The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part IV: July 1965-January 1968

The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part IV: July 1965-January 1968

by William Conrad Gibbons


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This fourth volume of a five-part policy history of the U.S. government and the Vietnam War covers the core period of U.S. involvement, from July 1965, when the decision was made to send large-scale U.S. forces, to the beginning of 1968, just before the Tet offensive and the decision to seek a negotiated settlement. Using a wide variety of archival sources and interviews, the book examines in detail the decisions of the president, relations between the president and Congress, and the growth of public and congressional opposition to the war. Differences between U.S. military leaders on how the war should be fought are also included, as well as military planning and operations.

Among many other important subjects, the financial effects of the war and of raising taxes are considered, as well as the impact of a tax increase on congressional and public support for the war. Another major interest is the effort by Congress to influence the conduct of the war and to place various controls on U.S. goals and operations. The emphasis throughout this richly textured narrative is on providing a better understanding of the choices facing the United States and the way in which U.S. policymakers tried to find an effective politico-military strategy, while also probing for a diplomatic settlement.

Originally published in 1995.

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: 9780691605104
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #310
Pages: 986
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War

Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships PART IV: JULY 1965â?"JANUARY 1968

By William Conrad Gibbons


Copyright © 1995 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00636-9



On July 28, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the United States was deploying additional troops to South Vietnam and declared that the U.S. would use its forces to defend South Vietnam from the "growing might and grasping ambition of Asian communism." This action, he said, was necessary in order to maintain the credibility of U.S. power and commitments. "If we are driven from the field in Vietnam," he said, "then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promises, or in American protection."

The goal, the President stated, was to convince the Communists that they could not win in Vietnam by force of arms. Once this was accomplished, a peaceful solution to the conflict was "inevitable." He declined to predict how long the war might last, saying that it would take "months or years or decades," but he warned that there was no "quick solution." In response to a question about the economic effects of the decision, he said that the U.S. was in a period of unprecedented prosperity and that there was no need to declare a national emergency (under which the government could have exercised various economic and other controls). Although he did not say so publicly, he had been advised by the Chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers that the additional military expenditures required by the decision to use U.S. forces would have a favorable effect on the economy, at least in the short-run.

The President's decision was based on the recommendations of most of his foreign policy and military advisers and all of his three principal advisers—Secretaiy of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and the Presidential Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy—that the military situation was becoming more critical, and that if the U.S. did not intervene in force, there was an imminent threat that the Communists would take control of South Vietnam. Failure to act would have far-reaching consequences, according to Rusk, not only in Southeast Asia but worldwide: "The integrity of the U.S. commitment is the principal pillar of peace throughout the world. If that commitment becomes unreliable, the communists would draw conclusions that would lead to our ruin and almost certainly to a catastrophic war. So long as the South Vietnamese are prepared to fight for themselves, we cannot abandon them without disaster to peace and to our interests throughout the world."

Evolution of the Decision to Use U.S. Forces

The decision to use U.S. forces to defend South Vietnam was the culmination of 20 years of political and military actions by which the United States had become progressively involved in preventing Communist domination of Vietnam. In 1945, President Harry S Truman agreed to let the French resume control of Indochina (the three "Associated States" of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), and from then until the French withdrew in 1954 the U.S. provided financial and military assistance directly or indirectly to French forces fighting in Vietnam.

In the spring of 1950, after the Communists had taken control of China, the U.S. decided to increase its assistance to the French as well as to begin providing military assistance directly to the Associated States. A small U.S. military mission was established in each of the three countries to aid in these efforts. The position of the U.S., as expressed in the policy decision of President Truman, National Security Council (NSC) Directive 64, April 24, 1950, "The Position of the United States With Respect to Indochina," was that, "It is important to United States security interests that all practicable measures be taken to prevent further Communist expansion in Southeast Asia," and that, "The neighboring countries of Thailand and Burma could be expected to fall under Communist domination if Indochina were controlled by a Communist-dominated fovernment. The balance of Southeast Asia would then be in grave anger."

