thumbnail of Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Edward Geary Lansdale, 1979 [Part 1 of 5]
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Resistance period or fight and exaggerates fights I mean it one a couple of confrontations and the confrontation took place but it didn't take place with him to play with somebody else. You know some like what he writes I've never heard that when he was in the French Resistance he was under the orders of a British agent and the British agent didn't have a confrontation with de Gaulle. And Lou tells his vivid story about how they were both there but who wasn't there. Lu was in the hospital in the mountains with what's generally known as a social disease family and all kinds of things. I had a long interview with his first wife which is something. OK. All right.
OK. Your assignment to Vietnam in 1954 was largely based on your success in helping the Philippine government to fight its pro-communist guerrillas first. How did you get the assignment to Vietnam and you think the Philippine experience was relevant to Vietnam. The difference between my experience in the Philippines and the experience in Vietnam had many similarities and some very sharp differences that were important. I have visited Vietnam as part of a
mission to check on the needs of the French forces fighting there and 1953 and. Later that year I was in a meeting in the Pentagon that was called by President Eisenhower and I was chaired by the secretary of defense have John Foster Dulles and it and as they were talking about the results of our visit earlier in the year Don Foster Dulles and replying to some question that was I guess there turned around and looked at me and said we're going to send Ed over to our end of time. I'm going to want to go. I said well I really don't but if I could work with the Vietnamese rather than with France why I'd be willing to go over and try and help out. But what is it to me to do so. I'd
like you to do the same thing you did in the Philippines. So that was a small minority. The differences were quite marked in the Philippines where we were working where the government had elected officials against an enemy that was trying to overthrow them and set up a new political system in Vietnam. The. Officials from South Vietnam were either foreign meaning France or were appointed Vietnamese so that the association emirate's that they gave to the people was not of being our own officials but being appointed and of strangers foreigners. This was a country that had a very deep suspicion of foreigners even those who had been around among them for so long as the front of them and as the Geneva
Convention map was deciding on my terms of peace in Vietnam the the French made political sound so that they were going to move on. But what that meant was that they would move move out almost an entire government leadership structure not only in Saigon in the provinces. So in the Philippines I had helped the Philippine government govern well and help the armed forces bring back essentially enough peace to have the government operate in favor of the people and Vietnam whole government structure was leaving the country and the people out in the countryside had heard of Saigon. Some have boasted there. But to them it didn't represent the
government and the structure had great back on it so that the problems became very sharply different. The enemy strangely enough had remained very much the same type of an enemy had grown much bigger and fighting against the French forces but had started life as say about the same number the same size as the Communist Party and its armed forces and the Philippines had grown all about three or four times as large by the time it got in there and kept growing all the time and have had successes. The Philippine communists that never have the success of it. Among the other contrasts. Are they
the problems. I have to deal with almost immediately Vietnam was to help the Vietnamese take over and govern themselves and they needed some encouragement and some guidance on that. So that as as struggles will take place in the provinces there needed to be something other than my foreign element meaning people from a big city the capital city of Saigon coming out to the countryside to work with the farmers some rice paddy people want provinces in the Philippines say the problems have devolved into essentially military and political types of military to protect the people and the political two to really represent the people who let the people feel what it was their own choice of people what they are governed. I went to the Philippines a second time to help and they were building
and 1950 and at that time the guerrillas a communist guerrillas it achieved considerable success in dominating like provinces around an. But they have done so by claiming to the people that they elected government have not won fairly in elections. So one of the big things that took place in the Philippines was. Advising the army to get around the electoral process and helping the Commission on Elections there maintain law according to what was on the books so that they became in effect not poll watchers but Guardians of the sanctity of a secret ballot. And.
