KENNEDY’S SECRET WAR
When Kennedy took office in 1961, the American allies in Laos and South Vietnam were on the verge of collapse. Kennedy accepted a de facto settlement in Laos, but he chose to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. Kennedy surrounded himself with advisers who advocated a type of warfare at a controlled level: using covert operations to conduct localized warfare. His inner circle shared his philosophy. Robert McNamara, former head of the Ford Motor Company, became secretary of defense. Having no political experience, McNamara was easily convinced that the military should run covert operations in Vietnam. General Maxwell Taylor was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Kennedy and Taylor fought each other on the issue of using the military to conduct covert activities in North Vietnam. McGeorge Bundy was appointed special assistant for national security affairs. Walt Rostow was Bundy's deputy and eventually succeeded him. Both Rostow and Bundy supported Kennedy's approach to the Vietnam dilemma. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy also lobbied for counterinsurgency operations.
The fight to come dealt with several matters. Should the Kennedy administration send more military personnel to South Vietnam? Should American involvement be expanded to include covert actions in North Vietnam? If so, should the CIA or should the military have jurisdiction for carrying out black operations? The NSC assigned the intricacies of implementing policies relating to propaganda, economic warfare, sabotage, and other subversive actions. But Kennedy would soon give that task to the unwilling Pentagon.
At Kennedy's first National Security Council meeting on January 28, 1961 -- just eight days after he was inaugurated -- the discussion revolved solely around the quandary in Vietnam. While most of the top brass in the Pentagon despised Kennedy, he find an ally in General Edward Lansdale. An outcast among his peers, Lansdale remained loyal to the president. When Kennedy suggested that he be named ambassador to South Vietnam, the Pentagon was furious since previously he had worked for in secret warfare operations for the CIA in the Philippines. He also had been adversely characterized in the Ugly American. The Pentagon advocated that the slot should be filled by a statesman, not one who had been associated with illegal operations. Subsequently, the Pentagon convinced Kennedy to consider another appointee.
The next month, Lansdale was chosen to establish and lead the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (OATSD). As head of OATSD, Lansdale was given the responsibility for meeting with the NSC's Committee 5412 which later was renamed the 303 Committee. His immediate superior was the deputy secretary of defense who was McNamara's representative to Committee 5412. As a result, Lansdale and other Pentagon leaders sparred over the role of the military in black operations in Vietnam. In an attempt to silence Lansdale, the JCS created the Office of the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) a year later. SACSA gave the impression that the Pentagon was committed to running covert operations in Vietnam. Marine Major Victor Krulak was assigned to head the SACSA, and he played a key role in dismantling OATSD and the resignation of Lansdale.
At the January 28 NSC meeting, Kennedy also created a task force to inquire about the use of the CIA in covert operations inside North Vietnam. The task force studied the consequences of sending agent teams and individual agents into the north. Their objective would be to gather intelligence and to conduct psychological warfare by using radio stations, newspapers, and pamphlets to distribute anti-communist propaganda.
Four months later in May, the task force finished its study and concluded that part of South Vietnam had been infiltrated by communist operants, and it recommended military, political, psychological, economic, and clandestine actions to counter the growing force. Consequently, Kennedy issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 52 for action to be taken.
The CIA soon resorted to covert CIA activities, including paramilitary operations in Vietnam. The CIA used Pacific bases to train South Vietnamese in guerrilla tactics. The agency created military support facilities in the Philippines. And it began smuggling arms and military equipment into Vietnam and storing them in hidden locations.
In the spring of 1961, the Bay of Pigs fiasco unfolded and CIA Director Dulles was forced out. Kennedy came to the conclusion that the CIA was inefficient and that the agency could not be trusted. The president believed that only the military had the expertise in special warfare. Two months later, Kennedy issued NSAM 55, 56, and 57 which transferred the executive branch's responsibility for conducting unconventional warfare operations from the CIA to the Pentagon. NSAM 55 eliminated exclusive CIA authority over planning and executing covert paramilitary operations. NSAM 56 gave authority to the secretary of defense inventory the paramilitary assets in the armed forces and to determine where the implementation of policy would require using indigenous forces. And most important, NSAM 57 assembled the bureaucratic ground rules for planning and executing paramilitary operations by the CIA and Defense Department.
A special counterinsurgency group was created in January 1962 when Kennedy issued NSAM 124 which established a viable policy on fighting a non-conventional war and developed an inter-agency program to implement such a program. At the White House level, the 303 Committee was assigned control of covert and paramilitary operations across the globe, and it focused on coordinating the infiltration of North Vietnam from 1961 to 1962.
In February, the White House established the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) which was assigned responsibility for all military activities in Vietnam. But the Kennedy White House soon made Vietnam a secondary issue when the Cuban missile crisis erupted. Meanwhile, North Vietnam stepped up the movement of troops through Laos and along the Ho Chi Minh trail to the south. In June 1962 alone, 1,500 troops moved into Laos and proceeded southward into South Vietnam. The situation in Laos not only became a serious problem for the administration because of the Ho Chi Minh trail, but because of increased hostility -- which first broke out in 1959 -- between the leftist Pathet Lao headed by Prince Souphanovong and the Royal Lao government headed by his half-brother, Prince Souvanna Phouma. By 1962, it had expanded into a full scale civil war in northwest Laos.
Since Kennedy despised the CIA, he sent McNamara to Honolulu in July 1962 to formulate a new plan that would direct the military to take over and expand clandestine CIA operations against North Vietnam. The secretary of defense met with officials from the CIA, MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Pacific Command. As a result of Operation Switchback, paramilitary operations in Vietnam were turned over to the military. McNamara argued that it was consistent with NSAM 57. Nevertheless, Kennedy was warned that he should expect a costly and long war. Viet Cong operations continued to escalate in the south, and North Vietnam continued to flow southward along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.
