Would JFK have fought the Vietnam War?

Reading between the lines.
May 19 2003 7:31 PM

The War Room

What Robert Dallek's new biography doesn't tell you about JFK and Vietnam.

Book cover

Would John F. Kennedy have gone to full-scale war in Vietnam, like his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson? This may be the most haunting question of the past 40 years. Certainly it accounts for whatever traces still survive of the "Camelot myth." For all the revelations of scandal that have tainted the image of JFK, there remains the monumental what if: Had Kennedy dodged the bullets in Dealey Plaza, might America have dodged the nightmare of the subsequent decade—the 50,000 body bags, the Chicago riots, the election of Nixon, the cynicism of a generation?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate and is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon, a history of U.S. nuclear-war policy.

The historian Robert Dallek doesn't state the matter this dramatically, but his new book, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, argues that JFK would not have waged war in Vietnam. I agree. But if I didn't, this book would not have persuaded me. There's a compelling case to be made, but Dallek doesn't nail it.

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Dallek musters familiar quotations, cited by many before him, in which JFK expressed deep reluctance to wade into the Vietnam quagmire—the memo ordering a 1,000-troop pullout, the interview with Walter Cronkite where he says the war is not ours but South Vietnam's, his assurances to Sen. Mike Mansfield that he'll get out after winning the '64 election.

But this sort of evidence is suggestive, at best. For instance, there's a tape recording from May 27, 1964, of Lyndon B. Johnson telling his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that he doesn't think Vietnam is "worth fighting for." Had Johnson dropped dead the next day (and had his successor continued to escalate) historians might now be arguing that LBJ would have pulled out of Vietnam had he lived.

What, then, is the compelling case for why JFK wouldn't have gone to war? Those who argue that JFK would have gone into Vietnam just as LBJ did make the point that Kennedy was every bit as much a Cold Warrior as Johnson. They also note that the advisers who lured Johnson into war—Bundy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and the rest—had been appointed by Kennedy; they were very much Kennedy's men.

But this is where there is a crucial difference between JFK and LBJ—a difference that Dallek misses. Over the course of his 1,000 days as president, Kennedy grew increasingly leery of these advisers. He found himself embroiled in too many crises where their judgment proved wrong and his own proved right. Dallek does note—and very colorfully so—Kennedy's many conflicts with his military advisers in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But he neglects the instances—which grew in number and intensity as his term progressed—in which he displayed equal disenchantment with his civilian advisers. Yet Kennedy never told Johnson about this disenchantment. It didn't help that Johnson was a bit cowed by these advisers' intellectual sheen and Harvard degrees; Kennedy, who had his Harvard degree, was not.

A turning point in Kennedy's relationship to his advisers took place a little more than a year before Kennedy's assassination, in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In those 13 days when the United States and the U.S.S.R. nearly engulfed the world in nuclear war, Kennedy assembled his top advisers to discuss what to do about the situation: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had been caught secretly shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba, 90 miles off American shores. The CIA estimated the missiles would be up and armed in a matter of weeks, easily capable of wiping out huge swaths of the United States.

For 20 years, the historical accounts of the crisis painted a dramatic scene where half the president's advisers urged him to bomb the missiles pre-emptively, half urged him to seek a diplomatic solution, and JFK himself took a middle course—a naval blockade instead of a direct attack—that forced Khrushchev to back down.

Then, in 1982, several of these advisers revealed that, in fact, JFK had settled the crisis by cutting a secret deal with Khrushchev: The Soviets would remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba; the United States would remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Dallek recounts this story, of course, and quotes at some length from Kennedy's secret tapes of the sessions with his advisers (the so-called ExComm meetings, for the "Executive Committee of the National Security Council"), which have gradually been declassified over the past 15 years.

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