Copyright © 1972 by Gabriel Kolko.
* The text for numbered notes is at the end of each essay. The Pentagon Papers—The Senator Gravel Edition, 4 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) is cited in parentheses within the essays. Other editions of the Pentagon Papers are cited as USG ed. (U.S. government edition) and NYT/Bantam (New York Times paperback) and NYT/ Quadrangle (New York Times hardcover).
The American Goals in Vietnam by Gabriel Kolko
Specialization often becomes the historian’s means for escaping a reality too complex for his comprehension. To perceive everything about a narrow segment of history is thereby transformed into a tacit admission that the larger, more profound and significant dimensions of a period are beyond one’s understanding. This is especially the case for the government’s historians or its hired academics who, in addition to the limits of time and difficulty of the topic, must avoid alienating superiors whose biases candor and truth are likely to rankle.
Conversely, there is no doubt that sheer quantity can help overcome selfcensorship and myopia inflicted by superiors on mediocrity. Even if the Pentagon Papers’ authors did not write good history, much less reflect on it with the kind of intelligence that even conservative historians occasionally show, the vast bulk of the undertaking—with its endless narrative and documents—brings us virtually to the threshold of the essential history of the Vietnam war as seen from the official American perspective. For we can reassess the documents, cast the narrative into a sharply new mold, and isolate the critical bases of the U.S. role in Indochina from the mass of verbiage encrusting the fundamentals of the experience.
The greatest failing of the Pentagon Papers is that they largely divorce the twenty-five-year history of the United States and Indochina from the global context in which Washington’s decisionmakers always made policy and perceived the world. They ignore earlier and contemporaneous crises and interventions that are better measures of the sources of policy and give us a keener index by which to assess the causes of policy and conduct often alluded to, however imperfectly, in the Pentagon Papers. And by failing to write concisely, with a view to stressing the main themes which their own evidence clearly sustains, the authors of the Pentagon Papers have buried the major currents of U.S. policy in Indochina under a mass of verbiage. (1) * In this essay I shall seek to extract and analyze some of these central threads—the concept of the domino theory and its real meaning and significance, the notion of “credibility” in the larger context of Washington’s global priorities, and the issue of “Vietnamization” and the implications of this futile doctrine to the character and conduct of the terrible war itself.
I. FOUNDATIONS OF THE INDOCHINA WAR
Obscured in a mass of operational details which never focus on the purpose or even the nature of policy in any real depth, the Pentagon Papers necessarily impart a kind of muddled and accidental character to U.S. policy in Indochina without revealing the firm assumptions which almost invariably cause decisionmakers to select certain options. Such impressions ignore the fact that a nation gets into the sort of complicated, often insoluble difficulties to which its basic national policy and definitions of interests necessarily make it prone, and that its “errors” and muddling appear only when its goals exceed its means for attaining them. In this sense Indochina proved to be only the culminating yet unavoidable miscalculation in a global effort that began well before the Indochina crisis and then ran concurrent to it.
Years before Washington used the domino theory to justify intervention in Southeast Asia, it exploited it in other regions in a manner that revealed the exact substance of this doctrine. Perhaps the first important application of the analogy was in the Middle East in the first two years after World War II. The stakes were entirely explicit: oil and “the raw-material balance of the world,” in President Truman’s words. (2) The question was to avoid a vacuum of power which the Soviet Union and/or radical nationalism might fill. The extension of specifically U.S. power and, preeminently, economic interests in a region therefore became integral to the domino theory. “If Greece should dissolve into civil war,” Secretary of State George C. Marshall argued privately in February 1947, Turkey might then fall and “Soviet domination might thus extend over the entire Middle East and Asia.” (3) And this perspective served not merely as the strategic justification for military aid, with the threat of intervention, but the acquisition of ever greater U.S. oil concessions at one and the same time.
Even before the first Indochina crisis, therefore, Washington had hammered out in the real world the functional meaning of the domino theory, and a kind of political-military imperial overhead charge became integral to its later realization of clearly articulated economic goals. Translated into concrete terms, the domino theory was a counterrevolutionary doctrine which defined modern history as a movement of Third World and dependent nations—those with economic and strategic value to the United States or its capitalist associates—away from colonialism or capitalism and toward national revolution and forms of socialism. Insofar as the domino theory was never a timetable, but an assessment of the direction in history of large portions of the world from the control of the Right to the control of the Left, it was accurate. No less important was the first American decision, taken during the Truman Doctrine crisis of early 1947, that intervention in one country largely to save those around it was the inevitable preliminary political and military overhead charges of imperialism. Well before 1950, much less the profound involvement in Indochina after 1960, the U.S. had applied this principle to many other regions of the world. Indochina became the culmination of this effort to expand America’s power by saving vast areas of the world for its own forms of political and economic domination.
In the first instance, at least, America’s leaders defined the problem of Indochina in its global context. Only later was it to become the transcendent test of the very efficacy of the essential means and goals of U.S. imperialism everywhere. For the major event influencing the U.S. response to the Vietnamese revolution was the final demise of the Kuomintang in China in 1949 and the policy discus sions that ensued from that monumental fact. The United States had always been hostile toward the Vietminh, but in mid-1949 the U.S. government made the irrevocable decision to oppose the further extension of “Communism” elsewhere in Asia and Southeast Asia. Although the means by which it would do so were unclear, the principle itself was not in any manner vague, and this prejudged the policy options. Specifically, the United States anticipated a major crisis in Indochina and began to prepare for it, and had the unanticipated outbreak of war in Korea not preempted its main focus it is likely it would have intervened far more aggressively there much earlier. For recognition of the French puppet regimes, and important military and economic aid to them, began before the Korean conflict.
