Riding the Tiger

I am scared of the dark still.  I still got a night light. When my kids were growing up that’s the first time they really found out that Daddy’s been in a war when they said, “Why do we need to outgrow our nightlights, Daddy’s still got one.”  John Musgrave, American Soldier

From 1961 to 1963, America’s response to the situation in Vietnam was in the hands of John Kennedy.  Key decisions made by his team set the stage for what was to come.

Robert McNamara, the former President of the Ford Company, was now the Secretary of Defense.  He was a pioneer of systems analysis so he created charts to determine how America was doing in Vietnam.  He came up with 100 different indicators that his commanders in the field had to fill out on a daily basis. Number of enemy killed, number of arms confiscated, and so on.

As a young child at the time, that’s one of the things I remember being reported on the nightly news.  “130 Viet Cong killed versus 8 Americans killed”.  It looked like we were winning.

But as one of his aids pointed out, the charts and graphs did not record the feelings of the Vietnamese people.  Bau Ning, a soldier in the North Vietnamese Army, summed up the problem, “For my parent’s generation, you American’s were no different from the French. The Americans were also the invaders.”

But for McNamara and his advisors the feelings of the Vietnamese were beside the point.  America was fighting against the rising communist movement.  Kennedy’s early attempts had gone badly. The Bay of Pigs was an embarrassment when American troops were caught trying to invade Cuba.  The Russians had built the Berlin Wall, cutting the city into West Berlin and East Berlin.  Laos had fallen into the hands of the communist.  Vietnam stood as the one place where the United States could make a stand.  It didn’t matter that it had its own culture.  To McNamara and in turn Kennedy, it was a square on a giant chessboard that had to be defended at all costs.

As his presidency progressed, Kennedy found himself sending more and more support to the South Vietnamese and its leader, Ngo Dinh Diem.  Rather than being upfront with the American public, much of this support was kept hidden.  He authorized the use of napalm, defoliates designed to kill trees and crops so they could see the enemy, and the chemical Agent Orange.  Within two years the number of advisors went from 685 to 11,300.  Led by the Green Berets they were sent to support the South Vietnamese troops by training them in counter-insurgency, transporting them in helicopters and ARN’s, and fighting with them when necessary.

But as the support increased, there was one issue that wouldn’t go away, Ngo Dinh Diem and his family were turning their power into a dictatorship.  One of the compounding issues was Diem was a Roman Catholic in a country whose majority was Buddhist.  Many of Diem’s policies discriminated against the Buddhist monks.  As these polices became harsher, huge protests by Buddhist monks and their supporters threatened Diem’s hold on power. On June 10th, 1963, a seventy-three-year-old monk, Quang Duc, burned himself alive to protest against Diem’s government.

As conditions were running out of control, Kennedy and his advisors knew that something had to be done.  In August a secret message had been received.  A group of South Vietnamese generals were planning a coup, would Kennedy approve?

Reluctantly Kennedy gave the go ahead. On November 1st, 1963, the coup took place and Diem and his brother were assassinated.  A few days later on November 4th, Kennedy recorded some of his thoughts and regrets about the whole situation. He was appalled by their deaths.  He wondered if the generals could form a stable government in South Vietnam.  He worried about its future.

Eighteen days later, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and now Lyndon Johnson would become president and the fate of America’s involvement in Vietnam was in his hands.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What happens when people become reduced to numbers?
  2. What responsibility do government leaders have to keep the public informed of its decisions?
  3. What does the conflict between the Roman Catholic leaders and the Buddhist monks say about the power of religion to influence?

Go to Episode 2 to view this show.

For a post about Episode 1 go Here.

Craig Kennet Miller is the author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. He will be sharing insights on each episode of this series.  Join Miller in a three-part on Boomer Spirituality starting on October 4, at 6:30 pm Central Time. Register for the webinar series »