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Was America Losing in Vietnam
Under JFK?

[The following appeared as a post on the moderated Vietnam newsgroup, soc.war.vietnam. It is reprinted here by permission of the author. Unfortunately, the footnote markers dropped out of Nguyen's paper when it was posted to the newsgroup; I have however retained the end notes and bibliography as he wrote them. Except for a light spellcheck, I haven't edited this in any way. I think it's an interesting viewpoint by a native of the country he's writing about. -- Dan Ford]

By Nguyen Ky Phong

Vietnam War historians and students of history often wonder what would happened to the out come of the Vietnam war had President Kennedy survived his term and carried out his policy regarding America's effort in Vietnam.

Could Kennedy have extricated The United States out of Vietnam's quagmire? Or better yet, under Kennedy policy, could the USA have turned things around and shored up the perilous situation during the year 1960-1962?

Kennedy's premature death brings about a lot of wonders as to what the Vietnam war might have been had the president lived through his term. Regardless what Kennedy might have done, the military and political situations in Vietnam during his tenure was precarious, to say the least. This article sets out to examine the losing situations of the Vietnam war under president Kennedy.

Kennedy's First Year vis-a-vis the Situation in South Vietnam

When John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency on January 20, 1961, the political and military situation in South Vietnam (SVN) have begun to deteriorate. The situation was not so deteriorated to the point of being alarmed, but it warranted an immediate attention from the new administration. A few months before Kennedy took over SVN from Eisenhower, there were two political turmoil occurred in Saigon. On November 11, 1960 ARVN paratroops officers attempted a coup on Ngo Dinh Diem. They almost made it had the leaders not wavered on their resolutions and direction of the attack. Prior to this discontent by military commanders, on April 1960, 18 prominent South Vietnamese politicians openly signed a manifesto calling for president Diem to carry out reforms and distance himself from his family members whose acts of nepotism were so obvious. And one day before Kennedy's inauguration, North Vietnam (NVN)'s military arm, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLFSV) came into existence with a ceremony in a jungle in Tay Ninh Province.

Aside from those political dissensions, the military situations in South Vietnam on the first year of Kennedy administration, in regard to the Viet Cong's capability of open attacks, presented a pessimistic view. Viet Cong forces were getting bigger, their areas of operation wider and they were bodacious with their operations. So ominous the military situation that the monthly report from The United State Army Pacific Command warned: "The activities and effectiveness of South Vietnam forces were not sufficient to show a net gain or effectiveness in the struggle." Worse, the Pentagon in Washington and MACV in Saigon did not have the total picture of the situation because South Vietnamese commanders--and a few conspiracy American military advisors--concealed the unwelcoming truth. Said a CIA report, "Concealment of existing situation has became so ingrained in some officials that they tend to reject any facts which do not fit their optimistic evaluations." They lied about the situation with a stream of shining lies--as commented by the main character of author Neil Sheehan in his John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.

It's not that the South Vietnamese soldiers refused to fight. It's their commanders who either were too cowardly to lead them into battles, or were told not to engage in any chancy confrontation. It was reported that military commanders were quietly ordered by Diem not to engage with communists if the engagement incurred casualties. It seemed Diem only wanted to use the Armed Forces to protect his regime, not fighting the communists. While the Armed Forces were vacillating, waiting for a direction from their commander in chief, the Viet Cong, with help from NVN, bolstered their arsenal and manpower. Weapons were both acquired from captured SVN's Armed Forces and supply from the North; manpower was enhanced from local recruiting and infiltration or covert repatriation of units that moved to the North in 1955.

In the spring 1961 while Kennedy busily took inventory of world's political and military affairs as he came to the office, in South Vietnam the VC relatively had an easy time to build up their strength.

Kennedy's First Acts to Salvage the losing situation in SVN.

Kennedy had been to Vietnam as a junior congressman. There in Saigon in 1951 he questioned minister Donald Heath why America had to ally to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of an empire. And why the South Vietnamese had to fight to keep their country a part of France. Of course, Kennedy's question irritated Heath and the French commander, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. But back then, as an unprivileged outsider to foreign policy secrets, Kennedy did not know that American had to please the French in Indochina in order to entice them to go along with American policy in Europe (like inducing France to join the European Defense Community). Now, as president, Kennedy would have ample time to find the answers for the questions he posed fifteen years ago--and more. Would the native Vietnamese fight along the side of Americans to hold off the advance of communist in Southeast Asia? Would economic aid alone enough [suffice?] to help the South Vietnamese? If the U.S. was to engage in SVN, how long, how much, and how far should the U.S. engage? Whatever the dimension of help, and the proximity of being an ally to SVN, Kennedy was undoubtedly willing to defend "the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia," and that the U.S. won't abandon its offspring.

But Kennedy did not have time to think, or to have the leisure of having just one "Vietnam" to worry about when he assumed the Commander in Chief's baton: 1961 was an offensive year for communism in around the world. Laos, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Congo, and more important, Khrushchev's bellicose speech in which he promised Soviet support for "War of national liberation" ... the mess in Vietnam was just one of many problems Kennedy had to deal with. Kennedy, however, found time to act on Vietnam. But to act independently and with a rational mind is one thing; to act because one is compelled to is another thing. Kennedy was compelled to act on Vietnam's matters.

