The American Crisis: Vietnam, Cuba & the Dominican Republic
In the past six years the United States has resorted to some form of military force in three major crises—in Cuba, in the Dominican Republic, and in Vietnam. They are sufficiently different to make it foolhardy to lump them together. Nevertheless, in one respect, they resemble each other too closely and uncomfortably to be regarded as totally unrelated or dissimilar.
What was there in each of these crises that made necessary the use of military force, if only by proxy, on the part of the United States? If we look at the development of each one, does a pattern emerge and suggest that they have something fundamental in common? And if we can detect a pattern, what does it tell us about where we are heading and what we may find on the way?
The more I have struggled with these questions, the more I have come to believe that there is such a pattern, and that it has brought us to the point of armed force as the key instrument of policy no less than three times in only six years. If I am right, this pattern implies that we have been living with an American crisis, or more exactly an ever more acute and costly crisis in American foreign policy, of which the Cuban, the Dominican, and the Vietnam cases have been three incarnations. If countries so far apart and so different can bring forth essentially the same problem, that problem must be as much in us as in them.
This American crisis can be simply stated, though its manifestations are far more difficult and complicated to trace. Roughly, the main instrumentalities of a country's foreign policy are political, economic, and military. It is, of course, not possible to seal them off from each other, as if they existed in isolation or alone. Nevertheless, they can surely be distinguished from each other; they may be used in different combinations and in different degrees.
At the present time, for example, the United States and France use all three instrumentalities. But the relatively modest economic and military means at President de Gaulle's disposal constrains French influence to be largely political. Our chief methods of persuasion, on the contrary, have increasingly become economic and military, and at crucial moments, almost exclusively military.
This pattern of American policy has come about as a result of one political failure and frustration after another. A weaker power might have suffered them in silence or in angry self-recrimination. But the United States is too rich and powerful to take a political setback without seeking some other way to break the deadlock. It is able, if it wishes, to transmute the political problem into an economic or, as a last resort, a military operation.
It is from this point of view that I wish to call attention to some aspects of the Cuban and Dominican crises as an introduction to a more extended consideration of how we got so deeply enmeshed in the Vietnam war.
The transmutation from the political to the military may be followed from beginning to end in the case of Cuba.
The political problem arose on March 10, 1952, the day Fulgencio Batista overthrew a duly elected, constitutional government in the midst of an election campaign he was sure to lose. The United States soon recognized Batista's regime, and the following year sent to Havana an ambassador whose enthusiasm for the new order struck even Batista as somewhat excessive. For almost four years, the State Department under John Foster Dulles supported Batista unwaveringly and thereby dismayed all elements of the democratic opposition which was seeking some peaceful way to return to constitutionalism.
In 1957, a change of ambassadors gave the State Department a second chance to deal with the political problem. The new ambassador was instructed to make the U.S. position more nearly neutral in internal Cuban politics. But, after a brave start, he was more impressed by the growing threat of Fidel Castro's forces than by the dangers attendant on humoring Batista. As a result, no real change took place in American policy. It was still tied to Batista on the ground that any move which might weaken him would play into the hands of Castro and/or the Communists. Until 1958, there was plenty of non-Castro and anti-Castro opposition to Batista but it was never able to make much headway against Batista's police and American discouragement.
As one democratic group after another met with disaster or disappointment, Castro picked up the pieces. His preeminence dated from 1958 or 1957 at the earliest. In effect, the United States had had at least five or six years to head him off, and could have done so easily, if it had not put all its eggs in Batista's political basket.
In the pinch, Batista left everyone, including the United States, in the lurch. When he fled at the end of 1958, he was still far superior to Castro in military force. His regime broke down for political and social far more than for military reasons; his own henchmen would no longer fight for him and not a few of them in high places sold out to Castro; and he betrayed most of them by taking flight without warning.
Until 1959, then, the Cuban problem was primarily political. It took the form of that crucial political question: Which side are you on? All the economic and military aid we gave Batista's regime counted as nothing compared with the answer we gave to this question.
When Castro took over Havana in January of that year, a new American policy had to be erected on a foundation of total political bankruptcy. Fear, failure, and guilt haunted the first confused, hesitant American overtures to the new Cuban regime. At this point, American policymakers could think of nothing better than to trade economics for politics. I am inclined to believe that the Eisenhower administration would have been glad to buy itself out of its embarrassment. But Castro refused to let it off so easily. Though Castroite circles spread the tale that Washington officials had rudely turned down Castro's requests for economic and financial aid, the truth was far more “revolutionary”—not only was Castro unwilling to accept anything which implied continued Cuban economic dependence on the United States, but he was determined to break the economic ties which had bound Cuba to the United States.
Once the economic bait had slipped off the hook, the Eisenhower administration went on fatally to the next and last option—military action. As early as April 1959, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon advocated training Cuban exile forces to overthrow Castro, and this step was actually taken by the Eisenhower administration in March 1960, though no concrete plan was made or adopted at that time. President John F. Kennedy inherited this exile force in 1961, and its very existence tipped the balance in the debate over whether to use it or not, It is sometimes forgotten, however, that Kennedy's thinking on the Cuban problem before he took office was not very different from that of his predecessor or his Presidential opponent.
The Bay of Pigs adventure was a military failure. But even a military victory would not have changed the fundamental fact that it was made necessary by, and was intended to recoup, the losses sustained by ten years of political failure.
This was the real meaning of the Bay of Pigs, though it has been obscured by the fruitless debate over who or what was most responsible for the military fiasco. It would have been far more profitable if the debate had been less over why military victory evaded us than why we needed it at all. The United States had possessed such overwhelming political and economic influence in Cuba for so many years that a resort to force could only mean an admission of political insolvency.
The “missiles crisis” in October the following year did not change the Cuban problem in any essential. President Kennedy carefully staged the showdown with the Soviet Union as a military confrontation of a limited character. The removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba did not represent an advance by the United States so much as a retreat by the Soviet Union. All the United States demanded and succeeded in re-establishing was the status quo ante. This operation was far more military than political, though it was not without U.S.-Soviet political repercussions.
In terms of the Cuban problem, however, the “missiles crisis” had an unexpected denouement. The prestige gained by Mr. Kennedy in October 1962 actually enabled him to execute a political retreat in Cuban policy in the spring of 1963. The existing instrument of U.S. policy, the Cuban Revolutionary Council, headed by Dr. José Miró Cardona, was abandoned, and a sizable corps of Cuban exiles was unceremoniously removed from the CIA's payroll. Not a few of these victims came to me in that period with their tales of woe. They were bitter and humiliated for two reasons—that they had taken the checks, and that they were no longer getting them. The demobilization of the Council signified that four more years of political bankruptcy in our Cuban policy had come to an end.
Ironically, this was the best thing that could have happened. Our fortunes immediately improved by permitting Castro to make mistakes without being able to blame them altogether on us.
The same political-military pattern can easily be discerned in the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican instrument of U.S. policy, Donald Reid Cabral, was another beneficiary of a military coup. The constitutional government of Juan Bosch was overthrown in September 1963; Reid, more a businessman than a politician, assumed the leadership of the new regime that December and headed the provisional government for the sixteen months before the revolt of April 1965.
In these months, more U.S. money was poured into the Dominican Republic than ever before. But it availed little because Reid was beset politically from two sides—the Right which wanted to replace him, and the Left which wanted to replace the Right. By January 1965, three months before the revolt, any reader of the Dominican press would or should have known that Reid was virtually finished. The reason was not so much what was taking place on the Left as what was happening on the Right. The traditional right-wing politicians saw no reason why he, a relatively late interloper in Dominican politics, without a party or a cause, should be the sole beneficiary of U.S. largesse and support. When Reid intimated in December 1964 that he did not intend to give up power by staying out of the elections scheduled for June 1965, as tradition demanded, the right wing unleashed a furious political offensive against him personally and against the U.S. embassy for backing him. The pro-Bosch military conspiracy was able to get rid of Reid so easily because he had previously been deserted by the Right and had been left suspended in a political vacuum.
Thus, in the months before the revolt, the same decisive political question was posed in the Dominican Republic: Which side are you on? The answer, given clearly and loftily by the U.S. Ambassador, W. Tapley Bennett, Jr., and his Washington superiors was: Donald Reid Cabral. Not that they were unaware of the deteriorating situation. But Washington's remedy for the disease was even more tangible support for Reid Cabral. As usual, this took an economic form; the last half of another $10,000,000 loan from the Bank for International Development was announced in the Dominican press two days before the revolt.
The bankruptcy of this policy was revealed at 10 A.M. on April 25, the morning after the revolt. Reid Cabral appealed to the United States and to the Dominican military to support him—in vain. Neither wished the revolt to succeed, but neither was willing to fight for Reid Cabral. When Reid Cabral was tossed aside, the United States had no political alternative to take his place. All that remained was military action, by the Dominican armed forces or by the United States.
We now know that the Dominican Air Force decided to fight by 3 P.M. on April 25. The first air attack was carried out an hour and a half later. But before the Dominican military leaders made up their minds, they asked the U.S. embassy what they could expect from the United States. The U.S. Chargé d'Affaires, William B. Connett, Jr., who handled the exchange in the absence of Ambassador Bennett, told the Dominican military to go ahead with their plans. In effect, the United States first tried to stifle the revolt through the Dominican armed forces. But three days later, the Dominican military had to admit failure because, as Colonel Pedro Bartolomé Benoit, head of the first military junta, later explained, planes were not enough to put down the revolt and “we did not have the troops.”1 Inasmuch as the Dominican armed forces and national police numbered about forty thousand, this was quite a confession to make of the real reason for U.S. military intervention on April 28. The Dominican and U.S. military actions were two sides of the same coin, two stages in the same process.
The point I am trying to make has little to do with the question that is still hotly debated—whether the Dominican Republic was actually threatened by a Communist takeover in the first week of the revolt. Even if the fifty-three to seventy-seven Communists on the State Department's various lists could have “taken over and really seized” the country, as President Johnson claimed, the deeper problem is this: How could such a takeover have come about so quickly and easily after sixteen months of Reid Cabral's U.S.-backed regime? Why did this regime fall apart, with no one willing to defend it, even before the fighting had broken out? Why did the United States invest so heavily in a political house of cards?
Much, or even most, of the controversy about the Cuban and Dominican crises tends to be confined to their terminal stages, when immediate, hasty, drastic decisions had to be made under stress of seemingly imminent disaster. Such decisions belong to the closing-the-barn-door-after-the-political-horse-has-been-stolen department. The problem that concerns us here antedates these decisions and, therefore, requires a larger historical perspective. That is why I have gone back to 1952 in Cuba and to 1963 in the Dominican Republic in order to see how we made the transition from the political to the military. And I have recalled these cases because they have a direct bearing on the present war in Vietnam.
From this point of view, the Vietnam war is only the Cuban and Dominican crises writ large.
In 1954, when the French faced defeat, President Eisenhower declared that he “could conceive of no greater tragedy than for the United States to become involved in an all-out war in Indochina,” of which Vietnam was then a part. How did we get so far that, toward the end of 1966, the same man could advocate “putting in the kind of military strength we need to win,” not excluding the possibility of nuclear weapons?2
In 1963, two months before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy said: “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it—the people of Vietnam—against the Communists.” How did it become, three years later, “our” war which we must win at all costs?
In March 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara said that “the large indigenous support that the Vietcong receives means that solutions must be as political and economic as military. Indeed, there can be no such thing as a purely ‘military’ solution to the war in South Vietnam.” Less than three years later, why are we heading in the direction of a purely “military solution”?
In 1964 also, President Lyndon B. Johnson protested: “We don't want to get tied down in a land war in Asia.” And more: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves.” Only two years later, we were getting tied down in a land war in Asia, and we were sending American boys nine or ten thousand miles away to do what Asian boys should have been doing. How? And why?
When the course of our increasing absorption into the Vietnam struggle from 1954 to the present is studied, the central fact that emerges is this: political failure paved the way for every step on the road to full-scale military engagement. An examination of five turning points—October 1954, December 1961, November 1963, February 1965, and October 1966—makes this clear.
