How NSAM 273 Dismantled JFK’s Plans for Vietnam
By the fall of 1963, JFK was finally determined to withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam. With his National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263 of October 11, 1963, he laid the groundwork to do just that. A thousand U.S. military members would return home by the end of that year, with the rest coming home by 1965. But with his death on November 22, 1963, and with the implementation of Lyndon Johnson’s NSAM 273 of November 26, 1963, the chance for a peaceful resolution in Vietnam had vanished.
Yet there is more to NSAM 273 than most people realize. In this document lie so many hidden answers to why JFK was murdered in Dallas. To understand this, three main questions have to be raised:
- How and why was President Kennedy’s Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, sabotaging his efforts at every turn?
- What was “AID,” who was its Administrator, and how to it help to escalate the tensions in Vietnam?
- When was this memo drafted, by whom, and why does that matter?
The Wrong Man for the Job
In 1916, prominent Bostonian Henry Cabot Lodge defeated John Fitzgerald as the incumbent Senator from Massachusetts. John Fitzgerald was the maternal grandfather of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In 1952, JFK would steal that same Senatorial seat from Lodge’s son, Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Following his defeat, Lodge would go on to serve in the Eisenhower administration as UN ambassador. During this time he would hire longtime Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) member and publisher of Life magazine, Henry Luce, as his international affairs consultant.
John Kennedy would once again defeat Lodge in an election, this time in the 1960 presidential race where Lodge was Richard Nixon’s vice presidential nominee. Ted Kennedy, John’s youngest brother, became a Senator from Massachusetts in 1962 by beating Lodge’s son, George Cabot Lodge. Henry and George both became members of the secretive CFR in 1961 and 1960 respectively.
A dilemma now faced John Kennedy in the summer of ’63. With the departure of Frederick Nolting, who should become the Ambassador to South Vietnam? JFK wanted to pick a close friend named Edmund Gullion who shared his anti-colonial views and would have undoubtedly worked hard to bring about Kennedy’s vision for peace in the region. However Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State and CFR member since 1952, protested this pick and instead recommended Lodge. According to James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters, Rusk was able to convince the president that choosing “a distinguished Republican as his ambassador would take the air out of the Republican right’s demands for an escalated war,” even though this is exactly what Rusk and Lodge both desired. Against the strong recommendations of his brother Robert, Kennedy went along with Rusk’s idea.
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While Kennedy longed for peace, his advisors had other plans. The president had already found a peaceful resolution to Laos, a problem which he inherited from Dwight Eisenhower. These warmongers were not going to allow the same thing to happen in Vietnam. In late August, Averill Harriman (CFR since 1924), Michael Forrestal (CFR since 1961, and whose father had also been CFR) and Roger Hilsman drafted a memo to Lodge supporting a coup against South Vietnamese President Diem by his generals if he didn’t correct his course and find a solution to the Buddhist uprisings that had been taking place due to intolerance and oppression.
Reluctantly Kennedy agreed to this memo — which he would soon come to regret — providing the U.S. gave Diem every chance possible to fix himself. Lodge would have none of that. The ambassador turned to his friend Henry Luce for advice. Luce recommended that Lodge take a hard line towards Diem because his predecessor Nolting has been “‘too weak’ in confronting Diem with demands for change.’” Responding to the memo he was sent about Diem removing his brother Nhu from the equation and bringing peace to the country, Lodge sent a memo back stating the following:
Believe that chances of Diem meeting our demands are virtually nil. At same time, by making them we give Nhu chance to forestall or block action by military. Risk, we believe, is not worth taking, with Nhu in control combat forces Saigon. Therefore, propose we go straight to Generals with our demands, without informing Diem.
To be clear, the last line about going “straight to Generals with our demands” was an outright authorization to go directly to a coup. Michael Forrestal informed the president that the Acting Secretary of State, James Ball along with Harriman and Hilsman sent back an approval of this change, but not until after the fact. Kennedy exploded. “This shit has got to stop!” Forrestal offered to resign in response but JFK replied, “You’re not worth firing. You owe me something, so you stick around.”
Receiving pressure from the White House, Lodge eventually met with Diem but to no avail. Neither man were inclined to budge an inch. Seeing the failure of his ambassador, Kennedy planned to send his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission to determine if there still remained a non-violent solution to the Diem issue. Hearing about this, Harriman called Forrestal and said it was a horrible idea “sending two men opposed to our policy” of inciting a coup against Diem.
