The Vietnam War
Few subjects have transfixed scholars, commentators and diplomats as deeply and as persistently as the question of whether the United States would have committed a half-million troops (and sent 58,000 Americans to their deaths) in Vietnam had Kennedy won a second term.
There is conflicting evidence, supporting both the notion that Kennedy would have plunged deeper into Southeast Asia and the idea that he would have withdrawn shortly after being re-elected. Both arguments point to an elemental cynicism: that the president’s fear of being blamed for losing Vietnam would have propelled him into widening the conflict, or that he would risk American lives in a half-hearted cause to preserve his political prospects and then remove troops once his own future had been secured.
Overall, the better claim goes to the argument that Kennedy would have limited or ended the U.S. role in Vietnam. He and Robert F. Kennedy had visited Indochina a decade earlier and breathed the anti-colonial stench created by the French, who fled in defeat in 1954. That very year, Kennedy said on the Senate floor that “to pour money, material and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.”
Though a devout Cold Warrior, Kennedy was chastened by the Bay of Pigs and less vulnerable, as he put it, “to plunge into an irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in this country puts so-called national pride above national reason.”
In his “JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” published this autumn, Thurston Clarke repeatedly cites examples of Kennedy resisting entreaties to increase the American commitment to Vietnam, where, JFK told his reporter friend Charles Bartlett, the nation didn’t “have a prayer of prevailing.”
Kennedy’s evolution on civil rights outpaced the nation’s but lagged that of his Ivy League circle. Well into his administration, he was logically, but not emotionally, committed to equal rights and integration. But as he employed the rhetoric of “freedom” while prosecuting a Cold War abroad, he came to see the incongruity and hypocrisy in the nation’s domestic life. Eventually, the sight of American authorities clashing with American citizens at lunch counters, schoolhouse doors, bus stations and in the streets was more than he could bear.