The Air Force instinctively disliked the slow, gradual way the United States prosecuted its war against the Vietnamese communists. While Americans undoubtedly delayed a communist victory in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia long enough to spare Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries a similar fate, the American public grew very tired of this war years before its dismal conclusion. Due to questionable political policies and decision-making, only sporadic and relatively ineffective use had been made of air power's ability to bring great force to bear quickly and decisively. The United States and its Air Force experienced a decade of frustration made more painful by the losses of its personnel killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Fighting resolutely and courageously, the Air Force played the decisive role in forcing North Vietnam to the peace table in 1973. The demands of the Vietnam War forced new developments such as laser-guided-bombs that would eventually radically transform the shape of air warfare.
When President John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961, communist-led wars of national liberation loomed on the horizon. Earlier that month, Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had endorsed this kind of warfare before a world communist conference in Moscow, and Kennedy interpreted the speech as a warning to the West and a definitive statement of Soviet policy. Consequently, the new Chief Executive could not help but be concerned about the attempt of one communist faction, the Pathet Lao, to seize control of the kingdom of Laos and the attempt of another communist force, the Viet Cong, to overthrow the government headed by Ngo Dinh Diem in the Republic of Vietnam, also called South Vietnam. Although warned by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, that Laos held the key to control of Southeast Asia, Kennedy soon became convinced otherwise, for close study revealed that the kingdom was sorely divided with no strong anticommunist leadership. He quickly concluded that the best the United States could hope for in Laos was neutrality, however fragile, in which the communist and noncommunist factions offset each other politically and militarily.
Kennedy and his advisers concluded that, in comparison to Laos, South Vietnam afforded a more favorable battleground in what they viewed as a worldwide struggle against communist-inspired insurrections. President Diem, despite challenges by armed political factions and mutinous army officers, had remained in power since 1954 as prime minister or president, and American military advisers already were in place with the South Vietnamese armed forces. Moreover, Kennedy believed, incorrectly as was soon revealed, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization had a special interest in the independence of the Republic of Vietnam. Logic therefore persuaded the youthful Kennedy to choose the more stable nation of South Vietnam as the site of a major American effort to contain communism.
Although the Diem regime seemed strong in comparison to the government of Laos, the Viet Cong posed a far greater threat than the Pathet Lao. Like the Kennedy administration in the United States, the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, nudged Laos into the wings and thrust South Vietnam to center stage for the next act of a drama that began in 1946 with the uprising against the French. The North Vietnamese intended to unite all of Vietnam under the control of the communist regime at Hanoi, thus winning the victory denied them by the Geneva Conference of 1954, which resulted in two Vietnams, North and South. North Vietnam's principal instrument for that purpose was the Viet Cong, the name a contraction of a term that meant Vietnamese communists. Originally composed mainly of South Vietnamese, some trained in the North, the nature of the revolutionary forces changed over time, for the Hanoi government in the spring and summer of 1959 established routes of supply by sea along the coast and overland through southern Laos to sustain the war. The maze of roads and trails in Laos came to be called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, after the leader of North Vietnam, and served not only to supply and reinforce the Viet Cong, but also, later in the war, to introduce combat units of the North Vietnamese Army into the South. The North Vietnamese, however, had not yet taken over the fighting; during 1960 the Viet Cong waged war with perhaps 4,000 full-time soldiers backed by twice as many part-time guerrillas, but the numbers were increasing.
The presence of so large a force, and its ability to carry out ambushes and assassinations with near impunity, testified to a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the Diem government. To a typical peasant, the Saigon regime seemed a far-off entity that imposed taxes and enforced arbitrary rules, but failed to address issues, like the ownership of land, that were truly vital to rural villagers. However stable it might appear in comparison to Laos, Diem's Republic of Vietnam was beset by rivalries--the landless against those who owned the land, Catholics (among them Diem) against the more numerous Buddhists, persons who had fled the communist North against natives of the South, and finally Diem's family (his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Nhu's wife) against the nation's politicians and the American diplomats and military advisers in what became a struggle for the ear of an increasingly suspicious and arbitrary ruler.
Whatever his failings, Diem headed a functioning government, and this fact helped South Vietnam obtain the support of an American administration that had twenty Vietnams a day to handle, according to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the President's brother. Nonetheless, not even crises of the magnitude of the Soviet threat to force the West from Berlin obscured the serious shortcomings Diem and his government displayed in their struggle against an insurgency sustained from the North. In fact, as early as 1961, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor (at the time, military adviser to the President, but subsequently Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam) argued for sending American ground troops, but Kennedy chose not to involve the United States to that extent. The President believed that Diem, with American advice, backed by economic aid and military assistance, could defeat the Viet Cong in battle and embark on programs to improve the lot of the peasants, winning their loyalty by providing them both land and security. This executive decision represented a middle course: the President did not want to risk charges that he was losing Vietnam, as President Harry S. Truman allegedly lost China; neither did he want a major war in Southeast Asia when Khrushchev was exerting pressure elsewhere and America's general purpose forces were not yet fully organized, trained, or equipped in accordance with the doctrine of flexible response.
The activity of the U.S. Air Force in what became South Vietnam began during France's struggle to retain control of Indochina. In return for active French participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States supported France's ambitions in Southeast Asia, sending munitions, aircraft, and mechanics and other technicians to repair and maintain the American-supplied equipment. In 1955, after the victory of the communist Viet Minh and the division of Vietnam into North and South, the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group, Indochina, active since 1950, and its air section, formed in 1951, became the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam. Thus, since the departure of the French advisers, a comparative handful of Air Force officers and enlisted men had worked to strengthen the South Vietnamese Air Force. By early 1961, six squadrons were ready for combat--one fighter, two transport, two liaison craft, and one helicopter. Meanwhile, people and supplies moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and as many as 15,000 Viet Cong were armed, supplied, and active in the vicinity of Saigon, the capital city, and elsewhere in the South. By this time, the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam resembled their American models with ground, sea, and (as the existence of the six squadrons testified) air components, but the Viet Cong still fought exclusively as a guerrilla army, organized and trained to strike swiftly, preferably from ambush, and to engage in calculated acts of terrorism.
General Taylor conceded that his recommendation to send combat troops carried the risk of depleting the Army's strategic reserve and setting the nation on a course of action with an unpredictable outcome. Consequently, the Kennedy administration chose to encourage the development of a stable society and a self-sustaining economy as prerequisites for the defeat of communism in South Vietnam, but took a few military measures in 1961 to signal American support for the Diem government, to increase the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese armed forces, and to lay the foundation for future American deployments, should they become necessary. Among these measures, a Combat Development and Test Center at Saigon evaluated equipment and techniques for counterinsurgency and some 400 soldiers of the Special Forces, the Army's counterinsurgency arm, built defensive outposts along the border with Laos to challenge the infiltration of men and supplies over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Air Force buildup during 1961 had the same basic purposes of symbolizing American concern, improving the military skills of the South Vietnamese, and preparing for a possibly greater involvement by the U.S. Air Force. In September, the first permanent unit, a combat reporting post, with sixty-seven officers and airmen assigned, installed radars at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, which also served as Saigon's airport, and began monitoring air traffic and training South Vietnamese to operate and service the equipment. This organization formed the...