By Andrew K. Franklin, NBC Nightly News Senior Producer
Fifty years ago today, NBC News marked a milestone by interviewing the president of the United States. The milestone was the expansion of the Huntley-Brinkley Report – the enormously popular forerunner to Nightly News – from 15 minutes to a half-hour. The president was John F. Kennedy.
Anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley interviewed Kennedy in the Oval Office on Sept. 9, 1963, and highlights from that interview became the centerpiece of that first half-hour broadcast. We’ve posted an excerpt, including a behind-the-scenes glimpse never seen until now.
Today, as President Obama makes the rounds of all the networks, his preoccupation is the same as President Kennedy’s was a half century ago: Making tough decisions about the appropriate use of U.S. military power far from home. For Kennedy, it was Vietnam – as it would be for the next three presidents.
JFK wasn't the first to send military advisers to South Vietnam – that was President Eisenhower. But during Kennedy’s brief presidency the number of advisers jumped from hundreds to thousands – more than 16,000 by the fall of 1963. Vietnam was still a place most Americans couldn't find on a map, and far from the bloody quagmire it would later become. But even in those early days, it was increasingly seen as a dangerous dead end for this country, and Kennedy was looking for a way out.
Which brings us to one of the great unanswered questions of our time: What course would the war in Vietnam have taken if Kennedy had lived? The question is unanswerable, of course, but clues can be found in the things Kennedy said about Vietnam before he died – including what he said to Chet and David 50 years ago today.
Kennedy was committed to defending South Vietnam. He was a cold warrior – intent on confronting and containing communism – willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” He believed in the domino theory, he told NBC – that the fall of one country to communism would inevitably lead to the fall of others. It was something Kennedy spelled out explicitly at a news conference that July, saying a withdrawal “would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but of Southeast Asia, so we are going to stay there.” He was worried U.S. public opinion would turn against the war, which it did in the years to come. In the NBC interview, he tells Chet and David, "What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say because they don’t like events in Southeast Asia or they don’t like the government in Saigon, that they will then say we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists," the president concluded. "I think we should stay." At a news conference three days later, he said, “We are not there to see a war lost."
But Kennedy also said repeatedly that he wanted out of Vietnam, and to this day his supporters insist he would have ended the war. Kennedy saw the risk of an open-ended conflict exacting an ever-greater cost. As a congressman visiting Southeast Asia 12 years earlier, he had witnessed first-hand the difficulties the French were having. He believed the fight in Vietnam belonged to the Vietnamese. “In the final analysis, it is their war,” he told Walter Cronkite (when CBS expanded its own evening news broadcast on September 2). "They are the ones who have to win it or lose it."
Still, Kennedy was enough of a political realist to know that anything more than a token withdrawal from Vietnam before the 1964 election would open him to charges of being "soft on communism," and likely cost him a second term. So he waited, and tried to improve the odds that South Vietnam would be able to fend for itself. That included backing the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1. Diem was assassinated in the process, reportedly much to Kennedy’s dismay. Asked about the coup at a news conference two weeks later, Kennedy expressed hope that the new government in South Vietnam would mean "an increased effort in the war,” and said again that his object was “to bring Americans home."
Eight days later, John F. Kennedy was dead. Americans did not come home from Vietnam, not for a long time. By 1968, at the height of the war under President Johnson, more than half a million Americans were serving in Vietnam, dying by the hundreds every week. It tore this country apart, and those wounds are still felt today. Would things have been different if Kennedy had lived? Of course they would have. But how different? We can only imagine.
A footnote: this clip also includes a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes in the Oval Office. After the interview, NBC’s cameras – still rolling – catch the president asking Brinkley about expanding the broadcast: “Is that going to be tough, a half-hour a day?”, Kennedy wonders. No, says Brinkley: “Fifteen minutes is so damn little that a half-hour isn’t that much more.” Moments later, David and the president chat quietly. Alert listeners will hear mentions of “Charade,” the new Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn movie, Ella Fitzgerald, and a reference to Tuesday the 24th. Curiosity piqued, we did a little digging and discovered that on Sept. 24, 1963, at a benefit hosted by Mr. and Mrs. David Brinkley, “Charade” had its world premiere and Ella Fitzgerald performed, for guests that included the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his sister Eunice, wife of Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. The benefit’s honorary chairman: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Then as now, Washington officials and the reporters covering them enjoyed a close relationship.