During Kennedy’s term, the issue of decolonization posed a particularly difficult problem for a U.S. government committed to halting the spread of Communism. As more and more new, independent countries were formed from old European colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, Kennedy faced an increasingly difficult task of ensuring that Communists did not seize power. Complicating the situation was the fact that Eisenhower’s stated policy of “massive retaliation,” which threatened to use nuclear weapons to halt the Communist tide, effectively tied the president’s hands. On one hand, Kennedy would lose credibility if he allowed Communism to take root in any of these newly decolonized countries. At the same time, however, he wanted to do anything he could to avoid using nuclear weapons.
The growing Communist power in the Southeast Asian country of Laos made this catch-22 very real. After carefully considering his options, Kennedy finally decided not to use military force and instead convened a multination peace conference in Geneva in 1962 to end the civil war that had erupted in Laos.
Kennedy, hoping never to have to decide between nuclear war and political embarrassment again, devised a new strategy of “flexible response” to deal with the USSR. Crafted with the aid of foreign policy veteran Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the flexible response doctrine was meant to allow the president to combat Soviet advances around the world through a variety of means. In other words, Kennedy could send money or troops to fight Communist insurgents, authorize the CIA to topple an unfriendly government, or, as a last resort, use nuclear weapons.
Kennedy first applied his new doctrine to the problem in Vietnam, which was becoming an even greater problem than Laos had been. The United States had been funding Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt South Vietnamese regime since Eisenhower first pledged support after the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Most South Vietnamese, however, hated Diem, resented the United States for keeping him in power, and threatened to overthrow him on numerous occasions. To prevent Communist-backed insurgents from taking control of South Vietnam, Kennedy increased American commitment by sending approximately 15,000 U.S. servicemen to Saigon, ostensibly as mere “military advisors.” When anti-Diem sentiment continued to intensify, however, the United States supported exactly what it had tried to prevent—it allowed a 1963coup to overthrow Diem.
Kennedy’s decision to send “military advisors” to South Vietnam drastically increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war. Eisenhower, after all, had merely funded the anti-Communist faction, just as Truman had funded such factions in Greece and Turkey in the late 1940s. Because the United States sent troops, regardless of what they were called, responsibility for the war began to shift away from South Vietnam and onto the United States. The arrival of the first group of soldiers in Vietnam opened the floodgates, and additional troops soon followed. Eventually, Kennedy and future presidents would find it politically impossible to recall U.S. forces without having first defeated the pro-Communist North Vietnamese. Kennedy’s decision to send “military advisors” ultimately proved to be a costly mistake that entangled the United States in what would prove to be the longest and least successful war in American history to date. (For more information, see the History SparkNote The Vietnam War.)
In Latin America, Kennedy used a different strategy to fight Communist forces. Hoping to reduce income inequality and quell pro-Communist stirrings in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, Kennedy decided in 1961 to give hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to the region’s nations. This so-called Alliance for Progress had very little real effect. Although Democrats lauded the alliance as the Marshall Plan for the Western Hemisphere, the money did almost nothing to reduce the Latin American poverty rate.