Dan Clayton: Commemorating Saigon, 11 December 1961 ... A Date on the Dark Side of History

Roundup: Talking About History

Dan Clayton is Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is currently completing a book (co-authored with Gavin Bowd) entitled Impure and Worldly Geography: Pierre Gourou and Tropicality.

Four days ago President Barack Obama marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with some well worked homilies: of drawing, “strength from the example set by these [American] patriots and to honour all who have sacrificed for our freedoms” - the survivors of that calamity “remind[ing] us that no challenge is too great when Americans stand as one."[i]Today we reflect on a date less amenable to being commemorated from a position of national strength and self-assurance: 11 December 1961, the date when USNS Core reached Saigon Port, on President John F. Kennedy’s orders, with 32 CH-21C Shawnee helicopters from the 8th and 57th Transportation Companies and an air and ground crew of 400 to operate them, starting – for some – the Vietnam War.[ii]

The helicopters were used to train Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units in airmobile operations, and the 8th and 57th Companies began operations on 2 January 1962, transporting 1000 AVRN paratroopers from Tan Son Nhut Air Base to jungle drop zones around Saigon. Encounters with communist-directed insurgents (dubbed the ‘Viet Cong’ by the Americans) were negligible on that day. But AVRN chiefs were impressed by the morale boost the helicopters gave its beleaguered troops, who were struggling to secure supply lines to their outposts; and their requests for greater air support led to arrival of the first Marines Corps squadron of HUS-1 Seahorse and HU-1A Huey helicopters in April 1962, where they were soon dispensing the defoliating chemical Agent Orange as well as missiles and troops across the Mekong Delta and beyond.[iii]In November 1961 the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for more combat forces, but Kennedy held back. It was another four years before a sizeable US ground force started to arrive in Vietnam. However, today might be counted as the 50th anniversary of the onset of US combat operations in Vietnam.

In 2009, when, as Frank Rich observed, analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan were “the rage,” contrasts were drawn between how Kennedy acted on the advice that took him to 11 December 1961 and how Obama responded to the advice he received over Afghanistan. The basic difference, for some, lay in Kennedy’s greater ability to take advice but then make up his own mind.[iv]But this does not exhaust how we might appraise this today...

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