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Eyeless in Indochina

In the spring issue of Public Policy, the journal of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Daniel Ellsberg advanced an arresting and subtle interpretation of the American adventure in Indochina. He was concerned to disprove what he called “the quagmire myth”—the proposition, that is, that our leaders did not know what they were getting into in Southeast Asia; that they marched blindly, step by step, into a morass; that our descent into the Vietnam catastrophe was marked (as Mr. Ellsberg accurately states the essence of the quagmire thesis) by “lack of foresight, awareness, or calculation.”1

Mr. Ellsberg directed his critique against a view he found most conveniently formulated in writings of mine (doing so, I may add, with entire courtesy and in excellent temper). As against what I had once called the “politics of inadvertence,”2 Mr. Ellsberg offered what I read as a sort of politics of clairvoyance. A succession of American Presidents, he said, fully understanding that there was a “high probability that US troops would end up fighting in South Vietnam, and US planes bombing throughout Indochina,” not only “failed to resist” this future but “knowingly cooperated with and prepared” it.

Against the quagmire image of leaders blundering into what, to their surprise, turned out to be quicksand, Mr. Ellsberg offered the counter-image of “repeatedly, a leader striding with his eyes open into what he sees as quicksand.” He summed up his argument in a quotation approvingly cited from Leslie Gelb, his associate in the Pentagon study of American policy in Indochina: “Our Presidents and most of those who influenced their decisions did not stumble step-by-step into Vietnam, unaware of the quagmire. US involvement did not stem from a failure to foresee consequences.”

In short, the quagmire thesis, however plausible on its face, was “totally wrong for each one of those [Indochina] decisions over the last twenty years…. Not one of these decision points…fits Schlesinger’s generalization to the slightest degree.” And the awful cost of our Vietnam course, Mr. Ellsberg concluded, made it “easy to understand why the past four Presidents would want, before and after, to conceal and deprecate their own fore-knowledge.”3

This seemed a drastic contention. It was that American Presidents, knowing they were heading into a hopeless mess, fully foreseeing the consequences, nonetheless insisted on plunging on. The failure of American policy was not at all the absence of fore-knowledge—in Mr. Gelb’s phrase, “the system worked”—but unwillingness to act on the basis of foreknowledge. Moreover, this facet of Mr. Ellsberg’s argument has, since the publication of the Pentagon Papers, been readily adopted by influential journalists. Thus we find Max Frankel writing in The New York Times:

This was not a war into which the United States stumbled blindly, step by step, on the basis of wrong intelligence or military advice that just a few more soldiers or a few more air raids would turn the tide. 4

Murrey Marder in the Washington Post:

The American march into the war in Indochina was neither the result of carelessness nor of absent-mindedness, but of purposefulness, the documents confirm.5

Charles Bailey in the Minneapolis Tribune:

The United States did not—as some opponents of the war have charged—“blunder” into its Vietnam involvement. On the contrary, the documents show that the highest officials were constantly aware that steps they were taking could lead to much greater involvement.6

The fact that thoughtful newspapermen, who have followed the Vietnam involvement for a long time, should have thus accepted the foresight thesis was impressive. But before this thesis was permitted to sweep the field, it seemed a good idea to subject it to closer examination.

So I took on the sour task of reading the Pentagon Papers—at least all of them the American press has seen fit to print.7 This ordeal did not radically alter my view that our Indochina policy had been characterized more by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle than by foresight, awareness, and calculation. Accordingly I wrote a rejoinder to Mr. Ellsberg’s Public Policy essay. The New York Review agreed to publish this paper, and the editors of the Review also decided, quite properly, to invite Mr. Ellsberg to respond. Since both Mr. Ellsberg and I were more concerned with clarifying questions than with scoring points, I welcomed his suggestion that we talk in advance in order to narrow grounds of difference and eliminate false issues. Our conversations were most useful in this regard, and I commend the technique to editors. However, after several hours of amiable colloquy, it was evident that enough disagreement remained to justify the continuation of the discussion.

In the course of our talks, both of us made concessions to the opposing view. Each of us supposed his own concession to be rather minor, and both tended, I think, to regard the concession of the other as rather major. It may perhaps be best to begin with my sense of what these concessions involved.

