To Move a Nation
The decision to escalate the Vietnam War was not made in 1965. It was made in 1964. It was certainly made within six months of President Kennedy’s death. It may even have been made within six weeks of his death.
Several writers have speculated that the Johnson Administration decided to send ground troops against the South and fighter bombers against the North long before either the Tonkin crisis of August, 1964 or the Pleiku raid of February, 1965. Franz Schurmann found a hint to this effect in Johnson’s 1964 New Year’s message to the South Vietnamese Government, and I.F. Stone has gradually assembled an impressive case that the fundamental decisions were made in the same year. But even Stone’s material, persuasive though it is, rested ultimately on the debatable belief that events which appeared on the surface to be linked in a deliberate pattern of escalation were in fact so linked by the Government. We need no longer doubt it. Roger Hilsman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, 1963-4, self-confessed member of the Kennedy “inner circle” and the latest of the JFK entourage to commit his public service to the public record, tells us more even than we need to know in order to clinch the case.
According to Hilsman’s account the Kennedy Administration was fundamentally divided by the crises in Laos and Vietnam. One faction—Harriman, Hilsman, the State Department (minus Rusk), the President himself—favored what Hilsman calls the “political” approach. As did their “military” opposite numbers, these men believed that the insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos were ultimately attributable to North Vietnamese direction, arms, and personnel. But they believed nevertheless that this threat could best be curbed by limiting the application of American power within the borders of Laos and South Vietnam. In Laos this meant using the neutralist faction led by Souvanna Phouma and the international community led by the Soviet Union to keep the left-wing Pathet Lao at bay. This “political” approach did not prohibit the use of American “advisers” in the Lao Army and Air Force nor did it even preclude sending regular US units to fight within the Kingdom of Laos; it merely hoped, in the event US soldiers had to be sent, to limit their numbers to a few thousand and their mission to protecting the Mekong River system.
The same emphasis on limited objectives and limited use of American forces carried over to Vietnam. Because South Vietnam had no Souvanna Phouma that Washington was aware of—never having looked for one—different tactics had to be used. The favoured policy was to give unlimited political support to the governmental apparatus of South Vietnam while trying to limit our support of Diem and his entourage. Since Diem countered by placing the administrative reins more and more in his own, and Nhu’s, hands Washington’s policy of splitting its support never quite worked out. In any case our military effort was to …