Miller Center

The Great “What If”: JFK and the Withdrawal of Troops from Vietnam

by Marc Selverstone

See also Marc Selverstone's op-ed in the Boston Globe on March 9, 2006, available here.

Arguably, the most vexing of all the great questions of the Vietnam era is: “what if” President John F. Kennedy had not been cut down by an assassin's bullet and had lived out his term--and perhaps a subsequent one--as President of the United States? Would he have made good on an expressed desire to withdraw America troops from Vietnam and turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese? These questions are hardly academic; as a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times by Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, their one-time boss, President Kennedy, had devised a coordinated exit strategy that America's current president would do well to emulate.

Thanks to an extraordinary collection of documents--the secret tape recordings that President Kennedy made during his time in the White House--we have some sense of what Kennedy did--and didn't--plan to do with respect to Vietnam. Although available to the public for over a decade, these tapes remain largely unexplored. This is due partly to the many challenges of the transcription process, including the identification of numerous and hard-to-hear voices, the placement of microphones relative to Kennedy and his aides, and the quality of the audio itself. Yet several key tapes are largely intelligible and reveal the outlines of what is clearly a withdrawal plan, laid out by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell D. Taylor, in a series of recorded meetings from October 1963. As conceived, the plan would have removed most U.S. troops from Vietnam by the end of 1964 and virtually all of them by 1965. To kick-start that process, the Defense Department was prepared to recall 1,000 soldiers by the end of 1963.

You can listen to some of the related clips below. Press the “Listen” button at the bottom right of the multimedia clip.

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