The Vietnam War remains probably the most important war for America since World War Two. In the battle to contain communism, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers went to Vietnam – and many nurses were closely involved with them. In the concluding article of the ‘Nurses in War’ series, Matt Goolsby tells us about trauma nurse Deanna McGookin.

The previous articles in the series are on US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here), World War One nurse Julia Catherine Stimson (here), World War Two nurse Reba Z. Whittle (here), and the Chief Nurse for the US in the Korean War, Eunice Coleman (here).

A US Army hospital in Vietnam.

A US Army hospital in Vietnam.

The Years before a ‘Police Action’

After the Korean War had ended, an unstable peace existed in Asia. America was reeling from the McCarthy probes that seemed to take place under every nook and cranny, the purpose of which was to expose potential communists.

The United States had helped stop the communist aggression in South Korea. Now there were two independent countries on the Korean Peninsula, and an uneasy truce.

The threat of nuclear war was also very real as the Soviet Union possessed radioactive material and had built, as well as detonated, multi-kiloton platform devices. 

As China and the Soviet Union were expanding their territories, the United States was highly concerned about the potential fall of nations to Marxist doctrines. 

The heightening tensions of a further ‘Red Scare’ increased both locally and globally.

Americans were not ready for another declaration of war, so a looming ‘Police Action’ was on the horizon.


French Occupation in Southeast Asia

During World War II the Japanese had met with strong resistance from the Viet Minh when they invaded Southeast Asia. The Viet Minh had been assisted by China, the Soviet Union, and the United States with arms and military training since they had a shared purpose.

Once the war had ended, the Viet Minh set their sights against the French occupying forces. Ho Chi Minh, himself a communist, was the leader of these guerilla armies.

French Indochina, which was largely comprised of modern-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, had been a French colony since the late 19thcentury. As many countries learn the hard way, nations often don’t want to be under the rule of a foreign occupier.

From 1946 until 1954, the French battled the ever-strengthening forces of the Viet Minh, who had been trained by the People’s Republic of China from 1950. This was called the First Indochina War.

American involvement with Vietnam had started back in 1946 to thwart the ever-expanding communist influence.

The French forces had been bruised and battered by the Viet Minh for almost a decade and finally surrendered at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7th, 1954, negotiating peace as well as granting sovereignty to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Vietnam was still considered two independent nations by this time as the Geneva Accord signed by the belligerents split the country at the 17thparallel for 300 days with the guarantee of a ‘free’ election being held.

This sounds eerily reminiscent of the Korean peninsula. The oft-quoted words that Winston Churchill said in a 1948 speech to the House of Commons: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”, has been demonstrated repeatedly in East and Southeast Asia. 


America’s ‘Police Action’ Begins

On November 5th, 1955, the United States’ conflict, or what is known as the Second Indochina War, began. 

Just two years after the Korean War ended, America was again involved in an armed ideological conflict with communism. Many Americans were highly concerned and tense because of nuclear proliferation and the growing ‘commie’ scare.

The belligerents on the communist side were: North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union along with their allies. The allies involved on the anti-communist side were: South Vietnam, South Korea, the United States, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and several others.

Since this war was never officially declared by the United States Congress, it remains a military ‘police’ action that has caused much angst and a continued rift to this day.

History will eventually render a judgment as to whether or not this conflict was necessary, but in my opinion, as somebody who has met many people who participated in the war, it has left an indelible scar permanently on America’s national psyche.

As an example of the wounding it caused, many veterans either became mired in drug abuse to escape the pain or took their lives because of the moral conflict it caused.

America as a nation must continue to help and wisely counsel those who fought in this war so that they can experience some level of healing.


United States’ involvement escalates

In December of 1960, the Viet Cong or what was officially called the National Liberation Front, was created to be the anti-government disrupter of South Vietnam and to disrupt and render ineffectual American military advisors. Their aim was also to drive out foreign influence with the eventual goal of uniting the North and South under communist rule.

The Republic of South Vietnam at this time was being governed by Ngo Dinh Diem, who had been appointed Prime Minister during the 1954 Geneva treaty. Mr. Diem was a Roman Catholic, anti-communist, nationalist, and social conservative.

The Vietnamese people were mostly followers of Buddha and had a deep suspicion of Diem’s government. Unfortunately, many of their suspicions were proved correct as Diem governed with more of an autocratic bent and whose administration was rife with corruption.

In 1961, after the election of John F. Kennedy, who decided to draw a ‘line in the sand’ against communism, troops began to be authorized for the increasing conflict between the North and the South. 

By 1963, there were 16,000 U.S. troops in Southeast Asia. This was in contrast to the 900 ‘advisers’ that President Eisenhower had sent starting in 1955.

Also in 1963, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) established Operation Nightingale to recruit nurses for the ever-increasing conflict.


The Nursing Field expands

Deanna McGookin was born on February 1st, 1941 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to Samuel and Violet McGookin. She was the oldest of three girls, which included Violet and Judith.

The family immigrated to the United States through Detroit, Michigan in June 1950

They settled in Phoenix, Arizona where she went to West Phoenix High School, graduating in 1958.

By 1965, Deanna had become an Assistant Head Nurse in the local Phoenix hospital emergency room. This experience helped her learn how to take care of traumatic injuries and assist with the associated shock.

She joined the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) in 1968 and was given an assignment to Vietnam because of her Emergency Room experience. 

Deanna, like many women during the Vietnam War era, felt an obligation to serve others who may not have had a choice as to whether to go to war or not.

The Vietnam War had more than 5,000 American nurses who served during its entirety. For the first time, 21% of them were men serving as officers in the ANC.

Of these more than 5,000, most had less than 2 years of practice in their profession. The average age of a nurse during the war was 23.6 years. 

The horrors of war must have compounded the already difficult task at hand, especially for those who hadn’t experienced traumatic injuries.

Deanna’s experience was the exception: “. . . I spent my year in Vietnam at the 67th evac in Qui Nhon, which was the headquarters of II Corps. The conditions were pretty much what I expected - but not the bulk, the quantity of the wounded. In Phoenix [Arizona, hospital emergency room], we were used to seeing one or two come in at a time. Now you were talking 50 or 60 at a time, with a wide variety of traumatic wounds. I had seen traumatic amputations of extremities from cotton-picking combines in Arizona. So that was not a horrendous sight for me, as it was for some others. The bulk . . . that there were just so many of them coming in at once . . . that was the issue for me. You had these helicopters land and there could be 60-70 casualties with various stages of injuries. Some of them might not have been as serious as others. It depended on the season. In Tet of '69 we were getting 200-300 patients coming in a day.”

As her tour progressed, Deanna, like so many others had before, began to question the sanity and morality of the Vietnam War: “We all had questions as to what we were doing in Vietnam, why we were there. We didn't seem to be getting anywhere. Day after day, things seemed to be pretty much the same . . . they'd take a hill, lose a hill, take a hill, lose a hill. Being in the age group where motherhood and children were a big factor, I think you do think: "What are we doing to the future generations of this country? What sort of genius would this blond young man have been had he been allowed to go about his life and do his own thing?" Most of the time you were so busy, just literally, physically busy that--although these thoughts stayed with you for awhile--you soon forgot about them, because it always seemed like there was someone else coming in to take the previous patient's place.”


In salute to the ‘Nightingales’

American nurses found different ways to deal with their pain and the emotional wear and tear they experienced. Some found solace in sex, drugs, or alcohol. Most of them just suppressed the pain until they could deal with it later. 

One of the more positive ways of dealing with pain was the way Deanna handled it: “It wasn't so depressing all the time, I must admit. We went on medcaps, medical missions to remote villages, places where there was no regular medical care. We did reconstructive surgery on children, gave them false limbs, and taught them how to get around. These kinds of things helped relieve some of the frustrations I was feeling.”

