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 one-man rule, his tolerance of corruption extending even to his immediate entourage, and his refusal to relax a rigid system of public controls.

The CIA referred to the attempted coup against Diem that had been led by General Thi in November, 1960, and concluded that another coup was likely. In spite of the gains by the Viet Cong, they predicted that the next attempt to overthrow Diem would originate with the army and the non-Communist opposition.

The Communists would like to initiate and control a coup against Diem, and their armed and subversive operations including united front efforts are directed toward this purpose. It is more likely, however, that any coup attempt which occurs over the next year or so will originate among non-Communist elements, perhaps a combination of disgruntled civilian officials and oppositionists and army elements, broader than those involved in the November attempt.

In view of the broadly based opposition to Diem’s regime and his virtual reliance on one-man rule, it was unlikely that he would initiate any reform measures that would sap the strength of the revolutionaries. Whether reform was conceived as widening the political base of the regime, which Diem would not agree to, or whether it was to consist of an intensified counter-insurgency program, something the people would not support, it had become painfully clear to Washington that reform was not the path to victory. But victory was the goal, and Kennedy called upon Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric to draw up the victory plans. On April 20, 1961, Kennedy asked Gilpatric to:

a) Appraise the current status and future prospects of the Communist drive to dominate South Vietnam.

b) Recommend a series of actions (military, political, and/or economic, overt and/or covert) which will prevent Communist domination of that country.

The Gilpatric Task Force

Gilpatric organized an Interdepartmental Task Force with representatives from State, Defense, CIA, the International Cooperation Agency, the US Information Agency, and the Office of the President, with Brigadier General Edward Lansdale as operations officer. Their report was to be completed in one week.


The final version, “A Program of Action to Prevent Communist Domination of South Vietnam,” was submitted to Kennedy on May 6. The victory plans recommended by the Gilpatric Task Force called for the use of US ground troops and a bilateral treaty between the US and the GVN. Both proposals stood in direct violation of the Geneva Accords, but were required because “it is essential that President Diem’s full confidence in and communication with the United States be restored promptly.”

Diem suspected that the United States was wavering in its commitment to the GVN on several grounds, some rational, such as the negotiations for a Laotian settlement, others irrational, such as his belief that the US had played a role in the attempted coup of November, 1960. But it was Diem’s suspicions, not the justification for them, that compelled Washington to give serious consideration to using ground troops and to signing a treaty with the GVN, even though Diem’s policies were demonstrably bankrupt and the suggested remedies violated international law. The feeling was beginning to take hold in Washington that if the US took over the job, Diem’s policies would not matter. This belief was to be reinforced during the crisis in the fall of 1961, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk recommended that the United States simply take over the machinery of government in the South, should ground troops be introduced into the combat theater.

Circumventing international law was viewed by the Kennedy Administration as a problem far less significant than that of building support for a bankrupt GVN. Nevertheless, the question exercised the minds of officials in Washington. In his report to Kennedy, Gilpatric, for example, advanced the following argument to meet the charge that the United States was flouting the law:

On the grounds that the Geneva Accords have placed inhibitions upon free world action while at the same time placing no restrictions upon the Communists, Ambassador Nolting should be instructed to enter into preliminary discussions with Diem regarding the possibility of a defensive security alliance despite the inconsistency of such actions with the Geneva Accords.

This action would be based on the premise that such an undertaking is justified in international law as representing a refusal to be bound by the Accords in a degree and manner beyond that which the other party to the Accords has shown a willingness to honor. Communist violations, therefore, justify the establishment of the security arrangement herein recommended. Concurrently, Defense should study the military advisability of committing US forces in Vietnam.

This was the explanation that would be given to the American public: Communist violations of the Accords justified the bilateral treaty and the use of US ground forces. But would this explanation also convince official Washington of the need to deploy troops? Indeed not. In the same report, Gilpatric informed Kennedy why US troops were needed in Vietnam. “US forces are required,” Gilpatric wrote, “to provide maximum psychological impact in deterrence of further Communist aggression from North Vietnam, China, or the Soviet Union.” They would also serve an additional purpose: “to provide significant military resistance to potential North Vietnam Communist and/or Chinese Communist action” (italics added).

The US public was to be told that Washington had a legal right to deploy troops in response to actual Communist transgressions, while privately Washington would decide to act because of “potential” Communist action. Of course, “further” aggressions from China or the Soviet Union could hardly be equated with past violations, especially since neither country had set foot in South Vietnam. Indeed, Russia had sponsored the two Vietnams for membership in the United Nations as late as 1959. “Further” aggressions from the North, such as reactivating the guerrilla apparatus in the South, an apparatus manned by Southern cadres and fed by Southern peasants, were Hanoi’s delayed response to the initial transgression by the GVN, which, in collusion with Washington, had refused to consult with the North or hold elections in the South, as required by the Geneva Accords.

Thus, Washington’s reason for deploying combat troops directly contradicted the explanation that would be given to the press and to Congress. Washington had decided that the way to manipulate international law was to fool the American people.

On May 11, President Kennedy, after reviewing the findings of the Gilpatric Task Force, issued a National Security Action Memorandum which contained several important decisions on Vietnam. Such memoranda, written by the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, were used to convey Presidential orders to all the agencies that were to carry them out, or needed to know about them. The NSAM of May 11 stated:


  1. The US objective is to prevent Communist domination of South Vietnam.
  2. A further increase in GVN forces from 170,000 to 200,000 is to be assumed.
  3. Defense Department is directed to examine the size and composition of US forces in the event that such forces are committed to Vietnam.
  4. The United States will seek to increase the confidence of Diem.

  5. The Ambassador should begin negotiations for a bilateral arrangement with Vietnam.

  6. The program for covert action is approved.

Gilpatric asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff their opinion on the desirability of deploying US forces to Vietnam. They recommended immediate deployment of a sufficient number to achieve the objectives set forth in the Gilpatric report. To set the machinery in motion, the Joint Chiefs added, Diem should “be encouraged to request that the United States fulfill its SEATO obligations…. Upon receipt of this request, suitable forces could be immediately deployed.”

Vice President Johnson was dispatched to Vietnam to shore up Diem’s confidence in the US commitment by “encouraging” him to request US ground troops. Referring to Diem as “the Winston Churchill of the Orient,” Johnson asked him to make this request. But much to Washington’s chagrin, Diem told Johnson that he did not want foreign troops on Vietnamese soil, except in the event of overt aggression. Moreover, he pointed out, the presence of US troops would contravene and nullify the Geneva Accords. The semblance of legality could be preserved, he added, if American troops were channeled, as “advisers,” through the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), which had been in South Vietnam since the mid-Fifties.

After Johnson’s visit, Diem sent a letter to President Kennedy expressing gratitude for Johnson’s offer of assistance. “I was most deeply gratified by this gracious gesture by your distinguished Vice President, particularly as we have not become accustomed to being asked for our own views as to our needs,” he wrote, concluding with the reminder that “we can count on the material support from your great country which will be so essential to achieving final victory.” Material support, not US troops, would be furnished by Washington; otherwise Diem would make himself even more vulnerable to the Communist charge that he was a colonialist.

During the summer of 1961, when the situation in Indochina deteriorated, Diem changed his mind and requested a treaty and troops from the United States. On October 1, the recently appointed Ambassador Nolting reported that Diem wanted a bilateral defense treaty with the US; on the thirteenth, Diem requested ground troops. These requests coincided with the conclusion of Defense Department and JCS studies, both of which advised the President to dispatch US troops to Vietnam, as well as with the announcement of a forthcoming “fact-finding mission” to Vietnam by two White House advisers, General Maxwell Taylor and Walt W. Rostow.

The Defense Department’s study of the Viet Cong movement produced the discovery that the men and material originated in the South, not the North. The Department found that although the level of infiltration from the North was increasing, the “vast majority of Viet Cong troops are of local origin.” If Hanoi was not furnishing the troops, was it at least furnishing the supplies? “There is little evidence of major supplies from outside sources,” the Defense Department study found, “most arms being captured or stolen from GVN forces or from the French during the Indochina war.” The North had given moral support to the insurgents, but little else. What should the United States do?

Having determined that the Viet Cong movement was local in origin, the Defense Department recommended that 11,000 US combat troops and 11,800 support troops be deployed to Vietnam for the purpose of sealing the border against any possible future infiltration from the North. But, the Department added, these troops would be insufficient to establish an anti-Communist government in the South. “The ultimate force requirements [for that purpose] cannot be estimated with any precision,” the Department stated. “Three divisions would be a guess.”

