Saturday, 19 June 2021 19:00

John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam, 2017 version

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While working on Oliver Stone’s upcoming documentary, Jim DiEugenio consulted the 2nd edition of John Newman’s ground-breaking book, JFK and Vietnam, and now takes the opportunity to review the development of Newman’s important thesis and the innovation and impact of this substantial research in dispelling the myth that LBJ did not alter Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam.

Working in the field of historical revisionism, I understand how difficult it is to challenge an established paradigm. The meme could be that Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise attack or that the Germans bear the blame for the outbreak of World War I. Whatever it is, once an alleged authoritative determination has been made in the historical field, it is very difficult to alter it in any significant manner.

That is what made John Newman’s 1992 publication of JFK and Vietnam so startling. The author had set himself to work at, not just altering, but reversing a historical paradigm, one that had been set in stone for decades. That paradigm said this: After President Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson continued what Kennedy was doing in Vietnam. If one looks back at college textbooks or virtually any history of the Indochina conflict, that is what one will read (e. g. David Halberstam’s massive bestseller The Best and the Brightest or Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History). The mass indoctrination of the American public into this mindset was pretty much complete. Any dissenting voices were essentially marginalized. And there were some, like State Department official Roger Hilsman, former White House advisors Ted Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger, and authors Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers in their book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. There were also essayists specializing in hidden history, like Peter Scott and Fletcher Prouty. But as per their combined effect, as the old saying goes, they might as well have been pissing in the wind. The entire media/political/academic establishment had bought into the “continuity” between Kennedy and Johnson on Vietnam: the history of Indochina would have been no different if Kennedy had lived. Altogether—between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—about six million people would have died no matter what.

Which shows just how ignorant, and also pliant, these Establishment forces were. Because, if one was really looking, the journalist could have found sources that would have indicated that Kennedy differed from Johnson in his dealings with the Third World in general, and Vietnam in particular. In addition to the above, as far back as 1980, in the first volume of his biography of Kennedy, The Struggles of Young Jack, Herbert Parmet spent about 12 pages describing Kennedy’s opposition in the fifties to the Republican administration’s maneuverings in the Third World; and, specifically, Dwight Eisenhower’s policy in support of French empire in Vietnam and Algeria. In 1989, one could read about these differences at greater length and depth in Richard Mahoney’s milestone book, JFK: Ordeal in Africa. Both of those books review Kennedy’s watershed senate speech on Algeria in the summer of 1957. That remarkable oration had been available in book form since 1960. (The Strategy of Peace, edited by Allen Nevins, pp. 66–80) No one with any objectivity can read that declaration and not see that Kennedy was throwing down the gauntlet on the issue to both Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. He was trying to find a new path in America’s approach to the Third World.

I note all this in order to preface the battle that broke out over the issue when Oliver Stone’s film JFK debuted in late 1991. Stone’s staff had become aware of Newman’s dissertation on the subject. Stone had already worked the Vietnam angle into the script through military advisor Fletcher Prouty. The director decided to augment that work by making Newman a consultant on the film. Newman had direct input into the script and also has a bit part in the picture.

No one who was around at that time can forget the unprecedented, almost collectively pathological attempt to discredit JFK several months before it opened in December of 1991. These included attacks on the film’s thesis about Vietnam: namely that Kennedy was withdrawing from Indochina at the time of his assassination and Johnson changed that policy within a matter of weeks, if not days. In fact, in one of the earliest assaults on the film—in May of 1991—Washington Post reporter George Lardner wrote that Johnson carried out a thousand man troop withdrawal as JFK had wished and, “There was no abrupt change in Vietnam policy after JFK’s death.” (JFK: The Book of the Film, by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, p. 197) Newman quite effectively shot back at this in The Boston Globe. He accused Lardner of creating historical fiction and playing politics with the issue. He also questioned Lardner’s traditional sources who had swallowed the Kennedy/Johnson continuity line: Karnow and William Gibbons. Newman used several solid primary sources to counter this mythology, including General James Gavin and senators Mike Mansfield and Wayne Morse. (ibid, pp. 401–03)


In 2017, Newman issued a new version of JFK and Vietnam. It turns out that the original publisher of the hardcover edition essentially sandbagged the book. Even though the thesis was red hot at the time of first publication—early 1992—John got no book tour to promote his work, in spite of the fact that Arthur Schlesinger had written a positive critique for the New York Times Book Review. (March 29, 1992) Further, Warner Books pulled the volume from bookstores and refused to take the author’s calls about it. (Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 2017 version, p. 479) After the intervention of the family of John Kenneth Galbraith, the author got the rights back to his work. (Ibid, pp. 489–90) He set about refashioning it.

I did not realize just how much this version of the book differed from the 1992 edition. But while working on Oliver Stone’s upcoming documentary, I had the opportunity to read certain sections. I concluded that it was a substantial rewrite. Because of that, plus the fact that I never critiqued the early version, I decided that this 2017 edition deserves to be, however belatedly, reviewed.

