Exhausted South Vietnamese soldiers crowd the deck of a U.S. Navy troop carrier, returning to the provincial capital of Ca Mau after four days and nights of combat operations in the swamps of South Vietnam’s southernmost province, August 1962.


John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address. “It was one of the most glorious of inaugurals,” an aide remembered. “The Kennedy presidency began with incomparable dash.” Seated to Kennedy’s right are the outgoing president, Dwight Eisenhower, and Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States; to his left are incoming vice president Lyndon Johnson and outgoing vice president Richard M. Nixon.

ON THE EVENING of January 19, 1961—the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as the thirty-fifth president of the United States—he sent his closest aides copies of a speech the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had just delivered to an international communist gathering in Moscow. “Comrades, we live in a splendid time,” Khrushchev had told his fellow party members. “Communism has become the invincible force of our century.” Since Soviet military might was now commensurate with that of the West, he said, the “Imperialists” could no longer “unleash a world war.” But “national liberation wars [will] continue as long as imperialism exists, as long as colonialism exists” and “Communists [will] fully support such just wars and march in the front rank with the peoples waging liberation struggles.”

Attached to each copy of the speech was a note from the president- elect: “Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest….This is our key to the Soviet Union. Our actions, our steps should be tailored to meet these kinds of problems.”

The inaugural address Kennedy delivered the following morning made clear that he had already digested Khrushchev’s words. “Let every nation know,” he said, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Then, he warned the people of the Third World of the dangers of aligning themselves with the Soviets and the Chinese.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

At forty-three, Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president. He had promised bold new leadership, and was eager to show the world that the United States had both the power and the flexibility to confront communism in every form, on every front. And he had gathered around him an extraordinary set of advisers who shared his determination, including Dean Rusk as secretary of state—Rhodes Scholar, State Department veteran, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation; National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy—a political scientist and former dean of the faculty at Harvard, and his deputy, Walt Whitman Rostow, an economist and advocate of Third World development who had taught at Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT; and, as secretary of defense, forty-seven-year-old Robert McNamara—a liberal Republican and ardent advocate of systems analysis, who gave up his post as president of the Ford Motor Company to serve his country.

Like the young president, all of them had served during World War II. Each had absorbed what they all believed was its central lesson: ambitious dictatorships needed to be halted in their tracks before they constituted a serious danger to the peace of the world. “Like most Americans,” McNamara remembered many years later, “I saw communism as monolithic. I believed the Soviets and the Chinese were cooperating in trying to extend their hegemony.” To him—and to Kennedy and most of the men closest to him—it seemed clear that the “Communist movement in Vietnam was closely related to guerrilla insurgencies in Burma, Indonesia, Malaya and the Philippines….We viewed these conflicts not as nationalistic movements—as they largely appear in hindsight—but as signs of a unified communist drive for hegemony in Asia.”

Kennedy’s men also shared his belief that in a nuclear age the United States needed to find ways to wage and win less dangerous, limited wars like the ongoing struggle in Vietnam. “This is another type of warfare,” Kennedy said, “new in its intensity, ancient in its origin—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression.”

But for all of Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric, for all the talent he gathered around him, the first months of his administration went badly: the president failed to call off a CIA-inspired invasion of Cuba that ended in disaster; he was unable to keep Khrushchev from building the Berlin Wall; and he was harshly criticized when, rather than commit U.S. forces to fight communist guerrillas in the jungles of Laos, as ex-President Eisenhower had urged him to do, he had instead agreed to enter negotiations aimed at “neutralizing” that kingdom.

“There are just so many concessions that we can make in one year and survive politically,” he told a friend in the spring of 1961. “We just can’t have another defeat this year in Vietnam.”

During that spring and summer, Kennedy did his best to meet Ngo Dinh Diem’s requests for enlarging his military. Diem responded with somewhat graceless gratitude for the U.S. president’s response to what he called the “wise and far-sighted proposals…which I myself have advocated for four years or more.”

Kennedy sent to Saigon as his ambassador Frederick Nolting, a career diplomat who saw it as his “first commandment” to restore the Ngo brothers’ trust in Washington. He also dispatched Vice President Lyndon Johnson to talk with Diem, whom Johnson publicly hailed as “the Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia.” (When a newspaperman asked him off the record if he really was so admiring, the vice president answered, “Shit, Diem’s the only boy we have out here.”) There was talk of a “joint program of action,” too, but it foundered when Washington again called for reforms Diem and Nhu were unwilling to make.

Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in his Pentagon office, 1961. Behind him is a portrait of James V. Forrestal, the first U.S. secretary of defense, appointed by President Harry Truman.

Meanwhile, the military situation steadily deteriorated. Late that summer, the journalist Theodore H. White visited Vietnam and wrote privately to the president of his concern. “The situation gets worse almost week by week,” he reported. “I say this despite the optimistic bullshit now hitting the papers.” The guerrillas now controlled much of the Mekong Delta, “so much so that I could find no American who would drive me outside Saigon in his car even by day without military convoy.”

There is a political breakdown here of formidable proportions….If we mean to win, perhaps we must do more. But what? If there is another coup against Diem by his army should we support it? If there is no natural coup and we are convinced that Diem is useless, should we incubate one? If we feel bound by honor not to pull or support a coup, shall we lay it on the line to Diem and intervene directly…or should we get the Hell out?

What perplexes the hell out of me is that the Commies on their side seem to be able to find people willing to die for their cause. I find it discouraging to spend a night in a Saigon nightclub full of young fellows of 20 and 25 dancing and jitterbugging…while twenty miles away their Communist contemporaries are terrorizing the countryside.

Three levels of communist forces were now working to destroy the Saigon regime. Most numerous were the part-time militia—farmers and their families who worked their fields by day but operated in small squads at night, defending their villages, staging small ambushes, sabotaging roads, providing supplies and intelligence for the full-time forces that came and went at will. Singling them out from the local populace, one weary American adviser would remember, was “like looking for tears in a bucket of water.”

Regional Force companies served under provincial or district leadership. They were more mobile, more thoroughly schooled in class doctrine, and better armed than their part-time counterparts, and tasked with attacking government outposts and ambushing small convoys. They also sometimes aided the Main Force regulars who operated under orders from the Central Office for South Vietnam—COSVN—the communist command center hidden away in a corner of Tay Ninh Province near the Cambodian border.

In September, a thousand-man Main Force unit seized a provincial capital less than sixty miles from Saigon and held it for six hours, during which they managed to capture a large cache of arms and ammunition, free 250 of their comrades from prison, and behead the province chief and his top aide in front of a big crowd. Since Kennedy took office, the number of armed and active communist “regulars” was thought to have risen from seven thousand to seventeen thousand. They now controlled a third of the country—and more than that after the sun went down.

Communist guerrillas, camouflaged with palm fronds, outflank an ARVN unit somewhere in the Mekong Delta or the Plain of Reeds.

An American gunner, weapon at the ready, escorts a helicopter filled with ARVN troops during a sweep in the Mekong Delta. Officially, advisers were only to fire when fired upon, but “when you see a man aim a gun at you and start to pull the trigger,” one American asked, “what kind of damn fool would you be to let him shoot first?”

Pressure grew in Washington for a greater commitment to South Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs told the president that unless he agreed to send in American troops, the country would soon go under—and with it “Laos and ultimately South Asia.” Some 23,000 troops should be sent right away “to arrest and hopefully to reverse the deteriorating situation in Vietnam.” Kennedy put off the decision and dispatched Walt Rostow and General Maxwell Taylor, the president’s military representative, to Saigon to see how they thought South Vietnam might be salvaged.

The MACV patch: The sword thrusting up through the gap in a crenellated wall—an allusion to the Great Wall of China—was meant to symbolize American military might blocking communist infiltration and aggression in Vietnam.

Taylor, who had commanded the 101st Airborne during World War II and the Eighth U.S. Army in Korea, was an early champion of flexible response and the soldier the president most admired. “The question was how to change a losing game and begin to win,” Taylor recalled, “not how to call it off.”

When Taylor and Rostow returned, they proposed that the relationship between Washington and Saigon be changed from “advice to limited partnership.” In exchange for promises from Diem that he would move his regime “closer to the Vietnamese people,” the United States should provide him with helicopters, light aircraft, and armored personnel carriers—APCs—along with “radical increases” in the number of military advisers working with the ARVN and other security forces. The president’s emissaries also recommended that six thousand to eight thousand American troops be inserted into South Vietnam, ostensibly to provide flood relief, but actually to be available to advise ARVN combat forces—and to fight back if attacked.

Defense Secretary McNamara agreed with Taylor and Rostow that their report should be fully implemented. But Secretary of State Rusk thought such a small force was unlikely to alter the outcome in Vietnam and worried that Diem might prove in the end to be a “losing horse.” Assistant Secretary of State George Ball was more blunt. “Taylor is wrong,” he warned the president. “Within five years we’ll have three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again. That was the French experience.”

Kennedy was incredulous. “George,” he said, “you’re just crazier than hell! This decision doesn’t mean that. We’re not going to have three hundred thousand men in Asia.”

In the end, the president refused to send ground troops. It would be like taking a first drink, he told an aide; the effect would soon wear off and there would be demands for another and another. The war in Vietnam could only be won so long as it was their war, he said. If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, the United States would lose, as the French had lost eight years earlier.

But Kennedy followed most of General Taylor’s other recommendations. He doubled the funds for Vietnam and tripled the number of advisers. By the end of 1962, there would be more than nine thousand of them in South Vietnam, empowered not only to teach the ARVN to fight but to accompany its men into battle; by the end of the following year there would be sixteen thousand Americans working with the South Vietnamese forces. Among them were Army Special Forces personnel—authorized to wear distinctive green berets as evidence of the president’s special favor and expert in unconventional warfare—who were tasked with training elite South Vietnamese Rangers and turning indigenous hill peoples who occupied the central highlands into reliable anticommunist forces.

To coordinate it all, Kennedy established the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—MACV—and placed in command General Paul Harkins, who had served under Maxwell Taylor in Korea.

Kennedy dispatched helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, river patrol boats, tanks and armored cars and APCs. He also authorized the use of napalm; defoliants to clear foliage and deny cover to the communists along canals, rivers, roads, rail lines, and around military bases; and herbicides to destroy the crops that fed the enemy. A whole array of chemicals would be used, including one named for the color of the stripes on the fifty-five-gallon drums in which it came—“Agent Orange.” The chemicals used did not “permanently sterilize the soil,” an American reporter assured readers back home. “The climate and rainfall in Vietnam are such that trees and plants grow back rapidly, so that no permanent damage will be done by this operation.”

The military program was given a gaudy name, Operation Beefup, but the administration did its best to hide from Congress and the American people the scale of the buildup that was taking place on the other side of the world, fearful that the public would not support the more active role American advisers had begun to play. The State Department barred the Saigon mission from providing the press with detailed information about the arrival of American personnel or equipment or to what purpose they were to be put once they were in country.

One December afternoon, Stanley Karnow, a Time correspondent, was having coffee with an Army press officer at the terrace café of the Hotel Majestic when an enormous American aircraft carrier came around a bend in the Saigon River and began steaming toward them, its deck crowded with forty-seven brand-new helicopters.

Karnow was astonished. “Look at that carrier!” he said.

“I don’t see nothing,” the Army man answered.

In February 1962, the State Department issued Cable 1006, an attempt to establish ground rules for American reporters covering the American effort. Correspondents were free to report on what Americans were doing, it said, but they should not be taken on “missions whose nature [is] such that undesirable dispatches would be highly probable.” “Frivolous, thoughtless criticism” of President Diem was also to be avoided, and public affairs officers were to make it clear that “it is not…in our interest to have stories indicating that Americans are leading or directing combat missions.”

At a White House press conference that same month, a reporter tried to find out more. “Mr. President,” he asked, “a Republican National Committee publication has said that you have been less than candid with the American people as to how deeply we are involved in Vietnam. Could you throw any more light on that?”

The president chose his words carefully: “We have increased our assistance to the government, its logistics. We have not sent combat troops there. Though the training missions that we have there have been instructed if they are fired upon to…of course, fire back, to protect themselves. But we have not sent combat troops in the generally understood sense of the word. So that I feel that we are being as frank as we can be.”

“The United States is now involved in an undeclared war in South Vietnam,” James Reston of The New York Times wrote on February 13. “This is well-known to the Russians, the Chinese Communists, and everyone else concerned except the American people.”


Pete Hunting at work on one of several windmills he built for the farmers of Ninh Tuan Province, 1964. The irrigation system he helped develop was still in use as late as 1996.

John Kennedy’s inaugural address was remembered both for the new president’s willingness to confront America’s adversaries abroad and for his faith in America’s ability to improve the lives of people living in the Third World.

To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the communist may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right….And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

That call struck a chord with young men and women all over the country; by 1963, ten thousand Peace Corps volunteers were at work in forty-six countries. Vietnam was not one of them. But there were other voluntary groups in country, including International Voluntary Services (IVS), which had been seeking to improve agriculture, education, and public health in South Vietnam since the early 1950s.

Pete Hunting, a twenty-two-year-old Wesleyan graduate from Oklahoma City, joined them in July 1963. Based at Phan Rang on the south-central coast, he learned Vietnamese and taught English, and tried to live and eat and sleep as much as possible as did the people he was trying to help. Moving from strategic hamlet to strategic hamlet, he dug wells and built a school, bred rabbits and pigs, and constructed a fish pond and a smokehouse—and a windmill, which he paid for out of his own pocket. Village children called him “the Tall American” and “Mr. Big Nose.”

Despite impatience with American bureaucracy and occasional close calls with the Viet Cong, he remained a resolute optimist. “There are no bombs dropping around me,” he assured his parents early on. “As a matter of fact, I think most of the trouble in Vietnam is concocted in the minds of the newspaper reporters. You never see them outside a bar as far as I know. The Vietnamese are doing well, but from the sounds of things from the states, you wouldn’t know it.” Twenty-eight months later, in November 1965, he was still writing, “This job grows on me.”

