George Herring, University of Kentucky
Drawing on a wealth of new and exciting Vietnam War scholarship, this talk will provide background and context for an extended analysis of the events of 1963 in Vietnam. Recent research offers new insight about how U.S., North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese responses to the Geneva Conference of 1954 led to the demise of a shaky peace and laid the basis for the Second Indochina War.
Panel Chair: David Anderson
Jessica Chapman, Williams College
The seeds of popular opposition to Ngo Dinh Diem’s government that blossomed with the 1963 Buddhist crisis were sown much earlier in his administration. In fact, widespread outrage against his insular and oppressive policies during summer 1963 echoed that expressed previously by the political opponents that he crushed in the 1955 "sect crisis." Charges levied by those challengers that Ngo Dinh Diem displayed blatant favoritism towards Catholics and operated on the basis of nepotism remained central to most critiques of the Saigon government up to his demise. Such charges were fueled by the "denounce the communists" campaign, which Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu rolled out in the wake of the sect crisis. The campaign, designed ostensibly to root out and destroy communist agents, was applied much more broadly to target any individuals or groups who challenged Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership. Eight years later, the policies he enacted to stifle dissent backfired to fuel a much more popular antigovernment movement; one that gained steam and spread well beyond the devout Buddhist communities in which it originated. To Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the sect crisis held valuable lessons for how to respond to the Buddhist crisis. In the former, despite warnings from Washington that Ngo Dinh Diem must broaden his government to include opposition forces or lose American support, the United States only deepened its commitment to his government after he vanquished his opponents by force. In 1963, the Ngo brothers were convinced that they could similarly rely on the National Army to tamp down antigovernment protests throughout South Vietnam. Based on the example set by the sect crisis, they assumed that, despite pressure from American advisors to democratize in the face of public opposition, they could count on Washington’s unyielding support as long as they kept the protestors in check. What the Ngos failed to perceive was that to both their own people and their American backers, their domestic political position seemed to be deteriorating as rapidly in 1963 as it had appeared to be improving in 1955. Moreover, that deterioration stemmed from the very policies they had pursued since the sect crisis to shore up political power and establish legitimacy. While the Ngo brothers thought they could solve the Buddhist Crisis by staying the course, Washington was no longer prepared to endure more of the same policies that it had come to view as part of the problem rather than the solution to political fragmentation in South Vietnam.
Nu-Anh Tran, University of Connecticut
This paper examines Nhất Linh’s suicide on 7 July 1963 in protest against Ngô Đình Diệm’s government. Barely a month after the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức, yet another prominent Vietnamese committed suicide. The death of Nhất Linh made few headlines in the international press and is rarely mentioned in western historiography, but it was a lightning rod for political discontent among intellectuals and students in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, or South Vietnam). Nhất Linh, whose real name was Nguyễn Tường Tam, was the most prominent colonial-era intellectual living in the RVN and had been an important anticommunist nationalist leader in the 1940s. The shock of Nhất Linh’s death, the writer’s suicide note denouncing Ngô Đình Diệm, and the government’s attempt to control the funeral all contributed to the erosion of the regime’s legitimacy among urban educated Vietnamese. After the demise of Ngô Đình Diệm, intellectuals, activists, and students transformed Nhất Linh into a political martyr to critique the old regime and make political demands upon the new government.
Edward Miller, Dartmouth College
Historians and other commentators have long struggled to explain the actions taken by Ngo Dinh Diem during the last months of his life in 1963, especially in his dealings with the United States. Beginning that spring, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu appeared to deliberately provoke U.S. government leaders by calling for a withdrawal of American military advisors from South Vietnam. The Ngos subsequently disregarded U.S. admonitions to seek a peaceful end to the "Buddhist crisis" by launching a brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators; they also alleged that American officials were seeking to subvert their regime, and they claimed to have opened negotiations with their communist archenemies. Some authors have concluded that the Ngos really were preparing to break with Washington and to make a separate peace with Hanoi. Others argue that the brothers had simply begun to lose their grip on reality.
This paper argues that the Ngos were neither crazy nor anticipating a rupture in their relations with the United States in 1963. Instead, their actions and decisions are best understood as a complex gambit to re-structure their decade-old alliance with Washington. By examining the brothers’ words and deeds, I show that they had become convinced by early 1963 that they were winning the war against the communist-led NLF insurgency. This conviction, in turn, led them to believe that they could unilaterally revise the terms of the U.S.-South Vietnam alliance while at the same time defying American pleas to negotiate with the Buddhists. Meanwhile, they fully expected to soon be in position to dictate peace terms to their communist rivals in North Vietnam. These expectations, though deeply flawed and ultimately foolhardy, were consistent with the Ngos’ prior patterns of thought and behavior. They also reflected the brothers’ confidence in their abilities to manipulate their enemies and their allies alike.
Panel Chair: George Herring, University of Kentucky
Bui Diem, former RVN Ambassador to the United States
Rufus Phillips, founding chief of the Office of Rural Affairs, USOM-Saigon
Mr. Nguyen Thai, former Director, Vietnam Press
Panel Chair: Jeffrey Race, Independent Scholar
David Biggs, University of California, Riverside
In Saigon and Washington, the events of 1963 were historic. In Vietnamese villages and towns, however, the effects of such events as the Battle of Ap Bac or the military coup that toppled President Diem are less clear. A closer look at the internal politics and histories of three communities and their surrounding areas suggests that political changes such as opposition or support for the Saigon government were the result of social processes much longer in the making. This paper draws on oral histories and archival research to compare the longer histories of three Vietnamese communities before and after 1963, and it suggests that significant political or social change in them was contingent more local trends.
Giạ Lê (Thuỷ Phương Commune), located just south of Huế, was the focus of James W. Trullinger's Village at War (1980). Located on a hill next to Highway One, this village is one of the oldest Vietnamese settlements in the region with records dating to the 1600s. While military bases, new refugee settlements, and smaller government installations rapidly surrounded the village in the 1960s, Giạ Lê had already experienced many prior instances of war and military-related changes.
Vị Thanh, located along the Xà No Canal in the Mekong Delta, became the seat of Chương Thiện Province in 1961 and was in 1960 the model for Diem's agroville program. Its urban grid of streets has persisted to the present. Today it is a rapidly growing small city (thành phố) and province capital. A modern, agro-industrial center compared with older neighboring villages, Vị Thanh was a product of state-sponsored development beginning with the colonial era reclamation projects of the early 1900s.
Long Xuyên, located along the Hậu River in An Giang Province, was famous in the 1960s as a center for Hoa Hảo Buddhists who played a prominent role in the town's politics especially after 1963. Widely touted by such figures as Samuel Huntington as a successful model of counterinsurgency through communitarianism, this town's strong support for the Sài Gòn government to 1975 was based in part on its unique history as a special settlement region for small landholders beginning in the 1930s.
David Hunt, University of Massachusetts, Boston
1963 was a moment when a major breakthrough in the material life of the Mekong delta seemed to be in the offing. Property transfers authorized by the Viet Minh, the RVN, and the NLF had given previously marginalized cultivators direct access to the land, and the availability of chemical fertilizer and other resources stirred hopes that the productivity of the soil could be enhanced. The use of motor pumps, which spread throughout the region in 1963 and made possible the windfall of double cropping, marks that year as a moment when Vietnam’s version of an "agricultural revolution" fleetingly came into view.
This potential was created at the base. Peasants were struggling against landlords as they had in the past for access to the means of life. In search of customers for farm products and for a chance to acquire necessary inputs, they plunged into monetized sectors of the economy and bargained with merchants who dominated commercial networks in the region. While piasters changed hands, they also relied on customary use rights and mutual aid that offered protection against the laws of supply and demand. Those who gained a measure of security through subsistence agriculture could speak for the merits of self-sufficiency, while tramping for work raised expectations among others for spatial and social mobility. The many ideas and desires arising out of what one observer characterized as "the farmers’ working experience" would not be easy to reconcile, but nonetheless constituted the most powerful motor then available for development of the country’s economic potential.
