THE 1961 DECISION TO STAND FIRM IN VIETNAM
By 1961, after years of U.S. support for existing governments in Vietnam and Laos, the Communists appeared to be making greater inroads in those countries, and it seemed clear to U.S. policymakers that further action needed to be taken to protect American interests in Southeast Asia.1 In Vietnam, the government of Ngo Dinh Diem was becoming increasingly unpopular, while being faced with more intense military and political pressures from the Communists. In November 1960, the Communists, together with some of the non-Communists who opposed the Diem government, organized a new political action group, the National Liberation Front, as a part of the growing movement to bring about changes in the government. In November 1960, there was also an abortive military coup against Diem as dissatisfaction spread. In late 1960, U.S. officials proposed a new counterinsurgency plan for South Vietnam which called for more U.S. aid, as well as more Vietnamese self-help.
In Laos, the rightist government supported by the U.S. faced a serious threat
from the Communists by the end of 1960, and appeared to be failing rapidly.
Events in other parts of the world also affected U.S. attitudes toward the situation in Southeast Asia, and had a direct bearing on America's involvement in Vietnam.
The relationship of the United States and the People's Republic of China continued to be hostile. In 1954-55, the Chinese had attacked the Pescadores islands off the China coast which were occupied, as was the island of Formosa, by National Chinese forces who had fled the mainland when it was overrun by the Communists in 1949. The United States responded by increasing its military aid to the Nationalists and by threatening to intervene directly in the conflict. In 1955, Congress passed the Fomosa Resolution, the first of five such resolutions between 1955 and 1965, giving the President advance approval for the use of the armed forces in the area "as he deems necessary." (The other resolutions were the Middle East Resolution in 1957, the Cuba Resolution in 1962, the Berlin Resolution in 1962, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.) Faced with the threat of U.S. action, especially the possibility of air attacks which might have involved atomic bombs, the Chinese pulled back and the situation became less critical. A similar series of events occurred in 1958, and once again the threat of direct U.S.military action appeared to have successfully deterred the Chinese. Although there was no further repetition of these attacks, the relationship between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China did not improve noticeably after the 1958 incidents, and by 1961, China, together with the Soviet Union, the "Sino-Soviet Bloc" as it was called, was still viewed as the major threat to the security of Southeast Asia.
Competition and conflict between the U.S. and Russia, which had eased somewhat during the middle 1950s, increased in the late 1950s. In 1958-1959, after nine years of relative quiet, the Russians resumed their pressure on the U.S. in Berlin. Tension eased again later in 1959 after President Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to revive the spirit of détente which had existed earlier. He invited Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev to come to the United States, and this, together with a meeting of the two leaders during that visit, led to renewed hope for greater cooperation. In the spring of 1960, they met again in Paris for a "summit conference" to discuss outstanding issues, but as the meeting was about to begin, an American intelligence aircraft was brought down in the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev denounced the U.S. and left the meeting.
The Eisenhower administration also suffered a setback m its efforts to prevent the Communists from gaining power in countries like Vietnam and Laos which were faced with political insurgencies. Having successfully used American power to prevent this from happening in those two countries, as well as in Iran and Guatemala, the administration was confronted with a new threat to American security when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959 and the new government soon established close ties with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. This resulted in the decision by Eisenhower in March of 1960 to approve a CIA plan for training Cuban refugees for a possible anti-Communist insurgency operation in Cuba.
Meanwhile, developments in the Russian missile program were posing what many American leaders regarded as a basic challenge to U.S. security. In August 1957, the Russians had successfully fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, and in October and November they launched the world's first earth satellites. The Eisenhower administration reacted by accelerating the U.S. missile and space programs, but there was widespread concern that the U.S. was falling behind technologically, and that the Russians were in a position to gain strategic military superiority over the United States by the early 1960s. Despite the successful launching of a U.S. space satellite in January 1958, and rapid development of the U.S. missile program during 1958, there was increased criticism of alleged weaknesses in the U.S. defense posture.
In November 1957, after the announcement of the first Russian satellite, a committee which had been appointed to advise the White House on defense needs, the Gaither committee, whose chairman was H. Rowan Gaither, chairman of the board of the Ford Foundation, recommended a large increase in defense spending to prevent the Russians from becoming strategically superior. One of its recommendations was that the U.S. should develop greater capability to fight limited wars, the logic being that such limited conflicts were more apt to occur because of the destructiveness of a general nuclear war.
The major recommendations of the Gaither committee were rejected by President Eisenhower for what, in retrospect, would seem to have been substantially valid reasons, but they were supported by many prominent Americans, including a number of leading Democrats, and the "missile gap" became one of the principal themes in the 1960 Presidential campaign of Senator John F. Kennedy (D/Mass.).2
The need for improving limited warfare capability also became a major theme in the late 1950s among some military leaders, academic theorists and politicians, including Senator Kennedy. Army Generals Maxwell D. Taylor, Matthew B. Ridgway, and James M. Gavin argued that rather than relying on strategic airpower and the ultimate use of atomic bombs, the U.S. needed a "flexible response," in Taylor's words, to situations involving the possible use of force, especially in a non-nuclear limited war.3
The Kennedy Administration and the Defense of Southeast Asia
In November 1960, John F. Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the Presidency, thus ending eight years of Republican control of the White House and setting the stage for changes in response to these trends in the world situation and in U.S. foreign and defense policy.
In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, Kennedy set an expansive, militant tone for his administration:4
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
"In the long history of the world," Kennedy added, "only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it."
He also promised to continue assisting countries in the third world, especially those, like Vietnam, threatened by the Communists: "To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall nothave passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny." U.S. assistance to those trying to "help themselves," he said, would continue "for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right."
This statement of intent, together with Kennedy's own beliefs, and those of his top associates, about the importance of defending Southeast Asia, and of making American power credible throughout the world, had a direct and, as it turned out, critical bearing on the Kennedy administration's decision to reaffirm and to expand the U.S. commitment. (When Kennedy became President there were approximately 750 U.S. military advisers in Vietnam. At the time of his assassination in late 1963 there were almost 20,000, many of whom were actively engaged in combat despite their formal, legally-prescribed noncombatant status.) He believed, as had Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S Truman before him, in containment, and in the policy of providing assistance to countries threatened by the Communists.5 He also believed in the efficacy of American action, and his activist political style, among other things, caused him to engage in an activist foreign policy involving increased intervention in situations in which the use of American power was considered desirable. Thus, as one historian aptly says, "Kennedy did not represent a sharp break with the past or a uniqueness in the fundamental tenets of American foreign policy. Yet the different methods he chose to use, the personal elements he applied to diplomacy, did matter in heating up the Cold War, threatening nuclear war, and implanting the United States in the Third World as never before."6
With respect to Southeast Asia, and Vietnam in particular, President Kennedy had long taken the position that the U.S. should help to defend that area against the Communists, both for the sake of the countries themselves, and in order to protect vital U.S. interests in the region.7 As a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he visited Vietnam in 1951, denounced French colonialism, and declared, "There is no broad, general support of the native Vietnam Government among the people of that area. To check the southern drive of communism makes sense but not only through reliance on the force of arms. The task is rather to build strong native non-Communist sentiment within these areas and rely on them as a spearhead of defense. . . . To do this apart from and in defiance of innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure."
In 1954-55, Kennedy strongly supported the U.S. choice of Ngo Dinh Diem for premier of South Vietnam after the country was divided at the Geneva Conference of 1954, and opposed the plan for nation-wide elections in Vietnam in 1956 as stipulated by the Geneva Declaration.
In 1955, Kennedy joined the newly-organized American Friends of Vietnam, and was its keynote speaker at a symposium on Vietnam in June 1956. His statement on that occasion was the most definitive explanation given during his service in the Senate, as well as during his Presidency, of his position on "America's Stake in Vietnam," the title of the speech. These were his major points:
(1) First, Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam.
(2) Secondly, Vietnam represents a proving ground of democracy in Asia. However we may choose to ignore it or deprecate it, the rising prestige and influence of Communist China in Asia are unchallengeable facts. Vietnam represents the alternative to Communist dictatorship. If this democratic experiment fails, if some one million refugees have fled the totalitarianism of the North only to find neither freedom nor security in the South, then weakness, not strength, will characterize the meaning of democracy in the minds of still more Asians. The United States is directly responsible for this experiment- it is playing an important role in the laboratory where it is being conducted. We cannot afford to permit that experiment to fail.
(3) Third and in somewhat similar fashion, Vietnam represents a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia. If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents. We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we have helped to shape its future. As French influence in the political, economic and military spheres has declined in Vietnam, American influence has steadily grown. This is our offspring-we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence--Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest--then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible; and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.
(4) Fourth, and finally, America's stake in Vietnam, in her strength and in her security, is a very selfish one-for it can be measured, in the last analysis, in terms of American lives and American dollars. It is now well known that we were at one time on the brink of war in Indo-China-a war which could well have been more costly, more exhausting and less conclusive than any war we have ever known. The threat of such war is not now altogether removed from the horizon. Military weakness, political instability or economic failure in the new state of Vietnam could change almost overnight the apparent security which has increasingly characterized that area under the leadership of President Diem. And the key position of Vietnam in Southeast Asia, as already discussed, makes inevitablethe involvement of this nation's security in any new outbreak of trouble.
...We should not attempt to buy the friendship of the Vietnamese. Nor can we win their hearts by making them dependent upon our handouts. What we must offer them is a revolution-a political, economic and social revolution far superior to anything the Communists can offer-far more peaceful, far more democratic and far more locally controlled. Such a revolution will require much from the United States and much from Vietnam. We must supply capital to replace that drained by the centuries of colonial exploitation; technicians to train those handicapped by deliberate policies of illiteracy; guidance to assist a nation taking those first feeble steps toward the complexities of a republican form of government. We must assist the inspiring growth of Vietnamese democracy and economy, including the complete integration of those refugees who gave up their homes and their belongings to seek freedom. We must provide military assistance to rebuild the new Vietnamese Army, which every day faces the growing peril of Vietminh armies across the border.
The position stated in Kennedy's inaugural address was uniquely applicable to Vietnam, which, at the time, was probably the foremost representative of a "new state" freed from colonialism and threatened by communism. Thus, when he took office, Kennedy, whose personal commitment to Diem and to the defense of Vietnam was consonant with the commitment to Vietnam made by previous Presidents, did not seriously question or feel the need to reexamine U.S. policy toward Vietnam. He readily approved a major expansion of the U.S. commitment only a few days after becoming President, possibly doubting whether the proposal he was approving was the most effective way to accomplish the desired objective, but without having any apparent misgivings or uncertainty as to the validity of the objective itself.
Kennedy's views of the responsibility of the U.S. toward Vietnam were shared by all but two of his new policymaking team. (One was Chester Bowles, Under Secretary of State until November 1961, when he became Ambassador at Large and later Ambassador to India. The other was George W. Ball, who replaced Bowles.) So, too, were the general lines of U.S. foreign and military policy which characterized at least the first few weeks of the new administration, until the trauma produced by the failure of the Cuban (Bay of Pigs) invasion in April 1961 resulted in a hardening of attitudes and a reassessment of existing patterns of policymaking, and, to some extent, of policy and operations.
Kennedy's choice as Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, who had been a key member of the State Department's Far East team during the Truman administration, fully shared Kennedy's view of the importance of defending Southeast Asia. As he stated later:8
...collective security was the key to the prevention of World War III. My generation of students had been led down the path to the catastrophe of World War II which could have been prevented. We came out of the war deeply attached to the idea of collective security; it was written very clearly and strongly into Article 1 of the United Nations Charter and was reinforced by certain security treaties in this hemisphere, across the Atlantic and across the Pacific. When the Kennedy administration took office, the SEATO Treaty was a part of the law of the land. How we responded under the SEATO Treaty was strongly linked in our minds with the judgments that would be made in other capitols as to how and whether we would react under other security treaties such as the Rio Pact and NATO.
"Indeed," Rusk added, "NATO had been severely tested in the Berlin crisis of 1961-62 and the Rio Pact had been severely tested in the Cuban missile crisis. President Kennedy was very much aware of the question as to what might have happened had Chairman Khrushchev not believed him during that Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis. The reputation of the United States for fidelity to its security treaties was not an empty question of face or prestige but had a critical bearing upon the prospect for maintaining peace."
Kennedy's views toward containment and toward Vietnam were also highly compatible with those of most Members of Congress. Although some cracks had begun to appear in the consensus established at the end of World War II and during the beginning of the cold war, in 1961 there was still strong support in Congress for containment and for U.S. assistance to countries threatened by Communist expansion or subversion. Defense of Vietnam and of Southeast Asia as a whole was still a specific article of congressional faith, despite the growing doubts of some Members about Diem himself.9
What distinguished the Kennedy administration was not its policy aasu~mptions or its worldview, but its approach to problem solving. It is here that a key can be found to understanding the administration's handling of Vietnam, as well as many of the other foreign policy problems of the time. "The style, personality, and mood of the Kennedy team," as Thomas G. Paterson has written, "joined the historical imperatives to compel a vigorous, even belligerent foreign policy. . . . Bustle, zeal, energy, and optimism became the bywords.
"The Kennedy people considered themselves 'can-do' types, who with rationality and careful calculation could revive an ailing nation and world. Theodore H. White has tagged them 'the Action Intellectuals.' They believed that they could manage affairs.
"With adequate data, and they had an inordinate faith in data, they were certain they could succeed. It seemed everything could be quantified. When a White House assistant attempted to persuade Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the 'whiz kid' from Ford Motors, that the Vietnam venture was doomed, the efficient-minded McNamara shot back: 'Where is your data? Give mesomething I can put in the computer. Don't give me your poetry.'"10
At another point, Frederick E. ("Fritz") Nolting, Jr., who replaced Elbridge Durbrow as U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam in March 1961, objected to some of the proposed reforms which Washington policymakers were considering for Vietnam, saying that it would be difficult if not impossible to put a Ford engine into a Vietnamese ox-cart. McNamara is reported to have replied that although it might be difficult, "We can do it."11
Prior to taking office, Kennedy had met twice with Eisenhower to discuss problems facing the U.S., as well as other questions pertaining to foreign and domestic policy and the operation of the government. In preparation for their first meeting on December 6, 1960, Kennedy, who had already been briefed a number of times by CIA Director Allen Dulles, suggested an agenda on which the first three items (in order) were Berlin, the Far East, and Cuba. The White House notified Kennedy that the President intended to discuss seven subjects, including Laos. Vietnam was not specifically mentioned on either list.12 In preparing Kennedy for the meeting, his foreign policy team, headed by John H. Sharon and George W. Ball, drafted memoranda on each subject. In their memorandum on Laos they concluded by suggesting, in the form of questions, that neutralization of Laos might be the most desirable course to pursue, provided the Communists could be excluded from participating in a neutralist government. They asked, "If a neutralist government can be established without Communist participation, may not this now be the best the West can hope for?" and, "Taking into account the strong evidence of neutralist sentiment, and the danger inherent in attempting to get Laos to take sides in any future conflict involving the Communist states and SEATO, may not Laos make its best contribution to the peace of Southeast Asia, as well to its own security, by carrying on as a neutral buffer state?"13
The only available account of the December 6 meeting is Eisenhower's notes, in which he states that he and Kennedy discussed several foreign policy subjects, but that most of the meeting concerned organization and staffing in the area of national security affairs. 14
The second Kennedy-Eisenhower meeting was held on January 19, 1961, the day before the inauguration. Meanwhile, the situation in Laos had taken a decided turn for the worse in the eyes of the Eisenhower administration. The Prime Minister of Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma, who was considered by the administration to be too closely associated with the Laotian Communists (the Pathet Lao), had been toppled on December 8 by a rightist coup led by Gen. Phoumi Nosavan and supported by the U.S. In turn, the Russians and the North Vietnamese increased their assistance to the Pathet Lao. By the end of December 1960, as Pathet Lao forces advanced, U.S. policymakers in Southeast Asia and in Washington became very concerned about the possibility that the Communists would gain control of Laos. Eisenhower viewed this with alarm, and began to consider military action. As he said in his memoirs:15
This was disturbing news. Possibly we had another Lebanon on our hands. While we needed more information-such as in-disputable proof of North Vietnamese or Red Chinese intervention-before taking overt action, [he had already approved covert action],16 I was resolved that we could not simply stand by. I thought we might be approaching the time when we should make active use of the Seventh Fleet, including landing parties.
In an NSC meeting on December 31, 1960, Eisenhower declared, "We cannot let Laos fall to the Communists, even if we have to fight, with our allies or without them."17
By the time Eisenhower and Kennedy met on January 19, the situation had eased only slightly, and Kennedy himself put Laos at the top of the agenda for that meeting. Vietnam was not included.18 At this second meeting, Eisenhower reportedly said to Kennedy, "with considerable emotion," that the U.S. could not afford to let the Communists take Laos. If Laos, the "key to the whole area," were to fall, "it would be just a matter of time until South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma would collapse." The U.S. had a responsibility under the SEATO Treaty to defend Laos, Eisenhower added, but Britain and France were opposed to SEATO intervention. If efforts to achieve a political settlement failed, the U.S. "must intervene in concert with our allies. If we were unable to persuade our allies, then we must go it alone."19
Thus, Kennedy, who earlier had told one of his assistants that he hoped "whatever's going to happen in Laos, an American invasion, a Communist victory or whatever," would happen "before we take over and get blamed for it,"20 was faced upon taking office with hisfirst potential "crisis," and with applying the principles of his inaugural speech to a very knotty problem.21
Because of the seriousness with which the Laotian "crisis" was perceived at the time, there was concern in Congress, and key Members were being kept abreast of the situation. Some Senate Democrats close to Kennedy and interested in the Far East, particularly Mike Mansfield (D/Mont.), were also communicating with him privately.
On January 21 and 23, 1961, Mansfield, who had just been elected Senate majority leader, sent memos to Kennedy urging that Laos be neutralized-an idea that the State Department was already considering, and that had been recommended by Winthrop G. Brown, U.S. Ambassador to Laos, in a cable to Washington on January 18, 1961. Mansfield said he had received a personal communication, via the State Department, from Souvanna Phouma, then in Cambodia, in which Souvanna criticized the U.S. for exaggerating the Communist threat in Laos-there were "at the most," he said, 100 Laotian Communists-and for blocking Laotian neutrality, which he told Mansfield was the only practicable course for Laos because of its cultural characteristics and geographical location. In his memo, Mansfield added that, from his standpoint, an-other major shortcoming of U.S. policy was "The corrupting and disrupting effect of our high level of aid on an unsophisticated nation such as Laos."
In discussing the need for Laotian neutrality, Mansfield said, among other things, "It is difficult to see how the U.S. commitment can be limited or a SEATO military involvement avoided except by an active attempt by this country to neutralize Laos in the pattern of Burma or Cambodia." "There are risks in such a policy," he added, "but the risks in our present policies seem even greater for they create the illusion of an indigenous Laotian barrier to a communist advance when, in fact, there is none."
In order to achieve a neutral Laos, Mansfield said, the U.S. should seek to establish a commission for Laos similar to the International Control Commission (ICC) established for Indochina under the 1964 Geneva Accords, but it should consist entirely of Asians (the ICC was composed of India, Canada and Poland). He recommended India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as members. Second, U.S. involvement should be reduced, "primarily by cutting down our military aid commitments while working for the restoration of the French military training mission to replace our own."
The significance of the plan proposed in these two memos, Mansfield said, "is that it may permit us to extricate ourselves from an untenable over-commitment in a fashion which at least holds some promise of preserving an independent Laos without war."22
On January 6 and February 2, 1961, the Foreign Relations Committee met in executive session for hearings, the first on the world situation, with Secretary of State Christian A. Herter (John Foster Dulles had died in 1959) and Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, J. Graham Parsons, and the second with Winthrop Brown, U.S. Ambassador to Laos, to discuss the Laotian situation. (There was another executive session hearing on January 11, 1961, with CIA Director Dulles, but only eight pages were transcribed. It appears to have dealt primarily with Cuba.) In the first hearing there were questions on Laos (none on Vietnam), but fewer than on the Congo, which was considered another "crisis" area. In the second hearing, members of the committee were interested in why the U.S., unlike the British and the French, had not supported Souvanna Phouma. There were also questions about U.S. covert involvement in Laos.23 The committee did not, however, indicate any strong disagreement with the administration's Laotian policy.
On February 28, 1961, the Foreign Relations Committee met in executive session for a general review of the world situation by Secretary of State Rusk. There was no discussion of Vietnam, but Laos was discussed to some extent. Rusk reported to the committee that the administration was interested in getting Laos "into a stable and independent position" and removing it as a "major battle ground in the cold war." Laos, he said, was "something of a quagmire."
Rusk said that the U.S. did not want Laos to be set up as a "strongly pro-western ally." The United States was not looking for an ally, he said, but wanted to prevent Laos from becoming an ally of the Communists, a Communist "puppet." He told the committee that the Russians had proposed an international conference, but, "We feel that an international conference for the purpose of settling Laos would not be particularly productive at this time and could, indeed, simply further inflame the situation . . . at the present time we do not see how a conference can bring about a solution which we would find tolerable."24
The urgency of the Laotian situation was so compelling that Kennedy is said to have spent more time on Laos during February and March 1961 than on anything else.25 Vietnam, however, was also of great concern to the President, partly as a result of a report on the subject from Gen. Edward G. Lansdale (the famed CIA agent who had played a central part in the U.S. role in Vietnam 1954-56). On January 27, in preparation for a meeting on January 28 to discuss Cuba and Vietnam, McGeorge Bundy (Kennedy's new national security adviser), sent a memorandum to Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and Allen Dulles in which he said, The President's interest in Cuba needs little explanation. His concern, for Vietnam is a result of his keen interest in General Lansdales recent report and his awareness of the high importance of this country."26
According to Walt W. Rostow, the new deputy to McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's comment after the meeting was, "This is the worst one we've got, isn't it? You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length about Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam."27
Lansdale's report, dated January 17, 1961, was made after a trip to Vietnam January 2-14, during which he talked to Diem and a number of other Vietnamese leaders, as well as to members of the U.S. mission.28 In the report he warned that "The free Vietnamese, and their government, probably will be able to do no more than postpone eventual defeat-unless they find a Vietnamese way of mobilizing their total resources and then utilizing them with spirit." He proposed that the U.S. treat Vietnam as a "combat area of the cold war, as an area requiring emergency treatment," and that under such conditions we should send to Vietnam "our best people," people who are "experienced in dealing with this type of emergency . . . who know and really like Asia and the Asians, dedicated people who are willing to risk their lives for the ideals of freedom. . . ." In addition to a new Ambassador with these skills and attitudes he suggested that a similar person be sent to Vietnam for "political operations, whose primary job would be to work with the "oppositionists," with the goal of establishing a responsible opposition party by which to "promote a two-party system which can afford to be surfaced, end much of the present clandestine political structures, and give sound encouragement to the development of new political leaders." "There are plenty of Aaron Burr's, a few Alexander Hamilton's and practically no George Washington's, Tom Jefferson's or Tom Paine's in Saigon today," he added, "largely as a result of our U.S. political influence. This certainly was not the U.S. policy we had hoped to implement."
