Robert Kennedy’s account is also worth noting in this context. In October 1967, Daniel Ellsberg was working on the Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—the study which, after Ellsberg leaked it a few years later, would become known as the Pentagon Papers—and he asked Robert Kennedy about his brother’s Vietnam policy. The president, Robert said, “had been absolutely determined not to send combat troops to Vietnam.” Ellsberg pressed him on this point. Did that mean he was “prepared to see the country go Communist rather than send combat troops?” In domestic political terms, could he have actually done that? If the situation deteriorated to the point where he had to decide whether to send troops or allow the Communists to take over, what did he plan to do? President Kennedy, his brother thought, would in such a case have arranged “some form of coalition government with people who would ask us to leave—which would hold together for some period of time and sort of paper over our withdrawal.”34
Ellsberg also recalled that his boss at the Pentagon, John McNaughton, told him in 1964 that “McNamara had told him of an understanding with President Kennedy that they would close out Vietnam by ’65, no matter what happened, whether it was in good shape or bad.”35 This is, of course, third-hand information, but is still of some interest, especially considering the source. And a whole series of other accounts point in the same direction: a 1968 account by former Army general James Gavin, who had served as Kennedy’s ambassador to France; an assessment given in 1988 by John McCone, the CIA director in the early 1960s (and no great admirer of Kennedy’s); a number of accounts by journalists (Jack Anderson and Arthur Krock, both very prominent columnists, as well as Kennedy’s friend Charles Bartlett); and some comments made in 1964 by Kennedy’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy.36
Most but not all of those accounts were available at the time Chomsky wrote his book; indeed Newman and Schlesinger had cited many of them. But for our purposes here, the Krock and Bundy accounts are of particular interest. The actual record Krock made at the time of his October 11, 1961, meeting with the president is available in the Krock Papers at Princeton. Kennedy, according to those notes, told Krock that he “still believes” what he had “told the Senate several years ago,” namely that U.S. troops “should not be involved on the Asian mainland,” especially in countries inhabited by people who did not care about east-west issues. The United States, he added, could not “interfere in civil disturbances created by guerrillas, and it was hard to prove that this wasn’t largely the situation in Vietnam.”37 Kennedy in fact had told the Senate during the 1954 Indochina crisis that it would be “dangerously futile and self-destructive” to “pour money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory”; he clearly thought at that time that a guerrilla war of the sort the country was being asked to help fight would be very hard to win. “I am frankly of the belief,” he said in that 1954 speech, “that no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.” The line he took with Krock was thus not new. As the president himself noted, he had been thinking along those lines for years.38
As for Bundy, his comments were made in two oral history interviews conducted in the spring of 1964 and only recently made available. According to Bundy, Kennedy was not sure in the months before his death what he wanted to do in Vietnam, but his commitment to victory was far from absolute. He thought that “if you had poked President Kennedy very hard,” he would have said America was doing what it was “because it’s the best we can do and because it’s certainly essential to have made a determined effort and because we mustn’t be the ones who lost this war, someone else has to lose this war. But I don’t think he would have said to you that he saw any persuasive reason to believe that this was certainly going to succeed.” The implication was that he had by no means decided to stay the course no matter what, in large part because “he was deeply aware of the fact that this place was in fact X thousand miles away in terms both of American interest and American politics.”39
It is thus impossible to dismiss all these accounts as “post-Tet reconstructions,” since some of the key records were created well before 1968. Given how many people with different perspectives and different interests remembered Kennedy expressing views of this sort, it is very hard not to think that Kennedy was not nearly as committed to winning in Vietnam as Chomsky had claimed.
But this is not the only kind of evidence that should be considered. Chomsky himself noted the importance of the “internal record”—notes of meetings, planning documents, correspondence with U.S. officials in the field, and so on—but thought it unambiguously supported his interpretation of the Kennedy policy.40 It turns out, however, that a good portion of the declassified material points strongly in the opposite direction—that is, to the conclusion that although Kennedy certainly did not want to lose in Vietnam, the U.S. commitment there was far from absolute. Yes, the American government could send military personnel to South Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese learn how to defend themselves—and indeed the U.S. military presence there increased dramatically during the Kennedy period—but the president seemed to draw the line at the introduction of combat troops (“in the generally understood sense” of that term, as he was careful to point out).41
In late 1961, for example, as many scholars point out, key U.S. officials tried to get Kennedy to agree to sending an American combat force into that country, but he refused to go along with what his subordinates wanted. The documents relating to this issue are quite revealing. General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s most important military advisor, noted, for example, that the president was “instinctively against introduction of US forces.”42 General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recorded Kennedy taking that same position in another meeting a few days later.43 There is other documentary material supporting this general view, but the key piece of evidence is the record of a National Security Council meeting held on November 15, 1961.44 At that meeting, the president argued against going too far in Vietnam. He noted that whereas Korea in 1950 was a case of clear aggression, the situation in Vietnam, where the government was dealing with guerrilla forces, was “more obscure and less flagrant.” He said he could “even make a rather strong case against intervening in an area 10,000 miles away against 16,000 guerrillas with a native army of 200,000, where millions have been spent for years with no success.”45 All of this came as quite a surprise to the first people who tried to make sense of the Kennedy policy on the basis of the documents—people who perhaps had originally taken the soaring rhetoric about how America would “bear any burden” a bit too seriously.46
So the bulk of the evidence suggests that Kennedy was not determined to do whatever he had to to win the war—that for him withdrawal without victory was not simply out of the question.
