WASHINGTON -- Newly uncovered documents from both American and Polish archives show that President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union secretly sought ways to find a diplomatic settlement to the war in Vietnam, starting three years before the United States sent combat troops.
Kennedy, relying on his ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, planned to reach out to the North Vietnamese in April 1962 through a senior Indian diplomat, according to a secret State Department cable that was never dispatched.
Back-channel discussions also were attempted in January 1963, this time through the Polish government, which relayed the overture to Soviet leaders. New Polish records indicate Moscow was much more open than previously thought to using its influence with North Vietnam to cool a Cold War flash point.
The attempts to use India and Poland as go-betweens ultimately fizzled, partly because of North Vietnamese resistance and partly because Kennedy faced pressure from advisers to expand American military involvement, according to the documents and interviews with scholars. Both India and Poland were members of the International Control Commission that monitored the 1954 agreement that divided North and South Vietnam.
The documents are seen by former Kennedy aides as new evidence of his true intentions in Vietnam. The question of whether Kennedy would have escalated the war or sought some diplomatic exit has been heatedly debated by historians and officials who served under both Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were 16,000 US military advisers in Vietnam. The number of troops grew to more than 500,000, and the war raged for another decade.
''I think the issue of how JFK would have acted differently than LBJ is something that will never be settled, but intrigues biographers," said Robert Dallek, author of noted biographies of Kennedy and Johnson.
''Historians partial to Kennedy see matters differently from those partial to LBJ," Dallek added. ''Vietnam has become a point of contention in defending and criticizing JFK."
But some Kennedy loyalists say the documents show he would have negotiated a settlement or withdrawn from Vietnam despite the objections of many top advisers, such as Kennedy and Johnson's defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, who opposed Galbraith's diplomatic efforts at the time.
''The drafts are perfectly authentic," said Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who was a White House aide to Kennedy. ''They show Kennedy felt we were over-committed in Vietnam and he was very uneasy. I think he would have withdrawn by 1965 before he took steps to Americanize the war."
McNamara said in an interview Wednesday that he had ''no recollection" of the Galbraith discussions, but ''I have no doubt that Kennedy would have been interested in it. He reached out to divergent views."
Others, however, are highly skeptical the new information signals what action Kennedy would have ultimately taken.
''It's unknowable what he would have done," said Carl Kaysen, who was Kennedy's deputy special assistant for national security.
Kaysen, who also judged the documents to be authentic, believes Kennedy was just as likely as his successors to misjudge the situation. ''The basic mistake the US made was to underestimate the determination of North Vietnam and the communist party in South Vietnam, the Viet Minh, and to overstate its own position," he said Thursday.
He also doubted that North Vietnam would have been willing to negotiate a deal acceptable to the United States. ''In hindsight, it would have been another futile effort," Kaysen said, because the North Vietnamese were determined to control the fate of South Vietnam.
But the documents, which came from the archives of then-Assistant Secretary of State W. Averell Harriman and the communist government in Warsaw, demonstrate that Kennedy and the Soviets were looking for common ground.
They also shed new light on Galbraith's role. The Harvard economist was on friendly terms with India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and a close confidant of Kennedy's. Galbraith sent numerous telegrams to the president warning about the risks of greater military intervention.
Galbraith told the Globe last week that he and Kennedy discussed the war in Vietnam at a farm in rural Virginia in early April 1962, where Galbraith handed the president a two-page plan to use India as an emissary for peace negotiations.
Records show that McNamara and the military brass quickly criticized the proposal. An April 14 Pentagon memo to Kennedy said that ''a reversal of US policy could have disastrous effects, not only upon our relationship with South Vietnam, but with the rest of our Asian and other allies as well."
Nevertheless, Kennedy later told Harriman to instruct Galbraith to pursue the channel through M. J. Desai, then India's foreign secretary. At the time, the United States had only 1,500 military advisers in South Vietnam.
''The president wants to have instructions sent to Ambassador Galbraith to talk to Desai telling him that if Hanoi takes steps to reduce guerrilla activity [in South Vietnam], we would correspond accordingly," Harriman states in an April 17, 1962, memo to his staff. ''If they stop the guerrilla activity entirely, we would withdraw to a normal basis."
A draft cable dated the same day instructed Galbraith to use Desai as a ''channel discreetly communicating to responsible leaders [in the] North Vietnamese regime . . . the president's position as he indicated it."
But a week later, Harriman met with Kennedy and apparently persuaded him to delay, according to other documents, and the overture was never revived.
Galbraith, 97, never received the official instructions but said last week that the documents are ''wholly in line" with his discussions with Kennedy and that he had expected Kennedy to pursue the Indian channel.
The draft of the unsent cable was discovered in Harriman's papers by scholar Gareth Porter and are outlined in a forthcoming book, ''Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam."
Meanwhile, the Polish archives from a year later revealed another back-channel attempt to find a possible settlement.
At the urging of Nehru, Galbraith met with the Polish foreign minister, Adam Rapacki, in New Delhi on Jan. 21, 1963, where Galbraith expressed Kennedy's likely interest in a Polish proposal for a cease-fire and new elections in South Vietnam. There is no evidence of further discussions between the two diplomats. Rapacki returned to Warsaw a day later. Galbraith wrote in his memoirs that it was not followed up.
But the newly released Polish documents, obtained by George Washington University researcher Malgorzata Gnoinska, show that Galbraith's message was sent to Moscow, where it was taken seriously.
A lengthy February memo from the Soviet politburo reported on the Galbraith-Rapacki discussions. It concluded that Kennedy and ''part of the administration . . . did not want Vietnam to turn into a second Korea" and appeared interested in a diplomatic settlement akin to one reached in 1962 about Laos, Vietnam's neighbor.
''It is apparent that Kennedy is not opposed to finding a compromise regarding South Vietnam," the memo said, according to Gnoinska's translation. ''It seems that the Americans have arrived at the conclusion that the continued intervention in Vietnam does not promise victory and have decided to somehow untangle themselves from the difficult situation they find themselves in over there."
It went on to say that ''neutralizing" the crises ''could untangle the dangerous knot of international tensions in Southeast Asia."
Definitive reasons both the Indian and Polish attempts were not pursued further are not known. In October 1963, the South Vietnamese government was overthrown, igniting political chaos. North Vietnam may have become more certain it would prevail. Neither the Indian or Vietnamese archives are available. The would-be Indian emissary, Desai, whom records indicate still lives in Bombay, could not be reached.
Kennedy had few options. Many believe North Vietnam would have swiftly prevailed over the South if the United States pulled out; that is what happened more than a decade later. It would have been extremely difficult to risk such an outcome at the height of the Cold War, fearing communism would spread to other countries under the so-called domino theory.
''There was no open debate in the Kennedy or Johnson administration about whether the domino theory was correct," McNamara said. It was simply gospel, he said.
Nonetheless, the new information sheds light on Kennedy's misgivings about getting further embroiled in the Vietnam War; up to his death he refused to do as most of his advisers urged and allow US ground troops to participate in the fighting, as Johnson did beginning in 1965. Galbraith said Kennedy ''harbored doubts, extending to measured resistance, on the Vietnam War." But it was ''countered by the fact that he had such articulate and committed warriors to contend with" in his administration, he said.
''It's another clear indication that my brother was very reluctant to accept the strong recommendations he was getting to send troops to Vietnam," Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, told the Globe on Friday after reviewing the cable to Galbraith. ''It's hard to believe that Jack would ever have allowed the tentative steps he took in those days to escalate into the huge military crisis that Vietnam became."
Of the cable, Theodore Sorensen, who was a special assistant to Kennedy, said: ''It is clearly consistent with what I have always thought and said about JFK's attitude toward Vietnam."
Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon official and coauthor of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of US policy toward Vietnam, added that the documents ''show a willingness to negotiate [a pullout] that LBJ didn't have in 1964-66." But, Ellsberg added, ''he might not have been able to do it."
Bryan Bender can be reached at Bender@globe.com.