Kennedy, Vietnam and Iraq

The evidence is clear: JFK decided to withdraw from Vietnam a month before he was assassinated. Setting the record straight is crucial as Baghdad continues to explode.

Published November 22, 2003 8:37PM (EST)

This week's crescendo of Kennedy commemoration has ranged from banal to lurid. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley has pointed out how the event signaled the rise of modern television as our dominant medium for news. Forty years later, every vice of TV is on display: an obsession with glamour, sex, hearsay, computer simulation and sentimental appeals to authority; along with reckless disregard for evidence, complicated ideas, policies and organizations. Plainly, given the nature of the medium, access to even a small part of the underlying history of our defining trauma will be restricted to those who read.

Meanwhile, over in Iraq, crashing helicopters are giving resonance to a persistent mystery: What exactly was Kennedy planning to do, in the fall of 1963, about Vietnam? Some parallels between the two wars are uncanny. In both cases, U.S. intervention was driven by small, secretive, bellicose, conspiratorial factions within the government. In both cases, military intelligence was officially optimistic -- but the optimism was believed neither by its authors nor its readers. In both cases, the question of how and when to exit had to be considered early on -- and in light of an upcoming election campaign. In both cases, though details were energetically shielded from public view (and though neither North Vietnam nor Iraq had nuclear weapons), the specter of escalation to nuclear war hung over the conflict. The fate of millions depended (and today still depends) on how carefully and responsibly the decision-makers in Washington behaved.

In the Vietnam case, events took an ugly turn, beginning in November 1963, and spun out of control thereafter. As that happened, Kennedy's exit strategy disappeared from history for decades. What will happen to us in Iraq remains to be seen. To be sure, there are those who wanted us in and do not want us to leave; their next move will be interesting to watch. Now, as then, the government is divided, and neither faction is anxious to lose. So it is worthwhile to read the history of Kennedy and Vietnam now, partly for its own sake, partly for general lessons about neocolonial war, and partly with a view to understanding how the questions of national security and domestic politics play out in Washington.

I believe the evidence now available shows that Kennedy had decided, in early October of 1963, to begin withdrawing 17,000 U.S. military advisers then in Vietnam. One thousand were to leave by the end of 1963; the withdrawal was scheduled to be completed by the end of 1965. After that, only a military assistance contingent would have remained. The withdrawal planning was carried out under cover of an official optimism about the war, with a view toward increasing the effort and training the South Vietnamese to win by themselves. But Kennedy and McNamara did not share this optimism. They were therefore prepared to press the withdrawal even when the assessments turned bad, as they started to do in the early fall of 1963. This was a decision to withdraw without victory if necessary, indeed without negotiations or conditions. In a recent essay in Boston Review, I assemble this evidence in detail.

At one level, it isn't news. Certain facts -- that Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam, that he encouraged Sens. Mike Mansfield and Wayne Morse to keep criticizing his policy, that he told Kenneth O'Donnell that he would get out after the 1964 election, that he resisted all suggestions that main combat forces be sent to Vietnam -- have been known for decades. In my family, we know that JFK sent John Kenneth Galbraith (then serving as ambassador to India) to Saigon in September 1961 because, as my father has often put it, "Kennedy knew I did not have an open mind." JKG turned in a pessimistic report, reiterated in letters and discussions with the president thereafter.

Kennedy's decision document, National Security Action Memorandum 263, has been in the public domain for a long time. As early as 1972, Peter Dale Scott called attention to it, and to its (then still-classified) successor, NSAM 273, which Lyndon Johnson approved on Nov. 26, 1963. Arthur Schlesinger mentions the withdrawal in "Robert Kennedy and His Times," published in 1978. In 1992 Maj. John M. Newman, an Army intelligence officer and professional historian specializing in South Asia, published a book giving still greater evidence and detail. This provoked wide-ranging controversy, with objections flowing in from Walt Rostow, Noam Chomsky, and many others in between.

