The question is still “hotly debated” says the JFK Library and Museum, not the least because the question has become part of the debate over the causes of JFK’s assassination.
What does the record show about Kennedy’s thinking and actions on Vietnam?
“The view that Kennedy would have done what [his successor Lyndon] Johnson did — stay in Vietnam and gradually escalate the war in 1964 and 1965 — is held by left, center, and right,” wrote economist and historian James Galbraith in an extended 2003 Boston Review article about this question. Galbraith, whose father was among JFK’s most dovish advisers, cites leftist icon Noam Chomsky who has argued that Kennedy was no dove. In this YouTube interview, for example, Chomsky says JFK was “a hawk on Vietnam… He wanted to get out but only after victory” and “there was no significant change [in U.S. policy] after the assassination.”
That view is echoed by liberal biographer Kai Bird and conservative historian William Gibbons, according to Galbrath.
Yet, Galbraith notes, that a powerful counterargument came from unexpected source. Late in life, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense for JFK and LBJ, and a man reviled by the anti-war movement in the 1960s for his support of the war, said that he thought JFK would not have escalated the war as LBJ did in 1964. McNamara’s statements lent credence to the arguments of historians, John Newman (“JFK and Vietnam”) and Howard Jones (“Death of a Generation”) who found that JFK had been quietly laying the groundwork for withdrawal without battlefield victory for much of 1963.
That interpretation gained more support in 1998 when the Assassination Records Review Board released the records of the May 1963 SecDef conference in which a phased withdrawal from Vietnam was put on the books as a policy option, something that was not known at the time and remained a state secret for 35 years. When JFK’s national security advisers met in Honolulu on Nov. 20, 1963, their briefing books reiterated the plans for withdrawal without victory.
The debate endures because JFK expressed support for both his dovish policy option (withdrawal without victory) and his hawkish option (escalation until victory). But overall, Galbraith notes that on a series of foreign policy decisions in his first two years and half years in office, JFK rejected the recommendation of his hawkish advisers. He sees JFK’s unfinished Vietnam policy in 1963 as
“part of a larger strategy, of a sequence that included the Laos and Berlin settlements in 1961, the non-invasion of Cuba in 1962, the Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Kennedy subordinated the timing of these events to politics: he was quite prepared to leave soldiers in harm’s way until after his own reelection. His larger goal after that was to settle the Cold War, without either victory or defeat—a strategic vision laid out in JFK’s commencement speech at American University on June 10, 1963.”
JFK as hawk: “Going to Withdraw from Vietnam?”
Two key documents:
Withdrawal from Vietnam (Oct. 11, 1963). JFK signs NSAM 263, an order to withdraw 1,000 troops out of roughly 16,000 Americans stationed in Vietnam by the end of 1963, with the complete withdrawal by the end of 1965.
JFK’s American University “Peace” Speech: