BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Peter MacDonald, author of "Giap," on the cover of your book, it says "The Victor in Vietnam." Why did you think a book of this type at this point was going to be read?
PETER MacDONALD, AUTHOR, "THE VICTOR IN VIETNAM" Well, I suppose the -- I'd better start at why I wrote the book. Around the 30th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, they had put a picture in the newspaper of this man, Giap, sitting at Dien Bien Phu. He was on a bit of a hillock, wearing a uniform, smiling at the camera. And it struck me how strange it was that he was a man who had made such an enormous impact on the West, and nobody knew anything about it, and that it would be a great thing to be able to write a book about it. So that was the seed that was sewn in 1984.
I wrote to the Vietnamese Embassy in London and said that I would like to go to Vietnam to meet him and to write a book about him. It then got pretty bureaucratic. I had to refer it to Hanoi and so on. The man I was dealing with was posted back to Hanoi. The new chap didn't know much about it. The whole thing faded away and I got involved in another book. And I didn't really do anything about it for quite a long time. But then, in 1988, I began to think about it again. And in 1989, I approached the Vietnamese Embassy. Again, there was a long delay; nothing much happened. I had given it up, really. And then this letter came saying it was appropriate to go to Hanoi in December of that year because it was the 45th anniversary of the founding of the People's Army and that I could go and write about Giap and about the People’s Army.
So that's really how it started. And then, of course, there was the business of researching, writing and so on. So to answer your question directly, I mean, there was no feeling in my mind that now is the right time to produce the book; it was events that picked me up and took me along. And therefore, there was no particular timing in the thing. I did hope, though, that the events would have faded a bit from people's minds because of the trauma that had been experienced, both in France and in America. And I think that maybe the book wouldn't have gone at all early on, soon after those events. And I find now, with passage of time, that, in fact, in France, they still feel tremendously uptight about the Indochina War, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, a little less so in the United States.
LAMB: Is General Giap still alive?
MacDONALD: Yes. Oh, yes.
LAMB: When did you last see him?
MacDONALD: I saw him in January of 1990.
LAMB: How much time did you spend with him?
MacDONALD: I spent several hours with him, spread over a number of interviews.
LAMB: What was he like?
MacDONALD: I really didn't know what to expect in the sense that I had only seen the odd picture of him. I had read that he was not very well physically, and also I had read that, you know, he was suffering from Parkinson's disease, Hodgkin's disease and all this sort of thing. And he was quite an old man, so I really didn't know what to expect -- as a physical presence. The interviews were conducted in what used to be the prime minister's residence in Hanoi, and I arrived there in good time and waited for him to appear. He rolled up in a big, black staff car, a Russian ZIL, I think they're called, with a uniformed driver and an aide. And he came up the steps with energy and pumped my hand and was full of beans, full of bonhomie. So there was no problem of getting a rapport, if you like. He wasn't standing off or being arrogant in any way. So it made things relatively easy to conduct the interviews.
LAMB: What language did you speak?
MacDONALD: We spoke -- well, we had a woman interpreter, and she was translating English into Vietnamese and back.
LAMB: Who is he?
MacDONALD: Who is he?
LAMB: Who is he?
MacDONALD: Well, it's a remarkable story. If I can slightly digress here, I think, in the modern world we live in, there's a great tendency to make people out of black or white or positive or negative and, you know, very little shading in between. And therefore, for decades, the Vietnamese have been regarded as Communist baddies, if you like. And the people at the top end of it have been regarded as the causes of all the problems that arose over the years. Personally, I feel, of course, that people are not all good and not all bad and that they're a mix of things. And so, to get back to your point of who is he, I think he was a man of exceptional intelligence, who showed it at an early age, who did well in his school, in a sense, got promoted to a better school and was bright and highly intelligent throughout all the time that he was growing up -- perhaps a bit too bright in the sense that he was highly nationalistic and anticolonial, anti the French.
And that was his chief motivation in the beginning. He was born in 1911, so we're talking about the '30s, in a time when he was developing, if you like. I think that, like a lot of people in those times, not only in the Far East, but all over the world, in America, in this country, people looked at communism as a means of perhaps sorting out some of the world's problems and troubles. I think, of course, time has shown that that was entirely wrong. The system is proved to be unworkable. But people in those days didn't know that, and I think he switched to communism. He read the writings of Ho Chi Minh. It appealed to him. And I think he switched his allegiance to Communist nationalism, if you like.
LAMB: Let me ask you, before you go any further, can you make the statement -- and I can't remember if you made this specifically in the book -- that he is the most successful living general in the world?