A few days later, driving on a back road, he was ambushed by a squad of Viet Cong. His jeep was riddled with bullets. He was pulled from behind the wheel and shot five times in the head—the first American civilian volunteer to be killed in Vietnam.

“Nobody could anticipate such a cruel thing would happen to such a nice man,” a young Vietnamese volunteer with whom Hunting had worked wrote to his mother and father. “This is not the first time an American died on this thankless land for the service of Vietnamese people, but it is just unbearable to us.” A fellow IVS volunteer who had been especially close to him wrote, too:

Your son came to help. He felt deeply the problems of the Vietnamese people….[I]deas were changed and new thoughts introduced by his long hours in and out of the classroom with the youth of this country; through his efforts clothes and food were distributed to refugees from the Viet Cong….Most important of all is the greater understanding Pete gave us all of the things he felt important…brotherhood, service to man, and the need for peace.

Hunting’s passport, marked “Deceased” by the U.S. consul


“IWAS A CHILD OF THE COLD WAR,” the journalist Neil Sheehan remembered. “When I got off the plane in Saigon on a humid evening in April of 1962, I really believed in all the ideology of the cold war. That if we lost South Vietnam then the rest of Southeast Asia would fall to the communists. There was an international communist conspiracy. The communist nations were one solid ‘Sino-Soviet Bloc.’ We believed fervently in this stuff.”

Sheehan was a twenty-five-year-old reporter for United Press International—UPI. Born on a dairy farm just outside Holyoke, Massachusetts, he had been a scholarship student at Mount Hermon and Harvard, and served three years in the Army in Korea and Japan before deciding to become a newspaperman. Vietnam was his first full-time overseas assignment. His only worry, he recalled, was that he would get there too late and miss out on the big story.

By the time Sheehan got to Vietnam, disaster seemed to have been averted, thanks in large part to American advisers, American training, and American weaponry. He and other reporters were sometimes allowed to ride along as the ARVN mounted helicopter assaults on enemy strongholds in the Mekong Delta and elsewhere. American pilots were at the controls. “It was a crusade and it was thrilling,” Sheehan recalled. “You’d climb aboard a helicopter with the Vietnamese soldiers who were being taken out to battle. And they’d contour-fly, they’d skim across the rice paddies about three or four feet above the paddies, and then pop up over the tree lines that lined the fields. It was absolutely thrilling. And you believed in what was happening. You had the sense that we’re fighting here and some day we’ll win, and this country will be a better country for our coming.”

U.S. helicopters and armored personnel carriers work together in deadly tandem, somewhere in the Mekong Delta.

General Tran Van Tra, responsible for recruiting and training NLF troops, remembered the initial impact helicopters had on his soldiers and their supporters. “Our troops did not…know how to deal with such weapons….The only thing…Liberation Army units could do was to disperse into small groups to escape, but while they fled across open fields they were frequently cut down by the enemy’s armed helicopters. An atmosphere of terror and confusion began to spread from our cadre down to our soldiers.” In order to evade being spotted from the air, another Viet Cong commander recalled, “every person,…every household, every soldier [and] guerrilla lit their fires to cook rice at 4 a.m. After finishing breakfast…before 5 a.m. everyone would climb into their bunkers and foxholes….Later, when the enemy began using helicopters with searchlights at night, our challenges became still greater.”

Things appeared to be going well for Saigon on the ground, as well. The new machine-gun-mounted M113 APCs were capable of churning across rivers and rice paddies and right through the earthen dikes that separated one field from the next. The communists had nothing with which to stop them.

U.S. Army Captain Gerald Kilburn (left) and a fellow adviser lead copter-borne South Vietnamese into a rice paddy in pursuit of fleeing enemy troops. “A number of our cadres and fighters became demoralized when they faced the enemy’s new…schemes,” one communist cadre remembered. “They were frightened by the enemy’s weapons and heli-borne tactics.”

“We were just overwhelming them with force, with firepower,” recalled Captain James Scanlon, an adviser to the Second Armored Regiment attached to the ARVN’s Seventh Division in the Mekong Delta. “The firefights would be over in a pretty short time. We were winning one after the other. And we were not meeting a heck of a lot of resistance.” By early 1963, ARVN forces would be undertaking fifteen hundred to two thousand operations a month.

Meanwhile, an extraordinarily ambitious plan was under way, directed by Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother Nhu, aimed at enlisting the rural population of South Vietnam in the fight against the communists—the Strategic Hamlet Program. People living in small scattered villages were to be concentrated within new hamlets, ringed by bamboo spikes and barbed wire and water-filled moats and further protected against Viet Cong incursions by blockhouses and self-defense squads. It was meant to be a “defense system in miniature,” Nhu said, and within these fortified communities, an economic and social revolution was meant to take place. The regime now reversed itself and encouraged residents to elect their own leaders; there were to be new schools and clinics, too, all meant to encourage self-sufficiency, a sense of community, and loyalty to the Saigon regime. The object was to realize “the ideals of the constitution on a local scale,” Diem said. “The hamlet is a state of mind.” By the end of that summer, one-third of the population of the country—more than four million people—was said to have been moved into new fortified hamlets, with some two thousand more under construction. (The plan envisioned a final total of more than eleven thousand.)

Hanoi was alarmed at the initial success of Operation Beefup and by the rapid spread of strategic hamlets that had begun to cut into communist recruitment and logistical support. Together, they caused “heavy attrition” and the loss of control of large numbers of people, according to an official report issued by COSVN. Communist commanders confessed that the revolution had virtually stalled because the “enemy pressed it by herding the people into strategic hamlets….[O]ur agents were annihilated in large number….Cadre encountered many difficulties….The force suffered losses….Pessimism spread in the ranks and among the people.”

Le Duan was sufficiently concerned to instruct the leaders of the struggle in the South to avoid assaulting cities for fear of sparking further intervention by the Americans, and Ho Chi Minh traveled to Beijing in search of further help. China had been equipping the fast-growing North Vietnamese army for a dozen years and had already provided Hanoi with 10,000 artillery pieces, 270,000 rifles, 2 million artillery shells, 200 million bullets, and more than a million Chinese-made uniforms. But when Ho told his Chinese hosts that American air or ground attacks on North Vietnam itself now seemed a real danger they agreed to equip 230 more battalions.

ARVN troops rip down a communist poster criticizing President Diem at Tam An, a communist-controlled hamlet just fifteen miles from Saigon, 1962.

The number of NLF assaults, terrorist attacks, and incidents of sabotage fell from 550 to 350 a month; the number of NLF defectors rose. In July 1962, General Harkins told Secretary McNamara he believed that once the ARVN and Civil Guard were fully trained and engaged in hunting down the communists, the enemy’s military potential could be eliminated within twelve months. McNamara ordered the Pentagon to prepare a plan for the “gradual scaling down” of U.S. assistance over the next three years. So far as most Americans knew, the United States was achieving its goal: a stable, independent, non-communist state in South Vietnam. It was “a struggle this country cannot shirk,” The New York Times said, and the United States seemed to be winning it.


Captain James Scanlon and his South Vietnamese counterpart, Captain Tinh, await the arrival of top brass at the Second Armored Regiment headquarters at My Tho.

Before Captain James Scanlon from St. Louis, Missouri, arrived in South Vietnam in early 1962, he had served three years on the border between East and West Germany and never forgot seeing the corpse of an East German, shot by border guards and left in the open to discourage others from trying to escape the communist regime. “Those of us who talked to the people who fled East Germany saw the need to stop the growth of communism,” he remembered, “to stop the dominoes from being tumbled. That was a worthy cause.”

Assigned as an adviser to an armored unit attached to the ARVN’s Seventh Division, he was initially optimistic about the prospects of destroying the Viet Cong. “We were cleaning a lot of clocks,” he remem-bered. But by the autumn of 1962, he noticed that his unit was being asked to undertake missions into areas where intelligence said there was no enemy. “We called them ‘walks in the sun,’ ” he remembered. “It was damn frustrating.”

He worried, too, that some ARVN seemed careless about civilian lives. “If they got word that an outpost was being attacked,” he recalled, “they’d call in artillery without any qualms whatsoever. It killed a whole lot of people that shouldn’t have been killed.” During Scanlon’s very first firefight his APC crew spotted two tiny figures in black running from the battlefield. The machine gunner opened up at more than seven hundred yards. “Waterspouts went up right behind them,” he remembered, “but they didn’t get hit and when we got up there, God, it was a couple in their seventies just trying to get out. That was a shock, you know. ‘Two people! Two people! Bam-bam!’ ”

By 1965, Scanlon would be back in the States at Fort Benning, Georgia, helping to train the First Cavalry Division, which was about to depart for Vietnam. A general asked him if he thought sending combat units to South Vietnam was a good idea. He didn’t, for two reasons: the war could bankrupt the country, he said, and Americans were simply not suited to the kind of war they’d need to fight. “I felt strongly,” he remembered, “the best way to fight a fighter aircraft is with another fighter aircraft, best way to fight a tank is with a tank, so the best way to fight a guerrilla is with a guerrilla. To win, I thought, we’d need to convert our army into a guerrilla army. American fathers and mothers would have to watch their sons fight in the jungle, living off fifteen hundred calories a day, dying from malaria. We’d never do it. We take our standard of living into battle with us.”


THE STRICTURES the State Department had tried to place on the press in Saigon only served to whet its appetite. Americans were risking their lives, reporters reasoned, therefore the American people had a right to know what they were up to. “It was terribly important that we not only win the war but that we as reporters report the truth that would help to win the war,” Neil Sheehan recalled.

It didn’t take him and his colleagues in Saigon long to understand that they were being allowed to glimpse only part of the picture. François Sully of Newsweek, Malcolm Browne and Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, and Homer Bigart and David Halberstam of The New York Times all quickly came to see that things looked very different from the Vietnamese countryside than they did from Saigon or Washington.

In March, for example, Sully had accompanied Operation Sunrise, a large heli-borne ARVN offensive into the Ben Cat region of Binh Duong Province, thirty-five miles north of Saigon. The mission’s stated goals were lofty—to sweep the area clean of communists and kick off the Strategic Hamlet Program, meant both to disrupt the enemy and to revolutionize rural life. Sully’s report was more down-to-earth.

Swooping down on a village in territory controlled by the NLF, Vietnamese soldiers ordered 205 bewildered farm families to pack up their belongings. Then the soldiers burned the villagers’ huts and marched the families off to a government “strategic hamlet” in the nearby valley of Ben Tuong. Some of the peasants went voluntarily, attracted by a government payment of $20, but many had to be forced. Others fled into the jungle to join the NLF.

Homer Bigart summarized the same operation with similar candor. By taking part, the United States had “assumed moral responsibility for a harsh and drastic military measure…certain in the initial stages to be bitterly resented by the peasantry, whose allegiance must be won.” Furthermore, by agreeing to provide more and more support for the Saigon government, Washington was “de-emphasizing the necessity for the reform of President Diem’s autocratic and often capricious regime.”

That kind of reporting irritated MACV and the State Department, because it suggested Americans were playing a larger role in South Vietnam than they were willing to admit. But it infuriated Diem. He controlled his own press and could not understand why the Americans couldn’t control theirs. He understood that “if you bring in the American dog, you must also accept the American fleas,” but stories like these were intolerable. And when Sully added insult to injury by describing Diem’s brother Nhu as “a vicious political in-fighter with an unquenchable thirst for power” and his sister-in-law as “the most detested personality in South Vietnam,” Diem ordered both Sully and Bigart out of the country. When the embassy’s defense of the exiled reporters struck other correspondents as tepid, it only deepened their suspicion of official sources.

General Paul D. Harkins, newly appointed MACV commander, inspects ARVN troops for the first time, 1962.

David Halberstam of The New York Times, Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, and Neil Sheehan of United Press International—three of General Harkins’s most persistent critics in the Saigon press corps. Harkins considered them irresponsible doom-sayers undercutting the war effort; Halberstam thought Harkins “a man of compelling mediocrity.”

Members of the press corps quickly came to understand that the Strategic Hamlet Program was not what it initially had seemed. Neil Sheehan remembered accompanying Robert McNamara to one of the first hamlets. “The Vietnamese general who commanded the area was telling McNamara what a wonderful thing this was. And some farmers were down digging a ditch around the hamlet. I looked at their faces and they were really angry”—so angry-looking that it seemed to Sheehan that if they could have, the farmers would have killed them.

Peasants resented being forced to abandon their homes, and resented still more being forced without compensation to build new and often inferior ones. One American adviser remembered overseeing the transfer of coastal fishermen and their families to a mountain hamlet sixty miles from the sea. Local officials made money selling to newcomers the barbed wire and corrugated iron roofing that was supposed to be theirs for free. Some hamlets were so hastily built that communist agents were included among those housed within them. In order to please Saigon and gain immediate access to aid funds, some province chiefs doctored their reports, claiming hamlets were fully functioning when they had barely been begun. Of the 3,353 hamlets listed as “completed” in November 1962, only 600 were actually fitted out with all the things Saigon had promised to deliver. Hamlet residents blamed Saigon when NLF fighters attacked them, or when the promised arms with which they were supposed to defend themselves failed to arrive, or when the Civil Guards were slow to answer calls for help.

On his way back to Washington after his very first visit to Vietnam—it had lasted just forty-eight hours—Secretary McNamara assured a reporter that “every kind of quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” “Quantitative measurements” were central to Robert McNamara’s way of doing business. He had vowed to make America’s military “cost-effective” and insisted that everything be quantified. A member of his Pentagon staff was once asked how many decisions his boss had made the previous month. “Six hundred and seventy-eight,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. Someone had the job of keeping track. But decisions based on statistics were only as good as the sources that provided them. “Ah, les statistiques!” a South Vietnamese general was said to have told an American visitor in 1963. “Your secretary of defense loves statistics. We Vietnamese can give him all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down.”

