The Pentagon Papers
Chapter I, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961," pp. 40-98
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)
Section 2, pp. 40-98
E. THE LAOS ANNEX
On April 28, an annex had been issued to the basic report which went far beyond the modest military proposals in the original. The most reasonable assumption is that the annex was drawn up in response to comments at the April 27 NSC meeting at which the Report was to have been considered, but which turned out to be devoted to the by-then acute state of the crisis in Laos. On the grounds that the neutralization of Laos would solidify communists de facto control of eastern Laos (including the mountain passes which were the historic invasion route to southern Vietnam), the annex advocated U.S. support for a two-division increase in the RVNAF. To rapidly train these forces, there was now a recommendation on U.S. manpower commitments that dwarted the previous recommendation for a MAAG increase: specifically, a 1600-man training team for each of the two new divisions, plus a 400-man special forces contingent to speed up counter-insurgency training fot the South Vietnamese forces: a total of 3600 men, not counting the MAAG increase already authorized.
It is interesting that in the annex this force increase (and the bulk of the U.S. troop commitment) was specifically justified as insurance against a conventional invasion of South Vietnam. Some earlier drafts show the evolution of this concept. There is an alternate draft, apparently by Lansdale, which was not used but which recommended a U.S. troop commitment as reassurance to the Vietnamese of U.S. determination to stand by them. It did not recommend any increase in South Vietnamese forces. Instead, it stressed very heavily the damage to U.S. prestige and the credibility of our guarantees to other countries in Southeast Asia should we go through with the Laos settlement without taking some strong action to demonstrate that we were finally drawing a line in Southeast Asia.
Contrasting sharply with Lansdale's draft was the first draft of the paper that was finally issued. This was by Gilpatric's military aide, Col. E.F. Black. It concludes that South Vietnamese forces would have to be increased by two divisions, mainly to deal with threat of increased infiltration. Black stressed that the President would have to decide that the US would no longer be bound by the limitations of the 1954 Geneva Agreements (which Defense had long been lobbying against). But his paper recommends no substantial troop commitment. The reference to the Geneva Agreements apparently referred to a relatively modest increase in manpower beyond the 685-man ceiling, and to the introduction of new types of equipment not in Vietnam in 1954.
So the record contains three versions of the Annex-Black's first draft, Lansdale's alternate draft, and then Black's revised paper, which was finally issure as the annex to the Report. The effect of considering them all is an odd one. The initial Black paper recommends an increase in Vietnamese forces to deal with the infiltration problem, but no substantial US troop commitment. The Lansdale alternative recommends a substantial US troop commitment, but no increase in Vietnamese forces. The final paper recommends both the RVNAF increase and the US troop commitments, but changes the reason for each: the reason for the RVNAF increase became a need for better protection against overt invasion, not an increased infiltration threat. And the reason for the US troop commitment became a desire to rapidly train the new Vietnamese troops, not for political reassurance.
If taken literally, all of this implies an extraordinarily rapid series of reappraisals and reversals of judgment. But surely, the only realistic interpretation is that in this case (because a series of rough drafts happens to be included in the available file) we are getting a glimpse at the way such staff paperwork really gets drafted, as opposed to the much more orderly impression that is given if we saw only the finished products. Gilpatric (undoubtedly in consultation with at least McNamara, although the files do not show any record of this) was presumably interested primarily in what recommendations to make to the President, and secondarily in providing a bureaucratically suitable rationale for those recommendations. This rationale may, or may not, have coincided with whatever more private explanation of the recommendations that McNamara or Gilpatric may have conveyed to the President or people like McGeorge Bundy and Rostow on the White House staff. The lesson in this, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever had contact with the policy-making process, is that the rationales given in such pieces of paper (intended for fairly wide circulation among the bureaucracy, as opposed to tightly held memoranda limited to those closest to the decision-maker) do not reliably indicate why recommendations were made the way they were.
F. THE MAY 1 REVIEW
Meanwhile, Kennedy, as noted earlier, did not act on the annex at the April 29 meeting when he approved the much more modest military proposals of the basic Report. But on that day, there was a cable alerting CINCPAC to be ready to move 5000-men task forces to Udorn, Thailand, and to Touraine, (Da Nang), South Vietnam. Classified records available for this study do not explain this alert. But the public memoirs indirectly refer to it, and as would be expected, the alert was intended as a threat to intervene in Laos if the communists failed to go through with the cease fire which was to precede the Geneva Conference. Here is the cable:
INFRO: CHMAAG VIENTIANE
CHJUSMAAG BANGKOK THAILAND
CHMAAG SAIGON VIETNAM
JCS DA 995131 From JCS.
1. Request you prepare plans to move brigade size forces of approximately 5,000 each into Udorn or vicinity and into Tourane or vicinity. Forces should include all arms and appropriate air elements. Plans should be based solely on US forces at this time.
2. Decision to make these deployments not firm. It is expected that decision as to Thailand will be made at meeting tentatively scheduled here on Monday. Decision regarding Vietnam will be even later due to consideration of Geneva Accords.
3. It is hoped that these movements can be given SEATO cover but such possibility must be explored before becoming a firm element of your planning. State is taking action to explore this aspect.
4. Decision was not repeat not reached today concerning implementation of SEATO Plan 5/60.
The crisis in Laos was now at its peak. According to Schlesinger's account, reports reached Washington April 26 that the Pathet Lao were attacking strongly, with the apparent intention of grabbing most of the country before the cease-fire went into effect. At 10 p.m. that night, the JCS sent out a "general advisory" to major commands around the world, and specifically alerted CINCPAC to be prepared to undertake airstrikes against North Vietnam, and possibly southern China.
The next day-the day the Task Force Report came to the President-there were prolonged crisis meetings in the White House. The President later called in Congressional leaders, who advised against putting troops into Laos. Schlesinger quotes Rostow as telling him the NSC meeting that day was "the worst White House meeting he had ever attended in the entire Kennedy administration."
The Laos annex to the Gilpatric Report was issued on the 28th, in an atmosphere wholly dominated by the crisis in Laos. On the 29th, Kennedy's go-ahead on the Task Force's original military recommendations was squeezed into a day overwhelmingly devoted to Laos. This was the day of the cable, just cited, alerting CINCPAC for troop movements to Thailand and possibly Vietnam. The "SEATO Plan 5/60" referred to in the closing paragraph of the cable was the plan for moving major units into Laos.
On May 1 (the Monday meeting referred to in the cable), Kennedy again deferred any decision on putting troops into Laos. According to available accounts, there is a strong sense by now (although no formal decision) that the U.S. would not go into Laos: that if the cease-fire failed, we would make a strong stand, instead, in Thailand and Vietnam. (On the 28th, in a speech to a Democratic dinner in Chicago, the President had hinted at this:
We are prepared to meet our obligations, but we can only defend the freedom of those who are determined to be free themselves. We can assist them-we will bear more than our share of the burden, but we can only help those who are ready to bear their share of the burden themselves.
Reasonable qualifications, undoubtedly, but ones that seemed to suggest that intervention in Laos would be futile. On Sunday (the 30th), another hint came in remarks by Senator Fulbright on a TV interview show: he opposed intervention in Laos, and said he was confident the government was seeking "another solution."
So the decision anticipated Monday, May I, in the JCS cable to CINCPAC was not made that day after all. But that day a new draft of the Task Force Report was issued. It contained only the significant change (other than blending the April 28 annex into the basic paper). The original draft contained a paragraph (under "political objectives") recommending we "obtain the political agreement [presumably from the SEATO membership] needed to permit the prompt implementation of SEATO contingency plans providing for military intervention in South Vietnam should this become necessary to prevent the loss of the country to Communism."
In the May 1 revision, the following sentence was added to the paragraph: "The United States should be prepared to intervene unilaterally in fulfillment of its commitment under Article IV, 2. of Manila Pact, and should make its determination to do so clear through appropriate public statements, diplomatic discussions, troop deployments, or other means." (The cited clause in the Manila (SEATO) Pact, which the paper did not quote,
If, in the opinion of any of the Parties, the inviolability or the integrity of the territory or the sovereignty or political independence of any Party in the treaty area or of any other State or territory to which the provisions of paragraph 1 of this Article from time to time apply is threatened in any way other than by armed attack or is affected or threatened by any fact or situation which might endanger the peace of the area, the Parties shall consult immediately in order to agree on the measures which should be taken for the common defense.)
The May 1 draft also cleared up, or papered over, part of the confusion described earlier regarding the rationale for the military measures recommended in the Laos annex: the increased RVNAF force levels were attributed now both to concern over increased infiltration and to concern over overt invasion. But the US troop commitments are still described solely as for training, with no mention of the original political rationale.
G. STATE'S REDRAFT
Lansdale circulated the May 1 draft among the Task Force, with a note that comments should be in May 2, with a final Task Force review scheduled the morning of May 3, all in anticipation of an NSC meeting on the paper May 4.
George Ball, then Deputy Under Secretary of State, asked to postpone the meeting for a day. Lansdale sent Gilpatric a memorandum opposing the postponement. "It seems to me that George Ball could appoint someone to represent him at the meeting, and if he has personal or further comments they could come to us later in the day at his convenience." But Gilpatric delayed the meeting a day, and State produced a drastic revision of the paper.
On the organizational issues, the State draft was brutally clearcut. It proposed a new version of the Gilpatric memorandum transmtiting the Report, in which:
1. The paragraph (quoted earlier) describing Lansdale's special role is deleted.
2. A new paragraph is added to the end of the memorandum, in which Gilpatric is made to say: "Having completed its assignment . . . I recommend that the present Task Force be now dissolved."
Later sections of the paper were revised accordingly, giving responsibility for coordinating Vietnam policy to a new Task Force with George Ball as chairman. (In the final version, the Task Force has a State Department director, but no longer included Presidential appointees representing their departments. The whole Task Force idea had been downgraded to a conventional interagency working group. Although it continued to function for several years, there will be little occasion to mention it again in this paper.)
State's proposal on organization prevailed. From the record available, the only thing that can be said definitely is that State objected, successfully, to having an Ambassador report to a Task Force chaired by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and with a second defense official (Lansdale) as executive officer. There may have been more to it. We know Lansdale's experience and his approach to guerrilla warfare initially won him a good deal of favor at the White House. But his memorandum suggest that his ideas on a number of issues (support for Phoumi in Laos, liberation of North Vietnam, essentially unqualified support for Diem in South Vietnam) went well beyond what the Administration judged reasonable. So it is quite possible that the President would have had second thoughts on Lansdale, aside from State's objections on bureaucratic grounds.
In any event, Lansdale's reaction to State's proposal on organization was to advise McNamara and Gilpatric that:
My strong recommendation is that Defense stay completely out of the Task Force directorship as now proposed by State . . . Having a Defense officer, myself or someone else, placed in a position of only partial influence and of no decision permissibility would be only to provide State with a scapegoat to share the blame when we have a flop . . . The US past performance and theory of action, which State apparently desires to continue, simply offers no sound basis for winning, as desired by President Kennedy.
But the final version of the Task Force Report, dated May 6, followed very closely the State revision submitted May 3, including the shift in control of the Task Force. [see also Doc. 87]
H. WIDENING THE OPTIONS
What is most striking about the revised drafts is that they excluded a tone of almost unqualified commitment to Vietnam, yet on the really important issues included qualifications which left the President a great deal of freedom to decide whatever he pleased without having to formally overrule the Task Force Report.
For example, the assertion (from the April draft) that the US should impress on friend and foe that "come what may, we intend to win" remained in the final paper. But this hortatory language is from the introduction; it described one of the effects the program in the balance of the paper was supposed to achieve, but did not ask the President to do or say anything not spelled out in the body of the paper. (We will see, when we come to the fall decisions, that the wisdom of an unqualified commitment to save Vietnam from Communism is treated afresh, with no suggestion that any such decision had already been made in May.)
On the other hand, the explicit recommendation in the Defense draft that we make clear our "determination . . . to intervene unilaterally . . . should this become necessary to save the country from communism . . ." was dropped. Instead, there is a recommendation for exploring a "new bilateral arrangement" which might (the text is not explicit) extend to fighting the guerrillas, if that should become necessary to save the country, but also might only cover overt North Vietnamese invasion.
Further, the need for these arrangements was now tied to the "loss" of Laos. The May 3 draft suggests we "undertake military security arrangements which establish beyond doubt our intention to stand behind Vietnam's resistance to Communism . . ." since "it is doubtful whether the Vietnamese Government can weather the pressures which are certain to be generated from the loss of Laos without prompt, and dramatic support for its security from the U.S."
In the May 6 final draft, "establish beyond doubt" was toned down to "emphasize" and the flat reference to the loss of Laos was changed to "if Laos were lost."
Similarly, the recommendations on the two new South Vietnamese divisions, and the two 1600-man US combat units to train them was described as a firm recommendation in the military section of the May 3 draft (which State left untouched from the Defense version), but were indirectly referred to as something for study in State's re-drafted political section. In the final paper, they were still firm recommendations in a military annex, but not in the main paper, where Defense was only described as studying this and other uses for US troops short of direct commitment against the guerrillas. US troop commitments were no longer recommended, only referred to as something "which might result from an NSC decision following discussions between Vice President Johnson [whose mission to Asia had been announced May 5] and President Diem."
Yet an interesting aspect of the State redraft is that, although its main impact was to soften the commitments implied in the Defense draft, a quick reading might give the contrary impression. We will see this same effect in the political sections to be discussed below. What seems to happen is that the very detail of the State treatment creates a strong impression, even though the actual proposals are less drastic and more qualified than those proposed by Defense. The contrast is all the sharper because the Defense draft leaned the other way. For example, the profoundly significant recommendation that the US commit itself to intervene unilaterally, if necessary, to prevent a Viet Cong victory in South Vietnam, is tossed into the Defense version most casually, with a reference to the Manila Treaty that makes it sound as if such a commitment, in fact, already existed.
In contrast, here is the State language referring to the proposed bilateral treaty (which in effect is a substitute for the Defense proposed unlimited unilateral commitment):
The Geneva Accords have been totally inadequate in protecting South Vietnam against Communist infiltration and insurgency. Moreover, with increased Communist success in Laos dramatic US actions in stiffening up its physical support of Vietnam and the remainder of Southeast Asia may be needed to bolster the will to continue to resist the Communists. The inhibitions imposed on such action by certain parts of the Geneva Accords, which have been violated with impunity by the Communists, should not prevent our action. We should consider joining with the Vietnamese in a clear-cut defensive alliance which might include stationing of US forces on Vietnainese soil. As a variant of this arrangement certain SEATO troops might also be employed.
Bilateral military assistance by the United States pursuant to a request by South Vietnam along the lines of that undertaken during 1958 in response to the request by Lebanon for military assistance, would be in keeping with international law and treaty provisions. The provisions of the Geneva Accords of 1954, which prohibited the introduction of additional military arms and personnel into Vietnam, would not be a bar to the measures contemplated. The obvious, large-scale and continuous violation of these provisions of the Geneva Accords by North Vietnam in introducing large numbers of armed guerrillas into South Vietnam would justify the corresponding non-observance of these provisions by South Vietnam. Indeed, authorization for changing PEO Laos into an ordinary MAAG was justified on this legal theory. It should be recognized that the foregoing proposals require careful and detailed consideration and preparation particularly with regard to the precise mission of US forces used.
In addition to the previously cited advantages such an action might have at least two other important political and military advantages:
(a) It could release a portion of the ARVN from relatively static military functions to pursue the war against the insurgents and
(b) It would place the Sino-Soviet Bloc in the position of risking direct intervention in a situation where US forces were already in place, accepting the consequence of such action. This is in direct contrast to the current situation in Laos.
Alternatively, there are several potential political and military disadvantages to such an action, principal among these being:
(a) Some of the neutrals, notably india, might well be opposed, and the attitude of the UK and France is uncertain.
(b) This would provide the Communists with a major propaganda opportunity.
(c) The danger that a troop contribution would provoke a DRV/ CHICOM reaction with the risk of involving a significant commitment of US force in the Pacific to the Asian mainland. The French tied up some 200,000 troops during the unsuccessful Indo-China effort.
This might significantly weaken the Diem regime in the long run, having in mind the parallel of Rhee in Korea.
This language is not solely the State Department's. In a Gilpatric memo to be cited shortly, we will see that the JCS, for example, had a hand in describing the role for US troops. Even so, the overall effect of the draft, as already noted, tones down very drastically the commitment implied by the May 1 Defense version:
1. The proposal is no longer for a unilateral, unlimited commitment to save Vietnam from communism. It only proposes consideration of a new treaty with South Vietnam (unlike the Defense draft which proposed reading a unilateral commitment into the existing Manila Treaty); and its purpose is to "bolster the will" of the South Vietnamese to resist the communists, not (as the Defense draft apparently meant) to guarantee that the US would join the war should the South Vietnamese effort prove inadequate.
2. It gives pro and con arguments for sending US troops, in contrast to the Defense draft which included a flat recommendation to send at least the 3600 men of the two division training teams and the special forces training team.
A reasonable judgment, consequently, is that State thought the Defense draft went too far in committing the US on Vietnam. (And in view of the positions he would take in 1965, George Ball's role as senior State representative on the Task Force obviously further encourages that interpretation.) But that is only a judgment. It is also possible to argue, in contrast, that perhaps State (or State plus whatever White House influence may have gone into the draft) simply was tidying up the Defense proposals: for example, that the redrafters felt that a new bilateral treaty would be a firmer basis for a commitment to save Vietnam than would reliance on a reinterpretation of the SEATO Treaty. Similar arguments can be made on the other points noted above.
Consequently, on any question about the intent of the redrafters, only a judgment and not a statement of fact can be provided.
