Last Updated 03 Nov 2022

History of the Presidency of John F. Kennedy and Participation in the Cold War

Category Cold War, Kennedy
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As young, charismatic John F Kennedy took over the presidency in 1961, the Cold War was just heating up. He successfully fended off the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Kennedy also believed he had to prevent Vietnam from becoming communist and continue the project begun by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy was strongly anti-communist, and wanted to secure the United States' sphere of influence in the world. Consequently, Kennedy supported the puppet government of anti-Communist autocrat Nog Dình Diem in South Vietnam as a means of combating communism. Kennedy and his advisors' approach to Vietnam was in many ways ineffective, and as Diem's regime became increasingly problematic, the President was faced with tough decisions regarding the future of U.S. involvement in that country. Although Kennedy was committed to the global fight against communism and played an important role in furthering U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, he ultimately realized that the situation in Vietnam was deteorating, and would have reduced and eventually ended United States involvement had his presidency not tragically ended in assassination.

Global and domestic political circumstances during the Cold War, along with the elite and intellectual environment in which he grew up, influenced Kennedy's views on Vietnam and the advisors he brought to his administration. He assumed the presidency in the thick of the Cold War, so he was unsurprisingly anti-communist oriented in his foreign policy. Like other Cold War presidents, Kennedy believed in the idea that the Soviet Union was behind every communist movement (monolithic communism) and that if one nation fell to communism, others would follow (Domino Theory). This worldview greatly influenced his committment to supporting the puppet government in the South.

Kennedy also grew up in a family of political and intellectual elites, and these were the types of people he surrounded himself with. His cabinet was chock-full of Ivy League grads, and Kennedy believed he and his team of experts had answers for all problems in Vietnam. This arrogant attitude prevented Kennedy and his advisors from taking into account Vietnamese culture and tradition in their policy decisions, and this would prove to have disastrous consequences. Kennedy continued and steadily expanded the Eisenhower administration's support of the South Vietnamese dictatorship. One of the first things Kennedy did as President was to send his vice president Lyndon Johnson to meet with Diem. Johnson returned singing his praises, going so far as to compare him to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

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Having great confidence in Diệm, Kennedy approved increased financing for the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) and sent 16,500 additional military advisors to assist ARVN. Kennedy also supported Diệm's Strategic Hamlet Program, which involved relocating tense of thousands of Vietnamese to strategic locations to prevent their villages from being captured or influenced by National Liberation Front (NLF or Viet Cong) guerrillas. Kennedy believed that his expert-advised policy would effectively equip South Vietnam to fight against communism, but the reality was different. Kennedy's policies were largely ineffective, and he realized far too late that Diem was disastrous not only for the Vietnamese people, but for U.S. interests as well. ARVN was very inexperienced and not very motivated, and the military advisors Kennedy sent in were of little use. Diệm, a devout Catholic, alienated the country's Buddhist majority by favoring Catholics anddiscrminating against Buddhists. Furthermore, the Strategic Hamlet Program backfired terribly.

Reverence to ancestors is an important part of Vietnamese tradition, and their relocation cut them off from their ancestors and their homeland. Kennedy and his experts should have known this and realized that Diệm wouldn't care, but their arrogance prevented them from seeing this. As a result of the Strategic Hamlet Program, many became sympathetic to the Viet Cong, and Southern loyalists lost trust in Diem's government and the United States." NLF recruitment skyrocketed, and plans to overthrow Diem's government overtook factions of ARVN. Realizing that Diem was a monumental failure, Kennedy tacitly approved ARVN's plot of a coup d'etat. On November 1, 1963 ARVN forces stormed Gia Long palace, resulting in Diệm's assassination and the end of his regime. The chaos in South Viet Nam proved the Kennedy administration really botched their management of the situation with their support of Diem, and Kennedy realized too late that the war was heading downhill.

Kennedy's presidency was tragically cut short with his assassination in Dallas, TX, and many speculate what his course of action regarding Việt Nam would have been. Kennedy recognized that the situation in Việt Nam was headed in the wrong direction, and would not have involved the U.S. beyond military advising and economic support. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara cautioned against escalation, and Kennedy seemed ready to heed his advice. On November 14, 1963, Kennedy said at a press conference, “that is our object, to bring Americans home.”7 National Security Action (NSA) memorandum 263 further stated that "The President approved the military recommendations of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personell by the end of 1963. Kennedy's assassination did happen, however, and he never had a chance to redeem the ineffectiveness of his foreign policy in Việt Nam. Kennedy's legacies in Vietnam highlight his foreign policy's arrogance and naivete, as he failed to understand the Vietnamese people and the nature of revolutionary insurgency, and placed too much trust in an autocratic regime merely because it was anti-communist and friendly to the United States.

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