General Harkins had little use for such cynicism. “I am an optimist,” he had declared as soon as he reached Vietnam, “and I am not going to allow my staff to be pessimistic.” Donald Gregg, a CIA official visiting Saigon, remembered Harkins telling him, “Mr. Gregg, I don’t care what you hear from anybody else. I can tell you without a doubt we’re going to be out of here with a military victory in six months.”

Bad news was to be buried. The general insisted that the relentlessly upbeat status reports he sent to Washington be called “Headway Reports.” They were filled with daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly data on more than a hundred separate indicators—the number of troops trained and equipped, bales of barbed wire and bags of fertilizer distributed, strategic hamlets completed, communists killed, and areas allegedly cleared of the enemy—far more data than could ever be adequately analyzed.

A stolen chicken dangles from the backpack of a South Vietnamese soldier. One U.S. adviser remembered that some ARVN units, poorly paid and uncertain of their food supply, “thought nothing of stealing chickens and fruit from the villagers or trampling their rice fields even while their officers were assuring [the same villagers] of their good will.”

American jets drop napalm on communist positions, 1963. Napalm was an effective weapon—a single 120-gallon aluminum tank could engulf in flame an area 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, and its use saved untold numbers of American and ARVN lives—but it also killed or disfigured countless Vietnamese civilians. A total of 30,357 tons of U.S. napalm bombs were dropped on Indochina between 1963 and 1973.

Strategic hamlets: TOP A farmer resists being forced to leave his home and move to a strategic hamlet. MIDDLE Hamlet residents fashion a wall of sharpened bamboo, meant to ward off communist attacks. BOTTOM Hidden hamlet defenders successfully repel an assault.

A good many American advisers failed to share Harkins’s relentless optimism. Backed by new weaponry, ARVN forces had done better after Operation Beefup, but their achievements, one senior adviser wrote, still had to be “measured against an armed force that was poorly organized, poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly led.” And as time went by, in some sectors at least, the Americans began to detect a growing reluctance to move against the enemy.

“Yesterday, I dropped a whole bunch of [ARVN] troops into a field,” one American helicopter pilot reported. “Today I went back to the same field with another load and…that first group was still there in the field, tents up and cooking lunch. They hadn’t moved a damn inch.”

“Here we’d been killing quite a few and capturing a lot of weapons,” James Scanlon remembered. “Then all of a sudden we’re going out on operations and there was no enemy there. Why were we going where there was no enemy?” And why, American advisers began to ask, when they did find the enemy, did some ARVN officers now seem so hesitant about making contact with them? “God,” Scanlon recalled. “I was told so many times, ‘Dại úy, Scanlon, dại úy’—very dangerous going out there. It was like we were having to force our help on them.”

When the advisers’ concerns were not taken as seriously as they thought they should have been at headquarters, some began to make their feelings known off the record to the press. “They believed, just as we did,” Neil Sheehan recalled, “that we had to win this war to avoid losing Southeast Asia. One of the reasons they turned to us is because General Harkins wouldn’t listen to these people. They’d hand in After-Action reports that realistically described what was happening and Harkins would just ignore them. We thought the senior officers were, like him, lying to us.”

There were legitimate reasons for the apparent unwillingness of some ARVN commanders to engage the enemy. With American firepower now just a radio call away, it was safer simply to call in airstrikes and artillery and blast the enemy from a distance than to risk closing with him on the ground. Then, too, ambitious officers wanted to move as quickly as possible from the battlefield to an exalted staff job, a climb up the promotional ladder that a costly battle might fatally interrupt.

But much of the problem could be traced to the presidential palace. Americans believed the primary task of the South Vietnamese army was to save the country from communism. Ngo Dinh Diem wanted that too, but his first concern was always to keep himself in power. His anxiety was understandable. He’d survived two attempted coups by disaffected officers. A communist assassin with a machine gun had narrowly missed him. So had bombs and napalm, dropped on the presidential palace by two South Vietnamese pilots who’d hoped to start an uprising.

To guard against a repetition of such attacks he alone decided which field grade and general officers should be promoted and where they were posted. Commanders who drew too great attention to themselves were sidelined for fear they might become rivals. It was a system calculated to reward unswerving loyalty, which had the effect of discouraging initiative and aggression on the battlefield.

Behind the scenes, Harkins did press Diem to make changes. He told him again and again that “the only way to win is to attack, attack, attack,” and urged him to regularize and respect the chain of command and to mount more relatively small operations instead of the massive multi-battalion noisy sweeps, favored by his generals, that rarely encountered the enemy. He also admonished him to consolidate the hundreds of isolated outposts scattered throughout the country which were often captured by the enemy—so often and so complete with their caches of modern weapons that the Americans called them “Viet Cong PXs.” But in military matters, as in much else, Diem was immovable. He was winning his war, he was sure of it, and didn’t want to hear of anything but “one long series of victories.” Nor did he wish ever to be seen as doing the Americans’ bidding.

When the largest helicopter assault to date—a day-long operation involving fifty-six aircraft—resulted only in the deaths of seventeen water buffalo, Neil Sheehan’s story included the fact that the mission had been coordinated by MACV under the command of General Harkins. A military flack called to complain: “Uncle Paul doesn’t want his name used. We’re only here as advisers.” Sheehan was livid. “Tell ‘Uncle Paul’ that he’s in charge of the American Military Command here, that he’s the man who released those helicopters, that those are American helicopters flown by American pilots, and that his name goes in my stories.”


A career soldier, Colonel John H. Cushman was working in the Pentagon in 1963 when he volunteered to serve in South Vietnam. He was eventually made senior adviser to the ARVN’s Twenty-first Division, responsible for pacifying the four southernmost provinces, a Viet Minh refuge since the beginning of the war with France.

He was told in Saigon that strategic hamlets were “the name of the game,” but quickly learned that, in his area at least, they were little more than “a typical exercise in paperwork and fake progress.” He had a map drawn up in three colors. Blue denoted government-controlled areas in which officials could move about freely, village chiefs could sleep safely in their beds unmolested, and the Viet Cong were not openly collecting taxes. Areas that contained no hint of Saigon control, except when ARVN troops happened to be passing through, were red. Contested areas were yellow. When completed, the map showed that only 6 percent was blue, mostly in and around provincial capitals and district towns. Forty percent was red. All the rest was yellow.

In October, Cushman had what he called “an epiphany” when he accompanied an ARVN battalion as it visited a hamlet in a red area. “I went into a small schoolhouse [and] noticed that its books had been printed in Hanoi. I went into a village office [and saw] tax receipts and population rosters. I thought to myself, ‘These people are living under a Viet Cong government, complete with its own tax collectors, its own village chief, district chief and province chief.’ They were contesting for the same people that my government was contesting for. And they were winning. Now why were they winning? Because they had organization and ideology and doctrine.”

Cushman considered newspapermen potential allies, not enemies. “We had a group of young reporters who were getting out in the countryside, talking to American advisers, trying to understand the situation,” he remembered. “They were trained to look hard at things. Unfortunately, the top-level people looked on reporters as problems, whereas they really should have co-opted them and said, ‘Tell us more about the problems you’re finding because we’re going to try to correct them.’ ” He remembered once having coffee with David Halberstam at an air base on the Ca Mau Peninsula, which juts out into the China Sea. It had been a Viet Minh stronghold during the French war and remained a stronghold of the Viet Cong. Halberstam had called it “the southernmost province of North Vietnam” that day, and Cushman had thought to himself, “This guy’s got a good picture of things.”

Colonel John H. Cushman at the mouth of a cave that had hidden enemy soldiers, Ca Mau Province, 1963


EACH OF SOUTH VIETNAM’S forty-four provinces had its own chief. A good many were simply political allies of President Diem, interested mostly in lining their own pockets and largely ineffective in combating the communist shadow governments flourishing among their people.

Lieutenant Colonel Tran Ngoc Chau was different. A privileged judge’s son from Hue, he and two of his brothers had fought with the Viet Minh against the French. But he had refused to join the Communist Party, left the Viet Minh, became a major in the army fighting against them, and eventually so impressed Diem with his insider’s knowledge of communist tactics that he was promoted and made chief of Kien Hoa (now Ben Tre), a province in the Mekong Delta that had been a Viet Minh bastion during the war with the French. When he arrived, only 80,000 of its 600,000 people were thought to be under Saigon’s control.

Lieutenant Colonel Chau meets with the people of Kien Hoa Province. As province chief, Chau remembered, he inaugurated weekly public “open door” sessions during which people could meet him face to face. “Initially, few people came [because] they feared some kind of reprisal if they aired their grievances in such a public fashion.” Soon, so many complainants came that he had to devote two days a week to them.

Chau went to work. The trouble with the Saigonese who were trying to run the county, he believed, was that they were “Vietnamese foreigners” with no real understanding of the countryside. Rather than simply wage war on the communists, he sought to understand what drove people to support them. Against the advice of anxious subordinates, he insisted on driving through his province in order to see conditions for himself. Snipers fired at him. Three Civil Guards escorting him were killed by a land mine. He kept at it, holding twice-weekly meetings to hear farmers’ grievances and then seeing what he could do to allay them. Whenever possible, he replaced political appointees from elsewhere with qualified local people. Corrupt or abusive officials were removed or arrested.

“Chau was absolutely incorruptible,” Rufus Phillips, director of rural affairs in the U.S. Operations Mission, remembered. “And people came to really understand that here’s a guy who, even though he hasn’t been elected, really represents us.”

He trained specialized teams, tasked with gathering intelligence and providing help with digging wells and building bridges, constructing clinics and schools. Most important, he introduced an “open arms” policy, which provided NLF defectors and their families with financial help and exemption from the draft. “I didn’t want to kill anyone,” he remembered. “I wanted to convert them. When I located a real Viet Cong family, I tried to win them over and, through them, also to win over the family member who had left. Only after those steps failed did I order my teams to capture or kill them.”

Chau served twice as province chief of Kien Hoa. During that time, the CIA estimated, some twenty thousand NLF fighters fled the province.


Dr. Phan Quang Dan

“I can say President Diem was a patriot. I can say he was a nationalist,” Phan Quang Tue recalled. “But I can never say he was a democrat. No, Diem was simply the opposite of what democracy was.”

Tue and his younger brother, Tuan, learned that firsthand as the sons of a gifted sometime politician named Dr. Phan Quang Dan.

Trained as a clinician, Dan organized relief workers during the great famine of 1945, but refused to join Ho Chi Minh’s government because he distrusted communism. He served as an adviser to Emperor Bao Dai, but left him when it became clear he was merely doing France’s bidding and formed his own anti-colonial party in Paris. During the French war, he studied public health at Harvard and traveled widely overseas, campaigning for full Vietnamese independence.

On Dan’s return to Vietnam in 1955, Diem offered him a post in his new government. He turned it down. He was already wary of Diem—whom he considered an “adventurer”—and Diem saw in him a potential rival. Security police were soon following him everywhere. When, during the very first parliamentary elections in 1959, Dan overwhelmingly defeated a government candidate for a seat in the National Assembly, Diem had his victory declared invalid. When Dan took to the radio during the failed 1960 paratroopers’ coup—calling for an end to nepotism and better treatment of the peasantry—Diem had him arrested.

“That was the last time I saw my father for three years,” Tue recalled. “We were left alone in our home. A mob of Diem supporters forced their way in, seized all the furniture, then set the house on fire. There was a police station right across the street but no one intervened. Diem was not able to eliminate my father physically, because he was an international figure, so he tried to destroy him and attack his integrity and his character.”

Dan was thrown into a windowless six-by-four-and-a-half-foot dungeon cell below the Saigon zoo, where he was water boarded and subjected to repeated electric shocks. He was eventually made to endure a staged trial for treason and then sent to the notorious Con Son Island. “After the dungeon it was luxury,” he remembered. “I was able to see the sunlight and hear sounds other than the cries of people tortured.”

Phan Quang Tue and Phan Quang Tuan on their way to school in Saigon


IN OCTOBER 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came closer than they would ever come again to mutually assured destruction. The Soviets had secretly placed nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, a little over ninety miles from the United States. The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President Kennedy to bomb the missile sites. He resisted and instead ordered a naval quarantine to stop Soviet ships from resupplying the island. For thirteen excruciating days, the world held its breath. Finally, in exchange for a private pledge to remove American missiles from Turkey, Khrushchev agreed to remove his missiles from Cuba. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union ever wanted so direct a confrontation again. From then on, limited wars, like the growing conflict in Vietnam, would assume still greater importance.

Just three days after the crisis eased, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield arrived in Saigon, part of a fact-finding trip the president had asked him to undertake. Like Kennedy, Mansfield had been one of Diem’s early champions; unlike the president, he knew a good deal of Asian history, having studied and taught it before going into politics.

He met with Diem and with American officials. They assured him things were going well. But he also spent five hours with Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and other reporters, who warned that while the number of enemy dead had risen, so had the number of communists; that Diem was an obstacle to progress; that the relentless optimism of official American spokesmen was misleading the American public. Afterward, when an embassy official handed Mansfield a statement at the airport congratulating the Diem government for making “progress toward victory,” he refused to read it to the press.

Back home again, Mansfield reported to the president that success seemed no closer than it had been when he’d last visited Saigon, seven years earlier. “We are once again at the beginning of the beginning,” he said. His old friend Diem seemed now to be faltering—“very withdrawn, very secluded…gradually being cut off from reality”—while power was steadily shifting into the hands of his shadowy, recalcitrant brother, Nhu. Mansfield urged that the whole question of America’s interest in the region be reexamined: “We may well discover that it is in our interests to do less rather than more than we are now doing. If that is the case we would do well to concentrate on a vigorous diplomacy…designed to lighten our commitments without bringing about sudden and catastrophic upheavals in Southeast Asia.”