The first Vietnamese instrument of U.S. policy was the late Ngo Dinh Diem. He took office just before the Geneva Agreements of 1954 brought to an end the war waged by the Vietnamese Communists under Ho Chi Minh against French colonial rule. Diem, a long-time exile, had not taken part in this struggle, but he had spent some time in the United States before the French collapse, making friends in high places and impressing a variety of Americans, official and unofficial, that he was a man of nationalist political ideals and progressive social convictions. Of all the things former President Eisenhower has regretted putting down on paper, the list may well be topped by the admission in his memoirs that all knowledgeable persons agreed that “had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai,” under whom Diem first served.3
It is still important to keep in mind how the war ended in 1954 because it helps to explain the Communists' bitterness and doggedness today. Ho Chi Minh made far-reaching concessions in 1954, possibly under Soviet pressure, as Professor P. J. Honey asserts. Ho's victory over the French was decisive, but he agreed to take over only half the country, undoubtedly in the expectation that the South, then in seeming chaos, would soon fall of its own accord into his hands. One of the Geneva agreements, agreed to by all those present but signed by none, provided for general elections to unify the country in July 1956. Though there is reason to believe that no one, including the Communists, took this commitment very seriously, it gave the new regime in South Vietnam a breathing spell of two years. In short, the Communists have been fighting since 1954 to win back what they and everyone else thought they had already won. They had hardly intended to have Diem, who had contributed nothing to the victory, reap its fruits. In 1954, Ho Chi Minh snatched compromise out of the jaws of victory; today, the United States is afraid that he will snatch victory out of the jaws of compromise. In any case, this odd background makes Vietnam unique in Communist bids for power. It is hard to imagine the same chain of events elsewhere.
From the American side, a portentous decision was made in 1954. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was unhappy about the French willingness to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh and get out of Indochina. When he could not dissuade the French, or persuade the British, the Eisenhower administration was compelled to face the crucial question: What was all of Indochina, let alone its Vietnamese part, worth? Full-scale U.S. ground and air intervention to take over where the French left off was carefully considered in 1954. An Army team of experts was sent to Indochina to study all the ramifications of a major intervention. The need for eight infantry divisions, plus about thirty-five engineer battalions, was projected. Everything that is happening today was foreseen then, as Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin made clear at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Hearings last February.4
The chief opposition to any large-scale U.S. intervention in Vietnam in 1954 came, it appears, from two professional soldiers, General Matthew B. Ridgway, then the Army's Chief of Staff, and General James M. Gavin, its Chief of Plans and Development. Together with the British, whose leaders were less inhibited about challenging American foreign policy than they are today, they persuaded President Eisenhower that we could hold on to Indochina but that it was not worth the price we would have to pay for it. And both generals were substantially of the same view twelve years later. The moral of this story is twofold: distinguished and honorable U.S. generals have differed on the strategic value of Vietnam; and generals once held us back from plunging into the conflict on a large scale. This should warn us that our official view of the importance of Vietnam may be as different tomorrow as it was yesterday.
The American solution in 1954 was a compromise between extremes—one demanding full military intervention, the other complete abstention. To the question of which side it was on, the Eisenhower administration answered unequivocally—Diem's. It backed up this political commitment with a maximum of economic aid and a minimum of military assistance, at least in manpower. The American gamble was held down by the implicit understanding that the United States was willing to help Diem's regime only if it proved capable of helping itself. In October 1954, President Eisenhower sent President Diem a letter in which he explicitly stated the conditional nature of this support.5 It was a policy of limited liability and, in principle, it set the pattern until 1965.
We might be better off today if our political leaders had been as clairvoyant about our own problems as they were about the French. I have already cited former President Eisenhower's well-known dictum about Ho Chi Minh's chances in a 1954 election. The sentence in his memoirs immediately preceding has attracted much less attention but may be far more meaningful for the present. It reads: “I am convinced that the French could not win the war because the internal political situation in Vienam, weak and confused, badly weakened their military position.”
This is no less true of the United States, with the addition of something else for which the French were not strong enough: our military position has been strengthened every time the internal political situation in Vietnam has weakened.
This general rule can best be seen in operation during the seven years that separated the first and second turning-points in American policy.
When Ngo Dinh Diem took over the shell of an administration and an economy left by the French in 1954, he was not expected to be able to fulfill the conditions posed by President Eisenhower's offer of aid. In fact, Diem was not expected to stay in power very long—perhaps a few months. He seemed to have little or nothing to work with on the Vietnamese side, and the French, still there, were soon out to get rid of him. But with American economic and political support, Diem surprised everyone. He cracked down successfully on the politically-minded sects and their private armies in the spring of 1955; he eliminated the French puppet chief of state, Bao Dai, and made himself an all-powerful President in October of that year; the French pulled out completely by July 1956. In two years, Diem seemed to have performed a minor miracle by consolidating his power around himself, his family, and his Catholic co-religionists.
In these two years, when he was weakest, Diem had least trouble with the Communists. Two reasons appear to account for this truce-like atmosphere. Ho Chi Minh had no more faith than anyone else in Diem's chances of survival, and despite their own cynicism about it, the anonymously promised general election in July 1956 may have sufficiently intrigued the Communist leaders to give them a reason for adopting a “wait and see” attitude in the South. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh was just then consolidating his own rule in the North. His methods in 1954-56 were every bit as ruthless and brutal as any used in China or Soviet Russia at their worst. At least fifty thousand and possibly one hundred thousand peasants were physically exterminated in the North Vietnamese “land reform” of those years. A virtual peasant rebellion broke out in one Northern province in November 1956.6 This upheaval gave Ho Chi Minh more than enough to do in the North, but it indicates what would have happened in the South if Ho had been given the opportunity to get his 80 per cent majority there.
Diem, then, treated the Communists just as roughly as they would have treated everyone else. From the outset, he made clear that he did not intend to honor the Geneva Agreements, especially the one providing for general elections. By July 1955, he initiated a “Campaign for Denunciation of Communist Subversion.” In effect, Diem beat the Communists to the punch; he caught them off balance and forced them on the defensive. Opinions differ as to whether he provoked them first or vice versa, but all agree that he hurt them at first far more than they could hurt him.
Even the State Department's White Paper of February 1965, a highly tendentious document, tends to confirm this view. After the Geneva Agreements of 1954, it relates, the Communists adopted a strategy of “all means short of open violence” to weaken Diem's regime. Diem's anti-Communist campaign in the South was so successful that “morale in the Communist organization in the South dropped sharply” and “defections were numerous.” For this reason, the Communist cadres in the South had to be “rebuilt, reorganized and expanded” after 1956. The appreciable increase of Communist terror in the South is dated from 1958.7
The Communist version agrees that Diem had the Communists at bay in 1955-59. The Australian Communist journalist, Wilfred G. Burchett, was told that the Communist line in the South until the end of 1959 was exclusively for “a legal, political, non-violent form of struggle.” It allegedly changed at that time to permit “the use of arms in self-defense only” because the Communists were “faced with the wholesale wiping out of all former resistance cadres.” The local Communists interpreted “self-defense” rather freely as an authorization to launch small-scale attacks for the purpose of seizing arms, and the first such attack was carried out by about 260 men with only 170 weapons early in 1960.8 This version neglects to mention the epidemic of Communist terrorism before 1959 which cost several hundred lives. But isolated terrorist attacks were symptoms of Communist desperation rather than of any massive threat. An apparently well-informed pro-Communist source gives the autumn of 1957 as the beginning of the campaign of terrorism, mainly against village chiefs, and 1960 for the first “really military assaults.”9
But Diem was too successful for his own good. If he had cracked down only on the Communists, he would not have had to worry too much. The Communists, however, made up only a small part of those caught in Diem's dragnet. By 1956, Diem was well on his way to creating a police state which silenced, exiled, imprisoned or put to death all rivals and critics indiscriminately. His repression atomized and pulverized the Vietnamese society which he had just succeeded in giving some semblance of unity. The Communists picked up allies as quickly as he made enemies. An able and sensitive observer, Robert Shaplen, says that the popularity of Diem's regime “began to wane seriously” as early as 1957.10 By November 1960, a sizable segment of his own army made a first, almost successful attempt to overthrow him. Since the Communists also went over to organized guerrilla warfare in 1960, Diem's regime was beset on all sides at once. At this time, however, the Communists were still far from being his main concern. The guerrillas' strength, according to Bernard B. Fall, that indefatigable student who refuses to be hoodwinked by either side, was estimated in 1959 at only three thousand. And even if we accept the figures in the State Department's White Paper of February 1965, only 1,800 to 2,700 men were infiltrated from the North in 1959-60. Burchett's account makes clear that the Communists had hardly succeeded in getting their military actions started in 1960.
And yet, no sooner had John F. Kennedy been sworn into office than the highest Washington officials were spreading the word among themselves that Diem's regime was on the point of collapse. Kennedy's first appointment as ambassador to South Vietnam, Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., was sent off to Saigon in April 1961 with this news ringing in his ears. According to John Mecklin, the American Public Affairs Officer in Saigon in 1962-64, Nolting was told in Washington before he left for his post that “it would be a miracle if South Vietnam lasted three months longer.”11 Secretary of Defense McNamara gave a more restrained version in March 1964 of the situation which had forced President Kennedy's hand three years earlier: “When President Diem appealed to President Kennedy at the end of 1961, the South Vietnamese were quite plainly losing their fight against the Communists, and we promptly agreed to increase our assistance.12
That Diem, who had had the Communists on the run from at least 1955 to almost the end of the decade, should have faced defeat at their hands by early 1961 is inexplicable in terms of the Communists' own strength. It is understandable only in terms of the inner degeneration of Diem's regime and its suicidal estrangement from other non-Communist forces in South Vietnam. The fatal disease was political, not military.
The problem before Kennedy in 1961 was, in essence, the problem that had faced Eisenhower in 1954. What should the United States do to stave off a complete collapse in Vietnam? The most detailed and candid account of Kennedy's decision appears in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s chronicle, A Thousand Days. It is a veritable case history of how the military submerged the political in action, if not always in intention and thinking.
Kennedy came to the Vietnam problem, as he did to other problems, without a consistent position behind him. Professor Schlesinger cites the speech which Kennedy made in the Senate in April 1954 against U.S. military assistance to the French or unilateral intervention to bolster a regime which the “great masses” of Vietnamese did not support. Theodore C. Sorensen even cites the same passage as the “key” to the late President's decision in 1961. But an ardent interventionist, Professor Frank N. Trager, has dug up another Kennedy speech from June 1956 that might have been made by another man. By this time, Diem seemed to have consolidated his rule, and Senator Kennedy hailed it as our “offspring” which we could not afford to permit to fail. Schlesinger and Sorensen do not mention the second speech, and Trager does not mention the first one. The difference in emphasis may be defended on the ground that the situation in South Vietnam had changed markedly in two years, but even so, the conclusion is inescapable that Kennedy was too pessimistic in 1954 and too optimistic in 1956. The ease with which Kennedy can be quoted against Kennedy suggests the dangers and difficulties of evaluating a statesman whose style is considered more important than his substance.
In his first months in office, Kennedy had to make up his mind whether Diem had failed and, if so, what to do about it. As Schlesinger tells the story, his advisers lined up in two camps, the “political” and the “military.” Those who put a political effort in Vietnam as the first consideration saw no hope short of a “change of leadership” in Saigon, which meant dropping Diem in favor of some other South Vietnamese leader. Among those explicitly urging this course were John Kenneth Galbraith, then ambassador to India, and implicitly W. Averell Harriman, appointed Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East in 1961, and the writer Theodore H. White. Schlesinger refers to a “Harriman group” in the State Department which questioned subordinating the political to the military. Vice President Johnson went to Saigon in May 1961 and advised in favor of more Vietnamese troop-training by American forces but against the commitment of American troops in combat. He seems to have occupied a middle ground, defined by Schlesinger as “the reorientation of the military effort along with programs of political and economic reform.”
