"I Will Not Lose in Vietnam"
NOVEMBER 1963 TO JANUARY 1964 It was an unfortunate irony for Lyndon Johnson that the Vietnam problem loomed large from the very beginning of his presidency. Since the start of his political career in the 1930s, the issues that engaged him most were domestic ones—rural electrification, social security, unemployment, and education. Though not ignorant of world affairs1—he had spent more than two decades involved in defense and foreign-policy questions as a member of the House Naval Affairs and the House and Senate Armed Services Committees—Johnson found the realm of diplomacy and statecraft complicated and frustrating. When as vice president he visited Bangkok, he exploded in anger when a U.S. embassy official counseled him against shaking hands with the Thais, who traditionally recoil from physical contact with strangers. Dammit, Johnson exploded, he shook hands with people everywhere, and they loved it. Nor could he comprehend the way in which diplomacy seemed to be above politics, immune to the haggling he had perfected with American politicians, businesspeople, and labor leaders. Little wonder that he entered the White House with his eyes on matters at home—his main goal, he told aides only hours after being sworn in, was to enable all Americans to share in America's bounty. His first State of the Union address, delivered in January 1964, was the first since Franklin Roosevelt's to stress, by placement and by language, domestic affairs.
Yet Johnson knew from the start that the war in Southeast Asia would demand a great deal of his attention. Since visiting the country on Kennedy's behalf in May 1961, he had followed the course of the war and the evolution of American policy and had sat in on many White House meetings. In the late autumn of 1963, he understood well the scope of America's commitment in Vietnam and the potential trouble the war could pose for him. When U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge reported on the situation in Saigon on 24 November, Johnson said he felt like a catfish that had just "grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it." In a memorandum a few days later to Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the new president noted that the more he looked at it, "the more it is clear to me that South Vietnam is our most critical military area right now."
Johnson was determined to stand up to the challenge. Though he had opposed the coup against Diem, he was determined to carry out his predecessor's policies, particularly in the foreign arena. More important, he came to the White House with a deep and unquestioning commitment to the posture of staunch anticommunism, as well as to presidential supremacy in foreign affairs. The same was true of his predecessors in the office, but with Johnson the commitments were more deeply ingrained, more unalterable. Throughout his career he had always rallied behind the flag, making it his first rule to support the president whenever a foreign-policy crisis arose. "It is an American, not a political foreign policy that we have in the United States," he declared in 1948. "This is a question of patriotism, not politics." Six years later, when the Eisenhower team engineered a counterrevolutionary coup in Guatemala, Johnson said, "We've got to be for America first." On those occasions in the 1950s when he faulted presidents on foreign policy, it was usually for being insufficiently aggressive in waging the Cold War. He criticized Harry Truman for not destroying the Chinese in the Korean War, and he blasted Dwight Eisenhower for tolerating a supposed "missile gap" with the Soviet Union.
On Vietnam Johnson strongly backed first Eisenhower's and then Kennedy's attempt to create an anticommunist bastion in the southern half of the country. In 1961 he returned from Saigon militant about the need to persevere in the conflict and warning darkly that failure to act decisively could force the United States to retreat to San Francisco and "leave the vast Pacific...a Red Sea." There is no reason to think that Johnson had modified that view by the time he assumed the presidency. Like many of his generation he was marked by the failure of the allies to stop Hitlerat Munich, and he often declared that he would not reward "aggression" in Vietnam with "appeasement." He also invoked the mythology of the Alamo, where, as he said, Texas boys had "fought for freedom." Moreover, history taught Johnson that right-wing adversaries would finish him politically should South Vietnam fall to communism—just hours after taking office, he vowed that he would not be the president who saw Vietnam go the way of China. As he later said to biographer Doris Kearns, in a dubious interpretation of the past: "I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared to what might happen if we lost Vietnam."
Johnson opted to keep Kennedy's top foreign-policy advisers, and all of them recommended staying the course in Vietnam. It was Johnson more than his lieutenants, however, who set the tone for Vietnam policy in the early days after the assassination. At his first meeting on Vietnam, on24 November, he voiced concerns about the direction of American policy, and about growing congressional sentiment in favor of withdrawal, but then quickly affirmed that America's long-standing objectives could not be abandoned. The most important task, he said, was to win the war. Too much effort had been placed on "so-called social reforms," not enough on battling the enemy. Johnson instructed Henry Cabot Lodge, who was present at the meeting, to return to Saigon and tell Duong Van Minh and the other generals who made up the ruling Military Revolutionary Council (MRC) two things: that the bickering among them must stop, and that the United States would make good on its promise to provide them with economic and military assistance. "Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word," he told Lodge to say, and he added, "I will not lose in Vietnam." In a National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM 273) released two days later, Johnson reiterated that the United States would assist the South Vietnamese to "win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy."
"Win the war." That was the essential message Johnson conveyed to his foreign-policy advisers in those early days after Dallas. He left little room for uncertainty about America's task in the struggle. According to one of the participants at the 24 November meeting, Johnson urged people to devote "every effort" to the conflict. "Don't go to bed at night until you have asked yourself, 'Have I done everything I could to further the American effort to assist South Vietnam?'" A few days later, when Johnson met with David Nes, who had been chosen as Henry Cabot Lodge's new deputy chief of mission in Saigon, he said failure was not an option against the Vietcong. "Lyndon Johnson is not going down as the president who lost Vietnam," Johnson said as Nes prepared to leave. "Don't you forget that."
Determination was thus the watchword of the new administration from its first days. There was no fundamental reassessment of the rationale behind the U.S. commitment to preserving a separate, noncommunist, South Vietnam; no examination of whether such an objective was vital to U.S. security, or whether it was even attainable; no serious investigation of possible alternative solutions to the conflict. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman assured a visiting South Vietnamese official on 27 November that Johnson not only supported Kennedy's policies toward Vietnam, but helped in making them. As a result, the Saigon government could count on strong U.S. support in the war. Hilsman added that though the thousand-man withdrawal set for the end of the year would go ahead as planned, South Vietnamese leaders could rest assured that the United States would keep in Vietnam whatever forces were needed for victory. Ambassador Lodge, in a meeting with Minh three days later, also emphasized Johnson's commitment to the struggle against the Vietcong. And Dean Rusk, in a top-secret cable to Lodge on 6 December, stressed Johnson's "deep concern that our effort in Viet-Nam be stepped up to the highest pitch and that each day we ask ourselves what more we can do to further the struggle."
There was continuity here, but also change. It is no contradiction tosay that Lyndon Johnson sought to maintain his predecessor's policies in Vietnam and that there occurred a subtle but crucial shift when he tookoffice, in the form of a greater presidential insistence on preventing defeat in Vietnam. It may be, as some have suggested, that Johnson had an excellent opportunity to withdraw from Vietnam immediately upon entering the White House, but it is virtually impossible to imagine him actually taking such a step. Perhaps any successor would have been inhibited from dramatically altering the slain leader's policy in those difficult weeks of transition; it was certainly out of the question for Johnson. Every fiber of his being compelled him to proceed. His reading of history told him to continue in the war, as did his calculations of what would serve him best in the 1964 presidential campaign—avoid radical departures in foreign affairs, play to the strength of domestic policy. Already suspicious to the point of paranoia about Robert F. Kennedy's ambitions and designs, he believed he would be opposed by RFK and his associates—Robert McNamara, Walt W. Rostow, McGeorge Bundy—if he did not pursue Kennedy's policies in Southeast Asia.
For that matter, Johnson's temperament was the type to avoid the kind of reexamination of policy assumptions that would have been needed to initiate disengagement. His mind was excellent, fast and resourceful, but he had no interest in, or patience with, intellectual give and take. He sought only solutions to problems and tried whenever possible to avoid listening to the underlying rationales. As longtime assistant George Reedy would later put it, LBJ "could think but not reflect; devise ingenuous schemes for achieving goals but not ponder the validity of the goals; outguess his fellow human beings in playing the game of one-upsmanship without realizing that the game might not be worth playing." In foreign-policy matters, especially, Johnson lacked a detached critical perspective, which left him vulnerable to clichés and stereotypes about world affairs. Neither diplomatic history nor current international politics interested him (as more than a few visiting diplomats were quick to notice), and he was deeply insecure about his abilities as a statesman. Though he had gained valuable experience on his eleven goodwill trips abroad as vice president, many of these had been frustrating affairs for him as well as for his hosts (he often came across as a boor) and had aggravated his sense of being an interloper in the world arena. "Foreigners," Johnson quipped early in the administration, only half-jokingly, "are not like the folks I am used to."
