Before the Gulf of Tonkin incident was used as an excuse to incite major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the United States was already deploying thousands of troops to Vietnam—and a recently recovered audio recording reveals that the deployments were occurring against the wishes of the president in office.
Former President John F. Kennedy was planning for a full withdrawal from Vietnam during his last months in office. His exit strategy is featured on the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series on Vietnam, in an episode that looks at U.S. involvement in Vietnam from when Kennedy took office in January 1961, to when he was assassinated in November 1963.
The episode includes an audio recording from Nov. 4, 1963, in which Kennedy shares his reaction to the military coup d’état that resulted in the assassination of US-backed, South Vietnam leader Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother Nhu:
“Over the weekend, the coup in Saigon took place, culminated three months of conversations dividing the government here, and in Saigon. I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of August, in which we suggested the coup. I should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference. I was shocked by the deaths of Diem and Nhu, the way [they were] killed made it particularly abhorrent. The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government, or whether public opinion in Saigon will turn on this government as repressive and undemocratic in the not-too-distant future.”
While the program glazes over Kennedy’s comments about wanting a full withdrawal from Vietnam, and goes on to talk about his assassination less than three weeks later, his rhetoric is incredibly important.
“We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam,” Kennedy confided to a friend in April 1963. “Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the communists and get the American people to re-elect me.”
According to reports, there were around 3,200 American troops in Vietnam when Kennedy took office in 1961. The number of troops increased to 11,300 in 1962, and then to 16,300 in 1963. But that increase escalated drastically in 1965 with 184,300 troops. By 1968, there were over 536,000 American troops deployed to a country that is smaller than the state of California.
In the months before Kennedy’s assassination, he pushed for his administration to draft a plan for withdrawal from Vietnam. The National Security Action Memorandum was drafted by Secretary of State Robert McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor.
An audio recording was also released in which Kennedy was heard discussing what led to the approval of NSAM 263 (National Security Action Memorandum), which implemented the plan get out of Vietnam. Only weeks later, Kennedy would be killed.
In a previously classified memorandum to his fellow chiefs that was delivered on Oct. 2, 1963, Taylor wrote:
A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time.
In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963. This action should be explained in low key as an initial step in a long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort.
The idea that Kennedy would push for an end to the United States’ corrupt and troubled involvement in Vietnam is not surprising, considering his ongoing war with the Central Intelligence Agency. However, the fact that Kennedy was pushing for full withdrawal from Vietnam just weeks before he was assassinated, should be noted and remembered. Less than one year later, the Gulf of Tonkin incident served as the perfect false flag to send the U.S. into a war that killed over 58,000 Americans.