Newly Declassified Audio Tapes Reveal JFK Saw Only Negative Choices
At a critical moment in August 1963, President John F. Kennedy saw only negative choices on Vietnam, according to new audio recordings and documentation posted today by the National Security Archive. Recently declassified tapes of secret White House meetings on the possibility of U.S. support for a military coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem show that Kennedy believed that if Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu remained a major influence, the war might not succeed. Recognizing that Congress might get "mad" at him for supporting coup-minded Vietnamese generals, Kennedy said that it will "be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain." Thus, Kennedy did not disagree when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said that the U.S. needed to "plan how we make this thing work." The tapes also show that McNamara, long held to have opposed the Diem coup, failed to express such a strong view at the moment of this decision.
The newly declassified tapes are authoritative evidence on U.S.policy toward the Vietnamese coup, and they shed fresh light on one of the most controversial episodes of the American war in Vietnam. In continuation of our previous coverage of this aspect of U.S. policy during the Vietnam war, the National Security Archive is posting the Kennedy tapes and memoranda containing the written accounts of the same National Security Council (NSC) meetings, together with related documents concerning this affair. The episode is covered in considerable detail in 'William Colby and the CIA: The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster,' by National Security Archive fellow John Prados.
The new evidence shows that:
* President Kennedy repeatedly pressed for better information regarding the balance of South Vietnamese forces for and against a coup. While Kennedy expressed reluctance to proceed with a coup that had no chance for success, he agreed with other senior U.S. officials that under the existing Saigon leadership there was no chance of success in the Vietnam war. On the tapes, Kennedy can be heard moderating NSC deliberations that aimed at forging a policy specifically aimed at the Saigon coup.
* Kennedy and other top U.S. officials agreed that, at a minimum, Saigon leader Diem had to be made to eject his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and Nhu's wife, Madame Nhu, from the South Vietnamese government. Whether this could be done by diplomatic approaches or required resort to a coup became the focus of much of these NSC deliberations. Even officials opposed to a coup agreed on the necessity to eject Nhu. Defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, who, like President Kennedy, voiced support only for a coup that could succeed, also concurred on the Nhu problem. The range of consensus included U.S. officials who subsequently gained credit for opposing expansion of the Vietnam war, most prominently Undersecretary of State George W. Ball.
* Kennedy and his advisers saw proposals to halt U.S. aid to South Vietnam as measures to weaken the Diem government in the face of the South Vietnamese generals or to direct the aid to the Vietnamese military rather than Diem.
* Proposals to evacuate Americans from South Vietnam were explicitly linked to the military coup. The tapes reveal that plans for an American withdrawal were created in the context of NSC deliberations on the coup; they became a feature of diplomatic maneuvers to induce Diem to oust Nhu.
* The specific U.S. policy choice that Kennedy made--to send Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell D. Taylor on a diplomatic mission to Saigon in September 1963--was prefigured in these NSC discussions. The tapes show that their mission, designed to pressure Diem to get rid of Nhu, originated as a maneuver to achieve the U.S. goal by diplomacy while the South Vietnamese generals recruited more supporters for a coup move.
All these points bear on important aspects of our understanding of the Vietnam war. For example, the tapes' discussion of the purposes for planning an American withdrawal from South Vietnam weakens claims by some that President Kennedy all along intended to get out of the conflict. Though JFK expresses doubts--in the Oval Office on August 29 Kennedy tells his inner circle, "We're up to our hips in mud out there"--the president never forthrightly rejects the Vietnam commitment. In fact Kennedy tells the same group shortly afterwards that while Congress might get "mad" at the U.S. sidling up to the Vietnamese generals, "they'll be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain." President Kennedy's emphasis indicates his determination to fight the war, not abandon it.