Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War

Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War

Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War

Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War


When John F. Kennedy was shot, millions were left to wonder how America, and the world, would have been different had he lived to fulfill the enormous promise of his presidency. For many historians and political observers, what Kennedy would and would not have done in Vietnam has been a source of enduring controversy. Now, based on convincing new evidence--including a startling revelation about the Kennedy administration's involvement in the assassination of Premier Diem--Howard Jones argues that Kennedy intended to withdraw the great bulk of American soldiers and pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Vietnam. Drawing upon recently declassified hearings by the Church Committee on the U.S. role in assassinations, newly released tapes of Kennedy White House discussions, and interviews with John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and others from the president's inner circle, Jones shows that Kennedy firmly believed that the outcome of the war depended on the South Vietnamese. In the spring of 1962, he instructed Secretary of Defense McNamara to draft a withdrawal plan aimed at having all special military forces home by the end of 1965. The "Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam" was ready for approval in early May 1963, but then the Buddhist revolt erupted and postponed the program. Convinced that the war was not winnable under Diem's leadership, President Kennedy made his most critical mistake--promoting a coup as a means for facilitating a U.S. withdrawal. In the cruelest of ironies, the coup resulted in Diem's death followed by a state of turmoil in Vietnam that further obstructed disengagement. Still, these events only confirmed Kennedy's view about South Vietnam's inability to win the war and therefore did not lessen his resolve to reduce the U.S. commitment. By the end of November, however, the president was dead and Lyndon Johnson began his campaign of escalation. Jones argues forcefully that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, his withdrawal plan would have spared the lives of 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese. Written with vivid immediacy, supported with authoritative research, Death of a Generation answers one of the most profoundly important questions left hanging in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's death.


Throngs of people had gathered along the streets of downtown Dallas during their lunch hour, attempting to catch the first glimpse of the presidential motorcade as it rolled toward them that warm afternoon of November 22, 1963. The youthful, handsome president rode in an open limousine, waving at the crowds on both sides. President John F. Kennedy had come to Texas to begin his race for a second term in the White House, as well as to heal a split in the state's Democratic party between conservative Governor John Connally, seated in the same automobile, and liberal Senator Ralph Yarborough, who was riding a few cars back with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. At 12:30 P.M. Central Standard Time gunshots rang out, mortally wounding the president and seriously injuring Connally. Half an hour later Kennedy died, never regaining consciousness after taking one bullet through the neck and another in the head.

“If President John F. Kennedy had lived, he would not have sent combat troops to Vietnam and America's longest war would never have occurred,” say Kennedy apologists. The assassination, they insist, had killed more than the president; it was responsible for the death of a generation—of more than 58,000 Americans, along with untold numbers of Vietnamese on both sides of the seventeenth parallel.

When I first began this study, I was dubious about these assertions, but as my research progressed, many of my doubts disappeared. President Kennedy staunchly resisted the relentless pressure for combat troops, but, critically important, he never called for a total withdrawal. Instead, by the spring of 1962 he sought to roll back the nation's military involvement to the less provocative advisory level he had inherited when taking office more than a year earlier.

What strikes anyone reading the veritable mountain of documents relating to Vietnam is that the only high official in the Kennedy administration who consistently opposed the commitment of U.S. combat forces was the president. Numerous staff studies and White House discussions of South Vietnam's troubles from 1961 to 1963 demonstrate his acute understanding of the issues. Admittedly, he and his advisers initially faced more pressing . . .

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