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Shortly after being sworn in as the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy held a routine Oval Office meeting with his national security adviser, Walt Whitman Rostow. The two men were discussing the important national security issues that faced the new administration. Among the hot international topics that the Kennedy team inherited from the outgoing Dwight D. Eisenhower administration were the ever-deteriorating situation in Laos, the tensions in Berlin between the Soviets and the United States, and the situation in Cuba. Kennedy then turned to Rostow and said: ‘This is the worst one we’ve got. You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length about Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam.’

What prompted the two men to discuss events in a country that not many Americans had ever heard of was a report written by Edward Lansdale, a veteran of the paramilitary wars of the 1950s, a specialist in counterinsurgency warfare and a man whose word was not taken lightly around Washington. Commenting on the report, the president told Rostow that Lansdale’s narrative was ‘an extremely vivid and well-written account of a place that was going to hell in a hack.’

Kennedy was describing events that were going on in Vietnam in 1961, well before the major influx of troops that he, and later Lyndon B. Johnson, would send to that beleaguered country.

Soon after Kennedy assumed the presidency, Lansdale returned from a fact-finding trip to Vietnam. He described a situation where the Communists were making impressive gains in their covert war against the regime of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled that country with an iron fist. Lansdale said that despite Diem’s control over Saigon, the Viet Cong had effective command over the rest of the country, ‘from the jungled foothills of the high plateau north of Saigon, all the way down south to the Gulf of Siam.’ He added that if Vietnam fell, all of Southeast Asia would be ‘easy pickings for our enemy,’ and advised the new administration to beef up its military presence in South Vietnam and make changes at the American Embassy in Saigon.

Kennedy took Lansdale’s study under advisement and decided to remove the U.S. envoy to Vietnam, Elbridge Durbrow. Even that early in the new administration, the president’s advisers were deeply divided on what position the United States should take in Vietnam.

For the next 10 months, the situation in Southeast Asia went from bad to worse. With Laos at the center of his troubles, Kennedy set in motion a series of events that would culminate in a fateful trip to South Vietnam inOctober 1961, led by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow. That mission became one of the most decisive events of the Kennedy administration.

Kennedy’s decision-making on Vietnam had evolved over many years. In the late 1950s, he was a member of a group of influential Americans called the Friends of Vietnam, a body that included journalists and academicians. The Friends of Vietnam were mostly liberal in their politics, and their basic objective was to ensure that the government of South Vietnam would remain one, not reuniting with the Communist government in the North as mandated by the Geneva Accords of 1954 that had ended the First Indochina War. Kennedy traveled to Asia early in his congressional career and met with many of the influential leaders as well as dissident members of the various governments in the region. It was then that he became convinced that the Viet Minh would ultimately force the French to grant independence to Vietnam.

On April 6, 1954, Kennedy stated in a passionate speech before the Senate: ‘To pour men, material and money into the jungles of Indo-China without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile…no amount of American military assistance in Indo-China can conquer an enemy which is everywhere…which had the sympathy and the covert support of the people.’ Nevertheless, a majority of the Congress sided with the current American position, and the United States refused to back the provision in the Geneva Accords that called for new elections in 1956.

When Kennedy entered the White House he began to mold America’s Vietnam policy ever so slowly. The new commander in chief was a firm believer in unconventional warfare tactics that could be used against the large guerrilla bands then harassing the South Vietnamese military. In a policy switch that rattled the most hardened bureaucrats in Washington, Kennedy transferred responsibility for paramilitary actions from the CIA to the Pentagon. He also reinstated the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, with James Killian as its head and Maxwell Taylor as an adviser.

Under Kennedy’s guidelines, U.S. Army Special Forces trained in counterinsurgency tactics at Fort Bragg, N.C., while the U.S. Air Force initiated Operation Farm Gate to furnish air support for jungle conflicts. In another new approach, ‘Jungle Jim’ units of the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron prepared highly trained commando teams for intense jungle fighting. The U.S. Navy developed a plan using amphibious and underwater demolition teams, along with Vietnamese fishing junks, to attack VC supply lines.