But on the question of the effect of the redraft, a stronger statement can be made: for whatever the intent of the redrafters, the effect certainly was to weaken the commitments implied by the Defense draft, and leave the President a great deal of room for maneuver without having to explicitly overrule the recommendations presented to him.
1. THE TROOP ISSUE
To return to a question of judgement, it is difficult to assess how far this gradual hedging of proposals for very strong commitments to Vietnam simply reflected a desire (very probably encouraged by the White House) to leave the President freedom of action. To some extent it surely reflects a growing hope that perhaps the Laos cease-fire would come off; the country would not be flatly lost; and consequently, that the May 1 Defense draft, and even the May 3 State draft, reflected a somewhat panicky overestimate of how far we needed to go to keep Southeast Asia from falling apart. The two motives obviously overlapped.
There are indications that, as late as May 5, the estimate for saving something out of Laos remained bleak. On May 4, after a visit to the President, Senator Fullbright (who had opposed intervention in Laos along with other Congressional leaders) announced from the steps of the White House that he would support troop commitments to Thailand and Vietnam. An NSC meeting the following day (May 5) was devoted to discussing steps to reassure Vietnam and Thailand. Then in the afternoon, the President announced Vice President Johnson's visit to Asia at a press conference, which included this garbled exchange:
Q. Mr. President, there have been reports that you would be prepared to send American forces into South Vietnam if that became necessary to prevent Communist domination of that country. Could you tell us whether that is correct, and also anything else you have regarding plans for that country?
A. Well, we have had a group working in the government and we have had a Security Council meeting about the problems which are faced in Vietnam by the guerrillas and by the barrage which the present government is being subjected to. The problem of troops is a matter-the matter of what we are going to do to assist Vietnam to obtain [retain?] its independence is a matter under consideration. There are a good many [issues?] which I think can most usefully wait until we have had consultations with the government, which up to the present time-which will be one of the matters which Vice President Johnson will deal with; the problem of consultations with the Government of Vietnam as to what further steps could most usefully be taken.
On May 8, the reconstituted International Control Commission (established by the Geneva Agreement of 1954) arrived in Laos, hoping to supervise a cease-fire. The cease-fire had been agreed to in principle by both sides as early as May 1. The question was whether the Pathet Lao would really stop advancing. Aside from American intervention, a cease-fire was the only hope of the larger, but less effective, pro-Western forces led by Phoumi. Certainly hopes were higher by the 8th than they were a week earlier, but this might not be saying much. The documentary record is ambiguous. The final draft of the letter Vice President Johnson would deliver to Diem was dated May 8, and in this letter Kennedy did not go much beyond the proposals in the April 27 version of the task force report. There was no mention of U.S. troop commitments, nor of a bilateral treaty. Even on the question of a further increase (beyond 170,000) in the RVNAF, Kennedy promised Diem only that this will be "considered carefully with you, if developments should so warrant."
But the same day, Gilpatric sent a memo to the JCS asking their views on U.S. troops in Vietnam:
....In preparation for the possible commitment of U.S. forces to Vietnam, it is desired that you give further review and study of the military advisability of such action, as well as to the size and composition of such U.S. forces. Your views, which I hope could include some expression from CINCPAC, would be valuable for consideration prior to the NSC meeting this week (currently scheduled for Friday, May 12).
This in turn was based on a statement in the May 6 Task Force draft, which said that such a study was being carried out, with particular consideration being given to deploying to South Vietnam
....two U.S. battle groups (with necessary command and logistics units), plus an engineer (construction-combat) battalion. These units would be located in the "high plateau" region, remote from the major population center of Saigon-Cholon, under the command of the Chief, MAAG. To help accelerate the training of the G.V.N. army, they would establish two divisional field training areas. The engineer battalion would undertake construction of roads, air-landing strips and other facilities essential to the logistical support of the U.S. and Vietnamese forces there.
The purpose of these forces (again, from the May 6 draft) would be to
....provide maximum psychological impact in deterrence of further Communist aggression from North Vietnam, China, or the Soviet Union, while rallying the morale of the Vietnamese and encouraging the support of SEATO and neutral nations for Vietnam's defense;
--release Vietnamese forces from advanced and static defense positions to permit their fuller commitment to counterinsurgency actions;
--provide maximum training to approved Vietnamese forces; and
--provide significant military resistance to potential North Vietnam Communist and/or Chinese Communist action.
The JCS reply, dated May 10, deferred details on the composition of U.S. forces, but quite emphatically recommended that we do send them, "assuming the political decision is to hold Southeast Asia outside the communist sphere." Here is the JCS memo:
In considering the possible commitment of U.S. forces to South Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have reviewed the overall critical situation in Southeast Asia with particular emphasis upon the present highly flammable situation in South Vietnam. In this connection the question, however, of South Vietnam should not be considered in isolation but rather in conjunction with Thailand and their overall relationship to the security of Southeast Asia. The views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the question regarding the development of U.S. forces into Thailand were provided to you BY JCSM-311-61, dated 9 May 1961. The current potentially dangerous military and political situation in Laos, of course, is the focal point in this area. Assuming that the political decision is to hold Southeast Asia outside the Communist sphere, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are of the opinion that U.S. forces should be deployed immediately to South Vietnam; such action should be taken primarily to prevent the Vietnamese from being subjected to the same situation as presently exists in Laos, which would then required deployment of U.S. forces into an already existing combat situation.
In view of the foregoing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that the decision be made to deploy suitable U.S. forces to South Vietnam. Sufficient forces should be deployed to accomplish the following purposes:
Provide a visible deterrent to potential North Vietnam and/or Chinese Communist action;
Release Vietnamese forces from advanced and static defense positions to permit their fuller commitment to counterinsurgency actions;
Assist in training the Vietnamese forces to the maximum extent possible consistent with their mission;
Provide a nucleus for the support of any additional U.S. or SEATO military operation in Southeast Asia; and
Indicate the firmness of our intent to all Asian nations.
In order to maintain U.S. flexibility in the Pacific, it is envisioned that some or all of the forces deployed to South Vietnam would come from the United States. The movement of these troops could be accomplished in an administrative manner and thus not tax the limited lift capabilities of CINCPAC.
In order to accomplish the foregoing the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that:
President Diem be encouraged to request that the United States fulfill its SEATO obligation, in view of the new threat now posed by the Laotian situation, by the immediate deployment of appropriate U.S forces to South Vietnam;
Upon receipt of this request, suitable forces could be immediately deployed to South Vietnam in order to accomplish the above-mentioned purpose. Details of size and composition of these forces must include the views of both CINCPAC and CHMAAG which are not yet available.
The NSC meeting that dealt with the Task Force Report was held the next day (the 11th, rather than the 12th as originally anticipated). The President avoided committing himself on the troop issue any further than he had already been committed by the time of his May 5 press conference. The resulting NSAM 52 [Doc. 88] (signed by McGeorge Bundy) states only that:
The President directs full examination by the Defense Department under the guidance of the Director of the continuing Task Force on Vietnam, of the size and composition of forces which would be desirable in the case of a possible commitment of U.S. forces to Vietnam." (The Task Force Director at this point referred to Sterling Cottrell, a Foreign Service Officer, rather than to Gilpatric.)
So the President went no further, really, than to take note of a study that
was already well underway. The record does not help us judge what significance
attach to the qualification that the study be done under the guidance of the State Department officer now heading the Task Force.
On other issues relating to our military commitments the President again, with minor alterations, endorsed the proposals of the May 6 draft. On the question of a formal alliance with South Vietnam NSAM 52 reports that:
The Ambassador is authorized to begin negotiations looking toward a new bilateral arrangement with Vietnam, but no firm commitment will be made to such an arrangement without further review by the President.
The President also "confirmed" the decisions quoted earlier accepting the April 27 military recommendations, and accepted the following further recommendations (all from the May 6 report) "with the objective of meeting the increased security threat resulting from the new situation along the frontier between Laos and Vietnam."
1. Assist the G.V.N. armed forces to increase their border patrol and insurgency suppression capabilities by establishing an effective border intelligence and patrol system, by instituting regular aerial surveillance over the entire frontier area, and by applying modern technological area-denial techniques to control the roads and trails along Vietnam's borders. A special staff element (approximately 6 U.S. personnel), to concentrate upon solutions to the unique problems of Vietnam's borders, will be activated in MAAG, Vietnam, to assist a similar special unit in the RVNAF which the G.V.N. will be encouraged to establish; these two elements working as an integrated team will help the G.V.N. gain the support of nomadic tribes and other border inhabitants, as well as introduce advanced techniques and equipment to strengthen the security of South Vietnam's frontiers.
2. Assist the G.V.N. to establish a Combat Development and Test Center in South Vietnam to develop, with the help of modern technology, new techniques for use against the Viet Cong forces (approximately 4 U.S. personnel).
3. Assist the G.V.N. forces with health, welfare and public work projects by providing U.S. Army civic action mobile training teams, coordinated with the similar civilian effort (approximately 14 U.S. personnel).
4. Deploy a Special Forces Group (approximately 400 personnel) to Nha Trang in order to accelerate G.V.N. Special Forces training. The first increment, for immediate deployment to Vietnam, should be a Special Forces company (52 personnel).
5. Instruct JCS, CINCPAC, and MAAG to undertake an assessment of the military utility of a further increase in the G.V.N. forces from 170,000 to 200,000 in order to create two new division equivalents for deployment to the northeast border region. The parallel political and fiscal implications should be assessed.
In general Kennedy did not seem to have committed the U.S., by these decisions, significantly further than the U.S. had already been committed by the President's public speeches and remarks at press conferences. In the expanded military aid program approved by the President, there was no item that committed the U.S. any further than we had gone in the case of Laos (that is, beyond providing advisors, materiel, and some covert combat assistance).
A debatable exception was the decision to send 400 special forces troops to speed training of their South Vietnamese counterparts. The idea of sending some Green Berets antedates the Task Force effort. Rostow mentioned it in his April 12 memo, quoted above. It can be argued whether it was really prudent to view this decision as separable from the "combat troops" issue (which also were being considered nominally, at least, for training, not necessarily combat). But obviously the President was sold on their going, and since the Vietnamese Special Forces were themselves supported by CIA rather than the regular military aid program, it was possible to handle these troops covertly. In any event, althought there would eventually be 1200 Green Berets in Vietnam (before the first commitment of U.S. combat units) they were apparently never cited as a precedent for or a commitment to a more overt role in the war.
These, then, were the measures relating to military commitments undertaken as a result of the April/May review. The principle objective of these measures (together with the non-military elements of the program) as stated in the Task Force report, and formally adopted in the NSAM, was "to prevent Communist domination of Vietnam." There was no uncertainty about why these steps were taken: quite aside from the Administration's strong feelings that we had to deal with the challenge of wars of national liberation, the program adopted seems quite minimal as a response to what was--even after the cease-fire was confirmed--a serious setback in Laos. No one in the government, and no one of substantial influence outside it, questioned the need for some action to hold things together in Southeast Asia.
For the fact was that our stake in Vietnam had increased because of what had been happening in Laos, quite aside from anything that we did or said. Collapse in Vietnam would be worse after Laos than it might have seemed before. And to do nothing after Laos would not really have made the U.S. look better if Vietnam fell; it would only have increased the likelihood both that that would happen, and greatly increased the extent to which the U.S. (and within U.S. politics, the Kennedy Administration) would be blamed for the collapse.
The Laotian situation did not even provide, then, a precedent for seeking to settle the Vietnamese situation through the same coalition government route. For in Laos, the pro-U.S. faction was plainly being defeated militarily in open battle despite a good deal of U.S. aid. The only U.S. alternative to accepting the coalition solution was to take over the war ourselves. Further, there was a strong neutralist faction in Laos, which could provide a premier for the government and at least a veneer of hope that the settlement might be something more than a face-saving way of handing the country over to the communist faction.
Neither of these conditions held for Vietnam, aside from all the other factors reviewed in the introduction to this paper which left the Administration no realistic option in the neutralist direction, even assuming that there was any temptation at that time to move in that direction. To have simply given up on Vietnam at that point, before any major effort had been attempted to at least see if the situation could be saved at reasonable cost, seems to have been, even with the hindsight we now have, essentially out of the question.
That is why, in the context of the time, the commitments Kennedy actually made seem like a near-minimal response which avoided any real deepening of our stake in Vietnam.
There is far more of a problem with the things that we decided to talk about (troops, and a formal treaty with Vietnam) than with the measures Kennedy fully endorsed. Certainly putting troops into Vietnam would increase our stake in the outcome, rather than merely help protect the stake we already had. So, surely, would a formal treaty, even if the treaty nominally required U.S. support only in the case of overt invasion. How much so would depend on the nature of the troop commitments and the nature of the treaty. But, as we will see in the next chapter (in reviewing Vice President Johnson's visit) Diem turned out to want neither troops nor a treaty for the time being. And so these issues were deferred until the fall.
Aside from questions relating to our commitments to Vietnam, there were also the parallel questions relating to our commitment, if any, to Diem. As noted in the introduction, discussions about Vietnam always had this dual aspect, and this part of the problem was treated with increasing explicitness as time went on (and as the Administration got to know Diem better). In the CIP, it was treated essentially by implication. In the Gilpatric/Lansdale draft of April 26, it was also handled that way: no explicit statement of a change in our relations with Diem was offered, although by implication it was there.
Where the CIP (by implication) saw our increased aid as contingent on Diem's performance, the April 26 program left out any suggestion of a quid pro quo. To the contrary, it simply states that "those portions of the plan which are agreed to by the G.V.N. will be implemented as rapidly as possible."
And where the CIP saw Diem's government as our best hope "at the present time" this note of limited commitment to Diem is dropped in the April 26 draft. Instead we have a bland statement that we will "assist the GVN under President Diem to develop within the country the widest consensus of public support for a government dedicated to resisting communist domination." [emphasis added]
The May 3 State draft and the May 6 final draft dealt with this issue much as they had with the questions of military commitments: that is, these did not so much conspicuously weaken the proposals of the Gilpatric/Lansdale version, as to qualify and elaborate on them in ways that in effect (again, we cannot make a statement on intent) left the President a ready option to reconsider his position. State explicitly asserted that we were changing our policy on Diem, and spelled out some reasons for doing so.
Here are some extracts from the May 6 final draft; (the language is essentially the same in the May 3 draft).
....we must continue to work through the present Vietnamese government despite its acknowledged weakness. No other remotely feasible alternative exists at this point in time which does not involve an unacceptable degree of risk. . . . Diem is not now fully confident of United States support. This confidence has been undermined partly by our vigorous efforts to get him to mend his ways, and partly by the equivocal attitude he is convinced we took at the time of the November 11, 1960, attempted coup. It is essential that President Diem's full confidence in and communication with the United States be restored promptly . . . Given Diem's personality and character and the abrasive nature of our recent relationships, success or failure in this regard will depend very heavily on Ambassador Nolting's ability to get on the same wavelength with Diem....
The chief threat to the viability of President Diem's administration is, without a doubt, the fact of communist insurgency and the government's inability to protect its own people. Thus military measures must have the highest priority. There is, nevertheless, strong discontent with the government among not only the elite but among peasants, labor, and business. Criticism focuses on the dynastic aspects of the Diem rule, on its clandestine political apparatus, and on the methods through which the President exercises his leadership. This is aggravated by Communist attempts to discredit the President and weaken his government's authority. All this is made the easier because of a communications void existing between the government and the people. For many months United States efforts have been directed toward persuading Diem to adopt political, social, and economic changes designed to correct this serious defect. Many of these changes are included in the Counterinsurgency Plan. Our success has been only partial. There are those who consider that Diem will not succeed in the battle to win men's minds in Vietnam.
Thus in giving priority emphasis to the need for internal security, we must not relax in our efforts to persuade Diem of the need for political social and economic progress. If his efforts are inadequate in this field our overall objective could be seriously endangered and we might once more find ourselves in the position of shoring a leader who had lost the support of his people.
Although the paper expresses the hope that through "very astute dealings" ("a combination of positive inducements plus points at which discreet pressure can be exercised") Diem could be successfully worked with, the net effect of the State draft is hardly enthusiastic. The paper tells the President that his Task Force "believes" that the policy will work. But it is a large order: for the aim had been referred to as nothing less than "a major alteration in the present government structure or in its objectives."
In effect, the silence on Diem in the Gilpatric/Lansdale draft was replaced by a detailed statement which, in the course of reaffirming the need to take prompt steps to show confidence in Diem, nevertheless leaves the strong impression that we really did not have much confidence in him at all. Support for Diem became tactical: based explicitly on the hope that he might reform, and implicitly on the fact that trying to overthrow him would be terribly risky in the aftermath of Laos, even if the U.S. had someone to overthrow him with. Further, although the paper explicitly conceded first priority to military needs, there was a strong argument that military efforts alone will not be enough.
It was apparently this equivocal attitude toward Diem (aside from any personal considerations) that led to Lansdale's prediction that State could never "win this battle." Thus in the main paper of the May 6 draft the general political objective was stated as:
Develop political and economic conditions which will create a solid and widespread support among the key political groups and the general population for a Vietnam which has the will to resist Communist encroachment and which in turn stems from a stake in a freer and more democratic society.
Lansdale, in a pencilled comment to Gilpatric, complained:
The elected President of Vietnam is ignored in this statement as the base to build upon in countering the communists. This will have the U.S. pitted against Diem as first priority, the communists as second.
Nevertheless, it seems that the May program went a very long way in Lansdale's
preferred direction: although the U.S. was expanding its contribution to the
Vietnamese effort it was no longer asking for any quid pro quo. The U.S. envisioned "discreet pressure" but certainly not, for then anyway, any hint of withholding aid. The U.S. flatly asserted that it saw no "remotely acceptable alternative to Diem," for the time being, any way. The U.S. thought it vital that Diem do better, but increasing his confidence in the U.S. had top priority. The strongest guidance given the new Ambassador was to "get on Diem's wavelength."
