Kennedy, Robert F.

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Robert F. Kennedy

Excerpt from a speech on the Vietnam War

Delivered on February 8, 1968

"Reality is grim and painful. But it is only a remote echo of the anguish toward which a policy [U.S. military policy in Vietnam] founded on illusion is surely taking us."

Throughout the years of American involvement in Vietnam, U.S. government officials and military leaders became entangled in a great debate about the government of South Vietnam. Some people argued that if the United States continued to provide military and economic support, the South Vietnamese government could eventually build a democratic state that would be popular with the nation's people. But critics disagreed. They charged that the government was hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, and they noted that the South Vietnamese people felt no allegiance to their leaders. Some observers even claimed that the government's flaws were so great that it did not make sense for the United States to support it. This viewpoint became more common as the war dragged on and American opposition to involvement in Vietnam increased.

Doubts about the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese government first arose shortly after the 1954 Geneva Accords. This treaty, which ended the First Indochina War between Vietnam and France, divided the nation of Vietnam into a Communist-ruled North and a U.S.-supported South. South Vietnam's first leader was Ngo Dinh Diem, an educated Catholic who opposed communism. At first, most American lawmakers and diplomats saw Diem as a promising leader. As time passed, however, U.S. officials expressed growing concern about his management of the young country.

Diem's government showed little interest or ability to implement democratic reforms, tackle social problems, or work on behalf of ordinary South Vietnamese people. Instead, Diem devoted much of his time and energy to protecting his power. He installed family members in many important government positions and cultivated the support of fellow Catholics and wealthy Vietnamese, who made up only a small percentage of the total population. Many government officials discovered that they did not have to be honest in their dealings, as long as they remained loyal to Diem. In the meantime, Diem made virtually no attempt to expand support for his government among the South's vast populations of non-Catholics, peasants, and working-class city residents.

Over time, corruption emerged as a serious problem in nearly every area of Diem's government. It became particularly troublesome in the military, which was responsible for defending the South from Communist guerrillas known as Viet Cong who wanted to overthrow the government. "President Diem chose commanders for their loyalty to himself, not their fighting skill," wrote Albert Marrin in America and Vietnam. "Highranking officers came from wealthy land-owning or merchant families. . . . The army was merely another business to them, not a way of serving a cause in which they believed. Commanders sold promotions, hired out their troops as laborers, taxed the peasants illegally, and took bribes. With fortunes to be made, fighting was the farthest thing from their minds. They played it safe, stayed close to base, and avoided battle whenever possible."

Not surprisingly, popular opposition to Diem's government increased in South Vietnam throughout the late 1950s. Diem approved brutal crackdowns on his political opponents in the early 1960s. But these efforts failed to halt the rising tide of opposition to his rule. In fact, Diem's attempts at political repression further increased the unhappiness that most South Vietnamese people felt toward his regime.

This trend deeply alarmed the United States, which desperately wanted to keep South Vietnam out of Communist hands. American officials recognized that Diem's policies were alienating his people and increasing the strength of the Viet Cong. The United States urged him to introduce policies that would help the nation's poor, tackle corruption, and show tolerance for Buddhism, the majority religion in South Vietnam. But U.S. efforts to convince Diem to change his ways failed.

In mid-1963 South Vietnam was rocked by nationwide Buddhist protests and a series of Viet Cong military successes. In September 1963 U.S. President John F. Kennedy expressed grave concern about Diem's government. "In the final analysis, it's their war and they are the ones who will either win it or lose it. . . . I don't think that the war [against the Communists] can be won unless the people support the effort and, in my opinion, in the last two months, the government has gotten out of touch with the people." Two months later, a group of South Vietnamese military leaders overthrew the government and executed Diem. The United States did not take an active role in the coup (attempt to overthrow the government). But it did signal its support for the action, for it had come to believe that a change of leadership was necessary to save South Vietnam from collapse. The only part of the coup that reportedly upset U.S. officials was the execution of Diem.

