Resource

Questioning Cold War Policy

This resource is adapted from the New-York Historical Society’s The Vietnam War: 1945-1975 curriculum.

Document Text

Summary

Dear President Kennedy, This is a letter to President John F. Kennedy.
My brother, Specialist James Delmas McAndrew, was one of the seven crew members killed on January 11 in a Viet Nam helicopter crash. . . . Bobbie Lou’s brother was a solider. He and six other soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam.
[My older brothers fought in World War II.] During those war years and even all during the Korean conflict we worried about all of them—but that was all very different. They were wars that our country were fighting, and everyone here knew that our sons and brothers were giving their lives for their country. Bobbie Lou’s brothers were soldiers in World War II and the Korean War. Both of those wars were different from the Vietnam War. Soldiers in World War II and Korea were fighting for America.
I can’t help but feel that giving one’s life for one’s country is one thing, but being sent to a country where half our country never even heard of and being shot at without even a chance to shoot back is another thing altogether! Bobbie Lou does not think serving in Vietnam is the same as serving in World War II. The soldiers in Vietnam do not have the chance to defend themselves.
Please, I’m only a housewife who doesn’t even claim to know all about the international situation—but we have felt so bitter over this—can the small number of our boys over in Vietnam possibly be doing enough good to justify the awful number of casualties? It seems to me that if we are going to have our boys over there, then we should send enough to have a chance—or else stay home. Those fellows are just sitting ducks in those darn helicopters. If a war is worth fighting—isn’t it worth fighting to win? Bobbie Lou acknowledges that she does not have the same knowledge as the President about international issues. But she does not understand how fighting in Vietnam is worth so many American deaths. She believes America should either do enough to win the war or not do anything at all.
Very sincerely,

Bobbie Lou Pendergrass

This letter was written by Bobbie Lou Pendergrass

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. White House Central Subject Files. National Security – Defense (ND). ND: 9-2-2: Condolence letters and communications: M: Executive. JFKWHCSF-0604-027. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

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Document Text

Summary

Dear Mrs. Pendergrass, This is a letter to Bobbie Lou Pendergrass.
The questions which you posed in your letter can, I believe, best be answered by realizing why your brother—and other American men —went to Viet Nam in the first place. . . . The President acknowledges that Bobbie Lou wants to understand why American soldiers are in Vietnam.
Americans are in Viet Nam because we have determined that this country must not fall under Communist domination. Ever since Viet Nam was divided, the Viet Namese have fought valiantly to maintain their independence in the face of the continuing threat from the North. Shortly after the division eight years ago it became apparent that they could not be successful in their defense without extensive assistance from other nations of the Free World community. . . . The President explains that American soldiers are Vietnam because the American government does not want the Vietnamese government to become communist. The Vietnamese people will not successfully defeat communism without help from other countries who oppose communism.
If Viet Nam should fall, it will indicate to the people of Southeast Asia that complete Communist domination of their part of the world is almost inevitable. Your brother was in Viet Nam because the threat to the Viet Namese people is, in the long run, a threat to the Free world community, and ultimately a threat to us also. For when freedom is destroyed in one country, it is threatened throughout the world. . . . The President believes that if Vietnam becomes a communist country, the rest of Southeast Asia will become communist. If Vietnam becomes a community country, it is a threat to the entire world. That is why Bobbie Lou’s brother was sent to Vietnam. Communist countries are a threat to world freedom.
I believe if you can see this as he must have seen it, you will believe as he must have believed, that he did not die in vain. Forty-five American soldiers, including your brother, have given their lives in Viet Nam. In their sacrifice they have earned the eternal gratitude of this Nation and other free men throughout the world. . . . If Bobbie Lou can understand this explanation, she will understand that her brother died for a good cause. Forty five soldiers have died in Vietnam. They have all earned respect from America and the world.
Sincerely,
John F. Kennedy
This letter was written by President John F. Kennedy.

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. White House Central Subject Files. National Security – Defense (ND). ND: 9-2-2: Condolence letters and communications: M: Executive. JFKWHCSF-0604-027. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

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Background

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.

About the Document

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.

Vocabulary

  • Cold War: A state of hostility between two nations that does not include open warfare. The most famous cold war was between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1990.
  • communism: A political system in which all goods and items of value are collectively owned and distributed to citizens equally.
  • housewife: A married woman whose primary responsibility is taking care of the home.

Discussion Questions

  • Bobbie Lou asked, “Isn’t it worth fighting to win?” What did she mean by that? What differences did she see between World War II and U.S. involvement in Vietnam?
  • Bobbie Lou mentions World War II. Why does she do this? What differences does she see between that war and the war in Vietnam? 
  • Bobbie Lou describes herself as “only a housewife”? What does she mean by this and what does this tell you about perceived gender roles in the early 1960s?
  • Did President Kennedy answer Bobbie Lou’s questions? Why did he think the American presence in Vietnam was so important? 
  • How do you think Bobbie Lou felt about President Kennedy’s response? Why do you think so?
  • What do you think of each person’s argument? Do agree with one perspective more than another?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS; AMERICA IN THE WORLD

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