In the last weeks of his life, President John F. Kennedy spent a lot of time worrying about the rising foreign-policy problem of Vietnam. Whether he would have avoided successor Lyndon B. Johnson’s tragic escalation of US involvement in Southeast Asia remains one of the great “what ifs?” of 20th-century geopolitics.
It’s possible he would have dispatched hundreds of thousands of US combat troops to the country, as did LBJ. Kennedy was a cold-war Democrat, meaning he was a committed anti-communist. His brother Robert Kennedy said in a 1964 oral history that JFK never thought about pulling out of Vietnam and was convinced the United States had to stand there against Soviet expansionism.
Some modern historians think otherwise. The Cuban missile crisis had taught Kennedy to be distrustful of the hawkish advice of national security officials. Meanwhile, from the Oval Office in 1963, Vietnam looked like an unstable country in a far-off, roiling corner of the world.
Kennedy’s “actions and statements ... are suggestive of a carefully managed stand-down from the sort of involvement that occurred under LBJ,” writes retired Boston University professor of history Robert Dallek in his JFK biography “An Unfinished Life.”
Fifty years ago this week, Kennedy’s problem was managing the aftermath of a violent Vietnamese coup.
The government of the ousted president, Ngo Dinh Diem, had been tottering for some time. Corruption, Viet Cong guerrilla successes, and violent repression of Buddhists had undermined its position with the US and the Vietnamese people.
During the course of his presidency, JFK had increased the number of US advisers in Vietnam to more than 16,000 and opened the spigots of US military and financial aid. But by September 1963, he was sounding publicly exasperated by the situation.
“In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it,” he said in a CBS interview.
Privately, US officials were talking to South Vietnamese generals who were plotting Diem’s overthrow. A famous secret State Department telegram, Cable 243, in essence told Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge that the US would back coup plotters.
Diem was overthrown on Nov. 1, 1963. He and his brother and adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed after refusing a US offer of safe passage. Kennedy was shocked by the death of Diem, a fellow Catholic, and depressed about Vietnam’s apparently deteriorating situation.
On Nov. 4, Kennedy dictated a statement on the coup for his memoirs. He listed US officials who had opposed it (his brother and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara) and those who had supported it (many ranking State Department figures).
JFK did not whitewash his own role. “We [at the White House] must bear a good deal of responsibility for it,” he said.
What would Kennedy have done about Vietnam had he lived?
His public statements before the coup had been open to interpretation. He had in essence told CBS anchor Walter Cronkite in September that the war might be unwinnable. He’d also told NBC’s Chet Huntley that he believed in the domino theory and that the fall of South Vietnam might convince the world that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was “China and the communists.”
Press secretary Pierre Salinger had already announced that by the end of 1963, the training of South Vietnamese forces should have progressed far enough for 1,000 US military personnel to be withdrawn.
After the coup, the State Department held a Hawaii conference of US officials to appraise Vietnam options. JFK said its purpose was to study how to “intensify the struggle,” but also how to “bring Americans out of there.”
Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, returned from the conference convinced that US policy was up in the air, according to Mr. Dallek. Given the commitment of many US officials and lawmakers to a military solution in Vietnam, the time for disengagement did not seem at hand.
But Kennedy was already thinking about a second term – and its possible greater freedom of action. On Nov. 21, 1963, he told Bundy aide Michael Forrestal that at the beginning of 1964, he should organize an in-depth study of every Vietnam option, including means of withdrawal.
“We have to review this whole thing from the bottom to the top,” Kennedy said, according to Dallek.
That same day, he left for a political fundraising and fence-mending trip in Texas.