Kennedy and the Cold War

Throughout his pre-presidential career, JFK was an active Cold Warrior. As noted, his first Congressional campaign boasted of taking on the anti-Cold War faction of the Democratic party led by Henry Wallace, and as a congressman he aligned himself with those who said the Truman Administration wasn't being tough enough, when he willingly attached his name to the chorus demanding "Who Lost China?"

One does not even have to rehash his relationship with Joseph McCarthy to show how JFK willingly played the "tough on communism" issue in all his campaigns. In 1952, while running for the Senate, he proudly trumpeted the fact that during his first term in the House, even before Nixon had won fame for the exposure of Alger Hiss, JFK's work on a labor committee led to the conviction of a communist union official. While in Congress, he supported all of America's overseas activities in waging the Cold War.

Even while running for President in 1960, JFK appealed to the "tough on the Soviets" issue by consistently hammering at Eisenhower for America's supposed lack of leadership, and America "falling behind the Soviets." It was JFK, promising more money for defense spending and American readiness when he charged Eisenhower for allowing a non-existent "missile gap" to develop between the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. And it was JFK, who during the debates with Nixon, charged that Eisenhower policy had resulted in the loss of Cuba.

Upon assuming the Presidency, JFK's Inaugural Address was as hawkish as one could ever get. "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

As President, JFK, in order to credibly claim he had taken action against the "missile gap," ordered an increase in spending on nuclear missiles that set off an arms race that resulted in America losing its nuclear superiority by the end of the decade. Those who point to the Limited Test Ban Treaty as proof of JFK wanting to begin the first step toward disarmament, should remember that JFK wanted a ban chiefly for environmental reasons, and not because he envisioned the long-term elimination of nuclear weapons. Indeed, it was JFK's own Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara who came up with the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) principle that was dependent entirely on the maintenance of a sizable nuclear arsenal.

JFK, to be sure, did make efforts to reduce direct tensions with the USSR following the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the installation of a teletype Hot Line was seen as essential to preventing the slowness of communication that had hampered talks during the crisis from happening again. But merely because JFK wanted to reduce direct tensions with the USSR in no way meant backing away from the basic principle of containment first enunciated in the Truman Doctrine. Khrushchev had still publically declared that the Soviets would support "wars of national liberation" wherever they occurred in the world, and since JFK firmly believed in the "Domino Theory" (as he told David Brinkley in the fall of 1963), then the idea of backing away from containment was impractical from a national security stanpoint, let alone a political one.

It was for these reasons alone, that holding the line in Vietnam was essential. It was JFK who increased America's troop number from 500 to 16,000 and he repeatedly insisted that while Vietnam might have been "in the final analysis, their war," American troops were nontheless not there "to see a war lost" and that he totally disagreed with those who were suggesting the idea of a pullout. "I think that would be a mistake," he said to Walter Cronkite in 1963.

That JFK was determined not to see Vietnam lost was borne out by his actions all throughout 1963. It was JFK who decided that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem needed to be removed from office not because Diem was engaging in repression against Buddhists, but because Kennedy had become convinced that Diem was an impediment to winning the war. As a result, when prodding from Washington failed to work, it was JFK who authorized the coup that resulted in Diem's overthrow and assassination on November 1, 1963 (the latter was not desired by JFK, but it was extremely naïve for him to not foresee such a result). Those who insist that JFK was ready to wash his hands of Vietnam and abandon the South never seem to realize that if that were the case, then why did JFK meddle so much in South Vietnamese politics right up to the eve of his death? Since the South was not in any immediate danger of collapse, it would have been far simpler for JFK to disengage than by engineering a coup against Diem.

Revisionists who claim otherwise about JFK and Vietnam hinge their assertions on two points. One, are the stories told by JFK aides Dave Powers and Ken O'Donnell that JFK had privately revealed his intention to withdraw, but only after the 1964 elections, when it would be politically far more feasible to do so. This assertion has to be taken with a grain of salt. The O'Donnell/Powers story, appeared in 1971 at a time when America was still deeply embroiled in Vietnam, and when all the Democrats who had originally supported the committment were now against the war, especially since it was now Republican Richard Nixon's war.

But five years earlier, when Vietnam had not yet torn the nation apart as deeply as it would by 1967 and 1968, the attitude of the JFK faction was entirely different. All of them, from Arthur Schlesinger to Pierre Salinger, and most importantly Teddy and Robert Kennedy, put aside their distaste for Lyndon Johnson to support the initial committment because, in their minds, Vietnam was perceived as having been a Kennedy operation. Not until late 1966 and 1967, when Vietnam was now seen in the public perception as having been entirely started by LBJ, was it safe for the Kennedy faction to be anti-war without being anti-JFK. And by 1971, there was hardly anyone in America who still remembered Vietnam as having been at one time a Kennedy operation. Therefore, when this context of when O'Donnell and Powers wrote their memoir is taken into account, one cannot call this confirmation of JFK's real intentions.

