Saturday, 08 April 2023 06:48

The Kennedy Withdrawal, by Marc Selverstone

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Jim DiEugenio examines Marc Selverstone's attempt to turn President Kennedy into a Cold Warrior, to somehow transform JFK's withdrawal plan in Vietnam into an open-ended commitment, and to absurdly propose that there was no real break in policy from JFK to LBJ.

Marc Selverstone begins his book The Kennedy Withdrawal with a curious, self-serving statement. He says that Kennedy’s withdrawal plan has not previously been treated in an extensively scholarly way. Is the author saying that somehow the works of John Newman, James Galbraith, David Kaiser, Jim Douglass, Gordon Goldstein, Howard Jones and James Blight do not matter? Its clear from his references that he has read virtually all of these works. But he barely refers, for example, to John Newman.

In 1992, the combination of John’s book, plus Oliver Stone’s film JFK—which utilized his data—had a powerful public impact, since much new information was conveyed to the audience. It eventually caused the formation of the Assassination Record Review Board which, among 60,000 documents, declassified hundreds of pages on Vietnam. John’s work, and those newly declassified pages, showed how, with very few exceptions, the prior work in this field had relied on false premises and ongoing empty cliches. Many of them owing to none other than Lyndon Johnson. This might be the reason Selverstone wants to ignore John.


The first thing that one notices about this book is that there is little background to the years under question: 1961-64. That is, there is not much detailed information about how America got caught in such a predicament in Indochina. And further, what Kennedy’s views on colonial matters were, as opposed to his predecessors: President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon and the Dulles brothers, i.e. John Foster at State, and Allen at CIA. Not only is this dealt with rather briefly, the small portion offered is delivered in a sweeping, synoptic manner. But, even worse, Selverstone distorts the little he does offer.

For example, he tries to imply that somehow, Kennedy never considered a neutralist solution in Vietnam. (p. 18) Not only did Kennedy consider it, he even tried for one. But he was betrayed on this by Averill Harriman. (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 119) In his comments on the general subject of neutralism, Selverstone uses Robert Rakove’s Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World. But he uses it in an argument to turn Kennedy into a Cold Warrior. (Selverstone, p. 18)

Yet, the whole point of Rakove’s book is to demonstrate how JFK did battle with the Dulles brothers and Eisenhower in the fifties. And to show how, once in the White House, his policies broke with the Cold War ethos they had created. Rakove illustrates this in places like the Middle East and Africa. In fact, Kennedy was clear about this in conversations with Harris Wofford prior to the 1960 primary season. He said, “The key thing for the country is a new foreign policy that will break out of the confines of the Cold War.” He then continued by saying, if LBJ or Stu Symington won the 1960 nomination, “we might as well elect Dulles or Acheson, it would be the same cold war foreign policy all over again.” (Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, pp 36-37)

But that is not all Selverstone is up to. He is determined to portray Kennedy as not just a Cold Warrior, but something like a conservative Democrat. So he says that Kennedy had a halting pursuit of civil rights as president. (p. 52) Again, this is simply wrong. As I have proven, Kennedy did more for civil rights in 3 years than Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower did in three decades. That is simply a fact. (Click here) Yet, this is how comprehensive the author is in his attempt to caricature JFK.

Selverstone mentions, like others, that in 1961 Kennedy would break certain aspects of the 1954 Geneva Accords. (p. 48) I have always thought this to be patent nonsense. Those peace accords were shattered in 1956 when Eisenhower refused to conduct the national elections which were to unify Vietnam, after a division that was only temporary. But also, neither side was to form any foreign military alliances. Not only did Eisenhower and Foster Dulles do that, they placed in power a whole new government through Colonel Edward Lansdale. It was through Lansdale that South Vietnam had Ngo Dinh Diem installed as fiat leader. Further, in late 1955, France let America set up a Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon, superseding and dispelling their own. That cinched a new military alliance. For this, and other reasons—like Hanoi’s infiltrations into the south—the Accords were a dead letter as far back as 1955. Selverstone is using transparent camouflage.