MacDONALD: Yes. I would think that that is possibly true. It's very hard to think of any other general, certainly living today. I mean, perhaps he's the most successful general of the 20th century.
LAMB: And what did he do to become the most successful?
MacDONALD: Well, I'd like to go back to pick up a thread a little bit more about his development, because he got highly involved in this Communist theory. He was expelled from school for subversive activities -- anti-French, anti-nationalist activities.
LAMB: Where'd he live?
MacDONALD: He was at school in Hanoi, but he lived in the central part of Vietnam. He was born in the narrow neck of Vietnam. But he began to write for books and magazines, so much so that he failed to qualify as a lawyer. He'd taken a degree at Hanoi University in law, but he needed a certificate to practice, and he didn't get the certificate, so he became a teacher, having married and produced a daughter. And he was still working actively in a subversive sense. When the Communist Party was outlawed in France and, therefore, in the French colony, he was told that he should get away from Hanoi. He went north into China. He met Ho Chi Minh. And over a period of years, he worked politically.
But at one point in time, Ho Chi Minh told him that he should be the man to lead the military arm, if you like, of the Vietnamese Communist Party. So he then began to train handfuls of men -- very basic, peasant-type people from the northern part of Vietnam. So to develop the theme of how he became perhaps the most successful general of the 20th century, out of this tiny beginning -- he started off with what you call an armed propaganda brigade of 34 people. By the time he was finished, he was commander in chief of 800,000. And all through the development of his military life, he learned. He wasn't taught in a conventional way. He didn't attend a military school. He had read a lot of military history. He was very interested in the campaigns of Napoleon. And he used to teach, also, military history.
So he was somebody who knew, if you like, the basics, but he was not taught formally. But he built up, from a ragtag outfit, as the months and years went by, from a purely guerrilla force through to a conventional force. By the time the French-Indochina war was well into its first phase, he had gone from smallish company sized units to full battalions to regiments, even to divisions. And armed by the Chinese Communists, he had created an artillery division to support the infantry divisions. So by the time the French really got involved and were trying to quell this subversion, they were faced with not just a bunch of people leaping out of the jungle, throwing grenades, firing, disappearing again; they were faced with a proper, well-organized army. And this really was the pattern that he developed. He never, at any time, had close-support aircraft, for example, as any modern force would have, and, really, not until the very end did he have armor in the sense of tanks. But he had all the other requisites of conventional warfare. And of course, his army grew and grew and had to be trained, so they were properly trained. They had proper training camps and so on and they were turning out officers and NCOs and soldiers.
LAMB: Let me interrupt, before we go any farther, to get some background on you. You're a retired brigadier. What does that mean, for those people who are not military?
MacDONALD: It's what you might call a middle-piece high rank.
MacDONALD: A general, yes. The bottom end of the general rank.
LAMB: What year did you retire?
MacDONALD: I retired in 1978.
LAMB: How long were you in -- I assume the British army?
MacDONALD: Thirty-two years, yes.
LAMB: In those 32 years, where did you serve?
MacDONALD: I served in the Middle East and in Europe, and I didn't ever go the Far East.
LAMB: Were you in a war?
MacDONALD: No. Not in the sense of a conventional war. I was, though, involved with the British withdrawal from empire, if you like, in the sense that I was involved with bomb disposal in Cyprus at the time when an organization called EOKA was fighting against the British to get us out of Cyprus. And I also was involved in this in the Northern Ireland conflict, which is still ongoing.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
MacDONALD: I live in Bristol, in the west of England.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
LAMB: And what about, mostly?
MacDONALD: Well, I find in life that you sometimes unknowingly come to a fork in the road and decide to walk down it. I became interested in the Crusades, and when I was working in the ministry of defense, instead of reading the newspaper going up and the evening paper coming down and hearing it all again on the TV, I started to read books about the Crusades, in particular, the Knights Hospitaler, because I was particularly intrigued by the fact that here you had the best soldiers of that time who were actually monks, who took all the vows, who were highly disciplined. Out of this -- I researched this for two years. I then spent two years writing this sort of part time and got it published, so that the first book was, in fact, a historical novel about the Crusades.
I then wrote a sequence of four books -- a quartet of books taking one character as an officer in the British army, parachute regiment, and taking him through the Cyprus campaign, Suez intervention, Aden, Northern Ireland, and the last book was the Falklands interwoven with a sort of flash-forward account of what the Third World War might have been. Timing wise, that wasn't all that clever, because, of course, it's now history. But in a sense, it was valid. It still could be valid in a slightly different way.
LAMB: Did the British fight at all in Vietnam?
LAMB: Did the fact that you are British have anything to do with why General Giap talked to you?
MacDONALD: I think it probably did. I think that a French or an American author might have been considered to be, perhaps, very biased or full of received ideas -- put it that way -- whereas a Brit was somebody who had stood apart from these conflicts and might be less biased.
LAMB: Has General Giap ever written a book?
MacDONALD: Oh, yes. He's written several books.
LAMB: I mean, about his -- you know, recounting his activities.
MacDONALD: No, he hasn't. I mean, he's written several sort of Communist theory books setting out, regrettably, in rather typically Communist jargon, particular lines of thought.
LAMB: After the Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf wrote a book about his activities. General Giap has not done that?
LAMB: Do you have any idea why he hasn't?
MacDONALD: I think it has partly to do with the fact that in any Communist regime -- well, they're slightly two-faced about this -- they talk about having no personality cult. But, of course, you had Stalin, who was a great personality; you had -- Ho Chi Minh was a great personality, almost deified. But having said that, I mean, the theory is that they rule -- they govern -- in committee, and therefore -- yes, a man may be a high ranking person within the committee but, in theory, he's got no more power than anybody else and the decisions are taken by the group. So I think they have no tradition, if you like, of writing personal account, and certainly -- but perhaps it wouldn't be very acceptable for him to do so. When Ho Chi Minh died, they sanctified him -- built this mausoleum -- created a focal point, if you like, for the regime. And the men who were with him, particularly, as time passed, they grew older and they sort of faded away. I don't think they want another, you know, leader in that sense.
LAMB: Did you go see Ho Chi Minh in the mausoleum?
LAMB: What was your reaction to that?
MacDONALD: I went to Hanoi with my younger son. We went on a cycle up to the Ho Chi Minh museum. We had to get a pass to get in, had to hand in your camera. We then were taken by soldier to the head of the queue, because there was a great, long queue of Vietnamese waiting to pay their respects. So we went into the mausoleum -- pink marble -- walked up these long, shallow stairs. And then you turn sharp right, right again and you're into this room, which is guarded by uniformed soldiers with fixed bayonets standing in the corner. And then the queue of people just shuffles slowly past -- does right angle, another right angle. Ho Chi Minh's lying there, looking very yellow in a sort of yellow light in a glass box. And they have a slightly lower pathway for the little kids to walk around so they're not sort of craning around the adults. And, you know, the whole thing was macabre, very strange.
LAMB: How long were you in Hanoi?
MacDONALD: About two and a half weeks, only.
LAMB: Did you see others besides General Giap?
MacDONALD: Oh, I saw a lot of people, yes. Yeah. They were very good in that sense. They wheeled in a lot of people -- ex-soldiers, veterans -- who had fought both in the Indochina War and in the American-Vietnam War. And they seem to be free to speak their mind and talk very freely. And I taped a lot of interviews, and some of them I used in the book. I think that they brought a sort of flavor to it, which was interesting in that it showed, perhaps for the first time, their point of view about what was going on.
LAMB: Were you ever concerned that they were setting you up and just giving you people that would say exactly what they wanted them to say?
MacDONALD: This was a possibility, of course. I mean, what you touched, earlier on, was the fact that -- was British instrumental in getting me there? I think the fact I was an established author was also partly it and the fact that I had been a soldier was partly it. Probably he felt easier talking to somebody who'd been a soldier than to a journalist. But I had to declare the fact I'd been in the British army. I couldn't, you know, just pretend I was a person who had no military background. So I think, from their point of view, they must have been a bit suspicious of me. You know, “Why does this guy want to come here and do this?” Similarly, I mean, I was slightly suspicious in the way you've just suggested, in that maybe they weren't feeding me the right stuff. But I did get the impression, you know, from a long life of dealing with people, that there wasn't dissimulation going on, that these -- I mean, occasionally, they trotted out the party line, but then they've been living with the party line, were brainwashed and, you know, automatic and all that. But a lot of the time, these people, a lot of them quite old men, were humorous and direct, and, you know, I didn't feel that they were setting it up.
LAMB: How many Americans did you talk to?
MacDONALD: Well, actually, out there, none, of course.
LAMB: No. I mean, in preparation for your book.
MacDONALD: In preparation, I spent -- one of my postings was in the NATO headquarters, which had a lot of American officers in it. And over the years, I had always been interested, and I spoke to them a lot. And then, of course, the key figure was General Westmoreland, whom I interviewed when he came to England.
LAMB: And what did you learn from him? Anything new?
