How Could Vietnam Happen? By James C. Thomson, Jr.
From the beginning of John Kennedy's Administration into this fifth year of
Lyndon Johnson's presidency, substantially the same small group of men have
presided over the destiny of the United States. In that time they have carried
the country from a limited involvement in Vietnam into a war that is brutal,
probably unwinnable, and, to an increasing body of opinion, calamitous and
immoral. How could it happen? Many in government or close to it will read the
following article with the shock of recognition. Those less familiar with the
processes of power can read it with assurance that the author had a firsthand
opportunity to watch the slide down the slippery slope during five years (1961-
1966) of service in the White House and Department of State. Mr. Thomson is
an East Asia specialist and an assistant professor of history at Harvard.
AS a case study in the making of foreign policy, the Vietnam War will fascinate
historians and social scientists for many decades to come. One question that
will certainly be asked: How did men of superior ability, sound training, and
high ideals -- American policy-makers of the 1960s -- create such costly and
As one who watched the decision-making process in Washington from 1961 to
1966 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, I can suggest a preliminary
answer. I can do so by briefly listing some of the factors that seemed to me to
shape our Vietnam policy during my years as an East Asia specialist at the
State Department and the White House. I shall deal largely with Washington
as I saw or sensed it, and not with Saigon, where I have spent but a scant
three days, in the entourage of the Vice President, or with other decision
centers, the capitals of interested parties. Nor will I deal with other important
parts of the record: Vietnam's history prior to 1961, for instance, or the overall
course of America's relations with Vietnam.
Yet a first and central ingredient in these years of Vietnam decisions does
involve history. The ingredient was the legacy of the 1950s -- by which I mean
the so-called "loss of China," the Korean War, and the Far East policy of
Secretary of State Dulles.
This legacy had an institutional by-product for the Kennedy Administration: in
1961 the U.S. government's East Asian establishment was undoubtedly the
most rigid and doctrinaire of Washington's regional divisions in foreign affairs.
This was especially true at the Department of State, where the incoming
Administration found the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs the hardest nut to
crack. It was a bureau that had been purged of its best China expertise, and of
farsighted, dispassionate men, as a result of McCarthyism. Its members were
generally committed to one policy line: the close containment and isolation of
mainland China, the harassment of "neutralist" nations which sought to avoid