For example, he writes that Kennedy set up a task force for Vietnam. He leaves out the fact that that this was part of Kennedy’s wholesale revision of Eisenhower’s approach. JFK also did this for other trouble spots like Congo and Laos. (Kaiser, American Tragedy, p. 38) It was done so he would not be imprisoned by prior Eisenhower and Dulles policies— to halt the bureaucratic momentum Ike had set in motion. Laos is a good example of this. The day before Kennedy was inaugurated, Eisenhower told him that Laos was the key to all Southeast Asia. If Laos fell, America would have to write off the entire area. (Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 2017 edition, p.9)

With respect to Laos it took about five months to bring the government around to JFK’s views. (Kaiser, p. 39). This included Paul Nitze, Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow. They agreed with Eisenhower, who favored intervention. As did the Pentagon who wanted to mass 60,000 men, use air power, and, atomic weapons in case China intervened. As David Kaiser wrote, the joint chiefs had “thoroughly absorbed the Eisenhower-Dulles doctrine of treating nuclear weapons as conventional weapons.” (Kaiser, p. 43) Kennedy disarmed the hawks by estimates of how many men the Chinese and Hanoi could get into Laos for a war. He also talked in private with Ambassador Winthrop Brown and steered him to a neutralist approach. (Kaiser, pp. 40-41) As Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger, referring to the Joint Chiefs on the Bay of Pigs and Laos: “If it weren’t for Cuba, I might have taken this advice seriously.” (Mike Swanson, Why the Vietnam War? p. 284)

To most prior writers on the subject, Kennedy’s handling of Laos is an important precedent.


If Kennedy was a prototypical Cold Warrior on Southeast Asia, why was he promoting the book and film The Ugly American from 1958 through 1962? That book was one of the most trenchant, bitterest indictments of American Indochina foreign policy in all literature. It essentially says that if all America had to offer in the Third World was anti-communism, then she might as well close shop and go home. Kennedy bought a copy for all 100 senators and helped purchase a full page ad for the book in The New York Times. He then helped get the film made in Thailand. (See, the film JFK : Destiny Betrayed or click here) The imaginary country the action takes place in, Sarkhan, is meant to symbolize Vietnam.

Continuing in this vein, Selverstone also wants to display the image of JFK abiding by the Domino Theory. (See p. 148). Even if he has to use the unmitigated hawk Walt Rostow to do so. (p.230) Again, Selverstone is not telling the whole story. In 1961, Kennedy told journalist and family friend Arthur Krock that he had serious doubts about the Domino Theory, and did not think the USA should get into a land war in Asia. (Swanson, p. 335)

McGeorge Bundy also commented on this whole “falling dominoes” concept, which allegedly would have trapped Kennedy in Saigon. Bundy once said that, although Kennedy was not prepared to be an anti-domino theorist, “he certainly was not in the sort of straightforward way, ‘you lost this and all is gone’ kind of fellow….” (Goldstein, p. 230). Bundy then said something very important about Vietnam: “He was deeply aware of the fact that this place was in fact ‘X’ thousand miles away in terms both of American interest and American politics.” (ibid)

In short: Was Vietnam an inherent part of America’s national security? Kennedy famously asked General Lyman Lemnitzer in November of 1961, words to the effect: If we did not go into Cuba, which is so close, why should we go into Vietnam, which is so far away? Lemnitzer replied, that the Joint Chiefs still felt we should go into Cuba. (Newman, pp. 139-40). This crystalizes Kennedy’s dispute with the vast majority of his advisors. And it shows that Selverstone’s attempts at diminishing that dispute and foreshortening Kennedy’s attempts to break out of the Cold War paradigm are persiflage. As we shall see, those two traits did not apply to Lyndon Johnson.

