Now, a historical mystery from the Kennedy Presidency and the early days of the Vietnam War. A key piece of the puzzle that has been missing for close to six decades, a critical Oval Office tape recording, has finally been uncovered by an enterprising historian. Correspondent James Rosen reports.
On November 1, 1963, the military in South Vietnam overthrew the government in the capital of Saigon, led at the time by a weak and corrupt U.S. ally, President Ngo Dinh Diem.
In the fighting, Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were murdered.
By that point, the U.S. had already 16-thousand troops on the ground in South Vietnam fighting to help Saigon stave off an invasion from the communist-led north. Most historians agree the Diem assassination marked the moment America began its descent into the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
Luke Nichter/Professor, Texas A&M University: This was not a coup against an adversary; it was a coup against an ally. And within a little more than a year, the very first deployment of U.S. marines took place to the beaches of Da Nang, in March of 1965, and effectively, the rest is history.
Professor Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University is a presidential historian. Nichter's latest book, "The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge Junior and the making of the Cold War," published by Yale University Press, examines the life and career of the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam at the time of the coup.
Three years later, when President Diem was being overthrown, fearful for his life, Lodge was the last American he spoke to.
A transcript of their short telephone conversation surfaced in 1971, when the New York Times published "The Pentagon Papers." It showed Lodge responding frostily, offering the doomed South Vietnamese President no ticket out.
From the outset, many wondered if President Kennedy had privately given the green light for the coup, but the evidence was always murky. Among those who believed the worst were the two presidents who succeeded him. In 2003, the National Archives declassified White House tapes made by President Lyndon Johnson, including this call, three years after the coup, to Senator Eugene McCarthy.
Voice of Pres. Johnson: They started with me on Diem, you remember, that he was corrupt, and he ought to be killed. So, we killed him. We all got together and got a ---- bunch of thugs, and we went in and assassinated him.
Pres. Nixon: Good evening, my fellow Americans.
Shortly after he delivered this primetime address to the nation on Vietnam, President Nixon spoke by telephone with the Reverend Billy Graham.
Rev. Graham: And I’m putting all the blame for this whole thing on Kennedy.
Pres. Nixon: That’s right! He started the damn thing!
Rev. Graham: Well, I —
Pres. Nixon: He killed Diem —
Rev. Graham: Right.
Pres. Nixon: — and he sent the first 16,000 combat people there himself!
But what did JFK really know? Slowly, JFK’s own tapes have come out over the years, shedding more and more light on this mystery.
Voice of Pres. Kennedy: Monday, November 4, 1963. Over the weekend, the coup in Saigon took place.
When he dictated his thoughts into a primitive tape recorder in November 1963, less than three weeks before his own assassination in Dallas, Kennedy ruminated on the coup and his feelings of regret.
Voice of Pres. Kennedy: I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August, in which we suggested the coup. I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu.
That recording was made public in 2009 and attracted some attention in scholarly circles. More recently, another JFK tape was also declassified, one recorded three months earlier, in August 1963, capturing the president in Oval Office conversation with Ambassador Lodge.
Played publicly here for the first time, the lost Kennedy-Lodge tape begins with the ambassador discussing the prospect of a coup, and it suggests JFK might *not* have been so shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu.
Amb. Lodge: They’re all going to be assassinated: her daughter, son-in-law—Nhu, and the President, Diem. And she said, “[inaudible], they’re all going to be assassinated. I don’t think there’s any question about it.”
Pres. Kennedy: I assume that probably this fellow’s [Diem’s] in an impossible situation to save. I don’t know whether we’d be better off - whether the alternative would be better. Maybe it will be. If so, then we have to move in that direction.
The contents of the August 15, 1963 tape went unreported and unpublished until Luke Nichter discovered the recording at the Kennedy Library.
Luke Nichter/Professor, Texas A&M University: This tape is the first evidence to surface that suggests at an early date -- before Lodge left for Saigon the first time -- that Kennedy was involved, or at least willing to accept a coup. And so, my interpretation of the tape is that he gave Lodge a green light to permit Lodge to look in and make contact with the generals who are plotting a coup. I think ultimately making this more, not just Johnson's war, not just Nixon's war, but also Kennedy's war.
In Washington, for Full Measure, James Rosen.