CSI - CIA and Vietnam Policymakers Award
The Society for History in the Federal Government (SHFG) has bestowed one of its most prestigious awards on a book titled , by Dr. Harold P. Ford. The award--the George Pendleton Prize for the best major manuscript on a US Government program, activity, or organization--was presented to Dr. Ford at the SHFG’s annual conference on March 19.
Anne B. Effland of the SHFG’s Book Award Committee, in presenting the award, remarked that it was “a pure delight to award this prize to a book written by a former civil servant that makes use of experience and memory to enhance the documentary record and advance analysis of important events.” Another SHFG statement characterized Dr. Ford’s book as “excellent . . . a combination of insider knowledge and experience with historical research in recently declassified documents . . . [and] a probing, considered combination of short studies--well constructed and well written.” Journalist and historian Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer prize-winner and a leading authority on the Vietnam war, has hailed Dr. Ford’s book as “impeccable and very candidly researched.”
Hal Ford authored this study under a contract with the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, which published the work. He drew on long-classified CIA documents that the Agency had recently declassified, released, and approved for use in his book. The work also reflects the author’s own recollections stemming from his long experience as an independent-minded senior CIA analyst and manager. During an Agency career that spanned more than 30 years, he served in the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, the Office of National Estimates, the Directorate of Intelligence, and the National Intelligence Council. As Far East staff chief in the Office of National Estimates during the 1960s, he was the CIA’s representative in several inter-agency working groups on Vietnam, and he became known as one of the CIA’s most knowledgeable and accomplished experts on that protracted conflict. He drafted or helped draft many National Intelligence Estimates on the subject..
The author also served abroad as a CIA Station Chief and worked for five years on the staffs of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and its forerunner, the Church Committee. He retired from the CIA in 1986 after serving as Vice Chairman and then as Acting Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
Dr. Ford does not pull his punches in this appraisal of key decisions and key players. The book is a candid and scholarly account of how the US Intelligence Community, particularly the CIA, provided wartime intelligence support to the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations--and how US policymakers at times pressed analysts to treat controversial aspects of the problem in ways more favorable to Administration war aims. Focusing on the Johnson Administration’s decision to commit US combat troops to South Vietnam’s defense, the controversies over enemy military strength, and the impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive, Dr. Ford carefully examines the evaluations that the CIA provided to senior US leaders and offers insights into the policymaking process.
The author does not entirely spare his own Agency. He acknowledges that some CIA analytical judgments were clearly wrong and that others were skewed to fit the more optimistic views of senior officials. But he argues persuasively that the Agency’s analysis for the most part turned out to be remarkably accurate. “CIA’s judgments proved prescient much of the time but found little receptivity,” he notes. For example, the Johnson Administration’s March 1965 decision to “go big” in Vietnam--with a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam and a sharp expansion of the US military role and combat presence--met with pessimism inside the CIA.
In April 1965, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) John McCone received from Dr. Ford what the author describes as his own “sharp, across-the-board criticism of these new US military departures.” In his critique to the DCI, Dr. Ford expressed his “deep concern that we are becoming progressively divorced from reality in Vietnam.” He summed up with the observation that “ 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.”
McCone subsequently wrote to President Johnson, “We will find ourselves mired in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win and from which we will have extreme difficulty extracting ourselves.” McCone’s admonitions, however, had little impact on the President and his top advisers.
Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in his 1995 book In Retrospect, acknowledged that CIA’s analyses on the Vietnam war have proved correct and that his own were wrong. Clearly, the views and insights of Hal Ford and many of his CIA colleagues during a highly stressful and divisive period in US history have withstood the test of time.