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Kennedy-Johnson Transition in Vietnam Policy

President Lyndon Johnson in a National Security meeting on Vietnam, 21 Jul 1965.
President Lyndon Johnson in a National Security meeting on Vietnam, 21 Jul 1965.

Vietnam historians have for years maintained that the transition between Kennedy’s Vietnam policies and that of President Johnson were one of continuity, not change. But is this really true? Recently some historians have begun to argue that the illusion of continuity was just that, an illusion.

Some experts, such as Peter Dale Scott, have long argued that subtle policy changes in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s death laid the groundwork for later escalation in Vietnam. In particular, the first National Security Action Memorandum on Vietnam under Johnson, NSAM 273, authorized open-ended covert operations against North Vietnam. These in turn led to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which President Johnson used to obtain Congressional authorization for a drastic escalation of the war.

The counter-argument is that NSAM 273 was drafted while Kennedy was still alive. However, Kennedy never saw that draft, and the draft does not match the final version, particularly in the key area of covert operations. Is this difference a molehill in what was essentially a continuity of policy, or are authors like Scott correct that the change was in fact a profound one?

Related Starting Points


Peter Dale Scott, author of the first scholarly article arguing that the Kennedy-LBJ transition was not one of continuity, discussing possible reasons for this and the question of why the battlefield assessments in Vietnam took a marked turn for the worse after Kennedy's death.
(running time: 2:29)

Books of Interest

    Deep Politics and the Death of JFK
Peter Dale Scott
University of California Press, 1993
    In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
Robert S. McNamara
Vintage Books, 1996
    Government By Gunplay
Sid Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian
Signet, 1976

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