I received in this meeting the first "President Johnson tone" for action [in Vietnam] as contrasted with the "Kennedy tone." Johnson definitely feels that we place too much emphasis on social reforms; he has very little tolerance with our spending so much time being "do-gooders" . . . .
- DCI John McCone, 25 November l963(1)
In early l965 the Johnson Administration decided to "go big" in Vietnam--to begin sustained bombing raids against the North and to commit US combat troops in the South. This Presidential order to engage the Communist enemy directly came after an agonizing two-year search for a policy expedient that would save South Vietnam from collapsing. The search began in mid-1963 when the headlined political and military failures of the Saigon government abruptly destroyed the long-held illusions of most senior US policymakers that steady progress was being made toward South Vietnamese self-sufficiency. Their subsequent attempt to find a saving formula first produced from the Kennedy administration a decision to accept the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem by a junta of South Vietnamese military officers. Then, when that coup introduced only a series of even-weaker Saigon governments, President Johnson's administration finally came to embrace the assumption that South Vietnam could be saved by systematically bombing the North and committing US troops to combat in the South.
This study focuses on the role that CIA intelligence production and senior CIA officers played, or did not play, in these policy evolutions. As we will see, White House decisions to allow a coup and, later, to go big in Vietnam, were made with little regard for CIA Headquarters' efforts to inform or modify US policy.
Prelude: The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem(2)
By early l963, Washington was in a mood of euphoria about Vietnam.
- Saigon Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting, Jr.(3)
We are now launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government . . . . there is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration.
- Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., 29 August 1963(4)
Although the product of many causes, the US Government's action in 1965 to engage its forces openly and directly in Vietnam can be said to have evolved from mid-1963, when cumulative mistakes by the Ngo Dinh Diem government caused a precipitate decline in South Vietnam's already-shaky performance against its Communist adversary, the Viet Cong. The shock this reversal produced in Washington was magnified all the more because most top policymakers until that time had believed and proclaimed that the outlook in South Vietnam was fairly bright. The shock led these policymakers to decide, haphazardly as we will see, that Saigon's fragile position might best be strengthened by getting rid of the obdurately autocratic President Diem.
The possibility that he might be overthrown was by no means new, nor was the idea that he be eased out by US pressure. Unsuccessful coup attempts had been launched by dissident South Vietnamese military officers in l960 and l962, and various US officials had been voicing arguments for getting rid of Diem for at least that long. For example, in September l960 US Ambassador in Saigon Elbridge Durbrow had cabled Washington that "If Diem's position in-country continues deteriorate as result failure adopt proper political, psychological, economic and security measures, it may become necessary for US Government to begin consideration alternative courses of action and leaders in order achieve our objective." Earlier that year, Durbrow had observed that the regime's many failings and derelictions were "basically due to [the] machinations of Diem's brother [Ngo Dinh] Nhu and his henchmen."(5) By l962, such arguments had become more bald. In August of that year Durbrow's political counselor, Joseph Mendenhall, returned to Washington to report that "we cannot win the war with the Diem-Nhu methods, and we cannot change those methods no matter how much pressure we put on them. Recommendation: get rid of Diem, Mr. and Mrs. Nhu and the rest of the Ngo family."(6)
Dissatisfaction with the governing style of Ngo Dinh Diem and his family went back a long way and prompted constant but fruitless cajoling and nagging from a succession of US ambassadors and CIA station chiefs. By early l963 Diem had become even more resistant to US advice, more autocratic in his governance, more obsessed with conserving his regular army from combat to ward off coup attempts, more callous in sacrificing ill-trained rural militiamen against increasingly widespread Communist attacks, and more coercive in his suppression of all dissent. His brother Nhu had become a virtual law unto himself, attracting, as did Nhu's flamboyant wife, the opprobrium of US officials and correspondents in Saigon.
It was in this atmosphere that US Ambassador Frederick Nolting, one of President Diem's staunchest supporters within US officialdom, set out on 5 April to impress on his client the need for civil, financial, and military reforms as the price of US funding of the government's counterinsurgency program. He found Diem "courteous but immovable" in his opposition to US proposals and Nolting's personal advice. "Gravely concerned and perplexed," Nolting reported, he told Diem that Saigon's obstinacy would result in a "downward spiral of Vietnam-American confidence" and a "curtailment of U.S. aid," and might well force "a change in the policy of the U.S. Government towards Vietnam."(7)
Nolting's despairing report to Washington of his fruitless three-and-a-half-hour session with Diem helped prime those at home who saw Diem as an obstacle rather than a tool for stemming Communist advances in Southeast Asia. Shortly thereafter Diem and brother Nhu embarrassed their Washington patrons and deepened their domestic unpopularity with a series of affronts to Vietnam's Buddhist population. The flaring domestic crisis fueled by the regime's increasingly harsh treatment of the Buddhists throughout the spring and summer of 1963 dismayed top US policymakers and swept away much of their remaining confidence in the Diem government's abilities.
Pro-coup sentiment now began building among certain senior Department of State officials. On 23 May, seven weeks after his confrontation with Diem, Ambassador Nolting signed off on a Washington draft of a contingency plan for the US role in the event of a change of government in Vietnam, then took off for a holiday in the Aegean Sea on his way back to Washington on home leave.(8) Public reaction to Diem's continued repression of the Buddhists grew, and on 11 June the Department cabled the Embassy in Saigon that "If Diem does not take prompt and effective steps to reestablish Buddhist confidence in him we will have to reexamine our entire relationship with his regime."(9) Nolting's charge d'affaires was then advised to consider improving the Mission's contacts with "non-supporters of GVN," but "only if you feel our (covert or overt) contacts with those who might play major roles in event of coup are now inadequate."(10)
On 21 June, a paper floated by State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research opined that, although a coup would pose real dangers of major internal upheaval and a serious slackening of Saigon's war effort, there nevertheless was sufficient alternative leadership available in South Vietnam that, "given the opportunity and continued support from the United States, could provide reasonably effective leadership for the government and the war effort."(11) Meanwhile, President Kennedy, caught unawares by the sudden eruption of antiregime protests in Vietnam while his Ambassador there was on vacation, decided to replace Nolting with Henry Cabot Lodge, who had no record of sympathy for Diem.
CIA Station and Headquarters officers had for some years not only scouted closely the possibility of a coup against Diem's faltering rule, but also had from time to time debated the pros and cons of replacing him--without, however, coming to an agreement among themselves about the efficacy of a coup. In February l961, for example, an Office of National Estimates Staff Memorandum had argued that because the Diem regime was losing the war, had such a narrow base of popular support, and could not be threatened or cajoled into changing its ways, thought should be given to measures which would lead to Diem's replacement. The Director of the Office of National Estimates, Sherman Kent, killed that staff document, ruling it a clear trespass of the policy area. By early 1963, however, CIA officers were being drawn into policy analysis by their activist new director, John McCone, and the idea of getting rid of Diem was again being raised. A cautious proposal came from Chester L. Cooper, a senior O/NE officer then detailed to policy liaison duties (and later to the NSC Staff as a Vietnam policy adviser), who wrote McCone in April l963 that "Diem must step (or be pushed) out, and to that end we should develop a plan for the replacement of Diem (or Nhu) with a man of our own choosing at a time of our choosing."(12) Cooper suggested a target date of April l966, "because Diem's present term of office will end on l April l966 and because the military phase of the struggle is likely to be largely completed at that time." As we will see, even more explicit pro-coup sentiment welled up within CIA as 1963 wore on, but virtually all of CIA's senior officers--including O/NE's Sherman Kent, DDP Far East Division Chief William Colby, senior DDI officers Huntington D. Sheldon and R. Jack Smith, DDCI Marshall S. Carter, and, most important, DCI John McCone--continued to urge caution about the idea of overthrowing Diem.
The attitude of senior Vietnam policy advisers at State, however, hardened toward Diem's family as the Buddhist crisis gathered momentum through the summer amid reports of restiveness among Diem's generals. The storming of Buddhist pagodas on 21 August by forces directed by Ngo Dinh Nhu crystallized the "Diem must go" convictions, and on Saturday, 24 August, at a time when President Kennedy, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of Defense McNamara, Secretary of State Rusk, and DCI McCone happened to be out of town, a small group of strategically placed senior State Department officials smoked a fateful Top Secret/Operational Immediate cable past interagency coordinators to a receptive Ambassador Lodge. In effect, that cable told the Ambassador to advise Diem that immediate steps must be taken to improve the situation--such as meeting Buddhist demands and dismissing his brother. If Diem did not respond promptly and effectively, Lodge was instructed to advise key Vietnamese military leaders that the United States would not continue to support his government. The directive was intended to shake up Diem, neutralize Nhu, and strengthen the hands of a group of generals who opposed the two brothers' coercive policies and deplored their counterinsurgency tactics. The directive proved crucial two months later, in effect giving a green light to a coup against Diem.(13)
The point man of this fast shuffle was Roger Hilsman, a hard-charging officer who at the time was State's Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs. His chief colleagues in this affair were Averell Harriman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Michael V. Forrestal, a centrally influential NSC staff member and Harriman protege. George Ball, the ranking State Department officer in town, cleared the cable for transmission.
Reading the cable only after it had been sent, virtually all of Washington's top officials were critical of the manner in which Hilsman, Harriman, and Forrestal had acted, and in a series of White House meetings the next week the President himself expressed second thoughts about the faults and virtues of the Ngo brothers and the merits of a military coup. Summing up White House discussions in which he participated during the last days of August 1963, CIA's Far East Division chief, William Colby, recorded that the President and the Attorney General "were apparently appalled at the speed with which the State decision was reached on Saturday afternoon, 24 August, and felt that more thought, analysis, and preparation should have preceded the instruction to Lodge."(14) Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who attended a White House meeting on Vietnam the following weekend, was reported to have had "great reservations with respect to a coup, particularly so because he had never really seen a genuine alternative to Diem."(15)
When he was apprised of the cable's contents, JCS Chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor told Marine Corps Gen. Victor Krulak that the cable reflected "the well-known compulsions of Hilsman and Forrestal to depose Diem," that had McGeorge Bundy been present the cable would not have been sent, and that the message "had not been given the quality of interdepartmental staffing it deserved."(16) Four days later, General Taylor wired MACV chief Gen. Paul Harkins that the Hilsman cable had been "prepared without DOD or JSC participation," and that Washington authorities "are now having second thoughts."(17) Years later General Taylor said of the 24 August weekend that "a small group of anti-Diem activists picked this time to perpetrate an egregious 'end run' in dispatching a cable of the utmost importance to Saigon without obtaining normal departmental clearances."(18) Similarly, Lyndon Johnson later termed the dispatching of the cable a crucial decision that "never received the serious study and detached thought it deserved," a "hasty and ill-advised message" that constituted a green light to those who wanted Diem's downfall, and a "serious blunder which launched a period of deep political confusion in Saigon that lasted almost two years."(19)
DCI John McCone reported that he was told by Secretaries Rusk and McNamara on 4 September that they were unhappy with the manner in which the 24 August cable had been handled,(20) McNamara adding that the cable "did not represent the views of the President."(21) McCone, the administration's principal liaison to Dwight Eisenhower, briefed the former President about the cable a few days later. McCone circulated to Lodge (the former Republican Vice Presidential candidate) and others Eisenhower's advice that bringing off a coup would be no small task and would require great care and deliberation. The former President added that even if a coup were successful, the aftermath would have its own special problems.(22) Despite these and other cautions, neither the White House nor the State Department ever rescinded or substantially amended the cabled instructions to Lodge.
Ambassador Frederick Nolting, displaced in Saigon by Lodge and denigrated in Washington by Hilsman because of his pro-Diem arguments (but whose counsel the President sought in August 1963 to balance that of his detractors), later wrote that in 22 years of public service he had never seen anything "resembling the confusion, vacillation and lack of coordination in the U.S. Government" at that time. Although Nolting had sympathy for President Kennedy, he deplored "his failure to take control" and concluded that "the Harriman-Lodge axis seemed too strong for him."(23)
Harriman and Hilsman later sought to spread responsibility for the cable's dispatch, and the late Michael Forrestal is reported as having stated that President Kennedy was the key player all along and covertly supported those who pushed for a coup. (24) Although Kennedy cleared the cable, in the view of this author he did not hatch and manage the coup plotting but let it proceed despite some misgivings. This was the view, as well, of former DCI William Colby.(25) The published record and available documents show that the President repeatedly criticized the way the 24 August cable had been handled and gave lukewarm responses to contingency planning for a coup.(26)
At CIA Headquarters on that fateful weekend of 24 August the Deputy Director for Plans, Richard Helms, was simply briefed on the cable, not consulted. With DCI McCone in California at the time and Acting DCI Marshall S. Carter unavailable, Hilsman telephoned Helms to advise that new instructions to Lodge had been cleared by President Kennedy. Helms then discussed Hilsman's initiative with Far East Division chief Colby and Acting Director Carter; they decided to take no immediate action but to wait for a reaction from Ambassador Lodge.(27) The next day, 25 August, Colby notified Saigon Station that the Agency had not yet seen the text of the Hilsman cable and had not been consulted on it. His cable nevertheless advised that "In circumstance believe CIA must fully accept directives of policy makers and seek ways accomplish objectives they seek," although State's action "appears be throwing away bird in hand before we have adequately identified birds in bush, or songs they may sing."(28)
In later comments on his 24 August initiative, Roger Hilsman maintained that he had cleared his cable with President Kennedy and other Washington principals. Virtually all those officers have contested that account, insisting that they had been hustled, not consulted. CIA's Marshall Carter in a 1967 memorandum took angry exception to an assertion Hilsman had recently published that he, Carter, had gone over the draft of the 24 August 1963 cable and had decided to approve it without disturbing DCI McCone's vacation. Carter asserted that Hilsman's statement was "totally false . . . at no time was the draft message ever discussed with me, shown to me, or concurred in by me." Carter added that he had been "totally unaware" of the intent of the cable until after it had been sent, that to the best of his knowledge no CIA officer had been consulted, and that the Hilsman cable was "ill-conceived, ill-timed, and inadequately coordinated."(29)
Sometime after that weekend, when he finally got to read the Hilsman cable, Carter as Acting Director asked Vietnam specialist George Carver for an evaluation of the Saigon scene for him. Carver, then an eloquent O/NE analyst who had been a junior case officer in Saigon and would later become the DCI's Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs (SAVA), responded that the best hope for preserving US interests and attaining US objectives lay in the possibility of "an early coup d'etat, with sufficient military support to obviate a prolonged civil war."(30) Asked then by General Carter to discuss possible alternative leaders in Vietnam, Carver prepared a revised study on 28 August which included the judgment that the risks of not attempting the overthrow of Diem "are even greater than those involved in trying it," because "with the Ngo family regime in power, there is virtually no chance of achieving the objectives of our presence in South Vietnam."(31) Foreshadowing the influence George Carver's views were later to gain in policy circles, Acting Director Carter gave a copy of this personal memo to McGeorge Bundy. Carver's boss, O/NE deputy chief Abbot E. Smith, believed that Bundy then gave a copy of the memo to the President.(32)
On 3 September, O/NE sent forward its own formal views on these questions. Titled "South Vietnam's Leaders," that memorandum backed off from Carver's policy recommendations, but nonetheless held (l) that it was doubtful that the Ngo family could provide the necessary unified leadership in Vietnam, and (2) that although no one could guarantee a new regime would be more successful than Diem's, "it is possible, though far from certain" that new and more satisfactory leaders could be found.(33)
DCI McCone, although he was not averse to eliciting policy analyses from his intelligence analysts, in no way shared these--or other--expressions of pro-coup sentiment. From the dispatching of Hilsman's 24 August cable to the overthrow and murder of the Ngo brothers in November 1963, McCone repeatedly questioned both the assumptions behind the Hilsman-Harriman-Lodge course and the confused manner in which it was being pursued. During those weeks McCone stressed that the pro-coup decision had not been laid on properly, that the intelligence behind the decision was shaky, that by undertaking this course the United States was becoming too caught up in Vietnamese politics, that a coup would simply breed subsequent coups, and that it was consequently better to go along with what we had in Saigon than to place our bets on a new, unknown, and divided junta.
On 3 September, having returned from California, McCone met with Secretary Rusk, who "agreed with me that we should go slowly, that there was no apparent acceptable successor to Diem."(34) On 10 September, at a Presidential conference on Vietnam, McCone reminded the group that following "the National Estimate in May, which indicated that we could win," the Intelligence Community had produced an SNIE in July which held that the situation in Vietnam was deteriorating at such a rate that "victory is doubtful if not impossible."(35) At a second conference with the President the next day, McCone repeated his pessimistic prognosis, telling the group that within three months the situation in Vietnam "may become serious." And at that meeting, McCone agreed with Secretaries Rusk and McNamara that with respect to a possible change of government, "We should proceed cautiously."(36) Two weeks later, McCone repeated his concern regarding a possible change of government in Saigon, telling the CIA Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that, because there did not appear to be any cohesive military group capable of ousting the Diem government, and because a new regime there would probably be no better, CIA was urging a cautious, slow approach to the problem.(37)
In Saigon, however, Ambassador Lodge had begun to criticize CIA Station Chief John Richardson sharply, and word of this development soon appeared in the press. McCone recorded in a memorandum for the record, dated 26 September, that because the Agency had been urging "care and deliberation" since Hilsman's 24 August cable, this caution had proved "highly exasperating to those who wished to move precipitously," and explained why those enthusiasts were now moving swiftly, "without coordination and without intelligence support, and why they were carrying on a campaign against the CIA and the Station."(38) On that same day, 26 September, James Reston of The New York Times told McCone that the press attacks on the CIA had been "obviously planted . . . probably a good deal of it from Harriman," and that because the CIA had been taking a reserved position since late August, this might be causing "pain to some of those who wished to rush ahead."(39)
McCone continued to urge caution on these scores throughout October, the last month before Saigon's dissident generals finally carried out their coup. According to later testimony, in a meeting with the President on 5 October 1963 McCone told Kennedy that "if I was manager of a baseball team, [and] I had one pitcher, I'd keep him in the box whether he was a good pitcher or not'; McCone explained to the Senate's Church Committee in 1975 that by this he had meant that if Diem were removed, there would be not one coup but a succession of coups and political disorder in Vietnam.(40)
On 10 October 1963 the DCI told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "We have not seen a successor government in the wings that we could say positively would be an improvement over Diem"; therefore "we must proceed cautiously, otherwise a situation might flare up which might result in something of a civil war, and the Communists would come out the victor merely by sitting on the sidelines."(41) McCone repeated that caution on 16 October, telling a White House Special Group meeting that "an explosion" was imminent in Vietnam. The recorder of that meeting, Joseph W. Neubert, Special Assistant in State's Bureau of Far East Affairs, characterized the DCI's position as out of step with policy: "I believe we can expect McCone now to argue that the consequences of our present course are going to be unhelpful in the extreme and that we should, therefore, edge quite rapidly back toward what might be described as our policy toward Vietnam before last August."(42)
Until the coup on 1 November, McCone consistently voiced candid and, as events turned out, prescient criticisms of the Administration's pro-coup course. On 17 October, at a meeting of the Special Group, the DCI characterized US policy since August as being based on "a complete lack of intelligence" on the South Vietnamese political scene, as "exceedingly dangerous," and as likely to spell "absolute disaster for the United States."(43) On 21 October, McCone repeated these same concerns privately to President Kennedy.(44) On the 24th he said at another meeting of the Special Group that US officials in Saigon were becoming too involved in conversations between the CIA's Lou Conein and the dissidents' Gen. Tran Van Don.(45) On the 25th, asked by President Kennedy why he was out of step with US policy, the DCI responded that the United States should be working with Diem and Nhu rather than taking aggressive steps to remove them, a policy which McCone held was certain to result in political confusion. At that White House meeting, the DCI told President Kennedy that Washington was handling a delicate situation in a nonprofessional manner, that the dissident Saigon generals could not provide strong leadership, and that their coup would be simply the first of others that would follow.(46) On 29 October, the DCI again opposed the coup course, telling the President that a coup might be followed by a second or third coup.(47)
The last occasion, prior to the coup, on which the DCI criticized the Administration's course, was just two days before the coup took place, when McCone told Averell Harriman at a luncheon on 30 October that it was difficult to understand why the 24 August cable had been sent out so precipitately, and why CIA's views had not been sought. According to the DCI's memo of this conversation, Harriman accepted no responsibility for the cable, claiming that he had been told it had been coordinated with CIA. McCone: "I corrected this impression."(48)
Right up to the eve of the coup there was considerable uncertainty in CIA--at Headquarters and in the field--about whether a coup would be attempted and how it might turn out. On 30 October, the DDI's special South Vietnam Task Force--not having been cut in on the "Ambassador Only" Hilsman cable of 24 August or on CIA operational developments in Saigon--responded to a McCone query with the judgment that Diem's government "probably has a slightly better than even chance of being able to outmaneuver disaffected military elements and survive for the moment," but only if the United States "discourages present coup sentiments or maintains an ambiguous posture which creates uncertainty in the minds of the regime's opponents as well as its leaders." In response to another question, the memorandum added that US objectives "(i.e., the reduction of the VC threat to a point where US forces may be withdrawn)" probably could be achieved "only with a substantially increased US commitment over a considerable period of time (well beyond present US military schedules and domestic expectations)."(49) Also on 30 October, Colby's Far East Division asked Saigon Station to comment on the judgment that "available info here indicates that generals do not have clear preponderance of force in Saigon area, posing possibility of extended fighting."(50) Saigon Station replied that it had been given neither the coup group's plans nor data on its forces but that "the units in the field can be expected to have sufficient ammunition for the coup." The Station cable also contended that because the generals are "basically cautious" it was "unlikely they would move without expecting success." According to the Station, MACV commander Gen. Harkins cabled the following comment on that Station assessment: "MACV has no info from advisory rpt advisory personnel which could be interpreted as clear evidence of an impending coup." CIA files indicate that Harkins's cable was sent from Saigon some 40 minutes before the shooting started.(51)
And so ended the episode of the Agency's 1963 input into Vietnam policy. As we have seen, early in the year CIA's estimators had correctly gauged the shaky Vietnamese scene, but had then buckled under pressures exerted by the DCI and policymakers to give NIE 53-63 a markedly more optimistic cast. The authority given these intelligence judgments buttressed the decisionmakers' unfounded optimism; it also contributed to their swing to overpessimism within a few weeks' time, when the anti-Diem riots spread through most of South Vietnam and Buddhist priests began to immolate themselves. Thereafter, Director McCone consistently criticized the wisdom of Washington's coup course, as well as the manner in which Hilsman's 24 August cable had set it in motion. Yet the DCI's warnings made no more impact on policymaking than had the alarms the drafters of the initial NIE 53-63 had tried to sound early in the year.
The coup's consequences spelled disaster: America was tagged with part of the blame for Diem's murder; the Agency was tagged with having had a hand in engineering the coup, even though its DCI had not supported it; the coup indeed turned out to be just the first of others that followed;(52) and Saigon's subsequent rulers proved even less able than Diem and Nhu. Washington's policy managers now had to find some other expedient that might keep our Saigon ally from collapsing. The answer to which they stumbled, months later, was to take over the management of the war with direct and greatly expanded US air and ground force participation.
While the military and political costs of a big US investment in helping SVN may be high, I cannot think of a better place for our forces to be employed to give so much future national security benefits to the United States. Thus my conclusion is that we . . . must go all out on all three tracks: counterinsurgency, covert countermeasures, and military pressures by US forces.
- DDI Ray S. Cline (Deputy Director/Intelligence), 8 September 1964(53)
I think what we are doing in starting on a track which involves ground force operations . . . [will mean] an ever-increasing commitment of U.S. personnel without materially improving the chances of victory. . . . In effect, we will find ourselves mired down in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win, and from which we will have extreme difficulty in extracting ourselves.
- DCI John McCone, 2 April 1965(54)
The assassinations of Diem on 1 November and of President Kennedy three weeks later, wrought profound political changes in Saigon and Washington. In South Vietnam the initial rejoicing over the coup(55) evaporated as the new regime quickly proved inept and divided, and the Viet Cong capitalized on the postcoup confusion by expanding the range, intensity, and frequency of their armed attacks.(56) In Washington, an untried President who lacked John Kennedy's charisma and foreign affairs experience had to avert a major policy failure in Vietnam without incurring risks and costs that could scare off voters in the presidential election campaign facing him some months hence. As we will see, President Johnson solved his dilemma by moving the United States, if haltingly, toward military escalation. From the outset of his administration, backstage discussions of policy options focused not on whether to raise the US military commitment, but on how to do so.(57) For public consumption, however, Johnson portrayed his Republican presidential opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, as the war candidate.(58)
In moving slowly toward direct engagement in Vietnam, President Johnson displayed a policymaking style markedly different from that of his predecessor. Whereas Kennedy had sought the views of a wide spectrum of foreign policy lieutenants, Johnson listened principally to those who agreed with him. As later characterized by NSC staffer Chester L. Cooper, Johnson "seemed to have a blind mind-set which made him pay attention to people who said that (a) he was right, (b) there was a way out, and (c) there were no other alternatives to what he wanted to do."(59) This change of style quickly froze out Vice President Hubert Humphrey, as well as Messrs. Harriman, Forrestal, Hilsman, and a number of State Department officials who previously had influential roles in Vietnam policymaking. Johnson now turned principally to Pentagon advisers, especially Secretary McNamara, as well as to ex-President Eisenhower.(60)
As for DCI McCone, President Johnson had periodically sought his personal advice on a wide range of issues, many of them involving sensitive policy and personnel matters far beyond strictly intelligence questions. A typical reflection of this closeness was a December 1963 McCone-Johnson discussion at the President's Texas ranch: Johnson told McCone that he wanted to change the DCI's cloak-and-dagger image to that of a presidential adviser on world issues. Among such activities the President wished him to take in the immediate future, the DCI recorded, was "to return to California to meet with President Eisenhower--to discuss with him certain aspects of the world situation and also the particular actions which President Johnson had taken in the interests of government economy."(61)
The DCI's Presidential advisory role did not extend to Vietnam; with rarely occasional exceptions, President Johnson never included John McCone among his innermost Vietnam advisers. Nonetheless, as we will see, until Johnson and McCone began to part company in late 1964 on issues concerning the war, the DCI and senior CIA officers participated actively in a number of policy-related endeavors.
In these, McCone was consistently more pessimistic about likely developments than were virtually all of Washington's other senior officers, and certainly much more pessimistic than he had himself been, early in 1963, when he had decried the gloomy outlook of NIE 53-63 and demanded its revision. Soon after the Vietnamese generals' coup on 1 November, the DCI had registered his concern at a 20 November Honolulu policy conference, where he found MACV General Harkins's assessment of the Vietnam situation too rosy and returned to CIA "more discouraged about South Vietnam than ever in the past."(62) McCone was still troubled four days later when he told President Johnson that he did not agree with Ambassador Lodge's postcoup enthusiasms: "I concluded by stating that we could not at this point or time give a particularly optimistic appraisal of the future."(63)
The DCI also gave the intelligence subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee a somber assessment on 6 December, testifying that he was "extremely worried" about Vietnam, even though he did not consider the situation desperate or in danger of "going down the drain." He did not hesitate to advise the committee that the United States should not get into the Vietnam conflict with its own combat forces, and that the going policy of training the South Vietnamese to do their own fighting was "sound."(64)
On 7 December, McCone named Peer DeSilva to be John Richardson's successor as COS in Saigon. On that same day, helping Director McCone pave the way for DeSilva, President Johnson sent Ambassador Lodge instructions that henceforth there "must be complete understanding and cooperation" between him and the CIA station chief, and no more inspired "mutterings in the press." LBJ told Lodge, "I cannot overemphasize the importance which I personally attach to correcting the situation which has existed in Saigon in the past, and which I saw myself when I was out there."(65) Paralleling the President's admonishment, McCone cabled Lodge the same day that "acting on direction of higher authority," he would be arriving in Saigon on 18 December, accompanied by Marine General Krulak, Bill Colby, and Peer DeSilva, and that Secretary McNamara would be joining them the next day.(66)
In Saigon on 21 December the DCI met first with General Harkins, who told him that a disastrous situation that had just erupted in Long An Province, just south of Saigon, would be reduced to a "police action" by the "middle of 1964," a view the DCI viewed as overoptimistic.(67) That same day, after introducing DeSilva to Lodge, the DCI privately told the Ambassador that there was no excuse for the "totally erroneous" reporting on Long An, and that that intelligence failure must be corrected.(68) Later that day, in summing up the visiting party's discussions, the DCI registered his deep concern about South Vietnam, an estimate now far different from that he had held early in the year. He wrote:
There is no organized government in South Vietnam at this time. . . . It is abundantly clear that statistics received over the past year or more from the GVN officials and reported by the US military on which we gauged the trend of the war were grossly in error. . . . The military government may be an improvement over the Diem-Nhu regime, but this is not as yet established and the future of the war remains in doubt. In my judgment, there are more reasons to doubt the future of the effort under present programs and moderate extensions to existing programs than there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of our cause in South Vietnam.(69)
Secretary McNamara returned from Saigon with similar views. On 21 December (Washington time) he gave President Johnson a dark assessment of the outlook in Vietnam. McNamara told the President that the situation in Vietnam was "very disturbing," and that unless current trends were reversed in the next two to three months, developments would move toward "neutralization at best and more likely to a Communist-controlled state." In his report, the Secretary said that the new government in Saigon was "the greatest source of concern," that the US Embassy's country team was "the second major weakness," and that the situation had "in fact been deteriorating in the countryside since July to a far greater extent than we realized because of our undue dependence on distorted Vietnamese reporting." McNamara assured the President that he and DCI McCone had discussed these reporting problems and were acting vigorously to improve CIA and Defense intelligence.(70)
McNamara and McCone met with the President later the same day to report their conclusions in person. There McCone seconded McNamara's concerns about poor reporting and the uncertain outlook in Vietnam, although he added that he was perhaps not quite as pessimistic as the Defense Secretary. McCone emphasized that improvement did not lie in committing additional US strength; rather, the Vietnamese themselves must carry the main burden. The DCI concluded that subsequent coups in Saigon were likely.(71) Two days later, McCone reminded the President of concerns he had expressed on the 2lst and reported that he was sending out a number of CIA's "old Vietnamese hands" to help expand covert capabilities to report on the effectiveness of the new ruling junta and the Vietnamese public's acceptance of it. The DCI acknowledged that while this had not been CIA's role in the past, it was now justified because the situation in Vietnam had become "so critical."(72)
McCone immediately began to implement this initiative, justifying it to Secretary Rusk on 7 January with the observation that MACV and Embassy reporting had proved "incorrect" because of their reliance on Vietnamese province and district chiefs who felt obliged to "create statistics" that would please their Saigon superiors.(73) McCone's scheme to report covertly on the GVN, however, encountered mixed reviews. On the one hand, NSC staffer Michael Forrestal thought it a good idea and recommended to his boss, McGeorge Bundy, that McCone should be encouraged.(74) But in his memo Forrestal recognized that McCone's idea would not go down well with Secretary McNamara, who would doubtless "have difficulty in accepting the thought that CIA should take on a separate reporting function" and would view McCone's scheme as "an implied criticism of the Saigon command and its uniformed counterpart in Washington." Forrestal's concern proved well-founded. Indeed, McNamara insisted that the group of experts sent out be broadened to a CIA-Defense-State team. And when that joint team's CIA members filed their evaluation of field reporting on 18 February, MACV commander Gen. Paul Harkins found some of its judgments overly pessimistic; he objected that the CIA group might be exceeding its terms of reference by reporting unilaterally and so "misleading the national decision process by forwarding information not coordinated and cleared with other elements of the U.S. reporting mechanism in Vietnam."(75)
In early 1964, while DCI McCone and virtually all officers and entities of the Agency nursed doubts about the field's reporting and the outlook in Vietnam, the Johnson administration's policy planners began a high-priority search for new avenues to victory over the Communists in South Vietnam. The planners' basic assumption was that punishing North Vietnam would "convince the North Vietnamese that it was in their economic self-interest to desist from aggression in South Vietnam."(76) The planned punishment took two forms: an initial battery of more aggressive covert operations against and within the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam], and a quietly constructed contingency plan for an improved war effort in the south, strengthened by US military operations against North Vietnam. From the outset, CIA intelligence played an active part in both these new endeavors.
The first of these was a Defense Department covert action project titled Operations Plan (OPLAN) 34A-64, which had a proposed launch date of 1 February. Initial operations would include expanding intelligence collection by U-2 aircraft and electronic methods; expanding psychological operations via leaflet drops, phantom covert operations, and expanded black and white radiobroadcasts; and beginning a sustained program of airborne and maritime sabotage operations against such targets as bridges, railways, storage dumps, and small islands within North Vietnam.(77)
CIA's participation in OPLAN 34-A began with a response to a request from USMC Gen. Victor "Brute" Krulak (Special Assistant to the JCS for Counterinsurgency Operations) that O/NE comment on the probable Communist and international reactions to thirteen of the draft OPLAN's Phase I operational proposals. On 2 January O/NE concluded that the thirteen operations under review, "taken by themselves, and even if all were successful, would not 'convince the DRV leadership that their continued direction and support of insurgent activities in the RVN (South Vietnam) and Laos should cease'--this, according to the Op-Plan, being their stated goal."(78)
McCone was similarly skeptical. On 7 January he judged that "the operation, being a very modest extension" of previous covert operations, "will not seriously affect the DRV or cause them to change their policies"; therefore, he concluded, a "more dynamic, aggressive plan" should be substituted.(79) On that same day, he voiced similar doubts to McGeorge Bundy, telling him that he had no objection to the proposed covert operations, but that "the President should be informed that this is not the greatest thing since peanut butter."(80) Despite his want of enthusiasm, McCone nevertheless joined Bundy, Secretary Rusk, and Secretary McNamara in recommending that President Johnson approve OPLAN 34-A.(81)
CIA officials also participated in the administration's simultaneous policy search--one of far larger consequence--for the best ways, means, and timing to save South Vietnam. Here the prime movers urging President Johnson to expand the war were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued tirelessly that active US combat intervention was mandatory to keep our Saigon ally from collapsing, and a number of civilian and military strategists who assured the President that bombing North Vietnam would bring Hanoi to the negotiating table and cause it to reduce its support of the Viet Cong.
In pushing for military intervention, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were reversing a position their predecessors had taken in l954 when the Eisenhower administration had faced the problem of whether to commit US combat forces in Indochina. At that time the JCS had held that Indochina "is devoid of decisive military objectives and the allocation of more than token US armed forces to that area would be a serious diversion of limited US capabilities."(82) By 1961, different circumstances and new chiefs had begun to change that assessment. On 9 May of that year, JCS Chairman Lyman L. Lemnitzer urged that Diem should be encouraged to request that the United States fulfill its collective security obligation by sending "appropriate" forces to Vietnam.(83) Vice President Johnson had disagreed at that time, telling President Kennedy that "American combat troop involvement is not only not required, it is not desirable."(84) By early 1964, however, now President Johnson faced not only a sharply deteriorating situation in Vietnam, but a presidential campaign in which he did not wish to be seen as being "soft" on Communism.
