It’s Hardcore History.
I’ve always said some of the best things
we do around here are apologies.
And so, I want to apologize if it seems as though
our subject matter and, um,
and the stuff we’re talking about lately
all kind of falls into a narrow sort of,
uh, subject matter or a, you know, historical period.
It’s mostly been 20th century stuff.
It’s not by design, but I don’t work by design.
I work on inspiration and sometimes opportunity.
For example, the opportunity to get a guest
like the one we have today.
So, things don’t always work out in a balanced sort of way.
What’ll probably happen is that we’ll end up
flipping at a certain point, and then I’ll start
getting emails from people saying,
why do you never talk about, you know,
20th century stuff?
So, we’re just probably balancing things out
in the other direction.
I’m gonna talk to Sir Max Hastings today.
Those of you who like military history, uh,
have certainly read his work. He’s fantastic.
He wrote Inferno. He wrote a lot of other books.
If you look at his resume as it exists now,
well, if you had shown that to me when I was 21 years old,
I would have said, oh, that’s the guy I wanna be.
His resume’s long as heck. I mean,
foreign correspondent for the BBC,
editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph,
editor of the Evening Standard,
uh, war correspondent, um, author, prolific author.
All-around interesting person.
And he’s written a new book on Vietnam.
And 800 pages, by the way. I mean, it’s a tome.
At the same time, you know, if your library’s like mine,
and you like having certain subjects covered,
uh, this is a necessary thing on my Vietnam section,
for any number of reasons.
Hastings has a, uh, connection to the war.
He was a war correspondent in it,
and it was sort of where he made his bones as a young guy.
Go Google him and look at the images of him
when he was there. My wife thought he looked like a beetle.
War correspondents are an interesting species.
Uh, they don’t make them like they used to, I should say,
but at the same time, there are still some good ones.
They sort of have a foot in both worlds,
the soldier world and the civilian world here
of people that maybe don’t know war at all.
And so, somehow, you need to be able to translate things
into a language where you can, you know,
reliably convey information so that they can understand it.
There’s no way to reliably transmit information
on what it’s like to see a disemboweled village chief
who’s had his stomach cut out in front of the villagers
by the Viet Cong as a lesson not to cooperate
with the Americans or the South Vietnamese.
How do you even relate that in a way
that people can understand and in a way
where they just don’t not read about it?
At a certain point, if you get graphic enough,
people won’t read about it, but then you haven’t done
what you’re supposed to do as a war correspondent.
Now, just so you know, it’s only personal weakness
that probably kept me from doing something like that.
I started reading because I was enamored with it.
All this stuff written, and sometimes written
about their own lives, that these war correspondents
had put into print. And at a certain point,
you start to realize, wait a minute,
do you really want to live with the memories
these guys have? And they’re sort of warning you sometimes
when you read their books. I mean, they’re telling you
what they’re dreaming about at night.
You deliberately, over and over and over again,
go to places where awful, awful things have happened.
Things soldiers see, by the way,
although they don’t often want to be there when it happens.
The war correspondent, you know, to them,
that’s like the story, right? Let’s go to the bad place now.
Most of the soldiers are of the opinion
that they don’t want to go to the bad place.
They don’t want to be there.
So, Max Hastings did this job,
which always, for me, makes an interesting read,
because he’s filtering in real personal experiences,
tastes, smells, the lifestyle, the culture at the time,
that you just can’t get researching secondhand sources.
It would have been a very different book
if Dan Carlin had written it from other people’s stuff,
than to have a guy who was there,
who participated in the activities,
who interacted with all the people,
and then has had decades and decades
to see how history played out since,
and to think about it, and to sort of, you know,
integrate it into his overall worldview.
The result is this new book, and it’s worth picking up
if you have interest or, you know, a lot of you, I know,
have a Vietnam section on your shelf.
If you wanted to say what the focus of the book is,
I think it’s rightly put where it should be,
although it covers everything.
It’s a hardcore history of books.
I mean, you know, the godlike view,
the hindsight view, the leadership view,
the mid-level view, the Hamlet view,
the what it’s like to be the guy on the ground view,
which is why you get 800 pages or 26-hour
hardcore history series on the First World War.
Either way, it’s explainable, you know, understandable.
The most interesting part to me,
since I already know the battle stuff,
although if you’re into the battle stuff,
he’s awesome. Historically, he’s awesome.
The most interesting thing for me, though,
is to see how he can synthesize all this stuff
that’s happened in the decades since that era.
I was born in 1965.
I was born, by the way, on one of the worst battles
of the war, the one they made the movie about.
That’s my birthday, November 14th, 1965,
Battle of the Eidrein Valley.
But when I was a kid, just starting to become aware,
you know, it’s all the older brothers and those people
who were the ones being drafted,
who were living through all this stuff.
So, in the 1970s, it was… It’s hard to explain.
This was a transition period in U.S. history.
So, this is what I want this introduction
to Max Hastings, Sir Max Hastings interview to be.
Let me sort of cover the bases again
for those who weren’t there and try to set up
a little of this and let you know why it’s important to you
and why it matters in history.
In this case, there is a before and after in U.S. history.
And we all know there’s several, right?
You’ve got before and after the Civil War,
it’s a classic one for people to use.
Before and after the Vietnam era.
Go look at a photograph of Americans.
We’ll just choose a big city because there was a lot
of continuity in some of the less big cities
where people looked the same over the decades, right?
They are more conservative, changed less slowly,
less flashy, more down-to-earth people.
But you get some photos from an L.A., Chicago,
Miami, New York, some of the hip places, supposedly,
and you show a photo from 1963,
and you compare those same people in a photo in 1973,
and you don’t even have to say another word
to know that the culture has totally changed.
The Vietnam War is one of the major factor points
that account for this. And there’s several,
and they’re much talked about.
You know, birth control pill, the sexual revolution,
uh, music, I mean, just, there’s a number of major factors.
But without the Vietnam War,
you might not have any of those things.
It’s one of the prime movers. And as a friend of mine
who was at the protest back in the day pointed out,
the prime mover was the fact that many people
might have to go and suffer in a war
that they really didn’t want to be a part of.
That tends to concentrate the mind in a way
that just some ideological cause wouldn’t.
That prime mover pushed forward a lot of the era’s change
in the zeitgeist, for lack of a better phrase.
I know that’s kind of strange, change in the zeitgeist.
But I mean, the culture flipped.
Now, once again, not in some places.
The American heartland was remarkably consistent.
But in many places, and in terms of what Madison Avenue
is feeding you, and what Hollywood’s feeding you,
and all that stuff, the culture really changed.
Vietnam is an important point in that.
It was also an era of extreme disillusion with the government.
It’s hard to explain, once again,
how different Americans were before Vietnam and after.
If I just said, we believed our government,
that right there is hard to square.
It’s so far beyond what most people today are raised with.
And it wasn’t just you believed the person in your party.
In general, Democrats and Republicans
believed the president.
It didn’t matter who the president was.
You didn’t think your government lied to you.
Now, that’s naive, of course.
But maybe if you look at U.S. history
as equivalent to a person growing up,
maybe you’re still in your dumb teens in that era as a country,
and learning some of these hard lessons,
like, you know, in power politics, people lie.
The problem is, though, is that you ended up
with something called a credibility gap,
where the president had lied so many times
that the American people weren’t buying it at all.
Maybe if you had returned to some level of perceived
because it was always happening,
some perceived normalcy with the next president,
Americans could have had their faith
in the honesty of government restored,
but then you had Richard Nixon after Lyndon Johnson.
So, I mean, that’s like being hit with a left and a right.
Lyndon Johnson would probably, you know,
hook you and then uppercut you,
and Richard Nixon would hit you below the belt.
But as a country, the 70s was about sort of re-evaluating
a lot of the things Americans had taken for granted
in terms of our self-image and whatnot.
It’s hard to describe how Lone Ranger-ish
we felt at the time period. How, you know,
Philip Caputo in, um, well, he was the veteran
who wrote A Rumor of War, but he’s quoted
in Sir Max Hastings’ new book, too.
Um, let me read it to you.
He sort of describes the way Americans felt
about themselves. And remember, this is in the post-
Second World War era, where the U.S. is just,
in our own minds, we saved Europe twice,
then we rebuilt it with our own tax dollars,
then we protected it from the Soviet Union
and communism in the Cold War.
I mean, we were the good guys of history.
Hastings writes about Phil Caputo, quote,
“‘Lieutenant Caputo, like General Westmoreland,
saw himself fulfilling the vision of John F. Kennedy.’”