The November 1961 epochal debates over combat troops and what we should do in Vietnam is given rather short shrift by Selverstone. More importantly, the mission given to John Kenneth Galbraith right after is also discounted. (Selverstone, pp. 43-45) To me, those two events, plus the November 27th meeting of Kennedy with his advisors, are crucial to understanding what happened in 1963 and how JFK’s policies were reversed by LBJ.

The November meetings are key since they show Kennedy disarming the hawks just as he did with Laos—by asking a series of probing questions. (Howard Jones, Death of a Generation, p. 126) Upon General Maxwell Taylor’s return from Saigon, Kennedy was shocked by his combat troops request. Because he had advised Taylor in advance not to do so. He was so taken aback “that he recalled copies of the final report.” Kennedy also planted stories in the press that Taylor had not really recommended combat troops. (Newman, pp. 137-38).


One reason Kennedy was adamantly opposed was the simple reason that he had been in Vietnam during the imperial war in the early fifties and saw what had happened to France. Therefore, to Kennedy, the war was Saigon’s to win or lose. If it became a “white man’s war” America would be defeated, just as the French had been. (Jones, pp. 125-26). Selverstone leaves out that part of Kennedy’s quote and he (shockingly) writes that, whether Kennedy was going to make a 300,000 man combat troop deployment is unclear. (Selverstone, p. 42) As many have written—including Newman, Jones, Goldstein and James Galbraith—such a thing is pretty much unimaginable. Because the line Kennedy drew on the “no combat troops” issue in 1961 was indelible. In fact, U. Alexis Johnson, Dean Rusk’s Deputy, said for the record that “the line has clearly been drawn in Vietnam.” (Richard Parker, John Kenneth Galbraith, p. 371)

As per John Kenneth Galbraith’s journey to Saigon, Selverstone has this happening almost out of nowhere: somehow Galbraith decided to take a sight-seeing tour of Saigon on his way back to India. (p. 45) The record shows that Galbraith had been in Washington during a part of these November debates. He had stolen a copy of the Taylor/Rostow report off of Walt Rostow’s desk. He took it back to his hotel room and was horrified. (Parker, pp. 367-68) Kennedy asked him to write a memo to counter it, and JFK used some of these points in his warding off the hawks. On the day Galbraith was going to leave Washington, Kennedy gave his instructions to the Ambassador for India: he was to visit Saigon as quickly as possible and report back to him personally and to no one else. He wanted Galbraith’s advice as to what should be done next. (Parker, p. 372)

The third critical point, the November 27, 1961 meeting, is not even noted by Selverstone. Yet this event is of maximum importance. This White House meeting was attended by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Joint Chiefs Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer and Max Taylor among others. Although he called the meeting, Kennedy was the last to arrive. After making a bit of small talk, the president forcefully unloaded on the reason for the meeting. He was clearly frustrated by how hard he had to fight to get NSAM 111 approved, which denied combat troops but raised aid and advisors to Saigon. Kennedy said as clearly as possible, “When policy is decided on, people on the spot must support it or get out.” He demanded whole hearted support for his decisions. He then asked: Who was going to implement his Vietnam policy. McNamara said he would. (Newman, p. 145-46)

Why is this so important? And why is it inexplicable that Selverstone left it out? Because, in April, Galbraith would be in Washington again. And what Selverstone does with this trip is once more, just strange. He seems to want to make Galbraith the MC running the whole agenda. But the record does not support that. Galbraith had written another report in early April arguing against any further involvement with the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. He even warned of the possibility of an escalation to a Korean War conflagration. (Letter to Kennedy of April 4, 1962). Kennedy was very taken by this communication. And he read it to diplomat Averill Harriman and NSC assistant Mike Forrestal. Galbraith was then directed by Kennedy to talk to McNamara about the memo. (Newman, p. 235) According to Galbraith McNamara got the message. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, p. 129; Pentagon Papers, Vol. 2, pp 669-671)

