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Early involvement in Vietnam

Perhaps the worst local anti-Communist government in a parade of anti-Communist losers supported by the United States was the corrupt Diem regime in South Vietnam. To support the Diem regime, Kennedy ordered increasing numbers of U.S. advisers to South Vietnam. By the time of his death, more than 15,000 U.S. troops were in South Vietnam, too many to advise but not enough to fight.

Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, upped the ante to more than 500,000 troops, enough to fight, but not nearly enough to win against a more or less popular Communist revolution.


If the AP test has an essay question about Vietnam, it may be looking for trends in U.S. foreign involvement. The U.S. has had a hard time learning the same lesson it taught the British during America's own fight for independence: The very presence of a foreign army creates a cause for local rebels. Modern armies can go anywhere, but their weapons let them control only the ground they're standing on, not the minds of the people who live there.

Along with chest-beating confrontation, however, the U.S. under Kennedy also tried some peacemaking initiatives:

- The Alliance for Progress (1961): The Alliance for Progress was an ambitious attempt to offer Marshall Plan-like support to Latin American governments. It failed to transform the area because, unlike Europe, Latin America contained rich elites (including U.S. companies) unwilling to make room for progress by poorer citizens.

Dictatorships took over 13 Latin American countries during the 1960s, and the Alliance for Progress was later forgotten under President Nixon. Only in the 1990s did Latin America see the rise of democratic governments able to remain in power despite the opposition of economic interests in their own countries and (sometimes) in the United States.

- The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963): President Kennedy signed the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. This treaty stopped polluting bomb tests. A Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed much later, in 1996, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, although several nations still don't go along with the agreement.

- Early support for détente: Kennedy pushed for a live-and-let-live approach to the Soviet Union and Communist China, a policy that would later be called détente (1975), a French word that means "relaxation of tensions." In another move for peace, Kennedy installed a hotline between the White House and the Soviet Kremlin, so that the leaders could talk directly to defuse dangerous confrontations.

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