Interview covers: Biography, Vietnam, Kissinger, Paris Peace Talks
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Foreign Affairs Oral History Project
Ambassador John D. Negroponte
Interviewed by: Charles Stuart Kennedy
Initial Interview date: February 11, 2000
Copyright 2017 ADST
Q: Today is February 11th, 2000. This is an interview with John D. Negroponte. This is being done on behalf of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. I am Charles Stuart Kennedy.
Do you go by John?
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me when and where you were born and something about your family.
NEGROPONTE: I was born on July 21st, 1939, in London, England. My parents were Greek. My father was in business. He worked in his uncle’s shipping business in London. I was born just a couple of months before World War II.
Q: What was the background of your parents?
NEGROPONTE: They were both from business families. My father’s family had been in shipping for a long time, many generations. In my mother’s family, my grandfather had actually been a Greek politician for a while. He was in the Greek legislature. I guess it was the Chamber of Deputies. Principally, he was a businessman. He owned a big flourmill in Piraeus.
Q: They were mainland Greeks. They were not part of the exodus that came out of Smyrna in 1922.
NEGROPONTE: You’ve got to be careful when you use the term ‘mainlander’ with Greece. My father was an islander. He was from the Island of Chios, not from Turkey. In fact, it is just opposite Izmir. You may not know this, but Chios is one of the islands that have traditionally produced ship owners.
Q: Was that Stavros Niarchos?
NEGROPONTE: Niarchos was my mother’s first cousin. She came from that family.
World War II began. As a result of the war, my parents felt they had a choice to go back to Greece, where my father had never really lived, he had been an expatriate, or do they go to the States? They felt those were the two choices. And they decided to come to the States.
Lo and behold, on September 20th, 1939, or so, we came to the United States.
Q: So, although you are not native born, you are darn close to it.
NEGROPONTE: My mother also happens to have been born in the States. She was brought up in Greece, but born in the States during World War I. I derived my citizenship through her. I grew up in New York City.
Q: Did you have family in New York?
NEGROPONTE: No, we did not.
Q: You have younger brothers, is that right?
NEGROPONTE: We were four brothers. I was the oldest. I have a brother Nicholas, who you may have heard of. He runs Media Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). He’s a guru of digital technology. As I was telling you, the twins whose birthdays are today, are about 15 years younger than I am. One is an artist, a fairly accomplished painter, in New York City. The other is a film maker; he makes documentaries.
Q: What was family life like? I’m talking about the early years. Let’s talk about during the war and shortly thereafter for you.
NEGROPONTE: I would say we were fairly privileged people. My parents were not extraordinarily wealthy, but they were certainly well-off. We grew up in New York City, went to private schools, and had a happy childhood.
Q: When you went to private schools, what schools were you going to? Do you recall their names?
NEGROPONTE: I went to the Allen-Stevenson School in New York City first. Then I went to a school called Buckley, which is probably the leading primary school in New York City. From there, I went on to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy.
You asked about the war. I guess I faintly remember it.
Q: The war was really early.
When you were at private school, before you went to Phillips Exeter, what subjects were you interested in?
NEGROPONTE: I wrote a paper on Clemenceau and the whole atmosphere in Europe post-Versailles. There was a combination of things.
My father, who came from a business family, had gone to Sciences Po (Institute d’études Politiques) in Paris. That’s where he went to college. He wanted to be a diplomat himself, but when he went back to Greece after studying in France—he had been brought up in France and Switzerland; he was born in Switzerland—the Greeks told him, your French education doesn’t count. You have to come back and requalify yourself entirely, go to college here in Greece before you can enter the Greek Foreign Service. He didn’t really have much of an appetite to do that.
The interest in geography and diplomacy in him was enormous. It kind of rubbed off on me from an early age.
Q: Were you getting much of the international world at the dinner table?
NEGROPONTE: We lived in a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. My parents taught me French as a first language. They spoke Greek of course. My father, every language he spoke, he spoke perfectly. I’ve never met anybody—he’s sort of a Dick Walters. He spoke Greek perfectly. He spoke German. He spoke French. They had a lot of foreign friends. In fact, they probably had more non-American friends than they had American friends. So yes, it was a very international environment in the house.
Q: When you went to school, were you able to carry this over?
NEGROPONTE: As I mentioned to you, the thing I do remember is writing this paper about Clemenceau. The reason I mention this is because one of my classmates, who then went to Exeter with me and keeps writing up the class notes, we had dinner in New York, and he was remembering my interest in Clemenceau 50 years later.
Q: At that time, did you feel pressure to join the family business, or anything like that?
NEGROPONTE: On the contrary. That was what made him rather interesting compared to many Greek businessmen. He wanted and, as you can see from the result, he encouraged his children to pursue their own professional interests. In fact, he was more in the school that said money isn’t everything. There are more noble professions. He was kind of altruistic about it. If anything, I felt if not pressure, I felt his strong influence to be interested in international relations. That fit in with my own inclinations. From about the age of 15, I knew I wanted to join the Foreign Service.
Q: Before you went to Exeter, were you aware of the Foreign Service?
NEGROPONTE: No, not really. When I passed the exam—I know you’re going to get to that—I do remember one of the points they made after they passed me on the oral. They said, it’s amazing for a guy who seems to want to get into the Foreign Service so badly, how little you know about it.
Q: Let’s talk about Exeter a bit. I’m a product of a smaller New England prep school, Kent. What was Exeter like? You were there from when to when?
NEGROPONTE: I was there from 1952 to 1956. It was a big school. It’s the biggest I think, or one of the bigger ones, of the private boarding schools. It had a very good academic atmosphere, and a lot of strong liberal arts courses. This is what I focused on. I took French. I took Latin. I took Greek for a while. I took history, very little science, just as much math as I needed. Actually, that’s not true. I did pretty well in math and took quite a bit of that. But I focused on the arts. I sort of began my liberal arts education.
Q: Was it international? You were taking French.
NEGROPONTE: No, it wasn’t that international. There was some international, but it was very political. That I do remember. Those were the kind of things that interested me: I remember when J. Robert Oppenheimer came and spoke, and Adlai Stevenson.
Q: Did the McCarthy business hit you at all?
NEGROPONTE: We used to fight a lot about communism and non-communism. Yes, McCarthy did hit us, because it was right during that time. I guess it prompted a lot of debate.
Q: What about in Greece. It was so divided. So many Greeks came over to the United States, but they came from a different class.
Q: I take it this wasn’t your…
NEGROPONTE: No, in fact my father, going fast forward, 20 years later, decided to pack up and go back to Europe. After he brought up his four kids, he took my mother and they moved back to London in 1972. He never had a particularly strong affinity for the United States. He remained to his last days very much a continental European. He really was a Francophone. He was kind of a Frenchman in disguise.
Q: One can understand. After all, if you want to have an interesting life, particularly at that time, that would be the place to do it.
At Exeter, did you get involved in either the debating, plays, or various other things?
NEGROPONTE: You know, I wasn’t very good at that. I wasn’t as good at getting involved as I might have been. I was more interested in sports.
Q: What sort of sports?
NEGROPONTE: I played soccer. I swam. I was on the soccer team. I was on the swimming team. And I wasted a lot of time.
Q: Fair enough.
NEGROPONTE: I probably didn’t take as good advantage of it. Exeter was a wonderful school. My daughter is there now.
Q: Were you coming out on your own, sort of falling into a political affiliation at that point?
NEGROPONTE: No, there was a family orientation towards the Democrats. I think it was fundamentally based on a reverence for Franklin Roosevelt. Secondly, I think there was a feeling that the Democrats were the party of internationalism, which I think they were in those days. That certainly influenced me to be pro-Democratic, but not vehemently so. I was certainly not adamant on the political front. I was more interested in international relations as a subject for study and analysis than I was in partisan politics.
I’ve never been interested, for example, in running for office.
Q: Were your interests more focused pretty much on Europe, because of your background? I mean, the Far East was there.
NEGROPONTE: The interest was principally Europe. And France, because I knew French, I spoke French fluently. The rest was sort of peripheral vision. I had a bit of hankering to understand a little bit more about Latin America. None of these interests, other than Europe, really developed much until I got into college.
Q: Where were you pointed towards college?
NEGROPONTE: I went to Yale.
Q: Why Yale?
NEGROPONTE: It was between Harvard and Yale. Most of my classmates who could get in went to Harvard. It wasn’t really a scientific decision, to be honest with you. It was almost a flip of the coin. My father told me, “I don’t care where you go, as long as I’ve heard of the place.”
I think it was a good choice.
Q: You went to Yale from when to when?
NEGROPONTE: I was there from 1956 to 1960. I graduated in 1960, and I had my junior year in France. So there is the interest in France again.
Q: What was Yale like when you went there in 1956? This was still the age of conformity, the Eisenhower years, and all that.
NEGROPONTE: There were a few things that were changing. Our class was the first class where there were more public school entrants than there were entrants from private schools. I think that was an interesting sociological fact. We were still in the Eisenhower time, but I remember very vividly that we had the Hungarian Revolution that fall.
Q: And the Suez Crisis.
NEGROPONTE: And the Suez Crisis. So there was a lot going on in the political area. Political Science was what I wanted to do. I was very much into Political Science. That was what I wanted to study, and I did study.
Q: Did you find that the Political Science Department at Yale had a concentration while you were there? Was it pointed more towards one continent?
NEGROPONTE: The basic Political Science course at Yale, interestingly, the requirement was that you first had to take the British political system. You didn’t study
the American political system; you studied the British. It was given by a guy called Cecil Driver, who was one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard in my life. He was an Englishman who lectured on the British political system. I still remember many of his aphorisms. He was an extraordinary guy. Certainly there was that. You could get fairly good insights into other regions of the world. I took a course on the Chinese political system. It was pretty good material. The focus was probably more on Europe.
Q: I was wondering whether the old Yale and China connection was still on the campus?
NEGROPONTE: It was. There were some good China courses, but that was quite politicized at the time. As you may recall, there was a lot of stuff about Chiang Kai-Shek. There was the polarization of attitudes of pro-Taiwan and anti-Taiwan. I remember the professor that taught the course on the Chinese political system was considered very close to the Chiang Kai-Shek regime and therefore discredited by many of the conventional China scholars.
Q: Had you started to look towards the Foreign Service?
NEGROPONTE: Absolutely. I took the exam in my senior year, in December 1959. I thought I had flunked. I was despondent, but it turned that the five percent extra you got for knowing a foreign language— remember, in those days you got extra points for knowing a language—I got 70 or 71 on the exam, my aggregate score.
Q: I got averaged in. I had a 69.8 or something like that.
NEGROPONTE: There you go. I had a couple of classmates—Ambler Moss, who ended up being Ambassador to Panama—who took it that year. So did Winston Lord I think. He was a year ahead of me. I don’t know when Winston took it, but Ambler took it at the same time.
I took the exam and I took the oral six months later.
Q: Do you recall the oral exam or any of the questions?
NEGROPONTE: Oh yes, very well.
Q: Let’s talk about it.
NEGROPONTE: Allison was the guy who chaired the panel.
Q: John Allison?
NEGROPONTE: The Ambassador to Japan. Yes, John Allison. He was the Chairman of the panel. I had a job that summer working for Lazard Frères in July 1960. On the radiator behind my desk, there was a book on the Federal Reserve System and how it worked. In my spare time, I read it. Do you remember how you always got one long question?
NEGROPONTE: My question was, how does the Federal Reserve System work? It was an absolutely incredible coincidence. So I knocked this question right out of the ballpark.
I think these guys got the very erroneous perception that I was a very knowledgeable fellow. I do remember that. We also got into a little bit of debate, but I can’t remember all of it. It was about what to do about Cuba, because Cuba was a very hot issue at the time. Of course, I was in my younger, more liberal phase of my life. I felt that we ought to try to be understanding and be tolerant. The panelists allowed as how I would get over that.
As you remember, you were told right then and there. You were excused for a few minutes and then you were called back in. I was told I had passed.
Q: In 1960, was military service in the offing?
NEGROPONTE: No. I didn’t do anything to evade it. There wasn’t any automatic draft.
Q: There was nothing going on then.
NEGROPONTE: There was nothing really going on. I had been accepted at Harvard Law School. I asked these gentlemen who passed me, “How quickly am I going to get in. It’s July.”
They said, “We can’t tell you. They’ve been taking six months, eight months, or a year even, to get people clearances.”
I said, “I’ll probably go to law school for a year anyway. I want to come into the service.”
In September that year, I went to Harvard and spent a week at law school. Then I got a telegram saying, please come join the entering class of October 5th, 1960.
I dropped everything and went running to the dean’s office at Harvard Law School, saying, “I want to get out of here. I’ve been accepted in the Foreign Service.”
He said, “You’ve come in time to even get your first semester’s tuition back.” So I left law school and joined the service.
Q: You were at Harvard and in Washington basically during the campaign of 1960. Could you talk about that? This engaged a lot of people, more than most, particularly young people. Did you find yourself…
NEGROPONTE: It engaged our entering Foreign Service class, at least to the point where I can remember we had a lot of discussion about it. Several times, we would go to each other’s places or somebody’s home to watch the debates. Do you remember the debates?
I was very much rooting for Kennedy.
Q: In your Foreign Service class in October 1960, can you talk a little about the class and how you saw them at the time?
NEGROPONTE: I guess it surprised me, coming from my Yale background. I was struck by how diverse the group was. I didn’t think it was going to be as diverse as it turned out to be. Obviously, that’s to the good. That was one interesting thing.
The other was that there were eight women out of 40. I have always been struck by the fact that within two or three years, not one of those eight women was still in the service. I have always thought that was a great pity.
Q: It was. It wasn’t because of marriage, was it?
NEGROPONTE: It was marriage. Those were the rules that were thought to be in effect at the time. If a woman officer married, she had to resign. It’s too bad.
Q: It really was.
NEGROPONTE: It was a good class. We still have one person left on active duty today. That’s Curtis Kamman, our ambassador in Bogotá. I was the next to last and he is the last survivor of the class in the active service. Interestingly, he had been so smart at Yale. He was at Yale at the same time I was. He finished his senior year half a year early. He then became an instructor in Russian during his last semester. He was very capable.
Q: How did you feel the basic officer course got you ready for the Foreign Service?
NEGROPONTE: I loved it. I still remember it. I still get so mad when I hear people talk nowadays about how they never trained us to do commercial work or look out for American citizen interests abroad and all that kind of nonsense. All we cared about was ideology and the Cold War. It’s a bunch of nonsense. You do hear these things.
Q: I know.
NEGROPONTE: We spent a week at the Department of Commerce. It was very interesting. We went deeply into trade promotion. We went out to Beltsville, Maryland, to the Agricultural Research Station. I remember it as being a very interesting introduction to not only the State Department, but the government in general.
Q: Was there a significant other at this time?
NEGROPONTE: No, I was a bachelor and I married late in life. I was 21 years old when I entered the service. I married when I was 37. I basically got my career launched and then worried about that stuff.
Q: I take it that unlike so many who come from rather recent immigrant stock, you had no particular feeling towards going to Greece or anything like that.
NEGROPONTE: Do you mean being assigned there?