Caputo then says, quote,
“‘If he was the king of Camelot,
then we were his knights, and Vietnam our crusade.
There was nothing we could not do,
because we were Americans.
And for the same reason, whatever we did was right.’”
Their communist foes were, quote,
“‘The new barbarians who menaced the far-flung interests
of the new Rome.’” End quote.
But it’s hard to describe how the United States
saw itself as…
And the people especially, and the marketing materials,
as this force of good around the world.
And with this dominance, you know,
the Second World War gave the United States
a dominance that lasted for 15, 20 years,
in terms of a head start over a broken world.
And the power that that gave you
made you feel almost a responsibility
to do something good with it.
In his book, Sir Max Hastings writes, quote,
“‘There was in the U.S. an enormous self-confidence
and pride, not unlike that of the Germans before 1914,
a consciousness of national greatness seeking an outlet,
a searching for an appropriate challenge to their powers,
a refusal to believe that any problem
was beyond their capacity to solve.
Statesmen who might themselves have doubts
were conscious of a great groundswell
of public opinion bearing them on.’”
This was the era where John F. Kennedy was saying,
you know, we will bear any burden
for the success of liberty.
The sacrificing that the country was willing to make.
It was the era where young people were motivated
by a sense of idealism that in some cases
led people to go to other countries and build,
you know, farms and chicken coops
and work in the Peace Corps,
to others who saw a similar sort of mission
to, you know, help people, especially poor people
in undeveloped countries who needed it,
by giving them a government that was free.
So you see this idealism amongst, you know,
all these young people across a wide spectrum of types.
Now, as far as background in the war,
so we have some context here.
I didn’t go into this with Sir Max,
because, you know, let’s not deal with the stuff
we can all find out beforehand.
But the Vietnam War, as many of you know,
is something that grows out of colonialism.
It was one of those territories
that a colonial power from Europe,
in this case, the French, controlled.
It was French Indochina.
They treated it the way that colonial powers
usually treat these places.
Puppets, they were bringing civilization was the line,
but truthfully, I mean, it was a bunch of French people
in nice hotels with Vietnamese waiters and whatnot.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t people
that liked it in Vietnam.
But when the Second World War was over,
and, you know, the anti-colonialism wave
was unleashed across the world,
Vietnam fell into a pattern of a lot of other places
that were trying to throw off the yoke
of their colonial masters.
And in the case of Vietnam, there was a war
before the American version of the Vietnam War
for a long time, a very bloody, nasty, dirty war
between the French and what were called the Viet Minh.
It was sometime during this period
where the ideas of fighting for Vietnam nationalism,
you know, the nation state, a free Vietnam
for Vietnamese, run by Vietnamese.
At some point, there are communists
who become part of that movement or were always part of it.
And so there’s this connection between these militant,
nationalist Vietnamese movements and communism.
And this will be a poison pill for countries
like the United States throughout the later…
part of this conflict, because when the Vietnamese
eventually, after some nasty, nasty battles,
are able to win their independence from the French,
the United States has already gotten their toe in the water
in that region, not because they really want the French
to be the colonial masters anymore,
but because of that worry over communism.
And that’s another thing that’s hard to describe
to people today, is the role that the fear of communism
played in all the decision-making
and all the calculations.
Vietnam was just one of the many countries
that was supposedly part of the domino effect,
where you might say to yourself, as many Americans did,
they didn’t know what Vietnam was, they couldn’t pronounce it,
they couldn’t find it on a map, so why do we have to send
our boys and our money to go fight and die there?
Well, here’s what happens.
And remember, this isn’t malarkey.
The people who are spouting it generally believe it,
but that this is just another country that will be toppled
by the communists, and then that country will be consolidated
and start to try to topple the person next door.
The French had a different analogy.
They didn’t use dominoes, they used bowling pins.
But the idea and the image is the same, right?
It’s a toppling from one to another to another,
and eventually you’ll have the Soviet Union in Mexico.
There were a lot of problems, it turns out,
and Hastings’ book is good at pointing this out.
There were a lot of problems in the decision-makers’
understanding of all this, which in hindsight seems crazy,
because when you look at how many people would die
in all these wars and how many would be killed,
Hastings’ book focuses on the civilians more than anything,
and rightly so, I think.
But when you see all of that, you yearn for a reason,
and you yearn for just wanting to believe
that the people who are making the decisions
are at least well-informed,
that they’ve gotten the experts,
that they’ve got people explaining to them,
well, let me explain the difference
between Soviet communism and Chinese communism,
and the relationship of Vietnam to either of those.
I mean, that was already in some cases below
where the threshold where anybody was paying attention.
And for much of this conflict,
and for others during this time period,
there’s this belief that Moscow controls everything
in the communist world, and that just wasn’t true.
But if that’s something you’re basing
all your decision-making on, well, it’s no wonder
that things worked out the way they did sometimes.
I mean, there were occasions where our government
just thought the other side was being stubborn,
when in reality, we were talking to the people
who had no control over the events we wanted to influence,
and we didn’t even know it.
It’s hard to believe you could have such momentous decisions
regularly made with such either bad intelligence
or lack of understanding.
But let’s be honest, this is one of the things
that waiting a couple of decades,
or in this case, five decades after the events,
sort of makes clear. You have a chance.
And another thing Hastings Book is very good at,
you have a chance to get the other side’s point of view
to interview those people.
Um, considering that we’re starting to lose
that generation just like the Second World War generation,
Hastings’ book might turn out to be one of those
really important things on a shelf for a very long time,
because you can’t replicate those discussions
he had with the principals.
Nevertheless, if you remember this period,
you remember that part of the problem,
you know, in terms of our good guy image to ourselves,
was some of the news that was coming out of this place.
And what ended up happening in a nutshell,
is something that you see happen in a lot of other places.
You saw it with the French in their war in North Africa,
right, in places like Algeria in the 1950s,
where it becomes a dirty war.
When you have civilians carrying bombs,
and kids throwing grenades into restaurants,
and people hiding, I mean, it’s difficult after a while,
uh, to keep your troops from doing the sorts of things
that the folks back home imagine that their troops don’t do.
In the case of the United States,
things happened in the Vietnam War
that if you had gone back a mere 15, 16, 17 years before,
and asked the American public whether anything like this
was ever possible from American soldiers,
they would have denied it to high heaven.
The My Lai Massacre, for example.
But there was regular bad stuff going on.
I mean, if you’re gonna proclaim something like
a free fire zone, which of course in Vietnam was famous,
which means that anyone you see in this area
is considered a bad person by default,
well, it’s not going to be a good tally
at the end of the year, when you start trying to figure out
how many actual enemy you killed versus how many,
you know, people who just got in the way,
wrong place at the wrong time.
And that became another problem with the war.
The war had very… I mean, there were constraints
on the war, and the constraints are things
that we still talk about today.
Because it was the Cold War, and because it was
people had nuclear weapons, and because the Soviet Union
and the Chinese were on the other side,
and because we had just fought a sort of an undeclared,
well, really undeclared war that started against Korea,
but ended up being American troops
and Chinese troops killing each other,
the last thing that anybody wanted
was another one of those.
So, there was always an attempt to keep the war confined
to certain parameters.
Imagine you’ve got this fire burning,
and you just want to make sure that the fire doesn’t spread.
But at all times, any conflict, especially one going on
as long as the Vietnam War did,
is a potential flashpoint in World War III.
And let’s remember, as bad as Vietnam was,
imagine how bad something like that could have been
if it became the equivalent of, you know,
Gavrilo Princip shooting an archduke in Sarajevo in 1914.
And we wouldn’t be talking about two or three million
Vietnamese civilians dying in this war.
We would be talking about 100, 200 million people,
and us still, you know, clearing out the ashes today.
So, let’s try to remember the big picture
that the leaders in this story are trying to juggle
at all times.
So, you have lack of good information,
with nuclear weapons as your punishment if you screw up,
no pressure there, right?
But the 1970s were about coming to some sort
of emotional terms with this, and there’s…
Those of us who lived through it,
it’s almost not worth talking about
because we remember it so well, and it was so…
I mean, it was beaten to death by the end,
let’s be honest.
But new generations coming up don’t remember any of this.
It was a very different post-war world
for the veterans who came back from Vietnam
because this was a war we lost,
and Americans, I can again say from experience,
we used to be very proud of the fact that you could say,
we never lost a war.
We used to be very proud of the fact that you could say,
we never lost a war.
You Canadians do not need to write me about the War of 1812.
I realize that that’s a eye of the beholder issue
a little bit, and I don’t want to get into a couple of others
with you, but you know what I mean.
Theoretically, kind of, sort of, you know, in our own minds,
we never lost a war.
Vietnam was hard to deny.
Vietnam also broke the army for a while.
And this is a point that’s well understood
if you read about this kind of stuff,
but it’s not talked about a lot.
What it did to the U.S. Army between, let’s just say,
65 and 70 was amazing.
Again, something you wouldn’t have thought could happen
to an American army, but then it hadn’t been put
in that kind of situation before.
As we said, look at the French and Algeria.
You find yourselves in these kinds of situations,
and all of a sudden, it’s a little bit different.
You add drug abuse, um, you add the short tour of duty.
There were a lot of things. The army really looked
at a lot of things after the war to try to figure out
what had happened. And if you’re interested
in that subject, by the way, Andrew J. Bacevich
has written several books, um, describing the rebuilding
of the U.S. military after Vietnam and what was required,
and the safeguards that the military brass
tried to put into place to keep the civilians
from ever putting them in that situation again.
Didn’t work, but there were safeguards put into it.
Colin Powell’s written about this, too,
and he was involved in some of this stuff.
But people don’t talk about that very much
for the, you know, you could look at the American Army
in 1973, whew, and that’s from the Vietnam War.
And it wasn’t just, you know, the morale and whatnot.
I mean, there was, um, a real, I mean, fragging
was something that was talked about a lot.
And you know what fragging is, right?
The shooting of your own officers,
or the, you know, you throw a grenade at them
when no one’s looking. We were fragging our officers
sometimes. You don’t fight a lot of that
from the Second World War, but in the Second World War,
we had a very different kind of U.S. image.
And the thing about the image is,
you kind of live up to that, or you try to, right?
So you say, Americans don’t do this.
It became hard to say, Americans don’t do this
after Vietnam. It was the war that proved
that we were human.
Right? We were as good guys as we tried to be,
but we were human.
Anybody who goes back and dives deep into things
like the Philippine insurrection,
or, you know, some of the Native American wars,
certainly, we’ve proven this point before
in U.S. history. Nonetheless, you kind of need
to relearn it every generation or two, it seems.
One of the other things Hastings focuses on,
and I think it’s an excellent point,
is how bad the other side was.
There is, as he said, a little self-flagellation
on the part of Americans, but it was a hard thing
for us to absorb. I mean, it’s a huge deal.
The country was wrestling with huge issues
in the 1970s and early 1980s about this.
I was in one of the early courses,
and 60 Minutes did a whole big thing on this,
because it was groundbreaking at the time,
that undergraduates were taking at universities
where the Vietnam War was on the curriculum.
And one of the things that they would do
is bring in these veterans to talk to you,
you know, in every class.
So I took one at the University of Colorado,
and we had a veteran who sat in the back of the class,
and we didn’t know he was a veteran,
because these guys were like 32, 33 years old
when they were talking to our class.
Sat in the back of the classroom the whole time,
and then like after eight weeks or something,
stood up and said,
I’ve been watching this whole class as part of my recovery.
I’m trying to come to grips with all this.
We actually showed a movie in the class
that showed a helicopter door gunner,
and he said, that movie showed me.
I was the helicopter door gunner you saw in that film.
But we were all wrestling with things back then,
and it’s hard to describe to a generation now
who grows up in an era where no one ever believes
their government, and that’s just the right way to be,
by the way.
the United States is fully seen as basically a good guy,
but fully fallible.
The fallible part was not something
that people thought of, say, in the early 1960s.
We were a force for good only in our minds,
and so it was this huge…
In the 70s, if you look at the material,
I mean, there was a lot of…
And it wasn’t just introspection amongst the general population,
but the military also, and the political class.
Um, when we eventually, I believe, was it Panama?
Like, 1989 or something?
When that happened, I think President Bush I
had said something like, you know,
we finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome or whatnot.
And the Vietnam syndrome was the after effect,
where all of a sudden, the United States didn’t wanna go
and mess with other countries for a while.
We’d had enough of that for a while.
And it wasn’t just, um, the soldiers who had died
and were wounded, or the veterans who were
increasingly showing signs of being badly affected
by what happened to them in the war,
but the cost and the blowback.
And there was just this feeling for a while, no more.
But again, time passes and people change,
and you forget just how bad it can be.
When things go wrong, and make no mistake about it,
things went wrong in Vietnam.
The idea that the United States of America,
after the Second World War, we’re still at this pinnacle
of industrial might and military power.
The idea that a bunch of backward guerrillas
in what we called a third world country
with no money and no, I mean, they’ve got no air,
there’s nothing that they could beat us?
That right there was a hard pill to swallow,
but it reminded military and political leaders once again,
that war is not disconnected from politics,
as Clausewitz so famously said.
And what you’re really after in any of these situations
is a political settlement, or a political change.
If your enemy, or your adversary, or your opponent
does not give in when you beat the hell out of them
and give you what you want politically, you don’t win.
The United States did not lose a major encounter
in the Vietnam War.
And the bigger the encounter, the more likely
the United States won, and won big.
One of the most famous, most Americans
that know anything about this war
have heard the words, Tet Offensive, before.
It was a famous Vietnamese, Northern Vietnamese…
attack in many places at once, that was a disaster for them.
But it was not portrayed that way at the time.
I remember one veteran explaining to me
just how unbelievable the casualties were
that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered
in that offensive.
But it wasn’t about body counts.
They weren’t fighting a war for body counts,
they were fighting a war for a political settlement.
And because the United States had lied to its people
so often about how the war was going,
what the other side did by sacrificing a ton
of their people and material, was say,
hey, war’s not over, and at the same time,
basically demonstrate to everyone
that what they’d been told was false.
Which turned the people once more
against the political regime.
If you think about this, I hate to do this,
because it’s, um…
There’s no respect, I mean, it just seems wrong,
but if you think about it like a game,
and you’re playing one side or the other,
it’s fascinating to see how if you get to be
the North Vietnamese communist side in this,
how little you have to play with in terms of real pieces
that have any power. The other side’s got
all the good pieces, and yet, there’s ways
to win without them. And that’s what, I mean,
the guy, when I was growing up, guys in black pajamas
beat the U.S. military.
But an entire generation of military personnel,
who were mostly junior officers in that war,
would grow up to influence the way
the U.S. military developed, 10, 15, 20, 25 years,
and now all the way to now.
And the footprints of Vietnam are all over this military.
It’s back, mostly.
And while it would be sort of outside the norms
of human history to expect us not to make
the same mistakes, they certainly changed
a bunch of things so that, well, this war will never be lost
in America’s living rooms again, as the old saying was.
It’s astounding, and I’ll wrap it up sort of here.
When you listen to Sir Max Hastings
as a war correspondent, the kind of freedom
that they had to cover that war.
And it was a weird situation, because if you look
at press coverage in the Second World War and Korea,
it’s highly regulated and censored.
So, then the next big war after Korea,
Korea ends in, what, 51, 52?
The next big war starts ramping up, 63, 64,
in Vietnam with a lot of advisors.
I mean, what, 16,500 at one point
before the real troops came in.
The media, all of a sudden, doesn’t have those constraints
for really the first time in modern American history,
certainly. And they seem to get less and less constrained
as the war goes on. And when you see some of these,
there’s one famous firefight where the reporter is,
well, I think it’s during Tet, where the reporter walks up
to U.S. troops that are at a wall,
I think maybe Marines, that are at a wall,
and they’re fighting something right on the other side
of the wall, and they are reloading their weapons
and then standing up and shooting
at the other side of the wall, and the reporter walks
right up and starts interviewing the guy
as he’s reloading his gun during the firefight.
Now, two things stand out at you right there.
Number one is, that’s a ballsy reporter, right?
That’s a war correspondent of the sort
that are just, they’re amazing, right?
I’ve always had an admiration for their willingness
to go get the story when they go get the story like that.
I mean, Ernie Pyle was killed by a sniper,
machine gun, I think, actually,
you know, covering the Second World War.
But the other thing you realize is that that is absolutely
uncensored war content coming right back
to America’s living rooms.
And if I recall, going from memory here,
when the reporter asked the soldier something like,
you know, what did he want or anything,
he just, I want to get out of here.
You know what I mean? It was one of these,
I just want to get out of here. I just want to get…
I mean, it was not a pro-war rah-rah-rah thing.
It was something that the folks at home would go,
oh, my goodness. Now, here’s two sides to this.
Um, side number one is, that’s reality.
And please put me firmly in the camp of, you know,
if you’re gonna go to these wars and you’re gonna expect
people to support them, they have to know what it is.
And they have to know what it is in living color,
just like that. So, I’m on that side.
