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The problem caused by "increased aggressiveness," including use of artillery and air power "to `soften up' the enemy" concealed among the population, was noted by Kennedy's dovish advisers Hilsman and National Security Staff member Michael Forrestal, who observed that "No one really knows...how many of the 20,000 `Viet Cong' killed last year  were only innocent or at least persuadable villagers" and "it is impossible to assess how much resentment among persuadable villagers is engendered by the inevitable accidents" (attacks on the wrong village, for example). The same problems arose later in Laos, and in Cambodia, where total air war against the peasant community played a significant role in mobilizing the Khmer Rouge, as attested by US government studies and independent scholarship.22
By 1962, Kennedy's war had far surpassed the French war at its peak in helicopters and aerial fire power. As for personnel, France had 20,000 nationals fighting in all of Indochina in 1949 (US force levels reached 16,700 under JFK), increasing to 57,000 at the peak.23
Kennedy's aggression was no secret. In March 1962, US officials announced publicly that US pilots were engaged in combat missions (bombing and strafing). By October, after three US planes were shot down in two days, a front-page story in the New York Times reported that "in 30 percent of all the combat missions flown in Vietnamese Air Force planes, Americans are at the controls," though "national insignia have been erased from many aircraft, both American and Vietnamese, ...to avoid the thorny international problems involved." The press reported further that US Army fliers and gunners were taking the military initiative against southern guerrillas, using HU-1A helicopters, which had more firepower than any World War II fighter plane, as an offensive weapon. Armed helicopters were regularly supporting ARVN operations. US operations in 1962 in the Delta region in the southern sector of South Vietnam were reported by journalist Robert Shaplen, among others.24
The character of Kennedy's war was also no secret. In a 1963 book, journalist Richard Tregaskis reported his interviews with US helicopter pilots who described how "wild men" of the helicopter units would shoot civilians for sport in "solid VC areas." Describing visits to hamlets that had been hit by napalm and heavy bombs in US air strikes, Malcolm Browne, AP correspondent from 1961, observed that "there is no question that the results are revolting. Unfortunately, the Viet Cong builds bunkers so skillfully it is rarely touched by aerial bombs or napalm, except in cases of direct hits. But huts are flattened, and civilian loss of life is generally high. In some, the charred bodies of children and babies have made pathetic piles in the middle of the remains of market places."25
The character of Kennedy's war was revealed further by Roger Hilsman. In his 1967 book, he cites a December 19, 1962 report of his Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which identifies several problems. One is that "excessive use of air strikes in the absence of ground contact with the enemy continues to kill a lot of innocent peasants." Another is that the core element of the pacification program -- the plan to drive some 7 million peasants into "strategic hamlets" -- was not being well implemented. "The purpose of these measures is to isolate and protect the peasants from the Communists," but "excessive use of air power and crop destruction" and other terror techniques "may well develop a militant opposition from the peasants and their positive identification with the Viet Cong."
In retrospect, Hilsman also expressed his unhappiness about defoliation, which "was just too reminiscent of gas warfare," and napalm, "a standard item of issue" with "ample stockpiles"; the battle over its use "had long since been lost" by mid-1962. "What was debatable," he wrote in 1967, "was whether it was on balance a gain or a loss to bomb huts, `structures,' and villages that had been reported to be Viet Cong." It was debatable for two reasons: first, intelligence was faulty so that the wrong villages might be struck; second, "indiscriminate bombing, or even carelessness in bombing, would turn the people toward the Viet Cong." It is these reservations that identify Hilsman as a leading dove.
To illustrate some of the problems, Hilsman described an operation of January 21, 1962. The senior American adviser who planned the operation called for an early morning attack by B-26s from the Farmgate squadron, who were to bomb and strafe a cluster of huts near the Cambodian border; "but through a tragic error in map-reading," Hilsman writes, "they in fact attacked a Cambodian village just over the border, killing and wounding a number of villagers." Fortunately, the error was quickly rectified. Five minutes later, the US bombers attacked the intended village with 500-pound bombs, along with T-28 rocket attacks. The huts were bombed and strafed for 45 minutes, wounding 11 civilians and killing 5 others, including children of 2, 5, and 7. An airborne battalion was then dropped by parachute. "Except for the error that led to bombing the Cambodian village, the plan was well and efficiently executed -- but it was more appropriate to the European fronts of World War II than it was to guerrilla warfare." "The greatest problem," Hilsman continued, "is that bombing huts and villages will kill civilians and push the population still further toward active support for the Viet Cong"; that they did commonly support the Viet Cong, and that the GVN could only control them by force, was no secret to the head of State Department intelligence.
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22 PP, II 455, 706-9, 714, 696, 703, 717-18. FRUSV, III 51, 57. Duncanson, Government and Revolution, 321. On Cambodia, see particularly Ben Kiernan, "The American Bombardment of Kampuchea, 1969-1973," Vietnam Generation, 1.1 (1989).
23 FRS, 141.
24 NYT, March 10; AP, NYT, Oct. 17, p. 1; Oct. 22, 1962. David Halberstam, NYT, Oct. 16, 1962; Shaplen, Lost Revolution, 170ff.
25 Tregaskis, Vietnam Diary, 108; Browne, New Face of War, 118.