On November 21, 1963, Henry Cabot Lodge, then American Ambassador, was traveling to the United States to report to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the status of the war in South Vietnam. He had intended, according toin his book "The Best and the Brightest," to tell Kennedy things were far worse than anyone realized. Crucial decisions about future American involvement would have to be made soon, Lodge planned to tell the President.
Lodge was never able to deliver the report. He was in San Francisco on November 22, 1963, when he learned of Kennedy’s assassination. Instead, Lodge gave the briefing to the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Vietnam had become Johnson’s war.
But what if Kennedy had lived and heard Lodge’s report? What would he have done if the war had remained his? Would he have sanctioned massive troop increases, as Johnson did, or would Kennedy have withdrawn all American troops, leaving the South Vietnamese to fight the war on their own? Or, would he have continued following the course he had already set, believing that only the South Vietnamese could win the war, but that the United States should offer limited aid?
John Kennedy died almost 49 years ago in a great national tragedy that left endless unanswered questions about another great national tragedy. No one will ever know for sure, of course, what Kennedy would have done, but tapes from the Kennedy Library offer tantalizing glimpses of Kennedy’s thinking, in his own words, about the war in the months before his death.
Kennedy re-iterated publicly his desire to walk the tightrope of limited involvement in a television interview with CBS News Anchormanon September 2, 1963:
Kennedy: “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists. . . . But I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. . . . We may not like it—in the defense of Asia. I don’t want Asia to pass into the control of the Chinese.”
Behind the scenes however, Kennedy was becoming increasingly concerned about the South Vietnamese government. In an August 27, 1963, meeting with his top staff over whether the United States should support the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, Kennedy reveals the complexity of making any decision about the war:
Kennedy: “I don’t think we ought to take the view here that this has gone beyond our control ‘cause I think that would be the worst reason to do it…I don’t think we ought to just do it because we feel we have to now do it. I think we want to make it our best…judgment…because I don’t think we do have to do it. At least I’d be prepared to take up the argument with lawyers, well let’s not do it. So I think we ought to try to make it without feeling that it’s forced on us.”
The tapes also reveal the conflicting advice that Kennedy was receiving from his advisers, something which no doubt added to his growing unease about the war. Kennedy expressed his frustration with this situation on September 10, 1963, during a meeting with General Victor Krulak and State Department diplomat Joseph Mendenhall, both of whom had been to South Vietnam.
Krulak: “The Viet Cong war will be won…if the current U.S. military and sociological programs are pursued.”
Mendenhall: "The people I talked to in the government when I asked them about the war against the VC, they said that is secondary now – our first concern is, in effect, in a war with the regime here in Saigon…There are increasing reports in Saigon and in Hue as well that students are talking of moving over to the Viet Cong side.”
Kennedy: “You both went to the same country?”
There is no doubt that Kennedy was considering withdrawing some if not the majority of the American troops then in South Vietnam. In early 1963, he reportedly told Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, already a critic of escalating involvement, that he had planned to start pulling them out in early 1965. But what would come after? The only thing that seems certain is that Kennedy would have never authorized the massive troop escalations ordered by Johnson which did not win the war and cost so much in lives. But would Kennedy have withdrawn all the troops and left the South Vietnamese on their own, or would he have left a few advisers, following the course he had set earlier in his presidency?
We will never know. The final answers are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, along with so many of the young American men and women who died so far from home. What also lies in Arlington is America’s unshakeable belief in the mightiness of American power, next to an unbridled belief in America’s innocence. These casualties, along with those who died on the battlefield, are the legacy of a war that will forever be a scar on American history.
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David Halberstam, "The Best and the Brightest” Twentieth-Anniversary Edition, Ballantine Books.