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Vietnam, A Look Back

The Vietnam War remains one of the most contentious foreign policy issues in American history. U.S. military involvement was initially justified in view of the domino theory, the widely held belief that a failure to prevent the spread of Communism in Vietnam would ultimately to Communist victories in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Incidents such as the My Lai Massacre and the Tet Offensive convinced Americans that the War was turning into an unwinnable – and immoral – stalemate and that the toll in American lives was too high a burden. The U.S. eventually withdrew in 1973, after which South Vietnam fell to the Communist North. Over 40 years later, the debate over whether U.S. intervention in Vietnam was warranted in many ways echoes the ongoing discussions over U.S. missions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.

For that reason, it is enlightening to look back at some key people in the debate on Vietnam, not with the advantage of several years of hindsight, but as the War was still raging. Maxwell D. Taylor served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to President Kennedy and later as Ambassador to Vietnam from 1964-1965. In his 1969 interview with Dorothy Pierce, Taylor argues that history will judge the results of Vietnam in the United States’ favor. George Ball was an Under Secretary of State during both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and a vocal opponent of the War.  He describes his attempt to convince President Johnson that the war was unwinnable; he was interviewed by Paige Mulhollan beginning in July 1971. Both these interviews are courtesy of the LBJ Library.  Walter L. Cutler held the position of Special Assistant to the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department and describes Vietnam War policy from Washington’s perspective. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy in September 1989. You can read other Moments on Vietnam here.


“You go where the trouble is”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor, 1969

TAYLOR: As to the cost of Vietnam or the value of Vietnam, I suppose you would say–I have no doubt in my mind that the historians twenty-five years from now, provided we end this in consistence with our objectives, will say it was a painful but necessary course of action on the part of our government. As to how to regard Vietnam–whether it’s a civil war or a limited war–neither describes it. It’s a war of liberation, a people’s war of the kind which has been announced by Peking, by Hanoi, and by Moscow as the favored technique for the expansion of Communism because it is relatively cheap; it can be disavowed; and it’s not risky. It does not risk escalating into large conventional war, or a nuclear war. The spokesmen of all three capitals, Khrushchev, Kosygin, Lin Piao, Giap, Mao, all of them have proclaimed openly: “This is the way we’re going to do it.” So this is the real test of whether or not this technique, the “war of liberation”, will succeed and become available for use elsewhere, or whether it’s a disastrous failure–which I hope it will be.

You go where the trouble is. In other words, we didn’t pick this place. This is where the crisis occurred. It either had to be met there, or not met at all. If it hadn’t been met there at all, then Thailand would have gone. Laos would have long since followed, and I suspect the Communists would still be in charge in Djakarta.

I think we have the assets now in the negotiations to come out successfully in the sense that we will eventually get a solution which allows the South Vietnamese to choose their own government, and some kind of, at least, a cessation of hostilities. The real question, I think, will be whether the settlement will be such as to encourage the hoped-for continued stability and peace in the region. It depends upon our own determination here in the United States not to get tired, not to get impatient, and to throw in the hat just because this business gets dull and boring and unpleasant.

The Tet offensive was the greatest victory we ever scored in Vietnam. We said so at the time, but there are too many people here who wanted to find defeat. They wanted to drag defeat from the jaws of victory.

I think [the criticism and dissent in the US] is very unfortunate. It made it awfully easy for the enemy and encourages him to hang on. It’s exaggerated in the press. The impression is greater than the actual fact. This all works against the interests of the United States. There’s no question about it.

In the immediate vicinity in the countries which have the greatest stake, our standing has gone up enormously. In those countries that have no stake, it has become a political football in which we’ve been unjustly criticized. Although I must say that many times the criticism of the foreigners has simply echoed the criticism of our own press here at home.

I quite agree that some war reports are highly inaccurate, but most of them do not come from official sources. I don’t say that necessarily critically of the press and the publicity media, for the fact is the country is divided into forty-four provinces. In every province the situation is somewhat different. It has been a very difficult war, from that point of view, to report accurately, without bias, and avoiding dangerous generalizations. It is easy to acquire one or two facts and then assume they apply everywhere, where actually they do not.

I think one of our great questions that we’ll be faced with in the next decade is when to intervene and when not to intervene overseas. Where is there a true American interest, where there is not. In a certain sense of the word we have some interest in every square foot of the globe reduced in size as it is by modern communications. On the other hand, we’ve discovered what it is to try to stabilize one small part, namely South Vietnam–the cost in men, treasure, and effort, national and international standing. So I think we’ll be much more prudent following Vietnam, but still that problem will be with us.

