Kennedy’s Decision

Analyze President Kennedy’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.

‘I don’t ever want to be in that position we are not going to bungle into a war’

President Kennedy.

When John F Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961 he and his team faced a number of growing and complex crises. In his first year alone the young president faced international crises such as in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs, the building of the Berlin wall and crises in the Congo are to name but three. Upon making his decisions on Vietnam, Kennedy was influenced directly and indirectly by several factors. As time passed the Kennedy administration began to realize that Vietnam was far more complicated than they had initially perceived and his administration would remain divided over how to deal with them. These divisions, uncertainties and distractions should be considered when analyzing Kennedy’s decisions in Vietnam.

‘I have myself wondered at times if we did not pay a very great price for being more energetic than wise about a lot of things’

Robert Kennedy.

In light of the Khruchev speech in Januruary 1961, a presidential In light of the Khruchev speech in January 1961, a presidential task force was set up in late 1960 to assess the situation in Vietnam, with particular attention to assess the need for ground units.  The report was headed up by a man called Roswell Gilpatrick. The report concluded ‘that stronger action is needed to assist the Vietnamese to become a polarizing spirit against communism in the South East Asia region’. The report recommended to Kennedy that the U.S should, begin supplying more U.S aid, and to send U.S advisors to directly participate in anti-guerilla warfare. This report prompted Kennedy to send Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow to assess the situation on the ground.  In their report, they ‘urged that we substantially boost our support to South Vietnam, by sending more advisors equipment and even small numbers of combat troops. Such steps they noted ‘would mean a fundamental transition from advice to partnership in the war’. They returned basically confirming the earlier report stating that the U.S must decide on how it will cope with this new Khruchevite—Maoist threat. This report is an invaluable document. It recommends that U.S soldiers should get directly involved in the fighting. Less than a month after Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow returned from Saigon the Whitehouse announced an increase in their involvement by over five hundred military advisors in Vietnam. President Kennedy elect launched a steadily growing increase in the number of U.S military personnel. He doubled the number of advisors in the last two months of 1961 and they were accompanied by Helicopter companies, specialist in communication, transportation, logistics and intelligence’. According to Robert McNamara ‘the report presented on May 8, called for several thousand military personal, Kennedy totally scaled back the request authorizing a modest increase of one hundred advisors and four hundred special forces’. I think these facts are key to analyzing Kennedy’s thinking at this time. This is a prime example of Kennedy refusing a total war. From this I believe it is clear that Kennedy wished to limit U.S involvement in Vietnam. It is also important to mention that despite a U.S military personal increase no ground troops were deployed.

‘We must be clear-sighted in beginnings, for, as in their budding we discern not the danger, so in their full growth we perceive not the remedy.’

Michel de Montaigne, 1588.

Before we discuss Kennedy’s decisions in Vietnam we have to go back. Truman was the first president to get involved in Vietnam he didn’t send troops however he did send aid. Up until 1947 Vietnam was not the primary concern of the U.S government. However by 1949 The USSR had successfully mastered the atomic bomb, China had been drawn into the communist circle, and most memorable in 1962 the USSR under a cloak of deceit managed to introduce nuclear warheads into Cuba. These past events were in Kennedy’s memory, due to luck and some clever crises management he and the administration were successful in avoiding nuclear disaster with the Soviet Union. These events unquestionably shaped his thinking and influenced his decisions. Truman not only passed on the burden of the loss of China to Kennedy he also passed on the Vietnam problem. Truman came under intense criticism after China turned red in 1949.Kennedy was extremely sensitive to media criticism more so than most, there is no doubt that Kennedy felt the pressure. Kennedy became trapped in a credibility problem. Not just related to Cuba, Berlin or even Korea but also to questions of his personality and of his Party within the national political culture.

‘We must realize that any bluff will be called. We cannot tell anyone to keep out of our hemisphere unless our armaments and the people behind these armaments are prepared to back up the command, even to the ultimate point of going to war. There must be no doubt in anyone’s mind, the decision must be automatic; if we debate, if we hesitate, if we question, it will be too late.’

John F Kennedy, 1940.

