VIETNAM: WAS & COULD HAVE BEENS –by Prof Michael Brenner

We all are familiar with George Santayana’s dictum that “those who ignore history are destined to repeat it.”  If the past referred to notable successes, then repetition would not be a bad thing. Of course, he had in mind costly failures. His skeptical view of human enterprise held that initiative rarely achieved its end unless guided by previous experience of failure. That surely applies to Vietnam. Most Americans remain ignorant of the tragic errors of judgment and action which were made. Most significant, our political class never assimilated the wisdom that should have been reaped about military interventions in those types of circumstances. Vietnam did leave a searing memory in one place: among the uniformed services. The lesson they drew, though, was a belief that the decision to go to war was not itself a strategic blunder, but rather that the conduct of the war led to ignominious defeat. A recounting of the impact left on the United States’ senior generals and admirals is the subject of an illuminating essay by Army Major Danny Sjursen , a former instructor in History at West Point. (It is attached). He explains how that intellectual legacy has led directly to our omnivorous engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and many other places.

There is one aspect of Washington decision-making on Vietnam that recurrently has generated much speculation. It is the question: what would President Kennedy have done about Vietnam had he lived? His partisans assert that he would have become as deeply involved as LBH and Nixon later did. Is that so?

Someone who was close to Kennedy’s, and then Johnson’s, policy circle – as a prelude to a long career near the apex of American politics, has written a short personal account of what he understood to have transpired when Kennedy made the initial decisions to expand the American effort – and then, in October 1963, made an apparent formal decision, albeit unpublicized, to pull out almost American forces after the 1964 Presidential election.  It follows below along with a few comments of my own. The gentleman prefers to remain anonymous; so we should refer to him by the nom de guerre of ‘Deep Silo’ – at the risk of exciting exuberant expectations of earth-shattering revelations that are not forthcoming.

Dr Michael Brenner
Faculty, ​University of Pittsburgh

DEEP SILO writes:

“During the 1960 Presidential campaign, Kennedy took to the hawkish side of Vice-President Nixon.  He decried a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union-alleging that the USSR was deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles at a far greater rate than the U.S.-and said he would oppose militarily any PRC attempt to seize Quemoy, Matsu, and Pescadores territory off the China coast. He also alleged that a secret USIA poll showed the U.S. falling in prestige and popularity across the world.  There was, of course, no missile gap and no USIA poll although JFK may not have known it personally at the time.   No sooner had he taken office than he found himself stuck with a CIA-planned invasion of Cuba, then the Berlin Crisis spark when the Berlin Wall was erected...and then the Cuban Missile Crisis (when the Soviet military presence in and around Cuba was far deeper than even then suspected).  It was a natural decision for him to authorize a U.S. advisory role in South Vietnam and the sending of military and economic assistance to the SVN regime.  After all, in his famous 1961 inaugural speech, he had pledged "to support any friend, oppose any foe" internationally.  Vietnam was misread at the time as part of a Chinese Communist attempt to takeover Southeast Asia, just as the USSR had attempted to take over Eastern European countries.

Remember that a few years earlier, during the French collapse at Dienbienphu, then Vice President Nixon and Joint Chief Chairman Adm. Radford, strongly backed by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had proposed to President Eisenhower that the U.S. intervene with nuclear weapons to save the French and hold off Hanoi.  Ike refused to authorize it.  The 1954 Geneva Accords provided for free national elections in Vietnam.  But the U.S., France and the UK feared Ho Chi Minh would win the elections and cast their lot with a SVN government instead.  More than 20 years and many deaths later, Nixon presided over a U.S. withdrawal which in fact left the country as it would have been had we simply abided by the 1954 Accords and then allowed political nature to take its course).  The JFK commitment, made in 1961-63, consisted of U.S. military advisors and political and economic specialists who would help build the underpinning for a functioning SVN regime.

He asked probing questions in NSC and other meetings about the U.S. role in Vietnam.  But he had made a commitment to secure and protect an independent South Vietnam. In conformity with that pledge, he had authorized in 1961 an expansion of the American military force to provide training and support to the ARVN. These measures were coupled to a larger economic aid and political footprint. JFK's closest political advisors let it be known at the time that the build-up was made, in part, because JFK did not want to be challenged as weak in his 1964 reelection campaign.  It was widely assumed in political circles that this was the case. That led to speculation that, after reelection, JFK might well decide to reverse the decision, depending on the situation at the time on the ground.  JFK and his close counselors were tough Boston pols with a hard, practical eye for political realities. 

Kennedy’s senior and officials were anything but of one mind. The most articulate advocates opposed to escalation were political advisor/friend Lawrence O’Brien and Kenny O’Donnell. O’Brien argued strongly that an open-ended war in Asia would be unacceptable to the American people and, therefore, an invitation to electoral defeat. CIA Director McCone apparently played it straight in reporting the view of some Agency’s analysts that the war was unwinnable given a) the ability and readiness to the Vietminh to match any infusion of American troops; and b) the unpopularity of the existing government.

