'Tangibles' vs. 'Intangibles' in Vietnam

Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned by Rufus Phillips (Naval Institute Press).

By Rufus Phillips

In January 1961, the new Kennedy administration inherited not only an immediate crisis in Laos but also an unanticipated one in Vietnam.  During the transition Eisenhower had reportedly talked to Kennedy at length about Laos but said little about Vietnam.  In the meantime, the security situation in South Vietnam became so palpably critical that Ambassador Durbrow could no longer block a visit to Saigon by Lansdale, who had been promoted to brigadier general in 1960 and was by now the acting chief of the Office of Special Operations under the secretary of defense in Washington. His visit to South Vietnam on January 2-14, 1961, resulted in a report to the departing secretary of defense, Thomas Gates.  An incoming Kennedy advisor, Walter Rostow, read the report and a companion memorandum about a successful counter-guerilla community called Binh Hung and found both so compelling he insisted Kennedy read them. Kennedy became very excited, asked Rostow for books on guerilla warfare, and telephoned Lansdale directly, asking him to publish the companion memo.  (This would appear in the may 1961, edition of the Saturday Evening Post under the title "The Report the President Wanted Published.")

On January 28, 1961, Lansdale was called to a full-blown meeting on Vietnam with key senior personnel from the president’s staff and the State and Defense departments at the White House. Kennedy had a copy of Lansdale’s report in front of him and asked for his views. 

Kennedy listened approvingly, then asked if Secretary of State Dean Rusk had informed Lansdale that he (Kennedy) wanted him to go to Vietnam as the new ambassador.  Lansdale had not; taken aback by the suddenness of it, he hesitated, telling Kennedy he was really a military officer not a diplomat.  What Lansdale had recommended was an unconventional advisory setup in Vietnam with the right kind of Americans being assigned, in particular a new ambassador, and a special advisor for political operations, both of whom would “influence Asians through understanding them sympathetically”; were “knowledgeable about the Mao Tse Tung tactics now employed to capture Vietnam” and were “dedicated to feasible and practical democratic means to defeat these Communist tactics.”  Lansdale wanted “an extra-bureaucratic uninhibited advisory system consciously built on shared U.S.-Vietnamese goals (validated by shared experience) and based on mutual trust and admiration.”

Kennedy persisted with the ambassadorial idea, and Lansdale communicated through Rostow his willingness to serve, but the idea fell victim to Lansdale’s prior wars with State over Vietnam policy.  In fact, Secretary Rusk, a veteran of the Foreign Service, threatened to resign if Lansdale was appointed, so vehement were the objections of his closest Foreign Service advisors. As a result, Kennedy’s offer never materialized, and Lansdale was eventually sidetracked.  The decision was made to rely exclusively on the regular government bureaucracy to help South Vietnam.  Each agency would pursue the bureaucratic, top-down, formalistic approach it knew best.  The close-in advisory effort Lansdale recommended was ignored.

Next: "Kennedy was convinced he had to draw the line in Vietnam."

President Kennedy was convinced he had to draw the line in Vietnam. South Vietnam would become the test case for defeating Nikita Khrushchev’s vociferously proclaimed doctrine of “wars of national liberation.”  The means would be counterinsurgency.  The original concept, which Lansdale had been instrumental in creating within the Pentagon as an essentially unconventional approach to defeating wars of national liberation, was now proclaimed as administration doctrine.  Neither the new secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, not the regular military brass understood Lansdale’s emphasis on a people-first approach to defeating insurgency or the use of irregular counterinsurgency forces and tactics.  In their minds it became a traditional military assistance program, delivering military materiel to the Vietnamese army and placing American advisors with regular Vietnamese units to conduct conventional warfare, with the new tactic of using helicopters for improved mobility.

Lansdale had earlier tried to brief Secretary McNamara about the nature of the enemy and the war.  Already aware of McNamara’s mindset, Lansdale decided to get his attention by dramatizing his presentation with such primitive Viet Cong weapons as handmade pistols and knives, old French rifles, and bamboo pungi sticks. These he laid out on McNamara’s desk; the enemy in Vietnam, he explained, used them.  Many were barefoot or wore sandals and tattered black pajamas, but they were winning. “It doesn’t take weapons and uniforms and lots of food to win. It takes ideas and ideals.” McNamara let him go on for about ten minutes and then, during a pause, asked if that was all. He would call on Lansdale very little afterward, except for the exchange of the “x factor,” mentioned in the preface of this book. McNamara’s thinking encompassed only tangibles; to Lansdale, intangibles were the key. 

Before he was taken out of the picture, Lansdale had one last chance to influence Vietnam policy. President Kennedy wanted him to be a member of the Maxwell Taylor/Walt Rostow mission dispatched in October 1961 to develop a program to support the Vietnamese.  Lansdale quickly found out that he was not to be included in the formal high-level meetings with the Vietnamese, that General Taylor thought of him only as “an idea man.”  Nevertheless, Lansdale was called directly from the Saigon airport to the palace for a personal meeting with Diem and Nhu.  They wanted to know if they could trust the Kennedy administration.  Neutralizing Laos had so alarmed them that Diem had requested American troops be sent to Vietnam, figuring that this would so engage the United States as to preclude a “neutralist” solution for his own nation.  By subtle suggestion Lansdale turned Diem around on his request for troops, which he didn’t’ really need.  Afterward Lansdale briefed Taylor, who didn’t seem to understand much of what he was being told.  Lansdale was still excluded from subsequent high-level meetings, and Taylor made it clear he didn’t want his political advice, asking him instead to develop a plan for electronic surveillance of the borders with the North and with Laos and Cambodia.  Lansdale protested that this wasn’t his expertise, but Taylor insisted.  (Lansdale farmed out the task to the local military advisory staff, who quickly figured out it would cost several billion dollars, which sank the idea. Incredibly, a similar project was revived by McNamara about five years later, with negligible results.)

Lansdale had an entirely different idea of how to jump-start counterinsurgency on a popular basis – that is, by arming existing natural resistance groups such as the Hoa Hao, the Cao Dai, the Catholics, and the indigenous tribes on the High Plateau.  He reasoned that this would build a popular base for counterinsurgency. If it were done carefully, he thought, he could get Diem’s agreement; one consequence would be to oblige Diem to reach out for political support to groups who had been ignored and even repressed.  His ideas never got a hearing.

Out of this mission came the creation of a higher-lever military command, the Military Advisory Command Vietnam (MACV), over the existing Military Advisory Assistance Group (MAAG), and the assignment of American military advisors to all regular Vietnamese army units, battalion size and above, and to the Vietnamese province chiefs who were also military sector commanders.  American-flown helicopters were introduced to improve Vietnamese army mobility, and American-flown aircraft were provided for close air support.  Also proposed was the introduction of U.S. troops on an ostensible humanitarian-relief mission, and the bombing of North Vietnam as a last resort.  The latter two recommendations were rejected by Kennedy.  The only unconventional aspects approved were the assignment of U.S. Special Forces units to work with the indigenous tribesmen, initially under CIA supervision, and CIA semicovert support for other irregular forces.

The last line of a cable to Washington describing Taylor’s final visit with President Diem noted Diem’s desire for “Lansdale's services here in Vietnam.”  Written in the margin of that cable in the National Archives are the words, “No, No, NO!” in an unidentified hand.


Excerpted from Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned by Rufus Phillips. Courtesy Naval Institute Press.

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