The Joints Chiefs of Staff, in their reply to Gilpatric, reasoned that the North would rely still further upon a policy of infiltration if SEATO and US troops were deployed in the South. The Joint Chiefs speculated that it would be uncharacteristic of the North to respond with an overt invasion of the South, but in the event that it did, the US would have to send in three divisions. If China threw its weight into the struggle, then six US divisions, or a total of 205,000 men, would be required, and the use of nuclear weapons would become a distinct possibility.

The CIA took the Viet Cong threat less seriously than the Defense Department did, and identified the non-Communist (perhaps one should say anti-Communist) South as the immediate danger to Diem. The agency wrote:

Most immediate threat to Diem is not a military takeover by the Communists but the mounting danger of an internal coup by disgruntled military and civilian members of the government who are critical of Diem’s leadership. These critics hold that Diem’s heavy hand in all operations of the government is not only hampering the anti-Communist military effort but is steadily alienating the populace.

Should a SEATO task force be dispatched to Vietnam as an alternative to US troops—one of the contingency plans circulating in Washington at the time—the CIA, like the Joint Chiefs, discounted the likelihood of a Northern invasion. Hanoi’s strategy, the CIA believed, would be “to play upon possible SEATO weariness over maintaining substantial forces.” Once this weariness became evident, “the Asian members would soon become disenchanted and look to the US to do something to lessen the burden and to solve the problem.” Whether this something would be a sizable number of US ground troops, as favored by the Joint Chiefs, or the use of nuclear weapons, as contemplated by Admiral Felt, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific forces (CINCPAC), was left undecided.

If the CIA analysis was correct, the US faced the possibility of a major war on the Asian mainland for the purpose of defending the narrow base of the Diem regime against its own people. Even the anti-Communist opposition in the South was rapidly being transmuted into part of a Communist monolith, located either in Moscow or Peking.

Nevertheless, some advisers began to argue for war. William Bundy, who had recently changed positions from the CIA’s Far East expert to Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Defense Department, echoed Walt Rostow’s belief that the fall of 1961 was the “now or never” period for the US. If America acted promptly and aggressively, Bundy argued, there was a 70 percent chance that it would “clean up the situation.” There was a 30 percent chance that “we would wind up like the French in 1954; white men can’t win this kind of war.” Having weighed the options, Bundy concluded that a pre-emptive strike was advisable, and recommended “early and hard-hitting operations.”

The Taylor-Rostow Mission

On October 11, 1961, President Kennedy authorized the Taylor-Rostow mission to Vietnam. Its purpose was to examine the feasibility of dispatching US troops; Kennedy specifically recommended that the mission look into the question of troop requirements. One option would be to send fewer US combat troops than the 22,800 identified in the Defense Department plan, but enough to “establish a US presence in Vietnam.” A second dispensed with US combat forces entirely, and envisioned a stepped-up version of what is now called the “Vietnamization” program. According to this plan, the United States would increase its training of Vietnamese units and furnish more US equipment, “particularly helicopters and other light aircraft, trucks, and other ground support transport.”

Two days after Kennedy announced the Taylor-Rostow mission, Diem, who had heretofore refused to “request” US combat troops, met with Ambassador Nolting and asked that the US government provide South Vietnam with the aid that had been secretly discussed when the Taylor-Rostow mission was being planned. Vice President Thuan, speaking for President Diem, requested an additional squadron of AD-6 fighter bombers, US civilian contract pilots for helicopters, transport planes to be used for non-combat operations, and US combat units to be introduced into South Vietnam as combat-trainer units.

Diem had changed his mind. Originally ashamed to be dependent upon a US presence and afraid to scuttle the Geneva Accords, he set aside these considerations once it became clear that a neutral Laos was about to emerge from the negotiations then under way. According to Diem, a neutral Laos would be useful to the Communists. They could then cross the western border at will, infiltrate into the South, and crush him. The terrain in Laos was more difficult to defend, and the Communists were strong enough there to strike a final blow. Laos, he argued, had been used to trap the Americans into conceding South Vietnam.

Having enticed the Americans into a settlement that made it look as if the Americans had lost nothing, the Communists could concentrate all of their energies on seizing South Vietnam. To counter this strategy, Diem wanted some immediate assurance that the US would remain committed to the South. Such assurance would require a bilateral treaty and the presence of US combat troops. Only this would dissuade the North from pursuing a militant policy and convince those elements in the South that were still loyal to Diem that a Laotian settlement was not the death warrant for the GVN.

The Kennedy Administration had discovered that it was impossible to avoid war. The only question was where and when. If Laos was not settled quickly, the US would have to pour in troops, with small chance of success. But to negotiate a neutral Laos meant that US troops would have to be deployed to South Vietnam, thus increasing the likelihood of a direct confrontation. Washington had painted itself into a corner—either war in Laos now or war in Vietnam in the future. Kennedy chose the latter.

The Taylor-Rostow mission stopped at Hawaii on the way to Vietnam and discussions were held with Admiral Felt, head of CINCPAC. Rostow asked about contingency plans in the event that open warfare broke out with the North. One question in particular concerned the use of nuclear weapons. Felt replied, “Plans were drawn on the assumption that tactical nuclear weapons will be used if required and that we can anticipate requests being made for their use if action expands into a Phase 4 situation.” (Phase 4 involved a North Vietnamese and Chinese invasion of the South.)

Once in Vietnam, Taylor and Rostow explored ways of introducing US ground troops. They had decided that Diem needed them to preserve his rule, but they also recognized that such a course would damage America’s image as a peacekeeper. The general and the professor wondered how the United States could go to war while appearing to preserve the peace. While they were pondering this question, Vietnam was suddenly struck by a deluge. It was as if God had wrought a miracle. American soldiers, acting on humanitarian impulses, could be dispatched to save Vietnam not from the Viet Cong, but from the floods. McGarr, the Chief of MAAG, stated that Taylor favored “moving in US military personnel for humanitarian purposes with subsequent retention if desirable.” He added, “This is an excellent opportunity to minimize adverse publicity.”

Taylor himself viewed the flood relief task force more ambitiously. It would be the most efficient way to deal with world opinion, assuage Diem’s fears, and allay Kennedy’s reservations. World opinion would be swayed by humanitarian considerations. The colonial stain would not unduly tarnish Diem’s image because the flood relief program clearly was not intended to “take over the responsibility for the security of the country.” Finally, and perhaps most important, Taylor’s plan contained a built-in excuse to withdraw—a feature intended to overcome Kennedy’s objections. The President, it was well known, believed that it was far more difficult to remove troops than to introduce them. Taylor wrote to Kennedy, “As the task is a specific one, we can extricate our troops when it is done if we so desire. Alternatively, we can phase them into other activities if we wish to remain longer.”

Having invented a scheme that would enable the leaders in Saigon and Washington to placate their respective constituencies, Taylor then turned his attention from his preoccupation with politics to the military consequences. He recommended that the President deploy 8,000 ground troops and acknowledged that most of them would be used for logistical purposes. Such a token gesture could not be expected to have great military significance, but it surely ran the risk, as Taylor put it, of “escalating into a major war in Asia.” Even if this danger did not materialize, the initial commitment would make it “difficult to resist the pressure to reinforce.” Once the blood of a single American soldier had been spilled the President would assume the role of Commander-in-Chief and would be obliged to discharge his constitutional duty to protect the troops in the field.

This obligation made it unlikely that troops would be removed and far more likely that additional troops would be sent over. The technical device of a built-in exit might be superseded by the political reality of a built-in escalation. And with the DRV and the Viet Cong committed to a policy of attrition, the United States would then be locked into a long struggle at the edge of the Communist world.

Such a struggle would take place, unfortunately, at a time when “the strategic reserve of the US forces is presently so weak that we can ill afford any detachment of forces.” Taylor, in effect, told Kennedy to dispatch a few thousand combat troops which could not turn the tide of military battle, which invited a major war, provoked an indefinite and indecisive conflict, and depleted the US reserve. Why should Kennedy do this? Because, as Taylor said, “I do not believe that our program to save South Vietnam will succeed without it.”

The symbolic gesture of stationing a few thousand US troops would save South Vietnam, Taylor argued, because it would inform the Communists of the “seriousness of the US intent to resist” and would raise the “national morale” of the South. Taylor predicted that the North would back down if the United States exhibited a fixed resolve to defend the South. That resolve had to be conveyed in the form of a clear message to Hanoi that the United States would take offensive action against the North if it did not stop supporting the Viet Cong. A small task force was a harbinger of greater devastation. The North would desist once it understood this message because, in Taylor’s words, “North Vietnam is extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing, a weakness which should be exploited diplomatically in convincing Hanoi to lay off South Vietnam.”

