Yesterday, the John F. Kennedy Library released the last of his presidential tapes. They were from two days before he was killed and included a conversation on an issue that haunts so many of us: what would Jack Kennedy have done with Vietnam?
Would he have done what his successor Lyndon Johnson did: create an American war in Vietnam, involving troop levels of a half a million soldiers? Would he have allowed the war to escalate to where we lost American soldiers?
It's a question I've been asked again and again traveling the country for my new book "Jack Kennedy Elusive Hero."
This much I know – the day he died, he'd given a speech that very morning in Fort Worth that "without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight." Those were his very words that morning of November 22, 1963 - with Lyndon Johnson at his side - to the city's Chamber of Commerce.
"Without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight." So was he ready to introduce American combat troops? Or was he going to limit our role to those many thousands of "advisors" in-country? Was he going to do what Lyndon Johnson did, make it an American war?
There are good reasons to believe he would not have. His war buddy Red Fay recalls Kennedy issuing orders to a marine unit commander wanting to take his men into a combat situation - that if he did he would have hell to pay.
Kennedy had resisted introducing Americans into frontline fighting because of what he'd seen happen to the French when they were fighting in the country. He'd seen how the firepower of the French had been totally overwhelmed by the nationalistic spirit of those fighting them. The Vietnamese did not want foreigners running their country either - directly or through a government they were seen to be controlling.
The tapes released yesterday show Kennedy getting conflicting reports. The military was telling him that the US-backed government in Saigon was winning the battle against the Viet Cong. The State Department official had just told Kennedy that the government we were backing was focusing mainly on fighting its own students, who were moving over to the Viet Cong side.
Kennedy wondered aloud if the military and the state department people had just been to the same country.
We know this. The day before he left for Texas, President Kennedy was thinking about an exit strategy. He asked national security aide Michael Forrestal to "organize an in-depth study of every possible option we've got in Vietnam, including how to get out of there."