Maxwell Taylor Recommends Sending Combat Troops

In September of 1961, a serious sense of crisis had developed in the Kennedy administration. Until then Laos had been the primary focus of concern in Southeast Asia. Now there were strong indications of a deterioration of the South Vietnamese military position, combined with a very substantial deterioration of morale in Saigon. A sharp upswing in Viet Cong activity in September had featured a spectacular raid in which Communist forces temporarily captured a provincial capital only about 35 miles north of Saigon. The city was recaptured on the following day, but not before the provincial governor along with his top military officers were publicly beheaded, and the government buildings were burned.

At the end of September, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem surprised U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting by requesting a mutual defense treaty. U.S. officials in Washington and South Vietnamese not allied with Diem blamed the preponderance of the deterioration in morale on the Viet Cong surge.

Diem attributed the loss of morale in Saigon to a dramatic shift in U.S. policy regarding the civil war in Laos. Under President Eisenhower, the U.S. had backed the rightist forces of Phoumi Nosavan. The Kennedy administration, after considering U.S. military intervention in support of that side, had agreed to an international conference that would endorse a neutralist government led by Souvanna Phouma. The resulting arrangement of forces would surely allow continued North Vietnamese development of the nascent Ho Chi Minh Trail. U.S. willingness to compromise rather than fight raised uncertainties over the depth of its commitment to South Vietnam.

The Taylor Mission to Southeast Asia

Maxwell Taylor with John Kennedy in the Oval Office
General Maxwell D. Taylor meeting with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office on June 28, 1961.

In response to Diem's request, President Kennedy decided to send a mission to Vietnam, to be led by General Maxwell Taylor, the President's primary military adviser, accompanied by Deputy National Security Advisor Walt Rostow and less prominent officials; almost all of them were high-ranking military officers. At a October 11 meeting with the President, it was decided that they would investigate the following alternative options: i) outright U.S military intervention in Vietnam, ii) deployment of a small force that would establish a U.S. "presence" in Vietnam, iii) increased material support for the South Vietnamese army, without U.S. combat troops.

The Taylor Mission departed Washington on Sunday, October 15, 1961 and concluded its activities on November 3. A letter from the President to General Taylor, dated October 13, sharply limited the scope of the recommendation that the former Army Chief of Staff might deliver to the Commander in Chief. In his instructions for General Taylor, President Kennedy wrote:

In your assessment you should bear in mind that the initial responsibility for the effective maintenance of the independence of South Viet-Nam rests with the people and government of that country. Our efforts must be evaluated, and your recommendations formulated, with this fact in mind.

Members of the Kennedy administration had been pushing for deployment of U.S. combat troops into Laos, to drive the North Vietnamese and their Pathet Lao allies out of territory being used as a supply route for Communist insurgents in South Vietnam. President Kennedy had declared such a recommendation off-limits.

The Report on General Taylor's Mission to South Vietnam

On November 3, 1961, General Maxwell Taylor submitted to President John Kennedy his report on the mission to Southeast Asia. The report contained his recommendations representing an emergency program for South Vietnam, which his group felt the U.S. Government needed to implement without delay.

In his letter of transmittal, Taylor warns that a time could come when the U.S. would have to consider attacking North Vietnam itself, the source of guerrilla aggression. He asserts that there was no need for fatalism that Southeast Asia would inevitably fall into Communist hands, since the U.S. had the means to make it otherwise. This strongly implies that without an American commitment, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand would fall to the Communists.

The Evaluation and Conclusions chapter begins with an assessment of Communist strategy in Southeast Asia. General Taylor described North Vietnamese strategy as a variant of Mao's classic three-stage offensive. In a ‘classic’ Phase Three, conventional warfare would be used to overthrow the government and take control. Complete Communist takeover was the ultimate objective, but Mao's third stage of overt conventional warfare was apparently judged too dangerous by Hanoi, because it would trigger U.S. intervention.

As interpreted by Taylor, Hanoi was instead aiming to induce a neutralist interim political solution in South Vietnam, which would block a U.S. military presence. That would follow the pattern set by events unfolding before their eyes in Laos. Hanoi was reported to be in an advanced stage of accomplishing this objective.

General Taylor's Emergency Program for South Vietnam

Further into Evaluations and Conclusions, a section called A Strategy for Turning the Tide and for Assuming the Offensive in Vietnam appears. Taylor calls for a quick U.S. response to the crisis, demonstrating by deeds an American commitment to saving South Vietnam, rather than to disengage in the most convenient manner possible. To be persuasive, this commitment would have to include the deployment of some U.S. military forces.

This commitment would entail a shift from giving advice to engaging in a limited partnership. Americans, as friends and partners, had to show the Vietnamese how the job is done - not tell them or do it for them. It was evident, the general continued, that morale in Vietnam would rapidly crumble if expectations set in motion by a recent visit to South Vietnam by Vice President Lyndon Johnson and climaxed by General Taylor's mission itself were not soon followed by a hard U.S. commitment to the ground in Vietnam.

Following are the specific categories where the introduction of U.S. advisors or military units were suggested, in the appendices to the report:

  • One or more high-level U.S. government advisors.
  • A joint U.S./Vietnamese military survey, down to the provincial level.
  • Joint planning of military operations.
  • Liaison with the South Vietnamese intelligence services.
  • Deployment of the U.S. Air Force 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, a.k.a. the ‘Jungle Jim’.
  • Counter-infiltration operations in Laos.
  • Increased covert operations in North Vietnam, as well as in Laos and South Vietnam.
  • The introduction of three American helicopter squadrons and the provision of more light aircraft.
  • A radical increase in the number of U.S. trainers.
  • The introduction of engineering and logistical elements, to work in flood areas.
  • A radical increase in the number of U.S. Special Forces teams in Vietnam.
  • An increase in U.S. support for the South Vietnamese Navy.
  • The introduction of American Naval and/or Coast Guard personnel, to assist in coastal and river surveillance and control.
  • Reevaluation of the role of air power, to make more effective use of assets already available.