Why Vietnam Still Matters: JFK Should Have Known Better

Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam. This is Part II of an eight-part series.

JFK and LBJ. Photo: Abbie Rowe, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

On my most recent trip to Vietnam, as I wanted to see Kontum, Pleiku, and the Central Highlands, I decided to travel with my bicycle. I knew that packing it and delivering it safely to Hanoi would be a headache, but reasoned that once I was in the country I would not be at the mercy of taxi drivers or guides, and that I could get to where I was going by loading the bicycle on trains, planes, and buses. I had traveled before with the bike in Europe (where I live) and in the United States, and it had served me well.

In Tennessee and Arkansas, for example, I had used it extensively to ride the contours of various Civil War battlefields—notably Franklin, Shiloh and Pea Ridge—where to tour in a car is to be a boy in a bubble.

In France, I had ridden the bike from Metz to Sedan, and by so doing had etched into my brain the landscape of the Franco-Prussian War, which previously I had found so elusive. Maybe having my bicycle with me in Vietnam would resolve some of my confusions about the war?

My plan on this occasion was to land in Haiphong, the port city of Hanoi, and from there work my way south on the train. For local excursions, I would have the bike, especially in the cities. I feared the traffic in places such as Hanoi and Hue, but thought that if I rode at non-rush hour times that I might succeed in getting around to some of the otherwise lost battlefields of the tragic war.

I would love to report that having the bicycle in Vietnam was an unqualified success, as I certainly worked hard to make it happen. Unfortunately, Vietnam is no longer a nation of cyclos and bamboo bird cages, but one of those developing Asian countries that is choking on the exhaust of its SUVs and Honda scooters.

Somewhere, if only in my memories, the fleeting images of French colonial architecture can be seen in such cities as Haiphong, Hanoi, and Hue, but for the most part the Vietnam cityscape is one endless river of traffic—the Mekong or Red River deltas as Flatbush Avenue.

I tried biking in the early mornings and after dinner, and on a few occasions, I put the bike on a bus or a train and took it out into the countryside, where the car traffic was less ferocious. But, especially in Hanoi and Saigon, I was riding on the edges of a torrent that no matter what the hour made me despair for the country’s future.

Ho Chi Minh and his cadres might have conquered the French and the Americans, in successive colonial wars, but I doubt they can overcome the new empire of bad air and deadly traffic that is enveloping the nation.

JFK Visits Vietnam

I wasn’t searching so much for specific places on this trip—many I had seen before—but for answers to questions that had come up in the course of my Vietnam reading. In particular, on many of my rides, I turned over in my mind the often-heard speculation that President John F. Kennedy, by the time he was killed in 1963, had growing doubts about the war and would have withdrawn American advisers if he had won re-election in 1964. I would love to honor the slain president and believe that he was capable of such political miracles, but in Vietnam he was without the better angels of his nature.

As I was biking around Vietnam, especially in Saigon past the sprawling grounds of the former U.S. embassy (which is now a bloated consulate, doing who-knows-what), I thought about Kennedy’s long association with Vietnam and both the French and American wars.

He was capable of insight about the issues and the problems of French decolonization, but he failed, later as president, to match his earlier insights with his administration’s war policies. Why?

As a young Congressmen (he won election to the House in 1946), Kennedy came to Saigon in 1951, together with his sister Pat and younger brother Bobby. It was the kind of fact-finding trip that the young Kennedy did well. As the son of the former U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (London), Jack had access to diplomatic outposts around the world, and he used such connections to explore the world on his own terms.

He read extensively on his travels, and wrote lengthy letters home to his father and friends, with his political impressions. Nor was he afraid to put himself in harm’s way.

Both before and after World War II, Jack Kennedy traveled extensively in Europe, the Baltic states, and the Middle East. In 1939 he drove an old car around Palestine, much as earlier he had investigated the Polish corridor and the contested lands of Europe. (Of Danzig he writes: “Poland will not give up Danzig and… she will not give Germany extra-territoriality rights in the corridor for the highways. She will offer compromises but never give it up.”)

In summer 1945, he spent several weeks in Berlin. On this 1951 trip he went around the world but made most of his stops on the ground in between Iran and the Far East. (In Berlin he quotes Averell Harriman, later in his administration, “that the greatest crime of Hitler was that his actions had resulted in opening the gates of Eastern Europe to Asia.”)

In Saigon in 1951, JFK got the usual diplomatic briefings from U.S. embassy officials and one from the French general Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. (In Hanoi the French also put on a parade for the Kennedys, probably the last there for an American politician.) But Jack also broke away from officialdom to have drinks with local reporters and junior military officers from the field, and they told him that the French could never win its colonial war against Ho’s Vietminh.

In The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam describes Kennedy’s trips to Vietnam (in his breathless style of writing):

It was, oddly enough, John F. Kennedy. He had been to Indochina twice, in 1951 and 1953, once as a congressman and once as a senator: the first time he was met at the airport by half the French army ready to brief him, to convince him of victory, to introduce him to a few Vietnamese officers bursting from their paratroop uniforms to prove to him how committed the natives were to a French type of freedom. He went to the official briefings, but he also jumped the traces, got the names of the best reporters in town and showed up unannounced at their apartments, looking so young and innocent that they had trouble believing that he was really a member of the Congress of the United States. There he asked his own questions and got very different briefings from the official ones: the pessimism was considerable, the Vietminh were winning the war, and the French were not giving any real form of independence to the Vietnamese (ironically, a dozen years later in exactly the same situation, on the same soil, Kennedy would rage at the reporters for their pessimism, while at the same time occasionally confiding in Schlesinger that he learned more from their dispatches than he could from his generals and ambassadors.

Back from his trip, Jack got it right when he said that Bao Dai’s government was “a puppet government, manned frequently by puppeteers once subservient to the Japanese, now subservient to the French.”

