thumbnail of Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Melvin R. Laird, 1981
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The questions before you became secretary of defense. Where is yours. Well at that particular time a definite plan had not been worked out. It was my responsibility after I became secretary of defense to go to Vietnam and come up with a plan that would be followed by the administration. And of course that was the Vietnamization plan that was outlined to the Congress and the American people in April. What was your plan with pressures on one side or another. There well Vietnamization was not just a plan for troop withdrawals for four years. The war had been Americanized in Vietnam and the policy of the Johnson administration is a matter of fact starting in 1963 when President Kennedy made the decision to
turn over military combat responsibility to the American forces in Vietnam. That decision was made in 63. We went from three hundred and fifty seven thousand three hundred fifty seven troops to about thousand troops in a very short period of time. And a policy of Americanization was followed from 63 and through 68. The policy of Vietnamization was to turn over the responsibility for the ground combat and air combat to the South Vietnamese. It was a policy of giving them the equipment and the training so that they could follow up their responsibility to their country. You cannot guarantee the will and the desire of any country but you can give them the tools to do the job. We had not been giving them the tools to do the job. We had been doing the job for them from 63 to 68.
Where were the pressures from one's impressions for us. Well I think the American people had become fed up with the Vietnam War and the fact that American troops had been cut become bogged down there and had taken over the complete responsibility. I believe that there were pressures that were felt from the Congress and certainly during the campaign. I think of President Humphrey or Vice President Humphrey at that time would have indicated in the slightest that there was another plan to get Americans out of Vietnam because each year during MacNamara's term the number of troops went up and up and up during that Johnson administration during Clark Clifford's 10 months and as secretary of defense during the end of the Johnson administration the number of troops went up and up and up. And I think if Humphrey would have indicated that there was
some plan he probably would have won the election. But as you know President Johnson had Dick Clark Clifford go on Meet the Press two weeks before the November election of 1968 and indicated to the American people that there was no plan to remove a single American from Vietnam and this position was echoed by then Vice President the Democratic candidate for president of the United States that they had no plan to withdraw any Americans. Matter of fact sectary defense Clifford at the time when I came out and said there was a plan in the Pentagon and that that plan should be implemented and denied that there was even a plan an essay or any other place in the Pentagon to withdraw a single American from Vietnam. I think that was a mistake. The pressures were on as far as the American people were concerned. The
pressures were on as far as the Congress was concerned. And if we wouldn't have moved in the direction of Vietnamization our whole military force structure would have been destroyed in the United States and we would not have been able to meet the NATO commitments. And the other commitments which were treaty commitments that have been made but had been made by the American government because the Defense Department was suffering the military acceptance of even people the military people was going down and it was necessary for us to come up with a plan that would give the South Vietnamese the responsibility in that area. We couldn't assure that they had the will and the desire to carry forward. We couldn't estimate that the Russians wouldn't live up to the peace agreement of Paris. But certainly we had to act and I felt that the pressures were on from the Congress and from the American people.
Matter of fact there was my plans for withdrawal. We're always in greater numbers than it really were approved. But I had to keep the pressure on on the withdrawal program from the time of Midway in late May of 1969 right through the four years I served in the Pentagon. Where was the resistance. Both There is there was some resistance that my program was too rapid where it was from both. And I don't mean by numbers that you actually say. I would say that there was resistance from both areas as to the numbers I recommended. I'm sorry that the numbers of the withdrawal you're the Joint Chiefs resisted resisting in both areas the numbers that I recommended were greater than sometimes the numbers approve Well for example 1970
next election years. Would you recall that. Well I I had a program that was worked out well in advance as to the manner in which we could turn over the responsibilities to the South Vietnamese by program levels were always just a little greater than those that were finally approved but they were somewhere in the general ballpark. You're talking about 20 or 30 thousand differences from time to time but the program that I've worked out in early in 1969 was generally fall and the numbers were not always the same my numbers were somewhat larger. As far as the actual withdrawal figures were concerned I want to make clear that I had tremendous support from General
Abrams sometimes the Joint Chiefs were not as supportive as Abe was over in Vietnam. Abe gave me tremendous support on all of the withdrawal figures and on the entire Vietnamization program. He understood what the atmosphere was in the United States and the need to change the policy of the Defense Department under McNamara and Clifford and he gave me tremendous support. I wrote a little article about that for the Reader's Digest on Abe and the tremendous support that he gave me as the military commander in Vietnam. Q. What kind of relationship was he generally was supportive. There were some differences as far as the figures from time to time but certainly he gave tremendous support to the whole Vietnamization program and turning over the
responsibility to the South Vietnamese support. I have find support from Secretary Kissinger at that particular time he was the presidential adviser on national security affairs. I had known him I guess longer than anyone in the administration we had he had contributed to a book which I'd edited in 1960 and I had known him over the years and I would say that he gave me good support on the Vietnamization program as well as the Defense Department budget. I had of course one of my I had two goals in mind when I became secretary of defense. One of them was to get America disengaged from Southeast Asia because I always had been a supporter of General Eisenhower and when he was president he said we should never get bogged down in a land war in Southeast Asia and I supported him in the Congress. All during the
50s on that issue and right all through the 1960s on that particular issue. Secretary Kissinger then the presidential advisor gave me good support on the Vietnamization program. There were some different some in the figures perhaps I was for a little more rapid implementation of Vietnamization. He gave me good support in my change in the draft. That was one of my goals to get the draft fair it was unfair with all of the deferments. They told me I couldn't establish a lottery thing it would never be approved by the Congress. I got it approved by the Congress and I moved forward to the volunteer force. And when I left Defense selective service was not being used to draft young men and women into the military services. And I got good support from President Nixon and the National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on those programs.