More of this tentative adoption of the Lansdale approach can be seen in the discussion of Vice President Johnson's trip (from the May 6 draft):
The Vice President's visit will provide the added incentive needed to give the GVN the motivation and confidence it needs to carry on the struggle. We believe that meetings between the Vice President and President Diem will act as a catalytic agent to produce broad agreement on the need for accelerated joint Vietnamese-U.S. actions to resist Communist encroachment in SEA. These meetings will also serve to get across to President Diem our confidence in him as a man of great stature and as one of the strong figures in SEA on whom we are placing our reliance. At the same time, these conferences should impress Diem with the degree of importance we attach to certain political and economic reforms in Vietnam which are an essential element in frustrating Communist encroachments. Recognizing the difficulties we have had in the past in persuading Diem to take effective action on such reforms, as specific an understanding as possible should be solicited from Diem on this point.
It was this sort of guidance (plus, perhaps, a memo from Lansdale describing President Diem in terms that bear comparison with those Jack Valenti would later use in connection with another President) that accounts for Johnson's famous reference to Diem as the Churchill of Asia.
In sum, what emerges from the final version of the report is a sense that the U.S. had decided to take a crack at the Lansdale approach of trying to win Diem over with a strong display of personal confidence in him. What does not emerge is any strong sense that the Administration believed this new approach really had much hope of working, but undoubtedly this pessimistic reading is influenced by the hindsight now available. The drafters of the paper very probably saw themselves as hedging against the possible failure of the policy, rather than implying that it probably would not work.
If we go beyond the paperwork, and ask what judgments might be made about the intent of the senior decision-makers, and particularly the President, it seems that here, even more than in connection with the military commitments discussed earlier, the Administration adopted a course which, whether in hindsight the wisest available or not, probably seemed to have no practical alternative.
Presumably the top level of the Administration believed there was at least some chance that the new policy toward Diem might produce useful results.
But even to the extent this prospect seemed dim, there were political advantages (or at least political risks) avoided in giving this plan a try, and there must not have seemed (as even now there does not seem) to have been much cost in doing so.
Finally, whatever the President thought of the prospects and political advantages of this approach to Diem, it might have been hard at that time to see any drastically different alternative anyway. After all, the heart of the Laos embarrassment was that the U.S was (with some face-saving cover) dropping an anti-communist leader who had come into power with the indispensable assistance of the U.S. This dropping of Phoumi in Laos in favor of support for the neutralist government Phoumi had overthrown with U.S. encouragement and assistance remained an essential part of whatever outcome developed in Laos. In the wake of this embarrassment, the U.S. was now trying to reassure other governments in Southeast Asia. Was it possible to carry out this reassurance while threatening Diem, another anti-communist leader totally dependent on U.S. support, with withdrawal of our support (our only available form of pressure) unless he reformed himself according to U.S. prescription? Was this a prudent time to risk a coup in South Vietnam, which was the widely predicted effect of any show of lack of confidence in Diem?
It is obviously impossible for us to strike a balance among these reasons (or perhaps some others) why the decisions were made the way they were. More interesting, though, is that it seems to have been unnecessary for even the decision-maker himself to strike such a balance. For it seems that whatever his view, the policy of trying to reassure Diem (rather than pressure him, or dissociating from him) seemed like a sensible tactic for the moment, and very possible the only sensible tactic for that particular moment.
IV. FROM MAY TO SEPTEMBER
At the end of September, Admiral Harry Felt, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, stopped off in Saigon on his way to a SEATO meeting in Bangkok. Felt, Ambassador Nolting, and several of their senior aides met with Diem at Independence Palace, on the evening of the 29th. According to Nolting's cable the following day:
In course of long discussion . . . Diem pointed the question. He asked for a bilateral defense treaty with the U.S. This rather large and unexpected request seemed to have been dragged in by the heels at the end of a far-ranging discussion, but we discovered upon questioning that it was seriously intended .
Although the available record does not explicitly say so, this request presumably triggered the intensive attention to Vietnam planning that began early in October (Nolting's cable arrived October 1) and led to the decision on the 11th to send the Taylor Mission.
The balance of this chapter reviews the major developments between the Presidential decisions on the Task Force Report (May 11) and the arrival of Nolting's cable on the treaty request (October 1).
A. THE JOHNSON MISSION
The available record tells us almost nothing about the Vice President's visit to Saigon beyond what is described in the public memoirs. We know from Nolting's cables that Johnson brought up the possibility of U.S. troops in Vietnam and of a bilateral treaty after Diem (in an after-dinner conversation) began to talk about the problems that communist gains in Laos would create for him. We know that Diem replied that he wanted U.S. combat troops only in the event of open invasion and that he also did not show interest in a treaty.
But we do not know what, if anything, Johnson was authorized to say if Diem had reacted affirmatively. And this could have ranged anywhere from attempting to discourage Diem if he did show interest, to offering some specific proposal and timetable. No strong inference can be drawn from the fact that Johnson, rather than Diem, raised the issue. Even if the President had decided against making troop commitments to Vietnam at that time, there would have been nothing outrageous about instructing Johnson to refer to such a possibility once Diem began to talk about his concerns due to Laos. After all, the whole point of the Johnson mission was to reassure Diem and other Asian leaders, that the U.S. could, despite Laos, be counted on in Asia. Simply reading the American newspapers would have told Diem that at least as of May 5, the Administration was seriously considering sending American troops to Vietnam, and that Johnson was expected to discuss this with Diem. A quite reasonable tactical judgment would have been that nothing would have been more likely to make Diem ask for U.S. troops than for Johnson to remain eerily silent on this issue.
Consequently, on the record available, we can do no more than guess what would have happened if Diem reacted affirmatively at the time of Johnson's visit. The most reasonable guess is probably that the Taylor Mission, or something equivalent, would have been undertaken in the spring, rather than in the fall, and nothing very much would have been different in the long run. But that is only a reasonable guess.
For the rest, here are some extracts from a report Johnson wrote after his return. Essentially, Johnson argued for prompt moves by the U.S. to show support for non-communist governments in Southeast Asia. He had in mind expanded conventional military and economic aid, and perhaps a new treaty to replace SEATO. But despite the shock of U.S. willingness to accept a coalition government in Laos, Johnson reported that U.S. troops were neither desired nor required. And although this might not always be the case, Johnson recommended that the U.S. "must remain master of this decision."
The Impact of Laos
There is no mistaking the deep--and long lasting--impact of recent developments in Laos.
Country to country, the degree differs but Laos has created doubt and concern about intentions of the United States throughout Southeast Asia. No amount of success at Geneva can, of itself, erase this. The independent Asians do not wish to have their own status resolved in like manner in Geneva.
Leaders such as Diem, Chiang, Sarit and Ayub more or less accept that we are making "the best of a bad bargain" at Geneva. Their charity extends no farther.
The Impact of the Mission
Beyond question, your judgement about the timing of our mission was correct. Each leader--except Nehru--publicly congratulated you on the "timing" of this mission. Chiang said--and all others privately concurred--that the mission had the effect of "stabilizing" the situation in the Southeast Asian nations.
What happened, I believe, was this: the leaders visited want--as long as they can--to remain as friends or allies of the United States. The public, or, more precisely, the political, reaction to Laos had drastically weakened the ability to maintain any strongly pro-US orientation. Neutralism in Thailand, collapse in Vietnam, anti-American election demagoguery in the Philippines were all developing prior to our visit. The show of strength and sincerity--partly because you had sent the Vice President and partly, to a greater extent than you may believe, because you had sent your sister--gave the friendly leaders something to "hang their hats on" for a while longer.
Our mission arrested the decline of confidence in the United States. It did not--in my judgment--restore any confidence already lost. The leaders were as explicit, as courteous and courtly as men could be in making it clear that deeds must follow words--soon.
We didn't buy time--we were given it.
If these men I saw at your request were bankers, I would know--without bothering to ask--that there would be no further extensions on my note.
* * * *
The Importance of Follow-Through
I cannot stress too strongly the extreme importance of following up this mission with other measures, other actions, and other efforts. At the moment--because of Laos--these nations are hypersensitive to the possibility of American hypocrisy toward Asia. Considering the Vienna talks with Khrushchev-which, to the Asian mind, emphasize Western rather than Asian concerns--and considering the negative line of various domestic American editorials about this mission, I strongly believe it is of first importance that this trip bear fruit immediately.
Personal Conclusions from the Mission
I took to Southeast Asia some basic convictions about the problems faced there. I have come away from the mission there--and to India and Pakistan
--with many of those convictions sharpened and deepened by what I saw and learned. I have also reached certain other conclusions which I believe may be of value as guidance for those responsible in formulating policies. These conclusions are as follows:
1. The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination to achieve sucess there-or the United States, inevitably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defenses on our own shores. Asian Communism is compromised and contained by the maintenance of free nations on the subcontinent. Without this inhibitory influence, the island outposts--Philippines, Japan, Taiwan--have no security and the vast Pacific becomes a Red Sea.
2. The struggle is far from lost in Southeast Asia and it is by no means inevitable that it must be lost. In each country it is possible to build a sound structure capable of withstanding and turning the Communist surge. The will to resist--while now the target of subversive attack--is there. The key to what is done by Asians in defense of Southeast Asian freedom is confidence in the United States.
3. There is no alternative to United States leadership in Southeast Asia. Leadership in individual countries--or the regional leadership and cooperation so appealing to Asians--rests on the knowledge and faith in United States power, will and understanding.
4. SEATO is not now and probably never will be the answer because of British and French unwillingness to support decisive action. Asian distrust of the British and French is outspoken. Success at Geneva would prolong SEATO's role. Failure at Geneva would terminate SEATO's meaningfulness. In the latter event, we must be ready with a new approach to collective security in the area.
We should consider an alliance of all the free nations of the Pacific and Asia who are willing to join forces in defense of their freedom. Such an organization should:
a) have a clear-cut command authority
b) also devote attention to measures and programs of social justice, housing, land reform, etc.
5. Asian leaders--at this time--do not want American troops involved in Southeast Asia other than on training missions. American combat troop involvement is not only not required, it is not desirable. Possibly Americans fail to appreciate fully the subtlety that recently-colonial peoples would not look with favor upon governments which invited or accepted the return this soon of Western troops. To the extent that fear of ground troop involvement dominates our political responses to Asia in Congress or elsewhere, it seems most desirable to me to allay those paralyzing fears in confidence, on the strength of the individual statements made by leaders consulted on this trip. This does not minimize or disregard the probability that open attack would bring calls for U.S. combat troops. But the present probability of open attack seems scant, and we might gain much needed flexibility in our policies if the spectre of combat troop commitment could be lessened domestically.
6. Any help--economic as well as military--we give less developed nations to secure and maintain their freedom must be a part of a mutual effort. These nations cannot be saved by United States help alone. To the extent the Southeast Asian nations are prepared to take the necessary measures to make our aid effective, we can be--and must be--unstinting in our assistance. It would be useful to enunciate more clearly than we have--for the guidance of these young and unsophisticated nations--what we expect or require of them.
7. In large measure, the greatest danger Southeast Asia offers to nations like the United States is not the momentary threat of Communism itself, rather that danger stems from hunger, ignorance, poverty and disease. We must--whatever strategies we evolve--keep these enemies the point of our attack, and make imaginative use of our scientific and technological capability in such enterprises.
8. Vietnam and Thailand are the immediate--and most important--trouble spots, critical to the U.S. These areas require the attention of our very best talents--under the very closest Washington direction--on matters economic, military and political.
The basic decision in Southeast Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and [a] "Fortress America" concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don't live up to treaties and don't stand by our friends. This is not my concept. I recommend that we move forward promptly with a major effort to help these countries defend themselves. I consider the key here is to get our best MAAG people to control, plan, direct and exact results from our military aid program. In Vietnam and Thailand, we must move forward together.
a. In Vietnam, Diem is a complex figure beset by many problems. He has admirable qualities, but he is remote from the people, is surrounded by persons less admirable and capable than he. The country can be saved-if we move quickly and wisely. We must decide whether to support Diem- or let Vietnam fall. We must have coordination of purpose in our country team, diplomatic and military. The Saigon Embassy, USIS, MAAG and related operations leave much to be desired. They should be brought up to maximum efficiency. The most important thing is imaginative, creative, American management of our military aid program. The Vietnamese and our MAAG estimate that $50 million of U.S. military and economic assistance will be needed if we decide to support Vietnam. This is the best information available to us at the present time and if it is confirmed by the best Washington military judgment it should be supported. Since you proposed and Diem agreed to a joint economic mission, it should be appointed and proceed forthwith.
b. In Thailand, the Thais and our own MAAG estimate probably as much is needed as in Vietnam-about $50 million of military and economic assistance. Again, should our best military judgment concur, I believe we should support such a program. Sarit is more strongly and staunchly pro-Western than many of his people. He is and must be deeply concerned at the consequence to his country of a communist-controlled Laos. If Sarit is to stand firm against neutralism, he must have--soon--concrete evidence to show his people of United States military and economic support. He believes that his armed forces should be increased to 150,000. His Defense Minister is coming to Washington to discuss aid matters.
* * * *
To recapitulate, these are the main impressions I have brought back from my trip.
The fundamental decision required of the United States-and time is of the greatest importance-is whether we are to attempt to meet the challenge of Communist expansion now in Southeast Asia by a major effort in support of the forces of freedom in the area or throw in the towel. This decision must be made in a full realization of the very heavy and continuing costs involved in terms of money, of effort and of United States prestige. It must be made with the knowledge that at some point we may be faced with the further decision of whether we commit major United States forces to the area or cut our losses and withdraw should our other efforts fail. We must remain master in this decision. What we do in Southeast Asia should be part of a rational program to meet the threat we face in the region as a whole. It should include a clear-cut pattern of specific contributions to be expected by each partner according to his ability and resources. I recommend we proceed with a clear-cut and strong program of action.
B. DIEM'S JUNE LETTER
During his visit Johnson, on behalf of Kennedy, invited Diem to prepare a set of proposals on South Vietnamese military needs for consideration by Washington. In a letter May 15, Diem told Kennedy that the definitive study would be ready in a few weeks. (He appreciated this invitation, Diem told Kennedy, "particularly because we have not become accustomed to being asked for our own views on our needs.)"
On June 9, Diem signed the promised letter. It was carried to Washington by a key Diem aide (Nguyen Dinh Thuan) and delivered on the 14th. (Thuan played a key role on the Vietnamese side throughout 1961. He was the man Durbrow, in the cable quoted in full earlier, suspected was the only cabinet member Diem had told about the CIP. In a memo to Gilpatric, Lansdale described him as Diem's "Secretary of Security, Defense, Interior, etc.")
In the letter, Diem proposed an increase in the RVNAF to 270,000 men, or to double the 150,000 strength authorized at the start of 1961, and 100,000 men more than envisioned under the CIP. That was a large request: for up until the end of April, the U.S. and South Vietnamese were still haggling over the go-ahead for a 20,000-man increase. Further, Diem made it clear that he saw this force requirement as a semi-permanent increase in South Vietnamese strength, which would continue to be needed even should he eliminate the Viet Cong.
Here are some extracts from Diem's letter:
[The] situation . . . has become very much more perilous following the events in Laos, the more and more equivocal attitude of Cambodia and the intensification of the activities of aggression of international communism which wants to take the maximum advantage to accelerate the conquest of Southeast Asia. It is apparent that one of the major obstacles to the communist expansion on this area of the globe is Free Vietnam because with your firm support, we are resolved to oppose it with all our energies. Consequently, now and henceforth, we constitute the first target for the communists to overthrow at any cost. The enormous accumulation of Russian war material in North Vietnam is aimed, in the judgment of foreign observers, more at South Vietnam than at Laos. We clearly realize this dangerous situation but I want to reiterate to you here, in my personal name and in the name of the entire Vietnamese people, our indomitable will to win.
On the second of May, my council of generals met to evaluate the current situation and to determine the needs of the Republic of Vietnam to meet this situation. Their objective evaluation shows that the military situation at present is to the advantage of the communists and that most of the Vietnamese Armed Forces are already committed to internal security and the protection of our 12 million inhabitants. For many months the communist-inspired fratricidal war has taken nearly one thousand casualties a month on both sides. Documents obtained in a recent operation, along route No. 9 which runs from Laos to Vietnam, contain definite proof that 2,860 armed agents have infiltrated among us in the course of the last four months.* It is certain that this number rises each day. However, the Vietnamese people are
* Diem's number implies an infiltration rate about 4 times as high as that estimated by U.S. intelligence in 1961, and twice as high as the hindsight revised 1961 estimates now in use.
showing the world that they are willing to fight and die for their freedom, notwithstanding the temptations to neutralism and its false promises of peace being drummed into their ears daily by the communists.
In the light of this situation, the council of generals concluded that additional forces numbering slightly over 100,000 more than our new force level of 170,000 will be required to encounter the ominous threat of communist domination .
After considering the recommendations of our generals and consulting with our American military advisors, we now conclude that to provide even minimum initial resistance to the threat, two new divisions of approximately 10,000 strength each are required to be activated at the earliest possible date. Our lightly held defensive positions along the demilitarized zone at our Northern border is even today being outflanked by communist forces which have defeated the Royal Laotian Army garrisons in Tchepone and other cities in Southern Laos. Our ARVN forces are so thoroughly committed to internal anti-guerrilla operations that we have no effective forces with which to counter this threat from Southern Laos. Thus, we need immediately one division for the First Army Corps and one for the Second Army Corps to provide at least some token resistance to the size-able forces the communists are capable of bringing to bear against our Laotian frontier. Failing this, we would have no recourse but to withdraw our forces southward from the demilitarized zone and sacrifice progressively greater areas of our country to the communists. These divisions should be mobilized and equipped, together with initial logistic support units, immediately after completion of activation of the presently contemplated increase of 20,000 which you have offered to support.