The intricate relations of production in the hamlets confounded leaders of the Saigon government and the Communist Party, who fell back on stereotypic notions of an antediluvian rural world blocking the progress they wished to sponsor. Total war tore apart existing relations of production, but even if a negotiated settlement had been achieved in the interval before escalation in 1965 and no matter which of the co-belligerents seized power, rural dwellers would have had to contend with state-sponsored programs that ignored their wishes and understandings. The hybridity of the agrarian system, its integration of the informal economy and the cash nexus, amounted to a source of strength and hinted at the contours of a better future for Vietnam. My purpose is to resurrect that lost venture. By following the efforts of country people as they explored options within an expanding division of labor, one sees more clearly the potentials and limits of the southern revolution.
Oscar Salemink, University of Copenhagen
1963 is a pivotal year in the Second Indochina War, with the ‘Buddhist crisis’ end of the Diệm regime. It was also the turning point in the history of the Central Highlands with ‘Operation Switchback’, and with the emergence of the autonomy movement FULRO – even though the latter only became visible with the FULRO uprisings in September 1964.
Between 1946 and 1954, Highlanders were recruited to fight for the French Army with promises of some measure of cultural autonomy and territorial control. After 1955, Diệm’s assimilationist nation-building program alienated Highlanders, provoking French-trained Highlander cadres to form a protest movement in 1957, called Bajaraka. Diệm responded by incarcerating most of the leadership and intensifying his assimilationist policies. The National Liberation Front formed in 1960 capitalized on Highlander discontent by setting up a Highlands Autonomy Front headed by the one Bajaraka leader who had escaped imprisonment, and rapidly expanded control in minority villages across the Highlands. In order to counter that, the CIA organized village self-defense militia (CIDG) led and trained by Special Forces. The success of that roll-back raised the suspicion of Diệm’s regime, which saw armed Highlanders fighting for themselves under US command as a threat, but it simultaneously wetted the US Army’s appetite for reliable local jungle fighters. In the end of 1962 Operation Switchback was initiated which moved operational control of the CIDG from the Agency to the US Army, while greatly expanding its scope and radius. Instead of militia, the Highlanders practically became mercenaries, detached from their familiar village environments.
After the fall of Diệm a number of Highlander leaders of the Bajaraka movement were released and worked to establish the Front de Libération des Hauts Plateaux (FLHP – later incorporated into FULRO), which largely operated in CIDG camps operated by the Special Forces. The FULRO movement was unsuccessful in keeping out the war or in securing Highlander autonomy, but through Operation Switchback professional Highlander troops and FULRO forces continued to operate in the Central Highlands until 1975. In March 1975, it was the silent complicity of FULRO units around Buon Ma Thuot which ensured the surprise element in the attack by regular North-Vietnamese cavalry, and the take-over of Buon Ma Thuot triggered the collapse of the RVN as a separate state. In this paper I argue that it was the separation of Highlander troops from their village environments under the umbrella of Operation Switchback which militarized Highlander defense units, eventually resulting in a situation where such units acted as 'loose cannons'.
The story after 1975 is a tragic one for the Central Highlanders. The autonomy promised to them by the Northern regime never materialized. The course of history gave Central Highlanders reason to feel betrayed by all sides (by the French, the Americans, and the NLF) while at the same time creating a profound sense of nostalgia for a (colonial) past imagined as free from outside interference.
Panel Chair: Ron Milam, Texas Tech University
Andrew Birtle, U.S. Army Center of Military History
The German general Helmut Von Moltke once remarked that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." The experience of the National Campaign Plan of 1963 reaffirms the wisdom of that adage and adds another truism: "No plan survives contact with one’s friends."
In the fall of 1962 the commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, General Paul D. Harkins, persuaded South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem to commit to a nation-wide offensive beginning in 1963. Harkins referred to the concept as "Explosion," a term that garnered so much mockery that he renamed the effort the National Campaign Plan. After MACV presented the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff with an initial draft of the plan, the Vietnamese finalized it in early 1963 under the code name AD6. The offensive portion of the plan formally began on 1 July 1963.
AD6 embraced a holistic philosophy that reflected the counterinsurgency theories of the day. General Harkins hoped it would galvanize the South Vietnamese into taking the steps needed to win the war. South Vietnamese military activity increased, partially achieving one of Harkins’ goals, but overall the plan foundered on a combination of enemy action, faulty assumptions, and structural defects that MACV was unable to rectify. Four months after the offensive phase began, Diem was dead, the Vietnamese government was in disarray, and the Communists had determined to further up the ante.
