Daniel Ellsberg’s reply to Arthur Schlesinger’s “Eyeless in Indochina(NYR, October 21) has been delayed. Meanwhile, the following reply has been received from Leslie Gelb, whose views were discussed in Mr. Schlesinger’s essay. Mr. Gelb was the director of the task force that produced the Pentagon Papers. Further comment by Mr. Ellsberg and Mr. Schlesinger will appear in coming issues.

—The Editors

At one point in his essay “Eyeless in Indochina,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., notes that he and Daniel Ellsberg agreed on the inscrutability of history. I would like to join them in this and, having done so, to join them, too, in shedding further inscrutability by insisting on my own interpretation of Vietnam.

Mr. Schlesinger pitted his revised version of the quagmire thesis (it was all a mistake, a lot of wishful thinking) against Mr. Ellsberg’s anti-quagmire thesis (it was all clear-sighted malice aforethought). In the process, Mr. Schlesinger has wrongly lumped my views with those of Mr. Ellsberg.

I do not agree with either gentleman. In order to explain this, to show why I disagree especially with Mr. Schlesinger, and to argue that the optimism versus pessimism issue is not, to my mind, the central Vietnam issue, I am compelled, embarrassingly, to briefly quote myself. In an article in Foreign Policy, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” I wrote that three propositions suggest why the United States became involved in Vietnam, why the process was gradual, and what the real expectations of our leaders were:

First, US involvement in Vietnam is not mainly or mostly a story of step by step, inadvertent descent into unforeseen quicksand. It is primarily a story of why US leaders considered that it was vital not to lose Vietnam by force to Communism. Our leaders believed Vietnam to be vital not for itself, but for what they thought its “loss” would mean internationally and domestically.

The point I meant to make is that the forces driving American actions in Vietnam were 1) strategically, a belief that the world was filled with dominoes—a psychology based on strategic links as well as on the Munich analogy, and notions of prestige; and 2) domestically, a belief that political instability and ungovernability would inevitably flow from the loss of a country to communism—the pathology of anti-communism. These forces, more than predictions of either success or failure, caused our leaders to plunge on. To put it another way, our leaders persisted in Vietnam neither because they were promised victory nor because they anticipated defeat, but because they believed they had to: “They ‘saw’ no acceptable alternative.” This is largely what I meant by the statement quoted by both Messrs. Ellsberg and Schlesinger that “US involvement did not stem from a failure to foresee consequences.” Both, however, chose to assume that this statement solely concerned the anti-quagmire thesis.

Mr. Ellsberg and I also differ on the emphasis to be placed on domestic and international forces. Mr. Ellsberg would have us now believe that the overriding reason for American involvement in Vietnam was that our Presidents and their key advisers wanted to retain the White House and keep their jobs. Such motives were undoubtedly present to some extent. Kenneth O’Donnell told us in an article in Life that President Kennedy told Senator Mansfield that he wanted to get out of Vietnam, but would have to wait until after the 1964 elections. President Johnson freely admits that he was worried about a right-wing McCarthyite reaction should the communists win.

But have we so completely forgotten the acceptance during the Fifties and Sixties of the psychological correctness of the domino theory (if we don’t resist here, they’ll test us there and there, etc.) that we now deny that our leaders ever believed it? Mr. Schlesinger certainly understands this point. In The Bitter Heritage he asserted: “Our stake in South Vietnam may have been self-created, but it has nonetheless become real. Our precipitate withdrawal now would have ominous reverberations throughout Asia” (p. 21). And: “We must have enough American armed force in South Vietnam to leave no doubt in the minds of our adversaries that a communist government will not be imposed on South Vietnam by force” (p. 106).

Mr. Ellsberg believed the same thing well into 1967. Just because he stopped believing it does not mean that most others (including myself) in and out of government were not similarly misguided in the past. Our leaders had mixed motives but, I would submit, they plowed on in Vietnam mainly to preserve American prestige and to avoid a larger war elsewhere; and most Americans shared this line of reasoning.

