The Pentagon Papers
Gravel Edition
Volume 2

Chapter I, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961," pp. 98-127
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)


Section 3, pp. 98-127


F. SOME CABLES FROM SAIGON

To a current reader, and very likely to the officials in Washington who had access to the full Taylor Mission Report (including Taylor's personal recommendations), there really seem to be three reports, not one.

1. Taylor's own cables read like, as of course they were, a soldier's crisp, direct analysis of the military problem facing the Saigon government. With regard to the Diem regime, the emphasis is on a need to build up intelligence capabilities, clear up administrative drags on efficient action, and take the offensive in seeking out and destroying VC units.

2. The main paper in the Report (the "Evaluations and Conclusions") incorporates General Taylor's views on the military problems. But, it is much broader, giving primary emphasis to the military problem, but also some attention to what we now call the "other war," and even more to conveying an essentially optimistic picture of the opportunities for a vigorous American effort to provide the South Vietnamese government and army with the elan and style needed to win. This paper was presumably drafted mainly by Rostow, with contributions from other members of the party.

It is consistent with Rostow's emphasis before and since on the Viet Cong problem as a pretty straight-forward case of external aggression. There is no indication of the doubts expressed in the Alexis Johnson "Concept of Intervention in Vietnam" paper that Diem might not be able to defeat the Viet Cong even if infiltration were largely cut off. At one point, for example, the paper tells its readers:

It must be remembered that the 1959 political decision in Hanoi to launch the guerrilla and political campaign of 1960-61 arose because of Diem's increasing success in stabilizing his rule and moving his country forward in the several preceding years.

On the very next page (perhaps reflecting the vagaries of committee papers) the paper does not itself "remember" this description of conditions when the war started. For it states:

The military frustration of the past two months has . . . made acute, throughout his administration, dissatisfaction with Diem's method of rule, with his lack of identification with his people, and with his strategy which has been endemic for some years.

But that seems only a momentary lapse from the general line of the paper, which is fairly reflected in the recommendation that we tell Moscow to:

use its influence with Ho Chi Minh to call his dogs off, mind his business, and feed his people.

3. Finally, there were the appendices by the military and especially the State representatives on the Mission which, as indicated by the extracts given in the previous section, paint a much darker picture than the reader gets from the main paper. Even when, as is frequently the case, their recommendations are not much different from the main paper, the tone is one of trying to make the best of a bad situation, rather than of seizing an opportunity.

Because of these distinctions between the different parts of the Report, two people reading the full Report could come away with far different impressions of what sort of problem the U.S. was facing in Vietnam, depending on which parts of the Report seemed to them to ring truest. Presumably, officials' judgments here were influenced by their reading of the series of cables that arrived during and just after the Taylor visit, many of which touch on critical points of the report.

Here are some samples.

The day Taylor left, Nolting sent a cable describing the immediate mood in Saigon in pretty desperate terms. All parts of the Taylor Report, including the main paper, did the same. The distinctions in describing the situation were in how deep-rooted the immediate malaise was seen. The main effect of this cable from Nolting was presumably to add weight to the warning of the Report that something dramatic had to be done if the U.S. were not ready to risk a collapse in Saigon within a few months. As the Taylor Report stressed and the cable implies, the very fact of the Taylor Mission would have a very negative impact if nothing came out of it.

There has been noticeable rise in Saigon's political temperature during past week. Taylor visit, though reassuring in some respects, has been interpreted by many persons as demonstrating critical stage which VC insurgency has reached . . . Following deterioration of general security conditions over past two months cancellation October 26 national day celebrations to devote resources to flood relief and terse, dramatic declaration national emergency caught an unprepared public by surprise and contributed additional unsettling elements to growing atmosphere of uneasiness......

This growing public disquietude accompanied by increasing dissatisfaction with Diem's methods of administration on part senior GVN officials. There is considerable cabinet level criticism and growing though still inchoate determination force organizational reforms on President. Similar attitude seems be developing in ARVN upper levels. Though trend of thinking these groups taking parallel courses, there nothing indicate at this moment that collaboration between them taking place. Beginnings of this would, of course, be serious indicator something brewing.

At same time CAS also has from Vietnamese government sources reports (C-3) of movement of certain platoon to company-size VC units (totalling perhaps 200-500 men toward Saigon to profit from any disturbances or confusion which may occur. Knowledge these reports within GVN apparently tending deter disaffected officials from developing radical pace at this moment.

Situation here thus one of insecurity, uneasiness and emergent instability. A genuine and important military victory over VC would do more than anything else to redress balance and allay for moment high-level mutterings of need for change. On other hand, further deterioration of situation over next few weeks or months or new VC success similar Phuoc Hhanh incident might well bring situation to head.

From MAAG Chief McGarr, Washington received an account of Taylor's meeting with "Big Minh," then Chief of Staff, later Head of State for a while after Diem was overthrown. It is interesting because it was one of the very few reports from Saigon in the available record suggesting that the Diem regime might be in need of more than administrative reforms. Minh complains that the Vietnamese army was "losing the support of the people" as indicated by a "marked decrease in the amount of information given by the population." He warned, further, that "GVN should discontinue favoring certain religions . . ." But McGarr stressed the administrative problems, particularly the need for an "overall plan." His reaction explicitly concerns what he saw as the "military" aspects of Minh's complaints. But Ambassador Nolting's cables and the main paper of the Report show a very similar tendency to take note of political problems, but put almost all the emphasis on the need for better military tactics and more efficient administrative arrangements.

....Big Minh was pessimistic and clearly and frankly outlined his personal feeling that the military was not being properly supported. He said not only Viet Cong grown alarmingly, but that Vietnamese armed forces were losing support of the people. As example, he pointed out marked decrease in amount of information given by population. Minh said GVN should discontinue favoring certain religions, and correct present system of selecting province chiefs. At this point Minh was extremely caustic in commenting on lack of ability, military and administrative, of certain province chiefs. Minh was bitter about province chief's role in military chain of command saying that although Gen. McGarr had fought for and won on the single . . . command which had worked for few months, old habits were now returning. Also, on urging from Gen. McGarr he had gone on offensive, but province chiefs had not cooperated to extent necessary. He discussed his inability to get cooperation from GVN agencies on developing overall plans for conduct of counterinsurgency. Minh also discussed need to bring sects back into fold as these are anti-communist. Although above not new Minh seemed particularly discouraged....When analyzed, most of Minh's comments in military field are occasioned by lack of overall coordination and cooperation. This re-emphasizes absolute necessity for overall plan which would clearly delineate responsibility and create a team effort....

Nolting concerned himself, of course, with the civil as well as military arrangements, but with much the same stress on organizational and administrative formalities. A striking example was when Nolting reported that Diem was willing to consider (in response to American urging of top level administrative reforms) creating a National Executive Council patterned after the U.S. National Security Council. Nolting was favorably impressed. His cable notes no concern that under Diem's proposal, Diem's brother Nhu would be chairman of the NEC, although a year earlier (and of course even more urgently a year or so later) getting Nhu, and his wife, out of the picture entirely had been seen as the best real hope of saving the Diem regime.

The report Nolting sent on Taylor's final meeting with Diem also contains some interesting material. It leaves the impression that Diem was still not really anxious to get American troops deeply involved in his country, despite his favorable reaction at the meeting of the 24th, which, in turn, was a reversal of his reaction at the meeting on the 19th. Because of this, the impression left by the whole record is that Taylor came to the conclusion that some sort of ground troop commitment was needed mainly because of what he heard from Diem's colleagues and his military people, rather than from Diem himself.

According to Nolting's cabled account, Diem, although raising half a dozen issues relating to increased American military aid, did not mention the flood task force, or anything else that might imply a special interest in getting some sort of ground troops commitment. As seemed the case earlier, it was the Americans who pressed the idea of getting American military people involved in combat. In the only exchange Nolting reported touching on this issue, he said:

1. Diem stressed importance of reinforcement of aviation: particularly helicopters. Taylor and I [Nolting] used this opportunity to make clear to Diem that we envisaged helicopters piloted by Americans and constituting American units under American commanders which would cooperate with Vietnamese military commands.

(At a meeting with McGarr November 9, Diem again raised the helicopter question, this time taking the initiative in saying he needed American pilots, but he did not mention the flood task force, or anything else that might imply a request for ground troops.)

On the question of better performance by Diem's regime, we have this exchange, which does not seem likely to have prepared Diem for the fairly substantial quid pro quo which turned out to be part of the package proposed by Washington:

....3. Taylor told Diem it would be useful if he and I could develop specifics with respect to political-psychological point in paper which Taylor presented to Diem October 24. Taylor pointed out this would be very useful to him in Washington because he will be faced with question that, if program he proposes is adopted, what will be chances of early success. In response Thuan's question asking for exact meaning of this point in Taylor's paper, latter said there has been loss of confidence among both Vietnamese and American people about situation in Vietnam and we need to determine together what measures can be taken to restore confidence. Rostow commented that secret of turning point is offensive action. Diem stated complete psychological mobilization required so that everything can be done to raise potential GVN forces and damage enemy's potential. He referred to GVN efforts in past to collaborate more closely with US in military planning and said these efforts had run up against wall of secrecy surrounding US and SEATO military plans....

Finally, there was this exchange, which does not appear to provide much support for the high hopes expressed in the Taylor Report that Diem was anxious for U.S. guidance and "in principle" ready to grant a role for Americans in his administration and army.

....4. Taylor referred to Diem's comments in earlier talk about shortage of capable personnel and suggested US might assist by lending personnel. Diem replied that US could help in this respect in training field. Thuan then brought up dilemma facing GVN re instructors at Thui Duc Reserve Officers' School

VI. THE FALL DECISIONS-II

A. CONTEXT

Taylor's formal report, as noted, was dated November 3, a day after the Mission came back to Washington. (A good deal of it had been written during the stopover at Baguio, in the Philippines, when Taylor's personal cables to the President had also been written and sent.) The submission of Taylor's Report was followed by prominent news stories the next morning flatly stating (but without attribution to a source) that the President "remains strongly opposed to the dispatch of American combat troops to South Vietnam" and strongly implying that General Taylor had not recommended such a commitment. Apparently, only a few people, aside from Taylor, Rostow and a handful of very senior officials, realized that this was not exactly accurate-for the summary paper of the Report had not been very explicit on just what was meant by "a hard commitment to the ground." Thus only those who knew about the "Eyes Only" cables would know just what Taylor was recommending.

Diem himself had given one of his rare on-the-record interviews to the New York Times correspondent in Saigon while Taylor was on his way home, and he too gave the impression that the further American aid he expected would not include ground troops.

Consequently, the general outline of the American aid that would be sent following the Taylor Mission was common knowledge for over a week before any formal decision was made. The decisions, when they were announced stirred very little fuss, and (considering the retrospective importance) not even much interest. The Taylor Mission had received much less attention in the press than several other crises at the UN, in the Congo, on nuclear testing, and most of all in Berlin, where there had just been a symbolic confrontation of Soviet and American tanks. The Administration was so concerned about public reaction to Soviet aggressiveness and apparent American inability to deal with it that a campaign was begun (as usual in matters of this sort, reported in the Times without specific attribution) to "counter-attack against what unnamed 'high officials' called a 'rising mood of national frustration.'" The Administration's message, the Times reported, was that a "mature foreign policy" rather than "belligerence of defeatism" was what was needed. What is interesting about such a message is what the necessity to send it reveals about the mood of the times.

In this sort of context, there was no real debate about whether the U.S. ought to do anything reasonable it could to prevent Vietnam from going the way of Laos. There is no hint of a suggestion otherwise in the classified record, and there was no real public debate on this point. What was seen as an issue was whether the limits of reasonable U.S. aid extended to the point of sending American troops to fight the Viet Cong. But even this was subdued. There had been, as noted before, the leaked stories playing down the prospects that combat troops would be sent, and then, immediately on Taylor's return, the unattributed but obviously authoritative stories that Kennedy was opposed to sending troops and Taylor was not recommending them.

In a most important sense, this situation distorts the story told in this account. For this account inevitably devotes a great deal of space to the decision that was not made--that of sending ground troops--and very little space to the important decisions that were made. There is simply nothing much to say about these latter decisions: except that they were apparently taken for granted at the time. Even today, with all the hindsight available, it is very hard to imagine Kennedy or any other President responding to the situation faced in 1961 by doing significantly less about Vietnam than he did. The only choices seen then, as indeed even today the only choices seem to have been, whether to do more. And it is on how that question was resolved, inevitably, that any account of the period will be focused.

The Administration faced (contrary to the impression given to the public both before and after the decisions) two major issues when Taylor returned.

1. What conditions, if any, would be attached to new American aid? The Taylor Report implicitly recommended none. But the leaked stories in the press following Taylor's return showed that some in the Administration inclined to a much harder line on Diem than the summary paper of the report. For example, a Times dispatch of November 5, from its Pentagon correspondent, reported that Diem would be expected to "undertake major economic, social, and military reforms to provide a basis for increased U.S. support."

2. Would the limited commitment of ground forces recommended by Taylor be undertaken? The news stories suggested they would, although this would be apparent only to those who had seen Taylor's "Eyes Only" cables. The story appearing the day after the report was submitted, despite the flat statements against the use of combat troops, also stated that Taylor had recommended "the dispatch of more specialists in anti-guerrilla warfare to train Vietnamese troops, communications and transportation specialists, and army engineers to help the Vietnamese government combat its flood problems." The November 5 story was more explicit. It is noted that officials seemed to rule out the use of U.S. combat forces, "the move considered here a few weeks ago." But "at the same time it appears that Army engineers, perhaps in unusually large numbers, may be sent to help on flood control work and other civil projects and to fight if necessary." This last phrase was explicitly (and correctly) linked to the fact that the area in which the floods had taken place (the Delta) was precisely the area of greatest Viet Cong strength.

A final question of great importance did not have to be resolved during this review: for although the Taylor Report had stressed the idea of eventually bombing the north, no immediate decision or commitment on this was recommended.

On the first of these issues (the quid pro quo for U.S. aid) our record tells us that demands were made on Diem, as we will see when we come to the actual decision. The newspaper stories strongly suggest that the decision to ask for a quid pro quo was made, at the latest, immediately following the return of the Taylor Mission. But the record does not show anything about the reasoning behind this effort to pressure Diem to agree to reforms as a condition for increased U.S. aid, nor of what the point of it was. It certainly conflicted with the main drive of the Taylor Mission Report. The report not only suggested no such thing, but put a great deal of stress on a cordial, intimate relationship with the Diem regime. Pressure for reform (especially when publicly made, as they essentially were in the leaked stories) was hardly likely to promote cordiality. Durbrow's experience earlier in the year had shown that pressure would have the opposite result.

Consequently, the President's handling of this issue had the effect of undermining from the start what appeared to have been a major premise of the strategy recommended to the President: that Diem was "in principle" prepared for what plainly amounted to a "limited partnership," with the U.S. in running his country and his Army.

The advantages, from the American view, of the President's decision to place demands on Diem were presumably that it might (contrary to realistic expectations) actually push Diem in the right direction; and that if this did not work, it would somewhat limit the American commitment to Diem. The limit would come by making clear that the U.S. saw a good deal of the problem as Diem's own responsibility, and not just a simple matter of external aggression. The balance of this judgment would turn substantially on whether whoever was making the decision judged that the "limited partnership" idea was really much more realistic than the trying to pressure Diem, and on whether he wanted to limit the U.S. commitment, rather than make it unambiguous. Further, the cables from Saigon had clearly shown that many South Vietnamese were hoping the Americans would put pressure on Diem, so that although such tactics would prejudice relations with Diem, they would not necessarily harm relations with others of influence in the country, in particular his generals.

Finally, although Kennedy's decisions here were contrary to the implications of the summary paper in the Taylor Report, they were not particularly inconsistent with the appendices by the State representatives. For these, as noted, took a far less rosy view of Diem's prospects than appeared in the summary.

On the second issue--the U.S. combat military task force--the available record tells us only the positions of Taylor and of the Defense Department. We are not sure what the position of State was-although Sorenson claims that all the President's senior advisors had recommended going ahead with sending some ground troops.

Even Taylor's position is slightly ambiguous. It is conceivable that he argued for the Task Force mainly because he thought that the numbers of U.S. personnel that might be sent as advisors, pilots, and other specialists would not add up to a large enough increment to have much of a psychological impact on South Vietnamese morale. But his choice of language indicates that a mere question of numbers was not the real issue. Rather Taylor's argument seems to have been that specifically ground forces (not necessarily all or even mainly infantrymen, but ground soldiers who would be out in the countryside where they could be shot at and shoot back) were what was needed. Combat engineers to work in the VC-infested flood area in the Delta would meet that need. Helicopter pilots and mechanics and advisors, who might accompany Vietnamese operations, but could not undertake ground operations on their own apparently would not. There is only one easily imagined reason for seeing this as a crucial distinction. And that would be if a critical object of the stepped up American program was to be exactly what Taylor said it should be in his final cable from Saigon: ". . . assuring Diem of our readiness to join him in a military showdown with the Viet Cong . . ."

Thus the flood task force was essentially different from the balance of the military program. It did not fill an urgent need for military specialists or expertise not adequately available within Vietnam; it was an implicit commitment to deny the Viet Cong a victory even if major American ground forces should be required.

