There are many critical questions surrounding United States involvement in Vietnam. American entry to Vietnam was a series of many choices made by five successive presidents during these years of 1945-1975. The policies of John F. Kennedy during the years of 1961-1963 were ones of military action, diplomacy, and liberalism. Each of his decision was on its merits at the time the decision was made. The belief that Vietnam was a test of the Americas ability to defeat communists in Vietnam lay at the center of Kennedy’s policy. Kennedy promised in his inaugural address, Let every nation know…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.
From the 1880s until World War II, France governed Vietnam as part of French Indochina, which also included Cambodia and Laos. The country was under the formal control of an emperor, Bao Dai. From 1946 until 1954, the Vietnamese struggled for their independence from France during the first Indochina War. At the end of this war, the country was temporarily divided into North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam came under the control of the Vietnamese Communists who had opposed France and aimed for a unified Vietnam under Communist rule. Vietnamese who had collaborated with the French controlled the South.
For this reason the United States became involved in Vietnam because it believed that if all of the country fell under a Communist government, Communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia and further. This belief was known as the domino theory. The decision to enter Vietnam reflected America’s idea of its global role-U.S. could not recoil from world leadership. The U.S. government supported the South Vietnamese government. The U.S. government wanted to establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which extended protection to South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in case of Communist subversion. SEATO, which came into force in 1955, became the way which Washington justified its support for South Vietnam; this support eventually became direct involvement of U.S. troops. In 1955, the United States picked Ngo Dinh Diem to replace Bao Dai as head of the anti-Communist regime in South Vietnam. Eisenhower chose to support Ngo Dinh Diem.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Mass., on May 29, 1917. Kennedy graduated from Harvard University in 1940 and joined the Navy the next year. After recovering from a war-aggravated spinal injury, Kennedy entered politics in 1946 and was elected to Congress. After a hard primary battle, Kennedy won the Democratic presidential nomination on the first ballot at the 1960 Los Angeles convention. With a majority of 118,574 votes, he won the election over Vice President Richard M. Nixon and became the first Roman Catholic president. Kennedy was inaugurated January 20, 1961.
January 19, 1961 was President Eisenhower last full day in office. He met with President elect Kennedy to lay out pressing national issues he would have to face. Tensions between the United States and the USSR had mounted after World War II, resulting in the Cold War. JFK would have to deal with that problem. There was an intense discussion about Laos and Vietnam between Kennedy and Eisenhower. Another problem JFK had inherited was Diem from Eisenhower.
Kennedy’s cabinet members were made up of many different thinkers. Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State believed that there was a communist plot to take over the world and it must be stopped. Walt Rostow, the presidential advisor believes that we should use military force to cut off supplies to the Vietcong, have large scale bombings of North Vietnam and accelerate modernization in South Vietnam. General Maxwell Taylor criticized Eisenhower’s conventional training efforts. McGeorge Bundy, the NSC advisor wanted to attack the Vietcong and North Vietnam if necessary. George Ball believed that Diem regime was corrupt and to create democracy in Vietnam was impossible.
Kennedy first role as president was to focus on issue involving the dangerous crisis over Berlin, on Cuba, and on the future of Laos. JFK first sends advisors to Vietnam to recommend a course of action during May 1961. Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice-President, visits South Vietnam and recommends strong commitment. In June 1961, the State Department report had three objectives:
? provide military protection to peasants
? convince Diem to implement social and economic reforms
? create a self-sustaining economy in South Vietnam
That same year in December, the State Department claims in a public report that Vietnam is threatened by a “clear and present danger,” of communist aggression.
Kennedy also during that year sent a cable to Robert McNamera and General Maxwell Taylor for a proposed visit to talk to Diem in about Vietnam and Laos. Taylor and McNamara were sent on a series of trips during 1961-1963 to Vietnam. The Taylor- McNamara report recommended
? the use of 8,000 US combat troops
? a 5,000 man combat engineering group
JFK was personally convinced that ground troops shouldn’t go in but his experts said otherwise. The Laotian Crisis occurred during 1961. People saw this as a direct link to the expansion of US activism in Vietnam.
