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For The Record  

FTR #978 The JFK Assassination and the Vietnam War

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This broadcast was recorded in one, 60-minute segment.

Introduction: Considerable attention has been devoted by the media to a TV documentary by Ken Burns about the Vietnam War. What has not been covered by Burns et al is the fact that JFK’s assassination was the decisive pivot-point of the policy pursued by the U.S. in the conflict.

Excerpting The Guns of November, Part 3 (recorded on 11/15/1983), this program notes how Kennedy’s decision to begin a phased withdrawal from Vietnam was one of the central reasons for his murder.

The central element in the broadcast is professor Peter Dale Scott’s skillful discussion (and excerpting) of relevant National Security Action Memoranda pertaining to Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. The program details Kennedy’s plans to phase out direct U.S. military participation in the conflict.

Presiding over severe dissent from within his own administration, as well as from the military and intelligence establishments, Kennedy initiated this U.S. withdrawal seven weeks before his death. Two days after the assassination, Kennedy’s Vietnam policy was reversed and the course of action was determined for what was to follow. In addition to canceling the troop withdrawal and providing for troop increases, the policy shift resumed the program of covert action against North Vietnam that lead to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. That alleged attack on U.S. destroyers (never independently verified and widely believed to be fraudulent) precipitated U.S. military escalation.

National Security Memorandum 263

The principal documents in question are National Security Action Memoranda #’s 111, 249, 263 and 273.

National Security Memorandum 111, dated two years to the day from JFK’s assassination, resolved a long-standing debate within the Kennedy assassination. That memorandum committed the U.S. to “helping” the South Vietnamese government in the war, pointedly avoiding the language “helping the South Vietnamese win the war.”

Although this might appear to an untrained observer as a minor semantic distinction, it was well understood within the Kennedy administration to define the difference between a limited commitment to aiding the South Vietnamese and an unlimited, open-ended commitment to helping the South Vietnamese win. 

Crafted in June 25 of 1963, NSAM 249 suspended covert operations against North Vietnam pending a review of policy.

In National Security Action Memorandum 263 (10/11/1963), Kennedy scheduled the initial withdrawal of 1,000 military personnel by the end of 1963, as part of a phased withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel.

National Security Action Memorandum 273, which was formulated by LBJ on the Sunday after Kennedy’s murder (the day Jack Ruby killed Oswald) and released two days after that, negated the previous three documents. The troop withdrawal formulated in NSAM 263 was cancelled and troop increases were scheduled. The U.S. was committed to “helping the South Vietnamese win,” pointedly using the language avoided by Kennedy in NSAM 111.

Furthermore plans were formulated for the program of covert operations against North Vietnam that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (permitting LBJ to plunge the U.S. into the war).

Covert operations against the North had been suspended  and were resumed in June of 1963 against JFK’s wishes and apparently without his knowledge.

In the roughly 34 years since this program excerpt was recorded, other books have explored how JFK’s assassination reversed U.S. Vietnam policy. One of the best is James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.

Program Highlights Include:

  1. The intensification in late 1963 of U.S. covert paramilitary operations in Laos.
  2. The intensification in that same period of U.S. covert paramilitary operations against Cambodia.
  3. The Pentagon Papers’ apparently deliberate falsification of U.S. Vietnam policy, maintaining against the historical record that there was continuity of Vietnam policy from JFK’s administration to LBJ’s.

 

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