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JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power Hardcover – 1992

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 13 reviews
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Extraordinary book, outstanding research 5 Jan. 2008
By Clement Finn - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book tackles an oft debated subject,namely just what were the intentions of John F. Kennedy's Vietnam policy? Those close to him such as Dave Powers and Kenneth O'Donnell stated it was his intention to withdraw from Vietnam after the 1964 election. However, the president had also given a number of hawkish speeches on the subject which left little doubt he intended to escalate American involvment if necessary. To me that often seemed the last word on the subject. Why would the president make hawkish statements on Vietnam if he was secretly planning to withdraw? Of course, we might well ask why LBJ made dovish statements on the war when in fact he intended to escalate it after the 1964 election? This book (which I believe is the outgrowth of the author's Ph.d. dissertation) provides fresh evidence that Kennedy never intended to send troops into a combat role in Southeast Asia. Newman's research benefited from a raft of documentation which was declassified in the 1990's regarding JFK's Vietnam policy. Readers will learn the details of the military's pressure for American troops in a combat role as early as 1961. The record shows JFK resisted that. His strategy for Vietnam was really a counter-insurgency strategy with American troops acting as trainers and supporters of the South Vietnamese. As the narrative develops based on now declassified national security meetings as well as the recollections of participants a picture is drawn of a president who is in sharp disagreement not only with the military but with his own cabinet. The president sends three fact finding missions to South Vietnam; each returns stating the need for an immediate full fledged combat role for the USA to save Southeast Asia. Each time JFK rejects their advice. Each mission stressed the importance of escalating the conflict and that such escalation was needed without delay or Vietnam would fall; and each time JFK says no. Thus, one must view the Kennedy policy in sharp divergence from the eventual Johnson policy of sending combat troops.
Kennedy's policy seems to have been dogged from the beginning by a military which essentially had no sympathy for his strategy of counter-insurgency. This book is subtitled "Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power". Readers will find it more than apt. The author shows how military intelligence analysts in the field in 1961 soon discovered three disturbing things about the situation: 1) The Vietnamese army was in very poor shape with a dreadful desertion rate 2) The Viet Cong were infiltrating the south at an alarming rate, mostly through Laos 3) the Viet Cong were also winning more and more adherents in the south. Newman carefully traces the efforts of General Harkins (our military commander at the time) to suppress the true nature of the struggle in Vietnam. Newman documents the deception of JFK and adds undeniable evidence of a very sensational nature: Vice President Johnson is being given the straight scoop on the dismal state of affairs in Vietnam but JFK is out of the loop! The author cites documents which prove this as well as the testimony of LBJ's military aide who corroborates what is in the documentary record. Johnson's low and conniving character is thus wounded further; he served his president poorly. He aided and abetted the deception of his commander in chief. This reviewer can only wonder how Johnson performed in other areas as vice president and we can better understand if the Kennedys had really planned to dump Johnson in 1964.
The difficult situation in the field quickly undermined Kennedy's attempts to pursue a counter insurgency strategy and American troops are soon taking a more direct combat role, something the president struggles in vain to hide from the press.
The genesis of the Kennedy withdrawal plan appears abruptly in May of 1962. McNamara,still dazzled by Harkins rosy but bogus intelligence reports confronts Harkins with an unexpected request at the Fifth SECDEF conference on the war. McNamara makes it plain the U.S. policy is purely to assist the South Vietnamese and pointedly asks Harkins at what point can the war be turned over completely to the South Vietnamese? This of course ran contrary to McNamara's own desires to escalate the war, so we can be sure he is conveying a presidential request. Staggered by the question, Harkins admits he has not given any thought to dismantling his command in Vietnam. McNamara is insistent however, and wants a report ready by the next conference. While Harkins continues to file optimistic reports on the situation up to and including the next SECDEF conference, the situation is no longer something he can easily suppress; certainly not after the defeat of the South Vietnamese at Ap Bac. News accounts of the battle were sharply critical of the south's role in it and Harkins was displeased that some military officers had chimed in with the criticism. This seems to represent a turning point in the intelligence reporting on the war. Worried by Congressional critics McNamara continues to press Harkins for a way out of the war. But the intelligence reporting starts to shift to a more pessimistic tone. Perhaps the military was beginning to realize their deception of JFK was bearing an unwanted fruit: military success touted by Harkins was interpreted by the president as meaning the US could prepare to leave Vietnam.
Kennedy's efforts to withdraw resulted of course in the often discussed and debated NSAM 263 which stipulated a withdrawal of 1,000 American troops in December of 1963. As the author makes clear this plan included withdrawing the rest of the American "advisers" at the rate of 1,000 a month so that all Americans would be gone by 1965. NSAM 263 has often been interpreted as purely an attempt to pressure Diem to make reforms. This in fact is played up in Stanley Karnow's history of the war. But in fact Karnow is wrong as are the other writers who have held the same view; Kennedy wanted out of the war, and Newman shows how the president steamrolls over virtually all of his advisers to press a withdrawal plan. With the murder of JFK, the situation shifts again as Johnson takes charge. A most disturbing outcome of the president's tragic end is also the end of his efforts to extricate the US from Vietnam. Johnson issues NSAM 273 which amplifies American commitment to the war effort and in fact Kennedy's withdrawal plan is reduced to a meaningless paper exercise as it is morphed into a mere rotation of forces. Perhaps McGeorge Bundy's remark best summarizes the change: "Johnson held stronger views on the war than Kennedy did". This of course, cannot help but draw the narrative to a discussion of the assassination itself. Newman pays tribute to Peter Dale Scott's attempt to relate JFK's murder to the escalation of the war. Scott however, was handicapped by a lack of documentary evidence of JFK's withdrawal plan. That is no longer the case, thanks to John M. Newman. His efforts shows that a basis for suspecting a link between the war and the assassination now exists. Dr. Newman has since written a brilliant book on the assassination called "Oswald and the CIA". While not a sequel to this book, there is little doubt that Newman decided to take a second look at the president's murder based on the suspicions he developed from writing "JFK and Vietnam". One lesson is undeniable here; presidents should not attempt to deceive the American people when deciding great issues. Rather, they should be including the public in the debate and listening to public opinion. Too often they seem bent on manipulating public opinion. The author rightly takes JFK to task for trying to lie us out of a war just as Johnson would try to lie is into one.
The image of JFK is much tarnished since his time and most of the blame for that is entirely his own. This book merely exposes what really went on in his Vietnam policy which was almost entirely hidden from public view.
As we contemplate the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan we see a situation little changed since Kennedy's time. When will American policy makers learn the lesson the American people grasp quite well? Limited wars are not likely to succeed.

