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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

After Johnson’s visit, Diem sent a letter to President Kennedy expressing gratitude for Johnson’s offer of assistance. “I was most deeply gratified by this gracious gesture by your distinguished Vice President, particularly as we have not become accustomed to being asked for our own views as to our needs,” he wrote, concluding with the reminder that “we can count on the material support from your great country which will be so essential to achieving final victory.” Material support, not US troops, would be furnished by Washington; otherwise Diem would make himself even more vulnerable to the Communist charge that he was a colonialist.

During the summer of 1961, when the situation in Indochina deteriorated, Diem changed his mind and requested a treaty and troops from the United States. On October 1, the recently appointed Ambassador Nolting reported that Diem wanted a bilateral defense treaty with the US; on the thirteenth, Diem requested ground troops. These requests coincided with the conclusion of Defense Department and JCS studies, both of which advised the President to dispatch US troops to Vietnam, as well as with the announcement of a forthcoming “fact-finding mission” to Vietnam by two White House advisers, General Maxwell Taylor and Walt W. Rostow.

The Defense Department’s study of the Viet Cong movement produced the discovery that the men and material originated in the South, not the North. The Department found that although the level of infiltration from the North was increasing, the “vast majority of Viet Cong troops are of local origin.” If Hanoi was not furnishing the troops, was it at least furnishing the supplies? “There is little evidence of major supplies from outside sources,” the Defense Department study found, “most arms being captured or stolen from GVN forces or from the French during the Indochina war.” The North had given moral support to the insurgents, but little else. What should the United States do?

Having determined that the Viet Cong movement was local in origin, the Defense Department recommended that 11,000 US combat troops and 11,800 support troops be deployed to Vietnam for the purpose of sealing the border against any possible future infiltration from the North. But, the Department added, these troops would be insufficient to establish an anti-Communist government in the South. “The ultimate force requirements [for that purpose] cannot be estimated with any precision,” the Department stated. “Three divisions would be a guess.”

The Joints Chiefs of Staff, in their reply to Gilpatric, reasoned that the North would rely still further upon a policy of infiltration if SEATO and US troops were deployed in the South. The Joint Chiefs speculated that it would be uncharacteristic of the North to respond with an overt invasion of the South, but in the event that it did, the US would have to send in three divisions. If China threw its weight into the struggle, then six US divisions, or a total of 205,000 men, would be required, and the use of nuclear weapons would become a distinct possibility.

The CIA took the Viet Cong threat less seriously than the Defense Department did, and identified the non-Communist (perhaps one should say anti-Communist) South as the immediate danger to Diem. The agency wrote:

Most immediate threat to Diem is not a military takeover by the Communists but the mounting danger of an internal coup by disgruntled military and civilian members of the government who are critical of Diem’s leadership. These critics hold that Diem’s heavy hand in all operations of the government is not only hampering the anti-Communist military effort but is steadily alienating the populace.

Should a SEATO task force be dispatched to Vietnam as an alternative to US troops—one of the contingency plans circulating in Washington at the time—the CIA, like the Joint Chiefs, discounted the likelihood of a Northern invasion. Hanoi’s strategy, the CIA believed, would be “to play upon possible SEATO weariness over maintaining substantial forces.” Once this weariness became evident, “the Asian members would soon become disenchanted and look to the US to do something to lessen the burden and to solve the problem.” Whether this something would be a sizable number of US ground troops, as favored by the Joint Chiefs, or the use of nuclear weapons, as contemplated by Admiral Felt, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific forces (CINCPAC), was left undecided.

If the CIA analysis was correct, the US faced the possibility of a major war on the Asian mainland for the purpose of defending the narrow base of the Diem regime against its own people. Even the anti-Communist opposition in the South was rapidly being transmuted into part of a Communist monolith, located either in Moscow or Peking.

Nevertheless, some advisers began to argue for war. William Bundy, who had recently changed positions from the CIA’s Far East expert to Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Defense Department, echoed Walt Rostow’s belief that the fall of 1961 was the “now or never” period for the US. If America acted promptly and aggressively, Bundy argued, there was a 70 percent chance that it would “clean up the situation.” There was a 30 percent chance that “we would wind up like the French in 1954; white men can’t win this kind of war.” Having weighed the options, Bundy concluded that a pre-emptive strike was advisable, and recommended “early and hard-hitting operations.”

The Taylor-Rostow Mission

On October 11, 1961, President Kennedy authorized the Taylor-Rostow mission to Vietnam. Its purpose was to examine the feasibility of dispatching US troops; Kennedy specifically recommended that the mission look into the question of troop requirements. One option would be to send fewer US combat troops than the 22,800 identified in the Defense Department plan, but enough to “establish a US presence in Vietnam.” A second dispensed with US combat forces entirely, and envisioned a stepped-up version of what is now called the “Vietnamization” program. According to this plan, the United States would increase its training of Vietnamese units and furnish more US equipment, “particularly helicopters and other light aircraft, trucks, and other ground support transport.”

