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by Mark White

What if the most famous murder in history had not taken place on November 22, 1963? With a life and a presidency ended prematurely by an assassin’s bullets, there has been an understandable impulse on the part of historians to consider what would have happened to Kennedy had he lived beyond Dallas.  Equally understandable, historians have commented on this issue so as to bolster their interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency.

Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ supporters, including Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen, have suggested that he would have achieved great things. Schlesinger wrote: “He had so little time: it was as if Jackson died before the nullification controversy and the Bank war, as if Lincoln had died six months after Gettysburg or Franklin Roosevelt at the end of 1935 or Truman before the Marshall Plan.” Robert Dallek, the most influential Kennedy scholar in recent years, has also considered what would have happened in a second term for JFK, concluding that he would have played a commendable role in reducing Cold War tensions.

Kennedy’s detractors take a different view. “The dark side of the president’s personal and official activities,” claimed historian Thomas Reeves, “might have ruined Kennedy’s second term and brought the nation another kind of grief and mourning than that which tragically did ensue.”[1]

Of all the issues that would have determined Kennedy’s legacy and reputation had he not been killed, the most important is Vietnam.  Lyndon Baines Johnson, twenty months after becoming president, took the United States into a full-scale land war in Vietnam that became a disaster. Would Kennedy have made the same decision?

The 1964 Presidential Election

The first issue to be resolved is the likely duration of a Kennedy presidency had he not been assassinated, as this has clear implications for his legacy in Vietnam. Had he been defeated in the 1964 election, JFK would have served as president until January 1965, before the saga of US involvement in Vietnam could have played out to the extent that it did under Johnson’s leadership. If Kennedy had won a second term, he would have remained in the White House until January 1969, as did Lyndon Johnson.

It is worth noting that since his days as a Harvard student Kennedy had developed a deep interest in international affairs. After his father Joseph P. Kennedy was appointed as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador in London, JFK spent a lot of time in Britain in the late 1930s, at a critical juncture in diplomatic history as the fragile interwar peace was about to break down. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on the British appeasement of Nazi Germany, which in the summer of 1940 was published as his first book, Why England Slept. In that book, he developed some of the core ideas that would shape his later approach to foreign policy: military preparation for democracies was essential, and democratic leaders needed to be resilient in dealing with aggressive dictatorships. After his election to Congress in 1946, Kennedy retained a strong interest in foreign affairs, more so that in domestic policy.[2]

After his election as president in 1960, Kennedy was compelled to deal with some of the greatest challenges of the Cold War era. He endured a tense and acrimonious summit meeting in Vienna in June 1961 with his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev. It was at that summit that Khrushchev demanded the United States leave West Berlin within six months, thereby generating a major crisis over the German city. Kennedy responded robustly. The transcripts of the Vienna summit indicate that JFK was far more candid and effective with Khrushchev than had previously been assumed in making clear to him that Soviet demands over Berlin were unacceptable. Thereafter Kennedy announced a military buildup to convey the idea to Khrushchev that he would not back down over Berlin.

Although sanctioning the building of the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev abandoned his efforts to drive the United States out of West Berlin in 1961. That constituted a major achievement on Kennedy’s part. To be sure, Kennedy had endured the humiliation of the failed Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba in April 1961. But that occurred early in his presidency, and the negative impression created by this fiasco was corrected by what was generally regarded as his stellar performance during the Cuban missile crisis eighteen months later. Moreover, Kennedy would have been able to present himself in his 1964 re-election campaign not only as a president with the steel to stand up to the Russians, but also as a peacemaker as he had secured the historic Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. These foreign policy successes increased the likelihood that Kennedy would have won the 1964 election, and would therefore have shaped US policy in Vietnam until January 1969.

Did Kennedy have concrete plans for Vietnam?

The question of whether Kennedy would have gone to war in Vietnam had he not died in Dallas divides into two.  Firstly, did Kennedy have concrete plans for US policy in Vietnam?  And secondly, if not, what would he have most likely done in Vietnam? As for long-term plans, he rarely harbored them.  British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan remarked on this, saying that although Kennedy was an impressively quick operator he did not always have a clear sense of the big picture. State Department official U. Alexis Johnson, too, noticed that JFK was “not a man to whom you could present a plan extending six, eight, ten months down the road and expect anything in the way of a reaction from him.”  This short-termism could be a troubling weakness, authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion and other anti-Castro measures without considering how Khrushchev might respond (missiles in Cuba), and ordering a large military build-up without anticipating that the Russians would retaliate with a huge build-up of their own (which is precisely what they did later in the sixties).  In the case of Vietnam, there is no evidence that Kennedy had decided whether to fight a full-scale land war there; and that outlook was consistent with his tendency to focus on the short-term.[3]

Grafted on to this issue of Kennedy’s proclivity to avoid dwelling on the long term is the growth he displayed as a leader during his time in the White House. That he became a more sophisticated and progressive thinker on relations with Russia and civil rights begs the question of whether a part of that growth was a greater ability to consider long-term developments. How he reflected in 1963 on the future of Soviet-American relations as well as race relations in the US suggests he did improve as a leader in this regard. Still, on Vietnam his long-term thinking remained unclear.[4]

Kennedy’s open mind on the future direction of American policy in Vietnam was revealed by his statements to the press in the fall of 1963, only a few months before his demise.  In a September 2 interview with veteran broadcaster Walter Cronkite, Kennedy said that, “In the final analysis, it is their [the South Vietnamese] war.  They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.”  This indicated that Kennedy was unlikely to bolster the South Vietnamese army with US ground troops given that it was their war. Yet in the same interview he said, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw” from Vietnam as it was “a very important struggle.”  This suggested that Kennedy was ready to stay the course in Vietnam in order to prevail, and presumably this strong commitment would have included US troop deployments if required.  It could have been the case that Kennedy was thinking in terms of public relations: he wanted to assure the American people that somehow he would not tolerate a defeat in Vietnam and that he would keep America out of a protracted war there.  On the other hand, his contradictory statements may have reflected the ambiguity of his outlook on Vietnam, that he was genuinely undecided about the future course he would steer.[5]

The counter-argument made by some Kennedy acolytes to the claim that he had not made up his mind, and hence that a Kennedy war in Vietnam was a possibility, is NSAM-263, the directive issued by JFK in October 1963 authorizing the withdrawal of 1000 US military personnel from South Vietnam by the end of the year. Historian John Newman has attached great importance to this, claiming it signified Kennedy’s intention to pull out of Vietnam — an argument that influenced director Oliver Stone’s 1991 film on the assassination, JFK. Although superficially plausible, this interpretation is unpersuasive. The evidence makes clear that Kennedy viewed NSAM-263 as a way of indicating US displeasure at South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem’s policies and of pressuring him to increase his effectiveness in governing and on the battlefield. As Fredrick Logevall has written, “No further withdrawals were envisioned [after NSAM-263]; more advisers could be sent in the future, if the situation demanded.” In other words, NSAM-263 was not part of a Kennedy plan to pull out of Vietnam. Moreover, although Kennedy insiders said in various publications that Kennedy had indeed planned to withdraw from Vietnam, these memoirs came out after the Vietnam War had turned into a disaster. “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye”, penned by close aides Kenneth O’ Donnell and David Powers at the start of the seventies, is a case in point. However, the earlier memoirs, published before the war had become calamitous — such as those by Arthur Schlesinger and by Theodore Sorensen in 1965 — made no such lofty claims about the significance of NSAM-263. And that is telling.[6]

Factors suggesting that Kennedy would have avoided war in Vietnam

As Kennedy had made no decision as to his future course in Vietnam, the key question is what would he have probably done?  On this, there are factors suggesting he would not have fought a war in Vietnam.  But there are other considerations indicating the opposite.

For various reasons, it seems reasonable to think of Kennedy as a different sort of leader to Lyndon Johnson, one who would have acted differently in Vietnam.  For one thing, Kennedy would not have faced the same dilemma as Lyndon Johnson did after Dallas, namely succeeding a martyr whose popularity only increased in death.  In a poll after the assassination, two out of three Americans claimed to have voted for Kennedy in 1960.  It had actually been less than one in two.  Jackie Kennedy ensured that layers of Camelot mythology implying JFK’s greatness soon enveloped the memory of her late husband. In an interview with journalist Theodore White for Life magazine, a week after the tragic events in Dallas, she told the American people that, “There’ll be great Presidents again – and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me – but there’ll never be another Camelot again.”[7]

