“Dead-end street…”: Chester Bowles on Vietnam in 1968

This is a guest post by Marc A. Reyes, a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. His research interests include foreign relations history, economic and political development, South Asian studies, and histories of science and technology. He is spending 2019 in New Delhi, India, as a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow conducting dissertation research.

“I continue to feel that the Vietnam situation, to put it mildly, is a dead-end street…”

Don Corsetti, autographed pencil sketch of Chester Bowles, accompanying letter dated 22 July 1966. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 328, Folder 47.

Don Corsetti, autographed pencil sketch of Chester Bowles, accompanying letter dated 22 July 1966. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 328, Folder 47.

In 1968, Ambassador Chester Bowles finally expressed what he had been thinking for years: the Vietnam War would not end well for the United States. In an April 2, 1968, letter to former aide and future U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Celeste, Bowles asserted that the war had cost the U.S. dearly. Two days earlier, President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that the United States would halt its bombing campaign to start negotiations to end the war had stunned everyone, and Bowles confided to Celeste that such talks would be “extremely difficult.” The U.S.’s options were not likely to produce a favorable outcome. Like many Americans, Bowles had serious concerns about the war, but initially he sincerely believed the war would produce a stable government for South Vietnamese citizens and eventually a more just South Vietnamese society. Now Bowles concluded the war was “a dead-end street.”

Chester Bowles would readily admit he was the Ambassador to India, not Southeast Asia, but his second stint as the U.S.’s Ambassador to India, from July 1963 to April 1969, allowed him a greater opportunity to better understand India and its evolving role in a wider range of Asian affairs. His first term, in the Truman administration, had been only for eighteen months and focused primarily on obtaining U.S. economic aid for India. Given the chance to return to New Delhi, Bowles threw himself into all matters of U.S.-Indian relations, and worked to understand one of the larger issues facing Asia during this period: the Vietnam War. Bowles thought deeply about the war and how it affected U.S. foreign policy in Cold War Asia.

U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles at the American Embassy in New Delhi, India, cover of Span magazine, Volume VIII, number 4 (April 1967). Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 341, Folder 327.

U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles at the American Embassy in New Delhi, India, cover of Span magazine, Volume VIII, number 4 (April 1967). Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 341, Folder 327.

Reading through the Chester Bowles Papers at Manuscript and Archives, researchers discover how much Vietnam weighed on Bowles. His personal papers provide glimpses into his thinking about nationalism, Third World revolution, and the balance of power in Asia. When he was not working on US-Indian issues, such as food aid to India and negotiating a settlement between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Bowles analyzed India’s role in Asian affairs. He believed India could lead a coalition of non-Communist Asian nations, serving as a bulwark against the expansion and influence of China. Bowles specifically argued that India itself had seen up close the threat of Communist aggression (in its 1962 war with China) and the fight in Vietnam was another example of a non-Communist country resisting Communist domination.

Bowles’ Vietnam War concerns did not appear out of nowhere and steadily grew during the course of his second stint as ambassador. His papers document his disillusionment with the U.S.’s campaigns to repel North Vietnam forces and their South Vietnamese sympathizers and to build up a functioning South Vietnam. Mirroring a process similar to that experienced by many Americans, Bowles went from supporter to critic of the war, speculating what the war was costing the U.S. and what a post-Vietnam War world should look like for India, Asia, and the United States.

Chester Bowles, "What Hope for Peace in Vietnam?", American Reporter, issue of December 21, 1966, reprint. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 341, Folder 342.

Chester Bowles, “What Hope for Peace in Vietnam?”, American Reporter, issue of December 21, 1966, reprint. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 341, Folder 342.

As early as 1964, before the United States’ Rolling Thunder campaign and massive deployment of American troops, Bowles doubted that Vietnam could be resolved through purely military means. In a February 1964 letter to New York Times reporter James Reston, Bowles claimed that since his visit to Southeast Asia in 1952, “it was evident that the military approach would never work unless it was supported by a sensitive political effort to deal with the people.” Bowles lamented that since 1950 the U.S. had spent an “unbelievable” $6 billion dollars in Southeast Asia and had little to show for it. He recognized history repeating itself in that the Republic of China’s leadership, before its defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communist Army, had also believed a military victory had to precede any political and state-building reforms. Bowles recognized that these breakthroughs had to be connected, and were not separate issues to be dealt with in the future. Bowles’ reference to earlier mistakes was not a one-time occurrence, either. In a 1966 letter to Senator George McGovern, Bowles said the U.S. had failed when it allowed the French to resume control of their Southeast Asia colonies, and speculated that if FDR had lived to see the end of the war he would have challenged France’s colonial rule.

Hoping to receive some kind of Indian support for the U.S.’s war effort in Vietnam, Bowles traveled to Thailand, Laos, and South Vietnam in August 1966. While there, he met with government leaders, ambassadors, and military commanders to learn more about the U.S.’s Vietnam mission. If Bowles, a trusted voice to Indian leadership, witnessed and reported back signs of U.S. progress, perhaps India could offer moral support for the U.S. mission or at least refrain from criticizing the war.

First page of the itinerary outline for Ambassador Bowles' trip to Southeast Asia, 5-12 August 1966. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 343, Folder 360.

First page of the itinerary outline for Ambassador Bowles’ trip to Southeast Asia, 5-12 August 1966. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 343, Folder 360.

During his week-long visit, Bowles heard of South Vietnamese villages pacified, of schools built, and markets reopened. It was apparent, however, that the security situation was still fraught. Armed guards were posted throughout supposedly safe villages and U.S. officials described areas as unsafe at night, even in places without much of a North Vietnamese presence. In his reporting, Bowles acknowledged that there were U.S. military successes worth celebrating, but his analysis also revealed concerns about the growing costs of the war and the effectiveness of the U.S.’s North Vietnamese bombing campaign. While Bowles thought U.S. military successes were important, he placed a lot of faith in South Vietnam’s September 11th, 1966, Constitutional Assembly elections. He reasoned that successful elections like these would help win over skeptical South Vietnamese citizens and propel momentum for a favorable settlement to the war.

Within a year though, Bowles’ Vietnam anxieties returned. Writing to Vice President Hubert Humphrey in May 1967, Bowles remarked that it was “impossible for the United States to win a ground forces numbers game in Southeast or East Asia.” Bowles’ past support for the war rested on his conviction that the fight would be limited, but would also produce a functioning government that represented the best interests of the South Vietnamese people. What Americans saw, including Bowles, was just the opposite: a wider war and a corrupt South Vietnamese government. Bowles grumbled that the 1966 South Vietnamese elections had not produced any political breakthroughs and the ruling government had taken no steps to establish “a stable, just and peaceful society.”

Bowles reached his breaking point on Vietnam in April 1968. Not long after the Tet Offensive, and two days after President Johnson’s announcement of immediate peace talks, Bowles lamented that the war had cost the U.S. too much. In his April letter to Richard Celeste, Bowles called years of U.S. military reports “dismally wrong.” The retreating and weakened North Vietnamese enemy described in such reports did not match the one American soldiers found on the battlefield. Bowles’ biggest worry, though, was that the United States had “no realistic way out” of their Vietnam impasse.

Ernie Newhouse, photographer. Chester Bowles and other panelists on the set of the WRC-TV show Meeting of the Minds, Washington, D.C., 17 April 1966. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 334, Folder 145.

Ernie Newhouse, photographer. Chester Bowles and other panelists on the set of the WRC-TV show Meeting of the Minds, Washington, D.C., 17 April 1966. Chester Bowles Papers (MS 628), Box 334, Folder 145.