A Decision to Withdraw?
It thus seems quite clear that there was a huge gap between what Kennedy was saying in public and what his real thinking was. But how is that gap to be explained? According to John Newman, Kennedy had come to realize by early 1963 that the war was being lost—that the “success story” the military had been pushing “was a deception”—and had apparently decided at that time “to get out of Vietnam even if it meant the war would be lost.” But he could not reveal his true intentions. He could not risk triggering a right-wing backlash before he had won re-election. He therefore had to engage in a counter-deception of his own. He needed to keep “his opponents off guard by talking only of withdrawal in the context of victory.” He sought to use their optimistic accounts of how the war was going, which he knew were baseless, to justify the withdrawal policy. He had to pretend that he believed those accounts, for “otherwise his willingness to withdraw while losing would become obvious.” He had to make it seem, even in internal discussions, that his withdrawal plans were premised on the assumption that the war was going well, and this applied in particular to the October 2, 1963, White House statement which endorsed the McNamara-Taylor view that the task could by and large be completed by the end of 1965, and that 1,000 U.S. servicemen could be withdrawn from Vietnam within the next three months. This tactic would allow him to shift responsibility for whatever happened to those who had provided him with those rosy assessments. “If and when the battlefield deterioration could no longer be hidden,” Newman writes, Kennedy “could claim he had been misled by incorrect reports on the war.”47
The idea that Kennedy, despite his strong public statements, had decided to withdraw from Vietnam regardless of consequence was adopted to one degree or another by a number of other writers. Robert Dallek, for example, after going into the issue in some depth, had by 2003 reached the conclusion that Kennedy had “made up his mind” by November 1963: Dallek thinks he would not, in a second term, have escalated the war the way Johnson did and would probably have found some way to manage a withdrawal. The optimistic line Kennedy took in public, he now felt, would not prevent Kennedy from pursuing that policy. That line instead served a “useful political purpose: If he was going to get out of Vietnam, it was essential to encourage the idea that there was progress in the war and that the United States could soon reduce its role in the fighting.”48 This sort of interpretation was very different from the one that Dallek had laid out in his SHAFR presidential address a decade earlier—and indeed is of particular interest for that very reason.
Two other works that came out that same year took the argument a bit further. One was an article written by the economist James K. Galbraith: “Exit Strategy: In 1963, JFK Ordered a Complete Withdrawal from Vietnam.”49 The second and far more important work was the historian Howard Jones’s book Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War , which one reviewer called “by far the finest book to date on the Kennedy administration’s policies in Vietnam.”50 Galbraith’s thesis is clear enough from the subtitle of the article. As for Jones, he too took the view that the withdrawal plan was not “contingent on military victory; it was unconditional.”51 And those two contributions were followed a couple of years later by the publication of Gareth Porter’s Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam—according to Andrew Bacevich, “the most important contribution to the history of US national security policy to appear in the past decade.”52 Porter also took the view that Kennedy was behind a withdrawal plan that “would apply whether the war went well or not.”53 Kennedy’s public statements, Porter acknowledges, gave a very different impression, but one really cannot, in his opinion, infer very much from the fact that the rhetoric was so tough. “Read in light of everything we know now about the broader pattern of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy,” Porter argues, those statements “simply show that he was conveying to the public a different course of policy from the one he was pursuing behind the scenes.”54
If valid, this general interpretation would have a major bearing on the audience costs theory. If Kennedy had decided to withdraw come what may, while at the same time telling the public that his government would not allow the Communists to come to power in South Vietnam, then that could only mean that he did not think those official statements had tied his hands in any major way. And given that he was in a good position to assess the political situation he had to work within, given also that he had a very strong incentive to assess that situation accurately, and given the fact that he owed his political success in large measure to the fact that he was quite talented in this area, this would suggest that the audience costs his statements generated were not nearly as high as one might have thought. But does the interpretation one finds in these recent works really stand up in the light of the evidence, and especially the evidence presented in those works?
