Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Robert E. Barbour
BARBOUR: The Vietnamese certainly, I don't know if oppressed them is the right term, exploited them. As the highlands became targets of development and exploitation and the Vietnamese moved up there voluntarily they began to conflict with the Montagnards whose lands they were. The Montagnards were much happier with us, I think, than with the Vietnamese who were very aggressive. Sihanouk used to say that if there had been no French in the middle of the nineteenth century there would be no Cambodia. Yes, there were conflicts and the Vietnamese in their cultural arrogance looked down on them and exploited them and ordered them around. I remember once we were spending the night in a Montagnard village and as we were sitting around I noticed a picture of Diem up on the wall. I asked our host, “Who is that man?” He said, “I don't know.” There was a Vietnamese with us who got very exercised and said, “Yes you do know who that is.”
Q: Did you ever get to see Diem's brother?
BARBOUR: Yes, I had one meeting with him shortly before I left, unfortunately; I hadn't wanted to press him but use it as a social occasion to build upon later. I think I was the only American who ever saw him. We had a nice social chat about general problems up there and about American aid, he had some pet projects he hoped we would help him with. He had some criticisms of American aid which, as I recall, were factually incorrect and improperly premised. Just a few days before we were leaving we were being inspected and I had the inspector in my office and there came some messengers from the “councilor,” as he was called. In they came with a pole over their head with an enormous gaur head. A gaur is a wild cow, I think, a jungle cow, an enormous beast. Here was the stuffed head of this gaur slung on the pole. That was my farewell present from the councilor.
Q: How did the Embassy use you? You already had your ties there.
BARBOUR: We were a listening post to extend the reportorial reach of the Embassy, which we did. I remember one day sitting in my office wondering what I would do with my time that day. I said to myself, “I know.” I got in my car and drove down to the lagoon, it was a kind of estuary, hired a boat and went across to the other side and spent the day walking around through a couple of villages there. Then went back and wrote what I thought was a wonderful report on what life was like over there, what people were talking about and how the economy was functioning or not functioning.