Letter from JFK to Diem Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Having been president for less than a year, John F. Kennedy received an appeal from the leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, for military support to help prop up Diem's failing regime. The North Vietnamese and anti-government South Vietnamese forces had been gaining ground for most of the year. President Kennedy faced the decision of allowing what seemed to be the inevitable fall of South Vietnam, or taking steps to strengthen the military and government of that nation. In this letter, he communicates that he has decided to assist the South Vietnamese government with increased military aid. While Vietnam had been divided into two countries, North and South Vietnam, for seven years, this was the first time Kennedy faced a request for major military aid. His decision to grant this aid can be seen as a significant step toward full-scale war in Vietnam, in which the United States would soon become embroiled.

Summary Overview

Having been president for less than a year, John F. Kennedy received an appeal from the leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, for military support to help prop up Diem's failing regime. The North Vietnamese and anti-government South Vietnamese forces had been gaining ground for most of the year. President Kennedy faced the decision of allowing what seemed to be the inevitable fall of South Vietnam, or taking steps to strengthen the military and government of that nation. In this letter, he communicates that he has decided to assist the South Vietnamese government with increased military aid. While Vietnam had been divided into two countries, North and South Vietnam, for seven years, this was the first time Kennedy faced a request for major military aid. His decision to grant this aid can be seen as a significant step toward full-scale war in Vietnam, in which the United States would soon become embroiled.

Defining Moment

John Kennedy had been an advocate of the containment of communism throughout his political career. As president, one of the areas in which an American ally confronted communist forces was Vietnam. When the French gave Vietnam its independence in 1954, the Geneva Accords divided the nation into two parts, with communist leadership in the North and capitalist in the South. The agreement also mandated an election in 1956 to unify the nation, an election that the communist leaders would most probably have won. Thus, President Diem of South Vietnam, with the support of the United States, refused to allow the vote. Ever since that time, the leaders of North Vietnam had sought unification at any cost, including a military struggle. They kept increasing the level of armed conflict until, by 1961, they were gaining the upper hand throughout most areas of South Vietnam. Diem realized that to have any chance of staying in power, he needed more assistance from the United States. While American leaders had continually asked Diem to take steps to improve the standard of living for the citizens in the South, he did very little. Diem knew that the Americans feared the further expansion of communism and believed that this would be enough for him to get the necessary support.

Fortunately for Diem, Kennedy had previously sent his own advisors to South Vietnam to assess the situation, and they had recommended actions similar to those Diem requested. Thus, while Kennedy wanted changes in the way average South Vietnamese citizens were treated, he did not seem to have any choice if the communist forces were to be contained. The decision, communicated in this letter, was the first step toward the major deployment of American advisers in Vietnam. Rather than just hundreds, as was the case prior to the letter, they numbered in the thousands within months, in addition to major grants of military equipment to the South Vietnamese armed forces. While no one could know at that time, this major deployment of military advisers to South Vietnam was the last major step creating a foundation for President Johnson sending hundreds of thousands of US military forces to South Vietnam.

Author Biography

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963) was the second youngest president in US history at the time of his inauguration and the first Catholic president. A graduate of Harvard, and having served with distinction in the Navy during World War II, Kennedy spent six years in the House and eight years in the Senate prior to becoming president. He married to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953. He was a Cold War politician, which meant a strong anticommunist stance. Born into a wealthy Boston family, Kennedy saw public service as a calling and approached it from a politically liberal perspective. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, as well as a politician. He used his family's wealth to aid in his political career, as well as employing many innovative campaign techniques. He was assassinated on November, 21, 1963, a traumatic event for the nation. Although scholars debate the quality of his political achievements as president, most in the nation saw his brief time in office reflected in the term often applied to it, “Camelot.”

Historical Document

Dear Mr. President:

I have received your recent letter in which you described so cogently the dangerous conditions caused by North Vietnam's effort to take over your country. The situation in your embattled country is well known to me and to the American people. We have been deeply disturbed by the assault on your country. Our indignation has mounted as the deliberate savagery of the Communist programs of assassination, kidnapping, and wanton violence became clear.

Your letter underlines what our own information has convincingly shown—that the campaign of force and terror now being waged against your people and your Government is supported and directed from outside by the authorities at Hanoi. They have thus violated the provisions of the Geneva Accords designed to ensure peace in Vietnam and to which they bound themselves in 1954.

At that time, the United States, although not a party to the Accords, declared that it “would view any renewal of the aggression in violation of the Agreements with grave concern and as seriously threatening international peace and security.” We continue to maintain that view.

In accordance with that declaration, and in response to your request, we are prepared to help the Republic of Vietnam to protect its people and to preserve its independence. We shall promptly increase our assistance to your defense effort as well as help relieve the destruction of the floods which you describe. I have already given the orders to get these programs underway.

The United States, like the Republic of Vietnam, remains devoted to the cause of peace and our primary purpose is to help your people maintain their independence. If the Communist authorities in North Vietnam will stop their campaign to destroy the Republic of Vietnam, the measures we are taking to assist your defense efforts will no longer be necessary. We shall seek to persuade the Communists to give up their attempts to force and subversion. In any case, we are confident that the Vietnamese people will preserve their independence and gain the peace and prosperity for which they have sought so hard and so long.

Glossary

Geneva Accords: the agreement ending Vietnam's rebellion against France.

Hanoi: the capital of North Vietnam.

North Vietnam: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, communist and the ultimate victor in the Vietnam War.

Republic of Vietnam: South Vietnam.

Document Analysis

Communications between two friendly heads of state tend to use generalities, rather than specifics. This letter of assurance, from President Kennedy to President Diem, follows this pattern. Most of it is a litany of grievances caused by North Vietnamese leaders, with only a brief affirmation of support for Diem. Kennedy communicates to Diem that his support was only due to the immediate need to confront the communists, a reminder that Kennedy expected Diem to change some of his policies if he was going to continue receiving support from the United States.

Beginning with the grievances that Diem lodged against the North Vietnamese leaders, Kennedy summarizes them as “deliberate savagery.” He then refers to the report he received from the team he had sent to Vietnam in October, 1961. Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow were the leaders of that mission. They stated that Vietnam was the key to keeping communism from spreading in Southeast Asia. Their advice was to send more advisers and a limited number of combat troops. This was the information that Kennedy had prior to Diem's request for further assistance. The US mission had verified to its satisfaction what Kennedy repeated in the letter, that the North Vietnamese leaders were directing attacks against the South Vietnamese government and people. The Geneva Accords, to which Kennedy refers, were the documents that had divided Vietnam into two countries with the promise of peace between the two factions. The fact that the North was directing attacks was a direct violation of these accords; that was clear. However, Kennedy conveniently forgets that the accords also called for an election in 1956 to unify the nation and that that election had not been held by Diem, in line with US preferences. Thus, it could be said that both sides were in violation of the accords, not just the North.

When it was convenient, the United States had argued that it was not its responsibility to enforce the accords, since it had not been part of the group that had negotiated that treaty. However, now that America's ally was under attack, America's leaders wanted to enforce part of the agreement. This violation was seen as a threat to “international peace and security.” Based on this argument, Kennedy agrees to send more advisers to South Vietnam, as well as military hardware. The unrelated matter of the floods that were devastating parts of South Vietnam is mentioned not just for the humanitarian relief being offered, but because Kennedy's advisers had recommended that some of the American troops sent to Vietnam should be presented as having been deployed to help with flood relief. While Diem did not request American combat troops, and Kennedy did not wish to send them, mentioning the relief effort in the letter leaves open the possibility of sending in combat troops masquerading as relief workers, if they were needed in the future.

Kennedy's closing paragraph represents a not very subtle warning to Diem that American assistance was not unconditional. By mentioning that the military aid was for fighting communists, Kennedy is giving an indirect warning to Diem about the need to rein in his brother, who had been using units of the South Vietnamese army to oppress factions within the country. The hope of “peace and prosperity” for the people of South Vietnam would occur, it is noted, only if North Vietnamese forces would cease their attacks and if Diem's government were less brutal in its suppression of domestic political opponents.

Essential Themes

During the early years of Diem's presidency, political opposition (including communist) was not highly organized. However, things started to change, and, by 1960, the anti-Diem forces in South Vietnam had organized and were supported by North Vietnam. Thus, in 1961, the push by these groups, and more directly by North Vietnamese agents, started to pay off for them. A large area of rural South Vietnam was no longer under the control of the government. Diem was forced to request greater assistance from the United States. For Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba and the construction of the Berlin Wall in Germany, were setbacks in trying to defeat communism. This made Vietnam a key location in which to try to turn the tide against communism. When the request for more assistance came from President Diem, President Kennedy was willing to respond with people, equipment, and funds.

While the immediate increase in American troops was not large in absolute terms (from about 900 in December 1960 to over 3,000 at the end of December 1961), the decision that Vietnam represented a key battleground with communism set the stage for the future commitment of hundreds of thousands of troop and staggering amounts of money. With Kennedy's commitment, documented in this letter, the United States was spending, by the end of December, about one million dollars a day to support the South Vietnamese regime. Many would see this investment of American resources as the beginning of what was to become almost unconditional support for successive South Vietnamese governments for the next decade. While there have been numerous debates regarding what might have been Kennedy's plans for Vietnam if he had not been assassinated, this decision in December 1961 led to his eventual deployment of 16,000 advisers in Vietnam. Whether he would have expanded it into the war that eventually occurred can never be known, but it was clear that in December 1961, he was setting the stage for this possibility.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Chomsky, Noam. Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1993. Print.
  • Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2003. Print.
  • Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
  • “Military Advisors in Vietnam: 1963 Lesson Plan.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 2015. Web. <http://www.jfklibrary.org/Education/Teachers/Curricular-Resources-Image-List/High-School-Curricular-Resources/Military-Advisors-Vietnam.aspx>.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. 1965. First Mariner Books edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2002. Print.
  • Sorenson, Theodore C. Kennedy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.
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