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One of the most contentious issues related to the assassination of JFK, which was dealt with extensively in the arguments between John Newman [JFK & Vietnam, Oswald & The CIA] and Noam Chomsky [Rethinking Camelot] was the 1,000 man withdrawal order; While I am interested in this ongoing aspect of research, I am more interested in finding the original National Security Action Memorandum 263.

Short of ordering this document, are any Forum members aware of a URL which has the entire NSAM-263 document online?

Any help would be appreciated and reciprocated by posting more updated information by myself, that would also be useful in exploring this area, which is still pertinent, to those who are interested in the various Forum threads such as Operation Valkyrie, Project Four Leaves et cetera.

John McAdams website has a memo, listed as NSAM-263, but it is only a one page document. Surely the document is much longer?



“With the filling in of the record - why were these documents a state secret for 35 years? - the debate among historians has shifted. No longer is the issue whether there was a plan to withdraw - the question has moved to whether it was "serious enough" to survive the change in reporting of the battlefield conditions which occurred in the wake of Kennedy's murder, from optimistic to pessimistic. Some historians, including David Kaiser (American Tragedy) and Howard Jones (Death of a Generation) now argue that Kennedy was determined to withdraw despite a change in conditions, joining Peter Dale Scott, John Newman, and no less than Robert McNamara. Many mainstream historians and others - including Noam Chomsky whose book Rethinking Camelot is largely a rebuttal of this view - maintain that Kennedy's assassination was not a factor in the progress toward war in Vietnam.”

Edited by Robert Howard
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"John McAdams website has a memo, listed as NSAM-263, but it is only a one page document. Surely the document is much longer?"

Maybe? It's a draft. P

erhaps one may deduce something from the draft to issue process?

This for public consumption: ?


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"John McAdams website has a memo, listed as NSAM-263, but it is only a one page document. Surely the document is much longer?"

Maybe? It's a draft. P

erhaps one may deduce something from the draft to issue process?

This for public consumption: ?


Thanks John, the links are good especially the one with the cumulative index. I had also run across this blurb listing an alternate source as.....

194. National Security Action Memorandum No. 263/1/

Washington, October 11, 1963.

/1/Source: Department of State, S/S-NSC Files: Lot 72 D 316, NSAMs. Top Secret; Eyes Only. The Director of Central Intelligence and the Administrator of AID also received copies. Also printed in United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, Book 12, p. 578.

Looking at the links you posted coupled with the above, [see page 578] it gives credence to the idea that NSAM 263 was a single page memorandum.

Thanks for the help.

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Ron, John:

You may be interested in some of this infomartion....


Troop reductions in S. Vietnam. (transcript)..

Many people seem to be unaware that President Kennedy publicly announced his

intention to withdraw a thousand men from South Vietnam by the end of 1963.

This announcement was made in a press conference on October 31, 1963, just


days before his death. In fact, the very first question asked in that press

conference was about troop reductions in Vietnam and Korea.

Here is the entire question and Kennedy’s response:

"[REPORTER:] Mr. President, back to the question of troop reductions, are


intended in the far east at the present time – particularly in Korea and is

there any speedup in the withdrawal from Vietnam intended?

[PRESIDENT KENNEDY:] Well as you know, when Secretary McNamara and General

Taylor came back, they announced that we would expect to withdraw a thousand

men from South Vietnam before the end of the year. And there has been some

reference to that by General Harkins. If we’re able to do that, that will


our schedule. I think the first unit, the first contingent, would be 250


who are not involved in what might be called front-line operations. It


be our hope to lesson the number of Americans there by a thousand as the

training intensifies and is carried on in South Vietnam."

------ from JFK’s press conference, October 31, 1963

[An audio cassette tape recording of the referenced press conference was

provided by the John F. Kennedy Library, audio-visual department, Columbia

Point, Boston, MA 02125.]

NOTE: The referenced press conference is widely known and snippets are

frequently used in documentaries about JFK shown on the major television

networks; however, Kennedy’s comments about scheduled reduction of personnel


South Vietnam are ALWAYS deleted from ALL such documentaries. The producers


these documentaries usually show an interview with Walter Cronkite sometime

earlier where President Kennedy suggested we should stay in Vietnam.


Kennedy changed his public position on Vietnam shortly before he was killed,

but the news media – to this day – is keeping that information from the


The question is, WHY?

Dave Sharp....

Kennedy Had a Plan for Early Exit in Vietnam


Published: Tuesday, December 23, 1997



by Michael Morrissey

The biggest lie of our time, after the Warren Report, is the notion that Johnson

merely continued or expanded Kennedy's policy in Vietnam after the


1. JFK's policy

In late 1962, Kennedy was still fully committed to supporting the Diem regime,

though he had some doubts even then. When Senator Mike Mansfield advised

withdrawal at that early date:

The President was too disturbed by the Senator's unexpected argument to reply to

it. He said to me later when we talked about the discussion, "I got angry with

Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself

because I found myself agreeing with him (Kenneth O'Donnell and Dave Powers,

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970, p. 15).

By the spring of 1963, Kennedy had reversed course completely and agreed with


"The President told Mansfield that he had been having serious second thoughts

about Mansfield's argument and that he now agreed with the Senator's thinking on

the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam.

'But I can't do it until 1965--after I'm reelected,' Kennedy told Mansfield....

After Mansfield left the office, the President said to me, 'In 1965 I'll become

one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. I'll be damned everywhere as a

Communist appeaser. But I don't care. 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 reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected'

(O'Donnell, p. 16)."

Sometime after that Kennedy told O'Donnell again that

"...he had made up his mind that after his reelection he would take the risk of

unpopularity and make a complete withdrawal of American military forces from

Vietnam. He had decided that our military involvement in Vietnam's civil war

would only grow steadily bigger and more costly without making a dent in the

larger political problem of Communist expansion in Southeast Asia" (p. 13).

Just before he was killed he repeated this commitment:

"'They keep telling me to send combat units over there,' the President said to

us one day in October [1963]. 'That means sending draftees, along with volunteer

regular Army advisers, into Vietnam. I'll never send draftees over there to

fight'." (O'Donnell, p. 383).

Kennedy's public statements and actions were consistent with his private

conversations, though more cautiously expressed in order to appease the military

and right-wing forces that were clamoring for more, not less, involvement in

Vietnam, and with whom he did not want to risk an open confrontation one year

before the election. As early as May 22, 1963, he said at a press conference:

"...we are hopeful that the situation in South Vietnam would permit some

withdrawal in any case by the end of the year, but we can't possibly make that

judgement at the present time" (Harold W. Chase and Allen H. Lerman, eds.,

Kennedy and the Press: The News Conferences, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1965,

p. 447).

Then came the statement on October 2:

"President Kennedy asked McNamara to announce to the press after the meeting the

immediate withdrawal of one thousand soldiers and to say that we would probably

withdraw all American forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965. When McNamara was

leaving the meeting to talk to the White House reporters, the President called

to him, "And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots, too" (O'Donnell,

p. 17).

This decision was not popular with the military, the Cabinet, the

vice-president, or the CIA, who continued to support Diem, the dictator the US

had installed in South Vietnam in 1955. Hence the circumspect wording of the

statement on Oct. 2, which was nevertheless announced as a "statement of United

States policy":

Secretary McNamara and General Taylor reported their judgement that the major

part of the U.S. military task can be completed by the end of 1965, although

there may be a continuing requirement for a limited number of U.S. training

personnel. They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for

training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S.

military personnel assigned to South Viet-Nam can be withdrawn (Documents on

American Foreign Relations 1963, Council on Foreign Relations, New York: Harper

& Row, 1964, p. 296).

NSAM 263, signed on Oct. 11, 1963, officially approved and implemented the same

McNamara-Taylor recommendations that had prompted the press statement of Oct. 2.

They recommended that:

"A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now

performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end

of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that


"In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over

military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near

future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1000 U.S. military personnel by the

end of 1963. This action should be explained in low key as an initial step in a

long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without

impairment of the war effort" (Pentagon Papers, NY: Bantam, 1971, pp. 211-212).

The withdrawal policy was confirmed at a news conference on Oct. 31, where

Kennedy said in response to a reporter's question if there was "any speedup in

the withdrawal from Vietnam":

"I think the first unit or first contingent would be 250 men who are not

involved in what might be called front-line operations. It would be our hope to

lessen the number of Americans there by 1000, as the training intensifies and is

carried on in South Vietnam" (Kennedy and the Press, p. 508).

By this time it had become apparent that Diem was not going to mend his brutal

ways and provide any sort of government in South Vietnam that the US could

reasonably support, if indeed any US- supported regime had any hope of popular

support at that point. The only alternative to a total US military commitment

was to replace Diem with someone capable of forming a viable coalition

government, along the lines of the agreement for Laos that had been worked out

with Krushchev's support in Vienna in June 1962. The point of deposing Diem, in

other words, was to enable an American withdrawal, as O'Donnell and Powers


"One day when he [Kennedy] was talking with Dave and me about pulling out of

Vietnam, we asked him how he could manage a military withdrawal without losing

American prestige in Southeast Asia.

'Easy,' he said. 'Put a government in there that will ask us to leave'" (p. 18).

This decision, too, was not popular with the Cabinet or with Johnson. Secretary

of State Rusk said at a meeting on Aug. 31, 1963, "that it would be far better

for us to start on the firm basis of two things--that we will not pull out of

Vietnam until the war is won, and that we will not run a coup." McNamara agreed,

and so did Johnson, the latter adding that he "had never really seen a genuine

alternative to Diem" and that "from both a practical and a political viewpoint,

it would be a disaster to pull out...and that we should once again go about

winning the war." (NYT, Pentagon Papers, p. 205).

Diem and his brother Nhu were both murdered during the coup on Nov. 1, 1963, but

much as Kennedy's critics might like to imply that he ordered their executions,

he had nothing to gain from such barbarity. O'Donnell and Powers say the

killings "shocked and depressed him" and made him "only more sceptical of our

military advice from Saigon and more determined to pull out of the Vietnam war"

(p. 17). The US liaison with the anti-Diem generals, Lt. Col. Lucien Conein, a

long-time CIA operative who had helped Edward Lansdale and the CIA bring Diem to

power in 1954, later told the press, on President Nixon's suggestion, that

Kennedy had known about the Diem assassination plot, but this was a pure

fabrication (Jim Hougan, Spooks, NY: William Morrow, 1978, p. 138). It is more

likely that Diem and Nhu were killed by the same forces that killed Kennedy

himself three weeks later.

Two days before Kennedy was shot, there was a top-level policy conference on

Vietnam in Honolulu, where the issue was not just withdrawal but accelerated

withdrawal, along with substantial cuts in military aid. As Peter Scott notes in

his important but much-ignored essay in the Gravel edition of the Pentagon

Papers, the Honolulu conference agreed to speed up troop withdrawal by six

months and reduce aid by $33 million ("Vietnamization and the Drama of the

Pentagon Papers," Pentagon Papers, Gravel edition, Vol. 5, Boston: Beacon Press,

p. 224). The New York Times also reported that the conference had "reaffirmed

the U.S. plan to bring home about 1,000 of its 16,500 troops from South Vietnam

by January 1" (11/21/63, p. 8, quoted in Scott, p. 224).

Curiously, because of the Honolulu conference and a coincidental trip by other

Cabinet members to Japan, the Secretaries of State (Rusk), Defense (McNamara),

the Treasury (Dillon), Commerce (Hodges), Labor (Wirtz), Agriculture (Freeman),

and the Interior (Udall), as well as the Director of the CIA (McCone), the

ambassador to South Vietnam (Lodge), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

(Taylor), and head of U.S. forces in Vietnam (Harkins) were all out of the

country when Kennedy was killed. Only his brother Robert, National Security

Adviser McGeorge Bundy, who apparently returned to Washington from Honolulu on

Nov. 21, the HEW Secretary (Celebrezze), and the Postmaster General (Gronouski)

were in Washington on Nov. 22. Johnson, of course, was with the president in

Dallas, but this too was curious, since normal security precautions would avoid

having the president and vice- president away from Washington at the same time,

and together.

2. LBJ's policy

In addition to Kennedy's own private and public statements, and the policy

directed by NSAM 263, the second paragraph of Johnson's own directive, NSAM 273,

signed four days after the assassination, explicitly affirms the continuation of

the withdrawal plan announced on Oct. 2:

"The objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal of U.S.

military personnel remain as stated in the White House statement of Oct. 2,

1963" (Pentagon Papers, NYT, p. 233).

Obviously, Johnson did not continue the withdrawal policy very long. Exactly

when he reversed it is a matter of controversy, but it is certain that the

decision was made by March 27, 1964: "Thus ended de jure the policy of phase out

and withdrawal and all the plans and programs oriented to it (Pentagon Papers,

Gravel ed., 2:196)." The first indication of this change came the day after the

assassination: "The only hint that something might be different from on-going

plans came in a Secretary of Defense memo for the President three days prior to

this NSC meeting [on Nov. 26]." Johnson "began to have a sense of uneasiness

about Vietnam" in early December and initiated a "major policy review (2:191)."

It is not necessary to agree with Peter Scott that the text of NSAM 273 in

itself reveals Johnson's reversal of Kennedy's policy, thus giving the lie to

paragraph 2, which purports to continue that policy. The differences between the

text proposed by McNamara/Taylor, JFK's White House statement, and LBJ's NSAM

273 are worth noting, however.

Where McNamara/Taylor refer to the security of South Vietnam as "vital to United

States security," Kennedy says it is "a major interest of the United States as

other free nations." The syntax is sloppy here, so that "as other free nations"

could mean "as is that of other free nations [besides Vietnam]" or "as it is of

other free nations [besides the US]," but in either case Kennedy is clearly

attempting to relativize the US commitment to South Vietnam. Further on he

refers to US policy in South Vietnam "as in other parts of the world," again

qualifying the commitment. These qualifications are missing in Johnson's

statement, which refers exclusively to Vietnam.

McNamara-Taylor refer to the "overriding objective of denying this country

[south Vietnam] to Communism." Kennedy softens this to "policy of working with

the people and Government of South Vietnam to deny this country to communism."

Johnson hardens "overriding objective" again to "central object" (i.e.

objective), which he defines as "to win their contest" rather than as "to deny

this country to communism," which was Kennedy's formulation.

McNamara-Taylor talk about "suppressing the Viet Cong insurgency." Kennedy

qualifies this as "the externally stimulated and supported insurgency of the

Viet Cong." This is important, since the "Viet Cong" were nothing more than

Vietnamese nationalists who happened to be living in South Vietnam. They were

supported by the North, but in 1963 Ho Chi Minh would have been glad to stop the

"external stimulation and support" he was giving the Viet Cong in exchange for

nationwide free elections, which had been promised by the 1954 Geneva Accords

but never took place, because he would have won in a landslide, in the South as

well as the North. The best the US could have hoped for was a coalition

government, as in Laos.

By limiting the US commitment to stopping "external support" of the Viet Cong,

Kennedy could well have been leaving the way open for a negotiated settlement.

Johnson drops the term "Viet Cong" altogether and refers to the "externally

directed and supported communist conspiracy." Kennedy's externally stimulated

Viet Cong insurgency becomes Johnson's externally directed communist conspiracy.

The Viet Cong have been completely subsumed under a much larger and familiar

bugaboo, the international "communist conspiracy."

In this one sentence, Johnson has greatly widened the war, turning what Kennedy

was still willing to recognize as an indigenous rebellion into a primal struggle

between good and evil.

But again, it is not necessary to agree that these textual differences give the

lie to paragraph 2 of NSAM 273, where Johnson vows to continue Kennedy's

withdrawal policy, to agree that Johnson did, at some point, reverse the policy.

This would seem to be obvious, yet we find most historians bending over backward

to avoid making this simple observation. In fact, we find just the opposite

assertion--that there was no change in policy. If we take NSAM 273 at face

value, we must say that this is correct: Johnson continued Kennedy's withdrawal


But this is not what the historians mean when they say there was no change in

policy. They mean that Johnson continued Kennedy's policy of escalation. The

entire matter of withdrawal is ignored or glossed over.

3. The Establishment perspective

Let us take some examples, chosen at random (emphasis added):

"...President Kennedy...began the process of backing up American military aid

with "advisers." At the time of his murder there were 23,000 [sic] of them in

South Vietnam. President Johnson took the same view of the importance of

Vietnam..."(J.M. Roberts, The Pelican History of the World, 2nd ed.,

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980, p. 988-989).

"Although Johnson followed Kennedy's lead in sending more and more troops to

Vietnam (it peaked at 542,000, in 1969), it was never enough to meet General

Westmoreland's demands..." (Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,

NY: Random House, 1987, p. 405).

"By October 1963, some 16,000 American troops were in Vietnam... Under President

Johnson, the "advisors" kept increasing... Lyndon Johnson, who had campaigned in

1964 as a "peace candidate," inherited and expanded the Vietnam policy of his

predecessor" (Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, A Pocket History of the

United States, 7th ed., NY: Pocket Books, 1981, p. 565-566).

These examples are typical of the more general view. As the treatments become

more specialized, it becomes harder to separate fact from obfuscation, but it

should be borne in mind that all of the accounts I will review contradict what

one would think would be considered the most reliable source: the Gravel edition

of the Pentagon Papers.

The Gravel account devotes 40 pages to the history of the withdrawal policy

("Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964," Vol. 2, pp. 160-200). It states

clearly that "the policy of phase out and withdrawal and all the plans and

programs oriented to it" ended "de jure" in March 1964 (p. 196). It also states

clearly that the change in the withdrawal policy occurred after the


"The only hint that something might be different from on-going plans came in a

Secretary of Defense memo for the President three days prior to this NSC meeting

[on Nov. 26]....In early December, the President [Johnson] began to have, if not

second thoughts, at least a sense of uneasiness about Vietnam. In discussions

with his advisors, he set in motion what he hoped would be a major policy

review..." (p. 196).

There can be no question, then, if we stick to the record, that Kennedy had

decided and planned to pull out, had begun to implement those plans, and that

Johnson subsequently reversed them.

This clear account in the Gravel edition, however, is obscured in the more

widely read New York Times "edition," which is really only a summary of the

official history by NYT reporters, with some documents added. The Gravel edition

has the actual text, and is significantly different. The NYT reporters gloss

over the history of the withdrawal policy in a way that cannot be simply to save

space. NSAM 263 is not mentioned at all, and Kennedy's authorization of the

McNamara-Taylor recommendations is mentioned only in passing, and inaccurately:

"[The McNamara-Taylor report] asserted that the "bulk" of American troops could

be withdrawn by the end of 1965. The two men proposed and--with the President's

approval--announced that 1,000 Americans would be pulled out by the end of 1963"

(p. 176).

That this "announcement" was in fact a White House foreign policy statement is

cleverly disguised (McNamara made the announcement, but it was Kennedy speaking

through him), along with the fact that the president also approved the more

important recommendation--to withdraw all troops by the end of 1965.

Earlier, the NYT reporter quotes a Pentagon Papers (PP) reference to the

1,000-man pullout (again ignoring the more significant total planned withdrawal

by 1966) as "strange," "absurd," and"Micawberesque" (p. 113). Then he mentions a

statement by McNamara that

"...the situation deteriorated so profoundly in the final five months of the

Kennedy Administration...that the entire phase-out had to be formally dropped in

early 1964."

The reporter's conclusion is that the PP account "presents the picture of an

unbroken chain of decision-making from the final months of the Kennedy

Administration into the early months of the Johnson Administration, whether in

terms of the political view of the American stakes in Vietnam, the advisory

build-up or the hidden growth of covert warfare against North Vietnam" (p. 114).

This is quite different from the actual (Gravel) account. It implies that the

change in the withdrawal ("phase-out") policy began well within Kennedy's

administration; Gravel says the change began in December 1963. The "unbroken

chain of decision-making" and "advisory build-up" implies that there never was a

withdrawal plan.

This has been the pattern followed by virtually all individual historians.

In his memoir Kennedy (NY: Harper & Row, 1965), Theodore Sorensen, who was one

of Kennedy's speechwriters, does not mention the withdrawal plan at all. Arthur

Schlesinger, another Kennedy adviser and a respected historian, has done a

curious about-face since 1965, but in this early book he buries a brief

reference to the White House policy statement in a context which makes it seem

both insignificant and based on a misapprehension of the situation by McNamara,


"...thought that the political mess [in South Vietnam] had not yet infected the

military situation and, back in Washington, announced (in spite of a strong

dissent from William Sullivan of Harriman's staff who accompanied the mission)

that a thousand American troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year and

that the major part of the American military task would be completed by the end

of 1965.

"This announcement, however, was far less significant than McNamara's acceptance

of the Lodge pressure program [on Diem]" (A Thousand Days, Boston: Houghton

Mifflin, 1965, p. 996).

Schlesinger does not indicate that this "far less significant" announcement was

a statement of official policy and implemented nine days later by NSAM 263,

confirmed at the Honolulu conference on Nov. 20, and (supposedly) reaffirmed by

Johnson in NSAM 273.

Stanley Karnow, the author of what many consider to be the "definitive" history

of the Vietnam War (Vietnam: A History, NY: Viking Press, 1983), instead of

citing the documents themselves, substitutes his own convoluted "analysis":

"...what Kennedy wanted from McNamara and Taylor was a negative assessment of

the military situation, so that he could justify the pressures being exerted on

the Saigon regime. But Taylor and McNamara would only further complicate

Kennedy's problems" (p. 293).

This image of a recalcitrant McNamara and Taylor presenting a positive report

when Kennedy expected a negative one is absurd, first because both McNamara and

Taylor were in fact opposed to withdrawal, and second because if Kennedy had

wanted a negative report, he would have had no trouble procuring one. He already

had plenty, as a matter of fact, most recently that of Joseph Mendenhall, a

State Department official, who had told Kennedy on Sept. 10 that the Diem

government was near collapse.

Karnow goes on to enlighten us as to McNamara and Taylor's true motivation for

recommending the withdrawal of 1,000 troops by the end of the year: "to placate

Harkins and the other optimists" (p. 293). Again, this is patently absurd. First

McNamara and Taylor are presented as defying the president's "true wishes," and

then as deliberately misrepresenting the situation to "placate" thecommanding

general (without bothering to explain why troop withdrawals would be

particularly placating to the general in charge of them). Karnow fails to

mention NSAM 263, and the reason is clear: he would be hard put to explain, if

the recommendations were "riddled with contradictions and compromises" and

contrary to the president's wishes, as Karnow says, why the president

implemented them with NSAM 263.

Karnow also tells us why the recommendation to withdraw all US troops by 1965

was made: it was "a prophecy evidently made for domestic political consumption

at Kennedy's insistence" (p. 294). This is hard to understand, since there was

no significant public or "political" opposition to US involvement in Vietnam at

that time, but plenty of opposition to disengagement. We now have Kennedy, in

Karnow's view, wanting a negative report, getting a positive one, and insisting

on announcing it publicly for a political effect that would do him more harm

than good!

In an indirect reference to the Oct. 2 White House statement, Karnow begrudges

us a small bit of truth:

"Kennedy approved the document [the McNamara-Taylor recommendations] except for

one nuance. He deleted a phrase calling the U.S. commitment to Vietnam an

'overriding' American goal, terming it instead a part of his worldwide aim to

'defeat aggression.' He wanted to preserve his flexibility" (p. 294).

This confirms the importance of the textual changes in the two documents, as

discussed above.

In JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1984),

Herbert Parmet mentions both the White House statement and the McNamara-Taylor

report, but in a way that makes the two documents seem totally unrelated to each

other. Of the White House announcement Parmet says only:

"On October 2 the White House announced that a thousand men would be withdrawn

by the end of the year" (p. 333).

The larger plan to withdraw all troops by 1965 is not mentioned at all. This is

particularly misleading when followed by this statement:

"[Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell] Gilpatric later stated that McNamara did

indicate to him that the withdrawal was part of the President's plan to wind

down the war, but, that was too far in the future" (p. 333).

Who is the author of the last part of this sentence, Gilpatric or Parmet? In any

case, the end of 1965 was only two years away-- hardly "far in the future," much

less "too far," whatever that means.

Parmet continues:

"Ken O'Donnell has been the most vigorous advocate of the argument that the

President was planning to liquidate the American stake right after the

completion of the 1964 elections would have made it politically possible" (p.


This reduces the fact that Kennedy planned to withdraw, documented in the White

House statement and in NSAM 263 and 273, to the status of an argument

"advocated" by O'Donnell. This clearly misrepresents O'Donnell's account as well

as the documentary record. O'Donnell does not argue that Kennedy wanted to pull

out; he quotes Kennedy's own words, uttered in his presence. It is not a matter

of interpretation or surmise. Either Kennedy said what O'Donnell says he said,

or O'Donnell is a xxxx. As for the documentary record, in addition to

misrepresenting the White House statement, Parmet, like Karnow and Schlesinger,

completely ignores NSAM 263 and 273.

Parmet devotes the bulk of his discussion to the purely hypothetical question of

what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam if he had lived. Parmet's answer: "It is

probable that not even he was sure." This again flies in the face what we know.

Kennedy knew what he wanted to do: withdraw. If Parmet's contention is that he

would have changed his mind, had he lived, and reversed his withdrawal policy

(as Johnson did), that is another matter. Parmet is trying to make us believe

that it is not clear that Kennedy wanted to withdraw in the first place, which

is plainly wrong.

The hypothetical question is answered by O'Donnell and Powers, who were in a

much better position to speculate than Parmet or anyone else, as follows:

"All of us who listened to President Kennedy's repeated expressions of his

determination to avoid further involvement in Vietnam are sure that if he had

lived to serve a second term, the numbers of American military advisers and

technicians in that country would have steadily decreased. He never would have

committed U.S. Army combat units and draftees to action against the Viet Cong"

(p. 383).

Parmet says that for JFK "to have withdrawn at any point short of a clear-cut

settlement would have been most unlikely" (p. 336). But "a clear-cut settlement"

could range from Johnson's aim "to win" the war to Kennedy's more vaguely

expressed aim "to support the efforts of the people of that country [south

Vietnam] to defeat aggression and to build a peaceful and free society" (White

House statement, Oct. 2, 1963).

Parmet cites Sorensen as affirming Kennedy's desire to find a solution "other

than a retreat or abandonment of our commitment." This was in fact the solution

that the withdrawal plan offered: our mission is accomplished; it's their war

now. Parmet quotes from the speech Kennedy was supposed to deliver in Dallas the

day he was killed, as if empty rhetoric like "we dare not weary of the test" [of

supplying assistance to other nations] contradicted his withdrawal plan. He also

cites Dean Rusk, who said in a 1981 interview that "at no time did he [Kennedy]

even whisper any such thing [about withdrawal] to his own secretary of state."

If that is true, Rusk knew less than the rest of the nation, who were informed

by the White House statement on Oct. 2. Finally, Parmet quotes Robert Kennedy as

saying that his brother "felt that South Vietnam was worth keeping for

psychological and political reasons 'more than anything else,'" as if this

supported Parmet's argumentthat JFK was fully committed to defending that

corrupt dictatorship. But RFK could well have meant that means South Vietnam was

not worth keeping if it meant the US going to war-- just the opposite of

Parmet's interpretation.

Despite Kenneth O'Donnell's clearly expressed opinion in his 1970 memoir, Parmet

manages to have him saying the opposite in a 1976 interview:

"When Ken O'Donnell was pressed about whether the President's decision to

withdraw meant that he would have undertaken the escalation that followed in

1965, the position became qualified. Kennedy, said O'Donnell, had not faced the

same level of North Vietnamese infiltration as did President Johnson, thereby

implying that he, too, would have responded in a similar way under those

conditions" (p. 336).

Now--who said what, exactly? If we read carefully, it is clear that it is Parmet

who is "qualifying" O'Donnell's position, and Parmet who is telling us what

O'Donnell is "implying"--not O'Donnell.

John Ranelagh, a British journalist and author of what is widely considered an

"authoritative" (i.e. sanitized) history of the CIA, describes Kennedy as

"...a committed cold warrior, absolutely determined to prevent further communist

expansion and in 1963 still smarting from the Bay of Pigs, the Vienna Summit,

and the Cuban missile crisis. It was time to go on the offensive, show these

communists what the United States could do if it put its mind to it, and Vietnam

seemed the right place. It was an arrogance, born of ignorance of what the world

really was like, assuming that American energy and power, applied with

conviction, would change an essentially passive world. At the fateful moment,

when the United States could have disengaged itself from Vietnam without

political embarrassment, there was a President in the White House looking for

opportunities to assert American strength.

"Kennedy wondered during 1963 whether he was in fact right in deciding that

Vietnam was the place for the exercise of this strength, and some of his close

associates subsequently were convinced that he would have pulled out had he

lived. But his own character and domestic political considerations militated

against this actually happening. In 1964 the Republican presidential candidate,

Barry Goldwater, ran on a strong prowar plank, and it would not have suited

Kennedy--just as it did not suit Johnson--to face the electorate with the

promise of complete disengagement. In addition, in September 1963 McNamara was

promising Kennedy that with the proper American effort the war in Vietnam would

be won by the end of 1965. No one was listening to the CIA or its analysts" (The

Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, NY: Touchstone, 1987, p. 420; emphasis


Ranelagh not only ignores Kennedy's withdrawal decision "at the fateful moment,"

he transforms it into a desire "to assert strength," and has Kennedy pursuing

the buildup for "domestic political considerations." (This is precisely opposite

to Karnow's assumption, discussed above.) In the sentence beginning "In

addition...", Ranelagh manages to "interpret" McNamara- Taylor's recommendation

to pull out of Vietnam as an argument for Kennedy to stay in!

Ranelagh's opinion that "no one was listening to the CIA," implying that the CIA

was pessimistic about the war in 1963, contradicts what he says a few pages

earlier: "The Pentagon Papers...showed, apart from the earliest period in

1963-64, the agency's analysis was consistently pessimistic about U.S.

involvement..." (p. 417, my emphasis). This is the familiar "lone voice in the

wilderness" image of the CIA: only they were "intelligent" enough to read the

writing on the wall. But if that is true, why did the agency try so hard (from

1954 to 1964) to get us involved in the first place, and why did they continue

tosupport the war effort in clandestine operations throughout? The CIA's Ray

Cline says (as quoted by Ranelagh):

McCone [CIA Director under Kennedy and Johnson] and I talked a lot about the

U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and we both agreed in advising that intervention

there would pay only if the United States was prepared to engage in a long,

difficult process of nation-building in South Vietnam to create the political

and economic strength to resist a guerrilla war (p. 420).

Ranelagh intreprets this as evidence that the CIA wanted to withdraw from

Vietnam in 1963. Nonsense. No one in the top echelons of the CIA, least of all

Director John McCone, supported Kennedy's withdrawal plan in 1963. Nor does

Cline's remark imply this. He is saying that the CIA's opinion (i.e. one of

their opinions) was that to be "successful," the US would have to dig in for the

long haul. I think the "long haul" is precisely what the CIA wanted, and

precisely what Kennedy decided he did not want. That is why he decided to

withdraw. Clearly, more powerful forces than Kennedy himself combined to make

the intervention "pay" as the Johnson administration proceeded to engage in that

"long, difficult process of nation-building" that generated hundreds of billions

of dollars for the warmongers, destroying millions of lives in the process.

Neil Sheehan, one of the editors of the NYT Pentagon Papers and the author of

another acclaimed history of the war (A Bright Shining Lie, London: Picador,

1990), devotes exactly one sentence in 861 pages to the crucial White House

statement of Oct. 2, and not a single word to NSAM 263 or 273. His view is

consistent: the generals, except for a few, like John Paul Vann (the

biographical subject of the book), were incredibly stupid to think the war was

being won by our side, but Kennedy was even more stupid because he believed

them. The McNamara-Taylor report is presented as the height of naivety, which,

Sheehan adds sarcastically,

"...recommended pulling out 1,000 Americans by the end of 1963 in order to

demonstrate how well the plans for victory were being implemented. The White

House announced a forthcoming withdrawal of this first 1,000 men" (p. 366).

But "The President," Sheehan says, "gained no peace of mind." He was "confused"

and "angry" at the conflicting reports. In other words, according to Sheehan,

the withdrawal plan reflects nothing but Kennedy's "confusion" and misjudgement

of the situation, based on the equally false evaluation of his Secretary of

State and top military adviser.

As for the CIA, Sheehan, like Ranelagh, says the "analysts at the CIA told him

[Kennedy] that Saigon's military position was deteriorating..." (p. 366). But

Kennedy was too "confused" to understand this, and ordered withdrawal on the

false assumption that the war was going well.

All of these studies bend over backward to avoid recognizing the documented fact

that Kennedy had decided to withdraw from Vietnam by the end of 1965. The

tactics of avoidance vary from ignoringthe existence of any withdrawal plan at

all to attributing it to wishful thinking, political expedience, or sheer

stupidity and naivety.

At the same time, commentators are quick to remember the two TV interviews JFK

gave in September 1963 (Documents on American Foreign Relations, pp. 292-295).

On Sept. 2 he told Walter Cronkite of CBS: "But I don't agree with those who say

we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake." A week later he said to

David Brinkley on NBC:

"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 we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I

think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we

can, but we should not withdraw."

If any statements of that time frame were designed for political effect, these

TV interviews were. Presidents are far more likely to play politics in

television interviews than in official policy statements and Nation Security

Action Memoranda. These remarks must be seen as coming from a president who was

up for re-election in one year and who knew he would "be damned everywhere as a

Communist appeaser" if he withdrew from Vietnam, as he had told Ken O'Donnell a

few months earlier.

Those who take the "we should not withdraw" sentence as Kennedy's final word on

the matter do not point out that it is directly contradicted by the White House

policy statement and NSAM 263 the following month. Either Kennedy changed his

mind or -- more likely -- the earlier public statements were meant to appease

the pro-war forces. He also changed his mind about aid to South Vietnam:

Mr. Huntley: Are we likely to reduce our aid to South Vietnam now?

The President: I don't think that would be helpful at this time.

Whatever Kennedy meant by this in September, he thought and did the opposite in

October, implementing the McNamara-Taylor recommendations for aid reduction in

addition to troop reductions.

Kennedy also said in the Cronkite interview:

"In the final analysis, it is their [the South Vietnamese] war. They are the

ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them

equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win

it--the people of Vietnam--against the Communists. We are prepared to continue

to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people

support the effort, and, in my opinion, in the last two months the government

has gotten out of touch with the people."

He repeats this, almost verbatim, a few sentences later, obviously intent on

emphasizing the point:

"...in the final analysis it is the people and the government [of South Vietnam]

who have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we are making

it very clear. But I don't agreewith those who say we should withdraw. That

would be a great mistake."

In context, Kennedy may have been using the word "withdraw" here in the sense of

"abandon." "Abandoning" Vietnam completely would indeed have been bad politics,

but reducing aid (to force a change in Diem's policy) and withdrawing troops is

not necessarily the same thing.

Similarly, in the NBC interview, before Kennedy says "we should not withdraw,"

he says:

"We have some influence, and we are attempting to carry it out. I think we

don't--we can't expect these countries to do everything the way we want to do

them [sic]. They have their own interest, their own personalities, their own

tradition. We can't make everyone in our image, and there are a good many people

who don't want to go in our image....We would like to have Cambodia, Thailand,

and South Vietnam all in harmony, but there are ancient differences there. We

can't make the world over, but we can influence the world."

This does not sound like a strong commitment. As a whole, these remarks are

perhaps more accurately interpreted as: "We won't abandon them, but we won't do

their fighting for them either." This is an interpretation, but a plausible one.

Despite the massive efforts to obscure it, the fact remains, and cannot be

overemphasized, that Johnson reversed the withdrawal policy. The curious thing

is that one hardly ever finds this fact plainly stated by those who should (and

perhaps do) know better. Richard Goodwin, an adviser to both Kennedy and

Johnson, is a rare exception:

"In later years Johnson and others in his administration would assert that they

were merely fulfilling the commitment of previous American presidents. The claim

was untrue--even though it was made by men, like Bundy and McNamara, who were

more anxious to serve the wishes of their new master than the memory of their

dead one. During the first half of 1965 I attended meetings, participated in

conversations, where the issues of escalation were discussed. Not once did any

participant claim that we had to bomb or send combat troops because of "previous

commitments," that these steps were the inevitable extension of past policies.

They were treated as difficult and serious decisions to be made solely on the

basis of present conditions and perceptions. The claim of continuity was

reserved for public justification; intended to conceal the fact that a major

policy change was being made--that "their" war was becoming "our" war"

(Remembering America, NY: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 373; emphasis added).

4. Reactions to Oliver Stone's JFK

Why do other historians find this observation by Goodwin so difficult to make?

Because to acknowledge the fact of a major policy change in Vietnam means to

acknowledge the possibility that the president was killed in order to effect

this change.

Since this is precisely the thesis of Oliver Stone's JFK, it is not surprising

to see that the critics have followed the same avoidance tactics.

The Wall Street Journal refers to the putative connection with Vietnam

policy--which is the main point of the film--only obliquely, halfway through the


"We further agree that November 1963 was a turning point in the American

commitment to Vietnam. But the key was not the assassination of JFK but the

assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem three weeks earlier. Once President Kennedy gave

the go-ahead for a coup against an allied government in the name of winning the

war, the U.S. was deeply committed indeed. Lyndon Johnson, who had opposed the

coup, was left to pick up the pieces" (12/27/91, p. A10).

The crucial fact presented in the film--that Johnson reversed Kennedy's

withdrawal plan--is not even mentioned.

Time refers, also indirectly and buried midway in the article, to the portrayal

of Kennedy's Vietnam policy as a figment of the imaginations of "the last

misty-eyed believers in Camelot":

"They still hold to the primal scenario sketched in Oliver Stone's JFK: a

Galahad-like John Kennedy gallantly battling the sinister right-wing

military-industrial complex to bring the troops home, ban the Bomb and ensure

racial equality on the home front--a Kennedy killed because he was just too good

to live" (European ed., 1/13/92, p. 39)

Here the word Vietnam does not even appear, and "bringing the troops home" is

presented as only one of several equally mythical Kennedy objectives. Whether

banning the Bomb and ensuring racial equality were on Kennedy's agenda is

debatable, but his decision to bring the troops home is not, or should not be.

In an article entitled "Does Stone's JFK Murder the Truth?" (International

Herald Tribune, 12/17/91, reprinted from the New York Times), Tom Wicker

writes--also about halfway through--that according to Stone and Garrison Kennedy

"seemed to question" the goals of those who "wanted the war in Vietnam to be

fought and the United States to stand tall and tough against the Soviets..."

This not only reduces Kennedy's withdrawal decision to a"question" but implies

that even that is not certain: he did not decide, he questioned, that is, he

seemed to question.

Iain Johnstone tells readers of the Sunday Times (1/26/91, Sect. 6, pp. 12-13),

again at mid-point position in his article, that the idea that Kennedy was

"about to let down the military and munitions men by pulling out of Vietnam" is

"doubtful." The only thing that is doubtful here is whether Johnstone has

bothered to read the documents.

On the last page of a seven-page article in GQ (Jan. 1992, p. 75), Nicholas

Lemann finally confronts Garrison's and Stone's main thesis by referring not to

the documents but to a 1964 interview with Robert Kennedy. This is apparently

the same 1964 interview cited by Herbert Parmet (discussed above). I have not

been able to consult the original material, which is part of an oral history

collection at the JFK Library in Boston, but it is interesting that Lehmann cuts

off the quotation at a strategic point.

Interviewer: Did the president feel that we would have to go into Vietnam in a

big way?

RFK: We certainly considered what would be the result if you abandon Vietnam,

even Southeast Asia, and whether it was worthwhile trying to keep and hold on


Interviewer: What did he say? What did he think?

RFK: He reached the conclusion that probably it was worthwhile...

This has to be a deliberate misrepresentation. The ellipsis conceals what we

know from Parmet's citation:

"As Bobby Kennedy later said, his brother had reached the point where he felt

that South Vietnam was worth keeping for psychological and political reasons

'more than anything else.'" (Parmet, p. 336).

Piecing these two parts of RFK's remark together, the complete sentence would

seem to have been:

"He reached the conclusion that probably it was worthwhile for psychological and

political reasons more than anything else."

As I have already mentioned, "it was worthwhile" in this context more likely

meant "it was not worthwhile" (psychological and political reasons hardly

justifying a war), especially since we know, just as Robert knew, that President

Kennedy had decided to terminate US military participation by the end of 1965.

The German reviews of JFK, though they generally take Stone's thesis more

seriously than the American ones, are equally evasive on the point of Kennedy's

Vietnam policy. Several long articles do not mention it at all (Kurt Kister,

Sddeutsche Zeitung, 1/22/92, p. 8; Verena Lueken, Frankfurter Allgemeine

Zeitung, 1/24/92, p. 29). Peter Buchka in the Sddeutsche Zeitung (1/23/92, p.

10) mentions only that "a withdrawal from Vietnam," according to Garrison and

Stone, would have deprived the weapons industry of gigantic profits. Peter Krte

in the Frankfurter Rundschau (1/24/92, p. 22) notes that President Kennedy "said

he would withdraw the troops from Vietnam if he was reelected," which is only

half the truth. The only German critic who even mentions NSAM 263, Rolf Paasch,

the American correspondent for the (Berlin) Tageszeitung, questions Stone's

"interpretation" of it:

"Whether his [JFK's] hints in 1963 about a withdrawal of US military advisers

from Vietnam really demonstrated the conversion of a Cold Warrior, as Stone

interprets on the basis of NSAM 263, cited in the film, or whether it was only

opportunistic rhetoric aimed at his liberal supporters, is unclear" (1/23/92, p.


Here we are presented with two alternatives: NSAM 263 demonstrates either that

Kennedy was a "converted Cold Warrior" or a xxxx. The possibility that he

remained a Cold Warrior who just didn't feel like sacrificing thousands of

American lives in Vietnam is not even considered. Why Paasch feels a clearly

expressed presidential policy directive can be characterized as a "hint," why it

requires "interpretation," and why he feels at liberty to question its

sincerity, he does not say. It is clear that he has done his research by relying

on the "interpretations" of American scholars like the ones we have discussed

rather than on the prima facie documentary evidence.

Der Spiegel mentions Kennedy's Vietnam policy in the form of a rhetorical

question: "In the weeks preceding the assassination, didn't he think about

withdrawing the advisers from Vietnam?" (12/16/92, p. 192). If presidents issued

NSAMs every time they "think about" something, the world would be a good deal

more confused than it is.

In a box entitled "Was It [the assassination] a Plot to Keep the U.S. in

Vietnam?" Time says that in Stone's movie Kennedy had "secret plans to withdraw

from Vietnam" (2/3/92, European ed., p. 63). There was nothing secret about the

White House statement on Oct. 2 or the press conference on Oct. 31, and the

confirmation of the withdrawal plan at the conference in Honolulu was reported

in the New York Times on Nov. 21, 1963. Certainly the withdrawal plan was not a

secret within the Kennedy administration.

Then, magnanimously offering to set the record straight by presenting "the

evidence," Time says:

"Kennedy confided to certain antiwar Senators that he planned to withdraw from

Vietnam if re-elected, but publicly he proclaimed his opposition to withdrawal.

In October 1963 he signed a National Security Action Memo--NSAM 263--that

ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 of the 16,000 or so U.S. military "advisers."

"After the assassination, Lyndon Johnson let the 1,000-man withdrawal proceed,

but it was diluted so that it involved mainly individuals due for rotation

rather than entire combat units. A few days after taking office, he signed a new

action memo--NSAM 273--that was tougher than a version Kennedy had been

considering; it permitted more extensive covert military actions against North

Vietnam. No one has come forward, however, with any direct knowledge of a

military or CIA conspiracy."

This is a good example of gray propaganda--the half-truth. Kennedy's "opposition

to withdrawal" is construed -- probably falsely -- from the September television

interviews. The second half of this truth is that Kennedy publicly proclaimed

the opposite--his intention to withdraw--in the Oct. 2 White House statement, of

which Time conveniently omits mention. Similarly, Time tells us only half of

what is in NSAM 263, leaving out the more important half, which implemented

Kennedy's plan to remove all US troops--not just 1,000--by the end of 1965.

What does the reference to Johnson's NSAM 273 as "tougher than a version Kennedy

had been considering" mean? If the "Kennedy version" was Bundy's Nov. 21 draft

of 273, this is wrong, because Kennedy never saw that draft, much less approved


Time acknowledges that Johnson "permitted more extensive covert military actions

against North Vietnam," but why not also acknowledge that these commando

operations later provoked the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which in turned

served--quite fraudulently, as even establishment commentators now admit--as the

basis for the congressional resolution that made Vietnam "our war," that is,

exactly what Kennedy said in the September interviews he wanted to avoid.

By leaving out the crucial information, Time has Johnson merely "diluting" the

1,000-man withdrawal and making "tougher" a plan that Kennedy "had been

considering." In other words, there was no policy reversal, and thus no

background to a possible conspiracy. But let us substitute the whole truth for

Time's half-truth, and then see what their conclusion would look like:

"[Johnson reversed Kennedy's plan to withdraw all US troops by the end of 1965

and] permitted more extensive covert military actions against North Vietnam. No

one has come forward, however, with any direct knowledge of a military or CIA


Now the last sentence makes sense, but it is not the sense that Time wanted to

convey. Time meant to tell us that 1) there was no policy reversal and thus no

reason to suspect a conspiracy, and 2) that there is no direct evidence of one.

The whole truth version tells us 1) that there was a policy reversal and thus

good reason to suspect a conspiracy, but 2) there is no direct evidence of one.

There is no excusing such obvious abuse of logic and the evidentiary record. It

has to be deliberate, since the writer obviously knows what is in the documents

he describes and chooses to omit certain crucial information. What reader who

bothers to read Time in the first place would suspect this? It is propaganda,

pure but not simple. It takes skill to write like this.

5. Fire from the left

Alexander Cockburn, a talented writer and normally reasonable columnist for The

Nation, was one of the first to condemn the Stone film. When it comes to the

assassination, the views of this "radical leftist" fall right in line with those

of the Establishment.

In his review of JFK, Cockburn says the question of conspiracy in the


"has as much to do with the subsequent contours of American politics as if he

had tripped over one of Caroline's dolls and broken his neck in the White House

nursery" (The Nation, 1/6- 13/92:6-7).

He doesn't even try to justify this point of view. He rejects the coup theory

out of hand, along with all conspiracy theories, and then rejects any possible

political significance of the assassination. The question is insignificant

because he thinks he knows the answer.

Cockburn fights dirty. He dismisses Scott's "yearning interpretation" of the

textual disparities between JFK's White House statement and Johnson's NSAM 273

but fails to mention the most important part of both of these documents--the

part referring to the troop withdrawals. The reader cannot know from Cockburn's

essay that either document mentions troop withdrawals or that this is a crucial

point in Scott's analysis.

Since Cockburn makes no mention of JFK's withdrawal decision, it is easy for him

to say there was "no change in policy" and call Scott's assertion to the

contrary "fantasizing," but this misrepresents the facts. Cockburn has read

Scott and he knows what is in the documents--not only in the first paragraphs,

which he quotes, but also in the third paragraph of the White House statement

and in the second paragraph of NSAM 273. These paragraphs refer to the

withdrawal plan. Cockburn omits any mention of them.

Ignoring this documentary evidence of October and November, Cockburn backtracks

to the spring of 1963 to argue with John Newman's "frequently repeated claim [in

his then unpublished book, JFK and Vietnam] that by February or March of 1963

JFK had decided to pull out of Vietnam once the 1964 election was won," a claim

for which Cockburn sees "an absence of any substantial evidence":

Newman's only sources for this are people to whom J.F.K. would, as a matter of

habitual political opportunism, have spoken in such terms, such as Senators Mike

Mansfield and Wayne Morse, both of whom, particularly the latter, were critical

of J.F.K.'sescalation in Vietnam.

There is no mention of Kenneth O'Donnell and Dave Powers, to whom Kennedy

repeatedly told the same thing he told Mansfield. Would Kennedy have been being

politically opportunistic with the most trusted members of his personal staff?

In a subsequent issue of The Nation (3/9/92:290,317-320), replying to letters

from Zachary Sklar, Peter Scott, and Michael Parenti, Cockburn repeats his claim

that there is no evidence to show that Kennedy had planned to withdraw as early

as the spring of 1963, "aside from some conversations recollected by men such as

Kennedy's political operative Kenny O'Donnell or Senators Wayne Morse and Mike

Mansfield." This means that either Kennedy was lying, or O'Donnell et al. were


The counterargument to these "lies" is Kennedy's "numerous statements to the

contrary. There were plenty of those." Cockburn mentions two--a statement in

July and his remarks in the Sept. 9 NBC interview. Newman explains these by

suggesting that "J.F.K. was dissembling, concealing his private thoughts,

throwing the hawks off track." Cockburn calls this "data-free surmises" and "a

willful credulity akin to religious mania."

Why is it "credulous" to suggest that JFK was dissembling? And if this is

"credulous," why is it less so to assume, as Cockburn does, that JFK was not

only dissembling, but outright lying, to O'Donnell et al.? JFK was much more

explicit in his reported remarks to O'Donnell and Powers than he was in the TV

interviews. Which would be the more likely place for a politician to

dissemble--in a TV interview or in a private conversation with his most trusted

personal advisers? Did JFK tell the absolute truth on TV and lie to his

advisers? Because Newman says the opposite, Cockburn says he is a religious

maniac. Is this rational?

The crucial point, however, which Cockburn totally ignores, is that Kennedy did

not wait for the 64 election as he said he would. He made the withdrawal

announcement on October 2, 1963, and implemented it with NSAM 263 on October 11.

Regardless of what he said publicly or privately in July or September, his

official policy in October was withdrawal.

Just as he fails to mention the crucial documents--the McNamara- Taylor report

and NSAM 263--in his article, in his reply to the letters Cockburn, like Time

magazine, fails to mention the most significant parts of both documents, which

is not the 1,000-man pullout by the end of 1963 but the total pullout by the end

of 1965. One cannot know, either from Time or from Cockburn, that Kennedy not

only wanted 1,000 men out in two months but everybody out in two years.

Cockburn then says the 1,000-man withdrawal was "proposed" by McNamara and

Taylor because "at that time they thought the war was going according to plan

and victory was in sight." He fails to say 1) that this proposal was implemented

nine days later by NSAM 263, and 2) that plenty of Kennedy's advisers were

telling him that the war was not going well.

Cockburn keeps putting the word "victory" in Kennedy's mouth, butthe question

Kennedy was facing was, Should we fight this war for the South Vietnamese or

not? If JFK's answer was no, what else could he have done than declare the

mission accomplished and withdraw? This is not "victory" in Cockburn's sense,

but most likely a ploy to get out without losing face. The alternative would

have been immediate, complete withdrawal, making it obvious to the world that

the US had abandoned an ally. But withdrawal by 1966 on the basis of having

accomplished a limited military objective (not "victory") would have been

politically tolerable. What else could he have said? "Sorry folks, I made a

terrible mistake in trying to support this dictatorial South Vietnamese regime

against their own people, so we're going home"? No. He had to say: "We've done

what we can and all we promised to do, but it's their war, so we're going home."

