Vietnam Is the Place 3

But Taylor’s most significant message to Kennedy—for the presi¬dent’s “eyes only”—proposed an initial commitment to Vietnam of eight thousand U.S. combat troops disguised as logistical legions to deal with a flood then ravaging the Mekong Delta. Taylor would later explain that this was a “deliberate straddle,” meaning that he had merely offered Kennedy an option. His cables to the White House at the time, however, plainly indicated his preference for direct American intervention. The U.S. soldiers would “act as an advance party of such additional forces as may be introduced,” and he minimized po¬tential fighting conditions, saying that South Vietnam “is not an ex¬cessively difficult or unpleasant place to operate. ” And, foreshadowing his later advice to President Johnson, he brushed aside the risk of a major response from North Vietnam to an American buildup, pre¬suming that it could be discouraged by U.S. bombing of its territory: “North Vietnam is extremely vulnerable to conventional bomb¬ing. . . . There is no case for fearing a mass onslaught of Communist manpower into South Vietnam and its neighboring states, particularly if our air power is allowed a free hand against logistical targets.” Thus Taylor started out with the same misperception held by his French and American predecessors in appraising the conflict in strictly military terms. Long after the war had ended, he had not altered his opinion, telling an interviewer that the Kennedy administration should have deployed “a strong American combat force right then, and see whether that wouldn’t deter the enemy when they saw that indeed the United States was ready to fight for this place if necessary.” Taylor’s less prominent companions on the voyage to Vietnam in 1961 saw the problem in broader dimensions. Williamjorden, a former newspaperman who had joined the State Department, observed with alarm that numbers of South Vietnamese officials, soldiers and ordi¬nary citizens had “lost confidence” in Diem. Another State Depart¬ment specialist, Sterling Cottrell, emphasized that the war was being waged in the villages, where “foreign military forces themselves can¬not win,” and he questioned whether the Diem regime could succeed even with American assistance. “It would be a mistake,” he warned, “for the United States to commit itself irrevocably to the defeat of
the Communists.”
In Washington, McNamara and the joint chiefs of staff rejected Taylor’s proposal as inadequate. The expedition of only eight thousand American combat troops to Vietnam, they said, “probably will not tip the scales decisively [and] we would be almost certain to get in¬creasingly mired down in an inclusive struggle.” To show that “we mean business,” they urged the deployment of six U.S. divisions— some two hundred thousand men. The recommendation put President Kennedy in a quandary. He feared alienating the Pentagon, which had powerful sympathizers in Congress, but he was unwilling to make such a massive commitment. Juggling, he persuaded McNamara to join Rusk in drafting a less aggressive memorandum that approved more aid to Diem but deferred the combat option. So Kennedy, while refusing to quit, was clearly afraid to speed up the process of escalation. Or, as he confided to Arthur Schlesinger: “The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer, and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”
But Kennedy’s restraint was illusory. All the rhetoric now ema¬nating from his administration reiterated its resolve to stop Com¬munism in Southeast Asia, so that he could not backtrack without jeopardizing the American government’s prestige—and in time that consideration would become the main motive for the U.S. interven¬tion in Vietnam. The involvement also deepened with the rapid arrival of more and more American advisers and equipment to shore up the Diem regime. The number of advisers had already quadrupled before the Taylor mission from fewer than seven hundred to some three thousand, and the figure climbed to sixteen thousand over the next two years. American pilots began to fly combat sorties out of Bienhoa, an air base north of Saigon, their flights camouflaged as training ex¬ercises for Vietnamese.
The growing U.S. military investment in Vietnam was kept secret, partly because it violated the Geneva agreement, and partly to deceive the American public. One morning in December 1961, I was sipping coffee with a U.S. army press officer on the terrace of Saigon’s Majestic Hotel as an American aircraft carrier, the Core, turned a bend in the river and steamed toward us, the first shipment of forty-seven heli¬copters strapped to its deck. Astonished, I grabbed the officer’s arm, shouting: “Look at that carrier.” He directed a mock squint in the direction of the gigantic vessel and replied: “I don’t see nothing.”
McNamara had been a brilliant corporation executive who could scan a balance sheet with unerring speed and skill. When he made the first of his many trips to Vietnam in May 1962, he looked at the figures and concluded optimistically after only forty-eight hours in the coun¬try that “every quantitative measurement . . . shows that we are win¬ning the war.”
No conflict in history was studied in such detail as it was being waged. Military and civilian officials from nearly every Washington agency would sooner or later conduct surveys in Vietnam, along with specialists from dozens of private think tanks, like the RAND Cor¬poration and the Stanford Research Institute. They included weapons technicians, economists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropolo¬gists, agronomists, biologists, chemists and public opinion pollsters. They investigated the effects of defoliants, the impact of bombs, the efficiency of cannon. They scoured villages and interviewed peasants. They interrogated enemy defectors and prisoners. They pored over captured Communist documents and scrutinized Hanoi statements— and they produced voluminous graphs, charts, pamphlets, brochures and books. But the statistics somehow failed to convey an accurate picture of the problem, much less offer solutions.

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