Right at the start, in his prologue, the author makes two additions to the book. The first deals with how he struck upon the idea of using such a hypothesis as the subject for his dissertation. It was due to a challenge from his former boss, Lt. General William Odom. (Newman, p. xiii) Then, by serendipity, Newman was stationed in Arizona with a man who was instrumental in working on what ended up being part of the main framework of his book: Col. Don Blascak. When John told him the subject of his dissertation—Kennedy and Vietnam—Blascak said, “Well, that’s when the big lie started.” (ibid, p. xiv) Blascak then gave him a list of people involved in MACV—Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—in 1962.

From these men, and a visit to the army’s Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, Newman developed the evidence for one of the main tenets of his book, namely that General Paul Harkins and Colonel Joseph Winterbottom had devised an intelligence deception about how the war was going in 1961–62, because they knew that, in fact, it was not going well. (ibid, p. xvi)

When the dissertation was completed in late 1991, Newman sent a chapter dealing with that issue to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McNamara declined to see him, but he did write back that he did not think he was lied to. After the book was published, McNamara did agree to a visit. Over a series of meetings, the author provoked the former secretary to write his memoir about the war, entitled In Retrospect. Published in 1995, McNamara stated for the first time in public that President Kennedy would not have escalated the war as Johnson did. In fact, he wrote that JFK would have pulled out of the war. (McNamara, p. 96) Newman, as we shall see, was quite influential in McNamara denying the academic/MSM verdict on this subject: History would have been different had Kennedy lived.

The powerful impact of the publicity surrounding McNamara’s book caused McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, to write his own study of his part in the Indochina debacle. (See Lessons in Disaster, p. 22) Unfortunately, Bundy passed away before his book was completed. But a capable scholar, Gordon Goldstein—who Bundy had chosen as his writing partner—finished the volume after his death. Bundy had the same message: Kennedy would not have escalated in Vietnam. (Click here for details)

It should be noted that those two books are not purely memoirs drawn from random reminisces. The co-authors, Goldstein and Brian Van DeMark, did copious research. They recovered hundreds of pages of documents to replenish both men’s memories. Both works are supported by documentation.

As the reader can see, Newman’s work had a direct impact on major players involved in creating the history of the Indochina conflict. Today, with so much of the documented record finally declassified, my only question is: Why did the reevaluation take so long to occur? We will address that question later.


The textual opening of the 2017 version of JFK and Vietnam is also different. Following a brief section about General Edward Lansdale and Deputy National Security Advisor Walt Rostow directing Kennedy’s attention toward Vietnam after his inauguration, the author adds a new chapter on Laos. When President Eisenhower met with Kennedy during the transition, he told the president-elect that Laos was a key area in the struggle for Southeast Asia. (Newman, p. 9) To Ike, it was so important that he would not consider a neutralist solution. If needed, he wanted SEATO—Southeast Asia Treaty Organization—to enter the country, yet France and England did not think Laos was really worth such an investment.

Largely agreeing with Mike Swanson, Newman argues that what American intervention did under Eisenhower was to essentially prevent any neutralist solution from occurring. (Click here for a review of Swanson’s book) The CIA then funded the pro American, anti-communist forces led by Phoumi Nosavan. They augmented this by recruiting a group of tribal hillsmen—the Hmong under Vang Pao—to fight for them and against the leftist Pathet Lao. (Newman, p. 12) Assigned a CIA case officer, Phoumi became the leader of the American backed forces. This was resisted by a neutralist leader, Kong Le. When his resistance failed, he joined the Pathet Lao. The Soviets began a large airlift to the leftist forces. (Newman, p. 18) This allowed the Pathet Lao to inflict some defeats upon Phoumi.

In reaction, the Pentagon wanted to insert troops in South Vietnam and send them to Laos; and to also consider an atomic option if necessary. (p. 19) When the Pathet Lao began a new offensive in late March of 1961, the Joint Chiefs now pushed for a 60,000 man insertion, with air cover and atomic weapons in reserve. (p. 22) The idea behind the last was simple: the military wanted no more Koreas.

