John F. Kennedy and all of his advisors were profoundly affected by what had happened in the Second World War. His advisors included Dean Rusk, Walter Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor and above all Robert McNamara. McNamara had been President of the Ford Motor Company and gave up a lucrative job to serve his country. He was a pioneer in systems analysis. These men (and interestingly now they were all men) were among those that Robert Halberstam called “The Best and the Brightest” in his book by the same name. All of Kennedy’s advisors believed, based on their experience or knowledge of World War II, a dictator had to be stopped in his tracks. Appeasement would lead to disaster they all believed. Therefore, appeasement was intolerable.
Halberstam was a journalist who wrote a book with that title in 1972 well before the war was over but long after it was realized by nearly everyone that it was a disaster. He focused his book on the foreign policy that was crafted by academics and intellectuals who were part of Kennedy’s administration. At the time some called them “whiz kids,” though few were kids. They were leaders of industry and academia that John F. Kennedy persuaded to join his administration. Halberstam referred to some of their policies as “brilliant policies that defied common sense.” Often their advice ran directly counter to advice Kennedy got from career American Department of State employees.
It must be remembered that Kennedy was a young President who had narrowly defeated a much more experienced political opponent, Richard M. Nixon, the former Vice-President of the United States. The first couple of months of his administration were disastrous. Kennedy had approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that turned into a complete debacle. Many Americans believed that Khrushchev the Premier of the archrival Soviet Union, had bullied Kennedy at a Summit meeting. Kennedy failed to stop the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall. Kennedy also failed to intervene to stop Communist insurrection in Laos. Americans hate to think of a leader as weak. As a result Kennedy was determined not want to seem weak at all costs. Those are ominous words: “at all costs.”
Many Americans called their new President immature, weak, and unable to stop the mounting Communist threat. It did not help that he was the youngest President ever at 43 years of age. Kennedy was, as a result eager to prove that he was a tough and capable leader of the country. All of these antecedents helped to position Kennedy perfectly for disaster in Vietnam.
There were even more factors that led to the ultimate debacle that was the War in Vietnam. For one thing there was politics. The Democratic Party was still haunted by claims that it had “lost” China to the Communists, and it did not want people to say about it that it also lost Vietnam. While Kennedy was getting advice from his inner ring of the Whiz Kids instead of the State Department that was not entirely because he preferred his specifically selected inner advisors. It was also because the State Department had been decimated by the McCarthy era in which the State Department was specifically targeted as harbouring Communists. As a result of that unfair attack, the government was forced to shred experts on Vietnam its surrounding countries and this left the young and inexperienced Kennedy solely reliant on his select group of experts many of whom had no experience with diplomacy.
Again this appears to be mirrored today, as Donald Trump has shred many career diplomats at the State Department. Lets hope the current President does not lead his country into disasters as a result.
Apparently there was an early study that indicated the United States would have to commit close to one million U.S. troops to completely defeat the Viet Cong. However it was inconceivable that the administration would be able to convince Congress or the U.S. public to deploy that many soldiers. As a result the political and military leadership of the United States was in a difficult position. They may have been trying to do the impossible.
At the same the American leadership was concerned about how their actions would influence the Chinese and Russians. The Americans, like the Chinese, had recently completed a costly war in Korea and had little taste for doing that again. The Americans were also worried that any precipitous actions by them would repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift. They liked that rift and wanted to see it maintained.
Very importantly the American military in conformity to the long standing military tradition that armies should prepare to fight the last war instead of the next war, was not prepared for a long guerrilla war. And as we all know, that is precisely what they faced in Vietnam.
Apparently some of the American war games indicated that a gradual escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam. Every year nearly 200,000 North Vietnamese came of draft age and could be sent into the meat grinder of the war. As a result as some pundit pointed out, the Americans and their allies in the South would be “fighting the birthrate”. Johnson as well wanted to concentrate on other important issues when he came to power such as Civil Rights laws and establishment of the Great Society. He really did not want to get bogged down in a war in Vietnam that he had not started but he was stuck with. And was he ever stuck with it.
Of course as happens in wars—as always seems to happen in wars—there was the effect of inertia. Once the Americans committed to sending troops they did not want to lose the war. Better to send more troops than face the difficult task of explaining why any forces had been sent at all. Political and military leaders continually worried about being accused of throwing good money after bad, and more lives after those that had already died.
Thus were aligned the forces that encouraged more war with more soldiers.
For all of these reasons (if they can be called reasons) John F. Kennedy in 1961 confided to an aide that he could only make so many concessions and still swim. Diplomacy inevitably involved concession. But too many concessions made it certain that he would be considered weak. And that would not do. For all of these reasons, Kennedy felt that he must act in South Vietnam. He could not acquiesce with business as usual.
For all of these reasons Kennedy thought he had no choice but to commit ground forces to fight in Vietnam and stop aggression from the north despite his initial assessment that this was foolish.
This is the mistake that each President made in Vietnam. Each one of them started his first term asserting he would not do exactly what he ended up doing. With Kennedy that mistake was to commit ground troops when he had earlier correctly assessed that this would be hopeless. This is the precise mistake Barbara Tuchman referred to in her book and aptly called “The March of Folly.” It was a march of folly all right.
Kennedy had earlier said that he would refuse to send troops because sending the first troops was like taking a first drink. There would inevitably be demands for more drinks. Over and over again the American Presidents made the same mistake and paid the same horrific price and it always led to the same tragic consequences.
The English philosopher, John Gray, is a relentless pessimist. He is invariably pessimistic about wars. That was the right attitude. President Barack Obama who vowed not to do anything stupid, was right. Recently Donald Trump promised not to get involved in foreign adventures and then abandoned that position within weeks of assuming office. That is not right! When it comes to war it is difficult to be too pessimistic!
Ho Chi Minh was a brilliant political leader. He had demonstrated that in the fight with France after 1945. He knew how to work with the people and the people loved him. This was very different from President Diem of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh grew a long beard in order to look older and wiser. He used simple language that the people could easily understand. Unlike Diem, he was not aloof from the people he led. He was also a shrewd politician. As a result he was not in a hurry. He realized that a successful battle against the well-supported forces from the South might take 10 or 20 years or even longer. He was prepared to wait if necessary.
One of the wonderful things about the Burns/Novick television series is the fact that they interviewed people with many different points of view. For example, they interviewed veterans not just from the United States but from both South and North Vietnam. It was great to hear their points of view.
Huy Duc a veteran of the North Vietnam forces said, “Clearly South Vietnamese was more democratic, but in such a violent struggle the side whose soldiers had the fewest doubts and asked the fewest questions would win.”
Duong Van Mai Elliot realized that things were different in the south where its political leaders were not revered like Ho Chi Minh. As she said, “On our side (the south) we were not as committed and our leaders were corrupt and incompetent, so deep down we always had this fear and suspicion that in the end it would be the Communists who would win.”
Right from the outset, acute observers thought that the Americans might have bet all their wealth and power on the losing side.
President Kennedy of course, thought he had assembled the best and brightest of Americans elite universities and business leaders. How could the Americans possibly lose? Of course, Ho thought that he had also assembled the best and brightest of the Vietnamese who had been so successful against the French. How could they lose? When both sides of a struggle believe they have the best on their side you can bet that intransigence will surely follow. As Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead with God on your side.”
The American strategy would never work out very well and the more deeply one looked at it, the more you thought about it, the more you realized this hard cold fact. People who are the best and brightest, or believe that they are, seldom go in much for modesty, restraint or pessimism. They are gung ho. Voters often like political leaders who are gung ho and optimistic. I am more sceptical.