The Pentagon Papers
Gravel Edition
Volume 2

Chapter I, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961," pp. 1-39
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)

Section 1, pp. 1-39

Summary and Analysis

When Kennedy took office, the prospect of an eventual crisis in Vietnam had been widely recognized in the government, although nothing much had yet been done about it. Our Ambassador in Saigon had been sending worried cables for a year, and twice in recent months [in September 1960 and again in December] had ended an appraisal of the situation by cautiously raising the question of whether the U.S. would not sooner or later have to move to replace Diem. Barely a week after taking office, Kennedy received and approved a Counter-Insurgency Plan (CIP) which, at what seems to have been a rather leisurely pace, had been going through drafting and staffing for the previous eight months.

The CIP was a most modest program by the standard we have become accustomed to in Vietnam. It offered Diem financial support for a 20,000 man increase in his army, which then stood at 150,000; plus support for about half of the counter-guerrilla auxiliary force known as the Civil Guard. In return, it asked Diem for a number of reforms which appeared to the American side as merely common sense--such as straightening out command arrangements for the army under which 42 different officials directly responsible to Diem (38 province chiefs, 3 regional commanders, and a Chief of Staff) shared operational command.

The CIP was superseded in May by an enlarged version of the same program, and the only longer term significance the original program held was that it presumably offered the Administration a lesson in dealing with Diem (and perhaps, although it was not foreseen then, a lesson in dealing with Vietnamese governments generally). The negotiations dragged on and on; the U.S. military and eventually most of the civilians both in Saigon and Washington grew impatient for getting on with the war; Diem promised action on some of the American points, and finally even issued some decrees, none of which were really followed up. For practical purposes, the list of "essential reforms" proposed as part of the CIP, including those Diem had given the impression he agreed to, could have been substituted unchanged for the list of reforms the U.S. requested at the end of the year, with equal effect, as the quid pro quo demanded for the much enlarged U.S. aid offer that followed the Taylor Mission.

Negotiations with Diem came to an end in May, not because the issues had been resolved, but because the U.S. decided to forget trying to pressure Diem for a while and instead try to coax him into reforming by winning his confidence. Partly, no doubt, this reflected the view that pressure was getting nowhere, and the alternative approach might do better. Mainly, however, the changed policy, and the somewhat enlarged aid program that accompanied it, reflected the pressures created by the situation in neighboring Laos. (We will see that there is a strong case to be made that even the Fall, post-Taylor Mission decisions were essentially dominated by the impact of Laos. But in May the situation was unambiguous. Laos, not anything happening in Vietnam, was the driving force.)

A preliminary step came April 20. Immediately following the Bay of Pigs disaster, and with the prospect of a disaster in Laos on the very near horizon, Kennedy asked Deputy Secretary of Defense Gilpatric to work up a program for saving Vietnam. The program was delivered, as requested, a week later. It was a somewhat enlarged version of the CIP, with the implication, not spelled out in the paper, that the new effort would be put into effect without making any demands on Diem. (Simultaneously, Ambassador Durbow, who had been in Vietnam for four years, was being replaced by Nolting, and this added to the hope that a new start might be made with Diem.) There is nothing to suggest that anything more was expected of Gilpatric's program, and indeed all the evidence suggests that the main point of the exercise was to work General Lansdale into the role of government-wide coordinator and manager of the country's first major test in the new art of counter-insurgency. Lansdale served as Executive Officer of the Task Force which Gilpatric organized and which he proposed should be given a continuing, dominant role in managing the Vietnamese enterprise.

By the time the report was submitted on April 27 when the Laos crisis was reaching its peak, a new Geneva conference had been agreed upon. But there were serious doubts that the pro-western side in Laos would be left with anything to negotiate about by the time the conference opened. Even the U.S.-favored settlement (a coalition government) represented a major, if prudent, retreat from the previous U.S. position taken during the closing months of the Eisenhower Administration.) So the situation in Laos was bad, if unavoidable; and it followed right on the heels of the Bay of Pigs, and at a time when the Soviets were threatening to move against Berlin. The emphasis of the Gilpatric Task Force shifted from shaping up the counter-insurgency aid program for Vietnam, to finding ways to demonstrate to the South Vietnamese (and others) that a further retreat in Laos would not foreshadow an imminent retreat in Vietnam.

On April 28, an annex to the Task Force report proposed to counter the impact of Laos with U.S. support for an increase in South Vietnamese forces (the original report had proposed only more generous financial support for forces already planned under the CIP) and, further, a modest commitment of U.S. ground combat units in South Vietnam, with the nominal mission of establishing two training centers. On April 29, Kennedy endorsed the proposals of the original draft, but took no action on the far more significant proposals in the annex. On May 1, a revised Task Force draft came out, incorporating the Laos Annex proposals, and adding a recommendation that the U.S. make clear an intent to intervene in Vietnam to the extent needed to prevent a Viet Cong victory. At this point, practical control of the Task Force appears to have shifted out of Gilpatric's (and Defense's) hands to State (and, apparently, George Ball.) A State redraft of the report came out May 3, which eliminated the special role laid out for Lansdale, shifted the chairmanship of the continuing Task Force to State, and blurred, without wholly eliminating, the Defense-drafted recommendations for sending U.S. combat units to Vietnam and for public U.S. commitments to save South Vietnam from Communism. But even the State re-draft recommended consideration of stationing American troops in Vietnam, for missions not involving combat with the Viet Cong, and a bilateral U.S.-SVN security treaty. On May 4 and 5, still acting under the pressure of the Laos crisis, the Administration implied (through a statement by Senator Fulbright at the White House following a meeting with Kennedy, and at Kennedy's press conference the next day) that it was considering stationing American forces in Vietnam. On May 6, a final draft of the Task Force report came out, essentially following the State draft of May 3. On May 8, Kennedy signed a letter to Diem, to be delivered by Vice President Johnson the next week, which promised Diem strong U.S. support, but did not go beyond the program outlined in the original Task Force report; it offered neither to finance expanded South Vietnamese forces, nor to station American troops in Vietnam. On May 11, the recommendations of the final, essentially State-drafted, report were formalized. But by now, the hoped for cease-fire in Laos had come off. Vice President Johnson in Saigon on the 12th of May followed through on his instructions to proclaim strong U.S. support for and confidence in Diem. When Diem talked of his worries about U.S. policy in Laos, Johnson, obviously acting on instructions, raised the possibility of stationing American troops in Vietnam or of a bilateral treaty. But Diem wanted neither at that time. Johnson's instructions were not available to this study, so we do not know how he would have responded if Diem had asked for either troops or a treaty, although the language of the Task Force report implies he would only have indicated a U.S. willingness to talk about these things. With Johnson, came the new Ambassador, Fritz Nolting, whose principal instruction was to "get on Diem's wavelength" in contrast to the pressure tactics of his predecessor.

A few weeks later, in June, Diem, responding to an invitation Kennedy had sent through Johnson, dispatched an aide to Washington with a letter outlining Saigon's "essential military needs." It asked for a large increase in U.S. support for Vietnamese forces (sufficient to raise ARVN strength from 170,000 to 270,000 men), and also for the dispatch of "selected elements of the American Armed Forces", both to establish training centers for the Vietnamese and as a symbol of American commitment to Vietnam. The proposal, Diem said, had been worked out with the advice of MAAG Saigon, whose chief, along with the JCS and at least some civilian officials, strongly favored getting American troops into Vietnam.

The question of increased support for Vietnamese forces was resolved through the use of the Staley Mission. This was normally a group of economic experts intended to work with a Vietnamese group on questions of economic policy. Particularly at issue was whether the Vietnamese could not be financing a larger share of their own defenses. But the economic proposals and programs, all of which turned out to be pretty general and fuzzy, comprised a less important part of the report than the discussion of Vietnamese military requirements. Here the study group reflected the instructions of the two governments. On the basis of the Staley Report, the U.S. agreed to support a further increase of 30,000 in the RVNAF, but deferred a decision on the balance of the South Vietnamese request on the grounds that the question might not have to be faced since by the time the RVNAF reached 200,000 men, sometime late in 1962, the Viet Cong might already be on the run. The Staley Report also contained what by now had already become the usual sorts of nice words about the importance of social, political, and administrative reforms, which turned out to have the usual relevance to reality. The U.S. was still sticking to the May formula of trying to coax Diem to reform, instead of the equally unsuccessful January formula of trying to pressure him to reform.

The other issue--the request for "elements of the American Armed Forces"--was left completely obscure. From the record available, we are not sure that Diem really wanted the troops then, or whether Kennedy really was willing to send them if they were wanted. All we know is that Diem included some language in his letter that made the request a little ambiguous, and that Washington-either on the basis of clarification from Diem's aide who delivered the letter, or on its own initiative, or some combination of both-interpreted the letter as not asking for troops, and nothing came of the apparent request.

A new, and much more serious sense of crisis developed in September. This time the problem was not directly Laos, but strong indications of moderate deterioration of Diem's military position and very substantial deterioration of morale in Saigon. There was a sharp upswing in Viet Cong attacks in September, including a spectacular raid on a province capital 55 miles from Saigon during which the province chief was publicly beheaded by the insurgents. At the end of September, Diem surprised Nolting by asking the U.S. for a U.S.GVN defense treaty. By Diem's account the loss of morale in Saigon was due to worries about U.S. policy growing out of the Laos situation. Both U.S. officials in Washington and South Vietnamese other than those closest to Diem, though, put most of the blame on deterioration within South Vietnam, although the demoralizing effect of Viet Cong successes was unquestionably magnified by uncertainties about the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. In response, President Kennedy sent General Taylor and Walt Rostow, then both on the White House staff, to Vietnam, accompanied by some less prominent officials from State and Defense.

What Taylor and Rostow reported was that Saigon faced a dual crisis of confidence, compounded out of doubts arising from Laos that the U.S. would stick by South Vietnam, and doubts arising from the Viet Cong successes that Diem's unpopular and inefficient regime could beat the Viet Cong anyway. The report said that a U.S. military commitment in Vietnam was needed to meet the first difficulty; and that the second could best be met by supplying a generous infusion of American personnel to all levels of the Vietnamese government and army, who could, it was hoped, instill the Vietnamese with the right kind of winning spirit, and reform the regime "from the bottom up" despite Diem's weaknesses. The report recommended the dispatch of helicopter companies and other forms of combat support, but without great emphasis on these units. Probably, although the record does not specifically say so, there was a general understanding that such units would be sent even before the report was submitted, and that is why there is relatively little emphasis on the need for them.

The crucial issue was what form the American military commitment had to take to be effective. Taylor, in an eyes only cable to the President, argued strongly for a task force in the delta, consisting mainly of army engineers to work where there had been a major flood. The delta was also where the VC were strongest, and Taylor warned the President that the force would have to conduct some combat operations and expect to take casualties. But Taylor argued that the balance of the program, less this task force, would be insufficient, for we had to "convince Diem that we are willing to join him in a showdown with the Viet Cong ...."

We do not know what advice President Kennedy received from State: Sorenson claims all the President's advisors on Vietnam favored sending the ground force; but George Ball, at least, who may not have been part of the formal decision group, is widely reported to have opposed such a move; so did Galbraith, then Ambassador to India, who happened to be in Washington; and perhaps some others. From Defense, the President received a memo from McNamara for himself, Gilpatric, and the JCS, stating that they were "inclined to recommend" the Taylor program, but only on the understanding that it would be followed up with more troops as needed, and with a willingness to attack North Vietnam. (The JCS estimated that 40,000 American troops would be needed to "clean up" the Viet Cong.) The Taylor Mission Report, and Taylor's own cables, had also stressed a probable need to attack, or at least threaten to attack, North Vietnam.

The McNamara memo was sent November 8. But on November 11, Rusk and McNamara signed a joint memo that reversed McNamara's earlier position:
it recommended deferring, at least for the time being, the dispatch of combat units. This obviously suited Kennedy perfectly, and the NSAM embodying the decisions was taken essentially verbatim from the recommendations of the Rusk/McNamara paper, except that a recommendation that the U.S. was cornmiting itself to prevent the loss of Vietnam was deleted.

