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Vietnam War

John Kennedy and Vietnam Previous Next
Digital History ID 3460



John F. Kennedy arrived in the White House with a far slimmer margin of victory than he had hoped, a mere 100,000 votes. It was an election that seemed to strengthen his enemies more than his friends.

Kennedy came into office committed to increasing defense spending and upgrading and modernizing America’s military. Dwight Eisenhower was committed to a cheap defense. “More bang for the buck,” was Eisenhower’s slogan. He relied on nuclear deterrence and covert operations.

Kennedy was committed to finding an alternative to nuclear weapons. His answer was counterinsurgency. He wanted to use air power and special forces, such as the Green Berets, to fight guerrilla wars.

Kennedy’s foreign policy was based on two major premises. The first was a belief in “monolithic communism”--the idea that all communist movements were orchestrated from Moscow. The second was the domino theory--that should a single strategic country turn communist, surrounding countries were sure to follow.

We must remember that, in the early 1960s, one third of the world was communist and another third was non-aligned.

In Cuba, Kennedy faced a test run for Vietnam. Kennedy completely misread the Cuban people. He was convinced that there was serious anti-Castro sentiment on the island and that an invasion sponsored by the United States would rally the average Cuban to revolt.

Kennedy assumed that Cuba was a small island; however, Cuba is 800 miles long (and would stretch from New York to Chicago). During World War II, it had taken three days and 18,000 Marines to capture the tiny Pacific island from the Japanese. Clearly, an invasion of Cuba would require many more than the 1,500 poorly trained Cuban exiles.

It was during Kennedy’s presidency that the United States made a fateful new commitment to Vietnam. The administration sent in 18,000 advisors. It authorized the use of napalm (jellied gasoline), defoliants, free fire zones, and jet planes.

The government’s efforts, however, weren’t working. By July 1963, Washington faced a major crisis in Vietnam. Buddhist priests had begun to set themselves on fire to protest corruption in the South Vietnamese government. The American response was to help engineer the overthrow the South Vietnamese president.

In 1963, South Vietnamese generals overthrew the Diem government and murdered President Diem. President Kennedy sanctioned Diem's overthrow, partly out of fear that Diem might strike a deal to create a neutralist coalition government including Communists, as had occurred in Laos in 1962. Dean Rusk, Kennedy's secretary of state, remarked, "This kind of tantamount to surrender." By the spring of 1964, fewer than 150 American soldiers had died in Vietnam.

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