MacDONALD: Well, I think what I learned, really -- and it wasn't, if you like, directly from him, but he underlined what I had begun to feel, and that was that the war was fought, from the American point of view, for the right motivation in the sense of -- they felt that there was a tremendous threat of communism creeping through the world. They felt they had to do something about it. But having taken that basic decision, I felt that they kept -- they got in deeper and deeper as time went on and kept digging the pit deeper and deeper. Now, from the military point of view, the great mistake was that the way to win the war was simply to pile on the hot iron, if you like: more soldiers, more bombs, more aircraft. And they did this despite the fact that clearly, it wasn't working.
So I think one of the big military lesson, if you like, was, you have to take a deep breath and say, “Well, this is not the way.” You know, “Got to do something else.” And military action is a form of -- somebody very famous once said, “Putting politics into a fort.” So, therefore, if your military action is not achieving the political aim, you have to stand back. The other big mistake, politically -- and who am I to say? But, I mean, this is my feeling -- was that personalities began to drive the whole engine. In other words, Lyndon B. Johnson's personal involvement became a matter of pride and he could not back down. And therefore, the American people were taken along on the basis of political pride and the wish to stand again and get re-elected again and so on. Again, he didn't stand back and say, “Is this the right thing to do?”
LAMB: When did this book first hit the bookstores in the United States?
MacDONALD: In January of this year.
LAMB: Any sense of whether or not it's selling?
MacDONALD: It slightly disappointing, from my point of view, because a great many servicemen were in Vietnam, and, you know, we're talking millions. And therefore, one would hope that there would be several tens of thousand books sold, but it hasn't gone that yet. I hope -- it may do yet.
LAMB: Did General Westmoreland have anything to say about General Giap?
LAMB: Did he like him? Did he know him?
MacDONALD: He didn't know him. He admired him. He he felt, not surprisingly, that this man must be an amazingly successful general to achieve what he did. He did say that Giap was very profligate with lives, and I think that this is a criticism that's been said very often, that Giap had no concept of sanctity of human life. He used to throw his soldiers in and let them get churned up and so on. I think this is a matter of perception. First of all, it was not long after the Korean War, in which the Chinese had used human wave tactics. They were short on equipment and technology. Therefore, mass attacks and the whole concept of submerging the enemy with human beings was something which was, if you like, accepted in the East. So to a certain extent -- and Giap had Chinese military advisers -- perhaps the human wave tactic, if you like, was something that he accepted to begin with.
There is another factor, too, which is that there's -- because of this lack of technology, men with a rifle have had to balance things off. The French, compared to the Vietminh you know, were extremely well-armed. They had an air arm to support the ground forces. When the Americans got involved, of course, they were even, you know, 10 times more equipment-oriented and technology-oriented than the French were. So in a sense, the only thing Giap could do was to use manpower, since he didn't have the technology. So what I'm saying is, there was a sort of balance here. Yes, he had to accept casualty, but this was a way of balancing off the adverse technology.
LAMB: How tall is he?
MacDONALD: I would say he's about 5'3"
LAMB: What kind of a life does he live now? Were you in his residence?
MacDONALD: No. I didn't go there. I would say that, obviously, as a man who, until very recently, was a member of the Politburo, he lives a comfortable life.
LAMB: Is he revered in Vietnam?
MacDONALD: I would say so, yes. Yeah.
LAMB: Near the end of the book, you talk a lot about General Westmoreland, and you have a chapter called “Disintegration.” And you have some statistics in it I want to read. You say, “When American servicemen finally quit Vietnam, they left behind them 71 swimming pools, 160 craft shops, 90 service clubs, 159 basketball courts, 30 tennis courts, 55 softball fields, 85 volleyball fields, two bowling alleys, 357 libraries, and there were post exchange houses full of jewelry, perfumes, lingerie, booze. As someone put it, it was like a walk down Fifth Avenue.” Why did you put that in your book?
MacDONALD: That, really, was making the point that it was war the American way. And it really reflects back to what I said a bit earlier on. I mean, General Westmoreland's point of view was that if he made life as much as possible like life in the United States, the morale of the soldiers would be high. My point is that if you expect soldiers to go into the jungle and live in appalling conditions of heat and mosquitoes and water and torrential downpours and so on and live a really hard life, it is actually worse for them, in my view, to come back to be choppered out at 5:00 in the evening when they've done their firefight and come back to an air-conditioned canteen full of steaks and iced Coca-Cola.
