144 ORAL HISTORY OF PAUL C. WARNKE – EIGHTH INTERVIEW APRIL 18, 2001 This is the eighth interview of Paul C. Warnke in the taking of his oral history as part of the oral history project of the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interview is being taken by William Ross on April 18, 2001. The persons present are Paul Warnke and William Ross. Mr. Ross: Paul, you have just read a section from your January 1969 oral history that was taken under the auspices of the L.B.J. Library [attached as Appendix, hereto]. At that point, as I recall, you were in your last days as the Assistant Secretary, having held over under Richard Nixon’s regime. Mr. Warnke: Melvin Laird. Mr. Ross: Melvin Laird. The reason I said Clifford is that one point you said we’ve got to recess now because Clifford wants me. This was January of ’69. Mr. Warnke: Oh yeah. We didn’t leave until sometime in January of ’69. Mr. Ross: So that Clifford might still have been — Mr. Warnke: But then I stayed beyond that. Mr. Ross: But then you stayed beyond that into Melvin Laird. Mr. Warnke: Right. Sometime I think in March. Mr. Ross: As I said, I think this is a remarkable statement, both for its clarity and what might be called its succinctness and eloquence, but it’s also interesting because of its 145 prescience. You say certain things will happen and then the following will happen, and it more or less happened that way. In fact, I think the only thing that did not work out (although I’d be careful to say you didn’t know whether it would work out) is that the Paris Talks and subsequent events did not lead to a settlement. And you were expressing the hope that it would. I wanted you to elaborate on one or two things in this part of your oral history which is quite interesting in many ways. You say something that the motivations and objectives of those managing the war were unblameworthy. They were meritorious. But that the process or the means and the realities on the ground were what was wrong with it. Had we had an entirely different situation, facing an entirely different enemy in a different part of the world, it might work. Could you comment on that concept? Mr. Warnke: Well, my feeling, when I first went to Vietnam, would have been I guess in 1967? I came in ’66, and it would have been in ’67, and Bob McNamara asked when I came back if I would write a brief account of what I thought, and basically what I said is that we were engaged in a successful occupation, but that as far as being anything that was going to work in the long run, it would work only as long as we occupied South Vietnam because there was no South Vietnam. There was no separate country. There was Saigon. And the various people that we helped to install there. So my sense was that once we got out of Vietnam, North Vietnam would automatically take over. That there only was one Vietnam. Mr. Ross: And the premise was that the North Vietnamese government and society, whatever its limitations from our standpoint, had more reality. It was more legitimate in some way. Mr. Warnke: They’re the ones who were seeking freedom for Vietnam. They 146 didn’t want to be part of the French Empire anymore. Mr. Ross: And they looked on — Mr. Warnke: Ho Chi Minh was the leader. Mr. Ross: And the people down in Saigon who were attempting to run South Vietnam were not — Mr. Warnke: Running anything but Saigon. Mr. Ross: Anything but Saigon. And a little bit like the Chinese parallel between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists? Does that appeal to you? Mr. Warnke: Yes, it was totally accurate. But certainly as far as the average Vietnamese was concerned. Ho Chi Minh was the leader and was trying to seek independence for Vietnam. Mr. Ross: Whether or not he was “a Communist” was — Mr. Warnke: It was irrelevant. Mr. Ross: And, as you said before, there was not the majority here. In hindsight, it looks so obvious. Mr. Warnke: Well, there were quite a few people in the Defense Department who felt the way I did. There really were. Not as many in the State Department. Have you read the book about the Bundys? Mr. Ross: No, I did not. Mr. Warnke: Well, Bill Bundy obviously was conflicted. Some of the time he thought what we were doing was great; some of the time he thought what we were doing was stupid. At the time that I was in the government, he was a strong defender of our participation in 147 Vietnam, and in the non-group that usually met on Thursday nights, he and I frequently had words. Mr. Ross: I had an encounter with Bundy, not of any significance. He was at that time in the government. The issue was the war, and I think this was around 1970. I made the case that it was hopeless and we should cut our losses and so on, and he said to me in a very emphatic way, not a rude way, you don’t know what’s going on. No one outside of the government can know what we know. And from what we know, it’s clear we’re going to succeed. That shut me up. Mr. Warnke: He was totally wrong. Mr. Ross: And I thought at the time, that’s a hell of a way to run a democratic society. Mr. Warnke: He knew better than that. Mr. Ross: I assume