Possibly the most haunting counterfactual in recent US history is the question: Would JFK have gone to Vietnam?
This question certainly helps account for the endurance of the Camelot myth, securing a romantic idea that Dallas had catastrophic repercussions. If those bullets had missed JFK, would the US have lost 50,000 young men in Indochina? Would Nixon ever have been elected? Would the democratic consensus have ever fallen apart?
The ‘yes’ position
First let’s turn to what JFK did during his Presidency. Under his watch, troop levels (‘military advisors’) rose from 900 to around 16,000. While there were contingency plans to withdraw these troops at some point, the contingency was that South Vietnam become able to successfully repel North Vietnamese forces – a huge ask.
Concurrently US interference in the region increased. In October 1963, one month before Dallas, the Kennedy administration sponsored an armed coup against the Diem regime in South Vietnam. Diem was murdered in the process. Kennedy was profoundly shocked by the bloody outcome, and expressed regret at his involvement. Nevertheless, he displayed a propensity to get involved in SV affairs.
Now we enter the counterfactual stage. We can never know what JFK would have done, but we can assert the following:
- JFK would have had the same coterie of advisors as Lyndon Johnson. These ‘best and the brightest’ (modelled on Roosevelt’s brain trust) were by and large keen and persuasive advocates of military intervention.
- JFK would have beaten Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater was a poor Presidential candidate.
The ‘no’ position
Despite all this, JFK most likely would not have sent troops to Vietnam.
Although JFK would have faced the same vocal support for the war among his advisors, three factors would have stopped him following their advice:
- As a second-term President, JFK was not beholden to the public as much as Johnson, who had just reached the one position he sought above all others.
- JFK had demonstrated a propensity (and indeed a relish) for going against his advisors. During the Cuban Missile Crisis he had confidently faced down the early, hysterical propositions of the ‘hawks’.
- Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who interpreted the war in Vietnam as a challenge to his manhood, JFK divorced his risque personal life from a conservative, calm political outlook.
JFK had also expressed some reluctance to get involved in Vietnam before his death. He told or hinted to a few associates that he would withdraw US forces after the 1964 election.
One of those was anti-war Senator Mike Mansfield, and it is certainly true that JFK would have tailored his language depending on who he was talking to. However, one shouldn’t dismiss his own words out of hand.
In that vein, see the interview JFK gave to Walter Cronkite:
I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists.