Tapes Give New Voice to JFK’s Vietnam Doubt
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.
Dance Re-Creates Vietnam Battle and Protest
“Into Sunlight,”a modern dance inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist David Maraniss’ book on the Vietnam War, They Marched into Sunlight, had its Washington, D.C., premiere at Georgetown University in January. “This work is dedicated to the 60 men of the Black Lions Battalion who lost their lives in Vietnam on October 17, 1967,” according to choreographer Robin Becker, of the Robin Becker Dance company. Maraniss’ book examines not only the battle in Vietnam, but also the violence that occurred stateside on the same day during a student protest against Dow Chemical, which was recruiting students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Marannis, a Washington Post associate editor, provided an introduction at the premiere, which was attended by many veterans. At a post-performance discussion, he introduced from the audience 1st Lt. Clark Welch, one of the main characters in his book, the commander of Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment,“Black Lions,”who survived the October 1967 ambush at On Thanh that cost his 142-man battalion 64 dead, two missing and 75 wounded.
Becker said the dance is an accumulation of images: the boat that took soldiers across the ocean, the dead who haunt them, a soldier trying to help the wounded at an ambush site who is cut down by bullets. It features the work of composer Chris Lastovicka, as well as additional compositions by Arthur Solari, the music director, and Andrea Bauer.
“My father was in Vietnam,” one of the dancers, Paul Monaghan,told RobinYoung on National Public Radio’s “Here and Now” program, following a performance at Hofstra University in April 2011. “By doing this, I get to honor him, as well as other soldiers. Actually a number of vets came up and thanked me. I thought, what, you’re thanking me? It’s very humbling.”
“People don’t take the time to feel,” Becker said. One way to slow down, and even to heal, she said, is to sit in the darkness with an unfolding tableau, which just may help bring emotional truths to light.
For more information, visit Robin Becker’s website: www.intosunlight.org.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.