The big turning points in the campaign against communists there came about during two elections the first a byelection in 1951 and governors and mayors of cities were elected and they the armed forces made sure that there wasn't fraud and they go around the polling places and people who were running them who actually won the votes and were most popular were elected unless the people could clearly say that the government was there and was representing them and had no use or for people who were asking them not to vote and saying that their votes wouldn't be counted and that the government should be overthrown. And the fact that people said well we voted. Our votes were counted. These are our people and our government. And we aren't going to help you
overthrow it. There was no such feeling at all in Vietnam. The people said who's hiding inside on their front. They're foreigners. We want them out of the country. And they didn't want to side with the communists. By the time I got there they had seen a communist organization. Most of them preferred to sit on the fence. I think the great majority of people just wish that everybody would go away and leave them alone. Looking back do you think. Looking back do you think it was a mistake for the United States to have supported the French as far back starting as far back as 19 50. A mistake supporting a friend 1950. Really not. I think that there were factors and our consideration of helping the French went
far beyond Vietnam and what the French were trying to do there. Don't forget they've been our ally in World War Two very close cultural and economic ties with France. We were helping them bring some order and stabilization in a place. They said that they were going to get out of it and leave there and make independent just what they told us. And I think that their advance on technology to do that there was a great deal of misgiving and wasnt done as far as I could gather about doing more of them and giving them some supplies and material things and not getting further involved. So were you involved at all or in Washington at the time the Eisenhower administration when the
decision had to be made over whether to help the French again be in foo. Remember that I was in the Philippines at the time. And the first time I looked at all about the decision on the NBN. Could I ask you your opinion why do you think we should have helped the French and the Indians to help the French that benefit. I think. We were correct in our decision to stay out and I think we should have gotten involved and hold them sort of backwards and had very little say about how things should be done and we ought to call them some combat acts something that we could see that control our own forces or those other forces involved. And I don't think we could save the French Diakite. Now you went to you went to Saigon at the head of the Saigon military mission
was this early 1954. I went there and I think it was May towards the summer of 54. I was in Manila at the time present my excuse of the Philippines and they asked me to come in and help them on some of his work with his Congress. Many of whom were close friends of mine the Philippines and this was on as broad programs of work that he was trying to do inside the country of social change that he was trying to bring about. And I got a orders on him while I was there and to proceed immediately to Saigon and I was appointed temporarily as an assistant to say the Air Force and it wasn't until
I got there. And talked with General Daniel who was head of our military mission in Saigon at the time who asked me to also come out and help him with my problem of training and training of the time checking on military support to the Vietnamese. What was Saigon like in those days in early spring. Fifty four. It was war time. When I was there there a lot of evidence on the streets of military traffic. The French had a great love for messengers on motorcycles. So you know this and heavily clogged traffic of bicycles and small French cars and taxis. And so close. What are the risks or a motorized of.
Suddenly these police motorcycles of a French soldier hunkered down over the handlebars wearing a helmet and going as fast as they could weaving in and out of traffic and blaring some sort of a message from one one headquarters to another many more trees and then later they had Mark in times of the war and with lots of foliage. Somehow or other seeming more peaceful. Than I became later on and less hurried. Atmosphere as far as the Vietnamese were concerned. Many of the residents of Saigon in those days felt themselves to be fat setters. They wanted no part of either side in the war and went about their usual business so that the sidewalks are crowded with
people socializing and talking around my public pomps and and the marketplaces are much more at least here outside of saying the the military on the street it was a peaceful scene. The war was very remote to them. It's been said that Saigon in those days was maybe one of the most corrupt cities in the world that bad and peace go hand in hand. Unfortunately I am and I may say Saigon was corrupt. But corrupt Damn I am the sense in saying ending civilization and that there are there are ways to beat the rules of the game of Government am Saigon in those days. The crops are not as
they worldwide one of. Gangsterism of prostitution the gambling of normal illegal acts with the legality of any government later on corruption changed and became something quite else it ate away at the Vietnamese armed forces. More on the terms of craft than Saigon those days was. As the earlier Saigon was usually around town streets or around some of the side streets. You could get a heavy wet of opium on my air or opium smoking circles that many of the Vietnamese and many of the French or in the town would go over and have a pipe up an
afternoon and thought nothing of it. What was the Saigon military mission. That was an organization that you set up wasn't it. That was one that I set up. I'm sorry could you start by saying I set up this like I know telling me I set up the Saigon military mission to have a mom and pop up for a group of very unconventional military people that I brought together Blue Man me a direct aid section of our military advisory crew to work directly with the Vietnamese on a wide variety of subjects including the psychological operations of the Vietnamese army and maintained. Help up in Hanoi to the refugee program while it was going on