NEGROPONTE: No. In fact, at the end of my career, I declined an ambassadorship to Greece because I actually thought it was wrong. If anything, I feel a little bit surprised the degree which people are willing to go to countries of their own national origin. Although I did end up serving in Greece for one tour when I was Consul General in Thessaloniki.
Q: When were you there?
NEGROPONTE: I was there from 1975 to 1977.
Q: We missed. I was Consul General in Athens from 1970 to 1974.
NEGROPONTE: Ed Brennan must have been in Thessaloniki at the time.
Q: Did you have any particular place you wanted to go to? Or did you have the feeling I want to make this my life?
NEGROPONTE: I did, but these were not very well defined ideas. I had the French background. Do you remember the April Fool’s sheet where you expressed your preferences? I asked to go to Sub-Saharan Africa, because it was the era of a lot of newly emerging independent African states.
Q: Particularly with Kennedy.
NEGROPONTE: Yes, I thought it would be a great chance to go to the less developed world and use my French. So I got sent to Hong Kong. You know how that works.
Q: Of course.
NEGROPONTE: I had to go to a map and look where Hong Kong was. I didn’t know where Hong Kong was, I am ashamed to admit.
Q: When were you in Hong Kong?
NEGROPONTE: I got there in January 1961 and I was there until April 1963. I had two jobs.
Q: What was Hong Kong like at this particular time? What was the principal activity?
NEGROPONTE: It was already a pretty hustling cosmopolitan town, but not what it is today, of course. The ingredients were all there. They were making textiles. They were big textile producers at the time. That was an issue with the United States at the time. The first textile quotas were imposed during the time I was there. They just had an incipient transistor radio business that they were starting to build up.
To me, Hong Kong fundamentally was a very romantic and very pleasant window on China. It had a wonderful atmosphere. The sights and sounds and smells of Hong Kong are really very interesting and very charming. I remember my experience there very favorably.
Q: What was your first job there? NEGROPONTE: I was a visa officer. What else? Q: How did you find that?
NEGROPONTE: That was pretty tough. I didn’t like that, although I ended up doing a lot of consular work in my career. I was Vice Consul, Consul and Consul General. I’m very strong on the importance of consular work. I did only one kind of visa for a whole year. I issued what were then called M-1 visas. These were issued to Chinese spouses of Chinese Americans. There was a lot of fraud, based on the fact that the petitioners had gotten into the United States under assumed names, paper identities and all that. We spent an awful lot of time interrogating these people, to try and establish whether or not their husbands had gotten into the United States fraudulently or not. Once we established that, we sent the petition back to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). The INS would bounce it back to us saying, “Too bad; the relationship seems to be as claimed. Go ahead and issue the visa anyway.”
It was draining and dreary work.
Q: Did you have a unit to work on the backgrounds?
NEGROPONTE: We had a thing called the Documentation Certification Unit. It was run by one of these old-line—you will remember them for sure—Refugee Migration Officers who had done refugee processing in Europe at the end of World War II. They had abused their function by, for example, going in uninvited into people’s homes and such to search for documents. So the Hong Kong Government made a big issue of it, and the unit was shut down just before I got there.
Q: One of the problems in the Foreign Service, particularly in those days that continued for some time, was a young idealistic man or woman would come out and all of a sudden, was up against a rather routine job, but also had to say no and saw the seamy side of life. It’s a good experience, but it’s not much fun while you’re doing it.
NEGROPONTE: It wasn’t much fun while we were doing it. I can remember some very unpleasant experiences, both of my own or—since we were in sort of a bullpen pit there, you could also overhear other interviews that were going on. I remember one of my colleagues put his feet up on the table while interviewing somebody, and pointing to a picture of himself in a uniform in Korea and saying, sort of, I fought your people—that kind of thing.
Having said all of that, what I did was agitate to get out of the Consular Section after one year. They had no systematic rotation, but I managed to get up into the Commercial Section. I became the Economic Defense Officer in charge of enforcing the embargo against China. That was a little bit more fun. That was also a dose of trade promotion.
Q: Well, you weren’t promoting, you were denying.
NEGROPONTE: I was able to work on both. As you remember, in those days, the Commercial function was folded right into the Economic Section. I was basically a commercial officer, but my primary responsibility was economic defense.
Q: Who was Consul General while you were there?
NEGROPONTE: There were several and they were very interesting people. There was Julius Holmes, who then went on to become Ambassador to Iran. For the previous seven or eight years, he had not been able to be appointed ambassador because of some problems he had at the end of World War II. Then Marshall Green came from Korea where he had been DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission). Then Sam Gilstrap came.
There were also a lot of very interesting people at lower levels. Some we mentioned were John Holdridge; Bill Gleysteen; Heyward Isham; and David Dean, who was Jonathan Dean’s brother; Herbert Levin. All the China hands were there. It was a real window on China, even though I didn’t speak Chinese. I did take a few hours of Cantonese. I could see the value of the post and they did a lot of very interesting analyses. I attended some of their debates and discussions. I thought they were fascinating. It was a time when China was undergoing famine.
Q: That was part of the Great Leap Forward, wasn’t it?
NEGROPONTE: It was towards the end.
Q: Well, it wasn’t going forward.
NEGROPONTE: They had real food shortages. How we analyzed that was interesting. We read all of China’s newspapers every day. We had the Agricultural Attaché, a guy called Bryce Meeker. I remember he spoke Chinese, like all these other people did. It was a big analysis of Chinese agriculture, through these newspapers or refugee interviews or second-hand. I think they pieced the puzzle together pretty darn well.
Q: What was the attitude towards China? Was this just a big problem or a menace?
NEGROPONTE: No, it was much more sophisticated than that. There was a lot of interest in China. I think the prevalent undertone, certainly among the younger officers, was that this is a country which… I think the yearning of the younger officers was to normalize relations. The older ones were against it; the younger ones just weren’t going to stick their necks out.
Q: Were you picking up from your colleagues who were in the China watching side a feeling of gee, some of our more senior people got burned?
NEGROPONTE: Absolutely. I think some people were gun shy. I think the quote- unquote China Service felt maligned and misunderstood as a result of the McCarthy experience. They were still looking inwards, although none of those people there had been implicated in any way, but they were just close enough to it.
Q: It was passing down. I mean, the virus was still floating around.
NEGROPONTE: Yes, but it was weakening.
Q: While you were doing this, did this attract you to say maybe I should take Chinese?
NEGROPONTE: No, I still wanted to go to French-speaking Africa. I volunteered for Maghrebian Arabic.
Q: Going back to the time you were there, during the time of Kennedy, there was a great emphasis— Bobby Kennedy was pushing this idea of youth programs. As a young officer, did you get involved in the youth side of things?
NEGROPONTE: No, not that I remember.
Q: On the commercial side, who was trying to get stuff out from Red China at that time?
NEGROPONTE: There was some of that. I think the greater concern was that American products not be diverted to China, such as machinery, equipment, or aircraft.
Q: Tractors and that sort of thing.
NEGROPONTE: Right. The specific thing that I remember came up in a big way was air conditioning.
Q: It was fairly new at that time.
NEGROPONTE: Then there were these people in Hong Kong and Macau who were blacklisted, Chinese who were blacklisted because they had traded with China during the Korean War, or something like that. So we considered them like they were nationals of China. The term for them was designated nationals. So in addition to not being able to export to China itself, people also couldn’t sell to these particular designated nationals.
Some of these people were rich and prominent business people.
I just remember that because one of the big scandals we had was that a designated national called Stanley Ho, was still very prominent in Macau. He wanted to buy a lot of air conditioning from us to build his new casino in Macau. A huge scandal erupted because he had signed contracts to buy this American equipment. We had to veto the deal, and that caused a local uproar.
Q: When you were working on both trade promotion and trade prevention, what about the attitude of the British? Did that count? Or they just didn’t care?
NEGROPONTE: They didn’t care, although my recollection is that they shared information with us from some source. I can’t remember where. We used to get all the shipping manifests of everything that went to China every month. I’ve got to believe they were from a British source. I remember pouring over them.
Q: So you applied for Arabic. Was this Maghrebian Arabic?
NEGROPONTE: Yes, but it didn’t come through. Instead of that, principally because of the recommendation of some inspector, I got assigned to AF/EX (Bureau of African Affairs, Office of the Executive Director). He said, “Well, you want to go to Africa.
Maybe you should go back to Washington first and get some experience in the Africa Bureau. You are obviously going to be an economic or political officer, but you need a little bit of administrative experience.”
So I went to AF/EX. I was a Post Management Officer. That lasted exactly two months.
Q: Was this still in 1963?
NEGROPONTE: This was June to August 1963.
I went to my Personnel Officer, George Roberts—did you know George? He was a wonderful guy. I said, “George, you’ve got to get me out of here.”
He said, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing much around. I’ll keep you in mind and see if anything develops.”
A week or two later, he called me up and said, “We are just deciding to beef up the Vietnamese language training program. We need to train more people to be provincial reporters in the Political Section in Saigon. Would you like to go?”
I said, “Give me a weekend to think about it.”
I thought about it for a weekend. I called back that Monday and said, “Let’s do it.”
Q: Had you focused at all on Vietnam up to that point, either in college or in the Foreign Service?
NEGROPONTE: Only when I was a commercial officer in Hong Kong. For some reason, I had to go to Saigon once. It was something to do with implementing a commodity import program into Vietnam that involved Hong Kong and us. I had met Ambassador Nolting on one of his trips to Hong Kong. I was only somewhat aware of what was going on.
I do remember the day that Dien Bien Phu fell. I remember thinking back that was very unfortunate.
Q: When was that?
NEGROPONTE: In 1954, May, I think. I remember feeling badly about that. I was not deeply into the Vietnam issue.
I did this strictly as a career move. I saw it as an opportunity to be a Political Officer and to get out of being the Post Management Officer in the Africa Bureau.
Q: I have to ask the question: why didn’t you like being a Post Management Officer? What were you doing and what was there?
NEGROPONTE: If I remember correctly there wasn’t much to do. We were just moving people’s household effects and keeping track of personnel rosters at these embassies. It was just not a very inspiring atmosphere.
Q: When did you take Vietnamese?
NEGROPONTE: From September 1963 to May 1964.
Q: How did the events of October…
NEGROPONTE: It was November. Diem was overthrown. It was quite amazing. Of course, I thought about it. I had opportunity to talk about it and think about it a lot later on. At first, I just sort of watched in fascination, I guess. I didn’t have any strong views yet. I guess I was sympathetic to the Buddhists. Do you remember the Buddhists who were immolating themselves?
Q: Yes. They were just barbecues, as Madame Nhu was wont to say.
NEGROPONTE: I think my views moderated later on. At the time, I think I was quite sympathetic to those trying to overthrow Diem. I think looking back at it today; I think the overthrow of Diem may have been one of those real major turning points in our involvement in Vietnam. By helping get rid of Diem, we got rid of somebody who might have saved us from building up the massive presence that we later put in that country.
Q: One of the things that language training does is, particularly through the language teachers and the concentration on language, you get a feel for the country. Did you get a feel for Vietnam, which you didn’t know much about?
NEGROPONTE: Yes, I did. It was pretty good. First of all, it was reading. And you make good friendships with the teachers. They were all Vietnamese. And actually, the Hong Kong experience had helped. While Chinese and Vietnamese are two different cultures, there is nonetheless some proximity and similarity there. I thought it was a pretty good exposure. I enjoyed studying the language. I like languages. There were only three of us, so we had a small group.
Q: Who was in your class?
NEGROPONTE: A fellow called Walt Lundy, who was actually a classmate of mine in the Foreign Service and who was also going to be a provincial reporter. There was also a fellow called Jim Forrester, who was an army officer.
Q: Later it became quite systematized, but did they have much of a program to get you ready to go to Vietnam? Or was it just language and then you were on your way?
NEGROPONTE: It was language and area studies. We had the usual four and a half days a week of language. Then on Wednesday afternoon we would do area studies.
Q: Can you characterize what you were hearing from both the people who were getting you ready to go and others? Was this an interesting place? Or was this a place where you would say watch out, stay out of there.
NEGROPONTE: Oh no. I think that Vietnam was very much on the front burner. The desk was interesting. That was the other part of our training. I used to spend certain afternoons at the desk. Vietnam was heating up. There was intense interest. Of course, remember that Kennedy got assassinated.
Q: On November 22nd.
NEGROPONTE: So that got thrown into the mix in the sense that people wondered what LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) would do about it, whether things would change.
I didn’t try to master everything that was going on in Vietnam. I knew I was going to be out there a number of months later. I wasn’t in that big a hurry.
Q: I was wondering if you were aware of any group within the State Department that was both Vietnamese experts and this is something we’ve got to do. Was there a feeling that
this is a war that couldn’t see and it looms?
NEGROPONTE: You know, this whole strategic hamlet program that Diem had, the pacification program that was sort of in vogue at the time. I think if there was any group in the State Department, there were a number of people who thought it was really a mistake to overthrow Diem. That I would say is a fairly hardcore group. Mostly, those were people I found in Vietnam when I got there in May 1964, quite embittered by what had happened.
Q: Was there the feeling early on that these were things that were being called from Washington by the best and the brightest, a term that was used later on?
NEGROPONTE: Who didn’t really understand and who had to react to these immolations. I think they felt that they didn’t understand. The political officers, generally speaking, the ones I found in the political section when I got out there, the more experienced ones, felt that Washington really had misunderstood Diem’s nationalism.
Here was this fairly traditional authoritarian Asian figure, who if we could have just figured out how to work with him, might have been the best way to defend U.S. interests in the region.
Of course, the people who wanted to overthrow Diem, or see him overthrown, felt that he had allowed the situation to become intolerable. I think we know that the Buddhists kind of maneuvered Diem into that position.
Q: It was quite clever, in a way. Maybe basically not for their own good, but they were clever up to that point.
When you got out there, when you were talking to your junior colleagues particularly, your compatriots, did you find there was a certain amount of disillusionment or disgust with the revolving set of governments? I guess that had already started, hadn’t it?
NEGROPONTE: Yes, I think disgust and concern really. It wasn’t so much disgust; it was concern. In July 1964, we saw the first North Vietnamese units starting to appear in South Vietnam. This was really quite an experience for me. My experience up until then had been limited to a bit of trade promotion and issuing visas. All of a sudden, I’m out there with responsibility for covering political, military and economic events in seven provinces.
Q: Where were you sent?
NEGROPONTE: Coastal II Corps, all the way up to Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh Province. Lo and behold, starting in about September 1964, those NVA (North Vietnamese Army) units started showing up in Binh Dinh Province. I was responsible for covering developments there. I remember in the fall of 1964, 50,000 or 60,000 refugees coming from the countryside into Qui Nhon City, the capital of Binh Dinh. They were fleeing.
These were Catholic Vietnamese fleeing the North Vietnamese Army units.
My own view that developed as a result of this provincial reporting experience, early on, was that South Vietnam was the underdog and that they really needed help.
Q: When you got there, did you have time to go into the embassy and get acclimated? Or were you sent out right away?
NEGROPONTE: We worked out of the embassy. We were part of the political section in the old embassy, not the later one. I think it was the biggest political section that has ever existed. There were more than 20 officers, maybe 25. There were seven or eight provincial reporters.
