Sunday, June 07, 2015

JFK and withdrawing from Vietnam, again

Godfrey Hodgson revisits one of the perennial what-if questions of US history in The ’60s great what-if: What would John F. Kennedy have done about Vietnam? Salon 06/07/2015.

Hodgson takes a skeptical position on whether JFK would have withdrawn from Vietnam.

But he had ordered a reduction in the number of US troops there. And I think the evidence leans toward the conclusion that he intended to continue to pull back from that war.

Jaime Galbraith did an article several years ago making that case. He based it not only on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's memoirs but also on John Newman's JFK and Vietnam (1992) and Howard Jones' Death of a Generation (2003). Both of which are good reads as well as good history.

I blogged about this in my first few months of blogging, JFK and Withdrawing from Vietnam 11/24/2003.

Galbraith's articles and related material from that time on this topic include:

Kennedy, Vietnam and Iraq 11/22/2003

Exit Strategy: In 1963, JFK ordered a complete withdrawal from Vietnam Boston Review 09/01/2003

In a letter to Boston Review, Noam Chomsky challenged Galbraith's position, Letters from Chomsky and Galbraith on JFK and Vietnam 12/01/2003.

Galbraith said in his response:

In October 1963 there were 17,000 U.S. military “advisers” in Vietnam. They were doing some fighting, and taking some losses, but in the main their mission was to train and assist the South Vietnamese army, which was more than 10 times larger. They faced an insurgency involving as yet few North Vietnamese forces. U.S. withdrawal at that time would not have meant the early collapse of South Vietnam. It would not have ended the war—except from the point of view of direct involvement of U.S. soldiers.

It is therefore reasonable that, into the early fall of 1963 when official military forecasts were still fairly optimistic, the administration should simultaneously plan to “intensify the war effort” and plan for withdrawal of our soldiers. Three key facts that have since emerged are these. First, the official optimism was disbelieved at the very top of the Kennedy administration, notably by McNamara. Second, Kennedy set a course for a decision to withdraw, from which he was not deterred by what then became a deteriorating official military prospect. This explains Kennedy’s concern, evident on the tapes, that the withdrawal be implemented in low key and not be tied to the perception of military progress. Third, the decision to withdraw was taken and then carefully, but not altogether completely, edited out of the record available to historians until the late 1990s. [my emphasis]
Galbraith also notes:

Kennedy’s October 1963 decision to withdraw happened. But Kennedy was nevertheless prepared to leave U.S. soldiers in harm’s way for two more years, mainly (I believe) to reduce the political consequences of pulling them out before the 1964 election. This should have, as my essay states, an ambiguous effect on his reputation.
George Herring in his Ameria's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (2nd edition 1986) wrote:

Sometime in the early summer of 1963, [South Vietnamese leaders Ngo Dinh] Diem and
[Ngo Dinh] Nhu began to explore the possibility of a settlement with Hanoi which would result in an American withdrawal from Vietnam.
Kennedy appears to have been thinking along the same lines. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had initiated long-range planning on troop levels in 1962 to ensure a balance between the Vietnam commitment and America's other global requirements, and in 1963 had produced a plan calling for a phased withdrawal of American advisers to begin later in the year and to end in 1965. The plan seems to have reflected the Pentagon's persisting optimism about progress in containing the insurgency. Some members of Kennedy's staff have since argued, however, that the President's approval of it indicated his determination to avoid an open-ended commitment. Indeed, Hilsman and White House staff member Kenneth O'Donnell claim that by the summer of 1963 Kennedy had recognized the futility of American involvement and was prepared to liquidate it as soon as he had been reelected. "If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam," he reportedly explained to Mansfield, "we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands." The extent to which Kennedy had committed himself remains unclear, but the plan for a phased withdrawal does seem to reflect his growing concern about Vietnam and the increasingly strained relationship with Diem. (pp. 94-5)
In the end, though, whether Kennedy would have withdrawn all troops from Vietnam is by definition a matter of speculation. John Prados in Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (2009) is cautious on the question, arguing that "concrete evidence for the Kennedy withdrawal is sparse and subject to interpretation." He then notes, "There is, however, hard proof for a McNamara withdrawal." (p. 78) Prados notes that Kennedy authorized escalation of CIA operations in Laos in 1963 and his public statements in the weeks before his death, Kennedy was explicitly saying withdrawal would be "a great mistake" and reaffirming his support for the infamous and always badly mistaken "domino theory."

As I said, it seems to me that the bulk of the evidence argues that Kennedy in late 1963 had the intention to withdrawn US troops from Vietnam. But it was a very fluid situation and the Cold War consensus in both parties heavily favored supporting the Southern Vietnamese government in that conflict. And, obviously, Kennedy could have changed his mind as time progressed and conditions changed.

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