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An Idealistic Effort That Fell Short of Reality
January, 20 1961. The newly inaugurated President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, stands before scores and scores of Americans, while millions tuned in at home. The President opens by acknowledging the day’s proceedings as not merely a celebration of a particular party’s victory, but rather, the “celebration of freedom”. Drawing on the ideals of natural law of the Founding Fathers, Kennedy calls for Americans to unite behind their shared belief in the individual liberty of man, endowed by their Creator. While cherishing its liberty at home, Kennedy calls for the United States to extend its love for freedom to its neighbors around the world: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.
For the Kennedy Administration, this ideal of the United States serving to protect liberty at home and abroad would become an integral component of its foreign policy strategy amidst the Cold War. Of course, in this conflict, the “foe” to freedom was the Soviet Union, whose efforts to spread totalitarian communism around the globe were seen as an ideological threat to liberal democracy, and a very tangible threat to those countries, including the United States, that espoused its tenets. Like his predecessors, President Kennedy would employ a strategy of containment in order to slow, and hopefully halt, efforts to spread communism outside Soviet lines. By empowering anti-communist leaders in areas prone to Soviet influence through economic, political, and military aid, Kennedy believed that these local leaders would ultimately be victorious. Vietnam was no exception. In its efforts to aid the Diem regime of South Vietnam as it faced threats from both the Viet Cong and North Vietnam, the Kennedy Administration, however, failed to recognize the shortcomings of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, an inept and corrupt figure, whose inability to lead the the government, including the military, and his people would consistently hinder American efforts to contain communism in the region.
Early Signs of Diem’s Ineptitude
The challenges that the Kennedy Administration would face in its dealings with the Diem regime had existed long before Kennedy took office in 1961. Soon after Ngo Dinh Diem took office as President of South Vietnam in 1954, his popularity fell as a consequence of his authoritarian efforts to consolidate power and repress dissent. Diem created the Can Lao, a political machine that monopolized effectively all government contracts and sought to harness all political power for the Diem regime. Highly beneficial to these loyal supporters, Diem was also a nepotist, who employed his relatives, often incompetent ones, into positions of power in his regime. For example, his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, served as the head of the Can Lao, as well as the Special Forces of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), which served as the paramilitary force that defended Diem and his family.
Despite Diem’s character flaws, the Eisenhower Administration lent its support to the South Vietnamese government due to its fervent anti-communism. The United States offered South Vietnam economic aid, as well as military advisors to provide training and assistance to ARVN leaders. These efforts, however, led to generally negative results. The economic aid only served to foster South Vietnam’s increasing dependency on the American economy, and the group of American military advisors, referred to as the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), focused on conventional tactics, which while applicable to engagement with the North Vietnamese Army, was not particularly useful in combatting the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong.
Lansdale Report and the Early Policy of the Kennedy Administration
Upon taking office in January 1961, Kennedy would learn of these shortcomings after a report written by General Edward Lansdale, a U.S. Air Force officer serving in the CIA, reached the President’s desk. The report discussed the situation in South Vietnam and proposed a basic counterinsurgency plan. As Lansdale notes, the increasing guerilla activity of the Viet Cong had contributed to the growing instability in the region, though it was surely not the only factor. Discontent towards the Diem regime had also increasingly mounted, among both the urban elite and the rural peasantry, due to what many South Vietnamese perceive as the corruption of the regime. Furthermore, Diem was also hindered by the general ineffectiveness of the ARVN to counter Viet Cong advances, due in large part to his inept leadership.
Due to the authoritarian approach of Diem, the command and logistical structure of the ARVN was largely ineffective, which combined with the poor training levels of the force, and its focus on conventional tactics which proved ineffective against a guerrilla enemy, led to an overall poor condition and morale within the force. MAAG advisors only made matters worse by continuing to support the South Vietnamese Army’s focus on conventional strategies as opposed to counter-insurgency tactics. President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara certainly recognized the failings of conventional tactics in this operational environment, and Kennedy, himself, advocated for the use of special operations forces to train the ARVN on counter-insurgency before the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The top American military leaders, however, remain firmly rooted in their “doctrinal conservatism,” arguing that there were more important missions the special operations community needed to focus on at that time, and that conventional strategies were still the method of choice in Vietnam.
