Write a brief summary of President John F. Kennedy’s views on U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Elaborate on any factors that influenced his stance on foreign policy. Did his views change over the course of his presidency? How or how not?On July 8, 1959, in a little town called Bien Hoa, about 20 miles from Saigon, a small band of Vietcong guerrillas attacked the base of the South Vietnamese 7th Infantry Division. In the mess hall, several U.S. military advisors from the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) were watching a film called The Tattered Dress. During an intermission, the guerrilas attacked using bombs, rifles, and automatic weapons. Two U.S. soldiers, Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand, were killled along with two South Vietnamese guards. The deaths of Buis and Ovnand were notable; they were the first Americans to die in the American phase of the Indochina War.This attack was part of a growing escalation in Vietcong activity between 1957 and 1960 (the word “Vietcong” was actually coined by Diem’s supporters in the South; it was loosely translated to “Vietnamese Communist”). The resumption of violence in the South was primarily due to the Diem government’s resistance to all opponents (not just Communists) and increasing crackdowns on dissident groups. By 1960, Diem had ordered the executions of at least 12,000 opponents; some of them were beheaded by guillotine. Another 40,000 political prisoners had been arrested and imprisoned without a trial. At the same time, the U.S. sank more and more resources into propping up Diem and pushing him as a natural democratic leader who would lead Southeast Asia away from flirtations with Socialism and Communism. The photograph at the top exemplified this push; the U.S. sponsored a tour by Diem to the United States, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan in 1957. These efforts proved to be futile. Diem’s “Strategic Hamlet” program (with assistance from MAAG) was on the surface an attempt to reorganize South Vietnamese villages into more secure areas free from Vietcong attacks, but in reality only Buddhist areas (the majority of the villages) were seized by the government. Catholic areas were exempt from the policies, but Buddhist villages were spared if they converted to Catholicism. After 1955 Diem also completely reversed the Vietminh’s land reforms during the previous eight years; after gaining some control of the south during the war against the French, the Vietminh attempted to redistribute property ownership. Diem ended this policy, and by 1960 approximately 40% of the land in the Mekong Delta was owned by 0.025% of the South Vietnamese population. Diem also bifurcated the South Vietnamese Army into Catholic and Buddhist enclaves. Catholics in the Army were given far more weapons and supplies than Buddhists, and Buddhist officers were explicitly told to convert if they wanted to advance their careers.By 1963, Diem had become a serious figure of contention among American policymakers. Generally speaking, analysts with the U.S. State Department were against providing any more aid and assistance to Diem, but the Defense Department argued for continued support to him. According to the latter argument, Diem was the only South Vietnamese leader capable of unifying the fragile country together despite growing evidence of his abuse of powers. Led by new Democratic President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. had rapidly increased its commitment to the survival of South Vietnam. When Kennedy was inaugurated, only a few hundred military advisors were stationed in the country; by November 1963 that number had increased to more than 20,000.Matters worsened considerably when in June 1963, nine Buddhist demonstrators were killed by South Vietnamese Army soldiers during a peaceful protest. In response, one of the most senior and respected Buddhist monks in all of South Vietnam burned himself alive on a Saigon street. The above photo shocked many Americans and other people around the world, but some of Diem’s supporters openly mocked the suicides. Diem’s sister-in-law, for example, stated, “If the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline.” This was too much for some of Diem’s supporters; when his Foreign Minister resigned in protest and shaved his head in sympathy with the monks, he was promptly detained under house arrest. Two universities were shut down due to student protests, and one high school was also shut when students protested there.As the “Buddhist Crisis” deepened during the summer and fall of 1963, a group of South Vietnamese generals began to quietly plot Diem’s removal. By October, these generals quietly received support from U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. The CIA provided the generals with cash and a promise to not intervene should Diem be overthrown. On November 1, the coup began, and Diem and his brother were captured and executed on November 2. When Ho Chi Minh and other North Vietnamese leaders heard of the coup, they reportedly could not believe “how stupid the Americans were.” They also used the coup as a propoganda weapon to supposedly illustrate the “imperialist aims” of the United States.
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