President Kennedy’s promulgation of NSAM-111 on 22 November 1961 came on the heels of many months of determined efforts by his advisors to send U.S. combat troops into Vietnam. But he refused to do it. Instead, Kennedy approved a significant increase in American advisors and equipment. There Kennedy drew the line. He would not go beyond it at any time during the rest of his presidency. The main lesson of this climactic event is this: Kennedy turned down combat troops, not when the decision was clouded by ambiguities and contradictions in the reports from the battlefield, but when the battle was unequivocally desperate, when all concerned agreed that Vietnam’s fate hung in the balance, and when his principal advisors told him that vital U.S. interests in the region and the world were at stake.
Kennedy’s stand in Berlin unquestionably demonstrated that he did not lack resolve, as his stand in the Cuban missile crisis the following year would again make abundantly clear.
When Kennedy’s program—an increase in advisors—finally emerged in unequivocal terms in NSAM-111, the insurgency in Vietnam was probably already beyond the capacity of an advisory approach to check it. About the only thing one could point to that matched the steady growth of the communists in Vietnam was the steady growth in the struggle over Vietnam policy in Washington and Saigon.
By the end of November 1961, Kennedy finally got around to the unsavory business of putting people out to pasture. The personnel changes of November 26 became widely known as the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre.” The underlying dynamic of the “massacre” was the lack of compliance in the government with Kennedy’s decisions.