I regret that I misconstrued Leslie Gelb’s argument in his Foreign Policy piece—and only plead in extenuation that, according to him, I share with Daniel Ellsberg the misreading of Mr. Gelb’s proposition that “US involvement [in Indochina] did not stem from a failure to foresee consequences.” Mr. Gelb’s position emerges a good deal more clearly in his comment in The New York Review of December 2.
I agree with much of that position. I entirely agree, for example, with Mr. Gelb’s point that compressing the Vietnam debate “into an optimism versus pessimism mold distorts the Vietnam tragedy.” I got into the optimism/pessimism problem in “Eyeless in Indochina” [NYR, October 21] in order to raise questions about the anti-quagmire thesis, not because I thought it the central issue. I agree that the desire “to preserve American prestige and to avoid a larger war elsewhere” mattered “more than predictions of either success or failure in making our leaders plow on in Vietnam. I agree, of course, with Mr. Gelb’s concluding lines from Herbert Butterfield; that is why I quoted them in The Bitter Heritage (p. 96).
I am not so sure about others of Mr. Gelb’s points. His broad thesis does not seem to me incompatible with the interpretation he rejected in Foreign Policy—that is, “of step by step, inadvertent descent into unforeseen quicksand.” Mr. Gelb himself appears to affirm the step by step part of this interpretation (thus he writes, “Messrs. Schlesinger and Ellsberg seem to come to this [Gelb’s] ‘more and more steps’ position”). As for the contention that the quicksand was foreseen, Mr. Gelb himself writes that “most intelligence reports were sufficiently ambiguous that those who wanted to escalate also found grist for their mill.”
Were our Presidents “never actually seeking a military victory in Vietnam”? Mr. Gelb continues to believe they were not, but frankly admits, “I could well be wrong.” I still think that President Kennedy supposed the small-scale Viet Cong insurgency (15,000 in November, 1961) of 1961-62 could be overcome; indeed, during most of 1962 (“Diem’s year” the North Vietnamese called it, as Mr. Gelb reminded us in Foreign Policy), this seemed entirely possible. As for President Johnson, I still believe he found it viscerally inconceivable that what Walt Rostow kept telling him was “the greatest power in the world” could not dispose of a collection of night-riders in black pajamas. (Mr. Gelb himself reported this feeling: “How could a tiny, backward Asian country not have a breaking point when opposed by the might of the United States?” He also wrote in Foreign Policy: “Those who led the United States into Vietnam did so… believing they had the will to succeed.”)
I could well be wrong too. But when Mr. Gelb describes our Presidents as “faced with predictions that victory was either impossible or very difficult to attain,” he forgets the abundance of more comforting predictions. He also contradicts his own description of the intelligence reports (quoted at the end of the third paragraph above);…
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