Wondering what JFK would have done on Vietnam: Galbraith’s impression

What could have happened if the president lived

In the flood of sad reminiscence on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the question of whether he might have extricated America from Vietnam, rather than escalating U.S. involvement in the war, is among the most haunting “what ifs.”

For Kennedy’s admirers, speculating that he would have withdrawn might seem too easy—the ultimate application of hypothetical, posthumous polish to their hero’s dented image.  But for his detractors, simply dismissing the notion that JFK might have taken a different path on Vietnam is also too glib—and ignores crucial, though perhaps not definitive, evidence.

That evidence has been sifted by historians and argued about by Kennedy obsessives on both sides. James Galbraith, a professor of government at University of Texas at Austin, has neatly summarized reasons to believe that Kennedy, in the months before his death on Nov. 22, 1963, had signaled his desire to pull back from Vietnam. He draws attention to, for instance, the White House issuing, on Oct. 11, 1963, something called National Security Action Memorandum 263, which speaks of “the implementation of plans to withdraw” troops from Vietnam.

James Galbraith comes by his interest in this subject honestly. His father, the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, was among the few key voices inside Kennedy’s charmed inner circle warning against prolonged embroilment in Vietnam.

I interviewed the senior Galbraith in the second-floor study of his Cambridge, Mass., house on Jan. 14, 2005, when at 96 he still wielded a trenchant wit and commanded an epochal memory. (He died the following year.) Our exchange on the Vietnam question now seems—with that terrible day in Dallas forced into our minds again— freshly relevant. I raised the question about halfway through a conversation that lasted a little less than an hour:

Q. May I move on to your days as John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to India? [Your biographer] Richard Parker, draws attention to your efforts to persuade JFK not to be drawn into a full-scale war in Vietnam. How do you remember that?

A. I was closely involved. I had an early adverse view of the Vietnam exercise, which became very strong in my mind from both being in India and being sent to Saigon. This was further complicated by being acquainted with military and civilian war makers and the discovery as to their incompetence, the frailty of their judgment. While I continued to be ambassador to India, I came back home, primarily to oppose the war. At one time, JFK designated me the special task of seeing if I could get Nehru to act as a peacemaker between the North Vietnamese and ourselves.

Q. How did you regard the position Kennedy found himself in?

A. He was surrounded by civilian and military cold warriors, who had listened to the military position, including the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and the whole foreign policy establishment, or a large part of it. I came back to oppose it, once just for that purpose and once when my term was up there. There were a few fellow spokesmen, but it was a lonesome exercise.

Q .Had he lived, do you believe Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam?

A. He had that fully in mind. The question was bringing the government along with him. The secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the whole military establishment had the idea that when you have a war that takes over all else and you don’t question it. Question a military exercise and that’s against patriotic duty. I’m not sure that it was entirely helpful in my case that I was a Canadian.

In asking Galbraith about Vietnam, I alluded to Richard Parker’s superb 2005 biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (which I wrote about here). Parker writes of how, in the fall of 1961, Kennedy was under intense pressure from hawks in his administration to ramp up the U.S. presence in Vietnam from a few thousand military “advisers” to a full combat force of more than 200,000 troops, and sent Galbraith to Saigon to gain another perspective.

Galbraith returned from the mission deeply worried about any further American military commitment. “Incidentally,” he wrote to Kennedy, “who is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic? I would like to have his name and address and ask him what is so important about this real estate in the Space Age?”

To imagine that Galbraith’s gift for that sort of droll, meaningful aside might actually have made what he had to say matter just a little more in JFK’s White House is, I know, nostalgic. This week, I’m going ask for the indulgence.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.