After her tour had ended, Deanna came back to the states and settled back in Phoenix, Arizona. As with all veterans of war, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) haunted her. 

She describes the affects PTSD had on her: “the young boy down the block had a car that backfired all the time. Every time it backfired, I was on the floor and under the bed."

Deanna would go on to serve in Afghanistan and attain the rank of Colonel in the Army Nurse Corps. There’s no evidence that she ever married, a common thread with the other nurses researched for these articles. 

Colonel Deanna McGookin passed away on September 14th, 2013 at the age of 72, having served her country for many years. 

She represents the best of what America has to offer and her life is a tribute to the sacrifices that so many made to help the men and women who’ve faithfully served our country.

May they never be forgotten.


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.


Dan Freedman and Jacqueline Rhoads, editors, “Nurses in Vietnam: The Forgotten Veterans.”, Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press, Inc., 1987.

“The Vietnam War and its timeline”,

“Nursing and Medicine in the Vietnam War”,

“Find a Grave: Deanna McGookin”,

“Deanna McGookin on Family Search”,

“Women and War”,

“Winston Churchill 1948 House of Commons speech”,

Do you know why the world nearly destroyed itself in a catastrophic nuclear war?

Two words – ‘Cold War’.

Get the book on Amazon


The Cold War was international affairs for the second half of the 20th century. Nuclear weapons testing, civil wars in all corners of the globe and the race for economic dominance were all key spheres of the Cold War, although they were just a few elements of an intriguing global puzzle. More so than the great battles between Carthage and Rome in Ancient times or the Napoleonic Wars, the Cold War defined our world. But, there was one key difference between the Cold War and earlier major wars. Due to advances in technology and communications, the Cold War touched most countries on earth.

This introduction to the Cold War tells the story of the great clash between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist USA. It covers the period from 1945 to 1991 in one combined edition, neatly breaking the Cold War up into three parts.

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The book starts by describing how two super-powers emerged out of the rubble of World War Two and includes the following:

·      How the Soviet Union and the USA quickly went from war-time allies to enemies

·      Events in East Asia - the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War

·      The most dangerous event of the early Cold War years, the Cuban Missile Crisis

·      The Vietnam War and its impact on the Cold War

·      The shocking power of nuclear weapons – and attempts to control them

·      Uprisings on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain

·      The super-powers as friends? Détente, Richard Nixon, and Leonid Brezhnev

·      The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

·      The rise of Ronald Reagan and his aggression in the early 1980s

·      How Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader

·      Glasnost, Perestroika, and how the Cold War ended


The approximately 250-page book is the perfect complement to the Cold War History audio series that is available as part of the ‘History in 28-minutes’ podcasts.

So come and join the past – get the book now!

Required History

The aim of the 'Required History' book series is to create approachable, succinct written introductions to some of the most interesting topics in history. They are designed for those:

·      That want to quickly learn about some of the world’s major historical events

·      Studying history. The books act as a perfect complement and overview to those undertaking high school and introductory college courses in history

·      Who enjoyed the audio podcasts and want to reinforce and further their knowledge

·      Learning English. The language and level of detail in the books are perfect for those in advanced English classes

All of the Required History books are designed to build on the audio podcasts available on the publisher’s website. They provide an extra layer of detail to the major historical events that the audio podcasts cover.

In an unstable world, how do you know who your friends and enemies are?

You don’t.


The Cold War was international affairs for the second half of the 20th Century. Nuclear weapons testing, civil wars in all corners of the globe and the race for economic dominance were all key spheres of the Cold War, although they were just a few elements of a very complex global puzzle. More so than the great battles between Carthage and Rome in Ancient times or the Napoleonic Wars, the Cold War defined our world. But, there was one key difference between the Cold War and earlier major wars. Due to advances in technology and communications, the Cold War touched most countries on earth.

Get the book on Amazon

This introduction to the middle years of the Cold War tells the story of the great clash between the Communist Soviet Union and the capitalist USA. It considers events in an intriguing age for international relations. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were calls to avert the risk of another nuclear near-miss, and this did lead to an improvement in the super-power relationship; however, underneath this improvement, there remained great tension. To further complicate the situation, China and Europe both became increasingly powerful and assertive. In the world of the 1960s and 1970s, it was hard to know who to trust and who to fear.

Get the book on Amazon

The topics in the book include:

  • The Vietnam War and its impact on the Cold War
  • Decolonization and the opportunities that arose from it for the super-powers
  • The growing power of Western Europe and a major change in Czechoslovakia
  • The historic changes in the relationship between Mao Zedong’s China and the super-powers
  • The super-powers as friends? Détente, Richard Nixon, and Leonid Brezhnev
  • The major nuclear agreements and the arms race
  • How serious tensions emerged once more

The approximately 90-page book is the perfect complement to the Cold War History audio series that is available as part of the ‘History in 28-minutes’ podcasts.

Martin Luther King, Junior was assassinated almost 47 years ago to this day - on April 4, 1968. But exactly one year before his assassination he gave a very memorable speech – Beyond Vietnam. It was a fascinating speech that discussed America and the Vietnam War. Christopher Benedict explains…

Martin Luther King, Junior in 1964.

Martin Luther King, Junior in 1964.

Call to Conscience

Even to the secular citizen, New York’s Riverside Church is an architectural and historical wonder. Situated on Manhattan’s upper west side, this interdenominational place of worship, conceived and funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., straddles the Hudson River and is mere blocks away from Columbia University. Grant’s Tomb, located at the northern-most tip of Riverside Park, can be found almost directly across Riverside Drive.

Its spiked, ornately carved gothic tower dominates the Morningside Heights skyline and makes it the tallest church in the United States, twenty-fourth in worldwide rankings. The cavernous nave and altar are quite a sight to behold owing to the dozens of vibrant stained-glass windows, low-hanging circular chandeliers, sculpted religious icons, and the massive arrangement of organ pipes. These encircle the pulpit from which Nelson Mandela spoke just four months after his 1990 release from prison on Robben Island, South Africa.

Fidel Castro, Cesar Chavez, Bishop Desmond Tutu, former president Bill Clinton, and Jesse Jackson (delivering the eulogy at Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972) likewise have uttered sage words (a patience and posterior-fatiguing four hours’ worth, in Castro’s case) which have resounded throughout Riverside Church’s hallowed halls.

On April 4, 1967, one year to the day until he would be murdered in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. would issue from this same stage what he already knew would be a controversial and divisive plea to a “society gone mad on war” for “radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam”.

Already derided as an antiquated ‘Uncle Tom’ first by Malcolm X and then by Stokely Carmichael, who was busy preparing the factions of his Black Power movement to congregate as “groups of urban guerillas for our defense in the cities”, King would come under attack not only by black radicals who mistook his non-violent teachings for a kind of manacled pacifism, but by his own constituencies within the Morehouse College alumni, NAACP, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their main point of contention involved what they feared to be Martin’s gradual philosophical shift from civil rights to foreign policy, a concern shared by the country’s ‘moral majority’ who, as it was, had little to no tolerance for King’s dream of an integrated nation and even less, it seemed, for his unsolicited opposition to the administration’s ongoing and escalating military intervention in Southeast Asia.

And why, fretted many of his friends, advisors, and advocates, risk alienating or infuriating Lyndon Johnson, who had signed the Civil Rights Act and publicly called out the Ku Klux Klan, in the process?

Despite his rapidly declining popularity, which was responsible for a prolonged and deepening depression, Martin Luther King nonetheless clung to the unfaltering belief that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.”


Time to Break the Silence

“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,” Dr. King begins somberly.

The pews are filled to capacity, black audience members, in a stark reminder of how far society had yet to go despite the progress previously made, barred from the first several rows. Additional improvised seating proves inadequate, the overflow crowd choking the sidewalk of 120th Street.

“Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy,” he continues. “Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in their surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But,” he insists, “we must move on.”

A preacher by vocation and by nature, King’s reputation and tradition was that of an extemporaneous speaker. This oration would prove to be the lone exception. Drafted, redrafted, and drafted time and again, the ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech would ultimately have as much preparation and surgically precise execution devoted to its construction as the very building in which it was recited.

Vincent Harding was its chief architect. It was a prominent role that would plague him with guilt and grief in equal measure one year later. Harding befriended King in 1958, during Martin’s convalescence back home in Atlanta. He had been stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a deranged woman named Izola Curry during a Harlem book signing for Stride Toward Freedom, leaving him, as he was fond of telling it, “just a sneeze away from death”.

“He and I understood each other, recognized that we were very close to each other on issues having to do with Vietnam, with war and peace, and with the dangers of America becoming an imperialist power in the world,” Harding told Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez in 2008.And so he asked me if I would do a draft of the speech, because he knew that I would not be putting words into his mouth. I would simply be speaking as my friend would want to speak, and that was the way that I went about the task that he asked me to do.”

Shouldering both the burden and the privilege to “speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemy”, Martin Luther King was tasked with representing the collective views of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.

“This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front,” King stated. “It is not addressed to Russia or to China.” Neither was it an attempt to paint them as “paragons of virtue” nor to delegitimize their suspicion of the United States’ sloppy attempts to color itself as such, virtuous intent betrayed by roughhouse tactics.

Invoking the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s motto “To save the soul of America”, Dr. King refused to withhold his denunciation of the nation’s arrogant preference for confrontation over contemplation, specifically to the detriment of the young, the poor, and the black, “crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” 

Compassion, however, must also be extended toward and encompass “the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now.” Otherwise, observed King, “there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.”


Giving Voice to the Voiceless in Vietnam

“They must see America as strange liberators,” said King of the Vietnamese. “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions, the family and the village. Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness.”

He dedicated the bulk of the speech’s middle portion to fleshing out most Americans’ skeletal knowledge of Indochina and clarifying, in the process, our country’s complicity in stitching together the flags of discontent that the Vietnamese had unfurled and which we then sought to shred and scatter in the mud.

Led by Ho Chi Minh, free from Chinese influence, and having “quoted from America’s Declaration of Independence in their own document for freedom”, the Vietnamese proclaimed their sovereignty from beneath the oppression of French and Japanese occupation in 1945. France was keen to recolonize Vietnam and sought to see it through with American-supplied financial aid with the addition of military advisors and weapons.

“It looked as if independence and land reform would come again from the Geneva Agreement,” explained King. “But, instead came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation.”

Soon enough, the U.S. was not content to simply drop propagandist leaflets on the peasants in support of their handpicked dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, and rained down bombs on their hamlets instead. The Vietnamese children were rendered homeless and hopeless, “running in packs on the streets like animals…degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food…selling their sisters to our soldiers…soliciting for their mothers.”

King hoped that the more sophisticated among our soldiers and citizens would recognize and atone for the fact that “we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”


Thich Nhat Hanh

Having already drawn upon a passage from Langston Hughes, King would also relate a message written by an unnamed Vietnamese spiritual leader, which bears repeating in full here.

“Each day the war goes on, the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that, in the process, they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

Words that echo loudly today in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Benghazi, and targeted drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Although their source was not disclosed during King’s speech, they in fact stemmed from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. A peace activist, scholar, and writer, he founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University of Saigon and the School of Youth and Social Service, as well as the La Boi publishing house. Thay (or ‘teacher’, as he is commonly known) also established the Engaged Buddhism movement, which aided Vietnamese victims of American carpet bombing and scorched earth policies, and later the Order of Interbeing, a group of laypeople devoted to taking and living according to the Bodhisattva vows, walking the path of the Buddha with mindfulness and compassion for all sentient beings.

Excommunicated by both North and South Vietnam during an extensive tour of the United States and Europe, in the course of which he tirelessly yet fruitlessly implored world leaders to end the war and fronted the Buddhist delegation at the Paris Peace Talks of 1969, Thay would ironically find a new home in France, of all places. There, he would build and lead Plum Village, which grew over time from a simple farmstead to the largest Buddhist monastery in the Western hemisphere, from where he continues to write and conduct retreats.

Thich Nhat Hanh would cross paths with Martin Luther King Jr. during his aforementioned global peace-seeking mission, the civil rights icon so enamored with the Vietnamese monk that he referred to him as “an apostle of peace and non-violence” and personally nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, for which no one was awarded.


The Brotherhood of Man

King acknowledged his own 1964 Nobel Peace Prize as “a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances.”

“The Good News was meant for all men, for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative,” he asserted. “What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death, or must I not share with them my life?” After all, King correctly diagnosed America’s “comfort, complacency, morbid fear of Communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice” as the chief culprits responsible for the festering sores now oozing amongst the “many who feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit.” It stands to reason then, he prognosticates that, “Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated.”

King hits his full stride near the end of the speech employing his favored and very effective leitmotif of recurring refrains, this time structured around the thematic foundation of “a true revolution of values.” But not before first tearing down the decaying façade of the present ideological infrastructure built above a nation “approaching spiritual death” with the following words of warning, which may well be the most poignant ever spoken on the subject, by King or any other human being.

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”


Tomorrow Is Today

There is an urgency, not only to Vincent Harding’s written words, but also in Martin Luther King’s bombastic voice, when he conjures the imagery of “an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.” This speaks to the great question of how we wish to be remembered. What legacy we would like to leave behind individually, but even more importantly, as an interconnected society, in which we all have some say in the choice between “non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation.”

“If we make the right choice,” King finishes with a flourish, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood…when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”


Did you find this article fascinating? If so, tell the world. Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below…


  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson (Warner Books, 2001)
  • Interview with Vincent Harding from Democracy Now! broadcast February 28, 2008
  • Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966 by Thich Nhat Hanh (Riverhead Books 1999)
  • A Call to Conscience documentary, produced by Tavis Smiley for PBS, March 2010 


AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
1. Ho_Chi_Minh_1946.jpg

In this episode of Cold War People, we look at one of the greatest Communist revolutionaries of them all, Ho Chi Minh.

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Much like the man we looked at in the last podcast, Mao Zedong, Ho was an East Asian Communist revolutionary. He was involved in the Communist movement and had wanted to create a Communist Vietnam for many years even before he got close to having his wish fulfilled. Previously, we have seen him play a key role in the Vietnam War, but in this episode we briefly look at his wider life.

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See you soon,

George Levrier-Jones



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The Vietnam War, episode 5 of's series on the Cold War is out now.

Episode 5 - Vietnam War 2.jpg

It’s on that generation-defining war, a war that spanned the central years of the Cold War. We are going to be looking at a war in which US involvement lasted more than double the whole length of World War II, and one that spans over a quarter of a century. It also involves many key trends in the Cold War – decolonization, the ever-changing role of China, and the US policy of containment. The podcast is on the Vietnam War.

And remember - you can connect with us on facebook by clicking here.

Happy listening!

George Levrier-Jones


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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This is the fourth in a series of articles that explore the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the US presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). Here we look at Lyndon Johnson and his decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam. The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning, The Central Intelligence Agency – Eisenhower and Asia’s Back Door, and Kennedy’s Central Intelligence Agency are the preceding posts.


Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, was not an easy man.  Bill, a colleague with whom I worked on Johnston Atoll in the 1980s, was on the Johnsons’ security detail during their Texas visits.  He spoke of loud, embarrassing, drunken fights between the Johnsons and crude behavior like throwing dishes of jelly beans and popcorn and expecting the security detail to pick it all up immediately.  Ronald Kessler’s book, In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, confirms much of what Bill told me then.  Regardless of his personal behavior, Johnson was a political sophisticate who understood power at a fundamental level.  By all accounts, Johnson’s rise to power was steady and ruthless.

President Lyndon B Johnson greets troops in Vietnam. December 1967.

President Lyndon B Johnson greets troops in Vietnam. December 1967.

The dichotomy among historians becomes apparent once Johnson assumes the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination.  The gulf widens through the nine years of the Johnson presidency.  Was Johnson a model for business executives and a great progressive leader as portrayed by historian Robert A. Caro, who has studied Johnson for the better part of three decades?[1]  Or, at the other end of the spectrum, was Johnson a dangerous, paranoid individual?  According to former Kennedy speech writer and author Richard N. Goodwin in his 1988 book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, Johnson’s behavior drove two presidential assistants to separately seek opinions on Johnson’s mental stability from psychiatrists.[2]

What can be said with certainty is that, as president, Johnson drove social engineering to new heights with his ‘War on Poverty’ and ‘Great Society’, which included legislation for public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, and aid to education.  Johnson did not confine his activity to just the home front, though.  He was busy with the CIA, too; the US Dominican Republic intervention in 1965, the Vietnam War, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, and efforts to reduce tension with the Soviet Union.



It took three tries to land a Director of Central Intelligence, DCI, he wanted, but Johnson finally got the job done.  Johnson inherited DCI John A. McCone from Kennedy.  Kennedy asked McCone to head up the CIA following Kennedy’s termination of Allen W. Dulles, a remnant of Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS, after the Bay of Pigs disaster.  McCone was reputed to be an excellent manager and returned balance to an agency enamored of covert activities and nation-building.  Under McCone, the CIA redistributed its organizational energy between analysis and science and technology in addition to its well-known covert actions.  Not everyone in the CIA was a happy camper with this intelligence outsider, but McCone earned his spurs during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Johnson and DCI McCone parted ways in 1965 over disagreements about the Vietnam build-up.

President Johnson, a former naval officer, replaced McCone with DCI William A. Raborn, a career naval officer whose claim to fame was managing the Polaris Missile program (submarine launched missiles).  Other than brushes with Naval Intelligence, Raborn had no directly related experience.  It appears that Johnson selected Raborn to keep the DCI seat warm while Richard M. Helms matured his administrative skills as Deputy DCI.  Raborn, according to prevailing wisdom, never really adjusted to being the DCI and offered his resignation sixteen months after assuming the role.  Without ado, Johnson quickly accepted Raborn’s offer to resign.

Richard M. Helms, the heir apparent and another of Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS operatives, became DCI in June 1966.  Helms reveled in espionage.  Between the OSS and the CIA, Helms was a very active operator.  During WWII, Helms worked out of London and shared a flat with William J. Casey, the charismatic Irish lawyer who would head the CIA under Reagan.  Together, Helms and Casey were up to their proverbial ears in WWII cat and mouse spy games. During the Cold War, Helms kept both his espionage and operational skills sharp.  He had his fingers in the Iran pot, the Soviet forgeries, Operation Mongoose, and the Diem regime in Vietnam.  Although Helms preferred espionage and stated that assassinations rarely worked in the US’s favor, he was nothing if not a company man and certainly was party to many.

Johnson was not overly impressed with the CIA and, initially, did not see much value in intelligence.  Then, too, DCIs McCone and Raborn had each bucked Johnson on ramping up American involvement in Vietnam on more than one occasion.  Johnson’s lack of respect for the CIA was reflected in the number and type of meetings to which the CIA was not invited.  In Helms, Johnson found a DCI that, if not a kindred spirit, was at least a more accommodating one.  The CIA, however, still did not come up on Johnson’s radar until the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967.  The accuracy of CIA intelligence estimates, timing, and outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War earned Helms his DCI service stripes and a seat at Johnson’s regular Tuesday lunch meetings with his advisors to discuss foreign policy.



What was it about Vietnam that propelled Johnson so hard that he eventually broke up on its shoals?  Vietnam drove Johnson’s relationship with the CIA, his advisors, and congress.  For example, Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Mt), Senate Majority Leader during the Johnson administration championed Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programs and legislation but fought bitterly with Johnson against the Vietnam War.  The frying pan that was the Vietnam War got so hot that in July 1968 Johnson flew to Central America to meet with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.[3]   According to an interview I taped with Raul Castro in 2003, on short notice Johnson’s staff requested that Castro pull together the meetings because he needed a break from the pressures of Vietnam.  The staffers wanted adoring crowds, good press and a rest for the embattled president.  Raul Castro was appointed US Ambassador to El Salvador by President Johnson in 1964.   All three staff objectives were met.

Until recently I subscribed to the traditional perspective that Johnson knew exactly what he was doing as he amped up the Vietnam War.  In 1965, it appeared that Johnson was resolute in his decision to support the American configured South Vietnamese government against the threat of Communist takeover.  Johnson used the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident to garner the congressional ‘blank check’ from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to do what he wanted. By February 1965, the US military’s Operation Rolling Thunder was bombing North Vietnamese targets and the Ho Chi Minh trail and Agent Orange along with napalm was defoliating the jungle.  In March 1965, General Westmoreland asked for more troops.  About 189,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam in 1965. The following year, the number doubled and casualties escalated at an alarming rate.  And, the Vietnam War got much worse.  I expected to find old familiar friends in the defense contractor community at the root of the escalation but I was wrong.


Anything but linear

Mark Lawrence makes a case that Johnson’s Vietnam decisions were anything but linear.  Lawrence states, “Where scholars once saw certainty and confidence, they now see indecision and anxiety.” In his article LBJ and Vietnam: A Conversation, Lawrence cites a May 1964 telephone conversation between Lyndon Johnson and McGeorge Bundy[4],[5] that illustrates the level of Johnson’s ambivalence:

In his conversation with Bundy, LBJ expresses deep anxiety about what would happen if the United States failed to defend South Vietnam from communist takeover – evidence that bolsters the older, conventional view of U.S. motives for escalation. Fearing what historians would later dub the “domino effect,” Johnson suggests that the communist powers – the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China – would be emboldened by a communist victory in South Vietnam and might make trouble elsewhere. The communists, in fact, “may just chase you right into your own kitchen,” the president says in his typical down-home manner. LBJ also provides evidence for the older interpretation by breezily dismissing other powerful Americans who urged him to negotiate a settlement and withdraw U.S. power from South Vietnam. He shows special contempt for Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, charging that the Montana Democrat, a strong advocate of winding down the U.S. role in South Vietnam, had “no spine at all” and took a position that was “just milquetoast as it can be.”

