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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

This obligation made it unlikely that troops would be removed and far more likely that additional troops would be sent over. The technical device of a built-in exit might be superseded by the political reality of a built-in escalation. And with the DRV and the Viet Cong committed to a policy of attrition, the United States would then be locked into a long struggle at the edge of the Communist world.

Such a struggle would take place, unfortunately, at a time when “the strategic reserve of the US forces is presently so weak that we can ill afford any detachment of forces.” Taylor, in effect, told Kennedy to dispatch a few thousand combat troops which could not turn the tide of military battle, which invited a major war, provoked an indefinite and indecisive conflict, and depleted the US reserve. Why should Kennedy do this? Because, as Taylor said, “I do not believe that our program to save South Vietnam will succeed without it.”

The symbolic gesture of stationing a few thousand US troops would save South Vietnam, Taylor argued, because it would inform the Communists of the “seriousness of the US intent to resist” and would raise the “national morale” of the South. Taylor predicted that the North would back down if the United States exhibited a fixed resolve to defend the South. That resolve had to be conveyed in the form of a clear message to Hanoi that the United States would take offensive action against the North if it did not stop supporting the Viet Cong. A small task force was a harbinger of greater devastation. The North would desist once it understood this message because, in Taylor’s words, “North Vietnam is extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing, a weakness which should be exploited diplomatically in convincing Hanoi to lay off South Vietnam.”

The small task force, along with other forms of US-GVN cooperation, not only would alarm Hanoi, but in the South it would “reverse the present downward trend, stimulate an offensive spirit and build up morale.” As Rostow commented to Diem at this time, “That secret of turning point is offensive action.”

The purposes of discouraging the North and encouraging the South became the strategy that was to be relied upon throughout the Vietnam war. The same arguments that were advanced for the first time in 1961 were repeated in 1965 when Washington made the decision to embark on Operation Rolling Thunder. By the summer of 1965, however, lifting Southern morale was no longer viewed as necessary to win the war. The decision to send in the first 500,000 combat troops was justified solely by the need to convince the Communists that the United States was serious.

The strategy has remained surprisingly constant, guiding American policy for the better part of a decade. The architects of the strategy, Taylor and Rostow, did not envision the small task force of 8,000 men as the “final word.” It was simply the first lesson they planned for the leadership in Hanoi.

By its major premise—that Hanoi would back down only if it knew the United States was prepared to attack North Vietnam directly—the strategy entailed a built-in escalation. Events had to follow in a monotonous but natural order; increase the size of US support troops in the South; institute covert operations against the North; threaten to bomb the North; bomb the North; pour US combat troops into the South as rapidly as possible; invade Cambodia; invade Laos…invade the North? destroy the North? etc.

The strategy required not only that the United States make it known that it would attack the North directly, but also that the United States not obliterate the North. To threaten to destroy the Communist regime in Hanoi would risk a direct encounter with China or Russia, a risk that the national security managers wished to avoid. They did not want to fight a nuclear war. They wanted to fight a safe war. The strategy therefore demanded a combination of escalation and moderation.

America would exercise its power in a deliberate and calculated manner in order to hold Hanoi hostage. The term “Hanoi” here is to be taken literally: the rest of Vietnam, indeed all of Indochina, was to become a target. One could say that US strategy was to kill the people while preserving the Hanoi government. Once surrounded by devastation, isolated, and abandoned by her socialist allies, Russia and China, Hanoi would be left with no choice but to submit to a “moderate” but triumphant America.

Although the creation of the task force was its most far-reaching recommendation, the Taylor-Rostow report urged the President to adopt a number of other measures. These were mainly of a military and administrative nature. The report recommended that the personnel in the Military Assistance Advisory Group mission be increased from 1,103 to 2,612. Moreover, US aircraft, consisting of several helicopter companies, and US crews for supporting or operational missions were to be introduced no later than mid-November.

The combat troops, the increase in the size of MAAG, and the use of US aircraft and crews were all violations of the limits on troops and armaments set by the Geneva Accords. The International Security Agency, reviewing the legality of these recommendations, noted that the additions to MAAG, although a violation of international law, could not easily be proved: discussions between the International Control Commission, which was charged with enforcing the Geneva Accords, and the Embassy could be extended for months, during which time the value of the increase in MAAG’s size would be realized.

