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Would JFK Have Pulled Us Out Of Vietnam?

June 2024
5min read

A tantalizing archival discovery suggests the perils of historical evidence

As 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.

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.

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