- Historic Sites
Would JFK Have Pulled Us Out Of Vietnam?
A tantalizing archival discovery suggests the perils of historical evidence
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
Evelyn Lincoln’s handwritten entry also included the time of the call, 11:16 ( A.M. obviously, since the meeting with Vance and Wheeler was set for noon). The first sources I checked were the files containing the President’s daily schedules. Lincoln typed the President’s calendar in advance each day, but sometimes an important change might be added by hand. However, the schedule for October 1,1963, appeared to be of no value; it contained no reference, typed or handwritten, to a noon meeting with Vance and Wheeler. I was about to put the schedule back in the file when I noticed a curious entry for 11:50 A.M. : “The President and Mrs. Kennedy departed the White House and motored to Union Station to greet His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia.” Nothing on the President’s schedule was more carefully scripted than the visit of a head of state; every detail was planned and agreed upon in advance. Why would President Kennedy tell Cyrus Vance to come at noon, affirming, “I’ll be right here”? JFK would have been reading State Department and CIA briefing papers on Ethiopia, and by 11:16 the President and the First Lady would have been formally dressed and ready to leave. Haile Selassie’s visit could not possibly have slipped his mind. Just to be sure, I checked the Public Papers of the Presidents and confirmed that JFK had indeed welcomed the Ethiopian emperor at Union Station at noon that day.
Where to go from here? Evelyn Lincoln also kept lists of JFK’s telephone calls in annual calendar books, diaries, and a typed log. I checked the lists for 1963, but they did not report a conversation with Vance on October 1 at 11:16. In fact there were virtually no calls listed that day because the President, tied up with his state visit, was not in the office. The log of recorded telephone calls also yielded nothing; no conversations had been taped on that date. It seemed that the trail had turned cold.
But since Lincoln’s calendar books for 1961, 1962, and 1963 were stored in the same archives box, I decided to check the phone-call lists for those years as well. On October 1, 1962 , Lincoln logged in a conversation between President Kennedy and Secretary Vance at 11:16 A.M. ! I rechecked the President’s daily calendar files and quickly corroborated that Vance and Wheeler had been in the White House at noon on October 1, 1962.
This time Evelyn Lincoln’s log of the President’s phone calls yielded very different results: Seventeen conversations between the President and Vance were entered on that date in 1962, beginning just after midnight and continuing until 10:40 P.M. Seven calls were placed between 12:40 A.M. and 4:25 A.M. , and one was listed at 11:16 that morning. The list also confirmed that four conversations, including the 11:16 call, had been taped that day. The topic that had kept the Army Secretary and the President on the phone throughout the night was the University of Mississippi desegregation crisis. The enrollment of James Meredith on September 30 had sparked a riot, and the President had been forced to send federal marshals and troops to Mississippi.
The topic that had kept the Army Secretary and JFK on the phone was the desegregation crisis.
I was able to confirm, from several secondary sources, that on the day after the desegregation violence, October 1, 1962, JFK expressed determination to withdraw these troops from Mississippi as soon as possible. The midterm congressional elections were just weeks away, and extending the presence of federal troops in the South, the President warned several aides, would be political poison for the Democratic party not only in 1962 but in the 1964 presidential campaign as well.
I still had the problem of explaining the handwritten 1963 date. Returning to the box in which the phone transcript had been found, I discovered a small set of materials from 1962, barely held together on the left side by a rusty and partially broken paper clip. When I held the mystery document, which bore a rusted paper clip mark on its back, against this packet, the rust marks and indentations from the paper clip matched perfectly. Evelyn Lincoln must have misdated this loose document, which had become separated when the paper clip partially disintegrated, likely assuming a Vietnam connection because of the reference to an Army withdrawal plan. She had almost certainly made the error long after the phone conversation occurred, probably decades later, when she was reviewing her papers before donating them to the library. It is inconceivable that she would, in 1962, have dated the transcript a year into the future. Evelyn Lincoln died in 1995, and we will never be able to corroborate exactly when and why she misdated the transcript.
The incorrect date, and the instinctive assumption that a plan to withdraw troops related to foreign rather than domestic affairs, threw me off the trail, and for an intoxicating moment I thought I had uncovered something of immense consequence to the most painful passage of America’s postwar history.