Tuesday, June 22, 2004

John Kennedy's Vietnam Rhetoric

John Kennedy's Vietnam Rhetoric This is an extensive review of the public rhetoric of Kennedy on Vietnam which concludes that he would have had an extremely difficult time withdrawing, given his public statements.

From the site:


Pres Kennedy's rhetoric on the situation in Vietnam exemplifies the way in which presidents balance idealistic arguments, which apply principles of genus to public problem-solving, and pragmatic arguments, which emphasize the efficacy or practicality of politics. Kennedy legitimized his Vietnam policy through his idealistic appeals, casting himself as a principled leader, and deflected criticism and built an image of expertise through his pragmatic appeals.

Full Text:

In 1951, Congressman John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts set out for an extensive fact-finding mission to the Middle and Far East. Upon his return, Kennedy reiterated his support of western efforts to defend freedom in both regions. He claimed that if the West did not act upon this ideal, especially in Southeast Asia, that the Chinese Communists easily would dominate these countries.(1) At the same time, however, the Congressman clearly disagreed with the methods the French employed. For Kennedy, France's anachronistic colonialist mentality had blinded it to the nationalistic aspirations of the native peoples of the region. In a radio address upon his return, the Congressman explained the complexities of Southeast Asia and warned that these complexities called for particular policies. Kennedy presciently observed:

The Indo-Chinese states are puppet states, French principalities with great resources but as typical examples of empire and colonialism as can be fond anywhere. To check the southern drive of Communism makes sense but not only through reliance on the force of arms. The task is, rather, to build strong native non-Communist sentiment within these areas and rely on that as a spearhead of defense. To do this apart from and in defiance of innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure.(2)

In the years that followed this speech, Kennedy claimed French and U.S. policy in Southeast Asia lacked practicality.(3) Nonetheless, he never failed to show support for the principle of freedom behind that policy. As he declared in 1956, "Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike."(4)

In many ways, this early rhetoric foreshadowed John Kennedy's presidential rhetoric on Vietnam. From 1961 to 1963, President Kennedy invoked idealistic terms to encourage Americans to view the conflict there as one small part of the larger struggle between freedom and communism. According to the President, the United States had to do whatever was necessary to defend freedom's Vietnam. Alternately, Kennedy explained that the situation in Vietnam was quite complicated and unique because of that nation's particular history, government, logistics, and legal relationship with the U.S. In view of these complexities, the President held that the United States must pragmatically pursue very special policies in order to fulfill its mission in Vietnam.

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