More importantly, the active policymakers, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, insisted that JFK never discussed pulling out at any time. Even more telling is the fact that when Lyndon Johnson did make the decision to go to war one year later, the advice he took came entirely from Kennedy holdovers, including Rusk, Robert McNamara, and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. The only voice raised in opposition to a committment was undersecretary of State George Ball, but he had never held more influence over JFK than the others.

In point of fact, the one person who knew JFK better than anyone else, Robert Kennedy, was willing to let history know exactly what his brother's intentions in Vietnam had been as early as 1964 and 1965, the critical period before it had truly become "Johnson's War." In a series of oral history interviews for the JFK Library, RFK said that "it was worthwhile for psychological, political reasons" to stay in Vietnam.

"The President felt that he had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam....If you lost Vietnam, I think everybody was quite clear that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall." (32)

John Bartlow Martin point-blank asked RFK "if the President was convinced that the United States had to stay in Vietnam." The one-word response was "Yes." (33)

None of this means we can tell for certain what JFK would have done had he been forced to make the tough decisions of 1964 and 1965 that LBJ made. In the same interview, Martin asked RFK whether JFK had been prepared to make a full-scale land committment, and RFK responded, "We'd face that when we came to it." Not proof that JFK would have acted the same way, but definite proof that he had made no decision to act in the manner described by Oliver Stone. (34)

At any rate, it seems incredulous to think that the argument of Kennedy partisans that JFK was planning a pullout only when the election was over, should somehow make JFK seem heroic. If that were in fact true, then what the JFK partisans are saying is that JFK was prepared to lie to the American public, and to the South Vietnamese people and government about his committment to South Vietnam for the sake of pure politics. At the same time, JFK would have been willing to make all of America's allies wonder if America was serious about keeping its word in honoring its committments, if he in fact went through with such a cynical betrayal of the South. It stretches the imagination to think that a man of JFK's political savvy would have been willing to sacrifice American credibility in such a cynical fashion by promising to defend the South in 1964, and then throwing them to the wolves in 1965.

The other cornerstone of the pullout thesis is the fact that at one point in the Fall of 1963, JFK had made tentative steps toward having 1000 of the 16,000 advisors withdrawn by years end, as embodied in an on-site evaluation by Maxwell Taylor and Robert McNamara. This is frequently cited as having been the first phase of a planned pullout, but this is not the case. Not only do all the above advisors (RFK and Rusk) confirm that their was no overall pullout planned, but JFK had already announced at his October 31, 1963 press conference that of the 1000, the first 250 would come from the ranks of those "who are not involved in what might be called front-line operations." JFK was also careful to stress in the press conference that the proposed 1000 troop reduction was not a done deal, since it was dependent on the increased efficiency of the South Vietnamese performance. (35)

With JFK ambivalent about what he'd do in the future, but still determined to hold the line and not see the war lost if he could help it, the motive behind the "fascist coup'd'etat" goes completely out the window. As noted, it is dependant on the idea that JFK was naive enough to think he could get away with seeing Vietnam fall without being subjected to the same kind of backlash that he himself had taken part in as a Congressman against the Truman Admininstration over "who lost China." Had he taken that risk, then he would also have lost all his credibility in being able to get domestic legislation through the Congress as well. (Not that he had much at that point anyway.) One only has to reread Theodore White's The Making of a President to see that JFK was certainly not that stupid when it came to politics.

The real JFK is to be found not in the fantasies of Oliver Stone, but in the summation by biographer Thomas Reeves.

Given his belief in the global struggle between east and west, his acceptance of the domino theory, his conviction that Vietnam was the testing ground for combatting 'wars of national liberation,' his often zealous committment to counterinsurgency, and his determination to never appear soft on communism, Jack might well have been compelled, as conditions worsened, to commit more American troops to Vietnam. It is clear that his harsh public rhetoric made disengagement more difficult. And his clumsy and unprincipled acquiescence in the coup tied the United States closely to the eight military governments that briefly succeeded Diem. (A Question of Character, p. 411)

Indeed, by overthrowing Diem, and ushering in a period of instability that lasted until the accession of Nquyen Van Theiu in 1967, JFK left Lyndon Johnson with the unpleasant dichotomy of either go-in full-scale or pull-out completely in 1964, when the decision had to be made. By removing Diem, there could be no "Vietnamzation" option for LBJ because the conditions made it impossible. Facing the detrimental political risks that had plagued JFK, LBJ virtually had no choice but to increase the American role. The decision was ultimately made for LBJ not by the "military-industrial complex" but by the legacy of John F. Kennedy's actions.

(32) Reeves, 410-411; Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words, 394-395.

(33) Ibid.

(34) Ibid.

(35) Ibid.; Reeves, 643 from transcript of JFK press conference, 10/31/63.

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