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Was America Losing in Vietnam (part 2)

continued from part 1

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.

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.