Q: Who was the head of the political section at that time?
NEGROPONTE: Melvin Manful was there. Then Phil Habib replaced him, but that was a couple of years or a year and a half later.
We had time to acclimate, a little bit, but not much. The idea was you get out there and learn. Our boss was a guy called Jim Rosenthal. Do you know Jim?
Q: Yes, I’ve interviewed Jim.
NEGROPONTE: He is wonderful. He was an old marine officer. His attitude was you get out there and learn. You would go out for a week, and come back for a week. It was a wonderful job.
Q: Did you pick up, either by direction or by osmosis, how you were supposed to view things?
NEGROPONTE: No. Jim was very fair. He was our boss and he was the one who edited our work. We were allowed to call it the way we saw it. He loved our reports. He was really interested in what we found out. He was a terrific supervisor. We would write this stuff and he would say, “Boy, this is really great.”
Or he would tell you, “It was lousy.”
We were encouraged to go out and just find out what we could.
Q: Let’s talk about that. How did you out and what were you looking for?
NEGROPONTE: The mandate was very broad. The mandate was to find out what you can and bring back information, material and analysis that will give us a feel for what is going on politically, militarily, economically and otherwise in that particular province. We did it on a province-by-province basis. It was a geographic focus. That was basically our mandate.
We would normally go and stay at the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) headquarters. We would stay with the sector advisors, except if you went to some big city like Nha Trang, where you would stay in a hotel. Why miss an opportunity to stay in a hotel on a beach somewhere if you could? If you stayed with the sector advisor, you would meet the province chief and province officials. You would call on the Buddhist or Catholic priests. The usual suspects. It was a reporting job.
When you would go out one or two times, you would find fairly routine stuff. By the time you’ve hit a province three or four times, you begin to be able to detect changes. So that’s what you did. I did that job for a year and a half.
Q: MACV were military advisors at that time.
NEGROPONTE: Right, sector advisors.
Q: We’re getting close to the infusion of major American forces. NEGROPONTE: At the time, there weren’t. When I got there, there wasn’t. Q: How did you find the American military advisors?
NEGROPONTE: Most had a tendency to want to say things were going better than they really were. There was a tendency to say my “counterpart is a real tiger, and they are making progress.” I would say that was a tendency, although it wasn’t uniform. I can remember some advisors impressing me as much more knowledgeable than others, particularly when we got into some of the really tough situations, like in Binh Dinh Province and Phu Yen Province, right south of Binh Dinh. The NVA were strong there. They were really tearing the place up. I remember that the advisors were very sober and very good analysts of what was going on.
Q: How were seen when the NVA came in? Were they that much better than ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam)?
NEGROPONTE: Yes, these were the best NVA units. They were better than ARVN. ARVN had been used to fighting guerilla actions, the remnants of the Viet Minh and the local guerillas. They had not fought any main force actions for a long time. That’s not entirely true, because the Viet Cong had some main force units too. They had some organized.
That really changed the equation. Let’s go back a bit. I believe in 1959 the Politburo issued a directive to revive the guerilla war in the south, because unification had not been achieved. South Vietnam did not fall into their laps the way they had hoped it would.
Q: Was this after the 1954 Accords?
NEGROPONTE: Right, and there were going to be elections in 1956. There was sort of a vague call for elections in the Geneva Accords. Well, the country didn’t get reunified, so they revived the guerilla movement. What they first did was revive the guerillas who had stayed behind. By 1964, sometime in early 1964, there must be a Politburo meeting that meets and says we are not achieving our objectives fast enough. Diem has been overthrown. This presents an opportunity to move in for the kill. That would be my colloquial way of summing it up.
So they decided to send these NVA units in, which is what precipitates, for us five or six months later, this agonizing decision as to what to do about them. This comes to a crunch point in winter 1964-65, right?
Q: There was this mortaring of our barracks at Pleiku.
NEGROPONTE: That was in about February 1965, when McGeorge Bundy was visiting.
Let me tell you an interesting anecdote, which you may want to verify, but I assure you it is true.
In July 1964, John Helble was Consul in Hue. He reported to us and to Washington by telegram that the ARVN First Division has just captured two prisoners from NVA Battalion number so-and-so. He says that if true, and he was convinced it was true, this would be the first confirmed presence of a North Vietnamese unit in South Vietnam.
Silence from Washington and from Maxwell Taylor, who was then ambassador for a few days.
About a week later, the response to the Helble message arrived stating “henceforth, Mr. Helble, do not send your telegrams to Washington. They will be cleared in Saigon first.”
The reason for that was that LBJ and the people around him put out the word that we don’t want any surprises, anything. We don’t want to see information coming in that suggests that the war might be escalating, because we’ve got a political campaign going on here. We don’t want to have to answer the question about what are we going to do if the war escalates?
It wasn’t because they didn’t want to face up to reality. They just didn’t want the reality to come to the attention of the American people too soon.
I always thought that was very amusing. Helble sends in probably one of the most interesting nuggets that has ever been reported to Washington, and the grateful response he got was don’t send us any more reports like that. Send all your stuff to Saigon. I thought it was a real slap in the face. Helble is around somewhere.
Q: Yes, John has been interviewed. I did an interview with him. I hope he covered that point.
NEGROPONTE: I’m sure he did.
Q: Were you feeling constraints yourself?
NEGROPONTE: No, never. I never felt constrained in what I myself reported. Never. I know some people later on, that was a complaint a few years later. I never did, and I’m quite an outspoken person. I would have chafed if I had been told not to.
Q: What about corruption? Was this one of the things you were looking at? How well was the central government exercising control over the provinces?
NEGROPONTE: Yes and no. Corruption became a bigger issue later on. Certainly, I don’t think it was that big of an issue in the early 1960s, in 1964-65 when I got there. Maybe I am now interlacing this with subsequent experiences, but my own personal take on that based on my 37-year Foreign Service career, is that corruption is very hard to document. While you want to keep your eyes and ears open, you also have to be very careful about what and whom you believe. You learn very fast that corruption accusations become a weapon of choice, simply used to discredit political adversaries. It goes on all the time. Documenting corruption is a very difficult thing to do. I have always been very careful about that.
Q: Also, if it’s pervasive, obviously our political system is corrupt because of influence and money, if you over-reported it tends to vitiate all the other things that are happening. Our political process tends to focus on that.
NEGROPONTE: Again, I will credit Jim Rosenthal with this. We tended to focus more on the related issue. We cast it slightly differently. One of the things he wanted us to write about was did the villages, hamlets, and provinces we visited have good governance? He felt very strongly that a lot of this came down to whether you were well governed. So we did have our eye out for who was a good leader, who seemed not to be, who was an inspirational figure and who was not. Certainly, one of the things we were looking for was an assessment of leadership qualities.
Q: What were you finding in your particular areas at that time, as far as the ability of the province leaders to the town to the village level? I am thinking particularly those sent out from Saigon…
NEGROPONTE: I would say that most were sort of average. There was a very strong colonial legacy, almost a colonial inertia in the way things were done. They were not up to the challenge of a wartime situation. Occasionally, you would meet a real bright light in the process.
Q: Were we doing much in aid at that time?
NEGROPONTE: Yes, there was a big aid program.
Q: Were you monitoring the aid program to see how well they were doing?
NEGROPONTE: Yes, to the extent that we would go and visit aid projects. We would get to know not only the military advisors, but the civilian officials as well. Although frankly, I don’t remember doing as much in the area of reporting on our aid programs as I did on political and military developments.
We were focused a lot on following political activities, because there was so much political turmoil at the time in Saigon. There was also a lot of political party activity throughout the country. And there was the Buddhist movement. We were very attuned as to what the Buddhists were doing.
Q: What about political activity? Was there much in the way of how things were being done out in Nha Trang or Qui Nhon?
NEGROPONTE: There was some, not much. The Buddhist movement was active up in central Vietnam. That was where its stronghold was, as you remember. Then you had a number of different elections that took place over the years.
Q: Were you monitoring elections?
NEGROPONTE: Later on, one of my jobs was to report on the process leading up to the elections. Then I monitored all the debates at the Constituent Assembly in 1966.
Q: Going back to this reporting period—what happened when all these refugees starting pouring into your area from the NVA?
NEGROPONTE: The Catholic church took care of them, in Qui Nhon anyway. They played a strong role.
Q: What was our analysis of what the NVA was trying to do?
NEGROPONTE: There were various theories. If I remember correctly, one of the main theories was that the NVA was trying to cut the country in half, that they were trying to take possession of II Corps and isolate Saigon and the delta from the rest of the country. That was sort of the conventional wisdom at the time. There may have been some truth to it.
Q: It sort of worked out that way later on.
What about the military situation? Were we running a sort of counter check? I mean, were the young officers in the field keeping an eye on what the military situation was, even though we had military advisors?
NEGROPONTE: We were reporting on it quite extensively. I wouldn’t call it a counter check. Some of the people in MACV didn’t like our reporting, because it wasn’t formatted or structured the way their own reporting was. I think they complained to Ambassador Taylor about it, because he called us in a couple of times and asked us why we were duplicating some of the military reporting. It wasn’t done in such a way as to discourage us from doing it. We continued to report on military developments. He didn’t lean on us in any particular way.
Q: Of course, there’s a certain amount of almost bias built into the military system. If you’re the advisor to a certain military unit or something…
NEGROPONTE: You can’t say that that unit isn’t any good.
NEGROPONTE: Occasionally we would.
Q: For a military man, if you say the unit isn’t performing well…
NEGROPONTE: It’s a reflection on you.
Q: It reflects on you.
NEGROPONTE: My counterpart is a real tiger, like the famous quote.
I’ve got to take you fast forward for a minute here. You mentioned Pleiku and the mortaring of Pleiku in February. Of course, we began to bomb North Vietnam. We sent the contingent of marines.
I got sent to Hue in March and April 1965 as the Acting Consul, because the Consul was on home leave.
Q: To I Corps.
NEGROPONTE: That was the first experience. I was to go there again in a much more intense situation later. I went in March and April 1965, just to stand in for Sam Thomsen because he went on home leave or something. It was a crucial period for me, because I got to know the central Vietnamese scene a lot better. Hue really was the capital of Central Vietnam. I got to know Tri Quang, the Buddhist leader and monk. I made frequent trips down to his pagoda. I got to know some of the radicals. They really were radicals, intellectuals at the university at Hue. I got the flavor of the anti-Saigon rebellious elements of the country. It was a useful and important experience for me.
Q: What was our reading of Tri Quang?
NEGROPONTE: In the subsequent year, there was a Buddhist rebellion, in 1966. I happened again to be up in Hue, temporarily in charge of the consulate, in March and April 1966, when Hue effectively seceded from the rest of the republic. The police force and the military in the region were all in rebellion against Saigon. They were in a state of rebellion. I had policemen demonstrating in front of the consulate every day. They were all basically following Tri Quang’s orders.
This lasted for about two months, this rebellion. It all had to do with the fact that Saigon had sacked a general by the name of Nguyen Chanh Thi. General Thi had been fired and refused to step down from his job as commander of the first corps. He holed out in Hue, and in cahoots with Tri Quang, he staged this rebellion.
I was left there in this very tense situation. I can remember going to Saigon several times and meeting with the country team. Here I was, 25 years old, and meeting all these high- ranking officials like Westmoreland, Bill Porter and others. They were asking me whether I thought Tri Quang was a communist. I always stuck to my guns on this one. I said I didn’t think he was. I thought he was a misguided nationalist. I really thought that passionately, he had Vietnam’s best interests at heart. He was just wrong-headed in the way he went about it. I could see considerable skepticism around the table as I made this point. It was a point of disagreement.
There, I think there was a generational issue. I think someone like myself could empathize with someone like Tri Quang better than people who were older than I was.
So I would say the take on Tri Quang was mixed. It always was mixed. You remember, of course, that we gave him asylum in 1963 when he was fleeing Diem’s police. He stayed in the embassy in Saigon.
Q: Whoever was his handler, I’ve interviewed.
NEGROPONTE: It was Jim Rosenthal. He’ll tell you. Jim is as hardline and conservative as they get. I’m sure he said the same thing. I doubt he thought that Tri Quang was a communist. I think that’s been borne out subsequently. I think that later the communists jailed him a couple of times. I didn’t feel good for Tri Quang; I felt sorry for him, but I felt somewhat vindicated in my viewpoint.
Q: Did you find there was a problem in that it was easier for Catholics to talk to American officials like yourself than for Buddhists? Was this a problem?
NEGROPONTE: I’ll tell you what I think. The Buddhist conflict in Vietnam was to a large extent artificial. There was something to it, but was fairly minor, in my opinion. I think Tri Quang seized upon it as an issue and exploited it to the hilt for political purposes.
On the other hand, I think your question is a good one in the sense that Catholics tended to speak French more. They were more Western oriented. Almost by definition, by virtue of being Catholics, they had a little more of a Western outlook. In all honesty, I don’t think Vietnamese society was nearly as polarized as Tri Quang made it out to be. It certainly was not polarized in the south and in the delta. It was a very calm and tranquil society socially. There may have been some polarization in Central Vietnam.
Q: Were you able, either in Hue or when you were working in II Corps, to talk to Buddhist monks, attendants, or that sort of thing? What were you getting, if you were?
NEGROPONTE: Do you mean people other than…
Q: At the very top. In other words, the young priests, the young acolytes.
NEGROPONTE: I met a few, but I can’t say I went about it… I really focused on the people we felt had some political influence. We ourselves treated Buddhists as a political matter. I don’t think we spent much time looking into the religious side of things. We were interested in them because they had a political voice and they had visibility in Vietnam. Therefore, we felt it behooved us to know what they were thinking. Secondly, we were trying to influence them, to keep the lid on the situation. We were saying, “Hey, you guys. There’s a war going on. While we respect your political views and all of that, we thought you ought to keep that in mind as plan your activities.”
That didn’t work very well with Tri Quang. He did some very disruptive stuff.
Q: What was your impression of the people, in II Corps particularly, who were sent out to the villages as teachers and all that? Was there a city versus village problem?
NEGROPONTE: You know, I don’t remember that much about that. What I do remember is that as the war intensified, more and more people left the countryside and came into the cities. The cities really got swollen during the war. So I guess if anything, it was just hard to get good people to go into the countryside, very hard.
Q: I’m just trying to think of anything else about this particular time. You were moved out of II Corps…
NEGROPONTE: I did two 18-month, almost two-year, tours in Vietnam. My first 18 months was doing this provincial reporting. Then I came back. I was first put in the political-military unit for a little while. We had an inspection. I was kind of oblivious to it, because I was too young to know any better, but several people complained to the inspectors saying that I had been put in the political-military unit because I was being faulted for my views in Hue, my assessment of the Buddhist movement, and all that.
They wanted me out of political reporting for a while.
The inspectors made an issue of that. So Phil Habib moved me to a very interesting job, which was covering the Constituent Assembly. So he assigned me and Dave Lambertson, who you may have interviewed, to the Constituent Assembly. The outcome of the Buddhist Rebellion in 1966 was for the government to agree to the election of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. It was understood this would be followed by new presidential elections.