Kennedy was not an idiot, but he would have to have been an idiot to have been

deluded by "euphoric reports from the field," as Cockburn says he was. Many of

the reports Kennedy received were anything but euphoric, and the White House

statement of October 2 was not euphoric either:

The political situation in South Viet-Nam remains deeply serious. The United

States has made clear its continuing opposition to any repressive actions in

South Viet-Nam [by the Diem brothers]. While such actions have not yet

significantly affected the military effort, they could do so in the future.

Kennedy would have been a complete fool to have thought that "victory was in

sight," as Cockburn and others suggest.

The fact remains that deluded or not deluded, Kennedy decided to withdraw. One

can't have it both ways. One can't say that Kennedy was deluded into the

withdrawal decision because he thought we were winning, on the one hand, and

also say he didn't really mean it, that he was just playing politics. But this

is exactly what Cockburn says: "There were also domestic political reasons for

the adoption of such a course." What makes him think the political pressure to

withdraw was greater than the pressure to escalate? JFK's own Cabinet, the

Vice-President, the military, the CIA, and right-wing forces in Congress and in

the general population were against withdrawal. That is why he told O'Donnell et

al. that he should be re-elected before withdrawing, because he knew there was

substantial opposition to it. The situation in Vietnam deteriorated so badly in

the summer and fall, however, that he was forced to announce the withdrawal plan

probably earlier than he would have liked.

Cockburn says that when Kennedy discussed withdrawal "a qualifier was always

there." "Always" turns out to be on two occasions, neither of which supports the

point. The first is a quote from "one Pentagon official" (who?) as saying

(when?) that the withdrawal could begin "providing things go well"--as if what

some anonymous person said sometime somewhere could be taken as a "qualifier" to

what Kennedy thought or did in October 1963 or any other time. But time, as we

have already seen, is a minor factor in Cockburn's sense of history, and in the

next sentence we are taken back to the press conference on May 22, 1963, where

Kennedy said:

"We are hopeful that the situation in Vietnam would permit some withdrawal in

any case by the end of the year, but we can't possibly make that judgement at

the present time. There is a long hard struggle to go."

I suppose it is the words "hopeful" and "some" that Cockburn takes as

qualifiers. He fails to note, however, that October comes after May, or that

this fact has any significance. In October, McNamara and Taylor expressed

complete withdrawal not as a "hope" but as a belief:

"We believe that the U.S. part of the task can be completed by the end of 1965,

the terminal date which we are taking as the time objective of our

counterinsurgency programs" (NYT, Pentagon Papers, p. 213).

The second "qualifier" Cockburn cites is contained in "the minutes to the

discussion of NSAM 263." He gives no reference, but says these notes "have

J.F.K. saying the same thing"--that the withdrawal "should be carried out

routinely as part of our general posture of withdrawing people when they are no

longer needed." Even if Kennedy actually said this, it does not say the same

thing he said in May, nor does it "qualify" the withdrawal ordered by NSAM 263.

It is perfectly compatible with the "mission accomplished" posture. US troops

were indeed no longer "needed" (as in truth they never were) in Vietnam unless

they were going to fight the South Vietnamese's war for them, which NSAM 263 is

clearly intended to prevent.

"And in implementing the withdrawal order," Cockburn continues, still apparently

quoting from these anonymous minutes, "J.F.K. directed that 'no further

reductions in U.S. strength would be made until the requirements of the 1964

[military] campaign were clear.'" But again, why does this "qualify" the

withdrawal policy? The withdrawal was to be phased over the next two years and

obviously would have to be done with consideration for the troops that would

remain in country in the meantime. Instead of trying to support this foolish

innuendo, Cockburn jumps back into his time machine to finish the paragraph:

"Remember that already by the end of 1961 J.F.K. had made the decisive initial

commitment to military intervention, and that a covert campaign of terror and

sabotage against the North was similarly launched under his aegis."

We cannot discuss NSAM 263, in other words, without remembering 1961, but who is

suggesting that Kennedy's Vietnam policy was the same in 1961 as it was in late

1963? Mr. Cockburn. The truth is that Kennedy changed his mind and reversed his

policy--from buildup to withdrawal--and after the assassination Johnson reversed

it again. Cockburn implies that the "decisive initial commitment" was, though

only "initial," also "decisive," that is, permanent. But Cockburn himself refers

to NSAM 263 as "implementing the withdrawal order." How can the initial

commitment in 1961 have been "decisive" if the opposite decision was implemented

in October 1963?

In the following paragraph Cockburn again quotes an Administration official to

represent what Kennedy supposedly thought, though this time at least the

official is identified:

"On November 13, 1963, The New York Times published an interview with Michael

Forrestal, a senior member of Kennedy's National Security Council, in which he

said, 'It would be folly...at the present time' to pursue 'a negotiated

settlement between North and South Vietnam.'"

To buttress this statement, Cockburn then quotes "J.F.K. himself" in his press

conference the next day:

"We do have a new situation there, and a new government, we hope, an increased

effort in the war....Now, that is our object, to bring Americans home, permit

the South Vietnamese to maintain themselves as a free and independent country,

and permit democratic forces within the country to operate--which they can of

course, much more freely when the assault from the inside, and which is

manipulated from the North, is ended. So the purpose of the meeting in Honolulu

is how to pursue these objectives."

Cockburn's interpretation:

"Thus, J.F.K. was defining victory--to be followed by withdrawal of U.S.

"advisers"--as ending the internal Communist assault in the South, itself

manipulated from the North."

Again the word "victory," which is Cockburn's. The order of priorities--victory,

then withdrawal--is also Cockburn's, not Kennedy's. The first objective Kennedy

mentions is to bring Americans home. The last point is added almost as an

afterthought: of course it would be better if the support of the North for the

insurrection in the South could be ended. But it was clear to everyone,

especially after the Buddhist uprisings in the summer, that the insurrection

would continue even without support from the North unless post-Diem leadership

emerged that the South Vietnamese themselves would be willing to fight for. This

is what Kennedy meant when he said "We do have new situation there." The hope he

expressed for "an increased effort in the war" was for an increased effort by

the South Vietnamese!

Cockburn is implying the opposite--that Kennedy hoped for an increased war

effort by the US, and that this was to be the topic of the Honolulu conference.

There is no basis for this assumption. Apparently, there is still no reliable

record of that conference, which is strange. Scott's conclusion, based on

contemporary news reports and references to the meeting in the Pentagon Papers,

is that the Accelerated Withdrawal Plan was confirmed, i.e. the reduction in

military aid and troop withdrawals implemented by NSAM 263 on Oct. 11. Cockburn

tells us the opposite:

As Newman acknowledges, the upshot of the Honolulu meeting was that for "the

first time" the "shocking deterioration of the war was presented in detail to

those assembled, along with a plan to widen the war, while the 1,000-man

withdrawal was turned into a meaningless paper drill.

The question appears unresolved. What was decided at Honolulu--to continue

withdrawal or "widen the war"? In fact, Johnson's NSAM 273 did both--continued

the withdrawal plan and increased covert military operations, but only the first

of these contradictory policies was included in Kennedy's NSAM 263. That is what

counts, especially since we do not know what happened at Honolulu, and there is

no evidence that Kennedy knew either. In any case, he did not change his policy

between Oct. 11 (NSAM 263) and Nov. 22.

Cockburn's next argument is based on McGeorge Bundy's draft of NSAM 273:

"The next day [after the Honolulu conference, i.e. Nov. 21], back in the White

House, Bundy put the grim conclusions of the meeting into the draft language of

NSAM 237 [sic; presumably 273], which, as he told Newman in 1991, he 'tried to

bring...in line with the words that Kennedy might want to say.'"

Cockburn assumes that Bundy's draft, whose first paragraph is almost identical

with the first paragraph of Johnson's NSAM 273, proves that Kennedy would have

said the same thing Johnson did. But there are several obvious questions he

should be asking.

First, why has this document, along with the other documents issuing from the

Honolulu conference, remained classified so long? Second, why would Bundy draft

the text of an important policy directive based on the results of a meeting

which he had not yet even discussed yet with the president?

It is quite wrong to assume that Kennedy would have approved the language of

this draft just because Bundy thinks he would have. Cockburn forgets that we are

talking here about the possibility of a coup d'tat. Bundy's motives and

credibility are at least as suspect as Johnson's. He was a hawk on Vietnam from

the word go and thus in the same camp as Johnson, Rusk, McNamara, and CIA

director McCone. He had strong ties with the CIA through his brother William and

his former professor at Yale, Richard Bissell, the CIA Director of Operations

Kennedy fired after the Bay of Pigs, and through his job as National Security

Adviser. As the president's personal liaison with the Director of Central

Intelligence, who in turn represented the entire intelligence community, Bundy

was the highest national security official to survive the presidential

"transition"--the only person in a position under both Kennedy and Johnson to

know all the nation's secrets. In short, if it was a coup, Bundy must have been

in on it. If indeed he wrote the draft of NSAM on Nov. 21 (i.e., if it is not a

falsification to confuse the "record"), he may have written it for Johnson.

Cockburn doesn't hesitate to call Kennedy a xxxx, but he takes Johnson at his

word. Johnson said about his first presidential conference on Vietnam on Nov.

24, 1963, two days after the assassination:

Most of the advisers agreed that we could begin withdrawing some of our advisers

by the end of the year and a majority of them by the end of 1965.

Cockburn thinks this proves that "J.F.K. in the last days of his Administration,

and L.B.J. in the first days of his, defined victory in the same terms, and both

were under similar illusions." LBJ, whom O'Donnell, for example, portrays as a

bald-faced xxxx on several occasions, could not possibly be lying! Again

Cockburn puts the word "victory" in Kennedy's mouth, and ignores the question

astutely raised by Scott: If there was no change of policy, why was Vietnam so

important that it was the first order of business of the new president? If

Johnson was under "similar illusions" as Kennedy, why did he say in his memoirs

that he "felt a national security meeting was essential at the earliest possible

moment" (quoted by Scott, p. 224)? This meeting was held on Sunday, Nov. 24, but

Scott points out that according to the Pentagon Papers and the New York Times

there was an even earlier meeting with McNamara, on Saturday morning, where a

memo was discussed in which

"Mr. McNamara said that the new South Vietnamese government was confronted by

serious financial problems, and that the U.S. must be prepared to raise planned

MAP [Military Assistance Plan] levels" (Scott, p. 225, quoting the Gravel


First, this does not seem to be what was decided in Honolulu, where according to

the New York Times the Accelerated Withdrawal Plan was finalized. Secondly, if

this is what was decided in Honolulu, why did McNamara wait two full days

without discussing it with Kennedy and discuss it with Johnson the morning after

the assassination? Scott's conclusion that the withdrawal policy was in fact

reversed immediately after the assassination clarifies both points.

Johnson's opinion on Vietnam was no different on Nov. 23 or 24 from what it was

on August 31, 1963, when he said that "it would be a disaster to pull out...we

should once again go about winning the war" (Pentagon Papers, NYT, p. 205). This

was also Bundy's, Rusk's, and McNamara's position. Kennedy was practically a

minority of one in the upper echelons of his own Administration, as Maxwell

Taylor has written. But as long as he was boss, his view prevailed. The

McNamara-Taylor report Of Oct. 2, 1963, according to Fletcher Prouty, did not

represent McNamara's view at all, and was not even written by him. It was

written at the Pentagon according to Kennedy's wishes and handed over to

McNamara and Taylor in Honolulu when they stopped there on their way back from

Saigon, so that they could then hand it to the president in Washington as

"their" report.

With Kennedy out of the picture, the hawks took over, reversing the withdrawal

policy while maintaining the appearance of continuity.

Noam Chomsky is another radical leftist who is vehemently opposed to what he

calls the "withdrawal thesis" ("Vain Hopes, False Dreams," Z, Oct. 1992). Like

Cockburn, Chomsky says there no withdrawal plan, only a "withdrawal on condition

of victory" plan, and that arguments to the contrary are nothing more than JFK

"hagiography." His argument is more rigorous than Cockburn's, but equally false.

First, it is wrong to assume that all biographers and assassination researchers

are JFK hagiographers. One need not deny that Kennedy was as ruthless a cold

warrior as any other president to acknowledge that he had decided to withdraw

from Vietnam. Reagan's decision to withdraw from Lebanon doesn't make him a

secret dove either.

Second, the withdrawal "thesis" is not a thesis but a fact, amply documented in

the Gravel edition of the Pentagon Papers, as already discussed. Since Chomsky

himself co-edited Vol. 5, it is surprising that he finds this fact so difficult

to acknowledge.

The thesis which Chomsky, like Cockburn, is actually arguing against is his own

formulation: that JFK wanted "withdrawal without victory." It is true that

according to the record, the withdrawal plan was predicated on the assumption of

military success. Chomsky, however, understands this as a condition. This is

wrong. There is a substantial difference between saying "The military campaign

is progressing well, and we should be able to withdraw by the end of 1965,"

which is how I read the McNamara- Taylor report and Kennedy's confirmation of it

in NSAM 263, and "If we win the war, we will withdraw," which is how Chomsky

reads the same documents. We do not know what Kennedy may have secretly wanted

or what he would have done if he had he lived. Whether he really believed the

war was going well, as the record states, or privately knew it was not, as

Newman contends, is also unknowable. What we do know, from the record, Chomsky

notwithstanding, is that Johnson reversed the withdrawal policy sometime between

December 1963 and March 1964.

The point, again, is crucial. If one manages to say, as Chomsky and Cockburn and

the other authors discussed here do, that in truth there was no change in

policy, that in fact there never was a withdrawal policy but only a policy of

escalation and victory (until after Tet), it means that Johnson and Nixon simply

continued what Kennedy started. This, in turn, means that the question of the

relation of the policy change (since there wasn't one) to the assassination does

not arise.

If, however, one states the facts correctly, the question is unavoidable.

Exactly when Johnson reversed the policy, and whether he did so because

conditions changed, or because perceptions of conditions changed, or for

whatever reason, is beside the point. Why avoid the straightforward formulation,

which is nothing but a summary of the PP Gravel account: JFK thought we were

winning, so he planned to withdraw; Johnson decided that we weren't, so he

killed the plan.

The reason is clear. Once you admit that there was a radical policy change in

the months following the assassination, whether that change was a reaction to a

(presumed) change in conditions or not, you must ask if the change was related

to the assassination. Then, like it or not, you are into conspiracy theory, and

conspiracy theory is anathema to the leftist or neo-Marxian tradition

represented by Cockburn and Chomsky. There are historical reasons for this, of

course, since conspiracy theories have been notoriously exploited by the fascist

right. Nevertheless, it is as wrong to identify all conspiracy theories with the

likes of Hitler and Goebbels as it is to identify Marxist theories with the

likes of Stalin and Erich Honecker.

There is an alternative view. In this view, one accepts the fact of the policy

change, but denies that it had anything to do with the assassination. It was

mere coincidence that the policy change followed the assassination. This is a

tenable position, but one that few seem comfortable with, and for a good reason:

it is ludicrously naive. Nevertheless, it has apparently become Arthur

Schlesinger's position, who reads Johnson's NSAM 273 as "reversing the Kennedy

withdrawal policy" ("JFK: Truth and Fiction," Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10,

1992). But, he adds, to connect the policy reversal with the assassination, as

Stone and Garrison do, is "reckless, paranoid, really despicable fantasy..."

Despite Schlesinger's hysterical denials, the policy reversal is the most

plausible motive for the assassination. Thus the biggest lie--the Lone Nut

theory of history--requires another one: there was no policy reversal. It is

astonishing that so many commentators of diverse political stripes have

succumbed to this imperative.


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The following chronology is from The Senator Gravel Edition of

the Pentagon Papers, Volume II, pages 165-172. It is part of the

section titled: "Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964" and

provides a rough (though incomplete) outline of the genesis and

evolution of the "1000 man" withdrawal plan.

This chronology should be examined in conjunction with the

following sections also found in Vol II of Gravel: "U.S.--GVN

Relations, 1964-1967" (esp pages 277-325) and "The Advisory

Buildup, 1961-1967" (esp pages 408-456) in order to obtain a more

complete picture of events and decisions.

Anyone interested in further information related to this

material, please feel free to contact me at 71301,527 Compuserve.

October 20, 1993. David T. Fuhrmann.

23 July 62 Geneva Accords on Laos

14-Nation declaration on the neutrality of Laos.

23 July 62 Sixth Secretary of Defense Conference, Honolulu.

Called to examine present and future developments

in South Vietnam--which looked good. Mr. McNamara

initiated immediate planning for the phase-out of

U.S. military involvement by 1965 and development

of a program to build a GVN military capability

strong enough to take over full defense

responsibilities by 1965

26 July 62 JCS Message to CINCPAC

CINCPAC was formally instructed to develop a

"Comprehensive plan for South Vietnam" (CPSVN) in

line with instructions given at Honolulu.

14 Aug 62 CINCPAC Message to MACV

MACV was directed to draw up a CPSVN designed to

ensure GVN military and para-military strength

commensurate with its sovereign responsibilities.

