Tuesday, September 6, 2016

1963 Krulak Mendenhall Mission

The Krulak Mendenhall mission was a fact-finding expedition dispatched by the Kennedy administration to South Vietnam in early September 1963. The stated purpose of the expedition was to investigate the progress of the war by the South Vietnamese regime and their US military advisers against the Viet Cong insurgency. The mission was led by Victor Krulak and Joseph Mendenhall. Krulak was a major general in the United States Marine Corps, while Mendenhall was a senior Foreign Service Officer experienced in dealing with Vietnamese affairs.

The four-day whirlwind trip was launched on September 6, 1963, the same day as a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, and came in the wake of increasingly strained relations between the United States and South Vietnam. Civil unrest gripped South Vietnam as Buddhist demonstrations against the religious discrimination of President Ngô Đình Diệm's Catholic regime escalated. Following the raids on Buddhist pagodas on August 21 that left a death toll ranging up to a few hundred, the US authorized investigations into a possible coup through a cable to US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

In their submissions to the NSC, Krulak presented an optimistic report on the progress of the war, while Mendenhall presented a bleak picture of military failure and public discontent. Krulak disregarded the popular support for the Viet Cong, feeling that the Vietnamese soldiers' efforts in the field would not be affected by the public's unease with Diệm's policies. Mendenhall focused on gauging the sentiment of urban-based Vietnamese and concluded that Diệm's policies increased the possibility of religious civil war, and were causing the South Vietnamese to believe that life under the Viet Cong would improve the quality of their lives. The divergent reports led US President John F. Kennedy to ask his two advisers "You two did visit the same country, didn't you?"

The inconclusive report was the subject of bitter and personal debate among Kennedy's senior advisers. Various courses of action towards Vietnam were discussed, such as fostering a regime change or taking a series of selective measures designed to cripple the influence of Ngô Đình Nhu, Diệm's brother and chief political adviser. Nhu and his wife Madame Ngô Đình Nhu were seen as the major causes of the political problems in South Vietnam. The inconclusive result of Krulak and Mendenhall's expedition resulted in a follow-up mission, the McNamara Taylor mission.

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