In other parts of the conversation, however, LBJ heaps doubt on the idea that defending South Vietnam was crucial to US security. “What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me?” he asks Bundy. “What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country?” Most chillingly, Johnson shows keen awareness that victory in Vietnam was anything but a sure thing. He worries that full-fledged US intervention in Vietnam would trigger corresponding escalation by Communist China, raising the horrifying specter of a direct superpower confrontation, as in Korea a few years earlier, between Chinese and US forces. “I don’t think we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area,” LBJ asserts. Moreover, the United States, once committed to a war, might find it impossible to get out. “It’s damn easy to get into a war, but … it’s going to be awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in,” LBJ asserts with remarkable prescience….”[6]

Johnson, as I said in the beginning, was not an easy man. It took him more than three of his six years in office to find a DCI he respected and would back him on Vietnam.  Even after Johnson warmed up to the CIA, his use of the agency was as enigmatic as his leadership style.  In many ways, Johnson’s choice of Helms to lead the CIA was a reflection of the contradictions exhibited by Johnson himself. Helms was smooth and adept at politics but beneath his ‘James Bond’ coolness, Helms was a ‘company man’.  He liked the freewheeling CIA style that the ‘plausible deniability’ cloak offered.  Helms became the first and only DCI to be convicted of lying to the US Congress in 1977 regarding the ousting of the elected President of Chile and the installation of the dictator Salvador Allende.[7] Note: Helms was the only DCI convicted of lying to congress.  Many of his predecessors and successors lied to Congress as the need, in their individual opinion, arose.[8]

Johnson and his relationship with the CIA really goes to the question of who Johnson was.  Was he the headstrong leader portrayed by Caro or a leader that became unbalanced, afraid, and insecure that Goodwin paints?  Probably, he was both.  We will need much more data to determine which LBJ occupied the White House for nine years.


This article is provided by Barbara Johnson from


Want to find out more about another US President from the 1960s? Click here for our podcast on Richard Nixon.



[1] The Harvard Business Review; April 2006; A Conversation with Historian Robert A. Caro by Diane Coutu; Lessons in Power: Lyndon Johnson Revealed;

[2] Los Angeles Times; September 14, 1988; ELIZABETH MEHREN; Richard Goodwin’s Account of a ‘Paranoid’ L.B.J. Riles Some Ex-Colleagues;

[3] Lewiston Evening Journal; Frank Cormier; July 5, 1968;,396753

[4] Listen to the Johnson-Bundy conversation; (Johnson, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Anguish, May 27, 1964: Conversation with national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. 27 May 1964. History and Politics Out Loud. Ed. Jerry Goldman. 30 Sept. 1999. Northwestern University.)

[5] Transcript of the conversation (Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) Washington, May 27, 1964, 11:24 a.m.. Source: U.S., Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68, Volume XXVII, Mainland Southeast Asia: Regional Affairs, Washington, DC, Document Number 53. Original Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a telephone conversation between the President and McGeorge Bundy, Tape 64.28 PNO 111. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared by the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.);

[6] Not Even Past; Mark Atwood Lawrence; LBJ and Vietnam: A Conversation;

[7] George Washington University National Security Archives; September 11, 2013;  Peter Kornbluh; National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 437;

[8] The American Prospect; Adam Serwer; May 15, 2009; THE CIA LIE TO CONGRESS? IT’S HAPPENED BEFORE;

This is the third in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the US presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning and The Central Intelligence Agency – Eisenhower and Asia’s Back Door are the preceding posts. 

JFK delivering a speech

JFK delivering a speech

A very tired John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was sworn into office on a clear, windy, brutally cold January 20, 1961.(1) It wasn’t an easy day. Eight inches of snow had fallen the night before, causing a monumental traffic jam. The streets were littered with abandoned vehicles.  Former President Herbert Hoover missed the entire inauguration event because Washington National Airport was closed due to the weather.  An inauguration is an important national symbol that characterizes the Republic and the all-night effort to clear Pennsylvania Avenue greeted the sun with space to accommodate the large crowd that would gather to witness the duly elected president assume the helm of the ship-of-state.  

The snowfall of the previous night and the windy, frigid temperatures of inauguration day are also apt codes for the sea change that had already gathered momentum around the relationship between the new president and his intelligence agency, the CIA.  The CIA, as authorized by The National Security Act of 1947, was still fairly young, but Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was an old hand and seemingly enjoyed the game.  By 1961, the CIA, in its short life, had tripped the light fantastic around the globe; Col. Lansdale was merrily fighting rebels in The Philippines following which he ported his obsession with asymmetric guerilla warfare to Vietnam where he spent two-years as a houseguest and confidant of President Diem. Other CIA operatives overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, and raised general hell with Cuba and Chile. 

During the latter Truman and the Eisenhower administrations there was a trend to combine the Cold War objective of fighting the creep of Communism with business interests. Iran, for example, nationalized British oil interests and Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh refused to budge in spite of punishing sanctions. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, “Eisenhower worried about Mossadegh's willingness to cooperate with Iranian Communists; he also feared that Mossadegh would eventually undermine the power of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a staunch anti-Communist partner. In August 1953, the CIA helped overthrow Mossadegh's government and restored the Shah's power. In the aftermath of this covert action, new arrangements gave U.S. corporations an equal share with the British in the Iranian oil industry.”(2)

In Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman initiated land reforms that seriously impacted the holdings of the anti-Communist, New Orleans-based United Fruit Company who controlled over forty percent of Guatemala’s arable land.  The Truman administration came to the support of American business interests by arming the anti-Arbenz rebels.  Under Eisenhower, the CIA finished the job by overthrowing the Arbenz regime and installing Carlos Castillo Armas.  Codenamed PBSUCCESS, the coup d'état was the first-ever clandestine military action in Latin America but it was certainly not the last.(3)


Kennedy and the CIA

After fifty years the controversy surrounding Kennedy and the CIA obscures the landscape like the white-out conditions in a blizzard.   At one end of the opinion spectrum, Marquette University’s John McAdams’ The Kennedy Assassination site concludes that Kennedy and the CIA had some rough spots but got through them. (4) At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Jerome R. Corsi, who maintains that Kennedy and the CIA locked horns and never retreated. (5) Excellent research and the documented citations for both perspectives leave the reader with many questions.  One corner of this argument does not appear to be disputed; Kennedy consistently refused to use the U.S. military to support private sector interests.  In this matter, President Kennedy was a traditionalist. The military, in his opinion, was to be used only in defense of national security interests.  If we can escape the white-out conditions of the never-ending controversy, the political landscape, once again, becomes hard and navigable.  

As Kennedy came to office, covert CIA actions initiated by the Eisenhower administration were in play in both hemispheres.  Two noteworthy examples are the storm clouds that were gathering around the Diem brothers in South Vietnam and the vexing problem of Fidel Castro in Cuba.  For discussion purposes I have separated these two significant events, but during the early days of the Kennedy administration they were unfolding concurrently linked through the CIA node.

President Kennedy and DCI Allen Dulles

President Kennedy and DCI Allen Dulles

South Vietnam

South Vietnam was a U.S. government construct, a nation-building exercise illuminated by the Pentagon Papers.

“The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed "a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three parts of Indochina created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist control." Diem again and again blocked the elections requested by the Vietminh, and with American money and arms his government became more and more firmly established. As the Pentagon Papers put it: "South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of the United States."(6)

By 1961, Southeast Asia was rapidly becoming a tinder box.  During a discussion of an Edward Lansdale report on Vietnam with Walt Whitman Rostow, the National Security advisor, Kennedy lamented, “'This is the worst one we've got. You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length about Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam.”  Lansdale’s report brought the deterioration of South Vietnam’s political stability into focus for Kennedy as he remarked to Rostow that the “Lansdale's narrative was 'an extremely vivid and well-written account of a place that was going to hell in a hack.'…” (7)

Diem and his brother persisted in implementing domestic policies based on impressing the Catholic religion and requiring personal loyalties that accelerated the destabilization of the country.  The prevailing religion in Vietnam was Buddhism at the time and the Diems were persecuting Buddhists terribly.  Making matters worse were two notable supporters of the Diem’s, neither of whom had a clue about the national culture of Vietnam.  Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat, lectured in Far Eastern and Latin American history in his previous life. Mansfield was also a practicing Catholic.  While Mansfield openly admitted he knew nothing about Vietnam, he very much liked Diem and he was generally considered to be Congress’ resident Vietnam expert.  The second big player who knew nothing about Vietnam was Col. Edward Lansdale, a CIA asset who befriended and used the Diems but was only committed to his concept of counterinsurgency warfare.  The Pentagon Papers revealed that, based on Lansdale’s advice, Kennedy approved secret operations to "dispatch of agents to North Vietnam" to engage in "sabotage and light harassment”.


Growing involvement

The Diem brothers’ refusal to cease and desist acting on their paranoia, resulted in thousands of Buddhists and dissenters being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.  The Geneva Accords permitted the U.S. to have 685 military advisers in South Vietnam. Eisenhower sent several thousand and, under Kennedy, the figure rose to sixteen thousand with some of them taking part in combat operations. Diem was losing. Most of the South Vietnam countryside was now controlled by local villagers organized by the NLF.(See Footnote 6)  It became clear that a new government was necessary if the U.S. was to be effective in keeping Vietnam out of Communist hands.  Kennedy authorized the overthrow with the provision that the Diem brothers would be extracted to live in exile. 

Henry Cabot Lodge, Ambassador to South Vietnam, received a cable (Cable 243) outlining the issues and actions that were the next steps in changing regimes or bringing the Diem regime into line with American interests, following the midnight raids on the Buddhist Pagodas on August 21, 1963.(8)  The Diem brothers would not or could not change direction and South Vietnam’s Diem government was overthrown in a military coup d'état according to play book.  What did not go ‘according to plan’ was the murder of the Diem brothers whose desperate calls for rescue went unheeded by the U.S. government that had put them in power.  The brutal assassinations of the Diems on November 2, 1963 haunted Kennedy.  By November 22, 1963, less than three weeks later, Kennedy himself would die from an assassin’s bullet(s).

“Kennedy learned of the deaths on the following morning when National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal rushed into the cabinet room with a telegram reporting the Ngô brothers' alleged suicides. According to General Maxwell Taylor, "Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before." Kennedy had planned that Ngô Đình Diệm would be safely exiled and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. recalled that the U.S. president was "somber and shaken". Kennedy later penned a memo, lamenting that the assassination was "particularly abhorrent" and blaming himself for approving Cable 243, which had authorised Lodge to explore coup options in the wake of Nhu's attacks on the Buddhist pagodas.  Forrestal said that "It shook him personally ... bothered him as a moral and religious matter. It shook his confidence, I think, in the kind of advice he was getting about South Vietnam."   When Kennedy was consoled by a friend who told him he need not feel sorry for the Ngô brothers on the grounds of despotism, Kennedy replied "No. They were in a difficult position. They did the best they could for their country." 



While the South Vietnam pot was coming to a boil in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Cuban kettle had boiled dry with the Bay of Pigs and was heating up a second time with Operation Mongoose in the Western Hemisphere.  Without getting into the ‘why’ of it, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy left the door open to depose Cuba’s new dictator Fidel Castro during the fourth presidential debate.(9)  The New York Times the next day ran the story as the lead item on the front page with the headline: "Kennedy Asks Aid for Cuban Rebels to Defeat Castro, Urges Support of Exiles and Fighters for Freedom." James Reston wrote in the Times that "Senator Kennedy (has) made what is probably his worst blunder of the campaign.”(10)  After Kennedy was inaugurated, DCI Allen Dulles came calling to cash the Bay of Pigs check and Kennedy approved the invasion as had been planned under the Eisenhower administration except that he refused to commit the U.S. military support. 

George Washington University’s National Security Archives Bay of Pigs Chronology provides a wonderfully detailed account of the invasion and reads like a spy thriller.  Prior to the invasion factories and cane fields were fire bombed using white phosphorus and other incendiaries, E. Howard Hunt and others made covert trips into Cuba to check the lay of the land, small aircraft overflew Cuba taking pictures and reporting back to the CIA (at least one was shot down by Castro’s forces), communication stations on remote islands were constructed in preparation for command and control of the prospective invasion, and exiled Cubans were trained.  The exiles wanted to return home to the country they remembered and American business interests wanted the island playground back in their domain.

The pressure was on to execute the invasion and, in April, about three months after Kennedy’s inauguration the green light was given. “On April 15, 1961, C.I.A. pilots knocked out part of Castro's air force, and were set to finish the job. At the last minute, on April 16, President Kennedy called off the air strikes, but the message did not reach the 1,511 commandos headed for the Bay of Pigs. Three days of fighting destroyed the invading force. A brigade commander sent his final messages: ''We are out of ammo and fighting on the beach. Please send help,'' and: ''In water. Out of ammo. Enemy closing in. Help must arrive in next hour.''(11) The help never came and 1500 Cuban exiles fighters did not come back.

To his credit, President Kennedy assumed full public responsibility for the debacle although he allowed the blame to spread through leaks and rumors.  Kennedy fired Allen Dulles and threatened to break the CIA apart.  The fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs, however, did not deter the effort to rid the Western Hemisphere of Castro.  In November 1961, Operation Mongoose was born with a primary objective to identify mechanisms to get rid of the Cuban leader and the CIA was not the lead player.  Robert Kennedy and General Maxwell Taylor were the operation’s overseers.  Col. Edward Lansdale was recruited to coordinate activities between the CIA, Defense Department, and State Department. 

Operation Mongoose employed intelligence collection, sabotage operations, and identifying and recruiting leaders within Cuba who could overthrow Castro. But there were other methods used. With Lansdale’s obsession on asymmetrical warfare, a subset operation known as the Northwoods operation was developed. This considered using faked and real terrorist activities which could be blamed on Castro and used as a provocation for invasion.  It has never been decisively determined whether or not assassination plots were a component of Operation Mongoose.(12)  The Church Committee did, however, uncover a 1962 memo from Lansdale to Robert Kennedy claiming that "we might uncork the touchdown play independently of the institutional program we are spurring."  Operation Mongoose was ‘officially’ ended in October 1962 with the advent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The ‘official’ efforts to ‘get Castro’ fade from the presidential office in October 1962 and go deep underground.  The next blip on the ‘get Castro’ radar appears in New Orleans in the rabid anti-Communist, anti-Castro corporate culture at the United Fruit Company upon whose trustee board the fired DCI Allen Dulles sat.  The United Fruit Company story must be told at another time, however.


The CIA and Kennedy in perspective

President Kennedy’s fractured relationship with the CIA meant, for his term in office, a reduced CIA influence on foreign policy and affairs.  Kennedy, however, did recognize the usefulness of covert operators and plausible deniability’s lack of presidential fingerprints.  Publicly Kennedy was shamed twice by CIA failures and fired the powerful Allen Dulles.  Did Kennedy really forget and forgive as some analysts portray or would his ego have driven him to keep his promise to break up the CIA?  Certainly, Kennedy attempted to dilute the CIA influence during Operation Mongoose.  Kennedy’s assassination ended all of the speculation of the CIA’s relative political standing as the status quo quickly returned under the Johnson administration.

The Kennedy administration lasted just 1036 stormy days. His last day, like his first, was preceded by a storm in Dallas, Texas.  As on Kennedy’s inauguration day, the storm cleared and Kennedy elected to have his convertible open to the people; the better to relate to the people.  That, of course, worked well for the assassin(s).  I find it interesting where the ubiquitous Allen Dulles shows up; on the United Fruit Company Board of Trustees and on the Warren Commission investigating the death of the man who fired him.  The Diem brothers may have been assassinated but Fidel Castro, the object of so much time and effort, outlived them all.


