Was JFK going to pull out of Vietnam?

Yes. He had a plan to do just that, as University of Texas professor Jamie Galbraith demonstrates in this recent piece for The Nation.


Jamie Galbraith, University of Texas

The question was hotly contested in late 1963. As with Cuba, most of JFK’s military advisers, as well as the Pentagon and the CIA, favored escalation, while President Kennedy resisted and sought to chart a different course.

The question is still debated today because it goes to the heart of larger questions about Kennedy’s presidency and the impact of his assassination on American history.

In this piece for The Nation, Rick Perlstein suggests that JFK would have inevitably reversed course out of a fear of being accused of being a communist appeaser. But JFK proved at the Bay of Pigs and again in the Cuban missile crisis that he was willing to risk that charge in order to keep the U.S. out of a land war. And in both of those instances, he found his decision was politically popular.

The argument that JFK’s “machismo” would have driven him to escalation in Vietnam strikes me as glib. Yes, JFK was a masculine guy with an insatiable appetite for women but that doesn’t mean he was prone to violent policy solutions. Quite the contrary. If the issue is psychological, it seems JFK’s brushes with death in World War II imbued him with the confidence both to seduce women and  stand up to the generals again and again.


More Frequently Asked Questions about  JFK


36 thoughts on “Was JFK going to pull out of Vietnam?”

  1. Correction: above instead of what I did say, I should have said that: “I think that Chomsky thinks that words carry no information….”

    1. Incredibly naive, particularly at the end of the Berlin crises and a few months after the Vienna disaster.
      The Soviets, particularly Krushchev saw weakness in such statements, a weakness they tried to take advantage of which lead to the Cuban Missle Crisis less than a year later.

      1. That sounds just like what JFK’s critics were saying back in 1962-63.

        Actually, one of the main reasons Khrushchev put the missiles in Cuba was because the Soviets were far behind in the ICBM race, and he wanted the US to know what it felt like to have enemy missiles (short range and medium range) positioned very close to their border like the Soviets (and Europeans) did.

        1. The main reason that Krushchev put missiles in Cuba was because he thought that they could get away with it- at least until they were operational. He thought that JFK was a weakling and inexperienced, perceptions brought on by the Vienna meeting, conciliatory comments only reinforced that perception. It was so bad that even the Foreign Minister went to JFK and lied to him about the missiles in Cuba after JFK was shown the intel pictures.
          Ironically, JFK ran on a claim of a Missle Gap ; there was but greatly in America’s favor. Who knows what the results of the 1960 election would have been if the American public knew that the Missle Gap claim wasn’t true?

          1. And where do you think that “missile gap” story came from, Photon? Do you think JFK invented it? No, it was being leaked by Pentagon sources to everybody in Washington and the media as a way of putting pressure on the politicians to authorize more missiles.

            As for the election, there was so much voting fraud on both sides, and it was so close, we will never know who really won.

  2. Nice thread. Here’s my two cents as a newcomer to all this. Crudely simplified, Chomsky thinks that words carry no information unless backed up with facts, or deeds. Therefore he sees no discontinuity between NSAM 263 and 273. Chomsky’s article must be read and re-read.

    However, if one thinks mere words and speeches can convey at least a real indication of intention, then judging by JFK’s public speeches alone he was attempting to break out of or at least thaw the cold war. Judging by his public speeches alone on this issue he seems to me to have stepped way out in front of everybody inspiring a lot of people at the same time and to this day. JFK’s speeches must be read. …and re-read.

      1. The paraffin test on Oswald’s cheek is just one example of your statement being incorrect. There are literally hundreds of others.

        1. A test so reputable that nobody uses it.
          A test so unreliable it was only useful to intimidate suspects into confessions.
          A test so useless that multiple tests with the Carcano gave negative results on cheeks after firing.
          Time to put that nonsense to bed once and for all.

          1. Photon – your assertions regarding the paraffin test are wrong and you have been corrected several times already on other threads on this site. The citations which undermine your position have been presented to you, and your response has been denial followed by silence followed by making the same assertions all over again weeks later. The documentary record shows that the FBI was very concerned about the negative test from Oswald’s cheek. The record also shows that the Carcano rifle left enormous residue on the shooter’s cheek. Please be better informed on this issue before making such assertions.