But the main weight of the pressure on Kennedy inside the government fell over on the military side. A special mission to South Vietnam headed by General Maxwell D. Taylor and Walt W. Rostow of the State Department recommended sending a relatively small American military task force with combat capabilities. Except for the so-called Harriman group, the State Department in the person of Secretary Dean Rusk “was well satisfied with military predominance in the formation of United States policy toward Vietnam.” General Taylor has revealed that both the introduction of American ground forces and American bombing of Northern military targets were under consideration at least since November 1961, when he presented his report. Sorensen goes so far as to say that “all” of Kennedy's principal advisers on Vietnam favored the commitment of American combat troops.13
Finally, Kennedy did more or less at the end of 1961 what Eisenhower had done at the end of 1954. He decided, as General Taylor later put it at the Vietnam hearings, to change the number but not the “quality” of our military advisers. He ruled out combat missions but gradually increased the number of “advisers” from about eight hundred to about seventeen thousand. Schlesinger quotes Kennedy in one of his most appealing, astute, and antic moods, turning down the advice of those who wanted an American combat commitment: “It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.” And, Kennedy also confided to Schlesinger, the war in Vietnam could only be won if it was their war, not ours.
Yet Schlesinger admits that Kennedy's decision at the end of 1961 “was to place the main emphasis on the military effort.” This emphasis required renewed and intensified political support of the Diem regime. The new American ambassador, Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., and the new American military commander in Saigon, General Paul Harkins, made Diem's cause their own. Nolting established a relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem similar to that of Ambassador Arthur Gardner with Fulgencio Batista in Cuba in 1953-57 or of Ambassador W. Tapley Bennett, Jr., with Donald Reid Cabral in the Dominican Republic in 1964 and part of 1965. Thus there was an unmistakable political side to the military decision. For some reason, Kennedy's military decision, which was halfhearted, has come in for far more attention than its political counterpart, which was not. Ambassador Nolting represented a door-die, wholehearted political gamble on the durability and reformability of Diem's regime.
Why did Kennedy do it? Why did Kennedy, as John Mecklin put it, act the way Eisenhower had acted, only “more so”?14 The answer given by former President Kennedy's intimates and biographers is most revealing. Both Schlesinger and Sorensen plead in his defense that past American policy had virtually given Kennedy no other alternative. Kennedy, writes Schlesinger, “had no choice now but to work within the situation he had inherited,” and Dulles's policy in South Vietnam had “left us in 1961 no alternative but to continue the effort of 1954.” Sorensen strikes the same note.15 In exculpation, they emphasize that Kennedy's military contribution was still limited. But the principle they accept would make it difficult for a President to refuse to go from a low-level to a high-level limit and, if necessary, to an unlimited effort. Moreover, they neglect to pay enough attention to the fact that, while his military investment in the Diem regime was then limited, he threw in a practically unlimited political bonus in the persons of Ambassador Nolting and General Harkins, and the latter may have been by far the more important of the two.
It is, of course, a truism that no policy is made in vacuo and that the past weighs heavily on every important Presidential decision. But if Professor Schlesinger is right that President Kennedy's options were so limited, even in 1961, when we had only about eight hundred non-combat military personnel on the scene, the implications are truly frightening. One gets the impression from these memoirs and memorials of Kennedy's associates that they are writing of a man who did what he did not want to do, what he knew or felt he should not do, and what he had little faith would come out right in the end. There is nothing so devastating about our entire Vietnam policy as the sense of fatality, and this is the best argument that Kennedy's friends have been able to muster in his behalf. I rather think that the former President would not have given himself such an easy way out, any more than he did in the Bay of Pigs case.16 Inasmuch as some of his former aides experienced a partial change of heart in 1966, it is hard to see how, if the former President's options were so limited in 1961 without American combat troops in South Vietnam, they can think the present President can have any options with about 400,000 combat troops there.
The third turning-point, in November 1963, came about primarily because John F. Kennedy lost his political gamble on Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem's regime benefited at first from the increased American military and political support. The military approach seemed to be paying off. Our policy in 1962, writes Professor Schlesinger, was “dominated by those who saw Vietnam as primarily a military problem and who believed that its solution required unconditional support of Diem.” When Diem's durability proved to be an illusion, there was nothing to fall back on. Diem's power was based on the demoralization of South Vietnamese political life, and he succeeded so well that we are still living with the political wasteland that he left, not without our cooperation.
What supporting Ngo Dinh Diem unconditionally after 1961 meant has been most intimately described by John Mecklin, whose official duties brought him into contact with the highest officials on both sides. He and other observers agree that we were not even supporting a government; we were supporting a slightly pixilated family's fief. The awesome or awful threesome of this family—Ngo Dinh Diem, his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and the latter's wife, Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu—are most often described in psychiatric terms. Mecklin's bizarre account of their habitual behavior belongs in a textbook of mental pathology. He gently diagnoses the three of them as victims of “blank-wall irrationality.” Mecklin relates whimsically that he once had a dream “about an American diplomatic mission that gradually discovered it had been dealing for years with a government of madmen.” But when he awoke, he asked himself whether he had been dreaming after all. Shaplen refers to the condition of Nhu, generally considered the power behind the throne, as “seemingly paranoid.” Even Professor Trager, always inclined to give the Diem regime the benefit of a doubt, finds it necessary to acknowledge that Ngo Dinh Nhu was “at the end, perhaps crazed.”17
The fall of Diem was not the work of the Communists. It was not the result of an imminent military collapse. Secretary McNamara went to South Vietnam in late September 1963 and on his return reported that the military situation was so favorable a thousand American troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year and “the major part of the United States military task can be completed by the end of 1965.” General Harkins was quoted on November 1 as saying that “victory” was just “months away” and the reduction of American “advisers” could begin at any time. On that same day, Diem's own generals carried out the coup which resulted in his and his brother's assassination. Whether the United States directly connived in the coup is a matter of dispute; but that the United States prepared the way for the coup, knew of it in advance, and did nothing to discourage it, is not.18
In any event, Ngo Dinh Diem fell the way Fulgencio Batista had fallen and Donald Reid Cabral would fall. No one cared; no one moved; no one grieved—except possibly those American officials who had staked their reputations and careers on him. When he heard of the deaths of Diem and Nhu, Schlesinger tells us, President Kennedy no doubt “realized that Vietnam was his great failure in foreign policy.” Mecklin remarks that the Diem-Nhu raids on the Buddhist pagodas in August 1963, which precipitated the coup, “were an act of political bankruptcy, confession of a catastrophic failure of leadership.”19
It does not really matter what one thinks of the Diem regime, whether it was worth overthrowing or preserving. If Diem deserved his fate, American policy in South Vietnam for at least eight years under two Presidents could not have been more misbegotten and misdirected. If the United States should have opposed the anti-Diem coup, the implicit encouragement given to the plotters was no less wrongheaded. Either way, Diem's downfall represented the political bankruptcy and catastrophic failure not only of his own policy but that of the United States. Kennedy's decision in 1963 not to block Diem's overthrow was the most deadly criticism of Kennedy's decision in 1961 to back Diem to the hilt. The most persuasive argument against Diem's downfall has been that there was nothing better to put in his place. If this is true, it merely indicates how well Diem and his family had done their work of political devastation. In the last few months of Diem's regime, it was hard to tell whether he was more anti-American than the Americans were anti-Diem. The ghastly tragedy was not without the overtones of a macabre farce.
No one could blame the Communists for this contretemps. Even Secretary McNamara explained Diem's collapse in political terms: “But this progress [in 1962] was interrupted in 1963 by the political crises arising from troubles between the government and the Buddhists, students, and other non-Communist oppositionists. President Diem lost the confidence and loyalty of his people; there were accusations of maladministration and injustice” (my italics, T.D.).20
In the last stage of the Diem regime, the threat of Communist despotism mattered far less than the reality of Diem's despotism. The most scathing indictment of the political failure was probably pronounced by the responsible and experienced Australian correspondent, Denis Warner, who wrote that “the tyranny the West allied with in Saigon was in many ways worse than the tyranny it was fighting against.”21
The eight lost years of Ngo Dinh Diem were, then, the Vietnamese equivalent of Batista's seven years in Cuba and Reid Cabral's sixteen months in the Dominican Republic.
The fourth turning-point, in February 1965, brings us to the transition from the primarily political to the primarily military phase of this war.
Once more, a deceptive temporary political improvement seemed to take place after the November 1963 coup. First a government dominated by General Duong Van Minh, better known as “Big Minh,” came in, and then, in January 1964, it was overthrown by a military junta headed by General Nguyen Khanh. By this time, the agony of making the final American decisions had been handed on to Lyndon B. Johnson.
The leading American officials had especially “high hopes” in General Khanh, as Secretary McNamara in one of his most illuminating and ill-fated speeches in March of that year expressed it. General Khanh, said Secretary McNamara, was just the man to defeat the Communists. McNamara credited Khanh with a demonstrated grasp of the basic political, economic, and psychological elements to assure victory.
In 1964, therefore, the American line was still basically political or politico-economic. In that same March speech, Secretary McNamara held that North Vietnamese support was a “critical factor” in the strength of the Southern Vietcong. But, he went on, “the large indigenous support that the Vietcong receives means that solutions must be as political and economic as military. Indeed, there can be no such thing as a purely ‘military’ solution to the war in South Vietnam.”
Five months later, in August, the State and Defense Departments issued a pamphlet which discounted the use of American combat units in a guerrilla war of the Vietnamese type “in which knowledge of terrain, language, and local customs is especially important.” The pamphlet also warned that American combat units would provide “ammunition for Communist propaganda which falsely proclaims that the United States is conducting a ‘white man's war’ against Asians.”22
At this late date, then, American policy was still ostensibly anchored to the Eisenhower-Kennedy principle of limited commitment and limited liability. All the right things were said on the eve of doing just the opposite.
What caused this abrupt and seemingly unanticipated change of policy at the beginning of 1965 in favor of sending massive American combat units to wage an increasingly “white man's war”?
The official American explanation, given in the State Department's White Paper of February 1965 and in Secretary Rusk's testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in February 1966, is that the change in American policy was caused by the movement into the South of the North Vietnamese 325th Division at the end of 1964. The White Paper charged that at least 4,400 and possibly as many as 7,400 came in from the North in the entire year of 1964. It did not explain how, of this rather modest total, more than a small fraction could have been identified with this division in the first weeks of 1965.
In any event, the military escalation of the North was made the basic rationale for the American military escalation, which took the form of a decision in February 1965 to bomb North Vietnamese military targets and, at about the same time, another decision to commit American combat troops on a larger scale.23
This rationale has not been, even on factual grounds, very persuasive. For one thing, the Northern 325th was a “vanishing” division which was not visible for months after it was supposed to have moved into the South in such force that it had precipitated a historic change in American policy. A special subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services headed by Representative Otis G. Pike (Dem., N.Y.), visited South Vietnam in June 1965, long after the 325th had allegedly transformed the character of the war. Its report did not even mention North Vietnamese units or military action in the south; it was written wholly in terms of what was still referred to as a “guerrilla war.” Bernard B. Fall happened to visit South Vietnam in late 1965. “As of the time I left a few days ago,” he wrote in an article published in October, “no Intelligence officer was ready to swear that the 325th as a unit had joined the battle in South Vietnam.” A bipartisan group of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, headed by Senator Mike Mansfield, visited South Vietnam at the end of 1965. It reported that North Vietnamese regular soldiers made up only 14,000 of the estimated 230,000 enemy force in December 1965, a year after the celebrated incursion of the Northern 325th Division. This report accepted the official version that North Vietnam regular army troops had begun to enter the South about the end of 1964, but it did not mention this division at all and, in any case, the numbers cited put the whole matter in a different perspective. On June 16, 1966, Senator Mansfield made an even more astounding revelation. “When the sharp increase in the American military effort began in early 1965,” he declared, “it was estimated that only about 400 North Vietnamese soldiers were among the enemy forces in the South which totaled 140,000 at that time.” A reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspapers went to the Defense Department and received confirmation of these figures.24
It would have been a sorry moment in American history if so few North Vietnamese troops could have panicked Washington into making such a far-reaching change of course. The truth was bad enough, but not that bad. The Mansfield report came much closer by putting the emphasis where it belonged—South Vietnamese weakness rather than North Vietnamese strength. “In short,” the report stated grimly, “a total collapse of the Saigon government's authority appeared imminent in the early months of 1965.” And it linked the need for large-scale American combat forces to this threatened collapse, which it did not attribute to the infiltration of a few hundred North Vietnamese regulars. More recently, Secretary McNamara has revealed how menacing the outlook was in the first half of 1965. The United States, he said, put over 100,000 men into the South in about 120 days to prevent a “disaster” to the South Vietnamese armed forces. The latter, according to him, were being overpowered and destroyed by the Vietcong and Northern army infiltrators in the summer of 1965. The U.S. intervened in force, he declared, because the enemy had been “approaching possible victory.”25
From the more disingenuous State Department version, it would appear that the 325th North Vietnamese Division began to appear in the South in “November, December , January ,” as Secretary Rusk put it at the Senate Committee hearings, and this single factor caused the United States to change its tactics and policy the following month. If we recall that, according to Senator Mansfield, the North Vietnamese soldiers in the South numbered only about four hundred at the beginning of 1965, this rationalization obviously belongs in the theater of the absurd. Unfortunately, Senator Mansfield's figure was not widely reported in the press, and he delicately refrained from suggesting that there might be any incongruity between this figure and the State Department's thesis.26 A reader of the State Department's post-1964 literature on Vietnam hardly knows whether to be amused or insulted.
The crisis in 1965 in South Vietnam was far more intimately related to South Vietnamese disintegration than to North Vietnamese infiltration. General Khanh, whom Secretary McNamara had praised so highly in March 1964, turned out to be another illusion. At the Senate Committee hearings, General Taylor, the American Ambassador in Saigon from June 1964 to July 1965, the very period leading to the vast American buildup, was asked whether the present regime of Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky was more stable than its predecessors had been. Taylor replied: “Almost anything would be an improvement over what I saw while I was Ambassador.” John Mecklin explained the South Vietnamese “malaise” of 1965 in these terms: “The nation was desperately weary of war, its people verging on such despair that they would soon accept anything to get it over with.” Bernard B. Fall attributed the trouble to the fact that Diem's successors evolved a policy which he called “Diemism without Diem.” Premier Nguyen Cao Ky recently described his predecessors in these terms: “Every Prime Minister or even Minister said: ‘I'm here for two months, so money, money, and if necessary I'll go abroad.’”27
In effect, the South Vietnamese crisis of 1965 was essentially a reprise of the 1963 crisis, not a totally new phenomenon as argued by the State Department. The qualitative change came after the American decision to bomb North Vietnam and pour troops into South Vietnam. In 1966, the American force numbered 205,000 in February, 300,000 in September, and was rising to 400,000 by the end of the year. In June 1966, according to Senator Mansfield, there were in the neighborhood of 30,000 North Vietnamese regulars out of a total enemy force of 250,000.28 As in the case of the Dominican Republic, where the State Department tried to play the numbers game with its lists of Dominican Communists, the numbers game of North Vietnamese army regulars has also backfired, thanks mainly to the integrity of a courageous Senator.
For our purposes, however, it is less important to determine whether North Vietnam provoked the United States to intervene in force than to find out what the enlarged American military role in 1965 signified in terms of the problem we are examining—the supersession of political by military instrumentalities in the conduct of American foreign policy.
The alleged North Vietnamese army incursion at the end of 1964 provided the President and the State Department with a rationalization for proclaiming a fundamental change in the character of the war. Until 1965, the official American line still considered it a predominantly “civil war.” In that year, according to the policymakers in Washington, it became a “foreign aggression.” The “foreigners” in this case were the North Vietnamese who were apparently invading a “foreign” country, South Vietnam.
As long as American policy regarded the struggle as primarily a “civil war,” the American line emphasized that the political instrumentality was at least as important as the military and that, as Secretary McNamara put it in March 1964, “there can be no such thing as a purely ‘military’ solution to the war in South Vietnam.” But, as a corollary of the theory of “foreign aggression,” the priorities assigned to the political and military instrumentalities were reversed. Suddenly, almost overnight, American policy shifted into its military phase, and all the blame was heaped on a few hundred or at most a few thousand North Vietnamese army regulars. American and South Vietnamese officials continued to pay lip service to political and social reforms but they came to be regarded as the indefinitely postponed by-product rather than the indispensable precondition of military “victory.”
By coincidence, of course, all the political and social gimmicks which had been advertised to save South Vietnam from Communist seduction had exhausted themselves by 1965. The “strategic hamlet” program launched in March 1962 had died with Diem by November 1963. In the South, where 2 per cent of the landowners had owned 45 per cent of the land, “land reform” had given the peasants little land and less reform. “Counter-insurgency,” “pacification,” and all the other well-meaning slogans had bogged down in the South Vietnamese inability or unwillingness to give them meaningful implementation. The House Committee on Armed Services group, under Representative Pike, which made a survey on the spot in June 1965, observed that “rural reconstruction” had been “no great success.” The Senate Foreign Relations group, under Senator Mansfield, which investigated the situation at the end of 1965, reported that the so-called pacification or civic-action program had been permitted in large measure to “lapse” after Diem's fall. To this day, “pacification” is considered second in importance only to the military effort but the former has lagged far behind and has admittedly failed to make any serious progress.
Just as the decay and downfall of Ngo Dinh Diem's regime in 1963 caused a crisis of conscience on the part of American correspondents in Saigon, so the political and social failure after 1965 has resulted in some equally troubled soul-searching. Three of the most thoughtful attempts to probe beneath the surface of events provide the necessary background for understanding the new war strategy that came out of the Manila Conference last October.
In Newsweek of September 12, 1966, Everett G. Martin, the bureau chief in Saigon, tried to get at the “crucial error” in our Vietnam policy. The chief problem, as he saw it, was nothing less than the failure, at this late date, to make the Vietnamese people feel that it was their war. This is how he expressed it: “And it is indeed true that although the U.S. has put heavy emphasis on the need to win the support of peasants living in areas contested by the Vietcong, we have yet to convince even those Vietnamese dwelling in the most secure areas of the country that there is a cause worth fighting for.” In the same unrelenting fashion, he added that the Vietnamese in the South “seem to be able to maintain an almost total impassivity,” that “most Vietnamese appear to be so many stoic islands, as immune to the war as they are to the monsoon rains,” that the American soldier on leave in major Vietnamese cities carries away the overriding impression “of a people abnormally detached from the brutal reality he knows in the battlefield.” He noted that Vietnamese soldiers had no incentive to fight aggressively as a result of the “callous unconcern” for their welfare, but that perhaps even more disturbing was “the fact that the greatest indifference to the war effort is found among Vietnam's young people.” Relations between the Americans and the South Vietnamese had “degenerated into a kind of ill-defined antagonism,” reminiscent of the late Diem period. One American official commented on the growing American cynicism: “You don't find any idealists around any more. They have either given up and gone home, or they are just serving out their time.”
For Martin, the “root of the problem” appeared to be largely political. He was chiefly impressed by the fact that “while Americans have democratic institutions to defend, the Vietnamese have none.” The remedy, he thought, was the encouragement of democracy on a local scale, in the provinces, where the Vietnamese people could learn what it means to make their wishes known through a local council and see them respected by Saigon-appointed officials. Vietnam had once had a local election system which had made the village, in Bernard B. Fall's words, “the real cradle of a Jeffersonian type of representative government in the country.”29 Not even the French had tampered with this traditional village democracy. But, in June 1956, Ngo Dinh Diem had arbitrarily abolished this entire system in favor of personal appointees who soon became the targets of Communist terrorists. “Diemism without Diem” had changed nothing in this respect. “We Americans,” Martin lamented, “have wasted all the years since the revolution against Diem by not fostering local democracy in areas that were secure. Instead, we have allowed the Vietnamese corps commanders and their subordinates to become further entrenched as local war lords.”
A more social analysis of the problem was made by Neil Sheehan in the New York Times Magazine of October 9, 1966. Sheehan had served two tours of duty in South Vietnam since 1962, first for the United Press International and more recently for the New York Times. He agreed with Martin that Americans came to work in South Vietnam with enthusiasm and good intentions but extended experience made them leave the country victims of “the cynicism that pervades Vietnamese life.” No exception to this rule, he sought to account for the monotonous miscarriage of desperately-need reforms, such as rent reduction and land distribution, urged by the Americans. This is what he found:
All of these measures have been sabotaged because the regimes were and are composed of men who are members of, or who are allied with, mandarin families that held title to properties they have no intention of renouncing. While there are some patriotic and decent individuals among them, most of the men who rule Saigon have, like the Bourbons, learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They seek to retain what privileges they have and to regain those they have lost.
It is not easy for Americans to read, and it could not have been easy for an American to write—in 1966:
In Vietnam, only the Communists represent revolution and social change, for better or worse according to a man's politics. The Communist party is the one truly national organization that permeates both North and South Vietnam. The men who lead the party today, Ho Chi Minh and the other members of the Politburo in Hanoi, directed the struggle for independence from France and in the process captured much of the deeply felt nationalism of the Vietnamese people. Perhaps because of this, the Communists, despite their brutality and deceit, remain the only Vietnamese capable of rallying millions of their countrymen to sacrifice and hardship in the name of the nation and the only group not dependent on foreign bayonets for survival.
Still, even Mr. Sheehan could see no way other than to continue to prosecute the war. But he did not conceal his deepest misgivings:
We shall, I am afraid, have to put up with our Vietnamese mandarin allies. We shall not be able to reform them and it is unlikely that we shall be able to find any other Vietnamese willing to cooperate with us. . . .
But I simply cannot help worrying that, in the process of waging this war, we are corrupting ourselves. I wonder . . . whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends.
Not a few American journalists have lived up to the highest ideals of their calling in the Cuban, Dominican, and Vietnam crises. But the unflinching honesty and moral passion of Sheehan's article almost puts it in a class by itself. Lest the reader think that I have chosen unduly critical or “liberal” views of the war, I invite his attention to a later and equally candid report in an unimpeachably conservative publication. According to Marvin L. Stone in the U.S. News & World Report of December 5, 1966, the political situation in South Vietnam at the end of 1966 was worse than ever:
The political fabric of the country is still shedding. Social progress is held in tight rein. After all these years, the war against the guerrillas in the countryside has not yet really begun.
Stone, who has visited South Vietnam many times since the French pulled out ten years ago, found that “there is less effective presence in the villages now than there was three years ago.” Corruption is worse than it was under the late Ngo Dinh Diem. Domestic output has been going down steadily. The guerrillas' success in the past year “has been almost astonishing.” The peasants are suffering more than before at the hands of both Communist extortionists and extortionate landowners. Of the “mandarin families” in South Vietnam, Stone writes:
Not only is government security lacking, but Saigon's land-reform program, so vital to the aspirations of peasants, has never really been put in motion. In the secure areas, tenant farmers—that means 70 per cent of all farmers in the Delta—still are forced to pay up to 50 per cent and more of their rice crops to absentee landlords who have no obligation in return. A law on the books since 1955 sets the limit at 25 per cent.
Americans here insist that no progress will be made so long as the men at the top in Saigon are members of mandarin families, or allied with families which have vested interests in land that they have no intention of relinquishing.
