John F. Kennedy and US Policy in Vietnam, 1961-3

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • Kennedy’s policies in Vietnam;
  • Diệm’s Strategic Hamlet Programme, the fall of Diệm (1963);
  • The impact of increasing US involvement and the deterioration of the political situation in South Vietnam.

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • John F. Kennedy, POTUS 1961-22nd November 1963;
  • Ngo Dinh Diệm (1901- 2nd November, 1963)
  • Strategic Hamlet Programme;
  • MACV – Military Assistance Command, Vietnam;
  • General Paul Harkins, Commander in Chief, MACV, 1961-63;
  • Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence (1961-68);
  • McGeorge Bundy, National Security Adviser (1961-66);
  • Counter-insurgency;
  • Green Berets;
  • Operation Ranch Hand;
  • Thich Quang Duc (d. 1963) self-immolation;
  • Madame Nhu (Diem’s sister in law);
  • General Duong Van Minh;
  • Military Revolutionary council.

Kennedy’s policies and background

    Kennedy was a Catholic who hated atheistic communism and had counted Joseph McCarthy as a personal friend. He subscribed to Eisenhower’s domino theory whilst being critical of Eisenhower’s performance in South East Asia. In a speech to the American Friends of Vietnam in 1956 he described Vietnam as a ‘proving ground for democracy in Asia… [and] a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia…’. Stopping the relentless pressure of Chinese communists was critical: ‘No other challenge is more deserving or our effort and energy…. Our security may be lost piece by piece, country by country.’ During the 1960 presidential race, Kennedy made anti-Communism the keynote of his campaign rhetoric and this was echoed in his inaugural address as president in January, 1961: ‘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’ and exhorted a new generation of Americans to ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ Having made much of the so-called ‘missile gap’ during his campaign and the need for a more dynamic foreign policy, Kennedy was duty-bound to deliver. He was in some ways a prisoner of his own Cold War campaign as he was of the ‘commitment trap’ set for him by his predecessors.
  • Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam was also shaped by events whilst in office. After backing down over Laos and being humiliated by the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy told a friend ‘There are just so many concessions that one can make the to the Communists in one year and survive politically.’

Kennedy’s advisers

  • Kennedy relied heavily on Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence in relation to Vietnam – thus immediately placing Vietnam into the category of military rather than foreign policy problems. McNamara’s background was that of statistician. Though an advocate of ‘flexible response’ it was his emphasis upon statistics that would have most bearing on the conduct of the war, and he would remain in post until 1968. Trained in the importance of statistics, McNamara lacked historical insight, and looked at numbers of weapons and troops rather than the human dimension.
  • Less influential was Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who was nonethelss firmly of the view that appeasement had led to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 and was determined to apply that lesson in opposing Communist aggression.
  • Rusk and McNamara told Kennedy that there would be ‘bitter’ divisions amongst the American public if Kennedy got the US out of Vietnam. Kennedy did not want to be seen as the president that ‘lost’ Vietnam as Truman had ‘lost’ China.
  • Most of Kennedy’s advisers (Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence; Dean Rusk, Secretary of State; McGeorge Bundy, National Security Adviser; Maxwell Taylor, Special Military Adviser) believed that only a small increase in military aid would prevent an NLF victory in South Vietnam.
  • Kennedy rejected the idea of explicit military intervention. He realised that if the American government were to enter the war it would be putting its reputation on the line. Kennedy therefore agreed and financed an increase in the ARVN from 150 to 170,000 and agreed another 100 military advisers to Vietnam to help train ARVN, but as this decision broke the terms of the Geneva Agreement of 1954, it was not made public to the American people.
  • In May 1961, Kennedy sent his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson to persuade Diem that the best way to defeat the Communists was to introduce greater political, social and economic equality to South Vietnam. Johnson’s advice was ignored.

Strategic Hamlet Programme and escalation

  • Diệm’s Strategic Hamlet programme was established in an attempt to prevent NLF infiltration of peasant communities by moving peasants into new fortified settlements patrolled by armed guards. This was a complete failure. The scheme was run by Diem’s brother – Ngo Dinh Nhu – who ignored US advice about social, economic and political reforms that should have been built into them.
  • Peasants resented leaving their ancestral lands and burial grounds, being forced to travel further to reach their rice paddies, and to dig moats and implant bamboo stakes without pay against an enemy that did not threaten them. Strategic Hamlets increased support for the NLF. Anger was directed at the South Vietnamese regime under Ngo Dinh Diệm and increased their receptivity to Vietcong propaganda.
  • Kennedy became worried when he learned that in two years, support for the NLF had grown by 300% and it now numbered 17,000.
  • On February 8th, 1962, Kennedy established Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) – as a joint service command of the US military in Vietnam. Paul Harkins was its first commander.
  • Kennedy also agreed to a vast increase in military advisory personnel so that by the end of 1962 there were 12,000 in Vietnam. Kennedy also supplied 300 helicopters. Pilots were told not to engage in combat but this was difficult to avoid. Military advisers were ‘green berets’, trained in counter-insurgency and non-conventional warfare behind enemy lines.
  • Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand – the use of chemical defoliants sprayed from helicopters in order to destroy NLF hiding place and food supplies. It would end up causing most suffering to the peasants themselves.
  • When McNamara visited Vietnam in May 1962, he declared that by ‘every quantitative measure we have shows we are winning this war.’
  • Yet in January 1963, Diem’s forces and US military advisers had fared badly in a Vietcong ambush at Ap Bac. Once again, Diệm ignored advice about how best to use his troops.
  • US military advisers estimated that Saigon controlled 49% of the population, the Vietcong 9% with the remainder in dispute

Opposition to Diệm and the military coup

  • By the Spring of 1963, relations between the US officials and Diệm’s government were at an all time low. Kennedy told a friend ‘These people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out…. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the American people to re-elected me.’
  • Kennedy was concerned that Diệm would do a deal with Hanoi that would leave the US without a foothold. But things were about to get much worse.
  • Ngo Dinh Diệm’s attempt to suppress the 2527th Birthday celebrations for the Buddha led to the deaths of one woman and eight children, which led to protests throughout South Vietnam.
  • 8 May 1963, government troops in Hue attacked Buddhist demonstrators and killed several. Diem rounded up Buddhist monks and students and began closing universities and schools where he suspected Buddhist dissension was being taught.
  • June 11, 1963, the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation at a busy Saigon road junction in front of the world’s press and the image was broadcast around the world. By August another 5 monks had followed his example.

Thich Quang Duc

  • Kennedy was shocked by the front-page newaspaper pictures of the Buddhist martyrs. ‘how could this have happened?’ he asked. ‘Who are these people? why didn’t we know about them before?’
  • Diệm’s sister-in-law, known as ‘Madame Nhu’, commented that if Buddhists wanted to have barbeques she would applaud. Diem imposed martial law on August 21st. These events convinced Kennedy that South Vietnam could never be united under Diem.
  • By late 1963 it was clear that Diem’s brother, Nhu, was negotiating with Hanoi and that he and Diem had to go.
  • In November, 1963 A CIA operative, Lucien Conein, supplied a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup. In the process, Diem was assassinated along with his brother and main adviser, Ngo Dinh Ngu, by operatives of General Duong Van Minh of the Military Revolutionary Council (MRC).
  • On 22nd November 1963, three weeks after Diệm’s assassination, President Kennedy was also assassinated. Madam Nhu said grimly ‘the chickens have come home to roost.’


  • General William Westmoreland later commented that the US role in the demise of Diem ‘morally locked us in Vietnam’. By encouraging a change of government in South Vietnam, Kennedy greatly increased America’s obligation to future administrations. What had previously been an argument for getting out of Vietnam – the weakness of the regime in Saigon – now became an argument for greater involvement. Without American support, South Vietnam would fall to hte Communists – and partly as a direct result of American actions.
  • After Diệm’s assassination, South Vietnam was unable to establish a stable government and several coups took place after his death. While the United States continued to influence South Vietnam’s government, the assassination bolstered North Vietnamese attempts to characterize the South Vietnamese as American puppets, “supporters of colonialism”, and ARVN as ‘puppet soldiers’.
  • By late 1963, Buddhist demonstrations had resumed and public protest in South Vietnam was increasingly anti-American. Between January 1964 and June 1965 there were no fewer than 8 different governments in South Vietnam, each one as corrupt as the last, and regarded by the people of South Vietnam as merely American puppets.
  • A key reason for American failure in Vietnam was that the regime they were supposed to be defending lacked the political stability and popularity necessary to conduct effective military and pacification operations, and came to depend entirely upon American arms for its continued survival.

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