What the New York Times doesn’t get about JFK and Vietnam

Professor James Galbraith takes issue with a passing claim in a new essay by New York Times editor Jill Abramson, “Kennedy, the Elusive President.”

Galbraith, who teaches at the University of Texas, writes:

“Was there ever such a pungent example of febrile writing, ‘with unfiltered and at times unhinged musings’ as Jill Abramson’s just-published essay on the 40,000 Kennedy books, of which she has read, so far as one can tell, only a tiny handful – and most of those by luminaries of the New York social set?”

“I’ll focus on just one, well-worn point. Abramson writes: ‘Then there is the Vietnam conundrum. Some maintain that Kennedy would not have escalated the war as Johnson did. But the belief that he would have limited the American presence in Vietnam is rooted as much in the romance of ‘what might have been’ as in the documented record.”

“The documented record? Fact: John F. Kennedy made a formal decision on October 2 and 5, 1963, to order the withdrawal of all US advisers from Vietnam by the end of 1965 ”

[See “Exit Strategy,” Boston Review, 2003.]

Letter to Lelyveld

This is not the first time an editor of the New York Times has made this mistake, Galbraith says.

In a 2007 review of Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals, editor Joseph Lelyveld wrote that while “Kennedy had now and then spoken in private about withdrawal [from Vietnam] after the 1964 election, when he died it was a faint hope, not yet a plan.”

Galbraith notified the Times that Lelyveld was incorrect in a detailed letter.

“Schlesinger himself says otherwise; in ‘Robert Kennedy and His Times’ he writes of the  ‘first application’ in October 1963 ‘of Kennedy’s phased withdrawal plan.’ Robert McNamara goes further, in his 1995 memoir ‘In Retrospect,’ to speak of ‘President Kennedy’s decision on October 2 [1963] to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces.’

“A presidential decision requires a plan. The elements of a decision must include: (a) previous planning, reflected in military documents in this case; (b) discussion of the plan; (c) a decision to accept or reject the plan, reflected in a decision document, and (d) steps to implement the plan. In the case of JFK and withdrawal from Vietnam, all these elements are present.

“We have records of the 8th Secretary of Defense conference in Honolulu on May 6, 1963, which tell of a ‘Comprehensive Plan’ for Vietnam, including: ‘plan to withdraw 1000 US personnel from RVN by December 1963.’ McNamara also ordered that ‘training plans’ be developed for the Vietnamese to permit ‘a more rapid phase-out’ of the remaining U.S. forces.

“On October 2, 1963, these plans were discussed at the White House. We have the tape. McNamara states to Kennedy: ‘And the advantage of taking them out is that we can say to the Congress and the people that we do have a plan for reducing the exposure of US combat personnel to the guerrilla actions in South Vietnam.’

“On October 5, 1963 at a meeting at 9:30 am, Kennedy made the formal decision to implement the withdrawal plan. Again, we have the tape. On October 11, the White House issued National Security Action Memorandum 263, which speaks of ‘the implementation of plans to withdraw’ troops from Vietnam.

“A memorandum conveying the decision, from JCS Chair Maxwell Taylor to his military colleagues, had already been sent. It states:

‘All planning will be directed towards preparing RVN forces for the withdrawal of all U.S. special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965. The U.S. Comprehensive Plan, Vietnam, will be revised to bring it into consonance with these objectives…’

“For Mr. Lelyveld to state that there was no plan, but only a ‘faint hope’ of withdrawal, is clearly at odds with the plain wording of the source documents. There was a plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam, beginning with the first thousand by December 1963, and almost all of the rest by the end of 1965. Moreover, President Kennedy had approved that plan. It was the actual policy of the United States on the day Kennedy died.”


To Galbraith’s correspondence I can only add one point.

The records released since the 1990s under the JFK Records Act have strengthened the argument of those who say Kennedy was a dove, who sometimes wore a hawk’s feathers, but who did not want a counterrevolution in Cuba or a land war in Vietnam.

The view that Kennedy was peacemaker moving to his left in 1963 is not just the view of liberation theologian James Douglass but also of academic historians such as Robert Dallek and Washington journalists such as Jeff Greenfield. It is now the conventional liberal wisdom.

But not, it seems, at the New York Times.




6 thoughts on “What the New York Times doesn’t get about JFK and Vietnam”

  1. If JFK wanted to pull out of Vietnam why did he agree to the Diem coup?
    That fact flies in the face of these revisionist arguments. LBJ’s advisers in 1964 were JFK’s advisers in 1963.
    The Diem coup ensured increasing American involvement

  2. Early in the article by Ms. Abramson, she referred to the “historical consensus” that Oswald, alone, killed JFK. I stopped reading at that point.I thought, whose history? The NY Times? The NY Times blew that coverage BIG time and it can’t admit it.All writers have to toe the line, with the lonely figure of Jerry Policoff standing out, from 30 years ago.http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/PA-NYT.html.

    The NY Times was exposed, in the mid-70’s, as part of the MOCKINGBIRD project of the CIA to “work with them” on”national security” matters. Quite a fourth estate, eh? A couple of recent books also questioned the bravado exploits of Woodstein and the likely involvement of the CIA in “uncovering” the Watergate story story.

  3. Thanks so much for setting the record straight. My blood was boiling when I read that Abramson piece, as it was again this morning from reading the similarly ridiculous Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker. That is what sent me to the Web to see if anyone was calling out these assassination apologists, whereupon I found your commentary. Do all these obscurantist folks live under the same rock?

  4. If one reads the accounts of briefings given JFK in 1963 on Vietnam, one observes that the Vietnam situation was dire with much of the countryside controlled by the Viet Cong. Escalating in Vietnam was not a strategy to defend the South Vietnamese government, rather it was a strategy to wrest the country back from the Viet Cong, with limited prospects for success. JFK had a history as President of not engaging in such high risk enterprises.

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