“We need a way to get out of Vietnam. This is a way of doing it. And to leave forces there when they’re not needed, I think, is wasteful, and it complicates both their problems and ours.” 2
It was a remarkable plea for the time and place—and especially for the person making it. Speaking to President John F. Kennedy and national security officials at the White House in October 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara declared that the United States needed an exit strategy for the war in Vietnam. His position ran contrary to the administration’s public embrace of the struggle as part of the Cold War contest with international communism. But with Washington training the South Vietnamese to assume the burden of fighting Vietnamese Communists, and with Congress criticizing both the Saigon government and the continued provision of U.S. aid, the time had come, McNamara believed, to begin to wind down the American commitment to Vietnam.
Equally remarkable, Kennedy’s tape-recording system captured McNamara’s candid remarks—a boon to the historical record, since no formal memoranda of the meeting exists. In fact, of the 28 dedicated conversations on Vietnam that Kennedy recorded from July 1962 through November 1963—the period during which he secretly taped his telephone calls, meetings, and inner thoughts—15 recordings provide the only accounts of those exchanges.
This collection—Kennedy and Vietnam—includes 26 conversations from May to November 1963 and offers an extraordinary window into White House decision-making during a liminal phase of the American war in Vietnam. 3
The contours of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy had been established at the outset of his presidency. Entering the Oval Office with the Vietnamese Communist movement in the ascendant—North Vietnam had established the National Liberation Front (NLF) in December 1960 to unify the country and to overthrow President Ngô Đinh Diệm's non-Communist Government of [South] Vietnam (GVN)—JFK soon ramped up U.S. aid to Saigon. By May 1961, White House directives and task force meetings had established a Presidential Program to bolster the South. American personnel would provide greater intelligence, communications, and military support, especially in training Saigon’s military and irregular units. Although Washington’s nation-building had focused previously on Diệm’s civilian and military sectors, visits by Kennedy officials that spring and summer had led the United States to prioritize security assistance over economic and administrative aid.
By the fall of 1961, however, Diệm faced increasing pressure from Communist guerrillas, and his authority had eroded in much of the countryside. Worried about the regional and global implications of Saigon’s collapse—the fear of falling dominoes had been a recurrent theme in the American narrative about Vietnam—the United States entered into a limited partnership with the Ngô regime. U.S. troops would now support the Republic of [South] Vietnam (RVN) in even greater numbers, accompanied by helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and improvements in communications and intelligence. 4
These troops would also serve within an upgraded command structure. In place of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) that had operated since Diệm’s rise to power in the mid-1950s, U.S. servicemen now functioned as part of a Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), with a four-star general replacing a three-star officer at the helm. Troop numbers grew accordingly, from 685 advisers in country at the start of Kennedy’s term to over 3,000 by early 1962. Their support of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF), and especially of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), would expand throughout the year as the U.S. military presence climbed to roughly 9,000 advisers by the end of 1962.
These changes in the structure and number of U.S. forces raised the stakes of America’s commitment to South Vietnam. Although Kennedy had taken several steps to convince Saigon of that commitment—dispatching senior officials to Saigon; offering Diệm substantial administrative, economic, and military assistance; and repeatedly pledging Washington’s support for his war against the Communists—no expression of resolve matched the value of sending U.S. troops to Vietnam. The presence of these servicemen testified to America’s seriousness of purpose as Washington looked to raise South Vietnamese morale and to enhance U.S. credibility in the Cold War struggle with international communism.
Efforts were also afoot to redress Diệm’s political fortunes, especially in the countryside. Principally, these activities revolved around the Strategic Hamlet Program, an initiative that emerged in late 1961 and early 1962 to separate the Communists from the rest of the population and engender fealty toward Saigon. Diệm had launched an earlier project to erect fortified villages and secure increasing swathes of the countryside, but the defects of his initial effort carried over into the new one. Uprooting families from their ancestral lands, forcing them to build their own settlements with insufficient guidance and resources, and leaving them vulnerable to attack, the program would eventually collapse under its own weight. But patchy success and doctored statistics convinced many of its value, at least at the outset. 5 Its emphasis on securing the population and winning hearts and minds garnered wide support among Kennedy officials, as it reflected current thinking about counterinsurgency warfare. President Kennedy himself was enamored of the approach, as it dovetailed with his understanding of life on the New Frontier—the set of novel challenges he saw emerging during the 1960s. The decade’s wars, he sensed, would likely be fought in the fields, streams, and jungles of developing nations rather than in the towns and cities of the industrialized world. 6
The first conversation Kennedy recorded about the war in Vietnam took place on 25 September 1962, when he reviewed civilian and military matters with General Maxwell D. Taylor. Hearing from Taylor about his recent trip to the Far East, Kennedy received a positive report on developments in South Vietnam. Although the incoming chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) reported a lift in national morale, Taylor struggled to answer his own question of “How are we doing out there?” U.S. officials were “always asking ourselves that,” he confessed, but “we have never had a very good way to answer except by feel.” Questionnaires had been distributed to military officials, but surveys had yet to address political matters. The absence of that information, as well as the means for gaining an accurate picture of it, would plague the partnership throughout its duration. 7
Kennedy would not tape another conversation on Vietnam until early January 1963. During much of the intervening period, developments in Cuba, where the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles capable of striking most of the continental United States, consumed his attention. The President ultimately came through that crisis with high marks, having convinced Moscow to crate its missiles, as well as other offensive weapons it deployed to the island, and return them to Russia. Although Washington remained concerned about Soviet activities in Cuba well into 1963, Kennedy’s approval ratings rose; in the eyes of the nation, he had stared down the Kremlin and prevailed. 8
By the start of the new year, however, developments in South Vietnam were back in the news, threatening JFK’s public standing. A military engagement with Communist forces at Ấp Bắc, some 30 miles southwest of Saigon, had gone poorly for the RVNAF, and pictures of American helicopters downed in the battle appeared in the media. While militarily insignificant itself, the battle highlighted defects that had long worried U.S. advisers and would plague ARVN’s performance for years to come. Fallout from Ấp Bắc featured prominently in an 8 January 1963 conversation with key advisers and legislators during which Kennedy bemoaned media criticism of the South Vietnamese.9 Concerns about press coverage and progress in the war resurfaced in a 15 January 1963 conversation between Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That exchange, in which the Chiefs expressed a desire to take the war to North Vietnam, helped to launch another fact-finding mission to South Vietnam. Headed by Army Chief of Staff General Earle G. Wheeler, this trip provided Kennedy with an upbeat review of the counterinsurgency, as well as a more sanguine account of what took place at Ấp Bắc. 10
Kennedy did not record another meeting specifically on Vietnam until 7 May 1963—the first conversation included in this collection. By then, the U.S. relationship with Saigon had deteriorated, not only because of Ấp Bắc and its treatment in the press, but because of two additional developments, one public and one private. In late February, Congress released a report from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield [D–Montana], who had toured Vietnam the previous fall at Kennedy’s request. Mansfield had already briefed Kennedy on his findings in December 1962, but the public now learned that the senator, a one-time supporter of Diệm, found South Vietnam no better off than it was a decade earlier; in fact, he said, “we are once again at the beginning of the beginning.” 11 The Mansfield Report unnerved Diệm and his brother, political counselor Ngô Đinh Nhu, who feared it signaled a coming diminution of U.S. support. The Ngôs went on the offensive, privately criticizing the heavy-handed actions of U.S. advisers and vowing to thin out their presence in the country. To officials on the receiving end of those démarches, including U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick E. “Fritz” Nolting Jr., they were a worrying sign.
But Kennedy officials were already contemplating the prospect of an American troop withdrawal. McNamara had initiated planning to reduce the U.S. profile in July 1962, aiming to conclude the special assistance effort by the end of 1965. Several considerations, including Kennedy’s own interest in a force reduction, had led him to move in that direction. As the President put it in April 1962, he “wished us to be prepared to seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our involvement, recognizing that the moment might yet be some time away.” 12 McNamara likely understood these private comments, as well as Kennedy’s public remarks about the war being Saigon’s to win, as a signal to plan for the phaseout of U.S. troops. The two may have spoken directly about withdrawal and Kennedy’s desire to plan for that eventuality. 13
The idea also appealed to McNamara for parochial reasons, since it aligned with his broader objectives at the Pentagon. His pursuit of a more systematized approach for departmental programming had led him to adopt an array of cost controls, planning schedules, and new budgeting guidelines. Applied to Vietnam, that discipline sought to impose greater rigor on the entire effort, elements of which had emerged piecemeal and needed to be stitched together. McNamara’s July 1962 directive to plan for the removal of American troops helped to transform an ad hoc response into a more organized program. By January 1963, it had yielded the Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam (CPSVN), a conceptual framework that outlined the full trajectory of U.S. support for Saigon.14
Planning for an American withdrawal accelerated thereafter. McNamara briefed Kennedy on those arrangements in a 7 May 1963 Oval Office conversation, one day after the Secretary met with military and civilian officials in Honolulu, Hawaii. This White House conversation featured a frank exchange about a timetable for Saigon’s victory over the NLF, as well as about the departure of U.S. forces from Vietnam—a withdrawal McNamara hoped to launch with the removal of 1,000 troops by the end of 1963. Although Kennedy expressed interest in an early, token withdrawal, he thought it should take place only in the context of military success.
That question of context—the conditions under which Kennedy would have pursued a U.S. force reduction—has long animated debate about Kennedy and Vietnam. Several Kennedy aides recorded oral histories years later, recollecting the President’s thoughts on the matter, but real-time evidence for JFK’s position is thin.15 The 7 May 1963 conversation, therefore, marks one of the earliest and most concrete instances of Kennedy speaking about the disposition of U.S. troops in Vietnam.
The following day, in the old imperial capital of Huế, RVN soldiers attacked Vietnamese Buddhists who had assembled to celebrate the birthday of the Gautama Buddha. The incident transformed the political dynamics of South Vietnam and, by extension, the U.S. effort to assist Saigon. Although the government and the Buddhists took halting steps to resolve their differences, the ensuing Buddhist Crisis destabilized South Vietnamese politics, generating further unease in Washington over the Diệm regime and the fate of the war.
Kennedy would not record another conversation on Vietnam for roughly two months, but developments in the interim would alter the relationship between Washington and Saigon. Diệm and Nhu went public in mid-May with their call to reduce U.S. forces, pressing their case in the American media. Kennedy responded by noting his willingness to oblige if Saigon submitted a formal request for a troop reduction.16 The frictions inherent in these exchanges paled beside the ones associated with the Buddhist Crisis itself. By mid-June, they had increased dramatically with the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk. Images of the martyrdom, which appeared in the global press, hardened perceptions that the United States supported a regime engaged in religious repression.
Although the expanding crisis created difficult optics for the United States, Kennedy’s primary concern was how the crisis would impact the war. Indeed, what really mattered to him was not the morality of the Saigon regime but its ability to defeat the Communists.17 Kennedy’s appraisal of the war and of Diệm’s capacity for prosecuting it more effectively thus became central to real-time and retrospective judgments about his policy toward Vietnam. To signal his frustration with accommodating Diệm, JFK replaced Ambassador Nolting with Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the former Massachusetts senator, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Republican aspirant to the vice presidency. The imperious Lodge would take a harder line than Nolting in his attempt to leverage better performance out of Saigon.
Still, Kennedy’s appraisal of the war, both then and later, remained unclear. Textual evidence for JFK’s assessment is scant, and most accounts rely on oral histories and memoirs for insight. Kennedy’s presidential recordings, therefore, add greatly to the evidentiary base. Several tapes suggest a mildly bullish perspective. In a 4 July 1963 conversation with key officials from the State Department, the White House, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Kennedy maintained that “what we’re trying to do is to doing pretty well [sic].” This statement affirmed what Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger Hilsman Jr. had concluded earlier in the conversation, that the war “continues to go well in spite of the Buddhist crisis.”18
Kennedy likewise defended the GVN in a 15 August 1963 conversation with Lodge, criticizing news accounts—at length—for depicting Diệm as a failing force. Reminding Lodge that reporters had been wrong in 1961 about Diệm’s ability to prevail against the Communists, Kennedy cast the current crop of journalists in Vietnam as young and inexperienced and in almost a “neurotic state of mind.” He did acknowledge the disparity between pessimistic accounts appearing in the press and more optimistic reports coming through official channels. 19 But given his criticism of the media in Saigon, his comments suggest a reflex to downplay gloomy reports on both Diệm and the war, if not an impulse to embrace sunnier appraisals.
