Scott MacKay Commentary: What Would Have Happened In Vietnam Had Kennedy Lived?

Sep 29, 2017

Audiences have been watching Ken Burns' Vietnam War documentary on PBS. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay has been watching too, and this week he explores the complex question of what American war policy would have been without the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.


When President Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, there were only about 900 U.S. military advisors in Vietnam. By the time of his murder on November 22, 1963, a larger American presence of about 16,000 military and intelligence advisors were helping to prop up the foundering U.S. ally, South Vietnam.

The big escalation in Vietnam occurred under President Lyndon Johnson, the Vice-President who took over after Kennedy’s death. Johnson would ramp up American involvement to more than 500,000 combat troops. That decision would eventually spur massive street protests across the country, shatter Americans’ faith in government, force Johnson from office and create divisions in our society that linger still.

The question of what would have happened had Kennedy survived has long vexed historians. Those who believe that Johnson was following Kennedy’s policies point to JFK’s ardent Cold Warrior stance. At his inaugural, JFK invoked the twilight battle against Communism, saying our country would “bear any burden” to help allies fight the spread of communism.

“Kennedy had a young aggressive top gun attitude,’ says Mark Stoler, a diplomatic and military historian who taught at the University of Vermont, Williams College and the Naval War College.

Kennedy took office less than two decades after World War II, a war in which his brother died and that nearly cost JFK his life. One of the hard lessons of that war was that appeasing evil  – as England had done to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s - was folly.

The advisers who led Johnson’s war escalation were mostly Kennedy’s original foreign policy team – Defense  Secretary Robert McNamara, who would later turn against the conflict, and such Washington wise men as Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy and Walter Rostow.

The record shows that Kennedy agonized over the war, the weakness of the South Vietnamese government and the lack of a clear path to victory. Yet, just seven weeks before his death, the president told television’s Walter Cronkite, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.”

On the other side are Kennedy political allies. They maintain that Kennedy was seeking a way out and that he wouldn’t have created the quagmire that ruined Johnson’s presidency. These include JFK biographer Arthur Schlesinger. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, and some political aides. They cite Kennedy’s decision, shortly before his death, to pull 1,000 advisors from Vietnam.

Kenneth O’Donnell Jr. is a Vietnam veteran. He is also the son of Kenneth O’Donnell, who was JFK’s political consigliere.  The younger O’Donnell recalls asking his father shortly before Kennedy’s death why the nation was in Vietnam. His father told him that the president was planning to withdraw after the 1964 election. JFK didn’t want to rile up conservative anti-communist opposition and perhaps provoke a new round of McCarthyism that could jeopardize his reelection.

Historian James Galbraith of the University of Texas, son of Kennedy confidante Kenneth Galbraith, comes to a similar conclusion. JFK, Galbraith says, subordinated withdrawal to his own political fortunes. “He was quite prepared to leave soldiers in harm’s way until his own reelection.”

Kennedy was more wary of Pentagon generals than was Johnson. JFK felt burned by their advice during the fiasco that became the 1961 Bay of Pigs, an aborted attempt by the U.S. to help overthrow the communist Castro-led government in Cuba.

Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall, is a Vietnam expert and consultant to the Burns series. He said in a recent Boston Globe interview that JFK had doubts about Vietnam as early as 1951, when he visited Indochina as a Boston congressman during the French war. Logevall says Kennedy doubted that Vietnam was important enough to send U.S. ground troops to try to win. “The contradiction,” says Logevall, “is that beginning in 1962 JFK expanded U.S. military involvement, sending more weapons, equipment and aircraft.”

“I still believe that a surviving JFK, most likely –because we can never know for sure—most likely would have avoided large-scale war like the type that Johnson entered into,” says Logevall.

Stoler, the military and diplomatic historian, cautions against viewing JFK in the gauze of liberal nostalgia. “Rather than see him as a knight in shining armor, I think we have to say we will never know for certain.”

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org