Kennedy decided against this. Instead, he sent a naval task force into the area, accompanied by a speech saying he favored a neutralist solution. On April 24, 1961, Moscow signaled they would be agreeable to such terms. (p. 27) Up until the very end, Admiral Arleigh Burke was pushing for direct American intervention, posing the question: Where do we fight in Southeast Asia? Agreeing with Swanson, Newman ends this chapter by saying that once Laos was settled, the Joint Chiefs began to aim at Vietnam as their target. (p. 29)

At this point, the author sketches in the background of the conflict, describing central characters like Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem. (Although he writes the Bao Dai was a puppet installed by Japan, he was actually installed decades earlier by France. See p. 31) Bao Dai was asked to appoint Diem as his prime minister and Diem eventually shoved Bao Dai aside with help from the USA. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles initially approved of Diem and sent him to Saigon in July of 1954. Veteran black operator Ed Lansdale became the chief protector and benefactor for Diem. In a secret operation, Lansdale used psy war techniques to encourage Catholics from the north to migrate south. This was done to boost Diem’s popularity, since he was a Catholic, not a Buddhist. Backed by Lansdale and American funds, Diem set about building an army. Diem concentrated power by defeating the drug traffickers, the Binh Xuyen, and thus mollified the Cao Dai religious sect. (Newman, pp. 31–32)

As many authors have pointed out, the problem with Diem is that his whole regime was built around him and his family. Lansdale rigged elections as Diem concentrated more and more power in his own hands—while stamping out freedom of debate and dissent. This went to the point of closing down newspapers and prosecuting, imprisoning, and doing away with political opponents. (p. 33) It was quite clear to any objective reporter that, contrary to what Dwight Eisenhower was saying, America was not backing democracy and Diem was not a Miracle Man. This led to serious inroads by the Viet Cong and also to plotting against Diem within his own government apparatus. To no avail, Ambassador Eldridge Durbrow tried to advise Diem to change his ways. (p. 33)

Lansdale decided to visit Saigon in December of 1960. He was quite critical of Durbrow and his attitude toward Diem. By this time, the ambassador had essentially given up on America’s mandarin. There were two coup attempts in about seven months between the end of 1960 and the beginning of 1961. Durbrow now said he would rather see Vietnam fall than continue with Diem. (p. 34)

As advised by Rostow, Kennedy read Lansdale’s report about his visit. Lansdale recommended that Durbrow be removed, which Kennedy agreed to do. Lansdale was not so subtly angling for the position, but Secretary of State Dean Rusk made sure he was not appointed. State Department veteran Frederick Nolting became the new ambassador.


Kennedy was very disappointed by the advice he got on the Bay of Pigs invasion and the use of atomic weapons against Laos. Naval Chief Arleigh Burke retired in August of 1961. Shortly after, Kennedy let it be known that the Army’s Lyman Lemnitzer would not retain his position as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. One reason for this is that Lemnitzer made it clear in the summer of 1961 that he thought America should directly intervene in Vietnam. Chief of the Vietnam MACV, Lt. General Lionel McGarr, also thought intervention would be the smart choice. (p. 67) At around this time, JFK decided he needed to talk to General Maxwell Taylor for the purposes of first, being his personal military advisor, and later, to replace Lemnitzer.

In May of 1961, Kennedy decided to send Lyndon Johnson to Saigon on a goodwill tour. He made it clear that he wanted no one to suggest to Diem that American ground troops could or should enter the theater. (pp. 67–68) By this time, Kennedy must have understood that many of his advisors were leaning this way and, therefore, he wanted to head it off at the pass.

Prior to Johnson’s arrival, the Joint Chiefs sent a message to McGarr saying that Diem should be encouraged to request troops from LBJ. (p. 73) And Johnson did suggest this to Diem. At this point, Diem politely declined. Instead, he asked for funding to increase the South Vietnamese army, the ARVN.

Kennedy agreed to the increased funding for the ARVN. He refused the military request for 16,000 combat troops. (pp. 89–90) Yet in October, Diem did request American combat troops. (p. 126) Right after this, Deputy Defense Secretary U. Alexis Johnson also suggested the insertion of combat troops. Kennedy was so upset by these requests that he planted a story in the New York Times saying the Pentagon was not advising him to send in combat troops. (p. 131) Clearly, Kennedy did not like this ascending crescendo towards direct intervention. Yet that October—after Kennedy sent Taylor, Rostow, and Lansdale to Vietnam—they returned with a recommendation to insert several thousand troops under the guise of flood control. Kennedy was shocked by this request, so much so that he recalled each copy of the report. He did not want it to get into the press. (p. 138)

At this point, I wish Newman had brought the role of John Kenneth Galbraith into finer focus. As many have pointed out, the above pushing and pulling was all headed towards a showdown debate. This happened in November, 1961. (See, for example, Chapter 3 of James Blight’s, Virtual JFK). Due to the work of Harvard professor Richard Parker, we can now detect the direct and substantial influence of Galbraith in these crucial November decisions.

