(b. 23 November 1919 in Waco, Texas), State Department official and adviser on Vietnam policy during the Kennedy administration.
The only son of Roger Hilsman, a career U.S. Army officer, and Emma Prendergast, Hilsman attended schools in Minnesota, the Philippines, California, and Washington, D.C., before entering the U.S. Military Academy in 1939. He graduated in 1943 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry. During World War II, Hilsman served in the China-Burma-India theater. Initially assigned as a platoon leader in the famed Merrill's Marauders, he was wounded in the battle for Myitkyina, Burma, in May 1944. Later he was part of Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), leading a guerrilla battalion in operations behind Japanese lines.
After the war Hilsman served for two years at OSS headquarters in Washington, using his Burmese experiences to promote the development of a guerrilla war capability in the agency. On 22 June 1946 he married Eleanor Willis Hoyt; they had four children. In 1947 the army sent Hilsman to Yale University to study international relations. He was awarded a master's degree in 1950 and a doctorate in 1951. From 1950 to 1953 Hilsman was stationed in Europe, working on strategy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, first with the Joint American Military Advisory Group in London, England, and then at the headquarters of the United States European Command in Frankfurt, Germany.
Hilsman resigned his commission in 1953 and for the next three years was associated with the Center of International Affairs at Princeton University. In 1956 he was appointed chief of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Division of the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress, and two years later he was named deputy director. While working with the service, Hilsman became acquainted with Senator John F. Kennedy, for whom he prepared memoranda for Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. Kennedy was impressed with Hilsman's intellect and readiness to express his opinions, and, as president, he appointed him director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department in February 1961.
In this post Hilsman was concerned with most of the foreign policy issues of the Kennedy era. Ultimately, however, he would play his most significant role in matters relating to South Vietnam, which was beset by a Communist insurgency that was gaining control over much of the rural population. American military advisers believed the most effective way to defeat the Communists, or Viet-cong (VC), was to have regular Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces, utilizing infantry, armor, artillery, and air power, clear an area of VC and then turn it over to local self-defense forces. Hilsman, in contrast, thought the VC could best be countered by a combination of civic action, intelligence, police work, and constabulary-like small units aimed at protecting the population from the VC and securing government control.
Kennedy, who was increasingly frustrated by the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, sent Hilsman to Saigon in early 1962 to assess the progress of the war. During his visit Hilsman met with President Ngo Dinh Diem and Robert Thompson, head of a British advisory mission and the architect of the British victory over an insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s, and observed an operation against the VC near Bien Hoa. In his report he defined the war as a political rather than a military struggle and argued that conventional military tactics were of little value in defeating guerrillas. Instead, he said the South Vietnamese should emphasize aggressive patrolling and ambushes by small units and, drawing upon Thompson's experiences in Malaya, create "strategic hamlets" in densely populated rural areas to protect villagers against the VC.
Kennedy endorsed many of Hilsman's ideas, and in the spring of 1962 Diem adopted the strategic hamlet plan. Hilsman's prescription, however, did not sit well with many American military men. Already repelled by his aggressiveness in presenting his views in other policy matters, they did not relish a second-level State Department official telling them how to fight a war and continued to favor offensive strikes against the VC in their lairs. The strategic hamlet program, meanwhile, was soon floundering because of poor administration, corruption, and the efforts of Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem's brother, to use it to strengthen the political power of the Ngo family.
In April 1963 Hilsman was named assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. Now the department's principal official for Vietnam, he was increasingly convinced that Diem's narrow political base, ARVN's incompetency, and Nhu's repressive actions towards Buddhists protesting government policies made it unlikely that Diem could lead South Vietnam to victory. Along with Michael Forrestal of the National Security Council and W. Averell Harriman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, Hilsman sent a cable to U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., on 24 August 1963 recommending that he let dissident ARVN generals know that the United States was ready to abandon Diem if he did not rid himself of Nhu.
While the cable did not actually call for a coup, it implicitly encouraged the generals to act against Diem. In sending it, however, the Hilsman group had assumed too much about the readiness of the generals to unseat Diem and, despite having cleared the cable with Kennedy, the willingness of many senior American officials to have the United States engineer his removal. Nothing immediately materialized in Saigon, but the cable was never revoked, and over the next weeks the administration fiercely debated its options in the face of Diem's refusal to dismiss Nhu. Finally, at the beginning of November 1963, a group of ARVN generals, with tacit American approval, staged a coup and murdered Diem and Nhu. A major turning point in the Vietnam conflict, the coup ushered in a period of political instability in Saigon and, ultimately, the Americanization of the war in 1965.
Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963 fore-shadowed the end of Hilsman's tenure at the State Department. President Lyndon Johnson, who had favored continued support for Diem, did not like Hilsman for his encouragement of the coup and his brash style. Secretary of State Dean Rusk did not like him because of his penchant for going outside channels, and the military did not like him because of his criticism of its strategy in Vietnam. Rather than wait to be fired, Hilsman resigned from the State Department in February 1964 and joined the government faculty at Columbia University. He was named professor emeritus in 1990. Hilsman is remembered for his advocacy of a counterinsurgency strategy in the Vietnam War and his place in the downfall of Diem.
Hilsman's papers are in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. For Hilsman's views on Vietnam see Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (1967), the first book by a policy maker to question Johnson's escalation of the war, and Hilsman, American Guerrilla: My War Behind Japanese Lines (1990). Hilsman's place in Vietnam policy making is also discussed in Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam (2000), and David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000). Oral histories are located in the Kennedy Library, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, the Columbia University Oral History Project, the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, and the historical office of the State Department.
John Kennedy Ohl