This study uses three episodes in the interplay of intelligence with policymaking on Vietnam (1) to examine the information and judgments the Central Intelligence Agency provided presidents and senior administration officials; (2) to assess the impact these inputs had or did not have on policy decisions; and (3) to reflect on why the policy and intelligence outcomes developed as they did. Focusing on CIA intelligence analysis in Washington in the 1960s, the study is intended to complement other History Staff publications on Vietnam treating the Agency's operational performance in the field.
The particular focus of this study takes nothing away from the fact that CIA assessments on Vietnam were an important part of the policymaking process in the years before and after these three episodes. In the earlier years, CIA Headquarters judgments had been consistently pessimistic, holding that the French would almost certainly not be able to prevail in Vietnam. As the US commitment to South Vietnam progressively increased, CIA-produced assessments of the military-political outlook there remained more doubtful than those of US policymakers. Until 1962, CIA's senior officers had focused their attention on field operations, intelligence collection, and the routine supply of finished intelligence to Washington policymakers. That situation changed with the advent of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) John A. McCone in late 1961. Until early 1965 McCone played an active role in many matters of policy formulation affecting the Vietnam war and broader world issues, though late in 1964 he and President Johnson began to differ on optimum military measures to pursue in Vietnam.
During the brief tenure of McCone's successor, Adm. William F. Raborn, a position of Special Assistant to the DCI for Vietnam Affairs (SAVA) was created to coordinate and focus CIA efforts in support of administration policy. When veteran CIA operations officer Richard Helms replaced Raborn as DCI, he was for the most part less aggressive than McCone in dealing with top policymakers, was generally more responsive than initiative-taking, and gave the White House and the Pentagon vigorous Agency support with respect to Vietnam. In 1967-68, however, he did give President Johnson some remarkably frank reports from CIA officers that went far beyond strictly intelligence matters. It was Helms's Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs at that time, George A. Carver, Jr., who played an especially influential role in the policy arena, notably in early 1968 when the Tet Offensive forced the Johnson administration to reexamine its policies. Thereafter, however, as the Johnson and Nixon administrations constricted the circle of advisers on Vietnam, CIA contributions focused more on the execution and monitoring of policy than on its formulation.
Contrasted to the narrower opportunities CIA had for influencing policy decisions prior to 1962 and following 1968, the three episodes chosen for this study were cases where US policymakers faced critical points in the evolution of US involvement in Vietnam, and where CIA assessments and senior Agency personalities had at least the potential for significantly affecting the policy decisions taken.
In the first of these episodes, 1962-63, a policy wish intruded on the formulation of intelligence, with DCI McCone playing a key role. This intrusion stemmed from sharply differing views of what was happening in the liberated colonies of former French Indochina. Policymakers believed the positions of US-supported governments in South Vietnam and Laos were improving vis-a-vis the aggrandizement of Communist North Vietnam--so much so, they felt, that the United States could consider withdrawing some of its 10,000 advisory military personnel then in Vietnam. To Washington's working-level intelligence officers, the situation appeared to be getting worse, not better. In the event, in the spring of 1963 things suddenly did get much worse in Indochina, shattering policymakers' optimism and sending them scurrying for new ways to try to save South Vietnam.
The story of that policy search and its interplay with intelligence constitutes the second episode. First came the conviction, championed especially by certain senior State Department officials, that the Ngo Dinh Diem government was incapable of leading the struggle against North Vietnam's aggression and subversion and must be replaced. When Diem's successors proved even less effective, a dominant general view evolved out of the debates among Washington policymakers that South Vietnam could be rescued only by committing US combat forces in the South and systematically bombing the North. Despite the persistent contention at the time by most CIA analysts that such measures by themselves would not save the South, the Johnson administration eventually decided to "go big" in Vietnam, while John McCone, differing with Lyndon Johnson on what military tactics to pursue there, lost his close relationship with the President and resigned his DCI post.
The final case, covering the period 1967-68, treats (1) the circumstances and political pressures that resulted in an estimate of enemy troops in South Vietnam that was considerably lower than the actual total force available to the Communists; (2) the response CIA officers made to those pressures; (3) the alerts which Agency (and other) intelligence officers gave--or did not give--prior to the 1968 Tet holiday that the enemy was likely to launch an unprecedented offensive; and (4) the role CIA inputs played in President Johnson's response to the Tet Offensive. We will see that in this third episode much of CIA's input to the President's policy advisers was made by or through the Director's Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs, George Carver. This CIA officer enjoyed extraordinary Cabinet-level entree, did not restrict himself to intelligence matters, and, until shortly after the Tet Offensive, usually voiced a more optimistic view of Vietnam than did most of his CIA colleagues.
In evaluating the quality and impact of CIA's input to policymaking in the three episodes examined, we will find a mixed picture in which, numerous historians tell us, CIA's judgments proved prescient much of the time but found little receptivity. At other times during 1962-68, the Agency's intelligence found favor with policymakers but turned out to be wrong. Despite this mixed performance, as this study will find, the intelligence on Vietnam that the Agency provided decisionmakers was for the most part better than that of other official contributors, while within CIA the most acute judgments were generally those of its working-level officers.
A Note on Sources and Perspective: The sources of this study include formerly classified documents largely from CIA files; personal interviews of participants; documents and other materials already in the public domain; and the author's own experience in certain of the episodes under review. Research of CIA records covered the offices of the Director of Central Intelligence (including his Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs), the Inspector General, the Deputy Directors for Intelligence and Operations, CIA's History Staff, and the former Office of National Estimates (O/NE) and its files of National Intelligence Estimates. All the Agency documents cited in this study come from specific files of the respective CIA offices.
The study is colored and, it is hoped, illuminated by the author's personal experience as a senior analyst of Indochina questions, on and off, beginning in 1952. During the first two episodes covered, he was successively the chief of O/NE's Far East Staff and then chief of the O/NE Staff; throughout these episodes he was concurrently a CIA representative to various interagency consultative bodies and policy working groups concerned with Vietnam. During the third episode he was otherwise engaged as a CIA Chief of Station abroad. Since his retirement from CIA in 1986, at which time he was Acting Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (the successor to O/NE), he has prepared studies on Vietnam and other subjects for CIA's History Staff.
The author recognizes that his personal involvement in some of the historical events reviewed here constitutes a hazard to scholarship. Let it be said at the outset that, having already limited himself to three exemplary episodes from a longer historical period, he will not always represent or reflect every shade of opinion or judgment on the matters addressed. It should be noted, also, when the judgments of National Intelligence Estimates are cited, that they represented the views not only of CIA but also the entire Washington Intelligence Community. Not least, the author does not intend this work to be a paean to CIA analysis: while he examines situations where he considers CIA judgments proved prescient, he also cites instances where CIA analyses and national estimates proved wide of the mark or were too wishy-washy to serve the policymaking process well.
The author wishes to thank those who consented to be interviewed, and those who have pointed out errors or omissions in earlier drafts and have suggested additions and improved language. These latter experts include Lt. Gen. Robert E. Pursley (USAF, Ret.); CIA History Staff Chiefs J. Kenneth McDonald, L. Kay Oliver, and Gerald Haines; former CIA officers William Colby, George Allen, Richard Lehman, Bob Layton, R. Jack Smith, James Hanrahan, and--especially--Richard Kovar; and CIA officers Henry Appelbaum, Teresa Purcell, and Russell Sniady.
The views expressed in this study do not necessarily represent those of CIA; the author alone is responsible for the views expressed and for any errors or omissions that remain. This study was completed in mid-1997.