In the discussions over how the U.S. went to war in Iraq and the prospects for that conflict, the Vietnam War has been raised repeatedly. These discussions typically focus on the prospects in Iraq (e.g., "is it a quagmire?"), but rarely mentioned are the troubling details of how the decision to go to war in Vietnam was made. It is now generally conceded that Congressional authorization for President Johnson to pursue that war vigorously was granted in the wake of what we now know was an "intelligence failure" - the supposed second attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin never happened. As in Iraq, there remain serious questions about how aggressively officials moved to use the mistaken reports without verifying them, in order to pursue desired policy goals. Also, it has long been known that the naval vessels in question were engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers, in support of OPLAN 34A, a program of covert attacks against North Vietnam.
What does this have to do with the assassination of President Kennedy?
For one thing, the authorization for the OPLAN 34A program is contained in NSAM 273, the first National Security Action Memorandum signed by President Johnson (on November 26, four short days after President Kennedy's murder, following an emergency meeting on Vietnam on the 24th). This NSAM was drafted the day before Kennedy's fateful motorcade ride in Dallas, but the draft version differs markedly in the scope of authorization for such a program, and in any case Kennedy never saw or signed it.
Beyond the above is the larger question of Kennedy's policies and plans in Vietnam. Here, serious gaps in the record have been filled in since the passage of the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act. The gaps have been filled in with more details on the plans for complete withdrawal from Vietnam which were drawn up in the spring of 1963, and initiated on October 11 with NSAM 263. This gave the order for an initial pullout of 1000 men before the end of 1963, an event which never occurred.
With the filling in of the record - why were these documents a state secret for 35 years? - the debate among historians has shifted. No longer is the issue whether there was a plan to withdraw - the question has moved to whether it was "serious enough" to survive the change in reporting of the battlefield conditions which occurred in the wake of Kennedy's murder, from optimistic to pessimistic. Some historians, including David Kaiser (American Tragedy) and Howard Jones (Death of a Generation) now argue that Kennedy was determined to withdraw despite a change in conditions, joining Peter Dale Scott, John Newman, and no less than Robert McNamara. Many mainstream historians and others - including Noam Chomsky whose book Rethinking Camelot is largely a rebuttal of this view - maintain that Kennedy's assassination was not a factor in the progress toward war in Vietnam.
Just like the questions swirling around how the U.S. went to war in Iraq, the questions about Kennedy and Vietnam should not be lightly brushed aside.
For more information, see:
Exit Strategy, by James K. Galbraith. The son of John Kenneth Galbraith argues that Kennedy was committed to unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam.
Rethinking Camelot, by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's book-length rebuttal of the withdrawal argument is available online.
The Kennedy Assassinationa and the Vietnam War, by Peter Dale Scott. Scott wrote about this long before anyone else.
JFK, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone, by Gary Aguilar. Dr. Aguilar highlights the vociferous attack on Stone for presenting this viewpoint on Kennedy Vietnam policy in the film JFK.
Kennedy and Vietnam, on www.maryferrell.org. The new Mary Ferrell Foundation website features this issue, including links to essays and declassified documents, video clips of Peter Dale Scott, and more.
-- Rex Bradford
-- Gary Aguilar