America hoped that the institution of a new government in Saigon (South Vietnam's capital) would stabilize and unite the country. But South Vietnam experienced a succession of governments from 1963 to 1967, as political leaders and military generals maneuvered for control of the nation. During this same period, the United States became much more heavily involved in the bloody conflict between North and South Vietnam. In fact, the United States took control of the war against the Communists of North Vietnam at this time, even as it urged leaders in Saigon to stop fighting each other, implement democratic reforms, and take responsibility for the country's future.

Many observers claim that the United States had no choice but to take a leading role in the Vietnam War. They point out that South Vietnam was in terrible economic, political, and military shape by 1965, when U.S. combat troops first arrived in the country. Indeed, many people believe that South Vietnam would have fallen to the Communists in the North within a period of months without American economic aid and military operations. But deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam's affairs became a terrible dilemma for both countries. "If the Americans didn't step in and hold the government together, it would collapse," wrote Jonathan Schell in The Real War. "But if they did step in, whatever independent strength it [the South Vietnamese government] had was still further weakened and the regime's chances of ever standing on its own were further reduced."

South Vietnamese officials quickly became resentful of the U.S. presence and financial aid, even though it saved their government from falling apart. "American decision makers" showed a "startling attitude" toward South Vietnam, claimed Bui Diem, who served as South Vietnam's ambassador to the U.S. from 1966 to 1972. "At the top levels of the administration, the State Department, and the Pentagon, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone considered the South Vietnamese as partners in the venture to save South Vietnam," he wrote in In the Jaws of History. "In a mood that seemed mixed of idealism and naivete [innocence], impatience and overconfidence, the Americans simply came in and took over. It was an attitude that would endure throughout the remainder of the conflict. The message seemed to be that this was an American war, and the best thing the South Vietnamese could do was to keep from rocking the boat and let the Americans get on with their business."

Angry and frustrated about their increased dependence on the United States, South Vietnamese leaders sometimes resisted U.S. strategies to build a stronger nation simply because they wanted to show that they still exercised control over their own existence. "The Communists . . . always treated us as a puppet of America," complained South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Cao Ky. "But then the American people themselves also considered us as a puppet of America, not as true leaders of the Vietnamese people."

The perception that South Vietnam had become a puppet of America contributed to the continued unpopularity of the Saigon government in the late 1960s. But a much bigger factor was the tremendous wave of bloodshed and destruction that enveloped the nation during this period. Indeed, the ongoing war took a crushing toll on the people of South Vietnam. It killed thousands of Vietnamese with each passing month, destroyed huge sections of the countryside with bombings and chemical sprayings, and forced millions of Vietnamese families to flee their traditional homes for wretched refugee camps. This misery severely diminished support for the South Vietnamese government among peasants and city dwellers alike.

In September 1967 Nguyen Van Thieu was elected president of South Vietnam in a rigged election. He quickly moved to strengthen his position, using violence, intimidation, bribery, and political maneuvers to build a powerful political machine in Saigon. At times he also showed sensitivity to the concerns of various ethnic and religious groups in the South. In 1969, for example, he introduced major land ownership reforms that benefitted poor rural Vietnamese. But Thieu approved of violence against political foes and permitted corruption in exchange for loyalty to his government.

Many Americans—both supporters and opponents of the war—expressed grave concerns about Thieu's government. After all, the United States was pouring billions of dollars and millions of soldiers into Vietnam to defend a corrupt and undemocratic regime that remained unpopular with many South Vietnamese citizens. But U.S. political and military leaders continued to support Thieu. They were desperate to win the war, and they believed that South Vietnam might crumble if its government changed hands again. As a result, the United States abandoned its earlier emphasis on cleaning up the South Vietnamese government in favor of efforts to stabilize the Thieu regime.

In early 1968 North Vietnam launched a surprise invasion of the South. This massive invasion, called the Tet Offensive, was eventually turned back by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. But it stunned the American public, which had been repeatedly assured that the United States was on the verge of victory in Vietnam. The invasion showed that North Vietnam remained a dangerous and defiant foe.

In the weeks following the Tet Offensive, U.S. support for the South Vietnamese government came under renewed attack. These critics, who ranged from antiwar activists to political and religious leaders, charged that the government of South Vietnam was an unreliable ally that did not even enjoy the support of its own people. Without that support, these critics believed that U.S. efforts to win the war were doomed to fail. They then called on President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) to enter into negotiations with North Vietnam to withdraw American troops and end the war.

One of the leading critics of the Johnson administration's Vietnam policies during this period of the war was Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. The brother of former President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), Robert Kennedy was a respected and powerful figure in the U.S. Senate. An early supporter of American involvement in Vietnam, he emerged as a critic of the war in 1967. Not surprisingly, then, he viewed the Tet Offensive as further evidence that the United States should reconsider its support for the South Vietnamese government. The following excerpt is taken from a February 8, 1968, speech on that subject.

Things to remember while reading Kennedy's speech:

  • South Vietnam's political leadership was unpopular throughout the 1960s. The nation had several different rulers during this time, but all of them became known for corruption, brutal repression of political opponents, and resistance to democratic reforms. These characteristics, combined with the terrible toll of the war, made life very difficult for the majority of South Vietnamese people. As a result, many South Vietnamese families and communities did not feel any desire to defend their young nation—and its government—from the Communists. They wanted peace above all else, and were willing to accept any political system that would end the bloodshed in their country.
  • As American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s, the Democratic Party became divided over the conflict. Many Democratic Congressmen supported the war effort and the Vietnam policies of President Johnson, a fellow Democrat. But a significant number grew to oppose the war. Some critics expressed opposition because they viewed the war as immoral. Others believed that the war distracted America from civil rights issues and other social and economic problems within its own borders. And some expressed doubts about the war on strategic grounds. They charged that the United States would not be able to claim victory without sacrificing thousands of additional lives.
  • The Tet Offensive shocked U.S. political and military leaders as well as the American public. By late 1967 the United States thought that its bombing campaigns and other military operations were taking a heavy toll on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Many American officials expressed confidence that North Vietnam's leadership would soon give up its efforts to reunite North and South Vietnam under Communist rule. But the Tet invasion destroyed those hopes. It showed that the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies had underestimated the dedication and strength of the Communists.

Excerpt from Senator Robert F. Kennedy's speech:

Our enemy, savagely striking at will across all of South Vietnam, has finally shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. But a short time ago we were serene in our reports and predictions of progress.

The Viet Cong will probably withdraw from the cities, as they were forced to withdraw from the American Embassy [in Saigon, which they temporarily occupied]. Thousands of them will be dead. But they will, nevertheless, have demonstrated that no part or person of South Vietnam is secure from their attacks: neither district capitals nor American bases, neither the peasant in his rice paddy nor the commanding general of our own great forces. . . .

The events of the last two weeks have taught us something. For the sake of those young Americans who are fighting today, if for no other reason, the time has come to take a new look at the war in Vietnam; not by cursing the past but by using it to illuminate the future.

And the first and necessary step is to face the facts. It is to seek out the austere and painful reality of Vietnam, freed from wishful thinking, false hopes and sentimental dreams. It is to rid ourselves of the "good company" of those illusions which have lured us into the deepening swamp of Vietnam.

We must, first of all, rid ourselves of the illusion that the events of the past two weeks represent some sort of victory. That is not so. It is said the Viet Cong will not be able to hold the cities. This is probably true. But they have demonstrated despite all our reports of progress, of government strength and enemy weakness, that half a million American soldiers with 700,000 Vietnamese allies, with total command of the air, total command of the sea, backed by huge resources and the most modern weapons, are unable to secure evena single city from the attacks of an enemy whose total strength is about 250,000 . . .

For years we have been told that the measure of our success and progress in Vietnam was increasing security and control for the population. Now we have seen that none of the population is secure and no area is under sure control.

Four years ago, when we only had about 30,000 troops in Vietnam, the Viet Cong were unable to mount the assaults on cities they have now conducted against our enormous forces. At one time a suggestion that we protect enclaves was derided. Now there are no protected enclaves.

This has not happened because our men are not brave or effective, because they are. It is because we have misconceived the nature of the war. It is because we have sought to resolve by military might a conflict whose issue depends upon the will and conviction of the South Vietnamese people. It is like sending a lion to halt an epidemic of jungle rot.

This misconception rests on a second illusion—the illusion that we can win a war which the South Vietnamese cannot win for themselves. You cannot expect people to risk their lives and endure hardship unless they have a stake in their own society. They must have a clear sense of identification with their own government, a belief they are participating in a cause worth fighting for. People will not fight to line the pockets of generals or swell the bank accounts of the wealthy. They are far more likely to close their eyes and shut their doors in the face of the government—even as they did last week.

More than any election, more than any proud boast, that single fact reveals the truth. We have an ally in name only. We support a government without supporters. Without the efforts of American arms that government would not last a day.

The third illusion is that the unswerving pursuit of military victory, whatever its cost, is in the interest of either ourselves or the people of Vietnam. For the people of Vietnam, the last three years have meant little but horror. Their tiny land has been devastated by a weight of bombs and shells greater than Nazi Germany knew in the Second World War. We have dropped 12 tons of bombs for every square mile in North and South Vietnam. Whole provinces have been substantially destroyed. More than two million South Vietnamese are now homeless refugees.

Imagine the impact in our own country if an equivalent number—over 25 million Americans—were wandering homeless or interned in refugee camps, and millions more refugees were being created as New York and Chicago, Washington and Boston, were being destroyed by a war raging in their streets.

Whatever the outcome of these battles, it is the people we seek to defend who are the greatest losers . . .

The fourth illusion is that the American national interest is identical with—or should be subordinated to—the selfish interest of an incompetent military regime. . . . The fifth illusion is that this war can be settled in our own way and in our own time on our own terms. Such a settlement is the privilege of the triumphant: of those who crush their enemies in battle or wear away their will to fight. We have not done this, nor is there any prospect we will achieve such a victory.

Unable to defeat our enemy or break his will—at least without a huge, long and ever more costly effort—we must actively seek a peaceful settlement. We can no longer harden our terms every time Hanoi indicates it may be prepared to negotiate; and we must be willing to foresee a settlement which will give the Viet Cong a chance to participate in the political life of the country. . . .

No war has ever demanded more bravery from our people and our government—not just bravery under fire or the bravery to make sacrifices—but the bravery to discard the comfort of illusion—to do away with false hopes and alluring promises. Reality is grim and painful. But it is only a remote echo of the anguish toward which a policy founded on illusion is surely taking us.

This is a great nation and a strong people. Any who seek to comfort rather than speak plainly, reassure rather than instruct, promise satisfaction rather than reveal frustration—they deny that greatness and drain that strength. For today as it was in the beginning, it is the truth that makes us free.

What happened next . . .

On March 16, 1968, Robert Kennedy announced his intention to challenge President Johnson for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Many observers thought that Kennedy's bid might prove successful, for the Vietnam War had greatly weakened Johnson's presidency. Two weeks later Johnson said that the United States was willing to engage in peace talks with North Vietnam. He then stunned the nation by stating that he would not run again for president.

Johnson's decision not to seek re-election made Kennedy a strong contender for the Democratic nomination. On June 5, 1968, however, Kennedy was assassinated by a gunman only hours after winning the California primary (a state election in which party nominees for national office are elected). His murder occurred less than five years after his brother's assassination and mere months after the killing of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. These killings, combined with domestic turmoil associated with the war and civil rights campaigns, made many Americans feel like their country was being torn apart.

Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. Upon assuming office in January 1969, Nixon decided to place more responsibility for the war on South Vietnam's government and military. This would allow him to gradually withdraw U.S. troops from the conflict, which had become very unpopular with the American people. This policy came to be known as "Vietnamization."

President Thieu maintained his tight grip on power during this period of "Vietnamization," a policy change that he had no choice but to accept. He continued to treat opponents of his government harshly, using intimidation, violence, and torture as weapons. Fearful of losing power if the war ended with a compromise treaty, Thieu reserved especially harsh treatment for South Vietnamese people who called for negotiations with the North Vietnamese Communists. In July 1970 Thieu declared, "I am ready to smash all movements calling for peace at any price. . . . We will beat to death the people who demand an immediate peace." During this same period South Vietnam's national police chief told his forces to use any measures necessary to break up anti-government demonstrations, including bayonets and bullets.