Stationed as Ambassador to India, and as part of the State Department, Galbraith had a close view of the Indochina conflict. He was strongly opposed to any further American intervention. Before the showdown meeting on Vietnam, Galbraith had flown into Washington with the ruler of India, Nehru. He arranged a meeting between the two leaders outside the Beltway area. The idea was that India could help arrange a neutralist solution to the Indochina conflict. Hearing about the Taylor/Rostow report, Galbraith later visited Rostow’s office. As a call came in, he pilfered a copy of the report which recommended inserting American combat troops. When he read it in his hotel room, he was horrified. He spent two days writing up a point by point broadside against it. When Kennedy got Galbraith’s memo, he compared it to the official report. He decided to postpone the climactic meeting. In the meantime, certain senior White House officials—perhaps Robert Kennedy—began leaking to the press that the president was opposed to sending combat troops into Vietnam. At the long-delayed meeting, it was RFK who would parry all attempts to adapt that part of the report. (Click here for details)

Kennedy rejected combat troops, allowed for no mutual defense treaty, and did not provide any commitment to save Saigon from communism. He did allow for more American intelligence advisors, military trainers, and equipment. But as both Newman and Galbraith’s son Jamie have noted, the written result of this meeting, NSAM 111, marked a dividing line, one which Kennedy never crossed: Americans could not fight the war for Saigon. (Newman, p. 140)


It also triggered the beginning of Kennedy’s plan to begin to get out of Indochina. When Galbraith left Washington, Kennedy told him to visit Vietnam and to write a report on the situation. As Galbraith’s son Jamie told this reviewer, Kennedy knew how his father felt about American involvement there and it was his way to keep the hawks at bay. (Phone interview of July 2019)

While this was happening, Kennedy had a meeting with some higher-ups in the national security hierarchy. This occurred on November 27, 1961, and included Rusk, Taylor, Lemnitzer, Lansdale, and McNamara among several others. Kennedy was frustrated about the repeated calls for American troops in Vietnam. To him, this showed a lack of support for his policy in the area. He went as far as to say, “When policy is decided on, people on the spot must support it or get out.” (Newman, p. 146) He said there should be whole-hearted backing for his decisions and he then asked who at the Defense Department would carry out his Vietnam policy. McNamara replied that he and Lemnitzer would. As Newman notes, this was a kindness by McNamara, since he understood that Lemnitzer would be replaced by Taylor, which is why Taylor was there. McGeorge Bundy later agreed that this had happened: Kennedy had told the Defense Secretary that there should be no talk from him about escalation or combat troops from here on out. (Blight, p. 130)

To illustrate his function, McNamara called for and attended the first of what would be called “SecDef” meetings in Hawaii on December 16, 1961. One reason for this was to oversee how the new support Kennedy was supplying was working out. What is remarkable about all this is that, even after Kennedy issued his warning about his policy, there were still requests to escalate. Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay complained about the Farm Gate program—air attacks with an American and Vietnamese in the cockpit. LeMay said atomic weapons were needed. (Newman, p. 165) The military put together something called the Joint Strategic Survey Council, which recommended direct American intervention. (ibid) Another such recommendation followed in January of 1962 by the Joint Chiefs. This one said if America did not go to war in Vietnam, the dominos could fall all the way to Australia and new Zealand. (ibid, pp. 166–67)

With the hawks swirling around him, Kennedy decided to use Galbraith and his report to counter them. By early in 1962, Galbraith had filed not one, but three back-channel cables to Kennedy. All of them frowning derisively on further American involvement in Indochina. (The Nation, 3/14/2005) Galbraith had pointedly written Kennedy that if the USA increased its support for Diem, “…there is consequent danger we shall replace the French as the colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.” (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 118) In early April, Galbraith met with Kennedy at his retreat in Glen Ora, Virginia. Kennedy had him write still another memorandum discouraging American involvement:

We have a growing military commitment. This could expand step-by-step into a major, long-drawn out indecisive military involvement. We should resist all steps which commit American troops to combat action and impress upon all concerned the importance of keeping American forces out of actual combat commitment. (Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p. 236)

As Newman and others have noted in discussing Galbraith’s proposal, Kennedy made a significant comment about it. He said that he wanted the State Department to be prepared to ”seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our commitment, recognizing that the moment might yet be some time away.” (Newman, p. 235; Goldstein, p. 236) That comment was recorded in a memorandum of April 6, 1962. He then had Galbraith make a personal visit to McNamara. The ambassador later reported to Kennedy that he had a long discussion with the Defense Secretary and said that they ended up being in basic agreement on most matters. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, p. 129, p. 370) We know that McNamara got the message, because his deputy Roswell Gilpatric said, “McNamara indicated to me that this was part of a plan the President asked him to develop to unwind the whole thing." (Goldstein, p. 238) And, as we shall see, McNamara conveyed that request to Gen. Paul Harkins at the SecDef conference of May 1962.

