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How Presidents Test Reality

How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam, 1954 and 1965

John P. Burke
Fred I. Greenstein
Larry Berman
Richard Immerman
Copyright Date: 1989
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    How Presidents Test Reality
    Book Description:

    Authors Burke and Greenstein compare the Vietnam decisions of two presidents whose leadership styles and advisory systems diverged as sharply as any in the modern presidency. Using declassified records and interviews with participants to assess in depth the adequacy of each president's use of advice and information, this important book advances our historical understanding of the American involvement in Vietnam and illuminates the preconditions of effective presidential leadership in the contemporary world. "Burke and Greenstein have written what amounts to an owner's manual for operating the National Security Council....This is a book Reagan's people could have used and George Bush ought to read." —Bob Schieffer, The Washington Monthly

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-097-4
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PART I: Framework of the Inquiry

    • CHAPTER ONE Analyzing Presidential Decision Making
      (pp. 2-26)

      In 1954 and again in 1965, American presidents with strikingly different leadership styles and advisory teams faced the same challenge: American-backed forces in Vietnam were in imminent peril of being defeated by Communist forces. In each year, the president and his associates engaged in intense deliberations about what to do. Within each administration some voices were raised in favor of committing American military forces to Southeast Asia and some were opposed.

      In 1954, the Eisenhower administration did not intervene—Vietnam was partitioned, half coming under Communist rule and half under non-Communist rule. In 1965, the Johnson administration did intervene. It...

  5. PART II: Failure to Intervene in 1954

    • CHAPTER TWO The Question of Unilateral Intervention: NARRATIVE
      (pp. 28-52)

      In January 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower and his foreign policy advisers faced a prospect that Lyndon Johnson and his foreign policy team were to confront eleven years later to the month: America's non-Communist allies in Vietnam, and elsewhere in Indochina, were in imminent peril of defeat by the indigenous Communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh.

      In World War II American intelligence units had aided Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh (the League for Vietnamese Independence) in their guerilla combat against the Japanese. An American field commander had unofficially assured the Viet Minh of his commitment to support them against French...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Question of Unilateral Intervention: ANALYSIS
      (pp. 53-66)

      Although we cannot say precisely why Eisenhower decided not to intervene unilaterally as Dien Bien Phu came increasingly closer to collapse, the record of his administration's deliberations between January 1954 and the April 3 meeting of Dulles and Radford with the congressional leaders is illuminating. We see many aspects of Eisenhower's leadership style and personal impact, and are therefore able to augment and extend what already is known about him as a political actor. The distinctive advisory process of the Eisenhower presidency is equally well revealed in the record. Set against a reconstruction of the opportunities and restraints in the...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Card of Multilateral Intervention: NARRATIVE
      (pp. 67-97)

      It would have been politically difficult, perhaps impossible, for the Eisenhower administration to intervene unilaterally in Indochina in the period after the April 3 meeting of Dulles and Radford with the congressional leaders. Yet this did not mean that the use of American military force in Southeast Asia was now precluded. Rather, the administration moved to meet the congressmen's stipulations, developing an American capacity to intervene multilaterally.

      On April 4, Eisenhower called his inner circle together for a Sunday evening conference in the upstairs study at the White House to devise a United Action plan that would "send American forces...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Card of Multilateral Intervention: ANALYSIS
      (pp. 98-116)

      During the period between the April 3 meeting of Dulles and Radford with the congressional leaders and the Geneva settlement, the Eisenhower administration sought to forge a multilateral coalition that had the capacity to intervene in Indochina. As the members of the administration frequently reminded themselves, intervention per se was not their main purpose. Instead, they hoped to achieve a favorable outcome by making it evident that the United Statescoulduse force if it so chose.

      The administration's diplomatic efforts were less than completely successful. The position of the French military in Indochina declined, and the Laniel government fell...