So there was a Constituent Assembly election in 1966. Throughout 1967, they wrote the new constitution. My job was to monitor what the Constituent Assembly was doing.
Q: Before we get to that, Phil Habib is a really major figure in American foreign policy since 1942. How did he strike in this particular aspect? How did he operate?
NEGROPONTE: He was just the best boss we all had. He was just terrific. He was full of energy. He was the street smartest guy I ever met in my life. He was indefatigable. He worked all the time. He had these great sayings, you know. There’s 24 hours in every day, and all that kind of stuff. He would make us work like hell, but he really shook the place up. He just got everybody moving. He was basically Henry Cabot Lodge’s alter ego. That’s what he became. In addition to being Political Counselor, he was really Lodge’s main counselor.
Q: You were a junior officer there. What was the impression you gained, particularly from your contemporaries, of Lodge as an ambassador?
NEGROPONTE: He was a well-meaning and a well-motivated guy. He really needed people like Phil around him. I don’t think his operational sense was very good. I think his political instincts were excellent. He had good political instincts. He put a good face on the United States there. As you know, he had a great deal of charm. Broad brush, Henry Cabot Lodge was just fine. How you deal with all these little situations was something that he just wasn’t that used to, in my opinion. Someone like Phil became an indispensable advisor to him. I would say he relied totally on Phil Habib.
Q: Habib did not come with a background in Vietnam, did he?
NEGROPONTE: No, but he had served in Korea. He certainly had a background in political work. He was a great political analyst. Actually, he had done some work on helping to write the Korean constitution. One of the first things he did was to get the same guy that had helped him work on the Korean constitution to come over. This was a guy called Flanz, a professor in constitutional law from NYU (New York University). He came out and was there during the entire time that the Constituent Assembly was writing the constitution. He was available to give advice to the Constituent Assembly.
Q: How did this work?
NEGROPONTE: It didn’t work very well.
Q: I mean to say here that the Vietnamese are not an unsophisticated bunch of people.
NEGROPONTE: It did not work as either Phil or Mr. Flanz wanted it to, but he was there nonetheless.
Q: Did you find that when you were working with the politicians that this is a different breed of cat than you had been dealing with in the province and the military?
NEGROPONTE: A lot of them were from the provinces. They represented the provinces. No, I think they were quite similar to some of the top leaders you would meet in the province capitals. They were very interesting. I got to know them all.
Phil had managed to convince us that Lyndon Johnson was reading every one of our reports every night before he went to bed, so we took our reporting responsibilities very seriously. We would write literally 30, 40 and 50-page telegrams, describing in excruciating detail what had gone on in the debates in the Constituent Assembly. By the time it was over, I knew every clause in that constitution and how every sentence had evolved through the debates on the floor.
Q: Outside of exercising this exquisite reporting opportunity, did we have any issues at hand that we were concerned about?
NEGROPONTE: Yes we did, but if you ask me to remember now, I couldn’t give you many details. I certainly remember two.
One was whether there ought to be a president, the whole idea of a presidential system. Perhaps more importantly, the thing that we thought was most important was the adequacy of the emergency provisions in the constitution.
We had a handful of issues that we tried to influence. The main this was we wanted it to get done as expeditiously as possible so that they could actually order the election, which they eventually did.
Q: Were you feeling the pressure of the war? Or was it a feeling that okay, there’s a war going on, but they’ve got it more or less under control?
NEGROPONTE: I think the pressure was more to be able to point to favorable political developments in South Vietnam, because this country was moving towards the era of political democracy and political stability. I think that was the pressure. The government needed some legitimacy, which it didn’t have. The overthrow of Diem created this very unstable political period.
Q: There were these revolving leaders, and on and on and on.
NEGROPONTE: It stabilized after a while.
Q: How was this coming out?
NEGROPONTE: I think this was one of great things of concern. You had Diem’s overthrow. Then Nguyen Khanh overthrows Duong Van Minh. Then there’s a lot of turmoil. That plays into this Buddhist uprising and everything else I was talking to you about. Then President Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky emerged from that.
In order for them to hang on to the reins of power, I think the feeling in the embassy was, and I think the feeling in the Vietnamese body politic was that they had to commit to some pathway to democracy. That’s what led to the Constituent Assembly and the electoral process. Ultimately, Thieu got elected under this new constitution.
Q: Did you feel that with all the debate that Thieu or Ky or somebody was calling all the shots? Or was this a pretty…
NEGROPONTE: No, I thought we were living through a real process. Considering that there was a war going on, I’ve always considered that South Vietnam was fairly democratic really, under the circumstances. After all they were only 10 or 13 years away from having been a colony. They weren’t doing too badly.
Q: Even during the time I was there a little bit later, I was thinking there’s a judicial process going on, compared to other countries at the time.
NEGROPONTE: I think they had some pretty good institutions. It’s just they weren’t strong enough to withstand the military pressure.
Q: Did you find yourself at all getting involved and saying gee, you ought to work a little harder on this article or that article of the constitution? Or was it pretty passive?
NEGROPONTE: Personally, it was pretty passive. I think we had a few sessions where we would invite them around to Phil Habib’s house, some of the deputies, for Sunday lunch. Phil and Mr. Flanz would tell them what we thought. I never thought we influenced them that much. My experience with them was that, basically in the end they politely heard what you had to say. They pretty much did what they planned to do anyway.
Maybe there was someone behind the scenes maneuvering, like Thieu or Ky, maybe a little bit of money here and there. There must have been some of that.
Q: Let’s go to your first tour when you were down in II Corps. The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), was that much of a factor?
NEGROPONTE: Not in the field. In fact, I don’t remember them in the field. They were a factor in terms of their reporting, their perception of things. We used to have some healthy debate, but I don’t remember any fundamental disagreements with them.
Q: How about when you got into the Saigon scene? Were they playing any role? Did you think they may have had some guys on the take or in the delegations?
NEGROPONTE: There was one situation, I can’t remember now whether it was in 1966 or 1967, when it came time to have this presidential election—I believe it was in 1967—I don’t think there was any doubt that Phil, the CIA and others were much more supportive of Ky than Thieu. I do remember that myself and a few others, Bob Oakley, felt that Thieu had the greater sources of support within the Vietnamese military. We turned out to be right.
Q: This is tape 2, side 1 with John Negroponte. What was the attraction to Ky?
NEGROPONTE: He was more Americanized, I think. He spoke English better. Perhaps we knew him better. He wasn’t as aloof. Thieu was a fairly inscrutable fellow, more Asian, more traditional.
Q: I supposed this in a way would have sent warning shivers up and down, having gone through Diem.
NEGROPONTE: That’s right.
Q: You didn’t want to have another one.
NEGROPONTE: He was analogized a little bit to Diem in that sense. I don’t think he was considered as authoritarian, but he was certainly more traditional, to this day. Look how quiet he has been.
Q: Is he still in Hawaii?
NEGROPONTE: I think he’s in Boston. Maybe you’re thinking of Marcos.
Q: No, I think Thieu went originally to Hawaii.
NEGROPONTE: He lived in London for a while, but then Boston.
Q: How about the atmosphere of the embassy during this period? You weren’t there when it blew up, were you?
NEGROPONTE: Yes I was, in 1965.
Q: How did that go?
NEGROPONTE: I wasn’t in the embassy. I happened that preceding week to have been in the provinces. I had a back problem and I was in a field hospital in Nha Trang. They released me that morning. I got back to Saigon and the bombing had just taken place. I remember a lot of my friends got a lot of these terrible glass wounds. I think it had kind of a unifying effect. It certainly didn’t deter anybody or discourage anybody. People were kind of upset to have all these wounds. There were some heroic stories too.
Edie Smith in the consular section down on the ground floor, she had figured out what was going on. She got everybody in the whole section to lie down on the floor about two or three seconds before the bomb went off. She later became Edie Apple, after she married Johnny Apple from the New York Times. She saved a lot of lives.
Quite a few people got these glass wounds because they heard that policemen fired shots at the Citroen that came by the embassy. It parked right in front, full of plastique. The chauffeur jumped out and jumped on a passing motorcycle. The cops shot at them. So when the shots were fired, everybody went rushing to the windows. Then the bomb went off.
Q: When did you leave there?
NEGROPONTE: I left three weeks before the Tet Offensive, in January 1968.
Q: Were you getting any feel from correspondence, reading newspapers, or something, about the growing opposition to the war?
NEGROPONTE: Oh yes. Ellsworth Bunker had taken me back with him to Washington in November 1967, which was a fairly key trip of his. He appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He made some speeches in New York. No, the controversy back here was pretty evident. Of course, we were up to 500,000 troops. We were fighting that war every night. Every night we would meet with correspondents and everybody else. They were all my buddies. We would debate this thing ad nauseam, whether it was right, whether it was wrong, whether it could be won. As you can imagine, all these debates were just inconclusive.
Q: What was your impression of the media? You were there when the media was really concentrated on it, before it turned really…
NEGROPONTE: I had no beef with them. I didn’t read all their reports, unlike today when you can get a news report at the drop of a hat. In those days, remember, it wasn’t that easy. You didn’t get the New York Times or the Herald Tribune delivered to your doorstep every day. I didn’t read their stuff that much on the wireless. We were too busy doing our work. I was certainly on good terms with them. I had no beef with them.
Q: What I was really wondering is, was the feeling developing in the embassy at that time that these are the enemy, they are cutting us down?
NEGROPONTE: No, I didn’t feel that. I think the military felt that more than we did, I really do. I didn’t feel that, I never did. I think also it was maybe vain to try to influence the media. Knowing the American press, there are just limits to what you can do to influence how they report something. If you try too hard, sometimes I think it’s even worse. I think that’s why ended up calling the daily press briefing the Five O’clock Follies, you remember. God knows, Barry Zorthian who ran that, Harold Kaplan, and all of them, they were just wonderful officers, great guys. They were well motivated, decent and honorable. There is just a limit to what the press in the United States will take from its own government.
I think they ought to reflect a bit on their role, reflect whether they were just too automatically skeptical of what we had to tell them. This idea that we were trying to sell them a bill of goods is just nonsense. People were doing their best to present the situation as they saw it.
Q: You said you were with Bunker. Did you change your job at some point? Or was that just…
NEGROPONTE: No, he just asked me to come back as his aide for one trip. I was in the political section. I guess I had finished reporting on the Constituent Assembly, because it was no more, and I was just doing regular internal political reporting.
My big takeaway from Vietnam during that period, probably the thing I feel most strongly about, was that Westmoreland was not the right man for the job. I remember attending a briefing in 1967 when Bunker had arrived.
Westy briefed the country team. I guess I was there as a note-taker of some kind. I was there for some reason. He briefed them on the strategy for fighting the war. He basically told Bunker he thought we could win a war of attrition by positioning U.S. troops in between the North Vietnamese Army and South Vietnamese Army, by having our people fight the North Vietnamese Army while the Saigon military defend the villages. I walked out of that meeting just scratching my head and saying this is a prescription for keeping us there forever. If Saigon doesn’t take on some of this burden, they are never going to want to assume responsibility for the war, and we probably can’t win a war of attrition.
The North Vietnamese have got more people that they are prepared to throw at this thing.
I really thought that the war was suffering from some very poor generalship on our side. I thought Craig Abrams was terrific when he came. The interesting historical point is that apparently LBJ debated in 1964 the possibility of having Abrams replace General Harkins, rather than Westmoreland. For some reason, he settled on Westy instead of Abrams. I have never ceased to wonder what might have happened if LBJ had chosen Abrams instead of Westy in the first place.
I think Westy has gotten off pretty lightly. People are reluctant to criticize an American four star general. They just are, I suppose you noticed. Considering the enormity of the failure, I am sometimes surprised.
Q: The political leadership has taken the heat, the blame, more.
NEGROPONTE: Maybe it should, in the sense that they should have asked more searching questions, like Mr. McNamara did. At the same time, particularly when Americans say well, we ought to let the military have their way; we ought to follow their lead; and let them the war. You know, Westy did not have a winning strategy. Sorry. If you let him have his way, he just would have put in more people. He asked for another 206,000 people in 1968, in the face of what he himself portrayed as a major Viet Cong defeat, which I think it was. But why ask for 206,000 more troops? I do think that was probably one of the salient takeaways for me. I believe Westmoreland’s request for 200 thousand more troops after Tet had a catastrophic effect on attitudes back home. Imagine if instead, he had called for a reduction of 100 thousand troops in the wake of the Viet Cong defeat. Things might have been very different.
Q: When did you leave?
NEGROPONTE: I left on January 6TH, 1968.
Q: That was just before Tet.
NEGROPONTE: It was three and a half weeks before Tet.
Q: When you left there, whither Vietnam in your judgment?
NEGROPONTE: I didn’t have a clue. I left absolutely exhausted. I had worked my butt off for three and a half years, 20 hours a day. I wanted to get away from my Vietnam experience. I wanted to go and do something else.
I got myself an assignment to USUN (United States Mission to the United Nations in New York). The hitch was that there wasn’t money to put me in that assignment until the new fiscal year, which started on July 1st. So they roped me into going back to the Vietnam desk, going around the country to speak on our Vietnam policy, and to work on the Vietnam desk. The consequence of which was when the Paris Peace Talks began and because I was a Vietnamese language officer, as well as a good friend and colleague of
both Phil Habib and Richard Holbrooke, I was recruited to be the Vietnamese language officer on the Paris delegation. My New York assignment went up in smoke.
Q: I think this is a good place to stop.
I’ll put it at the end here, so we’ll know to do it: we’ve got you out of Vietnam. You’re on the Vietnamese desk, going around making speeches. I would like to ask a bit about your experiences of giving speeches on a very unpopular topic and all that. Then we’ll pick up your time on the Paris Peace Talks.
NEGROPONTE: That’s a good end.
Q: Today is 11 July 2012. We are, after an eleven-year hiatus, picking up with John Negroponte. John, the last time we had you coming out of Vietnam. We stopped just before you got involved with the Vietnam peace talks; you were sent around as an officer with Vietnamese experience to talk to various groups. I wonder if you could talk about this a bit. This was a program where the State Department kind of threw its junior officers into the maw of public unhappiness about Vietnam. I was wondering what you experienced.
NEGROPONTE: First of all when I left Saigon it was the sixth or seventh of January. 1968, which was three weeks before the Tet offensive. So that was kind of interesting because I had gone to Thailand for a few weeks just on holiday from Saigon, and then was in Hong Kong wending my way back to the States when the Tet offensive occurred.
I was with a group of friends and was just stunned by this offensive. I mean, some in our military had talked about a buildup in the north, sending supplies to the south. I remember coming back with Ellsworth Bunker in ’67. I was carrying his bag from the trip he took to Washington in the wintertime. Westmoreland and others were saying there was a big buildup, but it wasn’t evident to those of us in the Embassy. So we were really surprised by that.
I was headed to an assignment at the United Nations. I wanted to get away from my Vietnam experience. Ellsworth Bunker had actually asked me to stay longer and be his aide, and I said, “I can’t. I am exhausted. I have been knocking myself out for three and a half years at this work I am doing here.” So I got myself a job assigned as a political officer at our mission to the United Nations (USUN). That is where I was headed.
