No aspect of John F. Kennedy’s public image and record has been more controversial than his role in the Vietnam War. The disastrous results of that conflict for the United States, combined with the critical timing of Kennedy’s death — shortly after a US-sponsored coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and not long before the crucial escalation decisions of late 1964/early 1965 — guaranteed that his administration’s policy on Vietnam would get close attention from those trying to understand what went wrong and why.1 The suddenness of Kennedy’s death has added fuel to the debate. His admirers have asked us to judge him by his intentions rather than his accomplishments, for, they have argued, his good intentions would have reached fruition had he not been removed from his appointed journey so abruptly in November 1963. For Vietnam this would have meant a de-escalation of the American involvement in the war, not a massive expansion as occurred under Lyndon B. Johnson. There can be no doubting the main objective of these admirers: they want to insulate JFK from the subsequent American débâcle in Southeast Asia. But Kennedy’s record in Vietnam was sufficiently ambiguous and complex to allow for such an interpretation, to convince even many independent observers that he would have acted differently than his successor did. JFK did dramatically increase the American presence in the war — the roughly 800 US military “advisers” to the Saigon government when he took office had become more than 16,000 when he died, and total American spending in Vietnam increased dramatically on his watch.
- Foreign Policy
- Containment Policy
- American Involvement
- National Liberation Front
- Pentagon Paper
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The two book-length studies of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy are William J. Rust, Kennedy in Vietnam (New York: Charles Scribners, Sons, 1983);
and John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York: Warner Books, 1992).
There is also Noam Chomsky’s Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1993),
Richard Reeves, President Kennedy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993);
David Halber-stam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972);
George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986);
Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988);
Ellen J. Hammer, A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987);
Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (New York: Doubleday, 1967);
and William J. Duiker, US Containment Policy and the Conflict in Indochina (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 249–308.
Lawrence J. Bassett and Stephen E. Pelz, “Kennedy’s Failed Search for Victory in Vietnam,” in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.), Kennedy’s Quest for Victory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
The Kennedy legend is ably analyzed in Thomas Brown, JFK: History of an Image (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988).
see Burton I. Kaufman, “John F. Kennedy as World Leader,” Diplomatic History, 17 (Summer 1993), pp. 447–69.
Rare examples of more detailed treatments of the question include Morton Borden and Otis L. Graham, Speculations on American History (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1977), pp. 163–82;
and Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality upon History, 2nd edn (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1991), pp. 183–208.
Borden and Graham conclude that it is likely Kennedy would have escalated the war like Johnson; Wicker that it is likely he would not have. See also Wicker, “Committed to a Quagmire,” Diplomatic History, 19 (Winter 1995), pp. 167–71.
Thoughtful speculation on the issue can also be found in Daniel Ellsberg, Papers on the War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), pp. 47–135;
and in Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 131–43.
Alexander Demandt, History That Never Happened: A Treatise on the Question, What Would Have Happened If…? 3rd edn (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993), pp. 1–2;
E. H. Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage, 1961), p. 127,
as quoted in the useful essay by Philip Nash, “The Use of Counterfactuals in History: A Look at the Literature,” The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter, 22 (March 1991), pp. 2–12.
Jon Elster, Logic and Society: Contradictions and Possible Worlds (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 1978), pp. 177–80.
Sidney Hook, The Hero in History: A Study in Limitation and Possibility (New York: John Day, 1943), p. 134.
Churchill’s essay appears in Philip Guedalla et al., If or History Rewritten (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1931).
See, for example, Ellsberg, Papers on the War; Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1985);
Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1979);
Loren Baritz, Backfire: Vietnam — The Myths that Made Us Fight, the Illusions that Helped Us Lose, the Legacy that Haunts Us Today (New York: Morrow, 1985);
Norman Podhoretz, Why We Were In Vietnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
George C. Herring, in his classic textbook on the conflict, America’s Longest War: The United States in Vietnam, 1950–1975, 3rd edn (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), p. xi,
The fullest explication of this view is Newman, JFK and Vietnam. See also Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992);
Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye”: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), pp. 16–18;
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978);
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, “What Would He Have Done?” New York Times Book Review, 29 March 1992, pp. 3, 31.
Cited in Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1994), p. 80.
Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy; Theodore Sorensen, The Kennedy Legacy (New York: Macmillan, 1969).
