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JFK's lessons for Iraq

BEGINNING tomorrow scholars, journalists, and government officials -- both former and current -- will revisit a topic that remains tightly woven into the fabric of American political culture: the Vietnam War. Convening at the John F. Kennedy Library, they will explore some of the more contentious aspects of this chapter in our history. Among the questions they will ask are those concerning America's entrance into war, the roles played by the media and public opinion in shaping the course of the war, and the lessons learned from that conflict.

Arguably, the most vexing question is the great ''what if'' of the entire war: ''What if'' President John F. Kennedy had not been cut down by an assassin's bullet and had lived out his term -- and perhaps a subsequent one? Would he have made good on an expressed desire to withdraw American troops from Vietnam and turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese? These questions are hardly academic; as a recent New York Times op-ed by Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued, Kennedy had devised a coordinated exit strategy that America's current president would do well to emulate.

Thanks to an extraordinary collection of documents -- the secret tape recordings that Kennedy made in the White House -- we have some sense of what Kennedy did, and didn't, plan to do with respect to Vietnam. Although available to the public for more than a decade, these tapes remain largely unexplored. This is due partly to the many challenges of the transcription process, including the identification of numerous and hard-to-hear voices, the placement of microphones relative to Kennedy and his aides, and the quality of the audio itself.

Yet several key tapes are largely intelligible and reveal the outlines of what is clearly a withdrawal plan, laid out by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor, in a series of recorded meetings from October 1963. As conceived, the plan would have removed most US troops from Vietnam by the end of 1964 and virtually all of them by 1965. To kick-start that process, the Defense Department was prepared to recall 1,000 soldiers by the end of 1963.

At first glance, Kennedy's endorsement of this scenario appears to be a flat-out commitment to wind up the US advisory effort that he himself had expanded during his first year in office. Yet there is much more to the story. For starters, the tapes suggest that this is McNamara's withdrawal plan. In fact, the defense secretary goes to great lengths to convince the president that the withdrawal process be both immediate and public; the agitation in his voice while making his case is unmistakable. Indeed, it is McNamara who lays out not only the military rationale but also the political calculus at work, lending further credence to the argument that it was the secretary who conceived of and authored the withdrawal.

And Kennedy's reaction to the idea suggests as much. While he had always maintained that the war was South Vietnam's to win or lose -- arguing repeatedly against the insertion of US combat troops to back up or supplant South Vietnamese forces -- Kennedy nevertheless seems caught off guard by the McNamara-Taylor proposal. These conversations reveal a president seemingly distant from the topic and in need of convincing.

Is there a back-story to this episode? Did Kennedy orchestrate the McNamara-Taylor meeting to make it seem that this was all news to him, that he was largely unaware of such planning or the politics of withdrawal? According to former administration officials, the president had a penchant for giving instructions to McNamara that never found their way into the written record. Is this, therefore, a case of Kennedy debating and then approving a previously considered position in the presence of and for the benefit of his more hawkish advisers?

Failing a written record, we cannot know for sure. Scholars still have no access to several August 1963 conversations that would add much to our understanding of Kennedy's engagement with Vietnam and his thoughts about US involvement. What we can say with confidence is that the president, though clearly desirous of an American withdrawal, recognized the military and political imperative of achieving it under favorable conditions.

As he told his most senior advisers at one of those October meetings, they would simply ''get a new date'' if the situation in Vietnam prevented an American withdrawal by the end of 1965. Indeed, as Kennedy makes clear in these tapes, any public statement about a withdrawal must emphasize the fact the objective remained that of winning the war.

Do the Kennedy tapes offer useful lessons for the current war in Iraq? Insofar as they provide analogues not only to America's entrance but also to its exit from both conflicts, we would do well to recall Kennedy's motives for his phased withdrawal from Vietnam: increased pressure on the client government to institute political, economic, and military reforms; a tangible response to dovish critics of his policy at home; and -- perhaps -- the rudiments of a full withdrawal he had every intention of completing.

Yet we cannot know conclusively how Kennedy would have responded to the altered conditions in the Vietnam of 1964 and 1965. Given his many conflicting statements on Vietnam, all we can say, by virtue of his own words on the subject, is that he would have crossed that bridge when -- and only when -- he came upon it.

Marc J. Selverstone is an assistant professor with the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. Transcripts and audio of the Kennedy conversations mentioned above are available on the program's website, www.whitehousetapes.org.

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