"Phase-out of US forces. SECDEF advised that the phase-out program presented during 6 May conference appeared too slow. In consonance with Part III request you develop a revised plan to accomplish more rapid phase-out of U.S. forces."
of 8th SecDef Conference on Vietnam
Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume III: JanuaryAugust 1963
Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume IV: AugustDecember 1963
These other FRUS Vietnam volumes are available online at the State Department's web site:
Interesting, the State Department's online copies of FRUS volumes includes every publication spanning the years 1961 through 1966, with the exception that it reproduces neither of the two 1963 volumes. History Matters is pleased to publish here electronic versions of these important historical volumes.
The 1990s saw the gaps in the declassified record on Vietnam filled inwith spring 1963 plans for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. An initial 1000 man pullout (of the approximately 17,000 stationed in Vietnam at that time) was initiated in October 1963, though it was diluted and rendered meaningless in the aftermath of Kennedy's death. The longer-range plans called for complete withdrawal of U. S. forces and a "Vietnamization" of the war, scheduled to happen largely after the 1964 elections.
The debate over whether withdrawal plans were underway in 1963 is now settled. What remains contentious is the "what if" scenario. What would Kennedy have done if he lived, given the worsening situation in Vietnam after the coup which resulted in the assassination of Vietnamese President Diem?
At the core of the debate is this question: Did President Kennedy really believe the rosy picture of the war effort being conveyed by his military advisors. Or was he onto the game, and instead couching his withdrawal plans in the language of optimism being fed to the White House?
The landmark book JFK and Vietnam asserted the latter, that Kennedy knew he was being deceived and played a deception game of his own, using the military's own rosy analysis as a justification for withdrawal. Newman's analysis, with its dark implications regarding JFK's murder, has been attacked from both mainstream sources and even those on the left. No less than Noam Chomsky devoted an entire book to disputing the thesis.
But declassifications since Newman's 1992 book have only served to buttress the thesis that the Vietnam withdrawal, kept under wraps to avoid a pre-election attack from the right, was Kennedy's plan regardless of the war's success. New releases have also brought into focus the chilling visions of the militarists of that erafour Presidents were advised to use nuclear weapons in Indochina. A recent book by David Kaiser, American Tragedy, shows a military hell bent on war in Asia.
The Vietnam war, instead of ending before it began in earnest, bloomed in the mid-1960s into a nightmare conflict that consumed 58,000 American lives and an unknown number of Vietnamese in the millions. Within America, the divide over the war existed not only in the streets but also within the halls of power, where many decided that the cost was too high.
The divide over foreign policy which smoldered during Kennedy's Presidency was not limited to Vietnam. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, military leaders were adamant that the missiles be taken out and Cuba invaded. They were joined in their advocacy by other prominent men of the day, including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and future Warren Commissioner Richard Russell. It was not learned until a few years ago that tactical nuclear missiles were also present on the island, and Soviet commanders had standing orders allowing their use in defending an invasion of Cuba. The less drastic blockade option which was chosen, vigorously opposed by the hawks, probably averted World War III.
One of the questions posed by the essays on this website is whether the assassination of President Kennedy was rooted in this deep foreign policy divide. Such questions are by their nature speculative and circumstantial. Nonetheless, a close reading of the history of the period, particularly in the light of long-delayed declassifications, makes that chilling possibility seem all too likely.
The Kennedy Assassination and the Vietnam War, by Peter Dale Scott. This 30-year-old essay, discussing the subtle but important Vietnam policy changes which immediately followed Kennedy's death, is still relevant. The declassified record has, where it hasn't disappeared altogether as in a few key places, borne out Peter Scott's analysis.
Exit Strategy, by James K. Galbraith. In this new essay hosted on bostonreview.net, the son of John Kenneth Galbraith presents the new documentary evidence of the JFK Vietnam withdrawal plan. Galbraith also rebuts critics who say that plan would have been dumped by Kennedy, had he lived, as the war effort turned sour in 1964.
JFK, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone, by Dr. Gary Aguilar. This essay iscusses how the declassified record on Kennedy's Vietnam policy has not been kind to those who vilified Stone for his depiction of the issue in the film JFK.
JFK and Vietnam, by Dr. John Newman, Warner Books, 1992. Dr. Newman's groundbreaking study of the intrigue and deception within the Kennedy government regarding Vietnam has only been further corroborated by later declassifications.
American Tragedy, by David Kaiser, Harvard University Press, 2000. While presenting a less nuanced view of the internal dynamics of the divided Kennedy administration, Kaiser's work nonetheless adds further documentation to the thesis that Kennedy was inalterably opposed to a widened conflict in Vietnam, a view vehemently not shared by his military chiefs.
Also worth reading is the controversial memoirs of Robert McNamara: In Retrospect, Random House, 1995. McNamara, in a better position to know that most, wrote: "I think it highly probable that, had President Kennedy lived, he would have pulled us out of Vietnam."