258. Memorandum From Senator Mike Mansfield to the President 1


  • Observations on Viet Nam

If the conflict in Viet Nam is at least as important to us as it is to the Vietnamese, then there is little room for manoeuvre in the present situation. We are stuck with it and must stay with it whatever it may take in the end in the way of American lives and money and time to hold South Viet Nam.

In such circumstances whether to support the present government or not is the secondary or tactical question. It is the question, to state it simply and frankly, of which way is likely to be least costly in American lives and money. Indeed, the reports in the press suggest that this is now the subject of intense discussion among the agency-technicians. In any event, those in day-to-day command of policies should be best qualified to advise on this question since they will have to make the day-to-day decisions on operations which, in effect, act either to bolster the present government’s position or to encourage a replacement.

Certainly, the selection of Mr. Lodge for a principal role in these decisions is an excellent one. The framework in which he is to make them ought to be clear in his instructions. It ought to be made equally clear to all concerned—Americans and Vietnamese alike—in Viet Nam and in Washington that on behalf of the President, Mr. Lodge is the man who will make the decisions and, insofar as official Americans are concerned, their obligation is to support his decisions fully and actively. If it is necessary to remove personnel to make the point emphatic that should be done promptly.

However, it is necessary to face the fact that either way—with the present government or with a replacement—we are in for a very long haul to develop even a modicum of stability in Viet Nam. And, in the end, the costs in men and money could go at least as high as those in Korea. This is the reality of our situation, if we remain wedded to the premise that South Viet Nam is at least as important to us as it is to the Vietnamese. At this point, with the changing of Ambassadors, therefore, it is pertinent to examine this present premise of policy. The die is not yet finally cast but we are very close to the point when it will have to be. Therefore, we may well ask ourselves, once more, not the tactical question, but the fundamental question: Is South Viet Nam as [Page 586] important to us as the premise on which we are now apparently operating indicates? Is it really as important to us as it is to the Vietnamese themselves? Or have we, by our own repeated rhetorical flourishes on “corks in bottles” and “stopping Communism everywhere” and loose use of the phrase “vital interests of the nation” over the past few years given this situation a highly inflated importance and, hence, talked ourselves into the present bind? In short, have we, as in Laos, first over-extended ourselves in words and in agency programs and, then, in search of a rationalization for the erroneous initial over-extension, moved what may be essentially a peripheral situation to the core of our policy-considerations?

It would appear that there is, at least a presumption that such is the case in Viet Nam and for the following reasons:

Even the most sanguine view of defense needs in the Western Pacific, such as the so-called MacArthur Line of a decade or so ago, never envisioned the inclusion of a direct U.S. defensive bastion in Viet Nam.
It is almost inconceivable that any policy for the defense of the United States in the Western Pacific would be based upon the commitment of hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans on the Asian mainland, where our naval and air power would be least effective; (Recall Eisenhower’s dictum: “Let Asians fight Asians”). Note, too, the decision not to pursue the conflict in Korea into Manchuria and beyond which was made as much by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles in negotiating the truce, as it was by President Truman and Mr. Acheson in initiating those negotiations. Are we now to find, at an enormous potential cost, “vital U.S. interests” in South Viet Nam when we did not find them in Korea?
The most compelling argument for a vast commitment in South Viet Nam and Southeast Asia in terms of U.S. interests is the negative one of denying the resources of the region to Chinese domination and, thereby preventing China from solving its food and other resource-problems. This is an understandable argument but it presupposes a genuine common international interest in this objective. If such cooperation is not forthcoming, a real question arises as to the point at which the cost in men and money to the United States of essentially unilateral action to achieve the objective outweighs any possible advantage which it might provide to the security and welfare of this nation.
Certainly, there is no case for holding South Viet Nam on the positive grounds of commercial or other economic interests to this nation. We will be decades, at least, in recouping from all of Southeast Asia, in a commercial sense, what the attempt to hold Viet Nam alone has already cost the people of the United States, let alone what it promises yet to cost.

What the above suggests is that the situation in Viet Nam is not “at least of as much importance to us as it is to the Vietnamese” (the present premise under which we are apparently operating) but that we have talked ourselves and “agencied” ourselves into this premise. It [Page 587] suggests that Viet Nam is not central to our defense interest or any other American interest but is, rather, peripheral to these interests. It suggests, further, that the way out of the bind is certainly not by the route of ever-deeper involvement. To be sure it is desirable that South Viet Nam remain free of Communism but it is also desirable that we do not spend countless American lives and billions of dollars to maintain an illusion of freedom in a devastated South Viet Nam. And it is also desirable that we do not find ourselves, militarily, so bogged down in South Viet Nam or throughout Southeast Asia that we have few resources, short of nuclear, for deployment elsewhere in other critical peripheral situations.

If we go back to the period prior to the first Geneva conference we may find the clue to a valid premise of United States policy in South Viet Nam which can be supported at a cost somewhat commensurate with our peripheral national interests in the situation. We did not, at that time, have even the remotest idea of becoming involved, as the French were, with armies on the mainland of Southeast Asia. The most sanguine proposal, as I recall, was for a one-strike aerial attack to relieve the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu and, in the end, even that was rejected by Mr. Eisenhower.

And when the civil war against the French finally came to an end, the extent of our commitment was, at most, for financial and economic aid to the successor non-Communist government in Saigon and, militarily if at all, through S.E.A.T.O. which was thoroughly international in original concept, if not in its subsequent evolution. It is this limited commitment which has been agencied, through the years, to what is now close to irrevocable total commitment.

In terms of specific U.S. interests, however, it would seem that any premise for Vietnamese and Southeast Asian policy should bind us less not more tightly now than it did at the outset of our involvement. A reasonable premise for present U.S. policy might follow these lines:

We are concerned with the freedom of Viet Nam and the other nations of Southeast Asia, as we are with freedom throughout the world. We join with other nations, within and without the region, via the United Nations or other international combinations in support of such social evolution as these nations seek. But we do not propose to attempt, unilaterally, on behalf of any government what it can only do for itself; that is, to so conduct itself as to marshal its own peoples in support of free political evolution. We reserve to ourselves the right to determine when such circumstances exist and, hence, when to assist, when not to assist, and when, if necessary, to withdraw assistance. In the absence of responsible and responsive indigenous leadership or adequate international cooperation in supporting social evolution in freedom, the essential interests of the United States do not compel this [Page 588] nation to become unilaterally engaged in any nation in Southeast Asia. Indeed, it is doubtful that it is in the interests of the peoples of those nations themselves, for the United States to become so engaged.

If this is the more valid premise for United States policy than the present premise, then certain courses of action stem from it:

Agency spokesmen should cease to indulge in rhetorical flourishes about what we are going to do in Viet Nam and stress, if we must have rhetorical flourishes, what we are not going to do.
We should stress not the vague “vital importance” of the area to the U.S., but in cold logic, the relatively limited importance of the area in terms of specific U.S. interests as compared, for example, with Latin America.
We should stress publicly the international aspects of the problem of preserving freedom in Viet Nam and minimize our unilateral responsibility, while at the same time we make it clear to other non-Asian nations-notably France and Britain-that in the absence of increased international participation we may be compelled to reconsider our own commitment in Viet Nam.
We should keep in the background, the possibility of referral of the matter at some point to the Geneva Conferees or to the United Nations if the pressure grows for increasing our involvement.
Specifically, in terms of the internal situation in South Viet Nam, we might withdraw abruptly and in a matter-of-fact fashion a percentage—say, 10 per cent—of the military advisors which we have m Viet Nam, as a symbolic gesture, to make clear that we mean business when we say that there are some circumstances in which this commitment will be discontinued and, in justification, point to the comment of Ngo Dinh Nhu on too many Americans in South Viet Nam.
We should accent not so much our contribution of genius and men and money to the strategic hamlet program or the operations of the special forces, but our concern with the welfare of the Vietnamese people in the cities and villages.
We should stress our desire for peaceful solutions not only of inner South Vietnamese political difficulties but of all-Vietnamese problems and of all Asian problems.

In these and in other ways, in short, we should cease to speak and act on a premise which commits this nation increasingly to solutions, preponderantly by force, not only in South Viet Nam but, possibly throughout Asia, unless we recognize fully that we will pay the great preponderance of the costs of pursuing that premise and unless we are prepared to pay these cost in lives and money, whether the premise involves just South Viet Nam or, in the end, all of Viet Nam and Southeast Asia, if not the Chinese mainland itself.

  1. Source: University of Montana, Mansfield Papers, Series XXII, Box 103, Folder 14. A note attached to the source text reads: “Believe Senator took this and gave original to the President.”