Los Angeles Times
JFK and Vietnam
Kennedy’s assassination 45 years ago today made it an American war.
By Gordon M. Goldstein
November 22, 2008
The assassination of John F. Kennedy 45 years ago today brought an abrupt end to what his admirers called Camelot, a presidential era of glamour, intelligence, wit and possibility. But the murder had an even more profound consequence: Nov. 22, 1963, was the single most significant day in the history of the Vietnam War.
It’s not possible to know for certain how Kennedy would have managed the crisis in Vietnam had he lived. But it’s clear that he was determined to prevent Vietnam from becoming an American war and that he expected to withdraw fully during a second term.
At the point Kennedy assumed office in 1961, American military involvement in Southeast Asia was limited to arms shipments and a small number of advisors. But the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem was facing an increasingly potent communist insurgency and, in the U.S., pressure was building to send in ground troops.
Over the course of the year, Kennedy’s advisors presented him with half a dozen or more proposals to Americanize the war. In one, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued that it would be difficult to prevent “the fall of South Vietnam by any measures short of the introduction of U.S. forces on a substantial scale.”
Kennedy’s advisors told him that to defend the Saigon regime might take more than 200,000 combat troops. McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor, believed that committing American troops was vital. “Laos was never really ours after 1954,” Bundy explained to the skeptical president, invoking another Southeast Asian nation where Kennedy had resisted intervention. “Vietnam is and wants to be.”
Kennedy was not receptive. Long before becoming president, he had spoken out in Congress against the disastrous French experience in Vietnam, citing it as a reason the U.S. should never fight a ground war there. In the summer of 1961, he said he had accepted the conclusion of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who counseled against a land war in Asia, insisting that even a million American infantry soldiers would not be sufficient to prevail. He would offer military aid and training to Saigon, but he would not authorize the dispatch of ground forces.
Over the three years of his presidency, Kennedy sometimes invoked hawkish rhetoric about Vietnam. He also increased the military advisors and training personnel there to roughly 16,000. But McNamara and Bundy both came to believe that Kennedy would not have Americanized the war — even if the price was communism in South Vietnam.