In the fall of 1961, unknown to the American public, John F. Kennedy was weighing a crucial decision about Vietnam not unlike that which George W. Bush faced about Iraq in early 2002–whether to go to war. It was the height of the cold war, when Communism was the “terrorist threat,” and Ho Chi Minh the era’s Saddam Hussein to many in Washington. But the new President was a liberal Massachusetts Democrat (and a decorated war veteran), not a conservative Sunbelt Republican who claimed God’s hand guided his foreign policy. JFK’s tough-minded instincts about war were thus very different. Contrary to what many have come to believe about the Vietnam War’s origins, new research shows that Kennedy wanted no war in Asia and had clear criteria for conditions under which he’d send Americans abroad to fight and die for their country–criteria quite relevant today.
But thanks also in part to recently declassified records, we now know that Kennedy’s top aides–whatever his own views–were offering him counsel not all that different from what Bush was told forty years later. Early that November, his personal military adviser, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and his deputy National Security Adviser, Walt Rostow, were on their way back from Saigon with a draft of the “Taylor report,” their bold plan to “save” Vietnam, beginning with the commitment of at least 8,000 US troops–a down payment, they hoped, on thousands more to follow. But they knew JFK had no interest in their idea because six months earlier in a top-secret meeting, he had forcefully vetoed his aides’ proposed dispatch of 60,000 troops to neighboring Laos–and they were worried about how to maneuver his assent.
Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, then Ambassador to India, got wind of their plan–and rushed to block their efforts. He was not an expert on Vietnam, but India chaired the International Control Commission, which had been set up following French withdrawal from Indochina to oversee a shaky peace accord meant to stabilize the region, and so from State Department cables he knew about the Taylor mission–and thus had a clear sense of what was at stake. For Galbraith, a trusted adviser with unique back-channel access to the President, a potential US war in Vietnam represented more than a disastrous misadventure in foreign policy–it risked derailing the New Frontier’s domestic plans for Keynesian-led full employment, and for massive new spending on education, the environment and what would become the War on Poverty. Worse, he feared, it might ultimately tear not only the Democratic Party but the nation apart–and usher in a new conservative era in American politics.
Early that November, just as Taylor and his team arrived back in Washington, Galbraith arrived from New Delhi for the state visit of Prime Minister Nehru. Hoping to gain a quick upper hand over Taylor and his mission, he arranged a private luncheon for Kennedy and Nehru at the Newport estate of Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother and stepfather. No one from the State Department–to Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s great consternation–was invited, save Galbraith. Ten days earlier, Galbraith, in one of his back-channel messages, had shared with Kennedy his growing concerns about Vietnam. From India, he’d played a role in defusing the Laos situation that spring, but over the summer, the Berlin crisis had sent a sharp chill through relations with the Soviets, with the risks of nuclear confrontation for a time all too real. About this, Galbraith now told the President:
Although at times I have been rather troubled by Berlin, I have always had the feeling that it would be worked out. I have continued to worry far, far more about South Viet Nam. This is more complex, far less controllable, far more varied in the factors involved, far more susceptible to misunderstanding. And to make matters worse, I have no real confidence in the sophistication and political judgment of our people there.