Kennedy kept his cards close to his vest - keeping his own views to himself, and did not certify any implicit consensus. That apparently troubled O’Brien who, after one critical meeting, followed Kennedy into the Oval Office. There, Kennedy confided to him that he would in fact expand the American military role. The reason: his interpretation of the situation was that if he failed to make a greater effort to prevent the spread of Communism, the rabid Cold Warriors would have a field day ripping him and his policies to shreds. However, once he got past the election and was reelected, he would gradually withdraw from Vietnam – accepting the conclusion that it was beyond the United States’ capability to determine the country’s political fate.

Indeed, in the fall of 1963, Kennedy decided to formalize that intention witha NSC advisory statement declaring that the American presence would be reduced to the 68 number stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Accords. Although his hawkish advisers, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara as well as the Pentagon and the CIA operational people disagreed, they had no choice but to accede to the President. Hence, McBundy and General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s close military adviser, drafted the statement, presented it, and elicited an unanimous vote in favor. That was October 2. JFKL was assassinated on November 23. The decision memorandum never was made public. (For a comprehensive analysis of the Vietnam debacle that punctures several myths about events both in Washington and Vietnam, see the definitive work of Gareth Porter Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005)

It also was common talk, at the time of the JFK assassination, that North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, a progressive southerner and 1960 JFK supporter, might be called upon to replace VP Johnson on the 1964 Democratic ticket.   The Kennedys had always disliked Johnson and had not, in fact, expected him to accept the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket in 1960.  He had been frozen out of most important discussions during the Kennedy presidency.

MB: The major U.S. escalation in Vietnam took place under Johnson – reluctantly. Immediately upon assuming office, he came under enormous pressure from the cabinet hawks, and the national security establishment, to rescind the Kennedy policy declaration and to greatly escalate the tangible American commitment to the South Vietnam regime.  Staunch opposition came from Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and some other political advisers. Humphrey, though, was sidelined and even lost direct access to Johnson. That estrangement continued right through the 1968 election when Johnson denied Humphrey the very Intelligence reports that he was sharing with candidates Nixon and Wallace. The one man who might have been in a position to strengthen Johnson’s resolve not to plunge into Vietnam was Senator Richard Russell of Georgia – Johnson’s mentor, confident and friend. Russell, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, had serious qualms as to escalation but was ambivalent about overtly opposing the war’s expansion and ceding Vietnam to the Communists in the Cold War climate at the time.

The most vehement promoter of an all-out military effort was Johnson’s NSC advisor, McGeorge Bundy. In early 1965, he had been in Vietnam at the time of a VC raid on the U.S. barracks at Pleiku.  He cabled immediately that major retaliatory strikes be taken against Hanoi---greatly expanding the war.  On his return to DC, Johnson put the issue to the NSC and, then, came down on Bundy's side, authorizing Operation Rolling Thunder---major airstrikes against N. Vietnamese targets.  The U.S. role continued to expand from there.”


If JFK had lived, what would he have done?  One can argue that, after his presumed 1964 reelection, he would in fact have withdrawn from Vietnam.  On the other hand, there would have been great pressures on him to continue the commitment.  After all, his "support any friend, oppose any foe" pledge might have rung hollow had he ordered a withdrawal.  And his nat. security advisors were the same ones who later would counsel LBJ to escalate:  NSC advisors Bundy and Walt Rostow, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense McNamara. 

My gut instinct, knowing the cast of Kennedy's closest WH advisors (not his national-security team), is that JFK in 1965 probably would have stuck with the military commitments already made,  but that he would have been reluctant to deepen them----if only because it might have imperiled his own political standing and eaten resources better devoted elsewhere.  Contrary to mythology, it is unlikely that JFK in 1964 would have pushed to enact the Civil Rights Act or, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, a war on poverty and other Great Society legislation. Johnson did those things using his legislative skill and benefiting from heavy Democratic congressional majorities.  JFK no doubt would have gotten there eventually but not until later in a second term.

To withdraw from Vietnam in the mid-1960s would have been a difficult decision for any American president because, at that time, it still was seen as a test of American resolve in the Cold War and a place where a Communist tide had to be checked in Asia as it had been checked in Europe.  As it turned out, that was a wholly mistaken perception.”

In the end, would Kennedy have kept his pledge to withdraw?

