The new Administration came into office equipped with brain power, more pragmatism than ideology and the thinnest electoral majority of the 20th century, barely half of one percent. Like the President, his associates were activists, stimulated by crises, eager to take active measures. As far as the record shows, they held no session devoted to re-examination of the engagement they had inherited in Vietnam, nor did they ask themselves to what extent the United States was committed or what was the degree of national interest involved. Nor, so far as appears in the mountains of memoranda, discussions and options flowing over the desks, was any long-range look taken at long-range strategy. Rather, policy developed in ad hoc spurts from month to month. A White House official of the time, asked in later years how the American interest in Southeast Asia was defined in 1961, replied that “it was simply a given, assumed and unquestioned.” The given was that we had to stop the advance of Communism wherever it appeared and Vietnam was then the place of confrontation. If not stopped there, it would be stronger the next time.
As a young Congressman, Kennedy had visited Indochina for himself in 1951, reaching the conclusion obvious to most American observers, that to check the Communist drive South it was essential to “build strong native non-Communist sentiment.” To act “apart from and in defiance of innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure.” It is a dismaying fact that throughout the long folly of Vietnam, Americans kept foretelling the outcome and acting without reference to their own foresight.
By 1956 Kennedy had moved closer to cold war orthodoxy, talking less of “strong native sentiment” and more of dominoes in a variety of metaphor: Vietnam was the “cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia, the keystone of the arch, the finger in the dike.” To the usual list of neighbors who would fall “if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam” he added India and Japan. The current of rhetoric carried him forward into two traps: Vietnam was “a proving ground of democracy in Asia” and “a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia.”
Two weeks before Kennedy entered the White House, the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, offered the decisive challenge of the time in the form of his announcement that national “wars of liberation” were to be the vehicle for advancing the Communist cause. These “just wars,” he said, wherever they occurred, in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, would receive full Soviet support. Kennedy responded in his Inaugural Address with alarming reference to the defense of freedom “at its hour of maximum danger.”
The first test was, unhappily, a grotesque and humiliating fiasco. Initiated under Eisenhower, the attempt made in April 1961 to liberate Cuba from Communism at the Bay of Pigs was a joint venture of Cuban exiles and the CIA with frivolously insufficient means and overconfident procedures. Though it was not Kennedy’s plan, he was briefed on it before taking office, and given his go-ahead—impelled by the awful momentum that makes carrying through easier than calling off a folly—it was his responsibility. The invasion foreshadowed Vietnam in underestimating the opponent. Castro’s regime proved well-organized, on guard, alert and ready for combat. The landings were discovered quickly and opposed vigorously, and the expected sympathetic uprisings were either effectively suppressed or never took place. Castro proved, in fact, more popular with his countrymen than the exiles whom the United States was supporting—another situation to be duplicated in Vietnam. With admirable resolve, Kennedy took the hard decision not to send in Air Force and Marines to the rescue, leaving many to perish. The effect of this spectacular snafu in the first ninety days of the Administration was to make all its members grimly determined to prove their muscle in the contest against Communism.
Neither a liberal nor a conservative, Kennedy was an operator of quick intelligence and strong ambition who stated many elevated principles convincingly, eloquently, even passionately, while his actions did not always match. In the major offices of government and the White House staff, he put men of active mind, proven ability and, as far as possible, a hardheaded attitude to match his own. Mostly men of his age, in their forties, they were not the social philosophers, innovators and idealists of the New Deal. In the Kennedy camp the word usually attached to idealist was “slob” or “bleeding heart.” The New Deal was another era; world war and cold war had intervened and the far right still rumbled. The new men in government, whether Rhodes Scholars, academics from Harvard and Brookings or recruits from Wall Street, politics and the law, were expected to be realistic, sophisticated, pragmatic, tough. Toughness was the tone, and whatever their varying characters and capacities, Kennedy’s group adopted it, as the court around a monarch or a working group around a dominant chief to whom the members owe appointment is likely to do.
Robert McNamara, a prodigy of the Harvard Business School, of “systems analysis” for the Air Force during World War II and of rapid rise afterward to presidency of the Ford Motor Company, was a characteristic and outstanding choice as Secretary of Defense. Precise and positive, with slicked-down hair and rimless glasses, McNamara was a specialist of management through “statistical control,” as he had demonstrated both in the Air Force and at Ford. Anything that could be quantified was his realm. Though said to be as sincere as an Old Testament prophet, he had the ruthlessness of uninterrupted success, and his genius for statistics left little respect for human variables and no room for unpredictables. His confidence in the instrumentality of matériel was perfect and complete. “We have the power to knock any society out of the 20th century,” he once said at a Pentagon briefing. It was this gift of certainty that made two Presidents find McNamara so invaluable and was to make him the touchstone of the war.
No less significant was the man not chosen as Secretary of State, Adlai Stevenson, who because he was thoughtful was seen as a Hamlet, as indecisive, as that unforgivable thing, “soft.” Although heavily favored for the State Department by the Eleanor Roosevelt wing of the party, he was avoided and the appointment given instead to Dean Rusk. Sober, judicious, reserved, Rusk did not share the Kennedy style, but he had the advantage of experience at the State Department and status as current President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and he would never be a challenge to the President as Stevenson might have been. As a staff colonel in charge of war planning in the China-Burma-India theater during the war, he had had the opportunity to learn from the American experience in China, but what he chiefly took from that experience was a pronounced and rigid antagonism to Chinese Communism. As Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs at the time of China’s belligerency during the Korean war, Rusk had firmly and wrongly predicted that the Chinese would not enter, and thereafter felt deeply a sense of responsibility for the losses that followed.
In command of the National Security Council (NSC), with an office in the White House, was McGeorge Bundy of Boston, cool, confident, impeccable, and able to utilize his mental equipment so effectively that a schoolmate at Groton said he was ready to become dean of the school at age twelve. In fact, he became Dean of Harvard at 34. Although Bundy was a Republican in politics and family background who had twice voted for Eisenhower over Stevenson, this was no deterrent; if anything, it was a recommendation to Kennedy, who wanted connections to the respectable right. With his paper-thin mandate and a majority of only six in the Senate, he believed the problems of his Administration would come primarily from the right, and felt impelled to make overtures. One of the more extreme was his appointment as head of the CIA of John McCone, a reactionary Republican millionaire from California, a disciple of massive retaliation who, in the opinion of the Neanderthal Senator Strom Thurmond, “epitomizes what has made America great.”
Like the President, many of his associates were combat veterans of World War II, having served as Navy officers and fliers, as bombardiers and navigators, and in the case of Roger Hilsman, the new Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, as leader of an OSS unit behind Japanese lines in Burma. Accustomed to success in the war and in their postwar careers, they expected no less in Washington. None of the leading newcomers had ever held elective office. Power and status exhilarated these men and their fellows; they enjoyed the urgencies, even the exhaustion, of government; they liked to call themselves “crisis managers”; they tried hard, applied their skills and intelligence, were reputed “the best and the brightest”—and were to sadly discover, like other? before and after them, that rather than their controlling circumstances, circumstances controlled them: that government, in the words of one of the group, J. K. Galbraith, was rarely more than a choice between “the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
Creeping escalation began in Kennedy’s first ten days in office, when he approved a counter-insurgency plan previously drawn up by the Pentagon to invigorate South Vietnam’s operations against the Viet-Cong. It authorized additional American personnel and expenditures to train and equip a Vietnamese Civil Guard of 32,000 for antiguerrilla activity and to increase the Vietnamese army by 20,000. The President’s approval was given in response to a report by General Lansdale of increased Viet-Cong activity. Although he believed in Diem as the necessary governing figure, Lansdale had found him losing ground, unprepared to fight the kind of contest confronting him, unwilling for fear of yielding authority to institute political reforms. Comprehension was lacking in both his Vietnamese and his American advisers that tactics other than simple military formations were needed to cope with the guerrilla warfare and propaganda of the enemy. Reading the report, Kennedy commented, “This is the worst we have had yet, isn’t it?”
Lansdale advocated a thorough renovation of the advisory role, which would put experienced and dedicated Americans “who know and really like Asia and the Asians” in the field to work and live alongside the Vietnamese and “try to influence and guide them toward United States policy objectives.” He outlined a program of procedures and personnel. Much impressed, Kennedy attempted to push through the program with Lansdale himself in charge, or alternatively in charge of an interdepartmental Washington task force for Vietnam, but bureaucratic barriers in the State and Defense departments resisted. Lansdale’s program was not implemented, but even if it had been, however sincere and sympathetic, it suffered from the missionary compulsion to guide the Vietnamese “toward United States policy objectives,” not toward their own. This flaw, too, with its implications, Kennedy recognized when he said, “If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we should lose it as the French had lost a decade earlier.” Here was a classic case of seeing the truth and acting without reference to it.
The American failure to find any significance in the defeat of the French professional army, including the Foreign Legion, by small, thin-boned, out-of-uniform Asian guerrillas is one of the great puzzles of the time. How could Dien Bien Phu be so ignored? When David Schoenbrun, correspondent for CBS, who had covered the French war in Vietnam, tried to persuade the President of the realities of that war and of the loss of French officers equivalent each year to a class at St. Cyr, Kennedy answered, “Well, Mr. Schoenbrun, that was the French. They were fighting for a colony, for an ignoble cause. We’re fighting for freedom, to free them from the Communists, from China, for their independence.” Because Americans believed they were “different” they forgot that they too were white.
Failing the Lansdale program, regular personnel were added to MAAG to accelerate the training program, raising its numbers to over 3000, and a 400-man group from the Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg was sent to Vietnam for counter-insurgency operations. This violation of the Geneva rules was justified on the ground that North Vietnam too was infiltrating arms and men across the border.
• • •
Military theory and strategy underwent a major change with the advent of the Kennedy Administration. Appalled by the plans based on “massive retaliation” which the military under Eisenhower had embraced because they promised quick solutions and less expense in preparedness, Kennedy and McNamara turned to the ideas of the new school of defense intellectuals expressed in their doctrine of limited war. Its aim was not conquest but coercion; force would be used on a rationally calculated basis to alter the enemy’s will and capabilities to the point where “the advantages of terminating the conflict were greater than the advantages of continuing it.” War would be rationally “managed” in such a way as to send messages to the opposing belligerent, who would respond rationally to the pain and damage inflicted on him by desisting from the actions that caused them. “We are flung into a straitjacket of rationality,” wrote the formulator of the doctrine, William Kaufman. That was a condition that exactly suited Secretary McNamara, the high priest of rational management. One thing was left out of account—the other side. War is polarity. What if the other side failed to respond rationally to the coercive message? Appreciation of the human factor was not McNamara’s strong point, and the possibility that humankind is not rational was too eccentric and disruptive to be programmed into his analysis.
Prompted by Khrushchev’s challenge of wars of liberation, a byproduct of the limited-war theory emerged: counter-insurgency, which blossomed into the great cult of the Kennedy years with the President himself as its prophet. The no-nonsense men of his Administration embraced the doctrine with muscular enthusiasm. It would show them awake to the new conditions of the contest. It would meet the insurgents on their own ground, deal with social and political causes of insurgency in the developing countries, catch the Communists bathing, as Disraeli once said of the Whigs, and walk away with their clothes.
Stimulated by Lansdale’s report, the President read the treatises of Mao and Che Guevara on guerrilla warfare and assigned them for reading in the Army. At his order, a special Counter-Insurgency Program was established to inculcate recognition “throughout the United States government that subversive insurgency (‘wars of liberation’) is a major form of politico-military conflict equal in importance to conventional warfare.” The doctrine was required to be reflected in the organization, training and equipment of United States armed forces and civilian agencies abroad so as to ensure programs for prevention or defeat of insurgency or indirect aggression with special reference to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. On discovering that enrollment at Fort Bragg was fewer than a thousand, the President ordered its mission expanded and the green beret of the Special Forces restored as a symbol of the new program. His Special Military Representative, General Maxwell Taylor, propagated the gospel, as did other disciples, including even Robert Kennedy out of his expertise as Attorney-General.
Papers on doctrine and methods poured from Walt Rostow, the voluble professor from MIT who held the number-two post at NSC. Speaking on guerrilla warfare at the graduation exercises at Fort Bragg in June 1961, he brought the “revolutionary process” in the Third World under the American wing by calling it “modernization.” America, he said, was dedicated to the proposition that “Each nation will be permitted to fashion out of its own culture and ambitions the kind of modern society it wants.” America respects “the uniqueness of each society,” seeks nations which shall “stand up straight … to protect their own independence,” undertake to “protect the independence of she revolutionary process now going forward.” Thomas Jefferson himself could not have better expressed America’s true principles—spoken here by one who consistently advocated their contradiction in practice.
Although the doctrine emphasized political measures, counter-insurgency in practice was military. Since it was not held in great favor by the military establishment, which did not welcome elite commands or intrusions into regular routines and regarded all this emphasis on reforms as getting in the way of its proper task of training men to drill and shoot, counter-insurgency in operation did not live up to the high-minded zeal of the theory. All the talk was of “winning the allegiance” of the people to their government, but a government for which allegiance had to be won by outsiders was not a good gamble.
What, in fact, did the United States and Diem have to offer an apathetic or alienated population? Flood control, rural development, youth groups, slum clearance, improved coastal transport, educational assistance were among the American-sponsored programs, all worthy but not of the essence. To successfully counteract the insurgents, counter-insurgency would have had to redistribute land and property to the peasants, redistribute power from the mandarins and mafias, disband the security forces that were filling Saigon’s prisons—in short, remake the old regime and pledge it to a cause, as Lansdale was to say, “which makes a stronger appeal to the people than the Communist cause.” Diem and his family, especially his younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Mme. Nhu, and their fellows of the governing class had no such intentions, nor indeed did their American sponsors.
