In the spring issue of Public Policy, the journal of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Daniel Ellsberg advanced an arresting and subtle interpretation of the American adventure in Indochina. He was concerned to disprove what he called “the quagmire myth”—the proposition, that is, that our leaders did not know what they were getting into in Southeast Asia; that they marched blindly, step by step, into a morass; that our descent into the Vietnam catastrophe was marked (as Mr. Ellsberg accurately states the essence of the quagmire thesis) by “lack of foresight, awareness, or calculation.”1
Mr. Ellsberg directed his critique against a view he found most conveniently formulated in writings of mine (doing so, I may add, with entire courtesy and in excellent temper). As against what I had once called the “politics of inadvertence,”2 Mr. Ellsberg offered what I read as a sort of politics of clairvoyance. A succession of American Presidents, he said, fully understanding that there was a “high probability that US troops would end up fighting in South Vietnam, and US planes bombing throughout Indochina,” not only “failed to resist” this future but “knowingly cooperated with and prepared” it.
Against the quagmire image of leaders blundering into what, to their surprise, turned out to be quicksand, Mr. Ellsberg offered the counter-image of “repeatedly, a leader striding with his eyes open into what he sees as quicksand.” He summed up his argument in a quotation approvingly cited from Leslie Gelb, his associate in the Pentagon study of American policy in Indochina: “Our Presidents and most of those who influenced their decisions did not stumble step-by-step into Vietnam, unaware of the quagmire. US involvement did not stem from a failure to foresee consequences.”
In short, the quagmire thesis, however plausible on its face, was “totally wrong for each one of those [Indochina] decisions over the last twenty years…. Not one of these decision points…fits Schlesinger’s generalization to the slightest degree.” And the awful cost of our Vietnam course, Mr. Ellsberg concluded, made it “easy to understand why the past four Presidents would want, before and after, to conceal and deprecate their own fore-knowledge.”3
This seemed a drastic contention. It was that American Presidents, knowing they were heading into a hopeless mess, fully foreseeing the consequences, nonetheless insisted on plunging on. The failure of American policy was not at all the absence of fore-knowledge—in Mr. Gelb’s phrase, “the system worked”—but unwillingness to act on the basis of foreknowledge. Moreover, this facet of Mr. Ellsberg’s argument has, since the publication of the Pentagon Papers, been readily adopted by influential journalists. Thus we find Max Frankel writing in The New York Times:
This was not a war into which the United States stumbled blindly, step by step, on the basis of wrong intelligence or military advice that just a few more soldiers or a few more air raids would turn the tide. 4
Murrey Marder in the Washington Post:
The American march into the war in Indochina was neither the result of carelessness nor of absent-mindedness, but of purposefulness, the documents confirm.5
Charles Bailey in the Minneapolis Tribune:
The United States did not—as some opponents of the war have charged—“blunder” into its Vietnam involvement. On the contrary, the documents show that the highest officials were constantly aware that steps they were taking could lead to much greater involvement.6
The fact that thoughtful newspapermen, who have followed the Vietnam involvement for a long time, should have thus accepted the foresight thesis was impressive. But before this thesis was permitted to sweep the field, it seemed a good idea to subject it to closer examination.
So I took on the sour task of reading the Pentagon Papers—at least all of them the American press has seen fit to print.7 This ordeal did not radically alter my view that our Indochina policy had been characterized more by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle than by foresight, awareness, and calculation. Accordingly I wrote a rejoinder to Mr. Ellsberg’s Public Policy essay. The New York Review agreed to publish this paper, and the editors of the Review also decided, quite properly, to invite Mr. Ellsberg to respond. Since both Mr. Ellsberg and I were more concerned with clarifying questions than with scoring points, I welcomed his suggestion that we talk in advance in order to narrow grounds of difference and eliminate false issues. Our conversations were most useful in this regard, and I commend the technique to editors. However, after several hours of amiable colloquy, it was evident that enough disagreement remained to justify the continuation of the discussion.
In the course of our talks, both of us made concessions to the opposing view. Each of us supposed his own concession to be rather minor, and both tended, I think, to regard the concession of the other as rather major. It may perhaps be best to begin with my sense of what these concessions involved.