The CPSVN was to assume the insurgency would be

under control in three years, that extensive US

support would be available during the three-year

period; that those items essential to development

of full RVNAF capability would be (largely)

available through the military assistance program


Oct-Nov. GVN National Campaign Plan developed 1962

In addition to the CPSVN, MACV prepared an outline

for an integrated, nationwide offensive military

campaign to destroy the insurgency and restore GVN

control in South Vietnam. The concept was adopted

by the GVN in November.

26 Nov 62 Military Reorganization Decreed

Diem ordered realignment of military chain of

command, reorganization of RVNAF, establishment of

four CTZ's and a Joint Operations Center to

centralize control over current military

operations. (JOC became operational on 20 December


7 Dec 62 First Draft of CPSVN Completed

CINCPAC disapproved first draft because of high

costs and inadequate training provisions.

19 Jan 63 MACV Letter to CINCPAC, 3010 Ser 0021

MACV submitted a revised CPSVN. Extended through

FY 1968 and concurred in by the Ambassador, it

called for GVN military forces to peak at 458,000

in FY 1964 (RVNAF strength would be 230,900 in FY

1964); cost projected over six years would total

$978 million.

22 Jan 63 OSD (ISA) Message to CINCPAC

MAP-Vietnam dollar guide lines issued. Ceilings

considerably different from and lower than those


25 Jan 63 CINCPAC Letter to JCS, 1010, Ser 0079

Approved the CPSVN, supported and justified the

higher MAP costs projected by it.

7 Mar 63 JCSM 190-63

JCS recommended SecDef approve the CPSVN;

supporting the higher MAP costs, JCS proposed

CPSVN be the basis for revision of FY 1964 MAP and

development of FY 1965-69 program

20 Mar 63 USMACV "Summary of Highlights, 9 Feb 62-7 Feb 63"

Reported continuing, growing RVNAF effectiveness,

increased GVN strength economically and

politically. The strategic hamlet program looked

especially good. MACV forecast winning the

military Phase in 1963-barring "greatly increased"

VC reinforcement and resupply.

17 Apr 63 NlE 53-63

Although "fragile," the situation in SVN did not

appear serious; general progress was reported in

most areas.

6 May 63 Seventh SecDef Honolulu Conference

Called to [word illegible] the CPSVN. Largely

because of prevailing optimism over Vietnam, Mr.

McNamara found the CPSVN assistance too costly,

the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces too slow and

RVNAF development misdirected.

8 May 63 Two SecDef Memoranda for ASD/ISA

First: Directed joint ISA/JCS development of plans

to replace US forces with GVN troops as soon as

possible and to plan the withdrawal of 1,000 US

troops by the end of 1963. Second: Requested the

Office, Director of Military Assistance, ISA,

"completely rework" the MAP program recommended in

the CPSVN and submit new guidelines by 1 Sept. The

Secretary felt CPSVN totals were too high (e.g.,

expenditures proposed for FY's 1965-68 could be

cut by $270 Million in his view).

9 May 63 Buddhist Crisis Begins

GVN forces fired on worshipers celebrating

Buddha's birthday (several killed, more wounded)

for no good cause. Long standing antipathy toward

GVN quickly turned into active opposition.

9 May 63 JCS Message 9820 to CINCPAC

Directed CINCPAC to revise the CPSVN and program

the with-drawal of 1,000 men by the end of 1963.

Force reduction was to be by US units (not

individuals); units were to be replaced by

specially trained RVNAF units. Withdrawal plans

were to be contingent upon continued progress in

the counterinsurgency campaign.

1 May 63 CINCPAC Letter to JCS, 3010 Ser 00447-63

CINCPAC recommended some changes, then approved

MACV's revision of the CPSVN and the MACV plan for

withdrawal of 1,000 men. As instructed, those

1,000 men were drawn from logistic and service

support slots; actual operations would be

unaffected by their absence.

7 May 63 ASD/ISA Memorandum for the Secretary

ISA's proposed MAP-Vietnam program based on the

Secretary's instructions was rejected as still too


9 May 63 OSD/ISA Message to CINCPAC

CINCPAC was directed to develop three alternative

MAP plans for FYs 1965-69 based on these levels:

$585 M (CPSVN recommendation) $450 M (Compromise)

$365 M (SecDef goal) MAP for FY 1964 had been set

at $180 M.

6 Jun 63 GVN-Buddhist Truce (State Airgram A-781 to Embassy

Saigon, 10 June)

Reflected temporary and tenuous abatement of

GVN-Buddhist hostilities which flared up in May.

The truce was repudiated almost immediately by

both sides. Buddhist alienation from the GVN

polarized; hostilities spread.

7 Jul 63 DIA Intelligence Summary

Reported the military situation was unaffected by

the political crisis; GVN prospects for continued

counterinsurgency progress were "certainly better"

than in 1962; VC activity was reduced but VC

capability essentially unimpaired.

8 Jul 63 CINCPAC-proposed MAP program submitted to JCS

CINCPAC suggested military assistance programs at

the three levels set by the JCS but recommended

adoption of a fourth Plan developed by CINCPAC.

"Plan J" totalled $450.9 M over the five year


4 Aug 63 DIA lntelligence Bulletin

Rather suddenly, Viet Cong offensive actions were

reported high for the third consecutive week; the

implication was that the VC were capitalizing on

the political crisis and might step up the


14 Aug 63 SACSA Memorandum for the Secretary

Discounted the importance of increased VC

activity; the comparative magnitude of attacks was

low; developments did not yet seem salient or


20 Aug 63 Diem declared martial law; ordered attacks on

Buddhism pagodas.

This decree plus repressive measures against the

Buddhists shattered hopes of reconciliation, and

irrevocably isolated the Diem government.

20 Aug 63 JCSM 629-63

CINCPAC/MACV proposed plan for l,000-man

withdrawal in three to four increments for

planning purposes only; recommended final decision

on withdrawal be delayed until October.

21 Aug 63 Director, DIA Memorandum for SecDef

Estimated that Diem's acts will have "serious

repercussions throughout SVN: foresaw more coup

and counter-coup activity But reported military

operations were so far unaffected by these events.

27 Aug 63 JCSM 640-63

JCS added yet a fifth "Model M" Plan to CINCPAC's

four alternative MAP levels. Providing for higher

force levels termed necessary by the JCS, the

Model M total was close to $400 M. JCS recommended

the Model M Plan be approved.

30 Aug 63 OSD/ISA Memorandum for the Secretary

Recommended approval of JCSM 629-63. But noted

many "units" to be withdrawn were ad hoc creations

of expendable support personnel, cautioned that

public reaction to "phony" withdrawal would be

damaging: suggested actual strength and authorized

ceiling levels be publicized and monitored.

3 Sep 63 SecDef Memorandum to CJCS

Approved JCSM-629-63. Advised JCS against creating

special units as a means to cut back unnecessary

personnel; requested the projected US strength

figures through 1963.

5 Sep 63 ASD/ISA Memorandum to the Secretary

Concurred in JCS recommendation with minor

reservations the Model M Plan for military

assistance to SVN be approved.

6 Sep 63 SecDef Memorandum for CJCS

Approved Model M Plan as the basis for FY 65-69

MAP planning; advised that US materiel turned over

to RVNAF must be charged to and absorbed by the

authorized Model M Plan ceilings.

11 Sep 63 CJCS Memorandum for SecDef

Forwarded the military strength figures (August

thru December) to SecDef; advised that the

l,000-man withdrawal would be counted against the

peak October strength (16,732). First increment

was scheduled for withdrawal in November, the rest

in December.

21 Sep 63 Presidential Memorandum for the SecDef

Directed McNamara and Taylor (CJCS) to personally

assess the critical situation in SVN--both

political and military; to determine what GVN

action was required for change and what the US

should do to produce such action.

7 Sep 63 ASD/ISA (ODMA) "MAP Vietnam: Manpower and

Financial Summary"

Approved MAP totals reflected the Model M Plan: FY

1964 = $180.6 M and FY 1965-69 = $211.6 M. TOTAL

= $392.2 Million

The GVN force levels proposed were substantially

below those of the January CPSVN (from a peak

strength in FY 1964 of 442,500, levels were to

fall to 120,200 in FY 1969).

26 Sep- SecDef/CJCS Mission to South Vietnam

2 Oct 63 Positive detailed evidence presented in numerous

briefings indicated conditions were good and would

improve. Hence, the Secretary ordered acceleration

of the planned U.S. force phase-out.

3 Oct 63 McNamara-Taylor Briefing for the President, and

later, the NSC.

Concluded the military campaign has made great

progress and continues to progress, but warned

that further Diem-Nhu repression could change the

"present favorable military trends."

3 Oct 63 McNamara-Taylor met with President and NSC

The President approved the military

recommendations made by the Secretary and


--that MACV and Diem review changes necessary to

complete the military campaign in I, II, and III

Corps by the end of 1964, in IV Corps by 1965:

--that a training program be established to enable

RVNAF to take over military functions from the US

by the end of 1965 when the bulk of US personnel

could be withdrawn:

--that DOD informally announce plans to withdraw

1,000 men by the end of 1963.

no further reductions in US strength would be made

until requirements of the 1964 campaign were


11 Oct 63 NSAM 263

Approved the military recommendations contained in

the McNamara-Taylor Report; directed no formal

announcement be made of implementation of plans to

withdraw 1,000 men by the end of 1963.

11 Oct 63 State Department INR Memo RFE-90

Assessed trends since July 1963 as evidence of an

unfavorable shift in military balance. (This was

one or the first indications that all was not as

rosy as MACV et al had led McNamara and Taylor to


1 Nov 63 Diem Government Overthrown

The feared political chaos, civil war and collapse

of the war (not materialize immediately; US

Government was uncertain as what the new

circumstances meant. General Minh headed the junta

responsible for the coup.

20 Nov 63 All-agency Conference on Vietnam, Honolulu

Ambassador Lodge assessed prospects as hopeful;

recommended US continue the policy of eventual

military withdrawal from SVN; said announced

l,000-man withdrawal was having salutary effects.

MACV agreed. In this light, officials agreed that

the Accelerated Plan (speed-up of force withdrawal

by six months directed by McNamara in October)

should be maintained. McNamara wanted MAP spending

held close to OSD's $175.5 million ceiling

(because of acceleration, a FY 64 MAP of $187.7

million looked possible).

22 Nov 63 President Kennedy Assassinated

One result: US Government policies in general were

maintained for the sake of continuity, to allow

the new administration time settle and adjust.

This tendency to reinforce existing policies

arbitrarily, just to keep them going, extended the

phase-out, withdrawal and MAP concepts--probably

for too long.

23 Nov 63 SecDef Memorandum for the President

Calling GVN political stability vital to the war

and calling attention to GVN financial straits,

the Secretary said the US must prepared to

increase aid to Saigon. Funding well above current

MAP plans was envisaged.

26 Nov 63 NSAM 273

President Johnson approved recommendations to

continue current policy toward Vietnam put forward

at the 20 November Honolulu meeting: reaffirmed US

objectives on withdrawal.

3 Dec 63 [material missing]

Region/ISA Memorandum for the ASD/ISA [words

missing] nam developments, for a "fresh new look"

at the problem, second echelon leaders outlined a

broad interdepartmental "Review the South Vietnam

Situation." This systematic effort did not

culminate in high level national reassessment of

specific policy re-orientation.

5 Dec 63 CINCPAC Message to JCS

Submitted the Accelerated Model Plan version of

CPSVN. From a total of 15,200 in FY 1964, US

military strength in Vietnam would drop to 11,500

in FY 1965 (vs 13,100 recommended by the Model M

Plan), to about 3,200 in FY 1966 and 2,600 in FY

1967. GVN force levels were a bit lower but GVN

force build-up a bit faster than recommended by

the Model M Plan. MAP costs for FYs 1965-1969

totalled $399.4 million (vice $392.2 million under

Model M Plan).

11 Dec 63 CM 1079-63 for SecDef

The adjusted year-end strength figure was 15,394.

Although 1,000 men were technically withdrawn, no

actual reduction of US strength was achieved. The

December figure was not 1,000 less than the peak

October level.

13 Dec 63 Director, DIA Memorandum for the Secretary

Reported the VC had improved combat effectiveness

and force posture during 1963, that VC capability

was unimpaired. (Quite a different picture had

been painted by SACSA in late October "An Overview

of the Vietnam War, 1960-1963," personally

directed to the Secretary, was a glowing account

of steady military progress.)

30 Jan 64 Second Coup in Saigon

General Minh's military regime was replaced by a

junta headed by General Khanh.

10, 11, 14, Dep Director, CIA Memo for SecDef, SecState, etc

19 Feb 64 Suspicious of progress reports, CIA sent a special

group to "look at" South Vietnam. Its independent

evaluation revealed a serious and steadily

deteriorating GVN situation. Vietcong gains and,

significantly, the quality and quantity of VC arms

had increased. The Strategic Hamlet Program was

"at virtual standstill." The insurgency tide

seemed to be "going against GVN" in all four


6 Mar 64 Eighth SecDef Conference on Vietnam, Honolulu

Participants agreed that the military situation

was definitely deteriorating, that insurgency

would probably continue beyond 1965, that the US

must immediately determine what had to be done to

make up for the setback(s).

9-16 MAR 64 McNamara/Taylor Trip to Vietnam

Personally confirmed the gravity of the Vietnam


16 Mar 64 SecDef Memorandum for the President: "Report on

Trip to Vietnam"

Mr. McNamara reported the situation was

"unquestionably" worse than in September. (RVNAF

desertion rates were up: GVN military position was

weak and the Vietcong, with increased NVN support,

was strong.) Concluding that more US support was

necessary, the Secretary made twelve

recommendations. These included:

--More economic assistance, military training,

equipment and advisory assistance, as needed.

--Continued high-level US overflights of GVN

borders; authorization for "hot pursuit" and

ground operations in Laos.

--prepare to initiate--on 72 hours' notice--Laos

and Cambodia border control operations and

retaliatory action against North Vietnam.

--Make plans to initiate--on 30 days' notice--a

"program of Graduated Overt Military Pressures"

against North Vietnam.

Mr. McNamara called the policy of reducing

existing Us personnel where South Vietnamese could

assume their functions "still sound" but said no

major reductions could be expected in the near

future. He felt US training personnel could be

substantially reduced before the end of 1965.

17 Mar 64 NSAM 299

The President approved the twelve recommendations

presented by Mr. McNamara and directed all

agencies concerned to carry them out promptly.

[material missing]

forces was superseded by the policy of providing

South Vietnam assistance and support as long as

required to bring aggression and terrorism under

control (as per NSAM 288).

6 May 64 CINCPAC Message to MACV

Indicated growing US military commitment: this

1500-man augmentation raised the total authorized

level to 17,000.

1-2 Jun 64 Special Meeting on Southeast Asia, Honolulu

Called in part to examine the GVN National

Campaign Plan---which was failing. The conferees

agreed to increase RVNAF effectiveness by

extending and intensifying the US advisory efforts

as MACV recommended.

25 Jun 64 MACV/ Message 325390 to JCS

Formal MACV request for 900 additional advisory

personnel. His justification for advisors at the

battalion level and for more advisors at district

and sector levels was included. Also, 80 US

advisors were requested to establish a Junk Force

and other maritime counterinsurgency measures.

4 Jul 64 ClNCPAC Message to JCS

CINCPAC recommended approval of the MACV proposal

for intensification of US advisory efforts.

15 Jul 64 Saigon EMBTEL 108

Ambassador Taylor reported that revised VC

strength estimates now put the enemy force between

28,000 and 34,000. No cause for alarm, he said the

new estimate did demonstrate the magnitude of the

problem and the need to raise the level of US-GVN

efforts. Taylor thought a US strength increase to

21,000 by the end of the year would be sufficient.

16 Jul 64 MACV Message 6180 to CINCPAC

MACV requested 3,200 personnel to support the

expansion (by 900) of US advisory efforts--or

4,200 more men over the next nine months.

17 Ju1 64 EMBTEL

Ambassador Taylor concurred in MACV's proposed

increase, recommended prompt approval and action.

21 Jul 64 State 205 to Saigon

Reported presidential approval (at the 21 July NSC

meeting) the MACV deployment package.

I have no links to these above ,they are from my collection....

I also have only the one page for NSAM 263......

B..... B)

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Bernice :) you never cease to amaze me, were you up all night working on that? If not, it certainly took more than "a little while."

Some things that I consider about the 1,000 man withdrawal order, and the general controversy over the JCOS, JFK's advisor's and the Vietnam policy in itself......

Whenever a controversial issue re the assassination comes up as a media point/counterpoint such as the Newman, P. D. Scott versus Chomsky debate over Vietnam, the very format itself, provides a steamroller over any arguments no matter who well documented they are......The 1,000 man withdrawal was tenuous to being with because the issue was never resolved, and is left to endless debate over facts. The critics of conspiracy are aided by the fact that government officials will always line up on their side, McNamara is something of an exception.

Next, much is made of, and should be I might add, of the voluminous amount of missing documents, Vietnam related documents are no exception. One only has to flip through JFK & Vietnam to see numerous examples of this.

I spent a considerable amount of time reading Newman's book on JFK and there were many very important events that he chronicled, but there is no point in reposting excerpts from the book, on the Forum. Which is not to say that the information in it is not being utilized. I assure you it is.