Now work. I was very close to the Congress having come from the Congress and spent nine terms in the House of Representatives on the Defense Appropriations Committee. And I can only say that the Congress gave me 100 percent support. I never lost a single vote during that time I was secretary of defense. I had great support in the House of Representatives and in the United States Senate and for that I will always be grateful to this question. What was your portion of mastic politics. Did you see as a domestic issue. I think it would have been a tremendous domestic political issue or even greater than it was if President Nixon would not have approved the Vietnamization program. I think that that gave him
time to move forward on other domestic issues. And it quieted the tremendous discontent that had been build up from 66 to 68 over the Vietnam issue. I think that the press in this country the media was supportive of the phased withdrawal program in Vietnam and I think that they did understand what was being done that there was a tremendous buildup had gone on there when President Nixon became president and I became secretary of defense. There were five hundred and fifty thousand Americans on the ground engaged in ground combat. There was another million Americans engaged in air and sea support of that effort. And I believe that the American people the press the radio TV the media people generally did a very good job in supporting this change of direction.
That came about early in the Nixon administration. You remember there was. What were your ambitions here. Well I thought the Vietnamese handled themselves very well on those missions. They had. That was early in the Vietnamization program but they didn't handle themselves very well. There was no question in my mind that they could do the job. I did not believe that they were weaker individually than North Vietnamese. I felt they came from the same stock and they could do the job if they had the will and the desire to do it. Now there is no way that you can instill the will and the desire into a nation. There is no way that you could foresee the amount of military equipment and aid that the
Russians were putting in to North Vietnam in violation of the peace agreement. That adviser Kissinger had negotiated in Paris. But I do believe that they were capable of handling the military situation. But when you plan to do it predicated on South Americans it was possible it was conceived on the idea that there would be no story. It was conceived on the idea that there would only be replacements placed in the country by the United States replacement and spare parts for their equipment and it was also predicated upon the conditions that were outlined in the Paris Peace Accord which the
Russians and the Chinese would follow the same rules as far as getting some peace accord. This was three. The Peace Accord came as you know the peace accords started and the negotiations and those particular provisions were agreed upon in 71. So the Russians know the peace accord discussions started in 1969 but it was always anticipated. Through all of the discussions that there would be a provision that only spare parts and no new equipment would be placed in the north by the Russians and the Chinese when the peace accord was finally signed in 1973 early in 73. I think it was about January 23rd. I may be off a day or two on the date. That particular provision that had always been part of the discussions and all
was a very important part of the Vietnamization program was in the agreement but before the agreement was signed it was stuff it's possible. So are the Russians. But it was anticipated that once the peace agreement was peace agreement was signed that there would be only replacements from the United States and from the Russians and the Red Chinese I'm sure you're familiar with that provision inserted now towards roads. Yes it was. And we had a program that we we had a program that was going forward there under General Abrams very fine leadership to deal with the drug problem which became a very severe problem as far as Vietnam was concerned. And I think General Abrams and his people move forward on that program
very adequately. I had to sometimes keep after them a little bit because they were involved in the training programs and turning over the responsibility to the Vietnamese. And it was necessary to get after them from time to time on those other personal military problems that did exist as far as our troops were concerned or from the military the military became very much a part of the Vietnamization program. Not only did I have General Abrams support but I had support of most people had looked over the challenges which the United States faced as we moved into the decade of the 1970s in the 1980s during the Johnson administration we had robbed our NATO forces of some ten
billion dollars worth of equipment. As you know when I was in Congress I accused Secretary McNamara and President Johnson of following a program of fighting now paying later. And I felt that they had underfunded the budget and were robbing our NATO forces and other forces all over the world. And when I became secretary of defense I found out that that's exactly what they'd done. And our military understood that they understood that if we were going to get the kind of support that was needed and necessary for the military forces in the 70s and on into the 80s that we had to build up American support for military people. People are the most important thing in the military. Tanks and airplanes and ships are very secondary. But we didn't have the kind of support that was needed and necessary because there was a lot of