Ultimately, it seems that President Kennedy succumbed to the doctrinal obstinacy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as under his leadership, the Pentagon continued to oppose counter-insurgency training for the ARVN through the remainder of his administration. Despite early indication of the failure of the conventional strategies against the Viet Cong, as well as the clearly corrupt and inept President Diem, the Kennedy Administration failed to handle these issues, instead choosing to continue with the status quo, which would only haunt them in the months and years to come.
Kennedy’s Strategy: Assist, Not Engage
Despite Diem’s failures, Kennedy, like his predecessor Eisenhower, maintained confidence in the South Vietnamese President. Within months of his inauguration, President Kennedy answered General Lansdale’s call for additional advisors, equipment, and economic aid to South Vietnam, while maintaining that, while the United States would aid and advise the ARVN and the South Vietnamese government, it was ultimately the responsibility of the South Vietnamese people to defend their nation from the communist North and the Viet Cong. This policy of assisting the South Vietnamese without entangling the United States in a direct engagement with communist forces demonstrated to a certain extent, the President’s unwillingness to bring the United States into a likely unpopular conflict in Southeast Asia; however, in order to even make a decision of this magnitude and importance for American interests in preventing the spread of communism, to entrust the South Vietnamese government to protect itself with the United States merely acting as an auxiliary, required great confidence in the Diem regime.
Despite Diem’s authoritarian practices, Kennedy would maintain this trust until the final months of his Presidency. In a news conference on May 5, 1961, Kennedy stated that ultimately, while the United States could and would provide aid to support their defense, it was up to the South Vietnamese government to ward off communism. Six days later, McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor, published National Security Action Memorandum 52, stating the President’s unwavering objectives in Vietnam to include among others, to “prevent communist domination of South Vietnam,” and to “help create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society”. In order to do so, Kennedy recognized the need for Diem to regain a credible image among the South Vietnamese public, and therefore, the President tasked the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Frederick Nolting to assist in boosting the South Vietnamese President’s reputation. Furthermore, the President also directed the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a station in South Vietnam to further enhance the intelligence capabilities of ARVN, in addition to channeling more economic aid to South Vietnam.
Continued Failures of the Diem Regime
Nonetheless, in spite of continued economic, political, and military aid from the Kennedy Administration, the position of South Vietnam remained quite unstable, as Ngo Dinh Diem refused to implement the reforms advised by U.S. military advisors aimed at streamlining the command structure of the ARVN and the South Vietnamese government. On October 19, 1961, in a meeting with General Maxwell Taylor, Special Military Advisor to President Kennedy, Major General Duong Van Minh, Commanding General of the ARVN Field Command, reported the situation to be “extremely grave”, and that “not only had the Viet Cong grown alarmingly, but, worse, more and more, the Vietnamese Armed Forces were losing the support of the population”. When General Taylor asked what measures could be implemented to restore confidence of the South Vietnamese people in their government, General Minh responded that “the government had to strive to be better understood—there should be no favorite groups or classes”. The nepotism of Ngo Dinh Diem had continued to backfire not only in the political realm, but in politics, as well. By placing only his relatives and minions of the Can Lao party in positions of authority, Diem had not only branded himself as corrupt in the eyes of the people, but also inhibited the war effort against the Viet Cong. As General Minh notes, the nepotistic system of selecting Provincial Chiefs based on connection rather than competence often led to appointees lacking the latter. Furthermore, since these Provincial Chiefs held authority within the military chain of command, their incompetence would also contribute to ARVN defeat.
Key leaders of MAAG also concurred with General Minh’s assessment of the situation.
One advisor, Colonel Bryant, explained in a meeting with General Taylor that the ARVN intelligence system had been structured with the help of MAAG in a similar fashion as to that of the United States Army; however, impeding the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence across the echelons of the ARVN was President Diem, who had his own intelligence agencies that only shared information with the Province Chiefs, rather than the military, causing a duplicitous system that excluded ARVN leaders from potentially critical intelligence necessary for battlefield success.
