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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Vietnam Counterfactual Continued: Roger Hilsman, 1919-2014 in Memoriam

On the occasion of Roger Hilsman's death on February 23 (only reported this week - see New York Times obituary), I'd like to return briefly to the evidence on whether John F. Kennedy would have escalated the war in Vietnam had he lived (see my November 23 post).

Roger Hilsman, 1919-2014

Roger Hilsman was the archetypical "best and brightest" in Kennedy's New Frontier, simultaneously an insider and outsider in the military/intelligence/foreign relations community, with first-hand experience of guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia during World War II and a PhD from Yale. He epitomized all of the contradictions of the US's Cold War elite, advocating both extensive defoliation and strategic hamlets in South Vietnam while opposing the deployment of American combat troops and the bombing of North Vietnam. He was also the author of the infamous "Cable 243" in 1963 which some interpret as giving the green light to the subsequent overthrow and assassination of President Diem.

His 1967 book To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy seems to be the first published claim from someone at the center of foreign policy decision-making that President Kennedy would never have committed American troops to Vietnam, and reinforces Daniel Ellsberg's account:
Thus what General Taylor was advocating was essentially the same large-scale American commitment that Vice-President Johnson had recommended. But this did not accord with President Kennedy's own analysis of the nature of what was happening in Southeast Asia. He had read deeply after his tour of the area in 1951, and his comments on the Indochina crisis when he returned had revealed his conviction that if Communism were to be defeated in Asia it could be done only be the force of nationalism. "Without the support of the native population," he said, "there is no hope of success in any of the countries of Southeast Asia." To try to oppose Communist advances "apart from and in defiance of innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure." [p. 423]
Postscript: Some further search brought up an oral history interview with Roger Hilsman from, as far as I can ascertain, the 1990s, which fully confirms John M. Newman's (JFK and Vietnam) interpretation of NSAM 263 as committing the Kennedy administration to a withdrawal of 1000 advisers by the end of 1963 (which in fact took place) and the rest by 1965:
RH: Well, as I say, he went through several stages on Vietnam, you know, I mean he... originally what... you must remember that the very first thing that happened, Ngu Dinh Diem asks for help and so Kennedy sends out General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow to visit the country. They come back and in their recommendation, top secret, is not only do we give them a lot of aid, but we sent ten thousand American troops out there to form a fence, you see, between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. and Kennedy had that stricken from their cable and tried to prevent it from being circulated within the government, American government. I had a fight about that, because I was Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and I was cut out, I wasn't allowed to see it and when I heard about it, I yelled bloody murder but he was determined not to get involved with American troops. No bombing, no ground forces, and so long as he was alive, that was the policy. Then, towards the end of his life, in the fall of '63, he beat McNamara to beat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a withdrawal plan. At that time, we had only sixteen thousand five hundred Americans in the country, they were not troops, they were advisers and the plan, which was finally approved in the fall of '63, was to withdraw those, all of them. And the only troops... only people we'd have had there would be marine guards, ten of them, for the embassy. Before Kennedy was killed, the first thousand of the sixteen thousand five hundred were withdrawn. If Kennedy had lived, the other sixteen thousand five hundred or fifteen thousand five hundred would have been withdrawn within three or four months.
INT: So you're pretty convinced then that Kennedy wanted to end the war?
RH: It's not that I'm convinced. This was... the documents are there, you see, and I didn't say he wanted to end the war, he said he wanted to withdraw from it. First of all, from the beginning, he was determined that it not be an American war, that he would not bomb the North, he would not send troops. But then after …you remember the Buddhist crisis in the spring of '63, this convinced Kennedy that Ngu Dinh Diem had no chance of winning and that we best we get out. So, he used that as an excuse, beat on McNamara to beat on the JCS to develop a withdrawal plan. The plan was made, he approved the plan and the first one thousand of the sixteen thousand five hundred were withdrawn before Kennedy was killed. If he had lived, the other sixteen thousand would have been out of there within three or four months.

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