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Roger Hilsman, Adviser to Kennedy on Vietnam, Dies at 94

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Roger Hilsman, Adviser to Kennedy on Vietnam, Dies at 94


The New York Times


Roger Hilsman, a foreign policy adviser in the Kennedy administration who helped draft a cable giving tacit American support to a coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, died on Feb. 23 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 94.

His death, which was not widely reported at the time, was caused by complications of several strokes, his son Ashby said.

As a Kennedy adviser, Mr. Hilsman — a combat veteran of World War II who later taught at Columbia University — helped develop crucial informal communications with Soviet officials during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But his largest contribution was to Vietnam policy during the early stages of American involvement there.

As assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, he joined with Michael Forrestal of the National Security Council and W. Averell Harriman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, to draft Cable 243 — often referred to as the Hilsman cable. Dated Aug. 24, 1963, it was sent to the United States ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

The cable castigated President Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the head of South Vietnam’s security forces, for attacking pagodas of the country’s Buddhist majority under martial law. Reflecting White House fears that Mr. Nhu’s brutality could turn popular sentiment toward the Communists, the cable told Mr. Lodge to tell the Mr. Diem to get rid of Mr. Nhu. At the time, the United States had 16,000 military advisers in Vietnam.

“If in spite of all your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved,” the cable said. Mr. Lodge, it said, “should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem’s replacement if this becomes necessary.”

The cable, which was made public in later years by the National Security Archive, was approved by President John F. Kennedy but written with some urgency on a Saturday, when he, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and other senior officials were all out of town. Military officials were angry that they had been bypassed, according to Mr. Hilsman’s own records, now housed at the John F. Kennedy Library.

Mr. Diem and his brother were killed in a coup by South Vietnamese generals in early November 1963, and it ushered in a period of political instability in Saigon that many historians believe led to an increase in American involvement in South Vietnam’s war with Communist North Vietnam and its South Vietnamese allies, the Viet Cong.

In a 2010 interview with CNN, Mr. Hilsman insisted that Kennedy would not have escalated the war had be not been assassinated later that November. “From the beginning he was determined that it not be an American war,” he said.

Mr. Hilsman’s view, as outlined in his book “To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy” (1967), was that the war could not be won by conventional military means.

He favored withdrawing rural civilians into what he called “strategic hamlets” and spraying defoliants to cut off the enemy’s food supply. “Our ultimate objective,” he wrote, “is to turn the Vietcong into hungry bands of outlaws devoting all their energies to staying alive.”

David Halberstam, in his book “The Best and the Brightest” (1972), said Mr. Hilsman’s brashness had offended more hawkish senior officials. Johnson, he wrote, resented Mr. Hilsman’s role in pressuring Diem, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk resented his using his friendship with the president to bypass State Department channels.

Four months after Johnson became president, Mr. Hilsman resigned. “Johnson did not like him,” Mr. Halberstam wrote.

Roger Hilsman Jr. was born on Nov. 23, 1919, in Waco, Tex., the son of Roger and Emma Prendergast Hilsman. His father was an Army officer, and Roger Jr. grew up on military bases. He graduated from the United States Military Academy and in World War II was assigned to Merrill’s Marauders, a special forces jungle warfare unit in Burma led by Frank Merrill. Mr. Hilsman suffered multiple stomach wounds from machine gun fire.

After recovering he joined the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime spy organization, and volunteered to lead a parachute mission into Manchuria to save prisoners held by the Japanese.

In 1947, the Army sent him to Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in international relations. He was assigned to Europe and then joined the Library of Congress, becoming deputy director of its foreign affairs division. He did research for John Kennedy when Kennedy was a United States senator and drafted memos for his 1960 presidential campaign.

Kennedy named him director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department in February 1961. He was promoted to assistant secretary in April 1963. He joined Columbia in 1964, teaching international relations, and retired in 1990.

In addition to his son, Mr. Hilsman is survived by his wife of 67 years, the former Eleanor Hoyt; another son, Hoyt; his daughters Amy Kastely and Sarah Hilsman; and six grandchildren.

One of the prisoners Mr. Hilsman saved in Manchuria was his father. The son liked to recall his father’s words as he hugged him: “What took you so long?”

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It is strange for me that Mr. Hilsman passed away, as only a week or so ago, I came across a book he wrote entitled American Guerrilla: My War Behind Japanese Lines - 1990, in 2005 the book became part of Potomac Books, Inc, Series of War series, I do not know if the Series of War edition is different from the original 1990 release. A few years ago, I started reading various memoirs of JFK Administration officials;

Hilsman, from my viewpoint, was very forthright in his reminisces and, as one who is no stranger to the various persons in the JFK Administration, I believe he supported JFK in a very literal sense.

In the same vein, George Ball exuded the same air about him, he was the person whom JFK called "crazier than hell," when Ball straightforwardly told President Kennedy that in five years there would be 300,000+ American troops in Vietnam. He said this in early November 1961, right after Walt Rostow returned from Vietnam and passed along his Report to the President.

Along with Robert Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, Kenneth Galbraith, Bob McNamara, & Ambassador Edwin Rieschauer these figures would probably be the only senior JFK administration officials I believe, never betrayed their loyalty to JFK, after that, I wouldn't attempt to defend anyone else.

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