Succeeding a legend created a terrible pressure on Johnson.  He had to prove that he was a worthy successor to a mythical figure. Historian Paul Henggeler has written cogently about the way in which Johnson felt overshadowed in the White House by the Kennedy legacy and mythology. In foreign policy, proving his mettle meant above all else preventing a communist victory in Vietnam. Hence the vow made in private by LBJ two days after Kennedy’s assassination that “I will not lose in Vietnam.” Three days later, in a speech before Congress in which he assured the nation of continuity between the new administration and JFK’s, he promised to keep Kennedy’s commitments in South Vietnam.  He may well have been thinking of the precedent of Republicans attacking Harry Truman for the ‘loss’ of China in 1949.  He did not want his credibility compromised in the same way.  But given the immediate context of JFK’s murder, Johnson was probably thinking too of how that assassination influenced his foreign-policy responsibilities.  The whole dynamic of Johnson’s policies in Vietnam being constrained by the expectations created by JFK’s assassination would not have existed for Kennedy had he lived.[8]

A second difference between Kennedy and Johnson lay in their attitude to the military.   During his presidency, Kennedy developed a healthy skepticism towards the top brass. The origins of this skepticism went back to Kennedy’s early days in the White House when a senior military figure briefed against the new administration’s defense policies.  Kennedy was compelled to muzzle his own military: any of their statements to the press had to receive prior White House approval.[9]

The Bay of Pigs increased Kennedy’s suspicions; the military approved a CIA operation that turned out to be a disaster, inflicting on him the greatest humiliation of his political career. Eighteen months later the military urged him to handle the missile crisis by bombing Cuba, even after a consensus emerged in the administration in favor of the more prudent option of a naval blockade.  Kennedy’s suspicion that the military could be dangerously gung-ho – could not see beyond its raison d’être to fight – was confirmed by the response of General Curtis LeMay and Admiral George Anderson to the diplomatic settlement of the missile crisis: they were disappointed, even angry. “The greatest defeat in our history,” groused LeMay who called for a quick invasion of Cuba.  Kennedy felt nothing but contempt for such a nonsensical attitude.[10]

The result of all this was that JFK came to view his military’s outlook on foreign affairs with not just a pinch of salt but a fistful of it.  For all the hyperbole of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK on the assassination of Kennedy, one theme it develops that is sound is the tension between Kennedy and his generals.  Lyndon Johnson’s attitude towards the military leadership was far less skeptical.   He was shrewd and certainly not the crassly belligerent president of macho Texan stereotype that his most severe critics claim.  But he did not bring to bear the critical faculties sharpened by a presidential catastrophe like the Bay of Pigs that had been caused in part by sloppy advice from the generals, and by a feeling of being let down by them again in the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.  It is thus reasonable to assume that when in the early summer of 1965 General William Westmoreland called for the deployment of a huge US military force in South Vietnam, Kennedy would have been more prepared than Johnson to reject that advice.[11]

Another factor suggesting that Kennedy would have handled Vietnam differently than did LBJ is the Cuban missile crisis.  In a crisis which brought America and the world closer to nuclear war than it had ever been, he had faced down the Russians.  He had compelled Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba and had done so without making inordinately great concessions.  No one could credibly claim, in the wake of the missile crisis, that Kennedy was incompetent in foreign policy and too weak to handle the Communists.

Kennedy had proved his mettle as a major statesman in a way that Johnson had not before deciding to go to war in Vietnam in July 1965.  Influencing that decision was a need Johnson felt to demonstrate his robustness and credibility in foreign affairs, especially as a politician who had a bravura reputation in domestic but not foreign policy.  Credibility would have been a consideration for Kennedy too in the summer of 1965, but less of one.  He had already established his foreign policy credentials in the greatest crisis of the Cold War.

President John Kennedy addressing the nation on the Cuban missile crisis. His successful handling of the crisis gave him credibility and assurance in international affairs that meant, had he lived, he may well have rejected the advice to go to war in Vietnam.

