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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

The article that follows is part of The Planning of the Vietnam War, a study by members of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, including Richard J. Barnet, Marcus Raskin, and Ralph Stavins.* In their introduction to the study, the authors write:

In early 1970, Marcus Raskin conceived the idea of a study that would explain how the Vietnam disaster happened by analyzing the planning of the war. A group of investigators directed by Ralph Stavins concentrated on finding out who did the actual planning that led to the decisions to bomb North Vietnam, to introduce over a half-million troops into South Vietnam, to defoliate and destroy vast areas of Indochina, and to create millions of refugees in the area.

Ralph Stavins, assisted by Canta Pian, John Berkowitz, George Pipkin, and Brian Eden, conducted more than 300 interviews in the course of this study. Among those interviewed were many Presidential advisers to Kennedy and Johnson, generals and admirals, middle level bureaucrats who occupied strategic positions in the national security bureaucracy, and officials, military and civilian, who carried out the policy in the field in Vietnam.

A number of informants backed up their oral statements with documents in their possession, including informal minutes of meetings, as well as portions of the official documentary record now known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Our information is drawn not only from the Department of Defense, but also from the White House, the Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency.”

The study is being published in two volumes. The first, which includes the article below, will be published early in August. The second will appear in May, 1972.


At the end of March, 1961, the CIA circulated a National Intelligence Estimate on the situation in South Vietnam. This paper advised Kennedy that Diem was a tyrant who was confronted with two sources of discontent, the non-Communist loyal opposition and the Viet Cong. The two problems were closely connected. Of the spreading Viet Cong network the CIA noted:

Local recruits and sympathetic or intimidated villagers have enhanced Viet Cong control and influence over increasing areas of the countryside. For example, more than one-half of the entire rural region south and southwest of Saigon, as well as some areas to the north, are under considerable Communist control. Some of these areas are in effect denied to all government authority not immediately backed by substantial armed force. The Viet Cong’s strength encircles Saigon and has recently begun to move closer in the city.

The people were not opposing these recent advances by the Viet Cong; if anything, they seemed to be supporting them. The failure to rally the people against the Viet Cong was laid to Diem’s dictatorial rule:

There has been an increasing disposition within official circles and the army to question Diem’s ability to lead in this period. Many feel that he is unable to rally the people in the fight against the Communists because of his reliance on virtual one-man rule, his tolerance of corruption extending even to his immediate entourage, and his refusal to relax a rigid system of public controls.

The CIA referred to the attempted coup against Diem that had been led by General Thi in November, 1960, and concluded that another coup was likely. In spite of the gains by the Viet Cong, they predicted that the next attempt to overthrow Diem would originate with the army and the non-Communist opposition.

The Communists would like to initiate and control a coup against Diem, and their armed and subversive operations including united front efforts are directed toward this purpose. It is more likely, however, that any coup attempt which occurs over the next year or so will originate among non-Communist elements, perhaps a combination of disgruntled civilian officials and oppositionists and army elements, broader than those involved in the November attempt.

In view of the broadly based opposition to Diem’s regime and his virtual reliance on one-man rule, it was unlikely that he would initiate any reform measures that would sap the strength of the revolutionaries. Whether reform was conceived as widening the political base of the regime, which Diem would not agree to, or whether it was to consist of an intensified counter-insurgency program, something the people would not support, it had become painfully clear to Washington that reform was not the path to victory. But victory was the goal, and Kennedy called upon Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric to draw up the victory plans. On April 20, 1961, Kennedy asked Gilpatric to:

a) Appraise the current status and future prospects of the Communist drive to dominate South Vietnam.

b) Recommend a series of actions (military, political, and/or economic, overt and/or covert) which will prevent Communist domination of that country.

The Gilpatric Task Force

Gilpatric organized an Interdepartmental Task Force with representatives from State, Defense, CIA, the International Cooperation Agency, the US Information Agency, and the Office of the President, with Brigadier General Edward Lansdale as operations officer. Their report was to be completed in one week.

The final version, “A Program of Action to Prevent Communist Domination of South Vietnam,” was submitted to Kennedy on May 6. The victory plans recommended by the Gilpatric Task Force called for the use of US ground troops and a bilateral treaty between the US and the GVN. Both proposals stood in direct violation of the Geneva Accords, but were required because “it is essential that President Diem’s full confidence in and communication with the United States be restored promptly.”