By Barbara Johnson

Barbara is the owner of, a site about the men and women from all the cold wars who worked so hard for something they believed in and played so hard they forgot the pain.

This article has been published as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. We shall be posting about JFK on Twitter and Facebook this week.

To find out more about John F Kennedy’s life, listen to our podcast on him. Click here.


1.       NOAA’s National Weather Service Forecast Office; Presidential Inaugural Weather;

2.       University of Virginia; Miller Center; American President: Eisenhower Foreign Policy A Reference Resource;

3.       The Cold War Museum; Guatemala 1954; Article 1 of 2;

4.       Marquette University; Craig Frizzell and Magen Knuth; Mortal Enemies? Did President Kennedy Plan on Splintering the CIA?;

5.       Dr. Jerome R. Corsi; Who Really Killed Kennedy?: 50 Years Later: Stunning New Revelations About the JFK Assassination; 

6.       A People's History Of The United States; Howard Zinn; Chapter 18: The Impossible Victory: Vietnam;

7.       George Washington University National Security Archives; The Wall; Episode 9; INTERVIEW WITH WALT ROSTOW;

8.       George Washington University National Security Archives; Cable 243;

9.       Commission on Presidential Debates; October 21, 1960 Debate Transcript; The Fourth Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate; October 21, 1960;

10.   George Washington University National Security Archives; Chapter 3; Into Politics With Kennedy and Johnson;   

11.   New York Times; TIM WEINER; February 22, 1998; C.I.A. Bares Its Bungling in Report on Bay of Pigs Invasion;

12.   George Washington University National Security Archives; July 25, 1962; Brig. Gen. Lansdale; Review of Operation Mongoose;  

This is the second in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). The first of the series was The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning.

Allen W. Dulles, the head of the CIA during the Eisenhower years of the 1950s

Allen W. Dulles, the head of the CIA during the Eisenhower years of the 1950s

In the late 1940s, the CIA grew quickly as it acquired the political turf and added the expert staff required to keep the president informed on who was doing what to whom around the globe. The National Security Act of 1947 added covert operations coupled with ‘plausible deniability’ to the mix of collecting and analyzing data. Covert operations weaponized the agency. Now, not only could the CIA convert data into information, it could, at the behest of the president through the State Department, act on it with impunity; the CIA had become a tactical weapon.

Presidential elections tend to return with grueling regularity in the U.S. and by 1952 it was time, once again, for Americans to choose a leader through the Electoral College.  Truman, who announced he would not run again, took an historic step when he required the CIA to brief the presidential candidates so they would know what-in-the-world was happening. In Chapter 2 of the CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992, John L. Helgerson states, “Mindful of how useful the weekly briefings were to him, Truman determined that intelligence information should be provided to the candidates in the 1952 election as soon as they were selected. In the summer of 1952, the President raised this idea with Smith. He indicated he wanted the Agency to brief Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Adlai Stevenson, remarking at the time, "There were so many things I did not know when I became President." Smith suggested to Truman that Davidson might be the proper individual to brief both Eisenhower and Stevenson to ensure they were receiving the same information.[1] It was an unprecedented step based on Truman’s early experience in office and the beginning of a tradition that is still respected.

DCI General Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith had served as now ‘presidential candidate’ Eisenhower’s chief of staff at Allied Forces Headquarters. Smith tried, and failed, to delegate the briefings to Meredith Davidson, a senior staff officer. It must have been a monumentally awkward situation for Smith as he served his new master and his old master. The record indicates that Eisenhower was not above playing his past relationship with Smith and did not make Smith’s job easy. Just before Eisenhower’s November election Smith resigned from active duty status and later took a lesser position in the State Department.

Eisenhower was a popular candidate and his war hero status effectively tied the opposition’s hands. Adlai E. Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent, was at a distinct disadvantage. The planks in Eisenhower’s platform included exiting Korea and getting rid of government corruption, which was a big deal with the bribery incidents that were uncovered among the Truman appointees. The 1952 election was odd even by U.S. standards where election time is referred to as the silly season.[2]  In retrospect, Eisenhower failed to achieve either objective and, during his administration, the U.S. stuck its nose deeply into other countries’ business through CIA actions.

Allen W. Dulles was appointed by the Eisenhower administration in 1953. He would serve in that capacity until 1961 when President Kennedy canned him following the Bay of Pigs. Dulles was from the old school, the OSS, and he came to the job with the mindset of being a major league player back-in-the-day.  “… in training Kuomintang troops in China and Burma, and recruited Kachin, and other indigenous irregular forces for sabotage as well as guides for Allied forces in Burma fighting the Japanese Army. Among other activities, the OSS helped arm, train and supply resistance movements, including Mao Zedong's Red Army in China and the Viet Minh in French Indochina, in areas occupied by the Axis powers during World War II. OSS officer Archimedes Patti played a central role in OSS operations in French Indochina and met frequently with Ho Chi Min in 1945.”…[3]

A banker and corporate lawyer between public service assignments, Dulles was connected to a power network that ran in the family. His brother, John Foster Dulles, served as Eisenhower’s Secretary of State during this same period. It was a cozy arrangement given that covert operations went through the State Department. In reading the documents, no one seemed particularly concerned with the potential for abuse or the loss of checks and balances with this banking family’s arrangement. Perhaps, and this is pure speculation, the arrangement even provided cover for plausible deniability.

The analysts who strive to make sense of the information gathered are one breed of CIA employee and the stuff of great Tom Clancy novels. Covert operators are another breed entirely. To this day covert operatives live according to the OSS creed, which places its “faith in individual initiative or “derring-do”, a willingness to act unhesitatingly in ambiguous situations, to “do something” even if it goes beyond the original mandate, a belief in the efficacy of unconventional methods, and distrust or even disdain for the bureaucratic process and structure.[4]

Under Eisenhower, CIA covert operations meddled early and often in Southeast Asia as the U.S. marched inexorably forward into what became the Vietnam War and the sacrifice of over 58,000 American lives.[5] The Vietnam stage was already set when Eisenhower took his presidential oath in January 1953. The U.S. was picking up about 75 percent of France’s military cost in Indochina (North and South Vietnam), a result of decisions made during the Truman administration. The record indicates that Eisenhower did not particularly care for the French effort to recolonize Indochina after WWII but was politically stuck with them. The spark of war ignited a fire at Dien Bien Phu, in northern Vietnam near the Laotian border. Like two pieces of flint being struck against each other, sparks flew when Giap, with the Viet Minh[6], vowed to wipe out French forces and the French were equally determined to wipe out the Communists.[7] The problem was that while General Vo Nguyen Giap was an acknowledged and experienced military genius, the French decision to lure him into a trap was fatally flawed.

The French managed to get several thousand soldiers trapped in the fortress at Dien Bien Phu, and borrowed a US Navy aircraft carrier, 10 US Air Force B-26s, several C-47s and C-119s, and hundreds of US Air Force personnel to try to dig themselves out.[8] Eisenhower was in a pickle. How much of America was he willing to sacrifice to deny the Communists a victory?  Plans entailing the use of three tactical nukes were drawn up for Operation Vulture. Eisenhower tied Britain’s approval to the execution of Operation Vulture and when Britain refused to sanction the idea it was dropped.[9] In the end, 13,000 French soldiers died[10] in the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the U.S. suffered its first two casualties of the Vietnam War. “On May 6, 1954, CAT pilots James B. McGovern and Wallace A. Buford were flying their C-119 Boxcar on a Dien Bien Phu airdrop mission. Clear weather made it easy for the Viet Minh anti-aircraft gunners to target the aircraft. The stricken Boxcar crashed behind enemy lines. Thus it was that McGovern and Buford—two pilots—became the first Americans known to have died in combat in Vietnam.” (See footnote 7)

A member of the French Foreign Legion in Indochina, 1954

A member of the French Foreign Legion in Indochina, 1954

Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, 1954 and the French beat their feet to get out of the area. The next day, May 8, 1954, planning for a Geneva conference of the main Indochina actors was initiated. By June of 1954, France granted southern Vietnam independence. In July 1954, the Geneva conference was convened. The major players were the US, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union, while the three Associated States of Indochina, including Hồ Chí Minh 's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, were also at the table. Vietnam was partitioned into north and south at the 17th parallel. This was an interim solution pending the outcome of the 1956 Vietnamese elections, which never came.  The U.S agreed to the Geneva accords but, not liking the partition, never signed the agreement. By September 1954, the US and seven other nations signed the Manila Pact; the basis of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the rationale for the U.S’s Vietnam War.

While the U.S. military was busy helping the French, what was the CIA doing? Elections? Did somebody say elections in Vietnam? Elections are right up the CIA’s alley and the CIA boys and girls were very busy bees according to declassified documents released about four years ago. South Vietnam’s new Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a puppet who had played no role in the war or in the negotiations that ended it. Diem’s credentials were his fluent English, his anti-Communist nationalist position, and his religion, Roman Catholic. Diem was putty in the CIA’s hands.

During this period, the CIA considered itself a nation builder. It drank from the goblet of power filled by placing the Shah of Iran on a throne in 1953 and sponsored a successful military coup against the leftist government in Guatemala in March 1954. In Europe, the CIA supported the Christian Democrats in the 1948 Italian elections ensuring the survival of ‘democratic government’ there. The also CIA participated in the 1954 defeat of the Hukbalahaps or Huk Rebellion, who were labeled as Communists, in the Philippines during Ramon Magsaysay’s regime.

Drunk on the wine from these victories, the CIA entered Vietnam certain of another success. Unfortunately, they did not understand the Vietnamese people, their culture or their history. Diem was inaugurated in July 1954. He won the presidency by dubious means and the CIA knew he did not have the support of the people. Toward that end they had been grooming his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, for several years. By that time, the CIA had been busy in Vietnam for four years. The Agency first reestablished the covert action section in the Saigon Station, which had its plug pulled when the French found out about its activities in Hanoi. Secondly, Colonel Edward Lansdale of the USAF, renowned for his work as "kingmaker" in the Philippines, was to find a Vietnamese equivalent of Ramon Magsaysay. Lansdale’s assignment was approved about the time that Harwood arrived in Saigon. Colonel Lansdale followed him in June, assigned to the Embassy as Assistant Air Attache.[11] Paul Harwood was the CIA’s Saigon Chief of Covert Operations and very good friends with Ngo Dinh Nhu. And Diem soon became quite the dictator. By the time his administration was drop-kicked and Diem was assassinated during the Kennedy administration, Diem had killed thousands and extended his hatred of Communists to include political and religious dissidents, such as Buddhists, and anti-corruption whistleblowers. 

President Eisenhower greets South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in Washington, 1957

President Eisenhower greets South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in Washington, 1957

The CIA in Vietnam, spearheaded by Lansdale and Harwood, failed both in providing accurate information and in nation-building. When Diem was overthrown and assassinated, Hồ Chí Minh reportedly stated: “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.” But stupid we were. In 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson dropped the pretext of plausible deniability when he admitted to the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem.[12]

The U.S. had its CIA nose under the Vietnamese tent for twenty-five years before it finally accepted it had lost. Vietnam was a political war, not a military war, and it cost millions of lives, including tens of thousands in the U.S. military services, trillions of dollars and the loss of the American ‘good guy’ innocence.

Instead of opening trade and freeing markets following WWII, the U.S. pulled in, went underground, and embarked on an imperialistic march through the back alleys of the world. Where trade was allowed to flourish, countries recovered and thrived after WWII; Japan, Hong, Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan come to mind.  Those early CIA victories in Iran, Guatemala, and Italy did not lead to long-term stability or democracy. The Philippines did better, although it appears we slew the wrong dragon there. The Dulles dynasty in the CIA and State Department was weighted by numerous disasters offset with very few victories. Perhaps bankers look at the balance sheet from a different perspective. In the end, it is the President of the United Sates, Eisenhower in this case, who must take responsibility for the CIA; it was his baby and his choices.

For the years I served the government as a member of the contractor community, my least favorite agency to do business with was the CIA followed quickly by the DEA. While I wrestle the bias to the ground most of the time, it still manages to creep into my writing on occasion. We, each of us, had a job to do for the United States government and most of us took that responsibility very seriously. Our oaths were pretty much the same and have no expiration date; to uphold and protect the U.S. Constitution. How we go about doing that, however, is very different.


By Barbara Johnson


Barbara is the owner of, a site about the men and women from all the cold wars who worked so hard for something they believed in and played so hard they forgot the pain.


To find out more about the Vietnam War, why not listen to our audio podcast on that war? Click here. 


[1] George Washington University NSA Archives; John L. Helgerson; CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992;

[2] Kennesaw State University; Political Sciences and International Studies Department; 1952: The Election of a Military Hero;

[3] Wikipedia; Office of Strategic Services;

[4] CIA Library; The Way We Do things;

[5] National Archives; Statistical Information about Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War;

[6] The term "Viet Minh" is an abbreviation for VietNam Doc Lap Dong Minh-the Vietnam Independence League-the national front created by Ho Chi Minh in 1941 to resist the Japanese occupation and the Vichy French colonial regime that collaborated with it. South Vietnam as a separate, provisional entity came into existence as a result of the Geneva Accords. The other two Associated States, which together with Vietnam made up French Indochina, were Cambodia and Laos. Under the terms of the ceasefire, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was to take control of all Vietnamese territory north of the 17th parallel, while the French Expeditionary retired to the south.

[7] Bernard B. Fall; 1961; Street Without Joy: The French Debacle In Indochina;

[8] Air Force Magazine; Rebecca Grant; August 2004; Dien Bien Phu;

[9] Google Books; Nathan Miller; 1977; The U.S. Navy: A History;

[10] Asian History; Kallie Szczepanski; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954;

[11] George Washington University; National Security Archives; Thomas L. Ahern, Jr.; House of NGO covert Action in South Vietnam,

[12] Youtube; November, 1, 1963; LBJ Admits Murder of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem;


Cold War History - Are we friends or enemies? – From the Vietnam War to Détente – Part 2: 1962-1979 (Required History)

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In an unstable world, how do you know who your friends and enemies are?

You don’t.

The Cold War was international affairs for the second half of the 20th Century. Nuclear weapons testing, civil wars in all corners of the globe and the race for economic dominance were all key spheres of the Cold War, although they were just a few elements of a very complex global puzzle. More so than the great battles between Carthage and Rome in Ancient times or the Napoleonic Wars, the Cold War defined our world. But, there was one key difference between the Cold War and earlier major wars. Due to advances in technology and communications, the Cold War touched most countries on earth.

This introduction to the middle years of the Cold War tells the story of the great clash between the Communist Soviet Union and the capitalist USA. It considers events in an intriguing age for international relations. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were calls to avert the risk of another nuclear near-miss, and this did lead to an improvement in the super-power relationship; however, underneath this improvement, there remained great tension. To further complicate the situation, China and Europe both became increasingly powerful and assertive. In the world of the 1960s and 1970s, it was hard to know who to trust and who to fear.

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The topics in the book include:

  • The Vietnam War and its impact on the Cold War
  • Decolonization and the opportunities that arose from it for the super-powers
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George Levrier-Jones

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones