Prologue: Vietnam 1961
In the fall of 1961 it didn’t take very long to discover in Vietnam that we weren’t likely to be successful there. It took me less than a week, on my first visit. With the right access, talking to the right people, you could get the picture pretty quickly. You didn’t have to speak Vietnamese, or know Asian history or philosophy or culture, to learn that nothing we were trying to do was working or was likely to get better. I read somewhere you don’t have to be an ichthyologist to know when a fish stinks.
It helped that I was part of a high-level Pentagon task force, visiting the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Vietnam with a “go anywhere, see anything” kind of clearance. The chief of MAAG, General Lionel McGarr, told his staff members to help us any way they could and to speak frankly. One colonel in particular whom I talked to was near the end of his tour and inclined to pass on what he had learned in-country to someone who might have the ear of folks in Washington. He opened MAAG’s files to me and pulled out piles of folders, and I stayed up half the night several nights in a row reading plans and reports and analyses of our programs in Vietnam and their prospects. The smell of rot, of failure, lay all over them, and my colonel friend made no attempt to pretend otherwise.
He told me — and the documents and what I heard from his colleagues supported it — that under President Ngo Dinh Diem, the dictatorial leader we had essentially chosen for South Vietnam seven years earlier, the Communists would almost surely take power eventually, probably within a year or two. If Diem was deposed in a coup — one had almost succeeded the year before — the Communists would probably win even faster. His reasoning was informed and complex; my notes of our discussions are filled with diagrams of “vicious circles,” a whole network of them. It was persuasive.
Most of the MAAG officers agreed with him, and with many Vietnamese officials, that the only thing that would change this prospect in the short run would be American combat forces on a large scale. (The Geneva Accords of 1954 permitted only some 350 American military “advisers” in the country, although by various subterfuges some 700 were present, none in American combat units.) But even American divisions, this colonel believed, would only postpone the same outcome. The Communists would govern soon after our forces left, whenever that might be.
This was not good news to me. I was a dedicated cold warrior, in fact a professional one. I had been anti-Soviet since the Czech coup and the Berlin blockade in 1948, my last year of high school, and the Korean War while I was a student at Harvard a couple of years later. For my military service I had chosen the Marine Corps and spent three years as an infantry officer. After the Marines I returned to Harvard as a graduate fellow and then went to the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization whose entire focus was the military aspects of the cold war. My own work up to 1961 had been mainly on deterring a surprise nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. I should have liked nothing better than to hear that South Vietnam was a place where Soviet-backed Communists were going to be defeated, with our help. But the colonel’s arguments persuaded me that this was not that place.
When I got back to Rand the next month, my informal message to my bosses was that they would be well advised to keep clear of Vietnam, stay away from counterinsurgency research, in Vietnam at least. We were on a losing course there, I said, that was very unlikely to be changed, and all associated with it would only be frustrated and tarred by failure. They would suffer the fate of those who had worked on the Bay of Pigs, just a few months earlier. I privately decided to have nothing to do with it.
But the Kennedy administration didn’t have that luxury in the short run. Just weeks after I returned from Vietnam a White House team under two top presidential advisers, General Maxwell Taylor and Walt W. Rostow, headed out to Saigon to assess the situation for the president. In particular, they were to judge the necessity for sending U.S. ground forces. Soon after their return a month later the White House announced an increase in our involvement in Vietnam. In mid-November President Kennedy launched a steadily growing increase in the number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam, breaking through the ceiling set by the Geneva Accords in 1954. He doubled the number of military advisers in the last two months of 1961 and accompanied them with support units for the Vietnamese armed forces: helicopter companies and specialists in communications, transportation, logistics, and intelligence.
I wasn’t really surprised by this. I was glad that contrary to press speculation over the previous weeks, he sent no U.S. ground combat units. Nevertheless, I thought the increased involvement went in the wrong direction. (U.S. presence had increased to twelve thousand “advisers” by the time President Kennedy died in 1963, and some U.S. support was being supplied covertly, but still no ground combat units.) It was what I had feared was likely to happen; that was why I’d made a conscious decision not to be part of it.
I kept that resolution for the next three years.
From Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, Copyright © October 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission