Vietnam and the U.S., 1954 to 1968
Draft Chapter of The U.S. War Against Asia
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Diem told Kennedy he did not want U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam. Instead he wanted to expand his own army from 150,000 to 250,000 soldiers. This would require more American military supplies, and more financial subsidies to pay the soldiers. But in the fall of 1961 the Vietcong launched an offensive that scared Diem. Kennedy had already increased the number of U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam first to about 800, then to 3000. His advisors pushed at him hard, with Maxwell Taylor in Vietnam urging him to send 8000 more combat troops. The Joint Chiefs of Staff topped that by urging him to send about 200,000 troops. Officially, President Kennedy never sent combat troops, but by the time of his death the number of advisors was 16,000 and many of them were, in reality, engaged in combat. [Karnow, 250-253]
It is clearly fair to say that the War in Vietnam started under President John F. Kennedy. It is also fair to say that it was largely a reaction to the military actions of the Vietcong. In the political climate of the United States, where both political parties were anti-Communist, nationalist, and in love with the military establishment, it is hard to imagine a President being elected from either party who would not have reacted the same way. To lose Vietnam to the Communists would have been political suicide for any candidate for President, and it would hurt his party’s election prospects in general.
Kennedy’s Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, had also been long committed to keep South Vietnam from becoming part of a united, and Communist, Vietnam. Upon John Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963, Johnson became President. As with any President, he had many issues facing him, but the single biggest issue was getting re-elected in the November 1964 elections. He had to prove he was a good Cold Warrior and make sure the military-industrial complex would support him, and his Democratic Party, in the elections.
President Johnson inherited a low-level guerilla war in South Vietnam, but he did not inherit Ngo Dinh Diem. In May of 1963 Diem’s army suppressed a series of Buddhist demonstrations. The first had been non-political, a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday. In short order the large Buddhist population of South Vietnam, which had not supported the Vietcong, turned against Diem’s Roman Catholic regime. This did not please officials from the United States, who realized Diem’s inflexible refusal to allow Buddhists and others into his government would result in a Vietcong victory. In June Kennedy named a Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, as his new Ambassador to Vietnam [Lodge was the grandson of the Henry Cabot Lodge mentioned in Chapter X]. A complex decision making procedure in the Kennedy administration, and in parallel among certain Vietnamese generals and politicians, resulted in a coup that overthrew Diem on November 2, 1963. The successful generals set up a twelve member military council chaired by General Duong Van Minh. It was unable to effectively administer a government. [Karnow 279-311]
Johnson hoped to follow the Kennedy policy in Vietnam, but as with the Kennedy-Eisenhower transition, the situation had changed. The Vietcong were making rapid political and military progress against an unpopular, corrupt regime increasingly seen by South Vietnamese as a tool of American imperialism. For practical purposes the Vietcong already controlled much of the Mekong Delta area. In January of 2004 General Nguyen Khanh assumed control of a reorganized military council, but his ability to rule was so weak that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reported, “There is no organized government in South Vietnam.” The U.S. military urged Johnson to intervene more deeply in Vietnam, including strategic bombing attacks on North Vietnam. [Karnow 319-326]
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