In order to understand why there would unnecessarily be two separate intelligence apparatuses for the government of South Vietnam and its military, one need only examine once again the authoritarian style of rule that Ngo Dinh Diem championed. In total, the South Vietnamese government had seven military and civilian intelligence agencies, all of which directly reported to the President, himself. As one American advisor noted, “President [Diem] believes intelligence is ‘power’ and through such organizations President is able to control, and not by centralizing them under a subordinate he avoids giving that power to someone who might use it against the President”. Rather than delegate command of these agencies to ARVN and civilian leaders and allow for more efficient and effective intelligence operations within the military and government, Diem’s desire to maintain power, and fear of losing it, prevented reforms from being implemented.
Ironically, however, despite Diem’s consistent incompetency, General Taylor’s answer to the troubles of the regime was to request the President to allocate additional aid, including 6,000-8,000 troops. Such aid, General Taylor argued, would serve as “a much needed shot in the arm to national morale,” and therefore, garner greater support for Diem among the South Vietnamese people. Taylor expected that the American troops would provide valuable training to the ARVN in regards to logistics, intelligence, and overall military operations and help develop it into a more formidable force. While the United States’ past dealings with Diem demonstrated the inability of the ARVN to make drastic improvements due to the President’s mismanagement of the force, and even Taylor’s report confirmed such failures, the General, himself, neglected the past and instead called for the United States to continue its strategy of assisting and advising the ARVN, without addressing the underlying cause of South Vietnam’s military failures: President Diem.
The Kennedy Administration would heed General Taylor’s recommendations and continue its strategy of assistance, despite the quite conspicuous failures of this approach to solve the underlying issue of Diem’s incompetence. After receiving the backing of Secretary McNamara, the President authorized an escalation of aid and resources to the South Vietnamese government on November 22, 1961. Like previous efforts, the Kennedy Administration placed an emphasis on utilizing increased American assets in the region to bolster the capabilities of the ARVN, and thus, enable the South Vietnamese to successfully overcome the challenges posed by the Viet Cong. Among the military resources provided to the ARVN included more aircraft to support operations, more equipment, and more personnel, all without a specific limit explicitly stated in the memorandum. Rather instead, the memorandum stated that these resources would be provided in a quantity as large “as may be necessary” to support the war effort. Nowhere in the document are explicit directives given to the State Department or U.S. military leaders to reform the Diem regime. Despite the South Vietnamese President’s failures in character and action, the Kennedy Administration continued to support Diem in the hopes that their aid would lead to greater success on the battlefield, and thus, to greater public support for Diem.
As a result, the issues resulting from the inept and corrupt leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem persisted. Diem continued to ignore the MAAG advisors’ call for reforming the structure of the ARVN, and in fact, even gave himself veto power over any American proposals he did not like. He persisted in his refusal to create a more efficient method of structuring the South Vietnamese military. When American advisors proposed that he create a united Field Command under respected General Duong Minh, Diem rebuffed their recommendation solely because he perceived Minh as a threat to his power. Such efforts to preserve his authority impeded the ability of the ARVN to conduct coordinated and decisive operations against the Viet Cong. For example, when Minh asked President Diem for more troops in order to counter the Viet Cong’s advances in the troubled War Zone D north of Saigon, he refused as he feared the General was staging a coup, despite a complete lack of evidence indicating any signs of disloyalty.
