Nonsense on the Vietnam War

On The Commentator blog, James Boys has an article which ostensibly attacks President Obama’s statement that would put the commencement of the Vietnam War in 1962, a year when John F Kennedy (JFK) was President. In practice, the article presents a severe distortion of the reality. Boys tries to suggest a substantial difference of view between JFK and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), of American involvement in Vietnam.

Specifically, Boys states:

Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor reported back from Vietnam that One thousand troops could be withdrawn by the end of 1963, and that the United States would be able to withdraw all military personnel by the end of 1965.”

This plan was outlined in the Top Secret national Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11th, 1963. This was the order to start the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. “It’s their war,” President Kennedy stated “they’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.” This stance was a serious deviation from the cold war policies of the past, and many speculated that it would be indicative of Kennedy’s second term….

John F. Kennedy had never been an advocate of fighting a land war in Asia, agreeing with General Douglas McArthur that to do so would be futile.” Lyndon Johnson however saw the situation in a different light….To Kennedy, Vietnam had been a distant war, and one to be avoided. To Lyndon Johnson, it was almost personal.

One of Johnson’s first acts as President was to sign National Security Action Memorandum 273, reversing Kennedy’s withdrawal policy….

The image that Boys wishes to leave readers is clear: had JFK not been assassinated, there would have been no ground troops and the horrors of the US decisions for war can be laid fairly at the feet of LBJ.

While it is true that according to NSAM 263 that “The President [JFK] approved the military recommendations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the [McNamara-Taylor] report,” he also “directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.” It can be also noted when looking at the McNamara-Taylor report that the withdrawal of troops was due to be “In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions” and “without impairment of the war effort.”

Fredrik Logevall, in his analysis of the situation, (Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, [University of California Press, 1999], pp.69-74), argued that the withdrawal of 1,000 troops was “primarily a device to put pressure on [South Vietnamese leader] Diem,” only designed to be a “token” withdrawal and that “nothing in the voluminous internal record for 1962 and 1963” suggested otherwise. Logevall is explicit, “When judged together, the McNamara-Taylor report, NSAM 263, and the accompanying documents all demonstrate clearly that the one-thousand-man withdrawal signalled no lessening of the American commitment to South Vietnam.”

Boys quotes Kennedy as saying, “It’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.” While he does not provide his source, these were part of Kennedy’s remarks to Walter Cronkite in a television interview on September 2, 1963.  This interview has been uploaded in full to YouTube. The relevant quote used by Boys can be seen between sections 14:00 and 14:04. What Boys has missed out are Kennedy’s further comments. I quote below the section between 16:41 and 17:07:

. . in the final analysis it is the people and the Government [of South Vietnam] itself who have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we are making it very clear. But 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 an 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.

By missing out this section where Kennedy makes it clear that he does not think America should withdraw from Vietnam, Boys has presented a distorted picture of Kennedy’s views.

Boys suggests that LBJ’s NSAM 273 (signed on November 26, 1963, a few days after Kennedy was assassinated) was a reversal of Kennedy’s withdrawal policy. This is false. NSAM 273 clearly states:

The objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal of U. S. military personnel remain as stated in the White House statement of October 2, 1963.

But more importantly, a very similar draft of this document, was prepared on November 21, 1963. The document refers to the President, who, on that date, was JFK as he was not assassinated until the following day. Consequently, while NSAM 273 was signed with a reference where LBJ was President, that was mainly because JFK has been assassinated. Had the assassination not occurred then NSAM 273 would have been JFK’s document. LBJ’s policy in Vietnam commencing with NSAM 273 was not therefore a reversal of JFK’s policies, but a continuation of them.

This nonsense of Boys is more suited to a film by Oliver Stone and the babble of JFK assassination conspiracy theorists than to a discussion on historical reality. It is a great shame that The Commentator published it.

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