Kennedy’s complaints about the press continued to frame his assessment of progress in Vietnam, most dramatically in the context of planning to overthrow the Diệm government. Speculation about Diệm’s staying power had intensified as the Buddhist Crisis deepened that summer, but by the third week of August, matters had reached an acute stage. Following Diệm’s imposition of martial law on 21 August 1963 and a GVN crackdown on Buddhists, students, and other critics of the regime, U.S. officials instructed Lodge in a 24 August 1963 cable to “urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and to make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diệm’s replacement if this should become necessary.” They also directed Lodge to inform dissident military officials that the United States would continue to support South Vietnam in the event of a coup.20 Two days later, during the first White House meeting on the incipient coup, Kennedy bemoaned the impact of media commentary on Diệm’s fortunes. Again he railed against reporters who, in 1961, had predicted Diệm’s imminent collapse, noting that absent the Buddhist Crisis and the declaration of martial law, the counterinsurgency was “really on the upswing.” During this conversation on 26 August 1963, he criticized journalists who were “just not right very often” for dictating the terms of U.S. policy.21 As for the impact of the Buddhist Crisis on the war, Kennedy heard on 27 August 1963 from Major General Victor H. Krulak, the Joint Chiefs’ special assistant for counterinsurgency, who reported “a slight degradation” in Vietnamese operations but not a dramatic one. According to former ambassador Nolting, the current crisis likely would not have much effect in the countryside over the next two to three months.22
Nevertheless, questions about progress in the war remained tied to appraisals of the Diệm regime. Several officials at the State Department, including George W. Ball, W. Averell Harriman, and Roger Hilsman, as well as Michael V. Forrestal at the White House, believed that South Vietnam would lose the war if Diệm and Nhu remained in power. Their remarks on 28 August 1963 suggest that even those dubious of Diệm still believed the war was progressing favorably, although they expected his continued presence atop the government to ultimately sink Saigon’s fortunes. 23
As for Kennedy, he returned to the virtues of remaining in the fight, a stance he had maintained throughout his time in office. In mid-July, he declared that the United States was “not going to withdraw” from Vietnam and that an American departure “would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.”24 In the midst of discussions with senior officials on 29 August 1963, the President again highlighted the stakes involved. After minimizing the human costs of the fight—the United States had suffered only 100 casualties in Vietnam while “losing 3,500 a year . . . in accidents”—Kennedy referenced the perils of abandoning one’s allies, even troublesome ones.25 Yes, Congress and others were “mad at this situation,” but “they’ll be madder if South Vietnam goes down the drain.” It was just like China: “Everybody’s mad at Chiang Kai-shek until it’s too late.”26
But it was not too late for Diệm—at least not yet. Before the week was out, the coup that dissident ARVN generals had been organizing, and that American officials were prepared to support, collapsed. Kennedy thus left Washington to spend Labor Day weekend in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, while his advisers assessed America’s posture toward Saigon. The administration’s most public expression came during JFK’s subsequent interview with CBS News anchor Walter L. Cronkite Jr. at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. Suggesting that changes in policy and personnel might enhance Saigon’s chances of winning its war, Kennedy nonetheless delivered mixed messages about America’s role in the conflict. The war, he said, was South Vietnam’s to win or lose. But he vowed to remain engaged in the fight, adding that it would be “a great mistake” for the United States to withdraw. 27
Back in Washington on 3 September 1963, Kennedy explored the way forward with Diệm. The administration’s choices were limited, as the relationship now was marked by even greater mutual suspicion. Options included the departure from South Vietnam, at least for an extended period, of Saigon’s two most polarizing figures: political counselor Ngô Đinh Nhu and his wife, Trần Lệ Xuân, also known as Madame Nhu. But the Kennedy administration would reach for more substantial measures, including economic ones, as it considered leveraging Diệm into better performance. It partnered with Congress in that effort, working with Senator Frank F. Church [D–Idaho] on a Senate resolution condemning Saigon and threatening to cut off American aid. But whether that action or any other could achieve U.S. objectives remained uncertain. As Hilsman put it, they were engaged in a “negotiation” with the Ngôs over how far to push them in reforming their practices. 28
To calibrate their efforts, the administration needed better information on South Vietnam’s political climate and its prosecution of the war. Kennedy thus sent representatives from the State and Defense Departments on yet another fact-finding mission to Vietnam. The report they delivered on 10 September 1963 reflected the fissures forming within the administration over its approach to Diệm and the course of the war. Whereas Major General Krulak highlighted continuing progress in the countryside, political counselor Joseph A. Mendenhall focused on deteriorating conditions in the cities. Office of Rural Affairs chief Rufus C. Phillips III also expressed concerns, particularly about developments in the Mekong Delta. It was a troubling account, according to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who had assumed that the war was “going well and that the thing was under—was moving positively.” The outlook now appeared more ambiguous. 29
