John F. Kennedy on Ending the US War on Vietnam: His Own Words

With the advent of a new Kennedy running for president, new life was given to JFK’s World Peace speech on June 10, 1963, both among some progressives, and even the LaRouche Schiller Institute. Their thesis is that Kennedy was planning on making peace with the Soviet Union and was going to withdraw US troops from South Vietnam. They allege that JFK had undergone a profound change since the near nuclear war he provoked with the Soviet Union the previous October, and had transformed into a genuine liberal, who would fight for peace and social justice. JFK had morphed into the shining example of what the US and its ideals could represent to the world. Some also considered a mortal threat to the CIA and national police agencies, resulting in their complicity in the assassination of Kennedy on November 22, 1963, which amounted to a coup against the people of the United States.

According to this story, Kennedy gave reality to the undying dream of the progressive movement that a genuinely progressive Democrat could become president and turn the country around to represent the US people. Underlying their dream is the assumption that Kennedy symbolized the exceptional nature of the US and its ennobling principles – a view held not only by progressives, but also by conservatives.

JFK was not the only Democrat conjured up as an embodiment of the example the US could be for the world. There were others: Henry Wallace, Robert F. Kennedy, Barack Obama (in 2007-2008), and Bernie. All were thought, if given a chance, to bring an end to US wars and hundreds of billions in war spending, bring national health care, racial justice, curtail the power of the national security state, of  the ruling rich, and so on.

I will review the June 10 speech in a subsequent article. Here I look at Kennedy’s position on the US war in Vietnam, which dramatically escalated to genocidal proportions after his assassination. Oliver Stone, in his film JFK, did much to popularize the view that Kennedy was assassinated because the Pentagon and CIA chiefs were opposed to ending US escalation in Vietnam.

What were Kennedy’s views on Vietnam after his June 10 World Peace speech?

In a press conference on July 17, 1963, JFK said: “for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.”

Oliver Stone in JFK had excerpts of Kennedy’s September 2 TV interview with Walter Cronkite. But the film did not include this: “But these people who say we ought to withdraw from Vietnam are wholly wrong because if we withdrew from Vietnam the Communists would control Vietnam, pretty soon Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya, all of Southeast Asia… So I think we should stay… I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. That would be a great mistake.… We are in a desperate struggle against the Communist system…. It doesn’t do us any good to say, ‘Well, why don’t we all just go home and leave the world to those who are our enemies’… We are going to meet our responsibility.”

In his September 9, 1963 Huntley-Brinkley interview: “What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient with the government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay…we should not withdraw.”

In his September 12, 1963 press conference, JFK said, “we are for those things and those policies which help win the war there. That is why some 25,000 Americans have traveled 10,000 miles to participate in that struggle. What helps to win the war we support. What interferes with the war effort we oppose. I have already made it clear that any action by either government which may handicap the winning of the war is inconsistent with our policy or our objectives. This is the test which I think every agency and official of the United States Government must apply to all of our actions, and we shall be applying that test in various ways in the coming months…. We want the war to be won, the Communists to be contained and the Americans to go home…. We will follow the policy which I have indicated today of advancing those causes and issues which help win the war.”

These are repeated statements by Kennedy that the US would not leave Vietnam until the war – one against the Vietnamese people – had been won. There is more:

Oliver Stone’s JFK referred to Kennedy’s approval of the military recommendations of the National Security Action Memorandum 263 (October 11, 1963). The film alleges it would bring home all US troops in Vietnam in 1965.

NSAM 263 stated:

At a meeting on October 5, 1963, the President considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam.

The President approved the military recommendations contained in Section I B (1 -3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.

After discussion of the remaining recommendations of the report, the President approved the instruction to Ambassador Lodge which is set forth in State Department telegram No. 534 to Saigon. McGeorge Bundy

The military recommendations in Section I B (1-3) of the report?

We recommend that:

  1. General Harkins review with Diem the military changes necessary to complete the military campaign in the Northern and Central areas (I, II, and III Corps) by the end of 1964, and in the Delta (IV Corps) by the end of 1965….
  2. A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time.
  3. In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963. This action should be explained in low key as an initial step in a long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort.

In NSAM 263, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national Security advisor, added:

The President has reviewed the discussions of South Vietnam which occurred in Honolulu, and has discussed the matter further with Ambassador Lodge. He directs that the following guidance be issued to all concerned:

  1. It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S. actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contributions to this purpose.”
  2. The objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel remain as stated in the White House statement of October 2, 1963.

That White House statement declared the US would stay at least until 1965 when the National Liberation Front was expected to be “suppressed.”

There is not even a hint that JFK was to withdraw US troops prior to an assured victory.

On October 31, 1963, JFK spoke of his plan to pull 1,000 troops from South Vietnam by end of 1963, though none had been pulled out when he spoke these words. The next day, the Kennedy administration engineered a coup that overthrew and executed South Vietnam President Diem, considered an obstacle to winning the war.

In his November 12, 1963 press conference Kennedy did say, “our object, to bring Americans home, permit the South Vietnamese to maintain themselves as a free and independent country,” but added, “when the manipulation from the North is ended.”

Finally, from a second speech he was to give in Dallas the day he was shot:

“our military and economic assistance plays such a key role in enabling those who live on the periphery of the Communist world to maintain their independence of choice. Our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task.

“nine countries confronted directly or indirectly with the threat of Communist aggression – Viet-Nam, Free China, Korea, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Greece, Turkey, and Iran…. Reducing our efforts to train, equip, and assist their armies can only encourage Communist penetration and require in time the increased overseas deployment of American combat forces.”

To his dying day, Kennedy stayed committed to continuing the war on Vietnam until victory by the neo-colonial regime in the South was assured. So why does the mythology that Kennedy vowed to end the US war in Vietnam persist in spite of the evidence? Because the US progressive movement remains dominated by the feeling the US can be redeemed by electing some progressive Democrat. It could have happened, it almost happened, and it is claimed it was happening under JFK. If only … this hope for change by somehow using the Democratic Party never dies. In reality, fundamental change becomes more real only when this milieu awakens from this dream, or else when they lose their powerful social weight. It requires some looking in the mirror by those inculcated since birth with the mythology that the US was – could have been – or could be the exceptional nation, a “shining city on a hill.” This American chauvinism, held by many in the left as much as the right, is a major roadblock in organizing a movement to build a working people’s political alternative to the two corporate-owned parties we have long endured.

Stansfield Smith,, Stan has been involved in anti-war organizing for 45 years, and has written a number of articles about Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, as well as previous articles related to the subject here. They have appeared in Monthly Review online, Orinoco Tribune, Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, Popular Resistance, and others. Read other articles by Stansfield.