That's purely my own reaction, that they didn't actually use the large numbers of soldiers who were there to the best possible degree, because such a lot of them were involved in producing all these amenities. And considering that soldiers only did a year anyway, I think the right mental attitude should have been, “OK, guys. You're out here for one year. You're going to have one hell of a time, but this is how we're going to do it,” and fight the war, not to -- there are other statistics there which are quite compelling: the number of troops actually deployed on the front line at any given time and searching out the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese army was a tiny proportion of the total. That's why I put it in there, because I think it rather graphically spelled out another aspect of this attitude of the way to fight war.
LAMB: Let me ask you about this line. “And there was another rule for when they were in battle” -- you're speaking about the North Vietnamese: “Do not mistreat prisoners, something that, generally speaking, they tried to abide by.” Now when our American POWs, who are back in country now, hear that, what do you think their reaction will be to that?
MacDONALD: They'll hate my guts, probably, but, again, it’s a matter of perception. These people must have seen how the Vietnamese live. I mean, the Vietnamese -- they're basically a peasant society living on absolute basic subsistence. Now for a soldier who has come from a very affluent nation, whether you're talking about the French or the Americans or anybody else, who was taken prisoner by these people, he is going to be suddenly expected to live at in a way which he has no conception of. And I think that's why I say it's a matter of perception. I think that, of course, there were times when they were harsh. Of course, people had terrible privations, but I don't think it was laid on specially. I think that the ordinary prisoner in the central prison in Hanoi probably was no worse off than the ordinary American GI who had the misfortune to be there.
LAMB: From what you saw when you were -- had you been to Hanoi before, by the way -- before your trip?
MacDONALD: No, that was the first time I'd been there.
LAMB: What did you see there? What were the conditions of the people living there?
MacDONALD: Well, I was really quite amazed, because one of the problems in Vietnam, of course, is a huge population explosion. The time when we're talking about -- you know, in the '70s -- you talk about a population of about 36 million. That's almost doubled now.
LAMB: For both the North and the South?
MacDONALD: Yeah. And so the first impression was that Hanoi is incredibly overcrowded. The second was that it didn't seem to have had a lick of paint or, you know, any real refurbishment for 40 years. It was rather like when I crossed over into East Germany when the wall came down. You know, you put the clock back 50 years -- and exactly the same in Hanoi. But, I mean, there were beggars around and so on. There were people obviously living in at a very low level. But generally, the people themselves were in a better shape than the city.
LAMB: You have a chapter called “The Trail.” Do you give General Giap credit for the Ho Chi Minh Trail?
MacDONALD: Essentially, yes. I think so. I mean, going back to what I said earlier on -- it's a business of committee decisions and so on. But in the sense that he was the driving force throughout -- the pivotal person -- yes, I think so. It was a remarkable achievement, and done with very little -- to begin with, anyway -- than just human power.
LAMB: I can't find it, but I'm sure you remember, you talked to a soldier that fought in the war who told you about a special -- I mean, that they used this on the trail when they cooked their meals so you couldn't see smoke. Is that an invention that, for instance, Americans didn't know about? How did it work?
MacDONALD: Well, basically, what they did was they created an oven which had a bit of a tunnel dug behind it, and the smoke was blocked off at the front and was pushed back, if you like, through this tunnel, which had a very small vent. Most of the smoke, carbon particles, were absorbed into the earth, and therefore, they could cook and create hot meals without telltale gushings of smoke going into the sky.
LAMB: You say, “US statistics show that in 1968, the year of the greatest trail sage” -- by the way, where did the trail start and how far did it go into the south?
MacDONALD: It started off in North Vietnam and then came down through Laos into Cambodia, and it started off, as I explained, in the beginning, with just a small group of people trailblazing, if you like. The next development was to have larger groups of people manpacking stuff, and then gradually they created a harder trail and they used bicycles. They didn't ride the bicycles. They were heavy-duty things which they adapted, but who carried quite a considerable weight of stuff slung over the crossbar. So it then became a trail of hundreds of ant-like people pushing these bikes down this trail, and that grew, became a metaled road and, eventually, they were running great convoys of stuff. I think they ended up with about three laterals and about seven off-takes into the various parts of Vietnam.
LAMB: Let me just read this. “US statistics show that in 1968, the year of greatest trail usage, when an estimated 150,000 Vietnamese traversed the route, 171,000 tons of bombs were dropped, more than one ton for every infiltrator.” How many of those did they hit?
MacDONALD: Oh, very few. Very few.
