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JFK Wanted Out of Vietnam

Like many of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news arrived from Dallas that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. And like many Americans afterward, I have found it difficult to separate fact from fiction in assessing those days of lost innocence. The young president, so often identified with the romantic mythology of Camelot, was an idealist without illusions. And yet, his promise of a “New Frontier” in domestic and foreign policy had instilled a sense of pride in public service, whether in the Peace Corps, the military, or in simply going out to vote.

In recalling those nightmarish days of late November 1963, we might re-examine the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as one means for determining whether there was substance behind that idealistic image. Recently opened White House taped conversations and other documents reveal a president who recognized the inherent dangers of military intervention in Vietnam and who had devised an exit strategy. Had it not been for his assassination, the withdrawal plan might have prevented the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans and countless numbers of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians in our nation's longest war.

President Kennedy had long regarded the war as South Vietnam 's alone to win or lose. He therefore resisted the relentless pressure for sending U.S. combat troops, but, critically important, he never called for a total withdrawal. American advisers, he hoped, would improve South Vietnam 's fighting performance to the extent that it could bring the insurgency under control. By the spring of 1962 he sought to roll back the U.S. military involvement to the less provocative advisory level he had inherited when first taking office.

This story began in the spring of 1962, when the apparent progress in the war encouraged the first talk of military reductions. At a high-level conference in Honolulu in late July, U.S. military advisers presented a glowing report on the war which led President Kennedy to direct Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to draft a phased withdrawal program. The ensuing “Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam ” aimed at enabling the South Vietnamese government to police its affairs “without the need for continued U.S. special military assistance.” Once the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had pushed back the Vietcong, and after Kennedy had won reelection in 1964, the more than 16,000 U.S. special military forces would return home by the end of 1965. Those remaining behind would number 1500, all advisers and well within the boundaries of the Geneva Accords of 1954.

Not everyone had expected a victory even at this early stage in the war. In late 1962, President Kennedy's long-time friend, Senator Mike Mansfield, submitted a dismal report on Vietnam . After Mansfield left a tense, two-hour meeting with the president at his Palm Beach retreat in Florida, Kennedy moaned to aide Kenneth P. O'Donnell, “I got angry with Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.” The perceived progress in the war took another jolt in January 1963 when two of the president's closest advisers, Roger Hilsman and Michael Forrestal, returned from Saigon to confirm many of Mansfield 's pessimistic observations. In the meantime, the Vietcong defeated a huge ARVN and Civil Guard contingent at Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta, just thirty-five miles southwest of Saigon . “More or less beginning then,” Forrestal later recalled, Kennedy “began to get worried” about Vietnam .

President Kennedy feared that an immediate withdrawal would cause another witch hunt similar to that following China 's conversion to communism in 1949. In the Oval Office, he admitted to Mansfield that his call for a total military withdrawal was correct. “But I can't do it until 1965—after I'm reelected.” Otherwise, there would be a “wild conservative outcry” in the election campaign that would have severe political repercussions. After Mansfield left the room, Kennedy confided his intentions to O'Donnell. “In 1965, I'll become one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. I'll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don't care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam , we would have another Joe McCarthy Red Scare in our hands, but I can do it after I'm reelected. So we had better make damned sure I am reelected.”

In the spring of 1963 the withdrawal plan appeared to be nearing completion. On March 7, the joint chiefs signified approval, and on May 6, the president's advisers met in Honolulu to draft the details. But the entire program came to a standstill just two days later, when, during the early evening hours of May 8, violence erupted in the imperial capital of Hué during the nationwide celebrations of Buddha's birthday. Disturbances rapidly spread to Saigon and other cities as Buddhist monks protested against alleged religious oppression by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem's Catholic-dominated South Vietnamese government. The most spectacular event came on June 11, when a Buddhist monk immolated himself on a crowded street in downtown Saigon , blind-siding the Kennedy administration. “How could this have happened?” the president stormed to Forrestal. “Who are these people?”

In a tragically misguided move, President Kennedy followed Secretary of State Dean Rusk's advice and promoted a conspiracy by numerous ARVN generals to overthrow Diem in late 1963, thinking that a change of government would improve the war effort and thereby facilitate the U.S. withdrawal. Diem's crude handling of the Buddhist crisis had combined with the ARVN's bumbling war effort, the Kennedy administration's open criticisms of the regime, and the persistent rumors of Saigon's secret negotiations with Hanoi to drive the generals into a coup on November 1 that culminated in the deaths of both Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.

John Kenneth Galbraith is convinced that JFK wanted to "Vietnamize" the war after his expected reelection in 1964--in other words, to reduce the commitment to a low-level advisory matter as it was when he first came into office in January 1961. JFK's greatest problem, however, was the military. He had been burned by the Pentagon (and the CIA) during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and hesitated to trust the military afterward. By 1962 or early 1963, the president searched for some way to achieve some control over the military as the major first step toward phasing out the special military aid to Vietnam.

The means, according to Galbraith, was to remove the arch Cold Warrior from the state department, Dean Rusk, and replace him with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Kennedy, Galbraith asserted, considered McNamara the only person strong enough to stand up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon. McNamara had decided, along with the president, that the war was not winnable.

Indeed, according to Galbraith, this was the great unspoken truth in the administration--that the war could not be won and that the United States should cut its losses and withdraw all its special assistance put in since January 1961. I was taken aback by Galbraith's claim, but it fits with other findings.

It is clear now from the recently released JFK tapes that McNamara had become convinced by the fall of 1963 that the war was unwinnable and that the U.S. should pull out its thousands of "advisers." When I asked Robert McNamara about Galbraith's claim that the president had decided to change secretaries of state, the former defense secretary told me that the president had not asked him to make the switch but that "Bobby did." Obviously McNamara had confirmed Galbraith's assertion. The ramifications of this impending change are profound. Had JFK not been killed, he would have moved McNamara into the state department, pushed out the fervent Cold Warrior, Dean Rusk, scaled down the U.S. involvement, and doubtless prevented the "death of a generation"--more than 58,000 Americans as well as untold numbers of Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, etc.

Furthermore, McNamara falls even more under the dark shadow of Vietnam. He knew in 1963 that the war was unwinnable and called for withdrawal, but he then lodged no protests when LBJ escalated the war in late 1963. McNamara told me that the Vietcong's activities had heated up and that only military action could resolve the action. Johnson wrote a "blank check" to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that turned over Vietnam to their strategists. Johnson had strongly opposed the Kennedy administration's clandestine involvement in the assassination of Diem (LBJ had not been invited to the secret proceedings in the White House) and now wanted to get this bothersome little war out of the way so that he could implement his beloved "Great Society" domestic reform program.

One other important point: Had Johnson decided to pursue Kennedy's withdrawal plan (which had made its way through the bureaucracy by May 8, 1963--the very day that the Buddhist crisis broke out in Hue and put withdrawal on the shelf for some time), he had restricted his own actions by affirming that he intended to "continue" his predecessor's domestic and foreign programs. Since JFK's withdrawal plan was highly secret, it was unknown outside the deep inner circles of the White House. If LBJ now claimed an effort to follow Kennedy's wishes and withdraw, no one would believe him. But this was all irrelevant; LBJ never intended to withdraw. Instead, he wanted to release the military and let it "win" the war.

In January 1964, when the first major signs of trouble in Vietnam became apparent to LBJ, he asked McNamara what was going on. The defense secretary responded (telephone recordings recently released) that we do not know what is going on.

In accordance with Rusk's earlier argument, the administration used the coup's success to justify withdrawal. Before a press conference on November 14, President Kennedy asserted that at the scheduled Honolulu Conference in six days, his advisers would develop detailed plans for the initial troop withdrawal. Presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy afterward drafted a National Security Action Memorandum that he expected President Kennedy to sign as the precursor to withdrawal. According to NSAM 273, the White House remained committed to “the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel.”

In the late afternoon of Thursday, November 21, Forrestal spoke with the president in the Oval Office, just hours before his departure for Texas . Looking to the near future, the president asserted, “I want you to come and see me because we have to start to plan for what we are going to do now in South Vietnam . I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we got into this country, and what we thought we were doing, and what we now think we can do. I even want to think about whether or not we should be there.” The election campaign precluded any “drastic changes of policy, quickly,” but I want to consider “how some kind of a gradual shift in our presence in South Vietnam [could] occur.”

Just as the withdrawal plan moved to implementation, President Kennedy was assassinated, bringing the process to a close. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, followed the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to revise NSAM 273 by shifting the focus from the Vietcong to covert actions against Hanoi . The proposal, code-named OPLAN 34A, became what the Pentagon Papers later termed “an elaborate program of covert military operations against the state of North Vietnam,” which led to the establishment of a “black” sabotage organization code-named the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) that engineered more than 2000 covert assaults on the north and its military installations in Laos and Cambodia.

The outcome was the Gulf of Tonkin crisis of August 1964, followed by an Americanized war.

Had Kennedy lived, would he have pursued the withdrawal plan? Nothing suggests that the president would have given up his attempt to return the military commitment to its early 1961 level. Never in his thousand days in office did he stray from the principle that the war was South Vietnam 's to win or lose. Nor is there reason to believe that he would have turned over the war to the joint chiefs. The Bay of Pigs fiasco still weighed heavily on Kennedy's mind. The Cuban missile crisis remained an indelible memory. The ongoing Berlin troubles caused continuous talk of war.

President Kennedy's central tragedy lies in his promoting a coup aimed at facilitating a military withdrawal from Vietnam, for his actions tied the United States more closely to Vietnam and thereby stonewalled his plan to bring the troops home. His legacy was a highly volatile situation in Vietnam that, in the hands of a leader demanding a quick victory, lay open to full-scale military escalation. The new president soon Americanized the war, resulting in the death of a generation.

America 's ensuing war in Vietnam graphically demonstrated the complexities of foreign intervention, suggesting that well-meaning nations can seldom determine the course of history. Indeed, the United States found itself victimized by its good intentions, leaving millions of people from America and Southeast Asia to pay the ultimate cost.