Kennedy Assassination Context Vietnam War and the assassination

Going to Withdraw from Vietnam?

That, conspiracy books will tell you, is the reason Kennedy was killed. The evidence? A claimed change in policy represented by National Security Action Memorandum 263 (approved by Kennedy), and NSAM 273 (approved by Johnson). The former supposedly envisioned a complete American withdrawal from Vietnam, and the latter a wider war. Read them for yourself, and see whether you see any substantial difference. Note that NSAM 273 was drafted during Kennedy's administration, and then approved by Johnson. Check the NSAM 273 draft, and see whether it differs in any significant way from the final document.

The critical part of NSAM 263, the one pointed to by the conspiracy theorists, is as follows:


TO:     Secretary of State
        Secretary of Defense
        Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

SUBJECT: South Vietnam
At a meeting on October 5, 1963, the President considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam.

The President approved the military recommendations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the report, but 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.

Note that this was in response to a report from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor. And that the President wanted "no formal announcement" made of the 1,000 troop withdrawal.

Why? Looking at the McNamara/Taylor report provides some guidance on this point. The following is from Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, Volume IV.

Record of Action No. 2472, Taken at the 519th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, October 2, 1963


a. Endorsed the basic presentation on Vietnam made by Secretary McNamara and General Taylor.

b. Noted the President's approval of the following statement of U.S. policy which was later released to the press:

1. The security of South Viet Nam is a major interest of the United States as other free nations. We will adhere to our policy of working with the people and Government of South Viet Nam to deny this country to Communism and to suppress the externally stimulated and supported insurgency of the Viet Cong as promptly as possible. Effective performance in this undertaking is the central objective of our policy in South Viet Nam.

2. The military program in South Viet Nam has made progress and is sound in principle, though improvements are being energetically sought.

3. Major U.S. assistance in support of this military effort is needed only until the insurgency has been suppressed or until the national security forces of the Government of South Viet Nam are capable of suppressing it.

Secretary McNamara and General Taylor reported their judgment that the major part of the U.S. military task can be completed by the end of 1965, although there may be a continuing requirement for a limited number of U.S. training personnel. They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.

4. The political situation in South Viet Nam remains deeply serious. The United States has made clear its continuing opposition to any repressive actions in South Viet Nam. While such actions have not yet significantly affected the military effort, they could do so in the future.

5. It remains the policy of the United States, in South Viet Nam as in other parts of the world, to support the efforts of the people of that country to defeat aggression and to build a peaceful and free society.


Source: Department of State, S/S-NSC Files: Lot 70 D 265, NSC Meetings. Secret.

Printed in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963, pp. 759-760. McGeorge Bundy sent Lodge the following telegram explaining this statement:

Statement issued after NSC meeting today represents President's own judgment of common purpose and policy established by you and McNamara mission and is designed to strengthen your hand in next phase.
Note that the 1,000 troop withdrawal was based on the notion that "the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn." The assumption was that the South Vietnamese could — indeed were — learning to take over their own defense.

Point 3 bears repeating:

3. Major U.S. assistance in support of this military effort is needed only until the insurgency has been suppressed or until the national security forces of the Government of South Viet Nam are capable of suppressing it.
Note that the Bundy telegram to Lodge says this "represents President's own judgment of common purpose and policy."

So why didn't the president want this released? Quite probably because the withdrawal was contingent on the Vietnamese being able to take up the slack. Why promise something that you might not be able to deliver?

Another consideration is discussed by the preeminent historian of the war, Stanley Karnow:

Early in 1963, South Vietnam's rigid President Ngo Dinh Diem was cracking down on internal dissidents, throwing the country into chaos. Fearing that the turmoil would benefit the Communist insurgents, Kennedy conceived of bringing home one thousand of the sixteen thousand American military advisers as a way of prodding Diem into behaving more leniently. Kennedy's decision was codified in National Security Action Memorandum, or NSAM 263. Its aim was to "indicate our displeasure" with Diem and "create significant uncertainty" in him "as to the future intentions of the United States." Kennedy hoped the scheme, which also scheduled a reduction of the U.S. forces over the next two years, would give the South Vietnamese the chance to strengthen themselves. (In Mark C. Carnes, ed. Past Imperfect, p. 272)
Thus the "withdrawal" was not the first step in surrendering Vietnam to the communists, it was part of a strategy to get the sort of government in Saigon that could win the war. Indeed, displeasure with the government in Saigon eventually led the U.S. to acquiesce in a coup that toppled the Diem regime.