The United States was still demanding reform as a quid pro quo of American aid, as if meaningful reform that could “win the allegiance” of the population were something that could be accomplished in a few months. It took some 25 centuries in the West, with a much faster rate of change than in the East, before government began to act in the interest of the needy. The reason why Diem never responded to the American call for reform was because his interest was opposed. He resisted reform for the same reason as the Renaissance popes, because it would diminish his absolute power. American insistence on his need of popular support was mere din in his ears, irrelevant to Asian circumstances. Asia presumes an obligation of citizens to obey their government; Western democracy regards government as representing the citizens. There was no meeting ground nor likely to be one. But because South Vietnam was a barrier to Communism, the United States, impervious to the obvious, persisted in trying to make Diem’s government live up to American expectations. The utility of “perseverance in absurdity,” Edmund Burke once said, “is more than I could ever discern,”
With a crisis erupting over the threatened “loss” of Laos, the Joint Chiefs in May 1961 recommended that if Southeast Asia were to be held from the Communists, sufficient United States forces should be deployed to deter action by North Vietnam and China and to assist training of the South Vietnamese for more active counter-insurgency. At the Pentagon discussions began of “the size and composition which would be desirable in the case of a possible commitment of United States forces to Vietnam.” This was contingency planning, while attention that summer was focused on Laos rather than on Vietnam.
Laos was the mouse that roared. In this landlocked upland country lying lengthwise between Vietnam and Thailand, with a population believed to number hardly more than two million, another Communist specter was abroad. This was the Pathet Lao, the nationalist-Communist Laotian version of the Viet-Minh. Because Laos touched China at its northern border and opened onto Cambodia in the south, it assumed in foreign eyes extraordinary importance as a corridor through which Ho’s and Mao’s Communists would pour, on some awful day of Red advance. Without deeply disturbing the easygoing life of the Laotians, sovereignty swayed among multiple rivals, of whom the leading figures were the legitimate ruler, Prince Souvanna Phouma, a neutralist in cold war politics; his half-brother, another Prince who was leader of the Pathet Lao; and a third claimant, who was the American client and had been in place for a while, installed by CIA manipulations, and had subsequently been ousted.
Because the half-brothers were negotiating a coalition which could have neutralized their country and left the Pathet Lao in control of the mountain passes, Laos suddenly became during the Eisenhower-Dulles period a small oriental Ruritania, “a vital factor in the free world,” a “bulwark against Communism,” “a bastion of freedom.” American money and matériel inundated and bewildered the parties. Briefing Kennedy before his inauguration, Eisenhower promoted the country to primary domino, saying, “If we permitted Laos to fall, then we would have to write off the whole area.” He advised that every effort be made to persuade SEATO members to join in common action, but contemplated “our unilateral intervention” if they did not. Since Laos was rough in terrain and unreachable by Pacific-based sea and air power, clearly no place for effective combat, Eisenhower’s astonishing remark, in contrast to his resistance to active intervention in much more accessible Vietnam, suggests that Laos had some peculiar faculty of bemusing men’s minds.
In one of those minor frenzies that periodically craze international relations, the situation by 1961 had reached a crisis of complex cabals. Coalition in Laos threatened to become a casus belli. The Geneva Accord was invoked by Britain and France and a fourteen-nation conference re-convened at Geneva. In Washington all-day meetings ran late into the night at the White House. Kennedy, still sweating from the Bay of Pigs fiasco only days before, was determined to show that America meant business against Communism and to avert an outcry on the right if coalition should succeed. He authorized movement of the 7th Fleet to the South China Sea, helicopters and combat units to Thailand and alert of forces in Okinawa.
When advised by General Lyman K. Lemnitzer, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that if China and North Vietnam interfered they could be contained by nuclear arms, Kennedy was shocked into a less inflated view of the issue. He decided to accept neutralization and the return of Souvanna Phouma and sent the veteran diplomat Averell Harriman to Geneva to arrange an agreement to that effect. The solution was feasible because it was acceptable to both the Soviets and the United States and because the Laotians preferred to be let alone rather than to fight. While neutralization blocked intervention, it also had a negative effect: by leaving the Pathet Lao in place, it raised doubts in the local SEATO nations of the firmness of America’s commitment against Communism in Asia. Loudly professed, these doubts made a great impression on the next visitor, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson was despatched in May 1961 to Taiwan, South Vietnam and the SEATO neighbors to reassure the region of American support. The Vice-President’s interest in and experience of foreign affairs were minimal. When forced to pay attention as Senator and Majority Leader, he adjusted his attitude to fit conventional cold war orthodoxy. Although foreign affairs were not for him a major concern—Johnson’s major concern was the advancement of his own career—the cold war dogma organized his impressions and reactions. His public pronouncements were addressed to the lowest common denominator of the public, as when in Saigon he announced that Diem was “the Winston Churchill of Asia.” Less fatuous, his report to the President was manfully interventionist. He was ready for the United States to shoulder the burden of responsibility for Asia. “The key to what is done by Asians in defense of Southeast Asia’s freedom,” he wrote, “is confidence in the United States. There is no alternative to United States leadership in SEA. Leadership in individual countries … rests on the knowledge and faith in United States power, will and understanding.” While his words may show a profound ignorance of what leadership rests on in Asia, they perfectly express the sense of omnipotent capacity with which the United States emerged from World War II. We had crushed the war machines of Germany and Japan, crossed oceans to do so, restored Europe, ruled Japan; we were a Paul Bunyan straddling two hemispheres.
“I recommend,” Johnson continued emphatically, “that we move forward promptly with a major effort to help these countries defend themselves.… I cannot stress too strongly the extreme importance of following up this mission with other measures, other actions, other efforts”—presumably military. With realism he was not always to retain, he advised that the decision “must be made in full realization of the very heavy and continuing costs in terms of money, of effort and of United States prestige,” and that “At some point we may be faced with the further decision of whether we commit major United States forces to the area or cut our losses and withdraw should our other efforts fail.”
He warned, “There is no mistaking the deep and long-lasting impact of recent developments in Laos … which have created doubt and concern about the intentions of the United States throughout Southeast Asia.” With no experience of Eastern habits of speech that conceal a kernel of substance—or sometimes no substance—under voluminous wrappings of form, Johnson took all he was told at face value, urging that it was of “the first importance” that his mission “bear fruit immediately.” He proposed that the “real enemies”—hunger, ignorance, poverty and disease—be combatted by “imaginative use of American scientific and technological capacity” and concluded, “The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with the strength and determination to achieve success there—or the United States must inevitably surrender the Pacific”—here he threw away 6000 miles of ocean together with Okinawa, Guam, Midway and Hawaii—“and pull back our defenses to San Francisco.”
It was a mixed bag of characteristic American ideas. The simplistic either/or about defeating Communism or surrendering the Pacific probably did not influence the President, who was out of sympathy with his Vice-President and vice versa. But the doubts of America’s steadfastness that so affected Johnson raised the issue of credibility that was to swell until in the end it seemed to be all we were fighting for.
Credibility emerged in the Berlin crisis of that summer when, after a harsh and intimidating meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, Kennedy said to James Reston, “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.” But Vietnam was never the place, because the American government itself never totally believed in what it was doing. The contrast with Berlin was only too plain. “We cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of Berlin either gradually or by force,” Kennedy said in July, and he was ready in his own mind, according to associates, to risk war, even nuclear war, over the issue. Despite all the protestations of equal firmness, Vietnam never received a comparable status in American policy, while at the same time no American government was ever willing to let it go. It was this split that tortured the whole endeavor, beginning with Kennedy himself.
Berlin provided another lesson in the fact that “the essential point,” in the words of Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, “was that the value to the West of the defenses of Berlin was far greater than the value to the Soviet Union of taking Berlin.” His observation might have suggested that the value to North Vietnam of gaining control of the country for which they had fought so long was far greater to them than the value of frustrating them was to the United States. They were fighting on their own soil, determined to be at last its rulers. Good or bad, unyielding firmness of purpose lay with Hanoi, and because it was unyielding was likely to prevail. Neither Nitze nor anyone else perceived the analogy.
In South Vietnam “The situation gets worse and worse almost week by week,” reminding him of Chungking, the correspondent Theodore White wrote to the White House in August 1961. “The guerrillas now control almost all the southern delta, so much so that I could find no American who would drive me outside Saigon in his car even by day without military convoy.” This matched the “gloomy evaluation” of General Lionel McGarr, now chief of MAAG, who estimated that Diem controlled only 40 percent of South Vietnam and that the insurgents immobilized 85 percent of his military forces.
White’s letter further reported “a political breakdown of formidable proportions,” and his own puzzlement that while “Young fellows of 20–25 are dancing and jitterbugging in Saigon nightclubs,” twenty miles away “The Commies on their side seem to be able to find people willing to die for their cause.” It was a discrepancy that was beginning to bother other observers. In closing, White asked, if we decided to intervene, “Have we the proper personnel, the proper instruments and the proper clarity of objectives to intervene successfully?” “Clarity of objectives” was the crucial question.
Uncertain, Kennedy despatched the first and best known of an endless series of upper-level official missions to assess conditions in Vietnam. Secretary McNamara was later to go no fewer than five times in 24 months, and missions at the secondary level went back and forth to Saigon like bees flying in and out of a hive. With Embassy, MAAG, intelligence and aid agencies already on location and reporting back, Washington’s incessant need of new assessments testifies to the uncertainty in the capital.
The mission of General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow in October 1961 was prompted nominally by Diem’s request for a bilateral defense treaty and the possible introduction of American combat troops to which so far he had been averse. A surge in Viet-Cong attacks and fear of infiltration across the Laos border had raised his alarm. Though ambivalent, Kennedy, seeking credibility in Vietnam, was for the moment in favor of increased effort and wanted affirmation rather than information, as his choice of envoys indicates. Taylor was obviously chosen to make a military estimate. Handsome and suave, with piercing blue eyes, he was admired as a “soldier-statesman” who spoke several languages, could quote Polybius and Thucydides and had written a book, The Uncertain Trumpet. He had commanded the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, served as Superintendent of West Point, as Ridgway’s successor in Korea, as Chief of Staff during the last Dulles years. Out of sympathy with the doctrine of massive retaliation, he retired in 1959 to become president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. This cultivated figure was a natural attraction for Kennedy, but for all his repute as an intellectual general, not a brass hat, his ideas and recommendations tended to be conventional.
His fellow-voyager Walt Rostow (named for Walt Whitman) was a fervent believer in the American capacity to guide and develop the underdeveloped world. A hawk in the cause of halting Communism before the word “hawk” came into use, he had already proposed a plan calling for the introduction of 25,000 American combat troops. As a target selector in the European war, he had emerged as an enthusiast of air power, although post-war surveys on effectiveness of strategic bombing had found the results uncertain. Rostow was a positivist, a Dr. Pangloss who, as described by a fellow-worker, would advise the President on learning of a nuclear attack on Manhattan that the first phase of urban renewal had been accomplished at no cost to the Treasury. When because of left-wing activity during his student days his security clearances were frequently held up, Kennedy complained, “Why are they always picking on Walt as soft-headed? Hell, he’s the biggest Cold Warrior I’ve got.” That he would find reasons for going forward in Vietnam was a foregone conclusion.
Accompanied by officials of State, Defense, Joint Chiefs and the CIA, the mission visited South Vietnam for a week, 18–25 October, and retired to the Philippines to compose its report. This document, together with “Eyes Only” cables from Taylor to the President and annexes and supplements by individual members of the mission, has defied coherent summary ever since. It said something of everything, combined yes and no, pessimism and optimism, and on the whole, with many qualifications, argued that the program to “save South Vietnam” would be made to work only by the infusion of American armed forces to convince both sides of our seriousness. It recommended the immediate deployment of 8000 troops “to halt the downward trend” of the regime and “a massive joint effort to deal with Viet-Cong aggression.” It quite accurately foresaw the consequences: American prestige, already engaged, would become more so; if the ultimate object was to eliminate insurgency in the South, “There is no limit to our possible commitment (unless we attack the source in Hanoi!).” Here, both in statement and in parenthesis, the future military problem was formulated.
The report contained other formulations equally basic if less well judged. Without having viewed the enemy’s terrain or industrial base, Taylor reported that North Vietnam was “extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing.” Rarely has military judgment owed so much to imagination.
In referring to Hanoi’s role as aggressor across an “international boundary,” the report picked up the inventive rhetoric that marked the Vietnam affair throughout its duration. The Geneva Declaration had specifically stated that the partition line was “provisional” and not to be interpreted “as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” Eisenhower had specifically recognized it as that and nothing more. Yet like “vital” national interest, “international boundary” was one of the inventions by policy-makers used to justify the case for intervention, or even to convince themselves that they had a case. Rostow had already used it in his speech at Fort Bragg. Rusk used it three months after Taylor in a public address in which he went further than anyone to speak of “external aggression” across “international boundaries.” By repeated usage, the transformation of partition line into international boundary became the norm.
In describing South Vietnam’s military performance as “disappointing,” and making the routine acknowledgment that “Only the Vietnamese can defeat the Viet-Cong,” Taylor stated his belief that Americans “as friends and partners can show them how the job might be done.” This was the elemental delusion that underwrote the whole endeavor.
The pattern that military intervention was bound to follow was thus laid out by the chosen adviser. No one advised against it, as Ridgway unequivocally had in the past. State Department members of the mission in their annexes described the situation as “deteriorating” with increasing Viet-Cong successes, and pointed out that the Communist effort started at the lowest social level, in the villages. That was where “The battle must be lost and won”; the fact that foreign troops, though they could assist, could not win that battle should rule out “any full United States commitment to eliminate the Viet-Cong threat.” Nevertheless, the author of this report, Sterling Cottrell, chairman of the inter-departmental Vietnam Task Force, fully supported the Taylor-Rostow forward march. Rather than admit the inference that is knocking at the gate, a second-level official will generally prefer to associate himself with superior opinion.
Secretary Rusk too, despite his total commitment to stopping Communism, felt it was inadvisable to commit American prestige too deeply for the sake of what he called “a losing horse.” This flaw in the client bothered him, for on another occasion, testifying in camera before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he brooded aloud about consistently finding the United States tied to weak allies of the old regime and the need to determine in what circumstances “can you or should you invest in a regime when you know in your heart that that regime is not viable.” American foreign policy was never asked a more significant question and it was left, as might be expected, unanswered.
Departmental reactions to Taylor’s report, starting with McNamara’s, were muddled. Training and mental habits had formed in McNamara a man of the implicit belief that, given the necessary material resources and equipment and the correct statistical analysis of relative factors, the job—any job—could be accomplished. In response, he and the Joint Chiefs made a fundamental point in stating that military intervention required a clear commitment to an objective, in this case, preventing the fall of South Vietnam to Communism. They estimated that the necessary forces, taking into consideration possible Soviet and Chinese reactions, would reach a probable limit of six divisions, or 205,000 men, who should be reinforced by a warning to Hanoi that continued support of Viet-Cong insurgency in the South “will lead to punitive retaliation against North Vietnam.”
Kennedy was wary of the military option, and may have orally asked for modified advice. Obligingly, McNamara had second thoughts and, jointly with Rusk, forwarded a second memorandum suggesting that for the time being the deployment of combat forces could be deferred but should be prepared for introduction at any time. Warning both ways, the two Secretaries, who did not think alike, said that without a strong effort by South Vietnam, “United States forces could not accomplish their mission in the midst of an apathetic or hostile population.” On the other hand, the fall of South Vietnam would “undermine the credibility of American commitments elsewhere” and “stimulate domestic controversies.” Offering a little bit of everything, and avoiding a strong yes or no, this suited Kennedy’s uncertainty. Doubting the efficacy of “a white man’s war,” and warned by Taylor of the inevitable pressure to reinforce, he did not want his Administration to be saddled by this distant and unpromising entanglement. Yet the alternative of disengagement was always seen to be worse—loss of faith in the American shield abroad and accusations at home of weakness and infirmity against Communism.
Kennedy’s instinct was caution, subject to ambivalence. At first he accepted deferral of a combat force, carefully avoiding an explicit negative which might open the gates of wrath on the right. He informed Diem that additional advisory and technical troops would be sent in the hope that they would “galvanize and supplement” Vietnamese effort, for which “no amount of extra aid can substitute.” The option of combat troops was being held in abeyance. In the regular reference to political and administrative reforms, the President asked for a “concrete demonstration” of progress, and added a reminder that advisory duties were more suitable for “white foreign troops than … missions involving the seeking out of Viet-Cong personnel submerged in the Vietnamese population”—which was true but disingenuous, since this was what the Special Forces in counter-insurgency were supposed to do. In language that was vague but not vague enough, Kennedy boxed himself in by assuring Diem that “We are prepared to help the Republic of Vietnam to protect its people and preserve its independence.” In effect, he held to the objective while taking no action.
Diem reacted badly and “seemed to wonder,” according to the American Ambassador, “whether the United States was getting ready to back out on Vietnam as, he suggested, we had done in Laos.” Credibility had to be maintained and deterioration halted. Without any clear-cut decision or plan of mission, the troops began to go. United States instruction teams required combat support units, air reconnaissance required fighter escorts and helicopter teams, counter-insurgency required 600 Green Berets to train the Vietnamese in operations against the Viet-Cong. Equipment kept pace—assault craft and naval patrol boats, armored personnel carriers, short-take-off and transport planes, trucks, radar installations, Quonset huts, airfields. Employed in support of ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) combat operations, all these required manning by United States personnel, who willy-nilly entered a shooting war. When Special Forces units directed ARVN units against the guerrillas and met fire, they returned it. Helicopter gunships, when fired on, did the same.
Increased activity required more than a training command. In February 1962 a full field command under the acronym MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) superseded MAAG with a three-star general, Paul D. Harkins, former Chief of Staff to Maxwell Taylor in Korea, in command. If a date is needed for the beginning of the American war in Vietnam, the establishment of Mac-Vee, as it became known, will serve.
By mid-1962 American forces in Vietnam numbered 8000, by the end of the year over 11,000, ten months later, 17,000. United States soldiers served alongside ARVN units at every level from battalion to division and general staff. They planned operations and accompanied Vietnamese units into the field from six to eight weeks at a time. They airlifted troops and supplies, built jungle airstrips, flew helicopter rescue and medical evacuation teams, trained Vietnamese pilots, coordinated artillery fire and air support, introduced defoliation flights north of Saigon. They also took casualties: 14 killed or wounded in 1961, 109 in 1962, 489 in 1963.
This was war by the Executive, without Congressional authorization, and in the face of evasions or denials by the President, war virtually without public knowledge, though not without notice. Accused by the Republican National Committee of being “less than candid with the American people” about the involvement in Vietnam, and asked if it were not time to “drop the pretense” about “advisers,” Kennedy, evidently stung, replied at a news conference in February 1962, “We have not sent combat troops there—in the generally understood sense of the word. We have increased our training mission and our logistics support …” and this was “as frank as he could be” consistent with that unfailing refuge, “our security needs in the area.” It did not satisfy. “The United States is now involved in an undeclared war in South Vietnam,” wrote James Reston on the same day. “This is well known to the Russians, the Chinese Communists and everyone else concerned except the American people.”
The American infusion succeeded for a while in strengthening the Vietnamese effort. Operations began going well. The “strategic hamlet” program, most acclaimed and favored project of the year, sponsored by Diem’s brother Nhu and highly regarded by the Americans, succeeded in actually turning back the Viet-Cong in many places, if it did not endear the Diem government to the rural population. Designed to isolate the guerrillas from the people, depriving them of food and recruits, the program forcibly relocated villagers from their own communities to fortified “agrovilles” of approximately 300 families, often with little but the clothes on their backs, while their former villages were burned behind them to deprive the Viet-Cong of shelter. Besides ignoring the peasant’s attachment to his ancestral land and his reluctance to leave it for any reason, the program levied forced labor to construct the “agrovilles.” With elaborate effort invested in and hopes attached to them, the “strategic hamlets” cost as much in alienation as they gained in security.
With ARVN under American tutelage, increasing its missions, with the Viet-Cong defection rate rising and many of its bases abandoned, confidence recovered. Nineteen sixty-two was Saigon’s year, unsuspected to be its last. American optimism swelled. Army and Embassy spokesmen issued positive pronouncements. The war was said to be “turning the corner.” The body count of VC against ARVN was estimated at five to three. General Harkins was consistently bullish. Secretary McNamara, on an inspection trip in July, declared characteristically, “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning this war.” At a military conference at CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific) headquarters in Honolulu on his way home, he initiated planning for a gradual phase-out of United States military involvement in 1965.
At the ground level, colonels and non-coms and press reporters were more doubtful. The most cogent doubter was J. K. Galbraith, who, on his way to India as Ambassador at the time of the Taylor report in November 1961, was asked by Kennedy to stop off at Saigon for yet another assessment. Galbraith received the impression that Kennedy wanted a negative one, and gave it unsparingly. The situation was “certainly a can of snakes.” Diem’s battalions were “unmotivated malingerers.” Provincial army chiefs combined military command with local government and political graft; intelligence on insurgent operations was “non-existent.” The political reality was “total stasis” arising from Diem’s greater need to protect himself from a coup than to protect the country from the Viet-Cong. The ineffectuality and unpopularity of his government conditioned the effectiveness of American aid. When Diem drove through Saigon, his movement, reminiscent of the Japanese Emperor’s, “requires the taking in of all laundry along the route, the closing of all windows, an order to the populace to keep their heads in, the clearing of all streets, and a vast bevy of motorcycle outriders to protect him on his dash.” The effort to bargain for reform with promises of aid was useless because Diem “will not reform either administratively or politically in any effective way. That is because he cannot. It is politically naive to expect it. He senses that he cannot let power go because he would be thrown out.”
Galbraith advised resisting any pressure for introducing American troops because “Our soldiers would not deal with the vital weakness.” He had as yet no solution to “the box we are now in,” except to dispute the argument that there was no alternative to Diem. He thought a change and a new start were essential, and though no one could promise a safe transition, “We are now married to failure.”
Again in March 1962 he wrote to urge that the United States should keep the door wide open for any kind of political settlement with Hanoi and “jump at the chance” if any appeared. He believed Jawaharlal Nehru would help and the Russians could be approached by Harriman to find out if Hanoi would call off the Viet-Cong in return for American withdrawal and an agreement to talk about ultimate unification. Returning home in April, he proposed to Kennedy an internationally negotiated settlement for a non-aligned government on the Laos model. By continuing to support an ineffectual government, he predicted, “We shall replace the French as the colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.” In the meantime all steps to commit American soldiers to combat should be resisted, and it would be well to disassociate ourselves from such unpopular actions as defoliation and the “strategic hamlets.”
Galbraith’s proposal, put in writing, was squelched by the Joint Chiefs, who saw it as an effort to disengage from “what is now a well-known commitment to take a forthright stand against Communism in Southeast Asia.” They cited in evidence the President’s ill-advised promise to Diem to preserve the Republic’s independence. They advocated no change in American policy, but rather that it be “pursued vigorously to a successful conclusion.” This was the general consensus; Kennedy did not contest it; Galbraith’s suggestion died.
A successful conclusion was already fading. Discontent was rising around Diem like mist from a marsh. Peasants were further alienated by Saigon’s full-time draft for military service in place of the traditional six months’ service each year allowing a man to return to his home for labor in his fields. In February 1962 two dissident air force officers bombed and strafed the Presidential Palace in a vain attempt to assassinate Diem. American reporters were probing the chinks and finding the short-falls and falsehoods in the compulsive optimism of official briefings. In increasing frustration, they wrote increasingly scornful reports. As one of them wrote long afterward, “Much of what the newsmen took to be lies was exactly what the Mission genuinely believed and was reporting back to Washington,” on the basis of what it was told by Diem’s commanders. Since American intelligence agents swarmed through the country, taking Diem’s commanders on faith was hardly an excuse, but having committed American policy to Diem, as once to Chiang Kai-shek, officials felt the same reluctance to admit his inadequacy.
The result was a press war: the angrier the newsmen became, the more “undesirable stories” they wrote. The government sent Robert Manning, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, to Saigon for an on-the-spot survey of the situation. In a candid memorandum prepared upon his return, Manning reported that one cause of the press war was that government policy had been to “see the American involvement in Vietnam minimized, even represented as something less than in reality it is,” and he urged a reversal of that policy. Although the public paid little attention, a few became aware that something was going wrong in this far-off endeavor. Dissent began to sprout here and there, small, scattered and of no great significance. The public as a whole knew vaguely that Communism was being combatted somewhere in Asia and in general approved of the effort. Vietnam was a distant unvisualized place, no more than a name in the newspapers.
One individual critic, the strongest in knowledge and status, was Senator Mike Mansfield, now Majority Leader and the Senator most deeply concerned with Asia. He felt that the United States, drawing upon old missionary tradition, was obsessed by a zeal to improve Asia, re-animated by the anti-Communist crusade, and that the effort would be the undoing of both America and Asia. On returning in December 1962 from an inspection tour made at the President’s request, his first visit since 1955, he told the Senate that “Seven years and $2 billion of United States aid later … South Vietnam appears less not more stable than it was at the outset.” He aimed a slap at the optimists and another at the strategic hamlets, in regard to which “The practices of the Central Government to date are not reassuring.”
To Kennedy in person he was more outspoken, saying that the infusion of American troops would come to dominate a civil war that was not our affair. Taking it over would “hurt American prestige in Asia and would not help the South Vietnamese to stand on their own feet either.” Growing more disturbed and red in the face as Mansfield talked, Kennedy snapped. “Do you expect me to take this at face value?” Like all rulers, he wanted to be confirmed in his policy and was angry at Mansfield, as he confessed to an aide later, for disagreeing so completely, “and angry at myself because I found myself agreeing with him.”
Nothing changed. The President sent other investigators, Roger Hilsman, head of State Department Intelligence, and Michael Forrestal of Bundy’s staff, a team closer to the Mansfield than to the Taylor-Rostow view. They reported that the war would last longer, cost more in money and lives than anticipated, and that “The negative side of the ledger is still awesome,” but as office holders without Mansfield’s independent base, they did not dispute the prevailing policy.
Buried in Hilsman’s intensively detailed report were many specific negatives, but no moves were made to adjust to the information the investigators brought back. Adjustment is painful. For the ruler it is easier, once he has entered a policy box, to stay inside. For the lesser official it is better, for the sake of his position, not to make waves, not to press evidence that the chief will find painful to accept. Psychologists call the process of screening out discordant information “cognitive dissonance,” an academic disguise for “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Cognitive dissonance is the tendency “to suppress, gloss over, water down or ‘waffle’ issues which would produce conflict or ‘psychological pain’ within an organization.” It causes alternatives to be “deselected since even thinking about them entails conflicts.” In the relations of subordinate to superior within the government, its object is the development of policies that upset no one. It assists the ruler in wishful thinking, defined as “an unconscious alteration in the estimate of probabilities.”
Kennedy was no wooden-head; he was aware of the negatives and bothered by them, but he made no adjustment, nor did any of his chief advisers suggest making one. No one in the Executive branch advocated withdrawal, partly in fear of encouragement to Communism and damage to American prestige, partly in fear of domestic reprisals. And for another reason, the most enduring in the history of folly: personal advantage, in this case a second term. Kennedy was smart enough to read signs of failure, to sense in Vietnam an ongoing disaster. He was annoyed by it, angered to be trapped in it, anxious that his second term not be spoiled by it. He would have liked to win, or to find a reasonable facsimile of winning, to cut losses and get out.
The trend of his thinking emerged at a Congressional breakfast in the White House in March 1963 when Mansfield renewed his arguments. Drawing him aside, the President said, perhaps because he knew it was what the influential Senator wanted to hear, that he was beginning to agree about a complete military withdrawal. “But I can’t do it until 1965—until after I’m re-elected.” To do it before would cause “a wild conservative outcry” against him. To his aide Kenneth O’Donnell, Kennedy repeated, “If I tried to pull out completely now, we could have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands”; only after re-election, and he added sharply, “So we’d better make damn sure I am re-elected.” To other friends he implied his doubts, but argued that he could not give up Vietnam to the Communists and ask American voters to re-elect him.
His position was realistic, if not a profile in courage. Re-election was more than a year and a half away. To continue for that time to invest American resources and inevitably lives in a cause in which he no longer had much faith, rather than risk his own second term, was a decision in his own interest, not the country’s. Only an exceedingly rare ruler reverses that order.
• • •
In the interval, the supreme confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis had been skillfully mastered, and its setback for Khrushchev and successful outcome for the United States had invigorated the Administration’s confidence and prestige. One reason the Soviets had backed away offered the same lesson as Berlin—placing the missiles in Cuba was a daring gamble, not a vital interest for the USSR, whereas preventing missile sites so near our shores was a vital interest of the United States. On the basis of the law of vital interest, it was predictable that the United States would ultimately back down in Vietnam and the North prevail.
With the blow to Communism in Cuba and enhanced American prestige, it would have been a moment to disengage from Vietnam with every hope of overriding a domestic uproar. But this was the time of official optimism, with no current running for withdrawal. Kennedy did, at about this time, instruct Michael Forrestal to think about preparing a plan for post-election withdrawal, saying it would take a year to prepare acceptance by Congress and by the allies in Asia and Europe. Nothing came of this, but when asked privately how he would manage withdrawal without damage to American prestige, he replied, “Easy; put a government in there that would ask us to leave.” Publicly he was saying that for the United States to withdraw “would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay.” He was thinking both ways and was never to resolve the duality.
A constant factor in the policy process was fear of what China might do. The Sino-Soviet split was by now apparent, and as the Russian threat seemed to shrink in a period of détente, the Chinese, behind the curtain of severed relations, loomed more menacing than before. The impression of Korea had not faded; the bellicose show over Quemoy-Matsu, the annexation of Tibet, the border war with India taken together made a picture of infinite mischief. When asked in a television interview if he had any reason to doubt the validity of the domino theory, Kennedy said, “No, I believe it, I believe it.… China looms so high just beyond the frontiers that if South Vietnam went, it would not only give them an improved position for guerrilla assault on Malaysia, but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists.”
In fact, if Americans could have seen the value of accepting a strongly nationalist North Vietnam, Communist or not, a vigorous, independent, intensely anti-Chinese nation would have been a far better barrier against the feared Chinese expansion than a divided warring country offering every opportunity for interference from across the border. This did not occur to the best and the brightest. China, in any event, was then struggling in the economic ditch into which the Great Leap Forward had landed her, and in no shape for foreign adventure. “Know your enemy” is the most important precept in any adversary relationship, but it is the peculiar habit of Americans, when dealing with the Red menace, to sever relations and deal from ignorance.
The military establishment, fulfilling McNamara’s order at Honolulu, was now busy in drawing up a comprehensive plan, absorbing miles of memoranda and months of paper work, for withdrawal of a not very imposing total of 1000 men by the end of 1963 and the build-up and financing of ARVN to the point where in training and numbers it could be expected to take over the war. While MACV and CINCPAC and Defense Department were up to their knees in figures and acronyms and exchange of documents, progress soured in South Vietnam and brought on the crisis that ended in Diem’s fall and death, dragging behind it the moral responsibility of the United States.
Diem’s mandate to govern, never thoroughly accepted by the mixture of sects, religions and classes, was finally shattered by the Buddhist revolt in the summer of 1963. Long resentment of the favored treatment of Catholics practiced by the French and continued by Diem fired the Buddhist cause and gave it a native appeal. In May, when Saigon prohibited celebrations of Buddha’s birthday, riots followed and government troops fired on the demonstrators, killing several. Renewed riots and martial law were given a terrible notoriety by the desperate act of self-immolation by a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in a public square of Saigon. The protest spread, gathering in all opponents of the regime: anti-Catholics, anti-Westerners, dissidents of the lower and middle classes. Repression and violence rose, known to be guided by Diem’s brother Nhu and culminating in a raid on the main Buddhist pagoda and the arrest of hundreds of monks. The Foreign Minister and the Ambassador to the United States resigned in protest; Diem’s government began to crack.
American intelligence, which seems not to train its sights on popular feeling, had not foreseen the revolt. Two weeks before the outbreak, Secretary Rusk, deceived by the barrage of optimism from MACV, was led to speak of the “steady movement” in South Vietnam “toward a constitutional system resting on popular consent” and the evidence of rising morale indicating that the people were “on their way to success.”
In the army too Diem had enemies. A generals’ coup was simmering. War effort had dwindled as the government struggled against plots and conspiracies. Nhu and the sinister Mme. Nhu began to appear in intelligence reports as communicating with the enemy, with the suspected object of reaching a “neutralist” settlement through French intermediaries for the advancement of their own fortunes. All America’s investment seemed in jeopardy. Was this the preferred protégé for nation-building, the reliable candidate to bar the way to the implacably motivated North?
Discussions in Washington about what to do were heated, the more so as the government, in fact, did not know what course to take. Was there an alternative to Diem? If he remained, could the insurgency ever be defeated under his government? Argument concentrated on the pros and cons of Diem and how to get rid of the Nhus, not on any reconsideration of what America was doing in this galère. Less because of their oppression of the Buddhists than because of their neutralist overtures, the Nhus had to be eliminated. The hope was to force Diem to that point by judicious cut-off of aid, but Diem, confident of the American commitment against the Communists, was impervious to these threats. They were made rather nervously in anxiety at the State Department that Diem might see in them a sign that action against him and the Nhus was imminent and “take some quite fantastic action such as calling on North Vietnam for assistance in expelling the Americans.” This interesting notion suggests a certain frailty in Washington’s own sense of its role in Vietnam.
Gradually policy-makers reached the conclusion, not that South Vietnam as a barrier to Communism was a losing proposition, but that Diem was and would have to go, with the help of the United States. In short, Washington should support the plotted military coup. It was an assumption of the right—or, if not the right, the pragmatic imperative—to protect investment in a client company under failing management.