So in a very real way, after the November 27th meeting, Kennedy directed Galbraith to his man on Vietnam policy, McNamara, and this begat the origins of the withdrawal program. This is double sourced through McNamara’s deputy Roswell Gilpatric, who said the withdrawal “was part of a plan the president asked him [McNamara] to develop to unwind this whole thing.” He also added, that Kennedy:

…made it clear to McNamara and me that he wanted to not only hold the level of US military presence in Vietnam down, but he wanted to reverse the flow and that’s when this question of bringing back some of the US military personnel came up. But it was in keeping with his general reluctance to see us sucked in militarily to Southeast Asia. (Jones, pp. 381-82)

The reason I think that Selverstone does this curtailing is because he wants to suggest that somehow the withdrawal plan was really McNamara’s doing. (See p. 71 for an example)

But not only does the above record not indicate this, but to buy into it one has to explain how McNamara, on his own, did a 180 degree pirouette on the issue. During the November debates, he advised Kennedy to commit six combat divisions to Indochina. (Goldstein, p. 60) I have shown above how McNamara’s reversal was caused by JFK. The last certifying event is when McNamara attended the Sec/Def meeting of 5/8/62. He told Commanding General Harkins, along with General Lyman Lemnitzer, to stay after. Reciting Kennedy, McNamara said Vietnam was not America’s war. The American function was to help train the ARVN, the army of South Vietnam. He then asked Harkins when the ARVN could take over completely. After the shock wore off, the Defense Secretary said he wanted plans for how the American military structure was going to be dismantled. (Jim Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 120)

It is clear how this May 1962 order came about; and it was not McNamara’s doing.


Before getting to Selverstone’s off the wall denouement, let me point out four other absurdities.

At times, the author actually tries to suggest that, somehow, the withdrawal was done to curry favor with the media. (p. 122, p. 135) I had to go back to Daniel Hallin’s book, The Uncensored War to look this one up. Hallin’s fine study concluded that up until the Tet offensive, the media embraced the war and had no strong objections to escalation. (Hallin, p. 174) The best example of this was what they did to Governor George Romney of Michigan. When Romney went against that grain on Vietnam in 1967, suggesting America should not be there, he was literally destroyed as a viable presidential candidate for 1968. In fact, as he often does, Selverstone later admits that the press supported a firm commitment to remain in Vietnam. So the author contradicts his thesis.(p. 149)

But JFK understood this. This is why he tried to keep his decision to begin the withdrawal low key. So low key that some historians had a problem locating it for decades on end. There was no political upside in withdrawal at that time. Kennedy was doing it since he felt it was the right thing to do. Newman notes in his book that it was Kennedy’s enemies—the military in Saigon— who actually publicized his decision and forced him to formulate it into NSAM 263. (Newman, p. 435)

Selverstone also tries to repeat a Chomskyite strophe which I thought was long ago obsolete. That somehow Kennedy’s withdrawal plan was based on the course of the war. (p. 128) Way back in 1997, the release of hundreds of pages of documents more or less put an end to that maneuver. (See Probe Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 19-21) As I wrote back then, after reading these documents, everyone in the loop seemed aware that Kennedy would begin his pullout in December of 1963 and end it at the end of 1965. Even General Earle Wheeler observed that any proposal for overt action invited a negative presidential decision. And the specific transition plans are laid out in black and white.