Following the activation of these units, which should begin in about five months, we must carry on the program of activation of additional units until over a period of two years we will have achieved a force of 14 infantry divisions, an expanded airborne brigade of approximately division strength and accompanying (support?) . . . The mission of this total 270,000 man force remains the same, namely, to overcome the insurgency which has risen to the scale of a bloody, communist-inspired civil war within our borders and to provide initial resistance to overt, external aggression until free world forces under the SEATO agreement can come to our aid. The question naturally arises as to how long we shall have to carry the burden of so sizeable a military force. Unfortunately, I can see no early prospects for the reduction of such a force once it has been established; for even though we may be successful in liquidating the insurgency within our borders, communist pressure in Southeast Asia and the external military threat to our country must be expected to increase, I fear, before it diminishes. This means that we must be prepared to maintain a strong defensive military posture for at least the foreseeable future in order that we may not become one of the so-called "soft spots" which traditionally have attracted communist aggression. We shall therefore continue to need material support to maintain this force whose requirements far exceed the capacity of our economy to support....
To accomplish this 100,000 man expansion of our military forces, which is perfectly feasible from a manpower viewpoint, will require a great intensification of our training programs in order to produce, in the minimum of time, those qualified combat leaders and technical specialists needed to fill the new units and to provide to them the technical and logistic support required to insure their complete effectiveness. For this purpose a considerable expansion of the United States Military Advisory Group is an essential requirement. Such an expansion, in the form of selected elements of the American Armed Forces to establish training centers for the Vietnamese Armed Forces, would serve the dual purpose of providing an expression of the United States' determination to halt the tide of communist aggression and of preparing our forces in the minimum of time.
While the Government and people of Vietnam are prepared to carry the heavy manpower burden required to save our country, we well know that we cannot afford to pay, equip, train and maintain such forces as I have described. To make this effort possible, we would need to have assurances that this needed material support would be provided.
The record is unclear on the immediate response to this letter. In particular, we have no record of the conversations Thuan had in Washington when he delivered the requests. The issue of the RVNAF increases somehow became part of the business of an economic mission then about to leave for Vietnam (the Staley Mission, discussed in the following section). The request for "selected elements of the American Armed Forces," raised in the next-to-last quoted paragraph, is left thoroughly obscure in the records we have-to the point where we are not at all sure either what Diem meant by it or how the Administration reacted to it. But, as will be seen in the section below on "U.S. Troops," nothing came of it.
C. THE STALEY MISSION
One of the continuing negotiating items through most of 1961 was the extent to which the South Vietnamese should finance their own effort. The U.S. view was that the South Vietnamese were not doing enough. The result was American pressure on Diem to undertake what was called tax "reform." Diem was most reluctant to move. It is pretty clear that a large part of Diem's reluctance to move flowed from the same (well-founded) sense of personal insecurity that made him avoid establishing a clear military chain of command. On the latter issue, the risk of weakening the war effort obviously struck him as less dangerous than the risk of making a coup easier by concentrating military authority in his generals instead of dividing it between the generals and the 38 province chiefs. Similarly, for a ruler so unsure of his hold on the country, a serious effort at imposing austerity looked more risky than holding out for the Americans to provide a few more millions out of their vast resources. But Diem, of course, was hardly likely to admit such reasons to the Americans, assuming he admitted them to himself. Consequently, on these issues (as on many others) the record is a long story of tediously extracted promises, excuses for inaction, and American complaints about Diem's administrative style.
On the economic issue, the substance of the argument was this:
The deficit between what Diem raised in taxes and what his budget required was made up by the U.S. through a commercial import program. The regime sold the goods provided by the U.S. to South Vietnamese businessmen, and used the piasters thus acquired mainly to meet the local currency costs (mostly food and pay) for the armed forces. U.S. dissatisfaction with the South Vietnamese effort showed clearly in the decision to ask the South Vietnamese themselves to provide the local currency costs for the 20,000 man force increase proposed in the CIP, although the U.S. had been paying these costs (through the import program) for the balance of the forces. The South Vietnamese insisted, for the outset, that they could not raise the piasters required.
The basic question of whether the South Vietnamese were bearing a reasonable share of the burden devolved into a number of technical issues, such as the effect of the program on inflation in South Vietnam, and the piaster/dollar exchange rate. The Gilpatric/Lansdale draft of the Task Force Report proposed that Diem be flatly assured that the U.S. would make up any deficit in the Vietnamese budget. But State objected from the start to giving any such assurance. Instead a joint commission of U.S. and South Vietnamese economic experts was proposed to work out a joint program dealing with these economic issues. This was one of the proposals Vice President Johnson carried with him on his mission. Diem accepted the proposal. And the U.S. team, headed by Eugene Staley (president of the Stanford Research Institute) was dispatched to South Vietnam in mid-June.
By the time the Staley Mission left, though, Diem had written the letter just quoted asking for U.S. support for a large further increase in his forces. Staley's group, with its Vietnamese counterpart, found themselves serving as the vehicle for the discussions on force levels. The report they issued is mostly about military issues, on which the economists stated they simply reflected instructions passed on by their respective governments. Here are some excerpts on the military issues (in addition, the report of course contained a discussion, rather vague as it turned out, of the economic issues which were nominally its purpose, and it also contained a good deal of very fine, vigorous language on the need for "crash programs" of economic and social developing).
Viet Nam is today under attack in a bitter, total struggle which involves its survival as a free nation. Its enemy, the Viet Cong, is ruthless, resourceful, and elusive. This enemy is supplied, reinforced, and centrally directed by the international Communist apparatus operating through Hanoi. To defeat it requires the mobilization of the entire economic, military psychological, and social resources of the country and vigorous support from the United States.
The intensified program which we recommend our two countries adopt as a basis for mutual actions over the next several years is designed not just to hold the line but to achieve a real breakthrough. Our joint efforts must surpass the critical threshold of the enemy's resistance, thereby puting an end to his destructive attacks, and at the same time we must make a decisive impact on the economic, social, and ideological front.
The turn of events in Laos has created further serious problems with regard to the maintenance of the GVN as a free and sovereign non-Communist nation. In particular, the uncovering of the Laotian-Viet Nam border to DRV or DRV-supported forces creates a serious threat of increased covert infiltration of personnel, supplies, and equipment to the Viet Cong. With such increased support, the Viet Cong undoubtedly hope to seize firm military control of a geographic area and announce the establishment therein of a "rebel" government for South Viet Nam which would then be recognized by and receive military support from the DRV, Communist China, and Soviet Russia. (Example: The present situation in Laos.)
The joint VN-US group does not consider itself competent to make specific recommendations as to desired force levels for the defense of Viet Nam. They have, however, after consultation with their respective military authorities, adopted for economic planning purposes certain estimated strength figures for the GVN armed forces under two alternative assumptions. Alternative A assumes that the Communist-led insurgency effort remains at approximately its present level of intensity and the Government of Laos maintains sufficient independence from the Communist Bloc to deny authority for the transit of DVN or Communist Chinese troops across its borders. Alternative B assumes that the Viet Cong are able to significantly increase their insurgency campaign within Viet Nam and that the situation in Laos continues to deteriorate to the point where the Communists gain de facto control of that country.
Alternative A called for a build-up of Diem's forces to 200,000 (vs. 170,000 then authorized. Alternative B called for continuing the build-up to 270,000. On this basis, Kennedy agreed to provide support for the increase to 200,000. The 200,000-man approval was supposed to be contingent on South Vietnamese agreement to a plan for using the forces. The question of a further increase to 270,000 was deferred, since it did not need to be faced until the lower figure was being approached, sometime late in 1962.
A consequence of the Staley Mission was the South Vietnamese troop levels needed little attention in the fall review: the U.S. simply decided to support the increase to 200,000 even though the agreed plan for using the forces did not yet exist (as in May the U.S. had agreed to support the increase to 170,000 which also, it will be recalled, was supposed to have been contingent on such a plan).
A few points about the Staley Mission seem useful to keep in mind in reviewing the fall process:
1. It is another reminder of the prevailing (although not universal) overoptimism of U.S. appraisals of the Vietnam problem.
2. One of the follow-on actions to the report was supposed to be a Vietnamese announcement of a program of social reform. Producing this piece of paper (and in the end it was not much more than a piece of paper) took months. It was experiences such as this that gave questions about the viability of the Diem regime greater prominence in the fall review than they had received during April and May.
3. The U.S. was still continuing to deal with Diem most gently. Nothing more was asked of Diem as a quid pro quo than that he finally work up a plan for the counterinsurgency. The President explicitly accepted the assumptions of the Joint Plan worked out by the Staley Mission and their Vietnamese counterparts.
This is from the formal record of decision:
Joint Program of Action With the Government of Vietnam (Staley Report)
August 4, 1961
The President agrees with the three basic tenets on which the recommendations contained in the Joint Action Program are based, namely:
a. Security requirements must, for the present, be given first priority.
b. Military operations will not achieve lasting results unless economic and social programs are continued and accelerated.
c. It is in our joint interest to accelerate measures to achieve a selfsustaining economy and a free and peaceful society in Viet-Nam.
Similar language was used at the time of the May decisions. So it is not new. It is only that, in the light of Diem's inactivity, the phrases implying that nonmilitary efforts are also important had come to sound a little hollow.
D. U.S. COMBAT TROOPS
From the time of the Laos Annex to the original Gilpatric/Lansdale draft of the Task Force Report (April 28). The record shows persistent activity on some level or other on the issue of sending U.S. combat troops to Vietnam.
At the time of the Task Force review, it will be recalled, Defense recommended sending two 1600-man combat units to Vietnam to set up two training centers for the Vietnamese in the highlands. In later drafts of the Task Force report, this proposal was broadened to consider sending American troops for wider purposes, short of direct combat against the Viet Cong. But the proposal was downgraded to a subject for study and was no longer a definite recommendation.
Here is a summary of the items (on the issue of U.S. combat troops) in the record available to this study following Kennedy's decisions on the Task Force Report (May 11).
On May 12 Vice President Johnson discussed the question with Diem, as described in an earlier section. This seems to have resolved the issue (negatively) so far as Johnson was concerned, and possibly as far as President Kennedy was concerned. But if it did, the President's view was not very emphatically passed on to subordinate members of the Administration. For a week later, Lansdale sent a memo to Gilpatrick noting that Diem did not want U.S. combat units as such, but that he might accept these units if they had a mission of training South Vietnamese forces:
Ambassador Nolting [said] that President Diem would welcome as many U.S. military personnel as needed for training and advising Vietnamese forces [MAAG Chief] General McGarr, who was also present at this discussion [between Johnson and Diem], reported that while President Diem would not want U.S. combat forces for the purpose of fighting Communists in South Vietnam, he would accept deployment of U.S. combat forces as trainers for the Vietnamese forces at any time.
This language leaves it unclear whether McGarr was merely stating his opinion (which supported his own desire to bring in U.S. combat units), or reporting what he understood Diem to have said.
(About the same day of Lansdale's memo--May 18--the JCS had restated its recommendation of May 10 that combat troops should be sent to Vietnam; and McGarr, from Saigon, had recommended sending a 16,000 man force, or if Diem would not accept that, a 10,000 man force with the nominal mission of establishing training centers for the Vietnamese. The similar recommendation made in the Task Force drafts had suggested 3200 men for the force.)
In any event, Lansdale's memo makes it quite clear that he (along with McGarr and the JCS) were primarily interested in getting U.S. combat units into Vietnam, with the training mission a possible device for getting Diem to accept them. After a discussion of JCS and CINCPAC planning and of alternative locations for the troops, Lansdale comments:
....any of the above locations have good areas for training of Vietnamese forces, if this were to be a mission of the U.S. forces.
In the available papers, no one at this time talked about using American units to directly fight the Viet Cong. Rather it was mainly in terms of relieving Vietnamese units to undertake offensive action. We can only guess what people were really thinking. As the training-the-Vietnamese rationale seems essentially a device for getting Diem to accept the units, the non-combatant role for U.S. troops may have been (and probably was in the minds of at least some of the planners) mainly a device for calming those members of the Administration who were reluctant to involve American units in fighting the Viet Cong. Certainly in hindsight, it seems most unrealistic to suppose that American combat units could have been stationed in a center of Viet Cong activity (a number of papers postulate the insurgents were attempting to establish a "liberated area" in the high plateau, which was the principal local discussed) without themselves becoming involved in the fighting.
Lansdale concluded his memo by reminding Gilpatric that Diem was sending Thuan ("Secretary of Security, Defense, Interior, etc.") to Washington to deliver his letter on Vietnam's "definitive military needs." Lansdale recommended that Gilpatric take up the question of whether Diem would accept U.S. troops with Thuan. "With concrete information, you will then have a firm position for further decisions."
But apparently someone did not want to wait for Thuan. For on May 27, Nolting reported that he had brought up the question of what Diem meant in his conversation with Johnson directly with Diem, and that Diem did not then want U.S. combat units "for this or any other reason."
Nevertheless, on June 9, Diem signed the letter to Kennedy that, as quoted above, asked for:
....selected elements of the American Armed Forces to establish training centers for the Vietnamese Armed Forces....
a move which Diem stated:
would serve the dual purpose of providing an expression of the United States' determination to halt the tide of communist aggression and of preparing our forces in the minimum of time.
This certainly sounded very much like the recommendation of the Task Force draft, or McGarr's later expanded version of that proposal; particularly since Diem explicitly stated that he had McGarr's advice in drafting the proposals. But where the American proposals were for training whole South Vietnamese divisions, Diem said the training centers would be for combat leaders and technical specialists. Consequently, it seems that Diem did not have the same thing in mind in referring to "selected elements of the American Armed Forces" as did McGarr and others interested in bringing in American combat units. It may be that Diem agreed to put in this request that sounded like what McGarr wanted as a concession to the Americans in return for support of the large increase in the RVNAF he was asking.
Presumably this was clarified during the discussions Thuan had after delivering the letter. But, as noted earlier, we have no record of the conversations. In any event, nothing came of the proposal.
(A summary of Diem's letter, cabled to the American mission in Saigon the day after the letter was received in Washington, did not use the phrase "selected elements of the American Armed Forces." Instead it said that Diem asked for an increase of "American personnel" to establish the training centers. The crucial issue, of course, was whether Americans would be sent to Vietnam in the form of organized combat units, capable of, if not explicitly intended, for conducting combat operations. We do not know whether the wording of the summary reflected Thuan's clarification of the proposal when he arrived in Washington, or a high level Administration decision to interpret Diem's letter as not asking for combat units, or merely sloppy drafting of the cable.)
It seems clear that either Diem (despite the language of the letter he signed) really did not want American units, or that Kennedy (despite the activity of his subordinates) did not want to send those units, or both.
Sorenson, in his memoir, says that in May Kennedy decided against sending combat units despite the recommendations he received at the time of the Task Force Report. But his account of the Task Force is in error on a number of details, and so it is hard to know how much to credit his recollection.
But there is a final item apparently from this period that seems to support Sorenson. It is a handwritten undated note on a piece of scratch paper from Rostow to McNamara. It looks like a note passed at a meeting. From its location in the file, it was probably written about June 5, that is, a few days before Thuan arrived with Diem's letter. It reads:
We must think of the kind of forces and missions for Thailand now, Vietnam later.
We need a guerrilla deterrence operation in Thailand's northeast.
We shall need forces to support a counter-guerrilla war in Vietnam:
Two things are striking about this note: first, it is a quite exact description of the sort of military assistance Kennedy finally dispatched to Vietnam (i.e., combat support and advisors but not American units capable of independent combat against the guerrillas). Second, it certainly suggests that despite what Lansdale, McGarr, and others were doing, those close to the President were not at this time thinking about sending American combat units to Vietnam (or any American forces, for even the units Rostow lists are for "later" in contrast to "Thailand now"). Nevertheless on July 20, McGarr again raised the question of combat units for training with Diem, and reported again that he did not want them.
In general, we seem to be seeing here a pattern that first began to emerge in the handling of the Task Force Report and which will be even more strikingly evident in the President's handling of the Taylor Report.
Someone or other is frequently promoting the idea of sending U.S. combat units. Kennedy never makes a clear-cut decision but some way or other action is always deferred on any move that would probably lead to engagements on the ground between American units and the Viet Cong.
We have no unambiguous basis for judging just what had really happened in each case. But we do see a similar pattern at least twice and possibly three different times: in May, perhaps again in June (depending on details of Thuan's talks in Washington not available to this study), and as we will report shortly, again in November. In each case, the record seems to be moving toward a decision to send troops, or at least to a Presidential decision that, in principal, troops should be sent if Diem can be persuaded to accept them. But no such decision is ever reached. The record never shows the President himself as the controlling figure. In June, there does not seem to be any record of what happened, at least in the files available to this study. In May and, as we will see, in November, the President conveniently receives a revised draft of the recommendations which no longer requires him to commit himself.
No reliable inference can be drawn from this about how Kennedy would have behaved in 1965 and beyond had he lived. (One of those who had advised retaining freedom of action on the issue of sending U.S. combat troops was Lyndon Johnson.) It does not prove that Kennedy behaved soundly in 1961. Many people will think so; but others will argue that the most difficult problem of recent years might have been avoided if the U.S. had made a hard commitment on the ground in South Vietnam in 1961.