As 1961 progressed, it became obvious to the Kennedy team that the VC in South Vietnam were getting increasing amounts of war materiel from the North, most of it coming over the jungle trails along the border with Laos. Adding to this hot mix, many local villagers who lived in the South were ardent Communist supporters who continually fought the ARVN in a running guerrilla campaign.

Kennedy’s national security adviser, Walt Rostow, accompanied Taylor to Vietnam in October 1961 (Library of Congress).

Kennedy’s early Vietnam policy was neither retreat nor full-scale commitment of American ground forces. He sought a middle ground while the situation developed further. In the spring of 1961, a Kennedy-directed task force of individuals from State, Defense, CIA, U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the White House produced its report on Vietnam policy. The recommendations it made to the president included the introduction of American combat troops into South Vietnam. Kennedy refused to commit combat troops, but he did increase the number of American advisers to work with the South Vietnamese forces at both the battalion and regimental levels. The advisers, however, would now be allowed to train ARVN troops in conventional combat techniques, as well an unconventional warfare. More training was also provided for the South Vietnamese regional and self-defense forces.

Kennedy’s focus on Vietnam was temporarily sidetracked by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April. The rout of the CIA-trained Cuban exiles only hardened the president’s determination not to allow the same thing to happen in South Vietnam. He therefore tasked his special adviser, Roswell Gilpatrick, to develop new recommendations on Vietnam policy. The president’s instructions were to ‘appraise the Communist drive to dominate South Vietnam and recommend a series of actions (military, political or economic, overt and or covert), which, in your opinion, will prevent Communist domination of that country.’

Before Kennedy could study the Gilpatrick report, events in neighboring Laos took center stage. With the war there threatening to spill over into Vietnam, and the threat of an all-out Communist invasion of that country, the United States began preparations to send combat forces into Laos. A force of 250 American soldiers was considered for deployment along the Vietnamese-Laotian border to discourage any Communist attack. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, concluded that the plan was not feasible. The JCS also rejected a plan to position U.S. troops along the 17th parallel dividing North and South Vietnam.

The JCS came up with a much larger concept called Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) Plan 5, an ambitious operation that would cut the supply lines in Laos, preventing North Vietnamese troops from entering the South. When Kennedy rejected that plan, the chiefs went to work on a proposal that recommended the deployment of up to 12,000 troops to the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, adjacent to the Communist infiltration routes. Another scheme designed by U. Alexis Johnson, the deputy undersecretary of state, would have deployed up to 22,000 troops in the Central Highlands.

The president rejected all these recommendations but initiated limited steps to aid the South Vietnamese government. Along with an increase in the MACV contingent, Operation Farm Gate and the commitment of Jungle Jim units, the president introduced a large-scale American military aid package: Project Beefup, which called for a big infusion of military aid to save the government of President Diem, who was suffering not only from the advance of the VC but also from the repressive measures he was inflicting upon his own populace.

The initial military commitment called for the introduction into South Vietnam of armored personnel carriers and up to 300 aircraft, including helicopters. From a modest force of 3,205 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam at the end of 1961, the number of troops and advisers swelled to more than 9,000 by the end of 1962. By the time of Diem’s–and Kennedy’s–assassinations in 1963, more than 16,000 U.S. personnel, many of them going on combat missions alongside the ARVN, would be in-country.

The man in charge of the Beefup operation was General Paul D. Harkins, commander of MACV. Harkins had served under General George S. Patton in World War II. Harkins butted heads with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who said he was ‘not worth a damn.’ (On the other hand, McNamara also described him as ‘an imaginative officer.’)

