Saigon, 1965 with Malcolm Gladwell | E2/S1: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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Saigon, 1965 with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 2| Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 41 min | Released: June 22, 2016

Mai Elliott: After we got married, we got an apartment on Hai Ba Tru'ng near the Tan Dinh Market. It's not the best part of town, but not the worst either. Very lively, bustling noisy area.

Malcolm Gladwell: That's Mai Elliott. She lives outside of Los Angeles now, a graceful, elegant, middle age woman. She's talking about her life in Saigon in the early 1960s, the first days of the Vietnam War.

ME: I had an apartment of my own, you know. Life couldn't have been better I thought.

MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. Welcome to Revisionist History, where every week we go back and look at something misunderstood or overlooked.

This week's episode is about a secret Pentagon study that a Vietnamese woman named Mai Elliott and two others became tangled up in and what happened when it ended because there's a lot we can learn from it today.

The project was run by the RAND Corporation, a think tank based in Santa Monica, California, home to an extraordinary collection of intellectuals and thinkers and policy wonks. RAND is the kind of place where everyone speaks in complete paragraphs. And if you close your eyes as you listen, you can almost see the footnotes at the end of each one of those perfect paragraphs. The defense department relied on them heavily in those years. Still does.

MG: Tell me about how you come to work for RAND.

ME: Uh, Dave knew somebody at MACV who was, uh, an officer, a graduate student.

MG: Dave is Mai's husband, an American academic. MACV stands for Military Assistance Command of Vietnam, headquarters for the Vietnam War.

ME: So anyway, Dave knew this guy, who was also a graduate student doing his military stint, and his wife, an American, was working at RAND.

MG: Mai Eliot is Vietnamese and she ends up working at RAND in Saigon for a man named Leon Gouré, one of RAND's most brilliant academics. He ran the secret study and he's a big part of this story. Here's an interview RAND recorded with Gouré just before he died in 2007.

Interviewer: And how did you end up getting into Vietnam?

Leon Gouré: I got drafted. Well, I, I was semi-volunteered, but I got drafted. The Chief of Air Force Intelligence asked me to go.

MG: Gouré set up shop in an old French style villa near the presidential palace in downtown Saigon, 176, Rue Pasteur. The house is still there. Flame trees and tamarind line the street, quite, discreet. This was in 1964, just when Saigon was beginning to fall apart. Still, if you're a westerner, you might go to the exclusive Cercle Sportif on the humid afternoons to sit by the pool or play tennis or have a cocktail on the veranda of the Continental Hotel. Maybe you'd hear a bomb or two off in the distance. Later of course, things would get far worse.

LG: The house we lived in in Saigon was directly under the trajectory of the rockets that the Vietcong were firing at the palace, so we had a great experience of ducking under the dining room table.

MG: Gouré had been working in the Santa Monica office of RAND when he was summoned to Vietnam. It was a job no one really wanted. Who would leave southern California for Saigon? The Pentagon wanted him to run a project interviewing Vietcong prisoners and defectors. Gouré jumped at the chance.

LG: I had to organize my own team of Vietnamese. We were producing interview reports, or interrogation reports, for the US, for RAND, and for the chief of the intelligence of the Vietnamese armed forces. They all got copies.

MG: Later, Leon Gouré got into trouble, or at least, into an argument. And RAND brought in a third person to fix things, Konrad Kellen.

Konrad Kellen: I was supposed to be indoctrinated by Leon Gouré, he was supposed to tell me about Vietnam. But I got, very quickly, the feeling that he was extremely partisan, you know, for the, for the south, which, of course, was part of his job.

MG: That woman's voice you hear, that's Mai Elliot again. She interviewed Kellen in Santa Monica after he retired from RAND for a history she wrote called RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War. A brilliant book, by the way.

KK: He was sort of Mr. Vietnam at, at RAND, you know, in, in the south, Mister South Vietnam. And I sort of became his sort of successor in a way.

