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Vietnam: Declassified audio tapes reveal Kennedy considered supporting coup in South Vietnam, August 1963

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12/14/2009 08:23 AM
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Vietnam: Declassified audio tapes reveal Kennedy considered supporting coup in South Vietnam, August 1963
[link to ionglobaltrends.blogspot.com]

National Security Archive - At a critical moment in August 1963, President John F. Kennedy saw only negative choices on Vietnam, according to new audio recordings and documentation posted today by the National Security Archive. Recently declassified tapes of secret White House meetings on the possibility of U.S. support for a military coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem show that Kennedy believed that if Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu remained a major influence, the war might not succeed. Recognizing that Congress might get "mad" at him for supporting coup-minded Vietnamese generals, Kennedy said that it will "be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain." Thus, Kennedy did not disagree when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said that the U.S. needed to "plan how we make this thing work." The tapes also show that McNamara, long held to have opposed the Diem coup, failed to express such a strong view at the moment of this decision.
The newly declassified tapes are authoritative evidence on U.S. policy toward the Vietnamese coup, and they shed fresh light on one of the most controversial episodes of the American war in Vietnam. In continuation of our previous coverage of this aspect of U.S. policy during the Vietnam war, the National Security Archive is posting the Kennedy tapes and memoranda containing the written accounts of the same National Security Council (NSC) meetings, together with related documents concerning this affair. The episode is covered in considerable detail in William Colby and the CIA: The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster, by National Security Archive fellow John Prados.

The new evidence shows that:

President Kennedy repeatedly pressed for better information regarding the balance of South Vietnamese forces for and against a coup. While President Kennedy expressed reluctance to proceed with a coup that had no chance for success, he agreed with other senior U.S. officials that under the existing Saigon leadership there was no chance of success in the Vietnam war. On the tapes, Kennedy can be heard moderating NSC deliberations that aimed at forging a policy specifically aimed at the Saigon coup.
Kennedy and other top U.S. officials agreed that, at a minimum, Saigon leader Diem had to be made to eject his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and Nhu's wife, Madame Nhu, from the South Vietnamese government. Whether this could be done by diplomatic approaches or required resort to a coup became the focus of much of these NSC deliberations. Even officials opposed to a coup agreed on the necessity to eject Nhu. Defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, who, like President Kennedy, voiced support only for a coup that could succeed, also concurred on the Nhu problem. The range of consensus included U.S. officials who subsequently gained credit for opposing expansion of the Vietnam war, most prominently Undersecretary of State George W. Ball.
Kennedy and his advisers saw proposals to halt U.S. aid to South Vietnam as measures to weaken the Diem government in the face of the South Vietnamese generals or to direct the aid to the Vietnamese military rather than Diem.
Proposals to evacuate Americans from South Vietnam were explicitly linked to the military coup. The tapes reveal that plans for an American withdrawal were created in the context of NSC deliberations on the coup; they became a feature of diplomatic maneuvers to induce Diem to oust Nhu.
The specific U.S. policy choice that Kennedy made—to send Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell D. Taylor on a diplomatic mission to Saigon in September 1963—was prefigured in these NSC discussions. The tapes show that their mission, designed to pressure Diem to get rid of Nhu, originated as a maneuver to achieve the U.S. goal by diplomacy while the South Vietnamese generals recruited more supporters for a coup move.
All these points bear on important aspects of our understanding of the Vietnam war. For example, the tapes' discussion of the purposes for planning an American withdrawal from South Vietnam weakens claims by some that President Kennedy all along intended to get out of the conflict. Though JFK expresses doubts—in the Oval Office on August 29 Kennedy tells his inner circle, "We're up to our hips in mud out there"—the president never forthrightly rejects the Vietnam commitment. In fact Kennedy tells the same group shortly afterwards that while Congress might get "mad" at the U.S. sidling up to the Vietnamese generals, "they'll be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain" (Item 12). President Kennedy's emphasis indicates his determination to fight the war, not abandon it.
The Tapes

The Kennedy tapes concern a series of top level meetings the president held at the White House in late August 1963. The tapes form part of a larger collection of audiotapes by President Kennedy, who had recording systems installed in the Cabinet Room and in his Oval Office respectively in the summer and fall of 1962. Kennedy himself controlled the taping system, using switches located underneath the conference table in the Cabinet Room and in his desk in the Oval Office. JFK recorded his first tape on July 30, 1962. Microphones were concealed in unused light fixture recesses in the Cabinet Room, and in Kennedy's desk in the Oval Office. (Note1) Due to the state of technical development of recording equipment at that time, and to the fact that people recorded on the tapes were speaking from where they stood or sat, not directly into the microphones, the audiotapes are not perfect recordings. Voices can be distant, other noises impinge, and ambient noise sometimes overwhelms the material. In spite of these drawbacks the Kennedy tapes constitute the most authoritative material imaginable, for they record the actual words of President Kennedy and his closest advisers.

Tapes for roughly 248 hours of meetings and 12 hours of telephone calls were given to the Kennedy Library by the former president's estate in 1976, and a last group of dictabelt recordings came to the Library in 1998. The present release is from the original bequest. It is the latest in a series of releases from the Kennedy tapes that began in 1983, when the Library opened to the public segments of audiotape that concerned the Cuban Missile Crisis, beginning with a few conversations transcribed by McGeorge Bundy. Since then there have been periodic additions, and the Kennedy Library adopted a systematic program to process and open the tapes in order, with the goal of completing the work in 2011. Kennedy Library archivists affirm they are on schedule to meet that goal.

Despite the existence of the orderly program, however, the Kennedy Library has repeatedly released material out of sequence when it saw advantage in doing so. The full set of Cuban Missile Crisis tapes were opened between 1994 and 1997 (Note 2), tapes bearing on civil rights were released a few years ago (Note 3), and the Kennedy tapes of meetings during the final period before and during the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem were opened as long ago as 1999. (Note 4) Considering the historical importance of Kennedy's August Vietnam tapes, and given the existence of a procedure at the Library for requesting an early review of tapes, this analyst asked for such a review in 2000. The Kennedy Library took no action. The present release represents the result of the Library's orderly program. The fact that the Kennedy Library chose to make a wide release of these tapes to the public and to post them on its Web site is an acknowledgement that it does, after all, recognize the historical importance of these audiotapes.

The item descriptions below describe why the tapes are the most authoritative record, for they show many instances where the written memoranda of the meetings differ from what was actually said. The lead written record of each meeting (normally from Bromley Smith of the NSC staff but in one instance from General Victor D. Krulak, an assistant to Maxwell Taylor) is annotated by archivist Maura Porter of the Kennedy Library with minute:second times for passages of the meeting portrayed in the memorandum. This added value makes the audiotapes easier to follow.

There is LOTS more at the link above including Documents and Audio Clips