When Harkins arrived in South Vietnam, he was plunged right into the middle of political intrigue in Saigon, greeted by an aerial attack on President Diem’s palace by two dissident South Vietnamese pilots. Harkins met with Maj. Gen. Tran Van Don, a future participant in coup plans to overthrow Diem. Harkins knew the limitations of the ARVN, yet tried with all his power to increase their fighting efficiency. He urged harder ARVN attacks on VC strongholds, and exhorted ARVN officers to take the fight into enemy-held territory. Speaking about the trustworthiness of the ARVN soldiers, Harkins once said: ‘If they captured an officer of the Viet Cong, they’d leave their post and bring him back to Saigon. They wanted to show Diem and get a pat on the back or maybe a promotion.’

In his meetings with Diem, Harkins stunned the South Vietnamese leader by predicting that total American victory could be achieved in one year. He dubbed his program ‘the explosion plan,’ because he wanted to take the war to all parts of the country. He also told Diem that there were only 20,000 hardcore VC in the entire country, not the thousands upon thousands who were actually hidden among the population.

By the middle of 1961, Kennedy took other steps to increase America’s covert and overt roles in South Vietnam. He secretly ordered the dispatch of covert agents to infiltrate into North Vietnam for intelligence gathering, the infiltration of teams under civilian cover to southeast Laos to locate and attack Vietnamese Communist bases and lines of communications, the training of ARVN units in ranger tactics, and the targeting of individual North Vietnamese units inside the South. The president also used the services of a South Vietnamese unit called the 1st Observation Group, which was made up of civilian aircrews, including Americans, to take the war into both North and South Vietnam.

As a last effort to formulate Vietnam policy, in May Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon Johnson to Saigon to meet with President Diem. Johnson did not want to make the trip, and only found out about the assignment while listening to the radio during a speaking engagement trip to New York. After a blustery talk with the president, Johnson reluctantly left for Saigon, still bristling over how he had been treated.

General Paul D. Harkins, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, during a visit to Thailand in June 1962 (National Archives).

Upon landing, Johnson was given a copy of a secret memo from the JCS to Defense Secretary McNamara recommending that Diem should be ‘encouraged to request’ U.S. combat troops. Johnson handed Diem a letter from Kennedy that suggested an increase in the number of raids against Communist forces, as well as an increase of the ARVN by 20,000. Diem responded that he did not have the money to equip such a new force. Johnson also discussed the Kennedy administration’s demand that Diem allow more open dissent in the country and give more freedoms to the people. But at no point in their conversation did Johnson mention the commitment of American combat troops. He did give Diem assurances that the administration would commit helicopters and the necessary equipment for Diem’s projected 20,000-man force. Taken in by Johnson’s folksy style, Diem agreed to Kennedy’s requests.

A few days later Diem and Johnson had a second, more contentious meeting. Diem insisted that South Vietnam needed 120,000 more troops–over and above the 150,000 he already had–and further stated that he could not afford it. Johnson countered by asking if Diem would accept U.S. combat troops. Diem said that he would only accept U.S. combat troops if his country was attacked, but he did ask for more American personnel to train the ARVN.

With Johnson in the meeting was Lt. Gen. Lionel C. McGarr, the Military Assistance Advisory Group chief in Saigon. Unexpectedly, McGarr asked Diem if he would accept American combat troops ‘for direct training purposes.’ Diem instantly agreed. Thus, Johnson and McGarr had negotiated American policy without Kennedy’s authorization. Johnson’s freelancing only hardened Kennedy’s resolve not to be stampeded into formulating American policy toward Vietnam. As a direct result, Kennedy sent General Taylor to Saigon in October as his personal representative.

Taylor, one of the rising stars in the Kennedy administration, had a distinguished military career in World War II as commander of the 101st Airborne Division. In the postwar years he served as commandant of West Point and as Army chief of staff. He was a proponent of the doctrine called the ‘New Look Strategy,’ which emphasized nuclear weapons over conventional forces. He was also an advocate of ‘flexible response,’ which incorporated the entire range of American military capabilities based on the situation at hand. As a member of the Joint Chiefs, Taylor’s various proposals often had been voted down, and he eventually retired from the Army.