MacDONALD: Well, I remember talking to an American airman who had spent two tours in Vietnam flying F-111's up and down the trail. And he would explain to me how he would take off and fly cab rank, if you like -- up and down just inside the border in Vietnam. And, of course, this amazing technology which the Americans had developed enabled them to put sensors down -- sensors along the trail which relayed information, which was then computerized, collated and sent back to the aircraft actually flying, so that when they're up there, going up and down, flying cabrank, taking a suck every now and again off of one of these big tanker aircraft flying above them to keep themselves up in the air, they would suddenly get instructions to zap at a particular target and they would go ahead and do that. But then you have to remember the conditions that you're actually trying to hit a narrow trail surrounded by jungle and so on. They did hit the trail. Often they hit people, but a lot of this tonnage was scattered around on either side of it.
LAMB: If they hadn't had the trail, would they have won the war?
MacDONALD: That's a difficult one. I think also in the book, I say that they needed a relatively very small amount of tonnage -- I think it was 60 tons a day -- to keep the Viet Cong and the infiltrated North Vietnamese army going. I think the answer to your question is that, without that trail, they wouldn't have got that 60 tons, and they couldn't have got it by any other means, so probably no. No, they wouldn't. But although, you know, the American air effort was enormous in the fact that it killed, that it destroyed a large number of vehicles in the latter days of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Going back to this American friend of mine, who -- I said to him, “Well, were you successful?” He said, “You know, we killed off 10,000 trucks.” I said, “That's a hell of a lot of trucks.” He said, “No. Peter, that's nothing. There were 100,000 trucks.” That, to me, summed it up in a way. I mean, that was the sort of proportion of success that they had.
LAMB: In all the books you've written, where would you put this in your satisfaction level?
MacDONALD: Oh, pretty high. I mean, in many ways, by far it has given me a tremendous amount of interest and satisfaction, but fiction writing, in other ways, is a different thing.
LAMB: Had General Giap talked to anybody else since the war in the same vein that you talked to him?
MacDONALD: Not that I'm aware of, no. I've never seen any evidence. I mean, he obviously has spoken to ex-soldiers. Strangely enough, in response to that book, I had a letter from a man called Allison, who was one of the people in the DO team, which is mentioned right at the beginning -- the American group that went into North Vietnam to help the Ho Chi Minh. He saw the book and wrote. And in his letter, he said that he had actually met Giap. And obviously, he does meet people from time to time, but I don't think that facility has been offered of not only his interviews with him, but by sort of the backup, if you like, from the military side there. I went to their staff college. In fact, I actually spent Christmas Day -- it will always be a memorable Christmas Day, as far as I'm concerned -- sitting in this rather broken-down barracks on the outskirts of Hanoi talking to a bunch of Vietnamese generals, eating bananas and drinking green tea.
LAMB: What do they think about -- I mean, they are boastful about the victory?
MacDONALD: No, I wouldn't say that. No. It didn't strike me ...
LAMB: Why did they think they won both Dien Bien Phu, the French-Indochina War and the American one?
MacDONALD: I would think they felt they had the moral ascendancy.
LAMB: You point out several times in your book that public opinion played a very significant role in their country and in our country. What was the difference?
MacDONALD: Well, I think that, I suppose -- I never really thought about this, but I think that the crucial difference was that public opinion to them was a positive factor, and in America, it was a negative factor, and that, maybe, was the real, crucial thing in the whole episode. What I mean by that is that, basically, they were a simple peasant people. They were brought up in a Confucian ethic of obedience -- obedience to older people. Just slightly digress here. When I was leaving Hanoi, they had a little sort of celebration-lunch to which I was invited with my son. And they produced some nice food and some beer and so on. Actually, they asked me to buy the beer, but that's alright. But I stood up -- I was asked to say something at the end of it. And I stood up and said, “I am the oldest man sitting here,” and it had an electric effect.
They have this -- if you like, this reverence for older people. I say I'm digressing. But it was exactly the right thing to say. You could have heard a pin drop. They were not just listening to some foreigner; they were listening to an old man. Now going back to my theory, because they have this Confucian idea of respect for order and obedience, generally, it was much easier to persuade these simple people that they were fighting a righteous cause. I think the impression I have is that there was very little doubting in their mind that they were doing the right thing, that the French were interlopers and so were the Americans; they had to get them out. Now on the contrary side, you have the media; you have a highly sophisticated population -- much more difficult to convince, and perhaps without that underlying moral tone, which still exists in some of these other places.
LAMB: Was General Giap a Communist first or a nationalist first?
