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The Logic of the Kennedy Escalation, 1954-1968

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We argue that the origins of the catastrophe of the Sixties must be traced to the diagnostic and policy innovations of the Kennedy administration. We show how these diagnostic innovations originated in the military-intellectual revolution of 1954-1960. The military intellectuals who grappled with the dilemmas and confusions of the thermonuclear age would come to power in 1961 with a very specific diagnosis that, through their direct influence on policy and on the response functions of principals in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, drove escalations in both preparations for war and extraordinary overseas commitments for counterinsurgency. Many scholars have written on the military policy innovations of the Kennedy administration. Intellectual historians have examined how ‘defense intellectuals’ grappled with the tension between democracy and security. But the logic of the Kennedy escalation that came to grief in 1968 has not been elaborated — the story of the intellectual origins of the Vietnam War has not been told. We tell that story for the first time.
The Logic of the Kennedy Escalation, 1954-1968
Anusar Farooqui
January 23, 2020
Why did the United States get drawn into a politico-military struggle to save South Vietnam in
the 1960s? This is a question of some importance.1 For Vietnam became, as Robert R. Tomes
notes in his intellectual history of the catastrophe, ‘the specific catalyst that fragmented the
postwar liberal intellectual consensus’. 2 Gary Hess goes so far as to say that the catastrophe of
the Sixties eventually emerged as nothing short of ‘the defining event in American history’.3
Perhaps, that is be a bit hyperbolic. But there is no denying that the catastrophe had first-order
consequences for subsequent developments in American history. What shattered in 1968 was not
simply the elite consensus behind vigorous prosecution of the Cold War. What broke in 1968
was the moral economy of midcentury social democracy in America. The politico-ethical crisis
generated by the Vietnam War was directly responsible for the antisystemic turn after 1968,
preparing the way for the prolonged socioeconomic crises of the 1970s, and the dramatic
sociopolitical realignments that followed in the wake of these disasters. The origins of the
catastrophe of the Sixties is perhaps of some importance.
Vietnam has been the subject of thousands of monographs and numerous edited
volumes.4 Many scholars have paid attention to the origins of the catastrophe. A consensus of
sorts has emerged on two crucial matters of interpretation. First, South Vietnam was of minor
importance to the United States in a strategic sense.5 As Robert Osgood put it, it was ‘a place of
minor intrinsic national interest’ to the United States.6 To William Duiker, South Vietnam was ‘a
country of purely derivative importance to the free world’ that was regrettably turned ‘into the
symbol of U.S. determination to resist the expansion of communism in Asia’.7 What demands
explanation, then, is, as Herring phrased the puzzle in America’s Longest War (Wiley: 1979),
1 To both United States and Southeast Asian history, if not indeed world history. Here, we focus on the former.
2 Tomes, Robert R, Apocalypse Then: American Intellectuals and the Vietnam War, 1954-1975 (New York, 2000),
3 Hess, Gary R, “The Unending Debate: Historians and the Vietnam War,Diplomatic History 18, no. 2 (April
1994): 239-264.
4 Clio, Columbia’s library system, lists 5,871 books under the subject “Vietnam War, 1961-1975”.
5 For a case to the contrary, see Lind, Michael, Vietnam: The Necessary War, New York, 2013.
6 Osgood, Robert. Limited War Revisited, Westview Press: 1979, p. 51.
7 Duiker, William. US containment policy and the conflict in Indochina. Stanford University Press: 1994, p. 377.
‘Why did the United States make such a vast commitment in an area of so little apparent
importance?’ 8
Second, no matter the price that the United States was prepared to pay, the objective of
saving South Vietnam was virtually unattainable. The war, according to Herring, ‘could not be
won in any meaningful sense or at a moral or material cost that most Americans would or should
have found acceptable’.9 In the Vietnamese imaginary, Marilyn B. Young argued in The Vietnam
Wars, 1945-1990 (HarperCollins: 1991), there was one nation; not two; and the Viet Minh
represented the Vietnamese struggle for freedom from colonial domination — Ho Chi Minh
enjoyed ‘the Mandate of Heaven’. The United States was trying to defy history, Young
concludes. The ‘principal flaw’ of US Vietnam policy, Robert D. Schulzinger concurs in A Time
for War (Oxford Univ Press: 1997), was that ‘creating a separate state and society in the southern
part of a single land’ was an ‘impossible task’.10 The Eisenhower administration, David L.
Anderson charged in Trapped by Success (Columbia Univ Press: 1991), ‘trapped itself into a
commitment to the survival of its own counterfeit creation’.11
Given that South Vietnam was of minor significance to the balance of global power, and
given that propping up the artificial regime of South Vietnam was a fool’s errand, what explains
the escalation of US commitments to South Vietnam? The plot thickens when we pay attention
to the process of escalation. In Choosing War (Univ of California Press: 1999), Fedrick Logevall
focuses on the period between November 1963 and March 1965 that he calls “the Long 1964”.
He shows that key voices in the Senate, the Press, and even Vice President Humphrey, were
opposed to war; as were major US allies. In South Vietnam, too, there was great war-weariness;
while Hanoi and the communist great powers did not want an escalation of the proxy war, and
were, in fact, prepared to accept a negotiated settlement. Importantly, Logevall shows, principals
in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations were aware of the viability of diplomacy and quite
pessimistic about the prospects for a military solution. Yet, they worked hard to thwart all
diplomatic initiatives; including, and especially, President de Gaulle’s proposal for the
8 Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam: 1950-1975. Wiley, 1979, p. x.
9 Ibid, p. xii.
10 Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: the United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. Oxford University Press:
1997, p. 96.
11 Anderson, David L. Trapped by success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953-61. Columbia Univ
Press: 1991, p. 197.
neutralization of Indochina.12 Why, then, did principals in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations
not take any of the numerous exits on the road to war that Logevall documents so painstakingly?
Why did they choose war?
‘Less out of concern for American credibility’, Logevall suggests, ‘than out of fears for
their own personal credibility’.13 In the final analysis, Logevall points the finger at Johnson as
bearing the ultimate responsibility for the catastrophe. Regrettably, he doubles down on
presidential responsibility by throwing his weight behind what Gary Hess politely calls the
interpretive genre of ‘Kennedy exceptionalism’.14 This is the idea that if Oswald had missed,
Kennedy would not have chosen to escalate in Vietnam. It will be argued in what follows that
‘Kennedy exceptionalism’ gets it exactly the wrong way around. We can agree with Logevall
that the road to Vietnam was not overdetermined; instead, it was chosen because of the response
functions of the principals in 1961-1965. But personnel is policy. And all the national security
and foreign policy principals, including Johnson himself, were handpicked and placed in their
positions by one man: John F. Kennedy. It was Kennedy who set the tone; not only of his own
administration, but also that of his unexpected successor. It is telling that Johnson did not make
any personnel changes in the top echelon of the national security apparatus. Nor did he recall or
revise any of the major foreign policy initiatives of his slain predecessor. Indeed, the case for
executive continuity in foreign policy is nowhere stronger than between the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations.
By beginning his narrative in the month when both Diem and Kennedy were assassinated,
Logevall folds away the diagnostic and policy innovations of the Kennedy administration. More
precisely, we shall argue that there was a logic of escalation baked into the diagnoses of the
civilian military intellectuals who manned the cockpit from 1961. And it was the unfolding of
this logic of escalation that drove US commitments to South Vietnam. In Strategies of
Containment (Oxford Univ Press: 1982), John Lewis Gaddis notes that the transition from
Eisenhower to Kennedy marked a major shift from a strategy of limited ‘asymmetrical
12 Max Frankel. “Johnson Rejects De Gaulle Plan for Vietnamese”. New York Times. February 2, 1964, p. 1.
13 Logevall, Fedrick. Choosing War. Univ of California Press: 1999, p. 389. Logevall is speaking of the principals in
general, and Bundy and McNamara in particular.
14 In the ‘Kennedy exceptionalism’ genre, Gary Hess lists Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life (Little, Brown and
Co: 2003), David Kaiser’s American Tragedy (Harvard Univ Press: 2000), Lawrence Freedman’s Kennedy’s Wars
(Oxford Univ Press: 2000), and John N. Newman’s JFK and Vietnam (1992). To be fair, Freedman pays attention to
the Kennedy escalation.
containment’ to global ‘symmetrical containment’.15 In other words, instead of responding to
communist expansion in a time and place of our own choosing, as in the Dulles-Eisenhower
approach, the Kennedy-Johnson administrations were prepared to meet the communist challenge
anywhere and everywhere it emerged. Dulles had warned of the exorbitant costs and futility of
trying to hold what Osgood called ‘a Maginot Line all around the 20,000-mile periphery of
Communist power’.16 But, as we shall see, Kennedy intellectuals were convinced that it was
necessary and that they could pull it off. In order to hold the line, Gaddis notes, Kennedy
officials placed great emphasis on the strategy of ‘flexible response’. Strategy alone was not
enough, however. Kennedy intellectuals were convinced that they could hold the line from
Berlin to Korea by erecting and maintaining a military instrument characterized by ‘great power
in all its parts’.17 Moreover, the Kennedy intellectuals’ obsession with communist guerrilla
subversion would drive US commitments not just in South Vietnam but thirty countries. It is thus
not just South Vietnam where the Kennedy escalation could have come to grief. It could have
been any of the dozens of nations were the United States was now aggressively trying to hold the
line against communist subversion. These counterfactuals bring into sharp relief the fundamental
problem with the ‘forks in the road’ approach of Logevall and others. For in order to grapple
with the possibility space in the 1960s, we must pay attention not only to the exit signs on the
highway, so to speak, but also to escalatory logic at play.
But documenting the Kennedy escalation is not enough. In order to fully grapple with the
origins of the catastrophe, we must trace the diagnostic innovations of the Kennedy intellectuals.
