Vietnam War - The John F. Kennedy Administration
When John F.
Kennedy won the 1960 U.S. presidential
election, one major issue Kennedy raised was whether the Soviet space and
missile programs had surpassed those of the U.S. As Kennedy took over, despite
warnings from Eisenhower about Laos and Vietnam, Europe and Latin America "loomed larger than Asia on his sights."
In his inaugural
address, Kennedy made the ambitious pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden,
meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the
survival and success of liberty."
In June 1961, John F. Kennedy bitterly disagreed with Soviet premier Nikita
Khrushchev when they met in Vienna over key U.S.-Soviet issues. The Legacy of
the Korean War created the idea of a limited war.
Although Kennedy stressed long-range missile parity with the Soviets, he was
also interested in using special forces for counterinsurgency warfare in Third
World countries threatened by communist insurgencies. Although they were
originally intended for use behind front lines after a conventional invasion of
Europe, Kennedy believed that the guerrilla tactics employed by special forces
such as the Green Berets
would be effective in a "brush fire" war in Vietnam.
The Kennedy administration remained essentially committed to the Cold War foreign policy inherited
from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1961, the USA had 50,000
troops based in Korea, and Kennedy faced a three-part crisis—the failure of the
Bay of Pigs invasion, the construction of
the Berlin Wall, and a
negotiated settlement between the pro-Western government of Laos and the Pathet Lao communist movement
These made Kennedy
believe that another failure on the part of the United States to gain control
and stop communist expansion would fatally damage U.S. credibility with its
allies and his own reputation. Kennedy determined to "draw a line in the sand"
and prevent a communist victory in Vietnam, saying, "Now we have a problem
making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place," to James Reston of
The New York
Times immediately after meeting Khrushchev in Vienna.
In May 1961, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Saigon and
enthusiastically declared Diem the "Winston Churchill of Asia." Asked why he had
made the comment, Johnson replied, "Diem's the only boy we got out there."
assured Diem of more aid in molding a fighting force that could resist the
communists. Kennedy's policy toward South Vietnam rested on the assumption that Diem and
his forces must ultimately defeat the guerrillas on their own. He was against
the deployment of American combat troops and observed that "to introduce U.S.
forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable
military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the
long run, adverse military consequences."
The quality of the South Vietnamese military, however, remained poor. Bad
leadership, corruption, and political interference all played a part in
emasculating the Army of the Republic of Vietnam
(ARVN). The frequency of guerrilla attacks rose as the insurgency gathered
steam. While Hanoi's support for the NLF played a role, South Vietnamese
governmental incompetence was at the core of the crisis.
Kennedy advisers Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow recommended that
U.S. troops be sent to South Vietnam disguised as flood relief workers. Kennedy
rejected the idea but increased military assistance yet again. In April 1962, John Kenneth
Galbraith warned Kennedy of the "danger we shall replace the French as a
colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did." By 1963, there were 16,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam, up from
Eisenhower's 900 advisors.
The Strategic Hamlet Program had been
initiated in 1961. This joint U.S.-South Vietnamese program attempted to
resettle the rural population into fortified camps. The aim was to isolate the
population from the insurgents, provide education and health care, and
strengthen the government's hold over the countryside. The Strategic Hamlets,
however, were quickly infiltrated by the guerrillas. The peasants resented being
uprooted from their ancestral villages. The government refused to undertake land
reform, which left farmers paying high rents to a few wealthy landlords.
Corruption dogged the program and intensified opposition. Government officials
were targeted for assassination.
On 23 July 1962, fourteen nations, including the People's Republic of China,
South Vietnam, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and the United States, signed an
agreement promising the neutrality of Laos
The inept performance of the South Vietnamese army was exemplified by failed
actions such as the Battle of Ap Bac on 2 January 1963, in which a
small band of Viet Cong beat off a much larger and better equipped South
Vietnamese force, many of whose officers seemed reluctant even to engage in
combat. The ARVN were led
in that battle by Diem's most trusted General Huynh Van Cao, commander of the IV
Corps a Catholic who had been promoted due to religion and fidelity rather
than skill, and whose main job was to preserve his forces to stave off coups;
Cao had earlier vomited during a communist attack. Some policymakers in
Washington began to conclude that Diem was incapable of defeating the communists
and might even make a deal with Ho Chi Minh. He seemed concerned only with
fending off coups. As Robert F. Kennedy noted, "Diem wouldn't make
even the slightest concessions. He was difficult to reason with..."
Discontent with Diem's policies exploded following the Hue Vesak
shootings of majority Buddhists who were protesting against the ban on the
Buddhist flag on Vesak, the Buddha's birthday. This resulted
in mass protests against policies that gave privileges to the Catholic Church
and its adherents. Diem's elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc was the
Archbishop of Hue and aggressively blurred the separation between church and
state. Diem refused to make concessions to the Buddhist majority or take
responsibility for the deaths. On 21 August 1963, the ARVN Special
Forces of Colonel Le
Quang Tung, loyal to Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, raided pagodas across Vietnam, causing
widespread damage and destruction.
During the summer of 1963 U.S. officials began discussing the possibility of
a regime change. The United States Department of
State was generally in favor of encouraging a coup, while the Defense Department favoured
Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Nhu controlled
the secret police and was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression. As
Diem's most powerful adviser, Nhu had become a hated figure in South Vietnam.
This was conveyed to the US embassy in Saigon in Cable 243.
The CIA was in contact
with generals planning to remove Diem. They were told that the United States
would not oppose such a move nor punish the generals by cutting off aid.
President Diem was overthrown and executed, along with his brother, on 2
November 1963. When he was informed, Maxwell Taylor remembered that Kennedy
"rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face."
He had not
approved Diem's murder. The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot
Lodge, invited the coup leaders to the embassy and congratulated them.
Ambassador Lodge informed Kennedy that "the prospects now are for a shorter
Following the coup, chaos ensued. Hanoi took advantage of the situation and
increased its support for the guerrillas. South Vietnam entered a period of
extreme political instability, as one military government toppled another in
quick succession. Increasingly, each new regime was viewed as a puppet of the
Americans; whatever the failings of Diem, his credentials as a nationalist (as
Robert McNamara later reflected) had been impeccable.
U.S military advisers were embedded at every level of the South Vietnamese
armed forces. They were, however, almost completely ignorant of the political
nature of the insurgency. The
insurgency was a political power struggle, in which military engagements were
not the main goal. The Kennedy
administration sought to refocus U.S. efforts on pacification and "winning over the hearts and
minds" of the population. The military leadership in Washington, however, was
hostile to any role for U.S. advisers other than conventional troop
training. General Paul
Harkins, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, confidently
predicted victory by Christmas 1963. The CIA was less
optimistic, however, warning that "the Viet Cong by and large retain de facto
control of much of the countryside and have steadily increased the overall
intensity of the effort".
Paramilitary officers from the CIA's Special Activities Division trained
and led Hmoung tribesmen in Laos and into Vietnam. The indigenous forces
numbered in the tens of thousands and they conducted direct action missions, led
by paramilitary officers, against the Communist Pathet Lao forces and their
North Vietnamese supporters. The CIA also ran
the Phoenix Program and participation MAC-V SOG (Studies and Observations
Group), which was originally named the Special Operations Group, but was changed
for cover purposes