Richard Nisley

JFK & Vietnam II
History - World Released - Mar 30, 2013


It seems hard to believe today, but in the 1960s U.S. foreign policy was determined largely by the government’s fear of being soft on communism.

Nobody wanted to be accused of being soft on communism, not the President, not Congress, and certainly not the State Department.

Thanks to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the State Department had been purged of people who were familiar with life inside the Soviet Union and inside communist China and Southeast Asia. These people were not just experts in their field, a number of them had lived in these countries.

Senator McCarthy called a press conference and held up a list of names and said it was a list of known communists within the State Department. The President and Congress stood by and did very little to stop McCarthy as he pursued what amounted to a witch hunt. As bullies often do, McCarthy went too far. In 1954, he was censured by the Senate, but it came too late. The damage was done.

The people inside the State Department who understood communist countries were gone. The U.S. government did next to nothing to clear their names and did not invite them back. It was not merely a brain-drain of considerable experience and talent, but a loss of the government’s ability to understand the thinking of its biggest adversaries.

What happened was a crime, and in the 1960s the United States would pay for it with a number of foreign-policy blunders, chief of which was the Vietnam War.

When John Kennedy entered office as president in 1961, he perpetuated the anti-communist foreign policy started by President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the years following World War II.

The decision in October 1961 to increase the American military presence in Vietnam was not merely to show Khrushchev that Kennedy was tough, but to insure that no one in America could accuse him of being soft on communism.

Kennedy’s trusted advisors--Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, General Maxwell Taylor--recommended sending 100,000 American combat troops. Having seen what happened to the French ten years earlier, Kennedy rejected the idea. Instead, he increased American military support from 600 advisors to 16,000. It was a lukewarm measure to a growing crisis, but it gave Kennedy the illusion that he was controlling events rather than the military.

The immediate result of Kennedy’s decision was the activation of a major American command in Saigon headed by Lieutenant General Paul D. Harkins, a protege of General Maxwell Taylor. Up until 1961, intelligence reports had been reasonably accurate. Now, under Harkins’ command, they would be written to show that the war was going well, and that increased American military support was effective. It was an early example of spin control, of politicians manipulating the news.

As a result, the Kennedy Administration would spend countless hours trying to determine if the war was actually being won, because they could no longer rely on the reports coming from Saigon. In effect, the Administration had created a situation in which it was lying to itself. In turn, it lied to the nation about the war.

Kennedy suspected the war wasn’t going well, but he had no idea of how badly. Besides, he had other problems demanding his attention. Increasingly he looked to his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to tell him how the war going. McNamara, looking at the data--which could be manipulated to say anything--had no idea of what was happening either, although he thought he did.

After a brief period in early 1962 when the arrival of American helicopters caught the Vietcong by surprise and there were a couple of quick victories, the American booster shot failed. The Vietcong quickly learned if helicopters appeared, it was better to stand and fight rather than run and be slaughtered. The net result of the American build-up was that the Vietcong were capturing better weapons.

Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese government, which lacked popular support and in fact existed only because of U.S. financial and military support, did what it always did: report defeats as victories, inflate the number of enemy killed, and whenever possible avoid contact with the Vietcong. General Harkins, who rarely ventured into the field, accepted their battlefield reports without verification and passed them on to Washington as proof the war was being won. American journalists, meanwhile, who did venture into the field, began reporting that the war was being lost.

The result was something out of Alice in Wonderland. Had it not been tragic it would have been laughable: the South Vietnamese Army would be badly beaten by the Vietcong and the American military command would report it as a victory. The press, meanwhile, who were there, would report the battle for what it was--a defeat. Kennedy developed a love-hate relationship with the press. On one hand, their reporting was cause of constant embarrassment and frustration to his Administration, while on the other it was the only reliable source he had of finding out what was really happening.

It was one thing to sit in Saigon in an air-conditioned office and pass along faked reports to Washington as Harkins was doing; it was quite another to send young American advisors into combat, knowing they were risking their lives for what was essentially a fraud. An inevitable confrontation soon arose, at the battle of Ap Bac.

At considerable risk to their own careers, several key officers in the field began to complain. They were all combat veterans of other wars, men of military distinction, in their late 30s or early 40s, who had been specially selected for these slots. They were living where the war was taking place, and they thought it was a serious business, sending young men out to die, and if you were willing to do it, you also had to be willing to fight for their doubts and put your career on the line.

One of them was Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann of the 7th division, in the northern tier of the Mekong Delta. His reporting had caused some problems in the past. Now a major storm would center around him in January 1963 when the division he advised was badly defeated at the battle of Ap Bac, which, being close to Saigon, was well covered by the press. General Harkins was furious, not at the Vietnamese or their commander, but at Vann for having called it a defeat and for having talked with American reporters.

Harkins wanted to board his helicopter, fly to Ap Bac, and fire Vann on the spot. He was talked out of it by his staff who argued that firing Vann would bring even more adverse publicity and further effect field morale which was already low. Instead, Harkins upbraided Vann, and Vann became a non-person. After that, anything he wrote or said was simply ignored. Vann went home in June 1963 a very bitter man, his dream of being a general shattered.

Vann’s immediate superior, Colonel Dan Porter IV, was next. Before he went home after two long years, he turned in a final report, and it was brutally frank. Despite superior firepower, transports, helicopters, jungle defoliants--the very things the Vietcong lacked--the war was being lost by an army that lacked the will to fight. It was not what Harkins wanted to hear. He flew into a rage over it, had all copies collected and Porter’s report was never seen again. Porter too had dreamed of becoming a general. Now, he too was out.

One other man entered the struggle, a general officer named Robert York who had a distinguished record as a regimental commander in World War II. He was in Vietnam doing special evaluation on guerrilla warfare, which he knew something about, having been stationed as an attache in Malaya during that guerilla uprising. Unlike Harkins, York unpinned his general’s stars and went into the field to see the war firsthand. He crawled in the mud beside soldiers and received enemy fire in order to have a better look. When he handed in his detailed and pessimistic report, Harkins read it and scribbled in the margins “Lies,” “More lies,” “Vann,” “Porter,” “Vann again,” “Porter again.” Due to his rank, York’s report survived, with Harkin’s scribblings clearly legible.

When it was clear to Washington that in fact the war was being lost, and the decision was made to send in American combat troops, Harkins was relieved of command. “He wasn’t worth a damn so he was removed,” McNamara would say of him later. What he failed to say was that Harkins did exactly what he was sent to do: put a positive spin on the war. Had Harkins’ been a competent general--had he been of the same cloth as Vann, Porter and York, shown leadership and reported the truth--it’s likely he would have been relieved much sooner.

Warnings go unheeded--next time.
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