My second proposition was:

Our Presidents were never actually seeking a military victory in Vietnam. They were doing only what they thought was minimally necessary at each stage to keep Indochina, and later South Vietnam, out of Communist hands. This forced our Presidents to be brakemen, to do less than those who were urging military victory and to reject proposals for disengagement. It also meant that our Presidents wanted a negotiated settlement without fully realizing (though realizing more than their critics) that a civil war cannot be ended by political compromise.

After their consultation, Messrs. Schlesinger and Ellsberg apparently agreed that my concept of the “minimum necessary step” makes sense. (Mr. Schlesinger, however, neglected to mention that this was my position to begin with.) This concept is worth dwelling on for a moment, for it does bear on my version of the anti-quagmire thesis.


The Pentagon Papers show beyond question that Presidents rarely, if ever, bought the maximum proposals advanced by their advisers. This is a critical fact, because only those proposals for the maximum use of force (with the exception, at times, of the pacification program) were accompanied by promises of victory. Thus, as Mr. Ellsberg pointed out in his Public Policy article, Taylor and Rostow, McNamara and Rusk were giving President Kennedy a straightforward message in November, 1961: Accept all of the Taylor proposals and make an unequivocal commitment now or else don’t expect very much improvement in the Vietnam situation. Instead, President Kennedy went only halfway—although he gradually went well beyond the original Taylor recommendations.

Thus, in 1964 and 1965, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were telling President Johnson that they could promise success in the air war against North Vietnam only if he would let them bomb all targets right at the start and for an eight-week period. LBJ refused, and painstakingly doled out the targets over four years. Thus, General West-moreland kept cabling the President from 1965 on that communist main force units could be destroyed only if LBJ granted authority for US troops to invade the DMZ, Laos, and Cambodia. LBJ never acceded to this.

None of this is to say that the generals were right. The point is that few argued that the generals were wrong in their military judgment. Many argued that the generals’ recommendations were politically unpalatable, risky with respect to the Russians and Chinese, likely to produce a counterreaction from Hanoi and therefore cause a stalemate at a higher level of fighting, unlikely to solve the political problem of war, and, therefore, unlikely to improve the main features of the war. In other words, the objections were that the military had oversimplified the problems, that the problems were even more intractable than the military presumed, and that success was far from around some military corner. JFK and LBJ may not have believed what the military and others were proposing would work, but there is no reason to think that they believed that doing less would lead to victory.

So, faced with predictions that victory was either impossible or very difficult to attain, our Presidents usually decided to take what they thought to be the minimum steps necessary, at first to prevent defeat and later to improve the situation. Tragically, as the ante rose on both sides, the minimum necessary became the functional equivalent of escalation. This process can hardly be characterized as mostly optimistic—nor can it be seen as wholly pessimistic.

Because this is my reading of the decision process, I also believe that our Presidents were seeking something short of traditional military victory. I could well be wrong. Perhaps LBJ really wanted to “nail the coonskin to the wall.” But his actions were not consistent with this end. Rather, his actions seem to fit my contention that negotiations usually were the real aim. Now, Mr. Schlesinger says this is naïve underestimation of governmental self-deception. But I think that most of our leaders actually believed that the standard diplomatic, but absurd, terms they were offering to Hanoi—you keep the North and the NLF can operate like the communist parties in France and Italy in the South—eventually would have to be accepted by Hanoi and would also satisfy US objectives. In my article in Foreign Policy, I went on to say (Mr. Schlesinger again omits this) that “the Vietnam war could no more be settled by traditional diplomatic compromises than any other civil war” and that while the stakes for us were keeping our word, the stakes for the Vietnamese “were their lives and their lifelong aspirations.”

My third proposition tried to reconcile the first two so far as both expectations (i.e., the quagmire and anti-quagmire theories) and strategy were concerned:

Our Presidents and most of their lieutenants were not deluded by optimistic reports of progress and did not proceed on the basis of wishful thinking about winning a military victory in South Vietnam. They recognized that the steps they were taking were not adequate to win the war and that unless Hanoi relented, they would have to do more and more. Their strategy was to persevere in the hope that their will to continue—if not the practical effects of their actions—would cause the Communists to relent.