The evidence supporting this kind of argument is in fact quite weak. Some of these authors write as though the mere fact that the military authorities were asked to work out a plan that would permit the bulk of American forces to leave Vietnam by the end of 1965 proves that Kennedy had decided to withdraw by that point, regardless of consequence. The president’s “decision to withdraw was unconditional,” Jones writes, “for he approved a calendar of events that did not necessitate a victory.”55 And for James Galbraith, the fact that the military authorities were instructed that “all planning” was to be directed toward the objective of preparing the South Vietnamese government forces to take over the burden of dealing with the insurgency so as to enable the Americans to pull out by the end of 1965 proves that “the withdrawal decided on was unconditional, and did not depend on military progress or lack of it.”56 But it was one thing to tell the military authorities what the goal was and to instruct them to do their planning on that basis, and quite another to assume that once worked out, a plan would lock the U.S. government into a particular timetable for withdrawal, even if it were to become clear that the South Vietnamese could not deal with the insurgency on their own—and Kennedy, one should note, said at one point that if the job could not be finished by late 1965, “we’ll get a new date.”57 It is also important to bear in mind that a plan of this sort, even if it were not taken seriously as a blueprint for action, could serve certain important political objectives, both at home and abroad, as key U.S. officials in fact recognized at the time.58
Or consider Dallek’s comment that the plan approved in October 1963 to withdraw a thousand advisors by the end of the year “fit perfectly with Kennedy’s apparent eagerness either to seize upon battlefield gains to announce reduced U.S. commitments or to declare an American withdrawal in response to Saigon’s political instability and failure to fight effectively.”59 There is no doubt that the president would have been happy to reduce the American presence if he had thought the South Vietnamese government was winning the war. But Dallek never shows Kennedy “eagerly” pointing to bad news about South Vietnam to justify a withdrawal. And in fact it is hard to find any evidence in the relevant documents or in the tapes of the meetings at which these issues were discussed that supports that interpretation. Quite the contrary: one comes away from that material with the distinct impression that the withdrawal plan was predicated on the assumption that the South Vietnamese army would eventually be able to essentially stand on its own. The president, in particular, seemed to think that a deteriorating military situation would make even the plan for a 1000-man withdrawal look foolish.60 As John Prados says, referring to the tape of one of the key meetings at which the plan was discussed, “JFK’s tone and inflection clearly show that he was doubtful and questioning, not affirmatively approving.”61
But people like Newman and Porter did not feel that evidence of this sort undermined their basic thesis. The key point for them was that Kennedy was engaged in a deception not just of the public but even of his own government. The Kennedy tapes might well have shown the president frequently taking his distance from the withdrawal plan and wondering whether, given military realities in Vietnam, it would actually be possible to carry it out. But for Porter, whose account is of particular interest because it was written after many of the tapes were released, none of this was to be taken at face value. Kennedy, he writes, “concealed his real policy not only from the public but from most of his own national security bureaucracy.” His “apparent skepticism about the withdrawal,” he writes, “was political theater,” designed to make it seem that he was going along reluctantly with an initiative proposed by his chief subordinates.62
The problem here, however, was that according to Porter, Secretary of Defense McNamara was privy to what the president was trying to do, and, as Marc Selverstone has pointed out, that means that we should not expect to see Kennedy engaging in this kind of “political theater” when he was meeting one-on-one with McNamara. We should expect to see him favoring the withdrawal unconditionally—that is, even if it were to lead to a Communist take-over in Saigon. But, as Selverstone notes, when McNamara and Kennedy met with no one else present earlier in the year (but well after the plan to withdraw unconditionally had supposedly been decided on), the president clearly assumed that the plan could only be put into effect if the South Vietnamese government could deal with the insurgency essentially on its own. This, Selverstone points out, is something of a “smoking gun”: “it suggests that Kennedy’s reluctance to cut troop levels in the face of a worsening military situation was a position he held sincerely, not a piece of ‘political theater’ he would later conjure up for the benefit of more hawkish administration officials.”63
And as though this were not enough, the argument that Kennedy had decided to withdraw regardless of consequence, as a number of scholars have argued, is simply not plausible. Why, for example, was the president so irritated with certain elements in the press for raising questions about the war?64 Wouldn’t it be to his interest, if he wanted to withdraw, to make sure that people did not take too optimistic a view of what was going on in South Vietnam? There were some indications that the South Vietnamese government might ask the Americans to leave the country, perhaps as part of a deal with North Vietnam, but why didn’t Kennedy try to take advantage of that situation?65 This possibility the Kennedy administration viewed as a danger to be avoided, but if the president had really wanted to withdraw, wouldn’t he have viewed it as a possible way out and framed his policy accordingly?66 And why would he have allowed America to get so involved in South Vietnamese politics if he had really wanted America to be able to pull out in the near future? After all, wasn’t it the case that he gave what amounted to a green light for the coup that overthrew the government headed by Ngo Dinh Diem at the beginning of November 1963? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to keep Diem in power? Wouldn’t the kind of situation that existed under Diem have given him a perfect excuse for an unconditional withdrawal?67
The prevailing assumption among scholars, in fact, is that U.S. complicity in the coup that overthrew Diem made it much harder than it would otherwise have been for the administration to write off South Vietnam. The basic premise here is quite simple: the more deeply you get involved in something, the harder it is to get out, and America had gotten very deeply involved in South Vietnamese politics by late 1963. But two of the main writers in the “incipient withdrawal” school (as Fredrik Logevall calls it) meet this objection head on. Both Newman and Porter say that Kennedy opposed a coup. “Such an act,” Newman writes, “would only force the United States into assuming more responsibility for South Vietnam’s fate.”68 And Porter says that Kennedy’s withdrawal strategy was based “on the premise that the Diem regime would not be overthrown by a military coup, and that its repressive character and political weakness probably would provide a convenient rationale for early withdrawal.”69 The rational thing, as a number of writers have argued, would have been to use the crisis in South Vietnam as an opportunity—even a “pretext”—for withdrawal.70 But here you have Newman and Porter arguing, in effect, that that was Kennedy’s policy. What are we to make of that claim?
To anyone familiar with the events that led to the fall of Diem, that line of argument comes across as very odd. “The documentary record,” as Prados writes, “is replete with evidence that President Kennedy and his advisers, both individually and collectively, had a considerable role in the coup overall,” and most scholars would agree with that assessment.71 Even Newman and Porter recognize that U.S. policy played a key role in the events leading to the coup.72 So one might think that little more needs to be said on the subject. But one cannot just leave it at that. This issue of American involvement in the coup has to be examined a bit more closely because of its bearing on the key question of how the withdrawal plan is to be interpreted.
The basic story here is quite familiar.73 In May 1963, South Vietnamese forces fired on Buddhist demonstrators in the northern city of Hue, killing eight people. This triggered a strong protest movement, which the government tried to put down with force. The pagodas were raided in August; hundreds of Buddhists were arrested and many died. The U.S. government was worried about the effect all this would have on the war against the Communists and made it clear that it did not support what the Diem government was doing. The Diem regime was being discredited in the eyes of its own people, and without popular support it was hard to see how it could win the war. What that implied to a number of key officials was that either the Diem government had to change its ways or be replaced. That conclusion—and the president leaned toward that view, although never as wholeheartedly as some of his advisors—was of course based on the assumption that it was important to defeat the Communist insurgency.
But Diem was intransigent and refused in particular to get rid of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, widely seen as responsible for the raids on the pagodas. A number of leading generals in South Vietnam, worried that the government was alienating the great mass of the population, and worried also that the Americans were being alienated, began to work out plans for a coup, but it was important for them to know whether the U.S. government would support them if they overthrew the Diem regime. They were initially given the green light, but it soon became clear that the Americans were having “second thoughts.” The generals then drew back, putting their plans for a coup on hold.74 Kennedy, however, was not pleased by this turn of events. “We want to be clear,” he told his advisors on September 3, “that it was the generals who decided not to do anything, and that it was not the United States backing down.”75
But the fact that the generals had gotten cold feet meant that the U.S. government felt it had little choice but to work through Diem, and began to escalate the pressure on him (eventually in a very public way) to get him to change his ways, and in particular to get rid of his brother.76 Kennedy hoped that those pressures would work and that the U.S. government could arrive at an understanding with Diem.77 But the South Vietnamese leader would not give way, and the actions the Americans took in response suggested that the U.S. government no longer supported him and would look with favor on a change of government. Certain forms of assistance—especially the funding for the security forces under Nhu’s direct control—were suspended in October. This was particularly important because the generals had earlier made it clear that a suspension of aid would be interpreted as indicating U.S. support for a coup.78
As far as direct measures were concerned, the basic policy adopted in early October was not “to encourage actively a change in government” but to “build contacts with an alternative leadership if and when it appears.”79 The U.S. government would not “thwart a change in government or deny economic and military assistance to a new regime” if it appeared more able to win the war; that basic policy was explained to the generals directly by their CIA contact.80 To be sure, U.S. leaders, including Kennedy, had certain misgivings about encouraging a coup, but mainly because they were worried about whether the generals could pull it off. A coup might fail and Diem might respond by demanding that the Americans leave the country; the U.S. government was also worried that a coup attempt, even if it did not totally fail, might lead to a civil war. Given those concerns, U.S. leaders wanted to learn what they could about the coup plans so they could judge for themselves how good a chance the generals had of overthrowing Diem quickly. To that end they maintained contact with the generals (mainly through a well-known CIA agent in Saigon); the implication was that the generals would have U.S. backing if they pulled off a successful and relatively bloodless coup—which they in fact did at the beginning of November 1963. And U.S. involvement was scarcely secret.81 McNamara, for one, was amazed at the way the policy was being managed: “This was a very, very unsophisticated approach to overthrowing a government,” he complained. “I think it’s cost us a lot already.” It was astonishing how overt America’s involvement was. “It all leaked to the press, it’s all known,” he said, referring to the first coup attempt in late August. “It’s taken as gospel now that this government tried to overthrow Diem’s government.” He could scarcely believe the way things were being done: “It’s almost as though we’re announcing it over the radio. To continue this type of activity just strikes me as absurd.”82
So no one had any doubt as to the part the U.S. government had played in this affair. Looking back a few days after the coup, U.S. leaders were clear in their own minds about the key role the United States had played in setting the stage for what had happened. It was quite evident, as Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, pointed out, “that the ground in which the coup seed grew into a robust plant was prepared by us and that the coup would not have happened [when] it did without our preparation”; one of the coup leaders had admitted as much to him. The president agreed: the Vietnamese might have overthrown Diem, but “our own actions made it clear that we wanted improvements, and when these were not forthcoming from the Diem Government, we necessarily faced and accepted the possibility that our position might encourage a change of government.”83
This issue is important because the withdrawal plan was announced in early October just as the problem with Diem was coming to a head. Indeed, that plan and the whole question of how to deal with Diem, and especially what sorts of pressures to apply, were discussed at the same meetings.84 So from the start people have wondered whether the withdrawal plan was to be interpreted in essentially instrumental terms—that is, as a way to scare Diem and get him to take a more accommodating line, or perhaps even to frighten the generals and get them to overthrow the government.85 But is that view correct? The way that question is to be answered has a major bearing on how the withdrawal plan is to be interpreted. Those who think that plan was genuine naturally tend to deny that it was to be understood mainly as a lever. Newman, for example, says flatly that “Kennedy’s 1,000-man withdrawal was not intended as leverage to be used against Diem,” and Galbraith and Dallek make much the same point.86 If they are wrong about this, and if the withdrawal plan, at the time it was announced, is to be seen essentially as a way of exerting pressure, that would tend to undermine the basic claim that not only was the plan genuine, but that its adoption shows that Kennedy was determined to pull out of Vietnam no matter what. What light, then, does the evidence throw on this question?
