Book Excerpt: John Kenneth Galbraith

IN APRIL 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy invited GALBRAITH, who was returning to Washington on official business as U.S. ambassador to India, to join the Kennedy family for a weekend at Glen Ora, the family's rented estate in the Virginia countryside. She greeted him, he later proudly wrote, with a "well-televised and widely reported kiss" at National Airport, and they and the President spent the evening watching an hour-long NBC special about her recent Indian visit, which duly impressed her husband. The next day, disrupting the mood of intimacy and innocent charm, Galbraith shared his growing alarm with President Kennedy about Vietnam; at Kennedy's request he left behind a memo about his concerns.

In the memo, Galbraith recapped point by point his opinion of the risks and faulty assumptions behind the policies Kennedy's advisers were advocating. He openly and directly urged the President to seek Soviet help in arranging a major pullback by North Vietnam "in return for phased American withdrawal, liberalization in the trade relations between the two parts of the country and general and non-specific agreement to talk about reunification after some period of tranquility." And he counseled JFK "to resist all steps which commit American troops to combat roles" and to back away immediately from newly implemented State and Defense department policies that called for forcing South Vietnamese peasants into "strategic hamlets" and for using defoliants such as Agent Orange.

From documents declassified in the late 1990s, it's now clear that Kennedy - who himself was by then deeply alarmed by Vietnam and the pressure his aides were putting on him to send in U.S. troops - followed his ambassador's advice almost to the letter.

Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Averell Harriman was called into the Oval Office the day after Kennedy got Galbraith's memo. There the President read him what it said, and told Harriman he wanted the Russians contacted about the deal Galbraith was proposing. Harriman was also told to instruct Galbraith to ask the Indian government to open simultaneous conversations with the North Vietnamese on the same terms. That same afternoon Kennedy also sent a copy of Galbraith's memo to [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara.

Although he expected this by now, Kennedy's advisers put up quite powerful resistance to his clear intentions. When he insisted that he wanted Galbraith instructed to get the Indians to open up channels to Hanoi, Harriman said he would - and then he never did, despite the President's direct orders. Galbraith never received the President's instructions, and no such orders can be found in State Department files. (Later in April, after learning that Harriman had rejected the idea of talking to the Russians, Galbraith sent a blistering telegram in dissent, which was, predictably, ignored.)

From the Pentagon came even stronger resistance. McNamara forwarded to Kennedy a bitter rejection of Galbraith's proposals. Written by General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the memo's confidently blunt conclusion left Kennedy no room for doubt about where his senior military advisers stood: "The Department of Defense cannot concur in the policy advanced by Ambassador Galbraith, but believes strongly that present policy toward South Vietnam should be pursued vigorously to a successful conclusion." McNamara scrawled on the margins of his copy of the memo that it should not be sent or shown to Galbraith.

Adapted from Richard Parker's John Kenneth Galbraith, His Life, His Politics, His Economics

Maclean's January 31, 2005