          2. The paraffin tests are completely unreliable. They were pretty much a holdover from the 1930’s G-men days, but most FBI agents knew they were useless, except in rare situations, but more useful to push ignorant suspects to confess. This is mentioned in Donald Thomas’ excellent book, “Hear No Evil” by the way…ha ha

  3. This was discussed in another thread on here not too long ago but I don’t remember the topic heading. JFK did in fact authorize NASAM 263. Actually when presented with a draft that did not include the withdrawal of 1000 advisers by the end of 63′ he had this portion put back in. Yes, the withdrawal of all advisers by 65′ was conditional. However his intent seems clear. He stated to friends and trusted aides (maybe he trusted Acheson too much) that he couldn’t pull out before the 64′ election. Statements like “in the final analysis it is their war” and “it’s not worth one more American boy’s life” (after reading a casualty report before leaving for Texas). Four days after his execution LBJ signed NASAM 273 in essence rescinding NASAM 263.

    1. Except those comments were made before the Diem coup, the “final analysis” quote having been made weeks before.
      Virtually nothing posted by revisionists supporting a JFK withdrawal plan comes after the coup.
      The coup changed everything and made American expansion inevitable. In authorizing the coup JFK had to have known that.

      1. “The coup changed everything and made American expansion inevitable. In authorizing the coup JFK had to have known that.”

        Yet again a rather outlandish supposition completely unsupported by anything other than your own opinion on the matter.

        The coup did not make greater US involvement inevitable. And there’s nothing to indicate that Kennedy felt that way afterwards.

      2. According the National Security records, Kennedy was partially using the withdrawal of US advisors (proposed formally in October of 1963 with the release of National Security Memorandum 263) as a leverage or bargaining chip with Diem, to get him to step down, as JFK felt Diem’s continuation as leader of South Vietnam was hindering the US-backed forces. I have to reluctantly agree with Photon on this point, that the coup’s effects complicated matters for Kennedy going into the end of 1963.

        Now here is where I depart from Photon and his ilk who say JFK was going to prolong US involvement in South Vietnam for years, as LBJ did, had he been reelected in 1964 and served out a second term. If you look at Kennedy’s record from 1961 through his time of office up to Nov. 22, 1963, his foreign policy pattern is not one of expansionist militarism. He signed on to the Bay of Pigs operation, but only minimally, and refused to commit full scale US forces to support the limited guerilla forces who landed and got overtaken by Castro’s planes and tanks. Kennedy refused to confront the Communist tanks in Berlin in 1961 when tensions mounted and the wall went up. Ditto Cuba in 1962, when everyone in his JCS was advocating striking Cuba first; JFK held to a blockade and to a diplomatic solution behind the scenes.

        With respect to Vietnam, there were other moments from 1961-62 when JFK was pushed unsuccessfully by his more hawkish advisors to commit: to Laos with heavier support, and to South Vietnam. Kennedy kept the pot boiling there, but also kept our advisory level at just an advisory level. He couldn’t “lose Vietnam” in 1964, as recent Nat. Security Documents show (http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB444/).

        But all you have to do is compare the patterns of the two leaders: LBJ and JFK to see how they played out statistically and made for different strategies in office. JFK sought to downplay military action as his presidential record highlights. LBJ advocated on the side of the JCS during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and against JFK’s position of not attacking Cuba and using all caution and restraint. In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. Johnson was immediately ready to use this incident as a pretext to go into Vietnam. He held that view but waited until after he was elected in November. Then in the beginning of 1965, he put US Marines ashore at DaNang Province. This pattern of LBJ’s is much different from JFK’s, as even subservient Robert McNamara has written in his later life. I think if you look at the statistical patterns of the two leaders, JFK and LBJ, you get very different foreign policy approaches, in aggregate. It’s not 100%, but if I were an historian looking for patterns to project likelihoods using a statistical probability scale I would say that JFK’s pattern of caution and lack of commitment to use military force TENDS toward minimal commitment of advisors in South Vietnam into 1964, then another instance in 1965 where he pisses off the military (as he did countless times from 1961-63) by pulling the cork on Vietnam then, after he is safely reelected.

        I also see him dumping LBJ by letting the Bobby Baker scandals run their full investigatory force in 1964, but that’s another posting.