That word. “Our.” Who was Harriman talking about? It certainly wasn’t the president, McNamara or Taylor. This is conclusive evidence that forces within the Kennedy administration were actively working against the president in his efforts to bring peace to Southeast Asia.
Nonetheless Kennedy sent Taylor and McNamara, but the seeds for a coup had already been firmly planted by his ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.
Cutting Resources to Further Incite a Coup
Kennedy authorized the Foreign Assistance Act in 1961, which created the Agency for International Development (AID). In 1962, he appointed David E. Bell as its Administrator. That same year Bell became a member of the CFR. Bell had served in the Marine Corps in WWII, worked for President Truman after the war and later campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in his unsuccessful bids for the presidency.
Ostensibly this group provided economic assistance and much needed resources to developing countries. The reality though was that it was yet another front for the CIA. It used the Commodity Import Program as a way of controlling how much (or little) resources a particular country would receive. According to James Douglass, Kennedy would learn this the hard way in 1963:
[Bell] said, “There’s no point in talking about cutting off commodity aid. I’ve already cut it off.”
“You’ve done what?” said John Kennedy.
“Cut off commodity aid,” said Bell.
“Who the hell told you to do that?” asked the president.
“No one,” said Bell. “It’s an automatic policy. We do it whenever we have differences with a client government.”
Kennedy shook his head in dismay.
“My God, do you know what you’ve done?” said the president.
So while Ambassador Lodge was sowing the seeds of a coup in Saigon, Kennedy’s own agencies at home were feverishly attempting to wreak havoc in Vietnam. The CIA, by way of AID, was communicating to Diem and his unfaithful Generals that the South Vietnamese government had lost the support of the United States government.
As Douglass concluded, “Most of all, the message was meant for the man staring at David Bell in disbelief. He was being told who was in control. It was not the president.”
November 21, 1963
Following McNamara-Taylor visit to Vietnam in October 1963, Kennedy signed out NSAM 263. One thousand U.S. military members would depart from Vietnam by the end of that year. JFK intended for the rest to come home in 1965, following his (hopefully successful) reelection to the presidency in 1964.
Three weeks later on November 1, the coup against President Diem — the coup that Lodge, Harriman and Bell long desired and worked relentlessly to accomplish — began. Although Diem and his brother Nhu were promised safe passage out of the country, they were murdered in the back of an armored personnel carrier, stabbed multiple times and shot at point-blank range with a submachine gun.
According to General Taylor, upon receiving the news of Diem’s murder:
Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before. He had always insisted that Diem must never suffer more than exile and had been led to believe or had persuaded himself that a change in government could be carried out without bloodshed.
Kennedy’s aid Arthur Schlesinger said he had not seen Kennedy “so depressed since the Bay of Pigs.”
Another three weeks passed and while JFK was heading to Dallas, Texas on what should have been a forgettable campaign trip, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy was in Honolulu, Hawaii discussing the Vietnam issue with senior military officials. Bundy previously served as an intelligence officer in WWII and in 1947 became a member of the CFR.
The result of this meeting was Bundy’s rough draft of NSAM 273, written on November 21, 1963 — the day before Kennedy’s assassination. When read in its entirety, it is clear that this memo is a complete reversal of Kennedy’s strategy and hope for peace in Vietnam. The beginning of the memo is shockingly telling:
The President has reviewed the discussions of South Vietnam which occurred in Honolulu, and has discussed the matter further with Ambassador Lodge.
If this memo was actually intended for use by President Kennedy, that statement would have been 100% false at the time of its authoring. Kennedy had not yet seen the results of this meeting. In fact, the only meeting that this could have referred to and made sense was a meeting back in May of 1963 when Secretary McNamara made it clear on JFK’s desire to start withdrawing from Vietnam by the end of 1963. This would have been contrary to the rest of NSAM 273. Furthermore, as it has been shown in this article, Kennedy was diametrically opposed to the views of Ambassador Lodge, so the end of the preamble would have also been a lie.
The next day, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was violently murdered in downtown Dallas. Four days after taking office, Lyndon Johnson signed out NSAM 273. Henry Cabot Lodge, Henry Luce, Michael Forrestal, David Bell and McGeorge Bundy got their wish. The United States would go to war in Vietnam.
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