Monday, June 27, 2022

The Assassination and Mrs. Paine-JFK and Vietnam

What was the motive of the conspirators whose yet undetected plot killed President John F. Kennedy? Filmmaker Max Good allows two of his "featured" conspiracy mavens, James DiEugenio and Gary Aguilar, to lay out the case that JFK was planning to pull out of Vietnam as part of a larger effort to spread peace throughout the world:

Aguilar: (41:45) "Kennedy was telling people privately that once he got re-elected, he was going to back out of Vietnam and he was not going to commit forces of the United States to a land war in Asia. He had infuriated them [the conspirators presumably the CIA and the Joint Chiefs] with the Bay of Pigs. He infuriated them with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He infuriated them during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And he was not gonna let them have their war. [claps and then makes umpire’s over-the-shoulder 'you're out' sign] ‘Next’ (chuckles). Very, very few people were ever allowed the intimate details [of the alleged plot], I'm sure. Kennedy was taken out, and [mimicking voice of lone assassin advocates] anyone who doubts the official statements of [the] US government is crazy!"

DiEugenio: (1:34:30) "One of the things that you study if you try and take in the big picture is what happened to American foreign policy after [JFK's death]. When Kennedy was assassinated there was not one American combat troop in Vietnam. By 1967, there were over half a million there. American foreign policy becomes much more militant, much more violent in the third world."

But the argument that JFK was a peacenik in the making is not supported by a preponderance of hard evidence. Even in his foreign policy decisions apart from Vietnam, Kennedy looked every bit the typical cold warrior. For instance, in 1961 during the Berlin crisis JFK seriously contemplated a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union in response to agressive actions taken by Nikita Khrushchev toward the German capital. And although he altered President Eisenhower's original plan, JFK ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion in an attempt to eliminate communist leader Fidel Castro. After the failure of that mission, Attorney General Robert Kennedy oversaw an organized assassination operation against the bearded leader.

On the question of Vietnam, Kennedy had signaled his attitude even before assuming office. As a US Senator in 1956, he refered to the southeast Asian nation as “the cornerstone of the free world in Asia” and added that it was “our offspring, we cannot abandon it.” JFK set the tone for his foreign policy in his inaugural address when he said, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

After assuming the Presidency, JFK began to see the political expediency that a successful action in Vietnam could provide. In addition to the obvious goal of halting the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, JFK advisor Walt Rostow suggested that “clean-cut success in Vietnam” would be one way to divert attention from the Bay of Pigs debacle. Indeed, General Lionel McGarr, head of the American Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon, noted that there was a "strong determination" to stop the “deterioration of US prestige” early in the JFK administration.

By January of 1962, Kennedy authorized the Counterinsurgency Plan for southern Vietnam which called for training the South Vietnamese forces in both conventional warfare and anti-guerrilla tactics. JFK ultimately approved the expansion of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to 219,000 troops and the Civil Guard to 77,000. To pay for the escalation, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem received an additional $42 million from Kennedy on top of the $225 million he was already getting. Furthermore, the number of American advisors in Vietnam grew from just 800 when JFK took office to 16,700 at the time of his death. It is clear that despite what DiEugenio and Aguilar maintain, the United States under Kennedy had made a substantial military commitment to South Vietnam.

Two key September 1963 interviews with Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite confirmed JFK's dedication to the Vietnam cause. Kennedy told Cronkite, "... 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." Similarly, JFK told Huntley, “withdrawal only makes it easy for the Communist. I think we should stay.”

Further evidence of JFK's commitment to Vietnam is provided by his tacit approval of the coup against President Diem just three weeks before his own death. Kennedy had decided, as diplomatic and military officials in southern Vietnam had reported, “that the war against the Viet Cong in Vietnam cannot be won under the Diem regime.” While JFK was shocked when Diem and his brother were murdered, there can be no doubt that he sanctioned the coup that removed them from power because of Diem's ineptitude in fighting the communists.

