The Foreign Service Journal - June 2015
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JUNE 2015


Lessons of Vietnam

Thank you for the April J



back at Vietnam. I was struck by the

reference in “History Revisited” (Editor’s Introduction) to an AFSA editorial of June

1975 advocating a “post mortem of the

Vietnam era…to which the career Service

can contribute greatly.” You noted that

“there is little to indicate that such an

assessment was ever undertaken.”



in fact undertaken, albeit in

haste, in early May of 1975. It was done

in response to a memorandum from the

White House requesting an analysis of

“The Lessons of Vietnam.” I drafted it, but

it reflected comments and ideas of liter-

ally dozens of FSOs and others who had

served in Vietnam over many years and

in many different capacities.

It was hardly a definitive study, of

course, but it was an honest first attempt

to look comprehensively at what had

gone wrong and why.

The paper never got to the president’s

desk. Instead it went to Henry Kissinger

(both Secretary of State and National

Security Advisor at the time), along with

comments from his staff. A few days later,

Kissinger wrote to the president, in his

own inimitable style, on the lessons of


Our memo (attached) was better, in

my opinion.

David Lambertson

Ambassador, retired

Winchester, Kansas

(Editor’s note: Look for both memos in

the July-August



Perceptions and


The April


is outstanding. I knew

that it was going to feature Vietnam, but

I was not prepared for its impact. The

accounts both of what befell Embassy

Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive and

of how, in 1975, a small group of mid-

level FSOs organized and then imple-

mented the evacuation of large numbers

of at-risk Vietnamese when Saigon fell

drew me powerfully back into that time.

I was not in Saigon in 1968; I had left

for my next post (Kinshasa) only months

before the Tet Offensive.

Although I was in the State

Department in April 1975, I

was working on the Laos desk,

vividly aware of what was going

on in Vietnam next door.

We may be grateful that

some of these FSOs, in particu-

lar Kenneth Quinn, Parker Borg

and Joseph McBride, have now

had a chance to tell their stories.

They acted without official orders and to

some extent contrary to them. But I think

they represented the Foreign Service at

its finest.

The editor’s introduction commends,

rightly, the call of the June 1975


Service Journal

for a “post-mortem” on

the Vietnam era. I believe the function

was admirably performed, later, by Rob-

ert McNamara.

As Secretary of Defense in the Ken-

nedy and Johnson administrations, he

was among the chief proponents of the

VietnamWar. Yet in his books— In Retro- spect (1995) and Argument Without End (1999)—he acknowledged, courageously


that we were “terribly wrong.” His basis

for saying this was a series of conferences

that he was instrumental in organizing

between senior American wartime lead-

ers, diplomatic and military, and their

Vietnamese counterparts, each side giv-

ing their view of the course of the war and

the negotiations attempting to end it.

Two salient conclusions emerge from

McNamara’s presentation. One is that the

war was unwinnable at any acceptable

cost. The other, even more striking, is that

it was unnecessary. The respective sides

had views of events and circumstances

almost totally at odds with each other.

The American frame of reference was

the Cold War and the need to contain

communism—hence the “domino

theory”—and the Vietnamese

frame of reference was their

experience of French colo-

nialism. Their interest was in

national independence, not

spreading communism.

Could such mutual

misperceptions be operating

also today, in, for instance,

our dealings with Iran?

Theodore L. Lewis

FSO and FSR, retired

Germantown, Maryland

A Vietnam Backstory



retrospectives on the fall of

Saigon were excellent reading. However,

there is another backstory worth telling,

which concerns advance warning to us

by Vietnamese seers.

After my arrival in Saigon on March 6,

1973, my official duties included interac-

tions with select opinion leaders who in

some cases turned out to be practitioners

of the occult.

First was President Nguyen Van

Thieu’s astrologer. In mid-1973 he told

me that Thieu would be forced out of

office in 1975 “after Tet.” This practitioner

of Chinese astrology had been consulted

by Thieu before the 1967 presidential

election and told Thieu he would win. For

this reason, he was kept on for regular


Another group of seers with whom I

often met were Cao Dai Church educa-

tors in Tay Ninh Province. They organized

séances led by clairvoyant young women.

The “spirits” indicated that the com-

munist conquest was imminent. The Ho