JFK's Second Term
Toward the end of his life John F. Kennedy increasingly distrusted his military advisers and was changing his views on foreign policy. A fresh look at the final months of his presidency suggests that a second Kennedy term might have produced not only an American withdrawal from Vietnam but also rapprochement with Fidel Castro's Cuba
When Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in November of 1963, he knew that in order to accrue political capital he would initially need to champion goals and policies that Kennedy had already been pursuing. Not long before his death Kennedy had scrawled the word "poverty" on a piece of paper and circled it multiple times; this note fell into the hands of his brother Robert and became a symbolic justification for Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty, early in 1964. Similarly, many of the things that Johnson pushed through Congress in his first two years as President—such as an $11 billion tax cut, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the 1965 laws that brought Medicare and Medicaid into existence and that poured billions of federal dollars into primary and secondary education—can readily be seen as extensions of the avowed policies of the Kennedy Administration. The details might have been different—and Kennedy might well have had more trouble than Johnson passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965—but historians generally agree that if Kennedy had lived out his first term and won a second, America would have witnessed something similar to the early years of Johnson's Great Society.
On foreign policy, too, Johnson at first strove consciously to follow his predecessor. And some historians have argued that in this realm as well, LBJ indeed pursued a course that JFK had already plotted. If Kennedy had lived, according to this line of thinking, he would have continued a policy of antagonism toward Cuba and steady escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Johnson certainly believed that this was what Kennedy intended to do.
Flashbacks: "A Near Miss" (October 24, 2002)
Articles on the Cuban missile crisis by Walter Lippmann, Jerome B. Wiesner, and Sheldon M. Stern remind us how close we came to disaster.
But what if it wasn't? Some Kennedy aides have always insisted that Johnson misread JFK's plans for Vietnam. They say that Kennedy had begun to rethink the U.S. presence in Indochina, and was reluctant to increase it. Johnson's defenders have tended to see this argument as wishful thinking by those who seek to exculpate JFK from what happened in Vietnam while laying all the blame on LBJ. The argument can never fully be put to rest. But newly available documents, along with a reappraisal of the existing record—especially of Kennedy's concern about press reports from Saigon—suggest that Kennedy's aides are correct: what Kennedy envisioned for U.S. policy in Vietnam was substantially different from what Johnson thought it was. Perhaps more surprising—given that at the time of Kennedy's death the Cuban Missile Crisis was not long past, and that the CIA was still plotting to kill Fidel Castro—JFK appears to have been moving toward the idea of accommodation with Cuba.
A consideration of likely post-1963 Kennedy policies must begin with JFK's views on how political and military leaders make decisions about armed action. Why England Slept, his Harvard senior thesis, which was published as a book in 1940, showed a healthy skepticism regarding the astuteness of both political and military officials in assessing foreign threats. He also doubted the effectiveness of a purely military approach to many political problems, especially in light of what he observed during his extensive travels to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia in the late 1930s and after World War II. "If one thing was borne into me as a result of my experiences in the Middle as well as the Far East," Kennedy said after a trip as a congressman in 1951, "it is that communism cannot be met effectively by merely the force of arms." And his own military experience as a young man had convinced him that military chiefs were not necessarily the best judges of when and how to fight a war. As a junior naval officer in 1943 and 1944, he marveled at the incompetence of many of his superiors. In a letter to his parents from the South Pacific, where he was serving as a PT Boat commander, he wrote that the Navy had "brought back a lot of old Captains and Commanders from retirement and ... they give the impression of their brains being in their tails." He complained in a letter to a friend of "this heaving puffing war machine of ours," and lamented the "super-human ability of the Navy to screw up everything they touch." Later in life his reading of history, especially Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August (1962), about World War I, reinforced his doubts.
Misgivings about the wisdom of military responses to communism, however, were not enough to deter Kennedy from authorizing the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, in April of 1961. In the aftermath of the invasion, which fizzled when a brigade of CIA-trained Cuban exiles were captured on the beach, the CIA's inspector general ascribed the failure to "bad planning," "poor" staffing, and "fragmentation of authority," and to the false assumption that "the invasion would, like a deus ex machina, produce a shock ... [and] trigger an uprising." Although he publicly accepted blame for the defeat, Kennedy privately wondered how he could have been so stupid as to trust CIA and military assurances about the likely success of the attack.
Paul Nitze, who in the 1950s worked with Secretary of State Dean Acheson on defense issues, and who served in the Kennedy Administration as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's assistant secretary for international security affairs, said in his oral history of the Administration that President Kennedy "was always troubled with ... how do you obtain military advice; how do you check into it; how do you have an independent view as to its accuracy and relevance?" A tape of a 1962 conversation with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and Undersecretary of State George Ball makes clear that Kennedy had a low opinion of many U.S. diplomats and Defense Department officials. He described career envoys as weak or spineless. "I just see an awful lot of fellows ... who don't seem to have cojones," he said. "[Whereas] the Defense Department looks as if that's all they've got. They haven't any brains ... I know you get all this sort of virility over at the Pentagon, and you get a lot of Arleigh Burkes [a reference to the chief of naval operations]: admirable, nice figure, without any brains."
His experiences with the Joint Chiefs of Staff deepened Kennedy's reservations about the advice he was receiving from the military. One incident that alarmed him came shortly after the Bay of Pigs debacle, when the Joint Chiefs urged Kennedy to authorize the use of air and land forces in Laos to avert a communist takeover. Kennedy wanted to know what they intended if such an operation failed. The Joint Chiefs answered, in the words of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, "You start using atomic weapons!" Lyman Lemnitzer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, promised that if they were given authorization to use nuclear weapons, they could guarantee victory. Kennedy saw Lemnitzer's assurance as absurd. Later he said, "Since he couldn't think of any further escalation, he would have to promise us victory." Kennedy and the Soviets ultimately reached a negotiated settlement in Laos. But the disagreement with his advisers would set a pattern.
Kennedy felt the most tension with General Lauris Norstad, the commander of NATO forces, and General Curtis LeMay, the chief of staff of the Air Force. Both Norstad and LeMay believed that any war with the Soviet Union would have to escalate quickly into a nuclear exchange if the United States was to have any hope of "winning." Kennedy found LeMay, who would become the model for a deranged general in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, especially intolerable. Roswell Gilpatric, Kennedy's deputy secretary of defense, recalled in his oral history of the Kennedy Administration that the President "ended up in sort of a fit" every time he had to see LeMay. "I mean he just would be frantic at the end of a session with LeMay," Gilpatric said, "because, you know, LeMay couldn't listen or wouldn't take in, and he would make what Kennedy considered ... outrageous proposals that bore no relation to the state of affairs in the 1960s. And the President never saw him unless at some ceremonial affair, or where he felt he had to make a record of having listened to LeMay, as he did on the whole question of an air strike against Cuba. And he had to sit there. I saw the President right afterwards. He was just choleric."
"I don't think he ever really satisfied himself that he had found a way to get the best possible military help on such matters," Nitze said.
According to Nitze, Kennedy saw a decision to use nuclear weapons in a conflict as a responsibility that belonged not to the Joint Chiefs but to himself. It was a decision he hoped he would never have to make, and he tried very hard to ensure that he wouldn't have to. Walt W. Rostow, a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, recalled in an oral history that Kennedy thought an all-out nuclear conflict would be "a truly monstrous event in the U.S.—let alone in world history." Although the United States had a large advantage over the Soviets, both in total number of nuclear weapons and in the capacity to deliver them, everyone concluded that a nuclear exchange would bring, in Rostow's words, "virtual incineration" to Western Europe, Russia, and the United States. In September of 1961, after leaving a briefing at which Lemnitzer described the effects of nuclear war, Kennedy said to Rusk, "And we call ourselves the human race."
Despite his horror at the thought of fighting such a war, Kennedy greatly expanded America's nuclear arsenal and refused to publicly renounce a first-strike strategy. Fearful that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev might push the United States into an all-out clash, JFK saw no alternative to increased preparedness. "That son of a bitch Khrushchev," Rostow once heard him complain, "he won't stop until we actually take a step that might lead to nuclear war ... There's no way you can talk that fella into stopping, until you take some really credible step." After meeting the Premier in Vienna, in June of 1961, Kennedy was frustrated by his inability to soften Khrushchev's hawkish attitudes on nuclear arms. He told Hugh Sidey, of Time magazine, "I never met a man like this. [I] talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill seventy million people in ten minutes and he just looked at me as if to say, 'So what?' My impression was that he just didn't give a damn if it came to that." According to the journalist Fred Kaplan, to ensure against a Soviet miscalculation, Kennedy directed McNamara to "repeat to the point of boredom" that the United States would use nuclear weapons only if it or its allies were directly attacked, and that America was not even thinking about preventive war.
In a conversation with his aide Kenneth O'Donnell after the Vienna summit, Kennedy said, "All wars start from stupidity. [It is] particularly stupid to risk killing a million Americans over an argument about access rights on an Autobahn in the Soviet zone of Germany, or because the Germans want Germany reunified ... Before I back Khrushchev against the wall ... the freedom of all of Western Europe will have to be at stake." But despite Kennedy's concerns, the military exerted persistent pressure for armed action against communism.
Kennedy's resistance to this pressure reached a climax during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October of 1962. The blockade or quarantine of Cuba that he imposed to force the removal of nuclear weapons did not satisfy the Joint Chiefs. When Kennedy first proposed it, General LeMay said he saw direct military intervention as a necessity. "This blockade and political action I see leading into war," he told Kennedy in a conversation captured on tape by a White House recording device. "I don't see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich." LeMay indirectly threatened to make his dissent public. "I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I'm sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way too. In other words, you're in a pretty bad fix at the present time."
LeMay's words angered Kennedy, who asked, "What did you say?" LeMay repeated, "You're in a pretty bad fix." Kennedy responded with a hollow laugh, and said, "You're in there with me." Kenneth O'Donnell recalled in his memoirs that after the meeting Kennedy asked him, "Can you imagine LeMay saying a thing like that? These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."
On October 28 Khrushchev promised to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba, but at a meeting that same day the Joint Chiefs stated their opposition to Kennedy's ongoing restraint. (In response to Khrushchev's promise Kennedy had pledged not to invade Cuba, a pledge that troubled the Chiefs, who believed that Castro's removal from power was essential.) Admiral George Anderson told the President, "We have been had!" LeMay called the settlement "the greatest defeat in our history," and urged a prompt invasion. McNamara remembered Kennedy as "absolutely shocked" and "stuttering in reply." Kennedy later told Benjamin Bradlee, then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."
A week after the missile crisis ended, while uncertainty continued as to whether Khrushchev would in fact remove all offensive weapons from Cuba, Kennedy responded to an updated invasion plan proposed by his military advisers. In a declassified document now held in the national-security files at the JFK Library, in Boston, he drew on his knowledge of history in restating his conviction that an attack on Cuba carried huge military risks: "Considering the size of the problem, the equipment that is involved on the other side, the Nationalists['] fervor which may be engendered," he wrote to McNamara, "it seems to me we could end up bogged down. I think we should keep constantly in mind the British in [the] Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish and our own experience with the North Koreans." "An invasion would have been a mistake—a wrong use of our power," Kennedy told his aide Arthur Schlesinger. "But the military are mad. They wanted to do this."
F rom the moment he took office, in January of 1961, Kennedy had been eager to settle the Cuban problem without overt military action by the United States. Through the fall of 1963, however, he remained resigned to the possibility that Cuban aggression or developments on the island could compel American air attacks or even an invasion, and some of his advisers continued to pressure him to engage in covert action to depose Castro. On October 29, 1962, the day after Khrushchev ended the missile crisis, Castro publicly announced that he was ready for an agreement with the United States, but his conditions—an end to the economic embargo that Washington had imposed in 1960, and to U.S. subversion, sponsorship of exile raids, U-2 overflights, and control of Guantánamo—were more than any U.S. government could accept as a starting point for negotiations, especially if it hoped to avoid the outrage of Cuban exiles and their American allies.
At the same time, Kennedy was beginning to see rapprochement as the best way to end the difficulties with Havana, especially because the National Security Council was now acknowledging that all the proposals thus far for toppling Castro were "singularly unpromising" (as an NSC memo stated). In the spring of 1963 James B. Donovan, a New York lawyer who had negotiated the release of the nearly 1,200 Cuban exiles captured at the Bay of Pigs, became an intermediary between Havana and Washington. During discussions about releasing twenty-four imprisoned Americans accused of being CIA agents, Castro, who was unhappy with Moscow's treatment of Cuba, asked for suggestions on how to establish official relations with the United States, which he saw, according to Donovan, as necessary. He wondered whether Donovan could be given an official status that would make the negotiations likelier to move both sides closer to rapprochement. Donovan's report on his conversation with Castro greatly interested Kennedy.
Kennedy relied on William Attwood—a former editor of Look magazine who had interviewed Castro, had served from March of 1961 to May of 1963 as ambassador to Guinea, and was now an adviser to the United States UN Mission—to explore further the possibility of rapprochement. If this were to include the removal of all Soviet forces from Cuba, an end to Cuba's subversive activities throughout the Western Hemisphere, and Havana's commitment to nonalignment in the Cold War, Kennedy believed he could sell it to the American public. In return Kennedy surely would have been willing to stop the economic embargo, the U-2 overflights, and other threats to Castro's continued reign—to do everything, in fact, except withdraw from the base at Guantánamo.
Kennedy's interest in an accommodation with Castro registered forcefully on Jean Daniel, a French journalist on his way to Havana at the end of October of 1963. In a meeting with Daniel at the White House, Kennedy acknowledged a degree of U.S. responsibility for the miseries inflicted on the Cuban people by Castro's predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whose government was propped up by the United States. When Daniel asked Kennedy about the economic embargo of Cuba, the President replied that he might lift it if Castro ended communist incitements in the region. Kennedy asked Daniel to see him again after returning from Cuba. "Castro's reactions interest me," he said, according to Daniel.
Castro welcomed the chance to open discussions with the United States, but insisted that they occur in Cuba. He did not wish to be seen as in any way soliciting U.S. friendship. Nor did the Kennedy Administration want to be seen as solicitous of Cuba. Robert Kennedy told Attwood that the Administration could not risk accusations that it was trying to make a deal with Castro.
In November, as the two sides debated where to hold discussions, the President gave a speech in Miami, before the Inter-American Press Association, that included veiled references to an altered relationship with Cuba. He said that Latin America's problems would not be solved "simply by complaining about Castro, by blaming all problems on communism, or generals, or nationalism." So long as Cuba remained "a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics," a reconciliation would be impossible. Absent this impediment, he said, "everything is possible."
Whatever the uncertainties in November of 1963 about future Castro-Kennedy dealings, the two leaders had signaled a mutual interest in finding a way through their antagonism.
As for Vietnam, what Kennedy would have done after November of 1963 now seems increasingly clear, thanks not only to the testimony of his former aides but also to a growing documentary public record. Here, too, his wariness of his military chiefs' advice had begun to shape his outlook.
Most of his advisers in the Pentagon wanted to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam's civil war. But Kennedy would have preferred a settlement like the one he had reached in Laos, whereby Moscow and Washington agreed to restrain the factions battling for control of the country. With Hanoi and Saigon unwilling to reach a truce, U.S. fears of losing South Vietnam to communism forced Kennedy to escalate America's economic and military commitments—providing Ngo Dinh Diem's regime with more money, equipment, and advisers to fight the Vietcong. Still, any suggestion that the conflict should become a war fought principally by U.S. troops was directly at odds with Kennedy's convictions about America's self-interest.
Admittedly, Kennedy wanted a military tool with which to combat communist insurgencies in Asia and Latin America. The creation of the Green Berets, in 1961, to meet the communist threat in Vietnam and elsewhere, was an indication of how determined he was to use limited force in the contest with Moscow for Third World client states. It is true, too, that the Kennedy Administration repeatedly announced America's determination to preserve South Vietnam's independence. In February of 1962 Robert Kennedy declared, "We are going to win in Vietnam. We will remain here until we do win." And JFK was willing to subsidize the expansion of the South Vietnamese military and to have more than 16,000 members of the U.S. military advising and directing Vietnamese combat operations—a project that would cost some American lives. Moreover, in August of 1963 Kennedy reluctantly signed off on a plot to have Vietnamese generals overthrow Diem's government, which had lost popular support and seemed certain to lose the civil war. But although all this risked greater U.S. responsibility for the fate of South Vietnam, Kennedy did not see it as leading—and certainly did not want it to lead—to the Americanization of the war. Indeed, his support for a coup rested on the hope that it would help South Vietnam to defeat the Vietcong and would greatly reduce the need for ongoing military support. And public statements like RFK's were more a device for bolstering Saigon's morale and intimidating the communists than a reliable expression of intentions—as the President's actions in Vietnam, especially in 1963, would show.
Kennedy had seen the Boer War, the Russo-Finnish conflict, and the Korean War as cautionary tales against getting bogged down in Cuba; now he perceived that the lessons of those wars applied even more strongly in Vietnam, a less familiar, more distant land with political crosscurrents even more formidable than those presented by Havana. He feared that U.S. involvement would produce irresistible pressure to do more and more. "The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer," he told Arthur Schlesinger, "and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another."
