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Interview with James Claude Thomson, 1981

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Summary
James Claude Thomson served as an East Asia Specialist in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He comments on a lack of expertise on Asia in the US government in the 1950s and 1960s. Thomson helped draft the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and he recalls the process to get it passed through Congress. He discusses the effects of the Democratic Party’s fear of looking soft on Communism on Vietnam, and recalls his dismay at the escalation of the war in 1965.
Topics
United States--History--1945-, United States--History, Military--20th century, Presidents--Messages, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Cold War, International relations, Political psychology, Politics and war, Presidents--Election, Communism, Tonkin Gulf Incidents, 1964, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, Executive power, Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973, Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963, United States--Politics and government, National Security Council (U.S.)
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Transcript

Lack of Asia experts led to bad foreign policy

VIETNAM
SR #2600
Jim Thomson
This is the 21st of April, '81. This is Vietnam Project T885. This will be an interview with Jim Thomson SR #2600.
Roll #600.
Interviewer:
Now, let's could you describe your own background in China and your studies of China? The purge of the Asia experts during that period and take us into your entering the government and finding this lack of experts on Asia and this “Who lost China” syndrome?
Thomson:
I grew up in China before and after World War II and ah, left China in 1949, had lived through the last year of the ah, Chinese Nationalist government and then spent the ten years of the 50s in college and graduate school trying to understand what was going on in China and the rest of East Asia, and ah, saw in that ah, terrible decade, a terrible American panic, McCarthyism and Korean War, so called loss of China and saw its consequences which caused all the people I respected most in the government and outside the government; in the universities and elsewhere, to be tarred and feathered, to he sent to pasture, dismissed, driven in a few cases to suicide, and in '61, I had the ah, extraordinary ah, accidental privilege of coming into government in the Kennedy Administration as what I call the child bureaucrat, and I discovered there the consequences inside government writ large, which was that anyone who knew anything about Asia and had ah, been tainted by the McCarthy purges had left, and all you had was a bunch of super cold warriors and a vast amount of ignorance.
Interviewer:
Could you talk about (clears throat) the “Munich” mentality as you discovered it in the government after you entered in '61?
Thomson:
There has been a lot of talk about the effect of Munich on decision makers in the 1950s and 1960s, even as late as Kennedy and Johnson. I think it makes sense. I saw it in the expressions, both on paper and ah, in ah, meetings that the people would use, "We have to draw the line somewhere. Otherwise, the aggressor will never be stopped. If we don't draw the line here, they will be there. We cannot afford to lose an inch of territory to ah, communism, particularly Asian communism." Ah...
This goes back to the concept that every situation in revolutionary Asia was a replica of Hitler, and the analogy was totally false cause Hitler was special. Germany was special. Vietnam was special. China was special. I had known that China was special 'cause I had grown up there. Ah... And, I thought that it blurred, not only reality, but the truth, and it made for the making of super bad policy.
Interviewer:
How did you see that at work in the Vietnam situation inside the government?
Thomson:
The idea of drawing lines, I guess, and the idea of analogies, I guess, from Munich to Korea, to Malaya, many, many analogies were applied to Vietnam. The idea hit home most directly one day when I was asked by a new boss of mine, an assistant Secretary of State in March, 1964 to help draft a speech for Secretary McNamara to make, a final full statement of American policy toward Vietnam. Why we were there. And as I left the room with my marching orders to go and help draft this speech, I turned toward my new boss and said ah, something in response to what he had said. What he said was, "I want you, finally and most importantly, to destroy forever in this speech the myth that Vietnam is a civil war." And, I turned and said, "You know, sir, in some ways it is a civil war." And, he, flushing bright red I'm sorry to say ah, said, "don't bandy words with me young man."

