JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke

The avalanche of books about John F. Kennedy timed to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination in 1963 has begun. Among the first is historian and journalist Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President (Penguin, 432 pp., $29.95), a friendly look Kennedy’s public and private lives from the first week of August of 1963 until his death on November 22.

The main issues JFK dealt with during that time period had to do with various aspects of the Cold War involving the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba; civil rights; and the Vietnam War. The central questions as far as Vietnam War policy was concerned centered on the 16,300 American advisors in the country. JFK basically had three options: Withdraw them, add more advisors, or escalate and bring in combat troops.

When he took office in January of 1961, fewer than 1,000 U.S. advisors were on the ground in Vietnam. Kennedy, a resolute Cold Warrior, pledged American support to the South Vietnamese in their fight against the communists and steadily increased the number of American Special Forces and other advisory units sixteen fold in his first two years in the White House.

Kennedy told NBC News anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on September 9, 1963, that it “would not be helpful at this time” to reduce American aid to South Vietnam. He went on to say he believed in the Domino Theory, and said: “I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and President Kennedy discussing Vietnam War strategy in September of 1963

On the other hand, at the same time—and throughout the final year of his life—JFK let his closest allies know that he was seriously considering removing significant numbers of American troops from Vietnam. He also expressed severe reservations about sending in combat troops.

Ever since his death, historians have debated the unanswerable question: What would JFK have done in Vietnam had he lived? Even though no one can definitely answer that what-if question, some Kennedy partisans have argued that JFK would have withdrawn the advisors and never would have escalated as his successor Lyndon Johnson did in 1964 and 1965.

Clarke firmly stands in that camp. His analysis of what JFK would have done cites the opinions only of those who came to believe that JFK would have withdrawn the advisory personnel and would not have escalated as Johnson did.

That list includes LBJ’s Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford (also a Kennedy confidant), Kennedy and LBJ Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, former Texas Sen. John Connally, JFK and LBJ high-level national security man Walt Rostow, LBJ’s National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, JFK-friendly historian Arthur Schlesinger, America’s anchorman Walter Cronkite, and Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother.

Even though all of these movers and shakers were close to one or both of the presidents their opinions are only that—opinions. Until and unless some undiscovered definitive Kennedy speech, letter, or conversation comes to light, the answer to the big question of what he would have done in Vietnam remains unanswered.

—Marc Leepson

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews

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.”

Chris Matthews

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.'”

—Marc Leepson