By Rufus Phillips
In January 1961, the new Kennedy administration inherited not only an immediate crisis in Laos but also an unanticipated one in Vietnam. During the transition Eisenhower had reportedly talked to Kennedy at length about Laos but said little about Vietnam. In the meantime, the security situation in South Vietnam became so palpably critical that Ambassador Durbrow could no longer block a visit to Saigon by Lansdale, who had been promoted to brigadier general in 1960 and was by now the acting chief of the Office of Special Operations under the secretary of defense in Washington. His visit to South Vietnam on January 2-14, 1961, resulted in a report to the departing secretary of defense, Thomas Gates. An incoming Kennedy advisor, Walter Rostow, read the report and a companion memorandum about a successful counter-guerilla community called Binh Hung and found both so compelling he insisted Kennedy read them. Kennedy became very excited, asked Rostow for books on guerilla warfare, and telephoned Lansdale directly, asking him to publish the companion memo. (This would appear in the may 1961, edition of the Saturday Evening Post under the title "The Report the President Wanted Published.")
On January 28, 1961, Lansdale was called to a full-blown meeting on Vietnam with key senior personnel from the president’s staff and the State and Defense departments at the White House. Kennedy had a copy of Lansdale’s report in front of him and asked for his views.
Kennedy listened approvingly, then asked if Secretary of State Dean Rusk had informed Lansdale that he (Kennedy) wanted him to go to Vietnam as the new ambassador. Lansdale had not; taken aback by the suddenness of it, he hesitated, telling Kennedy he was really a military officer not a diplomat. What Lansdale had recommended was an unconventional advisory setup in Vietnam with the right kind of Americans being assigned, in particular a new ambassador, and a special advisor for political operations, both of whom would “influence Asians through understanding them sympathetically”; were “knowledgeable about the Mao Tse Tung tactics now employed to capture Vietnam” and were “dedicated to feasible and practical democratic means to defeat these Communist tactics.” Lansdale wanted “an extra-bureaucratic uninhibited advisory system consciously built on shared U.S.-Vietnamese goals (validated by shared experience) and based on mutual trust and admiration.”
Kennedy persisted with the ambassadorial idea, and Lansdale communicated through Rostow his willingness to serve, but the idea fell victim to Lansdale’s prior wars with State over Vietnam policy. In fact, Secretary Rusk, a veteran of the Foreign Service, threatened to resign if Lansdale was appointed, so vehement were the objections of his closest Foreign Service advisors. As a result, Kennedy’s offer never materialized, and Lansdale was eventually sidetracked. The decision was made to rely exclusively on the regular government bureaucracy to help South Vietnam. Each agency would pursue the bureaucratic, top-down, formalistic approach it knew best. The close-in advisory effort Lansdale recommended was ignored.
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