        1. How can you possibly know what JFK’s response to the deteriorating South Vietnam situation in 1964 and 1965 would have been? Particularly as his actions in supporting the coup were at the very least contributing factors? The “pattern ” that LBJ followed was in response to events that JFK never faced, rendering any comparisons completely irrelevant. As much of his team was made up of JFK holdovers it is difficult to see where JFK’s response to events would have been a different as claimed by revisionists.

          1. And of course, subordinates never tailor their advice according to what their boss wants to hear.

            And Bundy, McNamara, and various generals had been calling for US combat troops to be sent to Vietnam since early 1961. Kennedy refused, although he did compromise by sending thos “advisers” who did go into combat. Still, there’s a big
            difference between accompanying Saigon regime units with small arms and having entire US units acting independently under US officers, with tanks, heavy artillery, and planes supporting them.

            Finally, you think JFK would have sent the US Navy into North Vietnam’s territorial waters to ferry Saigon regime commando units? That’s what brought about the Tonkin Gulf Incident. We’ll never know, but what we do know suggests he would not have.

      3. S.R. "Dusty" Rohde

        “The coup changed everything”…well that was the plan wasn’t it? Get JFK out of the way…so the profiteering could commence. Hunt brothers trucking, LBJ, Big Oil buddies from the Koons Kreek Klub, WC members, Tricky Dick…all getting their cut of the action.

  4. “Yes.”

    It’s that simple? I disagree. In my view this is one of those historical questions which is very difficult to answer definitively.

    If you just went by the public statements of JFK before the assassination, and his brother after the assassination, you’d have to conclude there was no intention to withdraw. However, what’s said in public and what’s said in private, are two different things, and that’s where this gets complicated. There are numerous accounts to consider. One must also keep in mind that some of these accounts are framed with a degree of hindsight.

    In my view, conspiracy theorists vastly over-simplify this question. There is an obvious reason for doing so. The question of withdrawing from Vietnam leading to a hypothetical clash of interests with the “military-industrial complex” is at the heart of many theories. There is a vested interest and confirmation bias here on the part of researchers in suggesting JFK would withdraw, because if JFK intended to stay the course in Vietnam, the theories fall apart. However, a cursory glance at the historical record reveals this to be a complicated question. I find the efforts by conspiracy researchers with their obvious agendas to re-cast JFK as some sort of angelic peacenik an affront to good and balanced scholarship. Researchers frequently accuse others of re-shaping history to suit their own ends. That is exactly what is going on here. Life is complicated, people are complicated, and history is complicated. It’s just not that black and white.

    Given what we know, and without access to JFK’s inner-most thoughts, I don’t believe you can answer this question definitively in either direction. The security situation in Vietnam during this period was a rapidly evolving one. There were multiple assessments over a period of time to consider. Policy was formulated in that context and was contingent upon the situation on the ground in Vietnam, as well as forecasts as to how that might evolve further. The belief systems and dominant political paradigms that took the USA into Vietnam must also be considered. This was a different world, driven by different ideas, ideologies and conflicts to the one we live in today. Context is vital. Simply pulling out a single document like NSAM 263, or promoting theories about the military-industrial complex without acknowledging the dominant foreign policy paradigms or overriding ideological concerns of the time, as researchers are prone to do, is vastly inadequate and a misguided attempt at creating causation. There’s much more to the story.

    I really don’t see any justification to answering this question with simply, “Yes”. This is one of those questions that will always be debated, and rightly so, it’s an interesting one. In such a discussion, I’d be arguing for the negative, and would be quite comfortable in doing so.

    1. It’s not a case of painting JFK as an “angelic peacenik” – someone like that would not get to be President in the first place. It’s a matter of looking at the entirety of Kennedy’s political career, which shows a distinct pattern of being very reluctant to support military intervention – whether in Laos, Berlin, Cuba or wherever. As far back as the early 50s, Kennedy expressed skepticism about helping the French in their failing effort in Vietnam.

      The number of people Kennedy confided in about his real intentions in Vietnam is quite large:


    2. And here is one believer in the official story of Kennedy’s death, William Manchester, in the 1988 edition of DEATH OF A PRESIDENT:

      “…genuine detente with the Russians had begun…Kennedy had inherited a small US commitment to South Vietnam, but after much waffling he realized that it was failing, and he was cutting American losses….His withdrawal operation, which had already begun at the time of his death, would have ended this country’s Vietnam commitment in 1965 with the evacuation, as he had put it to me, of ‘the last helicopter pilot.’ After his funeral Johnson countermanded these orders.”

