George Ball Counsels Against Build-up in Vietnam

On April 24, 2014
Under Secretary of State George Ball

After the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (August 1964) gave Congressional sanction for greater US military involvement in Vietnam, President Johnson authorized a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The North was sending personnel and supplies through Laos into South Vietnam to support guerilla forces called “Viet Cong” who sought to overthrow the government in the South and unite the country under a communist regime. Johnson hoped the bombing campaign would persuade the North to withdraw its troops. But when a year of bombing failed to change the North’s resolve, Johnson prepared to send large numbers of American troops to South Vietnam.

In the policy discussion surrounding the decision to escalate the war effort, a lone dissent was raised by Under Secretary of State George Ball. Between May 1964 and May 1966, Ball wrote more than 20 memoranda challenging the increasing American involvement in Vietnam. A good short sample of his hard-edged analysis is this paper, titled “Cutting our Losses in South Vietnam,” submitted to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on June 28, 1965. Arguing that South Vietnam was peripheral to American interests, that the South Vietnamese government we were supporting lacked popular support, and that the US military was ill-prepared to wage war in jungle terrain against a determined guerilla opponent, Ball recommended a slowly staged American withdrawal:

Admittedly, such a withdrawal would create short-term problems . . . but by taking prompt and effective defensive and affirmative measures we should be able to avoid any serious long-term consequences. By and large, the world knows that the government in Saigon is a joke, and if our withdrawal resulted from an effort to face this problem squarely, friendly nations would not interpret it as a US failure to keep its commitments. More likely most nations would consider that we had more than kept our commitments to Vietnam—and that our decision to force the issue of stability was a mark of prudence and maturity.


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