Newman received early support from a figure who had, up to that moment, remained silent on Vietnam for nearly 30 years. In 1993, Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense to both Kennedy and Johnson, gave Newman the relevant part of an oral history he had recorded in 1986. In that document -- of which McNamara had made no public use -- McNamara states that Kennedy had made a decision to withdraw in spite of growing pessimism over the conduct of the war. Neither then nor later has McNamara ever tried to use this history to change the perception of his own responsibility for how the war was eventually conducted.

McNamara's book, "In Retrospect," appeared in 1995. I bought a copy the day it hit Austin, Texas, as I knew it would test McNamara's capacity for candor on this point. The statement that Kennedy made a "decision" to begin a withdrawal appears flatly in the table of contents. And there are several matter-of-fact pages that report on the decision meeting of Oct. 2, 1963, at which McNamara recommended, and Kennedy agreed to, the withdrawal plan. But how well could McNamara document his case?

An opportunity to find out came soon. On April 1, 1995, McNamara came to Austin to speak at the LBJ Library, to an enormous crowd. I drafted a question (of which, sadly, no copy survives) referring very specifically to the passages on Kennedy's withdrawal decision and asking for details. I printed it on a full page in large type and sent it up to the panel of screeners who were assigned to sort through scribbled questions from the audience -- a system designed, no doubt, to protect McNamara from verbal abuse.

My question ended up in front of Neal Spelce, then anchorman for the local CBS affiliate. I suppose Neal assumed that it had been planted by the chair. He started to read it, seemed to realize that his inference was incorrect, and swallowed the rest. But McNamara understood where my question had been leading. He confirmed the "decision" to withdraw, and gave an account of Kennedy's taping system and of how he had gotten access to these tapes. The scene was recorded on a videotape, which I possess. I wrote an account for the Texas Observer, modestly neglecting to mention my own slightly subversive part:

"Why is this issue explosive? Because with only two obscure exceptions none of the dozens of books on the history of Vietnam decisionmaking over the past thirty years has winkled out the story of Kennedy's decision to withdraw. It is not in David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest", not in Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam", not in Richard Reeves' "President Kennedy," not in any of the scholarly volumes. ...

Now comes McNamara, with confirmation of Newman's argument and the flat statement that there exists a tape as proof. ... . It might be added that McNamara is on record as far back as July, 1986 confirming Kennedy's decision to withdraw, in an oral history closely held since then by the Kennedy Library. McNamara's oral history also makes plain, though his book fudges the issue, that Kennedy's decision was based on McNamara's own recommendation to withdraw in spite of the fact that the U.S. was losing the war."

I had never met McNamara, and only learned from his memoir that he credits my father (who interviewed him in preparing what became "The New Industrial State") with recommending him to Kennedy as Pentagon chief. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when a few months later a letter arrived, asking permission to reprint my obscure Observer column. In 150,000 copies. And from whom? Robert Strange McNamara, the form said. My column appears in an appendix to the paperback edition of "In Retrospect." In 1997 we did meet, in Vermont, and spent a long afternoon reviewing these issues in the company of two great newspaper people, both now deceased: Tom Winship and Katharine Graham.

Events took another twist thanks to the work of the Assassination Records Review Board, established under the 1992 JFK Records Act. Around 1997, the ARRB caused the release of over 800 pages of documents from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most of them withheld from the Pentagon Papers. These documents show that the staff work that must necessarily precede a formal presidential decision on a national security matter did occur. Timetables were set (and then accelerated, on McNamara's orders), units specified, guidance given as to how to treat the withdrawal for public relations purposes. (You can download some of these documents in PDF format here.)

But still nobody else had heard the secret Kennedy Oval Office tapes that McNamara had cited. As time passed, I called the attention of several historians working on Kennedy to their existence. None were able to gain access. Eventually I drafted a letter of my own to the ARRB. The tapes were released within a few months; I do not know whether or not in response to my letter. Transcripts (a very difficult task, and not flawless) have been compiled by the historian George Eliades, and are included in the packet of documents accompanying this essay. Kennedy's voice is heard first, then McNamara (brackets represent my corrections).