The U. S. Government and the Diem Coup

From the 1971 Gravel edition of The Pentagon Papers, Volume 2, p. 201:
The Diem coup was one of those critical events in the history of U.S. policy that could have altered our commitment. The choices were there: (1) continue to plod along in a limited fashion with Diem - despite his and Nhu's growing unpopularity; (2) encourage or tacitly support the overthrow of Diem, taking the risk that the GVN might crumble and/or accommodate to the VC; and (3) grasp the opportunity - with the obvious risks - of the political instability in South Vietnam to disengage. The first option was rejected because of the belief that we could not win with Diem-Nhu. The third was [never] very seriously considered a policy alternative because of the assumption that an independent, non-communist SVN was too important a strategic interest to abandon - and because the situation was not sufficiently drastic to call into question so basic an assumption. The second course was chosen mainly for the reasons the first was rejected - Vietnam was thought too important; we wanted to win; and the rebellious generals seemed to offer that prospect.
Thus neither the growing unpopularity of Diem, nor the coup tacitly supported by the U.S., led to a U.S. withdrawal, notwithstanding that either would have provided a perfect excuse to get out. But getting out was rejected because "Vietnam was thought too important; we wanted to win . . . ." At this early point, of course, winning seemed possible, even without a massive buildup of U.S. forces. Push had not come to shove in Vietnam, and Kennedy would have been foolish to admit defeat at this point.

When push did come to shove, Kennedy was no longer president.

Lyndon Johnson a Warmonger?

In conspiracy books, and in the movie JFK, Johnson is presented as an extreme hawk intent on getting the US into a full-blown war in Southeast Asia. But the recent release of tapes from the Johnson White House has shown that this picture is radically unfair. George McGovern, a member of the U.S. Senate during the Vietnam War, and a strident critic of the war, notes the following in a column in the New York Times (Dec. 5, 1999):
On May 27, 1964, six months into his presidency, Johnson asks Russell on one tape, "What do you think of this Vietnam thing?" Russell answers: "It's the damn worst mess I ever saw, and I don't like to brag. I never have been right many times in my life. But I knew that we were going to get into this sort of mess when we went in there." To which Johnson replies: "That's the way that I've been feeling for six months."

Russell answers: "If I was going to get out, I'd get the same crowd that got rid of old Diem to get rid of these people and get some fellow in there that said he wished to hell we would get out. That would give us a good excuse for getting out . . . ."

"How important is it to us?" Johnson asks.

"It isn't important a damn bit, with all these new missile systems," Russell replies.

Later, Johnson tells Russell: "I've got a little old sergeant that works for me over at the house, and he's got six children, and I just put him up there as the United States Army, Air Force and Navy every time I think about making this decision, and think about sending that father of those six kids in there. And what the hell are we going to get out of his doing it? And it just makes the chills run up my back." To which Russell replies: "It does me. I just can't see it."

Later that day Johnson tells his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy: "I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think that we can get out. It just the biggest damn mess I ever saw." To which Bundy replies: "It is. It's an awful mess." Johnson makes a final observation to Bundy: "It's damned easy to get in a war, but it's gonna be awfully hard to extricate yourself if you get in."

You can hear excerpts from some of these conversations at the History Out Loud page, and also at the Miller Center website.

A photo taken while at the LBJ Ranch in 1964, shows Defense Secretary Robert McNamara discussing problems in Vietnam with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

When he assumed office, Johnson did not toss out Kennedy's foreign policy advisors and replace them with pro-war hawks. Rather, Johnson's foreign policy team consisted almost entirely of men kept on from the Kennedy Administration. Here is a July 24, 1968 luncheon with (left to right) General Maxwell Taylor, CIA Director Richard Helms, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Why did LBJ get into Vietnam if he had such severe misgivings? According to Stanley Karnow, he did so to protect his liberal domestic agenda. Remembering the "who lost China" recriminations that followed the Communist victory there, he knew that the fall of South Vietnam might harm his domestic agenda.

Kennedy's Vietnam Rhetoric

Denise Bostdorff and Steven Goldzwig are two academics who study rhetoric. Their article "Idealism and pragmatism in American foreign policy rhetoric: The case of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam" examines Kennedy's public statements about Vietnam. They find he mentioned the subject often, sometimes went out of his way to invoke it, and used both idealistic and pragmatic arguments to support American involvement. A cynic might dismiss these as "just rhetoric," but Bostdorff and Goldzwig believe that "Even if Kennedy had lived, we imagine that the president would have found it very hard to back down from such bold declarations of principle once he had made them so repeatedly during his first three years in office."

What Was Kennedy Saying at the Time of His Death?

In September of 1963, Kennedy did two TV interviews in which policy toward Vietnam was discussed. The first was with Walter Cronkite on September 2nd. In it, Kennedy made the famous statement that is quoted by Oliver Stone and other conspiracists:
I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.
Kennedy then goes on to talk about problems with the Diem regime, and concludes:
. . . 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.
Not surprisingly, conspiracists rarely if ever quote the latter part of that passage.

One week later, on September 9th, Kennedy was interviewed by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC. Here is the portion of the interview concerning Vietnam:

Mr. HUNTLEY. Are we likely to reduce our aid to South Viet-Nam now?

The PRESIDENT. I don't think we think that would be helpful at this time. If you reduce your aid, it is possible you could have some effect upon the government structure there. On the other hand, you might have a situation which could bring about a collapse. Strongly in our mind is what happened in the case of China at the end of World War II, where China was lost, a weak government became increasingly unable to control events. We don't want that.

Mr. BRINKLEY. Mr. President, have you had any reason to doubt this so-called "domino theory," that if South Viet-Nam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it?

The PRESIDENT. No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Viet-Nam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.

[and a little later in the interview]

What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say, because they don't like events in Southeast Asia or they don't like the Government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay.

We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.

In his undelivered speech at the Trade Mart in Dallas, Kennedy planned to address the issue of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The following is an excerpt:
Our security and strength, in the last analysis, directly depend on the security and strength of others — and that is why our military and economic assistance plays such a key role in enabling those who live on the periphery of the Communist world to maintain their independence of choice. 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 . . . . A successful Communist breakthrough in these areas, necessitating direct United States intervention, would cost us several times as much as our entire foreign aid program—and might cost us heavily in American lives as well.

About 70 per cent of our military assistance goes to nine key countries located on or near the borders of the Communist bloc—nine countries confronted directly or indirectly with the threat of Communist aggression—Viet Nam, Free China, Korea, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Greece, Turkey and Iran. . . . Reducing our efforts to train, equip and assist their armies can only encourage Communist penetration and require in time the increased overseas deployment of American combat forces. And reducing the help needed to bolster these nations that undertake to help defend freedom can have the same disastrous result.

You may wish to read the entire speech. Was the above taken out of context? Or was there a consistent world-view and vision here?

Did Kennedy Threaten the Military Industrial Complex?

Yet another undelivered speech was prepared for the Texas Democratic State Committee in the Municipal Auditorium in Austin, November 22, 1963. In this speech, Kennedy was to declare:
In Fort Worth, I pledged in 1960 to build a national defense which was second to none—a position I said, which is not "first, but," not "first, if," not "first, when," but first—period. That pledge has been fulfilled. In the past 3 years we have increased our defense budget by over 20 percent; increased the program for acquisition of Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minuteman missile purchase program by more than 75 percent; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by 60 percent; added 5 combat ready divisions and 5 tactical fighter wings to our Armed Forces; increased our strategic airlift capabilities by 75 percent; and increased our special counter-insurgency forces by 600 percent. We can truly say today, with pride in our voices and peace in our hearts, that the defensive forces of the United States are, without a doubt, the most powerful and resourceful forces anywhere in the world.
Again, you may wish to review the entire speech. In it, Kennedy makes some courageous remarks about Civil Rights, but mostly brags about economic growth, about his military buildup, about the space program, and about pork-barrel projects in Texas.

In Forth Worth, on the morning of the assassination, Kennedy gave a speech that contained a passage very similar to the one quoted above:

In the past 3 years we have increased the defense budget of the United States by over 20 percent; increased the program of acquisition for Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minuteman missile purchase program by more than 75 percent; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by over 60 percent; added five combat ready divisions to the Army of the United States, and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force of the United States; increased our strategic airlift capability by 75 percent; and increased our special counterinsurgency forces which are engaged now in South Viet-Nam by 600 percent.
If Kennedy expected a Communist takeover in Vietnam, and intended to pull out, why would he be bragging about U.S. intervention?

