Richard Nisley

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


President John F. Kennedy was angry.

News reports coming from Saigon were saying the war in Vietnam was being lost. Particularly annoying to Kennedy were reports in the New York Times by a reporter named David Halberstam.

Kennedy was particularly angered by a story on the front page of the Times, under the headline--”Rift with Saigon on War Tactics Underlined by 2 Red Attacks.” In a move reminiscent of President Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy asked the CIA to dig up dirt on Halberstam to discredit him. (Kennedy had done the same thing to executives of U.S. Steel during the price dispute in early 1962, employing both the FBI and CIA.)

A month later, Kennedy had lunch at the White House with Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times. Kennedy talked of national security and how Halberstam’s reports were damaging to the United States. He then laid his cards on the table: “I wish like hell that you’d get Halberstam out of there.” Sulzberger said he would see what he could, then turned around and extended Halberstam’s stay in Vietnam. He wasn’t going to let the President manipulate the news in HIS newspaper.

At the heart of Kennedy’s anger was that he no longer could control what was supposed to have been a limited war, something manageable, a brush fire easily contained. It was anything but that. By now, the Vietcong controlled all of the countryside outside of Saigon. The answer was to send in American ground troops to counter their advances, something Kennedy absolutely did not want to do. “If the French couldn’t control the country with 300,000 men,” he told an aid, “how can we.”

The fact was, the Kennedy Administration, despite it’s reputed brilliance and rationality, had upped the stakes in Vietnam without questioning why the original contingent of 600 military advisors had failed in the first place, or why the enemy was willing to fight and die for their cause and the Army of South Vietnam was not.

At the time of the decision to send 16,000 advisors, no attempt was made by the Administration to analyze Ho Chi Minh’s position in terms of the Vietnamese people and in terms of the larger Communist world, to establish what the South Vietnamese government represented, or to determine whether or not the domino theory was in fact valid, or even if Vietnam was worth a single drop of American blood. Instead, the focus was on the use of superior U.S. technology.

The difference in how the two sides viewed the war was astonishing. In Hanoi, talk was of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, of ridding the country of foreign influence, and of winning independence. In Washington, where the war was being stage-managed from afar, talk was of firepower, helicopters, jungle defoliants, whether or not to bomb Hanoi, and of stopping communism and showing toughness. In Hanoi, the war was considered a political struggle first and a military struggle second. In Washington, the war was thought of in purely military terms. McNamara began compiling lists of enemy dead as an indicator of how the war was going, this in a country of 30 million people with a robust birthrate. People in Washington who should have known better accepted McNamara’s reports as accurate indicators.

Now, one year after increasing American involvement, the Vietnam War was getting out of hand and Kennedy was finding he had few options available to him. He felt his hand was being forced to send combat troops, and he hated it. He considered himself to be a supremely rational man, yet ironically he had put the United States in an unwinnable situation for the most irrational of reasons--pride.

It’s not like the warning signs hadn’t been there. Within Kennedy’s own Administration George Ball, that rarest of political men--an independent thinker--tried talking Kennedy out of it from the start. Ball knew. He had worked closely with the French during the Indochina war. When he told Kennedy that it wouldn’t stop with 16,000 advisors, that within a few short years he would have 300,000 men in Vietnam, the President laughed and said, “George, you’re just crazier than hell. That just isn’t going to happen.”

The Pentagon was not all on board either. Both Army Chief of Staff George Decker and Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup said, “Do not, under any circumstance, get involved in land warfare in Southeast Asia.” They were ignored. McNarmara was running the Pentagon now, and decidedly hostile to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Another voice of experience was that of General Charles De Gaulle of France. De Gaulle made his position known to the Administration. The more the United States put in militarily, he said, the more the Vietnamese population would turn against it. De Gaulle predicted the U.S. would respond with more troops, more helicopters, more targets, and become trapped in a quagmire.

All ignored. The Kennedy people knew better than to listen to the voice of experience.

Also available to the Kennedy Administration, had anyone bothered to make a study of North Vietnam, was that the war was not communist in origin but nationalist. Ho Chi Minh was first a nationalist, second a communist. He wasn’t taking orders from Moscow or Beijing, as Khrushchev had tried to tell Kennedy in Vienna. Ho Chi Minh was a rogue communist who took orders from no one.

There were these words of the enemy, their recipe for winning the war, published in 1947: “. . . (there are) those who have a tendency only to rely on military action . . . They tend to believe that everything can be settled by armed force; they do not apply political mobilization, are unwilling to give explanations and to convince people; . . . fighting spiritedly, they neglect political work; they do not . . . act in such a way that they and the people can wholeheartedly help one another. . . . ”

Finally, there was General George Washington’s example. He could not have won the Battle of Trenton--which turned the tide--without considerable help from the local population. They supplied his army with food and clothing while hiding in the woods taking pot shots at the British Army as it pursued Washington to the banks of the Delaware. The British spent its energy pursuing local bands of militia which like the Vietcong vanished into the brush. As a result, the British Army was exhausted and somewhat shell-shocked when it faced Washington’s beleaguered Army at Trenton.

Indeed, the British had all the advantages: battleships, a multitude of cannons, ample food, clothing and medicine, and were the best-trained army in the world, and lost to Washington’s small, tattered “band of brothers” primarily because Washington had the political support of the people.

By mid-1963 Kennedy felt trapped by his Vietnam policy and talked secretly of pulling out after the 1964 election, after he was safely re-elected. If true, word of his decision never reached his successor, Lyndon Johnson.

Next time: summation
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