(I am now adding a further and interesting footnote to this discussion. Since Newman's book was published more documentation has emerged from the Pentagon which adds heavily to the case John Newman made in his book and shows the military in fact understood quite well that JFK wanted a full withdrawal from Vietnam by the end of 1965. See my last remark in the comments section for a link to an excellent article by James K. Galbraith for the Boston Review.
CF, 1/26/12)
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
JFK and Vietnam - essential reading 5 Aug. 2010
By Paul Brooks - Published on
Format: Hardcover
JFK and Vietnam by John M. Newman

In order to get ones academic hands around the issue of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War you must scrutinize the actions, statements and decisions of three Presidents: Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Certainly Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Truman all had some dealings with Vietnam but direct military involvement draws us back to the later three individuals.

Mr. Newman's 1992 book is, in my opinion, absolutely essential reading for anyone desiring awareness of the U.S.-Vietnam military involvement during the Kennedy administration 1961-3. The book is an objective overview of the diplomatic maneuvers and military shenanigans that took place on Kennedy's watch. This is a seminal work and Mr. Newman's research is evident on every page. I was particularly impressed with the extensive notes that were placed - not at the end of the book - but after each chapter. I found this very helpful since I was constantly checking citations and noted several books I wished to add to my "want list". In addition to the impressive notes the following listings are included that enhance the usefulness of this volume: acronyms, biography of key persons, glossary, chronology, bibliography and index. The subtitle of this book is "Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power" and indeed it was.