JFK’s first decision about Vietnam was a counterinsurgency plan. On January 28, 1961 JFK approves the plan. In April of 1961 the first of 16,000 Green Beret advisors was sent to Vietnam. Kennedy sends 500 military advisors, a total of 1,400. A problem of this plan was the military was unable to stop communism.
By the end of 1961 Kennedy was devoting a lot of resources to the Vietnam problem as well as the entire Southeast Asian region. Kennedy and administration believed that losing Laos would probably mean the loss of all South East Asia. It was also apparent to Kennedy that a communist victory in Laos would pose a threat to the United States. Dec. 1961 JFK implemented the Strategic Hamlet Program. Which was rural pacification. Which was a newer version of Agroville Program under Eisenhower. This program fortified villages surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers to keep the VC out of schools, community center small hospital, and homes for peasants.
In 1962, Kennedy’s expanded intervention policy in South Vietnam received extreme bad press. NY Times ran very critical articles on rising intevension on a remote corner of the world. They began to question the accuracy of ARVN reports. They began to focus on US participation and direction instead of support and training. All this made the US look imperialist as if we were in control, which was not so yet. The civil rights movement created the climate for protest.
As of January 1962, the total military personal in South Vietnam reached a total of 2,646. During this strenuous time for JFK the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs in October, 1962. The Laos negotiation and the Cuban Missile Crisis raised strong doubts about Kennedy’s leadership ability. At the end of 1962 total military personal in South Vietnam reaches heights of 11,300 people.
President Kennedy’s did a television interviews on Vietnam September 2 and 9, 1963 on CBS. President Kennedy was asked about what he thinks about Vietnam.
“I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it?the people of Viet-Nam?against the Communists.”
JFK’s third decision and most far-reaching Vietnam decision was to replace Diem in 1963. The new US ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge favored Diem’s removal. During this time McNamera tried to convince JFK of necessity of deploying a combat force to S. Vietnam, not only to boost morale but to defend them against Vietcong in the field. But South Vietnamese troops are defeated by a much smaller Vietcong force despite U.S. assistance.
In November 1, 1963, Ngo Diem regime came to an end when he died of and unclear cause. It is speculated that he was overthrown and then assassinated by ARVN leaders. US became responsible for the chaos afterward, which led to an increased commitment of US troops.
By this time Kennedy was thinking ahead to the presidential campaign of 1964. Unfortunately Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, TX. Despite trauma of the assassination of the president the nation lied without him. Succeeding to the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination was Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson had inherited a more dangerous crisis than Eisenhower and Kennedy. And contrary to popular belief Johnson was not oblivious to Vietnam when he became president.
LBJ inherited JFK plans and vowed to continue his policies. He also felt he had to take a forceful position on Vietnam so that other Communist countries would not think that the United States lacked purpose. Kennedy had begun to consider the possibility of withdrawal from Vietnam and had even ordered the removal of 1000 advisers shortly before he was assassinated, but Johnson increased the number of U.S. advisers to 27,000 by mid-1964.
The Kennedy advisors viewed JFK as an effective leader of South Vietnam. Some opposition to JFK say he made some critical mistakes in regard to Vietnam. For example, he had a poor strategy. There were multiple options – military could not decide how to win ? and they disagreed on what to do. In North Vietnam, there was no front line to stop the influx of supplies. The neutralization to stop supplies in Laos failed. And we definitely underestimated the enemy. North Vietnam more determined that we thought.
There has been much speculation on what JFK would have done in Vietnam had he not been assassinated. Presidential aide Walt Rostow, says that Kennedy intend to withdrawal American military from Vietnam after 1964 election. Dean Rusk on the other hand believed Kennedy would have eventually brought US into war with Vietnam. Robert McNamera having reviewed everything believes that if JFK had lived, he would have pulled us out of Vietnam. Although many disagree with what McNamara says. And in the fiction movie JFK, by Oliver Stone his version of the Kennedy assassination was that Kennedy had already decided to pull out of Vietnam, and was killed for that reason.
So would Kennedy have fallen into the Vietnam War as Johnson did? No one can be sure, and Kennedy supporters can certainly believe that he would have avoided Johnson’s massive commitment -even though he had the same advisors as Johnson and the same desire to prevent a Communist takeover. We will never know for sure what President Kennedy intended to do in Vietnam. All the general public has to go on is speculation from close to JFK.
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