The '60s great what-if: What would John F. Kennedy have done about Vietnam?

The answer's unknowable but an esteemed historian pushes aside the spin and finds the record leans in one direction

Published June 7, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy    (AP/Henry Burroughs)
Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy (AP/Henry Burroughs)

Excerpted from "JFK and LBJ: The Last Two Great Presidents"

Would JFK have escalated the Vietnam War in 1965? For many years, it was simply taken for granted by many that he would not have. The war’s growing number of opponents liked to call it “Johnson’s war.” Kennedy’s admirers found it more comfortable to believe that their hero was not responsible for such a painful national reverse and for the killing and destruction it entailed.

The man who was perhaps closer than any other to the decisions of peace and war under both presidents, McGeorge Bundy, is said to have come, at the end of his life, to the conviction that JFK would not have taken the decisions that LBJ took in the spring of 1965. Bundy’s former research assistant at New York University, Gordon Goldstein, reports that in his final years Bundy “arrived at a firm conclusion that he shared with me and discussed with various colleagues . . . that Kennedy would not have deployed ground combat forces to Vietnam and thus would not have Americanized the war.” Goldstein recorded that in one of his work sessions with Bundy, the latter said, “What he”—that is, Kennedy —“wanted to do about Vietnam—shorthand, in political terms—was flush it. He didn’t want it to be a big item. And he didn’t think it was a big test of the balance of power. It was a test of American political opinion, but he could stand that in a second term.” Goldstein recorded one perceptive, and sharp, aside of Bundy’s about his two employers: “Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb. Johnson didn’t want to be a coward.”

Goldstein’s book is only secondhand evidence of Bundy’s conclusions many years after the event, but it is buttressed by the opinion of others who were close to Kennedy. Robert McNamara, his defense secretary, came to share the opinion that Kennedy would have found a way to withdraw. McNamara published a number of autobiographical works, apparently motivated by a sense of guilt about his part in the war. In his 1995 memoir, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," he wrote, “I conclude that John Kennedy would have eventually gotten out of Vietnam rather than move more deeply in.” His own view, when he wrote that book, was that he “seriously questioned” whether without U.S. intervention in Vietnam Communist hegemony would have spread further; that “we could and should have withdrawn from Vietnam” in late 1963 or in late 1964 and early 1965; and he listed eleven major causes of what he now called “our disaster in Vietnam.”

McNamara had once been, at least in public, an unquestioning hawk. In 1966 he told a meeting of the National Security Industrial Association at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, “I don’t mind it being called McNamara’s war.” His biographer Deborah Shapley considers that he committed himself to a military solution to the war when he signed off on McGeorge Bundy’s memo recommending escalation at a meeting with LBJ on January 27, 1965. However, she also points out that he suffered a recurrence of bruxism, a painful disease occasioned by stress, and suggests it was a symptom of agonizing doubt. she quotes LBJ’s aide John Roche as saying that by the summer of 1967 “McNamara was in a very serious psychological condition,” and she reports that LBJ was afraid of “another Forrestal,” a reference to the suicide of the first secretary of defense, James V. Forrestal.

The view that Kennedy might have withdrawn from Vietnam in a second term was shared by two other well-informed colleagues and friends of President Kennedy. McNamara’s deputy, Roswell Gilpatric, told an audience at the Kennedy Library, “The president personally disclosed his intention to disengage from Vietnam in his second term.” Michael Forrestal, who worked for Bundy on the National Security Council staff and had responsibility for Vietnam, told a CBS interviewer that in his last conversation with JFK, twenty-four hours before the president’s death, JFK said, “We have to start a plan for what we are going to do now in South Vietnam. I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we got into this country, and what we thought we were doing and what we now think we can do. I even want to think about whether we should be there.”

Recently two historians, James G. Blight and his wife, Janet Lang, have organized a conference, published a book, and collaborated with the production of a documentary, Virtual JFK, all of which promote the view that Kennedy, if he had lived, would not have escalated the war. The documentary uses clips of interviews with participants in the policy disputes over the war, including both presidents and Robert McNamara. In the London weekly the New Statesman, Blight summarized his view: “We know for certain that JFK’s decision not to Americanise the war was wise. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, retained virtually the entire team of national security advisers assembled by Kennedy, who gave Johnson the same hawkish advice they had given Kennedy. . . . Unlike JFK, LBJ caved in to his inherited hawks again and again.”

In 2013 Thurston Clarke published an account of Kennedy’s last hundred days of life. His thesis is that Kennedy had been greatly changed, softened, by two events, one public, the other very personal: his experience of looking into the nuclear abyss in the Cuban missile crisis and the death of his infant son, Patrick, in early August 1963. In this context Clarke argued that Kennedy, had he lived, would not have escalated American involvement in Vietnam and would have withdrawn all American troops.