I don’t know if you remember, in those days the fiscal year started on the first of July. They didn’t have money to put me in that job. The State Department was just as bureaucratic as it is today, so they couldn’t put me in the job until the first of July. So they said, the Vietnam Desk gobbles people up easily. They will give you work. The first thing they asked me to do was go on this speaking tour. We were a threesome. We were like a truth squad. I don’t know if you remember Fisher Howe.
Q: Yes I have interviewed Fisher.
NEGROPONTE: Fisher Howe and I and another fellow whose name I can’t recall. We went to Indiana for a whole week in March of 1968, and rented a car and drove around to half a dozen cities. We spoke at universities, high schools, radio shows. I counted something like 45 different public appearances or something in the period of that time. By the way, it was not unpleasant. We didn’t have tomatoes thrown at us. At the high schools people were extremely polite and very respectful. In college you got a little bit of pushback. I would not say that Indiana in the heartland there was that much upset that we encountered over the war. Not like the East Coast.
Q: The East Coast and the West Coast. That is where one thinks of the extremes. Maybe Chicago or something.
NEGROPONTE: Yeah but it was not in Indiana. That was the place I went. Ball State University, various places. It was very interesting. We had radio interviews. Frankly I thought it was a great program on the part of the State Department. I am not sure we have done as much of it over the years as we ought to have, in terms of relating the work we do abroad back to the American people.
Q: Because this is one of the hardest things we have. That is in a way what this oral history program is all about. What do American diplomats and people involved with foreign affairs actually do? The answer is very few people know. And we have a hard time explaining ourselves, because it is not the cut and dried run.
NEGROPONTE: It wasn’t too hard to explain what I was doing in Vietnam, because people were very interested in what was going on in Vietnam. So look, we were the eyes and ears of the embassy in the field. I had been a provincial reporter. I had done all the things we talked about in the earlier interview. I think the audiences related to that.
In any event, what happened was between that time and the first of July events interfered as they normally do. Lyndon Johnson at the end of March, actually shortly after this speaking tour, announced that he was going to halt the bombing or partially halt the bombing, I forget which, of North Vietnam as a gesture of goodwill to promote peace talks. Ultimately we ended up agreeing to peace talks with North Vietnam.
Averill Harriman and Cyrus Vance were named to co-head the delegation. Phil Habib, who had been my boss in Saigon. He had been the political counselor, was charged with pulling together a delegation. Richard Holbrooke—the ubiquitous Richard Holbrooke—was one of his chief assistants in that project. I was one of the first people: since Dick had been my roommate in Saigon, he called me up and asked me if I would be willing to go to Paris. I said, “Oh gosh, I really want to go to this job at the UN in New York. I am dying to get away from my Vietnam experience.” I went through the whole ritual.
Nothing doing. I ended up having my arm twisted.
Q: You don’t say no to Richard Holbrooke.
NEGROPONTE: Well and you don’t say no to Phil Habib either. You can actually say no easier to Dick than you can to Phil.
So I became part of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks. Because I spoke Vietnamese at the time, I have pretty much forgotten it since then. I was basically made the Vietnamese language officer of the delegation. Not an interpreter, believe me, but the language officer. That resulted in me becoming the liaison officer with the North Vietnamese delegation, which was extremely interesting.
We all piled into a government aircraft in the early days of May in ’68. The talks started around the eighth. I was involved in the process right from the beginning, because we were setting it up and I was the liaison and everything else. I was one of the officers who arranged the meetings between the heads of delegations and so on and so forth.
We would go out to the North Vietnamese compound. They had been given a compound by the French Communist party in a suburb of Paris. We had moved into the Crillon hotel which Woodrow Wilson had used some 50 years earlier in Paris, which is right next to the embassy building as you know, right next to the chancery, and we were in the Crillon. We had offices in the embassy of course, but when we had our meetings with the North Vietnamese liaison officers they would come and visit us right at the Crillon. We would have tea in the lobby somewhere in some corner of the hotel. I remember the liaison officer asking me once, “Did your delegation buy this hotel for the conference?” It is one of the most expensive hotels in Paris. Today I am sure it would cost a billion dollars or something like that.
Q: Were you involved in the table arrangement?
NEGROPONTE: Oh absolutely. I can tell you all about that. So in any event, the talks started. The plenary talks started in early May of ’68. We had this plenary session one day a week up at the French international conference center. It was called the Hotel Majestic. It is up on Avenue Kleber like at the other end of the Champs-Élysées, a ten minute car ride especially if you have motorcycle escorts.
The French were so excited about having the Vietnam peace talks in Paris that they gave Ambassador Vance and Governor Harriman every facility including motorcycle escorts. These guys had big leather gloves with lead inside them so when they banged against cars that were getting in the way you would hear this clanging sound. Really it was quite ferocious. But they cleared traffic. When people see French “Motards” as they called them, they really get out of the way.
People were getting out of the way anyway because you may remember another small thing was happening in France at that time just as we arrived. And the events of 1968. It was literally in May that they had the first of the incidents.
Q: You may explain what those events were.
NEGROPONTE: Well, it was an uprising against the educational system and everything else, which basically paralyzed the country for the next month and a half, and just shut the place down. It was so bad that President de Gaulle left Paris and went to a French army base in Alsace Lorraine during part of this crisis.
There was nothing going on in Paris at that time. The garbage was not being collected. The only two things that were happening were Les Évenéments. I don’t know the right word for it in English but that is what they called it. Les Évenéments, with thousands of students who had taken over the place and the Paris peace talks. Those were the only two things that were going on.
And of course the French had egg all over their face because they had hoped to hold up this conference as a big symbol of their prestige. They just had other things to worry about than our conference. But we carried on nonetheless, and eventually de Gaulle came back at the end of June. I remember sitting with Dick in the delegation office in the embassy.
We were so excited by de Gaulle’s return. They mobilized one of these very popular marches at the Place de la Concorde. Those of you who know Paris – from the Concorde going up the Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Dick and I were running in the streets joining the demonstration and marched. I never heard French people saying, “America with us,” and cheering when they passed Merrill Lynch or when they saw an American flag. They were so happy law and order was being restored. At least the people in this crowd. I remember that very well.
In any event these plenaries went on, week in and week out: stereotypical statements, boilerplate, nothing doing. As you know, that process basically went on from ’68 to four years later, to mid ’72. Meanwhile we used to have these tea breaks where we were hoping, at least Governor Harriman was hoping against hope that we might have more substantive talks. But nothing much happened in the tea breaks either.
So at one point, I guess it was around June ’68, we got authorization to hold some actual secret talks with the North Vietnamese to see if we could get some things going anywhere. So I had a very interesting assignment. I was assigned the job to go along with a CIA agent called Jacques. I won’t mention his last name. We were given the job of finding a safe house in the suburbs of Paris where we could host the North Vietnamese delegation for secret meetings. That was a lot of fun. I felt like a real estate agent.
Q: How does one go about this thing?
NEGROPONTE: Jacques. Jacques found a real estate agent who was taking him around. He made up these most incredible stories on why we were getting this. He was going to rent this house for his retired uncle and his wife. People were asking, why would his uncle and his wife like such a big place? Does he plan to have help and so on and so forth. He would say he really likes to be a busybody and so on. He loved to make this stuff up. “Mon oncle est un bricoleur.” I don’t know how you translate “bricoleur” into English but it is like a handyman.
Anyway we found a good place. I was fixated on the idea we had to get a place with underground garage space so we could drive these delegations right in there without anybody seeing them. So anyway, we got our safe house.
Q: Did the North Vietnamese agree to secret talks?
NEGROPONTE: Oh they agreed to secret talks, but they didn’t say anything very different in the secret talks from the public ones. They just said “you guys have got to stop the bombing and get the heck out of here.”
Q: Did you have a feeling that this was a process that wasn’t going anywhere?
NEGROPONTE: It didn’t go anywhere. I have written stuff about this. I wrote papers back in ’69. After I left Paris I went to Stanford for a year and I wrote about five or six monographs. They were finally sort of published in part recently. But I never felt that they were going to settle for anything short of taking over the place lock stock, and barrel.
Q: At one point there was a great deal of discussion in the paper over how the delegations were to be seated.
NEGROPONTE: What happened was we had these secret talks in the fall of ’68. Then our elections were looming. LBJ said he wasn’t going to run. Richard Nixon and Humphrey were the two candidates. So the elections approached, you could sense in the leadership of the delegation who were both Democrats. Vance certainly was not very partisan. Harriman was very partisan, absolutely partisan. I liked Governor Harriman a lot but he was a real Democrat.
They wanted to make progress on the talks, and they really felt that could help Humphrey get elected. So we got into a discussion in the beginning of October. This is very important to my own thinking in the rest of my career about negotiations and the Negroponte Rule: never negotiate anything important about the national security of the United States on the eve of a national election. You just mousetrap yourself into a situation of intolerable political pressure.
Well that is what we did. We maneuvered ourselves into that position where starting in October, late September of ’68, we started talking about a bombing halt. A halt of the bombing of North Vietnam, which we would carry out in exchange for certain steps by North Vietnam. It had nothing to do with finishing a war or a final settlement. If we stopped the bombing, they would reciprocate by lowering the level of attacks on cities, no more use of rocketry into the cities, certain kinds of steps that were basically designed to lower the level of violence but were hard to measure and were fairly nebulous and certainly were not conclusive or dispositive of the basic problems of the war.
Anyway that negotiating process went on right up until literally several days before our elections in November of ’68. Phil Habib and I were sitting in a French restaurant around eleven or twelve o’clock one night just before the bombing halt, which was literally two or three days before the elections, where we finally sealed the deal with North Vietnam. Okay, they would do it and we made this deal, and the bombing stopped. I guess they went to a lower level of violence. I am not so sure.
This thing was announced, but obviously too late to have an impact on the election. It was a Thursday or a Friday and the election was the following Tuesday. Humphrey lost, and I always wondered in my mind whether LBJ, I don’t think about domestic politics that much and I am really not partisan, but I always wondered whether LBJ did not really care that much about whether Humphrey won or lost. I always wondered how much he liked Humphrey. They were very different personalities, as you remember.
Q: Very different personalities and knowing Johnson’s ability to manipulate, one can’t help but wonder.
NEGROPONTE: If he had wanted Humphrey to win I think there might have been things they could have done sooner to shift things. You asked a question and I know it is a long winded way of getting to it.
The next step was going to be that the parties, the other parties to the conflict were going to join the talks. That was the other part of the deal. So we had the U.S. and North Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Then you had the Viet Cong and then the Saigon government. Therein was the nub of the whole political dispute about the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese wanted us to think of the Viet Cong as the governmental equivalent, this little rebel group which they totally controlled and created, to be the equivalent of the Saigon government.
Of course. Saigon under the leadership of President Nugyen Van Thieu went ballistic.
They just didn’t want to be equated with the Viet Cong, who they simply considered an instrument of Hanoi. So what we got into was a very elaborate diplomatic minuet, if you will, about how do you represent each side’s view of the political standing of these different entities in terms of the shape of the table and where people sit and everything else.
So that Hanoi obviously wanted something whereby there would be the Hanoi government and there would be the Viet Cong and their idea would be to have them as separate delegations, and then you would have the Saigon government and then the U.S. But we didn’t want this. We didn’t want the VC to be considered separate.
So, we had this huge argument about how to you shape the table. Do you make it a square, a rectangle, an oval, a circle with little perforated lines on either side? In fact, the media was making fun of this because they thought it was silly, but for the Vietnamese actors in this war it was almost a matter of life and death. We were getting, in keeping with the kind of light hearted attitudes towards this, we were getting designs submitted to us from all over the world. Table designers from Scandinavia and everybody else were submitting these elaborate architectural drawings. So we ended up actually with a slightly oval table and then with two small side tables on each side. Like so, with a little bit of space between the main table.
Q: So they weren’t actually attached.
NEGROPONTE: They weren’t actually touching and it is actually where the staff sat. It is where I sat with tape recorders and everything because I was responsible for maintaining the transcripts of the sessions, or overseeing them. Then Hanoi, they would sit, the Viet Cong would sit that way with them in the middle and we would sit this way next to each other.
We called it “our side-your side” talks. They would call it the “four party” talks. It is another rule of diplomacy. Sometimes in the end you just agree to let each side call things the way they want to call them. It is very often a good way for just clearing the way for a bit of progress on other issues. So that took us from November at post-election, November of ’68 all the way to January when we mounted a new government and had a new delegation. Nixon took office and his vice president, and we got a new delegation. Good old Henry Cabot Lodge came back, my boss in Saigon.
Q: Were you there during this?
NEGROPONTE: Oh yeah, I am there, in Paris.
Q: What about the government of South Vietnam? What were the relations? Did they feel we were just selling them down the river or what?
NEGROPONTE: You have to be patient for the next installment here, because four years later they actually do feel sold out. At this point they are simply fighting for what they consider to be their rights. They still have very strong U.S. government support. LBJ, Dean Rusk, all those people never pulled the plug on South Vietnam. Even though LBJ said he was going to not run again in order to find a solution to the war, he didn’t withdraw a single soldier.
So I think going into the Nixon administration and to the beginning of the Nixon administration, South Vietnam still felt quite confident. They knew they had to be wary of and they knew our interests were not identical and they knew we would want to get out of there. They also knew about our political exhaustion with the Vietnam issue. But I would say at that point in time at the beginning of the Nixon administration they were feeling rather confident of our overall support. So then Nixon comes in and Henry Cabot Lodge leads the delegation.
They key difference in the negotiations then becomes the following: Henry Kissinger became Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, and eventually, I would say in the spring or summer of 1969, Kissinger took over the secret talks with the Vietnamese. In other words, it was no longer being conducted from the Paris delegation. It was being conducted by the National Security Advisor with a team from Washington.
Q: Well was this done overtly or was this done, I mean were you on the open delegation aware that you were being undercut? Or were you preparing the way to be undercut or what?
NEGROPONTE: I left Paris in about August of 1969. I went to Stanford, as I mentioned to you. If there had been any secret meetings prior to that, there were very few and far between. At the time I was there I just don’t recall any awareness of that. It is definitely something that developed later on because I went to Stanford for a year. Do you want me to continue on the biographical part or get back to the Vietnam part?
Q: Let’s get back to the Vietnam part. What about relations within our delegation? What was your impression of the attitude of Harriman and of Vance? How did they lead?
NEGROPONTE: Well, we were very fortunate, because we had such a high-powered delegation. You can’t imagine the people we had there. We had, in addition to Harriman and Vance and Habib, we had Andy Goodpaster. He eventually became the head of NATO. He was Eisenhower’s military aide. This is a man of extraordinary stature. We had people like that. We had Dickson Davis, who was one of the most senior intelligence analysts in the CIA, giving us our daily brief. It almost was like listening to a TV anchor he was so good. It was really fun to listen to him brief us every morning. But the relationships were good. It was a team. It was very cohesive.
Q: What were you getting, say, from intelligence briefings? Anything else about what was motivating the North Vietnamese? Were they just going to sit there and hold on? Were they having any leeway? How were they operating?