and also performed some advice for aid to be sent to the civil government of Vietnam. And these were all military people but their duties were a little bit apart from the ordinary military duties to do but a very peculiar need at the time when the need was largely resolved. They the most and most despised it was that group responsible to undo those under the military the American military or under the CIA. It was really responsible back to several people in Washington including the Secretary of State Tom Fox or call us the CIA and to the chief of staff of the various services. Essentially the Joint Chiefs of Staff Well we you and the other members of the group were getting paid by the
CIA or by the State Department who is paying you. Some of them were paid by CIA. I was paid by the Air Force. I was a regular Air Force officer a number of the others were regular officers and were paid by their services their military services while well are there somewhere and the State Department were paid by the state that foreign service officers. The main difficulty with this type of a thing is that we were against a.m.-I and I started with anime that was half a half acknowledged by the United States a communist forces who had an organization for which we had no counterpart on our side. They had a cadre of political cadre military cadre who were often the same person
doing things that were way beyond a very formal type of organization in the United States had for such a struggle and something that was needed on our side that good counterpart them to to make sure that everything we did as much as possible of what we did would be effective because some of our military leaders or more political leaders than they were military or if not if they were as good a military leader. It's Don't job. They had a very good political science and would do things for political effect as most jobs battles or are they the political psychological effect of putting them. And we had none of our people the ambassador at the time. They the generals that we had out
there the economic chiefs or people who. Saw themselves other than my roles assigned them and Washington not as ambassador or General or general ambassador or anything like that but that is playing a very straight role as Americans. But in in in this description your group was a group of Americans trying to get into this military cum political role. Whereas in the communist side they were Vietnamese so they had a kind of nationalistic credential. I mean who actually didn't. We should go back and argue about the subject. There is no group or two or different from the communist side and that the Communists were or Vietnamese and we were Americans and
we were acting as advisors to Vietnam. And the important essential point on that as we were asking the Vietnamese to do things up or best for their country and almost entirely were asking them to do things their style rather than ours based on their culture or their feelings of morality and. Principles that they believe then but to do for their country and primarily. Other than technical advice what to it gave times we were urging them to see the the problem hole that they were looking at because many of the Vietnamese that we were dealing with had no experience or very low experience and for example public administration.
They had the military officers are by and large city boys who had to operate in the countryside and. Hadn't known farming hadn't known the mores and background of rice paddy farmers and little village areas and so on. So we stepped out of the role of having them do things American lives for American reasons or for our own country. But we're urging them to do things for their country. I mean style and then that way. But you describe our Vietnamese as being largely city urban types in many ways. Weren't they just as foreign in the countryside as Vietnam as we were they the officials and
officers in particular the Vietnamese government and armed forces or city boys mainly because they needed at least a high school education to hold a job or to be an officer. The high schools were very far and few between then and ex-colonies the I forget how many schools but there are very very few of them in order to get an education. You have to go to a city and go to a high school. There was one university in Vietnam the University of Hanoi again that only had city people because it took money to go to school. It took residents and a city while you are going to school and even if you come from the countryside as a young person
you have to move into the city and grow up essentially. And I said picking up the boys and said the outlook on life so that when they would get out and the countryside is mostly. And they the people of Vietnam and the countryside was on a Fulbright and particularly so and and the places where most of the combat took place in Vietnam and where even people from my next village sometimes were looked on as foreigners. So when people came in who dressed differently who had different faces different skin coloration they were definitely far. And it took
people from that vicinity too to be accepted by them. Change gradually as late or as Americans fought out in the countryside as they became familiar figures to the Vietnamese. But there a little bit of that still inside Vietnamese volunteers with a little bit. I have to tell you with any stranger you were a special adviser to know Diem's YEM in those days. What was he like and how would you describe his understanding of the situation in Vietnam. I got to know. No I didn't see him. Shortly after he came to Vietnam returned to it in 1954 they appointed prime minister Burbach guy and I
became very close to I am sort of an accidental way and it was never as official adviser. We became very close friends and I did give him advice on many many subjects with considerable guidance and I discussed them beforehand with U.S. officials I might add. But I had never heard of. Him before I went to Vietnam and he wasn't there when I was serving there in the earlier parts of 54. But word came that this man was coming in as prime minister. And I recall our ambassador at the time asked me what I knew about him. I told him I never heard of him. And he said he knew practically nothing about him. I just I had a few brief notes on this
biography and I went out to find out about him from Vietnamese. I know a number of them knew a great deal about him and they either liked him. Fully and no holds barred 100 percent for him or 100 percent against him. He was a man of controversy. Those who were informed said that he was a very honest person very acceptable to them as being a person of intensely high morality. Those who didn't like him said he's stupid. So. They wouldn't follow him for anything other than they felt that he didn't know enough to be safe. They felt that he wouldn't be corrupt that they wouldn't condone graft that he was a stickler morally.
