Enlarging American Involvement in Vietnam Under Kennedy

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  • 0:01 Kennedy Commits to Vietnam
  • 0:37 Beginning of an Escalation
  • 4:07 Increasing the War Effort
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

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.

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