The last 45 hours of more than 248 hours of declassified conversations of President John F. Kennedy, taped in the White House shortly before his death, reveal a president worried about where the war in Vietnam was headed. On the recordings, made in September 1963 and released by the JFK Library early this year, Kennedy listens to conflicting reports and opinions about the situation in South Vietnam, and questions how the accounts can be so widely contrasting.
On Sept. 10, Gen. Victor Krulak and the State Department’s Joseph Mendenhall report to the president after a four-day fact-finding mission to South Vietnam. “The Viet Cong war will be won [by the United States] if the current U.S. military and sociological programs are pursued,” says Krulak. Mendenhall isn’t as optimistic: “The people I talked to in the government, when I asked them about the war against the VC, they said that is secondary now—our first concern is, in effect, in a war with the regime here in Saigon.” Nervous laughter follows when JFK replies, “You both went to the same country?”
Later the same day, when adviser Rufus Phillips presents various counterinsurgency efforts, former Ambassador Frederick Nolting asks: “What happens if you start this and you get a reaction as expected from those that you’re encouraging, do you then get a civil war or do you get a quiet palace revolution?”
Phillips answers that he believes it’s possible to split the Nhus from President Ngo Dinh Diem. He then asserts: “When someone says that this is a military war and that this is a military judgment, I don’t believe you can say this about this war. This is essentially a political war…for men’s minds.”
On Sept. 11, Kennedy asks Defense Secretary Robert McNamara about Diem’s reign and whether it is viable long term.
In a Sept. 23 discussion, Kennedy tells McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who are about to visit South Vietnam, that he wants to “come to some final conclusion as to whether…they’re [Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu] going to be in power for some time…and whether there is anything we can do to influence them, or do we stop thinking about it.”
At a Cabinet meeting the same day, Undersecretary of State George Ball addresses Vietnam with the president: “It’s not an easy situation…what we want to do is…come, at some point, to a conclusion, because we don’t want to be bogged down in Southeast Asia forever.”
A coup in Vietnam six weeks later on Nov. 1, resulted in the assassination of Diem and Nhu. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself would be assassinated in Dallas.
To listen to the recordings, visit the JFK Library online at www.jfk library.org.