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, A Thousand Days (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965)
Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965)
Hilsman, To Move a Nation; Theodore C. Sorensen, letter to the editor, New York Times, 20 Jan. 1992.
For a more detailed examination of these months, see Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Long 1964 and the Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, forthcoming 1998), ch. 2;
and Anne E. Blair, Lodge in Vietnam: A Patriot Abroad (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 1–93.
Kennedy to Lodge, 6 Nov. 1963, FRUS, 1961–3, vol. iv, pp. 579–80. See also John Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995), p. 27.
Leslie H. Gelb, “Kennedy and Vietnam,” New York Times, 6 Jan. 1992.
Roger Hilsman, letter to the editor, New York Times, 20 Jan. 1992; Hilsman, interview with the author, 18 Feb. 1994.
James N. Giglio, “Oliver Stone’s JFK in Historical Perspective,” AHA Perspectives, 30 (April 1992), p. 19;
John Morton Blum, Years of Discord: American Politics and Society, 1961–1974 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), p. 156;
Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1964 (New York: New American Library, 1965);
Gerald S. Strober and Deborah H. Strober, Let Us Begin Anew: An Oral History of the Kennedy Presidency (New York: Basic Books, 1993), pp. 473–8.
William C. Westmoreland, “Vietnam in Perspective,” The Retired Officer, October 1978, pp. 21–4.
See also Maxwell Taylor, Swords and Plowshares (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), pp. 327–8.
Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981), p. 280.
Jonathan Schell, The Time of Illusion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), pp. 9–10.
Robert Dallek, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam: The Making of a Tragedy,” SHAFR 1996 Presidential Address, printed in Diplomatic History, 20 (Spring 1996), pp. 147–62.
Robert Buzzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Lloyd C. Gardner, in Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995), p. 542,
Fredrik Logevall, “First Among Critics: Walter Lippmann and the Vietnam War,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 4 (Winter 1995), p. 369.
David Kaiser, “Men and Policies,” in Diane Kunz (ed.), The Diplomacy of the Crucial Decade: American Foreign Relations during the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 16–19;
William C. Gibbons, The US Government and the Vietnam War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), vol. ii, p. 38;
See Richard H. Immerman and Fred I. Greenstein, “What Did Eisenhower Tell Kennedy about Indochina? The Politics of Misperceptions,” Journal of American History, September 1992, pp. 568–97.
John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA; Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 281;
Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 342–4.
See also Jean Lacouture, De Gaulle: Le Souverain (Paris: Plon, 1986), pp. 360–1.
Robert M. Blackburn, Mercenaries and Lyndon Johnson’s “More Flags”: The Hiring of Korean, Filipino, and Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994).
Bill Moyers, “Flashbacks,” Newsweek, 10 Feb. 1975, p. 76;
see also Alonzo L. Hamby, Liberalism and Its Challengers: From FDR to Bush, 2nd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 267.
See also Paul Kattenburg, The Vietnam Trauma in American Foreign Policy, 1945–75 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1980), pp. 134–5.
Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), esp. pp. 145–53.
see Richard H. Immer-man, “Psychology,” in Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson (eds), Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 151–64.
John P. Burke and Fred I. Greenstein, How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam, 1954 and 1965 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1989), p. 160.
Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).
George E. Reedy, Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir (New York: Andrews and McMeel, 1982), esp. pp. 31–8;
Eric F. Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969);
William H. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America since World War II, 3rd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 273–6;
See also Blema Steinberg, Shame and Humiliation: Presidential Decision Making on Vietnam (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), pp. 78–9.
See also Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 315.
David M. Barrett, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam Advisers (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993).
See also Waldo Heinrichs, “Lyndon Johnson: Change and Continuity,” in Warren I. Cohen and Nancy Bernkopf Tucker (eds), Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World: American Foreign Policy, 1963–1968 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 24.
Hubert H. Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 320–7.
see Ilya Gaiduk, The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996), pp. 18–21, 26–7.
see also James C. Thomson, Jr, “How Could Vietnam Happen?” Atlantic Monthly, CCXXI (April 1968), p. 53.
Theodore H. White, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 531.
and William J. Colby, Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989), pp. 168–9.
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Logevall, F. (1998). Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been. In: White, M.J. (eds) Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-14056-5_2
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