It may seem rash to question the testimony of so many witnesses, including many who were personally involved in Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. nevertheless, I believe that they are essentially incorrect in asserting a firm belief that JFK would not have escalated the war in 1965. I am emboldened to contradict their conclusions for many reasons. For one thing, friendship and a loyalty to the memory of JFK, which in most cases was far stronger than their loyalty to LBJ, ought to be discounted. (Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers, for example, can hardly be offered as expert, unbiased witnesses.) There has rarely been such a posthumous public relations program as that mounted by JFK’s widow, brothers, and friends to present him as both a “cavalier without fear and without reproach” and a champion of peace. We now know that in several respects that campaign, however honorably meant, glossed over serious personal limitations.

Second, Bundy and McNamara, at least, changed their opinion over time. Their shades might wish us to accept the later, rather than earlier, expressions of their thinking. yet in 1978, as Goldstein is fair enough to recall, McGeorge Bundy reminded a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical society that “the public record has [Kennedy] constantly asserting two propositions that could not have coexisted easily in later years: that we must not quit there [Vietnam] and that in the end the Vietnamese must do the job for themselves. . . . Just what he would have done we shall never know.” This is, interestingly, very similar to the conclusion of another man, highly respected for his judgment, who worked very closely with both Kennedy and Johnson, JFK’s aide Larry O’Brien, who came to have great respect for LBJ. O’Brien thought that if Kennedy had been reelected in 1964, “he would have found a way of disengaging.” But “whatever he might or might not have done if he were reelected none of us will ever know.” Robert McNamara’s positions were even more changeable. As the Harvard professor Sam Beer, who knew JFK very well, summed it up, “Well, of course the big anti-Vietnam people like Arthur [Schlesinger] and Ken Galbraith say he would never have done it. But he would have. These were all his people.”

Third, we should examine rather closely what precisely these defenders of JFK’s reputation were and are saying. Goldstein was saying that in Bundy’s opinion John Kennedy would not have done in 1965 what Lyndon Johnson did in that year. But he argues that case (as recorded in Goldstein’s book and—according to Goldstein—in fragments of a work by Bundy himself that was never published) largely by recalling what Kennedy said and did in the very different circumstances of 1961–63. specifically, much is made of Kennedy’s repeatedly expressed objections to placing American ground troops in combat in Asia. But the fact that he maintained that position in 1961–63 does not prove that he would have been able to maintain it in 1965. Blight and Lang’s portrait of an embattled pacifist president, heroically resisting the pressures of hawkish advisers, does not square with my recollection of conversations with many of the actors at the time and later. Certainly at the time most of Kennedy’s advisers, and the same men when they were working for Johnson, saw themselves as moderates resisting pressure from “hawks” at the Pentagon. Nor is the Blight view supported by such evidence as the Kennedy tapes during the Cuban missile crisis. The thesis largely ignores the vast difference between the circumstances of 1961–63 and the circumstances of 1964–65.

The truth is that Kennedy’s position on Vietnam, especially in the crucial weeks between the Buddhist crisis in the spring of 1963 and his death, was conflicted, contradictory, and obscure. He had successfully resisted pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to send American forces to Laos, and when in the spring of 1963 they sent Robert McNamara another memo saying that if the Diem government could not get the Viet Cong under control, there would be no alternative “to the introduction of U.S. military forces,” JFK urged Roger Hilsman, the great advocate of counterinsurgency war, newly appointed assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, to do everything possible to avoid getting the United States directly involved in the war in Vietnam. He told Averell Harriman and Roswell Gilpatric that he was sick of the conflict in Vietnam, and he told Senator Mike Mansfield (an early and persistent critic of the war) that he would bring “troops” (meaning advisers) back in early 1964. He gave a more private and perhaps more realistic opinion to his friend the journalist Charlie Bartlett, “I can’t give up a piece of territory like that and then get the American people to re-elect me.”

Indeed, one clue to his uncertainty lies in the contrast between his public statements and his private hints. Publicly, he did not waver in his support for American commitment to the war. Privately, he sometimes hinted both at personal doubts about the war itself and at a distinction between what he could do before his expected reelection in 1964 and what he might be free to do after that.

Interviewed by Walter Cronkite of CBS, supposedly then the most influential journalist in America, on September 2, 1963, while on holiday at Squaw Island, Cape Cod, for example, Kennedy raised the question of whether the war could be won without support for the effort from the South Vietnamese population. Thurston Clarke says with some truth that this “effectively pulled the rug out from under Diem.” But JFK also said in so many words to Chester Huntley and David Brinkley: “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.” After all, pulling the rug out from under Diem, as finally happened a couple of months later, was not the same as withdrawing from the war. Effectively, one might say, Kennedy went along with those in Saigon who wanted to get rid of Diem precisely in order to prosecute the war more successfully, though to be sure Kennedy’s attitude to the coup is uncertain. He regretted the death of Diem and his brother-in-law Nhu, but that does not mean that he did not also hope for their fall. Ideally, perhaps, he wished for something impossible: that Diem would get rid of Nhu and govern in a less authoritarian way.

A week later, he gave the inevitable matching interview to Cronkite’s competitors, NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Asked about the domino theory, he said, “I believe it, I believe it,” and went on, “I think we should stay . . . we should not withdraw.” Thurston Clarke maintains that these plain statements “bore no more resemblance to his real intentions than roosevelt’s pledge not to involve the U.S. in World War II.”

It is sadly true that statesmen, including John Kennedy, do not always say all that they are thinking. This has been observed for many centuries. It is all very well for writers like Clarke and James Blight, who want to believe retrospectively in Kennedy’s wisdom and restraint, simply to ignore clear statements of settled policy. The fact that JFK felt compelled to make them is highly relevant to the question of whether he could have changed his policy as his admirers maintain he would have done. still less can the possibility that these clear statements did not represent Kennedy’s unexpressed thoughts on hard issues be used to prove how he would actually have behaved in very changed circumstances more than a year later.

The question, to repeat, is not what JFK would have preferred to do, but what he would have done. Gilpatric is said to have given it as his opinion that Kennedy would have wanted to withdraw from Vietnam when he had won a second term. Again, no doubt he would have wanted to withdraw. He might still have found it impossible, faced with the military and political realities of 1965, to avoid doing something like what Johnson did. At no time, after all, did Johnson himself express a wholehearted desire for victory in the war. He, like Kennedy, settled for what he and his civilian advisers praised and his military commanders bitterly resented, that is, what the latter saw as a moderate policy that fell short of a total commitment to victory.

Again, it has been argued that because Kennedy displayed caution and moderation in his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, he would have avoided escalation in Vietnam in 1965. But in 1962 he thought he faced the danger of nuclear war. In Vietnam in 1965, so long as he was not so reckless as to provoke the rulers of China or the Soviet Union, he would have faced no such risk.

Not all of Kennedy’s advisers agree that he would have responded differently from the way Johnson did in the circumstances of 1965. Walt Rostow, for example, told an oral history interviewer that LBJ “inherited a situation disintegrating diplomatically, disintegrating militarily . . . [he had] very simple alternatives in 1965. Acknowledge you’ve got disaster and pull your men out. Go on doing what you’re doing. or pull your men out.”

Given the disintegration of the situation caused by external factors including the collapse of successive governments in Saigon, growing confidence on the part of the Viet Cong, and the growing understanding that North Vietnam could reinforce its order of battle in South Vietnam by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail faster than the United States could inflict casualties, it seems clear that JFK’s advisers would have given him the same advice they gave LBJ.

“My own net judgment, for what it’s worth,” Walt Rostow said, “is that, if President Kennedy had not been killed, he would have made the same decisions as President Johnson and quite possibly made them earlier.” Some would dismiss Rostow’s judgment out of hand as worthless. Was he not the high priest of war? Did his colleagues not call him “the Air Marshall”? Was he not a passionate partisan of Lyndon Johnson, full of resentment that because of his loyalty on Vietnam he had not been offered the post he hoped for in a great northeastern university but grateful that the University of Texas offered him a hook to hang his hat? Such judgments, in my opinion, are only a special case of the extraordinary ability of Kennedy’s partisans to present a rosy portrait of their hero, his actions, and what they assume would have been his actions had he not been murdered. It is true that Rostow was a classic cold warrior, deeply hostile to Communism, but so was John Kennedy. That was scarcely an unusual attitude in 1950s America. But Rostow was as qualified as anyone to make a judgment. He had been JFK’s trusted adviser—specifically on Vietnam—had worked with him, had known him well. It is true that Rostow was so committed to the dream of military victory that I have seen his eyes tear up with sheer exhilaration at a briefing as he read off the latest (no doubt fictional) estimate of Viet Cong casualties. But after Mac Bundy left, Rostow was LBJ’s designated national security adviser. He had been a senior official in the national security staff, working closely with Kennedy too. Few were better informed about the woeful situation in South Vietnam than he was. And he was not alone in this judgment. General Maxwell Taylor, for example, Kennedy’s favorite general, shared Rostow’s opinion about the necessity of escalation in 1965. so did many senior civilian and CIA officials.

Goldstein frames his case for believing that JFK would not have sent ground troops to Vietnam in the context of a theoretical political science proposition—it is the title of his concluding chapter—that “intervention is a presidential choice, not an inevitability.” No doubt, theoretically, “the buck stops” in the Oval Office, as the brass motto on Harry Truman’s desk proclaims. (It is now to be seen in his library in Independence, Missouri). Yet no student of the presidency or of American foreign policy from Truman’s day to Johnson’s (not to speak of more recent examples) can fail to be impressed by the extent to which “presidential choice” is usually the end product of an immense, often raucous sausage machine of “staffing-out,” conferences, speechwriters, inter-agency groups, lobbying, infighting, newspaper leaks, special pleading, drafting, and redrafting.

“I thought I was president,” Harry Truman told David Brinkley, “but when it comes to these bureaucracies, I can’t make them do a damn thing.” Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on complained of their sense of impotence when confronted with the bureaucracy. For Roosevelt, it was the Navy who resisted all pressures. Even a president with as formidable an endowment of will and energy as Lyndon Johnson, or one with the sublime self-confidence of Jack Kennedy, found it hard to ensure that what the government of the United States actually did was precisely what the president of the United States wanted it to do. Jack Kennedy might have wanted to withdraw from Vietnam. But if, for example, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the commandant of the Marine Corps, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, his family, and his own White House staff all told him he couldn’t do it, would he have prevailed? In reality, Johnson’s civilian advisers (William Bundy is a good example) thought they were taking a moderate stance by escalating the war, and his military advisers were itching to be more decisive. even if he wanted to pull out, would he have done so if it were plain that to do so would have derailed his presidency and caused him to abandon other cherished political ambitions?

A classic instance of how the bureaucracy can act against a president’s wishes—though far from the only one—was the coup that led to the overthrow and murder of non-Communist South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Bhu, a critical moment in the slide to war in Vietnam. The conspirators in Saigon were greatly encouraged by the famous August 24, 1963, telegram, sent by assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs Roger Hilsman, with the support of Michael Forrestal (son of the first secretary of defense and number two on Vietnam under Mac Bundy at the NSC) and his patron Averell Harriman, to ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon. It was taken by dissident South Vietnamese generals as official American encouragement for a coup. Neither Kennedy, nor his national security adviser (Bundy), nor his defense secretary (McNamara), nor even the director of Central Intelligence (John McCone) formally signed off on the message.

It was, after all, the weekend, and in August. Beaches, tennis courts, and golf courses beckoned. The secretary of defense, to be specific, was at Aspen among the cool Colorado mountains. The director of Central Intelligence, McCone, was on a boat in Puget Sound. McGeorge Bundy was at a family summer home on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, Roswell Gilpatric at a farm in the Virginia hunt country, George Ball playing golf. Rusk was in New York, preparing for the General Assembly of the United Nations. He did come to the phone and gave some guarded approval to the cable, but it is not clear that he understood the details. The president was at a rented cottage on Squaw Island, on Cape Cod, with his wife and children, his friend William Walton, and a photographer.

He was much concerned with drafting and redrafting a press release about Jackie’s forthcoming holiday on Aristotle onassis’s yacht in such a way as to give the (false) impression that Onassis would not be there.

There has been a tendency to interpret this episode to mean that Kennedy wanted to overthrow Diem. It more clearly demonstrates that even a strong president cannot always ensure that his policy is actually at all times carried out. Presidential power is constrained not only by congressional resistance but also by the sheer unwieldy bulk of its own bureaucratic process. In theory, and to the imperious mind of a Kennedy or the autocratic instincts of a Johnson, the president’s decision was indeed final. yet the decisions had to be taken in the prescribed forms and according to a timing that always shaped and often limited presidential freedom. Political considerations, especially the imperative of winning reelection, played their part. Presidential decision was sculpted by the shared assumptions of cold war Washington. And ultimately, it was more influenced by considerations of domestic politics than by diplomatic or strategic logic.

The theory that Kennedy might have avoided the disaster of American commitment to Vietnam in 1965 is not of merely biographical interest. Tragically, the commitment to Vietnam led to Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. By that time, especially in the very circles that would like to believe that Kennedy would have avoided that commitment, the war had become thought of as “Johnson’s war.” That has prevented many from acknowledging how Vietnam grew from policies and assumptions that were all but universally approved in the United States in the early 1960s, and certainly shared by the Kennedy administration, even if JFK himself did have secret reservations. It is tempting to imagine that, if only John Kennedy had not been killed, that larger tragedy would have been avoided. But the proposition is not much more than wish fulfillment. The wiser judgment is surely Mac Bundy’s earlier one, given to the Massachusetts Historical Association: “Just what he would have done we shall never know.”

Excerpted from "JFK and LBJ: The Last Two Great Presidents" by Godfrey Hodgson. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2015 by Godfrey Hodgson. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved.

By Godfrey Hodgson

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