Memorandum for the Chairman, NSC Working Group on Southeast Asia, from L.M. Mustin, JCS Staff with Comments on the draft for Part II, "US Objectives and Stakes in South Vietnam and Southeast Asia," 10 November 1964

Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 621-628

10 November 1964


Subject: Comment on Draft for Part II of Project Outline on Courses of Action in Southeast Asia-"US Objectives and Stakes in SVN and SEA"

1. Furnished herewith are comments on the subject draft, which earlier you requested.

2. The draft, which provides a well-written examination of a broad range of considerations, has been studied carefully within the Joint Staff. Principal conclusions are:

a. It appears to understate rather substantially the gravity to the United States of the possible loss of SVN to the communists, under whatever circumstances, and

b. It appears to overstate rather markedly the magnitude, difficulty, and potential risks in measures by the United States to prevent that loss.

3. The attached copy of the draft, with line-by-line insertion of comments, will indicate wherein the above impressions tend to be formed.

Vice Admiral, USN
Working Group Member

As Stated



Subject: Comments on Draft Section lI-US Objectives and Stakes in South Vietnam and Southeast Asia

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: In an early working-group meeting Mr. Bundy provided drafts of material intended for Section II of the NSC working group project, subject as above, and asked for comments. Below is reproduced, in quotes, the current version of Section II, with interspersed comments developed from a search of related JCS expressions of views in the premises.

II. US Objectives and Stakes in South Viet-Nam and Southeast Asia

A. US Objectives and the Present Basis of US Action

In South Viet-Nam we are helping a government defend its independence. In Laos, we are working to preserve, in its essence, an international neutralized settlement willfully flouted by the communist side. Paradoxically, while American opinion weights the former well ahead of the latter, there are some quarters--such as Britain and India--where the latter is a more appealing cause both legally and practically. But our basic rationale is defensible in both cases.

Comment: I believe the United States is committed in the eyes of the world to both of these tasks as matters of national prestige, credibility, and honor with respect to world-wide pledges. Later material in the paper seems to agree. This then would not appear to be a subject on which we should permit ourselves to be swayed unduly by other nations' views, paradoxical or other, and possibly more useful than noting that our rationale "is defensible" would be to affirm that it needs no defense.

Behind our policy have been three factors:

a. The general principle of helping countries that try to defend their own freedom against communist subversion and attack.

b. The specific consequences of communist control of South Viet-Nam and Laos for the security of, successively, Cambodia, Thailand (most seriously), Malaysia, and the Philippines--and resulting increases in the threat to India and--more in the realm of morale effects in the short term--the threat to South Korea and perhaps the GRC, and the effect on Japanese attitudes through any development that appears to make Communist China and its allies a dominant force in Asia that must be lived with.

c. South Viet-Nam, and to a lesser extent, Laos, as test cases of communist "wars of national liberation" world-wide.

Comment: The third factor above, which is broadly stated, is related to but appears distinguishable from what may be considered a fourth, more specific issue: Now that we are publicly, officially, and heavily committed in SVN, US prestige has been rather specifically put at issue, and requires successful defense if we are to retain a measure of free-world leadership. This thought is brought out later in the paper; it could well be listed here as part of the subject introduction.

In other words, our policy toward South Viet-Nam and Laos is an integral part of our over-all policy of resisting Communist expansion world-wide, and a particularly close part of our policy of resisting the expansion of Communist China and its allies, North Viet-Nam and North Korea.

Thus, the loss of South Viet-Nam to Communist control, in any form, would be a major blow to our basic policies. US prestige is heavily committed to the maintenance of a non-Communist South Viet-Nam, and only less heavily so to a neutralized Laos.

Yet we must face the fact that, on any analysis we can now make, we cannot guarantee to maintain a non-Communist South Viet-Nam short of committing ourselves to whatever degree of military action would be required to defeat North Viet-Nam and probably Communist China militarily. Such a commitment would involve high risks of a major conflict in Asia, which could not be confined to air and naval action but would almost inevitably involve a Korean-scale ground action and possibly even the use of nuclear weapons at some point. Even if all these things were done, South Vietnam might still come apart under us.

Comment: The above paragraph appears to overstate rather markedly the degree of difficulty associated with success for our objectives in SVN. Our first objective is to cause the DRV to terminate support of the SEA insurgencies. Once this is done, then we have a period of stabilization and maturing in SVN, during which we can consider what next we need do. To achieve this objective does not necessarily require that we "defeat North Viet-Nam," and it almost certainly does not require that we defeat Communist China. Hence our commitment to SVN does not involve a high probability let alone "high risks," of a major conflict in Southeast Asia. One reason it does not is our capability to show the CHICOMs that if there's a "risk" of such a war, the main "risk" is theirs. Certainly no responsible person proposes to go about such a war, if it should occur, on a basis remotely resembling Korea. "Possibly even the use of nuclear weapons at some point" is of course why we spend billions to have them. If China chooses to go to war against us she has to contemplate their possible use, just as does anyone else--this is more of the "risk" to them. And of course SVN might nevertheless come apart under us, but an alert initiative commensurate with the stakes should make the likelihood of this quite remote.

