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About nine years ago (12/29/03 and after) James Galbraith, Eric Alterman and I had a go-round on the question of JFK and withdrawal from Vietnam on H-Diplo. I have copied one of my postings from that below, and further discussion can be found in the H-Diplo archives (http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=lm&list=H-Diplo). I presented an excerpts from an interview with Robert Kennedy in mid-1964, which was restricted for more than two decades, in which he says they actually had not thought it through, as they thought they were winning the war. In my view, there had been no decision to withdraw and Robert Kennedy's testimony supports that view. My *opinion* is that JFK never would have gone "all in" as LBJ did, but that cannot be proved or disproved. Sometimes there are just no definitive answers. Doug Macdonald Colgate University BEGIN: Eric Alterman helpfully posted James Galbraith's essay in which he claims that Kennedy had decided to pull out of Vietnam prior to his death. The essay really does not present any new evidence, and superficially argues against alternative scenarios. My personal view is similar to that of Richard Reeves in that the announced and implemented troop withdrawals were part of a bargaining strategy, primarily to pressure the Diem regime to reform, but also to signal the Vietnamese military that the US would support them if the coup took place. [See my *Adventures in Chaos* (Cambridge, 1992), ch. 9] Other actions taken to fulfill these simultaneous goals were the canceling of aid programs, the removal of the CIA chief of station (who was seen as too close to Nhu and his removal had been requested by the Vietnamese generals), and the moving of Colonel Tung's special forces troops, essentially Diem's palace guard, to the countryside at US insistence. The US troop withdrawal announcement, which was purposefully kept low key to avoid a negative psychological effect on Vietnamese morale, is best seen as one part of that overall strategy. I do not see that the decision not to approach Diem "formally" with the initial US troop withdrawal has the portentous meaning that Galbraith posits. Many non-military aid programs were put on "maximum administrative delay" without formally approaching Diem. The Americans had openly talked about the 1,000 troop withdrawal in the midst of the military optimism of late 1962. During the Buddhist Crisis of 1963, in response to US pressure to reform his government, Ngo Dinh Nhu publicly suggested that Vietnam did not need so many US troops since the military and other counterinsurgency measures were going so well. Surely Diem would have known about any withdrawal as soon as it happened, or probably prior to its implementation. So keeping it low key in no way demonstrates that a final decision had been made about full withdrawal. It can be read in several different ways. There also remains the important question, of course, of why would Kennedy get involved in this pressure and coup plotting at all if we were going to pull out anyway? Neither Galbraith nor other Kennedy revisionists, including John Newman, have supplied a satisfactory answer to this question, in my view. Moreover, it is not clear that President Kennedy or Robert McNamara, believed that the war was being lost at the time as claimed by Galbraith. In a series of oral histories published long after his death, but recorded in 1964, Robert Kennedy suggests the opposite and conveys the military optimism and hawkishness that was prevalent in the administration at the time, and which Galbraith discounts. These decisions were taken, contra Galbraith's account, within the context of a belief that we were winning in Vietnam that was widespread in the administration. [All quotes from Robert F. Kennedy, *Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years* (Bantam, 1988). This much overlooked book is crucial for understanding the mindset of the administration *at the time* rather that retrospectives from McNamara or anyone else. I have posted excerpts from it on H-Diplo previously.] Presumably Robert Kennedy would know his brother's thinking on the subject of Vietnam (he was attending meetings on Vietnam in late 1963 in his role as a leader of the counterinsurgency operations in the administration) and clearly would have known whether he was going to pull out. What did he have to say on the subject in 1964? "[Following a brief discussion of Mike Mansfield's negative report on Vietnam in early 1963] Kennedy: ...The President felt that he had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam. [Interviewer John Bartlow] Martin: What was the overwhelming reason? Kennedy: The loss of all of Southeast Asia if you lost Vietnam. I think everybody was quite clear that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall. Martin: What if it did? Kennedy: It would just have profound effects on our position throughout the world and our position in a rather vital part of the world. It would affect what would happen in India, of course, which in turn has an effect on the Middle East. It would have, everybody felt, a very adverse effect. It would have an effect on Indonesia, with a hundred million population. All of these countries would be affected by the fall of Vietnam to the Communists, particularly as we had made such a fuss in the United States both under President Eisenhower and President Kennedy about the preservation of the integrity of Vietnam. Martin: There was never any consideration given to pulling out? Kennedy: No. Martin: But at the same time no disposition to go in - Kennedy: No. Martin: - in an all-out way, as we went into Korea. We were trying to avoid a Korea - is that correct? Kennedy: Yes, because everybody, including General MacArthur, felt that land conflict between our troops - white troops and Asian - would only end in disaster. So we went in as advisers to try to get the Vietnamese to fight, themselves, because we couldn't win the war for them. They had to win the war for themselves. Martin: That's generally true all over the world, whether it's in a shooting war or a different kind of war. But the President was convinced that we had to stay there? Kennedy: Yes. Martin: And we couldn't lose it? Kennedy: Yes. Martin: And if the Vietnamese were about to lose it, would he propose to go in on land if he had to? Kennedy: We'd face that when we came to it. Martin: Or go with air strikes direct from carriers - something like that? Kennedy: It didn't have to be faced at that time. In the first place, we were winning the war in 1962 and 1963. Up until May or so of 1963, the situation was getting progressively better." [pp. 394-395] He then discusses the deterioration with the Buddhist Crisis which began in May. There is also an interesting discussion of his view of the famous August 22 telegram that set the coup process in motion. A few pages later Kennedy responds to a suggestion that Henry Cabot Lodge was named ambassador in 1963 to share some of the political heat for failure in Vietnam [it might be remembered that the interviews took place in 1964 when the situation in Vietnam had deteriorated, especially following the December, 1963 decision in Hanoi to go for military victory in the South]: "Martin: When the appointment was announced - Lodge, I mean - I had a feeling that we were going to lose Vietnam and we were trying to distribute the responsibility politically. Kennedy: No. No. Because - at least, I thought - we were winning the war in Vietnam. Martin: Even at that time? I mean he wasn't appointed until pretty late in the game. Kennedy: No. That was not a factor." [p. 401] As for the McNamara-Taylor Mission of late September, 1963, according to RFK: "Kennedy: They [i.e., McNamara and Taylor] came back and gave an account that the war was going well, that the efforts by the Buddhists and the internal struggles were not having an adverse effect on the carrying out of the war, that they could win under present circumstances. Martin: This doesn't seem to have been true. Kennedy: No." [p. 402] Taken together, the recollections of Robert Kennedy - *at the time* - strongly suggest the following: 1) The Kennedy Administration believed in and supported policies derived from a stark version of the domino theory (that the President himself defended in an interview in September, 1963); 2) There was a good deal of military optimism that was maintained among major players, including Robert Kennedy himself, despite the growing *political* pessimism that grew with the expanding Buddhist crisis (I argued in my book that this is why so many in the State Department were so in favor of a coup and so many in the Defense Department were so against one: the political situation was in crisis, but the military situation had been improving.); 3) According to his brother and closest adviser, President Kennedy had given no thought to withdrawing from Vietnam, and the administration had simply not thought through what it would have done if they had had to face the political and military deterioration that followed Diem's overthrow. I find this evidence to be superior to anything presented in the Galbraith article or John Newman's book, which are highly dependent on analytical speculation and interpretation. My own personal view is that Kennedy would never have escalated the war to the extent that Johnson did, although beyond that I do not speculate about it. It is messy and unsatisfactory, but the truth is we do not know what the hell he would have done. But the claim that he had already decided to withdraw militarily from Vietnam and never informed his brother is simply incredible to me. Doug Macdonald Colgate University