The small task force, along with other forms of US-GVN cooperation, not only would alarm Hanoi, but in the South it would “reverse the present downward trend, stimulate an offensive spirit and build up morale.” As Rostow commented to Diem at this time, “That secret of turning point is offensive action.”

The purposes of discouraging the North and encouraging the South became the strategy that was to be relied upon throughout the Vietnam war. The same arguments that were advanced for the first time in 1961 were repeated in 1965 when Washington made the decision to embark on Operation Rolling Thunder. By the summer of 1965, however, lifting Southern morale was no longer viewed as necessary to win the war. The decision to send in the first 500,000 combat troops was justified solely by the need to convince the Communists that the United States was serious.

The strategy has remained surprisingly constant, guiding American policy for the better part of a decade. The architects of the strategy, Taylor and Rostow, did not envision the small task force of 8,000 men as the “final word.” It was simply the first lesson they planned for the leadership in Hanoi.

By its major premise—that Hanoi would back down only if it knew the United States was prepared to attack North Vietnam directly—the strategy entailed a built-in escalation. Events had to follow in a monotonous but natural order; increase the size of US support troops in the South; institute covert operations against the North; threaten to bomb the North; bomb the North; pour US combat troops into the South as rapidly as possible; invade Cambodia; invade Laos…invade the North? destroy the North? etc.

The strategy required not only that the United States make it known that it would attack the North directly, but also that the United States not obliterate the North. To threaten to destroy the Communist regime in Hanoi would risk a direct encounter with China or Russia, a risk that the national security managers wished to avoid. They did not want to fight a nuclear war. They wanted to fight a safe war. The strategy therefore demanded a combination of escalation and moderation.

America would exercise its power in a deliberate and calculated manner in order to hold Hanoi hostage. The term “Hanoi” here is to be taken literally: the rest of Vietnam, indeed all of Indochina, was to become a target. One could say that US strategy was to kill the people while preserving the Hanoi government. Once surrounded by devastation, isolated, and abandoned by her socialist allies, Russia and China, Hanoi would be left with no choice but to submit to a “moderate” but triumphant America.

Although the creation of the task force was its most far-reaching recommendation, the Taylor-Rostow report urged the President to adopt a number of other measures. These were mainly of a military and administrative nature. The report recommended that the personnel in the Military Assistance Advisory Group mission be increased from 1,103 to 2,612. Moreover, US aircraft, consisting of several helicopter companies, and US crews for supporting or operational missions were to be introduced no later than mid-November.

The combat troops, the increase in the size of MAAG, and the use of US aircraft and crews were all violations of the limits on troops and armaments set by the Geneva Accords. The International Security Agency, reviewing the legality of these recommendations, noted that the additions to MAAG, although a violation of international law, could not easily be proved: discussions between the International Control Commission, which was charged with enforcing the Geneva Accords, and the Embassy could be extended for months, during which time the value of the increase in MAAG’s size would be realized.

The use of US helicopters was of a more serious nature, requiring some groundwork to pacify Congress and the press. But combat troops could not so easily be disguised. Their only justification would be their subsequent success, not prior propaganda, and the International Security Agency viewed them with deep skepticism. It predicted that the North would respond by infiltrating 15,000 men, which would in turn require three US divisions to offset them. Thus an indefinite war of attrition would be ensured.

The “Limited Partnership”

The administrative recommendations of Taylor and Rostow were designed to place a number of Americans on four specific levels of the South Vietnamese bureaucracy. First, Americans would work as high-level government advisers. Taylor envisioned “a limited number of Americans in key ministries.” This would mean that US advisers would, in effect, become cabinet officers in the Diem government. Next, “a joint US-Vietnamese Military Survey, down to the provincial level, in each of three corps areas” would engage in a number of tasks, including intelligence, command and control, the build-up of reserves for offensive purposes, and mediation between the military commander and the province chief. The other two functions would be border control operations and “intimate liaison with the Vietnamese Central Intelligence organizations.”

The ostensible purpose of giving Americans critical roles in government was that “Vietnamese performance in every domain can be substantially improved if Americans are prepared to work side by side with the Vietnamese.” Taylor designated these administrative changes as representing a “shift from US advice to limited partnership.” The concept of “limited partnership,” in fact, meant that the GVN had been negligent in reforming itself in the past, and suggested that the only way to reform the GVN in the future would be for the US to take it over. With US ground troops in the field, US aircraft controlling the skies, and US civilian personnel administering the cities and provinces, Vietnam would be reformed. Only Washington’s own people could fulfill Washington’s wishes.

The administrative changes meant that the national security managers had decided that the most effective mechanism for processing reforms through the GVN was for America to take over the government. They were also beginning to understand that the surest way to take over a client state was to introduce ground troops who would ultimately become responsible for the defense of the country. Under such circumstances, the native leader no longer serves as a puppet but rather, in the manager’s words, as a “platform” upon which the American military and administrative personnel would be able to operate. Reduced from a leader to a platform, the local ruler of the client state is robbed of the last vestiges of his political life. His value to the mother country is no longer measured by the speed and economy with which he is able to bring about the changes suggested by Washington (the core of his bargaining power).

Since the local leader is no longer the source of change, he is not expected to do anything; he is merely expected not to undo anything. The mother country is less interested in gaining than in not losing. That desirable feature of leadership, charisma, gives way to banality. The worth of the leader is now measured by the number of followers he does not lose, the number of riots that do not occur, the number of battles that are not fought.

The leader’s role in his own country is purely custodial. His task is to hold things together. To the degree that he performs this function, he has built the platform upon which the troops from the mother country may enter. His obligation to the mother country is to serve as the official greeter of the foreign troops. He is a janitor at home and a master of ceremonies abroad.

The problem with Diem was that he was unable to play a custodial role at home or a ceremonial one abroad. By 1961, he was beginning to lose his followers faster than the United States could increase its personnel in Vietnam. Were this inverse ratio to continue, the moment would come when there would be no platform for American troops to walk on. But this was not clearly perceived in Washington in 1961. When it did become obvious in 1963, Diem was dispensed with. Whereas Ambassador Durbrow had toyed with the idea of eliminating Diem because he was not a reformer, the Kennedy circle would remove him because he had been abandoned by the last of the faithful. Diem’s failure to reform would be the alibi for, not the cause of, his downfall.

What was obvious in 1961 was that Kennedy was alarmed about Diem’s public image in America. From the poïnt of view of the President of the United States, the local leader must be palatable to the American people if American troops are to be ordered to Vietnam. One explanation for Kennedy’s decision to veto the recommendation of all of his senior advisers to send troops to Vietnam was that Diem lacked the image that would qualify him to receive American ground troops. In a discussion of “the famous problem of Diem as an administrator and politician,” Taylor suggested three choices that were available to Washington.

The first was to “remove him in favor of a military dictatorship which would give dominance to the military chain of command.” The second was to “remove him in favor of a figure of more dilute power who would delegate authority to act in both military and civilian leaders.” It was this option that foreshadowed the need for a local leader who could retain a rapidly diminishing constituency, so that the largest number of US troops could be sent. Once the need became apparent, the second choice was axiomatic. Washington would then require someone to perform custodial services in Vietnam and act as an official greeter for American troops, roles played by General Khanh in 1964 and General Thieu after 1965.

In 1961, however, Taylor opted for the third choice. He wished to retain Diem in order “to bring about a series of de facto administrative changes via persuasion at high levels…using the US presence to force the Vietnamese to get their house in order in one area after another.” In considering the first two choices, Taylor raised the prospect of a coup, but rejected it because “it would be dangerous for us to engineer a coup under present tense circumstances, since it is by no means certain that we could control its consequences and potentialities for Communist exploitation.” In other words, the United States had not yet taken over enough of Vietnam to guarantee the irrelevance of the new leader.

The Taylor-Rostow report had a profound influence on Washington’s policy toward Vietnam. The report fashioned the strategy of combined escalation and moderation. By establishing the principle of “limited partnership,” a euphemism for American control, it resolved the conflict between the need for efficient prosecution of the war and the need for administrative reform. The previous aim of reform had been to broaden the base of the government to include elements of the loyal opposition. The new focus was on the pace at which American troops entered the field and American bureaucrats entered the government.

