Kennedy and Vietnam: 58,173 Unnecessary Deaths?

Discussion in 'The Okie Corral' started by ssfeldjager, Feb 9, 2010.

  1. ssfeldjager


    Likes Received:
    Jun 6, 2005
    So, what's your thoughts on Kennedy and Vietnam? What would his policies have been, if he had lived?

    Would JFK Have Withdrawn From Vietnam?

    President Kennedy’s Conflicted Policies On The Vietnam War

    Nov 26, 2009 Lawrence Koppy

    While vocal in his support of the South Vietnamese in their war against the North, did JFK have plans to withdraw all US advisors from the country by 1965?

    John Kennedy came to office an avowed anti-Communist, having been a staunch critic of Cold War diplomacy practiced by the Eisenhower Administration. Over the course of his presidency JFK and members of his administration repeatedly expressed strong convictions about the importance of supporting South Vietnam in their war against the North.

    Kennedy Takes Office

    The President said the US had a “strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam” and that failure in Vietnam would affect US policy throughout Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East.

    Others in the administration echoed this support. Vice President Lyndon Johnson referred to South Vietnamese President Diem as “The Churchill of Asia” and promised continued US aid. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, while on a tour to Saigon in 1962, said, “we are going to win” when asked about US commitment to the war.

    Kennedy Escalates the War

    Kennedy took a number of steps to escalate the war after taking office. In February 1961, he secretly sent 400 Green Berets to teach “counterinsurgency war” to South Vietnamese troops against Communist guerrillas. Later that year he sent an aircraft carrier loaded with helicopters to aid South Vietnamese forces. President Kennedy also authorized the US military to begin using Agent Orange in Vietnam to eradicate the enemy’s jungle cover.

    Yet despite his commitment to support South Vietnam with military advisors and material, Kennedy resisted recommendations and appeals to introduce US combat troops into South Vietnam to actively engage in a ground war.
    Kennedy felt that a land conflict involving US troops would be a disaster and that the South Vietnamese had to win the war for themselves. He refused a request in October 1961, for 11,000 combat troops recommended by his advisors.

    Kennedy’s Conflicted Policy

    President Kennedy’s unease with support for South Vietnam is evident in remarks he made in September, 1963, when he stated “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it.” But later in the interview he qualified these remarks saying “But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.”

    In another interview a few days later JFK expressed his belief in the “domino theory”, that if South Vietnam were to fall, the rest of Southeast Asia would go behind it. “I think that the struggle is close enough”, he said, concluding the interview by reiterating that the United States should stay in South Vietnam and not withdraw.

    Plans For Withdrawal?

    On October 4th, 1963, a memo was drafted by General Max Taylor that read “all planning will be directed towards preparing Republic of Vietnam forces for the withdrawal of all US special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965. Execute the plan to withdraw 1,000 United States military personnel by the end of 1963.”

    This memo came to be National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263 and was signed by President Kennedy on October 11th. While Kennedy had the memo made public he kept the withdrawal of the 1,000 troops by the end of ‘63 secret and did not raise the matter formally with South Vietnamese President Diem.

    NSAM 263 has been the topic of hot debate over the years. It has been put forth as proof that Kennedy planned on withdrawing totally from Vietnam by 1965. Others say it was a device to gain political support for the upcoming election in ‘64 against likely challenger Barry Goldwater. Others believe Kennedy’s withdrawal plans were based on overly optimistic battlefield reports or a desire to force change on the corrupt Diem government in South Vietnam.

    Historian Lawrence Freedman maintains the plan for withdrawal was “less a definite decision than a working assumption, based on a hope for stability rather than an expectation of chaos.” Either way, NSAM 263 contradicts the administration’s public proclamations to “win the war” and is one more example of the conflicted policy held by the Kennedy administration.

    Vietnam After Kennedy’s Death

    President Kennedy’s policies increased American involvement in Vietnam without introducing combat troops to the area. At the time of his death in 1963 less than 100 Americans had lost their lives in Vietnam. There is no way to know exactly what path JFK would have taken in Vietnam had he lived to fill out his term of office. Whether he would have withdrawn American forces or continued supporting South Vietnam will likely be argued for generations.


    Cronkite, Walter, Television Interviews on Vietnam with President Kennedy, September 2 and 9, 1963
    Isaacson, W., “If Kennedy had Lived History”, Time Magazine, 4/13/92, Vol. 139, Issue 15
    Karnow, Sidney, “Vietnam, a History”, Viking, N.Y. 1983
    Vancil, L., “Agent Orange”
    Weiner, Tim, "Kennedy Had Plan for Early Vietnam Exit", New York Times, December 23, 1997
    “JFK's Secret Formula for Vietnam”, review of Exit Strategy by James K. Galbraith, Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2003, Vol. 28, Issue 1.
  2. RonS

    RonS Millennium Member

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    May 27, 1999
    Oh, USA
    There are some contemporary accounts that indicate that he might have already decided to cut our losses and get out. Very subject to interpetation.

    I assume you have read the main sources already. I can recommend Where the Domino Fell for a nice balanced sketch type overview in case you happen to have missed it. If you want to make yourself sick read No Peace, No Honor and read about Kissinger and the negotiations that ended the war. Sorry, lying, backstabbing bastard.

    What sickens me is that time and time again the politicians acted because they didn't want to appear weak or to give points to a domestic political opponent. They seemed to consider everything except the possibility or impossibility of winning or the morality of fighting.

    I also agree with Gen Westmoreland, we did not lose the Vietnam war, we betrayed an ally. I'm paraphrasing that one because it is late and I am tired and don't feel like looking up the exact quote.

  3. Mr981


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    Dec 27, 2000
    N. E. OH
    Keep a couple of things in mind that set the wheels for escalation in Vietnam in motion:

    1) The death of Kennedy allowed Johnson to assume the presidency at a time when the wheels were coming off our policy in Vietnam. The Catholic president Diem was assassinated after the US gave their OK prior to Kennedy's death. He was a polarizing figure politically and the conventional wisdom at the the time indicated that the war might go better if he was gone. Didn't work out that way.

    2) McNamara was charged with keeping Vietnam between "the weeds"" during the 1964 election. He was the guy making recommendations to Johnson about being tough with the VC/NV, while minimizing what our plans were with Congress. Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater in 1964--a conservative saber rattler--and Johnson didn't want to appear to be weak in dealing with the communists.

    So, Kennedy had already approved jettisoning the SV leader before his death and the prospects of improved strategy as a result of this action were no better with him or Johnson in power. Having said that, Kennedy had already made the Russians blink in the Cuban escapade, so he may have had less to prove to an electorate than the new guy, Johnson. I also see him more engaged than Johnson might have been in the early phases, being more critical of McNamara's recommendations, having been hung out to dry in the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.

    With Kennedy still as president in 1964, I think there might have been a chance that the US build up in VN might have been avoided, but it's a small one.
    McNamara would still have been the Sec. of Defense making his case for the build up. All the other players, Joint Chiefs, Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and McNamara's boy geniuses (Bundy Brothers) would have still been there with their view of reality, which was to become engaged. It would have been tough to turn that one around.