How To Do It
My Irish grandmother called Kennedy “a clever lad” and she was right.
Realizing that he had to exercise the utmost care in navigating choppy military and political waters, Kennedy employed the artifice of sending Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor on a “fact-finding” trip to Saigon. At the end of the trip they would “recommend” the course the President had already chosen.
Stopping in Hawaii en route back to Washington, McNamara and Taylor were given “their” report, which had been written by John and Robert Kennedy. It was instantly named the “McNamara-Taylor report” and the two travelers presented it to the President on the morning of Oct. 2, 1963.
Wasting no time, the President convened a National Security Council meeting that evening to discuss the report.
The senior military saw through the subterfuge and strongly opposed the key recommendations of the report. In his memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara wrote that the NSC meeting saw “heated debate about our recommendation that the Defense Department announce plans to withdraw U.S. military forces by the end of 1965, starting with the withdrawal of 1,000 men by the end of the year.”
In McNamara’s words, there was “a total lack of consensus.” However, there is only one “decider” on the National Security Council — the President. Kennedy stepped up to the plate and decided, bypassing the majority opposed.
Thirty-two years later in a Sept. 12, 1995, letter to the New York Times, McNamara took strong issue with a charge in an earlier op-ed that “the groundwork was being laid for our tragic escalation of the war” before President Kennedy was killed.
McNamara described the President’s reasoning in deciding to go ahead, despite the lack of consensus:
“[T]he President nonetheless authorized the beginning of withdrawal, believing that either our training and logistical support led to the progress claimed or, if it had not, additional training would not change the situation and, in either case, we should plan to withdraw.”
His decision made, Kennedy wasted no time in acting, well, like a President. He told McNamara to announce it immediately in order to “set it in concrete,” according to McNamara.
As the defense secretary was leaving the NSC meeting to tell White House reporters, the President called to him, “And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots, too,” according to Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers in their book, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.
The President’s policy was formalized nine days later in his National Security Action Memorandum Number 263 of Oct. 11, 1963. That document put into effect the McNamara-Taylor recommendations, which provided that:
“A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time … [and] the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.”
Whether Kennedy truly believed that the U.S. training program would succeed in helping the South Vietnamese prevail is doubtful. Clearly, he wanted out. He carried around in his conscience and from time to time spoke of the number of American troops already killed. (Eight died under Eisenhower; about 170 during Kennedy’s tenure.)
Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, to whom fell the task of announcing President Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, told James Douglass, author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, that Kennedy’s mind was fixed on Vietnam the day before. Instead of rehearsing for a press conference that day, Kennedy told Kilduff:
“I’ve just been given a list of the most recent casualties in Vietnam. We’re losing too damned many people over there. It’s time for us to get out. The Vietnamese are not fighting for themselves. We’re the ones who are doing the fighting.
“After I come back from Texas, that’s going to change. There is no reason for us to lose another man over there. Vietnam is not worth another American life.”