The decision to escalate the Vietnam War was not made in 1965. It was made in 1964. It was certainly made within six months of President Kennedy’s death. It may even have been made within six weeks of his death.
Several writers have speculated that the Johnson Administration decided to send ground troops against the South and fighter bombers against the North long before either the Tonkin crisis of August, 1964 or the Pleiku raid of February, 1965. Franz Schurmann found a hint to this effect in Johnson’s 1964 New Year’s message to the South Vietnamese Government, and I.F. Stone has gradually assembled an impressive case that the fundamental decisions were made in the same year.1 But even Stone’s material, persuasive though it is, rested ultimately on the debatable belief that events which appeared on the surface to be linked in a deliberate pattern of escalation were in fact so linked by the Government. We need no longer doubt it. Roger Hilsman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, 1963-4, self-confessed member of the Kennedy “inner circle” and the latest of the JFK entourage to commit his public service to the public record, tells us more even than we need to know in order to clinch the case.
According to Hilsman’s account the Kennedy Administration was fundamentally divided by the crises in Laos and Vietnam. One faction—Harriman, Hilsman, the State Department (minus Rusk), the President himself—favored what Hilsman calls the “political” approach. As did their “military” opposite numbers, these men believed that the insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos were ultimately attributable to North Vietnamese direction, arms, and personnel. But they believed nevertheless that this threat could best be curbed by limiting the application of American power within the borders of Laos and South Vietnam. In Laos this meant using the neutralist faction led by Souvanna Phouma and the international community led by the Soviet Union to keep the left-wing Pathet Lao at bay. This “political” approach did not prohibit the use of American “advisers” in the Lao Army and Air Force nor did it even preclude sending regular US units to fight within the Kingdom of Laos; it merely hoped, in the event US soldiers had to be sent, to limit their numbers to a few thousand and their mission to protecting the Mekong River system.
The same emphasis on limited objectives and limited use of American forces carried over to Vietnam. Because South Vietnam had no Souvanna Phouma that Washington was aware of—never having looked for one—different tactics had to be used. The favoured policy was to give unlimited political support to the governmental apparatus of South Vietnam while trying to limit our support of Diem and his entourage. Since Diem countered by placing the administrative reins more and more in his own, and Nhu’s, hands Washington’s policy of splitting its support never quite worked out. In any case our military effort was to be limited to South Vietnam, US soldiers were to be limited to an “advisory” role, and US fliers on combat missions were to have only limited visibility to the public. If US units had to be sent to keep South Vietnam “free,” their numbers and their role, as in Laos, were to be limited as well.
THE “MILITARY ADVOCATES” within the Kennedy Administration were more numerous by far than their opposites and, as we have since learned to our dismay, more long-lived as well. They included Secretaries Rusk and McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff led by their Chairman Maxwell Taylor, Presidential Assistant Walt W. Rostow, and the then Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. With Rostow as their ideologue they insisted that the Indochina crisis was attributable to North Vietnamese aggression, and that it could be resolved only by meeting Hanoi head on, accepting the naked challenge with an open American response, and by striking directly at the “source of aggression.” Thus they constantly urged the introduction of regular American forces, bombing of the North, and a policy which promised to obscure what Hilsman and his colleagues thought were the critical differences between the internal situation of Laos and South Vietnam.
There were other views within the Kennedy Administration, but they never gained sufficient support to constitute a faction. The Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, George Ball, opposed even the limited involvement pressed by the “political” faction and stressed the danger that the US would be sucked into a major intervention in Vietnam. The principal Undersecretary of State, Chester Bowles, had the temerity at one point to suggest that all of Southeast Asia be neutralized. Ball’s advice was considered and rejected by both factions but Bowles’s proposal was dismissed as “imaginative,” “far-seeing,” and premature, and Bowles himself, who wasn’t considered tough-minded enough for the higher levels of the Kennedy Administration, was later exiled to a lesser post.
The dispute opened in April, 1961 when Johnson returned from an Asian inspection trip and recommended “a major effort” in South Vietnam. “Essentially the same” recommendations were put forward in October of the same year by the Taylor-Rostow mission to Vietnam. Taylor proposed sending a force of 10,000 US regulars to fight in South Vietnam as the vanguard of an expeditionary corps which, he foresaw—and accepted—even then, would possibly have to exceed 300,000 men. Rostow proposed bombing North Vietnam “…a course of action for which [he] was a responsible advocate on this and subsequent occasions.” President Kennedy rejected the qualitative changes being proposed, just as he had in April, but did direct that plans be prepared to introduce US troops in the event it proved necessary. He also accepted the Taylor-Rostow recommendations for increases in aid to Diemand for a build-up of American advisers.
For almost two years the Kennedy Administration remained in this compromise stance. The dispute between the two factions was muted by the success of US-sponsored counter-insurgency tacties in Vietnam and by the collaboration of the Soviet Union in leading the Pathet Lao to join in a coalition regime with the neutralists and the rightwing. But in late 1963 these gains began to wear thin, especially in Vietnam, as first the NLF and then the Buddhists started to succeed in their assaults against the Diem regime. After Diem’s murder on November 2, 1963 the NLF commenced several months of vigorous campaigning which rapidly undid its earlier losses.
Definitive evidence of this change in fortune had not yet begun to reach Washington when President Kennedy was murdered on November 22. Nevertheless, Hilsman points out, “…Walt Rostow presented to the new President a well reasoned case for gradual escalation and soon thereafter a proposal was put forward by the Pentagon and CIA for a program of low level reconnaissance over Laos and for a program of increased military pressure against the North.” Included in this combination of proposals—Hilsman does not specify the source—was the recommendation that US air attacks within South Vietnam be stepped up and that a bombing offensive commence against the North. The key element in all of the proposals was the now familiar “military” conclusion that the Indochina crisis could be undone only by striking at North Vietnam.
Even the recommendation for lowlevel reconnaissance over Laos was built upon this view. Its proponents, Hilsman is careful to point out, envisioned that US aircraft would be fired upon by the Pathet Lao and we could then justifiably respond by striking at the infiltration routes along the Laotian-Vietnamese border. Harriman and Hilsman fought back, arguing that the adoption of the proposals would both undo the Laotian Accords and increase rather than diminish North Vietnamese assistance to the Viet Cong. They suggested instead that the small-scale infiltration then being carried on by the North Vietnamese could best be frustrated by assigning. South Vietnamese forces to ambush duties within Laos.
The dispute within the new Administration was not resolved but merely postponed once again by the suggestion that McNamara return to Saigon to investigate the general state of affairs and especially the question of infiltration. His trip was announced on December 9; President Kennedy had been dead only seventeen days. The Defense Secretary spent the 19th and 20th in Saigon and on his return, still uncertain of the importance of North Vietnamese infiltration,2 refused to join with those who wanted to bomb the North but did recommend that a list of targets be readied should the decision to bomb be made later.
AT THIS POINT in the narrative Hilsman ends his chronological account, and turns, in the very next paragraph, to his own decision to leave the Government. By January 20, 1964 Hilsman decided to resign his post “…sure that the United States under [President Johnson’s] direction…was obviously going to take the military path—even though it climbed the ladder of escalation slowly and deliberately.” He gives no details and no explanation of what had happened in the month between McNamara’s indecisive return from Saigon and this decision. It matters little, however, for he has given us enough information already to place the events of the next several months in accurate perspective.
By February 6, 1964 it became clear for the first time what that “program of increased military pressures against the North” included when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed that commando operations by South Vietnamese troops against North Vietnam had been significantly increased. Similar stories in the Wall Street Journal of March 6 and, especially, in the April issue of Aviation Week linked the step-up to the decision made within the Administration that it was impossible to win the war by confining it within South Vietnam’s borders.
In the same period rumors of other warlike moves began to filter out of official Washington. On February 16 The New York Times’s usually well-informed Military Editor, Hanson Baldwin, stressed the likelihood that US ground troops would be sent to South Vietnam; and Wayne Morse, whose value in warning against escalation in this period cannot be overemphasized, all but explicitly confirmed the news on March 4 after a secret briefing by Dean Rusk. On March 30 the Washington Star reported even the normally guarded McNamara as saying “privately on Capitol hill” that the war would likely be extended within the next few months.
