Vietnam and the Legacy of the JFK Presidency  - Peter Kuznick on Reality Asserts Itself (pt 2/2)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on November 23, 2013. In this episode of Reality Asserts Itself, Paul Jay challenges historian Peter Kuznick on JFK’s legacy in regard to the Vietnam War.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself.

We’re continuing our discussion evaluating the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

Now joining us again is Peter Kuznick. He’s an associate professor of history at American University and coauthor of The Untold History of the United States with filmmaker Oliver Stone.

Thanks very much for joining us again, Peter.


JAY: Chomsky has written a lot on this. And he has, you know, a differing view than you. Let me just read a few of the quotes from Chomsky so people are at least familiar with what the other side of this story is or another side of this story. This is from an article that Chomsky writes.

“Two weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, there is not a phrase in the voluminous internal record that even hints at withdrawal without victory. JFK urges that everyone ‘focus on winning the war’; withdrawal is conditioned on victory, and motivated by domestic discontent with Kennedy’s war. The stakes are considered enormous. Nothing substantial changes as the mantle passes to LBJ.”“General David Shoup, Marine Commandant through the Kennedy years, reports that when the Joint Chiefs considered troop deployment, ‘in every case … every senior officer that I knew … said we should never send ground combat forces into Southeast Asia.’ Shoup’s public opposition to the war from 1966 was particularly strong, far beyond anything said by the civilian leadership, media doves, or others who later presented themselves as war critics.

“These observations add further weight to the conclusion based on the record of internal deliberations, in which JFK insists upon victory and considers withdrawal only on this condition. Had he intended to withdraw, he would have been able to enlist respected military commanders to back him, so it appears, including the most revered figures of the right. He made no effort to do so, preferring instead to whip up pro-war sentiment with inflammatory rhetoric about the awesome consequences of withdrawal.”

One more quote:

“There is not a word in Schlesinger’s chronicle of the Kennedy years (1965, reprinted 1967) that hints of any intention to withdraw without victory. In fact, Schlesinger gives no indication that JFK thought about withdrawal at all. The withdrawal plans receive one sentence in his voluminous text, attributed to McNamara in the context of the debate over pressuring the Diem regime.”

Alright. So, I mean, Chomsky’s piece–and we’ll do a link to this for people that want to find this–I mean, is a very detailed analysis of the internal record. But the basic thesis is, yes, Kennedy talked about withdrawal, but only based on victory; and right up until, you know, just two weeks before he died, that didn’t change.

KUZNICK: It’s very unfortunate that Kennedy’s public statements didn’t cohere with his private statements. Now, unless you want to accuse so many people of being liars–I mean, among those who’ve spoken out on this were Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Ted Sorensen, Mike Mansfield, Tip O’Neill, Roger Hilsman, Wayne Morse. Wayne Morse, the leading critic in the Senate of U.S. policy in Vietnam, says that Kennedy said, told him that he was absolutely right in his criticism of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. He said, I’ve decided to get out, definitely, according to Wayne Morris. He says to journalist Charles Bartlett, we don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. We don’t have a prayer of prevailing there. Those people hate us. They’re going to throw our tails out of there at almost any point. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the American people to reelect me.

So what Kennedy proposed in NSAM 263 was to withdraw 1,000 troops by the end of 1963 and withdraw all U.S. forces by 1965. Now, the argument, intelligently, that Noam and others make is that people say this after the Tet Offensive, when Vietnam becomes so unpopular in the United States. However, Dan Ellsberg interviewed Robert Kennedy in 1967 before the Tet Offensive, and he says to–Robert Kennedy says to Dan that his brother was absolutely determined not to send ground units, and he said he was ready to accept defeat at the hands of the communists. And Kennedy, Robert Kennedy says, how would you have done that? Dan asked him, and he says, we would have fuzzed it up. We would have gotten a government in that asked us out or that would have negotiated with the other side. You handled it like Laos. And then Ellsberg was surprised, and he says, why were you so smart when everybody else was so wrong on this? And Robert Kennedy says, because we were there. We were there in 1951. We saw what was happening to the French. We saw it. My brother determined never to let that happen to us. And I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that was their view. However, the public statements contradict that, which is why to make sense of–.

JAY: Chomsky’s saying he’s examined the internal records–he emphasizes that many times–those that have come out.

