Senator John F. Kennedy on America’s Stake in Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Vietnam was going through a period of transition in the mid-1950s. The former colonial rulers, the French, withdrew their forces and, in 1954, divided the territory into North and South Vietnam. In 1956, an election was to be held to unify the country, and the communist leaders in the North were favored to win. The organization the American Friends of Vietnam was opposed to this election and supported the government of South Vietnam. Senator John F. Kennedy was invited to give the keynote speech to a conference that was convened to influence American leaders to support this policy. Given that four and a half years later Senator Kennedy would become president, this speech is an important indicator of his thoughts prior to achieving the highest office in government. Also, his analysis of what might happen if the United States were to become involved in the war in Vietnam in 1954 proved to be an accurate view of the conflict that lay ahead.

Summary Overview

Vietnam was going through a period of transition in the mid-1950s. The former colonial rulers, the French, withdrew their forces and, in 1954, divided the territory into North and South Vietnam. In 1956, an election was to be held to unify the country, and the communist leaders in the North were favored to win. The organization the American Friends of Vietnam was opposed to this election and supported the government of South Vietnam. Senator John F. Kennedy was invited to give the keynote speech to a conference that was convened to influence American leaders to support this policy. Given that four and a half years later Senator Kennedy would become president, this speech is an important indicator of his thoughts prior to achieving the highest office in government. Also, his analysis of what might happen if the United States were to become involved in the war in Vietnam in 1954 proved to be an accurate view of the conflict that lay ahead.

Defining Moment

The communist movement was successful in 1917 in transforming Russia into the Soviet Union. But communism's spread soon stalled. This changed after World War II, when communist governments were put in place throughout areas in Europe and Asia that were occupied by the Soviet army. The 1949 victory by communist forces in China gave communism a strong position in Asia. When Vietnamese leaders sought to overthrow the French, communist leaders were more than willing to assist. The division of Vietnam into two countries, North and South, gave the leadership of the North to those who had adopted communist ideology, and leadership of the South was taken by Western/capitalist-leaning individuals.

By the time of this conference in June 1956, all French forces had withdrawn and an election was to be held to reunify Vietnam. There was little doubt that the leaders of North Vietnam, those who had been most active in the anti-French revolution, and who most fully adopted the communist ideology, would win the election. Thus, it was believed, if the United States was to stem the growth of communism in Asia, it must support the leaders of South Vietnam to keep communism bottled up in the North. The gathering convened by the American Friends of Vietnam proposed to influence American leaders of both parties to support South Vietnam along with its leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. John F. Kennedy, a rising star in the Democratic Party, was invited to speak. Although a majority of the American Friends of Vietnam were conservative, it was necessary to get liberals, such as Kennedy, to support the cause. Kennedy's views, as expressed in this speech, help to explain why, as president, he was willing to increase military aid to South Vietnam. While neither this speech nor this conference can be given total credit for the policy of America supporting South Vietnam, the talk sought a continuation of President Eisenhower's commitment of opposing communism. The continuity of American policy in 1961, in the transition from a Republican administration to a Democratic one, is clearly foreshadowed in this speech, as was Kennedy's strong anticommunist rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Kennedy's statement that Vietnam was the “keystone of the Free World in Southeast Asia” was a clear variant on the “domino theory,” which had been put forth by President Eisenhower two years before. This speech contains the essence of what would become American policy toward Vietnam for most of the succeeding two decades.

Author Biography

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963) was born into a wealthy Catholic family in Boston. His parents stressed success for him and all his siblings. As a student, he excelled at what he enjoyed and was mediocre at the rest. Although he spent much of his time socializing, his senior thesis at Harvard was published in 1940. A naval war hero in World War II, in 1946, he was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1952, he ran for the US Senate, defeating the Republican incumbent in a year when Republicans won the presidency, the Senate, and the House. The following year, he married Jacqueline Bouvier. He ran for and was elected president in 1960 and was the first Catholic to hold that position. His foreign policy was staunchly anticommunist throughout the world. Assassinated on November 21, 1963, Kennedy had a mixed record of accomplishments during his short term as president, but the enthusiasm and activism he inspired endeared him to many across the nation.

Historical Document

It is a genuine pleasure to be here today at this vital Conference on the future of Vietnam, and America's stake in that new nation, sponsored by the American Friends of Vietnam, an organization of which I am proud to be a member. Your meeting today at a time when political events concerning Vietnam are approaching a climax, both in that country and in our own Congress, is most timely. Your topic and deliberations, which emphasize the promise of the future more than the failures of the past, are most constructive. I can assure you that the Congress of the United States will give considerable weight to your findings and recommendations; and I extend to all of you who have made the effort to participate in this Conference my congratulations and best wishes.