We shall see how these diagnostic innovations originated in the military-intellectual revolution
of 1954-1960. The military intellectuals who grappled with the dilemmas and confusions of the
thermonuclear age would come to power in 1961 with a very specific diagnosis that, through
their direct influence on policy and on the response functions of principals in the Kennedy-
Johnson administrations, drove escalations in both preparations for war and extraordinary
overseas commitments for counterinsurgency. In order to unearth the logic of the Kennedy
escalation, we must, therefore, pay attention to the origins of these diagnoses in the intellectual
revolution in military affairs.
15 John Lewis Gaddis. Strategies of Containment, Oxford Univ Press: 1982, Chap. 7, passim.
16 Robert Osgood. Limited War, Univ of Chicago Press: 1957, p. 200.
17 William W. Kaufmann, Military Policy and National Security, Princeton Univ Press, 1956, p. 252.
What is left of social democracy in the United States does not have an independent
foreign policy. American social democracy had a foreign policy in the early-1960s —
confidently run by the Kennedy intellectuals. Blaufarb’s Counterinsurgency Era (Free Press:
1977) was born to cheers from the New York Times down. It all came to grief in 1968 when the
moral economy of social democracy’s foreign policy shattered. Many scholars have written on
the military policy innovations of the Kennedy administration. Intellectual historians have
examined how ‘defense intellectuals’ grappled with the tension between democracy and security.
But the logic of the Kennedy escalation that came to grief in 1968 has not been elaborated — the
story of the intellectual origins of the Vietnam War has not been told. We tell that story.
The ‘mentality’ of the civilians at the Committee of Operations Analysts, Sherry notes in his
magisterial history of American strategic bombing in World War II, ‘was not the one often
ascribed to American war-makers, an exclusive focus on victory, but the pursuit of destruction
without a clear notion of its relationship to victory’. They ‘saw air war less as a strategic process
aimed at victory and more as a technical process in which the assembly and refinement of means
became paramount’. 18 The refinement of the means of destruction would continue after the war.
Even though all hopes of Douhetism — ‘a knockout blow from the air’ — had been dashed by
the test of events, it emerged triumphant from the war. What restored the credibility of
Douhetism among military analysts was the dramatic appearance of the atom bomb in the
American arsenal. That singular event restored, indeed enhanced, all the terrible fears associated
with strategic air war for a generation. But once again imagination had run ahead of reality. For
the means of destruction had not yet been perfected in 1945.
Suppose that we detonate a 20-kiloton atomic weapon (roughly the yield of the bombs
detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki) on Houston Street (the zeroth St) and Second Avenue
in downtown Manhattan. The fireball would reach four blocks up to 4th St; all buildings will be
flattened and fatalities would be near-total up to 8th St; thermal radiation would kill upwards of
half the residents up to 18th St; glass windows would break up to 42nd St, 2 miles away. Total
18 Michael S. Sherry. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. Yale Univ Press, 1987, p. 234.
fatalities would approach 150,000, or 2 percent of the city’s residents; another 300,000 would be
injured. It would be a war crime comparable to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and
Hamburg. But the city would get back to its feet; just as these cities did in the aftermath. In order
to flatten New York, you’d need to carefully deliver at least 30 atom bombs. It’s not so easy to
‘kill cities’ with purely atomic weapons.19
Suppose instead that we detonate a 20-megaton thermonuclear weapon on the same spot.
The fireball would reach 53th St; all buildings would be flattened and fatalities would approach
100% up to 75th St; almost all buildings would be destroyed and a majority of the residents
killed up to 155th St; glass windows will shatter as far as Eastchester 20 miles up. Total fatalities
would approach 5 million, 60 percent of the city’s residents; another 4 million will be injured. A
single 20-megaton weapon is more than sufficient to wipe New York off the map for all military
purposes. Killing cities, the dream of the civilians at the Committee of Operations Analysts,
became feasible only with the deployment of megaton thermonuclear weapons in the mid-1950s.
According to Trachtenberg, in the age of American nuclear monopoly, the outcome of
general war was not in doubt, for ‘as long as it was a question of purely one-sided air-atomic
war’ the United States ‘was sure to win in the end’.20 Things were not so simple. ‘At least in the
1940s’, Lawrence Freedman notes in his authoritative intellectual history of the nuclear strategy
discourse, ‘stockpiles of atomic bombs were too small to be decisive in war.’21 Even Bernard
Brodie, the Air Force’s favorite civilian who had written hyperbolically about The Absolute
Weapon in 1949, conceded a decade later that there is ‘good reason to doubt whether in the days
of our monopoly we had enough atomic strength to insure the defeat of the Soviet Union through
surprise attack.’22
The loss of the atomic monopoly in 1949 came as shock, although the Administration played it
down. The Joint Chiefs had not been expecting a Soviet test until 1952.23 Movement
19 Recall that the biggest conventional “blockbuster” bombs deployed by the Anglo-Saxon powers in World War II
already had yields in kilotons. And incendiary area bombing could wreck more destruction on cities under the right
conditions than atomic weapons.
20 Marc Trachtenberg. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963. Princeton
University Press, 1999, p. 89.
21 Lawrence Freedman. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. Macmillan, 1989, p. 61.
22 Bernard Brodie. Strategy in the Missile Age, Princeton Univ Press, 1959, p. 230.
23 Evolution, p. 28.
immediately began for a test of the hydrogen bomb.24 An even greater shock than the loss of
nuclear monopoly was the Korean War. It is this shock that would finally goad the United States
to rearm. It was a strange war indeed. The United States forbid ground or air pursuit beyond the
Yalu river, even after the Chinese committed their regular forces. McArthur was furious. The
tension between the policy of restraint in the use of force and the military’s search for effective
means to subdue the enemy would subject American civil-military relations to their severest test
of the twentieth century. The result was to reestablish civilian supremacy. Before long, civilians
would take full control of US military policy. And Korea would become the template for local
defense against Communist expansion for a small number of nuclear strategists who would come
to author the strategy of the Kennedy Administration.
The Second Nuclear Revolution of the mid-1950s triggered an intellectual revolution in
military affairs. The military intellectuals who grappled with the dilemmas and confusions of the
thermonuclear age would come to power in 1961 with a very specific diagnosis that, through
their direct influence on policy and on the response functions of principals in the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations, would condition and inform US grand-strategy in important ways in the
1960s. In particular, this diagnosis would drive the Kennedy escalation in both preparations for
war and extraordinary overseas commitments for counterinsurgency. The escalation would
trigger intense confrontations with the Soviet Union during Kennedy’s short tenure, culminating
in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Johnson, relying on the Kennedy team, would double down on
Kennedy’s counterinsurgency strategy; until, of course, it all came to grief in 1968. In order to
unearth the logic of the Kennedy escalation, we must dig into the nuclear strategy discourse that
emerged in the mid-1950s.
Brave New World
The controlling variable structuring the nuclear strategy discourse was not some rigidity of
midcentury thought but the raw fact of unbounded growth in the means of destruction. Now that
‘killing nations’ finally became technically feasible as a war strategy, ‘the practical and moral
24 Fred Kaplan. The Wizards of Armageddon. Stanford University Press, 1991, Chap. 5.
necessity of disciplining mass violence’ became absolutely paramount.25 For even if the United
States had enjoyed a monopoly on thermonuclear weapons, restraint in the use of force would
have been absolutely necessary for any tolerable ‘moral economy’ of military policy.26 But no
such monopoly obtained. The Soviets tested a hydrogen weapon within months of the American
test in 1952. Restraint in the use of force to settle political disagreements between the great
powers was no longer optional; it was the basic precondition for survival in the age of
thermonuclear weapons. Given that any military conflict between the two great powers could
potentially lead to two-sided thermonuclear war, war limitation acquired overriding priority in
any confrontation. Once this overriding structuring effect of thermonuclear weapons is digested,
the pattern of the intellectual flowering evident in the late-1950s becomes clear.
The ferment was unleashed by the announcement of the Dulles-Eisenhower “massive
retaliation” doctrine in January 1954. In the Administration’s view, the United States would
drive itself bankrupt if it tried to oppose Communist expansion by local defense everywhere. If
the policy of containment meant that the United States would be ready to oppose force by
counterforce everywhere, as in Korea, then the Communists would always hold the initiate. The
United States would in effect be trying to hold ‘a Maginot Line all around the 20,000-mile
periphery of Communist power’.27 The Administration’s position was that we are not going to
play by Communist rules any more. There would be no repetition of Korea. The United States
will not fight with deliberate restraint at a time and place, and with the weapons, chosen by the
Communists. The nuclear threat was clearly crafted to deter Chinese aggression in the ‘gray
areas.’ As Secretary Dulles informed the American Legion,
Communist China has been and now is training, equipping and supplying the Communist forces
in Indochina. There is the risk that, as in Korea, Red China might send its own army into
Indochina. The Chinese Communist regime should realize that such a second aggression could
not occur without grave consequences which might not be confined to Indochina.28
25 Robert Osgood. Limited War, Univ of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 21.
26 Geyer, Michael, and Adam Tooze, eds. The Cambridge History of the Second World War: Volume 3, Total War:
Economy, Society and Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2015. Introduction: The Moral Economy of War and
27 Limited War, p. 200.
28 Quoted in Limited War, p. 211.
Dulles repeated the threat a number of times in the following months. But the Communists called
his bluff. That very spring, a massive assault by Ho Chi Minh, openly backed by China,
destroyed the French foothold in Southeast Asia at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The United
States tried to save face at Geneva, but no one was fooled. Dulles’ ‘bluff appeared to have been
called just as clearly as though the Communists had defied an ultimatum’. US capitulation
‘called into question the deterrent upon which [the US] relied [on] to contain direct
The first substantial critique to appear was also the most influential. William Weed Kaufmann,
Kennedy’s classmate at Choate boarding school, who read at Yale and was now a professor at
Princeton, circulated the essay titled “The Requirements of Deterrence” among military officials
and civilians soon after the Dulles speech.30 The response to the essay was electrifying. On 20
March 1955, New York Times would report, on the front page below the fold, on the buzz
surrounding the 36-year-old nuclear strategist under the headline “Pentagon Armed by Savant’s
Data”. ‘Some foremost Pentagon strategists have become devoted readers of the former Air
Force radar man who challenged the massive retaliation concept.’ Kaufmann ‘may not realize
how popular he has become in the Army. That is, unless he had noted how many copies of his
“The Requirements of Deterrence” have been requested by the Pentagon.’31
The policy of massive retaliation put us in an awful straitjacket, Kaufmann argued.