Hence, we must consider realistically what our over-all objectives and stakes are, and just what degree of risk and loss we should be prepared to make to hold South Vietnam, or alternatively to gain time and secure our further lines of defense in the world and specifically in Asia.

Comment: Here again is emphasis on "risk" and "loss" to us, as though the harder we try the more we stand to risk and to lose. On the contrary, a resolute course of action in lieu of half measures, resolutely carried out instead of dallying and delaying, offers the best hope for minimizing risks, costs, and losses in achieving our objectives. The paragraph also implies there is some alternative to our holding South Viet-Nam. There is

B. Possible Alternate US Objectives

Bluntly stated, our fall-back objectives in South Viet-Nam would be:

1. To hold the situation together as long as possible, so that we have time to strengthen other areas of Asia.
2. To take forceful enough measures in the siutation so that we emerge from it, even in the worst case, with our standing as the principal helper against Communist expansion as little impaired as possible.
3. To make clear to the world, and to nations in Asia particularly, that failure in South Viet-Nam, if it comes, was due to special local factors that do not apply to other nations we are committed to defend--that, in short, our will and ability to help those nations defend themselves is not impaired.

Comment: We have no further fall-back position in Southeast Asia in the stated view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The three courses outlined above add emphasis to that reality:

(1) Strengthening other areas of Asia, in the context of our having been pushed out of SVN, would be a thoroughly non-productive effort militarily, and politically it seems dubious we'd even be offered the opportunity to attempt it.
(2) It is difficult to conceive of how our "standing as the principal helper against communist expansion" could suffer a more abject humiliation, trumpeted more widely to the world, than for us now to lose SVN.
(3) Course number three is a slight paraphrase of Aesop's fox and grapes story. No matter how we talk it up amongst ourselves it could only be completely transparent to intelligent outside observers.

The first two of these speak for themselves. The third calls for a review of the elements in the South Vietnamese situation that do truthfully lend themselves to this thesis.

The honest fact is that South Viet-Nam and Laos have not really been typical cases from the beginning, which accounts in part for our inability to enlist the kind of international support we had in Korea and for our having to carry the load so largely alone. Most of the world had written off both countries in 1954, and our ability to keep them going--while an extraordinary and praiseworthy effort--has never given them quite the standing of such long-established national entities as Greece, Turkey, and Iran, or the special ward-of-the-UN status that South Korea had in 1950.

Comment: This is illusory. First, we had no significant support in Korea, other than verbal. Except for the South Koreans themselves, the US did essentially all the fighting, took all the casualties, and paid all the bills. Second, regardless of how many or what kinds of countries had written off Laos and SVN in 1954, we did not--and we've committed ourselves accordingly. It is our judgment, skill, capability, prestige, and national honor which are at stake, and we put them there. And it doesn't seem particularly pertinent, in that context, how these countries may compare with Greece, etc.

Moreover, the recent courses of events has already highlighted-and could be brought even more to highlight-the atypical features that in sum have made South Viet-Nam and Laos so difficult. A bad colonial heritage of long standing, totally inadequate preparation for self-government by the colonial power, a colonialist war fought in half-baked fashion and lost, a nationalist movement taken over by Communist ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent--these are the facts that dog us to this day.

Comment: This seems mainly to be more in the sour grapes vein. Because things may be atypical or difficult doesn't afford a very persuasive basis for giving up on them with standards unblemished.

The basic point, of course, is that we have never thought we could defend a government or a people that had ceased to care strongly about defending themselves, or that were unable to maintain the fundamentals of government. And the overwhelming world impression is that these are lacking elements in South Viet-Nam, and that its loss will be due, if it comes, to their lack.

Comment: A resolute United States would ensure, amongst other things, that this lack were cured, as the alternative to accepting the loss.

To get across these points, there would be much merit to non-government information activity getting across this picture, primarily of past French errors.

Comment: French errors also included major political delays and in-decisions, which amongst other things tolerated if not enforced a military fiasco. Rather than now lamely resurrecting the story of how the French couldn't do the job, it seems to me we should instead make sure we don't repeat their mistakes. (The French also tried to build the Panama Canal).

C. Consequences of Communist Control of South Viet-Nam in a Worldwide Sense.

How badly would the loss of South Viet-Nam shake the faith and resolve of other non-Communist nations that face the threat of Communist aggression or subversion and rely on us for major help?

Comment: In JCS view, near-disastrously, or worse.