MacDONALD: I really think only he could tell you that. I think that the impression is, certainly, that it was a development. What would be very interesting, of course, would be to be able to talk really talk and get a true answer as to what he feels about communism now in that it has ceased to be attenable as as a political theory in everywhere except it's in Vietnam, to some degree, although the barriers are coming down and they're beginning to get capitalist and all that. But North Korea is about the most stringent Communist country left in the world, and that's the only one. You know -- I mean, even Cuba now is not what it was, and he must surely understand that a lot of what he put his faith in, you know, was a shimmer, if you like. It was a fantasy.
LAMB: Again, the year that you interviewed him was?
LAMB: Were there any questions he wouldn't answer?
MacDONALD: Yes, but I don't think in the sense that you mean, you know, that he shied away because of some political overturn. That could have been; difficult to judge that, particularly -- you know, you're not talking directly in the same language and it's all coming out through an interpreter -- bit difficult. I mean, there are things which he shied away at. When he was talking about the air defense of Hanoi and he said, “We had a way of beating the bombers.” And I said, “What was that?” And he said, “Oh, I don't want to talk about it,” you know? He was in full spate about something else. In fact, what he was talking about was that they would send off one of these surface-to-air missiles, which would then attract all the electronic gadgetry flying in the American air formations. But they would follow it up on the same beam, if you like, a few seconds later with a second one, and it was subterfuge. It drew away the fire from all the electronic missiles and so on. And the second one would hit the target. So that's what he was talking about. He didn't want to answer it because it perhaps a bit of detail he didn't want to get involved.
LAMB: Did the North Vietnamese or the Vietnamese now -- did they record your interview with him?
MacDONALD: No. I recorded part of it. My son -- we borrowed -- or hired -- a video camera from them and my son recorded part of it, but it wasn't officially recorded, no.
LAMB: And out of the interviews that you did, what would you say were the most important things you learned? And did any of it surprise you?
MacDONALD: I don't know if you're talking about the Giap interview particularly. Are you?
MacDONALD: No. I mean, I did get the feeling that he was repeating a lot of what he had thought for a long time, if you see what I mean. It was difficult to break into his train of thought.
LAMB: Did he give long answers?
MacDONALD: Yes. He tends to be very verbose. And, of course, this makes life difficult when it's being translated anyway, because the poor interpreter is going crazy trying to keep up and so on. So there were difficulties in this. I think -- I can't sort of think of any particular thing that struck me as being very surprising, but some of the interviews with some of the veterans were quite surprising. I mean, like, for example, one of them says -- I said to him, “Did you have malaria?” And he looked at me astonished and said, “Yes, of course. Everybody had malaria; 100 percent, we had malaria.” And I said, “What did you do about it?” He said, “Nothing.” You know, I mean, now, this again is part of that attitude -- isn't it? -- if you see what I mean. It was the relatively soft West in contrast to this hard, basic, peasant, Eastern attitude. I said, “But you must have been very ill.” “Oh, you were ill. You had to lie down for three days then you got up and got on with it.” Now I think that was surprising to me, you know?
LAMB: Not much time and there's a lot to cover. I want to get, if I can, to some brief questions and maybe some brief answers so people can see what's in the book.
LAMB: Khe Sanh -- what role -- the Battle of Khe Sanh -- what role did that play in the war?
MacDONALD: It played a bigger role, of course, in the American consciousness than it did in the Vietnamese. In a sense, it was another Dien Bien Phu, and from Lyndon B. Johnson downwards, everybody was keyed up to the fact that there must not be another Dien Bien Phu.
LAMB: What does that mean, for people who have never heard of Dien Bien Phu?
MacDONALD: Right. Well, Dien Bien Phu was the coup de grace, if you like, of the Indochina War. Giap managed to lay siege to a French fortress which had been built astride the road into Laos. He managed to produce 55,000 soldiers plus a large number of guns and all the ammunition that was needed for these guns and surround this place. And it was one of the classic battles of history. He eventually ground them down and eliminated the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, which consisted mostly of paratroopers and legionnaires, the cream of the French army. For the French, it was a traumatic defeat, shattering.
LAMB: What year?
LAMB: Was that it for the French, then?
LAMB: Did they pull out?
MacDONALD: I mean, it just happened that the day he took -- the 7th of May, 1954, the conference opened in Geneva to discuss, amongst other things, the future of Indochina. The French had the ground cut away from them. They had no way they could go back. They just pulled out.
LAMB: I hate to jump around, but there's a lot of little I'll come back to this. Your son, you keep mentioning -- how old is he and what does he do?
MacDONALD: He's a portrait painter. He's 33 years old.
LAMB: And how much did he have to do with helping you on the book?
