequently, what you considered really a basic reconsideration of some of the premises by the other principals?
BALL: Not basically consideration of some of the premises. But what did happen was that the President on two or three occasions said at the end of the day, “Look, I agree with George. I think he’s right. We’re not going to do this thing. I don’t agree with you, Bob, you’ve got to make your case. I don’t agree with you, Mac. We’re not going to do it.” But we ended up by doing it a couple of weeks later, because events moved on and pressures built up and so on. I think I slowed the process, let me put it that way.…
Q: You were already having doubts, obviously, about the general direction of our policy at that time.
BALL: Oh, I’d always had doubts.
Q: But you favored the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
BALL: Yes, I don’t recall having opposed it. I just felt that–
Q: Did anyone?
BALL: I don’t think so. “Let’s go get this authority.” It didn’t seem to me that implied in this was much more than that. “Let’s get some authority from Congress,” rather than act entirely–again, this was perhaps a lawyer’s instinct–on the basis of the implied powers of the President, war powers of the President. I just thought we ought to tidy up. That was really what it was.…
Q: Was it your understanding that there existed in early September of 1964, as the Pentagon Papers seem to be saying, a consensus that we were going to start bombing?
BALL: There wasn’t any consensus. There were a lot of people thinking, you know, “This situation is not good. Let’s think of all the contingencies.” And everybody who was working on South Vietnam was writing papers about this or that type of program. There wasn’t any consensus at all.
Q: And certainly not a presidential decision?
BALL: Certainly not a presidential decision. No, he definitely didn’t make it. He didn’t want to make this decision. He was always a very reluctant fellow, but he always got kind of dragged along, kicking and screaming. The impetus toward escalation never came from Lyndon Johnson, I can assure you of that.
Q: There did occur that fall several instances that might have provoked the same kind of retaliation that we took in Tonkin Gulf and we didn’t take retaliatory action.
BALL: That’s right.
Q: Did they involve presidential refusal?
BALL: Usually. The President would say, “Yes, we’re not going to do this.” And then what happened really, the reason why the bombing started in February, it didn’t have anything to do with any very clear decision that something had to be done to the North, but that something had to be done for the South. There had been a whole sordid series of coups, a feeling that the whole political fabric of South Vietnam was beginning to disintegrate, and that we had to do something very fair and affirmative if we were going to keep this damned thing from falling apart. That’s what happened. It was a great buckerupper for South Vietnam. That was the whole reason for it. I say the whole reason. That was really the reason for it.
Now the problem that I was encountering at that time, particularly with Bob McNamara–and, again, I don’t want to be unfair to him. He was the one who had the responsibility for the war in a rather special sense, in the military sense. He was under enormous pressures from his own soldiers and sailors and airmen to escalate, and he resisted. He made his own decisions, and he kept the thing under very considerable control and under great restraint. But the reaction I always had from him was–he would put up a proposal, and I would say, “Well, I don’t think it’s demonstrated that this is going to achieve the purpose at all, and I don’t think that the argument has been made in any convincing form that this can succeed or that it’s going to do any good. The cost could be very considerable, and it’s one more step on this road,” and so on.
He had a set answer, which was, “All right, George, what do you propose to do?” I had a set answer, too. I proposed that we cut our losses and get the hell out. But that was no [acceptable] answer….It was an unacceptable answer in the current mood at the time.
“It isn’t as bad as you say”
Q: Had anybody joined you by February of 1965 in that point of view in regard to the bombing when the bombing decision was being made?
BALL: No. That was the general attitude I had toward every act of escalation. I was alone in the top councils. If [former CIA analyst and then-Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department] Bill Bundy tells me he had lots of reservations, and I suspect he did–Bill is an honest man–he never argued them in any direct or vigorous way, even to me. He would always say, “You’re overstating. You’ve overestimated this thing. It isn’t as bad as you say,” and so on. I think there were people in the Department who were beginning to feel this way. My own personal assistant, George Springsteen, I think agreed with me. Abe Chayes, who was in the consular department. But they were in a position where they couldn’t make their voices felt.
Q: When the bombing did start, was it clearly understood by everybody that this was going to be a permanently instituted policy?
BALL: No. It started on a so-called tit-for-tat basis. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General] Max Taylor was pressing this idea of gradually escalating the thing. I had a kind of sense of fatality that I wasn’t going to keep it from happening. It would indeed happen. Once you get one of those things going, it’s just like getting a little alcohol; you’re going to get a taste for more. It’s a compelling thing.…
Q: Do you think that was fully understood by the people who were so avid that we begin a bombing program?
BALL: Nobody was prepared to concede that any particular step would require any further step. This was kind of a standard assumption which I kept repeating again and again was a false assumption. The argument that I kept making through these memoranda. I remember quoting Emerson about “things are in the saddle” and “You’re losing control. You go forward with this further step, and you will substantially have lost control. Finally, you’re going to find the war is running you, and we’re not running the war.”…
Q: What was the general view of the top inner circle advisers regarding what our chances were of doing what we wanted to do in Vietnam by this time? Was there optimism in the State Department?
BALL: It depended on what parts of the State Department you’re talking about. I remember saying to Bill Bundy once on a certain measure of escalation that, “I don’t think this thing has a chance. I think it’s absurd to be putting this up and seriously going for it.” I said, “What do you think the chances are?”
“Oh,” he said, “10 or 15 per cent.”
I said, “That’s absolute nonsense for a great government to go ahead on as potentially costly a program of this kind in terms of lives, in terms of ancillary breakings that might occur on that kind of a risk. It’s just a lousy business judgment. You can’t do it.”
I think it differed from one man to another. I think that McNamara up through that period was absolutely convinced that one could make a quantitative demonstration, given the disparity in resources between the United States and the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong; that if we didn’t impose our will on the country, it was simply because we weren’t using those resources properly and weren’t being sufficiently skillful and imaginative. Therefore, it was a tremendous challenge.…
As a practicing lawyer, I had had among my clients various agencies of the French government when they went through the Indo-Chinese experience. I had heard everything before. I used to tell this to the President when McNamara was present, and it would just drive him up the wall.
I’d say, “Look, Mr. President, everything that the Secretary of Defense has been telling you this morning, I used to listen to with my French friends. They talked about the body count. They talked the relative kill ratios. They talked about the fact that there was always a new plan, and with a little increment of effort, the Navarre Plan, the DeLattre de Tassigny Plan, and so on, that was going to win the day. And they believed it just as much as we’re believing it sitting around the table this morning. I can tell you, however, that in the end, there was a great disillusion. And there will be one.”
Q: But it didn’t get through.
BALL: It didn’t get through. And as you will note, if you ever see those memoranda, a lot of them were filled with references to the French experience. That was no particular wisdom on my part. I just had a feeling that this was a terrible place to commit power, that there was no political base on which it could rest, and that the physical terrain was awful, what President de Gaulle described to me as “rotten country.”
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