The first “hard” news of the changes in store came on April 19 when the American-financed right-wing Lao Army overturned the government of Souvanna Phouma. In spite of strong Chinese pressure to restore the provisions of the 1962 Accords and the evident willingness of the Pathet Lao to return to the coalition, Phouma instead returned to office on May 2 as head of a new coalition which excluded the Pathet Lao. An important address by Rusk, on the 22nd, for the first time publicly linked South vietnam and Laos into a single military theater of operations; on the 27th, the new Lao Government was sent a shipment of fighter aircraft. Shortly afterward Souvanna Phouma “surprised” Washington by asking that US aircraft carry out low-level reconnaissance against the Pathet Lao. By June 6 and 7 several US aircraft had been duly shot down, and Washington felt free to announce, on the 8th, that retaliatory air attacks had commenced against Pathet Lao territory.
In Vietnam events moved almost as rapidly. The US aid program was increased on April 23; General Westmoreland, the Army’s rising star, was sent to take command in Saigon on the 25th; additional fighter aircraft were sent on May 12 and troop reinforcements on the 14th. A major strategy conference was held in Honolulu on June 1, and, on June 23, the President announced that Maxwell Taylor would take over as Ambassador in Saigon. It would be difficult to believe that Taylor went to Saigon to carry out any other program than that which he had been urging within the Government since. October, 1961. In confirmation of this, events began to move still more rapidly. On July 10 Air Marshal Ky announced still another increase in commando raids against the North3 and this was followed on July 14 by the announcement that 600 more US troops would be sent to Vietnam. On the 27th it was announced that still another 5,000 troops were being sent, increasing the US force by almost 50 percent, and on the same day the destroyer Maddox began her slow voyage up the North Vietnamese coast.
On August 2 while South Vietnamese naval vessels shelled North Vietnamese radar installations on the islands of Hon Me and Hon Nghu the Maddox lurked between three and eight miles off the same coast and was shortly thereafter driven off by North Vietnamese gunboats. Immediatelyafter a high-level White House meeting on the 3rd the President threatened retaliation against the North if the attack were repeated. Within hours a new attack was reported by Washington—and denied by Hanoi—and on August 4 the first retaliatory raids were carried out against a wide range of strategic targets in North Vietnam.4
Then, in testimony which was withheld from the public for more than two years. Secretary McNamara reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 6 that a series of steps had already been taken to move large numbers of US forces into Southeast Asia. These included the readying of Army and Marine ground forces for duty with South Vietnam and the dispatch of US fighter bombers to Thailand, which was to become the major launching point for the raids on North Vietnam when they were resumed the following year. The prologue was complete and the stage was set for the February, 1965 escalation; but first a bothersome election against the irresponsible Goldwater had to be gotten out of the way.
When did the Administration “decide,” i.e., irrevocably commit itself, to escalate the war? Certainly by June 23, 1964 when Taylor was appointed to Saigon; probably by April 19, 1964 when our clients in Laos drove the Pathet Lao from the governing coalition. Hilsman seems by his own actions to believe that the “decision” had been made by January 20. In some sense, of course, the escalation had been decided on November 22, 1963, for President Kennedy’s death placed the “military” in control and ensured at least the slow erosion of the restraints he had so far accepted upon our Indochina policy.
HILSMAN DOES NOT ATTEMPT to hide his disdain for the “military” faction which brought about the escalation and especially for the heavy-handed and simple-minded types he finds in the higher reaches of the Pentagon. A year and a half ago—January 20, 1966—I. F. Stone wrote a perceptive review of Curtis LeMay’s autobiography in these pages and, interestingly enough, many of the ideas found in that review can be found scattered through Hilsman’s book. For Hilsman, as for Stone, the higher leadership of the armed services is blind to the requirements of nuclear-age diplomacy, absurdly overconfident of the efficacy of military techniques, especially strategic bombing, and thoroughly immersed in petty inter-service rivalries. Moreover, both perceive that the “military” faction extends far beyond the boundaries of the uniformed services. Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, Nixon, or, for that matter, Johnson may wear civilian clothes, but it matters very little. Their views are a direct extension of the interests of one or more of the armed services; they are “military.” As far as the results of policy are concerned, they are pretty much interchangeable with Curtis LeMay.
Nevertheless, even with this addition to our understanding, the relationship of the two factions is not clearly delineated. Hilsman and, to a lesser extent, Stone portray the “political” and “military” factions as serious antagonists in national policymaking, which is not at all so. I suspect they do so partly because they are thrown off by the frequently crude and colorful language of the “military” faction. Roger Hilsman, for example, does not speak of “Whiz kid liberals,” of “frying cities to a crisp,” or even of “nailing the coonskin to the wall.” He has never fallen in love with a B-17, never dreamt—as Barry Goldwater has phrased it so wonderfully—of dropping ICBM nukes into the Kremlin men’s room. “Political” language is cooler, more abstract; it prefers euphemism to metaphor. It is closer to the language of an Ivy League faculty club than to that of the officers’ mess.
THE LANGUAGE DIFFERENCE is not unimportant. It represents a difference of emphasis on many questions ranging from when to use the Bomb, to the relative merits of Boeing’s and General Dynamics’ version of the F-111, to whether civilian casualties in Vietnam are merely “body-count” or are also “regrettable.” But a difference in emphasis is all it represents. Pentagonese and academic coolspeak translate into each other too readily for one to think otherwise. Maxwell Taylor is fluent in both. Both languages are so closely related that one can move from one to the other without quite noticing it, just as the country moved from Kennedy’s War to Johnson’s War in 1964. The truth of the matter is that the two factions are not pressing mutually exclusive courses of action: they do not represent alternative national policies or leadership.
This phenomenon may at first appear surprising and at variance with the facts. We know, for example, that Hilsman’s public assessment of the “military” faction in Government is mild compared to the judgements which “political” men like himself will render in private. On a number of occasions I have raised this issue with officials in Washington who never fail to tell me that the Pentagon—and other Washington establishments as well—is filled with “madmen” and fools,” people who really want to use the Bomb in Vietnam or, because of Vietnam, people who are simply out of touch with reality. Such frank—and private—interviews are a common experience in Washington and among higher level university foreign-policy consultants. Hilsman reports that at one point in the Kennedy Administration an official prepared a mock account of a high-level meeting on Vietnam in which Averell Harriman “…stated that he had disagreed for twenty years with General Krulak [of the Marine Corps] and disagreed today, reluctantly tantly, more than ever; he was sorry to say that he felt General Krulak was a fool and had always thought so.” Harriman probably did think Krulak a fool. So, apparently, did President Kennedy who, shown the fictitious account, roared with laughter. What kind of men are these who describe their associates as “madmen” and “fools,” but who nevertheless assign charge over nuclear weapons to “madmen” and give major troop commands, here and abroad, to “fools”?
Roger Hilsman is an able and articulate member of a relatively new class of men in American life. He is a Crisis Manager, one of the men who have held and continue to hold the handful of positions in the National Security apparatus. It is their job to manage the still youthful crisis—only twenty-three years old—which we call the Cold War. Hilsman himself represents the newer breed of Crisis Managers, as tough-minded as Acheson but not so “military,” and as subtle as McCloy but not so closely connected with the older and European-oriented Wall Street business community. Like so many of the younger Crisis Managers he is an intellectual and a Kennedyite, is mildly liberal, and maintains a base within the university establishment. He is not a typical member of his class, but he is perhaps typical of the best of his class and this is the value of To Move a Nation. It is a portrayal and a defense of liberal, “political,” intelligent, and responsible Crisis Managers and of their struggles against the “madmen” and the “fools.” In short, it shows us the Crisis Managers at their best. It is not a reassuring sight.
THE CRISIS MANAGERS face a peculiar problem in dealing with the armed services and the services’ allies within the civil apparatus. They have assigned themselves the task of presiding over a vast military bureaucracy—and its supporting institutions—in a period in which changes in technology have forced revolutionary changes in the military art. With the exception of one or two like Hilsman (a graduate of West Point), they generally lack military training and yet somehow must try to maintain direction over the efforts of their always restive military technicians. Under such circumstances they have become the most ideological of men. Without the presumed superiority of an almost infallible conception of the National Interest they could not hope to force grudging acquiescence from their more technically skilled military subordinates.
