Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway

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A problem arose in the spring of 1954 that was more serious than the conflicts with Senator McCarthy and Secretary Wilson and cuts in army manpower. It was a growing movement, led by important persons in and out of government, to send U.S. military forces to the aid of the French in Indochina. France had suffered more than 170,000 casualties there in its professional army (it sent no conscripts); it had spent nearly $7.5 billion, plus another $4 billion in U.S. aid; and now it had an army trapped at Dien Bien Phu. It asked for U.S. military help, and it indicated that in return it would end its opposition to a main plank in U.S. foreign policy: bringing West Germany into NATO. Secretary Dulles and Admiral Radford, proponents of intervention, held that air and naval action alone would save Indochina, with a massive air strike if necessary, using not more than two atomic bombs. Ground troops would not be needed.

To Ridgway this was the ig44 Rome airdrop all over again, but now multiplied thousands of times in its consequences. He opposed intervention on both military and moral grounds. He saw the French war as predominantly a military action to solve a political situation. He believed that Dulles and Radford were committing the cardinal sin of underestimating the enemy. He felt certain that the war could not be won on the cheap, by naval and air power alone, and that intervention would lead inevitably to a demand for his depleted ground troops, to be used in a jungle war under conditions far worse than those in Korea.

Without waiting to see whether his opposition would deter the advocates of intervention, Ridgway sent an army team of experts—engineers, medical officers, signal and communication specialists, officers experienced in combat—to Indochina to study and report on what logistic requirements a large-scale military operation there would entail. It showed that intervention would eventually demand more ground troops than had fought in Korea. A war would have to be fought from bases one to six thousand miles away, with great complexes constructed in the country at enormous cost: roads, harbors, docks, communication facilities, staging areas, warehouses. Neither France nor the natives could be counted on for real support. Jungle warfare would nullify the U.S. advantage in mechanized, mobile equipment. Draft calls would quadruple, to a hundred thousand a month. Defense costs would go up to perhaps $4o billion a year.

“I gave the report to Secretary Stevens,” Ridgway says.

He passed it up through channels to President Eisenhower. There was no response from him. On May 17, 1954—eight days after the fall of Dien Bien Phu—I went to Acting Secretary of Defense Anderson. Secretary Stevens was present. I told them that my conscience obliged me to express an opinion no one had asked for, on what the consequences would be if we intervened in Indochina. I said that I had asked Lieutenant General Gavin, my operations and training officer, to prepare a short, factual logistic briefing on Indochina. I said that I had told General WTilton Persons and another officer on Eisenhower’s staff that it was available if the President wished to see it. Bob Anderson directed me to prepare a brief summary of my views, addressed to the Secretary of Defense, and Bob Stevens would sign it. This was done. A few days later I was requested to have someone give the logistic briefing to the President and a few of his aides. I gave it myself. The President said very little, asked several questions. It was apparent to me that, with his military experience, he understood the full implications of the briefing.

It was one episode in Ridgway’s term as army chief that had a successful and happy ending. The President sided with Ridgway, and though he directed him to send a relatively small number of men to train the South Vietnamese, he overruled the proposal to use U.S. combat troops. General Collins wrote that intervention “was scotched on the recommendation of Matthew B. Ridgway,” and he added that while he had no part in the decision, he agreed with it completely.

Ridgway retired, as he had intended to do, on June 3o, 1955. He was not asked to serve a second term, and he was not offered, as was customary, another post. He was succeeded by his old friend and colleague Maxwell Taylor, who was cross-examined at length by Secretary Wilson on his readiness to carry out civilian orders even when they were contrary to his own views. Ridgway wrote a twelvepage farewell message to Secretary Wilson in which, in moderate language, he criticized the new defense policy and set forth his own beliefs and recommendations in a perilous world. Wilson classified his letter as confidential, but a young officer, without Ridgway’s knowledge, gave it to the New York Times , where it appeared on July 14 and caused something of a sensation. When questioned by reporters, Wilson said that the document was “not very important.”