“It took a lot of courage on Kennedy’s part to defy the Pentagon, defy the military — and do the right thing,” said Col. Larry Wilkerson, USA (ret.), according to Robert Dreyfuss in his recent Rolling Stone article “The Generals’ Revolt.”
Wilkerson, who was chief of staff at the State Department (2002-2005) and now teaches at George Washington University, was alluding to President John F. Kennedy’s courage in 1962, when he faced down his top generals and refused to bomb Cuba and risk nuclear war.
That was as close as we came to nuclear calamity during the entire Cold War.
Despite the urgency of the threat posed by the Russian military buildup in Cuba (we now know the Russians had already placed nuclear weapons on the island), Kennedy’s deliberate decision-making style allowed enough time for cooler heads to prevail and yielded a peaceful solution.
A hallmark trait of John Kennedy was his ability to listen and learn. At the same time, he did not hesitate to challenge conventional wisdom.
Call that “dithering,” if you wish. I, for one, applaud President Barack Obama for following Kennedy’s calm, deliberative style, as Obama faces similar pressure from the military to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan.
Kennedy: Out of Vietnam
The Cuban crisis was not the only time JFK found himself at loggerheads with generals who thought they knew better and who verged on the insubordinate. Kennedy’s sustained arm wrestling with his senior generals over whether to send more troops to Vietnam was just as tense, and much more sustained.
In the end, he concluded that they had it wrong and decided against them. In short, he opted to behave like a President — a “decider” (pardon the odd word). His overruling of the U.S. military brass on Vietnam had huge implications, both short- and long-term. This “real history” is highly relevant today.
The 46th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination passed by last Sunday virtually unnoticed. The unfortunate thing is this: his legacy on Vietnam is so widely misunderstood that it is easy to miss the relevance of his decision-making in the early Sixties to the dilemma faced by President Obama today as he decides whether to stand up to – or cave in to – the Pentagon’s plans for escalating another misbegotten war in Afghanistan.
Faux history has it that President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s infusion of hundreds of thousands, up to 536,000, combat troops into Vietnam was a straight-line continuation of a buildup started by his slain predecessor. Kennedy did raise the U.S. troop level there from about 1,000 to 16,500 “advisers” — a significant increase.
But as he studied the options, cost and likely outcomes, Kennedy came to see U.S. intervention in Vietnam as a fool’s errand. Few Americans are aware that, just before he was assassinated, Kennedy had decided to pull all troops out of Vietnam by 1965.
The Pentagon was hell bent on thwarting such plans, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara found it an uphill struggle to enforce the President’s will on the top brass. Senior military officers were experts at “slow-rolling” politicians who favored a course that the Pentagon didn’t like.
When in May 1962 Kennedy ordered up a contingency troop-withdrawal plan, it took more than a year for the military brass to draw one up.
As the President encountered continuing resistance, he paid increasing attention to more level-headed military and civilian advisers as well as to his own intuition and instincts. Kennedy asked the Marine Commandant, Gen. David M. Shoup, “to look over the ground in Southeast Asia and counsel him.” Shoup told the President:
“Unless we are prepared to use a million men in a major drive, we should pull out before the war expands beyond control.”
Kennedy concluded that there was no responsible course other than to press for a phased withdrawal regardless of the opposition from his senior national security advisers. He decided to pull 1,000 troops out of Vietnam by the end of 1963 and the rest by 1965.
How To Do It
My Irish grandmother called Kennedy “a clever lad” and she was right.
Realizing that he had to exercise the utmost care in navigating choppy military and political waters, Kennedy employed the artifice of sending Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor on a “fact-finding” trip to Saigon. At the end of the trip they would “recommend” the course the President had already chosen.
Stopping in Hawaii en route back to Washington, McNamara and Taylor were given “their” report, which had been written by John and Robert Kennedy. It was instantly named the “McNamara-Taylor report” and the two travelers presented it to the President on the morning of Oct. 2, 1963.
Wasting no time, the President convened a National Security Council meeting that evening to discuss the report.
The senior military saw through the subterfuge and strongly opposed the key recommendations of the report. In his memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara wrote that the NSC meeting saw “heated debate about our recommendation that the Defense Department announce plans to withdraw U.S. military forces by the end of 1965, starting with the withdrawal of 1,000 men by the end of the year.”
In McNamara’s words, there was “a total lack of consensus.” However, there is only one “decider” on the National Security Council — the President. Kennedy stepped up to the plate and decided, bypassing the majority opposed.
Thirty-two years later in a Sept. 12, 1995, letter to the New York Times, McNamara took strong issue with a charge in an earlier op-ed that “the groundwork was being laid for our tragic escalation of the war” before President Kennedy was killed.
McNamara described the President’s reasoning in deciding to go ahead, despite the lack of consensus:
“[T]he President nonetheless authorized the beginning of withdrawal, believing that either our training and logistical support led to the progress claimed or, if it had not, additional training would not change the situation and, in either case, we should plan to withdraw.”
His decision made, Kennedy wasted no time in acting, well, like a President. He told McNamara to announce it immediately in order to “set it in concrete,” according to McNamara.
As the defense secretary was leaving the NSC meeting to tell White House reporters, the President called to him, "And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots, too,” according to Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers in their book, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.
