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What if? That’s the question that’s always applied to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago this month.
One of the biggest “ifs” is what would have happened regarding the Vietnam War if he had lived. The war escalated under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and eventually claimed more than 58,000 American lives, along with countless troops from South and North Vietnam, and of course civilians.
Historian Edward Miller, author of “Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam,” (excerpt below) joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the possible answers.
On why the U.S. decided to support a regime change
“The key development for Kennedy was the so called ‘Buddhist Crisis,’ which began in the spring of 1963. These monks and their supporters accused Diem of religious discrimination and persecution. Diem was a Catholic, a member of the Catholic minority, and the Buddhists accused him of trying to suppress their religious freedom. These protests attracted a lot of attention, especially after one of the Buddhist monks burned himself to death on a Saigon street corner. Among those who saw the very famous photograph of that event was President Kennedy. And I think the breaking point for Kennedy came in August of 1963, when Diem decided to use force to suppress the movement—that was the moment that Kennedy opted for regime change.”
On what happened after the Diem coup
“In the year after Diem’s death, South Vietnam had a revolving door series of very weak governments. The generals who overthrew Diem were only in power for about three months. Meanwhile, Communist leaders in North Vietnam decided that after the coup, to rapidly escalate their war effort in the south. Their goal was to bring about the collapse of the South Vietnamese state before the United States could intervene with its own troops. This Communist escalation, this gamble to win the war quickly by North Vietnam, ultimately failed because it provoked Lyndon Johnson to launch his own American escalation. And so in 1965, the U.S. begins bombing North Vietnam and sent hundreds or thousands of troops to the south. So there is no doubt that the coup led directly to the escalation of the war and that it would have disastrous consequences both for Vietnam and the United States.”
On what might have happened if Kennedy had not been assassinated
“I don’t think that he would have taken the path of massive escalation that Johnson did; however, I don’t think that he would have opted for an immediate withdrawal either. I suspect that Kennedy would have chosen some kind of middle course and I think that he might well have done something not unlike what Barack Obama would later do in Afghanistan in 2009. In Afghanistan, of course, Obama chose short-term escalation, followed by a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. Having done this, I can also imagine Kennedy trying to seek some sort kind negotiated deal, some sort of settlement that would have allowed for the so-called ‘neutralization of South Vietnam.’”
By all accounts, the welcome ceremony that took place at Tan Son Nhut airport in the late afternoon of June 25, 1954, was a subdued affair. It was witnessed by a crowd of several hundred people gathered on the airport tarmac, beneath the silver fuselage of a French commercial airliner. The plane had arrived just minutes earlier, completing the last leg of its long journey from Paris to Saigon. As the crowd watched, a short figure in a white suit descended the staircase that had been rolled up to the rear door of the aircraft.
On the ground, Ngo Dinh Diem solemnly shook hands with the officials and political leaders who were waiting for him. His greeters included some of the most powerful men in Indochina. The first was a senior general of the French colonial army, who was attending on behalf of the French high commissioner. As an official of the colonial state, the general was a symbol of France’s determination to maintain a measure of control over the Indochinese empire it had ruled for nearly a century. Next to welcome Diem was Prince Buu Loc, a member of Vietnam’s royal family. Buu Loc was attending the ceremony in his capacity as the caretaker prime minister of the State of Vietnam (SVN), the anticommunist Vietnamese government that had been established under French auspices five years earlier. Though Diem had come to Saigon to replace Buu Loc as premier of the SVN, protocol obliged the prince to welcome his successor.
Standing behind Buu Loc were several other high-ranking government officials, including the senior commanders of the SVN’s armed forces. Also in attendance were leading members of the foreign diplomatic corps, including the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Donald Heath. Although he did not command any armies or assert any claims of sovereignty over Vietnamese territory, Heath was an influential figure in Saigon politics. As the official with responsibility for a massive program of military and economic aid for French forces and the SVN, the head of the U.S. mission was not a man to be taken lightly.
