On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination it seems appropriate to reexamine one of the preeminent historical counterfactuals: whether Kennedy would have avoided the US escalation of the war in Vietnam had he lived and been reelected to the presidency. Or are quagmires (like meltdowns) politically seemingly inevitable?
Ian Buruma makes the rather extreme claim in a recent commemorative piece "The Kennedy Temptation" that
Some of Kennedy’s most ardent admirers still like to believe that he would have prevented the escalation of the Vietnam War had he lived longer. But there is no evidence for that at all.
While I have limited patience with Oliver Stone-like revisionist historiography, there is rather serious evidence in the historical record that Kennedy had in fact already committed the US to unconditional withdrawal of the first 1000 American military "advisers" by the end of 1963 and the rest of the 17,000 by the end of 1965, on Oct. 2, 1963, six weeks before his death. This has been known to serious historians since the 1990s, and has been confirmed by many contemporaries who had been close to Kennedy. Moreover, he had always been firmly opposed to sending any combat troops to Vietnam, against the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he was given as early as 1961. Whether he would have stuck to this decision under later circumstances is ultimately metaphysically unknowable, but to say that there is no evidence at all strikes me as willful historical blindness.
Let me just point to the serious sources which, whether you agree with their interpretations or not, at least refute Ian Buruma's claim that "there is no evidence at all":
Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy, Doubleday, 1967.
John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam, Warner Books, 1992 (and see the book review "What Would He Have Done?" by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the New York Times).
Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Vintage Books, 1995.
Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War, Oxford University Press, 2003.
James K. Galbraith, "Exit Strategy: In 1963, JFK ordered a complete withdrawal from Vietnam," Boston Review 01 Sept 2003 (and see the exchange between Noam Chomsky and Galbraith in the Boston Review 01 Dec 2003).
James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang, and David A. Welch, Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived, Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
While McNamara suggested to Kennedy that he make an immediate public announcement of the withdrawals to make them irreversible (which Kennedy's press secretary Salinger did at a press conference on Oct. 2), Kennedy seemed intent on obfuscating the unconditional and complete nature of this withdrawal to not seem to be putting pressure on Diem and interfere with his own reelection by creating a "who lost [Indo]China issue", or so these authors suggest.
I will not enter the debate on what this evidential record does or does not prove. Suffice it to say that there is such a record which cannot be dismissed out of hand. Instead I would like to point out two other sources that have not been mentioned in this context.
1. Daniel Ellsberg, originally as convinced a Cold Warrior as Kennedy, whose creditentials as a whistleblower on American duplicity during the Cold War and in particular in Vietnam does not need to be established here, based on confidential conversations with Robert Kennedy before his death, reports in his book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Viking Penguin, 2002, pp. 194-7) that John Kennedy was adamantly opposed to sending combat troups to Vietnam. According to Ellsberg, Robert Kennedy said "We didn't want to lose in Vietnam or get out. We wanted to win if we could. But my brother was determined never to send ground combat units to Vietnam." If the war proved to be unwinnable, according to Bobby, President Kennedy would have aimed for a "Laotian" compromise neutrality solution (p. 195). This deep aversion to US combat involvement was based on Kennedy's one-day visit to Vietnam in 1951, where the hopeless and self-delusional French position was something he never wanted the US to find itself in (pp. 196-7). Apparently he had been informed by the American consular official Edmund Gullion that "The French have lost. If we come in here and do the same thing we will lose, too, for the same reason. There's no will or support for this kind of war back in Paris. The home front is lost. The same thing would happen to us." (p. 196, and this three years before the final French defeat at Dien Bien Phu!).
2. The morning edition of the New York Times of 22 Nov. 1963 (just hours before the assassination) carried the headline "Kennedy plans to withdraw US advisors from Vietnam" (I may be paraphrasing here). This is not what you will find if you now search the Times' digital archives for that date, but my cynical journalist father (then working for the pre-Murdoch New York Post) stashed away a copy in our basement in New York that I later chanced upon (subsequently destroyed in a basement flood) for reasons of his own. If any reader can retrieve a copy of this morning edition with this headline, I would much appreciate being informed.
Ultimately, counterfactual history is an unscientific enterprise -- there is no possibility of proof or refutation. However, that does not imply that it is completely futile to try to marshall evidence.
Daniel Ellsberg gives a nice summing up of the issue (Secrets, p. 195):
I believed him [Robert Kennedy], and still believe him, that his brother was strongly convinced that he should never send ground troops to Indochina, and that he was prepared to accept a "Laotian solution" if necessary to avoid that. If true, that subjective conviction and readiness would mark John F. Kennedy as significantly different in his attitude toward our stakes and appropriate strategy in Vietnam from both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, neither of whom shared this felt constraint or readiness to concede under some conditions. Whether President Kennedy, if he had survived, would have lived up to this conviction in the face of a crisis in 1965 is (as his brother acknowledged) another question, unanswered.