This insecurity, well documented in the reflections of those who knew him well, helps explain two closely related tendencies in Johnson's approach to Vietnam that were evident early and would prove highly important to policy making as time went on. One was his aversion to meeting with foreign diplomats or consulting with allied governments. McGeorge Bundy learned right away that one of his tasks would involve seeing to it that few foreign dignitaries made it into the Oval Office. In the years that followed Johnson would seldom welcome, much less seek out, the opinions and advice of allied government leaders on what should happen in Southeast Asia. As more and more of them came to oppose his Vietnam policy he looked for ways to avoid even speaking to them. Second, Johnson's lack of confidence in foreign policy helped fuel his well-documented dislike of dissension on Vietnam policy, even among his closest advisers. All politicians like consensus, but LBJ craved it more than most. Reedy again: "He abhorred dissent to a point where he sought to quell it long before the protagonists had taken themselves out." Early in the administration top aides began the practice of meeting among themselves before entering the Oval Office, in order to work out what they were going to say. Johnson, these advisers knew, would want various policy options articulated but, given both his temperament and his unambiguous exhortations in those first days, would not want deep and wide-ranging discussion of those options.
Johnson's craving for internal consensus led him to try to limit Vietnam policy formulation to a small group of advisers, smaller than the one utilized by John F. Kennedy. From the start, the three key figures in that group were Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. All three had helped shape the policy under Kennedy and thus had a stake in making sure the policy succeeded; all three would be key players, along with Johnson, in the decisions that over the next fifteen months would make Vietnam an American war. Others would contribute to the fateful decisions, of course, and help in implementing the policies—notably the chief deputies of the three advisers, as well as the successive ambassadors in Saigon—but this group was supreme.
Despite his determination to continue the Kennedy policies, Johnson encountered a steadily disintegrating situation in South Vietnam. On the battlefield, the picture was grim. The new president had barely settled into the Oval Office before the CIA, the JCS, and the embassy in Saigon began issuing reports of virtually unchecked momentum by the Vietcong in almost all parts of South Vietnam. According to Defense Department figures presented at a high-level interdepartmental meeting in the first week ofDecember, Vietcong incidents had skyrocketed since the Diem coup, going as high as 1,000 in one week, as compared to the 1962 average of 363 per week, and the first-half-of-1963 average of 266 per week. The picture was especially bleak in several key provinces around Saigon. "The only progress made in Long An Province during the month of November 1963," Lodge reported, "has been by the Communist Viet Cong."Troubling as these trends were to U.S. officials in Washington and Saigon, even more disconcerting was the Minh government's ambivalence with regard to the war effort—an ambivalence that had first materialized in early November but accelerated in December. The military situation could be turned around, Americans were convinced, but only if the Saigon regime was committed to doing so. Some American officials clung to the belief that the will was there, that present problems were the inevitable but short-term result of the transition to a new government. But a growing number of officials ascribed the lack of progress to the MRC's reluctance to initiate offensive military actions. Among the latter were General Harkins and the rest of the American military in Vietnam. Harkins had opposed the overthrow of the Ngos, and he made no secret of his dislike of Minh. He inundated administration officials in Washington with detailed information on the junta's nonaggressiveness; with time, many of those who had most opposed Diem and most welcomed the change in government would be converted to this view.
It was not just Harkins's claims that convinced them. The Minh government took a number of specific actions contrary to American wishes and designed to shift the struggle to the political plane. To begin with, it announced its intention to implement a rural-welfare program designed to eventually supersede the strategic hamlets program instituted under Diem. Minh officials felt certain that the hamlets only exacerbated dissatisfaction in the countryside; they were convinced that the new program, which would permit peasants to remain in their scattered homes under the administration of local leaders, was more likely to win peasant allegiance than the American-backed strategic hamlets program, with its barbed-wire-enclosed compounds and aggressive military activity. In addition, the government refused to go along with a new Pentagon plan to improve the military situation by bombing the North. At a meeting with American officials, Minh argued that such bombing would be a mistake for the most fundamental reasons: it would hurt innocent people, it would alienate popular opinion in the South, and it would likely have no real effect on Vietcong troops fighting in the South.
If Minh government officials disagreed with Americans on key issuesof policy, they also disagreed among themselves. They could not reach an accord on the best way to approach those groups most discriminated against by Diem—the Buddhists above all, but also the students and urban professionals. More important, although there was general agreement on the need to emphasize the political dimension of the struggle, there was little unity of thought on how fast or how far to proceed in that direction. Whether key government leaders such as Minh were prepared to consider a neutralist settlement to the conflict in this period is unclear. Publicly they denied it, and Minh told British Ambassador Gordon Etherington-Smith at the start of December that neutralism was not a practicable solution for South Vietnam, given that communists controlled North Vietnam. Nevertheless, in the latter part of November and early December, reports proliferated in Saigon intellectual circles and in the South Vietnamese press that leading members of the junta were sympathetic to such a solution. In mid November French officials in Saigon reported to Paris that many junta members were distraught at the delay in French recognition of the new government, particularly because they sought to move the GVN closer to France and away from the United States. The report noted that there appeared to be a division of opinion within the junta, with some members sympathetic to a neutralist settlement and others, including Minh, committed to pursuing the war against the Vietcong.
As it had when Diem and Nhu appeared to consider the idea, the prospect of an early political settlement struck fear into American officials. The notion of a negotiated settlement between the Saigon regime and the NLF or Hanoi was anathema to them, and they were determined to prevent it. At the same time, American intelligence continued to find signs of MRC support for accommodation. In late November, the CIA reported that contacts between the Saigon regime and the NLF were taking place. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, citing "reliable sources," made the same claim. And in fact, the NLF had issued a number of conciliatory statements in the weeks after the Minh government assumed power, all of which called for negotiations to reach a cease-fire, free general elections, and the subsequent formation of a coalition government "composed of representatives of all parties, tendencies, and strata of the South Vietnamese people." Reunification, the NLF declared, would be neither immediate nor automatic but something to be realized "step by step on a voluntary basis." This would be the official NLF line throughout the junta's time in office.
Not all American officials believed that the top government leaders were prepared to agree to an immediate political settlement—Lodge, for one, thought Minh would likely veto any move in that direction. However, even Lodge readily conceded that the junta, given its desire to focus its energies on the political plane, might opt for political settlement eventually, perhaps within a matter of weeks. Perhaps neutralists would gain the upper hand in the decision making, or perhaps Minh and other leaders would move in that direction on their own. Equally worrisome, continued instability in Saigon might bring forth a new regime dedicated to ending the war. U.S. officials understood perfectly well that in this kind of fluid situation, in which anything was possible, pressure for negotiations from outside Vietnam could have enormous influence.
And indeed, as 1963 drew to a close, such pressure was gaining momentum. In the United States, public and press opinion remained mostly supportive of the war, but murmurings of skepticism continued to be heardon Capitol Hill, as Johnson himself indicated on 24 November. The White House was particularly concerned about the growing concerns expressed by three key Democratic members of the Senate, Johnson's mentor Richard Russell, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, and J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All three had grown increasingly dismayed with the direction of U.S. policy in recent months, and all three had the capacity to strongly influence thinking on Capitol Hill. In a telephone conversation with LBJ on 2 December Fulbright recommended that the administration opt for a negotiated settlement via a reconvened Geneva Conference. On 7 December Russell told Johnson, "We should get out [of Vietnam], but I don't know any way to get out." On another occasion in December Russell reportedly advised LBJ to "spend whatever it takes to bring to power a government that would ask us to go home." Mansfield, meanwhile, chose this time to launch a personal campaign to convince the president to pursue a political solution. It was a campaign he would not relinquish until Johnson opted to Americanize the war in the spring and summer of 1965.
In a 7 December memorandum to Johnson, Mansfield suggested that two core administration assumptions—that the war could be won in South Vietnam alone, and that it could be won at a "limited expenditure of American lives and resources somewhere commensurate with our national interests in south Viet Nam"—might be mistaken. The war, he argued, might extend beyond South Vietnam, and "what national interests in Asia would steel the American people for the massive costs of an ever-deepening involvement of that kind?" Mansfield described the situation as increasingly similar to the Korean War of a decade earlier, and he reminded Johnson that Eisenhower did not pursue that war to victory but went to Korea "to make peace, in reality, a truce." As then, Mansfield suggested, "there may be a truce that could be won now in Viet Nam alone and eventually a peace which might be won throughout Southeast Asia at a price commensurate with American interests. That peace should mean, in the end, a Southeast Asia less dependent on our aid-resources and support, less under our control, not cut off from China but, still, not overwhelmed by China."
The way to achieve such a peace, Mansfield argued, was, first and foremost, to encourage the new Saigon government to shift its primary emphasis from the military to the political side (he was apparently unaware that the new regime was planning to do just that). Such "political and social acts of popular benefit" were imperative, "even if it means curtailing the present elusive and so far unsuccessful chase of the Viet Cong all over the land." Second, the United States should take part in an "astute diplomatic offensive," along with France, Britain, India, and perhaps Russia and others, with the aim of making "a bonafide effort to bring about an end to the North-South Vietnamese conflict...France is the key country."