In 1963-64 the administration's primary civilian advocate of escalation was Walt W. Rostow, at the time Director of the Department of State's Policy Planning Staff, and later (l966) the NSC's Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. A widely read economic theorist, Rostow had long proclaimed that the world was locked in a Communist-capitalist struggle whose outcome would be decided in the Third World; subsequently, he deemed South Vietnam to be the keystone of that anti-Communist arch. In 1961 he had told an Army audience that the Communists, in concentrating their pressures on the weaker nations, were the "scavengers of the modernization process," that communism is best understood as a "disease of the transition to modernization," and that "we are determined to help destroy this international disease."(85) From his vantage point at State, he had been arguing for some time that it would take US escalation of the war, especially bombing North Vietnam, to save South Vietnam from collapse.(86)
Now, in late 1963, moved especially by Secretary McNamara's concern that the situation had become so critical that South Vietnam might go Communist, Rostow ordered his Policy Planning Staff to prepare a preliminary examination of his thesis that the United States should construct an integrated plan for imposing sanctions "on an ascending scale" against North Vietnam. The aims of those measures, according to Rostow, were to cause North Vietnam to cease its infiltration of men and arms into South Vietnam and Laos, to cease its direction of Communist hostilities inside both countries, and to withdraw its own troops from South Vietnam and Laos. Rostow reasoned that the threat, or the actual implementation, of US bombing would "work" for essentially two reasons: the DRV now had an industrial base its leaders would not wish destroyed, and they would fear being driven by US attacks into a position of "virtual vassalage" to Communist China. In addition, he thought the USSR and China, fearing escalation of the war, might also prefer to damp it down.(87)
This preliminary study was translated into a formal interdepartmental examination, as one response to an NSC directive of 14 February 1964 that established a special Vietnam Task Force under the direction of State Department officer William H. Sullivan.(88) The day following the promulgation of this NSAM, Secretary Rusk told an initial Sullivan Task Force meeting that their endeavors had "the highest priority," that developments in the Vietnam war might force them to "face some extremely dangerous decisions in the coming months," but that no planning was to be done on the subject of withdrawal from Vietnam.(89) According to CIA files, President Johnson told DCI McCone and other senior officers on 20 February that contingency planning for putting pressure on North Vietnam should be "speeded up," and that particular attention should be given to creating pressures that would "produce the maximum credible deterrent effect on Hanoi."(90)
Even before its formal constitution, the Sullivan Task Force on 9 February had put a subcommittee to work on a detailed examination of Rostow's thesis. Headed by State's Robert H. Johnson, its members were directed to return their findings by early March, in time for Secretary McNamara's next scheduled visit to South Vietnam. Bob Johnson's interagency team consisted of l2 members drawn from State, Defense, the Joint Staff, USIA, and CIA.(91)
Working days, nights, and weekends, this team produced a searching study that examined virtually all the military and political questions that might obtain, should the United States activate the Rostow plan. The group finished its examination on 1 March. The basic question was whether the proposed US attacks on the DRV would work: would those attacks cause the DRV to order the Viet Cong to cease its activities, and would the DRV cease its support of the Viet Cong? The group's answer was no, the scheme would not work:
It is not likely that North Vietnam would (if it could) call off the war in the South even though U.S. actions would in time have serious economic and political impact. Overt action against North Vietnam would be unlikely to produce reduction in Viet Cong activity sufficiently to make victory on the ground possible in South Vietnam unless accompanied by new U.S. bolstering actions in South Vietnam and considerable improvement in the government there. The most to be expected would be reduction of North Vietnamese support of the Viet Cong for a while and, thus, the gaining of some time and opportunity by the government of South Vietnam to improve itself.(92)
On 2 March, CIA's senior representative on the subcommittee paraphrased this key judgment for DCI McCone: "The assessment's principal conclusions are . . . that we are not sanguine that the posited US actions would in fact cause Hanoi to call off the war in the South"; and that even if Hanoi did cease or reduce its support of the Viet Cong, "considerable political-military improvement would be necessary in SVN if the GVN were to have a chance of permanently reducing the VC threat."(93) This basic judgment, agreed upon by an interagency panel, closely paralleled positions CIA's Office of National Estimates had been taking since at least l96l, and foreshadowed judgments CIA representatives would continue to put forward in interagency forums throughout 1964.(94)
Robert Johnson's interagency intelligence officers did not confine themselves to questioning the efficacy of bombing the North; they raised broad political questions as well. Here again their judgments were somber. Their report suggested that the United States might get caught up in a situation in which the South Vietnamese or the Laotian Government might crumble in the midst of US escalation, thereby destroying the political base for the US actions. They also warned that if the US bombings of the North did not work, "the costs of failure might be greater than the cost of failure under a counter-insurgency strategy because of the deeper U.S. commitment and the broader world implications."(95)
The intelligence group's warnings had little if any effect on the policy decisions that were subsequently made--the fate of virtually all such intelligence inputs into the administration's 1964-65 contingency planning for expanding its role in Vietnam. In fact, even before the Johnson group had completed its deliberations, Walt Rostow met with his boss, Secretary Rusk, "to report to you the results of our individual review of the attached report on Southeast Asia prepared by the Policy Planning Council." Rostow told Rusk the concept of that report was that military and other sanctions against North Vietnam "could cause it to call off the war principally because of its fear that it would otherwise risk loss of its politically important industrial development; because of its fear of being driven into the arms of Communist China; and because of Moscow's, Peiping's and Hanoi's concern about escalation."(96)
There is no indication in available files that Rostow ever told the Secretary of State that Rusk's own study group had failed to support Rostow's assurance to the Secretary that bombing the North might save the South. Nor is there any indication that the group's judgments became known to or had any effect on top policymakers. Later in 1964, nonetheless, the Robert Johnson exercise did materially influence the administration's most outspoken senior skeptic, Under Secretary of State George Ball. In October he prepared a long, scathing criticism of President Johnson's entire Vietnam course. His critique specifically cited the judgment by Robert Johnson's interagency group that probably the most that could be expected "in the best of circumstances" from US bombings of the North would be that North Vietnam would ultimately slacken and ostensibly cease its support of the VC, but that "We can, of course, have no assurance that such 'best of circumstances' would obtain, even if considerable damage had been done the DRV."(97)
While the Robert Johnson group toiled and the initial covert pressures conceived in OPLAN 34-A were being applied against North Vietnam, a second coup occurred in Saigon: on 30 January 1964, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khanh overthrew the junta that had murdered President Diem. In succeeding weeks, CIA officers showered policymakers with assessments detailing the GVN's political and military malaise.(98)
DCI McCone told Secretary Rusk on 6 February that there was evidence of increased Viet Cong activities and victories.(99) On 9 February, CIA sent Secretary McNamara a Saigon Station appraisal that the South Vietnamese population at large "appears apathetic, without enthusiasm either for the GVN or VC sides but responsive to the latter because it fears the VC."(100) On 10, 11, 14, and 18 February, a special CIA mission to Saigon sent policymakers assessments which "instead of finding progress . . . reported a serious and steadily deteriorating situation."(101) On 12 February, the DCI and the Intelligence Community issued SNIE 50-64, "Short-Term Prospects in Southeast Asia," which held that the question at hand was whether the situations in South Vietnam and Laos "may be on the verge of collapse," and which judged that the South Vietnamese "have at best an even chance of withstanding the insurgency threat during the next few weeks or months."(102) On 18 February, Richard Helms, CIA's Deputy Director for Plans, wrote Secretary Rusk that the tide of insurgency in all four corps areas in Vietnam "appears to be going against GVN."(103) On 20 February, CIA Far East chief Bill Colby's briefing for the White House began, "The Viet Cong have taken advantage of the power vacuum . . . in Saigon to score both military and psychological gains in the countryside'; the belief appeared widespread among the Vietnamese that "the tide is running against the government in all areas of the country."(104) And on 29 February, McCone told Secretary McNamara that the outlook in Vietnam was "very bad, and that unless the Khanh government demonstrated an ability for leadership of the nation, we could expect further and perhaps fatal deterioration."(105)
Thanks in part to these CIA assessments, the growing appreciation in Washington of the fragile Vietnam situation led in mid-March 1964 to a landmark White House decision to begin contingency planning, backstage, for selective attacks against the DRV by US air and naval forces. The progression of steps in this direction were the President's decision to dispatch Secretary McNamara and General Taylor to assess the situation on the ground in Saigon; the President's acceptance on 4 March of the need to make Hanoi accountable for its actions in South Vietnam;(106) the return of McNamara and Taylor from their four-day trip to Saigon; and, based largely on their report of the grim situation there, a formal NSC action on 17 March which raised America's military commitment in Vietnam another notch. McCone was a member of the McNamara-Taylor party, and his pessimism about the Vietnam situation clearly contributed to the draining of the Pentagon leaders' remaining optimism about South Vietnamese conduct of the war.
On 3 March, in preparation for his Vietnam trip, McCone had drafted a gloomy personal appraisal of the situation. He held that many areas in the countryside were being lost to the Viet Cong, with the result that "there is a growing feeling that the VC may be the wave of the future." He complained that intelligence from the field had been spotty: "there has been submersion of bad news and an overstatement of good news"; for the past year, "we have been misinformed about conditions in Vietnam." Then the DCI directly challenged the concept that going North would save the South. In his view, carrying the action to North Vietnam would not guarantee victory in the absence of a strengthened GVN. And if present disruptive trends in South Vietnamese politics continued, bombing the North "would not win the war in South Vietnam and would cause the United States such serious problems in every corner of the world that we should not sanction such an effort."(107) On that same day Major General Krulak, who with McCone had criticized the NIE 53-63 estimators for not being sufficiently upbeat 12 months earlier, now registered a change of heart similar to that of the DCI. On 3 March, in the briefing book he was preparing for McNamara's Saigon trip, Krulak told the Secretary that South Vietnam now faced "the most critical situation in its nearly 10 years of existence," and that all available evidence pointed to "a steady improvement in the VC's military posture, both quantitatively and qualitatively, throughout 1963 and the first two months of 1964."(108)
In Saigon, McCone received briefings from Station officers which detailed South Vietnam's numerous political and military weaknesses. He did not contest their assessments. He concluded that the United States should stick with General Khanh; that consideration should be given to moving "two or possibly three" of Taiwan's Chinese Nationalist divisions into the southern tip of South Vietnam's delta; that the measures Washington's policymakers were proposing would prove to be "too little too late"; and that in any event, hitting the North would prove unavailing unless accompanied by considerable political improvement in the South.(109) Another champion of using combat forces from Taiwan at the time was DDI Ray Cline, who had recently returned from talks with President Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei and who in early March recommended that Chinese Nationalist armed forces, including an air commando unit, be used in Vietnam.(110) McCone and Cline, however, received no significant backing on this score from senior decisionmakers, who saw numerous drawbacks to the idea.(111)
On 16 March, upon his return from Vietnam, McNamara gave President Johnson a detailed accounting of the fragile scene in Vietnam and offered a number of recommendations for improving the situation. Most of these concerned strengthening the GVN's political and military effectiveness. The Secretary concluded that direct US attacks on the North were premature, but that preparations should go forward that would permit the United States "to be in a position on 30 days' notice to initiate a program of 'Graduated Overt Military Pressure' against North Vietnam."(112) On 17 March the NSC issued National Security Action Memorandum 288, in which President Johnson accepted McNamara's recommendations and directed that the creating of a standby capability to bomb the North should "proceed energetically."(113)
"US Objectives in South Vietnam" were listed under that title on 17 March in National Security Action Memorandum 288, in which, inter alia, the National Security Council made the domino thesis an integral part of formal US policy. Unless South Vietnam could be changed into a viable, independent non-Communist state, NSAM 288 asserted, all of Southeast Asia would probably fall under Communist dominance or accommodate to Communist influence. "Even the Philippines would become shaky, and the threat to India on the West, Australia and New Zealand to the South, and Taiwan, Korea, and Japan to the North and East would be greatly increased."(114) The Johnson administration did not bother to ask for a CIA intelligence evaluation of these assumptions until some weeks later--and then ignored the response.
It was the Board of National Estimates, CIA's permanent panel of "wise men," that the White House at length asked to pronounce the analytic judgment on the domino thesis. The loss of Vietnam would of course be a shock, replied the Board on 9 June, but with the possible exception of Cambodia, the rest of East Asia would probably not fall rapidly to Communist control, and there would be much the United States could do to shore up the area.(115) It is noteworthy (1) that the Board called into question one of the primary theses on which US policy and military planning were being based and, by June, briskly executed; (2) that CIA had not been asked for its view of the domino thesis until 10 weeks after the NSC had already inscribed it as formal US policy; and (3) that the Board's conclusions had no apparent impact on existing or subsequent policy.
March 1964 closed with new doubts being expressed by the NSC Staff's Michael Forrestal, one of those officials who had rejected the NIE 53-63 draft a year before for being too pessimistic. On 30 March 1964 he wrote his boss, McGeorge Bundy, that "warning indicators" were now flashing, and that "Chet Cooper is completely right. This is a Greek tragedy, and the curtain is slowly descending."(116)
The thesis that bombing the North would save the South was examined again in April, this time by a JCS military-political war game titled SIGMA-I-64. CIA and Intelligence Community officers were well represented in all three of the game's teams, Blue, Red, and Control, staffed mostly by lieutenant colonels through brigadier generals and their civilian equivalents. Although the Blue Team fielded some true believers in victory through airpower, the game's posited US escalation did not work: the DRV did not knuckle under to the heightened pressures but counterescalated by pouring more troops into the South. As the game progressed, the military-political situation played out in South Vietnam went from bad to worse, and the United States ended up in a no-win situation, its policy options essentially narrowed to two unpromising alternatives. On the one hand, it could try to seek a military decision by greatly expanding hostilities against the DRV--which SIGMA-I's players judged might risk repeating the Korean experience of massive Chinese intervention. Or, Washington could begin deescalating--which the players held could cost it a marked loss of US credibility and prestige.(117) The thesis of escalated punishment of North Vietnam had again been tested by interagency experts and found wanting.
Two of the CIA officers who participated in the war game, the author and the Deputy Chief of DDP's Far East Division, were so upset by some of SIGMA-I's assumptions and outcomes that they sent DCI McCone a critique that went beyond mere intelligence questions. In their view, the concept that hitting the North would save the South was "highly dubious" because "the principal sources of VC strength and support are indigenous, and even if present DRV direction and support of the VC could be cut off, these would not assure victory in the South." Attacking the North should be considered a supplementary course of action, not a cure-all, and such action could be effective "only if considerable GVN political-military improvement also takes place." Further, they observed, the war game seriously underestimated the impact and influence of adverse public, Congressional, and world opinion: "There would be widespread concern that the U.S. was risking major war, in behalf of a society that did not seem anxious to save itself, and by means not at all certain to effect their desired ends in the South." These officers concluded that "the United States should not move against the DRV blithely, but know beforehand what we may be getting into, military and politically;" unless there is enough military-political potential in the South to make the whole Vietnam effort worthwhile, they concluded, "the U.S. would only be exercising its great, but irrelevant, armed strength."(118)
The war game's failure to validate the thesis that punishing the DRV would save the South failed to derail or even slow the administration's deliberate pace toward a Northern solution. According to available files, the only significant high-level attention to SIGMA-I's negative outcome was given by Under Secretary of State George Ball a few weeks later when he asked Secretary Rusk why the United States was contemplating air action against the North "in the face of a recently played war game that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of such a tactic."(119) Ball's question apparently went unanswered.
In April-June, the tempo of the Johnson administration's Vietnam planning rose several more notches with a top-level conclusion that the military situation in the South had deteriorated to the point that the Pentagon's role had to be significantly expanded. Many officials who had been confident of South Vietnamese progress now expressed dismay at the worsening situation. Most significantly, Secretary McNamara now reversed earlier strategic policy by at last canceling plans made under President Kennedy to begin withdrawing US military personnel from Vietnam, and announced that more might have to be sent there. CINCPAC and the JCS began quietly drawing up folders of bombing targets in North Vietnam. Senior White House, State, and Defense officials held conference after conference, with McCone and Colby present on virtually every occasion, to discuss means of carrying the war to North Vietnam--with never a reference to the conclusions of the earlier Robert Johnson interagency study group and the Sigma-I war game that bombing the North would not work. Other officials began making ready a draft enabling resolution against the day when Congressional approval might be sought. When at this time French President de Gaulle proposed that Vietnam be neutralized, the White House sought to counter de Gaulle by asking Canada to tell Ho Chi Minh that the Johnson administration was prepared to carry the war to the North if it did not markedly cut back its support to the Viet Cong.
