Walkthrough: Vietnam in Late 1963
Many of the documents presented below were declassified in October of 1997 by the Assassination Records Review Board. They provide a better window onto the Vietnam withdrawal plans being put into place as early as the spring of 1963.
This memo is from a week before the May 1963 SecDef Vietnam conference. It notes that "the Secretary of Defense was particularly interested in the projected phasing of US personnel strength" and brought up the "feasibility of bringing back 1000 troops at the end of this year."
8 May 1963 - 202-10002-10027: JCS OFFICIAL FILE
This 213-page document is the proceedings from the 8th SecDef conference on Vietnam, held in early May 1963. Prominent among the many plans presented there was a concrete timetable for the phased withdrawal of US troops. Once section notes that "As a matter of urgency a plan for the withdrawal of about 1,000 troops before the end of the year should be developed...." The document also contains a timetable for full withdrawal of US forces by late 1965, along with the admonishment that "SECDEF advised that the phase-out program presented during 6 May conference appeared too slow."
This memo of a conversation between Major General Krulak and CIA Director John McCone discusses both Vietnam and Cuba. Regarding Vietnam, Krulak relayed to McCone the military's recommendations regarding stepping up covert activities in North Vietnam. He noted that McCone approved of this, but the CIA Director also noted "that he was not optimistic about receiving high-level approval for such a program."
15 Jul 1963 - 202-10002-10087: MEMO TO GEN. TAYLOR
This memo from Major General Krulak to JCS Chief Maxwell Taylor concludes with the optimistic assessment that "General Harkins indicated he felt that we could win in a year..." At the heart of the Kennedy-Vietnam withdrawal question is whether Kennedy believed such optimistic assumptions, and based the withdrawal plans upon them, or whether he was aware that the situation was not so rosy and planned on withdrawing regardless.
This telegram directed the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam to promote a coup by South Vietnamese generals. This encouragement of a coup which did not ultimately come to pass has come to be known as the "Saturday Night Coup," due to its having been pushed through by some White House and State Department officials (Hilsman, Forrestal and Harriman primarily) on a weekend while some of the more senior officials were absent.
This White House meeting was held amid acrimony over how the coup instructions were approved.
This telegram from General Taylor to the General Harkins, the US military commander in Vietnam, notes that: "FYI State to Saigon 243 [see Aug 24 telegram above] was prepared without DOD or JCS participation. Authorities are now having second thoughts."
Planning for a possible coup continued, though with ambivalence. This message from Kennedy to Ambassador Lodge notes that "Until the very moment of the go signal for the operation by the generals, I must reserve a contingent right to change course and reverse previous instructions."
This short telegram begins with the statement: "This particular coup is finished."
This transcript of Walter Cronkite's interview with President Kennedy includes Kennedy's statement that "In the final analysis, it is their war. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it..."
This memo is a planning document for the fact-finding mission to Vietnam that JCS Chairman Taylor and Secretary of Defense McNamara would undertake later in September.
This is the report of the McNamara-Taylor mission. In the aftermath of this trip (see succeeding documents), a decision was made to implement an initial withdrawal of 1,000 troops.
In this meeting following the return of McNamara and Taylor from Vietnam, President Kennedy and other participants discussed tactics for dealing with the Diem regime, as well as the wording of the proposed plan to implement a 1,000 man withdrawal.
4 Oct 1963 - 202-10002-10093: SOUTH VIETNAM ACTIONS
This memo from General Taylor to the rest of the Joint Chiefs notes that "On Oct 2 the President approved recommendations relating to military matters contained in the trip report...," including a phase-out of US forces so that military functions "can be assumed properly by the Vietnamese by the end of calendar year 1965." The memo also notifies the Joint Chiefs to "Execute the plan to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963..."
In this meeting, Kennedy formalized the 1,000 troop withdrawal plan. Important to the debate over whether or not this withdrawal was part of the "pressure tactics" on Diem being applied at this time, the memo states "The President also said that our decision to remove 1,000 U.S. advisors by December of this year should not be raised formally with Diem."
11 Oct 1963 - National Security Action Memorandum No. 263
With NSAM 263, Kennedy approved the McNamara-Taylor recommendations, including the 1,000 man withdrawal.
The memo from the Defense Department to State notes the "problem" that with the 1,000 man withdrawal is also an intent to officially disclose the number of US military personnel in Vietnam. This number, in excess of 16,000, is well above the 888 allowed under the 1954 Geneva Accords.
General Taylor gave this convocation the Lehigh University, posing the question "What should be the role of military force today in our national life?"
At this meeting, two days before the anti-Diem coup in South Vietnam, CIA Director McCone reported on the "current status of coup forces."
This telegram from Bundy at the White House to Ambassador Lodge in Vietnam shows the White House's nervousness and ambivalence about the coup, and Kennedy's desire to have final say over whether the coup proceeded or not.
This memo from Col. Bernard Rogers to General Taylor discusses implementation details of the 1,000 man withdrawal being initiated.
Ambassador Lodge reported on the phone call he received from Vietnamese President Diem, and Lodge's cool response to Diem's attempt to find out if the U.S. was behind the coup.
2 Nov 1963 - 202-10002-10091
This message from General Harkins in Vietnam to JSC Chief Taylor was sent in the aftermath of the coup which overthrew Diem and his brother, and left them dead.
14 Nov 1963 - 202-10002-10089
This message from COMUSMACV to military leaders in Washington shows that the military was "out of the loop" regarding the Diem coup (whereas the White House and CIA were aware of events before they unfolded). The message notes that "THE NOV 1 COUP D'ETAT CAUGHT THE U.S. MILITARY COMMANDER IN VIET NAM, GENERAL HARKINS BY SURPRISE AND WEAKENED HIS POSITION."
The briefing books prepared for a Vietnam meeting in Honolulu reaffirmed the timetables for complete withdrawal from Vietnam, as well as the initial 1,000 main withdrawal, despite the recent coup in Vietnam.
Within two days of President Kennedy's death, on Sunday afternoon, President Johnson already began receiving advice that "we could not at this point or time give a particularly optimistic appraisal of the future" regarding Vietnam. President Johnson expressed dissatisfaction with the present course and particularly its emphasis on social reforms, and stated that "He was anxious to get along, win the war..."
26 Nov 1963 - National Security Action Memorandum No. 273
NSAM 273 was drafted while President Kennedy was still alive, though he never saw the draft. The final version was signed by President Johnson on the day after the Kennedy funeral, November 26. Concerning troop withdrawal, it reiterated the "objectives" of the Oct 2 announcement without noting the October 11 implementation in NSAM 263. The wording of a section on covert action against North Vietnam was loosened significantly (see following document).
26 Dec 1963 - 202-10002-10112: MILITARY OPERATIONS IN NORTH VIETNAM
This memo to General Taylor discusses proposed covert actions against North Vietnam which were generated in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, after having been alluded to in one paragraph from NSAM 273. These OPLAN 34 activities would have as one of their effects the Gulf of Tonkin incident, used by President Johnson to obtain Congressional approval for dramatically escalating the war.
20 Jun 1975 - Testimony of Lucien Conein to the Church Committee
Lucien Conien was the CIA officer who dealt directly with the leaders of the Nov 1 coup. His Church Committee testimony gives an "on the ground" view of that event.