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A writer and an editor who had once worked for Time-Life found this passage from a popular high school history text dry and incomplete: Communists threaten South Vietnam

The most serious threat to world peace developed in Southeast Asia. Communist guerrillas threatened the independence of the countries carved out of French Indo-China by the Geneva conference of 1954. In South Vietnam, Communist guerrillas (the Viet Cong) were aided by forces from Communist North Vietnam in a struggle to overthrow the American-supported government. During the Kennedy administration the United States sent some 10,000 servicemen as advisers, instructors, pilots, and supporting units to help the South Vietnamese government build a military force to fight the Viet Cong. In President Kennedy's opinion, preserving the independence of South Vietnam was of ``vital interest'' to the United States.

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After President Johnson took office, he continued to follow the Kennedy policy of limited support for the South Vietnamese government. Then, in the summer of 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats were thought to have attacked two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, Johnson ordered an air strike against North Vietnamese coastal bases. But during the presidential campaign of 1964, the President made it clear that he did not want to broaden the war. They revised the text, giving more emphasis to the hows and whys, and the new version proved significantly more memorable to students: Communists infiltrate South Vietnam

While America triumphed in peaceful competition with the Communists in space, in political competition the United States was far less successful. The battleground, once more, was in Southeast Asia: South Vietnam, one of the fledgling nations sculpted out of French Indo-China by the Geneva peacemakers in 1954. In the early 1960's South Vietnam was just a small splotch of color on President Kennedy's map, a country so tiny and remote that most Americans had never uttered its name. Yet in Kennedy's eyes, this pro-Western nation was ``the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike.''

South Vietnam's American-backed government was endangered, under attack from within by Communist guerrillas, the Viet Cong. Village by village, road by road, these jungle-wise rebels -- aided by their Communist neighbor, North Vietnam -- were waging a war of ambush and minings. They darted out of tunnels to head off patrols, buried exploding booby traps beneath the mud floors of huts, and hid razor-sharp bamboo sticks in holes. President Kennedy was alarmed. Determined to block a Communist takeover, h e dispatched some 10,000 servicemen as advisers, instructors, pilots, and supporting units to help the South Vietnamese muster a military force able to grapple with the formidable Viet Cong.

After Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson continued his predecessor's policy of limited support for the beleaguered South Vietnamese government. Then, suddenly in the summer of 1964, two American destroyers were apparently attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, Johnson ordered the Air Force to strike North Vietnam's coastal bases. Yet he held back from more extensive action. As he campaigned for the election in 1964, Johnson insisted that he would not fan the already flaming Vietnamese conflagration.

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