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Would JFK Have Left Vietnam?: An Exchange

In response to:

Mac Bundy Said He Was 'All Wrong' from the June 10, 2010 issue

pfaff_exchange-093010.jpg
Abbie Rowe/JFK Presidential Library
John F. Kennedy and McGeorge Bundy outside the White House, June 13, 1962

To the Editors:

In his essay “Mac Bundy Said He Was ‘All Wrong’” [NYR, June 10], William Pfaff claims that Gordon Goldstein’s book Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam “should settle for good the controversy over whether President Kennedy, had he not been assassinated, would have enlarged the war or would have withdrawn the still-limited number of American troops in Vietnam.” Pfaff writes that the “Bundy material” collected by Goldstein is “conclusive” and demonstrates that Kennedy had made a decision to disengage from Vietnam. I believe this to be facile in the extreme.

First, Pfaff reports that Goldstein’s book is largely drawn from McGeorge Bundy’s “notes, text fragments, draft memoir passages, and the like” collected by Goldstein, who was assisting Bundy on a memoir that was largely incomplete at the time of Bundy’s death in 1996. While Bundy’s notes written decades after the war are a welcome addition to the historical record, they are by definition not contemporaneous source material. As he did with Goldstein, Bundy told me in my interviews with him that he thought Kennedy would have acted differently than Lyndon Johnson, particularly after the 1964 presidential election. But this remains in the realm of opinion, not documentary evidence of a decision to withdraw from Vietnam.

Second, Pfaff quotes from an Oval Office recording of October 2, 1963, in which Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara is heard telling Kennedy, “We need a way to get out of Vietnam. This is a way of doing it.” The President’s advisers were debating that morning whether to announce the withdrawal of one thousand of the 16,000 US advisers stationed in Vietnam by the end of 1963. Kennedy agreed to issue a public announcement of the departure of one thousand advisers. Pfaff thinks this is conclusive proof of Kennedy’s intentions.

Goldstein himself treats this evidence gingerly. And for good reason. For one thing, the full transcript of that October 2 conversation makes it very clear that McNamara and Bundy were also telling the President that they were confident that the South Vietnamese army could repress the Viet-cong insurgency by the end of 1964.

As I wrote in my own biography of Bundy, The Color of Truth (1998), Kennedy himself on October 2 told Bundy and McNamara that he “objected to the phrase ‘by the end of the year’ in the sentence” announcing the withdrawal of one thousand advisers. Why? Because he “believed that if we were not able to take this action by the end of the year, we would be accused of being over optimistic.” McNamara, however, pressed Kennedy to retain the year-end deadline “in order to meet the view of Senator Fulbright and others that we are bogged down forever in Vietnam.” Clearly, McNamara was concerned with political and public relations factors. Elsewhere in the conversation, it becomes obvious that McNamara’s withdrawal plan was contingent on getting the South Vietnamese to fight. General Maxwell Taylor is heard chiming in to say that when he asks his army officers,

When can you finish this job in the sense that you will reduce this insurgency to little more than sporadic incidents? Inevitably, with the exception of the [Mekong] Delta, they would say, ‘64 would be ample time.’ I realize that’s not necessarily…I assume there’s no major new factors entering [unclear]. I realize that….

And then President Kennedy interrupts Taylor to say, “Well, let’s say it anyway. Then, ‘65, if it doesn’t work out, [unclear: we’ll get a new date].”

The evidence is obviously murky. There is nothing clear-cut in these conversations one way or the other. But it is probably safe to say that President Kennedy had not made up his mind about Vietnam before he was assassinated. Bundy’s assistant, Michael V. Forrestal, later told CBS in 1971 that on November 21, 1963, Kennedy had told him in the Oval Office that when he got back from Dallas, “I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we got into this country, and what we thought we were doing, and what we think we can do. I even want to think about whether or not we should be there.”

This sounds like Kennedy—but this too is oral history told long after the fact.

Kai Bird
Kathmandu, Nepal

William Pfaff replies:

Mr. Bird writes as if I were the author of Mr. Goldstein’s book rather than its reviewer. It does not consist of material “collected” by Goldstein, but assembled by McGeorge Bundy himself in preparation for writing the memoir for which he engaged Mr. Goldstein’s assistance, and surely included “contemporaneous source material.” With respect to President Kennedy’s decision on escalating the Vietnam War, we are indeed dealing with “murky” (although not that murky, I would say) evidence consisting of what President Kennedy’s associates say was their opinion of his intentions in late 1963.

The President’s post–Bay of Pigs distrust of “expert opinion,” his privately expressed conviction that guerrilla wars are not won by foreign troops, and his repeated referral of his associates to General Douglas MacArthur’s opinion concerning the folly of sending American troops to fight on the Asian mainland suggest that he had made up his mind before 1963 to continue to refuse to send combat forces to Vietnam, but was treading cautiously because of the domestic political situation, and the Pentagon and congressional pressures being placed upon him.

Thus I prefer the relatively disinterested view of Gordon Goldstein, a historian working with Bundy’s own documents, as well as with his subsequent notes and reflections, and personally close to Bundy at the time of the latter’s death in 1996, to the opinion of Michael Forrestal, a committed hawk at the time of the Kennedy assassination.

Forrestal was one of the instigators of the message sent to the Saigon embassy the weekend of August 24, 1963, apparently without the express authority of the President (away at Hyannisport), authorizing Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to encourage a military coup against the Diem government, if President Diem did not agree to dismiss his brother and close adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu. This eventually resulted in the murder of both President Diem and his brother, which apparently infuriated Kennedy. General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, subsequently described Forrestal as one of the four “anti-Diem activists” whose weekend maneuver had been an “egregious end-run.” (The lesson drawn from the affair by Bundy was cool: “Never do business on the weekend.” See Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam, Viking, 1983, pp. 286–288.)

It would be unsurprising if Forrestal (by 1971) had convinced himself that Kennedy intended a “profound review” of Vietnam policy following his Dallas trip, and would have decided, as Forrestal among many others recommended, to send American combat troops to Vietnam, but this is speculation, or wishful thinking. After JFK’s assassination, the same people convinced a reluctant Lyndon Johnson to do so, to the subsequent misfortune of everyone concerned. (Shortly before he died in 1989, Forrestal told one of the editors of The New York Review that he had been “all wrong” about the Vietnam War.)

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