A good case has been made that Kennedy had no intention to ever become trapped in a Asian land war. This is in spite of the hawkish advice and consul he was receiving from his national security advisor, Mac Bundy and the Joint Chiefs. Some memoirs by Kennedy insiders have stated the if he had not been assassinated all "military advisors" would of been withdrawn upon his re-election in 1964 and the Vietnam War would never have occurred. The author makes this point convincingly and it is hard to refute.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Historical background for the Vietnam war 20 May 2009
By James Huffman - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Most of us have a vague idea that the Vietnam war grew gradually until 1965, when the main force of US action began.

Vietnam is an important series of events in American history. An entire generation of Americans were deeply shaped by what happened during that war, the political side effects of the war shaped the resurgence of the Republican party in the 1970s and 1980s, and there are some who wonder if the deaths of President Kennedy and other such events were not related to the war.

Newman's book details 2 strains in the Kennedy administration. One was President Kennedy's, who was seeking to draw down the number and strength of US advisers serving in Vietnam. The other strain had leadership from Vice President Johnson, and sought to escalate US military intervention. This book provides careful, well thought out analysis of both the pro and anti interventionist groups, and details the strengths and weaknesses both sides brought to the table, as well as the personalities in each group.

Newman is methodical and does not draw out conclusions that he cannot sustain by factual information. This book provides much needed information and details about a segment of American history that has shaped current events, but about which most of us don't know enough. It is a good, well done, and superbly interesting book.
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Betrayed 17 Oct. 2002
By William Urban - Published on
Format: Hardcover
As one who has both read Newman's book and as one who served in Vietnam myself, (1970) I can only say I feel a deep sense of betrayal by my own Government, that I have served so well in two wars in a military capacity and as a Civil Servant in a civilian capacity. The document's that Newman publishes in his book were classified "Top Secret" at the time of Kennedy's Assassination. Thanks to the "Freedom of Information" act, that is no longer the case and we can now see the behind the scenes moves that led the US deeper and deeper into Vietnam. We can also see Kennedy's efforts to reverse course before it became too late.
My grandmother who is now dead and millions of other Americans never saw JFK's NSAM - 263 classified Top Secret. Nor did I. That NSAM was quietly shelved by Lyndon Johnson two days after Kennedy's Assassination and his own NSAM implimented. NSAM - 273 freezing everyone in place. Today, thanks to Newman's book we can now see who was the real culprit responsible for America's slide into Vietnam. And it certainly wasn't that awful Roman Catholic President (in the eyes of anti-Kennedy bigots) in the White House, John F. Kennedy.
Instead the REAL culprit was Lyndon Baines Johnson and THAT is how History will eventually record it. Hats off to John M. Newman for bringing these Document's into public view for future generations to "learn" from. That is IF, people are now willing to learn.
William P. Urban
Sgt US Army
PO2 US Navy
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Essential 31 July 2013
By TLR - Published on
Format: Hardcover
John M. Newman spent 20 years with U.S. Army Intelligence. This included serving in Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, and China. He eventually became executive assistant to the director of the National Security Agency (NSA). After leaving the NSA, Newman joined the University of Maryland where he taught courses in Soviet, Chinese Communist, East Asian, and Vietnam War history, as well as Sino-Soviet and U.S.-Soviet relations.

Newman had been working on a book about Kennedy and Vietnam when he came into contact with Oliver Stone. He worked as a low-key adviser to Stone, working to guide him away from the loonier assassination buffs. He had been researching this subject for his PhD thesis for nearly a decade, digging up 15,000 pages of documents and conducting numerous interviews. He found that the White House was being deceived about the conduct of the war in Vietnam to encourage Kennedy to commit more resources and men. Newman claims that some White House hawks - such as Lyndon Johnson - were being provided back-channel information on what was really going on. Senior cabinet members and the US Saigon command met in Honolulu 11/20/1963, and the military called for a massive American buildup in Vietnam, which Kennedy had resisted. He cautiously did not imply that Kennedy was killed for this reason, but his exhaustively documented research did this for him.
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