The President’s policy was formalized nine days later in his National Security Action Memorandum Number 263 of Oct. 11, 1963. That document put into effect the McNamara-Taylor recommendations, which provided that:
“A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time … [and] the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.”
Whether Kennedy truly believed that the U.S. training program would succeed in helping the South Vietnamese prevail is doubtful. Clearly, he wanted out. He carried around in his conscience and from time to time spoke of the number of American troops already killed. (Eight died under Eisenhower; about 170 during Kennedy’s tenure.)
Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, to whom fell the task of announcing President Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, told James Douglass, author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, that Kennedy’s mind was fixed on Vietnam the day before. Instead of rehearsing for a press conference that day, Kennedy told Kilduff:
“I’ve just been given a list of the most recent casualties in Vietnam. We’re losing too damned many people over there. It’s time for us to get out. The Vietnamese are not fighting for themselves. We’re the ones who are doing the fighting.
“After I come back from Texas, that’s going to change. There is no reason for us to lose another man over there. Vietnam is not worth another American life.”
A month before, during his last visit to Hyannis Port, Kennedy told his next-door neighbor Larry Newman, “I’m going to get those guys out [of Vietnam] because we’re not going to find ourselves in a war it’s impossible to win.”
Kennedy understood that decisions on Vietnam were far too important to be left to myopic generals. They were still chafing at what they considered Kennedy’s failure in 1962 to seize the moment and obliterate Cuba — and perhaps also the U.S.S.R., while we were at it.
Add Kennedy’s clear desire to work closely (often secretly) with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a priority effort to prevent another Cuba-type crisis, and then letting generic “Communists” take over Vietnam – with “dominoes” expected to fall all over the place — and the military brass became convinced they needed to strongly oppose such “appeasement.”
‘Best and Brightest’
And it was not only the generals. Far from it. The “best and the brightest,” first and foremost McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, were also opposed to Kennedy’s decision to pull troops out of Vietnam.
Bundy strongly disagreed with the recommendations in the McNamara-Taylor report. He also resisted Kennedy’s frequently expressed doubts that foreign troops, even in large numbers, could prevail in guerrilla war, and Kennedy's determination never to send combat troops to Vietnam.
Bundy thought he knew better, refusing to believe that the President would ever “let South Vietnam go.” Years later, Bundy’s memoirs defended his views and advice to Kennedy on Vietnam.
However, after McNamara published In Retrospect in 1995, in which he concluded that “we were wrong, terribly wrong” on Vietnam, Bundy went back to the drawing board to rethink his assessment.
Bundy hired a man half his age, Gordon Goldstein, as research assistant to help him on what turned out to be Bundy’s personal quest for the roots of his own mistakes which, for the most part, were the result of hubris, pure and simple.
Early this year, author William Pfaff reviewed what started out as the Bundy Memoir Part II (McGeorge Bundy died in 1996), but ended up as Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Goldstein.
In the review, Pfaff highlights Bundy’s pedigree: tops at Groton, professor of government at Harvard and youngest dean of faculty; his mother a Boston Brahmin, his father a diplomat. Pfaff is ruthlessly on point in describing Bundy’s attitude:
“American had to ‘win’ in Vietnam because America always wins. America knows better than everyone else because of that intellectual firepower deployed at Harvard and other elite universities. America does not have to know about other people because other people are not worth knowing.
“Goldstein’s decisive clue to why Bundy failed came by accident. He found a note written in 1996, when Bundy was asked what had been most surprising about the war. He answered, ‘the endurance of the enemy.’ Goldstein writes: ‘He didn’t understand the enemy ‘because, frankly, he didn’t think they warranted his attention.’”
The good news for today comes from press reporting that top officials of the Obama administration, including the President, have read Goldstein’s book. Applying Kennedy’s challenge on Vietnam to Obama’s on Afghanistan, a Wall Street Journal report of Oct. 7 noted, “For opponents of a major troop increase … ‘Lessons in Disaster’ encapsulates their concerns about accepting military advice unchallenged.”
Obama Must Decide
There are hints that Obama is more Chicago than Harvard — and that, like Kennedy, he carries casualty figures around in his conscience. His late-night, early-morning appearance at Dover Air Force Base to salute what the Washington Post calls “transfer cases” coming home from the war is, I believe, a telling sign.
Obama knows they are not just “transfer cases.”
This young President, too, is a “clever lad;” he is also a politician. Intellectually, he is surely equipped to understand the March of Folly that would be involved, were he to send substantial additional forces to Afghanistan.
Moreover, Obama is surely aware that the majority of Americans are no longer deceived by the pundits at Fox News. Recent polls show broader and broader popular opposition to sending more troops.
The choice, in my view, is between courage anchored in a determination to do the right thing and cowardice cloaked in the politics of the possible. Let me guess what you’re thinking — “But that’s asking too much of a young President; cowardice is too strong a word; Obama cannot possibly face down the entire military establishment.”
John Kennedy did. So the question is whether Barack Obama is “no Jack Kennedy,” or whether he will summon the courage to stand up to the misguided military brass of today.
We are talking, after all, about thousands more being killed — and for what?
I would suggest to the President that he give another close read to Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster and then ponder the lessons that leap out of Barbara Tuchman’s The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.
Obama may also wish to ponder the words of W.E.B. Dubois:
“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.”