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For my part, I had readily agreed in my draft rejoinder that I was wrong in having written that “at each point along the ghastly way, the generals promised that just one more step of military escalation would bring the victory so long sought and so steadily denied” and that “each step in the deepening of the American commitment was reasonably regarded at the time as the last that would be necessary.” 8 Immersion in the Pentagon Papers had persuaded me that I was mistaken in the suggestion that the escalatory steps actually taken by Presidents were accompanied by promises that these particular steps would bring victory or would be the last steps necessary. No President ever escalated enough to satisfy the military, who always complained about civilian restrictions on military action and kept insisting that they be allowed to bomb, shoot, and drown more and more Vietnamese.
Mr. Ellsberg felt that if I admitted this, then the whole quagmire thesis must fall. But the fact that the generals thought the measures of escalation accepted by Presidents were inadequate to attain military success does not seem to me to invalidate the thesis that our Vietnam policy was characterized by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle rather than by foresight, awareness, and calculation. Nor, so far as I can see, does it invalidate the theory of step-by-step descent into the quagmire. The escalatory steps were not always taken, as Mr. Ellsberg appears to contend, with the private understanding that they would not work. They were often taken under the illusion that they would make a difference.
Thus George Ball, who watched the escalation process with immense and unqualified disapproval, recently observed, “There was always the feeling that some little increment of American strength or American resources could turn the corner. And this was a process that I was familiar with because it was always the same thing with the French…. A small step taken at the time…was followed by other steps and added together they meant, they added up to a big step…. But I think in beginning to look critically at what happened, one has to understand that it didn’t appear that way at the time.”9 Again, Mr. Ball:
It was always the hope, on the part of some, I think, the conviction, that a little increment of effort, a little addition of manpower, a few more tactical operations would bring about a changed situation…. As the situation appeared looking at it from the inside, the temptation to undertake some new initiative was always very great.10
Now plainly the “feeling,” the “conviction” that Mr. Ball reports was badly founded. This does not mean, however, that as a historical fact it did not exist. Many newspapermen, in Washington and in Saigon, described the same mood. That is why David Halberstam could entitle his book of 1964 The Making of a Quagmire. And the Pentagon Papers themselves offer plenty of evidence that the mood was real enough.
In arguing that Presidents were striding with their eyes open into what they knew was quicksand, Messrs. Ellsberg and Gelb must show that advisers were united in warning Presidents of their peril and in offering pessimistic assessments of their predicament. They must deny the influence, except for “infrequent and short-lived” periods, of any genuine optimism about American prospects.11 Mr. Ellsberg thus writes in Public Policy about “a pessimism almost unrelieved, often stark—yet in retrospect, creditably realistic, frank, cogent—that runs through the intelligence estimates.”12
The unwary reader, denied further specification about the source of these estimates, might associate this pessimism with military and diplomatic advice which, by the thesis, Presidents believed but felt themselves constrained from following. But what Mr. Ellsberg had in mind, as he made clear to me, were the assessments made by the Intelligence Branch of the CIA and by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department—assessments very often incorporated in the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) periodically issued by the intelligence community.
Since The New York Times and the other papers have not reprinted these estimates, I cannot comment responsibly on them; but from my knowledge of the estimating process and my memory of the NIEs I saw during my time in government in the early Sixties, I am entirely ready to accept Mr. Ellsberg’s judgment that these were, in the main, genuinely impressive and predominantly pessimistic documents. (Mr. Gelb does tell us, though, that “while the CIA was arguing that the bombing of the North was having the opposite of the desired effects…it was not nearly as pessimistic about the war in the South.”)13
But stark, unrelieved pessimism did not characterize the diplomatic and military counsel given Presidents. Actually our writers quietly concede this, though not in a way to alter the broad picture of Presidents enveloped by authoritative warnings of disaster. The Ellsberg essay speaks of “months and years in those two decades when ill-founded optimism…actually ruled the minds of most insiders including the President,” of the “alteration of mood from pessimism to great optimism,” of “our switch to unbounded optimism,” of “high points in US official expectations,” of “an accelerating rise of optimism just before an abrupt decline,” and so on.14 Mr. Gelb similarly admits that there were “genuine optimists and grounds for genuine optimism…. By most conventional standards—the size and firepower of friendly Vietnamese forces, the number of hamlets pacified, the number of ‘free elections’ being held, the number of Communists killed, and so forth—reasonable men could and did think in cautiously optimistic terms.”15