E. THE TREATY REQUEST
As to Diem, we have, of course, even less in the way of a record from which to judge what he really thought he was doing. But it is not hard to understand why he should be reluctant to accept U.S. combat troops. His stated reason was always that sending U.S. combat units would signal the end of the Geneva Accords. But this explanation explains little. Diem thought the Geneva Accords were betrayal of Vietnam in 1954, and a farce, freely violated by the communists, later. Consequently, he would be concerned about their demise only if North Vietnam could use this as a pretext for an overt invasion. But North Vietnam had long had a suitable pretext for an invasion in Diem's refusal to discuss the elections called for under the Geneva Accords. Diem's shield was the threat of U.S. intervention, not the Geneva Accords, and it is mighty hard to see how this shield could be weakened by putting American troops on the ground in South Vietnam.
But there were other reasons for Diem to be wary of U.S. troops. For one thing, not even Diem's severest critics questioned his commitment to Vietnamese nationalism. The idea of inviting foreign troops back into Vietnam must surely have been distasteful even once he decided it was unavoidable. Further, the presence of American troops in Vietnam had a very ambivalent effect on the risk to Diem of a military coup. To the extent American troops increased the sense of security, they would lessen the likelihood of a coup, which the miJitary rationalized mainly on the grounds that they could not win the war under Diem. But the larger the American military presence in the country, the more Diem would have to worry about American ability and temptation to encourage a coup if Diem incurred American displeasure.
The net impact of these conflicting effects would depend on the security situation in Vietnam. If Diem felt strong, he would probably not want American troops; if he felt weak, he might see no choice but to risk inviting the Americans in. Even at the time of the Taylor mission, we will see Diem is most erratic on this issue.
Against this background, it is easy to understand why Diem, when the situation got worse in September, should have "pointed the question" at whether the U.S. would give him a treaty, rather than whether the U.S. would send in troops. As far as we can see, he was mostly concerned about what the latest VC attacks were doing to confidence in his regime, rather than any fear that the VC, still estimated at fewer than 20,000 strong, were going to defeat the quarter million regulars and auxiliaries in his own forces. What he probably wanted was an unambiguous public commitment that the Americans would not let Vietnam fall. For this would meet his immediate concern about confidence in his regime, perhaps even more effectively than the dispatch of American troops, and without the disadvantages that would come with accepting American troops. For Diem, a clear-cut treaty probably seemed the best possible combination of maximizing the American commitment while minimizing American leverage. And that, of course, would help explain why the Administration was not terribly attracted to such a proposal.
F. THE SITUATION IN SEPTEMBER
So far as the available record shows, there was no sense of imminent crisis in the official reporting to Washington as fall of 1961 began. An NIE published in mid-August concluded that Diem faced a "prolonged and difficult struggle" against the insurgency, and noted that "the French with their memories of the Indochina that was and the British with their experience in Malaya tend to be pessimistic regarding GVN prospects for combating the insurgency." But the NIE also reported that Diem's army had been performing better in 1961 than in 1960. Warning of possible trouble looked months, rather than weeks, ahead. The danger foreseen was a coup: "if the fight against the Viet Cong goes poorly during the next year or the South Vietnamese Army suffers heavy casualties, the chances of a military coup would substantially increase."
The judgment of the NIE on the effects of such a coup was entirely negative:
If there is a serious disruption of GVN leadership as a result of Diem's death or as the result of a military coup, any momentum of GVN's counterinsurgency efforts had achieved will be halted or reversed, at least for a time. The confusion and suspicion attending a coup effort could provide the communists with an opportunity to seize control of the government.
There is no mention of any offsetting hope for a coup leading to more effective prosecution of the war. The overall impression left by the NIE is that Diem is not a very effective leader, but that he is getting along well enough to make the risks of a coup look more dangerous than the risks of the war being unwinnable under his leadership. In particular, a coup (or Diem's death) were seen as the only thing that could bring a quick collapse of the Saigon regime, as opposed to the loss over time of a "prolonged and difficult" struggle.
MAAG Chief McGarr, in a report dated September 1, spoke of the "enhanced sense of urgency and offensive spirit now present within both the RVNAF and the Government of Vietnam . . ." Under the heading "Outlook for Next Year," he reported:
With the increased effectiveness of the Armed Forces beginning to be demonstrated by the recent operations in the Delta Region and the manifest intent of the U.S. to continue and even step up its vital support of the Vietnamese in their struggle against Communism, there is a spirit of renewed confidence beginning to permeate the people, the GVN, and the Armed Forces.
The political reporting from Saigon was less optimistic. Generally, these reports argued that Diem was not doing much to strengthen his support. But there was no disagreement with McGarr's fairly optimistic assessment of the military situation and no sense of crisis.
Through unofficial channels, though, the White House was receiving a far bleaker view of the situation. Schlesinger reports:
"The situation gets worse almost week by week," Theodore H. White wrote us in August. ". . . The guerrillas now control almost all the southern delta-so much so that I could find no American who would drive me outside Saigon in his car even by day without military convoy." He reported a "political breakdown of formidable proportions: . . . what perplexes hell out of me is that the Commies, on their side, seem to be able to find people willing to die for their cause . . . I find it discouraging to spend a night in a Saigon night-club full of young fellows of 20 and 25 dancing and jitterbugging (they are called 'la jeunesse cowboy') while twenty miles away their Communist contemporaries are terrorizing the countryside." An old China hand, White was reminded of Chungking in the Second World War, complete with Madame Nhu in the role of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. "If a defeat in South Vietnam is to be considered our defeat, if we are responsible for holding that area, then we must have authority to act. And that means intervention in Vietnam politics....If we do decide so to intervene, have we the proper personnel, the proper instruments, the proper clarity of objectives to intervene successfully?"
It did not take long to confirm White's pessimism, although this must have
made the dilemma of what to do about it seem all the more acute. In September,
the number of VC attacks jumped to nearly triple the level (about 450 vs. 150)
that had prevailed for some months previously. The most spectacular attack,
which seems to have had a shattering effect in Saigon, was the seizure of Phuoc
Thanh, a provincial capital only 55 miles from Saigon. The insurgents held the
town a good part of the day, publicly beheaded Diem's province chief, and departed
before government troops arrived. The official reporting to Washington by the
end of the month pictured the situation as stagnating, if not dangerously deteriorating,
although there continued to be no sense of the imminent crisis that Theodore
Here is an end-of-month report that Nolting sent just prior to the meeting at which Diem asked for the treaty:
Status report on political items as of Sept. 28:
General: Governmental and civil situation at end of month much same as at beginning. While neither of these gave open signs of deterioration, Diem government did not significantly improve its political position among people or substantially further national unity. On positive side several fifty-man district level reconstruction teams were sent to each of 4 provinces, and there was commendable amount country-side travel by ministers. On other hand, report was received of high-level bickering over powers and authority of new central intelligence organization, and Diem expressed dissatisfaction with pace of field command's planning of counter-insurgency operations, but he has still not delegated sufficient authority to field command. All in all we unable report that Sept. saw progress toward attainment task force goals of creating viable and increasingly democratic society. Some such "shot in arm" as proposed joint communique seems desirable.
Series large scale VC attacks in various areas central Vietnam during month highlighted increased VC infiltrations through Laos and underscored urgency of free world policy toward Laos which would bring this situation under control. These VC actions plus temporary VC seizure of provincial capital of Phuoc Thanh demonstrated that tide not yet turned in guerrilla war....
The "shot in the arm" Nolting referred to was the communique on social reforms that was agreed to some weeks earlier at the time of the Staley Mission; it would finally be issued, in a watered down form, early in January. The contrast between White's and Nolting's reporting is sharp: White obviously would not have seen the issuing of a communique as a significant "shot in the arm," or commented on the VC show of strength in such mild terms as demonstrating "that tide not yet turned." Consequently, although Diem's request for a treaty [Doc. 91] (a day after this cable was sent) surprised Nolting, its effect at the White House was presumably to confirm the warning that had already been received through White.
The State Department's view of the situation seems also to have been graver than that of the Embassy in Saigon. We have a situation summary on Southeast Asia that refers to Nolting's cable but not to Diem's treaty request, and which consequently must have been distributed about October 1. On the political situation in South Vietnam, the summary quotes Nolting's "no progress" comments. But the military situation is described more bleakly than Nolting did.
1. Although GVN military capabilities have increased, Viet Cong capabilities are increasing at more rapid rate and Viet Cong attacks have increased in size.
2. Viet Cong "regular" forces have increased from about 7,000 at beginning of year to approximately 17,000.
3. Viet Cong have moved from stage of small hands to large units. During September Viet Cong mounted three attacks with over 1,000 men in each. Viet Cong strategy may be directed at "liberating" an area in which a "government" could be installed.
4. Although vast majority of Viet Cong troops are of local origin, the infiltration of Viet Cong cadres from North Viet-Nam via Laos, the demilitarized zone, and by sea appears to be increasing. However, there is little evidence of major supplies from outside sources, most arms apparently being captured or stolen from GVN forces or from the French during the Indo-China war.
On Laos, the situation summary showed no such pessimism. But, overall the absence of bad news from Laos only added to the worry about South Vietnam. For the paper reported:
There probably have been some Viet Minh withdrawals from northern Laos but Viet Minh movement into Southern Laos bordering on South Vietnam has increased. Thus it appears enemy may be accepting stalemate for time being within Laos and giving priority to stepping up offensive action against South Vietnam.
Two final items are worth bearing in mind in trying to see the Vietnamese problem as it might have appeared to the White House in the fall of 1961. First, this warning of the effect of U.S. policy in Vietnam, from the August 15 NIE quoted earlier:
International Attitudes. In providing the GVN a maximum of encouragement and extensive support in its struggle against the Communists, the US will inevitably become identified with the GVN's success or failure. The US will be under heavy pressure from other members of the non-Communist world, many of whom view the Vietnam struggle in differing terms. For example, the neighboring countries, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Nationalist China, have all to some extent viewed developments in Laos as a gauge of US willingness and ability to help an anti-Communist Asian government stand against a Communist "national liberation" campaign. They will almost certainly look upon the struggle for Vietnam as a critical test of such US willingness and ability. All of them, including the neutrals, would probably suffer demoralization and loss of confidence in their prospects for maintaining their independence if the Communists were to gain control of South Vietnam. This loss of confidence might even extend to India.
Second, a couple of newspaper quotes may serve as a reminder of the extent to which the Kennedy Administration had been under a constant sense of foreign policy crisis throughout its first year, with every evidence of more to come. In late September, in a review piece on Congressional appraisals of Kennedy's first year, Russell Baker comments that not even Congress seems much interested in debate about Kennedy's effectiveness in pushing through legislation:
What makes it particularly irrelevant this autumn is that Congress itself has been far more concerned ever since January with the President's performance as guardian of the national security than with how he came out as chief warrior for a legislative program.
From Laos to Cuba to Vienna to Berlin to the Soviet nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk to New York's East River, crisis after crisis has fallen across the White House with a rapidity and gravity that has absorbed Mr. Kennedy's energy since his inauguration and reduced the Congressional program to secondary importance.
And a couple of days later, James Reston, describing the imminent risk of a nuclear crisis over Berlin, reported:
Specifically, Khrushchev told one of Mr. Kennedy's political emissaries that once Krushchev signs a separate peace treaty with the Communist East Germans, not only all of the West's rights in Berlin will cease, but all traffic to Berlin will cease until the West negotiates new rights of access with the East German regime.
Khrushchev was questioned minutely on this key point. His reply was unequivocal: Not one truck, or barge, or train, or plane would leave from West Germany for West Berlin after the separate peace treaty until the new arrangements with the East Germans were negotiated.
Now, this is not precisely the same as Mr. Gromyko's bland assurances. This is blockade, and blockade is an act of war. Washington has made clear that it is not going to get stirred up if the East Germans merely replace the Russians on the borders between East and West Germany and approve the flow of adequate supplies. But Mr. Khrushchev did not support this procedure, and went on to threaten that any effort to break his blockade by force would lead to war.
Since Khrushchev had repeatedly pledged to sign the East German treaty by the end of the year, the showdown was not far off.
V. THE FALL DECISIONS-I
A. THE DECISION TO SEND TAYLOR
As of early October, there were several proposals for more active intervention in Southeast Asia on the table. One was the JCS-favored plan to intervene on the ground in Laos to seize and hold major portions of the country, principally to protect the borders of South Vietnam and Thailand. A second plan (referred to in a staff paper as the "Rostow proposal") would have put a SEATO force of about 25,000 men into Vietnam to try to mount a guard on the Vietnam/Laos border between the DMZ and Cambodia. Finally, there were various schemes, dating from the Task Force review, for putting a U.S. force into the highlands, or at DaNang with or without a nominal mission of training South Vietnamese troops.
Except for the Rostow proposal all these plans pre-dated the spurt of Viet
Cong activity in September and Diem's subsequent request for a treaty. The record
does not tell when and why the Rostow proposal was drawn up. It was probably
a direct response to Diem's request, but it may have been simply a part of the
on-going Laos contingency planning. In any event, Rostow's proposal was submitted
to the JCS for Comment October 5. On the 9th, the JCS responded with a counter-proposal
for a substantial (initially about 20,000 men, but expected to grow) commitment
of U.S. forces in Vietnam, centered on Pleiku in the highlands.
In hindsight, the JCS reasoning in rejecting the Rostow proposal looks unchallengeable. The JCS stated:
a. SEATO forces will be deployed over a border of several hundred miles, and will be attacked piecemeal or by-passed at the Viet Cong's own choice.
b. It may reduce but cannot stop infiltration of Viet Cong personnel and material.
c. It deploys SEATO forces in the weakest defense points should DRV or CHICOM forces intervene.
d. It compounds the problems of communications and logistical support.
The Chiefs also argued against an alternative border proposal to put the SEATO force along the 17th parallel. Their first preference, very emphatically, was to go into Laos:
As stated in your [Gilpatric's] memorandum, the proposed concept set forth must be analyzed in the total context of the defense of Southeast Asia. Any concept which deals with the defense of Southeast Asia that does not include all or a substantial portion of Laos is, from a military standpoint, unsound. To concede the majority of northern and central Laos would leave three-quarters of the border of Thailand exposed and thus invite an expansion of communist military action. To concede southern Laos would open the flanks of both Thailand and South Vietnam as well as expose Cambodia. Any attempt to combat insurgency in South Vietnam, while holding areas in Laos essential to the defense of Thailand and South Vietnam and, at the same time, putting troops in Thailand, would require an effort on the part of the United States alone on the order of magnitude of at least three divisions plus supporting units. This would require an additional two divisions from the United States.
What is needed is not the spreading out of our forces throughout Southeast Asia, but rather 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 the Laos plan was "politically unacceptable at this time," the Chiefs "provided" (but did not explicitly recommend) "a possible limited interim course of action" which could....
provide a degree of assistance to the Government of South Vietnam to regain control of its own territory, and could free certain South Vietnamese forces for offensive actions against the Viet Cong. While the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree that implementation of this limited course of action would not provide for the defense of Thailand or Laos, nor contribute substantially or permanently to solution of the overall problem of defense of Southeast Asia, they consider the Plan preferable to either of the two military possibilities described in referenced memorandum.
The following day, there appeared a new paper called "Concept of Intervention in Vietnam." The paper, according to a pencilled note on the available copy, was drafted mainly by Alexis Johnson, who was then a Deputy Under Secretary of State. We know from a note William Bundy (then principal Deputy to Paul Nitze, who was then Assistant Secretary of Defense, ISA) sent to McNamara that a "talking paper" by Johnson was to be discussed at a meeting that included, at least, Rusk and McNamara on the afternoon of the 10th. But we do not know whether the draft we have available is the "talking paper" or a revision put together later in the day, after the meeting.
The proposal ("an effort to arrest and hopefully reverse the deteriorating situation in Vietnam") was a blend of Rostow's border force and the Chief's "possible limited interim course of action." Johnson's paper listed both the Rostow mission of the force (attempt to close the border) and that of the Chiefs (win control of the central highlands); otherwise the paper followed the JCS plan. What probably happened, considering the haste with which the paper must have been drafted, was that Johnson simply blended the two proposals together and assumed the fine points could be worked out later. For if the paper is somewhat confusing on the immediate military proposal, it is clear on the long-run thinking that underlays the proposal. And this long-run thinking made the immediate military mission relatively inconsequential, since as with the earlier combat-troops-for-training proposals, it was pretty clear that the main idea was to get some American combat troops into Vietnam, with the nominal excuse for doing so quite secondary.
The plan was described under the heading "Initial Phase." A subsequent section, titled "Anticipated Later Phases" states:
This initial action cannot be taken without accepting as our real and ultimate objective the defeat of the Viet Cong, and making Vietnam secure in the hands of an anti-Communist government. Thus supplemental military action must be envisaged at the earliest stage that is politically feasible. The ultimate force requirements cannot be estimated with any precision. JCS are now considering. Three divisions would be a guess .
Earlier the paper, in a similar vein, had remarked:
While a satisfactory political settlement in Laos would considerably reduce Viet Minh infiltration through Laos into South Vietnam, it would not entirely eliminate it. While such a reduction would materially assist the GVN in meeting the Viet Cong threat, there is no assurance that, even under these circumstances, the GVN will in the foreseeable future be able to defeat the Viet Cong. Under these circumstances, although the need of South Vietnam for outside assistance such as proposed in this plan would probably still be very strong, it would be much more difficult to find a political base upon which to execute this plan.
This judgment was probably influenced by a special NIE issued October 5th, which stated that 80-90% of the estimated 17,000 VC had been locally recruited, and that there was little evidence that the VC relied on external supplies.
The relation of this paper to Diem's request for treaty can only be guessed at. The paper never mentions Diem, or any South Vietnamese request for further assistance. But the paper supplemented one published about a week or so earlier (probably prior to Diem's request) titled "Limited Holding Actions in Southeast Asia." This earlier paper discussed various steps short of major troop deployments.