But let’s understand that the other side,
as Max Hastings points out in this book,
didn’t show their people that kind of press coverage.
Right? So, they’re rigidly controlling
what the communist people see.
They don’t get to see all their death,
all their suffering, all their atrocities.
And the other side’s got it in living color.
And our friends who don’t like us so much,
there were some countries that, you know,
love-hate relationships, sort of,
they play this stuff up huge.
And you’ll notice, we didn’t have Americans
doing much protesting during the Second World War.
We were bombing Germany and Japan.
And we haven’t had, by Vietnam standards,
much in the way of those things since Vietnam.
We had a few big ones, but, you know, nothing sustained.
Vietnam, there was sustained pressure
with lots and lots of people protesting for a long time.
Um, haven’t had that since either.
Could you suggest that maybe it’s because
they aren’t being exposed to the same sort of,
uh, video and photos and stories
that the American people saw in the 1960s and 1970s?
Well, if so, then you can call that one of the,
I guess, successful reforms that the Army and Navy
and Marine Corps leaders, the Air Force leaders,
learned from that era.
If they believed that the war was lost in the living room,
well, don’t do that again, and we don’t.
But back in Sir Max Hastings’ day, we did.
So, I’m pleased to introduce, if you’ve never heard him,
oh, my goodness, if you’ve never read his books,
if you’re a military history fan,
um, well, then you have a whole bunch to pick up.
I mean, Inferno, go get Inferno, that’s a good one.
But this latest one on Vietnam, also fantastic.
So, without further ado, I’m honored to talk
to Sir Max Hastings today about his new book, Vietnam.
Is this Sir Max?
Yeah, it sure is. Hello, Dan.
Hello. Listen, thank you so much.
I’m sure they’ve got you on the book publicity,
uh, factory assembly line tour.
We’ll try to make this as painless and fun as possible.
I’m sure it’ll be, it’ll be completely painless.
It’s very nice for you to have me on the show.
Oh, I’m a big fan, actually.
Um, I will admit, though, I haven’t gotten
through the latest book. I didn’t get it in time.
Uh, I’m enjoying it immensely, though,
and it’s a subject near and dear to my heart,
as all Americans in my generation have.
My generation probably had no way to avoid.
Well, what generation? How old does that make you?
I was born during the Battle of the, uh,
of the Ai Drang Valley.
So, November 14th, 1965. I’m 52.
Oh, well, that makes you, um, a generation younger than me.
Well, listen, I want to talk about that a little bit.
Um, it’s fascinating to read something
from a 21st century perspective
that I actually grew up in the wake or the wash of.
Uh, and I was wondering, um,
how different is this book
from something you would have written
much more closer to the time you were in country?
Now, for example, the audience doesn’t know this,
so let me make sure that they do.
Um, this is a book from a British perspective,
which we don’t normally get with Vietnam War books.
Uh, it’s also, um, it’s also able to, as I said,
give us a 21st century look back at something
that many of the books I was reading
were written in the 1980s, for example,
and you were actually there.
So, so give me a perspective a little bit
on how writing this book now was different than,
than how the 25 or 28-year-old Sir Max Hastings
would have written it.
This is a very, very different book
from the one that I would have written
if I’d been stupid enough to write it
back in the 1960s.
But although I’m British,
America and its history has been deeply etched
into my own experience,
because I lived here in 67, 68,
and I witnessed the huge demonstrations.
Um, I met a lot of the key players,
the Robert Kennedys, the Eugene McCarthys,
and I went to the White House
and listened to Lyndon Johnson
haranguing a group of us foreign journalists
about why he was so passionately committed to the war.
And this was in January 1968.
And, of course, we were hugely impressed
to be meeting the president.
There was me, 22 years old,
sitting in the cabinet room.
And Johnson, he behaved in many ways
quite like his caricature in that he started out
by saying, saying,
uh, some of you may like blondes
and some of you may like redheads
and some of you may not like women at all,
but I’m here this morning to tell you what kind I like.
He said, I’m prepared to sit down
with hoachy men and a nice hotel with nice food
and sit down to talk to settle this thing.
And he spoke for 40 minutes.
And then he got up and he didn’t take questions.
He said, right, very nice to meet you all.
He went out of the room.
But then suddenly, just as we were gathering together
our notes, and we’d been hugely impressed,
as how could we not be?
I mean, I was by far the youngest of the group,
but nonetheless, we were all quite a young group
and meeting the president of the United States.
But suddenly, he put his head around the door again,
a little bit sheepishly.
And he came back in and he said,
before you all go, I’d like to ask you all one question.
Meeting me, have any of you changed your minds
about anything you read or heard about me before you came?
And we were absolutely stunned in the silence
by the spectacle of the president of the United States
carrying sixpence, what a load of kids like us thought.
But that was a reflection of how vulnerable Johnson felt then.
And then, of course, a couple of years later,
I went to Vietnam for BBC television.
And I did quite a lot of reporting there,
right through until 75, when I came out of the embassy
compound in the final evacuation.
So this was all etched deep in my experience.
But the key thing that has changed, meanwhile,
is that I very much bought into the idea
that not only was this a disastrous war, which indeed
it was, but that because the United States was tied up
with a bad cause, that therefore, the other sides
must be a good cause.
And I’ve now come to believe, having studied
a huge amount of material from North Vietnam
and from the communist side and so on,
that really, North Vietnam and South Vietnam,
I’ve come to believe, were two rival tyrannies.
And the idea that Ho Chi Minh was a good guy,
any more than Mao Tse Tung was or Che Guevara,
these were absolutely ruthless revolutionaries.
And they did terrible stuff.
And whereas everybody has seen the pictures
of the South Vietnamese police chief executing the Vietcong
prisoner in 1968, and the naked kid running away
after a South Vietnamese napalm strike,
the communists made very sure that there
were no photographs of many of the dreadful things
that their side did, the terrorism that, I mean,
for instance, there’s an entirely reliably sourced
story of one among many village chiefs who
was being buried alive in the Mekong Delta
in the early 1960s by the local communists
in front of all his fellow villagers
to demonstrate that the price of rejecting the revolution
was much worse than mere death.
And he pleaded for a merciful bullet.
And the communist cadres just said
that they saved their bullets for the imperialists.
And in the Tet Offensive of 1968,
when thousands of perfectly innocent people
whose worst crime was to support the South Vietnamese
government were executed in cold blood by the communists,
again, no pictures.
And we didn’t see all this stuff.
And I’ve come to believe that, although I don’t believe
for a moment that the war was winnable,
that we did allow ourselves, all those of us
who were correspondents there and all those of us
who were reporting the war, all we could see
and most of the stuff we were writing about
was what a terrible mess the United States
and the South Vietnamese were making of it.
And yet, we saw in 1975 that when the communists gained
power, the ruthlessness and the incompetence with which they
behaved, starvation descended on the Vietnamese people
in the 1980s.
And any idea that the other side were the good guys
now seems to be out of order.
And I’ve come very strongly to believe
what is true of most events in history,
that neither side had a monopoly of virtue or vice.
So that’s one thing.
The second thing I think is hugely important
is that we were overwhelmingly influenced by the fact
that we were with the Americans and with the US Army
and the US Marine Corps and so on.
And we saw this through an American prism.
And yet, this was overwhelmingly a Vietnamese tragedy,
that while 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam,
something over 2 million, 2 million Vietnamese
died, at least 40 for every American,
not to mention countless Lao and Cambodians as well.
So I spent a huge amount of time researching
Vietnamese sources and interviewing Vietnamese.
And sure, there are a lot of Americans in my story
because the Americans made the big decisions.
But I’ve also tried to put the Vietnamese where
they belong, which is at the center of the stage
of this huge tragedy.
Well, I think you bring up an interesting quandary
that people today can understand because we’re
confronted with it not that uncommonly,
even in the modern world, which is with the communists
as bad as they were in doing all these things,
you were talking about.
Without knowing how the war was going to turn out,
does that legitimize the involvement of one
of the two great superpowers of the time?
In other words, can you make a moral case
that the right thing was done because this sort of thing
was happening and it was understood
that if the communists took over South Vietnam,
there’d be a bloodbath and all these other things?
And yet, all of the things that you talk about
in the later part of your book after the US get involved
shows exactly how nasty it is for the Vietnamese people,
as you pointed out, when we did get involved
for all the right reasons.
How should 50 years of thinking about this
and seeing how things play out in the region,
how do you square the difference between
it might be morally right to go in there
and try to save these people from a terrible fate,
and yet while doing so, inflict an even worse fate on them?
I mean, how do you square, how does that go
in your head these days?
