The Kennedy Commitment
Determined to stop the spread of Communism in the early 1960s, President Kennedy increased US presence in Vietnam
In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh, a Communist, stood in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square and quoted Thomas Jefferson. Ho was making his own declaration of Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule, which had eroded during World War II. He had been writing letters to US officials since at least 1919, when he lived in Paris and was known as Nguyen ai Quoc. In a January 1946 letter to President Harry Truman, Ho asked for American help against renewed French oppression: "The people of Vietnam earnestly hope that the great American republic would help us to conquer full independence."
Colonialism, however, was not foremost on the minds of American policy makers. Instead, they focused on the rise of an ideology that seemed to threaten US interests more dangerously than even the Nazism the Allies had just defeated: Communism.
VIETNAM AND THE COLD WAR
America’s commitment to Vietnam took root in the fluid period between World War II and the Cold War. It resulted from the intersection of geographic, ideological, and alliance dynamics, and gained additional energy from the interplay of economic and cultural concerns. Chief among these elements would be the abiding fear of Communism, which large pockets of the American public and official Washington regarded as a monolithic force bent on world domination.
But the struggle for control of the region that had come to be known as Indochina stretched back centuries, emerging in its modern form with the arrival of the French in the mid 1800s. Their conquest and colonization of Indochina would last into World War II, to be fully displaced by Japan only in the last year of that conflict. As Japanese rule crumbled in the summer of 1945, Vietnamese nationalists, organized by the Communist-dominated Viet Minh and its leader, Ho Chi Minh, declared their independence. While wartime objectives had generated sympathy for Indochinese self-determination, Cold War pressures led Washington to back France in its mission of reconquest. Unable to negotiate their way toward a satisfactory political arrangement, Paris and Hanoi engaged in sporadic hostilities throughout Vietnam, which soon escalated into full-scale conflict.
Although Washington was wary of Ho Chi Minh and his Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the administration of President Harry S. Truman withheld its support of Paris without a more fulsome French commitment to Vietnamese independence. But following the Communist victory in China’s civil war, Soviet recognition of Ho’s DRV in early 1950, and North Korea’s attack on South Korea in June of that year, Truman committed the United States to the defeat of Vietnamese Communism. Over the course of the next four years, and as the First Indochina War became increasingly internationalized, Washington would eventually fund close to 80 percent of French war expenditures.
The danger of Communism soon had a name: the “domino theory”—a concept coined by President Dwight Eisenhower when he stated that the fall of French Indochina (today’s Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) would topple the governments of neighboring countries and deliver them into the hands of the Soviets. This theory proved to be highly elastic, as a series of US officials applied it to American policy toward Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as in subsequent administrations.
But the length and lethality of what the French called la sale guerre, or “the dirty war,” sapped French appetites for continuing the struggle. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French surrendered and the First Indochina War came to an end. The Geneva Accords of July 1954—which resulted from an international conference on the fate of Indochina—divided Vietnam into two separate regroupment zones along the 17th parallel, with the DRV exercising sovereignty in the north, and the State of Vietnam, under the leadership of prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem, holding sway in the south. Free elections, envisaged two years hence, were to unify the country into a single entity. But Diem was dubious of Geneva and never signed the agreement, predicting that “another more deadly war” lay ahead.
The elections slated for 1956 never took place, and both northern and southern Vietnam began to develop their economies and polities into fully functioning states. It was in this context that the Eisenhower administration provided economic aid and military assistance to the fledgling Republic of Vietnam, following the stage-managed ascension of Diem from prime minister to president in October 1956. Over the next four years, the United States would embark upon a program of nation-building in South Vietnam.
From 1961 to 1963, President Kennedy increased the US military presence in Vietnam, establishing the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and sending thousands of US advisers to assist and train the South Vietnamese armed forces. While MACV continued to report progress in the war against the Communists, disturbing signals about the effectiveness of Saigon’s military, as well as the health of South Vietnamese civil society, began to appear in the American media. The downing of five US helicopters and the death of three US servicemen at the Battle of Ap Bac in early January 1963 captured Washington’s attention and spurred Kennedy’s increasing interest in finding out what was really happening in South Vietnam.
