President John F. Kennedy, re-elected with a narrower margin of victory than he expected in 1964, has spent most of the last year deferring the big decision on policy in Southeast Asia: commit U.S. forces directly, which seems to be the only way to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, or give up and go home. In spring 1965 he finally makes a decision. As American combat boots start to touch the soil of Vietnam, Kennedy finds himself boxed in by further difficulties on civil rights and the dissatisfaction of his most trusted adviser: his own brother.
There are many historical arguments about whether the Vietnam War, an American tragedy in slow motion, would have happened if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963. One line of thinking goes that he definitely wouldn’t have escalated the conflict with the commitment of U.S. combat troops, as his successor Lyndon Johnson did in real life beginning in the spring and summer of 1965. There’s considerable evidence, however, that Kennedy would have followed a similar policy, especially statements he made shortly before his assassination. This episode takes the position that some form of U.S. escalation was already “baked in” by years of policy under successive administrations.
Much of the Vietnam debate depicted in this episode did really happen–though in the cabinet of LBJ. George Ball’s lonely opposition to the escalation is a matter of history. An excellent historical source on all of this is the classic book by David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, which focused on the decision-making processes of Johnson’s advisers (who were Kennedy’s advisers too). This is one of the more tragic episodes in recent American history.
Next Episode: May 9, 2021