But where the Taylor Report had implied a continuation of the May policy of trying to coax Diem into cooperating with the U.S., the new program was made contingent on Diem's acceptance of a list of reforms; further Diem was to be informed that if he accepted the program the U.S. would expect to "share in decision-making" . . . rather than "advise only." Thus, the effect of the decision was to give Diem less than he was expecting (no symbolic commitment of ground forces) but to accompany this limited offer with demands for which Diem was obviously both unprepared and unwilling to accede to. On top of this, there was the enormous (and not always recognized) extent to which U.S. policy was driven by the unthinkability of avoidably risking another defeat in Southeast Asia hard on the heels of the Laos retreat.

Consequently, the U.S. bargaining position was feeble. Further, Gaibraith at least, and probably others, advised Kennedy that there was not much point to bargaining with Diem anyway, since he would never follow through on any promises he made. (Galbraith favored promoting an anti-Diem military coup at the earliest convienient moment.) Kennedy ended up settling for a set of promises that fell well short of any serious effort to make the aid program really contingent on reforms by Diem. Since the war soon thereafter began to look better, Kennedy never had any occasion to reconsider his decision on combat troops; and no urgent reason to consider Galbraith's advice on getting rid of Diem until late 1963.

End of Summary and Analysis



Situation in Vietnam

According to Ambassador Durbrow there was widespread popular dissatisfaction with the Diem Government and a growing guerrilla threat. At the same time, there had been a very gradual growth of U.S. involvement in assisting the GVN to counter the VC. In the U.S. two questions influenced decisions about Vietnam:
first, what should the U.S. give Diem to counter the communists; secondly, what-if any-demands should be posed as a quid pro quo for assistance?

US-Soviet Relations

The problems of dealing with Moscow were far more pressing than those related to Vietnam. A feeling that America's position in the world had been eroded by the USSR prevailed; Kennedy was particularly determined to regain American strength, prestige and influence. Anything which could be construed as American weakness vis-a-vis the USSR was to be avoided. This affected policy toward Vietnam.

Situation in Laos

The US-backed, pro-American faction under Phoumi Nosavan was losing to the pro-Communist/neutralist faction supported by the Soviet Union.

Commitment of U.S. forces was rejected and on May 2, 1961 a cease-fire was declared. President Kennedy decided to support a coalition solution, even though the odds on coalition leader Souvanna Phouma's staying in power were very low. As a consequence of this decision, Washington believed that Southeast Asian leaders doubted the sincerity of the U.S. commitment to the area, and the U.S. felt compelled to do something to restore confidence, demonstrate U.S. resolve and dispel any idea Moscow might have that the U.S. intended to withdraw from Southeast Asia. Laos was thus particularly influential in development of policy toward Vietnam.

20 Jan 1961 President Kennedy Inaugurated

28 Jan 1961 Kennedy Approves the Counterinsurgency Plan (CIP) for Vietnam

Gradually developed during 1961, the CIP was to be the basis for expanded U.S. assistance to Vietnam. Kennedy automatically approved its main provisions; negotiations with Diem about the CIP began 13 February and continued through May of 1961. The U.S. offered $28.4 million to support a 20,000-man increase in the ARVN (for a new total of 170,000); to train, equip and supply a 32,000-man Civil Guard at $12.7 million. The full package added less than $42 million to the current $220 million aid program.

The CIP called for consolidation of the RVNAF chain of command (never fully accomplished under Diem.) No agreement was reached on the question of strategy during this period. (Diem wanted "strategic" outposts, Agrovilles, lines of strength throughout the country; the MAAG favored a "net and spear" concept- small units operating out of pacified areas to find the enemy, call in reserve forces, gradually extend security to all of Vietnam.) Civil reforms included urging Diem to broaden his government, include opposition political leaders in the cabinet, give the National Assembly some power, institute civic action to win hearts, minds and loyalty of the peasants.

The CIP assumed the GVN had the potential to cope with the VC if necessary corrective measures were taken and if adequate forces were provided. The implicit bargain of the plan: the U.S. would support "adequate forces" if Diem would institute "necessary corrective measures." Again, although sociopolitical reforms were sought through the CIP and other plans, they were not realized during the early Kennedy years.

Mid-Jan 1961 A Lansdale Report on Vietnam

Following a trip to Vietnam, Major General E. G. Lansdale called for strong support for Diem and recommended the U.S. demonstrate that support immediately. Only if Diem's confidence in the U.S. were restored would U.S. influence be effective, said Lansdale. He recommended the immediate transfer of Durbrow (he was "too close to the forest" and was not trusted by the GVN) and immediate adoption of social, economic, political and military programs to prove U.S. backing for Diem as well as help Diem stabilize the countryside.

February-May 1961 Durbrow Negotiations with Diem on the CIP

Diem stalled the implementation of his "major promises" (to establish a central intelligence organization, put operational control for counterinsurgency operations under the military command system, reform the cabinet and governmental administration). Washington held up the "green light" on aid as long as Diem stalled-although the JCS and MAAG in Saigon were impatient to get on with the war and were annoyed by the delay. Finally, in mid-May (after Durbrow had ended his four-year tour in Vietnam) Diem implemented some "major promises" by decree. But nothing changed.

12 Apr 1961 Rostow Memorandum for President Kennedy

W. W. Rostow suggested several ways for "gearing-up the whole Vietnam operation." These included: assigning a first-rate, full-time backstop man in Washington to Vietnam affairs (Lansdale); a Vice Presidential visist in Southeast Asia; exploring ways to use new American techniques and gadgets in the fight against the VC; replacing the ICA (AID) chief; high-level discussion of tactics for persuading Diem to broaden his government; a Presidential letter to Diem in which Kennedy would reaffirm support for him but express the urgency attached to finding a "more effective political and morale setting" for military operations.

20 Apr 1961 The Presidential Program for Vietnam

Deputy Secretary of Defense Gilpatric was directed to appraise the current status and future prospects of the VC drive in South Vietnam, then recommend a series of actions to prevent communist domination of the GVN.

(At this same time: the Bay of Pigs invasion force surrendered and the Laos crisis was coming to a head.)

Gilpatric and Lansdale headed a Task Force established immediately to carry out these instructions.

27 Apr 1961 Gilpatric Task Force Report Submitted; the NSC Meets

This first Task Force draft called for a moderate acceleration of the CIP program approved in January, with stress on vigor, enthusiasm and strong leadership. The report recommended building on present US-GVN programs, infusing them with a new sense of urgency and creating action programs in almost every field to create a viable and increasingly democratic government in SVN to prevent communist domination. No ARVN increase beyond the already-authorized 20,000-man addition was recommended; a modest MAAG increase was proposed. The US would support the Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps. Emphasis was on stabilizing the countryside, not on pressing Diem for political or administrative reforms. (Gilpatric wanted Lansdale to go to Vietnam immediately after the program was approved to consult with Vietnamese and US leaders and make further recommendations for action; but McNamara made Lansdale's mission contingent upon an invitation from the US Ambassador in Saigon--an invitation that never came.)

The NSC was to discuss this report but the 27 April meeting was dominated by the acute Laotian crisis.

28 Apr 1961 Laos Annex to (first) Task Force Report

A report--a response, really--concerning the critical situation in Laos and its effect on Vietnam was prepared for the NSC on 28 April. It recommended a two-division ARVN increase and deployment of 3600 US troops to Vietnam (two 1600-man teams to train each new division; 400 Special Forces troops to speed overall ARVN counterinsurgency training). Rationale: to enable ARVN to guard against conventional invasion of South Vietnam. (Both the increased forces and their justification were different from two earlier reports. Lansdale had advocated no ARVN increase but felt some US force build-up was called for as a demonstration of American support for the GVN. Gilpatric's military aide, Colonel E. F. Black, wrote the other report which saw no need for more US troops but recommended expansion of ARVN to meet the threat of increased infiltration. These views were rejected in favor of Black's second paper which advocated more ARVN troops--to counter overt aggression, not increased infiltration-and commitment of US troops for training purposes
--not for political reassurance or demonstration of US resolve. Black's second paper was sent to the NSC.)

29 April 1961 Kennedy Decisions on the Draft Report

Kennedy did not act on the Laos Annex. He approved only the limited military proposals contained in the first Gilpatric Task Force report. The 685-man MAAG would be increased to 785 to enable it to train the approved 20,000 new ARVN troops. Kennedy also authorized the MAAG to support and advise the Self Defense Corps (40,000 men); authorized MAP support for the entire Civil Guard of 68,000 (vice 32,000 previously supported); ordered installation of radar surveillance equipment and okayed MAP support and training for the Vietnamese Junk Force.

1 May 1961 NSC Meets; New Draft of the Task Force Report Issued

Kennedy again deferred decision on sending troops into Laos apparently because the feeling that the US would not make such a move was now firm.
The 1 May draft report was little different from the 28 April version. The Laos Annex was incorporated into the main paper; the US was to make known its readiness to "intervene unilaterally" in Southeast Asia to fulfill SEATO commitments (vice intervene in conjunction with SEATO forces). ARVN increases were now justified by the threat of overt aggression as well as increased infiltration.

3 May 1961 State (George Ball) Revision of Task Force Report

This draft was very different from the original. Lansdale's role was eliminated; the Gilpatric-Lansdale Task Force was to be replaced by a new group chaired by Ball, then Undersecretary of State. (Lansdale reacted with a "strong recommendation" that Defense stay out of the directorship proposed by State and said the "US past performance and theory of action, which State apparently desires to continue, simply offers no sound basis for winning. . .") In State's rewritten political section of the report, the Defense recommendation to make clear US determination to intervene unilaterally if necessary to save South Vietnam from communism was replaced by a proposal to explore new bilateral treaty arrangements with Diem (arrangements which might mean intervention against the guerrillas but might mean intervention only against DRV attack). The need for new arrangements was tied to the "loss" of Laos. State incorporated unchanged the Defense draft as the military section of its revised report, but implied "further study" would be given to some Defense recommendations. Overall, the State revision tried to tone down commitments to Vietnam suggested in the Defense version. It left the President a great deal of room to maneuver without explicitly overruling recommendations presented him.

5 May 1961 NSC Meeting

Again, Laos was the main subject. Most agreed the chance for salvaging anything out of the cease-fire and coalition government was slim indeed. Ways in which to reassure Vietnam and Thailand were sought. The Vice President's trip to Southeast Asia was announced after the meeting.

6 May 1961 Second State Re-Draft of the Task Force Report

Here, military actions were contained in an annex; the political section reflected less panic over the loss of Laos; deployment of US troops was less definite-called something which "might result from an NSC decision following discussions between Vice President Johnson and President Diem." The matter is being studied, said the draft. The report said: Diem "is not now fully confident of US support," that it is "essential (his) full confidence in and communication with the United States be restored promptly." (Lansdale's recommendations of January, April, etc.) The report called for a "major alteration in the present government structure," "believed" a combination of inducements plus discreet pressures might work, but it was unenthusiastic both about Diem, and his chances of success. The Diem-is-the-only-avail able-leader syndrome is evident here.

l0 May 1961 JCSM 320-61

"Assuming the political decision is to hold Southeast Asia outside the communist sphere," the JCS emphatically recommended deployment of sufficient US forces to provide a visible deterrent to potential DRV/CHICOM action, release ARVN from static to active counterinsurgency operations, assist training and indicate US firmness. (In JCSM 311-61 of 9 May, the Chiefs recommended deployment of US forces to Thailand also.)

11 May 1961 NSAM 52

Directed "full examination" by DOD of a study on the size and composition of forces which might comprise a possible commitment of troops to Southeast Asia. In effect, Kennedy "took note" of the study but made no decision on the issue of troop commitment. The Ambassador in Saigon was empowered to open negotiations about a bilateral treaty but was directed to make no commitments without further review by the President. These recommendations from the May 6 Task Force report were approved: help the GVN increase border patrol and counterinsurgency capability through aerial surveillance and new technological devices; help set up a center to test new weapons and techniques; help ARVN implement health, welfare and public work projects; deploy a 400-man special forces group to Nha Trang to accelerate ARVN training; instruct JCS, CINCPAC, MAAG to assess the military utility of an increase in ARVN from 170,000 to 200,000 (the two-division increase recommended previously).

