Seeking National Attention
While Jackie was at home alone, Jack was still pressing forward in his political career. It was the presidency that he now aimed for. He decided that in order to place himself in the national spotlight, he had to take a position on issues from a national perspective rather than from the limited view of state interests.
Supporting a Contentious Proposal
To that end, the St. Lawrence Seaway river transit system provided him with the perfect opportunity. This proposed transportation system between Canada and the Great Lakes was a controversial issue for a Massachusetts politician to vote in favor of. For twenty years, the project had remained a point of contention in Congress. It threatened to put a damper on the economy of Boston, but at the same time, the Midwest was positioned to benefit. Jack decided he would do what no other Massachusetts senator or representative had done before. He would stand in favor of the measure.
In January 1954, he made a speech in support of the controversial bill. It was a dangerous position, but he was well prepared with a reasonable explanation for his stance. He spoke about the bigger picture. He pointed out that his decision was a combination of factors, among them the importance of America sponsoring the project jointly with Canada in order to ensure that it maintained control. In addition, he pointed out that there would be an indirect economic gain for the Boston community and that, on any account, the benefit to the nation should take precedence over any state considerations.
Although it was a risky position, Jack won some allies. Two Massachusetts congressional members voted with him in support of the waterway, and a Massachusetts newspaper was even persuaded by his arguments. However, Jack wanted more than votes in favor of the project, and when he appeared on the nationally televised NBC program Meet the Press in February 1954, he got exactly what he wanted. It was not support for his position that he wanted so much as the national attention he would receive.
An Accurate Prediction about Indochina
Kennedy's opinion about the situation in Indochina brought him more national attention. Indochina, a French colony, was comprised of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. During World War II, France moved toward the federation of Indochina. Cambodia and Laos went along quietly, but the colonies of Annam, Tonkin, and Cochin China wanted to form the independent territory of Vietnam. By December 1946, the tensions between Vietnamese nationalists and the French erupted in the French Indochina War. The nationalists, some of whom were communists, also became a concern for the United States. In 1950, France requested U.S. aid. By 1954, America was financing well over 50 percent of the war.
In March 1946, France agreed to the establishment of the free territory of Vietnam within the French union and the Indochina federation. The dispute erupted when the parties differed on whether Cochin China was part of Vietnam. The French wanted it to form an independent state while Vietnam wanted it incorporated.
“No amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has sympathy and covert support of the people.”
The Indochina war was the perfect opportunity for Jack to show his knowledge about international politics. He quickly got to work studying the issue. During the summer of 1953, he came up with a solution. He advocated that since the war was going badly and the French only provided limited autonomy to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, the United States should make aid to the French contingent upon French promotion of freedom and independence. Jack reiterated his opinion about the French Indochina War on Meet the Press in February 1954. When asked whether he believed that the United States should strip control from France, he emphasized that since victory was elusive, the only solution was for the French to promote independence and to orchestrate winning the war by bringing in local leaders and more manpower.
Jack's ideas brought him respect and support. Three months after his television appearance, France was defeated. At the Geneva Conference, it was decided to split Vietnam at the Seventeenth Parallel. On one side was North Vietnam, which was under the control of the communist government of Ho Chi Minh and on the other side was the French-controlled government in South Vietnam, which was lead by Bao Dai. Months later, the French regime was replaced with a government led by Ngo Dinh Diem, a regime approved by the United States, France, and Great Britain. As Kennedy had forecast, France lost. His accurate and timely prediction earned him a burgeoning reputation as a senator with a good sense regarding foreign affairs.