The impression is that both papers were part of contingency planning (short of major intervention in Laos) for saving something in Southeast Asia should the Laos negotiations continue to drag on with no satisfactory resolution. Thus although the timing of the Vietnam paper was surely influenced and probably triggered by Diem's request for a treaty, it looks essentially like a suggestion (but not a formal recommendation) to the President that if he is unwilling to intervene to try to save Laos, he should at least take strong and unambiguous action to make sure that Vietnam would not also be lost. In this interpretation it is easy to make sense of the emphasis on a deteriorating situation in Vietnam, and the implied warning that it might be best to set this plan in motion before a settlement is reached in Laos, when it seemed relatively easy to provide a politically plausible basis for the action.
(In a recent column, Joseph Alsop quoted Averill Harriman as telling him that Kennedy had told Harriman to get whatever settlement he could on Laos, but that the U.S. really intended to make its stand in Vietnam.)
At the end of the Vietnam paper there is a list of "Specific Actions to be Taken Now" which goes no further [on Vietnam] than to list:
Use of U.S. naval aircraft and ships to assist GVN in interdiction of sea traffic, to assist self defense of GVN. This is to some extent camouflagable.
If necessity arises, use of U.S. military aircraft for logistic support, including troop lift within Laos and South Vietnam.
Further, there is a long list of pros and cons, with no judgment stated on the balance.
This (and other statements to be cited below) suggests, again, that the paper was prepared for a discussion on Southeast Asia planning in the NSC, rather than in response to a request for a set of recommendations.
Three other points need to be mentioned:
1. The paper, although nominally presenting a SEATO plan, explicitly assumes that "planning would have to be on the basis of proceeding with whichever SEATO Allies would participate."
2. The paper warns (in the balance of the paragraph quoted earlier) that the ultimate force requirements would "much depend" on the capabilities and leadership of the SEATO forces . . . and above all on whether the effort leads to much more better fighting by Diem's forces. They alone can win in the end.
3. Very clearly foreshadowing the Taylor mission (and perhaps indicating a White House hand in the drafting) the paper states:
The viability of this plan would be dependent on the degree to which it could and would also result in the GVN accelerating political and military action in its own defense. A judgment on this can only be reached after thorough exploration on the spot with the country team and the GVN.
Finally, here is the list of pros and cons presented (but not evaluated) in the paper.
1. The plan would not in itself solve the underlying problem of ridding SVN of communist guerrillas.
2. It would not seal off the borders of SVN except for the limited area of operations.
3. It breaks the Geneva Accords and puts responsibility on the U.S. for rationalizing the action before the U.N. and the world.
4. It raises questions of U.S. troop relationships with the Vietnamese peasants, montagnards, GVN and its army.
5. The use of SEATO forces in SVN distorts Plan Five [for major intervention in Laos] although these forces are not a net subtraction.
6. The risk of being regarded as interlopers a la the French must be considered.
7. Communist change of tactics back to small-scale operations might leave this force in a stagnant position.
1. The effect on GVN morale of SEATO engagement in their struggle could be most heartening.
2. It could prevent the Viet Cong move to the next stage of battalion-size, formal organization to challenge the ARVN.
3. The relatively sophisticated SEATO arms, air power, communications and intelligence might spark a real transformation in ARVN tactics and action.
4. Capitalizing on U.S. intelligence sources now unavailable to the GVN could lead to effective attacks on Viet Cong nerve centers of command and communications.
5. The SEATO force commitment could be used to get from Diem a package of actions McGarr feels are needed to step up the GVN effort [mainly the familiar items of clarifying the chain of command and establishing an overall plan].
6. Introducing SEATO forces would give us for the first time some bargaining position with the Russians for a settlement in Vietnam.
7. If we go into South Vietnam now with SEATO, the costs would be much less than if we wait and go in later, or lose SVN.
The available record shows three other papers prepared prior to the NSC meeting, October 11, at which this paper was considered:
1. A special NIE commented on the plan in terms that were a lot less than encouraging:
In the situation assumed, we believe that the DRV would seek at first to test the seriousness and effectiveness of the SEATO effort by subjecting the SEATO forces and their lines of communication to harassment, ambush, and guerrilla attack. The Communists would probably estimate that by using their Viet Cong apparatus in South Vietnam, and by committing experienced guerrilla forces from North Vietnam in guerrilla operations in territory long familiar to them, and by exploiting the opportunities offered by the sizable junk traffic in coastal waters, they could severely harass the SEATO land forces and penetrate the SEATO blockade. The Communists would expect worthwhile political and psychological rewards from successful harassment and guerrilla operations against SEATO forces, including lowered GVN morale and increased tensions among the SEATO members.
While seeking to test the SEATO forces, the DRV would probably not relax its Viet Cong campaign against the GVN to any significant extent. Meanwhile, Communist strength in south Laos would probably be increased by forces from North Vietnam to guard against an effort to partition Laos or an attack against the Pathet Lao forces. The Soviet airlift would probably be increased with a heavier flow of military supply into south Laos, and the Communists would probably intensify their efforts to establish a secure route for motor traffic into the south. The establishment of a coalition government in Laos under Souvanna Phouma probably would not significantly reduce Communist infiltration of men and equipment from North to South Vietnam through Laos.
If the Seato action appeared to be proving effective in reducing the present scale of infiltration the Communist probably would increase their use of the mountain trail system through Cambodia. This is a longer and more difficult route but its use could keep at least minimum support flowing to the Viet Cong. At the same time, in order to reduce the apparent success of the SEATO action, they could intensify small unit attacks, assassinations, and local terrorism in South Vietnam; they could also commit more DRV irregular personnel for the harassment of the SEATO forces. In any event, the SEATO commitment in South Vietnam would probably have to be continued over a prolonged period. It might be part of Communist tactics to play upon possible SEATO weariness over maintaining substantial forces and accepting losses, in South Vietnam over a long period of time....
The reaction to the assumed SEATO action among concerned non-Communist governments would vary widely. The Asian members of SEATO would find renewed confidence in the organization and the US, if the plan were to go well. If, on the other hand, the SEATO action were to become costly, prolonged, or to involve heavy casualties, the Asian members would soon become disenchanted and look to the US to "do something" to lessen the burden and to solve the problem. The UK and France would be likely to oppose the assumed SEATO action, and their reluctance to participate could be overcome only with great difficulty, if at all.
In this instance, and as we will see, later, the Intelligence Community's estimates of the likely results of U.S. moves are conspicuously more pessimistic (and more realistic) than the other staff papers presented to the President. This SNIE was based on an assumption that the SEATO force would total about 25,000 men. It is hard to imagine a more sharp contrast than between this paper, which foresees no serious impact on the insurgency from proposed intervention, and Supplemental Note 2, to be quoted next.
2. "Supplemental Note 2" to the paper, issued the day of the NSC meeting, contained, among other comments, a JCS estimate of the size of the American force needed "to clean up the Viet Cong threat." It reads:
Wider Military Implications. As the basic paper indicates, the likelihood of massive DRV and Chicom intervention cannot be estimated with precision. The SNIE covers only the initial phase when action might be limited to 20-25,000 men. At later stages, when the JCS estimate that 40,000 US forces will be needed to clean up the Viet Cong threat, the chances of such massive intervention might well become substantial, with the Soviets finding it a good opportunity to tie down major US forces in a long action, perhaps as part of a multi-prong action involving Berlin and such additional areas as Korea and Iran.
Because of this possibility of major Bloc intervention, the maximum possible force needs must be frankly faced. Assuming present estimates of about 40,000 US forces for the stated military objective in South Vietnam, plus 128,000 US forces for meeting North Vietnam and Chicom intervention, the drain on US-based reserve forces could be on the order of 3 or 4 divisions and other forces as well. The impact on naval capabilities for blockade plans (to meet Berlin) would also be major. In light of present Berlin contingency plans, and combat attrition, including scarce items of equipment, the initiation of the Vietnam action in itself should dictate a step up in the present mobilization, possibly of major proportions.
3. Finally, there is the following memo from William Bundy (then acting Assistant Secretary of Defense, ISA) to McNamara. It is of interest because it is the only piece of paper available for this period that gives anyone's candid recommendations to his boss, as opposed to the more formal staff papers:
Even if the decision at tomorrow's meeting is only preliminary--to explore with Diem and the British, Australians, and New Zealanders would be my guess--it is clearly of the greatest possible importance. Above all, action must proceed fast.
For what one man's feel is worth, mine--based on very close touch with Indochina in the 1954 war and civil war afterwards till Diem took hold--is that it is really now or never if we are to arrest the gains being made by the Viet Cong. Walt Rostow made the point yesterday that the Viet Cong are about to move, by every indication, from the small unit basis to a moderate battalion-size basis. Intelligence also suggests that they may try to set up a "provisional government" like Xieng Khuang (though less legitimate appearing) in the very Kontum area into which the present initial plan would move SEATO forces. If the Viet Cong movement "blooms" in this way, it will almost certainly attract all the back-the-winner sentiment that understandably prevails in such cases and that beat the French in early 1954 and came within an ace of beating Diem in early 1955.
An early and hard-hitting operation has a good chance (70% would be my guess) of arresting things and giving Diem a chance to do better and clean up. Even if we follow up hard, on the lines the JCS are working out after yesterday's meeting, however, the chances are not much better that we will in fact be able to clean up the situation. It all depends on Diem's effectiveness, which is very problematical. The 30% chance is that we would wind up like the French in 1954; white men can't win this kind of fight.
On a 70-30 basis, I would myself favor going in. But if we let, say, a month go by before we move, the odds will slide (both short-term shock effect and long-term chance) down to 60-40, 50-50 and so on. Laos under a Souvanna Phouma deal is more likely than not to go sour, and will more and more make things difficult in South Viet-Nam, which again underscores the element of time.
Minutes of the NSC meeting of October 11 were not available for this study. But we have the following Gilpatric memorandum for the record. (The JUNGLE JIM squadron--12 planes--was an Air Force unit specially trained for counterinsurgency welfare. Short of engaging in combat itself, presumably it would be used to train Vietnamese pilots):
At this morning's meeting with the President the following course of action was agreed upon with relation to South Vietnam:
1. The Defense Department is authorized to send the Air Force's Jungle Jim Squadron into Vietnam to serve under the MAAG as a training mission and not for combat at the present time.
2. General Maxwell Taylor accompanied by Dr. Rostow from the White House, General Lansdale, a representative of JCS, Mr. Cottrell from State and probably someone from ISA will leave for Vietnam over the weekend on a Presidential mission (to be announced by the President at this afternoon's press conference as an economic survey) to look into the feasibility from both political and military standpoints of the following:
(a) the plan for military intervention discussed at this morning's meeting on the basis of the Vietnam task force paper entitled "Concept for Intervention in Vietnam";
(b) an alternative plan for stationing in Vietnam fewer U.S. combat forces than those called for under the plan referred to in (a) above and with a more limited objective than dealing with the Viet Cong; in other words, such a small force would probably go in at Tourane [DaNang] and possibly another southern port principally for the purpose of establishing a U.S. "presence" in Vietnam;
(c) Other alternatives in lieu of putting any U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, i.e. stepping up U.S. assistance and training of Vietnam units, furnishing of more U.S. equipment, particularly helicopters and other light aircraft, trucks and other ground transport, etc.
3. During the two or three weeks that will be required for the completion of General Taylor's mission, State will push ahead with the following political actions:
(a) protest to the ICC on the step-up in North Vietnamese support of Viet Cong activities,
(b) tabling at the UN a white paper based on Mr. William Jordan's report concerning Communist violations of the Geneva Accords, and
(c) consultation with our SEATO allies, principally the British and Australians, regarding SEATO actions in support of the deteriorating situation in Vietnam.
That afternoon, the President announced the Taylor Mission, but he did not make the hardly credible claim that he was sending his personal military advisor to Vietnam to do an economic survey. He made a general announcement, and was non-committal when asked whether Taylor was going to consider the need for combat troops (there had been leaked stories in the newspapers a few days earlier that the Administration was considering such a move.) Nevertheless, the newspaper stories the next day flatly asserted that the President had said Taylor was going to study the need for U.S. combat troops, which was, of course, true, although not exactly what the President had said.
B. THE NEWSPAPERS AND THE CABLES
The day after Kennedy's announcement of the Taylor mission, Reuters sent this dispatch from Saigon:
Saigon, Vietnam, Oct. 12 [Reuters]-South Vietnamese military sources welcomed today President Kennedy's decision to send his military adviser, General Taylor, here this week.
Sources close to President Ngo Dinh Diem said he did not feel there was a need here yet for troops of the United States or Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.
The sources said the South Vietnamese President was convinced that Vietnam's Army increased in size and better equipped by increased United States aid can defeat the Communists.
But a day later, the public position of the Vietnamese had shifted noticeably. From a New York Times dispatch from Saigon:
One question receiving considerable attention here in the light of the Taylor mission is the desirability of sending United States troops to South Vietnam.
The prospect of United States troop involvement is understood to have advanced a step here in the sense that the South Vietnamese Government is reported to be willing to consider such involvement which it had formerly rejected.
However, it is understood that South Vietnamese deliberations still fall far short of the stage wherein Saigon would be ready to request United States forces.
But in private discussions with the U.S. ambassador, Diem had turned around completely. From Nolting's cable [Doc. 93]:
Following major requests:
(1) An additional squadron of AD-6 fighter bombers (in lieu of programmed T-28's) and delivery as soon as possible.
(2) The sending of US civilian contract pilots for helicopters and transport plans (C-47s), for "non-combat" operations.
(3) US combat unit or uints to be introduced into SVN as "combat-trainer units". Proposed use would be to station a part of this force in northern part of SVN near 17th parallel to free ARVN forces presently there for anti-guerrilla combat in high plateau. Thuan also suggested possibility stationing some US forces in several provincial seats in highlands of central Vietnam.
(4) US reaction to proposal to request govt Nationalist China to send one division of combat troops for operations in southwest provinces.
* * *
When Thuan raised question of US combat-trainer units, I asked specifically whether this was President's considered request, mentioning his oft-repeated views re US combat forces here. Thuan confirmed that this was considered request from President; confirmed that Diem's views had changed in light of worsening situation. Idea was to have "symbolic" US strength near 17th parallel, which would serve to prevent attack there and free up GVN forces now stationed there for combat operations; Thuan said President Diem also thought similar purpose could be achieved by stationing US combat units in several provincial seats in highlands, thus freeing ARVN guard forces there. I told him this represented major request coming on heels of President Diem's request for bilateral security treaty with United States. I asked whether this request was in lieu of the security treaty. Thuan first said that it represented a first step, which would be quicker than a treaty, and that time was of essence. After some discussion of the pro's and con's of a possible defense treaty (effect on SEATO, ICC, ratification procedures, etc.), Thuan said he felt that proposal for stationing token US forces in SVN would satisfy GVN and would serve the purpose better than a mutual defense treaty. (He had evidently not thought through this nor discussed it with Diem.)
* * *
Nolting then indicated he reacted skeptically to Diem's suggestion of bringing in Chiang's forces, and comments to Washington that he thought "this was a trial balloon only." He concluded the cable:
The above questions will undoubtedly be raised with Gen Taylor. While it is obvious that GVN is losing no opportunity to ask for additional support as result our greater interest and concern this area, situation here, both militarily and psychologically, has moved in my judgment to point where serious and prompt consideration should be given to these requests.
This cable arrived in Washington the night of October 13. The following day an unidentified source provided the New York Times with a detailed explanation of what the Taylor Mission was to do. From the way the Times handled the story it is plain that it came from a source authorized to speak for the President, and probably from the President himself. The gist of the story was that Taylor was going to Saigon to look into all sorts of things, one of which, near the bottom of the list, was the question of U.S. troops at some time in the indefinite future. Along with a lot of more immediate questions about intelligence and such, Taylor was expected to ". . . recommend long-range programs, including possible military actions, but stressing broad economic and social measures." Furthermore, the Times was told,
Military leaders at the Pentagon, no less than General Taylor himself are understood to be reluctant to send organized U.S. combat units into Southeast Asia. Pentagon plans for this area stress the importance of countering Communist guerrillas with troops from the affected countries, perhaps trained and equipped by the U.S., but not supplanted by U.S. troops.
In the light of the recommendations quoted throughout this paper, and particularly of the staff papers just described that led up to the Taylor Mission, most of this was simply untrue. It is just about inconceivable that this story could have been given out except at the direction of the President, or by him personally. It appears, consequently, the President was less than delighted by Diem's request for troops. He may have suspected, quite reasonably, that Diem's request was prompted by the stories out of Washington that Taylor was coming to discuss troops; or he may have wished to put a quick stop to expectations (and leaks) that troops were about to be sent, or both. This does not mean the President had already decided not to send combat units. Presumably he had not. But he apparently did not want to have his hands tied.
The Times story had the apparently desired effect. Speculation about combat troops almost disappeared from news stories, and Diem never again raised the question of combat troops: the initiative from now on came from Taylor and Nolting, and their recommendations were very closely held.
C. CINCPAC RECOMMENDS "NOT NOW"
On the way to Saigon, Taylor stopped off in Hawaii to talk to Admiral Felt at CINCPAC. Felt did not give Taylor a fiat recommendation on combat troops at the time. But a couple of days later he cabled Washington a list of pros and cons:
(1) Presence of U.S. forces in SVN, particularly if deployed to important defensive areas such as plateau region, would mean to Communists that overt aggression against SVN will involve US forces from the outset. This eliminates possibility of sudden victory by overt aggression in SVN before US could react. This would settle the question for SVN, and SE Asians as a whole, as to whether we would come to their help. Further, agreement by SEATO to principle of force introduction would strengthen SEATO in world eyes.
(2) Presence of strong U.S. combat forces will influence greatly South Vietnamese will to eliminate the Viet Cong.
(3) If we use U.S. engineers with U.S. military protection to finish Dakto-Ban Net-Attapeu Road in order to enable US to operate near plateau border area, a military corridor of sorts will cut an important part of VC pipeline from north.
(4) U.S. forces will make available larger number ARVN forces for employment against VC. RVNAF tasks accomplished by U.S. forces will decrease proportionately certain RVNAF deficiencies, particularly in logistics, communications, and air support.
(5) U.S. forces in SVN would tend to strengthen Diem's government against pro-Red coup, but would not necessarily preclude non-Communist coup attempts.
(6) Dividends would accrue from fact our troops could provide variety training for ARVN forces, broadening base now provided by MAAG.
(1) Would stir up big fuss throughout Asia about reintroduction of forces of white colonialism into SE Asia. Little question that a propaganda issue will be made of this in all world forums including UN.
(2) Action could trigger intensification of Commie aggression against SE Asia. This may not be all-out overt aggression, but could consist, for example, of the DRV moving full blown combat units through the mountain passes into southern Laos under excuse that we initiated invasion of SE Asia and they are protecting the flank of North Vietnam.
(3) Politically, presence of U.S. forces could hasten Commies to establish so called "representative government" in South Vietnam.
(4) Aside from offering Viet Cong a political target, US troops would constitute provocative military one, inducing VC to attack/harass it in manner/degree where issue might ultimately force American units active military campaign, or suffer defensive alternative of being pot-shot at to point of embarrassment.
(5) Presence of US troops could induce Commies to resort to related actions such as introduction of Red Air Force elements in North Vietnam and accelerate modernization of DRV military forces.
(6) This would probably mean garrisoning a U.S. division in SE Asia for an extended period of time in same sense as Army divisions in Korea. However, circumstances differ from Korea. For example, nature of VC warfare such that US units cannot remain long in isolation from conflict realities. Ultimately, they likely to be forced into varying forms of military engagement with VC if only for security against attacks ranging from assassination/sabotage to tactical harassment. In short, we should accept fact that likelihood our troops becoming combat engaged increases in proportion to duration of their stay.
2. A summary of the above appears to me to add up in favor of our not introducing U.S. combat forces until we have exhausted other means for helping Diem.
D. TAYLOR IN SAIGON
The Taylor Mission arrived in Saigon on the 18th. They had barely arrived when Diem went before his National Assembly to declare that the increasing gravity of the Viet Cong threat now required a formal proclamation of a State of Emergency. Diem then went off to meet with the Americans, and after such a spectacular opening shot must have then astonished his visitors by indicating that he did not want American combat troops after all. What he wanted, he said, was the treaty, American support for larger GVN forces, and a list of combat support items that nicely paralleled those Rostow listed in the note to McNamara quoted earlier. It was Taylor (according to Nolting's cable 516, 20 October) who brought up the question of American combat troops.
Taylor said he understood there had been recent discussions of introduction of American or SEATO forces into Viet-Nam and asked why change had occurred in earlier GVN attitude. Diem succinctly replied because of Laos situation. Noting it will take time to build up GVN forces he pointed to enemy's reinforcements through infiltration and increased activities in central Viet-Nam and expressed belief that enemy is trying to escalate proportionally to increase in GVN forces so that GVN will not gain advantage. He asked specifically for tactical aviation, helicopter companies, coastal patrol forces and logistic support (ground transport).
Diem indicated he thought there would be no particular adverse psychological effect internally from introducing American forces since in his view Vietnamese people regard Communist attack on Viet-Nam as international problem. Rostow inquired whether internal and external political aspects such move could be helped if it were shown clearly to world that this is international problem. Diem gave no direct comment on this suggestion. He indicated two main aspects of this problem: (1) Vietnamese people are worried about absence formal commitment by US to VietNam. They fear that if situation deteriorates Viet-Nam might be abandoned by US. If troops are introduced without a formal commitment they can be withdrawn at any time and thus formal commitment is even more important in psychological sense. (2) Contingency plan should be prepared re use American forces in Viet-Nam at any time this may become necessary. In this connection Diem seemed to be talking about combat forces. While it was not completely clear what Diem has in mind at present time he seemed to be saying that he wants bilateral defense treaty and preparation of plans for use American forces (whatever is appropriate) but under questioning he did not repeat his earlier idea relayed to me by Thuan that he wanted combat forces.
Here, as earlier, we get no explicit statement on Washington's attitude toward a treaty. Further, no strong conclusion can be drawn from the fact that Taylor took the initiative in raising the issue of troops, since it might have been awkward not to mention the issue at all after Thuan's presentation to Nolting a few days previous.
But on the 23rd, we find this in a cable from MAAG Chief McGarr:
Serious flood in Mekong delta area . . . (worse since 1937) raises possibility that flood relief could be justification for moving in US military personnel for humanitarian purposes with subsequent retention if desirable. Gen. Taylor and Ambassador evaluating feasibility and desirability.
Taylor met with Diem and Thuan again the following day, the 24th. Taylor provided the Vietnamese a written summary of items he described as "personal ideas to which I was seeking their reaction." Item E was headed ~Introduction of U.S. Combat troops." It proposed "a flood relief task force, largely military in composition, to work with GVN over an extended period of rehabilitation of areas. Such a force might contain engineer, medical, signal, and transportation elements as well as combat troops for the protection of relief operations." Diem now seems to have changed his mind again on combat troops. Here is the cable:
1. The essential conclusions which we have reached at the end of a week of briefings, consultations, and field trips follow:
A. There is a critical political-military situation in SVN brought on by western policy in Laos and by the continued build-up of the VC and their recent successful attacks. These circumstances coupled with the major flood disaster in the southwestern provinces have combined to create a deep and pervasive crisis of confidence and a serious loss in national morale.
B. In the field, the military operations against the VC are ineffective because of the absence of reliable intelligence on the enemy, an unclear and unresponsive channel of command responsibility in the Armed Forces, and the tactical immobility of the VN ground forces. This immobility leads to a system of passive, fragmented defense conceding the initiative to the enemy and leaving him free to pick the targets of attack. The harassed population exposed to these attacks turn to the government for better protection and the latter responds by assigning more static missions to the Army units, thus adding to their immobility. In the end, the Army is allowed neither to train nor to fight but awaits enemy attacks in relative inaction.
C. The situation in the Saigon is volatile but, while morale is down and complaints against the government are rife, there is not hard evidence of a likely coup against Diem. He still has no visible rival or replacement.
2. To cope with the foregoing situation, we are considering recommending a number of possible forms of GVN-US cooperation to reverse the present downward trend, stimulate an offensive spirit and buildup morale. In company with Ambassador Nolting, Dr. Rostow and Mr. Mendenhall, I discussed some of these Oct 24 with Diem and Thuan, advancing them as personal ideas to which I was seeking their informal reaction. The following outline, distributed in French translation at the start of the interview, indicates the scope of the discussion.
A. Improvement of intelligence on V.C.: the available intelligence on V.C. insurgency is inadequate both for tactical requirements and for basis of judgment of situation at governmental levels. A joint GVN-US effort should be able to improve organization, techniques and end product to mutual advantage both parties.
B. Joint survey of security situation at provincial level: The current situation can best be appraised at provincial level where the basic intelligence is found, the incidents occur, and the defenses are tested. The problems vary from province to province and hence require local analysis on the spot. Such a survey should result in better understanding of such important matters as quality of basic intelligence on V.C., needs of civil guard and self defense corps, command relationships between provincial and Army officials and conditions under which assumption of offensive might be possible.
C. Improvement of Army mobility: it appears that size of ARVN can not be much increased before end 1962; to make it more effective and allowing it to cope with increasing number of V.C., it must be given greater mobility. Such mobility can come from two sources. (1) moving Army from static missions and (2) making available to it improved means of transport, notably helicopters and light aircraft. Both methods should be considered.
D. Blocking infiltration into high plateau: increase in enemy forces in high plateau requires special measures for defense and for counter-guerrilla actions. It is suggested that a carefully tailored "frontier ranger force" be organized from existing ranger units and introduced into the difficult terrain along the Laos/Vietnam frontier for attack and defense against the Viet Cong. This force should be trained and equipped for extended service on the frontier and for operations against the communications lines of the VC who have infiltrated into the high plateau and adjacent areas.
E. Introduction of U.S. Military Forces: GVN is faced with major civil problem arising from flood devastation in western provinces. The allies should offer help to GVN according to their means. In the case of U.S., two ways of rendering help should be considered. One is of emergency type, such as offer of U.S. military helicopters for reconnaissance of conditions of flooded areas and for emergency delivery medical supplies and like. A more significant contribution might be a flood relief task force, largely military in composition, to work with GVN over an extended period for rehabilitation of area. Such a force might contain engineer, medical, signal, and transportation elements as well as combat troops for the protection of relief operations. Obviously, such a military source would also provide U.S. military presence in Viet Nam and would constitute military reserve in case of heightened military crisis.
F. Actions to emphasize national emergency and beginning of a new phase in the war: we should consider jointly all possible measures to emphasize turning point has been reached in dealing with Communist aggression. Possible actions might include appeal to United Nations, an
assessment by GVN of governmental changes to cope with crisis and exchange of letters between the two heads of State expressing their partnership in a common cause.
3. Dien's reaction on all points was favorable. He expressed satisfaction with idea of introducing U.S. forces in connection with flood relief activities, observing that even the opposition elements in this crisis had joined with the majority in supporting need for presence of U.S. forces. In the course of the meeting, nothing was formally proposed or agreed but the consensus was that the points considered might form agenda for a program of increased GVN-US cooperation offering promise of overcoming many of the current difficulties of GVN. There were no exact figures discussed with regard to such matters as troop strengths, equipment, or flood relief
* * *
5. Because of the importance of acting rapidly once we have made up our minds, I will cable my recommendations to Washington enroute home.
Simultaneously with this cable, Taylor sent a second "eyes only" for the President, Chairman of the JCS, Director of CIA, McNamara, and Rusk and Alexis Johnson at State. The cable is a little confusing; for although it sets out to comment on "U.S. military forces" it concerns only the flood Task Force, not mentioning the various other types of military forces (helicopter companies, etc.) which were envisioned. The same slight confusion appears in the "eyes only for the President" cable on this issue to be quoted shortly. The impression Taylor's choice of language leaves is that the support forces (helicopter companies, expanded MAAG, etc.) he was recommending were essentially already agreed to by the President before Taylor left Washington, and consequently his detailed justification went only to the kind of forces on which a decision was yet to be made-that is, ground forces liable to become involved in direct engagements with the Viet Cong.
Here is the cable from Saigon, followed by the two "Eyes only for the President" from the Philippines which sum up his "fundamental conclusions."
WHITE HOUSE EYES ONLY FOR THE PRESIDENT
STATE EYES ONLY FOR RUSK AND UNDER SECRETARY JOHNSON
DEFENSE EYES ONLY SECRETARY McNAMARA
JCS EYES ONLY GENERAL LEMNITZER
FROM GENERAL TAYLOR
* * *
With regard to the critical question of introducing U.S. military forces into VN:
My view is that we should put in a task force 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 VN capable of assuring Diem of our readiness to join him in a military showdown with the Viet Cong or Viet Minh. To relate the introduction of these troops to the needs of flood relief seems to me to offer considerable advantages in VN and abroad. It gives a specific humanitarian task as the prime reason for the coming of our troops and avoids any suggestion that we are taking over responsibility for the security of the country. As the task is a specific one, we can extricate our troops when it is done if we so desire. Alternatively, we can phase them into other activities if we wish to remain longer.
The strength of the force I have in mind on the order of 6-8000 troops. Its initial composition should be worked out here after study of the possible requirements and conditions for its use and subsequent modifications made with experience.
In addition to the logistical component, it will be necessary to include some combat troops for the protection of logistical operations and the defense of the area occupied by U.S. forces. Any troops coming to VN may expect to take casualties.
Needless to say, this kind of task force will exercise little direct influence on the campaign against the V.C. It will, however, give a much needed shot in the arm to national morale, particularly if combined with other actions showing that a more effective working relationship in the common cause has been established between the GVN and the U.S.
FROM THE PHILIPPINES
EYES ONLY FOR THE PRESIDENT FROM GENERAL TAYLOR
1. Transmitted herewith are a summary of the fundamental conclusions of my group and my personal recommendations in response to the letter of the President to me dated 13 October 1961. * * * * * * *
2. It is concluded that:
a. Communist strategy aims to gain control of Southeast Asia by methods of subversion and guerrilla war which by-pass conventional U.S. and indigenous strength on the ground. The interim Communist goal--en route to total take-over--appears to be a neutral Southeast Asia, detached from U.S. protection. This strategy is well on the way to success in Vietnam.
b. In Vietnam (and Southeast Asia) there is a double crisis in confidence: doubt that U.S. is determined to save Southeast Asia; doubt that Diem's methods can frustrate and defeat Communist purposes and methods. The Vietnamese (and Southeast Asians) will undoubtedly draw-rightly or wrongly-definitive conclusions in coming weeks and months concerning the probable outcome and will adjust their behavior accordingly. What the U.S. does or fails to do will be decisive to the end result.
c. Aside from the morale factor, the Vietnamese Government is caught in interlocking circles of bad tactics and bad administrative arrangements which pin their forces on the defensive in ways which permit a relatively small Viet-Cong force (about one-tenth the size of the GVN regulars) to create conditions of frustration and terror certain to lead to a political crisis, if a positive turning point is not soon achieved. The following recommendations are designed to achieve that favorable turn, to avoid a further deterioration in the situation in South Vietnam, and eventually to contain and eliminate the threat to its inde
3. It is recommended:
a. That upon request from the Government of Vietnam (GVN) to come to its aid in resisting the increasing aggressions of the Viet-Cong and in repairing the ravages of the Delta flood which, in combination, threaten the lives of its citizens and the security of the country, the U.S. Government offer to join the GV in a massive joint effort as a part of a total mobilization of GVN resources to cope with both the Viet-Cong (VC) and the ravages of the flood. The U.S. representatives will participate actively in this effort, particularly in the fields of government administration, military plans and operations, intelligence, and flood relief, going beyond the advisory role which they have observed in the past.
b. That in support of the foregoing broad commitment to a joint effort with Diem, the following specific measures be undertaken:
(1) The U.S. Government will be prepared to provide individual administrators for insertion into the governmental machinery of South Vietnam in types and numbers to be worked out with President Diem.
(2) A joint effort will be made to improve the military-political intelligence system beginning at the provincial level and extending upward through the government and armed forces to the Central Intelligence Organization.
(3) The U.S. Government will engage in a joint survey of the conditions in the provinces to assess the social, political, intelligence, and military factors bearing on the prosecution of the counter-insurgency in order to reach a common estimate of these factors and a common determination of how to deal with them. As this survey will consume time, it should not hold back the immediate actions which are clearly needed regardless of its outcome.
(4) A joint effort will be made to free the Army for mobile, offensive operations. This effort will be based upon improving the training and equipping of the Civil Guard and the Self-Defense Corps, relieving the regular Army of static missions, raising the level of the mobility of Army Forces by the provision of considerably more helicopters and light aviation, and organizing a Border Ranger Force for a long-term campaign on the Laotian border against the VietCong infiltrators. The U.S. Government will support this effort with equipment and with military units and personnel to do those tasks which the Armed Forces of Vietnam cannot perform in time. Such tasks include air reconnaissance and photography, airlift (beyond the present capacity of SVN forces), special intelligence, and airground support techniques.
(5) The U.S. Government will assist the GVN in effective surveillance and control over the coastal waters and inland waterways, furnishing such advisors, operating personnel and small craft as may be necessary for quick and effective operations.
(6) The MAAG, Vietnam, will be reorganized and increased in size as may be necessary by the implementation of these recommendations.
(7) The U.S. Government will offer to introduce into South Vietnam a military Task Force to operate under U.S. control for the following purposes:
(a) Provide a U.S. military presence capable of raising national morale and of showing to Southeast Asia the seriousness of the U.S. intent to resist a Communist take-over.
(b) Conduct logistical operations in support of military and flood relief operations.
(c) Conduct such combat operations as are necessary for self-defense and for the security of the area in which they are stationed.
(d) Provide an emergency reserve to back up the Armed Forces of the GVN in the case of a heightened military crisis.
(e) Act as an advance party of such additional forces as may be introduced if CINCPAC or SEATO contingency plans are invoked.
(8) The U.S. Government will review its economic aid program to take into account the needs of flood relief and to give priority to those projects in support of the expanded counterinsurgency program.
FROM THE PHILIPPINES
EYES ONLY FOR THE PRESIDENT FROM GENERAL TAYLOR
This message is for the purpose of presenting my reasons for recommending the introduction of a U.S. military force into South Vietnam (SVN). I have reached the conclusion that this is an essential action if we are to reverse the present downward trend of events in spite of a full recognition of the following disadvantages:
a. The strategic reserve of U.S. forces is presently so weak that we can ill afford any detachment of forces to a peripheral area of the Communist bloc where they will be pinned down for an uncertain duration.
b. Although U.S. prestige is already engaged in SVN, it will become more so by the sending of troops.
c. If the first contingent is not enough to accomplish the necessary results, it will be difficult to resist the pressure to reinforce. If the ultimate result sought is the closing of the frontiers and the clean-up of the insurgents within SVN, there is no limit to our possible commitment (unless we attack the source in Hanoi).
d. The introduction of U.S. forces may increase tensions and risk escalation into a major war in Asia.
On the other side of the argument, there can be no action so convincing of U.S. seriousness of purpose and hence so reassuring to the people and Government of SVN and to our other friends and allies in SEA as the introduction of U.S. forces into SVN. The views of indigenous and U.S. officials consulted on our trip were unanimous on this point. I have just seen Saigon 545 to State and suggest that it be read in connection with this message.
The size of the U.S. force introduced need not be great to provide the military presence necessary to produce the desired effect on national morale in SVN and on international opinion. A bare token, however, will not suffice; it must have a significant value. The kinds of tasks which it might undertake which would have a significant value are suggested in BAGU5 (previous cable, 3.b.(7)). They are:
(a) Provide a US military presence capable of raising national morale and of showing to Southeast Asia the seriousness of the US intent to resist a Communist take-over.
(b) Conduct logistical operations in support of military and flood relief operations.
(c) Conduct such combat operations as are necessary for self-defense and for the security of the area in which they are stationed.
(d) Provide an emergency reserve to back up the Armed Forces of the GVN in the case of a heightened military crisis.
(e) Act as an advance party of such additional forces as may be introduced if CINCPAC or SEATO contingency plans are invoked.
It is noteworthy that this force is not proposed to clear the jungles and forests of Viet Cong guerrillas. That should be the primary task of the Armed Forces of Vietnam for which they should be specifically organized, trained, and stiffened with ample U.S. advisors down to combat battalion levels. However, the U.S. troops may be called upon to engage in combat to protect themselves, their working parties, and the area in which they live. As a general reserve, they might be thrown into action (with U.S. agreement) against large, formed guerrilla bands which have abandoned the forests for attacks on major targets. But in general, our forces should not engage in small-scale guerrilla operations in the jungle.
As an area for the operations of U.S. troops, SVN is not an excessively difficult or unpleasant place to operate. While the border areas are rugged and heavily forested, the terrain is comparable to parts of Korea where U.S. troops learned to live and work without too much effort. However, these border areas, for reasons stated above, are not the places to engage our forces. In the High Plateau and in the coastal plain where U.S. troops would probably be stationed, these jungle-forest conditions do not exist to any great extent. The most unpleasant feature in the coastal areas would be the heat and, in the Delta, the mud left behind by the flood. The High Plateau offers no particular obstacle to the stationing of U.S. troops.
The extent to which the Task Force would engage in flood relief activities in the Delta will depend upon further study of the problem there. As reported in Saigon 537, I see considerable advantages in playing up this aspect of the Task Force mission. I am presently inclined to favor a dual mission, initially help to the flood area and subsequently use in any other area of SVN where its resources can be used effectively to give tangible support in the struggle against the Viet Cong. However, the possibility of emphasizing the humanitarian mission will wane if we wait long in moving in our forces or in linking our stated purpose with the emergency conditions created by the flood.
The risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of SVN are present but are not impressive. NVN is extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing, a weakness which should be exploited diplomatically in convincing Hanoi to lay off SVN. Both the DRV and the Chicoms would face severe logistical difficulties in trying to maintain strong forces in the field in SEA, difficulties which we share but by no means to the same degree. There is no case for fearing a mass onslaught of Communist manpower into SVN and its neighboring states, particularly if our airpower is allowed a free hand against logistical targets. Finally, the starvation conditions in China should discourage Communist leaders there from being militarily venturesome for some time to come.
By the foregoing line of reasoning, I have reached the conclusion that the introduction of a U.S. military Task Force without delay offers definitely more advantage than it creates risks and difficulties. In fact, I do not believe that our program to save SVN will succeed without it. If the concept is approved, the exact size and composition of the force should be determined by the Secretary of Defense in consultation with the JCS, the Chief MAAG, and CINCPAC. My own feeling is that the initial size should not exceed about 8000, of which a preponderant number would be in logistical-type units. After acquiring experience in operating in SVN, this initial force will require reorganization and adjustment to the local scene.
As CINCPAC will point out, any forces committed to SVN will need to be replaced by additional forces to his area from the strategic reserve in the U.S. Also, any troops to SVN are in addition to those which may be required to execute SEATO Plan 5 in Laos. Both facts should be taken into account in current considerations of the FY 1963 budget which bear upon the permanent increase which should be made in the U.S. military establishment to maintain our strategic position for the long pull.
These cables, it will be noticed, are rather sharply focused on the insurgency as a problem reducible to fairly conventional military technique and tactics. Together with the cables from Saigon, the impression is given that the major needs are getting the Army to take the offensive, building up a much better intelligence setup, and persuading Diem to loosen up Administrative impediments to effective use of his forces.
E. The Taylor Report
A report of the Taylor Mission was published November 3, in the form of a black loose-leaf notebook containing a letter of transmittal of more than routine significance, a 25-page "Evaluation and Conclusions," then a series of memoranda by members of the mission. Of these, the most important, of course, were the Taylor cables, which, being "Eyes only for the President," were deleted from all but one or a very few copies of the report. There is no separate paper from Rostow, and his views presumably are reflected in the unsigned summary paper.
The impression the "Evaluation" paper gives is more easily summarized than its details. For the impression is clearly one of urgency combined with optimism. Essentially, it says South Vietnam is in serious trouble; major interests of the United States are at stake; but if the U.S. promptly and energetically takes up the challenge, a victory can be had without a U.S. take-over of the war.
Despite the intellectuals who sit on the side lines and complain; despite serious dissidence among the Montagnards, the sects, and certain old Viet Minh areas; despite the apathy and fear of the Viet-Cong in the countryside, the atmosphere in South Vietnam is, on balance, one of frustrated energy rather than passive acceptance of inevitable defeat.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly, however, that time has nearly run out for converting these assets into the bases for victory. Diem himself--and all concerned with the fate of the country--are looking to American guidance and aid to achieve a turning point in Vietnam's affairs. From all quarters in Southeast Asia the message on Vietnam is the same: vigorous American action is needed to buy time for Vietnam to mobilize and organize its real assets; but the time for such a turn around has nearly run out. And if Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to hold Southeast Asia. What will be lost is not merely a crucial piece of real estate, but the faith that the U.S. has the will and the capacity to deal with the Communist offensive in that area.
The report, drawing on the appendices, includes a wide range of proposals. [Doc. 94] But the major emphasis, very emphatically, is on two ideas: First, there must be a firm, unambiguous military commitment to remove doubts about U.S. resolve arising out of the Laos negotiations; second, there is great emphasis on the idea that the Diem regime's own evident weaknesses--from "the famous problem of Diem as administrator" to the Army's lack of offensive spirit--could be cured if enough dedicated Americans, civilian and military, became involved in South Vietnam to show the South Vietnamese, at all levels, how to get on and win the war. The much-urged military Task Force, for example, was mainly to serve the first purpose, but partly also to serve the second: "the presence of American military forces in the [flood] area should also give us an opportunity to work intensively with the civil guards and with other local military elements and to explore the possibility of suffusing them with an offensive spirit and tactics."
Here are a few extracts which give the flavor of the discussion:
"It is evident that morale in Vietnam will rapidly crumble--and in Southeast Asia only slightly less quickly--if the sequence of expectations set in motion by Vice President Johnson's visit and climaxed by General Taylor's mission are not soon followed by a hard U.S. commitment to the ground in Vietnam. [Emphasis added]
The elements required for buying time and assuming the offensive in Vietnam are, in the view of this mission, the following:
1. A quick U.S. response to the present crisis which would demonstrate by deeds--not merely words--the American commitment seriously to help save Vietnam rather than to disengage in the most convenient manner possible. To be persuasive this commitment must include the sending to Vietnam of some U.S. military forces.
2. A shift in the American relation to the Vietnamese effort from advice to limited partnership. The present character and scale of the war in South Vietnam decree that only the Vietnamese can defeat the Viet Cong; but at all levels Americans must, as friends and partners-not as arms-length advisors-show them how the job might be done-not tell them or do it for them.
* * *
"Perhaps the most striking aspect of this mission's effort is the unanimity of view--individually arrived at by the specialists involved--that what is now required is a shift from U.S. advice to limited partnership and working collaboration with the Vietnamese. The present war cannot be won by direct U.S. action; it must be won by the Vietnamese. But there is a general conviction among us that the Vietnamese performance in every domain can be substantially improved if Americans are prepared to work side by side with the Vietnamese on the key problems. Moreover, there is evidence that Diem is, in principle, prepared for this step, and that most--not all--elements in his establishment are eagerly awaiting it.
Here is a section titled "Reforming Diem's Administrative Method":
The famous problem of Diem as an administrator and politician could be resolved in a number of ways:
--By his removal in favor of a military dictatorship which would give dominance to the military chain of command.
--By his removal in favor of a figure of more dilute power (e.g., Vice President Nguyen Ngoc Tho) who would delegate authority to act to both military and civil leaders.
--By bringing about a series of de facto administrative changes via persuasion at high levels; collaboration with Diem's aides who want improved administration; and by a U.S. operating presence at many working levels, using the U.S. presence (e.g., control over the helicopter squadrons) for forcing the Vietnamese to get their house in order in one area after another.
We have opted for the third choice, on the basis of both merit and feasibility.
Our reasons for these: First, it would be dangerous for us to engineer a coup under present tense circumstances, since it is by no means certain that we could control its consequences and potentialities for Communist exploitation. Second, we are convinced that a part of the complaint about Diem's administrative methods conceals a lack of first-rate executives who can get things done. In the endless debate between Diem and his subordinates (Diem complaining of limited executive material; his subordinates, of Diem's bottleneck methods) both have hold of a piece of the truth.
The proposed strategy of limited partnership is designed both to force clear delegation of authority in key areas and to beef up Vietnamese administration until they can surface and develop the men to take over.
This is a difficult course to adopt. We can anticipate some friction and reluctance until it is proved that Americans can be helpful partners and that the techniques will not undermine Diem's political position. Shifts in U.S. attitudes and methods of administration as well as Vietnamese are required. But we are confident that it is the right way to proceed at this stage; and, as noted earlier, there is reason for confidence if the right men are sent to do the right jobs.
On many points the tone, and sometimes the substance, of the appendices by the lesser members of the Mission (with the exception of one by Lansdale) are in sharp contrast to the summary paper.
William Jorden of State begins a discussion of "the present situation" by reporting:
One after another, Vietnamese officials, military men and ordinary citizens spoke to me of the situation in their country as "grave" and "deteriorating." They are distressed at the evidence of growing Viet Cong successes. They have lost confidence in President Diem and in his leadership. Men who only one or two months ago would have hesitated to say anything critical of Diem, now explode in angry denunciation of the man, his family, and his methods.
And after a page of details, Jorden sums up with:
Intrigue, nepotism and even corruption might be accepted, for a time, if combined with efficiency and visible progress. When they accompany administrative paralysis and steady deterioration, they become intolerable.
But the summary paper, under the heading of "The Assets of South Vietnam," lists:
With all his weaknesses, Diem has extraordinary ability, stubbornness, and guts.
Despite their acute frustration, the men of the Armed Forces and the administration respect Diem to a degree which gives their grumbling (and perhaps some plotting) a somewhat half-hearted character; and they are willing--by and large--to work for him, if he gives them a chance to do their jobs.
The military annex contains this summary comment on the South Vietnamese Army:
The performance of the ARVN is disappointing and generally is characterized by a lack of aggressiveness and at most levels is devoid of a sense or urgency. The Army is short of able young trained leaders, both in the officer and NCO ranks. The basic soldier, as a result, is poorly trained, inadequately oriented, lacking in desire to close with the enemy and for the most part unaware of the serious inroads communist guerrillas are making in his country.
But the main paper, again in the summary of South Vietnamese assets, reports that the South Vietnamese regulars are "of better quality than the Viet Cong Guerrillas."
The point is not that the summary flatly contradicts the appendices. For example, the statement about the superior quality of ARVN, compared to the Viet Cong, is qualified with the remark "if it can bring the Communists to engagement," and can be explained to mean only that the more heavily armed ARVN could defeat a VC force in a set-piece battle. But the persistence tendency of the summary is to put Saigon's weaknesses in the best light, and avoid anything that might suggest that perhaps the U.S. should consider limiting, rather than increasing, its commitments to the Diem regime, or alternatively face up to a need to openly take over the war.
In contrast, the appendices contemplate (if they do not always recommend) the more drastic alternatives. The military appendix argues (in a paraphrase of the JCS position quoted earlier) that the U.S. ought to move into Southeast Asia, preferably Laos, in force. The appendix by Sterling Cottrell of State (chairman of the Vietnam Task Force) suggests an opposite view:
Since it is an open question whether the GVN can succeed even with U.S. assistance, it would be a mistake for the U.S. to commit itself irrevocably to the defeat of the communists in SVN.
And Cottrell, in the only explicit statement in the available record on why the U.S. would not want to give Diem the treaty he had asked for, states:
The Communist operation starts from the lowest social level-the villages. The battle must be joined and won at this point. If not, the Communists will ultimately control all but the relatively few areas of strong military concentrations. Foreign military forces cannot themselves win the battle at the village level. Therefore, the primary responsibility for saving the country must rest with the GVN.
For the above reason, the U.S. should assist the GVN. This rules out any treaty or pact which either shifts ultimate responsibility to the U.S., or engages any full U.S. commitment to eliminate the Viet Cong threat.
(And a treaty which did not apply to the Viet Cong threat would hardly be a very reassuring thing to Saigon; while one that did would face an uncertain future when it came to the Senate for ratification.)
Yet, Jorden and Cottrell had nothing much to recommend that was particularly different from what was recommended in the summary. The effect of their papers is to throw doubt on the prospects for success of the intervention proposed. But their recommendations come out about the same way, so that if their papers seem more realistic in hindsight than the main paper, they also seem more confused.
Cottrell, after recommending that the U.S. avoid committing itself irrevocably to winning in South Vietnam, goes on to recommend:
The world should continue to be impressed that this situation of overt DRV aggression, below the level of conventional warfare, must be stopped in the best interest of every free nation.
The idea that, if worse comes to worst, the U.S. could probably save its position in Vietnam by bombing the north, seems to underlie a good deal of the optimism that pervades the summary paper. And even Cottrell, in the last of his recommendations, states:
If the combined U.S./GVN efforts are insufficient to reverse the trend, we should then move to the "Rostow Plan" of applying graduated measures on the DRV with weapons of our own choosing.
Taylor, in his personal recommendations to the President (the cables from Baguio quoted earlier), spoke of the "extreme vulnerability of North Vietnam to conventional bombing."
The summary paper, in its contrast between the current war and the war the French lost, states:
Finally, the Communists now not only have something to gain--the South--but a base to lose--the North--if war should come.
Bombing was not viewed as the answer to all problems. If things did not go well, the report saw a possible requirement for a substantial commitment of U.S. ground troops. In a section on South Vietnamese reserves, there is the comment that
....it is an evident requirement that the United States review quick action contingency plans to move into Vietnam, should the scale of the Vietnam [Viet Cong?] offensive radically increase at a time when Vietnamese reserves are inadequate to cope with it. Such action might be designed to take over the responsibility for the security of certain relatively quiet areas, if the battle remained at the guerrilla level, or to fight the Communists if open war were attempted.
And the concluding paragraphs of the summary state that:
One of the major issues raised by this report is the need to develop the reserve strength in the U.S. establishment required to cover action in Southeast Asia up to the nuclear threshold in that area, as it is now envisaged. The call up of additional support forces may be required.
In our view, nothing is more calculated to sober the enemy and to discourage escalation in the face of the limited initiatives proposed here than the knowledge that the United States has prepared itself soundly to deal with aggression in Southeast Asia at any level.
But these warnings were directed to an unexpectedly strong Viet Cong showing during the period of buildup of ARVN, and more still to deterring the likelihood of a Communist resumption of their offensive in Laos, or of an overt invasion of South Vietnam. The Vietnam contingencies; in particular, were not viewed as likely. But the possibility of bombing the North was viewed otherwise. The clearest statements are in General Taylor's letter of transmittal:
While we feel that the program recommended represents those measures which should be taken in our present knowledge of the situation in Southeast Asia, I would not suggest that it is the final word. Future needs beyond this program will depend upon the kind of settlement we obtain in Laos and the manner in which Hanoi decides to adjust its conduct to that settlement. If the Hanoi decision is to continue the irregular war declared of South Vietnam in 1959 with continued infiltration and covert support of guerrilla bands in the territory of our ally, we will then have to decide whether to accept as legitimate the continued guidance, training, and support of a guerrilla war across an international boundary, while the attacked react only inside their borders. Can we admit the establishment of the common law that the party attacked and his friends are denied the right to strike the source of aggression, after the fact of external aggression is clearly established? It is our view that our government should undertake with the Vietnamese the measures outlined herein, but should then consider and face the broader question beyond.
We cannot refrain from expressing, having seen the situation on the ground, our common sense of outrage at the burden which this kind of aggression imposes on a new country, only seven years old, with a difficult historical heritage to overcome, confronting the inevitable problems of political, social, and economic transition to modernization. It is easy and cheap to destroy such a country whereas it is difficult undisturbed to build a nation coming out of a complex past without carrying the burden of a guerrilla war.
We were similarly struck in Thailand with the injustice of subjecting this promising nation in transition to the heavy military burdens it faces in fulfilling its role in SEATO security planning along with the guerrilla challenge beginning to form up on its northeast frontier.
It is my judgment and that of my colleagues that the United States must decide how it will cope with Krushchev's "wars of liberation" which are really para-wars of guerrilla aggression. This is a new and dangerous Communist technique which bypasses our traditional political and military responses. While the final answer lies beyond the scope of this report, it is clear to me that the time may come in our relations to Southeast Asia when we must declare our intention to attack the source of guerrilla aggression in North Vietnam and impose on the Hanoi Government a price for participating in the current war which is commensurate with the damage being inflicted on its neighbors to the south.
Go Forward to the Next Section of Volume 2, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers
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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
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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