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JFK Revisited

A noted historian and Kennedy Administration insider refutes the revisionist version of JFK's legacy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 4)

What is far more likely is that the CIA, like intelligence agencies in other countries, believed that it knew the requirements of national security better than transient elected officials, like presidents, and invoked the excuse of "plausible deniability" to act as it deemed best without telling those to whom the agency was nominally accountable. As John Le Carre, who should know, has said, "Scrutiny of intelligence services is largely an illusory concept. If they're good, they fool the outsiders--and if they're bad they fool themselves."

As for Operation Mongoose, which Robert Kennedy kept trying to spur on--not his finest hour--this was not an assassination project but a foolish, futile and costly intelligence-gathering and sabotage effort. As Richard Helms of the CIA testified before the Senate committee investigating assassination plots in 1975, "Mongoose was not intended to apply to assassination activity."

Those who are themselves obsessed with the theory of the Kennedys' alleged anti-Castro obsession must deal with the stubborn fact that, given by the Soviet missiles the best possible excuse for invading Cuba and smashing Castro forever, an excuse that would have been accepted around the world, it was Robert Kennedy who led the fight against military action and John Kennedy who made the decision against it. A year after the missile crisis, Kennedy was exploring through Ambassador William Attwood (United States) and Ambassador Carlos Lechuga (Cuba) and through the French journalist Jean Daniel the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba. Some anti-Castro obsession!

And then came Vietnam. This was a problem Kennedy approached with well-ingrained doubts. As a young congressman in 1951, he had visited Indochina and watched a crack French army fail to subdue Vietnamese nationalists. He left with the conviction that the dispatch of non-Asian troops to decide the future of Vietnam would only rouse nationalist emotions against the intruder and would, as he said in a radio address on his return to the United States, mean "foredoomed failure."

By the time, a decade later, that Kennedy came to the White House, a commitment to save South Vietnam from communism had crystallized in the Eisenhower years. Kennedy thought it an overcommitment. But the commitment having been made, it could not be abandoned except at a price; and he was prepared to give the government in Saigon a run for its money. He offered Saigon economic assistance and increased the number of American military advisers attached to the South Vietnamese army (though at his death there were far fewer American troops in Vietnam than Soviet troops in Cuba during the missile crisis or American troops in the Dominican Republic in 1965).

But he rejected every proposal to send American combat units to Vietnam and, in effect, Americanize the war. If the United States converted the Vietnam fighting into an American war, he believed, we would lose--as the French had lost a decade before. "The last thing he wanted," Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and later Lyndon Johnson's ambassador to Vietnam, later said, "was to put in ground forces."

Kennedy was reinforced in this view by a talk with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who told him it would be foolish to fight in Southeast Asia; the future of Vietnam should be decided at the diplomatic table. Thereafter, when the Pentagon called for the commitment of American ground forces, Kennedy would say, "Well, now, you gentlemen, you go back and convince General MacArthur, then I'll be convinced." In 1962, he directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for the withdrawal of the American military advisers in 1965. The plan was approved in May 1963, with the first 1,000 men to return at the end of the year.

No one knows what a dead president might do about problems that become acute after his death. It is hard enough to know what living presidents will do about anything. But it is difficult to suppose that Kennedy would ever have reversed himself and sent ground forces into Vietnam. Both Robert McNamara, his secretary of defense, and McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, have latterly said that in their judgment Kennedy would never have Americanized the war--though, ironically, they advised Johnson to do exactly that, and he, with misgivings, followed that advice, thinking that that was what Kennedy would have done.

Kennedy believed in military strength. But he valued military strength as a means not to war but to peace. "Let us never negotiate out of fear," he had said in his inaugural address. "But let us never fear to negotiate." He had a realistic sense of the limitations of American power. "We must face the fact," he said in 1962, "that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient--that we are only six percent of the world's population--that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind--that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity--and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."

Kennedy believed that in the end America's influence in the world depended less on American arms than on American ideals. Undertakings such as the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress were closest to his heart. The Peace Corps, still going strong 35 years later, sent young Americans to the far corners of the earth to work with local people in improving education, public health and agricultural productivity. The Alliance for Progress was designed to promote economic growth and democratic institutions in Latin America.

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