Was JFK planning to withdraw the majority of US troops before his death in 1963?

This essay achieved a low 2:1 in the third year of my undergraduate.

Was JFK planning to withdraw the majority of US troops before his death in 1963?

Kennedy’s role in the Vietnam War is an area of contention in a conflict the study of which is defined by its complexity. Such is the breadth of scholarship on Kennedy’s time in office, and his handling of the various crises which arose, that a degree of focus is required, and as such, only his actions with regards to Vietnam, and more specifically, the credibility of the ‘Withdrawal Thesis’ shall be considered below. Having said this, some context is required: Kennedy is credited with deciding on Vietnam as the battleground of communism versus capitalism in south-east Asia, and as such has often been blamed with forcing his successor, Johnson, into a certain course of action.[1] In light of this, it might then be difficult to give much credence to the Withdrawal Thesis, but the theory has been advanced, most notably by Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK.[2] While some historians such as Carr and Herder have criticised this so-called ‘what if?’ approach to history, a broad and deep historiography regarding Kennedy in general, and the Withdrawal Thesis in particular has nonetheless sprung up.[3]  The ‘traditionalist’ school, which includes the likes of Chomsky, holds the view of Kennedy as the epitome of a ‘Cold Warrior’; someone determined to fight global communism at any point. More recently, evidence has come to light to support the Withdrawal Thesis, and has been emphasised by the likes of Newman, Kaiser and Jones – what might be called ‘revisionists.’[4]

The argument of the traditionalist school -the view that Kennedy was a committed ‘Cold Warrior’- is supported by several pillars, of which the escalation conducted in 1961 and 1962 is merely one. In the first two years of his presidency, Kennedy raised the level of US involvement in Vietnam from a low-level advisory role with under 1,000 personnel, up to a far more encompassing effort, which included tactical air support and a total of around 16,000 personnel, and which Chomsky in particular has condemned as ‘direct US aggression’.[5] While it is impossible to deny that this escalation took place under Kennedy’s supervision, one must consider the pressures he was under, and the fact that he had only just entered office. Both Neu and Porter concede that, in spite of the escalation which took place, Kennedy rejected the initial plans set forward by both Taylor and Rostow for the full-scale deployment of combat troops, of the kind which occurred under Johnson.[6]

The idea of contingency is one of more significant points which defends the view that Kennedy would not have withdrawn, although it has only been adopted by certain historians, such as Chomsky and Moise.[7] The reason for this is that it concedes the existence of plans to withdraw from Vietnam, but with the strong addendum that it relied upon the condition of the war. Proponents of the argument place a lot of emphasis upon the McNamara-Taylor report and in particular the section which states there was a long term plan ‘to replace US personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort’.[8] The over-optimistic predictions from both Taylor and McNamara that reckoned on the Viet Cong insurgency being defeated by the end of 1965 are therefore seen as the initial basis for the plan for withdrawal having that completion date.[9] One of the most hotly contested points in the debate, it has been challenged, among others, by McNamara himself in his memoirs, who states that Kennedy was prepared to withdraw with or without victory, the latter being far more likely.[10]

Perhaps the most compelling support for the traditionalist school is the host of contemporaries who have denied the existence of any withdrawal plan, let alone Kennedy having any knowledge of it. His own brother, Robert, challenged its very existence shortly after the November assassination, and remains one of the most damning statements with regards to the Withdrawal Thesis.[11] Slightly later, when the war had turned sour, several members of Kennedy’s administration, namely Sorenson (in 1969) and Schlesinger (in 1968), published thoughts on his time in office, in which they assert that he had no plans whatsoever to withdraw before his death.[12] Almost as significant as Robert Kennedy’s denial are those of Secretary of State Rusk and National Security Advisor William Bundy. While both admit that the issue of withdrawal had been raised, neither recall the president’s involvement in it.[13] These sources may seem beyond reproach, but as shown below, there is plenty of acclaimed contemporary support for the Withdrawal Thesis as well.