Lansdale said that Diem was "still the only Vietnamese with executive ability and the required determination to be an effective President," and that "We must support Ngo Dinh Diem until another strong executive can replace him legally. President Diem feels that Americans have attacked him almost as viciously as the Communists, and he has withdrawn into a shell for self-protection." The U.S. needed, Lansdale said, to understand Diem, and to treat him as a friend. "If the next American official to talk to President Diem," he said, "would have the good sense to see him as a human being who has been through a lot of hell for years-and not as an opponent to be beaten to his knees-we would start regaining our influence with him in a healthy way." "If we don't like the heavy influence of Brother [Ngo Dinh] Nhu," he added, "then let's move someone of ours in close."
Lansdale also recommended that American military advisers be allowed to work in combat areas, and that the effects of the U.S. aid program on the Vietnamese-which "has filled their bellies but has neglected their spirit"-should be reassessed. "The people have more possessions but are starting to lose the will to protect their liberty. There is a big lesson here to be learned about the U.S. aid program."
Shortly after returning from his trip, Lansdale met with Secretary of Defense McNamara, who had requested that Lansdale brief him on Vietnam. (At that point Lansdale was an assistant to McNamara.) Lansdale has recounted their meeting:29
I had a lot of Viet Cong weapons, punji stakes, and so on, that I'd collected in Vietnam to get the Special Forces to start a Fort Bragg museum of guerrilla weapons. They still had Vietnamese mud on them, rusty and dirty. They were picked up from the battle field. So, I tucked all of these under my arm and went to his office. He had told me on the phone that I had five minutes to give him a briefing on Vietnam. I went in and he was sitting at his desk, and I put all of these dirty weapons down-crude looking, and including those big spikes that they had as punji stakes with dried blood and mud on them-I put them on this beautiful mahagony desk-I just dumped them on that. I said, "The enemy in Vietnam used these weapons-and they were just using them just a little bit ago before I got them. The enemy are barefoot or wear sandals. They wear black pajamas, usually, with tatters or holes in them. I don't think you'd recognize any of them as soldiers, but they think of themselves that way. The people that are fighting them, on our side, are being supplied with weapons and uniforms and good shoes and all of the best that we have; and we're training them. Yet, the enemy's licking our side," I said. "Always keep in mind about Vietnam, that the struggle goes far beyond the material things of life. It doesn't take weapons and uniforms and lots of food to win. It takes something else, ideas and ideals, and these guys are using that something else. Let's at least learn that lesson." Somehow I found him very hard to talk to. Watching his face as I talked, I got the feeling that he didn't understand me.
Counterinsurgency Plan Approved for Vietnam
In submitting to Washington in January 1961 the counterinsurgency plan for Vietnam which had been developed during the fall of 1960, Ambassador Durbrow stated that he had reservations about one of the proposals, which would increase the Vietnamese Army by 20,000 men (from 150,000 to 170,000), primarily for action against the Communist insurgents. He preferred, he said, that "more calculated risks . should be taken by using more of the forces in being to meet the immediate and serious guerrilla threat." Some of the proposals for reforms, Durbrow added, would Probably be unpalatable to the Government of Vietnam. "Consideration should, therefore, be given to what actions we are prepared to take to encourage, or if necessary to force, acceptance of all essential elements of the plan."30
The proposed plan provided for a substantial increase in U.S. military assistance to Vietnam. In addition to an increase of 20,000 men in the army, it called for increasing the Civil Guard by 32,000 (to 68,000). The total cost of these increases would be about $42 million, added to approximately $225 million a year already being paid by the U.S. for maintaining Vietnamese forces.
The plan also called for Diem to institute certain political reforms, including having opposition leaders in the Cabinet, giving the National Assembly power to investigate charges of mismanagement and corruption in the executive, improving "civic action" and other means of winning more popular support. The position of Durbrow and of the Department of State was that Diem's cooperation in achieving these reforms should be required before the U.S. agreed to provide the additional aid, and this was the position that was accepted, however tacitly, by the President when he approved the plan.
It is also of interest to note that the memorandum setting forth the proposed counterinsurgency plan is said to have stated that if the provisions of the plan were carried out, "the war could be won in eighteen months."31
Indicative of the prevailing attitude about the importance of providing such additional assistance was a memorandum on February 1 from Robert W. Komer (a former CIA employee then serving as Rostow's deputy) and an unnamed State Department official in the Far East bureau, "Forestalling a Crisis in South Vietnam," in which they said, among other things, that such aid ". . . will probably require circumvention of the Geneva Accords. We should not let this stop us."32
At the White House meeting on January 28 at which the new counterinsurgency plan was discussed, Kennedy asked whether increases in Vietnam's Armed Forces "would really permit a shift from the defense to the offense," which the plan purportedly would do, or "whether the situation was not basically one of politics and morale."33 This led to a discussion of the situation in Vietnam in which Lansdale argued that the Communists considered 1961 "as their big year," but that a "maximum American effort" in 1961 could thwart their plans, and enable South Vietnam, with U.S. help, to "move over into the offensive in 1962." In his comments, as in his written report, Lansdale stressed the need to support Diem. "The essentials were three," he said: "First, the Americans in VietNam must themselves be infused with high morale and a will to win, and they must get close to the Vietnamese; secondly, the Vietnamese must, in this setting, be moved to act with vigor and confidence; third, Diem must be persuaded to let the opposition coalesce in some legitimate form rather than concentrate on the task of killing him." ("It was Diem's view," Lansdale said, "that there are Americans in the Foreign Service who are very close to those who tried to kill him on November 11, [19601 . . . Diem felt confidence in the Americans in the CIA and the MAAG [Military Assistance Advisory Group].")
Secretary of State Rusk commented that U.S. diplomats in Vietnam faced an ". . . extremely frustrating task. They were caught between pressing Diem to do things he did not wish to do and the need to convey to him American support. It was a difficult balance to strike; and Diem was extremely sensitive to criticism."
Kennedy said he would like to see guerrillas operating in North Vietnam, and asked about this possibility. CIA Director Dulles replied that four teams of eight men each had been organized for harassment, but had been used only in the south, despite CIA interest in more offensive operations. Dulles urged a build-up of counterguerrilla forces before the addition of the 20,000 men to the regular army, and also advocated increased U.S. training of such forces.
Lansdale mentioned the importance of Laos to the defense of Vietnam. ". . . if Laos goes to the Communists," he said, "we might not have time to organize the turn-around required in American and Viet-Nam morale and action."
As the meeting ended, Kennedy concluded by asking ". . . how do we change morale; how do we get operations in the north; how do we get moving?" And, referring to the four "crisis areas: VietNam; Congo; Laos; and Cuba," he said ". . . we must change our course in these areas and we must be better off in three months than we are now."
Kennedy's approval of the counterinsurgency plan two days later (January 30), as the Pentagon Papers observes, "was seen as quite a routine action."34 Kennedy's major concern seems to have been to make the U.S. role more effective, to "get moving." He wanted to do more rather than less, including expanding operations by undertaking, among other things, espionage and sabotage by guerrilla infiltration into North Vietnam. According to former Ambassador Durbrow, who had received a photostat from the State Department, Kennedy made a notation in the corner of the cover page of his copy of the counterinsurgency plan, to the effect, "Why so little? JFK. January 28."35
Thus, the expansion of the U.S. role in Vietnam provided for by the counterinsurgency plan was approved by the President quickly, firmly and without change. Presidential aide Theodore C. Sorensen later commented, ". . . an abandonment of Vietnam, an abandonment of our commitment would have had a very serious adverse effect on the position of the United States in all of Southeast Asia. Therefore, we had to do whatever was necessary in order to prevent it, which meant increasing our military commitment."36
On February 3 (National Security Action Memorandum- NSAM-2), Secretary McNamara was directed to make a report on conducting guerrilla operations in North Vietnam.37 On March 9 (NSAM 28), McNamara was again directed to make the report on guerrilla operations "in view of the President's instructions that we make every possible effort" to undertake such activities "at the earliest possible time."38 Kennedy also suggested (NSAM 9, February 6, 1961), that Lansdale's ". . . story of the counterguerrila case study would be an excellent magazine article for magazine like the Saturday Evening Post. Obviously it could not go under Lansdale's signature, but he might, if the Department of Defense and the State Department think it is worthwhile, turn this memorandum over to them and they could perhaps get a good writer for it. He could then check the final story."39
Khrushchev's Speech and the Special Group (Counterinsurgency)
While approving the new plan for Vietnam, and taking prompt action to prevent further Communist gains in Laos, the Kennedy administration launched a new counterinsurgency program to combat Communist "wars of national liberation." As described by Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a speech on January 6, 1961, such "wars of liberation or popular uprisings," which began as "uprisings of colonial peoples against their oppressors" and developed into "guerrilla wars," were supported "without reservation' by the Communists.
Khrushchev's speech, the meaning and significance of which may have been exaggerated or even misinterpreted by Kennedy and his associates, made a "conspicuous impression" on the President, and besides sending copies of it to his newly appointed top aides and associates, he ". . . read the Khrushchev speech time and again- in his office, at cabinet meetings, at dinners with friends, alone. At times he read it aloud and urged his colleagues to comment."40
Spurred by what he and his associates considered to be a direct challenge to the U.S., as well as by the need they felt to respond more vigorously to Communist subversion in Indochina and elsewhere in the third world, Kennedy began, as a "personal project," the development of a U.S. counterguerrilla or counterinsurgency program. He personally looked over the Army's field equipment for counterguerrilla warfare, studied the training manuals, and read studies on the subject, including Communist doctrine.41 He then ordered the Army to expand its counterguerrilla training, and to augment its Special Forces, or "Green Berets." Counterinsurgency training courses were eventually required for all personnel, civilian as well as military, serving in countries facing Communist subversion. "The hybrid word [counterinsurgency] became a passkey to the inner councils of government, to the trust of the President. If a high official expressed skepticism about the significance or newness ascribed to this style of warfare, it was said, he risked shortening his tenure in office. McNamara, [Maxwell] Taylor, and Rostow became early converts, and their White House standing soared. Rusk never converted."42
In March 1961, Kennedy established a counterinsurgency task force, headed by Richard Bissell, a Deputy Director of the CIA, which in January 1962 became the Special Group (CI) chaired by presidential adviser Maxwell D. Taylor, with the Deputy Under Secretary of State, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the JCS, the Director of the CIA, the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, the Administrator of the Agency for International Development, and the Director of the U.S. Information Agency, as members.43
Maxwell Taylor, a distinguished General and Army Chief of Staff in the latter part of the 1950s, who took early retirement from the Army in 1959 because of his disagreement with current strategy, and W. W. Rostow, who had been a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before becoming McGeorge Bundy's deputy, were foremost leaders in the development of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and programs, along with Roger Hilsman, the new head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who had a strong academic and research background as well as having been a West Point graduate and a member of the U.S. commando unit in Southeast Asia in World War H, "Merrill's Marauders."
One of the earliest proponents of a shift in strategy was Henry A. Kissinger, who propounded in 1955 an argument for defense of the "grey areas" around the periphery of the Soviet Union by a military policy based on fighting "little" or "local" wars, rather than on the threat of "massive retaliation" by strate~ic forces.44 Rostow and other Kennedy theorists carried Kissinger s argument to its ultimate conclusion. In order to fight "little" or "local" wars in which the Communists were seeking to "liberate" countries through internal, indirect aggression, assisted from outside but not involving open, external aggression, the U.S. needed, to paraphrase Hilsman, to use the tactics of the guerrilla against the guerrilla. Whereas Kissinger advocated building up the indigenous capacity for self-defense, the counterinsurgency argument of the Kennedy era was open-ended, as experience later demonstrated. When the U.S. was unable to develop adequate indigenous strength, it began to substitute American strength.
One of the experts recruited for counterinsurgency planning in the Kennedy administration later described the early Kennedy perod as "one of change, of ferment, of self-confidence-of 'knowing' what had to be done and of unquestioning 'can do." Kennedy, he said, "Taking seriously the threat to American power and influence implicit in Khrushchev's words, . . . set about building our military and government instruments to meet an obvious and serious challenge. That challenge may appear shadowy and full of braggadocio from the vantage point of the bitter experience of all parties in the late sixties. But who can deny that it was uttered seriously, and was meant to succeed, if it could, ten years earlier?" 45
Many policymakers in the Kennedy administration, like those under Eisenhower, did not have the specialized knowledge required to deal with Southeast Asia, however, and this factor greatly complicated the attempt to intervene in situations in which such knowledge could be decisive. One of Kennedy's closest advisers has singled this out as a key lesson to be learned from studying the development of U.S. policy toward Vietnam after 1961: 46
our system has many strengths and the drawing of talent from outside the government and bringing it into government brings many advantages. But it also brings many costs, and one of the costs is bringing people into high policymaking positions who aren't prepared to deal with many of the questions they face. . . . So I think in a very real sense we assumed responsibilities unprepared; we didn't see clearly the full extent of those responsibilities; there were very few resources in the country to draw upon. And I mention all of this because I think it colored the behavior thereafter. And I don't think to this day it is understood. What, in a sense, evolved as a feeling of public officials misleading the public was, in a major respect, much worse than that; much different-let me put it this way. It was public officials not seeing the problem clearly, and, at least in hindsight, not acting in the public interest.
What To Do About Laos?
In early February 1961, Kennedy established a task force on Laos consisting of the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, J. Graham Parsons, and his Deputy, John Steeves, both of whom had been appointed to those posts during the Eisenhower administration, as well as Kennedy's new Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Paul H. Nitze, (who had worked on Indochina under Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean G. Acheson), W. W. Rostow from the NSC staff, and others from State, the military and the CIA.
A day or so later, Secretary Rusk sent a memorandum to Kennedy in which he said that the task force had completed a draft report. He enclosed a proposed cable to set in motion a new plan for Laos. 47 This plan called for the King of Laos to declare the neutralization of the country, followed by establishment of a Neutral Nations Commission by Cambodia and Burma, among others. At the same time, General Phoumi was to conduct an offensive against the Pathet Lao for the purpose of strengthening the position of the government. These actions would be supported by SEATO moves, including the deployment of a U.S. military unit to Thailand.
On February 7, in preparation for a White House meeting to discuss the Laos plan, McGeorge Bundy and W. W. Rostow sent the President a memorandum commenting on the plan and suggesting possible questions to raise.48 They called the plan a "carefully worked out and intelligent attack on a very tough problem." As for questions, they suggested the President might ask whether deploying the U.S. military unit to Thailand was "the best way of signalling support to Sarit [Sarit Thanarat, the leader of the military junta then ruling the country] and general concern for the area?"
They also suggested linking Laos to the broader question of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union:
Does this whole approach fully recognize that the decisive dialogue here is with Khrushchev? Are we not coming to a time when something should be said directly to him? In this area where all the local advantages are against us, one clear asset is that Khrushchev wants serious talks with you, there must be a real cooling-off in Laos. Should we not move in ways which make it as easy as possible for him to face down the CHICOMS [Chinese Communists] on this point, while emphasizing quietly the depth of our commitment?
Kennedy approved most of the proposed plan, with the exception of sending the U.S. military unit to Thailand, and on February 19 the King of Laos issued a neutrality declaration and asked Cambodia, Malaya and Burma to form a neutral commission. Only Malaya agreed to do so, however. Meanwhile, Phoumi's offensive failed, and U.S. policymakers were back at square one.
On March 1, Rusk sent Kennedy a memo reporting on the status of U.S. plans for Laos in which he said that the "key obstacle" to acceptance of the U.S. position by countries like Cambodia and Burma was the "narrow composition" of the Laotian Government, i.e., that it did not include Souvanna Phouma.49
A few days later, the Laos Task Force sent Kennedy another proposed plan. By this point, according to a memo to the President from Rostow on March 9, in which he recounted events during February, "our initial dispositions with respect to Laos, both diplomatically and militarily, have not succeeded, and we enter a new phase."50
The task force recommended that in this "new phase" there Should be increased military assistance to Laos, as well as U.S. military moves to demonstrate U.S. determination to resist Communist control of Laos. A "seventeen-step escalation ladder" was proposed. The members of the group, according to one knowledgable source, "were much more willing to favor the use of American force than the President and his senior advisers."51
This plan was discussed and generally approved by the President and his advisers on March 9, 1961. Possible intervention by U.S. forces was not ruled out, but there was considerable reluctance to take such a step, and the President decided to continue efforts to find a diplomatic solution. These efforts, specifically the attempt to get the Russians to terminate their airlift into Laos, were unsuccessful, however, and within a few days there was a plan in the works to undertake limited U.S. military action. According to a memorandum from Rostow to the President on March 17. 52
State is preparing for the Secretary's consideration a plan for the movement of an international SEATO force into Laos. If SEATO did not accept, the idea is that the U.S., Asian members of SEATO, and possibly Australia and New Zealand, would work on a modified plan. Diplomatically it would be based on the Lebanon case; that is, it would be triggered by an appeal from the King of Laos for us to hold the line and permit peace to be negotiated, looking to an independent, neutral country. The troops would go in merely to hold certain key centers for diplomatic bargaining purposes, not to conquer the country. They would only shoot if shot at. There would be talks with the Russians explaining our position and a report to the UN. The total force envisaged is about 26,000, which seems a bit high. At least half would be Asian troops. There would be U.S., Australian and, hopefully, New Zealand contributions.
On March 20-21 this plan was discussed by the President and his advisers. Details of these meetings are still classified, but apparently Rostow, on behalf of the task force, argued the case for deploying U.S. forces to Thailand. The Joint Chiefs, however, argued that this could result in North Vietnamese moves into Laos, and possible war with China, and that if U.S. troops were to be used there would have to be an adequate force to insure a favorable outcome. They estimated that a U.S. move into Laos would require 60,000 men, as well as air cover, and the use, if necessary, of atomic bombs against targets in North Vietnam and China.
Kennedy, it is said, recognized the difficulties involved in committing a large force to Laos. He had learned, for one thing, that if 10,000 men were sent to Southeast Asia there would be almost no strategic reserve force for other emergencies.53
He is also said to have recognized that a neutralization of Laos was the "only feasible alternative." Remembering what had happened in Vietnam in 1954, however, he did not want to negotiate prior to a cease-fire.54 He thought that Laotian anti-Communist forces, with U.S. help, had to hold Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, in order to establish a stronger basis for negotiations, and in order to prevent a defeat that would have repercussions on the credibility of the United States in other areas. "We cannot," he was quoted as saying, "and will not accept any visible humiliation over Laos."55
In addition, Kennedy recognized and apparently alluded in the meetings to what he considered to be the "contradictions" in American public opinion, ". . . between the desire to 'get tough' with the communists and the disinclination to get involved in another Asian War. . . ." But he apparently also felt, and confirmed in consultations with Members of Congress, that the public would support U.S. intervention in Laos if that became necessary.56
The meetings of March 20-21 resulted in a decision to undertake a limited show of force by the U.S., to be followed by possible SEATO action. Kennedy authorized (there was no NSAM on the subject) immediate military moves similar to the ones made by Eisenhower in December 1960:57
Three aircraft carriers moved toward Laos with 1,400 marines. Long-range troop and cargo transport planes flew from the continental United States to the Philippines. About 150 marines were dispatched to Udorn, Thailand, to service fourteen additional helicopters being given to the Royal Lao Army. On Okinawa Task Force 116 was alerted and its staffs brought up to operational size. . . . Two thousand marines in Japan were pulled away from a movie which they were assisting in filming. . . . In all, about 4,000 troops were ready for battle in Laos-not enough to carry out the intervention plans, but, hopefully, enough to force a change in the diplomatic stalemate.
At the same time, Kennedy authorized various covert actions, including increased reconnaissance flights over Laos. These had previously been conducted primarily by the Thais, but when the Thai Government decided in February 1961 not to continue such flights the JCS recommended that they be made by the U.S. Air Force. Instead, Kennedy told the U.S. military to borrow planes from the Philippine Air Force (RT-33s), paint them with Laotian markings, and use U.S. Air Force pilots in civilian clothes to fly reconnaissance over Laos. "On April 24, 1961, the first American-piloted RT33 sortie flew from Udorn under the code name 'Field Goal.' "58
On March 23, 1961, Kennedy took his case to the public. Speaking on nationwide television, he said that the U.S. supported a neutral and independent Laos. Without mentioning the military moves which he had already authorized, he said that attacks by "externally supported Communists" would have to cease, and if they did not that the U.S. would "honor its obligations." "No one should doubt our resolutions [sic] on this point," he added "The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence."59
Congress reacted favorably to Kennedy's speech, with both Democrats and Republicans declaring their support for negotiations while also supporting Kennedy's firmness and determination to honor U.S. commitments. Except for the concern of some Republicans and a few Democrats about having Communists included in the government of a neutral Laos, there was no dissent in Congress to the administration's proposals for handling the Laotian situation.60
In a letter to Kennedy on March 24, the day after the speech, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright (D/Ark.) said, "Your explanation of the Laotian situation was extremely effective." He enclosed a study on Vietnam for Kennedy's use, saying that he thought it would be of interest: "The thought occurred to me," Fuibright added, "that the extent to which you might be willing to go in defending Laos could possibly be influenced by the stability in Viet-Nam. It would be embarrassing, to say the least, to have Viet-Nam collapse just as we are extended in Laos."61
Meanwhile, after the White House meetings of March 20-21, the U.S. had informed the British of the military moves which it was making, and had urged them to join in getting SEATO to implement "Plan 5/60" (usually referred to as SEATO Plan 5, this was a contingency plan for the deployment of a major SEATO force to Laos and Vietnam which would seek to defend Southeast Asia from a position on the Mekong River) under which U.S. Marines would be augmented by the Mobile Commonwealth Brigade consisting of troops from Britain, New Zealand and Australia. The British, however, urged continued efforts to achieve a cease-fire, and stated their reservations about military intervention. Kennedy then asked British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to discuss the matter. The two leaders met on March 26, 1961, and according to Macmillan, Kennedy ". . . was not at all anxious to undertake a military operation in Laos. If it had to be done (as a sort of political gesture) he definitely wanted it to be a SEATO exercise. He did not want to 'go it alone." Kennedy, he said, commented that a number of people in the U.S. would consider British support to be the "determining factor," and that unless the British decided to join the U.S. in such an effort "he was not sure he could get his people to accept unilateral action by the United States."
Kennedy told Macmillan that he was considering a very limited force of four or five battalions to hold Vientiane and other key posts, apparently referring to a modified version of the Vietnam Task Force proposal. Macmillan said he understood Kennedy's need to convince the Russians, "at the beginning of his presidency," that the U.S. would not be "pushed out" of Laos, and that he would agree to participate, with cabinet approval, in "the appearance of resistance and in the necessary military planning. But while undertaking such planning, the U.S. and Britain should make every effort to get the Russians to agree to a cease-fire and a conference.62
On April 1, Khrushchev responded favorably to the idea of an international conference on the subject, and tension eased momentarily.
At this point, a very serious event occurred, an event which critically affected the foreign policy of the Kennedy administration. Carrying out a plan developed in the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy agreed to let Cuban refugees, trained, armed and supported by the CIA, invade Cuba (Operation Zapata). After the resulting fiasco, commonly referred to as the "Bay of Pigs," the Kennedy administration, seeking to prove to the world, and especially to the Russians, that the U.S. was not the "paper tiger" it appeared to be, assumed an even more militant (although perhaps less bold) foreign policy stance which, in turn, may well have affected U.S. policy toward Vietnam.63
Some have suggested that the failure of the Bay of Pigs, together with the subsequent "bullying" to which Khrushchev is said to have subjected Kennedy at their "summit meeting" in June 1961, heavily influenced the Kennedy administration's decision to stand and fight the Communists in Vietnam, on the grounds that the U.S. had to demonstrate its determination to confront them, by force if necessary, and that Vietnam was the most auspicious place for such a confrontation. There is considerable validity to this argument. Most U.S. policymakers apparently did assume that the U.S.could not back down in Vietnam, and that it was Vietnam, rather than Laos, where, if necessary, a confrontation should occur. "What happened," commented James C. Thomson, Jr. (an Asian specialist, who was then assistant to Under Secretary Bowles, and subsequently a member of the NSC staff dealing with Vietnam), "as my colleagues put it at the time, was that we discovered that the Laotians were not Turks. That was the phrase of the moment. What did that mean? That meant that they would not stand up and fight. And, once we discovered that the Laotians were not Turks, it seemed advisable to pull back from confrontation in Laos. . . . But once Laotians were discovered not to be Turks, the place to stand one's ground, it was thought, was Vietnam because the Vietnamese were Turks. . . . That's my recollection of the climate-let's call it 'the search for Turks."64
Former Ambassador William H. Sullivan, who was very closely associated with Indochina affairs for many of his years in the State Department, gave this description of the prevailing attitude:65
The attitude was that Laos was a secondary problem; Laos was a poor place to get bogged down in because it was inland, had no access to the sea and no proper logistics lines . . . that it was rather inchoate as a nation; that the Laos were not fighters, et cetera. While on the other hand if you were going to have a confrontation, the place to have it was in Vietnam because it did have logistical access to the sea and therefore, we had military advantages. It was an articulated, functioning nation. Its troops were tigers and real fighters. And, therefore, the advantages would be all on our side to have the confrontation and showdown in Vietnam and not get sucked into this Laos operation.66
Sullivan made a very important additional point: ". . . I think, in saying that the White House recognized and that all of us did recognize that Vietnam was the main show, it wasn't at all the same to say that people were afraid of Vietnam as a quagmire; people were looking at Vietnam as something that could be a more solid instrument for settling this thing."67 In other words, Vietnam was more than just an auspicious place to confront the Communists and to demonstrate the American commitment to containment-it was a "solid instrument" for proving U.S. mettle; for "settling" the question of defending "free" countries against wars of national liberation. Thus, as Sullivan said, Vietnam was not feared as a quagmire; it was perceived as an opportunity.
W. W. Rostow made this same point in a memorandum to Kennedy on June 17, 1961, after Kennedy's meeting with Khrushchev, entitled "The Shape of the Battle."68 Rostow said that the administration was heading into "our crucial months of crisis," and that to "turn the tide" it was necessary to win two "defensive battles"- Berlin, and Vietnam. If these battles could be won, he said, the U.S. could then "provide a golden bridge of retreat from their present aggressive positions for both Moscow and Peking." Berlin would have to be held against the Russians, he added, and the Communists would have to be turned back in Vietnam, in order to demonstrate that wars of national liberation could and would be defeated, which, in turn, would deter guerrilla activities in other unstable situations.
This argument doubtless would have been made if there had not been a Bay of Pigs inyasion or a summit meeting, but those incidents seem to have caused the Kennedy administration to take a firmer stand in Vietnam, both to convince the Communists that the Bay of Pigs was an aberration, and to demonstrate that the U.S. could use its power effectively--and in unconventional ways if necessary--in combatting wars of national liberation, despite the failure of the unconventional means used in the attempt to overthrow the Communists in Cuba.
Ironically, it was also the Bay of Pigs that may have prevented active U.S. military involvement in Laos, and strengthened the President's resolve to find a diplomatic solution for Laos by which the U.S. could avoid having to fight in an area of lesser importance, and one where it would be at such a disadvantage militarily. After the failure of the Cuban invasion, Kennedy became much more cautious about the advice he was getting. As Presidential assistant Sorensen said, 69
the Bay of Pigs fiasco had its influence. That operation had been recommended principally by the same set of advisers who favored intervention in Laos. But now the President was far more skeptical of the experts, their reputations, their recommendations, their promises, premises and facts. He relied more on his White House staff and his own common sense; and he asked the Attorney General and me to attend all NSC meetings. He began asking questions he had not asked before about military operations in Laos. He requested each member of the Chiefs of Staff to give him in writing his detailed views on where our intervention would lead, who would join us, how we would react to a massive Red Chinese response and where it would all end. Their answers, considered in an NSC meeting on May 1, looked very different from the operations originally envisionedo and the closer he looked, the less justifiable and definable those answers became. "Thank God the Bay of Pigs happened when it did," he would say to me in September. "otherwise we'd be in Laos by now--and that would be a hundred times worse."70
Cease-Fire in Laos
Before turning to the developments occurring during February-May 1961 with respect to Vietnam, this discussion of events in Laos, culminating in May with the agreement between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to negotiate a settlement for Laos, should be concluded. Prior to the Laos negotiations, which began in Geneva on May 16, 1961, the U.S., facing a renewed offensive by the Pathet Lao, and fearing that the Russians were stalling, again considered using American forces. On April 27, Kennedy met with his advisers. Rostow, speaking for the Laos Task Force, again recommended limited troop deployment to Thailand.71 W. Averell Harriman, who had been appointed Ambassador at Large, and was to head the U.S. team in Geneva, agreed with this proposal. He thought the presence of U.S. forces in Thailand would strengthen the negotiating position of the U.S. The JCS again argued that if there was to be a show of force, there should be an adequate force available to undertake a military offensive, should one be required. This time, possibly in part because of the Bay of Pigs experience, the JCS proposed a force of 120,000-140,000 men, with authority to use nuclear weapons if necessary. There were so many differences of opinion expressed by military representatives attending the meeting, however, that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson finally suggested to Kennedy that each one be asked to state his views in writing. Kennedy agreed, and they were asked to do so. As a result, Kennedy received separate statements from all four members of the JCS, from all three service secretaries, and from McNamara. Although the Army apparently predicted problems of supplying U.S. troops in Laos, as well as difficulties in effectively fighting guerrillas holed up in the mountains, "The majority," according to Sorensen, 72 "appeared to favor the landing of American troops in Thailand, South Vietnam and the government-held portions of the Laotian panhandle. If that did not produce a cease-fire, they recommended an air attack on Pathet Lao positions and tactical nuclear weapons on the ground. If North Vietnamese or Chinese then moved in, their homelands would be bombed. If massive Red troops were then mobilized, nuclear bombings would be threatened and, if necessary, carried out. If the Soviets then intervened, we should 'be prepared to accept the possibility of general war.'"
In an interview some years later, David E. Bell, then Director of the Bureau of the Budget, recalled: "To us outsiders, that is to say to those of us who weren't part of the Pentagon-State Department complex, this was a shocking meeting, because at least two of the Joint Chiefs . . . were extremely belligerent, as we saw it, and were ready to go in and bomb the daylights out of them or land troops or whatever." ". . . there was a predisposition," he added, "in some members of the military leadership to go shooting off into the Southeast Asian jungles on what at that time was plainly no substantial provocation. It seemed to most of us to have been simply a militaristic adventure, not at all justified in terms of American foreign policy interests."73
According to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 74 "The President was appalled at the sketchy nature of American military planning for Laos--the lack of detail and the unanswered questions," and in a meeting on April 29 after the memoranda were submitted he questioned military representatives on a number of points, and was said to have been quite dissatisfied with the answers he received.
Despite their differences of opinion, the military had already begun to order contingency plans for military action. On April 26, the JCS alerted the U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC) to be prepared to undertake airstrikes against North Vietnam and possibly southern China, and after the meeting on April 29 CINCPAC was told to prepare to move 5,000 U.S. combat troops into Thailand and another 5,000 into Vietnam, together with supporting units, including air. The cable ordering this move said that Washington hoped to give a "SEATO cover" to these actions.75
In addition, on April 20 Kennedy had ordered U.S. military advisers in Laos to put on their uniforms, to organize openly and officially as a MAAG, and to start advising on combat operations. (Approximately 400 U.S. advisers had been sent to Laos by Eisenhower in 1960, ostensibly to advise the French military mission-the only military mission permitted in Laos by the 1954 Geneva Accords- on technical matters, but they had worn civilian clothes to avoid the charge of violating the Accords.)
On April 29, there was an important meeting of top policymakers, including Rusk, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and the four service Chiefs, as well as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (who was sitting in, as a result of the Bay of Pigs experience, to represent his brother and to protect the President's interests), to discuss Laos.76 In response to a question by Robert Kennedy, who asked where would be the "best place to stand and fight in Southeast Asia, where to draw the line," McNamara replied that he thought the U.S. would take a stand in Thailand and Vietnam, Kennedy asked again, saying that what he wanted to know was not only whether any of Laos could be saved by U.S. forces, but whether the U.S. would stand up and fight. McNamara said that "we would have to attack the DRV" [Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in North Vietnam] if Laos were to be given up. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George H. Decker said that there was "no good place to fight in Southeast Asia but we must hold as much as we can of VietNam, Cambodia and Laos." Adm. Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, urged that U.S. forces be sent into Laos. Burke said that "each time you give ground it is harder to stand next time. If we give up Laos we would have to put US forces into Viet-Nam and Thailand. We would have to throw enough in to win-perhaps the 'works.' It would be easier to hold now than later. The thing to do was to land now and hold as much as we can and make clear that we were not going to be pushed out of Southeast Asia."
John Steeves, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, said that if the U.S. decided that defense of Laos was not tenable, "we were writing the first chapter in the defeat of Southeast Asia."
Rusk also took the position that U.S. forces should be sent to Laos. "The Secretary suggested that Thai and US troops might be placed together in Vientiane and, if they could not hold, be removed by helicopter. Even if they were defeated they could be defeated together and this would be better than sitting back and doing nothing."
General Decker added, ". . . we cannot win a conventional war in Southeast Asia; if we go in, we should go in to win, and that means bombing Hanoi, China, and maybe even using nuclear weapons. He suggested that U.S. troops be moved into Thailand and Vietnam in an effort to induce agreement on a cease-fire. Robert Kennedy, playing his role as provocateur, ". . . said we would look sillier than we do now if we got troops in there and then backed down." Again he asked "whether we are ready to go the distance." Responses were mixed and unclear. Rusk said that if a cease-fire was not achieved quickly it would be necessary to resort to SEATO Plan 5 under U.N. auspices.
During the meeting, Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles, who later became known for his opposition to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, "said he thought the main question to be faced was the fact that we were going to have to fight the Chinese anyway in 2, 3, 5 or 10 years and that it was just a question of where, when and how. He thought that a major war would be difficult to avoid."
The meeting adjourned without agreement on a specific course of action.
On Sunday, April 30, Rusk sent Kennedy a memorandum discussing two alternative solutions for Laos.77 "Track No. 1" discussed the procedures to be followed if the Communists agreed by Tuesday, May 2, to a cease-fire. "Track No. 2" discussed what would need to be done if there was no cease-fire. In this event, Rusk said, Laos, supported by the U.S. and Britain, should take its case to the U.N. At the same time, there should be action by SEATO, either SEATO Plan 5, or deployment of a SEATO force into Thailand which could move into Laos if necessary. (If Plan 5 were implemented, SEATO forces would not undertake offensive action against the Communists, or be deployed near the sensitive northern frontier.)
Rusk's conclusions were as follows:
If either Track 1 or Track 2 succeed in getting a cease-fire we will then face the real issue: what kind of a Laos to envisage emerging from the Conference. Our actions and the realities of Laos will all anticipate a "mixed up Laos." The more we can fracture it the better.
It will be best for the time being for Laos to become a loose federation of somewhat autonomous strong men. Given the military capability of the Pathet Lao, a centralized government under a coalition government would tend to become a Communist satellite. Even partition would be a better outcome than unity under leadership responsive to the Communists.
Rusk went on to suggest that the U.N. act as a "third party" in Laos
between the two contending forces in order to preserve the peace and promote
Meanwhile, congressional committees had been kept informed of Laotian developments. On April 11, for example, there was a long executive session briefing of the Foreign Relations Committee by Secretary of State Rusk.78 On April 27, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson met with congressional leaders and found that with the exception of Senator Styles Bridges (R/N.H.), they were opposed to the use of U.S. forces in Laos.79 According to Admiral Burke, who briefed the congressional group at the April 27 meeting, after he told the leaders that the U.S. should stand firm in Laos, even at the risk of war, the President asked others for their advice, and only the Vice President supported Burke's position.80 Other reactions were reported by U. Alexis Johnson, a veteran Foreign Service officer who had been a ranking member of the U.S. delegation to the Geneva Conference in 1954 and U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, 1958-61, and who became Deputy Under Secretary of State in April 1961. "I think the whole thing would be rather fruitless,' said Mansfield. 'When we got through we would have nothing to show for it,' said Senate Republican leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (Ill.). 'We should get our people out and write the country off,' said Senator Richard B. Russell (D/Ga.). But if not Laos, then where would we draw the line? Some of the senators favored putting American troops in Vietnam and Thailand but letting Laos alone."81
Appearing on the television program "Meet the Press" on April 30, 1961, Senator Fulbright, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he did not think the U.S. should send troops to Laos. Conditions there, including the terrain and the peaceful nature of the people, were factors against such a move, he said. But he added, interestingly enough, that he thought it would be entirely proper to send U.S. troops to Thailand and South Vietnam if those countries were willing to cooperate with us, and requested such assistance. In both of these countries, he said, the terrain and other conditions, including the public's interest in self-defense, were much more conducive to the success of such an operation than were the conditions in Laos. 82
After a private meeting with Kennedy on May 4, Fulbright, who had asked for the meeting, reiterated this position, declaring that he would support U.S. troop commitments to Thailand and Vietnam if such forces were considered necessary and if those countries wanted them. He said that the Thais and the South Vietnamese, unlike the Laotians, appeared willing to defend themselves. But he emphasized that he was not willing to make the United States the primary defensive factor in Southeast Asia over a long period of time. He said it was up to Japan and India to play a role. 83
On May 6, the New York Times in an editorial noted Fulbright's views, but discounted the possibility of getting India or Japan to play such a role, and concluded: "An important defensive role for the United States in Southeast Asia must therefore be envisaged for an indefinite time if this area is to be protected from Communist aggression. . . ."
Other congressional leaders indicated their support for the President and for his leadership in handling the Laotian "crisis." It should be remembered that the traditional "honeymoon" between Congress and the President, during which there is customarily a higher degree of tolerance and deference between the branches, was still in effect at the time, and that this support reflected that fact. It also obviously reflected the continuing tendency of Congress to defer to the President in the making of decisions and the use of the armed forces.
In an appearance on May 7, 1961, on ABC-TV's "Issues and Answers," for example, Senate Majority Leader Mansfield and Senator George Aiken (R/Vt.), both members of the Foreign Relations Committee, took the position that although the President should and would confer with Congress before using the armed forces in Southeast Asia, he had the power under the Constitution, as reinforced by the SEATO Treaty, to deploy troops as necessary. Mansfield was asked "Do you think the Congress would approve of sending troops to any of these [SEATO] countries?" He replied:
Oh, I am quite certain that the President would confer with the necessary individuals in the Congress before any action was undertaken, but we must remember that under the Constitution, the President is charged with the conduct of our foreignpolicy, and he is the Commander in Chief of our armed services, and furthermore, we do have this treaty [SEATO] which we are obligated to adhere to.
Mansfield and Aiken were then asked, "Do you think it is worth risking a global war to keep the Communists from getting, say, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia?" Mansfield's reply was that this was a question no one could answer at that time, adding, "I would again have to refer you to the responsibility of the President of the United States as far as this country is concerned." Aiken agreed with Mansfield, saying, "The fmal determination is up to the President of the United States. He would supposedly act upon the best advice which he could get and the best opinions which he could secure and I am sure that the Congress of the United States would support him in whatever his decision might be." 84
During this time Mansfield continued to communicate privately with the President, and on May 1, 1961, he sent another memo to Kennedy on the Laotian situation in which he took the position that, beginning with Laos, the U.S. needed to bring commitments in Southeast Asia into line with American interests in that region. 85 The U.S. needed, he said, referring specifically to Laos, "to get out of the center of this thing and into a position more commensurate with our limited interests, our practical capabilities, and our political realities at home." Laos, he said, was not like Lebanon, to which the U.S. had sent troops in 1958. Among other things, in Laos the Russians could "call all the shots" without intervening, meanwhile condemning the U.S. for the bloodshed.
Referring to the administration's plan to use ground forces from Thailand, Pakistan and the Philippines (at a SEATO meeting on March 27, the U.S. had been given preliminary indications that this would be possible), and to limit U.S. participation to air and sea power, Mansfield said that the U.S. might end up having to use its own ground forces as well. Moreover, pressures could be put on the United States elsewhere, including South Vietnam. Intervention could also prove costly at home:
If we intervene, we can possibly anticipate an initial reaction of public approval for your "standing firm." If the intervention succeeds in the Lebanese pattern, there will be some sustained approval but it is not likely to drown out the complaints about the increased costs of aid which will follow. If the intervention involves U.S. forces, the initial approval, such as it is, will start to disappear as soon as the first significant casualty lists are published. And it will not be long before the approval of "standfirm" gives way to the disapproval of "Kennedy's War" and "what are we doing in Laos?"
On the contrary, he said, although the U.S. would take some risks by not intervening, they would be small compared to the costs of intervention If the U.S. did not intervene militarily, Souvanna Phouma would emerge after negotiations as the principal leader, and while he might cooperate with the Communists, there would be greater advances in such a situation than in U.S. intervention. Mansfield described these, and said that even if there were tobe a government which cooperated with the Communists, "we will at least be in a position to cut our losses with some measure of dignity and we will be relieved of an enormous over-commitment." Adverse reaction in the U.S., he added, would be "mild" compared to the reaction if the U.S., "with American blood and treasure," tried to keep the existing government in power.
Mansfield concluded by recommending that the U.S. concentrate on assisting Vietnam, which he thought had the "greatest potential in leadership, human capacities and resources" in the area, and on cultivating neutral, friendly relations also with Cambodia, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia and Thailand, rather than continuing to search for "cold-war 'allies." By the same token, he, like Fulbright, advocated that the U.S. seek to encourage India to play a more active role in Southeast Asia, beginning with possible Indian efforts to prevent the situation in Laos from worsening prior to the forthcoming Geneva Conference.
Mansfield suggested that if the U.S. reduced its military program in Laos those funds could be redirected to Vietnam, but that in doing so the U.S. should avoid raising the level of aid "so high that it atrophies the will of the Viet Namese government to do what it must do to strengthen its ties among the Viet Namese people."
Facing a difficult choice, and feeling the effects of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy struggled with the possibility of "losing" Laos to the Communists, apparently feeling that the domestic political consequences of such an outcome would be more serious than Mansfield estimated. He is said to have told Rostow that whereas Eisenhower was able to withstand the political fall-out from the loss of Dien Bien Phu because it was the French, rather than the Americans, who were defeated, "I can't take a 1954 defeat today." 86
On May 1, Kennedy met again with his advisers. The situation in Laos was more ominous, and the group decided that the U.S. had no choice but to threaten to take military action unless a cease-fire was arranged. Unlike the meeting on April 29, at which they were divided, the military were all agreed on the need to act. During the meeting, McGeorge Bundy sent Kennedy the following note:87
On Saturday [April 29] the Joint Chiefs of Staff divided 1-1 (Navy-Air vs. Army-Marine) on going into Laos; it's not at all clear why they now are unanimous.
The diplomatic result of the meeting is probably best described by British Prime Minister Macmillan, based on messages he was receiving that day from Washington: 88
6 p.m. [London] Meeting on Laos. . . . The Americans, supported by Australia and New Zealand, now want to take the preliminary troop movements for a military intervention.
They want to declare the alert at the SEATO meeting tomorrow. Their reason is that the two sides have not yet managed to meet to discuss the cease-fire; that the Pathet Lao are obviously stalling till the whole country has fallen; that they are advancing all the time; that the Thais are getting restless; that only the United Kingdom and France are out of step, etc., etc.
Later that day, however, cease-fire talks were agreed upon, and the alert was postponed and then cancelled when it became clear that the Geneva Conference would be held.
It should be noted, however, that on May 5 Rusk met with the members of the newly-created Vietnam Task Force to discuss whether the U.S. should send combat forces to South Vietnam prior to the Geneva Conference on Laos as another means of demonstrating U.S. determination to take a stand in Southeast Asia. It was decided not to do so at that point, but to keep the possibility under review. 89 (It should also be noted that the day before the Geneva Conference was to begin, Kennedy, in connection with increased U.S. assistance to Vietnam, authorized covert military operations against the North Vietnamese in both North Vietnam and Laos. Among other things, he approved intelligence and harassment missions by South Vietnamese units into southeastern Laos, and the use of U.S. advisers, "if necessary," in attacks on the North Vietnamese supply center in Tchepone, Laos, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) 90
Later that day (May 5), Kennedy met with his advisers to discuss the Laos situation as well as Vietnam. "Most agreed the chance for salvaging anything out of the cease-fire and coalition government was slim indeed." The group discussed ways in which to reassure Vietnam and Thailand, one of which was a visit to Vietnam by Vice President Johnson, which was agreed upon and announced after the meeting.91
Vietnam Moves Up on the Agenda
During February and March 1961, Ambassador Durbrow attempted to extract from Diem the agreement on reforms which the U.S. was insisting be reached before the new counterinsurgency plan for Vietnam was implemented. As these negotiations dragged on, U.S. military leaders became restive, and began to urge that the plan be implemented even though Diem had not met the prior conditions established by Washington.
The President was also restive. On March 14, McGeorge Bundy sent a memorandum to Lucius D. Battle, Executive Secretary for the State Department, expressing Kennedy's concern that Nolting would not be arriving in Saigon until June. "This is simply one sample," Bundy said, "of repeated questioning which we get here on Vietnam from the President. He is really very eager indeed that it should have the highest priority for rapid and energetic action, and I know that anything the Secretary [Rusk] can do to encourage him on that point will be much appreciated." 92
By the end of March, Rostow, who had been given primary NSC staff responsibility for Vietnam, was urging Kennedy to organize for an "effective counter-offensive" in Vietnam. 93 Among other things, he advocated having Diem visit Washington, or sending Vice President Johnson on a visit to Vietnam. "In any case," he added, "we must help [Ambassadorl Nolting persuade him that our support for him is unambiguous, but that he must face up to the political and morale elements of the job, as well as its military component."
Rostow also said, "We must somehow bring to bear our unexploited counter-guerrilla assets on the Viet-Nam problem: armed helicopters; other Research and Development possibilities; our Special Forces units. It is somehow wrong to be developing these capabilities but not applying them in a crucial active theater. In Knute Rockne's old phrase, we are not saving them for the Junior Prom."
On March 28, in a special message on the defense budget, the President asked Congress for authority to increase limited warfare forces, including counterinsurgency, in addition to a larger force of intercontinental ballistic missiles. 94
Senator Richard B. Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, agreed. In a memorandum on April 20, 1961, addressed to both Kennedy and Johnson, Russell said, among other things, "The President's suggested program for specialized training in ranger or counterguerrilla operations for certain units of the Army and Marine Corps should be prosecuted with relentless vigor."95
The JCS was also recommending accelerated action in Vietnam. After receiving a report on March 28, 1961, from Lt. General T. J. H. Trapnell (former head of the MAAG in Indochina in the early 1950s), who had just returned from a review of the situation in Vietnam and Laos, the JCS agreed with most of Trapnell's suggestions, and asked the Secretary of Defense to approve those actions requiring his concurrence. These included letting the MAAG operate independently of the Embassy, and increasing U.S. support for the Civil Guard. 96
In conjunction with moves concurrently underway with respect to Laos, orders also were given on March 26, 1961, for U.S. planes to destroy "hostile aircraft" over South Vietnam, but to avoid publicity. According to the JCS cable to Saigon: 97
...it is mandatory that. . . you work out ways and means to ensure maximum discretion and minimum publicity. This effort must be kept in lowest possible key. In the event of loss of US aircraft, a plausible cover story or covering action must be ready.
On March 29, Lt. Gen. Lionel C. McGarr, Chief of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon, with Nolting's concurrence (his arrival had been moved up), replied that such a plan had been devised, and that, among other things, "In event an enemy aircraft is destroyed by US air action we will remain silent. No results US missions will be passed via air-ground radio. . . . In the event a US aircraft is lost on an operations mission from any cause whatsoevei, the explanation in reply to press query is that accident occurred while aircraft engaged in routine operational flight. " 98
On April 12, Rostow recommended to Kennedy, among other things, that he appoint a top-level Washington coordinator for Vietnam, (Rostow was thinking of Lansdale), raise the MAAG ceiling, and, besides sending Vice President Johnson to see Diem he suggested that Kennedy consider writing a letter to Diem like that of Eisenhower's in 1954, reaffirming U.S. support, stating what new assistance the U.S. was prepared to give, and urging him to make more progress toward creating a "more effective political and morale setting for his military operation. . . " 99
On April 19, Lansdale recommended that "The President should at once determine the conditions in Vietnam are critical and establish a Washington Task Force for the country." 100 Among other things he proposed that he himself should accompany the new U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam "to facilitate good working relationships with the Vietnamese Government" as well as to implement the actions of the task force. After getting Diem's consent, one of his first goals would be ". . . to call non-Communist political opposition leaders together and encourage them to rely on legal means of opposition, to help in the fight against the Communist Viet Cong, and to ease scheming coup d'etats." To help him with this and other tasks Lansdale asked that all those who had worked with him in 1954-55 be sent to Vietnam, along with Generals John W. O'Daniel and Samuel T. Williams, former chiefs of the Saigon MAAG, and other personnel as needed.
Among other steps to achieve U.S. goals in Vietnam, Lansdale recommended that the U.S., as a way of weakening the position of the North, "Encourage again the movement of refugees into the South by stimulating the desire to do so among the people in the North, by establishing better means of ingress to the South, and by re-establishing the highly successful refugee settlement program. . . . The goal should be a million refugees."
On April 20, the day after the Bay of Pigs invasion ended in failure, Kennedy established a Vietnam Task Force. (Prior to that time Vietnam had been handled also by the Laos Task Force, which, at least by the end of March, was being called the LaosViet-Nam Task Force.) This new group was to be headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, with Lansdale as operations officer. Other members included, Rostow, Paul Nitze, (Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs), Gen. Charles H. Bonesteel III from the JCS, U. Alexis Johnson (Deputy Under Secretary of State), and Desmond FitzGerald, (then Chief of the Far East Division of the covert side of the CIA). The group was told to recommend by April 27 measures to "prevent Communist domination" of Vietnam.
In an interview some years later, Gilpatric reflected on a basic problem that faced the task: 101
The first thing that we ran into was what I felt then and still feel was a basic lack of understanding of what motivated the people in the whole Indochina area, their culture, their history, their politics. And we really went on the basis of recommendations from people in prior administrations. In other words, none of us of the new group that came in with the President, who were charged with responsibility for this area, had any preparation for this problem. What we didn't comprehend was the inability of the Vietnamese to absorb our doctrine, to think and to organize the way we did. We just assumed they would react the way our Western European allies had. We really were dealing with a mentality and a psychology that we didn't understand.
Gilpatric added that it would have been difficult for any of the policymakers involved to have gained such an understanding, and that "You certainly couldn't do it under the kinds of conditions that we were faced with in 1961 and 1962 when we were making these decisions-exchange of cables and hurried meetings and this development and that development. All of us did a great deal of reading. We were briefed. But we really didn't understand what kinds of people we were dealing with and how they would respond to this assistance, direction, support that we were trying to give them, initially, to make them more effective."
Gilpatric was asked to speculate as to what the task force would have done differently in preparing its report if it were to do it again, and he replied:
I think it would be a much more tentative, exploratory longer-phased program than we came up with. I think we wouldn't have been as brash and bold in just assuming that we could, within certain time frames, train certain units and bring about certain results. I think we would have been far less confident of our judgments than we were then. We took all of these masses of suggestions that came in from all of these people, Lansdale and others, who had been out there and we talked them over and threw them around at various sessions we had at State and Defense, and came up with this whole package of different measures. I think we bought that whole line and then put it forward as our own with much more assurance than I would ever do again. I think we were kidding ourselves into thinking that we were making well-informed decisions.
"Come what may, the U.S. intends to win this battle"
On April 26, the Vietnam Task Force submitted the first draft of its report. 102 Noting that South Vietnam "is nearing the decisive phase in its struggle for survival," the report recommended that primary emphasis should be placed on internal security, and that additional U.S. assistance should be given to strengthen the programs approved earlier in January in the CIP. Included were proposals for financing the increase of 20,000 in the armed forces as well as for the entire Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps; 100 moremen for the MAAG; installation of a radar surveillance system for monitoring overflights; and support for a Vietnamese junk force to prevent Communist supply and infiltration by water.
The report also strongly reflected Lansdale's concerns about political and psychological warfare, especially his emphasis on attacking the problem in the rural areas rather than insisting on reforms that were of interest primarily to urban elites. It also assumed that Lansdale would return to Vietnam to take charge of implementing the report and subsequent follow-up action, with Gilpatric and the other members of the task force serving as the key coordinating group in Washington.
The report, which contained an annex dealing with the situation in Laos, was predicated on the assumption that the level of Communist activity in South Vietnam would remain substantially the same. If it increased, either directly or as a result of a "collapse" of Laos, the draft stated, additional assistance would be needed, and preparations should be made for that eventuality.
The reaction of top White House staff members, partly as a result of the Bay of Pigs experience, was that the task force report was inadequate, and that the President needed "a more realistic look." (emphasis in original) In a memorandum to Kennedy, on April 28, 1961, his Counsel, Theodore Sorensen, speaking also for McGeorge Bundy and David Bell, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, urged that at the NSC meeting on April 29 at which the report was to be discussed, the President should approve "only the basic concept of an all-out internal security effort to save Vietnam." 103 The memo proposed that the report be reshaped and taken by Vice President Johnson to Vietnam for discussion with Diem. It might become necessary, it said, if Johnson and Diem reached agreement, for the report then to be recast as a joint plan to be implemented by both countries.
Besides raising various specific questions about the report, the Sorensen-Bundy-Bell memo challenged two broad aspects of the task force report:
To the extent that this plan depends on the communists being tied down in Laos and lacking further forces, on our blocking land corridors through which communist support flows, or on our obtaining effective anti-infiltration action from Laos, Cambodia and the Laotian negotiations, the outcome is highly doubtful.
To the extent that it depends on wider popular support among the Vietnamese, tax and foreign exchange reforms by Diem, and his agreement to the military and governmental reorganizations required, the outcome is speculative at best.
In other words, Sorensen, Bundy, and Bell questioned whether the U.S. could count on reforms by Diem, and also doubted whether it was realistic to think that Communist infiltration into Vietnam could be blocked, even by U.S. military action.
These three advisers went on to say that the U.S. could not prevent the "loss" of South Vietnam, but that U.S. insistence on reforms was justified in order to help the South Vietnamese save themselves:
There is no clearer example of a country that cannot be saved unless it saves itself-through increased popular support; governmental, economic and military reforms and reorganizations; and the encouragement of new political leaders. We do not want Vietnam to fall--we do not want to add to Diem's burdens--and the chief purpose of insisting upon such conditions should not be the saving of American dollars but the saving of Vietnam.
Kennedy appears to have been influenced by or to have agreed with the advice of Sorensen, Bundy, and Bell, and at the NSC meeting on April 29 at which the report of the Vietnam Task Force was considered, he approved only a few of the recommendations of the task force, including its proposal that the MAAG be increased by approximately 100 in order to assist in training the Self Defense Corps, that there should be additional 20,000 men for the armed forces, and the suggestion that U.S. military assistance funds be used to support the entire Civil Guard force.
On May 1, 1961, a revised draft of the task force report was distributed. At this point, the primary responsibility was transferred from Defense to State, doubtless at the insistence of the White House, and the report was redrafted on May 3 to reflect State's views.
The task force was also downgraded in importance, with a Foreign Service officer,
Sterling J. Cottrell, appointed as Director, and another FSO, Chalmers B. Wood,
as Executive Officer, thus making it an interagency working group rather than
a sub-Cabinet level task force. Lansdale was not even made a member of the group.
In arguing for State's direction of the group it was said that Rusk ". . . was able to turn the trick with a phrase. 'If you want Vietnam,' he said to McNamara, 'give me the Marines." 104
On May 6 the task force report was again redrafted for an NSC meeting on May 11. In this, its final form, the report, which stated that "come what may, the U.S. intends to win this battle" (this language had been in the first draft of the report), recommended that in addition to the actions approved by the President on April 29, be approve other military moves, including dispatching 400 U.S. Special Forces to help train Vietnamese Special Forces; consideration of increasing the Vietnamese Armed Forces from the newly-approved 170,000 to 200,000; and consideration also of sending U.S. forces to Vietnam should this be agreed upon in the meetings of Vice President Johnson and Diem. The paper stated that the Defense Department had begun a study of the use of U.S. forces, and that one action being considered was the deployment of two U.S. battle groups (with supporting units) and an engineer battalion.
In one of the annexes to the report these military moves were discussed at greater length.105 With respect to the use of U.S. forces, it was stated in the annex that such a U.S. military group would be "specifically designed for carrying out a counterguerrilla-CiVic action-limited war mission in South Vietnam," in which "In the absence of intelligence indications of an overt attack on the G.V.N., it is contemplated that this composite force would be deployed throughout the country in small 'task force' units on specific mission assignments of a counter-guerrilla or civic action nature."
The report itself also proposed that these troops be stationed in Vietnam under a U.S.-Vietnam defensive alliance. Advantages and disadvantages of having U.S. forces in Vietnam were discussed. One of the advantages would be that "It would place the SinoSoviet Bloc in the position of risking direct intervention in a situation where U.S. forces were already in place, accepting the consequences of such action. This is in direct contrast to the current situation in Laos."
Among the disadvantages was the following: "The danger that a troop contribution would provoke a DRV-CHICOM, [Democratic Republic of Vietnam-Chinese Communist] reaction with the risk of involving a significant commitment of U.S. force in the Pacific to the Asian mainland."
The report also discussed political, economic and psychological aspects, as well as covert action and unconventional warfare.
Also in preparation for the May 11 NSC meeting, McNamara asked the JCS to review the question of deploying U.S. forces in Vietnam. JCS Chairman Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer stopped by Vietnam on his return from another trip, and on May 9 the JCS recommended to McNamara that Diem should "be encouraged" to request that the U.S. fulfill its SEATO obligation, by sending "appropriate" forces to Vietnam:106
Assuming that the political decision is to hold Southeast Asia outside the Communist sphere, the JCS are of the opinion that U.S. forces should be deployed immediately to South Vietnam; such action should be taken primarily to prevent the Vietnamese from being subjected to the same situation as presently exists in Laos, which would then require deployment of US forces into an already existing combat situation. . . . Sufficient forces should be deployed to accomplish the following purposes:
A. Provide a visible deterrent to potential North Vietnam and/or Chinese Communist action.
B. Release Vietnamese forces from advanced and static defense positions to permit their fuller commitment to counterinsurgency actions.
C. Assist in training the Vietnamese forces to the maximum extent consistent with their mission.
D. Provide a nucleus for the support of any additional major US or SEATO military operation in Southeast Asia.
E. Indicate the firmness of our interest to all Asia nations.
On May 10, Rostow sent Kennedy a memorandum commenting on the task force report that was to be discussed the next day, and it is of interest to note his position on a possible coup against Diem:107
Although we have no alternative except to support Diem now, he may be overthrown, as the accompanying cables suggest. If so, we should be prepared to move fast with the younger army types who may then emerge. Such a crisis is not to be sought, among other reasons because its outcome could not be predicted; but should it happen, we may be able to get more nearly the kind of military organization and perhaps, even, the domestic political program we want in VietNam but have been unable to get from Diem.
On May 11, Kennedy approved additional steps recommended by the task force, including the proposals for covert action, and deployment of a 400-man Special Forces team, which was the first open violation by the U.S. of the Geneva Accords. (Both sides had been violating the Accords for many years.) The military were told to assess the value of increasing the Vietnamese Armed Forces from 170,000 to 200,000. With respect to the possible use of U.S. forces, he ordered a complete study of this question, including the "diplomatic setting" for such a move. He also authorized Ambassador Nolting to begin to negotiate a bilateral U.S.-Vietnam defense pact, but to make no commitment until receiving further approval from the White House.
Kennedy's decision, which became known as the "Presidential Program for Vietnam," was promulgated by NSAM 52, May 11, 1961, the opening statement of which reaffirmed the long-standing U.S. commitment to the defense of Vietnam: 108
The U.S. objectives and concept of operations stated in report are approved: to prevent Communist domination of South Vietnam; to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society, and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic psychological and covert character designed to achieve this objective.
This is William P. Bundy's comment on the significance of Kennedy's decision: 109
The decision to Compromise in Laos made it essential to convey by word and deed that the US would stand firm in South Vietnam and in the rest of Southeast Asia. And the situation was deemed too critical to permit a more leisurely approach, or an effort to enlist systematic allied support in the SEATO framework.... What was going On in Vietnam seemed the clearest possible case of what Khrushchev in January had called a "war of national liberation." The Administration was impregnated with the belief that Communism worldwide. . . was on the offensive, that this offensive had been allowed to gain dangerous momentum in the last two years of the Eisenhower Administration, and that it must now be met solidly. . . . Although some have suggested that Kennedy was reluctant in this early decision this was certainly not the mood of his advisors nor the mood that he conveyed to them. Rather, the tone was: "Sure, Diem is difficult, but this one has got to be tackled."
Johnson's Trip and the Increased U.S. Commitment
In order to affirm and promote the U.S. commitment, as well as to extract more of a commitment from Vietnam, Kennedy decided, as was indicated earlier, that Vice President Johnson should confer with Diem. There were several reasons for sending Johnson, in addition to emphasizing the importance of the mission. He was an experienced politician who was known for his ability to persuade, and thus might be able to influence Diem. He also had considerable power and influence in Congress, and the President anticipated that Johnson would, as he did, become more committed himself, and work to get congressional support for increased aid to Vietnam.
Another important reason for sending Johnson to Vietnam was that it could be (and was) made to appear that Johnson's conclusions and recommendations were his own, and represented his point of view rather than Kennedy's. Thus, while controlling every important aspect of the trip, the White House could give the impression that the President was not directly involved in the taking of another imporant step toward a major expansion of U.S. assistance to Vietnam. At the same time, the fact that these recommendations were coming from Johnson would not only help Kennedy gain approval for the program in Congress, but would help insulate him from criticisms by some of the conservatives, who, by the same token, would hesitate to criticize Johnson.
Johnson's mission to Vietnam, May 9-15, 1961, was a very important step in the evolution of U.S. policy toward Vietnam. It has often been ridiculed and belittled by those who have reacted negatively to Johnson's reference to Diem as the "Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia," unaware, perhaps, of the fact that Johnson had been directed to laud Diem and his accomplishments." 110
When he arrived in Vietnam, Johnson gave Diem a letter from Kennedy in which the President told Diem of the additional assistance he had approved, and said that ". . . we are ready to join with you in an intensified endeavor to win the struggle against Communism and to further the social and economic advancement of VietNam."111 It was to be, Kennedy said, a "joint campaign."
Acting on explicit instructions from the White House, Johnson raised with Diem the key questions being considered in Washington, namely, whether there should be a U.S.-Vietnam mutual defense pact, and whether U.S. combat troops should be sent to Vietnam to establish a visible American military presence. Diem was not in favor of either proposal, but he said he would welcome U.S. troops for training. (Based on this, General McGarr requested that 16,000 U.S. troops be sent to Vietnam, ostensibly for training purposes, or 10,000 if Diem rejected the larger number.)"112
Johnson also discussed with Diem the reforms that the U.S. wanted him to make, and although Diem again appeared to be agreeable, it is questionable whether Johnson accomplished any more than others had or would.
On May 13, Johnson and Diem issued a joint communiqué, drafted by State Department officials in Saigon and Washington, which had been completely cleared in Washington, summarizing the talks." 113 It was evident from this document that the Kennedy administration was expanding the U.S. commitment to Vietnam in an effort to prevent the country from being overrun by the Communists. Eight points of agreement on new programs were announced, including the various measures approved earlier by Kennedy through which the joint effort would be intensified. These measures, the communiqué said, ". . . represent an increase and acceleration of United States assistance to the Republic of VietNam. These may be followed by more far-reaching measures if the situation, in the opinion of both governments, warrants."
The communiqué stated that the United States recognized "its responsibility and duty, in its own self-interest as well as the interest of other free peoples, to assist a brave country in the defense of its liberties against unprovoked subversion and Communist terror," and also recognized that Diem "is in the vanguard of those leaders who stand for freedom on the periphery of the Communist empire in Asia."
Ambassador Nolting cabled Washington on May 15 that Johnson bad "avoided any commitments beyond those in President Kennedy's letter to Diem. . . ." He said Johnson had "repeatedly stressed necessity of having adequate evidence to convince Congress it should vote additional aid funds especially in economic field. We believe general expectation left with Diem is that additional aid will be forthcoming." 114
This expanded commitment by the President of the United states, with the acquiescence of Congress, raised the level and enlarged the scope of existing U.S. commitments to Vietnam. Previously the U.S. had taken the position that it was assisting Vietnam in its efforts to defend itself. Although in practice the United States was deeply involved in activities in Vietnam, it had never taken the position that this was a joint effort by the two countries--a concept with many implications for the role of the United States and the role of Vietnam, as well as for the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam.
This shift from providing assistance to assuming responsibility for part of a joint effort was based on a recognition of two salient facts. First, the previous commitment was not adequate and existing programs were not working. The situation in Vietnam was deteriorating, and a stronger commitment as well as new programs were required in order to prevent this from happening and to achieve U.S. objectives. Second, by 1961 the failure of the South Vietnamese to act effectively to prevent substantial Communist gains in the country had convinced the new Kennedy administration that the U.S. had to intervene more fully, and play a stronger, more direct role in Vietnam in order to prevent the Communists from winning.
It is important in this connection to understand that the Kennedy administration did not consider negotiating a settlement of Vietnam, even though there was a move among several State Department officials to do so in conjunction with the Geneva Conference on Laos. In a subsequent interview, Kennedy's assistant Theodore Sorensen explained the administration's conception of the differences between Laos and Vietnam, and the reasons for not seeking a negotiated settlement for Vietnam:"115
In Laos it was clear that a negotiated settlement was the best we could reach. It was not accessible to American forces. It was up against the border of the Red Chinese. A policy of trying to establish an American protege there was contrary to the wishes of our allies. And therefore, inasmuch as a negotiated settlement was possible, since negotiations with the Soviet Union were possible, that was the most desirable alternative.
In Vietnam, on the other hand, exactly the opposite was true. It was militarily more accessible, and there was no obvious route to negotiations inasmuch as we were not and could not be in a position of dealing directly with the Red Chinese and the North Vietnamese. And therefore, the President felt that we would have to maintain our military presence there until conditions permitted a settlement which would not be a disaster for the United States.
Carl Kaysen, who was interviewing Sorensen on this occasion, and who himself had been on Kennedy's NSC staff, noted that the U.S. had negotiated with the Chinese over Korea, and then asked Sorensen, "Were the possibilities or prospects for a settlement by negotiation ever considered, to your knowledge; examined-any sounding made?"
Sorensen. No, not to my knowledge.
Kaysen. So the President assumed from the first that we had to deal with this problem by military means?
Sorensen. That's right.
Sorensen added that Kennedy did not consider it to be just a military problem. "He felt that getting the enthusiastic support of the country, its population, and its army was at least one-half of the problem and, therefore, would require economic and political and social reforms as well as military action on our part."
Kaysen. Yes, but from the first, there was this judgment that we have to support military action with whatever also was required to do that. And throughout the whole of the President's Administration, we found ourselves increasing our commitment to Vietnam, although at no time did the prospects improve. Did this reflect a judgment that a favorable decision in Vietnam was really vital to U.S. interests?
Sorensen. It reflected rather the converse of that-that an unfavorable decision, or a retreat, an abandonment of Vietnam, an abandonment of our commitment would have had a very seriously adverse effect on the position of the United States in all of Southeast Asia. Therefore, we had to do whatever was necessary to prevent it, which meant increasing our military commitment.
Sorensen added: ". . . I think the President did feel strongly that for better or worse, enthusiastic or unenthusiastic we had to stay there until we left on terms other than a retreat or abandonment of our commitment."
Johnson Reports, and Fulbright Becomes Concerned
On May 24, 1961, Johnson returned to Washington and gave Kennedy an oral and a written report on his trip."116 For the oral report Kennedy invited selected congressional leaders to the White House to hear Johnson in a closed 1 hour session attended also by Rusk."117 In his written report, which State Department officers on the trip and in Washington had also prepared, and which had been cleared and approved by the White House itself, Johnson began by emphasizing that the mission had helped to offset the adverse affects in Asia (he visited India, Pakistan, Taiwan and the Philippines as well as Thailand and Vietnam) created by the Lao situation. Laos, he said, ". . . has created doubt and concern about the intentions of the United States throughout Southeast Asia. No amount of success at Geneva can, of itself, erase this. The independent Asians do not wish to have their own status resolved in like manner in Geneva." He said, however, that the mission had ". . . arrested the decline of confidence in the United States. It did not-in my judgment-restore any confidence already lost. The leaders were as explicit, as courteous and courtly as men could be in making it clear that deeds must follow words-soon.
"We didn't buy time-we were given it.
"If these men I saw at your request were bankers, I would know-without bothering to ask-that there would be no further extensions on my note."
The principal conclusion of the report was as follows:
The basic decision in Southeast Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a "Fortress America" concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don't live up to treaties and don't stand by our friends. This is not my concept. I recommend that we move forward promptly with a major effort to help these countries defend themselves.
Johnson said that combat troops were neither required nor desirable:
Asian leaders--at this time--do not want American troops involved in Southeast Asia other than on training missions. American combat troop involvement is not only not required, it is not desirable. Possibly Americans fail to appreciate fully the subtlety that recently-colonial peoples would not look with favor upon governments which invited or accepted the return this soon of Western troops.
He added this interesting and important point:
To the extent that fear of ground troop involvement dominates our political responses to Asia in Congress or elsewhere, it seems most desirable to me to allay those paralyzing fears in confidence, on the strength of the individual statements made by leaders consulted on this trip. This does not minimize or disregard the possibility that open attack would bring calls for U.S. combat troops. But the present probability of open attack seems scant, and we might gain much needed flexibility in our policies if the spectre of combat troop commitment could be lessened domestically.
Johnson concluded the report by reiterating the need for deciding whether to make a "major effort" in Southeast Asia: "The fundamental decision required of the United States-and time is of the greatest importance-is whether we are to attempt to meet the challenges of Communist expansion now in Southeast Asia by a major effort in support of the forces of freedom in the area or throw in the towel." He underlined the implications: "This decision must be made in a full realization of the very heavy and continuing costs involved in terms of money, of effort and of United States prestige. It must be made with the knowledge 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." And then there was this haunting sentence: "We must remain master in this decision."
The next day, May 25, 1961, Johnson went to Capitol Hill to report to the Senate on his trip. The meeting was hosted by the Foreign Relations Committee, and 57 Senators were present. (Prior to going to Asia, Johnson had talked to Fuibright, Mansfield and others.)118 Johnson repeated for the group the conclusions he had stated in his report to the President, including the need to understand that a decision to make a major effort in Southeast Asia could later entail, on the one hand, a decision to withdraw, or, on the other, to commit major forces.
Tailoring his language for his political audience, Johnson, saying that he favored such a major effort, added, "If a bully can come in and run you out of the yard today, tomorrow he will come back and run you off the porch."
During the question period Johnson was asked whether Laos was a "lost cause." "No," he said, "I did not get that feeling out there, but I have been very depressed about Laos. I don't see what we can do there. I don't think anything is going to come out of the conference.
"I think that the Russians are going to bust it up, and I think that the Communists will practically have it." He added that he was glad he did not have to discuss this subject with Asian leaders, "because there was not any hope I could give them or any promises I could make."
Congressional reaction to Johnson's trip was generally favorable. Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D/Conn.), the newest member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a committed anti-Communist who was also a strong supporter of Johnson, praised the Vice President, but argued that the U.S. should increase its role in Asia. Based on a trip he had just completed, he said, ". . . the drama which may toll the death knell for the United States and for Western civilization is now being played out in southeast Asia." Laos is the center of that crisis, he said, but throughout the area there is a "crisis of confidence" in U.S. leadership. He proposed a plan of action in which the U.S. would insist at Geneva that Laos be "truly free," without Communists in a coalition government, and that if this could not be achieved the U.S. should then "make an inviolable commitment of our prestige and our resources to achieve an independent Laos by force of arms." Moreover, the U.S. should increase its aid to freedom-loving countries, and carry the battle to the enemy. Guerrillas should be sent into North Vietnam ". . . to equip and supply those patriots already in the field; to make every Communist official fear the just retribution of an outraged humanity; to make every Communist arsenal, government building, communications center, and transportation facility a target for sabotage; to provide a rallying point for the great masses of oppressed people who hate Communism because they have known it." Also, if sending SEATO forces to Laos resulted in an increased Communist offensive, the U.S. should "carry the offensive to North Vietnam, and wherever else it may be necessary."119
There was another reaction of interest, given his later opposition, beginning in 1967, to the war. This was the position taken by Representive Paul Findley (R/Ill.), then in his first year in Congress, who criticized Johnson's announcement that he would not recommend the deployment of U.S. combat forces to Vietnam. Findley said, "U.S. combat forces are the most effective deterrent to aggression, and we should publicly offer such forces to South Vietnam without delay." "If we commit our forces in advance of Communist action," he argued, "the attack will probably never come. If we get into the fight in midstream, we may trigger a big war." He said that no country in which U.S. forces had been stationed had ever been attacked, and that for the Vice President to state that we would not send forces to Vietnam was "an invitation to trouble." Another Laos "was in the making," he added. "Supplies and training are not enough. Sooner or later, we will be forced to send combat forces to a war already in progress, or once more be identified with failure."l20
This same argument was made within the executive branch only a few months later
by a number of civilian and military advisers, including the Vietnam Task Force
Fulbright also reacted. Although he had indicated in early May that he would support using U.S. combat troops in Vietnam or Thailand if necessary, by the beginning of June, partly as a result of his reaction to Johnson's trip and to what he correctly perceived to be the beginning of a major expansion of U.S. military aid to Vietnam and of the U.S. role in Southeast Asia, he began to have second thoughts. This led him to send a private memorandum to Kennedy as the President was preparing for his "summit meeting" with Khrushchev, in which he urged Kennedy to "reconsider the nature of American policies in Southeast Asia, specifically U.S. programs in Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, Laos and Thailand."121
On June 29, Fulbright continued this line of argument in an important foreign policy speech in the Senate in which he said that it was "dangerous doctrine" to argue that because the U.S. was strong it would commit its strength to the "active defense of its policies anywhere outside the Communist empire . . . nothing would please Communist leaders more than to draw the United States into costly commitments of its resources to peripheral struggles in which the principal Communist powers are not themselves directly involved." The attempt by the U.S. to make Laos into an "armed anti-Communist bastion," he said, ". . . was a mistake, because it [U.S. policy] was not related to the needs of the country or to the nature of its people and their interests." South Vietnam, however, deserved U.S. support. Its people were anti-Communist, and its regime, although "perhaps unnecessarily severe," had been strong. But he warned that U.S. programs in Vietnam had been "too heavily weighted on the military side," and more attention was needed in the "struggle for dignity and economic independence." Referring to the success of Magsaysay in the Philippines, he said that the proper role for the U.S. in countries such as Vietnam was to enable "well-intentioned governments" to bring about social and economic reforms that, with the necessary security, would cause the populace to reject Communist domination.122
Fuibright's words fell on deaf ears. No effort had been or was thereafter made by the administration to review or reevaluate U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, except for the decision to seek a negotiated settlement of Laos.
The Staley Mission
After meeting early in June 1961 with Khrushchev, who seemed agreeable with respect to the neutralization of Laos but was truculent on almost every other subject, Kennedy and his associates became even more intent on getting an agreement on Laos, on the one hand, and stepping up U.S. assistance to Vietnam on the other. In an interview some years later, Dean Rusk commented:123
When Kennedy met with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, they seemed to reach some kind of understanding about Laos. That was the only positive thing to come out of that meeting. At the same time, Khrushchev tried to intimidate and bully this young President of the United States with an ultimatum. He told Kennedy, "We Russians are going to go ahead now and make this peace treaty with East Germany; if the West tries to interfere, there will be war." Kennedy said, "Mr. Chairman, there will be war. It is going to be a very cold winter." It was a tough situation. Kennedy was very much aware of this as he looked at the problem of Vietnam. I think he felt up to the point of his death that he was being tested by Khrushchev. Of course, that feeling was underscored by the Cuban missile crisis.
Just after his meeting with Khrushchev, Kennedy told James Reston of the New York Times, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.124 But if Vietnam rather than Laos was "the place," then it was all the more important that a negotiated settlement be reached on Laos. Accordingly, after returning from Europe, Kennedy called Harriman to stress the need for an agreement. According to Harriman, the President said, "You understand Averell," or Governor, he always used to call me, "that I want a settlement. I don't want to send troops."125
There was still something of a disjunction, however, between the White House and the working level in the departments. Despite Kennedy's emphasis on Laos negotiations, the Vietnam Task Force continued to take the position, which the Laos Task Force had taken earlier in the year, that the U.S. should undertake military action in Laos. Such action was recommended to the task force at a meeting on June 19, 1961, by the Director, Sterling Cottrell, in a draft report which argued that this action was necessary in order to defend South Vietnam. On June 20, Robert H. Johnson, a member of the NSC staff, sent Rostow a memorandum on this new report, saying that he had "expressed some surprise" in the meeting at Cottrell's statement "that, unless we undertake military action in Laos, it would be virtually impossible to deal effectively with the situation in Viet-Nam."126
Johnson's comment itself is somewhat surprising, in view of the fact that there
had long been very strong support in State and Defense for the proposition that
the defense of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, necessarily was based on a
defense line along the Mekong River-SEATO Plan 5. Even after the agreement on
Laos in 1962, many planners continued to argue that such a line of defense was
the key to protecting all of Southeast Asia, and that unless the infiltration
of men and supplies into Vietnam through Laos could be controlled, the insurgency
in Vietnam could last indefinitely. (This argument-that U.S. (SEATO) forces
should be sent to Laos in order to protect Vietnam-was made, especially by the
JCS, during the weeks of planning for action in Southeast Asia preceding the
Taylor mission in October 1961.)
The President and his associates lost no time in implementing the Johnson-Diem communiqué. On June 14, 1961, Kennedy met with Diem's key Cabinet officer, Nguyen Dinh Thuan, to discussDiem's suggestions for implementing that agreement. These were contained in a letter of June 9 from Diem to Kennedy, which Thuan presented, in which Diem recommended, among other things, an increase in the Vietnamese Armed Forces from the 170,000 men just approved in May to 270,000 men, with the increase occurring over 31/2 years.'27 (It is interesting to note, by the way, that this increase would be in regular army units, rather than in local militia or the Civil Guard. By this time, however, a large percentage of the regular army was engaged in fighting the guerrillas.) This plan, which had been worked out in conjunction with General McGarr, would necessitate, Diem said, a "considerable expansion" of the U.S. military assistance group, but, "Such an expansion, in the form of selected elements of the American Armed Forces to establish training centers for the Vietnamese Armed Forces, would serve the dual purpose of providing an expression of the United States' determination to halt the tide of communist aggression and of preparing our forces in the minimum of time." In other words, Diem apparently had been persuaded to agree to the American formula of having U.S. forces deployed in Vietnam for training purposes as well as serving as an armed presence, or "trip wire," that might deter the Communists.
In this meeting, Kennedy asked, among other things, about the problems of infiltrating guerrillas into North Vietnam. According to the memorandum of the conversation, "Mr. Thuan replied that a few highly trained troops were available but that if Viet-Nam were to risk these men in an attempt to stir up unrest in North VietNam, the United States should be prepared to make a major effort to give them the full support needed to carry out such an action to a successful conclusion."128
The President seemed to agree completely with Diem's proposals. He instructed the State Department to expedite financing for the 20,000 increase already approved for the Vietnamese Army, and told McNamara to give a copy of Diem's letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the Secretary was testifying that day, ". . . in order that the Senators could better understand and appreciate the magnitude of the task involved in helping VietNam to maintain its independence." He also asked which Members of Congress Thuan would be seeing, and suggested he see some Republican Senators, especially Everett McKinley Dirksen (Ill.) and Bourke B. Hickenlooper (Iowa). The State Department said it would arrange these meetings. It had already arranged for Thuan to see Fulbright, Mansfield, and Frank J. Lausche (D/Ohio), the chairman of the Far East Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee.129
On the sensitive subject of U.S. forces, Kennedy carefully avoiding making a commitment, even though he agreed that the MAAG should be increased in order to speed up the training of Vietnamese forces, adding that ". . . this increase should be done quietly without publicly indicating that we did not intend to abide by the Geneva Accords."
In mid-June 1961, in accordance with the Johnson-Diem agreement, the U.S. sent a team of specialists to Vietnam to work with a Vietnamese team on a financial plan. The U.S. group (U.S. Special Financial Group) was headed by a private economist, Dr. Eugene Staley, president of SRI (Stanford Research Institute), but most of its members were from the government.
After spending a month in Vietnam the group made its report.130Although it was responsible for developing a financial plan, it had necessarily become involved in discussions of military force levels on which such a plan would rest. Two projections were made. Alternative A called for a level of 200,000, an increase of 30,000 over the level already approved. Alternative B called for increasing forces to the level of 278,000, which was 8,000 more than had been recommended by Diem. The first alternative assumed a continuation of the existing level of the insurgency, whereas the second assumed a significant increase in Communist activity in Vietnam, and a deterioration in Laos ending in de facto control by the Communists. The report then analyzed the costs involved in each alternative, and how these funds could be provided jointly. Other economic and political programs were discussed, including the Vietnamese plan to build 100 agrovilles ("strategic hamlets" or fortified villages) during the next 18 months. Calling these "one of the more promising counter-guerrilla methods tried up to this time," the report recommended that agrovilles be given top priority.
The report stated that although the military situation was the most critical, an "emergency" plan of economic and social action was also needed, especially in the rural areas. The long-run success of military operations, it said, would hinge on the success of economic and social action.
The concept of this "Joint Action Program," the report stated, was, by applying adequate resources in a prompt and effective manner, to achieve an early victory or "breakthrough." "Our joint efforts must surpass the critical threshold of the enemy's resistance, thereby putting an end to his destructive attacks, and at the same time we must make a decisive impact on the economic, social, and ideological front."
On August 4, 1961, President Kennedy approved the Staley group's recommendations, including alternative A (a 200,000 man army).131 (Because the level of 200,000 could not be achieved for over a year, he thereby left himself the option of moving later to a higher number.) He also agreed that the U.S. would pay most of the increased costs involved in these new actions, but he urged that Vietnam increase its own financial efforts, including tax reform and an increase in the exchange rate for U.S. commodities under the commodity import program, and that Diem provide more of an opportunity for non-Communist opposition political groups to participate in public life.132
On its face, the Staley report appeared innocuous enough. Consistent with the announced mission of the group to develop a financial plan, the report discussed at length the financial and economic aspects of the situation in Vietnam at that time. What was not apparent was the extent to which the Staley plan was a military-security plan. Furthermore, approval of the plan, which seems to have been almost automatic, set in motion another series of incremental actions by which the United States strengthened its military-security commitment to Vietnam.
In its actions during the summer of 1961 on the authorization and appropriation bills for the foreign aid program, Congress approved the administration's increased assistance to Vietnam resulting from the Johnson and Staley missions. Although there were more policy questions than in previous years, especially on the part of Fuibright, as was indicated earlier, support for U.S. assistance to Vietnam continued to be strong, and the requested funds were generally approved without significant change. Once again, however, it is appropriate to note that although some of its leaders may have been informed about the decisions on Vietnam being made in the executive branch, Congress was largely acting on this legislation without knowledge of those decisions and of the growing U.S. commitment in Vietnam. Although Kennedy consulted leaders of Congress about sending U.S. forces to Laos, and included them in the meeting with Johnson upon his return from Vietnam, there is no record of similar consultations with Congress about the decisions made during the early months of 1961, as well as during the summer and fall, to increase the commitment and role of the U.S. in Vietnam. In part this lack or absence of consultation resulted from the customary reluctance of executive branch personnel to divulge information to Congress. It also reflected the reluctance of Congress to press the administration for information on sensitive foreign policy subjects, or to attempt to ferret out information in investigations or trips to the field. The President also was still enjoying to some extent his "honeymoon" with Congress, and, being a Democrat, he tended to have the presumption of support from a Democratic Congress.
There was also a tendency to exclude Congress from the decision-making process when the White House itself was taking the lead in debating alternatives, making plans, and recommending action. Thus, during July-October 1961, when Rostow and Maxwell Taylor, both on the President's staff, took personal charge of planning the next moves in Vietnam, Congress appears to have been almost totally excluded from the process.133
While there may have been some consultation or at least communication with a few Members and committees, especially on military matters, the general exclusion of key Members and committees of Congress from Vietnam decisionmaking during the last half of 1961 also had the effect of dulling Congress and the public's interest in the subject. In two executive sessions of the Foreign Relations Committee to discuss the world situation with Rusk, one on September 20 and the other on December 20, there was not even any mention of Southeast Asia or of Vietnam or Laos, either by Rusk or by members of the committee.'34 With the exception of the foreign aid bill, and of one hearing on Laos on August 16 by the Far East Subcommittee (which kept no transcript or minutes of the meeting), no hearings on Southeast Asia were held by the Foreign Relations Committee during the balance of the year after Johnson's report on his visit in late May. As was previously indicated, this did not imply a lack of interest in the area by the chairman and other key Members.
During the late summer and fall of 1961, however, the overriding foreign policy concern of the President and Congress was the growing tension with the Russians over Berlin, culminating in late August with the construction of the Berlin Wall. As had been the case earlier in the year, this more important foreign policy problem tended to eclipse the situation in Southeast Asia.
Contingency Planning for Action in Southeast Asia
Although Berlin was the primary focus, Southeast Asia continued to be of great concern. By late June 1961, the small group of White House staff members, supported by a few agency personnel, chiefly from the State Department, had begun to develop contingency plans for that area. They were particularly worried about the course of U.S. policy in the event that the Laos negotiations failed to produce a settlement, and/or the Communists increased their military activities in South Vietnam.
The principal persons working on Southeast Asia in the White House at the time were Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who had become a special assistant to Kennedy in June, and W. W. Rostow. Others directly involved were NSC staff members Robert Komer and Robert Johnson. From outside the White House the key participant was Deputy Under Secretary of State U. Alexis 135
On June 20, 1961, Rostow sent President Kennedy a memorandum on "The Present Situation in Southeast Asia," which he also sent to U. Alexis Johnson on July 6 with a note saying that he was attempting through the memorandum to do two things:136
(1) To get the town [Washington] to examine the question of whether there might not be a better and more persuasive military contingency plan than putting many thousands of troops in the Mekong Valley [SEATO Plan 5].
(2) To get the town to consider more explictly the military and political links between the Laos and the Viet-Nam problems.
On July 10, Rostow thanked Johnson for responding and said, "The crucial issue that remains, it seems to me, is whether we take the initiative fairly soon to raise the question of aggression against Viet-Nam in some international forum.137 ". . . the crucial role of the Viet-Nam-as a diplomatic issue," he added "-is to provide a political base for more persuasive military posture; for I assume we agree that without the other side becoming persuaded that we mean business in Southeast Asia, there is unlikely to be a Laos settlement acceptable to us."
It goes without saying, of course, that we should not raise the Viet-Nam issue on the international level unless we are prepared to see it through, if international action is unnecessary. Here, as you know, I favor designing and looking hard at an air-sea (iron-bomb)138 counter-guerrilla war, with as many SEATO friends as will play, along with continued vigorous efforts within Diem's boundaries. But if that more ambitious course should be rejected, we would have still strengthened our position before the world, should it be necessary for us sharply to increase our assistance to Diem inside South Viet-Nam. And, at the minimum, this seems likely.
On July 12, Rostow made these same points in a conversation with Rusk. For his part, Rusk emphasized that if the U.S. raised the Vietnam issue in the U.N. as a case of aggression under the U.N. Charter, it would have to be "ready to go' in following up on that charge.139 In a memo to Rusk on July 13, Rostow said he agreed:140 "We must know quite precisely what kind of international action we want-action which might radically reduce the external component in Diem's guerrilla war." But if the U.S. was not able to get effective international action, Rostow said, this would "free our hands and our consciences for whatever we have to do." He said that he believed-and he thought U. Alexis Johnson agreed-that in order to achieve a satisfactory settlement in Laos the U.S. had to persuade the Communists that it would "fight." He did not think that the existing SEATO Plan 5, which was based primarily on defending the area from the Mekong Valley to the south, would be an adequate deterrent. He favored the development of a plan under which the U.S. would take direct action against North Vietnam.
Rostow told Rusk that if the U.S. was not able to get adequate help from the U.N., it would need to be prepared for these three levels of action:
-A sharp increase in the number of Americans in South Viet-Nam for training and support purposes;
-A counter-guerrilla operation in the north, possibly using American Air and Naval strength to impose about the same level of damage and incovenience that the Viet Cong are imposing in the south;
-If the Vietminh cross their border substantially, a limited military operation in the north; e.g., capture and holding of the port of Haiphong.
On July 14, 1961, Rostow sent Kennedy a memorandum in response to a question the President had apparently asked concerning the implications of the Southeast Asia situation for the handling of the Berlin crisis. Rostow, who noted that Taylor had approved the memo, said that rather than focusing just on Berlin, the President should, for a variety of reasons (which he stated), deal with the broader question of the increasing seriousness of the world situation, including Southeast Asia, and the need for the U.S. to prepare to meet the growing threat to its security. He also suggested the desirability of doin~ so under the President's emergency powers by a "modification' of the state of emergency arrangements which were still in effect as a result of World War II and the Korean war. This, he said, could help provide a legal basis for such preparations, as well as strengthening the administration's case for foreign aid, the space program, and education.141
On July 18, Rostow and Taylor met with U. Alexis Johnson to discuss the "inter-connection between various elements of policy in Southeast Asia. . .." 142 Among the topics considered were the urgent need for creating and funding a program for Northeast Thailand; the need for "clearing out the Pathet Lao pocket at Tchepone," on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and "the difficulties of doing it while the ceasefire still operated in Laos"; the need for developing a "common feeling among the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Thais . . . in relation to the possibility of mounting a local effort to protect that area from guerrilla warfare and subversion." (The memorandum of conversation on the meeting added: "It was agreed that, while the job might not be impossible, important political and psychological obstacles would have to be overcome. The crucial long-term need for such an association of effort was emphasized.")
At this meeting, held three years before the U.S. retaliated against North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, "The possibility of using evidence of North Viet-Nam aggression as a foundation for more aggressive limited military action against North Viet-Nam" was also discussed. U. Alexis Johnson agreed, on behalf of State, to "collect and examine the persuasiveness of the evidence of North Viet-Nam aggression against South Viet-Nam," as well asto examine "the best diplomatic forum or series of forums in which the issue might be raised.143
A part of the planning process included contingency planning for information programs on Vietnam, both internationally and in the United States itself, to be used in conjunction with military action, and one of the more interesting documents of the period is a plan for a "Contingency Information Program" in the United States, prepared by a member of the Public Affairs staff of the State Department for the Vietnam Task Force, describing the means by which the public and Congress could be persuaded to support military action.144 "Before we could use force or publicly announce our decision to use force," the paper said, "American public opinion would have to be conditioned to support such action. The Congress would also have to be fully informed and convinced of the necessity for such action." This, according to the paper, would be accomplished by the following means:
a. Perspectives. The Task Force should float perspective articles through selected newspaper columns such as those of Messrs. Alsop, Drummond, Childs, Reston, etc. While these would reach one audience, a broader exposition for a different audience should be made through Sunday newspaper supplements such as the American Weekly, Parade, the New York Times Magazine and, if time permits, through the Saturday Evening Post and movie newsreels which have a claimed audience of 40 million weekly.
It might be profitable for later exploitation to place some profile articles on Gen. Maxwell Taylor as an expert on limited warfare.
b. Consultations. The Senate, or some of its key members, should be taken into the confidence of the Executive early in the process and they should be told why alternative courses of action are unacceptable. We should induce some senators to make public speeches on the seriousness of the situation, etc.
c. Backgrounders. Following publication of the perspectives, the Task Force should analyze public reaction to them and assess any weak points in the argumentation which may have been revealed by public reaction. From this analysis and assessment, material might be prepared for backgrounders to be given by top level officials, among whom might be Messrs. Bowles, Johnson, McConaughy, Bohlen, Nitze and General Taylor.
d. Press conferences, etc. If by this time public opinion has not begun to call for positive action, we should begin to withdraw to a fall-back position; we should prepare now the terrain to which we might be obliged to withdraw.
If, on the other hand, public opinion has become more receptive, high level officials should move into the open with public statements on the choices facing us. From this point onward in the information program, the sequence of events should, ideally move very rapidly.
The Secretary, Senators Fuibright, Mansfield, Humphrey or Javits might take a public supporting position and Gen. Taylor could state his views. The means would be television interview programs, press conferences and-again if time permits-news-reels.
e. Spot News. At this point, our Asian allies might request token deployment of American combat troops to help them in the defense of Southeast Asia against external aggression.
f. Fireside telecast. Very quickly after the Asians request combat help, President Kennedy should, in a telecast to the nation, announce that action has been taken. He should also explain the reasoning behind his decision and the unacceptable nature of the alternatives, and the fact that [it] is defensive, not aggressive action. He should stress that we shall cross no borders uninvited.
As for the messages to be sent to the public by these means, the paper recommended that the public and Congress be told about the history of Communist aggression and subversion in Vietnam, as well as the consequences of Communist control of Laos, and that "The 'domino theory' should be fully explained."
In general; the aim should be to (i) give our Asian allies full credit for the efforts, social and economic as well as military, that they have made; (ii) show the peril to our own defenses; and (iii) indicate that subversion in Southeast Asia is a Communist export, not an indigenous product. Finally, we should develop the theme that the Communist propaganda campaigns have often struck Berlin like a gong to distract our attention from the actual exercise of force in Asia, but that we do not intend to be diverted.
As the planning process continued, Robert Komer sent Rostow a memorandum on July 20 entitled "Are We Pushing Hard Enough in South Vietnam?145 He proposed, as was being recommended by the Staley group, a "crash" program for Vietnam:
While it may simply be too early to tell, we do not yet have things turned around in Vietnam. In part this reflects one of the real problems for any government-how to get adequate follow-through. We whack up a big exercise on a crash problem, take some strong initiatives, and then the agencies tend to slip back toward business as usual with only the White House providing much of a prod.
But more important, there are some strong political reasons for stepping up the momentum in South Vietnam. I believe it very important that this government have a major anti-Communist victory to its credit in the six months before the Berlin crisis is likely to get really hot. Few things would be better calculated to show Moscow and Peiping that we mean business than an obvious (if not yet definitive) turnaround in Vietnam. Moreover, here the odds are still in our favor, which makes Vietnam a better place than Laos to achieve the desired result. Such a victory is also indispensable to the process of reassuring our Far East allies, most of whom have been led by Laos to wonder whether we have the moxie to protect them any longer.
What should we do? How about the President directing that all wraps are off in the counter-guerilla operations, etc. in South Vietnam? We will fund and pay for any crash measures, however wasteful, which will produce quick results. We will do anything needed in sending arms and ammunition, providing MAAG advisers, and in associated social and economic operations designed to win back the countryside. The objective-to achieve before the end of the year a major defeat of the Viet Cong.
The important thing would be a change in operational philosophy. Instead of haggling with Diem over who should finance what proportion of the effort, we would regard this as a wartime situation in which the sky's the limit. The only caveat would be that outlays must be related to the counter-guerrilla campaign. Hence, we would not give Diem a blank check on economic development or on building up the regular army for defense of the 17th parallel as McGarr would have us do.
Komer added that while such a program would cost more, the cost of not acting could be higher in the long-run. He emphasized, moreover, that "Simultaneously, we must put the blocks to Diem on finally doing the necessary to regain popular support," and suggested that the U.S. might be able to use the proposed program as a "lever" for that purpose.
Komer's conclusion was as follows:
What do we lose if such an initiative fails? Are we any worse off than before? Our prestige may have become a little more heavily engaged but what else? And the risk involved if we fail to prevent the Viet Cong threat from developing into a full-fledged civil war is clearly overriding. After Laos, and with Berlin on the horizon, we cannot afford to go less than all-out in cleaning up South Vietnam.
Kennedy is Skeptical of Proposed Military Action
President Kennedy doubtless shared the feeling of Komer and other advisers that there was an important linkage between the posture of the U.S. in Southeast Asia and relations with the Russians, especially with respect to Berlin. He probably also agreed with Rostow's contention that the administration could use the Communist threat in Southeast Asia, among other things, to increase U.S. public and congressional support for a military buildup, as well as for promoting foreign aid and other legislation which the White House considered important. But Kennedy was reluctant to move as fast or as far as some of his advisers recommended. At a meeting on July 28, 1961 with all of the key participants in the planning process (including Rusk, U. Alexis Johnson, Ball, Taylor, Rostow), Kennedy made it clear that he was skeptical about military plans for Laos, and that he wanted more information before approving a counterinsurgency plan for using U.S. forces in Southeast Asia.
In advance of the meeting, the State Department's newly-established Southeast Asia Task Force, under the direction of John Steeves had prepared a brief report for Kennedy on a proposed course of action in Southeast Asia.146 According to the report, the "consensus" of the task force was that "It is essential to our policy interests in Asia, and indeed globally, to ensure the security of Southeast Asia against further communist advancement. . . . The loss of Southeast Asia to the free world would be highly inimical to our future strategy and interest." The group had also concluded that "We should make the basic decision now to resist this encroachment by appropriate military means, if necessary, with or without unanimous SEATO support."
The task force took the position that North Vietnam was "the immediate focal point of the threat to the peninsula and whatever action is taken should bear on this objective if both Laos and VietNam are to be secured and the approaches to the rest of the peninsula blocked."
Among its recommendations, the task force proposed that the U.S. insist on having an effective International Control Commission for Laos as the "minimum price" for U.S. military withdrawal. In addition, the U.S. should "keep a steady rein" on the royalist government of Laos to keep it from agreeing to a coalition government that could be controlled by the Communists.
With respect to Vietnam, the task force recommended that the Staley plan be
approved. In addition, "In carrying out our programs based in Viet-Nam
covert action be conducted to interdict North Vietnamese pressure on South Viet-Nam
and if these contacts do not prove successful, eventually give covert indication
that the continuation of DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] aggressive policy
towards Laos and Viet-Nam may result in direct retaliatory action against her."
Finally, the report recommended that because SEATO Plan 5 did not envisage action against North Vietnam, the U.S. should develop a military plan based on the possibility of such action, with or without other SEATO countries.
On July 27, Taylor and Rostow sent Kennedy a memo in which they listed the issues which would be presented at the meeting the following day.147 The choices for the U.S., they said, were "to disengage from the area as gracefully as possible; to find as soon as possible a convenient political pretext and attack with American military force the regional source of aggression in Hanoi; or to build as much indigenous military, political and economic strength as we can in the area, in order to contain the thrust from Hanoi while preparing to intervene with U.S. military force if the Chinese Communists come in or the situation otherwise gets out of hand." They said they assumed that the latter course was what Kennedy preferred, but that it would be helpful for him to indicate his position and to have a discussion of the situation and the options available.
At the meeting which then took place with the President on July 28, U. Alexis Johnson began the discussion of the Southeast Asia Task Force report by stating that the Communists did not appear to want a neutral Laos; that "they are very confident about the current military situation and see no reason for concessions." The U.S., therefore, needed to "introduce a new element which will change their estimate of the situation." This new element would be a plan to "take and hold" the southern part of Laos with troops from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and the U.S., if the minimum U.S. condition for a negotiated settlement (a strong ICC) was not accepted in Geneva. Furthermore, Johnson said, continuing his discussion of the task force report, if the Viet Minh then intervened substantially in Laos and/or Vietnam, the U.S. should consider using air and naval forces in direct attacks on North Vietnam. As he explained some years later, Johnson thought that the U.S. needed to inhibit the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to supply Communists forces in South Vietnam. He argued that if there was to be a negotiated settlement, its inspection provisions must have "teeth." 'Laos was really the key to Vietnam" Johnson said, and our failure in 1962 to dislodge the Pathet Lao from Tchepone [the strategic town on the southern end of the Ho Chi Minh trail] eventually acted to seal the fate of Vietnam."148 At the same time, Johnson recognized that his hope for a settlement with stronger inspections provisions was probably "futile." As to whether the direct use of U.S. forces in Laos would have been effective in preventing the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, he concludes: "We probably lacked the means to do this; certainly we lacked the will. 149
As the meeting on July 18, 1961 continued, President Kennedy asked several questions about details of the plan, and from the responses it was clear that such details had not been developed. Moreover, "It was not clear how great an effect action against Haiphong or Hanoi would have on Northern Viet-Nam, nor whether it would be easy to hold what had been taken in a single attack. Similarly, no careful plan has yet been developed for an operation to take and hold Southern Laos." 150
Kennedy expressed "the need for realism and accuracy" in plans for military action in Laos. "He had observed in earlier military plans with respect to Laos that optimistic estimates were invariably proven false in the event. He was not persuaded that the airfields and the existing situation in Southern Laos would permit any real operation to save that part of the country, and he emphasized the reluctance of the American people and of many distinguished military leaders to see any direct involvement of U.S. troops in that part of the world." He said he was very reluctant to make a decision to use U.S. forces in Laos, and in order to find out more about the situation he would like for General Taylor to go to Vietnam on a study mission. Meanwhile, he wanted to pursue the Laos negotiations. He also agreed to accept the Staley recommendations, but did not want to be committed in advance to specific levels of funding.
After the meeting, Rostow, with Taylor's concurrence, sent a memorandum to Kennedy on August 4 in which he attempted to state his and Taylor's understanding of Kennedy's position: 151
As we understand your position: You would wish to see every avenue of diplomacy exhausted before we accept the necessity for either positioning U.S. forces on the Southeast Asian mainland or fighting there; you would wish to see the possibilities of economic assistance fully exploited to strengthen the Southeast Asian position; you would wish to see indigenous forces used to the maximum if fighting should occur; and that, should we have to fight, we should use air and sea power to the maximum and engage minimum U.S. forces on the Southeast Asian mainland.
The memo went on to reiterate the proposals of the task force for developing a contingency plan for controlling southern Laos, and, if necessary, ". . . attacks from the air-also, possibly, from the sea-in the Haiphong-Hanoi area." "This graduated pressure," the memo added, "could take the form of air strikes against the land lines of communications and supply centers, and sea interdiction of logistical traffic along the east coast of Viet-Nam. It could also include a naval blockade in the Gulf of Tonkin to isolate the Port of Haiphong."
Moreover, the memo stated, the contingency plan should include possible U.S. action against China if the Chinese Communists intervened in Indochina.
Meanwhile, Taylor had sent his own proposal to U. Alexis Johnson on July 31, in which he suggested a meeting of the leaders of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos "to consider ways of making common cause against the infiltration into Laos," and sending reconnaissance groups from SEATO Plan 5 forces to military installations in Thailand and Laos to check on military needs prior to implementing any contingency plans. "Word of these happenings," he added, "would get around."
As planning for possible military action in Southeast Asia continued, the President asked Rostow and Taylor on August 7 to advise him ~ the means for bringing to the attention of "world public opinion" the actions of North Vietnam, both in Laos and in South Vietnam. He added, "I agree with you that ground work has to be laid or otherwise any military action we might take against Northern Vietnam will seem like aggression on our part." 152
On August 10, the JCS presented to Kennedy their plan for Southeast Asia. There are no records available as to what the plan contained or as to the discussion of it with the President, but there is the record of a meeting on August 12 which included Taylor and Rostow from the White House, Johnson and Steeves from the State Department, and Lemnitzer and others from the JCS (but no Department of Defense civilians, which is an indication of the fact that the discussions had not attained the level of a full-scale policy process), to continue the August 10 discussion of the JCS proposal. There was apparently no civilians in attendance from the Defense Department, which is an indication that the discussions on Southeast Asia which had been initiated by the White House staff had not attained the level of a full-scale policy process. At this meeting it was agreed that a "comprehensive area plan" was needed to provide for military action in the event of a possible partition of Laos. Participants in the meeting further agreed that in the case of the first contingency, "a visible, stepped-up invasion from the North," SEATO Plan 5 should be invoked. "Hanoi would have been warned in advance that invasion would bring SEATO forces and air attacks on targets in North Vietnam." In the second contingency, that of increased infiltration and pressure on areas controlled by the prowestern forces, SEATO forces should be given greater support, including as many as 2,000 more military advisers for Laotian forces, mostly from the U.S.153
On August 14, Taylor drafted a memorandum for Kennedy to send to Rusk commenting
on both the August 10 JCS briefing and the August 12 meeting of State and the
JCS.'54 The memo indicated approval of the proposed area plan to defend the
"flanks"-Vietnam and Thailand-from Communist infiltration and attack
through cooperative military efforts of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, but took
the position that U.S. military participation was the "minimum" required
to get these three countries to cooperate. It noted, moreover, that even if
such a cooperative plan were feasible, "it will require very considerable
effort to develop the political
framework to support it."
Rostow left for vacation while the "comprehensive area plan" was being developed, but before leaving he sent Kennedy a memorandum on August 17 in which he explained what the area plan would probably include, and offered his own suggestions as to how to proceed.155 "I suspect your planners," he said, "will tell you this: to hold the present line and to mop up behind it nothing will suffice very much short of the introduction of forces (or the firm commitment to introduce forces) into Southeast Asia from outside the mainland on the scale of the SEATO Plan 5 if to overcome the three fundamental weaknesses we face: Diem's preoccupations; Sarit's uncertainties; and Phoumi's incompetence." (Sarit Thanarat was then in power in Thailand, and Phoumi Nosavan was in command of the non-Communist government in Laos.) Because of these weaknesses, and the difficulty of intervening from outside, Rostow felt that a negotiated settlement of the Laotian conflict was essential. But he again argued that in order to get the Communists to agree to a reasonable settlement the U.S. and the other SEATO powers had to convince them that they would make a "substantial" military commitment if the Communists refused to agree. He proposed to the President a plan to demonstrate American determination in the event the Communists decided to stall and to try to take more territory in South Laos, which would also avoid, at least initially, the deployment of U.S. forces to Laos. To do this he suggested that the U.S. establish a SEATO military headquarters in Thailand, staffed by an American commander and supporting personnel, to develop contingency plans with Sarit and Diem for the deployment of a SEATO combat force. Then, with or without the participation of the British and French, the U.S. should develop contingency plans for such an action with other SEATO powers.
Rostow said, "This kind of revival of SEATO appears, then, the only way I can perceive of salvaging Averell [Harriman] in Geneva [negotiating on Laos] and laying the basis for holding the area for the long pull without excessive U.S. commitment on the mainland. But it takes a bold U.S. commitment in principle-very soon indeed."
"This is a hard decision," he said, "for our troubles with the British and French in SEATO have permitted us a bit of the luxury of the drunk at the bar who cries "Let me at 'em", while making sure he is firmly held by his pals.
"On the other hand, to go this route is, in fact, to recognize commitments we already have upon us-but to act on them positively. Surely we are hooked in Viet-Nam; surely we shall honor our bilateral assurances to Sarit, as well as our SEATO commitment; and- I suspect-despite everything it implies, we shall fight for Laos if the other side pushes too far its advantages on the ground."
Rostow added, "Your decision here is not easy. It involves making an uncertain commitment in cold blood. It is not unlike Truman's commitment on Greece and Turkey in March 1947; for, in truth, Southeast Asia is in as uncertain shape as Southeast Europe at that time. But-like Truman's commitment-it has the potentiality of rallying the forces in the area, mobilizing the will and strength sufficient to fend off the Communist threat, and minimizing the chance that U.S. troops will have to fight in a situation which has further deteriorated."
The next day (August 18), Rostow sent a memo to Robert Kennedy in which he said, "I deeply believe that the way to save Southeast Asia and to minimize the chance of deep U.S. military involvement there is for the President to make a bold decision very soon."156 (By this he meant before the end of the rainy season in Laos, which would occur by early October.)
On August 22, 1961, Taylor sent a memorandum to U. Alexis Johnson recommending that certain interim steps be taken while final U.S. plans for Southeast Asia were being completed, and that these be assigned to appropriate U.S. agencies for implementation. These steps would include political discussions with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to determine their willingness to establish a common front against the Communists, as well as "the price which the United States might be obliged to pay for effective collaboration"; establishing, as Rostow had suggested, a SEATO headquarters and staff in Thailand; and increasing the numbers of foreign advisers with Laotian troops. The major question, Taylor said, was the amount of U.S. and other SEATO force commitments. "It presently appears that we must be willing to make some commitment at the outset in order to assure Sarit's support."157
On August 24, a top-level meeting of those working on Southeast Asia plans was held in Rusk's office. A draft of a proposed plan prepared by the Southeast Asia Task Force (drafted primarily in State) was the subject of the discussion. According to a report of the meeting, the proposal, which generally reflected Rostow's ideas, was vigorously attacked by McNamara and Harriman, joined by Rusk, who saw it as inconsistent with, if not antagonistic to, the President's plan for a negotiated settlement in Laos. Despite efforts by Taylor and Steeves to defend the plan, it was thoroughly repudiated, leaving the subordinates on the task force without any support for their positions from their agency heads.158
After this debacle, the State Department drafted a modified proposal for Kennedy which stressed the negotiation of a settlement for Laos, and suggested courses of action in the event these negotiations were successful or not, with proposals for military and other action in the latter case.159
On August 29, 1961, Kennedy met with his advisers to consider the revised proposal. The memorandum from Rusk asked that he decide on these points:
1. Authorization immediately to undertake talks with our SEATO allies both bilaterally and with the SEATO Council representatives in Bangkok, and also with South Vietnam, as appropriate, in which we would explore their receptivity to:
(a) enlarging the concept of SEATO Plan 5 so that if the Communists renew their offensive and the decision is made to implement Plan 5 the objective would be the expulsion of Communist forces from all of Southern Laos and the Mekong River line, including the Luang Prabang area. The establishment of such an objective would be conditional upon the willingness of Thailand and South Vietnam, and to a lesser extent possibly some other SEATO countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand, to commit additional forces to Plan 5.
(b) in the event neither a peaceful settlement is achieved nor has there been a sufficient renewal of the offensive by the Communists to justify consideration of implementing SEATO Plan 5, the carrying out of a SEATO exercise in Thailand about October 10 employing ground combat troops, supported by tactical air units and, on completion of the exercise, leaving behind in Thailand a SEATO command and communications "shell" prepared on a contingency basis to expedite the implementation of SEATO Plan 5.
(c) undertaking additional rotational training of SEATO combat units in Thailand.
(d) introducing into Thailand a SEATO River Patrol along the line of the Mekong, and
(e) declaring at an appropriate time a SEATO charter yellow or charter blue condition [stages of military alerts].
2. Immediately increasing our mobile training teams in Laos and seeking Thai agreement to supplying an equal number of Thais for the same purpose.
3. Immediately increasing by 2,000 the number of Meos being supported so as to bring the total up to the level of 11,000.
4. Authorizing photo reconnaissance [deleted--160] over all of Laos. (This has for the most part been suspended during the cease-fire.)
5. As soon as the details are worked out with ICA and Congressional action has been taken on the aid bill, a letter from you to Sarit offering a $150,000,000 line of credit.
Kennedy approved most of the proposed actions, including SEATO discussions (but not the actual steps suggested in States' memo, 1. [b] through 1. [e]), as well as the increase in mobile training (bringing U.S. advisers in Laos to a total of 500), the increase in CIA assistance to Meos tribesmen, and photo reconnaissance of Laos "by Thai or other sanitized aircraft."161
Several days later the State Department gave the White House a new memorandum on steps to take in Laos if the Communists resumed military activity and if the U.S. did not intervene militarily. As summarized by Robert Johnson for Rostow, "The objective of the proposed actions . . . is not to clean out, sanitize or seal off the Mekong and South Laos areas, but rather, through harrassment, to prevent the Communists from obtaining a secure base area from which to launch attacks on Thailand and Vietnam." "It seems to me," Johnson added, "that we should be preparing for the kinds of actions suggested on an urgent basis."162
As outlined by State (either in the same paper described by Johnson or a later and similar one), the U.S. would, among other things, continue its various forms of covert assistance to Laotian forces;consider sending a combat battalion to Vietnam and another to Thailand for training purposes, as well as to establish the presence of U.S. troops, and deploy an engineering battalion to Vietnam and another to Thailand. All of these moves would be made unilaterally by the U.S. without the involvement of other SEATO countries.163
A JCS survey team under direction of Brig. Gen. William H. Craig, which had just returned from a trip to Laos and Vietnam, recommended on September 15, 1961, that SEATO Plan 5 should be activated immediately in order to forestall action by the Communists when the rainy season ended in early October. The team also recommended that the U.S. "get tough with Phoumi" to improve the Laotian military performance, and that the U.S. be prepared to support Phoumi's forces with tactical air operations if hostilities resumed. "The future of the US in Southeast Asia is at stake. It may be too late unless we act now one way or another."164
In a memo to Kennedy on September 26, 1961, however, Taylor confirmed the President's earlier concern about the potential logistical problems involved in military action by ground forces in Laos. Taylor reported that "The more we study the Southeast Asia problem the more we are convinced of the critical importance of logistic factors. A study of the logistic problem from the point of view of the Communists and ourselves indicated that it sets an upper limit to the possibility of escalation of military action. . . . Without much work on the logistical facilities, we should not introduce and support many more troops in Laos and Thailand than those contemplated in SEATO 5" 165
A meeting with the President on October 5, 1961 to discuss Southeast Asia, for which Rostow, Taylor and U. Alexis Johnson had been organizing papers from the several departments concerned, was postponed. Instead, the President met with Harriman, who was returning to Geneva, to discuss the next moves the U.S. would make in the Laos negotiations, especially the possibility of getting the Russians to agree that continued infiltration by the North Vietnamese into South Vietnam would be a breach of the broad U.S.-U.S.S.R. understanding being developed at Geneva, and what the responsibility of the Russians might be toward enforcing such an understanding on infiltration. Harriman apparentl~r was also authorized at this point to explore with the Russians 'ways and means whereby relations between North and South Viet-Nam could be stabilized."166
The Taylor-Rostow Trip is Scheduled
On October 11, the President held the meeting with his advisers to discuss Southeast Asia which had been postponed from October 5. By this time the situation in Laos was fairly stable, and negotiations were continuing in Geneva. In Vietnam, however, the situation was becoming more serious, and it was apparent that further action might be needed. As Rostow stated in a memo to Kennedy on October 5: 167
The contingency plan for an overt resumption of the offensive in Laos is in tolerably good shape; but it is now agreed that it is more likely that the other side will concentrate on doing Diem in than on capturing the Mekong Valley during this fighting season.
As for Viet-Nam, it is agreed that we must move quite radically to avoid perhaps slow but total defeat. The sense of this town is that, with Southern Laos open, Diem simply cannot cope.
Rostow's own proposal was that the U.S. should tell the Russians "the destruction of Diem via infiltration could not and would not be accepted," and that Harriman should emphasize this point in the Geneva talks. Secondly, the U.S. should seek U.N. agreement on a United Nations inspection mission in Southern Laos. This would have the advantage, he said, of causing the Communists to reduce their activity in the area of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as well as bringing the U.N. into the Southeast Asia situation, a move which Rostow said he thought was "essential in the long run." Thirdly, he proposed deploying a 25,000-man SEATO border patrol force in Vietnam. Among other things, this would have the advantage of bolstering Diem and giving the U.S. more leverage on military matters, restraining a North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam, and strengthening U.S. bargaining power with the Russians by making the withdrawal of such a U.S. force a "bargaining counter in a Vietnamese settlement." Above all, "The presence of a SEATO force in South Viet-Nam would make it clear. . . that the attempt to destroy the South Vietnamese government by force could not be carried forward to a conclusion without risking an escalation of the fight. This would not merely threaten Hanoi with air and naval action, but would threaten Soviet or Chinese Communist involvement. And this I doubt Moscow wants."
In conclusion, Rostow repeated his recommendation that Taylor and Lansdale be sent to Vietnam for a review of the situation, and said, "For us the gut issue as I see it is this: We are deeply committed in Viet-Nam; if the situation deteriorates, we will have to go in; the situation is, in fact, actively deteriorating; if we go in now, the costs-human and otherwise-are likely to be less than if we wait."
As pohcymakers in the executive branch, without any apparent knowledge of or participation in such proceedings on the part of Congress, continued to discuss what action should be taken in view of the increasing threat to Vietnam, the JCS was asked for its reaction to Rostow's proposal for a SEATO border patrol force. It replied on October 9 that this proposal was not feasible. Instead, the JCS again recommended the implementation of SEATO Plan 5 in a "concentrated effort" in Laos which would also have the effect of protecting the Vietnamese border as well as giving "concrete eviuence of US determination to stand firm against further communist advances world-wide." 168 ". . . lacking an acceptable political settlement prior to the resumption of overt hostitlities," the JCS said, "there is no feasible military alternative of lesser magnitude which will prevent the loss of Laos, South Vietnam and ultimately Southeast Asia."
If SEATO Plan 5 deployments caused escalation, the JCS added, there would have to be additional mobilization in the U.S. in order to maintain U.S. strategic reserves, adding, ". . . we cannot afford to be preoccupied with Berlin to the extent that we close our eyes to the situation in Southeast Asia, which is more critical from a military viewpoint." "It is not a question of the desirability of having two limited war situations going at the same time. The fact of the matter is that we may be faced with such a contingency."169
According to the plan suggested by the JCS on October 9, the SEATO force would be stationed in South Vietnam near the Laotian border in the vicinity of Pleiku for the purpose of controlling the central highlands, the key area for defending Laos and South Vietnam. There would be 22,800 men, of whom approximately 9,600 would be ground combat troops, including 5,000 from the U.S. (Of the total force, 13,200 would be from the U.S.) A U.S. brigade would also be stationed in Thailand. "Our military posture," the JCS stated, "is such that the employment of the SEATO forces would not adversely affect our capability to conduct planned operations in Europe relating to Berlin."
The JCS plan called for offensive action by the SEATO force against Communist threats to the border of South Vietnam or to the force itself, and retaliation against North Vietnam for any overt military intervention in South Vietnam or Laos.
If North Vietnam were to "overtly intervene," the SEATO force would need to be increased to more than 200,000, including an increase in U.S. forces to 129,000 from the original 13,200. If the Chinese intervened, 278,000 SEATO troops would be needed, and consideration would have to be given "whether to attack selected targets in North China with conventional weapons and whether to initiate use of nuclear weapons against targets in direct support of Chinese operations in Laos." 170
As preparations for a meeting with the President on October 11 continued, William P. Bundy, then Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, sent a memorandum on October 10 to McNamara in which he, too, advocated an "early and hard-hitting" military operation in Vietnam by a SEATO force:171
For what one man's feel is worth, mine-based on very close touch with Indochina in the 1954 war and civil war afterwards till Diem took hold-is that it is really now or never if we are to arrest the gains being made by the Viet Cong. . . . An early and hard-hitting operation has a good chance (70% would be my guess) of arresting things and giving Diem a chance to do better and clean up. Even if we follow up hard, on the lines the JCS are working out after yesterday's meeting, however, the chances are not much better that we will in fact be able to clean up the situation. It all depends on Diem's effectiveness, which is very problematical. The 30% chance is that we would wind up like the French in 1954; white men can't win this kind of fight.
On a 70-30 basis, I would myself favor going in. But if we let, say, a month go by before we move, the odds will slide (both short-term shock effect and long-term chance) down to 60-40, 50-50, and so on. Laos under a Souvanna Phouma deal is more likely than not to go sour, and will more and more make things difficult in South Viet-Nam, which again underscores the element of time.
Bundy commented later on this memo, with its "breathless character." "I do not recall," he said, "that my prognosis was argued specifically, or necessarily shared. The memorandum was not circulated beyond McNamara and a few others; all it does in history is bo express a mood that was widely shared, that we had to act fast md hard if we were to act at all. Also that it was not an open-andthut decision."172
For the October 11 meeting with the President the principal dociment was a paper of October 10, 1961, drafted by U. Alexis John;on, which combined the ideas of Taylor, Rostow and the Southeast Asia Task Force with the military proposals of the JCS.
This paper, "Concept for Intervention in Viet-Nam," proposed tne use of SEATO (primarily U.S.) forces "to arrest and hopefully to reverse the deteriorating situation" in Vietnam, while at the same time having a favorable effect on the Laos negotiations."173 Deployment of SEATO forces, however, "cannot be taken without accepting as our real and ultimate objective the defeat of the Viet Cong, and making Viet-Nam secure in the hands of an anti-Communist government."
Initially these forces, which would be stationed at Pleiku, would consist of 11,000 ground combat forces, which would be supported 11,800 air, naval, and other forces, bringing the total to 22,800. "clean up the Viet Cong threat" in South Vietnam, however, as as 40,000 might be needed. This number would increase if the North Vietnamese intervened in force in South Vietnam, and increase further if the Chinese intervened. There might ultimately be a requirement for as many as four divisions, plus supporting forces, from the U.S.-based reserve forces, and this might necessitate "a step-up in the present mobilization, possibly of major proportions."
The paper pointed out that the ultimate force requirements would depend "above all on whether the effort leads to much more and better fighting by Diem's forces. They alone can win in the end.
The "rules of engagement" for these forces would allow them to do
battle with any Communist forces "encountered in any reasonable proximity
to the border or threatening the SEATO forces." In addition, they could
engage in "hot pursuit" into Laos and possibly into Cambodia if necessary.
The paper advocated prompt action in deploying these SEATO forces before a Laos settlement could be reached, because of the fact that with a settlement "it would be much more difficult to find a political base upon which to execute this plan."
The "pros" and "cons" of the proposed action were presented. Among the "cons" was: "The plan itself would not itself solve the underlying problem of ridding SVN of communist guerrillas." Also, "It breaks the Geneva Accords and puts responsibility on the U.S. for rationalizing the action before the U.N. and the world." Furthermore, there would be the "risk of being regarded as interlopers a la the French. . . ." In addition, the Communists might react by a "change of tactics back to small-scale operations [which] might leave this force in a stagnant position."
Among the "pros" was that such a move could strengthen the Vietnamese as well as U.S. influence with the Vietnamese and the U.S. bargaining position with the Russians. Moreover, "If we go into South Viet-Nam now with SEATO, the costs would be much less than if we wait and go in later, or lose SVN."
In connection with this paper, Ambassador Nolting had reported on October 1 that Diem had asked for a bilateral defense treaty with the U.S. Diem was said to be concerned that the situation in Laos would become more serious, and that the effectiveness of the proposed deployment of SEATO forces would be reduced by British and French resistance to getting involved. According to Nolting, "changing U.S. policy in Laos, especially SEATO decision to use force if necessary to protect SVN and Thailand, would relieve pressure for bilateral treaty."174 (On October 13, Nolting reported that Minister Nguyen Dinh Thuan had requested, on behalf of Diem, U.S. combat forces in lieu of a defense treaty.)175
At the meeting on October 11, President Kennedy decided to send General Taylor, accompanied by Rostow, Lansdale, William J. Jorden (Department of State) and Cottrell, to Vietnam to review the political and military feasibility of deploying U.S. forces, either a larger group as proposed by the Johnson memo, or a smaller group with "a more limited objective than dealing with the Viet Cong; in other words, such a small force would probably go in at Tourane and possibly another southern port principally for the purpose of establishing a U.S. 'presence' in Vietnam." The group was also asked to review other alternatives to the use of U.S. forces, such as more economic and military aid.
In addition, Kennedy approved certain specific actions recommended in the Johnson paper, including sending the Air Force's "Jungle Jim" Squadron (12 planes especially equipped for counterinsurgency warfare); initiating attacks against Communist installations at Tchepone, using U.S. advisers if necessary; preparing publication of the white paper on Vietnam, and developing plans for presenting the Vietnam case to the U.N.. Other unspecified actions were approved. 176
With respect to the decision to use the "Jungle Jim" Squadron, there is this additional information in the Air Force history of the Vietnam war:177
On October 11, 1961, President Kennedy authorized the sending of a U.S. Air Force unit to South Vietnam. The following day, a detachment of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, code-named "Farm Gate," flew to South Vietnam. Stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base just north of Saigon, the 4400th CCTS flew combat modified T-28 fighter-bomber trainers, SC47s, and B-26s, redesignated "Reconnaissance Bombers" (RB26s) in deference to the 1954 Geneva Conventions prohibition against the introduction of bombers into Indochina. On December 16, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara authorized participation in combat operations, provided a Vietnamese crewmember was aboard the strike aircraft.
In order to conceal the purpose of the Taylor trip, in part to prevent premature speculation about the question of using U.S. forces, Kennedy said in the NSC meeting that he was going to announce it as an "economic survey." He apparently decided not to do so, but on October 14 the New York Times ran a story to that effect, stating, among other things, that military leaders, as well as General Taylor, were reluctant to use U.S. forces, and that local forces assisted by the U.S. would be used instead. As the Pentagon Papers says, "this was simply untrue." Kennedy was not pleased about Diem's request for troops, as well as about news stories that troops would be sent, and had decided to plant the version contained in the New York Times. That story, as the Pentagon Papers adds, ". . . had the desired effect. Speculation about combat troops almost disappeared from news stories, and Diem never again raised the question of combat troops: the initiative from now on came from Taylor and Nolting, and their recommendations were very closely held."178
1. For background information on years prior to 1961, see The US. Government and the Vietiam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships; Part I, 1945-1961, prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, by the Congressional Research Service, Senate Print 98-185 Pt. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1984).
2. For an excellent analysis of the arguments involved, and of Eisenhower's
position, see John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal
of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press,
19~), ch. 6. For an analysis by a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation study group,
headed by Henry A. Kissinger, which supported the Gaither committee's findings,
see the report 'International Security: The Military Aspect, published in 1958
and reprinted in Prospect for America: The Rockefeller Panel Reports (New York:
As historian Anna Nelson has explained, the Eisenhower administration was not oblivious to the problem of fighting limited wars while relying on a strategic nuclear deterrent. At an NSC meeting on May 1 1958, she reports, there was a candid discussion of the problem, and the Council agreed to develop a supplementary strategy for "defensive wars which do not involve the total defeat of the enemy. Anna Kasten Nelson, "The 'Top of Policy Hill': President Eisenhower and the National Security Council," Diplomatic History, 7 (Fall 1983), p. 311
3. Maxwell Taylor, The Uncertain Trumpet (New York: Harper and Bros., 1960). Major academic studies included Henry A. Kissinger Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harper and Bros., 1957); Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961); Robert E. Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).
4. U.S., President Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service), John F. Kennedy, 1961, pp. 13.
5. See Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, ch. 7. In the words of James A. Nathan and James K. Oliver, United States Foreign Policy and World Order, 3d ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), p. 237, Kennedy's inaugural message "was an eloquent reaffirmation of the Truman Doctrine. It was containment with vigor."
6. Thomas G. Paterson, "Bearing the Burden: A Critical Look at JFK's Foreign Policy," Virginia Quarterly Review, 54 (Spring 1978), p. 195.
7. The following is taken from pt. I of the present study, cited above, which contains source notes and further discussion.
8. Letters to CRS from Dean Rusk, Apr. 1, 1983 and Oct. 22, 1984.
9. For more information on congressional support for US. policy toward Indochina in the 1950s, see pt. I of this study, cited above
10. Patterson, "Bearing the Burden: A Critical Look at JFK's Foreign Policy," pp. 201, 203.
11. Michael Chariton and Anthony Moncrieff, Many Reasons Why (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), p. 82.
12. Vietnam or Laos (or Indochina) was not even on a list of seven topics which the chief of staff of the Foreign Relations Committee, Carl Marcy, proposed to Chairman Fulbright as the most important foreign policy problems for the committee to consider during 1961. University of Arkansas, Fuibright Papers, Marcy to Fulbright Memorandum, Dec. 27, 1960, series 48, box 1.
13. Kennedy Library, POF Spec. Corres. File, Memorandum to Senator John F. Kennedy from John H. Sharon and George W. Ball, Dec. 5, 1960.
14. For the text of Eisenhower's notes see Waging Peace, 1956-1961 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 712-716.
15. Ibid, p. 610.
16. See ibid, p. 609.
18. Kennedy Library, POF Spec. Corres. File, Memorandum of Subjects for Discussion at Meeting of President Ejsenjiower and Senator Kennedy on Thursday, January 19, 1961, n.d. (The other items on the list under "State" were, in order after Laos, "Cuba, DOminican Republic and Caribbean area; The Congo, and the African situation generally, Berlin; Nuclear Test Talks and Disarmament; Algeria, and other current problems with France." The list also included one item for Defense and one item for Treasury.)
19. These excerpts are from a memorandum on the meeting prepared in 1969 for President Lyndon B. Johnson by Clark Clifford who, along with the newly appointed top Cabinet officials, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretaryof Defense Robert S. McNamara, and Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, accompanied Kennedy to the meeting. The memorandum is reprinted in Pentagon Papers, Gravel ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), vol. II, pp. 635-637 (hereafter cited as PP). There is an earlier, shorter but similar memorandum on the meeting to Kennedy from Clifford, Kennedy Library, POF Spec. Corres. File, Jan. 24, 1961. Eisenhower does not discuss the details of the meeting in his memoirs.
20. Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Bantam Books ed., 1966), p. 722.
21. For details of this and other aspects of the Laotian aspect of the Indochina War see the standard works, Arthur L. Dommen, Conflict in Laos: The Politics of Neutralization, rev. ed (New York: Praeger, 1971), and Charles A. Stevenson, The End of Nowhere: American Policy Toward Laos Since 1954 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972). For 1960-1961 specifically see Bernard B.Fall, Anatomy of a Crisis: The Laotian Crisis of 1960-61 (New York: Doubleday, 1969).
22. The two memos are in the Kennedy Library, POF Country File, Laos, where there is also a translation of Souvanna Phouma's letter of Jan. 7, 1961, to Mansfield.
23. U. S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Historical Series), vol. XIII, pt. 1, 87th Cong., 1st sess. (Washingto, DC: U. S Govt. Print. Off., 1984), pp. 1-38, 49-90 (hereafter this series will be cited as SFRC-His Ser.)
24. Ibid., pp. 188-190.
25. ArthurM.Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1954), p. 329, and sorenson, Kennedy, p. 722/
26. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam.
27. W. W. Rostow, The Diffusion of Power (New York: Macmillan, 1972), p. 265.
28. The text of the report is in PP. DOD (Department of Defense) ed., (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1971), book 2, IV. A. 5., pp. 66-77, as well as in book 11, pp. 1-13.
29. CRS Interview with Edward G. Lansdale, Nov. 19, 1982.
30. From the text of Durbrow's cable in PP, DOD ed., book 10, p. 1359. See also Durbrow's cable of Dec. 4, 1960 excerpted in ibid, book 2, IV A. 5. pp. 63-65, in which he descnbed the situation in Vietnam after the attempted coup in November, and explained why the U.S. needed to continue to insist on reforms and liberalization. The text of the counterinsurgency plan and its annexes is still classified, but a portion of the plan is in ibid., pp. 87-93.
31. Schlesinger. A Thousand Days, p. 541. In writing this book, Schlesinger had access to classified materials, many of which, such as the counterinsurgency memorandum, are still classified.
32. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam.
33. This account of the meeting is from a memorandum at the Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam, W. W. Rostow to McGeorge Bundy, Jan. 30, 1961.
34. PP, Gravel ed., vol.II, p. 27.
35. CRS Interview with Eld ridge Durbrow, Oct. 25, 1978.
36. Kennedy Library, Oral History Interview with Theodore C. Sorensen, Mar. 26, 1964, p. 97.
37. The subject of the first NSAM was "Separate Budgeting of Spending Abroad." A list of all Kennedy NSAMs by number and subject was provided CRS by the Kennedy Library. A similar listing of NSAMs during Johnson's administration, made available by the Johnson Library, does not provide, for alleged security reasons, and at the direction of the NSC staff, the subjects of most NSAMS issued during Johnson's administration. The texts of all NSAMS cited herein were provided by the two libraries unless otherwise noted.
38. NSAMS 2 and 28 are also in the Pentagon Papers, DOD ed., book 11, pp. 17-18.
39. "This was done and the piece in question appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, May 20, 1961, under the title, "The Report the President Wanted Published," By an American Officer ("whose name, for professional reasons, cannot be used").
40. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 302, and Marvin Kalb and Elie Abel, Roots of Involvement, The U.S. in Asia, 1784-1971 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971), p. 110.
41. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 341.
42. Kalb and Abel, .124.
43. See Douglas S. Blaufarb, The Counterinsurgency Era (New York: Free Press, 1977). The Special Group (CI) was established by NSAM 124, Jan. 18 1962, which is reprinted in PP DOD ed., book 12, pp. 442..444. Other relevant documents are NSAM 131, Mar. 13, 1962, "Training Objectives for Counter.insurgency in ibid, pp. 457~459, and NSAM 162, June 19, 1962, "Development of U.S. and Indigenous Police, Paramilitary and Military Resources," in ibid, pp. 481-486.
44. Henry A. Kissinger, "Military Policy and Defense of the 'Grey Areas,"
Foreign Affairs, 33 (April 1955), pp. 416-428. For a more complete discussion
of Kissinger's argument, see pt. I of this Study.
45. Seymour J. Deitchman, The Best-Laid Schemes (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976), pp. 4-5. In Schlesinger's description, "The future everywhere. . . seemed bright with hope. . . . The capital city, somnolent in the Eisenhower years, had come suddenly alive. The air had been stale and oppressive; now fresh winds were blowing. There was the excitement which comes from an injection of new men and new ideas, the release of energy which occurs when men with ideas have a chance to put them into practice." A Thousand Days, p. 206.
46. Confidential CRS Interview, Feb. 1, 1979. (emphasis in original)
47. Undated memo from Rusk to Kennedy in the Kennedy Library, POF Country File, Laos.
48. Same location.
49. Same location.
50. Same location.
51. Stevenson, The End of Nowhere, p. 142. One senior adviser, Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles, was strongly opposed to a U.S. military commitment in Laos. See Bowles' Promises to Keep (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp.. 335-407.
52. Kennedy Library, POF Staff Memos File.
53. Cited in Stevenson, The End of Nowhere, p. 135.
54. Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 724.
55. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 332.
56. Ibid., p. 333.. There are few available details on the consultations that apparently were held with Congress during the latter part of March, including an executive session of the Senate Foreign Relations Comnuttee on Mar. 22 which was not transcribed.
57. Stevenson The End of Nowhere, p. 146.
58. Earl H. Tilford, Jr., Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-1975 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, 1980), pp. 34-35. On Mar. 24, 1961, the first U.S. Air Force plane piloted by an officer in uniform had been shot down in Indochina while flying an electronic surveillance mission over Laos. See ibid., p. 33.
59. Public Papers of the Presidents, John F. Kennedy, 1961, p. 214.
60. See Congressional Record, vol. 107 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off.), pp. 4706-4708, 5114-5115, 5292.5293, (hereafter cited as CR).
61. Kennedy Library, POF Country File, Laos. The 16-page study enclosed with the letter was "The Struggle in South Vietnam,' prepared in Mar. 1961 by Oliver E. Clubb. Jr., Legislative Reference Service, Library of Congress. In 1962, Clubb, then at the Brookings Institution, prepared the study, The United States and the Sino-Soviet Bloc in Southeast Asia (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1962).
62. Harold Macmillan, Pointing the Way, 1959-1961 (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 333-338. Quotations from the book are from Macmillan's diary.
63. lmmediately after the Bay of Pigs failure, President Kennedy asked Maxwell
Taylor Robert Kennedy, Adm. Arleigh Burke (Chief of Naval Operations) and Allen
Dulles to review the operation, as well as "governmental practices and
programs in the areas of military and paramilitary, guerrilla and anti-guerrilla
activity." With respect to the Bay of Pigs (Operation Zapata), the Cuban
Study Group concluded after a month of secret hearings, . . . we are of the
opinion that the preparations and execution of paramilitary operations such
as Zapata are a form of cold war action in which the country must be prepared
to engage. If it does so, it must engage in it with a maximum chance of success.
With respect to the broader question of U.S. cold war operations, the group
concluded that there was need for . . a changed attitude on the part of the
government and of the people toward the emergency which confronts us. The first
require. ment of such a change is to recognize that we are in a life and death
struggle which we may be losing, and will lose unless we change our ways and
marshall our resources with an intensity asaociat~<j in the past only with
times of war. To effect this change, we must give immediate consideration to
taking such measures as the announcement of a limited national emergency, the
review of any treaties or international agreements which restrain the full use
of our resources in the cold war, and the determination to seek the respect
of our neighbors, without the criteria being international popularitr, and a
policy of taking mto account the proportioning of foreign aid to the attitude
suown us by our neighbors. In the light of the strained situation in Laos and
the potential crisis building up over Berlin, we should consider at once affirmative
program to cope with the threat in both areas. There should be a re-examination
of emergency powers of the President as to their adequacy to meet the developing
situation." For one comment on the Kennedy administration a response to
these recommendations see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His
Times (Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1978), pp. 459-460. See below for actions taken
The Cuban Study Group also recommended a division of responsibility between the CIA and the military that was later implemented in Vietnam: ". . . the Department of Defense will normally receive responsibility for overt paramilitary operations. Where such an operation is to be wholly covert or disavowable it may be assigned to CIA, provided that it is within the normal capabilities of the agency. Any large paramilitary operation wholly or partly covert which requires significant numbers of militarily trained personnel, amounts of military stocks and/or military experience of a kind and level peculiar to the armed forces is properly the primary responsibility of the Department of Defense with the CIA in a supporting role.
These quotations from the Cuban Study Group report are from Operation Zapata: The "Ultrasensitive Report and Testimony of the Board of Inquiry on the Bay of Pigs (Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1981), pp. 43, 51-52, and 48-49.
64. CRS Interview with James C. Thomson, Jr., Oct. 17, 1978. In his very perceptive article, "How Could Vietnam Happen?" Atlantic Monthly (April 1968), p. 48, Thomson stated:". . . the legacy of the fifties was apparently compounded by an uneasy sense of a worldwide Communist challenge to the new Administration after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A first manifestation was the President's traumatic Vienna meeting with Khrushchev in June, 1961; then came the Berlin crisis of the summer. All this created an atmosphere in which President Kennedy undoubtedly felt under special pressure to show his nation's mettle in Vietnam-if the Vietnamese, unlike the people of Laos, were willing to fight."
65. Kennedy Library, Oral History Interview with William H. Sullivan (second of two), Aug. 5, 1910, p. 33.
66. Of interest is a portion of a "Dear Joe" letter of Mar. 18, 1967, from Sullivan, then serving as U.S. Ambassador to Laos, to Joseph W. Alsop, the noted U.S. journalist, regarding a series of articles Alsop had just written on Laos (Library of Congress, Joseph Alsop Papers):". . . you may wish some documentary support for your contention that President Kennedy deliberately put Laos on the back burner so that he could pursue the confrontation more advantageously in Vietnam. There will be those who will accuse you of hindsight in this regard. To silence them, I would refer you to an article which appeared in the New York Times Sunday magazine some time in the late summer of 1962 over the signature of Averell Harriman. This article made precisely the point which you are contending; namely, that the President did not intend to handle the situation in the same manner as in Laos. I recall this article well because I wrote it and it had the President's personal clearance before it was printed."
67. Kennedy Library, Second Oral History Interview with William Sullivan, p. 33.
68. Kennedy Library, POF Staff Memos File.
69. Kennedy, p. 726.
70. As Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 339, recounts the story, Kennedy told him on May 3, "If it hadn't been for Cuba, we might be about to intervene in Laos.' Waving a sheaf of cables from Lemnitzer [Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, Chairman of the JCS], he added, 'I might have taken this advice seriously." In a memorandum on June 1, 1961, Robert Kennedy took a similar position. See Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, p. 702.
71. On Apr. 28, the day following this meeting, Rostow sent the President a memorandum, (still classified), stating his views on what should be done about Laos. The President asked him to give him another memorandum on the "action consequences" of his memo of Apr. 28, and on May 6 he did so. Kennedy Library, NSF Regional Security File, Southeast Asia. Included was this comment:
our total effort must be more expensive than it now is and the American public must gear itself to the self-discipline required to sweat out this protracted battle, notably by devising a method of voluntary wage restraints to be combined with price cuts geared to productivity increases. In addition, our society must understand that it is in a protracted struggle which will require from time to time that we face with unity, poise, and determination very dangerous tests of will."
72. Kennedy, p. 727. The memoranda are still classified.
73. CRS Interview with David E. Bell, Oct. 27, 1978
74. A Thousand Days, p. 338.
75. PP, Gravel ed., vol. II p. 41.
76. See ibid., DOD ed., book 11, pp. 62-66.
77. Kennedy Library, POF Country File, Laos.
78. See SFRC His. Ser., vol. XIII, pt. 1, pp. 281.307.
79. Rostow, The Diffusion of Power, p. 268. The notes on that meeting are still classified. Attending the meeting were, from the Senate, Democrats Richard B. Russell (Ga.), Fulbright, and Hubert H. Humphrey (Minn) and Republicans Everett McKinley Dirksen (Ill.), Bridges, Leverett Saltonstall (Mass.), Alexander Wiley (Wis.) and Bourke B. Hickenlooper (Iowa); from the House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D/Tex.) and Democrats Carl Albert (Okla.), Carl Vinson (Ga.) and Thomas E. Morgan (Pa.) and Republicans Charles A. Halleck (Ind.), Leslie C. Arends (Ill.) and Robert B. Chiperfield (Ill.)
80. Stevenson, The End of Nowhere, p. 152, based on Stevenson's interview with Admiral Burke.
81. U. Alexis Johnson with Jef Olivarius McAllister, The Right Hand of Power (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1984), p. 324
82. New York Times, May 1, 1961. For a staff background briefing paper for
Fuibright's use in preparing for the program, see the memorandum from John Newhouse
to Carl Marcy, Apr. 26, 1961, Umversity of Arkansas. Fulbright Papers, series
48, box 2.
83. New York Times, May 5, 1961.
84. From the text of the program, reprinted in CR, vol. 101, pp. 7587 ff.
85. Kennedy Library, POF Country File, Laos
86. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 339.
87. Undated handwritten note in Kennedy Library, POF Country File, Laos
88. Pointing the Way, p. 346.
89. PP, DOD ed., book 11, pp. 67-68.
90. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 336, and Stevenson, The End of Nowhere, p. 153
91. PP, Gravel ed., vol. 11 p. 9.
92. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam. (Nolting's arrival in Vietnam subsequently was moved up to late March.)
93. Memorandum from Rostow to the President, Mar. 29, 1961, same location.
94. Public Papers of the President, John F. Kennedy, 1961, pp. 230 if. On May 25, this was followed by a "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs," same source, pp. 396-397, in which Kennedy asked also for approval of a large civil defense program to support the credibility of U.S. strategic forces.
95. Johnson Library, Vice Presidential Security File.
96. PP, DOD ed., book ll, pp. 19-21. These proposals were not approved by McNamara.
97. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam.
98. Same location.
99. PP, Gravel ed., vol.11, pp. 34-35.
100. Ibid, DOD ed., book 11, pp 32-34.
101. CRS Interview with Roswell Gilpatric, Jan. 9, 1979.
102. For the text see PP. DOD ed., book 11, pp. 43-56.
103. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam. Also in that location there
are memos to Rostow on Apr. 28, 1961, from two other NSC staff members, Robert
W. Komer and Robert H. Johnson, assistants to Rostow, commenting on the task
force report. Both urged that greater pressure be put on Diem. As Komer said,
"If we are bailing Diem out, why aren t we entitled to insist .
. that he overhaul tax system, halt waste of foreign exchange and devalue currency
to a realistic rate? To my mmd one of the flaws of our Korean operation has
been that we always gave and never demanded. This is war for Diem too; he's
got to understand that continued procrastination on his part will be fatal."
(emphasis in original) Komer also urged that the U.S. demonstrate its determination:
"At a minimum, why not give Diem now a public commitment that if things
get to the stage of overt fighting, we will come to his support. We should consider
ways and means of putting token US forces in South Vietnam as further evidence
(if this is possible under Geneva Accords)" By May 4, Komer was arguing
that a way needed to be found to 'seal' off South Vietnam in such a way as to
deter another Laos. He said he was not convinced that the U.S. should send troops
to Vietnam, but he questioned whether the decision should be postponed until
after the Laos conference had begun, and the situation in Vietnam had deteriorated
even further. He also questioned whether a large force was needed. "The
purpose of sending forces is not to fight guerrillas. It would be to
establish a US 'presence'; this could be accomplished by no more than a battalion
supported by naval power." Memorandum from Komer to Bundy and Rostow, May
4, 1961, same location. (emphasis in original)
104. Roger Hilsman, To Move A Nation (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), p. 41.
105. Annex 2, the text of which is in PP DOD ed., book 11, pp. 93-100. For the final May 6 task force report and all of the annexes see pp. 70-130. A copy of this JCS paper is in the ,Johnson Library, Vice Presidential Security File.
107. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam.
108. The text of NSAM 52 is in PP. Gravel ed., vol. II, pp. 642-643. After
the NSAM was issued, there were progress reports about every two weeks on the
status of the 33 actions (later 44) which were proposed. The first of these
reports was issued on May 23, 1961, and the last on July 1, 1962. (After the
Nov. 15, 1961, decision to increase U.S. aid to Vietnam-see below-the reports
were broadened to cover also the new "limited partnership" program.)
Copies of some of these reports are now available at the Kennedy Library, NSF
Country File, Vietnam, and others are at the Johnson Library, Vice Presidential
Security File. Generally the reports are very uninformative except for details
on the implementation of specific forms of assistance.
On Mar. 20, 1972, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a brief staff study on this subject, Vietnam Commitments, 1961, based on the Pentagon Papers.
109. For this and subsequent observations which will be cited as Bundy MS.,
CRS is indebted to William P. Bundy for permission to quote from his unpublished
manuscript, written in 1970-72, dealing with key decisions concerning Southeast
Asia in the period from early 1961 to early 1966. The quotation here is from
ch. 3, pp. 36, 41-42
110. It had been agreed in the administration that one of the principal purposes
of the Johnson mission was to create in Diem a higher sense of his own importance
in the eyes of the United States and the world, and Johnson's statements, written
for him by State Department representatives on the trip, deliberately sought
to convey this impression. This same point was made in the instructions Johnson
received from the State Department prior to the trip, which were conveyed in
a letter from Under Secretary Bowles, Kennedy Library, NSF Trips and Conferences
File, May 8, 1961.
According to one member of the Johnson group, Francis Valeo, (Mansfield's assistant, who had been asked by Johnson to go with him as a 'foil" against the advice he would be getting from the State Department), Johnson's comparison of Diem to Churchill may have been suggested by one of the State Department representatives on the mission.
Valeo also concluded that as a result of this trip Johnson became committed to Vietnam, and that this affected his handling of the matter after he became President. CRS Interview with Francis Valeo, Oct. 29, 1978.
After the trip, Valeo himself concluded that the mission had been useful. In a cable to Mansfield on May 21 as the group was returning to Washington he said, "Over-all effect of mission highly useful in Southeast Asian area. Opens up possibility of great improvement in our performance here if it is followed by adjustments in ,policy at home and follow-through with tight and unmuddled administration in Southeast Asia.' Kennedy Library, NSF Trips File.
111. PP, DOD ed., book 11, p. 132. For Diem's reply, see pp. 155-156. For whatever reason, Kennedy's letter to Diem was not included in the Public Fapers of the Presidents.
112. PP, Gravel ed., vol. II, p. 11.
113. The text is in the Department of State Bulletin, June 19, 1961.
114. Kennedy Library, NSF Trips File.
115. Kennedy Library, Oral History Interview with Theodore Sorensen, Mar. 26, 1964, p. 96.
116. The text of the written report is in PP. DOD ed., book 11, PP. 159-166.
117. Kennedy's appointments calendar does not list the participants in that meeting, nor did published reports in the press.
118. Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p.53. For Johnson's meeting with the Senators, see SFRC His Ser., vol. XIII, pt. 1, pp. 629-651. Quotations here are from p. 640.
119. CR, vol. 107 pp. 9176.
120. Ibid, p. 8587
121. Haynes Johnson and Bernard M. Gwertzman, Fulbright, The Dissenter (Garden
City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), p. 178. The Kennedy Library staff reports that
they have not located this document in their files.
122. CR, vol. 107, pp. 11702-11705. At several points in the 1961 public hearings on the foreign aid bill, as well as in executive session hearings on June 13 and 14, Fulbright asked administration witnesses whether the executive branch had reviewed the program in order to "affirmativel~r decide" which aid commitments were in the U.S. national interest, and whether it was 'within our capacity to continue to try to support every area in the world that is not now within the Communist orbit." (The witnesses said that no such review had been made.) He said, referring speciflcally to South Vietnam, but including also Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and South Korea, 'I am really questioning the validity of the concept which we are trying to fulfil, if it is not a false one, basically false, that it is impossible, and I am inclined at the moment to think that it probably is, due to reasons beyond our control; these are things we cannot change." For these and other comments by Fuibright in the public hearings see U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, International Development and Security, Hearings on S. 1983, pts. 1 and 2, 87th Cong., 1st seas. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1961), pp. 86-87, 586-587, 606-608, 644-645, 866-869.
123. CRS Interview with Dean Rusk, Nov. 17, 1978.
124. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 76. Of interest also are Reston's comments in his column in the New York Times for June 10, 1979 (for his original report on this subject see the Times for Jan. 18, 1966):
"I had an hour alone with President Kennedy immediately after his last meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna at that time. Khrushchev had assumed, Kennedy said, that any American President who invaded Cuba without adequate preparation was inexperienced, and any President who then didn't use force to see the invasions through was weak. Kennedy admitted Khrushchev's logic on bath points.
"But now, Kennedy added, we have a problem. We have to demonstrate to the Russians that we have the will and the power to defend our national interests. Shortly thereafter, he increased the defense budget, sent another division to Europe and increased our small contingent of observers and advisors in Vietnam to over 16,000.
"I have always believed, on the basis of that private conversation, that this particular summit was an event of historic significance, leading to Khrushchev's decision to send nuclear weapons to Cuba and to Kennedy's decision to confront Khrushchev by increasing our commitment in Vietnam.
"Kennedy dealt with Khrushchev's misjudgment by forcing him to turn back his nuclear weapons f?r Cuba or risk the possibility of war. Khrushchev turned them back, but the American commitment to Vietnam went on. The Kennedy people have always denied that there was any connection between Khrushchev's threats in Vienna and Kennedy's decision to confront the Commumst threat to South Vietnam. But I know what I heard from Kennedy in Vienna 17 years ago, and have reflected on the accidents of summit meetings ever since."
125. CRS Interview with Averell Harriman, Sept. 26, 1978.
126. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam.
127. For the text of the letter see PP. DOD ed., book 11, pp. 168-173.
128. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam, Memorandum of Conversation,
June 14, 1961.
Consistent with President Kennedy's interest in increasing covert activity, especially against North Vietnam, the CIA authorized William E. Colby, then the Station Chief in Saigon, to accelerate operations against the North. ". . we pressed ahead," Colby said. "Flights left Danang in the dusk headed north with Vietnamese trained and equipped to land in isolated areas, make cautious contact with their former home villages and begin building networks there. Boats went up the coast to land others on the beaches, and we started leaflet drops and radio programs designed to raise questions in North Vietnamese homes about their sons being sent to South Vietnam to fight and about the vices of Communist rule." William Colby, Honorable Men (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), p. 173.
129. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam, cables to Saigon from Washington, June 15, 1961
130. The text is in PP, DOD ed., book 11, pp. 182-226.
131. The Joint Chiefs had recommended alternative A. See ibid., p. 239.
132. The decision on the Staley plan was promulgated as NSAM 65, Aug. 11, 1961, and appears in ibid., pp. 241-244. At the same time Kennedy appears to have approved a letter to Diem, as suggested by the State Department, confirming and explaining the U.S. decision. No copy of this has been found. The memoranda to the President from the State Department, signed by George Ball (n.d.), and from Rostow (Aug. 4, 1961) in which the proposed plan was explained and Presidented action requested, are in the Kennedy Library, POF Staff Memos File. Rostow noted in his memo that the draft of the letter to Diem was a compromise between the two basic views within the U.S. Government on the best methods for getting the Vietnamese to act. State and Defense, he said, believed that this could best be achieved "not by specific conditions on our aid, but by creating a general atmosphere of cooperation and confidence," whereas "staff levels" in the Bureau of the Budget and the foreign aid program "believe that such action is much more likely to be forthcoming if our aid is specifically conditioned upon Vietnamese performance..."
133. As Henry Fairlie has observed, however, "There was always sufficient knowledge within the public realm on which to form a political judgment...." "We Knew What We Were Doing When We Went Into Vietnam," Washington Monthly, 5 (May 1973), pp. 7-26.
134. SFRC His. Ser., vol. XIII, pt. 2, pp. 605 ff. and 629 ff.
135. John Steeves of the Far East Bureau, who was made the director of the Southeast Asia Task Force in July 1961, as well as Cottrell, the director of the Vietnam Task Force, were active in assisting U. Alexis Johnson.
136. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam. The memorandum itself is still classified.
137. Same location. Johnson's response is still classified.
138. I.e., non-nuclear bomb.
139. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam, Memorandum from Rostow to Rusk, July 13, 1961.
141. Kennedy Library, NSF Regional Security File, Southeast Asia General, 1961.
142. Kennedy Library, Thomson Papers, Memorandum of Conversation, July 18, 1961.
143. This resulted in the State Department's "White Paper" on Vietnam prepared by William J. Jorden, which was issued in Dec. 1961. (See p. 103 below.) The Vietnam Task Force was already preparing a number of papers for the White House on other aspects of the possible use of U.S. military forces in Southeast Asia in accordance with a task force directive issued earlier in the summer, which was supplemented on June 24, 1961, by a memorandum entitled "Regional Action to Protect Vietnam' setting forth the steps to be taken under a SEATO Plan 5 operation.
144. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File. This document is not dated, but it appears to have been prepared during July 1961, and is filed accordingly.
145. Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam. (misspellings and emphasis in original)
146. The report, which is not dated, is in the Kennedy Library, NSF Regional Security File, Southeast Asia General, July 1961.
147. Same location.
148. Letter to CRS from U. Alexis Johnson, July 31, 1984.
149. Alexis Johnson with Jef Olivarius McAllister, The Right Hand of Power, p. 326.
150. From the July 31, 1961, "Memorandum of Discussion on Southeast Asia," July 28, 1961, prepared by McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy Library, NSF Regional Security File, Southeast Asia General, 1961.
151. Same location. In a memorandum to Rostow, on Aug. 14, 1961, "Strategy
for Southeast Asia," Robert Johnson questioned the military and political
feasibility of Rostow's proposal for action against North Vietnam, but concluded,
". to use the current cliché, I think that this is the point where
we are going to have to bite the bullet. If we are going to save Southern Laos
and a strip along the Mekong, it seers to me that we have to face the possibility
that a substantial U.S. manpower contribution may be required." He said
he thought the U.S. should seek a "de facto partition of Laos by
a sub-limited war approach" involving increased covert activity, but that
in so doing we must take such initial action with a full awareness of, and commitment
to, the possibility that we may have to move from sub-limited war to limited
war and that a substantial commitment of U.S. forces in Southern Laos may be
necessary." Kennedy Library, Thomson Papers.
152. Kennedy Library, POF Staff Memos File. For Rostow's reply see his memorandum to the President on Aug. 11, 1961, "Southeast Asia," NSF Regional Security File, Southeast Asia General, 1961.
153. Kennedy Library, NSF Regional Security File, Southeast Asia General, 1961, Memorandum for Record, Aug. 12, 1961.
154. Same location. The files do not indicate whether or not the memo was sent to Rusk by Kennedy.
155. Same location.
156. Same location.
157. Same location.
158. Memorandum for McGeorge Bundy from Robert H. Johnson, Aug. 25, 1961, same location.
159. Memorandum for the President, Aug. 29, 1961, same location, with attached "Plan for Southeast Asia," "sanitized"-the government term used to refer to material deleted for security reasons when a document is declassified-and made public in 1978.
160. When this document was sanitized by the Department of State the missing portion of this sentence in item 4 was stricken.
161. NSAM 80, Aug. 29, 1961, PP, DOD ed., book 11, pp. 247-248. As will be noted, all or most of the sanitized words in the State Department proposal of the same date appear to have been included in this printing of NSAM 80.
The President apparently did not approve State's proposal that Sarit, as an inducement for and in recognition of his cooperation, be given an open line of credit of $150 million. For a memorandum from the Bureau of the Budget on Aug. 30, 1961, criticizing this proposal see Kennedy Library, NSF Regional Security File, Southeast Asia General, 1961.
162. Johnson memo to Rostow, Sept. 12, 1961, same location.
163. Same location. The paper "Limited Holding Actions (Southeast Asia)," was dated sometime between Sept. 20 and 30, 1961, but the exact date cannot be discerned from the copy in the file. The final version of this paper, "Southeast Asia,' Oct. 3, 1961, is in the same ifie.
164. Same location.
165. Same location.
166. "Draft Instructions for Ambassador Harriman," Oct. 1961, same location.
167. Same location.
168. For JCS objections to Rostow's proposal, see PP, DOD ed., book 11, pp. 297-298.
169. Ibid., pp. 297-298.
170. For the JCS plan, see ibid., pp. 300-311.
171. Ibid., p. 312. (emphases in original)
172. Bundy MS., ch. 4, pp. 12A, 13.
173. Johnson's paper, including two "supplemental notes," was declassified, with some sanitation in 1982, and is m the Kennedy Library, NSF Country File, Vietnam.
174. PP, Gravel ed., vol. II, p. 649.
175. 1bid., pp. 651-652.
176. NSAM 104, Oct. 13, 1961, in ibid., DOD ed., book 11, p. 328. (There is no available summary of the meeting.) The NSAM did not reveal the instruction to the Taylor group concerning the review of the use of U.S. forces. This was provided by a memorandum from Roswell Gilpatric summarizing the meeting, which is reprinted on pp. 322-323.
177. Tilford, Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, p. 36.
178. PP, Gravel ed., vol. II, p. 82.