As much as Chester Bowles wrestled with the Vietnam War and its immediate impact on U.S. foreign relations, he also imagined a world after the war. Bowles, in two 1966 letters, hoped that once the fighting stopped funds once earmarked for war could be utilized for development work abroad. Besides increased funds, Bowles thought future U.S. foreign policy would be different, even peaceful, because the true takeaway of the Vietnam War was that the U.S. could not kill its way out of trouble. Bowles declared: “every American military man and civilian, from generals and ambassadors down to privates and office boys, has witnessed at first hand the limitation of military power in a revolutionary situation.” Speculating what the United States could do with just half the money set aside for wars, Ambassador Bowles believed those financial resources “could create a new world.” If a third of the funds went overseas for development, and the other two-thirds went to develop American cities, Bowles thought the future, both for the U.S. and the world, “would look a lot less bleak.”

Chester Bowles’ second stint as the U.S. Ambassador to India coincided with his breaking point on the Vietnam War. He wrestled with uncomfortable facts until it was clear to see that the war’s costs were too great. The ambassador feared that the war harmed the United States’ ability to influence Asian nations and exercise power in the developing world. What the U.S. was losing – in lives, money, and respect – was far greater than what could be earned by continuing the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. Bowles represented a generation of diplomats who truly believed the U.S. had the power to remake the world into something better and more just. Bowles’ voice was ignored and his post-war vision never realized, instead the tragic reality resembled what Bowles had feared all along.

New Collections and Additions at Manuscripts and Archives, April-June 2019

The following information on recently acquired and processed collections was assembled by Alison Clemens, assistant head of arrangement and description. Manuscripts and Archives has recently acquired and made available the following collections and additions to existing collections:

New collections

Catalunya Independence Movement Ephemera (MS 2099)

The collection (totaling 5.75 linear feet) contains ephemera related to the 2017 Catalan Independence Referendum, Declaration of Independence, and related elections. Ephemera includes cloth banners and bags, newspapers, pamphlets, stickers, and posters.

New Blue, Yale University, Records (RU 1160)

The records (totaling 10 linear feet) consist of tour records, performance events, scrapbooks, photographs and musical recordings from New Blue, the first women’s a cappella group at Yale University. Access to the records requires permission from the archivist of New Blue.

Additions to existing collections

Accession 2016-M-0089 of the Harold C. Conklin Papers (MS 1956)

This accession (totaling 50.75 linear feet) comprises Yale University administrative and teaching files, topical files, professional service files, and correspondence documenting Harold Conklin’s professional responsibilities at Yale University and in professional organizations. The Yale University files document Harold Conklin’s tenure at Yale University, including trips with the Association of Yale Alumni, teaching and research records from the Anthropology and Linguistics departments, and curatorial files from the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The records also document Conklin’s professorial and administrative responsibilities at Yale, particularly in the Department of Anthropology, such as his chair and committee service, courses and exhibitions, the Agrarian Studies Program, Southeast Asia Studies activities, and the development of Human Relations Area Files. The bulk of the collection is open for research. Access to Yale University administrative files is prohibited for 35 years from creation of the records. Access to student and personnel files is prohibited for 75 years or life plus five years (whichever is longer).

Accession 2018-M-0030 of the Hadley Family Papers (MS 985)

This accession (totaling 3.58 linear feet) consists of correspondence between members of the Hadley and Morris families and includes letters by and to Helen Hadley, Arthur Twining Hadley, and their children. Also includes studio portraits of family members and memorabilia, including documentation of academic achievements and family finances.

Accession 2018-M-0058 of the Louis H. Pollak Papers (MS 1989)

This accession includes a notebook of mementos prepared for the twentieth anniversary of Judge Louis H. Pollak’s appointment to the federal bench as judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Also includes other documentation related to his anniversary celebration.

Accession 2018-A-0082 of the Yale University Press Records (RU 554)

This accession comprises acquisition files for the Yale University Press, 1982-2016. Access to the materials is restricted until January 1, 2052.