MB: There is reason for skepticism. For one thing, the political forces in the country at large, and inside the government, who were vehemently anti-Communist would have been just as potent in 1965 as in 1963-64. For another, the Pentagon brass once engaged in a war would have a strong professional interest and pride in not turning around and leaving. They would be far more zealous lobbyists for an enduring commitment than before the stakes – national and institutional - had been raised. Finally, Kennedy himself was a staunch patriot who only a little more than two years earlier had issued a clarion call asking all Americans to do what they could for their country as members of a generation that had a rendezvous with destiny. An intelligent and prudent man, he nonetheless had the instincts of a competitor and a fighter. This attitude was more than matched by Bobby Kennedy – his confidant and most influential adviser.

Furthermore, we should bear in mind that Kennedy’s political concerns were salient just a few months after he had reaped the popular favor of having stared down Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis while avoiding war. (At the time, the public was kept in the dark about the deal whereby the U.S. agreed to withdraw its medium range Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for Soviet removal of the Cuban missiles). Still, he fretted about being denounced as soft. During the Missile Crisis itself, the deliberations in the White House were shadowed by political considerations. 38 Soviet nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba did not change the strategic balance in any significant way. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated at the time: “I’ll be quite frank – I don’t think that there is a military problem…..There is a domestic political problem.” Hence, the aversion to appearing weak by taking an approach that could be viewed as conciliatory.

We should recall the intensity of anti-Kennedy sentiment among a large segment of the population which was stirred by a combination of Cold War hyper-Americanism and anger at Kennedy’s (and the Democrats’) overt sympathies for black civil rights activists. The Selma brutality occurred in March 1965 in Alabama. Governor George Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door” until pushed aside by federal marshals in June, 1963. Civil rights workers Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were killed by a mob of Klansmen in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964.* Know-Nothing passions were even more inflamed then than they are now across the Bible Belt. Moreover, they were spreading through the Republican Party.

{Neshoba County is known as the site of one of the most infamous race-related crimes in American history. In 1964, the brutal murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner by white supremacists, including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, in Philadelphia, the county seat. The crime and decades-long legal aftermath inspired the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning. President Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign from theNeshoba County Fairdelivering a speech about economic policy that drew attention for the use of the phrase "states' rights" in an area associated with the 1964 murders.[4][5]” Subtle messaging was not The Gipper’s long suit}.

Barry Goldwater’s 1964 nomination was a sign of the times – as was Wallace’s surprising electoral success as a Presidential candidate.  Although Goldwater was no racist, he was a hyper-nationalist who aggressively promoted a hawkish, anti-Communist agenda abroad and alarmism about urban crime. By happenstance, I was on the floor of the San Francisco Cow Palace when Goldwater punctuated his speech accepting the GOP nomination with the famous line: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” (He added the now forgotten line: “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” He did not specify Justice for whom).

It evoked a raucous reaction among the delegates. It was obvious that many of the delegates were as excited about the idea of nuking Martin Luther King as Nikita Khrushchev. So palpable was the hatred by the John Birchers et al, that Lyndon Johnson’s immediate reaction to Kennedy’s assassination was that he had been slain by one of the Far Right militias. (Later, he concluded that this was Castro’s revenge for Kennedy’s repeated attempts to assassinate the Cuban).   Johnson turned the table on the drugstore cowboys and racists by burying Goldwater in the election. He followed up with passage of the historic civil rights legislation and MEDICARE. Together, they drove a stake through the heart of the racists and crackpot Right that marginalized them until resurrected 16 years later by a Grade-B Hollywood actor cum 20 Mule Team Borax salesman.

Richard Nixon, who won the Presidency in 1968 only because of the bitter split among Democrats over Vietnam, followed a ‘Southern’ electoral strategy. However, as President he pursued domestic policies that on non-civil rights issues were to the ‘Left’ of Barack Obama. He never challenged the civil rights laws passed under Johnson. Even on civil liberties, and despite Watergate, he did not go so far as Obama in violation of laws and norms, e.g. the extra-legal killing of American citizens, the extra-legal detention of American citizens, the massive extra-legal surveillance of American citizens, and his order to the CIA to break into a computer of the Senate Intelligence Committee to steal material on torture which the Agency voluntarily had given them.

Johnson was a more skilled politician than Kennedy and had a better instinctive understanding of the forces roiling American public life. It was Vietnam that killed him – politically and physically. The path of war urged on him by the coterie of Kennedy foreign policy advisors was his undoing. If Kennedy did decide on a withdrawal from Vietnam in 1965, it would have been incremental. In practice, perhaps not very different from Nixon’s strategy of 1970 albeit with substantially fewer troops involved and a weaker ARVN. The complications and imponderables of such a gradual retreat would have required extraordinary dexterity and political skill at home and abroad.

We can fairly say that were this the scenario, there would have been many thousands fewer dead or maimed Americans, hundreds of thousands fewer dead or maimed Vietnamese, and a million or so Cambodians who would not have been slaughtered.


About the author



Leave a comment: