Hawk or Dove? JFK on the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War

Part 2 “Riding the Tiger”

Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2017)

Film Review

Last night Maori TV showed Part 2 of The Vietnam War series, entitled “Riding the Tiger”. In my view it provides the most honest analysis of President Kennedy’s role in escalating the Vietnam War. Its only drawback – which is major – is its failure to acknowledge the CIA role in the coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Following his assassination, many historians have been inclined to portray JFK as a dove on Vietnam. In my view, the facts exposed in this documentary suggest otherwise. In 1962 JFK

  • authorized US special forces (16,000 by November 1963) to accompany the South Vietnamese army into battle. This was a clear violation of the 1954 peace treaty signed in Geneva see What You Never Learned in School About Vietnam
  • authorized delivery of dozens of helicopters and armored personnel carries, as well as napalm and toxic defoliants (eg Agent Orange) to the South Vietnamese army. He deliberately concealed this escalation from the American public.
  • supported a massive “pacification” program by the South Vietnamese army that forcibly removed South Vietnamese farmers from their lands and forced them to live in fortified villages. The anger this generated in rural South Vietnam significantly aided recruitment by the South Vietnamese Liberation Front (aka the Vietcong) that was fighting to overthrow the US-installed dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.

By the time of Diem’s assassination in November 1963, Kennedy realized the US was losing the Vietnam War. At the same time he feared withdrawing US forces. He believed allowing South Vietnam to fall would cost him the 1964 election. At the time of his assassination in November 1963, he had ordered a gradual withdrawal of US forces to finish at the end of 1965.

2 thoughts on “Hawk or Dove? JFK on the Vietnam War

  1. JFK biggest mistake was to take advice of Robert Lovett and Averell Harriman in picking his Cabinet, He learned a valuable lesson at division of his advisers on Cuban Missile Crises but it was to late as Scull & Bones crowd that controlled WW2 War Department decided to remove Him.


  2. You’re probably right, Gerald. You get the sense from this film that he was being advised independently by the CIA on the coup against Diem. JFK expresses his regret that he didn’t consult his cabinet about the coup – but the film doesn’t come right out and say the CIA told him to do it.


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