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WH Recordings of President Kennedy Debating Vietnam Coup

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White House Recordings of President Kennedy Debating Vietnam Coup


Updated: Monday, 02 Nov 2009, 10:52 PM EST

Published : Monday, 02 Nov 2009, 10:52 PM EST

BOSTON (FOX25, myfoxboston.com) - From the JFK Presidential Library

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum announced today

that it has declassified and made available for research presidential

recordings of four meetings between President Kennedy and his highest

level Vietnam advisors during the days after the highly controversial

“Cable 243” was sent. The cable, which was dispatched on August 24,

1963 when President Kennedy and three of his top officials were away

from Washington, set a course for the eventual coup in Vietnam on

November 1, 1963, leading to the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem

and his assassination the following day on November 2, 1963 – 46 years

ago this week.

The tapes offer unprecedented insight into President Kennedy’s

thoughts on the unfolding conflict in Vietnam and reveal his

reservations about U.S. support for a military coup in South Vietnam.

During a meeting on August 28, President Kennedy states:

“I don’t think we’re in that deep. I am not sure the [Vietnamese]

Generals are - they’ve been probably bellyaching for months. So I

don’t know whether they’re - how many of them are really up to here. I

don’t see any reason to go ahead unless we think we have a good chance

of success.” [see attached transcript.]

“These recordings provide a fascinating snapshot of a key event in the

history of Vietnam,” said Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter. “The

August meetings highlight the uncertainty that existed in the White

House over what steps to take toward the government of South Vietnam.

Of particular interest are the numerous conflicting views presented

from the President's top Vietnam advisors.”

These meetings are the first ones to take place after the sending of

Cable 243, which has been described by historian John W. Newman as the

“single most controversial cable of the Vietnam War.” The telegram was

drafted on Saturday August 24, 1963 when President Kennedy, Secretary

of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and CIA

Director John McCone were all out of town. Without direct approval

from President Kennedy’s senior advisors and despite mixed feelings in

the administration over the effectiveness of Diem’s regime, the cable

called for Diem to remove his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu from a position of

power and threatened U.S. support of a military coup in South Vietnam

if he refused.

After the cable was sent and during the course of four days of

meetings, President Kennedy met with his advisors to discuss the

evolving situation in Vietnam and what steps should be taken in the

wake of the cable’s policy-changing message. There was considerable

disagreement between the State Department advisors who had drafted

Cable 243 and the President’s military and intelligence advisors on

whether the coup was advisable and what support it would have in

Vietnam with the Vietnamese military. In his book Robert Kennedy and

His Times, White House Historian Arthur Schlesinger quoted Robert

Kennedy’s recollections of the cable: “[President Kennedy] always said

that it was a major mistake on his part. The result is we started down

a road that we never really recovered from.”

The President asked several times for straight assessments from his

two top advisors in Vietnam, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General

Paul Harkins. At the August 27, 1963 meeting the President inquired

about whether General Harkins agreed with the present plan:

President Kennedy: What about - in the wire that went Saturday, what’s

the degree of -- My impression was that based on the wire that went

out Saturday, asked General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge recommending

a course of action unless they disagreed. (General Taylor then states

that Harkins concurred). That’s right, so I think we ought to find out

whether Harkins doesn’t agree with this - then I think we ought to get

off this pretty quick.

During the on-going discussions, State Department officials claimed

that they felt it was too late to step back from the coup support, an

opinion not accepted by the President. The President comments:

President Kennedy: I don’t think we ought to take the view here that

this has gone beyond our control ‘cause I think that would be the

worst reason to do it. …

Well I don’t think we ought to just do it because we feel we have to

now do it. I think we want to make it our best (sitting) judgment (is

to date) because I don’t think we do have to do it. At least I’d be

prepared to take up the argument with lawyers, well let’s not do it.

So I think we ought to try to make it without feeling that it’s forced

on us.

The President goes on to state:

President Kennedy: I don’t think we ought to let the coup…maybe they

know about it, maybe the Generals are going to have to run out of the

country, maybe we’re going to have to help them get out. But still

it’s not a good enough reason to go ahead if we don’t think the

prospects are good enough. I don’t think we’re in that deep.