In 1959 Taylor wrote a book titled An Uncertain Trumpet, which attacked the miliary priorities of the Eisenhower administration. The book caught the attention of Kennedy, who was then running for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. After Kennedy was elected, he asked Taylor to become a staff member in the White House. Taylor reported for work in April 1961 and was immediately given a heavy-duty assignment: write a no-holds-barred report on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that had just handed the Kennedy administration its first foreign policy setback. The Taylor report exposed the military and political flaws that had doomed the invasion even before it began. Taylor’s superb handling of the report made him an instant hit with the Kennedy brothers. He was rewarded with the new position of military adviser to the president.

President Kennedy had all but decided to send a personal representative to Saigon to make a fact-finding trip to assess the military and political situation on the ground. Needing a man he could trust as his eyes and ears, he selected Taylor. Like the president, Taylor had reservations about sending American combat troops to Vietnam, and that was a factor in Kennedy’s decision to send him.

Throughout the summer of 1961, the administration made detailed preparations for Taylor’s mission, giving him elaborate instructions. In a letter to the general shortly before he left Washington, the president wrote: ‘Bear in mind that the initial responsibility for the effective maintenance of the independence of South Vietnam rests with the people and government of that country….While the military part of the problem is of great importance in South Vietnam, its political, social, and economic elements are equally significant, and I shall expect your appraisal and your recommendations to take full account of them.’

The unstated theme of the president’s remarks was that he did not want Taylor to come home with the recommendation that U.S. combat troops were needed. In an additional bit of subterfuge, it has been suggested that the president himself leaked a story to The New York Times, which read, in part: ‘…military leaders at the Pentagon, no less than General ‘Taylor himself, are understood to be reluctant to send organized U.S. combat units into Southeast Asia. Pentagon plans for this area stress the importance of countering Communist guerrillas with troops from the affected countries, perhaps trained and equipped by the U.S., but not supplanted by U.S. troops.’

On October 15, 1961, Taylor brought together the members of his team for one last brainstorming session. He told them that it was his trip, that he would write the final report, but that all dissenting views would be noted. Among those going on the mission were Lansdale, Rostow, and military and civilian experts such as political advisers Sterling Cottrell and William Jorden, Maj. Gen. William Craig, Admiral Luther Heinz and others. They left Washington on October 17 with a stop in Honolulu for discussions with Admiral Harry D. Felt, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific.

The issues that Taylor and his team intended to address included the requirement for American combat troops, the rapid buildup of VC forces in the South, the security of the peasants living in rural areas in the South and Diem’s increasingly authoritarian style of government. The mission got off to a rocky start when Lansdale left the party and had a one-on-one meeting with his old friend, President Diem. Lansdale was greeted with the news that Diem had recently declared a state of national emergency, and that a series of incessant rains had caused enormous floods in the Mekong Delta. The news of the floods would soon play an unexpected role in Taylor’s mission.

The next day, Taylor and Rostow met with Diem in the presidential palace. During a four-hour session, Diem discussed the entire range of American-Vietnamese issues. He told his visitors that he could not understand why the United States had not offered a formal commitment to his country, saying that he feared that at some point the United States would abandon South Vietnam. To the astonishment of Taylor and Rostow, at no time during their talk did Diem ever bring up a request for American combat troops. When Taylor asked Diem if he wanted the Kennedy administration to send such forces, Diem hedged, but said that if that happened, he expected the United States to remain in Vietnam for the long haul.

Taylor also had a meeting with Maj. Gen. Duong Van Minh, an officer who had no love for President Diem. (In 1963 ‘Big’ Minh would be one of the coup leaders who removed Diem from office.) Taylor and Rostow also took a helicopter tour of the Mekong Delta to see firsthand the consequences of flood damage.