Accessions 2019-M-0004 and 2019-M-0024 additions to the Duncan Chaplin Lee and John Lee Papers (MS 2062)

Accession 2019-M-0004 contains the personal papers of Duncan Chaplin Lee and includes personal and family photographs and albums; correspondence between Duncan Chaplin Lee, family, friends, and colleagues; and clippings. Accession 2019-M-0024 consists of the personal papers of Duncan Chaplin Lee, including correspondence with his son John Lightfoot Lee and other family members, and biographical material of the Lee family, including written accounts by Duncan Chaplin Lee. Accession 2019-M-0024 also contains a photograph album documenting Duncan Chaplin Lee’s time in Burma during World War II.

Accession 2019-A-0017 of the Ravi D. Goel Collection on Yale (RU 1081)

This accession (totaling .5 linear feet) consists of letters and legal documents, 1726-1799, documenting Yale affiliated individuals and organizations, collected by Ravi D. Goel.

Accession 2019-M-0020 of the G. Evelyn Hutchinson Papers (MS 649)

This accession (totaling .25 linear feet) comprises correspondence to and from G. Evelyn Hutchinson, including letters written by Hutchinson to Yemaiel Oved Aris, who resided with the Hutchinsons in New Haven during World War II. It also includes letters between Hutchinson’s colleagues regarding Hutchinson, class lecture notes taken in Fall 1953 by Estella B. Leopold (born 1927; Yale PhD 1955) for Hutchinson’s Ecological Principles class, and photographs of Hutchinson family members.

Accession 2019-M-0025 of the Henry Lewis Stimson Papers (MS 465)

This accession is a guest book for Highhold, Henry L. Stimson’s house in West Hills, Huntington, New York, 1905-1937.

Accession 2019-A-0025 of the Employee Unions and Strikes, Yale University, Records (RU 105)

This accession (totaling .25 linear feet) contains correspondence, promotional material, and ephemera documenting faculty and graduate student support of the 1984 Yale University clerical and technical employees strike.

Accession 2019-M-0033 addition to the John Glines Papers (MS 1895)

This accession (totaling 1.92 linear feet) consists of the writings of playwright John Glines, including scripts of productions performed at The Glines Theatre in New York City, personal and autobiographical writings, and a daily journal. The papers also include correspondence and recordings of author Erlo Van Waveren and production materials from Glines’s play Butterflies and Tigers, including video and audio recordings.

Accession 2019-A-0031 of the Yale University Buildings and Grounds Photographs (RU 703)

This accession contains a photogravure of a circa 1906 bird’s-eye view of Yale University, drawn and signed by Richard Rummell (1848-1924) and published by F. D. Nichols of Boston.

Accession 2019-A-0032 of the Yale Diploma Collection (RU 150)

This accession contains the 1856 BA, 1859 MA, and 1863 PhD diplomas of Lewis Richard Packard, classics scholar and Yale professor of Greek.

Accessions 2019-A-0034, 2019-A-0035, and 2019-A-0050 additions to the Yale Course Lectures Collection (RU 159)

These small additions to the Yale Course Lectures Collection include art history course materials and notebooks of Susan P. Casteras (1973 MA, 1975 MPhil, and 1977 PhD); course notes, examinations, and papers of Mark Hubert Curtis (1942 Yale College, 1953 PhD); and a 1966-1967 Math 131 lecture notebook titled “Natural Function Algebras” of professor Charles E. Rickart.

Accession 2019-A-0048 of the Whim ‘n Rhythm, Yale University, Records (RU 210)

This accession consists of a diary written by Charlotte Juergens during the 2016 Whim ‘n Rhythm world tour.

Accession 2019-A-0054 of the Yale Events and Activities Photographs (RU 690)

This accession comprises a New York Graphic article depicting four Yale secret society buildings: Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and Phi Upsilon, 1886 June 19.

Accession 2019-A-0055 of the Yale College records of Classes (RU 491)

This accession contains a photograph album for the Yale College class of 1865.