There is an important key that Newman now sketches in. It’s important, because it fulfilled the request Kennedy made to “seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our commitment.” As the author learned from Don Blascak, in Saigon there was a deception being perpetrated. Max Taylor appointed Harkins to lead the entire Vietnam military operation, this included intelligence gathering. Harkins made Air Force Col. James Winterbottom his chief of intelligence for MACV. This allowed Winterbottom to control the intelligence coming into CINPAC—the entire Pacific command—since that was led by another Air Force officer, General Patterson. From CINPAC it went to the Joint Chiefs and McNamara. (Newman, pp. 181–86)

Harkins and Winterbottom did not know about the April 1962 Galbraith/McNamara meeting. Nor did they know what Kennedy had told representatives of the State Department about seizing on a moment to reduce our commitment. So, in February of 1962, at the third SecDef conference, Harkins said that things were improving in Vietnam, based upon new equipment supplied by the Pentagon. He could say this since Winterbottom was rigging the figures. (Newman p. 188, p. 195) In fact, at times, Winterbottom would actually make up numbers of Viet Cong being killed. (Newman, p. 222) The author makes clear that this deception was deliberately aimed at McNamara, since Harkins and Winterbottom thought that the illusion of progress would keep the American commitment going. (Newman, pp. 242–43)

But there was one agency in Vietnam that actually was telling the truth about how badly the war was proceeding. This was the US Army Pacific Command or USAR-PAC. Somehow, Lyndon Johnson’s military aide, Howard Burris, had access to these reports and he passed them on to LBJ. (Newman, p. 225; 246–51) As we shall see later, this is important in relation to Johnson’s reversal of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan.

In May, 1962, at the Fifth SecDef meeting, McNamara was presented with another rosy picture conjured up with phony figures. By now, Winterbottom was counting civilians as dead Viet Cong. Meanwhile, the communists were finding it easier to recruit, because of Diem’s increasingly corrupt and despotic rule. (Newman, p. 303)

After the presentation was over, McNamara met with Harkins and a couple of his assistants behind closed doors. He now passed on Kennedy’s orders about beginning to reduce the American commitment, because the Pentagon could not actually fight the war for Diem. (Newman, pp. 263–65) Harkins was blindsided at being hoisted on his own petard. He replied that he would need time to begin a withdrawal schedule. McNamara said he would like the schedules at the next conference. The secretary repeated his request to Harkins in July. McNamara was now telling the press how America was winning the war.

Newman writes that this was the beginning of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan, but it might have begun earlier with Galbraith’s visit to McNamara. As mentioned above, the Defense Secretary understood he was to be Kennedy’s stalking horse on the issue. (Blight, p. 129)


To show how set Kennedy was on getting out, and how unawares Harkins was he was aiding him, Newman devotes another chapter to Laos. Under the cover of the June 1962 cease fire and the July settlement, the Pathet Lao and Hanoi got what they wanted: infiltration routes into Vietnam. American advisors gradually left, but Hanoi’s did not. Harkins attempted to keep the enemy advantage a secret by recalling a report on it. (Newman, pp. 276–78) But the information did get to Roger Hilsman of the State Department. Kennedy was aware of the situation and how this increased the number of Viet Cong, but he still had diplomat Averill Harriman proceed with the neutralist agreement. (Newman, pp. 280–82)

At the July 23, 1962, SecDef meeting, Harkins continued his faux good news. He told McNamara that the training of and transfer to the ARVN, and the phase out of the major US operational support activities were, per the secretary’s request, on schedule. At this meeting, McNamara announced a three-year deadline for withdrawal of all American forces, which matches the 1965 termination date that Kennedy would endorse the next year. (Newman, p. 293)

The real situation in Vietnam was getting worse, not better. One reason being that Diem did not want his major forces to meet the enemy in large scale battles. He wanted them preserved in order to protect Saigon. Joseph Mendenhall, a State Department advisor on Vietnam and Laos, admitted that, in reality, Saigon was losing the war. (Newman, p. 298) He blamed it on Diem and his brother Nhu. He said the status of the war would not improve unless there was a change in leadership. There were people in the State Department who shared this (accurate) view. They will loom large in 1963.

As other commentators have noted, the full exposure of the inability of Diem and Nhu to field a functioning army came in January of 1963 at the battle of Ap Bac. With almost every advantage—more men, helicopter support, better weaponry—the ARVN were still routed. The Pentagon tried to cover up this humiliating defeat, which exposed the cover story put together by Harkins and Winterbottom. But Roger Hilsman was in country at the time and he understood what had happened. (Newman, pp. 311–13) Hilsman and his colleague Mike Forrestal wrote a memo to Kennedy about their trip, which included a questionable view of both the progress of the war and the Viet Cong casualty count. (Newman, p. 319) Ap Bac and this memo are strong indications that Kennedy knew something was wrong with the MACV information. The author also uses a 1971 NBC documentary on the killing of Diem which said that Kennedy realized the intelligence he was getting was not sound. (Newman, p. 329) The author concludes that, by March of 1963, Kennedy understood an intelligence charade was being enacted.

One of the most important ARRB disclosures—if not the most important one—was the full record of the 8th SecDef Conference. This was held in Hawaii on May 6, 1963. Harkins was still insisting Saigon was winning. McNamara now requested the withdrawal schedules he had asked for many months prior. He looked at them and said they were too slow and asked they be speeded up. The secretary also said that he would ask for a thousand man withdrawal by the end of the year. (Newman, pp. 324–25) The declassified minutes include that it was understood this would be a part of a complete withdrawal by 1965. (Probe Magazine, Vol. 5 No. 3, p. 20) McNamara had achieved what Kennedy had asked him to do the previous year. Everything was now in place for Kennedy to execute his withdrawal plan around his re-election, which is why McNamara specified it as being completed in 1965.

The author references a famous quote from the book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. In that volume, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers describe the aftermath of a meeting that Kennedy had with Senator Mike Mansfield on Vietnam:

After Mansfield left the office, the president said to me, “In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected.” (O’Donnell and Powers, p. 16)

This is a revelatory comment. As Newman, Jim Douglass, and Gordon Goldstein have noted, Kennedy told several friends and acquaintances he was getting out of Vietnam. But this particular quote is important, because it delineates his conscious effort to design that withdrawal around the 1964 campaign, which is why the end date was 1965. This is a key point we will return to later.


In 1963, few could fail to see that things were not as Harkins and Winterbottom said they were. The strategic hamlet program, which was actually requested and started by Diem and McGarr, was not working. (Newman, pp. 179, 196) The Viet Cong were strong in the countryside, but the infamous Buddhist uprisings, which began in Hue in April and May of 1963, now spread the revolt against Diem and Nhu into the cities. The Buddhists were a clear majority in numbers, yet they felt they were being discriminated against by the regime—which they were. The archbishop of Hue was Diem’s brother. In April, he held a celebration on the anniversary of his ordination. Papal flags were flying everywhere. But several days later, before the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, Buddhist flags were banned. This ban was created by another brother of Diem. (Newman, p. 340)

The regime could hardly have made a worse blunder. But they then aggrandized it by not admitting it and then trying to enforce it with arms. The deputy province chief ordered gunfire against the protesting crowds. This resulted in 7 dead, 15 wounded, and 2 children crushed under an armored vehicle. Diem ratcheted up the tensions even higher by lying about the casualties. He said they were caused by a Viet Cong grenade. A localized demonstration now expanded into a full blown political crisis. (Newman, p. 341) This featured hunger strikes and mass demonstrations in other cities like Quang Tri in June. Diem and his brother Nhu resorted to tear gas and even mustard gas. Embassy spokesman Bill Trueheart told Diem’s representative that American support “could not be maintained in the face of bloody repressive action at Hue.” (Newman, p. 342)

Making it all worse was the presence of Nhu’s wife, Madame Nhu. She blamed the demonstrations on the communists. This set the stage for the now famous televised immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc on June 11th. Madame Nhu responded to this shocking event by calling it a “barbecue.” She then said if any more monks wished to do the same, she would supply the gasoline. (Newman, p. 343) The White House was shocked by all this. Dean Rusk now cabled Trueheart. He wrote that he should tell Diem he must modify his relationship with the Buddhists or the USA would be forced to re-examine its relationship with Saigon. The modification did not occur. Seven more monks and one nun burned themselves in public. Diem then ordered martial law throughout the country. His brother used the declaration to raid the pagodas, arresting 1,400 Buddhist practitioners. Nhu then ordered the phone lines in the American embassy cut. (Newman, pp. 349–50)

Blindsided, Kennedy decided to switch ambassadors. Although the author says it was Kennedy’s decision to replace Nolting with Henry Cabot Lodge, this is not the whole story. As Jim Douglass has pointed out, Kennedy wanted to appoint his longtime friend Edmund Gullion as ambassador. Rusk objected to this and they then agreed on Henry Cabot Lodge. (JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 151) As Douglass points out, this was a mistake.

If one reads Newman’s fine chapter entitled “Cops and Robbers,” and follows that with Jim Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable on the role of Lodge in the downfall of Diem—pp. 190–210—those combined 33 pages give the reader perhaps the finest brief summary of the nine-week period that led to the assassination of the Nhu brothers. What I believe occurred was that Lodge and CIA officer Lucien Conein, acted in league with a cabal in the State Department—Mike Forrestal, Averill Harriman, and Roger Hilsman—in order to enable an overthrow, stop Kennedy from neutralizing it, and then the two Americans in Saigon made sure the coup plotters polished off the Nhu brothers. I should add, I also believe that Lodge and Conein moved to get rid of the CIA station chief in Saigon, John Richardson, in order to make their scheming easier to accomplish. (Douglass, p. 186) All of this is why the president had recalled Lodge to Washington at the time of his death, in order to terminate him. (ibid, p. 374)