While the Kennedy-Pentagon-CIA power struggle continued, the president continued to send more military personnel to South Vietnam, as American forces conducted a "secret war." The Air Force began napalm and agent orange assaults, leading to massive crop destruction. Military operations intensified with indiscriminate bombings in the countryside where 80 percent of the population lived. Understandably, this sent tens of thousands of innocent peasants to seek refuge with the Viet Cong. In addition, occasionally wrong villages were bombed. These military efforts failed since it was impossible to eliminate the "enemy."
Kennedy's "secret war" became less and less a secret. American officials announced that air force pilots were involved in combat missions. The media reported that American pilots were taking the initiative in South Vietnam by using helicopters with more firepower than any World War II fighter plane. According to White House advisor George McBundy, "Intelligence and sabotage forays were underway in North Vietnam since mid-1962."
In 1962, Kennedy made plans to withdraw American forces from Vietnam by 1965. Deliberations in the Kennedy administration were later revealed in the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. In 1962, a White House analyst was quoted in the Pentagon Papers as saying, "At the request of the President, the Secretary of Defense (McNamara) undertook to reexamine the situation (in Vietnam) and address himself to its future with a view to assuring that it be brought to a successful conclusion within a reasonable time." McNamara called for "phasing out major United States advisory and logistic support activities." He went on and stated that "it would take three years instead of one, that is, by the end of 1965." McNamara also said that "it might be difficult to retain public support for United States operations in Vietnam indefinitely" and that it was necessary "to phase out United States military involvement." The JCS ordered preparation to implement this White House decision.
In January 1963, the JCS stated that "the phase-out of the United States special military operations generally occurring during the period July 1965-June 1966." A few days later the JCS supported their original statement by saying that "a concurrent phase-out of United States support personnel (would leave) a Military Assistance Advisory Group of about 1,600 personnel" by 1965.
Thus, the core issue in the Kennedy administration revolved around his decision to withdraw American troops. Perhaps he was assassinated for this reason. Kennedy stated that he would appoint his brother to be the new director of the CIA and that he would "shred it (the CIA) into a thousand pieces." Two years earlier, Kennedy had fired top military personnel for their failure in the Bay of Pigs. Some alleged that he would dismantle the military-industrial complex, end the Cold War, and establish rapprochement with Latin America with his newly created Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress.
In September 1963, Kennedy agreed that Diem should be overthrown. On August 28, Kennedy "asked the Defense Department to come up with ways of building anti-Diem forces in Saigon." He "called on his advisors to devise actions in Washington which would maximize the chances of the rebel generals." Advisors Roger Hilsman, George Ball, and Robert Kennedy "agreed that we cannot win the war unless Diem is removed," and Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned Kennedy that "Nhu (Diem) might call on the North Vietnamese to help him throw out the Americans." Robert Kennedy suggested that the Pope should inform Cardinal Diem, the leader's brother, that he should abdicate. President Kennedy sent General Maxwell Taylor and McNamara to Vietnam to prepare a report which justified the removal of all American personnel.
Tape recorded conversations between Kennedy and McNamara were released in July 1997. According to the tapes, on October 2, 1963, McNamara again urged Kennedy to begin the withdrawal of 1,000 American advisers. He stated that the Vietnamese should be trained to take over "essential functions now performed by United States military personnel" by the end of 1965, and that "the Defense Department should announce the plans to withdraw 1,000 United States personnel by the end of 1963" as "an initial step in a long-term program to replace United States personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort." To Kennedy, withdrawal of American troops was essential. He believed that any significant slowing of this process would have a serious effect on American public support. The Defense Department secretary suggested that the 16,000 American advisers could be replaced by Canadian personnel, who "would take over the essential functions" of training the South Vietnamese army. McNamara suggested to Kennedy that there should be "an increase in the military tempo" so that American forces could withdraw by no later than 1965. Kennedy issued NSAM 263 which was the official blueprint for the withdrawal of Americans from Vietnam.
Even though Kennedy made plans for the evacuation of American forces, he was still deeply entrenched in Vietnam while continuing to battle the Pentagon. The JCS fought Kennedy's demands to turn the covert operations of the war over to the military and have it develop special warfare capabilities. In the fall of 1962, Taylor recommended to the National Security Council's 303 Committee, which had policy oversight of covert missions, to broaden the CIA's role in North Vietnam. However, he did not propose that the military be assigned the task of escalating clandestine operations against Ho's government.
Taylor sent Army chief of staff Earl Wheeler to Saigon in January 1963 to gather information and to assess paramilitary and clandestine requirements in Vietnam. Even though Taylor opposed the proposal for the Pentagon to assume authority over all covert operations in Vietnam, he offered Kennedy a compromise package. The JCS chief recommended that the Pentagon coordinate covert activities with the CIA. The president was delighted to hear the suggestion. But no one in the Pentagon wanted to take responsibility for overseeing the black operations.
In May 1963, the JCS directed the Pacific Command to initiate the development of clandestine operations against Ho's government. Admiral Harry Felt lobbied to commence hit-and-run missions along the coast of North Vietnam, and the Pacific Command submitted OPLAN 34A to Taylor on June 17. Taylor approved the plan in early September but stalled on it. The Pentagon chiefs still were reluctant to take over black operations. The JCS not only believed that covert operations in Vietnam were unnecessary, but they anticipated that if something went wrong with the missions, they would be blamed for the failure, as they had been two years before at the Bay of Pigs. Taylor waited two months until he was pressured into submitting the proposal to McNamara on September 9.
A month later, Diem was assassinated in Saigon, and the following month Kennedy, too, was dead.