You’re touching an absolutely essential point,
which I think is very important,
that I’ve quoted in my book,
two people I great respect, Senator Eugene McCarthy,
whom I got to know a bit when I was a young reporter
covering his campaign in 68,
and General Jim Gavin, whom I also knew,
who was a World War II paratroop hero.
And Jim Gavin and Eugene McCarthy both said,
at a pretty early stage, they said,
whatever the virtue of your cause,
if you fight over a village five or six times,
an awful lot of people are gonna die,
and you find yourself thinking at some point,
there’s gotta be some proportionality,
that even if what you want to achieve in a place,
and especially in Vietnam,
is something that is worthwhile and decent,
that in the end, you find yourself in danger
of destroying the very thing
that you’re trying to try to save.
And there has to be proportionality.
And one point, which is at the core of my own book,
is that I think a mistake we’ve made in the past,
and we go on making, and remember,
the British have been very much associated
with the United States in Iraq and in Afghanistan and so on,
is that although there has to be a military dimension
if you’re gonna do these interventions,
the key thing is always cultural and social and economic.
And if you can’t have some sort of cultural engagement
with these societies in which you intervene,
then you’re completely wasting your time winning firefights.
And to me, and I’ve said this in the last chapter of my book,
you go on winning firefights in these places
and killing bad guys till the cows come home,
but unless you’ve got some linkage with the local people,
and I was always very struck
by somebody who’s become a friend,
H.R. McMaster, who more recently
was Donald Trump’s national security advisor,
that H.R. McMaster,
who’s an outstanding American army officer,
one day about 2006, we were having lunch together,
and he was telling me about all the great things
that his Armored Cavalry Regiment had done in Iraq.
And then he ended up by saying,
the trouble was there was nothing to join up to.
Now, what he meant was that there was no local government,
no local community to be able to fill in after.
They’d finished winning the battles.
And exactly the same, Neil Sheehan,
a very famous American correspondent in Vietnam,
when I was telling him that story a couple of years ago,
and we were discussing it,
he said it was the same problem in Vietnam.
There was nothing to join up to.
And I’ve said in my book that I think the main reason
that the Communists ended up winning in Vietnam
was not because they were particularly better soldiers,
but because they were Vietnamese.
And always this problem,
and one sees it in Iraq and Afghanistan again,
that a lot of the time the locals don’t like foreigners,
whether they’re British or American or whatever.
And I talked to a Vietnamese
who’s now become a very successful businessman
And he was saying to me that when he was living in Vietnam
as a young man, he said,
the Communists were constantly reminding us
how humiliating it was to be occupied by the Americans.
They had the monopoly of patriotism.
What we have to try and find ways of doing
in these interventions is how to,
if we’re not trying to help these people,
we can’t take over their countries.
And of course the United States was effectively,
from 64, 65, everybody knew that the South Vietnamese
who were supposed to be running the country
couldn’t get out of bed in the morning
without asking the Americans which side to get out.
And the Communists were able to exploit that.
So although I’m in any idea that,
as all the kids thought in the 60s,
that Ho Chi Minh was a sort of saintly figure.
Ho Chi Minh was a ruthless revolutionary.
But he had achieved a status, a stature,
as the victor in the colonial war against the French,
which the United States and what the United States call,
I’ve still got my old press card from Vietnam,
free world forces,
were never able to find anybody who looked like the patriot
and the hero and the nationalist
that Ho Chi Minh died on the Southern side.
But I don’t know, the longer I write history books
and the more you come to learn that very often
you can’t say it’s good v evil and the black v white.
These things are always very complicated.
And I felt, even when I was a young reporter in Vietnam,
I never thought the United States
looked like winning this war.
But even then I never felt the other side deserved to either.
You know, you bring up some very interesting points
in the book that are the sort of things
that make you feel like the government is inept.
And then you realize, but we do it over and over again.
So maybe it’s built into the cake, as we say.
For example, and to piggyback off the point you just made
about the South Vietnamese government
trying to appear as though they’re fighting
as much of a nationalist war as the North is.
And yet when we first put Marines on shore in 1965,
as you pointed out in your book,
we didn’t even tell the South Vietnamese government
we were going to do it.
Those are the kind of things where you would have loved
to have been a fly on the wall in the meetings about this.
Did somebody bring that up and say,
this is going to look really bad if we spring this on them?
Or was it, or was the tenor of the times
such that worrying about what a puppet government,
I guess maybe some people would have called it,
thought about this was not on their top 10 list of concern?
Well, you’re absolutely right.
I mean, one of the things that always struck me,
and I also said in the book,
was between the 1950s, the 1970s,
all the hotshot meetings in Washington
about Vietnam policy,
no Vietnamese ever attended any of them.
It was always Americans who held the meetings
to decide what was going to be done in Saigon.
And you find, and again, I’ve quoted all the examples.
There were several times when they discussed in Washington
whether they should change the Vietnamese government.
But when President Thieu in 1974, sorry, 73,
looked like refusing to sign the peace deal
that Henry Kissinger had stitched up in Paris
with the North Vietnamese,
there was a serious discussion in Washington
about whether to just get rid of President Thieu
and put in another Vietnamese president.
Well, it’s not too surprising
that the Vietnamese feel humiliated.
I mean, all human relations about who makes who feel good.
And Americans did not make Vietnamese feel good.
And I say this is not unique to Americans.
I mean, I’ve seen it myself in Afghanistan
with British troops and so on,
but unless you can,
although I don’t particularly like that phrase,
hearts are mine,
unless you can make and help other nations
to have self-respect and to feel good about themselves,
well, it’s always going to be a really tough road ahead.
But one thing I do want to say,
which I’ve also tried to get into my book,
I do think that Americans today
are sometimes almost flagellatory
in their approach to the war.
Oh, God, oh, God, we were so wicked.
Well, although there’s no doubt the war was a disaster,
a lot of Americans,
some of whom I’ve interviewed for the book,
went to Vietnam with the highest ideals of service,
both some soldiers and some civilians.
And I’ve been hugely moved
by some of the Americans I interviewed for the book.
They really cared.
Some of the civilians especially,
they loved the language.
They completely threw themselves
into the war-like thing.
And they weren’t sort of wicked imperialists
who wanted to do terrible things,
but they were people who really wanted to do good deeds
in a wicked world.
And I think that a lot of the histories of the war
don’t pay sufficient tribute to some of these people.
I mean, one guy who made an enormous impression on me,
I was down on the West Coast interviewing Vietnamese,
and I heard about a guy called Doug Ramsey,
who I had never heard about,
but I had no idea he was still alive.
And I was told he was still alive
and living in Boulder City, Nevada.
And I looked at the map,
and it was more than 300 miles driving my EV’s car
over from the West Coast to Boulder City.
But I just thought, I maybe ought to go and see this guy.
And I got in the car,
and it’s a hell of a long drive across the desert.
And I got to Boulder City, and there was Doug Ramsey,
and I spent four hours with him.
And it was a fascinating business,
because Doug Ramsey was a Foreign Service officer,
a really outstanding American,
who, in 1962, made up his mind he wanted to go
and serve in Vietnam,
and was involved in pacification programs,
assistant for a time to John Paul Vann,
the very famous American advisor out there.
And Doug Ramsey passionately cared about the Vietnamese.
He learned Vietnamese.
He wrote a lot of stuff,
but some of his letters home, which he gave me,
were hugely moving.
But then, beginning of 1966,
he was driving a truck with a load of rice
up to some village,
and he got ambushed by the Viet Cong and captured.
And he spent the next seven years,
not in the Hanoi Hilton,
but in a bamboo cage in the jungle.
He had malaria 123 times.
He had every kind of other tropical disease.
How he survived, God only knows.
And yet, he came out of this experience,
his health absolutely destroyed.
I mean, when I saw him,
he could hardly move his body at all,
but his mind was still right on.
And he talked so movingly,
because even though he’d suffered so terribly
at the hands of the Communists,
that he was completely even-handed
in seeing the good stuff and the bad stuff about…
And he knew the Viet Cong,
having been their prisoner for seven years,
better than almost anybody else.
And he told me some very funny stories.
I mean, one of them that always stuck in my mind.
He said one day when he was being interviewed
by his interrogators,
and he told them that he thought
that the Americans were in Vietnam,
10% to help the Vietnamese people,
and 90% to hold back the Chinese and Mao Zedong.
And he said, the Communist interrogator replied,
in that case, why do you not go and fight him in China?
We do not like the Chinese either.
