35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Intelligence and Vietnam (II): Return of The Top Secret 1969 State Department Study

Secretary of State Dean Rusk with Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) Director Thomas L. Hughes, and INR Deputy Director Allan Evans

Left to Right: Secretary of State Dean Rusk with Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) Director Thomas L. Hughes, and INR Deputy Director Allan Evans (Photo courtesy Thomas L. Hughes)

Published: Dec 2, 2004
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Briefing Book #121

Edited by Tom Blanton

Updated by John Prados

For more information, contact John Prados:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

INR study re-released on appeal under FOIA restores redacted text and hundreds of pages of references

INR was highly attuned to Chinese aid to North Vietnam; first in US government to recognize significance of the Buddhist crisis in the South

Washington, DC, December 27, 2020—The National Security Archive is today posting an update to a 2004 E-book featuring a landmark but still relatively little-known State Department study of the Vietnam War from 1969.  Commissioned by Thomas L. Hughes, the head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, it was a more modest account of the war than its more famous cousin, the Pentagon Papers.  Yet in some ways it was more insightful and is considered essential to understanding the Department’s role in the conflict.

 The Archive’s original posting presented a sometimes heavily redacted version of the document – all that was available at the time.  However, after an Archive appeal under the Freedom of Information Act, the State Department released a much more complete version – most notably including an entire 275-page section consisting of specific references to INR's contributions to various government reporting, including its own papers, CIA estimates, and other records.

 Today’s posting includes that section (part B), plus related materials by the document’s authors from that time as well as lengthy prefatory essays by Hughes and the Archive’s John Prados that also appeared as part of the original E-book.

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Preface to the Updated Posting

By John Prados

The “Pentagon Papers,” a top secret Department of Defense inquiry into the background and conduct of the Vietnam war, became famous when leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in July 1971. A landmark Supreme Court case upheld First Amendment rights, prohibiting then-president Richard M. Nixon from preventing their publication. For years the Pentagon Papers furnished the ultimate documentary source for studies of the war. But there was another, equally secret, review of the Vietnam war, one that did not leak.

Time Magazine revealed its existence in August 1971 (see excerpt below) but that was virtually the only public mention of the State Department's study, which remained locked away for decades. In the 1990s both the National Security Archive and Clemson University professor Edwin E. Moise filed Freedom of Information Act requests for release of the INR study, much of which was declassified in 2003. The Archive then asked former Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) Director Thomas L. Hughes to contribute an essay that introduced the Bureau and discussed its work. I went over the same ground as an historian and supplied a paper that focused directly on INR's intelligence output. The Archive posted the package as Electronic Briefing Book no. 121 in May 2004.

At that time an entire section of the INR study, plus many passages throughout, remained secret and were under appeal. We subsequently got most of that material released. It is included in this new posting. There are currently perhaps a dozen short excisions left out of the study for classification purposes. We have also checked with Dr. Moise, who had also appealed the secret texts, and found we both held identical copies of the document. Because the INR study is a seminal resource, and because the previous electronic briefing book appears in an old format (without endnotes), we are reposting this package here.

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Original Posting

Intelligence and Vietnam: The Top Secret 1969 State Department Study

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 121

Retrospective Preface by Thomas L. Hughes (Former Director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State)

Contextual Introduction by John Prados (Senior Fellow, National Security Archive)

Edited by Thomas S. Blanton (Director, National Security Archive)

Embargoed for release, Sunday, May 2, 2004


Two months after the leak of the Pentagon Papers generated front page headlines and a landmark Supreme Court case, TIME magazine reported:

"State's Secrets. The Pentagon, it seems, was not the only Government department to make a top-secret retrospective study of the nation's decisions in Vietnam. In 1968 Tom Hughes, then director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, ordered another report, far less voluminous and ambitious but with considerable potential impact.

"Composed by two State Department Asia analysts, the study compared the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations' key Vietnam decisions with the bureau's own major judgments during the same period. In almost every case, the intelligence reports called the shots perfectly about such matters as the ineffectiveness of the bombing campaign, Vietnamese political upheavals and North Vietnamese troop buildups. Daniel Ellsberg is said to have read the study as a consultant for Henry Kissinger in 1969 and reacted: 'My God, this is astonishing. I thought the CIA stuff was great, but these papers are even more accurate.'

"After publication of the Pentagon papers, the two known copies of the State study have been locked away. Ray Cline, the intelligence bureau's current director, has forbidden subordinates to admit their existence."

-- TIME magazine, August 9, 1971, p. 16

Secrecy and bureaucratic inertia kept this historic study hidden in State Department vaults for nearly 35 years, until Freedom of Information Act requests by Clemson University professor Edwin E. Moise and the George Washington University's National Security Archive forced the release of the bulk of the study in November 2003. Missing from that initial release because of a processing mistake was a significant part of the sources for section A-VI, which the National Security Archive obtained from the State Department on April 27, 2004. Still missing from the 596-page study are a number of questionable deletions on national security grounds, which the Archive has appealed.

In late 1968, Thomas L. Hughes, the director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), commissioned this study, intended as an in-house classified review and evaluation of INR's performance on the subject of Vietnam during the eight years of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. As Mr. Hughes explains in the retrospective preface he generously provided for this posting, he tasked two former INR analysts who were intimately familiar with INR's product but no longer serving in the Bureau - W. Dean Howells and Dorothy Avery - to produce the study. They wrote the chronological review of INR reporting, compiled the annexes of source material, and wrote the thematic summaries as well. Recently retired INR staffer Fred Greene then reviewed the material and wrote the critique section. Mr. Hughes refrained from supervising or editing the results. All of this material except for the "B" section, the 265-page "Annexes Quoting Sources," is included in this posting.

Then-INR director Hughes comments in his retrospective preface for this posting: "INR's analysis on Vietnam stood out as tenaciously pessimistic from 1963 on, whether the question was the viability of the successive Saigon regimes, the Pentagon's statistical underestimation of enemy strength, the ultimate ineffectiveness of bombing the North, the persistence of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, or the danger of Chinese intervention." Mr. Hughes contrasts INR's consistency with that "of leading actors who were hawks by day and doves by night." Mr. Hughes laments that "while we [in INR] were heeded, we were unable to persuade, sway, or prevail when it came to the ultimate decisions."

Archive senior fellow John Prados, who edited the Archive's forthcoming documentary collection on Vietnam, gives INR more credit in his contextual introduction, calling the Bureau "the mouse that roared." Dr. Prados concludes that INR "helped hone U.S. intelligence conclusions, called attention to the poor data and inadequate intelligence collection taking place in Vietnam, saved the CIA and other agencies from going even farther out on a limb than they climbed, and … also helped limit the war by contributing to the reluctance of top officials to escalate too far."

Archive director Thomas Blanton commented that "Lessons from the Vietnam experience with intelligence run directly counter to today's reform proposals for the U.S. intelligence community. Instead of a centralized 'czar,' this history suggests we need a multiplicity of competing agencies and analyses. Instead of policymakers who cherry-pick only the intelligence they want to hear, we need to encourage dissents and force closer examination of contrary findings. Instead of covering up with the cloak of secrecy, we need to open the insider critiques in real time and enrich the public debate."

Preface: INR'S Vietnam Study in Context
A Retrospective Preface Thirty-five Years Later
by Thomas L. Hughes, Director of INR 1963-69

Since the completion of this study in 1969, dozens of books and memoirs on Vietnam have appeared. A striking pattern has emerged from their disclosures. To a far greater extent than was imagined in the 1960's, prominent officials in Washington engaged in a combined patriotic, political, and careerist suppression of their strong personal doubts about the war. Cumulatively, another tragic dimension has thus been added to the Vietnam tragedy itself-the unveiling of a dramatis personnae of split personalities, of leading actors who were hawks by day and doves by night-a plethora of public hawks who were private doves.

Click here for the full text

Introduction: The Mouse That Roared
State Department Intelligence in the Vietnam War
by John Prados, Senior Fellow, National Security Archive

One of the untold stories of the Vietnam era, a tale that lies at the very heart of the nexus of Washington's war decisions and its appreciations of that conflict, is how America's own diplomatic intelligence service contributed to United States understanding of affairs in Vietnam and their likely consequences. This is a story of steady efforts to piece together a wide range of unknowns into a coherent vision of how things appeared to Hanoi and its allies and what those parties would do about Vietnam themselves. It is an account of sometimes breathtaking, sometimes frustrating efforts to speak truth to power in a situation of primary importance to the United States, its leaders, and its people.

Click here for the full text



The Documents


Note: This version of the INR study was released to the National Security Archive after the original posting in 2004, in response to a Freedom of Information Act appeal.

VIETNAM, 1961 – 1968

Interpreted in INR’s Production

By W. Dean Howells, Dorothy Avery, and Fred Greene


A. Review of Judgments in INR Reports

Introductory Note: Note on Sources

A-I - The Problem Confronted, January 1961-February 1962

A-II - Looking for Progress, February 1962-May 1963

A-III - The Trouble with Diem, May-November 1963

A-IV - Time of Decision, November 1963-March 1965

A-V - Trial by Force, March 1965-February 1966

A-VI - A Massive Effort to Turn the Tide, February 1966-April 1968

A-VII - The Search for Peace, April-December 1968


B. Annexes Quoting Sources (Multiple Vietnam Analyses, annotated)


C. Thematic Summaries

C-I - Communist Intentions and Response to U.S. Actions

C-II - Political Stability

C-III - The Course of the War

C-IV – Prospects for Beginning Talks and Negotiating a Settlement


D. Critique of INR Interpretations in the Light of Contemporary Events

D-I - The Political Situation in South Vietnam

D-II - The Course of the War in the South

D-III - The War Against the North and the Role of China

D-IV - Negotiations


E. Special Annexes Available as Authorized by the Director

E-I - Infiltration

E-II - The Tonkin Gulf

E-III - Chinese Military Activity, September 1964-January 1965

E-IV - Sino-DRV Air and Ground Action, February 1965-February 1966

E-V - DRV Planes receive Sanctuary, 1967


Related Contemporaneous Materials

National Security Archive letters appealing questionable deletions in the INR study:

Department of State
Central Intelligence Agency