Kennedy’s War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Vietnam War was, tragically, part of a larger war known as the Cold War. This larger conflict, while not always out in the open, pitted the decidedly anticommunist United States against communist powers such as the Soviet Union and China. Thus, in the United States, a policy of “containment” of communism was pursued, a policy demanding that presidents, lawmakers, and military leaders take steps to limit communist influence wherever it took root. The Truman administration, in the post–World War II years, was the first to apply the principle of containment to Southeast Asia, assisting the French in trying to put down the Viet Minh communist revolution in Indochina. President Dwight Eisenhower likened the process of containment, or rather the failure to contain, to a game of dominos: if one country fell to communism, then other countries in the same region would fall in turn. Under Eisenhower, therefore, aid to South Vietnam was continued and a small number of military advisers were sent in.

The Vietnam War was, tragically, part of a larger war known as the Cold War. This larger conflict, while not always out in the open, pitted the decidedly anticommunist United States against communist powers such as the Soviet Union and China. Thus, in the United States, a policy of “containment” of communism was pursued, a policy demanding that presidents, lawmakers, and military leaders take steps to limit communist influence wherever it took root. The Truman administration, in the post–World War II years, was the first to apply the principle of containment to Southeast Asia, assisting the French in trying to put down the Viet Minh communist revolution in Indochina. President Dwight Eisenhower likened the process of containment, or rather the failure to contain, to a game of dominos: if one country fell to communism, then other countries in the same region would fall in turn. Under Eisenhower, therefore, aid to South Vietnam was continued and a small number of military advisers were sent in.

John F. Kennedy, a member of Congress during the Truman and Eisenhower years, was heir to the prevailing anticommunist thinking and came to experience its value—and its faults—first hand. First, there was the debacle of the Bay of Pigs, the failed April 1961 invasion of Cuba by CIA operatives (a project that Kennedy inherited and allowed to go forward). Then, there was the horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off over the latter's deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Between these two events, Kennedy was disposed to authorize further aid and assistance to South Vietnam in its effort to defend itself against communist forces. The problem in this case, however, was that the South Vietnamese government was an authoritarian regime very much disliked and distrusted by the majority of the Vietnamese people. Kennedy, therefore, was rather cautious in building up the American presence in Vietnam—top military leaders would have preferred a more rapid expansion—and he remained open to regime change in the country. He sent in more U.S. military advisers to assist in the fighting, and when a coup toppled the South Vietnamese government and its head, Ngo Dinh Diem, Kennedy was not disappointed. Some historians speculate that Kennedy may have continued to exhibit restraint in the region, but unfortunately he was killed soon after Diem's ouster. The baton was then passed to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Categories: History Content