he did. And I think it was just perhaps the tension — Mr. Warnke: That was it. Mr. Ross: He may have been conflicted. Mr. Warnke: Yeah. Part of the problem was McGeorge Bundy and Maxwell Taylor were in Vietnam when there was a bombing of Pleitzu, I think it was, and that persuaded Bundy that this was a war that we would definitely personally engage in and we had to win. Mr. Ross: We had to win because they bombed there. Mr. Warnke: That’s right. Mr. Ross: Now in your analysis of the situation in Southeast Asia, which is very prescient, you’re talking about China’s interests, China’s long history of not going outside 148 its borders, and being inept when it did so. The fact that there are lots of other countries there that have their own internal problems, but joining the Russian or Chinese Empire is not high on their list. Let me push you a little bit. Of course there were other people who were saying this, but there were so many people in and out of the government that seemed to be oblivious to these considerations. They didn’t seem to be looking at the reality at all of our taking sides. What it is going to do to our society if Indonesia becomes Communist? Well what, well what? Mr. Warnke: Nothing. Mr. Ross: Would you comment on why that was so? Mr. Warnke: I think there was a widespread sense of failure that all Communists were the same, if Communists took over South Vietnam, it was going to prove the domino theory. Mr. Ross: So it wasn’t that South Vietnam was Westchester County, it was that it would lead to other things. Mr. Warnke: That’s right. Burma would fall. Mr. Ross: And one after another and we’d be confronted with this armed colossus that was knocking on the door of Pearl Harbor. Mr. Warnke: I can recall that at one point John F. Kennedy was asked about the domino theory and he said, “I believe it.” And the curious thing was that the CIA had come out with exactly the opposite conclusion. The CIA said that if South Vietnam falls, nothing will fall with it except for possibly Laos. Mr. Ross: And who cares? Mr. Warnke: Laos is a non-country. And what they ignored, of course, is that the 149 Vietnamese hate the Chinese, and vice versa. Not as much vice versa, but the Vietnamese just had no use for the Chinese at all. Mr. Ross: Where did most of our Ho Chi Minh’s aid come from? A lot of it came from China? Mr. Warnke: Oh, it did. Mr. Ross: But it didn’t mean that he liked them. Mr. Warnke: No. Mr. Ross: Or had any desire to become a puppet of the Chinese. Mr. Warnke: No. But he never wanted South Vietnam to be a puppet of the United States. It was more the other way around. Mr. Ross: I remember reading when I was in college a book by a man named Homer Hart — I may have this name wrong — written around World War I. The title of it was The Valor of Ignorance, and it had several theses. One was that Japan was going to become a world power and would not necessarily be friendly to us. Another thesis was the worst mistake we could make in the next 15 years was to get involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia. This was a man who had been in the State Department, but was an academic at the time. I take it that few of your comrades have read that book. Mr. Warnke: I don’t think anybody has read it. Mr. Ross: The Valor of Ignorance. Mr. Warnke: Yeah. We really thought in cliches. Mr. Ross: One of the worst things the government can do for people or a group or anybody is start to believe their own rhetoric. So you say certain things because of a complex 150 political situation. As long as you don’t start believing them, you might be all right. Mr. Warnke: That’s right. Mr. Ross: Do you think that there’s anything that could have been done to persuade Johnson to stop the war? I think that he was the person who was in the best position to do so, or was he? Mr. Warnke: I think he was in the best position to do it, yes. I think the problem was that he came into office with absolutely no background in foreign affairs. He knew nothing about world politics, and he assumed the people that Kennedy put together were the world’s greatest experts — Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, etc., Maxwell Taylor knew everything about the world, so he took their word for it, and then he began having his doubts, and that made him more and more unhappy. Mr. Ross: And that that moved into the political mix where he was going to be the first President to lose the war and he would be discredited and he had all these young men killed on his watch and so on. Mr. Warnke: It became personal. And, of course, when he took office, Bob McNamara was a firm believer in the war, too. He changed, but it was a big change. Mr. Ross: Timing must have been very critical. If Johnson had confronted a different pattern of opinion among his advisors when he came there — Mr. Warnke: It could have been a very different result. Mr. Ross: Which conditioned him. Mr. Warnke: But he didn’t. Mr. Ross: Why weren’t people paying attention to the CIA? 151 Mr. Warnke: I have no idea. Mr. Ross: Did you see those reports? Mr. Warnke: I did right from the first. Mr. Ross: It must