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The CIA and Vietnam

In response to:

The Spook of Spooks from the December 1, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

Allen Dulles’s secret remains intact. Neither in Thomas Powers’s review of Peter Grose’s new biography of Dulles [NYR, December 1, 1994] nor in the biography itself is Dulles’s personal contribution to the origins and the scale of the Vietnam War at all unravelled. In the Grose book there are but seven banal paragraphs about Dulles and Vietnam, plus a footnote, which at most suggest that he was an interested but not particularly influential by-stander. Mr. Powers’s review doesn’t mention the subject at all. These omissions are very difficult to accept and I am particularly surprised that Mr. Powers is a party to them.

In truth, from June, 1954 to June, 1963, that is, until two years after Dulles left office (August, 1961) the CIA was absolutely and exclusively dominant in creating and carrying out the policies which led eventually to the Vietnam War. It was, for example, the CIA which sponsored Ngo Dinh Diem as a “third force” alternative—both to Ho Chi Minh’s communism and French colonialism. Then, in the fall of 1955 it was CIA cash which ousted the French by bribing into exile the main French-leaning Vietnamese generals. Simultaneously, Dulles’s minions provided the arms and leadership for Diem to crush his domestic political opponents in a mini-civil war. Then the massive forced population resettlements such as the earlier “agrovilles” and the later “strategic hamlets” were also funded and administered by Mr. Dulles’s operatives in the field, Edward Lansdale and, later under cover of the Michigan State University Advisory Group, Wesley Fishel. To the CIA too must go the credit for the creation of the secret police forces of Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu which prevented dissent within Vietnam until it was too late to change things. And so on, chapter and verse. Basically, during 1954–1963 US policy in Vietnam was a CIA monopoly yet neither the monopoly nor its importance are at all reflected in the Grose book or in its review.

I don’t want to suggest that Vietnam policy was a CIA secret that others didn’t know about. There are two other points which are of much greater import than secrecy per se. First, it was the CIA which insisted that the US engage itself in a major way in Vietnam in spite of the coolness of the State Department and considerable opposition in the Pentagon. The Agency was the decisive factor in making all those shadowy “commitments” which tied the hands of later Administrations. In addition, because Vietnam was the CIA’s biggest project and apparently closest to its leaders’ hearts, would-be congressional, press and academic critics were deterred from blowing the whistle on what was from the beginning a policy that many thought neither likely to succeed nor easy to retreat from. The Agency and its friends very aggressively discouraged public criticism of what it was doing. For example, in 1959 a roving correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, then one of the nation’s largest, “discovered” that the receipts for several millions in US currency had burned up in Vietnam in a warehouse fire. He wrote up the conventional story his conservative publisher wanted—“Another instance of foreign-aid boondoggle!!”—and found himself hauled before a hostile congressional committee. His publisher too, Roy Howard, newspaper mogul and personal friend of President Eisenhower, was called up and threatened. What had happened was that the reporter had fallen into the cover story for the cash which had been dispensed to the pro-French generals. One can cite other important instances in this period—the late 1950s—which created a sort of secrecy halo around an ill-considered project which was being carried out in broad daylight. Thus, not the policy but its weaknesses were made into a state secret.

Allen Dulles’s own role in the Vietnam project had to have been considerable; it was the most ambitious of all the CIA projects during his term as Director, far larger and far riskier than the much written about Bay of Pigs “fiasco.” It had greater longevity than kindred but smaller-scaled projects as in the Philippines, in Guatemala and in Iran. Vietnam was, I think, the only country in which other US agencies—State, Pentagon, AID, USIS, Commerce, Treasury—were subordinated to CIA direction and coordination. In spite of this, however, Dulles always managed to keep his name at a distance from the policy and its consequences. It is a major flaw of the Grose book that this fragment of his deviousness still reigns. Because of that flaw we still know far too little of the personalities, considerations and internal government debates which, in the key period from the Spring of 1954 to the Fall of 1955 “committed” the US to its worst Cold War defeat.

John McDermott
Former Associate Editor
Viet-Report
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

Thomas Powers replies:

McDermott has got the basic facts right: the CIA’s involvement in Vietnam was early and heavy, and neither Peter Grose in his biography of Allen Dulles nor I in my review had much to say about it. But I certainly do not think he is right to conclude that Dulles was somehow responsible for “the Vietnam War,” nor that Grose and I do violence to history by focusing on other matters. Some historians date the beginning of “the Vietnam war” in early 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson started to bomb North Vietnam and began a huge buildup of American military forces, in effect taking over the war from the Saigon government. Others (me included) date the beginning of “the war” with the first large-scale dispatch of US troops under President Kennedy, after Dulles’s departure from the CIA, and well after he ceased to have any influence in the Kennedy White House. But if we think of the Vietnam war as a post-French military struggle for control of Vietnam, and not as the American political trauma usually meant by the words “Vietnam war,” then we probably ought to date its beginning in 1956, when Hanoi reactivated its stay-behind forces in South Vietnam and began a guerrilla war to oust the US-backed government in Saigon.

My point is that Allen Dulles did not cause or start the Vietnam war and was long off the scene by the time the serious fighting started. In retrospect, after one of the great political catastrophes in American history, everything the CIA did in Vietnam before the war takes on an exaggerated significance. But supporting an anti-Communist government was not of itself a blunder or a crime, and the disasters which lay in wait down that road were far from being obvious at the time. Dulles’s last three years were spent thinking mainly about other things, Cuba first among them, as recorded accurately by Peter Grose. The Bay of Pigs was disaster enough for one career; someone else must be found to bear the guilt for Vietnam.

One other point deserves mention. Mr. McDermott implies that Dulles and the CIA were somehow responsible for the policy of support for a non-Communist government in Saigon “which led eventually to the Vietnam war.” Charges of this sort are often brought against the CIA, especially in the wake of disasters great and small. Readers should be on the alert whenever they are told that the CIA is the author rather than the instrument of White House policy. I have never known it to be so, and it is certainly not so in this instance. President Eisenhower was the man responsible for the CIA’s actions in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and Vietnam. Dulles served with a will, but he did not presume.

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