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); indeed, he tells us that the message of the intelligence reports “was that the Vietnam situation was bad and often growing worse, not that it was irredeemable.” (For his part, Mr. Gelb finds a contradiction in my use of General Taylor’s criticism of our intelligence as “very poor.” I don’t know what Taylor had in mind; probably he was thinking of our tactical intelligence; but I used the quotation to show that a major participant hardly seemed to agree with Mr. Gelb that “the system worked.”)
Mr. Gelb may now be skeptical about the idea that Kennedy permitted things to go forward in Vietnam as a trade-off for the neutralization of Laos. He seemed less skeptical when he wrote in Foreign Policy, “It was also the precarious situation in Laos and the ‘neutralist’ compromise which Kennedy was preparing for Laos that were driving the President deeper into Vietnam.”
I would prefer to ignore Mr. Gelb’s various ad hominem remarks. Most of us, including Mr. Gelb as well as me, have changed our minds to one or another degree on this wretched business, and I would hope we might now try to clear our heads about origins and responsibilities without feeling the need to score personal points. If Mr. Gelb wants to talk about my “criteria for evaluating foreign policies,” I will readily concede that the probability a policy won’t work has always seemed to me a good initial argument against it, especially when one is arguing in a bureaucratic setting. If the approval of policies that do work, like the Cuban quarantine during the missile crisis, is a sin, I cannot deny the imputation. “It won’t work” is in some circumstances a sufficient argument, but it is not of course a total argument. Values are always involved, even in the estimate of whether or not something will work. I am impressed, of course, by Mr. Gelb’s concern for values—as proven, no doubt, by the fact that he was still working away in the Pentagon when I, with my various sins, was at least out in the country giving speeches and writing articles and books attacking the escalation policy.
Mr. Gelb goes on to say, “We discover him [me] assuring us that President Kennedy was on his way out of Vietnam….” When and where did I offer such assurance? It has always seemed to me difficult for anyone to predict what a dead President would have done about problems that have assumed a different form after his death; it is hard enough to predict what living Presidents will do about such problems. It is also presumptuous to speak in the name of dead men. So I question Mr. Gelb’s statement that I have publicly done these things. (One cannot repress private guesses, of course, and my private guess about what President Kennedy would have done accords with the guesses of Kenneth O’Donnell, Richard Goodwin, Theodore Sorensen, Pierre Salinger, Michael Forrestal, Roger Hilsman, and Robert F. Kennedy, not with the guess of Mr. Rostow or, evidently, Mr. Gelb.)
December 16, 1971