JFK SENDS 400 GREEN BERET “SPECIAL ADVISORS” IN MAY 1961 TO BEGIN
by Steve Balestrieri
May 25, 2017
JFK Sends 400 Green Beret “Special Advisors” in May 1961 to Begin
During the lead up to Memorial Day here at SpecialOperations.com we’re looking at some of the more interesting tidbits of our history. Some you
may not have heard of before and others may be familiar to you.
While the US had sent Special Forces advisors to South East Asia during
the 1950s to Vietnam and to Laos in 1959 with the White Star mission,
the build-up of American involvement really began in 1961.
In that year, the United States had a new President and he had some
issues facing him right off the bat. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
pledged support for “wars of national liberation” throughout the world.
His covert support greatly encouraged Communists in North Vietnam to
escalate their armed struggle to unify Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.
Outgoing President Eisenhower told Kennedy privately that he’d probably
have to send troops to Southeast Asia. During his inauguration speech,
Kennedy stated that “…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and
the success of liberty.”
Ho Chi Minh was the leader of North Vietnam and the US following the end
of WWII lost a prime opportunity to avoid bloodshed in the region. The
OSS parachuted Aaron Bank (later the founder of the 10th SFG) into
Indo-China (later Vietnam) in the attempt to search for Japanese POW camps.
Despite his Communist leanings and schooling, Ho Chi Minh was greatly
impressed with the United States and asked Bank for a copy of the
Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Bank was likewise impressed with Ho and tried to get the US to support him. But the US
backed the French who tried to re-install a colonial regime in Indochina
which started the war that ultimately the United States would be dragged
Vietnam was divided into North and South after the French were defeated
in 1954. Ho Chi Minh controlled North Vietnam and they actively tried to
create guerrilla movements in the South by lending arms, ammunition, and troops.
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Kennedy’s fledgling administration was out of its element in SE Asia and
the president sends VP Lyndon Johnson, and others to size up the
situation. LBJ calls President Diem, the “Winston Churchill” of Asia.
The die was cast, the US would become embroiled in the war.
In May 1961, 56 years ago, the President sent 400 Green Beret “Special Advisors” to Vietnam to train the South Vietnamese in counter-insurgency warfare. Up until this time, the South Vietnamese and the US had placed
the onus of their activity in countering the insurgency by beefing up
and training the conventional South Vietnamese forces. However, this
excluded large numbers of the ethnic and religious minorities of the
Both the early SF advisors and the CIA believed a paramilitary force of minorities would greatly expand South Vietnam’s counterinsurgency
efforts into remote areas. The largest of these minorities, the
Montagnards, a French word meaning “Mountain Man” had always been
treated with contempt by the government and lowland Vietnamese which
made them prime targets for Communist propaganda and recruiting.
These Mountain tribes people controlled vast areas of the countryside
and could have easily been swayed or coerced to the Communist side of
the conflict. The initial SF foray into the counter-insurgency realm
with the Montagnards took place with the Rhade (pronounced Rah-day)
tribesmen in a small village called Buon Enao.
After initial meetings with reps from the US Embassy and an SF medical sergeant, the village elders decided to come on board with the
government. The program quickly spread out to the other villages in the
area and within a few months, the SF advisors had built the Village
Defense program into an area that comprised 40 Rhade villages within 15 kilometers of Buon Enao. They had 1,000-man village defense militia and
300 full-time strikers. The program changed its name to the Civilian
Irregular Defense Group or CIDG.
Special Forces was here to stay in Vietnam and the CIDG quickly became a
thorn in the side of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. The typical
modus operandi (MO) for SF was to have a Special Forces “A” Detachment assigned to a hamlet or a village. There the “A-Team” would then raise a strike force. The Company sized camp strike forces were quick reaction
forces to counter problems in the village area. These strike forces also conducted patrols to disrupt the VC from their bases. They were the more
highly trained civilians than the village defense militias. And with the training by the SF troops were a good match for the Viet Cong guerrillas
that they would face.
From these humble beginnings, the CIDG program which was turned over to
the 5th Special Forces Group would grow to 84 A-camps with over 42,000
CIDG strikers under its command at its peak. The area development (as it
was called) around the A-camps became a primary focus of the CIDG as
Special Forces troops trained the Montagnards in village defense, small
arms, and mortars. The tactics were for mainly platoon size elements and
below, with the squad being the most common maneuver element.
In two short years, the 5th SFG(A) CIDG program went from one medical
sergeant at Buon Enao to over 1200 personnel scattered across South
Vietnam. Coordination with the South Vietnamese allies was a dicey
situation. Though technically onboard with the CIDG program, the South Vietnamese were unable or unwilling to do any of the training with the “Yards” as they were called by the SF troops. That would prove to be a problem throughout the war as the South Vietnamese eventually would take
over the program under the “Vietnamization Program”.
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Soon the North Vietnamese would send thousands of troops down the Ho Chi
Minh trail to bolster the Viet Cong forces. The US would begin sending thousands of their own combat troops to Vietnam as well and the war
But that small move by President Kennedy to send the 400 SF advisors to
Vietnam in the spring of 1961 would open the floodgates to a much larger conflict. The Green Berets would carve out a much larger combat role as
time wound on and would be one of the most highly decorated units of the Vietnam war.
Photo courtesy of Life Magazine
ABOUT STEVE BALESTRIERI
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Steve served as a Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries
forced his early separation. He writes for SOFREP and covers the NFL for PatsFans.com and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers