“It was an Unwinnable War”
George Ball was the Under Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He supported the 1963 overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1968, where he passionately criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. However, he is most known for his opposition to the escalation of the Vietnam War.
On July 1, 1965, Ball submitted a memo to President Johnson titled “A Compromise Solution for South Vietnam.” It began bluntly: “The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong. No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong, or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundred thousand white, foreign (U.S.) troops we deploy.” Ball advised that the United States not commit any more troops, restrict the combat role of those already in place, and seek to negotiate a way out of the war.
As Ball was submitting his memo, the U.S. air base at Da Nang came under attack by the Viet Cong for the first time. The attack on Da Nang and the weakness of the Saigon regime convinced Johnson that he had to do something to stop the communists. While Ball recommended a negotiated settlement, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urged the President to “expand promptly and substantially” the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam. Johnson ultimately accepted McNamara’s recommendation. On July 22, just three weeks after Ball submitted his memo, LBJ authorized a total of 44 U.S. battalions for commitment in South Vietnam, a decision that led to a massive escalation of the war. There had been fewer than ten U.S. Army and Marine battalions in South Vietnam at this time. Eventually there would be more than 540,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam.
In this 1971 interview, part of the ADST collection courtesy of the National Archives and Records Service at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Ball recounts his lonely opposition to escalating the Vietnam War, starting in 1964. You can read other Moments from the Vietnam War.
“McNamara was absolutely horrified”
Q: I’ve had people tell me that Vietnam didn’t really engage [LBJ] probably until after the 1964 election. Of course, now we’re being told that all these decisions had occurred before then.
BALL: That’s absolute nonsense. They weren’t decisions. What was happening was that after he got the legislative program through, or even before, he became immediately involved in the election campaign, the convention and the campaign. The Tonkin Gulf [incident] occurred in the middle of that, in August. 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 75 pages long… This was a memorandum that challenged every assumption of our Vietnam policy. And then the second section was a kind of plan for disengaging….
It got to the White House. What happened on that was that the memorandum was written the last week of September. It took me about two weeks, because, as I say, I’d get up at three or four in the morning–I had a dictating machine in my house–and I would go into the library there and dictate through the night.
I had a very strong conviction that I should never treat with the President on an ex parte basis. So I sent a copy of this to McNamara (at left), 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 conferees 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 was. He really just regarded it as next to treason, that this had been put down on paper.
“It was an unwinnable war”
Q: Was anybody else saying such things at that? Anybody in a senior position?
BALL: No. None of them. Not at all.
I didn’t press to show it to the President, because he was occupied with the campaign at that time. But about the first of January, after the election, Bill Moyers was over for lunch with me one day, and I gave this to Bill. He read it, and he says that this was the beginning of his conversion on the Vietnamese issue. So then I said, “Well, if you feel that this is something serious, I had intended it for the President, and I want to give it to the President.” Which he did.
And the President read it not once, but twice, so he told me, and he was very impressed, or shaken, by it. 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, in effect, what I thought were quite serious, reasoned memoranda which were difficult to do because, as I say, I had to do them all myself.
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–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. The reason I know he read them was that he would sit there without looking at them and he’d say, “Now, George, you say on page nine” so-and-so. “I don’t see how you can possibly defend that.” So then I’d defend it. “And on page fourteen you say” so-and-so….
“The impetus toward escalation never came from Lyndon Johnson”
Q: Did they ever occasion, in being presented that frequently, what you considered really a basic reconsideration of some of the premises by the other principals?
BALL: Not basically consideration of some of the premises. But what did happen was that the President on two or three occasions said at the end of the day, “Look, I agree with George. I think he’s right. We’re not going to do this thing. I don’t agree with you, Bob, you’ve got to make your case. I don’t agree with you, Mac. We’re not going to do it.” But we ended up by doing it a couple of weeks later, because events moved on and pressures built up and so on. I think I slowed the process, let me put it that way.…
Q: You were already having doubts, obviously, about the general direction of our policy at that time.
BALL: Oh, I’d always had doubts.
Q: But you favored the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
BALL: Yes, I don’t recall having opposed it. I just felt that–
Q: Did anyone?
BALL: I don’t think so. “Let’s go get this authority.” It didn’t seem to me that implied in this was much more than that. “Let’s get some authority from Congress,” rather than act entirely–again, this was perhaps a lawyer’s instinct–on the basis of the implied powers of the President, war powers of the President. I just thought we ought to tidy up. That was really what it was.…
Q: Was it your understanding that there existed in early September of 1964, as the Pentagon Papers seem to be saying, a consensus that we were going to start bombing?
BALL: There wasn’t any consensus. There were a lot of people thinking, you know, “This situation is not good. Let’s think of all the contingencies.” And everybody who was working on South Vietnam was writing papers about this or that type of program. There wasn’t any consensus at all.
Q: And certainly not a presidential decision?
BALL: Certainly not a presidential decision. No, he definitely didn’t make it. He didn’t want to make this decision. He was always a very reluctant fellow, but he always got kind of dragged along, kicking and screaming. The impetus toward escalation never came from Lyndon Johnson, I can assure you of that.
Q: There did occur that fall several instances that might have provoked the same kind of retaliation that we took in Tonkin Gulf and we didn’t take retaliatory action.
BALL: That’s right.
Q: Did they involve presidential refusal?
BALL: Usually. The President would say, “Yes, we’re not going to do this.” And then what happened really, the reason why the bombing started in February, it didn’t have anything to do with any very clear decision that something had to be done to the North, but that something had to be done for the South. There had been a whole sordid series of coups, a feeling that the whole political fabric of South Vietnam was beginning to disintegrate, and that we had to do something very fair and affirmative if we were going to keep this damned thing from falling apart. That’s what happened. It was a great buckerupper for South Vietnam. That was the whole reason for it. I say the whole reason. That was really the reason for it.
Now the problem that I was encountering at that time, particularly with Bob McNamara–and, again, 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….It was an unacceptable answer in the current mood at the time.
“It isn’t as bad as you say”
Q: Had anybody joined you by February of 1965 in that point of view in regard to the bombing when the bombing decision was being made?
BALL: No. That was the general attitude I had toward every act of escalation. I was alone in the top councils. If [former CIA analyst and then-Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department] Bill Bundy tells me he had lots of reservations, and I suspect he did–Bill is an honest man–he never argued them in any direct or vigorous way, even to me. He would always say, “You’re overstating. You’ve overestimated this thing. It isn’t as bad as you say,” and so on. I think there were people in the Department who were beginning to feel this way. My own personal assistant, George Springsteen, I think agreed with me. Abe Chayes, who was in the consular department. But they were in a position where they couldn’t make their voices felt.
Q: When the bombing did start, was it clearly understood by everybody that this was going to be a permanently instituted policy?
BALL: No. It started on a so-called tit-for-tat basis. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General] Max Taylor was pressing this idea of gradually escalating the thing. I had a kind of sense of fatality that I wasn’t going to keep it from happening. It would indeed happen. Once you get one of those things going, it’s just like getting a little alcohol; you’re going to get a taste for more. It’s a compelling thing.…
Q: Do you think that was fully understood by the people who were so avid that we begin a bombing program?
BALL: Nobody was prepared to concede that any particular step would require any further step. This was kind of a standard assumption which I kept repeating again and again was a false assumption. The argument that I kept making through these memoranda. I remember quoting Emerson about “things are in the saddle” and “You’re losing control. You go forward with this further step, and you will substantially have lost control. Finally, you’re going to find the war is running you, and we’re not running the war.”…
Q: What was the general view of the top inner circle advisers regarding what our chances were of doing what we wanted to do in Vietnam by this time? Was there optimism in the State Department?
BALL: It depended on what parts of the State Department you’re talking about. 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 it differed from one man to another. 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.”
Q: But it didn’t get through.
BALL: 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.”