Broadening the base came to mean turning the reins of government over to the Americans. Once Americans took over, they could manipulate the concepts of warfare and welfare according to their own priorities. The battle between these concepts would be waged within the American establishment, with the pacifiers making feeble attempts to reform the military. Reform ultimately came to mean less indiscriminate killing instead of greater citizen participation. Finally, the report defined the qualities of the ideal leader that America would need in Vietnam after it stationed its troops in the field and its bureaucrats in office—qualities that were to be found eventually in the middling leadership of Thieu.

The Recommendations of McNamara and Rusk

While the Taylor-Rostow report was circulating in Washington, Secretaries McNamara and Rusk were writing their own recommendations for Vietnam policy. McNamara picked up the thread of Taylor’s strategic analysis and Rusk pondered the need for an American seizure of the Vietnamese bureaucracy.

Rusk believed the President should carefully weigh the decision to send in US troops against Diem’s unwillingness to “give us something worth supporting.” Diem’s failure to trust his own commanders and his obstinate refusal to broaden the base of government made it unlikely that a “handful of American troops can have decisive influence.” Rusk noted the vital importance that US policy attached to Southeast Asia, but he cautioned against “committing American prestige to a losing horse.” His recommendations, however, also presumed a seizure of the internal bureaucracy, the process described by Taylor as “limited partnership.” Rusk directed the State Department to draw up a list of expectations “from Diem if our assistance forces us to assume de facto direction of South Vietnamese affairs.”

While Rusk was elaborating on Taylor’s report from the civil side, McNamara accelerated the recommendations from the military side. He accepted the strategy recommended by Taylor, but criticized him for not putting enough muscle behind that strategy. In McNamara’s view, the 8,000-man task force would help Diem but would not “convince the other side (whether the shots are called from Moscow, Peiping, or Hanoi) that we mean business. Moreover, it probably will not tip the scales decisively. We would be almost certain to get increasingly mired down in an inconclusive struggle.”

Since the aim of the strategy was to make the enemy know that the United States would attack directly if it did not disengage itself from the Southern struggle, McNamara concluded:

…the other side can be convinced we mean business only if we accompany the initial force introduction by a clear warning commitment to the full objective stated above, accompanied by a warning through some channel to Hanoi that continued support of the Viet Cong will lead to punitive retaliation against North Vietnam.

McNamara presumed that the other side would attack, not withdraw, in spite of the presence of US troops and a clear statement of intent. The US would then reply with 205,000 men, or six divisions. Public opinion in America, McNamara believed, “will respond better to a firm initial position than to courses of action that lead us in only gradually.”

What is striking about the recommendations by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense is that each, within his particular domain, went beyond the suggestions made by General Taylor. Whereas Taylor spoke of a limited partnership between the GVN and the United States government, Rusk operated on the assumption of a “de facto direction of South Vietnamese affairs.”

With respect to military policy, Taylor boldly conceived a strategy that could well lead to genocide, but he was rather timid in applying it. He wanted to avoid the impression that the US would send its troops into actual combat, and urged the flood relief idea upon the President as a cover to preserve a peaceful image. McNamara, however, not only was willing to embrace the need for 8,000 combat troops, but seemed to be devising a pre-emptive strategy by calling on a second-strike capability of six divisions as a response to the Northern invasion that would be touched off by the initial force.

While Taylor saw the flood relief task force as a humanitarian cover to avoid a larger war, McNamara viewed it as a way to provoke the North into that larger war. Taylor, moreover, counseled the President on the importance of a peaceful image for domestic public opinion. At best, Taylor reasoned, the American public would have to be led to accept a gradual involvement. McNamara, on the other hand, believed that America would much more likely support a firm hand.

Taylor either eschewed war altogether by projecting such logical incompatibilities as a bold strategy and a quiescent task force, or equivocated by never pulling out or pushing in. McNamara, just recovering from his personal revulsion at the possibility of a nuclear holocaust over Berlin, seemed to be willing to prosecute a large conventional war. In view of the advanced state of US technology, such a war, if carried on for years, could produce effects amounting to nuclear devastation.

Kennedy’s Decision

In spite of the agreement among his senior advisers that ground troops should be dispatched, Kennedy refused. He could have cited many reasons to support his decision. One was that the introduction of US combat forces in Vietnam would cripple the discussions for a negotiated settlement in Laos. Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador, had told Rusk on November 7 that “the introduction of US troops would not only complicate the situation, but make it impossible to get anywhere on Laos.” A week later, Ambassador Alphand of France told Rusk that further escalation would undermine the Geneva negotiations and compound the risk of “mass intervention” by the Soviet Union. Alphand also reminded the Secretary of “difficulties for the West of fighting in Vietnam.”

Rusk, however, took this to mean that Europe and America might have to part ways. Rusk explained that it “would be difficult for US opinion and friendly countries to accept a repetition of Laos in Vietnam.” Southeast Asia, he concluded, was “more important to the United States than to Europe.” Indeed, “if the loss of Southeast Asia was at stake, and Europeans did not agree with our policies, there might have to be a divergence.”

Rusk’s attitude demonstrates a fundamental shift in the direction of American foreign policy. Hereafter the national security managers, except for George Ball, were to reject the need for a multilateral response and affirm the will to proceed alone in Asia. The first sign of this shift occurred on January 19, 1961, just before Kennedy’s inauguration when, during discussions with the President-elect, Eisenhower told him, “It is imperative that Laos be defended. The United States should accept this task with our allies, if we could persuade them, and alone if we could not. Our unilateral intervention would be our last desperate hope in the event we were unable to prevail upon the other signatories to join us.”

Kennedy’s advisers wholeheartedly supported Eisenhower’s position, but had to wait for Johnson to apply it to Vietnam, not Laos. Kennedy himself, in 1961, seemed to be more impressed with the arguments advanced by the British and French ambassadors than with Eisenhower’s position or with Rusk’s acceptance of it. Kennedy, it could be argued, was yet to be persuaded that US foreign policy was destined to go it alone in Asia. In addition to shattering the Laotian settlement, the dispatch of troops to Vietnam at a time when the Berlin crisis could again erupt increased Kennedy’s “expressed concern over a two-front war.” This does not mean, however, that Kennedy was willing to preside over the liquidation of the fledgling American Empire in Southeast Asia. The fear of a two-front war, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., would have to be weighed against the fear “that an American retreat in Asia might upset the whole world balance.”

Other factors must be considered to explain Kennedy’s veto of combat troops. One way to understand the President’s motives is to recall the decisions he made and try to discover what light they shed on decisions that he did not make. We do know, for example, that Kennedy sent troops to Vietnam, referring to them as support troops, though their combat role was extensive. Therefore, we can conclude that Kennedy saw the need to disguise their combat function. We also know that the number sent during his administration ultimately doubled the initial figure of 8,000 recommended by Taylor and Rostow. Therefore, Kennedy saw the need to introduce them into Vietnam gradually instead of at one stroke. Finally, we know that Kennedy began a campaign of covert activities against North Vietnam—a campaign that marked the switch to direct offensive actions but was disguised so that Washington could publicly disavow its own role.

Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam, then, was to accelerate the war while denying that he was doing it. His policy was to prosecute a private war. He was willing to go it alone in Asia, but not to admit it. He disregarded the counsel of his advisers only to the extent that they preferred a public war.

The President, clearly, did not believe that the American people would support him in his decision to escalate the level of combat. This does not mean that Kennedy thought the American people would have been opposed to a war in Indochina under any circumstances. It simply means that in 1961 the American public would not support a war whose ostensible purpose was to preserve the Diem regime. The war would be repulsive because the leader was odious. In 1963, when the self-immolation of protesting Buddhist monks became a daily event, Diem’s image abroad deteriorated and became incompatible with the American presence. The American people could resign themselves to an indefinite war, but not when the character of the regime, personified by Diem, Nhu, and Madame Nhu, was so obnoxious. Washington concluded that Diem would have to be eliminated before the war could be escalated.

While Diem was too repellent to be given American combat troops, he was not pliable enough to accept American bureaucrats. Rusk, as we have seen, presumed that America would undertake a “de facto direction of South Vietnamese affairs.” The Taylor-Rostow report had anticipated a “limited partnership” between the GVN and the United States government. Diem quickly dashed these hopes. Vice President Thuan told Ambassador Nolting that Diem’s “attitude seemed to be that the United States was asking great concessions of GVN in the realm of its sovereignty, in exchange for little additional help.” When Nolting pressed Diem directly on the need for a close partnership, Diem informed him that “Vietnam did not want to be a protectorate.”