9-15 May 1961 Vice President Johnson Visits Southeast Asia

Purpose: to reassure Asian leaders that despite Laos, the United States could be counted on to support them. Johnson reported the mission had halted the decline of confidence in the United States, but did not restore confidence already lost. Johnson strongly believed that faith must be restored, the "battle against communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination" (or the US would be reduced to a fortress America with defenses pulled back to California's shores); he believed there was no alternative to US leadership in Southeast Asia but that any help extended--military, economic, social--must be part of a mutual effort and contingent upon Asian willingness to "take the necessary measures to make our aid effective." He reported that American troops were neither required nor desired by Asian leaders at this time.

Calling Thailand and Vietnam the most immediate, most immediate, most important trouble spots, the Vice President said the US "must decide whether to support Diem--or let Vietnam fall," opted for supporting Diem, said "the most important thing is imaginative, creative, American management of our military aid program," and reported $50 million in military and economic assistance "will be needed if we decide to support Vietnam." The same amount was recommended for Thailand.

The Vice President concluded by posing this as the fundamental decision: "whether . . . to meet the challenge of Communist expansion now in Southeast Asia or throw in the towel." Cautioning that "heavy and continuing costs" would be required, that sometime the US "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," Johnson recommended "we proceed with a clear-cut and strong program of action."

l8 May 1961 Lansdale Memorandum for Gilpatric

Landsdale noted Diem's rejection of US combat forces per se at this time but pointed out Diem seemed willing to accept troops for training purposes only. At this same time, MAAG Chief McGarr requested 16,000 US troops (combat units) be sent, nominally to establish centers to train RVNAF divisions. If Diem would not accept 16,000, McGarr would settle for 10,000 men.

5 June 1961 Rostow Note to McNamara

Saying "we must think of the kind of forces for Thailand now, Vietnam later," Rostow suggested "aircraft, helicopters, communications, men, Special Forces, militia teachers, etc." would be needed to support a "counter-guerrilla war in Vietnam." Rostow does not mention combat units.

9 June 1961 Diem Letter to Kennedy

Here, in response to Vice President Johnson's request that he outline military needs, Diem did request US troops explicitly for training RVNAF "officers and technical specialists"--not entire divisions. He proposed ARVN be increased from 170,000 to 270,000 to "counter the ominous threat of communist domination"--a threat he documented by inflated infiltration figures and words about the "perilous" situation created by the Laos solution. To train these 100,000 new. ARVN troops Diem asked for "considerable expansion" of the MAAG in the form of "selected elements of the American Armed Forces."

Mid-June to July 1961 The Staley Mission

A team headed by Eugene Staley (Stanford Research Insitute) was to work with Vietnamese officials in an effort to resolve the continuing problem of how Vietnam was to finance its own war effort (deficit financing, inflation, the commodity import program, piaster/dollar exchange rates, all presented difficulties). But the Staley group became the vehicle for force level discussions and economic issues were treated rather perfunctorily. The group "does not consider itself competent to make specific recommendations as to desired force levels" but adopted two alternative levels for "economic planning purposes": 200,000 if the insurgency in Vietnam remains at present levels, if Laos does not fall; 270,000 if the Vietcong significantly increase the insurgency and if the communists win de facto control of Laos.

11 Aug 1961 Kennedy Decision NSAM 65

President Kennedy agreed with the Staley Report (of 4 August) that security requirements demanded first priority, that economic and social programs had to be accelerated, that it was in the US interest to promote a viable Vietnam. He agreed to support an ARVN increase to 200,000 if Diem in turn agreed to a plan for using these forces. The 270,000 level was thus disapproved. But the plan for using ARVN forces had not yet been drawn. Diem had not yet designed--much less implemented--social reforms supposedly required in return for US assistance.

15 Aug 1961 NIE 14-3/53.61

Although collapse of the Saigon regime might come by a coup or from Diem's death, its fall because of a "prolonged and difficult" struggle was not predicted.

Late Aug 1961 Theodore White Reports

"The situation gets worse almost week by week . . ." particularly the military situation in the delta. If the U.S. decides it must intervene, White asked if we had the people, instruments or clear objectives to make it successful.

1 Sep 1961 General McGarr Reports

The ARVN has displayed increased efficiency, a spirit of renewed confidence is "beginning to permeate the people, the GVN and the Armed Forces."

27 Sep 1961 Nolting Reports

Nolting was "unable report . . . progress toward attaining task force goals of creating viable and increasingly democratic society," called the government and civil situation unchanged from early September. A series of large scale VC attacks in central Vietnam, the day-long VC seizure of Phuoc Vinh, capital of [former] Phuoc Thanh Province--55 miles from Saigon--in which the VC publicly beheaded Diem's province chief and escaped before government troops arrived and increased infiltration through Laos demonstrated "that the tide has not yet turned" militarily.

1 Oct 1961 Diem Request

Diem requested a bilateral treaty with the U.S. This surprised Nolting but probably did not surprise the White House, already warned by White of the grave military situation.

1 Oct 1961 State "First 12-Month Report"

This political assessment mirrored Nolting's "no progress" report but State found the military situation more serious than Embassy reports had indicated.

5 Oct 1961 The "Rostow Proposal"

Suggested a 25,000-man SEATO force be put into Vietnam to guard the Vietnam/Laos border between the DMZ and Cambodia. (The Pathet Lao had gained during September, as had VC infiltration through Laos to the GVN. This prompted plans for U.S. action.)

9 Oct 1961 JCSM 717-61

The JCS rejected the Rostow proposal: forces would be stretched thin, they could not stop infiltration, and would be at the worst place to oppose potential DRV'CHICOM invasion. The Chiefs wanted to make a "concentrated effort in Laos where a firm stand can be taken saving all or substantially all of Laos which would, at the same time, protect Thailand and protect the borders of South Vietnam." But if this were "politically unacceptable" the Chiefs "provided... ....a possible limited interim course of action": deployment of about 20,000 troops to the central highlands near Pleiku to assist the GVN and free certain GVN forces for offensive action against the VC.

10 Oct 1961 "Concept of Intervention in Vietnam"

Drafted by Alexis Johnson, the paper blended Rostow's border control proposal with the JCS win-control-of-the-highlands counterproposal for the initial mission of U.S. forces in Vietnam. "The real and ultimate objective" of U.S. troops was also addressed. To defeat the Vietcong and render Vietnam secure under a non-Communist government, Johnson "guessed" three divisions would be the ultimate force required in support of the "real objective." The paper estimated a satisfactory settlement in Laos would reduce but not eliminate infiltration into South Vietnam, that even if infiltration were cut down, there was no assurance that the GVN could "in the foreseeable future be able to defeat the Viet Cong." Unilateral U.S. action would probably be necessary. The plan's viability was dependent on the degree in which the GVN accelerated "political and military action in its own defense."

11 Oct 1961 NSC Meeting on Vietnam

The NSC considered four papers: the Alexis Johnson draft; an NIE estimate that SEATO action would be opposed by the DRV, Viet Cong and the Soviet Union (airlift), that these forces stood a good chance of thwarting the SEATO intervention; third, a JCS estimate that 40,000 U.S. troops would be required to "clean up the Viet Cong threat" and another 128,000 men would be needed to oppose DRV/CHICOM intervention (draining 3 to 4 reserve divisions). Finally, a memorandum from William Bundy to McNamara which said "it is really now or never if we are to arrest the gains being made by the Viet Cong," and gave "an early and hard-hitting operation" a 70 percent chance of doing that. Bundy added, the chance of cleaning up the situation "depends on Diem's effectiveness, which is very problematical," favored going in with 70-30 odds but figured the odds would slide down if the U.S. "let, say, a month go by" before moving.

13 Oct 1961 Saigon Message 488

Reversing his previous position, Diem requested an additional fighter-bomber squadron, civilian pilots for helicopters and C-47 transports and U.S. combat units for a "combat-training" mission near the DMZ, possibly also in the highlands. He asked consideration be given a possible request for a division of Chiang Kai-shek's troops to support the GVN. Nolting recommended "serious and prompt" attention for the requests.

14 Oct 1961 New York Times

In an article leaked by the government--perhaps by Kennedy himself--leaders were called reluctant to send U.S. combat units into Southeast Asia. Obviously untrue, the leak was probably designed to end speculation about troop deployment and guard Kennedy's freedom of action.

20 Oct 1961 CINCPAC Recommendation

Admiral Felt felt the pros and cons of U.S. troop deployment added up in favor of no deployment until other means of helping Diem had been exhausted.

18-24 Oct 1961 Taylor Mission to Vietnam

On the 18th, Diem said he wanted no U.S. combat troops for any mission. He repeated his request for a bilateral defense treaty, more support for ARVN and combat-support equipment (helicopters, aircraft, etc.).

23 Oct 1961 Ch MAAG Message

General McGarr suggested that the serious Mekong River flood could provide a cover for U.S. troop deployment: combat units could be disguised as humanitarian relief forces and be dispatched to the delta.

25 Oct 1961 Saigon Message 536

Taylor reported the pervasive crisis of confidence and serious loss in Vietnamese national morale created by Laos and the flood, weakened the war effort. To cope with this Taylor recommended: Improvement of intelligence on the VC; building ARVN mobility; blocking infiltration into the highlands by organizing a border ranger force; introduction of U.S. forces either for emergency, short-term assistance, or for more substantial, long-term support (a flood relief plus military reserve task force). Diem had reacted favorably "on all points."

1 Nov 1961 BAGUIO Message 0005

Taylor told the President, Rusk and McNamara "we should put in a task force (6-8,000 men) consisting largely of logistical troops for the purpose of participating in flood relief and at the same time of providing a U.S. military presence in Vietnam capable of assuring Diem of our readiness to join him in a military showdown with the Viet Cong


Taylor concluded that the communist strategy of taking over Southeast Asia by guerrilla warfare was "well on the way to success in Vietnam"; he said the GVN was caught in "interlocking circles" of bad tactics and bad administrative arrangements which allow VC gains and invite a political crisis. He recommended more U.S. support for paramilitary groups and ARVN mobility; the MAAG should be reorganized and increased and the task force introduced to "conduct such combat operations as are necessary for self-defense and for the security of the area in which (it) is stationed," among other things. Taylor felt the disadvantages of deployment were outweighted by gains, said SVN is "not an excessively difficult or unpleasant place to operate" and the "risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of SVN" are not impressive: North Vietnam "is extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing . . . there is no case for fearing a mass onslaught of communist manpower . . . particularly if our air power is allowed a free hand against logistical targets . . ."

3 Nov 1961 Taylor Report

The "Evaluation and Summary" section suggested urgency and optimism: SVN is in trouble, major U.S. interests are at stake; prompt and energetic U.S. action--military, economic, political--can lead to victory without a U.S. take-over of the war, can cure weaknesses in the Diem regime. That the Vietnamese must win the war was a unanimous view--but most mission participants believed all Vietnamese operations could be substantially improved by America's "limited partnership" with the GVN. The GVN is cast in the best possible light; any suggestion that the U.S. should limit rather than expand its commitment--or face the need to enter the battle in full force at this time-is avoided. Underlying the summary was the notion that "graduated measures on the DRV (applied) with weapons of our own choosing" could reverse any adverse trend in the South. And ground troops were always possible. The Taylor Report recommended the U.S. make obvious its readiness to act, develop reserve strength in the U.S "to cover action in Southeast Asia up to the nuclear threshold in that area" and thereby sober the enemy and discourage escalation. However, bombing was a more likely Vietnam contingency than was use of ground troops; the latter option was tied to a U.S. response to renewed fighting in Laos and/or overt invasion of South Vietnam. But Taylor suggested troops be sent to Diem; the Taylor Report and cables recommend combat troop deployment to Vietnam. (A message from Nolting summarizing the Diem-Taylor meeting on which the recommendations apparently rest [Saigon message 541, 25 Oct 61] does not indicate any enthusiasm on Diem's part to deployment of troops, however. He hinted U.S. troops for training might be requested, then dropped the subject.)

Appendices to the Taylor Report written by members of the group give a slightly different picture. There is less optimism about the GVN's chances of success, less optimism about chances of U.S action--political or military--tipping the balance. For example: William Jordan (State) said almost all Vietnamese interviewed had emphasized the gravity of the situation, growing VC successes and loss of confidence in Diem. The ARVN lacked aggressiveness, was devoid of any sense of urgency, short of able leaders. Sterling Cottrell (State) said: It is an open question whether the G\TN can succeed even with U.S. assistance. Thus it would be a mistake to make an irrevocable U.S. commitment to defeat communists in South Vietnam. Foreign military forces cannot win the battle at the village level--where it must be joined; the primary responsibility for saving Vietnam must rest with the GVN. For these reasons Cottrell argued against a treaty which would either shift ultimate responsibility to the U.S. or engage a full U.S. commitment to defeat the Vietcong.

Nov 1961 SNIE 10-4-61

This estimated the DRV would respond to an increased U.S troop commitment by increasing support to the Vietcong. If U.S. commitment to the GVN grew, so would DRV support to the VC. Four possible U.S. courses were given: airlift plus more help for ARVN; deployment of 8-10,000 troops as a flood relief task force; deployment of 25-40,000 combat troops; with each course, warn Hanoi of U.S. determination to hold SVN and U.S. intention to bomb the DRV if its support for the VC did not cease. The SNIE estimated air attacks against the North would not cause its VC support to stop and figured Moscow and Peking would react strongly to air attacks.

8 Nov 1961 McNamara Memorandum for the President

Secretary McNamara, Gilpatric and the JCS were "inclined to recommend that we do commit the U.S. to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South Vietnam to communism and that we support this commitment by the necessary military actions." The memorandum said the fall of Vietnam would create "extremely serious" strategic implications worldwide, that chances were "probably sharply against" preventing that fall without a U.S. troop commitment but that even with major-troop deployment (205,000 was the maximum number of ground forces estimated necessary to deal with a large overt invasion from the DRV and/or China) the U.S. would still be at the mercy of external forces--Diem, Laos, domestic political problems, etc.--and thus success could not be guaranteed. McNamara recommended against deployment of a task force (the 8,000-man group mentioned in the Taylor Report) "unless we are willing to make an affirmative decision" to fully support a commiment to save South Vietnam.

11 Nov 1961 Rusk/McNamara Memorandum for the President

This may have been prepared at Kennedy's specific instruction; it recommended what Kennedy wanted to hear: that the decision to commit major ground forces could be deferred. In this paper, rhetoric is escalated from that of McNamara's 8 November memorandum but U.S. actions recommended are far less significant, less committing. Military courses are divided into two phrases: first, promptly deploy support troops and equipment (helicopters, transport aircraft, maritime equipment and trainers, special intelligence and air reconnaissance groups, other men and materiel to improve training, logistics, economic and other assistance programs). Then study and possibly deploy major ground combat forces at a later date. Despite the clear warning that even deployment of major U.S. units could not assure success against communism, the memorandum's initial recommendation was that the U.S. "commit itself to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South Vietnam to Communism," be prepared to send troops and to "strike at the source of aggression in North Vietnam." A number of diplomatic moves (in the U.N., in NATO and SEATO councils, etc.) are suggested to signal U.S. determination; economic, social and other programs designed to help South Vietnam are suggested; ways to elicit improvements from Diem are recommended.

14 Nov 1961 DEPTEL 619 to Saigon

This was Nolting's guidance, based on the Rusk/McNamara memorandum. Nolting was told the anti-guerrilla effort "must essentially be a GVN task . . . No amount of extra aid can be substituted for GVN taking measures to permit [it] to assume offensive and strengthen the administrative and political bases of government....Do not propose to introduce into GVN the U.S. combat troops now but propose a phase of intense public and diplomatic
activity to focus on inifitration from North. Shall decide later on course of action should infiltration not be radically reduced." Diem's taking necessary measures--political, military, economic--to improve his government and relations with the people were a prerequisite to further U.S. assistance: "Package should be presented as first steps in a partnership in which the U.S. is prepared to do more as joint study of facts and GVN performance makes increased U.S. aid possible and productive." Strictly for his own information, Nolting was told Defense was "preparing plans for the use of U.S. combat forces in SVN under various contingencies, including stepped up infiltration as well as organized ....(military) intervention. However, objective of our policy is to do all possible to accomplish purpose without use of U.S. combat forces." And, Nolting was to tell Diem: "We would expect to share in the decision-making process in the political, economic and military fields as they affect the security situation."

22 Nov 1961 NSAM 111

Called the "First Phase of Vietnam Program" this NSAM approved all Rusk/McNamara recommendations of 11 November except the first one: their initial recommendation that the U.S. commit itself to saving South Vietnam was omitted.

7 Dec. 1961 Alexis Johnson/Rostow Redraft ("Clarification") of Nolting's 14 November Guidance

"What we have in mind is that in operations directly related to the security situation, partnership will be so close that one party will not take decisions or actions affecting the other without full and frank prior consultation." This is different from the idea that American involvement should be so intimate that the GVN would be reformed "from the bottom up"--despite Diem.

(Although Washington gave in--or gave up--on the kind and degree of pressure to exert on Diem, Washington did not soften on Lansdale. Despite four requests from Diem and the recommendations from Cottrell, the Taylor Report and William Bundy that Lansdale be sent to Saigon, he did not get there until late 1965.)

11 Dec 1961 New York Times

Two U.S. helicopter companies (33 H-2lCs, 400 men) arrived in Vietnam, the first direct U.S. military support for the GVN.

ICC reaction: shall we continue functioning here in the face of U.S. assistance (increase barred by the Geneva Accords)?

15 Dec. 1961 New York Times

Reported the formal exchange of letters between Kennedy and Diem announcing a stepped-up aid program for Vietnam.



In the summer of 1959, it was hard to find an American official worried about Vietnam. This was not because things were going well. They were not. A National Intelligence Estimate published in August portrayed Diem as unpopular, his economy as developing less rapidly than its rival in the North, and his government under pressure from guerrillas encouraged and in part supported from the North. Nevertheless, the NIE suggested no crisis then or for the foreseeable future. What the NIE called "harassment" (i.e., support for the VC) from the North would continue, but overt invasion seemed most unlikely. Neither communist nor anti-communist enemies within South Vietnam were seen as an immediate threat. Diem would remain as President, said the NIE, "for many years." In sum, the NIE saw the situation in Vietnam as unhappy, but not unstable. That was to be about as close to good news as we would hear from South Vietnam for a long time.

From then on, the classified record through the end of 1961 shows a succession of bleak appraisals of the regime's support in the cities, and among the military, almost always accompanied by increasingly bleak estimates of increased VC strength and activity in the countryside. A dispatch from our Embassy in Saigon in March, 1960, described the situation in grave terms, but ended on the hopeful note that as of January Diem was recognizing his problems and promising to do something about them. In August, an NIE analysis reported a "marked deterioration since January." In November, a military coup barely failed to overthrow Diem.

In January, 1961 an old counterinsurgency hand, General Edward Lansdale, went to Vietnam to look things over for the Secretary of Defense. He returned with a report that "the Viet Cong hope to win back Vietnam south of the 17th parallel this year, if at all possible, and are much further along towards accomplishing this goal than I had realized from reading the reports received in Washington."

Nevertheless, the situation was never seen as nearly so grave as these reports, read years later, might suggest. We will see that at least up until the fall of 1961, while appraisals of the situation sometimes suggested imminent crisis, the recommendations made to the President (by the authors of these frightening appraisals) always implied a less pessimistic view.

The top levels of the Kennedy Administration dealt only intermittently with the problem of Vietnam during 1961. There was a flurry of activity in late April and early May, which we will see was essentially an offshoot of the Laos crisis which had come to a head at that time. A much more thorough review was undertaken in the fall, following General Taylor's mission to Saigon, which then led to an important expansion of the American effort in Vietnam.

No fundamental new American decisions on Vietnam were made until the Buddhist unrest in the last half of 1963, and no major new military decisions were made until 1965. Consequently, the decisions in the fall of 1961 (essentially, to provide combat support-for example, helicopter companies-but to defer any decision on direct combat troops) have come to seem very important. This paper tries to describe what led up to those decisions, what alternatives were available and what the implications of the choices were.

The story is a fairly complicated one. For although it is hard to recall that context today, Vietnam in 1961 was a peripheral crisis. Even within Southeast Asia it received far less of the Administration's and the world's attention than did Laos. The New York Times Index for 1961 has eight columns of Vietnam, twenty-six on Laos. Decisions about Vietnam were greatly influenced by what was happening elsewhere. In the narrow Vietnamese context, the weaknesses and peculiarities of the Diem government had a substantial, if not always obvious, impact on the behavior of both the Vietnamese officials seeking Amencan aid and the American decision-makers pondering the nature and terms of the aid they would offer.

As it happens, the Eisenhower Administration was never faced with a need for high-level decisions affecting the crisis developing in Vietnam during 1960. A formal Counterinsurgency Plan, intended to be the basis of an expanded program of assistance to Vietnam, was being worked on through most of that year, but (presumably reflecting a subdued sense of urgency), it took eight months to reach the White House. By that time, a new Administration had just taken office. President Kennedy promptly approved the plan, but this merely set off lengthy negotiations with the Vietnamese about whether and when they would do their share of the CIP. In April, though, a crisis atmosphere developed, not because of anything fresh out of Vietnam, but because of a need to shore up the Vietnamese and others in Southeast Asia in the face of a likely collapse of the U.S. position in Laos. This led to a U.S. offer to discuss putting American troops into Vietnam, or perhaps negotiate a bilateral security treaty with the Vietnamese. When, however, Vice President Johnson mentioned the possibility of troops to Diem in May, Diem said he wanted no troops yet. The idea of a bilateral treaty similarly slipped out of sight. Consequently, although the United States had itself indicated a willingness in May to discuss a deeper commitment, the South Vietnamese did not take up the opportunity, and the Administration had no occasion to face up to really hard decisions.

But by October, the situation in Vietnam had worsened. The VC were becoming disturbingly aggressive. Now, Diem did raise the question of a treaty. This request, coming after the American offer in May to consider such steps and in the context of a worsening situation in Vietnam, could hardly be ignored. The Taylor Mission and the Presidential review and decisions of November followed.

The present paper is organized around these natural climaxes in the policy process. The balance of Part I describes the situation inherited by the new Administration. Part II covers the period through the May peak. Part III covers the fall crisis.


In January, 1961, there were five issues that were going to affect American policy toward Vietnam. They turned on:

1. The VC Insurgency Itself

An illustration of the growth of the insurgency, but also of the limits of U.S. concern can be seen in the 1960 CINCPAC Command History. For several years prior to 1960, CINCPAC histories do not mention the VC insurgency at all. In 1960, the development of a counterinsurgency plan for Vietnam (and simultaneously one for Laos) received a fair amount of attention. But when, in April, MAAG in Saigon asked for additional transports and helicopters for the counterinsurgency effort, CINCPAC turned down the requests for transports, and OSD overruled the recommendation CINCPAC forwarded for 6 helicopters. By December, OSD was willing to approve sending 11 helicopters (of 16 newly requested) on an "emergency" basis. But the emergency was partly a matter of reassuring Diem after the November coup, and the degree of emergency is suggested by the rate of delivery: 4 in December, and the balance over the next three months.

The record, in general, indicates a level of concern such as that illustrated by the helicopter decisions: growing gradually through 1960, but still pretty much of a back-burner issue so far as the attention and sense of urgency it commanded among policy-level officials. As we will see, the new Kennedy Administration gave it more attention, as the Eisenhower Administration undoubtedly would have had it remained in office. But it is important (though hard, now that Vietnam has loomed so large) to keep in mind how secondary an issue the VC threat to Vietnam seemed to be in early 1961.

2. Problems with the Diem Government

Yet, although the VC gains were not seen--even in the dispatches from Saigon--as serious enough to threaten the immediate collapse of the Diem government, those gains did have the effect of raising difficult questions about our relations with Diem that we had never had to face before. For by late 1960, it was a quite widely held view that the Diem government was probably going to be overthrown sooner or later, barring major changes from within. In contrast to the May 1959 NIE's confident statement that Diem "almost certainly" would remain president "for many years," we find the August 1960 NIE predicting that the recent "adverse trends," if continued, would "almost certainly in time cause the collapse of Diem's regime."