S.J Ball a post revisionist argues that the ability of the United States to show firmness in non western countries not already in the soviet or Chinese orbits was an extremely important tool for policy makers. The desire to show firmness was translated from an abstract concept into a concrete commitment to one country – South Vietnam. Throughout 1965-1972 U.S credibility was mortgaged to the fate of South Vietnam.Kennedy’s inauguration speech compounded this. In any government foreign policy directives can influence or in extreme cases even pressure certain decisions. In Kennedy’s speech he promised ‘to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty’. This was an absolutely huge commitment of unequalled scale. So what prompted Kennedy to make such an announcement? Arthur Schlesinger argues that some of the more hawkish sides in his speech are a direct result of the Khrushev speech of January 1961. Kennedy and the administration saw the Khrushev speech as offering support for wars of national liberation it was taken as evidence of a new communist campaign to gain control of anti-colonial and other evolutionary movements in economically undeveloped regions. Khrushchev’s speech deeply worried Kennedy and the administration. There anxiety can be seen in a report sent by Max well Taylor and Walt Restow concluded that ‘the United states must decide how it will cope with Khruchev’s wars of liberation which are really proxy wars of guerrilla aggression. This is a new and dangerous communist technique which bypasses our traditional and military responses. The communists are pursuing a clear and systematic strategy in south East Asia. It is a strategy which bypasses us nuclear strength U.S conventional naval air and ground forces. The strategy is a variant of Mao’s classic three stage offensive’. Faced with this supposed threat and not wishing to appear weak in the face of communist aggression the U.S choose to escalate in Vietnam. However John Lewis Gladdis argues that Kennedy did not take literally the rhetoric in his inaugural address. He warned repeatedly that the United States could not act alone, that it could not defend those incapable of defending themselves. And that it would not unnecessarily run the risk of nuclear war. However the people in his team were men of action, and always favored action over inaction. The Kennedy administration wanted to look resolute and strong in the face of danger, but did not wish to back the Soviet Union into a corner or make them feel so threatened that they would have no alternative to use nuclear weapons. Kennedy was determined to lower the risks of escalation or humiliation that the Eisenhower strategy had run. This resolve and asymmetric policy led to the employment of an increased number of American advisors in South Vietnam. Perhaps Kennedy and the administration feared the loss of credibility with their allies. Although the administration did and were receiving telegrams from Britain and France explaining that they would not doubt the U.S if they choose not to escalate in Vietnam. However it is without question that they feared losing their credibility with regards to the Soviet Union. If they withdrew would any future commitments or threats by the U.S be taken seriously by the Russians?

‘I believe the American people will never directly approve military intervention by their own forces in Cuba ,except under provocations against us so clear and so serious that everybody will understand the need for the move’

Eisenhower to John F Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs.


 ‘For three months after President Kennedy’s inauguration, we felt as though we were on a roll’ however this was to come to a sharp end. In the early 1960’s the Eisenhower administration had authorized the CIA to organize train and supply a brigade of 14,000 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. The invasion took place on April 17th 1961. It quickly proved to be a perfect failure. The strength of Castro forces was greatly underestimated. In fact a number of Russian units were based on the island. Air cover had not been properly planned. The invaders were supposed to be able to hold up in the mountains and launch a guerilla war from there. However the passage way lay across eighty miles of impassable swamp. In short the operation was an embarrassment. After the Bay of Pigs debacle Kennedy was forced to openly accept responsibility via a Television press conference. McNamara offered to go on television and assume part of the responsibility. Kennedy replied ‘I am the president I do not have to do what all of you recommend. I did it. I am responsible’. This incredible failure played heavily on Kennedys mind surely this influenced Kennedy to thread more carefully in Vietnam. Perhaps this is what influenced Kennedy to limit U.S involvement in Vietnam.

‘I know from experience that failure is more destructive than an appearance of indecision. . . When we go, we must go to win, but it will be better to change our minds than fail.’

President Kennedy August 1963.


             The Kennedy administration believed that the Eisenhower had relied too heavily on the threat of nuclear weapons. They believed this policy ran needless risks by leaving the nation with too few options. Top priority went to raising the threshold to which the president might have to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. ‘He told the nation in July we intend to have a wider choice than humiliation or all out nuclear war”. What Kennedy and later Johnson feared most were not the Soviets or Chinese but the threat of embarrassment or humiliation. Kennedy explained that in Cuba the problem was not Russian missiles. If they had intended to start a nuclear was their own home based weapons would have been sufficient to do so. He explained once the U.S had made a commitment to maintaining the existing balance of power they could not tolerate challenges to that distribution to appear to succeed against their will. Perceptions of power for Kennedy could be as important as the real thing’. Throughout the Kennedy years the administration acted under two guiding premises. The first was that if South Vietnam fell to communism would threaten the security of the United States and the western world. The other was that the only people who could defend South Vietnam were the South Vietnamese, and that the U.S government should limit its support to providing training and logistical support.

“I guess the way you learn to do things is to do them imperfectly”

 McGeorge Bundy,1979.

John Lewis Gladus writes that the U.S had several reasons to escalate. “The United States could not allow challenges to that distribution even to appear to succeed against its will, because for Kennedy perceptions of power could be as important as the real thing.” Under Kennedy the U.S operated under a doctrine of Flexible response.  He argues that Kennedy, McNamara and co believed that U.S power could be used with precision, calibrated to objectives, and measured effectively. Kennedy had surrounded himself with overly optimistic can do people, who believed in the inevitability of victory. The plan was simple by progressively applying force the enemy would crumble. Considerable influence was excreted during the Kennedy years by so called defence intellectuals. Harvard Professor Thomas Schelling stated the employment of threats or of threats and promises can act as a deterrent. In his view war is as much psychological as it is physical, with the upper hand gained by those with the most credible threats. The object is to bend an opponent’s will via the threat to go up the ladder of escalation.

‘Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning’

Robert S McNamara.

S.J. Ball writes that throughout 1963 Kennedy was deeply troubled by the threat of communist insurgents into South Vietnam. This concern culminated in a coup which overthrew and killed Ngo Dinh Diem. It had become clear that the government of Diem was an ineffectual leader of South Vietnam. At the same time Vietnam was seen as a key element of the now unconcealed Sino-Soviet split. China was seen as a more aggressive power than the Soviet Union. Kennedy believed that the Chinese had a rather low value on human life and this meant that they were perfectly prepared for conflict on a large scale. According to Michael Forrestal in the State Department ‘we should try and delay China’s swallowing up of Southeast Asia until she develops better table manners and until the food is somewhat more indigestible’. As a result American involvement in Vietnam was seen as driving a wedge between the Soviet Union and the Chinese or even a means in which to improve American-Soviet relations. Dean Rusk also was quite convinced that the Soviets are concerned about the prospect of living next to one billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons. It was argued that the United States was right to pursue a double headed approach combining military punishment of the north and attempts to negotiate. He hoped as military escalation increased Russian concerns about the dangers of war in Asia would also amplify. The U.S was not only concerned about the Soviet threat it was also terrified of the Chinese. In fact they were so worried about the emergence of the Chinese as a nuclear power after the Cuban missile crises Kennedy approached Khruchev to discuss the possibilities of using military strikes to destroy the Chinese nuclear facilities. Only Khruchev’s cold response perhaps prevented a U.S attack on China.


‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself’

Abraham Lincoln.


Vietnam must be approached as a part of the cold war, part of the cold war was the cold war mindset. According to Robert McNamara ‘there seemed to have been an acute awareness in Kennedy himself that every where the United States was on the defensive. U.S policy in the Kennedy administration was driven by a defensive mindset. George Herring describes the mood in Washington as a ‘siege mentality’. Walt W. Rostow recalls ‘the first days of the Kennedy administration is often projected as light hearted improvisation. For those engaged intimately with him in foreign affairs it was sober even somber time from the beginning. George Kennan’s long telegram argues that the Soviet Union is ‘irrationally paranoid’ ironically in now appears that the U.S suffered from at least the same level of fear’. According to Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy was deeply affected by Khruchev’s speech on January 1961. In Vietnam the war was already waging and it seemed to match to type of war Khruchev was alluding to in his speech. In my mind these fears both irrational and rational prejudiced Kennedy’s decision making and forced him into risks and errors that he normally would not have pursued.

I have made a mistake. Not only were our facts in error, but our policy was wrong because the premises on which it was built were wrong.

        As liberals both Kennedy and Johnson exaggerated their foreign problems in the vain hope of resolving them. To analyze Kennedy’s decisions in Vietnam we must firstly look at what he actually said. Kennedy told Walter Lipmann in 1961 that ‘we are overcommitted in South East Asia but it was necessary to deal with the facts as they were’. He is also quoted in saying that ‘we are the key arch stone, the basic element in the strength of the entire free world’. People tend to forget that Kennedy had seen combat first hand. He had seen firsthand how easily well planned military operations could go ayre. He had seen it while he was in the service and he had seen it in the Bay of Pigs. As a result from the failure of the Bay of Pigs he would submit any other recommended military action to greater scrutiny, and from that point on became much more skeptical of the military. Nsc-68 had shifted perceptions of threat from the Soviet Union to the international communist movement and that document proved a rational for expanding means and interests. Robert Kommer wrote surely we are hooked in Vietnam; surely we will honor our commitment, the problem is that the dangers of disengagement seemed at each stage to outweigh the cost of pressing on. The lessons of Munich and the appeasing of Hitler were very much still alive throughout the cold war. As early as 1961 McNamara posed the ‘loss of Vietnam would stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and may be seized upon by extreme elements. As early as May 1961 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended the dispatch of United States troops to South Vietnam to provide a visible deterrent to potential North Vietnamese and/or Chinese communist action and to indicate the firmness of their intent to all Asian nations The United States entered and fought in Vietnam at a terrible cost. The U.S payed; politically, in credibility, in dollars and in human life. The trouble was Kennedy and his staff believed they had to solve every problem. As early as 1965 Robert McNamara said to the president that there was at best only a one in two chance of winning the war militarily, but he did not believe that they should simply give up. If only Kennedy had followed his own advice when he said that, 

“We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient… and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”

John F Kennedy November 1961.

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