Taylor clearly did not see the need for large U.S. ground involvement as at all probable. ("The risks of backing into a major Asian war because SVN are present but are not impressive," in large part because "NVN is extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing.") At another point, Taylor warns the President, "If the first contingent is not enough, . . . it will be difficult to resist the pressure to reinforce. If the ultimate result sought is the closing of the frontiers and the cleanup of the insurgents within SVN, there is no limit to our possible commitment (unless we attack the source in Hanoi.)"

We have a good record of the DOD staff work, which preceded the President's decision on this issue, but only a bit from State and none from the White House. Rusk, in a cable from Japan on November 1, contributed this note of caution (which also bears on the previous discussion of demands on Diem for a quid pro quo for increased American aid):

Since General Taylor may give first full report prior my return, believe special attention should be given to critical question whether Diem is prepared take necessary measures to give us something worth supporting. If Diem unwilling trust military commanders to get job done and take steps to consolidate non-communist elements into serious national effort, difficult to see how handful American troops can have decisive influence. While attaching greatest possible importance to security in SEA, I would be reluctant to see U.S. make major additional commitment American prestige to a losing horse.

Suggest Department carefully review all Southeast Asia measures we expect from Diem if our assistance forces us to assume de facto direction South Vietnamese affairs.

But the view of the U.S. Mission in Saigon contained no such doubts, nor did most Vietnamese, according to this cable Nolting sent while Taylor was enroute home:

Our conversations over past ten days with Vietnamese in various walks of life show virtually unanimous desire for introduction U.S. forces into Viet-Nam. This based on unsolicited remarks from cabinet ministers, National Assembly Deputies, University professors, students, shop-keepers, and oppositionists. Dr. Tran Dinh De, level-headed Minister of Health, told Embassy officer Oct. 29 that while GVN could continue resist communists for while longer if US troops not introduced, it could not win alone against commies. National Assembly members, according to Lai Tu, leader Personalist Community, unanimously in favor entry US forces. Diem told us while General Taylor was here that he had consulted National Assembly Committee on this question and had received favorable response. Even an oppositionist like Ex-Foreign Minister Tran Van Do has told us US forces are needed and is apparently so strongly convinced of this that he did not suggest any conditions precedent about political changes by Diem. Am-Consul Hue reports that opinion among intellectuals and government officials in that city is also almost unanimously in favor of introduction of American combat troops. MAAG believes on basis private conversations and general attitude Vietnamese military personnel toward us that Vietnamese armed forces would likewise welcome introduction US forces.

General Vietnamese desire for introduction US forces arises from serious morale decline among populace during recent weeks because of deterioration in security and horrible death through torture and mutilation to which Col Nam subjected. Expanded VC infiltration has brought fully home to Vietnamese the fact that US has not intervened militarily in Laos to come to rescue of anti-communists. Now that they see Viet-Nam approaching its own crucial period, paramount question in their minds is whether it will back down when chips are down. Vietnamese thus want US forces introduced in order to demonstrate US determination to stick it out with them against Communists. They do not want to be victims of political settlement with communists. This is especially true of those publicly identified as anti-communist like Dean Vu Quoc Thue who collaborated with Dr. Eugene Staley on Joint Experts Report.

Most Vietnamese whose thoughts on this subject have been developed are not thinking in terms of US troops to fight guerrillas but rather of a reassuring presence of US forces in Viet-Nam. These persons undoubtedly feel, however, that if war in Viet-Nam continues to move toward overt conventional aggression as opposed to its guerrilla character, combat role for US troops could eventually arise.

The special commitment involved in committing even a small force of ground troops was generally recognized. We have notes on an ISA staff paper, for example, which ranked the various types of increased U.S. military aid in ascending order of commitment, and of course, placed the flood task force at the top. According to the notes,

Any combat elements, such as in the task force, would come under attack and would need to defend themselves, committing U.S. prestige deeply. U.S. troops would then be fighting in South Vietnam and could not withdraw under fire. Thus, the introduction of U.S. troops in South Vietnam would be a decisive act and must be sent to achieve a completely decisive mission. This mission would probably require, over time, increased numbers of U.S. troops; DRV intervention would probably increase until a large number of U.S. troops were required, three or more divisions.

This assessment differed from that in General Taylor's cables only in not stressing the hope that a U.S. willingness to bomb the north would deter North Vietnamese escalation of its own commitment.

A special NIE prepared at this time reached essentially the same conclusions.

This SNIE, incidentally, is the only staff paper found in the available record which treats communist reactions primarily in terms of the separate national interests of Hanoi, Moscow, and Peiping, rather than primarily in terms of an overall communist strategy for which Hanoi, is acting as an agent. In particular, the Gilpatric Task Force Report, it will be recalled, began with references to a communist 'master plan' for taking over Southeast Asia. The Taylor Mission Report, similarly, began with a section on "Communist Strategy in Southeast Asia" and opening:

At the present time, the Communists are pursuing a clear and systematic strategy in Southeast Asia. It is a strategy of extending Communist power and influence in ways which bypass U.S. nuclear strength, U.S. conventional naval, air, and ground forces, and the conventional strength of indigenous forces in the area. Their strategy is rooted in the fact that international law and practice does not yet recognize the mounting of guerrilla war across borders as aggression justifying counterattack at the source.

The November 5 SNIE presumably indicates the principal courses of action that were under formal review at the time:

The courses of action here considered were given to the intelligence community for the purposes of this estimate and were not intended to represent the full range of possible courses of action. The given courses of action are:

A. The introduction of a US airlift into and within South Vietnam, increased logistics support, and an increase in MAAG strength to provide US advisers down to battalion level;

B. The introduction into South Vietnam of a US force of about 8,000-10,000 troops, mostly engineers with some combat support, in response to an appeal from President Diem for assistance in flood relief;

C. The introduction into the area of a US combat force of 25,000 to 40,000 to engage with South Vietnamese forces in ground, air, and naval operations against the Viet Cong; and

D. An announcement by the US of its determination to hold South Vietnam and a warning, either private or public, that North Vietnamese support of the Viet Cong must cease or the US would launch air attacks against North Vietnam. This action would be taken in conjunction with Course A, B, or C.

These proposed courses of action correspond to those outlined for consideration by the Taylor Mission, with the exception that the flood task force proposed by Taylor has been substituted for the former "intermediate" solution of stationing a token U.S. force at DaNang, and that an opinion is asked on the prospects of threats to bomb the north, again reflecting the Taylor Mission Report.

The gist of the SNIE was that North Vietnamese would respond to an increased U.S. commitment with an offsetting increase in infiltrated support for the Viet Cong. Thus, the main difference in the estimated communist reaction to Courses A, B, and C was that each would be stronger than its predecessor. On the prospects for bombing the north, the SNIE implies that threats to bomb would not cause Hanoi to stop its support for the Viet Cong, and that actual attacks on the North would bring a strong response from Moscow and Peiping, who would "regard the defense of North Vietnam against such an attack as imperative."

B. FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS

On November 8, McNamara sent the following memorandum on behalf of himself, Gilpatric, and the JCS:


MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT

The basic issue framed by the Taylor Report is whether the U.S. shall:

a. Commit itself to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South Vietnam to Communism, and
b. Support this commitment by necessary immediate military actions and preparations for possible later actions.

The Joint Chiefs, Mr. Gilpatric, and I have reached the following conclusions:

1. The fall of South Vietnam to Communism would lead to the fairly rapid extension of Communist control, or complete accommodation to Communism, in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia and in Indonesia. The strategic implications worldwide, particularly in the Orient, would be extremely serious.

2. The chances are against, probably sharply against, preventing that fall by any measures short of the introduction of U.S. forces on a substantial scale. We accept General Taylor's judgment that the various measures proposed by him short of this are useful but will not in themselves do the job of restoring confidence and setting Diem on the way to winning his fight.

3. The introduction of a U.S. force of the magnitude of an initial 8,000 men in a flood relief context will be of great help to Diem. However, it will not convince the other side (whether the shots are called from Moscow, Peiping, or Hanoi) that we mean business. Moreover, it probably will not tip the scales decisively. We would be almost certain to get increasingly mired down in an inconclusive struggle.

4. The other side can be convinced we mean business only if we accompany the initial force introduction by a clear commitment to the full objective stated above, accompanied by a warning through some channel to Hanoi that continued support of the Viet Cong will lead to punitive retaliation against North Vietnam.

5. If we act in this way, the ultimate possible extent of our military commitment must be faced. The struggle may be prolonged and Hanoi and Peiping may intervene overtly. In view of the logistic difficulties faced by the other side, I believe we can assume that the maximum U.S. forces required on the ground in Southeast Asia will not exceed 6 divisions, or about 205,000 men (CINCPAC Plan 32-59, Phase IV). Our military posture is, or with the addition of more National Guard or regular Army divisions, can be made, adequate to furnish these forces without serious interference with our present Berlin plans.

