Marc J. Selverstone, The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2022. 325 pages. Hardcover, $35.00.
The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam is the latest book on the early Cold War by American historian Marc J. Selverstone. The author revisits plans by President John Kennedy, who was assassinated in November 1963, to remove American military personnel from South Vietnam. He argues Kennedy was neither a Hawk nor a Dove, but a distracted and conditional advocate of what became known as Vietnamization. Distractions came from other perceived crises at home and abroad, and the dominant condition for withdraw set by the White House was progress against communist forces supported by North Vietnam. Kennedy and his aides, led by Robert McNamara, were not willing to see Saigon fall on their watch even though the president recognized the limits of American power. The White House never resolved the fundamental contradiction between private skepticism about the American military role and public commitments to defend South Vietnam.
Selverstone's introduction and epilogue provide a history of the Camelot narrative, and accurately frame his book as unfriendly to Kennedy mythology, assassination conspiracy theories, and casual analogies to the post-2001 Middle East. The author incorporates academic studies and contemporary media about Vietnam for context, but his primary evidence consists of archival documents and audio tapes analyzed in eight concise chapters. The book also includes useful notes on abbreviations and a thorough index.
The factual core of Kennedy is a reconstruction of White House struggles to define "withdraw" or necessary conditions for such a withdrawal. Selverstone traces the idea to 1961, followed by shorter intervals of policy formulation based on internal debates, public statements, congressional briefings, fact-finding trips to South Vietnam, military-civilian summits in Honolulu, and a lurch forward in the month before Kennedy died. A post-assassination removal of 1,000 troops began in December 1963 to signal progress in the war and American intent to not usurp South Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem, assassinated in Saigon by mutinous generals, weeks before Kennedy, had shared these goals. The removal of troops, however, did not actually reduce the total number of American advisers (p. 210). President Lyndon Johnson then retired Kennedy's aspiration to remove all but advisers by 1965 as impractical given battlefield setbacks.
The author painstakingly tracks White House deliberations, which is essential given...
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