The Only War We've Got

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. -- Daniel 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.

Incident at Muc Wa

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.

Now Comes Theodora

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.

From February to April, the VC intensified their attacks. From the coastal areas to the rice-growing delta, VC attacked SVN Army with regimental-sized units at times. One of the attacks, which resulted in two American deaths, aroused concern from both Washington and the press. At that time, without wanting the public knew how intimate American involved in the war so far, the Kennedy administration decided to engage in a new game: the game of deceiving and lying. This act of bad faith was played so intimately [well?] that for the rest of 1962, there was no discernment between what was true and what was false in Vietnam theater.

The Losing Game

The raison d'etre for the cover-up and deceiving was that the U.S. had yet to find a rationale for the involvement in Vietnam--as far as combat troops and participation in hostile activities are concerned. Kennedy administration was not ready to inform the public about all the counterinsurgency programs it had installed since the late 1950s. The deceiving game compounded and soon the administration found itself bogged down in a quagmire of vicious lies. To quote a succinct observation from author Newman, "This sprang from the same old dilemma: how to avoid revealing the problem of the `degree to which Americans [are] engaged in active hostilities' in Vietnam."

Up to this point in time, American was losing the war. Americans was losing in the sense that the government and the Military Commands (CINCPAC, MACV) had to devise fabricated and deceptive cover stories to run a war. But war can not be operated in this manner for a long duration---especially a war to be operated in conjunction within a foreign government, in their land, and with their approval/permission. Losing, here, was not meant as in the sense of military operation, but in the sense of lacking a rationale for the open war. Guerrilla and insurgency warfare is a type of protracted war. And one can not stay long in this type of war deceiving his own motive.

For the rest of 1962, many battles were joined between the VC and the SVN army. Prodded into action by American advisors, SVN army assaulted into a few VC strongholds with positive and commendable results. The assessment regarding the enemy, however was still bleak: "Enemy capabilities has not been significantly reduced by GVN offensive; communist vigor remains undiminished, and the rainy season, now in full force, is not expected to slow down guerrilla attacks appreciably. Despite continuing high casualties in July, the Viet Cong many times showed that they are still able to strike in strength effectively," reads the August USARPAC Intelligence Bulletin.

Second year into Kennedy administration, with approximately 12,000 American men in Vietnam, but Washington had yet to have a clear plan/program for Vietnam. Either the nature of the insurgency in Vietnam was too new for the conventionally minded military commanders to understand, or the administration was trying to accomplish many things at one time--all in secrecy.

The Last Year of Kennedy

News of the battle of Ap Bac reached the JCS in Washington from USARPAC like a thunderclap. The news that Washington was dreading to hear for some time: in a first major military engagement, the U.S. trained and equipped SVN army was soundly defeated. Worse, the area where the battle was fought was only 30 miles from MACV headquarters in Saigon. USAPAC reported to the JCS that "[the battle of Ap Bac was] one of the bloodiest and costliest battles of S. Vietnam war," and "[the battle] will provide enemy with morale-building victory." [These quotes do not sound exact to me--DF] In this battle, besides the regular troops in the area, SVN high command also used two extra battalions of paratroopers, which was the cream of SVN army's crop. Notwithstanding, the SVN army sustained high casualties in the battle. The battle provided American advisors an actual picture into the command and control system of SVN army. And the way the battle was operated, caused at least one of the advisors [to think that his] President was betrayed by the allied Vietnamese leaders; and he, too, was betrayed by his Vietnamese counterpart.

The news about the battle soon spread out and MACV could no longer contain the secrecy of how the war being managed. The bad news has to be fixed, so thought State Department and the Special Group for Counterinsurgency in Washington. Unfortunately, there were several high-level inspection/fact-finding missions in Vietnam before and after time of the battle: JCS Chairman Wheeler was dispatched to Saigon a week after the battle, and two days before the battle taken place, a team headed by Forrestal (National Security Staff, Vietnam Section) and Hilsman (State Department, Director of Bureau of Intelligence and Research; and later, Undersecretary Far Eastern Affair) descended on Vietnam to take a look at the situation per Kennedy's request. When all reports reached Kennedy he knew he was deceived--at least he felt he was deceived. By the end of June, 1963, with the new figures from MACV tabulation "Total Losses for 1962: Government Versus Viet Cong," Kennedy knew his program has failed. And he now contemplated for a de-escalation program. Even if it meant America has lost in Indochina.

A Vision So Noble

Thereafter America was Losing . . .

After the Ap Bac debacle came the Strategic Hamlets fiasco. So, in the spring of 1963, the U.S. was losing at two fronts successively: military and psycho-warfare. As Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, prepared for a graceful exit from Vietnam, destiny took its course. McNamara made his decision to inform PACCOM on his next SecDef conference on next May. And Kennedy intimated his thought about gradual withdrawal to Senate Majority Leader Mark Mansfield around March. But around that time, the situation in Vietnam was too chaotic to implement.

First there was a renew talk of removing Diem--or at least eliminate his brother from the presidential decision-making process. Then there was a beginning of a series of protest from Buddhist monks against alleged religious suppression which started in May in Hue (the month of May marks the Buddha's Birthday). The Buddhist protests produce self-immolation. The Vietnamese government then tried to stop the Buddhist movement by storming the pagodas and arresting Buddhist leaders. That, in turn, set the stage for the U.S. to move against Diem. It's now the time that the U.S. really lost in Vietnam: its ally was bleeding internally; the leader it has been touting was soon to be one of its policy victim.

On August 24, 1963 a top-secret telegram was sent, clearing the way for a coup d'etat against Diem. Diem and his brother were killed on November 1, 1963. The killing sent a shockwave to those who planned Diem's removal in Washington. Kennedy, perceiving the precarious situation in Vietnam, expedited his withdrawal program--to be spelled out in NSAM-263. He planned to announce his program later of the year, and the withdrawal program to be implemented beginning early in 1964.

But there was no more time for either Kennedy or his offspring--Vietnam. Three weeks after Diem's death, Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullet. -----

1. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1998) p. 122.
2. William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, Part I (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 342; Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), pp. 235-236. William J. Rust, Kennedy in Vietnam: American Vietnam Policy 1960-1963 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985), pp. 1-20.
3. John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York: Warner Books, 1992), pp. 231-233.
4. Newman, ibid., p. 234.
5. CIA Report, as quoted in Advice and Support: The Early Years. The U.S. Army in Vietnam, by Ronald H. Spector, p. 343.
6. Sheehan, ibid., pp. 122-123. 7. Newman, Ibid., pp. 48-49.
8. Quoted by William Conrad Gibbons, ibid., p. 93.
9. Quoted by Mcnamara in Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Time Books, 1995), p. 32.
10. Newman, ibid., p. 46.
11. William Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, Part II, 1961-1964, pp. 11-14.
12. Newman, ibid., pp. 81-99.
13. Newman, ibid., p. 158; McNamara , ibid., p. 40.
14. Newman, ibid., pp. 175-179.
15. In a response to author Newman's question whether McNamara realized he was deceived about the order of battle' s figures, McNamara answered that he did not know, suspect or believed he was deceived. However, in his memoirs, he admitted the information he received was "misleading or erroneous." Newman, ibid., pp. 223-257 (also see end note # 39); McNamara, ibid., pp. 47-48.
16. Newman, ibid., pp. 212-214.
17. Foreign Relations of the United States, vol. III, 1961-1963, p. 1.
18. Sheehan, ibid., pp. 81-95.
19. Sheehan, ibid., pp. 124-125.
20. Newman, ibid., pp. 320-321.
21. Sheehan, ibid., pp. 310-311.
22. McNamara, ibid., pp. 48-49.
23. Newman, ibid., pp. 321-325.


William Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, Part I, 1945-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986

-----. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, Part II, 1961-1964. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995.

Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988.

Ronald H. Spector, Advice and Support: The Early Years. The U.S. Army in Vietnam. Washington, DC: Center Military of History, 1985.

Newman, John M. JFK and Vietnam. New York: Warner Books, 1992.

Government Document Foreign Relations of the United States, vol. III, 1961-1963.

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