These commentaries on the latest phase of the war tell us more about the meaning of the Manila Conference of October 1966 than anything that came out of the conference itself. This conference will probably symbolize the fifth turning-point of American policy in the war, though the major decisions were made in Washington just before or just afterward. When all the oratory, propaganda, and pharisaism are forgotten, only the hard, stark military decisions that coincided with the meeting will be remembered. A month after the conference, it was made known that the number of American troops in South Vietnam would be increased by at least another 100,000 in 1967 for a total of nearly 500,000. Of even greater significance, however, is the new “strategy” which this enlarged force is supposed to carry out. In brief, the Americans are going to take over the “aggressive” or “offensive” military operations, and the South Vietnamese troops will be used mainly for rear-guard protective and “pacification” purposes. As far as most of the fighting is concerned, then, just what the State and Defense Department pamphlet warned against only two years ago is now contemplated—the United States is preparing to conduct “a ‘white man's war’ against Asians.”30
Some notion of how top American officials assess the present and future was vouchsafed by “our mandarin,” Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.31 As of November 1966, he said, we were faced with three different kinds of enemy forces: the North Vietnamese army regulars (“approximately 50,000,” according to the U.S. Commander, General William C. Westmoreland), the Southern-recruited but sometimes Northern-led Vietcong military units (generally estimated at about 100,000), and highly-trained “guerrilla terrorist” groups working in the villages (put at “over 150,000” by Mr. Lodge). After finding some comfort in such blessings as the absence of an actual famine in the South, Mr. Lodge went on to admit that five things had changed little or not at all—the mileage of roads open to all kinds of traffic, the percentage of population living under secure conditions, the percentage of population under Vietcong domination, the daily toll of Communist terrorism, and the rate of Vietcong military recruitment. In effect, the great American effort since 1965 has mainly succeeded in averting an utter collapse in South Vietnam; the new stage of the war is but the beginning of the end—if there is an end on this path.
Mr. Lodge's idea of the end is not very clear, but the end is surely not very near. After we have beaten the army of North Vietnam, of which only a small part has been committed to action, and the organized military units of the Vietcong, he tells us, then we will first be able to get at what he calls “the real cancer”—the civilian guerrillas, over 150,000 strong, in the villages. Only the destruction of the latter force, he says, would be regarded as “decisive” by the enemy. Once that is accomplished, he hazards, the end will probably take the form of a fadeaway. “When it comes to fading away,” he declared, “I think there is a good chance that this is what the enemy will do when he makes up his mind that the jig is up.”32
The American line has changed so often, however, that even Ambassador Lodge seems to lose track of it. After a terrorist attack in Saigon the following month, Mr. Lodge commented that the 150,000 terrorists could not be successfully dealt with “until we've rebuilt the whole political, social, and economic structure in this country”—no small order. The ambassador had apparently forgotten that the line had changed and that social change was now supposed to depend on “security,” not vice versa. It may also come as something of a shock to their mandarins to learn that our mandarin thinks it is necessary to reconstruct their entire political, social, and economic system as a precondition for getting an effective “police function.”33
Only time will tell whether this course will be any more successful in its own terms than previous plans, strategies, and predictions. But one thing is already certain—the next stage of the war is going to be infinitely more destructive both to South and North Vietnam. The main American military pressure is not going to come from the increased numbers of ground troops. General Westmoreland knows that enemy troops fear most of all “B-52s, tactical air, artillery, and armor, in that order.”34 In the next phase of the war, they are going to get above all more B-52s, tactical air, artillery, and armor. General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it “a dirty, little war” in 1963. Making it bigger will not make it any cleaner. U.N. Secretary-General U Thant called it one of the “most barbarous in history” last April. It is not, we may be sure, going to become any more civilized.
From the point of view which has been my chief concern, the new phase means more than anything else the total militarization of the war. The political and economic instrumentalities, once considered more important than the military, have been abandoned until the enemy has been forced to “fade away” by the application of overwhelming military power. This is the only interpretation that the drastic decision to remove the South Vietnamese troops from “major fighting” can have. It represents official recognition that the South Vietnamese common soldier cannot any longer be trusted to fight for “mandarin families,” which, as Neil Sheehan put it, “seek to retain what privileges they have and to regain those they have lost.” The deeper roots of this political and social “malaise” were touched on in the Martin, Sheehan, and Stone articles, and that is why they have such a close bearing on the most recent military decisions. The substitution of American for South Vietnamese troops corresponds to the substitution of the American for the Dominican military on April 28, 1965. This is the pattern which, in such different circumstances, has repeated itself clear across the globe.
One can only shudder at what the new strategy is going to do to our “allies”—the people of South Vietnam. But the time has also come to worry about what this war has been doing to us.
One price we are paying takes the form of a peculiarly noxious virus which has entered our political bloodstream. It has been impossible for the Johnson administration to present all the twists and turns of its policy in a rational and consistent way. Yet, in a democracy such as ours, a President cannot disavow the intention of getting tied down in a land war in Asia or of sending American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing in 1964 and then proceed to take these very steps in 1965 and 1966 without making an intellectual effort to justify his actions. The intellects making this effort have produced a squirming mass of contradictions, evasions, half-truths, and worse. One can only hope, for our sake, that they do not believe their own political fantasies.
The escalation of force has required an escalation of theory. As long as our military intervention was limited, we could make do with aims and objectives that were also quite limited. But half a million men and billions of dollars a year cannot be justified on the basis of defending poor, little South Vietnam alone. The more we invest in it, we are assured, the more we will get out of it. By now, we are supposedly defending nothing less than all Southeast Asia and even India in the Vietnamese rice paddies and humble villages. A victory over the Vietnam Communists, we are told, is a victory over the Communists in half-a-dozen or more nearby countries who will not dare to challenge our power if we prove successful in Vietnam. This war is virtually being made into that favorite of American wars—the war to end all (“national-liberation”) wars.
This is what I mean by escalation of theory. It has the apparent merit of bringing the cost and the return into somewhat better balance, of giving us more for our money and our men. But it has little more to commend it.
From one point of view, the Vietnamese Communists cannot any longer “lose” this war any more than we can “lose” it. For in this kind of war, the concept of “victory” is far more elusive than that of “defeat.” In fact, neither word may be applicable to the peculiar Vietnam situation. The more realistic approach may be that each side is trying to prevent the other from winning too much and itself from losing too much. The war makes much more sense in negative than in positive terms. For the United States, it is important that the Communists should not win power in the South, and for the Communists it is important that their power should not be broken. Both sides are far more perspicacious and adamant about what they cannot surrender than about what they hope to achieve.
In this kind of tug-of-war, the price becomes all-important. The price the Vietnamese Communists have already extorted from the United States and vice versa is already a kind of “victory.” The Vietnamese experience is going to make the United States think twice before getting into another such “quagmire,” as David Halberstam has called it, and the Communists of similar countries will think twice before asking their forces to take such punishment in return for an immediate bid for power. But that is about all we can be sure of—that the price will be a deterrent on both sides next time.
The idea that the frustration of a Communist bid for power in South Vietnam will be some kind of decisive setback for Communism in Southeast Asia or even the world is, however, a political fairy tale. It fails to take into account that no Communist bid for power which forces the United States to pay such a high price for “victory,” whatever that means, can be said to have been “defeated,” whatever that also means in this instance. If the Communists of other impoverished, diminutive Southeast Asian countries could be sure of making us spend so much blood and treasure on frustrating them, we might well be faced with an epidemic of such wars. In this sense, the Vietnamese war, however it may end, has been more an encouragement than a discouragement to other wars of “national liberation.”
We are also told that, since the Vietnamese war is part of a “Sino-Soviet world conspiracy,” a “victory” in this war is a victory over that whole conspiracy. If this premise were true, the inordinate expenditure of men and money on a relatively tiny, marginal outpost of this conspiracy would be strategic lunacy. We can afford the luxury of engaging ourselves so heavily in Vietnam precisely because the Communist world is no longer monolithic and centrally-directed. If we need half a million or more men in Vietnam despite the Sino-Soviet conflict, one wonders how many we would need if Soviet Russia, Communist China, and their partisans were pulling together in Vietnam.
Fortunately, the Communists became disillusioned with their own “domino theory” about forty-five years ago. After October 1917, the Bolshevik leaders expected their revolution to set off a falling-dominoes effect in Western Europe. In the next six years or so, they found that national conditions in each country were far more important than their theory of world revolution had led them to expect. In order for a domino theory now to operate in Asia, it would be necessary to assume that the conditions in at least several countries resemble those in Vietnam of the past twenty years. It would be necessary to have a number of Communist parties which had inaugurated the equivalent of an armed struggle against French colonial rule as far back as 1945, had inflicted a total of 172,000 casualties on the French armed forces in the next nine years, had compelled a far larger French army to capitulate in July 1954, had again taken up arms in South Vietnam five or six years later, had driven the United States into intervening in force to stave off a South Vietnamese defeat in 1965, and into withdrawing the South Vietnamese forces from the front lines in 1966. None of this would have been possible if the Vietnamese Communists had not been able to identify themselves with the long-time aspirations of Vietnam nationalism and to convince a large part of the younger generation that they represented their interests better than anyone else. And it would also be necessary to posit that other Communist parties face the same kind of weak, corrupt, self-centered reactionary regimes the Vietnamese Communists have been fortunate enough to find against them.
As far as I know, no other Southeast Asian Communist party comes near to fulfilling these specifications. But if many more should happen to do so, the Vietnamese Communists have come so close to victory on so many occasions that their example will embolden the others, not deter them. In any case, I am willing to hazard the view that there is not enough money and manpower in the United States to prevent the South Asian dominoes from falling, whatever happens in Vietnam, if the Vietnamese conditions are so widespread. In the end, the political, social, and economic conditions in each country will determine the outcome far more than American political, economic, and military power.
It should also not escape notice that two can play at the “domino theory” just as two can play with the Munich analogy. If we cannot afford to give up Vietnam because the other anti-Communist dominoes in the region will fall, the Communists can tell themselves the same thing because the pro-Communist dominoes will fall. Recently, Jean-Paul Sartre's organ, Les Temps Modernes, created a stir in the Communist world by demanding that the entire “Socialist camp” should fix “exact limits whose violation will unleash direct reprisals” and should meet American escalation in Vietnam with “counter-escalation.” It suggested that Soviet artillerymen could easily hit the air-naval bases and installations of the American Seventh Fleet located on Formosa, Okinawa, the Philippines, and the Gulf of Tonkin. And, among other “parallels” arguing for such action, it gave “the capitulations that preceded and followed the Munich Agreements.”35 These abstract theories and historical analogies are both dubious and double-edged; they will never bring us closer to any kind of peace in Vietnam.
In the American escalation of theory, it has become more and more popular to say that we are really fighting China in Vietnam. It is even held that there is no use asking old Ho Chi Minh to sit down at the table; the only one we could consider negotiating with is old Mao Tse-tung. But since the latter is now in the grip of some mania, we are told to wait until we can address ourselves to his successors.36
First, North Vietnam was substituted for the Southern-based Vietcong as the “real enemy.” Now Communist China is being substituted for North Vietnam as the “real enemy.” Or North Vietnam and Communist China are linked together as if the former were only an instrument or puppet of the latter. The trouble with this theory is that Soviet Russia and East Europe, not Communist China, are providing North Vietnam with most of the wherewithal to run its economy and arm its troops. At the Senate Committee's Vietnam hearings, Dean Rusk tried to get around this awkward circumstance by delivering himself of the view that the “instrument of aggression” is Hanoi but the “doctrine” of aggression “is from Peking.”37 Thus, it appears, Soviet Russia is not the real enemy in North Vietnam because it is merely providing most of the matériel, but Communist China is the true foe because it has made North Vietnam a gift of its “doctrine.” And to think that the insatiable Chinese are not even grateful to us for giving them North Vietnam at bargain rates!
Yet Professor P. J. Honey, who has studied the subject more carefully than anyone else, warns us against such easy oversimplifications. He reminds us that two thousand years of Vietnamese-Chinese relations have left the Vietnamese with feelings toward the Chinese “not unlike those of the Irish for the English of Oliver Cromwell's day.” Though the Vietnamese have learned to respect and fear the Chinese, they dislike them even more, which is why, Professor Honey explains, “Communist campaigns stressing the ‘historical friendship’ between the peoples of Vietnam and China had to be abandoned hurriedly when they encountered so much ridicule in North Vietnam.” In the years 1954-56, the Vietnamese Communists slavishly followed the Chinese in their land reform and other policies, but this proved to be the worst mistake ever made by the North Vietnamese and led to disenchantment with the Chinese model. “The end of the North Vietnamese-Chinese honeymoon dates from 1957,” Professor Honey writes, “and it is interesting to note that Ho Chi Minh made no attempt to imitate such Chinese policies as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the creation of communes.”
Why Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues should be incapable of creating their own doctrine is hard to understand. Ho was a leading Communist before Mao, with far more international experience in the 1920's and 1930's. The Vietnamese Communists have over twenty years of their own armed struggle to draw lessons and legends from. They were largely dependent on the Chinese for aid in the anti-French phase, but have received much more from Soviet and East European aid programs recently. It is believed that the North Vietnamese top leadership contains pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions or at least tendencies, but after a period of trying to avoid taking sides, the dominant wing under Ho, Professor Honey believes, “swung to the Soviet side in early September 1960.” Since then, Ho Chi Minh has continued to maneuver between the two great Communist powers, without ever giving up the historic Vietnamese policy which, as Professor Honey puts it, consists of paying “lip service to Chinese pretensions provided they [the Vietnamese] themselves retained the reins of power in Vietnam.”38
There is nothing in ancient or recent history that warrants writing off the North Vietnamese Communists as puppets or satellites of the Chinese. The patent on guerrilla warfare is not owned by the Chinese, and even a common doctrine does not necessarily make North Vietnam subject to Chinese control, any more than a common doctrinal heritage has prevented the Sino-Soviet imbroglio. The mistake seems to stem from a continued reluctance to come to terms with the centrifugal forces in the Communist world. Not so long ago, Fidel Castro was also classified as a Maoist disciple because on some points—revolutionary violence and guerrilla warfare—the Cuban and Chinese doctrines coincided. But this did not prevent Castro from assailing the Chinese leadership early last year in terms more abusive than any the Soviets have ever employed. The present Communist world is full of intersecting lines of tactics and doctrine that can be correlated in different ways, depending on which lines one chooses to correlate. The idea that Ho Chi Minh had to get his “doctrine of aggression” from Mao Tse-tung flatters Dean Rusk as little as it does Ho Chi Minh.
In any case, there is something hallucinatory about the theory that Communist China is the real enemy in Vietnam or that the Vietnamese war is but the preliminary stage of a showdown with China. If there is any truth in either of these propositions, future historians will surely account our Sisyphean labors in Vietnam as one of the greatest aberrations of modern times. The day a war with China materializes, Vietnam will become a remote, inconvenient sideshow from which most of our troops would have to be pulled out in a hurry. The Mekong Valley is about two thousand miles from the industrial and military heartland of Northeast China. The notion that we are weakening, frightening, or deterring China by killing Vietnamese, as if this were a case of mistaken identity, defies all logic and experience. The only thing we are conceivably proving is that if we can bog down in South Vietnam, it should not be too difficult to bog us down in the endless expanses of mainland China.
Yet China is one of the great imponderables in this contest of men, arms, and wills. We may drift, drive, or get dragged into a clash with Communist China. But if this unimaginably horrible calamity should occur, it will make the present Vietnam war less rather than more meaningful. It is madness or frivolity to justify the present war in terms of an infinitely more dubious and appalling war. There is no greater folly in the theoretical apologetics of our Vietnam policy than the premise that the Vietnam war cannot be settled on the basis of internal Vietnam interests, at least as far as we are concerned, without settling the fate of the entire region, let alone that of Communist China. A de-escalation of theory is needed as urgently as a de-escalation of force.
One contradiction in official American thinking is perhaps the most flagrant. American policy is now virtually committed to the permanent partition of Vietnam into two independent states. This policy is, in fact, implied by the line of “foreign aggression,” which the Johnson administration adopted in 1965. The previous line of “civil war” did not mean that North Vietnam had watched the struggle in the South with folded arms; there is little doubt that the Communist parties of North and South Vietnam are closely linked, if they are not thinly-camouflaged parts of the same organization; Southern cadres were trained and equipped in the North long before 1965. The qualitative change allegedly came about because the North sent in some of its own regular troops in 1965. Apart from the question whether the North Vietnam action was not retaliatory and even somewhat reluctant, the change in North Vietnamese tactics seems to be a rather inadequate ground on which to make such a far-reaching determination of the future relations between North and South Vietnam. If North Vietnam was guilty of a “foreign aggression,” it was a “foreign” country, something that no Vietnamese, including the Southern Premier, Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, seems ready to accept. For the State Department, the theory of “foreign aggression” meant that the Vietnam war might conceivably be settled on the basis of spheres of influence—the South as a client-state of the United States and the North as a client-state of Communist China, assuming that the North Vietnamese would accept that role.
The advocates of Vietnamese partition point to the German and Korean precedents as arguments in favor of this “solution.” The three cases are so different that analogies are again dangerous. One cannot possibly compare a prostrate, defeated Germany with a Vietnam that has struggled for over twenty years to recover its national identity. Moreover, the partition of Germany may well be the single most ominous time-bomb in European politics; the recurrent resort to partition as the easy way out is mainly symptomatic of the endemic disease of American foreign policy—that it tends to pay for the present with the future.
But if we were serious about the two Vietnams, the least we could do is to make sure that South Vietnam has an authentically Southern leadership. Premier Ky and his immediate entourage happen to be North Vietnamese. He and those close to him fought in the French armed forces to perpetuate French colonial rule. The symbol of our independent South Vietnamese state is, therefore, a Northern air-force officer, who fought against Vietnamese independence, and is on record with a somewhat ambiguous remark in praise of Adolf Hitler. The latest political crisis in South Vietnam turns on the dissatisfaction of Southern cabinet members with the domination of the Northerners. According to Denis Warner, the Ky regime is being shaken by a “revival of Southern regionalism” (in its own country!); the Northerners are more determined to prosecute the war to the end, even if it means invading North Vietnam, while the Southerners “are more concerned with exploring the paths to peace.”39 Since Premier Ky and his Northerners could not stay in power any more than Ngo Dinh Diem stayed if the United States did not back them, this is certainly an odd way to promote Southern separatism.
Then there is the little matter of the Geneva Agreements. For ten years after 1955, when Diem disowned them, they did not constitute a problem because they were not considered a basis of negotiation by either the South Vietnam regime or the United States. But in 1965, the United States changed its position and offered to negotiate on the basis of the Geneva Agreements. Unfortunately, the final agreement explicitly stated that “the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” Though this agreement went unsigned, it is the only one that has much relevance to the present day. No one has bothered to explain how it is possible to negotiate on the basis of the Geneva Agreements and take the position that the de facto partition of the country has become de jure. Moreover, the specter of permanent partition has reproduced in a new form one of the chief factors that enabled the Communists to defeat the French; the field of integral, all-Vietnam nationalistic unity has been surrendered to the Communists without a battle.
Why have we permitted ourselves to become enmeshed in these multiple confusions and contradictions? Is it because South Vietnam itself is such a vital American interest to defend at all costs? Until recently, no one ever thought so. In 1954, as we have seen, former President Eisenhower decided against an all-out effort and limited himself to an aid program which was not given much chance of success. He made this aid so provisional and conditional that he gave himself room, in another crisis, to do anything or nothing. Yet, twelve years later, it must be repeated, the same man is even willing to entertain the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
The change in Mr. Eisenhower, which roughly corresponds to the change in American policy, cannot be understood in terms of Vietnam alone. It can more nearly be understood in terms of what we have done in Vietnam. As a result of one miscalculation after another, we have gradually been drawn into making an enormous, disproportionate military and political investment in Vietnam. This investment, not the vital interests of the United States in Vietnam, has cast a spell on us. The same thing would happen if we should decide to put 400,000 troops in Mauretania or even Ruritania. Once American resources and prestige are committed on such a profligate scale, the “commitment” develops a life of its own and, as the saying goes, good money must be thrown after bad.
This, to my mind, is nothing to be scoffed or sneered at. It is serious business for a great power to back into a cockpit so far away and so little understood, fling thousands after thousands of men and billions after billions of dollars into it—and then have second thoughts about the wisdom of having gambled so much for so little. The temptation is almost overpowering to magnify the importance of the game, to try to retrieve one's fortunes with one more raise of the ante, to be prisoners of an ever-changing present because looking back at the past is too painful and peering into the future is too unpromising. Above all, there is need for some reassurance that we possess some infallible power to come out right and on top in the end.
That power is now nothing else than—power. From the President down, leading officials have spread the glad tidings that power has given us global responsibilities which seem to be functions not of our infinite wisdom or boundless altruism but mainly of our incomparable power. In his speech at Johns Hopkins in April 1965, for example, President Johnson exhorted that we have the power and now the opportunity, for the first time in centuries, to make nations stop struggling with each other. That is such a large order that the struggle to end all struggles may also be the end of mankind. Not inappropriately, the former Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, and present U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, published a book last year with the title, The Obligations of Power. In it, he argues that the United States must be “so very much involved, in so many ugly grudge fights, in so many places” simply because it is so large and powerful. He bids us “get accustomed to our own power, and to the implications of its global availability.” He berates us for still being “unaccustomed to our power, still doubters of our own prowess.” He comforts us with the thought that we do not have to be the world's policeman if we and other nations can build an international peacekeeping machinery. But no such machinery exists, and its future is more than doubtful. Thus this comfort proves to be cold indeed; we are really being told that we must now be, and probably continue to be, the “world's policeman.”40
The prevailing official orthodoxy that power will pull us through has now begun to seep through via journalistic channels. One of the transmission belts for this view put the case this way:
The central factor in this new picture is power. The cocktail-party philosophers who declare that. “there is no military solution” and speak of a struggle “for the hearts and minds of men” cover only a small corner of the truth. The idea of military solutions for political problems went out with the Second World War and no one in Vietnam thinks in these terms. But military success—seizing and exploiting the initiative, harrying and punishing the enemy—is an indispensable condition of political success. With security, everything is possible. Without security, nothing is possible.41
Not so long ago, leading American officials spoke very much the same language as the cocktail-party philosophers above. Secretary of Defense McNamara came close to using their very words. The notion that military success is an indispensable condition of political success begs the question. For is not political success also the indispensable condition of military success? Less than three years ago, the latter proposition was considered the enlightened assumption of American policy. There was even a time when politics was given precedence over power; then power and politics were linked together, each as unproductive without the other; now power has become the precondition of politics which has been retired to some kind of limbo until we have achieved “military success.”
The beauty and charm of the new power line is that it postpones serious political reform in Vietnam for the duration of the war. For over a decade, American officials and advisers have been pulling and tugging and hauling to get South Vietnamese regimes to make some meaningful reforms, especially in the sphere of land tenure. The thinking was that it was necessary to win over the peasantry to isolate the guerrillas, and that only serious reforms could win over the peasantry. It now turns out that all this effort was misdirected because it came before rather than after the “military success.” The latest wisdom from the embassy in Saigon unwittingly condemns all the fine projects and programs that used to pass for wisdom. Our mandarins cannot have it both ways.
If “security” were all that mattered, former President Ngo Dinh Diem might have made a “political success” of it because he had tight control of the country for quite a few years. And if their mandarins behind Premier Ky ever get that much “security” again, they are hardly likely to do any more or any better. It is naive to imagine that a military regime will celebrate its “military success” by making far-reaching political concessions and basic economic reforms. With security, everything may be possible—but only if there is the right political program, pressure, and will. The last thing that will shake the status quo in South Vietnam is a feeling of “security” by the powers that be.
We have, in truth, resorted to power because our politics have failed. Since no politician can afford to admit this, we must pretend that we are resorting to power in order to make our politics succeed.
The hallmark of the Johnson administration's foreign policy has been its willingness to use and abuse naked military power. In both the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, Mr. Johnson made the critical decisions at about the same time—the first months of 1965. I am quite willing to believe that he sent troops to both lands as a last resort. But the deeper question remains: Why did we have to resort to the last?
