JFK and Vietnam War

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Kennedy's War?


  • JFK did escalate e.g. advisors, helicopters, money, authorised defoliants e.g agent orange. 
  • Created Green Berets, Jungle Jim, MACV perhaps to prepare for war in Vietnam?
  • JFK increased America's commitment to SV e.g. training of ARVN, trying to reform Diem, sent Lodge to act as US Ambassador in SV.
    • JFK refused to withdraw from Vietnam because he believed to do so would mean a collapse of South Vietnam, but also SE Asia.(Domino Theory)


  • JFK opted for a middle ground - could never be sure whether he wanted to escalate
  • Never sent ground troops - prefered advisors
  • Proposed removal of 1000 advisors in 1963 - withdrawal?
  • Johnson's War
  • McNamara's War - v influential and manipulated/persuaded LBJ to escalate - McNamara wanted to escalate whilst JFK was still president e.g. send 40,000 - 200,000 soldiers "we are winning the war"
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Why did JFK continue US commitment in Vietnam?

Other foreign policy failures e.g. Bay of Pigs 1961, Neutralisation of Laos 61-62, Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 - NEEDS A FOREIGN POLICY VICTORY IF HE WANTS TO BE RE-ELECTED

Commitment Trap - Truman Doc 1947; SEATO 1954; South VN, Diem & ARVN are weak (Ap Bac '63); Orthodox historians (e.g. Smith) argue that USSR/China support of Hanoi gave JFK little choice but to further commit. 

Personal Beliefs - Containment; Domino Theory; Critical of Truman losing China 1949; Third World is the "new Cold War battleground" (vulnurability of Congo, Cuba, Laos & Vietnam), "Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in South East Asia"; 

Reputation - US rep as Cold War giant; first Catholic and young president, has a lot to prove; Eisenhower said to JFK that Republicans will criticise any withdrawal from Vietnam; campaign rhetoric - inaugural address entirely devoted to foreign policy, critical of Truman, stated the need for a more dynamic foreign policy - duty-bound to increase defence expenditure or lose face. 

Advisers - McNamara and Rusk want to escalate (HAWKS); McNamara visited Vietnam in 1962 and said that America "are winning the war" - confidence?; Lodge believes US had 'inescapable' responsibility to protect South Vietnam. 

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In what ways was Kennedy for war in Vietnam?

  • Created 400 Green Berets to help ARVN coordinate counter-insurgency missions; 'Jungle Jim' soldiers especially trained to fight in jungle environments. 
  • Authorised the use of defoliants in 1962 - expose Ho Chi Mihn Trail 
  • Sent 47 US helicopters to Saigon 
    • Reconnaisance missions
    • Transport
    • Fire support
    • Defoliants
    • Preperation for US soldiers arrival?
  • Sent 'advisers' to train ARVN
    • 3000 by 1961; 12000 by 1962; 16000 by end of 1963.
  • Created Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) in 1962 to support, then eventually replace MAAG 
    • Coordinate US involvement in Vietnam = greater commitment to South Vietnam
  • JFK sent Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam - suggested he send 8000-10000 US soldiers
  • Kennedy "dramatically increased US involvement" in Vietnam - Sanders
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Historical Interpretations for JFK and the Vietnam

Halberstam - JFK's eagerness to succeed in Cold War led to many US mistake, e.g. not paying sufficient attention to Diem; the belief that SV would benefit from USstyle gov. 

Gelb and Bett - JFK did as little as possible to avoid defeat to protect his own position; any responsibility for mistakes lies with JFK.

Lewy - critical of the military tactics adopted by JFK admin; they didn't adapt to VC tactics

Kahin - US underestimated the role of the N Vietnamese; NV didn't want to be a colony anymore. 

Kolko - believes Vietnam was important to the security of the USA. 

Schulinzinger - believes the JFK administration was flawed. 

Sanders - believes JFK did increase commitment and did escalate.

TRADITIONAL VIEW - argues US intervention was unnecessary and immoral. 

LATER VIEWS - defends US policy and the war as a struggle againts aggressive expansion of communists in SE Asia.

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Why was Diem assassinated?

1) Unpopular (mostly his bad strategies). 

- Strategic Hamlets and Agrovilles failure & Ineffective use of ARVN and the failure at the Battle of Ap Bac Jan 1963. 

- Approved of Catholic migration & banned Buddhist national holidays despite ruling a country which was 90% Buddhist - Self-immoliation of monks - Nhu called them barbequed martyrs.

-Not as popular as Ho Chi Mihn; Bad reputation of drinking, gambling and smoking. 

2) Corruption and ruthlessness

- Nepotism - not democratic.His bro became Archbishop of the Catholic Church - shared wealth amongst his family. 

- Refused to hold elections against Ho Chi Mihn because he knew he would be voted out of power. 

3) Inability to reform / compromise - Diem ignored advice from his advisors. 

- LBJ visited him in 1962 urging him to reform, (even called him another Churchill) but Diem only got more paranoid. 

- Lodge turned Congress against Diem & Nhu; established press 'leaks.' Lodge believed victory in Vietnam was not possible if Diem remained in power. 

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In what ways was Kennedy against war in Vietnam?

  • Never sent ground troops
    • Rejected SEATO Plan 5 because it involved sending 12,000 combat troops. 
    • National Security Council (NSC) recommended putting ground troops in but JFK preferred to put in advisers; 16000 by 1963. 
    • JFK announced the return of 1000 advisers in Oct 1963 - consider withdrawal? 
  • JFK originally supported Diem but then let him be overthrown
    • Lack of commitment to SV - the coup was badly handled, chaotic and caused deaths. 
    • JFK knew about the coup yet did nothing
    • Perhaps hoped to replace Diem with capable leader so that US would be able to withdraw. 
  • Prefered to continue with financial aid rather than military aid. 
    • Sought a middle-ground
    • Project Beef-Up - boost of the ARV & aid increased to $262 million 
    • Said that the South Vietnamese had to win the war themselves in 1962.
  • The reform option
    • 1961 sent LBJ to encourage Diem to reform - unsuccessful; Diem just got more paraonoid
    • Strategic Hamlets - prevent SV people from being exposed to communist VC

"No amount of military assistance in Indo-China can conquer an enemy which is everywhere" JFK

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Strategic Hamlets

Why were they introduced?

Isolate peasants from communists (not influenced by VC); made Diem appear as if he was acting to tackle communism; diminish support for VC in the South. Similar to agrovilles which had been implemented by Diem in 1959 - they were unpopular yet JFK still supported the strategic hamlets = lack of judgement? Ran out of good ideas? 

Why did they fail? - DID NOT WIN HEARTS AND MINDS

Unpopular - mass resettlement caused discontent because Vietnamese didn't like being moved from where they had previously lived/worshipped their ancestors' land. Diem saw the programme as an opportunity to intimidate the populace himself rather than protect from VC. It was planned that the inhabitants would protect themselves but the gov failed to furnish them with weapons - money often went to corrupt officials. = lack of judgement in planning caused unpopularity. 

Caused an increase in VC numbers - VC would join ihabitants to play upon their discontent - Vietnamese had to pay for and build them. JFK hailed the programme which made Diem and the USA even more unpopular amongst the people. "The programme often converted peasants into Vietcong sympathisers" Stanley Karnow

Set up too far away from Saigon/many villages were isolated - couldn't monitor easily, VC could capture weapons and supplies from the hamlets. VC could easily infiltrate the hamlets and act as informants for their comrades. By the end of 1963, 1/5 villages were controlled by the VC. 

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