NEGROPONTE: The North Vietnamese showed basically no flexibility in their political negotiating position. Which was basically to demand a stop to the bombing, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the installation of a Viet Cong government. It wasn’t enough that they wanted us to leave. They wanted us to kick over the can as we left. In exchange for all of that they were going to give us our prisoners of war back. That was basically the North Vietnamese position. It was from May of ’68 until about September of ’72. So you have to go all the way to 1972 for this to change.
Q: Did you have any chance to sit down with the North Vietnamese and chat?
NEGROPONTE: Well, some of these tea breaks and some of my liaison work. It was pretty superficial though. I liked dealing with them though, with the Vietnamese. Both North and South. I have great respect for them. They are hardworking people. Well, you know, if you served in Vietnam, they are smart and dedicated. Good sense of humor.
There are things about them I don’t think we understood well enough during that period, which I feel we understand better in retrospect. Namely their concerns about China.
Q: You were just saying what you were getting with your accountings was pretty much the assumption that the North Vietnamese and Chinese were as close as lops and teeth as they used to say.
NEGROPONTE: Which is not true. It turned out not to be true. We left Saigon finally when we withdrew in ’73, and they over ran Saigon in ’75 with regular forces and took over. Within four years they were at loggerheads with China. They had this war in 1979 where China decided to try and teach them a lesson.
Q: Yeah, and got a bloody nose. I spent about 18 months in Saigon. I was Consul General from ’69-’70. I mean these talks are going on and I don’t think they raised many concerns, It was like the weather or something. I don’t think we paid much attention to them.
NEGROPONTE: Well then you were there during a very good period, because it was post=Tet Offensive. The Viet Cong had been decimated and there was peace and tranquility over fairly large parts of the country. You were probably wondering where is the beef?
NEGROPONTE: You know, I went back in 2008 as Deputy Secretary of State, which was the first time I had been back to Vietnam after leaving in 1973,. I was really struck by what seemed to be the strong feeling of concern about China and antagonism towards China. If I can bring you back to the Nixon administration we could skip the fact that I went to Stanford for a year.
Q: We can go to that in a minute.
NEGROPONTE: Nothing much happened, you see, in these talks between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for a number of years. They must have met three or four times a year at the beginning in ’70-’71-’72. I joined Henry Kissinger’s staff in September of 1970, first in a policy planning office for a number of months. But then in the summer of ’71 I took over for Richard Smyser, as the director for Vietnam.
So I become the director for Vietnam on the National Security Council. That would have been July of 1971. So I attend a number of Henry’s secret talks with the North Vietnamese. Almost all of them take place in Paris. But nothing really much happens there either until the following March of ’72. In fact on Easter Sunday in March of ’72, North Vietnam sent tanks and troops across the demilitarized zone and attacked the south. It was called the Easter offensive. That offensive was not ultimately defeated until about a month later, by the end of April. But it took a lot of doing by South Vietnamese forces and ourselves.
It was a major development, if you think of it this way: the North Vietnamese had sacrificed the Viet Cong in ’68 in the Tet offensive. And so they were almost obliged, if they wanted to bloody the nose of Saigon the second time around, they had to do it with regular forces, both the ones they had in the country and from across the border. We decided as a consequence of this invasion, and I was very much involved in this decision because I was the director for Vietnam, to mine Haiphong and to bomb Hanoi. Nixon announced that decision on the eighth of May, 1972. It was Nixon’s decision. Henry was really wringing his hands about those days. He was very concerned.
Q: Why would there be concern? In the first place Hanoi was—the North Vietnamese were—getting many of their supplies, many of the Soviet supplies in from the harbor in Haiphong.
NEGROPONTE: Well, here are the concerns. Here were [Kissinger’s] concerns. He ultimately went along with it. He gathered us all together. This has been written up in various histories. He got us all together on a Saturday. That Friday afternoon, I was getting my trench coat and was about to go to National Airport to go home to New York for the weekend to visit my parents.
General Haig calls me up and says, “get over here to the White House basement. The president has pretty much decided that we are going to do this, mine Haiphong and bomb Hanoi. I need you to help staff the justification and the papers and speeches and everything has got to be done three days from now.”
Oh my God, thanks for ruining my weekend. We then went into this incredible frenzy of activity. Myself, Winston Lord, Peter Rodman, John Holdridge, Hal Sonnenfeldt. We had a meeting that has been discussed many times in the books with Henry about whether we should do this. I think one of the concerns is whether we might cause the Soviets to cancel the summit. We were scheduled to meet in late May. Nixon was scheduled to meet with Brezhnev, first summit meeting in years. In May we were going to go to Moscow.
Q: Wasn’t Kosygin in Hanoi?
NEGROPONTE: He went later on. I don’t know if he was in Hanoi at that time. They sent Podgorny after the summit to go to Vietnam with some messages. But there was concern about whether the Soviets might cancel the summit. I mean. I didn’t think there was much risk: I think they wanted the meeting with Nixon as much as we did or more. You know for them for the Soviets, anything that symbolizes and demonstrates the equivalence of the United States with the Soviet Union was always something they were very enthusiastic about. Because they weren’t the equivalent of the United States, but they loved it when there were these symbolic manifestations of that.
So they wanted it. But Hal Sonnenfeldt made one point that if you bomb them and you happen to hit Soviet ships, you know, bomb Haiphong, that could cause some problems. We didn’t think the risk of that happening was very high. But I think that Dr. Kissinger was just so concerned about the escalation.
I think he always was concerned about his image. He says he was not, but his image in the academic community. Just before the NSC meeting on May 8, Henry called me and George Carver of the CIA into his office to go over plans for the meeting. At one point he said, “I don’t want to be the Walt Rostow of this administration,” referring to LBJ’s last NSC advisor who was not welcomed back to the faculty at MIT when he left the White House. Remember he was having difficulties with Harvard at the time, whether they would take him back after he finished being National Security Advisor. So I think that was one of his reasons for hesitation.
Anyway we went ahead with it, and a summit went forward. We actually went in April beforehand to prepare the summit. I went with Dr. Kissinger. We went secretly to Moscow because Henry always liked to do things secretly. He had an obsession with secret negotiations. I think beyond the point of, it was beyond reasonable in a way.
We had these meetings with Brezhnev too then, setting up the summit. Then we went with Nixon in late May, ’72. We signed the SALT agreement. We signed a number of other agreements. We had a big economic delegation and trade. All these things you do in a big summit. It went on for a whole week.
But we also had several long Vietnam meetings. I went to one, which was in Brezhnev’s dacha outside of Moscow. On our side it was just President Nixon and Kissinger, myself, and Winston Lord. The four of us. Win and I missed the motorcade from the Kremlin to Brezhnev’s Dacha. I remember standing out curbside and Win saying, “Oh my God. Our career is over, and they won’t have their talking points. We have all the books.” I said, “Winston, don’t worry. They are going to know what to say. The problem is we are not going to be there.”
Finally, there was some KGB agent who took pity on us and put us in a limousine and sent us out to the Dacha. Of course we hadn’t missed a thing, because Brezhnev, you know how chiefs of state exchange gifts. In those days, the gifts were sometimes rather extravagant. Brezhnev had asked for and we gave him a yellow convertible Cadillac. So he was enjoying looking at his Cadillac. I don’t think the U.S. government footed the bill. I suspect General Motors gave Mr. Brezhnev his Cadillac.
Guess what Mr. Brezhnev gave to Mr. Nixon? He gave him a hydrofoil, because the Russians are quite good at hydrofoil technology. Heaven knows what Mr. Nixon did with a hydrofoil.
Q: He may have been a Navy man.
NEGROPONTE: He had this hydrofoil on the lake at Brezhnev’s place and he was showing him. We hadn’t missed a thing because they were out joking and exchanging gifts. Then we had this meeting that went on for four hours. It was a great classic old style communist meeting. You have sat through a lot of communist rhetoric in your life and you have read it. You know that the longer they talk the less they plan to do.
When we got past about hour number three I said, “these guys aren’t going to do anything about the fact that we are mining Haiphong and bombing Hanoi. They just making the record amply clear that they object to this.” So they each of them, there was Brezhnev; there was Podgorny; there was Kosygin at that time, and there was Gromyko. Gromyko was the foreign minister. Then there was Alexandrov, their National Security Advisor, and I don’t know if you remember the name Viktor Sukhodrev. Sukhodrev eventually became their ambassador to Ireland, but he was their interpreter. He spoke very good English.
This was another thing. Dr. Kissinger really didn’t respect the diplomatic canon. I mean, he would not bring an American interpreter to these meetings. We relied on the Russian interpreter. It is such bad form, really, and frankly I think it is a serious mistake. He omitted, he excluded American interpreters. He did it for a truly unfortunate reason. He didn’t want Secretary Rogers to know what was happening, the Secretary of State. The reason Secretary Rogers would have found out if we had an interpreter was the interpreters come from the State Department, as you know. And they are the best interpreters in the world. They are really good. And Dr. Kissinger excluded them from all of our negotiations with the Russians. It was a very unprofessional on his part. An example of his true lack of experience.
You and I sit here today, and Dr. Kissinger is 89 years old and obviously an extraordinarily important and gifted man of huge accomplishments. I admire him and I respect them. But you have to remember: back to 1969, he was a totally inexperienced university professor. That is when he settled the Vietnam War. That is one of the reasons we ended up with the unfortunate outcome that occurred. When Henry negotiated the Paris Peace Agreement in 1972, he had a grand total of three years of government experience. Think of it.
So we had the Moscow summit. We talked about Vietnam. Nothing really came of it. They had some sidebar meetings as well that I was not privy to which resulted in Podgorny going to visit Hanoi, and where I think Henry and the Russians discussed the kernels, the seeds of the eventual agreement which was basically look we can get out of there. We can stop our military activity, but you can’t ask us also to overthrow the Saigon government as we walk out the door. So we have got to come to some kind of arrangement that allows the Saigon government to survive our exit from Vietnam and then allow for some kind of political competition to take place.
Q: You members of the delegation in talking about this, was the feeling sort of okay, when we pull out completely, probably the North will take over the South eventually?
NEGROPONTE: Well not necessarily. It depended on the terms and conditions under which you did this. Don’t forget that during this process we abolished the draft, which was the most unpopular aspect of the Vietnam War. Why were people demonstrating in the streets? Mostly it was the injustice of the draft. Nixon had abolished it. The casualty levels were way down because finally we had a general who understood Vietnamization, Abrams. We discussed that I think in the earlier segment. So we had Vietnamization, the end of the draft, Saigon getting a more competent army. It really was better by 1972.
So I certainly felt, and I think others did, if you could just negotiate reasonably good terms and conditions with Hanoi, like maybe leaving some residual force there, U.S. force. Modest. Allow for military re-supply, continued economic assistance to Saigon, and then something that deals with the issue of the presence of North Vietnamese troops in the South, Saigon would have had a chance. That was my view.
Q: During this time you were there, dealing with Dr. Kissinger, did you really think there was more to him than sort of being an academic. Was he a broad thinker or not? Did he have a plan or what?
NEGROPONTE: Oh, he is a broad thinker. He is a very broad thinker and I think that probably the best example of that was his whole China strategy. On China it is hard to know where Nixon begins and Kissinger leaves off, and vice versa. Even to the point — to this day, we debate who was more responsible for the Chinese issue. It took the two of them to do it, in any case. I think their strategy vis-à-vis China was brilliant, and to recognize the opportunities that were presented by the Sino-Soviet split and his wont to engage in this triangular diplomacy. I think he played that card very well. I don’t think he ended up getting nearly as much for it as he could have. We ended up losing Vietnam anyway. Basically we ended up conceding to China what they wanted on Taiwan also; i.e., they were agreeing to a one China policy also. So I think he was strategic. He definitely managed the China initiative extraordinarily well, but I think there were some important details that did not go the way I would have liked to see them go.
Q: Did you get any feel for the sort of atmosphere of the White House, Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and all?
NEGROPONTE: Sure you do. You work near these guys. I was working on Vietnam. Imagine I had quite a bit to do as NSC Director for Vietnam. I was a busy guy. I didn’t spend that much time worrying about other people’s problems. You had to deal with them. They went on these trips when I was there. They were at the summit, Haldeman and people like that. I knew even some of the people in the plumbers group. I had known them around the White House. But as you know the National Security Council is a bit apart from the rest of the White House staff, and is viewed as a little bit apart.
Q: And domestic politics which drove so much of the White House just wasn’t your thing.
NEGROPONTE: Exactly. We saw these people, but we certainly didn’t feel any sense of what was going on with Watergate. These were revelations to us too, just like everybody else, when the tapes started coming out and the public hearings. As you know they managed to keep the lid on the Watergate from June of ’72 all the way until the following spring. It was after Nixon was re-elected that the problem, the hearings came, Howard Baker and all.
Q: When you went to this big summit in Moscow was there any Chinese or Vietnamese representation there at all or were they completely kept away?
NEGROPONTE: Not that I am aware. It might have been at the State Banquet but it certainly wasn’t in evidence otherwise. This was a bilateral meeting. That is the way I saw it. As I said, I was at this meeting with Brezhnev and the top leadership at the Dacha but I was not privy to the other discussion, which is where I think they talked about the kernels, the seed of some sort of agreement.
So that was May of ’72. Then we had a few desultory meetings with the Vietnamese again in Paris. I made literally dozens of trips to Paris at this time in history. The real threshold, the real watershed meeting was in September of ’72, where the North Vietnamese indicate to us that they are going to have a proposal for us that will do what I said, sort of allow Saigon to survive the peace process.
The following meeting was in early October. It was like the 7th or 8th of October. We went to Paris and we by then we had upgraded ourselves to something better than a rinky-dink safe house in the suburbs of Paris. Some wealthy American lent us the use of his house near Paris. It was like the kind of house you would like to live in.
We had a meeting there and Le Duc Tho pulls a paper out of his tunic. Here we go now. Remember where we started this conversation in October of ’68? Here we are at the beginning of October ’72. The pressures of an election, the worst time to negotiate national security stuff. Le Duc Tho says with our election obviously in mind, “You are in a hurry aren’t you?” He said, “If you are, here it is.”
He gives to Dr. Kissinger the document that agrees to end the war and restore peace in Vietnam. Henry, instead of doing clearly what he should have done, which is what you do in any negotiation—
(This is diplomacy 101, guys. Listen to this. When you do anything important on such an important matter you say, “Really interesting. Gotta study it. Take it home and show it to my President and we will come back to you within a week or whatever with a considered reaction.”)
— Dr. Kissinger’s reaction was, “I will give you a counter proposal tomorrow.” He had me and Peter Rodman and Winston Lord draft a counter proposal that very same night. We didn’t send the document to Washington. We didn’t do anything like that. We worked until three or four in the morning. He had gone out to a dinner or something. He came back and saw it, didn’t think it went far enough to meeting their points. Had us re-write it. I am not sure we had any sleep that night. So then we went and gave him his counter proposal. But essentially at the end of four days of haggling with the North Vietnamese, we came up with the draft agreement that was, give or take a handful of words, was what we ended up signing on 23rd January 1973.
Q: When Kissinger made this statement “okay, we will answer within this short time with a counter proposal,” did he know what was in the paper?
NEGROPONTE: He gave it to us and then we sat down and discussed it for three or four hours and went over its points. Yeah, he knew what was in it. But I mean the tactical, the negotiating point, I am just making the point again this was the inexperience, the emphasis on secrecy. And the fear or concern that if this was put in, somehow fed into the bureaucracy to study and look at, that everybody would try to find every possible excuse to reject it.
Q: Well there is that problem.
NEGROPONTE: There is that problem, but you have to manage that problem.
Q: That is where the president says, “OK, this, this and that.”
NEGROPONTE: The president wasn’t really given that opportunity either, because Dr. Kissinger was sending back very short summary messages to the President. He was not really giving him detail of the text. He was just giving him short one paragraph sort of bleeps, tweets on what we were doing. So anyway it was not an exemplary negotiation.
So we brought it back to Washington, and I think initially Henry was very reluctant to even show the text around to people. But finally we had to do that. That was October 12th. He had this whole elaborate scenario again linked to the election. We were going to go on the 17th to Saigon and then on the 19th we were going to go to Hanoi and announce the agreement. Talk about election grandstanding. Then on the second of November the cease-fire would go into effect.
Well we went back to Washington. Henry maneuvered the text through the system. He succeeded, because most people wanted us to get out of Vietnam in any event. Then we went to Saigon about the 17th or 18th, and that is where the problem arose. We had not shared this text that we negotiated with the Saigon government at all. In fact the first text we brought to them was in English. We didn’t even have, we had our English version but we didn’t yet have the corrected Vietnamese text. So these guys weren’t even looking at it in their own language. Here is this agreement that deals with the fate of their country and Henry was asking them to accept it and oh by the way, you can’t change a single word. What is more, a couple of days from now I am going to Hanoi to celebrate this thing.
So Thieu, President Thieu went ballistic. There was this frantic night after Kissinger’s meeting with Thieu back and forth with Haig who was in Washington, and the president. The president said, well even if I want to go forward with this, it would look terrible now for me to go forward with it over the objections of our ally on the eve of an election. It would look like a totally political move on my part. I guess we are going to have to stand this project down. So instead of going to Hanoi, we picked up our marbles and came back to Washington, whatever date it was in October, but with Henry absolutely determined to return to the negotiating process after the election was over. I mean he now had the bee in his bonnet. Let’s just get this thing over.
We came back and you may remember this famous press conference we had on the 26th of October where he told the media, because then the story got blown about our plan by a man who I was with last night, by Arnaud de Borchgrave of Newsweek. Who wrote this cover of Newsweek said, “A deal with Hanoi, a duel with Thieu.” I don’t know if you remember this. So it was out there.
So Henry had to deal with that when he got back to Washington in the EOB press room there he briefed the press. He said his famous quote, “Peace is at hand.” Which has been interpreted and re-interpreted by people a zillion times. The malicious interpretation, particularly from the left, was he was saying that to deceive people about progress at the peace talks. He wanted to lull the American people into thinking we really were on the verge of having peace. But that was not his motivation. I think his motivation was to send a message to Hanoi to say, “we have not double crossed you. We ran into a few complications but we will be back to the table. That is what he really wanted. Don’t think we welched out on you. We will be back.”
Then Nixon proceeded to win 49 out of 50 states. It was an amazing electoral outcome, if you recall. He lost Massachusetts. By golly, we were back at the negotiating table ten days later. Then we worked on trying to polish the agreement.
Q: Were we dealing with the South Vietnamese government, the Thieu government at this point saying okay, what will be acceptable to you and what won’t?
NEGROPONTE: Well we had a bit of a shock in their reaction. No big surprise, obviously that they would react the way they did. So some effort was made to placate, mollify them, right. We found a few areas in vocabulary in words they didn’t like, and we tried to get the North Vietnamese to agree to change.
But most importantly what we did was we stepped up the flow of military and other assistance to Saigon so they would be better able to withstand the consequences. Not of a cease fire because there was a cease fire in the agreement, but of the likely almost immediate certainly eventual breaking of the cease fire by Hanoi. So we started, I forgot the name of the program. It was a huge program. So they got several additional billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. Plus, since we have pulled back from the deal so late in the planning, some of the Viet Cong in the South and some of the Vietnamese communist units had already given orders to their troops to cease fire. As a result Saigon was able to gain a little bit of terrain during that period.
Q: Well, during this whole time when you came back and were with Kissinger having the Vietnam portfolio, what was your feeling about the Thieu government and the South Vietnamese military at the time?
NEGROPONTE: Well, on the latter point, on the South Vietnamese military, I think it was definitely getting better, and it had been getting better since the time of Creighton Abrams. Westmoreland had not paid much attention to the South Vietnamese army. He wanted us to do all the fighting. Abrams was much more focused on the South Vietnamese army as our exit ticket from South Vietnam.
It was a cardinal lesson for me, which I later applied to Iraq when I was ambassador in Iraq, my thinking about Afghanistan. I have been probably one of the foremost preachers of localization and building local capacity early on if you are unfortunate enough to get stuck in one of these types of nation building situations. Don’t overuse U.S. military forces. Use local capacity.
So I think that was happening. The first and second ARVN divisions which were up on the border in the DMZ acquitted themselves very well in the Easter offensive. Very well. So I thought they were doing better. Now when we left completely in ’73, under the terms of the agreement, and then Congress cut off a lot of the assistance, well yeah, under those terms and Hanoi still having its army intact and them getting help from the Soviets they were no longer a match for that kind of opposition. But I thought the military were doing pretty well. I thought the Saigon government was better than it has been portrayed.
The subsequent narrative about the Saigon government has always made it look much worse than it was. I think the Saigon government frankly looks one hell of a lot better than either the Afghan or the Iraqi government of today. I have a basis for comparison. They had an infrastructure. They had provinces. they had province chiefs. They had a chain of command that went all the way down the districts. You could give an order in Saigon and it could be carried out in a district in Quang Tri Province. They had a fairly reasonable infrastructure. If there was corruption I don’t think it compares with some of the hair raising stories you hear about corruption today.
Q: You know I am a student of the Civil War period in the United States. When I was in Vietnam I was hearing stories about this and that. The Union had a lot of real problems with corruption and everything else. Shoddy manufacturing and poor generalship and everything else, It wasn’t much different. I thought they were doing a pretty good job.
Well then before we move away from all of this. We still come back later. At Stanford how did you find being a Vietnam veteran and a spokesperson more or less on a campus on which it was not a middle western campus? I would imagine there would be a little more radicalization there.
NEGROPONTE: Yeah there was some radicalization but it didn’t manifest itself until the very end of my time there. I had a wonderful time. I went to Stanford for the academic year. I got there at the end of August of ’69. I really went there for, if you don’t mind me saying, for therapeutic reasons. I mean I really needed a break. If you are the liaison officer and taking all the notes for the secret meetings and doing this, that, and the other thing and LBJ was kind of paranoid of people on the delegation kind of leaking stuff. So he would kind of hand pick who could and who couldn’t participate in the secret talks just to give you an example, because he was tired of reading about it in the New York Times.
Q: Between LBJ and Kissinger you are getting the real course.
NEGROPONTE: A course in micromanaging, paranoia and micromanagement. So I was really genuinely exhausted. So I took advantage of Stanford from that point of view. I was at the Hoover Institution. That is where I had a desk. I was assigned to do reading sort of Oxford style under a truly excellent professor, David Potter, a historian. He was a history professor. He wrote People of Plenty, David Potter.
I did some reading in history. In any event, I also did some teaching on disarmament with a professor named Wolfgang Panofsky. I remember him. Then I wrote these half dozen monographs on my experience in Vietnam. I would say it was a fairly leisurely approach to my year there. It got interrupted by the Cambodian Invasion, which occurred in April of 1970. Then the campus erupted.
Q: This was also the Kent State shooting.
NEGROPONTE: Exactly. Then the campus erupted. The windows in the Hoover institution were broken. It was a nice building. The Hoover Tower was cement but it was adjacent to a wing which was glass. That was all smashed. Then there were students all lined up on the plaza of the campus all with typewriters helping other students write letters to their congressman. You get your instant letter to Congress by all of these people. There was shouting and screaming. I had my next job lined up so I curtailed my stay at Stanford by about a month. The campus was shut down. There was nothing happening.
David Potter was very important to me because he introduced me to a group of American thinkers that I was just not familiar with. He was one of these so-called Southern Historians. He was in the tradition of C. Vann Woodward and various others, but magnificent. I attended his lecture course on the American character. It was a wonderful reintroduction to the United States for me. His book, his seminal book at that point, was called People of Plenty. His study was all about how abundance has affected the American people. It was kind of interesting. So it was Potter, Panofsky to help me teach this disarmament course. The monographs on Vietnam.
Q: Did you run across any political theory people there or sort of proponents of the Marxist view or not?
NEGROPONTE: Yeah, but I didn’t get too involved. There was one professor who was very notorious there. I believe he was an English professor. I can’t remember his name anymore, but he had the faculty in a bit of turmoil on campus. Mind you, Stanford was never as radical as Berkley. We had Berkley just up the road. I mean, California was a pretty progressive place.
Q: Did you make any attempt at recruitment as a scholar in residence? I was wondering if you got a negative reaction from the students.
NEGROPONTE: No, no, and I didn’t. I actually had an opposite experience. We had a half dozen Foreign Service Officers there in different programs; one with me in the same program, Don Norland. You may remember Don. But then there were others. One was at the management school, an admin officer who would go to the business school there.
There were a couple of others doing specific courses. We would get together as a group from time to time. We were also taken to meet the president of the university. But I had the reverse experience. Do you remember there had been a group of Foreign Service Officers who had protested the Vietnam War and had gone and written an open letter to the Senate?
Q: Yeah and Nixon wanted to fire them and all.
NEGROPONTE: Well some of them were fired. One was fired not because he protested, but because he refused an assignment to Saigon. Remember there was a time in the middle of the 60’s when LBJ said all entering Foreign Service Officers would have to go to Saigon and work in the rural development program. Most people just happily did it and actually I think don’t regret the experience.
Q: Well you probably had more responsibility there than anything in the next 20 years.
NEGROPONTE: Well this one guy I met, and I have honestly forgotten his name but I got to know him at Stanford. We went out to dinner. He was practically in tears because he refused to go to Saigon. They said, we are sorry for you, we don’t have any job for you. He had to leave the service. He was just desperate to get back in. It was a great stain on him both professionally and psychologically. He couldn’t live with it, and he was seeking my help in getting back in. Frankly I don’t think there was much I could do to help him, although I was sympathetic.
We have changed since then in our business. I was Deputy Secretary of State. I know all about this approach of not forcing assignments if we can at all help it. We still have this thing that says you sign up and you are willing to go anywhere in the world subject to the needs of the service, but we try to make these assignments voluntary if we can.
Q: With inducements.
NEGROPONTE: We filled all the jobs in Iraq when I was deputy secretary. I mean I had to browbeat people and cajole them and offer them the hope of some great assignment after they left Iraq, but I managed to fill all of the senior positions without any forced assignments. Although you should hear the stories they all have when they come into your office and tell you why they can’t go. Their mother-in-law is sick. You know what I mean.
Q: Let’s go back to the time you were getting ready to leave Kissinger’s staff and all. What was your feeling about our agreement with the North Vietnamese?
NEGROPONTE: I was utterly and totally depressed. I knew where it was going to lead. Absolutely and the atmosphere and the way in which we negotiated. It is not a long-winded story but we need to finish the story of how we concluded the agreement.
We go in November. We monkey around with a handful of words, changing a few things where the North Vietnamese are willing to do that. But then we go to big reconciliation of the texts. I think this is recounted in the published history of the State Department now this volume has come out on Vietnam in that period.
I was in charge of doing that with my Vietnamese counterpart. Whereas we thought we only had one or two disagreements to reconcile, we ended up after a marathon session finding that we had discrepancies in 15 or 16, 20 different places. We said to ourselves, ‘what is this?’ Then they told us Le Duc Tho is going back for consultations in Hanoi. We speculated to ourselves that they generated a few more disagreements with us over language to buy him a little time and space to go back to Hanoi to consult. We further speculated, and I haven’t looked into this since, but there was beginning to be some disagreement in the Politburo whether or not to go through with this deal because by having pulled back from it in the first instance, re-supplied Saigon with all the supplies we had. There may have been some debate among some members of the Politburo as to whether this still looked as good in November or December as it had in October.
So Le Duc Tho in early December goes back to Hanoi. Then Henry [Kissinger] and the President, and this I will never understand why they did this, they decided they would carry out the famous Christmas bombing of the north. Which was basically to say, and remember it was a terrifying, a real bombing campaign, it was basically to say ‘look, you are dealing with the United States. You have been negotiating about this and this is an example of how we can fly off the handle if you don’t come to closure. Let’s make this deal now. We have been talking about it for at least three months, so we were so close, within two months. So what are you guys doing?’
I mean that was sort of the message. Of course it generated a huge backlash at home and just exacerbated whatever bad feelings about the war; so I mean in that sense it was something which in my view undermined whatever remaining support we had for our effort in Vietnam. I felt it was a bad thing to do. It was not a long-term effort, or taking the long view if you will.
Sir Robert Thompson felt the same way. Sir Robert Thompson was this British general who had beaten the guerillas in Malaysia and who was an advisor to President Nixon. We met from time to time. He called me up and said, “What are you guys doing?” I said, “Bob, nobody asked me for my advice on this.”
Anyway we did that and everybody went back to Washington. I went skiing. My parents had a place in Switzerland. I thought with the Christmas bombing these talks would never resume again. Lo and behold at the beginning of the year I got a call saying, “Get ready
to go back to Paris.” We stopped the bombing before we clinched the deal. I wouldn’t do that if I were in charge. If you are applying that kind of pressure, why not keep doing it at least until you can get what it is you think you want? We stopped the bombing basically in exchange for them coming back to the table.
I have been quoted as saying, and it is an accurate quote, “We bombed them into accepting our concessions.” I said that in 1973. I told that to Tad Szulc of the New York Times in an article he wrote about these peace talks. I think it is as appropriate today as it was then. We came back to Paris and wrapped the thing up in about eight or ten days. No consequential difference between what we had come up with in October of ’72 and what we ended up initialing I think just before the inauguration and which we signed, Bill Rogers signed in January.
I felt, just in answer to your question, I felt that the way it was negotiated, the fact that it was negotiated behind Saigon’s back, that it ordained the complete withdrawal of U. S. forces and it didn’t do anything about the disposition of communist forces in the south other than the call for a cease fire, it was a leopard spot cease fire, I thought the agreement would crumble very rapidly and Saigon would ultimately fall. So I felt the agreement contained the seeds of Saigon’s defeat. I felt that from the minute I saw that agreement.
Q: Was this the consensus of your fellow officers who were dealing with this or not?
NEGROPONTE: It was not the consensus of the officers dealing with it in our group with Kissinger. I was the only one who made an issue of this within Kissinger’s entourage. But the professional diplomats in the Paris delegation, the people on the
Vietnam desk they were holding their heads and saying, “What on earth have you done?” They were, people like Josiah Bennett. You probably knew Josiah. John Burke, all these people, the director of the Vietnam office, Jim Rosenthal, all these people, they were despondent. I think they thought I was the one hope of maybe helping get some balance into the agreement, but it was nothing doing. We were honestly depressed.
Q: Did you feel that Kissinger, I saw this when I was in college, a professor sometimes develops a coterie around them. They absorb something from the professor and they really almost become sort of the professor’s creatures. Did you feel this with Winston Lord, Rodman and all? Was there sort of, he is the master and what he does is right?
NEGROPONTE: Well yes there is a certain amount of that. They certainly admired him. There is a certain amount of hero worship, but I think there is another explanation. But I am not trying to alter the Vietnam War history. I am not trying to tell you the Vietnam War was popular. I mean, the Vietnam War was unpopular in a lot of circles. These people honestly believed that we ought to get out. The group that I tell you was horrified by this were the professionals who had been sent out to Vietnam to try and help save the place and who both knew Vietnam and had a certain level of professional commitment to attaining our objectives there. It was the people who didn’t feel you could turn on a dime from having said we will keep our commitments and keep Vietnam free and then turn around the next day and say, “Oh by the way, we are leaving and we don’t care what happens to you.” We saw the agreement as a thinly veiled…
NEGROPONTE: I think sellout is too loaded a term. I think it was a real disengagement. There are some quotes that come today from the Nixon tapes where Kissinger talks about a decent interval and says as long as we leave them intact, as long as the Saigon government is intact when we leave, maybe it doesn’t matter that much what happens two or three years later. That quote was in one of the tapes that we just discussed recently in a meeting.
He has similar conversations with Zhou Enlai where he said if you would just let us withdraw and Saigon stays in power, then why don’t you just have a little more confidence in the forces of history. Now what does that mean? The forces of history? Right. So he wanted to get out. He was the NSC advisor. He was extremely powerful and the president let him have his way and let him do his thing. I would be the last one to say that he did that behind Nixon’s back. I don’t think so. I think Nixon, from what I can glean, and I am still not sure I understand it fully, but from what I can glean, I think Nixon had completely lost patience with having to constantly conduct the Vietnam conflict.
We had a very interesting meeting in June of ’72 in Beijing with Zhou Enlai that I sat in with Dr. Kissinger had with Zhou Enlai. At one point he says to Zhou Enlai, ‘President Nixon does not want to win the election and then continue to have to read battlefield reports from Vietnam for breakfast.’ He wanted to do something else.
Q: Well of course when one looks at President Johnson he really had some very strong ideas about our country and what to do about them, and yet he got caught up in this war.
NEGROPONTE: And yet his domestic accomplishments were phenomenal. But what is interesting about Nixon is we actually could have won the war and we weren’t far from doing it. So that is the part that is interesting in the Nixon case. Hanoi had run out of SAM missiles. They had run out of surface to air missiles as a result of the Christmas bombing.
We had a conference of historians about a year ago that Henry came to, Holbrooke came to, I came to in conjunction with the release of the 1972 foreign affairs volumes of our official volumes of papers of the State Department. John Carland was the historian overseeing this. He is a Vietnam historian. He wrote the official history of the Vietnam war, the army history of Vietnam.
He invited a couple of Vietnamese historians, one civilian and one military. These guys, they were goading me. They came up to me at a reception and said, “Did you know that we had run out of SAM missiles when you stopped the Christmas bombing?” What do you make of this? He said, “Did you know that things were so bad in the Delta during the time that you were in Saigon, that they were so bad for some of our regular units that we had to send them to Cambodia to eat, to get food.”
I think there were a number of times when we had them on the ropes. It is very dangerous to play what-if games with history because you don’t get to do these things over, but if you think that Gorbachev decided in ’86 or so, ’87 to stop interfering in these third world conflicts, it is not as if Saigon had to hang on indefinitely. If they hung on for another decade or so they might have made it. We might have had like a North Korea-South Korea situation.
Q: You went up to Beijing. How did you find the Chinese? Did you get much contact with them when you went with Kissinger?
NEGROPONTE: Well I kind of mingle my memories of China with things I have done subsequently in my career. But China has always been an element in my career because my career started in Hong Kong. I served in Vietnam. If you serve in Southeast Asia or anything to do with Asia, China is always a factor that looms large in the background. So even when I was serving as ambassador to the Philippines much later on you are conscious of China’s presence, its history, its importance. We loved going to China,
I must say, in ’72. It was exciting because even though they were poor and emerging from 150 years of weakness, they have a great culture and are very interesting to deal with. Very decent, I find to deal with. I find them more pleasant to deal with certainly than the Soviets were. They seemed to be quite open to foreign influence and open to discussion. I was just a junior guy taking a lot of notes, but to the extent I could strike up a conversation with the Chinese, banter with them, it was enjoyable to do that.
Q: Well then you left Kissinger’s place when? Was it before Watergate?
NEGROPONTE: The Watergate break in happens before I leave. That happens in June of ’72.
Q: Did that take up any of your time?
Q: It was just some newspaper…
NEGROPONTE: No, I think somebody in Kissinger’s staff, I think Rodman mentioned it to me one time saying this is going to be trouble, when he saw the news item about it. But the trouble didn’t erupt until after I left. We initialed the agreement. You ought to know this. I declined to go to the signing of the agreement. I mean you can be a professional diplomat and sometimes protest over something you believe in and still live to talk about it the rest of your career.
Q: You made it known that this…
NEGROPONTE: I refused to go. Henry promised them that we would go to Hanoi to check into their economic situation, he was going to offer them aid and he was going to go visit Hanoi after the signed agreement. I refused to do that. I went to him and said, “Look, I think I have given more than my share to this effort. Please let me go and return to the State Department.” So in February of 1973 he said, “I want you to do one last thing.” Well what is that? “Accompany Vice President Spiro Agnew on a trip to Southeast Asia because he is going to go and sell the peace agreement.” I sort of groaned but I did that. I accompanied the vice president to Thailand and places like that.
Q: What was your impression of Spiro Agnew?
NEGROPONTE: I didn’t get to know him particularly well. He played his part. He wasn’t in trouble yet either. But he did get into trouble later.
Q: Well you think about that, both the president and the vice president had to leave under fire.
NEGROPONTE: Well I am not happy about that because I am Greek American and we Greek Americans were not happy that a Greek American vice president should leave in such disgrace on him, on his office, and on Greek Americans. I remember I was very unhappy about that.
Q: I remember having lunch with Spiro Agnew and Henry Tasca, who was our ambassador in Greece.
NEGROPONTE: Did you serve in Greece?
Q: I served for a year. I was consul general in Athens. All during the colonel time, ’70- ’74.
NEGROPONTE: Have you read Keeley’s book?
Q: Keeley, yeah.
NEGROPONTE: He just published a book about his experience.
Q: That is one of the things that sets apart Greece.
NEGROPONTE: So in some respects the situation was clearer cut. Having said that, there is a lot of misunderstanding out there on just what the Vietnam War was all about. Just who the protagonists were, like the debate about whether it was a guerilla war or a conventional war. It was, of course, some of each at different times. But in a way it was a clear-cut situation.
In Iraq, you are dealing with the political disorder and violence and confusion that results from having removed an authoritarian regime. The actors outside of Iraq don’t play that important of a role. They are not as central as the Soviet Union was to North Vietnam or we were to Saigon. That is very different. I have never been in a place that was as insecure as Baghdad. I was able to wander all round Vietnam as an unarmed civilian for four years without serious fear for my life.
Q: I have a Siamese cat who is rather fierce. I lived out in the economy too and that was my protection, and survived.
NEGROPONTE: Vietnam was a battle for the control of the countryside. The cities were pretty much safe through the whole war. We had some terrorist attacks. I mean, they blew up the embassy. That was pretty serious, March 30, ’65. I happened to not be there that day. I was stationed in Saigon. I discussed it in the first section here.
But Baghdad is the typical urban guerilla warfare of today. Gosh, you walk out your door and your life is in danger. I had a guy who worked in my office in Baghdad who got hit by a bullet. Luckily he was wearing his helmet. Literally walking out the entrance of the embassy in Baghdad and these IEDs and everything else. It is a very different kind of situation. Anyway I will talk about Iraq at some time.
Q: OK. John, one of the things I wonder if you could address since I have got you trapped here— As a personal feeling about the Vietnam War, I feel that there are some— everybody says the Vietnam War was a terrible mistake. I am not completely convinced of this.
One of the things I thought about is had we not gone in, maybe we could have done it better and all of that, but Indonesia could have gone under communist control. Sukarno was certainly moving in that direction. That would have been a difficult thing if you had it plus Vietnam and other places could have been a different equation. Do you think this or not?
NEGROPONTE: It is not what I speculate about the most with regard to Vietnam. It is possible. Certainly the Singaporean view, there is a view among Southeast Asian countries that by fighting in Vietnam we bought them time. The Thais will tell you that, the Singaporeans, the Malaysians. That the result of us being in Vietnam during the time we were there that they were able to shore up their defenses better.
My own view is a little more complicated than that. First of all, having been director of national intelligence and giving quite a bit of thought to analysis, I believe the biggest intelligence failure if you will, the biggest analytic failure of the 1960’s was the mindset of LBJ and Dean Rusk to the effect that Communism is a monolith. Even though they had evidence right before their eyes of the Sino-Soviet split, they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that. It is very interesting because you can see something in plain view and still not accept it as a guide for your behavior. Dean Rusk, I believe influenced by his experience as Assistant Secretary for Asia during the Korean War, saw Vietnam in those terms. People like Ellsworth Bunker saw the world in terms like Munich and the Hitlerian era and defense taking a stand against aggression.
So between this unwillingness to accept the fact of a Sino-Soviet dispute and this view of counter aggression emanating from the 1930’s where we didn’t do enough soon enough, I think it got us bogged down in Vietnam. I don’t think we thought creatively enough about the opportunities to exploit Sino-Soviet divisions until it wasn’t only in plain view, the Chinese and the Russians came to blows in the summer of 1969 in these…
Q: …on the river.
NEGROPONTE: Exactly, the Suri River Incident. So to me that is one big thing. Then subsequent history suggests to me that while the Vietnamese may be communists, they are also very nationalistic. Their behavior towards us today and actually ever since we left Vietnam, they got over the Vietnam War faster than we did. They were more eager to restore relations with us than we were with them. I think that is partly because they see friendship with us today as helping be a counterweight to China. It is very interesting.
Q: While you were dealing with Vietnamese affairs, did we have much intelligence about the thinking about what was going on in Hanoi? We have had quite sophisticated intelligence about Moscow and Kremlinology and all of that. Was there any counterpart to that?
NEGROPONTE: The guy I replaced at the NSC, Dick Smyser, had been sort of a Hanoi watcher. He left to go back and finish his Ph.D. at Harvard. Another was Bill Stearman. I don’t know if you have met Bill.
Q: I have interviewed actually both Smyser and Stearman.
NEGROPONTE: Right. And Bill was a total Hanoi watcher. He would read everything out of People’s army and all the different journals. I mean he was almost like living in their world. He was on my staff at the NSC. Most people’s eyes glazed over when Bill started to explain to them the debates they are having in Hanoi about corruption and about the Sino Soviet split, but it was actually pretty damn interesting stuff. Again sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to what people say about themselves.
So yes there was at that level, at the level of public rhetoric, there was definitely quite a bit of analysis. Here is the problem: unlike some times and some nuggets that we find out, I don’t think we ever had insight into the Politburo’s decision making process. I remember Henry asking them after it was all over, after we signed the agreement and we initialed it. That day he asked Le Duc Tho, “In the Politburo, do you vote or do you make your decisions by consensus?” Now what would you have guessed?
Q: I would say by consensus.
NEGROPONTE: Yeah, being good communists you would say they do it by consensus. Well Le Duc Tho said, “We vote.” That is the only insight we have ever had into the Politburo decisions making process, but it was interesting to hear it from a guy who was a member. We had no real… we penetrated the Viet Cong during the course of the war.
Most wars you fight by the time you are four or five years into it, your intelligence gets pretty damn good, as you might imagine because you start recruiting sources. You start capturing people who you interview extensively. So you get into these things. It was just like we know a hell of a lot more about Al Qaeda today than we did at the time of 9/11. It is just the natural course of things.
But we never really got good insights into the Hanoi Politburo. They are a very tight knit group. It has been like the Chinese from the days of the long march. These guys have all fought together. They were blood brothers, and they weren’t about to be transparent to outside world.
Q: OK, John. Let’s move on.
NEGROPONTE: We finally get out of Vietnam.
Q: OK what happened then?
NEGROPONTE: So I went Henry said I really couldn’t take it any more. I really felt I had done my share and let me go back to the Department. To which he said he was very grateful for what I had done but kind of left me to fend for myself with the State Department. I went back through the personnel system. They said, “Well the political counselor in Quito, Ecuador, has just been curtailed for some reason. That job is open, and would you be interested in doing it? I said, “I always wanted to serve in Latin America. I was always interested in Latin America, but only if you let me take Spanish language training first. So they gave me the five month course, which was great. It is one of the best things we do in our business here at the Foreign Service Institute.
Q: Where did you go after? I will put at the end here.
NEGROPONTE: Where did I go after that? I was going to go to Paris. Ken Rush had been deputy secretary of state and then he got sent to Paris as ambassador. I was going to be his executive assistant. Dr. Kissinger heard that I was going to go to Paris. I made the mistake of writing to him that I was going to go to Paris. He called in Larry Eagleburger and asked him to cancel my assignment to Paris because he didn’t want me to go anywhere that he might run into me.
Q: Really? What was the thinking?
NEGROPONTE: Don’t ask me what the thinking was. He was just mad at me over the disagreement over the peace talks. So Eagleburger went back into him and said, “You can’t do that. He has got rights and has been assigned to a job like that. He could appeal to the foreign service system. He had been paneled for the job. He has got his orders. The only thing you can do if you don’t want John to go to Paris is you can order that the job be abolished.” He said, “Abolish the job.” So the job was abolished.
Carol Laise, who was Ellsworth Bunker’s wife, Director General of the Foreign Service, was actually beside herself. The Bunkers were really good friends of mine. I would say they adopted me almost when I was in Vietnam. She was just frightfully upset. So was Jim Lowenstein who was the deputy assistant secretary who helped me get this job in Paris. So they called me in and said, “would you stay in Ecuador longer?” I said, “No, I have done my two years. I want to go somewhere else.”
So they got me a job as consul general in Izmir, Turkey. I thought that was pretty good. I was going to be somebody’s—an ambassador’s assistant, instead I am being given a post of my own. It was getting better. Then Mr. Macomber, the ambassador took the time to complain to the department. He said, “Hey you are sending this guy of Greek origin to Turkey, to Izmir. God, what is that, what are you guys trying to do to me?” He was worried.” Even though his name doesn’t sound Greek, I know he is of Greek origin.”
Then the department calls me up wringing their hands saying “Oh god are you going to file a grievance against us if we change your assignment yet again?” How would you like to go to Thessaloniki as Consul General in Greece? I said to myself, this keeps getting better. Sure, I will go to Thessaloniki.
FROM The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project (ADST)