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Theodore C. Sorensen & Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: What Would J.F.K. Have Done?

Roundup: Historians' Take




[Theodore C. Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were, respectively, special counsel and special assistant to President John F. Kennedy.]

... As we listened to Mr. Bush's speech [last week before the Naval Academy], our thoughts raced back four decades to another president, John F. Kennedy. In 1963, the last year of his life, we watched from front-row seats as Kennedy tried to figure out how best to extricate American military advisers and instructors from Vietnam.

Although neither of us had direct responsibility on Vietnam decision-making, we each saw enough of the president to sense his growing frustration. In typical Kennedy fashion, he would lean back, in his Oval Office rocker, tick off all his options and then critique them:

Renege on the previous Eisenhower commitment, which Kennedy had initially reinforced, to help the beleaguered government of South Vietnam with American military instructors and advisers?

No, he knew that the American people would not permit him to do that.

Americanize the Vietnam civil war, as the military recommended and as his successor Lyndon Johnson sought ultimately to do, by sending in American combat units?

No, having learned from his experiences with Cuba and elsewhere that conflicts essentially political in nature did not lend themselves to a military solution, Kennedy knew that the United States could not prevail in a struggle against a Vietnamese people determined to oust, at last, all foreign troops from their country.

Moreover, he knew firsthand from his World War II service in the South Pacific the horrors of war and had declared at American University in June 1963: "This generation of Americans has had enough - more than enough - of war."

Declare "victory and get out," as George Aiken, the Republican senator from Vermont, would famously suggest years later?

No, in 1963 in Vietnam, despite assurances from field commanders, there was no more semblance of "victory" than there was in 2004 in Iraq when the president gave his "mission accomplished" speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Explore, as was always his preference, a negotiated solution?

No, he was unable to identify in the ranks of the disorganized Vietcong a leader capable of negotiating enforceable and mutually agreeable terms of withdrawal.

Insist that the South Vietnamese government improve its chances of survival by genuinely adopting the array of political, economic, land and administrative reforms necessary to win popular support?

No, Kennedy increasingly realized that the corrupt family and landlords propping up the dictatorship in South Vietnam would never accept or enforce such reforms.

Read entire article at NYT

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