Throughout his tenure in the White House, Kennedy consistently resisted proposals to have U.S. forces take over the war. In November of 1961 Maxwell Taylor, a Kennedy military confidant, reported at a meeting of Administration and military officials that Kennedy was "instinctively against introduction of U.S. forces." According to notes taken at a meeting of the National Security Council that same month, Kennedy "expressed the fear of becoming involved simultaneously on two fronts on opposite sides of the world," and "questioned the wisdom of involvement in Viet Nam since the basis thereof is not completely clear." JFK thought that whereas in Korea the United States had responded to a case of clear aggression, the conflict in Vietnam was, according to the NSC notes, "more obscure and less flagrant." He believed that any unilateral commitment on our part would produce "sharp domestic partisan criticism as well as strong objections from other nations ... [and] could even make leading Democrats wary of proposed activities in the Far East."
From the summer of 1962 to the fall of 1963 Kennedy directed Robert McNamara to chart plans for a systematic withdrawal from Vietnam by 1965. Possibly as a concession to his own reluctance to abandon South Vietnam before its survival was assured, McNamara drew up a five-year schedule for the reduction of U.S. forces. He did not anticipate a full departure until 1968, when he expected to remove the last 1,500 advisers and reduce military aid to $40.8 million—less than a quarter of the sum spent in 1962.
Further evidence of Kennedy's intentions toward Vietnam comes in a backhanded but telling way from his dealings with the U.S. press corps in Saigon. The conventional wisdom is that Kennedy tried to censor news stories from Vietnam for fear that they would turn American public opinion against the war effort. And the press was indeed critical of the Administration's determination to hide the extent of U.S. involvement and its inability either to discourage Diem from repressing Buddhist dissenters or to compel him to fight the North Vietnamese aggressively. But the real reason Kennedy was intent on repressing these negative reports was not to prevent the spread of anti-war sentiment but, rather, to avert demands for escalation.
According to poll data from the period, few Americans were following the situation in Vietnam. By 1962 Kennedy had decided that to sustain what he believed was the proper level of commitment in the region—enough to keep South Vietnam afloat without any involvement of U.S. troops or direct military action—he needed to keep public attention to a minimum. He recognized that public debate might arouse the political left to call for total withdrawal. But the greater danger, he seemed to believe, was that people would think America was fighting too halfheartedly: press accounts that called attention to the U.S. military's limited advisory role might lead evangelical anti-communists on the political right to demand that involvement be increased.
In April of 1962 Averell Harriman, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, directed the U.S. embassy in Saigon to lower America's profile in the conflict as much as possible. The press had begun describing the struggle as more an American than a Vietnamese war. The names of combat operations, such as "Sunrise" and "Farmgate," suggested U.S. planning, and American advisers were making themselves too conspicuous. Reports that a large group of U.S. colonels and civilians had inspected a stockade in Operation Sunrise were a case in point. "Why do large groups of Americans inspect anything?" Harriman asked in a memo. Moreover, U.S. officers were talking too freely about their role in planning operations. "It cannot be overstressed," Harriman declared, "that the conduct and utterances public and private of all U.S. personnel must reflect the basic policy of this government that we are in full support of Viet-Nam but we do not assume responsibility for Viet-Nam's war with the Viet Cong."
In September of 1963 Kennedy was still trying to avert widespread public discussion of America's role in the conflict. He instructed the State Department's public-affairs officer, Robert Manning, to avoid press interviews and television appearances on the subject. When Manning reported in a memo to Kennedy that Roger Hilsman, the director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence, had been turning down calls from the press and TV stations, the President agreed that was wise.
In October, Kennedy asked Arthur Sulzberger, the newly appointed publisher of The New York Times, to remove the reporter David Halberstam from Saigon, where Halberstam was writing irrefutable accounts of U.S.-South Vietnamese failings in the war and implying that greater American involvement was necessary. (Halberstam, although he would later turn against the war, took the same position in his 1965 book The Making of a Quagmire.) Sulzberger refused.
Had Kennedy believed that it was more essential to stop a communist advance in Vietnam than to restrict America's part in the fighting, he surely would have touted the Administration's efforts to preserve Saigon's autonomy—and would have been more supportive of Halberstam and other reporters in their efforts to make the case for more-effective U.S. involvement. As a student of America's role in World Wars I and II and Korea, Kennedy knew that fighting a costly foreign war depended on steady public commitment, which could come only after convincing Americans of the country's vital stake in the conflict. The converse, as he saw it, given the political context, was that obscuring America's role and muting public discussion would help him to preserve the flexibility to reduce U.S. involvement or maintain it at the same level. (This is what Lyndon Johnson failed to understand. He, too, suppressed information about what the United States was doing in Indochina, but he did so in the mistaken belief that it would make it easier for him to intensify U.S. involvement. His effort to pursue this course without adequate public support ultimately doomed his presidency.)
