People and History: The United States Intervention in Vietnam
Through the Eyes of a Diplomat, 1965-1975
The Oral History Documentary Series
The VNWOHP’s inaugural project is a 17-hour, 15-part special oral history video documentary series on the Vietnam War, titled People and History: The United States Intervention in Vietnam Through the Eyes of a Diplomat, 1965-1975. Produced between 2013 and 2019, the documentary series interviewed Bùi Diễm, the Republic of (South) Vietnam Ambassador to the United States from 1967 and 1972, on his perspective of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. He shares his memories, reflections, as well as orally annotating and contextualizing several thousand pages of primary sources in his possession. More generally, the documentary taps into Bùi Diễm’s immense knowledge from having lived through some of the most significant historical events and transformations in 20th-century Vietnamese history, American foreign policy, and the Cold War. The series presents an overarching narrative covering the years from 1945 to 1975. Through Bùi Diễm’s recollections, the documentary series sheds light on an understudied perspective on the Vietnam War—a complicated and controversial historical event that is still imperfectly understood.
The series is divided into 15 thematic parts.
1) The roots of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, 1945-1965
2) The U.S. decision to send troops to Vietnam
3) American presence in Vietnam and its economic, social, political, and military effects
4) 1968: The Tết Offensive, U.S. presidential election, and events that led to the negotiations in Paris
5) The 1973 Paris Peace Accords and its consequences
6) The anti-war movement and its effect on U.S. policy in Vietnam
7) The political and military developments that led to Paris
8) Preliminary talks in Paris
9) Richard Nixon, Anna Chennault, and the 1968 U.S. presidential election
10) Secret negotiations in Paris
11) U.S. political dynamics and procedures and Vietnamization
12) Anti-war escalation, the Pentagon Papers, and U.S. concerns about the 1971 Presidential election in Vietnam
13) “Fighting while negotiating,” “Rapprochement,” “Peace with honor”
14) Historical lessons and key long-term issues
15) A better understanding of the American people and the American political system
The series is accompanied by more than 350 pages of Vietnamese transcription and over 170 digitized files of original documents.
Ambassador Bùi Diễm was born in 1923, in the province of Hà Nam, in northern Vietnam. His father was the Confucian scholar Bùi Kỷ (1888-1960). Trần Trọng Kim (1883-1953), the revered Vietnamese scholar who served as the Prime Minister of State of Vietnam [Đế Quốc Việt Nam] under Emperor Bảo Đại (1913-1997) during the latter period of Japanese occupation of Vietnam, is his uncle by marriage. He studied history at the École Thang Long [Trường Tư Thuc Thăng Long] where Võ Nguyên Giáp (1911-2013) was among his teachers. He then attended Trường Bưởi, now Chu Văn An, a high school in Hanoi established by French authorities as one of Indochina’s oldest institutions for secondary education. He graduated with a degree in math from the Faculty of Science at the University of Hanoi.
Bùi Diễm grew up when Vietnam was still a French colony; during World War II, Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese. In 1944 he joined the Đại Việt Party and became a supporter of the Trần Trọng Kim government. Bùi Diễm and his family migrated to southern Vietnam before the 1954 Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV/North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN/South Vietnam). He was apolitical under the First Republic of Ngô Đình Diệm (1901-1963), 1954-1963. At this time, he established the Saigon Post, one of the Republic of Vietnam’s first English-language newspapers, published in Saigon from 1963. He also founded Tân Việt Điện Ảnh, a film company that produced Chúng Tôi Muốn Sống [We Want to Live], a dramatization of North Vietnam’s land reform.
Following the collapse of the Ngô Đình Diệm government in November 1963, Bùi Diễm returned to politics in 1965 as the Minister at the Prime Minister Office in the Phan Huy Quát (1908-1979) government. During the Second Republic under Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (1967-1975), Bùi Diễm served as appointed Ambassador to the United States from 1967 to 1972, and was then Ambassador-at-Large from 1973 to the end of the war in April of 1975.
As Ambassador to the United States, Bùi Diễm witnessed and participated in many of the key developments that shaped the war. He was able to “watch American and Vietnamese leaders in South Vietnam at work during the peak of the US involvement in the mid-sixties as well as at the end in 1975.” In this difficult period, he represented South Vietnam during the administrations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Gerald R. Ford. He observed the changing dynamics within the United States Congress and interacted with many influential policymakers and dignitaries, including William Westmoreland, Robert McNamara, Clark Clifford, Dean Rush, Walt Rostow, Maxwell Taylor, Ellsworth Bunker, Henry Kissinger, and Alexander Haig, Jr. He saw the rise of the anti-war movement, was present at the negotiations of the Paris Peace Accord that led to the withdrawal of US forces in 1973. He then played a crucial role in the last desperate attempt to secure US$700 million from in military aid the United States Congress to help defend South Vietnam against the invasion led by the DRV in 1975.
