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Escaping Quagmires: Ted Kennedy and the Vietnam War

Ted Kennedy and John Kerry on the Mall, April 21, 1970. Photo by Sheldon Ramsdell

Ted Kennedy and John Kerry on the Mall, April 21, 1970. Photo by Sheldon Ramsdell

(This is the first in a two-part series.)

Like many Americans, Senator Ted Kennedy initially did not oppose the war in Vietnam. He supported President John F. Kennedy’s policies to increase the flow of aid and military advisors to the region. Following his brother’s lead, and the consensus among both Democrats and Republicans during the Cold War, the Senator believed it was necessary to take a strong stand against the spread of communism. He continued to back such policies when Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency upon JFK’s assassination, supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, which escalated America’s role in the conflict.

Returning to Capitol Hill in early 1965 after recovering from a devastating plane crash, he began to focus on refugee issues, arguing that neither the U.S. nor Vietnamese governments had a plan to assist the many people displaced by the war. As chairman of the subcommittee on refugees, Kennedy participated in an inspection tour of Vietnam organized by the U.S. military in 1965, where he received encouraging reports on refugee issues and the war effort.

The Senator’s views began to shift, however, after a meeting with French Vietnam expert Bernard Fall. Kennedy learned that the U.S. military had intentionally misled him during his refugee tour. In 1966, the Senator wrote his first critical statement on Vietnam, marking the beginning of his transition from hawk to dove. One of Kennedy’s main concerns regarding Vietnam addressed the war’s impact on the American people. Kennedy knew first-hand the painful costs of war, having lost his oldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., in World War II. He was particularly troubled by the unfairness of the draft system, which drew disproportionately from the poor and the African-American community. In addition to refugee issues, Kennedy began to fight for draft reform and, later, to lower the voting age so that those subject to the draft at age 18 could also vote on the very policies affecting their lives.

Kennedy’s opposition to the war increased after he organized his own inspection tour in January 1968, where he witnessed rampant corruption within the South Vietnamese government. He grew increasingly disillusioned with Johnson’s reports on the war and questioned their accuracy. As Senator Robert Kennedy was moving closer to challenging President Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, Edward Kennedy was slowly becoming a national leader in the anti-war movement. After Bobby’s death, in June 1968, Teddy continued calling on Johnson and, subsequently, the Nixon Administration to stop the bombing campaign and to re-focus the peace talks on U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam.

Here are some excerpts of our Edward M. Kennedy Oral History interviews:

On initially supporting U.S. involvement in Vietnam:

Senator John Culver: I think we were all of a persuasion that we weren’t the French; we weren’t there for the same reasons the French were there. We were there for the right reasons. We were there to give these people a choice and a hope. Also, with our power at that time—massive, overwhelming military strength and power—it was inconceivable to appreciate the limitations of America. But in that environment, that context, as we’ve all learned, you’re a crippled giant in many ways.

Former Kennedy staffer David Burke: When I first met him in 1965, in the office around me, there was really no discussion of Vietnam…. He was—hawk is too strong a word. Disinterest may be a more appropriate one, because when you think, in his lifetime there had been World War II and Korea, where no one said a word of opposition to anything. The experience of people of that generation was if you are opposed to your government when American soldiers are at war, that’s pretty cuckoo.

Senator John Tunney: The first trip [with Kennedy to Vietnam in 1965] was when we were surrounded by officialdom. We were constantly being fed information by these officials, and they gave us input that we took back home, which was just dead wrong. Dead wrong. I mean, it was what I guess they hoped that they would accomplish. But it didn’t take us all that long, after we had gotten back home, before some fissures began to show up in the edifice of propaganda that they had surrounded us with. So we began, tentatively at first, but gradually over a period of time, a period of months, we began to move away from that position.

On how Kennedy came to change his position towards U.S. involvement in Vietnam:

Burke: [Kennedy’s advance man during his second 1968 inspection tour] would take us right up to the head of the hospital and right to the nun who was running the infirmary for the kids and so forth. And it was awful. It was an awful trip because we saw things that you shouldn’t see. Napalm burns on a child. Bones—arms frozen to the side of the body by the melted skin. Just horrible things that you don’t want to see and we are dropping tons—Bernard was right, Bernard Fall—tons of technology on human beings in diapers who had done nothing to us… When he came back, his mind was clearly made up and he had no fear about stating it because “I’ve been there and you haven’t,” and it was a wonderful underwriting insurance policy. “I’ve been there and I’ve seen it… So he wasn’t just a fresh Senator any longer. He was rather an expert in this.

On changing the voting age to 18:

Former Kennedy staffer Carey Parker: The Vietnam debate was at the heart of the issue. The argument was, “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote. If we can send your son to Vietnam, why can’t he vote on what our policy should be?” That argument was resonating particularly with Democrats and even with a lot of Republicans. But it turned out that as we were beginning to make headway on the issue, resistance was developing among key House Democrats who were worried about adding 18-year-old voters to their constituencies, and it became a serious political issue, a serious problem.

On whether President Kennedy would have stayed in Vietnam had he not been assassinated:

Senator George McGovern: Jack [Kennedy] made a speech in September before he died and said, “In the final analysis it’s their war. They’re the ones who will win or lose it. We can send our men out there, we can send advisors, but only Vietnam can resolve this conflict.” That was an indication, I thought, that he might put the brakes on if he had been reelected and try to see if something could be worked out to justify our disengagement. That’s about the only concrete thing… If he had seen that every time the Army asked him for more troops, he granted it and we were getting nowhere, I think that he would have had more confidence in his own judgment and would have balked at some point. And he might even have balked on the bombing of North Vietnam after the My Lai massacre, things like that. By then, you know, Bob and Ted were dissenting from the war. Whether they would have if Jack were in the White House, I don’t know.

Date edited: 09/22/2016 (9:43AM)


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