MG: The story that follows is about these three people: Mai Elliott, Leon Gour‚àö¬© and Konrad Kellen, and how their lies intersected over a minor and forgotten episode in the Vietnam War called the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Project. I say minor because what happened in that French villa on 176 Rue Pasteur didn't swing the war one way or another. Nobody who was part of the study ever fired a gun or dropped a bomb, but the story of the Morale Project says a lot about something that has obsessed us as ever since, intelligence failure. Why is it so hard to tell what your enemy is thinking? That question came up after 9/11, during the two Gulf Wars, it came up again in Afghanistan, it comes up today with ISIS. And every time we get it wrong, every time our enemies take us by surprise, we always say,  "If only we knew more about them. If only we had more information about our adversaries, more spies on the ground, more satellite images, more intercepted communications, more of everything."

Do you know how many federal government organizations there are just devoted to counterterrorism? 1271. And another 1931 private companies. Do you know how many Americans hold top secret security clearances? 854,000. Those numbers all come from an extraordinary Washington Post investigation from six years ago. And here's the most incredible statistic of all: Just since 9/11, just to house top secret intelligence work, and just in the Washington DC area, 17 million square feet of new office space has been built to house intelligence operations, 17 million. We want to know everything about our enemies, but what the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Project tells us is this, you can know everything there is to know about your enemy, everything, and that's still won't solve your problem.

Vietnam was a French colony from 1887 until 1954 then the French lost control of the country. It was split in half; Communists took over the north; an American backed regime came into power in the south. Over the next decade, conditions inside South Vietnam slowly deteriorated. The government was unpopular, there were protests in the streets, a military coup and the North Vietnamese started sending guerrillas, known as the Vietcong, over the border to try and recruit South Vietnamese to their cause. That's why the Vietnam War, at least US involvement there, starts in the early 1960's, because the United States feels compelled to help the south turn back the Vietcong.

Wars are usually about territory. Country X invades country Y, country Y fights back. But this is a weird kind of war, the US and the South Vietnamese have no intention of invading the North. They decided, instead, that they'll just bomb the North Vietnamese until they give up, until they realize that exporting guerrillas over the border isn't worth it. The Vietnam War is a war of persuasion, a crude kind of persuasion. The goal is to break the other side's will.

Announcer1: The new theory is that revolutionary development may look good on paper, but nothing pacifies quite like old-fashioned military might.

Announcer2: An aligned force of more than 8000 men today tightened its hold on the Batangan Peninsula on South Vietnam's central coast.

MG: But if your goal is to break someone's will, how do you know if your strategy's working? In the early 1960s, when the US first starts sending troops to fight the Vietcong, there was a problem‚Äö√Ñ√§‚Äö√Ñ√Æ‚Äö√Ñ√§no one knew anything about the Vietcong. Almost no one at the Pentagon or the state department even spoke Vietnamese. The special adviser to the American general in South Vietnam at the time was an Australian called Colonel Sarong, and do you know what he said? I'll quote him directly,  "These people are simply what we call, in many countries, juvenile delinquents." That's the best he could offer in terms of intelligence about the Vietcong. So what do you do if you're bombing someone you know nothing about and you want to know how this unknown person feels? You call in the RAND Corporation. So RAND rents the villa on Rue Pasteur and brings in Leon Gour‚àö¬© to run the show.

Gouré was Russian by birth. His family history was remarkable. His parents were Mensheviks. The Mensheviks were the socialist moderates who split off from Lenin during the Bolshevik revolution.

Daniel: They were in Russia during the revolution.

MG: This is Leon Gouré's son, Daniel. He's a national security and policy expert with the Lexington Institute, in Arlington, Virginia.

Daniel: They participated in the revolution. In fact, my grandparents met in prison, my grandmother used to smoke unfiltered cigarettes in a little holder and she would , you know, cut them in half.

MG: They were living in Moscow?

Daniel: There were in Moscow.

MG: Yeah.

Daniel: They were in Moscow and they were, you know, fighting the system. He, my grandfather ran an illegal printing press and the whole thing.

MG: In 1922, just after Leon is born, the Gourés are kicked out of the country.

Daniel: They ended up next in Berlin. And in 1933, they shut the doors, locked the building up and left, just walked away and went to Paris. Then they got out of Paris on the same train that Humphrey Bogart did in Casablanca, heading south and meandered south, went through Spain to Portugal and then got to the US after that. So they stayed one ahead, one step ahead of the, the tide of evil for about almost 20 years.

MG: Wow.

