In November 1960, the young Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy was elected U.S. president. When he took office in January 1961, his administration portrayed itself as a break from the older traditions and as the “best and brightest,” with former Rhodes Scholar Dean Rusk as secretary of state, renowned businessman Robert S. McNamara as secretary of defense, and academic McGeorge Bundy as national security advisor. The president also appointed his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general. This group would remain Kennedy’s key advisors, especially in matters relating to Vietnam, throughout his entire time in office.
Despite Kennedy’s attempts to appear tough on Communism, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev suspected that the young president would be more easily intimated than his predecessor, Eisenhower, who had been one of the major Allied military commanders in World War II. In the young and inexperienced Kennedy, Khrushchev saw an opportunity to press for strategic gains.
In 1960, the Soviet Union began airlifting supplies to the Pathet Lao, a Communist-led group of guerrilla insurgents fighting against the French in Vietnam’s neighboring country, Laos. U.S. policy makers worried that the first domino in Indochina was about to fall, and for a brief time, small, landlocked Laos became an important locale in the global Cold War confrontation between the world’s two superpowers.
Then, in 1962, Khrushchev upped the stakes even further by placing Soviet nuclear warheads on the Communist-governed island of Cuba, just ninety miles from the United States. Kennedy, proving himself a master of brinkmanship, ordered the U.S. Navy to blockade Cuba and refused to back down. Ultimately, it was Khrushchev himself who backed down, removing the missiles in exchange for U.S. concessions. Although the Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully, it brought tensions to the highest point yet seen in the Cold War.
Within this context of increased conflict, the United States in 1962 established the Military Assistance Command of Vietnam (MACV), which provided American personnel to help train the South Vietnamese army, the ARVN, in its growing conflicts with Communist guerrillas. Under the auspices of the MACV, the United States sent thousands of “military advisors” to South Vietnam; within a year, the American presence rose from around 1,000 men to over 15,000. Although the U.S. government maintained that these “military advisors” were not “military forces” per se, the line quickly became quite blurred.
Moreover, in a major embarrassment for the United States, many of the 250,000 weapons that the MACV distributed to the ARVN that year likely ended up in the hands of the Viet Cong. In fact, many ARVN soldiers who had been drafted from the ranks of the peasants were also secretly members of the National Liberation Front at the same time. In short, the MACV not only drastically escalated the U.S. presence in Vietnam but also spent a good deal of time and money training the enemy.
Because Viet Cong forces and ARVN forces often lived in the same villages and undercover Viet Cong members were widespread, air power was a largely useless tool in the fight to extricate Communists from South Vietnam. For this reason, MACV decided that South Vietnamese peasants should be relocated into fortified “strategic hamlets,” allowing U.S. and ARVN forces not only to protect these peasants but also to try to label the Viet Cong as anyone not living in a strategic hamlet. Unfortunately, the MACV entrusted the job of constructing these strategic hamlets to the much-hated Ngo Dinh Nhu, under whose direction the hamlets were run essentially as labor camps. As peasants in the hamlets grew angry at these conditions, many defected to the Viet Cong side.
The year 1963 marked a turning point, both because the first clashes of the nascent war emerged and because American news coverage of Vietnam began to slip toward pessimism. Unlike prior coverage, which had come largely in the form of positive “headway reports,” media coverage in 1963 began to reveal serious problems to the American public.
At one of the first major battles between ARVN and Viet Cong forces, the Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963, a vastly outnumbered and outgunned Viet Cong force nonetheless inflicted more casualties on the ARVN than vice versa. The official U.S. report claimed that the battle was an important victory for the anti-Communist forces, but two American journalists on the scene reported that the battle was a rout against the ARVN and postulated that U.S. involvement in Vietnam might quickly become a quagmire. As it turned out, the journalists’ words were prophetic, and the battle itself was emblematic of the way much of the war would go.
Meanwhile, the corruption and brutality of the Diem government against Vietnam’s Buddhist leaders continued and soon caused a major crisis. In May 1963, ARVN troops fired on a group of Buddhist protesters in the city of Hue, where Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Thuc reigned as archbishop. The next month, a Buddhist monk doused himself in gasoline and burned himself to death in protest, in public and in full view of a number of journalists.
Pictures of this self-immolation made the front pages of world newspapers the next day and provoked outrage against the Diem regime. South Vietnam’s “first lady,” Madame Nhu, only worsened Diem’s image by publicly dismissing the incident as a “barbecuing,” deriding the monk for using “imported gasoline,” and offering to provide fuel and matches for the next monk who wanted to follow suit.
In August 1963, dissatisfied with the Diem regime in general and Diem’s brother Nhu in particular, ARVN generals began a new plot to overthrow Diem. This time, the effort was secretly backed by CIA operatives and the U.S. ambassador in Saigon. On November 1, the coup was carried out, and General Duong Van Minh took power. Diem and his brother Nhu were both executed. The new military rulers proved unstable, and in the period that followed, South Vietnam had little consistent leadership.
On November 22, 1963, just three weeks after Diem’s assassination in Saigon, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office, kept Kennedy’s key Vietnam advisors in place, and pledged, “Let us continue.” The United States would soon be well past the point of no return in Vietnam.
Despite Kennedy’s talented advisors, his administration made policy mistakes in Vietnam that led the United States into deeper involvement. The strategic hamlet program was an utter failure: it not only failed to root out Viet Cong influence but actually made it stronger, as Nhu’s mismanagement turned many of the 4.3 million peasants forced into the hamlets against the Diem regime and toward the Communist side. The U.S. decision to allow Diem’s overthrow after years of support, though likely necessary, revealed the United States as the true power operating behind the scenes and robbed the South Vietnamese government of whatever shreds of authority it still maintained.
Moreover, the American media’s quick exposure of these bungled U.S. actions marked the first time that journalists had ever played such an immediate “fact-checking” role in a U.S. conflict. Until 1963, Americans had received news only of Diem’s popularity and successes. But after the Battle of Ap Bac and the Buddhist monk’s self-immolation, the American media began to present an increasingly critical view of U.S. policy in Vietnam. This shift had a profound impact on public opinion: the American people slowly turned against the war, and protest movements grew in strength (see The U.S. Antiwar Movement, p. 49 ). On a larger level, the media’s role in Vietnam prompted an evolution toward more cynical media coverage of the U.S. government in general—a trend of increased media scrutiny that has continued up to the present day.