Other considerations, besides resistance to “Communism” in Asia, also entered into the decision to sustain the French in Indochina. All were important, but the precise weight one would assign to each varies over time. There was also the desire to help the French end the war in order to return their troops to Europe so that France would cease to block West German rearmament. So long as France was tied up in colonial ventures, it would lack confidence in its mastery over a resurgent Germany. Then there was the desire to direct Japan toward Southeast Asia’s markets and raw materials rather than seeing it emerge as an economic rival elsewhere, or perhaps dependent on Left regimes that could thereby control Japan’s future social system. Such an outlook was of an integrated East Asia capitalism, with Japan as its keystone, docilely cooperating with the American metropolis. Next was the entire raw materials question. And lastly was the search for a military doctrine relevant to local revolutionary conflicts rather than global atomic war with industrial states—the beginning of the long and futile American search for a means by which to relate its illusory technological superiority to the dominant social trends of the post-World War II era. (4)
The vital relationship of the future of the Indochina war to European affairs emerges only dimly from the Pentagon Papers, with its erroneous assumption that the United States somewhat unwillingly supported France in Indochina for fear of losing its support for the European Defense Community. But no such French pressure was necessary, for in actuality the United States—for its own reasons—sustained the French cause as its own as well as in the hope of bringing that nation victoriously back to the European arena which the Americans thought more vital in the global context (Gravel ed., I:79-80, 405-407). (5) Given America’s passionate anti-Communism, it was inevitable that it associate spiritually as well as materially—to the tune of $3.5 billion by 1954—with France’s undertaking. References to anti-Communism, even outside the context of the strategiceconomic assumptions of the domino theory analyzed below, were frequent enough in the official American discussion prior to 1954—to the extent of actively considering direct U.S. military intervention against the Vietminh and China (Gravel ed., I:55, 79, 82-83, 363, 375-376). (6)
No less important, and barely alluded to in the Pentagon Papers, was the tortured strategy debate that the Eisenhower administration initiated immediately upon entering office. Basically, it acknowledged the need for a superior military doctrine than the haphazard eclecticism the Truman regime had dumped upon it, and so began a convoluted search for a means by which they could bring together American military technology and economic power, immense by world standards but also finite insofar as the U.S. budget was concerned, for a new, more successful synthesis. The gnawing insecurity which the Korean conflict left among America’s political and military leaders, who had failed to impose swiftly and cheaply their will in that conflict, was the first tacit acknowledgment of the profound lim its of American power in a decentralized world filled with agrarian revolutions and upheavals. The “New Look” debate of 1953-1954 sought to maximize military results at less cost, and because it lacked concrete precision for specific situations, and eventually proved utterly worthless, the effort left a psychological tension in which Washington thought that perhaps by acting in Indochina to avert French defeat the United States could synthesize success from experience blended with doctrine. The failure of conventional war in Asia—both in Korea and Indochina— colored all American responses to the coming demise of France in Indochina until the Geneva Conference of May 1954. At that time Washington was reduced to the fruitless, eventually incredibly dangerous role of creating obstacles to a final diplomatic resolution of the war in the hope of buying time by which to retain its puppets in at least a portion of Vietnam. The strategic value of the East Asian states, the willingness and capacity of the United States to act against local revolutions with optimum, even nuclear force to sustain the credibility of its numerous pacts and alliances, both privately and publicly appear in the U.S. documents at this time (Gravel ed., I:418, 494).” (7) More to the point and illuminating, both in terms of sheer bulk and intrinsic importance, is the articulation of the domino theory in the Southeast Asia context.
It is impossible to divorce the economic and strategic components of the socalled domino theory, because they are far more often than not mentioned in the same private and public discussions of official U.S. policy. To confront the significance of this synthesis of concerns is to comprehend the truly imperialist nature of American policy in Southeast Asia, its precedents and purposes, and quite naturally the authors of the Pentagon Papers failed to assess the constant references to raw materials found in their documents. But policy-makers cannot afford the obscurantism of their court historians, and candor on the objectives of the American undertaking in Asia was the rule rather than the exception.
Indeed, documents in the Pentagon Papers reiterate that as early as 1941 the “supreme importance” of the control of “rubber, tin and other commodities” of the region was a major contributing element in the war with Japan (Gravel ed., I:8). “The fall of Indochina would undoubtedly lead to the fall of the other mainland states of Southeast Asia,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued in April 1950, and with it Russia would control “Asia’s war potential ... affecting the balance of power” (Gravel ed., I:187). Not only “major sources of certain strategic materials” would be lost, but also communications routes (Gravel ed., I:364). The State Department argued a similar line at this time, writing off Thailand and Burma should Indochina fall. Well before the Korea conflict this became the official doctrine of the United States, and the war there further intensified this commitment (Gravel ed., I:194, 362-364, 373).
The loss of Indochina, Washington had decided by its vast arms shipments to the French as well as by formal doctrine articulated in June 1952, “would have critical psychological, political and economic consequences.... The loss of any single country would probably lead to relatively swift submission to or an alignment with communism by the remaining countries of this group. Furthermore, an alignment with communism of the rest of Southeast Asia and India, and in the longer term, of the Middle East (with the probable exceptions of at least Pakistan and Turkey) would in all probability progressively follow. Such widespread alignment would endanger the stability and security of Europe.” It would “render the U.S. position in the Pacific offshore island chain precarious and would seriously jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests in the Far East.” The “principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities,” would be lost in Malaya and Indonesia. The rice exports of Burma and Thailand would be taken from Malaya, Ceylon, Japan, and India. Eventually, there would be “such economic and political pressures in Japan as to make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan’s eventual accommodation to communism” (Gravel ed., I:83-84). This was the perfect integration of all the elements of the domino theory, involving raw materials, military bases, and the commitment of the United States to protect its many spheres of influence. In principle, even while helping the French to fight for the larger cause which America saw as its own, Washington leaders prepared for direct U.S. intervention when it became necessary to prop up the leading domino—Indochina (Gravel ed., I:375-390).
