For the Presidents that had proceeded Kennedy Vietnam had not a main concern and was seen to be a minor side-show against the growing pressures of the Cold War. Under Kennedy the war became more important and only later, after Kennedy’s death, did it become a national incident; being the first televised war. Kennedy himself loathed Communism and he believed that Communism should be ‘contained’ by America and was scared of Eisenhower’s apocalyptic ‘Domino Theory’.
After his failure at the ‘Bay of Pigs’ Kennedy was desperate to reinstate himself as a firm and reliable President, with a ‘no tolerance’ attitude to Communists, Kennedy pushed ahead with military solutions such as increased financial aid to Diem’s army and he increased the numbers of US military ‘advisers’ in Vietnam. After the first two years of his office the numbers rose from 800 to 12,000 in 1962 accompanied by weapons that flooded into South Vietnam. This was ‘mission creep’, which had been in place since Eisenhower; Kennedy simply seemed to have inherited it; although he pursued it more vigorously, due to previous failures, and his overbearing youth and inexperience. Vietnam became “the place” where after the ‘Bay of Pigs’ Kennedy would restore his honour, it became Kennedy’s crusade.
Kennedy’s foreign policy was perceived to be more anti-communist, in the wake of the McArthur period, and in his Inaugural address: “Pay any price, bear any burden” he clearly states that it is the duty of the United States to “assure the survival and the success of liberty” and that any perceived “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war” would be brought to justice. His anti-communist rhetoric however is also due the overwhelming pressure from his military and civilian advisers, the ‘hawks’, who urged him into a war.
Dedication to US involvement in Vietnam could also be down to the ‘commitment trap’, Kennedy once remarked to General De Gaulle that he had inherited SEATO from Eisenhower and did not believe that its original creation was of the greatest decisions, yet if he dumped SEATO America would lose face. Also as Kennedy took over from Eisenhower the fear of the ‘Domino Theory’, where other countries fell to communism, became the failure of the US, where America failed to exert its ideas of liberty and fail in the containment of Communism.
Kennedy was also forced further into Vietnam due to his responsibilities; he had originally supported Diem, supplying him with weapons and advisers but upon his assassination Kennedy had to thrown more weight into Vietnam to show US support, and also probably make the assassination look less like American doings.
After Kennedy’s death Johnson had ‘inherited’ his policies, and with the unending surge of affection for rose for Kennedy Johnson found himself in a precarious situation, he could not go against a man who had died for his beliefs, Kennedy’s ideas were hard to go against. Johnson too, like Kennedy, was a firm believer in the ‘Domino Theory’ Kennedy’s advisers, people like McNamara; urged Johnson to escalated the plans that had been begun, Johnson believed that the war would be over quickly and therefore dispatched more resources to the area.
Although Kennedy did not help in ensuring that Vietnam did not happen the blame cannot lie entirely upon one man shoulders, Eisenhower started the commitment and due to his inescapable youth and exuberance Kennedy also committed more. After Kennedy’s death made him a martyr Johnson was obliged to do the same, all of the Presidents underestimated the strength of the Vietcong and the NKPA and were swept up in the ‘commitment trap’.