The president was irritated by Mansfield’s implied criticism of administration policy—and convinced that the autumn of the Cuban Missile Crisis was no time for the United States to consider changing course in Southeast Asia—but he did begin to think for the first time that the survival of the Diem regime and the survival of South Vietnam itself might not necessarily be inseparable. Mansfield’s report was, U.S. Ambassador Nolting would remember, “the first nail in Diem’s coffin.”


NO AMERICAN SOLDIER in South Vietnam had stronger opinions about the way the war was being waged—or was more willing to share them with eager young reporters—than Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann. “We reporters admired Vann greatly,” David Halberstam wrote, “not because he gave us scoops—there are no scoops in a rice paddy—but because he cared so desperately about Vietnam…and because whenever we were with him we had a sense that a very real war was being fought.”

Vann was volatile, impatient, and paternalistic toward the Vietnamese, much as the French had been. “These people may be the world’s greatest lovers,” he told one reporter, “but they’re not the world’s greatest fighters.” Still, he said, they were “good people, and they can win the war if someone shows them how.”

Vann never doubted that he was that someone. He disapproved of many of the tactics the Americans were teaching the South Vietnamese. “By giving the ARVN too much gear—airplanes and helicopters—we may be helping them to pick up bad habits instead of teaching them to spend more time in the swamps than the enemy,” he said. He thought the heedlessness with which artillery and airpower were being routinely called in was counterproductive. Innocent men, women, and children were being killed and wounded—and their grieving friends and family were being recruited by the communists—because ARVN officers were uneasy with ground combat. “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing,” he argued. “The best weapon…would be a knife….The worst is the airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle—you know who you’re killing.”

As senior adviser to the ARVN’s Seventh Division in the northern Mekong Delta for nine months, Vann saw firsthand the impact of palace politics on the war against the Viet Cong. The commander of the division was Colonel Huynh Van Cao, just thiry-four but a personal favorite of President Diem, whom he called “my king.” Largely untested in combat when Vann joined him, he nonetheless fully expected soon to be promoted to general and had already written a semi-autobiographical novel called He Grows Under Fire. Combining shrewd military advice with shameless flattery, Vann tried to see that Cao did just that. During the spring and summer of 1962, the Seventh Division outperformed its rivals, killing the enemy at night as well as during the day.

Combatants at Ap Bac: Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann and General Huynh Van Cao, commander of the ARVN’s Seventh Division;

Then, during a helicopter assault on October 5, a company of elite rangers under Cao’s command was ambushed. Thirteen men were killed, thirty-four more wounded. Cao was summoned to the presidential palace. If he wished to be promoted to general and given command of a corps, Diem told him, he needed to be far more prudent. Cao took the admonition to heart. Vann was cut out of military planning, and over the next ten weeks Cao mounted fourteen operations that lost just three men, all thought to have been killed by friendly fire.

On December 22, Cao received the promotion for which he’d hoped. He was now a general, commanding the Fourth Corps and responsible for the whole of the Mekong Delta. Vann cautioned General Harkins that while he had worked hard to build up “Cao’s military leader image” over the past few months, the newly appointed general had not “yet developed a real aggressive attitude on his own.” There was not much either he or Harkins could do.

Captain James Scanlon and Captain Ly Tong Ba sharing the top of an armored personnel carrier

Vann continued to serve as senior adviser to the Seventh Division and its new commander, Colonel Bui Dinh Dam. A few days after Christmas 1962, the division got orders to capture an NLF radio transmitter broadcasting from a spot some forty miles southwest of Saigon in a hamlet called Tan Thoi, on the edge of the vast empty wetland called the Plain of Reeds. The hamlet was surrounded by rice paddies that were crisscrossed with canals. An irrigation dike with coconut and banana trees growing thickly on both embankments linked it to a neighboring hamlet called Bac. (The battle that was about to unfold there would be remembered as “Ap Bac,” because the newspaperman who covered it added the prefix Ap, which means hamlet.)

Intelligence suggested that no more than 120 guerrillas were guarding the transmitter. ARVN officers and American advisers worked together to draw up a plan of attack. On the morning of January 2, 1963, some twelve hundred South Vietnamese troops, supported by helicopters and armored personnel carriers, were to attack the village from the south, north, and west. When the communists tried to flee through the eastern gap left open for them—as they almost always had whenever outnumbered and confronted by modern weaponry—artillery and airstrikes would annihilate them.

Planners called it Operation Duc Thang 1—Operation Victory 1. But from the first, everything seemed to go wrong. The intelligence proved faulty. There were more than 340 NLF fighters, not 120, in the area: a company of the 514th Provincial Battalion at Tan Thoi; a company of the veteran 261st Regional Battalion at Ap Bac; and a band of local part-time guerrillas, women as well as men from both hamlets, eager to help repel the ARVN and their American advisers.

Platoon leader Le Cong Huan, a twenty-four-year-old regroupee who had arrived from the North after a five-month trek just two days earlier, was among the NLF at Ap Bac. (Like most southern revolutionaries, he fought under a nom de guerre; his real name was Le Cong Son.) “We knew the enemy was planning a big sweep,” he remembered, “and we recognized that we needed to find a way to stand and fight. We chose this spot and brought in additional troops—one company from the province and one from the region. This was the first time we tried a joint operation. We had just two days to get ready.”

Twenty-two-year-old Truong Thi Nghe, born and raised in Bac, was happy to help. She remembered the brutality with which first the French and then the Diem regime had dealt with the people of her village, had acted as a messenger for the Viet Minh while still a small girl, and was now the political officer for the local part-time guerrillas. “We did not know there was going to be a battle until the afternoon before,” she remembered. “We saw our troops coming in to prepare, and their commander said they were going to fight here.” At his orders, Nghe helped boil rice and wrap it in banana leaves to keep up the men’s strength during the fighting. She and her comrades also helped dig shoulder-deep trenches and foxholes beneath the trees that lined the dike and overlooked the surrounding paddies. Behind the prepared positions ran a waterway connecting the two hamlets that would permit the communists to replenish their ammunition and ferry wounded men to safety by sampan.

At six thirty in the morning on January 2, John Paul Vann took off in a two-seater spotter plane so he could radio information about the fighting to Colonel Dam, the division commander, at his command post several miles away. (ARVN commanders rarely visited the battlefield, a tradition established by the French that the Americans were initially unable to change; no ARVN officer above the rank of captain would take part in the day’s fighting.) Vann had been promised thirty helicopters with which to carry in three companies of infantry, but at the last moment twenty of them had been snatched away for another operation. The men would have to be brought in in stages.

Five minutes after Vann’s plane left the ground, ten U.S. helicopters ferried the first ARVN rifle company to a spot just north of Tan Thoi, where it was meant to block the communists from escaping into the swamps. The men met no resistance, but would have to wait almost two and a half hours before the thick morning fog burned away and the other two companies could be brought in to join them on the northern edge of the battlefield.

A map of the Battle of Ap Bac, based on one prepared afterward by Colonel Vann. “X” marks the spot where the Viet Cong radio transmitter—the initial target of the ARVN attack—was presumed to be. Communist guerrillas, dug in beneath the trees, withstood the ARVN assault from three sides and at day’s end were allowed to escape to the east.

Meanwhile, to the south, two ARVN Civil Guard battalions approached Ap Bac on foot. Le Cong Huan and his company were waiting for them. “We told our soldiers not to shoot until the troops were very close,” he recalled. “We had a saying, ‘One enemy, one bullet.’ ” The communist commander let the lead company of the Civil Guards get within one hundred feet before giving the order to fire. Several Guards were killed, including the company commander and his lieutenant. Survivors staggered back behind a dike and stayed huddled there all day, only occasionally exchanging fire with the hidden enemy. One of them recalled afterward that while the captain who took command of their unit had been a brave soldier, “it was clear to me that he was not going to risk his career on clearing out the Viet Cong….He just did not know what to expect from his commanders.”

Colonel Dam asked Colonel Vann to fly over the battlefield and pick a landing zone so that reinforcements could be helicoptered in right away. Vann swept low over the enemy positions, concealed from him by the trees, and picked an area far enough west of the fortified dike at Ap Bac to be safely beyond the effective range of communist weaponry.

But, for reasons never fully explained, when ten H-21 cargo helicopters—known to the Americans as “Flying Bananas” and to the Viet Cong as “Angle Worms” and “Flying Phoenixes”—filled with ARVN troops and escorted by five helicopter gunships, clattered in, the American pilots put down much closer than planned. “The tree line seemed to explode with machine gun fire,” a pilot remembered. “It was hell.” Machine gun bullets hit fourteen of the fifteen aircraft. One was damaged so badly it couldn’t take off again. A second—sent to rescue the crew of the first—was immobilized. A gunship returned to pick up both downed crews, and was hit and flipped over. One of its pilots died on the spot. A fourth gunship went down nearby. A member of its crew was wounded. Before noon, a fifth helicopter would be shot down elsewhere on the battlefield.

When the communists saw that helicopters could be damaged and destroyed, they cheered. “Come on, brothers, look, we are winning!” one man shouted. He and his comrades now concentrated their fire on the ARVN troops struggling to get out of the downed helicopters. “When those poor Vietnamese came out of the choppers,” an American crewman remembered, “it was like shooting ducks for the Viet Cong.” Nearly half of the 102 men the helicopters had brought in were killed or wounded. The survivors took what shelter they could behind the wreckage or hunkered down in the muddy water behind the earthen dikes that divided one paddy from the next and waited for rescue.

“I didn’t want to die for these rotten people using these tactics,” one ARVN soldier remembered. “What did this have to do with the needs of people in my village? I was ashamed and disgusted…so, yes, I hid my head and fired my weapon at random.”

Vann called for an airstrike. Two AD-6 Skyraider fighter bombers streaked in and hit Tan Thoi and Ap Bac with bombs and napalm. They missed the communists, concealed beneath the trees, but hit both hamlets and set them ablaze. “It was a tough situation for us,” Le Cong Huan remembered, “the enemy in front of us, the fires behind.” Ba Nghe agreed: “Many of the boats we had built were destroyed. We had evacuated the old people and the children, but many people stayed to support the soldiers. We had very few bunkers to go into. Many were killed. But our commander said retreat was not an option. I was a political officer and a girl, not a soldier. But when I saw how brave our soldiers were, I became a soldier too, and lost an eye.”

The heat from the napalm was so intense that the ARVN soldiers, crouching in the rice paddy, found breathing painful. Some rose to cheer, nonetheless, sure that no Viet Cong could have survived the onslaught from the air; once again, American-supplied weaponry had come to their rescue. A moment later, enemy gunfire sent them burrowing back down into the mud.

Meanwhile, Vann circled helplessly overhead, appalled and angry. He radioed Dam and persuaded him to order the Fourth Mechanized Rifle Squadron of the ARVN Second Armored Cavalry Regiment—thirteen M113 amphibious armored personnel carriers filled with troops—to race to the rescue of the men trapped in the helicopter landing zone, just a mile and a quarter to the east. He then radioed Captain James Scanlon to get the squadron to which he was attached moving.

Like Vann, Scanlon was only an adviser. His ARVN counterpart, Captain Ly Tong Ba, would have to give the order. Scanlon liked and admired him. “He was just one solid individual,” he remembered. “A real tiger. He’d fought with the French, he’d fought all his life, essentially. I turned to Ba and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get over there right away.’ And Ba said to me, ‘I’m not going. They should send the infantry.’ ”

Scanlon was astonished. Overhead, John Vann was apoplectic.

Vann radioed Colonel Dam again. He again agreed that Ba should move.

Ba still balked. He reminded Scanlon that he didn’t “take orders from Americans,” and claimed there was no way his ten-ton personnel carriers could cross the three canals between them and the wrecked helicopters in time to save anyone. Fording a high-banked canal was a slow and arduous process: branches and brush had to be cut and spread on the far side to help the first massive vehicle gain traction; once across, the first carrier had to tow the second.

It was not the terrain that made Ba hesitant; it was the needlessly complicated chain of command Diem had created. While Colonel Dam commanded the Seventh Division he was not in charge of the entire battlefield. Major Lam Quang Tho, the province chief with close ties to the Ngo family, commanded the Civil Guards stalled south of Ap Bac and the armored units in which Ba served. Colonel Dam’s order therefore meant little to him. He was wary of going into battle without consulting Tho, and he couldn’t raise him on the radio. If he moved without his permission and things went badly, he knew he would have to answer to Tho and, possibly, to the presidential palace itself.

Scanlon and another American adviser took two APCs and showed Ba that the crossing was possible. Trying to motivate him, they accused him of cowardice. He finally gave in and agreed to move, but it would take almost three hours for his crews to get the first pair of carriers across the three canals, long enough for the shooting in the landing zone to have died down.

As they worked, Vann radioed both ARVN commanders to get their men mobilized in the north and south to move forward and flank the Viet Cong positions. Both refused.

Meanwhile, the carriers rumbled through the paddies toward the trapped men. “Everything was quiet,” Scanlon remembered. “You could see the open expanse of rice fields. To our right, a regional Vietnamese infantry battalion had their cook fires going. They were eating lunch. And my reaction was, ‘Hey it was all over.’ We got right up to about a hundred yards of the downed helicopters and those people laying there, maybe even closer.”

Two of the five helicopters shot down by guerrilla gunfire at Ap Bac. The wreckage in the foreground is a UH-1 or “Huey” gunship; beyond it is what was left of an H-21 Shawnee that carried ARVN troops to the battlefield.

“All we have left to do now,” he thought, “is to police up those chopper crews and the wounded.” The first two carriers dropped their ramps. Infantry squads stepped out and took up positions in formation around them, weapons at their waists, ready to spray the tree line with automatic fire as they advanced toward it.

Always before, the spectacle of the massive APCs rumbling across the paddies toward them, firing their machine guns as they came, had been enough to make the communists scurry away. This time would be different. Beneath the trees, the company cadre moved from position to position exhorting his men, “It is better to die at one’s post.”

“They were prepared,” Scanlon remembered, “just like we teach at the infantry school at Fort Benning. They had little white pieces of tape on the bushes indicating the span their machine guns would cover. They had done their homework.” From their hideouts beneath the trees, the Viet Cong opened fire, “and boy we got raked left and right. It was like a pool table. And we were on the green and they were in the pockets shooting at us.” It was quickly clear that it would be suicidal for the infantrymen to advance further in the open. They were ordered to clamber back aboard the APCs.

Two by two, eight of the carriers came under fire. Five more crossed the last canal—and stopped, their crews unwilling to face what they saw happening to the rest of their squadron.

“The APCs had always been dangerous to us,” Le Cong Huan remembered. “But at Ap Bac we disabled them.” A periscope allowed APC drivers to control their vehicles from within, but the heads and shoulders of the gunners, seated behind their .50-caliber machine guns, were fully exposed. Weeks earlier, Captain Ba had appealed to his ARVN superiors and to the Americans to have his APCs fitted with steel shields that would have offered the gunners at least some protection from enemy fire. They had never been installed. Eight gunners were killed. Less experienced men aboard the APCs tried to take over for them, but, as Scanlon recalled, “after the third guy came down with a bullet through the head it was darn difficult to get the fourth guy up there.”

The APC in which Captain Ba and Scanlon’s deputy, Captain Robert Mays, were riding tried again and again to destroy an enemy position on the right side of the enemy line from which especially damaging machine gun fire was coming. There were two men in it. They shot one man’s head off. But the other kept shooting. “The carrier drove right up and fired down on him,” Scanlon remembered. “At one point he threw a grenade up on top of the carrier and the guys ducked inside just before it went off. I would have awarded that guy a Distinguished Service Cross. He was one brave son-of-a-gun. And he hung in to the end.”

The dense tree line within which the NLF fighters made their successful stand

During the firefight, one of the three machine guns Le Cong Huan’s men were manning jammed. When he left his foxhole to see if he could get it going again, an ARVN machine gun bullet hit him in the left leg. Guerrillas from Ap Bac helped him to a waiting sampan and poled him away from the fighting.

The battle went on. An APC armed with a flamethrower drove within range of the enemy troops, prepared to burn them from their positions—only to have the flamethrower fail to fire. “It figures,” said a rescued helicopter crewman. “Everything else went wrong, so what the hell.”

Ba managed to assemble eight carriers for what he hoped would be a final coordinated frontal assault, but they failed to stay in line, allowing the enemy to concentrate its fire on whichever carrier was closest at the moment.

When the first APCs came within sixty-five feet of the tree line, three guerrillas leaped down from their foxholes and hurled hand grenades. None did real damage, but the drivers were so demoralized by then that they halted, turned around, and withdrew behind the wrecked helicopters. Nothing had been accomplished.

Vann believed the battle could still be won: from his spotter plane, he called for a simultaneous assault on the enemy by all the remaining ground forces, north, south, and west. And he asked that paratroopers be dropped east of Tan Thoi to destroy the communists as they tried to escape.

General Cao denied Vann’s request. “It is not prudent,” he said.

Vann exploded. “You’re afraid to fight.”

“I am the commanding general and it is my decision,” Cao answered.

There would be no coordinated ground assault. Instead, just before dark three hundred paratroopers were to be dropped west of the villages, not east of them, a relatively harmless show of force that allowed the enemy a safe escape route and seems to have been meant simply to avoid further bloodshed. But pilot error caused many of these men to land among the enemy: fifty-two of them were hit before night fell, many shot from the sky as they hung helplessly beneath their chutes.

“The shooting finally stopped at dusk,” Scanlon recalled. “But there were just one hell of a lot of guys that were…dead and wounded. They couldn’t bring in any evacuation helicopters after dark, so all night long you, you heard the moans of the dying.”

By the next morning, the enemy had melted away, carrying all but three of their dead with them to their base camp somewhere hidden in the Plain of Reeds. No one knows for certain how many of them were killed or wounded, but eighty South Vietnamese soldiers had been killed, as had three Americans. “We filled the armored personnel carriers with bodies,” Scanlon said, “and stacked them up on top till we couldn’t stack any more.”

General Harkins never visited the battlefield, but he did fly to the ARVN command post, where David Halberstam and Peter Arnett caught up with him. What did he think of the battle? “We’ve got them in a trap,” Harkins said, “and we’re going to spring it in half an hour.” Cao had evidently told him that the communists somehow still occupied their foxholes and that he was about to move against them.

At about that time, Neil Sheehan was walking through what was left of Ap Bac with Brigadier General Robert York, the only American commander who went to the battlefield to see for himself what had happened. “Well, General, what do you think happened?” Sheehan asked. “What the hell’s it look like?” York answered. “They got away, didn’t they?”

Moments later, howitzer shells rained down in and around the hamlet. “General Cao had decided to fake an attack on Bac now that the Viet Cong were gone,” Sheehan remembered. “He wanted the palace to think that he was doing something to recoup…and instructed Major Tho to fire a barrage to soften up the enemy for ‘the assault.’ ” Thanks to faulty map reading by the lieutenant in charge of the artillery, four of his own men were blown apart. The Viet Cong had been gone for hours.

John Paul Vann took Sheehan and David Halberstam aside and told them Ap Bac had been “a miserable goddamn performance.” “The ARVN won’t listen,” he said, “they make the same mistakes over and over again in the same way.”

A North Vietnamese wall poster inspired by the Viet Cong victory exhorts passersby to “Emulate Ap Bac and Kill the Enemy. Destroy the Strategic Hamlets! Wipe Out Helicopters!”

Privately, Harkins admitted to his superior, Admiral Harry D. Felt, the U.S. commander in the Pacific, that ARVN commanders had passed up an opportunity to destroy an enemy Main Force unit. But in public, he declared victory. “The ARVN forces had an objective,” he said. “[We] took that objective, the VC left and their casualties were greater than those of the government forces—what more do you want?” Reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, who had been focusing on the ARVN’s shortcomings, were “doing a disservice to thousands of gallant and courageous men who are fighting so well in defense of their country.” Admiral Felt backed Harkins and urged the reporters to “get on the team.”

They did not. The headlines on their stories startled American newspaper readers: “VIET DEFEAT SHOCKS U.S. AIDES; U.S. ADVISERS FIND TENDENCY TO LET REDS ESCAPE; DEFEAT WORST SINCE BUILD-UP BEGAN.” “We had been writing stories about all the flaws on the Saigon side—about how they wouldn’t fight, about the corruption, they wouldn’t obey orders, the disorganization,” Sheehan recalled. “But we were doing it piecemeal. And then all of a sudden the Viet Cong, for the first time—the ‘raggedy-ass little bastards,’ as Harkins’s people in Saigon called them—stood and fought and suddenly all the flaws on the Saigon side were illuminated like a star shell fired by artillery at night. It illuminated the battlefield. Everything came out.”

The communists who had won the battle were exultant. “Every one of the cadres and soldiers were high-spirited,” one volunteer remembered. “They looked happy and lively. They liked to sing and no one seemed to be homesick. They also felt very superior to the ARVN…and felt that they could defeat them even at ten-to-one odds.”

Hanoi was exultant too. The Battle of Ap Bac was seen by Le Duan and his politburo allies as proof that even when faced with American advisers and weaponry the communists could stand and fight, inflict heavy casualties on Saigon’s forces—and get away again. The memory of their victory would inspire NLF and North Vietnamese soldiers for years to come.

In Saigon, despite everything, Diem remained convinced the ARVN were winning, not losing. Ap Bac had only been a momentary setback. And he continued to resent Americans telling him how to fight his battles or run his country.

A few weeks later, Michael V. Forrestal, a member of the senior staff of the National Security Council, wrote the president a brutally frank summary of the situation in South Vietnam as he saw it. “No one really knows how many of the 20,000 ‘Vietcong’ killed last year were only innocent, or at least persuadable, villagers, whether the Strategic Hamlet Program is providing enough govt. services to counteract the sacrifices it requires, or how the mute mass of villagers react to the charges against Diem of dictatorship and nepotism.”

On April 24, the CIA reported that Diem was about to ask that the number of American advisers be greatly reduced. “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam,” President Kennedy privately told a friend that evening. “These people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at almost any point. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the people to reelect me.”


THAT SPRING, South Vietnam plunged into a new kind of civil strife. It had little to do with the communists. Religion and nationalism were at its heart.

On May 4, Catholics in Hue festooned the city with white-and-gold Vatican banners in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the elevation of Diem’s older brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, to the rank of bishop. In doing so, they defied a presidential edict that had forbidden such displays unless the banners were displayed beneath a larger flag of South Vietnam. Two days later, Diem’s office issued a proclamation banning the flying of all religious flags throughout the country. He found their use “disorderly,” he claimed, but his real goal was to keep them from becoming symbols of resistance to his regime.

Hue was a center of Buddhist worship and May 8 was Wesak Day, the annual celebration of the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment, when thousands of devotees traditionally paraded through the streets with their own multicolored banners. To many Buddhists, Diem’s issuing of his decree on the eve of their important holiday seemed a calculated insult.

Tension between Catholics and Buddhists was not new. Many Buddhists identified Catholicism with France and foreignness, and saw the Ngo brothers’ doctrine of “personalism” as equally alien. (Communism, too, was seen as foreign and therefore unsuited to Vietnam.) For decades, Buddhist reformers had been calling for a great revival of their faith, which, they claimed, was the essence of the Vietnamese identity. “The truth,” one monk wrote, “is that Vietnamese Buddhism is a national religion.” Diem had made some concessions to Buddhists—they served in his cabinet and among his top commanders—but below that level his regime blatantly favored Catholics. “My family was very Buddhist, especially my mother,” Duong Van Mai recalled, “and they thought that the power and the perks that went with power usually went to the Catholics. Buddhists were shoved aside, treated like second-class citizens.”

The president’s brother, Thuc, now the archbishop of Hue, was a source of special Buddhist resentment; arrogant, ostentatious, and unyielding, he was keen on conversions and aggressively scornful of anyone not belonging to his flock.

And so, on Wesak Day, thousands of Buddhists defied Diem’s ban, marching beneath banners that urged the people to oppose the government’s “policy of injustice and cruelty.” That evening, a large throng gathered around the Hue radio station, hoping to hear a monk’s taped sermon that declared Buddhist aspirations “legitimate and constructive.” The station’s director refused to broadcast it. The crowd grew angry. Someone hauled down the flag of South Vietnam and ran up the banner of international Buddhism.

A contingent of soldiers backed by policemen tried to disperse the crowd with a fire hose. The protestors stood their ground. An ARVN major ordered his men forward. A concussion grenade exploded. The soldiers opened fire. Eight protestors were killed. Six were girls. The youngest was twelve; the oldest was twenty.

The State Department cabled the Saigon embassy: “At your discretion, suggest you urge [the government of South Vietnam to] take no repressive measures against Buddhists, offer sympathy and funeral expenses.”

Diem blamed the communists for masterminding everything that had happened in Hue and thought Buddhist complaints wildly exaggerated. But when monks drew up a series of demands and laid them at the president’s door—repeal of the flag ban, compensation for the victims, an end to discrimination, recognition of Buddhism as a religion rather than an “association,” and the right to proselytize—Diem agreed at least to meet with them. But he refused to rescind his order and repeated his charge that communists were behind everything. Archbishop Thuc supported his brother’s firm stand. “Mass movements are straw fires,” he said. “They flare up quickly but they are extinguished in an instant.”

The Buddhist fire had not been extinguished. Eminent monks called upon Buddhists to unite, “step onto the martyr’s path and…defend the [eternal truth of Buddhism] in orderly, peaceful and non-violent fashion.” Thousands attended memorial services for the Hue victims. Four hundred monks and nuns blocked traffic in Saigon and then underwent a forty-eight-hour fast. In Hue again, ARVN troops broke up a massive Buddhist procession with attack dogs, truncheons, and tear gas.

Diem and the Buddhist leaders continued to talk. Hoping to calm things, the president sacked two local officials and ordered the arrest of the major whose men had fired into the crowd. He also broadcast a message that admitted “errors” had been made. On June 6, a joint communiqué suggested a peace agreement was imminent.

Madame Nhu immediately undid everything her brother-in-law had accomplished. Through her own organization, the Women’s Solidarity Movement, she accused the monks of lying and contesting “the legitimate precedence of the national flag,” criticized the government for having been too lenient, and demanded the instant expulsion of “foreign agitators, whether they wear monk’s robes or not.”

Washington demanded that Diem repudiate her statement. He refused.

Now convinced that Diem had never bargained in good faith, Buddhist leaders resolved to increase their pressure.

On June 10, Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press and several other foreign newsmen received anonymous tips: “something important” was going to happen the next day at a major Saigon intersection. Browne decided to attend and brought his camera with him.

He fell in with a procession of some 350 chanting yellow-robed monks and gray-robed nuns as it moved toward the intersection. When the procession reached it, a seventy-three-year-old monk named Thich Quang Duc made his way to the center of the street and assumed the lotus posture. Two younger monks poured gasoline over him. Another handed him a packet of matches. He struck one, dropped it into his lap—and exploded in flame.

“A wail of horror rose from the monks and nuns, many of whom prostrated themselves in the direction of the flames,” Browne reported.

From time to time, a light breeze pulled the flames away from Quang Duc’s face. His eyes were closed, but his features were twisted in apparent pain. He remained upright, his hands folded in his lap for nearly ten minutes as the flesh burned from his head and body. The reek of gasoline smoke and burning flesh hung over the intersection like a pall.

Finally Quang Duc fell backward, his blackened legs kicking convulsively for a minute or so. Then he was still, and the flames gradually subsided.

A monk with a bullhorn repeated over and over again in English and Vietnamese: “A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.”