PS Bernice, keep on top of the Operation Valkyrie thread for posts that will address this topic, in one way or another.

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Your welcome Robert...

It did not take me long, lucky this time, the info came up quickly.....as it was within my collections, which I call

the "dungeons" where I spend much time...

I will try to stay on top of the Operation Valkyrie thread, for further information.....

The withdrawl as you comment, was never resolved, that was made positively impossible.....

and though it has been found that LBJ announced he would be going along with such after the

assassination, I believe it was by March that had changed....drastically..

This below is also an older thread on this Forum.....which I find of interest..

The Vietnam War and the Assassination of JFK


Take care......

B.... :)

Below LBJ Nam 5.31.68

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I know Prouty in his book addressed this NSAM and [if memory serves] stated it was altered after JFK's death [the original was subsituted with a changed backdated version....I'll try to check this again when I have time - maybe he was talking about another document changed and backdated after JFKs death..my memory is out of space.] Douglass also has good info on all this, generally. Amazing stuff - good work Bernice!...the more more one learns of JFK's intentions and thoughts, within the Liberal views he held he was on the left side and moving more so.....that is why, IMO, the right felt he had to 'go'. And they got him. That LBJ reversed this important policy decision two days after his death is SO telling.....! [i guess he was too busy on Friday changing his stock holdings...and Saturday crying crocodile tears.]

I think there is this general perception that Newman's book JFK and Vietnam suffered some type of credibility problem, after Chomsky's Rethinking Camelot and the subsequent very public debate came about.

Nothing could be more in error.

The book is a masterpiece, and there is one very pertinent point that is very revealing....

I have mentioned a few times that while Vietnam and Cuba are the big foreign policy/military theaters associated with the Kennedy Administration, the first and most critical area with regards to Kennedy's administration is Laos. In fact the Laos crisis could be argued to be ultimately more important than Vietnam, or more aptly phrased, the precursor to why victory in Vietnam was such an impossibility.

Because what became the supply line that was the North Vietnamese indestructable weapons/supply chain ie Ho Chi Minh Trail at the height of the Vietnam war, would never had existed, or rather, would not have been as large a conduit, if the Pathet Lao, [allied with the NVC] had not taken over Laos in the 1961 crisis. The JCOS and practically the entire group of "hawks" was soliciting Kennedy to act forcefully, the underlying analogy is sort of like comparing the dynamic of Kennedy, the hawks and the ever present military intervention attempts urged upon JFK to the dynamics of alcoholism. Just substitute alcoholism for massive intervention, and the phrase staring you in the face becomes the key phrase, to be more specific, from practically day one, the use of ground troops in SE Asia/Vietnam is a not so subtle goal of the hawks, this is what was, I would argue, continually staring JFK in the face. Military intervention was presented as the solution to the Laos crisis in something known as SEATO-5, at the high end of that scale was massive intervention and the advocated use of nuclear weapons.

JFK did not intervene in the sense of sending in ground troops,it could be argued that this alone created enough enmity between the hawks and JFK that from that point on, everything from there on out is an afterthought. But that is an opinion of mine and not a fact.

It is certainly not a mainstream history consensus.

See JFK and Vietnam pages 49-54

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The precursop to Op Phoenix is also worth looking at. I think the focus on Laos is quite correct, very much so, as is a look at LBJ's ''directive'' to the German Chancellor during his visit to LBJ's ranch in Dec '63, seemingly aimed at freeing up more resources for a fous on Asia.

As well even the Algerian issue, because at this time France and Germany in a sense were at a kind of undeclared war, and both were essential to US aims in a number of spheres..

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The precursop to Op Phoenix is also worth looking at. I think the focus on Laos is quite correct, very much so, as is a look at LBJ's ''directive'' to the German Chancellor during his visit to LBJ's ranch in Dec '63, seemingly aimed at freeing up more resources for a fous on Asia.

As well even the Algerian issue, because at this time France and Germany in a sense were at a kind of undeclared war, and both were essential to US aims in a number of spheres..

Thanks for that, I'm inclined to agree. Adenauer retired in early October 1963, around the 10th.

There is one curious item I ran across that involves General Edward Lansdale, he retired on November 1, 1963 and came back out of retirement during the Johnson Administration.

Here are two obituaries:


Retired November 1, 1963. Died February 23, 1987.

Major General Edward G. Lansdale was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1908, the second of the four sons of Sarah Frances Philips of California and Henry Lansdale of Virginia. After schooling in Michigan, New York and California, he attended the University of California at Los Angeles where he earned his way largely by writing for newspapers and magazines. He soon found his way into the better paying field of advertising in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In World War II, he served with the Office of Strategic Services and later was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1943, serving in various military intelligence assignments throughout the war. After several wartime promotions, he was transferred to Headquarters Air Forces Western Pacific as a major in 1945, where he became chief of the Intelligence Division.

He extended his tour to remain in the Philippines at AFWESPAC, and later PHILRYCOM, until 1948. During this period, he helped the Philippine Army rebuild its intelligence services, was responsible for the disposition of unresolved cases of large numbers of prisoners of war involving many nationalities, conducted numerous studies to assist the U.S. and Philippines Governments in learning the effects of World War II on the Philippines, and later served as public information officer for PHILRYCOM.

He was commissioned a Captain in the regular U.S. Air Force in 1947, with the temporary rank of major. After leaving the Philippines in 1948, he served as an instructor at the Strategic Intelligence School, Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado, where he received a temporary promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in 1949. In 1950, at the personal request of President Elpidio Quirino, he was transferred to Joint United States Military Assistance Group, Philippines, to advise the intelligence services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines which were then meeting a serious threat to national security by the Communist Huks. Ramon Magsaysay had just been appointed secretary of national defense and Lansdale was made liaison officer to Secretary Magsaysay for JUSMAG. The two became intimate friends, frequently visiting the combat areas together. Lansdale helped the Philippine Armed Forces develop psychological operations, civic actions, and the rehabilitation of Huk prisoners in projects such as EDCOR. He was given a temporary promotion to Colonel in 1951.

In 1953 he was a member of General J.W. "Iron Mike" O'Daniell's mission to the French forces in Indo-China, acting as an advisor on special counter-guerrilla operations. After return to further duties in the Philippines, he was later transferred in 1954 to Saigon, where he served with MAAG-Vietnam until the end of 1956. During this period, he helped advise the Vietnamese Armed Forces and the Vietnamese Government on many internal security problems, including the pacification campaigns of 1954-55, as well as psychological operations, intelligence the integration of sect armies, civic action, and the refugee program. He as privileged to have the close friendship of President Ngo Dinh Diem and many other Vietnamese leaders.

In 1957 after brief staff duty with Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, he was transferred in June 1957 to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, with duties as Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. In 1959, he served on the staff of the President's Committee on Military Assistance (the Draper Committee). He was given a temporary promotion to Brigadier General in April 1960. On February 24, 1961, he was appointed assistant to the secretary of defense, where his primary duties involve attention to special operations of an extremely sensitive nature.

Among his decorations are the Distinguished Service Medal awarded by the Air Force for his work in Indo-China during the period 1954 to 1956, the National Security Medal awarded by the National Security Council for his service in the Philippines during the period 1950 to 1953, the Philippine's Legion of Honor, and the Philippine's Medal of Military Merit.

General Lansdale was an early proponent of stronger U.S. actions in the cold war, as expressed in a number of speeches and articles on counter-insurgency, psychological operations, and civic action, which have received wide attention in the U.S. Government.

General Lansdale was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, section 8, grave 7022.

William Colby, the late Director of Central Intelligence, rated Edward Lansdale as one of the ten greatest spies in modern history.

Edward Geary Lansdale was indeed a most unusual character: regarded as a maverick by many in the U.S. Defense and State Departments, yet greatly appreciated and even loved by nationals of the countries in which he spent much of his career: the Philippines and South Vietnam.

Rising to the rank of Major General in the Air Force, Lansdale worked his entire career in either military intelligence, psychological warfare, or special operations, with the O.S.S., C.I.A., and DoD.

Lansdale's most successful efforts were in the Phillipines in the late 40's and early 50's, helping defeat the communist insurgents (Huks) and establish democratic reforms. In "Bright Shining Lie" Neil Sheehan called Lansdale the "father of South Vietnam," and this is largely true. But despite two long assignments in country (1954-57 and 1965-68) not even the legendary Lansdale could stabilize South Vietnam, largely because senior U.S. leaders would not support his ideas. Lansdale was against the predominant U.S. "big battle" strategy, but rather believed the fight was a "people's war" which required working with villagers to help them defend themselves. This is the strategy Andrew Krepenivich espoused in "The Army and Vietnam." Lansdale believed that helping nationals fight a people's war was a form of brotherly love, inspired by the Founding Fathers' concepts of respect for the rights of individuals. He felt an important way to learn Asians' culture was to learn their folk songs (always playing along on his harmonica) and to let them know that Americans accepted them as equals. In the long anti-Vietnam period after U.S. withdrawal in 1973, Lansdale has often been unfairly maligned. This book finally gives him a fair treatment, while pointing out criticisms from both the left and the right. Lansdale is a legend, and with good reason. Few people's lives involve the amount of intrigue similar to, for example, the character Reilly, "Ace of Spies," who worked for British intelligence. To learn about the noble ideals behind American Cold War foreign policy (despite often tragic miscalculations), the fascinating life of Edward Geary Lansdale is an enlightening tale.

Now read this one

Richard Lansdale DOB appx 1919


Sunday, February 24, 2008; C08

Richard Hyatt LansdaleCIA Associate General Counsel

Richard Hyatt Lansdale, 89, former associate general counsel for the CIA, died of pneumonia Feb. 4 at the Alfred House Elder Care V in Rockville.

Mr. Lansdale worked in the Central Intelligence Agency's legal office from 1948 until he retired in 1977, then continued to consult on intelligence matters and Freedom of Information requests.

He was born in Sandy Spring and graduated from Sherwood High School there, where he was captain of the basketball team and a volunteer firefighter.

He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1945 and received a juris doctor degree from Georgetown University; in 1962, Mr. Lansdale received a master's degree in law from Yale University.

Mr. Lansdale worked first for the Covington & Burling law firm in the District until 1946, when he was recruited to join the American prosecutorial team in Nuremberg to address the Nazi atrocities during World War II. He was a junior prosecutor on the U.S. zone war crimes trials, researching and helping to present cases against German industrialist Friedrich Flick, who was sentenced to death, and Alfred Krupp, who had died.

He returned to the United States in 1948 and joined the CIA.

During the 1970s, Mr. Lansdale was commissioner of Montgomery Soccer Inc. and was a volunteer in the Palisades neighborhood association in the District.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Phoebe Taylor Lansdale of Silver Spring; three children, Elizabeth Hyatt Lansdale of New York City, Katherine Taylor Lansdale of Fairfield, Conn., and Steven Ballard Lansdale of Dallas; and two granddaughters.

-- Patricia Sullivan


What makes the latter obit interesting is that in The Assassinations:Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X

on pages 38-39, the book details a very interesting fact that the above Richard Lansdale was Lawrence Houston's Assistant Counsel, who had a couple of phone calls with Walter Sheridan's lawyer, Herbert Jack Miller. Miller was the Justice Department's first lawyer in Dallas in 1963, according to James DiEugenio. Even more interesting is that Richard Lansdale had wrote a memo up regarding these phone calls he had regarding David Ferrie's friend Alvin Beaubouef, and forwarded them to at least two government offices Angleton's CI unit and the Office of Security.

It would be interesting to know if the two were related, even if they were cousins.

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Exit Strategy

In 1963, JFK ordered a complete withdrawal from Vietnam

James K. Galbraith

8 Forty years have passed since November 22, 1963, yet painful mysteries remain. What, at the moment of his death, was John F. Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam?

It’s one of the big questions, alternately evaded and disputed over four decades of historical writing. It bears on Kennedy’s reputation, of course, though not in an unambiguous way.

And today, larger issues are at stake as the United States faces another indefinite military commitment that might have been avoided and that, perhaps, also cannot be won. The story of Vietnam in 1963 illustrates for us the struggle with policy failure. More deeply, appreciating those distant events tests our capacity as a country to look the reality of our own history in the eye.

One may usefully introduce the issue by recalling the furor over Robert McNamara’s 1995 memoir In Retrospect. Reaction then focused mainly on McNamara’s assumption of personal responsibility for the war, notably his declaration that his own actions as the Secretary of Defense responsible for it were “terribly, terribly wrong.” Reviewers paid little attention to the book’s contribution to history. In an editorial on April 12, 1995, the New York Times delivered a harsh judgment: “Perhaps the only value of “In Retrospect” is to remind us never to forget that these were men who in the full hubristic glow of their power would not listen to logical warning or ethical appeal.” And in the New York Times Book Review four days later, Max Frankel wrote that

David Halberstam, who applied that ironic phrase [The Best and the Brightest] to his rendering of the tale 23 years ago, told it better in many ways than Mr. McNamara does now. So too, did the Pentagon Papers, that huge trove of documents assembled at Mr. McNamara’s behest when he first recognized a debt to history.

In view of these criticisms, readers who actually pick up McNamara’s book may experience a shock when they scan the table of contents and sees this summary of Chapter 3, titled “The Fateful Fall of 1963: August 24–November 22, 1963”:

A pivotal period of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, punctuated by three important events: the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem; President Kennedy’s decision on October 2 to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces; and his assassination fifty days later. (Emphasis added.)

Kennedy’s decision on October 2, 1963, to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam? Contrary to Frankel, this is not something you will find in Halberstam. You will not find it in Leslie Gelb’s editorial summary in the Gravel edition of The Pentagon Papers, even though several documents that are important to establishing the case for a Kennedy decision to withdraw were published in that edition. Nor, with just three exceptions prior to last spring’s publication of Howard Jones’s Death of a Generation—a milestone in the search for difficult, ferociously hidden truth—will you find it elsewhere in 30 years of historical writing on Vietnam.

Did John F. Kennedy give the order to withdraw from Vietnam?

* * *

Certainly, most Vietnam historians have said “no”—or would have if they considered the question worth posing. They have asserted continuity between Kennedy’s policy and Lyndon Johnson’s, while usually claiming that neither president liked the war and also that Kennedy especially had expressed to friends his desire to get out sometime after the 1964 election.

The view that Kennedy would have done what Johnson did—stay in Vietnam and gradually escalate the war in 1964 and 1965—is held by left, center, and right, from Noam Chomsky to Kai Bird to William Gibbons. It was promoted forcefully over the years by the late Walt Rostow, beginning in 1967 with a thick compilation for Johnson himself of Kennedy’s public statements on Vietnam policy and continuing into the 1990s. Gibbons’s three-volume study states it this way: “On November 26 [1963], Johnson approved NSAM [National Security Action Memorandum] 273, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and the continuation of Vietnam programs and policies of the Kennedy administration.”

Equally, Stanley Karnow writes in his Vietnam: A History (1983) that Johnson’s pledge “essentially signaled a continuation of Kennedy’s policy.” Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, while writing extensively on the Saigon coup, makes no mention at all of the Washington discussions following Johnson’s accession three weeks later. Gary Hess offers summary judgment on the policy that Johnson inherited: “To Kennedy and his fellow New Frontiersmen, it was a doctrine of faith that the problems of Vietnam lent themselves to an American solution.”

Kai Bird’s 1998 biography of McGeorge and William Bundy briefly reviews the discussions of withdrawal reported to have occurred in late 1963 but accepts the general verdict that Kennedy did not intend to quit. So does Fredrik Logevall, whose substantial 1999 book steadfastly insists that the choices Kennedy faced were either escalation or negotiation and did not include withdrawal without negotiation.

All this (and more) is in spite of evidence to the contrary, advanced over the years by a tiny handful of authors. In 1972 Peter Dale Scott first made the case that Johnson’s NSAM 273—the document that Gibbons relied on in making the case for continuity—was in fact a departure from Kennedy’s policy; his essay appeared in Gravel’s edition of The Pentagon Papers. Arthur M. Schlesinger’s Robert Kennedy and His Times tells in a few tantalizing pages of the “first application” in October 1963 “of Kennedy’s phased withdrawal plan.”

A more thorough treatment appeared in 1992, with the publication of John M. Newman’s JFK and Vietnam . 1 Until his retirement in 1994 Newman was a major in the U.S. Army, an intelligence officer last stationed at Fort Meade, headquarters of the National Security Agency. As an historian, his specialty is deciphering declassified records—a talent he later applied to the CIA’s long-hidden archives on Lee Harvey Oswald.

Newman’s argument was not a case of “counterfactual historical reasoning,” as Larry Berman described it in an early response. 2 It was not about what might have happened had Kennedy lived. Newman’s argument was stronger: Kennedy, he claims, had decided to begin a phased withdrawal from Vietnam, that he had ordered this withdrawal to begin. Here is the chronology, according to Newman:

(1) On October 2, 1963, Kennedy received the report of a mission to Saigon by McNamara and Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The main recommendations, which appear in Section I(B) of the McNamara-Taylor report, were that a phased withdrawal be completed by the end of 1965 and that the “Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 out of 17,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Vietnam by the end of 1963.” At Kennedy’s instruction, Press Secretary Pierre Salinger made a public announcement that evening of McNamara’s recommended timetable for withdrawal.