Although inherently flawed, the AD6 plan should not be dismissed. It was the first jointly developed document designed to generate an integrated, national-level strategic plan to guide the conduct of the war. For every year thereafter until the United States withdrew from the war, the allies would jointly draft a national campaign plan that would seek to bring order and cohesion to what all too often was a confused and disjointed conflict. Moreover, many of the concepts, principles and strategies of those later plans can bed found in the very first such plan. The National Campaign Plan of 1963 would thus live on, in spirit if not in detail, as a guide for how the allies hoped to wage and win the Vietnam War.
Merle Pribbenow, Independent Scholar
The year 1963 is an unusual year in the historiography of the Vietnam War. In the histories written about that year detailed descriptions of the current military situation generally take a back seat to the political and diplomatic developments that were taking place in Saigon and Washington. The exact status of the military situation in South Vietnam in 1963 has become a matter of considerable dispute between the so-called "orthodox" historians and the "revisionist" historians of the Vietnam War. An analysis of newly available documentation indicates that in fact 1963 was an important year of transition during which the foundations were laid for the decision to step up North Vietnamese support to the struggle in the south to seek to win a "decisive victory," a decision that the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Committee affirmed in December 1963.
Two key events occurred during 1963 that enabled the North Vietnamese leadership to make this decision. The first was the establishment of a reliable covert maritime transportation route that was able to deliver the large quantities of arms and ammunition to communist forces in South Vietnam the communists needed to be able to take on large South Vietnamese Army units in the kind of "big battles" that would be required to win a "decisive victory." The second was an agreement reached in the summer of 1963 between the Chinese and North Vietnamese armed forces on a plan to carry out joint, coordinated combat operations to defend North Vietnam in the event of a major American-South Vietnamese attack against the North Vietnamese homeland. This agreement, together with a companion agreement for China to provide additional military aid to North Vietnam, freed North Vietnam’s hand by guaranteeing that the North Vietnamese homeland would be adequately protected. This enabled the North to take a much more active and more visible role in the fighting in the South, including the sending of large regular North Vietnamese Army units to fight in the South. This analysis, along with the fact that the initial North Vietnamese decision to seek a "quick victory," apparently predates the coup against Diem, calls into question claims made by both "orthodox" and the "revisionist" historians of the war.
Andy Wiest, University of Southern Mississippi
This paper will analyze the near collapse of the South Vietnamese military effort, and the attendant failure of the U.S. advisory system, in 1963 – events that helped to precipitate the direct involvement of U.S. combat forces in South Vietnam.
The ARVN, hurriedly built from the wreckage of the French colonial military structure, initially had seemed destined to failure. With the considerable aid of American advisors, though, the fledgling military first performed better than most had dared dream, cementing the power of Ngo Dinh Diem and becoming one of the most functional institutions in South Vietnam. Initial success, though, only served to paper over glaring institutional flaws; flaws that were further exacerbated by an imperfect U.S. understanding of the military needs and abilities of its ARVN allies. The flaws, ranging from the over politicization of the South Vietnamese military structure to a tactical reliance on western military themes of massive firepower and logistical support, came into sharp relief in 1963. After initially faltering when facing the sterner military test posed by military action against the Viet Cong beginning in 1960, ARVN had seemingly turned a military corner by 1962, fighting the communists to a military standstill, which led to a false sense of security on the part of its American military patrons.
Instead of being the year of expanding horizons of military victory, 1963 surprised many in the United States military by being the year of Ap Bac and eventual ARVN collapse. While perhaps historically overestimated in its military importance, the fighting at Ap Bac demonstrated many of the flaws of the ARVN structure – flaws that were cultivated and tended by the Americans. In the wake of Ap Bac, though, the ARVN and U.S. military turned to the band aid military solutions of increases in the size of ARVN and an ever-increasing reliance on firepower and technology to solve tactical problems while institutional rot continued. As 1963 progressed, the U.S. and ARVN focused ever more on winning battles, not on understanding their war.