In Washington early the next morning, Attorney General Robert Kennedy called the White House. His brother, the president, was still in bed. The attorney general wanted to talk to him about the growing crisis at the University of Alabama, where, at noon, Governor George Wallace was planning to defy a federal court order and block the enrollment of two African American students. As his brother spoke, the president’s eye fell upon the morning newspapers on his bedside table. Malcolm Browne’s photograph of the burning monk was splashed across the front pages of several of them. “Jesus Christ!” he said.

Much of the world reacted the same way. For many people, the head of the United States Information Agency in Saigon recalled, that one shocking photograph became the “symbol of the state of things in Vietnam.” Fresh outbursts by Madame Nhu only made things worse: the sight of burning monks made her clap her hands, she said; if more monks wanted to barbecue themselves, she would provide the matches.

Monks assured the faithful that Quang Duc’s heart had been untouched by the flames. They placed it in a glass reliquary at the Xa Loi pagoda, the Saigon headquarters of the Buddhist movement. “Lines of people came to pass by,” Neil Sheehan remembered, “and I saw these women, not rich women, ordinary Vietnamese women, take off the one piece of gold they had on, their wedding ring, and drop it in a bottle to contribute to the struggle. And I thought to myself, this regime is over. It’s the end.”

Dean Rusk fired off a cable to the deputy chief of mission in Saigon: “If Diem does not take prompt and effective steps to re-establish Buddhist confidence in him we will have to re-examine our entire relationship with his regime….He must fully and unequivocally meet Buddhist demands…in a public and dramatic fashion.”

On June 16, Diem and Buddhist negotiators issued a joint communiqué meant to defuse the situation: the ban on religious flags would be eased, it said, and the Hue incident would be fully investigated.

It was too late. More monks set themselves alight over the next few weeks—five of them, in different cities and towns. Day after day, demonstrators took to the streets, their ranks steadily growing as students, intellectuals, disaffected Catholics, and other urban critics of the regime aligned themselves with the Buddhist cause. “People feared the Diem regime,” Duong Van Mai remembered, “but perhaps more than that they hated it.”

Diem hardened his position. Demonstrators were beaten, hauled away, tortured. By mid-July, the CIA reported at least three separate military plots to overthrow Diem under way in Saigon. Diem and Nhu learned of them too, and shrewdly managed to turn the generals against one another.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy administration debated whether the United States could possibly succeed in Vietnam if Diem and Nhu remained in power.

The White House announced that a new American ambassador was being sent to Saigon. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. belonged to an old and influential New England family. He’d been a Massachusetts senator, Dwight Eisenhower’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Richard Nixon’s running mate, and was a man eminent enough, the president hoped, to make Diem pay greater heed to American demands for reform. Diem professed to be unimpressed. “They can send ten Lodges,” he said, “but I will not permit myself or my country to be humiliated. Not if they train their artillery on the Palace.”

Buddhists protesting against the Diem regime clash with riot police in Saigon, July 17, 1963. More than fifty demonstrators were injured.

Eight years earlier, Diem and Nhu had taken a great risk: against Washington’s express wishes, they’d gone to war against the crime syndicate that then controlled Saigon, annihilated it after three bloody days of fighting, and been rewarded for their defiance by increased American backing. The brothers now believed they could do something like that again. Diem promised outgoing American ambassador Frederick Nolting that he would take no further repressive steps against the Buddhists. “The policy of utmost reconciliation is irreversible,” he assured the New York Herald Tribune.

Then, a few minutes after midnight on August 21—with Nolting gone and Henry Cabot Lodge’s arrival still one day away—Nhu first saw to it that the phone lines of all the senior American officials in Saigon were cut and then sent hundreds of his American-trained white-helmeted Special Forces storming into pagodas in Saigon, Hue, and other cities. More than fourteen hundred monks and nuns, students and ordinary citizens, were rounded up and taken away. Martial law was imposed, public meetings were forbidden, and troops were authorized to shoot anyone found on the streets after nine o’clock.

When college students protested, Diem closed Vietnam’s two universities. Scores of students were arrested, including Phan Quang Tue, the son of the imprisoned opposition figure Phan Quang Dan. “I am a Catholic,” Tue remembered, “not a very good Catholic. But I was a choirboy. I didn’t join that movement because of Buddhism only. I strongly believed that the government was a dictatorship. We couldn’t stand it anymore. This was an opportunity to rise against it. I was interrogated and briefly tortured, beaten a little bit. It was clear to them that I was against the government. I never denied that.”

High school students then poured into the streets. Diem shut down the high schools and the grammar schools, too—and arrested thousands of schoolchildren, including the sons and daughters of officials in his own government. American civilians thought to be sympathetic to the Buddhists were shadowed, wiretapped, threatened. American reporters trying to cover the demonstrations were beaten up.

Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife, Tran Le Xuan, better known as “Madame Nhu”

Diem’s foreign minister resigned in protest, shaved his head, declared he intended to become a monk—and was arrested. Nhu’s own father-in-law, the Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, resigned his post in protest at what members of his extended family were doing. Nhu warned him never to return to Vietnam; if he did, he said, he would have him hanged in public, and Madame Nhu would personally fashion her father’s noose.


Bill Zimmerman

“I first became aware of Vietnam because of a burning monk,” Bill Zimmerman remembered. Zimmerman was a Chicagoan, a senior at the University of Chicago in June 1963, who had recently returned from spring break, working for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greenwood, Mississippi.

“We had watched the civil rights movement in the South and it had set the standard for us,” he recalled, “to stand up against injustice, allow yourself to be beaten up, allow yourself to be attacked by a dog or hit by a police truncheon—we had enormous respect for people who were willing to go that far. And then one day we saw on television a picture of a burning monk in Saigon. This was an extraordinary act.”

Like a good many Americans, he had paid little attention to Vietnam until that moment. “No one had ever seen anything like that. I asked myself what we were doing in Vietnam and how conditions had become so intolerable that this monk and others who soon followed felt justified in burning themselves to death.” Those questions continued to disturb him. Within two years, he recalled, ending the war in Vietnam became his “constant preoccupation.”


FOR THOSE within the Kennedy administration most eager to replace Diem, the pagoda raids were the last straw. The president and his top advisers all happened to be out of town on Saturday August 24, when Roger Hilsman Jr., assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs and a longtime critic of the Diem regime, took it upon himself to draft a cable to Ambassador Lodge. The U.S. government could no longer tolerate a situation in which “power lies in Nhu’s hands,” it said. Diem should be given a chance to rid himself of his brother-in-law and his closest allies. But if he remained “obdurate,” Lodge was to tell “key military leaders” that “we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved,” and, further, that the United States stood ready to offer “direct support in any interim period of breakdown [of the] central government mechanism.”

The president was vacationing at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Vietnam had not been uppermost in his mind that summer. He’d been horrified by the picture of the burning monk, but he’d also been preoccupied by the continuing civil rights crisis, a proposed tax cut, a trip to Europe, and winning congressional approval for a test ban treaty with the Soviets. Vietnam had been largely left to subordinates. When Assistant Secretary of State George Ball read part of the cable to him over the phone, Kennedy asked, “Can’t we wait until Monday when everybody is back?” Ball thought not. It was an urgent matter. Kennedy eventually agreed to sign off on the cable, provided his senior advisers concurred. And since he had already indicated that he would do so, most of them or their deputies went along. The cable was sent.

When the president returned to the White House on Monday he found some of the officials who had not been personally consulted furious. Robert McNamara, Maxwell Taylor, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and John McCone, the head of the CIA, all vehemently opposed replacing Diem; none of them especially admired him, but they did not believe there was any viable alternative. Former ambassador Nolting agreed; no one had “the guts, the sang-froid, the drive” that Diem had displayed since coming to power. Nhu was a liability, he agreed, but there should be no coup until Washington had tried harder to convince Diem that his brother and his sister-in-law had to go.

“My God, my government’s coming apart,” Kennedy said, but he was angry, too. He thought the way the cable had been authorized was badly handled. “This shit has got to stop!” he said. But he did not rescind it.

In Saigon, Lodge was already persuaded that regime change was necessary. One by one, he had invited the American reporters who’d been covering South Vietnam to lunch at the embassy. “We were told that we were not to question the ambassador,” Neil Sheehan recalled. “The ambassador wanted to question us. We believed—and so did the miltary advisers—that if we stuck with the Diem regime we were going to lose. But if Diem was replaced by a decent military junta there was a chance we could win the war. At the end of the lunch I asked him, ‘Mr. Ambassador, how do yousee things?’ He said, ‘Pretty much the way you do.’ ”

A small group of ARVN officers had quietly contacted the new ambassador. Nhu was now largely in command of the South Vietnamese government, they said, and was thought secretly to be discussing a separate North-South agreement that would force the Americans to withdraw and lose their anticommunist foothold in Southeast Asia. They were willing to move against the Ngo brothers, provided the United States would not attempt to stop them.

“We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government,” Lodge cabled the White House. Therefore, he argued, “we should…make an all-out effort to get the Generals to move promptly” because they “doubt that we have the will power, courage and determination to see this thing through.”

The president agreed, but, remembering the disaster at the Bay of Pigs, reserved the right to call things off at the last minute, and insisted on keeping his options open as long as he could. “When we go, we must go to win,” he answered, “but it will be better to change our minds than fail.”

Through a CIA operative, Lodge informed the plotters that Washington favored a coup but would take no active part in it. He was assured the generals would move within a week. But in the end, unsure of one another’s loyalties, fearful of Nhu’s power, and perhaps sensing Washington’s continuing ambivalence, the generals backed off.

Two days after the coup collapsed was September 2, Labor Day, and Walter Cronkite of CBS News interviewed President Kennedy at Hyannis Port. The president used the occasion to deliver a message to President Diem. Change was necessary. The Nhus had to go.

WALTER CRONKITE: Mr. President, the only hot war we’ve got running at the moment is, of course, the one in Vietnam, and we’ve got our difficulties there, quite obviously.

JOHN KENNEDY: I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam.

   We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don’t think the war can be won unless the people support the effort, and in my opinion, in the last two months, the government has gotten out of touch with the people.

   The repressions against the Buddhists, we felt, were very unwise. Now all we can do is to make it very clear that we don’t think this is the way to win. It is my hope that this will become increasingly obvious to the government, that they will take steps to bring back popular support for this very essential struggle.

CRONKITE: Do you think this government still has time to regain the support of the people?

KENNEDY: I do. With changes in policy and perhaps with personnel I think it can. If it doesn’t make those changes, I would think that the chances of winning it would not be very good.

CRONKITE: Hasn’t every indication from Saigon been that President Diem has no intention of changing his pattern?

KENNEDY: If he doesn’t change it, of course, that’s his decision. He has been there ten years and, as I say, he has carried this burden when he has been counted out on a number of occasions. Our best judgment is that he can’t be successful in this basis….But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. That’d be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed….We’re in a very desperate struggle against the communist system. And I don’t want Asia to pass into the control of the Chinese.

Diem and Nhu seem to have gotten at least part of the message. As concessions to Kennedy, their elder brother, Archbishop Thuc, left the country to attend a meeting at the Vatican. Madame Nhu left too, but not before denouncing American advisers as “little soldiers of fortune.” Nhu himself, however, was going nowhere.

Kennedy and his advisers remained sharply divided. Some continued to argue that without fresh leadership South Vietnam could not survive. Others were equally certain that eliminating Diem and Nhu would lead only to disaster. The most basic facts seemed to be in question. At one meeting, the president asked two officials newly returned from Vietnam for their impressions. Marine Major General Victor Krulak assured him the war in the countryside was going well. “Our purpose is to win,” he said; changing the government would only complicate that task. Joseph Mendenhall, a veteran State Department official, strongly disagreed: the war was being lost. “A pervasive atmosphere of hate and fear” gripped Saigon—hate and fear of Nhu, not the Viet Cong. The same was true in Hue and Danang. Victory was impossible so long as Nhu still wielded power.

The president shook his head. “You both went to the same country?”

The Ngo brothers had three times defied the odds and escaped disaster—against generals who’d hoped to topple them in 1954, against the Binh Xuyen the following year, and against coup plotters in 1960. Now they had persuaded themselves that the prospects for another triumph were bright. They had crushed the Buddhists and outmaneuvered the generals, after all. They had convinced themselves that the strategic hamlets were making revolutionary changes in the lives of the rural poor, and that they had the communists on the run. (Madame Nhu would later claim Saigon was just “two fingers from victory.”) It was only a matter of time before Hanoi capitulated. In the meantime, while the Americans were always intrusive and often trying, the brothers did not believe they would dare withdraw their backing.

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and President Ngo Dinh Diem meet for the first time at the Gia Long palace, September 1, 1963. Lodge saw no need for frequent meetings. “The chances of Diem’s meeting our demands are virtually nil,” he said.

This time, they guessed wrong. On October 2, Lodge learned that a new coup was in the works. A large number of officers were involved, including several who would eventually play important parts in South Vietnamese history, including Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu, who had joined Nhu’s Can Lao Party and converted to Catholicism as he climbed up the military ladder; Nguyen Cao Ky, the transport wing commander of the fledgling South Vietnamese air force; General Nguyen Khanh, veteran of combat in the Central Highlands; and the ringleader, General Duong Van Minh—known as “Fatty” to his fellow officers because he was beefy and outwardly genial, and “Big Minh” to the Americans because, at six feet, he towered over most of his countrymen.

Lodge reported to Kennedy Minh’s cold-eyed assessment of the current situation:

The Viet Cong are steadily gaining in strength; have more of the population on their side than has the [Saigon government];…arrests are continuing and…the prisons are full;…more and more students are going over to the Viet Cong;…there is graft and corruption in the administration; and…the “heart of the Army” is not in the war.

The president was again not sure what he wanted to do. He sent McNamara and General Taylor back to Saigon for yet another fact-finding trip. The war had made “great progress and continues to make progress,” they reported. They still opposed a coup, but in order to gain leverage with Diem—and to reassure domestic critics already concerned that there were no limits to the American commitment—they urged Kennedy to publicize General Harkins’s earlier prediction that fully trained and fully equipped South Vietnamese forces would defeat the communists by 1965, and to also let it be known that the first one thousand Americans would be withdrawn over the next three months. Kennedy followed that suggestion, but he did not oppose a coup.