The Pentagon Papers certainly bear out this impression. Far from warning the President of difficulties ahead, the Joint Chiefs of Staff cheerfully informed President Kennedy in the autumn of 1961 that 40,000 American troops could clean up the Viet Cong and that, if there were North Vietnamese and Chinese intervention, 128,000 more American troops could take care of that.16 On January 13, 1962, the Chiefs struck again, this time in a paper entitled “The Strategic Importance of the Southeast Asia Mainland.” Here they confidently wrote:
Any war on the Southeast Asia mainland will be a peninsula and island-type of campaign—a mode of warfare in which all elements of the armed forces of the United States have gained a wealth of experience and in which we have excelled both in World War II and Korea…. Study of the problems clearly indicates that the communists are limited in the forces they can sustain in war in that area because of natural logistic and transportation problems.17
Charity enjoins us to pass over the assessments and forecasts of General Harkins in 1962-63, though one must not forget the Honolulu meeting of April, 1963, where, as reported by Roger Hilsman, Harkins assured an “elated” McNamara that “he thought he could say that by Christmas it would be all over” (and McNamara reminded Hilsman that only a year and a half before “it had all looked so black”).18
Let us move on to the National Intelligence Estimate of April, 1963, not forgetting that these estimates constitute the main basis for the anti-quagmire case. This NIE reported the intelligence chiefs as believing that
…Communist progress has been blunted and that the situation is improving…. Changes and improvements which have occurred during the past year now indicate that the Viet Cong can be constrained militarily and that further progress can be made in expanding the area of government control.19
The warfare between Diem and the Buddhists did not end optimism in the executive branch. According to the minutes of a meeting on Vietnam at the State Department on August 31, 1963, Secretary Rusk said “that he believes we have good proof that we have been winning the war, particularly the contrast between the first six months of 1962 and the first six months of 1963…. The Vice President stated that he agreed with Secretary Rusk’s conclusions completely.”20 The McNamara-Taylor Report of October 2, 1963, informed the President that “the military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress” and recommended that “a program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by US military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US personnel by that time.”21
One could go on like this indefinitely:
It does not appear likely that major equipment replacement and additions in US personnel are indicated under current policy.22
(McNamara to Johnson, March 16, 1964)
General Taylor noted that there was a danger of reasoning ourselves into inaction. From a military point of view, he said the US could function in Southeast Asia about as well as anywhere in the world except Cuba.23
(William P. Bundy, June 2, 1964)
[Hanoi] now is staring at quite clear-cut defeat, with the rising US strength and GVN morale in the South and rising costs in the North. 24
(Rostow, May 20, 1965)
The 44-battalion force should…establish a favorable balance of power by the end of the year.25
(Westmoreland to Wheeler, June, 1965)
With enough force to seize the initiative from the VC sometime in 1966, General Westmoreland expected to take the offensive and, with appropriate additional reinforcements, to have defeated the enemy by the end of 1967.26
(quotation from Pentagon history)
Rostow…said in a memorandum on December 12 , for example, that he found the allied military position “greatly improved” in 1966 and pictured a dominant—even potentially victorious—position by the end of 1967.27
(quotation from Times analysis)
After almost a year full-time in Vietnam, and six trips there, I felt able to learn a good deal more from my 11 days in-country, 13-23 February. I return more optimistic than ever before. The cumulative change since my first visit last April is dramatic…. Wastefully, expensively, but nonetheless indisputably, we are winning the war in the South.28
(R. W. Komer to Johnson, February 28, 1967)
We now have gained the tactical initiative, and are conducting continuous small and occasional large-scale offensive operations to decimate the enemy forces; to destroy enemy base areas and disrupt his infrastructure; to interdict his land and water LOC’s and to convince him, through the vigor of our offensive and accompanying psychological operations, that he faces inevitable defeat.29
(Westmoreland to CINCPAC, March 18, 1967)
Our effort in Viet-Nam in the past two years has not only prevented a catastrophe that would otherwise have unfolded but has laid a foundation for a progress that now appears truly possible and of the greatest historical significance.30
(William P. Bundy, May 30, 1967)
The year ended with the enemy increasingly resorting to desperation tactics in attempting to achieve military/psychological victory; and he has experienced only failure in these attempts.31
(Westmoreland, January 27, 1968)
Nor were these public relations statements cynically designed to delude Congress and the electorate. These were confidential communications within the government among officials pathetically trying to tell the truth according to their lights. Alas, their lights, as Liddell Hart said of Marshal Haig, were dim.