The first point is that there is one area in which Newman and other scholars who follow his lead were essentially right, and this has to do with Newman’s claim that Kennedy had at some point reached the conclusion that the war was not going well—that he had figured out that the “success story” being peddled by the military “was a deception.”87 This is important because it used to be argued the withdrawal plan had all along been based on the assumption that the war was going well. Leslie Gelb, for example, in an article in the New York Times published the same year as the Newman book, said that the decision in October 1963 to go ahead with the withdrawal plan—and in particular to pull out a thousand men by the end of the year—“was grounded in one of the few periods of genuine optimism about the war.”88 But there is a good deal of evidence that points in the opposite direction.
Even in July 1962, when the formal planning for a phased withdrawal began, key officials like McNamara and CIA Director John McCone felt they had no real sense for how the war was going. McNamara, in a meeting with McCone at the beginning of that month, “discussed at length the absence of meaningful intelligence on progress or lack of progress in Southeast Asia.” McCone agreed, and noted that while both the CIA and the military had taken steps to correct the problem, “no meaningful intelligence could be expected for a few months.”89 To be sure, the military authorities in 1962 and 1963 tended to paint a very rosy picture of what was going on in South Vietnam, but as Newman shows—and this, I think, is one of his main contributions to our understanding of America’s Vietnam policy during the Kennedy period—this reporting was not very honest.90 An attempt by professional officers in the CIA to give an accurate assessment in early 1963 was also frustrated; McCone himself made sure that the official estimate would be much more optimistic.91 And in late 1963 McNamara tried to prevent State Department intelligence officers from taking what he viewed as an excessively pessimistic view.92
But Kennedy had other sources of information. What he was reading in the press was bound to raise major questions in his mind.93 He heard directly from a number of officials, some with a good deal of experience in Vietnam, who were not happy with the way the war was going.94 And he learned other things in passing that suggested that war in Vietnam might not be going well. Thus the Army chief of staff, General Earle Wheeler, told the president in February 1963 (in the course of an otherwise very optimistic report) that the Vietcong, as the Communist insurgents in South Vietnam were called, was “not bleeding in this war,” that instead it was the government side that was “bleeding,” that the losses it was suffering were sizeable, while “the losses suffered by the Vietcong are negligible.”95 The president probably got other information in more informal ways.96 And he was bound to be impressed by the fact that the CIA had by 1963 become quite pessimistic about the war. In September 1963, for example, McCone told the president that “victory [was] doubtful if not impossible.”97
So clearly the official line at the time of the October 1963 announcement about a U.S. withdrawal by the end of 1965, to the effect that America could begin to pull out because the South Vietnamese would soon be able to deal with the insurgency on their own, is not to be taken at face value. At least as far as Kennedy was concerned, the real reason this announcement was made must have been different. Could it be that the plan was adopted with an eye to the situation in Saigon—that the aim was to get Diem to be more accommodating in his dealings with the Americans, or maybe even to trigger a coup if he refused to bow to that pressure? Newman says no, but the evidence he gives to support that view is quite thin. He quotes from the record of a meeting Kennedy had with his main advisors on October 5, 1963, in which the president states that the decision to remove the 1,000 U.S. advisors—publicly announced three days earlier—“should not be raised formally with Diem,” and that instead “the action should be carried out routinely as part of our general posture of withdrawing people when they are no longer needed.” “That,” Newman says, “made it unequivocal: the 1,000-man withdrawal was not a device, but a policy objective in its own right.”98 But this is hardly a smoking gun. The mere fact that it was not to be raised formally with Diem did not mean that it could not serve as an instrument of pressure. The calculation might well have been that it would have a greater impact if it was not so obviously designed to put pressure on him, and if he just learned about what the U.S. government was doing in his own way. And indeed the aid suspensions approved on October 5, which certainly were meant to serve as instruments of pressure, were also not to be announced publicly—but the government was so leaky that the press was able to report almost immediately on what the administration was trying to do.99
On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that there is little direct evidence suggesting that the withdrawal plan was essentially a pressure tactic in this sense. That plan was not one of the actions the administration decided to take “to indicate to the Diem Government our displeasure at its political actions and to create significant uncertainty in that government and in key Vietnamese groups as to the future intentions of the US.”100 Those actions and the withdrawal plan were discussed in the same meetings, but in those discussions the plan was not referred to as a means of exerting pressure on either Diem or the generals.101 The closest Kennedy came, in those meetings, to connecting the withdrawal plan to the effort to put pressure on Diem, was toward the end of the October 5 meeting. He and his advisors were discussing the 1000-man withdrawal and he suggested that the U.S. government might be “doing it to have some impact”—but on what exactly is not very clear.102
But even though the direct evidence is weak, one can still make a case that the withdrawal plan, at this point at any rate, is to be understood in essentially tactical terms. Kennedy was certainly interested in putting pressure on Diem at this point, and he knew that it would not be easy to get the South Vietnamese president to change course. America’s bargaining power was limited because Diem was convinced that the United States was committed to preventing a Communist takeover in his country.103 To have any influence at all, it was important, as that key October 5 policy document noted, to take actions that would “create significant uncertainty . . . in the future intentions of the United States.”104 In such circumstances, wasn’t it plausible that Kennedy would want to use any instrument he could to get Diem to be more accommodating? And wasn’t it obvious, without anyone having to point this out explicitly at those meetings, that the withdrawal plan would help serve that purpose? This was certainly how Taylor viewed the idea.105 And even at the time key officials like McNamara understood that it could have a certain impact on South Vietnam. In May 1963, for example, when McNamara brought up the idea of withdrawing a thousand men by the end of the year, he told the president that such a move could be made in large part “because of the psychological effect it would have in South Vietnam.”106 It is hard to imagine, given what people like McNamara had been saying for some time, that Kennedy did not see that it would have an effect in this area, and if he understood the effect it could have, then that was bound to play a certain role in his calculations. Both he and McNamara, moreover, also understood that the announcement of the withdrawal plan could have a major effect at home: it could serve to assuage the fears of influential Senators that the United States was getting bogged down in Southeast Asia.107
So one comes away from this analysis with the sense that the withdrawal plan is, at least in large part, to be understood in instrumental terms: in supporting that plan, Kennedy had by no means committed himself to a “genuine withdrawal from Vietnam,” regardless of consequence.
