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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

Public Speaking & Psychological Distance: U.S. Perceptions of South Vietnam & of Its Allies AUS & FR

How did the U.S. administration justify its intervention in South Vietnam? And, what was the U.S. perception of its allies, France and Australia, when trying to persuade them to join its military intervention in support of the South Vietnamese government’s fight against North Vietnam? Following is a brief article, based on excerpts from Crisan's PhD thesis, that explains the rhetoric employed by U.S. political figures to address the aforementioned themes and to portray the U.S. administration's perceived psychological closeness to, or agreement with, Australia and its perceived psychological distancing from, or disagreement with, France.

By Sorina I. Crisan, PhD.

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos. Speech by John F. Kennedy.
Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos

What was the U.S. rationale for a potential military intervention in South Vietnam?

The U.S.A. built its main argument for the “need” to intervene and support the South Vietnamese government’s fight against the North and against Communism around (a) the security concerns for the country itself; (b) the political instability and a lack of independence; and (c) the perceived hypothetical threat that this crisis would inflict not only on the region but on the world at large.

What was U.S. perception of the situation in South Vietnam, before the war started?

In the quote blow, President John F. Kennedy succinctly describes his views of the past, the present (in July 1963), and the future expected upheavals facing Vietnam (as perceived by his administration): the previous two decades of war; the social/political division and “guerrilla activity and murder” confronting the country in 1963; and the uncertain future that might lead to the “collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia” if the U.S.A. did not persevere with its “influence” on and assistance of Vietnam’s government. While acknowledging that the final “decision” is ultimately “theirs” (i.e., South Vietnam’s), the President argued that the U.S.A. would nonetheless “stay there” for however long needed in order to bring about a “stable government,” “national independence,” and avoid the “collapse” and subsequent takeover of the region by the enemy. The quotation concludes with an acknowledgement of the population’s ongoing state of victimhood, while at the same time makes a clear distinction, and thus a social psychological distancing, between the Americans and the South Vietnamese whom were “going through a harder time than we have had to go through.”

We all have to realize, that Viet-Nam has been in war for 20 years. The Japanese came in, the war with the French, the civil war which has gone on for 10 years, and this is very difficult for any society to stand. It is a country which has got a good many problems and it is divided, and there is guerrilla activity and murder and all of the rest. Compounding this, however, now is a religious dispute. I would hope this would be settled, because we want to see a stable government there, carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence. We believe strongly in that. We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there. We hope with the great effort which is being carried by the Vietnamese themselves, and they have been in this field a lot longer than we have, and with a good deal more deaths and casualties, that behind this military shield put up by the Vietnamese people they can reach an agreement on the civil disturbances and also in respect for the rights of others. That’s our hope. That’s our effort. That – we’re bringing our influence to bear. And the decision is finally theirs, but I think that before we render too harsh a judgment on the people, we should realize that they are going through a harder time than we have had to go through (Kennedy, 1963).

The perceived enemy to which Kennedy referred was broadly speaking Communism and more specifically the “Communist regime in North Vietnam” as argued by the then U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Rusk (Rusk, 1961a). Further, U.S. involvement in South Vietnam was presented by the Kennedy administration to be a result of the request made by the Government of South Vietnam to help defend itself against “the ruthless campaign by which the Communist regime in North Viet-Nam has been trying to conquer South Viet-Nam.” Pointing to the proof of Communist North Vietnam’s “threat to the independence and territorial integrity of a free country and its people” and the “serious threat to the peace,” made available in the above-mentioned report, Rusk argued that the U.S.A. “hope[d]” that its allies would join in providing “assistance to South Viet-Nam until such time as the Communists have halted their acts of violence and terror,” especially as the “Government of South Viet-Nam realize[d] this [need for assistance and help] and ha[d] welcomed support from the non-Communist world” (Rusk, 1961a).

What was the U.S. administration's proposed foreign policy option towards South Vietnam? And what was the main justification for a military intervention in South Vietnam, made by the U.S. in front of its allies?

When discussing U.S. FP toward South Vietnam, and the region, William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, spoke of the hypothetical threat imposed by the “situation” developing in South Vietnam and argued for the need to fight to maintain the “common ideals of freedom,” defend world peace and insure overall global security, as further illustrated:

We cared about the Far East, and we care today, because we know that what happens there — among peoples numbering 33 percent of the world’s population, with great talent, past historic greatness, and capacity — is bound to make a crucial difference whether there will be the kind of world in which the common ideals of freedom can spread, nations live and work together without strife, and most basic of all, we ourselves, in the long run, survive as the kind of nation we are determined to be. Our basic stake in the Far East is our stake in a peaceful and secure world, as distinct from a violent and chaotic one (Bundy, 1965).

Thus, the U.S.A. asked its allies to help assist the government of South Vietnam, in order to support the “common ideals of freedom,” as shown above.

Australia and France are just two of the allies who were asked to join the U.S.A. in its potential intervention. The policy choices made by these two allies are further discussed in my thesis (and in future articles) where I present a detailed analysis of representatives’ rhetoric concerning their references made primarily to the same themes and concerns as the ones raised by the U.S. The various themes and concerns that are identified, measured, and analyzed are called Psychological Distance (PD) variables.

How was the U.S. perception of, and psychological closeness to (or agreement with) Australia, portrayed in public rhetoric?

The U.S.A. argued for Australia to join their FP actions toward South Vietnam because (a) there were many similarities between themselves and this country in their shared perception of common values and (b) they displayed the mutual belief that there was a grave threat imposed by North Vietnam’s attack of the South to both the region and ultimately to the free world.

In a speech made in Australia, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Roger Hilsman highlighted the similarities between this country and his own, while psychologically distancing both of these countries from South Vietnam when he argued:

You and we — Australians and Americans — were permitted the luxury of development in an age when we could turn in upon ourselves, the discoverers of spacious continents, protected by our seas and by the naval power of our British cousins. We had leisure, small populations, and only marginal concern with the rivalries of great powers.

But your neighbors to the north and north-west have no such luxury today. Under severe pressure from poverty, illiteracy, disease, and population growth, as well as competing ideologies, they assume that they must telescope the process we underwent — or else collapse in political and economic chaos (Hilsman, 1964).

Later in the same speech, Hilsman also highlighted the importance of allied support (i.e., the “British cousins”) in their own country’s development and that of Australia’s. And, he made the point that “the stakes in Asia [were] great” for both nations and that “in an age when […] our planet is shrinking” the U.S.A. welcomed “the role that Australia [could] and must play in Asia’s quest for regional security, cooperation, and interdependence” (Hilsman, 1964).

And, lastly, how was the U.S. perception of, and psychological distancing from (or disagreement with) France, portrayed in public rhetoric?

The U.S.–French relationship during the early 1960s was strained by a fundamental disagreement between the two governments regarding the best course of action in South Vietnam. In sharp contrast with Australia and the U.S.A., France proposed a political solution to end the crisis, which meant the neutralization of the country. For instance, in a January 1964 New Year’s message to South Vietnam’s Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Council, President Johnson said:

The U.S. Government shares the view of your government that “neutralization” of South Vietnam is unacceptable. As long as the Communist regime in North Vietnam persists in its aggressive policy, neutralization of South Vietnam would only be another name for a Communist takeover. Peace will return to your country just as soon as the authorities in Hanoi cease and desist from their terrorist aggression (Johnson, 1964a).

And, specifically referring to France, President Johnson also stated:

I do not agree with General de Gaulle’s proposals. I do not think that it would be in the interest of freedom to share his view. General de Gaulle is entitled to his opinion. He has expressed it. We have expressed ours. We think the course of action that we are following in Southeast Asia is the only course for us to follow, and the most advisable at this time. We plan to pursue it diligently and, we hope, successfully on a stepped-up basis (Johnson, 1964c).

The continued non-military French presence on South Vietnam’s territory was acknowledged in a March 1964 press conference by Rusk when he argued that while the French were still present in that country, the responsibility of solving the crisis there was ultimately left to the U.S.A.:

In the particular case of Viet-Nam we ourselves are carrying the major responsibility there. There is considerable French presence in South Viet-Nam. They have a lot of teachers there, a lot of personnel, a good deal of industry. They play an important part there.

We do not have any official suggestion that French long-range purposes are different there than ours. We do not have official information that suggests that they hope that the South Vietnamese will fail in their present efforts, but all I am saying is that we do not have specific proposals that, suggest that any other track than the one we are on be adopted as far as Paris is concerned. And if those proposals are made, of course we will take a look at them (Rusk, 1964a).

Thank you for reading.

Note: The copy for this page has been created based on the author's opinions and on: (1) the references mentioned below and (2) direct copy/paste excerpts from Sorina Crisan's PhD thesis (chapter four), titled: “The Politics of Intervention: The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making,” Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019. The excerpts from Crisan's thesis include minor editing changes, in order to fit the topic of this article.

Illustration by: Lucrezia Carnelos. Unsplash, courtesy of photo gallery.


Bundy, W. P. (1965). America policy in South Viet-Nam and Southeast Asia, January 23, 1965. Department of State Bulletin, February 8, 1965, P. 167-175 [online]. Available at: [Accessed March 20, 2016].

* Crisan, S. I. (2019) The Politics of Intervention: The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making, Geneva: Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Hilsman, R. (1964). Australia’s Strategic Position – Address made at the 30th annual summer school of the Australian Institute of Political Science at Canberra, Australia, January 25, 1964. Department of State Bulletin, February 17, 1964, P. 244-250 [online]. Available online at: [Accessed March 22, 2016].

Johnson, L.B. (1964a). New Year’s Message to the Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Council in South Viet-Nam., January 1, 1964 [online]. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Available at: [Accessed February 12, 2016].

Johnson, L. B. (1964c). “The President’s News Conference,” February 1, 1964 [online]. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Available at [Accessed February 13, 2016].

Kennedy, J.F. (1963). “The President’s News Conference,” July 17, 1963 [online]. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Available at: [Accessed February 11, 2016].

Rusk, D. (1961a). Secretary Rusk’s News Conference of December 8, 1961, Department of State Bulletin, v.45 no.1162-1174 Oct-Dec 1961, P. 1053-1059 [online]. Available at:;id=msu.31293008121646;view=plaintext;start=1;sz=10 ;page=root;size=100;seq=517;num=1053 [Accessed April 5, 2016].

Rusk, D. (1964a). News Conference, March 6, 1964, Department of State Bulletin. v. 80, no. 2045, Jan- Mar 1964. P. 439-445 [online]. Available at: [Accessed March 22, 2016].


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