After Ap Bac a rough tactical balance seemed to return to the Vietnamese countryside, leaving many military observers hopeful for the near future. Blinded by the battlefield, most U.S. military observers – and even ARVN participants in the events – were shocked by the massive military fallout that followed the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem. The ARVN, its problems so well obscured by abundant firepower for years, shattered into ever smaller political component pieces, leaving the war in the Vietnamese countryside untended.
Following 1954, rushing to create a military capable of winning imminent battles, South Vietnam and the United States had neglected to create a military capable of winning a war – a fact that had only become obvious at the crossroads of 1963.
Panel Chair: Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, University of Kentucky
Pierre Journoud, Institute for Strategic Research, French Military Academy
The year 1963 was a very important turning point in the relations among France, Vietnam and the United States. It marked France’s first major attempt to position itself as a mediating actor in the Vietnam War. Since returning to power in 1958, President Charles de Gaulle had been urged by French experts like Etienne Manac’h, the Asian chief officer at the ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Jean Sainteny, a former French representative in Hanoi and then minister for Veterans, to dissociate France’s policy from the dangerous military path followed by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations in Indochina. The rapid deterioration of the political situation in Saigon, in 1963, prompted de Gaulle to pursue an independent course in a country where the French retained both important economic interests and a strong cultural influence.
In mid-1963, French ambassador in Saigon Roger Lalouette intensified his discreet efforts to initiate a rapprochement between Hanoi and Saigon. He then tried to convince his foreign colleagues and especially U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, without much success, that no one was as capable as Ngo Dinh Diem, despite all his weaknesses, in leading such a country. Ironically, Lalouette became one of Diem last and most active supporters during his last months in power—a marked contrast to the strong French opposition to Diem after the end of the first Indochina War.
Without officially backing his Ambassador, who would later be recalled to Paris in a clear appeasement gesture vis-à-vis Washington, de Gaulle sized the opportunity presented by the so-called "Buddhist crisis" and by Kennedy’s hesitant response during the summer of 1963. In a carefully worded statement on August 31, de Gaulle declared that independence and reunification were prerequisites to the reestablishment of peace in Vietnam and that France was ready to give any support, within the limits of its resources, to the Vietnamese leaders willing to concretize that aim. In so doing, the French President did more than merely assert his control over the formulation of French foreign policy in Asia.. He also signaled his intent to follow an independent course in Vietnam, and to challenge U.S. policies there.
These French efforts in both Saigon and Paris remained too isolated and too weak to overcome the powerful local and international dynamics of the conflict, especially the U.S. backing of a coup d’État against the Ngo brothers secretly planned by a group of South Vietnamese officers. But they opened a new diplomatic front in the Vietnamese conflict, which Vietnamese Communist leaders would soon use to their advantage. Despite Washington’s criticisms of this first public statement, de Gaulle’s new policy on Vietnam would later prove useful to the peace process.
This paper will present the origins, the motivations, the modalities, and the consequences of the French involvement in the South Vietnamese crisis in 1963.
Sophie Quinn-Judge, Temple University
This paper examines the DRV’s changing political climate, from the early phase of the campaign to eliminate "revisionism" to the victory of the anti-Soviet faction at the Ninth Plenum in December 1963. The effects of this campaign would be felt throughout the DRV and liberated areas of South Vietnam by 1964, as well as in the realm of international relations within the communist bloc.
I argue that this change in DRV policy was promoted by the convergence of interests of the southern revolutionaries, led by Le Duan, and the Hanoi party group that had temporarily lost power during the correction of errors of the Land Reform. It was strongly affected by the resurgence of Mao Zedong in China, as he began to reassert his radical views on revolutionary ideology following the Great Leap Forward.
In the final section, I will discuss how the events of 1963 in South Vietnam might have affected Hanoi politics, and whether the policies of Duong Van Minh could have caused the northern leadership to soften their opposition to compromise, had he remained in power and pursued his desire for a political solution to the conflict. I conclude, however, that the preponderant influence on Hanoi events must be sought in the international arena in 1963, at a time when Asian communist leaders feared American designs in their region, but also the detente that was initiated by Kennedy and Khrushchev.
James Hershberg, The George Washington University
Ever since the autumn of 1963, one of the murkiest aspects of the run-up to the coup that overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem has been the rumors and reports of secret contacts between Saigon and Hanoi involving Diem’s controversial brother and "counselor," Ngo Dinh Nhu, and a Saigon-based Polish communist diplomat, Mieczyslaw Maneli. This paper uses fresh US, Canadian, and Italian evidence to offer new perspectives on the "Maneli Affair" and the role of the International Control Commission (set up by the 1954 Geneva conference) in the 1963 intrigues. In particular, it examines the perspective of Canada (named to represent Western interests to balance communist Poland on the ICC); the relationship betwen Maneli and Italy's activist ambassador to South Vietnam, Giovanni D'Orlandi; and the emerging picture of a quiet dialogue between Maneli, the communist diplomat, and Henry Cabot Lodge's U.S. embassy in Saigon.
Martin Grossheim, University of Passau
This paper will analyze domestic political developments in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1963 that were characterized by a tilt of the Lao Động leadership under Lê Duẩn towards a militant "pro-Chinese" course. I will show that in 1963 this political reorientation still met with resistance from some party members and intellectuals who favored a "pro-Soviet" line, a peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam and a moderate approach towards agricultural collectivization. At the same time, I will highlight how the internal conflicts within the Vietnam Worker’s Party party culminated in the Ninth Plenum at the end of 1963 and how the Le Duẩn faction gradually managed to sideline its rivals.
The paper will further show how the cultural policy of the DRV was influenced by the increasingly militant course of the party leadership both in terms of a more restrictive cultural exchange with Socialist countries and of campaigns against novels classified as "bourgeois" or "revisionist". Finally, I will outline what impact this policy had on relations to diplomats and journalists from East European countries who lived in the DRV at that time.
The paper is based on a close reading of reports of the East German embassy and journalists in Hanoi and files of the GDR Ministry of State Security, and of Vietnamese newspapers and journals.
Panel Chair: Richard Immerman, Temple University
Robert David Johnson, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
In 1963, Congress launched perhaps its most aggressive challenge to Cold War foreign policy since the "Great Debate" of the late 1940s. That year's instability in Vietnam would seem to have made the Southeast Asian conflict an obvious target for congressional activism. Yet while the Senate did consider an amendment sponsored by Idaho senator Frank Church to limit aid to the Diem regime, for the most part Vietnam remained a secondary issue for Congress in 1963. This paper will explore why Congress devoted more attention to the foreign aid funding level--and to foreign policy crises in Egypt, Indonesia, and the Dominican Republic--than it did to Vietnam throughout the year.
Marilyn Young, New York University
The paper discusses who asked the question above in 1963 and how it was answered. It argues that the counterinsurgency war JFK launched in 1961 obscured the US role in Vietnam and made asking the question difficult. By 1963, however, some journalists, peace groups and academics had begun to raise it and push for either the overthrow of Diem and/or withdrawal from Vietnam. Although opposition to Kennedy's Cuba policy, the test ban treaty and, above all, the civil rights movement absorbed the energies of most people on the left, the groundwork for a larger movement against the war had been laid by the time Kennedy was assassinated.
John Prados, National Security Archive, The George Washington University
This presentation will apply the latest evidence from recently declassified Kennedy administration tape recordings and documents to the longstanding question: exactly what was Washington's relationship to the coup d'etat in which Ngo Dinh Diem died? Were the most important steps the ones taken by the CIA? The White House? The U.S. ambassador in Saigon? All or none of these? This paper explains how the new evidence is changing our understanding of crucial events, decisions, and actors during the fateful fall of 1963. Among other things, I will revisit the controversial "Hilsman cable" of late August and suggest how the new material puts this notorious episode in a different light.
Panel Chair: Richard Reeves, Independent scholar
Fredrik Logevall, Cornell University
From his visit to Indochina as a young Congressman in 1951 to his death in Dallas a dozen years later, John F. Kennedy was skeptical about what first France and then the United States would be able to achieve by military means in combating revolutionary nationalism in Southeast Asia. He doubted that Ho Chi Minh’s forces could be overcome on the field of battle, and during his thousand days as president he expressed frequent opposition to committing U.S. ground forces to the struggle. Yet as president JFK oversaw a major escalation of America’s military involvement in the struggle—one can plausibly argue, as the U.S. Government has done recently, that the Vietnam War began in earnest for the United States in 1962. How to account for this paradox? And what was the legacy of Kennedy’s Vietnam policies for the U.S. decision-makers who succeeded him? This paper will examine these questions, paying due care to the important timing of Kennedy’s death—in November 1963, a mere three weeks after the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. A major argument is that Kennedy’s policies cannot be understood apart from close consideration to the domestic political environment in which they were made.