Diem’s authoritarian rule continued to greatly inhibit the efforts of the ARVN throughout 1962. In February, Diem terminated a program led by Michigan State University to train South Vietnamese police, having feared that the professors were involved in covert activity on behalf of the United States. While certainly inhibiting police efforts, an even worse measure taken by Diem occurred a few days later when, after two South Vietnamese Air Force pilots attempted to assassinate him, the President instituted a no-fly policy for the Air Force for weeks, effectively eliminating its ability to support ground operations. Despite his incompetence, however, an opportunity arose in September to conduct a total offensive against the Viet Cong. Due to the financial aid pouring in from the United States for the past several years, the ARVN was finally able to reach its projected numbers of approximately 450,000. With the enemy comprised at the time of only 40,000 Viet Cong, American advisors pressed Diem to unleash a decisive, offensive operation to effectively wipe out their communist foe. The so-called National Campaign Plan proposed by MAAG would be rejected by Diem, however, due to his mistrust in the United States. Why Diem would not trust a power that had poured billions of dollars in economic aid, equipment, as well as thousands of personnel in order to protect the South Vietnamese from Communist aggression still remains unclear; however, it seems perhaps a mere continuation of his refusal to relinquish any authority over military operations to the United States, whether it be in the planning or execution phases of such missions.
Diem’s general incompetency was only further exacerbated by the Strategic Hamlet program. While Diem largely ignored his American military advisors, by 1962, he did agree to implement a strategy proposed by MAAG in an effort to pacify South Vietnam’s rural areas, which were often teeming with pro-communist sympathizers and even outright members of the Viet Cong guerrilla forces. Under this strategy, the ARVN would isolate the rural population into several camps, which would be guarded by ARVN or paramilitary troops. Unfortunately, one of the few strategic concepts that Diem actually accepted from the United States proved to be a complete and utter failure. Since these camps were poorly defended and supplied as a result of the structural deficiencies within the ARVN and South Vietnamese government, they were therefore quite prone to attack, while alienation towards the Diem regime only grew among the interned rural population.
Yet, despite the continued failures of the Diem regime in repelling Viet Cong advances, the Kennedy Administration continued to support the South Vietnamese President throughout 1962 and well into the spring of 1963. In December, the administration sent Senator Michael Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader at the time, to examine and evaluate the progress being made in Vietnam. Though the strategic hamlet program had proven to be a disaster since its inception, the outlook for this strategy, according to the Senator, remained “extremely optimistic”. In his report to President Kennedy, Senator Mansfield even stated that “Ngo Dinh Diem remains a dedicated, sincere, hardworking, incorruptible, and patriotic leader,” with no mention of Diem’s repeated refusals to listen to MAAG advisors, or even the authoritarian strategies he employs to consolidate his grip over South Vietnam, measures which not only debilitated national morale, and thus, encouraged pro-communist sympathies, but also imposed an inefficient military structure that left ARVN unable to emerge victorious. While recognizing the “weakness of the Saigon government,” like General Taylor’s report, Senator Mansfield neglected to explicitly criticize Diem for his inept and corrupt behavior.
1963: Religious Persecution Finally Compels the Kennedy Administration to Act
As 1963 dawned, the Kennedy Administration made no fundamental change to its strategy in South Vietnam. Military defeats persisted, first at the Battle of Ap Bac on January 2, as the South Vietnamese Army continued to struggle due in part to its inefficient command structure that Diem had refused to reform. National morale only worsened after the President began engaging in systematic religious persecution of the Buddhist majority. Invoking previously obsolete laws in order to repress the religious freedoms of Buddhists during the celebrations of the Buddha’s birthday led to widespread demonstrations, which although peaceful, were met with massacre by South Vietnamese authorities. As opposition to the Diem regime mounted, so did efforts to overthrow him, and eventually the United States finally relented in their support for Diem and supported the military coup that would oust him and his family from power.
Upon taking the office of President on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy laid a vision of American foreign policy firmly rooted in the ideal of liberty. Not only did the most powerful liberal democracy in the world have a responsibility to protect its own liberty, but in Kennedy’s eyes, also had the duty to aid its fellow neighbors who were seeking such freedom. The 35th President believed that by empowering democratic leaders around the world, liberty would be preserved, and totalitarian ideologies such as communism, be contained, and ultimately destroyed. Such was the manner in which Kennedy approached the Vietnam conflict; however, the idealistic vision of indigenous leaders welcoming American aid with open arms, and leading their people in a virtuous crusade to defeat their communist foes ultimately fell short of reality. What the Kennedy Administration found in South Vietnam was the inept, corrupt, and authoritarian President Ngo Dinh Diem, whose efforts to monopolize authority unto himself created the inefficient organizational structure of the South Vietnamese Army, one in which duplicitous chains of command through the provincial chiefs led to poor intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination, along with an insufficient logistical system. While Diem largely ignored the recommendations of his American military advisors, when he did, he often found himself adopting conventional tactics that proved largely inapplicable to the guerilla style of warfare that the Viet Cong conducted. Ultimately, the failure of the Kennedy Administration to recognize the character flaws and incompetency of Diem, combined with their own shortcomings in regards to military strategy would serve to undermine not only the war effort, but also the war to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. This human problem, beyond mere battlefield tactics, would continue to impact the relations between the United States and Vietnam in the administration of President Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and beyond.