If the Communists should challenge our sincerity, and they would have good reasons for daring to
do so, we would either have to put up or shut up. If we put up, we would plunge into all the
immeasurable horrors of an atomic war. If we shut up, we would suffer a serious loss of prestige
and damage our capacity to establish deterrents against further Communist expansion.32
Kaufmann’s broader point was that the credibility of the deterrent threat depended crucially on
the political interests at stake. On the periphery, where vital US interests were not at stake, the
deterrent threat would simply not be credible. The United States should not be making promises
29 Limited War, p. 225.
30 Originally published as Memorandum No. 7 of the Center of International Studies at Princeton University on 15
November 1954, the essay would later be reproduced in an edited volume, W.W. Kaufmann (ed.), Military Policy
and National Security, Princeton Univ Press, 1956.
31 “Pentagon Armed by Savant’s Data.” New York Times, 20 March 1955, p. 1.
32 Military Policy, p. 24.
it could not possibly keep. If it were deemed important to defend the West’s position in
peripheral areas, that required a suitable military policy. ‘For specific crises in Asia, the Middle
East, and perhaps even Europe as well, more precise, discriminating, and discreet methods of
destruction are required’.33 Indeed, the Korean template was not to be avoided but embraced.
Wars fought along lines similar to the Korean conflict may have become obsolete. But before
accepting this conclusion, it should be remembered that the strife in Indo-China and Malaya went
on precisely when the United States probably had a very great advantage in the supply of atomic
weapons. Guerrilla warfare and subversion obviously are not amenable to the drastic and more or
less indiscriminate treatment of nuclear devices, however small, yet they are precisely the kinds
of conflicts that are most likely to break out in and among the unstable societies in Asia. Indeed,
the operations of the Viet Minh in Indo-China furnish a classic example of this kind of warfare
and the difficulties involved in coping with it.34
The problem was precisely that the United States could not defeat Communist guerrillas in the
‘gray areas’ by threatening the use of nuclear weapons. ‘The real issue,’ Kaufman goes on, ‘is
not one of ability but one of willingness.’
[Do] we want to economize on conventional forces at the risk that, confronted with another Korea
or Indo-China, we will have to choose between the use of nuclear weapons—with all the hazards
and disadvantages attendant upon their use—and the dangers and humiliations of retreat? Or do
we want to have available the maximum freedom of choice by maintaining powerful conventional
forces of our own and contributing further to the support of our allies?
‘American interests make it imperative’, Kaufmann concluded, ‘that we have at our disposal a
large and diversified military establishment in a state of constant readiness and endowed with
mobility, adaptability, and great power in all its parts.’35 Here were the makings of a 20-year
career in the cockpit of US military policy.
Creating a big stick was all well and good. But what exactly were the American interests
at stake in Indochina? The Eisenhower-Dulles position was that the Administration was prepared
to accept occasional ‘setbacks in the cause of freedom’, particularly when they were of only
‘temporary and local significance’. No political configuration in Indochina could meaningfully
affect the global balance of power. While Administration officials spoke of dominoes, Geneva
revealed that they regarded the events in Indochina to be of ‘temporary and local significance’
33 Military Policy, p. 249.
34 Military Policy, p. 239.
35 Military Policy, p. 251-252.
after all. Kaufmann did not disagree entirely. ‘No one wants to acquiesce in a surrender of free-
world outposts to Communist pressure’, he wrote, ‘equally, there are very few who wish to see
the country blown up in the process of defending southern Vietnam’.36 Prophetic words indeed.
Kaufmann may not have seen any virtue in escalating American commitments to South
Vietnam at this early date, but he was certain that some kind of general solution was called for in
order to deal with communist guerrilla activity.
American military policy will therefore have to deal in some way with the possibility of small-
scale wars launched in the manner of the Korean attack of 1950 or developing out of guerrilla
operations as in Indo-China.37
Kaufmann was not alone to think hard about this problem. Robert Osgood, at Johns Hopkins,
went further. At issue was ‘the eastward shift of Communist pressure,’ to the ‘gray areas’ where
Communist subversion could exploit postcolonial instability.
All around the Eurasian rimlands from Iran to Korea38 there remained a vast region continuous to
the Communist sphere of power that was ripe for Communist expansion. In these “gray areas” the
Communists could exploit numerous situations of economic, social, and political weakness, and
they could appeal to powerful nationalist and anti-Western sentiments.39
Kissinger too got on the bandwagon.40 This diagnosis, that former colonies abutting the Sino-
Soviet Bloc were at risk of Communist subversion and guerrilla insurrection, was later
theoretically grounded in Modernization theory by Walt Rostow. U. Alexis Johnson, a career
foreign service officer, would take the lead in weaving the thesis into an overarching
counterinsurgency policy. Another career foreign service officer, Charles Maechling Jr., was put
in charge of overseeing the Administration’s covert counterinsurgency campaign. But we are
getting ahead of the story. Let us return for now to the intellectual history of nuclear strategy. For
we must map their ‘mentality’ in order to understand the Kennedy escalation.
36 Military Policy, p. 257.
37 Military Policy, p. 103.
38 Osgood’s risk belt extends from Iran to Korea, and not, say Turkey to Korea, because, as he explains on page 267
of Limited War, ‘the real deterrent to an invasion’ of the Middle East ‘must be America’s capacity for strategic
retaliation’. It is an open question how widely Osgood’s determination of the American interest in the Middle East
was shared among US strategists. For a case to the contrary, see Bob Vitalis, Oilcraft, forthcoming.
39 Limited War, p. 161.
40 Henry Kissinger. “Military Policy and Defense of the ‘Grey Areas’.” Foreign Affairs. April 1955.
It was soon open season on Massive Retaliation. Scholars looked for ways to avoid the sharp
dichotomy of putting up or shutting up implied by the policy of deterrence. A whole series of
treaties on limited war emerged in short order. Rear Admiral Sir Anthony Buzzard at the Royal
Institute for International Affairs introduced the notion of ‘graduated deterrence’ and ‘limited
atomic war’.41 With Soviet-American strategic parity on the horizon, Buzzard wanted to put the
policy of deterrence on a firmer footing. The idea was to rely on the threat of fighting a ground
war on the central front with tactical nuclear weapons. For in this manner, tactical nuclear
weapons, in which the West seemed to be ahead, could neutralize the conventional superiority of
the Warsaw Pact. This idea was certainly not new to the Americans. Indeed, tactical nuclear
weapons were already being introduced into Germany when Buzzard was writing.
It was not clear, however, how long the West’s supposed lead in tactical weapons could
be expected to last, and whether, once both sides deployed them in numbers, field weapons were
better for the defender or the attacker on the Great European Plain. Even so, the argument would
reappear in the work of a number of American scholars. The most (in)famous such intervention
was, of course, Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Kissinger argued that
conventional war-fighting obeyed the principle of force concentration to achieve local tactical
superiority. But this was a losing strategy against an adversary prepared to use field nuclear
weapons on the battlefield for massed forces made tempting targets for nuclear obliteration.
Instead, he advocated something akin to naval strategy for the conduct of limited nuclear warfare
on land.
The proper analogy to limited nuclear war is not traditional land warfare, but naval strategy, in
which self-contained units with great firepower gradually gain the upper hand by destroying their
enemy counterparts without physically occupying territory or establishing a front line.42
Initially, the book made quite a splash. It seems to have established Kissinger’s credibility in the
public mind as a serious military and foreign policy thinker. Possibly on account of the reception
of the book, Harvard awarded him tenure in 1959. Among the cognoscenti however, in an article
41 Buzzard, Anthony. On Limiting Atomic War. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1956; and Buzzard, Anthony
W. “Massive retaliation and graduated deterrence.” World Politics 8, no. 2 (1956): 228-237. Both of them were
again in circulation before they were published; probably already in 1955 if not 1954.
42 Henry Kissinger. Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by
Harper, 1957, p. 180.
in World Politics, Kaufmann had already, respectfully but irredeemably, demolished Kissinger’s
Presumably any war that is limited in scope is bound to have a great many interested onlookers.
Hence, if we should again become involved in such a war,43 we will probably be calculating not
only how to keep the conflict limited, achieve a set of local objectives, and maintain or enhance
American military prestige. We will also be striving to determine how we can do all these things
without suffering unacceptable political losses outside the theater of war. … How we could do so,
and fight in the manner prescribed by Kissinger, is a problem which, regrettably, he ignores.44
The fundamental issue was that a military policy of tactical nuclear war created insurmountable
problems for relations with Germany since that country could not survive such a campaign on
the central front. The solution had been obvious all along: The West simply had to deploy
sufficient ground forces to deny Western Europe to the forces of the Warsaw Pact. To
Kissinger’s credit, by 1960 he had reappraised his views and adopted Kaufmann’s position that
the United States should rely on conventional forces for local defense on the central front,
holding both tactical and strategic nuclear forces in reserve.45
The Center of International Studies at Princeton was established by six scholars, including
Kaufmann, Dunn, and Knorr, who left the Yale Institute of International studies en masse in
1951.46 Unlike RAND, it was not leashed to a particular service arm. Instead, it was funded by
the Rockefeller Foundation and had links to State. World Politics was their flagship journal. The
Center would compete with RAND as the center of gravity of the nuclear strategy discourse.
A less well-known strand of the discourse that emerged from the Center was that of
‘limited strategic war’. Thornton Read and Klaus E. Knorr were most closely associated with this
confluence of ideas; as was the vulgar popularizer of nuclear strategy, Herman Kahn.47 These
43 Kaufmann’s referring to Korea.
44 Kaufmann, William W. “The Crisis in Military Affairs.” World Politics 10, no. 4 (1958): 579-603. Much more
than just a review, this article offers interesting insights into the thinking of one of the chief architects of US nuclear
policy. See footnote 38 in Osgood’s Nuclear Dilemma.
45 Kissinger, Henry A. “Limited War: Conventional or Nuclear? A Reappraisal.” Daedalus 89, no. 4 (1960): 800-
817. The walk-back prompted Kaufmann, according to Kaplan, ‘to compose a satirical ditty titled “I Wonder Who’s
Kissinger Now.”’ See Wizards, footnote 327.
46 “Six of Faculty Leaving Yale For Princeton in Policy Split.” New York Times, 23 April 1951, p. 1. The institute at
Yale had been founded by Spykman and Dunn in 1935.
47 Knorr, Klaus Eugen, and Thornton Read, eds. Limited Strategic War. No. 3. Published for the Center of
International Studies, Princeton University, by Praeger, 1962; Kahn, Herman. On Thermonuclear War. Princeton
Univ Press, 1960.
scholars explored how the great powers might settle their political disputes though limited
thermonuclear exchanges. If the Soviets took Berlin, for instance, one idea was to take out a
medium sized Soviet city with a single megaton weapon. The Soviets would presumably
retaliate. The “game” would go on until a negotiated settlement could be reached to terminate the
war. How the enemy could be persuaded to follow the rules of such ‘city exchange’ family of
war games was never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. Schelling wrote a scathing comment that,
to their credit, Read and Knorr published in the 1962 volume they edited.
Unlike other strategists who preferred to keep a low profile, particularly Kaufmann,
Herman Kahn was fond of giving public lectures on nuclear war. His flamboyant style and
attention-seeking was bringing too much unwanted attention on the Air Force’s think-tank. He
would be pushed out of RAND in 1961, after the controversial reception of On Thermonuclear
War. He founded the Hudson Institute up in Croton-on-Hudson the same year. That’s where he
would stay until his death in 1983.
The Soviets tested the first ICBM in 1957. The shock in The United Stateswas devastating. Was
the United States already lagging technologically behind the Communist great power? Part of the
reason for the Soviet lead was that they had leap-frogged the bomber phase and made early
investments in ballistic missile technology. These investments bore fruit while the US lagged
behind. The “missile gap”, that JFK would campaign on, may not have obtained at all. But the
perception rested on solid foundations. The Soviet marriage of the ICBM and megaton weapons
would soon expose American cities to the risk of annihilation. The invulnerability of the
American homeland, a fact of life that that conditioned American behavior on the world stage
since as far back as anyone could remember, was about to vanish forever. More than any other
development, Sputnik would shock Americans out of their comfort zone and propel a national
security nerd into the White House.
Brodie was the grand old man at RAND. Like Kahn, he was never invited into the inner
circle of the Kennedy Administration. Part of the reason for his long-lived tenure at RAND was
simply that the Air Force loved him. That may also be why he was suspect among those on the
inside. In any case, Brodie’s thinking was more in line with the uniformed men of the SAC than
the civilian intellectuals who would man the cockpit from 1961. For that very reason he offers a
window into Air Force thought. This is a crucial issue. For there was a serious and consequential
gap between uniformed militarists in the Air Force and civilian militarists who authored the
Kennedy escalation.
Sputnik would prompt Bernard Brodie to pen his greatest contribution to the discourse in
1959, Strategy in the Missile Age. In some of the most striking passages in the book, Brodie
relays the Air Force’s plans for fighting general nuclear war.
It is more important in military planning than the relatively small amount of discussion
concerning it would lead us to expect. The distinguishing characteristic of the idea, which has
been called “preemptive attack,” is that it envisages a strategic air attack by the United States
upon the Soviet Union only after the latter has already set in motion its own strategic air attack,
but before that attack is consummated and preferably before it gets well underway. … “I won’t
strike first unless you do,” though the phrase should no doubt be edited to read, “unless you
attempt to.” Anyway, there is the insistence that come what may, “I will strike first!” — though
the “I” agrees to wait long enough so that any qualms on moral grounds are automatically
Not only was Brodie familiar with the Air Force’s thinking on nuclear war-fighting, he
openly approved of a preemptive first-strike strategy for general war.
We have to remind ourselves again of the great military advantage of striking first in a
total war, or at least of not having our retaliatory craft caught motionless and exposed to enemy
strikes. Air Force officers are quite right in being preoccupied with this point. … At any rate, we
are geared to an almost automatic response in the event of a Soviet attack upon western Europe,
and there has thus far been no important move to unwind this taut spring.49
In other words, the Air Force remained fully committed to Douhetism. It was packed with
what Osgood called “the warwinners”.
But SAC leaders, such as General Curtis LeMay and General Thomas Powers, convinced
of the decisive offensive capabilities of air power, continued to reject any effort to alter war plans
so as to spare cities or in any way limit the infliction of maximum destruction with maximum
Firmly in the grip of Douhetism, LeMay’s SAC had developed general war plans that called for
an all-out preemptive first-strike from Berlin to Shanghai. As Daniel Ellsberg, the strategist and
48 Strategy in the Missile Age, p. 242.
49 Strategy in the Missile Age, p. 234.
50 Robert Osgood. The Nuclear Dilemma in American Strategic Thought, Westview Press, 1988, p. 9.
whistle blower, reported recently, the operational plan was expected to kill hundreds of millions
in the Sino-Soviet bloc even if China was not involved in a Russo-American confrontation.51
What political aims could ever justify recourse to such a plan of action are not entirely clear. To
be sure, as long as the United States was invulnerable, the problem could be overlooked. Victory
through genocide would remain the de facto plan for general war through the 1950s.
The warwinners’ perspective dominated the New Look. … The Eisenhower-Dulles
administration, in effect, endorsed warwinning rejectionism when it proclaimed and adopted a
formula for strengthened deterrence with budgetary retrenchment after the Korean war.52
But, after Sputnik, now that the Soviets were expected before long to be in a position to retaliate
with a genocidal strike of their own, the Air Force’s Douhetism simply would not fly. While
Brodie, RAND, and the Air Force, did not get the memo, Kaufmann did. What Kaufmann
proposed would become the de facto American plan for general war after the Kennedy revolution
in US military policy.
Kaufmann had circulated his strategy note in 1960. His idea was a synthesis of the Air Force’s
‘blunting mission’ and the principle of ‘a threat held in reserve’. The ‘blunting mission’ was a
euphemism for destroying the enemy’s capacity to retaliate. It was the primary goal of all
operational plans ever considered for general nuclear war after the loss of nuclear monopoly.
But, in a hangover from the days of the Committee of Operations Analysts, it was always piled
on with countervalue strikes aimed at the destruction of population and industry. Even in the
Marshall and Loftus proposal, collateral damage was regarded as a “bonus”. Kaufmann’s
innovation was to propose a pure counterforce strike with the countervalue threat held in
reserve.53 In other words, the idea was to try to disarm the enemy while holding his cities
51 Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017,
passim. See, in particular, the graph in the prologue. His final estimate of fatalities from SIOP-62 was 600 million.
52 Nuclear Dilemma, p. 12.
53 Wizards, p. 501-502.
hostage. The moral economy was not secondary but critical to extended deterrence. For even if
the US enjoyed nuclear superiority, how could an American President order a genocide without a
very compelling notion of just cause? Kaufmann understood this more than anyone else
involved. Kaufmann’s solution would be reflected in McNamara’s ‘No Cities’ speech in 1962,
that Kaufmann had drafted himself.
Unlike Brodie, Wohlstetter and others based permanently at RAND, Kaufmann was not a
lackey of the Air Force. The Air Force’s skepticism of Kaufmann was probably a knee-jerk
reaction to the Army’s wholehearted embrace of the budding strategist. But the Air Force now
saw abiding virtue in Kaufmann’s counterforce proposal, for it meant a larger SAC. Perhaps
there was a reconciliation of sorts between Kaufmann and the Air Force.
But counterforce was no silver bullet. The issue was threefold. First, a situation in which
both sides exercised restraint and confined strategic attacks to counterforce targets was extremely
favorable to the side that enjoyed a bigger arsenal; at least in a world where it was difficult to
make the weapons invulnerable by stealth or mobility. For with both sides exposed, the superior
side could, in principle, disarm the inferior side. In any case, the superior side could be expected
to emerge in an even more superior position after a counterforce exchange.54 The implication
was that the inferior party would refuse to play by such rules and instead threaten cities from the
get-go. This was indeed the Soviet response to the Kaufmann-McNamara-Kennedy ‘No Cities’
declaration. Second, counterforce encouraged an arms race since, whether or not a counterforce
exchange obtained, the side that had a bigger arsenal would be in a position to intimidate the
other in the event of a confrontation. But a sustained arms race was unpredictable. There may be
‘windows of opportunities’; there would almost certainly be ‘wasting assets’; it could go any
which way given sufficient time. I.e., the US could find itself on the losing side of such an arms
race; at least briefly. This was hardly satisfactory. Eventually, weariness with the arms race
would generate appetite for arms control. Third, counterforce targeting increased the importance
of ‘getting in the first blow’, thereby generating what Schelling called ‘the reciprocal fear of
surprise attack’.
If surprise attack carries an advantage, it is worthwhile to avert it by striking first. … [A] modest
temptation on each side to sneak in a first blow — a temptation too small by itself to motivate an
attack — might become compounded through a process of interacting expectations, with
54 In such a situation the superior side is said to enjoy escalation dominance.
additional motive for attack being produced by successive cycles of ‘He thinks we think he thinks
we think … he thinks we think he’ll attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will; so we must’.55
The problems weren’t insoluble. There was, in fact, a straightforward solution. That was
to complement Kaufmann’s counterforce with a highly survivable second-strike capability. The
purpose of the Triad, that remains to this day, was to ensure that America’s capacity for
retaliation could not be destroyed in a surprise all-out counterforce strike by the enemy.
