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Whatever else he may have been, Kennedy was a political animal, and knew enough to tell the Senate Majority Leader and other influential people what they wanted to hear. He was also keenly sensitive to the opposition to his policies among powerful Senators, who saw them as harmful to US interests. The internal record reveals that Kennedy left decisions on Vietnam largely in the hands of his advisers. His own interventions express his "increasing concern" over the "need to make [an] effective case with Congress for continued prosecution of the war," and to ensure that congressional condemnation of Diem's repression "not end up with a resolution requiring that we reduce aid" (September 1963). As for the media, "The way to confound the press is to win the war."17
Kennedy was also aware that public support for the war was thin, as were McNamara, Hilsman, and others. A year later, LBJ won the election largely because of his outspoken opposition to expanding the war. But JFK never saw the general discontent among the public, press, and Congress as an opportunity to construct a popular base for withdrawal; rather, he sought to counter it with extremist rhetoric about the grand stakes. Like McNamara, he hoped to bring the war to a successful end before discontent interfered with this plan. Had he intended to withdraw, he would also have leaped at the opportunity provided by the GVN call for reduction of forces (even outright withdrawal), and its moves toward political settlement. As for the right-wing, a President intent on withdrawal would have called upon highly-respected military figures for support, including the most revered figures of the far right.
The post-Tet O'Donnell-Mansfield version is that JFK intended to begin withdrawal in January 1964, but to complete it only after his election, so as to fend off "another Joe McCarthy scare." Even apart from the total lack of supporting evidence (and the ample counterevidence), this story is hardly credible. Nothing would have been better calculated to fan right-wing hysteria than inflammatory rhetoric about the cosmic issues at stake, public commitment to stay the course combined with withdrawal from that commitment as the client regime collapsed in 1964, election on the solemn promise to stand firm come what may, and then completion of the withdrawal and betrayal. That plan would have been sheer stupidity. Had Kennedy intended to withdraw, he would have at least considered, and probably pursued, the course just outlined. But there is no hint in the record that he gave that possibility a moment's thought. Rather, he chose to enflame jingoist passions. The conclusions, again, seem rather clear.
The post-Tet recollections many years after the alleged conversations are subject to further question. Mansfield had not called for "complete military withdrawal," so it is not possible for JFK to have agreed with him on this. His actual advice was highly qualified: the US should undertake a very limited withdrawal as a "symbolic gesture" to warn Diem to get to business and win the war. And he explicitly opposed withdrawal as LBJ took over. Furthermore, JFK rejected Mansfield's major recorded advice: to desist from public rhetoric about the great stakes in Indochina. The post-Tet recollections are not consistent with the internal record.
Far more credible, if one chooses to take such material seriously, is General Wheeler's recollection in 1964 (not years later, in a period of ideological reconstruction) that Kennedy was interested in extending the war to North Vietnam.
Furthermore, O'Donnell's and Mansfield's belated accounts are virtually meaningless, even if taken at face value. JFK's qualified endorsement of the McNamara-Taylor recommendations on withdrawal was made public at once. Perhaps, years later, Mansfield and O'Donnell had forgotten the withdrawal plans that were prominently published; recall that these seemed so insignificant to JFK's close associates and chroniclers that they scarcely mention them, if at all. The only novelty in these private communications would have been if JFK had stated that he knew that the optimistic assessments were false, and was going to withdraw anyway, which is, indeed, the way these alleged communications are interpreted by Newman, Schlesinger, and other post-Tet advocates of the withdrawal-without-victory thesis. On a thread that thin, one can hang nothing.
Despite such obvious flaws, the O'Donnell-Mansfield stories are taken very seriously by Kennedy hagiographers.
The Camelot memoirists proceeded to revise their earlier versions after Tet, separating JFK (and by implication, themselves) from what had happened. Sorenson was the first. In the earlier version, Kennedy was preparing for the introduction of combat troops if necessary and intended to "weather it out" come what may, not abandoning his ally, who would have collapsed without large-scale US intervention. Withdrawal is not discussed. Diplomacy is considered a threat, successfully overcome by the overthrow of the Diem government. But post-Tet, Sorenson is "convinced" that JFK would have sought diplomatic alternatives in 1965 -- with the client regime in still worse straits, as he notes. Furthermore, for unexamined reasons, JFK would have made a more realistic cost-benefit analysis than did his trusted associates, who continued to run the war for LBJ as they had for him. "I believe he would have devoted increasing time...in the winter of 1963-1964 and found an answer" to the question of how to get out of Vietnam, Sorenson says, not telling us what this answer might have been as the US-GVN position rapidly deteriorated, and not recalling his own advice to LBJ while he was still on the White House staff: to avoid any hint of wavering in the pursuit of victory because of the enormous stakes (January 1964).
The October 1963 withdrawal plan, unmentioned in the old version, assumes great significance in Sorenson's post-Tet revision. Kennedy "did authorize, as an indication of his goal, the October 1963 statement by McNamara and Taylor predicting a withdrawal of most American military advisors by the end of 1965, beginning late in 1963," Sorenson writes, failing to add that in 1965 he [Sorenson] had found these steps unworthy of mention, that Kennedy refused to commit himself to the plan, that withdrawal was explicitly contingent on military success, and that the plan called for intensification of the war and stood alongside the effort to replace Diem if he would not "focus on winning the war" as JFK demanded. Sorenson also says that Kennedy "made it very clear that any suggestion from the Saigon government that our forces were unwelcome would start them `on their way home...the day after it was suggested'." That JFK made such statements is true; that he and his associates regarded such suggestions with dismay and sought to block them in every way is also true, as we have seen.18
Arthur Schlesinger entered the lists in 1978 with his biography of Robert Kennedy. Unlike Sorenson, he does not confine himself to speculation about JFK's intent. Rather, he constructs a new history, radically revising his own earlier version.19
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17 Paterson, Kennedy's Quest, 21. FRUSV, IV 254, 192 (167), 281.
18 Sorenson, Kennedy Legacy, 204-8; also Kennedy, 657.
19 Schlesinger, RFK, ch. 31. Chapter 32 is devoted to RFK and Vietnam in the post-assassination years, with a look backwards as well.