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In late May, McGeorge Bundy advised "selected and carefully graduated military force against North Vietnam," while Forrestal, after a two-week visit to South Vietnam, reported his "very strong personal opinion" that "the United States must take a fairly dramatic step soon against the North," along with an eventual "increase both in the American military and civilian presence in the countryside" in the South. On June 2, the Joint Chiefs again called for "military actions to accomplish destruction of the North Vietnamese will and capabilities as necessary to compel [the DRV] to cease providing support" for insurgent activities in Laos and Vietnam. LBJ continued to hold back. When two US reconnaissance planes were shot down in Laos, he approved a retaliatory attack on an antiaircraft installation only "with grave reservations."
On August 2, the US destroyer Maddox was attacked in Tonkin Gulf. Forrestal urged that US naval units should operate within the 12-mile limit "probably" claimed by North Vietnam and suggested that thought be given to "hot pursuit" to a distance of three miles as well as aerial mining of harbors and "an unidentified air strike against one or more of these harbors." He recognized at once that "the North Vietnamese and perhaps the Chicoms" had probably taken the Maddox to be accompanying the "OPLAN 34A harassing action by SVN forces against two islands off the DRV coast" at the same time. CIA Director McCone informed the National Security Council that "The North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their off-shore islands." The State Department assumed the same, as it issued a strong public condemnation of the "unprovoked attack," and the Administration drafted the congressional resolution denouncing "unprovoked armed attacks" that was later used as the justification for escalation.85
By late August, JCS appeals for direct US military involvement became more strident. They advised McNamara that "accelerated and forceful action with respect to North Vietnam is essential to prevent a complete collapse of the US position in Southeast Asia." Bundy informed the President that "landing a limited number of Marines to guard specific installations" was under discussion, though McNamara was "very strongly against" that course. Bundy thought that "before we let this country go we should have a hard look" at the "grim alternative" of using "substantial U.S. armed forces" (August 31).86
Note that this is almost a year after the assassination, which, it is alleged, gave the hawks free rein to take over and escalate the war (or even was perpetrated by them to place their man, the hawkish LBJ, in power).
With intelligence reporting (September 8) that "the present situation is far more serious than that of November 1963," the consensus of the President's advisers was that it would be necessary to resume US naval patrols and "34A operations by the GVN," along with "limited GVN air and ground operations" in southern Laos, though only after a stable base was established in South Vietnam. LBJ agreed, opposing "those advocating immediate and extensive action against the North." NSAM 314 (September 10) approved US naval patrols "well beyond [outside] the 12-mile limit" and "clearly dissociated from 34A maritime operations" by the GVN, with no GVN air strikes considered for the present, and an emphasis on "economic and political actions," at LBJ's insistence. After another alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident a week later, the President was "very skeptical about the evidence" and rejected the advice for "rapid escalation," indeed any response. He "again found [considerable] force" in George Ball's qualms about conducting naval patrols at all, again lining up with the more extreme Kennedy doves.
On October 1, intelligence reported further deterioration in South Vietnam, and the JCS reiterated their demand for "strong military actions...to prevent the collapse of the US position in Southeast Asia" (October 27). Taylor, who had replaced Lodge as Ambassador, continued to oppose the use of US forces (see below). On November 23, the Chiefs advised a "controlled program of intense military pressures against the DRV." Taylor informed Washington that "the northern provinces of South Viet-Nam which a year ago were considered almost free of Viet-Cong are now in deep trouble," and only "heroic treatment" could revive the counterinsurgency program, which is "bogged down" everywhere. No options remain except compelling the DRV to "make the Viet-Cong desist." After an unattributed bombing in the South, Taylor and the military command recommended "forty strike sorties" against the DRV in "retaliation," which would "do wonders for the morale of U.S. personnel in South Vietnam," McGeorge Bundy urged the President (December 28). The President rejected these proposals, proposing instead that Rangers, Special Forces, and Marines might be used "to stiffen the aggressiveness of Vietnamese military units."87
So 1964 ends, and with it, the extensive record of newly-released documents. Their contribution is to undermine much further the already implausible contention that JFK intended to withdraw without victory and that the assassination caused dramatic changes in policy (or, indeed, had any effect). Just as there is no hint in the record of any such intention on JFK's part, there is also no indication that his advisers, however dovish, felt that President Johnson was urging too aggressive a course or had departed from JFK's stand. On the contrary, Johnson remained skeptical and reluctant about US military action throughout, earning the applause of Ball and Mansfield for his "wise caution," while other JFK doves urged stronger US military actions. The belief that JFK might have responded differently as the optimistic projections of 1962-1963 collapsed is an act of faith, based on nothing but the belief that the President had some spiritual quality absent in everyone around him, leaving no detectable trace.
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85 Ibid., 374, 387-8, 437f., 475, 598ff.
86 Ibid., 717, 723.
87 Ibid., 742f., 759, 778f., 806, 847, 933, 948f., 1049f., 1057f.