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Kennedy's Crises in Berlin and Vietnam

In his inaugural address Kennedy said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." That same month, the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev disturbed Kennedy with his declared his support for wars of national liberation. Observers in the Kremlin are said to have had no illusions about Africa being on the verge of Communist revolution. Instead they described African nationalist movements as "bourgeois" and thoroughly un-proletarian. But supporting independence movements fit with their play for hearts and minds among anti-imperialists in the international community.

A trouble spot was the Congo. Its first Prime Minister (since June 1960) was Patrice Lumumba. An opposing faction grabbed him, drove him a truck into "the bush," beat him and assassinated him by a firing squad, an operation commanded by General Joseph-Desiré Mobuto, the chief of staff of the Congo's army and future dictator for 31 years. The Soviet Union had been friendly with Lumumba's government, the Mobutu faction friendly with the United States. Khrushchev had been disturbed by Lumumba's assassination. The UN was ineffectively involved, and on February 15, Kennedy asked the Soviets to avoid interfering with the UN's effort to pacify the Congo crisis.

On February 27, 1961, in his letter to Khrushchev, Kennedy offered an early summit meeting to exchange views. Khrushchev agreed to a summit meeting in Vienna. President Kennedy, meanwhile, was interested in countering images of the "Ugly American" and "Yankee imperialism," and on March 1, by executive order, he created what became known as the Peace Corps.

In mid-April, Kennedy had his failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. His summit meeting with Khrushchev began in early June. The big issue was access to Berlin by the US and its allies, Britain and France. Berlin was a divided city deep inside Communist-controlled East Germany. (The Berlin Airlift had kept it connected back in 1948-49.) East Germany was a Stalinist creation functioning as an authoritarian state since October 1949, with Soviet military forces remaining within its borders. East Germany's Walter Ulbricht was concerned about losing people, especially skilled people, who were passing freely into West Berlin and beyond to West Germany. And Ulbricht convinced Khrushchev that the border between Berlin's zones had to be closed — a violation of what had been agreed to by the Allies at the close of World War II.

Khrushchev wanted better relations with the West and he wanted to talk to Kennedy to get an agreement on the Berlin issue. But it didn't work out. At Vienna, Khrushchev threatened to cut off Western access to Berlin (like back in 1948), and Kennedy responded with talk of the possibility of war. (During his campaign for the presidency he had said (to quote George Will) that 'our position in Europe' depends on not being 'driven from Berlin' and 'is worth a nuclear war.'

Kennedy's advisers were divided. On one side were Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze. They stressed the importance of appearing tough to avoid encouraging "enemies" ratcheting up expansions. On the other side was Arthur Schlesinger Jr (who had been opposed to the Bay of Pigs invasion) and Kennedy's ambassador to the Soviet Union, E Llewellyn Thompson. They were opposed to reducing relations with the Soviet Union to a game of chicken and that only a demonstration of US readiness to have a nuclear war would deter Khrushchev. Nitze was Kennedy's Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He drew up a paper on preparation for another Berlin confrontation. Kennedy's Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, agreed on a buildup of armed forces in Europe. Nitze wanted a first-strike option to be considered. He opined that the US might lose in a nuclear exchange if the Russians were allowed to strike first. (Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961, p 439.)

On August 13, East Germany began closing the border between West and East Berlin, beginning with barbed wire (called by the Ulbricht regime an "anti-fascist protective barrier"). Kennedy saw this as a sign that Khrushchev and Ulbricht (photo) were not planning on seizing West Berlin, asking an aide: "Why would Khrushchev put up a wall if he really intended to seize West Berlin?"

For months a concrete wall went up in place of the barbed wire, with a "death zone" between the borders manned by East German guards with machine guns. On August 16 Khrushchev launched military maneuvers that simulated an eruption of war over Berlin, maneuvers that included nuclear-tipped battlefield missiles. He announced that he was ending his three-year moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing and that the testing would begin in September.

Kennedy groaned. On August 30, Kennedy ordered 148,000 Guardsmen and Reservists to active duty. In October and November more Air National Guard units were mobilized, and 216 aircraft from the tactical fighter units flew to Europe in operation "Stair Step", the largest jet deployment in the history of the Air Guard. Most of the mobilized Air Guardsmen remained in the US, while some others had been trained for delivery of tactical nuclear weapons.