* * *

For my part, I had readily agreed in my draft rejoinder that I was wrong in having written that “at each point along the ghastly way, the generals promised that just one more step of military escalation would bring the victory so long sought and so steadily denied” and that “each step in the deepening of the American commitment was reasonably regarded at the time as the last that would be necessary.” 8 Immersion in the Pentagon Papers had persuaded me that I was mistaken in the suggestion that the escalatory steps actually taken by Presidents were accompanied by promises that these particular steps would bring victory or would be the last steps necessary. No President ever escalated enough to satisfy the military, who always complained about civilian restrictions on military action and kept insisting that they be allowed to bomb, shoot, and drown more and more Vietnamese.

Mr. Ellsberg felt that if I admitted this, then the whole quagmire thesis must fall. But the fact that the generals thought the measures of escalation accepted by Presidents were inadequate to attain military success does not seem to me to invalidate the thesis that our Vietnam policy was characterized by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle rather than by foresight, awareness, and calculation. Nor, so far as I can see, does it invalidate the theory of step-by-step descent into the quagmire. The escalatory steps were not always taken, as Mr. Ellsberg appears to contend, with the private understanding that they would not work. They were often taken under the illusion that they would make a difference.

Thus George Ball, who watched the escalation process with immense and unqualified disapproval, recently observed, “There was always the feeling that some little increment of American strength or American resources could turn the corner. And this was a process that I was familiar with because it was always the same thing with the French…. A small step taken at the time…was followed by other steps and added together they meant, they added up to a big step…. But I think in beginning to look critically at what happened, one has to understand that it didn’t appear that way at the time.”9 Again, Mr. Ball:

It was always the hope, on the part of some, I think, the conviction, that a little increment of effort, a little addition of manpower, a few more tactical operations would bring about a changed situation…. As the situation appeared looking at it from the inside, the temptation to undertake some new initiative was always very great.10

Now plainly the “feeling,” the “conviction” that Mr. Ball reports was badly founded. This does not mean, however, that as a historical fact it did not exist. Many newspapermen, in Washington and in Saigon, described the same mood. That is why David Halberstam could entitle his book of 1964 The Making of a Quagmire. And the Pentagon Papers themselves offer plenty of evidence that the mood was real enough.

In arguing that Presidents were striding with their eyes open into what they knew was quicksand, Messrs. Ellsberg and Gelb must show that advisers were united in warning Presidents of their peril and in offering pessimistic assessments of their predicament. They must deny the influence, except for “infrequent and short-lived” periods, of any genuine optimism about American prospects.11 Mr. Ellsberg thus writes in Public Policy about “a pessimism almost unrelieved, often stark—yet in retrospect, creditably realistic, frank, cogent—that runs through the intelligence estimates.”12

The unwary reader, denied further specification about the source of these estimates, might associate this pessimism with military and diplomatic advice which, by the thesis, Presidents believed but felt themselves constrained from following. But what Mr. Ellsberg had in mind, as he made clear to me, were the assessments made by the Intelligence Branch of the CIA and by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department—assessments very often incorporated in the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) periodically issued by the intelligence community.

Since The New York Times and the other papers have not reprinted these estimates, I cannot comment responsibly on them; but from my knowledge of the estimating process and my memory of the NIEs I saw during my time in government in the early Sixties, I am entirely ready to accept Mr. Ellsberg’s judgment that these were, in the main, genuinely impressive and predominantly pessimistic documents. (Mr. Gelb does tell us, though, that “while the CIA was arguing that the bombing of the North was having the opposite of the desired effects…it was not nearly as pessimistic about the war in the South.”)13

But stark, unrelieved pessimism did not characterize the diplomatic and military counsel given Presidents. Actually our writers quietly concede this, though not in a way to alter the broad picture of Presidents enveloped by authoritative warnings of disaster. The Ellsberg essay speaks of “months and years in those two decades when ill-founded optimism…actually ruled the minds of most insiders including the President,” of the “alteration of mood from pessimism to great optimism,” of “our switch to unbounded optimism,” of “high points in US official expectations,” of “an accelerating rise of optimism just before an abrupt decline,” and so on.14 Mr. Gelb similarly admits that there were “genuine optimists and grounds for genuine optimism…. By most conventional standards—the size and firepower of friendly Vietnamese forces, the number of hamlets pacified, the number of ‘free elections’ being held, the number of Communists killed, and so forth—reasonable men could and did think in cautiously optimistic terms.”15

