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At first, JFK's 1961-1962 aggression appeared to be a grand success. Hilsman's enthusiasm, cited earlier, was widely shared. By late spring of 1962, the Pentagon Papers analyst observes, "the prospects looked bright" and "to many the end of the insurgency seemed in sight." The US leadership in Vietnam and Washington "was confident and cautiously optimistic," and "In some quarters, even a measure of euphoria obtained."
In his semi-official history of the Kennedy presidency, Arthur Schlesinger observes that by the end of 1961, "The President unquestionably felt that an American retreat in Asia might upset the whole world balance." The stakes being so enormous, he escalated the conflict in the manner already described. "The result in 1962 was to place the main emphasis on the military effort" in South Vietnam, Schlesinger writes, with "encouraging effects" as "The advisers flocked in with the weapons of modern war, from typewriters to helicopters," helping to plan military actions in which they "sometimes participated themselves." These achievements enabled Kennedy to report in his January 1963 State of the Union message that "The spearpoint of aggression has been blunted in South Vietnam." In Schlesinger's own words: "1962 had not been a bad year:...aggression checked in Vietnam."41
Recall that Kennedy and his historian-associate are describing the year 1962, when Kennedy escalated from extreme terrorism to outright aggression.
This optimistic assessment of the prospects for successful aggression led Robert McNamara to initiate planning for the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam, leaving to the client regime the dirty work of cleaning up the remnants. Kennedy and McNamara recognized that domestic support for JFK's war was thin, and that problems might arise if it were to persist too long. The military was divided, but with no interest in staying on after victory. Similarly, in November 1967, General Westmoreland announced that with victory imminent, US troops could begin to withdraw in 1969 (as happened, though under circumstances that he did not anticipate); that recommendation does not show that he was a secret dove.42 Advocacy of withdrawal after assurance of victory was not a controversial stand.
In contrast, withdrawal without victory would have been highly controversial. Within the domestic mainstream, that position received scant support: the first timid editorial advocacy of it, to my knowledge, was in late 1969, well after corporate and political elites had determined that the operation should be liquidated as too costly. When Howard Zinn published a book in 1967 calling for US withdrawal, the idea was considered too outlandish even to discuss.43
The question to be considered, then, is whether JFK, despite his 1961-1962 escalation and his militant public stand, planned to withdraw withoutvictory, a plan aborted by the assassination, which cleared the way for Lyndon Johnson and his fellow-warmongers to bring on a major war.
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41 PP, II 174. Schlesinger, 1000 Days, 506-8, 695.
42 Kinnard, War Managers, 128.
43 Zinn, Vietnam. Unable to obtain any notice of the book, Zinn asked me to write about it, as I did. See APNM, ch. 3.