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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

The countries under the jurisdiction of the SGCI included Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Iran, and a half-dozen Latin American countries. Vietnam and Laos were at the top of the list. By the end of 1962, entire meetings were devoted to Vietnam alone. The SGCI mainly reviewed weekly reports furnished by the Vietnam Task Force. In time, however, these reports, prepared by Sterling Cottrell and Ben Wood, were considered too meager, and other national security agencies, such as the Pentagon, AID, and the CIA, began to supply supplementary reports on Vietnam.

The reports, whether from the Task Force or the other national security agencies, were discussed at the opening of each meeting. Then, expert witnesses who had just returned from Vietnam would brief the Special Group. Some of the witnesses who regularly appeared before the SGCI were John Richardson, the CIA station chief in Vietnam; General Victor Krulak, the Special Assistant for Counter-Insurgency and Special Activities (SACSA); William Jorden, a former New York Times reporter and the author of the two white papers on Vietnam; Ted Sarong, the Australian attaché; Robert Thompson, the British expert on counterinsurgency and moving force behind the strategic hamlet doctrine; and one Walton, an ex-marine and head of the police safety division in Vietnam.

The highlights of the discussions of SGCI deserve consideration, since they show the information guiding official Washington during the private war as well as the reaction to that information.

The Viet Cong

The year 1962 has been referred to as the optimistic period in Vietnam. The insurgency was coming under control, and McNamara was persuaded that the US had turned the corner in Vietnam and that American boys would be returning home. On May 3, 1962, Sterling Cottrell reported to the Special Group that the US had “reached the bottom” in Vietnam. Cottrell, it should be recalled, was the head of the Vietnam Task Force, had accompanied Taylor and Rostow on their mission to Vietnam, and had opposed their advice on the question of ground troops. He supported a low-keyed approach to Vietnam and clearly had a stake in the continuation of the current Vietnam policy.

General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, reported on May 17, 1962, that the defense build-up was going well. The military seemed unanimous in believing that US policies were having benign effects. On May 31, Cottrell informed the SGCI Group that the GVN was increasing the number of strategic hamlets at an “ambitious and uncontrolled rate.”

On June 20, however, John McCone, director of the CIA, warned that the Viet Cong were beginning to fight in larger units. They were using heavier weapons, he added, to wipe out strategic hamlets before help could arrive. On November 5, the Task Force told the Group that Viet Cong forces were as strong as ever. They were able to recruit many new personnel, even though their morale had begun to slip. Cottrell added that the “situation was still in balance.”

In 1963, the US tried again to document its charge that the Viet Cong were being aided by heavy infiltration from the North. One task confronting the Special Group was to determine the accuracy of the charge. On January 17, 1963, the Task Force decided that infiltration was less serious than had been thought. It explained that local recruitment and local supplies were being furnished to the Viet Cong in the South; the insurgents had little need to be dependent upon the North for either. Taylor, complying with “higher” orders, said it was important to get information on Northern infiltration and authorized William Jorden to go to Vietnam to study the question thoroughly. Washington was becoming embarrassed over the fact that it was increasingly committing itself to intervention in a civil war.

On April 5, 1963, a famous meeting of the Special Group was held, in which Jorden, after spending three months in Vietnam, reported that “we are unable to document and develop any hard evidence of infiltration after October 1, 1962.” Evidence prior to that date strongly indicated the absence of infiltration. At the same meeting, Robert Thompson attempted to counter Jorden’s pessimistic appraisal of Viet Cong activity by forecasting that “US forces are adequate. By the end of the year, troops can begin to be withdrawn.”

A State Department representative on the Special Group summed up in one sentence the observations of the US army officers who returned from Vietnam in 1962: “If free elections were to be held in South Vietnam in 1962, Ho would get 70 percent of the popular vote.” Because of Ho’s popularity, he added, wholesale supplies in the South and ready recruitment of personnel were available to the Viet Cong. Only a trickle of supplies in addition to the original covert apparatus had been furnished by the North. The State Department official pointed out that all insurgents receive some outside help. “There has never been a case of an isolated insurgency. Not even the US War of Independence was an isolated insurgency.”

This same official was one of the authors of the counterinsurgency doctrine of the US government. He contrasted the doctrine of the Communist Party with that of the US on the question of the necessity of outside help for an insurgency, noting that Communist doctrine

…emphasizes the fact that the insurgency should be homegrown, and that major communist powers, especially China, do not pour in masses of outside assistance. This enables the insurgents to retain their own independence so that they can sustain themselves over the long haul. Communist Party doctrine stands in radical contrast to the US doctrine of counterinsurgency, which demands massive support by us and which turns the counter-insurgents into our dependents, sapping their morale and capacity to fight.

He supported this comparison with evidence accumulated by the Special Group showing that all weapons captured from the Viet Cong by the US during the period of the private war were either homemade or had been previously captured from the GVN/USA. “Throughout this time,” he said, “no one had ever found one Chinese rifle or one Soviet weapon used by a VC.” He concluded that the weight of evidence and doctrine proved that “the massive aggression theory was completely phony.”

In 1962, Michael Forrestal, a senior member of the National Security Council and a close friend of President Kennedy, confirmed these charges. Returning from a long visit to Vietnam, Forrestal and Roger Hilsman wrote a report to the President that stated that the Viet Cong had “increased their regular forces from 18,000 to 23,000 over this past year.” During this period the government of Vietnam had claimed that 20,000 Viet Cong were killed in action and 4,000 wounded. “No one really knows,” Forrestal wrote, “how many of the 20,000 ‘Viet Cong’ killed last year were only innocent, or at least ‘persuadable,’ villagers.”

Forrestal told Kennedy that “the vast bulk of both recruits and supplies come from inside South Vietnam itself.” At the “very least,” Forrestal concluded,

the figures on Viet Cong strength imply a continuing flow of recruits and supplies from these same villages and indicate that a substantial proportion of the population is still cooperating with the enemy, although it is impossible to tell how much of this cooperation stems from fear and how much from conviction.

Still, Forrestal emphasized that “the Viet Cong continue to be aggressive and extremely effective.” It would seem that he had answered his own question. Like many other officials and agencies reporting on the “progress” of the war at this time, he had discovered that the Viet Cong were actively assisted by the rural population and that they fought with dedicated spirit and great effectiveness. It should not have been difficult for Forrestal and Kennedy to see that the rural population cooperated “from conviction” because in fact it made up the Viet Cong.


The Special Group devoted part of its attention to some of the programs conducted in the field. As early as 1961, the defoliation program, originally called Operation Hades and subsequently accorded the euphemism Operation Ranchhand, was granted Presidential approval. Limited at first as an experimental measure, it soon became an exercise in wholesale crop destruction. The expanded program received strong financial and political support. Discussions of Operation Ranchhand in Washington were instructive, especially since they showed the bureaucrats’ lack of any concern whatever for the consequences of their decisions. Indeed, what was most striking about the discussions of the defoliation program at the Special Group meetings was the absence of inquiry into the nature of the program.

No limits on the defoliation program were ever established, no results examined, no damage surveyed. Concern about the program focused on the single question of whether the South Vietnamese military had given their consent. Apparently, if the GVN recommended the program and the ARVN consented to it, bureaucratic responsibility in Washington was believed to have ceased.

The program was the brain-child of ARPA, the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, and was placed under the command of the US Chemical Corps. It was approved by the highest bureaucrats in Washington, including Roswell Gilpatric, U. Alexis Johnson, Maxwell Taylor, Robert Kennedy, Michael Forrestal, and Richard Helms, along with a host of their deputies. But after they had approved the defoliation program, these men ignored the forced migration, sterility, and hunger that followed in its wake. Such consequences were left to the concern of the GVN. The policymakers in Washington removed every vestige of personal responsibility from their shoulders and laid it at the door of the GVN officials.

Thus, Washington was able both to authorize criminal programs and evade any responsibility for them. Maxwell Taylor summed up the concern for Operation Ranchhand in these words: “We used it for crop destruction and foliage. It was only useful along the highways. It was not at all criminal. It was simply ineffective. The entire program was irrelevant.” Defoliation was indeed irrelevant to Washington, but it was not irrelevant to the peasants who had to migrate, the women who became sterile, the children who were made hungry.

Kennedy in Control

Although the bureaucracy in Washington was not concerned with the fruits of its labor in Vietnam, the President was greatly concerned with his capacity to command the bureaucracy in Washington. In his quest for control, he introduced four structural changes in the office of the Presidency—the Special Group Counter-Insurgency, the 303 Committee, the Country Team, and the Green Berets. All of these were fashioned to meet specific defects in the execution of foreign policy, and in this sense may be viewed as ad hoc measures. But an extraordinary pattern emerges when the four are grouped together—an expansion of the war-making powers of the Executive to a degree never before contemplated in the history of the Republic. For the first time, total command over the several national security agencies was concentrated in the office of the President.

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