And another story he told, which was sort of…
Somehow the subject of Tom Hayden came into conversation,
Jane Fonda’s husband,
who had, of course, fallen in love with Ho Chi Minh and Co.
and spent half his time up in North Vietnam
telling the North Vietnamese how wonderful they were.
And when Tom Hayden’s name was mentioned,
Doug Ramsey asked his interrogators,
he said, well, what do you think of Tom Hayden?
And they said, we think his ideology is excellent,
but as a man, we despise him.
How could you respect a man
who betrays his own country like that?
Let me ask you about the attitude of The Times,
because you just alluded to it with, as you said,
these soldiers who went in here for such idealistic reasons.
I mean, you quoted a man named Harry Williams
who had mentioned, you know, we were doing good,
we were making a real contribution,
we were making things better.
They can’t. They can’t.
It reminds me, you know, because I was sort of
the younger brother of that baby boom generation
that gets so much heat these days and so much flack,
and yet at the same time, it’s hard to not notice
that that generation is a bunch of younger people
who were extremely idealistic and motivated by their idealism.
Some went into the Peace Corps.
A lot of this, as you point out, was in response
to John F. Kennedy’s famous sacrifice speech.
But some of these people did a similar sort of approach
in trying to make the world a better place
by doing what you mentioned, parachuting, you know,
into Laos and trying to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail
so that the people in the South could…
I mean, it’s fascinating to, you know,
the word watershed moment,
the phrase watershed moment is overused,
but it’s hard to not notice the difference
between 1963 United States of America
and 1973 United States of America
and not attribute a large part of the disillusionment
and the change in attitudes to that war.
Does that seem…
Well, of course you’re right.
I mean, I think two points that also…
To go back to your question about why I thought
there was a book to be written,
two things that…
I mean, what I’m always trying to do,
I think a lot of people make a mistake
when they look back at historical events
that they look at them through a 2018 prism.
And to me, the only way to write history
is to close your eyes and try and remember
how things looked to people then.
And the first thing to be said about the 1950s and 1960s
there really was a communist threat
that worldwide the Soviet Union and the Chinese
did represent deeply unpleasant totalitarian forces.
History, I’m quite confident,
will show that the United States was absolutely right
to lead the Western nations in resisting.
We were the good guys in the Cold War,
and I have no doubt about that.
So sometimes when people say,
oh, well, there never really was a communist threat,
there most certainly was a communist threat.
They were very nasty people.
However, they did not…
They did get a terrible tangle in Indochina
because there weren’t enough people in Washington
who really understood the nuances
and understood the nuances of nationalism.
And one of the things I discovered
in the course of researching the book,
which I had no idea about,
the Chinese and the Russians,
far from being enthusiastic about the Vietnam War,
they were doing awful business
because they were having to throw
shed loads of money and resources and weapons.
I mean, the Russians were giving the North Vietnamese
half a billion dollars a year,
which they could very well afford.
But they felt because the Chinese and the Russians
were competing for leadership of the socialist world,
they had to go on backing this war.
But our intelligence, Western intelligence,
was so bad that nobody had the inkling of this,
so that right through to Nixon and Kissinger,
all the Russians had to do was pick up the phone
and the North Vietnamese would make a deal.
And it wasn’t like that at all.
I quoted Brezhnev when he was leader of Russia,
saying to the Russian ambassador in Washington,
I have no desire to drown in the swamps of Vietnam.
And he felt himself almost as much a prisoner
of all this stuff as the Americans did.
He hated it, but they were all stuck in this situation.
And the other thing, too, which I saw the tail end of
when I was living here in the 60s,
was that America after the Second World War
had achieved such awesome success
and was so powerful and so rich
that it seemed to that generation of Americans
that nothing was impossible.
And no president, and this very much applied to LBJ,
but also to Kennedy,
none of them wanted to be the ones to tell the American people
that the full might of the United States
couldn’t see off a load of raggedy-ass communist guerrillas.
And there’s a very good phrase of Kennedy’s
that made a great impression on me.
I often hear people say, and I don’t believe it,
that if Kennedy had lived, he’d have got America out of Vietnam.
Kennedy told J.K. Galbraith, his key economic advisor,
a few weeks before he was killed, he said,
there are only just so many concessions I can make
to the communists in any one year
and ask the American people to re-elect me.
And American expectations,
the belief among the American people
and certainly in American government
that if America wanted something, it must be doable,
this was very strong.
But of course, as you just so rightly said,
Vietnam went far to destroying this.
And one of my heroes in this book,
Walt Boomer, a Marine officer
who I spent a lot of time with and admire enormously,
Walt Boomer said to me, he said,
nothing, he said, in my lifetime
has changed America more than Vietnam.
He said it created a mistrust
and a suspicion of government and of the people in charge
that we’ve never been able to undo.
And I think he’s right about that, don’t you?
Yes, I think that’s maybe one of the most persistent things
in the war, the credibility gap.
And it’s hard to describe to Americans now
how, as you pointed out in your book,
Americans would believe their president most of the time,
regardless of which party he even was.
And that’s never been the same.
The other thing, as you point out,
and as everyone knows, but it’s not talked about enough,
that it changed is it sort of,
because it was the second major time,
it sort of codified the change,
the unspoken change in the U.S. constitutional system
where we no longer declared war.
You could describe Korea as an outlier
if it was once upon a time,
but Vietnam becomes the time where we sort of codify this.
And I was interested very much in how you pointed out
that the legal advisor to the president
was explaining how you could get around having to declare war.
I was also very interested in the Munich question.
It was fascinating to me how this specter of appeasement
and Munich was sort of hanging over
the decision-making process
and how it played into the domestic politics
and how it could almost be used…
If you compare it to a schoolyard brawl,
one side calling the other a coward
and demanding they move,
even if moving wasn’t the right political choice.
We still have the whole Munich appeasement cudgel
at work in today’s modern American politics.
Can you talk about that and the credibility gap a little bit?
Well, there’s a great fear of being seen to be weak,
but it’s very difficult.
I mean, I think one of the things I find as I get older,
and I hope that one is a different person
from what I was when I was a young reporter.
I mean, to tell you a terrible story,
I grew up in a household in which all the men in the house,
including my father, banged on and on
about what a wonderful time they’d had in World War II.
And I grew up believing with extraordinary naivety
that wars were great adventures.
And I started out that way and I did the…
I parachuted with our own airborne people
and all the rest of it when I was 17.
And I really thought that this was all terrific romantic stuff.
And really, my whole life as a writer
has been a sort of journey of discovering
that wars are like that, that wars are very serious stuff.
And there’s a great phrase which I sometimes quote
to student audiences,
but I suppose the lesson it’s taken me 50 years to learn
was quoted by a Norwegian resistance hero
called Knut Hansen.
And Knut Hansen, after doing wonderful things in World War II,
he wrote his memoirs in 1948.
And in his book he wrote,
although wars bring adventures that stir the heart,
the true nature of war
is composed of innumerable personal tragedies and sacrifices,
holy evil, and not redeemed by glory.
Now, I think he’s absolutely right about that
and I find in my books these days,
I write far more about victims than I do about soldiers.
But I think one of the things,
there are many things that you do learn
to have a sort of respect for the dilemmas
But it’s very difficult for all governments at all times
to decide when to be strong and when to give way.
And it used to seem so easy to just send the 101st Airborne
or the U.S. Marine Corps to sort out your problems.
Well, now we know it’s not that simple.
But in the end, if you can’t sort out the cultural issues
in these countries, the 101st Airborne
or the U.S. Marine Corps can’t solve them for you anymore
than our own army can.
But I think if one looks at history,
one can see moments.
I mean, we all see now that Kennedy was both courageous
and bold at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis,
which could have gone horribly wrong.
But sometimes when presidents…
I mean, Lyndon Johnson terribly wanted to be seen
to be courageous and to be doing the right thing
as the leader of the United States
by sending in troops to Vietnam.
But, of course, he got it wrong.
But what I’d like to feel is that through my own narratives,
one is all the time trying to realize
that governments are trying to do very difficult things.
I don’t just mean the United States government
in the context of Vietnam,
but most governments most of the time
and the same way for military commanders.
I mean, I’ve seen enough wars myself as a reporter.
I’ve seen enough terrible things on the battlefield.
But it is very difficult to fight wars.
It is not, as my father and his friends used to say,
oh, it’s all a great romp.
It’s very tough out there on the battlefield.
And I find that at the age of 72,
I have a huge sympathy with the people
who make the decisions that I didn’t have
when I was a stupid young kid.
I was interested when you had pointed out
that everyone involved in the decision-making process
of moving from a more passive advisor role
to putting troops on the ground,
I’m going to quote you here.
