The War Room

What Robert Dallek’s new biography doesn’t tell you about JFK and Vietnam.

Would John F. Kennedy have gone to full-scale war in Vietnam, like his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson? This may be the most haunting question of the past 40 years. Certainly it accounts for whatever traces still survive of the “Camelot myth.” For all the revelations of scandal that have tainted the image of JFK, there remains the monumental what if: Had Kennedy dodged the bullets in Dealey Plaza, might America have dodged the nightmare of the subsequent decade—the 50,000 body bags, the Chicago riots, the election of Nixon, the cynicism of a generation?

The historian Robert Dallek doesn’t state the matter this dramatically, but his new book, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, argues that JFK would not have waged war in Vietnam. I agree. But if I didn’t, this book would not have persuaded me. There’s a compelling case to be made, but Dallek doesn’t nail it.

Dallek musters familiar quotations, cited by many before him, in which JFK expressed deep reluctance to wade into the Vietnam quagmire—the memo ordering a 1,000-troop pullout, the interview with Walter Cronkite where he says the war is not ours but South Vietnam’s, his assurances to Sen. Mike Mansfield that he’ll get out after winning the ‘64 election.

But this sort of evidence is suggestive, at best. For instance, there’s a tape recording from May 27, 1964, of Lyndon B. Johnson telling his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that he doesn’t think Vietnam is “worth fighting for.” Had Johnson dropped dead the next day (and had his successor continued to escalate) historians might now be arguing that LBJ would have pulled out of Vietnam had he lived.

What, then, is the compelling case for why JFK wouldn’t have gone to war? Those who argue that JFK would have gone into Vietnam just as LBJ did make the point that Kennedy was every bit as much a Cold Warrior as Johnson. They also note that the advisers who lured Johnson into war—Bundy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and the rest—had been appointed by Kennedy; they were very much Kennedy’s men.

But this is where there is a crucial difference between JFK and LBJ—a difference that Dallek misses. Over the course of his 1,000 days as president, Kennedy grew increasingly leery of these advisers. He found himself embroiled in too many crises where their judgment proved wrong and his own proved right. Dallek does note—and very colorfully so—Kennedy’s many conflicts with his military advisers in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But he neglects the instances—which grew in number and intensity as his term progressed—in which he displayed equal disenchantment with his civilian advisers. Yet Kennedy never told Johnson about this disenchantment. It didn’t help that Johnson was a bit cowed by these advisers’ intellectual sheen and Harvard degrees; Kennedy, who had his Harvard degree, was not.

A turning point in Kennedy’s relationship to his advisers took place a little more than a year before Kennedy’s assassination, in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In those 13 days when the United States and the U.S.S.R. nearly engulfed the world in nuclear war, Kennedy assembled his top advisers to discuss what to do about the situation: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had been caught secretly shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba, 90 miles off American shores. The CIA estimated the missiles would be up and armed in a matter of weeks, easily capable of wiping out huge swaths of the United States.

For 20 years, the historical accounts of the crisis painted a dramatic scene where half the president’s advisers urged him to bomb the missiles pre-emptively, half urged him to seek a diplomatic solution, and JFK himself took a middle course—a naval blockade instead of a direct attack—that forced Khrushchev to back down.

Then, in 1982, several of these advisers revealed that, in fact, JFK had settled the crisis by cutting a secret deal with Khrushchev: The Soviets would remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba; the United States would remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Dallek recounts this story, of course, and quotes at some length from Kennedy’s secret tapes of the sessions with his advisers (the so-called ExComm meetings, for the “Executive Committee of the National Security Council”), which have gradually been declassified over the past 15 years.

However, Dallek fails to note the key revelation of those tapes—that on Saturday, Oct. 27, the last day of the crisis, when Khrushchev offered the Cuba-for-Turkey trade, every U.S. official in the room was virulently opposed to the deal and wanted to bomb the Russian missile sites—everyone but JFK and Undersecretary of State George Ball. (Not insignificantly, Ball became the top internal dissident on Vietnam policy during LBJ’s presidency.)

When Khrushchev’s offer came over the wire, Kennedy immediately spoke in favor of it. He can be heard on the tapes saying, “To any man at the United Nations, or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade. … Most people think that if you’re allowed an even trade, you ought to take advantage of it.”

Bundy protested most passionately. You can hear him quivering as he says, “I think we should tell you … the universal assessment of everyone in the government who’s connected with alliance problems—if we appear to be trading the defense of Turkey for the threat in Cuba, we will face a radical decline.”

McNamara expressed firm opposition to the trade, then recited a series of steps that needed to be taken “before we attack Cuba.” The attack plan, drawn up a few days earlier by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and endorsed by McNamara, called for 500 conventional bombing sorties of the Soviet missile sites and air bases daily for seven days, followed by an invasion of Cuba.

Kennedy, remarkably calm, mused, “I’m just thinking about what we’re going to have to do in a day or so. … 500 sorties … and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take missiles out of Turkey. And we all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow, and that’s what’s going to happen in NATO … when we start these things and the Soviets grab Berlin, and everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, this Khrushchev offer was a pretty good proposition.’ ” (For more excerpts from the tapes, click here.)

That evening, JFK called his closest advisers into the Oval Office and said he was sending his brother (who bitterly opposed the trade) to tell the Soviet ambassador that he was accepting the deal, as long as it was never publicly revealed. Significantly, Lyndon Johnson (who was also against the trade) was not at this meeting. Nor was he among those let in on the secret.

This is telling for several reasons. Bundy later admitted that hushing up the missile trade had catastrophic consequences for the Vietnam War and foreign policy generally. He wrote in his 1988 memoir, Danger and Survival, “We misled our colleagues, our countrymen, our successors, and our allies” into believing “that it had been enough to stand firm on that Saturday.” Richard Nixon often cited the pseudo-lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis to justify his tough bargaining stance with the North Vietnamese. Johnson not only learned the same false lessons, but was deprived of the opportunity to see that Kennedy didn’t always agree with his smart advisers.

Indeed, the secret tapes are rife with examples of JFK’s challenging the wisdom of Bundy, McNamara, and the other architects-to-be of Vietnam. These disputes show up nowhere in Dallek’s biography. Yet the argument that Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam becomes truly compelling only when you place his skepticism about the war in the context of his growing disenchantment with his advisers—and, by contrast, his failure to share this view with Johnson.

Long before “the best and the brightest” became a term of irony, Kennedy realized that they could be as wrong as anybody. Kennedy knew he could trust his instincts; Johnson was insecure about trusting his. That is why LBJ plunged into Vietnam—and why JFK would not have.