Lodge told the White House that the plotters needed to know how Washington would react before they would move against Diem and Nhu. He asked for permission to reassure them.

On October 9, in an “eyes only” cable, he got it: “While we do not wish to stimulate [a] coup, we also do not wish to leave [the] impression that [the] U.S. would thwart a change of government or deny economic and military assistance to a new regime if it appeared capable of increasing [the] effectiveness of the [South Vietnamese] military effort.” Lodge relayed the information to the generals.

Rumors of what seemed about to happen continued to sweep Saigon and were reported so often by David Halberstam in The New York Times that Kennedy himself tried to persuade his publisher to have the reporter transferred out of Saigon.

On the morning of November 1, Lodge called on Diem for the last time. “Please tell President Kennedy that I am a good and frank ally,” Diem said, “[and] that I take all his suggestions very seriously and wish to carry them out, but it is a question of timing.”

It was too late. ARVN troops loyal to the plotters were already seizing key installations in Saigon. They surrounded the palace and demanded the president’s immediate surrender. Diem and Nhu slipped out a side door and eventually found sanctuary in a church in the Chinese district of Cholon. They agreed to surrender only on the promise of safe passage out of the country. Rebel troops picked them up in an APC—and murdered them not long after they climbed inside.

In Saigon, cheering crowds pulled down statues of Diem and garlanded ARVN troops with flowers. Thousands of Diem’s political prisoners were released from the fifty prisons in which they had been held, including both Dr. Phan Quang Dan—the pro-democracy politician who had endured three years of brutal treatment for supporting the 1960 coup against Diem—and his eldest son, Phan Quang Tue, who had recently been jailed for taking part in the Buddhist uprising. “Everyone was really bursting with happiness,” Tue remembered. “You could feel the excitement in the air.”

Duong Van Mai remembered how pleased she had been by the coup. Diem had had to go. “He was making it impossible to win the war because the people were so against him. But my father worried because we didn’t know who would replace him.”

“Every Vietnamese has a grin on his face today,” Lodge reported. “The prospects are [now] for a shorter war,” he said, “provided the Generals stay together. Certainly officers and soldiers who can pull off an operation like this should be able to do very well on the battlefield if their hearts are in it.”

President Kennedy was not so sure. He was appalled that Diem and Nhu had been killed. Three days later, he dictated his own rueful account of the coup and his concerns for the future.

Monday, November 4, 1963. Over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place. It culminated three months of conversation which divided the government here and in Saigon….I feel that we [at the White House] must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of…August in which we suggested the coup. In my judgment that wire was badly drafted. It should never have been sent on a Saturday. I should not have given consent to it without a roundtable conference at which McNamara and Taylor could have presented their views. While we did redress that in later wires, that first wire encouraged Lodge along a course to which he was in any case inclined. I was shocked by the deaths of Diem and Nhu. I’d met Diem…many years ago. He was an extraordinary character. While he became increasingly difficult in the last months, nevertheless over a ten-year period, he’d held his country together, maintained its independence under very adverse conditions. The way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent. The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government or whether…public opinion in Saigon—the intellectuals, students, etc.—will turn on this government as repressive and undemocratic in the not too distant future.

A jubilant South Vietnamese Marine celebrates inside the Presidential Palace grounds after the coup.

Saigon citizens turn out to cheer the ARVN troops who had toppled Diem.

Kennedy would not live to get the answer to the question he had posed. He was murdered in Dallas eighteen days later. There were now sixteen thousand American advisers in South Vietnam. Their fate and the fate of that embattled country rested with a new American president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In this rare, battered image, communist guerrillas celebrate having seized the Tan Thanh Tay strategic hamlet, some forty miles northwest of Saigon on the night of November 2, 1963—the same night Nhu and Diem were killed.



IT’S A QUESTION asked in any discussion of the American buildup in Vietnam in the first half of the 1960s: What would John F. Kennedy have done had he lived? The timing of his death in November 1963—mere days after a U.S.-backed coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and not long before the crucial escalation decisions of late 1964–early 1965—guaranteed that the speculation would be rife, as did the fact that he died suddenly, by an assassin’s bullet, leaving only scant hints about his future plans for the struggle. On top of that, there’s his administration’s ambiguous and complex record on Vietnam, which seemingly gives support to two opposing positions: one that a surviving Kennedy, when faced with the ultimate choice, most likely would have stood firm in the war and expanded American military involvement in more or less the same way his successor Lyndon B. Johnson did; the other that he would have avoided such a course and instead gotten the United States out, come what may.

Although historians who write about the Kennedy record in Vietnam invariably consider what might have occurred had he returned from Dallas alive, they often do so hastily and with evident reluctance. No doubt this reticence stems at least in part from the widespread belief among professional historians that such “counterfactual” or “what if” questions are superfluous to true scholarship and the equivalent of parlor games. When carefully done, however, consideration of that which never happened can enhance historical understanding of what did. For that matter, all historians, whenever they make causal judgments, are engaging in speculation, are envisioning alternative outcomes, even when these alternatives are not stated explicitly. As such, thinking about unrealized possibilities is an indispensable part of the historian’s craft, conveying the variable dimensions of past situations and the presence of contingency. In the current case, it can help us better understand not merely what Kennedy might have done in Southeast Asia but what Lyndon Johnson did do. If it’s a parlor game, it’s also much more than that.

What’s more, the Kennedy-in-Vietnam counterfactual is especially favorable for fruitful exploration because of the massive available documentary record for the period before and after his assassination; because of the short period of time between Kennedy’s murder and the moment of truth in U.S. decisionmaking; and because of the minimal number of likely changes in other principal variables. The following core assumptions seem reasonable: that a surviving JFK would have kept his senior advisory team (which became Johnson’s) more or less intact, at least through the 1964 presidential election; that he likely would have faced Republican senator Barry Goldwater in that election as LBJ did, and would have beaten him; that, like Johnson, he would have sought to keep Vietnam on the back burner until voting day; that the situation in South Vietnam would have deteriorated at roughly the same rate as under his successor; and that, therefore, crunch time for him likely would have come at about the same time as for Johnson, as 1964 turned into 1965.

How would Kennedy have responded when the difficult decision came, when he could temporize no longer, could no longer just maintain the status quo? Here we must look in the first instance to the historical record, to what Kennedy actually said and did on Indochina during his time in public office. And what we confront immediately is a paradox: the same JFK who for a dozen years prior to his death expressed doubts about the capacity of Western military power to overcome revolutionary nationalism in the developing world, and who periodically questioned the importance of the Indochina conflict to American security, in 1961–63 oversaw a major increase in the U.S. military commitment to South Vietnam.

Already in the fall of 1951, when as a thirty-four-year-old congressman he visited Indochina during the midst of the First Indochina War, Kennedy saw through the French expressions of bravado and optimism and asked hard questions about whether France—or, by extension, any Western power—could ever thwart Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary cause. In his trip diary and in a speech to a Boston audience after his return, he lamented that the United States had attached herself to the “desperate effort” of the French to hang on to their colonial hold in Southeast Asia, an effort almost certain to fail. To act “apart from and in defiance of innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure,” JFK told the Boston gathering, adding that a free election would in all likelihood go to Ho and the communists.

In the spring of 1954, with the French war effort collapsing, now Senator Kennedy supported a proposed international effort to try to save the Western position in Indochina (through a concept called “United Action”), but at the same time feared where such a policy would lead the nation. “To pour money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and destructive,” he declared. For that matter, would the United States ever be able to make much difference in that part of the world? “No amount of American military assistance can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.” No satisfactory result was possible, Kennedy concluded, unless Paris accorded Indochina full and complete independence; without it, sufficient indigenous support would remain forever out of reach.

Later in the decade, as he began eyeing a White House run, Kennedy moved closer to cold war orthodoxy. He now spoke less of “nationalistic aims” and the French analogy and more of falling dominoes and the urgent need to thwart communist aggression. But the skepticism did not go away; it was always there, just beneath the surface. Sometimes he expressed it openly, as in 1957, when he went well beyond official U.S. policy in supporting Algeria in her war of independence against France. “The most powerful single force in the world today,” he declared in a Senate speech on the North African crisis that summer, “is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missile—it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent.” Washington must respond effectively to this hunger, he went on, which meant urging French leaders to pursue negotiations leading to Algerian independence.

In early 1961 Kennedy, now president, deflected the urgings by his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower that he intervene militarily in Laos (“the key to the entire area of Southeast Asia,” Ike insisted), where the anticommunist position had eroded significantly over the previous two years and where the North Vietnam–supported Pathet Lao now seemed on the cusp of victory. Some senior Kennedy aides likewise advocated using major military power in Laos, but he demurred, opting instead to pursue a diplomatic settlement.

That fall, JFK resisted aides’ calls for committing U.S. ground forces to Vietnam to counter recent Viet Cong gains. General Maxwell Taylor, his most important military aide, remarked at a meeting among other principals on November 6 that the president was “instinctively against introduction of U.S. forces,” a point noted as well by General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at another session a few days later. In a November 15 meeting of the National Security Council, JFK expressed a desire to keep the American commitment limited. Whereas Korea in 1950 was a case of clear aggression, he remarked, the situation in Vietnam was “more obscure and less flagrant.” One could even “make a rather strong case against intervening in an area 10,000 miles away against 16,000 guerrillas with a native army of 200,000, where millions have been spent for years with no success.”

The reference to Korea points to something important about Kennedy: more than most politicians of his generation, he had a sense of the vagaries of history, of its inscrutability. Increasingly as time wore on, he showed an appreciation for the limits of American power, no matter how great it might be in relative terms, and he occasionally expressed doubts about the ability of using military means to solve world problems that were at root political in nature. More clearly than many, he saw that colonialism is often in the eye of the beholder, and that for a great many Vietnamese there might not be much of a difference between the two big Western powers—first France, now the United States—coming in and telling them how to run their affairs, with guns at the ready. The French had crashed and burned, and Kennedy worried that his country could be next. “If [Vietnam] were ever converted into a white man’s war,” he told an aide early in his presidency, America would lose just as France had lost.

And yet. As president this same John F. Kennedy, though still harboring doubts, oversaw a major expansion of American involvement in Vietnam. Even as he steadfastly rejected the urgings to commit combat troops, he affirmed the importance of defeating the Viet Cong insurgency by upping substantially his country’s contribution to the war effort. In 1962, vast quantities of the best American weapons, aircraft, and armored personnel carriers arrived in South Vietnam, along with thousands of additional U.S. military advisers. That year a full field command bearing the acronym MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) superseded MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) with a three-star general, Paul D. Harkins, in command. A secret American war was under way. Ostensibly, Americans were serving purely as advisers and never engaging the Viet Cong except in self-defense; in reality, their involvement extended further—in the air and on the ground.

The reality was plain to see. “The United States is involved in a war in Vietnam,” Homer Bigart, the venerable military correspondent of The New York Times, wrote in a front-page article in February 1962. “American troops will stay until victory.” Bigart noted the “passionate and inflexible” U.S. support for South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and speculated that Washington “seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war.” He quoted Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who on a visit to Saigon that month vowed that the administration would stand by Diem “until we win.” By the end of 1962, American military advisers in Vietnam numbered over eleven thousand, and by the time of JFK’s assassination in Dallas, almost sixteen thousand.

Did Kennedy become more encouraged about the war in 1962 and 1963, more confident that it could be won with the new measures? Hardly. If anything, he grew increasingly wary during his final year of life, hinting to aides in the final months that he wanted to withdraw from Vietnam following his reelection in 1964.

A few authors as well as filmmaker Oliver Stone have gone further and claimed that Kennedy did more than just talk about getting out—they argue that he had quietly commenced a full withdrawal at the time of his murder. As evidence, they cite his continual refusal to commit American ground troops to the war, despite the urgings of top advisers; the October 1963 declaration that one thousand U.S. military advisers would be withdrawn by the end of the year; the release that month of National Security action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, which they argue shows a far-reaching policy initiative to draw down America’s commitment to Saigon, a policy then allegedly reversed in NSAM 273, the first such document issued under Lyndon Johnson (Stone’s film JFK shows the two documents together, as the soundtrack plays ominous music); and Kennedy’s belief, stated most notably in his September 2, 1963, television interview with Walter Cronkite, that in the end this was a war that the South Vietnamese themselves would have to win. Some also refer to private comments made by Kennedy to the effect that he was determined to get out of Vietnam, whatever the cost.

It’s a seductive line of reasoning, but ultimately the evidence for this “incipient withdrawal” thesis is weak and contradictory. The way I interpret a pair of important White House meetings on October 2 and 5, 1963, for example, is that at that late hour JFK was still unsure about which way to go in Vietnam, and, moreover, that he had not given the one-thousand-man withdrawal proposal very much thought. “My only reservation about this [troop withdrawal],” he says at one point, “is that it commits to a kind of a—if the war doesn’t continue to go well, it’ll look like we were overly optimistic, and I don’t—I’m not sure we—I’d like to know what benefit we get out [of] at this time announcing a thousand.” Could this be a ruse on the president’s part, as proponents of this argument claim, designed to hide his secret determination to get America out of the conflict? Possibly, but these analysts do not present persuasive evidence to that effect. As for the two NSAMs, the difference between them is slight: 263 signaled no necessary lessening of the American commitment to South Vietnam, while 273, approved by Johnson a few days after Kennedy’s death, showed fundamental continuity with the earlier document, and with various other high-level missives in October and November.

Time and again in the fall months, senior officials struck a firm tone on their public pronouncements on the war. Kennedy himself, in the very same Cronkite interview in which he said the Vietnamese themselves would have to win the struggle, declared that it would be a mistake for the United States to withdraw. In subsequent weeks he continued publicly to vow steadfastness and to reject disengagement. His remarks set for delivery on November 22 at the Dallas Trade Mart, a destination he never reached, included these words: “We in this country in this generation are the watchmen on the walls of freedom….Our assistance to…nations can be painful, risky, and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task.”

