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.
This was advice Kennedy was hearing from no one else in his Administration, but clearly welcomed.
At the Nehru-Kennedy luncheon, Galbraith and JFK began probing the Indian leader about ways to avoid American militarization of Vietnam, a subject on which (for complex reasons) the neutralist Nehru remained maddeningly ambiguous, emphasizing only that the United States must stay out. The next day in Washington, as the three men took part in formal White House discussions with Rusk and other top US officials who were far more eager for intervention, it quickly became clear to Galbraith how isolated the young President was. When the day’s morning meetings concluded, he thus rushed from the Oval Office to Walt Rostow’s nearby office, determined to find out precisely what he and Taylor were likely to advise the President three days later when they presented their report.
Galbraith and Rostow had known each other since the late 1940s; but they’d drifted apart politically. (Vietnam, to the owlish Rostow, as he’d told Kennedy earlier that year, represented the chance to “bring to bear our unexploited counter-guerrilla assets…. It is somehow wrong to be developing these capabilities but not applying them…. In Knute Rockne’s old phrase, we are not saving them for the Junior Prom.”) After ushering Galbraith into his crowded office, the security adviser refused to discuss the report’s contents because they were, in Galbraith’s words, so heavily classified as “to limit access to God and the President.” Then the phone rang. When Rostow turned to it, Galbraith, seeing a copy of the top-secret Taylor Report sitting on the desk between them, instantly decided what to do. “I simply picked up the copy and walked out.”
Back at his hotel, Galbraith grew appalled as he read it: Here was the rationale for an open-ended US commitment to military engagement in Southeast Asia. Over the next two days he drafted a point-by-point response for Kennedy’s eyes only, warning that “the situation in South Vietnam is perilously close to the point of no return,” then outlining ways to end the fighting, yield a neutral Vietnam and put the UN in place to supervise the peace; he delivered it to Kennedy just hours before JFK received Taylor’s report.
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.)
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.