Book Discussion: The Kennedy Withdrawal by Marc J. Selverstone

Photo Courtesy: Harvard University Press


In October 1963, the White House publicly proposed the removal of American troops from Vietnam, earning President John F. Kennedy an enduring reputation as a skeptic on the war. In fact, Kennedy was ambivalent about withdrawal and was largely detached from its planning. The withdrawal statement gave JFK political cover, allowing him to sustain support for US military assistance. Its details were the handiwork of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, whose ownership of the plan distanced it from President Kennedy. 



The withdrawal planning was never just about Vietnam as it evolved over the course of fifteen months. For McNamara, it injected greater discipline into the U.S. assistance program. For others, it was a form of leverage over South Vietnam. For the military, it was largely an unwelcome exercise. And for JFK, it allowed him to preserve the U.S. commitment while ostensibly limiting it.


Marc J. Selverstone in his new book The Kennedy Withdrawal, offers an inside look at presidential decisionmaking in this limited period of the Vietnam War and makes clear that portrayals of Kennedy as a dove are overdrawn. Through the use of the presidential tapes, alongside declassified documents, memoirs, and oral histories, he lifts the veil on this legend of Camelot. He argues that Kennedy’s withdrawal was in fact a cagey strategy for keeping the United States involved in the fight— a strategy the country adopted decades later in Afghanistan.



Marc J. Selverstone

Associate Professor and Chair, Presidential Recordings Program at Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
Soumava Basu

Soumava Basu

President and Founder, CGC


Federico Alistair D’Alessio

Research Director, The Cold War Project, CGC


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