Small Wars Journal

national security decision-making

How Could Vietnam Happen?

Fri, 02/03/2012 - 6:54pm

In a blast from the past, Kennedy and Johnson staffer turned Harvard professor James C. Thompson looks at how the tragedy that was the Vietnam War unfolded.  This Atlantic article was originally published in April 1968.  He opens with a straightforward inquiry. "One question that will certainly be asked: How did men of superior ability, sound training, and high ideals—American policy-makers of the 1960s—create such costly and divisive policy?"  He goes into a lengthy and illuminating look at the institutional and historical factors that crippled the national security decision-making apparatus.  This is a fascinating read in and of itself.  But if you are to do nothing else, read the below excerpt with which he closed his essay and ask yourself if we will ever learn.


Long before I went into government, I was told a story about Henry L. Stimson that seemed to me pertinent during the years that I watched the Vietnam tragedy unfold—and participated in that tragedy. It seems to me more pertinent than ever as we move toward the election of 1968.

In his waning years Stimson was asked by an anxious questioner, "Mr. Secretary, how on earth can we ever bring peace to the world?" Stimson is said to have answered: "You begin by bringing to Washington a small handful of able men who believe that the achievement of peace is possible.

"You work them to the bone until they no longer believe that it is possible.

"And then you throw them out—and bring in a new bunch who believe that it is possible."