Inside the Kennedy White House (2013)
JFK was a very optimistic President in December, 1962. Not only was his approval rating at 74%, but for the first time in about a century, the party in power gained seats in the House and the Senate during an off-year election. JFK had shown to be an effective and decisive president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he and the Democratic Party were gathering political momentum, ushering in the "Age of Liberalism" that wouldn't begin its decline until the late-1960s. As 1963 unfolded, the same President that ran point in solving the missile crisis with the USSR in the fall of 1962 was unable / unwilling to do the same in Southeast Asia. Ironically, JFK ceded control of the critical decision-making concerning South Vietnam to his military, diplomatic, and intelligence advisers, which is what he refused to do during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For JFK, the "Siren Song" of winning re-election in 1964 justified tabling crucial decisions concerning the level of America's involvement in South Vietnam . . . eventually, his military, diplomatic, and intelligence advisers felt free to implement their policies in South Vietnam, which exacerbated the conflict in Southeast Asia.
The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to communist forces in Southeast Asia had disturbing repercussion in D.C.; basically, President Eisenhower decided that the U.S. needed to fill the void left by the French withdrawal. The U.S. refused to sign the Geneva Accords, believing that by doing so, all of Vietnam would become communist. In effect, the temporary border at the 17th Parallel became far more permanent with the creation of South Vietnam, with the backing of the U.S. Gov't. Among the results of the Geneva Conference was the election of Ngo Dinh Diem as president of the newly created South Vietnam. For almost a decade, he proved to be too weak to rule, but too strong to overthrow; he did as he pleased, much to the frustration of the newly elected President, John Kennedy. With the memories of Appeasement in 1938, and the Bay of Pigs just weeks into his administration, JFK was in a quandry. In the end, JFK didn't act on the advice of the "Hawks" or the very few in Congress that advocated withdrawal . . . he chose to keep South Vietnam on the back-burner for the time-being as 1961 unfolded.
JFK continued his steadfast refusal to send troops to South Vietnam; he had learned his lesson from the Bay of Pigs that it was unwise to act without all the available information. General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted 200k troops to be sent
(a 1960s version of "Shock and Awe") in order to gain a quick and decisive victory to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. JFK refused to follow General Taylor's recommendation; the President likened U.S. involvement in South Vietnam to taking a drink - after awhile, you need another, and another. Yet, the specter of Appeasement existed, and more significant was the increasingly rampant belief in the U.S. Gov't that South Vietnam was a key strategic region in the Cold War. Political polls showed that most Americans believed that Red China was behind the trouble in Southeast Asia.
JFK authorized more military advisers, and publicly stated that there were "plans" to send troops; that public announcement was an effort to get Diem on board with the U.S. goals in the region, but like Union General George B. McClellan, he basically did nothing but protect his position of power. More military advisers in South Vietnam meant more American casualties; JFK desperately tried to hide the truth of those casualties. In not being truthful to the American public about what was happening in South Vietnam, JFK made his greatest error as President, according to Richard Dallek; he ignored the lesson modeled by FDR in being as truthful as possible when it came to American casualties in war. As a logical result, the American media decided to find out what was really happening in South Vietnam . . .
JFK sent SecDef McNamara to South Vietnam to find out what was "really" happening; McNamara wound up "drinking the Kool-Aid" served by the military, and he reported that South Vietnam was winning the war against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong . . . this unmitigated deception spread like a virus, as it was passed down the political chain-of-command from McNamara. As before with the Bay of Pigs, "wishful thinking" blotted out the harsh truths, complicating matters even more for President Kennedy . . . by the summer of 1962, JFK had lost even more confidence in his advisers (except RFK), and he resolved once again to rely only on himself on all-things-Vietnam. At the same point, JFK started to turn over policy-making decisions on South Vietnam to the military, SecDef McNamara, and also to the State Department, which eventually created a situation where JFK's advisers acted on their own in South Vietnam without seeking presidential approval.
JFK lived in a fantasy world in terms of South Vietnam (with the exception of sending troops). He believed that he could "turn the corner" if only: a) The press was more pliable and cooperative; b) There was more support for Diem; c) The public would realize that America's national security was at risk in SE Asia. JFK also believed that Vietnam was the only obstacle to winning re-election (he was looking forward to running against the ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater), and he decided to hold-off on any significant decisions concerning South Vietnam until after the election. JFK's goal was to be able to withdraw U.S. advisers from South Vietnam with at least the appearance of a victory, but by the spring of 1963, that goal was politically impossible due to the political atmosphere in the U.S., as well as in South Vietnam.
We can only speculate on what would have happened in South Vietnam if JFK had not been assassinated. One thing to consider: JFK had developed a deep distrust with the Joint Chiefs and the CIA, while President Lyndon Johnson fully embraced the military's advice to keep sending more-and-more U.S. troops to South Vietnam until "critical mass" was reached, ensuring victory. If President Kennedy had won re-election in 1964, he almost certainly would have been deeply skeptical of any large-scale mobilization of U.S. forces to South Vietnam, and maybe would have started to ask, at long last, some of the questions that needed to be answered before America committed itself to a war that millions would eventually realize was unwinnable.
(Below: JFK's personal memo about the Diem Coup, recorded on 4 November, 1963 . . .
"John John" will interrupt him during the recording; listen how JFK handles the interruption)