However, as Kaufmann understood, in light of America’s extended deterrence commitments
basic moral principles demanded that, even in a general war, nuclear weapons be deployed not
for genocide but to disarm the enemy. For once the enemy was disarmed, political aims could be
secured without resort to genocide. The counterforce idea only applied to a situation where the
United States already found itself in a general war with the Soviet Union. Could a deliberately
controlled version of counterforce work under conditions of armed bargaining? This was surely
the Whiz Kids’ hope.
The main consequence of the counterforce synthesis was unrestrained growth in nuclear
arms as the Soviet Union tried to reverse the strategic balance after the Kennedy confrontation.
Schelling’s panic about ‘the reciprocal fear of surprise attack’ was second only to Wohlstetter’s
panic on the pages of Foreign Affairs about the vulnerability of the SAC and the ‘delicate
balance of power’.56 Kahn came up with an Alice in Wonderland’s worth of scary
counterfactuals. The problem was the lack of means to discipline the imagination in the domain
of nuclear strategy. There was no data and not much by way of documentary evidence to leash
the discourse in some way to “reality”. Civilian statesmen and strategists, as well as uniformed
intellectuals, found themselves stumbling through unchartered territory.
The chief question raised by unbounded growth in the means of destruction was
articulated by Osgood in the very first sentence of Limited War:
How can the United States employ military power as a rational instrument of foreign policy when
the destructive potentialities of war exceed any rational purpose?57
55 Thomas Schelling. The Strategy of Conflict, Harvard Univ Press, 1960, p. 207.
56 Wohlstetter, Albert. “The Delicate Balance of Terror.” Foreign Aff. 37 (1958): 211. Wohlstetter argued that
deterrence against a surprise first-strike was harder than it looked; a concern soon widely shared among the
57 Limited War, p. 1.
Osgood’s response was to double down on Clausewitz. To him, ‘nations might better renounce
the use of war as an instrument of anything but national policy’.
Clausewitz’ dictum that war continues political intercourse … is the only view consistent with the
use of force as a means rather than an end. If we find this view repugnant as the sentiment of the
Kellogg-Briand Pact congenial, then we have not fully grasped the practical and moral necessity
of disciplining mass violence.58
The most influential strategists and principals in the Kennedy Administration were fully aware of
the limits of abstract analysis and the numbers racket; they believed in the primacy of politics
and the absolute necessity of disciplining mass violence under the shadow of megaton weapons.
But those in the inner circle — more than the mad scientists of nuclear war — got caught up in
the web of a thick diagnosis of the world situation. Osgood argued that ‘it may be wise to
announce our adherence to a policy of graduated deterrence in the gray areas’.59 Kaufmann
would nod in agreement, and go on to educate Kennedy, McNamara, and future presidents on the
importance of deliberate restraint in the use of force and the importance of dealing ‘in some way
with the possibility of … guerrilla operations as in Indo-China’.
Thomas Schelling’s idea was to leash mass violence even tighter than Kaufmann and Osgood.
The issue for Schelling, was not how to fight a general nuclear war, but how to conduct armed
diplomacy under the shadow of thermonuclear weapons. The main problem, Schelling argued in
effect, is asymmetric information. If the balance of resolve were perfectly observable, there
could be no resort to arms. Indeed, the side in the weaker position would give way before any
clash of arms could get underway. But the balance of resolve can only be discovered through the
test of events. Schelling thus imagines armed bargaining as process of discovery in which two
sides recover private information from each other by paying in pain or risk. Once adversaries are
engaged on a point of violent disagreement, both sides try to signal their resolve by doing costly
things that would be too risky or costly if they were not as resolved as they were.
The shared risk of war and the capacity to hurt, Schelling argued, can be used for
compellence as well as deterrence. While Schelling was writing all this up in Arms and
58 Limited War, p. 21. Emphasis in the original.
59 Limited War, p. 270.
Influence, his idea was being implemented through the deliberately controlled escalation of air
coercion against Hanoi. It is not clear if Schelling was the author of Operation Rolling Thunder.
In any event, Schelling’s intellectual influence is unmistakable in the design of the air war. The
problem was how to compel Hanoi to stop arming the Viet Cong. Given the overall commitment
to the deliberate and controlled use of force of the Kennedy diagnosis, the solution suggested
[Rolling Thunder] was the direct exercise of the power to hurt, applied as coercive pressure,
intended to create for the enemy the prospect of cumulative losses that were more than the local
war was worth, more unattractive than concession, compromise, or limited capitulation.60
The exercise inspired him to meditate on how ‘the power to hurt’ could be brought to bear on
international relations.
The power to hurt, though it can usually accomplish nothing directly, is potentially more versatile
than a straightforward capacity for forcible accomplishment. … The threat of pain and damage
may make him want to do it, and anything he can do is potentially susceptible to inducement. …
[V]iolence—pure pain and damage—can be used or threatened to coerce and to deter, to
intimidate, and to blackmail, to demoralize and to paralyze, in a conscious process of dirty
bargaining. … Pure violence, like fire, can be harnessed to a purpose.61
Schelling thus appears as a self-aware historical subject, transparently translating his own
experience of power to an abstract theory of compellence. Here we find another connection
between the nuclear strategy discourse and the escalation of US commitments in Vietnam.
Extraordinarily, with a lot of huffing and puffing, Schelling explained the stark logic of the
Johnson escalation quite frankly.
President Johnson was widely criticized in the press, shortly after the bombing attacks began in
early 1965, for not having made his objectives entirely clear. … [A]n important possibility is that
vague demands, though hard to understand, can be less embarrassing to comply with. … [A]
compellent threat may have to be focused on the results rather than contributory deeds, like … the
extortionist’s demand, “Get me money. I don’t care you how you get it, just get it.”62
60 Thomas Schelling. Arms and Influence, Yale Univ Press, 1966, p. 167.
61 Arms and Influence, p. 8-9. Emphasis mine.
62 Arms and Influence, p. 84-85. Emphasis mine.
John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy’s senior thesis at Harvard, submitted in 1940, was titled
“Appeasement in Munich”. It was later published as Why England Slept.63 It was a failure of
British military policy, he argued, that explained the Munich betrayal; Britain was intimidated by
Germany because it had not undertaken enough war preparations. Not only did Britain’s failure
to rearm spell diplomatic humiliation, Kennedy argued, it also emboldened Hitler. There may not
have been another world war if Britain hadn’t let down her guard. This was a deep issue for the
young man because his father had been the Ambassador to Great Britain from 1937, and a
defeatist after the Fall of France.64 While Joseph Kennedy was an instinctive isolationist, Jack
was committed to a more expansive vision of American power and responsibility. Kennedy
became the national security nerd of the Senate and emerged as the principal critic in
Washington of the Dulles-Eisenhower military policy. What brought Kennedy to national
attention was the Sputnik shock.
Kennedy came into power determined to affect a revolution in US military and foreign
policy. But creating a big stick was only part of the Kennedy escalation. The Administration was
working on a much thicker diagnosis. The central insight of this diagnosis was that since
megaton weapons made it incumbent upon both centers to power to restrain the use of force, the
United States had to be prepared to counter Communist pressure by means commensurate with
the precise threat at hand. In the Administration’s diagnosis, the key challenge was Communist
‘subversion in the gray areas’. Nuclear strategists were concerned about this threat precisely
because they could see no plausible mechanism to bring nuclear weapons to bear on this
problem. Osgood would later spell out the diagnosis of the Kennedy Administration:
If the Communists could be contained at the level of strategic war and overt local aggression, the
new administration reasoned, the Third World would be the most active area of the cold war and
guerrilla war would be the greatest military threat.65
63 John F. Kennedy. Why England Slept. New York: W. Funk, 1961.
64 Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, p. 5.
65 Osgood, Robert E. 1969. “The Reappraisal of Limited War.” Adelphi Papers 54, (Feb 01): 41.
Part of the reason why the Kennedy escalation escaped our attention was that it was
overshadowed by the later, more aggressive, escalations of the Johnson years. But perhaps part
of the reason was also that the US experience of counterinsurgency in the Sixties was to a great
extent sub rosa. Particularly during the Kennedy years, CIA was engaged in very extensive
paramilitary operations overseas whose scale was not fully known for years after.66 Details
would emerge later in the published work of former field officers. The most revealing study to
appear on counterinsurgency was that of a former station chief in Laos (1964-1966) who retired
in 1970 after twenty years of service in the CIA. Douglas S. Blaufarb’s The Counterinsurgency
Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance, 1950 to the Present appeared in 1977. William P. Bundy,
McGeorge Bundy’s brother, a classmate of Kaufmann’s at Yale and Nitze’s deputy in the
Kennedy Administration, wrote the Foreword. ‘Blaufarb is clearly right in stressing the input of
the Kennedy years’.
Blaufarb notes that Kennedy had been paying close attention to the problem identified by
the nuclear strategists.
[Kennedy was familiar] with the history of guerrilla involvements … he had visited Vietnam in
1951, coming away with the conviction that guerrilla style warfare posed major difficulties
which, he concluded then, could only be dealt with politically. He commented similarly about the
French predicament in Vietnam in 1954, arguing against American intervention without strict
conditions relating to Vietnamese independence. His later critique of the French position in
Algeria developed the same ideas.67
So, Kennedy was not at all enthusiastic about counterinsurgency until about 1954. Then
Kennedy’s tune begins to change after the articulation of the Dulles-Eisenhower Massive
Retaliation doctrine that triggered the broader intellectual revolution in military affairs.
Another kind of reaction to guerrilla warfare emerges consistently from his comments from 1954
until his election. It is related to the unreadiness of the U.S. to deal with any sort of military threat
except nuclear war. “So in practice” said Senator Kennedy in 1959, “our nuclear retaliatory
power is not enough. It cannot deter Communist aggression which is too limited to justify atomic
war. It cannot protect uncommitted nations against a Communist takeover using local or guerrilla
forces. It cannot be used in so-called brush-fire wars. … In short, it cannot prevent the
Communists from nibbling away at the fringe of the free world’s territory or strength.”68
66 For a partial account see Kennedy’s Wars.
67 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 53.
68 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 53.
In office, Kennedy moved quickly. In practically his first day in office, Kennedy demanded of
his national security principals: ‘What are we doing about guerrilla war’? On February 23,
1961, he signed a Secret executive order, NSAM-2, on the ‘Development of Counter-Guerrilla
Forces’. In the first of his Special Messages on the Defense Budget delivered on March 28,
Kennedy demanded a ‘strengthened capability to meet limited and guerrilla warfare’.”69
The principal objective of US counterinsurgency policy was to strengthen ‘the ability of the
threatened government to govern effectively, and to help it to generate sufficient popular support
to thwart the Communist strategy of popular participation in a people’s war’.70 Was there a
coherent doctrine? Blaufarb asks. There was indeed. It was clearly laid out in ‘a speech cleared
in advance by Kennedy and delivered by Walt W. Rostow at Fort Bragg, in June 1961, on the
subject of “Guerrilla Warfare in the Underdeveloped Areas.”’ Rostow’s Stages of Economic
Growth (1960) had won international acclaim. Formerly at MIT, Rostow was deputy to National
Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. He was ‘something of an authority on aspects of insurgency,
particularly its relationship to underdevelopment’ and thus ‘a natural choice for public
spokesman on a subject to which he had devoted more thought than other Kennedy advisors’.
The speech ‘contained most of the governing ideas that created the administration’s concern and
guided its action’.71 Rostow fleshed out the diagnosis of the Kennedy Administration.
Cuba, the Congo, Laos, and Viet-Nam …. the guerrilla warfare problem in these regions is a
product of that revolutionary process and the Communist effort and intent to exploit it.
[Modernization] touches every aspect of the traditional life: economic, social and political. …
Individual men are torn between the commitment to the old and familiar way of life and the
attractions of a modern way of life. The power of old social groups—notably the landlord who
usually dominates the traditional society—is reduced. … This is the grand arena of revolutionary
change which the Communists are exploiting with great energy. … They know that, as
momentum takes hold in an underdeveloped area—and the fundamental social problems inherited
from the traditional society are solvedtheir chances to seize power decline. … They are the
scavengers of the modernization process.72
69 Quoted in Counterinsurgency Era, p. 55.
70 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 67.
71 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 57.
72 Walt Rostow. “Guerrilla Warfare in the Underdeveloped Areas.” Reproduced in Leighton, Richard M., and Ralph
Sanders. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: An Anthology. Industrial College of the Armed Forces, 1962, p. 7-8.
Emphasis mine.
‘Communism,’ itself, Rostow summarizes his grand historical thesis, ‘is best understood as a
disease of the transition to modernization’. How could this Communist exploitation of the trials
of modernization in the underdeveloped areas be arrested? And what was the American
responsibility in the matter? Rostow begins with the policy of deterrence.
The U.S. has the primary responsibility for deterring the use of nuclear weapons in the pursuit of
Communist ambitions. The U.S. has a major responsibility to deter the kind of overt aggression
with conventional forces, which was launched in June 1950 in Korea. The U.S. has the primary
responsibility for assisting the economies of those hard-pressed states on the periphery of the
Communist bloc, which are under acute military or quasi-military pressure which they cannot
bear from their own resources; for example, South Korea, Viet-Nam, Taiwan, Pakistan, Iran. …
Finally, the United States has a role to play—symbolized by your presence here [at Fort Bragg]
and mine—in learning to deter guerrilla warfare, if possible, and to deal with it, if necessary.73
Even as early as June 1961, and even for a true believer like Rostow, there was no illusion about
what counterinsurgency actually entails. The centrality of the allegiance of the rural population
was understood from the get-go.
[A] guerrilla war must be fought primarily by those on the spot. … [It] is an intimate affair,
fought not merely with weapons but fought in the minds of the men who live in the villages and
the hills; fought by the spirit and policy of those who run the local government. An outsider
cannot, by himself, win a guerrilla war.74
The second architect of counterinsurgency was Roger Hilsman, the head of State’s Bureau of
Intelligence and Research. During the war he had worked for the O.S.S. in Burma, where he
organized guerrilla resistance behind enemy lines. In 1957-1961, he was at the School of
Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins with Robert Osgood. He served as the deputy
director for research at the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, where he
got to know Jack Kennedy. In August 1961, Hilsman delivered a speech titled “Internal War:
The New Communist Doctrine,” later published by Marine Corps Gazette.75 Hilsman too begins
with nuclear weapons.
73 Ibid, p. 10-11.
74 Ibid, p. 11.
75 The article was reproduced in Greene, Thomas Nicholls. The Guerrilla, and How to Fight Him: Selections. Vol.
88. Praeger, 1962. Kennedy wrote in the Foreword that he had ‘read it from cover to cover and was most
Limited wars and total war are closely linked. A limited war can be the escalator carrying the
world right up to the mushroom clouds. …. The great advantage of internal war is that it is less
risky and less conspicuous than the more violent wars. … In short, the so-called nuclear stalemate
has not served to inhibit violence. If anything, it has enabled the Communists to resort to a wider
variety of force. Their new strength in nuclear weapons makes them all the more tempted to
adventure with internal war.76
Hilsman’s contributions were twofold. First, he emphasized the need for military forces suitable
for counterinsurgency.
Conventional forces with heavy equipment in field formation tend to cluster together, centralizing
their power on terrain that allows rapid movement. They rely on roads, consider strong points and
cities as vital targets to defend, and so, when they do disperse, it is only to get tied down in static
operations. In combat, rigid adherence to the principle of concentration keeps units at unwieldy
battalion or even regimental levels, usually with erroneous stress on holding land rather than
destroying enemy forces.77
So, regular divisions with their heavy equipment were unsuitable for counter-guerrilla
operations. What kind of forces would do the trick? Hilsman sought inspiration in his own
During World War II, our OSS guerrilla battalion operated behind enemy lines in Burma.
Nothing pleased us more in those days than to have a regular Japanese force take out after us.
They operated in large unwieldy units that were easy to ambush. … What we would have feared
far more were smaller groups patrolling steadilyespecially cavalry. … For effective guerrilla
operations …[o]ur key units might be decentralized groups of 50 men, self-reliant and able to
operate autonomously, fanned out into the country-side.78
But Hilsman’s vision of creating lightly-armed counter-guerrilla units would always be frustrated
by the Army.
The high command’s “solution” was … to dismiss the contrast between conventional and
counterinsurgency combat as an exaggerated premise. … All infantry units, marines and army
both, were to be made proficient in counterinsurgency combat as an added duty. … The question
of what a fully equipped division would do with its immense firepower in a counterinsurgency
situation was answered by ordaining that this firepower be used “discriminatingly.” Clearly the
alternative of leaving behind most of a division’s equipment was never seriously contemplated
76 Hilsman, Roger. “Counter-Insurgency: Internal War: The New Communist Tactic.” Marine Corps Gazette, 1963,
p. 50-51. Reproduced in The Guerrilla. There are sections on counterinsurgency warfare missing from the former
but found in the latter.
77 Ibid, p. 11.
78 The Guerrilla, p. 27.
and one can see why. It appeared to defy common sense to reduce a sophisticated and immensely
potent war-making force to something far less potent and fearsome and then deploy it in
The Army’s resistance to abandon the American way of war would exacerbate the immense
difficulties of fighting protracted guerrilla insurgencies, as Hilsman had feared.
The counterinsurgency forces of the United States were thus ordained, when committed to
combat, to be dependent upon roads, to use weapons which would of necessity harm civilians
caught in the fire while causing little harm to the nimble guerrillas, and to impact massively upon
the host society in a way which could not but arouse nationalistic feelings.80
Hilsman’s second contribution was to go beyond “hearts and minds” and insist that ‘internal
security is a problem in its own right and not simply a function of good government or economic
growth’.81 He ‘introduced the idea that administrative underdevelopment which leaves a vacuum
in most of the countryside of an underdeveloped country [with the state] being looked upon as a
distant and occasionally a heavy-handed force. In such an environment, the indifferent mass may
permit a guerrilla movement to thrive simply because the government has no means to establish
an effective presence.’
The United States, Hilsman recommended, should ‘help responsible and friendly
governments attack this problem all along the line’. It should not only train the security forces of
states at risk in counterguerrilla and police work, but also ‘help create citizens’ militia forces’,
and encourage reformers to ‘organize mass parties’. ‘Clearly,’ Blaufarb concludes his discussion
of Hilsman’s vision of counterinsurgency, ‘it was a prescription for intervention in depth in the
intimate internal affairs of such governments’. 82
Rostow had grounded counterinsurgency in modernization theory. Hilsman had articulated the
rudiments of an operational doctrine for counterguerrilla warfare. But it fell to a career foreign
service officer, Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson, to spell
out the Administration’s counterinsurgency policy. In an article titled “Internal Defense and the
Foreign Service” in the Foreign Service Journal, the monthly publication of the Foreign Service
79 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 81.
80 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 81.
81 The Guerrilla, p. 35.
82 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 61. Emphasis mine.
Association, he laid out ‘our program for countersubversion’.83 What is striking is the sheer scale
and open-ended nature of the Kennedy commitment.
[Our approach begins with] a searching and comprehensive analysis of the points of strengths and
vulnerability of [the society.] … Next is the development of measures designed to strengthen the
vulnerable points of the society under attack and to remove or at least ameliorate those grievances
and causes of popular discontent which the Communists exploit. Third is the development of
effective police and military capabilities in friendly countries to maintain internal security, to
protect the populace from intimidation and violence, and to suppress subversive insurgency.84
The dimensions of the counterinsurgency effort were considerable. A gigantic bureaucratic
apparatus for counterinsurgency was soon in the process of rapid construction. But already we
find a serious note of caution about what would later be termed the problem of ‘self-reform’.
In some cases only radical reforms will obtain the necessary results. Yet the measures we
advocate may strike at the very foundations of these aspects of a country’s social structure and
domestic economy on which rests the basis of the government’s control.85
The problem of ‘self-reform in the midst of crisis’ would prove just as insurmountable as the
problem of persuading the Army to deploy forces suitable for counter-guerrilla warfare.
When in response to counterinsurgency doctrine, the U.S. called upon a threatened government to
carry out a program of self-reform in the midst of crisis, it seemed to be insisting that the regime
jeopardize its hold on power in order to defeat the Communists. To the ruling group this was no
mere technical question but one of survival, for, not unnaturally, the members placed their
continued hold on power ahead of defeating the Communists, whereas, in the U.S. view, the
priorities were reversed. … The problem of self-reform in the midst of crisis is one of the factors
which lay, like a concealed mine, in the path of the counterinsurgency program in many of the
‘The campaign for a new approach to deal with insurgency was bold, determined, and energetic’,
Blaufarb concludes, ‘but it was also superficial and, responding to the perceived urgencies of the
threat, too hasty’.
83 U. Alexis Johnson. “Internal Defense and the Foreign Service”, Foreign Service Journal, July 1962, p. 20.
84 Ibid, p. 22.
85 Ibid, p. 23.
86 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 86-87. Emphasis mine.
Design Principles
On the recommendation of the “Bissell committee,”87 a high-level taskforce was set up to
quarterback the counterinsurgency effort. Special Group (C.I.) set up in January 1962 by NSAM-
164, chaired by General Maxwell E. Taylor.88 Other members named by title were U. Alexis
Johnson from State; Roswell Gilpatric from Defense; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Lyman L.
Lemnitzer; the Director of Central Intelligence, John McCone; the President’s special advisor on
national security, McGeorge Bundy; the administrator of USAID, Fowler Hamilton; and the
Director of USIA, Edward R. Murrow. Bobby Kennedy was assigned to act as the President’s
eyes and ears, a fact that reflected the importance he attached to the effort. In short order, Special
Group (C.I.) emerged as ‘the pinnacle of a counterinsurgency apparatus linking it to all the
operating and policy arms of the foreign affairs community’.89 It was the apex of a pyramid of
counterinsurgency institutions.
In principle, Foggy Bottom owned the counterinsurgency effort. This generated some
interagency friction; largely between State and Defense. ‘The President’s recent decision,’ the
(unnamed) Chief of Covert Action Staff at CIA noted in a memo, ‘to center in State
responsibilities for overall planning and coordination’ for counterinsurgency. ‘Basically,
however, this controversy seems to be one primarily between Defense and State and one which
we should enjoy watching from the side-lines and not as active participants.’90
On the ground, the Ambassador was mandated to supervise the efforts of the Country
Team in accordance with the President’s vision. Each Ambassador was asked to submit a
thorough Country Internal Defense Plan that was to include military, economic, political and
social measures by all arms of the US government engaged in the internal defense of that
country. Special Group (C.I.)’s responsibility, beyond doctrine and organizational housekeeping,
87 The chair of this high-level committee set up early in the Administration was Richard E. Bissell, Jr. He was the
Deputy Director for Plans, the CIA’s division of covert operations. According to Blaufarb, Walt Rostow was ‘the
moving force behind the group’. See Counterinsurgency Era, p. 67.
88 Bobby’s son, Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, was likely named after the General.
89 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 75.
90 “Comments on Gilpatric Proposal on Organization and Administration of Special Operations in Critical Overseas
Areas.” General CIA Records, Document Number (FOIA) /ESDN (CREST): CIA-RDP80B01676R003000020010-
was to review the Country Internal Defense Plans and monitor their implementation. But this
two-tier picture of the apparatus misses crucial bits of the architecture in Washington that
emerged to tackle the challenge.91 Members of Special Group (C.I.) were high-ranking officials
in charge of vast bureaucracies and responsible for their overall management. Consequently, the
bandwidth available to deal with policy questions in any detail was severely limited at this level.
We must descend one step below this rarified realm to find the operational commanders, so to
speak, of the vast counterinsurgency effort unleased by the Administration.
A secret memo dated 17 September 1963, declassified in 2003, listed the Members’
“Assistants for Counterinsurgency.”92 A senior career foreign service officer was put in charge
of the day-to-day quarterbacking of the entire effort from Washington. Charles Maechling Jr.
was designated the Director of Internal Defense at the office of the Secretary of State. Major
James W. Dingeman, representing the White House, was designated the Executive Secretary.
Josh Wolf represented AID and Burnett Anderson represented USIA. An Army intelligence
officer, George A. Carroll, represented Defense and Major General Victor Krulak represented
the Joint Chiefs. Civilians at State, AID, USIA, and CIA were to take the lead. And Dingeman
was serve as the eyes and ears of the President.
The First Indochina War had spilled into Laos when Viet Minh forces took the northeastern town
of Sam Neua, before the arrival of the rainy season forced them to withdraw. The French
response was to reoccupy the base of Dien Bien Phu to guard the approaches to Laos from North
Vietnam. Hanoi soon routed the forces arrayed there and with them the French position in
Indochina. At the Geneva conference in 1954, the provinces of Phong Saly and Sam Neua were
left under the de facto control of the Pathet Lao (PL). Lowland Laos was supposed to be a
neutral buffer between the armed camps. But both sides were soon heavily committed. Hanoi
91 Or three-tier, if principals in the White House are placed above the Special Group, as in White House/Special
Group/Country Team.
92 “Members of the Special Group (CI) and their Assistants for Counterinsurgency.” CREST, General CIA Records,
Document Number (FOIA) /ESDN (CREST): CIA-RDP80B01676R001900150021-5.
never stopped arming the PL, which promptly proceeded to establish administrative over the two
northern provinces abutting North Vietnam. More generally, the PL controlled the highlands
while the Americans controlled the lowlands.
The United States became deeply committed in the lowlands under Eisenhower. The
United Statesbecame the paymaster, arms merchant, and trainer of the Royal Lao Army. This
was a formidable intervention a tiny state. ‘For by merely withholding the monthly payment to
the troops, the United States could create the conditions for toppling any Lao government whose
policies it opposed.’93 The Pentagon was opposed but State insisted of the money. The former
wanted the emplacement of Military Assistance Advisory Groups (MAAGs) despite the
provisions agreed to at Geneva. State agreed to set them up in disguise, as the Programs
Evaluation Office (PEO).
Meanwhile, unrest began to grow among the fiercely independent Meo/Hmong
“tribesman” who lived ‘between three thousand to five thousand feet’94 in the vertical shatterbelt
of highland Laos. The PL itself was following the classic Maoist strategy of protracted guerrilla
war in the countryside. In Hanoi, it found a powerful patron on which it became completely
dependent. But the Hmong saw the PL as even more alien that the lowland Lao state.
[A]pparently spontaneous anti-PL guerrilla activity sprang up again in the vicinity of the province
capital of Sam Neua. These groups managed to obtain some help from FAR officers stationed in
adjoining areas controlled by the Vientiane government and continued a sporadic resistance for
several years.95
Down south, after much intrigue during 1958-1959, the US threw its weight behind
General Phoumi, a hardline anti-Communist. General Phoumi blatantly rigged the election of
May 1960 with American help. This fact soon became known, triggering a coup d’état in August
1960 by army captain Kong Le, a Neutralist opposed to interference by foreign powers in Lao
affairs. With U.S. support, General Phoumi marched on the capital. Kong Le was defeated in the
Battle of Vientiane in December 1960. He retreated north and joined forces with the PL.
Eighteen Soviet aircraft soon began lifting supplies from Hanoi to the Plain of Jars, allowing
Kong Le and his PL allies to rearm and grow in strength. The Soviet airlift caught the Americans
93 To Move a Nation, p. 111-112.
94 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 130-131.
95 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 138.
by surprise. A major superpower confrontation began to brew just as Washington was preparing
for the transition of power.
In response to the deteriorating situation, the CIA provided 2000 carbines to Major Vang
Pao, already a military leader of Hmong guerrillas.96 Undersecretary of State C. Douglas Dillion
wrote on 29 September 1960 that ‘as a result of the Sam Neua situation … we had authorized the
resupply of various strongpoints … with ammunition, CAT97 airplanes, food, and so on’.98 On
January 9 or 10, 1961, the famed CIA agent Bill Lair met Vang Pao and opened a direct line
between CIA and the Hmong.99 Lair was soon able to convince his superiors that the Hmong
guerrillas should be trained and supplied. Of course, the final decision on American
commitments could only be made in Washington, and given the late hour, only by the incoming
On 24 January 1961, four days into his presidency, arming of the first 300 Hmong
counter-guerrillas began with the arrival of C-46 cargo planes bearing weapons.100 When the
Royal Lao Army’s offensive against the PL failed within weeks, Vang Pao’s guerrillas emerged
as the only armed resistance to Communist takeover of northern Laos. On 9 March 1961,
Kennedy signed off on NSAM-29, a Top-Secret order that expanded CIA commitments to the
Hmong. By July 1961, we find Brigadier Edward G. Lansdale, the ‘Ugly American’, reporting to
the principals that the program was flourishing.101
About 9,000 Meo tribesmen have been equipped for guerrilla operations, which they are now
conducting with considerable effectiveness in Communist-dominated territory of Laos. …
Command control of Meo operations is exercised by the Chief CIA Vientiane with the advice of
Chief MAAG Laos.102
The balance of the Plain of Jars continued to deteriorate, however. On 23 March 1961, Kennedy
delivered the first of his public threats.
96 Frederic C. Benson. “Genesis of the Hmong-American Alliance, 1949-1962: Aspirations, Expectations and
Commitments during an Era of Uncertainty.Hmong Studies Journal 16(2015): 1-62.
97 Civil Air Transport. Predecessor of Air America and a “proprietary” firm of the CIA.
98 FRUS 1992, Doc.410: September 29, 1960.
99 “Genesis”.
100 “Genesis”.
