Would JFK Have Pulled Us Out Of Vietnam?

PrintPrintEmailEmailAs director of the American History Project for High School Students at the John F. Kennedy Library, I spend a great deal of time in classrooms exploring the critical connection between reliable evidence and the conclusions reached by historians. Most students, of course, have limited experience with historical evidence. They are eager to express opinions about history but, asked to back them up, often cite “facts” from television, films, or the Internet. They get exasperated when I contest the validity of such sources and demand conventional written evidence. But they tend to be receptive when I tell them of the sad lesson that all historians must learn: Any evidence can be problematic. And I illustrate the point with a personal example.

It relates to one of the most vexing questions of the recent past: What would John F. Kennedy have done in Vietnam after 1963? Historians have been unable to find conclusive evidence proving that Kennedy had decided either to escalate or to withdraw. Tape recordings recently released by the Kennedy Library have only deepened the mystery, revealing, for example, that JFK expressed shock over the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam and accepted “a great deal of responsibility” for sending a badly drafted message suggesting the coup to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge: “I should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference in which [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Maxwell] Taylor could have presented their views.” Kennedy also remarked, “Are we gonna withdraw, are we gonna say we’re gonna get out?” and suggested that “we will need a public and [Capitol] Hill position about what we are going to do about withdrawing our aid.” But only days later JFK discussed distributing ground forces more effectively to counter guerrilla activities and declared, “We are planning to add twenty thousand more [troops].”

Why did I suspect this document might be so important? First, the date; second, the participants.

I was therefore excited and intrigued when, two years ago, a potentially definitive document on JFK’s Vietnam plans turned up during the processing of the papers of Evelyn Lincoln, his personal secretary. The item in question, a crumpled onionskin carbon copy, contained the typed transcript of a tape-recorded telephone conversation. Hundreds of pages of these transcripts are conserved in the library’s archives, and their appearance and format are immediately recognizable. The date, October 1, 1963, is in Evelyn Lincoln’s handwriting, and the typed text reads:

President: Yes, Secretary Vance.

Vance: We would like to come over this noon, General Wheeler and I, to discuss this proposed withdrawal plan.

President: I’ll be right here.

Vance: Fine, sir, I’ll see you then.

Why did I suspect that this document might be very important? First, there is the date: Robert McNamara has written that President Kennedy, at a National Security Council meeting on October 2, 1963, the day after this conversation apparently occurred, decided to pull U.S. forces out of Vietnam by the end of 1965 and to start the process by withdrawing a thousand troops before the end of 1963. (Several leading Kennedy administration officials have endorsed McNamara’s interpretation, but it remains a very contentious question, disputed, for example, by Dean Rusk, JFK’s Secretary of State. Historians are divided as well.)

Second, there are the participants: Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Earl Wheeler. The document appears to place JFK at a White House meeting with the top civilian and military officials of the Army to discuss “this proposed withdrawal plan.” Although troops are not specifically mentioned, an Army withdrawal plan likely means soldiers. Since Kennedy had no plans to pull forces out of Europe or Korea in the fall of 1963, my attention immediately focused on South Vietnam. If this document turned out to be what it appeared, it would likely end up on the front page of The New York Times . I eagerly set about tracking down this potentially historic piece of evidence.