Sixty years ago, in March, 1954, National Security Document 5412 was distributed to President Eisenhower’s National Security Council by the Central Intelligence Agency recommending the adoption of a program of covert operations so that:
“U.S. Government responsibility for them is not evident and if uncovered the U.S. government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them. Specifically, such operations shall include…propaganda; political action; economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition; escape and evasion and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states or groups including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, support of indigenous and anti-communist elements; and deception plans and operations.” (Blanche Wiesen Cook, The Declassified Eisenhower; A Divided Legacy, Doubleday, New York, 1981).
A decade later Operation Plan 34A, a secret plan to pressure the North Vietnamese to lean on their comrades in the South to stop fighting the U.S. regime in South Vietnam, was discussed and adopted by the Lyndon Johnson administration. If that failed, it was hoped, the Indochinese peninsula would be so destabilized that the United States could justify a massive escalation of military involvement in South Vietnam.
Upon the death of President Kennedy, incumbent foreign policy advisers warned the new President, Lyndon Johnson, that the Saigon regime in South Vietnam was near collapse. A decade of repression including targeted killings of Vietnamese nationalists living below the 17th parallel (the once “temporary” dividing line between North and South Vietnam) was carried out by the odious regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. A destabilizing military coup in South Vietnam leading to the assassination of Diem and some of his extended family was carried out just three weeks before Kennedy himself was killed.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, supported by the Secretary of State Dean Rusk, military adviser Maxwell Taylor, and others, reported to the new President that the post-coup regime was unable to consolidate its power. The guerrilla movement in the South was growing and protest against the dictatorship in Saigon by the Buddhist community had increased. The short-term fix without U.S. intervention would be a neutral government in the South to be followed by a Communist one.
While all agreed that victory by the rebels in the South, supported by Ho Chi Minh’s forces in the North, would be devastating for the struggle against international communism, the new President faced a dilemma. He wanted to run for president in 1964 and his likely opponent would be the Cold War hawk, Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona. The American people, Johnson surmised, would not want to vote for a presidential candidate who had initiated significant military escalation in Southeast Asia. The dilemma as LBJ saw it was how to avoid “losing” South Vietnam while being able to run as the “peace” candidate for President in 1964 against the dangerous hawk Goldwater.
Defense intellectuals recommended Operation Plan 34A which was adopted in early February, 1964. The United States would provide training and resources for South Vietnamese troops to engage in covert sabotage against targets in North Vietnam. It was hoped that Commando raids north of the 17th parallel would convince the North Vietnamese to pressure their allies in the South to stop their war against the odious Saigon government.
In support of sabotage in the North, two naval vessels, the Maddox and C. Turner Joy, would be moved to the coastal waters of North Vietnam just above the 17th parallel with equipment to monitor the movement of North Vietnamese troops in the North as well as provide information about desirable targets of sabotage. In addition, the United States launched secret air strikes against targets in neighboring Laos to cut off any flow of supplies from North to South Vietnamese rebels.
Meanwhile, as the Operation 34A mission was carried out, the Joint Chiefs of Staff developed secret plans to escalate the war in Vietnam, if the opportunity to do so arose. Candidate Lyndon Johnson ran for President as the “peace candidate” while figuratively carrying in his pocket a resolution, which would become the nearly unanimously endorsed Congressional resolution (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) that would authorize the President to act as needed if threats to U.S. and South Vietnamese security were challenged. With reported attacks on the two spy ships in August, 1964, Congress gave the President the authority he needed to escalate the war in Vietnam. Of course, the American people did not know that the United States had engaged in covert war against the North Vietnamese for six months before the claimed attacks on U.S. naval vessels in North Vietnamese coastal waters in August, 1964.
In short, from that first meeting of the new President Johnson in December, 1963, with the foreign policy team held over from the Kennedy administration until the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964, the Johnson administration had been supporting secret military operations in South Vietnam and against the North, and at the same time was planning broader U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.
The connections seem clear between covert interventions in European and Latin American politics from the end of World War II to the formal articulation of such policies in NSC 5412 to Operation Plan 34A ten years later. They called for the use of whatever means were available to intervene and destabilize regimes and movements opposed to U.S. policy while always maintaining “plausible deniability” of any U.S. role in covert operations. The American people have been the last to learn about covert operations carried out by their government in countries all across the globe.
As the peace movement reflects on U.S. policy towards Chile, Jamaica, Cuba, and Angola in the 1970s; Afghanistan, Central America, and Southern Africa in the 1980s; Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s; and countries in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, East Asia, and Latin America in the new century, it should always be vigilant as the United States government, prominent politicians, and media pundits advocate for future interventions in places like Syria, the Ukraine, and Venezuela.
Even though presidents have proclaimed commitments to foreign policy techniques of diplomacy, the use of economic rewards and punishments, and have advocated for very limited military operations such as the use of drones rather than “boots on the ground,” the tradition of covert operations remains a significant part of United States behavior in the world. The peace movement needs to examine the extent to which such covert operations undergird the United States role in Syria, Venezuela, and the Ukraine today.