I was in training at Sewart AFB in Nashville, Tennessee to be a pilot on the C-130 Hercules aircraft. We went flying in the morning and when we landed, we learned that President Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas, Texas. This assassination started a heartbreaking series of events that changed the direction of American politics to the right.
John F. Kennedy gave the following instructions to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, regarding the purpose of their mission to Vietnam:
“I am asking you to go because of my desire to have the best possible on-the-spot appraisal of the military and paramilitary effort to defeat the Viet Cong. . . . The events in South Vietnam since May have now raised serious questions both about the present prospects for success against the Viet Cong and still more about the future effectiveness of this effort unless there can be important political improvement in the country. It is in this context that I now need your appraisal of the situation. If the prognosis in your judgment is not hopeful, I would like your views on what action must be taken by the South Vietnamese Government and what steps our Government should take to lead the Vietnamese to that action.”
In doing research for this post I discovered the JFK had decided to bring US troops home from Vietnam after McNamara/Taylor reported what was going on.
A more thorough treatment appeared in 1992, with the publication of John M. Newman’s JFK and Vietnam.1 Until his retirement in 1994 Newman was a major in the U.S. Army, an intelligence officer last stationed at Fort Meade, headquarters of the National Security Agency. As an historian, his specialty is deciphering declassified records—a talent he later applied to the CIA’s long-hidden archives on Lee Harvey Oswald.
Newman’s argument was not a case of “counterfactual historical reasoning,” as Larry Berman described it in an early response.2 It was not about what might have happened had Kennedy lived. Newman’s argument was stronger: Kennedy, he claims, had decided to begin a phased withdrawal from Vietnam, that he had ordered this withdrawal to begin. Here is the chronology, according to Newman:
(1) On October 2, 1963, Kennedy received the report of a mission to Saigon by McNamara and Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The main recommendations, which appear in Section I(B) of the McNamara-Taylor report, were that a phased withdrawal be completed by the end of 1965 and that the “Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 out of 17,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Vietnam by the end of 1963.” At Kennedy’s instruction, Press Secretary Pierre Salinger made a public announcement that evening of McNamara’s recommended timetable for withdrawal.
(2) On October 5, Kennedy made his formal decision. Newman quotes the minutes of the meeting that day:
The President also said that our decision to remove 1,000 U.S. advisors by December of this year should not be raised formally with Diem. Instead the action should be carried out routinely as part of our general posture of withdrawing people when they are no longer needed. (Emphasis added.)
The passage illustrates two points: (a) that a decision was in fact made on that day, and (b) that despite the earlier announcement of McNamara’s recommendation, the October 5 decision was not a ruse or pressure tactic to win reforms from Diem (as Richard Reeves, among others, has contended3) but a decision to begin withdrawal irrespective of Diem or his reactions.
(3) On October 11, the White House issued NSAM 263, which states:
The President approved the military recommendations contained in section I B (1-3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.
In other words, the withdrawal recommended by McNamara on October 2 was embraced in secret by Kennedy on October 5 and implemented by his order on October 11, also in secret. Newman argues that the secrecy after October 2 can be explained by a diplomatic reason. Kennedy did not want Diem or anyone else to interpret the withdrawal as part of any pressure tactic (other steps that were pressure tactics had also been approved). There was also a political reason: JFK had not decided whether he could get away with claiming that the withdrawal was a result of progress toward the goal of a self-sufficient South Vietnam.
The alternative would have been to withdraw the troops while acknowledging failure. And this, Newman argues, Kennedy was prepared to do if it became necessary. He saw no reason, however, to take this step before it became necessary. If the troops could be pulled while the South Vietnamese were still standing, so much the better.4 But from October 11 onward the CIA’s reporting changed drastically. Official optimism was replaced by a searching and comparatively realistic pessimism. Newman believes this pessimism, which involved rewriting assessments as far back as the previous July, was a response to NSAM 263. It represented an effort by the CIA to undermine the ostensible rationale of withdrawal with success, and therefore to obstruct implementation of the plan for withdrawal. Kennedy, needless to say, did not share his full reasoning with the CIA.
So,; Kennedy made the decision on October 11th 1963 to pull our troops out. I knew that sadness fell on America after that assassination but I did not know that Kennedy died: so the military, industrial, congressional complex could make the money they made, in the next 60 years.