In the discussion thread: Lyndon Baines Johnson - Good President or Bad President [View all]
Response to jsmirman (Reply #64)
Fri Sep 7, 2012, 09:45 AM
MinM (2,243 posts)
67. Vietnam: JFK's decision against escalation
I disagree with the statement that JFK "only turned toward withdrawal in 1963 after almost two years of escalation." Its not at all clear when "the turning point"--if there was such an event--actually was reached, but JFK certainly decided "against escalation" much earlier--indeed, some two years prior to his death.
An important time-marker for JFK--or at least the point when it seems clear what his future intentions were--was December 1961. At that point, JFK turned down the JCS in their request for combat troops for Vietnam.
This particular time marker--call it a "turning point" if you will--was a central focus for John Newman's Ph.D thesis, which was turned into the book, over the summer of 1991, and published that fall by Warner.
Relying here on recollection (so the quote which follows is approximate), a key document indicating JFK's future intentions was dated November 22, 1961 and pertained to a critical JFK meeting with the JCS. At that meeting, which marked JFK's rejection of requested combat troops, the document records JFK as saying something like, "How can you expect me to send troops 10,000 miles and halfway around the world, when I cannot invade Cuba, which is only 90 miles away?"
To which General Lemnitzer (of Northwoods fame) replied: "We should invade Cuba, too."
It was after this Nov/Dec 1961 period that it became clear that JFK was not going to escalate any further. Certainly, American combat troops were NOT going to be sent there. That whole idea was anathema to JFK, and he made that very clear to his inner circle. Going back to George Ball's 1968 memoir, "Discipline Of Power," one will find very strong and unequivocal statement to the effect that JFK never intended to send American combat troops to Vietnam, or follow the course that LBJ subsequently did.
Of course, around 1965--with the publication of "To Move A Nation," by Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Roger Hillsman--the same point was made, if not in his book, certainly on his L.A. Book tour.
Besides Ball, there is Michael Forrestal, who said that JFK told him--and I believe this was within a week of his death, and just prior to his going to Vietnam on a fact finding mission on the weekend of the assassination--that he (JFK) was involved in an extensive policy review, which also addressed the question of "whether we should even be there in the first place." (Quote from memory, from NBC "White Paper," circa 1971)
There is much more that can be said on this whole question of whether there was--as I and other JFK researchers called it-- a Post Assassination Foreign Policy Switch (PAFPS). While no foreign policy expert, I am quite familiar with the underlying documentation, because (a) I was tracking this situation carefully, from back in 1965; (B) I was an early friend of John Newman, a good 6 years before be became involved in the JFK research movement; and © I was very much involved with the ARRB, and Doug Horne, at the time key documents were being unearthed.
Here are some further comments, and anecdotal evidence, thrown together just for this email.
To begin with---and by that, I mean going back to the period 1965-1968--I, like many others who believed there was a conspiracy in Dallas, initially had some difficulty discerning the political motive. After all, didn't LBJ keep most of JFK's advisers? Didn't LBJ get the civil rights legislation passed? Etc. Over the years, as research on the Dealey Plaza aspects intensified, the foreign policy puzzle remained.
Then came the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department's top-secret study of the growth of United States military involvement in Vietnam, leaked to the New York Times, which commenced publication on June 13, 1971. Suddenly, every morning's New York Times carried another collection of previously top secret document which exposed the debate that had been going on in the government, prior to the escalation, and many details pertaining to the secret planning.
Next came Peter Dale Scott's high original 1972 work, piecing together the puzzle of NSAM 263/273, and significant new light was shed. Of course, the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and particularly allusions to JFK's withdrawal plan --and then the actual documents in the Gravel edition--provided much new data. Yes, indeed, it seemed there had been a post-assassination foreign policy switch. But you didn't have to be a Talmudic scholar to understand. I remember going to the UCLA dorm to have dinner, and watching Walter Cronkite, once a week, announce American casualties, which were topping 250 per week, back in 1967/68.
Going to microfilmed records of newspaper, someone discovered how, in early October 1963, the L.A. Times ran a front page banner headline after the October meeting when JFK made the decision. In big bold letters across page one: JFK: Out of Viet by '65 (again, from memory).
The contrast between "then and now" was striking.
Jumping forward now a full decade (or more) to the truly groundbreaking research of John Newman:
I worked closely with John Newman, during the period he was doing his Ph.D thesis--back in the late 80s. John had taught a course on Best Evidence, when stationed in Hawaii, looked me up in 1985, and we spoke often, and visited. This was a good five years prior to his becoming known to those in "the movement." I am proud to count myself as someone who persuaded John to do his PhD on the issue of whether there had been a policy change after Dallas.
After John embarked on his project, we spoke frequently, sometime immediately after he had critical interviews. Often, I functioned as a sounding board, and consequently suggested we should record the conversations (which we did). John didn't just do a fine thesis--we have what amounts to an oral history of his process. John had a whole range of conversations, with a variety of people, including a significant one--with McNamara. At some point, he obtained the actual official history of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and that provided a record of McNamara, himself, saying that it was not JFK's intention to send in combat troops.
During this same period, John and I gave two "joint lectures" on the subject of Dallas and Vietnam (one in Maryland, which was mostly attended by various USG personnel, including those at NSA). When it was clear he was to be posted to China, around 1989, I was frankly concerned that something might happen and we would lose this fabulous resource. So I arranged for a professional film crew to record the state of his Vietnam research--this, during a time when he was stationed at Ford Ord.
One of the central themes that emerges from John's research is the extent to which JFK had a political problem that complicated any decision he might make. Specifically, it came down to this: whereas LBJ's problem was to disguise an escalation, JFK's was to disguise a withdrawal.
Those are two diametrically opposite scenarios, and it seems clear that both Presidents acted deceptively, but there is a major difference in the reason for the deceptive behavior in each case. As far as JFK is concerned, recognizing this "political problem" is the key to understanding, and properly interpreting, what otherwise appears to be a confusing and somewhat bifurcated record.
JFK recognized that problem and acted accordingly. He had no intention of provoking a right-wing backlash and throwing away his chance of a second term. On the other hand, the evidence seems clear he intended to disengage, even if that meant a "Laos-like" solution. Some of the best writing about JFK's intentions--admittedly difficult to fathom at times--is to be found in Ellsberg's book "Secrets," where he describes a frank and detailed discussion with RFK about the matter, circa 1967 (again, from recollection)...
John Newman versus David Halberstam on Vietnam
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