Against the Withdrawal Thesis also goes the record of Kennedy’s public statements, although this is very much subject to interpretation – only Kennedy knew exactly what he meant by his various comments.[14] In particular, there is a record of public interviews which span from the 17th July 1963 when he said: ‘We will not withdraw from that effort [Vietnam],’ across the Cronkite interview on the 2nd September, and then the NBC interview on the 9th, and then later on the 26th.[15] Of these, the Cronkite interview is perhaps the most widely cited, due to Kennedy’s decidedly mixed comments on the subject of the Vietnam War. The president essentially denied any interest in withdrawal, while simultaneously stating that ‘all we can do is help, and we are making it very clear,’ which perhaps implies that he was also heavily resistant to the idea of escalation.[16]

Kennedy’s intransigence on the issue of peace negotiations has also been noted as strong counter-argument to the Withdrawal Thesis. William Harriman is thought to have originally suggested a negotiated end to the conflict, although Charles de Gaulle of France was also known to have been an advocate, and Kennedy rejected the idea from both of them.[17] This theory is an extension of the traditionalist view of Kennedy as a committed anti-communist, as his intransigence is presented simply as taking a stand on the containment line against the Communist forces of the North Vietnamese.[18] Critics of the presidential involvement in the Vietnam conflict have condemned this course of action as Kennedy having straight-jacketed his successor, causing him to be ‘trapped’ by circumstances, and essentially forcing him to escalate.[19] In recent years however, a resilient counter has emerged, from the likes of Hess and Porter.[20] According to Porter, Kennedy actively pursued diplomatic channels and such was his commitment to it that he even changed policymakers to maintain the option of negotiating the neutralisation of South Vietnam.[21]

Perhaps the least convincing argument on behalf of the traditionalist school is that Kennedy was not at all involved in the plans for US withdrawal, and that his administration almost conducted it without his knowledge.[22] Many, including Schlesinger and Jones attribute the withdrawal plan to McNamara (Secretary of Defence), while claiming that Kennedy simply expressed casual interest in an alternative to escalation.[23] Freedman on the other hand mentions Paul Kattenburg as the one who raised the question of withdrawal, only to be shouted down by McNamara, Rusk and Taylor among others, while Chomsky argues that General Paul Harkins even went so far as to propose a 1-year withdrawal plan at a meeting in July 1962.[24] O’Donnell on the other hand directly contradicts this, stating that it Kennedy was the one pushing for withdrawal plans to be drawn up, an assertion also supported by the contemporary Hilsman of the State Department.[25]

In spite of the list of evidence against the Withdrawal Thesis, there is also plenty which supports it. Jones hypothesises that the Diem coup was aimed at facilitating US military withdrawal, and supports it by saying that interest in withdrawal would have been increased by resurgent violence in Saigon, and the Buddhist protests against the strongly Catholic Diem regime.[26] Other historians such as Karnow do however concede that the coup went too far as soon as Diem and his family were executed and the mere fact of US involvement drew them further into the conflict – the opposite of what had probably been intended, and something which has been described as the ‘central tragedy’ of Kennedy’s time in office.[27] As well as this, there are the recorded decisions taken with regards to the phased withdrawal proposed in the McNamara-Taylor report, which began with the initial decision to withdraw on the 2nd October 1963.[28] Just over a week later came the specifics, with Kennedy signing off on NSAM-263, which authorised the completion of the initial stage of withdrawal – that of the first 1,000 by the end of 1963.[29] While these documents are compelling, there has been a tendency among Withdrawal Theorists in particular to over-emphasize certain sources, the most common of which is NSAM-263.[30]

As mentioned above, many contemporaries within the administration challenged the notion of a withdrawal plan. At least as many support the idea that Kennedy was planning to pull US involvement in Vietnam.[31] A collection of Kennedy’s close aides and journalists who interviewed the president all agree with the Withdrawal Thesis, and include the likes of Gilpatric, Taylor, Hilsman, Harriman, Forrestal and Bartlett.[32] Perhaps those given most credence however are Senator Mike Mansfield, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, and senior aide Kenneth O’Donnell, who all purport to have had private conversations with Kennedy on the matter.[33] The fact that so many people who were in Kennedy’s genuine inner circle have affirmed the same story implies that there is at least a degree of truth in it, although it is possible if not likely that the president’s enthusiasm has been posthumously exaggerated.

Something which has been touched upon above is the question of whether or not Kennedy was willing to withdraw from Vietnam without a victory over Communism. Most proponents of the Withdrawal Thesis have argued that he was, or that he was willing to disengage on a ‘greatly restricted definition of ‘victory’ – tantamount to an admission of defeat.’[34] While Chomsky counters this by asserting that withdrawing without victory was ‘unacceptable’ to Kennedy, one could in turn argue that the president made his decisions based on the over-optimistic projections made by both McNamara and Taylor which stated that the insurgency would be suppressed by 1965.[35] As such an argument could be made for Kennedy planning for withdrawal on the assumption that the war would continue to progress favourably.

Traditionalists point to Kennedy’s history, and the fact that, during his time in office, the number of US personnel in Vietnam rose from around 1,000 to near 16,000. What they almost invariably fail to point out however, is that Kennedy resisted serious pressure from the majority of his advisors to escalate the war further by deploying actual combat troops.[36] Perhaps the best example of an opportunity where he could easily have dispatched ground combat troops to south-east Asia is that of Laos, where Kennedy instead decided to (successfully) pursue a tactic of neutralisation.[37] Aside from Laos, his handling of various crises earlier in his presidency, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis, led him to seek paths such as mutual de-escalation in Vietnam.[38] The view of Kennedy as an ardent Cold Warrior would then perhaps seem inaccurate, and revisionists have been forced elsewhere in search of an answer for the lack of clear withdrawal plans. The most common place where blame has fallen is with the administration beneath Kennedy, with historians such as Moise and Porter claiming that he was ‘hamstrung’ by his government and the military in particular.[39]

Overall then, there are a whole range of conclusions one can draw about Kennedy and his plans for withdrawal. One distinction that should be made is that, while Kennedy may well have been planning to pull the majority of US personnel out of Vietnam, it is likely that he was only ever going to reduce it to the advisory role which had been present at his inauguration as president.[40] Similarly, even if Kennedy’s preference was withdrawal, both Freedman and Hunt believe that he was not determined to follow it through, making his commitment half-hearted at best.[41] The growing consensus is that withdrawal was in fact Kennedy’s preference, and while it is still protested that no one can prove that, his actions do seem to be suggestive of withdrawal, or at least a large scale-back.[42] Having said this, the distinction needs to be made between withdrawal and defeat. It seems likely that Kennedy was very committed to the war itself, but equally determined that it should be a proxy war, and entirely Vietnamese.[43] As such he could have been committed to both large-scale withdrawal and victory at the same time, a fact which seems to have been lost on many. It is because of this commitment to the war that Kennedy faced the improbable decision between large-scale withdrawal, and full escalation of the war of the type which Johnson imposed a few years later. From his actions, it is clear that Kennedy trod the middle ground for a long as possible, with Withdrawal Theorists claiming that this was evidence of impending withdrawal.[44] While it is possible the proposed 3-year plan would have gone ahead, it seems much more likely that it was simply put in place for the purposes of planning, while Kennedy struggled with his seemingly impossible choice. As Logevall points out, he probably had not made a decision before his death in November 1963, with his options still being perhaps more open than has been portrayed by the traditionalist school.[45]

Word count (including title): 2,979

 

[1] S. Jacobs, ‘”No Place to Fight a War”: Laos and the Evolution of US Policy toward Vietnam, 1954-1963,’ in M. Bradley and M. Young (eds.), Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National and Transnational Perspectives (Oxford, 2008), p.46.

[2] N. Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and US Political Culture (Boston, 1993), p.36.

[3] See F. Logevall, ‘Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been,’ in M.J. White (ed.), Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited (London, 1998), p.20.

[4] For an overview, see G. Porter, ‘Explaining the Vietnam War: Dominant and Contending Paradigms,’ in M. Bradley and M. Young (eds.), Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National and Transnational Perspectives (Oxford, 2008), p.72. For more detail on traditionalism, see G. Porter, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (Berkeley, 2005), pp.141, 165. For more detail on revisionism, see Chomsky, Rethinking, pp.63-5.

[5] Chomsky, Rethinking, pp.46, 50-1, Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ p.19, M.B. Young, J.J. Fitzgerald and A.T. Grunfeld, The Vietnam War: A History in Documents (Oxford, 2003), p.50, C.E. Neu, America’s Lost War: Vietnam, 1945-1975 (wheeling, 2005), p.68, G.R. Hess, ‘South Vietnam under Siege, 1961-1965: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Question of Escalation or Disengagement,’ in D.L. Anderson (ed.), The Columbia History of the Vietnam War (New York, 2011), pp.143, 152.

[6] Porter, Perils, p.150, Neu, Lost War, p.51, Hess, ‘South Vietnam,’ p.148.

[7] Chomsky, Rethinking, p.33, E.E. Moise, ‘JFK and the Myth of Withdrawal,’ in M.B. Young and R. Buzzanco (eds.), A Companion to the Vietnam War (Oxford, 2002), pp.167, 170.