Q: Do you think it has made us wary of this type of commitment?

TAYLOR: I think so, very much so. Having said that, I will then point out that after Korea we had the cry, “Never another Korea,” and that was in ’53. In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a letter to President Diem offering him aid in South Vietnam. In other words, even while the cry was still in the air, “no more Koreas,” we were laying the foundation of our commitment in Vietnam.

“We could commit any number of troops, and still not win”

Under Secretary of State George Ball, 1971

BALL: There was always a time when a basic change could have been made. I never subscribed myself to the belief that we were ever at a point where we couldn’t turn around. What concerned me then as it did much more intensely even later was that the more forces we committed, the more men we committed to Vietnam, the more grandiloquent our verbal encouragement of the South Vietnamese was, the more costly was any disengagement.

I remember at the end of September I had become so deeply concerned about the situation in Vietnam that I sat down during the nights-because I couldn’t do this in the office and I couldn’t use any staff-and dictated a memorandum which turned out to be about seventy five pages long. It got to the White House. I had a very strong conviction that I should never treat the President on an ex parte basis. So I sent a copy of this to McNamara, and one to Rusk, and one to Mac Bundy. I think there were only five copies made, altogether. McNamara, in particular, was absolutely horrified. He treated it like a poisonous snake. The idea that people would put these kinds of things down on paper!

We met then for two Saturday afternoons to discuss this thing. As I say, the general attitude of the conferrees was to treat it as something that really shouldn’t have been done. Although I think that Rusk and Bundy were more tolerant of my effort to put it on paper than Bob McNamara was. He really just regarded it as next to treason, that this had been put down on paper.

Q: Was anybody else saying such things at that? Anybody in a senior position?

BALL: No. None of them. Not at all.

The President was very upset that this thing appeared. So he insisted that we sit down and start arguments. Well, that was the beginning of a process I then employed, because then I wrote the President every few weeks setting forth what I thought were quite serious reasoned memoranda. But each one was addressed at some particular proposal for escalation, challenging the proposal and arguing that we were losing the war, that it was an unwinnable war, that the whole objective was an unattainable objective, that we could commit any number of troops-500,000 I think was the figure I used at one point in a memorandum–and that we still would not win. All the reasons I’ve set forth.

And each time I ended up, “Therefore we should cut our losses,” that this would be the consequence in short-term problems, but in long-term we would gain by it, which I set forth in relation to each country: countries in the Far East, countries in Europe, the neutralist countries, and so on.

The President always read these things. And the reason I know he read them is because he always insisted on having a meeting then, and he would call on me to present my views, which I would do. He used to use the term, “You’re my devil’s advocate,” but it was never a stylized affair, as far as I was concerned. I think that he did this rather deliberately, and I was prepared to accept it on these terms, because after the Alsop leak I think he wanted and I think they spread the word around the White House that, “George Ball is just sort of doing this on an institutionalized basis, just always filing the brief for the other side.” Which was not the case. What I was doing was deeply felt out of my own guts here. I wouldn’t have sat up until three or four o’clock in the morning doing it.

Now the problem that I was encountering at that time was particularly with Bob McNamara. I don’t want to be unfair to him — he was the one who had the responsibility for the war in a rather special sense, in the military sense. He was under enormous pressures from his own soldiers and sailors and airmen to escalate, and he resisted. He made his own decisions, and he kept the thing under very considerable control and under great restraint.

But the reaction I always had from him was–he would put up a proposal, and I would say, “Well, I don’t think it’s demonstrated that this is going to achieve the purpose at all, and I don’t think that the argument has been made in any convincing form that this can succeed or that it’s going to do any good. The cost could be very considerable, and it’s one more step on this road,” and so on. He had a set answer, which was, “All right, George, what do you propose to do?” I had a set answer, too. I proposed that we cut our losses and get the hell out. But that was no [acceptable] answer.

I remember saying to Bill Bundy once on a certain measure of escalation that, “I don’t think this thing has a chance. I think it’s absurd to be putting this up and seriously going for it.”

I said, “What do you think the chances are?”

“Oh,” he said, “10 or 15 per cent.”

I said, “That’s absolute nonsense for a great government to go ahead on as potentially costly a program of this kind in terms of lives, in terms of ancillary breakings that might occur on that kind of a risk. It’s just a lousy business judgment. You can’t do it.”

