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Kennedy 50 Years Later: Little Evidence JFK Would Have Left Vietnam in Second Term

Image: Kennedy 50 Years Later: Little Evidence JFK Would Have Left Vietnam in Second Term President John F. Kennedy meets in the White House cabinet room with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, left, Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), second left, and Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), on Sept. 9, 1963.

Friday, 22 Nov 2013 06:32 AM

By John Gizzi

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Americans today commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

One is sure to hear many "if only" conjectures about the 35th president. One of these is likely "If only Kennedy had survived the assassination in Dallas and won re-election, he would have reversed the U.S. military buildup in Vietnam."

It would be in direct contrast to the action taken by his successor, fellow Democrat Lyndon Johnson, and would have avoided America's longest war.

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But is there any hard evidence to support this claim? None at all. In fact, had President Kennedy been re-elected and taken this course, it would have contradicted just about every public action and statement he made about Vietnam during his presidency.

In his book "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye," onetime top Kennedy White House aide Ken O'Donnell wrote that he recalled a conversation between the president and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D.-Mont.) in May 1963 in which Kennedy said he "now agreed with the senator's thinking on the need for a complete withdrawal from Vietnam. 'But I can't do it until 1965 — after I'm re-elected.'"

According to O'Donnell, Kennedy told him: "If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm re-elected. So we had better make damned sure that I am re-elected."

Echoed without any supporting evidence by other allies of JFK, this claim of President Kennedy in his second term reversing the buildup of 16,000 troops in Vietnam, that occurred for the most part during his first term, has developed a life of its own.

In his much-praised biography of Kennedy, "An Unfinished Life," historian Robert Dallek concedes that "[n]o one can prove, of course, what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam between 1964 and 1968." But, Dallek concludes, "His actions and statements, however, are suggestive of a carefully managed stand-down from the sort of involvement that occurred under LBJ."

Do they? In an interview at his Hyannisport, Mass., home with CBS-TV's Walter Cronkite on Sept. 2, 1963, Kennedy said of Vietnam: " . . . I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of effort.

"Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy. But this is a very important struggle even though it is far away. We took all this — made this effort to defend Europe. Now Europe is quite secure. We also have to participate — we may not like it — in the defense of Asia."

At a news conference 10 days later, responding to a question about the current U.S. policy toward South Vietnam, the president underscored the U.S. commitment to winning .

"I think I have stated what my view is, and we are for those things and those policies which help win the war there," he said, "That is why some 25,000 Americans have traveled 10,000 miles to participate in that struggle. What helps to win the war, we support; what interferes with the war effort, we oppose.

"I have already made it clear that any action by either government which may handicap the winning of the war is inconsistent with our policy or our objectives.

" . . . [W]e want the war to be won, the Communists to be contained, and the Americans to go home. That is our policy. I am sure it is the policy of the people of Vietnam. But we are not there to see a war lost, and we will follow the policy which I have indicated today of advancing those causes and issues which help win the war."

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Two months later, the president’s own words recalled his pledge in 1960 to “build a national defense which is not ‘first but,’ not ‘first if,’ not ‘first when’ but first — period. The pledge has been fulfilled.”

In the same remarks, Kennedy hailed U.S. support of other countries fighting communism, declaring: “Our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky, and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today, But we dare not weary of the task . . . .”

" . . . [T]he righteousness of our cause must underlie our strength,” he concluded, “For as was written long ago: ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”

These are from texts of speeches never given, scheduled for the president to deliver in Dallas on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
 

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