On 1 November 1955, the American Military Assistance Advisory Group for South Vietnam (MAAG) was officially created to assist in the training of conventional armed forces of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and facilitate military aid. The MAAG was reorganized from covering all of Indochina into MAAGs for each of the countries (Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam).
Although numerous MAAGs operated around the world throughout the 1940s-1970s, the most famous MAAGs were those active in Southeast Asia before and during the Second Indochina War. The MAAG for South Vietnam had been active since September 1950, after US President Harry Truman sent the MAAG to Vietnam to assist the French in the First Indochina War. From this time until 1954, American aid for French forces rose from $10 million to $350 million for the replacement of old military equipment owned by the French.
At a conference in Washington DC on 12 February 1955 between officials of the US State Department and the French Minister of Overseas Affairs, it was agreed that all US aid would be funnelled directly to South Vietnam and that all major military responsibilities would be transferred from the French to the MAAG under the command of Lieutenant General John O’Daniel.
With the rise of a communist insurgency throughout Vietnam in the coming years, President Ngô Đình Diệm looked increasingly to the MAAG for advice on how best to combat the insurgency and support to strengthen his position in government. Initially, however, Diệm was distrustful of the MAAG advisors, reluctant to allow them into South Vietnamese tactical units and refusing to give them high-ranking positions. This changed in 1960 when the number of official US military advisers in the country was increased from 327 to 685 at the request of the South Vietnamese government. By 1961, communist guerrillas were becoming stronger and more active, forcing Diệm to be more open to MAAG advisors. Diệm eventually agreed to assign advisers to battalion level, which significantly increased the number of advisers further; from 746 in 1961 to over 3,400 before MAAG Vietnam was placed under US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) and renamed the Field Advisory Element, Vietnam. At the peak of the war in 1968, 9,430 Army personnel acted as advisors down to the district and battalion level to train, advise and mentor the ARVN, the Republic of Vietnam Marine Division (RVNMD), the Republic of Vietnam Navy (VNN) and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF). Throughout this period relations between the MAAG and Diệm were described as “excellent”, even though the advisers were doubtful of his ability to hold off the insurgency.
Although key elements in the US administration were resisting his requests for increased military funding and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troop ceilings, MAAG Vietnam played a significant role in advocating for a greater US presence in the country. In 1961, newly elected President John F. Kennedy agreed with MAAG’s requests for increasing ARVN troop levels and the US military commitment in both equipment and men. Kennedy provided $28.4 million in funding for ARVN and overall military aid increased from $50 million per year to $144 million in 1961.