'JFK and Vietnam': an interpretation that makes him politically correct?





John M. Newman.

Warner Books.

536 pages. $22.95. If John Fitzgerald Kennedy were alive today, he'd pound Army Maj. John M. Newman into the ground like a tent stake. In what "JFK" director Oliver Stone calls "a breakthrough exploration of Kennedy and his generals, [which] defines the 1961-1963 period in a light I never understood before," Major Newman, a Maryland resident who also teaches at the University of Maryland's University College, has vilified Kennedy beyond the wildest dreams of his worst enemies.

"Thus do the villains emerge," says John Bardi in his foreword, "the unscrupulous schemer, Edward 'Iago' Lansdale, the shocking manipulator, General 'Macbeth' Taylor, and the almost interchangeable dissemblers, the MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] 'Rosencrantz and Guilderstern.' . . . Of course, the central character -- the Hamlet of the entire tragedy -- is President Kennedy. Thinking hard ('to be or not to be' involved) and finding himself systematically deceived, he ends up engaging in an elaborate deception himself."

The analogy is more apt than Mr. Bardi realizes, for, like William Shakespeare, Major Newman has bent history to fit his preconceived scenario. In his acknowledgments, he says that when he became discouraged, "I took solace in the works of other active-duty officers who were scholars in this field. Among them [was] Andrew Krepinevich's 'The Army and Vietnam.' . . ."

It shows. Mr. Krepinevich wrote an "expose" on how the military lost the war because it ignored counterinsurgency theories. Fixated by his thesis, he overlooked completely that the last seven years of the Vietnam War (a period longer than World War II) was a conventional struggle with North Vietnamese Army regulars that had almost nothing to do with counterinsurgency.

Major Newman's "JFK and Vietnam" comes from the same mold. He uncritically accepts all the "evidence" that supports his thesis that JFK actually was secretly planning to withdraw from Vietnam as soon as he was re-elected, and ignores all that does not. His book carries a disclaimer that "The views in this work [do not] represent those of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any government organization." It should have gone on to say that "Any resemblance to characters living or dead is purely coincidental."

What do we know about John Kennedy? We know that as early as January 1949, then-Representative Kennedy was warning Congress that it must "assume the responsibility of preventing the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all Asia."

We know that in June 1956, then-Senator Kennedy said, "Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike." We know he almost single-handedly forced counterinsurgency on the military. He fired Army Chief of Staff General George Decker for opposing his ideas, made it known that future military promotions would hinge on support for a counterinsurgency doctrine, and recalled Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor from retirement to oversee conversion of the military to his views.

We know that Kennedy, aware that his Democratic Party had been saddled with the charge that it was soft on communism and had "lost" China, and painfully conscious of how badly the Bay of Pigs debacle had destroyed his macho image, was insistent to the end that Vietnam not be added to the list.

We know that his October 1963 decision to withdraw 1,000 troops was based on certain assumptions. As he said then, it was based on the understanding that "the military program in South Vietnam has made progress and is sound in principle. . . . Secretary [Robert S.] MacNamara and General Taylor reported their judgment that the major part of the U.S. military task can be completed by the end of 1965."

But you wouldn't know all this from reading Major Newman's book. Even his chapter on the withdrawal decision turns JFK into a scheming politician, devoid of principle and devoted only to his re-election. It is hard to reconcile that portrait with the JFK who promised to "pay any price . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty." But amazingly, some of his "friends," such as one-time adviser Roger Hilsman, have joined in saying that Kennedy would have bugged out of Vietnam as soon as he was re-elected.

He can be forgiven for remaking JFK into a politically correct guy for the 1990s. But it is disturbing that Major Newman, a military intelligence officer, ignores a basic fundamental of battlefield analysis: Carl von Clausewitz's observation that "In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts." War is not static. It "consists of a continuous interaction of opposites."

JFK's own assassination aside, the battlefield situation changed dramatically in the months after the withdrawal decision. First there was the November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, an act that turned his country into chaos. Then there was the North Vietnamese decision in April 1964 to send regular armed forces into the South. What had been a purely guerrilla war took on major conventional-war dimensions.

Like JFK, Lyndon Johnson had no desire to commit U.S. ground troops to the war. But his hand was forced by the actions of North Vietnam: Either escalate or risk defeat. Would JFK, if he had survived, have made the same fateful decision, or would he have cut and run? By posing the issue in terms of deception and intrigue, "JFK and Vietnam" doesn't give you a clue.

Colonel Summers is editor of Vietnam magazine. The sequel to his analysis of the Vietnam War, "On Strategy II: a Critical Analysis of the Gulf War," recently was published in paperback.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad