Memorandum to President Kennedy from Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith on Vietnam, 4 April 1962

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2, pp. 669-671


April 7, 1962

The Honorable Robert S. McNamara
Secretary of Defense
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Secretary:

The President has asked me to transmit to you for your comments the enclosed memorandum on the subject of Viet-Nam to the President from Ambassador J. K. Gaibraith dated April 4, 1962.

Michael V. Forrestal

Encl: Memo to Pres. from Amb. Gaibraith

April 4, 1962

Subject: Viet-Nam

The following considerations influence our thinking on Viet-Nam:

1. We have a growing military commitment. This could expand step by step into a major, long-drawn out indecisive military involvement.
2. We are backing a weak and, on the record, ineffectual government and a leader who as a politician may be beyond the point of no return.
3. There is consequent danger we shall replace the French as the colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.
4. The political effects of some of the measures which pacification requires or is believed to require, including the concentration of population, relocation of villages, and the burning of old villages, may be damaging to those and especially to Westerners associated with it.
5. We fear that at some point in the involvement there will be a major political outburst about the new Korea and the new war into which the Democrats as so often before have precipitated us.
6. It seems at least possible that the Soviets are not particularly desirous of trouble in this part of the world and that our military reaction with the need to fall back on Chinese protection may be causing concern in Hanoi.

In the light of the foregoing we urge the following:

1. That it be our policy to keep open the door for political solution. We should welcome as a solution any broadly based non-Communist government that is free from external interference. It should have the requisites for internal law and order. We should not require that it be militarily identified with the United States.
2. We shall find it useful in achieving this result if we seize any good opportunity to involve other countries and world opinion in settlement and its guarantee. This is a useful exposure and pressure on the Communist bloc countries and a useful antidote for the argument that this is a private American military adventure.
3. We should measurably reduce our commitment to the particular present leadership of the government of South Viet-Nam.

To accomplish the foregoing, we recommend the following specific steps:

1. In the next fortnight or so the ICC will present a report which we are confidentially advised will accuse North Viet-Nam of subversion and the Government of Viet-Nam in conjunction with the United States of not notifying the introduction of men and materiel as prescribed by the Geneva accords. We should respond by asking the co-chairmen to initiate steps to re-establish compliance with the Geneva accords. Pending specific recommendations, which might at some stage include a conference of signatories, we should demand a suspension of Viet Cong activity and agree to a standstill on an introduction of men and materiel.
2. Additionally, Governor Harriman should be instructed to approach the Russians to express our concern about the increasingly dangerous situation
that the Viet Cong is forcing in Southeast Asia. They should be told of our determination not to let the Viet Cong overthrow the present government while at the same time to look without relish on the dangers that this military build-up is causing in the area. The Soviets should be asked to ascertain whether Hanoi can and will call off the Viet Cong activity in return for phased American withdrawal, liberalization in the trade relations between the two parts of the country and general and non-specific agreement to talk about reunification after some period of tranquillity.
3. Alternatively, the Indians should be asked to make such an approach to Hanoi under the same terms of reference.
4. It must be recognized that our long-run position cannot involve an unconditional commitment to Diem. Our support is to non-Communist and progressively democratic government not to individuals. We cannot ourselves replace Diem. But we should be clear in our mind that almost any non-Communist change would probably be beneficial and this should be the guiding rule for our diplomatic representation in the area.

In the meantime policy should continue to be guided by the following:

1. We should resist all steps which commit American troops to combat action and impress upon all concerned the importance of keeping American forces out of actual combat commitment.
2. We should disassociate ourselves from action, however necessary, which seems to be directed at the villagers, such as the new concentration program. If the action is one that is peculiarly identified with Americans, such as defoliation, it should not be undertaken in the absence of most compelling reasons. Americans in their various roles should be as invisible as the situation permits.

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