MacDONALD: Oh, not at all, except -- well, tremendous moral support. He's a great chap, full of humor. Vietnamese loved him. They were all laughing all the time and so on. He was tremendous from that point of view. He took notes for me, but in the actual writing, no.
LAMB: Did you go anywhere else in Vietnam?
MacDONALD: No, I didn't.
LAMB: Have you sent a copy of this book to General Giap?
MacDONALD: Yes, I have.
LAMB: Any reaction?
LAMB: We talked before the cameras came on about the name G-I-A-P. What is the correct way to pronounce it and how do you pronounce it and how do Americans pronounce it?
MacDONALD: Well, I always used to say Vo Nguyen Giap [pronounced Vo Nigooyen Gee-yap], but they say Vo Nguyen Giap [pronounced Von Win Zap].
LAMB: So it's like a Z.
MacDONALD: Yes, like a Z. Yeah.
LAMB: The Tet offensive. What is your view of that and what impact did -- the Americans win the Tet offensive in 1968?
MacDONALD: Yes. Militarily, yes. Yes, they did. I mean, there's no question about it. And General Westmoreland is absolutely clear that the casualties inflicted on the Viet Cong were enormous, and there's no doubt of this. One Vietnamese general corps -- Tran Van Chou -- who wrote later that they were completely decimated. That's the wrong word. It means to kill off one-tenth. It was much more than a tenth. They never really recovered from that until Giap was in a position to launch a full-fledged military assault. And so militarily -- yes, no question about it. Psychologically, it was almost a death knell.
LAMB: What do you think General Giap's real talent is?
MacDONALD: I would say energy. He must have been a man of enormous determination, energy.
LAMB: And a strategist.
MacDONALD: He was a strategist. He was an all-around very clever military man. I mean, logistically, as I've just touched on in this business of Dien Bien Phu, the problems of shifting these tonages with guys pushing bicycles and manpacking stuff were absolutely gigantic. To actually inspire people to do this must have been a tremendous achievement.
LAMB: You contrasted the -- first of all, you said that General Westmoreland and General Giap read the same military strategists, Clausewitz and others?
LAMB: How did you know that? Did you ask them both?
LAMB: Did either have any impact on them?
MacDONALD: In what sense?
LAMB: In other words, they're both generals; they both studied the same military strategists in history. They obviously came out of it looking at it a little differently.
MacDONALD: I was very surprised to hear General Westmoreland tell me that he had not studied the Indochina War, because he ...
LAMB: He never did?
MacDONALD: Apparently not. And I liked him; I admired him. You know, I don't want to say anything just hurtful to him, but it did surprise me that he had not studied this, because after all, he was fighting the same people and the same general, and they had fought the French for nine years. So I asked him, actually, if they had studied it at Ft. Leavenworth or at the war college and they hadn't. And so I think perhaps that was a mistake.
LAMB: In your opinion, which American president got us in deep in Vietnam?
MacDONALD: Oh, it was Lyndon Johnson, I think. I mean, Kennedy -- it started with Eisenhower and the domino theory. Kennedy picked up that baton and ran with it. Lyndon B. Johnson was committed already when he got there, but as I said right at the beginning, perhaps stand off and a bit of thought and taking advice of people. You see, for a long time, it was thought that the Vietnamese were acting on behalf -- as sort of proxy for the Chinese. History teaches you that the Vietnamese loathe the Chinese; always have done for 1,000 years. It was very unlikely that they were going to spill their blood in order to hand the whole thing over to Communist China.
LAMB: After looking at the Vietnam War, what, in your opinion, are the lessons?
MacDONALD: It was a tragedy in every sense for everybody involved: for the Vietnamese, for the French, for the Americans -- appalling waste of life, and the money and resources that were sunk in the whole thing. I think the lessons are that it is very easy to whip up sentiment. The media, for want of something to say, will pick up a ball and run with it, and the people, because this is human nature -- you sit there and you watch the screen and you believe what you read and what you're looking at and pick what you read in the paper. In both cases -- the French and the Americans -- you had this tremendous surge of feeling that you had a great enemy here that had to be killed off. I believe that it involves -- you know, the domino theory has been shown not to be correct, that Asia has not fallen to the Communists. I was in Kuala Lumpur a month ago, a thriving, modern city in a modern country. There's nothing Communist about that. They're totally capitalist and love it. And yet, that was part of the theory, that we were fighting to prevent Burma, Malaysia all those from reforming to communism.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. Our guest has been Peter MacDonald, and this is "The Victor in Vietnam." The book is "Giap," the general who headed up the Vietnam forces both at Dien Bien Phu and in the American involvement. Thank you very much for joining us.
MacDONALD: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
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