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But as the Kennedy Administration struggled toward a resolution of the Laotian crisis, the situation in Vietnam continued to deteriorate. Even before the new President's inauguration, Diem came within an ace of being overthrown by paratroops led by junior officers concerned with his regime's corruption and their ineffectiveness in dealing with the Viet Cong. The coup was put down with difficulty and a dash of luck, and the problems that had prompted it continued to fester. Increasingly preoccupied with the fear of being overthrown, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu concentrated power in the hands of those personally obligated to them. In practical terms, this meant that positions of authority in the government and army were filled with the scions of well-to-do families who had assimilated French culture, and northerners, Catholics and Diem family loyalists were disproportionately over-represented. The political distance between the regime and those it governed widened, and the effectiveness of the nascent ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) atrophied. But Diem was far more effective in dealing with Americans than with his compatriots, and the weaknesses of his regime were not immediately apparent to U.S. observers. For a time, therefore, American efforts to shore up the Vietnamese bulwark against communist expansion continued along time-honored lines. In the political sphere, these focused on nation building, the work of advisors and technical experts in government administration, police work, agriculture and banking. In the military sphere, they focused on the provision of logistics and weaponry, supported by technical training missions and advisors. U.S. Army advisors oversaw the creation of a South Vietnamese military with an organizational structure which duplicated the American model. The country was divided into military districts under corps headquarters, each containing two or more divisions. Along with U.S. tables of organization, the ARVN received American weapons and training which, critics would argue, was better suited to mechanized operations on the plains of Europe than to a guerrilla struggle in the jungles and swamps of Vietnam.


The crisis in Southeast Asia was not the only problem which the Democratic Administration had inherited from its predecessor. Cuba had fallen under the sway of Fidel Castro in 1959 and Castro had turned out to be not a middle class reformer but a communist revolutionary. Included in the Elsenhower Administration's legacy to its successor was a plan for Castro's military overthrow through an invasion by a ClA-trained emigre force based in Anastasio Somoza's Nicaragua. Kennedy went ahead with the plan in April of 1961, only to see it become a fiasco. Embarrassment over the transparent falseness of the official cover story that the initial air strikes were mounted by detectors from Castro's Air Force caused Kennedy to cancel subsequent strikes. As a result, a handful of Cuban fighter planes survived to put the invasion convoy to flight, leading to the isolation and surrender of the force put ashore at the Bay of Pigs. From the standpoint of Vietnam, the failure has two significant consequences. First, in the inevitable finger-pointing which followed, Kennedy loyalists attempted to shift blame to the military by pointing out that the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) had endorsed the invasion plan, which they had ... on condition that air superiority was maintained, a condition negated by Kennedy's decision to abort the follow-up air attacks. In retrospect, this was the first, small fracture in the bond of trust between the military and the civilian leadership of the executive branch. Personalities played a major role in the matter, for Secretary of Defense McNamara and the youthful civilian assistants whom he brought into the upper echelons of the Department of Defense - the so-called Whiz Kids - made no secret of their scorn for the professional military and what they regarded as its sloppy, unsfructured decision-making. Second, and more important over the short term, the Bay of Pigs left Kennedy with little maneuvering room in Southeast Asia. The Republicans had made much political capital portraying the Democrats as the party that "lost China" to communism, and any decision to abandon South Vietnam would inevitably carry a high political price for any Democratic President.




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