Two days after Kennedy announced the Taylor-Rostow mission, Diem, who had heretofore refused to “request” US combat troops, met with Ambassador Nolting and asked that the US government provide South Vietnam with the aid that had been secretly discussed when the Taylor-Rostow mission was being planned. Vice President Thuan, speaking for President Diem, requested an additional squadron of AD-6 fighter bombers, US civilian contract pilots for helicopters, transport planes to be used for non-combat operations, and US combat units to be introduced into South Vietnam as combat-trainer units.

Diem had changed his mind. Originally ashamed to be dependent upon a US presence and afraid to scuttle the Geneva Accords, he set aside these considerations once it became clear that a neutral Laos was about to emerge from the negotiations then under way. According to Diem, a neutral Laos would be useful to the Communists. They could then cross the western border at will, infiltrate into the South, and crush him. The terrain in Laos was more difficult to defend, and the Communists were strong enough there to strike a final blow. Laos, he argued, had been used to trap the Americans into conceding South Vietnam.

Having enticed the Americans into a settlement that made it look as if the Americans had lost nothing, the Communists could concentrate all of their energies on seizing South Vietnam. To counter this strategy, Diem wanted some immediate assurance that the US would remain committed to the South. Such assurance would require a bilateral treaty and the presence of US combat troops. Only this would dissuade the North from pursuing a militant policy and convince those elements in the South that were still loyal to Diem that a Laotian settlement was not the death warrant for the GVN.

The Kennedy Administration had discovered that it was impossible to avoid war. The only question was where and when. If Laos was not settled quickly, the US would have to pour in troops, with small chance of success. But to negotiate a neutral Laos meant that US troops would have to be deployed to South Vietnam, thus increasing the likelihood of a direct confrontation. Washington had painted itself into a corner—either war in Laos now or war in Vietnam in the future. Kennedy chose the latter.

The Taylor-Rostow mission stopped at Hawaii on the way to Vietnam and discussions were held with Admiral Felt, head of CINCPAC. Rostow asked about contingency plans in the event that open warfare broke out with the North. One question in particular concerned the use of nuclear weapons. Felt replied, “Plans were drawn on the assumption that tactical nuclear weapons will be used if required and that we can anticipate requests being made for their use if action expands into a Phase 4 situation.” (Phase 4 involved a North Vietnamese and Chinese invasion of the South.)

Once in Vietnam, Taylor and Rostow explored ways of introducing US ground troops. They had decided that Diem needed them to preserve his rule, but they also recognized that such a course would damage America’s image as a peacekeeper. The general and the professor wondered how the United States could go to war while appearing to preserve the peace. While they were pondering this question, Vietnam was suddenly struck by a deluge. It was as if God had wrought a miracle. American soldiers, acting on humanitarian impulses, could be dispatched to save Vietnam not from the Viet Cong, but from the floods. McGarr, the Chief of MAAG, stated that Taylor favored “moving in US military personnel for humanitarian purposes with subsequent retention if desirable.” He added, “This is an excellent opportunity to minimize adverse publicity.”

Taylor himself viewed the flood relief task force more ambitiously. It would be the most efficient way to deal with world opinion, assuage Diem’s fears, and allay Kennedy’s reservations. World opinion would be swayed by humanitarian considerations. The colonial stain would not unduly tarnish Diem’s image because the flood relief program clearly was not intended to “take over the responsibility for the security of the country.” Finally, and perhaps most important, Taylor’s plan contained a built-in excuse to withdraw—a feature intended to overcome Kennedy’s objections. The President, it was well known, believed that it was far more difficult to remove troops than to introduce them. Taylor wrote to Kennedy, “As the task is a specific one, we can extricate our troops when it is done if we so desire. Alternatively, we can phase them into other activities if we wish to remain longer.”

Having invented a scheme that would enable the leaders in Saigon and Washington to placate their respective constituencies, Taylor then turned his attention from his preoccupation with politics to the military consequences. He recommended that the President deploy 8,000 ground troops and acknowledged that most of them would be used for logistical purposes. Such a token gesture could not be expected to have great military significance, but it surely ran the risk, as Taylor put it, of “escalating into a major war in Asia.” Even if this danger did not materialize, the initial commitment would make it “difficult to resist the pressure to reinforce.” Once the blood of a single American soldier had been spilled the President would assume the role of Commander-in-Chief and would be obliged to discharge his constitutional duty to protect the troops in the field.

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