Disorder and Decision 3

The resolution was ready by the beginning of June—and so were the administration’s top civilian and military officials. Relying on high- altitude reconnaissance airplanes and other sources of intelligence, Pen¬tagon planners had pinpointed ninety-four bombing targets in North Vietnam; they had also made provisions for suppressing flak, rescuing downed pilots and coping with other tactical problems. Aircraft car¬riers, poised to cruise into the Tonkin Gulf off the North Vietnamese coast, had been instructed to brace themselves to stage “reprisal” raids within seventy-two hours of receiving orders, and the diplomatic apparatus was primed to explain the actions to governments around the world. But suddenly, at a meeting on June 15, Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, informed Secretary of State Rusk, Defense Secretary McNamara and other senior figures that the project was being postponed.
Johnson had changed his mind. Though the situation in South Viet¬nam was deteriorating, it did not yet look sufficiently critical for him to court the risk of appearing like a warmonger to American voters. Nor did he have the hard evidence to prove that North Vietnam merited the bombing. He could probably get his resolution, but only at the cost of damaging the image of moderation he was striving to project. Better to wait until after the November election.
Years later, when American casualties in Vietnam had finally aroused Congress, McNamara still blandly denied to a Senate com¬mittee that the Pentagon had drawn up a bombing program as early as the spring of 1964. And, in subsequent testimony, William Bundy dismissed his elaborate preparations for the resolution as “normal contingency planning,” adding that he was “not sure that my drafts were even known to others”—as if he had improvised them in the solitude of his office in his spare time. The fact is that by the summer of 1964 Johnson had in hand a document that Nicholas Katzenbach, then acting attorney general, was later to call the “functional equivalent of a declaration of war.” It required only approval by Congress, and a dubious incident assured its endorsement.
Ever since the Geneva agreement had partitioned Vietnam into two zones in 1954, covert American agents had been helping the Saigon government to carry on clandestine activities against North Vietnam. Though the North Vietnamese authorities were aware of these activ¬ities, the United States and its South Vietnamese clients kept them secret in order to be able to refute charges of violating the accords. The practice of dissimulation, loftily termed the “principle of plausible denial,” is still pursued today to shroud undercover operations that may create diplomatic complications.
The hush-hush scheme began right after the Geneva conference, when a handful of U.S. operatives headed by the intrepid CIA veteran Lucien Conein surreptitiously formed squads of anti-Communist Vietnamese to organize guerrillas, abduct or assassinate officials, dis¬rupt installations, establish espionage networks and distribute prop¬aganda in the north—just as former Vietminh militants stayed in the south to conduct the same activities against the Saigon regime. But the rigid Communist control structure, a tightly knit web of local cadres and informers, pervaded almost every North Vietnamese town and village, and few of Conein’s teams survived. Conein himself, recognizing the failure of his venture, soon went on to other CIA jobs in Vietnam and elsewhere. Yet the enterprise continued—a futile en¬deavor designed mainly to gratify the Saigon leaders, who derived satisfaction from the illusion that they were avenging themselves against their northern foes. Of more than eighty groups sent into North Vietnam in 1963, for instance, nearly all were killed or captured. The prisoners invariably repented at showcase trials organized in Hanoi, and their testimony fueled Communist radio broadcasts that were beamed to South Vietnam. One CIA agent, who quit the project in disgust, later told me: “I didn’t mind butchering the enemy, but we were butchering our own allies.”
Under Diem’s regime, the covert program was officially directed by Colonel Le Quang Tung, the northern Catholic in command of the government’s special forces, who was murdered by the insurgent generals during their coup against Diem on November 1, 1963. In fact, CIA experts ran the operation—though none actually participated in the forays. The Commandos were South Vietnamese army vol¬unteers, most of them northern refugees supposedly able to blend into their native regions and count on relatives or friends for assistance. They were trained by CIA instructors at camps near Danang and Nhatrang, or at American bases on Taiwan, Guam and Okinawa, where they learned to sabotage factories, blow up bridges and com¬munications lines, gather intelligence and defend themselves with light weapons or their bare hands. Then, garbed in black peasant pajamas to avoid detection, they were infiltrated into North Vietnam, usually in groups of six or seven. They might be landed by junk or sampan at night along the North Vietnamese coast, or parachuted into the country’s mountain jungles from unmarked transports belonging to Air America, a CIA subsidiary headquartered on Taiwan and used for furtive activities throughout Asia. American and Chinese Nationalist mercenaries piloted the planes; to boost their morale, South Vietnam¬ese officers were occasionally allowed to fly missions. Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky boasted to reporters in July 1964 that he had flown several—a revelation that embarrassed American officials, who were then striving to promote the line that the Communists alone were transgressing the Geneva agreement.
These ineffectual “dirty tricks” had been conducted only intermit¬tently before Lyndon Johnson entered office in late 1963. At that point, the joint chiefs of staff conceived a more ambitious and systematic plan for covert operations against North Vietnam, typically giving it an acronym: OPLAN 34-A. Major clandestine innovations required clearance by the ultrasecret 303 Committee, so named because it had once met in room 303 of the Executive Office Building, the wedding cake edifice next to the White House that accommodates the presi¬dent’s aides. The committee, headed by McGeorge Bundy and com¬posed of senior State Department, Pentagon and CIA representatives, endorsed the proposal in January 1964, and Johnson cautiously ap¬proved a four-month experimental phase to begin on February 1. The Pentagon delegated day-to-day direction to a unit of the U.S. military command in Saigon, the studies and operations group, which in turn enlisted CIA advisers.

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