Daniel: Yeah.

MG: Which of the Bolsheviks, did he… He must've known some of them in person?

Daniel: Oh, he know all of them personally. They knew Trotsky, they knew Lenin, they knew Stalin; they knew the whole, uh, the whole crowd.

MG: Man, you're leftist royalty.

Daniel: Yeah, well…

MG: The Gourés ended up in New York City, 96th and Broadway, deep in the world of eastern European emigres. Leon serves in the army, fights in the Battle of the Bulge, and ends up in counterintelligence.

MG: How do you think the refugee experience shaped your father?

Daniel: Number of ways. I think the overriding one was we've retreated this far and no farther. So it was, it was a view of sort of America, not just a city on the hill, not just, but, you know, there's nowhere left to retreat to, the country needs to be truly defended. He got a home, he got a country, he got acceptance. All that was terribly, terribly important.

MG: So this is who RAND puts in charge of the Vietnam operation, Leon Gouré, a patriot in the way that only an immigrant can be a patriot.

ME: He was suave, he was very charming, he had, um, a great sense of humor, very articulate, energetic, enthusiastic. So personally, I liked him. The only thing I didn't like about him was the fact that he was a great ladies' man have and there were a lot of rumors about that. But as a person, I liked him.

MG: Gouré spoke German, Russian, French, all fluently. Big, thick head of black hair, that amazing accent, he was the embodiment of the European intellectual.

Daniel: He had amazing kind of research all his life where there would be stacks of, of documents in Russian innings were on his desk and he literally would be talking to you and it would sort of be,  "Well, you know, there's this recent thing," and he'd sort of‚Äö√Ѭ∂ It's not an eidetic memory, but he was certainly, kind of, librarian/encyclopedic in that kind of, of sense.

MG: Gouré meets Robert McNamara, President Johnson's Secretary of Defense, and tells him what he thinks needs to be done. That is, to really answer the question of how the bombing is affecting the Vietcong.

LG: That's the question I remember very clearly.

MG: Again, this is from the interview Gouré did with the RAND archives a decade ago, at the end of his life.

LG: And he said,  "What is your funding?" I told him we had $100,000. He said,  "What could you do with a million?" That was his question. I said,  "I can do more of this stuff and have more people doing interviewing." He says,  "You have it."

MG: $1 million in Saigon in the mid-60s was a king's ransom. So Gouré hires a team of locals to fan out across the South Vietnamese countryside to interview defectors from North Vietnam and captured Vietcong guerrillas. That's where Mai Elliot comes in. She was one of Gouré's interviewers and her story is every bit as fascinating as Leon Gouré's.

ME: My father was appointed to, uh, Haiphong, he became mayor of Haiphong.

MG: She grew up in the north. Before the country was divided, her father was part of the French colonial administration.

ME: And as mayor, he had a lot of authority, he was almost, like, the King of that little town and we lived in an enormous house with an enormous garden in front and back, with a staff, uh, of servants, and even a platoon of guards, you know, who stood guard outside our gate. So that was really the best time of my life.

MG: Then the French get defeated in the north by the communists. Vietnam is divided in two.

ME: It happened so suddenly, we just packed up and left everything and we lost everything. So when it happened, we were in a panic, we didn't know what to do. My father had, of course, collaborated with the French. I didn't know, you know, I didn't understand a thing, but my father was afraid that the communists would come in and, and kill him.

MG: Mai Elliott didn't come to the RAND project as a blank slate; she came with a history. She had to flee for her life from the communists in the north, now she's been hired by RAND to figure out the communists, the same people who chased her family away.

The interviewers would go out in teams of three or four. Sometimes, the groups would stay in Saigon and go to the prison where captured Vietcong were held. Other times, they would head out into the countryside hitching a ride on military planes to the Mekong Delta. The interviews were taped; they'd offer their subjects cigarettes. Sometimes, they'd sit outside under the trees, it was friendly not confrontational. The interviewers made it clear that they were only doing a research project. If the subject was uninteresting or reluctant, the sessions would be short. Other times, they might last for days. Then it was back to the villa on Rue Pasteur, where the interviews will be transcribed, translated, and edited.