A classic covert CIA agent, Colonel Lou Conein, opened liaison with the plotting generals, and the new Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, vigorously took charge, completely convinced of the need to end American partnership with “this repressive regime with its bayonets at every corner.” Responding to his advice, Washington instructed him that if Diem did not get rid of the Nhus, “We are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem,” and empowered him to tell “appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown central government mechanism.” In the yes-no style of government instructions, Lodge was told by the White House that “no initiative” should be taken for “active covert encouragement to a coup,” but on the other hand “urgent covert effort” should be made to “build contacts with possible alternative leadership”—which should of course be “totally secure and fully deniable.”
As the recent Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Lodge had been appointed to the Embassy not only for his political ability and fluency in French, but as a means of involving his party in the Vietnamese entanglement. No pushover, he took care to put the Kennedy government on record so that it could not later repudiate him. “We are launched,” he wired, “on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government.” He informed State that Colonel Conein had made the desired contact with the coup leader, General “Big” Minh, who had outlined three possible plans of action of which the first was the “assassination” of the Nhus while keeping Diem in office; “this was the easiest plan to accomplish.”
In the ongoing conferences in Washington, a larger issue than the fate of Diem and the Nhus occasionally raised its head, as when Robert Kennedy said the primary question was “whether the Communist takeover could be successfully resisted by any government. If it could not, now was the time to get out of Vietnam entirely, rather than waiting.” If it could be resisted under a different government, then we should go ahead with plans for a change, but he felt that basic question “had not been answered.”
Some tried to answer. Field officers who had accompanied ARVN units into combat, and learned in bitterness that American training and weapons could not supply the will to fight, did their best to circumvent General Harkins’ suppression of negative reports and gave their accounts of sorry performance at debriefings in the Pentagon. One in particular, the battle at Ap Bac in January 1963 involving an ARVN battalion of 2000 equipped with artillery and armored personnel carriers, had been expected to demonstrate triumphantly the newly acquired fire power and aggressiveness. Caught under the sudden fire of 200 Viet-Cong guerrillas, the ARVN troops cowered behind grounded helicopters, refused to stand up to shoot, refused orders to counter-attack. The Province Chief commanding a Civil Guard unit refused to permit his troops to engage. In the slaughter three American advisory officers were killed. Ap Bac bared the failings of ARVN, the inutility of the American program and the hollowness of Headquarters optimism, although no one was allowed to say so. Colonel John Vann, the senior American at Ap Bac, was back at the Pentagon in the summer of 1963 trying to inform the General Staff. As Maxwell Taylor was the particular patron of General Harkins and upheld his view, Vann’s message could make no headway. A Defense Department spokesman announced that “The corner has definitely been turned toward victory,” and CINCPAC foresaw the “inevitable” defeat of the Viet-Cong.
Foreign aid officers, too, voiced discouragement. Rufus Phillips, director of rural programs, reported the strategic hamlet program in “shambles,” and made the point that the war was not primarily military but a political conflict for the allegiance of the people, and that the Diem regime was losing it. John Macklin, director of the United States Information Service, who had taken leave of absence in 1962 as Time correspondent to try to help turn the Vietnamese people against the Viet-Cong, resigned after 21 months with his assignment ending “in despair.” The chief of the interdepartmental Working Group on Vietnam, Paul Kattenburg of State, startled a conference with Rusk, McNamara, Taylor, Bundy, Vice-President Johnson and others present by his recommendation that, given the certainty that Diem would not separate from his brother and would get less and less support from the people and go “steadily down hill,” it would be better for the United States to decide to get out now. No one present agreed, and the suggestion was firmly quelled by Rusk, who said that policy should proceed on the assumption that “We will not pull out until the war is won.” Subsequently, Kattenburg was eased out of the Working Group and transferred to another post, predicting as he left that the war could draw in 500,000 Americans and extend into a five- to ten-year conflict.
A Delphic voice spoke out at this moment: Charles de Gaulle proposed a neutralist solution. In one of his shrouded statements, delivered at a French Cabinet meeting but given an unusual authorization for publication verbatim, clearly intended for overseas ears, de Gaulle expressed the hope that the Vietnamese people would make a “national effort” to attain unity and “independence from exterior influences.” In spectral phrases about French concern for Vietnam, he said every effort made toward this end would find France ready to cooperate. His demarche was taken by diplomats, poring over his language, to mean a “neutralized” solution on the pattern of Laos, independent of both Communist China and the United States. “Authoritative sources” indicated that the North Vietnamese had been showing themselves receptive and that French officials had been passing on feelers from Hanoi in other capitals.
This could have been the opening to “jump at the chance” of a possible negotiated settlement, as Galbraith had once advised. De Gaulle was offering an out if Washington had been wise enough to want one. “Wide annoyance,” however, was reported in the American government, a frequent reaction to de Gaulle’s pomposities. Yet, given political disintegration and military inadequacy and lack of any real progress in South Vietnam, and the hints from Hanoi, the American government could have used the opportunity of Diem’s coming collapse and de Gaulle’s implied good offices to say it had done all it could by way of support; it could not do more; the rest was up to the Vietnamese people to settle for themselves. This would have meant sooner or later a Communist take-over. With the future not foreseen, and with the confidence of 1963 in American power, that outcome was still unacceptable.
Matters proceeded on the chosen course toward coup d’état. That it violated a basic principle of foreign relations did not bother the realists of the Kennedy school. That it made nonsense of the reiterated American insistence that Vietnam’s conflict was “their” war does not seem to have been considered. “Their” war was a ceaseless refrain; Dulles said it, Eisenhower said it, Rusk said it, Maxwell Taylor said it, all the Ambassadors said it, Kennedy himself said it many times: “In the final analysis it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.” If it was their war, it was also their government and their politics. For the defenders of democracy to conspire with plotters of a coup d’état, no matter how cogent the reasons, could not be hailed in the history books as the American way. It was a step in the folly of self-betrayal.
Troubled by his role and the smell of the swamp he was getting into, Kennedy resorted to another fact-finding mission, the now traditional Washington substitute for policy. A rapid but intensive four-day tour was made by General Victor Krulak, special adviser to Maxwell Taylor, who was now Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Joseph Mendenhall of State, an old Vietnam hand with a large acquaintance among Vietnamese civilians. Their reports to the White House on return, one hearty and promising from military sources, the other caustic and gloomy, were so at variance as to evoke the President’s puzzled query “You two did visit the same country, didn’t you?” On their heels followed another mission at the highest level, General Taylor himself and Secretary McNamara with the assignment to find out how far the political chaos had affected the military effort. Their report on 2 October, while positive on military prospects, was full of political negatives that belied their hopes. All contradictions were muffled by McNamara’s public announcement, with the President’s approval, that 1000 men could be withdrawn by the end of the year and that “The major part of the United States military task can be completed by the end of 1965.” The confusion and contradiction in fact-finding did nothing to clarify policy.
On 1 November the generals’ coup took place successfully. It included, to the appalled discomfort of the Americans, the unexpected assassinations of Diem and Nhu. Less than a month later, President Kennedy too was in his grave.