The Pentagon Papers certainly bear out this impression. Far from warning the President of difficulties ahead, the Joint Chiefs of Staff cheerfully informed President Kennedy in the autumn of 1961 that 40,000 American troops could clean up the Viet Cong and that, if there were North Vietnamese and Chinese intervention, 128,000 more American troops could take care of that.16 On January 13, 1962, the Chiefs struck again, this time in a paper entitled “The Strategic Importance of the Southeast Asia Mainland.” Here they confidently wrote:

  1. 1

    Daniel Ellsberg, “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine,” Public Policy, Spring, 1971, p. 218.

  2. 2

    Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Bitter Heritage, rev. ed. (Fawcett, 1968), p. 47.

  3. 3

    Ellsberg, pp. 268, 237, 235, 221, and 270. Mr. Gelb’s version of the antiquagmire argument—a shorter and more direct statement than Mr. Ellsberg’s—can be found in “Vietnam: The System Worked,” Foreign Policy, Summer, 1971.

  4. 4

    New York Times, July 6, 1971.

  5. 5

    Washington Post, July 4, 1971.

  6. 6

    Congressional Record, July 20, 1971, S11602.

  7. 7

    The student of recent American foreign policy stands in debt to two courageous and patriotic men—Robert McNamara, who initiated the Pentagon study and made sure it would not be an official apology, and Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the Pentagon Papers to the press. But the national service these men have performed will not have its broadest effect until there is a complete publication of the Pentagon documents, plus the corresponding documents in the White House and the State Department.

    TheNew York Times version of the papers, now available in a Bantam edition, is unsatisfactory in many ways. The paperback consists of 308 pages of documents and 368 pages of commentary, the latter drawn partly from the Pentagon analysis of the documents and partly from the Times analysis of the Pentagon analysis (nor is it always easy to tell which is which).

    TheTimes version contains, Mr. Gelb tells us (“Today’s Lessons from the Pentagon Papers,” Life, September 17, 1971), only about 5 percent of the documents; and it often, and irritatingly, fails to reprint in the documentary appendices the text of papers quoted in the commentary. Documents are even mislabeled and put in the wrong place (see page 448, for example, where a cablegram from Harold Wilson is misdated June 3, 1965, instead of 1966). Some vital documents are left out altogether. There is no index. The persevering student can find interesting fragments omitted by the Times in the documents and analyses published by the Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Sun-Times; but the jigsaw puzzle is still far from complete.

    One fears that the announced publication by the Beacon Press of the papers released by Senator Mike Gravel will only complicate matters further. The Gravel version will contain about 95 percent of the Pentagon narrative but only about 25 percent of the documents. The version given by the Defense Department to the Government Printing Office has been purged of matter considered unduly sensitive. Ideally the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should publish the entire Pentagon history, documents and narrative; the text has been in its possession for nearly two years. The historian will require, in addition, the comparable documents in the White House and the State Department. The case is very strong indeed for the appointment of an official commission, including historians, to conduct a Pearl Harbor inquiry into the causes and conduct of the Vietnam war.

  8. 8

    The quotations are from the Partisan Review, No. 4, 1970, p. 517, and The Bitter Heritage, p. 47.

  9. 9

    Public Broadcasting Service discussion with Martin Agronsky, June 27, 1971.

  10. 10

    Remarks before Woodrow Wilson International Center, Congressional Record, August 6, 1971, S13727.

  11. 11

    Gelb, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” p. 140.

  12. 12

    Ellsberg, p. 234.

  13. 13

    Gelb, “Today’s Lessons from the Pentagon Papers,” Life, September 17, 1971.

  14. 14

    Ellsberg, pp. 221, 264, and 265.

  15. 15

    Gelb, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” p. 153.

  16. 16

    The Pentagon Papers (Bantam, 1971), p. 139. This JCS estimate, reported in a paper drafted by U. Alexis Johnson and dated October 11, 1961, was reiterated on November 8 by Secretary McNamara in a comment on the Taylor Report, though here the “maximum US forces required on the ground in Southeast Asia” were estimated at “six divisions, or about 205,000 men” (Pentagon Papers, p. 149).

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