Again after consultation, Messrs. Schlesinger and Ellsberg seem to come to this “more and more steps” position. My interpretation of the anti-quagmire thesis does not require that I show, as Mr. Schlesinger demands, that “advisers were united in warning Presidents of their peril and in offering pessimistic assessments….” As Mr. Schlesinger himself pointed out, I maintained that some people were always optimistic and that there were periods of general optimism. Mr. Ellsberg, however, argued a much purer version of the anti-quagmire theory than my own and spoke of stark pessimism, desperation, and the foreknowledge of disaster as characterizing the years of decision and the actions that were in fact taken. I have known Daniel Ellsberg for some time and admire his laser beam intelligence, but I feel that he went well beyond the evidence.


I never maintained (nor to a lesser extent did Ellsberg) that decisions were made in an atmosphere of united and unrelieved pessimism. I never argued that our leaders were clairvoyant. I wrote, for example, “Very few, to be sure, envisioned what the Vietnam situation would be like by 1968.” There was optimism in plenty. It cannot be explained away as mere noise or static in the background. Mr. Schlesinger put this out of whack by implying that I said our Presidents acted in the certainty of future failure. What I wrote was that they “plowed on with a mixture of hope and doom.” More: “The hope was to convince the Vietnamese communists through perseverance that the US would stay in South Vietnam until they abandoned their struggle. The hope, in a sense, was the product of disbelief. How could a tiny, backward Asian country not have a breaking point when opposed by the might of the United States?” Is this the same as Mr. Schlesinger’s characterizing my position as “Presidents knowing they were heading into a hopeless mess, fully foreseeing the consequences…”?

Daniel Ellsberg and I have a number of differences between us, but we are both trying to pursue similar issues. In Mr. Schlesinger’s onslaught against the anti-quagmire group, however, he uses arguments that are seriously misleading:

1) Pessimistic views, according to him, were being expressed only by the Current Intelligence Branch of the CIA and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department. If these were the only sources of pessimism, my argument would indeed rest on a weak reed. (Ellsberg, in fact, does base too much of his case on these sources.) While the broad predictions of the intelligence community do look uncommonly accurate over time, most intelligence reports were sufficiently ambiguous that those who wanted to escalate also found grist for their mill. The message of these reports, moreover, was that the Vietnam situation was bad and often growing worse, not that it was irredeemable.

But pessimism can also be found fairly consistently in high places as well. If Mr. Schlesinger would now take the pains to read all the available volumes and not just the Bantam paperback edition, he would find that most of the key memos and papers of Dean Acheson, President Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1950 to 1960, Nicholas Katzenbach, Roger Hilsman, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, and Robert McNamara (especially after 1965) were laden with the difficulties US policy was confronting in Vietnam.

Most of these men recommended escalation not because things were going well, but because they were going badly and because of their belief that we could not afford to lose. They argued that the US could overcome because it had to. We even find Dean Rusk telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966: “I would be misleading you if I told you that I thought that I know where, when, and how this matter will be resolved.” The publicly expressed optimism which led to the credibility gap was sometimes real and sometimes merely designed to bolster popular support for the war. Such support was thought to be both the weak spot and linchpin of the persevering strategy.

2) Mr. Schlesinger asserted, rightly, that there are endless memos that stress “progress.” He then, wrongly, equated “progress” with “success” and “optimism.” It is one thing to say that things are getting better; quite another to see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” How many memos saw that tunnel light?

3) Mr. Schlesinger concluded by citing a few specific intelligence failures. He then jumped to General Taylor’s conclusion that over-all intelligence “was very poor.” He did this, remarkably, shortly after having said: “I am entirely ready to accept Mr. Ellsberg’s judgment that [intelligence reports] were, in the main, genuinely impressive and predominantly pessimistic.” This contradiction is, to say the least, puzzling.

Mr. Schlesinger also takes the opportunity to advance a new form of his old quagmire thesis. The old one, while incorrect by his own admission, had the virtue of clarity. In The Bitter Heritage, he wrote: “Each step in the deepening of the American commitment was reasonably regarded at the time as the last that would be necessary,” and that Vietnam is a story of optimism and inadvertence. A quick glance at the classified statements of US objectives in Vietnam from 1950 onward clearly indicates not the inadvertence of American actions but their consistency with the objectives, that involvement was coming into line with commitment.

Mr. Schlesinger’s new quagmire thesis is elusive. In one place, he approvingly quoted the following as “what I mean”: “our setbacks were due to wishful thinking compounded by a massive intelligence…failure.” That sounds like the old thesis. Then he wrote: “the Vietnam adventure was marked much more by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle than by fore-sight, awareness, and calculation.” The words “much more” mark a modest change. Earlier in his piece, he was even more modest: “[Escalatory steps] were often taken under the illusion that they would make a difference.” The words “often” and “difference” are more modest yet. Will the real new quagmire thesis please stand up?

Something also needs to be said about Mr. Schlesinger’s account of President Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. It will, I think, shed light on the quagmire discussion. Mr. Schlesinger first told this inside story in A Thousand Days. As more evidence of this policy comes into the open, parts of this book read more like A Thousand and One Nights. Here, Mr. Schlesinger cited all the “dovish” statements by JFK and omitted or dismissed all the “hawkish” statements. I do not know, of course, what President Kennedy would have done in Vietnam in 1965, but I do know that the escalation of the American role during his tenure in office was enormous in numbers of men, cash, and political involvement. This could not be explained away by Mr. Schlesinger then nor can it now as JFK’s buying off the bureaucracy on Laos. Nor can I agree with Mr. Schlesinger’s explanation (as it appeared in the August, 1971, Harper’s) of JFK’s Vietnam build-ups:

Our original presence in South Vietnam hardly seems immoral, since we were there at the request of the South Vietnam government. Nor does it seem necessarily contrary to our national interest; conceivably it might have been worth it to commit, say, 20,000 military advisers if this could preserve an independent South Vietnam.

But I raise the matter of Mr. Schlesinger’s own publications because I think they reveal a lot about his criteria for evaluating foreign policies. We find him, for example, condemning the Bay of Pigs as an intelligence failure and because it failed. Then he extols the Cuban missile crisis (where JFK thought the chances of nuclear war were 50-50) as one of the merriest days in Camelot because the strategy worked. Then we discover him assuring us that President Kennedy was on his way out of Vietnam (even as our involvement had grown deeper from the Diem coup) because his policies were not working.

I find it easier to understand, in view of this background, why Mr. Schlesinger comes to the quagmire thesis. His particular brand of pragmatism narrows down to the simple criterion “Does it work?” With this standard in mind, he could not help believing that none of our Presidents would have plunged on in Vietnam unless they were promised success.

Yet, to me, the story of Vietnam is based much more on the values we held (why it was important not to lose Vietnam) than on prospects of victory (how we expected the war to end). Vietnam is what happened when our leaders calculated essentially the imagined costs of losing, and not the real costs of “winning.” Vietnam is what happened when our values, international and domestic, were pushed to their logical extreme. And it is on this question of values that discussion about Vietnam should ultimately come to rest.

The theories advanced by Messrs. Schlesinger and Ellsberg lend themselves essentially to debates about individual guilt or innocence. The Schlesinger quagmire thesis bends toward “a tragedy without villains.” The Ellsberg anti-quagmire thesis veers toward a “villainous tragedy.”

I believe that trying to compress the Vietnam debate into an optimism versus pessimism mold distorts the Vietnam tragedy and leaves us with little to learn. It forces people into positions that may seem arrogant. The essential question to me is not the one posed by Daniel Ellsberg—“How could they?”—but the question that asks why the US committed itself in Vietnam, namely, “How could we?” The over-whelming majority of Americans, and particularly the foreign policy experts, agreed with the cold war ends of American diplomacy. Americans of all sorts just went along. Had John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sought to wave the flag and make Vietnam a crusade, this support would probably have increased. It was ritualistic anti-communism and exaggerated power politics that got us into Vietnam. These were articles of faith and were not, therefore, ever seriously debated.

This does not mean that individuals did not matter or that responsibility should be equally shared. While our values explain why we got into Vietnam, they do not explain or justify the scope and character of the war, the cruel calculus of the debate, and the careless and devastating way it was fought. For this, there are the lines of Herbert Butterfield: “The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine they can control things in a sovereign manner, playing providence not only for themselves but for the far future…and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake.”

This Issue

December 2, 1971