Back Channel The Kennedy Years
Inside the John F. Kennedy White House

Evaluating Vietnam

This is a preview to the chapter Evaluating Vietnam from the book Back Channel The Kennedy Years by William Bertram MacFarland.
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Diem and Nhu

It was good to be back in the West Wing. The Generals and Admirals who occupy the upper echelons in the Pentagon are almost surrealistically competitive, always jockeying for a better job or a promotion or both and given that the basic mission of the military is combat, the “long knives” were always at the ready and these guys didn’t hesitate to use them. It was a good thing I was a “civilian” and therefore off limits. (The President was really brilliant when he ordered me not to wear a uniform. I had never fully understood the importance of that until my recent tour of duty in the Pentagon. If these Generals and Admirals had known I was just a lowly Captain, they would have eaten me alive. As a “civilian” Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense however, I got a lot of respect and even deference. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)

The top of the President’s agenda was Vietnam. General Charles de Gaulle in his congratulatory phone call shortly after Jack’s win in November 1960 strongly counseled him to leave Vietnam altogether and told him that it was a battle he could not win. The defeat of the French forces by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 wreaked serious psychological and military damage on the French national pride (they lost 10% of their armed forces).

In fact, JFK very much wanted to get out of Vietnam. In January 1963, I had served once again as back channel to Nikita Khrushchev who was surprisingly receptive to the idea of trying to achieve a negotiated solution – but in the end, it came to nothing. First of all, Ho Chi Minh (the leader of North Vietnam) was implacably dedicated to the re-unification of North and South Vietnam and probably would have never listened to Khrushchev in the first place. Secondly both the Soviet Union and China were supplying money and arms to the North Vietnamese. If Khrushchev had threatened to withdraw his support, Ho Chi Minh would have simply turned solely to the Chinese and cut the Soviet Union out altogether – thereby costing them all their influence in Southeast Asia. Khrushchev might have sincerely wished for a negotiated settlement but the cost to the Soviet Union for trying to achieve it was simply too great.

The President believed strongly that the South Vietnamese could be trained to a point such that they could assume full responsibility for combat operations. The U.S. would provide weapons, supplies and financial support as needed but he did not want U.S. troops to be there in a combat role. Although he had previously sent 4,000 “advisors” to South Vietnam – raising the total to some 16,000 – he wanted to start withdrawing American troops from South Vietnam and put plans in place to bring back a minimum of 1,000 troops by the end of 1963 and to have a complete withdrawal by the end of 1965.

The political situation in South Vietnam was highly volatile. President Ngo Dinh Diem had assumed power in 1955 when North and South Vietnam were officially separated by the UN. His “election” was so fraudulent that he obtained more votes in some provinces than there were residents. He turned out to be an extremely wily “leader” however, making allies through corruption, nepotism, and brutal (and often fatal) retaliation against those who dared oppose him. Diem informed the 200,000 man South Vietnamese Army that their principal task was to protect him personally. The commanding officers of the army were chosen personally by Diem – not for their competence but for their loyalty to him. Another complication was the fact that Diem was a devout Catholic – and had even dedicated the country to the Virgin Mary. The Catholic Church was the largest landholder in South Vietnam and of course paid no taxes. Some 70 – 90% of the population was Buddhist however and Diem persecuted them relentlessly. Even under the most authoritarian regime, if somewhere around 80% of the “powerless” peasants feel persecuted and are deeply opposed to your rule – you have real problems. The Army officers may reflect your preferences but the troops reflect the demographics of the nation. In 1961, the U.S. was spending a million dollars a day to support the Diem regime. To put that into context, using the CPI increase between 1961 and 2010 that translates to about $7.3 million per day in 2010 dollars or nearly $2.7 billion dollars per year.
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