“If President John F. Kennedy had lived, he would not have sent combat troops to Vietnam and America’s longest war would never have occurred,” say Kennedy apologists. The assassination, they insist, had killed more than the president; it was responsible for the death of a generation—of more than 58,000 Americans, along with untold numbers of Vietnamese on both sides of the seventeenth parallel.
When I first began this study, I was dubious about these assertions, but as my research progressed, many of my doubts disappeared. President Kennedy staunchly resisted the relentless pressure for combat troops, but, critically important, he never called for a total withdrawal. Instead, by the spring of 1962 he sought to roll back the nation’s military involvement to the less provocative advisory level he had inherited when taking office more than a year earlier.
What strikes anyone reading the veritable mountain of documents relating to Vietnam is that the only high official in the Kennedy administration who consistently opposed the commitment of U.S. combat forces was the president. Numerous staff studies and White House discussions of South Vietnam’s troubles from 1961 to 1963 demonstrate his acute understanding of the issues. Admittedly, he and his advisers initially faced more pressing matters in Cuba, Laos, and the Congo. But a large number of documents show the administration’s belief that the problems in Vietnam fit into the global context of Cold War. This is not surprising in light of Kennedy’s public declaration while senator in 1956—that Vietnam was “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia.”
- From the introduction to Death of a Generation:How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War by Howard Jones.