The way Lyndon Johnson’s fervent commitment to the Great Society shaped his approach to the war in Vietnam is another difference to a post-Dallas Kennedy presidency. Scholars such as Larry Berman have shown that Johnson viewed Vietnam through the prism of his cherished reform program.  He believed that he needed to prevail in Vietnam as defeat there would so erode his credibility that support in Congress and the country for his Great Society reforms would evaporate. “If I don’t go in now and they show later I should have gone,” he said, “then they’ll be all over me in Congress. They won’t be talking about my civil rights bill or education or beautification. No, sir. They’ll be pushing Vietnam up my ass every time. Vietnam. Vietnam. Vietnam.”  Johnson got this wrong: Vietnam and the Great Society were connected but not in the way he thought.  Rather than preserving the Great Society, the war in Vietnam weakened it.  Funds which would have been spent on domestic programs went instead on the war. The nation’s focus was diverted to Vietnam and away from issues of social justice. As the war went badly, the credibility of LBJ and his policies at home was compromised.[12]

With Kennedy, there were domestic reforms he wanted to enact, notably by 1963 his civil rights bill. But his domestic policy vision was less sweeping than Johnson’s and less central to his idealized conception of his presidency. Kennedy would not have felt obliged to prosecute the war in Vietnam for reasons of domestic policy, in the way that Johnson did.

The shift in Kennedy’s foreign policy during the final year of his life also indicates an approach to Vietnam in 1964-65 that would have been different to LBJ’s.  While continuing to believe in the importance of meeting the communist challenge, the emphasis in JFK’s foreign policy after the missile crisis changed so that accommodation with Moscow became prioritized.  The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, his American University speech, and his consideration in fall 1963 of various types of cooperation with the Russians (including a collaborative moon project) revealed the shift in his approach to the Cold War.  Living through the Cuban missile crisis when the fate of mankind rested on his shoulders (and Khrushchev’s) had left him with a visceral fear that the Cold War might spiral out of control with dire consequences.  If one extrapolates Kennedy’s post-missile crisis foreign policy, with its hallmark of conciliation rather than confrontation, America would have had a president with a different mindset to Johnson’s, one more reluctant to use force to fight a war in Southeast Asia.[13]

A final reason for believing that Kennedy would have charted a different course in Vietnam than Johnson did is the fact that JFK rejected specific advice to send in US combat troops (and hence to go to war there).  In the fall of 1961 Walt Rostow and General Maxwell Taylor returned from Saigon recommending that JFK dispatch 8,000 US troops to South Vietnam; Kennedy ignored this advice on troop deployments. When George Ball, the famous State Department dissenter on Vietnam, advised JFK in a private conversation that the implementation of the Taylor-Rostow proposals would lead to a nightmarish, interminable US war in that country, Kennedy responded: “George, you’re just crazier than Hell…. That just isn’t going to happen.” Kennedy’s comment could be taken as meaning that he did not think a US war in Vietnam would end badly or that the scenario described by Ball would not materialize as he had no intention of fighting a full-scale land war in Vietnam. The fact that JFK rejected the advice from Rostow and Taylor on dispatching troops suggests the latter interpretation is the sounder. This does not prove he would have rejected such bellicose recommendations in 1965 but it does highlight a prudence and capacity to think independently on Kennedy’s part that indicate he would have been just as careful when considering subsequent proposals for war in Vietnam.[14]

Factors suggesting Kennedy would have gone to war in Vietnam

This cluster of considerations point to a hypothetical history in which Kennedy would not have made the same catastrophic decision as Johnson to go to war. But there are other factors that suggest an alternative scenario.  One is the impact of the coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963; what happened in South Vietnam as a result, which made policymaking in Vietnam so difficult for LBJ as it would have done for Kennedy in 1964-65, was chronic political instability.  Diem had been corrupt and nepotistic – hardly the model progressive leader Washington would have liked to champion – but at least he had provided continuity of leadership for the best part of a decade.  With Diem’s death, a series of ephemeral governments in Vietnam followed.  This was significant for the American role in two ways.  Firstly, it meant the US was drawn further into the conflict as it struggled to prop up increasingly fragile governments in Saigon.  Secondly, Washington’s involvement in the coup — US officials had sought Diem’s overthrow, though not his assassination — made some policymakers believe that they had a responsibility to support the regimes that followed in South Vietnam.  This dynamic of the United States being stuck ever deeper in the quicksands of Vietnam due to Diem’s overthrow may well have existed too in a post-Dallas Kennedy presidency.[15]

A second factor pointing to a Kennedy decision to go to war is the influence of the 1964 presidential election.  Johnson did not want to emphasize Vietnam in that campaign.  He understood that it was a tricky issue for the Democrats.  What exactly did he plan to do there? And did it not represent an opportunity for the Republicans to question his effectiveness as a Cold War leader?  To the extent that Johnson did discuss the issue in the campaign, he demonstrated his moderation in comparison to Republican candidate Barry Goldwater by saying that he would not send American soldiers to fight and die in Vietnam. At the same time, he was determined to prevent Goldwater from using the issue to claim that his administration was ‘soft’ on communism.  This partly explains his response to the two alleged attacks by the North Vietnamese on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 (though the evidence now suggests, as historian John Prados has made clear, that the second attack never took place). Johnson responded to this episode by introducing on Capitol Hill the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave him a blank cheque to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Southeast Asia.  It was the closest to an actual US declaration of war issued during the Vietnam conflict.  Justice Department official Nicholas Katzenbach was not the only one to believe that LBJ had secured congressional approval of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to undercut GOP claims in the presidential campaign that he was weak in combatting communism.[16]

Kennedy may have done essentially the same thing in 1964: to commit more explicitly to the war in Vietnam for politically motivated reasons.  Substantiating that theory is JFK’s track record of moving to the right of Republican opponents during campaigns to protect himself from the charge that he was yet another Democrat who could not be trusted on national security.  He did that in congressional campaigns, such as his 1952 Senate race against Henry Cabot Lodge, and the 1960 presidential campaign in which he described the Eisenhower-Nixon failure to prevent Fidel Castro from coming to power as abysmal and promised to be tougher than Nixon in handling the Cuban leader.  This strategy was linked to Kennedy’s belief that a Democrat needed to appeal to the center rather than to the left wing of the political spectrum.  Assuming he would have campaigned in 1964 in the same way he had earlier in his career, JFK may have made the sort of commitments on Vietnam that Johnson did with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution; and this would have deepened Kennedy’s involvement in Vietnam as it did with LBJ.[17]

JFK’s record of escalation in Vietnam also suggests that he would ultimately have gone to war.  Despite his caution when dealing with international crises and his refusal to send combat troops to South Vietnam, Kennedy did escalate American involvement there.  Around 700 US military personnel were in South Vietnam when he was inaugurated; on his death there were roughly 16,000.  Those numbers were still a long way from the more than half million combatants that Johnson would send to Vietnam.  Nor does the escalation authorized by Kennedy mean that he would have made the fateful decision to move from the deployment of military personnel to troops. Still, the pattern of escalation in the Kennedy years can be extrapolated to a post-Dallas Kennedy presidency to make the case that he would have escalated yet further to the deployment of ground troops in South Vietnam.[18]

Another factor pointing to the same scenario is Kennedy’s view of dissent.  It is easy to think that when it came to contrary voices in his administration he was more receptive than Johnson proved to be.  Famously, Johnson had a King Lear-like revulsion for dissent within his circle of advisers.  He equated it with disloyalty.  Although he at least listened to Undersecretary of State George Ball’s warnings on the dangers of escalation in Vietnam, he did not want the dissent to go beyond Ball.  When Vice President Hubert Humphrey objected in early 1965 to further escalation, Johnson cut him out of key administration discussions on Vietnam thereafter.[19]

Kennedy could give the impression of being more tolerant.  The ExComm meetings during the Cuban missile crisis generated a lively debate between those officials who advocated the use of force and those who favored a naval blockade.  But there are numerous instances of how dissent could provoke his ire.  When Chester Bowles’s opposition to the Bay of Pigs operation was reported in the press, John Kennedy viewed the disclosure as disloyalty and took his revenge by demoting his under secretary of state to a more minor position in the State Department.  The key dissenter in the missile crisis was Adlai Stevenson with his heartfelt plea for negotiations and mutual concessions.   In a spiteful act of revenge, Kennedy planted a hostile account of Stevenson’s performance in the missile crisis, describing it as 1930s-style appeasement, with two friendly journalists who wrote up the story for the Saturday Evening Post.  The result, as Kennedy had intended, was humiliation for Stevenson.[20]