McNamara. I believe we can complete the military campaign in the first three [corps areas] in sixty-four and the fourth [corps area in] sixty-five. Secondly, if it extends beyond that period, we believe we can train the Vietnamese to take over the essential functions and withdraw the bulk of our forces. And this thousand is in conjunction with that, and I have a list of the units here that are represented by that number ...

JFK: Can't they ...

Bundy? . (the transcriber wasn't certain the speaker was McGeorge Bundy): What's the point of doing that?

McNamara: We need a way to get out of Vietnam. This is a way of doing it. And to leave forces there when they're not needed, I think is wasteful and complicates both their problem and ours.

A bit later in the conversation McNamara adds the following:

McNamara: I think Mr. President, we must have a means of disengaging from this area. We must show our country that means. The only slightest difference between Max [Taylor] and me in this entire report is in this one estimate of whether or not we can win the war in '64 in the upper three territories and in '65 in the fourth. I'm not entirely sure of that. But I am sure that if we don't meet those dates in the sense of ending the major military campaigns, we nonetheless can withdraw the bulk of our US forces according to the schedule we've laid out, worked out, because we can train the Vietnamese to do the job.

To illustrate the point, we have two L-19 squadrons over there. These are very important. They are the artillery observers and the fire control observers. But it's very simple to train Vietnamese to fly L-19's. Now why should we leave our L-19 squadrons there? At the present time, we've set up a training program to give them seven weeks of language training, four months of flying school, three weeks of transition training with the L-19's, and they can go out and do L-19 work. And we set it up in Vietnam. It's being run by US officers, and it's worked very well. Now I think we ought to do that for every one of our major elements.

Is Kennedy's support completely unqualified? No, it is not. He says on the tape, immediately before McNamara's last statement, that he is prepared, if things go badly in '65, to "get a new date." McNamara then reassures him that the schedule can be kept no matter what happens. Of course the war (which was not at that point very large) is not over, and will not be over simply because U.S. advisers will be withdrawn. The "major military campaigns" to which McNamara refers are South Vietnamese. And U.S. support for the government of South Vietnam was not going to disappear. Much could happen in two years, as events would prove.

But a decision to withdraw that might possibly be modified remains very different from either escalation or continuity in policy. McNamara is speaking plainly of withdrawal with or without victory in the passage just quoted. And it is McNamara's recommendation that prevails. When JCS Chief Maxwell Taylor conveyed Kennedy's decision to the Joint Chiefs on Oct. 4, the language is unconditional: "All planning" will be devoted to meeting the schedule laid down. Though the tape is hard to follow, Kennedy may be heard giving his final approval on Oct. 5.

The history of this episode has now taken definitive form with "Death of a Generation" by Howard Jones, published by Oxford University Press in 2003. Howard Jones makes two large contributions to this tale. One of them is simply range, depth and completeness. "Death of a Generation" is a full history of how the assassinations of Diem and then of JFK prolonged a war that otherwise might have ended quietly within a few years. Jones goes back to the start of the 1960s, chronicling the struggle for power and policy that marked the whole of Kennedy's thousand days. And he presents a reasonably complete account of the archival record surrounding the withdrawal decisions of October 1963.

Jones' reach extends to Saigon. In a fascinating section he outlines the intrigues that led to the murders of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on Nov. 1, 1963. Here, Kennedy's White House appears at its worst. It was fractious, disorganized, preoccupied with American politics, ignorant of the forces it faced in Vietnam. Diem's mistreatment of the Buddhists, which provoked the monk Quang Duc to burn himself on a Saigon street in June 1963, traumatized the White House. And following that incident, Madame Nhu and her remarks about "barbecued bonzes" -- a term for Buddhist monks -- were an irritant out of proportion to their importance. Thus, in part, the decision to dissociate from Diem.