Reflecting these mixed reviews, the President delivered an equivocal appraisal of the war. Sensing that Krulak and Mendenhall were “probably both right,” Kennedy indicated in an 11 September 1963 exchange that “a real deterioration” in the counterinsurgency had yet to materialize but might occur several months hence. As a result, he thought the United States should “take some reprisals,” though not “noisy ones.”30 He maintained that position into the following week when he resolved on 17 September 1963 to send a follow-up mission to South Vietnam, this time headed by the more senior team of McNamara and Taylor. Although evidence of a flagging effort was not apparent, Kennedy wanted McNamara and Taylor, following their inspection tour, to “come back and make some proposals” that “would help us with the country.” Then they could “go to the Congress and give a very much more up-to-date report. And that would seem to me to be the best thing for us to do. And I think it would look well here and be valuable out there.” 31
Two days later, in a 19 September 1963 preparatory meeting for the trip, President Kennedy heard from McNamara, Taylor, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy about the wisdom of setting a time limit on the U.S. assistance effort in Vietnam. According to the available evidence, this meeting included the most explicit and extended exchange about withdrawal that Kennedy had participated in since planning for the drawdown began in July 1962. Taylor envisioned telling Diệm that “it’s not only that we have to win with you, Mr. President [Diệm], we have to win fairly soon. Because this cannot be an indefinite proposition,” especially with the pressures “being generated at home.” Bundy concurred, with Taylor and McNamara proposing to show Diệm “that we do have a plan for getting out of there at the time of success,” which they had “worked out in some detail.” Kennedy sidestepped the issue entirely, preferring to focus on Madame Nhu and her proposed trip abroad.32
Yet Taylor and McNamara again raised the matter of withdrawal on 23 September 1963, prior to their departure for Vietnam later that day. This time, when Taylor proposed to inform Diệm that Washington was “just not willing to carry forward this enterprise indefinitely,” JFK rose to the bait. Diệm had been hearing those arguments for almost a decade, Kennedy said, and the better tack would be to relay Taylor’s professional assessment that the war, if it indeed looked “lousy,” was in danger of being lost. But McNamara pressed the issue. “I think we can tell him we have plans for withdrawal of our forces when military success warrants it. We’d like to get them out, just as much as he’d love to get them out. We hope that before the end of the year, we can begin to withdraw if the military situation improves, as we hope and believe it can.” Taylor wanted to “lay out a schedule” for Diệm and “show our plans to withdraw and say this is what we’re going to stay on. We have to win the war in this time frame.” But Kennedy remained unconvinced, believing “it’d be better to emphasize what the United States has done for ten years and what we’ve particularly done [ unclear] out there.”33
McNamara and Taylor never did reveal to Diệm the schedule for withdrawal at the heart of their planning for Vietnam, but they built it into the report they delivered to Kennedy in writing and then in person upon their return to Washington on Wednesday, 2 October 1963. Pressed by Bundy to defend the withdrawal of 1,000 troops by the end of the year, McNamara made it central to the emerging U.S. policy. “We need a way to get out of Vietnam,” he said, “and this is a way of doing it. And to leave forces there when they’re not needed, I think, is wasteful, and it complicates both their problems and ours.” It was a plan they could activate regardless of the war’s progress, he said, as they could train the Vietnamese to assume the roles carried out by U.S. advisers. As to whether they should get “publicly pinned to a date,” Taylor thought that the war would be over by 1964, except for the Mekong Delta, where Saigon was expected to prevail by the end of 1965. Kennedy accepted that timetable. But if 1965 “doesn’t work out,” he said, “we’ll get a new date.” Still, McNamara was undeterred. “We must have a means of disengaging from this area,” he argued, and “we must show our country that means.” If the administration could not meet that schedule “in the sense of ending the major military campaigns, we nonetheless can withdraw the bulk of our U.S. forces, according to the schedule we’ve laid out—worked out—because we can train the Vietnamese to do the job.” 34
With the White House now settled on pursuing an end date in two years’ time, Kennedy and his advisers sought to draft a public statement to that effect. They began the process that Wednesday morning and continued editing into the afternoon. Their efforts occasioned serious pushback from mid-level officials who questioned the wisdom of announcing a deadline for U.S. assistance. 35 The President also probed the value of affirming those dates in public. During the evening National Security Council session of 2 October 1963, Kennedy wondered about the virtues of publicizing the thousand-man withdrawal scheduled for December 1963. “My only reservation about it,” he said, was that it committed the United States to a reduction regardless of military conditions:
President Kennedy: If the war doesn’t continue to go well, it’ll look like we were overly optimistic, and I don’t—I’m not sure we—I’d like to know what benefit we get out at this time announcing a thousand.
McNamara: Mr. President, we have the thousand split by units, so that if the war doesn’t go well, we can say these thousand would not have influenced the course of action.
President Kennedy: And the advantage of—
McNamara: And the advantage of taking them out is that we can say to the Congress and people that we do have a plan for reducing the exposure of U.S. combat personnel to the guerrilla actions in South Vietnam—actions that the people of South Vietnam should gradually develop a capability to suppress themselves. And I think this will be of great value to us in meeting the very strong views of [J. William “Bill”] Fulbright [D–Arkansas] and others that we’re bogged down in Asia and will be there for decades.36
Satisfied with McNamara’s argument, Kennedy preserved the withdrawal clause in the White House statement, bringing the administration’s “civil war” on Vietnam policy, as Bundy had termed it that afternoon, to a close.
The administration announced its policy, replete with the prospective withdrawals, following the Wednesday evening meeting. Media response was largely unkind, criticizing officials for their unwarranted optimism and for telegraphing U.S. intentions. This irked Kennedy sufficiently to prompt him to revisit those presumptions in a 5 October 1963 discussion about the sanctions they would impose on Diệm. If the war was going “horribly,” he said, “just from the public point of view [ unclear] withdrawing would seem illogical.” To accommodate Kennedy’s concerns, McNamara signaled that the thousand-man withdrawal could proceed without fanfare; troops could be withdrawn through either “normal attrition” or “normal rotation,” as he and Kennedy phrased it.37 Along with the policy now proceeding in a low-key fashion, officials acknowledged the precarious state of the war and Washington’s continuing, though limited, commitment to it.
With the White House having established a consensus position on Vietnam, Kennedy stepped back from continued discussion of its particulars. But reports of coup planning reemerged near the end of October, leading Kennedy to conduct daily meetings once again on the renewed crisis. The President taped many of those sessions, which focused more on tactical matters than on strategic concerns. Still, assessments of the war factored into the discussions. Speaking on 25 October 1963, McNamara thought the administration should preserve its sanctions regime since the rationales for easing those pressures—“either a weakening of the economy or a weakening of the war effort”—had yet to take root. 38 In fact, on 29 October 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy affirmed that the war “was going reasonably well.” It made little sense, therefore, “to risk the whole future of the United States in that area” on “flimsy reports” of anti-Diệm activity. Taylor agreed, as he found “absolutely no suggestion the military didn’t have their heart thoroughly in the war, and very little in politics in Saigon.” Moreover, “even a successful coup” would result in “an immediate setback to the conduct of the war,” owing to the inexperience of the new government and the expected turnover of province chiefs. CIA director John A. McCone thought likewise.39
But U.S. officials also feared—now more than ever—that Diệm’s continued rule would lead to defeat. As Rusk put it on 30 October 1963, “I think we’re on a downward slope at the present time,” and without a change in government, the situation would deteriorate. Bundy and Harriman agreed, pointing to a new CIA assessment that “we can no longer be confident that we can achieve victory over the Vietcong in the foreseeable future.” The President’s subsequent comments suggest that he, too, might have shared this belief, though his language was elliptical. At the very least, he acknowledged, the United States had “contributed to the weakening of the [South Vietnamese] government.”40
The South Vietnamese generals launched their coup two days later, capping it on 2 November with the assassinations of Diệm and Nhu. Kennedy reflected on these events in an audio memorandum recorded on Monday, 4 November 1963. He assigned the United States “a good deal of responsibility” for the coup, faulting his management of the policy process for allowing an ill-considered initiative to move forward. In memorializing that history on tape, Kennedy offered his own views on the war: its progress had yet to deteriorate, though it likely would do so in the future. That was why McNamara and Taylor had “supported applying additional pressures” on the Diệm regime. 41 But Kennedy was silent on what he thought of the war after their return.
Although Diệm had started to move in the direction Washington desired, the pressures sanctioned by Kennedy apparently weighed more heavily on the coup plotters themselves. According to General Trần Văn Đôn, “The coup was a Vietnamese movement for which the U.S. decision to suspend aid created the climate.” But more than just economic sanctions were at work. As Đôn intimated just days before the coup, “The only way to win before the Americans leave in 1965 was to change the present regime.” 42 In other words, the prospect of withdrawal, in addition to the sanctions, had upended the politics of South Vietnam—if not wholly in the ways the administration wanted.
