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The general assessment was that the war could not be won "if Nhu remains in power" (Joseph Mendenhall, also considered a dove). Worse yet, Nhu "has frequently claimed that the American presence must be reduced," the CIA reported, and was continuing his dealings with the North, which might lead to a peaceful settlement, undermining Kennedy's war policies.
The basic principle, unquestioned, is that we must "focus on winning the war." On September 14, Harriman wrote to Lodge, making the point unmistakeable: "I can assure you that from the President on down everybody is determined to support you and the country team in winning the war against the Viet Cong. There may be some differences in opinion or in emphasis as to how it is to be done, but there are no quitters here."54
In particular, JFK is no quitter. There is not a phrase in the internal record to suggest that this judgment by a trusted high-level Kennedy adviser, at the dovish extreme, should be qualified in any way.
We now approach the final weeks of JFK's presidency, the last opportunity to determine his intentions. We therefore pay close attention to his (limited) involvement in discussion and decision-making.
On September 17, after a meeting with his NSC advisers to discuss the plan for military victory that Hilsman had prepared, President Kennedy instructed Ambassador Lodge to pressure Diem to "get everyone back to work and get them to focus on winning the war," repeating his regular emphasis on victory. It was particularly important to show military progress because "of need to make effective case with Congress for continued prosecution of the effort," the President added, expressing his constant concern that congressional support for his commitment to military victory was weak. "To meet these needs," he informed Lodge, he was sending his top aides McNamara and Taylor to Vietnam. Their mission was to appraise "the military and paramilitary effort to defeat the Viet Cong," JFK instructed McNamara, and to ensure "the progress of the contest," a matter of "the first importance." There have been "heartening results" until recently, but "future effectiveness" requires new actions by the GVN and Washington. The goal remains "the winning of the war," the President again emphasized, adding that "The way to confound the press is to win the war." Like Congress, the press was an enemy because of its lack of enthusiasm for a war to victory and its occasional calls for diplomacy.
Taylor proposed that he and McNamara present Diem with a fixed time scale within which "the war must be won." According to McGeorge Bundy's minutes, "The President did not say `yes' or `no' to this proposal," apparently unwilling to be bound by any commitment to withdraw.55
McNamara and Taylor were encouraged by what they found. Taylor informed Diem that he was "convinced that the Viet Cong insurgency in the north and center can be reduced to little more than sporadic incidents by the end of 1964" and the war effort everywhere should be "completed by the end of 1965." On October 2, Taylor and McNamara presented this analysis to the President, noting that "The military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress." On these assumptions, they presented a series of recommendations, three of which were later authorized (watered down a bit) in NSAM 263:
Their report stressed again that the "overriding objective" is victory, a matter "vital to United States security." They repeated that withdrawal could not be too long delayed: "any significant slowing in the rate of progress would surely have a serious effect on U.S. popular support for the U.S. effort." They expressed their belief "that the U.S. part of the task can be completed by the end of 1965," at which time military victory would have been assured. The withdrawal plans were crucially qualified in the usual way: "No further reductions should be made until the requirements of the 1964 campaign become firm," that is, until battlefield success is assured.56
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54 FRUSV, IV 248, 213, 209. For extensive discussion of the concerns in Washington over neutralization and forced withdrawal, see Kahin, Intervention.
55 Gibbons, US Government, 180f.; FRUSV, IV 252f., 278-81.
56 Ibid., 330, 336ff. PP, II 751-66; 187, 756.