Their outlook is a peculiar one and is shaped by this need to keep the miliary in check. What makes them particularly vulnerable to the pressures of the armed services is the fact that they are themselves ideological militarists as well. Unlike their uniformed subordinates the Crisis Managers do not believe in uniforms and medals, the glories of the service academy circa 1930, and the moral superiority of the military life. But just like their subordinates within the military they perceive international reality almost exclusively in military and strategic ways; their faith is coercion, and while they use political language often enough, in the end they rely on the military devices which they possess in such great profusion.
At one point in To Move A Nation Hilsman is confronted with the necessity to explain why Laos is worth a major military adventure. His answer is both revealing and characteristic, especially for a self-styled “political.” There is a road, he tells us, or rather the latent possibility of a road, which follows the tortuous course of the Mekong River from southwestern China, through more than a thousand miles of mountain, jungle, and swamp, to southern Laos and Cambodia. It is a line of communication, he argues using a military terminology that neatly marches along the page, and it must be denied the Chinese. No strong or suggestive evidence is offered that China wants to or is able to undertake this tedious excursion. Hilsman does not even see that that is an issue; instead America’s overseas imperatives can be read directly from an unmarked military map.
THE CRISIS MANAGERS are defined by munist, more so even than the service chiefs, but there is no ethical content to their hatred of Bolshevism, nor any sense at all of how they themselves may appear to Communist leaders. The Communists—a capitalized epithet usually lacking distinction as to faction, era, or nationality—are said to have no respect for people or their values, practice terror, possess an insatiable appetite for power. But by Hilsman’s own description the US, in the decade 1954-64, committed every imaginable perfidy in Laos. Governments were toppled, international agreements trampled upon, elections fixed, political parties created out of nothing, the Army placed on a monthly stipend, the economy distorted and corrupted, and several varieties of military adventurers encouraged in their aimless depredations against the long-suffering Lao people. Hilsman is quite firm in insisting, however, that the villains of the game are the Pathet Lao because of their “intransigeance and duplicity,” their “vicious” and “ruthless” opposition to free world influence in Laos.
A liberal of sorts, Hilsman naturally finds McCarthyism depraved; a moral man, he was appalled by the “unspeakable” practices found in Diem’s prisons. Yet he was among the earliest and most persistent enthusiasts for the Strategic Hamlet Program, which forcibly removed several million South Vietnamese from their homes and livelihood into what used to be called concentration camps. Still a proponent of the forced deportation of civilians, Hilsman criticizes the history of the Program only from a technical standpoint. There were never enough political police to prevent rebels—excuse me, Communists!—from infiltrating the Hamlets and Ngo Dinh Nhu “corrupted” the Program by pushing it too rapidly.
Consider once more the significance of the Strategic Hamlet Program or, for that matter, any of the resettlement programs which preceded it or followed it, including the current pacification program. These programs aim at forcing most rural South Vietnamese in disputed areas into government-controlled detention camps where they can be kept under exceptionally close surveillance by police and military authorities. Any person who remains outside the camps is assumed to be Viet Cong and may be killed on sight or by means of saturation bombardment in the “free fire” zones, i.e., the areas outside the camp. (The report on “The Village of Ben Suc” in the July 15 New Yorker gives a careful account of this process.) It is necessary to ask whether any communist government has ever undertaken so inclusive a program of detention and terror. Even Stalin’s collectivization of the Thirties assumed only a minority of the peasantry were enemies of the regime. In South Vietnam every peasant is a potential kulak and is treated accordingly “Political” officials like Hilsman are perfectly serious in defending these programs as an essential means of saving the population from communist totalitarianism. Such behavior on the part of civilized men is difficult to explain. It does indeed seem to be anticommunism of a particularly pathological kind. One gets the impression that the Crisis Managers conjure up a diabolical caricature of the Communists and then, to demonstrate how hardnosed and realistic they are, try to go the caricature one better.
TE CRISIS MANAGERS are defined by their relation to power. They want power but power of a peculiar kind. They are not interested in power as a form of personal adornment, such as the image of Mussolini recalls, nor do they seek power primarily as a means to chosen ends. They call themselves pragmatists (and moderates, always) intending to convey by this overused term that they are interested primarily in means taken by themselves, that is, in relative isolation from the ends they bring about. In Hilsman’s book, as in so many Crisis Manager tracts, this leads to a preoccupation with the process of decision-making. Decisions normally have both antecedents and consequences, but Crisis Managers are not particularly concerned with these. They are interested in the process: who made the decision, when and where, who was consulted and who wasn’t, who was cool and who agitated, who comes out of it looking good, and who will be the goat in the next round of memoirs.