After the November 1963 coup in Saigon that took Diem's life, Kennedy regretted encouraging an action that, he now believed, would deepen rather than reduce U.S. participation in Vietnamese affairs. In a tape recording made in the Oval Office on November 4, he said, "I feel that we [at the White House] must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August in which we suggested the coup. In my judgment that wire was badly drafted. It should never have been sent on a Saturday. I should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference at which McNamara and Taylor could have presented their views. While we did redress that balance in later wires, that first wire encouraged [Ambassador Henry Cabot] Lodge along a course to which he was in any case inclined ... The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government or whether ... public opinion in Saigon, the intellectuals, students, et cetera, will turn on this government as repressive and undemocratic in the not too distant future." More than ever, Kennedy seemed to feel that U.S. involvement in so unstable a country was a poor idea.
In an undated, unsigned memo in the President's office files from the late summer or fall of 1963 (possibly even after November 1), an Administration official provided "Observations on Vietnam and Cuba." Since the Soviets seemed to feel trapped in Cuba and we in Vietnam, this official asked, might it not make sense to invite Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, who maintained calculated relations with both Cold War superpowers, to propose a swap with the Soviets? (In other words, in exchange for the Soviets' leaving Cuba, the Americans would leave Vietnam.) Whether Kennedy ever saw this memo, or what reaction he might have had to it, is unknown. Nonetheless, it is clear that by November of 1963 Kennedy welcomed suggestions for an alternative to a Vietnam policy that had had limited success. On November 20, the day before he left on his fateful trip to Texas, Kennedy told Michael Forrestal, a senior staff member on the National Security Council and an assistant to the President on Far Eastern affairs, that at the start of 1964 he wanted him to organize "an in-depth study of every possible option we've got in Vietnam, including how to get out of there." He said, "We have to review this whole thing from the bottom to the top."
If Kennedy was opposed to a substantially larger U.S. role in the war, why did LBJ believe that he was simply following JFK's lead by escalating U.S. involvement? He believed it because Kennedy had significantly increased U.S. commitments during his presidency, and because three of Kennedy's principal foreign-policy advisers, Rusk, McNamara, and Bundy, departing from what Kennedy's final posture had been, told Johnson that expanded involvement would have been JFK's choice. More important, Johnson enlarged the U.S. role because he could not walk away from the conflict as Kennedy could have done, given enough time. By November of 1963 recent events had eclipsed memories of Kennedy's stumbling efforts at the Bay of Pigs and in Vienna. In fact, his record of success in the missile crisis and in the negotiation of a test-ban treaty with Moscow in the summer of 1963—a process he cut his military advisers out of—gave him considerable personal standing as a foreign-policy leader. Pulling back from Vietnam would not have undermined international or domestic confidence in Kennedy's direction of foreign affairs, especially given that poll data from as late as April of 1964 showed only 37 percent of the American public paying any attention to developments in Vietnam. Even in the spring and summer of 1965, after Johnson had begun a systematic bombing campaign and had dispatched 100,000 soldiers to the region, few Americans expected to see a victory in South Vietnam. In April of that year 45 percent of Americans polled predicted that a neutral or pro-communist government would take control of Saigon within the next five years; only 22 percent believed that Saigon would remain on Washington's side. By August most Americans assumed that the war would end with a compromise or, like the Korean War, with a negotiated settlement. In short, if a second-term Kennedy Administration had withdrawn U.S. fighting forces from Vietnam in 1965, few Americans would have felt that the United States had forfeited a chance at victory.
Johnson, in contrast, had few credentials as a world statesman and did not think he could deal effectively with communist adversaries abroad or conservative critics at home if he retreated from a Cold War challenge in Vietnam. When his need to demonstrate his foreign-policy toughness was coupled with his sincere belief in a war he saw as essential to containing communism, the result was a foreign-policy disaster.
In counterfactual history nothing is certain. But we do know that in November of 1963 Kennedy was strongly leaning both toward reducing tensions with Castro and against expanding commitments in Vietnam. And most historians agree that Kennedy, like Johnson, would have faced Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election and defeated him by a wide margin, just as Johnson did. This would have given Kennedy, now free from concern about re-election, the mandate to make a bold foreign-policy change while staring down his military advisers.