One of the clearest examples of policymakers' dismay at this time was Secretary McNamara's private admission, contrary to his continuing public assurances that things would ultimately be well in Vietnam, that the situation there was in fact shaky. As recorded by William Colby, at a meeting with President Johnson and Director McCone on 14 May, McNamara termed the Saigon Country Team "a mess," criticized Ambassador Lodge for keeping COS DeSilva at arm's length, and described Country Team morale as "extremely low" because no direction was being given the counterinsurgency program. He observed that Ambassador Lodge was becoming despondent and had recently stated that, if General Khanh's government should fall, the US should establish a base at Cam Ranh Bay and "run the country." At this 14 May White House meeting, President Johnson confided that his principal concern was American public opinion, given what he considered to be a widening belief that the United States was losing the war and that the administration was pursuing a no-win policy. Johnson told McNamara that the administration must do more but, as recorded by Colby, "he does not know what. . . . He said he does not want to get into a war but he is willing to take some risks if necessary. The overall posture must be improved beyond 'more of the same.'"(120)
Four days later, DCI McCone joined Secretary McNamara and State's William Bundy(121) in telling President Johnson that the situation in Vietnam had become so precarious that the chances were now "at least 50-50" that in the absence of action against North Vietnam, both Vietnam and Laos would "deteriorate by the latter part of this year to a point where they would be very difficult to save." According to a CIA file copy of Bundy's record of this agreement, "a select group" had been working since early March on a "possible sequence of actions to be followed if a decision were taken to hit the North."(122) CIA files do not record whether Bundy told the President that in March that group's intelligence subcommittee had concluded that the Rostow bombing thesis would not work.
During May and June specific clues began to appear as to what the scope of expanded US participation in the war might involve. According to CIA files, a scenario prepared by the State Department dated 23 May recommended that US and South Vietnamese aircraft bomb DRV communication lines, harbors, and industries, and suggested that the use of nuclear weapons be considered in the event Communist China entered the war in force.(123) On 25 May, according to DCI McCone's notes, Secretary McNamara told President Johnson that "any action against North Vietnam must anticipate the commitment of at least seven divisions in Southeast Asia."(124) At a policy conference in Honolulu on 1 and 2 June, according to McCone's account, Secretaries Rusk and McNamara agreed that "we must prepare for extreme contingencies even though we consider them improbable."(125) On 2 June, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended that the United States should take "positive, prompt, and meaningful military action" to "accomplish destruction of the North Vietnamese will and capabilities" to support the Communist insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos.(126) And on 5 June, Ambassador Lodge in Saigon recommended heightened US actions against the DRV: "Not only would screams from the North have a very tonic effect and strengthen morale here; it is also vital to frighten Ho."(127)
All the while DCI McCone was persistently warning policymakers that South Vietnam was in deep trouble. In early May he had told House and Senate intelligence subcommittees that the situation was bleak. On 12 May, he cabled Bill Colby, then in Saigon, that he was "deeply concerned that the situation in South Vietnam may be deteriorating to a greater extent than we realize," and commissioned Colby to check on whether intelligence reporting "is providing proper appreciation of the actual situation . . ."(128) McCone reported that at the Honolulu conference of 1-2 June he took exception to certain of the optimistic assessments of the situation in South Vietnam advanced by the new MACV commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, averring instead that there was an "erosion of the will of the people to resist" and that "the downward spiral would continue."(129)
By now McCone shared the belief that the war must be taken to the North, though he differed with some of the military particulars being suggested. As we have seen, on 18 May he had agreed that the South might be lost unless the United States took military action against the North. The following week, at a meeting of the NSC's Executive Committee, 24 May, he had urged that "if we go into North Vietnam we should go in hard and not limit our action to pinpricks."(130) And at the June conference in Honolulu he agreed with Secretaries Rusk and McNamara that the United States must prepare for extreme contingencies.(131)
McCone felt strongly at this time, however, that US airstrikes against the North would suffice to contain and deter the enemy and that US ground forces should not be committed in the South. After a meeting with the President and the Secretary of Defense on 25 May, he wrote that he had differed sharply with McNamara's assessment that any US action against the DRV should anticipate the commitment of at least seven divisions in Southeast Asia. "I took issue with this point," wrote McCone, because he felt that air attacks would be more decisive and possibly conclusive. He argued that "we had better forget" the idea of sending US troops to Vietnam because "the American people and Congress would not support such an action under any conditions."(132) Contrary to McCone's expectation, as we will see, the President did receive widespread public support, at least for some months, when in early l965 he at last made his decision to dispatch combat troops to Vietnam.
Although McCone had long since come around to the more pessimistic views of Vietnam held by his staff, the months of May through July 1964 saw some distinct gaps open up between these officers and the Director over how to save the situation. Whereas he now felt that this could best be accomplished by carrying the war to the North, most of his Vietnam specialists--in the DDP, DDI, O/NE, and elsewhere--continued to insist, as they had for some time, that the war had to be won in the South through substantially improved GVN political-military performance.
On 21 May, just three days after DCI McCone had joined McNamara and Bill Bundy in telling the President that South Vietnam might be lost unless the United States went North, CIA officers Bill Colby and Chet Cooper championed an alternative course, one they termed "massive counterinsurgency" in the South.(133) Meanwhile, on 27 May O/NE prepared a draft memorandum for the United States Intelligence Board (USIB) addressing McNamara's recommended deployment of seven US divisions to Southeast Asia. This, it was argued, would "tend to convey precisely what it was not supposed to, that the US was resolved to transform the struggle over South Vietnam into a war against North Vietnam in which the survival of the DRV regime would be at stake." Furthermore, according to O/NE, the expanded US commitment "would provoke a generally more adverse world reaction" than previous NIEs had indicated; meanwhile, the enemy would not cease and desist.(134)
The Johnson administration received additional unwelcome views from CIA when on 8 June, O/NE Board member Willard Matthias ventured to surmise that the situation in South Vietnam had so deteriorated that "some kind of negotiated settlement based upon neutralization" might develop in the world. (This senior CIA officer's judgment would precipitate a flap in August when his heresy was leaked to the press.)(135) On the same day the CIA General Counsel (1) advised the DCI that there was "a serious domestic problem in [the administration's] taking increasingly militant steps without any specific congressional approval," and (2) seconded the DCI's earlier expressed view that the President would not be able to obtain a meaningful joint resolution from the Congress.(136) And it was on the next day that O/NE questioned the embrace the NSC had given the domino thesis in March.(137)
In July, developments in South Vietnam seemed to strengthen the case for hitting the Vietnamese Communists harder and more directly. On 24 July, McCone cautioned President Johnson that the Viet Cong were growing stronger and the situation increasingly critical.(138) Confirming McCone's analysis, Saigon Station Chief Peer DeSilva reported two days later that a crisis appeared at hand, "possibly involving the will of the present leadership to continue the war." General Khanh now purported to believe that war weariness in the South had reached such an acute state that "heroic new measures, beyond the borders of South Vietnam" were now necessary to bring any prospect of victory. (139) In a parallel cable, the new Ambassador in Saigon, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, reported that Khanh had apparently come to believe the Viet Cong could not be defeated by counterinsurgency means alone, and therefore he had launched a deliberate campaign to get the United States to "march North." Taylor added that if Khanh and his colleagues were not successful in this effort, strong pressures might develop within the GVN to seek a negotiated settlement: "there are signs that this possibility cannot be excluded . . ."(140) The Ambassador requested that he be authorized to tell Khanh that although the idea of expanding hostilities beyond South Vietnam "has not been seriously discussed up to now . . . the time has come for giving the matter a thorough [joint] analysis."(141)
Washington's answer was a cautious OK. Following Presidential conferences on 25 July, attended by DDCI Carter and C/FE Colby, Ambassador Taylor was instructed that joint planning should go forward focused primarily on improving counterinsurgency efforts in the South, but stopping short for the moment of measures involving overt US military action against the North.(142) At the same time, the White House gave CIA the high-priority task of estimating Communist reactions to various new courses of action which might include "selected air missions using non-US unmarked aircraft against prime military targets" in the DRV.(143) Thus, just three months before the November Presidential election, the Johnson administration was preparing contingency plans for expanding US participation in the war but was keeping both the plans and the act of planning quiet.
Within a week's time, events in the Gulf of Tonkin changed the situation. In early August, in response to what were perceived as attacks by DRV patrol boats on the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy, US Navy planes bombed military targets along 100 miles of North Vietnam's coastline, and President Johnson had whiffed his long-prepared Joint Resolution through the Congress.(144)
August-October 1964 saw more heated backstage policy debate on whether to "go North," principally between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. The JCS maintained that only airstrikes against the North could save the South; others who held similar views included MACV General Westmoreland, Secretary of State Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, and Walt Rostow. By contrast, McNamara insisted that the prime requirement remained stability in the South, and that bombing the North would not ensure that result; weighing in with similar arguments were Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and his Saigon country team, the Pentagon's International Security Affairs bureau, and State's William Bundy. These conflicting arguments were aired during a September-October interagency policy examination led by DoD/ISA, which specifically revisited Walt Rostow's thesis that bombing the North would save the South.(145) The President and his senior advisers, who might have entered or refereed the debate, were besieged at this time by more pressing developments external to Vietnam, chief among them the fall of Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Communist China's detonation of a nuclear device, crises in Africa, and--not least--President Johnson's race against what he termed "the war candidate," Senator Barry Goldwater.
Although they were not major participants in the Vietnam strategy debates, DCI McCone and his officers did not hesitate to offer numerous judgments concerning related events and policy issues. On 4 August, at the height of the argument over how to respond to the Tonkin Gulf attacks, McCone told the President and the NSC that those attacks had been a defensive reaction by the North Vietnamese to prior covert gunboat raids (part of OPLAN 34A) on North Vietnamese islands: "They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations." In the DCI's view, the North Vietnamese attacks did not "represent a deliberate decision to provoke or accept a major escalation of the Vietnamese war," but were a signal to the United States that Hanoi was determined to continue the war and was "raising the ante."(146) On 9 September, McCone told Ambassador Taylor that the Intelligence Community now considered the situation in the South so fragile that it was doubtful national unity could be established there. The DCI in addition judged that the DRV would match any introduction of US ground forces in the South: "The Communists would pin our units down by matching them with equal or superior force."(147) Also on 9 September, McCone participated in a Presidential conference on Vietnam, where he remarked that CIA was "very gravely concerned" about the situation in the South. Then, contrary to views his Board of National Estimates had been maintaining for some time, McCone held that the loss of Vietnam would lead, dominolike, to the loss of Southeast Asia.(148) Later in September, DDCI Carter told Secretaries Rusk and McNamara that the situation in Vietnam was deteriorating "quite rapidly," and that there was some doubt that the GVN could hold on in the face of internal disintegration and increasing Viet Cong pressures.(149)
During the busy weeks of August-October, the Intelligence Community estimators were fed a series of Vietnam strategy options to ponder, and they responded with some new judgments that strengthened the logic that extraordinary new policy measures were necessary. On 1 October, SNIE 53-2-64 held that the outlook among the South Vietnamese was one of "increasing defeatism, paralysis of leadership, friction with Americans, exploration of possible lines of political accommodation with the other side, and a general petering out of the war effort."(150) SNIE l0-3-64 of 9 October, written specifically to address the Rostow thesis, muted previous CIA skepticism and judged that the North Vietnamese, if subjected to a program of gradually increasing US air attacks, would probably suspend military attacks in the South temporarily but would renew the insurgency there at a later date. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research dissented from this conclusion, contending that it was more likely Hanoi's reaction would be to raise the tempo of Communist attacks in South Vietnam. As events would prove before October was over, and as Gen. Bruce Palmer later wrote, "the SNIE was dead wrong while INR was right on the money."(151)
C/FE Colby, participating in many policy forums during these weeks, was also very pessimistic about the South's situation. On 14 October, for example, he told the White House's Mike Forrestal that the Viet Cong's regular forces had "grown considerably," that GVN political fragmentation was evident not only in Saigon but also in the countryside, and that local GVN authorities lacked the force to deal with Viet Cong attacks.(152) In making these judgments, however, Colby did not offer his own policy recommendations.
Not so O/NE officer George A. Carver. Shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin attacks, for example, he gave DCI McCone a sharp critique of the modest reprisals then being proposed by Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy.(153) Carver argued that the proposed measures were not likely to have much effect on the situation, North or South. Later he sent Bundy a similar critique, noting for the record that it had not been seen or approved by any member of the Board of National Estimates and that "Bundy understands it is for his personal use only."(154)
In September 1964, Johnson administration officers tested the Rostow thesis once more in a second JCS political-military war game, SIGMA II. Here the players for the most part were not working-level officers, but JCS Chief Earle Wheeler, Gen. Curtis LeMay, Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, McGeorge Bundy, and other principals. But, like its predecessor war game, SIGMA II ended up a stalemate, US bombing of the North not having brought victory nearer. Robert J. Myers, one of CIA's participants in SIGMA II, thereafter made a sharp critique of US policy, holding that the war game had illustrated that bombing the North would have only limited effect, and that the deployment of up to five US divisions in Southeast Asia "would not materially change the situation." Given the results of SIGMA II, Myers drew a searing conclusion: if bombing the North would not work, he wrote, and if the United States was reluctant to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, then "there is a grave question of how the US is supposed to win the type of war being fought on the ground by large numbers of combat forces of the enemy deployed in small units and spurred by a very able political and propaganda program."(155)
Like the SIGMA I war game played earlier in 1964, however, SIGMA II and its depressing outcome had no apparent dampening effect on senior decisionmakers' certainty that the way to save South Vietnam was to bomb the North and employ US combat forces in the South. Strategists continued their contingency planning toward those ends as if the outcome of SIGMA II (plus SIGMA I and Robert Johnson's earlier NSC working group study) had not occurred. The realism of SIGMA II would, however, get an early confirmation: the officer playing the role of the President committed a US Marine expeditionary force to South Vietnam's defense on 26 February l965 of the game's calendar. President Johnson did send just such a Marine force on the actual date of 8 March 1965, only 10 days later than in the war game.(156) According to Walt Elder, McCone's former Special Assistant, the DCI participated in only one session of Sigma II because he "hated all war games"; on this one occasion he went out of "innate snobbery, when he learned that the other seniors would be there."(157)
In the meantime, the slide toward escalation was again being tilted by dramatic events in the field: in their most devastating raid to date, on 1 November the Viet Cong destroyed five B-57 bombers at the Bien Hoa airfield near Saigon and damaged eight more; four Americans were killed and many others wounded. The Joint Chiefs of Staff immediately recommended "a prompt and strong response," including US air strikes on the DRV.(158) Instead of accepting these recommendations for reprisal on the eve of the US presidential election, President Johnson commissioned a special NSC Working Group, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Bill Bundy, to draw up and evaluate various political and military options for direct action against North Vietnam.(159) Their milestone mandate was not to determine whether the United States should expand its participation in the war, but to recommend how to do it.
Shortly following President Johnson's landslide election victory, the Bundy group offered up three theoretical options for US air action against the DRV: (1) reprisal strikes; (2) a "fast squeeze" program of sudden, severe, intensive bombing; and (3) a "slow squeeze" option of graduated airstrikes. The "slow squeeze" option was essentially the course the United States employed when it began systematically to bomb the DRV some weeks later.
The NSC-commissioned Bundy exercise provides a relevant gauge of the influence--or the lack thereof--that intelligence had on Vietnam policymaking. Basing their views on existing National Estimates, the panel of intelligence officers within the Bundy group judged that bombing the North would probably not work; it would not impel Hanoi to lessen its direction and support of the Viet Cong's war effort.(160)
Several considerations produced this skepticism. First, these officers argued that Hanoi's leaders, in launching and maintaining their war effort, had made a fundamental estimate that the difficulties facing the United States were "so great that US will and ability to maintain resistance in that area can be gradually eroded--without running high risks that the US would wreak heavy destruction on the DRV or Communist China."
Second, although the intelligence panel recognized that North Vietnam's leaders were "acutely and nervously aware" that their transportation system and industrial plant were vulnerable to attack, the DRV's economy was "overwhelmingly agricultural and to a large extent decentralized in a myriad of more or less economically self-sufficient villages." Hence, even though US bombing was expected to cripple North Vietnamese industry, seriously restrict its military capabilities, and to a lesser extent degrade Hanoi's capabilities to support guerrilla war in South Vietnam and Laos, it would probably not have a "crucial effect on the daily lives of the overwhelming majority of the North Vietnam population." Nor would the posited US bombing be likely to create unmanageable control problems or cause Hanoi's leaders to shrink from suffering some damage in the course of a test of wills with the United States.
Third, the intelligence panel concluded that Hanoi "probably believes that considerable international pressure" would develop against a US policy of expanding the war to the North, and that negative world opinion "might impel the US to relax its attacks and bring the US to an international conference on Vietnam."(161)
According to CIA files, one of the issues raised in the course of the NSC Working Group's study was whether under certain circumstances the United States should use nuclear weapons. By personal memo Chairman William Bundy quietly asked two of his group members to consult with their principals on whether, in the event there were extreme Communist reactions to a new course of punishing the DRV, the United States might be compelled "to choose between sharp territorial losses or even defeat on the ground, or the use of at least tactical nuclear weapons." Bundy himself held that such US action would have "catastrophic" consequences, and the Working Group, per se, did not pursue the question or report on it.(162) That this extreme issue was raised nonetheless attests to both the quandary US policy faced at the time and the depth of Bundy's probing.
In the end, the views of the Bundy group's intelligence panel failed to carry any weight when the final policy decisions were made. For one thing, not all the NSC Working Group's members, especially the representatives of the JCS, shared the intelligence panel's skeptical view of the efficacy of going North. And when President Johnson met with his principal advisers on 19 November for a progress report on the Bundy group's efforts, Rusk, McNamara, and Bundy himself refrained from mentioning the doubts the group's intelligence officers had raised. Two days later, moreover, when the NSC Working Group's final report was passed upwards, it bore no indication that its intelligence officers had dissented. Once again, senior policy advisers had brushed aside intelligence judgments they found uncongenial or unlikely to sell.(163)
The NSC Working Group's examination of the Rostow thesis proved to be Washington's last testing of the premise that drastically expanding US participation in the war would turn the tide, although debate continued among the President and his senior advisers through the waning weeks of 1964.