After the fall of the Saigon government on April 30, 1975, Bùi Diễm sought asylum in the United States and settled in the Washington D.C. area. For a time, he worked at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and at the American Enterprise Institute; he was also a research fellow at the Indochina Institute at George Mason University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed historical autobiography on the Vietnam War titled, In the Jaws of History [Gọng Kìm Lịch Sử] and several journal articles.
By recording and preserving Bùi Diễm’s recollections and reflections of decades of Vietnam’s socio-political changes, especially of his years as a diplomat, this project adds a much-needed perspective to understanding the Vietnam War.
This oral history project with Ambassador Bùi Diễm was conceived following a 2012 symposium at Cornell University, organized by Professor Keith W. Taylor. For logistical reasons, the planning and organizing of interview sessions took place over two years, from 2014 to 2016. The interviews were conducted in the Washington D.C./Falls Church area, at a recording studio near the ambassador’s residence. The interview subject, former Ambassador Bùi Diễm, was presented with a written consent document, in English, to inform him of the project, its purpose, its content, and to ensure that he had a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications, and future consequences of his participation before granting the researchers permission to conduct the research. Despite Ambassador Bùi Diễm’s fluency in English, all interview sessions were conducted in his native Vietnamese, to allow more fluency in narrating and expressing intricate thoughts and expressions. It was recorded using audio and video technologies and the recorded audio was transcribed.
The framework of the interviews was based on a set of five topics: 1) the historical conditions that led to the outbreak of the Vietnam War; 2) the social, political, and military developments that led to direct U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Saigon; 3) the ambassador’s work with the U.S. government and Americans; 4) the experience working for and representing the Republic of Vietnam; 5) and the lessons he learned from the diplomatic relations with the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
Questions were based upon a collection of several thousand pages of personal documents provided by Ambassador Bùi Diễm. These papers consist of more than half a century of communiqués, telegrams, reports, letters, notes, and other written records that Ambassador Bùi Diễm accumulated and preserved over the years. The purpose of this interview project was not so much to have Ambassador Bùi Diễm recount a narrative of the Vietnam War or to guide his recollection and reflection of history toward one trajectory or another, but rather to allow him to orally annotate and contextualize the primary sources in his possession. He was encouraged to describe aspects of the Vietnam War by giving a detailed context to his documents. This approach enabled Ambassador Bui Diem to articulate, from his own perspective, the occasion, the meaning, and the purpose for which a document was drafted or how an issue was viewed, discussed and communicated. Moreover, the interview questions were designed to understand the impact of each of the documents in question.
For example, on March 12, 1970, Bùi Diễm sent Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (1923-2001), President of South Vietnam, a 20-page report evaluating United States policies toward Vietnam. In the report, Bùi Diễm made an interesting prediction that the United States would remain in Vietnam for only three to five more years. The interview focused on the conditions under which Bùi Diễm could make such a prediction and its effect on President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. Thus, the questions were: How did you arrive at the conclusion that the U.S. would be in Vietnam for only three to five years? What factors informed your prediction? How did President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu react to your report and specifically to your prediction? Did he inquire about issues relating to the report? Did you see any changes in US-Vietnam relations following the report?
Some questions were closed-ended, limiting Ambassador Bui Diem to a list of answer choices, or a simple “yes” or “no” answer. However, most questions were open-ended to allow him the liberty to express his thoughts without feeling constrained to give information that seemed to suit the researchers’ questions. The researchers were able to interject follow-up comments and/or questions that probed for elaborative information. Questions were grouped either according to themes/issues or chronologically.
The research purpose, themes, and questions were not designed to support or undermine any preconceived hypothesis to avoid influencing the direction of the interview. The main objective is for Ambassador Bui Diem to be able to describe his experiences and perspectives freely. The purpose of the project is to provide a new perspective on the Vietnam War, an important and complicated historical event, in the hope that by describing his ordeal, he can once again recount his experience and possibly that of the Republic of South Vietnam.
The Vietnam War [aka Second Indochina War] (1954-1975), known in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America or simply as the American War because of the United States’ involvement, was a historical event that has been exhaustively studied, researched, and analyzed. Nonetheless, the war is still imperfectly understood and therefore remains one of the controversial events in modern history.