disenchantment from 1965 to 1968 with the Department of Defense and with our military personnel. So what I tried to do is develop a program of participatory management in the Department of Defense to bring the military leadership and the civilian leadership together. We started out very early with a conference said ARELY in which I took them for three days and we sat down and went over all of the problems of the deterrent force of the United States is met its treaty commitments the Vietnam commitment was not a treaty commitment. It was not a commitment that had been approved constitutionally as all treaties are approved. But it was something entirely different. And so we tried to bring the military and the civilian leadership together to plan for the future and the way to plan for the future was to
disengage Americans from the kind of activity that they'd gotten involved in in Vietnam and to turn that responsibility over to the people there in Southeast Asia. The wars have gone on there for hundreds of years. They will be fighting in Southeast Asia Cambodia Laos and Vietnam for the next 50 years. And we have to understand that there's not much we're going to be able to do about that. We're not in a position where we should choose that area of the world to become involved in ground combat. I remember so well General Eisenhower and I traveled with him in the campaign in 1952 in which he outlined his speech that he would go to Korea because he felt it was a mistake for America to get bogged down
in that kind of land combat in Southeast Asia. I became a disciple of the Eisenhower philosophy as far as that area of the world was concerned. And that's why with participatory management getting our eye back on the ball as to what American commitments were and what the important commitments military and from a foreign policy and a national security viewpoint were in the world in which we lived. Why did you have what did you have reservations about. I didn't have any reservations about bombing Cambodia in 1960. My 9 my disagreement with the president and with Kissinger and with the secretary of state. We're keeping them
secret. I recommended bombing the Cambodian sanctuaries in 1969. And I think there's some misunderstanding about that. My recommendation was to bomb those sanctuaries which are occupied by the North Vietnamese which they were using after they attacked American forces and running back into the sanctuaries. I had no reservation about the bombing of those occupied sanctuaries in 1969 but I didn't want it kept secret because I felt I could get the support of the Congress and the American people to protect American troops in South Vietnam as we withdrew. And I felt it could not be kept secret because I had 16000 military people that would have to be involved. And I told the National Security Council the president the presidential advisor for national security and the secretary of state that their proposal to keep it secret just would not work.
And that's my disagreement. And I think it's been misinterpreted. It had did not have to do with the bombing. It had to do in the manner in which they wanted to carry out that bombing which I thought would lead to trouble. And I felt I could get that kind of support that I needed from the American people and from the Congress to go forward with it and I did not want it on a secret basis and that's where the disagreement existed. What did you have reservations about. In 1970 I felt that it was important to use that. I felt it was very important to use South Vietnamese troops in nineteen seventy not only in the incursions in Laos but also in the incursions in Cambodia. I felt that it was absolutely essential to give them that kind of training and that kind of responsibility. As you know the military commanders U.S. military commanders felt that you could not guarantee
success without using Americans. I disagreed with that particular proposal. I felt that it should be the responsibility and give the South Vietnamese the complete test at that time. How did you see the results. Now the results show that it was successful at that particular time. I was not sure whether the incursion was successful but now as you know as we go over the reports from both sides that we've had recently that was a successful incursion. But I still believe that it would have been better to give that total responsibility to the South Vietnamese at this time. How did you feel. Well at that particular time I felt by using American troops in Cambodia instead of using the South Vietnamese troops that had might set back the kind of support
that was needed and necessary to carry Vietnamization out for the full course. And it did cause some problems. And I had anticipated those problems and I had outlined those problems at a National Security Council meeting because I felt that at that particular time we had to do everything we could to bring the Congress together bring the American people together to support our overall program of withdraw and turning over the responsibility to the South Vietnamese. If you recall us what was your reaction at that time. Washington. Of course I was very concerned about it. My reaction was great deep concern for what kind of moves take. Well I had anticipated that there would be that sort of reaction if we moved forward and
used American forces in that operation. I just want to go back to the feeling in the country. Well I don't think we were defeated in Vietnam. I think the South Vietnamese were defeated. The South Vietnamese were defeated not for lack of equipment or training but because of a lack of will and desire to face up to the north Vietnam is in the increasing support the North Vietnamese were getting during that period from the Soviet Union. I think that defeat was a defeat for the South Vietnamese. I see there's no question about that. But I don't believe that it was the responsibility of the American people the American Congress or any American administration to take