6. To accept the stated objective is of course a most serious decision. Military force is not the only element of what must be a most carefully coordinated set of actions. Success will depend on factors many of which ~re not within our control-notably the conduct of Diem himself and oth'~ leaders in the area. Laos will remain a major problem. The domestik political implications of accepting the objective are also grave, although it is our feeling that the country will respond better to a firm initial position than to courses of action that lead us in only gradually, and that in the meantime are sure to involve casualties. The over-all effect on Moscow and Peiping will need careful weighing and may well be mixed; however, permitting South Vietnam to fall can only strengthen and encourage them greatly.

7. In sum:

a. We do not believe major units of U.S. forces should be introduced in South Vietnam unless we are willing to make an affirmative decision on the issue stated at the start of this memorandum.

b. We are inclined to recommend that we do commit the U.S. to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South Vietnam to Communism and that we support this commitment by the necessary military actions.

c. If such a commitment is agreed upon, we support the recommendations of General Taylor as the first steps toward its fulfillment.

Sgd: Robert S. McNamara


A number of things are striking about this memorandum, including of course the judgment that the "maximum" U.S. ground forces required, even in the case of overt intervention by not only North Vietnam, but China as well, would "not exceed" 205,000 men. This estimate of the requirement to deal with a large scale overt invasion is consistent with the Chief's earlier estimate that the addition of 40,000 U.S. troops to the South Vietnamese forces would be sufficient to "clean up" the Viet Cong.

But the strongest message to the President in the memorandum (growing out of points 3, 4, and 7c) was surely that if he agreed to sending the military task force, he should be prepared for follow-up recommendations for re-enforcements and to threaten Hanoi with bombing. Unless the SNIE was wholly wrong, threats to bomb Hanoi would not turn off the war, and Hanoi would increase its infiltration in response to U.S. commitments of troops. Even should Hanoi not react with counter-escalation, the President knew that the Chiefs, at least, were already on record as desiring a prompt build-up to 40,000 ground troops. In short, the President was being told that the issue was not whether to send an 8,000-man task force, but whether or not to embark on a course that, without some extraordinary good luck, would lead to combat involvement in Southeast Asia on a very substantial scale. On the other hand, he was being warned that anything less than sending the task force was very likely to fail to prevent the fall of Vietnam, since "the odds are against, probably sharply against, preventing that fall by any means short of the introduction of U.S. forces on a substantial scale" (of which the task force would be the first increment).

Although the Chief's position here is clear, because their views are on record in other memoranda, McNamara's own position remains a little ambiguous. For the paper does not flatly recommend going ahead; it only states he and his colleagues are "inclined" to recommend going ahead. Three days later McNamara joined Rusk in a quite different recommendation, and one obviously more to the President's liking (and, in the nature of such things, quite possibly drawn up tot/he President's specifications).

As with the May revision of the Gilpatric Report, this paper combines an escalation of the rhetoric with a toning down of the actions the President is asked to take. Since the NSAM formalizing the President's decisions was taken essentially verbatim from this paper, the complete text is reprinted here. (The NSAM consisted of the Recommendations section of this memorandum, except that Point 1 of the recommendations was deleted.)

Of particular importance in this second memorandum to the President was Section 4, with its explicit sorting of U.S. military aid into Category A, support forces, which were to be sent promptly; and Category B, "larger organized units with actual or potential direct military missions" on which no immediate decision was recommended. There is no explicit reference in the paper to the flood relief task force; it simply does not appear in the list of recommended actions, presumably on the grounds that it goes in Category B. Category B forces, the paper notes, "involve a certain dilemma: if there is a strong South Vietnamese effort, they may not be needed; if there is not such an effort, United States forces could not accomplish their mission in the midst of an apathetic or hostile population."

If McNamara's earlier memorandum is read carefully, the same sort of warning is found, although it sounds much more perfunctory. But that such warnings were included shows a striking contrast with the last go-around in May. Then, the original Defense version of the Gilpatric Task Force Report contained no hint of such a qualification, and there was only a quite vague warning in the State revisions. Part of the reason, undoubtedly, was the 6 month's additional experience in dealing with Diem. A larger part, though, almost certainly flowed from the fact that the insurgency had by now shown enough strength so that there was now in everyone's minds the possibility that the U.S. might someday face the choice of giving up on Vietnam or taking over a major part of the war.

These warnings (that even a major U.S. commitment to the ground war would not assure success) were obviously in some conflict with the recommendations both papers made for a clear-cut U.S. commitment to save South Vietnam. The contrast is all the sharper in the joint Rusk/McNamara memorandum, where the warning is so forcefully given.

Here is the Rusk/McNamara memorandum.


November 11, 1961

MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT

Subject: South Viet-Nam

1. United States National Interests in South Viet-Nam.

The deteriorating situation in South Viet-Nam requires attention to the nature and scope of United States national interests in that country. The loss of South Viet-Nam to Communism would involve the transfer of a nation of 20 million people from the free world to the Communist. bloc. The loss of South Viet-Nam would make pointless any further discussioq about the importance of Southeast Asia to the free world; we would have\ to face the near certainty that the remainder of Southeast Asia and Indonesia would move to a complete accommodation with Communism, if not formal incorporation within the Communist bloc. The United States, as a member of SEATO, has commitments with respect to South Viet-Nam under the Protocol to the SEATO Treaty. Additionally, in a formal statement at the conclusion session of the 1954 Geneva Conference, the United States representative stated that the United States "would view any renewal of the aggression . . . with grave concern and seriously threatening international peace and security."

The loss of South Viet-Nam to Communism would not only destroy SEATO but would undermine the credibility of American commitments elsewhere. Further, loss of South Viet-Nam would stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon by extreme elements to divide the country and harass the Administration.

2. The Problem of Saving South Viet-Nam.

It seems, on the face of it, absurd to think that a nation of 20 million people can be subverted by 15-20 thousand active guerrillas if the Government and people of that country do not wish to be subverted. South Viet-Nam is not, however, a highly organized society with an effective governing apparatus and a population accustomed to carrying civic responsibility. Public apathy is encouraged by the inability of most citizens to act directly as well as by the tactics of terror employed by the guerrillas throughout the countryside. Inept administration and the absence of a strong non-Communist political coalition have made it difficult to bring available resources to bear upon the guerrilla problem and to make the most effective use of available external aid. Under the best of conditions the threat posed by the presence of 15-20 thousand guerrillas, well disciplined under well-trained cadres, would be difficult to meet.

3. The United States' Objective in South Viet-Nam.

The United States should commit itself to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South Viet-Nam to Communism. The basic means for accomplishing this objective must be to put the Government of South VietNam into a position to win its own war against the guerrillas. We must insist that that Government itself take the measures necessary for that purpose in exchange for large-scale United States assistance in the military, economic and political fields. At the same time we must recognize that it will probably not be possible for the GVN to win this war as long as the flow of men and supplies from North Viet-Nam continues unchecked and the guerrillas enjoy a safe sanctuary in neighboring territory.

We should be prepared to introduce United States combat forces if that should become necessary for success. Dependent upon the circumstances, it may also be necessary for United States forces to strike at the source of the aggression in North Viet-Nam.

4. The Use of United States Forces in South Viet-Nam.

The commitment of United States forces to South Viet-Nam involves two different categories: (A) Units of modest size required for the direct support of South Viet-Namese military effort, such as communications, helicopter and other forms of airlift, reconnaissance aircraft, naval patrols, intelligence units, etc., and (B) larger organized units with actual or potential direct military missions. Category (A) should be introduced as speedily as possible. Category (B) units pose a more serious problem in that they are much more significant from the point of view of domestic and international political factors and greatly increase the probabilities of Communist bloc escalation. Further, the employment of United States comat forces (in the absence of Communist bloc escalation) involves a certain dilemma: if there is a strong South-Vietnamese effort, they may not be needed; if there is not such an effort, United States forces could not accomplish their mission in the midst of an apathetic or hostile population. Under present circumstances, therefore, the question of injecting United States and SEATO combat forces should in large part be considered as a contribution to the morale of the South Viet-Namese in their own effort to do the principal job themselves.

5. Probable Extent of the Commitment of United States Forces.

If we commit Category (B) forces to South Viet-Nam the ultimate possible extent of our military commitment in Southeast Asia must be faced. The struggle may be prolonged, and Hanoi and Peiping may overtly intervene. It is the view of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, in the light of the logistic difficulties faced by the other side, we can assume that the maximum United States forces required on the ground in Southeast Asia would not exceed six divisions, or about 205,000 men (CINCPAC Plan 32/59 PHASE IV). This would be in addition to local forces and such SEATO forces as may be engaged. It is also the view of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that our military posture is, or, with the addition of more National Guard or regular Army divisions, can be made, adequate to furnish these forces and support them in action without serious interference with our present Berlin plans.

6. Relation to Laos.

It must be understood that the introduction of American combat forces into Viet-Nam prior to a Laotian settlement would run a considerable risk of stimulating a Communist breach of the cease fire and a resumption of hostilities in Laos. This could present us with a choice between the use of combat forces in Laos or an abandonment of that country to full Communist control. At the present time, there is at least a chance that a settlement can be reached in Laos on the basis of a weak and unsatisfactory Souvanna Phouma Government. The prospective agreement on Laos includes a provision that Laos will not be used as a transit area or as a base for interfering in the affairs of other countries such as South Viet-Nam. After a Laotian settlement, the introduction of United States forces into Viet-Nam could serve to stabilize the position both in Viet-Nam and in Laos by registering our determination to see to it that the Laotian settlement was as far as the United States would be willing to see Communist influence in Southeast Asia develop.

7. The Need for Multilateral Action.

From the political point of view, both domestic and international, it would seem important to involve forces from other nations alongside of United States Category (B) forces in Viet-Nam. It should be difficult to explain to our own people why no effort had been made to invoke SEATO or why the United States undertook to carry this burden unilaterally. Our position would be greatly strengthened if the introduction of forces could be taken as a SEATO action, accompanied by units of other SEATO countries, with a full SEATO report to the United Nations of the purposes of the action itself.

Apart from the armed forces, there would be political advantage in enlisting the interest of other nations, including neutrals, in the security and well-being of South Viet-Nam. This might be done by seeking such assistance as Malayan police officials (recently offered Diem by the Tunku) and by technical assistance personnel in other fields, either bilaterally or through international organizations.

8. Initial Diplomatic Action by the United States.

If the recommendations, below, are approved, the United States should consult intensively with other SEATO governments to obtain their full support of the course of action contemplated. At the appropriate stage, a direct approach should be made by the United States to Moscow, through normal or special channels, pointing out that we cannot accept the movement of cadres, arms and other supplies into South Viet-Nam in support of the guerrillas. We should also discuss the problem with neutral governments in the general area and get them to face up to their own interests in the security of South Viet-Nam; these governments will be concerned about (a) the introduction of United States combat forces and (b) the withdrawal of United States support from Southeast Asia; their concern, therefore, might be usefully expressed either to Communist bloc countries or in political support for what may prove necessary in South Viet-Nam itself.

RECOMMENDATIONS

In the light of the foregoing, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense recommend that:

1. We now take the decision to commit ourselves to the objective of preventing the fall of South Viet-Nam to Communism and that, in doing so, we recognize that the introduction of United States and other SEATO forces may be necessary to achieve this objective. (However, if it is necessary to commit outside forces to achieve the foregoing objective our decision to introduce United States forces should not be contingent upon unanimous SEATO agreement thereto.)

2. The Department of Defense be prepared with plans for the use of United States forces in South Viet-Nam under one or more of the following purposes:

(a) Use of a significant number of United States forces to signify United States determination to defend South Viet-Nam and to boost South Viet-Nam morale.
(b) Use of substantial United States forces to assist in suppressing Viet Cong insurgency short of engaging in detailed counter-guerrilla operations but including relevant operations in North Viet-Nam.
(c) Use of United States forces to deal with the situation if there is organized Communist military intervention.

3. We immediately undertake the following actions in support of the GVN:

(a) Provide increased air lift to the GVN forces, including helicopters, light aviation, and transport aircraft, manned to the extent necessary by United States uniformed personnel and under United States operational control.
(b) Provide such additional equipment and United States uniformed personnel as may be necessary for air reconnaissance, photography, instruction in and execution of air-ground support techniques, and for special intelligence.
(c) Provide the GVN with small craft, including such United States uniformed advisers and operating personnel as may be necessary for quick and effective operations in effecting surveillance and control over coastal waters and inland waterways.
(d) Provide expedited training and equipping of the civil guard and the self-defense corps with the objective of relieving the regular Army of static missions and freeing it for mobile offensive operations.
(e) Provide such personnel and equipment as may be necessary to improve the military-political intelligence system beginning at the provincial level and extending upward through the Government and the armed forces to the Central Intelligence Organization.
(f) Provide such new terms of reference, reorganization and additional personnel for United States military forces as are required for increased United States participation in the direction and control of GVN military operations and to carry out the other increased responsibilities which accrue to MAAG under these recommendations.
(g) Provide such increased economic aid as may be required to permit the GVN to pursue a vigorous flood relief and rehabilitation program, to supply material in support of the security effort, and to give priority to projects in support of this expanded counter-insurgency program. (This could include increases in military pay, a full suppy of a wide range of materials such as food, medical supplies, transportation equipment, communications equipment, and any other items where material help could assist the GVN in winning the war against the Viet Cong.)
(h) Encourage and support (including financial support) a request by the GVN to the FAO or any other appropriate international organization for multilateral assistance in the relief and rehabilitation of the flood area.
(i) Provide individual administrators and advisers for insertion into the Governmental machinery of South Viet-Nam in types and numbers to be agreed upon by the two Governments.
(j) Provide personnel for a joint survey with the GVN of conditions in each of the provinces to assess the social, political, intelligence, and military factors bearing on the prosecution of the counter-insurgency program in order to reach a common estimate of these factors and a common determination of how to deal with them.

4. Ambassador Nolting be instructed to make an immediate approach to President Diem to the effect that the Government of the United States is prepared to join the Government of Viet-Nam in a sharply increased joint effort to cope with the Viet Cong threat and the ravages of the flood as set forth under 3., above, if, on its part, the Government of Viet-Nam is prepared to carry out an effective and total mobilization of its own resources, both material and human, for the same end. Before setting in motion the United States proposals listed above, the United States Government would appreciate confirmation of their acceptability to the GVN, and an expression from the GVN of the undertakings it is prepared to make to insure the success of this joint effort. On the part of the United States, it would be expected that these GVN undertakings could include, in accordance with the detailed recommendations of [line missing]

(a) Prompt and appropriate legislative and administrative action to put the nation on a wartime footing to mobilize its entire resources. (This would include a decentralization and broadening of the Government so as to realize the full potential of all non-Communist elements in the country willing to contribute to the common struggle.)
(b) The establishment of appropriate Governmental wartime agencies with adequate authority to perform their functions effectively.
(c) Overhaul of the military establishment and command structure so as to create an effective military organization for the prosecution of the war.

5. Very shortly before the arrival in South Viet-Nam of the first increments of United States military personnel and equipment proposed under 3., above, that would exceed the Geneva Accord ceilings, publish the "Jorden report" as a United States "white paper," transmitting it as simultaneously as possible to the Governments of all countries with which we have diplomatic relations, including the Communist states.

6. Simultaneous with the publication of the "Jorden report," release an exchange of letters between Diem and the President.

(a) Diem's letter would include reference to the DRV violations of Geneva Accords as set forth in the October 24 GVN letter to the ICC and other documents; pertinent references to GVN statements with respect to its intent to observe the Geneva Accords; reference to its need for flood relief and rehabilitation; reference to previous United States aid and the compliance hitherto by both countries with the Geneva Accords; reference to the USG statement at the time the Geneva Accords were signed; the necessity now of exceeding some provisions of the Accords in view of the DRV violations thereof; the lack of aggressive intent with respect to the DRV: GVN intent to return to strict compliance with the Geneva Accords as soon as the DRV violations ceased; and request for additional United States assistance in framework foregoing policy. The letter should also set forth in appropriate general terms steps Diem has taken and is taking to reform Governmental structure.

(b) The President's reply would be responsive to Diem's request for additional assistance and acknowledge and agree to Diem's statements on the intent promptly to return to strict compliance with the Geneva Accords as soon as DRV violations have ceased.

7. Simultaneous with steps 5 and 6, above, make a private approach to the Soviet Union that would include: our determination to prevent the f all of South Viet-Nam to Communism by whatever means is necessary; our concern over dangers to peace presented by the aggressive DRV policy with respect to South Viet-Nam; our intent to return to full compliance with the Geneva Accords as soon as the DRV does so; the distinction we draw between Laos and South Viet-Nam; and our expectation that the Soviet Union will exercise its influence on the CHICOMS and the DRV.

8. A special diplomatic approach made to the United Kingdom in its role as co-Chairman of the Geneva Conference requesting that the United Kingdom seek the support of the Soviet co-Chairman for a cessation of DRV aggression against South Viet-Nam.

9. A special diplomatic approach also to be made to India, both in its role as Chairman of the ICC and as a power having relations with Peiping and Hanoi. This approach should be made immediately prior to public release of the "Jorden report" and the exchange of letters between Diem and the President.

10. Immediately prior to the release of the "Jorden report" and the exchange of letters between Diem and the President, special diplomatic approaches also to be made to Canada, as well as Burma, Indonesia. Cambodia, Ceylon, the UAR, and Yugoslavia. SEATO, NATO, and OAS members should be informed through those organizations, with selected members also informed individually. The possibility of some special approach to Poland as a member of the ICC should also be considered.