The simple, unhappy fact was that whatever his triumphs in 1955 and 1956, by the end of the 1950s the feeling was growing that the best thing that could be said for Diem was that he was holding the country together and keeping it from succumbing to the communists. Once even this came into doubt, talk among Vietnamese and eventually among Americans of whether it might be better to look for alternative leadership became inevitable.

The sense of trouble shows through even among the optimists. We find Kenneth Young, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand and a strong believer in Diem, warning him in October, 1960 that "there seems to be somewhat of a crisis of confidence in Vietnam."

But the long list of measures Young suggested were all tactical in nature, and required no basic changes in the regime.

Our Ambassador in Saigon (Eldridge Durbrow) was more pessimistic:

....situation in Viet-Nam [December, 1960] is highly dangerous to US interests. Communists are engaged in large-scale guerrilla effort to take over countryside and oust Diem's Government. Their activities have steadily increased in intensity throughout this year. In addition, Diem is faced with widespread popular dissatisfaction with his government's inability to stem the communist tide and its own heavy-handed methods of operation. It seems clear that if he is to remain in power he must meet these two challenges by improvements in his methods of conducting war against communists and in vigorous action to build greater popular support. We should help and encourage him to take effective action. Should he not do so, we may well be forced, in not too distant future, to undertake difficult task of identifying and supporting alternate leadership.

But the difficulties (and risks) of that task looked forbidding. During the November, 1960 coup attempt the U.S. had apparently used its influence to get the coup leaders to negotiate with Diem for reforms, allowing Diem to retain his position with reduced powers. Whether because of their own indecision or U.S. pressure, the coup leaders allowed a delay that let Diem bring loyalist troops in to regain control. (Three years later, a leader of the November, 1963 coup "somewhat emphatically" told an American agent that "it would do no good to send anyone around to attempt to stop things, as happened in November, 1960.")

The situation that was left--with a number of American officials unhappy with Diem and doubtful that he was capable of winning the war, yet unwilling to risk a coup--produced strains within the American government. Short of encouraging a coup, we seemed to have two alternatives: attempt to pressure Diem or attempt to so win his confidence that he would accept our advice willingly. The only effective form of U.S. pressure, however, was to withhold aid, and doing so would sooner or later weaken the war effort.

Consequently a division developed, mainly (but not purely) along the lines of Defense against State, about the advisability of using pressure. The division was particularly sharp since Diem seemed willing to go part way, at least, in meeting our military suggestions, so that the Defense view tended to be that the U.S. would be weakening the war effort if aid were withheld to seek to gain civil reforms that not many people in Defense regarded as crucial. Besides, it was argued, Diem would not succumb to pressure anyway. We would just encourage another coup, and the communists would exploit it.

Given this sort of argument, there would always (at least through 1961) be at least two layers to decisions about aid to Vietnam: What should the U.S. be willing to give? and What, if any, demands should be made on Diem in return for the aid?

3. Problems with the Soviets

But from Washington, both problems within Vietnam--how to deal with Viet Cong, and how to deal with Diem--seemed quite inconsequential tred to the problems of dealing with the Soviets. There were two elements to the Soviet problem. The first, which only indirectly affected Vietnam, was the generally aggressive and confident posture of the Russians at that time, and generally defensive position of the Americans. To use W.W. Rostow's terminolgy the Soviets were then entering the third year of their "post-sputnik" offensive, and their aggressiveness would continue through the Cuban missile crisis. On the U.S. side there was dismay even among Republicans (openly, for example, by Rockefeller; necessarily subdued by Nixon, but reported by any number of journalists on the basis of private conversations) at what seemed to be an erosion of the American position in the world. The Coolidge Commission, appointed by the President, warned him in January, 1960, to, among other steps "close the missile gap" and generally strengthen our defenses. Kennedy, of course, made erosion of our position in the world a major campaign issue. All of this made 1961 a peculiarly difficult year for Americans to make concessions, or give ground to the Soviets when it could be avoided, or even postponed. That was clear in January, and everything thereafter that was, or could be interpreted to be a weak U.S. response, only strengthened the pressure to hold on in Vietnam.

A further element of the Soviet problem impinged directly on Vietnam. The new Administration, even before taking office, was inclined to believe that unconventional warfare was likely to be terrifically important in the 1960s. In January 1961, Krushchev seconded that view with his speech pledging Soviet support to "wars of national liberation." Vietnam was where such a war was actually going on. Indeed, since the war in Laos had moved far beyond the insurgency stage, Vietnam was the only place in the world where the Administration faced a well-developed Communist effort to topple a pro-Western government with an externally-aided pro-communist insurgency. It was a challenge that could hardly be ignored.

4. The Situation in Laos

Meanwhile, within Southeast Asia itself there was the peculiar problem of Laos, where the Western position was in the process of falling apart as Kennedy took office. The Eisenhower Administration had been giving strong support to a pro-American faction in Laos. As a consequence, the neutralist faction had joined in an alliance with the pro-communist faction. The Soviets were sending aid to the neutralist/communist alliance, which they recognized as the legitimate government in Laos; the U.S. recognized and aided the pro-western faction. Unfortunately, it turned out that the neutralist/communist forces were far more effective than those favored by the U.S., and so it became clear that only by putting an American army into Laos could the pro-Western faction be kept in power. Indeed, it was doubtful that even a coalition government headed by the neutralists (the choice the U.S. adopted) could be salvaged. The coalition government solution would raise problems for other countries in Southeast Asia: there would be doubts about U.S. commitments in that part of the world, and (since it was obvious that the communist forces would be left with de facto control of eastern Laos), the settlement would create direct security threats for Thailand and Vietnam. These problems would accompany a "good" outcome in Laos (the coalition government); if the Pathet Lao chose to simply overrun the country outright (as, short of direct American intervention, they had the power to do), the problem elsewhere in Southeast Asia would be so much the worse. Consequently, throughout 1961, we find the effects of the Laos situation spilling over onto Vietnam.

5. The Special American Commitment to Vietnam

Finally, in this review of factors that would affect policy-making on Vietnam, we must note that South Vietnam, (unlike any of the other countries in Southeast Asia) was essentially the creation of the United States.

Without U.S. support Diem almost certainly could not have consolidated his hold on the South during 1955 and 1956.

Without the threat of U.S. intervention, South Vietnam could not have refused to even discuss the elections called for in 1956 under the Geneva settlement without being immediately overrun by the Viet Minh armies.

Without U.S. aid in the years following, the Diem regime certainly, and an independent South Vietnam almost as certainly, could not have survived.

Further, from 1954 on there had been repeated statements of U.S. support for South Vietnam of a sort that we would not find in our dealings with other countries in this part of the world. It is true there was nothing unqualified about this support: it was always economic, and occasionally accompanied by statements suggesting that the Diem regime had incurred an obligation to undertake reforms in return for our assistance. But then, until 1961, there was no occasion to consider any assistance that went beyond economic support and the usual sort of military equipment and advice, and no suggestion that our continued support was in doubt.

Consequently, the U.S. had gradually developed a special commitment in South Vietnam. It was certainly not absolutely binding, even at the level of assistance existing at the start of 1961, much less at any higher level the South Vietnamese might come to need or request. But the commitment was there; to let it slip would be awkward, at the least. Whether it really had any impact on later decisions is hard to say. Given the other factors already discussed, it is not hard to believe that in its absence, U.S. policy might have followed exactly the same course it has followed. On the other hand, in the absence of a pre-existing special relation with South Vietnam, the U.S. in 1961 possibly would have at least considered a coalition government for Vietnam as well as Laos, and chosen to limit direct U.S. involvement to Thailand and other countries in the area historically independent of both Hanoi and Peking. But that is the mootest sort of question. For if there had been no pre-existing commitment to South Vietnam in 1961, there would not have been a South Vietnam to worry about anyway.


Looking over the context we have been reviewing, it seems like a situation in which mistakes would be easy to make. The Viet Cong threat was serious enough to demand action; but not serious enough to compete with other crises and problems for the attention of senior decision-makers. A sound decision on tactics and levels of commitment to deal with the Viet Cong involved as much a judgment on the internal politics of non-communists in Vietnam as it did a judgment of the guerrillas' strength, and character, and relation with Hanoi. (Even a judgement that the war could be treated as a strictly military problem after all, involved at least an implicit judgement, and a controversial one, about Vietnamese politics.) Even if Diem looked not worth supporting it would be painful to make a decision to let him sink, and especially so in the world context of 1961. Faced with a challenge to deal with wars of national liberation, it would be hard to decide that the first one we happened to meet was "not our style." And after the U.S. stepped back in Laos, it might be hard to persuade the Russians that we intended to stand firm anywhere if we then gave up on Vietnam. Finally, if the U.S. suspected that the best course in Vietnam was to seek immediately an alternative to Diem, no one knew who the alternative might he, or whether getting rid of Diem would really make things better.

Such was the prospect of Vietnam as 1961 began, and a new Administration took office.


A. WINTER, 1961

The Vietnam Counter-Insurgency Plan which was being worked on through most of 1960 finally reached the White House in late January, apparently just after Kennedy took office. We do not have a document showing the exact date, but we know that Kennedy approved the main provisions of the Plan after a meeting on January 28th, and negotiations with Diem began February 13.

The provisions of the CIP tell a good deal about how the Viet Cong threat looked to American and Vietnamese officials at the beginning of 1961, for there is nothing in the record to suggest that anyone-either in Saigon or Washington, Vietnamese or American-judged the CIP to be an inadequate response to the VC threat.

The U.S. offered Diem equipment and supplies to outfit a 20,000 man increase in his army. The cost was estimated at $28.4 million. The U.S. also offered to train, outfit and supply 32,000 men of the Civil Guard (a counterguerrilla auxiliary) at a cost of $12.7 million. These two moves would help Diem expand the RVNAF to a total of 170,000 men, and expand the Civil Guard to a total of 68,000 men. There were some further odds and ends totalling less than another million. The full package added up to less than $42 million, which was a substantial but not enormous increment to on-going U.S. aid to Vietnam of about $220 million a year. (Since most of these costs were for initial outfitting for new forces, the package was mainly a one-time shot in the arm.)

For their part, the Vietnamese were supposed to pay the local currency costs of the new forces, and carry out a number of military and civil reforms.

The key military reforms were to straighten out the chain of command, and to develop an agreed overall plan of operations.

The chain of command problem was that control of the counterinsurgency effort in the provinces was divided between the local military commander and the Province Chief, a personal appointee of Diem, and reporting directly to Diem. Even at a higher level, 3 regional field commands reported directly to Diem, by-passing the Chief of Staff. So a total of 42 officials with some substantial (and overlapping) control of the war effort reported directly to Diem: 38 Province Chiefs, 3 regional commanders, and the Chief of Staff. The "reform" eventually gotten from Diem put the regional commanders under the Chief of Staff, and combined the office of Province Chief (usually a military man in any event) and local field commander. But the Province Chiefs still were personally responsible to Diem, and could appeal directly to him outside the nominal chain of command. Diem's reform, consequently, turned out to be essentially meaningless. His reluctance to move on this issue was not surprising. After all, the division and confusion of military authority served a real purpose for a ruler like Diem, with no broad base of support: it lessened the chance of a coup that would throw him out.

The overall plan issue, on which not even a paper agreement was reached during the period covered by this account, was really an argument over strategy. It has a familiar ring.

Diem seemed oriented very much towards maintaining at least the pretense of control over all of South Vietnam. Consequently, he favored maintaining military outposts (and concentrating the population in Agrovilles, the predecessors of the strategic hamlets) along "lines of strength" (generally main roads) which stretched throughout the country. To assert at least nominal control over the countryside between these lines of strength, the military forces would periodically organize a sweep. In contrast to this, the American plan stressed what MAAG called a "net and spear" concept. Small units would scour the jungles beyond the pacified area. When this "net" found an enemy unit, they would call in reserves (the spear) for a concentrated attempt to destroy the unit. As new areas were thus cleared, the net would be pushed further out into previously uncontested areas. It is not clear how well refined either concept was, or (with hindsight) whether the American plan was really a great deal more realistic than Diem's. But the American interest is getting Diem to agree to a plan does seem to have been primarily oriented to getting him to agree to some systematic procedure for using forces to clear areas of VC control, instead of tying up most of his forces defending fixed installations, with periodic uneventful sweeps through the hinterland.

