As a retired Army Colonel who was drafted into Secretary McNamara’s Army, commissioned out of OCS and had the privilege of serving an extended CIB earning Vietnam tour, I don’t believe President Kennedy is given sufficient credit for his committed bi-partisan, anti-communist foreign policy and his principled defense of South Vietnam by sending in U.S. Forces and actually creating the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) on 8 Feb 1962. As everyone that fought in Vietnam knows, MACV was the US Command that prosecuted the war right up until the end.
President Kennedy was totally committed to stopping communist expansion and knew not acting decisively in Vietnam by committing US troops would fatally damage U.S. credibility with our allies. As Kennedy so eloquently stated "Now we have a problem in making our power credible... and Vietnam looks like the place.” He went on to reaffirmed his commitment to defend South Vietnam in his 11 May National Security Action Memorandum 52, which became known as "The Presidential Program for Vietnam." Its opening statement reads: “U.S. objectives and concept of operations [are] to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam; to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society, and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic, psychological, and covert character designed to achieve this objective.”Although initially totally supportive of the Vietnam Catholic minority administration of President Ngô Đình Diệm, the Kennedy administration grew increasingly frustrated with Diệm because his crackdown against protesting Buddhist monks that sparked a Buddhist Revolt where several monks committed self-immolation covered by the world press. Hence, on 1 Nov 1963, with the tacit approval of the Kennedy administration, Vietnamese military officers launch a coup d'état against Diem and on the next day he was assassinated. President Kennedy knew to be successful there needed to be a change in Vietnamese leadership and he was not afraid to make it. By the time President Kennedy was himself assassinated he had established the MACV Command and had 16,000 troops in country with plans for a significant escalation. Although President Johnson presided over the troop increases, he was following the Kennedy blueprint so President Kennedy is due the lion’s share of the credit for saving most of Southeast Asia from Communist domination.
As a student of the Vietnam War who strongly believes holding the line there until the mid 1970s (ground troops left in 1972 and Congress withdrew support allowing the South Vietnamese Government to fall in 1975) actually stemmed the tide of Communist aggression in Southeast Asia, I believe the contributions of President are often overlooked.
The fact that President Kennedy established MACV and introduced combat troops into South Vietnam in sizable numbers providing the “breathing room” that kept most of Southeast Asia free should be a proud part of the proud Kennedy legacy and I am honored to have been one who was inspired to answer the President’s call “to ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”