An insider's look at the Tonkin Gulf Resolution

Interviewer:
Let's go on to the resolution that was later called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Could you describe your role in drafting this resolution and why and how this resolution was being shaped at the time?
Thomson:
A lot has been written about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and I must confess that I read very little of what has been written. I can only tell you what I knew at the time. I was on the White House NSC staff and ah there had been an effort in May, late May, early June, looking toward the election campaign in the autumn to develop some kind of congressional consensus as a prudent protective device to keep the Southeast Asian um, unpleasantness out of American politics so that if the incumbent president, Mr. Johnson, had to respond, it would not immediately be looked at by the opposition as a grandstand play to win votes.
So, I think the initial concept of a congressional resolution was ah, fairly ah, ah, benign. It was discovered, however, in researching the senate that ah the introduction of such a resolution would cause a very major filibuster by two or three strong opponents of the war at the time and, therefore, do more harm than good. Create not consensus but conflict, therefore, by June 15th, ah, '64, the idea of resolution had been shelved.
What next happened, of course, was the ah incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in August. At least one incident ah, I daresay did happen. I have never been convinced that the second happened, but the minute incident number one happened, the attack on our ships ah, the resolution was brought right back off the shelf, put right to congress and ah, of course, after incident number two, sailed through ah, with ah, virtually no dissent. A blank check. That's my only clear personal recollection of the genesis and evolution of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
Interviewer:
Would you, (clears throat) was it a resolution in search of an incident. You don't share the conspiracy theory that some other...?
Thomson:
People have suggested that the ahhh consensus resolution was a resolution was in search of an incident. Ah, either people pulled the wool over my eyes ah or it wasn't. My own ah belief is that it as I would put it, a prudent move by an administration that wanted to retain some form of national consensus during what would be a hotly contested election campaign.
Interviewer:
Could you just go back into...?
Thomson:
I don't really buy the conspiracy theory with regard to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. I do buy the conspiracy theory with regard to the second Tonkin Gulf incident because I am fairly well convinced that the incident ahh probably never occurred, but by that time, the mechanism, the wheels were rolling to bring out the resolution and to push it through congress and there was no proper effort made to check out the facts on that so called second incident.
Interviewer:
Would you go back though to recall how the machinery worked when the resolution was taken off the shelf? Who took it off the shelf? Who managed it in the administration and how was it passed on to the senate?
Thomson:
Ahh. As to how the resolution was brought off the shelf and passed on to the senate, ah, this is the kind of ah, issue in which junior bureaucrats did not get heavily involved. I assume the president ah, met with the leadership and ah the leadership met with the generals and admirals and cabinet members and ah, we were off and running.
Interviewer:
What were your feelings at the time that the bombing began in February of 1965? What was the mood in the White House and your own mood at that particular time?
Thomson:
My feelings about the initiation of the bombing in February, '65, I think, are best stated through a small anecdote. I had dinner...
End of Roll 600. Camera Roll #601 starts here. Scene 1,
Take 2.

Democratic fears of looking soft on Communism

Interviewer:
Okay. Could you go back over this, what we were talking about earlier, your background in China and so forth?
Thomson:
My own background was simply that I had been brought up in China before and after World War II. My parents were educational missionaries there. I had lived there during the last year of the nationalist ah, regime and the communist takeover and then I had spent the 1950s as a college student and then graduate student watching ah the Cold War develop in its fiercest form ah, in Washington-Peking relations, and watching all the people I respected most in government who were Asian analysts, Asian specialists, also people outside of government in universities being dis... pilloried, often dismissed.
Sometimes driven to worse fates. And, therefore, I had ahh developed a strong sense of the need for a new kind of approach to Asia, since I knew something about Asian revolutions and when I came into government in January, '61, I found that all the expertise there was of one mind. Absolute, ice cold, cold warriors, no flexibility, virtually no knowledge of Asian revolutions, because the good, the best had gone.
Interviewer:
What effect ah did this have on the president and his attitude towards Vietnam? His ability, flexibility in dealing with the Vietnam situation?
Thomson:
Well, of course, Democratic presidents ah, had been traumatized by the so called loss of China. Ah, China had gone down the drains, as, as we put it, in ah, '48, '49, and we'd lost the election of '52, and so any president coming in in '60, '6l as John Kennedy did, felt that particular Democratic ah, sensitivity and timidity and fear about the loss of any square foot, any further square foot of territory to communism, particularly, in Asia. This is why President Kennedy, inheriting Laos, tried to stand there and then after taking one rook decided to negotiate, but decided thereafter to stand firm in Vietnam. That was where we were going to prove our mettle, show our manhood, and draw the line.
Interviewer:
Okay. Now you got to do exactly the same thing again, only talk about LBJ, cause our program is about LBJ.
Thomson:
I'm sorry.
Interviewer:
Go ahead. Let’s redo it. Just that last part.
Thomson:
When Lyndon Johnson inherited the presidency, he inherited many things, but one of them was the legacy of the Vietnam War and the Democratic presidents felt the need not to lose one square foot of territory to communism, particularly in Asia. To draw the line, to hold the line and to keep the presidency thereby, because if you lose, the final domino in the domino sequence is not some Asian country, it's the presidency itself. That was the great myth that developed and enveloped Democratic presidents.

