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On September 26, Kennedy amplified further. We keep troops in Vietnam and elsewhere, he said, because "our freedom is tied up with theirs" and the "security of the United States is thereby endangered" if they pass "behind the Iron Curtain." "So all those who suggest we withdraw [in any way], I could not disagree with them more." "If the United States were to falter, the whole world, in my opinion, would inevitably begin to move toward the Communist bloc."14
Aid reductions are excluded, Kennedy stated on March 6, 1963, because tampering with "economic programs and military programs in South Viet-Nam, in Cambodia, in Thailand" would cause "that area to collapse," leading to Communist control of "all of Southeast Asia, with the inevitable effect" of threatening India and perhaps even the Middle East. There is, then, no "real prospect of the burden being lightened for the U.S. in Southeast Asia in the next year if we are going to do the job and meet what I think are very clear national needs." It is our "objective" to ensure that "the assault from the inside, and which is manipulated from the North, is ended" (November 12, 1963). The natural conclusion is that we must go to the source and punish the manipulators if we fail to contain the "assault from the inside" by South Vietnamese peasants against US forces and their agents.
After the Diem regime was overthrown on November 1, 1963, there was a "new situation there," Kennedy told the press, and "we hope, an increased effort in the war" (November 14). He added that our policy should now be to "intensify the struggle" so that "we can bring Americans out of there" -- after victory, as the context makes unmistakably clear.
In Fort Worth, a few hours before the assassination, Kennedy made his last statement about Vietnam: "Without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight." In the speech he was to give in Dallas, he intended to say that "Our successful defense of freedom" in Cuba, Laos, the Congo, and Berlin can be attributed "not to the words we used, but to the strength we stood ready to use"; fair enough, with regard to his selection of Third World illustrations of his "defense of freedom." Kennedy extolled his huge military buildup, undertaken to blunt the "ambitions of international Communism." As the "watchman on the walls of world freedom" the US had to undertake tasks that were "painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task."15
In internal discussion, Kennedy's consistent position was that everyone must "focus on winning the war." There can be no withdrawal without victory; the stakes are far too high. One can accuse the President of no duplicity. His public rhetoric accords closely with his stand in internal discussion.
Kennedy's closest associates maintained the same stance after the assassination. "Unless we can achieve [our] objective in South Vietnam," Robert McNamara informed LBJ in a March 1964 memorandum, "almost all of Southeast Asia will probably fall under Communist dominance," with threats going beyond Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand to the Philippines, India, Australia and New Zealand, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. "The stakes are high." In a note to LBJ on June 11, Robert Kennedy expressed his full support, saying that Vietnam "is obviously the most important problem facing the United States and if you felt I could help I am at your service." As a token of his support, he expressed his willingness to replace Lodge as Ambassador to Saigon. In May 1965, three months after the bombing of South Vietnam had been vastly intensified along with the first regular bombing of the North and after US combat forces had landed, RFK condemned withdrawal as "a repudiation of commitments undertaken and confirmed by three administrations" which would "gravely -- perhaps irreparably -- weaken the democratic position in Asia." Theodore Sorenson traces RFK's first break with Johnson policy to February 1966, when RFK called for a negotiated settlement (but not withdrawal, never an option).16
The basic reasoning behind the war was indicated years later by McGeorge Bundy. In retrospect, he felt that "our effort" in Vietnam was "excessive" after October 1965, when "a new anti-communist government took power in Indonesia and destroyed the communist party," incidentally, slaughtering several hundred thousand peasants and securing Indonesia's riches for foreign corporations. As Bundy now recognized, with Vietnam already in ruins and Indonesia protected against infection, it may have been "excessive" to continue to demolish Indochina at inordinate cost to ourselves. US-supported military coups in Thailand and the Philippines, the virtual demolition of most of Indochina, and the subsequent policies of economic strangulation and isolation brought the US at least a partial victory, ensuring that the region will continue to "fulfill its main function," free from any threat of "radical nationalism." That the US won a considerable victory was clear to the international business community and others 20 years ago, as already discussed, though not by the standards of those who regard anything less than attainment of maximal aims as an unthinkable disaster. The questions therefore remain largely foreign to the intellectual culture.17
As the costs to the US began to mount, qualifications began to enter, and when disaster loomed, some proponents of "the domino theory" backed away or even derided it. But Kennedy and his circle did not waver in their extremism as long as success seemed within reach. The same was true of intellectual opinion. McGeorge Bundy scarcely exaggerated when he wrote that only "wild men in the wings" questioned the basic assumptions of the Kennedy-Johnson war, raising more than tactical questions about feasibility and cost. Furthermore, that judgment remains largely valid today, in elite sectors.
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14 Kennedy address to UN General Assembly, Sept. 25, 1961, cited in Gaddis, Strategies, 208; PP, II824, 828f.; Schlesinger, 1000 Days, 902; FRUSV, IVl 94;Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 387; Hilsman, To Move a Nation, 505-6. Cuba, see 501, 146.
15 Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 323, 425-7, 457; PP, II 817, 831; Paterson, Kennedy's Quest, 20-1, 248ff.
16 See secs. 6-7. FRUSV-64 154. Schlesinger, RFK, 728, 730. Sorenson, Kennedy Legacy, 214.
17 Bundy, cited by David Fromkin and James Chace, Foreign Affairs (Spring 1985). See FRS, 48f., and much subsequent discussion, including PEHR and MC.