over complete and total responsibility for ensuring the will and the desire of another country to resist their neighbors to the north. Looking at the world today. Well I would hope that Vietnam would reestablish the Eisenhower doctrine. I call it the Eisenhower doctrine as far as Southeast Asia is concerned. And as far as Asia is concerned I think President Eisenhower was very wise in his advice to the Congress and to the American people that we should not get involved in ground combat in Southeast Asia or in Asia. And I think that the experience of the Johnson and the Kennedy administration and changing American policy to one of ground combat responsibility is a lesson that
has well been well learned in the United States. Well I think we've gotten over the problems that were caused by the Kennedy Johnson administration engaging in Southeast Asia. I think that the American people are now willing to support a credible deterrent as far as our military force is concerned. I think that they will be very careful and instructing their members the United States Senate on the kinds of the kinds of treaties and military and national security commitments this country makes in the future. But I think the American people are willing to support the kind of national security and national defense policy that's needed and necessary for the free world to have a credible deterrent. You sometimes you were on the fence.
No I had no problems with Secretary Kissinger usurping any of the authority of the Department of Defense while I served as secretary of defense. I had disagreements with Secretary Kissinger such as the Cambodian bombing. I didn't want it kept secret. I felt that was a mistake. His position prevailed but as far as the kind of support I got from the president and from the secretary of state and from the National Security Adviser there certainly were some disagreements. But basically I had strong support. As you know when I became secretary of defense I was not the first choice of the president. I had urged him to appoint scoop Jackson as secretary of defense because I felt it was good to have a Democrat scoop backed out at the last minute because he felt that it would interfere with possible presidential ambitions that he had.
And at the last minute I became secretary of defense because I had evidently the president thought I'd let him up a blind alley and scoop Jackson. And I'd been on the defense appropriations committee a long time and I decided that I should do this. But I did it was a very strong understanding that I would have complete control over military and civilian personnel in that department and that I'd also have access to all budgetary matters that I would not have to go through the Office of Management and Budget on those particular problems. I believe that the support I got was good support and strong support. I won most of my battles in the National Security Council. I can't say that I won them all but I can say that I won every battle that I got to endure every issue that I get presented to the Congress of the United States and I'll be forever in debt to the House of
Representatives in the United States Senate for the tremendous support they gave to me and to the Department of Defense. Each and every one of those 48 months as I served as secretary of defense
Vietnam: A Television History
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Interview with Melvin R. Laird, 1981
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Episode Description
Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1972, and domestic advisor to President Nixon from 1973 to 1974, Melvin Laird is best known for coining the term "Vietnamization." Laird discusses the pressure he felt for troop withdrawal under President Nixon and the idea that it was time for South Vietnam to be handed the tools to defend their country and let the Americans withdraw. Laird also talks about the Cambodian bombing in 1969 and the fact that while he agreed with the act of bombing, he disagreed with the plan to keep it secret. He also talks about his disagreements with Henry Kissinger and the tension he felt while working with him.
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Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Vietnam--History--1945-1975; Vietnam (Democratic Republic); Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Influence; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Cambodia; Military assistance, American; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; United States--History--1945-; United States--Politics and government; draft; Vietnam (Republic); morale; Vietnam--Politics and government; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements; Vietnam War, 1961-197--Campaigns--Laos; United States--History, Military--20th century; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Public opinion
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Publisher: WGBH Educational Foundation
Writer: Laird, Melvin R.
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Identifier: 318fba984964e868935a76270466165de7e4f1a1 (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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Duration: 00:31:39:15
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Chicago: “Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Melvin R. Laird, 1981,” 1981-06-03, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024,
MLA: “Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Melvin R. Laird, 1981.” 1981-06-03. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2024. <>.
APA: Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Melvin R. Laird, 1981. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from