[8] The McNamara-Taylor Report in K. Ruane (ed.), Documents in Contemporary History: The Vietnam Wars (Manchester, 2000), p.91.

[9] H. Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (Oxford, 2003), p.383, Porter, Perils, pp.169-70.

[10] Porter, Perils, p.169.

[11] Jones, Death, p.452, Porter, Perils, p.165.

[12] Chomsky, Rethinking, pp.105-6, Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ pp.28-9, Jones, Death, pp.452-3.

[13] Porter, Perils, p.165, Jones, Death, p.453.

[14] Porter, Perils, p.165, Neu, Lost War, p.67.

[15] Moise, ‘JFK,’ p.170, M. Hunt and S.I. Levine, Arc of Empire: America’s War in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (Chapel Hill, 2012), pp.200-1, Chomsky, Rethinking, p.46, M. Hunt, ‘The Perils of Interventionism,’ in R.J. McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (third edition)(Boston, 2003), p.149, L. Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Laos, and Vietnam (Oxford, 2000), p.375.

[16] Cronkite Interview, 2nd September 1963, in K. Ruane (ed.), Documents, p.89.

[17] Neu, Lost War, p.51, Porter, Perils, p.165, Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ p.33.

[18] Porter, ‘Explaining,’ p.72.

[19] A.M. Schlesinger Jr., The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy (revised edition) (Greenwich, 1968), pp.47-8, Hess, ‘South Vietnam,’ pp.147-8.

[20] See Hess, ‘South Vietnam,’ p.149.

[21] Porter, Perils, pp.153-4.

[22] Neu, Lost War, p.65.

[23] See Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ pp.28-9, Chomsky, Rethinking, p.72, Moise, ‘JFK,’ p.167, Hunt, ‘The Perils,’ p.149, D. Kaiser, ‘Kennedy’s Prudent and Cautious Policy,’ in R.J. McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (third edition)(Boston, 2003), p.155, Jones, Death, p.454.

[24] Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars, p.372, Chomsky, Rethinking, p.68.

[25] See Moise, ‘JFK,’ p.169, K.P. O’Donnell and D.F. Powers, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye (Boston, 1970), p.382

[26] Jones, Death, pp.349, 378, 386.

[27] D.W.P. Elliot, ‘Official History, Revisionist History, and Wild History,’ in M.P. Bradley and M.B. Young (eds.), Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National and Transnational Perspectives (Oxford, 2008), p.292, Jones, Death, p.456.

[28] Hunt, ‘The Perils,’ p.149, Jones, Death, p.378

[29] NSAM-263 in ed. K. Ruane, Documents in Contemporary History: The Vietnam Wars (Manchester, 2000) p.90, Jones, Death, pp.378, 394, Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ p.23, Hess, ‘South Vietnam,’ p.149, D. Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, 2000), p.102, Porter, Perils, p.171.

[30] Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ pp.26-7.

[31] Ruane, Documents, p.88, O’Donnell, Johnny, p.13.

[32] Jones, Death, pp.381-3, 453-4, Porter, Perils, p.170.

[33] Porter, Perils, p.170, O’Donnell, Johnny, pp.13-16, Jones, Death, p.454, Neu, Lost War, p.68, R.S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York, 1996) pp.95-6.

[34] Jones, Death, p.384, see also Chomsky, Rethinking, p.64, Moise, ‘JFK’, pp.166-7, 169.

[35] Chomsky, Rethinking, pp.73, 76, Jones, Death, p.383.

[36] Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ p.23, Moise, ‘JFK,’ p.172, Hess, ‘South Vietnam,’ p.150.

[37] Hess, ‘South Vietnam,’ p.148, Porter, Perils, pp.146-9, Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ p.19, B. Brodie, War and Politics (New York, 1973), pp.187-98.

[38] Porter, ‘Explaining,’ p.77, Jones, Death, p.348, C.E. Neu, Review: American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War by D. Kaiser, The Journal of Military History, 64:4 (2000), p.1211.

[39] Porter, ‘Explaining,’ pp.77-8, Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars, p.372, Moise, ‘JFK,’ p.169.

[40] Jones, Death, p.453.

[41] Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars, p.417, Hunt, ‘The Perils,’ p.149.

[42] Hess, ‘South Vietnam,’ p.150.

[43] Moise, ‘JFK,’ p.172.

[44] Porter, Perils, p.166, Moise, ‘JFK,’ p.171, Chomsky, Rethinking, p.70.

[45] Logevall, ‘Vietnam,’ p.35.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Cronkite Interview, 2nd September 1963, in K. Ruane (ed.), Documents in Contemporary History: The Vietnam Wars (Manchester, 2000), p.89

National Security Action Memorandum 263, in K. Ruane (ed.), Documents in Contemporary History: The Vietnam Wars (Manchester, 2000), p.90

The McNamara-Taylor Report, in K. Ruane (ed.), Documents in Contemporary History: The Vietnam Wars (Manchester, 2000), pp.90-1

Secondary Sources

Bradley, M.P., Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950 (London, 2000)

Brodie, B., War and Politics (New York, 1973)

Chomsky, N., Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US political culture (Boston, 1993)

Elliot, D.W.P., ‘Official History, Revisionist History, and Wild History,’ in M. Bradley and M. Young (eds.), Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local National and Transnational Perspectives (Oxford, 2008), pp.277-304

Fisher, J.T., ‘The Second Catholic President: Ngo Dinh Diem, John F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam Lobby, 1954-1963,’ US Catholic Historian, 15:3 (1997), pp.119-37

Freedman, L., Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (Oxford, 2000)

Halberstam, D., The Making of a Quagmire (London, 1964)

Hess, G.R., ‘South Vietnam under Siege, 1961-1965: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Question of Escalation or Disengagement,’ in D.L. Anderson (ed.) The Columbia History of the Vietnam War (New York, 2011), pp.143-67

Hunt, M., ‘The Perils of Interventionism,’ in R.J. McMahon (ed.) Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (third edition) (Boston, 2003), pp.138-50

Hunt, M., and S.I. Levine, Arc of Empire: America’s War in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (Chapel Hill, 2012)

Jacobs, S., ‘”No place to Fight a War”: Laos and the Evolution of US Policy toward Vietnam, 1954-1963,’ in M. Bradley and M. Young (eds.), Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local National and Transnational Perspectives (Oxford, 2008), pp.45-66

Jones, H., Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (Oxford, 2003)

Kaiser, D., ‘Kennedy’s Prudent and Cautious Policy,’ in R.J. McMahon (ed.) Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (third edition) (Boston, 2003), pp.151-7

Kaiser, D., American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, 2000)

Logevall, F., ‘Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been,’ in M.J. White (ed.), Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited (London, 1998), pp.19-62

McNamara, R.S., In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lesson of Vietnam (New York, 1996)

Moise, E.E., ‘JFK and the Myth of Withdrawal,’ in M.B. Young and R. Buzzanco (eds.), A Companion to the Vietnam War (Oxford, 2002), pp.162-73

Neu, C.E., America’s Lost War: Vietnam, 1945-1975 (Wheeling, 2005)

Neu, C.E., Review: American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, by D. Kaiser, The Journal of Military History, 64:4 (2000), pp.1210-2

O’Donnell, K., and D.F. Powers, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye (Boston, 1970)

Porter, G., ‘Explaining the Vietnam War: Dominant and Contending Paradigms,’ in M. Bradley and M. Young (eds.), Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local National and Transnational Perspectives (Oxford, 2008), pp.67-90

Porter, G., Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (Berkeley, 2005)

Prados, J., ‘American Strategy in the Vietnam War,’ in D.L. Anderson (ed.) The Columbia History of the Vietnam War (New York, 2011), pp.247-61

Ruane, K. (ed.), Documents in Contemporary History: The Vietnam Wars (Manchester, 2000)

Schlesinger Jr., A.M., The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy (revised edition) (Greenwich, 1968)

White, M.J., ‘Introduction: A New Synthesis for the New Frontier,’ in M.J. White (ed.), Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited (London, 1998), pp.1-18

Young, M.B., J.J. Fitzgerald and A.T. Grunfeld, The Vietnam War: A History in Documents (Oxford, 2003)

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General Comments: This is a frustrating essay, to say the least, as it could have been really superb. A vast amount of work has gone into the secondary reading, and you provide a very accomplished and thorough account of the existing literature on the question of whether Kennedy was planning to withdraw from Vietnam. Your cross-referencing with other scholars, ability to identify prevalent trends, and make a series of nuanced judgments are all very good. Moreover, the essay is very well written and is easy to read (aside from the first sentence, which seems to contain the most sub-clauses ever seen in one sentence).

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