I think that McNamara up through that period was absolutely convinced that one could make a quantitative demonstration, given the disparity in resources between the United States and the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong; that if we didn’t impose our will on the country, it was simply because we weren’t using those resources properly and weren’t being sufficiently skillful and imaginative. Therefore, it was a tremendous challenge.

As a practicing lawyer, I had had among my clients various agencies of the French government when they went through the Indo-Chinese experience. I had heard everything before. I used to tell this to the President when McNamara was present, and it would just drive him up the wall.

I’d say, “Look, Mr. President, everything that the Secretary of Defense has been telling you this morning, I used to listen to with my French friends. They talked about the body count. They talked the relative kill ratios. They talked about the fact that there was always a new plan, and with a little increment of effort, the Navarre Plan, the DeLattre de Tassigny Plan, and so on, that was going to win the day. And they believed it just as much as we’re believing it sitting around the table this morning. I can tell you, however, that in the end, there was a great disillusion. And there will be one.”

It didn’t get through. And as you will note, if you ever see those memoranda, a lot of them were filled with references to the French experience. That was no particular wisdom on my part. I just had a feeling that this was a terrible place to commit power, that there was no political base on which it could rest, and that the physical terrain was awful, what President De Gaulle described to me as “rotten country.”

 “I realized that we were probably not going to win this war”

Special Assistant, Bureau of East Asian Affairs Walter L. Cutler, 1971-73

CUTLER:  Very soon after I got to Vietnam I realized that the situation was not going well and was not likely to go well, even in the long term. And that it was a question of working out an honorable disengagement on our part, including getting our prisoners back, and trying to leave something in the wake of our disengagement that was viable. That is, trying to leave a government in South Vietnam that could cope for itself. I thought there was a chance of doing that. I didn’t think it was likely, but I thought it was possible. So we were working for that.

During the period I was there, 1969 to 1971, the war was pretty much on the borders. It was not a period of heavy armed conflict throughout the country. And, as you may recall, the incursion into Cambodia occurred in 1970, while I was there in Vietnam. So one did not have the sense of a country about to go down the tubes. The military situation looked somewhat improved, but it was hard to imagine, over the long term, how we could get out without leaving a dubious situation at best. But it was worth the chance. And we had put so much into it by then, you just couldn’t stop.

Dubious was the quality of leadership in South Vietnam and the dedication and support of the people in the countryside of a central government in South Vietnam.

The best we could do is 1) get our prisoners back; and 2) do our best to leave something half-way viable in the South. I was not very optimistic about that. Our options were very limited.

But we had to try to work out an agreement that preserved, to the extent possible, the credibility of U.S. foreign policy. And as you know, when we were out there the real war was taking place back here in the United States. This is where things were being decided and I don’t mean in the White House or the State Department, I mean the streets.

We were increasingly aware that things were not going well back home. Even in 1969, when I was assigned to Vietnam while still serving in Korea, I realized that probably we were not going to win this war. If I had qualms about our policy — qualms that I think were developing amongst most of us in the Foreign Service — I still felt that going to Vietnam was an honorable effort to achieve what we could in a realistic way. But I had no illusions that we were going to raise the American or South Vietnamese flag in Hanoi.

I think that the so-called domino theory was a major factor in our policy with respect to Vietnam. Don’t forget, this was very much in the days of the Cold War. I don’t think that we were yet fully aware of the divisions that were developing between China on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. There was a tendency to view a monolithic “Communist Threat”, with China and Soviet Union working hand in hand. It was only later that we realized this was not the case.

But at the time, we had visions of all of Southeast Asia falling under Communist control, and that was a major reason we were trying to leave something viable after we departed Saigon. It wasn’t just Vietnam; it was the whole area. Now, of course, we’ve seen that all of Vietnam went Communist but that the dominoes in fact did not continue to fall.

Well, as I was saying, even though back then North Vietnam was the enemy for us Americans, when we go there now we are usually taken aback. Yes, it’s still a Communist state. But Americans today are welcomed and even embraced. Why, after such a devastating war?

My theory is that most Vietnamese don’t personally remember the war. They may have had an uncle or a grandfather, who suffered, but the war is history to them and they want to get on with their lives, with being a part of this very thriving capitalism in this Communist country. And perhaps another reason is that they think it was actually we, not they, who lost the war.

So you see, times can change.