But they all know him and there wasn't a person I talked to that didn't know a great deal about him. And. They they also told me that he had been an administrator in the provinces before and had made a name for himself by by very strict but very thorough administration of problems for the Vietnamese or them had a court it the way. He was due at the airport in that airport one day and I was invited as part of a diplomatic group to go out and receive him. As I started toward towards the airport the streets are just line mobs of people. And I got a sudden impulse to fall off to the
side and watch his arrival from the streets among the people rather than out of the diplomatic crowd at the airport. So I I pulled them out and I parked my car and got out and stood with the mobs on the sidewalks and we waited and waited and waited for something to happen and nothing that a flight had been delayed in the diplomatic reception at the airport. Took a long time but all of a sudden down my street I could hear a noise of motorcycles coming on. Everybody said he's coming. So hoisting kids up on their shoulders and everybody crowding out to say them and I along with them and suddenly pass of about 60 miles an hour came a motorcycle escort and a closed car.
You couldn't see anybody and went by and everybody started asking him how did he come out. So tremendous disappointment at not seeing him here was a tremendously enthusiastic friendly crowd of people who didn't get to see the show that they wanted to cheer. I felt that this is a terrible mistake. Tom bubbies part of my income I am a very dark tower and this country's history and doing a sort of secretively and very security minded as though he didn't want to get close to the people at all and stay away. So I went down afterwards to our embassy and talk with the ambassador and also talk with the chief of my general 9:00 and told him that I felt it made a tremendous mistake and if somebody was advising him about the people
that make that sort of a mistake he might be making mistakes on other things. And I had been traveling all over the country talking with all sorts of the enemies and I knew what they wanted to see this man do. And if our American officials wouldn't mind I'd like to write down some very short notes an outline for this man and go out and give them to him. They told me that they wanted to see what was going to say first so I went to work and stayed up all night writing a very short paper with four or five pages of notions on economics on administration out in the countryside of agricultural needs. Some reforms that would be made and all of the things that the Vietnamese had been telling me of what they want this man to do. So I sold it to our officials have told me that. Go ahead. I couldn't do it as an official US
document but if wanted to present it on my own and make sure that they knew it was on my own. Go ahead. I didn't speak French so I got the the head of USRA the U.S. Information Agency or tell you to come along with me and act as an interpreter for me. So we went over to the government palace where the prime minister was billing was almost deserted. There were a few people wandering around the halls but I couldn't see a thing that said the prime minister's office or any guards on the door to ask questions. But one person hurrying along I stopped and I asked for the prime minister and he said he's upstairs. So I climbed up the stairs and there were nobody in the hall up there. But there was a door ajar and I stuck my head and there was a small statured roly poly person sitting there and the first thing I
know that's what I saw was that his feet weren't touching the floor when I was sitting and I you pull up at a table and I asked him where the prime minister office was and he said that he was a prime minister and that's the way I am. Then I told him about being with the crowds watching us arrival and I felt that some adviser of his was making a terrible mistake of keeping him away from the people and that I had had a good fortune of being able to travel around the country and talk to a lot of Vietnamese and I put together some notes on my own that is more or less said and outlined what the people expected and what he'd mind if I gave them to him and I explained it to him strictly on my own as an American who had done this on official.
So he took that paper and he was reading and I said well I brought my friend here with me towards Hellier who can read it to you in France and translate it so George reached over and took this document to him. He held it like this to read the way on up towards said I forgot my glasses say that I can't see the typing on this sign. So Jim took off his glasses and put them on George and George. And rather this was the start of a relationship that brought me in to see a part of him that I never heard from anybody else. A friendship that showed a character who is extremely different from from journalist views of our diplomatic views of the man
I saw a family man because I was invited to dine at times with the family. And let's see what the oldest brother and he wasn't the boss of a country or I think he was just one of the members of the family who reached over if he wanted to grab a piece of food across the plate and so on. A man with a delightful sense of humor. Harry Peck served all along as a remote Mandarin type and he had a delightful. His humor was so dry that you'd have to look at him sometimes cats whether he was pulling your leg or or are being sort of stupid about something and I'd catch up little point in his eye and this reminds me the man had a tremendous look of
intelligence and spark of life and as I said the most important part of his speeches. There was always a sparkle a little gleam of humor and so forth. And did find something very funny and was holding himself and sort of laughing at sight something to an otherwise sort of roly poly type of person. This distinguish them from others of the same stature and real on any walk of life. And you did. To what extent did he take your advice and to what extent do you think that he if you can give us some anecdotes of advice that you gave him that he took and maybe if we could project a little bit to the future were there any flaws in him that eventually contributed to his downfall. The advice that I gave him was was
usually on a current problem beside him and he would I would ask him to do describe the problem to me and get him talking about not only the problem but how a Vietnamese who loved his country and was trying to serve the people should ideally resolve the problem. This type of a discussion. What usually let him get his ideas sorted out and then some order and then some order of priority so that he would feel that something must be done and undertake something that was Vietnamese and its own so that the taking of advice and so much has taken my advice but was
taking his own advice as described by I am sorted out and put in some shape. Frequently he would ask me how things would look to other countries and I would answer that as best as I could. And we would get him to considerable discussion of social philosophies and so forth including the Vietnamese approach to problems so that he would take the advice because it was his own. I don't think he ever really dissembled to me. He wasn't that type of a relationship. There was no need for him to be dishonest at all. And mean why not nor on my part we could. We had extremely frank discussion on things. Could you remember some examples. One of the the problems that he had personally was he was steeped in a
Vietnamese Mandarin tradition and I recall one time he was he was also an amateur photographer a wryness on dark Roman god palace that he was showing me some pictures taken of a visit to the provinces which is something I was always urging him to do to talk to people and as he did this I said shame on you. You've got these farmers out in the fields taking off their hats and you're talking down to them and because they must be bowing or something. They're very look and you can't get the truth from a man who whose eyes you can't see and who who you are looking in his space and having a really man to man conversation. So tell them to keep their hats on. Tell them who you are and talk to them when you start telling me pictures of you doing that. I think that you start learning what people want and they won't tell you
anything just to have you go away and feel happy but you'll be getting the truth from them. He started doing that and he what. What do dangerous things first. Personal security. The first time when we got him down to the Mekong area where we were trying to get the government reestablish some areas that the enemy had left under the Geneva Accords it left a big gap in ministration and so forth. It's a region regional swamps and rivers and streams and so on. And Tim gave him a boat and started rolling down the stream and there are a tall grasses all along the banks. And of course there are guerrilla enemy guerrillas nearby and he just said I'm done. That's for all
the time he enjoyed it. Now he rode over to some farmers to talk to him and asked what things were happening there. But the. Main thing about him was that he was getting over some habits that had been with them all of his life. I think that he mostly wanted to be a student monk to live in a monastery someplace and to do research and study with probably history books as might be his main or most days at the palace was done not in this office not in any of the formal rooms of the administrative Palace where I live but I am a little tiny alcove off of his bedroom. What I would place the two of us on we
talk are knees talks together like we're doing now and a much smaller space in mass. But he had all sorts of books on official documents and everything stacked from the floor to the ceiling and he had a little tiny clear space on a table or he could do some writing but so crowded and by books and papers and so on. He could hardly see how the man could work. And I thought well this is his. His monastery is his little monks alcohol. That's just part of a I am a shy retiring person who has been forced into the limelight and the foreground and doesn't really like it but he's happiest when he's in a place like this. Just one point. Could you mention
Vietnam: A Television History
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Interview with Edward Geary Lansdale, 1979 [Part 1 of 5]
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Episode Description
General Edward Geary Lansdale was an advisor to French forces on special counter-guerrilla operations against the Viet Minh. From 1954 to 1957 he was in Saigon and served as an advisor to the American-backed government of South Vietnam. Lansdale recalls his experience fighting communist groups in the Philippines and credits that success for his being called to duty for Vietnam. Lansdale discusses the differences between fighting in the Philippines and Vietnam. He recalls that the Vietnamese had a strong distrust for foreigners and this resulted in a distrust of the government. However, Lansdale contends that it was not a mistake to support the French in Vietnam during 1950 as the French had been our allies in World War II and the United States had close cultural and economic ties with France. Lansdale also recalls his time as a special advisor to Ngo Dinh Diem. Lansdale explains at length the problems Ngo Dinh Diem had, such as being steeped in a Vietnamese Mandarin tradition that created his disengagement with the people and their needs. Lansdale also gives his opinion of Madame Nhu as a tragic figure who was extremely misunderstood.
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Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American; Vietnam--History--1945-1975; Vietnam (Democratic Republic); Vietnam (Republic); Philippines--History--1946-1986; Indochinese War, 1946-1954; Lansdale, Edward Geary, 1908-1987; Ngo, Dinh Diem, 1901-1963; Vietnam--Politics and government; United States--Politics and government; United States--History--1945-; United States. Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam; Counterinsurgency; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Presidents--Vietnam (Democratic Republic)
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Publisher: WGBH Educational Foundation
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Writer: Lansdale, Edward Geary, 1908-1987
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Chicago: “Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Edward Geary Lansdale, 1979 [Part 1 of 5],” 1979-01-31, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 21, 2024,
MLA: “Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Edward Geary Lansdale, 1979 [Part 1 of 5].” 1979-01-31. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 21, 2024. <>.
APA: Vietnam: A Television History; Interview with Edward Geary Lansdale, 1979 [Part 1 of 5]. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from