The Crisis Managers’ relation to power is not mechanical, however, and it is not, prima facie, frivolous. They want power in its most immediate forms, power today, power to decide, to move and manipulate now, this moment. But their relationship to the power which they seek so assiduously is pictured in a grimly serious way. The telephone calls in the night, the immense influence of the institutions they control, and the knowledge that they deal always with life and death issues—all these produce in the Crisis Managers a portrait of themselves as lonely and heroic men never quite free of the heavy burdens of their high office, burdens of which lesser and more carefree men, like you and me, are blessedly ignorant. The language of this portrait—an immediate relation to reality, historical significance, selfchosen loneliness, suffering for others, the burden of decisions, confrontation with the issues of life and death—suggests the “existential” idiom of writers like Colin Wilson: Chapter thirty-two of Hilsman’s book, for example, bears the now familiar expression, “The Agonies of Decision.” This usage is quite deliberate.
Agonies reach their climax during crises and, like most Kennedy memoirists, Hilsman has a long and loving section on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. That crisis was naturally the high point in the lives of those Crisis Managers who happened to be working that year. Then, at the height of the crisis, for the first and only time perhaps in history, the fate of all mankind—all the significant power over that fate and all the significant decisions—was in the hands of a few men. Historical reality had been reduced to them, to their actions. For those few heady hours all events seemed obedient to the conscious will of a handful of intimates. Their engagement was complete, their every action was bent to the common task, where they went, what they said, whom they saw, how they appeared to others—all of this counted for those few magic hours. It was truly beautiful moment.
This curious aspect of Crisis Manager ideology is revealed in a very sharp way. In his treatment of Kennedy’s behavior during the crisis, Hilsman subtracts every morsel of substantive political significance and finds himself, ultimately, reduced to writing in a way that is frightening in its triviality. The late President’s earlier and inexcusable tolerance of Administration threats to destroy the Castro regime—even after the Bay of Pigs—is largely ignored, even though this contributed to the crisis in the first place. The fact that Kennedy brought all mankind to the brink of unfathomable suffering, partly in order to save face, while rejecting the compromise proposals of U Thant, Walter Lippmann, and others, is clear enough from Hilsman’s account of these events, but he takes no direct notice of it. Perhaps most important, Hilsman passes over the disastrous legacy of Kennedy’s victory—the belief that the Soviets baoked down out of fear and weakness. True or not, this was precisely the conclusion which freed Kennedy’s successor to chance the Vietnam escalation two years later. As Walt Rostow wrote last February:
If the Cuba missile crisis was the Gettysburg of the Cold War, Vietnam could be the Wilderness; for indeed the Cold War has been a kind of global civil conflict. Vietnam could be made the closing of one chapter in modern history and the opening of another…
Having thus reduced the scope of his interest, what else can Hilsman say? Kennedy’s behavior during the crisis itself was “exquisite.”
CRISIS REPRESENTS reality at its best for liberal Crisis Managers like Hilsman, and this simple insight gives us the key to their relationship with the maligned military and “military” types. The Crisis Managers are the moderates between two extremes, peace and war. Their stake is in Cold War, of which they are both children and progenitors. Unlike the generals they have no stake in active war. They don’t like war partly for the same reasons you and I don’t like war, but also because in war the power to make decisions escapes to the generals and that is anathema for liberal Crisis Managers.
It is, then, only by contrast to Curtis LeMay or Walt Rostow that our liberal Crisis Managers appear as sane and reasonable men, just as “advisers” in Laos appear a sane alternative to “nukes” in Peking. Without the terrifying backdrop of the Pentagon, and without the distorting influence of a swollen military establishment in our national life, the Crisis Managers would have too few crises to manage and their true role would emerge more clearly, perhaps even to themselves. Their half-disguised militarism, unprincipled anti-communism, and a bizarre, pretentious, and sometimes comic mystique of power are fully as antagonistic to a stable peace as is the ultimate faith in strategic bombing—in fact more so. Perhaps without knowing it, they have made Cold War manipulation and military coercion in foreign countries a kind of noble calling. It is understandable that the process of making money or enlightening undergraduates should become for them tame business compared to life and death confrontation with the Bomb, the task of policing and redeeming the Third World, smiting Marx and Mao with fistfuls of pragmatism and moderation—as they put it—and of getting the whole of mankind moving again. Thus the Crisis Managers are addicted to Cold War. They cannot do without it. They are the moderates who protect us from the twin evils of Dr. Spock and Dr. Strangelove.
This is why Hilsman did not go to the public in January, 1964. He resigned because the “fools” and the “madmen” had own control of the Government. He knew escalation was coming. An insider with the facts at his command and an experienced and respected policymaker, had he moved to attack the Administration publicly in 1964, it is conceivable that the war might not have been escalated, especially if some of those who agreed with him had joined him. But Crisis Managers don’t go to the public. The public really has no right to meddle in foreign policy. An informed opinion on foreign affairs “…like blue cheese…[is] an acquired taste” and the public has never acquired it. But more important by far than any contempt the Crisis Manager may feel for the public is his own commitment to “existential” decision-making. Managing crises is the privilege of a Crisis Manager as managing securities is the privilege of a portfolio manager. To go to the public is unthinkable, it is to exercise a deadly threat against the existence and prerogatives of one’s own class (not to mention one’s own future as a member in good standing). One simply does not do such things. Hilsman’s book is a treatise on the politics of policymaking within the foreign-affairs apparatus, not an exposé to rally a dormant public. Academic shoptalk has it that it may also be a ticket to the next Kennedy Administration. It is also an often touching and obviously genuine tribute to the memory of John Kennedy.
IN REVIEWING books like To Move a Nation it is fashionable to touch on the familiar abstract conflict between something called the national interest and something else called the public’s right to know. Calm, serious, and brief attention to the merits of both sides generally suffices to get the reviewer through this particular ritual. But times have changed.
January, 1964 was the beginning of an election year. The national Administration had committed itself to a course of war, which even now has not expanded to its full limit. A responsible official within the Administration was so appalled by the prospect that he resigned. But he kept silent. We must assume there were others who knew as he knew and who felt as he felt but they too kept silent.
In 1960, during the famous Kennedy- Nixon televised debates, candidate Kennedy proposed that the US assist anti- Castro exiles to invade their homeland. The proposal was attacked as irresponsible by Nixon, even though it was already the policy of the Eisenhower Administration, a policy initiated and championed within the Administration by Nixon himself. Eventually Kennedy too revealed a different face; his pre-presidential skepticism of the scheme’s worth was expressed in his hesitations during the Bay of Pigs affair.
As a system our political institutions broke down in 1960 and 1964. The complex of institutions which comprise that system—the parties, the press, the Congress, the private organizations, the ethics of responsible government—has no political justification save its capacity to subject government to periodic informed consent; and this is precisely what it failed to do in its last two attempts.
IN 1960 AND 1964 the Crisis Managers held out the illusion of alternatives to the public, and while we played in their proffered sandbox, they simply went ahead with the real world decisions or, as with Hilsman, let others go ahead with them, without public hindrance. The point to understand is that they carried out this fraud not out of malice or caprice, but because they were Crisis Managers. The whole significance of the Crisis Manager system is that they are—as a class—a perpetual conspiracy against the right of the public to self- government. Public indifference cannot be listed as an excuse. Nineteen-sixty and 1964 were not random years: they were election years, years when public figures are charged by our ethic to break through indifference and cause the public to make judgments on public business. What Kennedy, Nixon, and Hilsman did cannot be excused as a matter of protecting the national interest from the Russians, the Cubans, or the North Vietnamese. The other side knew what we were planning in these place.5 What Kennedy, Nixon, and Hilsman were doing was protecting the Crisis Manager system against the public.