The point here is not to deny the assertion by incipient-withdrawal theorists that public comments may tell us very little about private intentions and planning; it is, rather, to suggest that the constant public affirmations by JFK and his lieutenants of the Vietnam struggle’s importance to U.S. security further reduced their room for maneuver. A Kennedy committed to early disengagement from the conflict would surely want as much freedom of action as possible. He would have been more cryptic in his public pronouncements and instructed aides to be likewise, and would have been less dismissive of exploring a possible negotiated settlement to the struggle.

Most of all, a president determined to quit Vietnam regardless of the state of the war would have been more reticent about endorsing a showdown between South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and dissident generals. From late August onward, Kennedy’s moves indicate that he had resigned himself to the necessity of removing Diem (though it seems clear that he never intended for Diem to be killed). When on occasion he expressed uncertainty about a coup, it was only because of a fear that it might fail. A large question here is whether JFK understood that American complicity in the coup would increase American responsibility for subsequent developments in South Vietnam, thereby making withdrawal more difficult. The answer remains elusive, in part because neither he nor his advisers appear to have given the matter much thought. Before Diem’s ouster, Kennedy seems to have believed that a change in government could actually hasten a U.S. withdrawal—the new leaders in Saigon would implement needed reforms, win increased public backing at the expense of the Viet Cong, and allow the United States to reduce and eventually eliminate its presence. After the coup he may have continued in this belief, but he also felt that this scenario would, even in the best of circumstances, take many months to materialize. In the short term, JFK understood, the American commitment was deeper than ever before, especially in view of the Ngos’ murder. In a cable to Lodge on November 6, Kennedy acknowledged U.S. complicity in the coup and spoke of American “responsibility” to help the new government succeed.

In all likelihood, Kennedy at the time of his death was leaving his Vietnam options open, playing a waiting game. That’s what successful politicians do with vexing policy problems, especially when an election looms large on the horizon. They hedge. His decisions on Vietnam since 1961 had vastly increased his nation’s presence in the war, but they had usually been compromise decisions, between the extremes of an Americanized struggle and an American withdrawal, both of which he had seen as equally unpalatable. On the day before his death, Kennedy told aide Michael Forrestal, who was about to depart for a visit to Indochina, that he wanted to see him again soon, in order to plan what to do in South Vietnam. Forrestal recalled of the conversation:

He said, “I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we got into this country, what we thought we were doing and what we now think we can do.” He said, “I even want to think about whether or not we should be there.” He said, because this was of course in the context of an election campaign, that he didn’t think we could consider drastic changes of policy quickly. But that what he wanted to consider when I returned and when people were ready to think about this more clearly was how could some kind of a gradual shift in our presence in South Vietnam occur.

Or consider the comment from National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, in an oral history completed just a few months after the Dallas tragedy. “If you had poked President Kennedy very hard,” Bundy commented, he would have said America was in Vietnam “because it’s the best we can do and because it’s certainly essential to have made a determined effort and because we mustn’t be the ones who lost this war, someone else has to lose this war. But I don’t think he would have said to you that he saw any persuasive reason to believe that this was certainly going to succeed.” The implication was that Kennedy remained undecided, in large part because “he was deeply aware of the fact that this place was in fact X thousand miles away in terms both of American interest and American politics.”

None of which is to deny the possibility that Kennedy had already set limits on how far he would go in defense of the Saigon regime, had already determined that large-scale war involving regular U.S. ground troops would never occur while he was in charge. It’s possible that he had already decided in his own mind that he would seek some kind of fig-leaf withdrawal from the conflict following the presidential election a year hence. The Forrestal and Bundy recollections, if accurate, certainly speak to his misgivings. “We’d cross that bridge when we came to it,” is how brother Robert described the administration’s thinking on the prospect of a complete deterioration in South Vietnam. It is an expression that effectively summarizes Kennedy’s whole approach to the war.

It would be Lyndon Johnson’s fate to come to that bridge about a year after Kennedy’s murder. How would a surviving Kennedy have responded in his place? A strong argument could be made that he would have swallowed his doubts and done more or less what Johnson did, pursuing large-scale escalation involving sustained aerial bombardment and the dispatch of major ground forces rather than face the prospect of defeat. The powerful effect of the Diem coup is important supporting evidence here, made more powerful by the fact that Diem and his brother Nhu were not just ousted from power but killed as well. Having helped bring the coup about, Kennedy felt an added sense of responsibility in its aftermath, not merely on moral grounds but on geopolitical ones as well—now more than ever, maintaining U.S. global credibility might demand a successful outcome in Vietnam.

It matters as well that the senior advisers advocating escalation under LBJ were the same men who counseled Kennedy. By the late autumn of 1963 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and other top officials had a large personal stake in the commitment they had trumpeted for so long, a vested interest in its success. Although several of these senior planners, including McNamara, were less bullish and less hawkish on the war than is often asserted by historians—McNamara was privately skeptical and staked out an aggressive posture in large part because he believed that’s where LBJ wanted him to go—they had put their personal credibility on the line with their public bluster. Their stake in a winning outcome would only increase as 1964 came and went, as the war effort deteriorated, and as American young men began coming home in body bags.

Like his successor, a surviving Kennedy would have felt partisan political pressure to stay the course in Vietnam. As Democrats, he and LBJ felt susceptible to Republican charges of being “soft on communism,” of failing to learn what Munich 1938 had taught about the dangers of “appeasement.” Truman, too, acted partly with this concern in mind, as, indeed, did Eisenhower—his Vietnam decisions in 1953–54 cannot be understood apart from the charged domestic political atmosphere in which they were made. But the perceived power of this political imperative was even greater now, in the early 1960s, as the two presidents, feeling the vulnerability that all Democrats felt in the period, sought to avoid a repeat of the “Who lost China?” debate, this time over Vietnam.

But if a strong case can be made that a post-Dallas Kennedy probably would have pursued a course in Vietnam broadly similar to that taken by his successor, is it the best argument? I think not. Nor is it easy to see him opting for a more modest troop escalation of the type William Bundy, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, floated in mid-1965. Under this “middle plan” the number of American combat forces would be capped at approximately 85,000, and the troops would concentrate on seizing and holding certain key “enclaves” in the South. Any decision about a larger buildup would wait until the end of the summer monsoon season, when a full-fledged assessment would be made. Few inside the administration saw this Bundy plan as sufficient to turn the tide in the war, however, which meant that the larger buildup would in all likelihood follow.

No, the better argument is that JFK most likely would not have Americanized the war, but instead would have opted for some form of disengagement, presumably by way of a face-saving negotiated settlement. (“We would have fuzzed it up,” Robert Kennedy said a few years later when pressed on whether his brother was really prepared to see South Vietnam go communist. “The way we did in Laos.”) The components that make up this argument are not persuasive on their own; for full effect, they must be considered together and for their cumulative effect.

Consider, first, one of the points articulated above: that running through Kennedy’s whole approach to the war was a fundamental ambivalence about Indochina and what should be done there. It’s also true that he remained committed to the war effort at the time of his death, but this is not the contradiction it might appear to be. There are commitments and there are commitments. The Kennedy record reveals a man who sought victory in Vietnam from day one to the end, who failed to pursue a negotiated settlement, and who helped overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, but also a man who always had deep doubts about the enterprise and deep determination to keep it from becoming a large-scale American war.

Kennedy’s decision to pursue negotiations in Laos further demonstrated his disinclination to use American ground troops in Indochina. To be sure, Laos never mattered as much as Vietnam in U.S. official and public opinion, which made the decision to negotiate there comparatively easy. Likewise, it is possible, as some have argued, that the Laos decision only made Kennedy more determined to affirm American support for South Vietnam—conciliation in one place necessitated standing firm somewhere else. Still, the Laos case is further evidence of JFK’s opposition to large-scale interventions in that part of the world, even when senior associates called for them.

A surviving Kennedy would have faced one significant disadvantage vis-à-vis Johnson—namely, a greater stake in the war and in seeing the administration’s policy succeed. Overall, however, the greater disadvantages belonged to Johnson, and each of them served to reduce his maneuverability (real and imagined) on the war. First and most obvious, he was a new president in late November 1963, new and untested. Many in the Washington foreign policy community mistrusted him; many others questioned his qualifications. Just a few months hence, Democrats would accept or reject him at the national convention, and not long after that the general public would pass their judgment on him. Johnson believed, no doubt accurately, that adversaries at home and abroad were watching him closely, watching his responses to problems and probing for signs of weakness. Small wonder that he perceived the need not only for “continuity” in his foreign policy but also for firmness.

Kennedy, by contrast, could in no way be considered untried in the fall of 1963. He had faced an uncommon number of foreign policy crises in his tenure; to some of these he responded well, to others not, but all made him more battle tested. A little over a year before his death, Kennedy had showed strength and gained prestige in forcing Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba; regardless of whether JFK’s tough stance was wise or necessary, few could question his resoluteness after that point. Then, in mid-1963, he signed the limited nuclear test ban treaty with Moscow, which he could cite as his commitment to peace. At the time of his death, therefore, he had a sizable reservoir of political credibility as a statesman, something Johnson never possessed.

Kennedy was no Vietnam expert, but he possessed a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of the region than his successor. As president he privately doubted the validity of a crude domino theory, whereby a defeat in Vietnam would lead in short order to the loss of all of Southeast Asia, and he perceived from early on that there was only so much the United States could accomplish in that corner of the world. He appears to have grasped, well before many of his aides and his vice president, the civil war dimension of the Vietnam struggle and the problems this might cause for American intervention.

The timing of the assassination, occurring as it did only about a year before the 1964 election, also may have served to limit Johnson’s perceived freedom of maneuver. Whereas Kennedy would have faced the critical Vietnam decisions in his second (and final) term, when the domestic political implications of those decisions would be at least somewhat less pressing, Johnson faced them in what amounted to his first term—for him the eleven months between his taking office and the 1964 election were but a prelude, a kind of preliminary campaign for finally claiming the mantle of the martyred leader. The relative freedom of maneuver that might have led a second-term Kennedy to reevaluate fundamentally Vietnam policy in, say, December 1964, thus did not exist to the same degree for LBJ, or at least so he believed. Nor was it merely electoral considerations that kept Johnson focused on the domestic political costs of his Vietnam decisions; there was also his ambitious legislative agenda. Though care should be taken not to exaggerate the Great Society’s role in Johnson’s strategizing on Vietnam, it certainly mattered. It stands to reason that here, too, a post-Dallas Kennedy, possessing no real Great Society equivalent, would have been less constrained.

Basic personality differences between the two men may have made a difference when the critical moment came. Kennedy did not share Johnson’s deep self-doubt in the role of commander in chief, or his general predilection toward self-pity. Moreover, Kennedy’s worldview contained a pronounced skepticism that the Texan’s lacked—when Secretary of State Dean Rusk would speak apocalyptically of the need to save “Christian civilization” by persevering in Vietnam, his words resonated with Johnson in a way they would never have done with JFK. Both presidents were intelligent men, but Kennedy possessed the more flexible and reflective mind, at least with respect to world affairs. Despite the sweeping pledge of his inaugural address to “pay any price, bear any burden,” he generally chose the course of restraint in foreign policy, as in Berlin, Laos, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it’s hard to imagine him exhibiting the obstinacy and truculence with respect to Vietnam that Johnson so frequently showed in 1965—and in the years that followed. It’s hard to imagine him telling pro-negotiation French and British officials that the only alternatives to present policy were to “bomb the hell out of China” or to retreat to Hawaii and California, or telling aides it was insulting to have foreign leaders “chasing over” to see him, or reading to allied officials a letter from a supportive American soldier in Vietnam to his mother, all of which LBJ did.

Kennedy did not have Johnson’s tendency to personalize policy issues, or his deep dislike of dissent. He would not have seen the war as a test of his manliness to the same degree as did Johnson, for though himself imbued with a healthy dose of machismo, he was less prone to extending it to the nation, to the complex world of foreign policy. Perhaps because he had proven himself in war—Johnson had not—he never viewed attacks on foreign policy as attacks on himself to the extent LBJ did. Although politicians as a rule are notoriously averse to abandoning failed policies and altering course, these Kennedy characteristics suggest that he would have had an easier time doing so than did Johnson.

We can further assume that Kennedy’s policymaking environment, comparatively open in the pre-Dallas period, would have kept that quality afterward as well, thus distinguishing it from Johnson’s much more cloistered setting. This is potentially critical: a less constrained, more Kennedy-like environment, in which the chief executive encouraged a broad range of views, would have made the Johnson team more inclined after November 1964 to ask the really fundamental questions about the war, to listen to—not just to hear—the many independent voices predicting giant, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles ahead, given the chronic weaknesses south of the 17th parallel.

Ultimately, it is this bleak situation within South Vietnam in late 1964–early 1965, more than any personal attributes of Kennedy, that stands as the single most important reason to suppose he would have opted against an Americanized war in Vietnam. It’s easy today to forget the despair that this condition generated in a broad cross-section of informed observers, American as well as foreign, who saw firsthand the political infighting in Saigon and the pervasive war weariness and burgeoning anti-Americanism throughout the South. Many who had always enthusiastically supported the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, and who would do so again a few months later after the commitment of American troops, in these months freely asserted that Washington had no obligation to persevere under such circumstances and that there might be no option but to get out. Said The Washington Post, later a staunchly hawkish voice on the war, in December 1964, “It is becoming increasingly clear that, without an effective [Saigon] government, backed by a loyal military and some kind of national consensus in support of independence, we cannot do anything for South Vietnam. The economic and military power of the United States…must not be wasted in a futile attempt to save those who do not wish to be saved.”

A harsh but discerning assessment, and one that John F. Kennedy would have been more likely than his successor to heed.

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