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1963 Vietnam Withdrawal Plans

President Kennedy meeting with Secretary of Defense McNamara and General Taylor in October 1963 after their fact-finding mission to Vietnam.
President Kennedy meeting with Secretary of Defense McNamara and General Taylor in October 1963 after their fact-finding mission to Vietnam.

Was there a Vietnam withdrawal plan in 1963? The answer is yes. What is at issue is not whether such plans had been created and initiated, but whether they were “serious,” i.e., whether the withdrawal would have continued in the face of a worsening situation in South Vietnam.

On October 11, 1963, Kennedy signed NSAM 263, initiating a withdrawal of 1,000 troops out of roughly 16,000 Americans stationed in Vietnam. Other documents, including planning documents from the spring of 1963, show that this was the first step in a planned complete withdrawal.

The controversy surrounds the fact that military reporting of the war effort in 1963 was decidedly rosy, and Kennedy made statements indicating that the positive outlook made withdrawal possible. Following the November deaths of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and President Kennedy, reporting of the military situation in Vietnam took a turn for the worse. Does this then mean that Kennedy would have done as his successor LBJ did, and escalate the war in response?

John Newman’s landmark 1991 book JFK & Vietnam argues that Kennedy knew that the military reporting was skewed, and intended to withdraw anyway. Other analyses by Peter Dale Scott and James Galbraith (son of Kennedy advisor John Kenneth Galbraith), and recent books including one by no less than Robert McNamara himself, support this view. On the other side are many Vietnam historians and also social critic Noam Chomsky, whose Rethinking Camelot is largely a rebuttal of this view.



Exit Strategy, by James K. Galbraith.

On Vietnam, by Noam Chomsky.

'Fog of War' vs. 'Stop the Presses', by Errol Morris and Eric Alterman.

The War Room, by Fred Kaplan.

Jfk Had Ordered Full Withdrawal From Vietnam: Solid Evidence, by James K. Galbraith.


Walkthrough - Vietnam in Late 1963 - A walkthrough of relevant documents regarding Vietnam policy from the spring of 1963 through a few days after Kennedy's death.



JCS Official File: Record Eighth Secretary of Defense Conference, 6 May 1963. This document, declassified in 1997, contains spring 1963 planning documents for a phased withdrawal from Vietnam.

Report of McNamara/Taylor Mission to Vietnam

National Security Action Memorandum No. 263

Honolulu Meeting Briefing Book, Part I. See also Part II.

National Security Action Memorandum No. 273

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume III: Vietnam January-August 1963

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume IV: Vietnam August-December 1963

Related Starting Points


Peter Dale Scott, author of the first scholarly article arguing that the Kennedy-LBJ transition was not one of continuity, discussing the conflict among historians on this issue.
play video (running time: 3:51)
Peter Dale Scott discusses Robert McNamara's memoirs In Retrospect and the avoidance of Kennedy's Vietnam withdrawal plans by many historians.
play video (running time: 2:53)
Peter Dale Scott addresses the current debate over what JFK would have done in Vietnam had he lived.
play video (running time: 2:33)

Books of Interest

    Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War
Howard Jones
Oxford University Press, 2003
    JFK and Vietnam
John Newman
Warner Books, 1992
    Rethinking Camelot
Noam Chomsky
South End Press, 1993
    The Pentagon Papers, Vol. V
Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, ed.
Beacon Press, 1972

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