Vietnam Is the Place 2

In the process tons of memorandums were ground out—only a tiny fraction of which would later be disclosed publicly in The Pentagon Papers, the compilation of documents purloined by Daniel Ellsberg, a Lansdale assistant who turned against the war. And there were end¬less meetings and private conversations and arcane machinations, many never recorded. Ultimately, however, Kennedy made the de¬cisions—sometimes on the basis of advice, sometimes by sheer in¬stinct.
He had been unhappy with the Eisenhower administration’s policy of “massive retaliation,” an abstract notion nicknamed the “bigger bang for a buck,” which had been contrived to curtail defense ex¬penditures by threatening the Soviet Union with nuclear conflict rather than maintaining a large and costly conventional force. Kennedy was influenced in this respect by his favorite general, Maxwell Taylor, who advocated a “flexible response” as a way of dealing with so-called brushfire wars, especially in developing areas of the world. The Taylor concept spurred Kennedy’s fascination with “counterinsurgency” which became the obvious approach to Vietnam.
In April 1961, Kennedy created a “task force” to prepare economic, social, political and military programs aimed at preventing Com¬munist “domination” of South Vietnam. George Ball, now deputy under secretary of state, soon took over the project, and diluted some of its original statements of unqualified commitment. Nevertheless, Kennedy accepted its proposals, among them a plan to strengthen the Saigon regime’s army of one hundred and fifty thousand by twenty thousand men. He also agreed to send an additional hundred American military advisers to Vietnam, to bring the total up to nearly eight hundred—a decision that posed a legal problem, since the Geneva agreement specified that foreign military personnel could be assigned to Vietnam only as replacements. Rusk recommended that they be deployed without consulting Britain, cochairman of the Geneva Con¬ference, or the International Control Commission, which was sup¬posed to monitor the accords. He also suggested that they “be placed in varied locations to avoid attention.”
At the same time, Kennedy replaced Ambassador Durbrow, who had annoyed Diem, with Frederick Nolting, a scholarly diplomat with no experience in Asia. Whatever Diem’s shortcomings, the United States would “sink or swim” with him. Diem now began to view himself as indispensable, a notion that was reinforced by Vice-Presi¬dent Johnson, whom Kennedy dispatched to Asia in May 1961. Acting as if he were endorsing county sheriffs in a Texas election campaign, Johnson swept into Saigon and hailed Diem as the reincarnation of Winston Churchill. Returning home, Johnson echoed the domino the¬orists in a message that foreshadowed his later contention that the loss of Vietnam would compel America to fight “on the beaches of Wai¬kiki.” “The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination … or the United States, inev¬itably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defenses on our own shores.”
During Johnson’s hectic Saigon visit, Diem had recoiled from the idea of U.S. combat troops in his country. A larger American presence in Vietnam would compromise his nationalistic pretensions, and it might also give the United States greater leverage over his govern¬ment. But the question of deploying American fighting units in Viet¬nam recurred throughout the year; it was finally resolved in October, when Kennedy sent Maxwell Taylor to Saigon on a crucial mission.
Taylor, officially titled the president’s special military representa¬tive, was Kennedy’s kind of soldier—a World War II hero who spoke several languages and had written a book, thus combining courage with culture. Handsome and charming, he even resembled a character out of Camelot. One day in the summer of 1961, Kennedy casually stopped him in a White House corridor and handed him a voluminous letter from Diem. “How do I answer this?” Kennedy asked, and strolled away.
At Johnson’s suggestion, Diem had again proposed that the size of the South Vietnamese armed forces be increased, now by one hundred thousand to a total of two hundred and seventy thousand men. This would demand an expanded American advisory group, more U.S. equipment and additional financial aid—not a package to be considered lightly. Taylor and Rostow were instructed to go to Saigon to make an assessment. Kennedy was succinct: he wanted to “avoid a further deterioration of the situation,” but, he reminded Taylor, the “initial responsibility” for South Vietnam’s fate lay with its own government and people. In short, he opposed the introduction of American combat troops in Vietnam, though he had no intention of accepting defeat. Or, as Taylor put it afterward: “The question was how to change a losing game and begin to win, not how to call it off.”
Taylor prepared to reach Saigon in mid-October, and the weeks before his arrival were filled with fresh events that seemed to augur change. As a gesture of defiance, large Vietcong contingents attacked South Vietnamese army posts in Phuoc Thanh and Darlac provinces, inflicting heavy casualties. Diem, declaring that a “real war” was developing, reversed himself. He now told Nolting that he would welcome American combat soldiers as a “symbolic” presence, and he also requested a bilateral defense pact between the United States and South Vietnam. In Washington, the joint chiefs of staff recommended a U.S. troop commitment, and they were seconded by William P. Bundy, then acting assistant secretary of defense, who argued for an “early and hard-hitting operation” that would give Diem “a chance to do better.” Kennedy, seeking to deflate the pressure, resorted to a tricky tactic. He planted a fake story in The New York Times, which reported without attribution that “military leaders at the Pentagon, no less than General Taylor himself, are understood to be reluctant to send organized U.S. combat units into Southeast Asia.” The article silenced Diem, who had immediately surmised its source, but it did not sway Taylor.
After a two-week tour of South Vietnam, he and his team repaired to Baguio, a cool mountain town in the Philippines, to draft a series of memorandums. They restated the basic tenets of the domino theory, warning that “if Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to hold Southeast Asia,” the loss of which would shatter “the faith that the United States has the will and the capacity to deal with the Communist offensive in that area.” Then, outlining practical measures, they recommended an increase in the number of U.S. mil¬itary advisers, and they urged that three squadrons of helicopters, manned by American pilots, be deployed in Vietnam to give mobility to the Saigon regime’s forces. These and other steps, they said, would make the relationship between the United States and South Vietnam a “limited partnership” in which the American military advisory group would become “something nearer—but not quite—an operational headquarters in a theater of war.”

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