USA and Vietnam: President Kennedy

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Kennedy and McNamara

The Secretary of Defense.

McNamara was optomistic about the US' inolvement in Vietnam.

Often elliminated the human factor of war.

"Never walked, only ran."

Advocated for large scale bombings in Vietnam.

Dynamic, toughtalking, fluent, competent and down to earth, McNamara became part of Kennedy's inner circle.

McNamara was emotional and passionate about his beliefs.

He was commended for his efficiency but people often worried about his arrogant belief that he was always right.

He greatly encouraged Kennedy to send ground troops.

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Kennedy and Dean Rusk

Secretary of State.

Determined to oppose what he saw as Communist aggression and was a hard-line Cold Warrior.

Kennedy sometimes called Rusk a "good errand boy".

Kennedy wanted to dominate foreign policy, which Rusk knew little about.

"Kennedy and I simply found it impossible to communicate. He didn't understand me and I didn't understand him."

Rusk supported American involvement in Vietnam, but as the fighting continued, he begun to see it as a Defence Department problem.

The president often complained that Rusk was methodical, frustrating, slow and indecisive. 

Rusk felt it his duty to put all the options before the president so that Kennedy could make an informed decision. Kennedy, however, wanted decisive recommendations.

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Kennedy's Influences

Kennedy was the youngest elected president so felt as if he had to prove himself.

He criticised Truman for losing China in 1949 so couldn't do the same in Vietnam.

Criticised Eisenhower for losing initiative in foreign policy.

McCarthy was a close family friend and even dated Kennedy's sister.

He was deeply Catholic and believed that all Communists were atheists.

Afraid of USSR and Chinese involvement in Vietnam.

A strong believer in the Domino Theory.

Called Vietnam the "finger in the dyke" and believed Southeast Asia was the new Cold War battle ground.

McNamara often pushed Kennedy towards greater involvement in Vietnam.

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The Buddhist Crisis

June 1963

Diem banned buddhists from flying kites in honour of Buddha's birthday, even though he allowed Catholics to fly kites to celebrate the Archbishop's birthday.

10,000 buddhists protested against Diem's regime. 

1 buddhist set himself on fire in public in protest.

Madam Nhu (Vietnam's first lady) announced that she would provide the matches and clap as the buddhists burnt.

Diem ordered raids on buddhist monastaries and 14,000 buddhists were arrested.

Kennedy said he had no idea that Catholic-Buddhists tensions were so great. If Kennedy truly didn't know about these tensions, then his research had been lax. 

He was probably using his favourite tactic of deflecting the blame (he'd blamed intelligence for the Bay of Pigs Fiasco).

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Strategic Hamlets Program


Ran by Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem's brother, who was greatly disliked. Based on agrovilles.

"No Nhus is good news"

Fortified villages to try and protect the people from the VC.

Peasants were forced to move, build and pay for these villages. VC used this to their advantage.

Many strategic hamlets were built too far away from Saigon, and so the VC managed to infiltrate them.

3225 Strategic Hamlets by December 1962.

Later, it was revealed that Nhu's deputy was a communist who did everything to sabotage the scheme.

Unpopular policies and personalities of Diem and his family lead to opposition to Diem and the US.

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The Coup Against Diem

Admin disunity, Diem's failures, Nhu and US involvement led to a coup against the Diem regime.

Lodge was pleased with the plot against Diem and said that the US would support any new government.

November 2nd 1963.

After the General's coup, Diem and Nhu fled the government buildings. Their bodies were found the next day.

Kennedy and Lodge both publically denied that the US had any involvement in the coup and assassinations.

Kennedy was assassinated within three weeks in Dallas, Texas.

When Madam Nhu, Diem's sister-in-law, heard about Kennedy's death, she said that "the chickens have come home to roost."

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Withdrawal Debate: For

Kennedy planned withdrawal throughout 1962 and 1963.

McNamara, Bundy and Kennedy planned withdrawal at the Hondulu Conference July 1962.

Kennedy knew that no real headway had been made in Vietnam, and so leaving suddenly was politically impossible.

Wouldn't have left Vietnam until after he was re-elected in November 1963.

Diem was reforming his airforce and the Corps Zones of Control, suggesting that the Saigon would have the power to cope without US support.

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Withdrawal Debate: Against

Diem's assassination left South Vietnam even more dependant on the US.

Laos neutrality had failed within months, Kennedy couldn't let the same thing happen in Vietnam.

Couldn't lose Vietnam to communism like Truman lost China in 1949.

Kennedy had increased involvement, not decreased it.

Military Advisors had increased from 800 to 17,000.

Bobby Kennedy claimed that JFK would never have left Vietnam.

On November 4th 1963, Kennedy claimed that the US would be increasing support to Vietnam, not reducing it.

After Kennedy's death, Hanoi was preparing for a full-scale US attack.

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Opinions of Others

Mike Mansfield disliked escalation in Vietnam (report in 1963)

French President de Gaulle said that the communists were appearing as champions of independence in Vietnam.

Galbraith (November 1961) said that Vietnam was not important and that it would all end in defeat.

McNamara was optomistic and said that the US was winning the war in Vietnam.

Under-Secretary of State George Ball said that sending ground troops into Vietnam would cause a rapid escalation that would be unacceptable.

Dean Rusk warned that Us involvement would provoke Hanoi and Beijing and destabilise Laos.

Warnings made Kennedy cautious about over-extending the US' power. It wasn't as clear cut as Korea.

He knew Diem needed more support but was still unwilling to send ground troops.

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The Battle of Ap Bac

January 1963

The first major battle between the ARVN and the VC were American advisors and materials played a big part.

A VC force was located at Ap Bac, not far from Saigon.

2000 ARVN troops and 113 American personnel carriers went to surround Ap Bac.

Their info was faulty and 350 guerrillas were waiting for them.

ARVN refused to attack fellow Vietnamese and 5 US helicopters and 3 pilots were lost.

Strength of the VC was greatly unexpected.

Americans had delayed the attack so they could sleep of their New Year's Eve party.

Proved that, despite increasing military aid, Diem could not win the war against the Communists.

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Kennedy's Influences: Cuba and Laos

Kennedy claimed the US' major problems were the Congo, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam.

Despite warning voices, the US began an unsuccessful anti-Communist invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba 1961.

Laos was Kennedy's focus at the beginning of his presidency. He feared a Societ-backed triumph there.

Implied that US would become involved in Laos in 1961.

Between September 1961 and summer 1962, Kennedy managed to neutralise Laos and the US left.

However, Laos' communists were uncooperative and the Vietminh continued using Laos as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Laos' neutrality failed within months.

The Bay of Pigs Fiasco and failure in Laos meant Kennedy needed a victory elsewhere.

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Ambassador Lodge

Henry Cabot Lodge replaced Frederick Nolting as Ambassador in August 1963.

Lodge was a patriot, war hero, experienced, ambitious and had an interest in foreign affairs.

Nolting described Lodge as a "piece of Republican asbestos to keep the heat off Kennedy."

Rusk told Lodge to act "tough" and as a "catalyst".

Lodge arrived in Vietnam on 22nd August 1963.

Lodge gained an usual amount of power in Vietnamese policy due to disunity in Washington.

Lodge turned Congress and the US public against Diem and Nhu through staged "press leaks" on their activities and by establishing Buddhist shelters.

Lodge couldn't get Diem to listen to US advice and so found ways to avoid ever talking to him.

Lodge encouraged ARVN plots against Diem and may have sparked the coup against him in November 1963.

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