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LBJ's War: Vietnam

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Ellen J. Hammer's A Death in November: America in Vietnam 1963, pgs 177-80 (emphasis in the original):


Washington, August 24, 1963

A handful of men in the State Department and the White House had been awaiting an opportunity to encourage the Vietnamese army to move against the [Diem] government. They intended to exploit the latest crisis [massive raids on Buddhist pagodas August 21] in Saigon to the full. "Averell [Harriman] and Roger [Hilsman] now agree that we must move before the situation in Saigon freezes," Michael Forrestal of the White House staff wrote in a memorandum to President Kennedy.

..."Harriman, Hilsman and I favor taking...action now," Forrestal informed the president. Kennedy was at his Hyannis Port residence in Massachusetts for the weekend. The three men had drafted a cable of their own to [uS Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot] Lodge. The substance, according to Forrestal, had been generally agreed to by [commander in chief of Pacific Command (CINCPAC)] Admiral [Harry D.] Felt. "Clearances [are] being obtained from [Acting Secretary of State] Ball and [the Department of] Defense...Will advise you reactions Ball and Defense, but suggest you let me know if you wish comment or hold-up action." A copy of their draft was dispatched to the president.

This would become Department of State telegram No. 243.

It stated that the American government could not tolerate a situation in which power lay in [Diem brother and head of SVN secret police] Nhu's hands. Military leaders were to be informed that the United States would find it impossible to continue military and economic support to the government unless prompt dramatic actions were taken by Diem to redress Buddhist grievances and remove the Nhus from the scene...Ambassador and country team should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem's replacement if this should become necessary...

...Harriman and Hilsman were determined to send their cable that very day. They found Acting Secretary of State [George] Ball on the golf course, and he telephoned the president in Hyannis Port. Kennedy made no difficulty about giving his approval, assuming that the appropriate officials agreed.

After the call to Kennedy the rest was simple. Ball telephoned [secretary of State Dean] Rusk in New York and told him the president had already agreed, and Rusk gave his own unenthusiastic endorsement. When Roswell Gilpatric (McNamara's deputy at Defense) was called at home by Forrestal, he too was told that Kennedy had cleared the telegram and he was assured that Rusk had seen it. Gilpatric reluctantly gave the clearance of the Department of Defense but was concerned enough about the substance of the cable and the way it had been handled to alert General Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Taylor sent for a copy of the cable. When he read it, his first reaction was that the anti-Diemists in the State Department had taken advantage of the absence of the principal officials to get out instructions that would never have been approved as written under ordinary circumstances. John McCone also was out of town, and rather than try to locate him Harriman had reached Richard Helms, who provided the clearance of the Central Intelligence Agency.

With the president's approval State Department telegram 243 was dispatched to Saigon at 9:36 P.M. on August 24.

John Kennedy would regard this as a major mistake on his part, according to his brother Robert. "He had passed it off too quickly over the weekend at the Cape--he had thought it was cleared by McNamara and Taylor and everyone at State. In fact, it was Harriman, Hilsman and Mike Forrestal at the White House and they were all the ones who were strongly for a coup. Harriman was particularly strong for a coup.
<quote off>

ibid, pg 185:

Washington, August 26-27, 1963

...In the cool halls of the White House the hectic plotting of the weekend took on an air of unreality. Robert Kennedy had talked with Taylor and McNamara and discovered that "nobody was behind it, nobody knew what we were going to do, nobody knew what our policy was; it hadn't been discussed, as everything else had been discussed since the Bay of Pigs in full detail before we did anything--nothing like that had been done before the decision made on Diem, and so by Tuesday we were trying to pull away from that policy..."

President Kennedy belatedly realized that no one had spelled out to him the ramifications for the policy he had approved so lightly. He was irritated at the disagreement among his advisers. Taylor, McNamara, and McCone all were critical of the attempt to run a coup in Saigon. Even Rusk seemed to have second thoughts. "The government was split in two," Robert Kennedy recalled. "It was the only time really in three years, the government was broken in two in a very disturbing way."
<quote off>

ibid, page 198, quoting Robert Kennedy:

"The result [of the cable of August 24] is we started down a road from which we never really recovered...[uS Vietnam military commander General Paul] Harkins was against it and Lodge wasn't talking to Harkins. So Henry Cabot Lodge started down one direction, the State Department was rather in the middle, and they suddenly called off the coup. Then the next five or six weeks we were all concerned about whether they were going to have a coup, who was going to win the coup, and who was going to replace the government. Nobody ever really had any of the answers to any of these things...the President was trying to get rid of Henry Cabot Lodge...The policy he [Lodge] was following was based on that original policy that had been made and then rescinded...that Averell Harriman was responsible for..."

Edited by Cliff Varnell
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August 24 and November 22 '63 had one interesting thing in common -- nearly everyone at the top levels of the
Administration was out of town.

Ron Ecker has a great article on the Tokyo flight.



With the isolation over the Pacific Ocean of six Cabinet members at the time of the assassination, we need
to consider the activity of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the most important Cabinet official besides
Attorney General Robert Kennedy not on the Tokyo flight. (The other two were the HEW secretary and the
Postmaster General.)

... As incredible as it may seem, the Pentagon left its boss, right there on the premises, totally unaware
of what had happened. McNamara says that in the middle of a budget meeting, "at about 2:00 P.M"
(1:00 P.M. Dallas time), his secretary told him of an urgent personal call. It was from Robert Kennedy, who told
him that JFK had been shot. And can we say that McNamara, finally getting the news from the President's brother,
"acted quickly," to use Manchester's words? No, McNamara says that since "we simply did not know what to do,"
he continued with his meeting on the budget. The meeting was adjourned about 45 minutes later when a second call
came from Robert Kennedy, informing McNamara that JFK was dead.

In sum, the Secretary of Defense, by his own account, did not know that JFK had been shot till about half an hour
after the fact (at which time he took no action whatsoever), and was not informed that the President was dead until
about 45 minutes later. In neither instance did the information come from any Defense Department official inside
or outside of the Pentagon, nor from any alleged copy of a news dispatch. The belated news came solely from outside
calls from the President's brother. Who knows when McNamara might have learned what had happened that day in Dallas
if Bobby Kennedy, who was at home in Hickory Hill, Virginia, hadn't eventually called him? <quote off>

On 11/22/63 there were only 4 cabinet heads in the DC area -- Bobby Kennedy was at home, the head of HEW and the
Postmaster General were far from the levers of power, and Sec of Def was kept in the dark and did nothing.

So...who were the top Kennedy Administration officials of consequence at their desks the afternoon of 11/22/63 doing

their jobs in service of the country?

According to US Gov't succession protocol the top Cabinet post is the State Department.

The #2 man at State on 11/22/63 was George Ball. The #3 man was Averell Harriman.

The two guys most responsible for bum-rushing Cable 243 into play on 8/24 were the top civilian officials on the
job on 11/22.

Harriman's biography asserts as much:

[Harriman] spent the afternoon helping Ball, who was, if anyone truly was, running the United States government, since Rusk
and several other Cabinet members were airborne, coming home after turning back from a flight to the Far East. <quote off>
Spanning the Century, Rudy Abramson, pg 625

Hella co-incidence, innit?

Edited by Cliff Varnell
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