Vietnam Is the Place

As his term neared its end, President Eisenhower was trou¬bled less by the growing insurgency in Vietnam than by a minicrisis in adjacent Laos, where the Soviet Union had stepped in to take advantage of a confused civil war. On January 19, 1961, on the eve of his retirement, Eisenhower cautioned his young successor, John F. Kennedy, that Laos was “the key to the entire area of Southeast Asia” and might even require the introduction of American combat troops. Kennedy listened warily. Foreign policy topped his agenda, as he dramatized in his inaugural promise to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty. ” But Europe and Latin America loomed larger than Asia in his sights.
Kennedy, a student during the 1930s, recalled the appeasement of Hitler that had led to World War II, and as a member of Congress he had uttered all the fashionable cold war platitudes. He had favored funding the French war in Indochina, asserting that the United States must prevent “the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all Asia.” An early enthusiast for Diem’s regime, he had described it in a mixture of metaphors as “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike.” Vietnam, he had said, was not only “a proving ground for democracy in Asia,” but a “test of American responsibility and determination.” He fully subscribed to the policy of containment, arguing that the line had to be held against “the relentless pressure of the Chinese Com¬munists.” And, along with most of his American contemporaries, he feared the menace of monolithic Communism directed from Moscow, citing Soviet support for “wars of national liberation” as evidence of their plans for global domination. Reiterating the domino theory, he said: “No other challenge is more deserving of our every effort and energy . . . Our security may be lost piece by piece, country by country.”
But behind the facade of his New Frontier, with its brash buoyancy, Kennedy was far from self-confident during his first year in office. He had scored an uncomfortably thin margin of victory over Richard Nixon, who had assailed him during the presidential election campaign for being “soft” on Communism. He was shattered at the Bay of Pigs, where his Cuban exile surrogates were defeated by Fidel Castro’s forces, and he confronted the Kremlin over divided Berlin. He was further shaken five months after entering office when Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev bullied him at their summit meeting in Vienna. Coming out of that encounter, he confided to James Reston of The New York Times: “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.”
Spurning Eisenhower’s advice, Kennedy sidestepped Laos, whose rugged terrain was no battleground for American soldiers. He assigned W. Averell Harriman, a seasoned and sagacious diplomat and nego¬tiator, to another Geneva conference that reached an agreement by the major powers to honor a “neutral and independent” Laos. But Kennedy rejected neutrality for South Vietnam, even though Hanoi was prepared to accept it, if only as a device to forestall American intervention. His decision was upheld by nearly every senior official in his inner circle. One exception was Chester Bowles, the under secretary of state, who recommended that the Laotian formula be extended to all of Southeast Asia. Bowles’s proposal was “either too early or too late, ” as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., then a White House aide, later wrote. Kennedy dumped Bowles soon afterward. He also ignored President de Gaulle’s warning that Vietnam would trap him in “a bottomless military and political swamp.”
Still, Kennedy was not quite prepared to pay any price or bear any burden to protect South Vietnam. He seemed to be persuaded from the start that he could deal inexpensively with the threat of Com¬munism there. Besides, he had other priorities. His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, refused to dwell on Vietnam when I raised the subject during a chat in his Washington office about that time. “We’ve got twenty Vietnams a day to handle,” he said impatiently.
Not long after his inauguration, Kennedy had perused an analysis of conditions in South Vietnam by Colonel Edward Lansdale, now a Pentagon specialist, who had just returned from a mission there. Lans¬dale, alarmed by the deteriorating situation, urged that aid to Diem be increased. He also depicted his old protege as a victim of American abuse, submitting that U.S. influence could become “effective again” if only “we . . . show him by deeds, not words alone, that we are his friend.” Lansdale’s analysis jolted Kennedy. Turning to Walt Ros- tow, then a State Department official, who had urged him to read Lansdale’s report, he said: “This is the worst one we’ve got, isn’t it?”
But Kennedy preferred to tailor American commitments to im¬mediate circumstances. Thus he continued the pattern that the United States had followed during the years before—and would follow in the years ahead. He rejected withdrawal from Vietnam, yet he balked at plunging into total war, a prospect he could not even envision. When George Ball, another dissenter in his entourage, conservatively pre¬dicted that Vietnam might one day demand as many as three hundred thousand U.S. troops, Kennedy laughed and replied: “Well, George, you’re supposed to be one of the smartest guys in town, but you’re crazier than hell. That will never happen.”
Kennedy, like any president, tried to juggle the pressures brought on him by different aides. These pressures often mirrored both bu¬reaucratic rivalries and personal attitudes. Yet they were real. Dean Rusk, his secretary of state, a veteran exponent of toughness toward Asian Communism, was also a disciplined civil servant determined to promote his department’s supremacy in the formulation of foreign policy. He frequently allied himself with Robert McNamara, the de¬fense secretary, a former Ford Motor Company executive who be¬lieved, as a businessman, that the proper investments would produce the desired results. Rusk and McNamara were sensitive to the joint chiefs of staff, which predictably adopted a belligerent posture in con¬cert with such hawkish civilians as Rostow, an articulate armchair tactician, whose aggressiveness they worked to curb. Nor could Ken¬nedy neglect Congress, where he counted on J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then a firm supporter of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

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