"It took a lot of courage on
Kennedy's part to defy the Pentagon, defy the military - and do the
right thing," said Col. Larry Wilkerson, USA (ret.), according to
Robert Dreyfuss in his recent Rolling Stone article "The Generals' Revolt."
Wilkerson, who was chief of staff at the State Department
(2002-2005) and now teaches at George Washington University, was alluding to
President John F. Kennedy's courage in 1962, when he faced down his top
generals and refused to bomb Cuba and risk nuclear war. That was as close as we came to nuclear
calamity during the entire Cold War.
Despite the urgency of the threat posed by the Russian
military buildup in Cuba (we now know the Russians had already placed nuclear
weapons on the island), Kennedy's deliberate decision-making style allowed
enough time for cooler heads to prevail and yielded a peaceful solution.
A hallmark trait of John Kennedy was his ability to listen
and learn. At the same time, he
did not hesitate to challenge conventional wisdom.
Call that "dithering," if you wish. I, for one, applaud President Barack
Obama for following Kennedy's calm, deliberative style, as Obama faces similar
pressure from the military to send tens of thousands more troops to
Kennedy: Out of Vietnam
The Cuban crisis was not the only time JFK found himself at
loggerheads with generals who thought they knew better and who verged on the
insubordinate. Kennedy's sustained
arm wrestling with his senior generals over whether to send more troops to
Vietnam was just as tense, and much more sustained.
In the end, he concluded that they had it wrong and he
decided against them. In short, he
opted to behave like a president-a "decider" (pardon the odd word). His overruling of the U.S. military
brass on Vietnam had huge implications, both short- and long-term. This "real history" is highly relevant
The 46th anniversary of John Kennedy's
assassination passed by last Sunday virtually unnoticed. The unfortunate thing is this: his
legacy on Vietnam is so widely misunderstood that it is easy to miss the
relevance of his decision making in the early Sixties to the dilemma faced by
President Barack Obama today as he decides whether to stand up to-or cave in
to-the Pentagon's plans for escalating another misbegotten war in Afghanistan.
Faux history has it that President Lyndon Baines Johnson's
infusion of hundreds of thousands, up to 536,000, combat troops into Vietnam
was a straight-line continuation of a buildup started by his slain
predecessor. Kennedy did raise the
U.S. troop level there from about 1,000 to 16,500 "advisers" - a significant
But as he studied the options, cost, and likely outcomes,
Kennedy came to see U.S. intervention in Vietnam as a fool's errand. Few Americans are aware that, just
before he was assassinated, Kennedy had decided to pull all troops out of
Vietnam by 1965.
The Pentagon was hell bent on thwarting such plans, and
Defense Secretary McNamara found it an uphill struggle to enforce the
President's will on the top brass.
Senior military officers were experts at "slowrolling" politicians who
favored a course that the Pentagon didn't like. When in May 1962 Kennedy ordered up a contingency
troop-withdrawal plan, it took more than a year for the military brass to draw
As the President encountered continuing resistance, he paid
increasing attention to more levelheaded military and civilian advisers as well
as to his own intuition and instincts.
Kennedy asked the Marine Commandant, Gen. David M. Shoup, "to look over
the ground in Southeast Asia and counsel him." Shoup told the President:
"Unless we are prepared to use a million men
in a major drive, we should pull out before the war expands beyond control."
Kennedy concluded that there was no responsible course other
than to press ahead for a phased withdrawal regardless of the opposition from
his senior national security advisers.
He decided to pull 1,000 troops out of Vietnam by the end of 1963 and
the rest by 1965.
How To Do It
My Irish grandmother called Kennedy "a clever lad" and she
Realizing that he had to exercise the utmost care in
navigating choppy military and political waters, Kennedy employed the artifice
of sending Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor on a
"fact-finding" trip to Saigon. At
the end of the trip they would "recommend" the course the President had already
Stopping in Hawaii en route back to Washington, McNamara and
Taylor were given "their" report, which had been written by John and Robert
Kennedy. It was instantly named
the "McNamara-Taylor report" and the two travelers presented it to the
President on the morning of Oct. 2, 1963.
Wasting no time, the President convened a National Security Council
meeting that evening to discuss the report.
The senior military saw through the subterfuge and strongly
opposed the key recommendations of the report. In his memoir, In
Retrospect, McNamara wrote that the NSC meeting saw "heated debate about
our recommendation that the Defense Department announce plans to withdraw U.S.
military forces by the end of 1965, starting with the withdrawal of 1,000 men
by the end of the year." In
McNamara's words, there was "a total lack of consensus."
However, there is only one "decider" on the National
Security Council - the President.
Kennedy stepped up to the plate and decided, bypassing the majority
Thirty-two years later in a Sept. 12, 1995 letter to the New York Times, McNamara took strong
issue with a charge in an earlier op-ed that "the groundwork was being laid for our tragic escalation of
the war" before President Kennedy was killed. McNamara described the President's reasoning in deciding to
go ahead, despite the lack of consensus:
nonetheless authorized the beginning of withdrawal, believing that either our
training and logistical support led to the progress claimed or, if it had not,
additional training would not change the situation and, in either case, we should
plan to withdraw."
His decision made, Kennedy wasted no time in acting, well,
like a President. He told McNamara
to announce it immediately in order to "set it in concrete," according to
McNamara. As the defense secretary
was leaving the NSC meeting to tell White House reporters, the President called
to him, "And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots, too,"
according to Kenneth O'Donnell and David Powers in their book, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.
President's policy was formalized nine days later in his National Security
Action Memorandum Number 263 of October 11, 1963. That document put into effect the McNamara-Taylor
recommendations, which provided that:
"A program be established to train
Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel
can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to
withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time....[and] the Defense Department
should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw
1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963."
