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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

In 1961, however, Taylor opted for the third choice. He wished to retain Diem in order “to bring about a series of de facto administrative changes via persuasion at high levels…using the US presence to force the Vietnamese to get their house in order in one area after another.” In considering the first two choices, Taylor raised the prospect of a coup, but rejected it because “it would be dangerous for us to engineer a coup under present tense circumstances, since it is by no means certain that we could control its consequences and potentialities for Communist exploitation.” In other words, the United States had not yet taken over enough of Vietnam to guarantee the irrelevance of the new leader.

The Taylor-Rostow report had a profound influence on Washington’s policy toward Vietnam. The report fashioned the strategy of combined escalation and moderation. By establishing the principle of “limited partnership,” a euphemism for American control, it resolved the conflict between the need for efficient prosecution of the war and the need for administrative reform. The previous aim of reform had been to broaden the base of the government to include elements of the loyal opposition. The new focus was on the pace at which American troops entered the field and American bureaucrats entered the government.

Broadening the base came to mean turning the reins of government over to the Americans. Once Americans took over, they could manipulate the concepts of warfare and welfare according to their own priorities. The battle between these concepts would be waged within the American establishment, with the pacifiers making feeble attempts to reform the military. Reform ultimately came to mean less indiscriminate killing instead of greater citizen participation. Finally, the report defined the qualities of the ideal leader that America would need in Vietnam after it stationed its troops in the field and its bureaucrats in office—qualities that were to be found eventually in the middling leadership of Thieu.

The Recommendations of McNamara and Rusk

While the Taylor-Rostow report was circulating in Washington, Secretaries McNamara and Rusk were writing their own recommendations for Vietnam policy. McNamara picked up the thread of Taylor’s strategic analysis and Rusk pondered the need for an American seizure of the Vietnamese bureaucracy.

Rusk believed the President should carefully weigh the decision to send in US troops against Diem’s unwillingness to “give us something worth supporting.” Diem’s failure to trust his own commanders and his obstinate refusal to broaden the base of government made it unlikely that a “handful of American troops can have decisive influence.” Rusk noted the vital importance that US policy attached to Southeast Asia, but he cautioned against “committing American prestige to a losing horse.” His recommendations, however, also presumed a seizure of the internal bureaucracy, the process described by Taylor as “limited partnership.” Rusk directed the State Department to draw up a list of expectations “from Diem if our assistance forces us to assume de facto direction of South Vietnamese affairs.”

While Rusk was elaborating on Taylor’s report from the civil side, McNamara accelerated the recommendations from the military side. He accepted the strategy recommended by Taylor, but criticized him for not putting enough muscle behind that strategy. In McNamara’s view, the 8,000-man task force would help Diem but would not “convince the other side (whether the shots are called from Moscow, Peiping, or Hanoi) that we mean business. Moreover, it probably will not tip the scales decisively. We would be almost certain to get increasingly mired down in an inconclusive struggle.”

Since the aim of the strategy was to make the enemy know that the United States would attack directly if it did not disengage itself from the Southern struggle, McNamara concluded:

…the other side can be convinced we mean business only if we accompany the initial force introduction by a clear warning commitment to the full objective stated above, accompanied by a warning through some channel to Hanoi that continued support of the Viet Cong will lead to punitive retaliation against North Vietnam.

McNamara presumed that the other side would attack, not withdraw, in spite of the presence of US troops and a clear statement of intent. The US would then reply with 205,000 men, or six divisions. Public opinion in America, McNamara believed, “will respond better to a firm initial position than to courses of action that lead us in only gradually.”

What is striking about the recommendations by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense is that each, within his particular domain, went beyond the suggestions made by General Taylor. Whereas Taylor spoke of a limited partnership between the GVN and the United States government, Rusk operated on the assumption of a “de facto direction of South Vietnamese affairs.”

With respect to military policy, Taylor boldly conceived a strategy that could well lead to genocide, but he was rather timid in applying it. He wanted to avoid the impression that the US would send its troops into actual combat, and urged the flood relief idea upon the President as a cover to preserve a peaceful image. McNamara, however, not only was willing to embrace the need for 8,000 combat troops, but seemed to be devising a pre-emptive strategy by calling on a second-strike capability of six divisions as a response to the Northern invasion that would be touched off by the initial force.

While Taylor saw the flood relief task force as a humanitarian cover to avoid a larger war, McNamara viewed it as a way to provoke the North into that larger war. Taylor, moreover, counseled the President on the importance of a peaceful image for domestic public opinion. At best, Taylor reasoned, the American public would have to be led to accept a gradual involvement. McNamara, on the other hand, believed that America would much more likely support a firm hand.

Taylor either eschewed war altogether by projecting such logical incompatibilities as a bold strategy and a quiescent task force, or equivocated by never pulling out or pushing in. McNamara, just recovering from his personal revulsion at the possibility of a nuclear holocaust over Berlin, seemed to be willing to prosecute a large conventional war. In view of the advanced state of US technology, such a war, if carried on for years, could produce effects amounting to nuclear devastation.

Kennedy’s Decision

In spite of the agreement among his senior advisers that ground troops should be dispatched, Kennedy refused. He could have cited many reasons to support his decision. One was that the introduction of US combat forces in Vietnam would cripple the discussions for a negotiated settlement in Laos. Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador, had told Rusk on November 7 that “the introduction of US troops would not only complicate the situation, but make it impossible to get anywhere on Laos.” A week later, Ambassador Alphand of France told Rusk that further escalation would undermine the Geneva negotiations and compound the risk of “mass intervention” by the Soviet Union. Alphand also reminded the Secretary of “difficulties for the West of fighting in Vietnam.”

Rusk, however, took this to mean that Europe and America might have to part ways. Rusk explained that it “would be difficult for US opinion and friendly countries to accept a repetition of Laos in Vietnam.” Southeast Asia, he concluded, was “more important to the United States than to Europe.” Indeed, “if the loss of Southeast Asia was at stake, and Europeans did not agree with our policies, there might have to be a divergence.”

Rusk’s attitude demonstrates a fundamental shift in the direction of American foreign policy. Hereafter the national security managers, except for George Ball, were to reject the need for a multilateral response and affirm the will to proceed alone in Asia. The first sign of this shift occurred on January 19, 1961, just before Kennedy’s inauguration when, during discussions with the President-elect, Eisenhower told him, “It is imperative that Laos be defended. The United States should accept this task with our allies, if we could persuade them, and alone if we could not. Our unilateral intervention would be our last desperate hope in the event we were unable to prevail upon the other signatories to join us.”

Kennedy’s advisers wholeheartedly supported Eisenhower’s position, but had to wait for Johnson to apply it to Vietnam, not Laos. Kennedy himself, in 1961, seemed to be more impressed with the arguments advanced by the British and French ambassadors than with Eisenhower’s position or with Rusk’s acceptance of it. Kennedy, it could be argued, was yet to be persuaded that US foreign policy was destined to go it alone in Asia. In addition to shattering the Laotian settlement, the dispatch of troops to Vietnam at a time when the Berlin crisis could again erupt increased Kennedy’s “expressed concern over a two-front war.” This does not mean, however, that Kennedy was willing to preside over the liquidation of the fledgling American Empire in Southeast Asia. The fear of a two-front war, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., would have to be weighed against the fear “that an American retreat in Asia might upset the whole world balance.”

Other factors must be considered to explain Kennedy’s veto of combat troops. One way to understand the President’s motives is to recall the decisions he made and try to discover what light they shed on decisions that he did not make. We do know, for example, that Kennedy sent troops to Vietnam, referring to them as support troops, though their combat role was extensive. Therefore, we can conclude that Kennedy saw the need to disguise their combat function. We also know that the number sent during his administration ultimately doubled the initial figure of 8,000 recommended by Taylor and Rostow. Therefore, Kennedy saw the need to introduce them into Vietnam gradually instead of at one stroke. Finally, we know that Kennedy began a campaign of covert activities against North Vietnam—a campaign that marked the switch to direct offensive actions but was disguised so that Washington could publicly disavow its own role.

Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam, then, was to accelerate the war while denying that he was doing it. His policy was to prosecute a private war. He was willing to go it alone in Asia, but not to admit it. He disregarded the counsel of his advisers only to the extent that they preferred a public war.

The President, clearly, did not believe that the American people would support him in his decision to escalate the level of combat. This does not mean that Kennedy thought the American people would have been opposed to a war in Indochina under any circumstances. It simply means that in 1961 the American public would not support a war whose ostensible purpose was to preserve the Diem regime. The war would be repulsive because the leader was odious. In 1963, when the self-immolation of protesting Buddhist monks became a daily event, Diem’s image abroad deteriorated and became incompatible with the American presence. The American people could resign themselves to an indefinite war, but not when the character of the regime, personified by Diem, Nhu, and Madame Nhu, was so obnoxious. Washington concluded that Diem would have to be eliminated before the war could be escalated.

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