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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

With counterinsurgency in their pockets, the management of some of the covert operations well in hand, and McNamara under close scrutiny and partly under their guidance, the Joint Chiefs turned their attention to the thorny problem of the Special Forces. Under the supervision of the CIA, the Special Forces had been successful in training the Montagnards. In 1964, Operation Switchback was approved in Washington to break up the autonomy of Special Forces, remove them from the CIA’s direction, and place them under the command of MACV.

In one stroke, the Joint Chiefs picked up control of both the Special Forces and the local tribesmen. The state had spread its power over the ancient tribes of Indochina and its own elite warriors. The central state apparatus was concentrated in the hands of the Chiefs and the President. The rest of the national security machinery received its orders from their combined command. The question left open—and still unanswered—was whether the Chiefs and the Commander-in-Chief would share that immense power equally, or whether one would make a claim against the other.

Centralization of the state bureaucracy—except for the Joint Chiefs—directly under the command and control of the President greatly enhanced the power of the President. The effects of this transfer of power were profound. Through the 303 Committee and the mobilization of the Green Berets, the President could now make the decisions on matters of espionage and military strategy. To the extent that he has control over the CIA and shares the power of the military, he is in effect both a superspy and a field marshal. The time and energy he is normally expected to devote to his duties as Chief Executive are now absorbed by these new offices. How much time Kennedy actually devoted to supervising covert activities and personally managing the activities of the Special Forces remains unclear, but it is certain they made large claims on his working day.

Though the 303 Committee and the Special Group successfully centralized the powerful government agencies under the Executive, the Green Berets and the Country Team were much less effective in centralizing the field operations. Nevertheless, the concept of centralizing the state apparatus was advanced by Kennedy and the reality almost measured up to that concept. During the thirty-three months of his Presidency, Kennedy was creating the elements of a totalitarian state structure which carried on a private war.

The fact that the war was private meant that it was not the main preoccupation of the nation, but rather the chief task of the Executive; that it was conducted not in the interests of the nation, but in the interests of the state. Indeed, one could now say that it was conducted against the interests of the nation, because it destroyed the orderly processes of government.

Would Kennedy Have Withdrawn?

American national security was never at stake. Through the Special Group, Kennedy knew well that there was no serious infiltration from the North, nor any Chinese or Soviet support for the Southern struggle. Kennedy knew therefore that the war in South Vietnam was a civil war. How was American national security threatened by the outcome of their civil war? The likely impact of a Viet Cong victory on the international interests of the United States was never systematically studied during the Kennedy years, notwithstanding the casual talk about dominoes. Whenever that issue was raised, the CIA fudged its assessment. For example, if South Vietnam went Communist, the CIA suggested, Southeast Asia would be demoralized and this demoralization might even spread to India. But what is demoralization? How is it measured? How are its consequences determined for national security? Does demoralization cause a nation to switch sides or does it cause it to attach itself ever more closely to the mother country? Would a Viet Cong victory have created a revolution in Thailand? In India? In Cambodia? In Japan?

According to INR, the intelligence branch of the State Department, “there was no serious analysis of what we could expect throughout Southeast Asia if we failed to support South Vietnam.” The state was not in the least interested in determining whether the national security was at stake. One steady feature of US policy in Southeast Asia was the failure to consider why we should be there. Only in 1969 did the intelligence community attempt a detailed study of the consequences if South Vietnam were to become a Communist nation. According to INR, this estimate, prepared by the CIA and only recently made public, concluded:

We would lose Laos immediately. Sihanouk would preserve Cambodia by a straddling effort. All of Southeast Asia would remain just as it is at least for another generation. Thailand, in particular, would continue to maintain close relations with the US and would seek additional support. Simultaneously, Thailand would make overtures and move toward China and the Soviet Union. It would simply take aid from both sides to preserve its independence. North Vietnam would consume itself in Laos and South Vietnam. Only Laos would definitely follow into the Communist orbit.

This estimate suggests that if the United States were defeated in open warfare by a “fourth rate nation,” there would be no international consequences to US interests. Is it not then reasonable to assume that if the United States had not fought and had not been defeated, its stock of good will might have risen? The principal effect of American intervention is the carnage and devastation of Southeast Asia.

The events of the early 1960s strongly suggest, however, that had John F. Kennedy lived, he would not have pulled out of Southeast Asia. He would more likely have taken any steps necessary to avoid an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Viet Cong. In a nationwide interview on NBC television two months before his assassination, when asked whether the US was likely to reduce its aid to Vietnam, Kennedy replied:

I don’t think we think that would be helpful at this time. If you reduce your aid, it is possible you could have some effect upon the government structure there. On the other hand, you might have a situation which could bring about a collapse. Strongly in our mind is what happened in the case of China at the end of World War II, where China was lost—a weak government became increasingly unable to control events. We don’t want that.