KUZNICK: Look, NSAM 263 is an internal record. I mean, it’s a document that was supported by Kennedy. And that says, all U.S. troops out, all forces out by 1965.

JAY: Okay. So let’s–.

KUZNICK: But Noam downplays the difference between 263 and 273.

JAY: Yeah, just quickly explain what that is. There’s a draft of this national security authorization memorandum–is that what that stands for?

KUZNICK: National Security Action Memo 263.

JAY: Action memo.

KUZNICK: It was adopted by the Kennedy administration. Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson supports NSAM 273. According to 263, these operations would be done by the Vietnamese. Under 273, the United States is going to get much more hands-on in terms of the counterinsurgency operations going on in Vietnam. I’m not defending what Kennedy did in Vietnam. I think it was–that what he did by increasing the number of advisers and having them involved in actual actions and using herbicides and the other things he was doing there were [incompr.] the absolutely wrong direction.

To me Vietnam is–you know, it was the worst atrocity that the United States has ever committed, since slavery and genocide against the Native Americans. So I’m not in any way defending anything that happened in Vietnam or in any way being light on Kennedy for what he did. But I think Kennedy understood that it was a mistake, that it was worse than a quagmire, and that he was going to pull U.S. forces out.

But again, it’s part of this broader commitment. If you look at his American University commencement address in June 1963, he says all of these issues between us are man-made problems, and we as human beings can eliminate them all. He says in that address, he basically calls for ending the Cold War. He starts to see the world through the eyes of the Soviets, which is so important. He says that during World War II, the Soviet Union lost 20 million people, that it’s the equivalent of the entire United States east of Chicago having been destroyed, having been wiped out. Kennedy’s beginning to evolve in his thinking. And he calls for ending the Cold War, basically, there, and he calls for reaching out to the Soviet Union for working together for a peaceful solutions of all of these crises.


PRES. JOHN F. KENNEDY: And what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a pax Americana, enforced on the world by American weapons of war, not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children.


KUZNICK: So I think it’s part of the whole. And Kennedy was willing to do that. He was willing to neutralize Laos, even though Eisenhower warned him, we’re going to have to go in there–likely going to have to go in there and fight it out. The generals were very angry about that. They were angry about many things that he did, which is why he was in a vulnerable position and why knew that and why he said there could be a military coup in the United States.

JAY: Where did he say that?

KUZNICK: He first–Robert Kennedy says that to Dobrynin during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he warns him that we’re losing control, that there might be a war even though we don’t want one, and that there’s a possibility that the generals could seize power in the United States, overthrow Kennedy. Kennedy says that in 1962. He gets an advance copy of the novel Seven Days in May, and that is a novel about a liberal president who signs a nuclear arms control treaty and gets–then there’s a military coup to try to overthrow him. And Kennedy said to a friend, he said, you know, it could happen. If there’s a Bay of Pigs, the generals are going to shake their heads and think that the president is too young and naive and inexperienced. If there’s a second Bay of Pigs, they’re going to think he’s in way over his head and maybe it’s their responsibility to act. If there’s a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen. The generals would move in, the Joint Chiefs would move in and overthrow the president.

JAY: But it didn’t happen. And Kennedy was responsible for something like four and a half billion dollars increase in military expenditure, and some say more. There is–some people have suggested after the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy did an even bigger expansion of U.S. military expenditure, but it prompted a massive military buy-in by Khrushchev, who had previously decided to reduce military expenditure, focus on nuclear weapons. And that only needed to be taken to a certain level to have a kind of a standoff. And then Khrushchev apparently was planning to take money and put more into the Soviet economy, but with the big conventional buildup by Kennedy, then Khrushchev decides they have to do the same thing, and the arms race enters a whole new phase.

KUZNICK: Well, the buildup actually had come in the United States earlier than that. And Khrushchev–as you’re saying, that’s absolutely correct; Khrushchev did want to cut it back. Khrushchev wanted to invest in domestic–raising the standard of living. He wanted to have washing machines and things that people needed, refrigerators, and not waste money on military.

The big buildup in nuclear weapons came before Kennedy’s presidency. And, in fact, it’s interesting, it’s instructive to look at what happens with this missile gap. One of the first things Kennedy instructs McNamara to do is ascertain the reality of the missile gap, which Kennedy had been running on. And McNamara assigns Roswell Gilpatric, his deputy, to look into this. Almost immediately, within three weeks, they realized that there is no missile gap [incompr.] he said there is one: the United States is ahead. McNamara says this by mistake on February 6, and he later offers to resign because the administration was not willing to go public with that. They continue the study, and in October 1961, Roswell Gilpatric is instructed by Kennedy to give a speech in which he says that there is a missile gap and the United States is way ahead; United–there’s not–we’re not way behind in the missile gap, we’re actually way ahead in the missile gap.

What happens during that time is the Strategic Air Command wants to build up to 10,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force wants to build up to 3,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles. McNamara says the most we possibly need is 400, but that the lowest number we could get away with is 1,000. And so Kennedy wanted to limit the increase, the size that will go with this figure of 1,000. But still, even that was very dangerous, because the way it was perceived in the Kremlin was that the United States already had a 10-to-1 lead in nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and now the United States is going to be building this up geometrically, exponentially, to 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And that looks to the forces in the Kremlin that the United States is preparing a first strike to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons and wipe out the Soviet Union, so it was at that point that the Kremlin hardliners say, we’ve got to begin building up. And that’s also part of the motivation for putting those weapons in Cuba.

And astoundingly, during the start of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy says, that’s insane that they would put missiles in Cuba; it’s as if we were putting intermediate or medium-range ballistic missiles in Turkey; at which point Bundy–the room goes silent, and Bundy turns to him and says, well, that’s exactly what we did. So, I mean, even Kennedy, as smart as he was, was confused at times about what the actual situation was.

JAY: Okay [incompr.] long conversation about the Kennedy presidency, and it’s something we’re going to continue, that–we started all this because of the November 22 anniversary, but it’s kind of opened up so many themes in terms of what’s a very important setting of the table for what comes next in American history that we’re going to dig into Kennedy more in the coming weeks. We don’t need the anniversary to do it. We also are going to try to dig a little bit into some of the assassination theory, although it’s a kind of a minefield, because there is so much competing information on all this. But any final word on this for now, Peter?

KUZNICK: Yeah. One of the lessons that I think is very important is that it is possible for this country to go in very different directions than it went.

What Oliver and I are trying to say here is that had Kennedy lived, the world might have been dramatically different. Robert McNamara said the same thing. Khrushchev said the same thing. I mean, they all felt that Kennedy was sincere in these efforts, that Kennedy’s charisma, his intelligence, his leadership, and his morality, basically, would have taken the United States down a very different path. Khrushchev was devastated. When Kennedy gave the commencement address at American University, it was reprinted all over the Soviet Union. Khrushchev, who was not naive it all, fully believed that the United States and the Soviets could make these changes.

And I think it’s very important for young people, for students to learn from this period and to not be cynical and to not have the idea, oh, they’re all capitalists and they’re all imperialists and that nobody’s–that it’s not possible to make changes in this country. Kennedy had a vision. Robert Kennedy had a vision. A lot of Americans in the 1960s had a vision. With Kennedy’s assassination–as Kennedy says in his inaugural address, the torch has been passed to a new generation born in this century, a generation with a different vision of the world.

What Oliver and I say is that with the assassination, the torch was passed back to the old generation, to the generation of Eisenhower, of Nixon, of Johnson, and that that hope that we all felt in the 1960s–and I’m old enough to have experienced that–was extinguished. And then we become much more cynical about the world. And so I think the Kennedy assassination was a dramatic turning point. But it’s important to realize that there were possibilities for change that were lost, that we didn’t have to get involved in Vietnam, that we didn’t have to go the path we went in terms of the Cold War. And so many of the other things that were developing, like the nuclear arms race, the antagonism toward Cuba, all these of these continued to fester and got, I think, much, much worse with the Johnson presidency and the Nixon presidency.

JAY: This is a matter, obviously, of great debate. And so that’s what we’re going to do. One of things we’ll do soon in the coming weeks is have a debate about all of this, because the opposing view, I guess, would argue, well, the system asserts itself, and if Kennedy really was all those things, well, then the system certainly asserted itself by getting rid of him, although some people argue he wasn’t really those things anyway.

But thanks very much, Peter. And you have agreed to come back and debate this, so we will do it soon. Thanks for joining us.

KUZNICK: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

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Peter Kuznick is a professor of history and director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and is currently serving his sixth three-year term as a distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians. He has written extensively about science and politics, nuclear history, and Cold War culture.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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