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JFK’s Plans to Withdraw

In response to:

The Adventures of Arthur from the November 8, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals, 1952–2000 [NYR, November 8], Joseph Lelyveld writes that while “Kennedy had now and then spoken in private about withdrawing [from Vietnam] after the 1964 election; when he died it was a faint hope, not yet a plan.” This is incorrect.

Schlesinger himself says otherwise; in Robert Kennedy and His Times he writes of the “first application” in October 1963 “of Kennedy’s phased withdrawal plan.” Robert McNamara goes further, in his 1995 memoir In Retrospect, to speak of “President Kennedy’s decision on October 2 [1963] to begin the withdrawal of US forces.”

A presidential decision requires a plan. The elements of a decision must include: (a) previous planning, reflected in military documents in this case; (b) discussion of the plan; (c) a decision to accept or reject the plan, reflected in a decision document; and (d) steps to implement the plan. In the case of JFK and withdrawal from Vietnam, all these elements are present.

We have records of the 8th Secretary of Defense conference in Honolulu on May 6, 1963, which tell of a “Comprehensive Plan” for Vietnam, including: “plan to withdraw 1000 US personnel from RVN by December 1963.” McNamara also ordered that “training plans” be developed for the Vietnamese to permit “a more rapid phase-out” of the remaining US forces.

On October 2, 1963, these plans were discussed at the White House. We have the tape. McNamara states to Kennedy: “And the advantage of taking them out is that we can say to the Congress and the people that we do have a plan for reducing the exposure of US combat personnel to the guerilla actions in South Vietnam.”

On October 5, 1963, at a meeting at 9:30 AM, Kennedy made the formal decision to implement the withdrawal plan. Again, we have the tape. On October 11, the White House issued National Security Action Memorandum 263, which speaks of “the implementation of plans to withdraw” troops from Vietnam.

A memorandum conveying the decision, from JCS Chair Maxwell Taylor to his military colleagues, had already been sent. It states: “All planning will be directed towards preparing RVN forces for the withdrawal of all US special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965. The US Comprehensive Plan, Vietnam, will be revised to bring it into consonance with these objectives….”

For Mr. Lelyveld to state that there was no plan, but only a “faint hope” of withdrawal, is clearly at odds with the plain wording of the source documents. There was a plan to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, beginning with the first thousand by December 1963, and almost all of the rest by the end of 1965. Moreover, President Kennedy had approved that plan. It was the actual policy of the United States on the day Kennedy died.

These facts are documented in my article “Exit Strategy,” in The Boston Review of October/November 2003, available at www.bostonreview.net/BR28.5/galbraith.html. Copies of the original documents are available on request.

James K. Galbraith

Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relationsand Professor of Government

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

University of Texas at Austin

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