When we reach this memorandum in the record, the decision seems essentially sealed. Kennedy, by every indication in the press at the time and according to the recollections of all the memoirs, was, at the least, very reluctant to send American ground forces to Vietnam, and quite possibly every bit as "strongly opposed" as the leaked news stories depicted him. He now had a joint recommendation from his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense telling him just what he surely wanted to hear: that a decision on combat forces could be deferred. Consequently, Kennedy's decision on this point can hardly be considered in doubt beyond November 11, although a formal NSC meeting on the question was not held until the 15th. On the question of demands on Diem, again there is no reason to suspect the issue was in doubt any later, at most, than the 11th. The only questions which are in doubt are the extent to which the Rusk/ McNamara memorandum simply happened to come to the President in such convenient form, or whether the President arranged it so; and if so, how far this formal paper differed from the real recommendations of the President's senior advisors. The record available gives no basis for even guessing about this. As noted earlier, even McNamara, who is on record with a previous, quite different memorandum, cannot be flatly said to have changed his mind (or been overruled). There is too much room for uncertainty about what he was really up to when he signed the memorandum.

In any event, Kennedy essentially adopted the Rusk/McNamara set of recommendations, although the record is not entirely clear on when he did so. There was an NSC meeting November 5; but although at least the Chairman of the JCS was there, the record shows that even after this meeting there was some uncertainty (or perhaps reluctance) in the JCS about whether the decision had been made. The record shows that McNamara phoned General Lemnitzer to assure him that this was the case. But the cables transmitting the decision to Saigon were dated November 14, the day before the NSC meeting. The formal decision paper (NSAM 111) was not signed until November 22nd. As noted earlier, the NSAM is essentially the recommendations section of the Rusk/ McNamara paper, but with the initial recommendation (committing the U.S. to save Vietnam) deleted.

The NSAM was headed "First Phase of Vietnam Program," which, of course, implied that a further decision to send combat troops was in prospect. Both Sorenson and Hilsman claim this was really a ruse by the President, who had no intention of going ahead with combat troops but did not choose to argue the point with his advisors.

Schlesinger, apparently writing from diary notes, says the President talked to him about the combat troops recommendations at the time, describing the proposed first increment as like an alcoholic's first drink:

The Taylor-Rostow report was a careful and thoughtful document, and the President read it with interest. He was impressed by its description of the situation as serious but not hopeless and attracted by the idea of stiffening the Diem regime through an infusion of American advisers. He did not, however, like the proposal of a direct American military commitment. "They want a force of American troops," he told me early in November. "They say it's necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another." The war in Vietnam, he added, could be won only so long as it was their war. If it were ever converted into a white man's war, we would lose as the French had lost a decade earlier.

Whether, in fact, Kennedy had such a firm position in mind at the time cannot be surmised, though, from the official record itself. It is easy to believe that he did, for as Sorenson points out, Kennedy had strong views on the difficulties of foreign troops putting down an insurgency dating from his bleak, but correct, appraisals of French prospects in Vietnam as early as 1951, and again in Algeria in the late 1950's. And he was hardly alone in such sentiments, as shown in columns of the period by Reston and Lippman, and in a private communication from Galbraith to be quoted shortly.

But, Kennedy did not, need to have such a firm position in mind to make the decisions he did. There was a case to be made for deferring the combat troops decision even if the President accepted the view that U.S. troops commitments were almost certainly needed in Vietnam and that putting them in sooner would be better than waiting. There was, in particular, the arguments in the Rusk/McNamara memorandum that putting combat troops into Vietnam just then would upset the Laos negotiations, and the unstated but obvious argument that the U.S. perhaps ought to hold back on the combat troop commitment to gain leverage on Diem.

General Taylor's advice, as shown in the record, gave a different ground for delaying. Taylor argued that the ground troop commitment was essentially for its psychological, not military, impact. Taylor's judgment was that it was "very doubtful" that anything short of a prompt commitment of ground troops would restore South Vietnamese morale. But such a commitment would obviously be a costly stop. The President was thoroughly forewarned that such a move would lead both to continual pressure to send more troops and to political difficulties at home that would inevitably flow from the significant casualties that had to be expected to accompany a ground troop commitment. The risk of delaying the ground troop commitment might easily have been judged not worth the certain costs that would accompany it. And of course, in hindsight, we know that the limited program approved by the President was sufficient to put off any imminent collapse of the Diem regime. Consequently, Kennedy's decisions do not tell us just what his view was, and indeed he did not need to have a firmly settled view to make the decision, which after all, was only to put off, not to foreclose a decision to send ground troops. He had only to decide that, on balance, the risks of deferring the troop decisions were no worse than the costs of making it, and he could have reached that judgment by any number of routes. The reasons stated in the various papers may or may not accurately reflect the President's state of mind. The only thing we can he sure of is that they conveyed his judgment of the tactically most suitable rationale to put in writing. The most detailed record we have of this rationale and explanation of is the following cable to Nolting:

.....Review of Taylor Report has resulted in following basic decisions:

1. Must essentially be a GVN task to contain and reduce the VC threat at present level of capability. Means organizing to go on offensive. We are prepared to contemplate further assistance after joint assessment establishes needs and possibilities of aid more precisely.

2. No amount of extra aid can be substitute for GVN taking measures to permit them to assume offensive and strengthen the administrative and political bases of government.

3. Do not propose to introduce into GVN and US combat troops now, but propose a phase of intense public and diplomatic activity to focus on infiltration from North. Shall decide later on course of action should infiltration not be radically reduced.

4. On flood, decide best course to treat as primarily civil problem, and occasion should be used to draw in as many nationals of other countries as can be used in GVN flood plan. Have been encouraged this course on advice of Desai of Indian Foreign Office who observed a good thing if some Indians and Burmese involved constructively in SVN and subject to VC attack. We prepared to put maximum pressure on FAO. Do not exclude ad hoc US military aid in flood area.

5. Diplomatically position that the violations to be documented in Jorden report and strong references to DRV attack against SVN in DM's letter to Kennedy, need not confirm to the world and Communists that Geneva accords are being disregarded by our increased aid. Need not accuse ourselves publicly, make Communist job easier. GVN should be advised to counter charges by leveling charges against DRV and insisting that if ICC investigates in SVN must equally investigate in NVN. Appreciate approach will make ICC task difficult but will explain position to Canadians and Indians to get their support.

6. A crucial element in USG willingness to move forward is concrete demonstration by Diem that he is now prepared to work in an orderly way on his subordinates and broaden the political base of his regime.

7. Package should be presented as first steps in a partnership in which US is prepared to do more as joint study of facts and GVN performance makes increased US aid possible and productive.

8. Still possible Laotian settlement can be reached pertaining our minimum objective of independent Laos on the basis of a neutral coalition, (although weak and unsatisfactory), headed by Souvanna. Would include provision Laos not he used as transit area or base for interference in SVN. Therefore must keep in mind impact of action in SVN or prospects for acceptable Laos settlement.

9. Introduction of US or Seato forces into SVN before Laotian settlement might wreck changes for agreement, lead to break up of Geneva conference, break Laos cease fire by communists with resumption of hostilities.

10. Decision to introduce US combat forces in GVN would have to be taken in light of GVN effort, including support from people, Laotian situation, Berlin crisis, readiness of allies or sharply increased tension with Bloc, and enormous responsibilities which would have to be borne by US in event of escalation SEA or other areas.

11. Hope measures outlined in instructions will galvanize and supplement GVN effort, making decision on use of US combat forces unnecessary and no need for decision in effect to shift primary responsibility for defense of SVN to USG.

12. We are fully cognizant of extent to which decisions if implemented through Diem's acceptance will sharply increase the commitment of our prestige struggle to save SVN.

13. Very strictly for your own information, DOD has been instructed to prepare plans for the use of US combat forces in SVN under various contingencies, including stepped up infiltration as well as organized inventory (sic) [military] intervention. However objective of our policy is to do all possible to accomplish purpose without use of US combat forces.

An accompanying cable also provided this additional comment on troops question:

.....4. It is anticipated that one of the first questions President Diem will raise with you after your presentation of the above joint proposals will be that of introducing U.S. combat troops. You are authorized to remind him that the actions we already have in mind involve a substantial number of U.S. military personnel for operational duties in Viet-Nam and that we believe that these forces performing crucial missions can greatly increase the capacity of GVN forces to win their war against the Viet Cong. You can also tell him that we believe that the missions being undertaken by our forces, under present circumstances, are more suitable for white foreign troops than garrison duty or missions involving the seeking out of Viet Cong personnel submerged in the Viet-Nam population. You can assure him that the USG at highest levels will be in daily contact with the situation in Viet-Nam and will be in constant touch with him about requirements of the situation.

C. AFTERMATH

The President's decisions were apparently sent to Nolting on the 14th, in a cable that is taken essentially verbatim from the description of the Rusk/ McNamara memorandum (paragraphs 3 and 4) of the program the U.S. was offering and the response expected from Diem. But the cable added some new language, putting still more emphasis on pressuring Diem:

....It is most important that Diem come forth with changes which will be recognized as having real substance and meaning. Rightly or wrongly, his regime is widely criticized abroad and in the U.S., and if we are to give our substantial support we must be able to point to real administrative political and social reforms and a real effort to widen its base that will give maximum confidence to the American people, as well as to world opinion that our efforts are not directed towards the support of an unpopular or ineffective regime, but rather towards supporting the combined efforts of all the non-Communist people of the GVN against a Communist take-over. You should make this quite clear, and indicate that the U.S. contribution to the proposed joint effort depends heavily upon his response to this point.

You should inform Diem that, in our minds, the concept of the joint undertaking envisages a much closer relationship than the present one of acting in an advisory capacity only. We would expect to share in the decision-making process in the political, economic and military fields as they affect the security situation.

Overall, then, what Kennedy ended up doing was to offer Diem a good deal less than he was expecting, and nevertheless to couple this offer with demands on Diem for which, on the basis of the available record, we can only assume he was totally unprepared. Nolting's first cable, though, reported Diem listened quietly and "took our proposals rather better than I expected."

Here are some extracts:

As anticipated [by Washington], his first question was re introduction US combat troops. I replied along line para 4 reftel....

Diem said that he presumed I realized that our proposals involved the question of the responsibility of the Government of Viet Nam. Viet Nam, he said, did not want to be a protectorate.

I said that this was well understood; we for our part did not wish to make it one. Diem also pointed out that GVN was constantly in process of making reforms but major action could not be taken without thorough consideration and without having always in mind that there was a war to be won. Object was to restore order, not to create disorder. I said I recognized that this was a delicate judgment, in my opinion, as a friend of his country and of him, his greater risk was to stand pat, or act too cautiously....

On the whole, I am not discouraged at Diem's reaction. In fact, he took our proposals rather better than I had expected. He has promised to call me as soon as he has been able to reflect upon our proposals and, until we have heard his considered reaction, I think it would be idle to speculate on outcome .

On the 20th, Nolting met with Thuan, who among other things said the U.S. offer had set Diem to wondering "whether U.S. getting ready to back out on Vietnam . . . as we had done in Laos." Nolting hoped Thuan's bleak report was only a bargaining tactic.

Thuan said that Diem had not yet discussed fully with him US proposals presented last Friday; but had given him impression of being "very sad and very disappointed." Thuan said Diem had said he now hesitates to put proposals before even his cabinet ministers, fearing that they would be disappointed and lose heart. He had intended to discuss US proposals with both cabinet and selected members of assembly who had been consulted re advisability of US forces at time of Taylor Mission, but now thought contrast between his earlier question and our proposals too striking. Thuan conveyed impression that Diem is brooding over US proposals and has made no move yet to develop specific ideas on actions GVN expected to take. Thuan said President's attitude seemed to be that US asking great concessions of GVN in realm its sovereignty, in exchange for little additional help; that this is great disappointment after discussions with General Taylor involving, in particular, concept of Delta Task Force; that Diem seemed to wonder whether US was getting ready to back out on Viet Nam, as he suggested, we had done in Laos.

There followed a long discussion in which Thuan described all the difficulties that would be involved in doing what the U.S. was asking, including the risk of looking like a U.S. puppet.

There is nothing in our record to indicate any U.S. reconsideration of the decision against sending the military task force. Thus, if Diem and Thuan's response was a bargaining tactic to get the task force, it failed. On the other hand, if Diem was using disappointment over the failure to send the task force as a bargaining counter to get the U.S. to relent on its demands for reforms, then he got just what he wanted. But what amounted to a complete U.S. reversal on these demands also may have been influenced by the advice Kennedy received from John Kenneth Galbraith at this time. Kennedy had asked Galbraith to stop by Saigon on his return to India. Galbraith did so, and after three days cabled back, among other things, the advice that it was a waste of effort to bargain with Diem.

On the 20th, the day of Thuan's meeting with Nolting, Galbraith cabled the President:

There is scarcely the slightest practical chance that the administrative and political reforms now being pressed upon Diem will result in real change . . . there is no solution that does not involve a change in government.

On the insurgency, though, Galbraith was optimistic, provided Diem was replaced:

While situation is indubitably bad military aspects seem to me out of perspective. A comparatively well-equipped army with paramilitary formations number a quarter million men is facing a maximum of 15-18,000 lightly armed men. If this were equality, the United States would hardly be safe against the Sioux. I know the theories about this kind of warfare.

....Given even a moderately effective government and putting the relative military power into perspective, I can't help thinking the insurgency might very soon be settled.

The following day, Gaibraith, now in New Delhi, sent a more detailed appraisal, covering essentially the same ground. Here are some extracts.

.... The Viet Cong insurrection is still growing in effect. The outbreak on the Northern Highlands is matched by a potentially even more damaging impact on the economy and especially on the movement of rice to Saigon.

In the absence of knowledge of the admixture of terror and economic and social evangelism we had best assume that it is employing both. We must not forever be guided by those who misunderstand the dynamics of revolution and imagine that because the communists do not appeal to us they are abhorrent to everyone.

In our enthusiasm to prove outside intervention before world opinion we have unquestionably exaggerated the role of material assistance especially in the main area of insurrection in the far South. That leaders and radio guidance come in we know. But the amount of ammunition and weaponry that a man can carry on his back for several hundred kilometers over jungle trails was not increased appreciably by Marx. No major conflict can depend on such logistic support.

A maximum of 18,000 lightly armed men are involved in the insurrection. These are GVN estimates and the factor of exaggeration is unquestionably considerable. Ten thousand is more probable. What we have in opposition involves a heavy theological dispute. Diem it is said is a great but defamed leader. It is also said he has lost touch with the masses, is in political disrepute and otherwise no good. This debate can be bypassed by agreed points. It is agreed that administratively Diem is exceedingly bad. He holds far too much power in his own hands, employs his army badly, has no intelligence organization worthy of the name, has arbitrary or incompetent subordinates in the provinces and some achievements notwithstanding, has a poor economic policy. He has also effectively resisted improvement for a long while in face of heavy deterioration. This is enough. Whether his political posture is nepotic, despotic, out of touch with the villagers and hence damaging or whether this damage is the figment of Saigon intellectuals does not bear on our immediate policy and may be by-passed at least in part.

The SVN Army numbers 170,000 and with paramilitary units of the civil guard and home defense forces a quarter of a million. Were this well deployed on behalf of an effective government it should be obvious that the Viet Cong would have no chance of success or takeover. Washington is currently having an intellectual orgasm on the unbeatability of guerrilla war. Were guerrillas effective in a ratio of one to fifteen or twenty-five, it is obvious that no government would be safe. The Viet Cong, it should be noted, is strongest in the Southern Delta which is not jungle but open rice paddy.

The fundamental difficulties in countering the insurgency, apart from absence of intelligence, are two-fold. First is the poor command, deployment, training, morale and other weaknesses of the army and paramilitary forces. And second while they can operate-sweep-through any part of the country and clear out any visible insurgents, they cannot guarantee security afterwards. The Viet Cong comes back and puts the arm on all who have collaborated. This fact is very important in relation to requests from American manpower. Our forces would conduct the round-up operations which the RVN Army can already do. We couldn't conceivably send enough men to provide safety for the villages as a substitute for an effectively trained civil guard and home defense force and, perhaps, a politically cooperative community.

The key and inescapable point, then, is the ineffectuality (abetted debatably by the unpopularity) of the Diem government. This is the strategic factor. Nor can anyone accept the statement of those who have been either too long or too little in Asia that his is the inevitable posture of the Asian mandarin. For one thing it isn't true, but were it so the only possible conclusion would be that there is no future for mandarins. The communists don't favor them.

I come now to a lesser miscalculation, the alleged weakening emphasis of the Mekong flood. Floods in this part of the world are an old trap for western non-agriculturists. They are judged by what the Ohio does to its towns. Now as the flood waters recede it is already evident that this flood conforms to the Asian pattern, one repeated every year in India. The mud villages will soon grow again. Some upland rice was drowned because the water rose too rapidly. Nearer the coast the pressure on the brackish water will probably bring an offsetting improvement. Next year's crop will be much better for the silt.

I come now to policy, first the box we are in partly as the result of recent moves and second how we get out without a takeover. We have just proposed to help Diem in various ways in return for a promise of administrative and political reforms. Since the administrative (and possibly political) ineffectuality are the strategic factors for success the ability to get reforms is decisive. With them the new aid and gadgetry will be useful. Without them the helicopters, planes and adviser's won't make appreciable difference.

In my completely considered view, as stated yesterday, Diem will not reform either administratively or politically in any effective way. That is because he cannot. It is politically naive to expect it. He senses that he cannot let power go because he would be thrown out. He may disguise this even from himself with the statement that he lacks effective subordinates but the circumstance remains unchanged. He probably senses that his greatest danger is from the army. Hence the reform that will bring effective use of his manpower, though the most urgent may be the most improbable.

