JFK's Secret Formula for Vietnam

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“Exit Strategy” by James K. Galbraith, in Boston Review (Oct.–Nov. 2003), E53-407, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

“Let us continue,” President Lyndon B. Johnson urged after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Most historians have agreed that in gradually escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Johnson did what Kennedy would have done. They dismiss the contrary view as wishful hindsight by JFK admirers. But Galbraith, who holds a chair in government and business relations at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, believes that the tide of scholarly opinion may be shifting in response to documentary evidence that Ken­nedy had secretly committed the United States to a phased withdrawal from South Vietnam.

The documents are not new, and neither is the debate. In Kennedy’s Wars (2000), historian Lawrence Freedman maintains that JFK’s plan for a withdrawal from Vietnam after the 1964 presidential election was “less of a definite decision than a working assumption, based on a hope for stability rather than an expectation of chaos.” Kennedy, in short, was keeping his options open. But Galbraith (whose father, John Kenneth Galbraith, was a JFK adviser) makes the case afresh for the other side.

On October 2, 1963, JFK received a report from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), urging withdrawal of 1,000 of the 17,000 military advisers then in Vietnam by the end of the year, and completion of a phased withdrawal of the rest by the end of 1965.

Kennedy had the recommendation publicly announced, and three days later secretly decided to withdraw the 1,000 advisers by December, but to have it done in a routine way, not raising the matter formally with South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. That shows that the decision “was not a ruse or pressure tactic to win reforms from Diem” as some historians have claimed, according to Galbraith. Then, on October 11, the White House issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, secretly ordering implementation of the October 2 recommendations, including full withdrawal by the end of 1965.

JCS documents released in 1998 show “that Kennedy was well aware of the evidence that South Vietnam was, in fact, losing the war,” says Galbraith. But the withdrawal he’d decided on “was unconditional, and did not depend on military progress or lack of it.”

On November 1, Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were killed in a coup that Kennedy had quietly encouraged, not expecting Diem’s death. Galbraith says the affair was symptomatic of a Kennedy White House that was “fractious, disorganized, preoccupied with American politics, ignorant of the forces it faced in Vietnam.”

Four days after Kennedy’s death, U.S. policy changed: In NASM 273, Johnson authorized covert commando raids against North Vietnam by CIA-supported South Viet­namese forces, which would lead, notes Galbraith, to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident “and eventually to the wider war.”

Like Kennedy, Johnson “knew that Viet­nam was a trap,” Galbraith says. But the public knew nothing of Kennedy’s plan. “To maintain our commitment, therefore, was to maintain the illusion of continuity, and this—in the moment of trauma that followed the assassination—was Johnson’s paramount political objective.”

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