Kennedy Records Private Thoughts On Vietnam

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In our series, “November 1963,” we listen back to America’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. "The world has not escaped from the darkness. The long shadows of conflict and crisis envelop us still," Kennedy said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 20, 1963. "Even little wars are dangerous in a nuclear world." 

On Nov. 4, 1963, Kennedy recorded his private concerns over a military coup in South Vietnam that ousted President Diem. It was a precursor to the Vietnam War.

Rioting South Vietnamese civilians smash shop windows in Saigon, Vietnam on Nov. 5, 1963 during military coup that toppled the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. (AP)
Rioting South Vietnamese civilians smash shop windows in Saigon, Vietnam on Nov. 5, 1963 during military coup that toppled the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. (AP)

BOSTON — With a view to one day writing his memoirs, President Kennedy made frequent use of the Dictaphone to record private thoughts about public events. His recording from Nov. 4, 1963 revealed deep distress about the overthrow three days earlier of the regime in South Vietnam.

“Monday, Nov. 4, 1963. The — over the weekend, the coup in Saigon took place, culminated three months of conversation about a coup, conversation which divided the government here and in Saigon.”

On Aug. 24, Kennedy approved a controversial cable green-lighting the coup to Henry Cabot Lodge, his ambassador in Saigon.

“I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August, in which we suggested the coup.”

Kennedy’s old political foe from Massachusetts, Lodge had only been on the job for four days when he received Cable 243. Lodge favored fast-tracking the coup. In the coming weeks, Kennedy repeatedly tried to reverse the course set in motion by the cable, and Lodge repeatedly pushed back. But the damage was done, and in this private moment, the president expressed regret.

“In my judgment, that wire was badly drafted, it should never have been sent out on a Saturday, I should not have given my consent to it without a round-table conference in which [Robert] McNamara and [Gen. Maxwell] Taylor could have presented their views. While we did redress that balance in later wires, that first wire encouraged Lodge along a course to which he was in any case inclined.”

In "Profiles In Courage," Kennedy's 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Kennedy described politics as an arena where “the choice constantly lies between two blunders.” This blunder embroiled the United States in a war that Kennedy reportedly wanted out of. In his 1970 memoir, "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye," Kennedy’s top aide, Kenny O’Donnell, recalled that, in the spring of 1963, Kennedy told him, "If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands. But I can do it after I’m re-elected. So we better make damn sure I am re-elected.”

As Kennedy continued his dictation, there was a small voice on the recording. It was his son, John Jr. — or John John, as he was known.

"Hello!" John John said.

The boy would turn three just days after his father’s assassination in three weeks’ time.

"Naughty, naughty daddy," John John said. His father began asking him about the seasons.

"Why do we go to the Cape? Hyannis Port?" Kennedy asked.

"Because it's summer," John John said.

"It's summer," affirmed Kennedy. John John laughed.

"Your horses!" John John said.

John John left, and his father resumed his dictation. South Vietnam's President Diem and his brother, Vice President Nhu, were brutally executed on Nov. 2. Kennedy received the news during a Saturday morning cabinet meeting with his advisers about the coup. He reportedly jumped to his feet and rushed out of the room. Gen. Maxwell Taylor recalled “a look of shock and dismay on his face which I have never seen before.”

"I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu. I’d met Diem with Justice Douglas many years ago. He was an extraordinary character, and while he became increasingly difficult in the last months, nevertheless, over a 10 year period he held his country together to maintain its independence under very adverse conditions. The way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent.”

At a press conference in 1962, Kennedy said, “You know that old story about Abraham Lincoln and the cabinet? He says, 'All in favor, say aye,' and the whole cabinet voted aye. And then, 'all opposed, no,' and Lincoln voted no, and he said, 'the vote is no.’”

Even when outnumbered by advisers who urged otherwise, Kennedy voted no when it came to sending combat units to Vietnam. In the spring of 1961, when his Joint Chiefs of Staff urged him to send 3,600 troops to support President Diem, Kennedy sent 500 military advisers instead. By the end of 1963, there were more than 16,000 military advisers in Vietnam.

Many argue that Cable 243 and the coup it authorized changed everything.

This program aired on November 21, 2013.


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