JFK in the Senate by John T. Shaw

John T. Shaw ‘s JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 228 pp., $26) is a well-written, pioneering look at President John F. Kennedy’s 1953-60 tenure as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. JFK’s time in the Senate, Shaw says, “was a period of remarkable personal and political growth in which an untested backbencher transformed himself into a man of substance and depth and a victorious presidential candidate.”

Kennedy “participated actively and sometimes boldly” during his time in the Senate “in the central policy debates of his time,” Shaw notes. On the international scene Kennedy spoke his mind on “the challenges posed by China and the Soviet Union, the icy armistice in Korea, France’s faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria” and “the appropriate defense posture for America during the Cold War.”

Kennedy had visited Vietnam as a Congressman in 1951 as part of a big fact-finding mission to Asia and the Middle East. The French at the time were enmeshed in a bitter war against communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap determined to shed the yoke of colonialism. After meeting with high-level French and U.S. military and political figures, JFK came away with a decidedly negative view of the situation.

Because of the strong American support for the French in their war against the Vietminh, Kennedy wrote in his journal, the United States was “more and more becoming colonists in the minds of the people.”

Kennedy stressed in a subsequent radio address that he strongly favored “check[ing] the southern drive of communism,” in Vietnam. But he stressed he did not want to do that relying “on the force of arms.” Rather, Kennedy called for building “strong native non-communist sentiment within these areas.”

In his first year in the Senate, Kennedy “took center stage” in the debate over whether or not the U.S. should continue to support the French, Shaw says. JFK spoke out in favor of sending U.S. aid, but also called on France to grant independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He even offered an amendment to the Senate foreign aid bill urging France to give more independence to those colonies. It was defeated.

John T. Shaw

Before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, JFK gave a Senate speech in which he warned that if the United States took over from the French militarily, the subsequent war would “threaten the survival of civilization.” He then spoke out against the U.S. pouring “money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory,” something, that “would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.”

Kennedy, in his search for a non-military solution to the problem of stopping communism in Vietnam, believed that Ngo Dinh Diem, the vehement anticommunist the CIA helped install as South Vietnam’s premier in 1954, would be the leader who could do so. JFK “began to speak of a ‘Diem miracle in South Vietnam,'” Shaw notes, “and urged American backing for his regime. He accepted, as did other American leaders, Diem’s decision not to go forward with national elections in 1956 as had been promised” in the Geneva Accords.

In a June 1, 1956, speech in Washington before the pro-Diem American Friends of Vietnam, JFK changed his stance on what America should do to support Diem. He no longer warned that the U.S. should not get heavily involved militarily in the effort to stop the Vietnamese communists, framing his argument in staunch, 1950s Cold War rhetoric.

Vietnam, he said, “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia,” JFK said, “the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dyke.” South Vietnam, he said, “is our offspring. We cannot abandon it.”

Kennedy continued his strong support of Diem through his days in the Senate and into his 1,000 days in the White House. Calling South Vietnam “a brave little state,” in a 1960 speech, JFK said that nation was “working in a friendly and free association with the United States, whose economic and military aid has, in conditions of independence, proved to be effective.”

Shaw does not address the oft-debated issue of whether JFK would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam had he lived. But Shaw does show that during his eight years in the Senate, Kennedy changed his thinking radically on what the U.S. should do to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists. He went from strongly advocating no American military action in South Vietnam to forcefully calling for strong American aid—including sending in thousands of military advisers—to try to help that country fight the communist insurgency.

The author’s website is http://johntshaw.com

—Marc Leepson

The Road to War by Marvin Kalb

In The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Institution, 280 pp., $29.95) veteran journalist and Harvard professor emeritus Marvin Kalb brings new depth of meaning to the adage “a man is only as good as his word” as he guides the reader through the political maze of the Vietnam War by focusing on the actions of American presidents that brought us into the war without a congressionally approved declaration of war.

Kalb’s easy-to-follow, well-documented book describes how Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had at least three major Vietnam-War policy-making things in common: none had a clear plan for winning the war; all firmly believed in the Domino Theory; and none wanted to be known as the president who lost a war.

The book clearly shows that Congress exerted little of its power to influence the war one way or another—except to provide funds. Late in the Vietnam conflict, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which restricted the president’s ability to wage war longer than 60-90 days without congressional approval.

America’s participation in the war began with Truman’s commitment not to interfere when France decided to reclaim Indochina as a colony after World War II. Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence for Vietnam and overtures for cooperation with the United States fell on fear-deafened ears in Washington. Fears of communist expansion were fueled by the aggressiveness of the Russians and Chinese. Communist control of Indochina was seen as a threat to our national security.

Marvin Kalb

The United States became involved in the Korean War in the early 50’s. At that same time France was losing its war in Vietnam. Staying true to their commitments to fighting communism in that arena, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower sent military advisers, air support, and financial aid to bolster the French  in Indochina. By the time of the defeat of France by the North Vietnamese in 1954, the United States was paying 75 percent of the bill.

While President Kennedy was reluctant to send combat troops to Vietnam, he did send thousands of advisers and huge amounts of weaponry. American pilots took part in combat missions. It was also at this time that reporters coined the term “the Americanization” of the war.

Disgusted at the corruption and ineptness of the South Vietnamese political leaders, Kennedy didn’t interfere with the 1963 removal (and assassination) of President Ngo Dinh Diem from office. When the military and political situations didn’t improve, Kennedy began to withhold funds from the war effort. Several weeks later,  Kennedy was assassinated.

Wanting to stay true to the commitment to prevent the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, President Johnson chose to heed his advisers, who told him victory was still possible in Vietnam. Several others told him to cut and run as victory was impossible.

Instead Johnson widely escalated the war. Like his predecessors, LBJ did not want to be known as the president who lost the war. However, the stalemate in Vietnam and rising antiwar sentiment at home convinced Johnson not to run for re-election in 1968.

While the war did come to an end during the presidency of Richard Nixon, it took an additional five years of massive destruction, tens of thousands of deaths, and enormous expenditures. Searching for an honorable exit from Vietnam, President Nixon visited both China and Russia. He asked the communist leaders to help him find an honorable exit from the war. When the Paris peace negotiations fell apart, Nixon ordered the unrestricted bombing of North Vietnamese on a scale not seen since World War II.

In the end, however, when the North Vietnamese blatantly violated the terms of peace treaty, Nixon was unable to fulfill his commitment to help South Vietnam due in large measure to the Watergate scandal.

Marvin Kalb uses the last part of his book to describe U.S. commitments to other countries during the Vietnam War era, especially to Israel. Then, during the second Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, Kalb points out that once again there is “no clear plan of action.”

President Obama has used the word “ironclad” to describe America’s defense commitment to the Israelis. Kalb suggests that it’s time for an official defense treaty with Israel. It would assure Israel—and its enemies—that the U.S. this time is finally serious about a commitment to an ally.

—Joseph Reitz