THE BLOG
11/02/2013 11:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

50 Years Ago, the Official Beginning of a Quagmire

This year has certainly been the year of 50th anniversaries. From the March on Washington to the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing to the upcoming JFK assassination, 2013 has definitely been the year of golden commemorations.

November 2 happens to also fall into the category of 50th anniversaries, but this one is unlikely to garner much fanfare -- South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated following a military coup.

The coup against Diem was, in my view, President John Kennedy's greatest foreign policy blunder, surpassing even the Bay of Pigs.

The death of Diem opened Pandora's box of untenable quagmires for the United States to freely participate.

Kennedy was assassinated 20 days after Diem, but by January 30, 1964, South Vietnam experienced more presidential changes than the United States.

In late 1962, Kennedy sent Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to Vietnam to offer his thoughts. When Mansfield returned he provided a sobering report that concluded that the resources committed by the United States ($2 billion in seven years) very little had changed in the way of progress. Laying fault with the Diem regime as well as U.S. policy, Mansfield recommended a clear assessment of U.S. interest stating:

"It's their country, their future that's at stake, not ours. To ignore that reality will not only be immensely costly in terms of American lives and resources, but it may also draw us inexorably into some variation of the unenviable position in Vietnam that was formerly occupied by the French."

Kennedy did not warm up to Mansfield's assessment, but reportedly said later to aide Kenny O'Donnell: "I got angry with Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him."

The area where Kennedy deserves the most criticism is Cable 243. August 24, 1963, Roger Hilsman Head of the State Department's Far East Bureau issued Cable 243 to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Ambassador to South Vietnam, it read:

"It is not clear that whether military proposed martial law or whether Nhu tricked them into it, Nhu took advantage of its imposition to smash pagodas with Police and Tung's Special Forces, loyal to him thus placing onus on military in eyes of world and Vietnamese people. The Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhu's hands. Diem must be given chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with best military and political personalities available. If, in spite of all your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved."

The message was clear; Diem must jettison his brother or face the reality that a similar fate awaits him. Hilsman also told Lodge that he "should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem's replacement if this should become necessary."

Cable 243, the Kennedy administration's most significant policy decision on Vietnam, occurred under the most inauspicious circumstances.

Fifty years later, it is hard to believe that proposing a major policy shift was drafted on a Saturday while President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were out of town.

The following Monday, with most of the key administration officials back in Washington, began a series of meetings with opposing sides lobbying for their perspective. Kennedy was reportedly critical of Hilsman, Harriman, and Ball for their hasty approach. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and CIA Director John McCone were opposed to overthrowing Diem.

But the more senior members of the administration, in spite of the madcap manner in which Cable 243 came into fruition, were unable to impede its progress. Soon, it would be the new policy of the Kennedy administration.

Never was there a definitive decision whether to support or discourage a coup. Without official discouragement from the administration, Lodge, who wanted a coup, took it as de facto support.

Paul Kattenburg, chairman of the Vietnam Working Group, who had recently visited Saigon, opposed the to the overthrow of Diem, advocating instead a total American withdrawal from Vietnam -- "It would be better for us to make the decision to get out honorably," he said.
Kattenburg was soon reassigned as the Ambassador to Devil's Island.

The desire to overthrow Diem methodically gained momentum until President Kennedy had no choice but to offer his reluctant support.

Two days after Diem's assassination Kennedy dictated some candid thoughts from the Oval Office:

"Monday November 4, 1963, over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place -- culminated three months conversations about a coup -- conversations which divided the government here and in Saigon.

After chronicling those within his cabinet who supported and opposed the operation to overthrow Diem, Kennedy offered this sobering reflection:

"I feel we must bear a great deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August in which we suggested a coup. In my judgment that wire (Cable 243) was badly drafted, should have never been sent on Saturday. I should have not given my consent to it without a roundtable conference in which McNamara and Taylor presented their views."

Many who served in the Kennedy administration have held to the belief had Kennedy lived, he would have withdrawn troops after his reelection in 1964.

This may be true. I am of the belief that Kennedy would have handled things differently. But history is not about what could have been; it is a narrative of what happened. Kennedy's decisions placed his successor Lyndon Johnson, or for that manner, any other elected official in a quagmire for which there was no viable exit strategy.