“Rick,” a Facebook friend writes, “curious to see what you make of the old debate (which may have some new evidence, see Galbraith II) re JFK and Vietnam. Would we have gone or stayed if JFK lived? Or was he the fervent Cold Warrior some paint him as? (My dad marched in his inauguration, and was almost killed six or seven years later.)”
The argument that John F. Kennedy was a closet peacenik, ready to give up on what the Vietnamese call the American War upon re-election, received its most farcical treatment in Oliver Stone’s JFK. It was made with only slightly more sophistication by Kenneth O’Donnell in the 1972 book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, in which the old Kennedy hand depicted the president telling him, “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 McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m elected.” O’Donnell also claimed that in an October 2, 1963, National Security Council meeting, after debriefing Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor on their recent trip to Saigon, “President Kennedy asked McNamara to announce to the press after the meeting the immediate withdrawal of one thousand soldiers and to say that we would probably withdraw all American forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965. When McNamara was leaving the meeting to talk to the White House reporters, the President called to him, ‘And tell them that means all the helicopter pilots, too.’ ” Promptly, wrote O’Donnell, McNamara double-crossed the president, giving the reporters merely a prediction of the end of America’s war, not Kennedy’s prescription of the end of America’s war: McNamara merely said they thought “the major part of the the U.S. task” would be completed by the end of 1965, nothing about the president’s intention to complete the task by the end of 1965.
O’Donnell was seeing the world through Camelot-colored glasses. As the historian Edwin Moise demonstrates in A Companion to the Vietnam War (2002), NSC minutes are a matter of record, and the notes show the president himself approving a statement that was only a prediction that things would be over by the end of 1965, framed merely as the observation of Taylor and McNamara. (“They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.”)
Now, on the broader claim that Kennedy truly intended to end the war by the end of 1965, things get more interesting, and that’s where the case recently made by James K. Galbraith, son of the famous Kennedy hand and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, comes in. As he put it categorically in a letter to The New York Times, “President Kennedy issued a formal decision to withdraw American forces from Vietnam.” Is that true? Only literally, which in the end adds up to mostly nothing.