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Correspondence

May 14, 2000

To the Editor:

In his recent thoughtful review of my book, "The Secret War Against Hanoi: Kennedy's and Johnson's Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam" (Book Review, April 23), Fredrik Logevall leveled three criticisms that are mistaken and misconstrue what I have written.

First, he writes that my contention--that President Kennedy was a key figure in advocating the covert war against North Vietnam--is based on "slight evidence, mostly one or two fleeting remarks made by Kennedy during a policy discussion in late January 1961." He further claims that I do not "come close to demonstrating that JFK was obsessed with implementing such action against Hanoi or that he was angered by the inaction of underlings."

Here are the facts that I cite to demonstrate how JFK set in motion one of the largest covert operations executed by Washington in the Cold War. These facts are hardly "slight" or only "one or two fleeting remarks."

At a Jan. 28, 1961, National Security Council meeting Kennedy heard bad news. The Hanoi-backed Viet Cong were closing in, and unless circumstances changed, the Saigon government was sure to fall. What could be done to convince Hanoi to stop supporting the VC? Kennedy asked whether guerrilla operations could be mounted inside North Vietnam. Allen Dulles, the CIA director, explained that limited efforts were underway.

It was a marginal program. Kennedy was not impressed with it and stated he "want[ed] guerrillas to operate in the North." Just a week in the White House, JFK decided to put Hanoi on notice that there was a price to pay for subverting South Vietnam. Two could play that game, and he instructed the CIA to get moving. This was hardly a "fleeting remark," as Logevall writes, but a direct order. However, the agency doubted it could be done. North Vietnam, where secret police forces abounded, was too tough a nut to crack.

In March 1961, JFK asked how things were progressing. He discovered that little had been done. Not happy, JFK hit the CIA with National Security Action Memorandum 28, ordering it to respond to the "President's instructions that we make every possible effort to launch guerrilla operations in North Vietnam territory." NSAM 28 is hardly "slight evidence" or a "fleeting remark." It is a major presidential directive and an important indicator of how Kennedy cajoled and coerced the agency to pick up the pace. And there is more.

The CIA's response, according to one operative, was "very modest--a small program." Why, given White House pressure? Because, he explained, Bill Colby, who was in charge of CIA operations in Saigon, wanted to constrain covert action against the North in order to save resources needed for operations in the South. Colby told me this when I interviewed him. He also described insistent White House pressure to do more.

By the end of 1962, Kennedy had enough of the CIA. He turned the covert war over to the Pentagon. Declassified records cited in the book give three reasons for his decision. The first was JFK's commitment "to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam and to expand the intensity of the allied effort." The second focused on "the need for a concerted, joint effort against North Vietnam in covert paramilitary actions." Only the military could do so, he believed. The third reason highlighted Kennedy's exasperation over "the relative ineffectiveness of the CIA's covert program against North Vietnam."

Kennedy chose the military because he believed Special Forces could raise the heat on Hanoi. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted nothing to do with it and resisted. To thwart the chiefs, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara became Kennedy's action officer for escalating the secret war. The president had given the mission to the Defense Department, and McNamara intended to execute it.

If JFK was in a hurry to step up the covert war, so was McNamara. Walt Rostow, a senior Kennedy administration official that I interviewed, put it this way: "McNamara strongly backed President Kennedy, who wanted covert action out of CIA's hands." McNamara argued in 1963 that the CIA had "an inadequate level of activity" and that "[a] truly effective program would require the commitment of military assets."

Because of Joint Chiefs Chairman Max Taylor's delaying tactics, it took most of 1963 to complete Operational Plan 34A. It was provocative, an elaborate program of covert operations. Through it the White House hoped to "bring sufficient pressure to bear on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to cause the leadership to reevaluate and cease its aggressive policy."

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