Kennedy’s 4 November memoir was the last recording he made on U.S. policy in Vietnam. He did address the subject in the weeks that followed, notably in a 14 November 1963 press conference in which he said that Washington would soon “assess the situation: what American policy should be, and what our aid policy should be, how we can intensify the struggle, how we can bring Americans out of there.” As for how many U.S. troops would return, Kennedy hoped to withdraw “several hundred before the end of the year,” though the exact number would await deliberations of civilian and military officials in Hawaii. The 1963 withdrawal of American forces thus remained operative, even as Kennedy hedged on its timing and size.43
One week later, as the President prepared to leave on a campaign trip to Texas, he mused about Vietnam policy with NSC staffer Michael Forrestal, his chief White House aide on Southeast Asia. According to Forrestal, Kennedy expressed dissatisfaction with the state of strategic thought on Vietnam and hoped to review it upon his return to Washington. Although he betrayed no impulse to dramatically change his approach, Kennedy was “getting very nervous about it.” Forrestal made those remarks in late 1969, at a time when Americans had fully soured on a war that the United States remained heavily engaged in fighting. Two years later, when Forrestal embellished his recollections by suggesting that Kennedy had begun considering “some kind of a gradual shift” in the American footprint, the United States was actively engaged in winding down its effort. By then even more Americans believed it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to Vietnam. 44
Whatever Kennedy thought about his future policy toward Vietnam—and the debate over his intentions remains vigorous—he bequeathed a program that greatly expanded the one he inherited. 45 U.S. funding for economic and military assistance jumped from roughly $225 billion in Fiscal Year 1961 to over $470 billion by Fiscal Year 1963. A scattershot military and assistance effort morphed into a more systematic limited partnership. A military assistance advisory group grew into a military assistance command, with a four-star general replacing a three-star. And U.S. military advisers ballooned in number from under 700 in 1961 to almost 17,000 by the end of 1963. 46 Kennedy’s rhetoric matched those realities. While he repeatedly framed the war as Saigon’s to win or lose, he also described it as one that Americans needed to support and sustain. The tensions in that position would remain throughout his time in office.
This essay draws on themes and arguments appearing in Marc J. Selverstone, The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022).
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 2 October 1963,” Tape 114 A/49, John F. Kennedy Library (JFKL), Papers of John F. Kennedy (JFK Papers), President’s Office Files (POF), Presidential Recordings Collection (PRC), Presidential Recordings Digital Edition (PRDE) [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Ken Hughes and Marc J. Selverstone] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–), https://prde.upress.virginia.edu/.
Two earlier conversations, from 15 January 1963 and 2 February 1963, are accessible via PRDE. Conversations about related matters in Southeast Asia, focusing on developments in Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia, await the Miller Center’s further transcription.
For overviews of this period, see Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diệm and JFK Prolonged the War in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 13–142; Selverstone, The Kennedy Withdrawal, 19–51.
For accounts of the Strategic Hamlet Program, see Philip E. Catton, Diệm’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 129–53; Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngô Đinh Diệm, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 231–44.
For background on counterinsurgency warfare, see Douglas S. Blaufarb, The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance, 1950 to the Present (New York: Free Press, 1977); Jeffrey Woods, “Counterinsurgency,” in A Companion to John F. Kennedy, ed. Marc J. Selverstone (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 436–57.
“Meeting with Maxwell Taylor on His Far Eastern Trip on 25 September 1962,” Tape 23, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [The Great Crises, vol. 2, ed. Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–), http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/8020012.
See Timothy Naftali and Alexander Fursenko, “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998); Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (New York: Vintage, 2009); Martin J. Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Knopf, 2020).
“Foreign Policy Briefing for Legislative Leaders on 8 January 1963,” Tapes 69.1 and 69.2, JFKL, POF, PRC, PRDE [The Winds of Change, vol. 6, ed. David Coleman] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–), https://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/8060013.
“Meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 15 January 1963,” Tape 69.3, JFKL, POF, PRC, PRDE [The Winds of Change, vol. 6, ed. David Coleman] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–), http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/8060015. For Wheeler’s assessment, see “Report by an Investigative Team Headed by the Chief of Staff, United States Army (Wheeler), to the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter FRUS): Vietnam, January–August 1963, ed. Edward C. Keefer and Louis J. Smith (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office [GPO], 1991), 3:73–95, doc. 26.
“Report by the Senate Majority Leader (Mansfield),” 18 December 1962, U.S. Department of State, FRUS: Vietnam, 1962, ed. John P. Glennon, David M. Baehler, and Charles S. Sampson (Washington, DC: GPO, 1990), 2:779, doc. 330, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v02/d330.
“Memorandum of Conversation between the President and the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Harriman),” 6 April 1962, FRUS, 1962, 2:309–10, doc. 148, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v02/d148.
Robert S. McNamara, with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1995), 48.
For the first iteration of the CPSVN, see “Memorandum from the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Felt) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” 25 January 1963, FRUS, January–August 1963, 3:25–49, doc. 18, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v03/d18.
See, for instance, Michael V. Forrestal Oral History, 3 November 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson Library (hereafter LBJL); Roswell L. Gilpatric Oral History, 2 November 1982, LBJL; Roger Hilsman Oral History, 14 August 1970, JFKL; Robert S. McNamara Oral History, 24 July 1986, McNamara Papers, Speeches & Writings, Interviews, Transcripts 1986, Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office, Library of Congress.
Selverstone, The Kennedy Withdrawal, 126–28.
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 23 September 1963,” Meeting Tape 112, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 4 July 1963,” Meeting Tape 96, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. on 15 August 1963,” Meeting Tape 104, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam,” 24 August 1963, in FRUS, January–August 1963, 3: doc. 281, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v03/d281.
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 26 August 1963,” Meeting Tape 107/A42, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 27 August 1963,” Meeting Tape 107/A42, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 28 August 1963,” Meeting Tapes 107/A42 and 108/A43, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“The President’s News Conference of July 17, 1963,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (hereafter PPPUS: JFK) (Washington, DC: GPO, 1964), 569, doc. 305.
Kennedy does not elaborate on what he meant by “accidents,” but it is more likely that he meant accidents among active-duty soldiers, which numbered between 2,100 to 2,500 by 1980 (the earliest date for which there are reliable figures)—rather than automobile accidents, which numbered over 43,000 in 1963. See Defense Casualty Analysis System, “U.S. Active Duty Military Deaths by Year and Manner, 1980–2022 (As of August 2023),” https://dcas.dmdc.osd.mil/dcas/app/summaryData/deaths/byYearManner; U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Vital Statistics of the United States, 1963, vol. 2, Mortality, part A (Washington, DC: GPO, 1965), online via Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsus/mort63_2a.pdf.
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 29 August 1963,” Meeting Tape 108/A43, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Transcript of a Broadcast with Walter Cronkite Inaugurating CBS Television News Program,” 2 September 1963, in PPPUS: JFK, p. 652, doc. 340.
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 3 September 1963,” Meeting Tape 108/A43, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 10 September 1963,” Meeting Tape 109, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 11 September 1963,” Meeting Tape 110, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 17 September 1963,” Meeting Tape 111, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 19 September 1963,” Meeting Tape 111, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 23 September 1963,” Meeting Tape 112, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 2 October 1963 (morning),” Meeting Tape 114/A49, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone]. This was an early example of what the United States, during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, would label “Vietnamization.”
Selverstone, The Kennedy Withdrawal, 176–78.
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 2 October 1963 (evening),” Meeting Tape 114/A49, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 5 October 1963,” Meeting Tape 114/A50, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 25 October 1963,” Meeting Tape 117/A53, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 29 October 1963,” Meeting Tape 118/A54, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“Meeting with National Security Officials on 30 October 1963,” Meeting Tape 118/A54, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
“President Kennedy Dictation on 4 November 1963,” Dictabelt 52.1, JFKL, JFK Papers, POF, PRC, PRDE [Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Hughes and Selverstone].
Selverstone, The Kennedy Withdrawal, 196.
“The President’s News Conference,” 14 November 1963, in PPPUS: JFK, pp. 847–58, doc. 459.
Michael Forrestal Oral History, 3 November 1969, pp. 6–7, LBJL; Forrestal in “Vietnam Hindsight, Part II: The Death of Diệm,” NBC News White Paper, 22 December 1971, Act XI, 20–21. By late 1969, fully 58 percent of Americans had deemed it “a mistake” to have sent U.S. forces to Vietnam. Two years later, that number climbed to over 60 percent. Joseph Carroll, “The Iraq-Vietnam Comparison,” Gallup, 15 June 2004, https://news.gallup.com/poll/11998/iraqvietnam-comparison.aspx.
For key texts exploring Kennedy’s intentions, see Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1978); John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York: Warner Books, 1992); Fredrick Logevall, “Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been,” in Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited, ed. Mark White (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 19–62; Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diệm and Kennedy Prolonged the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (Boston: Little, Brown, 2003); James K. Galbraith, “Exit Strategy,” Boston Review (October/November 2003); James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008); James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang, and David A. Welch, Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009); Selverstone, The Kennedy Withdrawal.
Douglas C. Dacy, Foreign Aid, War, and Economic Development: South Vietnam, 1955–1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 200.