have been of some interest to you. Mr. Warnke: Oh, of great interest to me. See, I came into the government strongly opposed to the war. When Bob McNamara and Cy Vance asked me to come to the Department of Defense, I said I’d love to, but they had to realize that the war was a terrible, terrible mistake. And I remember Bob McNamara saying that doesn’t matter. So as far back as that, he obviously had his distinct doubts. Mr. Ross: At least he was willing to tolerate it, because he knew you’d be a spokesman for a different point of view. Let me highlight this. This part of your oral history is interesting enough that I think it could well stand publication, and I’m going to explore the possibility of getting an article written on it. At this point from where you sit, do you have any thoughts about this long history? What is our situation vis-a-vis China and Indonesia in Southeast Asia? What do you think is going to happen out there in the next 10 to 20 years? Mr. Warnke: I suspect that China will become increasingly democratic. I think that the population has been more educated, and I think that they realize that being a totalitarian country is not necessarily the best way to live. I think that the example of the United States and democracy is more and more taking over, and I think it’s the wave of the future, and I think they recognize that. They’re intelligent enough so that they’re going to have to do the right thing. Mr. Ross: That’s an optimistic view about the Middle Kingdom. Mr. Warnke: Yeah, it is. If they take a look at Japan, for example. Look what has 152 happened in just one lifetime. Mr. Ross: Or even Taiwan. Mr. Warnke: But during World War II , the Japanese were totally subjugated people. I think I told you at the end of the war, I had an LST, and I didn’t have very many points. I wasn’t married. I wasn’t in any hurry to get out. So we used the LST to pick up Japanese off the islands that we had bypassed, and all these people would pour out of the forests. Compare them with the Japanese today. Totally different people. They were tiny, they were uneducated, they believed in the Emperor as being the word of God, the only word in fact, of God. Mr. Ross: So you’re not one, I take it, that worries about the Japanese’s ability to maintain a true democracy. Mr. Warnke: No, not at all. They love it. Mr. Ross: Even though they make noises somewhere different. Mr. Warnke: Yeah, but they thrive democratically, and they’ll continue to thrive. Mr. Ross: You’ve had a long and fascinating career. Mr. Warnke: I’ve enjoyed it. Mr. Ross: And I think from my standpoint an awfully good one and valuable one. Let me ask you a sort of a softball question. When you were graduating from law school and looking around for something to do as a lawyer, did you ever imagine that you would end up in positions with responsibility that you had both in and out of the government? Mr. Warnke: Oh yes, certainly. Mr. Ross: You did. Mr. Warnke: I had a very strong ego. 153 Mr. Ross: You were not a shrinking violet. Mr. Warnke: I was not a shrinking violet. Mr. Ross: Could it be said that your life is a good example of success selfdirection, conceptualization and then direction? Mr. Warnke: I’d say it’s a series of fortunate accidents. Mr. Ross: But they were accidents along the road that you set out for yourself. We’ve all got to rely on fortunate accidents. Mr. Warnke: No, I came to Washington hoping to go into the government right away. Mr. Ross: And you followed the wise path, I would say, in joining Covington & Burling. Mr. Warnke: Very wise. Mr. Ross: Which gave you an excellent — Mr. Warnke: Yeah. Mr. Ross: Did you find, as I did, that Covington for 3 years or so, or whatever it is 3 to 5, was really like a graduate school of law honing your skills and — Mr. Warnke: To some extent, yes. Mr. Ross: Learning how to practice? Mr. Warnke: I worked from the beginning with Tommy Austern, and Tommy was very bright, and a nifty guy to work for. Mr. Ross: Did not suffer fools. Mr. Warnke: Did not suffer fools gladly. 154 Mr. Ross: And I know that firm, having been a clerk in it, had a pretty high standard. Mr. Warnke: Oh, it did. It was a fine firm, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Mr. Ross: Said you enjoyed it — I would have to say that one of your predominant characteristics is you enjoy things? Mr. Warnke: I do. Mr. Ross: You’re a happy warrior. Mr. Warnke: Yeah, I’ve had a good time. Mr. Ross: That’s delightful. So many people can’t honestly say that. Mr. Warnke: I’m sure you can. Mr. Ross: My career was much less directive than yours. Did you ever read Barbara Tuchman, the historian’s study of the five examples in monumental folly? Mr. Warnke: I don’t believe so. Mr. Ross: Very well written, as all of her books are. This is a short one. She takes five examples and tries to show the elements that lead up to folly. One is Adolph Hitler’s management of his almost successful conquest of Europe; another is Vietnam, and it’s a brilliant, fairly short analysis. I think you’d find it a great reading. I’ll bring it next time. Mr. Warnke: Thanks. That would be great.