Report to President Kennedy on South Vietnam

Image: President meets with Secretary of Defense. President Kennedy, Secretary McNamara. White House, Cabinet Room. Circa June 1962. Cecil Stoughton, Photographer.
Why must the United States take action to stop the spread of communism to South Vietnam? How will a failure to stop communism hurt the United States? What is the main U.S. objective in South Vietnam? What must the United States be willing to do to achieve this objective? How can other nations (especially those in SEATO) help?
In what ways does this report resemble the recommendations made by Truman and NSC 68? Does President Johnson carry out this report’s recommendations? Compare the report to Ball: why do these authors have such differing views on what the United States should do in Vietnam?

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Like Korea, Vietnam was split in two, North and South, in the aftermath of World War II. France, aided by the United States, failed to reassert its colonial control after fighting insurgent forces in Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh and supported by the Chinese. The Geneva Accords (1954), signed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, a communist regime), France, the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel and called for elections to be held by 1956 to reunite the country. Neither the United States nor the Republic of Vietnam (now in control of South Vietnam) accepted the Accords. The terms of the Accords were not honored by either side. The political and military struggle for control resumed.

By 1961, the United States had greatly increased its military and economic support of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam. Diem, though firmly anti-communist, had long struggled to secure the support of his people and establish the legitimacy of his regime. Government corruption and crackdowns on political opponents caused widespread unrest and deepened Diem’s unpopularity. Meanwhile, the communist insurgency was growing in power in the South, as North Vietnam pressed its objective to unify Vietnam under its rule.

Authored by President Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, this report makes clear that U.S. policymakers believed the collapse of South Vietnam represented a grave threat to American and global security. Furthermore, should the United States fail to act, its credibility would suffer. Allies would question the commitment of the United States to protect them, and the fall of South Vietnam would lead to neighboring nations also becoming communist – the domino theory.

Rusk and McNamara recommended taking all necessary steps to contain the spread of communism to South Vietnam, including, if necessary, the deployment of U.S. combat forces to fight the growing communist insurgency. This proposal showed the militarization of containment at work (See Kennan and NSC 68). Rusk and McNamara hoped such a step could be avoided by providing more support for naval and ground force actions by the South Vietnamese military. By the date of this report, the United States had already stationed several thousand military advisers in Vietnam and 25 servicemen had died there. By late 1963, the number of advisers had increased to 16,000 and 175 more Americans had been killed in the fighting. Despite this support and more economic aid, the government of South Vietnam did not stabilize nor did it defeat the communist insurgency.

Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 passed this problem on to President Lyndon Johnson, who, in early 1965, made the fateful decision to send U.S. combat forces to Vietnam (See Johnson, Joint Resolution of Congress, Johnson, and Ball). Yet the United States still struggled to stop the communist revolution. As American casualties mounted, the war became increasingly unpopular, adding to domestic tensions during the late 1960s (See SNCC and Nixon).

—David Krugler

Source: The Pentagon Papers as published by The New York Times (New York and Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971), 155–8. A photocopy of the original “1961 Rusk-McNamara Report to Kennedy on South Vietnam” is available online at the New York Times Archive for July 1, 1971.

1. United States National Interests in South Viet-Nam.

The deteriorating situation in South Viet-Nam requires attention to the nature and scope of United States national interests in that country. The loss of South Viet-Nam to Communism would involve the transfer of a nation of 20 million people from the free world to the Communism bloc. The loss of South Viet-Nam would make pointless any further discussion about the importance of Southeast Asia to the free world; we would have to face the near certainty that the remainder of Southeast Asia and Indonesia would move to a complete accommodation with Communism, if not formal incorporation with the Communist bloc. The United States, as a member of SEATO, has commitments with respect to South Viet-Nam under the Protocol to the SEATO Treaty.1 Additionally, in a formal statement at the conclusion session of the 1954 Geneva Conference, the United States representative stated that the United States “would view any renewal of the aggression . . . with grave concern and seriously threatening international peace and security.”

The loss of South Viet-Nam to Communism would not only destroy SEATO but would undermine the credibility of American commitments elsewhere. Further, loss of South Viet-Nam would stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon by extreme elements to divide the country and harass the Administration. . . .

. . .

3. The United States’ Objective in South Viet-Nam

The United States should commit itself to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South Viet-Nam to [communism]. The basic means for accomplishing this objective must be to put the Government of South Viet-Nam into a position to win its own war against the Guerrillas.2 We must insist that that Government itself take the measures necessary for that purpose in exchange for large-scale United States assistance in the military, economic and political fields. At the same time we must recognize that it will probably not be possible for the GVN3 to win this war as long as the flow of men and supplies from North Viet-Nam continues unchecked and the guerrillas enjoy a safe sanctuary in neighboring territory.

We should be prepared to introduce United States combat forces if that should become necessary for success. Dependent upon the circumstances, it may also be necessary for United States forces to strike at the source of the aggression in North Viet-Nam. . . .

In the light of the foregoing, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense recommend that:

  1. We now take the decision to commit ourselves to the objective of preventing the fall of South Viet-Nam to Communism and that, in doing so, we recognize that the introduction of United States and other SEATO forces may be necessary to achieve this objective. (However, if it is necessary to commit outside forces to achieve the foregoing objective our decision to introduce United States forces should not be contingent upon unanimous SEATO agreement thereto.)
  2. The Department of Defense be prepared with plans for the use of United States forces in South Viet Nam under one or more of the following purposes:

(a) Use of a significant number of United States forces to signify United States determination to defend Viet-Nam and to boost South Viet-Nam morale.

(b) Use of substantial United States forces to assist in suppressing Viet Cong insurgency short of engaging in detailed counter-guerrilla operations but including relevant operations in North Viet-Nam.

(c) Use of United States forces to deal with the situation if there is organized Communist military intervention. . . .

  1. 1. SEATO is the abbreviation for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. It was formed in 1954. Its eight member states (United States, France, Great Britain, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan) promised to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. The treaty establishing SEATO did not obligate members to take military action; however, it did provide the United States with an international justification for taking action in South Vietnam.
  2. 2. A reference to the Viet Cong, the communist insurgents in South Vietnam controlled by the North Vietnamese who used irregular, or guerilla, warfare strategies and tactics.
  3. 3. Government of Vietnam, the term used to refer to the government in the South.
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