Richard Nisley

JFK & Vietnam
History - World Released - Nov 12, 2012

How John F. Kennedy got the U.S. stuck in the Vietnam quagmire: it wasn’t that he didn’t know--he did. Part 1 of 3:

Jack Kennedy was rich, charming, and a quick study.

Being a quick study was never more evident than when he went to Southeast Asia. He went in 1951 and 1953, once as a congressman and once as a senator, when the French were fighting to stay in Vietnam. At the time, the U.S. was spending $50 billion annually to help the French stop the spread of Communism in that part of the world. Remember the Domino Theory?

Rather than accept the French Military’s briefing that the war was going well, Kennedy got the names and addresses of the best war correspondence and showed up unannounced at their apartments. With his boyish looks and shock of red hair, he looked like Huck Finn. The reporters had trouble believing he was really a member of the United States Congress. His quick grasp of the situation got their attention. He asked tough questions, was a good listener, and got a very different report than the one the French gave him.

Despite 300,000 well-trained combat troops, sophisticated weaponry, artillery, bombers, and napalm--everything the Vietminh lacked--the French were losing. Kennedy’s immediate reaction: this is no place for American soldiers to be fighting.

Vietnam had never been defeated. Not by China which had fought the Vietnamese for over 1,000 years and lost. Not by Japan, which during World War II tried and failed to conquer Vietnam. And not by the French after World War II, who were trying to regain their colonial foothold in Southeast Asia.

The French were winning battles but losing the war. The Vietminh attacked their outposts, attacked their supplies depots, attacked their transports, attacked them when they least expected it. And when the French mounted an offensive, the Vietminh disappeared into the jungle. It was maddening. The Vietminh had the French by the throat and the French didn’t know it--or wouldn’t admit it. Kennedy returned to America and made his first speech on U.S. foreign policy--he was against U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

In 1954, the Vietminh defeated the French at Dienbienphu and it was over. The French had enough and withdrew. That same year, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam in two. The communists governed North Vietnam, and the U.S. appointed a Ngo Dinh Diem to head what was supposed to be a democratic government in South Vietnam (Diem went about creating a police state as a hedge against attempted coups). The United States continued spending $50 billion annually in support of Diem, and in 1956 very quietly sent military advisors to train the hapless Army of South Vietnam. For the most part, the political and military situation in Southeast Asia remained stable for the next four years.

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, the hotspot in Southeast Asia was not Vietnam but Laos. The communist Pathet Lao was on the verge of taking over. Something had to be done.

Before deciding a course of action, Kennedy was presented with a military operation that had been in the planning stages for over a year--an invasion of Cuba. U.S. ground troops would not be invading, but a number of ex-patriot Cuban soldiers would, supported by U.S. naval and air support. The Cubans had been fully trained, were well-armed, and ready to go. They were expected to be welcomed as liberators. Castro’s army would be caught off guard, outnumbered and quickly overrun, and the communist threat in Cuba would be ended.

The mission was top secret. The Cuban ex-patriots were eager to go in. All Kennedy had to do was give his blessing. He felt uneasy. He questioned the Pentagon brass extensively, conferred with his own advisors, and received nothing but positive answers. Believing he had no other options available, the President approved the mission.

Kennedy’s uneasiness persisted, however. On the night before the invasion, he called off U.S. naval and air support. U.S. credibility was at stake. It wouldn’t look right if U.S. involvement was detected. The Russians, for one, might take unilateral action and attack West Berlin, as they had been threatening to do.

The invasion of the Bay of Pigs failed miserably. Castro knew all along what the U.S. military was planning. His army awaited the ex-patriot Cubans as they stormed the beach. The expected uprising of the masses never materialized.

About the only people who didn’t know about the secret invasion, incredibly, was a group within the CIA who had been spying on Cuba. They had first-hand information that Fidel Castro was viewed as a liberator and enjoyed wide-spread popular support. Why hadn’t anyone consulted THEM during the planning stages?

Eisenhower scolded Kennedy privately. His advice: don’t invade a country unless you intend to win.

Kennedy felt betrayed. Too late he realized the Pentagon had been playing him. They had provided him only with partial information. They knew the invasion force was too small and would likely fail. Once the reports arrived in Washington that the invasion was failing, they were counting on Kennedy to give the green light for a full-scale U.S. invasion. Whether or not it was true, in the invasion aftermath, that was Kennedy’s belief.

Going forward, Kennedy would depend more and more on his brother, Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, to deal with the Pentagon. Also included in Kennedy’s inner circle was General Maxwell Taylor. General Taylor was lean, socially correct, erudite, fluent in several languages, and able to quote from the Greek Classics. In short, a Kennedy man.

Around this time Kennedy met with retired five-star General Douglas MacArthur who had first-hand experience in Southeast Asia. Laos was still a U.S. concern, and Kennedy had mobilized the fleet and had the marines awaiting orders to go in. MacArthur told him two things: Laos was not worth saving, and the jungles of Southeast Asia were no place for American boys to be fighting. It was a military quagmire. Once in, it was nearly impossible to get out. MacArthur confirmed what Kennedy already believed.

Meanwhile, a crisis was developing in West Berlin. Emboldened by the U.S. debacle in Cuba, coupled with U.S. hesitation to stop the Pathet Lao in Laos, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was threatening to invade West Berlin. Threatening, but not taking action. What he was doing was testing the waters, and waiting a response from Washington.

“He thinks I’m weak,” Kennedy told his advisors.

Kennedy decided it was time to meet Khrushchev face-to-face, and called for a summit meeting in Vienna. It would play to Kennedy’s strength--his charm and quick intelligence. Turn on the charm, and Kennedy always got what he was after.

Until meeting Khrushchev. The Soviet leader had no trouble resisting Kennedy’s charm. He bullied and brow-beat the President mercilessly, while Kennedy was strangely tongue-tied. Khrushchev was not only street-smart but well-read. Kennedy had no response to his attacks. Afterward, the leader of the free world looked shell-shocked. “This was the worst day of my life,” Kennedy confided to a journalist immediately afterward. “He was out of his league,” wrote Averell Harriman, who was also there.

Kennedy called for a meeting of the four powers presiding over West Berlin--England, France, West Germany, and U.S.--and realized the other three nations were unwilling to risk war with Russia over West Berlin. The U.S. was alone facing down the Soviet threat.

In the U.S. talk spread of the possibility of nuclear war, and overnight people began building bomb shelters in their backyard.

On August 13, 1961--a Sunday--Soviet soldiers strung up a barbed wire fence separating East and West Berlin, without a shot being fired. A concrete block wall was soon to follow. Kennedy received word aboard the Marlin, near the family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

“How come we didn’t know anything about this?” the president asked an aid when the Marlin docked. He was angry when conferring by telephone with aides and with the Pentagon. Later, when he returned to Washington, Kennedy said: “We’re not going to do anything now because there is no alternative except war.” In Kennedy’s mind, the crisis was over. A wall separating East and West Berlin was bad, but there would be no Soviet invasion to contend with, and therefore no possibility of a nuclear holocaust. “The other guys blinked,” Kennedy said.

Even so, Kennedy was determined to show Khrushchev he was strong and not afraid to use military force if necessary. Having failed in Cuba, and having passed on taking action in Laos and West Berlin, what international crisis did that leave him? It left the ever-worsening situation in South Vietnam.

In October, Kennedy decided to up the ante. At the time, there were 600 U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam. Kennedy ordered an additional 16,000 advisors, with an air-support of 33 helicopters, a multitude of sophisticated weapons, chemicals to defoliate the jungle, and various transport vehicles. At the same time, he promised himself never to send in U.S. ground troops. It was the job of the Army of South Vietnam to save the country, he said. We’re there only to help.

On December 20, 1961, army advisors were given the first official authorization to use their weapons--in self defense. Two days later, Specialist 4th Class James Davis of Livingston, Tennessee, was killed in the jungle. He was the first.

For the United States, the Vietnam war had began.

Next time: how the Kennedy Administration deceived itself, and the defeat at Ap Bac.

“Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina,” by Bernard B. Fall
“The Making of a Quagmire,” by David Halberstam
“The Best and the Brightest,” by David Halberstam
“President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” by Richard Reeves
“The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs” by George W. Ball
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