Lasting more than 20 years from when Vietnam was divided under the 1954 Geneva Accords to the unification of North and South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War was fought between North Vietnam—supported by the Soviet Union, China and its communist allies—and the government of South Vietnam—supported by the United States and other anti-communist countries. For the North Vietnamese government, the military conflict is often portrayed as a united struggle against imperialism to reunify Vietnam under communist rule. From the United States government’s perspective, its involvement in the war was undertaken to prevent the spread of communism to South Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia in part of a wider political strategy known as containment.
Scholarship, mostly by historians opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, has tended to focus on the experience of either the U.S. or of North Vietnam. Accounts of South Vietnam tend to be caricatures of a corrupt, inept and unstable society. These narratives, often shaped by historians’ ideological perspectives, political interests, or tendency for theoretical hypothesizing, are understandably aimed at legitimizing certain purposes, actions, and results. For the Vietnamese communist government, depicting the war as a struggle against U.S. imperialism delegitimizes the representative government and people of the Republic of Vietnam, while legitimizing its need to prolong the war, even after a peace agreement had been reached. For the United States, focusing on North Vietnam and delegitimizing the South Vietnamese experience legitimizes its righteous purpose for entering the war while explaining away its withdrawal in 1973.
Many interpretations of the war are often shaped by scholars’ desire either to support or undermine U.S. involvement in the conflict, not to understand and reflect the realities in Vietnam. Thus, their narratives tend to dwell on the fact that the U.S. has no legitimate reason to be in Vietnam; consequently, whomever it supported was illegitimate, and therefore, there is no popular basis for the U.S. or South Vietnam to win the war. Under the influence of those dominant perspectives, the narrative surrounding the Vietnam War has become that of a conflict by all Vietnamese against American imperialism.
Lost among those viewpoints are the plans and actions of the Southern Vietnamese government to develop a non-communist democratic republic while fighting a defensive war, and the real aspirations, perspectives and experiences of the many Southern Vietnamese who sacrificed their lives to defend a land they considered free and democratic. South Vietnam was a union of people, who after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and assistance, continued to develop its social, economic, and political infrastructure and to establish international relations while maintaining military resistance campaigns for an additional two years before the end of the war in 1975. By not acknowledging those realities, the prevailing narratives have limited the potential to understand the Vietnam War and denied the agency of more than 20 million people. Thus, the knowledge of the Vietnam War history that most have come to know, has been colored by ideological bias.
Another characteristic of the Vietnam War is its complexity, for there were many contributing causes to the tragedy. Many conflicting motives, interests, and rationales shaped the lives of the inhabitants of North and South Vietnam during the three-decade war. Why and how did the war come about? Why in Vietnam? Why communism? Why anti-communism? Why the fratricidal bloodshed? Why and how did the US get involved? Why and how did North Vietnam win? Why and how did the US withdraw? Why and how did South Vietnam collapse in 1975? What is nationalism?
Over the past 40 years, there have been new inquiries, new information, and new studies. However, one issue persists: American intervention and how its consequences continue to affect American policy debates and foreign relations. Americans are still learning the lessons from the Vietnam War to exercise its power of intervention, while countries that are or are not being intervened in, as Ambassador Bùi Diễm states, “cannot help but see in the fate of Vietnam imitations of their own possible future.”
History does not repeat itself, but the study of history does provide a context within which to formulate meaningful questions to order and guide future decision making. That is the purpose of the documentary series on Bùi Diễm and his recollections of U.S. interventions—not presuming to represent the totality of the Vietnam War or the voice of all Vietnamese, but rather, to present a unique, experienced, informed historical perspective to assist in understanding the war and its consequences. It does so by documenting the Vietnam War through the eyes of a Vietnamese diplomat. Granted that the documentary only probes the view and experiences of one person, it hopes to provide students, scholars, and the public the essential reflections of a firsthand account to contribute to a more incorporative and comprehensive understanding of the tragedy in Vietnam. More specifically, it offers answers to these questions and thus corrects some of the misguided narratives that have dominated studies of the Vietnam War.
The People and History: The United States Intervention in Vietnam Through the Eyes of a Diplomat, 1965-1975 documentary series was coordinated by Alex-Thai D. Vo (principal investigator) and Bui Thi Thuy Hong (co-investigator), under the guidance of Professor Keith W. Taylor, Cornell University. Nonetheless, the project was only made possible by the tireless commitment of Ambassador Bùi Diễm and the invaluable contributions from Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, Mai Thanh Nguyen-Vo, Vo Thanh Nhan, Vo Thien Toan, Tran Anh Hao, La Quang Binh, Pham Ngoc Minh, Pham Ngoc Hien, Nguyet Tong, Yen Vu, and Tu Tran.