Tensions increased in late October when Kennedy's Special Advisor in West Berlin, former Army General Lucius D. Clay, moved to demonstrate American resolve. On October 22 a US diplomat stationed in West Berlin, E. Allan Lightner Jr, with his wife, tried to enter East Berlin to attend a cultural event in East Germany. They were asked to show credentials — an unprecedented move by East Berlin's border guards. Lightner refused, tried to drive his Volkswagen forward and was stopped by a gathering of more guards. In a couple of days, Russian tanks on the East side of Checkpoint Charlie were facing US tanks on the West side of the crossing. Khrushchev backed away from the confrontation, saying that he was giving the US an opportunity to withdraw without losing face. The American tanks withdrew, and matters in Berlin returned to normal.

Some West Berliners were disappointed with the US response to the Berlin crisis, but the people in West Berlin remained friendly toward Kennedy, and in June 1963 — eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis — they gave Kennedy a hero's welcome. Kennedy spoke of the proudest boast two thousand years before as "civis Romanus sum" (I am a Roman citizen). "Today," he continued, "in the world of freedom the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner". He added that "Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us."

Kennedy gives up his support for Ngo Dinh Diem

Ngo Dinh Diem was an anti-Communist who wanted real independence for his country Vietnam. In the early 1950s he was in exile in the United States and there he won support from various people and the Eisenhower administration as an alternative force in Vietnam. The Eisenhower administration gave Diem financial support and had begun training an army in the southern half of Vietnam loyal to Diem. Both Diem and the Eisenhower administration disliked the idea of elections promised at Geneva to unite Vietnam's north and south, elections promised for 1956 but feared by anti-communists that the communists would win.

France Vietnamese puppet monarch for South Vietnam was Bao Dai. Bao Dai disliked Diem, but in June 1954 he yielded to political pressure and named Diem his prime minister. On 18 October 1955 he described Diem as using "police methods" and exercising a "personal dictatorship." Diem moved quickly to have himself elected president through a referendum. Diem's troops guarded the polls, and those who attempted to vote against him were assaulted. Diem proclaimed himself President of the Republic of South Vietnam. Bao Dai was out and the French displeased. The French were leaving, and military aid from the United States began.

When Kennedy took office in 1961 he supported Diem as South Vietnam's head of state. That spring, France's Charles de Gaulle warned President Kennedy that in Vietnam the US would sink "step by step into a bottomless quagmire" however much it spent there "in men and money." But Kennedy remained an eager supporter of imposing America's will on the conflict in Vietnam rather than letting the Vietnamese themselves struggle with their opposing opinions. The Kennedy administration was view Vietnam in terms of Cold War dynamics. The Communists in North Vietnam were friendly with the Soviet Union and China and receiving aid from these powers and this, in the eyes of Kennedy administration hawks justified US aid to Diem, no matter the degree.

Kennedy had begun sending more advisors to Vietnam to help the Diem regime, increasing their number that year to 800. (He used Truman's aid to Greece as a model. Truman had sent aid but no US combat troops and the Leftist rebels in Greece had been halted. But Greece was a bad analogy: South Vietnam under Diem was not Greece in the 1940s.) Kennedy was allowing US pilots to fly combat missions in South Vietnam, while the pilots pretended to be instructors, and he supported counter-insurgency to overthrow the Communists in the North.

Despite US help, Diem was not winning his war. Kennedy saw hearts and minds as part of the struggle and he said that the war would have to be won by the Vietnamese themselves, not by Americans. Kennedy told Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield:

If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm reelected. (Peter Beinart, The Icarus Syndrome, p 160)

To a friend, Charlie Bartlett, Kennedy said:

Those people [the Vietnamese] hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at almost any point. But I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the American people to reelect me. (Beinart, p 160)

Kennedy watched as Diem became more hated by people in South Vietnam. The Diem family was the same faith as the hated French: Roman Catholic. And he had come into conflict with Buddhists – a large segment of the South's population. In the city of Hué, Catholics had been permitted to fly the papal banner but the Buddhists had been prohibited from raising their flag. In May 1963, thousands of Buddhists in Hué staged a protest demonstration. The Diem regime sent troops in armored vehicles against them, and nine of the Buddhists were killed. Diem accused the Buddhists of being Communist sympathizers. In the weeks to come there were more clashes between Diem's troops and the Buddhists, and Buddhist monks began setting themselves afire, creating a sensation around the world, while Diem's sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, described the burnings as a "Buddhist barbecue." Then, in August, Diem ordered troops to attack Buddhist temples in Hué, Saigon and other cities in the south.

The Kennedy administration had given up the idea that Diem would be able to rally the South in the fight against the Communists. The Kennedy administration wanted an alternative to Diem. With US connivance the Diem regime was overthrown by its military generals. On November 2, Diem was assassinated, and in the South people erupted in joy. People in the South's primary city, Saigon, bedecked army tanks with flowers and paraded joyously through the streets.

President Kennedy's assassination occurred twenty days later, in Dallas Texas, on November 22.

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