Striking a Balance
So neither of the two interpretations we have considered so far—that Kennedy was totally committed to victory in South Vietnam, or that Kennedy had decided to withdraw even if it meant that that country would fall into Communist hands—stands up in the light of the evidence. What this suggests is that the truth must lie somewhere in between, and in fact some of the best historians working in this area take a middle view. Logevall, for example, rejects the Newman thesis, but he also thinks that Kennedy was by no means determined to win the war at all costs. “Running through John F. Kennedy’s whole approach to Vietnam,” he writes, “was a fundamental ambivalence about the conflict and about what to do there. . . . The Kennedy record reveals a man who sought victory in Vietnam from day one to the end, who opposed negotiations and who helped overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, but it also reveals a man who always had deep doubts about the enterprise, and deep determination to keep it from becoming an American war.”108 The president thus put off the hard decisions, and even “on the day of his death” he probably still “had not decided what to do with his Vietnam problem.”109
The easy thing at this point would have been to just leave it at that and say that no one can really know what Kennedy would have done, but Logevall thinks one can push the analysis a bit further. Strong arguments, he concedes, can be made on both sides of the issue, but on balance he believes that Kennedy would not have opted for a massive escalation of the war and would instead have “chosen some form of disengagement.”110 That conclusion rests in large measure on an assessment of Kennedy’s personal qualities. “Kennedy,” he writes, “though very much a Cold Warrior, was more flexible, more subtle, more capable of seeing the nuances of international problems, less Manichean in his vision,” and it is hard to imagine him “exhibiting the pigheadedness and truculence with respect to Vietnam that Johnson so frequently showed.”111 Other scholars have painted much the same picture. David Kaiser, for example, sees Kennedy as pursuing a kind of limited liability policy: he “wanted to help the South Vietnamese government cope with the Viet Cong but rejected war [meaning a U.S. war] as a way to do so”; unlike many of his advisors, he did not see the preservation of a non-Communist South Vietnam as a “vital” American interest.112
That general view is, I think, essentially correct. By 1963 Kennedy had taken his measure of his advisors, and was much less deferential toward them than he had been in 1961. (His experiences during the Cuban Missile Crisis probably played a key role in this regard.) He had come to the conclusion that on matters of foreign policy his judgment was better than theirs, and was now more prepared to chart his own course—but still in a way that ruffled as few feathers as possible. He was less of an ideologue and more inclined to analyze things in power political terms than most observers originally thought—although he understood that he could not present his policy in non-ideological terms to the public. Thus when Krock asked him in October 1961 “what he thought of the ‘falling domino’ theory—that is, if Laos and Viet-Nam go Communist, the rest of South East Asia will fall to them in orderly succession,” he “expressed doubts that this theory has much point any more because, he remarked, the Chinese Communists are bound to get nuclear weapons in time, and from that moment on they will dominate South East Asia.”113 But when he was asked in a televised interview whether he “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,” his answer was unambiguous: “No, I believe it. I believe it.”114 Again, the gap between his real thinking and the sort of rhetoric he used in public is quite striking.
That comment to Krock about the implications of a Chinese nuclear capability is also very revealing in this context, in part because it supports the general view that Kennedy was not deeply committed to preventing the “loss” of South Vietnam to the Communists, and in part because it shows the extent to which he tended to think in geostrategic, and not just ideological, terms. And that remark was no mere flash in the pan. There are many documents that reflect Kennedy’s concern with this issue. The record of a talk the president gave to the senior officers of the State Department in 1962, for example, contains the following passage:
Now when the Chinese Communists develop the atomic bomb, which we have to assume they will, and the capacity to deliver it, then of course there’s going to be a change in power balances in Asia which affect us quite seriously and which we should be looking forward to. With their great advantage of manpower and their lines of communication, we’ve really been able to hold our position only through the threat of the use of atomic weapons. When they are able to counter that not with equality of strength, but with sufficient strength to cause us great damage, then we’re going to have to reconsider, it seems to me, or at least consider very carefully what our policy is going to be in those areas [on China’s periphery, like Southeast Asia].115
This comment again reflected the president’s basic view about what a Chinese nuclear capability would mean. Indeed, it reflected his fundamental understanding of how even small nuclear capabilities could affect America’s ability to “hold back” the Communists on the ground.116 And it is also important to note that under Johnson the thinking on this issue changed dramatically. A Chinese nuclear capability was no longer seen as a reason for America pulling back from Southeast Asia. The prevailing argument now was that it was important to convince people that the United States was not a “paper tiger,” too afraid to deal with the threat posed by Chinese nuclear force. This, as the British historian Matthew Jones has shown, was a major and under-appreciated factor shaping the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policy.117
So when you finish analyzing the historical literature in this area, a certain general picture of the Kennedy Vietnam policy takes shape in your mind. The president in late 1963 was pessimistic about the war, but still not absolutely convinced that the Communists could not be kept at bay; he was not convinced that America had anything like a “vital” interest in preventing Vietnam from falling into Communist hands, but he did feel that the United States had a real interest, less far-reaching in scope, in preventing that from happening. This meant that a certain effort was warranted—that it was still too early to give up entirely on Vietnam—but he was very reluctant to sanction a massive Americanization of the war.118
How does all this relate to the audience costs theory? The basic point here was that Kennedy was not locked into a policy of “paying any price” to prevent a Communist victory in South Vietnam: the tough line he took in his public remarks did not tie his hands to such an extent that he would have been unable to avoid the sort of escalation of the war that took place under Johnson. That was certainly Kennedy’s view at the time—he had agreed to increase the American military presence in that country quite substantially, but in doing so he did not think he was “making an irretrievable commitment”—and the president, of course, was uniquely qualified to judge how much freedom of action he actually had.119 His hands, to be sure, were not totally free. The mere fact that American troops had been sent (and some had died), and the fact also that the American political class would not have been happy if South Vietnam were “lost” to the Communists, tied his hands to a certain extent. But whatever limits there were on his freedom of maneuver can be attributed to factors of that sort. One does not need to talk about his tough public statements to explain why he was not totally free to pursue whatever policy he wanted: on the margin the audience costs effect does not appear to have counted for much in this regard.
Why exactly was Kennedy not locked in by the tough public statements he made? One reason is that the political situation was more complex than one might think. Kennedy did not have to worry about just one audience when he made his public remarks. There were multiple audiences that he had to be concerned with. There were people at home who felt the United States should do whatever it had to to prevent Vietnam from falling to the Communists, but there were also people who very reluctant to see America get too involved in the war there. One also had to think about various audiences outside the United States—the Diem government, the South Vietnamese generals, the South Vietnamese people, North Vietnam and the Communist insurgents in the South, China, the Soviet Union, America’s allies in Europe and Asia, even major neutral powers like India.120
This had a number of consequences. First of all, some of these concerns tended to cancel each other out. A concern with how the right would react if Vietnam were lost could be offset by a concern with how more cautious types in Congress, in the press, and even in the public at large would feel if America became too involved with the war there.121 The net effect might be quite small. But there was an important indirect effect as well: the fact that various audiences had to be taken into account meant that public statements were ambiguous, probably deliberately so. The line Kennedy took in his famous televised interview with Walter Cronkite on September 2, 1963, is a good case in point. “In the final analysis,” he said, it was the people and the government of South Vietnam “who have to win or lose this struggle,” but he also said it would be a “great mistake” for America to withdraw.122 What this meant was that if policy changed, the president had a rich palette of past statements to draw on to justify whatever course of action he now proposed to pursue. It also meant that any particular statement could be discounted with the argument that it had been directed at a particular audience and needed to be viewed in strategic and not substantive terms.
And not only was the situation complex, it was also very much in flux. Perhaps the South Vietnamese would pull together and, with America’s help, develop the ability to deal with the Communist insurgency essential on their own. In that case there would be no problem. But there was also a very good chance that that might not happen. If despite America’s efforts the South Vietnamese were ultimately unable to cope with the insurgency on their own, Kennedy would be in a better position to disengage, presumably by working out some sort of neutralization agreement to cover America’s retreat. He was probably quite pessimistic about how the war was going in the last months before his assassination, but he was not absolutely certain that it would go poorly, and in any event was not so sure of his own estimate of the situation that he was prepared to simply impose a policy based on that estimate on his subordinates, many of whom took a more optimistic view.
And it also made sense in domestic political terms to wait until the situation had developed to the point where there was more of a consensus; substantive and domestic political considerations melded together in his mind. Even hawkish types understood that there was a limit to how much America could be expected to do. Logevall quotes a comment that appeared in 1964 in the Washington Post, which, as he notes, was “later a staunchly hawkish voice on the war”: “The economic and military power of the United States . . . must not be wasted in a futile attempt to save those who do not wish to be saved.”123 When the balance of opinion had shifted far enough in that direction, he could always rationalize his earlier tough statements with the argument that it would have been wrong to write off South Vietnam prematurely—that tough statements had to be made for their deterrent effect on the other side and to encourage America’s allies in that country. Perhaps some people would charge the government with reneging on its commitments, but that charge could be easily rebutted: “What were we supposed to do? Make it clear from the outset that there was a limit to how far we were willing to go? That we were only half-committed to winning the war? We obviously had to take a tough public line at the time, but we could not allow that public stance to serve as a straitjacket—we had to be able to shift course as the situation became clearer.” A rational public might find that line of argument quite convincing.
And finally it is important to remember that the domestic political context was not just in flux, it was also malleable—that is, manipulable. Given how much public opinion counts for in democratic systems, political leaders have an enormous incentive to develop the skills needed to manage it effectively; indeed, as Bronwyn Lewis points out, in democracies the system selects for advancement those politicians who are especially talented in this area.124 The Kennedy administration certainly made a great effort to influence the way its policies were portrayed in the press, and the president made a point of personally cultivating the journalistic elite. He was very open with people like Arthur Krock and Jack Anderson about what his basic thinking was, indeed more open than he was with his own Secretary of State. This was not just extremely flattering to the journalists who were treated that way, but it also made them more sympathetic to what the president was doing—more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and probably to support him if and when the line he had taken with them in private later became the basis of a more public policy.125 This kind of thing would thus make it easier to shift course when the time came.
And it was not just top journalists like Krock who were prepared to follow the president’s lead on matters of foreign policy. The same thing was largely true in those days of the country as a whole. John Mueller gave a remarkable example of this in his book War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. In a February 1968 public opinion poll, only 24% of the respondents said the United States should “discontinue the struggle and begin to pull out of Vietnam gradually in the near future,” but in a poll conducted a month later, 56% of the respondents said that if the government were to decide that the best thing would be to stop fighting “and gradually withdraw from Vietnam,” they would approve that “government-led withdrawal.” This sort of follower effect, Mueller wrote, means that the president “has more flexibility in foreign policy than might at first appear.”126
Kennedy, of course, as a highly skilled professional politician, had a good feel for how much freedom of action he had. He had certainly learned from prior experience that the public would not necessarily hold it against him if he changed course and moderated his position on some issue. To give just one example: Kennedy, as David Coleman points out, did not in the final analysis pay “a political price for his decision to relax his demand for all Soviet combat troops to be withdrawn from Cuba.”127 And this was by no means the only case where the president did not pay a political price at home for moderating his policy.128 The president’s public statements were by no means a straitjacket. The bonds of public rhetoric were looser and weaker than many people think.
That, in any event, is one of the main conclusions to be drawn from an examination of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. To be sure, this was just one case, but it was not chosen at random. It was important because it was one of the few important cases one can point to where at least some historians and other scholars have developed arguments that have a distinct audience costs flavor—arguments that play a key role in supporting major historical interpretations. If even those arguments do not stand up in the light of the evidence, then that tells us something worth noting about the basic issue here. A study of this particular case not only suggests that political leaders are not nearly as constrained by their public statements as one might suppose, it also helps us understand why this is so.
But this exercise is of interest for another reason: it shows how in practice historical analysis can provide some insight into the sorts of issues political scientists are concerned with. A number of years ago Ian Lustick published an article on this very subject. Lustick’s argument was that historical interpretations were neither “transparently true” nor “theoretically neutral”; but social scientists looking to test their theories would naturally pay special attention to historical accounts that tended to support their ideas. How then was one to deal with this problem of selection bias? Lustick thought social scientists could be more sensitive to it and more self-aware in their use of historians’ writings, but he did not really think they could get very far by trying to figure out for themselves which historians’ accounts were the most reliable. Instead, he proposed making a virtue out of necessity and using different historical interpretations as independent “data points.” “If we treat our database as ‘historiography’ or ‘histories’ and not ‘History,’” he argued, “then the actual number of ‘cases’ expands from the number of episodes to the number of accounts of those episodes,” and the theorists would have a lot more grist for their mills.129
In our field, the problem Lustick identified is of course very real: what people call “cherry-picking” is quite common in international relations scholarship. And his point about the need for political scientists who use history to pay special attention to the fact that historians disagree among themselves about how particular subjects are to be interpreted is certainly well-taken. But the idea that political scientists are incapable of separating the wheat from the chaff—that they are not able to judge for themselves how historical interpretations stack up against each other, and should just take all of them, no matter how good or bad they are, as equally valid “cases available for the testing of theories”—is far too defeatist. If the goal is to do serious work, those assessments absolutely have to be made, and there is a method that can allow political scientists to make them.
That method is in principle quite simple. You first identify the core arguments in the main historical accounts dealing with the subject you are interested in; you then try to figure out which specific claims those basic arguments rest on; and you then see whether those key claims are adequately supported by the evidence. In assessing those claims, you pay special attention to the evidence presented by the authors who make them, but you are also interested in evidence you find in other works dealing with those issues, especially in works that interpret things differently. In important cases where you need to get to the bottom of a specific issue, you can even do highly targeted research in the primary sources, which today are often much more easily available than they were even ten or twenty years ago.130
This approach will allow the political scientist, in effect, to let the historians do the heavy lifting, since one can assume that they themselves will be trying to make the strongest case they can for the interpretations they advance—that if there is powerful evidence to be found in support of a particular claim, they will provide it. And it is much easier to form an opinion by assessing historical arguments in this way than by just going into the primary sources and trying to construct an historical interpretation entirely on your own, for the same reason that it is much easier for a juror to form an opinion by evaluating the arguments the attorneys on both sides make than to be presented with a great mass of undigested evidence and be asked to reach a verdict on that basis alone. One can generally learn a great deal about a particular historical issue by analyzing the historiographical debate in which it is embedded; and that analysis can often shed real light on important issues of international relations theory. This sort of method is not hard to master, and political scientists might want to make more use of it.