Between 1961 and 1962, President John F.
Kennedy sought to establish an American presence in Southeast Asia. Learn about Kennedy’s strategy, which included an increase of American advisors and resources in Vietnam, in this lesson.
Kennedy Commits to Vietnam
The year 1961 marked not only a change in the White House, but a reassessment of the United States’ strategy in the Vietnam War. President John F. Kennedy wasted little time addressing the growing conflict in Southeast Asia. Upon assuming office, Kennedy personally reassured Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), or South Vietnam, that the he had the full support of the United States.
By mid-year, Diem requested an increase in economic and military aid to help stem the tide of the war. Kennedy responded to Diem with a letter that outlined his unwavering support for South Vietnam; any restrictions that had been in place were removed.
The Beginning of American Escalation
Kennedy began slowly escalating the American position in Southeast Asia in April 1961 when he approved Project Jungle Jim, which called for United States Air Force advisors to train members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, and Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF). In May 1961, Kennedy issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 52, which officially committed the United States to preventing a communist takeover in Vietnam. 400 United States Army Special Forces advisors (also known as Green Berets) were dispatched to South Vietnam.
Kennedy then replaced Elbridge Durbrow, Ambassador to South Vietnam, with Frederick Nolting Jr. Nolting was a strong advocate of Diem, unlike his predecessor Durbrow. This represented a shift in American policy from cautiously supporting Diem to fully supporting the Vietnamese leader. Additionally, Kennedy settled on the strategy of counterinsurgency within South Vietnam.
He believed that it was necessary to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese through assistance and protection from the National Liberation Front, or NLF and People’s Army of Vietnam, or PAVN.In June, Kennedy issued NSAM-57. This documented how the United States was going to achieve success within South Vietnam via paramilitary operations. NSAM-57 outlined the idea of using American military forces to help train, and potentially fight alongside, the South Vietnamese military. In addition to training the South Vietnamese, Kennedy authorized the beginning of herbicide use in Vietnam.
The hope was to expose enemy positions by eliminating the thick vegetation in South Vietnam.October 1961 was a major benchmark for the American effort in the Vietnam War. Early in the month, Kennedy approved of Operation Farm Gate under Project Jungle Jim.
The strategy was to discreetly supply the Republic of Vietnam Air Force with American war planes and personnel. While the goal was to allow the South Vietnamese to fight the bulk of the war, American pilots eventually assumed air operations against the enemy North Vietnamese. And, yes, this was a direct violation of the Geneva Agreements of 1954.Kennedy then sent General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow, chairman of the Policy Planning Council, to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission. Upon their return, the two men issued the Taylor-Rostow Report to the president.
The report recommended the immediate escalation in South Vietnam to combat the growing communist insurgency in the nation. It also recommended an increase in American advisors, military materials, such as the helicopter, and the introduction of 8,000 American combat troops. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suggested 200,000 combat troops, or six divisions.Kennedy refused to introduce combat troops into South Vietnam.
However, he did drastically increase the amount of American military advisors in the region, to the tune of 6,000 plus. The influx of American advisors helped train and equip the ARVN and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force forces. Additionally, the United States counterinsurgency groups established the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, or CIDG, which was mainly a militia made up of tribesmen, such as the Montagnards, living in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam to help battle the NLF.
In November, Kennedy issued NSAM-111, which outlined American support throughout the rest of 1961 and the entirety of 1962. This included the introduction of the helicopter into combat, the restructuring of the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam, or MAAG, and the deployment of additional advisors. December marked the first use of the American helicopter in a combat role during the Vietnam War.
Increasing The War Effort
In his State of the Union Address in January 1962, Kennedy promised to continue to use the United States as the defender of international freedom. This idea became more and more prevalent in South Vietnam during the year. With the NLF growing in size and gaining more control within South Vietnam, Kennedy opted to further escalate. In January, he approved of the beginning of Operation Ranch Hand, which drastically increased the use of herbicides, especially Agent Orange, in Vietnam. The goal was to eliminate vegetation and destroy crops used to feed the NLF and PAVN.
In February, Kennedy launched Project Beef-Up which continued to enlarge the American presence in South Vietnam. MAAG was officially replaced by the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam, or MACV, under the leadership of General Paul Harkins. Kennedy then authorized American advisors to begin returning fire in self-defense against North Vietnamese forces. He also deployed the United States SEALs to South Vietnam, and sanctioned the beginning of the Strategic Hamlet Program in March.In the following month of April, American advisors began training members of the CIDG, also known as the Trail Watchers, to closely oversee the Ho Chi Minh Trail for movement of North Vietnamese supplies and personnel. Eventually, the United States Army Special Forces established a post at the village of Khe Sanh to replace the Trail Watchers with more advanced military forces.
The use of American advisors and material in South Vietnam had resulted in the notable development of the ARVN and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force forces. Reports within the Kennedy Administration, especially by McNamara, contended that the war was being won through an increased Americanization of the conflict and strategies such as the Strategic Hamlet Program. However, that optimism yielded temporarily in October. In a violent ambush, the NLF destroyed a platoon of American-trained ARVN forces in the Mekong River Delta region of South Vietnam. The war in Vietnam proved to be more difficult than many within the Kennedy Administration had expected.
1961 and 1962 represented a change in the American strategy in the Vietnam War. President John F.
Kennedy decided to enlarge the American effort in South Vietnam in a multitude of ways. He introduced thousands of military advisors to the region to help train and equip the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF). He switched ambassadors to provide Ngo Dinh Diem with a more supportive network.
Kennedy poured American planes and war equipment into South Vietnam.He approved the establishment of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), the Strategic Hamlet Program and the beginning of Operation Ranch Hand. Kennedy continued to enlarge the effort in Vietnam through the reorganization of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) into the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV). Yet, with the influx of personnel and materials, the National Liberation Front (NLF) continued to expand and earn victories over the South Vietnamese forces.
Once you’ve watched this video lesson and absorbed its contents, you might be ready to:
- Identify the U.
S. President responsible for increasing American forces in Vietnam
- Recall Kennedy’s issuance of NSAM-57 and NSAM-111
- Express knowledge of the Taylor-Rostow report’s findings and Kennedy’s response
- Illustrate the way in which American involvement increased the capacity of the ARVM and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force
- Interpret Kennedy’s overall plan for American involvement in the Vietnam War