Implementing Flexible Response:
Vietnam as a Test Case
In order to discuss the implementation of "flexible response," it is necessary to make a choice. One can examine in overview a series of events in which that strategy manifested itself: the Bay of Pigs, Laos, Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis, the Dominican Republic. Or, one can focus in detail on the event that because of its duration, divisiveness, and cost, overshadowed them all: the war in Vietnam. There are two good reasons for choosing the second approach. First, American policy in Southeast Asia reflected in microcosm virtually all of the elements of "flexible response" as applied in practice. Second, Kennedy, Johnson, and their advisers regarded Vietnam as a fair test of that strategy: it had been Eisenhower's inability to deal with that and comparable problems that had produced the "flexible response" critique in the first place; if the strategy could not be made to work in Vietnam, then there would be serious grounds upon which to question its applicability elsewhere. American leaders took on this test fully aware of the potential difficulties, but at the same time fully confident of their ability to surmount them through a strategy designed to meet just that kind of situation.
To say that their confidence was misplaced is to understate: rarely have accomplishments turned out so totally at variance with intended objectives. The war did not save South Vietnam, it did not deter future aggression, it did not enhance the credibility of United States commitments elsewhere in the world, it did not prevent recriminations at home. It is too easy to blame these disparities on deficiencies in the postwar national security decision-making structure, substantial though those may have