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Despite the changes introduced by Kennedy's "action intellectuals," these attitudes did not disappear. The top US military commander in Vietnam, MAAG Chief General Lionel McGarr, informed JFK on February 22, 1962 that "in providing the GVN the tools to do the job," the US "must not offer so much that they forget that the job of saving the country is theirs -- only they can do it." Robert Buzzanco, who has given the closest scholarly attention to this topic, concludes that "notwithstanding John Newman's recent argument that the JCS pressured President John F. Kennedy into deeper commitments to the RVN despite his grave reservations, there is ample evidence that even in the early 1960s the military did not feel compelled to intervene in Indochina."92
Kennedy's most trusted military adviser, General Taylor, shared the doubts of other senior commanders about dispatch of combat troops, as did Pacific Commander Admiral Henry Felt. As plans to overthrow the Diem-Nhu regime were underway in September 1963, Taylor expressed his "reluctance to contemplate the use of U.S.troops in combat in Vietnam," while agreeing with the President and his other top advisers that "our sole objective was to win the war." A year after the assassination, in September 1964, Taylor explained that MACV "did not contemplate" committing combat forces because Commanding General Westmoreland, echoing McGarr, felt that the use of American troops "would be a mistake, that it is the Vietnamese' war." Agreeing, Taylor continued to urge that the US keep to the "principle that the Vietnamese fight their own war in SVN" (November 3, 1964). He therefore opposed sending logistical forces for flood relief because that would require dispatch of "US combat troops in some numbers to provide close protection." He argued that the situation was not comparable to the far more severe 1961 flood, when he had recommended dispatch of "US logistic units with combat support" for "flood relief operations." Two weeks later, he informed President Johnson that he was now "quite certain [US combat troops] were not needed...as the estimates of the flood damage diminish." His objection to sending combat forces continued. In February 1965, he opposed General Westmoreland's request for Marines to protect the US air base at Danang, arguing again that it would be "very difficult to hold the line on future deployments" and that the US should keep to the "long standing policies of avoiding commitment of ground combat forces in South Vietnam." When his advice was rejected, he advocated the "enclave strategy" proposed by the extreme doves.93
In later years, as we shall see, great import has been attributed to JFK's public reiteration of the McGarr-Westmoreland-Taylor "principle" in his September 1963 statement that "In the final analysis it is their war. They have to win it or lose it." It is, therefore, worth stressing that the "principle" was standard throughout in internal and public discussion. The McNamara-Taylor report to the President of October 2 stated that "The U.S. advisory effort, however, cannot assure ultimate success. This is a Vietnamese war and the country and the war must, in the end, be run solely by the Vietnamese. It will impair their independence and development of their initiative if we leave our advisers in place beyond the time they are really needed...." High-ranking officials kept to that position as long as there appeared to be hopes for victory in these terms. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in late January 1964, McNamara stated that "It is a Vietnamese war. They are going to have to assume the primary responsibility for winning it. Our policy is to limit our support to logistical and training support... Our responsibility is not to substitute ourselves for the Vietnamese, but to train them to carry on the operations that they themselves are capable of" in this "counterguerrilla war," which "can only be won by the Vietnamese themselves." He reiterated his expectation that withdrawal could proceed as planned.94
Later, as the premises concerning victory were seen to be unrealistic, McNamara and others changed their tactical stance. It is, again, merely an act of faith to assume that JFK's reaction to changed assessments would have differed from that of his most trusted advisers, to whom he had delegated responsibility for the war.
Taylor also "strongly opposed" the decision to request combat troops in March 1965 as the Saigon military was on the verge of collapse, and continued to oppose the "hasty and ill-conceived" proposals for a greater commitment. Bergerud notes that in mid-1965, "Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and George Ball argued for sharply limited American force levels and the employment of U.S. troops in and around strategic `enclaves'." Taylor's "principle that the Vietnamese fight their own war" was, however, a matter of tactical judgment, based on an assessment that there would be "no clear gain" in a departure from it (November 3, 1964). In this respect, he was at one with JFK, so the available record indicates.
Speaking to fellow officers in 1963, incoming Marine Commandant Wallace Greene warned that US troops were "mired down in South Vietnam...and we don't seem to be able to do much about it." The Marines "do not want to get any more involved in South Vietnam," he informed them. A March 1964 report by MACV planner General Richard Stillwell confirmed Greene's judgment, recommending various actions but not US combat troops. In January 1965, the MACV staff, with Taylor's concurrence, continued to oppose US combat troops, which "would at best buy time and would lead to ever increasing commitments until, like the French, we would be occupying an essentially hostile foreign country." In May 1965, Greene warned again that this "unwanted, undesired, miserable war" was getting worse, noting that at least half the US population "don't want anything to do with it."
Greene's predecessor General David Shoup, Marine Commandant through the Kennedy years and known as Kennedy's "favorite service chief," reports that when the Joint Chiefs considered troop deployment, "in every case...every senior officer that I knew...said we should never send ground combat forces into Southeast Asia." Shoup was a particularly strong opponent of the war. It would be hard to find a civilian figure who came close to the views he expressed in a May 1966 speech at Junior College World Affairs Day:
I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own. That they design and want. That they fight and work for. [Not one] crammed down their throats by Americans.Surely Arthur Schlesinger and others who later described themselves as opponents of escalation took no such stand; nor did media doves.95
These observations add further weight to the conclusion based on the record of internal deliberations, in which JFK insists upon victory and considers withdrawal only on this condition. Had he intended to withdraw, he would have been able to enlist respected military commanders to back him. He made no effort to do so, preferring instead to whip up pro-war sentiment by extravagant rhetoric about the enormous stakes that require us to stand firm, come what may.
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92 Buzzanco, "Division, Dilemma, Dissent"; "Waiting for Westy," paper delivered at Conference of Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, Vassar, June 1992. Reviewing Newman's files, Buzzanco concludes that his work is based on "questionable analysis and uses of sources."
93 Buzzanco, "Division, Dilemma, Dissent." FRUSV, IV 170; FRUSV-64, 883, 901-2, 909. Berman, Planning, 52-6. On Taylor's reluctance, see also Kahin, Intervention.
94 PP, II 756; III 19 (highlighted), 35f.
95 Buzzanco, "Division, Dilemma, Dissent," "Waiting for Westy," "American Military's Rationale." Bergerud, Dynamics, 90.