The lack of assistance for the South Vietnamese is a terrible black mark on our reputation.
By the time Jim Roberts left the Navy in 1971, after two cruises to Vietnam aboard a destroyer, most Americans had turned against the war, but he still considered it a noble cause. Roberts became political director of the American Conservative Union in January 1974, a year after U.S. troops departed Vietnam, and that fall led congressional aides and journalists on a trip to review the situation in South Vietnam. Roberts wrote a report warning that an invasion from the North was imminent. When the attack came in 1975, he helped set up the Emergency Committee to Save South Vietnam, which pushed for increased U.S. assistance but didn’t get it.
Roberts was ACU executive director from 1975 to 1977, wrote The Conservative Decade: Emerging Leaders of the 1980s, published in May 1980 with a forward by Ronald Reagan, and served as director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships from 1981 to 1984. The next year Roberts created Radio America, a conservative talk-radio network. In 1995 he founded the American Veterans Center to “preserve the legacy” of service members. Its projects include oral histories and the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington.
Roberts reflected on the Vietnam War’s legacy and lessons in an interview with Editor Chuck Springston.
What were the responsibilities of destroyers stationed off Vietnam’s coast during the war? Plane-guard duty with aircraft carriers and gunfire support for our forces inland. If a plane missed on a landing or a takeoff and went into the water, we were charged with rescuing the survivors. In the gunfire support, we would be a mile or so offshore, and spotters on the ground would send coordinates for targets 10 to 12 miles inland. The coordinates would be put in the ship’s gunfire computer system, and we would fire shells. We never saw what we were firing at. The spotters would periodically come to the ship, and they said our gunfire was quite effective. We were providing gunfire support almost every day. Many times all day long and all night long. We would run out of ammunition and have to go out to sea for replenishment at a supply ship.
When you returned to Vietnam in 1974, what did you see? We were there two weeks and all over South Vietnam. We just didn’t stay in Saigon. We visited a lot of the cities. We were down in the [Mekong River] delta a lot. What struck me was that the South Vietnamese military was falling apart for lack of spare parts. There were row upon row of planes, fighters and bombers that couldn’t fly because they didn’t have spare parts or fuel.
Ditto for the army of South Vietnam, badly under-equipped. We were not living up to our agreement with the South Vietnamese after the Paris accords [which ended the U.S. combat role in January 1973] that we would supply them with the means for their self-defense.
When I got back, I wrote a fairly lengthy monograph predicting that there would be a new offensive early in the next year. It didn’t take any particular powers of clairvoyance to predict that. It was obvious it was going to happen. In the spring of ’75 you had the horrible scenes of rescuing people from the U.S. Embassy roof and the hundreds of thousands who died at sea and the millions who were put into re-education camps and all the horrors that came out of that war because we defaulted on our duties.
After the North Vietnamese invasion started, the ACU formed the Emergency Committee to Save South Vietnam. It was composed of conservatives, of course, but we also got liberals who believed in the cause of South Vietnam. The contributions flowed in. We were able to do ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post. And we did demonstrations outside the Capitol. It was really a wonderful effort, but it was too little, too late.
Do you think South Vietnam could have held off the Communists if the U.S. government had not reduced funding? Absolutely, I do. At the time of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, something like 90 percent of the population of South Vietnam was under government control—by choice, so the vast majority did support the South Vietnamese government, given the faults it clearly had, and there were many.
We saw the fighting capabilities of the South Vietnamese in 1972 during the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. We gave significant air power, but they did most of the fighting on the ground and prevailed. That’s what should have happened the next time around. But it didn’t. With proper assistance the South Vietnamese could have prevailed. The lack of that assistance is a terrible black mark on our reputation.
What do you see as the lessons of the Vietnam War? Colin Powell [as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman under President George H.W. Bush] and Cap Weinberger [as Reagan’s defense secretary] came up with doctrines, based on lessons learned, which state that if you’re going to get into a war, go in with overwhelming force, crush the enemy, complete the job and get out.
We never did that in Vietnam. We had a succession of incremental increases until we had 500,000 men and women stationed in South Vietnam and were taking horrendous casualties. If you are going to get into an operation with casualties of that magnitude, you need to be in total war, short of nuclear weapons.
The bombing runs were very restrictive in terms of targets. And the planes had to fly down predetermined alleys, where they were sitting ducks for groundfire from the North Vietnamese. President Johnson himself was selecting targets, personally. It’s just nuts for a president to be doing that.
In ’72, President Nixon asked Admiral [Thomas] Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “How long would it take you to mine the harbors of North Vietnam?” He said: “About one day. The plan’s on the shelf.” We mined the harbors. We stopped all inflow of materiel from the Soviet Union and China.
We bombed relentlessly and bombed targets that should have been bombed years before. We brought the North Vietnamese to the peace table. That’s the kind of war that should have been conducted from the very beginning.
Is there a political or military leader that you especially admire? Winston Churchill is my greatest hero. Churchill persuaded Parliament not to negotiate with Hitler—and saved the world. Had Britain sued for peace, the Germans would have eventually taken possession of the Royal Navy. There would have been no platform for getting back at Hitler. There would have been no platform for Normandy. The Russians would have been defeated. Churchill himself stopped that.
During the Vietnam era, what music did you listen to? I liked the music of the ’50s. Buddy Holly and Elvis and all the rest. Then I became seriously involved in the folk movement. I played a guitar and knew the popular folks songs by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and others.
The rock era of the ’60s is the greatest in pop music. It was just one great song after another. At Miami we had a band called the Lemon Pipers. They played at our fraternity house. Their “Green Tambourine” got to No. 1.
Are there any books about the Vietnam War you think are particularly insightful? One is The Big Story, by Peter Braestrup, which came out in the ’70s. He was a journalist and showed how distorted coverage in the media played a real role in our losing the war.
Mark Moyar has written two excellent books, including one titled Triumph Forsaken. He says, yes we could have won the war, and I’m persuaded by that.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s December 2016 issue.