A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

The article that follows is part of The Planning of the Vietnam War, a study by members of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, including Richard J. Barnet, Marcus Raskin, and Ralph Stavins.* In their introduction to the study, the authors write:

In early 1970, Marcus Raskin conceived the idea of a study that would explain how the Vietnam disaster happened by analyzing the planning of the war. A group of investigators directed by Ralph Stavins concentrated on finding out who did the actual planning that led to the decisions to bomb North Vietnam, to introduce over a half-million troops into South Vietnam, to defoliate and destroy vast areas of Indochina, and to create millions of refugees in the area.

Ralph Stavins, assisted by Canta Pian, John Berkowitz, George Pipkin, and Brian Eden, conducted more than 300 interviews in the course of this study. Among those interviewed were many Presidential advisers to Kennedy and Johnson, generals and admirals, middle level bureaucrats who occupied strategic positions in the national security bureaucracy, and officials, military and civilian, who carried out the policy in the field in Vietnam.

A number of informants backed up their oral statements with documents in their possession, including informal minutes of meetings, as well as portions of the official documentary record now known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Our information is drawn not only from the Department of Defense, but also from the White House, the Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency.”

The study is being published in two volumes. The first, which includes the article below, will be published early in August. The second will appear in May, 1972.


At the end of March, 1961, the CIA circulated a National Intelligence Estimate on the situation in South Vietnam. This paper advised Kennedy that Diem was a tyrant who was confronted with two sources of discontent, the non-Communist loyal opposition and the Viet Cong. The two problems were closely connected. Of the spreading Viet Cong network the CIA noted:

Local recruits and sympathetic or intimidated villagers have enhanced Viet Cong control and influence over increasing areas of the countryside. For example, more than one-half of the entire rural region south and southwest of Saigon, as well as some areas to the north, are under considerable Communist control. Some of these areas are in effect denied to all government authority not immediately backed by substantial armed force. The Viet Cong’s strength encircles Saigon and has recently begun to move closer in the city.

The people were not opposing these recent advances by the Viet Cong; if anything, they seemed to be supporting them. The failure to rally the people against the Viet Cong was laid to Diem’s dictatorial rule:

There has been an increasing disposition within official circles and the army to question Diem’s ability to lead in this period. Many feel that he is unable to rally the people in the fight against the Communists because of his reliance on virtual…

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