American officials agreed that France was the key country, and it worried them. Concerns about pro-French sympathies in the Minh junta, first expressed in the immediate aftermath of the Diem coup, had not disappeared but had intensified in late November, despite the fact that de Gaulle proved slow in recognizing the new government. Lodge did not hide his concern. He worried that neutralist sentiment was growing in Saigon, and he implored Washington to intensify its efforts to persuade the French president to keep quiet before the entire South was converted to neutralism. CIA director John McCone was similarly troubled and told Johnson that it might be time for the United States to get tough with the French. But Johnson was reluctant. He later noted that from the start he "madeit a rule for myself and the U.S. government simply to ignore Presidentde Gaulle's attitudes on our policies." Johnson had little of Kennedy's interest in Europe, knew little of its history, and concerned himself mainly with keeping the western alliance on an even keel. He often said that the French president reminded him of his baseball-playing days: "I was feared as a power-hitter," he would explain, and rival pitchers (de Gaulle) would "try to dust me off, but I would just lean back and let the ball go into the catcher's mitt." This patience came as a surprise to presidential advisers, who had often seen Johnson take almost irrational offense at even minor criticism. A number of these individuals would later comment on the exceptional way in which Johnson seemed to view de Gaulle, even as the frequency of the French leader's criticisms increased. No one was more surprised than Undersecretary of State George Ball: "He incessantly restrained me from making critical comments, even though he would never have taken the general's constant needling from any other foreign leader."
Charles Bohlen, the American ambassador in Paris, played a significant role in convincing Johnson to avoid a public confrontation with de Gaulle. In a memorandum sent soon after LBJ took office, Bohlen made note ofthe general's almost complete control over French foreign policy and recommended "great care in the avoidance of any derogatory statements in regard to de Gaulle which he will be able to use for his own purposes." Bohlen was convinced that de Gaulle, whom he described as "highly egocentric with touches indeed of megalomania," actually wanted strained relations with the United States. The general, Bohlen argued, viewed the nation as the only real international unit. He therefore disliked any form of integration or other association that watered down the sovereignty of the country; consequently, it was natural that he would stress the independence of France on all matters. It followed that the United States would be playing into de Gaulle's hands if it confronted him, whether on Vietnam or on any of the other issues that plagued Franco-American relations in the 1960s. The ambassador would later claim that it was he who convinced the president to "avoid fighting de Gaulle."
If American policymakers agreed among themselves on the need to avoid a dramatic showdown with de Gaulle, they also agreed that he could not be ignored. The Johnson administration was no less determined than the Kennedy team had been to use diplomatic channels to bring forth a change in Paris's Vietnam policy. In mid December, Ambassador Bohlen met with French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville, and Rusk met with de Gaulle while in Paris for the annual North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting, to once again explain American policy and urge a French disavowal of neutralization. They got nowhere. Couve and de Gaulle insisted that U.S. policy was destined to fail and that only negotiations presented a viable solution to the conflict. To the administration's chagrin, that message continued to find support. The esteemed columnist Walter Lippmann, who was to become a leading proponent of negotiations, extolled the general's plan in a column in the Washington Post syndicate. Mansfield, backed by Russell, again urged Johnson to solicit French help in securing a settlement even if the possibility of getting it offered "only a faint glimmer of hope." And the New York Times, read not only by leaders in Washington but also by those in Saigon and Hanoi, invoked de Gaulle in editorializing that "a negotiated settlement and 'neutralization' of Vietnam are not to be ruled out."
The administration did rule them out, and nothing demonstrated that more starkly than its reaction to events in another place where de Gaulle's influence was deemed to be great: Cambodia. U.S.-Cambodian relations had grown increasingly strained in 1963, largely as a result of the neutralist policy followed by Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk had since the mid 1950s accepted American military aid, but he was from the start distrustful of Washington's intentions in Southeast Asia and highly skeptical that the U.S.-backed government in neighboring South Vietnam could ever achieve a victory over the insurgents. Sihanouk's policy of taking American aid and yet distancing himself from Washington's policies made a good deal of sense; it allowed him to equip his armed forces, balance Cambodia's budget, and simultaneously neutralize the appeal of anti-American left-wing Khmers. Nor did the policy hurt him with Cambodian public opinion in general, which tended to fully share his mistrust of the United States. The policy did, however, lead to increasingly strained relations with the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Concerned about the prince's drift toward what U.S. officials called "pro-communist neutrality," Washington sought noncommunist forces to act as a counterweight to him. Sihanouk, for his part, blamed the United States for the conflict in Vietnam, which by the early 1960s was encroaching on his own borders, and he increasingly resented American interference in Cambodian affairs.
By the late autumn of 1963, Sihanouk was ready to break from Washington. Two developments in particular propelled him. The first was de Gaulle's effort, begun in August, to de-Americanize Southeast Asia. Sihanouk had long been an admirer of the French president, and he welcomed the idea of neutralization for South Vietnam, particularly because such a plan might eventually spread to include Cambodia. Second, the prince was deeply affected by the overthrow and killing of the Ngo brothers. He had never been close to Diem and Nhu, but their assassinations confirmed his belief that the United States could not be trusted. On 19 November, Sihanouk renounced American military and economic aid and requested a curtailment of diplomatic relations. He knew that France and China would approve of theseactions, and he hoped that Paris and Beijing would step in and providea good chunk of the aid he had been getting from Washington. Then, on 30 November, Sihanouk went one step further, invoking de Gaulle's name in calling for a conference to neutralize Cambodia under international guarantees. Sihanouk said that he would welcome the creation of a federation of neutralized Indochinese states.
These actions came as a shock to American policymakers. Vietnam had long since superseded Cambodia in terms of importance to them, and they had failed to perceive the depth of Sihanouk's hostility to the growing U.S. presence in the region. There was also a good dose of ethnocentrism in American assumptions about the prince; as David Chandler has noted, U.S. officials "ignored the possibility that Sihanouk's neutralist policies might be less dangerous for Cambodia than a full-blown alliance with the United States." But if developments in Cambodia were of decidedly secondary importance to Americans, Washington was nevertheless profoundly concerned by Sihanouk's actions, precisely because of their likely impact on the situation in Vietnam. Sihanouk's timing could not have been worse—he had chosen to act at the very time these advisers were trying to convince Johnson of the need for a more aggressive American policy in Vietnam and at the very time political instability in Saigon was rising.
For this reason, Sihanouk's request for a conference on Cambodia was especially disconcerting. The initial public American response to the announcement in Phnom Penh was one of support for the idea of a conference, but policymakers were privately anything but enthusiastic, fearing that such a gathering would inevitably increase support for a similar one for Vietnam. Henry Cabot Lodge, concerned that his superiors might agree to Sihanouk's request, pressed this theme of inevitability in several cables. On 3 December, after conceding that he was "unable to predict [the] new GVN's reaction to [the] specific Cambodian neutrality proposal," Lodge warned that if the United States agreed to sit down at a table with communist powers to discuss threats to Cambodian neutrality and territorial integrity from its neighbors, "we shall undermine the confidence of the new Vietnamese leadership in the firmness of our purpose here and play into the hands of the advocates of neutralism in South Vietnam."
Lodge must have thought about the issue further that night, for the next day he dispatched another message to Washington. "The more I think about the proposed conference on Cambodia," he said, "the more disastrous I think it would be...It is inconceivable to me that a conference like this could do other than foment and encourage the neutralism which is always present in varying degrees here in South Vietnam...Obviously, any encouragement of neutralism must impair the war effort." Lest there be any doubt of his position, the ambassador stressed that "this emphatically is not the time even to discuss the question of unifying North and South Vietnam." It would be "most imprudent" to consider unification until the South was in a position of superior strength at the conference table, and "obviously this state of affairs is not now even in sight." Sounding a familiar refrain, the ambassador warned of the certainty of France's participation at any conference and of the French desire to "hamper all of our major policy objectives" in Vietnam. He wondered "why we should hand them this juicy favor by putting them into the game."
Lodge's sense of alarm was fully shared in Washington. A State Department cable instructed him to "categorically, and in [a] manner most likely to convince them, say to the generals that the U.S. government in no way favors neutral solution for South Vietnam." The cable noted that "powerful voices" such as Lippmann and the New York Times had been pressing for such a solution, but emphasized that the U.S. government, "from the top down," was committed to a "win-the-war policy." In a "for your information only" conclusion, the department reported "little disposition" in Washington for attending a conference on Cambodia and expressed confidence that one would not be held. The task would be to convince Britain and France, who were inclined to agree to Sihanouk's proposal, "of the dangers inherent in a conference."
