The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part I: 1945-1960

The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part I: 1945-1960

by William Conrad Gibbons


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


This searching analysis of what has been called America's longest war" was commissioned by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to achieve an improved understanding of American participation in the conflict. Part I begins with Truman's decision at the end of World War II to accept French reoccupation of Indochina, rather than to seek the international trusteeship favored earlier by Roosevelt. It then discusses U.S. support of the French role and U.S. determination to curtail Communist expansion in Asia.

Originally published in 1986.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691610368
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #458
Pages: 380
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War

Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships

By William Conrad Gibbons


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07714-7



On November 3, 1963, the Premier of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated in a coup which had been fully encouraged and supported by the United States. A military junta, the Military Revolutionary Council, headed by Gen. Duong Van Minh, assumed power and appointed Diem's Vice Premier, Nguyen Ngoc Tho, as Premier.

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and was succeeded by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a meeting on Sunday, November 24, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John A. McCone, Under Secretary of State George W. Ball, and Presidential Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson was told by Lodge that the change in the South Vietnamese Government had been an improvement, and "he thought by February or March [1964] we would see marked progress." McCone said, however, that the CIA's estimate of the situation was "somewhat more serious," and he could not give a "particularly optimistic appraisal of the future."

President Johnson said he "approached the situation with some misgivings." He noted that many people had questioned the overthrow of Diem (Johnson himself had been strongly opposed to the U.S. decision to support a coup) and that "strong voices in Congress felt we should get out of Vietnam." But the coup was over, and "we have to see that our objectives are accomplished."

McNamara said he had examined the economic situation and he felt that the U.S. should "give generously of economic aid," but "must not ask the South Vietnamese government to do the impossible at this particular time." The President said he supported McNamara's position, "but at the same time he wanted to make it abundantly clear that he did not think we had to reform every Asian into our own image.... He was anxious to get along, win the war—he didn't want as much effort placed on so-called social reforms."

"I received in this meeting the first 'President Johnson tone' for action as contrasted with the 'Kennedy tone,'" McCone observed in notes which he took at the meeting. "Johnson definitely feels that we place too much emphasis on social reforms; he has very little tolerance with our spending so much time being 'do-gooders'...."

Some years later, Presidential Special Assistant Bill D. Moyers recounted his conversation with the President after the meeting:

Nov. 24, 1963. Lyndon Baines Johnson has been President barely two days. This Sunday afternoon he has spent with his national-security advisers, being briefed on South Vietnam by the United States ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge. Now the meetings are over, and the President, alone with an aide, is tilted back in the big chair behind the desk in the office he occupied for three years as Vice President. His feet are propped on the wastebasket and he is clinking the ice cubes in a pale-colored glass.

"What did Lodge say?" the aide asks.

"He says it's going to be hell in a handbasket out there."

"What's happening?"

"He says the army won't fight. Says the people don't know whose side to be on. If we don't do something, he says, it'll go under—any day."


The President stares at his glass. "So they'll think with Kennedy dead we've lost heart. & they'll think we're yellow and don't mean what we say."


"The Chinese. The fellas in the Kremlin. They'll be taking the measure of us. They'll be wondering just how far they can go."

"What are you going to do."

"I'm going to give those fellas out there the money they want. This crowd today says a hundred or so million will make the difference."

"What did you say?"

"I told them they got it—more if they need it—T—told them I'm not going to let Vietnam go the way of China. I told them to go back and tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word, but by God, I want something for my money. I want 'em to get off their butts and get out in those jungles and whip hell out of some Communists. And then I want 'em to leave me alone, because I've got some bigger things to do right here at home."

"I hope they will," the aide replies.

The President swivels back and forth in the chair, silent again. He is looking at the far corner of the high ceiling. Finally, he answers, "So do I. But right now I feel like one of those catfish down in your and Lady Bird's country—down there around the old Taylor store."

"How's that?"

"I feel like I just grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it...."

On November 26, 1963, President Johnson reaffirmed U.S. policy toward South Vietnam by approving National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273, which stated in part: "It remains the central object of the United States in Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy."

In mid-December, McNamara and McCone, along with William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, William E. Colby, former CIA Station Chief in Saigon who was then Chief of the Far East Division in the CIA's Directorate of Plans (covert operations), and Gen. Victor H. Krulak, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency, went to Vietnam for a brief review of the situation. In a cable to Lodge, McNamara stressed the importance of receiving promptly from the country team (consisting of Lodge and the other top U.S. civilian and military officials in Saigon) their plans and recommendations for increased efforts to win the war, especially covert operations against North Vietnam by South Vietnamese forces in which U.S. forces would be used "as is necessary." "Plans for such operations," McNamara told Lodge, "should include varying levels of pressure all designed to make clear to the North Vietnamese that the US will not accept a Communist victory in South Vietnam and that we will escalate the conflict to whatever level is required to insure their defeat." (emphasis added)

In his report to the President on December 21, McNamara said, "The situation is very disturbing. Current trends, unless reversed in the next 2-3 months, will lead to neutralization at best and most likely to a Communist-controlled state."

At a meeting that day with McNamara, the President approved the recommendations in the report, and General Krulak was made chairman of an interdepartmental committee to draw up plans for covert operations against North Vietnam.

In early January 1964, President Johnson approved the new covert operations plan, OPLAN 34-A, which by the use of "progressively escalating pressure," would seek "to inflict increasing punishment upon North Vietnam and to create pressures, which may convince the North Vietnamese leadership, in its own self-interest, to desist from its aggressive policies."

In late January 1964, there was a coup within the military junta, and Gen. Nguyen Khanh became Premier. Gen. Duong Van Minh became the figurehead Chief of State.

The worst fears of those who had opposed the coup against Diem were apparently being realized as the Communists, aided by the unstable political situation, were moving rapidly to strengthen their hold on the countryside. After a survey by a high-level team, the CIA reported in early February 1964 that the situation was, "... very serious and prospects uncertain. Even with U.S. assistance as it is now, we believe that, unless there is marked improvement in the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces, South Vietnam has, at best, an even chance of withstanding the insurgency menace during the next few weeks or months."

Some U.S. officials, concerned that the U.S. would become more involved, and that this could lead to costly and ineffective military intervention, took the position that it was up to the South Vietnamese to win the war and that the U.S. should avoid assuming further responsibility. One of these was Senator Richard B. Russell (D/Ga.), the powerful, highly-respected chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who had been Lyndon Johnson's mentor in the Senate. Russell, an opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the early 1950s, is reported to have told Johnson in late 1963, when the President asked him what he would do about Vietnam: "I'd spend whatever it takes to bring to power a government that would ask us to go home."

Another was Senator Mike Mansfield (D/Mont.), the majority leader of the Senate (and former Senate majority whip when Lyndon Johnson was majority leader), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee known for his knowledge and long experience with respect to Asia. In memoranda to the President on December 7, 1963 and January 7, 1964, Mansfield urged a "diplomatic offensive," with the help of the French, to reduce the conflict between South and North Vietnam "on terms which reduced our influence (and costs) provided it also inhibited Chinese political domination." (emphasis in original) He said that Cambodia, which considered itself neutral, was the "principal prototype of any eventual peace for Southeast Asia." The goal, he said, should be an "independent Southeast Asia, not dependent on a costly U.S. prop."

Rusk, the President's principal foreign affairs adviser, as well as McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, disagreed with Mansfield's position. Rusk called the proposal for neutralization "a phony," which would lead to a Communist takeover. Moreover, there could be a diplomatic settlement, he added, "only after the North Vietnamese become convinced that they cannot destroy the Republic of Vietnam by guerrilla warfare." McNamara and Bundy agreed that neutralization would lead to Communist control, which in turn would seriously affect the rest of Southeast Asia and the U.S. position in Asia and the world. McNamara said that "the stakes in preserving an anti-Communist South Vietnam are so high that ... we must go on bending every effort to win." Bundy said, "If we neutralize, it should not be because we have quit but because others have." "The right course," he added, "is to continue to strengthen our struggle against the Communist terror...." (emphasis in original)

Although there is no record as to whether or what the President replied to Mansfield, he apparently agreed with his advisers (or they with him), and in a conversation with Mansfield's assistant he said, referring to the conquest of China by the Communists (which many Republicans had blamed on the Democrats), "... we do not want another China in Vietnam."

On January 31, 1964, the day after the Khanh coup, President Charles de Gaulle of France again proposed a unified, independent Vietnam, and President Johnson replied that neutralization did not appear likely, and that the course the U.S. was following was "the only course for us to follow.... We plan to pursue it diligently and, we hope, successfully on a stepped-up basis."

Stepping up U.S. actions in the war was, indeed, what the President was considering. The military, as Glen. Maxwell D. Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an important JCS memorandum on January 22, 1964, were urging "bolder actions which may embody greater risks." Arguing that the key to controlling the insurgency in the South was to stop its support by North Vietnam, the Chiefs proposed using South Vietnamese forces, as well as U.S. forces as necessary, in attacks on the North: bombardment by air, mining of harbors, commando raids against critical targets, and ground attacks across the Laotian border on the Communist supply line through Laos—the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also proposed that the South Vietnamese should let the U.S. assume tactical direction of the war in the South, and that the U.S. commander should have full responsibility for all South Vietnamese and U.S. operations against the North.

Walt W. Rostow, Director of the Policy Planning Council of the Department of State, who during the early Kennedy period had been heavily involved in Vietnamese matters while serving as a deputy to McGeorge Bundy and was an active proponent of a stronger U.S. role in Vietnam, also argued for bolder action in a memorandum to Secretary of State Rusk on February 13, 1964.

On February 18, 1964, the President directed that planning for additional actions in Vietnam should be stepped up, and that, "Particular attention should be given to shaping such pressures so as to produce the maximum credible deterrent effect on Hanoi." The result was a report from a State Department study group led by Robert H. Johnson, Rostow's deputy in Policy Planning (who, like Rostow, was also a former Kennedy NSC staff member working on Vietnam), under the general auspices of the newly-established interdepartmental Vietnam Coordinating Committee chaired by William H. Sullivan, a veteran Foreign Service officer with extensive experience in dealing with Vietnam. Basing its analysis on the strategic concept that the North Vietnamese would be concerned about destruction of their industrial achievements, as well as about whether possible Chinese help could lead to Chinese control, the study group said that there were five objectives of "measured pressure" against North Vietnam: "(1) induce North Vietnam to curtail its support of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam; (2) reduce the morale of the Viet Cong; (3) stiffen the Khanh government and discourage moves toward neutralism; (4) show the world that we will take strong measures to prevent the spread of communism; and (5) strengthen morale in Asia." In addition, pressure on the North could improve the U.S. negotiating position. And negotiations, the report said, were "virtually inevitable."

In terms of directly affecting the situation in South Vietnam, however, the report took the position that pressure on the North would be "no substitute for counterinsurgency in South Vietnam":

It is not likely that North Vietnam would (if it could) call off the war in the South even though U.S. actions would in time have serious economic and political impact. Overt action against North Vietnam would be unlikely to produce reduction in Viet Cong activity sufficiently to make victory on the ground possible in South Vietnam unless accompanied by new U.S. bolstering actions in South Vietnam and considerable improvement in the government there. The most to be expected would be reduction of North Vietnamese support of the Viet Cong for a while and, thus, the gaining of some time and opportunity by the government of South Vietnam to improve itself.

NSAM 288

In mid-March 1964, President Johnson, again sent McNamara, accompanied by McCone and JCS Chairman Taylor, to Vietnam for a report on the situation. On March 17 he endorsed their report and directed that its text should become NSAM 288. This document, which became the basic policy guideline for subsequent Vietnam decisions of the Johnson administration, declared that the U.S. objective was "an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam." 20 Failure to achieve that objective could have serious repercussions in Asia:

Unless we can achieve this objective in South Vietnam, almost all of Southeast Asia will probably fall under Communist dominance (all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), accommodate to Communism so as to remove effective U.S. and anticommunist influence (Burma), or fall under the domination of forces not now explicitly Communist but likely then to become so (Indonesia taking over Malaysia). Thailand might hold for a period with our help, but would be under grave pressure. Even the Philippines would become shaky, and the threat to India to the west, Australia and New Zealand to the south, and Taiwan, Korea, and Japan to the north and east would be greatly increased.

Moreover, failure to prevent Communist control of South Vietnam could have broader repercussions for U.S. security interests, especially the reputation of the United States as a guarantor against Communist invasion or subversion of other countries. Following the position taken by the Kennedy administration, the NSAM stated that "the South Vietnam conflict is regarded as a test case of U.S. capacity to help a nation meet a Communist 'war of liberation.'"

On April 17, 1964, pursuant to NSAM 288, the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed a three-phase plan of military action for applying graduated pressure on North Vietnam: (1) air and ground strikes against targets in South Vietnam, and hot pursuit into Laotian and Cambodian border areas; (2) "tit-for-tat" airstrikes, airborne and amphibious raids, and aerial mining operations against targets in North Vietnam; and, (8) increasingly severe airstrikes and other operations against North Vietnam.

This JCS plan, OPLAN 37-64, which included a list of 94 key bombing targets in North Vietnam (the "94 target list"), served as the blueprint for the U.S. air war against North Vietnam beginning in 1965.


Excerpted from The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War by William Conrad Gibbons. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Contents, pg. xi
  • Map: Vietnam After The 1954 Geneva Conference, pg. xiii
  • Chapter 1. France Resumes Control and the War Begins, pg. 1
  • Chapter 2. The U.S. Joins the War, pg. 64
  • Chapter 3. Prelude to French Withdrawal, pg. 120
  • Chapter 4. Rattling the Saber, pg. 174
  • Chapter 5. The New U.S. Role in Vietnam, pg. 228
  • Chapter 6. Counter-Revolution and "Nation Building" During the Interval Between the Wars, pg. 282
  • Index, pg. 351

Customer Reviews