185. Letter From the Under Secretary of State (Ball) to the Secretary of State1
Dear Dean: Wednesday afternoon2 the President asked me to participate in a discussion with Walter Lippmann. The others involved were Bob McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. The President sat in on part of the discussion and after Lippmann had left, he talked further to the three of us for almost an hour.
Lippmann made his usual argument for neutralization—admitting, when I pressed him, (a) that his proposed course of action was based on the assumption that all of Southeast Asia was destined inevitably to become a zone of Chinese Communist control; (b) that we could not halt Chinese expansionism in this area; and (c) that our best hope was to seek by political means to slow that expansionism down and make it less brutal.
The exchange with Lippmann was rather animated but it did serve to bring out the differences in the assumptions on which we were proceeding. I do not think that the President bought Lippmann’s ultimate thesis. He was, however, quite clearly impressed by Lippmann’s contention that the United States was presenting itself in a bad light to the world by refusing to negotiate and entertaining the possibility of enlarged military action.
After Walter’s departure, the President returned to the question that has been preoccupying him. (He said that he had not slept more than a few hours the night before.) How could he maintain his posture as a man of peace in the face of the Southeast Asian crisis? How could he carry a united country with him if we were to embark on a course of action that might escalate under conditions where the rest of the world would regard us as wrong-headed?[Page 401]
While no precise instructions emerged from our discussion, I was persuaded that the President will not act hastily and that he is by no means tied on to a scenario of the kind that was being considered when you left. This impression has been confirmed by casual remarks he has made since the Lippmann conversation.
Before talking with the President, I had already begun to ask some hard questions which it seemed to me had been treated too cavalierly. When I first moved back into the Vietnamese situation a fortnight ago, I had the feeling that plans were going forward too precipitously and that there was an inarticulate wish to sweep the difficult issues under the bed. It seemed to me that much of our planning was proceeding on the assumption that, since we were in danger of losing by pursuing the present course, we should promptly undertake a more decisive plan of action even though (a) no one could be sure that the new plan of action would have the desired effect and (b) the risks of a major catastrophe might be vastly enlarged.
Against the background of the President’s wise caution, Alex and I have, by an insistent challenge of the basic premises, considerably slowed down the headlong crystallization of a plan for enlarging the war. The new mood of diminished certainty will necessarily alter the purposes of the Honolulu meeting. Instead of concentrating on detailed arrangements necessary to carry out a specific plan of action, the meeting should, I think, be devoted primarily to an examination of the assumptions and implications of alternative courses of action in order to bring about a greater common understanding between Saigon and Washington and lay the basis for plans consistent with the hard realities. Since Alex returned Thursday3 morning, he and I have worked closely together in trying to point up some of the problems and focus on available alternatives. With the Honolulu meeting in mind, we have drawn up a list of questions that you might wish to inject into the discussion.
I realize that these questions may appear negative and defeatist. I am disturbed, however, by the fact that we are not facing up to the basic requirements for achieving the maximum effectiveness in our present management of the war. Both Alex and I find it personally difficult to advocate a course of action that could result in the loss of many American lives, the further disruption of Western solidarity, and grave dangers of escalation-at a time when we feel unprepared to do all that we know to be possible to reverse the downward trend (if it exists) in South Viet-Nam.[Page 402]
I cannot, in other words, reconcile myself to the-fateful step of action against the North until we are satisfied in our hearts that we have taken every possible step to achieve full effectiveness in our own efforts in the South. I need not specify the kinds of steps needed. You and I have frequently talked about them.
We appreciated your prompt response on our thoughts with respect to the Polish proposal for Laos.4 They have been passed on to the President but we have not yet heard from him. (He is at the Ranch over this long week-end.) If and when he approves in principle, our first step should probably be for Unger to have a thorough discussion with Souvanna. Unless Souvanna comes along, we will obviously have no package.
P.S. With the President’s approval, I am asking Paris today to set up a meeting for me with de Gaulle on Friday, June 5. I will be seeing the British on Monday (June 8), at their request, to talk about a number of things, including Cyprus. It seems to us that since Bill Bundy has just been to London and I am going there, our failure to talk to Paris would be a subject for wide comment. You might give some thought to the line I should take with the General, and we can go over it on Thursday when you return.5
- Source: Department of State, Ball Files: Lot 74 D 272, Manila Folder. Top Secret.↩
- May 27.↩
- May 28.↩
- On May 27, the Polish Embassy in Vientiane proposed immediate consultations in Switzerland among high-level representatives of the 1954 Geneva Cochairmen (the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union), the ICC member nations, and the three political factions in Laos. (Circular telegram 2209, May 27; Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS)↩
- Ball wrote the following note at the end of the postscript: “You might wish to tell Lodge about this since he has been concerned about the effect in Saigon of any conversations in Paris.”↩
- See footnote 5, Document 99.↩