The United States had been involved in the fight to keep communism out of Vietnam since 1948. That year, President Harry Truman provided funds to stop a communist-led independence movement in Vietnam. As the situation evolved, so did American involvement. By 1961, newly-elected President John F. Kennedy was eager to continue the work of his predecessors. During his presidency, the United States provided funds, military advisers, and other non-combat support on the ground in Vietnam.
Under President Kennedy, American soldiers advised the South Vietnamese Army. They did not participate in active combat. But their proximity to active warfare put them at risk. As the American death toll in Vietnam rose, many Americans expressed concern. It was difficult to understand what the soldiers were doing and why they had been sent there. The Cold War had been going on for nearly two decades, but it was still difficult for leaders to explain. Increasingly, Americans wanted to know why fighting other countries’ wars was worth it.
On January 2, 1963, Communist forces in Vietnam shot down seven U.S. helicopters. Two American soldiers died. On January 11, another helicopter crashed because of supposed technical reasons. Every man on board died. On January 18, another soldier was shot through the leg by a Vietnamese sniper as he flew his helicopter. These incidents proved that American soldiers serving as advisers in Vietnam were risking their lives.
On February 18, Bobbie Lou Pendergrass of Santa Ana, California, wrote to President Kennedy about her brother’s death in the January 11 crash. In her letter, she begged for an explanation for why American soldiers were serving in Vietnam. The President responded and attempted to answer her questions.