JFK and Vietnam

OK, so this Rolling Stone piece is by Robert Kennedy, Jr. who certainly has a dog in the fight over John Kennedy’s legacy, but he makes a pretty good case that his uncle was under tremendous pressure to send US troops to Vietnam, that he resisted, and that he planned to draw down on those ‘advisers’ already there.

In JFK’s first months in office, the Pentagon asked him to deploy ground troops into Vietnam. JFK agreed to send another 500 advisers, under the assumption that South Vietnam had a large army and would be able to defend itself against communist aggression. He refused to send ground troops but would eventually commit 16,500 advisers – fewer troops than he sent to Mississippi to integrate Ole Miss – who were technically forbidden from engaging in combat missions. He told New York Times columnist Arthur Krock in 1961 that the United States should not involve itself “in civil disturbances created by guerrillas.”

For three years, that refusal to send combat troops earned him the antipathy of both liberals and conservatives who rebuked him for “throwing in the towel” in the Cold War. His critics included not just the traditionally bellicose Joint Chiefs and the CIA, but also trusted advisers and friends, including Gen. Maxwell Taylor; Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; McNamara’s deputy, Roswell Gilpatric; and Secretary of State Rusk. JFK’s ambassador to South Vietnam, Frederick Nolting Jr., reported a “virtually unanimous desire for the introduction of the U.S. forces into Vietnam” by the Vietnamese “in various walks of life.” When Vice President Lyndon Johnson visited Vietnam in May 1961, he returned adamant that victory required U.S. combat troops. Virtually every one of JFK’s senior staff concurred. Yet JFK resisted. Saigon, he said, would have to fight its own war.

As a stalling tactic, he sent Gen. Taylor to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission in September 1961. Taylor was among my father’s best friends. JFK was frank with Taylor – he needed a military man to advise him to get out of Vietnam. According to Taylor, “The last thing he wanted was to put in ground forces. And I knew that.” Nevertheless, Taylor was persuaded by hysterical military and intelligence experts across the Pacific, and had angered JFK when he came back recommending U.S. intervention. To prevent the fall of South Vietnam, Taylor suggested sending 8,000 U.S. troops under the guise of “flood relief” – a number that McNamara said was a reasonable start but should be escalated to as many as “six divisions, or about 205,000 men.” Later, Taylor would say, “I don’t recall anyone who was strongly against [sending troops to Vietnam] except one man, and that was the president.”

Frustrated by Taylor’s report, JFK then sent a confirmed pacifist, John Kenneth Galbraith, to Vietnam to make the case for nonintervention. But JFK confided his political weakness to Galbraith. “You have to realize,” JFK said, “that I can only afford so many defeats in one year.” He had the Bay of Pigs and the pulling out of Laos. He couldn’t accept a third. Former Vice President Richard Nixon and the CIA’s Dulles, whom JFK had fired, were loudly advocating U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, while Asian dominoes tumbled. Even The New York Times agreed. “The present situation,” the paper had warned, “is one that brooks no further stalling.” This was accepted wisdom among America’s leading foreign-policy gurus. Public sympathies in the summer of 1963 were 2-to-1 for intervention.

Despite the drumbeat from the left and right, JFK refused to send in combat troops…

Rolling Stone

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