Diem suspected that the United States was wavering in its commitment to the GVN on several grounds, some rational, such as the negotiations for a Laotian settlement, others irrational, such as his belief that the US had played a role in the attempted coup of November, 1960. But it was Diem’s suspicions, not the justification for them, that compelled Washington to give serious consideration to using ground troops and to signing a treaty with the GVN, even though Diem’s policies were demonstrably bankrupt and the suggested remedies violated international law. The feeling was beginning to take hold in Washington that if the US took over the job, Diem’s policies would not matter. This belief was to be reinforced during the crisis in the fall of 1961, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk recommended that the United States simply take over the machinery of government in the South, should ground troops be introduced into the combat theater.

Circumventing international law was viewed by the Kennedy Administration as a problem far less significant than that of building support for a bankrupt GVN. Nevertheless, the question exercised the minds of officials in Washington. In his report to Kennedy, Gilpatric, for example, advanced the following argument to meet the charge that the United States was flouting the law:

On the grounds that the Geneva Accords have placed inhibitions upon free world action while at the same time placing no restrictions upon the Communists, Ambassador Nolting should be instructed to enter into preliminary discussions with Diem regarding the possibility of a defensive security alliance despite the inconsistency of such actions with the Geneva Accords.

This action would be based on the premise that such an undertaking is justified in international law as representing a refusal to be bound by the Accords in a degree and manner beyond that which the other party to the Accords has shown a willingness to honor. Communist violations, therefore, justify the establishment of the security arrangement herein recommended. Concurrently, Defense should study the military advisability of committing US forces in Vietnam.

This was the explanation that would be given to the American public: Communist violations of the Accords justified the bilateral treaty and the use of US ground forces. But would this explanation also convince official Washington of the need to deploy troops? Indeed not. In the same report, Gilpatric informed Kennedy why US troops were needed in Vietnam. “US forces are required,” Gilpatric wrote, “to provide maximum psychological impact in deterrence of further Communist aggression from North Vietnam, China, or the Soviet Union.” They would also serve an additional purpose: “to provide significant military resistance to potential North Vietnam Communist and/or Chinese Communist action” (italics added).

The US public was to be told that Washington had a legal right to deploy troops in response to actual Communist transgressions, while privately Washington would decide to act because of “potential” Communist action. Of course, “further” aggressions from China or the Soviet Union could hardly be equated with past violations, especially since neither country had set foot in South Vietnam. Indeed, Russia had sponsored the two Vietnams for membership in the United Nations as late as 1959. “Further” aggressions from the North, such as reactivating the guerrilla apparatus in the South, an apparatus manned by Southern cadres and fed by Southern peasants, were Hanoi’s delayed response to the initial transgression by the GVN, which, in collusion with Washington, had refused to consult with the North or hold elections in the South, as required by the Geneva Accords.

Thus, Washington’s reason for deploying combat troops directly contradicted the explanation that would be given to the press and to Congress. Washington had decided that the way to manipulate international law was to fool the American people.

On May 11, President Kennedy, after reviewing the findings of the Gilpatric Task Force, issued a National Security Action Memorandum which contained several important decisions on Vietnam. Such memoranda, written by the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, were used to convey Presidential orders to all the agencies that were to carry them out, or needed to know about them. The NSAM of May 11 stated:

  1. The US objective is to prevent Communist domination of South Vietnam.

  2. A further increase in GVN forces from 170,000 to 200,000 is to be assumed.

  3. Defense Department is directed to examine the size and composition of US forces in the event that such forces are committed to Vietnam.

  4. The United States will seek to increase the confidence of Diem.

  5. The Ambassador should begin negotiations for a bilateral arrangement with Vietnam.

  6. The program for covert action is approved.

Gilpatric asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff their opinion on the desirability of deploying US forces to Vietnam. They recommended immediate deployment of a sufficient number to achieve the objectives set forth in the Gilpatric report. To set the machinery in motion, the Joint Chiefs added, Diem should “be encouraged to request that the United States fulfill its SEATO obligations‌. Upon receipt of this request, suitable forces could be immediately deployed.”

Vice President Johnson was dispatched to Vietnam to shore up Diem’s confidence in the US commitment by “encouraging” him to request US ground troops. Referring to Diem as “the Winston Churchill of the Orient,” Johnson asked him to make this request. But much to Washington’s chagrin, Diem told Johnson that he did not want foreign troops on Vietnamese soil, except in the event of overt aggression. Moreover, he pointed out, the presence of US troops would contravene and nullify the Geneva Accords. The semblance of legality could be preserved, he added, if American troops were channeled, as “advisers,” through the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), which had been in South Vietnam since the mid-Fifties.

  1. *

    The study is the responsibility of its authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute, its trustees, or fellows.

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