What Would JFK Have Done in Vietnam After 1963?

tags: JFK, Vietnam War

Dr. Stern is the author of numerous articles and “Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings” (2003), “The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis” (2005), and “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality” (2012), all in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000. 

For five decades, historians have debated one of the most intriguing “what ifs” about the presidency of John F. Kennedy: would he, like Lyndon Johnson, have committed hundreds of thousands of American military forces in Vietnam? My view, rooted in the documents and tape recordings at the JFK Library, does not support the conclusions of either Kennedy advocates or critics. The former insist that he had already decided to withdraw American troops, no later than after the 1964 election; the latter point to the fact that he was a committed cold warrior and that the principal architects of escalation—Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk—were all Kennedy appointees. However, the primary sources often suggest that JFK had not made up his mind about Vietnam and was pursuing parallel paths which would enable him to make a decision when and if necessary. If he had been asked about Vietnam in Fort Worth on the last morning of his life, he would likely have responded by essentially saying, “I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do in Vietnam.”

My books on the Cuban missile crisis tape recordings plainly document Kennedy’s profound skepticism about military solutions to political problems in the nuclear age. But, it is likely misleading to jump to conclusions about JFK and Vietnam based on decisions made during an unprecedented global crisis shaped by 13 days of around-the-clock dread of an imminent nuclear holocaust. The missile crisis was unique and, as Barton Bernstein argues, too concentrated and intense for reliable generalizations that “would fit more normal times and situations.” The remaining Kennedy recordings, particularly those dealing with ‘more normal’ crises, may actually be more instructive for thinking about JFK’s possible course in Vietnam.

A Snapshot of Four Recorded White House Meetings—December 14, 1962 to February 1, 1963:

In 1960, the former Belgian Congo gained its independence and was promptly torn apart by civil, political, and tribal violence. By late 1962, a UN peacekeeping force was struggling to save the government of Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula, especially after Katanga province, led by Moise Tshombe, declared its own independence and sought Soviet military and technical aid. President Kennedy convened his advisers to consider American options.

The discussion quickly zeroed in on two choices: backing the UN and Adoula with American military power or withdrawing US funding for the UN force. JFK was especially concerned about taking sides in a civil war. He noted that neither Adoula nor Tshombe were communists and preventing a Soviet-supported takeover was the only politically acceptable reason for intervention which Congress and the American public would support. He also insisted that any American military units must be kept under US—not UN—control and be utilized only “for limited objectives.”

General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, expressed “grave reservations about the wisdom of putting US military forces into the Congo” because there was “no solution, militarily speaking.” He warned that the US “should not set itself up as a policeman” and advised continuing to fund the UN effort and warning the Soviets to “keep out or we will go in.”

The president acknowledged that the current UN force could not compel a political settlement and agreed that “what we’re now doing is just spending all our dough [supporting the UN operation] and getting nothing out it.” Under Secretary of State George Ball recommended sending an air squadron (about 18 planes) to bolster Adoula and demonstrate “US power in tangible form.” It was a gamble, he admitted, but it might “force a quick conclusion.” Failing to act, he suggested, could result in a UN pullout and the likelihood of an even greater commitment later on to counter Soviet involvement. The president remained doubtful, declaring that it “doesn’t sound to me as if there’d be much success. … one squadron isn’t enough.” He recommended sending some military experts to assess the situation on the ground and “give us a better line on what they can do. … We ought to get the best judgments we can. … I’m not sure the squadron gives us the prospect of success. … Don’t we get in deeper and deeper in a few months. … Won’t we find ourselves having to put in troops to actually do the fighting?”

The president agreed to give Adoula “the non-squadron equipment that he’s asked for” (personnel carriers and trucks) but decided to delay a decision on sending an air squadron. Kennedy acknowledged General Taylor’s concerns and conceded that the chances that the UN forces would succeed were slim. He nonetheless agreed to put “some force there, off the Congo [coast]” in case “we ever have to come to their [the UN’s] assistance.” He was anxious to avoid the appearance that the United States is “unilaterally coming in.” He also reiterated the need for an expert military assessment “of the chances of its [US military intervention] success.”

Several days later, with pressure increasing from his advisers to send the air squadron, JFK declared: “I assume this probably won’t be successful. Nothing ever seems to be. … What we don’t want to do is get into a fight … either by having US personnel or a fighter squadron in the air and then have that force really chewed up.” And, if the air squadron “isn’t sufficient … we could find ourselves in the worst of both worlds if it isn’t successful.” If “there was going to be guerrilla war which the UN can’t successfully bring to a conclusion, then I would think that we ought to think about how we’d get out of it without the fighting.” If we send the squadron, he declared, it would be “with the understanding [that] we’re not committed to use the squadron in any UN military operation that we can veto.”

JFK also made clear precisely where the buck stopped: “A final decision will not be made by me until I’ve talked to him [the military expert]” and if he says “the situation is hopeless” we might send the squadron anyway “if our military man thinks it can be protected, as a political step. I agree it’s very hazardous, but so is the alternative.” Meanwhile, until that report, “We’ve got to make the most out of what we are doing [sending personnel carriers, etc.] short of a squadron.”

Six weeks later, the president and his advisers met to discuss Vietnam. The principal participant was the new Army Chief of Staff, General Earl Wheeler, who had just returned from a tour of South Vietnam. “We’ve looked at all the options,” he declared, “from complete withdrawal of US forces [to] putting US forces in, and we concluded that these two should be rejected out of hand.” Instead, he urged maintaining “the current general level of military support” for South Vietnam. However, he did recommended training the South Vietnamese for “unconventional warfare … raids and sabotage missions in North Vietnam.”

The president responded coolly to Wheeler’s proposal; he pointed out that “police control in North Vietnam … from all accounts is very intense,” questioned whether the population of the South would actually “sustain” guerrilla warfare, and downplayed the likelihood that such attacks would “have sufficient success … to deter the North Vietnamese. … The only thing we’re getting out of this, perhaps, is time—which may be important.” He remained unconvinced that such raids would “really make a dent up there” and whether it’s “worth the effort.”


It is difficult to imagine that President Kennedy, who was so cautious about committing one US air squadron in the Congo or supporting limited South Vietnamese guerrilla raids in North Vietnam would later have acceded to requests for massive increases in American ground forces in Vietnam. However, the Cold War stakes in Southeast Asia, potentially entangling China as well as the USSR, seemed at the time far more threatening than events in the Congo and 16,000 American military “advisers” had already been sent to Vietnam by the fall of 1963. Nonetheless, JFK’s doubts about the UN effort in the Congo, “I assume this probably won’t be successful,” proved to be accurate; and, his almost fatalistic musing that “Nothing” involving military intervention “ever seems to be” successful, suggests that he would have been wary of vastly escalating the US military presence in Vietnam. Of course, we can never really know.i

i I first listened to these recordings in the 1980s and recently read the 2016 transcripts in David Coleman, ed.,The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: Volumes IV-VI, The Winds of Change. New York: W.W. Norton. Only transcriptions on which we agree are cited.  

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