Nor was he wrong when said more formally to the House:

We cannot ally ourselves with the dreams of empire. We are allies with our Western European friends and we will aid and befriend them in the defense of their own countries. But to support and defend their colonial aspirations is another thing. That is their problem, not ours.

In 1954, after his second trip, he also said in an interview that the Vietnamese people needed to be granted their independence from the French and added that: “Any intervention by the United States is bound to be futile.”

Kennedy Changes His Tune

By the mid-1950s, however, Kennedy began to change his tune, especially with the coming to power, in South Vietnam, of Ngo Dinh Diem, in what might be called a Catholic resurgence.

A Cold War ally, President Diem had the support of many Kennedy family allies, including Time publisher Henry Luce, New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman, and Senator Mike Mansfield.

As JFK thought more about running for vice-president and president, his favorable positions on Diem, anti-Communism, and “free Vietnam” outweighed the earlier, more critical, conclusions reached on his travels.

Just before the 1956 Democratic national convention, at which he hoped to be nominated to run for higher office, he described South Vietnam as “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia. . . This is our offspring—we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs.”

As president, Kennedy could only view Vietnam and Diem through the prism of the Cold War. I am sure that somewhere in his cooly analytic mind he understood that a land war in Vietnam would be hopeless. After all, he had traveled enough in the country to understand that it is a guerrilla’s paradise, a murky landscape of rice paddies, foggy mountains, jungle, and meandering canals and rivers. But after Nikita Khrushchev toyed with Jack’s resolve during their 1961 summit in Vienna, Kennedy responded by sending military advisers (in all, some 16,000 by 1963) to Vietnam, as part of the Great Game.

Lastly, it was the men of the Kennedy presidency—McNamara, Rusk, Maxwell Taylor, and General Paul Harkins—who created the myth of American invincibility around Vietnam.

Lyndon Johnson might have approved the orders to increase American troops to half a million men and bomb North Vietnam in Operation Rolling Thunder, but he was singing from Kennedy’s hymnal together with his choir.

Would Kennedy Have Withdrawn American Troops?

Another reason I doubt that JFK would have figured a way out of the Vietnam morass is that the Kennedy administration had its finger prints all over the assassination of Diem, also in November 1963.

Diem had become a liability to the war effort, if not a broken toy in the showcase of democracy that supposedly was South Vietnam. Diem and his sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, publicly scoffed at the monks who burned themselves in protest, and Diem had jailed many members of the opposition. Nor were his generals up to the fight against the Viet Cong. Vietnam had the look of a lost cause.

In late summer 1963, two State Department officials, W. Averell Harrison and Roger Hilsman, drafted a fateful memo, describing the plans to overthrow Diem. In it, they write to the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge:

“If in spite of all your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved…”  [It suggests that Lodge] “should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem’s replacement if this becomes necessary.”

The memo received the president’s blessing—in that he made no changes to the document—although not his signature.

After the subsequent coup that killed Diem and his brother, in my view the Americans took ownership of the Vietnam debacles that were to follow. Little did Kennedy realize that less than three weeks later he would be the victim of a similar coup d’état, also from shadows.

The symmetry in the deaths of Diem and Kennedy is the subject of a thriller, Tears of Autumn, set in Saigon and Washington. In it, novelist Charles McCarry writes:

[CIA officer Paul] Christopher [who believes that the Vietnamese killed Kennedy in revenge for the death of Diem] had seen many men die for politics, and he knew that politics was merely the excuse their murderers used. Men killed not for an idea but because they could not live with a personal injury. Now he made the simple connection between the injury and the President’s violent death. He understood the motive perfectly. He wondered if the murderers had foreseen that the death of Kennedy would drive the very memory of their existence out of the consciousness of the world.

Was JFK a Casualty of Vietnam?

Was Kennedy an early casualty of the Vietnam War? To me the evidence points elsewhere, as not a lot of Vietnamese hitmen passed through 522 Camp Street in New Orleans or were on the payroll of the Chicago mob.

At the same time, from the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis in Cuba to the 16,000 military advisers in Vietnam, Kennedy was dealing a lot of cards for high-stakes poker, a game in which it was hard to mark all the decks.

In Indochina, he succeeded in neutralizing (as the phrase had it) the conflict in Laos, but in Vietnam he was never able to separate the Cold War or the lessons of Munich from regional or local politics, which to my mind was a failure of Kennedy’s otherwise broad imagination and reading of history.

That said, David Talbot suggests in Brothers, a biography of the two Kennedys and a description of Jack’s last ride in Dallas, that the President was killed because he had pushed back against the encroaching militarism of the CIA in Cuba and the Pentagon in Vietnam, and that he had doubts about the premise of the Cold War.

His experience as an (expendable) junior naval officer in the Pacific war had taught him to be leery of the military brass, and the failures in the Bay of Pigs reinforced his impression that, despite being president, he was still on his PT boat in the Solomon Islands, being asked to undertake what amounted to suicide missions.

JFK said of senior military officers. “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and split-second timing, but it never works out. No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.” But if he had refused to commit forces to Vietnam—even so-called advisers—he feared that he would be the one, later on, accused of having “lost Vietnam” to Communism, much as Republicans, including Richard Nixon, in earlier elections, had made hay over the question “Who lost China?”

I realize it pays homage to his legacy to say that JFK would have withdrawn those 16,000 American advisers, but, when it came to Vietnam, Kennedy betrayed his own best instincts.

Up Next: In search of Col. John Paul Vann, from the Battle of Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta to Kontum. To read earlier installments in the series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books including Letters of Transit, Whistle-Stopping America and, most recently, Reading the Rails. His next book is Appalachia Spring. He lives in Switzerland.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.