On January 27, 1961, after reading a report from the famed CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale, Kennedy reportedly commented, "This is the worst one we've got, isn't it? You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length abut Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam." Whatever he saw from the report it must be urgent. For two days later, Kennedy approved a counterinsurgency plan in which operations "will probably require may circumvention of the Geneva Accords." With that approval, the American chips were down in Vietnam, so to speak.

From there on, a series of military and economic actions were issued by Kennedy, began with National Security Action Memorandum-28 (NSAM), to stem the advancing VC offensive. On April 20, one day after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam Task Force was established with the order to come up with measures to prevent communist domination of Vietnam. On April 29, Kennedy approved a plan to send 400 U.S. Special Forces to Vietnam to help train Vietnamese Special Forces. The month of May saw a sweeping commitment from Kennedy to the Republic of Vietnam with the issuance of NSAM-52, and NSAM-55, 56, 57 in the month following month. On August, Kennedy authorized fund to help increase SVN Army from 170,000 to 200,000 men. And on October, Kennedy authorized an Air Force covert operation, code-named Farm Gate, to train SVN Air Force.

Up until the end of 1961, Kennedy would do anything, listen to any clear-minded rationale for a winning strategy in Vietnam. Kennedy, however, did not intend to commit ground troops. He heard all the pro and con arguments to send troops to Vietnam, but he held firm on the decision not to commit ground forces. As Secretary of Defense McNamara announced on his first meeting with the military commanders in Honolulu on December 16, 1961 in regard to Vietnam plan, that (c) We have the authority from the President; (d) Money is no object; [but] (e) The one restriction is [that] combat troops will not be introduced. Kennedy, in McNamara' swords, "repeated his doubt about our military involvement in South Vietnam."

Vietnam 1962: The Battlefield Situation and the Problem of False Intelligence

1962 greeted the Vietnam Task Force with an inauspicious news. The consensus assessment from major military commands and the National Intelligence Estimate from the CIA agreed that Viet Cong operations were continuing at a high rate, and there was nothing to indicate the trend might be reversed. Forbidding predictions and comments pertinent to military situations in Vietnam were dreadful for those responsible for Vietnam. "The year of 1962 decided the fate of Laos, and perhaps of all Indochina; Vietnam's year of decision is 1962," reads a report from USARPAC (United States Army, Pacific Command). Indeed, taken together, Laos and Vietnam proved to be a major headache for Kennedy and his planners in 1962. In Laos, intelligence indicated that there were at least 15,000 regular NVN troops in and around the vicinity of the Plain of Jars (after the war, in 1982, communist Vietnam admitted that they had two divisions, the 336th and 396th, in Laos at the time); in Vietnam, the VC had up to 20,000 men at their disposal. And while the SVN government was deciding what to do with their 200,000-man-Army, and while the U.S. government deciding a "proper course of action," the VC attacked outposts and provincial military bases at will.

At the second Secretary of Defense Conference in Honolulu on January 15, 1962, there were two items of discussion on the agenda that deserve to be mentioned. One item was about the surging [upsurge?] of hard-core VCs and their capability of attacking in force strengths of 1000 to 1,500 (regimental size) to places of their own choosing. The other item was the precarious state of the local/regional Self Defense Corps--they could neither fight nor kept their equipment from being captured by the communists. The conference ended with plans and tasks assigned for the Self Defense Corps. Yet, no one at the conference bothered to inform the Secretary of Defense that the SDC could not accomplish the tasks assigned. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Kennedy endorsed another military program applicable to Indochina in the form of NSAM-124. And with all the irony, Kennedy plan was, too, elusive as a goal. At the third SecCon on the following month, the whole session was bogged down by the disagreement by various intelligence authorities on what was the real strength of VC forces. In short: what was the enemy Order of Battle? And the order of battle is the sin qua non of any war plan. It's hard to fight a war without knowing how many men the enemy has.

The second month of 1962 witnessed an important effort of the U.S. in dealing with the situation in Vietnam. In February, the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) was to [be supplemented with] Military Assistance Command Vietnam. In military parlance, a command response to the secretary of defense via its "parent" unified command. It also meant the commander of MACV would have under his disposal other military components of the Armed Forces such as Air Force and Marines and Army. With the new command in place, the first order it received was to solve the intelligence problem on enemy's order of battle. [MAAG continued as the agency that provided training and advisors to the South Vietnamese military and government--DF] In May, at the fifth SecDef conference, MACV solved the intelligence problem--but not without arm-twisting and intimidation and compromise between those involved with the estimate. In what turned to be the most bizarre episode of the Vietnam war, intelligence information regarding enemy's order of battle was never agreed upon. Even Secretary McNamara, who received and approved the figure on May, 1962, was not being truthful with his thought regarding the matter long after the war was over.

continued in part 2