Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement

Neil Sheehan, Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement. The New York Times, 13 June 1971. “A massive study of how the United States went to war in Indochina, conducted by the Pentagon three years ago, demonstrates that four administrations progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non- Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort–to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged at the time.”

The Pentagon Papers: Amazon: “This is the definitive edition of the Pentagon Papers as published by the New York Times in the issues of June 13, 14, and 15, 1971 -interrupted by a temporary restraining order and 15 days of litigation, culminating in the Supreme Court decision of June 30- and concluded in the issues of July 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. To provide a comprehensive archive for libraries, universities and private citizens, additional background materials have been provided relating to the writing of the Papers, their place in the history of American policy since 1945, and the constitutional issues raised by their publication in the Times.”

After 40 Years, the Complete Pentagon Papers. The New York Times, 7 June 2011.

Excerpt from The New York Times, 13 June 1971:

The 3,000-page analysis, to which 4,000 pages of official documents are appended, was commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and covers the American involvement in Southeast Asia from World War II to mid-1968–the start of the peace talks in Paris after President Lyndon B. Johnson had set a limit on further military commitments and revealed his intention to retire. Most of the study and many of the appended documents have been obtained by The New York Times and will be described and presented in a series of articles beginning today.

Though far from a complete history, even at 2.5 million words, the study forms a great archive of government decision-making on Indochina over three decades. The study led its 30 to 40 authors and researchers to many broad conclusions and specific findings, including the following:


  • That the Truman Administration decision to give military aid to France in her colonial war against the Communist-led Vietminh “directly involved” the United States in Vietnam and “set” the course of American policy.
  • That the Eisenhower Administration’s decision to rescue a fledgling South Vietnam from a Communist takeover and attempt to undermine the new Communist regime of North Vietnam gave the Administration a “direct role in the ultimate breakdown of the Geneva settlement” for Indochina in 1954.
  • That the Kennedy Administration, though ultimately spared from major escalation decisions by the death of its leader, transformed a policy of “limited-risk gamble,” which it inherited, into a “broad commitment” that left President Johnson with a choice between more war and withdrawal.
  • That the Johnson Administration, though the President was reluctant and hesitant to take the final decisions, intensified the covert warfare against North Vietnam and began planning in the spring of 1964 to wage overt war, a full year before it publicly revealed the depth of its involvement and its fear of defeat.
  • That this campaign of growing clandestine military pressure through 1964 and the expanding program of bombing North Vietnam in 1965 were begun despite the judgment of the Government’s intelligence community that the measures would not cause Hanoi to cease its support of the Vietcong insurgency in the South, and that the bombing was deemed militarily ineffective within a few months. That these four succeeding administrations built up the American political, military and psychological stakes in Indochina, often more deeply than they realized at the time, with large-scale military equipment to the French in 1950; with acts of sabotage and terror warfare against North Vietnam, beginning in 1954; with moves that encouraged and abetted the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diuem of South Vietnam in 1963; with plans, pledges and threats of further action that sprang to life in the Tonkin Gulf clashes in August, 1964; with the careful preparation of public opinion for the years of open warfare that were to follow; and with the calculation in 1965, as the planes and troops were openly committed to sustained combat, that neither accommodation inside South Vietnam nor early negotiations with North Vietnam would achieve the desired result.The Pentagon study also ranges beyond such historical judgments. It suggests that the predominant American interest was at first containment of Communism and later the defense of the power influence and prestige of the United States in both stages irrespective of conditions in Vietnam.And it reveals a great deal about the ways in which several administrations conducted their business on a fateful course, with much new information about the roles of dozens of senior officials of both major political parties and a whole generation of military commanders.

    The Pentagon study was divided into chronological and thematic chapters of narrative and analysis, each with its own documentation attached. The Times–which has obtained all but one of nearly 40 volumes– has collated these materials into major segments of varying chronological length, from one that broadly covers the two decades before 1960 to one that deals intensively with the agonizing debate in the weeks following the 1968 Tet offensive….