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C H A P T E R T W O
We have reviewed the first three categories of evidence concerning Kennedy's war and plans, and the presidential transition: the events themselves, public statements, and the internal record. The last source of evidence is the memoirs and other comments of his associates. These come in two versions: before and after the Tet offensive. We review these in the next two sections, then turning to the 1991-1992 revival. This survey only adds conviction to what we have already found, while shedding interesting light on the cultural scene.
Kennedy's commitment to stay the course was clear to those closest to him. As noted, Arthur Schlesinger shared JFK's perception of the enormous stakes and his optimism that the military escalation had reversed the "aggression" of the indigenous guerrillas in 1962. There is not a word in Schlesinger's chronicle of the Kennedy years that hints of any intention, however vague, to withdraw without victory (1965, reprinted 1967).
In fact, Schlesinger gives no indication that JFK thought about withdrawal at all. The withdrawal plans receive one sentence in his voluminous text. In the context of the debate over pressuring the Diem regime, Schlesinger writes that McNamara returned from Saigon in October 1963 and "announced...that a thousand American troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year and that the major part of the American military task would be completed by the end of 1965." That is the entire discussion of withdrawal plans in this 940-page virtual day-by-day record of the Kennedy Administration by its quasi-official historian.1
These facts leave only three possible conclusions: (1) the historian was keeping the President's intentions secret; (2) this close JFK confidant had no inkling of his intentions; (3) there were no such intentions.
Which is it? The question is addressed only obliquely by advocates of the withdrawal-without-victory thesis. The only plausible conclusion is (3), but that is rejected by the advocates, leaving (1) or (2). The latter might strain credulity, unless taken to show the lengths to which JFK went to deceive all around him. Newman cites Schlesinger's justification in 1978 of JFK's "decision to hide his plans" (324), implying that the correct conclusion is (1) -- unless Schlesinger had learned about these "secret plans" in the interim, which no one claims, including Schlesinger himself. Hence Schlesinger too must be adopting (1). Furthermore, he lauds Newman's book with no relevant reservations, again suggesting that he regards (1) as accurate. One would be interested to hear an explanation.
Similar questions arise in the case of another close associate, Theodore Sorenson, who also published a history of the Administration in 1965. Sorenson was Kennedy's first appointed official, served as his special counsel, and attended all NSC meetings. He stayed on through the early months of the Johnson Administration. He devotes little attention to Vietnam. No withdrawal plans are mentioned. Quite the contrary. Kennedy's "essential contribution" was to avoid the extremes advocated "by those impatient to win or withdraw. His strategy essentially was to avoid escalation, retreat or a choice limited to these two, while seeking to buy time..." He opposed withdrawal or "bargain[ing] away Vietnam's security at the conference table."
Sorenson notes Kennedy's view that the stakes were high: "free world security," which would be severely compromised if Vietnam were lost and Southeast Asia were to fall to "the hungry Chinese." Kennedy's commitment to defend South Vietnam, Sorenson says, "was not only carried out but...reinforced by a vast expansion of effort." Impressed with Douglas MacArthur's opposition to sending troops, Kennedy preferred "a major counterinsurgency effort," though he "never made a final negative decision on troops" and "ordered the departments to be prepared for the introduction of combat troops should they prove to be necessary." Meanwhile, he "steadily expanded the size of the military assistance mission (2000 at the end of 1961, 15,500 at the end of 1963)2 by sending in combat support units, air combat and helicopter teams, still more military advisers and instructors, and 600 of the green-hatted Special Forces to train and lead the South Vietnamese in anti-guerrilla tactics."
Like Schlesinger, Sorenson highlights JFK's hopeful January 1963 prediction that "the spear point of aggression has been blunted in Vietnam." But "In mid-1963 the picture worsened rapidly" with the repression of the Buddhists, Nhu's reported moves towards "a secret deal with the North," and his failure to heed US admonitions to "get back to the war." Worse yet was Nhu's public statement that "there were too many US troops in Vietnam." Even after the overthrow of the Diem-Nhu regime, "no early end to the Vietnam war was in sight" and "the struggle could well be, [JFK] thought, this nation's severest test of endurance and patience":
He was simply going to weather it out, a nasty, untidy mess to which there was no other acceptable solution. Talk of abandoning so unstable an ally and so costly a commitment "only makes it easy for the Communists," said the President. "I think we should stay."
So Sorenson's account ends. Here too, there is no hint of any intent to withdraw short of victory. Again, we may choose among the same three conclusions.
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1 Schlesinger, 1000 Days, 908. The basic point is made accurately by Richard Grenier of the far-right Washington Times in the Times Literary Supplement (London), letter, March 20, 1992, in response to Schlesinger's Feb. 28 reference to "newly declassified official papers that amply document" Kennedy's "plans for withdrawal," citing Newman. See also the subsequent exchange (Schlesinger, April 3; Grenier, May 1, again accurate).
2 Actually, from 685 when JFK took office to 16, 732 in October 1963; Schlesinger, RFK, 722.