It is an ironic and tragic fact that this Conference is being held at a time when the news about Vietnam has virtually disappeared from the front pages of the American press, and the American people have all but forgotten the tiny nation for which we are in large measure responsible. This decline in public attention is due, I believe, to three factors:

(1) First, it is due in part to the amazing success of President Diem in meeting firmly and with determination the major political and economic crises which had heretofore continually plagued Vietnam. (I shall say more about this point later, for it deserves more consideration from all Americans interested in the future of Asia).

(2) Secondly, it is due in part to the traditional role of American journalism, including readers as well as writers, to be more interested in crises than in accomplishments, to give more space to the threat of wars than the need for works, and to write larger headlines on the sensational omissions of the past than the creative missions of the future.

(3) Third and finally, our neglect of Vietnam is the result of one of the most serious weaknesses that has hampered the long-range effectiveness of American foreign policy over the past several years—and that is the over emphasis upon our role as “volunteer fire department” for the world. Whenever and wherever fire breaks out—in Indo-China, in the Middle East, in Guatemala, in Cyprus, in the Formosan Straits—our firemen rush in, wheeling up all their heavy equipment, and resorting to every known method of containing and extinguishing the blaze. The crowd gathers—the usually successful efforts of our able volunteers are heartily applauded—and then the firemen rush off to the next conflagration, leaving the grateful but still stunned inhabitants to clean up the rubble, pick up the pieces and rebuild their homes with whatever resources are available.

The role, to be sure, is a necessary one; but it is not the only role to be played, and the others cannot be ignored. A volunteer fire department halts, but rarely prevents, fires. It repels but rarely rebuilds; it meets the problems of the present but not of the future. And while we are devoting our attention to the Communist arson in Korea, there is smoldering in Indo-China; we turn our efforts to Indo-China until the alarm sounds in Algeria—and so it goes.

Of course Vietnam is not completely forgotten by our policy-makers today—I could not in honesty make such a charge and the facts would easily refute it—but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that, in my opinion, Vietnam would in all likelihood be receiving more attention from our Congress and Administration, and greater assistance under our aid programs, if it were in imminent danger of Communist invasion or revolution. Like those peoples of Latin America and Africa whom we have very nearly overlooked in the past decade, the Vietnamese may find that their devotion to the cause of democracy, and their success in reducing the strength of local Communist groups, have had the ironic effect of reducing American support. Yet the need for that support has in no way been reduced. (I hope it will not be necessary for the Diem Government—or this organization—to subsidize the growth of the South Vietnam Communist Party in order to focus American attention on that nation's critical needs!)

No one contends that we should now rush all our firefighting equipment to Vietnam, ignoring the Middle East or any other part of the world. But neither should we conclude that the cessation of hostilities in Indo-China removed that area from the list of important areas of United States foreign policy. Let us briefly consider exactly what is “America's Stake in Vietnam”:

(1) First, Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam. In the past, our policy-makers have sometimes issued contradictory statements on this point—but the long history of Chinese invasions of Southeast Asia being stopped by Vietnamese warriors should have removed all doubt on this subject.

Moreover, the independence of a Free Vietnam is crucial to the free world in fields other than the military. Her economy is essential to the economy of Southeast Asia; and her political liberty is an inspiration to those seeking to obtain or maintain their liberty in all parts of Asia—and indeed the world. The fundamental tenets of this nation's foreign policy, in short, depend in considerable measure upon a strong and free Vietnamese nation.

(2) Secondly, Vietnam represents a proving ground of democracy in Asia. However we may choose to ignore it or deprecate it, the rising prestige and influence of Communist China in Asia are unchallengeable facts. Vietnam represents the alternative to Communist dictatorship. If this democratic experiment fails, if some one million refugees have fled the totalitarianism of the North only to find neither freedom nor security in the South, then weakness, not strength, will characterize the meaning of democracy in the minds of still more Asians. The United States is directly responsible for this experiment—it is playing an important role in the laboratory where it is being conducted. We cannot afford to permit that experiment to fail.

(3) Third and in somewhat similar fashion, Vietnam represents a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia. If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents. We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we have helped to shape its future. As French influence in the political, economic and military spheres has declined in Vietnam, American influence has steadily grown. This is our offspring—we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence—Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest—then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible; and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.

(4) Fourth and finally, America's stake in Vietnam, in her strength and in her security, is a very selfish one—for it can be measured, in the last analysis, in terms of American lives and American dollars. It is now well known that we were at one time on the brink of war in Indo-China—a war which could well have been more costly, more exhausting and less conclusive than any war we have ever known. The threat to such war is not now altogether removed from the horizon. Military weakness, political instability or economic failure in the new state of Vietnam could change almost overnight the apparent security which has increasingly characterized that area under the leadership of Premier Diem. And the key position of Vietnam in Southeast Asia, as already discussed, makes inevitable the involvement of this nation's security in any new outbreak of trouble.

It is these four points, in my opinion, that represent America's stake in Vietnamese security. And before we look to the future, let us stop to review what the Diem Government has already accomplished by way of increasing that security. Most striking of all, perhaps, has been the rehabilitation of more than three-quarters of a million refugees from the North. For these courageous people dedicated to the free way of life, approximately 45,000 houses have been constructed, 2,500 wells dug, 100 schools established and dozens of medical centers and maternity homes provided.

Equally impressive has been the increased solidarity and stability of the Government, the elimination of rebellious sects and the taking of the first vital steps toward true democracy. Where once colonialism and Communism struggled for supremacy, a free and independent republic has been proclaimed, recognized by over 40 countries of the free world. Where once a playboy emperor ruled from a distant shore, a constituent assembly has been elected.

Social and economic reforms have likewise been remarkable. The living conditions of the peasants have been vastly improved, the wastelands have been cultivated, and a wider ownership of the land is gradually being encouraged. Farm cooperatives and farmer loans have modernized an outmoded agricultural economy; and a tremendous dam in the center of the country has made possible the irrigation of a vast area previously uncultivated. Legislation for better labor relations, health protection, working conditions and wages has been completed under the leadership of President Diem.

Finally, the Vietnamese army—now fighting for its own homeland and not its colonial masters - has increased tremendously in both quality and quantity. General O'Daniel can tell you more about these accomplishments.

But the responsibility of the United States for Vietnam does not conclude, obviously, with a review of what has been accomplished thus far with our help. Much more needs to be done; much more, in fact, than we have been doing up to now. Military alliances in Southeast Asia are necessary but not enough. Atomic superiority and the development of new ultimate weapons are not enough. Informational and propaganda activities, warning of the evils of Communism and the blessings of the American way of life, are not enough in a country where concepts of free enterprise and capitalism are meaningless, where poverty and hunger are not enemies across the 17th parallel but enemies within their midst. As Ambassador Chuong has recently said: “People cannot be expected to fight for the Free World unless they have their own freedom to defend, their freedom from foreign domination as well as freedom from misery, oppression, corruption.”

I shall not attempt to set forth the details of the type of aid program this nation should offer the Vietnamese—for it is not the details of that program that are as important as the spirit with which it is offered and the objectives it seeks to accomplish. We should not attempt to buy the friendship of the Vietnamese. Nor can we win their hearts by making them dependent upon our handouts. What we must offer them is a revolution—a political, economic and social revolution far superior to anything the Communists can offer—far more peaceful, far more democratic and far more locally controlled. Such a Revolution will require much from the United States and much from Vietnam. We must supply capital to replace that drained by the centuries of colonial exploitation; technicians to train those handicapped by deliberate policies of illiteracy; guidance to assist a nation taking those first feeble steps toward the complexities of a republican form of government. We must assist the inspiring growth of Vietnamese democracy and economy, including the complete integration of those refugees who gave up their homes and their belongings to seek freedom. We must provide military assistance to rebuild the new Vietnamese Army, which every day faces the growing peril of Vietminh Armies across the border.

And finally, in the councils of the world, we must never permit any diplomatic action adverse to this, one of the youngest members of the family of nations—and I include in that injunction a plea that the United States never give its approval to the early nationwide elections called for by the Geneva Agreement of 1954. Neither the United States nor Free Vietnam was a party to that agreement—and neither the United States nor Free Vietnam is ever going to be a party to an election obviously stacked and subverted in advance, urged upon us by those who have already broken their own pledges under the Agreement they now seek to enforce.

All this and more we can offer Free Vietnam, as it passes through the present period of transition on its way to a new era—an era of pride and independence, and era of democratic and economic growth—an era which, when contrasted with the long years of colonial oppression, will truly represent a political, social and economic revolution.

This is the revolution we can, we should, we must offer to the people of Vietnam—not as charity, not as a business proposition, not as a political maneuver, nor simply to enlist them as soldiers against Communism or as chattels of American foreign policy—but a revolution of their own making, for their own welfare, and for the security of freedom everywhere. The Communists offer them another kind of revolution, glittering and seductive in its superficial appeal. The choice between the two can be made only by the Vietnamese people themselves. But in these times of trial and burden, true friendships stand out. As Premier Diem recently wrote a great friend of Vietnam, Senator Mansfield, “It is only in winter that you can tell which trees are evergreen.” And I am confident that if this nation demonstrates that it has not forgotten the people of Vietnam, the people of Vietnam will demonstrate that they have not forgotten us.

Glossary

Indo-China (also, Indochina): Southeast Asia

North: North Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, ally of communist nations, and the eventual victor in the war

South Vietnam: the Republic of Vietnam, ally of the United States

Vietminh Armies: originally, communist forces fighting the French; the term was later used for North Vietnamese troops and related forces

Document Analysis

While not a well-known speech, this declaration of values by then Senator Kennedy illustrates the speaker's understanding of American culture and politics as well as of America's national security policy. The focal point of the United States' foreign policy was opposition to communism. Kennedy uses Cold War rhetoric here in praising a leader, in this case Diem, who was opposed to communism. During this period, it is implied, if Diem could be useful in stopping the spread of communism, then many, more negative behaviors could be overlooked. For Kennedy and the Friends of Vietnam, and according to the American foreign policy of that day, the ideology of North Vietnam must not be allowed to spread. Thus, Kennedy concisely lays out a position of unity regarding his and Eisenhower's policy on Vietnam. In an aside, he predicts the course of the military conflict in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Kennedy understood that, in 1956, Vietnam was not a topic of interest for most Americans or their political leaders. Then as now, journalists and readers preferred stories about sensational events, not about situations that seemed to be unfolding smoothly. Thus, with the withdrawal of the French, and with the Geneva Accords setting a path for Vietnamese unity, the crisis seemed to be over. Kennedy's analogy of the United States as a volunteer fire department reflects his ability to communicate important issues using everyday images and serves as an apt description of how US forces were being used. Kennedy understood that stopping communist expansion was needed, but, more importantly, he recognized the inadequacy of a policy that achieved only this end. He proclaims that to win in Vietnam, the United States needed to offer a way of life that was “far superior to anything the Communists can offer.” Unfortunately for the people of Vietnam, and for American foreign policy, that which was being offered by the Diem regime did not add up to this sort of total social revolution.

Kennedy's vision of Vietnam as “the keystone to the arch” of countries surrounding China, from Japan to India, was in line with the mainstream thought of American leaders. While in retrospect this view can be questioned, the staggering advances made by communism in the decade prior to 1956 raised legitimate concerns for the United States. As is always the case in foreign policy, Kennedy had to deal with the situation and leaders at hand. Thus, he speaks words of support for Diem, even though many of the accomplishments mentioned in the speech were not benefiting the Buddhist majority in Vietnam, but only the Catholic minority, including Diem himself. Kennedy subtly pushes for change in South Vietnam by stating that the country could be a showplace of freedom and democracy for all Vietnamese and all of Asia.

Given the steps that Kennedy would later take as president, which moved the United States into a more active military role in Vietnam, it is interesting that he presents his thoughts on what a war in that country might mean. While believing that at some point the United States might have to intervene militarily in Vietnam, he hopes that this will not happen. He reflects that if the United States had entered the previous conflict, it would have been “more costly, more exhausting and less conclusive than any war we have ever known.” That essential insight ultimately became the reality when Americans had had enough of Vietnam and American troops were finally withdrawn from the country in the 1970s.

Essential Themes

While in many areas of politics Kennedy was seen as innovative or liberal, his position on Vietnam reflected the status quo. By 1956, Vietnam had become “our offspring,” and the United States needed to support South Vietnam as a bulkhead against communism. If things faltered in that country, it would be “inevitable” that the United States would have to protect its interests elsewhere in the region. While Kennedy hoped that South Vietnam would progress in all areas, he indicates that he was not totally opposed to American military activity in the country. The fact that he held this view in 1956 meant that there was no real division on the issue between the major candidates in the 1960 presidential election. This speech suggests the policy that Kennedy would pursue when the situation in South Vietnam worsened under his presidency in the early 1960s. The speech may not represent a blueprint of his later actions in Vietnam, but it does reflect his thoughts on how the United States might combat a possible communist expansion. This is the most important aspect of Kennedy's speech and one that later stood as the basis of American foreign policy in the region in the decade after his death.

The speech also contains an example of Kennedy's understanding about how the success or failure of American foreign policy should be measured not merely in terms of military accomplishments or the ideology of a government. He believed, rather, that American foreign policy would be successful only when it helped the average person in Vietnam, or when it assisted the citizens of any country to live better, more secure lives. Freedom and personal security in economic, social, or political terms was what Kennedy thought should be the measure of whether American policy was a success. Thus, he talks about better living conditions, economic growth, and the implementation of democracy for the people of South Vietnam. Through these measures, Kennedy believed, the people of South Vietnam would not only advance themselves, but would also solidify themselves in opposition to communism. While Kennedy recognized that there was value in being the “volunteer fire department” stamping out a communist insurgency, he declares that it was important to follow up such actions by taking measures that allowed the values of freedom and liberty to become a part of the daily life of a country. Only then, Kennedy believed, would the revolution against oppression be complete.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • 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.
  • Morgan, Joseph G. The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955–1975. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Print.
  • Prados, John. “JFK and the Diem Coup.” The National Security Archive. George Washington University, 5 Nov. 2003. Web. 29 May 2015. <http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/>.
  • Sorenson, Theodore C. Kennedy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.
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