While all this intrigue was going on behind the scenes, Kennedy had sent Taylor and McNamara to Saigon, not to write a report, but to present him with his report. In his book, Death of a Generation, Howard Jones writes that the Taylor/McNamara report was actually written before the plane ride over to Saigon. (Jones, p. 370) Newman says it was written while the mission was in progress. The chief author was Prouty’s boss General Victor Krulak who, although he is listed as a trip passenger, was really back in Washington. It was through this back channel that Kennedy meant to make the report his fulcrum for withdrawal. This is why an early sentence reads as follows: “The military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress.” What then follows is that training of the ARVN should be completed by the end of 1965 and it “should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US personnel by that time.” (Newman, 409)


The author shows that even at this late date, the fall of 1963, there was resistance to Kennedy’s plan. William Sullivan of the State Department insisted that the ’65 withdrawal date was too optimistic, so that part was taken out. Kennedy was alerted to this upon the return from Saigon. At a private meeting with Taylor and McNamara, he ordered it put back in. (Newman, p. 411) Others, like the Bundy brothers and Chester Cooper of the CIA, also objected. Kennedy overrode them. There was one more tactic the opponents of withdrawal used: they began to rewrite intelligence reports from the battlefield. They now admitted Saigon was losing. Kennedy still proceeded. (Newman, p. 432)

In the face of all this evidence of Kennedy’s determination, it surprises me that in his latest book Vince Palamara argues that this was all a mirage: Kennedy was not really withdrawing. He bases this on the advice of someone named Deb Galentine who, quite frankly, I never heard of. (Honest Answers, pp. 142–49). Vince quotes her as saying that Kennedy was a hard-core Cold Warrior and the domino theory was alive and well in the Kennedy White House.

My eyebrows jumped up a couple of feet when I read this for the simple reason that it is pure and provable bunk. (Click here for details) She then says that Kennedy had no real intention of withdrawing from Vietnam at all. Really? Then are all these people wrong?

  • Senator Wayne Morse
  • Senator Mike Mansfield
  • General James Gavin
  • Marine Corps Commander David Shoup
  • Journalist Charles Bartlett
  • Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson
  • National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy
  • Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
  • Chair of the JCS Max Taylor
  • Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff
  • State Department assistant Mike Forrestal
  • Congressman Tip O’Neill
  • Assistant Secretary of State Roger HIlsman
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric
  • Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith
  • Journalist Larry Newman
  • White House assistants Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers
  • Commanding General of North Vietnam, Vo Nguyen Giap

Many of these are taken from either JFK and the Unspeakable, the volume under discussion, or JFK: The Book of the Film. Another source would be Virtual JFK by James Blight, or Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster. The last listed source is from Mani Kang who interviewed Giap’s son. (Click here for the details) So all of them are wrong and Deb G is right? Kennedy faked all these people out? She makes no attempt at all to explain Kennedy’s 12 refusals—as explicated by Goldstein and Newman—to send in combat troops during 1961–62.

The worst part of this is that she bases her argument on an issue that was first brought up by the late Post reporter George Lardner back in 1991. It was then replied to by Newman in his aforementioned column and also the first edition of his book. Lardner said all this “posturing” by Kennedy was done to threaten Diem so he would reform; and that is borne out by Kennedy’s reluctance to make NSAM 263—his withdrawal order of 1,000 troops by December of 1963—public at first, and to embody the Taylor/McNamara Report (i.e. the eventual withdrawal of all advisors by 1965).

The idea that Kennedy was still trying to manipulate Diem into reforms is undermined by a rather simple fact: Kennedy had all but given up on Diem by this time. How anyone can know about the Torby MacDonald mission and not understand this is bizarre. (Douglass, p. 167) When you are using a secret channel to tell the President of South Vietnam to exile his brother and his wife and take refuge in the American Embassy, I think you are at the end of your rope. The late attempts to try and get Diem to reform were sponsored by Taylor not Kennedy. (Newman, p. 399) Finally, it would appear that by October, 1963, Kennedy decided he could not stop the forces pushing for an overthrow. If Kennedy did not order the overthrow, he ended up acquiescing to it—which is why he sent MacDonald to try and save Diem. (Newman, p. 421) So what would be the point of trying to manipulate Diem? In fact, Kennedy explicitly told Taylor and McNamara not to raise the withdrawal issue with him. (Newman, p. 416)

Finally, the reason that Kennedy was reluctant to make NSAM 263 public—and to include the Taylor/McNamara Report as part of it—had nothing to do with his exit strategy. It had everything to do with the 1964 election. As noted, Kennedy was all too aware of how weak Diem’s administration had become. This is why he had ordered an evacuation plan in November. The problem for JFK was the political impact of a Hanoi takeover before the election—in the middle of a withdrawal. Kennedy was clear about this in conversations with Mansfield, Bartlett and O’Neill. He explicitly said to Bartlett that he could not give up South Vietnam and then expect the public to reelect him. (Douglass, p. 181) Therefore, he wanted to be able to adjust the withdrawal schedule in order to prevent such a political calamity from occurring. (Newman, p. 414, p. 419)

The evidence is overwhelming. The only way to reverse a withdrawal from Vietnam was by doing so over Kennedy’s dead body.


It was Max Taylor who decided on the OPLAN 34 operations against North Vietnam. He approved a design for these naval provocations in September, without showing it to McNamara. So Kennedy never saw it. It was not shown to McNamara until the November 20th Honolulu meeting. Taylor had only cleared it with the Pentagon and these were not hit-and-run operations. They clearly needed much American support. (Newman, p. 385, p. 444) Also, at this meeting, the intelligence reports had been rewritten and the true war conditions were apparent. Therefore, Taylor also tried to reduce the withdrawal plan by having it made up of individuals instead of the whole units that JFK wanted. (Newman, p. 442)

When McGeorge Bundy returned from this meeting, Johnson was in the White House. His NSAM 273, written for Kennedy, was altered by the new president. Johnson’s revised version allowed expanded operations into Laos and Cambodia. The withdrawal plan was more or less neutralized and it granted the vision of OPLAN 34 that Taylor wanted: using American assets, not just Saigon’s. Therefore, coastal raids were allowed with American speedboats and some personnel, accompanied by American destroyers fitted with high tech radar and communications gear. The American aspect is what Johnson altered in these coastline operations, as the South Vietnam navy could not have performed these any time soon. (Newman, pp. 443, 456–7) These essentially American patrols/provocations led to the Tonkin Gulf incident in August, which—misrepresented by the White House—was used for a declaration of war by the USA.

The author ends his book here before NSAM 288 of March 1964, which mapped out a large—over 90 target air campaign—against Hanoi. (Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War, p. 129) Something Kennedy would not countenance in three years, Johnson had done in three months. LBJ used 288 as a retaliation list for what he considered an attack on Americans on the high seas at Tonkin Gulf. As Newman noted, since LBJ was getting the genuine intel reports, he understood that our side was losing. And this is what he used to confront McNamara and turn him around on the issue. These conversations occurred in February and March of 1964. In the first one, the president said he always thought it was

…foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the president thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.

He then added that he could not understand how America could withdraw from a war it was losing. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, p. 310) In the March conversation, LBJ now wanted McNamara to revise his announcement of withdrawal to say that Americans were not coming home, even though the training of the ARVN was completed. (ibid)

What Johnson was doing was the first swipe at creating the myth that he was not breaking with Kennedy—even though he knew he was. In a later call with McNamara in 1965, Johnson reveals that what is left of the Kennedy war cabinet understands what he is up to, which is “to put the Vietnam War on Kennedy’s tomb.” (ibid, p. 306) LBJ’s fabrication—that there was no breakage—was then picked up by NY Times reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and utilized in their best-selling books The Best and the Brightest and A Bright Shining Lie. (For Halberstam, click here and for Sheehan click here) The combination of those three men helped create the pernicious national mythology of Kennedy/Johnson continuity, which left McNamara holding the bag.

Halberstam went the last nine yards in making Vietnam out to be McNamara’s War. And there lies both an epic and personal tragedy, because it was not his war. By 1967, it was clear that McNamara was going through a severe mental crisis. (Tom Wells, The War Within, p. 198) Johnson thought he was going to have a nervous breakdown. According to his secretary, he would break out into rages about the uselessness of the bombing; and then he would end up crying into the curtains on his office window. Johnson retired him in late November of 1967.

Newman’s relationship with McNamara eventually revealed the reasons for the secretary’s tears and, also, the motive behind his order to begin a classified study of the war called The Pentagon Papers—which he kept secret from Johnson. When he left office, McNamara went through a debrief session. Newman learned of this and asked the former Defense Secretary if he could hear it. McNamara agreed and the author drove out to the Pentagon. They clearly did not want him to listen, so he had to call McNamara and get him on the phone with the archivist. It became clear why they were reluctant to let John listen in. (Vietnam: The Early Decisions, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Ted Gittinger, pp. 165–67)

In those debriefs, McNamara said he and Kennedy had agreed that America could train the ARVN, advise them, and give them equipment. And that was it. When the training mission was completed, America would leave, even if the South Vietnamese forces were in a losing situation:

I believed we had done all the training we could and whether the South Vietnamese were qualified or not to turn back the North Vietnamese, I was certain that if they weren’t it wasn’t for lack of our training. More training wouldn’t strengthen them; therefore we should get out. The President agreed. (ibid)

This was the secret and tragedy of Robert McNamara. He knew what had really happened and couldn’t say it until it was too late. I don’t think one can get a more graphic illustration of the adage that the man sitting in the Oval office makes a difference.

John Newman did a true service to the truth and to his country. And the new version of his book is even better than the first one.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 June 2021 04:18
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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