The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Kennedy wanted US military to relieve Dien Bien Phu?

As a measure of unfitness for office, it rather knocks Bush's history of substance abuse into a cocked hat. If it's true, that is [1].

According to Theodore Draper's Abuse of Power (1967 - p41)
One of our most ardent supporters of the 'domino theory' in South East Asia was [during the siege of Dien Bien Phu] Senator John F Kennedy. He rose in the Senate on 9 March 1954, two months before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, to argue that 'the security of French Indochina is vital to the security of all South Asia'. When Senator Stennis criticized the sending of American technicians to Vietnam to help the French, he defended the gesture. Kennedy sought to stave off the future division of Vietnam by taking the view that a partition 'would be the first step toward the seizure of complete control in that area by Communist forces'. He strongly urged that the United States adopt a position at the coming Geneva Conference that 'the war should be continued and brought to a successful conclusion'.

When Kennedy spoke on the Senate floor on 6 April, 1954, he'd change his tune [2], blaming the French for failing to give the Vietnamese genuine self-government (rather than the playboy Emperor Bao Dai) [3]:
I am of the belief that no amount of American military assistance can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, an "enemy of the people" which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.

'Without the participation 'by the armed forces of the other nations of Asia, without the support of the great masses of the [Vietnamese] peoples, and with the increasing reluctance of the French to fight, he considered United States intervention to be 'virtually impossible in the type of military situation which prevails in Indochina'.

Dallek's bio of Kennedy, which is pretty skimpy on his Senate years, covers his Dien Bien Phu period in two or three pages (pp185-7). He covers Kennedy's insistence - to Secretary of State Dulles in May 1953, and on Meet the Press on February 14 1954 - that a grant by the French of genuine independence was a precondition to any effective war effort in Indo-China - and, on CBS on May 9, that US military intervention in place of the defeated French would be futile, and might bring in the Chinese.

Dallek points up the contradiction between Kennedy's realism on the military situation and his adherence to the domino theory - in his Meet the Press appearance, he was asked
Since he was on record as saying that to lose Indochina was to lose all Asia, didn't he believe it essential for the United States to fight? No, he said, because he saw no prospect of victory, "and therefore it would be a mistake for us to go in".

But, though he quotes from JFK's April 6 speech, Dallek does not mention the rather embarrassing March 9 one.

The materials available to me are far too skimpy to make a conclusive judgement on the point. Perhaps one is dealing with an artefact of selective quotation. Perhaps there was a particular political reason for his saying what he did on March 9 [4]. Perhaps he'd taken some happy pills.

  1. I can't check it because the Congressional Record isn't available online (Lexis might have it, at a price). Not that the Congressional Record is in any way reliable, what with the way it gets freely revised. But it's a lot better than nothing.

  2. Events had rather moved on, too. The key meeting for the Eisenhower administration's hawks - CJCS Admiral Arthur Radford leading the charge - to persuade Congressional leaders to sign up to US military support for DBP took place on April 3 (my piece of February 11 2003). Lyndon Johnson was a voice for sanity.

  3. Reminds me somehow of John Kerry's
    How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
    - too good a line not to come back and haunt a politician. I've no idea whether Kennedy's line was quoted against him ever. Perhaps it would have been had he survived to fight a re-election campaign.

  4. Beats me what it might have been. The guy wasn't up for re-election until 1958; his anticommunist credentials were pretty burnished; he had cover from Stennis, for Goodness' sake, not exactly a Hanoi John.

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