White House Recordings of President Kennedy Debating Vietnam Coup Released by JFK Presidential Library

For Immediate Release: November 2, 2009
Further information: Rachel Day (617) 514-1662, rachel.day@jfklfoundation.org

BOSTON–The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum announced today that it has declassified and made available for research presidential recordings of four meetings between President Kennedy and his highest level Vietnam advisors during the days after the highly controversial  “Cable 243” was sent. The cable, which was dispatched on August 24, 1963 when President Kennedy and three of his top officials were away from Washington, set a course for the eventual coup in Vietnam on November 1, 1963, leading to the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his assassination the following day on November 2, 1963 – 46 years ago this week.

The tapes offer unprecedented insight into President Kennedy’s thoughts on the unfolding conflict in Vietnam and reveal his reservations about U.S. support for a military coup in South Vietnam. During a meeting on August 28, President Kennedy states:

“I don’t think we’re in that deep.  I am not sure the [Vietnamese] Generals are - they’ve been probably bellyaching for months.  So I don’t know whether they’re - how many of them are really up to here.  I don’t see any reason to go ahead unless we think we have a good chance of success.”

“These recordings provide a fascinating snapshot of a key event in the history of Vietnam,” said Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter. “The August meetings highlight the uncertainty that existed in the White House over what steps to take toward the government of South Vietnam. Of particular interest are the numerous conflicting views presented from the President's top Vietnam advisors.”

These meetings are the first ones to take place after the sending of Cable 243, which has been described by historian John W. Newman as the “single most controversial cable of the Vietnam War.” The telegram was drafted on Saturday August 24, 1963 when President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and CIA Director John McCone were all out of town. Without direct approval from President Kennedy’s senior advisors and despite mixed feelings in the administration over the effectiveness of Diem’s regime, the cable called for Diem to remove his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu from a position of power and threatened U.S. support of a military coup in South Vietnam if he refused.

After the cable was sent and during the course of four days of meetings, President Kennedy met with his advisors to discuss the evolving situation in Vietnam and what steps should be taken in the wake of the cable’s policy-changing message. There was considerable disagreement between the State Department advisors who had drafted Cable 243 and the President’s military and intelligence advisors on whether the coup was advisable and what support it would have in Vietnam with the Vietnamese military. In his book Robert Kennedy and His Times, White House Historian Arthur Schlesinger quoted Robert Kennedy’s recollections of the cable: “[President Kennedy] always said that it was a major mistake on his part. The result is we started down a road that we never really recovered from.”
The President asked several times for straight assessments from his two top advisors in Vietnam, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins.  At the August 27, 1963 meeting the President inquired about whether General Harkins agreed with the present plan:

President Kennedy:  What about -  in the wire that went Saturday, what’s the degree of --  My impression was that based on the wire that went out Saturday, asked General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge recommending a course of action unless they disagreed. (General Taylor then states that Harkins concurred).  That’s right, so I think we ought to find out whether Harkins doesn’t agree with this - then I think we ought to get off this pretty quick.

During the on-going discussions, State Department officials claimed that they felt it was too late to step back from the coup support, an opinion not accepted by the President.  The President comments: 

President Kennedy:  I don’t think we ought to take the view here that this has gone beyond our control ‘cause I think that would be the worst reason to do it.   …

Well I don’t think we ought to just do it because we feel we have to now do it.  I think we want to make it our best (sitting) judgment (is to date) because I don’t think we do have to do it.  At least I’d be prepared to take up the argument with lawyers, well let’s not do it.  So I think we ought to try to make it without feeling that it’s forced on us.

The President goes on to state:

President Kennedy:  I don’t think we ought to let the coup…maybe they know about it, maybe the Generals are going to have to run out of the country, maybe we’re going to have to help them get out.  But still it’s not a good enough reason to go ahead if we don’t think the prospects are good enough.  I don’t think we’re in that deep.  I am not sure the Generals are - they’ve been probably bellyaching for months.  So I don’t know whether they’re  - how many of them are really up to here.  I don’t see any reason to go ahead unless we think we have a good chance of success.

Ambassador Nolting, who had been recently relieved of his duties in Saigon and replaced by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, was asked by the President to be present at these meetings.  Nolting’s advice and opinions were pointed, candid and very often at odds with State Department officials in the room, especially Roger Hilsman and Averell Harriman.  At the August 28th meeting, Ambassador Nolting and the President began a discussion on a post-coup Vietnam:

President Kennedy:  What about Diem - Diem and Nhu would be ( unclear )? Exile them, is that it? That’s what we would favor of course, but.

Roger Hilsman:  We know, we know no information.

President Kennedy:  But I think it would be important that nothing happen to them if we, if we have any voice in it. Is that your view Ambassador?

Frederick Nolting:  With all the humility again, Mr. President, my view is that there is no one that I know of who can - who has a reasonably good prospect of holding this fragmented, divided country together except Diem.

Audio files of these discussions are available to the media in .wma and .mp3 format on request. 

Today’s complete release incorporates tape numbers 104, 106, 107, 108 and includes other White House meetings on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, Civil Rights, USSR, Portuguese Africa and the Economy.  This release totals 13 hours, 11 minutes of recordings of which 37 minutes remain classified.  Approximately 50 hours of meeting tapes remain to be reviewed for declassification prior to release. Processing of the presidential recordings will continue to be conducted in the chronological order of the tapes.

The first items from the presidential recordings were opened to public research in June of 1983. Over the past 20 years, the Library staff has reviewed and opened all of the telephone conversations and a large portion of the meeting tapes. The latter are predominantly meetings with President Kennedy in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room. While the recordings were deliberate in the sense that it required manual operation to start and stop the recording, it was not, based on the material recorded, used with daily regularity nor was there a set pattern for its operation. The tapes represent raw historical material. The sound quality of the recordings varies widely.  Although most of the recorded conversation is understandable, the tapes include passages of extremely poor sound quality with considerable background noise and periods where the identity of the speakers is unclear.   Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter is available to answer questions from the media concerning this newly released tape or the Kennedy Library Presidential tapes in general.  She can be reached through Rachel Day, Director of Communications.

Today’s release of White House meetings is available for research use in the Library’s Research Room. The hours of operation are Monday – Friday from 8:30 am - 4:30 pm and appointments may be made by calling (617) 514-1629. The recordings and finding guide are available for purchase at the John F. Kennedy Library, Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125, or by calling the Audiovisual Department (617) 514-1622. Members of the media are cautioned against making historical conclusions based on the sound clips and transcript alone. They are provided as a professional courtesy to facilitate the reporting of the release of these presidential recordings.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Presidential Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service. More information is available at www.jfklibrary.org.