Kennedy-Johnson Transition in Vietnam Policy
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?
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