National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263 is often cited by theorists as proof that JFK planned to withdraw from Vietnam by the end of 1965. But the order does no such thing. JFK signed NSAM 263 in October of 1963 and while the directive did call for the withdrawal of 1000 military personel, it is neccessary to look at the big picture. Robert Thompson of the British Advisory Mission refered to the withdrawl as a "token" one in a 1962 meeting with JCS Chief Maxwell Taylor. In a confab with JFK the following year, Thompson used similar language and there is no indication that Kennedy or his top advisors differed with this assessment. This limited withdrawal was designed to reap political benefits at home while not adversely impacting the war effort and definitely "was not part of a Kennedy plan to pull out of Vietnam" as historian Mark White notes. The withdrawal also served as a device to apply pressure on Diem (before a final decision on his fate had been reached) but remained firmly contingent on the military success of the ARVN forces.

The language used by Kennedy in an October 31st press conference reinforces the concept that troop withdrawl was dependent on military success. JFK stated in response to a question about troop reductions (emphasis added) "If we are able to do that, that would be our schedule. I think the first unit or first contingent would be 250 men who are not involved in what might be called front-line operations. It would be our hope to lessen the number of Americans there by 1000, as the training intensifies, and is carried on in South Vietnam."

Moreover, NSAM 263 outlined the continuation of the same US policies that were previously in effect. Those included the Vietnamese taking over “essential functions” of warfare by late 1965. Indeed the “central object” of the US presence in Vietnam continued to be “to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S. actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contributions to this purpose.”

Perhaps the most compelling proof of JFK's anti-communist agenda and his commitment to Vietnam comes from the text of his undelivered speech prepeared for the Dallas Trade Mart luncheon. On the day of his death, JFK would have reminded the attendees of his foreign policy successes in Berlin and Cuba. He also planned to provide an extensive laundry list of increases in both conventional and nuclear weapons under his watch. Significantly, JFK would have reminded the audience of the aid that the US was giving other countries to fight the Communist menace. Finally, Kennedy would have firmly told the assembled guests, “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.”

Comments by members of JFK's inner circle provide more evidence that he had no plans to pull out of Vietnam. Kennedy's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, vehemently disagreed with the notion that he had decided to abandon the cause. "I talked with John Kennedy on hundreds of occasions about Southeast Asia," Rusk wrote in his memiors, "and not once did he suggest or even hint at a withdrawal."

Similarly, Robert Kennedy gave interviewer John Bartlow Martin a firm "no" when asked if there was "any consideration given to pulling out [of Vietnam]." "The president felt," Bobby continued, "... He had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam."

Critical to the conspiracy notion that JFK was murdered by unnamed military figures is the concept that these actors strongly desired a full-scale war in Vietnam. But there is solid evidence that not all of JFK's military people were the "hawks" they are made out to be by the likes of DiEugenio and Aguilar.

For example, Army Chief of Staff General George Decker believed “there was no good place to fight” in Southeast Asia. The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harry D. Felt, stated he was “strongly opposed” to troop deployments. One reason for Felt's reticence was his belief that the ARVN would be less effective if American troops did the brunt of the fighting. Felt was convinced that the US role should be limited to training and supplying arms to the ARVN.

Among the war's harshest critics was Colonel John Paul Vann. His leaks to the New York Times revealed that South Vietnamese forces were refusing to fight while huge numbers of civilian villagers were becoming casualties of American weaponry. Indeed, an Army report from 1962 noted, “the military and political situation in South Vietnam can be aptly described by four words, ‘it is a mess.’”

A final indication of the invalidity of the DiEugenio-Aguilar Vietnam theory is the post-assassination behavior of the military men who susposedly authored the first American coup against a sitting president. If these individuals really wanted to remove JFK to facilitate an all-out war against communist forces in Vietnam, why did they balk at Johnson's 1964-65 escalations of the conflict? Both Taylor and William Westmoreland, known for their hawkish reputations, expressed strong opposition to combat troops during this period as did other ranking officers. Many of JFK's military men recognized the inherent problems with fighting a war in Vietnam and prefered to avoid conflict there.

In conclusion, the sophomoric view that JFK had decided to get out of Vietnam and that choice led to his death at the hands of conveniently unnamed conspirators is poorly supported by the evidence. In his book, Destiny Betrayed, DiEugenio went even further than his on-camera statements to Max Good. On page 65, he wrote that JFK was "formulating his policy to withdraw from Vietnam" and "disguising" (p. 371) that plan around his reelection. While DiEugenio may believe that he knows that JFK would have pulled out of Vietnam had he lived, real historians remain divided on the issue. But those experts all agree on one thing—it is impossible to know for sure.

Special thanks to Fred Litwin for providing sources for this article.


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