THE DIEM COUP AFTER 50 YEARS
JOHN F. KENNEDY AND SOUTH VIETNAM, 1963
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 444
An update to EBB No. 302
Posted -- November 1, 2013
Edited by John Prados
For more information contact:
John Prados 202/994 7000 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington, D.C., November 1, 2013 -- Continued investigation of the presidency of John F. Kennedy further strengthens the view that the origins of U.S. support for the coup which overthrew South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem 50 years ago today traces directly to President Kennedy, not to a "cabal" of top officials in his administration. As the documents posted by the National Security Archive in 2009 and new material posted today indicates, the often-told story that a "cabal" of senior officials, in combination with U.S. ambassador to Saigon Henry Cabot Lodge, were responsible for the coup is a myth.
The 2009 posting (below) used the then-newly released audiotapes of President Kennedy's discussions on South Vietnam in late August 1963, combined with the declassified documents on the same meetings, and the State Department cables to Saigon bearing instructions for Ambassador Lodge, to show that Washington officials acted in unison in determining the U.S. approach. Additional evidence presented here supports this conclusion.
The additional evidence combined with the 2009 evidence demonstrates:
* Senior officials who, in a widely-held standard view, were supposed to have come together to excoriate the "cabal" for making an "end-run" around the bureaucracy in securing approval for the coup policy, did not act any differently after revelation of the maneuver than before. If anything, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), by the traditional account the most steadfast opponent of a coup, cooperated more closely with State Department members of the cabal after the NSC meeting where the coup policy had supposedly been denounced. At that meeting John McCone, the CIA director, said nothing.
* The pro-coup sentiment at the administration's highest levels. Notes that national security assistant McGeorge Bundy wrote on a CIA report during a crucial 28 August 1963 meeting indicate the degree of pro-coup thinking. The notes include Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's statement that the problem was "how to make the thing work" and Undersecretary of State George Ball's advice to "let it go as it is." According to Bundy's notes, the "worst thing we can do is leave it [the Saigon political situation] that way." The notes include a "Principle of Action," which was "we should never encourage them [the South Vietnamese generals] and then let it fail.".
* No official disagreed with the observation, made by Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger A. Hilsman, at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting on August 26, 1963, that "we are all in agreement that Nhu must go," referring to Ngo Dinh Diem's brother and chief operative. President Kennedy wanted to guarantee a coup would work. "We just want to be sure," Kennedy said.
* When the NSC decided, on August 27, to hold off on U.S. action, it was in possession of new information from the CIA that the South Vietnamese generals themselves had decided to delay their maneuver. The Kennedy administration used the additional time to take measures designed to ensure U.S. capability to act in the Saigon political situation.
* All the U.S. measures taken subsequently-to include preparation of an evacuation plan for U.S. personnel in South Vietnam, positioning of U.S. Marines offshore for possible emergency intervention, actions to halt certain aid to Diem's forces, preparation of lists of South Vietnamese who could potentially substitute for Diem, and the dispatch of senior U.S. officials on a mission to Saigon to induce Diem to rid himself of Nhu-had been discussed in these initial NSC meetings.
* The original cable of instructions to Ambassador Lodge had not been the product of an end-run. Michael Forrestal, NSC staffer for Southeast Asia, one of the supposed cabal, had given President Kennedy two opportunities to stop action on the initiative. He informed JFK that the cable was being drafted, even telling him that Lodge and his predecessor, Frederick Nolting had both advised a go-slow approach, and asked if the president wished to proceed. Forrestal then advised Kennedy when the draft had been completed, sent him the text, and told the president of what was being done to inform other U.S. agencies.
CIA officers were heavily involved in all the action. Had Director McCone opposed the "cabal," this degree of cooperation would not be expected. Roger Hilsman's diary shows him meeting or in contact with CIA's Far East operations chief, William E. Colby, more than twice as often in the days after the August 26 NSC session as in the preceding week. In fact immediately after returning from the White House that day, Hilsman met with Colby at the State Department. The following day Colby returned to Hilsman's office with other CIA officers. The pattern of this August 27 contact strongly suggests that Colby rehearsed for Hilsman the briefing with which the CIA would open a new White House meeting that afternoon.
The CIA also prepared a "Cast of Characters in South Vietnam," that was ready on August 28 and that it introduced during the briefing to the NSC that same day. The Agency provided this report in direct response to earlier conversations with President Kennedy, where one of the concerns had been that Washington did not know who was who in Saigon. National security adviser McGeorge Bundy annotated his copy of the paper and his notes should be viewed in conjunction with the audiotape and memos recording this meeting.
President Kennedy resolved to modify his instructions to Ambassador Lodge, not to end U.S. backing for the South Vietnamese generals, but rather to ensure Washington lent the weight of its support to a coup that would succeed. The text below introduces this electronic briefing book in its original form, including notes on John F. Kennedy's audiotape recording system, the context in which Kennedy made his decision on the coup against Diem, and the byplay of the Washington deliberations.
Check out today's posting at the National Security Archive's website - http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB444/
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