President Kennedy's Advisors: Shaping Policy During the Vietnam War

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  • 1:14 Robert McNamara
  • 2:47 McGeorge Bundy
  • 3:55 Dean Rusk
  • 4:46 Walt Rostow
  • 5:57 George Ball
  • 6:57 John McCone
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

President John F. Kennedy sought to establish a prolific foreign policy team consisting of the nation's most acclaimed individuals. Learn about these advisors and their impact on shaping policy in the Vietnam War.

The Best and the Brightest

When President John F. Kennedy assumed office in 1961, he was tasked with the responsibility of building a trustworthy security team that would help him design and implement foreign policy strategies that could be applied to the Cold War world. The Vietnam War was a point of priority for Kennedy. He enlisted the help of academicians and businessmen - the nation's 'best and the brightest' - to craft a policy that would yield success for the United States in Vietnam. Unfortunately, many of these men failed to realize the difficulties of fighting in Southeast Asia. This led to a disastrous strategy in Vietnam that translated to a deepening involvement of American personnel in an unwinnable war.

The focus of this lesson will be on six important members of Kennedy's security team: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Chairman of the Policy Planning Commission Walt Rostow, Undersecretary of State George Ball, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John McCone. While there was an abundance of advisors and strategists during the Kennedy era, the aforementioned individuals also played a prominent role in formulating President Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam policy.

Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara was an incredibly intelligent individual. He received degrees in economics and philosophy from the University of California-Berkeley, as well as a master's degree in business administration from Harvard. McNamara believed that all information could be quantified and used to make decisions. He successfully applied this theory to specific bombing strategies during the Second World War as a member of the United States Army Air Force. His application of quantification is important to remember, as it will be his main tool for creating a strategy in the Vietnam War.

Following the Second World War, McNamara was appointed president of the Ford Motor Company. He only served briefly, because Kennedy recognized his talents as a creative and forward thinker. Kennedy appointed McNamara as Secretary of Defense on January 21, 1961. From 1961 to 1965, McNamara applied his quantitative approach to the war in Vietnam. He believed that additional soldiers, coupled with an enlarged military budget, were the solution to winning the war. Furthermore, statistical models such as 'body count', that is counting the number of dead enemy Vietnamese, could be used to determine the success of the United States in Vietnam. However, he failed to account for the sociological, cultural and historical reasons for which the Vietnamese were fighting. As the war continued to drain American resources without an end in sight, McNamara shied away from supporting the war effort and its continued escalation. He began opposing the war by the end of 1966; his tenure as Secretary of Defense came to an end in 1968. McNamara became president of the World Bank, while continuing to be an opponent of the war.

McGeorge Bundy

McGeorge Bundy was another brilliant individual with academic degrees from the Groton School and Yale University. He served in the United States Army during the Second World War, participated in study groups on the Marshall Plan and became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Bundy was also a faculty member at Harvard University specializing in international relations. He was appointed National Security Advisor by Kennedy on January 20, 1961. Bundy was a prominent supporter of escalation in Vietnam. He urged both Kennedy and Johnson to increase the American presence in Southeast Asia; he was an avid supporter of the introduction of American combat troops to Vietnam in 1965. Bundy, along with McNamara, both pushed for a large-scale bombing campaign to force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. This tactic of offering peace while sustaining a bombing campaign became known as the carrot-and-the-stick diplomacy. Like McNamara, Bundy became disillusioned with the failure of escalation by 1966. Unfortunately, his change in opinion came too late as the United States had lost thousands of soldiers. Bundy resigned in February 1966 and became the president of the Ford Foundation.

Dean Rusk

Dean Rusk was educated at Davidson College and Oxford University, and then became a professor prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Rusk served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war. He then served in the War Department and as assistant secretary of state for far eastern affairs in the Department of State following the war. Rusk was an avid proponent of the policy of containment, which caught the attention of Kennedy. Rusk was appointed Secretary of State on January 21, 1961. He immediately recommended applying containment to Southeast Asia no matter the cost. Additionally, Rusk believed that it was the United States' responsibility to ensure the protection and survival of South Vietnam. He supported escalation as well as an expansive bombing campaign within Vietnam. Rusk continued to support the United States' efforts in Vietnam until he left office in 1969 to enter academia.

Walt Rostow

Walt Rostow received degrees from Yale University, Oxford University and Columbia University. He served the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, and then taught economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1950s. During his time in academia, Rostow published an important manifesto which argued that the United States could defeat communism in Southeast Asia by economically infusing the region. Kennedy brought Rostow on as a special assistant to McGeorge Bundy; in 1961, he became chairman of the Policy Planning Council in the Department of State.

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