  5. http://www.ctka.net/2013/General_Giap_Knew_Kang.html

    An interview with the son of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap:

    “I then moved on to the penultimate topic regarding 1963, the change in Southeast Asia policy, specifically for Vietnam, that President Kennedy was carefully but confidently carrying out. When I mentioned this vital policy to Mr. Vo, I said, “President Kennedy was finally changing his foreign policy in regards to Vietnam in 1963”, and before I could even finish my sentence, Mr. Vo interrupted and added, “He was withdrawing from Vietnam.” Momentarily surprised by what I had just heard, I then quickly asked him to repeat what he had just said so as to be sure I had heard right. He then stated in a very clear and firm voice, “President Kennedy was withdrawing from Vietnam in late 1963.” I was beyond a loss for words and sat transfixed at what I had just heard. The son of General Vo Nguyen Giap, sitting just a few feet across from me, had just unequivocally confirmed what many scholars and experts had pieced together and been saying for years, only to be dismissed by the Establishment as “wishful thinkers” and starry-eyed idealists or, in some cases, as “Kennedy apologists”.

    1. TLR: Great reference! I too am convinced that JFK was making foreign policy decisions that were leading up to a complete and final withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965. Both Robert Dallek and Robert McNamara stated so, Dallek in “An Unfinished Life” and McNamara in his book, “In Retrospect.” The thing about McNamara though is, I think he was an opportunist in that he saw the writing on the wall in 1964 and decided to keep on his new boss’ good side, LBJ. Johnson clearly was, as they might say in Texas, “Itchin’ to go in to Vietnam.” Kennedy was not on top of things in Vietnam in 1963, and I feel delegated too much to others, verbally agreeing (or at least not saying ‘No’ to the coup, which he thought would go more peacefully than it did.

      It’s important for Lone Nutters to hammer and hammer their misguided theme that JFK was going into Vietnam just as LBJ did, because if they were to say otherwise, it would help reinforce in people’s minds just how radical the shift in policy was (from NSAM 273 onward) after his death. It’s also important to keep to facts, even when they paint Kennedy in a bad light. He had so much sexual baggage that it compromised his ability to lead without being blackmailed, whether through Judith Exner or East Germans or interns. Bobby Kennedy probably hurt his independence by dallying with people like Marilyn Monroe. I still wonder if it was the Kennedy’s who either directly or tacitly had her killed, and that she didn’t just commit suicide. She was threatening to talk too much. So although the Kennedy’s did some great things, I have to be completely honest about their flaws, because facts have to come before ideology, even when the facts are painful to have to face.

      1. As I read NSAM 263, Kennedy wanted to pull the bulk of U.S. troops out of Viet Nam by the end of 1965, provided the “insurgency” had been largely suppressed by then. It was an optimistic view of the future, unlike NSAM 273 which called for aggressive military action.

        In NSAM 263, Kennedy viewed progress being possible on several fronts: economic, political, military.

        Having served as an army intelligence officer in Viet Nam, I think Kennedy misunderstood Ho Chi Minh’s commitment to reunify the country of Viet Nam. I think he believed, incorrectly, what was going on in South Viet Nam was merely popular unrest against a heavy-handed.

        Impossible to know what he would have done when squarely confronted with the reality of a northern invasion of the south, which was underway in earnest by mid-1965.

        As for JFK’s and RFK’s dalliances, I believe the dalliances made JFK vulnerable and contributed strongly to the Kennedy family’s opposing any real investigation of JFK’s death.

        1. That “northern invasion of the south” you mention was in response to this country’s invasion of combat troops. We were also regularly bombing targets north of the DMZ at that point, so it’s not as if this “invasion” (since when is Vietnamese troops moving around Vietnam invading it?) was unprovoked.

          South Vietnam was a phony country created by the CIA in the mid-1950s because this country realized that if the elections mandated by the agreement that ended French control of Indochina were ever held, Ho Chi Minh would end up ruling Vietnam. The real tragedy is that there were many millions of Vietnamese who didn’t want want to live in a Communist state, but the most powerful among them were more interested in fighting and killing each other than in putting aside their differences and forming an alternative government that had genuine popular support.

