WHAT IF KENNEDY HAD LIVED?

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Elements of the U.S. First Cavalry Air Mobile division in a landing craft approach the beach at Qui Nhon, 260 miles northeast of Saigon, Vietnam, in Sept. 1965.  Advance units of 20,000 new troops are being launched for a strike on the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.  (AP Photo)

WOULD KENNEDY HAVE WITHDRAWN RATHER THAN ESCALATED THE U. S. MILITARY PRESENCE IN VIETNAM?

Many of Kennedy’s associates and admirers have claimed that after his reelection in 1964 he would have removed U. S. forces from Vietnam. For evidence, among other things, they point to Kennedy’s approval of the McNamara-Taylor recommendation to reduce the number of U. S. advisers in Vietnam. In the context of the report, however, that proposal was part of a plan to pressure Diem and not the product of a reassessment of the strategic value of South Vietnam. There is no question that Kennedy had doubts about U. S. military intervention in Indochina. In addition, after the world had stared into the face of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, he wanted to reduce international tensions. Kennedy’s actual record in office from 1961 to 1963, however, documents his role in the growing militarization of the American role in Vietnam. He never challenged the proposition that the fate of South Vietnam was vital to U. S. security. In a television interview in mid-September 1963, he reaffirmed his belief in the domino theory and stated flatly that the United States should stay in Vietnam and influence the outcome of the struggle there in the most effective way it could. By the time of his death, he had placed 16,000 American military advisers in Vietnam, and more than 100 of them had been killed in action. These figures were low compared to the staggering statistics generated later, but they represented a significant leap from those of the Eisenhower years.

Some historians note that it was Kennedy who injected excessive vigor, idealism, and overconfidence into U. S. policy in Vietnam. He had come into office in 1961, proclaiming in his inaugural address that the United States would “bear any burden” in the defense of liberty. By 1963 the burden that he had taken up for America in Vietnam was larger than when he began. With the removal of Diem, which Kennedy had countenanced, a morass of political instability emerged in South Vietnam that added to the challenge for Washington. History is not able to record if Kennedy would have responded with more or less U. S. activism in Vietnam in the face of worsening conditions for the Saigon government. Those conditions and the consequences of almost a decade of U. S. policy in Southeast Asia became the sudden and unwanted responsibility of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Between November 1963 and July 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a series of decisions that ultimately led to a large-scale American war in Vietnam. After the death of Ngo Dinh Diem, the political viability of South Vietnam continued to decline. In part, this weakness was the result of tension within the South between those who sought a political settlement with Hanoi and others who wanted an invigorated military defense of South Vietnam. Aware that a major source of political support for the National Liberation Front had been the anti-Diem sentiment in South Vietnam, Hanoi decided to increase its infiltration of men and supplies into the South to bolster the NLF. Fearful that leaders in the South might agree with Hanoi to create a neutral Vietnam, strategists in Washington urged Saigon to strengthen its military defense and not to be lured into a compromise. In the weeks after Diem’s murder, the tension within Vietnam began to reach crisis proportions, and the ten-year U. S. effort to build an independent nation in South Vietnam appeared to be at great risk.

WAS JOHNSON A WAR HAWK OR A RELUCTANT WARRIOR?

Because the Johnson administration was responsible for the American air war in Vietnam and the deployment of U. S. ground combat units to South Vietnam, many journalists, historians, and other observers have labeled the Vietnam War as “Johnson’s War.” While his leadership of the American combat escalation is undeniable, it is also apparent that he was engulfed in a political and strategic situation that he did not create and did not relish.

Johnson felt compelled to maintain U. S. defense of South Vietnam because of the tenets of the containment policy and the commitments that his predecessors had made to the Republic of Vietnam. As a leader in the U. S. Senate in the 1950s and as vice president, he had always endorsed the judgment of Eisenhower and Kennedy that Southeast Asia was an area of importance to U. S. security. Only four days after becoming president, he approved National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273, which was originally drafted for Kennedy. It affirmed that the United States would continue to aid South Vietnam against what it termed outside communist aggression (referring to North Vietnam). In signing this document, Johnson was not only pledging to continue Kennedy’s policies, but he was renewing the promise of the Truman Doctrine of 1947 to assist any free people threatened by external pressure or internal subversion. In the months afterward, as Johnson made military decisions consistent with this pledge, he was in many respects implementing what could be termed Truman’s War, Eisenhower’s War, and Kennedy’s War.

Johnson did not want a war in Vietnam and did not want to be a war president. His entire political career had been as a champion of domestic reform in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. At the time of his death, Kennedy had left an unfulfilled domestic program-the New Frontier, aimed at such problems as poverty, the environment, and racial discrimination. Johnson preferred to put his efforts into getting congressional action in these areas and not into grappling with the upheaval in Southeast Asia. The new president harbored even grander designs for a sweeping program of social benefits, which would later be labeled the Great Society. As a veteran of Capitol Hill, however, Johnson understood that the credibility he needed as a leader to achieve the bold Kennedy-Johnson domestic agenda required him to demonstrate that he could protect U. S. interests abroad. Also he did not want to give conservatives, who would likely oppose his reform program, a political weapon against him if he were to “lose” Vietnam. He recalled how the right-wing had attacked Truman for the “loss” of China. Hence, because of his belief that the survival of South Vietnam was a test of his ability to sustain America’s global containment policy and in order to safeguard his domestic plans, he concluded that his administration could not tolerate defeat, or even compromise, in Vietnam.

Although unwilling to accept U. S. failure in Vietnam, Johnson did not want a large war that would divert resources and public attention from his domestic programs. Aware that the NLF continued to control many rural areas of the South and that the military government in Saigon had only a narrow base of political support, the president searched for solutions. Johnson sent General William C. Westmoreland, one of the most accomplished officers in the U. S. military, to head MACV, and he authorized an increase of U. S. military advisers in South Vietnam, from 16,000 to more than 23,000. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and other top aides advised the president, however, that the real enemy of Saigon was Hanoi and not the southern guerrillas. They urged that he find a way to put greater pressure on the North.

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