Kennedy at Laos Press Briefing

An Historian's Perspective

Eric Paddon, like a majority of historians of the 60s, doubts that John Kennedy had plans to withdraw from Vietnam. Although we can never really know, Kennedy was the sort of tough-minded Cold Warrior whose policies might have drawn the U.S. into the conflict in exactly the same way Johnson's did. See Paddon's essay for the details.

What Did Bobby Say?

Robert Kennedy was John Kennedy's brother, advisor, and closest confidant. Read what he said in April 1964 about John Kennedy's intentions regarding Vietnam.
In a 1965 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Robert Kennedy says he doesn't "know what the alternative would be" to American involvement. He adds that anybody has a solution as to how you get out of it "other than to pack up and leave" and "I don't think anybody suggests that at the moment."

An odd thing to say if that was exactly what JFK intended.

You can see a longer clip from the interview here..

Bobby Kennedy on “Face the Nation” November 6, 1967:

Bobby says “mistakes were made” and admits he was involved in those mistakes in both the JFK and Johnson Administrations. He defends the early rationale for the war: self-determination for the people of South Vietnam. He never claims his bother was planning to pull out.

You can watch a longer clip from the interview here.

John and Bobby: Innocent Babes?
For many conspiracists, John and Bobby Kennedy were idealists who would never have thought of trying to use deceit and force to remove Castro from power, and would have never tried to kill him. The historical record is much different. See:

Did Eisenhower Agree With Oliver Stone?

President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about the Military-Industrial Complex. Did he believe it to be the sort of sinister cabal that conspiracy theorists do? Read Ike's Farewell Address, and decide for yourself.

Vietnam Document Trail

The following is a set of documents tracing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It's only a small sampling of the massive paper-trail you would find in The Pentagon Papers or Foreign Relations of the United States, but it's revealing, and particularly shows nuances that JFK assassination conspiracy theorists ignore or cover up.
  1. Eisenhower's Letter of Support to Ngo Dinh Diem, October 23, 1954
  2. Excerpts from Rusk-McNamara report to President Kennedy, 1961
  3. President Kennedy's memo listing items to be discussed before a November, 1961 National Security Council Meeting. Kennedy is preparing to fight a war in Vietnam.
  4. John Kennedy's 1961 letter of support to Ngo Dinh Diem
  5. April 1963 White House meeting with Britisher R.G.K. Thompson
  6. Michael V. Forrestal memorandum for the record on April 1963 White House meeting on Laos
  7. CIA memo describes April 1963 meeting on the situation in Laos
  8. National Security Council Meeting in April, 1963, discusses Laos
  9. In May of 1963, Admiral Felt feared that plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965 were too optimistic
  10. Cable to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon instructs him to pressure Diem government to be less repressive, says U.S. will accept a coup
  11. Secretary of State Dean Rusk laments repressive policies of the government of South Vietnam in telegram to Lodge.
  12. Cable to Embassy in Saigon outlines erosion of domestic support for war effort.
  13. National Security Council meeting of October 2, 1963, discusses problems with the Diem government in Vietnam.
  14. White House Statement, October 2, 1963 — contains the famous "1,000 troop withdrawal" and the intention to be out of Vietnam by the end of 1965.
  15. Phone Conversation Between Ngo Dinh Diem and Henry Cabot Lodge, November 1,1963
  16. Nov. 6, 1963 cable from President Kennedy to Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, discusses U.S. policy in light of recent coup.
  17. Nov. 13, 1963 cable outlines plans for Honolulu Conference on the Vietnam situation
  18. Nov. 13, 1963 Memo from Dean Rusk rejecting the notion of a negotiated Vietnam settlement
  19. Statements on Vietnam from John Kennedy's last press conference, November 14, 1963.
  20. Excerpts from briefing book prepared for the November 1963 Honolulu Conference on Vietnam
  21. Associated Press Report on the Honolulu Conference — Vietnam policy in the wake of the Diem coup
  22. National Security Action Memorandum 263
  23. National Security Action Memorandum 273 Draft
  24. National Security Action Memorandum 273

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