Privately and publicly, there was no deception regarding the stakes and goals for American power. “Why is the United States spending hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the forces of the French Union in the fight against communism,” Vice-President Richard Nixon explained publicly in December 1953. “If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of Southeast Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be oriented towards the Communist regime.” (8) Both naturally and logically, references to tin, rubber, rice, copra, iron ore, tungsten, and oil are integral to American policy considerations from the inception of the war (Gravel ed., I:407, 421, 436, 450, 473, 594, 597). (9) As long as he was President, Eisenhower never forgot his country’s dependence on raw materials imports and the need to control their sources. When he first made public the “falling domino” analogy in April 1954, he also discussed the dangers of losing the region’s tin, tungsten, and rubber, and the risk of Japan being forced into dependence on Communist nations for its industrial life—with all that implied (Gravel ed., I:603, 623). (10) Only one point need be mentioned here regarding the understanding of the domino theory. Always implicit in the doctrine was that it was the economic riches of the neighbors of the first domino, whether Greece or Indochina, that were essential, and when the U.S. first intervened into those hapless and relatively poor nations it was with the surrounding region foremost in its calculations. It was this willingness to accept the immense preliminary overhead charges of regional domination that should be as clear in our minds as it was in those of the men who made the decisions to intervene.
But to find a practical way of relating such considerations to reality was not easy for the American leaders, and Dulles’ vague threats, beginning at the end of 1953 and continuing until the termination of the Geneva conference, to employ nuclear weapons or U.S. forces scarcely altered the inexorable facts that the Vietminh’s military triumphs imposed. From this point onward the modalities for attaining U.S. goals in Southeast Asia were bankrupt, rear-guard efforts designed only to strengthen decaying regimes and the next domino. But the policy itself was only reaffirmed after the French defeat. It was tactically temporarily successful, but strategically disastrous, and the slow unfolding of that fact constitutes the main experience in American history since 1954 (Gravel ed., I:86, 98, 106-107, 177). Indochina becomes the conjunction point, from this time onward, for assorted doctrines and crises that had accumulated during the preceding decade without satisfactory resolution for the controllers of American power. Military power, economic integration, leadership of the world struggle against the tides of revolutionary change—all these crises and frustrations were to fix upon the Indochina experience in some central manner.
II. THE CRISIS OF AMERICAN POWER
This futile American search for a military doctrine capable of mastering the imperatives of U.S. national interests in the world, applying successfully the vast military technology it had hoarded since 1945, and meeting the exigencies of local war all came to a head when President Kennedy entered office. Because this combination of circumstances was part of the generalized crisis in U.S. power in the world that had been gradually building up since the Korean war, Washington’s policy toward Indochina was largely colored, especially until 1963, by the global context. This was surely the case while Kennedy was President.
Kennedy had been briefed by President Eisenhower on the domino theory and Southeast Asia immediately before the transfer of power, and the doctrine was accepted as a truism in planning U.S. policy throughout this critical formative period. But no less important, at this time, was the Kennedy administration linkage of events in Cuba or Berlin, and general relations with the USSR, to those in Indochina. The phrase “a symbolic test of strength between the major powers of the West and the Communist bloc” was already being employed during March 1961, and while this proposition does not necessarily capture all dimensions of the causes of U.S. action, it does provide an important psychological insight into how, and why, many actions were taken (Gravel ed., II:33, 48-49, 57, 635-637). “Credibility,” in any event, was part of the earlier frustrating U.S. doctrinal debate over “massive retaliation” and the like. The day after the Bay of Pigs invasion capsized, April 20, 1961, the new Administration created a special task force on Southeast Asia that was to help generate a whole new phase of the Indochina crisis. Even publicly, at this time, Kennedy was explicit in linking the events in Vietnam to his concern for the defeat in Cuba, and developments in Europe were no less influential. Put succinctly, given the U.S. failures everywhere else, the United States was prepared to make Laos and Vietnam the test of American resolution, to find new means of warfare as yet unknown, “to grasp the new concepts, the new tools,” to quote Kennedy, that might snatch victory from impending defeat for American imperialism elsewhere in the world (Gravel ed., II: 34, 2, 21, 33, 57, 72-73, 801). He quickly sent a “military hardware” team, aware “of the various techniques and gadgets now available,” to Saigon (Gravel ed., II: 34). The crucifixion of Indochina that began then to unfold was directed both toward Southeast Asia and the other dominos, but also toward all the rest of revolutionary mankind. It was as if the Americans had decided to make Indochina pay for an unkind history’s debts for postwar American imperiahsm’s defeats, defeats that were to evoke the vengeance of the desperate.