There was little that vexed JFK more than being preached to by liberals, as Stevenson did once in a conversation on disarmament.  This was rooted in the historic tension between Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which became acute after his failure to take a stand against Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. He was the only Democratic senator neither to vote nor ‘pair’ in favor of the resolution to censure McCarthy for unethical conduct. In 1964-65 some of those dissenters in an unrestricted administration debate on Vietnam in a Kennedy second term would have been liberals.  (We know that Stevenson, shortly before his death from a heart attack on a street in London in July 1965, opposed US escalation in Vietnam under Johnson). Would Kennedy have dismissed liberal sanctimony, as he did with Bowles with the Bay of Pigs and Stevenson in the early days of the missile crisis?  On the other hand, by pushing the peace agenda and civil rights in 1963 Kennedy was singing more from the liberal hymn sheet at the end of his presidency than he had at the start.  So he might have been more willing to side with the likes of Stevenson and George Ball in the summer of 1965 than he had been a few years earlier.[21]

Another consideration pointing to a Kennedy war in Vietnam is how the situation there changed decisively in 1965. Prior to that, US presidents had essentially three alternatives: to go to war to defeat the communists, to admit defeat and withdraw, or to pursue a middle course which consisted of more aid and advisers for the government of South Vietnam. No president wanted to go to war, especially after the stalemate of Korea, or to lose another country to the communists. So Eisenhower and Kennedy, as well as Johnson in the early part of his presidency, followed that middle path. The problem for LBJ by the summer of 1965 was that the South Vietnamese government was about to fall to the communists. Those triple alternatives had become a binary dilemma: fight or lose. To argue that in this situation Kennedy would have plumped for the latter course is to claim that he would have been willing to tolerate what some would have perceived as an ignominious Cold War defeat.

President Kennedy with French leader Charles de Gaulle. When de Gaulle called for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, Kennedy was unsympathetic.

One other factor casts doubt over Kennedy’s capacity to reject the path of war in 1965: his record of rejecting negotiations as a means of ending the Vietnam conflict.  When French President Charles de Gaulle called publicly in August 1963 for negotiations to resolve the Vietnam issue, the Kennedy administration was unsympathetic.  When they learned that Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu had contacted the North Vietnamese communists in search of an accommodation, they were appalled.  Indeed this development increased the administration’s desire to oust Nhu and Diem. Given the fragility of the Saigon government and the momentum behind the communists, Kennedy and his advisers worried that the South Vietnamese would enter any discussions in a weak bargaining position.  In the end diplomacy would have been required in order to avoid a US war in Vietnam while constructing a face-saving settlement.  On this Kennedy’s record was unpromising.[22]


Various factors can be identified, therefore, to support the argument that Kennedy would have either avoided or prosecuted a war in Vietnam.  It is the judgement made on the precise influence exerted by these factors which determines a final assessment of this issue.  Kennedy’s manifest capacity to reject his military’s hawkish advice, his shift towards a more conciliatory foreign policy in 1963 and his enhanced credibility in international affairs due to his successful management of the Cuban missile crisis (and hence the limited pressure he would have felt to prove in Vietnam that he could cut the mustard on the world stage) indicate that Kennedy would probably have decided against going to war in Vietnam.  His default approach to politics and policy was caution, in sharp contrast with his lack of it in his private life.  Putting his presidency on the line by fighting a land war in Southeast Asia would not ultimately be a decision he could have made with equanimity.

That argument has implications for our understanding of the consequences of the assassination of John Kennedy for US foreign relations, especially in Vietnam. Following the murder of Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson took the United States step by step, via the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Operation Rolling Thunder, and finally the July 1965 decision to deploy a large number of combat troops in South Vietnam, into a full-scale land war in Southeast Asia. Without the murder of Kennedy, the most likely scenario is that the United States would not have gone to war in Vietnam, thereby preventing the damage to US credibility on the world stage that did occur as a result of Johnson’s misjudgments.End.


Mark White is Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of nine books, including Against the President (shortlisted for the Neustadt Prize), Missiles in Cuba, and most recently The Presidential Image (co-edited). He has previously written for American Diplomacy on Robert Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.


[1] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, pp. 785-6; Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (Rocklin, CA: Prima reprint, 1992), p. 420; Robert Dallek, “JFK’s Second Term,” The Atlantic (June 2003), [accessed on 1 October 2019]. For a view on this issue from beyond academe, see television journalist Jeff Greenfield’s work, If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 2013).

[2] Michael R. Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 (New York: Edward Burlingame, 1991), is an excellent study of JFK’s foreign policy.

[3] Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (London and Basingstoke: Papermac, 1994), p. 273; oral history of U. Alexis Johnson, p. 11, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts.

[4] Various historians identify this maturation in Kennedy’s presidential leadership. See, for instance, James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991), p. 287.

[5] Transcript of Broadcast with Walter Cronkite, 2 September 1963, The American Presidency Project, [accessed on 12 February 2020].

[6] John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York: Warner Brothers, 1992); telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam, 5 October 1963, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, IV, Vietnam, August-December 1963, [accessed on 15 October 2019]; Fredrik Logevall, “Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been,” in Mark J. White, ed., Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 26-7; Kenneth P’ O’Donnell with David F. Powers and Joe McCarthy, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye”: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), pp. 13-18.

[7] Documentary, The Kennedys (PBS, 1992); Theodore H. White, “An Epilogue: For President Kennedy,” Life 55:23 (6 December 1963), pp. 158-9. See, also, Theodore White, typed notes of conversation with Jackie Kennedy on 29 November 1963, 19 December 1963, Personal Papers of Theodore H. White, box 59, Kennedy Library.

[8] Paul R. Henggeler, In His Steps: Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Mystique (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1991); quoted in Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Last Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999), p. 77; Lyndon Johnson, Address before a Joint Session of Congress, 27 November 1963, [accessed on 17 March 2020].

[9] Robert Dallek, “JFK vs the Military,” The Atlantic (Fall 2013), [accessed on 27 January 2020].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Warner Brothers, 1992).

[12] Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: Norton, 1982), passim; John Dumbrell, Rethinking the Vietnam War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 54-5; documentary, LBJ (PBS, 1991).

[13] Dean Rusk, as told to Richard Rusk, As I Saw It (London: Penguin reprint, 1991), pp. 255-9; John Kennedy, Address before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations, 20 September 1963, Kennedy Library (Digital), [accessed on 10 February 2020]; oral history of James E. Webb, interview I, pp. 23-4, internet copy, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas.

[14] Dumbrell, Rethinking the Vietnam War, p. 37; George W. Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs (New York: Norton, 1982), p. 366; David L. DiLeo, George Ball, Vietnam, and the Rethinking of Containment (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p. 56.

[15] John Prados, “JFK and the Diem Coup,” 5 November 2003, The National Security Archive, [accessed on 10 February 2020].

[16] Lyndon Johnson, Remarks in Memorial Hall, Akron University, 21 October 1964, The American Presidency Project, [accessed 2 April 2020]; John Prados, “40th Anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” 4 August 2004, National Security Archive, [accessed on 1 October 2019]; radio and television report to the American people following renewed aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin, 4 August 1964, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1964 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1965), II, pp. 927-8.

[17] John Kennedy, Senate Campaign Announcement, 5 October 1952, Pre-Presidential Papers, Kennedy Library, [accessed 30 November 2019]; Richard N. Goodwin, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (New York: Harper & Row reprint, 1989), pp. 124-5.

[18] Gary R. Hess, Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War, 2nd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), p. 51.

[19] Memorandum for the record by McGeorge Bundy, 20 September 1964, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992), I, Vietnam, 1964, pp. 778-80; Hubert H. Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 319, 327.

[20] ExComm transcripts in May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes; Rusk, As I Saw It, pp. 209, 212; Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, “In Time of Crisis,” Saturday Evening Post, 8 December 1962, pp. 15-20; entry for 11 November 1962, President’s Appointment Book, Kennedy Library; Bartlett to Kennedy, 29 and 31 October 1962, President’s Office Files, box 28, Kennedy Library; Walter Johnson, ed., The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), VIII, pp. 351-2.

[21] Richard Reeves, President Kennedy, pp. 226-7; Thomas Reeves, A Question of Character, pp. 120-4; Harlan Cleveland, “On a World-Scale Roller Coaster: Adlai Stevenson at the UN, 1961-65,” in Alvin Liebling, Adlai Stevenson’s Lasting Legacy (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 139-40.

[22] Logevall, “Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been,” pp. 32-3.

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