Then, in the autumn of 1962, as the consequences of the Bay of Pigs sank in, a bellicose Soviet Union under Premier Nikita Khruschev decided to test the new American President by installing nuclear-tipped intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, apparently to provide leverage to force political concessions in Europe. The resultant Cuban Missile Crisis is generally considered the Kennedy Administration's finest hour. Working in close harmony with his inner circle of confidants and advisors, Kennedy orchestrated a political offensive in the United Nations and the world press, and a naval blockade of Cuba and threatened military action against the island to force the Soviets to back down and withdraw their missiles. Cynics might argue that Kennedy extracted little from the Soviets in the ensuing settlement,but he had avoided nuclear war without sacrificing essential American interests. HisAdministration's image, tarnished at the Bay of Pigs, regained much of its luster. Of importance for the future, Kennedy's inner circle of advisors, notably Secretary of Defense McNamara, became confident of their ability to manage crises in a rational, measured manner. Their confidence was to be put to the test in Vietnam.
While America was in political transition, North Vietnam's leaders had not remained inert. Carefully monitoring events in the south, they orchestrated a careful buildup of guerrilla cadres, to be backed at the appropriate time by the commitment of regular Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. In May of 1959, the 15th Plenum of the Vietnamese Communist Party concluded that the moment was at hand to initiate armed struggle in the south, and line-of-communications troops were sent into southern Laos to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Within months, Vietminh cadres who had fled north in 1955 began working their way south along the network of paths and waterways to reassemble the insurgent apparatus. The number of assassinations and kidnappings of government officials and other terrorist incidents in South Vietnam rose exponentially during 1959. By the spring of 1960, Viet Cong forces were operating in battalion strength in the Mekong Delta, and North Vietnam had initiated conscription. These military moves were, in a sense, a prelude to the overt declaration of political intent which was made on 20 December,1960, with the announcement of the formation of the National Liberation Front, a communist-sponsored political umbrella organization for those who, for whatever reason, desired the overthrow of the Diem regime and a shadow government for the south.
The new administration in Washington recognized the insurgent character of the conflict, nor was it blind to the liabilities of the Diem government. On 28 January,1961, as the upsurge of revolutionary activity continued, President Kennedy approved a counterinsurgency plan for Vietnam which called for government reform and a restructured military as the basis for expanded U.S. assistance. In May, the President approved an increase in the size of the Military Assistance Advisory Group based in Saigon and ordered the dispatch of some 400 Army Special Forces troopers to Vietnam, where they were to operate under Central Intelligence Agency control. In a series of intricate maneuvers, Kennedy and McNamara explored available military options with the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff), securing from the latter in May of 1961 the recommendation that American troops should be sent to Vietnam if the administration intended to draw the line of containment in Southeast Asia. The qualifier was, of course, a political condition, throwing the ball back into the President's court. Having exhausted traditional channels, Kennedy now moved with dispatch, appointing General Maxwell Taylor as Military Representative to the President and sending him to South Vietnam with Deputy National Security Adviser Walt Rostow in October 1961. As Chief of Staff of the Army during the Eisenhower Administration, Taylor had fought unsuccessfully to preserve the Army's traditional pre-eminence in the defense establishment. After retiring in 1959, he had written an influential book, The Uncertain Trumpet, which criticized what he considered to be America's over-reliance on nuclear deterrence and called for a strategy of flexible response. Taylor's message found a receptive reader in John Kennedy, and he was to find himself at the center of policy formulation with regard to Vietnam.