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What Would JFK Have Done? The Latest in the Long Debate
Historians don’t like what-ifs. But historical what-ifs often are intriguing and can be instructive, and that is the case with at least four dealing with the long road that brought the United States into the Vietnam War.
The first goes back to 1919 and the Paris Peace Talks following World War I. Despite the fact that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson espoused self-determination of peoples, the State Department never responded to a petition from a young Vietnamese revolutionary leader who came to Versailles seeking help to free his country from French colonial rule. What if the Wilson Administration hadn’t ignored Ho Chi Minh?
Fast-forward to 1945 and the waning days of World War II. Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerrilla army were working with the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, in northern Vietnam fighting a guerrilla war against the Japanese who occupied French Indochina. After the war ended, Ho again asked the U.S. to support his fight to free Vietnam from French colonial rule. What if the U.S. had taken him up on that offer?
In 1963, the Kennedy Administration all but orchestrated a coup that overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem, the autocratic anticommunist president of South Vietnam. Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nu were assassinated and the country fell into years of political instability just as North Vietnam and the Viet Cong revved up their fight against South Vietnam. What if the U.S. had continued to support the Diem regime?
Then there’s this other 1963 what if: What would President John F. Kennedy have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated in 1963, just weeks after Diem was overthrown? Specifically, Would he have increased the force about 15,000 American troops (euphemistically called advisers) or withdrawn them incrementally as he had begun to do?
Kennedy and Johnson administration alumni and others have long debated that one. JFK partisans believe he would have continued to withdraw troops and the U.S. would not have escalated the war. LBJ supporters contend that faced with the military and political state of affairs in South Vietnam in 1964 and 1965—and with his strong hawkish Cold War views—Kennedy would have ratcheted up American involvement.
The latest and most complete examination of the JFK what if is Marc J. Selverstone’s The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam (Harvard University Press, 336 pp. $35). In this worthy book, Selverstone, who heads the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, takes a deep dive into whether or not Kennedy would have greatly escalated the war as Johnson did within two years after assuming the presidency.
Selverstone makes it clear that he is more interested in showing what happened before Kennedy’s death than in providing an answer to the what if. As he puts it: The book “seeks to trace [JFK’s Vietnam War policy’s] history, focusing more on its meaning at the time than on whether Kennedy would have carried it out.” In setting out that history Selverstone hones in on how Kennedy’s Vietnam War planning began, “why it ended, and what it meant.” In doing so, he thoroughly analyzes the historical evidence (including the JFK and LBJ White House tapes) and comes to no definitive conclusion, saying that the answer is “ultimately unknowable.”
That said, Selverstone decidedly leans toward the theory that JFK (and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara), having terminated withdrawing troops before Kennedy’s death, likely would have done something akin to LBJ’s escalation. JFK, Selverstone reminds us, “never relinquished his interest in brushfire wars, nor did he dampen his rhetoric about their necessity.”
Plus, Kennedy’s closest advisers—including his “longtime counselor” Ted Sorensen, his main Vietnam War policy aide Michael Forrestal, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, “conceded that JFK, at the time he went to Dallas, probably did not know what he would do if faced with Saigon’s ultimate collapse.” Bobby Kennedy, Selverstone points out, “said much the same, telling interviewers in the spring of 1964 that the matter would simply await their judgment. ‘We’d face that when we came to it.’”
To his dying day, JFK “continued to operate from a worldview that embraced the precepts of domino [theory] thinking [and] the demonstration of resolve. While he vented in private about the commitment to Saigon—one he inherited but championed all the same—he never disowned the strategic logic on which it rested.”
This revealing book won’t end the JFK what if debate, but it will provide intriguing food for thought about what Kennedy likely would have done in Vietnam had he lived.
No surprise that one of the chapters in former Nixon Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s new book Leaders: Six Studies in World Strategy (Penguin Press, 528 pp., $46, $15.99, Kindle), is devoted to the man he served in the White House.
That’s because lionizing Nixon has been Kissinger’s MO since 1974 when Nixon resigned in disgrace, and especially after the Vietnam War came to an inglorious end for the South Vietnamese in 1975. In a raft of books, journal and magazine articles, speeches, and opinion pieces, Kissinger has tried to make the case that Nixon was one of the world’s great leaders and that his main foreign policy guy (himself) was a towering geopolitical genius.
Nixon, until his death in 1994, also spent considerable time rewriting his role in American Vietnam War history. To hear them tell it, Nixon and Kissinger were saintly peacemakers who failed at gaining “peace with honor” because a murderers’ row of evildoers—the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese, the American news media, the American antiwar movement, college students, “the elites,” a hostile U.S. Congress, and the unpleasantness called Watergate—thwarted them at virtually every turn.
We get more of that in Kissinger’s new book in which he tells the world that Nixon had a plan to end America’s role in the war, but it took three years and 20,000 or so American lives to implement it. Then, two years later—through no fault of his own—South Vietnam went down in flames.
Kissinger adds that the Nixon and Kissinger prosecution of the Vietnam War started the “internal division of American society that has torn it to this day.” His remedy is calling for “common purpose and reconciliation.” That’s an all-but-impossible task for those of us who vividly remember Kissinger’s long, disastrous record of Vietnam War obfuscations, disingenuousness, and hubris.
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