It should be added that this is precisely the significance of the CIA, a significance which has been largely overlooked in the recent controversies surrounding the Agency. Critics of the CIA charge that its activities escape scrutiny by the President and his top advisers. Its defenders, including the last three Presidents, counter that the charge is not true and then procced to defend the Agency’s existence and influence as necessary if certain governmental activities are to escape the scrutiny of our enemies. But the Russians and the Chinese and the Cubans and the rest know far more about the operations of the CIA than does the American public. This is as it should be, for it is perfectly evident that the primary function of the CIA is to conduct that great part of our foreign policy which, for good reasons and bad, must escape the scrutiny of the American public. CIA spokesmen acknowledge this in defending the secrecy of their relationship to the NSA; such secrecy was necessary in the Laos and Vietnam programs6—and is necessary in Greece today. It is the essence of the Crisis Manager system that a large part of public policy be carried out in hiding from the public. The CIA is the institutional reflection of that system.
NINETEEN-SIXTY-EIGHT is an election year. Much of the country is strongly persuaded that the Vietnam war should be terminated, but is able to do precious little to bring it to an end.
On the Right, there are demands by hawkish members of Congress for more and more bombing in Vietnam. These demands reflect the views of the Pentagon and, as before, they are being met; the increasing doubts of other politicians are simply ignored. On the Left, there are numerous projects aimed at developing a broader opposition to the war and there are various small draft-and tax-resistance groups which refuse to support the war. None can seriously affect the outcome in 1968. Some people talk of a King-spock peace ticket for 1968. There is very little support for such a token effort and a great deal of well-reasoned opposition to it, especially among the student activists. It is doubtful, therefore, if it will even get off the ground.
The mainstream liberals, as usual, have their own sandbox. Joseph Rauh of the ADA wants to lead a crusade to the Democratic Party Convention and fight for an anti-war plank in the Democratic platform. With luck he might get a better document than he got in 1964—and one as meaningless for the President.
The great American center is quite as feckless. Recently I had a long conversation with a leading university consultant to the State Department and a major bureau chief of one of the big news magazines. Both had previously and strongly supported Administration policy in Vietnam. Now, the former wished for nothing more than a face-saving withdrawal and the latter merely hoped that “something could be done.” Both agreed the war was hopelessly stalemated, both thought Nixon would win the nomination in 1968 and run on a more-war program. Both agreed Johnson would win and both agreed that the war would either go on indefinitely or lead to war with China. Both agreed nothing could be done.
Through his magazine the bureau chief had good intelligence on the more political segments of the business community, especially among those who had balked at Taft in 1952 and forced the GOP to provide Eisenhower as an alternative. What about them? They have lost all confidence in Johnson, he reported. They think him a “madman” and see no limit to how far he’ll go. “What are they doing about it?” persisted. “Nothing,” he replied, “there is nothing that can be done.”
Perhaps he is wrong, but his mood reveals the final and most deadly legacy of the Crisis Manager system. The “military” are in the saddle and the revelations of “politicals” like Hilsman have no political effect. We have lived so long with Hilsman’s system that we have forgotten how to act. Others are actors and we are only spectators. This state of affairs is now a durable feature of American political life.
September 14, 1967
Schurmann in The Politics of Escalation and Stone in I. F. Stone’s Weekly, April 27, June 8, and October 12, 1964, May 17 and December 6, 1965, and September 26, October 24, and December 5, 1966. ↩
As has been widely reported in the press, Hilsman reveals that the North Vietnamese were not then infiltrating into South Vietnam, that there had been no recent increase in infiltrees, and that those who had already come were southerners returning from the 1954 regroupment. Regular North Vietnamese units did not enter South Vietnam until the fall of 1965, several months after the bombing of the North and the arrival of American units in the South. ↩
Saigon Post, July 10, 1964. The irrepressible Stone found this item and published it in his September 12, 1966 Weekly. ↩
The late Bernard Fall made this point in an analysis published in the Washington Post on August 9. The targets had been officially described as “gun-boats and their supporting facilities” but included the coal mines at Hong Gai. ↩
In the Vietnamese case, an East-European source reports that he saw the first emplacement of anti-aircraft artillery in Hanoi and Haiphong while on a visit in March, 1964. ↩
The CIA maintained a special and often dominant relationship to the American Vietnam project at least until Henry Cabot Lodge’s appointment as Ambassador in June, 1963. During the early part of the program, roughly March, 1955 to June, 1959, the CIA had been especially concerned to develop Vietnam’s internal security services, primarily the political police or Sûreté which Saigon had inherited from the departed French colonial authorities. The Michigan State University Advisory Group (MSUG) was used as a cover for this activity. ↩