DOES IT TAKE A WAR?
There is an inevitable gap between what a president tells us about a war—even a proxy war—and the reality on the ground. It is true today as Joe Biden struggles for public support for the war in Ukraine, and it was true six decades ago as Jack Kennedy struggled to understand the war he chose to pursue in South Vietnam.
Early 1962 was a critical time for President John F. Kennedy. After his image and leadership had been tarnished by the Bay of Pigs disaster three months into his term, he had decided that he must make a stand in South Vietnam and confront the spread of communism there. The president spent the rest of 1961 secretly increasing American defoliation, bombing, and the number of US troops inside South Vietnam. His fight against international communism was on. His foil was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had overwhelmed the young president at a summit meeting on June 4, 1961, with his knowledge, toughness, and lack of respect for Kennedy’s floundering in Cuba. “So he just beat the hell out of me,” the president later told New York Times columnist James Reston.
Nonetheless, America was smitten by the glitz and glamor of Jack and Jackie and their life inside the White House, with parties and social events that brought together the best America had to offer from the worlds of music, the arts, and the academy. So it was that David Herbert Donald, the most prominent Lincoln scholar of his time, found himself asked to give a private briefing in the White House. The small group he addressed—it numbered no more than twenty—included longtime friends of the president and some key members of his government. Donald would be the guest of the president and his wife. He was delighted.
Donald, who had won a Pulitzer Prize that year for his work on the Civil War, wrote a long chatty letter to an old friend a few weeks later about his night at the White House. I learned of the meeting during the 1990s while researching a book on the Kennedy Administration. Donald sent me a copy then of the letter, but urged me to publish very little of it in my book. I did what he asked. Donald died in 2009, after decades of teaching American history at Harvard University, and I’d like to think he would have approved of my quoting it at greater length here.