By word and deed, Diem demonstrated that he would no more broaden his decision-making councils to include Americans than he would do so to include other Vietnamese. To turn over the internal bureaucracy to the Americans, Diem had told Ambassador Kenneth Young, would “give a monopoly on nationalism to the Communists.” The only conditions under which Diem would accept a US directorate were the dispatch of US combat troops and a bilateral treaty. If he was certain that the Americans would openly defend him, then he could afford to come out openly as their puppet. But Washington would not openly defend Diem because he did not seem worth defending in public.

In these circumstances Kennedy made the decision not to send in combat troops, or rather, to fight a private war. In a National Security Council Action Memorandum on Vietnam, NSAM 111, Kennedy, observing widespread criticism of Diem’s regime, stated that US support would be conditional upon whether real reforms were instituted by Diem. The President said:

Rightly or wrongly his regime is widely criticized abroad and in the US, and if we are to give our substantial support, we must be able to point to real administrative, political, and social reforms and a real effort to widen its base that will give maximum confidence to the American people, as well as to world opinion that our efforts are not directed towards the support of an unpopular or ineffective regime, but rather towards supporting the combined efforts of all the non-Communist people of the GVN against a Communist takeover.

In the next clause of the NSAM, however, Kennedy made the decision to send US troops and informed the American ambassador that these troops should be seen as the equivalent of combat forces.

It is anticipated that one of the first questions President Diem will raise with you after your presentation of the above joint proposals will be that of introducing US combat troops. You are authorized to remind him that the actions we already have in mind involve a substantial number of US military personnel for operational duties in Vietnam, and that we believe that these forces performing crucial missions can greatly increase the capacity of GVN forces to win their war against the Viet Cong.

US firepower and US troops would be immediately sent to Vietnam without the necessity for any “real administrative, political, and social reforms.” What was desirable was that Diem’s image be improved.

In the next clause of the memorandum, Kennedy dispensed with the need for the GVN “to widen its base…towards supporting the combined efforts of all the non-Communist people of the GVN against a Communist takeover.” Kennedy admonished the ambassador:

You should inform Diem that, in our minds, the concept of the joint undertaking envisages a much closer relationship than the present one of acting in an advisory capacity only. We would expect to share in the decision-making processes in the political, economic and military fields as they affected the security situation.

Reform, to Kennedy, ultimately meant that Diem needed an attractive image in America, and that Washington needed to seize the bureaucratic machinery in Vietnam. If neither was forthcoming, Diem would be eliminated, and a “genuine and real” puppet put in his place.


The private war required dispatching US combat troops to Vietnam to perform “operational duties” and withholding that fact from the American public. The troops were put under the jurisdiction of the newly organized Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), but their combat role was disguised. The public was told that US personnel would only “advise” the South Vietnamese army.

Another component of the private war was the initiation of covert activities. Begun in the spring of 1961, only six weeks after John F. Kennedy had assumed the Presidency, these continued without interruption up to the launching of Operation Rolling Thunder in February, 1965, the beginning of the overt war by Lyndon Johnson.

In March, 1961, Kennedy instructed the national security agencies to “make every possible effort to launch guerrilla operations in Viet-Minh territory at the earliest possible time.” He directed the Secretary of Defense and the Director of the CIA to furnish plans for covert programs against the North both in the near-term and in the “longer future periods.” Two months later, Kennedy approved the program for covert actions that had been proposed by the Vietnam Task Force, a group working out of the State Department, then under the leadership of Sterling Cottrell. Cottrell had accompanied Taylor and Rostow on their mission to Vietnam in the fall of 1961 and had urged the President not to introduce combat troops into the South. In the spring of 1961 he recommended that the President use South Vietnamese troops for commando raids and sabotage in North Vietnam and Laos.

The President agreed. One hundred days after he was elected President, he ordered agents to be sent into North Vietnam who were to be resupplied by Vietnamese civilian mercenary air crews. Special GVN forces were meanwhile to infiltrate into Southeast Laos to locate and attack Communist bases, and other teams trained by the Special Forces were to be used for sabotage and light harassment inside North Vietnam. Finally, Kennedy ordered flights over North Vietnam to drop leaflets. Two days after Kennedy authorized the Taylor-Rostow mission and before the mission arrived in Vietnam, the President ordered guerrilla ground action, “including the use of US advisers if necessary against Communist aerial resupply missions in the vicinity of Tchepone, Laos.” In December, immediately after he shelved Taylor’s proposal to deploy 8,000 combat troops in the South, Kennedy adopted a CIA-sponsored program to recruit South Vietnamese personnel for the purpose of “forming an underwater demolition team to operate in strategic maritime areas of North Vietnam.”

By the end of 1961, the private war consisted of covert operations directed against North Vietnam and Laos, and the concealed use of US air and ground combat personnel against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Each element of the private war increased in tempo and intensity throughout 1962 and 1963. By the time Kennedy was assassinated, the United States had 16,500 troops in South Vietnam pretending they were not fighting, and the Special Forces were executing a host of covert programs in North Vietnam and Laos.

During its thirty-three months in office, the Kennedy Administration managed and directed an illicit war. By sending an additional 1,000 troops to Vietnam in 1961, Kennedy broke through the MAAG ceiling and violated the Geneva Accords. Speaking to Rusk at a National Security Council meeting in November, 1961, Kennedy defined the Presidential manner proper to breaching international laws: “Why do we take onus, say we are going to break the Geneva Accords? Why not remain silent? Don’t say this ourselves!”

The Accords, of course, had been violated before. But the decision to conceal violations—and the developing war—from the American public was new. That the Bay of Pigs, the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, and attempted coups in various parts of the world had also been covert enterprises does not diminish the special significance of the Vietnam undertaking. Here, for the first time, covert activity no longer crystallized into a single event, as with the Bay of Pigs. In Vietnam, the “black stuff” became the usual way of doing business; the war itself was covert. Nor does it suffice to say that the U-2 flights were stretched out through time. The purpose of these flights was spying; they were repetitions of a single act; and they were placed under the jurisdiction of the CIA, an agency restricted to covert acts. In Vietnam, several covert programs were put together to create a pattern of warfare, not spying, and these programs were instituted and managed by the government.

Room 303

In 1962 and 1963, two agencies in Washington managed the Vietnam war—the 303 Committee and the Special Group Counter-Insurgency (SGCI).

The 303 Committee, taking its name from the room number at the Executive Office Building where it met once a week, came into being as a direct consequence of the egregious blundering at the Bay of Pigs in the spring of 1961. Kennedy, appalled by the military incompetence shown by the fiasco and embarrassed by the public image it created, was determined to make sure that the covert activities of the CIA did not contradict US foreign policy and that they were not beyond the capabilities of the military.

Thereafter, CIA programs had to be cleared in advance. This was the task of the 303 Committee, whose jurisdiction came to include every important covert program conducted anywhere in the world, including Vietnam. The membership of the Committee included the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, the Deputy Director of Intelligence of the CIA, and the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. During the Kennedy years, these offices were held, respectively, by Roswell Gilpatric, U. Alexis Johnson, Richard Helms, and McGeorge Bundy. The chairman of the Committee was McGeorge Bundy, who had been given his choice between chairing the Special Group Counter-Insurgency and the 303 Committee.

To the extent that Vietnam was a covert war in 1962 and 1963, the 303 Committee managed the war. It did this by approving and revising the programs that defined American covert participation in the war. At least four major programs were authorized and supervised by the 303 Committee—Operation Farmhand, the training of the Montagnards, DeSoto patrols, and 34a operations.

Operation Farmhand was the first covert program approved by the 303 Committee for Vietnam. Under this program, South Vietnamese personnel were airlifted into North Vietnam in the spring of 1961, to “commit sabotage, spy and harass the enemy.” Trained by the army’s Special Forces, who were themselves detached and put under the control of the CIA, the commandos were invariably arrested as soon as they landed in the North. In many instances, personnel would have to be conscripted to accept an assignment. Frequently, they would show up drunk or fail to appear at all. In the field, the program was a total failure, but, strategically, it informed the North that direct measures would be taken against it.

The second major program authorized by the 303 Committee was the training of the Montagnards in South Vietnam, who had managed to preserve their ethnic identity over the centuries. These local tribesmen, whose loyalty never extended beyond their own clan, were as opposed to the encroachments of the GVN as they were to the solicitations of the Viet Cong. Because they inhabited an area that bordered an infiltration route from North to South, the CIA believed that they could be trained as a force of warriors to be used in attacks against the Viet Cong.

