One of the big “what ifs” of the presidency of John F. Kennedy is the question of what JFK would have done in Vietnam had he lived. Kennedy, an ardent cold warrior but a realist in foreign policy, left plenty of doubt. He made hawkish statements about the importance of not allowing the communists to take over Vietnam from the 1950s until just before his death. But he also told friends and admirers in the last months of his life that he was pessimistic about the U.S. effort in Vietnam and that it might be time to pull out the 15,000 or so advisers there.
TV journalist Chris (Hardball) Matthews addresses the issue briefly in his new biography, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (Simon and Schuster, 479 pp., $27.50). Matthews—an admirer of JFK, but not an uncritical one—concludes that the question is unanswerable. Kennedy’s “exact thoughts on VIetnam remain a mystery,” Matthews says, while discussing the ramifications of the assassination of Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem following a Kennedy administration-engineered coup just three weeks before JFK’s death.
Matthews reports that soon after he learned of Diem’s death, Kennedy told Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor that he was against expanding the role of American troops in Vietnam. “He is instinctively against introduction of U.S. [combat] forces,” Taylor said.
The historian Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy confidant, reported a similar conversation at about the same time. “They want a force of American troops,” Schlesinger said Kennedy told him. “They say it’s necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer, and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”
Matthews goes on, though, to provide evidence that Kennedy was not seriously contemplating ending the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam in the fall of 1963. JFK’s close friend and speech writer Ted Sorensen, Matthews writes, “believed his boss could never have the cynicism about war and human lives that the conflict in Vietnam would turn out to mandate. ‘I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do.'”