On the civil side, the stress in the CIP was on trying to shore up the regime's support within the cities by such steps as bringing opposition leaders into the government, and giving the National Assembly the power to investigate charges of mismanagement and corruption in the executive.

The Plan also called for "civic action" and other steps to increase the change of winning positive loyalty from the peasants.

A good deal of bureaucratic compromise had gone into the CIP. Ambassador Durbrow only reluctantly conceded any real need for the 20,000 man force increase. The stress on civil reforms, in particular on civil reforms as part of a quid pro quo, came into the plan only after the Saigon Embassy became involved, although there were general allusions to such things even in the original military draft of the CIP.

Nevertheless, there was at least a paper agreement, and so far as the record shows, substantial real agreement as well. No one complained the plan was inadequate. It would, "if properly implemented," "turn the tide." And, by implication, it would do so without any major increase in American personnel in Vietnam, and indeed, aside from the one-shot outfitting of the new units, without even any major increase in American aid.

None of this meant that the warnings that we have seen in the Saigon Embassy's dispatches or in the August SNIE were not seriously intended. What it did mean was that, as of early 1961, the view that was presented to senior officials in Washington essentially showed the VC threat as a problem which could be pretty confidently handled, given a little more muscle for the army and some shaping up by the Vietnamese administration. Any doubts expressed went to the will and comptence of the Diem regime, not to the strength of the VC, the role of Hanoi, or the adequacy of U.S. aid.

Consequently, among the assumptions listed as underlying the CIP, we find (with emphasis added):

That the Government of Viet-Nam has the basic potential to cope with the Viet Cong guerrilla threat if necessary corrective measures are taken and adequate forces are provided.

That of course was the heart of the CIP bargain: the U.S. would provide support for the "adequate forces" if Diem would take the "necessary corrective steps." The hinted corollary was that our commitment to Diem should be contingent on his performance:

That at the present time the Diem government offers the best hope for defeating the Viet Cong.


Running against these suggestions (of a firm bargaining position contingent On Diem s performance), was concern that if Diem were overthrown his successors might be no better; and that the VC might exploit the confusion and perhaps even civil war following a coup. Further, there was an argument that part of Diem's reluctance to move on reforms was that he was afraid to make any concession that might weaken his grip: consequently the U.S. needed to reassure him that he could count on our firm support to him personally.

A strong statement of this point of view is contained in a report submitted in January by Brig. General Edward Lansdale, then the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. Lansdale had become famous for his work in the Philippines advising on the successful campaign against the Huk insurgents. In 1955 and 1956, he was a key figure in installing and establishing Diem as President of South Vietnam. As mentioned in the Introduction, Lansdaie visited Vietnam in early January. Here, from his report, are a few extracts On Diem and how Lansdale felt he should be handled:

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. We have to show him by deeds, not words alone, that we are his friend. This will make our influence effective again.

....If the next American official to talk to President Diem 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. Whatever else we might think of him, he has been unselfish in devoting his life to his country and has little in personal belongings to show for it. If we don't like the heavy influence of Brother Nhu, then let's move someone of ours in close. This someone, however, must be able to look at problems with understanding, suggest better solutions than does Nhu, earn a position of influence....

Ambassador Durbrow should be transferred in the immediate future. He has been in the "forest of tigers" which is Vietnam for nearly four years now and I doubt that he himself realizes how tired he has become or how close he is to the individual trees in this big woods. Correctly or not, the recognized government of Vietnam does not look upon him as a friend, believing he sympathized strongly with the coup leaders of 11 November.

....Ngo Dinh Diem is still the only Vietnamese with executive ability and the required determination to be an effective President. I believe there will be another attempt to get rid of him soon, unless the U.S. makes it clear that we are backing him as the elected top man. If the 11 November coup had been successful, I believe that a number of highly selfish and mediocre people would be squabbling among themselves for power while the Communists took over. The Communists will be more alert to exploit the next coup attempt....

Lansdale's view was not immediately taken up, even though Hilsman reports that his presentation impressed Kennedy enough to start the President thinking about sending the General to Saigon as our next Ambassador. Instead, Kennedy made what was under the circumstances the easiest, least time-consuming decision, which was simply to let the Ambassador he had inherited from the Eisenhower Administration go forward and make a try with the plan and negotiating tactics already prepared.

Durbrow's guidance specifically tells him (in instructions he certainly found suited his own view perfectly):

....considered U.S. view (is) that success requires implementation entire plan . . . If Ambassador considers GVN does not provide necessary cooperation, he should inform Washington with recommendations which may include suspension U.S. contribution.


Kennedy's approval of the CIP apparently was seen as quite a routine action. None of the memoirs of the period give it any particular attention. And, although both Schlesinger and Hilsman refer to General Lansdale's report as shocking the President about the state of things in Vietnam, that report itself does not criticize the CIP, or the adequacy of its programs.

The guidance to Durbrow assumed agreement could be reached "within two weeks." This choice of language in the guidance cable implies that we believed Diem would quickly agree on the terms of the CIP, and the question of using pressure against him ("suspension of U.S. contribution") would only arise later, should he fail to follow through on his part of the agreement.

As it turned out, Durbrow's efforts took a more complicated form. Even reaching a nominal agreement on the Cip took about 6 weeks. Then, Durbrow recommended holding up what is constantly referred to as "the green light" on increased aid until Diem had actually signed decrees implementing his major promises.

On March 8 (in response to a Washington suggestion for stepping up some aid prior to agreement on the CIP), Saigon cabled that:

....despite pressure of Embassy and MAAG, GVN has not decreed the required measures and will continue to delay unless highly pressured to act.

But by the 16th both the MAAG Chief and the Ambassador were taking a gentler line. Durbrow's cable of that date reports that agreement on military reforms
had reached a point "which MAAG considers it can live with provided GVN follows through with proper implementation." He was more concerned about the civil reforms, but nevertheless concluded the cable with:

Comments: Diem was most affable, exuded confidence and for first time expressed some gratitude our CIP efforts which he promised implement as best he could. Again before giving full green light believe we should await outcome detail discussion by GVN-US officials. In meantime MAAG quietly ordering some equipment for 20,000 increase.

And a week later, Washington replied, agreeing that the "green light" should be held up until the CIP was approved, but also noting that since success depended on the willing cooperation of the Vietnamese, the Embassy ought not to push Diem too hard in the negotiations.

Following this, the CIP negotiations dragged on inconclusively, and there is a ghostly quality to it all. There are cables giving encouraging progress reports which, in fact, seem limited to vague promises which, with hindsight, we know to have been quite meaningless, MAAG (and eventually the JCS in Washington) grew increasingly impatient with Durbrow's insistence on further holding up the "green light." They wanted to get on with the war.

By the end, Durbrow was simply holding out for Diem to actually complete the paperwork on some steps he had long ago said he intended to take. His very last cable (May 3) gives a good feeling for the flavor of the negotiations that had been going on between Diem and Durbrow for the nearly 3 months since the CIP talks began (and indeed it gives the flavor of Durbrow's relations with Diem at least since the previous October).

During the inauguration reception at Palace April 29, Diem took me aside and asked if I had given green light for US implementation of our part of counter insurgency plan (CIP). I replied frankly that I had not and noted that as stated in my letter of February 13 certain minimum actions must be taken by the GVN first if CIP is to produce results. I listed following actions: (1) Establishment of a central intelligence organization; (2) assignment of operational control for counter insurgency operations within military chain of command; and (3) implementation of reforms announced by Diem on February 6. Diem replied that he would do all these things, but that time was required to work out details. He said various GVN Cabinet members and Joint General Staff studying proposals and have different ideas. Since he wants to be sure that whatever done is well thought out, will be successful and not have to be changed in future he letting responsible officials thoroughly consider proposals. Diem stated that Secretary Thuan working on detailed statute for central intelligence organization, but it required more work and needs to be polished up. I replied that frankly time was slipping by and as yet there no action on these three points, which essential before I can give "green light" on equipment for 20,000 increase in armed forces.

In connection Diem remarks, Vice President Tho told me April 28 that he had not seen CIP, although he had heard of its existence, and he does not believe other Ministers have seen it either. Question thus arises as to whether Diem's statement that various Cabinet members studying CIP refers only to Thuan. I gave Tho fairly detailed fill-in on CIP contents. Tho said action now by President, at least implementation of reforms, needed in order capitalize on present upswing in popular feeling about situation following GVN success in carrying out elections despite VC efforts to disrupt. Stating he did not know when if ever reforms will be implemented, he commented that failure take such action after so many promises would lose all momentum gained from elections. Tho added that, aside from psychological impact, reforms likely take (sic; make) little change unless Diem himself changes his methods of operating. He noticed that if "super ministers" without real authority they likely become just additional level in bureaucracy without making GVN more effective.

On May 2 in course my formal farewell call I asked Diem if decrees yet signed on intelligence organization, chain of command and reforms. Diem stated he working on these matters but went through usual citation of difficulties including problem of convincing available personnel that they capable and qualified carry out responsibilities. He stated he already named Colonel Nguyen Van Yankee to head intelligence organization, Colonel Yankee has selected building for his headquarters and in process recruiting staff, while Secretary Thuan working on statute for organization. Re chain of command, I strongly emphasized that this one of most important factors in CIP, GVN must organize itself to follow national plan with one man in charge operational control and not waste time chasing will of wisps. Diem replied that he not feeling well (he has cold) and with inauguration he has not had time focus on this question but he will do it. He stated that he realizes only effective way is to place counter insurgency operations under Joint General Staff, but that his generals disagreed as to exactly how this should be done.

Diem, referring Sihanouk's Vietiane press conference (Vientiane's 1979), stated he did not believe there would be 14-nation conference and he afraid Laos almost lost already. Diem argued that since PL occupy almost all of southern Laos, we must agree increase in RVNAF to provide additional personnel to train self defense corps which in very bad shape.

Comment: Although Thuan has indicated to (MAAG Chief) General McGarr decree designating single officer to conduct counter insurgency operations being signed imminently, I asked him morning May 3 when seeing off Harriman and Lemnitzer whether I would receive before departure "present" he has long promised me. He replied presents often come when least expected, which apparently means Diem not yet ready sign decree.

While we should proceed with procurement equipment for 20,000 increase as recommended my 1606, I do not believe GVN should be informed of this green light, particularly until above decree signed. Durbrow.

The February 6 reforms referred to involved a cabinet re-organization Diem had announced before the start of the CIP negotiations. The intelligence reorganization was to consolidate the 7 existing services. The chain of command problem has been discussed above. Diem finally issued decrees on all these points a few days after Durbrow went home. The decrees were essentially meaningless: exactly these same issues remained high on the list of "necessary reforms" called for after the Taylor Mission, and indeed throughout the rest of Diem's life.


Did Durbrow's tactics make sense? There is an argument to be made both ways. Certainly if Durbrow's focus was on the pro forma paperwork, then they did not. Mere formal organizational re-arrangements (unifying the then 7 intelligence services into 1, setting up at least a nominal chain of command for the war) often change very little even when they are seriously intended. To the extent they are not seriously intended, they are almost certain to be meaningless. Vice President Tho, of course, is cited in the cable as making exactly that point. The very fact that Durbrow chose to include this remark in the cable (Without questioning it) suggests he agreed. But if squeezing the formal decrees out of Diem really did not mean much, then what was the point of exacerbating relations with Diem (not to mention relations with the military members of the U.S. mission) to get them? In hindsight, we can say there was none, unless the U.S. really meant what it had said about making U.S. support for Diem Contingent on his taking "corrective measures." Then the function of those tactics would not have been to squeeze a probably meaningless concession from Diem; for the cable quoted alone makes it pretty clear that it would have been naive to expect much follow-through from Diem. The purpose would have been to begin the process of separating U.S. support for Vietnam from support for the Diem regime, and to lay the basis for stronger such signals in the future unless Diem underwent some miraculous reformation. That, of course, is exactly the tack the U.S. followed in the fall of 1963, once the Administration had really decided that we could not go on with the Diem regime as it then existed.

