June 20, 2013
Virtual JFK: The 44th President’s Foreign Policy Challenge
Posted on Oct 29, 2008
In April 2005 we organized a critical oral history conference devoted to the question of whether or not JFK probably would have escalated the war in Vietnam if he had lived and been re-elected. The most relevant declassified documents and transcripts of formerly secret Kennedy and Johnson audiotapes filled the conference briefing notebooks of the participants. And top scholars of the war, who came from across the spectrum on this key issue, grilled former officials of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. They included LBJ’s all-purpose aide and press secretary Bill Moyers, former State Department intelligence chief Thomas Hughes and Chester Cooper, who was the principal Vietnam expert serving National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. The former officials were not shy about what they believed the scholars had gotten wrong in interpreting the declassified documents. The critical oral history conference produced a scintillating argument, in the best sense of the word argument: people stated opposing positions, argued hard for their views and listened carefully to what those with opposing views were saying. Some revised their views on the question of what a surviving JFK would have done and some did not. The annotated record of that path-breaking conference, complete with excerpts from the most illuminating formerly secret documents, is the empirical heart of our book “Virtual JFK.”
By combining these elements—former officials, declassified documents and scholars of the war—the conferees participated in a historical thought experiment. In this thought experiment, the only factor that varies to any significant degree is the identity of the president—that is, JFK before his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, and LBJ after Nov. 22, 1963. The outcome of interest is whether or not the U.S. president sent combat troops to South Vietnam, and whether he initiated U.S. bombing in both South and North Vietnam. Caveat: Of course, history never allows for an “experiment” in the scientific sense of the term. History never repeats itself—not exactly—and its variables cannot be manipulated the way the scientific method requires the manipulation of independent variables, in the service of making causal connections to the dependent variables. That said, however, all the participants in the critical oral history exercise recounted in “Virtual JFK” agreed that the JFK-LBJ-Vietnam conundrum comes as close as we are ever likely to get in a historical example to something approximating scientific rigor.
The thought experiment is plausible because LBJ, for various reasons discussed at length in “Virtual JFK,” retained all the senior members of JFK’s national security team, including the “Big Three”: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Moreover, these key advisers gave LBJ the same advice they gave JFK. All three had argued from the outset of the Kennedy administration that the U.S. should send large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam to save the Saigon government from a communist takeover. Kennedy said no, repeatedly and forcefully, and eventually convinced McNamara to become the principal architect of the withdrawal of U.S. advisers from Vietnam. Within days, or even hours, of LBJ’s accession to the presidency, these same advisers made to him the same argument they had made to Kennedy. The argument was: U.S. troops are needed in Vietnam. If you, as president, fail to guarantee the security of our ally in Saigon, the U.S. reputation will be tarnished irrevocably, another “domino” will fall to the communists, and your presidency will probably be judged a failure—the moment when the Free World began to collapse in earnest. We now know in great detail when, to whom and on what basis JFK said no to these arguments. We also know the details of LBJ’s response, given less than 48 hours after Johnson took the oath of office. It was “win the war.”
Same advisers. Same conflict. Same dire predictions. Same recommendations. But a different president. And an utterly different outcome. Conclusion: It was the president who made the difference. It was the president who was determinative in keeping the nation out of war or leading the nation into war.
The declassified documents and oral testimony now available strongly suggest that in his attitude and decisions on the war JFK was poles apart from LBJ. Over and over again, Kennedy acted to avoid unintended escalation. He worried that having gotten into a conflict, there might be no non-catastrophic way out. Kennedy was certainly no pacifist. But he was skeptical of military advice—skeptical of the typical military confidence in the armed services’ ability to achieve their objectives with acceptable costs and risks. JFK’s skepticism derived from many sources. He had fought in the Pacific in World War II and seen firsthand the extraordinary degree to which war eludes human control, or even human understanding. And he never forgot the overconfidence and delusionary assessments and advice he received in the run-up to his decision to allow the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward.
LBJ, with no combat experience or significant military experience of any kind, was highly insecure around military advisers. Equally, he was also almost pathologically anxious about appearing to be the first president to “lose” a war that his military and civilian advisers told him must be fought. In fact, it is now quite clear from the documentary record that LBJ’s core concern was losing, or even the appearance of losing. Chief among his worries was that his military advisers might leak stories to the press or the Congress that he was preventing the U.S. military from achieving its objectives—whether it was intimidating the Soviet Union at the nuclear level or winning the war against the communists in Vietnam. Just as Kennedy was no pacifist, Johnson was no warmonger. He was aware of the risks of escalation, but unlike Kennedy he thought he could keep escalation under control in Vietnam via micro-managing the war from the Oval Office. He also hoped, despite receiving a good deal of evidence to the contrary, that superior U.S. military power might eventually bring the Vietnamese communists to their knees and to the conference table. JFK never believed that regular U.S. combat forces could prove decisive in a civil conflict like the one in Vietnam. Thus LBJ was much more amenable to reiterated lamentations, doomsday predictions and pressure to escalate from advisers who told him, as they had told Kennedy, that without U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, countries of the so-called free world might topple over “like a row of dominos,” as President Dwight Eisenhower had said in April 1954.
This, then, was the core difference that made all the difference: Kennedy’s bottom line was avoiding uncontrollable escalation to a catastrophic conventional or nuclear war, while Johnson’s bottom line was avoiding a military defeat anywhere in the world, or even the appearance of a defeat. Kennedy, too, worried about defeat, of course. After all, he was president during that phase of the Cold War when many on both sides of the East-West divide characterized the competition in winner-take-all terms. But Kennedy was prepared to take his chances at limiting the political fallout from an outcome that his political opponents in the U.S. might try to characterize as a military defeat. JFK had shown at the outset of his presidency that even the tragic and humiliating Bay of Pigs invasion could be successfully framed from the “bully pulpit” of the U.S. presidency as a mistake from which he intended to learn, and which could have been much worse for U.S. interests if he had gone along with the invasion and air attack that many of his advisers had urged on him.
The antithetical nature of the bottom lines of these two presidents was, we believe, the principal reason why there was no American war in Vietnam before JFK’s assassination and why, in retrospect, it seems to have become almost inevitable after LBJ assumed the presidency, given the ever-worsening situation on the ground in South Vietnam.
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