American leaders are agonizing over what to do about ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Media ask if the situation is a "quagmire." It is an appropriate time to look back at events a half-century ago that produced the quintessential quagmire, the Vietnam War.
Fifty years ago Under Secretary of State George Ball sent President Lyndon B. Johnson three memorandums about Vietnam. Earlier that year, Johnson, acting pursuant to the broad authority Congress granted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, had sent the first U.S. combat troops, 3,500 Marines, to join the 23,000 American advisors already in Vietnam.
The United States was conducting a bombing campaign against communist North Vietnam. By summer, Johnson was deciding whether to escalate by deploying many more American forces as the military requested and several of his advisors recommended.
On June 18, 1965, Ball sent Johnson a memo that began with a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind." LBJ's "most difficult continuing challenge," Ball said, was "to keep control of policy and prevent the momentum of events from taking command."
Ball put it bluntly: "For the fact is -- and we can no longer avoid it -- that, in spite of our intentions to the contrary, we are drifting toward a major war -- that nobody wants." He asserted that "we do not yet have enough experience with the direct employment of American combat forces to appraise our chances for military success in the South."
Thus, Ball proposed a "test period" during which the U.S. would increase its forces to 100,000, "but no more." He recognized that by doing so "we are beginning a new war -- the United States directly against the Viet Cong," the communist guerrillas in South Vietnam.
Ball recommended this test because he suspected that, "we may not be able to fight the war successfully enough – even with 500,000 Americans in South Viet-Nam." Therefore, "Before we commit an endless flow of forces to South Viet-Nam we must have more evidence than we now have that our troops will not bog down in the jungles and rice paddies -- while we slowly blow the country to pieces."
During the test period Ball advised preparing plans for, as the results warranted, further escalation, a diplomatic offensive, and a solution "short of the ultimate U.S. objectives that can be attained without the substantial further commitment of troops." The latter two options, he said, "should be regarded as plans for cutting losses and eventually disengaging from an untenable situation."
Later that month, as Johnson's team conducted a series of meetings, Ball submitted a second memorandum. It was written, he said, "on the premise that we are losing the war in Vietnam" and that "we should undertake to either extricate ourselves" or confine and reduce the scope of our commitment.
Ball warned, "This is our last clear chance to make this decision." With further troop deployments, he observed, "a substantial number of Americans will be killed," and that "will make it much harder and more costly to extricate ourselves or reduce our commitments."
What was required, according to Ball, was "a hard-nosed judgment as to the relative costs and dangers to America, both short-term and long-term" of escalation versus de-escalation. So he offered a "plan for cutting our losses." The first step was a "firm decision" by Johnson "that he will not commit United States land forces to combat in South Vietnam."
Ball said, "In our anxiety to build up support for the struggle in South Vietnam, we have tended to exaggerate the consequences for U.S. power and prestige of a tactical withdrawal." He stressed that he was not suggesting that the U.S. "should abdicate leadership in the Cold War," but should prudently "select the terrain on which to stand and fight."
"Politically," Ball said, "South Vietnam is a lost cause," and "the terrain in South Vietnam could not be worse" being comprised of "jungles and rice paddies" ill-suited for "modern arms."
He concluded, "In my view a deep commitment of United States forces in a land war in South Vietnam would be a catastrophic error. If ever there was an occasion for a tactical withdrawal, this is it."
Ball's memo was poorly received. He nonetheless revised it and sent a final, incredibly prescient, version to the President on July 1.
It began by telling Johnson, "No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong or even force them to the conference table on our terms no matter how many hundred thousand white foreign (U.S.) troops we deploy."
He added, "No one had demonstrated that a white ground force of whatever size can win a guerrilla war -- which is at the same time a civil war between Asians -- in jungle terrain in the midst of a population that refuses cooperation to the white forces and thus provides a great intelligence advantage to the other side."
Ball warned against involvement "so great that we cannot -- without national humiliation -- stop short of achieving our complete objectives" and said he thought "humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives -- even after we had paid terrible costs."
Accordingly, Ball outlined a military and political program for getting out of Vietnam. Johnson rejected it and, on July 28, announced an escalation to 125,000 troops, a doubling of draft calls, and a decision that, "We will stand in Vietnam."
Neither this history, nor that of appeasement leading up to World War II, is a substitute for decision-making about American policy now. But it is well to note Ball's dissent fifty years ago. I hope similarly perceptive people are advising President Obama, and pray for our leaders as they make fateful decisions.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)