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Tapes show Kennedy was conflicted over Saigon coup

Newly released White House tapes from the Vietnam War era portray President John F. Kennedy wrestling over the fate of South Vietnam's strongman in a situation that appears to mirror President Barack Obama's quandary dealing with Afghanistan.

At issue in both: a rising number of U.S. casualties in defending unpopular governments.

Forty-six years ago this week, Vietnamese generals, confident they had U.S. support, overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem's government in Saigon. But Kennedy, conflicted by a State Department green light to the generals, questioned the move.

"I don't see any reason to go ahead unless we think we have a good chance of success," Kennedy told his advisers a few days after the department's cable was sent in August 1963 to Saigon.

Audio tapes and transcripts of four days of White House meetings released this week by the JFK Presidential Library in Boston reflect uncertainty over what steps to take to try to bolster Saigon's government.

Diem, the South Vietnamese president, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were killed in the coup. The assassinations were not discussed in the White House meetings, Kennedy Library archivist Maura Porter said Tuesday. While the tapes showed his reservations, they did not show if Kennedy tried to stop the coup.

Cable 243 was transmitted by the State Department without the approval of key presidential advisers. It said "if Diem remains obdurate and refuses" to remove his brother, who was his security adviser, "then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved."

But Kennedy, according to a transcript, said: "I don't think we ought to just do it (the coup) because we feel we have to now do it. I think we want to make it our best judgment because I don't think we have to do it."

During the discussions, State Department officials said they felt it was too late to step back. Disagreeing, Kennedy said: "I don't think we ought to take the view here that this has gone beyond our control because I think that would be the worst reason to do it."

The State Department cable called for President Diem to remove his brother from a position of power and threatened U.S. support for a military coup in South Vietnam if he refused, according to the tapes.

Tapes show Kennedy was conflicted over Saigon coup 11/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 11:05pm]

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