What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say, because they don’t like events in Southeast Asia or they don’t like the Government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.

A week earlier in another nationwide interview with Walter Cronkite, Kennedy said:

But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake…. We took all this—made this effort to defend Europe. Now Europe is quite secure. We also have to participate—we may not like it—in the defense of Asia.

Kennedy would not withdraw, but he was troubled by the prospect of public disapproval of his decision. To stay in Vietnam without arousing public opposition, he waged the war as privately as possible.

The “Brush-Fire War”

The counterargument to this interpretation of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy advances the premise that Vietnam was an example of a new concept of carefully limited action in support of local allies which was officially and publicly described as “brush-fire war.” Congress openly debated this policy and appropriated huge sums of money in support of it. The war, then, was a public, not a private, matter. Under Kennedy, American manpower in Vietnam never exceeded 16,000, a figure clearly within the bounds of a brush-fire war.

The problem with this argument is that there was only a handful who seriously propounded the brush-fire war doctrine in the highest councils of the state. Roger Hilsman and Robert Thompson come to mind as officials closely associated with a counterinsurgency strategy for Vietnam; but the dominant positions in the Kennedy Administration were held by exponents of conventional war, whose recommendations were withheld from the public. Walt Rostow, who publicly enunciated the doctrine of brush-fire war in behalf of the Administration in 1961, was privately recommending “offensive action” and aerial strikes against the Northern mainland. McNamara, also, called for public support of brush-fire wars and simultaneously urged privately that the US be fully prepared to use 260,000 troops in a conventional war. The public statements of the Kennedy Administration invited public support for a brush-fire war, but the private recommendations presupposed the use of heavy firepower.

This does not necessarily mean that the officials were deliberately deceiving the public. To some extent, they were also deceiving themselves. The contradiction between their public rhetoric and their private recommendations was blurred, at the time, both by their language and by the kinds of military technology available to them.

It became fashionable in the early 1960s, for example, to speak of “surgical air strikes,” a phrase coined by Walt Rostow. Aerial warfare is, of course, the apex of conventional warfare. To speak of air strikes is to evoke the bombing of London, Dresden, and Hiroshima. Brush-fire war, on the other hand, is described by the rhetoric of limited hostilities, pacification of insurgents, and nation building. To talk of a “surgical air strike,” then, tends to blur the distinction between conventional and brush-fire warfare. It implies that friend can be distinguished from foe when seen from the air and that conventional weapons can be used selectively to wage brush-fire war. It suggests a lower level of violence than conventional warfare, a means of protecting our friends while destroying our enemies.

When asked to comment on the feasibility of using “surgical air strikes” within the limits of brush-fire war, McGeorge Bundy called the question “naïve.” “Professors know that bombs kill people,” he said. Yet such naïveté helped to preserve an appearance of innocence, permitting the decision-makers to believe that they had not embarked on a course of systematic deception.

The type of ordnance financed during the Kennedy period also encouraged the policy-makers to blur the distinction between the two types of war. Preparations for both conventional warfare and brush-fire war simultaneously made dramatic advances. Within two years there was a 600 percent increase in counter-insurgency forces and a 45 percent increase in the number of combat-ready Army divisions. Hence the managers were equipping the state to fight either kind of war. This produced an element of doubt and ambiguity over which kind of war the US was fighting and would continue to fight. Since a brush-fire war signified a lower level of involvement and could be prosecuted without interfering with the normal business of everyday life, the security managers could point to the counterinsurgency preparations as consistent with Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. The capability of carrying both kinds of defense could be cited as justification for both the public rhetoric and the private recommendations.

What becomes clear when one examines the over-all changes introduced by Kennedy’s managers at the Pentagon is that they decided to prepare for waging any type of war, at any place, at any time. Not only did the brush-fire and conventional capabilities make giant strides in a period of peace, but the nation’s strategic and tactical nuclear capabilities were similarly expanded. Strategic nuclear weapons were increased 100 percent, and tactical weapons 60 percent. The capacity to fight any type of war was called the doctrine of “flexible response.”

Not only was a conventional war anticipated and recommended within the state, but Kennedy himself authorized the first use of heavy firepower when he sent the newly armed helicopters to Vietnam in 1962. The MAAG mission, moreover, had trained the ARVN to prosecute a conventional war. Would the Americans, when need beckoned and opportunity knocked, renounce their own training, firepower, and private urgings?

The United States proceeded one step at a time, and Kennedy took the first giant step. If the Viet Cong could not be defeated at a lower level of violence, why not proceed to the next level? That was the precise purpose of flexible response. Kennedy, as we have seen, publicly stated that he would not withdraw. His policy clearly was one of gradual escalation which set the US on the course followed by Johnson, and, in revised form, by Nixon. As Maxwell Taylor said when he was asked what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam had he lived: “Far be it from me to read the mind of a dead man, but let me just say this, Kennedy was not a loser.”

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