The political reforms are even more unlikely but the issue is academic. Once the image of a politician is fixed, whether among opposition intellectuals or peasants, it is not changed . . . Diem's image would not be changed by his taking in other non-communists, initiating some social reforms or otherwise meeting the requirements of our demarche.

However having started on this hopeless game we have no alternative, but to play it out for a minimum time. Those who think there is hope of reform will have to be persuaded.

* * *

It is a cliche that there is no alternative to Diem's regime. This is politically naive. Where one man has dominated the scene for good or ill there never seems to be. No one considered Truman an alternative to Roosevelt. There is none for Nehru. There was none I imagine for Rhee. This is an optical illusion arising from the fact that the eye is fixed on the visible figures. It is a better rule that nothing succeeds like successors.

We should not be alarmed by the Army as an alternative. It would buy time and get a fresh dynamic. It is not ideal; civilian rule is ordinarily more durable and more saleable to the world. But a change and a new start is of the essence and in considering opinion we may note that Diem's flavor is not markedly good in Asia.

A time of crisis in our policy on South Vietnam will come when it becomes evident that the reforms we have asked have not come off and that our presently proferred aid is not accomplishing anything. Troops will be urged to back up Diem. It will be sufficiently clear that I think this must be resisted. Our soldiers would not deal with the vital weakness. They could perpetuate it. They would enable Diem to continue to concentrate on protecting his own position at the expense of countering the insurgency. Last spring, following the Vice President's promise of more aid, proposals for increased and reform taxes which were well advanced were promptly dropped. The parallel on administrative and political reform could be close.

It will be said that we need troops for a show of strength and determination in the area. Since the troops will not deal with fundamental faults--since there can't be enough of them to give security to the countryside--their failure to provide security could create a worse crisis of confidence. You will be aware of my general reluctance to move in troops. On the other hand I would note that it is those of us who have worked in the political vineyard and who have committed our hearts most strongly to the political fortunes of the New Frontier who worry most about its bright promise being sunk under the rice fields. Dulles in 1954 saw the dangers in this area. Dean Acheson knew he could not invest men in Chiang.

* * *

My overall feeling is that despite the error implicit in this last move and the supposition that Diem can be reformed, the situation is not hopeless. It is only hopeless if we marry our course to that of a man who must spend more time protecting his own position and excluding those who threaten it than in fighting the insurgency. Diem's calculation instinctive or deliberate is evident. He has already been deposed once and not by the Communists. He can see his clear and present danger as well as anyone.

Two things are particularly worth noting about Galbraith's advice: the first, to the extent it had an influence on Kennedy, it counselled him to avoid sending troops, but also not to take seriously the quid pro quo with Diem because Diem was not going to do anything anyway. Consequently, Galbraith, with a limitlessly bleak view of the prospects for success under Diem, really had no quarrel with those who argued against putting pressure on Diem and for trying to win his confidence. He had no argument, because he thought both approaches (pressure and no pressure) were equally hopeless. And indeed, both had been tried during the year--the pressure approach in the CIP negotiations; the "get on his wave length" approach following the Task Force review--and both produced an identical lack of results.

Second, Gaibraith's analysis of the situation really has a good deal in common with that of the Taylor Mission. Obviously, he thought we must be rid of Diem, and he apparently thought it was a mistake to put this move off by making new aid offers to Diem rather than letting word get around that we would be prepared to offer more support to Vietnam if Diem should be removed. But at this time, even people like Galbraith (and Schlesinger, as is clear from his memoir) saw no alternative to continuing to support Vietnam, although not to continuing to support Diem personally. Gaibraith was, if anything, more optimistic about the chances of putting down the insurgency (given a change in Saigon) than was the Taylor Report. For his optimism was not at all contingent on any hopes of the efficacy of bombing threats against the north. For all we know, he may have been right in supposing any "moderately effective" Saigon government could do all right against the insurgents; but we now know all too well how over-optimistic was his fairly confident expectation that a military replacement of the Diem regime would be at least moderately effective.

To return to the negotiations in Saigon, in late November, we now had the following situation:

1. It was clear that Diem was, to say the least, disappointed with the bargain Kennedy had proposed.
2. Kennedy was obviously aware that he had offered Diem less than Diem expected, and demanded much more in return.
3. Both supporters of Diem, like Lansdale and Kenneth Young, and his severest critics, like Gaibraith, were agreed that it was futile to try to force Diem to reform. Kennedy had already had his own experiences with such efforts earlier in the year.
4. Presumably, although we have nothing to show it in the available record, there was some unrest within the Administration about the limited offer that was being made, the demands being pressed, and the delay it was all causing. To put off an agreement too long raised the dual threat of an awkward public squabble and renewed pressure on the President to send the task force after all.

It is hard to think of any realistic counter-arguments to the case for settling the dispute and get on with either trying to do better in the war, or get rid of Diem.

The next phase was a brief flurry of anti-American stories in the government-controlled Saigon press. The U.S. was accused, among other things, of trying to use Vietnam as a "pawn of capitalist imperialism." Nolting went to Diem to complain about the damage that such stories would do to U.S-Vietnamese relations. But Diem disclaimed responsibility, and suggested they were an understandable reaction of the South Vietnamese to what they had learned about the U.S. proposals from U.S. press reports. Nolting's final comment in his report on this meeting was a suggestion that the U.S. concentrate on "efficiency in GVN rather than on more nebulous and particularly offensive to Diem concept of political reform." The impression given by the cable is that Nolting felt on the defensive, which was probably the case since the package Washington had proposed must have been disappointing to him as well as to Diem.

It did not take long for Washington to back away from any hard demands on Diem. A sentence from the original guidance telegram stated "we would expect to share in the decision-making process in the political, economic and military fields as they affected the security situation" . . . as opposed to the previous arrangement of "acting in an advisory capacity only." Alexis Johnson and Rostow drafted a cable on December 7 that "clarified" this and a number of other points to which Diem had strongly objected, in this case to explain that,

....what we have in mind is that, in operations directly related to the security situation, partnership will be so close that one party will not take decisions or actions affecting the other without full and frank prior consultations....

This was quite a comedown from the idea that American involvement in the Vietnamese government should be so intimate that the government could be reformed "from the bottom up" despite Diem. Once the U.S. backed away from any tough interpretation of its proposals, agreement was fairly easily reached with Diem, and one of the usual fine sounding statements of agreed principles and measures was drawn up.

On one seemingly modest request from Diem, Washington was curiously firm. Diem repeatedly, both while the Taylor Mission was in Saigon, and after its return, asked for Lansdale to be sent. (Our record shows four such requests, one directly by Diem to Taylor; a second from Thuan; and in a memorandum to McNamara William Bundy referred to two further requests relayed through McGarr.) Cottrell, the senior State representative on the Taylor Mission, strongly endorsed sending Lansdale, and the main paper of the Taylor Report seemed to endorse the idea. William Bundy was in favor of sending Lansdale, and Lansdale wanted to go. But nothing happened. Lansdale never got to Vietnam until Cabot Lodge brought him out later in 1965.

The first contingents of helicopters arrived in Saigon December 11 (having been put to sea several weeks earlier). On the following day a New York Times dispatch from Saigon began:

Two United States Army helicopter companies arrived here today. The helicopters, to be flown and serviced by United States troops, are the first direct military support by the United States for South Vietnam's war against Communist guerrilla forces.

The craft will be assigned to the South Vietnamese Army in the field, but they will remain under United States Army control and operation.

At least 33 H-21C twin-rotor helicopters, their pilots and ground crews, an estimated total of 400 men, arrived aboard the Military Sea Transportation Service aircraft ferry Core.

The Times story ended by describing the force as "the first fruits" of the Taylor Mission, with more to come. The Times did not find the story important enough to put it on the front page.

A day later, the Times published a story about the ICC reaction to the arrival of the helicopters. It began:

The International Control Commission for Vietnam was reported today to be considering whether to continue functioning here in the face of an increase in United States assistance to South Vietnam's struggle against Communist guerrillas.

The Commission, made up of representatives of India, Canada, and Poland, has been holding emergency sessions since the arrival here yesterday of a United States vessel loaded with at least 33 helicopters and operating and maintenance crews.

A few paragraphs later, the dispatch noted that:

With the arrival yesterday of the Core, a former escort carrier, bearing the helicopters, four single-engine training planes and about 400 men, the United States military personnel here now are believed to total about 1,500. Many more are expected.

Again, the Times ran the story on an inside page.

Finally, on the 15th, a formal exchange of letters between Presidents Diem and Kennedy was published, announcing in general terms a stepped-up U.S. aid program for Vietnam.


Go Back to the First Section of Volume 2, Chapter 1


Glossary of Acronyms and Terms


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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