October 13, 1961
JFK Sends Gen. Maxwell Taylor to South Vietnam to Appraise Situation
A week after Kennedy became President, he was handed a report on the situation in South Vietnam. Speed-reading at 1200 words a minute, flipping through the pages, he was heard to mutter, “This is going to be the worst one yet.” He was right, of course.
By summer, Kennedy was under increasing pressure to make ever greater commitments to shore up the government of South Vietnam. Introduce American combat troops, he was told, again and again, by the Joint Chiefs, the State Department, the C.I.A. If not, they all predicted, Vietnam would succumb to the Communist guerrillas. Everyone, it seemed, was for making a small war a big one – except Kennedy. He resisted, looking for less dangerous ways to intervene. Playing for time, and hoping for new information, he ordered his newly appointed “Military Representative,” former Army Chief of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, to go to Vietnam to assess the insurgency and counterinsurgency. Here is the letter which sent Taylor marching. Later, in his autobiography, Taylor would call it the most important and accurate summary of the President’s thinking after months of study and debate.
What Taylor should do, Kennedy says, is appraise “the threat to the internal security and defense of that country and adjacent areas.” After conferring with all the concerned parties, he will report on how to “avoid a further deterioration in the situation in South Viet- Nam and eventually to contain and eliminate the threat to its independence.” But what Taylor must remember is “that the initial responsibility for the effective maintenance of the independence of South Viet-Nam rests with the people and government of that country.” Furthermore, he stresses, the problem is not only military: the “political, social, and economic elements are equally significant,” and he expects Taylor’s evaluation to take full account of them.
But Kennedy could hardly have sent a worse envoy. Taylor had already advised Kennedy to seize Laos - the better to stage attacks on North Vietnam – and urged major naval and air attacks against the North, to boot. He had proposed sending 22,800 American troops to South Vietnam as well. Departing a hawk, he came back only more hawkish. “The President made it abundantly clear,” Taylor wrote a decade later, “that he fervently hoped the necessary military force could be provided by the Vietnamese without the need to introduce U.S. ground troops into combat. I assured him that I shared that hope…but a government had to be ready to do the unpalatable when necessary in the national interest.”
Kennedy’s first instincts were, it turned out, his best: Vietnam was downhill all the way. His mission to Taylor, unfortunately, was the first step of the descent.
Typed Letter Signed, as President, marked “Confidential”, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, October 13, 1961. To General Maxwell D. Taylor in the White House.