You wrote, quote,
none doubted that the war would be long and the cost immense,
quite unlike, for instance,
the 2002 decision to invade Iraq.
In 1965, every hazard was anticipated.
I not only found that an interesting line,
I found that to be a new piece of information for me.
And I’ve read quite a few books on Vietnam,
but it’s been a while.
And that was something that I think
changed my paradigm a little.
Can you explain that?
Because it is interesting to think
you would commit eventually half a million troops
and yet understand how it might not even be winnable
and understand how tough it’s going to be
and not understand, as you said,
the difference between Asian communism
and Soviet communism.
Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, if you find, I mean,
the hugely impressive figure in the Johnson,
not in the Johnson White House,
but the Secretary of State, George Ball,
his memoranda and the things he said
in conversations at the White House
with the President, he warned all along,
as indeed did some of the generals,
that they didn’t think that a jungle war
in the swamps on the mountains of Vietnam
was going to be the kind that suited the U.S. Army.
And one of the problems, I’m afraid,
we’re all very prone to,
is that we can be terribly impressed
by how mighty our own forces look.
That if you see a U.S. carrier group at sea
and if you see all these terrific jets
taking off from the flight decks
and if you see your Marines storming through the surf
and so on, they all look so impressive
that you can’t believe anything can stand up to them.
But there were people, smart people,
in positions of influence in the 60s
who did clearly identify the fact
that this was going to be very tough
and that that kind of war in the jungle
against guerrillas might well not suit Americans.
And part of it, one of the things
a lot of people, George Ball said very smartly,
he said, Mr. President,
if I thought this could be done in a year,
he said, I would back you all the way.
But he said, I think it’s going to take much longer
and I do not believe that the American people
will have the patience for a long war.
And one of the key things is,
democracies like wars to be over quick.
And I always say, I mean,
it sort of half amuses me
that the last job I did as a war correspondent,
I reported the British-Falklands War in 1982.
And the British loved the Falklands War
because we had an incredibly incompetent enemy
in the Argentine army.
And it was all over very quickly and we won.
And that’s the sort of war everybody wants.
But unfortunately, it’s not the kind of war you would get.
But, no, I am impressed by the number of smart people,
some of them in uniform, who clearly saw.
But one of the problems facing chiefs of staff,
and that was true now and then,
if your political leader, your president
or your prime minister says, can you do this?
Well, senior generals and admirals and airmen,
they know they’ve got to justify
the stupendous cost of the armed forces.
And you’ve got to be quite a brave man
to tell your head of state or your chief executive
that your forces can’t do this or that.
I mean, I remember being amused in 2002,
just before the invasion of Iraq.
And I was friendly with our then head of the army.
And I met him one day when he’d just come back
from Washington where he’d been at a planning meeting
for the invasion of Iraq.
And I said, well, what do you make of it?
And he said, well, he said, getting to Baghdad’s
going to be dead easy.
But he said they haven’t the slightest idea
what they’re going to do when they get there.
But at that time, that to the people
making the decisions in Washington
didn’t seem too much of a problem.
But there were smart people back in 64, 65
who did see that this was going to be
a very tough road to hoe.
But the people, I mean, I don’t know, again,
one was always mixed up between horror
at some of the stupid people who did bad things,
both in uniform and out of it.
And also admiration, again.
I mean, some of the soldiers and some of the Marines
and some of the airmen and so on,
within the framework of a disaster,
they did very fine things.
And I find myself still admiring hugely what they achieved.
And all right, you may say you’re going to be a cynic.
You say, well, it was all for nothing.
But mind you, I have to say one story that
sticks very much in my mind.
One of the most impressive people I interviewed
was a former corpsman, a medic with the infantry,
a guy called David Rogers.
And David Rogers described to me very movingly
his experiences with his platoon,
of whom he said about a third were killed or wounded
up north of Saigon in about 69, 70.
And he said, I mean, he was very emotionally affected
by the war and remains so.
But he said, in 1993, he was one of those
who the Vietnamese invited back as a guest
to come and visit the country again.
And he went as a reporter.
And he said they took him to the area
where he’d fought with his unit.
And he said all the Viet Cong embraced him
because they were all under strict orders
to be incredibly nice to Americans
because they wanted Congress to pass a trade deal.
And David Rogers said to me, when I interviewed him
a couple of years ago, he said, I couldn’t help thinking
if all these guys, what if it was the McDonald’s?
Couldn’t we have sorted this out a long time ago?
It’s like you said, Johnson was offering a billion dollar dam
if they would just stop infiltrating the South.
Let me ask you something that’s a little close to home, maybe.
I want to talk about the media coverage
because this was proverbially the war that was lost
in America’s living rooms and all that kind of stuff.
I found some of the things you said very interesting.
I mean, for example, you brought up a point
that had never occurred to me.
Quoting here, I think, or close to it,
that Vietnam War era reporters enjoyed a notable advantage
over most of their successors in the 21st century
because they themselves had often served in uniform
and were familiar with weapons and military ways.
Yeah, that’s true.
And the other thing that I found interesting
was when you talked about the line
that some Americans went to their graves
believing that reporters betrayed their country
while winning plaudits from the media counterparts
around the world.
Can you talk a little bit about media coverage?
I mean, for example, I don’t think we’ve seen,
because before that war, the war coverage
was very censored, World War II type stuff,
and yet somehow after that war, they’ve toned down.
I mean, now we have embedded reporters
who are essentially working with the governments.
I don’t think we’ve ever seen the kind of freedom
to show news the way they did in that war.
And do you think that was a good thing or a bad thing?
And do you think the reporters at the time
did a good enough job pointing out what you mentioned,
the other side’s transgressions and atrocities and everything
so that things would be equal a little bit?
Well, I’ve said in the introduction to my book
that I think that many of the reporters who served in Vietnam
did an outstanding job of reporting entirely accurately
what they themselves saw and knew.
But where they failed was because there was so much going on
on the other side that they had no access to.
But all the incredibly bad stuff
that the other side was doing never got any sort of show.
And I quite understand in a very small way
I was partly to it myself because, you know,
when I was reporting there for BBC and newspapers
in the early 70s, and all the time you were seeing
shocking stuff going on all around you,
and you were witness to the corruption
and the incompetence of the South Vietnamese government,
but we just didn’t pay enough attention to stuff we couldn’t see.
And the United States, whereas it was absolutely true
that there was a huge credibility gap
because a lot of the stuff that we were told at briefings
and so on was absolute garbage,
that the numbers, all this stuff about body counts and so on,
the frightful lies were told.
In fact, Walt Boomer, the General Marine Corps General,
he said to me that one of the lessons he brought home
from three tours in Vietnam was tell the truth.
But the curious thing, the sort of contradiction,
that on the one hand, a lot of senior Americans
did not tell the truth to the world,
about what was happening, but on the other hand,
America did preserve a commitment
that was very honorable to let us see for ourselves,
so that in a way that’s never been repeated
in any war since, that if any of us sort of didn’t believe
what we were being told about some battle
going off in the middle of nowhere,
we could get access, and me as a British journalist
as much as anybody, on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters
to go up there and look for ourselves.
And the communists would never let anybody but Jane Fonda
go up and see what the hell was going on
in their neck of the woods.
And I do not believe that the business,
that the media lost the war,
but I certainly do believe that the way
that the war was covered made it more difficult
for the United States.
I mean, my father was a war correspondent in World War II,
and I once said to him that, having been reading
some of his wartime dispatches,
they seemed to be pretty gung-ho.
And he said what we were doing was part of the war effort.
Now, of course, nearly all the senior officers
who were in Vietnam, American senior officers,
they’d been in World War II,
and they were accustomed to dealing with a media
that would play the game
in what would seem to be the national interest.
They wouldn’t break ranks.
And now, suddenly, in Vietnam, they find that
you’ve got a whole lot of reporters
who refuse to accept that telling the story
the way that Mac V, as they’ve always known,
wanted it told was not going to happen.
And they found it very difficult to adjust to this.
And I think what is also fair,
but some journalists, I think, are a bit dishonest about,
I mean, I was taking part in a television discussion
a year or so ago with a group of former war correspondents,
including some Americans.
And I said they were talking about their commitment
to tell the truth and tell the world what was going on.
And I said, shouldn’t we also admit
that when you’re as young as we all were and so on,
it was a great adventure, and we had the time of our lives.
In many ways, we were all responsible kids.
Well, none of the others would admit that at all.
In fact, they got very angry with me for saying that.
But I’m afraid there were, in Vietnam,
quite a lot of the journalists were, frankly,
what I would call war tourists.