On l6 November, for example, Walt Rostow stressed that the central purpose of bombing the DRV should be the sending of a signal to Hanoi that the US is "ready and able to meet any level of escalation" the North Vietnamese might mount in response.(164) The Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned especially with the domino consequences of South Vietnam's fall: in a memo dated 23 November they warned McNamara that its loss would weaken India, isolate Australia and New Zealand, undermine US prestige and influence throughout the world, and encourage the Communists to extend their "wars of national liberation" into new areas.(165) In late November, Gen. Maxwell Taylor made a flying visit from his post as Ambassador to Saigon to warn that "we are playing a losing game in South Viet-Nam," that it was "high time" we changed course, and that the United States should launch "immediate and automatic reprisals" against the DRV in the event of further enemy atrocities--but only after prior steps had been taken to shore up the security position of Americans in South Vietnam.(166) In December, McGeorge Bundy struck a fairly cautious note in holding that "No matter which course is taken, it seems likely to us that we face years of involvement in South Vietnam. . . . We do not want a big war out there," but neither do "we intend to back out of a l0-year-long commitment."(167)
Enemy saboteurs came close to provoking major US reprisals against the DRV when they bombed an American officers' billet (the Brinks Hotel) in Saigon on Christmas eve. President Johnson made a temporizing response to the many recommendations from the US military and the Saigon Embassy that the United States retaliate strongly. He spelled out his concerns in a 30 December cable to Ambassador Taylor. Emphasizing that he was especially concerned about protecting Americans in Vietnam from a concentrated VC attack against them, a threat the Intelligence Community had told him was the most likely enemy reaction to a US reprisal against DRV targets, Johnson explained: "Every time I get a military recommendation it seems to me that it calls for large-scale bombing. I have never felt that this war will be won from the air." In his view, what was needed was a larger and stronger US force on the ground: "We have been building our strength to fight this kind of war ever since l96l, and I myself am ready to substantially increase the number of Americans in Vietnam if it is necessary to provide this kind of fighting force against the Viet Cong."(168)
This policy debate about whether to expand the war and, if so, how, was again rudely interrupted--and at last decided--by a shattering Viet Cong attack on US installations at Pleiku in central South Vietnam, 7 February 1965. That attack killed eight Americans, wounded l09, and damaged numerous aircraft. A significant influence upon the policy debate that ensued was the fact that President Johnson's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, happened just then to be visiting South Vietnam--his first visit, incidentally, to East Asia--at the same time as by coincidence Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin was visiting Hanoi. Four days prior to that attack, DCI McCone had told President Johnson that Kosygin would shortly be visiting the DRV and that this signalled a more active Soviet policy in Southeast Asia. According to Johnson's later account, McCone told him on this occasion, 3 February, that the Soviet leaders "may have concluded" that Hanoi was about to win the war in Vietnam and had accordingly decided to move in to share credit for the DRV's anticipated victory. Therefore, McCone held, Moscow would probably give Hanoi greatly increased economic and military aid, including antiaircraft missiles, and would encourage Hanoi to step up its subversion of the South.(169)
In Saigon, McGeorge Bundy immediately telephoned Washington that the Viet Cong, in collusion with Soviet Premier Kosygin, had "thrown down the gauntlet," and recommended that the United States retaliate at once against the DRV. Bundy was not "losing his cool," according to Chester Cooper, an NSC staff officer and former senior O/NE official who at the time was accompanying Bundy. On the day before the Pleiku attacks Cooper and Bundy, assisted by the Pentagon's John McNaughton and State's Alexis Johnson, had drafted a recommendation that US forces retaliate against North Vietnam. As Cooper later characterized that draft, "You just couldn't start bombing North Vietnam de novo," what was required was a Communist act "so atrocious" that it would justify the new US course; in the meantime, "We would take our lumps until something very dramatic and very obscene happened."(170) Bundy and his colleagues had had to wait only one day.(171)
In recommending that US forces strike North Vietnam, McGeorge Bundy may not have lost his cool, but his assumption that Pleiku was a carefully timed and orchestrated Communist provocation has remained open to doubt. Among the doubters is George Allen, at the time a senior CIA analyst in the Saigon Station: "I never met anyone who shared Bundy's view that the Pleiku incident was deliberately arranged to coincide with his visit and with that of Kosygin to Hanoi." Allen bases his skepticism in part on the testimony of a VC sapper taken prisoner at Pleiku, who disclosed that he and his party had been rehearsing the attack for l00 days before they struck. Allen noted, "Not even Bundy knew at that time that he would be visiting Saigon in February."(172)
By a month's time following the Pleiku attack and a subsequent VC attack on a US base at Qui Nhon on 10 February, the die had been cast. By 9 March, US and South Vietnamese planes were bombing targets in North Vietnam, 3,500 Marines had landed at Danang "to protect its perimeter," many more US troops were in process of being committed to combat operations, and the policy debate had narrowed largely to ways and means of winning what had now become essentially a US war. We had at last gone big in Vietnam.
In the months just prior to and immediately following this escalation, CIA provided decisionmakers a steady flow of intelligence data, while O/NE analysts calculated the probable reactions of North Vietnamese, Chinese Communist, Soviet, and Free World governments tailored to this and that theoretical US course of action; for this latter purpose, policy planners served up a series of graduated or alternative strategies to O/NE. While this exercise proceeded, and perhaps inspired by it, certain CIA officers also submitted unsolicited opinions on whether or not to expand the war and, if so, how to do it. Their skeptical offerings, which went beyond intelligence matters, were by now heretical. Though differing in focus and emphasis, these officers' views revealed a common, widely held doubt within the Agency that bombing the North would, by itself, do much to improve the US-GVN situation.
For example, on 5 November 1964, C/FE Bill Colby sent State's Bill Bundy and the White House's Mike Forrestal a private think piece on a possible negotiated solution in Vietnam. Citing as a model the successful modus vivendi that had recently been reached with the Communists in Laos, Colby suggested that Washington consider a somewhat similar solution to the stalemated situation in Vietnam. He proposed that Laotian Prince Souvanna Phouma and Cambodian Prince Sihanouk lead a conference in which Saigon's General Khanh and Hanoi's Ho Chi Minh would seek to end hostilities in Vietnam and so avoid an expanded war that might draw their people into a major US-Chinese Communist confrontation.(173)
In late November, DDI Ray Cline raised his own doubts about the efficacy of bombing the North. Offering DCI McCone certain propositions discerned "out of the fog of medieval scholasticism" in which the Vietnam policy debate was being conducted, Cline judged that US bombing would at best buy time for the GVN, but "would not in and of itself" ensure the creation of a stable and effective South Vietnam. Cline did consider the chances "better than even" that Hanoi would "intensify its efforts to negotiate on the best terms available," but only in the event the United States had taken "extreme" military actions against the DRV.(174)
The chief of FE Division's Vietnam-Cambodia Branch minced no words in also criticizing the momentum toward bombing the North. In his view, volunteered on 19 November, military action of this kind would be a "bankrupt" move, an admission of unwillingness to "engage ourselves other than in a military fashion in a struggle to establish the proper condition of man in the modern world." Victory could not be gained in Vietnam or in other troubled areas of the world by "rockets and bombs and napalm."(175) Saigon COS DeSilva also doubted the wisdom of bombing the North: according to journalist David Halberstam, in late 1964 DeSilva "accurately forecast that the bombing would have virtually no effect other than provoke Hanoi into sending more troops down the trails."(176) By early January 1965, CIA's Chet Cooper, by then a principal NSC staff officer, had also come to the view that bombing the DRV would not cause it to stop its support of the Viet Cong or become more amenable to negotiations. "There were many among my colleagues who shared this doubt and conviction."(177)
One of the last of these unsolicited judgments, chronologically, that CIA officers offered up concerning the wisdom of US policy came in early April 1965, following the landing of the Marines and the beginnings of sustained US bombing programs against the DRV. The author of the present study, who had represented CIA in interagency working groups on Vietnam, gave DCI McCone a sharp, across-the-board criticism of these new US military departures. He was unaware at the time that Vice President Humphrey, Under Secretary of State Ball, and several senior members of Congress already had privately voiced similar doubts when he based his critique on "a deep concern that we are becoming progressively divorced from reality in Vietnam . . . and are proceeding with far more courage than wisdom."
The critique judged that the United States did not have the capability to achieve the goals it had set for itself in Vietnam, "yet we think and act as if we do." There was no certainty that bombing the North would "work," and the most likely outcome of committing a few US combat divisions in the South would be "a long, drawn-out war, retention of the principal cities, and constant enemy attrition of the US and allied forces." Nor would the new US military measures necessarily prevent the collapse of the Army and the Government of South Vietnam: "We [must not] forget the sobering fact that--despite the rising DRV ingredient--the VC insurrection remains essentially an indigenous phenomenon, the product of GVN fecklessness, VC power, and peasant hopelessness." After observing that there seemed to be a congenital American disposition to underestimate Asian enemies--"We are doing so now. We cannot afford so precious a luxury."--the thinkpiece restated what had come out of several NSC working groups, National Intelligence Estimates, and war games: bombing will not in itself cause the DRV and the Viet Cong to cease and desist. "The enemy is brave, resourceful, skilled, and patient. He can shoot down our fancy aircraft, and he can shoot up and invest our bases." We cannot expect the enemy to reason together with us; his thought patterns are far removed from ours: "Tough and hard-bitten, he has been at the job of subverting all of Indochina for over thirty years." Hanoi is patient, prepared to go the distance, and now smells victory in the air. Hence US military pressures will not cause Ho Chi Minh to negotiate meaningfully with us. In sum, "the chances are considerably better than even that the US will in the end have to disengage in Vietnam, and do so considerably short of our present objectives."(178)
The most weighty CIA opinions were of course those the President's chief intelligence adviser, John McCone, carried to the White House during the key months of Vietnam policy formulation in late 1964 and early 1965--but even the DCI's counsel made little apparent impact on the President's policy decisions. McCone did share the Johnson administration's basic view that a much greater US military input was mandatory to keep South Vietnam from collapsing. He nonetheless differed with the President's choice of specific ways and means of implementing the policy. During these weeks the DCI also changed his mind on several key aspects of how best to commit US force against the enemy. And, although he looked more favorably on the idea of bombing the North than did most of his CIA experts, he took issue with the President's military advisers on a number of points.
Many other world questions were demanding McCone's attention at the time, President Johnson was increasingly holding him at arm's length, and the DCI had already decided that he wanted to return to private life, but during the key months of the Vietnam escalation debate he persevered in pushing his views on the White House.(179) After the Viet Cong's devastating raid on Bien Hoa on 1 November, he recommended to Secretary McNamara that a program to punish the North should be instituted with a clear signal that such punishment could be stopped when Hanoi stopped its "illicit operations" in the South and in Laos. At that time, however, McCone advocated that the United States should punish the DRV deliberately and slowly, as contrasted with the Joint Chiefs' recommendation that 400 aircraft be sent en masse to bomb the North. That option, he held, was unwarranted, one that world opinion would construe as the act of a "frustrated giant."(180)
The DCI was one of the few Presidential advisers who warned at this time that the United States should expect enemy reprisals within South Vietnam for attacks on the North; for this reason he advised that each bombing raid against Hanoi should be specifically authorized in Washington. When the Viet Cong blew up the US officers' billet in Saigon at Christmastime in 1964, McCone cautioned against immediate punishment of the DRV, arguing that it would be difficult to document that Hanoi, and not just the Viet Cong, was responsible, and that a stronger government should be in place in the South before the United States launched major reprisals against the North.(181)
In early February 1965, McCone still favored a cautious program of bombing, proposing that the United States conduct one bombing raid a day against the North, starting in the southern part of the DRV and working steadily northward. His rationale was that such a strategy would carry less danger of provoking major Chinese Communist intervention in the war than would deep strikes into DRV territory, as the JCS preferred.(182) But by early April, McCone had reversed this position. Reflecting on the audacious, damaging Viet Cong attacks on Pleiku (6 February) and Qui Nhon (l0 February), McCone on 2 April recommended that US air forces should strike hard and deep against the DRV.
He argued that intense bombing would be necessary to impel the North Vietnamese to seek a political settlement through negotiation and thus avoid the destruction of their economy. If the United States continued to limit its bombing attacks to northern bridges, military installations, and lines of communication, wrote McCone, this would in effect signal to Hanoi that "our determination to win is significantly modified by our fear of widening the war." The Director argued that without effective punishment of the DRV, the United States would be starting down a track "which involves ground force operations [in the South] which, in all probability, will have limited effectiveness . . . [and will lead to] ever-increasing commitment of U.S. personnel without materially improving the chances of victory." In his view, US ground forces in the South would therefore become "mired down in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win, and from which we will have extreme difficulty in extricating ourselves." Instead, he recommended that the United States should shock the DRV by hitting it hard and all at once.(183)
The last occasion on which DCI McCone had an opportunity to tell President Johnson, face-to-face, of his many serious objections to the developing US military course in Vietnam was an NSC meeting on 20 April, to which McCone brought the new Director-designate, Adm. William F. Raborn, Jr. The discussion focused on Secretary McNamara's proposals to commit more US combat troops in the South and continue bombing secondary targets in the DRV. Air raids in the North would be targeted against lines of supply and infiltration in order to support and protect ground operations in the South; no longer would bombing targets be picked in expectation that their threatened destruction would cause Hanoi to seek a negotiated settlement. As McCone later recorded that meeting, McNamara's recommended course of action "troubled me greatly." McCone told those present that the proposed level of bombing would stiffen Hanoi's determination and lead to heightened Viet Cong activity in the South. This, said McCone, "would present our ground forces with an increasingly difficult problem requiring more and more troops." Thus the United States would "drift into a combat situation where victory would be dubious and from which we could not extricate ourselves." He concluded that he was not against bombing the North, but that the commitment of US combat forces in the South must be accompanied by a more dynamic program of airstrikes against "industrial targets, power plants, POL centers, and the taking out of the MIGs."(184)
The President and the NSC adopted McNamara's proposals, not McCone's, but on his last day as DCI, 28 April 1965, McCone repeated many of his cautions in a farewell note to President Johnson. The United States should "tighten the tourniquet" on North Vietnam, he argued: "In my opinion we should strike their petroleum supplies, electric power installations, and air defense installations . . . . I do not think we have to fear taking on the MIGs, which after all the Chi Nats (Chinese Nationalists) defeated in l958 with F-86s and Sidewinders . . ."(185)
The President's response to McCone's parting advice was to ask his successor, Admiral Raborn, to comment on it, and Raborn apparently left his swearing-in ceremony 28 April with McCone's memo of that date in hand. A week later he replied to the President in a letter that gave qualified support to the proposition of concentrated bombing attacks on Hanoi, closely coordinated with political efforts to get the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. Raborn argued that, if the United States did not punish the DRV severely, then "we will in effect be pressing the conflict on the ground where our capabilities enjoy the least comparative advantage." The United States might then find itself "pinned down, with little choice left among possible subsequent courses of action: i.e., disengagement at very high cost, or broadening the conflict in quantum jumps." Raborn nonetheless placed more emphasis than had McCone on the centrality of winning the war in the South. In the Admiral's view, it would be the antiguerrilla effectiveness of US/GVN forces that would "almost certainly prove the key determinant of whether, over a period of some time, we can impel the enemy to meet our terms." Raborn cautioned that in its "preoccupation with military action," the United States must "not lose sight of the basically political aspect of the war. In the final analysis, it can only be won at the SVN hamlet level."(186)
The President also asked his close adviser Clark Clifford to critique McCone's parting counsel. Clifford later wrote that as he studied McCone's recommendations, "I reached a conclusion exactly opposite to his." According to Clifford, if McCone thought the only way to avoid defeat was by large-scale bombing, "then we should not escalate at all [because the] level of bombing he advocated would shock and horrify the entire world, and even he admitted that there was no guarantee we would prevail."(187)
It will of course never be known whether hitting the DRV hard at the outset of a US bombing campaign would have shocked Hanoi into materially lessening its support of the Viet Cong, at least for awhile, as John McCone (and others) had argued. Certainly the middle course subsequently chosen by President Johnson and his aides, that of cautiously bombing the North, made no crucial impact on Hanoi's determination to continue the war. And later, when the United States did hit the North hard, there was less shock effect because in the meantime the DRV had become inured to bombing, and its improved defenses now degraded the bombers' accuracy and effectiveness--in the process confounding the Rostow thesis of victory through air power. At the same time, there is certainly no guarantee that even McCone's recommended level of bombing in the North in 1964 would have substantially improved the situation on the ground in South Vietnam, where CIA officers and many of their Intelligence Community colleagues had long insisted the war would be won or lost.
As I analyze the pros and cons of placing any considerable number of Marines in Danang area beyond those presently assigned, I develop grave reservations as to wisdom and necessity of so doing. . . . White-faced soldier armed, equipped and trained as he is not suitable guerrilla fighter for Asia forests and jungles. French tried to adapt their forces to this mission and failed. I doubt that US forces could do much better. . . . Finally, there would be ever present question of how foreign soldier could distinguish between a VC and friendly Vietnamese farmer. When I view this array of difficulties, I am convinced that we should adhere to our past policy of keeping our ground forces out of direct counterinsurgency role.
- Maxwell Taylor, 22 February 1965(188)
Whether accurately or not, most CIA officers had for years given policymakers skeptical evaluations of the outlook in Vietnam, similar in some respects to those Ambassador Maxwell Taylor privately voiced in February 1965 as the United States prepared to commit combat troops in the South and begin bombing the North. As far back as March 1952, as we have seen, CIA and the Intelligence Community had estimated that enemy forces would grow stronger, and the French would eventually withdraw from Vietnam.(189) Thereafter, with one principal exception, most working-level CIA analysts fairly consistently held that Washington should not underestimate the strength and staying power of the enemy, nor overestimate that of our South Vietnamese ally.
As noted earlier, that primary exception occurred when DCI McCone remanded the analysts' draft of NIE 53-63 in February 1963 because it did not mirror the optimism held by most of the makers and executors of US policy in Vietnam at that time. Less than a month after McCone had disseminated a reworked, much more optimistic NIE, the situation in South Vietnam began suddenly and swiftly to unravel. Thereafter, during the months when the policymakers and their assistants were deciding whether, how, and when to "go big" against the Communist insurgency, McCone shared the gloomy perceptions of most of his analysts about the Government of Vietnam and its armed forces. They did not agree, however, on many other Vietnam questions. McCone, for example, accepted the domino thesis; his officers in O/NE had several times questioned the relevance of that analogy to the struggle for Indochina. McCone appeared more convinced than most of his officers that bombing the North would markedly help the South; they consistently held that the war was essentially a political struggle that had to be won on the ground in the South.
Whatever the differences of emphasis between McCone and his CIA officers, the record suggests that McCone's advice about Vietnam only occasionally influenced White House decisions between l963 and l965, and that the collective and individual judgments of other Agency officers hardly registered at all. The fact that McCone agreed in early l963 that things were going fairly well almost certainly fed the administration's confidence that the South Vietnam Government was making sufficient progress in the war effort that some US military advisers could begin to be withdrawn. Later, the DCI's endorsement of the domino thesis may have helped blunt the effect upon decisionmakers of O/NE's doubt (registered in June 1964) that the loss of Vietnam would necessarily have a sudden and catastrophic effect on the security position in the rest of East Asia.
With these exceptions, the views of McCone and his senior officers on events and prospects in Vietnam during the 1963-65 period made little apparent impact on strategy and policy decisions. The Kennedy administration turned against President Diem and facilitated his overthrow despite McCone's cautions. The Johnson administration ignored the repeated judgments of intelligence officers in CIA and other agencies that bombing the North probably would not work, and that brightening the light at the end of the tunnel depended primarily on improving the South Vietnamese Government's political and military performance. Finally, in early l965, when the White House at last composed its policy of direct military engagement in Vietnam, President Johnson not only ignored McCone's urging that the DRV be bombed suddenly and severely, but froze the DCI out of the close relationship he had earlier enjoyed.
Why this lack of impact? Why did so many of CIA's professional judgments and analyses (and some informal views of CIA officers on policy ways and means) find so little resonance in the higher reaches of MACV, our Saigon Embassy, the Pentagon, State, and the White House? In a technical sense the US intelligence machinery had functioned well. Decisionmakers had repeatedly asked intelligence officers for their views, and, with only a few dissents and split opinions, the Intelligence Community had usually been able to respond with agreed judgments. From June l964 to June l965, O/NE and USIB had prepared a dozen National Estimates on Vietnam, eight of them on probable reactions to various possible US courses of action (which policymakers had supplied the Intelligence Community for the purpose of making its estimative judgments). Supplementing the estimates, many officers of the Agency and the Intelligence Community had prepared numerous additional assessments and had disseminated them to policymaking consumers.
Yet the impact of intelligence on the decisions to escalate America's role in the war was slight. Why? In essence, there was little impact because CIA's intelligence and policy-related inputs were not what these decisionmakers wanted to hear at the time. Prior to mid-1963, the cautions consistently voiced by CIA officers did not jibe with the images of progress that senior administration officials continued to hold, or at least continued to hold out to the American people. And by l964, when the GVN's perilous situation had at last become apparent to the policy managers, CIA skepticism about the newfound cure-all, bombing the North, was an unwelcome guest at the advisory table.
As of 1964-early 1965, the resistance of CIA's senior consumers to its views on Vietnam was deeply rooted. The Agency's no-clothes vision clashed with their widely held views that:
- World Communism is essentially monolithic, and the Vietnam war is part of a world conspiracy run from Moscow and Beijing.
- The United States cannot let Soviet Premier Khrushchev push us around; to make America's world commitments credible we have to take a stand somewhere, and that place will be Vietnam (despite the fact that, as we have seen, the JCS had held a decade earlier that Indochina was devoid of decisive military objectives).
- The domino thesis: if Vietnam "went," so would America's strategic position in East Asia (a judgment O/NE's estimators did not share, but DCI McCone did).
Another primary cause of the Johnson administration's resistance to CIA's judgments was the fact that, as we have seen, senior policymakers had for years been misled by unwarranted accounts of progress in Vietnam. Down the lines of command, senior MACV and US Mission officers--those in charge of seeing that progress was made--had long put the best light on their own reporting and were disinclined to accept and to pass upward the generally much more candid assessments their working-level field officers gave them. Evaluations became more optimistic at each level of command, so that by the time they got to Washington, they generally were deficient in candor and overfull of alleged good news. Senior policy managers understandably welcomed such assurances of policy successes, and it was not until l964 that the GVN's manifest political-military disarray pierced their distorted images of reality. Senior policymakers were also justified in their reluctance to accept the views of intelligence estimators who in September 1962 had proved wrong on the critical question of whether the USSR was implanting nuclear weapons in Cuba. Moreover, as we have seen, the estimators had sometimes been off the mark on Vietnam.
But whether US intelligence was right or wrong or was or was not making a major impact on policymaking was hardly the most important aspect of the Johnson administration's decision to escalate the war. The decisionmakers did not enjoy the intelligence analyst's luxury of simply assessing a situation; they had to act. The basic, hardly disputable fact was that in 1964 the military-political situation was deteriorating badly: during the year there were seven successive governments in Saigon. This fact of life was appreciated widely, even by some of the most loyal supporters of the war effort. Gen. William E. DePuy, who had commanded the 1st Division in Vietnam, later recalled that in 1964-65 there had not been a Vietnamese government as such: "There was a military junta that ran the country. . . . [its officers were] politically inept. The various efforts at pacification required a cohesive, efficient governmental structure which simply did not exist. Furthermore, corruption was rampant. There was coup after coup, and militarily, defeat after defeat."(191)
Hence the United States had little policymaking leverage in this very soft situation in South Vietnam, and it is understandable that frustrated US planners considered whether that situation might be remedied by taking the war to the North and by committing US troops to combat in the South. As momentum in Washington grew, if unevenly, for a major escalation, the bounds of policy debate narrowed and articulate advocates continued to assure President Johnson that only if the US took the war to the enemy in a big way could South Vietnam be saved. Even those senior advisers who might have been impressed by CIA's negative arguments may have decided the circumstances required a gamble, even at worse than 50-50 odds. In the end, however, it was the shocking attacks the Viet Cong made on American men and equipment, coincident with the sweeping reelection of Lyndon Johnson, that capped this long process and at last precipitated the President's decision.
(1) McCone, Memorandum for the Record (of a Presidential meeting, 24 November l963). FRUS, l96l-l963, Vol. IV, Vietnam, July-November l963, p. 637. This meeting, held two days following the assassination of President Kennedy, was Lyndon Johnson's first Vietnam policy outing.
(6) Mendenhall, Memorandum for Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Edward E. Rice, "Vietnam--Assessments and Recommendations," 16 August 1962. FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. II, Vietnam, 1962, p. 598. Mr. and Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu were considered by most US officials to be prime sources of Diem's obstinacy and of the Diem regime's most repressive measures.
(8) Nolting, letter to Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger Hilsman, 23 May l963. FRUS, as above, pp. 3l6-3l7. This plan warned that although a coup might be pulled off so quickly as to bridge the gap of political power, it was "more than likely that even if coup leaders went so far as to kill Diem, there would be dissension and confusion." FRUS, p. 322.
(12) Cooper, Memorandum for the Director, "Some Aspects of US Policy with Respect to President Diem," 11 April l963 (S). CIA/DDI Files, Job No. 79T01148A, O/D/NFAC, "Policy Files," Box 9, Folder "Policy: CLC: Oct 62-Dec 64." In that memo, Cooper acknowledged that "we do not yet really understand the fundamentals of Asian societies or peoples," and that "it is one thing to advocate a course of action leading to the removal of Diem; it is another to proceed on such a course, confident that what would emerge will be better than what we have."
(14) Colby, Memorandum to Walt Elder, at the time Director McCone's Special Assistant. Quoted in CIA/IG "Report on Vietnam," November 1964, p.12. IG files, Box 73-B-567, DCI/Inspector General, Box 2 of 2, "Surveys."
(15) Victor H. Krulak (Maj. Gen., USMC, at the time the JCS Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities), Memorandum for the Record, 3l August l963. Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. II, p. 743. DDCI Pat Carter and FE Division chief Bill Colby were present at that meeting. There State Department Southeast Asia expert Paul Kattenburg made a scathing criticism of the Diem government and of Washington policymakers' lack of understanding of the situation. As he later recalled, "There was not a single person there that knew what he was talking about . . . and I thought, 'God, we're walking into a major disaster,' and that's when I made what essentially was a very imprudent and also presumptuous remark, in a way. And the reaction to it was sort of what I had invited. They all just disregarded it or said it was not backed by anything." Kattenburg, remarks to historian William Conrad Gibbons, l6 February l979. Gibbons, Part II, p.161. The State Department subsequently gave Mr. Kattenburg Siberia-like assignments.
(20) McCone, Memorandum for the Record of Lunch with Rusk (at McCone's home), 3 September l963, (S/Eyes Only). CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B01285A, DCI/McCone, Box 2, Folder 2: "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 23 July - 26 November 1963."
(25) Colby, to author, 22 December 1993. Mike Forrestal was very close to John and Robert Kennedy, but it is possible that his statement to Professor Winters was prompted by the fact that Forrestal, who had been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the coup idea, sought after the fact to distance himself from what had turned out to be a disaster.
(26) This author's findings accord with those of two colleagues who have plumbed Mr. McCone's record in detail: Walt Elder, previously McCone's Special Assistant; and Dr. Mary McAuliffe, formerly of CIA's History Staff.
(29) CIA/IG files, Job No 74B779, Inspector General, Box 1, "Special Studies, 1964-1972," Folder: "Chronology on Vietnam, November 1964." These files include notes indicating that in l971 President Nixon requested that DCI Helms send the White House its files on the overthrow of President Diem, and that Presidential assistant John Ehrlichman "was fascinated by the account of CIA's noninvolvement in the assassination of Diem, which runs contrary to the impression he has held." From Kenneth E. Greer, Memorandum for the Record of 17 November 1971 (S). CIA/IG files as above.
(30) Carver, O/NE Staff Memorandum No. 60-63, "Present Prospects for South Vietnam." (S) CIA/DDI files, Job No. 80R1720R, O/D/NFAC, Box 3, "GAC Files," Folder 1, "Vietnam Historical File." O/NE's Sherman Kent allowed Carver's policy-laden memo to go forward only as Carver's personal views, not those of O/NE.
(31) Carver, Memorandum for the Acting Director of Central Intelligence, "Alternatives to the Ngo Family Regime in South Vietnam," 28 August l963. (S) CIA/DDI files, Job No. 79R00904A, O/D/NFAC, Box 10, Folder 1: "Memos for Directors - 1963." Gen. Bruce Palmer contrasts this initiative of Carver's with the manner in which Carver's parent office, O/NE had "scrupulously stayed out of the policy realm." Palmer, "US Intelligence and Vietnam," Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 28, No. 5 (Special Issue l984), p. l6.
(33) R. Jack Smith, the Acting DDI at the time, took exception to the views in this O/NE memorandum, arguing that one could "not rule out the possibility of winning the war under a Ngo administration." Smith told the Director that "it should be remembered that it took the British nine years of intensive effort to beat down the Communist rebellion in Malaya, where the problems were less than those of Vietnam." Smith, Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence, "ONE Memorandum on South Vietnam's Leaders," 4 September 1963 (S/NF). CIA/DDI files, Job No. 79R00904A, O/D/NFAC, Box 10, Folder 1, "Memos for Directors - 1963."
(34) Recorded by McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Discussion with Secretary Rusk at Lunch at DCI Residence This Date," 3 September l963. (S/Eyes Only) CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B01285A, DCI/McCone, Box 2, Folder 8, "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 23 July - 26 November 63." In this memorandum, Mr. McCone recorded that Rusk was "most complimentary of the reporting and judgment of Carter, Helms, and Colby in the meetings of last week." He noted also that Rusk had asked him to explore "the possibilities of an independent, unified Vietnam which would be neutral but free of Chi Com influence . . . this apparently is a French idea and if it could be accomplished would be a very stabilizing influence on all of Southeast Asia."
(35) As recorded by Bill Colby, a participant in this Presidential conference. IG Report, p. l7. Mr. McCone here misspoke himself on two accounts: the NIE in question had been produced in April-- there was no NIE on Vietnam in May; and the April NIE (53-63) did not say that "we would win." That was Mr. McCone's interpretation of what his remanded NIE had said, from which judgments he was now (September l963) retreating. CIA/IG files.
(36) As recorded by Bromley Smith, White House assistant, in his Memorandum of a Conference with the President, White House, Washington, September ll, l963, 7 p.m., "Vietnam." FRUS, Vietnam, 1961-1963, Vol. IV, p. l9l. Word of this DCI caution found its way to the press; journalist David Halberstam wrote--inaccurately--that "almost all" the members of McCone's staff differed with him on this score. The New York Times, l5 September l963.
(37) Joseph G. O'Neill, Jr., CIA Assistant Legislative Counsel, Memorandum for Assistant to the DCI, "DCI Congressional Briefings on Vietnam," 23 September l963. (S) CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B01285A, Box 3, DCI/McCone, Folder 14, "DCI (McCone) Vietnam, 01 Sept - 30 Sept 64." (Hereafter cited as O'Neill memorandum.)
(39) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Luncheon Meeting with Mr. Reston of The New York Times-DCI Residence-26 September l963." (S/Eyes Only). CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B01285A, DCI McCone, Box 2, Folder 8, "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 23 July-26 November '63."
(40) As quoted in Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, an Interim Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, U.S. Senate, 94th Congress, lst Session, l975, p. 22l.
(42) Neubert memorandum of l8 October l963. FRUS, l96l-l963, Vol. IV, pp. 406, 407. Neubert added: "As I see it, it is quite clear that the first serious problem confronting us here in Washington as we attempt to pursue a policy that really satisfies no one is going to arise with CIA."
(43) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Special Group 54l2 Meeting--l7 October l963," l8 October l963. (S) CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B01258A, DCI/Executive Registry, Box 1, Folder 5. Mr. McCone told the Special Group that Ambassador Lodge's policies had "foreclosed intelligence sources" and consequently were undermining the American effort in Vietnam. At this meeting, the DCI also proposed that Bill Colby should be sent to Saigon as Acting COS, where he could reconstitute CIA's intelligence capabilities. White House adviser McGeorge Bundy responded that Mr. McCone was exceeding his authority as DCI and vetoed the proposal on the grounds that Colby's once-close relations with Diem and Nhu would send the wrong signals and confuse Lodge's negotiating tactics.
(45) Paul Eckel, Memorandum for the Record, "Minutes of Meeting of the Special Group, 24 October l963," 24 October l963. CIA/IG files, Job No. 80B01285A, DCI/McCone, Box 2, Folder 8, "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 23 July-26 November '63."
(46) CIA/IG Report, p. 32. See also McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Meeting with the President," 25 October l963. (S) McCone papers, as above, Box 6, Folder 5. Present also at this meeting were Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy.
(47) William E. Colby, Memorandum for the Record, as reproduced in CIA/IG Report, p. 34. See also Bromley Smith, Memorandum of a Conference With the President, White House, Washington, October 29, l963, 4:20 p.m., Subject, "Vietnam." FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. IV, pp. 468-47l. At that meeting Robert Kennedy and Maxwell Taylor joined DCI McCone in criticizing the pro-coup course. And according to the meeting's recorder, Bromley Smith, President Kennedy held that if, as it appeared, the pro- and anti-Diem forces were about equal, then any attempt to engineer a coup would be "silly." FRUS, p. 47l.
(48) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Discussion with Governor Averell Harriman at Lunch, October 30th," 3l October l963. (S/Eyes Only) CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B01285A, DCI/McCone, Box 2, Folder 8, "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 23 July-26 November '63."
(49) Chester L. Cooper, Memorandum for the Director, "Viability of the GVN," 30 October l963 (S). CIA/DDI files, Job No. 80R01720R, O/D/NFAC, Box 5, "GAC Files (SAVA-NIO)," Folder 1, "GAC Chrono-June 63-May 65." This task force included O/NE officers Harold P. Ford and George A. Carver, as well as several DDI officers.
(51) SAIG Cable (IN 51983).(TS/Immediate) CIA/GAC files, as above. General Harkins was not alone in his untimely prediction. According to journalist Peter Arnett, Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News filed a story on the eve of the coup in which he stated that "Americans aren't any good at overthrowing governments, and the latest government we haven't bounced is the family concern in South Vietnam." Arnett, Live From the Battlefield, pp. 120-121.
(52) Later characterized by a senior DO officer as "the banana republic tradition of military coups became part of the thinking of every ambitious troop commander. . . ." (S). CIA/DDO files, Job No. 88-00067R, Folder 137-603-007.
(53) Cline, Memorandum for the Director, "Coping with the Chronic Crisis in South Vietnam," 8 September l964 (S/Eyes Only). CIA files, Job No. 80B01285A, Box 3, DCI/McCone, Folder 14, "DCI (McCone) Vietnam 01 Sept-30 Sept 1964."
(54) McCone, Memorandum for Secretary Rusk, Secretary McNamara, Saigon Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, and McGeorge Bundy. (TS). CIA/DDI files, Job No. 80T01629R, Box 3, O/D/NFAC, "SAVA Policy Files," Folder 2, "Vietnam Committee." Mr. McCone hand-carried a copy of this 2 April memorandum to President Johnson on 29 April l965.
(55) From an Eyes Only cable from Ambassador Lodge to President Johnson, 6 November: "There is no doubt that the coup was a Vietnamese and a popular affair, which we could neither manage nor stop after it got started and which we could only have influenced with great difficulty. But it is equally certain that the ground in which the coup seed grew into a robust plant was prepared by us and that the coup would not have happened with [when] it did without our preparation." FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. IV, p. 577.
(56) At a Honolulu conference on Vietnam questions, 20 November l963, MACV chief Harkins reported that immediately following the coup, Viet Cong incidents had "shot up 300-400% of what they were before." FRUS, as above, p. 6l2.
(57) Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, l979), pp. l97-l98. In the Vietnam interagency working groups in which the author of this CIA History Staff study participated, l964-65, the focus of concern was solely on how best to escalate.
(59) Cooper, letter of 5 December l986, to William C. Gibbons of the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. A copy of Cooper's letter is on file in CIA's History Staff. Cooper also describes LBJ's style as one marked by "a certain ad hocing; there was a certain stretching for the gimmick; there was a certain business of piling extravaganza upon extravaganza . . ." Interview of Cooper, 7 August l969, by Paige E. Mulhollan, for the University of Texas Oral History Project, Tape No. 2. A copy of that interview is on file in CIA's History Staff.
(60) Cooper testimonies, as above. For similar descriptions of Mr. Johnson's Vietnam policymaking style see Gelb and Betts, pp. 97-98; Marvin Kalb and Elie Abel, Roots of Involvement, pp. l67-l69; Robert L. Gallucci, Neither Peace Nor Honor: The Politics of American Military Policy in Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, l975), pp. 32-34; Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (New York: Doubleday & Co., l964), p. 535; and David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, l969), p. l44.
(61) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, of 29 December l963, of conversation with President Johnson, 27 December l963 (S). CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B1285A, Box 2, Folder 9, "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 27 November-31 December 1963." In this folder, see also McCone memos for the record of similar meetings with President Johnson, 13 December and 21 December 1963 (S).
(63) McCone, Memorandum for the Record of a Meeting, Executive Office Building, Washington, November 24, l963, 3 p.m. FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol IV, pp. 635, 636. In his memoirs Lyndon Johnson gives a similar account of this, his first Vietnam policy conference: "Lodge was optimistic. . . . I turned to John McCone and asked what his reports from Saigon in recent days indicated. The CIA Director replied that his estimate was much less encouraging. . . . McCone concluded that he could see no basis for an optimistic forecast of the future." Johnson, The Vantage Point p. 43.
(64) CIA/IG Report, p. 39. As we will see, months later Mr. McCone reversed his position on this issue, holding in late l964 that US bombing of the North would have little effect on Hanoi's willingness to continue the war unless the United States also committed ground troops to combat in the South.
(70) McNamara, Memorandum for the President, 2l December l963. FRUS, 1961-1963, Vol. IV, pp. 732, 733. Also recorded in CIA/IG Report, pp. 42-43. CIA/IG files indicate that despite the pessimistic judgments he had given the President privately, a week later Secretary McNamara told a House Armed Services subcommittee that the United States still hoped to carry out its earlier plans to withdraw most of its troops from Vietnam before the end of l965. CIA/IG Report, p. 45. In January 1964, after listening to McNamara on the occasion of another of his trips to Saigon, COS DeSilva felt that the Secretary "simply had no comprehension of how the war should be handled. . . ." DeSilva, Sub Rosa: The CIA and the Uses of Intelligence (New York: Times Books, l978),p. 230.
(72) McCone letter to the President, 23 December l963. CIA/IG Report, p. 45. On that same day, 23 December, McCone told his colleagues on the United States Intelligence Board that he had serious doubts about the Saigon government's ability to overcome the Viet Cong, and that he saw more reason to doubt the outcome than to be optimistic. Minutes of the Meeting, USIB-M-303, 23 December 1963 (S).
(74) Forrestal, Memorandum to Bundy, 8 January l964. FRUS, as above, pp. 7-8. In this memo Forrestal held that the problem was that the field had been using an "excessively mechanical system of statistical reporting which had been devised in Washington and applied in Saigon [and] was giving us a grotesquely inaccurate picture. Once again it is the old problem of having people who are responsible for operations also responsible for evaluating the results." These views indicate how far Forrestal had travelled from early l963, when he had been one of those officials most certain that available reporting did not support the skepticism of the draft NIE 53-63.
(77) Pentagon Papers, (Gravel ed.). Vol. III, pp. 150-151; Gibbons, Part II, pp. 210, 212-214. As l964 wore on, OPLAN 34-A operations expanded beyond these measures. In August, prior covert raids by South Vietnamese gunboats on DRV islets figured prominently in the Tonkin Gulf incidents and Congress's passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution.
(78) O/NE, Revised Memorandum for the Director, "Probable Reactions to Various Courses of Action with Respect to North Vietnam," 2 January l964. (TS/Sensitive). CIA/DDI files, Job No. 79R00904A, O/D/NFAC, Box 10, Folder 3: "Memos for Directors, 1963-64." O/NE had long held that modest covert efforts planned against North Vietnam would be ineffectual in achieving US objectives, writing Director McCone in September l962, for instance, that "we do not believe that even the most successful such operations would cause the DRV to cease completely its military-subversive efforts against South Vietnam." Sherman Kent, Memorandum for the Director, "Comment on DD/P Proposal to Special Group Concerning Operations in North Vietnam," 24 September l962. CIA/DDO files, Job No. 72-233R, Box 1, Folder 6: "Switchback, Main Folder."
(79) McCone, "Memorandum Concerning Proposed Covert Operations Against North Vietnam," 7 January l964. (TS). CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B1285A, DCI/McCone, Box , Folder 10: "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 1 Jan - 5 Apr '64."
(80) As described by participant William E. Colby, Memorandum for the Record, "Meeting on North Vietnam-January l964." 9 January l964 (S). CIA/DCI files, as above. In his account of this policy meeting, Colby noted that "Secretary Rusk believed that the President should also be informed that . . . 98% of the problem is in South Vietnam."
(82) Arthur Radford, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Memorandum to the Secretary of Defense, "U.S. Military Participation in Indochina," 20 May l954. FRUS, 1952-1954, Vol. XIII, Indochina, Part 2, p. l592.
(83) Johnson Library, Vice Presidential Security File, as reproduced in Gibbons, Vol. II, p. 39. It is of note that General Lemnitzer subscribed wholeheartedly to the domino thesis. In January l962 he told Secretary of Defense McNamara that the fall of South Vietnam would imperil the US strategic position from India to Japan, as part of the Communist Bloc's "timetable for world domination." Lemnitzer, Memorandum for SecDef, "The Strategic Importance of the Southeast Asia Mainland," Pentagon Papers (DoD ed.), Book l2, V-B-4, "US Involvement in the War, Internal Documents, The Kennedy Administration: January l96l-November l963," Book 11, pp. 448-450.
(85) From a speech to the US Army Special Warfare School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 28 June l96l, as cited in Lawrence E. Grinter, "How They Lost: Doctrines, Strategies and Outcomes of the Vietnam War," Asian Survey, XV, No. l2 (December l975), p. ll24. Grinter holds that this "Rostow Doctrine" became "the principal rationale for U.S. intervention and conduct in Vietnam." Grinter, p. 1123. It is the view of the author of this History Staff study, who had considerable contact with Rostow on these scores in l964, that Grinter's characterization is a bit sweeping, even though Rostow did play a significant role in the US decision to go big in Vietnam.
(86) Robert H. Johnson, as of l963-64 one of Rostow's Policy Planning staff officers, who was tasked in early l964 with closely examining Rostow's escalation theses, later wrote that he and Rostow had been arguing the latter's escalation idea "since l96l." Johnson, "Escalation Then and Now," Foreign Policy, No. 60 (Fall l985), p. l3l.
(87) State Department, Policy Planning Staff, "Outline of Issues Involved in Planning for the Imposition of Measured Sanctions against North Vietnam." 11 February l964. (S/Noforn/Limited Distribution)." Attachment to William E. Colby, Memorandum for the Director, "Planning Paper for Southeast Asia," l9 February l964. (S) CIA/DDO files, Box 78-597, DDO/ISS, Box 1, Folder 7, "State & Defense Papers on Vietnam, 1964."
(88) National Security Action Memorandum No. 280, attachment to John A. McCone, Memorandum for the President, "National Security Action Memorandum No. 280," 24 February l964, (S), nominating FE Division Chief William E. Colby as CIA's representative to the Sullivan Task Force. CIA/DDO files, Job No. 78-597, DDO/ISS, Box 2, Folder: "Sullivan Committee Meetings, Feb 1964-April 1964."
(91) Harold P. Ford, Memorandum for the Record, "Initial Meeting of Planning Sub-Committee of Vietnam Task Force, l9 February l964," l9 February l964. (S/Sensitive). CIA/DDO files, Box No. 78-597, DDO/IIS, Box 1, Folder 8: "Meetings on Vietnam, 1963-Oct. 1964." The author was at that time Chief of O/NE's Far East Staff and a CIA representative on this interagency team.
(92) As quoted in Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol III, p. l56. See also Policy Planning Staff, Department of State, "Alternatives for Imposition of Measured Pressures Against North Vietnam," l March l964. (Originally TS, declassified 4 October l983). A copy of this report is on file in CIA's History Staff.
(93) Harold P. Ford, Memorandum for the Director, "Completion of Interim Report by (North) Vietnam Planning Sub-Committee of Sullivan Task Force," 2 March l964 (S). CIA/DDI files, Job No. 79R00904A, O/D/NFAC, Box 10, Folder 3, "Memos for Directors, 1963-64."
(94) "The gist of the SNIE [of 5 November l96l] was that the North Vietnamese would respond to an increased U.S. commitment with an offsetting increase in infiltrated support for the Viet Cong. . . On the prospects for bombing the North, the SNIE implies that threats to bomb would not cause Hanoi to stop its support for the Viet Cong . . ." Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. II, pp. l07-l08. The Johnson group's judgment was also shared by William Colby, at the time Chief of CIA's Far East Division and CIA's representative to the Johnson group's parent body, the Sullivan Task Force. On l9 February l964 Colby told McCone: "As you know I have some rather strong doubts as to the desirability or effectiveness of this overall course of action." Colby, Memorandum for the Director, "Planning Paper for Southeast Asia," l9 February l964. (S). CIA/DDO files, Box 78-597, DDO/IIS, Box 1, Folder 7, "State and Defense Papers on Vietnam, 1964."
(95) George Ball, Atlantic Monthly, p. 4l; Policy Planning Staff, Department of State, "Alternatives" study, passim; and Robert Johnson, "Escalation Then and Now," passim. Among the authors who gave the Robert Johnson exercise high marks was David Halberstam: "It was an important study because it not only predicted that the bombing would not work, and predicted Hanoi's reaction to the pressure, which was to apply counterpressure, but it forecast that the bombing would affect (and imprison) the American government. That was particularly prophetic because America did eventually bomb with a view to bringing the North to the conference table. It would find that it was, instead of changing the North, sticking itself to a tar baby . . ." Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 357.
(96) Rostow, Memorandum to the Secretary of State, "Contingency Planning for Southeast Asia," l4 February l964. FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, pp. 75, 76. The day before, Rostow had told Rusk that there was "a fair chance" that US bombing of the DRV would work because, among other things, "Ho [Chi Minh] has an industrial complex to protect: he is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose." Rostow, Memo to Rusk, "Southeast Asia," l3 February l964. FRUS, as above, pp. 73, 74. In that memo of the l3th, Rostow placed this repeat of his preexisting position in the broader context of a needed Congressional resolution backing stronger US actions against the DRV. As we will see, the administration's policymakers had such a resolution ready, six months later, when the Tonkin Gulf incidents provided President Johnson an opportunity to ask the Congress for its formal support.
(97) Ball, letter to Rusk, McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy, 5 October l964, (TS), as later reproduced in Ball, "A Light That Failed," The Atlantic, December l972, p. 39. See also Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, pp. 49l-500; Stanley Karnow, (The Vietnam Years, Part I)," The New Yorker, 6 May l99l, p. 58. According to Robert Johnson, when his group completed its report in March l964, Allen S. Whiting, then a State Department officer working for Ball, asked for and was given a copy of the group's report. Johnson, to author, 30 April l993. Also, Mr. Ball's basic critique, that "once on the tiger's back we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount," paralleled the Johnson group's earlier (March) judgment that the costs of failure might be greater if the US had escalated the war, thereby increasing its commitment, but still had not caused the DRV and the Viet Cong to slacken their pressures against the GVN.
(98) A measure of the JCS's appreciation of the deteriorating situation at this time: According to CIA files, on l7 February 1964 the JCS sought the views of CINCPAC and MACV on the proposition that "the wartime DOD-CIA command relationships for Vietnam" be activated. This state-of-war provision would have placed CIA's operations there under MACV. C/FE Colby, learning of this, recommended to DCI McCone that he "be prepared for such a suggestion and, if it comes, that you decline it." Colby, Memorandum for the DCI, "Military Command of CIA Station, Vietnam," l9 February l964. (S). CIA/DDO files, Box 78-597, DDO/IIS, Box 1, Folder 8, "Meetings on Vietnam, 1963-Oct. 1964." Fortunately for CIA, its Saigon Station was not subordinated to MACV.
(99) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Discussion with Secretary Rusk at Luncheon, 6 February, l2:45 - 2:30" (S/Eyes Only). CIA/DCI files, Job No. 80B1285A, DCI/McCone, Box 2, Folder 10. "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, 1 Jan-5 April 1964."
(101) According to Pentagon Papers (DoD ed.), Book 3, Section IV-B-4, "Phased Withdrawal," p.33. On l0 February, CIA's Executive Director-Comptroller, Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, reported from Saigon his dismay at the unwillingness of South Vietnam's rural population to defend itself against the VC or to support the ARVN's actions against the VC. He also reported that he was "shocked by the number of our (CIA) people and of the military, even those whose job is always to say we are winning, who feel that the tide is against us." He held that "a major factor" in VC successes was "their superior intelligence based on nationwide penetrations and intimidation at all levels." Kirkpatrick report, l0 February l964. FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, pp. 65, 66.
(105) McCone, Memorandum, "Discussion with Secretary McNamara and General Taylor this morning concerning our trip to South Vietnam," 29 February l964. (S/Eyes Only). CIA files, as above. McCone recorded that Secretary McNamara asked him for a very careful estimate of the situation in South Vietnam: "What McNamara was saying was that he was looking to us for the basic judgment of probable success or failure of the U.S. effort . . . From what he said I assume that he would use this judgment in formulating his recommendations concerning the future courses of U.S. action, such as staying as is, increasing the effort in South Vietnam along present lines, commit U.S. forces to combat, extending operations to North Vietnam, etc." Mr. McCone's assumption, however, proved unfounded. The logic of Secretary McNamara's subsequent policy recommendations during l964-early l965, the months in which the Johnson administration decided to deepen America's involvement in Vietnam, did not follow from the intelligence judgments given him by the DCI and CIA.
(106) "The President accepted the need for punishing Hanoi without debate, but pointed to some other practical difficulties, particularly the political ones with which he was faced. It is quite apparent that he does not want to lose South Vietnam before next November nor does he want to get the country into war." Maxwell Taylor, Memorandum of a Conversation Between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President, Washington, March 4, l964. FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, p.l29. At this time, in addition to Walt Rostow, two of the principal champions of the concept of hitting the North were Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, who on 20 February cabled that "various pressures can and should be applied to North Vietnam to cause them to cease and desist from their murderous intrusion into South Vietnam;" and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in a formal action on 2 March recommended direct strikes against North Vietnam. Respectively, CIA/IG Report, p. 50; and Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. III, p. l20.
(107) McCone, "Memorandum on Vietnam," 3 March l964. FRUS, as above, pp. l22, l24, l25, l26. FRUS, n. l20, states that this memo had no designated recipient, but that Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy, for one, had initialed it. Portions of Mr. McCone's memo are also quoted in CIA/IG Report, p. 52.
(109) CIA/IG Report, pp. 53, 54. See also McCone, Memorandum for McNamara, l4 March l964, (S), CIA files, Job No. 80Bl285A, DCI/McCone, Box 2, Folder l0, "DCI (McCone) Memos for the Record, l Jan-5 April l964," and McCone's comments on McNamara memorandum for the President, l6 March l964, in Gareth Porter (ed), Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation of Human Decisions, Vol II, p. 258.
(110) C/FE memorandum, "Possible GRC Aid to South Vietnam: The Effect of Such Action on the GRC and Chinese Morale," 4 March l964. (S). CIA files, Box 78-597, DDO/IIS, Box l, Folder l4: "Vietnam--CIA Papers Prepared by FE Division, l958-l964."
