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.
Offers an intriguing deep dive into a topic long debated among scholars of the Vietnam War: had President Kennedy not been assassinated, would he have followed through on his plans to withdraw U.S. troops, or drastically escalated the conflict, as his successor Lyndon Johnson did?…Scrupulous and revealing, this is a persuasive answer to one of the Vietnam War’s biggest what-ifs.
Selverstone dissects one of the last enduring shibboleths of the Cold War: the Camelot myth that President John F. Kennedy would have avoided the quagmire of Vietnam had he lived.
A splendid work. I doubt there is any scholar anywhere who knows the archival material better than Selverstone does, and he is surely unsurpassed in his familiarity with the Kennedy tapes. His prose is consistently smooth, clear, and engaging. This book will be the go-to account on Kennedy and the Vietnam War for a long time to come.
Had JFK lived, would he have withdrawn from Vietnam or sent in American regular troops, as Johnson did? This question has been a matter of intense debate since the war ended in 1975. Selverstone provides a fascinating look at what the president and his advisors said about the war in private, and what that can tell us about Kennedy’s views on withdrawal.
With the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, the courage of a mountaineer, and the storytelling instincts of a mystery writer, Selverstone tackles head-on one of the most tantalizing what-ifs in modern history. The Kennedy Withdrawal weighs all the evidence, from every angle, to render a verdict that is at once surprising, convincing, and authoritative. This will surely be the definitive account of JFK’s intentions in Vietnam.
This pathbreaking book redefines the terms of the long-running debate over John Kennedy’s Vietnam withdrawal plan. Weaving analysis and narrative together in compelling fashion, Selverstone cuts through the Camelot mythology to reveal the bureaucratic and political origins of the plan, as well as the reasons for its subsequent abandonment. A major contribution from a preeminent historian of JFK’s foreign policies.
- 336 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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