There were some brilliantly serious-minded
superb people like Neil Sian and David Halberstam and so on.
So there were some very fine correspondents.
But, I mean, it was a great life.
There were unlimited girls, drugs, delicious food,
beautiful country, and all the rest of it.
And although some of the media had their finest hour in Vietnam,
I would also say that some of the media had their unfinest hour,
like the television crew that provided a knife for a soldier
to cut the ears off some dead Viet Cong on camera.
That sort of stuff.
So the media’s record in Vietnam was pretty mixed.
And there was some stuff to be proud of
and some stuff, frankly, to be ashamed of.
Let’s talk, because I know time is short,
a little bit about the anti-war reaction
in terms of protests and everything else.
Because it’s interesting.
As a kid growing up in the post-Vietnam era,
I just thought that was the new reality
that would be expected in future conflicts.
And yet now, looking 50 years back on things,
really, if you start in the Second World War,
there’s very little of that large spike in anti-war activity.
I mean, not only were there no protesters protesting
the bombing of Germany and Japan,
but there really, by 1960s standards,
weren’t that much after the Vietnam War
for any of the conflicts.
What do you think accounts for that
being such an outlier situation?
Well, I’ve suggested in my book,
I mean, remember, I was living here in the late 60s,
so I saw it all first hand.
I saw the demonstrations and the whole thing.
But all sorts of stuff got tangled up together.
It was the worldwide youth movement
against the established order
and the revolt against the old sexual morality
and the enthusiasm of POT and LSD.
And all this stuff got rolled up with Vietnam.
And you’ve got to remember, kids in those days
were putting posters on their college walls of Mao Tse Tung,
who, anybody who knows anything,
knows he was one of the great mass murderers
of the 20th century up there with Hitler.
So there was incredible naivety among the kids.
The kids were right about one thing,
the war was a disaster.
But of course, one of the things
that drove the protest movement
was the fact that a lot of them
were terrified of being drafted,
that they were afraid they were going to have to waste
two years of their lives in uniform
and maybe lose their lives altogether.
So mixed up with their principal objections to the war
and mixed up with the whole youth revolt
was they felt they had skin in the game
about the danger to themselves.
And they were, I mean, it was an extraordinary time to be here.
I mean, some of the stuff that I saw myself was,
you actually felt America was falling apart in 1968.
And in fact, the fact it didn’t fall apart,
I’ve never gone to a bearer of America ever since.
One’s always, I always believe passionately
to this day in America’s capacity of reinvention
because I saw what a mess it could get itself into in 68
and come out the other side.
But no subsequent war, the other thing we must remember,
the whole thing was much smaller.
And we’ve hardly talked too much in this conversation
about all the battlefield stuff.
And if you look at casualties,
I mean, I’ve written about one battle
in one chapter of my book called Dido
that absolutely nobody’s ever heard of.
And this was a three-day battle in May 1968
in which a Marine battalion was more or less wiped out
up near the demilitarized zone.
In three days of battle in which they lost 81 killed,
and I forget, about 250 wounded.
And they ended up with one unwounded officer
and about 150 men still fit for combat.
And nothing remotely like that happened in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
I mean, the scale, this was a really murderous, bloody business.
And some of the stuff people did
and some of the stuff people experienced,
I mean, it was as bad as World War II or Korea at times.
I mean, I don’t think, I don’t buy the line
that Vietnam was the worst war there ever was.
I mean, all wars are pretty ghastly.
But it was a hell of a lot worse in the scale of the bloodbath
than anything remotely in Afghanistan or Iraq.
And these are volunteer, they’ve been fought by volunteer soldiers.
Well, you remember very well that they used to publish photos in Time
or Life magazine of everyone killed that week.
And sometimes the casualty levels could get high enough,
hundreds a week, that I would see…
300 a week in 68.
And I was trying to figure out how we would react today
in the United States to casualty numbers.
Well, and so that brings me back to something.
You had talked about the war being a disaster.
And then we had talked about the protesters and the media and everything.
It does make me wonder, though, what is the responsibility
if your government seems on a course to continue doubling down
on something that everyone knows is a disaster?
In a Democratic or Republican system,
what is the role of the population in terms of checking a government
that, as you said, didn’t know what they were getting into
or did know what they were getting into,
but found no way out of where they were going?
I mean, could one make the case that it was better
to have that kind of pressure on the part of the electorate
versus what might have happened if that pressure had not been there?
When I was living there in the United States in the late 60s,
I could see a lot of Americans, especially in middle America,
and I got to know middle America very well in that era.
And I spent a lot of time in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin and so on.
And you saw very patriotic Americans wrestling with the dilemma
of where loyalty lay.
Did you just blindly go on supporting your president
or did you not…
They weren’t the kind to go out and protest in the streets,
but it’s a very difficult issue.
And I think it is right to speak out,
but it’s never easy to decide where the patriotic root lies.
And I remember one of the most moving things that happened to me
when I was there in 71,
and I’d been up reporting for BBC about a place called Farbase 6
up near the Laos border, a hell of a murderous business.
And we hitched a ride back to Saigon on a C-130
that was only one of the camera crew on.
So we’re in the cargo hold of this huge aircraft.
And down at the end of the plane, the opposite end from us,
was the body bag containing an American sergeant and advisor
who’d been killed in the battle.
And there’s his body bag with all his stuff around him,
his guitar and his sound system and all his kit and so on.
And we had an hour and a half or two hours on the plane down to Saigon
looking, I was sort of looking at this, at that poor bastard
and his body bag and so on.
And I thought, we’re now in a situation where nobody wants to be
the last American to die in a war that’s obviously lost.
And I think one of the things that one does bitterly reproach
Nixon and Kissinger for, from the moment they assumed office in 69,
they knew there was no hope of winning the war.
But they were desperate for purely political reasons
to conceal from the American people the fact the war was lost.
And 22,000 Americans died under the Nixon presidency,
and countless Vietnamese.
And it was, in many ways, the worst period
because you’ve got the whole black power thing,
you’ve got the army in Vietnam falling apart,
the huge drug problems and so on and so forth.
And all this, they knew all the way down the street
that there was no way they were going to win this.
But they were just desperate to avoid anybody finding out about this.
And to me, one of the grisliest bits, the White House tapes
that were relatively recently released in 2015,
is of Kissinger coming back from the secret Paris peace talks in October 72.
And he rushes into the Oval Office and he says to Nixon,
he says, Mr. President, we have got a better deal than you have ever dreamed of.
And remember, this is a month before Nixon faces George McGovern
in the presidential election.
And Kissinger doesn’t say, this is going to bring peace,
this is going to save countless lives.
He said, this will absolutely, totally screw McGovern.
And the cynicism of these guys at this stage.
And it was all about politics.
And that’s a pretty, it’s hard, it sticks in your craw, you know.
But actually, one thing I would say, which I think is important,
as a sort of closing note on this, to me, the supreme irony of the war.
If you go to Vietnam today, if you said to an American at about 66,
how would you like Saigon to look in 2018?
Well, actually, it would be pretty much the way it looks now.
And although it’s still a very unpleasant totalitarian state, Vietnam,
they do now have license to make money.
They don’t want to be Americans.
They’re incredibly nice to Americans because they realize
that the American system is worth, is countless more valuable
and countless more valid than their own wretched government.
But they’re all completely hooked on American culture and on making money.
And I’ve suggested in the last chapter of my book
that while the United States failed in Vietnam with B-52s
and spooky gunships and defoliation, that the United States triumphed
with Johnny Depp and YouTube.
What we’ve learned is that economic forces can be at least as important,
if not more so, than soldiers in deciding how history plays out.
My stepfather always said, just drop blue jeans, rock and roll,
and Playboy magazine on them, and they’ll become Americans.
You said it. That’s the way.
Sir Max, we’ve hardly touched upon all the good things in this book, though,
and I would like to encourage anyone who would love to get an updated,
really interesting view of Vietnam from somebody who wasn’t just there,
but has had a chance to think and talk and do research about it ever since,
Sir Max Hastings, and the book is Vietnam.
Sir Max, thank you so much for coming on the program.
It was my pleasure, Dan. Thank you for having me.
Had a great time. Hey, come on the next book, okay?
All the very best.
Wrath of the Khans, Punic Nightmares, Apache Tears,
and, of course, Ghosts of the Ostfront.
Just a few of the classic hardcore history titles available from dancarland.com.
Every true fan has heard these favorites.
Hey, they make great gifts, too.
If you think the show you just heard is worth a dollar,
Dan and Ben would love to have it.
A buck a show, it’s all we ask.
Go to dancarland.com for information on how to donate to the show.