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The next two chapters are devoted to the record of planning for the Vietnam war in the crucial 1961-1964 period (chapter 1) and the reshaping of interpretations as conditions changed, a matter of much independent interest (chapter 2).
There are several sources of evidence to be considered: (1) The historical facts; (2) public statements; (3) the internal planning record; (4) the memoirs and other reports of Kennedy insiders. In each category, the material is substantial. The record of internal deliberations, in particular, has been available far beyond the norm since the release of two editions of the Pentagon Papers, and of other documents since. The recent publication of thousands of pages of documents in the official State Department history for 1961-1964 provides a wealth of additional material.32 Military histories, particularly province studies, also give much insight into the events and what lay behind them.
While history never permits anything like definitive conclusions, in this case, the richness of the record, and its consistency, permit some unusually confident judgments, in my opinion. The basic story that emerges from the historical and documentary record seems to me, in brief, as follows.33
Policy towards Vietnam fell within the general framework of post-World War II global planning, and faced little challenge until the general framework was modified in the early 1970s, partly as a consequence of the Indochina Wars.34 The US quickly threw in its lot with France, fully aware that it was opposing the nationalist forces and that its clients could not withstand political competition. For these reasons, resort to peaceful means was never an option; rather, a threat to be avoided. It was also understood that the wars and subversion had little support at home. The operation therefore had to be wound up without too much delay, leaving Indochina under the control of client regimes, to the extent feasible.
Basic policies held firm from 1950 into the early 1970s, though by the end questions of feasibility and cost became pressing. The Geneva agreements of 1954 were at once subverted. The US imposed a client regime in what came to be called "South Vietnam." Lacking popular support, the regime resorted to large-scale terror to control the population, finally eliciting resistance, which it could not control. As Kennedy took office, the US position seemed to face imminent collapse. Kennedy therefore escalated the war in 1961-1962. The military command was exuberant over the success of the enhanced violence, and thought that the war could soon be wound up, leading to a military victory and US withdrawal. Kennedy went along with these predictions with reservations, never fully willing to commit himself to the withdrawal proposals put forth by his advisers.
Without exception, withdrawal proposals were conditioned on military victory. Every known Administration plan was explicit on that score, notably the October 1963 "program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort," coupled with instructions from the President to "increase effectiveness of war effort" so as to ensure "our fundamental objective of victory" (my emphasis).
By mid-1963, coercive measures appeared to be successful in the countryside, but internal repression had evoked large-scale urban protest. Furthermore, the client regime was calling for a reduction of the US role or even US withdrawal, and was making overtures for a peaceful settlement with the North. Given its unwavering commitment to "our fundamental objective of victory," the Kennedy Administration therefore resolved to overthrow its client in favor of a military junta that would be fully committed to this objective. The planned coup took place on November 1, 1963, placing the Generals in control.
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32 PP. The Department of Defense later released an edition with additional materials. For extensive material from both, and discussion, see FRS. U.S. Dept. of State, FRUSV, IIII; FRUSV64 (1964 is the latest volume released). For a brief and accurate summary of the 1963, 1964 volumes, see Economist, Jan. 18, May 16, 1992. Another useful source is Gibbons, US Government.
33 Sources already cited, and others in the dissident literature, gave a generally accurate picture as events proceeded, requiring little modification in the light of what is now known. For a summary, see MC. The following summary is largely extracted from 501, ch. 10.8.
34 See 501, ch. 2.4.