"The merits of volume 4 (and all the volumes to date)
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
A SCHOLAR'S HUGE CANVAS: RURAL WRITER COMPILES U.S. HISTORY OF
THE WAR IN VIETNAM
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.
scholars of the Vietnam era scramble for superlatives when
asked about Gibbons and his five-volume work, "The US
and the Vietnam War." He has gone through thousands of boxes
of government documents, interviewed the most important US
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
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
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
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
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
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
Fulbright of Arkansas, one of the war's most outspoken
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
from a three-day Vietnam War symposium
No Light at the End of the Tunnel: America Goes to War in
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.