Flawed foreign policy was based on political concerns

Interviewer:
What was wrong with the theory of drawing a line?
Thomson:
What was wrong with the theory of drawing the line, which is a concept that comes out of the 1930s when we did not stop fascism; the Japanese at Manchuria, Hitler at Munich, what's wrong with that line, the line drawing itch is the choice of where to draw lines. In Vietnam we chose what is historically, geographically, politically and in every other sense a swamp. You do not draw lines in swamps. You do not draw lines in the midst of an ongoing 50-year civil war, at least 30-year civil war. How can a great power have the stupidity to draw a line in a swamp?
Interviewer:
Could you go back though and recall who talked about drawing lines in, during your government years?
Thomson:
I would say that virtually everyone in high places from Mr. Rusk, and Mr. U. Alexis Johnson.
Interviewer:
You have to repeat the subject.
Thomson:
I'm sorry. What kinds of people talked about (clears throat) drawing lines during my... I'll try that again.
Interviewer:
Take a sip of water if you like.
Thomson:
(clears throat) What kinds of people talked about drawing lines in my days of government? Well, the military were always drawing lines. You go back to the early '50s and you have position papers whose language has not changed right up to my time in the '60s. Ah, if you do not stop them here, they will he there. They will be on the beaches of Waikiki or they will be in the Near East or they will be in, of course, Paris and London. And, ah, the beaches of Long Island. Ahh. The military people in their boiler plates talked endlessly this way. Ah, so did, I'm sorry to say ah, people who should have know better. The Secretary of State, Mr. Rusk. His deputies, some of them. Ah. Mr. U. Alexis Johnson had a line drawing itch and at so did ah, others of the ah knee-jerk hard-line persuasion.
Interviewer:
The ah... I want to do the loss of China thing again. It was apparent to LBJ that he couldn't afford to lose another thing, terr... Don't get him mixed up w—w—with the domino theory, because they may not have heard, they may not...
Thomson:
All right.
Interviewer:
Look at Stan and don’t let your eyes wander. Go ahead. The ah, effect...
Thomson:
When, when, when President Johnson inherited the White House, he felt the same need as his predecessor to hold the White House for his party and for the great programs he had for this country, and he knew that one way, one sure way, to lose that White House at the next presidential election was to do as Harry Truman had done, and that was lose a substantial portion of Asia to communist rule. I think President Johnson felt deeply the need to hang in there, to hold on and to let no Asian communist take over a square foot of territory. For domestic political reasons, fundamentally.
Interviewer:
Cause he remembered what happened to Truman?
Thomson:
Because he remembered what happened to Harry Truman and to Adlai Stevenson who ran as Truman abdicated.

Thomson's dismay over escalation

Interviewer:
Let's go on back to the question you started before about your feelings when the bombing began in February of 1965.
Thomson:
(clears throat) When the bombing began in February 1965, I was serving on the NSC staff, had watched the President in the election combat with Senator Goldwater and believed that a negotiated solution must be ah, close to the top of his mind. American boys would not be fighting in that part of the world. I had a conversation, however, with the Vice President-elect, Hubert Humphrey two days before he was inaugurated as vice president at a dinner party and told him that I had just been tuned in on the bombing plans ah the multiple plans that had been developed to apply strategic aerial pressures, punitive pressures to the North Vietnamese, and I expressed my...
Interviewer:
Stop. (cough) It’s not suppression...
Thomson:
I viewed the...
Interviewer:
One more time, go ahead. Could you recall your recollect your feelings when the bombings started in February of '65?
Thomson:
I was in a state of great disbelief and that disbelief continued for many, many months.
Interviewer:
You've got to repeat the subject. No you don't. You see the bombs ...
Thomson:
When the bombings started in February of '65 I found myse...
Interviewer:
Start one more time. I think there was... Okay, wait two seconds and then go.
Thomson:
When the bombing started in February, '65, I found myself in a state of great disbelief and that disbelief continued forever. Belief ah or at least for two years, belief mixed with ah, wishful thinking that it would end soon, and that ah reeling of mine had been shared by the vice president designate of the US, Mr. Humphrey. I’d had dinner with him two days before he was inaugurated and I told him of my astonishment about these contingency plans for bombing and Humphrey had assured me that they would never come into effect, that he, too, was disturbed. They would never come into effect because the neutralist government would come into power in Saigon and invite us out politely before we ever took those mad and crazy and suicidal steps, and he was as deceived by history as I was.
End of SR #2600
VIETNAM
Jim Thomson
SR #2601
This is SR #260l. Vietnam T885. 21st of April, '81.
Roll #602.
Interviewer:
How did you assess the Johns Hopkins speech ah, in April of 1965?
Thomson:
After the bombing began many of us were desperate in hoping that we could force both parties, our own government and the other side, into negotiations and we tried to get the president to say things that would help achieve that result and when the Johns Hopkins speech was made ah we felt triumphant, we felt we had made a considerable step forward because it called for unconditional discussions, which, incidentally, Mr. Rusk immediately briefed the press, were not negotiations. Different word, different concept, but also offered them a mint of money, the other side ah for rehabilitation post war. Ah, I felt that it was an important step forward and it gave us a little satisfaction, a little more sense that life ah was worth living.
Interviewer:
But, eventually, ultimately did you think it was going to go anywhere or did you think at the time you could see it going anywhere?
Thomson:
My colleagues and I were pursuing all sorts of options including secret meetings in Rangoon, none of which got anywhere. And, I'm afraid that the other side ah, was as cynical ah, as ah, many of the people on our side and it did not go anywhere.
Interviewer:
Why didn't we learn anything from the French experience?
Thomson:
One of the ironies of this war is that the French had been there longer than anyone else ah, from the west and because they had quote “lost Vietnam” unquote. Ah, we found any advice from the French to be tainted, suspect and discarded at once. Even such efforts at peacemaking as George Ball tried to put together as Undersecretary of State were dismissed because of George Ball's well known connection with France. The French connection was a taint that destroyed virtually all the wisdom that the French might have offered to us, and furthermore, President Kennedy and President Johnson were not on close, loving terms with General DeGaulle.
Interviewer:
Good. Okay, ah, maybe we should just do a wide shot and leave the camera running. Just, just sit there for a while and then we can use it both ways. This is ah, room tone following. Alright, here we go. Cameras rolling. Everybody quiet.
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