Despite these repressive tactics, however, internal opposition to the Saigon government remained strong. Some of this resistance was encouraged by Communist agents. But many civilian opponents of Thieu's regime—including student activists, Buddhist groups, labor unions, and community leaders—acted out of a genuine belief in the need for sweeping changes in the government's political, social, and economic policies.

The United States continued to provide massive military and economic assistance to South Vietnam in the early 1970s, but much of this aid was stolen or misused. In the meantime, Thieu's ineffective leadership and the mounting devastation of the war created even more desperate conditions across the country. Conditions became particularly grim in the cities, which were totally unequipped to deal with the millions of homeless refugees who fled their rural homes during the war. By early 1972 there were an estimated 800,000 orphans roaming Saigon and other cities across the South, begging, stealing, and selling themselves as prostitutes in order to survive.

When the last U.S. troops left Vietnam in mid-1972, the Thieu regime felt even more vulnerable to attack from North Vietnam. The United States promised to continue giving economic aid to South Vietnam. The Nixon administration also promised to strike back with full force if the North tried to invade the South again. But Thieu and many other South Vietnamese thought that America might finally be abandoning its longtime ally. These concerns became even more pronounced when the United States and North Vietnam reached an agreement on a peace treaty in early 1973, and when the U.S. Congress began cutting its financial aid packages to Thieu later that year.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 called for the formation of a coalition government in South Vietnam that would include Communist representatives. Thieu refused to accept this part of the agreement. Instead, he ordered a series of military offensives in an effort to maintain the South's independence from the Communists. But these military operations failed miserably. His economic programs, meanwhile, triggered widespread hunger in rural areas and economic collapse in Southern cities during 1973 and 1974. By January 1975 one South Vietnamese legislator commented that "the leaders of the Republic of Vietnam [South Vietnam] are now spreading the view that the present deteriorating situation is due to the lack of aid [from the United States]. But the reality of the situation is that the difficulty is not because of a lack of aid but because of lack of support of the people."

The South Vietnamese government finally collapsed in the spring of 1975, when North Vietnam launched a final invasion. During that time few South Vietnamese military forces or communities offered any resistance to the invaders. The United States, meanwhile, declined to provide any military assistance to the crumbling Thieu regime. Embittered by America's decision to stay on the sidelines, Thieu resigned and fled the country on April 26. A few days later North Vietnamese forces seized control of Saigon.

Many scholars believe that it was only a matter of time until South Vietnam collapsed. After all, the nation's corrupt and ineffective leadership destroyed most popular support for the national government. In fact, the South Vietnamese government probably would have fallen to North Vietnam years earlier, if it had not been for America's massive infusions of military and economic assistance during the 1960s and early 1970s. "Again and again [during the war], the Saigon regime ... came to the end of its natural life," commented Schell. "But again and again the United States hoisted the cadaver [corpse] to its feet and tried to breathe artificial life into it. Like a ghost that is denied a grave to rest in, this regime stalked the earth posthumously [after its natural life ended]."

Did you know . . .

  • In 1967 South Vietnam managed to pass a formal constitution and hold national elections, despite the war. Supporters of the South Vietnamese government hailed these developments as evidence of the nation's great promise. These claims became less convincing, though, when it was discovered that government officials used bribery, intimidation, and other illegal measures to shape the election results.
  • Vietnam historians estimate that by 1975 nearly 12 million South Vietnamese citizens—about half the country's population—had been forced to flee their homes because of the war.
  • President Thieu settled in the United States after fleeing Vietnam in 1975. He made a fortune as a businessman in Massachusetts. In fact, some people believe that he became a billionaire. He never forgot his homeland, however. Thieu repeatedly expressed pride in his presidency, and in 1992 he declared that he someday wanted to return to Vietnam and lead the country again.


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DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Fall, Bernard. The Two Vietnams. New York: Praeger, 1967.

FitzGerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Kearns, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Schell, Jonathan. The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War. New York: Pantheon, 1987.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Van DeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Werner, Jayne, and Luu Doan Huynh, eds. The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993.

Wiegersma, Nancy. Vietnam: Peasant Land, Peasant Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

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