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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

While Diem was too repellent to be given American combat troops, he was not pliable enough to accept American bureaucrats. Rusk, as we have seen, presumed that America would undertake a “de facto direction of South Vietnamese affairs.” The Taylor-Rostow report had anticipated a “limited partnership” between the GVN and the United States government. Diem quickly dashed these hopes. Vice President Thuan told Ambassador Nolting that Diem’s “attitude seemed to be that the United States was asking great concessions of GVN in the realm of its sovereignty, in exchange for little additional help.” When Nolting pressed Diem directly on the need for a close partnership, Diem informed him that “Vietnam did not want to be a protectorate.”

By word and deed, Diem demonstrated that he would no more broaden his decision-making councils to include Americans than he would do so to include other Vietnamese. To turn over the internal bureaucracy to the Americans, Diem had told Ambassador Kenneth Young, would “give a monopoly on nationalism to the Communists.” The only conditions under which Diem would accept a US directorate were the dispatch of US combat troops and a bilateral treaty. If he was certain that the Americans would openly defend him, then he could afford to come out openly as their puppet. But Washington would not openly defend Diem because he did not seem worth defending in public.

In these circumstances Kennedy made the decision not to send in combat troops, or rather, to fight a private war. In a National Security Council Action Memorandum on Vietnam, NSAM 111, Kennedy, observing widespread criticism of Diem’s regime, stated that US support would be conditional upon whether real reforms were instituted by Diem. The President said:

Rightly or wrongly his regime is widely criticized abroad and in the US, and if we are to give our substantial support, we must be able to point to real administrative, political, and social reforms and a real effort to widen its base that will give maximum confidence to the American people, as well as to world opinion that our efforts are not directed towards the support of an unpopular or ineffective regime, but rather towards supporting the combined efforts of all the non-Communist people of the GVN against a Communist takeover.

In the next clause of the NSAM, however, Kennedy made the decision to send US troops and informed the American ambassador that these troops should be seen as the equivalent of combat forces.

It is anticipated that one of the first questions President Diem will raise with you after your presentation of the above joint proposals will be that of introducing US combat troops. You are authorized to remind him that the actions we already have in mind involve a substantial number of US military personnel for operational duties in Vietnam, and that we believe that these forces performing crucial missions can greatly increase the capacity of GVN forces to win their war against the Viet Cong.

US firepower and US troops would be immediately sent to Vietnam without the necessity for any “real administrative, political, and social reforms.” What was desirable was that Diem’s image be improved.

In the next clause of the memorandum, Kennedy dispensed with the need for the GVN “to widen its base…towards supporting the combined efforts of all the non-Communist people of the GVN against a Communist takeover.” Kennedy admonished the ambassador:

You should inform Diem that, in our minds, the concept of the joint undertaking envisages a much closer relationship than the present one of acting in an advisory capacity only. We would expect to share in the decision-making processes in the political, economic and military fields as they affected the security situation.

Reform, to Kennedy, ultimately meant that Diem needed an attractive image in America, and that Washington needed to seize the bureaucratic machinery in Vietnam. If neither was forthcoming, Diem would be eliminated, and a “genuine and real” puppet put in his place.


The private war required dispatching US combat troops to Vietnam to perform “operational duties” and withholding that fact from the American public. The troops were put under the jurisdiction of the newly organized Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), but their combat role was disguised. The public was told that US personnel would only “advise” the South Vietnamese army.

Another component of the private war was the initiation of covert activities. Begun in the spring of 1961, only six weeks after John F. Kennedy had assumed the Presidency, these continued without interruption up to the launching of Operation Rolling Thunder in February, 1965, the beginning of the overt war by Lyndon Johnson.

In March, 1961, Kennedy instructed the national security agencies to “make every possible effort to launch guerrilla operations in Viet-Minh territory at the earliest possible time.” He directed the Secretary of Defense and the Director of the CIA to furnish plans for covert programs against the North both in the near-term and in the “longer future periods.” Two months later, Kennedy approved the program for covert actions that had been proposed by the Vietnam Task Force, a group working out of the State Department, then under the leadership of Sterling Cottrell. Cottrell had accompanied Taylor and Rostow on their mission to Vietnam in the fall of 1961 and had urged the President not to introduce combat troops into the South. In the spring of 1961 he recommended that the President use South Vietnamese troops for commando raids and sabotage in North Vietnam and Laos.

The President agreed. One hundred days after he was elected President, he ordered agents to be sent into North Vietnam who were to be resupplied by Vietnamese civilian mercenary air crews. Special GVN forces were meanwhile to infiltrate into Southeast Laos to locate and attack Communist bases, and other teams trained by the Special Forces were to be used for sabotage and light harassment inside North Vietnam. Finally, Kennedy ordered flights over North Vietnam to drop leaflets. Two days after Kennedy authorized the Taylor-Rostow mission and before the mission arrived in Vietnam, the President ordered guerrilla ground action, “including the use of US advisers if necessary against Communist aerial resupply missions in the vicinity of Tchepone, Laos.” In December, immediately after he shelved Taylor’s proposal to deploy 8,000 combat troops in the South, Kennedy adopted a CIA-sponsored program to recruit South Vietnamese personnel for the purpose of “forming an underwater demolition team to operate in strategic maritime areas of North Vietnam.”

By the end of 1961, the private war consisted of covert operations directed against North Vietnam and Laos, and the concealed use of US air and ground combat personnel against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Each element of the private war increased in tempo and intensity throughout 1962 and 1963. By the time Kennedy was assassinated, the United States had 16,500 troops in South Vietnam pretending they were not fighting, and the Special Forces were executing a host of covert programs in North Vietnam and Laos.

During its thirty-three months in office, the Kennedy Administration managed and directed an illicit war. By sending an additional 1,000 troops to Vietnam in 1961, Kennedy broke through the MAAG ceiling and violated the Geneva Accords. Speaking to Rusk at a National Security Council meeting in November, 1961, Kennedy defined the Presidential manner proper to breaching international laws: “Why do we take onus, say we are going to break the Geneva Accords? Why not remain silent? Don’t say this ourselves!”

The Accords, of course, had been violated before. But the decision to conceal violations—and the developing war—from the American public was new. That the Bay of Pigs, the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, and attempted coups in various parts of the world had also been covert enterprises does not diminish the special significance of the Vietnam undertaking. Here, for the first time, covert activity no longer crystallized into a single event, as with the Bay of Pigs. In Vietnam, the “black stuff” became the usual way of doing business; the war itself was covert. Nor does it suffice to say that the U-2 flights were stretched out through time. The purpose of these flights was spying; they were repetitions of a single act; and they were placed under the jurisdiction of the CIA, an agency restricted to covert acts. In Vietnam, several covert programs were put together to create a pattern of warfare, not spying, and these programs were instituted and managed by the government.

Room 303

In 1962 and 1963, two agencies in Washington managed the Vietnam war—the 303 Committee and the Special Group Counter-Insurgency (SGCI).

The 303 Committee, taking its name from the room number at the Executive Office Building where it met once a week, came into being as a direct consequence of the egregious blundering at the Bay of Pigs in the spring of 1961. Kennedy, appalled by the military incompetence shown by the fiasco and embarrassed by the public image it created, was determined to make sure that the covert activities of the CIA did not contradict US foreign policy and that they were not beyond the capabilities of the military.

Thereafter, CIA programs had to be cleared in advance. This was the task of the 303 Committee, whose jurisdiction came to include every important covert program conducted anywhere in the world, including Vietnam. The membership of the Committee included the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, the Deputy Director of Intelligence of the CIA, and the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. During the Kennedy years, these offices were held, respectively, by Roswell Gilpatric, U. Alexis Johnson, Richard Helms, and McGeorge Bundy. The chairman of the Committee was McGeorge Bundy, who had been given his choice between chairing the Special Group Counter-Insurgency and the 303 Committee.

To the extent that Vietnam was a covert war in 1962 and 1963, the 303 Committee managed the war. It did this by approving and revising the programs that defined American covert participation in the war. At least four major programs were authorized and supervised by the 303 Committee—Operation Farmhand, the training of the Montagnards, DeSoto patrols, and 34a operations.

Operation Farmhand was the first covert program approved by the 303 Committee for Vietnam. Under this program, South Vietnamese personnel were airlifted into North Vietnam in the spring of 1961, to “commit sabotage, spy and harass the enemy.” Trained by the army’s Special Forces, who were themselves detached and put under the control of the CIA, the commandos were invariably arrested as soon as they landed in the North. In many instances, personnel would have to be conscripted to accept an assignment. Frequently, they would show up drunk or fail to appear at all. In the field, the program was a total failure, but, strategically, it informed the North that direct measures would be taken against it.

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