I am not sure the Generals are - they’ve been probably bellyaching for

months. So I don’t know whether they’re - how many of them are really

up to here. I don’t see any reason to go ahead unless we think we have

a good chance of success.

Ambassador Nolting, who had been recently relieved of his duties in

Saigon and replaced by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, was asked by the

President to be present at these meetings. Nolting’s advice and

opinions were pointed, candid and very often at odds with State

Department officials in the room, especially Roger Hilsman and Averell

Harriman. At the August 28th meeting, Ambassador Nolting and the

President began a discussion on a post-coup Vietnam:

President Kennedy: What about Diem - Diem and Nhu would be

( unclear )? Exile them, is that it? That’s what we would favor of

course, but.

Roger Hilsman: We know, we know no information.

President Kennedy: But I think it would be important that nothing

happen to them if we, if we have any voice in it. Is that your view


Frederick Nolting: With all the humility again, Mr. President, my view

is that there is no one that I know of who can - who has a reasonably

good prospect of holding this fragmented, divided country together

except Diem.

Audio files of these discussions are available to the media in .wma

and .mp3 format on request. They, and other historical resources

related to the Vietnam Coup, may also be accessed on the Kennedy

Library website at the following links:

· Cable 243 (pdf)


· Excerpts from White House Tapes 104-108, August 26-28, 1963


· Excerpts from Nolting’s discussion on Vietnam, White House Tape 108,

August 28, 1963


· Audio of President Kennedy dictating his thoughts on the coup in

Vietnam, November 4, 1963


· Excerpt of Frederick Nolting’s Oral History


· Archival documents relating to the coup in Vietnam


Today’s complete release incorporates tape numbers 104, 106, 107, 108

and includes other White House meetings on the Nuclear Test Ban

Treaty, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, Civil Rights, USSR, Portuguese

Africa and the Economy. This release totals 13 hours, 11 minutes of

recordings of which 37 minutes remain classified. Approximately 50

hours of meeting tapes remain to be reviewed for declassification

prior to release. Processing of the presidential recordings will

continue to be conducted in the chronological order of the tapes.

The first items from the presidential recordings were opened to public

research in June of 1983. Over the past 20 years, the Library staff

has reviewed and opened all of the telephone conversations and a large

portion of the meeting tapes. The latter are predominantly meetings

with President Kennedy in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room.

While the recordings were deliberate in the sense that it required

manual operation to start and stop the recording, it was not, based on

the material recorded, used with daily regularity nor was there a set

pattern for its operation. The tapes represent raw historical

material. The sound quality of the recordings varies widely. Although

most of the recorded conversation is understandable, the tapes include

passages of extremely poor sound quality with considerable background

noise and periods where the identity of the speakers is unclear.

Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter is available to answer

questions from the media concerning this newly released tape or the

Kennedy Library Presidential tapes in general. She can be reached

through Rachel Day, Director of Communications.

Today’s release of White House meetings is available for research use

in the Library’s Research Room. The hours of operation are Monday –

Friday from 8:30 am - 4:30 pm and appointments may be made by calling

(617) 514-1629. The recordings and finding guide are available for

purchase at the John F. Kennedy Library, Columbia Point, Boston, MA

02125, or by calling the Audiovisual Department (617) 514-1617.

Members of the media are cautioned against making historical

conclusions based on the sound clips and transcript alone. They are

provided as a professional courtesy to facilitate the reporting of the

release of these presidential recordings.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a presidential

library administered by the National Archives and Records

Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library

Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Presidential

Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through

educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and

understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process

of governing and the importance of public service. More information is

available at www.jfklibrary.org.


Best Regards in Research,


Don Roberdeau

U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, CV-67, "Big John," Plank Walker

Sooner, or later, The Truth emerges Clearly

email: DRoberdeau@aol.com ...Please type "JFK" in your email subject line so your email is not accidentally deleted as spam

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Edited by Don Roberdeau
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