Less than a week after the engagement at Ap Bac, Kennedy heard a review of the battle that provided mixed signals on the state of the counterinsurgency. In this secret White House recording, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reports to Kennedy that South Vietnamese government forces are strengthening, and that the Viet Cong guerillas might be losing popularity: “About 800,000 villagers…appear to have shifted their allegiance from the Viet Cong …a favorable trend and one that represents a change from the past.” But, he went on to say, even with this trend, the total strength of the Viet Cong appears to be on the rise.
A week later, senior military advisors met with Kennedy prior to their departure on a fact-finding trip to Vietnam led by Army Chief of Staff General Earle Wheeler.
“We’re not killing them off as fast as they’re breeding them up there,” said General Curtis Lemay, Air Force chief of staff, “so it could go on forever.”
Three days after Wheeler and his team returned stateside, the Army chief briefed the president on the condition of the press and the US advisory mission in Vietnam. He also provided Kennedy with a series of recommendations for improving South Vietnam’s military capabilities in its fight against the Viet Cong.
“The press is resentful of the fact that two of their members were booted out of there by the Vietnamese government,” Wheeler said. “And that the government…is attempting to use the [US] press as a propaganda tool….[One of the members of the US media said,] ‘The Western press refuses to be treated this way.’ ”
At virtually the same time that the United States began to expand its military commitment to South Vietnam, it also started to think about a schedule for bringing those troops home. Planning for a troop withdrawal began in July 1962 and continued into the next year. On May 7, 1963, Secretary of Defense McNamara briefed Kennedy on the prospects for withdrawing US forces and ending the insurgency—an uprising he understood to be largely indigenous. McNamara displayed frustration with the Joint Chiefs’ plan for continued military assistance to Vietnam and laid out the context within which he believed a withdrawal should occur. The president and McNamara agreed that the withdrawal of 1,000 US advisors should take place only in an atmosphere of military success.
“When I look at what’s happened to Korea in the way of US aid, and how difficult it’s going to be to scale that aid down,” McNamara said, “we certainly don’t want to let another Korea develop in South Vietnam and we’re well on the way to doing that.”
The following day, after government forces shot and killed Buddhist celebrants in the old imperial capital of Hue, the United States' relationship with South Vietnam entered an entirely new phase. The Buddhist crisis heightened divisions among Kennedy advisors regarding their support of Diem and ushered in a period of increasing friction between Washington and Saigon. The replacement of US ambassador Frederick Nolting with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a major figure in US politics perceived as being less sympathetic to Diem, heartened those policy makers who had been looking for increased leverage over Diem—and who had been thinking more seriously about the need to remove him from power. Diem’s imposition of martial law on August 21 and his government’s raids on the pagodas convinced second-tier officials in the Kennedy White House and the State Department that the time had come to seek his ouster.
Although communication with key figures in South Vietnam indicated US support for a change in leadership, the coup failed to materialize. Kennedy resigned his government to working with Diem, but also to pressuring him into making a series of reforms in an effort to maintain the pace of the counterinsurgency. A fact-finding mission to South Vietnam in late September 1963, led by Secretary of Defense McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor, outlined a program of pressure and persuasion that sought to lever Diem into making the changes Washington deemed best. As part of their visit, McNamara and Taylor met with several US reporters to discuss their coverage of the war, much of which McNamara described as “miserable.” In this audio snippet of their report back to the president, they indicate their concern about New York Times reporter David Halberstam and UPI correspondent Neil Sheehan. According to McNamara, the two were “allowing an idealistic philosophy to color all their writing.”
In addition to calling for the US government to apply more pressure on the Diem regime, McNamara and Taylor also outlined for Kennedy a plan to remove virtually all US military advisors from South Vietnam by the end of 1965.
Later that evening, the National Security Council met to review their recommendations and to draft a statement on their report for public consumption. As in the earlier meeting, Kennedy questioned the wisdom of committing his administration publicly to an American troop withdrawal. “If the war doesn’t continue to go well,” the president said, “it’ll look like we were overly optimistic, and…I’d like to know what benefit we get out [of it] at this time announcing [the withdrawal of] a thousand.”
Three days later, Kennedy continued to ruminate on the public relations dimension of an American troop withdrawal. As he did in the meetings of October 2, the president considered the prospect for troop reduction against the backdrop of the war effort, ending the conversation with the statement, “Let’s just go ahead and do it without making a formal statement about it.”
Less than a month later, on November 1, 1963, Diem was killed in a coup. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22 continues to spark debate over what his policy toward Vietnam would have been had he lived.