Timothy Naftali, New America Foundation
In mid-September 1963, Michael Forrestal, one of the key New Frontiersmen behind efforts to reform the Diem regime in South Vietnam, was extremely frustrated with President John F. Kennedy. In a candid moment, he revealed to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., concerns about the President’s apparent indecision on the Vietnam problem: "He has taken three different positions in three different interviews. He must face the issue and make a decision."
The historical emphasis on the Cuban missile crisis, an episode in which JFK was at times very decisive, has complicated our understanding of Kennedy and Vietnam in 1963. This paper argues that President Kennedy managed the Vietnam crisis of the summer and fall of 1963 much as he handled most of the foreign policy challenges of his administration. As a policymaker, Kennedy was deliberate and, usually, risk averse. Changes in the intelligence that Kennedy received—he set a very high standard for what he needed as a policymaker—and his own shifting calculations of US domestic politics often led to moments of postponed decision-making or outright indecision. To make this point, the paper not only employs a wealth of newly released materials on Vietnam but argues the value of studying the Laos crisis of May 1962 and the Haitian crisis of August 1963 for insights not only into Kennedy’s handling of Vietnam; but also regarding what might have been.
Howard Jones, University of Alabama
By the time of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in late November 1963, he had come close to finalizing a process for withdrawing most of America’s soldiers in accordance with the "Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam." White House tapes and other documentation show that both JFK and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, became convinced by the previous October that the United States should begin the gradual disengagement in December with an initial contingent of 1000 forces. After Kennedy won reelection in 1964, he would continue the phased withdrawal of the 16,000 others sent during his tenure, intending to have them home by the end of 1965. Those remaining behind would number 1500, all advisers as part of the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG), established in 1950 and well within the strictures of the Geneva Agreements of four years afterward.
This withdrawal effort stalled in the wake of the Buddhist uprising of May 1963, but resumed in October, when JFK resurrected his nearly moribund withdrawal plan in the last stages of Ngo Dinh Diem’s rapidly deteriorating regime. Most strikingly, he took Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s advice and promoted the generals’ coup in late 1963, thinking that a change of government would improve the war effort and thereby facilitate the U.S. withdrawal. Consequently, when the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) generals launched their coup in early November, they did so with full knowledge of American approval. Diem’s crude handling of the Buddhist crisis had combined with the ARVN’s poor performance to convince the Kennedy administration to support a coup that culminated in the deaths of both Diem and his brother and closest confidant, Ngo Dinh Nhu. The two assassinations opened a visceral division among the coup makers that helped to renew widespread domestic turmoil. Then, in the short span of three weeks, JFK himself lay dead—and with him the Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam.
Despite the growing evidence, many historians still reject the claim that Kennedy might have withdrawn from Vietnam. In terms of a total withdrawal, they are correct—but not so in denying his intention to bring home the bulk of American forces. A number of documents have come to light showing that JFK had made the decision to reduce the American involvement without eliminating it. No one knows, of course, whether he would have continued this process had he lived, but a close examination of his policies in the period before November 22, 1963 strongly suggests that he had moved toward a partial withdrawal aimed at restoring the advisory and assistance program he had inherited on entering office.
Marc Selverstone, University of Virginia
By November 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s interest in withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam, which he had begun to explore during Spring 1962, remained limited and conditional. While Kennedy was uncomfortable with the nature of the U.S.-South Vietnamese relationship, and likely sought to return the military advisory effort to its 1961 level, none of his statements—either public or private—suggest that he was committed unconditionally to removing the bulk of American troops, regardless of how the war was going against the Communists, by the end of 1965.
The tape recordings JFK made during his time in office shed additional light on Kennedy’s thinking about a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Among other things, they indicate that Kennedy was determined to win the counterinsurgency campaign and wary of pulling out U.S. troops in the context of military setbacks. While these conversations reveal broad-based interest among Kennedy and his aides in setting a timetable for withdrawal, they highlight differences within the administration over the matter of publicizing the draw-down. Perhaps most of all, they suggest that Kennedy’s decision to announce the withdrawal, which he came to after considered debate, was less an iron-clad decision to extricate the United States from Vietnam than a political stroke designed to win over hearts and minds in the United States and Vietnam.
Panel Chair: Larry Berman, Georgia State University
Pierre Asselin, Hawai’i Pacific University
The signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by Washington and Moscow, the successful detonation of an atomic bomb by Beijing and the attendant radicalization of its foreign policy, and the overthrow of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in Saigon produced irrevocable changes in Hanoi’s national liberation strategy in 1963. Dictated since 1954 by moderates intent on avoiding at all cost war with the United States, the strategy became markedly bolder and riskier following a meeting of Vietnamese communist leaders in November-December during which hardliners emboldened by circumstances took over decision-making. Within less than a year after adoption of "Resolution 9," as the document outlining the new course became known, Hanoi and North Vietnam were effectively at war with and in the South. Based on documentary evidence from Vietnam and elsewhere, this paper explores the consequences of Resolution 9 and demonstrates that Hanoi’s decision to modify its revolutionary strategy in late 1963 played a meaningful role in precipitating the onset of the Vietnam War in 1965.
Philip Catton, Stephen F. Austin State University
Following the coup of November 1963 that overthrew the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, South Vietnam rapidly descended into a downward spiral. The process of disintegration eventually brought it to the point of collapse and precipitated the Americanization of the war. Not surprisingly, scholars and commentators have assigned an important place in the history of the conflict to Diem’s demise. Like Dien Bien Phu and the Tet Offensive, the 1963 coup was obviously a significant moment, one that marked the start of a new phase in the war. There is no agreement, however, over the question of why South Vietnam imploded. Both "Orthodox" and "Revisionist" accounts view the breakdown that followed Diem’s downfall as entirely predictable, but do so for different reasons. "Orthodox" historians see it as the result of long-term trends; an insurgency that was gathering unstoppable momentum and a southern polity that not only lacked good leadership but also the essential qualities of a nation-state. Consequently, Diem’s ouster merely served to accelerate an inevitable collapse. "Revisionists" believe Diem’s overthrow is the key to understanding what came next; the coup derailed the war effort and removed the indispensable Diem. Therefore, his downfall fundamentally altered the course of conflict.
What are we to make of these conflicting interpretations? Both arguments are part of the much larger debate over the war and reflect the influence of broader narratives that sometimes serve to skew our view of events in this period. On the one hand, the "Orthodox" assessment of the state of the war in 1963 overestimates the strength of the insurgents and underestimates the coup’s impact on the South Vietnamese government’s war effort. "Orthodox" accounts are also too quick to dismiss Diem and what he represented, a genuinely modern brand of non-communist nationalism. On the other hand, "Revisionists" are too eager to claim progress in the conflict; they also fail to appreciate the problems with Diem’s style of rule and the formidable obstacles to nation-building in South Vietnam – difficulties that appear almost insurmountable. In examining the "Orthodox" and "Revisionist" interpretations, this paper suggests that the military situation remained in the balance before Diem’s overthrow, but his regime – for all its ideological and patriotic credentials – was doomed politically.
Mark Lawrence, University of Texas, Austin
The assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 marked a major breaking point in the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam by eliminating a leader who was deeply wary of deep U.S. embroilment. In his place emerged Lyndon Johnson, a very different kind of leader who would lead the United States into a major war. But exactly what sort of leader was LBJ, and did his rise to power turn U.S. policymaking inevitably toward a major war? This paper will pose these questions. It will first review four different depictions of LBJ’s approach to foreign affairs that historians have offered over the years – LBJ as uneducated naïf, LBJ as idealistic champion of development, LBJ as cultivator of machismo, and LBJ as ruthless manipulator and cynic. The paper will then argue for a blend of these appraisals. A substantial part of the presentation will show how LBJ interacted with the four main groups of officials who had comprised JFK’s foreign policy team and show how these interactions helped push the nation toward a major war. Throughout I will attempt to set U.S. policymaking toward Vietnam within a larger context of U.S. approaches to challenges in the Third World more generally.