An internal report prepared for Secretary of State Rusk took a similar line. "With respect to South Vietnam," the report read, "an even broader question arises—the possibility that a conference neutralizing Cambodia under international guarantees would add pressure for a similar arrangement for Vietnam." Even if Sihanouk were to refrain from using the occasion to press for neutralizing South Vietnam, this did not lessen the possibility that it would be used by others as a precedent for such proposals. The report did not mention who the "others" might be, but administrationofficials were particularly concerned about the proconference noises coming out of London and Moscow—the British and Soviets had been cochairsof the 1954 Geneva conference, and their endorsement would greatly improve the odds of a conference coming off. Washington officials moved quickly to dissuade them from doing so. The Soviets were unreceptive. On 16 December, six days after U.S. ambassador Foy Kohler, on State Department instructions, had inquired if the Kremlin could be "induced" tocooperate in avoiding a Cambodia conference that could cause "serious problems" for the United States and South Vietnam, Soviet officials told Washington that the USSR had decided to accept Sihanouk's proposal and was awaiting word from London. On that very day, as it turned out, Rusk met with British officials in Paris to discuss Cambodia and convey American concerns.
His words had the desired effect. Britain chose not to press for a conference, despite the prevailing opinion among senior officials in London that such a meeting should be convened. Not for the first time, and not for the last, Britain gave top priority to its desire for good relations with Washington. In the first days of December, London officials made several internal arguments in favor of a conference: that it would soothe Sihanouk's ego and keep him from drifting closer to Beijing; that it could stabilize Cambodia's relations with its neighbors; and that, if nothing else, it would "give usa breathing space of many months while the conference is deliberating." These officials did not deny that the talks at such a conference could well end up including the Vietnam conflict, and some saw this as yet another reason to view the prospect favorably. "If there is any likelihood at all (asI think there is) that we might want to consider an international conference for Vietnam during 1964," James E. Cable of the Foreign Office wrote, "then this is a further argument for persisting in our present policy of keeping the door open for a conference on Cambodia. One of the main American objections to this policy—that it would encourage people to regard a conference as a solution for Vietnam as well—could turn into one of the strongest supporting arguments if it became clear that military victory in Vietnam was impossible." There was a world of difference, of course, between "keeping the door open" for a conference and actually working to get one; the British government, to Washington's relief, chose the former position.
Lodge was not satisfied. His doubts about the Minh regime's commitment to the war had not abated, and he implored Washington to issue a definitive rejection of Sihanouk's proposal. He warned that, without such a rejection, "there is going to remain in Viet-Nam a large residue of doubt about our ultimate intentions. And this doubt will inevitably have a bad effect on the determination of the new Vietnamese leadership to pursue the war effort vigorously." Lodge used a specific example to buttress his point. He reported that the government's minister of security, General Ton That Dinh, "is so concerned over Sihanouk's conference proposal that heis considering how to accommodate himself to a neutral solution for Vietnam." The State Department responded immediately. It instructed the ambassador to "make a special effort to reassure Dinh and others who may also be concerned. Nothing is further from USG [the U.S. government's] mind than [a] 'neutral solution for Vietnam.' We intend to win."
So determined was Johnson to hammer home that message to the Saigon leadership that he opted to send Defense Secretary McNamara to do so in person. The United States was not doing all it should in the war, the president lectured McNamara in ordering him to go to South Vietnam directly from the NATO meeting in Paris. McNamara's task would be to give Johnson a fresh view of the state of the war and lay the groundwork for an expanded campaign against North Vietnam. Even more important, however, was the need to counter the growing clamor for a conference-table settlement for Vietnam and the need to convince the Minh regime that such a solution must be resisted. In a memo to McGeorge Bundy, the NSC's Michael Forrestal succinctly summarized the rationale for the trip, reporting that he had just cleared a cable to Lodge "telling him that we are against neutralism and want to win the war, and that is why McNamara is coming out."
This deep fear among American officials of indigenous South Vietnam neutralism is a predominant theme in the internal record in these weeks, as it would be right up through the Americanization of the war in 1965. But what did the concept of "neutralism" mean in the South Vietnamese context at that particular time? Here it is necessary to distinguish between, on the one hand, neutralism as a conscious political line that would seek to steer a middle path between both East and West, and, on the other, a less political and less coherent attitude springing from weariness of war and lengthy suffering at the hands of both sides. By all accounts it was the latter of these variations that mushroomed in the South near the end of 1963 and caused such trepidation in Washington. The concern was well founded. "Intense and increasingly hopeless war-weariness certainly prevails among the great bulk of the peasantry, who ache to be free of theincreasing demands made on them by both the Government and the Viet Cong," the British ambassador cabled London a few days before McNamara arrived. "The peasants do not want Communism, but if the Government cannot protect them they will support the Communists. There is no middle way." French officials likewise found evidence of an epidemic of war-weariness and speculated that the euphoria in many quarters immediately after the Diem coup resulted from expectations that the war would soon end. These assessments jibed with what American officials in Saigon were learning.
McNamara arrived in Saigon on the afternoon of 18 December and was immediately rushed into meetings on the situation in the field. What he heard confirmed the administration's worst fears. The enemy controlled ever greater sections of the countryside. Strategic hamlets were overrunor in ruins. (The McNamara team asked to visit one district where eighteen hamlets were said to be functioning and the general area pacified; the visit was discouraged on the grounds that safety could not be ensured. When the team pressed to visit at least one hamlet, it emerged that not one ofthe eighteen in fact existed.) In the northern Mekong Delta, the Vietcong roamed with impunity by night. Even during the day, they had effective control over many densely populated rural areas, notably in Long An and Dinh Tuong provinces. In the four northern provinces and in Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh, as well, the insurgents were gaining. In Saigon, meanwhile, the government was ineffectual and badly divided. The news proved for McNamara what he had been fearing for several weeks: that the optimistic appraisals provided to him by Harkins earlier in the fall had been wrong, and that the Kennedy team's one-thousand-man withdrawal plan had been based on false reports. John McCone, who accompanied McNamara on the trip, began his report of the visit with the stark observation, "There is no organized government in South Vietnam at this time." McCone bemoaned the absence of leadership in Saigon and concluded with the comment that the war effort probably could not succeed "under present programs and with moderate extensions to existing programs."
The grim findings did not affect McNamara's determination to pursue the war effort. Before departing South Vietnam he told Saigon government leaders of the need to step up military activity, in part through increased covert activity against the North. Neutralism was not the answer, he assured them, because any negotiation for neutralism was actually negotiation for servitude. Privately, however, McNamara clearly feared the prospect of some kind of early settlement among the warring parties—on his return to Washington, he informed Johnson that the situation was "very disturbing. Current trends, unless reversed in the next 2—3 months, will lead to neutralization at best and more likely a Communist-controlled state."
Thus, less than a month after taking office, the Johnson administration faced a problem of mammoth proportions in Vietnam. On the military side, the immediate outlook was grim. On the political side, it was not much better—ambivalence and drift remained words that aptly described the Minh government's approach to governance. Equally disturbing—and a direct result of the political and military situations—was that a political settlement to the conflict was finding increasing favor in the international community, in the United States, and in South Vietnam. De Gaulle's position on the war continued to gain adherents in December, and Norodom Sihanouk's conference proposal was received with sympathy by several key governments worldwide. In the United States, the voices expressing sympathy for a negotiated settlement were in the minority, but they were influential—notably Walter Lippmann and the New York Times in the press community, and Mike Mansfield and William Fulbright on Capitol Hill. In South Vietnam, neutralism had gained significant appeal among many in the war-weary general population, among elements of the Buddhist leadership, and evidently among some in the Minh government. The NLF also professed to support the concept on several occasions in November and December.
Among America's Vietnam policymakers, however, there were no such sentiments. Robert McNamara's position was made clear in the last part of his mission report. He wrote: "We should watch the situation very carefully, running scared, hoping for the best, but preparing for more forceful moves if the situation does not show early signs of improvement." John McCone, while noting that there were more reasons to be pessimistic than optimistic, advised standing firm in the war. And Dean Rusk, in a memohe delivered personally to the president at the LBJ Ranch on 27 December, counseled steadfastness and suggested the need for a presidential letter to Duong Van Minh. The letter, Rusk advised, should stress "the urgency of action to reverse the adverse trend in the war as well as reaffirming the United States policy of complete support for the Vietnamese government." He noted that "public uneasiness and confusion in both the United States and Vietnam" necessitated an authoritative statement of American war aims and policy on neutralization.
Johnson needed no convincing. He fully shared his aides' determination to find a winning formula in Saigon. "If we can have victory in Vietnam there will be praise enough for all of us," he said in a year-end letter to Lodge. "So I rely on you to do all in your power to achieve it, and to be alert and demanding in telling all of us in Washington how and what more we can do to help." In his New Year's Eve letter to Minh, Johnson said that the U.S. government "shares the view of your government that 'neutralization' of South Vietnam is unacceptable," because it "would only be another name for a Communist take-over." More portentously, given that the letter was also released to the press, LBJ gave Minh a "pledge" that the United States "will continue to furnish you and your people with the fullest measure of support in this bitter fight."
If Johnson needed any further assurance on the dangers of compromise, the blistering attacks on neutralization delivered to him in early January 1964 by his three principal foreign-policy advisers, McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy, no doubt sufficed. The pretext for their onslaught was a second memorandum from Mansfield to the president that favored such a solution. After reiterating many of the points of his earlier effort, the majority leader suggested that there should be less talk of American responsibility in Vietnam and more talk of the Vietnamese themselves and that there should be a great deal of thought given to the possibilities of a negotiated solution. "We are close," he warned Johnson, "to the point of no return in Vietnam."
The ferocity with which the trio of top officials countered Mansfield's claims is stark evidence of their concerns about his influence on Capitol Hill and about the growth in pronegotiation sentiment in general, both at home and abroad. Bundy warned Johnson on 6 January that moving in the direction of withdrawal by way of neutralization would mean:
a)A rapid collapse of anti-communist forces in South Vietnam, anda unification of the whole country on Communist terms. b)Neutrality in Thailand, and increased influence for Hanoi and Peking.
c)Collapse of the anti-Communist position in Laos.
d)Heavy pressure on Malaya and Malaysia [sic].
e)A shift toward neutrality in Japan and the Philippines.
f)Blows to U.S. prestige in South Korea and Taiwan which wouldrequire compensating increases in American commitment there—or else further retreat.
Bundy did not neglect the potential domestic implications. He warned ominously that if the United States followed Mansfield's advice and moved toward neutralization, that move would be seen as a "betrayal" by "all anti-communist Vietnamese," and "there are enough of them to lose us an election." In a second, shorter, memo three days later, Bundy, referring to himself as an "ex-historian," noted that Harry Truman had suffered politically from the fall of China because most Americans came to believe that he could and should have done more than he did to prevent it. "That isexactly what would happen now if we seem to be the first to quit in Saigon...When we are stronger, then we can face negotiation."
The same concerns dominated the McNamara and Rusk memoranda. In the longer of the two, the secretary of defense echoed many of Bundy's claims and bluntly told the president that any deal to neutralize South Vietnam would inevitably mean "a new government in Saigon that would in short order become Communist-dominated." That result, in turn, would create a "serious problem" not only for the rest of Southeast Asia but also for the United States and its position in Asia and the world. Therefore, McNamara concluded apocalyptically, "the stakes in preserving an anti-communist South Vietnam are so high that, in our judgment, we must go on bending every effort to win." For his part, Rusk called the neutralization proposal "a phony" and argued that negotiations should not be undertaken until the South was in a much stronger position militarily.
Johnson received similar warnings from two others whose opinions he respected. The State Department's Walt Rostow, in a memorandum addressed to Rusk but intended also for the president, cautioned that three forces were converging and could cause the "greatest setback to U.S. interest on the world scene in many years." The first force was the rise in the South "of a popular mood" that "a neutralized South Vietnam was the only way out," the second was a "spread of neutralist thought in Thailand as well as Cambodia," and the third was de Gaulle's campaign "to encourage neutralist feeling in Southeast Asia." Rostow encouraged Johnson to initiate "a direct political-military showdown with Hanoi" and to renounce any attempt at imposing communist-inspired neutralism. Theodore Sorensen, one of Kennedy's top aides, advised Johnson to reject Mansfield's analysis. He warned that neutralization would lead to a communist takeover of Vietnam, a weakening of American prestige and security in Asia, and domestic political trouble for Democrats.
Three decades later Robert McNamara would express regret at the "limited and shallow" nature of these arguments against neutralization or withdrawal at the start of 1964 and would acknowledge that they demonstrated graphically the unalterable American opposition to any kind of early negotiated settlement in Vietnam. But the analyses also revealed something else: the continuing American fear that the momentum for such a settlement might become too great to stop. The neutralization proposals put forth by Charles de Gaulle and Norodom Sihanouk were vague, but Americans knew that this vagueness was precisely why the concept might appeal to many in South Vietnam and elsewhere. And indeed, as 1964 began, reports flowing into Washington pointed to increased neutralist sentiment in various parts of South Vietnamese society. Where Minh and other top leaders stood on the issue remained uncertain to U.S. officials, but the junta's continuing emphasis on the political struggle was cause for alarm, as was the MRC's ambivalence about an increased American presence in the South. In meetings with Lodge in early January, Minh made clear that he was troubled by the U.S. commitment envisaged in Washington. On 10 January, Lodge reported that Minh and Le Van Kim had told him of the "extreme undesirability" of American advisers going into villages and districts, because they would be perceived as "more imperialistic than the French" and would add weight to charges that the Saigon government was an American "lackey." Minh also objected to the scope of a joint U.S.-MRC "brain trust" proposed by officials in Washington. He was, according to Lodge, loath to follow up on the proposal and refused to view it as a businesslike proposal.
Despite Minh's ambivalence (or because of it) the Johnson administration pushed ahead with the "more forceful moves" that McNamara had hinted at in his 21 December report. On 2 January, an interdepartmental committee that was formed to study the proposed Oplan 34-A issued its report to Johnson. The report recommended the implementation of the plan, which, by "progressively escalating pressure...to inflict increasing punishment upon North Vietnam," might convince Hanoi "to desist from its aggressive policies." The plan was to be directed by the military and was to consist of three phases over the next calendar year, each phase progressively more punitive. Top administration officials doubted that the measures would cause Hanoi to cease its support for the Vietcong, but they counseled Johnson to approve the plan nonetheless. He obliged, signing off on the scheme on 16 January.
That Lyndon Johnson was as committed to achieving victory in Vietnam as his predecessor was not lost on leaders in North Vietnam. They had greeted the events of November 1963—first the overthrow of Diem, then the death of Kennedy—with mixed feelings. The coup against Diem was certainly a victory for the revolution, validating Hanoi's long-standing assertion that his government was corrupt and unresponsive to the people. And yet North Vietnamese leaders knew that for that very reason his ouster could also pose a problem, because if Diem was widely believed to be responsible for what was wrong in South Vietnam, it followed that his successors would be welcomed as heroes. Nor could northern leaders predict the reaction of the United States to the changes in Saigon. Initial hopes that Washington would accept the inevitability of defeat and withdraw from the South soon disappeared, as the Kennedy administration moved quickly to announce its support for the Minh government and the war effort. When Johnson advanced to the presidency three weeks later, he wasted no time affirming his intention to stand firm in Vietnam.
These developments necessitated a change in strategy, North Vietnamese officials decided. In December 1963, at the Vietnamese Workers' Party (Lao Dong) Central Committee meeting in Hanoi, leaders expressed satisfaction with the current state of developments in the South, in particular with the low morale of the Saigon regime's armed forces. At the same time, they anticipated that Johnson would probably continue and, if necessary, expand the Kennedy commitment. Because the Vietcong would be hard pressed to overcome such a challenge alone, it was necessary to increase the matériel and personnel assistance to the NLF and to press the NLF to increase its political agitation and military operations against the Saigon government. Hanoi leaders made these decisions not because they saw a military confrontation involving large-scale units as inevitable but because they hoped a forceful response would prevent such a confrontation from occurring. Their fundamental objective remained unchanged: to prevent an Americanization of the conflict. For that reason, they continued to look favorably upon a negotiated settlement that would allow an American withdrawal from South Vietnam. Resolution 9 of the meeting spoke of the possibility that the revolution might have to go through a lengthy period of "complex forms and methods" of struggle before victory was attained, which William Duiker has called "an obvious allusion to the possibility of a negotiated settlement." Final victory would be reached via an incremental "step-by-step" process, a "transition period" of uncertain length.
American intelligence was not unaware of these North Vietnamese attitudes with respect to a diplomatic settlement. A mid-January report prepared for Dean Rusk by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligenceand Research argued that although Hanoi was unlikely to actively seek aconference-table solution to the war under present conditions, it was not opposed to one. The report noted that Premier Pham Van Dong had in November expressed gratitude for de Gaulle's pronouncement as a reaffirmation of French support for the Geneva agreements, and that Hanoi had greeted Sihanouk's conference proposal sympathetically. Given their bitter memories of the 1954 negotiations and their concerns about appearing too eager for diplomacy, northern leaders would be unlikely to press for a settlement unless it became "clear that the United States was seeking a graceful exit from its commitments to the GVN." Alternatively, the report continued, "should pressure for neutralization develop among non-communist powers, in a situation where Hanoi feels the Vietcong has been stalemated, the North Vietnamese might see such a settlement as a relatively cheap method of removing the United States from the scene."
Rusk was no doubt comforted by the prediction that Hanoi was unlikely to press for negotiations in the immediate future, particularly given that he and other U.S. officials had their hands full in mid and late January dealing with others who were pushing for such a solution. De Gaulle remained the main problem. His name continued to be invoked whenever the subject of negotiations came up in the United States and South Vietnam, and he showed no signs of acceding to American requests to adopt a lower profile on the war. In fact, as 1964 began he moved closer to an action designed in part to increase his presence in the Vietnam picture: recognition of Communist China. It was not a sudden development. During the previous year, Beijing and Paris had moved closer together; since mid 1963, in particular, contacts between them had accelerated, culminating in an October 1963 visit to China by former French premier Edgar Faure. De Gaulle's motives were complex. On a most basic level, he believed that it was unrealistic to ignore the existence of a rising power in Asia. Chiang Kai-Shek's band of aging generals was unlikely ever to set foot on the mainland again, he knew, and in opting for recognition he was simply following the path Britain had cut more than a decade before. De Gaulle also felt strongly that the Chinese had adopted communism not out of ideological conviction but as a way of disciplining and organizing their vast country and that the clear conflict between Beijing and Moscow guaranteed the independence of Chinese foreign policy. In addition, there can be no doubt that de Gaulle was motivated by the situation in Southeast Asia. He believed that China had to be part of any lasting settlement to the war, and he hoped that closer ties with Beijing, when combined with French historical ties to both Vietnam and the United States, might allow Paris to play a mediating role in settling the conflict, in the process boosting French influence in Southeast Asia.
American intelligence had known of the increased Sino-French contacts for some months but had misjudged both the contacts' seriousness and the American administration's ability to dissuade the French from going as far as recognition—as late as mid December 1963, after Rusk's meeting with de Gaulle in Paris, Washington believed that French recognition of Beijing was unlikely until late 1964 at the earliest. In the days and weeks that followed, however, speculation increased that France was getting ready to move, perhaps before the end of January.
The possibility made American policymakers shudder. Already alarmed by the level of Gaullist involvement in the Vietnam conflict, they knew that the China initiative would likely raise it still further. Equally important, French recognition of China would deliver a direct blow to their much-trumpeted rationale for standing tough in Vietnam: checking expansionist Chinese ambitions in Southeast Asia. U.S. officials were not unaware of the mistrust that existed between Hanoi and Beijing; they understood that, helpful though it might be, Chinese material assistance and verbal support to the North were not yet instrumental. They also thought that Beijing would try to avoid a major confrontation with the West over Indochina. Nevertheless, many officials insisted that China had aggressive designs on its southern neighbors and that it would try to exploit any far-ranging and rapid change in the region's status quo. As it had with Kennedy, the notion of credibility played a key role here. Many in the Johnson administration declared that standing up to China was a test of American resolve, one that could decisively influence the attitudes of both friends and foes in Asia and across the world. French recognition of China would demonstrate to the world that de Gaulle disagreed. Recognition would signify a rejection not only of the contention that Beijing had expansionist aims in Southeast Asia, but also of the idea that Vietnam was vital to western security. As had been the case with the French leader's August 1963 proposal, American officials were particularly incensed by de Gaulle's timing. Rumors of endemic war-weariness and neutralist sentiment in Saigon had been gaining momentum for weeks in early January 1964, and U.S. decision makers did not doubt that a Paris-Beijing rapprochement would strengthen the momentum for an early negotiated settlement and inevitably fuel speculation that the West's opposition to Chinese support of Hanoi was diminishing.
Lyndon Johnson and his top aides knew the task before them: to persuade de Gaulle to abandon his plan, or at least delay implementing it until the situation in Vietnam had stabilized. On 3 January, Rusk instructed Bohlen to seek an appointment with the general as soon as possible to convey American concerns and elicit a promise from him to discuss the issue with Washington before proceeding with recognition. De Gaulle, it turned out, was away from the capital, so Bohlen met with Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville. He did not get the response he wanted. Couve told him that no military victory was possible for the West in Indochina and that France therefore supported the neutralization of the whole region, including Thailand. The foreign minister did not object to the American desire to keep Vietnam divided, but he said that any long-term division could come only by way of negotiation, not by military force. French recognition of China, he insisted, would enhance the prospect of successful neutralization.
Couve's intransigence was highly discouraging to Bohlen and policymakers in Washington, and they were uncertain how to proceed. Some favored a letter from Johnson to de Gaulle, on the grounds that only direct presidential intervention could induce the general to reconsider. Rusk appeared to endorse this view, as did Undersecretary of State for Political AffairsW. Averell Harriman, who told Rusk that de Gaulle had "to be faced up with the fact that if he recognizes Red China this year he will do so in direct opposition to the wishes of the President of the United States." But others, including Bohlen and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, were not certain that a presidential communication would do any good; experience had shown, they believed, that the French president did not respond to that kind of pressure, and an unsuccessful effort would reflect badly on Johnson. "You yourself will want to be in a position to shrug this off if it happens," Bundy counseled the president. Instead, the State Department should continue to press for a delay until 1965 and should "generate as many expressions of concern to Paris from other countries aspossible."
The Bundy argument won the day. Johnson evidently shared Bundy's concern that all efforts to persuade de Gaulle might fail and that, therefore, he should avoid any personal involvement. It soon proved to be an accurate assessment—by the middle of January, despite continued State Department pressure to prevent it, all signs pointed to a French announcement of recognition before the end of the month. U.S. officials quickly shifted to a second objective: to convince allies and the Minh government that de Gaulle's China initiative would not alter American commitments in Vietnam. Key U.S. embassies were instructed to emphasize that the administration intended to stand firm and that French thinking on the situation was mistaken. The administration's pos ition was represented by Undersecretary of State George Ball in a White House conversation with Canadian external affairs minister Paul Martin on January 22. Ball said that French recognition of China would "upset a few apple carts" and would lead to increased speculation in South Vietnam that neutralization was in the offing, but would not diminish U.S. determination to help the Vietnamese achieve a victory over communism. A neutralist solution was no solution at all, Ball maintained, and would serve only to facilitate a takeover by China. When Martin asked about Washington's view of the proposed Cambodia conference, Ball's response was blunt: the administration did not want one but had to be careful not to appear directly opposed to Sihanouk's proposal.
Top American officials took the same hard line in nondiplomatic venues. On 22 January, Rusk told an audience at Barnard College that the United States was in Vietnam to fulfill its obligation in the struggle against communism and that "no new conference or agreement [on Vietnam] is needed. All that is needed is for the North Vietnamese to abandon their aggression." Five days later, McNamara, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, told members that the situation in South Vietnam "continues grave" but that "the survival of an independent Government in South Vietnam is so important to the security of all Southeast Asia and to the free world that I can conceive of no alternative other than to take all necessary measures within our capability to prevent a communist victory." He emphasized that the year-end, one-thousand-man withdrawal decided upon in October 1963 had never been intended as a first step in an irrevocable withdrawal from Vietnam—withdrawal had always been, and would continue to be, contingent upon the battlefield situation.
The administration understood perfectly well that none of these affirmations of American determination would mean anything unless the South Vietnamese were persuaded that neutralization was disastrous and that the U.S. support for the war remained firm. Already uncertain about the Minh government's commitment to a military solution, the Johnson team worried about the impact that de Gaulle's China initiative might have on its thinking. By mid January, Saigon was awash in rumors involving de Gaulle, Beijing, and Indochina. On 18 January, an Agence France Presse (AFP) article that was widely circulated in Saigon said that France planned to use its impending recognition of China to bring about a negotiated settlement in Indochina. The article equated American actions in the war with those of the Vietcong and North Vietnam and called a cease-fire an essential first step on the road to peace. Lodge was outraged. He moved quickly "to repudiate French plans to recognize Peiping and the whole line of thought contained in the AFP article." On 21 January, he met with the top Saigon leaders, including Minh, Prime Minister Nguyen Ngo Tho, Foreign Minister Pham Dang Lam, and General Le Van Kim. The ambassador assured them that Lyndon Johnson was committed to their struggle and had no interest in any solution proposed by Paris. Indeed, so determined was the president, Lodge pointed out, that he had approved "a plan for expanded operations against North Vietnam [Oplan 34-A]."
Lodge was evidently uncertain about the junta members' reaction to his comments, because he gave contradictory reports of the meeting. In the first, submitted the same day, he conceded that the South Vietnamese had criticized the rationale behind Oplan 34-A (most significantly, they rejected the notion that bombing would demoralize the North) but said that he "had the sense" that Tho and Kim were disturbed by the AFP article and byde Gaulle's plans, and he remarked that Minh was "greatly reassured and relieved that we did not take the French maneuvers too seriously." However, in recalling the meeting some ten days later (after the junta had been ousted from power), the ambassador wondered about the eagerness with which Minh and the others had wanted to discuss de Gaulle and neutralization. General Kim, in particular, had been "obviously eager to discuss it," and Lodge now wondered if it might have been because Kim supported such a solution. Similar concerns shaped Lodge's continuing opposition to a conference on Cambodia. On 21 and 23 January, he urged his superiors to resolutely oppose "Sihanouk and his 'neutrality conference,'" on the grounds that any sympathy for the idea would sap "the will to win" in Saigon.
