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Galbraith and Vietnam | The Nation

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Galbraith and Vietnam

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Reading both documents that night, the President grew as alarmed as his ambassador, and the next morning quickly put off the NSC meeting his aides had scheduled, at which he knew they would expect him to endorse implementation of Taylor's recommendations. Unnamed "senior White House officials" now began leaking word that, as one New York Times headline put it, "Kennedy Remains Opposed to Sending Forces After Hearing Report." Taylor and Rostow, as well as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Rusk--keenly aware that Galbraith had the top-secret document and was leaking the President's reactions--were appalled, and applied fresh pressures to convene the NSC meeting. (That said, they were in fact divided among themselves about what they wanted Kennedy to do: McNamara, for one, opposed sending 10,000 troops; he wanted at least 200,000 dispatched immediately.)

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The President kept on delaying for more than a week, but during that time no visible support surfaced in Congress, the press or the public; instead there was a deafening, and what must have been a disheartening, silence. After nearly two weeks of delays, finding himself virtually alone and keenly aware of the costs of provoking a major split in his Administration, he finally agreed to convene the NSC.

But when they met in the Oval Office, aides found Kennedy still resisting them. Newly discovered notes show that after listening to the arguments for intervention, an impassioned Bobby Kennedy kept insisting, "We are not sending combat troops. Not committing ourselves to combat troops." They also show that when Rusk suavely proposed making "saving Vietnam" a formal national policy goal, the President--who'd been largely silent until then--briskly refused. Telling the group coolly that "troops are a last resort," he said that if they were ever to be sent, he would let them go only as part of a multilateral force, under the sanction of the UN Security Council.

Yet after two hours of relentless and uniform pressure, sensing just how isolated he still was among his own senior Cabinet members and top military and national security advisers, as the meeting came to a close Kennedy suddenly partially relented. He would agree to just part of the Taylor recommendations--there could be increased intelligence coordination between the United States and South Vietnam, economic aid could be modestly increased, and a few thousand troops could be sent, but only, he insisted, as noncombatants to train the Vietnamese Army to do its own fighting. It wasn't at all what those around him wanted--but it was the opening through which they would now press their own goals.

Two days later Rusk told the British ambassador that the President had just approved an initial troop contingent--and that thousands more combat troops could follow in weeks, depending on the situation the vanguard found in Saigon, even though this was something Kennedy had categorically rejected. Galbraith meanwhile raced to reinforce the President in his struggle to stay out of Vietnam. At his urging, the day after the NSC meeting ambassador at large Averell Harriman gave JFK a quickly drafted proposal for immediate talks with the Russians to forestall the dispatch of any troops; thrilled to find someone of Harriman's stature finally supporting him, Kennedy told aides he wanted to send Harriman to meet with the Soviets by the end of that week.

This, however, set off new alarm bells among his advisers, who--as one warned Rusk--would now "have to move quickly" because clearly "Galbraith has been working on this." Two days later, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy offered his personal counsel to a clearly concerned Kennedy, urging him not to send Harriman to meet the Russians but to dispatch a fully equipped combat division of 20,000 men--not the 10,000 noncombatants Kennedy had so reluctantly just approved--to help shift the tide of battle in Vietnam.

Although Bundy was perhaps his most trusted adviser in such matters, Kennedy not only rejected the advice out of hand but (just as Galbraith had advised in his first memo) ordered Bundy instead to draw up a plan for reorganizing the top levels of the State Department--and to put Harriman in charge of Asia policy. Three weeks later, despite Rusk's strong opposition, most--but not all--of Kennedy's reorganization took place.

By then Galbraith was back in New Delhi, after stopping in Saigon on Kennedy's orders to survey the situation there firsthand. He had filed not one but three lengthy back-channel cables to JFK, which make for sobering reading today (even though Galbraith interspersed them with his trademark wit: For example, he described one briefing by local US officials as "geared to the mentality of an idiot, or more likely, a backwoods congressman"; taken for a brief inspection tour of the countryside surrounding Saigon, he dryly reported that it was hard to tell "friendly jungle" from "Vietcong jungle" and added, "who is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic? I would like to...ask him what is so important about this real estate in the Space Age").

Given word of Kennedy's reshuffling at State, Galbraith was cheered by Harriman's promotion but also cautious, knowing full well by now the ambitions of the President's top advisers. To his diary that night he noted his ambivalence about the shift. "It is all excellent and not a moment too soon; but then Kennedy left in place at his right hand McNamara, Bundy, Rusk, and Taylor." His worry, needless to say, proved on the mark: Those top officials kept pushing the President for greater and greater US involvement, as they would push Lyndon Johnson when he inherited them following Kennedy's assassination. But Kennedy--with Galbraith counseling him throughout--kept resisting them in turn, right up to that fateful day in Dallas.

The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, when for a moment the world hung on the brink of nuclear oblivion, seemed to have a particularly powerful effect on Kennedy. Soon after, he began work on the famous American University speech that he delivered in June 1963, in which he spoke more forcefully than any President had ever dared about the risks of nuclear war and the need to negotiate with the Russians (from that speech came the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty). He also asked Galbraith to take over as US Ambassador to Moscow, an offer Galbraith finally declined, convinced of the impossibility of working with and through Rusk.

We also now know that Kennedy that same spring ordered the Pentagon to plan to have all US troops out of Vietnam by early 1965, shortly after what he assumed would be his re-election--and further ordered that the troop pullout begin by the late fall of 1963. But he did not, of course, live to see their withdrawal.

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