- Blight, James G., Janet M. Lang, and David A. Welch. Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
- Bundy, McGeorge. “National Security Action Memorandum No. 52.” Memorandum, Washington, D.C., May 11, 1961. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d272
- Bundy, McGeorge. “National Security Action Memorandum No. 111.” Memorandum, Washington, D.C., November 22, 1961. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d272
- Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005.
- Kennedy, John F. “Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy.” Speech, Washington, D.C. January 20, 1961. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=91&page=transcript.
- Kennedy, John F. “May 5, 1961 Press Conference” White House, May 5, 1961. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKWHA/1961/JFKWHA- 028/JFKWHA-028
- Lansdale, Edward. “Basic Counterinsurgency Plan for Vietnam.” Policy paper, Washington D.C, January 4, 1961. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d177
- Mansfield, Michael. “Report by the Senate Majority Leader (Mansfield).” Report, Washington, D.C., December 18, 1962. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v02/d330
- McNamara, Robert. “Draft Memorandum from the Secretary of Defense (McNamara) to the President.” Memorandum, Washington, D.C., November 5, 1961. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d214
- Newman, John M. JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1992.
- Taylor, Maxwell. “Memorandum for the Record.” Memorandum, Saigon, October 19, 1961. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d179
- Taylor, Maxwell. “Memorandum for the Record.” Memorandum, Saigon, October 20, 1961. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d190
- Taylor, Maxwell. “Telegram from the President’s Military Representative (Taylor) to the Department of State.” Telegram, Saigon, October 25, 1961. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d191
- “Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam.” Telegram, Washington, D.C., August 24, 1963. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v03/d112
 John F. Kennedy, “The Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy” (speech, Presidential Inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 20, 1961).
 David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, 2000), 58.
 Ibid. 61.
 Ibid. 58-59.
 Ibid., 62.
 Edward Lansdale, “Basic Counterinsurgency Plan for Vietnam” (policy paper, Saigon, 1961), 1
 Ibid., 2-3.
 Kaiser, American Tragedy, 68.
 Ibid., 72.
 John F. Kennedy. “May 5, 1961 Press Conference” White House, May 5, 1961. Accessed October 21, 2018.
 Kaiser, American Tragedy, 72.
 McGeorge Bundy, “National Security Action Memorandum No. 52” (memorandum, Washington, D.C., May 11, 1961), 1.
 Maxwell Taylor, “Memorandum for the Record” (memorandum, Saigon, October 19, 1961), 1-3.
 Maxwell Taylor, “Memorandum for the Record” (memorandum, Saigon, October 20, 1961), 1-3.
 Maxwell Taylor, “Telegram from the President’s Military Representative to the Department of State” (telegram, Saigon, October 25, 1961), 1-2.
 McGeorge Bundy, “National Security Action Memorandum” (memorandum, Washington, D.C., November 22, 1961), 1-2.
 Kaiser, American Tragedy, 124.
 Ibid., 151.
 Ibid., 177
 Ibid., 159-161.
 John Newman, JFK and Vietnam (New York: 1992), 180-181.
 Ibid., 198-199, 328-331.
 Michael Mansfield, “Report by the Senate Majority Leader (Mansfield)” (report, Washington, D.C., December 18, 1962), 1-4.
 Newman, JFK in Vietnam, 302-303.
 “Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam” (telegram, Washington, D.C., August 24, 1963), 1-2.
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