          Kennedy realized what a hopeless sinkhole Vietnam was. He very much wanted to come up with a solution more or less along the lines of what had been negotiated in Laos. He most certainly wanted to extricate us from military involvement in Vietnam. Would he have actually been able to? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he was succeeded by a man with an extraordinarily simplistic and primitive mindset when it came to foreign affairs, and that by the end of 1965, he had undertaken actions in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, and Vietnam that marked a return to the idiotic policies pursued by the Dulles brothers during the Eisenhower years. Countless millions died as a result.

      2. “It’s important for Lone Nutters to hammer and hammer their misguided theme that JFK was going into Vietnam just as LBJ did…”

        Kennedy was already “in” Vietnam. The first military advisors were sent under Truman in 1950. What you’re talking about is the escalation under Johnson which took place some time after Kennedy’s death. Bombing campaigns in February 1965 and then 3,500 troops landing at Da Nang on March 6, 1965.

        One thing worth noting here is the shifting assessments of the security situation in Vietnam throughout this period that were submitted to policy makers, including the President. At times the security situation looked more positive, and at times it appeared to be deteriorating. Less than a month before his death, JFK supported the coup (the coup, not the assassinations) that toppled the Diem government based on their perceived inability to stabilise the situation on the ground and hold back the Communists. I don’t agree with the suggestion that Kennedy was not engaged in this conversation about the coup, the historical record says otherwise.


        The problem, as mentioned via that article, is that the coup actually served to further entangle the US in Vietnam ever more deeply.

        “The ultimate effect of United States participation in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem was to commit Washington to Saigon even more deeply. Having had a hand in the coup America had more responsibility for the South Vietnamese governments that followed Diem.”

        You can argue that JFK would have withdrawn, but I’d suggest the question a complicated one and any idea of withdrawal was contingent on what was happening on the ground in Vietnam and the ability of the US allies there to contain the Communist threat.

      3. “I still wonder if it was the Kennedys who either directly or tacitly had her killed…”
        Why would they even have considered such an action? Everybody in Hollywood knew that she was an unstable mental patient at the end of her career who could no longer function well enough to meet her attendance requirements. She was fired from her last movie for not showing up, a habit repeatedly seen during her final years. Nobody would have believed anything she might have said and everybody would have seen her claims as a typical Hollywood publicity stunt.

    2. ‘What could be a more credible and original direct source than the former “enemy”, General Vo Nguyen Giap…’

      I don’t see how this is relevant, and that line of reasoning strikes me as deeply odd. The last place I’d be looking for clarification on this question is in the accounts of Generals from the other side of the conflict. Was General Vo Nguyen Giap privy to discussions at the highest levels of the US government or the thoughts of JFK? That’s where people who are interested in this question should be looking for more information.

      “I then moved on to the penultimate topic regarding 1963, the change in Southeast Asia policy, specifically for Vietnam, that President Kennedy was carefully but confidently carrying out.”

      Carefully, perhaps, but confidently? From the article linked in the original post:

      “The best evidence that this “formal decision” by JFK lacks forecasting power is the actual outcome of phase I of that selfsame formal decision: to remove 1,000 soldiers from Vietnam by the end of 1963. Only 432 were actually removed by the end of 1963 (“although,” writes Moise, “some sources give lower figures,” and even that may have merely been the result of shifting deployment schedules).”

      1. So, after WW2 when the former Japanese admiral spoke about how he planned and attacked Pearl Harbor—that was all b.s. and historians shouldn’t listen to him?
        What nonsense!

        I was watching a documentary about Normandy, and there were Germans interviewed who spoke about their experiences as defenders. It was quite interesting to hear both sides. Very often when the years of original animosity fade away, former generals and political leaders from opposing sides get together and openly discuss their perspectives. Vietnam was one of these. McCain went back and visited, as did many other former “enemies”.

        1. That admiral was dead-killed in 1943.
          The admiral that commanded the task force was dead-killed in 1944.
          Sorry JSA , when you make something up you need to make sure that your comments first off are actually possible.Stick to Radiology- most folks don’t know enough about the subject to recognize nonsense.

          1. Cyril Wecht knows enough to endorse Thomas’ excellent book, “Hear No Evil.”

            Until you actually READ the book, I’ll consider your attacks on it to be uninformed, nonsense.

          2. What does that have to do with old “56” and your grasp of history?
            I thought this topic was on JFK’s Vietnam plans, not Bogus acoustic evidence.

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