Within NATO, probably not at all, provided we had carried out any military actions in Southeast Asia without taking forces from NATO for this purpose, and provided further that adverse developments in Southeast Asia had not produced a wave of revulsion in American public opinion against [words illegible] commitments overseas. The latter possibility raises a [words illegible] question, that probably cannot now be estimated with any precision; too much would depend on the US casualties and the total circumstances of the loss.

Comment: This paragraph appears to be predicated on an assumed campaign of such magnitude we have to draw on CINCLANT/ CINCEUR resources for it (which is in excess of anything on the books), heavy casualties in that campaign, but nevertheless, its loss. This seems so remote a postulate that it only confuses the basic question as to the NATO evaluation, with which we do not agree.

Greece and Turkey might be affected to some degree, and this would call our taking reassuring action there.

Iran and India appear to be the next problem cases outside the Far East. Iran has not concerned itself at all with Southeast Asia, and India has been from time to time deeply concerned, but has done little about it. Yet we must face the chance that, as a US defeat sank in, there could be serious adverse repercussions in these countries. We do not have alliance commitments to either; yet in fact both rely on us in the background of all their calculations. Again, we would have to consider reassuring action, but the effects do not appear beyond reach.

Comment: In the context here concerned, actions that would be truly "reassuring" seem beyond our physical and fiscal capabilities. As to words, they could only be regarded by others as starkly empty, and much propaganda would be devoted to pointing that out.

In other areas of the world, notably the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, either the nature of the Communist threat, or the degree of US commitment, or both, are so radically different than in Southeast Asia that it is difficult to assess the impact. Almost everything would depend on whether the US was in fact able to go on with its present policies. If it did so, the results would probably not be too serious.

Comment: We do not share the feeling of reassurance implied by the last sentence.

D. Consequences in Southeast Asia and in Asia Generally of Communist Control in South Vietnam.

1. In Southeast Asia.

The so-called domino theory implies that Cambodia, Thailand, possibly Burma, and Malaysia, would fall almost automatically to Communist domination if South Vietnam does.

Comment: We hold this to be the most realistic estimate for Cambodia and Thailand, probably Burma, possibly Malaysia.

Comment: Perhaps the British could save Malaysia if they undertook resolutely to do so, but we estimate that Thailand goes if SVN is lost.

These are the key pressure points that would immediately become crucial. If either Thailand or Malaysia were lost, or went badly sour in any way, then the rot would be in real danger of spreading all over mainland Southeast Asia.

Comment: Since we are convinced Thailand would indeed go, this underscores the especially grave concern relative to SVN on the part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

2. In Asia generally:

Both the initial and ultimate effects would depend heavily on the circumstances in which South Vietnam was lost, and on whether the loss did in fact greatly weaken or lead to the early loss of other areas in Southeast Asia.

Comment: We do not agree with the reasoning leading to this reasoning relative to SVN, and estimate the results would be most grave almost regardless of foreseeable variants as to circumstance.

Yet the initial effects would be substantial in any event. There is already something of a crisis of confidence in the GRC, arising from the Chinese Communist nuclear explosion and possibly to be accentuated by developments in the ChiRep situation in the UN. In South Korea, there is a tremendous sense of dependence on the US, and some discouragement at the failure to make as much progress politically and economically as North Korea (from a much more favorable initial position) has made. And in the Philippines, there is also a strong sense of dependence on the US.

All three of these would need maximum reassurance in any case.

We must also weigh the effects on Japan, where the set is already in the direction of closer ties with Communist China, with a clear threat of early recognition. While Japan's faith in our military posture and determination might not be shaken, the growing feeling that Communist China must somehow be lived with might well be accentuated.

Beyond this point--if the rest of Southeast Asia did in fact succumb over time--these effects would be multiplied many times over. This is not to say that there would not be a great deal we could still do to reassure these countries. But the picture of a defense line clearly breached could have serious effects, and could easily, over time, tend to unravel the whole Pacific defense structure.

Comment: We do not share the views indicated above as to the potential value of "reassurance" to others if we lose SVN. There would be no words left that won't have been shown to be hollow, and there would be few deeds left, short of general war, that will be within our capabilities. We agree with the last sentence, and estimate the time concerned to be short.

3. Summary

In sum, there are enough "ifs" and enough possibilities of offsetting action in the above analysis so that it cannot be concluded that the loss of South Vietnam would soon have the totally crippling effect in Southeast Asia and Asia generally that the loss of Berlin would have in Europe. Nonetheless, the loss would be extremely serious, and it could be as bad as Berlin, driving us to the progressive loss of other areas or to taking a stand at some point where there would almost certainly be major conflict and perhaps the great risk of nuclear war.

Comment: We do not agree. Berlin per se means much symbolically, but little militarily. SVN means just as much symbolically, and is a military keystone.

Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Vietnam War Page