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Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been

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Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited

Abstract

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.

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Notes

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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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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-14056-5_2

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