Before departing, Taylor and Rostow had a final meeting with Diem. In a bold move, Taylor asked Diem if he would accept a large force of American troops to act as a ‘flood relief task force,’ to be made up of medical, communications and engineering personnel, as well as a certain number of combat troops for their security. This was a way of fudging any request on Diem’s part for combat troops. Taylor further said that once their job was done the troops would leave.Taylor then sent a cable to President Kennedy recommending 6,000 to 8,000 troops for such a force. Diem, for his part, agreed to Taylor’s proposals. Taylor wrote that the requested troops would assure ‘Diem of our readiness to join him in a military showdown….’ Taylor also noted: ‘As the task is a specific one, we can extricate our troops when it is done if we so desire. Alternatively, we can phase them into other activities if we wish to remain longer.’ He concluded: ‘This kind of task force will exercise little direct influence on the campaign against the VC. It will, however, give a much needed shot in the arm to national morale.’

On November 1, on the way back home from his temporary base at Baguio in the Philippines, Taylor wrote to the president urging a commitment of American forces to Vietnam. He called for a ‘massive joint effort’ with the South Vietnamese to cope with the Mekong floods, as well as to stem the flow of Communist aggression in the South. Taylor called American troops ‘essential’ to stop a Communist takeover of South Vietnam.

Taylor later sent a second message to the White House saying that American troops would not get bogged down in a land war in Asia, but should be allowed to protect themselves if fired upon. He also said that a major American bombing campaign against the North should be considered.

The formal Taylor report, submitted to the president on November 3, called for a significant increase in American participation in the war, including a ‘hard commitment on the ground,’ and an increase in the role of MAAG. Commenting on Diem’s repressive regime, Taylor suggested that he was the best the United States could hope for. Two members of the mission, Cottrell and Jorden, dissented from the report and lambasted the ARVN as sloppy and corrupt.

At about the same time that Taylor submitted his report, Kennedy received a classified national intelligence estimate projecting that any massive American combat aid to the South would be met with an increase in overt military aid by Hanoi to the Viet Cong, thereby escalating the conflict.

When Secretary of State Dean Rusk received Taylor’s report, he told the president that the United States should make no military commitment until President Diem instituted political reforms at home. Rusk said that if Diem was not willing to settle his own house, no amount of American troops could do the job. He didn’t want to see American prestige committed to a ‘losing horse.’

Taylor’s report, however, was backed up by Defense Secretary McNamara, Deputy Secretary Gilpatrick and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While endorsing the report, the JCS warned that the 8,000-man force ‘probably will not tip the scales decisively, and we would be almost certain to get increasingly mired down in an inconclusive struggle.’

Speaking with presidential adviser George Ball, who opposed a commitment of U.S. troops, Kennedy reacted sharply when Ball said that if the Joint Chiefs got their way, a total of 300,000 American troops would have to be sent to Vietnam. The president responded by saying: ‘George, you’re just crazier than hell. That just isn’t going to happen.’

Knowing that Kennedy would not approve combat troops, Secretaries Rusk and McNamara wrote a second memorandum dated November 11. In this memo they recommended that no decision be made on sending combat troops to Vietnam, but called for a strong increase in American aid, including helicopters, more advisers, equipment for the ARVN and reforms by the Diem regime.

On November 11, 1961, President Kennedy made the following decisions: (1) No U.S. combat troops would be sent to Vietnam; (2) the United States and South Vietnam would establish a partnership in which the decision-making would be shared equally; and (3) Washington would recognize the importance of South Vietnam for the future of freedom in Southeast Asia and would take more active measures if future conditions warranted.

The tentative decisions made by President Kennedy in November 1961 were to have larger consequences for the rest of his presidency. By allowing the status quo to remain in place, the president did not take the strong measures necessary to blunt the ever-growing Viet Cong gains in the South. By 1963, U.S. forces totaled 16,000 and were taking casualties daily. On November 2 of that same year, President Diem was ousted in a coup and subsequently killed. President Kennedy’s own assassination on November 22 handed the quagmire of Vietnam to his successors. It was up to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to greatly expand the scope of the war throughout Southeast Asia, and eventually commit 500,000 U.S. troops to the region.

The article was written by Peter Kross and originally published in the February 2005 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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