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.