Presidential Oral History: 'The Kennedy Withdrawal'

Presidential Oral History: 'The Kennedy Withdrawal'

Kennedy's top advisors were at odds over leaving Vietnam

Of all the assumptions and recommendations contained in the October 1963 report from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the withdrawal clauses generated the most pushback from members of the mission team. “I just can’t buy this,” said William H. Sullivan, an assistant to Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman, characterizing the pledge to withdraw troops from Vietnam as “totally unrealistic.”

The United States was not going to remove its troops by 1965, he maintained, and therefore “we mustn’t submit anything phony as this to the president.” Although McNamara allegedly convinced Taylor to strike that language from the draft report, Taylor’s frustration with GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] President Ngo Dinh Diem got the better of him.

Taylor made the case for withdrawal as a form of leverage against the GVN. “Well, goddamnit,” he exclaimed, “we’ve got to make these people put their noses to the wheel—or the grindstone or whatever,” as Sullivan recalled their exchange. “If we don’t give them some indication that we’re going to get out sometime, they’re just going to be leaning on us forever. So that’s why I had it in there.”

Sullivan acknowledged Taylor’s motivations but cautioned that “if this becomes a matter of public record, it would be considered a phony and a fraud and an effort to mollify the American public and just not be considered honest.”

Sullivan came away from the conversation thinking he had kept the clause out of the report. He was mistaken. McNamara and Taylor likely reinserted the passage when they met in Taylor’s office on the morning of October 2, a mere 80 minutes before they were to meet with President John F. Kennedy. Fifteen months of planning to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam thus made its way to Kennedy’s desk as a result of Taylor’s pique and the last-minute machinations of Pentagon leadership.

Framing it as part of the comprehensive phaseout of American forces, the report recommended that the Pentagon announce the initial drawdown “in the very near future” as part of the broader effort “to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions” presently being carried out by U.S. advisors.

This first withdrawal, they noted, “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.” Central to both the incidental and comprehensive withdrawals were concerns about South Vietnamese morale. In the end, Saigon had to run the war on its own, and the continued presence of U.S. advisory forces in Vietnam “beyond the time they are really needed” would compromise the “independence” and “initiative” of the South Vietnamese.

In fact, McNamara and Taylor thought a limited transfer of responsibility could take place at that very moment “without material impairment of the total war effort.” But beyond the return of those 1,000 troops, they held that “no further reductions should be made until the requirements of the 1964 campaign become firm.” The comprehensive withdrawal would thus depend on military conditions, while the 1,000-man withdrawal would now proceed in spite of them.

Excerpted from THE KENNEDY WITHDRAWAL: CAMELOT AND THE AMERICAN COMMITMENT TO VIETNAM by Marc J. Selverstone, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2022 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.