The use of US helicopters was of a more serious nature, requiring some groundwork to pacify Congress and the press. But combat troops could not so easily be disguised. Their only justification would be their subsequent success, not prior propaganda, and the International Security Agency viewed them with deep skepticism. It predicted that the North would respond by infiltrating 15,000 men, which would in turn require three US divisions to offset them. Thus an indefinite war of attrition would be ensured.

The “Limited Partnership”

The administrative recommendations of Taylor and Rostow were designed to place a number of Americans on four specific levels of the South Vietnamese bureaucracy. First, Americans would work as high-level government advisers. Taylor envisioned “a limited number of Americans in key ministries.” This would mean that US advisers would, in effect, become cabinet officers in the Diem government. Next, “a joint US-Vietnamese Military Survey, down to the provincial level, in each of three corps areas” would engage in a number of tasks, including intelligence, command and control, the build-up of reserves for offensive purposes, and mediation between the military commander and the province chief. The other two functions would be border control operations and “intimate liaison with the Vietnamese Central Intelligence organizations.”

The ostensible purpose of giving Americans critical roles in government was that “Vietnamese performance in every domain can be substantially improved if Americans are prepared to work side by side with the Vietnamese.” Taylor designated these administrative changes as representing a “shift from US advice to limited partnership.” The concept of “limited partnership,” in fact, meant that the GVN had been negligent in reforming itself in the past, and suggested that the only way to reform the GVN in the future would be for the US to take it over. With US ground troops in the field, US aircraft controlling the skies, and US civilian personnel administering the cities and provinces, Vietnam would be reformed. Only Washington’s own people could fulfill Washington’s wishes.

The administrative changes meant that the national security managers had decided that the most effective mechanism for processing reforms through the GVN was for America to take over the government. They were also beginning to understand that the surest way to take over a client state was to introduce ground troops who would ultimately become responsible for the defense of the country. Under such circumstances, the native leader no longer serves as a puppet but rather, in the manager’s words, as a “platform” upon which the American military and administrative personnel would be able to operate. Reduced from a leader to a platform, the local ruler of the client state is robbed of the last vestiges of his political life. His value to the mother country is no longer measured by the speed and economy with which he is able to bring about the changes suggested by Washington (the core of his bargaining power).

Since the local leader is no longer the source of change, he is not expected to do anything; he is merely expected not to undo anything. The mother country is less interested in gaining than in not losing. That desirable feature of leadership, charisma, gives way to banality. The worth of the leader is now measured by the number of followers he does not lose, the number of riots that do not occur, the number of battles that are not fought.

The leader’s role in his own country is purely custodial. His task is to hold things together. To the degree that he performs this function, he has built the platform upon which the troops from the mother country may enter. His obligation to the mother country is to serve as the official greeter of the foreign troops. He is a janitor at home and a master of ceremonies abroad.

The problem with Diem was that he was unable to play a custodial role at home or a ceremonial one abroad. By 1961, he was beginning to lose his followers faster than the United States could increase its personnel in Vietnam. Were this inverse ratio to continue, the moment would come when there would be no platform for American troops to walk on. But this was not clearly perceived in Washington in 1961. When it did become obvious in 1963, Diem was dispensed with. Whereas Ambassador Durbrow had toyed with the idea of eliminating Diem because he was not a reformer, the Kennedy circle would remove him because he had been abandoned by the last of the faithful. Diem’s failure to reform would be the alibi for, not the cause of, his downfall.

What was obvious in 1961 was that Kennedy was alarmed about Diem’s public image in America. From the poïnt of view of the President of the United States, the local leader must be palatable to the American people if American troops are to be ordered to Vietnam. One explanation for Kennedy’s decision to veto the recommendation of all of his senior advisers to send troops to Vietnam was that Diem lacked the image that would qualify him to receive American ground troops. In a discussion of “the famous problem of Diem as an administrator and politician,” Taylor suggested three choices that were available to Washington.

The first was to “remove him in favor of a military dictatorship which would give dominance to the military chain of command.” The second was to “remove him in favor of a figure of more dilute power who would delegate authority to act in both military and civilian leaders.” It was this option that foreshadowed the need for a local leader who could retain a rapidly diminishing constituency, so that the largest number of US troops could be sent. Once the need became apparent, the second choice was axiomatic. Washington would then require someone to perform custodial services in Vietnam and act as an official greeter for American troops, roles played by General Khanh in 1964 and General Thieu after 1965.

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