Stark unrelieved pessimism? Foresight, awareness, and calculation? The record shows, on the contrary, pessimism and optimism so hopelessly intermingled that any President could draw almost any conclusions his temperament and will enjoined him to draw. There was no consistent consensus around the President. Anyone who supposes there was should consult the splendid memorandum of June, 1967, by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach with its long and, in another setting, hilarious list of unresolved disagreements within the executive branch.32
If, as Mr. Ellsberg said, optimism ruled for “months and years,” if, for Mr. Gelb, “reasonable men” could think things were going well, what happens to their thesis that failure to foresee consequences did not contribute to the American predicament? Mr. Ellsberg’s answer is to confine optimism to restricted periods and see optimism and pessimism as consecutive rather than concurrent. The years of optimism, he asserts—1953, 1957, 1962, 1967—were not the years of decision.33 Yet a glance at the dates in the quotations above will show that optimism was not limited to Mr. Ellsberg’s optimistic years. “Unrealistic presidential hopes,” Mr. Ellsberg wrote, “were not a prominent factor in any major decisions to press onward.”34 Would he really on reflection insist on this proposition for 1965-67?
Mr. Gelb, going further, contends that our Presidents, because they recognized the intractability of the Vietnam problem, “were never actually seeking a military victory” and that each had “the aim of a negotiated settlement.”35 I fear he sadly underestimates the power of self-deception throughout the military and diplomatic bureaucracy and even in the Oval Office. The fact is that by the spring of 1962 Kennedy was assured, and probably believed at least till the next December or January, that South Vietnamese forces, stiffened by American advisers, could defeat the few thousand Viet Cong guerrillas.
Nor do I think that President Johnson was kidding when he talked about nailing the coonskin to the wall; or that Ambassador Lodge was dissembling when he looked forward to the withering away of the Viet Cong; or that General Westmoreland was lying when he ran through his litany of fatuous forecasts about the military progress of the war. I fear something almost worse: that these men really believed these things. As for negotiation, this, far from being a steadfast American objective, was, so far as I know, not considered or deemed relevant between 1954 and 1965, and was not pursued except as a camouflaged demand for surrender from 1965 to 1968 (and thereafter).
It is true that, in the mélange of assessment and expectation, one can retrospectively single out forecasters (J. K. Galbraith, for example) who did show remarkable prescience. But to say that Presidents had the means of knowing is very different from saying that they knew. Forecasting was not then (nor is it now) an exact science.
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This brings me to the question of foresight and to the ways in which Mr. Ellsberg, if he did not make concessions, at least clarified my understanding of his position. I had taken his Public Policy piece, with its initial emphasis on foresight, awareness, and calculation, with its talk about Presidents striding eyes open into quicksand, “knowingly” cooperating with disaster and deliberately concealing their own “foreknowledge,” with its implication (as I read it) that at every step along the way in Indochina our leaders knew where they were heading, what their decisions would and would not achieve, and what the costs would be—I took all this as expressing a belief that it was fairly easy to foretell what was going to happen in Vietnam. This seemed to me also the way the journalists construed Mr. Ellsberg’s argument.
I was particularly troubled by his repeated use of the word “knowingly” in the context of Presidential decision. This apparent confidence in man’s capacity for foresight was bound to disturb any historian. One can “know” something about events that have taken place—not everything but something—but what can one “know” with assurance about events that have not taken place? I wondered whether Messrs. Ellsberg and Gelb really believed that, say, the black magic of systems analysis had progressed to the point where Presidents, cabinet ministers, generals, and Special Assistants for National Security could really know what the future held for them in Vietnam.
Mr. Ellsberg has reassured me on this point. He is, he tells me, a firm believer in the “inscrutability of history.” As an economist, he has always stressed the significance of uncertainty. The title of his doctoral dissertation was “Risk, Ambiguity and Decision.” In short, he was not saying that anyone really knew what was going to happen in Vietnam. As my renunciation of the idea of assured success in escalation seemed a more damaging concession to Mr. Ellsberg than it does to me, so his renunciation of any idea of precise foresight seems more damaging to me than I guess it does to him. If he does not believe in the power of foresight, what then happens to the argument in the sentence he quotes from Mr. Gelb, “US involvement did not stem from a failure to foresee consequences”? Was not Mr. Gelb suggesting (and Mr. Ellsberg, by quoting him, acquiescing in the suggestion) that consequences could be reliably foreseen? What happens to Mr. Ellsberg’s own emphasis on Presidential “foreknowledge”?