Diem was indefensible in many ways. But the coup went forward with no alternative in view; and as the French ambassador to Saigon put it at the time, "any other government will be even more dependent on the Americans, will be obedient to them in all things, and so there will be no chance for peace." Meanwhile, there are tantalizing undercurrents of what might have been. Was Nhu in discussions with intermediaries for Ho Chi Minh, with the possibility that there might have been a deal between North and South to boot the Americans from Vietnam? It appears that he was. And had he succeeded, it would have saved infinite trouble.

What is the importance of all this for us today? At some level, it is less than one might suppose. Kennedy's decision to withdraw U.S. advisors from Vietnam is not, in my view, the Rosetta Stone of the past 40 years. And because it was the right decision then certainly does not mean that it would be the right decision, right now, for Iraq. It is simply a stubbornly denied fact, which needs to be fitted into the larger mosaic of unresolved history of that time. It is a test of our own willingness to face history as it was. In my 1995 column I wrote:

"These issues, it must be stressed, are distinct from the question of what actually happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 -- that black hole of history. They are, for the moment, more a matter of the integrity of historical inquiry when issues of high policy, reputation, longstanding myth and deep suspicion are involved.

The question is whether professional historians will now correct the incomplete or in some cases flawed record left to us by themselves and (often as part of otherwise admirable books) by the journalists such as Halberstam, Karnow and Reeves."

This question remains unanswered. My Boston Review essay has received comments so far from three prominent figures that I am aware of. Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times columnist, asked Ted Sorenson and Robert McNamara about it on public radio on the evening of Oct. 22, 2003. Here's the key excerpt:

Anthony Lewis: There's a ... (inaudible) in the current issue of the Boston Review by James Galbraith. ... the thrust of this one -- and it refers, I think, to the very meeting you've just mentioned, Bob. The headline of the piece is "Exit Strategy in 1963, J.F.K. ordered a Complete Withdrawal from Vietnam." It refers to the joint report of yourself and Maxwell Taylor. And it says that recommendation -- it gives the number, so I'll say it, Section I-B of the McNamara Taylor report -- recommendations read that a (inaudible) -- complete withdrawal be completed by the end of 1965, and that the Defense Department should announce in the very near future, presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 out of 17,000 U.S. military personnel.

Ted Sorenson: That's absolutely correct.

Lewis: And he says Kennedy adopted that recommendation.

Bob McNamara: Now, there's a tape. I didn't know there were tapes made by Kennedy at meetings; his taping was not comparable to Nixon's at all. But he did tape some meetings, unbeknownst to some of us who participated. He taped that meeting. ... And when I got to the point in the story that that meeting was pertinent to, I wanted to be sure that my recollection of it was correct. By that time I heard there were tapes. So I called the family and I got permission to come up.

The tapes are such poor quality it took me about five hours to be certain I understood a conversation of 30 or 20 minutes. But there was not much controversy -- this is the point I want to make -- not by any means, unanimous view of his advisors. Many, many were opposed to approving a plan to remove all advisors and all military support within two years by the end of '65.

Many, many were opposed to withdrawing a thousand within 90 days. And then after that decision was made, many, many were opposed to announcing it. And the proposal was made to announce it because those who favored the action knew enough about government to understand those who lost would live to fight another day unless they were put in concrete. The way they were put in concrete was to announce it.

And he went through those controversies and the tape is very clear on this. First, the controversy over whether to establish the plan and have it as an official government policy. And second, the controversy over whether to put it in concrete by announcing it. He did both. And as I say, believing as I do now and I think I understand it better now than I understood it then, that he believed the primary responsibility of a president was to keep the nation out of war if at all possible. I do not believe that he would have had 500,000 men in Vietnam.

He believed in the domino theory. With hindsight, I think it was wrong. He believed that we would lose. If we were to lose South Vietnam, as Eisenhower said, we'd weaken the security of the West across the world. Eisenhower believed it, Kennedy believed it, I believed it, we all believed in it; I think we were wrong.

But despite that he would have withdrawn, because I think he felt -- and on this I think he was wiser than many others -- that even if the domino theory was correct, the security of the West would be weakened across the world if we lost Vietnam, he believed it was unlikely we could retain it by the application of external military power. And he was absolutely correct in that. The issue was never properly debated. But that was the reason why I think, had he lived, we would not have had 500,000 men there.

Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, remains unpersuaded. He maintains his 1993 position, that withdrawal without victory was never contemplated -- an assertion plainly at odds with McNamara on tape. An exchange on this point will appear in the next issue of Boston Review. Curiously, Chomsky also attacks me for failing to conform to what he calls "mainstream" history. Given Chomsky's contempt for the "mainstream media," this is a very curious line, coming from him. It is also a spurious characterization of the contending sides. Howard Jones is a mainstream historian. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is arguably the dean of mainstream history. And the authors of many of the famous accounts that now need to be revised are journalists. Not that it matters.

I am guardedly optimistic that the truth will now prevail on this limited issue. But the process is slow. There is a definite risk that we will not live long enough to see the record fully corrected in popular treatments and the public mind.

But of course, the withdrawal never took place. Which raises the next question: Why not?

Kennedy was murdered in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. On Nov. 26, Lyndon Johnson signed an order authorizing covert commando raids on North Vietnam, using CIA speedboats, an order whose draft had been altered in a decisive way sometime following Nov. 21. The first phase of Kennedy's withdrawal, the removal of 1,000 soldiers (in their units) by the end of 1963, became a paper exercise. The later phases were forgotten. More than that, they were eventually withheld even from the internal record that became the Pentagon Papers. Only the ARRB, an independent board of historians operating under the particular circumstances of the JFK Records Act, was able to jar loose the hidden records three decades later.

These events do not prove Oliver Stone's alleged thesis, that Kennedy was killed in order to expand the Vietnam War. Johnson had compelling reasons to act as he did at that moment: he bought time, support, and the perception of continuity by allowing the withdrawal to lapse. And while the Nov. 26 order was definitely altered to give the go-ahead to commando raids, the final wording is murky and it remains unclear, to me anyway, whether Johnson knew this when he signed it.

It is also not yet clear to me exactly when Lyndon Johnson made his decision to send main combat forces to South Vietnam. There is evidence that places that decision much later -- perhaps well after the Tonkin Gulf incident, the election of 1964, and even the start of Johnson's full term in January 1965. Johnson's 1963 decision not to withdraw on Kennedy's timetable did not preclude a decision to get out later on. It did not commit Johnson at that time to the war that later occurred.

And large as Vietnam now looms to us, we know that Lyndon Johnson had bigger foreign policy problems in November 1963 -- so much so, that by his own testimony they led him to direct the outcome of the Warren Commission report. That evidence is in plain view, in Johnson's telephone call to Sen. Richard B. Russell, available for years. Johnson tells Russell that "you gonna be my man on it." He told both Russell and Warren that it was a matter of millions of lives. He was not joking, and I do not believe he was exaggerating, either.

The reasons of state animating Lyndon Johnson at that moment are discussed toward the end of my essay in Boston Review and in more detail in a 1994 essay in the American Prospect entitled "Did the U.S. Military Plan a Nuclear First Strike for 1963?" The answer turns out to be: Yes, it did. Though Johnson told Russell that a war could cost "40 million American lives in an hour," in late 1963 the Soviet Union did not have a nuclear force that could have destroyed more than a few major cities in the United States (and possibly not even that much). But we did possess, by that time, an overwhelming first-strike power. There were those who wanted to use it.

Johnson knew this. His task, overriding all others, was to prevent even an event so grave as the murder of the president from becoming the pretext for a preemptive nuclear war. J.Edgar Hoover had told Johnson, who told Russell, that an effort was underway to blame Castro and Khrushchev  an effort that involved falsified evidence linking Oswalds trip to Mexico City in September, 1963 to the KGB. Johnson says of Khrushchev, truthfully: "He didn't have a damn thing to do with it." The stated task of the Warren Commission was to save the world from a punitive nuclear war, by exculpating the innocent. It did as much, by inculpating a dead man.

What does this prove? So far as what actually happened in Dallas, only one thing long obvious to many others on many grounds: that the Warren Commission report cannot be trusted. Whatever the underlying history, the commission acted under orders, for reasons of state. They were reasons of the utmost seriousness. But the commission clearly had an overriding agenda. There were allegations of a "vast left-wing conspiracy," to coin a phrase. Defusing those allegations was a matter of life and death.

Did Lyndon Johnson participate in a plot to kill Kennedy? Though this view is getting play on cable television this week, I don't believe he did. Was Castro or Khrushchev involved? Of course not. Did Lee Harvey Oswald fire three shots, from an old rifle, along a difficult line of sight, striking Kennedy at least twice and Texas Governor John Connally at least once, as well as a bystander some distance away? No serious person can believe that, either. And so? A great many people since have attempted to solve the mysteries of Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Some of this work is useless, some is dishonest; jumping to conclusions is the occupational disease of the genre. But much is valuable. And there are millions of pages of official records now in the public domain. The problem facing the historian now is how to assemble the whole body of evidence in a compelling way, taking account of both the conspiracy (for, once one rejects the lone gunman hypothesis, that is what it was), and the coverup. The task requires both narrative power and analytical precision; jigsaw puzzles properly assembled only fit one way.

Is it possible? Perhaps. But it is much harder to believe that the great forces of inertia, laziness, deceit -- and television -- in this matter can be overcome, even if the right synthesis eventually emerges. Certainly, the media divide is already such that the solution, when eventually published, may well lie in libraries (or possibly, on the Internet) to be discovered only by the small community of very serious readers.

Finally, one may ask, does it matter, except perhaps for personal reasons to those of us who were young then and had our lives changed? It is too late to think of criminal justice. But it is perhaps not too late to revise our American view of history, as a temple of republican myths. The reality is that we are a country like any other, with good and evil people, the strong and the weak, noble and criminal acts, with truth often hidden under deception and propaganda. Our recent experience in Iraq has exposed this truth in process, unusually quickly.

This is a good thing to realize. Yet the Vietnam experience also tells us that a full documentary account of why we went to war in Iraq may not emerge for some time. To know that the weapons of mass destruction justification was bogus is the easy part. But the relative importance of oil, the neoconservatives' grand strategy for the Middle East, the simple desire to get Saddam? When this administration finally goes, forensic work will be needed, and it will not be a pretty task.

Perhaps we need a new scholarly discipline, a criminology of deception and deceit in American foreign policy. Such a field could perhaps teach us something more general about how to decipher and expose such public crimes. Perhaps by learning how to expose deception and deceit today we can eventually exclude certain people and their political allies from power and come closer, as a country, to the ideals many of us still share. But I digress.

Let me return to the darkest part of the dark side. Preemptive nuclear war was prevented in 1963, though the Vietnam War was not. The great untold story of the 1960s remains, in my view, how we managed to survive the decade, and how very close we the human race came to failing to do so. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, its immediate aftermath, and even the Vietnam War which eventually followed may prove, in the final analysis, to be pieces of that story.

This is a story with never-ending ramifications, so long as we continue to live in the nuclear age. For today, it has two lessons worth stating plainly. First, that to prevent the use of nuclear weapons of any type, by anybody, must remain the central goal of American policy at all times. Neither Kennedy, nor Johnson, nor McNamara in serving both presidents ever lost sight of this. Ask yourself whether you feel confident that the same care, on this transcendent issue, is being exercised today. For the second lesson, difficult though it may be to face, is that the largest danger that nuclear weapons will be used has come, so far in history, from ourselves.

By James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith organized a conference on the “Crisis in the Eurozone” at the University of Texas at Austin on November 3-4. Papers and presentations can be found at, along with a video archive of the full meeting.

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