This concern for the “psychological impact” of a strong stand in South Vietnam on the events in Berlin and Cuba surely prevailed during the early part of 1962, when an immense expansion of the “limited war” budget and capability of the U.S. military also needed the now traditional international crisis and tensions essential to the quick passage of funding bills in Congress. Along more conventional lines of thought, American planners also calculated the allegedly grievous domino effects as far as Japan, India, and Australia, as that stalwart doctrine imbedded itself yet more deeply. Complementing these thoughts, but less often cited for the period after 1960 by the Pentagon Papers’ authors, were the “rice, rubber, teak, corn, tin, spices, oil, and many others” of the nations in the Southeast Asia line of dominos (Gravel ed., II:817, 174-175, 663-665). While men of power naturally assumed this critical definition of the substantive meaning of retaining power in the region, the decline of such references after 1960 is more a reflection on the perceptions and qualities of the authors of the history, or the demands placed on them, than it is of the true reasons. Roughly three-quarters of their study is devoted to the period 1961-1967, during which time probably most of the internal operational documents on which they focus were written, but also because, as the director of the undertaking admits, many earlier documents were not kept or found. Since nowhere in the work do the authors attempt to weigh the relative importance of causal factors, this abdication to quantity of memos and reports leads to myopic history. The economic element, so critical in the longer period of 1945-1959 from their own account, is minimized by default thereafter. The strategic importance of Southeast Asia, and the need to resist the presumed expansionist intentions of China against all Asia, is now their preferred explanation (Gravel ed., I:xvi; II:821-822).
This partiality in treating the causes of the war, whether by default to documents weighted by quantity or ideological preference, extends to such few definitions of the nature of the war that they allude to in the work. None of this is surprising, of course, because “professional” official military historians have been uniformly second-rate since the writing of such history began, but also because the three dozen or so authors who came from other government agencies were, again to quote the project director, “not always versed in the art of research” (Gravel ed., I:xv). Assigning discrete parts to so many different hands, it is not surprising the history lacks thematic consistency or unity, much less reflection and serious evaluations. And, given their professional and personal connections and choices, they are uniformly incapable of transcending the conventional wisdom common in Washington. One of their deficiencies, their incapacity to comprehend the relationship of the war to the Vietnamese masses themselves, and the very nature of the undertaking, makes it quite impossible for them to perceive the larger events after 1963. We must attempt to do so before analyzing the logic of the recent war.
Had the conflict in Vietnam since 1945 been essentially that of a civil war, in which Vietnamese fought Vietnamese, the French and then the American undertaking would have been militarily feasible. Indeed, it might even have been temporarily successful. That it was a military disaster for the vastly superior material forces of the French and now the United States, and that their external military role and aid has always been the source of warfare, is proof of the interventionary and fragile nature of the entire Western effort. Basically, this interventionary, colonial quality of the war has always inevitably produced defeat for the intruders. The United States interceded in Indochina to protect its own national interests, a proposition that holds everywhere else as well. Had there been a social and cultural basis for the successive regimes of its puppets, then the “Vietnamization” of the war would possibly have attained some measure of temporary success sometimes since 1945. Axiomatically, the fact that an appreciable number of Vietnamese could never be found to effectively use their vastly superior weapons against the Vietminh and then the National Liberation Front is evidence that the war was never a civil conflict. And no less axiomatic was the necessity of ever greater foreign commitments—”escalations” as they are now called—to sustain political fictions and loyal elites in power. For military escalation was always the inevitable, logical ancillary of keeping phantom governments alive on behalf of a foreign nation’s interests, and this fact was always understood in Washington.
The United States first began its attempt to “Vietnamize” the war in 1950, when its initial economic and military aid went to local puppet forces whose leaders have now long since retired. Roughly 350,000 such troops were being funded by 1953, when the long string of disasters for the French reached a critical point. By early 1961, the approximately 170,000-man army Diem had used to repress opposition with declining success was enlarged to 200,000 (Gravel ed., I: 396, 400, 490-491; II:24, 37, 50). Relying on these men, well armed and formally with superior training, to control the insurgency and manage the country was the public and private objective of Washington’s policy from 1961 onward. The desire to prove American “credibility” to the world and stop the dominoes at one and the same time was initially linked to buttressing Diem’s forces, not employing America’s. During the last half of 1962 the United States further embellished its commitment by seeking to train and equip 458,000 regular and paramilitary Saigon forces by mid-1965, with the NLF resistance scheduled to be under control by the end of that year. The Americans increased their military personnel in South Vietnam from 2,646 at the beginning of 1962, mainly in air transport and support units, to 12,200 during 1964-1965, and even planned their extensive withdrawal, to start during late 1965 (Gravel ed., II:175-179, 186).
If the data in the Pentagon Papers may be accepted on face value, it is clear that the main U.S. decisionmakers truly expected that lavish expenditures of funds and a now relatively small U.S. military contingent would suffice to “Vietnamize” the war. But, as the authors of the study embarrassingly reflected as an aside, “Only the Viet Cong had any real support and influence on a broad base in the countryside” (Gravel ed., II:204). Added to this defining fact was the political chaos and resistance in the urban areas and the deepening instability of the Diem clique. As President Kennedy admitted publicly on September 2, 1963, “I don’t think that unless a greater elTort is made by the [Diem] Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there” (Gravel ed., II:241). Privately, a National Security Council report the following month made precisely the same point and urged the withdrawal of American “advisors” as scheduled (Gravel ed.. III: 19). Given American awareness of the objective facts at the time, its disenchantment with Diem, and the apparently genuine desire of the key policymakers to withdraw manpower shortly, the subsequent long string of ever more violent escalations can only be understood as a function of the protection of American national interest as it was then defined in terms of economics, the domino, and credibility. This perception of the unpleasant truth regarding “Vietnamization” proved less important than what had to be done in spite of it. For the United States was not in Vietnam to protect a whole series of regimes it scornfully regarded as venial, but its own stakes in Southeast Asia and, as it defined it more broadly, the world. Not because of the palace generals would it abandon South Vietnam. And, if for whatever reason the troops of these corrupt leaders would not fight on behalf of American interests, then a proportionate escalation of American manpower and fire would be required. Washington’s error was to miscalculate the economic and human cost to itself in sustaining its immutable objectives in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The subsequent history of the war is quite predictable in light of these fixed poles in its Weltanschaung.