All this can be said with hindsight. It is not clear how much of this line of thinking should be attributed to American officials in Washington or Saigon at the time. There is no hint in the cables we have that Durbrow was thinking this way. Rather he seems to have felt that the concessions he was wringing from Diem represented real progress, but that we would have to keep up the pressure (presumably with threats to suspend aid--as his guidance considered--even after the "green light" was given) to keep goading Diem in the right direction. Meanwhile, the predominant view (pushed most strongly, but hardly exclusively by the military) was that we should, and could effectively get on with the war with as much cooperation as we could get from Diem short of interfering with the war effort: it was all right to try for a quid pro quo on aid, but not very hard. The Lansdale view went even further, stressing the need for a demonstration of positive, essentially unqualified support for Diem if only to discourage a further coup attempt, which Lansdale saw as the main short-run danger.

In a significant way, Lansdale's view was not very different in its analysis of tactics from the view that Diem was hopeless. Both Lansdale, with his strong pro-Diem view, and men like Gaibraith with a strong anti-Diem view, agreed that Diem could not be pressured into reforming this regime. ("He won't change, because he can't change," wrote Galbraith in a cable we will quote in more detail later.)

Where the Lansdale and Gaibraith views differed--a fundamental difference, of course,--was in their estimate of the balance of risks of a coup. Lansdale, and obviously his view carried the day, believed that a coup was much more likely to make things worse than make things better. This must have been an especially hard view to argue against in 1961, when Diem did not look as hopeless as he would later, and when a strong argument could be made that the U.S. just could not afford at that time to risk the collapse of a pro-Western government in Vietnam. It must have seemed essentially irresistible to take the route or at least postponing, as seemed quite feasible, a decision on such a tough and risky course as holding back on support for Diem. The President, after all, could remember the charges that the Truman Administration had given away China by holding back on aid to Chiang to try to pressure him toward reform. As a young Congressman, he had even joined the chorus.
Meanwhile Durbrow was about to come home (he had been in Vietnam for 4 years); security problems in Vietnam were, at best, not improving; and the repercussions of Laos were spilling over and would make further moves on Vietnam an urgent matter. By the middle of April, the Administration was undertaking its first close look at the problem in Vietnam (in contrast to the almost automatic approval of the CIP during the opening days of the new Administration).



The development of what eventually came to be called "The Presidential Program for Vietnam" formally began with this memorandum from McNamara to Gilpatric:

20 April 1961


This will confirm our discussion of this morning during which I stated that the President has asked that you:

a. Appraise the current status and future prospects of the Communist drive to dominate South Viet-Nam.
b. Recommend a series of actions (military, political and/or economic, overt and/or covert) which, in your opinion, will prevent Communist domination of that country.

The President would like to receive your report on or before Thursday, April 27.

During the course of your study, you should draw, to the extent you believe necessary, upon the views and resources of the State L partment and CIA. Mr. Chester Bowles was present when the President discussed the matter with me, and I have reviewed the project with Mr. Allen Dulles. Further, the President stated that Mr. Walt Rostow would be available to counsel with you.

Gilpatric, although obviously given a completely free hand under the terms of the memo, nevertheless set up an interagency task force to work on the report. A draft was ready April 26, and Gilpatric sent it to the President the following day. But this turned out to be only the first, and relatively unimportant phase of the effort. For the Laos crisis came to a boil just as the first Gilpatric report was finished, and the Task Force was continued with the essentially new mission of a recommending additional measure to keep our position from falling apart in the wake of what was happening in Laos. Consequently, to understand these late-April, early-May decisions, we have to treat separately the initial Gilpatric effort and the later, primarily State-drafted revision, dated May 6. The same general factors were in the background of both efforts, although Laos was only one of the things that influenced the April 26 effort, while it became the overwhelming element in the May 6 effort. It is worth setting out these influencing factors, specifically:

1. The security situation in Vietnam.
2. The Administration's special interest in counter-insurgency.
3. The apparent futility and divisiveness of the Durbrow (pressure) tactics for dealing with Diem.
4. Eventually most important, and substantially narrowing the range of options realistically open to the Administration, the weakness of US policy in Laos, and the consequent strongly felt need for a signal of firm policy in Vietnam.

1. The Security Situation in Vietnam

The VC threat in Vietnam looked worse in April than it had in January. We will see that Gilpatric's report painted a bleak picture. Yet, there is no hint in the record that concern about the immediate situation in Vietnam was a major factor in the decision to formulate a new program.

VC strength was estimated at 3-15,000 in Lansdale's January memorandum; 8-10,000 in a March NIE; 10,000 in an April briefing paper (apparently by Landsdale) immediately preceding--and recommending--the Gilpatric Task Force; then 12,000 one week later in the Gilpatric report proper. VC incidents were reported high for April (according to the Task Force report, 650 per month, 4 times higher than January), but an upsurge in activity had long been predicted to coincide with the Vietnamese elections. As would happen in the future, the failure of the VC to prevent the elections was considered a sign of government strength.

On the basis of the Task Force statistics, we could assume that the situation was deteriorating rapidly: taken literally, they indicate an increase in VC strength of 20 percent in about a week, plus the large increase in incidents. But neither cables from the field, nor the Washington files show any sense of a sharply deteriorating situation. And, as we will see, the initial Task Force Report, despite its crisis tone, recommended no increase in miltary strength for the Vietnamese, only more generous US financial aid to forces already planned under the CIP.

2. The Administration's Special Interest in Counter-insurgency

A more important impetus to the Gilpatric effort than any sense of deterioration in Vietnam seems to have been the Administration's general interest in doing something about counter-insurgency warfare, combined with an interest in finding more informal and more efficient means of supervising policy than the Eisenhower Administration's elaborate National Security structure. The effort in Vietnam obviously required some coordination of separate efforts by at least State, Defense, CIA, and ICA (a predecessor of AID). Further, once a coordinated program was worked out, the idea appears to have been to focus responsibility for seeing to it that the program was carried out on some clearly identified individual. This search for a better way to organize Gilpatric effort, although it became inconsequential after the original submission.

3. The Apparent Futility and Divisiveness of the Durbrow (Pressure) Tactics for Dealing With Diem

Late April was a peculiarly appropriate time to undertake the sort of sharpening up of policy and its organization just described. It was probably clear by then that Durbrow's pressure tactics were not really accomplishing much with Diem. Besides, Durbrow had been in Vietnam for four years by April, and a new Ambassador would normally have been sent in any event. Fritz Nolting had been chosen by early April, and he was scheduled to take over in early May. Further, Diem had just been reelected, an essentially meaningless formality to be sure, but still one more thing that helped make late April a logical time for taking a fresh look at US relations with Diem. And even to people who believed that a continuation of Durbrow's pressure tactics might be the best approach to Diem, events elsewhere and especially in Laos must have raised questions about whether it was a politic time to be threatening to withhold aid.

4. The Weakness of US Policy in Laos, and the Need for a Signal of Firm Policy in Vietnam

The situation in the world that April seemed to create an urgent requirement for the US to do something to demonstrate firmness, and especially so in Southeast Asia. The Task Force was set up the day after the Bay of Pigs invasion force surrendered, and at a tinie when the Laos crisis was obviously coming to head. There had been implicit agreement in principle between the US and the Soviets to seek a cease fire in Laos and to organize a neutral coalition government. But it was not clear at all that the cease-fire would come while there was anything left worth arguing about in the hands of the pro-Western faction. Gilpatric's initial Task Force report reached the President the day of a crisis meeting in Laos, and the more important second phase of the effort began then, in an atmosphere wholly dominated by Laos.

But even before the Laos crisis reached its peak, there was a sense in Washington and generally in the world that put strong pressures on the Administration to look for ways to take a firm stand somewhere; and if it was not to be in Laos, then Vietnam was next under the gun.

Something of the mood of the time can be sensed in these quotes, one from a March 28 NIE on Southeast Asia, another from Lansdale's notes, and finally a significant question from a Kennedy press conference:

From the NIE:

There is a deep awareness among the countries of Southeast Asia that developments in the Laotian crisis, and its outcome, have a profound impact on their future. The governments of the area tend to regard the Laotian crisis as a symbolic test of strengths between the major powers of the West and the Communist bloc.

From Lansdale's notes (about April 21):

1. Psychological--VN believed always they main target. Now it comes--"when our turn comes, will we be treated the same as Laos?" Main task GVN confidence in US.

And suggesting the more general tone of the time (even a week before the Bay of Pigs, prompted by the Soviet orbiting of a man in space) this question at Kennedy's April 12 news conference:

Mr. President, this question might better be asked at a history class than at a news conference, but here it is anyway. The Communists seem to be putting us on the defensive on a number of fronts--now, again, in space. Wars aside, do you think there is a danger that their system is going to prove more durable than ours.

The President answered with cautious reassurance. Eight days later, after the Bay of Pigs, and the day he ordered the Task Force to go ahead, he told the Association of Newspaper Editors: is clearer than ever that we face a relentless struggle in every corner of the globe that goes far beyond the clash of armies, or even nuclear armaments. The armies are there. But they serve primarily as the shield behind which subversion, infiltration, and a host of other tactics steadily advance, picking off vulnerable areas one by one in situations that do not permit our own armed intervention. . . . We dare not fail to see the insidious nature of this new and deeper struggle. We dare not fail to grasp the new concepts, the new tools, the new sense of urgency we will need to combat it-whether in Cuba or South Vietnam. (Notice Kennedy's explicit assumption about US armed intervention as a means of dealing with insurgencies. Not too much can be read into his remark, for it probably was inspired primarily by criticism of his refusal to try to save the Bay of Pigs contingent. But the balance of the record adds significance to the comment.)


The available Gilpatric file consists mostly of drafts of the report and memos from Lansdale. It contains a memorandum dated April 13, in which Lansdale advised Gilpatric of a meeting with Rostow, at which Rostow showed Lansdale a copy of a memorandum to Kennedy recommending a fresh crack at the Vietnam situation. Here is Rostow's memorandum:

April 12, 1961



Now that the Viet-Nam election is over, I believe we must turn to gearing up the whole Viet-Nam operation. Among the possible lines of action that might be considered at an early high level meeting are the following:

1. The appointment of a full time first-rate back-stop man in Washington. McNamara, as well as your staff, believes this to be essential.
2. The briefing of our new Ambassador, Fritz Nolting, including sufficient talk with yourself so that he fully understands the priority you attach to the Viet-Nam problem.
3. A possible visit to Viet-Nam in the near future by the Vice President.
4. A possible visit to the United States of Mr. Thuan, acting Defense Minister, and one of the few men around Diem with operational capacity and vigor.
5. The sending to Viet-Nam of a research and development and military hardware team which would explore with General McGarr which of the various techniques and gadgets now available or being explored might be relevant and useful in the Viet-Nam operation.
6. The raising of the MAAG ceiling, which involves some diplomacy, unless we can find an alternative way of introducing into the Viet-Nam operation a substantial number of Special Forces types.
7. The question of replacing the present ICA Chief in Viet-Nam, who, by all accounts, has expended his capital. We need a vigorous man who can work well with the military, since some of the rural development problems relate closely to guerrilla operations.
8. Settling the question of the extra funds for Diem.
9. The tactics of persuading Diem to move more rapidly to broaden the base of his government, as well as to decrease its centralization and improve its efficiency.

Against the background of decisions we should urgently take on these matters, you may wish to prepare a letter to Diem which would not only congratulate him, reaffirm our support, and specify new initiatives we are prepared to take, but would make clear to him the urgency you attach to a more effective
political and morale setting for his military operation, now that the elections are successfully behind him.

Neither this memo, nor other available papers, give us a basis for judging how far the stress on the importance of Vietnam was already influenced by developments in Laos, and how much it reflects a separable interest in taking on the challenge of "wars of liberation." Both were undoubtedly important. But this Rostow memo turned out to be pretty close to an agenda for the initial Task Force report. It seems very safe to assume that the "full-time, first-rate, backstop man in Washington" Rostow had in mind was Lansdale. (Gilpatric himself obviously could not be expected to spend full-time on Vietnam.) Presumably the President's request for the Gilpatric report was intended as either a method of easing Lansdale into that role, or at least of trying him out in it.

Following the description of the Rostow memo, Gilpatric's file contains several carbon copies of a long paper, unsigned but certainly by Lansdale, which among other things recommends that the President set up a Task Force for Vietnam which would lay out a detailed program of action and go on to supervise the implementation of that program. The date on the paper is April 19, but a draft must have been prepared some days earlier, probably about the time of Lansdale's discussion with Rostow on the 13th, since the available copies recommended that the Task Force submit its report to the President by April 21. The paper explicitly foresaw a major role for General Lansdale both in the Task Force, and thereafter in supervising the implementation of the report.

This Task Force was apparently intended to supersede what the paper refers to as "one of the customary working groups in Washington" which was "being called together next week by John Steeves, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs."

In view of all this, it is not surprising to find that the first phase of the Task Force effort appears, from the record, to have been very much a GilpatricLansdale show. The first meeting of the group (which included State and CIA representatives) was apparently held April 24, four days after Gilpatric was told to go ahead. Present files do not show whether there was another full meeting of the group before the first version of the report (dated April 26) was sent to the President on the 27th.

Here are the opening sections, which introduce the list of proposed actions which make up the program.



After meeting in Hanoi on 13 May 1959, the Central Committee of the North Vietnamese Communist Party publicly announced its intention "to smash" the government of President Diem. Following this decision, the Viet Cong have significantly increased their program of infiltration, subversion, sabotage and assassination designed to achieve this end.

At the North Vietnamese Communist Party Congress in September 1960, the earlier declaration of underground war by the Party's Control Committee was reaffirmed. This action by the Party Congress took place only a month after Kong Le's coup in Laos. Scarcely two months later there was a military uprising in Saigon. The turmoil created throughout the area by this rapid succession of events provides an ideal environment for the Communist "master plan" to take over all of Southeast Asia.

Since that time, as can be seen from the attached map, the internal security situation in South Vietnam has become critical. What amounts to a state of active guerrilla warfare now exists throughout the country. The number of Viet Cong hard-core Communists has increased from 4400 in early 1960 to an estimated 12,000 today. The number of violent incidents per month now averages 650. Casualties on both sides totaled more than 4500 during the first three months of this year. Fifty-eight percent of the country is under some degree of Communist control, ranging from harassment and night raids to almost complete administrative jurisdiction in the Communist "secure areas."

The Viet Cong over the past two years have succeeded in stepping up the pace and intensity of their attacks to the point where South Vietnam is nearing the decisive phase in its battle for survival. If the situation continues to deteriorate, the Communists will be able to press on to their strategic goal of establishing a rival "National Liberation Front" government in one of these "secure areas" thereby plunging the nation into open civil war. They have publicly announced that they will "take over the country before the end of 1961."

This situation is thus critical, but is not hopeless. The Vietnamese Government, with American aid, has increased its capabilities to fight its attackers, and provides a base upon which the necessary additional effort can be founded to defeat the Communist attack. Should the Communist effort increase, either directly or as a result of a collapse of Laos, additional measures beyond those proposed herein would be necessary.

In short, the situation in South Vietnam has reached the point where, at least for the time being, primary emphasis should be placed on providing a solution to the internal security problem.

The US Objective: To create a viable and increasingly democratic society in South Vietnam and to prevent Communist domination of the country.

Concept of Operations: 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. In so doing, it is intended to use, and where appropriate extend, expedite or build upon the existing US and Government of Vietnam [GVN} programs already underway in South Vietnam. There is neither the time available nor any sound justification for "starting from scratch." Rather the need is to focus the US effort in South Vietnam on the immediate internal security problem; to infuse it with a sense of urgency and a dedication to the overall US objective; to achieve, through cooperative inter-departmental support both in the field and in Washington, the operational flexibility needed to apply the available US assets in a manner best calculated to achieve our objective in Vietnam; and, finally, to impress on our friends, the Vietnamese, and on our foes, the Viet Cong, that come what may, the US intends to win this battle.

The program that followed this strongly worded introduction was very modest, not merely compared to current US involvement, but to the effort the US undertook following the Taylor Mission in the fall. The program is essentially simply a moderate acceleration of the CIP program approved in January, with a great deal of stress on vigor, enthusiasm, and strong leadership in carrying out the program.

In particular, the program proposes no increase in the Vietnamese army, and only a moderate (in hindsight, inconsequential) increase in the size of our MAAG mission. The main military measures were for the US to provide financial support for the 20,000-man increase in the RVNAF and to provide support for the full complement of counter-insurgency auxiliary forces (Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps) planned by Diem. Both were modest steps. For under the CIP we were already planning to pay support costs for 150,000 men of the RVNAF and 32,000 men of the Civil Guard. This Task Force proposal, which had been urged for some weeks by MAAG in Saigon, simply said that we would provide the same support for all the Vietnamese forces that we had already planned to provide for most of them.

For the rest, the Presidential Program in its final form, issued May 19, turned out (after a great deal of stirring around) to be close to that proposed in the April 26 draft.

Two comments are needed on this material. First, the program Lansdale and Gilpatric proposed was not so narrowly military as the repeated emphasis on priority for the internal security problem might suggest. Rather, the emphasis was on stabilizing the countryside, in contrast to pressing Diem on political and administrative reforms mainly of interest to Diem's urban critics. This reflected both Lansdale's judgments on counter-insurgency, which look good in hindsight, and his strongly pro-Diem orientation, which looks much less good.

Second, the reference to a communist "master plan" for Southeast Asia (and similar language is found in a number of other staff papers through the balance of 1961) suggests a view of the situation which has been much criticized recently by men like Galbraith and Kennan. Public comments by those who were closely involved (both those critical of policy since 1965, such as Sorenson and Hilsman, and those supporting the Administration, such as William Bundy) suggest a more sophisticated view of the problem. Here we simply note that the formal staff work available strongly supports Galbraith and Kennan, although this does not necessarily imply that the senior members of the Administration shared the view that North Vietnam was operating (in the words of another staff paper) as the "implementing agent of Bloc policy" rather than in fairly conventional, mainly non-ideological pursuit of its own national interest.


In his April 27 memorandum transmitting the Report to the President, Gilpatric noted that: the short time available to the Task Force it was not possible to develop the program in complete detail. However, there has been prepared a plan for mutually supporting actions of a political, military, economic, psychological, and covert character which can be refined periodically on the basis of further recommendations from the field.

Toward this end, Brigadier General E.G. Lansdale, USAF, who has been designated Operations Officer for the Task Force, will proceed to Vietnam immediately after the program receives Presidential approval. Following on the spot discussions with US and Vietnamese officials, he will forward to the Director of the Task Force specific recommendations for action in support of the attached program.

This appears to have been the high point of Lansdale's role in Vietnam policy. Lansdal by this time had already sent (with Gilpatric's approval) messages requesting various people to meet him in Saigon, May 5. This is from a memorandum he sent to Richard Bissell, then still a Deputy Director of the CIA, requesting the services of one of his colleagues from the 1955-1956 experience in Vietnam:

I realize Redick is committed to an important job in Laos and that this is a difficult time in that trouble spot. I do feel, however, that we may yet save Vietnam and that our best effort should be put into it.

Redick, in my opinion, is now so much a part of the uninhibited communications between President Diem and myself that it goes far beyond the question of having an interpreter. His particular facility for appreciating my meaning in words and the thoughts of Diem in return is practically indispensable to me in the role I am assigned in seeking President Kennedy's goal for Vietnam.

But none of this was to be. Present files contain a thermofax of McNamara's copy of the memorandum Gilpatric sent to the President. In McNamara's handwriting the words (Lansdale) "will proceed to Vietnam immediately" are changed to "will proceed to Vietnam when requested by the Ambassador." As we will see below, when the Task Force Report was redrafted the next week, Lansdale's key role disappeard entirely, at the request of the State Department, but presumably with the concurrence of the White House.


Although our record is not clear, it appears that the cover memorandum was sent to the President as Gilpatric had signed it, and that McNamara's correction reflected a decision made after the paper went to the President, rather than a change in the language of the memo. In any event, at a meeting on April 29, President Kennedy approved only the quite limited military proposals of the draft report it transmitted. Decisions were deferred on the balance of the paper, which now included an annex issued April 28 on much more substantial additional military aid believed required by the situation in Laos. The military measures approved during this first go-around were:

(1) Increase the MAAG as necessary to insure the effective implemention of the military portion of the program including the training of a 20,000-man addition to the present GVN armed forces of 150,000. Initial appaisal of new tasks assigned CHMAAG indicates that approximately 100 additional military personnel will be required immediately in addition to the present complement of 685.
(2) Expand MAAG responsibilities to include authority to provide support and advice to the Self Defense Corps with a strength of approximately
(3) Authority MAP support for the entire Civil Guard Forces of 68,000 MAP support is now authoritized for 32,000; the remaining 36,000 are not now adequately trained and equipped.
(4) Install as a matter of priority a radar surveillance capability which will enable the GVN to obtain warning of Communist over-flights being conducted for intelligence or clandestine air supply purposes. Initially, this capability should be provided from US mobile radar capability.
(5) Provide MAP support for the Vietnamese Junk Force as a means of preventing Viet Cong clandestine supply and infiltration into South Vietnam by water. MAP support, which was not provided in the Counterinsurgency Plan, will include training of junk crews in Vietnam or at US bases by US Navy Personnel.

The only substantial significance that can be read into these April 29 decisions is that they signalled a willingness to go beyond the 685-man limit on the size of the US military mission in Saigon, which, if it were done openly, would be the first formal breech of the Geneva Agreements. For the rest, we were providing somewhat more generous support to the Vietnamese than proposed in the CIP. But the overall size of the Vietnamese forces would be no higher than those already approved. (The 20,000-man increase was already part of the CIP.) No one proposed in this initial draft that the Administration even consider sending American troops (other than the 100-odd additional advisors). It was not, by any interpretation, a crisis response.

Indeed, even if Kennedy had approved the whole April 26 program, it would have seemed (in hindsight) most notable for the "come what may, we intend to win" rhetoric in its introduction and for the supreme role granted to Task Force (and indirectly to Lansdale as its operations officer) in control of Vietnam policy. Lansdale's memoranda leave no real doubt that he saw the Report exactly that way-which presumably was why he made no effort to risk stirring up trouble by putting his more controversial views into the paper. For example, although Lansdale believed the key new item in Vietnam policy was a need for emphatic support for Diem, only the barest hint of this view appears in the paper (and it is not even hinted at in Lansdale's preliminary draft of the report distributed at the April 24th meeting of the Task Force).

That is when this opening phase of the Task Force effort has to be separated from what followed. As just noted, it was remarkable mainly for the strength of the commitment implied to South Vietnam, which the President never did unambiguously endorse, and for the organizational arrangement it proposed, with the key role for Lansdale and Gilpatric, which was eliminated from the later drafts. All of the factors behind the May reappraisal (cited at the beginning of this chapter) undoubtedly contributed to the decision to set up the Task Force. But Rostow's memorandum and the modest dimensions of the resulting proposals suggest the main idea really was to sharpen up existing policy and its administration, rather than to work out a new policy on the assumption that the existing program had become substantially obsolete. Immediately after April 27, this changes. Although Gilpatric and Lansdale continued to head up the Task Force through the Presidential decisions of May 11, their personal role became increasingly unimportant. The significance no longer was in putting new people in charge of a new style for running the program, but in developing a new program that would offset the impact of Laos.

Go Forward to the Next Section of Volume 2, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers

Glossary of Acronyms and Terms

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "Background to the Conflict, 1940-1950." pp. 1-52

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-1954," pp. 53-107

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 3 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954," pp. 108-178.

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 4 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. and France in Indochina, 1950-56," pp. 179-241

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960," pp. 242-314

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961,"pp. 1-127

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964," pp. 160-200.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963," pp. 201-276.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "US-GVN Relations, 1964-1967," pp. 277-407.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 6 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Advisory Build-up, 1961-67," pp. 408-514

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 7 of the Pentagon Papers, "Re-Emphasis on Pacification: 1965-1967," pp. 515-623.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Programs in South Vietnam, Nov. 1963-Apr. 1965," pp. 1-105.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "Military Pressures Against North Vietnam, February 1964-January 1965," pp. 106-268.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Begins, February-June, 1965," pp. 269-388

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "American Troops Enter the Ground War, March-July 1965," pp. 389-485

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 1, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam, 1965-1968," pp. 1-276.

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 2, of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1968," pp. 277-604.

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