At any rate, Mr. Ellsberg’s case, as I now understand it, is that the foresight required by his model means no more than a strong prior sense that programs undertaken would not be adequate to the task. His general view is that none of the Presidents involved in the dreadful parade of decisions felt he could afford to “lose” Indochina, primarily because of the consequences for his domestic political position (Mr. Gelb would add to this a concern for the international balance of power); that none believed it would be possible to “win” in Indochina without raising American intervention to an intolerable level; and that therefore, since they could think of no alternative they could get away with, they tended to do the minimum necessary to hold things together while at the same time having little choice (lest they demoralize Saigon and encourage Hanoi) but to convey to Congress and the people the misleading impression that holding actions offered the prospect of ultimate success.
This argument, unlike the argument I found in Public Policy, does not hinge on the question of foresight except in a very general sense. Though I believe it seriously underestimates the amount of authentic optimism (i.e., authentic self-deception) in the American government during these horrid years, it seems to me far more defensible than what I had understood Mr. Ellsberg to be saying in Public Policy.
Another point troubled me in Public Policy, and that was the occasional implication that the military really knew best in Vietnam. Mr. Ellsberg began with an analysis of President Kennedy’s response to the Taylor-Rostow Report of 1961—a response he submitted as the prototype of Presidential decisions on Indochina. General Taylor, Mr. Ellsberg pointed out, had told Kennedy that the dispatch of American ground combat units to South Vietnam was essential to stop the downward spiral of the war and that, if infiltration continued from the north, then retaliatory bombing of North Vietnam would become essential too. Kennedy rejected both the expeditionary force and the bombing strategy.
In Mr. Ellsberg’s view, he did so knowing that the consequences would be dismal—knowing this, presumably, because General Taylor, supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary and Under Secretary of Defense (by nearly all the President’s top security officials except the Secretary of State who, for a brilliant but fleeting moment, wondered whether it was sensible to tie the prestige of the United States to a losing horse), had told him what the consequences would be. As Mr. Ellsberg put it in a radio interview with Paul Solman, “The President was actually given a remarkably realistic picture of how inadequate the means that he was using would be to achieve any kind of resolution…. You must conclude that Kennedy knowingly chose stalemate…despite having been told by every one of his major advisers that what he was doing—that is, sending advisers without combat units—would be inadequate.”36
The thing that first struck me about this argument was its implicit faith in the judgment of the military. If they told President Kennedy what they thought the consequences would be of not sending an American expeditionary force and not bombing the North, then, Mr. Ellsberg seemed to say, they must have been right. Moreover, President Kennedy must have believed them, and therefore Kennedy, in ignoring their recommendations, deliberately—“knowingly”—pursued a policy he knew would not succeed. But was their advice, in fact, so “remarkably realistic”? Did Kennedy think the advice was right and “knowingly” ignore it?
The summary statement appended in 1961 to the Taylor-Rostow Report accurately presented its conclusion: “It is evident that morale in Vietnam will rapidly crumble…if the sequence of expectations set in motion by Vice President Johnson’s visit and climaxed by General Taylor’s mission are not soon followed by a hard US commitment to the ground in Vietnam.”37 In spite of this dark prediction, however, the situation did not disintegrate after Kennedy turned down the Taylor recommendations. Quite the contrary: as Mr. Gelb reminds us, “even the North Vietnamese have called  ‘Diem’s year.’ “38 There was to be no “hard US commitment to the ground” till 1965—nearly four years after the Taylor-Rostow Report. The fact that the situation did disintegrate in 1964-65 hardly validates Taylor’s 1961 forecast about 1962.
Taylor’s assessment turned out, at least in this respect, not to be “remarkably realistic,” and I doubt whether Kennedy thought it was at the time. And I know now that Mr. Ellsberg would agree that Kennedy was quite right in rejecting Taylor’s proposals for escalation, though this was not quite clear either in the Solman interview or in Public Policy. The fact is that during 1961 Kennedy had become profoundly skeptical about military advice. He had, it is true, considerably more regard for Taylor than for the 1961 Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he had no confidence in the infallibility of any general. Mr. Ellsberg cogently summarized in a passage of his essay39 some of the inherent reasons why all Presidents distrust the importuning of bureaucracies; but he missed the point that this particular President had, in addition, acquired by the end of 1961 specific and excellent reasons for distrusting the importuning of the military bureaucracy.
These reasons were, of course, the Bay of Pigs, Laos, and Berlin. The JCS had assured him that the Bay of Pigs adventure was tactically feasible; then, when the adventure collapsed, they had brought, or at least exuded, pressures for escalation, i.e., the dispatch of American troops to follow up the Cuban exiles at the beachhead. Kennedy rejected escalation and forever after had reservations about the professional military judgment. The Laos experience, where he reluctantly experimented with escalation himself in order to maneuver the Russians into a diplomatic solution, strengthened his doubts. I remember his waving a sheaf of cables from the JCS Chairman and saying, “If it hadn’t been for Cuba, we might be about to intervene in Laos…. I might have taken the advice seriously.” As for Berlin, the military supported the interpretation of the dispute as a test of global resolve and favored a hard line where Kennedy favored negotiation.40
He did not take their advice seriously. In the case of Southeast Asia, moreover, Kennedy felt we were already overcommitted; and his reluctance to send in American combat units was reinforced by his memory of the French intervention he had personally observed a decade earlier. As Mr. Ellsberg wrote in Public Policy, Kennedy “was one of the few officials—George Ball was another—who both knew the French experience and could perceive it as a warning even to Americans.”41 In view of this, it seems to me hard to contend that Kennedy knew Taylor was right, especially when it is very far from clear that Taylor was right.
Why then did Kennedy do what he did? Mr. Ellsberg is correct in pointing out that the 1961 decision certainly did not conform to my description of “the policy of ‘one more step’—each step always promising the success which the previous step had also promised but had unaccountably failed to deliver.”42 No one promised anything about the program that Kennedy did adopt—that is, sending advisers but declining to send combat units or to bomb the North. Mr. Ellsberg, agreeing that Kennedy was right to be skeptical of Taylor’s positive recommendations, asked me whether I supposed he regarded his own program as adequate. If Kennedy doubted the capacity of Taylor’s maximalist policy to achieve a resolution, why should he suppose that his own minimalist policy would work? My answer was that I did not suppose he expected that sending in advisers would win the war.
Why then did he do it? A fashionable explanation has been that, after the Bay of Pigs and his Vienna meeting with Khrushchev, Kennedy felt that he had to show machismo somewhere and chose Indochina. But obviously if Kennedy had wanted to show machismo, he would have adopted, not refused, the Taylor recommendations. (The whole machismo idea is quite wrong when applied to Kennedy. He had proved his manhood in the Solomon Islands, and he never had any difficulty, as the Bay of Pigs showed, about cutting losses and retiring from untenable positions.) My own belief is that an important reason for Kennedy’s decision to send advisers to South Vietnam was to protect his attempt to neutralize Laos.
The diplomatic and military bureaucracy had been exceedingly unhappy over Kennedy’s abandonment of the attempt of the Eisenhower administration to transform Laos into a bastion of what was then known as the Free World. Far Eastern desks in the State Department in 1961 incredibly regarded Souvanna Phouma as, to all practical purposes, a communist. In the peculiar enthusiasm one finds today on the left about the wisdom, etc., of President Eisenhower, it is forgotten that on January 19, 1961, Eisenhower solemnly told Kennedy that Laos was the key to all Southeast Asia and that its importance was so critical that, if we could not persuade others to act with us, we should be willing “as a last desperate hope, to intervene unilaterally.” 43 Every President is engaged in interminable warfare with the permanent government; and I think Kennedy saw a limited gesture to South Vietnam as a way of propitiating those in State and Defense who thought he had sold the pass in Laos.
He was, as Mr. Ellsberg correctly emphasizes, buying time. It was not so much that he thought, as Mr. Ellsberg suggests. “This is a bad year for me to lose Vietnam to the Communists.”44 In 1961 it was not a question of losing South Vietnam. Few recall the modest proportions of the war in those forgotten days. The military briefing at the Saigon Embassy in November, 1961, estimated the Viet Cong forces as numbering about 15,000 (as against 250,000 for the government).45 There were, of course, no North Vietnamese units in South Vietnam until 1965. For international as well as domestic reasons, Kennedy obviously did not want to “lose” Vietnam; but this could have been an argument for his adopting the “win” strategy. Kennedy did not adopt the Taylor strategy probably because he did not think that it would work or that the involvement of American interests justified this kind of effort; and he chose a lesser course, not because he thought that would work either, but as a trade-off for the neutralization of Laos and because—who knew?—something might turn up to alter the situation in Vietnam.
Micawberism is no doubt the besetting sin of all executives, but it is also a recognition of the inscrutability of history. Unforeseen things do turn up. Thus the row between Tito and Stalin brought the Greek civil war of the Forties to an end. Any wise President soon learns that situations may change unpredictably; and this leads him to discount those who insist that, if something they want is not done at once, he will lose the future.
I think that Mr. Ellsberg might have made it more explicit throughout his Public Policy essay that he was not condemning Presidents for rejecting full military recommendations and settling on half-measures. He thus writes that in 1954, 1961, 1965, 1968 “certain approaches were presented by their proponents as winning strategies…but these were never the options chosen.”46 Obviously Mr. Ellsberg would not be happier if they had been chosen. Why then were Presidents who declined them so reprehensible? At times the tone seemed to me close to the Goldwater argument that, if the military had only been given their head, the war could have been won. In our conversations, Mr. Ellsberg entirely reassured me on this point.
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Let me try to sum up as I see them the differences that remain. Mr. Ellsberg, I take it, doubts that our leaders ever really thought, except for brief and uncharacteristic interludes, they could succeed in Vietnam. I believe that a great deal of the time they thought they could and would succeed; they simply found it inconceivable that, if American power were applied, the problem could not be solved. They agreed with Walt Rostow in their reverence for “the limited but real margin of influence on the outcome that flows from the simple fact that we are the greatest power in the world—if we behave like it.” 47
Mr. Ellsberg thinks that the advice offered Presidents about Vietnam was marked by intelligence, realism, and prescience. Most readers of the Pentagon Papers, I think (though of course the Times version of the papers omits the documents—the NIEs—on which Mr. Ellsberg primarily rests his case), will be impressed by the intellectual mediocrity of the memoranda printed, by the combination of abysmal ignorance and cocky certitude with which government officials approached a society and culture so remote from their own. And, given the ways of government, it is probable that these jejune memoranda had more influence on the making of policy than the (alas) often unread NIEs.
The record, as I read it, far from demonstrating prescience, seems to show on the part of the operating officials a profound and chronic absence of foreknowledge. Those who made the decisions did not foresee, for example, the acute instability of the Diem regime, nor the fiasco of the strategic hamlet program, nor the attacks on the Buddhists in 1963, nor (despite the reports of the United States Strategic Bombing survey after the Second World War) the futility of the bombing policy, nor the failure of search-and-destroy tactics, nor the capacity of the enemy, year after year, to replenish his losses and to enlarge his effort.
They were wrong in believing that the South Vietnamese under Diem had the will to defend themselves; that United States pressure could introduce reform into the rigid minds of Saigon mandarins; that, if they pounded long and hard enough, the other side would give up and cry uncle. They were terribly wrong in regarding Hanoi and the Viet Cong as the spearhead of a system of Chinese expansion and in supposing that, by fighting in Vietnam, we were holding the line against Secretary Rusk’s nightmare of a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons.
They could not even foresee developments within the Saigon regime itself. The Pentagon study says, “The shifts of loyalties, coups, rebellions, and major changes of public figures often caught the Embassy by surprise. It had no effective system, either through overt or covert contacts, for finding out what was going on.”48 Don Oberdorfer, summarizing a section of the study in the Washington Post, writes, “The United States was uninformed about four major coups or coup attempts between early-1964 and mid-1965, despite instructions to US personnel…to report all coup rumors.”49
It seems hard, despite the respect for the system professed by Messrs. Ellsberg and Gelb, to ignore the conclusion of General Taylor—“The intelligence upon which we based our judgments or, for that matter, the intelligence supporting the government decisions…was very poor” 50—or the conclusion reached in March, 1968, by the systems analysis section of the Department of Defense: that our government “became mesmerized by statistics of known doubtful validity, choosing to place our faith only in the ones that showed progress…. In short, our setbacks were due to wishful thinking compounded by a massive intelligence collection and/or evaluation failure.”51 This is what I mean by the quagmire thesis.
It is true that our leaders had the means of knowing. But the fact that things were knowable does not prove they were known. In our talks Mr. Ellsberg raised the Speer point: Speer in his memoirs wrote that, because he could have known about the concentration camps but chose not to know, he feels today as morally responsible as if he had actually known. This analogy might be accurate if applied to official ignorance about atrocity and torture in Vietnam. It does not seem to me to apply to the question whether Presidents should have believed Dean Rusk or J. K. Galbraith, Walt Rostow or Richard Helms, General Victor Krulak or Paul M. Kattenburg. The concentration camps were facts. Estimates were only—estimates.
In the end, I cannot find persuasive evidence that our generals, diplomats, and Presidents were all this sagacious and farsighted—that they heard how hopeless things were, agreed with what they heard, and then “knowingly” defied prescient warnings in order to lurch ahead into what they knew was inevitable disaster. Publication of the NIEs, while it might vindicate the intelligence community, would only confirm one’s doubts about the operators who ignored the intelligence analyses. The Pentagon Papers, in my judgment, reinforce the view that the system did not work, that it failed wretchedly, and that the Vietnam adventure was marked much more by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle than by foresight, awareness, and calculation.
(Mr. Ellsberg will reply in a coming issue)
October 21, 1971
Daniel Ellsberg, “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine,” Public Policy, Spring, 1971, p. 218. ↩
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Bitter Heritage, rev. ed. (Fawcett, 1968), p. 47. ↩
Ellsberg, pp. 268, 237, 235, 221, and 270. Mr. Gelb’s version of the antiquagmire argument—a shorter and more direct statement than Mr. Ellsberg’s—can be found in “Vietnam: The System Worked,” Foreign Policy, Summer, 1971. ↩
New York Times, July 6, 1971. ↩
Washington Post, July 4, 1971. ↩
Congressional Record, July 20, 1971, S11602. ↩
The student of recent American foreign policy stands in debt to two courageous and patriotic men—Robert McNamara, who initiated the Pentagon study and made sure it would not be an official apology, and Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the Pentagon Papers to the press. But the national service these men have performed will not have its broadest effect until there is a complete publication of the Pentagon documents, plus the corresponding documents in the White House and the State Department. ↩
The quotations are from the Partisan Review, No. 4, 1970, p. 517, and The Bitter Heritage, p. 47. ↩
Public Broadcasting Service discussion with Martin Agronsky, June 27, 1971. ↩
Remarks before Woodrow Wilson International Center, Congressional Record, August 6, 1971, S13727. ↩
Gelb, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” p. 140. ↩
Ellsberg, p. 234. ↩
Gelb, “Today’s Lessons from the Pentagon Papers,” Life, September 17, 1971. ↩
Ellsberg, pp. 221, 264, and 265. ↩
Gelb, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” p. 153. ↩
The Pentagon Papers (Bantam, 1971), p. 139. This JCS estimate, reported in a paper drafted by U. Alexis Johnson and dated October 11, 1961, was reiterated on November 8 by Secretary McNamara in a comment on the Taylor Report, though here the “maximum US forces required on the ground in Southeast Asia” were estimated at “six divisions, or about 205,000 men” (Pentagon Papers, p. 149). ↩
Washington Post, July 1, 1971. ↩
Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation (Doubleday, 1967), pp. 466-7. ↩
Washington Post, July 1, 1971. ↩
Pentagon Papers, p. 205. ↩
Ibid., p. 211. ↩
Ibid., p. 279. ↩
Ibid., p. 251. ↩
Ibid., p. 448. ↩
Ibid., p. 414. ↩
Ibid., pp. 463-4. ↩
Ibid., p. 525. ↩
Ibid., p. 555. ↩
Ibid., p. 557. ↩
Ibid., p. 587. ↩
Ibid., p. 593. ↩
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 30, 1971. ↩
Ellsberg, p. 221. ↩
Ellsberg, p. 261. ↩
Gelb, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” pp. 141 and 147. ↩
Interview with Paul Solman, reprinted in the New York Post, June 22, 1971. ↩
Washington Post, July 1, 1971. ↩
Gelb, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” p. 161. ↩
Ellsberg, p. 236. ↩
For detail, see Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), chapters 9, 13, and 15. ↩
Ellsberg, p. 231. ↩
Bitter Heritage, p. 39. ↩
A Thousand Days, p. 163. ↩
Ellsberg, p. 252. ↩
J. K. Galbraith, Ambassador’s Journal (Houghton Mifflin, 1969), p. 161. ↩
Ellsberg, p. 233. ↩
Pentagon Papers, p. 256. ↩
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 30, 1971. ↩
Washington Post, July 1, 1971. ↩
Public Broadcasting Service discussion with Martin Agronsky, June 27, 1971. ↩
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 30, 1971. ↩