The Pentagon Papers document the long sequence of frustrations and failures that ensued after 1963. The main themes in them are the inextricably linked failure of “Vietnamization” and the subsequent escalations at the cost of staving off defeats, the effort to establish credibility in the region and world while balancing against it other priorities in the maintenance of the fragile American empire, and the confrontation, once again, with the limits of American technology in directing the destiny of modern history.
Suffice it to say, the critical year of 1964 was merely the history of the failure of Vietnamization juxtaposed against the desire to sustain credibility—and therefore escalation. Stated in its simplest form in the Pentagon Papers, “In 1964 the U.S. tried to make GVN [Saigon] strong, effective, and stable, and it failed” (Gravel ed., II:277). Vietnamization was a military and a political failure, and talk in Saigon of a popular front, neutralist government was rife by the late summer. Moreover, in 1964, just as Eisenhower had observed with bewilderment in 1961, “Not only do the Viet Cong units have the recuperative powers of the Phoenix, but they have had an amazing ability to maintain morale” (Gravel ed., III:668; see also II:336, 637; III:652, 666-667). Understanding this, however, did not cause the Americans to see that such strength was a decisive element in the larger war. Escalating, they thought, would substitute American firepower for Saigon’s defeatism, and overcome the ardor and genius of the NLF.
In part, as well, the United States believed that in escalating, among other things, it could also thereby win time for the Vietnamization process eventually to succeed. It would show “the U.S. continues to mean business” and “tend to lift GVN morale” (Gravel ed., III:561). Pitting steel against dedication suits crackpot realists well, and the notion that it would win Saigon time for its training tasks appears not to have been questioned. Not only would it reveal “a willingness to raise the military ante and eschew negotiations begun from a position of weakness,” but by obtaining “a breakthrough in the mutual commitment of the U.S. in Vietnam to a confident sense of victory” it would galvanize the tottering, opportunistic Khanh regime to do better for the United States (Gravel ed., III:78; see also II:344; III:546, 559).
Moreover, as McNamara told Johnson in January 1964, though he much preferred Saigon troops fighting the war, “we cannot disengage U.S. prestige to any significant degree.... The consequences of a Communist-dominated South Vietnam are extremely serious both for the rest of Southeast Asia and for the U.S. position in the rest of Asia and indeed in other key areas of the world ...” (Gravel ed., II:193). “If we leave Vietnam with our tail between our legs,” Gen. Maxwell Taylor argued the following September, “the consequences of this defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America would be disastrous” (Gravel ed., II:336). Here was a synthesis of the credibility and domino theories that was to profoundly influence subsequent American policy as well.
Such a combination of doctrines had occurred during the first Eisenhower administration, but it appears likely that the sensitivity to “credibility” was to deepen as U.S. manpower grew, if only because of the failure until then of the soldiers and military implements on which Washington was staking so much elsewhere as well. For if America were to be frustrated in Vietnam, its capacity to control events in other parts of the Third World would be profoundly challenged. In actual policy debates, however, the domino and credibility doctrines tended to be more and more merged: “the South Vietnam conflict is regarded as a test case of U.S. capacity to help a nation to meet a Communist ‘war of liberation’ “ (Gravel ed., III:500; see also 111:496-497). The only real issue, from the viewpoint of domino theory, became not the analogy itself but how far the falling dominoes might extend. Indeed, precisely because the United States had put its force on the testing line of battle, the dominoes might fall all the more quickly and emphatically, it was now conjectured. A somewhat milder, less concerned version continued to be issued publicly. But not only nearby states were thrown into a doctrine of falling links, but the unraveling of the Pacific and Asia pacts as well, and even the future of Greece and Turkey in NATO (Gravel ed., III:219-220, 500, 598-599, 622-628, 657-659, 712, 714, 732).
This test case proposition, involving credibility, was honed to a fine doctrine throughout 1964. Not merely the dominoes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued during January, but the “durability, resolution, and trustworthiness” of the United States would affect “our image in Africa and in Latin America,” a clear lesson to revolutionary movements there (Gravel ed., III:497). As the crisis of Vietnam reached a peak during the fall, requiring grave new decisions, “will and capability to escalate the action if required” was trotted out again (Gravel ed., III:208). “U.S. prestige is heavily committed, ... our standing as the principal helper against Communist expansion” had to be impaired as little as possible, “to protect U.S. reputation as a counter-subversion guarantor” (Gravel ed., III:216, 598; see also III:622, 659), and the like they argued repeatedly, with no objections at all from other decisionmakers. Moreover, Washington fully believed that, in some imperceptible but quite ideological manner, China was the root cause of the Indochina conflict—a notion that could not explain the morale and success of the NLF with the large masses of Vietnamese people. By the end of 1964, as well, the increasingly active role of the USSR in supporting the DRV made it seem, indeed, as if the major enemies the U.S. had chosen for itself were now putting it to the test. Given this concern for the new balance of forces in the war, the implications of defeat for the region and counterrevolution everywhere, and “our reputation,” the utter military ineptitude of the vast Saigon army left the American leaders two options—acceptance of reality, with all its concomitant implications for the future of U.S. interventionism and economic power elsewhere, or escalation. In light of the imperatives of postwar American imperialism, and the men at its helm, the choice was foreordained (Gravel ed., III:683; see also III: 115, 266-267, 592, 695).
III. THE LIMITS OF ESCALATION
The history of the war after 1965 is the history of escalation, a period so well known that the Pentagon Papers tell us scarcely more than new operational details about it. Given the visible facts, and the human and military effects of the war then being widely publicized, there can be precious little mystery to fathom. The experience showed an endemic American incapacity to reason outside a profoundly destructive fixed frame of reference, one that reflected conventional wisdom, and an almost self-destructive conformity to it even when its operational bankruptcy was repeatedly revealed in practice. The only surprise in the Pentagon Papers is how little internal opposition to this course existed among those in a position to shape policy, and that appeared well after it was baldly apparent that America’s goals greatly exceeded its means and other global obligations. This near unanimity was a result of the total consensus on the nature of national interests among men who attain power, a consensus that again proved that the objectives of U.S. postwar interventionism, rather than being a muddle or accident, brought the nation to its final impasse and defeat. By their own criteria and needs, American leaders did what their system demanded, and had often successfully achieved elsewhere. Their miscalculation was to grossly overestimate U.S. power in relationship to that of the Vietnamese.
More, than ever before, the “credibility” argument tended to shape American leadership’s responses to developments in Vietnam after 1965. “... To avoid humiliation” and “preserve our reputation,” or words like it, “appears in countless memoranda,” writes a Pentagon Papers author (Gravel ed., IV: 22, 47). Domino analogies also are routinely employed, although by 1967 at least some U.S. leaders, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, sought to escape criticism of the assumptions behind it by describing the equivalent phenomenon in presumably more neutral, operational terms. Given these continued durable premises, and the pervasive incapacity of Saigon’s army, it was certain that escalation on the United States’ part would follow. In 1966, however, its leaders now occasionally appeared to weigh the United States’ commitment in Vietnam against its physical obligations and needs elsewhere and the discontent of its European allies. By 1967, indeed, this concern for priorities was supplemented by the graver, immediate problem of the economic costs of the war to domestic inflation and the United States’ balance-of-payments problem overseas. As the authors of the Pentagon Papers fail to note later, this consciousness of global priorities and the economic limits of escalation in March 1968 was to begin to impose at least some critical brake on the escalatory process (Gravel ed., IV: 88-89, 442, 490, 510, 614,618, 636, 662, 681). (11)
The Pentagon Papers deluge us with endless details on the process of escalation: there were large escalations, small ones, long and short, wider ones to Laos, more northerly or less, and escalations that were considered and rejected. The dominant fact in this welter of details, much of it superfluous, is that the United States raced up the ladder of munitions tonnages and manpower at a rate that was to prove faster than even the immense American economy could digest, but utterly inadequate to deliver the coveted military victory. Indeed, that triumph would have been denied even had the United States implemented all the schemes it contemplated with their vast risks of war with China. From about 650,000 tons of ground and air munitions in 1965, the United States dropped 2,883,000 tons in 1968, and its manpower increased to 543,000 men in South Vietnam by the end of 1968, plus 230,000 war-related personnel in the surrounding region. That simple fact sets the crucial context for the internal policy debate that was to occur during this period.
The American debates were always encumbered by gnawing contingencies. One problem was that during 1966 the U.S. leaders became aware of the importance of inflation caused by the rapid troop arrivals in aggravating the already moribund Saigon economy. Excessive escalation, in the context of this problem alone, could inflict severe damage on the American undertaking. Then, at the end of 1966, McNamara visited Saigon and concluded that significant escalation, accompanied by progress in the “pacification” program, might convince the public within 18 months—which is to say before the Presidential election — that U.S. victory was attainable in due course thereafter. Until the end of 1967, with one unimportant exception, the issue of escalation in Washington was not its efficacy but the numbers that it had to commit. By May, indeed, the Joint Chiefs were considering ground attacks into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam, plus the possible use of nuclear weapons against sites in southern China (Gravel ed., IV:171, 180, 239, 353, 369, 378, 442, 457, 461, 490-492).
Despite this vast upsurge of activity, the military results were infinitely less than the American leaders had hoped for, and their military reserves in the world were too small for the undertaking that even some Pentagon analysts thought might drag on indefinitely at any level short of nuclear war. In fact, almost immediately the American fascination with their own material power led to the revelation of the limits of technology in revolutionary warfare in a manner that is certain to have profound repercussions in future and futile American efforts to discover a military doctrine appropriate to its immense technical means and even larger political and economic goals during the remainder of this century. Essentially, every weapons system the Americans applied failed to attain the pur poses for which it was intended. In terms of U.S. expenses in bombing North Vietnam during the first year, its losses to the DRV air defense alone were four times the estimated material damage inflicted—but far higher yet in terms of total U.S. costs. More important, with extremely accurate statistical measurement the United States knew that it had failed to deprive the DRV of anything it needed to resist eff”ectively. Its oil storage and transport systems remained more than ample for any demand imposed on them. Its capacity to move men and equipment south increased, and the essence of these frustrating facts were made public at the time. Success via air power, America’s leaders learned quickly, was not attainable. But on the ground itself, the Americans concluded by mid-1967, the NLF controlled the terms and timing of combat in almost four-fifths of the engagements (Gravel ed., IV:45, 55-59, 67, 69, 107, 109-112, 457, 461-462, 490). The United States, clearly, could not achieve victory in such a war.
Rather than accept the political conclusions of these defining military facts by withdrawing from Vietnam, the United States turned to other uses for its technology in the hope of grasping victory from the maw of imminent defeat. Internal discussions printed in the Pentagon Papers show that, given the militarily inconclusive nature of the air war, war crimes against civilian populations became an intended consequence of the war. In what it calls a “very influential report,” in March 1966 the CIA assessed the feeble results of bombing and outlined the need to turn to “the will of the regime as a target system” (Gravel ed., IV:71). It proposed “a punitive bombing campaign,” in the words of the Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed., IV:74). The Americans would bomb without illusions as to the direct military results, but in the hope of breaking a nation’s will to resist. In any nation that could only mean the people: the “attrition of men, supplies, equipment and [oil],” to quote a document of the following September (Gravel ed., IV:110). Four-fifths of the North Vietnamese casualties of the bombing, the CIA reported in January 1967, were civilians. One expression of this, to quote Robert Komer in April 1967 as he set out for Saigon with power to implement his program, was to “Step up refugee programs deliberately aimed at depriving the VC of a recruiting base” (Gravel ed., IV:441; see also IV: 136). Or, to quote John McNaughton the earlier year, while urging studies of the feasibility of attacking the dams and locks in the DRV, “by shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided—which we could offer to do ‘at the conference table’” (Gravel ed., IV:43).
It was as a result of the failure of orthodox bombing techniques that a group of crackpot realist academics, for the most part self-styled “liberals,” were able to concoct and sell the doctrine of electronic warfare. Roger Fisher of the Harvard Law School first proposed it to McNaughton in January 1966, suggesting chemical warfare, mines, and the like stretched in a belt across the DMZ and part of Laos. Over the coming spring and summer, academics such as Carl Kaysen, Jerome Wiesner, and Jerrold Zacharias were able to propose a whole family of antipersonnel concepts and weapons, geared to sensoring and monitoring techniques, to attack manpower. But while such diabolical contrivances could be applied against personnel under other circumstances, the electronic belt was never to be constructed, and electronic warfare itself proved to be at least the same dismal failure as conventional bombing (Gravel ed., IV: 112-126). (12)
The incapacity of the United States depending on its own manpower and resources in Indochina was the dominant experience of the escalations of 1965-1967. Full of confidence, but forced by repeated frustrations to concoct yet more costly and dangerous escalations throughout this period, as the Pentagon Papers conclude: “The TET offensive showed that this progress in many ways had been illusory. The possibility of military victory had seemingly become remote and the cost had become too high in political and economic terms” (Gravel ed., IV: 604). Insofar as U.S. manpower was concerned, after the stunning Vietnamese offensive in February 1968 the Americans committed but 25,000 more men. But it spent far more on firepower, and the fiscal year beginning July 1968 was to prove the most costly of the war. More important, assorted escalation schemes designed during this early 1968 period became the basis of the subsequent Johnson-Nixon strategy as the war was energetically pushed into Cambodia and Laos. But of this, and the full reasons for the March 1968 stabilization of large manpower increments, the Pentagon Papers say nothing or far less than has been published elsewhere. (13)
It was in this context that the United States was to return to the chimera of relying on the Vietnamese commanded by Saigon fighting their own countrymen who had successfully defeated the infinitely more powerful Americans. While this notion is now called the Nixon Doctrine, it was in fact the oldest, least successful approach to the war since 1949.
After 1965 the United States certainly had not abandoned the principle of depending on Saigon’s forces in some critical manner, at some vague future time. As U.S. men poured into Vietnam in 1965, the belief was that Saigon’s morale would be bolstered and that the Americans would give it time to reform and enlarge its military arm. If that illusion appears to have been seriously held at first, as time went on and American forces grew it was thought that the certain, imminent destruction of the NLF main force units might give Saigon more leisure to prepare to mop up thereafter. The immediate military problem therefore became one for the United States, and although it was not difficult to add about 100,000 men to Saigon’s units in the eighteen months after July 1965 (bringing it to 623,000 men), getting them to fight was quite another task (Gravel ed., II: 284, 511, 596; III:432, 462).
Illusions about building Saigon’s military capacity or morale with greater U.S. presence were soon smashed, and a quite realistic assessment of reality predominated. In fact, new escalations were justified in internal debates precisely because Washington was aware of how decadent and fragile the Saigon political, economic, and military structure was at any given time. In July 1965 the Americans considered it on the verge of disaster. At best, key Americans thought the following year, an enfeebled Saigon would drag on unable to prosecute the war, particularly the “vital nonmilitary aspects of it” (Gravel ed., IV: 87; see also IV:21). The contempt with which Washington held the Saigon regime at this time was total. “It is obviously true that the Vietnamese are not today ready for self-government,” Henry Cabot Lodge commented at the middle of the year, “but if we are going to adopt the policy of turning every country that is unfit for self-government over to the communists, there won’t be much of the world left” (Gravel ed., IV:99; see also IV:89). Security in the Saigon offices was so poor that it was given only one-hour notifications in advance of major escalations. But Saigon’s economic and political weaknesses correctly worried the Americans the most. It knew the peasants regarded the Saigon officials as “tools of the local rich ... excessively corrupt from top to bottom” (Gravel ed., IV: 374; see also IV: 103). And they retained an obsessive fear of inflation that could shatter the entire economy, increase military desertions, and ultimately become the decisive factor of the war (Gravel ed., IV: 341-343, 369, 377-378). U.S. troop escalations were often calculated in terms of their economic impact on the local economy, a fact that inhibited yet further increases.
Nothing that occurred in the period before the Tet offensive altered this American vision. Saigon’s army fought conventional warfare in a guerrilla context, it was poorly led, had poor morale, victimized the peasantry, and had low operational capabilities. This fact was recognized in many forms, and numerous schemes plotted for counteracting it. But they came to naught, because even as the United States intervened presumably to remove the main military burden from Saigon’s backs, its presence convinced Saigon’s generals that “Uncle Sam will do their job for them” (Gravel ed., IV:503; see also IV:396-399, 402-403, 439-440, 463). It was this unregenerate group of self-serving officers to whom the United States was to turn when its vast gamble was finally smashed during the Tet offensive. In the tortured weeks after that calamity for the Americans, the extent of Saigon’s shocking weakness was candidly assessed, and the Pentagon officials used that fact as justification for demanding yet another 200,000 men for Indochina and even heavier reliance on American manpower (Gravel ed., IV: 267, 562).
But further increases in U.S. manpower were effectively to end at this point, as Washington ignored the twenty-year history of the war on behalf of the hope that somehow, at some time, Vietnamese could be made to fight Vietnamese on behalf of a foreign imperialism. The trap was thereby fixed, taken up by the Nixon administration as its doctrine in Indochina and remained to suck the U.S. into further necessary escalations of firepower, expeditions into neighboring states, and a protracted involvement and expense in money and men to buy the time essential for “Vietnamization.” In this sense, the Nixon administration became the inheritor and proponent of all the main themes and failures of the preceding two decades, accepting them as the inevitable basis of his own eventual demise. The story is as familiar as the outcome is certain. Only the timing is unknown, along with the number and magnitude of the American efforts that will be required so long as Washington, seeking to prevent the economically significant dominoes from falling, hopes to save a shred of credibility as to the efficacy of America’s will, or continues its efforts to impose a U.S.-dominated military, political, and economic structure on South Vietnam. The alternative is to acknowledge the reality that the magnificent Vietnamese people has defeated the most powerful nation in modern times.
Though mediocre as history and partial as documentation, the Pentagon Papers provide a singularly overwhelming indictment of how devious, incorrigible, and beyond the pale of human values America’s rulers were throughout this epic event in U.S. history. If they occasionally moderated the scale of violence it was purely as a result of a pragmatic realization that it failed to produce results desired, and they as freely vastly increased it when convinced they might also attain their ends.
But far more important is the main lesson that the entire Vietnam history has made painfully obvious to all who have either studied or experienced it. The United States did not at any time regard Vietnam itself as the main issue as much as it did the future of Southeast Asia and, beyond it, the relationship of Vietnam to revolution in modern times. Vietnam, almost by chance, became the main intersection of the frustrations and limits of U.S. power in the postwar period, the focus of the futile American effort to once and for all translate its seemingly overwhelming technological and economic might into a successful inhibition of local revolutionary forces, thereby aborting the larger pattern of world revolution and advancing America’s own economic and strategic interests at one and the same time. This conclusion is inescapable from a study of the whole of postwar U.S. foreign policy and the “domino” and “credibility” theories as applied to Vietnam.
In this manner, the Vietnamese fought for their national salvation and selfdetermination, but also for that of the entire world as well. For just as Vietnam personified to the United States the consummate danger of the Left everywhere in the Third World in postwar history, the Vietnamese resistance embodies its triumph. For this reason, the Vietnamese have carried the burden in blood and advanced the cause of a larger international movement—diverse and pluralist as that movement may be. In their national struggle they have therefore also been the most profoundly internationalist, giving both time and freedom to Latin American forces that have infinitely less to fear from a mired United States. And by defining the limits of the American ruling class’s power in a manner that may inhibit that elite’s willingness to sacrifice the blood of its docile youth in future imperialist follies, they have done for the American people what they themselves could not accomplish. The monumental struggle which the Vietnamese undertook and won has thereby become one of the most profoundly important events to the future of progress in the remainder of this century.
1. For an example of how informative official military history, even written from a very conservative viewpoint, can be both as narrative and in subsuming the main currents, see Lionel Max Chassin, The Communist Conquest of China: A History of the Civil War, 1945-1949 (Cambridge, 1965).
2. Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954 (New York, 1972), p. 72.
3. Ibid., p. 340.
4. Ibid., pp. 554-562; Gabriel Kolko, The Roots of American Foreign Policy (Boston, 1969), chap. IV, for a history of the main events of the war; The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam [4 vols.] (Boston, 1971 ), 1:31, 37, 62-63, 362-363, 450.
5. Kolko, Limits of Power, 683-684.
6. Kolko, Limits of Power, 686-687.
7. Kolko, Limits of Power, 698-700.
8. Kolko, Limits of Power, 685.
9. Ibid., 686-687, 795.
10. Kolko, Limits of Power, 686.
11. More useful data appears in Townsend Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention (New York, 1969); Eliot Janeway, The Economics of Crisis (New York, 1968), pp. 228, 280-281; Richard N. Gardner, Sterling-Dollar Diplomacy (New York, 1969), pp. xxii, Ixvii; Gabriel Kolko, The London Bulletin, August 1969.
12. Lenny Siegel, “Vietnam’s Electronic Battlefield,” Pacific Research and World Empire Telegram, September-October 1971, pp. 1-8.
13. Lloyd Norman, ‘The ‘206,000 Plan’—The Inside Story,” Army, April 1971, pp. 30-35; Hoopes, Limits of Intervention, passim; Kolko, London Bulletin, passim; and contemporary accounts in the New York Times.