Introduction

George Ball was an undersecretary of state for agricultural and economic affairs, who had previously been a strong supporter of U.S aid to South Vietnam. By 1965, Ball had come to doubt the ability of the United States to prevent the unification of Vietnam under communism. In this memorandum to President Johnson’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, Ball explained his doubts. Ball’s warning that the United States would not prevail in Vietnam proved prophetic. The problems he foresaw helped drive Johnson from the presidency. It would fall to his successor, President Richard Nixon, to find a way out of the war (Document 37).


Source: Document 40, The Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Vol. III, Vietnam, June-December 1965, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, 1996), 107-13. Available at https://goo.gl/K94wPZ.


A Losing War: The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong.1 No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong or even force them to the conference table on our terms no matter how many hundred thousand white foreign (US) troops we deploy.

No one has demonstrated that a white ground force of whatever size can win a guerrilla war – which is at the same time a civil war between Asians – in jungle terrain in the midst of a population that refuses cooperation to the white forces (and the SVN)2 and thus provides a great intelligence advantage to the other side. . . .

The Question to Decide: Should we limit our liabilities in South Viet-Nam and try to find a way out with minimal long-term costs?

The alternative – no matter what we may wish it to be – is almost certainly a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of US forces, mounting US casualties, no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation at the end of the road.

Need for a Decision Now: So long as our forces are restricted to advising and assisting the South Vietnamese, the struggle will remain a civil war between Asian peoples. Once we deploy substantial numbers of troops in combat it will become a war between the United States and a large part of the population of South Viet-Nam, organized and directed from North Viet-Nam and backed by the resources of both Moscow and Peiping.

The decision you [McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser] face now, therefore, is crucial. Once large numbers of US troops are committed to direct combat they will begin to take heavy casualties in a war they are ill-equipped to fight in a non-cooperative if not downright hostile countryside.

Once we suffer large casualties we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot – without national humiliation – stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Of the two possibilities I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives – even after we had paid terrible costs.

A Compromise Solution: Should we commit US manpower and prestige to a terrain so unfavorable as to give a very large advantage to the enemy – or should we seek a compromise settlement which achieves less than our stated objectives and thus cut our losses while we still have the freedom of maneuver to do so?

Costs of Compromise Solution: The answer involves a judgment as to the costs to the United States of such a compromise settlement in terms of our relations with the countries in the area of South Viet-Nam, the credibility of our commitments and our prestige around the world. In my judgment, if we act before we commit substantial US forces to combat in South Viet-Nam we can, by accepting some short-term costs, avoid what may well be a long-term catastrophe. I believe we have tended greatly to exaggerate the costs involved in a compromise settlement. . . .

Study Questions

A. Why does Ball doubt that U.S. forces can defeat the communists? What question must the United States answer, and why must a decision be made now? What is the compromise solution?

B. Why do President Johnson and Ball come to such differing conclusions about the situation in Vietnam? Is Ball rejecting the guiding principle of the U.S. Cold War policy, that the United States must stop the spread of communism? Does Ball’s advice reflect George Kennan’s advice (Document 1) that the United States must choose carefully where and when it seeks to stop the spread of communism? Does Document 33 show that Ball is correct about the problem of using U.S. forces to fight in Vietnam?

Footnotes

  1. Viet Cong was a common name used to refer to the South Vietnamese communists.
  2. SVN was an abbreviation for the government of South Vietnam, the United States’ ally.