  6. PART III: Intervention in 1965

    • CHAPTER SIX Crossing the Threshold: NARRATIVE
      (pp. 118-133)

      President Johnson, like President Eisenhower, inherited a Vietnam that seemed close to falling under Communist control. The Eisenhower policy of backing the government of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam had been continued by Kennedy, but the Diem regime never developed a firm base of domestic support. In 1963, as protests against Diem mounted in Saigon, the view that the United States should support an anti-Diem coup gained support within the Kennedy administration. When dissident South Vietnamese generals overthrew Diem early in November, the plotters were in active touch with American CIA agent Lucien Conein and had at least the...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Crossing the Threshold: ANALYSIS
      (pp. 134-149)

      In the period from late 1964 through the retaliation for the Communist attack on Pleiku in February 1965, President Johnson and his associates were in superficial agreement but underlying disagreement about how to strengthen the military effort in Vietnam. Ambassador Taylor had requested authorization for air strikes but opposed the use of ground forces. The president had criticized the requests he received for bombers and suggested ground operations by unconventional forces. General Westmoreland had come up with a thirty-four-battalion conventional force estimate for base protection, which Ambassador Taylor described as "startling." Secretary of State Rusk disagreed with Secretary of Defense...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Incremental Escalation: NARRATIVE
      (pp. 150-173)

      Although Johnson told congressional leaders on January 22, 1965, that the "war must be fought by the South Vietnamese,"¹ the retaliatory air strike he ordered against the North in response to the bombing of Pleiku and the decisions he and his associates made in the ensuing days triggered a sequence of events that quickly led to placing American combat forces on the ground in South Vietnam. On February 7 (Washington time), the day after the Viet Cong attack and the ensuing American retaliation, Johnson issued a prophetic statement: "We have no choice now but to clear the decks and make...

    • CHAPTER NINE Incremental Escalation: ANALYSIS
      (pp. 174-194)

      In contrast to the rapid decision making under pressure that occurred in response to the Pleiku attack, the post-Pleiku actions did not take place under time constraints imposed by a crisis that required immediate decisions. The decision makers were not forced to take drastic cognitive shortcuts or exposed to the intense emotional demands connected with rapid, high stakes choices. But the time was one in which the participants viewed the situation as perilous and laden with consequences. In short, there was the need and opportunity for a reasoned assessment of the administration's goals and means of attaining them. Instead, the...

    • CHAPTER TEN Open-ended Commitment: NARRATIVE
      (pp. 195-230)

      The period from late April through July 1965 was decisive for Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy making: incrementalism was abandoned and Johnson took a leap, making an open-ended commitment to use American military force to prevent a Communist victory in South Vietnam.

      As a result of the April 19 and 20 Honolulu meeting, Johnson and almost all of his top advisers accepted the notion that a large American ground force, not merely a handful of troops, would be committed in Vietnam and would engage in combat, not merely the defense of American bases. Under Secretary of State George Ball, however, did...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Open-ended Commitment: ANALYSIS
      (pp. 231-254)

      On July 28 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara briefed journalists about the intense, week-long deliberations the Johnson administration had just completed, praising their quality. "Not since the Cuban missile crisis has such care been taken in making a decision," McNamara asserted.¹ On July 22, however, Johnson had told his advisers of his fear of making a decision that would compare with a different Kennedy foreign policy event: the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

      In late July and early August 1965, Johnson's July 28 midday news conference announcement was hailed in the press and on Capitol Hill as a model of good policy...

  7. PART IV: A Summing Up

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Eisenhower and Johnson Decision Making Compared
      (pp. 256-273)

      Because the Vietnam policy of the United States has been so widely perceived as flawed, the way it was made would commend itself for study to students of decision making even if the possibility for comparison did not exist. It is an intellectual bonus that Eisenhower and Johnson and their advisory systems differed so markedly and in such potentially illuminating ways. Moreover, the two episodes posed the presidents and their aides with many common dilemmas, even though they also had distinctive elements and do not constitute a controlled experiment.

      We turn now from analyzing to comparing the cases. We do...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Notes on Presidential Reality Testing
      (pp. 274-300)

      The two cases prompt a number of observations about presidential reality testing, some bearing on the nature and consequences of various ways of advising presidents, some on presidents themselves and some on the interaction of presidents and advisory systems.

      In Chapter One, we stated baldly that the categories in the most influential classification of presidential advising systems-formalistic, competitiveandcollegial-are too few and too simple to capture the complexity and variety of presidential advising. Scrutiny of the Eisenhower and Johnson advisory systems in action supports that assertion, suggesting not only how the classification might be clarified, but also showing that...

  8. Sources Consulted
    (pp. 301-312)
  9. Index
    (pp. 313-336)