101 Brigadier Lansdale was an important counterinsurgency expert in the Army. Given to intrigue, Kennedy put him
in charge of Operation Mongoose, a very large-scale covert effort to topple Castro whose full extent had yet to
102 Pentagon Papers, Vol 2, Document 100.
If these attacks do not stop, those who support a truly neutral Laos will have to consider their
The Administration was convinced of the importance of thwarting a takeover of Laos by
Communist forces. At the same time, however, there was little appetite for a direct military
intervention with US forces, although it was indeed considered from time to time. In accordance
with the Administration’s diagnosis, Kennedy wanted to signal restraint and resolve at the same
time. The Soviets too did not want a showdown over Laos either. Much more serious matters of
disagreement awaitedboth sides were saving it up for Berlin. In early communication,
Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed that Laos should be neutral.
Even if the superpowers could agree on the configuration of the government in Vientiane,
however, the struggle for the Plain of Jars could only be resolved by locally-available armed
force. For Hanoi saw it as the backdoor to North Vietnam; and they were prepared to contest the
plain, with or without great power support. If the plain fell to the PL, however, Vientiane would
be militarily exposed. What was under contest in “the quiet war” in northern Laos, 1961-1975,
was thus the balance of power on the Plain of Jars.
“The quiet war” was a war unlike any other. It was fought under tight constraints,
directed not by the military but the Ambassador, run by a secret intelligence agency with the
assistance of a relief and development organization, and supplied entirely by airlift.104 In many
ways it closely resembled the template of the Administration’s counterinsurgency theory. Here
were a people evidently prepared to resist Communist subversion right on the periphery of
Communist power and eager for American help. Here was a war of mutual restraint, with only
pawn moves allowed. Here was a war of the Ambassadors in accordance with the President’s
vision; a war of guerrillas and counterguerrillas of Hilsman’s imagination. Here was a contest in
which the moral economy of Kennedy’s counterinsurgency was at its most clear and
103 “Transcript of the President’s News Conference on World and Domestic Affairs.” New York Times, 24 March
1961, p. 8.
104 Winthrop G. Brown, 1960-1962; Leonard S. Unger, 1962-1964; William H. Sullivan, 1964-1969; G. McMurtrie
Godley, 1969-1973; Charles Whitehouse, 1973-1975. Blaufarb served under Sullivan and waxes lyrical on the
splendid quarterbacking by the Ambassador, which he regards as a major factor in the smooth running of the “quiet
war”. See Douglas S. Blaufarb. “Organizing and Managing Unconventional War in Laos, 1962-1970.” RAND, R-
919, January 1972.
In the aftermath of the American abandonment of the Meo, Blaufarb wrote scathingly.
Among the indirect costs to the U.S. was eventually to have these achievements misunderstood
while the Meo resistance was caught up in the public attack on all aspects of the Indochina war,
its unique factors ignored, its nature distorted and misrepresented. … The idea that the Meo had a
right to fight and sacrifice for their own vision of their future was dismissed as unreal and the
U.S. decision to support them as contemptible.105
A deep sense of moral anguish over the American betrayal of the Hmong would come to be
shared more broadly as details of the secret tragedy became widely known in the decades ahead.
In a 1997 book review for the New York Times, Arnold R. Issacs would write that Roger
Warner’s Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos was
‘impossible to read without a strong sense of anger, sorrow and shame’.106
The tragedy of the betrayal of the Hmong was but a small part of the greater tragedy of
the Kennedy escalation. Many of those closely involved in the counterinsurgency effort of the
1960s would come to deeply regret their efforts. After 1968, once it became clear that the
politico-moral economy of US foreign policy had been ripped to shreds, a number of them would
revisit the Kennedy commitment and pronounce harsh judgements on the wisdom and morality
of the undertaking. Blaufarb’s conclusion was more in line with the broader disillusionment of
those most closely involved in the tragedy.
[T]he failure was one of understanding: an inability to perceive the underlying realities of both
our own system and that of the countries into which we thrust our raw strength. The scars of these
failures will be a long time healing, but possibly, in time, understanding will take the place of
revulsion in our thinking about the meaning of our unhappy experience.107
105 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 167.
106 Arnold R. Isaacs. “The Cut-Rate War,” New York Times, March 16, 1997.
107 Counterinsurgency Era, p. 311.
Nor was there any illusion about what was really at stake in the fight against revolutionary war.
For it was understood from the very beginning that the allegiance of the rural populace was what
both sides were ultimately fighting for. And even though no American interests could be
discerned in mainland Southeast Asia, Hilsman’s strategy offered a plausible path to win their
allegiance. But the American way of war proved too hard to abandon. In any case, no one
anticipated the price that the adversary would be prepared to pay in order to prevail, or just how
knotty the problem of ‘self-reform under crisis’ would turn out to be for client regimes. The
failure was indeed that of ‘an inability to perceive the underlying realities of both our own
system and that of the countries into which we thrust our raw strength’.
The most striking reappraisal was from the man who, in effect, ran Special Group (C.I.) under
Kennedy. In 1969, Charles Maechling Jr. would write a scathing critique in the Foreign Service
Journal, the official in-house monthly at State. The counterinsurgency doctrine ‘overstates, or
perhaps overassumes, both American influence and American ability to solve the internal
difficulties of other countries’. It ‘fails to take into account the serious consequences of
escalation, particularly if accompanied by active US military intervention’. ‘[L]ike other hastily
contrived theories’, Maechling wrote acidly, it ‘assumes a unanimity of purpose and an
availability of resources that are wholly non-existent’. It ‘seems to presuppose that the United
States has a global mission to support “free” societies throughout the Third World regardless of
whether a favorable political orientation in the countries concerned is essential to US interests’.
Robert Osgood’s retrospective monograph, Limited War Revisited, appeared in 1979.
‘[N]o one would have advocated armed intervention,’ Osgood wrote, ‘if the full cost and the
failure that would result had been known’. The ‘things taken for granted at the outset are the
things most questioned in the aftermath: the nature of U.S. interests, the nature and significance
of the Communist threat, and the ability of U.S. military power to defeat Communist incursions
in the Third World’.108In the object of guerrilla war had [sufficient] support to begin with, there
would either be no war or no need for much external help’. Indeed, ‘if indirect assistance is not
sufficient, the direct participation of foreign troops is not likely to succeed either and could well
make things worse’. And ‘if the intervention of U.S. armed forces on a large scale is needed to
prevent the defeat of a government or a faction engaged in an internal war, the United States will
108 Robert Osgood. Limited War Revisited, Westview Press, 1979, p. 34-35.
have great difficulty avoiding a war the cost and duration of which will eventually become
unacceptable domestically’. ‘The lessons serve as antidotes,’ Osgood notes, ‘to the grand
simplifications and ingenious stratagems of the Kennedy era’.109
But ten years earlier, in 1969, Osgood had offered a different diagnosis. The Kennedy
escalation followed, he said, in effect, from the perception of unprecedented power among
Kennedy intellectuals:
By 1964, after the Cuban missile crisis and before large numbers of American forces got bogged
down in Vietnam, the United States looked so powerful that not only some Americans but others
too (particularly Frenchmen) began to think of the world as virtually monopolar and of America’s
position in the world as comparable to that of a global imperial power. The only remaining gap in
military containment might be closed if the United States could demonstrate in Vietnam that wars
of national liberation must fail.110
109 Ibid, p. 49-51.
110 Osgood, Robert E. 1969. The reappraisal of limited war. Adelphi Papers 54, (Feb 01): 41.
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Full-text available
Following an overview of the Franco-Hmong relationship that developed during the first half of the twentieth century and laid the groundwork for future alignments, the main body of this paper focuses on the formative years of the multi-faceted Hmong-American alliance that evolved between 1949 and 1962. Chronologically summarized, this period encompasses wide-ranging and often tumultuous events that ultimately put Laos in what has been described as the cockpit of the Cold War and placed the Hmong on the front lines. When the colonial French withdrew from Laos following the First Indochina War, the United States stepped in to fill the vacuum left behind in the politically unstable country, Washington’s objective being to neutralize Laos and block Communist infiltration from North Vietnam through northeastern Laos—the homeland of the Hmong—and into the Mekong valley, the heartland of the politically dominant Lao, and neighboring Thailand. Trapped in the middle were the Hmong, a multi-clan ethnic minority originally from China that was held in contempt by the governing Lao. The Hmong resettled mainly in Xieng Khouang, a province bordering Tonkin in Vietnam, a country whose hegemony the Hmong historically resisted. The pro-West paramount leaders of the Hmong, Touby Lyfoung and his successor Vang Pao, served as mediators between clan leaders and were mindful of the expectations of their people and their aspiration for freedom. Recognizing that the threat posed by the Vietnamese placed their homeland and livelihoods in jeopardy, they negotiated the support of powerful foreign patrons—the French and later the Americans—and served as intermediaries between the Hmong clan leaders, their foreign patrons, and successive Lao governments. As the showdown leading to the so-called “Secret War” edged forward, the political agendas of the key players were frequently readjusted in the volatile environment. This paper describes the resulting uncertainties that emerged as mutual commitments were made, the outcomes of which often took unexpected turns. As time passed, the Hmong became the principal instrument of a continued Royal Lao Government presence in northeastern Laos.
Predecessor of Air America and a "proprietary" firm of the CIA. 98 FRUS 1992, Doc
  • Civil Air Transport
Civil Air Transport. Predecessor of Air America and a "proprietary" firm of the CIA. 98 FRUS 1992, Doc.410: September 29, 1960. 99 "Genesis". 100 "Genesis".
Transcript of the President's News Conference on World and Domestic Affairs
"Transcript of the President's News Conference on World and Domestic Affairs." New York Times, 24 March 1961, p. 8.
Blaufarb served under Sullivan and waxes lyrical on the splendid quarterbacking by the Ambassador, which he regards as a major factor in the smooth running of the "quiet war
  • Charles Whitehouse
Charles Whitehouse, 1973-1975. Blaufarb served under Sullivan and waxes lyrical on the splendid quarterbacking by the Ambassador, which he regards as a major factor in the smooth running of the "quiet war". See Douglas S. Blaufarb. "Organizing and Managing Unconventional War in Laos, 1962-1970." RAND, R-919, January 1972.