(112) The text of Secretary McNamara's report to the President may be found in Porter, Vol II, pp. 249-258; Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. III, pp. 499-65l0; and FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, pp. l53-l68. In his report, Secretary McNamara nonetheless held that "Substantial reductions in the number of US military training personnel should be possible before the end of l965 . . . ." CIA/IG Report, p. 55.
(115) Pentagon Papers (The New York Times ed.), p. 254. DDI Ray Cline did not share O/NE's view, having told the DCI in March that "I think the loss of virtually all U.S. prestige and influence in Southeast Asia is likely if a favorable trend does not set in South Vietnam soon." Cline, Memorandum for the Director, "Recommended Actions for South Vietnam," l4 March l964. (S). FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, pp. l46-l47. Also, in this memo, written l2 months before the US did commit combat troops in Vietnam, Cline recommended that "a U.S. combat unit (perhaps a battalion landing team)" be committed to insure the security of US personnel "and--implicitly--the Khanh regime's control of the Saigon area."
(117) Robert Johnson, "Escalation Then and Now," pp. l36-l37; and Harold P. Ford, "The US Decision to Go Big in Vietnam," Studies in Intelligence Vol. 29, No. l (Spring l985), pp. 6-7. (Initially Secret, declassified 27 August l986). CIA players included the author, O/NE officer Chester L. Cooper, and two DDO officers. One of the senior officers who critiqued SIGMA-I on its last day, Gen. Curtis LeMay, then Air Force Chief of Staff, furiously charged (in the author's presence) that the game had been rigged.
(119) Ball, Letter to Rusk, 3l May l964. FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, p. 404. The files of DCI McCone contain no indication of his reaction to the SIGMA-I wargame nor any record of the critique sent him by two of his officers.
(120) Colby, Memorandum for the Record, "Report by Secretary McNamara-l4 May l964." l4 May l964. (S). CIA Files, Job No. 80B0l258A, DCI/Executive Registry, Box 6, Folder 8. Colby's memo does not indicate what positions, if any, Director McCone took at this Presidential meeting. In any event, the next day, the DCI sent the President a DDI assessment that held that the overall situation in South Vietnam was "extremely fragile," and that if the tide of deterioration were not arrested by the end of l964, the anti-Communist position in South Vietnam would probably become "untenable." DDI Memorandum, l5 May l964. FRUS, as above, p. 336.
(123) W. P. Bundy, Draft Memorandum for the President, "Scenario for Strikes on North Vietnam," 23 May l964. (TS). CIA files, Job No. 78-597, DDO/ISS, Box l, Folder 6: "Executive Committee Meetings on Southeast Asia, Sunday, 24 May l964."
(128) DIR 20682 to Saigon, as reproduced in CIA/IG Report, p.58. In responding, Colby felt that what needed special improvement was "frequent and objective" appraisals of the data being collected. He criticized US policy for being swamped in details at the expense of overall vision: "I am concerned primarily at the tendency toward chasing wills-of-the-wisp rather than cleaving firmly to a fundamental strategy for this war." Colby, SAIG 63l6, l3 May l964, as reproduced in CIA/IG Report, p. 59.
(129) According to McCone's Memorandum for the Record of this conference. CIA/IG Report, p.69. Also in "Summary Record of Meetings, Honolulu, June 2, l964, 8:30-ll:50 a.m. and 2:l5-4 p.m." FRUS, as above, p. 429.
(132) According to McCone's notes of that meeting. CIA/IG Report, p. 65. It should be noted that available documents indicate that during these weeks there were differences of emphasis among the policymakers as well. While agreeing with the general concept of punishing the North, Dean Rusk, Maxwell Taylor, George Ball, and McGeorge Bundy took more moderate positions on the details than did some of their colleagues.
(134) O/NE, Draft Memorandum for the USIB, "New Estimative Questions Concerning US Courses of Action re Vietnam," 27 May l964 (S) . CIA files, Job No. 78-597, DDO/ISS, Box l, Folder 6: "Executive Committee Meetings on Southeast Asia, Sunday, 24 May l964." Also, CIA/IG Report, p. 67. The views expressed in that memo were not O/NE's alone: a Note on the first page of the study explained that it had been prepared "with the assistance of a special panel of USIB representatives (Senior Members of DIA and INR)."
(135) CIA/IG Report, p. 70; The New York Times, 23 August l964; and Matthias, to author, l2 February and 20 April l990. Matthias's point about possible neutralization was part of an NIE study he had been commissioned to draft on the world situation. According to Matthias, at McCone's request O/NE declassified this draft so that the Director could take it up to Gettysburg and show it to ex-President Eisenhower. Even though CIA subsequently classified the draft "US Government Only," someone leaked it to the press, the Chicago Tribune in the first instance. Matthias, to author, l2 February l990.
(137) The NSC and CIA positions are contrasted on p. 56 above; see citations from O/NE's dissent on p. 215-216 below. The full text of O/NE's dissent on the domino thesis is given in FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, pp. 484-487. Also, CIA/IG Report, p. 7l. O/NE had long questioned the validity of the domino thesis and continued so to do. On l2 September l967, for example, DCI Richard Helms sent President Johnson a sharp critique of that concept, written by O/NE Board member (and future BNE Chairman) John Huizenga (S). CIA Files, Job No. 80B0l285A, Box 11, DCI/Helms, Folder 4: "l Aug-3l Dec '67."
(138) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Meeting with the President--ll:l5 a.m., 24 July l964," 24 July l964. (S/Eyes Only). CIA files, Job No. 80B0l258A, DCI/Executive Registry, Box 6, Folder 9. On that occasion McCone asked President Johnson for greater opportunity to "sit down with him occasionally to exchange views on matters of importance to him" because through the written word, the President was not getting the full benefit of the views and judgments of what McCone told him were "the most competent intelligence experts and analysts that existed anywhere in the world . . . in my experience in many departments in government and in industry I had never encountered as high a level of competence or intellectual capability as I found in the CIA."
(143) Memorandum, McCone to the President, "Probable Communist Reactions to Certain US or US-Sponsored Courses of Action in Vietnam and Laos," 28 July l964. FRUS, as above, pp. 585-587. Also, Sherman Kent memorandum to the DCI, same subject, 26 July l964. CIA/IG Report, p. 77.
(144) In requesting the Joint Resolution, which won overwhelming Congressional support, Johnson administration officers did not reveal that shortly before the attacks on our destroyers, covertly operated South Vietnamese gunboats had raided North Vietnamese islands in the general vicinity.
(147) Talking paper on South Vietnam, 9 September l964. (S/Eyes Only); and attached Memorandum for the Record by William E. Colby, "Meeting with Ambassador Taylor, 9 September l964," l0 September l964. (S/Eyes Only). CIA files, Job No. 78-597, DDO/ISS, Box l, Folder 8.
(149) Carter, "Summary," 25 September l964, (S); and attached Memorandum for the Record by Robert J. Myers, "Meeting on Possible Action to Support South Vietnam, 25 September l964," 25 September l964, (S). CIA files, Job No. 78-597, DDO/ISS, Box l, Folder 8.
(153) Carver and Edward A. Hauck, Memorandum for the Director, "Comment on Assistant Secretary William P. Bundy's l3 August l964 Memorandum, 'Next Course of Action in Southeast Asia,'" l4 August l964. (TS). CIA Files, Job No. 80Rl720R, O/D/NFAC, Box 5, "GAC Files (SAVA-NIO)," Folder 1.
(154) Carver memorandum, 3l August l964. Same CIA file as above.
(156) Sigma II is discussed by several authors, among them Thomas B. Allen, "Twilight Zone at the Pentagon," MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Vol. II No. 2 (Winter l990), p.52; Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p.463; and Stanley Karnow--who characterizes SIGMA II's outcome as "depressing: no amount of American pressure could stop the Communists. . ." Vietnam: A History, pp. 399-400.
(158) Pentagon Papers (The New York Times ed.), pp. 308, 320-32l. Ambassador Taylor, viewing the VC attack as "a deliberate act of escalation and a change of the [war's] ground rules," also recommended a reprisal attack on a DRV target. EmbTel l357 (Flash), l November l964. FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. I, p. 873.
(159) On l November, in a State cable "Literally eyes only Ambassador from Secretary," Rusk explained that in weighing Taylor's arguments for immediate retaliation, "we are inevitably affected by election timing. Quick retaliation could easily be attacked as election device here . . ." DepTel 979 (Immediate). FRUS, as above, p. 878.
(160) The author was CIA's representative to this NSC Working Group (and the chairman of its intelligence panel). The Bundy exercise is treated by numerous authors, among them FRUS, 1964-1968, pp. 882-883, 914-929; Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. III, pp. 2l0-2l5, 645-655; Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, pp. 50l-502; Karnow, Vietnam, A History, pp. 403-404; Larry E. Cable, Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counter-insurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University Press, l986), pp. 237-238; Robert L. Gallucci, Neither Peace Nor Honor: The Politics of American Military Policy in Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, l975, pp. 4l-45; Col. Dave R. Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective (San Francisco: Presidio Press, l978), pp. 75-77; R. B. Smith, An International History of the Vietnam War: The Kennedy Strategy (New York: St. Martin's Press, l985), Vol. II, pp. 329-332; and Harold P. Ford, Memorandum for the Director, "Comment on the (Bundy) Vietnam Working Group Papers," 2l November l964. (TS/Sensitive). CIA files, Job No. 80B0l285A, Box 3, DCI/McCone, Folder l5.
(161) The text of the Bundy group's intelligence panel is given in full in Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. III, pp. 65l-656. As characterized by Stanley Karnow, "The Bundy group's intelligence expert [pointed out that the Viet Cong] would carry on the insurgency even if North Vietnam were 'severely damaged' by U.S. bombing. He saw no early end to the war." Karnow, Vietnam: A History, p. 403. In his In Retrospect, Robert McNamara discusses part of this dissent by the Bundy group's interagency intelligence panel, but misrepresents its source. He states that the dissent was a "CIA" view only, and cites as his source the Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. III, p. 651, whereas that Gravel edition citation in fact reads "NSC Working Group on Vietnam . . ." McNamara, In Retrospect, pp. 162, 367.
(162) Bundy, Memorandum for John McNaughton (DoD/ISA) and Harold Ford (CIA), "Attached Additional Point Under Section VI," l3 November l964. (TS/Eyes Only). CIA files, Job No. 80T0l629R, O/NFAC, Box 3, "SAVA Policy Files," Folder 4: "Sullivan/Bundy Working Group on VN - Nov l964." In his cover note Bundy explained that "I am sending this page only to you two, for your exclusive use with your principals. It is the sort of question that should come up only in the very smallest top-level groups, but I do think we should face it and see whether we agree with the viewpoint I have tried to express."
(163) James Thomson, Memorandum for the Record of a Meeting, White House, Washington, November l9, l964, l2:30 p.m., "Vietnam Item, Meeting with the President." FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol I, pp. 9l4-9l6; and William Bundy and John McNaughton, Paper Presented by the National Security Council Working Group, "Courses of Action in Southeast Asia," 2l November l964. FRUS, pp. 9l6-929. Thomson's account of the Presidential meeting on l9 November lists John McCone as being one of the participants. FRUS, p. 9l4.
(165) "A Strategic Evaluation," Appendix A to Memorandum, Earle G. Wheeler, "Courses of Action in Southeast Asia." (TS/Sensitive). CIA files, Job No. 80B0l285A, Box 3, Folder l5: "DCI (McCone) Vietnam, 0l Nov-30 Nov l964."
(167) Bundy, Memorandum to the President, l6 December l964. Enclosure to letter from President Johnson to Senator Mike Mansfield, l7 December, in which LBJ states that he had asked Bundy to comment on a letter the Senator had sent to the President criticizing the US drift toward escalation. FRUS, pp. l0l0-l0ll.
(171) Their pre-Pleiku draft, emphasizing the "grim" prospect in Vietnam and the "astonishing" energy and persistence of the Viet Cong, recommended that the United States adopt a policy of "sustained reprisal" that would allow it to "speak in Vietnam on many topics and in many ways, with growing force and effectiveness." Porter, Vol. II, pp.349-357. See also Gibbons, Part III, pp. 60-62; Karnow, Vietnam: A History, pp. 4ll-4l3; Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, pp. 520-52l; and Chester Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam, pp.256-259. In these pages, Cooper states that in Saigon he and Bundy learned at the time that the Viet Cong "held the initiative throughout much of the Vietnamese countryside. . . and were roaming at will around the outskirts of the capital. . ."
(174) Cline, Memorandum for the Director, "Vietnam," 25 November l964. (TS). CIA files, Job No. 80B0l285A, Box 3, DCI/McCone, Folder l5; also FRUS, l964-l968, Vol. I, pp. 962-964. In judging that the DRV would seek to negotiate if faced with "extreme" US action, Cline added the proviso that such US action involved stopping short of the "occupation of NVN territory by substantial numbers of U.S. ground forces." This was in fact a contingency far from any US course of action being considered at the time.
(175) Smith, Memorandum for Chief, Far East Division,"Recommended CIA Position on the Continuation of the Struggle in Indo-China," l9 November l964. (S). CIA files, Job No. 78-597, DDO/ISS, Box l, Folder l4: "Vietnam--CIA Papers Prepared by FE Division, l958-l964." This officer, a veteran of years of experience in and concerning Vietnam, had been a consistent critic of greater US military participation in the war since late l96l, when the Kennedy administration had decided to up the US ante in South Vietnam.
(178) Harold P. Ford, Memorandum, "Into the Valley," 8 April l965. (TS, subsequently declassified, l0 May l993). Copy on file in CIA History Staff. No reply to these unsolicited views was received from the Director. In February l965 Vice President Humphrey had privately given the President a stinging critique of his decision that South Vietnam could be saved by markedly expanding the war--a critique similar in some respects to the doubts certain CIA officers had had for some time about Vietnam. Humphrey told LBJ on l5 February l965 that US public backing of the new course was mandatory but lacking: "American wars have to be politically understandable by the American public. There has to be a cogent, convincing case if we are to enjoy sustained public support. . . People can't understand why we would run grave risks to support a country which is totally unable to put its own house in order. The chronic instability in Saigon directly undermines American political support for our policy. . . . We now risk creating the impression that we are the prisoner of events in Vietnam." Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., l976), pp. 322-323. Humphrey nonetheless continued outwardly to support administration Vietnam policy until late in his own presidential campaign in l968.
(180) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Discussion with Secretary McNamara on l6 November l964," l9 November l964. (S/Eyes Only); and "Meeting on ll/24/64." (TS). Both in CIA files, Job No. 80B0l285A, DCI/Executive Registry, Box 2, Folder l4. (Hereafter cited as McCone memos). Reflecting how far his appreciation of the fragility of South Vietnam had come since early l963, when he had remanded NIE 53-63 for having been too pessimistic about the GVN, is the assessment McCone appended to his l6 November l964 document (above): "Finally, it must be realized that if the NVN actually stop infiltration and direction of the VC movement, there remains a very serious indigenous VC force in SVN far greater than the indigenous forces in either Malaya or the Philippines and it will quite possibly take years to overcome this force and bring order into South Vietnam."
(181) McCone, Memorandum for the Record, "Briefing of President Johnson at Johnson City, Texas, December 28, l964," 4 January l965. (S/Eyes Only). McCone memos, Box 6, Folder l0. McCone recorded that on this occasion he told the President "again and again that we were wrong in knocking over Diem, that I had told President Kennedy that if we moved in this direction it would result in political chaos, and this is what had happened. We went forward without being prepared to take the consequences of every possible result, and the possibility had happened and therefore we were in trouble."
(183) McCone, Memorandum for Secretaries Rusk and McNamara, Ambassador Taylor, and McGeorge Bundy, 2 April l965, (TS). McCone memos, Box 6, Folder ll; Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Vol. III, pp. l00-l0l; Lyndon Johnson The Vantage Point, p. l40; and Gibbons, Part III, pp. 200-20l.
(185) McCone letter to the President, 28 April l975. (TS). CIA files, Job No. 80T0l629R, O/NFAC, Box 3, "SAVA Policy Files," Folder 2: "Vietnam Committee." At the end of this letter McCone told Johnson that he was attaching "a copy of my memorandum of April 2nd, which may not have come to your attention, since it argues this case in a little more detail." Historians George Kahin and John Lewis assert that McCone's 2 April memorandum "was apparently withheld from the President, and that the CIA chief was obliged to hand-deliver a copy to him as his last official act before resigning." Kahin and Lewis, The United States in Vietnam, Rev. ed. (New York: Dial Press, l967), p. 3l7. These authors offer no documentation to support their assertion. In any event, McCone had already given the President his candid criticisms of the new US course, face-to-face, in the NSC meeting of 20 April.
(186) Raborn, Memorandum of 6 May l965. (TS/Sensitive). CIA files, as above. Attached to that memo in the files are a cover letter of 6 May, Raborn to Rusk and McNamara; and a note for the files, 11 May, by O/NE Director Sherman Kent. In his letter to the President (with copies to Secretaries Rusk and McNamara), Raborn used a number of views, verbatim, that O/NE had recently given the DCI's office. See author, O/NE Memorandum (Revised), "Comment on Mr. McCone's Views, Dated 28 April l965," 5 May l965. (TS/Sensitive). CIA files, as above.
(191) DePuy, as quoted by Lt. Cols. Romie L. Brownlee and William J. Mullen III, Changing An Army: An Oral History of General William E. DePuy, USA Retired (Carlisle Barracks, PA ; U. S. Military History Institute, l990), p. l23.