As James Galbraith and Howard Jones wrote, Kennedy’s withdrawal was unconditional and did not rely on victory. (Boston Review, “Exit Strategy” September 1, 2003) Newman made this issue deader than a doornail when he listened to McNamara’s debrief from the Pentagon. McNamara said that once the training period was over, he and Kennedy had decided the effort was complete. They could not fight the war for Saigon. They were leaving. (Vietnam: The Early Decisions, edited by Lloyd C Gardner and Ted GIttinger, pp. 166-67)

Third, Selverstone has no mention of the circumstances of the writing of the Taylor/McNamara Report of October 1963. Once the plans for turning the war over to Saigon were handed in, Kennedy sent those two men to Saigon in order to pen a report that would certify his decision to begin his withdrawal. Realizing what Taylor had done back in 1961, he was taking no chances. It was written before the party departed. (Jones, p. 370) But still, on the return, people like William Sullivan forced the removal of the section on withdrawal. Selverstone has Taylor putting it back in. (p. 167) Newman writes that Kennedy called Taylor and McNamara into his office. When they emerged, McNamara had the section put back in the report. (Newman, p. 411) As the reader can see, as with the origins of the withdrawal plan, Selverstone is trying to keep Kennedy’s hands off its result.

The book moves toward the famous last words of Kennedy to Mike Forrestal before JFK went to Dallas. Forrestal said in 1971 that before the president departed Washington he told him that there would be a review of Indochina policy when he got back, Selverstone writes that, since in an earlier interview Forrestal did not mention that, then somehow Forrestal was embellishing. Since Forrestal had long passed, that is easy to say. He then writes that this typifies the ‘expansion of claims about Kennedy’s intentions” at a time when they seemed most laudable and prophetic. Meaning, by 1971, the war was a mess.

When I read that, I realized that this was what the book was really about. But, like any zealot, Selverstone is not aware that he has set himself up to have the plank sawed off beneath him. Because, as Peter Scott has noted, way back in 1967 Charles Bartlett and Edward Weintal wrote a book called Facing the Brink. It has a chapter dealing with the transition between Kennedy and Johnson on Vietnam. They confirmed what Forrestal said: That shortly before he was assassinated, JFK had ordered a complete review of American policy in Southeast Asia. (p. 71). That book was released in 1967, so it was likely being written in 1965-66. Which was before the war had gone south, before the media had altered course, and while Johnson was still rallying public opinion to save South Vietnam. Therefore, far from indicating any “expansion” of Kennedy’s intentions, what Selverstone has shown is his insistence on ignoring what the president was actually doing.

That insistence extends much further than Forrestal. In my review of Newman’s 2017 revision of JFK and Vietnam, I listed 19 people who Kennedy had revealed his intent to withdraw from Vietnam. This included senators, generals, ambassadors and journalists. Were all these people being deceitful? Or was Kennedy a pathological liar? If you do not deal with this evidence in any real way, then you can simply—and, as we have seen, wrongly—chalk it up as an “expansion of claims about Kennedy’s intentions”.


The subtitle of Selverstone’s book is “Camelot and the Commitment to Vietnam”. The reader might ask himself, is not the full title somewhat of an oxymoron? The McNamara/Taylor report states three times that the American forces would be out by 1965. But agreeing with Howard Jones, Selverstone states that it allowed for a small amount of advisors to be left for further training. In either case, it would have been 1,500 at the most.

So here is my question: If that would have been the case—and Johnson had not first stopped and then reversed Kennedy’s policies—what would have happened? I can tell you what would have happened. The same thing that occurred in 1975, when Hanoi overran South Vietnam in two months. In 1965, Hanoi had a total armed force, including reservists, of about 750,000 men. (Some estimates go beyond that into seven figures.) That does not include about 80,000 Viet Cong in the south. That army was being supplied with munitions by both the USSR and China. The idea that a thousand or so American advisors, plus the ARVN, was going to stop that force from taking Saigon is so ridiculous that it almost seems satirical. To use another example, Hanoi’s Easter Offensive of 1972 would have succeeded except for extreme American bombing, some of it laser guided, by the Air Force and off of aircraft carriers of the Seventh Fleet. Hanoi had defeated France, but been robbed by the cancellation of the Geneva Accords. They understood that to unify their country they would need a military victory over Saigon and that is what they were prepared to do. And eventually did do. For Selverstone to compare this situation to Afghanistan is ridiculous.