(2) On October 5, Kennedy made his formal decision. Newman quotes the minutes of the meeting that day:

The President also said that our decision to remove 1,000 U.S. advisors by December of this year should not be raised formally with Diem. Instead the action should be carried out routinely as part of our general posture of withdrawing people when they are no longer needed. (Emphasis added.)

The passage illustrates two points: (a) that a decision was in fact made on that day, and (B) that despite the earlier announcement of McNamara’s recommendation, the October 5 decision was not a ruse or pressure tactic to win reforms from Diem (as Richard Reeves, among others, has contended 3) but a decision to begin withdrawal irrespective of Diem or his reactions.

(3) On October 11, the White House issued NSAM 263, which states:

The President approved the military recommendations contained in section I B (1-3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.

In other words, the withdrawal recommended by McNamara on October 2 was embraced in secret by Kennedy on October 5 and implemented by his order on October 11, also in secret. Newman argues that the secrecy after October 2 can be explained by a diplomatic reason. Kennedy did not want Diem or anyone else to interpret the withdrawal as part of any pressure tactic (other steps that were pressure tactics had also been approved). There was also a political reason: JFK had not decided whether he could get away with claiming that the withdrawal was a result of progress toward the goal of a self-sufficient South Vietnam.

The alternative would have been to withdraw the troops while acknowledging failure. And this, Newman argues, Kennedy was prepared to do if it became necessary. He saw no reason, however, to take this step before it became necessary. If the troops could be pulled while the South Vietnamese were still standing, so much the better. 4 But from October 11 onward the CIA’s reporting changed drastically. Official optimism was replaced by a searching and comparatively realistic pessimism. Newman believes this pessimism, which involved rewriting assessments as far back as the previous July, was a response to NSAM 263. It represented an effort by the CIA to undermine the ostensible rationale of withdrawal with success, and therefore to obstruct implementation of the plan for withdrawal. Kennedy, needless to say, did not share his full reasoning with the CIA.

(4) On November 1 there came the coup in Saigon and the assassination of Diem and Nhu. At a press conference on November 12, Kennedy publicly restated his Vietnam goals. They were “to intensify the struggle” and “to bring Americans out of there.” Victory, which had figured prominently in a similar statement on September 12, was no longer on the list.

(5) The Honolulu Conference of senior cabinet and military officials on November 20–21 was called to review plans in the wake of the Saigon coup. The military and the CIA, however, planned to use that meeting to pull the rug from under the false optimism which some had used to rationalize NSAM 263. However, Kennedy did not himself believe that we were withdrawing with victory. It follows that the changing image of the military situation would not have changed JFK’s decision.

(6) In Honolulu, McGeorge Bundy prepared a draft of what would eventually be NSAM 273. The plan was to present it to Kennedy after the meeting ended. Dated November 21, this draft reflected the change in military reporting. It speaks, for example, of a need to “turn the tide not only of battle but of belief.” Plans to intensify the struggle, however, do not go beyond what Kennedy would have approved: A paragraph calling for actions against the North underscores the role of Vietnamese forces:

7. With respect to action against North Vietnam, there should be a detailed plan for the development of additional Government of Vietnam resources, especially for sea-going activity, and such planning should indicate the time and investment necessary to achieve a wholly new level of effectiveness in this field of action. (Emphasis added.)

(7) At Honolulu, a preliminary plan, known as CINCPAC OPLAN 34-63 and later implemented as OPLAN 34A, was prepared for presentation. This plan called for intensified sabotage raids against the North, employing Vietnamese commandos under U.S. control—a significant escalation. 5 While JCS chief Taylor had approved preparation of this plan, it had not been shown to McNamara. Tab E of the meeting’s briefing book, also approved by Taylor and also not sent in advance to McNamara, showed that the withdrawal ordered by Kennedy in October was already being gutted, by the device of substituting for the withdrawal of full units that of individual soldiers who were being rotated out of Vietnam in any event.

(8) The final version of NSAM 273, signed by Johnson on November 26, differs from the draft in several respects. Most are minor changes of wording. The main change is that the draft paragraph 7 has been struck in its entirety (there are two pencil slashes on the November 21 draft), and replaced with the following:

Planning should include different levels of possible increased activity, and in each instance there be estimates such factors as: A. Resulting damage to North Vietnam; B. The plausibility denial; C. Vietnamese retaliation; D. Other international reaction. Plans submitted promptly for approval by authority.

The new language is incomplete. It does not begin by declaring outright that the subject is attacks on the North. But the thrust is unmistakable, and the restrictive reference to “Government of Vietnam resources” is now missing. Newman concludes that this change effectively provided new authority for U.S.–directed combat actions against North Vietnam. Planning for these actions began therewith, and we now know that an OPLAN 34A raid in August 1964 provoked the North Vietnamese retaliation against the destroyer Maddox, which became the first Gulf of Tonkin incident. And this in turn led to the confused incident a few nights later aboard the Turner Joy, to reports that it too had been attacked, and to Johnson’s overnight decision to seek congressional support for “retaliation” against North Vietnam. From this, of course, the larger war then flowed.

* * *

A reply to Newman’s book appeared very quickly. It came from Noam Chomsky, hardly an apologist for Lyndon Johnson or the war.

Chomsky despises the Kennedy apologists: equally the old insiders and the antiwar nostalgics—Arthur Schlesinger and Oliver Stone—and the historical memory of “the fallen leader who had escalated the attack against Vietnam from terror to aggression.” He reviles efforts to portray Kennedy’s foreign policy views as different from Johnson’s. On this point he may well be fundamentally correct, though for reasons quite different from those that he offers.

Chomsky’s Rethinking Camelot challenges Newman’s main points. First, did Kennedy plan to withdraw without victory? Or, were the plans of NSAM 263 contingent on a continued perception of success in battle? Second, did the change in NSAM 273 between the draft (which was prepared for Kennedy but never seen by him) and the final version (signed by Johnson) represent a change in policy?

Chomsky is categorical on both issues: “Two weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, there is not a phrase in the voluminous internal record that even hints at withdrawal without victory.” Elsewhere he notes that “[t]he withdrawal-without-victory thesis rests on the assumption that Kennedy realized that the optimistic military reports were incorrect. . . . Not a trace of supporting evidence appears in the internal record, or is suggested [by Newman].” And, as for the changes to NSAM 273: “There is no relevant difference between the two documents [draft and final], except that the LBJ version is weaker and more evasive.”

Chomsky denies Newman’s claim that the new version of paragraph 7 in the final draft of NSAM 273 signed by Johnson on November 26 opened the way for OPLAN 34A and the use of U.S.–directed forces in covert operations against North Vietnam. Rather, he reads the Johnson version as applying only to Government of Vietnam forces, even though the language restricting action to those forces is no longer there.

Peter Dale Scott, the former diplomat, professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of part of the Pentagon Papers, replied to Chomsky on both points almost immediately.

On the first point, withdrawal without victory, Scott writes:

Following [Leslie] Gelb, Chomsky alleges that Kennedy’s withdrawal planning was in response to an “optimistic mid-1962 assessment.” . . . But in fact the planning was first ordered by McNamara in May 1962. This was one month after ambassador Kenneth Galbraith, disenchanted after a presidentially ordered visit to Vietnam, had proposed a “political solution” based in part on a proposal to the Soviets entertaining “phased American withdrawal. ”

Scott goes on to point out that it cannot be proven that Galbraith’s recommendation was responsible for McNamara’s order. But there is good reason to believe they were linked, that both reflected Kennedy’s long-term strategy on Vietnam.6 As for the proposition that no evidence hinting at withdrawal without victory exists, Scott argues that Chomsky’s “ internal planning record”—for the most part the Pentagon Papers—“is in fact an edited version of the primary documents.” Moreover, “the documentary record is conspicuously defective” for November 1963. “n all three editions of the Pentagon Papers there are no complete documents between the five [coup] cables of October 30 and McNamara’s memorandum of December 21; the 600 pages of documents from the Kennedy Administration end on October 30.”

On the second point, concerning NSAM 273, Scott writes that Chomsky reads “Johnson’s NSAM as if it were as contextless as a Dead Sea Scroll,” dismissing its importance and ignoring “early accounts of it as a ‘major decision,’ a ‘pledge’ that determined ‘all that would follow,’ from journalists as diverse as Tom Wicker, Marvin Kalb, and I. F. Stone.” Scott writes that Chomsky also ignores Taylor’s memo to President Johnson of January 22, 1964, which cites NSAM 273 as authority to “prepare to escalate operations against North Vietnam.”

In the course of this controversy, the ground had narrowed sharply. After Newman’s book, no one seriously disputed that Kennedy was contemplating withdrawal from Vietnam. Instead, the disagreements focused on four questions: Did the withdrawal plans depend on the perception of victory? Did Kennedy act on his plans? Were actions he may have taken noisy but cosmetic, a pressure tactic aimed at Diem or a ploy for the American public, or were they for real? And were the OPLAN 34A operations that got under way following Kennedy’s death a sharp departure from previous U.S. policy or merely a “Government of Vietnam” activity consonant with intensifying the war in the South?

* * *

The publication of McNamara’s In Retrospect sharpened the terms of debate. Some key source materials, including the texts of the McNamara-Taylor report and those of NSAM 263 and 273, have been in the public domain for years. McNamara’s 1995 account of his September 1963 mission to Vietnam makes substantial use of the McNamara-Taylor report and the quotations presented are a study in ambiguity. He quotes General Maxwell Taylor’s apparent conviction that the war could be won by the end of 1965, but then he acknowledges that there were “conflicting reports about military progress and political stability” and describes the impressive doubts of those he spoke with that the South Vietnamese government was capable of the effective actions that military victory required:

The military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress. . . . There are serious political tensions in Saigon. . . . Further repressive actions by Diem and Nhu could change the present favorable military trends. . . . It is not clear that pressures exerted by the U.S. will move Diem and Nhu toward moderation. . . . The prospects that a replacement regime would be an improvement appear to be about 50-50.

The drift seems clear enough: the Diem government is failing and there is no reason to think a replacement would be better. But the references to “great progress” leave room for doubt. Withdrawal with victory or without it?

McNamara then reproduces the precise wording of the military recommendations from Section I(B) of the report:

We recommend that: [1] General Harkins review with Diem the military changes necessary to complete the military campaign in the Northern and Central areas by the end of 1964, and in the Delta by the end of 1965. [2] A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time. [3] In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.

The report then went on to make a number of recommendations to “impress upon Diem our disapproval of his political program.” These matters dealt with the repression of the Buddhists and related issues; the recommendation to announce plans to withdraw 1,000 soldiers is not listed under this heading.

The reason for the ambiguity over the military situation, as well as the vague “it should be possible” wording of the second recommendation, becomes clearer when McNamara describes the National Security Council meeting of October 2, 1963, which revealed a “total lack of consensus” over the battlefield situation:

One faction believed military progress had been good and training had progressed to the point where we could begin to withdraw. A second faction did not see the war as progressing well and did not see the South Vietnamese showing evidence of successful training. But they, too, agreed that we should begin to withdraw. . . . The third faction, representing the majority, considered the South Vietnamese trainable but believed our training had not been in place long enough to achieve results and, therefore, should continue at current levels.

As McNamara’s 1986 oral history, on deposit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, makes clear (but his book does not), he was himself in the second group, who favored withdrawal without victory—not necessarily admitting or even predicting defeat, but accepting uncertainty as to what would follow. The denouement came shortly thereafter:

After much debate, the president endorsed our recommendation to withdraw 1,000 men by December 31, 1963. He did so, I recall, without indicating his reasoning. In any event, because objections had been so intense and because I suspected others might try to get him to reverse the decision, I urged him to announce it publicly. That would set it in concrete. . . . The president finally agreed, and the announcement was released by Pierre Salinger after the meeting.

Before a large audience at the LBJ Library on May 1, 1995, McNamara restated his account of this meeting and stressed its importance. He confirmed that President Kennedy’s action had three elements: (1) complete withdrawal “by December 31, 1965,” (2) the first 1,000 out by the end of 1963, and (3) a public announcement, to set these decisions “in concrete,” which was made. McNamara also added the critical information that there exists a tape of this meeting, in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, to which he had access and on which his account is based.

The existence of a taping system in JFK’s oval office had become known over the years, particularly through the release of partial transcripts of the historic meeting of the “ExComm” during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. But the full extent of Kennedy’s taping was not known. And, according to McNamara, access to particular tapes was tightly controlled by representatives of the Kennedy family. When McNamara spoke in Austin, only he and his coauthor, Brian VanDeMark, had been granted the privilege of listening to the actual tape recordings of Kennedy’s White House meetings on Vietnam.

In 1997, however, this situation changed. The Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), an independent civilian body established under the 1992 JFK Records Act that has already been responsible for the release of millions of pages of official records deemed relevant to Kennedy’s assassination, ruled that his tapes relating to Vietnam decision-making should be released. In July the JFK Library began releasing key tapes, including those of the withdrawal meetings on October 2 and 5, 1963. 7

A careful review of the October 2 meeting makes clear that McNamara’s account is essentially accurate and even to some degree understated. One can hear McNamara—the voice is unmistakable—arguing for a firm timetable to withdraw all U.S. forces from Vietnam, whether the war can be won in 1964, which he doubts, or not. McNamara is emphatic: “We need a way to get out of Vietnam, and this is a way of doing it.”

In Retrospect’s discussion of Kennedy’s decision to withdraw ends at this point. McNamara makes no mention of NSAM 263. However, on the tape of the meeting of October 5, 1963, one can clearly hear a voice—it may be Robert McNamara or McGeorge Bundy—asking President John F. Kennedy for “formal approval” of “items one, two, and three” on a paper evidently in front of them. It is clear that one of these items is the recommendation to withdraw 1,000 men by the end of 1963, the rationale being that they are no longer needed. This short exchange is thus unmistakably a request for a formal presidential decision concerning the McNamara-Taylor recommendations. After a short discussion of the possible political effect in Vietnam of announcing this decision, the voice of JFK can be clearly heard: “Let’s go on ahead and do it,” followed by a few words deciphered by historian George Eliades as “without making a public statement about it.”

Unfortunately, the last White House tape from the Kennedy administration is dated November 7, 1963. The archivists at the JFK Library have no information on why the tapings either ended or are unavailable for later dates. McNamara states that he has “no specific memory” of the Honolulu Conference that he was sent to chair on November 20, 1963.

The Military Documents

The President of the United States does not make decisions in a vacuum. Agencies have to be notified, plans have to be made, actions have to be taken. Part of the enduring doubt over Kennedy’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam surely stems from the failure of this decision to cast a shadow in the primary record, and particularly in the Pentagon Papers, on which so many historians have relied for so many years. Furthermore, a persistent skeptic can still point to the “it should be possible” language of the McNamara-Taylor Report with respect to the final date of 1965 as leaving an “out” for the case where the military situation might turn sour. In two years and two months, much can happen, as events would prove.

But as Scott already pointed out to Chomsky in 1993, the primary record available to date has been heavily edited. Documents from November 1, 1963, through early December are conspicuously missing. So, we now learn, are many others.

In January 1998, again under the supervision of the ARRB, about 900 pages of new materials were declassified and released from the JCS archives. These include important records from May 1963, from October, and from the period immediately following Kennedy’s death; many had been reviewed for declassification in 1989 but were not declassified at that time. They clarify considerably the nature of the “presently prepared plans” referred to in the McNamara-Taylor third recommendation, and they give the military leadership’s interpretation of the direction they were getting from JFK. Since it is well known that the Pentagon did not favor withdrawal, it is fair to assume that if wiggle room existed in the President’s instructions it would surface in these documents.

Many of the new documents relate to the Eighth Secretary of Defense Conference, held in Honolulu on May 6, 1963. Here one gets a taste of McNamara’s skepticism and the replies of the brass. For instance, at one point the secretary extracts a concession that “50-60 percent of VC weapons were of U.S. origin.” A bit later, we read: “ GEN HARKINS stated that for effective control the border should be defined, marked and cleared similar to the Greek boundary with Albania and Bulgaria. However, this cannot be done in the foreseeable future.”

Turning to the development of a “comprehensive plan,” the documents immediately reflect discussions of a phase-down in the U.S. presence. For instance: “ SEC MCNAMARA stated that our efforts should be directed toward turning over equipment now in U.S. units supporting the Vietnamese as rapidly as possible. He added that we must avoid creating a situation that now obtains in Korea where we are presently spending almost half a billion dollars per year in foreign aid.” A little later, we find a decision noted: “1. Draw up training plans for the RVNAF that will permit us to start an earlier withdrawal of U.S. personnel than proposed under the plans presented.” And: “d. Plan to withdraw 1000 U.S. military personnel from RVN by December 1963.”

Further discussion of the 1,000 man withdrawal is recorded shortly:

GEN HARKINS emphasized that he did not want to gather up 1,000 U.S. personnel and have them depart with bands playing, flags flying etc. This would have a bad effect on the Vietnamese, to be pulling out just when it appears they are winning. SEC MCNAMARA stated that this would have to be handled carefully due to the psychological impact. However, there should be an intensive training program of RVNAF to allow removal of U.S. units rather than individuals.

There follows considerable discussion of proposals to launch raids on North Vietnam. For Geneva convention reasons, it is agreed that these must be covert. Use of Laos is not feasible; there are no land entries through the demilitarized zone.

As for sea entry, available boats are susceptible to weather and too slow. Sea is the only means of exfiltration. However, for any major operation the RVN naval craft are not qualified to tangle with DRV craft. . . . Build-up in CIA resources by end CY 1963 includes 40 teams in addition to 9 in country. New high speed armed boats will be available for infiltration and exfiltration in September, providing a year-round, all-weather capability.

Thus emerges an answer to one of the critical questions separating Newman and Scott from Chomsky. OPLAN 34A, when it emerged in November, would be a CIA operation. It could not be otherwise, for the Government of Vietnam did not possess the boats. 8

Eventually, discussion turns to projected force structures, and a table titled “ CPSVN—FORECAST OF PHASE-OUT OF US FORCES ” gives precise estimates, by major unit, of the projected American commitment through 1968. McNamara’s reaction to this timetable is recorded clearly:

In connection with this presentation, made by COMUSMACV (attached hereto), the Secretary of Defense stated that the phase-out appears too slow. He directed that training plans be developed for the GVN by CINCPAC which will permit a more rapid phase-out of U.S. forces, stating specifically that we should review our plans for pilot training with the view to accelerating it materially. He made particular point of the desirability of speeding up training of helicopter pilots, so that we may give the Vietnamese our copters and thus be able to move our own forces out. ACTION : Joint Staff (J-3); message directive to CINCPAC, info COMUSMACV. (Emphasis added.)

The May conference thus fills in the primary record: plans were under development for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. On October 2, 1963, as we have previously seen, President Kennedy made clear his determination to implement those plans—to withdraw 1,000 troops by the end of 1963, and to get almost all the rest out by the end of 1965. There followed, on October 4, a memorandum titled “South Vietnam Actions” from General Maxwell Taylor to his fellow Joint Chiefs of Staff, Generals May, Wheeler, Shoup, and Admiral McDonald, that reads:

b. The program currently in progress to train Vietnamese forces will be reviewed and accelerated as necessary to insure that all essential functions visualized to be required for the projected operational environment, to include those now performed by U.S. military units and personnel, can be assumed properly by the Vietnamese by the end of calendar year 1965. All planning will be directed towards preparing RVN forces for the withdrawal of all U.S. special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965. (Emphasis added.)

“All planning” is an unconditional phrase. There is no contingency here, or elsewhere in this memorandum. The next paragraph reads:

c. Execute the plan to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963 per your DTG 212201Z July, and as approved for planning by JCS DTG 062042Z September. Previous guidance on the public affairs annex is altered to the extent that the action will now be treated in low key, as the initial increment of U.S. forces whose presence is no longer required because (a) Vietnamese forces have been trained to assume the function involved; or (B) the function for which they came to Vietnam has been completed. (Emphasis added.)

This resolves the question of how the initial withdrawal was to be carried out. It was not to be a noisy or cosmetic affair, designed to please either U.S. opinion or to change policies in Saigon. It was rather to be a low-key, matter-of-fact beginning to a process that would play out over the following two years. The final paragraph of Taylor’s memorandum underlines this point by directing that “specific checkpoints will be established now against which progress can be evaluated on a quarterly basis.” There is much more in the JCS documents to show that Kennedy was well aware of the evidence that South Vietnam was, in fact, losing the war. But it hardly matters. The withdrawal decided on was unconditional, and did not depend on military progress or lack of it.

The Escalation at Kennedy’s Death

Four days after Kennedy was killed, NSAM 273 incorporated the new president’s directives into policy. It made clear that the objectives of Johnson’s policy remained the same as Kennedy’s: “to assist the people and government of South Vietnam to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy” through training support and without the application of overt U.S. military force. But Johnson had also approved intensified planning for covert action against North Vietnam by CIA-supported South Vietnamese forces.

With this, McNamara confirms one of Newman’s central claims: NSAM 273 changed policy. Yes, the “central objectives” remained the same: a Vietnamese war with no “overt U.S. military force.” But covert force is still “U.S. military force.” And that was introduced or at least first approved, as McNamara writes, by NSAM 273 within four days of Kennedy’s assassination.Moreover, McNamara effectively supports Newman on the meaning of NSAM 273’s seventh paragraph, which was inserted in the draft (as we have seen) sometime between November 21 and 26—after the Honolulu meeting had adjourned and probably after Kennedy died.

A final military document is relevant here. Dated December 11, 1963, it is titled “Department of Defense Actions to Implement NSAM No. 273, 26 November 1963.” This document was prepared by Marine Lieutenant Colonel M. C. Dalby; it is from CINCPAC files and is labeled “Group 1—Excluded from Automatic Downgrading and Declassification.” The document begins coldly:

“After reviewing the recent discussions of South Vietnam which occurred in Honolulu and after discussing the matter further with Ambassador Lodge, the President directed that certain guidance be issued to various Government Agencies. This was promulgated in the form of National Security Action Memorandum 273, 26 November 1963.”

There is no reference to the change of commander in chief, which had occurred within the time frame indicated by the opening sentence. The particular importance of this document is its reference to paragraph 7 of NSAM 273.

Planning for intensified action against North Vietnam was directed following the Honolulu Conference (JCS 3697, 26 Nov 1963) in the form of a 12-month program. . . . A deadline of 20 Dec 63 has been set for completion of the plan.

There are then notes that these requirements were communicated to CINCPAC and COMUSMACV on December 2, with a reply from COMUSMACV on December 3. CIA station guidance, however, happened even more rapidly than that:

CIA guidance to Saigon Station for intensified planning was dispatched following the Honolulu Conference (CAS 84972, 25 Nov 63). (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the CIA began developing intensified plans to implement OPLAN 34A, the program of seaborne raids and sabotage against North Vietnam that would lead to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and eventually to the wider war, one day before President Johnson signed the directive authorizing that action. How this happened, and its precise significance, remains to be determined. 9


John F. Kennedy had formally decided to withdraw from Vietnam, whether we were winning or not. Robert McNamara, who did not believe we were winning, supported this decision. 10 The first stage of withdrawal had been ordered. The final date, two years later, had been specified. These decisions were taken, and even placed, in an oblique and carefully limited way, before the public.

Howard Jones makes two large contributions to this tale. One of them is simply range, depth, and completeness. His recent book Death of a Generation is a full history of how the assassinations of Diem and then of JFK prolonged a war that otherwise might have ended quietly within a few years. Where this essay has presented the story-within-a-story of just a few Washington weeks, Jones goes back to the start of the 1960s, chronicling the struggle for power and policy that marked the whole of Kennedy’s thousand days. And he presents a reasonably complete account of the archival record surrounding the withdrawal decisions of October 1963.

Equally important, Jones’s reach extends to Saigon. In a long and fascinating section he outlines the intrigues that led to the murders of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on November 1, 1963. Here, Kennedy’s White House appears at its worst. It was fractious, disorganized, preoccupied with American politics, ignorant of the forces it faced in Vietnam. Diem’s mistreatment of the Buddhists, which provoked the monk Quang Duc to burn himself on a Saigon street in June 1963, traumatized the White House. And following that incident, Madame Nhu and her remarks about “barbecued bonzes” were an irritant out of proportion to their importance. Thus, in part, the decision to dissociate from Diem.

In August 1963 it was a faction of subordinates (Averell Harriman, Roger Hilsman, Michael Forrestal) who seized the opportunity to foment a Saigon coup, taking advantage of the absence of the most senior officials over a Washington weekend. Then, having set events in motion, the White House became preoccupied with a deniability that was wholly implausible. Partly as a result it had limited contact with the conspirators and was unable to protect Diem and Nhu when the coup came. Diem was indefensible in many ways. But the coup went forward with no alternative in view; and as the French ambassador to Saigon put it at the time: “any other government will be even more dependent on the Americans, will be obedient to them in all things, and so there will be no chance for peace.” Meanwhile, there are tantalizing undercurrents of what might have been. Was Nhu in discussions with intermediaries for Ho Chi Minh, with the possibility that there might have been a deal between North and South to boot the Americans from Vietnam? It appears that he was. And had he succeeded, it would have saved infinite trouble.

U.S. policy over Vietnam changed again in late November1963. The main change was a decision to authorize OPLAN 34-A—minor but fateful commando raids against targets in the North. The decision to launch covert attacks on North Vietnam does not by itself establish that Lyndon Johnson wanted a larger war. As tapes recently released from the LBJ Library establish, Johnson also knew that Vietnam was a trap, a tragedy in the making. He feared that a catastrophe would follow. In this respect, Johnson and Kennedy were similar.

And yet, Johnson could not muster Kennedy’s determination, one might say blind determination, to avoid the disaster. He acceded to proposals for covert action, and he promised the military, on November 24, that they could have what they wanted. And so the sequence of events that led to the Tonkin Gulf, to our retaliation, to the North Vietnamese decision to introduce their own main forces in the South, and to our decision to introduce main forces, played out. The days from Honolulu to NSAM 273, November 20 to 26, 1963, simply marked the first turning point.

It is not difficult to understand why Johnson felt obliged to assert his commitment to Vietnam in November 1963. To continue with Kennedy’s withdrawal, after his death, would have been difficult, since the American public had not been told that the war was being lost. Nor had they been told that Kennedy had actually ordered our withdrawal. To maintain our commitment, therefore, was to maintain the illusion of continuity, and this—in the moment of trauma that followed the assassination—was Johnson’s paramount political objective. Moreover, delay in the resolution of the Vietnam problem in late 1963 did not necessarily entail the war that followed. Our commitment then was still small. Tonkin Gulf and its aftermath lay almost a year into the future. Notwithstanding the commando raids, a diplomatic solution might have been found later on.

Left in charge, Lyndon Johnson temporized, agonized, and cursed the fates. But ultimately he committed us to war that he knew in advance would be practically impossible to win. Nothing can erase this. And yet meanwhile, alongside McNamara, he too prevented any steps that might lead to an invasion of the North, direct conflict with China, and nuclear confrontation. He bided his time, until the trauma of Tet in January of 1968 and his own departure from politics in March liberated him to do what Kennedy had done over Laos in 1961: send Harriman to end it at the negotiating table.

* * *

Why did Johnson do it? He was not misinformed about the prospects for sucess. He was not crazy. His political fate in 1964 did not depend on a show of toughness. But one possibility is that the alternatives, as he saw them, were worse. To appreciate this possibility, one needs to grasp not one but two exceptionally thorny nettles: that of the strategic balance in the early 1960s on the one hand, and that of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the other. In contemplating Johnson’s dilemma we find ourselves poised between the two black holes of the modern history of the United States.11

Kennedy’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam was, as Jones writes, “unconditional, for he approved a calendar of events that did not necessitate a victory.” It was also part of a larger strategy, of a sequence that included the Laos and Berlin settlements in 1961, the non-invasion of Cuba in 1962, the Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Kennedy subordinated the timing of these events to politics: he was quite prepared to leave soldiers in harm’s way until after his own reelection. His larger goal after that was to settle the Cold War, without either victory or defeat—a strategic vision laid out in JFK’s commencement speech at American University on June 10, 1963.

And that was, partly, a question of atomic survival—a subject that can only be said to have obsessed America’s civilian leadership in those days, and for very good reason. The Soviet Union, which had at that time only four intercontinental rockets capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, was not the danger that rational men most feared. The United States held an overwhelming nuclear advantage in late 1963. Accordingly, our nuclear plans were not actually about deterrence. Rather, then as evidently again now, they envisioned preventive war fought over a pretext.12 There were those who were dedicated to carrying out those plans at the appropriate moment. In July 1961, the nuclear planners had specified that the optimal moment for such an attack would come at the end of 1963.

And yet, standing against them (as Daniel Ellsberg was told at the time), the civilian leaders of the United States were determined never, under any circumstances, to allow U.S. nuclear weapons to be used first—not in Laos or Vietnam, nor against China, not over Cuba or Berlin, nor against the Soviet Union. For political reasons, at a moment when Americans had been propagandized into thinking of the atomic bomb as their best defense, this was the deepest secret of the time.

Was it also a deadly secret? Did LBJ have reason to fear, on the day he took office, that he was facing a nuclear coup d’etat?13 Similar questions have engendered scorn for 40 years. But they are not illegitimate—no more so, let me venture, than the idea that Kennedy really had decided to quit Vietnam. Perhaps someday a historian will answer them as well as Howard Jones has now resolved the Vietnam puzzle. Meanwhile, let us hope that we might learn something about the need to recognize and cope with policy failure. And as for the truth behind the darkest state secrets, let us also hope that the victims of September 11, 2001, don’t have to wait as long. <

James K. Galbraith, a 2003 Carnegie Scholar, holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., Chair of Government/Business Relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin.


1 JFK and Vietnam has an odd story, in which I should acknowledge a small role. On release, it received a front-page review by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the New York Times Book Review. But of some 32,000 copies printed (in two printings, according to Newman) only about 10,000 were sold before Warner Books abruptly ceased selling the hardcover—a fact I discovered on my own in the fall of 1993, when I attempted to assign it to a graduate class. I met Newman in November 1993, partly through the good offices of the LBJ Library. I carried his grievance personally to an honorable high official of Time Warner, whose intervention secured the return of his rights. Still, the hardback was never reissued, and no paperback has appeared.

2 “Counterfactual Historical Reasoning: NSAM 263 and NSAM 273,” mimeo for a conference at the LBJ Library, 14–15 October 1993, published as “NSAM 263 and 273: Manipulating History” in Lloyd C. Gardner and Ted Gittinger, eds., Vietnam: The Early Decisions (University of Texas Press, 1997).

3 Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power, made this argument in a televised lecture at the LBJ Library in early 1995.

4 In a contribution to Vietnam: The Early Decisions, Newman adds a further reason: Kennedy had, on October 2, allowed McNamara and Taylor to announce, as their recommended target date, that the withdrawal be completed by 1965. It would have been awkward to follow just three days later with a presidential decision making clear that the timetable was, in fact, a firm one.

5 The fate of these commandos surfaced in the New York Times of 14 April 1995, where it was reported that after 30 years in prison, many were denied immigration to the United States because of a lack of service records.

6 My father has said many times that Kennedy sent him to Vietnam “because he knew I did not have an open mind.”

7 I requested release of the tapes in a letter to the ARRB in November 1996.

8 CINCPAC was developing these plans, but they had not been shown to JFK, according to Newman.

9 According to Newman, LBJ took a belligerent tone at his first Vietnam meeting as President on November 24, and McGeorge Bundy attributed the escalatory language in NSAM 273 to this. However, by any standard the CIA moved quickly, and by this account it relied on the discussions at Honolulu—which occurred while JFK was still alive.

10 I have in this narrative deliberately underplayed the role of my own father, who was repeatedly called upon by Kennedy to deliver arguments in favor of disengagement from Vietnam, and whose 1962 recommendation for phased withdrawal was probably the basis of the 1963 orders. My father did not know that the actual decision was taken in October 1963, but he is in no doubt as to Kennedy’s determination: he recalls Kennedy in 1962 saying to him privately and unmistakably that withdrawal from Vietnam, as that from Laos and the detachment from Cuba, was a matter of political timing.

11 My father retains a distinct, chilling recollection of LBJ’s words to him, in private, on one of their last meetings before the Vietnam War finally drove them apart: “You may not like what I’m doing in Vietnam, Ken, but you would not believe what would happen if I were not here.”

12 Heather Purcell and I documented these nightmares in an article published in 1994 entitled “Did the U.S. Military Plan a Nuclear First Strike for 1963?” It is still available on the website of the American Prospect. When once I asked the late Walt Rostow if he knew anything about the National Security Council meeting of July 20, 1961 (at which these plans were presented), he responded with no hesitation: “Do you mean the one where they wanted to blow up the world?”

13 There is no doubt that the danger of nuclear war was on Johnson’s mind. It also explains important points about his behavior in those days, including his orders to Earl Warren and Richard Russell (the latter in a phone call, a recording of which has long been available on the C-SPAN website) as to how they would conduct their commission. The point to appreciate is that there is only one way a war could have started at that time: by preemptive attack by the United States against the Soviet Union.

© 1997–2003 by James K. Galbraith. All rights reserved.

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review

Shortcut to: http://bostonreview.net/BR28.5/galbraith.html


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What you mention may be available within.....""The Secret Team"" by Col.Prouty .......the book is available free, on line....


The missing pages from the Paper back edition ""JFK, The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F.Kennedy ""by ...Col.Prouty...are also downloaded on this site , free access.....


B........ B)

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New JCS Documents on Cuba and Vietnam

New documents from the papers of Maxwell Taylor (pictured), Gen. Earl Wheeler, and other Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) files are now online, related to the hotspots in Cuba and Vietnam.


Joint Chiefs of Staff Papers


General Maxwell Taylor papers



RIF#: 202-10002-10092 (10/31/63) JCS#: CM-985-63


LBJ to General Taylor Dec.2.63




B.......... B)

Below .......in Washington for JFK's Funeral, Chiefs of Staff...

Edited by Bernice Moore
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