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Curiously, there actually is one bit of evidence that supports the desired conclusion, but Newman and other advocates of the thesis do not make use of it. Recall that at the NSC meeting considering the McNamara-Taylor recommendations, Kennedy dissociated himself from the plan to withdraw 1000 personnel because he did not want to be "accused of being over optimistic" in case the military situation did not make withdrawal feasible. He allowed the sentence on withdrawal to remain only if attributed to McNamara and Taylor, without his acquiescence. In public too he was more hesitant about the withdrawal plan than the military command, as we have seen. One might argue, then, that JFK did not share the optimism of his advisers, and was therefore unwilling to commit himself to withdrawal. This conclusion has two merits not shared by the thesis we are examining: (1) it has some evidence to support it; (2) it conforms to the general picture of Kennedy's commitment to military victory provided by the internal record.
Newman takes a different course, however, asserting that JFK "had disassociated himself from the optimistic McNamara-Taylor timetable because he could not yet know whether his withdrawal would be conducted under a winning or a losing battlefield situation." Whatever this is supposed to mean, Newman ignores the reason Kennedy actually gave: that "if we were not able to take this action by the end of this year, we would be accused of being over optimistic." This treatment of the evidence illustrates Newman's technique precisely. Given the dogma that JFK planned to withdraw without victory, all evidence to the contrary proves that he was being "brilliant...and duplicitous," cleverly concealing from his top advisers the truth about what was "in his heart." Adopting the same procedure, Newman concludes that "Kennedy decided, apparently...in February or March 1963, to get out of Vietnam even if it meant the war would be lost." Evidence is nil, and counterevidence substantial, but irrelevant, thanks to the analytic technique.
To establish his thesis, Newman ignores the internal record of JFK's interventions and relies heavily (in the end, almost exclusively) on O'Donnell's 1972 report and Mansfield's later comments (1975, 1978). O'Donnell's story, Newman writes, "makes it abundantly clear that Kennedy knew the war was a lost cause, and that his problem was how to disguise his intentions until after the election." Newman declares further that "there is no doubt that Kennedy made these confidential remarks" reported by Mansfield and O'Donnell. These remarks must therefore be placed "side by side" with JFK's public comments, which, Newman agrees, flatly contradict them. When we compare the public comments and the "confidential remarks" to O'Donnell and Mansfield, Newman writes, "the purpose for his remarks at these press conferences become [sic] clear: they were calculated to throw off his political opponents and the supporters of massive U.S. intervention."36
Contrary to this remarkable reasoning, there is ample reason to be skeptical about these post-Tet reconstructions years after the alleged conversations. They are furthermore implausible and largely meaningless, hence discounted by historians generally. They do not begin to compare in significance with the extensive internal record and the public statements of the President, which conform to the internal record, a crucial fact missing from this study. In fact, they are far less significant than the pre-Tet memoirs and oral history, which Newman also ignores. As for the "calculation" on which the Newman-Schlesinger thesis rests, that makes no sense at all, as already discussed.
No more impressive is Newman's faith in a "riveting talk with President Kennedy" described by Senator Wayne Morse ten years later (reported verbatim in the press, and by Newman), in which JFK allegedly told the Senate's leading opponent of the war that he agreed with him. Whatever the plausibility of the story, it is devoid of significance, for reasons understood by every historian: a President may well tell an influential Senator in private what he would like to hear, while heeding other voices.37
Newman's tale is woven from dark hints and "intrigue," with "webs of deception" at every level. Subtitles read: "A DECEPTION WITHIN THE DECEPTION," "THE DEEPENING WEB OF DECEPTION," "THE DECEIVERS AND THE DECEIVED," etc. The military were deceiving Kennedy's associates who were deceiving Kennedy, while he in turn was deceiving the public and his advisers, and many were deceiving themselves. At least, I think that is what the story is supposed to be; it is not easy to tell in this labyrinth of fancy.
LBJ is portrayed as one of the really bad guys, in conformity with the thesis of a sharp policy change after the assassination (or worse, according to the darker version). The evidence? On intervention in Laos, "ONLY LBJ SUPPORTED [Admiral] BURKE," a section heading reads, supported only by Burke's recollection in oral history 6 years later that LBJ said "he thought I had something, but that was because he spoke first, perhaps."38
Later comes an "intrigue" too intricate to unravel that is supposed to show how LBJ put one over on the unsuspecting JFK, advancing the nefarious plan to introduce combat troops. The plot only thickens when we find that LBJ's recommendation was: "do not get bogged down, Mr. President, in a land war in Southeast Asia" (Johnson's military aide Colonel Burris). There is an "inconsistency," Newman concedes, offering an explanation supported only by the need to establish LBJ's devious role. Complicating the matter further, "Johnson chose to distance himself from the combat troops idea while simultaneously advocating a commitment that might well require they be sent in the future" (exactly like his boss), perhaps exploiting Kennedy's "impulsive innocence." LBJ's written report to the President "finessed the ticklish problem of U.S. combat troops by saying this might have to be faced at `some point'," Newman writes. LBJ wrote that "Asian leaders do not want them `at this time'...Combat troops were not required or desirable..." A subtle rascal, "Johnson then cleverly avoided a definitive statement on troops by framing the question as a choice between U.S. support or complete disengagement."
As a further complication, "Johnson didn't really want to get involved in Vietnam" in the first place (Colonel Burris).
In fact, Newman observes, LBJ played no role in Vietnam policy after May 1961. The reason, we are told with the usual confidence, is that he "went underground" because "He had his own aspirations for the White House, and getting out of the limelight was the most prudent thing to do." Maybe, maybe not. Before he went underground, he had been treated with utter contempt, simply ordered to go to Vietnam (where he allegedly carried out his evil plot) over his vociferous objections.39
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36 Newman, JFK, 410, 321-4.
37 Ibid., 423f.
38 Ibid., 15f.
39 Ibid., 71f., 88ff., 93, 67f.