Kennedy truly believed that the U.S. training program would succeed in helping
the South Vietnamese prevail is doubtful.
Clearly, he wanted out. He
carried around in his conscience, and from time to time spoke of, the number of
American troops already killed.
(Eight died under Eisenhower; about 170 during Kennedy's tenure.)
Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, to whom fell the task of announcing President
Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963, told James Douglass, author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why
It Matters, that Kennedy's mind was fixed on Vietnam the day before. Instead of rehearsing for a press
conference that day, Kennedy told Kilduff:
"I've just been given a list of the most
recent casualties in Vietnam.
We're losing too damned many people over there. It's time for us to get out. The Vietnamese are not fighting for
themselves. We're the ones who are
doing the fighting.
After I come back from Texas, that's going
to change. There is no reason for
us to lose another man over there.
Vietnam is not worth another American life."
month before, during his last visit to Hyannis Port, Kennedy told his next-door
neighbor Larry Newman, "I'm going to get those guys out [of Vietnam] because
we're not going to find ourselves in a war it's impossible to win.
understood that decisions on Vietnam were far too important to be left to
myopic generals. They were still
chafing at what they considered Kennedy's failure in 1962 to seize the moment
and obliterate Cuba-and perhaps also the U.S.S.R., while we were at it. Add Kennedy's clear desire to work
closely (often secretly) with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a priority
effort to prevent another Cuba-type crisis, and then letting generic "Communists"
take over Vietnam-with dominoes likely to fall all over the place-and the
military brass became convinced they needed to strongly oppose such
it was not only the generals. Far
from it. The "best and the
brightest," first and foremost McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security
adviser, were also strongly opposed to Kennedy's decision to pull troops out of
Vietnam. Bundy disagreed with the
recommendations in the McNamara-Taylor report. He also resisted Kennedy's frequently expressed doubts that
foreign troops, even in large numbers, could prevail in guerrilla war, and
Kennedy's determination never to send combat
troops to Vietnam.
thought he knew better, refusing to believe that the President would ever "let
South Vietnam go." Years later,
Bundy's memoirs defended his views and advice to Kennedy on Vietnam.
after McNamara published In Retrospect
in 1995, in which he concluded that "we were wrong, terribly wrong" on Vietnam,
Bundy went back to the drawing board to rethink his assessment.
hired a man half his age, Gordon Goldstein, as research assistant to help him in
what turned out to be Bundy's personal quest to discover the roots of his own
mistakes which, for the most part, were the result of hubris, pure and simple.
this year, author William Pfaff reviewed what started out as the Bundy Memoir
Part II (McGeorge Bundy died in 1996), but ended up as Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
by Goldstein. In his review, Pfaff
highlights Bundy's pedigree: tops at Groton, professor of government at Harvard
and youngest dean of faculty; his mother a Boston Brahmin, his father a
diplomat. Pfaff is ruthlessly on
point in describing Bundy's attitude:
"American had to 'win' in Vietnam because
America always wins. America knows
better than everyone else because of that intellectual firepower deployed at
Harvard and other elite universities.
America does not have to know about other people because other people
are not worth knowing.
"Goldstein's decisive clue to why Bundy
failed came by accident. He found
a note written in 1996, when Bundy was asked what had been most surprising
about the war. He answered, 'the
endurance of the enemy.' Goldstein
writes: 'He didn't understand the enemy 'because, frankly, he didn't think they
warranted his attention.'"
good news for today comes from press reporting that top officials of the Obama
administration, including the President, have read Goldstein's book. Drawing a connection between Kennedy's
challenge on Vietnam and Obama's on Afghanistan, a Wall Street Journal report of Oct. 7 noted, "For opponents of a
major troop increase ... 'Lessons in Disaster' encapsulates their concerns about
accepting military advice unchallenged."
are hints that Obama is more Chicago than Harvard-and that, like Kennedy, he
carries casualty figures around in his conscience. His late-night, early-morning appearance at Dover Air Force
Base a few weeks ago to salute what the Washington
Post called "transfer cases" coming home from the war is, I believe, a
telling sign. Obama knows they are
not just "transfer cases."
young President, too, is a "clever lad;" he is also a politician. Intellectually, he is surely equipped
to understand the March of Folly that would be involved, were he to send
substantial additional forces to Afghanistan. And he is surely aware that the majority of Americans are no
longer deceived by the pundits at Fox News. Recent polls show broader and broader popular opposition to
sending more troops.
choice, in my view, is between courage and cowardice cloaked as politics of the
possible. Let me guess what you're
thinking - "But that's asking too much of the young President; "cowardice" is too
strong a word; Obama cannot possibly face down the entire military
Kennedy did. So the question is
whether Barack Obama is "no Jack Kennedy," or whether he will summon the
courage to stand up to the misguided military brass of today. We are talking, after all, about
thousands more being killed-and for what?
would suggest to the President that he give another close read to Goldstein's
"Lessons in Disaster" and then ponder the lessons that leap out of Barbara
Tuchman's The March to Folly: From Troy
may also wish to ponder the words of W.E.B. Dubois:
"Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not
some more convenient season. It is
today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future
year. It is today that we fit
ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow...."
Note: In his book JFK and
the Unspeakable, James Douglass has arrayed-and documented-his narrative
with such care, that it has been all too easy for me to plagiarize from
it. Actually, the book takes the
JFK story much further, to include a thorough discussion of what-and who-Douglass
believes killed the President. I
recommend the book highly.
An earlier version of this
article first appeared at Consortiumnews.com.
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