The unceasing American concern about an absence of will among the South Vietnamese and their leaders pointed to the fundamental problem the United States continued to face in Vietnam: finding a government committed to producing political stability in Saigon and to waging war against the Vietcong. Doubts about the Minh regime's determination on both counts (and about the Diem regime before it) had existed since it came to power; now, some ten weeks later, a growing number of Americans in South Vietnam, particularly in the military, were convinced that the commitment was not there and that new leadership had to be found. In mid January 1964, many of these officials believed that they had found such leadership in the figure of General Nguyen Khanh, widely regarded as the most hawkish and pro-American military officer in the South. Ambitious and unscrupulous, Khanh had supported the coup against Diem but had turned against the new government when Minh failed to appoint him to a key post in the MRC. Khanh saw a chance to advance his cause by spreading word around Saigon that Paris was behind a conspiracy to bring to power a procommunist South Vietnamese government that would carry out de Gaulle's call for neutralization. On 28 January, a day after the French Foreign Office announced that France would establish diplomatic relations with China, Khanh informed American officials that the key Vietnamese in this plot were Don and Kim, both of whom had served in French colonial administrations, and Mai Huu Xuan. Khanh charged that, along with Minh, they were "pro-French and pro-neutralist" and that they firmly supported de Gaulle's plans. As proof, he noted that Don had recently held a dinner for two Gaullist deputies from the French National Assembly and had invited Minh and Kim.
The CIA's Saigon station gave considerable credence to these claims. It noted that Foreign Minister Lam had recently returned from Paris, where he was reportedly "empowered, presumably by the French, to spend [a] substantial sum (two billion piastres) to achieve neutralization of SVN [South Vietnam]"; that an American observer had witnessed numerous military vehicles bringing weapons and ammunition to Xuan's headquarters; and that a top South Vietnamese military man, Major General Le Van Nghiem, had charged that Kim and Don, as well as their associates Nguyen Van Vy and Duong Van Duc, were pro-French and privately in favor of neutralization. Just how much validity to grant these reports was difficult to determine, the agency continued. Personal disgruntlement and ambition on the part of Khanh and Nghiem might be important, but the phenomenon appeared larger than these two men, as evidenced by the "noticeable rise in uneasiness, rumor-mongering, and political maneuvering" in recent days. The neutralization issue and de Gaulle's China initiative, along with the continuing political confusion in Saigon, had fueled the restiveness, and the CIA pledged to watch the situation closely. The report concluded by returning to Khanh and his allegations against Minh, Don, and Kim: "It is possible that he feels this alleged [neutralist] tendency on their part is becoming so pronounced that he and his like-minded military associates must act to prevent a neutral solution."
Khanh repeated his claims in a meeting with Lodge on 29 January. Though the ambassador had little if any prior awareness about the plans for a coup (four days earlier, he had suggested that Johnson send a letter of encouragement to Minh), he was sympathetic and urged Washington to warn France that neutralization for Vietnam was not a good idea and would not be allowed to happen. Indeed, even before meeting Khanh, Lodge had suggested that Washington tell de Gaulle that the United States had secret information indicating that people "purporting to be under the strong influence of the French government" were working "directly against U.S. vital interests in Viet-Nam" and that de Gaulle should "call off his dogs."
Lodge's superiors rejected the suggestion, telling him that Franco-American relations had declined to a level where any "approach to [de Gaulle] would be fruitless." But Lodge was undaunted—after meeting Khanh, he again recommended telling the French president that the United States had reports of "French neutralist plot, French money, and French agents" and that he should cease his activities. The ambassador said that Khanh thought a move toward neutralism by the Minh regime was very likely within the next day or two and that, given the war-weariness among the Vietnamese, including among junior ARVN officers, the move might very well succeed unless "vigorously crushed." Lodge was impressed by what he heard. In his cable, he noted that Khanh was considered the "most capable general in Vietnam," with a reputation for political shrewdness. "I continue to believe that Generals Don and Kim are patriotic Vietnamese," Lodge concluded, "but General Khanh's reputation for perspicacity gives me pause."
But perhaps the surest sign that the American ambassador to South Vietnam was sympathetic to a coup was his decision not to tell the Minh government of his conversation with Khanh. It proved a fateful decision, because less than twelve hours later, in a hastily executed action, Khanh and a group of officers toppled the three-month-old government. Khanh and other sources in Saigon told American officials the same day that the coup was intended to save South Vietnam from a neutral settlement like the ones suggested by de Gaulle and Sihanouk. The settlement, Khanh said, was to have coincided with France's recognition of China and would have been announced by Minh on 31 January or in the first few days of February.
In Washington, administration officials followed the unfolding events in Saigon with rapt attention. When news of the coup reached the White House in the late afternoon on 29 January, Washington time, the immediate reaction was one of satisfaction that a new leader had taken over, along with concern that the United States would be implicated. The Minh junta's alleged sympathy for neutralization figured prominently in the administration's analysis. In relaying the news to Johnson via telephone, Acting Secretary of State George Ball said that Khanh had moved to thwart Xuan and Kim, "who have been flirting with the French on the neutralist line," and to convince Prime Minister Tho to "take a much stronger anti-neutralist line." If the coup succeeded, Ball told the president, "it is probably a good thing." Ball had scarcely hung up with Johnson when his phone rang. It was Robert McNamara.
MCNAMARA: What's going on in Saigon? BALL: I don't know. The best that we can read is that this fellow Khanh is in control of the situation. He is more our boy than the other side.
MCNAMARA: He's the ablest of the generals in my opinion.
BALL: It looks as though it may be a bloodless one. [And?] thathe'll get rid of these boys that were allegedly flirting withthe French. Now whether he has achieved this or not Idon't know.
The two men agreed on the need for the administration to "play stupid" on the developments—Washington, they felt, should "not know of this until the story actually breaks out of Vietnam." Ball instructed aide Ted Clifton to get the word out: the United States knew nothing about the coup and had played no part in it. He then cabled Lodge with the same directive.
That American officials should at once welcome the coup and want to distance themselves from it is not difficult to understand. They perceived the potential public-relations problem of a second coup in South Vietnam so soon after the first, with inevitable questions about U.S. involvement and about extending recognition to a regime that had just forcibly taken power from a U.S.-supported government. At the same time, the problems that had characterized the Diem regime had not appreciably lessened under Minh; many, indeed, had grown more severe. General Khanh was committed to the war, and he appeared willing to allow a greater American presence in the war effort and in South Vietnam than Duong Van Minh and his cohorts had been. He also appeared resolutely opposed to neutralization. Though there is little evidence that the Minh regime was "flirting with the French" in a serious way in late January, U.S. policymakers were prepared to believe that it was or that it might in the near future. Americans conceded that Khanh was certainly power-hungry and unscrupulous, but that fact did not lessen the potential validity of his charges.
Henry Cabot Lodge, who was as close to events in Saigon as any American, emphasized the neutralist dimension in his post-coup cables. In the first, on 30 January, he reiterated Khanh's rationale sympathetically and emphasized that the transfer of power had been bloodless and quietly done. The following day he reminded Washington that Don and Kim "had never at any time forsworn the possibility of a neutral solution at what might seem to them to be the proper time." Though they had been working to strengthen the position of the government in the struggle against the Vietcong, no one had ever considered what might happen after that. "Perhaps they did favor the French neutrality solution at that time." Furthermore, Lodge added, Ambassador Giovanni D'Orlandi of Italy, "one of the shrewdest men here," had on numerous occasions said that the Minh government "was actively in support of General de Gaulle's ideas and would become overtly neutralist at the proper time." The regime's ouster was therefore welcome. Lodge remained furious at Paris for meddling in the conflict, but in the wake of the coup he felt confident that, at last, de Gaulle had been thwarted. "The spurious idea of a neutralized Vietnam will now die," he assured Rusk.
Rusk and others in Lyndon Johnson's inner circle were not so sure. On 31 January, just one day after the coup, there were renewed calls for a neutralist settlement to the conflict from two sources that these officials deemed important: the New York Times and the French government. In the Times, Washington bureau chief James "Scotty" Reston urged the United States to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict and claimed that the administration was "actually on record as favoring the neutralization of the whole country, North Vietnam as well as South." Johnson's aides assured him that the United States was on record arguing no such thing, but they were alarmed. "I don't know where Scotty gets this, but he should be knocked down," NSC staffer Michael Forrestal advised the president.
In Paris, Charles de Gaulle drew a direct link between his government's recognition of China and the war in Vietnam during a much-publicized news conference. "There is no political reality in Asia," he said, "which does not interest or touch China. Neither war nor peace is imaginable on that continent without China's becoming implicated. Thus it is absolutely inconceivable that without her participation there can be any accord on the eventual neutrality of Southeast Asia." De Gaulle insisted that, with Beijing on board, the prospects for such a successful neutralization were excellent, provided that the agreement was guaranteed on the international level, that it outlawed "armed agitations" by the states involved, and that it excluded "the various forms of external intervention." Such a neutrality, the general concluded, "seems, at the present time, to be the only situation compatible with the peaceful existence and progress of the peoples concerned."
There was fuzziness here, deliberate fuzziness. De Gaulle spoke of the "eventual neutrality of Southeast Asia" as the desired goal but gave little sense of how it would be reached. Would the process begin with an agreement neutralizing just South Vietnam, or would it apply to the North as well? He did not say. Privately de Gaulle believed, and had believed for some time, that the concept should initially be confined to the South alone. The Hanoi leadership would refuse to agree to any kind of formal neutralization, he felt certain, and would get support in this position from Beijing and Moscow. This reality did not concern him particularly—the DRV, he believed, would be effectively neutral regardless, in view of the historic Sino-Vietnamese friction and the deepening Sino-Soviet split. Ultimately, Hanoi might gain control of all of Vietnam, but it would take time and would in any event not be a big blow to the West. In the long run, de Gaulle was certain, Vietnam would be more Vietnamese than communist.
De Gaulle conceded that this line of thinking would not find favor in Washington, but, he asked, what choice did the Americans really have? The reports from Vietnam and from Vietnamese émigré groups in Paris showed that the peace movement in the South was growing stronger each dayand that no U.S.-backed government could ever win broad popular support. Americanizing the war thus offered no hope for success. "If the Americans are not too stupid they will put an end to this absurd Vietnam War," Gaulle told information minister Alain Peyrefitte after a cabinet meeting on 22 January. "The only way to get out is through an agreement for neutrality." France could play a role by facilitating discussion between Beijing and Washington, de Gaulle noted, but should the Johnson administration reject this option and instead choose escalation, the results would be disastrous for all involved.
Why, given the strength of his convictions on these core propositions, did de Gaulle not call explicitly for the neutralization of South Vietnam? Because vagueness suited his purposes, just as it had suited him in his statement in August 1963. Well aware that France's continuing cultural and social presence in Vietnam gave his pronouncements outsized attention, he could afford to be ambiguous—his comments would reverberate throughout Vietnam whatever their level of specificity. Thus he saw no reason to give either side specifics on which to attack him and torpedo the prospects for talks. A certain blurring of categories was essential to get negotiations started. In addition, de Gaulle felt no particular sense of urgency about the situation. Not altogether displeased to see the United States floundering in its efforts to achieve what he had long said it could never accomplish, he was content to wait and see how things developed, meanwhile giving tacit support to neutralist forces in the South and issuing periodic calls for a political settlement.
American analysts paid close attention to the French president's press conference and struggled to come up with an effective response. When Johnson in a press conference on 1 February appeared to give a qualified endorsement to the notion of a neutralized Vietnam, aides became alarmed, despite the fact that Johnson also said that de Gaulle was hurting U.S. efforts in the region. The remarks could be twisted any number of ways by the press both at home and abroad, these aides thought, and could make the United States appear to support a neutral solution. Secretary of State Rusk immediately instructed subordinates to prepare a clarifying statement indicating that the administration had been and remained strongly opposed to the French position and was determined to press ahead with the war. He then instructed Lodge to make the same clarification in Saigon. "It would be incorrect," Rusk emphasized, "to read any change in policy into the President's remarks." Johnson himself took an unambiguous tone in a handwritten letter to Khanh the same day. "I am glad we see eye to eye on the necessity of stepping up the pace of military operations against the Vietcong," Johnson wrote. "We shall continue to be available to help you carry the war to the enemy and to increase the confidence of the Vietnamese people in their government." And Lodge, in early meetings with Khanh, assured him that U.S. policy was unchanged and warned that he would "rise or fall, as far as American opinion was concerned, on the results he obtained in the effort against the Vietcong."
A clear pattern can at this point be discerned. If American fear of what Jean Lacouture has termed a neutralist "plot between Paris, Hanoi, and Nhu" predated the coup that ousted the Ngos, and may have helped precipitate it, much the same fear predated the coup that overthrew the Minh junta. It was fueled to a large degree by suspicions on the part of American civilian and military leaders and disaffected South Vietnamese leaders that the Minh regime might, with French support, be moving toward a compromise with the enemy. Kennedy, Johnson, and their advisers were convinced that a military solution was needed in Vietnam, and when the Diem and Minh regimes expressed doubts about such a solution, or at least appeared incapable of pursuing one effectively, the United States aided in their overthrow.
It was this single-minded American determination to pursue a military solution in Vietnam that was most troubling to the proponents of a negotiated settlement. For these critics, the central weakness in the U.S. position was not so much that Washington had strong doubts about the prospects for diplomacy, or even that it insisted on continuing to equip and train the South Vietnamese army to fight the Vietcong; it was, rather, that the Johnson administration, like its predecessor, was averse to even considering possible diplomatic alternatives. The administration's claim that mere talk of negotiations would destroy the fighting will of the South Vietnamese did not impress the critics; any government that would crumble under such conditions, they argued, was not worth fighting for in the first place. "General de Gaulle's argument is unanswerable unless we are able to persuade ourselves that the civil war can be won," Walter Lippmann asserted in his syndicated column on 4 February. "The official American view is that we have to say unreservedly that the war will be won and refuseto think about what we shall do if it cannot be won." In other words, Lippmann argued, the United States had one policy; if that policy failed, all was lost. "We have staked everything on one card," he wrote, and "this is a reckless and unstatesmanlike gamble. A competent statesman, like any competent military strategist, never locks himself into a commitment where there is no other position on which he can fall back. In Southeast Asia we have bolted the doors and do not have that indispensable part of any strategy, a fall-back position."
De Gaulle was in fact "rendering us a signal service" by unbolting those doors, Lippmann continued. The general was suggesting a way to save Southeast Asia from Chinese domination, by way of political moves that could be initiated and diplomatic bargaining that could be undertaken. He argued that now was the time for an imaginative diplomatic approach, because de Gaulle was surely correct in claiming that the United States was heading for a "disaster which will leave us an intolerable choice between a humiliating withdrawal and engaging in a much larger war, at least as large as the Korean War." Best of all, such an approach had a good chance of success, given Vietnamese war-weariness and historical Chinese-Vietnamese friction. What was needed, Lippmann concluded, was for Americans to demonstrate the cardinal virtues of the successful diplomat, namely patience and a willingness to compromise: "In all this we should not confuse ourselves with the notion that General de Gaulle has offered a 'plan' for the neutralization of Southeast Asia which we must accept or reject. We must not be in too much of a hurry. General de Gaulle has not proposed a plan. He has proposed a line of policy and a mode of thinking which we cannotafford to dismiss lightly."
Dismiss it lightly is, of course, precisely what America's Vietnam policymakers had done. In the wake of the coup, they worried about the implications of de Gaulle's China initiative, and it dismayed them that he had found support for his views among influential voices on Capitol Hill and in the press. The prospect of a Cambodian neutralization conference, which might unavoidably be expanded to cover the entire region, also continued to concern them. But Lyndon Johnson and his advisers were determined to press on with the war, in expanded form if necessary. And in the early days of February 1964, they felt relatively good about their prospects. A new man was on the scene in Saigon, one who professed support for an expanded war and pledged to follow American advice to a greater degree than his predecessors. As had been the case with Duong Van Minh, U.S. officials knew little about Khanh, but they hoped that he could bring stability to Saigon and leadership to the war effort, which would reduce the in ternational and domestic pressure for a reevaluation of policy and thereby allow Johnson to focus his energies on his ambitious legislative agenda. They hoped, in other words, that with Nguyen Khanh they could finally get the Vietnam problem under control.
The day after the coup, Johnson summed up administration thinking for Walker Stone, editor in chief of the Scripps-Howard Newspapers. "This Khanh is the toughest one they got and the ablest one they got," Johnson declared. "And he said, 'Screw this neutrality, we ain't going to do business with the Communists, and get the goddammned hell out of here. I'm pro-American and I'm taking over.' Now it'll take him a little time to get his marbles in a row, just like it's taking me a little time. But it's de Gaulle's loss and the neutralists' loss, not the Americans' loss, and we're going to try to launch some counterattacks ourselves...We're going to touch them up a little bit in the days to come."