JFK on Vietnam

By Christopher B. Daly 

The folks at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston have announced the completion of the task of transcribing and releasing the secret recordings that Kennedy made in the Oval Office while president. (Kennedy, not Nixon, first came up with the idea of secretly taping his conversations — no doubt with the intention of writing his memoir someday.)

Can we really be sure that the keepers of the flame in these presidential libraries really divulge everything? I don’t know.

But for the time being, here is a tidbit from the Library’s newsletter featuring some of the fruits of what was probably one of JFK’s last discussions of Vietnam:

During a meeting on September 10, 1963 regarding the civil
war in Vietnam, President Kennedy expressed frustration
with the conflicting reports provided to him by his military
and diplomatic advisors. General Victor Krulak and State
Department Advisor Joseph Mendenhall were reporting to
the President on their four-day fact-finding mission to South
Vietnam. Krulak’s view, based on his visits with military
leaders, was generally optimistic, while Mendenhall, a
Foreign Service Officer, shared his impressions of widespread
military and social discontent.
These vastly different viewpoints caused President
Kennedy to pause and then comment: “You both went to
the same country?”
After nervous laughter, the President continued, “I mean
how is it that you get such different—this is not a new thing,
this is what we’ve been dealing with for three weeks. On the
one hand you get the military saying the war is going better
and on the other hand you get the political (opinion) with its
deterioration is affecting the military…What is the reason
for the difference—I’d like to have an explanation what the
reason is for the difference.”



Hard to say definitively, but this sounds like a man with serious doubts. Even all these years later, I think a lot of people would like “an explanation what the reason is for the difference” between the military advice and the political advice. If any president asks any military figure, Can we do X? The answer will certainly be, Yes, Sir! Is that really advice?

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