Many people are familiar with the famous quotation by President John F. Kennedy, “Life is unfair.”
But few people today remember or know the context of this quote.
It was something he said, in part, with respect to what would become the Vietnam War.
In 1961, the newly-elected president decided to send more than a thousand American “military advisors” to South Vietnam, where the pro-Western regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem faced mounting threats from Communist insurgents and the North Vietnamese army.
In 1962, Kennedy increased the American presence in Vietnam to nearly 10,000 troops.
When Army reservists began being called up to serve there, after recently being stationed on another Cold War front in West Berlin, some complained that they had “done their time” and expressed their resentment by holding public demonstrations. One reservist even began a hunger strike.
President Kennedy was asked about this opposition during a press conference held on March 21, 1962.
He responded by saying that calling up the reservists “strengthened the foreign policy of the United States.”
After making this political point, Kennedy waxed philosophical.
“There is always inequity in life,” he said. “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”
Since then, those last three words have often been quoted, generally without any context.
In fact, Kennedy was a committed Cold Warrior. He essentially accepted the “Domino theory” articulated by his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and believed the spread of Communism needed to be stopped—by military means if necessary.
Thus, Kennedy shared Eisenhower’s concern that a potential takeover of South Vietnam by Communists could cause more “falling dominos” in Southeast Asia.
Eisenhower was the first president to send American servicemen to Vietnam. In the early 1950s, he sent a handful of U.S. “military advisors” there to aid France in its unsuccessful effort to keep Vietnam as a colony.
After the French were ousted and Vietnam was split into South and North Vietnam in 1954, Eisenhower sent more “military advisors” to help support Ngo Dinh Diem’s fledgling government in South Vietnam. But the numbers were still relatively small; from 750 to 1,500 U.S. servicemen between 1955 and 1960.
When Kennedy became president, he took more significant steps toward getting the U.S. entangled in what we now call the Vietnam War.
In 1961, he sent 3,200 American “military advisors” to South Vietnam. He increased that number in 1962. By the time of his assassination on November 22, 1963, Kennedy had sent a total of more than 16,000 U.S. servicemen to Vietnam and more than 100 had been killed.
Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson dramatically escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By 1968, LBJ had committed more than half a million US troops to the war.
When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, he began to withdraw American troops, pushed the South Vietnamese government to increasingly fight the war on its own and entered fruitless peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese.
Nixon resigned in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal and Gerald Ford became president. By that time there were only a small number of American troops left in Vietnam. Most were there primarily to guard the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, bringing the Vietnam War to an ignominious end.
More than 58,000 American servicemen and women were killed during the course of the war.
Somewhere between 1 and 3 million North and South Vietnamese men, women and children were killed.
Ultimately, all of those deaths did not prevent Communists from controlling South Vietnam. Today, nobody in the U.S. seems to care that Vietnam is a Communist state.
Life, as President Kennedy noted, is unfair.
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