NY Times and Kennedy in Vietnam

October 19, 2009

The following is quoted from an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by Gordon M. Goldstein, author of ‘Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam’.

The piece discusses comparisons and diversions in Kennedy’s policy towards Vietnam and Obama’s policy towards Afghanistan.

The emerging picture is of a commander in chief trying to chart a middle way through one of the most complex challenges of his young presidency. If so, instructive lessons can be found in the contrasting ways two of his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, navigated a perilous way ahead in Vietnam.

Kennedy’s Vietnam strategy was informed by a pair of harrowing foreign policy crises in 1961 that sobered him to his responsibilities as commander in chief. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion was a humiliation that Kennedy believed would have driven him from office if he had been a British prime minister. He vowed never again to be “overawed by professional military advice.”

That same year, Kennedy was shocked by the half-baked recommendation of his generals to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Communist Pathet Lao movement in Laos, a proposal he decisively dismissed.

In this context, Kennedy was deeply skeptical when his most senior advisers argued in the fall of 1961 that only substantial numbers of American forces could prevent the government of South Vietnam from collapsing. Kennedy nonetheless rejected the deployment of combat troops. But he also rejected the notion of abandoning Saigon. Instead, he chose to chart a middle course.

Kennedy favored a strategy of arming and reinforcing the South Vietnamese Army, and of teaching them new counterinsurgency tactics. He increased the number of military advisers assigned to Saigon but maintained a ceiling of about 16,000 men.

By October 1963, operations were deemed sufficiently successful for the White House to announce the withdrawal of 1,000 advisers and its expectation that the advisory mission would be concluded by the end of 1965. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination the following month, the Pentagon had recorded only 108 American military personnel killed.

Lyndon Johnson maintained Kennedy’s middle way until after his huge presidential victory in 1964, which gave him new latitude. He was also confronted in January 1965 with the most dire assessment yet of America’s prospects in Vietnam, delivered by two of his most influential counselors, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. In what came to be known as the “fork in the road” memo, they insisted that the United States was on a “disastrous” losing course in Vietnam.

Combat forces soon poured in, approved and progressively enlarged with staggering speed. An initial deployment in March of 3,500 Marines grew to 33,500 and then to a force of 82,000, approved by late April. On June 7, the top American general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, asked for an immediate increase of 41,000 combat troops, to be followed by 52,000 later. In all, he wanted a combined command of 175,000 soldiers, equivalent to 44 battalions “to give us a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability on the ground to convince” the Vietnamese insurgent forces “they cannot win.”

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