Despite the presence of so many of Indochina’s most prominent person- alities, the welcome ceremony for Diem was surprisingly brief and low-key. After exchanging pleasantries with the new arrival, the French general and the Vietnamese prince delivered short speeches of welcome. Observers noted that Diem seemed ill at ease as they spoke, and that he did not address the crowd after they had finished. As soon as the ceremony concluded, he climbed into a waiting limousine and sped away.
Diem’s desire to leave the airport as quickly as possible was understandable. As the prime minister–designate of the SVN, the situation in which he now found himself appeared to be a daunting mix of both opportunity and danger. Diem’s arrival in Saigon marked the end of nearly four years of self-imposed exile in the United States and Europe. For much of that time, it appeared unlikely that Diem would ever realize his ambition to become the leader of an independent, postcolonial Vietnamese state. He had defied expectations and returned to take the helm of the SVN—but he had done so at a moment when Vietnam’s national destiny appeared to be hanging in the balance. Just seven weeks earlier, French army forces had been dealt a devastating defeat on a battlefield far to the north, in a remote mountain valley known as Dien Bien Phu. That defeat came at the hands of the Viet Minh, the communist-led movement that had been fighting for independence from France for over a decade. For Ho Chi Minh, the founder and leader of the Viet Minh, the timing of the victory was exquisite: it took place exactly one day before international peace negotiations to end the Indochina War were scheduled to begin in Geneva. When Diem landed at Tan Son Nhut on June 25, the terms of the Geneva peace had not yet been written, but it seemed certain that they would be disadvantageous to him and to the state he would soon be leading.
Excerpted from the book “Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam” by Edward Miller. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. And it's an annual ritual, but it's ramped up this year, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. It's the what-if. And one of the biggest regards the Vietnam War, which escalated under Lyndon Johnson, eventually taking over 58,000 American lives and untold Vietnamese.
Are we just kidding ourselves when we ask if Kennedy had lived might the war have been averted? Edward Miller is associate professor of history at Dartmouth College. His book is "Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam," Diem being the South Vietnamese leader ousted in a coup endorsed by President Kennedy in early November 1963.
Professor Miller joins us now. And remind us, U.S. combat troops wouldn't be deployed to Vietnam for two more years, although there had been U.S. advisors in the area for a couple of decades by 1963. Remind us: What was going on in Vietnam 50 years ago this month?
EDWARD MILLER: In South Vietnam in 1963, the Vietnam War had been going on for about four years, and it was still very much a Vietnamese war. On the one side of this war you had the communist-led Viet Cong insurgency, which was supported and controlled by North Vietnam. Then on the other side you had the anti-communist government of South Vietnam, led by Ngo Dinh Diem and supported very strongly by the United States.
YOUNG: And we have to mention France because France had been fighting in the region since the 1940s. There was French Indochina, which included Laos and Cambodia. So they were seen as occupiers in the region, and they'd been there for a while.
MILLER: That is correct. The French had fought their own war in Vietnam against the Vietnamese communists starting in 1945. The French had lost that war in 1954. And the United States had essentially taken over as the main patron of South Vietnam at that point.
YOUNG: Well, then why was the U.S. so involved? There was a proxy war building here.
MILLER: Certainly the Cold War is a crucial part of the context here, but in many ways it was a Vietnamese civil war that was about decolonization in Vietnam and what kind of country post-colonial Vietnam was going to be.
YOUNG: As we said, the coup, the coup that killed the South Vietnamese leader and his brother, was endorsed by President Kennedy. Why? What was it about this regime? Because the communist insurgency was being supported by the north, not the south. So what was the concern?
MILLER: Well, I think to understand the decision about the coup, you have to look at the history of U.S. support for Diem. Diem had been in power since 1954, and initially he had actually been much more successful than anyone expected. And as a result, by the late 1950s he's viewed by many Americans as a hero who had saved South Vietnam from communism.
In 1957, he makes this state visit to the United States. When he landed in Washington he was met at the airport by U.S. President Eisenhower. He actually delivered an address to a joint session of Congress and even had a tickertape parade down Broadway in New York City. So at that moment Diem was more than just a Cold War ally. For many Americans he was the hero who had saved South Vietnam from communism.
YOUNG: So initially the U.S. and Americans were conscious of this, supported Diem because he was seen as fighting the communist insurgents. More and more money was poured in to help support him do that. But then there was a change of heart. Why?
MILLER: Well, the key development for Kennedy was the so-called Buddhist Crisis, which began in the spring of 1963. These monks and their supporters accused Diem of religious discrimination and persecution. Diem was a Catholic, a member of the Catholic minority, and the Buddhists accused him of trying to suppress their religious freedom.
These protests attracted a lot of attention, especially after one of the Buddhist monks burned himself to death on a Saigon street corner. Among those who saw the very famous photograph of that event was President Kennedy. And I think the breaking point for Kennedy came in August of 1963, when Diem decided to use force to suppress the movement. That was the moment that Kennedy opted for regime change.
YOUNG: We spoke with an Associated Press editor last week. That iconic photo is now featured in a new book of AP photos. And he said at the time that that picture stunned Americans, a picture of a monk sitting down in a street in Saigon, aflame, that Kennedy is reported to have said we have to do something about this regime.
And there's a recording that President Kennedy made on November 4. This is just after the coup. And he's dictating his thoughts about it. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August, which we suggested the coup.
YOUNG: Kennedy continues, but then he's interrupted by his young son, John.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN KENNEDY JR.: Hello.
YOUNG: Some Americans may remember fondly those moments when, you know, the children would interrupt the president. But you could tell that this was wearing on this president; that, you know, there should be responsibility taken. What did the Kennedy administration think would happen after the coup, and what actually happened?
MILLER: I think he recognized that there was a real downside here and that this war could turn out to be very damaging for the United States. He was hoping that those of his advisors who backed the coup were right and that the generals who overthrew Diem would be more effective leaders.
YOUNG: And Professor, just as we're hearing you, this really underscores, though, what you're saying really underscores how much the U.S. was involved. You say allow it to go forward. These advisors that were on the ground there were really in deep with the government.
MILLER: That's right. The United States did not have operational control of the coup. The generals were the ones who planned and executed the coup. But the generals made it clear that they would not move ahead unless they got the green light from the United States. So there was a definite decision on the part of U.S. leaders and Kennedy in particular to allow the coup to take place.
YOUNG: Well, and what happened?
MILLER: In the year after Diem's death, South Vietnam had a revolving-door series of very weak governments. The generals who overthrew Diem were only in power for about three months. Meanwhile, communist leaders in North Vietnam decided after the coup to rapidly escalate their war effort in the south.
Their goal was to bring about the collapse of the South Vietnamese state before the United States could intervene with its own troops. This communist escalation, this gamble to win the war quickly by North Vietnam, ultimately failed because it provoked Lyndon Johnson to launch his own American escalation.
And so in 1965, the U.S. begins bombing North Vietnam and sent hundreds or thousands of troops to the south. So there is no doubt that the coup led directly to the escalation of the war and that it would have disastrous consequences both for Vietnam and the United States.
YOUNG: But what about the school of thought that the Vietnam War wouldn't have turned into the calamity it did if Kennedy hadn't been killed? Your thoughts on that.
MILLER: I don't think that he would have taken the path of massive escalation that Johnson did; however, I don't think he would have opted for an immediate withdrawal either. I suspect that Kennedy would have chosen some kind of middle course, and I think that he might well have done something not unlike what Barack Obama would later do in Afghanistan in 2009.
In Afghanistan, of course, Obama chose short-term escalation, followed by a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. Having done this, I can also imagine Kennedy trying to seek some kind negotiated deal, some sort of settlement that would have allowed for the so-called neutralization of South Vietnam.
YOUNG: And that was the ultimate end anyway, a takeover of South Vietnam, yeah.
MILLER: That is correct. That is correct.
YOUNG: Edward Miller, associate professor of history at Dartmouth. His book is "Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam." Professor Miller, thank you so much.
MILLER: Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: And you can read an excerpt from his book at hereandnow.org. And while there, do you have a memory from 50 years ago Friday? Tell us in the comments section or click on contact us and send an email. Lots of people heard the news of Kennedy's death over the PA in grade school. What's your story? Send it to hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.