Books and Papers







The Journal of American History

"The merits of volume 4 (and all the volumes to date) are numerous. Most important is the sustained, in-depth attention given to the congress and the war....Gibbons' usage of archival sources for the period under study is very impressive...."



The Boston Globe

Author: John Aloysius Farrell
Date: June 3, 1998
Page: A1 Section: National/Foreign


MONROE, Va. -- Nestled in a 200-year-old cabin, using aged fountain pens to fill hundreds of legal pads with a messy scrawl, William Gibbons is nearing the end of an assignment he began two decades ago. Alone, he is writing the US government history of the war in Vietnam.

Authors and scholars of the Vietnam era scramble for superlatives when asked about Gibbons and his five-volume work, "The US Government
and the Vietnam War." He has gone through thousands of boxes of government documents, interviewed the most important US officials, and

William Gibbons relishes his "own little world of thought" in Virginia.

laid out his findings in a comprehensive and comprehensible manner. The Gibbons volumes are "by far the best books on the subject," said William Bundy, who helped shape Vietnam policy at the State and Defense departments in the early 1960s. "They are balanced. Full. I think I can say -- and I have read a hell of a lot of stuff on the subject -- that this is the best of the breed."

Gibbons is a courtly, sandy-haired Virginian with the tanned face, scruffy dogs, and battered pickup truck of a gentleman farmer, and the youthful attitude demanded by the two young foster children he and his wife, a Lynchburg, Va. lawyer, have adopted. His winning smile and good looks belie his 71 years and make him a natural companion to telegenic contemporaries like David McCullough or Shelby Foote.

But in an age of celebrity, Gibbons labors in anonymity. In an era of omnipresent media, Gibbons declines to practice the art of historian-as-talking-head. In a time of seven-figure book deals, his work is published quietly by the Congressional Research Service and the scholarly Princeton University Press, and he receives no royalties.

Gibbons relishes his rural corner of the Blue Ridge as "my own little world of thought, where I can figure out things." Now his scholarship is emerging as a standard reference work and foundation for a flock of popular histories and biographies. People like myself, well, just watch how much his name comes up in the footnotes."

Indeed, it is in the footnotes and acknowledgements that today's historians record their debt to Gibbons. To Boston University's Robert Dallek, who just published the second volume of his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Gibbons loaned his yet-unpublished manuscripts. Brian VanDeMark, who co-authored McNamara's 1995 memoir, calls Gibbons' work "magisterial," and both he and McNamara acknowledged the Virginian's help.

Stanley Karnow, author of the best-known one-volume history of the war, worked with Gibbons on the PBS television series "Vietnam: A Television History." Karnow also drew from Gibbons' "terrifically useful" manuscripts and calls the work "one of the most valuable studies of the formulation of Vietnam policy during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations."

Gibbons is not the first government historian to trace the US involvement in Vietnam. In the late 1960s, McNamara ordered his Pentagon staff to go through its files and produce a series of reports that became known, after being leaked to the press, as the Pentagon Papers amid great controversy in 1971. Each of the armed services has since studied and documented the various failings of US military strategy in Vietnam.

But such works as the Pentagon Papers "only give you a glimpse -- enough to tantalize you, make you want to fill in the blanks and put the whole thing together," Gibbons said.

Gibbons, more thoroughly than other historians, has recorded how mistakes in judgment and analysis, concerns about public opinion, and domestic politics afflicted US policymakers. He fuses poll results, White House memos, CIA analyses, congressional debate, presidential speeches, and Pentagon decision papers into a long, chilling chronological narrative that tracks the best and brightest US officials as they blunder into tragedy. His most recent volume, covering the months between July1965 and January 1968, is 969 pages long.

Some of the most poignant episodes from Gibbons' writings describe the doubts that America's leaders privately harbored and the repeated warnings they ignored as they plunged the nation into war.

For example, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in February 1965 urged Johnson to resist escalation and "cut our losses" in Vietnam.

"We now risk creating the impression that we are the prisoner of events in Vietnam," Humphrey wrote in a secret memo to the president. "If . . . we find ourselves leading from frustration to escalation and end up . . . embroiled deeper in fighting in Vietnam over the next few months, political opposition will steadily mount." After LBJ's landslide victory in 1964, Humphrey argued, the administration had a unique opportunity to withdraw.

William Gibbons looking over notes for his volume on the Nixon administration's handling of the Vietnam War.

Johnson's response, Gibbons learned, was to bar Humphrey from all meetings on Vietnam for more than a year. Gibbons also shows how LBJ turned a deaf ear to the urgent warnings of CIA analysts who told the president that the US strategy, based on air power and attrition, was worse than useless -- it was counterproductive, as it stiffened Communist resolve. The CIA analysts "were ignored," Gibbons said.

Gibbons was commissioned in 1978 to write this history, as the result of a series of conversations with Norvill Jones, who led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff under

Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, one of the war's most outspoken opponents.