[Interview recording in Vietnamese]

ME: That's Mai Elliot in the central Mekong Delta, interviewing a former company commander for the 261st Battalion of the North Vietnamese Army.

ME: There was a lot questions about bombing, what weapons do you fear the most, what had the most effect on your unit and your operations, and with the North Vietnamese who infiltrated into the south,  "Tell us about conditions, are you marched from the north to the south? Were there bombings, you know, along the way?" Things like that.

MG: The Morale Project would eventually produce 62,000 pages of transcripts, interviews with captured Vietcong and others. 62,000 pages. This isn't some focus group conducted by a PR firm where a few dozen people are interviewed for an hour. This is one of the most extraordinary, encyclopedic, detailed portraits of an enemy ever created. Remember, no one in Washington really knew anything about Vietnam in the early 1960s. Now, there was $1 million operation on the Rue Pasteur painting a living, breathing portrait of the other side. This stuff was gold.

Gouré takes the results and makes the rounds. His favorite statistic was this — when RAND started its study, 65% of defectors and prisoners believed the Vietcong could win. After a year of heavy US bombing, that number was down to 20%. The enemy was on the ropes. Gouré briefs the Air Force, Army, US Embassy, then off to Honolulu, to the headquarters of the Army of the Pacific, RAND in Santa Monica, Washington DC to the Pentagon and to the White House. Helicopters would pick him up in Saigon and whisk him to aircraft carriers. At the villa on Rue Pasteur, he holds cocktail parties for everyone who was anyone in South Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, Walter Mondale, the US Senator later to become Jimmy Carter's vice president. Gouré meets with visiting journalists, CIA officers. His stuff goes right to the top.

Robert McNamara: Well, uh, we've had an interesting report from a man named Gouré, who , uh, works for the RAND Corporation and we hired the RAND Corporation…

MG: That's Robert McNamara, Johnson's Defense Secretary, from tapes made of White House conversations. In 1965 and '66, President Lyndon Johnson decides to pull the United States deeper and deeper into Vietnam and the story was that LBJ used to walk around with a summary of Gouré's findings in his back pocket.

Wars require public justification. If you're going to put thousands of lives at risk, you need to explain to your citizens just what you're doing and that's what Leon Gouré offered in the crucial early years of the Vietnam War; he offered justification.

More in a moment after this break.

Now back to our story.

MG: Enter Konrad Kellen, the third person in our story.

KK: When did I come to RAND? Oh, well, I lived in New York in '64, I think it was.

MG: Kellen was a battered veteran of World War 2 and a little bit of a legend. I once spent two weeks in Los Angeles just going from one person's house to the next, asking for their memories of Kellen. Everybody remembers Konrad Kellen. If you took the absolute best of 19th century central Europe and put it in a time machine that opened its doors in 1960 southern California, that would be Kellen.

KK: I read in the paper, it said some people in, in Washington, some smart boys had showered the north with millions of leaflets in which they had told the Vietnamese they should lay down their arms, uh, because we were good people and they, they were, their leaders were bad people. You know, the ordinary nonsense. And they should stop fighting the war.

MG: Kellen served in US army intelligence in the Second World War, specializing in psychological warfare. So later, when he reads how the US was using leaflets in Vietnam, he gets angry. We're doing it all wrong.

KK: And so I wrote a letter to The New York Times and said it was obvious nonsense to shower large numbers of soldiers with a leaflet saying stop that war. Soldiers don't stop wars; soldiers should begin wars and soldiers don't stop wars. So if you want to stop a war, you have to do it differently , you know. So I got a call from the, here, from the RAND people, and they wanted me to come and, and be part of their system and I said,  "Okay," so I came to Ameri-, I came to Los Angeles.

MG: Kellen grew up in Berlin, wealthy, cultured. His father owned a big brewery. His full name was Katzenellenbogen. And the Katzenellenbogens were one of the great Jewish families of Europe. But when Hitler came to power, Kellen packed his bags. He said later that he knew, on some instinctive level, that things would not end well for the Jews in Germany. He goes to Paris, becomes friends with the French writer Jean Cocteau. His life is full of moments like this. He gets in a boat to America and meets the mobster Dutch Schultz, who offers him a job. He arrives in New York and works for the legendary investor Benjamin Graham, who was the mentor of Warren Buffet. He goes to California and is the private secretary of the Nobel Prize winning novelist Thomas Mann.

Kellen was impossibly handsome, dashing, over six feet tall; he was an expert in golf, handwriting analysis, and Ferraris. Both his sisters earned PhDs from Berkeley, one in chemistry, the other in biology. His brother escapes from Nazi Germany, lands in New York and if you go online and look up the assets of his personal foundation, it's $665 million. His stepmother was painted by Renoir, a family friend. He was cousins with Einstein. I mean, after a bit, it gets ridiculous.

The craziest story about Kellen is when he was in Paris in 1945. The war has just ended and he's sitting in the Cafe Select, near the Champs-Elys‚àö¬©es, when a young woman approaches him. She says,  "Are you an American GI?" he says,  "Yes." She says,  "You going back to the States?" He says,  "Yes." She says,  "You have to do me a favor. My father is an artist; I have to get his work safely to America," because, of course, Europe was in chaos. And Kellen says,  "By all means." But then, she goes away and comes back with this massive stack of canvases. And he says,  "There's no way I can take that." And she says,  "You have to," whereupon Kellen embarks on this epic, month-long struggle to get these paintings safely across the ocean, which includes being trapped in the back of an open truck during a rainstorm and throwing his coat over the pile of paintings to keep them from being ruined and staying up all night, night after night, because he's terrified someone will steal them. Who's the painter? Marc Chagall. I should say Marc Chagall, of course, because only Konrad Kellen would end up transporting the collected works of one of the most famous artists of the 20th century to America, in a rainstorm, on the back of a truck.

The deal Chagall's daughter made with him was that he could take one picture and keep it for himself. So he takes one, a famous one, then he sells it in the 1950s for what seemed like a lot of money at the time. But of course, it's a Chagall, a famous Chagall and every now and again over the years, he'd spot his old painting in an auction catalogue worth more and more and more and he'd bury his head in his hands and say,  "Ooh!"

By late 1966 when Konrad Kellen gets to RAND, the place is in turmoil. The Vietnam War has split its ranks down the middle. This is a think tank the Pentagon has been relying on to make sense of the war, but there's a group inside RAND that believes the war is a terrible mistake. I don't know if you remember the story of the Pentagon Papers. This was a secret 47-volume study of US political and military involvement in the Vietnam War. It was commissioned by the Pentagon. The Pentagon Papers showed that the White House had been misleading congress and the American people for years about how well the war was going. A copy of the Pentagon Papers was famously leaked to the New York Times in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg's leak was really the beginning of the end of public support for the war. And who was Ellsberg? An employee of RAND. And where did he get his copy of the Pentagon Papers? He took it from the safe at RAND. And guess who was one of Ellsberg's best friends and confidants at RAND? Konrad Kellen, of course, as always, in the thick of things.

But the moment we're talking about is well before the Pentagon Papers controversy. It's at the beginning of the divisions within RAND. 1965–66, RAND is a place that prides itself on objectivity and rigor. Everything is checked and double checked and fact checked and reviewed in-house before it's released, but the RAND brass is beginning to worry that when Leon Gouré gets whisked by helicopter to aircraft carriers or huddles with generals at his cocktail parties at the villa on Rue Pasteur, he's bypassing all that. They worry that he's gone rogue so they bring in Konrad Kellen to be a second set of eyes.

Kellen comes in and reads a thousand of the Vietcong interviews. Remember, many of these interviews ran to 15 or 20, single-spaced, typed pages. It's a huge amount of work and Kellen decides Gouré has it all wrong. The Vietcong are not crumbling, on the contrary. Here's Kellen again, from this interview with Mai Elliott.

KK: I could see from the interviews that we were not going to win this war. You know , that was my conclusion. I was one of the very few people at RAND who had that idea and most of them were gung-ho, they were going… And they couldn't understand, to this day they don't understand, how a nation with 1 million, million soldiers, battleships, airplanes, cannot win over Vietnam.

MG: So here we have two men, two sophisticated European intellectuals with access to the richest trove of intelligence in the entire war. Gour‚àö¬© goes first and says,  "We're winning." Kellen comes along, looks at exactly the same evidence and says,  "We're never going to win." Then there's Mai Elliott. If Gour‚àö¬© is at the villa on Rue Pasteur and Kellen is back in Santa Monica, Elliott is actually in the field, in the jungles, in villages talking to actual defectors and Vietcong guerrillas. And what does she think will happen? She doesn't know. She's confused.

ME: I walked into this cell and I didn't know what to expect. And then, in walked this man, uh, middle aged, very briskly, and he looked, you know, like a man, like, of authority and he stopped dead in his tracks.

MG: Elliot is talking about an early interview she did that had a huge impact on her, that she never forgot.

MG: You have to remember what I looked like at the time. I was young, I was dressed in western clothes, and I didn't look like the military interrogators he had seen so he was surprised to see me and he was kind of guarded, suspicious, he didn't know what to expect. And, uh, I was afraid; I didn't know what was going to happen because I had grown up believing that the communists were blood thirsty.

MG: They started to talk and, gradually, he relaxed and she relaxed.

ME: You know, I had never met a, a communist before, face to face. So I just, my curiosity just took over and I just asked him a lot of questions about him and his family and his background and his beliefs and he had devoted his whole life to fighting the French and now he was fighting the Americans. And he seemed to have a lot to integrity.

MG: And what affect did listening to him have on you?

ME: Well, it really confused me because I had believed that the communists were sort of like thugs, we call them [Vietnamese], meaning thugs and…

MG: What's the literal translation of that?

ME: [Vietnamese], the head of a buffalo and body of a horse. So somebody who is not, you know, quite human, , uh, a, a thug.

MG: What the captured Vietcong said was straightforward, the intelligence was straightforward, but Mai Elliott's reaction was anything but straightforward.

ME: And so I left with more questions than answers and, and I began to see that the picture was not black and white like I have believed at the beginning.

MG: But then Elliot says something crucial. She says it didn't change her mind. She saw the evidence with her own eyes, she did the interview with the general, but it wasn't enough. Remember her circumstances, she comes from a family of privilege and the rise of the communists in the north takes all that away. They end up living in a little hut in Saigon. The Vietcong is not some abstract force; they were a personal threat to her family.

ME: I think for people whose backs were against the wall and who've thought that their survival depended on the communists not winning, then seeing the evidence doesn't mean that you change your mind.

MG:  "Seeing the evidence doesn't mean that you change your mind."

ME: Seeing the evidence just increases your fear because you fear that, you know, that the communists would win and it would be the end of you and your family and you don't want to face it, you know, you don't want to think about it.

MG: Leon Gour‚àö¬© might well have read the transcript of that same interview that Mai Elliot did with the Vietcong officer and his interpretation would be,  "That guy's going to give up. If we just bomb people like him some more, we'll destroy their will." In retrospect, completely wrong, but think about this from Gour‚àö¬©'s perspective.

LG: Well, look, if you want to understand that, I, I am a professional refugee; I've been a refugee from Russia to Germany, from Germany to France, and from France to the United States, so three times. So, as far as I was concerned, this was going to be my country and whatever it was to the, a national interest of the United States, it was sufficient reason to pursue this thing.

MG: By  "this thing," he means fighting communism, the enemy that forced Gour‚àö¬© out of his home in Russia. And in the 1960s,  "this thing," communism, is still out there; it spread to Vietnam. Think how much Gour‚àö¬© had to believe that America was winning the war. Leon Gour‚àö¬© felt there was nowhere left to retreat to.

LG: You don't pick and choose your wars. Your country is at war, it's at war, period. You don't pick and choose whether you approve of it or not, that's nonsense, that's chaos.

MG: There's a moment in my Mai Elliot's interview with Konrad Kellen where he talks about Gouré, about what it means to be a refugee.

KK: I think, like many eventually became great opportunists, you know, that's what they do, I mean, they, they… If you were an opportunist, at least you had the American establishment on your side, you know.

MG: The refugee is an opportunist because he is at the mercy of whatever country will take him. And I can't help but think that Kellen is also talking about himself here. He's acknowledging the biases that he brought to the interviews because he's a refugee too. He escaped from the Nazis, he witnessed the destruction of everything he once knew, his home, his community, his family, his privilege. How can that not scar you? At one point, Kellen explains to Elliot why he never actually

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