200. Letter From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Lodge) to the President 1

Dear Mr. President: This is intended to be helpful advice in connection with the matter of a Congressional resolution regarding Southeast Asia. I would, of course, be very happy to have you show this letter to Dean Rusk and Bob McNamara if you perceive no objection.

First, I am not yet persuaded that such a resolution is in fact required. The argument that developments in Southeast Asia could theoretically involve calling out the reserves and that, therefore, a resolution is necessary does not seem valid when you consider that we did all of these things—and many more—in Korea without a Congressional resolution. But you are far closer to the situation in Congress and to public opinion than I am and can judge this much better than I can.

Clearly a very strong, if not impregnable, argument can be made for the proposition that Southeast Asia is of vital concern to the United States. Indeed if this were all that were involved in the debate on the resolution, there would be nothing to worry about.

I do worry about committing seven divisions of the U.S. Army to the mainland of Southeast Asia, as is contemplated. This goes against the belief that has been held by many Americans, including myself, for a long time. The climate and other conditions in this area are of incomparable difficulty for Americans.

Also the testimony which I have heard did not show that our seven divisions would constitute but a small proportion of the total army, just large enough to get us the command, as the small British army at Waterloo was large enough to get the command for Wellington. On the contrary, I understand that a single Thai division and a few extremely mediocre Laotian battalions are all that can be expected to be in the line in addition to the Vietnamese—and the Vietnamese are fully committed now.

It is apparently not planned to bring in Chinese Nationalists, even though this would definitely be an action against Chinese Communists in which their presence would be appropriate. Nor is it planned to use ROK troops who, according to recent telegrams, would probably come if their expenses were paid—which they should be.

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This, therefore, would be neither an encapsulated action, as it were, with a good possibility of clearly limited results and a quick departure, nor is it a large campaign in which the U.S. provides a small proportion of troops in order to get the command. On the contrary, it is a largely U.S. venture of unlimited possibilities which could put us onto a slope along which we slide into a bottomless pit.

I still have faith that naval and air power, with clearly limited and very specific actions on the ground, can give us what we need. If the Chinese communists attack on the ground in a place of their own choosing, I cannot see why we must oblige them and why we cannot retaliate in a place and in a way of our own choosing. It is dangerous for us to put the manpower of a nation of 190 million against the manpower of a nation of 900 million and thus put us on the short end of the stick. We should instead put our overall military power in confrontation with their military power and thus put us on the long end of the stick.

Based on past experience, I assume that there are vigorous differences of opinion in the Pentagon on this whole question. I suggest, therefore, that this is a matter of sufficient importance for you to get the most eloquent protagonists of the various schools of thought into the room with you so that there may be a forthright discussion among them in the hope that thus you can get at truths which will satisfy you.

All of the above is but another manifestation of the problem which we constantly face as the world’s most powerful nation, to wit, how to apply our power. We cannot—and must not—be on the horns of the dilemma of either doing nothing or doing something imprudent. It is, for example, obviously, a simple, though disastrous, matter to sit still and do nothing and let Southeast Asia go down the drain. It is equally simple, and also disastrous, to trigger off World War III. We should, while mindful of what is possible, concentrate on what is probable.

We must be able to apply our power in sharp focus, in carefully tailored ways to gain specific objectives. This is complicated and difficult but not impossible. President Kennedy did it last October when he used U.S. power to bring about a change of behavior in the government of Viet-Nam.

There ought to be a way to apply American power to North VietNam and in addition use the threat of our tremendous superiority in overall military power to keep the Chinese communists at bay.

As President you carry a very great load under the best of circumstances. It is not right to ask all-embracing commitments of you when [Page 461] all that you want to accomplish is something which, though utterly necessary, is precise and limited.

With respectful regards,

Very sincerely yours,

Cabot L.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XI. Top Secret. Also published in Declassified Documents, 1984, 001490.