Fifty years ago this summer, Lyndon Johnson was gradually committing the United States to what most now see as a disastrous war in Vietnam. Certainly Vietnam was a disaster for President Johnson himself. While in 1964 and 1965 he pushed through Congress a program of domestic reform—in civil rights, health care, education, immigration law and much besides—the war put the brake on his dreams of a Great Society, aiming at transformative investments in cities, transportation and the environment. By 1967 it threatened the survival of his presidency, and in 1968 he decided not to run for a second term.
Even at the time President Kennedy’s admirers believed that he would not have made Johnson’s mistake. They called it “Johnson’s war.” Recently a number of historians (among them Gordon Goldstein, James G. Blight and janet M. Lang, and Thurston Clarke) have argued that Kennedy would not have taken the key decisions to bomb North Vietnamese territory and to send US combat troops to fight in South Vietnam.
Although this is an argument about “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago” it is not a matter of merely historical interest, nor is Lyndon Johnson’s the only reputation it affects. The memory of Vietnam haunts discussion of foreign policy to this day. It affects such tough contemporary decisions as whether to involve US forces in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. No future president is likely to take any such decision without the specter of Vietnam at his back.
I should say that I do not believe this question can be decided with absolute certainty. Both McGeorge Bundy and Larry O’Brien, two of the ablest men who worked close to both presidents, came to the conclusion that certainty on this matter is not possible, and the most careful of recent historians, Fredrik Logevall, refuses to be categorical. But my inclination is to believe that Kennedy would not have avoided commitment in Vietnam, and furthermore that those who believe he could have done so are motivated more by admiration for Kennedy and sometimes by contempt for Johnson than by the logic of events.
Those who believe that John Kennedy would have avoided commitment in Vietnam base their case on a variety of different arguments. Thurston Clarke believes that Kennedy’s personality was softened by the danger of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis and by the loss of his infant child Patrick in the summer of 1963. Several are impressed by the fact that JFK ordered a reduction by 1,000 in the number of advisors, but this reduction never took place. Others believe that Johnson, unlike Kennedy, was unable to withstand the advice of “hawkish” advisers, but the striking thing is the extent to which both presidents were advised by an almost identical team.
It is hard to avoid the suspicion in some cases that opinions were influenced by nothing much more specific than prejudice against LBJ as a Texan, a southerner, and a supposed conservative, though in fact in many ways (certainly in his assessment of the seriousness of racial conflict in the US) he was more liberal and less conservative than JFK.
The strongest argument against those who believe JFK would have avoided commitment to the war in 1965, in my judgment, is the argument of time; that is, the extent to which the situation had deteriorated between the time when JFK was taking his decisions and the time when LBJ had to take his.
JFK’s partisans all argue that, had he lived, their hero would have avoided the war because of things that were true of the time before he died, that is, in 1963. But any fair-minded examination of the documents and of subsequent memoirs makes it plain than the central argument for bombing the North and reinforcing the South with American combat troops was precisely the dramatic and grievous way in which, from an American point of view, the situation had deteriorated between the fall of 1963 and the spring of 1965.
That may not sound like a long time. But in that time (a) The government which the US had trusted to save South Vietnam from the Communists had created a disastrous crisis with the Buddhist majority of the population, had been overthrown, its two leaders had been murdered, and the government which replaced it had also collapsed. (b) The military situation had degraded disastrously. The Viet Cong had shown their ability to emerge from Delta villages and attack targets (including air bases like Pleiku, government-held towns like Bien Hoa and US army billets in Saigon like the Brinks Hotel) at will and with virtual immunity.
The immediate cause of the change of policy was the conclusion by McGeorge Bundy in February 1965 that there was “a widespread belief [in South Vietnam] that we do not have the will and force and patience and determination to take the necessary action and stay the course.” The only response, he added, must be “continuous bombing of North Vietnam.”
Two points are worth making. The first is that Bundy, whose mission led to this conclusion, had been invited to come to Saigon, so he could see the situation for himself, by General Maxwell Taylor, of all the generals the one closest to the Kennedy brothers. And furthermore, that he was reporting to the same Secretary of State (Dean Rusk) and the same Secretary of Defense as had served Kennedy.
The second is that Bundy made explicit in his report what I have always thought was the true, irreducible reason for American commitment to defeating North Vietnam, namely the paramount importance of demonstrating the credibility of America’s resolve as an ally.
Is one to conclude that Bundy and Taylor, McNamara and Rusk would have given different advice to Kennedy, if he had still been alive, than they gave to Johnson? I share the implication of George Kahin’s question: “is it more than wishful thinking to assume that the situation in Vietnam and the extent of American involvement there would have been significantly different for [Kennedy] at the end of January 1965 from the way it was for Lyndon Johnson?” That, to my mind, is the question Kennedy’s admirers have to answer.
The central part played by the need to maintain American credibility, the glue that holds together the informal America imperium, brings us up right up to date, to burning contemporary questions. On Libya and Syria, President Obama has so far judged that the preservation of American credibility does not demand military action. The rise of Daesh is only one of many developments which will ask the question: What should be the cost of American credibility?
Godfrey Hodgson was a White House correspondent for a London newspaper with a desk in the Washington Post newsroom during the Kennedy and Johnson years. He has worked as a reporter for print and television throughout the United States and has written sixteen books, most dealing with people and issues in American politics. He taught at Oxford University and lives in Oxfordshire, U.K.