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Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
It was. I had no desire whatever to come back. I had had a long hard tour in Washington as Chief of Staff and I left with a rather bitter taste in my mouth in 1959. To return to the bear pit I knew quite well was not attractive at all. Actually the first offer was made through Bobby [Robert F. Kennedy], who asked me to become director of the CIA. Well, I had no problem turning that down. It was not my dish. I have great respect for the importance of such intelligence work, but I also had a feeling that I was not well designed for it. As I told the President, the government had spent a lot of money making a soldier out of me and if they turned to me and said I was needed in a military capacity, then I’d have a very hard time saying no. Well, after a lot of discussion and uncertainty, they came up with the title of military representative to the President, to describe in a vague way the functions I performed as the President’s adviser on military and intelligence matters.
Did you see your appointment as an opportunity to pursue the concept of flexible response you had written about in The Uncertain Trumpet?
You don’t go around with a formula ready to apply to events but you may have an ingrained attitude toward them. President Kennedy had shown in his acceptance of the premise of my book and in some of his own statements that he was thinking in that direction on military strategy, and I believe [Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara was also. It was about 1960 that the first formal statement outlining “wars of national liberation” had come out of Moscow or Hanoi, although I don’t think we then understood what it meant. But in that regard, it was President Kennedy himself who put the great drive behind the so-called counterinsurgency program to prevent “wars of national liberation.” He had visited Vietnam as the French were crumbling, and he got a very clear picture, amazingly clear for this young man who really had no special mission there, of the kind of subversive technique that was dragging the French down. So that his counterinsurgency program—it was badly named and gave an entirely false impression to the public—was little more than a desire to prepare our government to cope with outbreaks of the kind that we saw was going so badly in Vietnam.
Was there a feeling that the concept of counterinsurgency could be field-tested in Vietnam?
Not in that sense. But once we got involved more deeply, the feeling was “let’s study this phenomenon and get as much out of it as we can.” An understanding and analysis of causes and studies of effect, that sort of thing. It’s been suggested that attitude was somehow wicked. I don’t know what was wicked about it. I think we would have been criminally negligent if we had neglected the opportunity to learn.
You led one of the earliest missions for President Kennedy to evaluate the situation in Vietnam.
The report we brought back in October, 1961, simply verified the adverse field reports we’d had as to the decline of the internal situation, the increased strength of the Viet Cong, and the added support which was coming out of Hanoi. On the assumption that an independent South Vietnam free from attack was the goal of our Southeast Asian policy, the report recommended steps to support that policy. But we also made very clear that our recommendations would not solve all the problems but would be a step in the right direction. They included a substantial increase in advisers, not only military but administrative and intelligence advisers. One of the main points in the report was the need to get truly professional intelligence out there, something the pathetically weak government in Saigon could not provide, if we were to get the facts necessary to plan the program that Washington might decide to follow.
Some observers argue that the American buildup in South Vietnam was a conscious attempt by Kennedy to counter the weak impression he had made on Nikita Khrushchev at their historic summit conference in Vienna.
I wouldn’t say that. The thing that affected President Kennedy the most in the early years was the feeling that he couldn’t be guilty of another failure like the Bay of Pigs and expect to live politically. He approached Vietnam with appropriate caution, a caution I can assure you I shared with him over how far to go and what to undertake. Also to what extent we could depend upon the South Vietnamese. If indeed Vietnam was the kind of threat we were going to see elsewhere, the feeling was that we’d better handle it right. So he moved forward very cautiously.
You have described the President’s personal shock at the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Was that a covert operation?
Not if you mean a covert operation conducted by the CIA.
Would you tell the story behind the famous cable sent by the State Department to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon on August 24, 1963? (In it Lodge was instructed to inform Diem that U.S. backing would be withdrawn unless he disassociated himself from his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his sister-in-law, Madame Nhu. Lodge also was authorized to offer “direct support” to rival military commanders who might take action to verthrow Diem.)