After the Korean war began in the summer of 1950, the U.S. was concerned about possible Communist designs on Southeast Asia, and some consideration was given to using U.S. forces, including ground forces, in Indochina. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, Chief of Staff of the Army, stated in a memorandum on October 18, 1950, that as a last resort and under certain conditions the U.S. should use its ground forces in Indochina to stop the Communists. In November, however, with U.S. forces tied down in Korea, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) took the position, based on a study by the JCS's Joint Strategic Survey Committee, that the U.S. should not use its own forces in Indochina but, rather, should seek to get the French to do more to gain support of the people. According to the Survey Committee, 'While minor commitments of United States military forces [in addition to French and indigenous forces] might be sufficient to defeat the Viet Minh [the Communists] in Indochina, it is more probable that such commitments would lead to a major involvement of the United States in that area similar to that in Korea or even to global war. Accordingly, there would be great potential danger to the security interests of the United States in the commitment of any 'token' or 'minor' United States forces in Indochina."

In 1953–1954, the newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his associates also debated whether and under what circumstances to use U.S. forces in Indochina. In October 1953, Eisenhower approved a broad National Security Council directive which took an even stronger view of the strategic importance of Indochina than had the Truman administration. Indochina, the directive said, was "of such strategic importance" that an attack on it from outside (i.e., China) "probably would compel the United States to react with military force either locally at the point of attack or generally against the military power of the aggressors."

The Army became concerned, however, about the gap between policy and capability, and in late 1953 a study was conducted by the Army Plans Division of the requirements for U.S. forces if the French withdrew from Indochina. It was estimated that seven U.S. Army divisions and one Marine division, a total of 275,000–300,000 men including support forces (but not including naval and air forces), would De required to replace the French, and that it would take five to eight years to pacify the country using the techniques successfully employed by the British in Malaya. The Plans Division concluded that there were not enough troops to fill such a requirement while still meeting other U.S. commitments. The Joint Strategic Plans Committee of the JCS, however, recommended, and the JCS approved, that if necessary to prevent Communist control the U.S. should use its forces in Indochina.

At a meeting of the National Security Council on January 8, 1954, to consider whether U.S. forces should be used, Eisenhower expressed strong opposition to the use of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam: "For himself, said the President with great force, he simply could not imagine the United States putting ground forces anywhere in Southeast Asia, except possibly in Malaya, which one would have to defend as a bulwark to our off-shore island chain. But to do this anywhere else was simply beyond his contemplation. Indeed, the key to winning this war was to get the Vietnamese to fight. There was just no sense in even talking about United States forces replacing the French in Indochina. If we did so, the Vietnamese could be expected to transfer their hatred of the French to us. I can not tell you, said the President with vehemence, how bitterly opposed I am to such a course of action. This war in Indochina would absorb our troops by divisions!" Eisenhower did not necessarily oppose the use of some U.S. personnel and equipment, especially from the Air Force and the CIA, to assist the French, and he was in favor of having the U.S. take over most of the training of local forces in Indochina. He also agreed with a statement by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in another NSC meeting on January 14, 1954 that if the French withdrew, the U.S., without intervening directly, could support a guerrilla operation inside Vietnam.

During the battle of Dien Bien Phu in the early months of 1954, Eisenhower agreed to provide France with aircraft and aircraft technicians, as well as the use of the CIA in ferrying troops and supplies into Dien Bien Phu. As the battle worsened, the French asked the U.S. to bomb the attacking forces. This or any other intervention by U.S. forces was considered and rejected, in part because of the opposition of key Members of Congress, but primarily because of the President's opposition to the use of U.S. forces in this manner, which was buttressed by similar opposition from Army Chief of Staff Matthew B. Ridgway. According to Ridgway, "The adverse conditions prevalent in this area [Indochina] combine all those which confronted U.S. forces in previous campaigns in the South and Southwest Pacific and Eastern Asia, with the additional grave complication of a large native population, in thousands of villages, most of them about evenly divided between friendly and hostile." Moreover, he said, "Such use of United States armed forces, apart from any local successes they might achieve, would constitute a dangerous strategic diversion of limited United States military capabilities, and would commit our armed forces in a non-decisive theatre to the attainment of non-decisive local objectives."

Following the partition of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference in the summer of 1954, the French withdrew, and the U.S. assumed responsibility for helping the new South Vietnamese Government. Eisenhower increased the size of the U.S. military mission to about 700 (only 342 were permitted by the Greneva Agreement; the others were considered "temporary"). Although the Communists became more active toward the end of the 1950s and steps were taken to provide for increased U.S. assistance, especially covert action in Laos, the U.S. military role remained limited during Eisenhower's Presidency.

In 1961, the newly elected President, John F. Kennedy, turned first to the problem of Laos, which appeared to be more critical than Vietnam. He considered sending U.S. forces to Laos, either unilaterally or as part of a multilateral force under the Southeast Asia Treaty (SEATO). For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the strong opposition of key congressional leaders to U.S. military intervention in Laos, Kennedy decided to negotiate a settlement in Laos but to strengthen the U.S. role in Vietnam.

A few days after taking office, Kennedy approved a new counterinsurgency program for Vietnam which had been developed during 1960 by the Eisenhower administration, under which the U.S. increased its assistance to Vietnam. He also established a high-level interdepartmental Counterinsurgency Group and exhorted his advisers to give priority to the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and capabilities.

On May 11, 1961, Kennedy approved NSC 52, which reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and authorized a sweeping program of action. The objective, it said, was "to prevent Communist domination of South Vietnam; to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society, and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic psychological and covert character designed to achieve this objective."

The JCS took the position that, consistent with NSC 52, the U.S. should deploy its own forces to South Vietnam in order to:

A. Provide a visible deterrent to potential North Vietnam and/or Chinese Communist action.

B. Release Vietnam forces from advanced and static defense positions to permit their fuller commitment to counterinsurgency actions.

C. Assist in training the Vietnamese forces to the maximum extent consistent with their mission.

D. Provide a nucleus for the support of any additional major U.S. or SEATO military operation in Southeast Asia.

E. Indicate the firmness of our interest to all Asian nations.

Kennedy's response to the JCS was to ask for a study of the question of using U.S. forces. He also sounded out South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who said he would welcome more military advisers but that he did not want U.S. forces to become involved in the war.

In June 1961, Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev met in Vienna, and although Khrushchev appeared to agree to a negotiated settlement for Laos he was very belligerent with respect to making a peace treaty with Germany. Kennedy apparently felt he was being tested, and that steps would have to be taken to prove U.S. resolve. As he was reported to have said, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place."

In the summer of 1961, as Laos negotiations began but tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. increased over the German question, some of Kennedy's advisers recommended that the U.S. should seek to convince the Communists to agree to a reasonable settlement in Laos, as well as to make clear U.S. determination to defend Indochina and other American interests, by establishing a military headquarters in Thailand and by sending some troops to Vietnam and to Thailand. These advisers also suggested that if negotiations were not successful, the U.S., in concert with Thailand and South Vietnam, should take and hold the southern part of Laos, or, with or without SEATO, send combat forces to South Vietnam on the border area adjacent to the southern part of Laos. There was also some discussion of the bombing of North Vietnam and a naval blockade as part of a plan for applying "graduated pressure" on the North Vietnamese. Kennedy voiced considerable skepticism about U.S. military involvement in Laos, however, and said he wanted to pursue negotiations. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense McNamara agreed.

By the fall of 1961, the situation in Laos had stabilized and negotiations for a settlement were proceeding satisfactorily. With respect to Vietnam, however, there was widespread concern among U.S. policymakers that the situation was deteriorating, and a feeling that the U.S. would have to play a more active role. On October 10, 1961, a paper, "Concept for Intervention in Vietnam," which combined the ideas of the State and Defense Departments and the JCS, was presented to President Kennedy. It proposed the deployment in the highlands of Vietnam (Pleiku) of a SEATO (primarily U.S.) force of 11,000 ground combat troops supported by 11,800 air, naval and other forces. "To clean up the Viet Cone threat," the paper said, might require 40,000 combat forces (all services) or more, depending on whether the North Vietnamese increased their aid to the South or if the Chinese intervened. Ultimately, there could be a need for as many as four ground combat divisions (160,000–200,000 including support forces).

The paper discussed the pros and cons of sending a SEATO force into South Vietnam. Among the "cons" was: "The plan itself would not itself solve the underlying problem of ridding SVN of communist guerrillas." Also, "It breaks the Geneva Accords and puts responsibility on the U.S. for rationalizing the action before the U.N. and the world." Furthermore, there would be the "risk of being regarded as interlopers a la the French...." In addition, the Communists might react by a "change of tactics back to small-scale operations [which] might leave this force in a stagnant position."


Excerpted from The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War by William Conrad Gibbons. Copyright © 1995 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


MAP: Vietnam after the 1954 Geneva Conference xiii


Development of the U.S. Position on Trusteeships 7

The Communist Threat and Its Effects on U.S. Policy Toward Colonial Problems 17

The Executive Branch Debates U.S. Policy Toward Indochina 18

Congress Begins Debate on U.S. Policy in Asia 23

The War Begins in Vietnam, 1946-48 25

The Commitment is Made to "Containment" and to the Defense of "Free Peoples 26

Congress Also Approves the Use of Military Advisers 34

The Debate Over Intervening in China 38

China Falls to the Communists and Debate Begins on Defending Vietnam 48

Approval of Funds for the General Area of China 54


The Decision to Become Involved in the War in Indochina 65

Congress Passes Legislation to Provide New Aid for Indochina 68

The Anti-Communist Offensive and NSC 68 71

The Effects of the Korean War 78

The Question of Using American Forces in Indochina 78

Congress Provides Additional Aid for Indochina 85

Developments in Indochina During 1951 as the U.S. Becomes More Involved 86

Congress Approves 1951 Legislation for Aid to Indochina 94

Renewed Concern About Indochina 97

Fear of Chinese Intervention 102

Deterring the Chinese 104

Approval of NSC 124/2 108

Congress Acts on 1952 Aid to Indochina 118


U.S. Increases Pressure on the French 121

Congressional Dissatisfaction with the French 129

The U.S. Increases Its Commitment 135

Further U.S. Efforts To Support French Forces 141

Another Reevaluation of U.S. Policy in Indochina 146

NSC 5405 and the Continuing Debate Over the U.S. Commitment to Defend Indochina 149

The Decision to Send U.S. Aircraft Technicians to Vietnam 155

The U.S.Prepares for Negotiations, and for War? 163

The Battle Bien Phu Begins 170


The U.S. Announces the United Action Concept 176

"The Day We Didn't Go To War"? 187

The NSC Postpones Action on Direct Intervention 197

Congress Debates Intervention 203

The British Oppose Intervention 207

Vice President Nixon Says Troops Might Be Sent 209

The French Again Request U.S. Airstrikes 212

The Final Decision Not to Intervene at Dien Bien Phu 221

Dien Bien Phu Falls and the U.S. Again Considers Intervening in Indo-china 225


Pro to Intervene and to Take Over From the French 232

The Army Objects 237

Eisenhower Continues to Insist on Conditions, and the U.S. Pulls away from the French 238

Reactions in Congress 243

The End of the First Indochina War 250

First Steps After Geneva 259

NSC 5429-Redefining U.S. Interests and Role 267

Establishment of SEATO 271

The Formosa Resolution 276


The Collins Mission 287

Diem Clashes with the Beets and Washington Agrees to Seek a New Government 293

Diem Consolidates His Power 299

The U.S. and the "New Vietnam": Waging the Counterrevolution 301

Overt Aid for "Nation-Building I. 31:

Congress and Aid to Vietnam and Laos 316

The Colegrove Hearings 321

Congressional Oversight of the CIA 3

The Beginning of the End of Diem's "Miracle" 331

Resumption of the Armed Struggle 334

Leadership in Vietnam and Laos Reconsidered 339

Another Step Toward the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution 343


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