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Continuing into 1964, we find the same pattern of planning and debate as under Kennedy, modified only in that the 1962-1963 optimism about imminent victory is abandoned, as the truth about the military situation finally penetrated and the US failed to impose a government that would unleash the requisite resources of "great violence" and control its population with Hitler-style efficiency, thus overcoming the defects that dismayed Lodge. As the year opened, Lodge reported to LBJ that while the overthrow of Diem prevented "certain catastrophe," we are "now just beginning to see the full extent of the dry rot and lassitude in the Government of Viet-Nam and the extent to which we were given inaccurate information" (January 1). McCone reported that the military field officers "had been grossly misinformed" by their Vietnamese associates, urging that US intelligence bypass them henceforth and make its own assessments (January 7). McNamara and others also learned more about the "grossly inaccurate picture" on which they had been basing their plans (Forrestal, January 8).79
A few weeks later, the Joint Chiefs recommended that the US "Induce the Government of Vietnam to conduct overt ground operations in Laos of sufficient scope to impede the flow of personnel and material southward," and "Arm, equip, advise and support the Government of Vietnam in its conduct of aerial bombing of critical targets in North Vietnam and in mining the sea approaches to that country." They recommended further that the US itself "Conduct aerial bombing of key North Vietnam targets," "Commit additional US forces, as necessary, in support of the combat action within South Vietnam," and "Commit US forces as necessary in direct actions against North Vietnam" (Taylor, January 22).80
McNamara's DOD rejected this advice, proposing only to "continue our present policy of providing training and logistical support for the South Vietnam forces," without direct US involvement (March 2). LBJ uneasily dragged his feet. In a meeting with the Joint Chiefs on March 4, he made it clear "that he does not want to lose South Vietnam before next November nor does he want to get the country into war" (Taylor Memorandum). On March 17, he rejected the JCS request for "putting in more U.S. forces" and refused to authorize even "reconnaissance over North Vietnam."81
By then, some of the Kennedy doves were tending towards escalation. Forrestal observed on March 18 that "I am somewhat more worried by those who argue for a bug out in Southeast Asia than I am by the adherents of Rostow," the superhawk; that these were the alternatives was becoming the consensus view. As the US position in the South deteriorated, Forrestal increasingly favored escalation of actions against the North along with an intensified counterinsurgency program, later supporting the Joint Chiefs on air and ground operations in Laos as well.82
Hilsman's position was similar. On leaving the government, he wrote a secret memorandum (March 14) in which he emphasized the need to assure Asians, friend or enemy, of "U.S. determination to use appropriate force, tailored to the essentially limited political objectives...." We must show that "we are determined to take whatever measures are necessary in Southeast Asia to protect those who oppose the Communists and to maintain our power and influence in the area," and therefore "must urgently begin to strengthen our overall military posture in Southeast Asia in ways which will make it clear that we are single-mindedly improving our capability to take whatever military steps may be necessary to halt Communist aggression in the area" (crucially, Viet Cong "aggression"). We might station a Marine battalion in Saigon on the pretext of protecting American dependents. Attacks against the North might be "a useful supplement to an effective counterinsurgency program," but not "an effective substitute" for it. We must "continue the covert, or at least deniable, operations" against the North in order to keep "the threat of eventual destruction alive in Hanoi's mind."83
Recall that Hilsman had made the same recommendations in April 1963, in virtually the same words, including the advice to "continue" the ongoing covert operations against the North with their implicit threat of destruction; that he had advised the deployment of US combat forces to assist the rebel generals in the event of any hint that Diem and Nhu were seeking a political settlement, and the use of unlimited force against the DRV if they sought "to counter our actions"; and that after the assassination, he had assured the GVN that "we shall keep in Viet-Nam whatever forces are needed for victory."
By March 30, "all the Chiefs except General Taylor wanted to go north," the White House was informed. Forrestal supported the Chiefs' call for "overt SVN action with U.S. covert support," but wanted "direct U.S. action as a contingency," for the moment. LBJ continued to reject either withdrawal or escalation. Mansfield approved, as noted. We must "help the Vietnamese to help themselves," LBJ informed Lodge, nothing more (April 28).84
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79 FRUSV-64, 1ff.
80 PP, III 496-9; FRUSV-64, 35.
81 Ibid., 120, 129, 167ff.
82 Ibid., 174, 206-7, 387-8, 806.
83 His emphasis. Ibid., 176ff. The quotes in the last sentence appear in an excerpt in Hilsman's memoir To Move a Nation, 536, with the word "continue" and a later reference to ongoing operations deleted.
84 FRUSV-64, 197-8, 206, 224, 273.