For most of the next two decades, with the blessings of Fulbright's Republican and Democratic successors, Gibbons has worked exclusively on the Vietnam project. Having retired from the government, he is now researching and writing the fifth and final volume, chronicling the Nixon administration's handling of the war.

With top-secret security clearance and his government title, Gibbons has had superior access to documents and policymakers. But such entry has a price, Bundy acknowledged. Any work produced under "official auspices" is open to charges of being a whitewash.

When filmmaker Oliver Stone suggested in the movie "JFK" that President Kennedy was assassinated because he was ready to withdraw US troops from Vietnam, Gibbons' work was used by Stone's critics to rebut that contention. Gibbons himself then came under attack as an official apologist.

"There are those to whom `official auspices' suggests either bad writing or stereotyped thinking, neither of which is true of Bill Gibbons' books. A lot of people think that his work is not as likely to be as sprightly or original as something in the private sector," Bundy said. "But for my money, he has not had a bias nor an organizational tie that corrupts his judgment."

Gibbons has moved between government and academia during his long career. Before joining the Congressional Research Service in 1970, he worked as a Senate aide to LBJ, as a lobbyist for the Johnson administration, and as a staffer for eventual critics of the war such as Democratic Senators Mike Mansfield of Montana and Wayne Morse of Oregon. Gibbons joined the Army at age 18 during World War II, made an unsuccessful run for Congress as a Democrat in Virginia in the early 1960s, and has taught at several colleges.

Gibbons strives to meet the research service's ideal of rigid objectivity and apparently has succeeded. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms of North Carolina has supported the Democrat historian's work. Gibbons used only one "confidential source" in his writing -- he says now that it was McNamara. All else is on the record. His work is checked by former officials, the Senate Foreign Relations staff, the research service, and academic specialists before publication themselves."

After studying the history of the Vietnam conflict for 20 years, Gibbons has one lesson for his countrymen: It could happen again.

Gibbons said the presidency is still "imperial," and Congress needs to assert its war-making powers over presidents prone to intervene in places like Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, or Haiti.

"Our system is such that the president has the power to get us into these things, to get us trapped. We are still making foreign policy decisions without the necessary knowledge and with the arrogance that only comes from being American," said Gibbons. "I think we are in for some very dangerous times in the days ahead."



A Failure of Political Intelligence
by Lieutenant Colonel Alan C. Cate, US Army

Gibbons' US Government and the Vietnam War is a massive, multivolume policy history, which he originally prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while working for the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service (CRS). Parts I through III cover 1945 to July 1965. Part V will carry the story to the 1975 communist victory. This installment, spanning July 1965 to January 1968, like its predecessors, is exhaustively researched, meticulously footnoted and written in serviceable, if uninspired, prose.

Gibbons appears to have read every extant memoir and secondary account, interviewed all available officials and ransacked many archives during his formidable research. The result is a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of debate and decision making in Washington, D.C. At times, the effect on the reader is mind-numbing. For instance, opening at random to page 121, we encounter a recurring vignette: "December 18, 1965, the President met from 12:34 p.m. to 2:19 p.m., and from 3:10 p.m. to 5:10 p.m. with Rusk, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Ball and U. Alexis Johnson. . . . " Verbatim quotations from the shorthand minutes or participants' notes follow.

The book thoroughly treats the topic suggested by its subtitle. Do not, however, be misled; it provides much more as well, including rich detail on Joint Chiefs of Staff and Military Assistance Command, Vietnam perspectives; accounts of diplomatic efforts to influence our South Vietnamese allies and North Vietnamese adversaries; and examinations of public opinion and the growth of organized antiwar sentiment. As a CRS product, the book is understandably "nonpolitical" and "nonpartisan." This poses the obvious danger of draining all interest from the story.

Nevertheless, the book rewards close reading by creating a sense of immediacy and drama beneath all the memoranda, briefings and policy discussions. While Gibbons is largely content to let the protagonists' views and perspectives carry the narrative along, he inserts occasional analytic gems. One of the most ironic concerns respective US and North Vietnamese strategies to wear down each other's will. By 1966, Washington was using gradual escalation to force negotiations, while Hanoi was using the prospect of negotiations to protract the fighting. Both, of course, contributed to a standoff at an increasing level of cost and violence.(1)

The US Government and the Vietnam War also contains material on several lesser-known aspects of the Army's activities that will be of special interest to military professionals. The most embarrassing involves US Army participation in government surveillance of the domestic antiwar movement. US congressional hearings in the 1970s revealed that Army field offices maintained files on the political activities of more than 100,000 US citizens.

Even more alarming are apparent Army efforts to disrupt dissident groups. This sordid enterprise was either compounded or, alternatively, redeemed by the feeble, almost comical, "spy versus spy" nature of the operations. Antics by Army infiltrators included providing alcohol and marijuana to protesters or stealing their bus tickets to demonstrations.(2)

More edifying in many ways, yet discouraging in others, is Gibbons' discussion of a study commissioned by Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson in 1965. Uneasy with the US military attrition strategy in Vietnam, Johnson wanted a fresh look at an alternative. Gibbons characterizes the resulting "Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam"-the PROVN Report-as "one of the most important" analyses developed within or for the government during the entire war.

Produced by a group of young field grade officers, most with Vietnam advisory experience, the PROVN Report stands out as an early, clear-sighted and in-depth appreciation of not only the military, but also the national Vietnam predicament. Essentially, it posited that the United States was headed for defeat and that the only hope for victory resided in a political, not a military, response. What makes the report remarkable is that it did not prescribe a strategy of "nation building" and counterinsurgency. One may doubt whether it would have made much difference in the end, and in any event, there had always been an articulate minority, in and out of uniform, to advocate similar approaches.

Rather, it represents a respectable attempt by junior military officers to formulate a mature national Vietnam strategy without any similarly coherent strategic guidance by the nation's civilian leaders. This feature is what makes the PROVN Report's tale so ultimately discouraging, along with how senior officials quickly buried or ignored anything in the report not conforming to their preconceptions about the war.(3)



  1. William Conrad Gibbons, The US Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part IV: July 1965-January 1968 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 522.

  2. Ibid., 853-65.

  3. Ibid., 201-12.


Excerpts from a three-day Vietnam War symposium

No Light at the End of the Tunnel: America Goes to War in Vietnam

In April 2000, Vietnam Veterans of America and the College of William and Mary sponsored Rendezvous With War, a three-day symposium which examined multiple aspects of the Vietnam War. This final installment from that symposium actually was the opening panel.  In "No Light at the End of the Tunnel," veterans, historians, and journalists discussed how the French war became the American war. William and Mary history professor Ed Crapol moderated the panel. The panelists were Stanley Karnow, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and WWII veteran; Ronald Spector, college history professor and Marine Vietnam veteran; Retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, a First Cav battalion and brigade commander at the Ia Drang and elsewhere in Vietnam; William Conrad Gibbons, Vietnam historian and WWII veteran; and Zalin Grant, who spent five years in Vietnam, first as an intelligence officer and then as a journalist.

William Gibbons:  We got into Vietnam backwards. We backed in. The story of how that happened is a tragedy, but itís also a lesson in the faults of our system. I think the greatest fault was our culture.

We were entirely too enamored of our strengths as a nation. We were influenced by our history as a messianic nation, trying to save people from themselves. We didnít have any limits. We ended World War II without any idea of where the limits were. When we began to look at the situation in the Far East, all we could see was that there was a need to stop what was happening.

Even George Kennan, in a memorandum to the State Department that is very little known, recommended that action be taken to keep the communists from gaining strength in Southeast Asia, because he could see from his post in Moscow what they were up to and he thought it was ominous. But you donít make good policy that way. You donít look at a situation and say "Itís terrible; weíve got to do something about it." We had no guidelines. We had no limits on what we ought to do and could do, and this led us into making great mistakes.

Iíve been a student of Congress, and Congress was partly to blame. But I have not heard any of the speakers talk about Congress and its role in this. If they had listened to some of the more intelligent, far-sighted members of Congress, the Executive Branch would not have gotten us involved as they did. But the Executive Branch never listens to Congress. You make mistakes when you donít listen to your legislators. That was one of the great difficulties.

Even some of the more conservative members of Congress were warning that this was going to be a bottomless pit and that if we got involved, weíd better be prepared for a long and costly war that would not achieve what we wanted to achieve. Our system has a lot of problems. One of the great problems is the lack of proper machinery for consulting with the public about major decisions in the foreign policy field. I think the Founding Fathers thought they were establishing a system when they provided for the Senate to play a role in the approval of treaties and with nominations, but that didnít happen.

Because the events we became involved in became so complex and the executive establishment became so immense and so powerful, Congress didnít keep up. Congress only professionalized its staff in about 1945-47. So Congress was not in a very good position to play an equal role. But the Executive didnít want Congress to play an equal role, never let it play an equal role, and rejected congressional advice whenever it did not suit them.

There are lots of examples, and itís a sad story. Most of what Mr. MacNamara calls "missed opportunities" were pointed out in 1945 and í46 by members of Congress. He didnít need to have a big conference in Vietnam and go through all these things they went through. He didnít need to do that because we had them right there in black and white in the Congressional Record and in the records of the talks members of Congress had with people in the Executive Branch.

Truman should have known better. He had been a member of Congress. Of course, that often makes them resistant to congressional advice. If theyíve been a member, they donít like to listen to them. And he was one of the worst. He rejected the advice he was getting, and he went ahead bullheadedly as only he could. He made these gigantic mistakes--he and Acheson, who was one of the worst in terms of making mistakes--and got involved far beyond what they should have. But they should have known. They shouldnít have made the decisions they did, which led to the missed opportunities in Mr. MacNamaraís book, which I think is more "mea" than "culpa."

I think we made mistakes because we had some of the wrong premises. Our history led us to make those kinds of mistakes about what we thought we should do and could do.