The CIA felt that the bonds among ethnic minorities could be easily nourished and exploited; that nomadic tribes, rather than landed peasants, could be made into warriors and be moved more easily from one assignment to another. As warriors, the Montagnards took their orders directly from the CIA, in return for which they were liberally paid and promised autonomy from the GVN. The GVN neither consented to nor complied with this promise.

By the end of 1963, 30,000 local tribesmen had been armed and trained. The Special Forces carried out this work for the CIA. Eventually, the Montagnards were formed into units known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG). They were used for various types of operations, and were noted primarily for their bravery, brutality, and terrorism. CIDG units were used to repress the Southern peasantry as well as for armed incursions into the North. As soon as the program showed some success, the MACV, attempting to break the autonomy of the Special Forces, removed the program from the CIA and placed it under its own jurisdiction.

CIA training of the Montagnards in South Vietnam had its counterpart among the Meo tribesmen in Laos. The Meo, too, were a local clan whose latent warrior tendencies and antipathy toward central rule were carefully nurtured by the CIA. By training and paying the Montagnards and Meo tribesmen, the CIA, in effect, created a force of warriors directly under its command. The conflict between the local tribesmen and the central government, fostered by the CIA, ran parallel to a larger conflict among American officials—a conflict between the Special Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Just as the local tribesmen were promised their autonomy from the central government by the CIA, so the Special Forces had been established as an autonomous force, to take their commands directly from the President, circumventing the Joint Chiefs. As the Indochina war proceeded, the local tribesmen were eventually reduced to subservience by the central government, and the Special Forces were taken over by the Joint Chiefs. The “guerrillas” within the client state and the “guerrillas” within the American imperial state were broken and absorbed by the client and imperial government, respectively.

But to develop a guerrilla force within the imperial power, an idea originated by the CIA, is a structural change that may prefigure the imperial army of the future. For the conflict between the Special Forces and the Joint Chiefs, on the one hand, and the local tribesmen and the central government, on the other, reflects a larger conflict between the client state and the imperial power. The United States has encountered grave difficulties in developing effective and loyal armies within its client states. Neither the Royal Laotian Army nor the ARVN has been able to hold its own against the people’s army, the Viet Cong, and the Pathet Lao. It was as a direct result of this difficulty that the CIA attempted to build armies of local tribesmen.

These guerrilla armies were an astonishing success when compared to the regular armies of South Vietnam and Laos. When the Joint Chiefs set out to break the autonomy of the Special Forces, they were fortuitously putting under their command a guerrilla army of local tribesmen which they were able to use as the new imperial army. With this one stroke the Joint Chiefs resolved some of the difficulties of relying both upon a client army and upon troops conscripted in the US. Neither American boys nor South Vietnamese boys wished to fight in a people’s war. What could be better cannon fodder to use against the people than a pre-people, that is, clansmen? The courage of the local tribes and the technology of the imperial power were combined to do battle with large numbers of Asian people and the guerrilla organizations they were supporting.

The third program begun by the 303 Committee was the use of DeSoto patrols. Originated in 1962 and approved by the President, this program authorized US destroyers to operate along the border of mainland China and the North Vietnamese mainland, to listen to the “military and civil activity of the Asian Communist bloc.” In addition to listening, the patrols were ordered to stimulate the radar of the enemy so that the position and type of radar could be identified.

After the DeSoto patrols were approved by Kennedy and the detailed policy for using them was formulated by the 303 Committee, the program was submitted for implementation to the Joint Chiefs, who then put the program under the jurisdiction of the Joint Center for Intelligence at their headquarters in Washington. The Ops Center, as it was called, drew up the tentative schedules and forwarded them to CINCPAC in Hawaii. CINCPAC selected the precise dates for the DeSoto patrols and sent orders to the Seventh Fleet. Copies of these orders were also sent to MACV in Saigon. The question of who selected and kept track of the DeSoto patrols was to assume critical importance in the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August, 1964.

CINCPAC plan 34a, drawn up in the fall of 1963 as an annex to the entire CINPAC plan for Southeast Asia, was the covert plan directed against the North. It consisted of two parts: psychological operations and hit-and-run attacks. The latter included amphibious raids by the Vietnamese in areas “south of the Tonkin Delta having little or no security.” This was subsequently expanded to include the use of Swift torpedo boats to shell the Northern mainland and kidnap Northern personnel. Plan 34a, too, was assigned by the 303 Committee to the Joint Chiefs for implementation.

The Special Group for Counter-Insurgency

The second agency in Washington that managed the private war between 1961 and 1963 was the Special Group Counter-Insurgency (SGCI). Organized in response to Khrushchev’s speech on wars of national liberation, the SGCI was created by President Kennedy in NSAM 124, issued in late 1961. The SGCI, like the 303 Committee, met once a week. In fact, its members included those on the 303 Committee, or their delegates, and met in Room 303 at the Executive Office Building immediately after the Committee adjourned its meetings. Members of the 303 Committee would complete their discussions, sign the orders for the covert programs, and then call the SGCI to order, invite in additional deputies, and turn their attention to the problems of counterinsurgency.

Nevertheless, there were substantial differences between the 303 Committee and the SGCI. The 303 Committee managed the covert operations of the United States government in every area of the world. The programs themselves generally originated with the CIA, although other agencies of government, such as the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, and the State Department, did submit proposals, many of which were put into operation. The only requirement for a 303 hearing was that the program be significant and covert. When a program was put into operation, it generally used the services of the Special Forces.

The SGCI, on the contrary, never managed covert operations, had only a limited relation to the CIA, and did not employ the services of the Special Forces. It dealt exclusively with the overt programs of the US government in any nation around the globe that was deemed to be threatened by insurgency. These programs were under the special jurisdiction of the several national security agencies, including the Defense Department, AID, the State Department, USIA, and the CIA. The purposes of SGCI were to coordinate the overseas programs of the national security agencies, eliminate duplication of effort, and ensure that those programs relating to counter-insurgency were completed. The SGCI supervised the overseas programs of each of the national security agencies.

A counterinsurgency doctrine technically known as “The Overseas Internal Defense Policy of the USA” was written in 1962. President Kennedy adopted it as the official policy of the US government in NSAM 182. The main premise of the doctrine was that the counterinsurgents should help themselves, but a saving clause was added to the doctrine instructing: “where necessary, introduce US troops.”

Thus the 303 Committee was largely responsible for the unofficial policy of the US government toward Vietnam during the private war—the covert activities in North Vietnam and Laos, and the disguised use of US combat troops within South Vietnam. The SGCI, on the other hand, was in charge of the official policy—the policy that was reported in the press and otherwise made known to the American public.

The official policy consisted of a strategic plan which, consistent with the counterinsurgency doctrine, called upon the GVN to defend itself, to win its own war, and to employ Americans as teachers. There were three parts to the plan:

1) The US government officially accepted Diem as the premier of South Vietnam, and all aid was channeled through him.

2) The strategic hamlet program was devised as the principal means of defending the South against further encroachments by the Viet Cong. Strategic hamlets were supposed to help organize the rural peasants into larger territorial units in order to increase their capacity to defend themselves and to weed out Viet Cong.

As envisioned by the planners, the hamlets were to expand like an oil blot, dense in the center, blurred at the perimeter. Ideally, a second hamlet would not be built until the first was satisfactorily organized and properly defensible. Diem’s brother, Nhu, was placed in charge of the program and built the hamlets in total disregard of the oil blot theory. Instead of securing one hamlet before proceeding to the next, Nhu was interested in increasing the number of hamlets, with the result that none was secure. When Diem was assassinated in 1963, thousands of strategic hamlets collapsed overnight.

3) The ARVN was to be built into a powerful army that could take the offensive against the Viet Cong and regain the territory then held by the Communists. The ARVN, trained by MACV and working in conjunction with the strategic hamlet program under the charismatic leadership of Diem, would, it was anticipated, extend the national sovereignty of the GVN throughout South Vietnam.

The national security agencies of the US government devoted all their efforts to this strategic plan. Their programs were supervised by the SGCI and their projects were completed under the direction of a special agency, which ostensibly possessed a blueprint of victory.

The countries under the jurisdiction of the SGCI included Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Iran, and a half-dozen Latin American countries. Vietnam and Laos were at the top of the list. By the end of 1962, entire meetings were devoted to Vietnam alone. The SGCI mainly reviewed weekly reports furnished by the Vietnam Task Force. In time, however, these reports, prepared by Sterling Cottrell and Ben Wood, were considered too meager, and other national security agencies, such as the Pentagon, AID, and the CIA, began to supply supplementary reports on Vietnam.

The reports, whether from the Task Force or the other national security agencies, were discussed at the opening of each meeting. Then, expert witnesses who had just returned from Vietnam would brief the Special Group. Some of the witnesses who regularly appeared before the SGCI were John Richardson, the CIA station chief in Vietnam; General Victor Krulak, the Special Assistant for Counter-Insurgency and Special Activities (SACSA); William Jorden, a former New York Times reporter and the author of the two white papers on Vietnam; Ted Sarong, the Australian attaché; Robert Thompson, the British expert on counterinsurgency and moving force behind the strategic hamlet doctrine; and one Walton, an ex-marine and head of the police safety division in Vietnam.

The highlights of the discussions of SGCI deserve consideration, since they show the information guiding official Washington during the private war as well as the reaction to that information.

The Viet Cong

The year 1962 has been referred to as the optimistic period in Vietnam. The insurgency was coming under control, and McNamara was persuaded that the US had turned the corner in Vietnam and that American boys would be returning home. On May 3, 1962, Sterling Cottrell reported to the Special Group that the US had “reached the bottom” in Vietnam. Cottrell, it should be recalled, was the head of the Vietnam Task Force, had accompanied Taylor and Rostow on their mission to Vietnam, and had opposed their advice on the question of ground troops. He supported a low-keyed approach to Vietnam and clearly had a stake in the continuation of the current Vietnam policy.

General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, reported on May 17, 1962, that the defense build-up was going well. The military seemed unanimous in believing that US policies were having benign effects. On May 31, Cottrell informed the SGCI Group that the GVN was increasing the number of strategic hamlets at an “ambitious and uncontrolled rate.”

On June 20, however, John McCone, director of the CIA, warned that the Viet Cong were beginning to fight in larger units. They were using heavier weapons, he added, to wipe out strategic hamlets before help could arrive. On November 5, the Task Force told the Group that Viet Cong forces were as strong as ever. They were able to recruit many new personnel, even though their morale had begun to slip. Cottrell added that the “situation was still in balance.”

In 1963, the US tried again to document its charge that the Viet Cong were being aided by heavy infiltration from the North. One task confronting the Special Group was to determine the accuracy of the charge. On January 17, 1963, the Task Force decided that infiltration was less serious than had been thought. It explained that local recruitment and local supplies were being furnished to the Viet Cong in the South; the insurgents had little need to be dependent upon the North for either. Taylor, complying with “higher” orders, said it was important to get information on Northern infiltration and authorized William Jorden to go to Vietnam to study the question thoroughly. Washington was becoming embarrassed over the fact that it was increasingly committing itself to intervention in a civil war.

On April 5, 1963, a famous meeting of the Special Group was held, in which Jorden, after spending three months in Vietnam, reported that “we are unable to document and develop any hard evidence of infiltration after October 1, 1962.” Evidence prior to that date strongly indicated the absence of infiltration. At the same meeting, Robert Thompson attempted to counter Jorden’s pessimistic appraisal of Viet Cong activity by forecasting that “US forces are adequate. By the end of the year, troops can begin to be withdrawn.”

A State Department representative on the Special Group summed up in one sentence the observations of the US army officers who returned from Vietnam in 1962: “If free elections were to be held in South Vietnam in 1962, Ho would get 70 percent of the popular vote.” Because of Ho’s popularity, he added, wholesale supplies in the South and ready recruitment of personnel were available to the Viet Cong. Only a trickle of supplies in addition to the original covert apparatus had been furnished by the North. The State Department official pointed out that all insurgents receive some outside help. “There has never been a case of an isolated insurgency. Not even the US War of Independence was an isolated insurgency.”

This same official was one of the authors of the counterinsurgency doctrine of the US government. He contrasted the doctrine of the Communist Party with that of the US on the question of the necessity of outside help for an insurgency, noting that Communist doctrine

…emphasizes the fact that the insurgency should be homegrown, and that major communist powers, especially China, do not pour in masses of outside assistance. This enables the insurgents to retain their own independence so that they can sustain themselves over the long haul. Communist Party doctrine stands in radical contrast to the US doctrine of counterinsurgency, which demands massive support by us and which turns the counter-insurgents into our dependents, sapping their morale and capacity to fight.

He supported this comparison with evidence accumulated by the Special Group showing that all weapons captured from the Viet Cong by the US during the period of the private war were either homemade or had been previously captured from the GVN/USA. “Throughout this time,” he said, “no one had ever found one Chinese rifle or one Soviet weapon used by a VC.” He concluded that the weight of evidence and doctrine proved that “the massive aggression theory was completely phony.”

In 1962, Michael Forrestal, a senior member of the National Security Council and a close friend of President Kennedy, confirmed these charges. Returning from a long visit to Vietnam, Forrestal and Roger Hilsman wrote a report to the President that stated that the Viet Cong had “increased their regular forces from 18,000 to 23,000 over this past year.” During this period the government of Vietnam had claimed that 20,000 Viet Cong were killed in action and 4,000 wounded. “No one really knows,” Forrestal wrote, “how many of the 20,000 ‘Viet Cong’ killed last year were only innocent, or at least ‘persuadable,’ villagers.”

Forrestal told Kennedy that “the vast bulk of both recruits and supplies come from inside South Vietnam itself.” At the “very least,” Forrestal concluded,

the figures on Viet Cong strength imply a continuing flow of recruits and supplies from these same villages and indicate that a substantial proportion of the population is still cooperating with the enemy, although it is impossible to tell how much of this cooperation stems from fear and how much from conviction.

Still, Forrestal emphasized that “the Viet Cong continue to be aggressive and extremely effective.” It would seem that he had answered his own question. Like many other officials and agencies reporting on the “progress” of the war at this time, he had discovered that the Viet Cong were actively assisted by the rural population and that they fought with dedicated spirit and great effectiveness. It should not have been difficult for Forrestal and Kennedy to see that the rural population cooperated “from conviction” because in fact it made up the Viet Cong.


The Special Group devoted part of its attention to some of the programs conducted in the field. As early as 1961, the defoliation program, originally called Operation Hades and subsequently accorded the euphemism Operation Ranchhand, was granted Presidential approval. Limited at first as an experimental measure, it soon became an exercise in wholesale crop destruction. The expanded program received strong financial and political support. Discussions of Operation Ranchhand in Washington were instructive, especially since they showed the bureaucrats’ lack of any concern whatever for the consequences of their decisions. Indeed, what was most striking about the discussions of the defoliation program at the Special Group meetings was the absence of inquiry into the nature of the program.

No limits on the defoliation program were ever established, no results examined, no damage surveyed. Concern about the program focused on the single question of whether the South Vietnamese military had given their consent. Apparently, if the GVN recommended the program and the ARVN consented to it, bureaucratic responsibility in Washington was believed to have ceased.

The program was the brain-child of ARPA, the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, and was placed under the command of the US Chemical Corps. It was approved by the highest bureaucrats in Washington, including Roswell Gilpatric, U. Alexis Johnson, Maxwell Taylor, Robert Kennedy, Michael Forrestal, and Richard Helms, along with a host of their deputies. But after they had approved the defoliation program, these men ignored the forced migration, sterility, and hunger that followed in its wake. Such consequences were left to the concern of the GVN. The policymakers in Washington removed every vestige of personal responsibility from their shoulders and laid it at the door of the GVN officials.

Thus, Washington was able both to authorize criminal programs and evade any responsibility for them. Maxwell Taylor summed up the concern for Operation Ranchhand in these words: “We used it for crop destruction and foliage. It was only useful along the highways. It was not at all criminal. It was simply ineffective. The entire program was irrelevant.” Defoliation was indeed irrelevant to Washington, but it was not irrelevant to the peasants who had to migrate, the women who became sterile, the children who were made hungry.

Kennedy in Control

Although the bureaucracy in Washington was not concerned with the fruits of its labor in Vietnam, the President was greatly concerned with his capacity to command the bureaucracy in Washington. In his quest for control, he introduced four structural changes in the office of the Presidency—the Special Group Counter-Insurgency, the 303 Committee, the Country Team, and the Green Berets. All of these were fashioned to meet specific defects in the execution of foreign policy, and in this sense may be viewed as ad hoc measures. But an extraordinary pattern emerges when the four are grouped together—an expansion of the war-making powers of the Executive to a degree never before contemplated in the history of the Republic. For the first time, total command over the several national security agencies was concentrated in the office of the President.

The SGCI was a special agency created by Kennedy to supervise the programs of the national security agencies. Kennedy selected Maxwell Taylor, then occupying a special office in the White House as the President’s military adviser, to be chairman of the SGCI, and the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, to be co-chairman. The state apparatus was thus centralized by appointing a chairman and a co-chairman whom the President personally trusted and who would report directly to him.

Taylor acted as a broker among the various power blocs to ensure that the agencies responded to the President’s bidding. Robert Kennedy was considered the moving force behind the SGCI. He attended every meeting and, by his personal tactics, managed to transform them into courtroom spectacles. Officers of the agencies presented their findings from a witness chair, and Kennedy would zealously and relentlessly cross-examine each witness.

Witnesses were often intimidated by his ferocity. When William Jorden, the author of two white papers on Vietnam, testified about infiltration from the North, for example, he was excused prematurely in order to avoid further embarrassment at Robert Kennedy’s hands. Another witness, reminded that the President’s brother was simply trying to get the facts, replied that Kennedy was “guilty of over-kill.” Kennedy’s function, it seems, was to instill some fear into the agencies—to persuade them that they were being watched closely by the President and should act accordingly.

Defenders of the Kennedy Administration contend that the purpose of these exertions was to keep America out of an unnecessary war in Southeast Asia. The Kennedys, it is suggested, believed that the only way to avoid a deepening and perhaps irreversible commitment to Vietnam was to expose the inflated statements offered by officials who wished to draw the nation into a wider war. But these rationalizations do not hold up when it is recalled that the purpose of the SGCI in general, and Robert Kennedy’s purpose in particular, was to centralize in the hands of the President control of a national state security machinery which was increasingly committed to war in Southeast Asia.

The CIA had displayed its power to make foreign policy at the Bay of Pigs, forcing the President to assume responsibility for events he had not initiated and could not control. After Cuba, Kennedy fired Allen Dulles and appointed John McCone as director of the CIA, perhaps because McCone was considered more manageable. At the same time, he created the 303 Committee to break the CIA’s independent power and place the agency under his own management. From that time on, the CIA had to clear each of its programs in advance and report directly to McGeorge Bundy, the chairman of the 303 Committee and the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, and Robert Kennedy were trusted lieutenants who took their orders directly from the President and were placed in charge of special agencies to centralize command in the national security apparatus on the President’s behalf.

Not only were the 303 Committee and the SGCI designed to unify the state apparatus directly under President Kennedy in Washington, but every effort was made to duplicate this pattern in the field. When Kennedy assumed the Presidency, one of the problems plaguing American foreign policy was the fact that each agency in the field acted as if it were a self-contained system, staking a claim against the Pentagon for its own resources, moving from one part of the globe to the next according to its assessment of where the action was, insulating itself from supervision above, and extending its imperial writ below. The armed services offered the prime examples of separate fiefdoms run wild; but the civil agencies in the field, including the CIA, State, USIA, and others, also made their own rules and circumvented all attempts at direction from above.

The CIA, for example, was assigned a percentage of all shipping to Vietnam, set up its own network of communications in the field, and had its own direct channel back to Washington. Laos simply became competitive turf for the several agencies. Each moved in with personnel and material, then sought a program first to justify its presence and second to expand its domain. Aircraft stationed in Korea were forwarded to Vietnam on Air Force orders which had not been cleared at higher levels, and when such clearance became necessary, dummy committees were created at the Pentagon to clear automatically any material requested. So far as the agencies in the field were concerned, questions of state were politically unreal. The sole reality was the national economy, which was viewed as an infinite source of supply.

The origin of Operation Ranchhand under the expert guidance of William Godell offers a classic example. ARPA appropriated surplus funds to begin the defoliation program, and then, in order to justify an increased budget, bypassed the original guidelines and expanded the program. Much as feudal warlords had waged war against each other within fledgling nations, so the modern agencies looked upon each other as rivals and tried to grab power and resources within the fledgling empire.

To cope with this problem, Kennedy, in 1961, gave US ambassadors full power to control the national security agencies in the field. Thus, all the agencies were required to clear their programs with and be supervised by the ambassadors to the countries in which they were operating. Together they were called the “Country Team,” with the ambassador as captain, who received his authority directly from Kennedy and reported directly to him. Just as Kennedy had hoped to bring the national security agencies in Washington under the command and control of the SGCI, so he relied upon the concept of the Country Team to achieve the same control in the field.

The Joint Chiefs

But the Joint Chiefs of Staff—in contrast to the other national security agencies—have independent support both in Congress and in the country. Working through the chairmen of key Congressional committees, the Chiefs have automatic access to one branch of government to articulate the proposals they deem important, regardless of whether they have the support of the President or his senior advisers. Once these proposals are made public, the Chiefs can count on the right-wing constituency in the country to support them. Since the Chiefs formulate, express, and then personify the national interest on any issue concerning national security, they rival the President’s claim to sovereignty. By virtue of their support in Congress, their political constituency, and their claim upon the flag, the Chiefs, unlike other government groups, can even charge the President with treason. Because of their formidable power, the President must respond to any proposal they put forward.

The President, of course, can command his own resources to persuade the Chiefs to champion his causes. But he must always bargain with them and grant them certain concessions if they oppose him or if he needs their public support. Once the state embarks on war, this uneasy balance between the President and the Chiefs gradually tips on the side of the Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, not the Commander-in-Chief, are presumed to know how to manage a war. The President who opposes their programs lays himself open to the charge that he is playing with American lives.

Thus, when the President expands a war on the grounds that he is protecting the lives of US troops in the field he either has, in effect, borrowed the Chiefs’ argument and is announcing for all to hear that his policies are in full accord with those of the military or he is anticipating just such a challenge by the Chiefs and is preparing his own defense. The policies of the Chiefs, moreover, invariably extend the zone of combat until victory is achieved. The Chiefs also depart from civilian leaders in being willing to wage nuclear war, if that is considered necessary to avoid defeat.

But if a war can be presented as a police action, or can proceed under cover as a private matter, then the power of the Chiefs can be sharply limited. Thus, Kennedy had an obvious stake in keeping the war private. But he was not passive. During the period of the private war Kennedy set about building the elite corps of the Green Berets. In Kennedy, Sorenson wrote:

But the President’s pride was still the Army Special Forces, rapidly growing to a level some five or six times as large as when he took office, although still small both in total numbers and in relation to the need for more. The President directed—again over the opposition of top generals—that the Special Forces wear Green Berets as a mark of distinction.

Kennedy wanted to carry on the Vietnam war exclusively through the Special Forces, which would enable him to seize command of the national military apparatus. He seems to have had a vision of the Green Berets as a Praetorian Guard, an elite army directly under the command and control of the President. The Green Berets represented Kennedy’s attempt to curb the power of the Chiefs and institutionalize the military directly under the Presidency.

Edward Lansdale, a devout believer in the Special Forces and in the concept of counterinsurgency, was quietly assigned an office under McNamara in 1961 and given the power to keep Vietnam under Presidential control. This was a mistake. The Joint Chiefs immediately perceived Lansdale as a potential threat and they set up their own counterinsurgency agency by creating a Special Assistant for Counter-Insurgency and Special Activities (SACSA). Victor Krulak, the first “SACSA,” a former Marine Corps general and an astute politician who was referred to as “the brute,” undercut Lansdale at every turn until Lansdale was called a “paper tiger.”

Once he gained control over counterinsurgency, Krulak was able to restore some of the power of the Chiefs. The military first employed the concept of counterinsurgency as a cover to gain control over part of the plans for covert operations, then expanded it to include conventional warfare, which the military was organized to pursue. In this respect, there was an implicit accord between the military and civilian leadership.

Every one of Secretary McNamara’s famous visits to Vietnam was a guided tour carefully stage-managed by the Joint Chiefs. McNamara would stop off at Hawaii and pick up a briefing book, prepared by Krulak, which contained brilliant charts and graphs displaying the progress of the war. McNamara would scan the book to obtain the information he needed for press conferences to be held in Saigon. After the trip, the information would be converted into a hard-cover volume containing references to McNamara’s recent findings in Vietnam, but again written by Krulak. This book would then be handed to the President as the final report. The book had been written in advance of the trip just as the trip itself had been planned in advance.

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.”

This Issue

July 22, 1971