“What-If” History and President Kennedy
Contentious debate will resume about President Kennedy’s plans for Vietnam as we remember his assassination fifty years ago on November 22, 1963. Three weeks before the President was killed a military coup in South Vietnam took place in Saigon; President Diem of South Vietnam was killed.
Those who saw President Kennedy as a potential positive force in the world argue that he “matured” from the ill-fated decision to authorize the CIA to carry out its invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April, 1961; to his “measured” but necessary naval blockade to pressure the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in October, 1962; to his call for tension reduction in relations with the Soviet Union in his 1963 American University speech. Kennedy supporters regard as significant his modest withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam in October, 1963. In sum, supporters of JFK say he was moving towards de-escalating the Cold War with the Soviet Union and, after reelection, withdrawing from Vietnam.
However, those analysts who move beyond personalities and discrete events to analyze the trajectory of United States foreign policy from the onset of the Cold War in 1945 to today and defend the proposition that U.S. policy has been guided by patterns of economic expansion, geopolitical and military advance, and the embrace of an ideology of U.S. exceptionalism, conclude that President Kennedy and his key advisors remained committed to defeating the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and weakening the influence of North Vietnam in Southeast Asia. The promotion of imperialism and the struggle against “Communism” remained as central to the Kennedy agenda as it was to his predecessors, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
The United States Involvement in Vietnam Begins
President Harry Truman funded eighty percent of the French effort to reestablish control of its former colony in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) from 1950 until the collapse of the French military effort in 1954. During the Eisenhower years the United States replaced the French as the predominant colonial power in South Vietnam.
After the signatories of the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel “temporarily” after the peace conference of May 1954, the United States initiated a “nation-building” campaign in South Vietnam. The Eisenhower Administration brought Ngo Dinh Diem and his extended family from the United States to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) allegedly to establish a democracy in the South. Eisenhower promised to support Diem, authorized the new South Vietnamese leader to reject the all-Vietnamese elections that were to be held by 1956, committed the United States to the security of Indochina by organizing the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and sent technical advisors and 1,000 military personnel to help construct an administrative structure, a police force, and an army in South Vietnam.
Meanwhile the Diem regime initiated a brutal military campaign to exterminate former supporters of the anti-French revolutionary force, most of whom opposed Diem’s repression. By 1960, a full-scale civil war was underway as the Vietnamese people sought to overthrow the Diem dictatorship, which continued to be supported by the United States.
The Vietnam War Escalates in the Kennedy Years
Kennedy acknowledged the escalating civil war in South Vietnam shortly upon taking office. Vice-President Johnson was sent to South Vietnam in May, 1961, to assess the progress of the counter guerrilla war there. He recommended that the United States continue its support to the Diem regime: “The basic question in South East Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a 'Fortress America' concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don't live up to treaties and don't stand by our friends.” (Neil Sheehan, ed., The Pentagon Papers, Bantam, New York: 1971, 129).
The new president as a senator had been a leading advocate for the South Vietnamese regime in the 1950s. Both he and his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had strongly supported “containing” Communism --- as did practically all political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats. Since the fight in Vietnam was framed as a fight to stop Communism, most politicians and corporate and financial elites supported United States military involvement in Vietnam from the time of its betrayal of the Geneva Accords. The Vietnamese liberation struggle against the US-Diem regime escalated in response to the South Vietnamese regime’s “policy of systematic terror against the entire southern population” (Nguyen Khac Vien, Vietnam: A Long History, The Gioi Publishers, Ha Noi: 2007, 271). In late December, 1960 Vietnamese resistance fighters from the South met and established the National Liberation Front (NLF) to overthrow Diem, create a coalition government in the South, end all foreign intervention, and work towards establishing a peaceful reunification of all of Vietnam.
The Kennedy administration in the spring of 1961 added four hundred Special Forces troops to the contingent in South Vietnam and one hundred civilian advisors to aid in setting up the "strategic hamlet" program, designed to move peasant villagers away from areas influenced by NLF forces. In the fall of 1961 General Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Walt Rostow, economic historian and special advisor to the president, were sent to South Vietnam to study the situation. They returned recommending the introduction of U.S. ground troops, advice that was endorsed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rusk and McNamara argued that the “fall” of South Vietnam would be a prelude to the “fall” of the rest of Southeast Asia and Indonesia – meaning falling away from the orbit of US control. A “loss” in Vietnam would also create a right-wing backlash within the United States, much like the backlash that followed the "fall of China.”
With these recommendations, the Kennedy administration began a gradual escalation of direct
U. S. involvement in the South Vietnamese civil war. US troop strength went from several hundred to ten thousand by 1963. Meanwhile, the stability of the Diem government was declining. The strategic hamlet program, disrupting life in the countryside, was generating recruits for the NLF. Casualties among the South Vietnamese army and government officials grew. Opposition from Buddhists and students to Diem's harsh rule was becoming more intense.
On May 8, 1963, the army shot into a nonviolent Buddhist demonstration. Buddhists later committed suicide in public protest against the Diem regime. In August, 1963, the South Vietnamese police and military invaded Buddhist pagodas and schools and arrested many dissidents. After a visit to Vietnam in September, 1963, McNamara and Taylor claimed that the United States would be able to end its involvement in the country by 1965. The head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group, General Harkins, predicted in November, 1963, that victory was just months away.
While these optimistic assessments were being made, as they were continued to be made throughout the war, opposition to Diem within the Vietnamese ruling clique itself was growing. South Vietnamese generals were ready to oust Diem. US officials in South Vietnam disagreed in their evaluations of Diem's chances to maintain control of the country. Some US officials, like former Ambassador Frederick Nolting, were personal friends of Diem and remained committed to him, while others, such as the then-acting ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and members of the CIA, were opposed.
Finally, on November 1, 1963, with the support of Lodge and the CIA, Diem was overthrown by the South Vietnamese military, and one of the generals assumed office. This was to be the first of eleven governments during the remainder of South Vietnamese history. While turmoil ensued in Saigon, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
At the time of his death, there were fifteen thousand US troops in South Vietnam, a dramatic increase from the Eisenhower commitment but a small amount compared to the 540,000 troops that would be sent to Vietnam by 1968. Troop commitments during the Kennedy administration were small, but Kennedy and his advisors established the military infrastructure, mobilized the academic expertise, and communicated an official rationale for escalating the US struggle against the Third World. Military intervention was coupled with policies designed to encourage "economic development." While Kennedy was wrestling with what to do about Vietnam shortly before his death, the impression he wished to leave with the world was that the interests of the United States and the Third World were in fact identical. The Vietnamese people were experiencing just the opposite.
(Adapted from Duncan McFarland, Paul Krehbiel, Harry Targ ed. Vietnam From National Liberation to 21st Century Socialism, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Changemaker Publications, lulu.com/spotlight/changemaker, 2013, pp. 43-45).