John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a fervent believer in containing communism. In his first speech on becoming president, Kennedy made it clear that he would continue the policy of the former President, Dwight Eisenhower, and support the government of Diem in South Vietnam. Kennedy also made it plain that he supported the ‘Domino Theory’ and he was convinced that if South Vietnam fell to communism, then other states in the region would as a consequence. This Kennedy was not prepared to contemplate.
Kennedy received conflicting advice with regards to Vietnam. Charles De Gaulle warned Kennedy that Vietnam and warfare in Vietnam would trap America in a “bottomless military and political swamp". This was based on the experience the French had at Dien Bien Phu, which left a sizeable psychological scar of French foreign policy for some years. However, Kennedy had more daily contact with ‘hawks’ in Washington DC who believed that American forces would be far better equipped and prepared for conflict in Vietnam than the French had been. They believed that just a small increase in US support for Diem would ensure success in Vietnam. The ‘hawks’ in particular were strong supporters in the ‘Domino Theory’.
Also Kennedy had to show just exactly what he meant when he said that America should:
“Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend…to assure the survival and success of liberty ".
In 1961, Kennedy agreed that America should finance an increase in the size of the South Vietnamese Armyfrom 150,000 to 170,000. He also agreed that an extra 1000 US military advisors should be sent to South Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese Army. Both of these decisions were not made public as they broke the agreements made at the 1954 Geneva Agreement.
It was during Kennedy’s presidency that the ‘Strategic Hamlet’ programme was introduced. This failed badly and almost certainly drove a number of South Vietnamese peasants into supporting the North Vietnamese communists. This forcible moving of peasants into secure compounds was supported by Diem and did a great deal to further the opposition to him in the South. American television reporters relayed to the US public that ‘Strategic Hamlet’ destroyed decades, if not hundreds, of years of village life in the South and that the process might only take half-a-day. Here was a super-power effectively orchestrating the forced removal of peasants by the South Vietnamese Army who were not asked if they wanted to move. To those who knew about US involvement in Vietnam and were opposed to it, ‘Strategic Hamlet’ provided them with an excellent propaganda opportunity.
Kennedy was informed about the anger of the South Vietnamese peasants and was shocked to learn that membership of the NLF had increased, according to US Intelligence, by 300% in a two year time span – the years when ‘Strategic Hamlet’ was in operation. Kennedy’s response was to send more military advisors to Vietnam so that by the end of 1962 there were 12,000 of these advisors in South Vietnam. As well as sending more advisors to South Vietnam, Kennedy also sent 300 helicopters with US pilots. They were told to avoid military combat at all costs but this became all but impossible to fulfil.
Kennedy’s presidency also saw the response to the Diem government by some Buddhist monks. On June 11th 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, committed suicide on a busy Saigon road by being burned to death. Other Buddhist monks followed his example in August 1963. Television reported these events throughout the world. A member of Diem’s government said:
“Let them burn, and we shall clap our hands."
Another member of Diem’s government was heard to say that he would be happy to provide Buddhist monks with petrol.
Kennedy became convinced that Diem could never unite South Vietnam and he agreed that the CIA should initiate a programme to overthrow him. A CIA operative, Lucien Conein, provided some South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to overthrow Diem with the added guarantee that the US would not protect the South Vietnam leader. Diem was overthrown and killed in November 1963. Kennedy was assassinated three weeks later.