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The Kennedy Withdrawal

The Kennedy Withdrawal

Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam

Marc J. Selverstone

ISBN 9780674048812

Publication date: 11/15/2022

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A major revision of our understanding of JFK’s commitment to Vietnam, revealing that his administration’s plan to withdraw was a political device, the effect of which was to manage public opinion while preserving US military assistance.

In October 1963, the White House publicly proposed the removal of US troops from Vietnam, earning President Kennedy an enduring reputation as a skeptic on the war. In fact, Kennedy was ambivalent about withdrawal and was largely detached from its planning. Drawing on secret presidential tapes, Marc J. Selverstone reveals that the withdrawal statement gave Kennedy political cover, allowing him to sustain support for US military assistance. Its details were the handiwork of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, whose ownership of the plan distanced it from the president.

Selverstone’s use of the presidential tapes, alongside declassified documents, memoirs, and oral histories, lifts the veil on this legend of Camelot. Withdrawal planning was never just about Vietnam as it evolved over the course of fifteen months. For McNamara, it injected greater discipline into the US assistance program. For others, it was a form of leverage over South Vietnam. For the military, it was largely an unwelcome exercise. And for JFK, it allowed him to preserve the US commitment while ostensibly limiting it.

The Kennedy Withdrawal offers an inside look at presidential decisionmaking in this liminal period of the Vietnam War and makes clear that portrayals of Kennedy as a dove are overdrawn. His proposed withdrawal was in fact a cagey strategy for keeping the United States involved in the fight—a strategy the country adopted decades later in Afghanistan.


  • In this worthy book, Selverstone…takes a deep dive into whether or not Kennedy would have greatly escalated the war as Johnson did within two years after assuming the presidency…Revealing.

    —Marc Leepson, Vietnam Veterans of America


  • Marc J. Selverstone heads the acclaimed Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, where he edits the secret White House tapes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. He has written for the Washington Post, Atlantic, and U.S. News and World Report and appeared on C-Span radio. He is the author of Constructing the Monolith: The United States, Great Britain, and International Communism, 1945–1950, winner of the Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and is Associate Professor in Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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