As I have indicated, the problem goes far beyond the present administration. The pattern of military intervention on the heels of political failure has run through three very different administrations in three very different countries. One of former President Kennedy's aides has ventured the opinion that he would have done the same thing as President Johnson has done in Vietnam. If so, this only confirms my convictions that the problem goes far deeper than the personal character of any one President. Still, I am not altogether persuaded that Mr. Kennedy would have acted in quite the same way or gone to the same lengths. He did, after all, draw a line barring the use of American combat troops in the Bay of Pigs adventure, and he refused to cross that line despite enormous pressure on him to do so. It is hard to imagine Lyndon Johnson accepting a setback with such restraint and assuming full responsibility for it himself. At least Mr. Kennedy would perhaps have spared us the intellectual gimcrackery and crass pietism that accompany Mr. Johnson's worst excesses.
I am not, by any means, trying to belittle the importance of power in the conduct of foreign policy. On the contrary, I was one of those who warned against the dangerous implications in the line which began to come out of the Soviet Union in 1960 at the height of Nikita Khrushchev's reign. In brief, the Soviet leadership proclaimed that the world had entered a “new stage” in which the “balance of forces,” politically, economically, and militarily, had changed in favor of the Soviet system. When this doctrine became the leitmotif of Soviet propaganda the following year, I wrote an article for COMMENTARY (November 1961) in which I urged that it was necessary for the West to “find a way to demonstrate that the Soviets are wrong about their ‘balance of forces.’” I have not changed my mind in the least about the need at that time, and President Kennedy did find a way to prove the Soviets wrong with the “missiles crisis” in October 1962.
Now we have gone so far that we are flaunting our power dangerously. Our policymakers and their intellectual factotums have come perilously close to making themselves believe that the only thing that stands in the way of Communist takeovers all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America is American power. From this premise, it is a short step to basing our policy on our own forces instead of on the domestic forces at work in each country. In each of the three crises which necessitated some form of military intervention in the past six years, the manipulation or even the understanding of the domestic forces at work in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam was not exactly our strong point. In another famous case, however, we inadvertently permitted the domestic forces in the country to work themselves out more freely. To our astonishment, Communism suffered its greatest defeat in postwar history.
About six months before the abortive Communist coup in Indonesia, the word went out that Indonesia could not be saved from the Communists. “Our government was fully resigned to the potential domination of Indonesia by a Communist party close to Peking, since armed invasion seemed the only way to prevent it,” Richard N. Goodwin, the former Assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, has testified.42 This resignation to Communist victory was the luckiest thing that has happened to us in recent years. If we had been foolhardy enough to contemplate armed intervention in Indonesia to frustrate the Communists, we would have injected ourselves in Indonesian domestic politics in such a way that we might have ruined everything. Instead, we decided to cut our losses; we did not know what to do, so we did nothing; we closed down our agencies and pulled out our agents. And, lo and behold, the Communists made one misstep, and they are still paying for it. The only credit we can take for our good fortune is that we did nothing to spoil it.
I am not trying to suggest that the best thing we can do everywhere is to do nothing. I am trying to suggest that we cannot and do not have to do everything. Indonesia is a vastly more important part of Southeast Asia than Vietnam, and yet we were resigned not so long ago to its loss to the Communists. Incidentally, it would be fascinating to find out why we could have resigned ourselves to Communist domination in Indonesia but cannot resign ourselves, under any circumstances, to Communist domination in Vietnam.
Indeed, we might have faced the same prospect in Chile but for the electoral victory of Dr. Eduardo Frei. There is no greater likelihood that we could have saved Chile from Communism through military power than that we could have saved Indonesia. Clearly, with all the military power at the disposal of the United States, military intervention is simply not feasible in the larger and more important countries of Asia and Latin America, no matter how close they may come to being taken over by the Communists. In countries of even middling status, we must willy-nilly resign ourselves to the working-out of their domestic political forces.
The war in Vietnam is therefore not a typical situation: it can at best be reproduced only in certain countries at certain times. It is being made to bear too great a load of significance and meaning in order to justify its cost. In countries which do not lend themselves to military intervention, the political instrumentality will continue to make or break us. In countries which for some reason permit military intervention, the political question must still remain uppermost because military “victory” can only be built on a foundation of political defeat.
This is the crux of the matter. When President Johnson fixes visitors with a steely eye and asks them in effect, “What would you do to get the Communists to give us an honorable peace in Vietnam?” he is not posing as crushing a question as he seems to think it is. If a patient who has dissipated for years comes to a doctor for an instant cure, the failure to get one may be the fault of the patient, not the doctor. And if the patient also specifies that the cure must be “honorable,” any unpleasant diagnosis or course of treatment may not be acceptable to him. In diplomacy, in any case, “honor” is hard to negotiate. It is usually waved as a banner to start a war, not to end one by some means short of victory.
Still, one man has repeatedly given Mr. Johnson an answer to his question. He is U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations. After the fall of the Diem regime in November 1963, U Thant implicitly suggested to the United States the formation of a coalition government in Saigon to take in non-Communist Vietnamese political exiles who believed in the country's neutralization as the way out of the war. U Thant subsequently made known his view that “there was a very good possibility in 1963 of arriving at a satisfactory political solution” (my italics, T.D.). This advice was not accepted because the generals who succeeded Ngo Dinh Diem and the new Johnson administration set their sights on “victory,” as President Johnson indicated in his message to General Duong Van Minh on New Year's Day, 1964. Two years later, the American position changed, at least publicly, to accept the neutralization of any country in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, if it so wanted.
In September of 1964, U Thant made a determined effort to arrange private conversations between the United States and North Vietnam to end the war. The latter agreed, through the Russians, to a meeting. But repeated efforts by U Thant to get an acceptance from the United States failed. Apparently with the encouragement of the late Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., U Thant went so far as to get the approval of Burma to hold a secret meeting there. The Burmese head of state, Ne Win, replied positively on January 18, 1965; the entire plan was vetoed by Washington ten days later. For his pains, U Thant later read in the newspapers that the President's Press Secretary had denied he had ever made any proposal; the denial was so clumsy that the word “meaningful” was subsequently inserted before “proposal” to avoid an outright misrepresentation. The official reason for the rejection given to U Thant by Adlai Stevenson apparently made two points—the United States could not enter into discussions with the Hanoi regime without the presence of the Saigon government, and such talks would risk ruining the morale of the Saigon government. Instead of giving U Thant a chance in January, President Johnson decided to expand the war in February. Again, on March 8, 1965, it has been reported, U Thant proposed a preliminary conference on Vietnam to include the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, France, Communist China, and both Vietnams. The proposal was brushed off by Washington within twenty-four hours.
After again exploring all avenues toward a possible peace for over a year, U Thant privately communicated the result of his search to the United States late in 1965 and made his recommendations public in March and July 1966. In brief, U Thant made known that he had reason to believe that peace negotiations could be initiated on the basis of three points: the cessation of American bombing of North Vietnam; a scaling-down of military activities on both sides in South Vietnam, leading to a ceasefire; and the willingness by all parties to enter into discussions that would include the Vietcong as well as the North Vietnam regime. Again the Secretary-General found that Washington was not interested.43 Significantly, two Frenchmen with the closest connections in Hanoi, the correspondent of Agence France Presse, Jean Raffaelli, and the former French delegate to North Vietnam, Jean Sainteny, believe that the Communist side would accept U Thant's three-point program as a basis of negotiation.44
Is there anything inherently “dishonorable” in U Thant's three points? I do not think so. If there is, Washington should not have urged U Thant to remain as Secretary-General. We cannot expect any quid pro quo for a cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam because North Vietnam is not bombing South Vietnam, let alone railroad lines and oil storage depots in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. The second point entails a military atmosphere conducive to serious negotiations. As for the third point, which is controversial mainly for its inclusion of the Vietcong, President Johnson has said that the representation of the Vietcong would not be an “insurmountable problem.” For my part, U Thant's proposals not only are not excessive or unreasonable; they are, in view of all the circumstances, the minimal conditions for serious negotiations. If we seriously wanted peace without victory, we would grab at them. The repeated rebuffs to U Thant's efforts will be counted among the most shortsighted and least defensible misjudgments of American policy.
The trouble is that we are still chasing the phantom of military “victory” in Vietnam. It is a phantom because this is not a war that either side can “win” in the conventional sense any more. The South Vietnamese army has already lost it, in all but name, at least twice. It has become a war, which we never intended to fight, of American boys doing what Asian boys should be doing for themselves. It is a war to prove that we cannot be beaten by the North Vietnamese militarily, which does not need to be proven. It is a war which can result in no meaningful “victory” precisely because it has become primarily military. It is a war in which the cost and the return have become hopelessly out of balance and must become more so with every month. It is a war based on the mistaken premise that power can substitute for politics, with the result that we will use more and more power and less and less politics. It is a war in which, in order to “deny” ground to the enemy, we must devastate the land of our friends. It is a war which we may continue to delude ourselves into “winning,” but the Vietnamese people can no longer win. It is a war to make guerrillas fade away, as if this were the same thing as doing away with them or removing the political and social conditions which breed and nourish them. It is a war that is isolating us, distorting our economy, and corrupting our intellectual and political life.
In such a war, the least we can and should do is to give U Thant's proposals a chance to pull us and the Communists out of the morass. It is a measure of the American crisis that even critics of American policy in Vietnam, who see clearly all the past defects and future dangers, cannot free themselves from the incubus of military victory. Richard N. Goodwin could think of nothing better to end his otherwise thoughtful and critical essay than to recommend a continuation of the war in the South. We should not, he gravely counsels, spare manpower or money to retake “mile by painful mile.”45 In an essay which ranges far and wide, he does not so much as mention U Thant's efforts or proposals as a possible alternative to this forbidding and probably futile course. If President Johnson's policy has such critics, it does not need any defenders.
The latest military course on which we have embarked already appears to be one more makeshift and improvisation. It depends for its success not merely on the feasibility of the American forces to retake “mile by painful mile” but even more on the ability of the South Vietnamese army to “pacify” the countryside. American “search-and-destroy” operations will admittedly fail of their ultimate purpose if they are not backed up by effective “clear-and-hold” operations. Thus, one way or another, we cannot decide the issue by ourselves. We are again entrusting the crucial social mission of this war to the South Vietnamese government and army, no matter how poorly they have performed and how little faith we may have in them, simply because we cannot do that job ourselves. We may try to oversimplify the post-1965 stage of the war as a “foreign aggression,” but we cannot escape from the realities of the “civil war” or rather the complex of civil wars—Communist against anti-Communist, peasant against landowner, civilian against soldier, Southern Southerners against Northern “Southerners.”
The American military are so little optimistic about the new strategy that some of them are already preparing correspondents and public opinion for the next phase. A “widely respected American commander” told Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (July 8, 1966): “We should occupy and rule this country instead of pretending to respect the sovereignty of a government that really is only temporary and illegal and could change tomorrow. It would be more efficient and probably the end result would be better if we abandon the idea of assistance and pacification and settled for subjugation, regarding South Vietnam as an enemy country.” If this appears hard to believe, Marvin L. Stone has reported in U.S. News & World Report (December 5, 1966): “Some ranking military men insist that the 1967 experiment with the Vietnamese forces is going to prove a year of costly waste—and that the U.S. should face up to reality if it wants to win this war, mobilize reserves and Guardsmen at home, send in an additional 400,000 men and take over the ‘other war’—the sooner the better.” But Stone notes, this “reality” is so unpleasant that other Americans consider it to be the “worst mistake” we could make.
The only certainty is that the goal of military “victory” requires either a sudden Communist collapse to bring the war to a halt rapidly or a long war of attrition which will demand more and more American manpower. Stone tells us that all the Americans on the scene seem to have the same timetable—one or two years of regular army operations to break down the enemy's main-line forces followed by five to ten years to bring down the guerrillas. The more we stress the strictly military side of the prospective “victory,” the more we encourage pressure in the United States to save lives and money by using more and more extreme military measures, from the invasion of North Vietnam to the employment of nuclear weapons. If the pessimists are again right, the next stage of this war may bring us to the brink of frightfulness; it may tear the conscience of this country apart; it may bring on a hunt for “guilty men”; and the guiltiest may do most of the hunting.
In these circumstances, does it still make sense to pretend that there is no use taking seriously U Thant's proposals? The longer we wait, and we may have waited too long already, the higher the price must be. But at least, it will signal a change in national attitude and policy, without which we cannot plead innocence in the court of mankind.
The American crisis is bad enough when we consider how hard it is to get out of this inopportune and thankless war. But, whatever one may think about getting out, there is still the larger and deeper crisis of how we got into it, and how we got into the Cuban and Dominican military interventions. We cannot continue to live wholly in the moment, snatching at every status quo, however rotten and unstable, to hold the line against Communism at whatever cost, transfixed by the terminal stages of the disease. In the new worship of power, we are squandering our power by using too much too frequently and too maladroitly. All great powers which have overestimated, overindulged, and overextended their power, have come to grief. Unless we can break the sinister cycle of political ineptitude and military intervention, the Johnson administration may be turning a corner in American history and may be heading toward the same abyss. Whatever one may think about the present military imperatives, the larger historical problem is political and social; we cannot go on failing politically and “succeeding” militarily without ultimately inviting disaster beyond anything yet known to the world. The President and his closest associates might do worse than take a few minutes to reacquaint themselves with what was said of another military victory by Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, in 279 B.C.
1 El Tiempo (New York), July 10, 1966.
2 U.S. News & World Report, November 7, 1966, p. 42.
3 I do not cite this statement as evidence of how democratic Ho Chi Minh might have been. He might have taken power democratically, but he would not have kept power democratically, which is far more important. In 1960, the “elections” in North Vietnam resulted in a 99.8 per cent majority for the ruling Communist party and its two small satellite groups, with no one permitted to run on an opposition platform. For this reason, it is fatuous to imagine that Vietnam would have been more “democratic” if Ho Chi Minh had been permitted to get an 80 per cent majority in a national election, as provided for by the Geneva Agreements. The only reason for citing Mr. Eisenhower's statement is that it underlines the unique character of the Vietnam problem. In what other country could a Communist leader have been assured of an 80 per cent sweep in a free election?
4 In his memoirs, Mandate for Change (1963), Eisenhower gives the impression that the United States contemplated large-scale intervention only in the event of Chinese support for Ho Chi Minh's forces, and that he needed little dissuading on any other grounds. If we trust Generals Ridgway and Gavin, this version was not entirely candid. Ridgway had already written in his memoirs, Soldier (1956), that “we very nearly found ourselves involved in a bloody jungle war in which our nuclear capability would have been almost useless” (my italics, T.D.). He records that “individuals of great influence, both in and out of government,” raised the cry for U.S. intervention “to come to the aid of France with arms” (pp. 275-277). Gavin confirmed Ridgway and added details in his 1966 testimony (The Vietnam Hearings, Vintage Books, pp. 67-69). According to the new biography of Senator Fulbright by Tristram Coffin, Senators Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell told Mr. Fulbright that Dulles and Nixon favored a plan by Admiral A. W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to bolster the French by attacking a major supply area close to the Chinese frontier with atomic weapons (Dutton, p. 232).
5 The American aid program was contemplated, the letter said, “provided that your Government is prepared to give assurances as to the standards of performance it would be able to maintain in the event such aid were supplied.” The American offer, it went on, was intended to make the Government of Vietnam “a strong viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means. The Government of the United States expects that this aid will be met by performance on the part of the Government of Vietnam in undertaking needed reforms.” Yet this letter of October 23, 1954 has been cited as if it were an unconditional “commitment” on the part of the United States “to resist Communist aggression” from then to the present and seemingly for all time. It should also be noted that the letter put the burden of resistance on the government of Vietnam, not on the United States. Mr. Eisenhower's caution, which was most notable in his own administration, seems to desert him whenever he gives advice to other administrations. On April 20, 1964, President Johnson said that “our commitment today is just the same as the commitment made by President Eisenhower in 1954.” If so, it is still nothing more than an offer of aid conditional on “the standards of performance” of, and “needed reforms” by, the government of South Vietnam.
6 Bernard B. Fall, Viet-Nam Witness, Praeger, p. 124.
7 Only Professor Frank N. Trager seems to insist that the Communists constituted a “genuine threat to security” in South Vietnam in 1955-56 (Why Viet Nam?, Praeger. pp. 119-21). In those years, and for two or three more years. however, pro-Diem supporters used to deride the seriousness of the Communist threat and boast of South Vietnam's peacefulness and stability. Even George A. Carver, Jr., later revealed as a CIA official, states that the “incipient insurgency” did not become a “serious threat” until the end of 1958 and that the Vietcong was still unable “to win a really significant political following” by the following year (Foreign Affairs, April 1966, p. 359).
8 Wilfred G. Burchett, Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War, International Publishers, pp. 112-15.
9 “Les Américains au Vietnam” in Les Temps Modernes (Paris), January 1966. This article was published in German in Das Argument (Berlin), February 1966, where it was signed by Georg W. Alsheimer. An English translation appeared in Alternatives (La Jolla, California), Fall 1966.
10 Robert Shaplen, The Lost Revolution, Harper, rev. ed. 1966, p. 141. This estimate is supported by Carver who states that Diem “reached his political highwater mark some time around mid-1957” (op. cit., p. 358).
11 John Mecklin, Mission in Torment, Doubleday, p. 17.
12 Speech of March 26, 1964.
13 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, Houghton Mifflin, pp. 544-47 and 986. Testimony of General Maxwell D. Taylor, The Vietnam Hearings op. cit., p. 171. Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy, Harper & Row, p. 653.
14 Mecklin, op. cit., pp. 13-14.
15 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 538; Sorensen, op. cit., p. 651.
16 I am inclined to believe that the historical verdict on the Kennedy administration will be much closer to the more skeptical view of Henry Pachter's essay, “JFK. as an Equestrian Statue: On Myth and Mythmakers,” in Salmagundi, Spring 1966, pp. 3-26.
17 Mecklin, op. cit., pp. 48 and 204-5; Shaplen, op. cit., p. 189; Trager, op. cit., p. 178.
18 Of the many versions, the following may be mentioned. At one extreme is Arthur Schlesinger's assurance: “It is important to state clearly that the coup of November 1, 1963, was entirely planned and carried out by the Vietnamese. Neither the American Embassy nor the CIA were involved in instigation or execution” (op. cit., p. 997). Schlesinger is probably right about the “execution” but “instigation” is a broad word which, in this case, may cover too much ground. The other extreme view is represented by former Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., who has publicly charged, in a letter to the New York Times of October 29, 1966, that the anti-Diem generals were “encouraged by the United States Government.” Shaplen, who learned a great deal about the inside story of the coup, says that the coup was executed with the “full knowledge” and “consent” of the Americans (op. cit., p. 211). Mecklin reviews the available evidence and clearly believes that U.S. policy from early October 1963 encouraged and even “led to” the coup. He sums up bitingly: “But to assert that the U.S. was ‘not involved’ in the coup was a bit like claiming innocence for a night watchman at a bank who tells a known safecracker that he is going out for a beer” (op. cit., p. 278). Sorensen states that President Kennedy sent a cable in late August 1963 “indicating that the United States would not block any spontaneous military revolt against Diem” but he denies that the plotters received any “assistance” from the United States, as if the hands-off attitude were not assistance enough (op. cit., p. 659). The upshot seems to be that Shaplen is right in his judgment that the coup “succeeded in the end primarily because it was a genuine homegrown plot that expressed real grievances against a regime that had become totally corrupt and oppressive.” But the homegrown plotters needed, if not encouragement, then at least a lack of discouragement from the United States. In the circumstances, the latter was almost as positive as the former.
19 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 997; Mecklin, op. cit., p. 186.
20 March 26, 1964. The same admission is made in the State Department's White Paper of February 1965: “The military and insurgency situation was complicated by a quite separate internal political struggle in South Vietnam, which led in November, 1963, to the removal of the Diem government and its replacement with a new one” (my italics, T.D.).
21 Denis Warner, The Last Confucian, Penguin Books, p. 236.
22 Viet Nam: The Struggle for Freedom, Government Printing Office, 1964, p. 21.
23 It does not yet seem possible to pinpoint the latter decision, although it was certainly made early in 1965. A feature article on General Westmoreland in Newsweek, December 5, 1966, p. 49, indicates it was made in February and carried out in March. The first American combat troops landed on March 6, 1965. The Mansfield report stated that the American military force of about 34,000 was still “basically an advisory organization” in May 1965. It then went on to say that the logistic system to support the vastly expanded U.S. effort started “almost from scratch in May of 1965.” But the logistic effort may have followed the decision by some time. General Westmoreland has recently revealed: “Early in 1965 we knew that the enemy hoped to deliver the coup de grâce by launching a major summer offensive to cut the Republic of Vietnam in two with a drive across the central highlands to the sea. I had to make a decision, and did. I chose a rapid build-up of combat forces, in the full knowledge that we should not have a fully developed logistic base to support those forces” (U.S. News & World Report, November 28, 1966, p. 49). We thus know the approximate time of the decision but the general does not mention the exact month. Ambassador Lodge recently dated the turning-point as July 28, 1965, when the President formally announced the decision to commit U.S. troops on a large scale (ibid., November 21, 1966, p. 67). But this is the announcement, not the decision.
24 Report of Special Subcommittee to South Vietnam of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, June 10-21, 1965, especially p. 3,248; Bernard B. Fall, the New Republic, October 9, 1965, p. 17; “The Vietnam Conflict: The Substance and the Shadow,” Report of Senators
25 November 5, 1966.
26 Both the New York Times and the Washington Post of June 17, 1966, reported the speech but omitted mention of this passage. A letter in the New York Times of November 15, 1966, however, quoted the relevant sentence. The entire speech may be found in the Congressional Record, Senate, June 16, 1966, pp. 12,856-58.
27 Taylor, The Vietnam Hearings, p. 183; Mecklin, op. cit., p. 290; Fall, the New York Times Magazine, December 12, 1965, p. 48; New York Times, Dec. 3, 1966.
28 Speech of June 16, 1966.
29 Foreign Affairs, October 1966, p. 6.
30 “South Vietnam's defense minister [Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu Co] said Thursday [November 17, 1966] the entire Vietnamese army will switch to a pacification role in 1967 and leave major fighting to American troops” (UPI, Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1966). The state of the pacification program was described from Saigon by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak: “A crisis of utmost gravity lurks just behind the euphoric public relations propaganda about this vicious war that has recently been filling the air from Washington. Boiled down to its essence, the crisis is simply this: that instead of going forward, the absolutely vital program of pacification of the tens of thousands of hamlets in South Vietnam is going backward.”
31 In 1963, when Mr. Lodge was waging his war of nerves with Ngo Dinh Diem, the prize witticism in Saigon's American colony was: “Our mandarin will beat their mandarin.”
32 U.S. News if World Report, November 21, 1966, pp. 66-68.
33 New York Times, December 5, 1966.
34 Ibid., November 28, 1966, p. 49.
35 The discussion aroused in France and Italy by the proposal of Les Temps Modernes may be followed in Atlas, November 1966, 19-24.
36 The Reporter, November 17, 1966, p. 14.
37 The Vietnam Hearings, p. 269.
38 P. J. Honey, Communism in North Vietnam, M.I.T. Press, pp. 1-14, 81.
39 The Reporter, November 17, 1966, p. 41.
40 Harlan Cleveland, The Obligations of Power, Harper & Row, pp. 14-16, 135.
41 Richard C. Hottelet, The Reporter, November 3, 1966, p. 20. Virtually the same words are used by Arnaud de Borchgrave in Newsweek, December 5, 1966, p. 55.
42 Richard N. Goodwin, Triumph or Tragedy: Reflections on Vietnam, Vintage Books, p. 15.
43 This summary of U Thant's efforts is based mainly on Franz Schurman, Peter Dale Scott, Reginald Zelnick, The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam, Fawcett, pp. 26-34; Mario Rossi, the New York Review of Books, November 17, 1966, pp. 8-13; Emmet John Hughes, Newsweek, December 12, 1966, pp. 62-63.
44 War/Peace Report, October 1966, p. 3.
45 Goodwin, op. cit., p. 62.