As we all know, instead of America being out by the end of 1965, Johnson sent 170,000 combat troops to Vietnam. Thus breaking a line that Kennedy had drawn back in 1961. How does the author explain this? He says that the withdrawal plan was flexible and conditions changed. (Selverstone, p. 244) As John Newman explained to me, the only way it was flexible is that Kennedy did not want Saigon to fall before the election. So the outflow of advisors could be adjusted to prevent that. (2020 Interview for Oliver Stone’s film JFK Revisited)

But that is not at all what happened. And conditions do not change over a space of four days. Which was the space between Forrestal’s talk with JFK and the first meeting Johnson had on Vietnam. One example of the latter: Henry Cabot Lodge had been recalled to Washington for the purpose of Kennedy firing him. (Douglass, p. 374) Not only did that not happen, but the people at that meeting understood that a new martial tone was now being installed. How else does one explain this: “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” (ibid, p. 375)

As Scott wrote many years ago, this kind of talk in relation to Vietnam was pretty much not part of Kennedy’s lexicon. For New Year’s, a month later, Johnson wrote a letter to the new leader of Vietnam, Duong Van Minh. In that letter LBJ proclaimed “…the fullest measure of support…in achieving victory.” (NY Times, January 4, 1964) Achieving victory? Even the Times admitted that this communication appeared to cancel any deadline for removing American forces by 1965. Clearly, McNamara understood that Johnson was enacting a sea change in policy. For as Scott also adds, McNamara and CIA Director John McCone went to Saigon in mid-December and announced the change to Minh. McNamara told him that America was ready to help “as long as aid was needed.” How could the alteration of JFK’s policy be any more clear? (Government by Gunplay, edited by Sid Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian, p. 183)

These almost immediate changes could not be due to a sudden reversal of military conditions. Which is what Selverstone wants us to think. This was simply the difference between Johnson and Kennedy. And Johnson was explicit about this: “…the only way to subdue the Viet Cong was to kill them and not to bring the New Frontier to South Vietnam.” (Ibid, p. 155). Again, can anyone imagine Kennedy saying this?

As delineated by Newman, Selverstone tries to get around Johnson’s alterations to NSAM 273. For instance, he says that any changes Johnson would have made to the draft of the document would likely have been made by Kennedy anyway. (p. 208) This ignores two key points: McGeorge Bundy drew up the draft in anticipation of what he thought JFK would want. Secondly, one of the major changes allowed the CIA and military to actually use US forces in hit and run raids in the north. Bundy knew Kennedy was against that from the start. Which is why he did not include it. LBJ had no such compunctions and altered it. (Newman, pp. 456-57)

In regards to that overall issue, Selverstone actually writes that “Johnson’s determination to prevail flowed in part from his understanding that it was Kennedy’s as well.” (Selverstone, pp. 205-06) The idea that Johnson did not know that Kennedy was withdrawing in a losing situation, and he was now reversing that policy is undermined by Johnson’s own communications with McNamara. In fact, one reason that, one by one, Kennedy’s advisors left was because they now felt that Johnson was blaming his escalation on JFK. (Blight pp. 306, 309-10)

The ultimate proof of that difference is NSAM 288. As most commentators agree, this was the beginning of planning for a total war against Hanoi, including massive air power and bombing. It had been urged on and commented on by the Joint Chiefs. (Kaiser, pp. 302-305) , Kennedy did not even want military men visiting Vietnam, let alone drawing up his policy. (America’s Last President, by Monika Wiesak, p. 133) But what JFK refused to countenance in three years, Johnson was now doing in three months.

For this book, that, and many other things, are not really difference makers. Marc Selverstone’s The Kennedy Withdrawal is so agenda driven, so littered with dubious assumptions, so averse to logic and common sense, that its less a book than a curiosity piece.

Last modified on Sunday, 09 April 2023 06:16
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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