JFK speaking on the problems in Vietnam in late 1963.
As I finished watching the 2nd and 3rd episodes of Ken Burns' documentary 'The Vietnam War', one - actually TWO - notable historical references were glaring by their absence: 1) any mention of John F. Kennedy's National Security Action Memorandum 263 (at the end of Episode 2', 'Riding the Tiger') and (2) any mention of LBJ's NSAM 273 in Episode Three ('The River Styx). Of course, I had feared such an omission when I wrote my September 16th post, which is why I supplied a lot of the document details and backstory then, including reference to the cover letter by McGeorge Bundy, e.g.
Usually carelessly cited as NSAM 263 by amateur researchers or "buffs" and the actual heart of the NSAM (sections IB(1-3) of the report cited in the letter) appearing in Document 142 of The Pentagon Papers: ‘Report of McNamara - Taylor Mission to South Vietnam'
So the question becomes: Why - in the course of 10 years preparation - couldn't Burns, or his assistant Lynn Novick, have found this NSAM which clearly stated Kennedy's intent to withdraw all forces from Vietnam? Why also, could they not find NSAM 273 from Johnson which clearly nullified JFK's NSAM and expanded the war? Again, for more on the origin backstory of LBJ's NSAM -273 check out the information in the link below:
One possible reason for the omission was deliberate, i.e. to avoid contention or controversy. Much of this can be laid at the feet of the late Vince Bugliosi who contended the evidence was "ambiguous" in his cinder block book, Reclaiming History . This also reinforced a meme of uncertainty that was pronounced at least until 2013.
Referencing the matter, James K. Galbraith writing in The Nation (Nov. 22, 2013) explained regarding Kennedy's NSAM 263 and intent to pull out:
In 2003, this was controversial. Many historians had denied it. Peter Dale Scott, John Newman, and Arthur Schlesinger were exceptions. They were right, and documents and tapes released under the JFK Records Act proved them right. The issue was resolved by early 2008 when Francis Bator, who had been President Johnson's Deputy National Security Adviser, opened his reply to my letter in the New York Review of Books with these words:
Professor Galbraith is correct [Letters, NYR, December 6, 2007] that “there was a plan to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, beginning with the first thousand by December 1963, and almost all of the rest by the end of 1965…. President Kennedy had approved that plan. It was the actual policy of the United States on the day Kennedy died.He adds that Bator followed with a qualification to the effect there existed an agreed upon determination of "essential functions" to be carried out by the South Vietnamese by the end of 1965. This again may have introduced an element of uncertainty which Burns and Novick preferred not to confront, far less resolve. But is it valid?
An even more substantive source is cited by long time JFK researcher James Di Eugenio in his book, 'Reclaiming Parkland'. This would be for historian Frederik Logevall in a book published n 1999 - years before Bugliosi's book and "proving beyond any doubt that from the moment Johnson took office until he was inaugurated in 1965, America was going to war in Vietnam". And true to its basic theme Burns' documentary showed Johnson amping up aggression from March, 1965 with the first American ground forces and also using fully initiated air strikes instead of merely retaliatory ones.
While Burns and Novick's documentary does devote about five minutes to the Tonkin Gulf Incident (and subsequent Resolution) it doesn't connect them to Johnson's NSAM 273. The Tonkin Gulf incident itself started, according to Burns and Novick, because on July 30, '64 Americans initially guided South Vietnamese gunships to attack N. Vietnamese targets - prompting N. Vietnamese response - then U.S. air attacks. There followed the main incident on August 4th, 1964 when American radio operators mistranslated North Vietnamese radio traffic and concluded a "new military operation was imminent."
Actually, Hanoi had merely called upon torpedo boat commanders to be ready for a new raid by the South Vietnamese. Then the Maddox and fellow destroyer, the Turner Joy, braced for a fresh attack. No second attack came, as the Burns' documentary noted, but "anxious radio operators aboard Maddox and Turner Joy convinced themselves one had". LBJ then decided the "probable attack" (sic) should not go unanswered, claiming the non-attack was "open aggression against the United States of America". This led directly to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed in the Senate by 88-2, and in the House with total 'Aye' votes.
This still doesn't account for the omission of mention of either NSAM 263 or NSAM 273. But James Di Eugenio's research is crystal clear (p. 164):
"Concerning the differences between NSAM 263 and NSAM 273, first let us dispose of the obvious. Johnson never removed the first thousand troops as Kennedy's NSAM 263 had forecast. Because as is made clear in the book (Newman's 'JFK and Vietnam') ...he wanted to create the illusion there was no breakage in policy, when in fact he was planning for that split within days of taking office. The important difference was that the latter order reversed Kennedy's previous one by allowing for direct American naval involvement in the Tonkin Gulf. This in turn led to the Tonkin Gulf incident in the late summer of 1964. LBJ had been preparing for that since he already had the resolution to attack Vietnam in hand."
In my Sept. 16th post, I described how Johnson - according to FOIA released documents in John Newman's book- - secretly courted the military to fire up American aggression though Kennedy was steadfastly against it. (Especially after his visit to Saigon in 1951 as Di Eugenio points out and Burns' documentary notes in Episode 1.) These back channel efforts to curry favor with the military entailed setting up a network to receive actual Vietnam intelligence behind Kennedy’s back – while ensuring the spooks and Pentagon sources delivered only doctored pap to JFK. The latter always portrayed the situation much better than really obtained. Di Eugenio then leads to understand how exactly Kennedy's NSAM 263 germinated (p. 164):
"Knowing that the American-backed South Vietnam effort was failing, the Pentagon chose to disguise this with a whitewash of how bad things really were. Therefore, Kennedy was going to hoist the generals on their own petard: If things were going so well, then we were not needed anymore."
Of course, Kennedy would have already distrusted the generals after they tried to force his hand to bomb and invade Cuba during the Cuban Missile crisis. We now know in retrospect - and from Robert McNamara when he visited Cuba in 1992, that would have led to a nuclear war. JFK knew from then not to trust anything the Joint Chiefs said, and he must have at least suspected Johnson's collusion with them which Frederik Logevall and John Newman had exposed in their own books via thousands of pages of documents released under the JFK Records Act.
Had Burns and Novick integrated this background into their Part 3, the episode would have made much more sense and not seemed so irrational, i.e. S. Vietnamese gunboats simply attacking North Vietnamese targets out of the blue and the U.S. mounting airstrikes when the North Vietnamese were the victims not the aggressors. The pattern, in other words, would have been evident and the objective clear.
So why not 'go there'? Probably a combination of Johnson hagiography, see e.g.
And a deliberate choice to avoid controversy. But by this avoidance, or dodge, they ended up with a Part Three that was much less coherent than it needed to be. So they avoided controversy at the expense of coherence. Undoubtedly, they didn't wish to portray LBJ in any more negative way than he already would be by vastly expanding the conflict using a pretext (Tonkin Gulf incident).
Had they actually delved deeper, say beyond hagiography in the opening segment of the episode, they'd have acknowledged LBJ was not the charming, "Great Society" creator they portrayed but a no good rapscallion and murderer. Could Johnson have actually stooped to have anyone killed? The Dallas Morning News story from March 23, 1984 (see image inset) is quite blunt about it. Billie Sol Estes reported that Johnson had Henry Harvey Marshall, a USDA official in charge of the federal cotton allotment detail, killed because he had attempted to link Estes’ nefarious dealings to the then Vice-President. While Estes ended up doing prison time, he did have his say before a grand jury (which subpoenaed him) after his release in 1984. As reported in news story, Estes linked Johnson and two others to the slaying of
In the follow-up grand jury investigation, Johnson, his one-time aide Cliff Carter, and ‘Mac’ Wallace were all deemed “co-conspirators in the murder” of
Marshall. How is this useful? Because it is prima facie evidence that LBJ could also have cooperated in at least enabling Kennedy's assassination in order to expedite the war for the generals he always wanted (in return for which he'd have the presidency).
Most of us who are researchers in the area of deep politics firmly believe that
was the “Devil’s deal” LBJ struck with his JFK assassination collaborators (CIA, Generals), in order that he be catapulted into office – while facing felony charges(barely days before) . This isn’t “blowing smoke” either. As Steve Kornacki reported in his ‘UP’ journal on MSNBC, the morning of Nov. 23, 2013. Using tapes and displayed FOIA and media documents, Kornacki showed that Johnson was about to be exposed as an influence peddler in conjunction with the Bobby Baker scandal by LIFE magazine in its upcoming issue (to be published the week of Nov. 25, 1963.( Vietnam
A paper trail of bank statements and payments was to have been included, and as Kornacki pointed out a Senate investigation would likely have ensued with LBJ being dumped from Kennedy’s 1964 ticket. In other words, LBJ had by far the most to gain from JFK’s assassination, since he’d then be next in line as President, and not have to face justice in the Baker scandal.
Burns and Novick? Maybe they were aware of these nefarious connections, maybe not. But the most straightforward reason for omitting anything to do with NSAMS 263 and 273 is that considering them (seriously!) meant heading into the heart of the Kennedy assassination. That also meant considering LBJ clearly as a bad actor - not in firing any shots - but in expediting planning, say "helping" with the Big D motorcade route leading right into an area ideal for triangulated crossfire. Hell, he already had his NSAM 273 prepared before JFK was even shot. Sadly, the two Vietnam War documentarians' omission has meant a more superficial understanding of the origin of the Vietnam War, specifically Johnson's primary role.
No surprise as Di Eugenio notes (p. 165), "in his first meeting on the issue held just forty-eight hours after Kennedy was killed, he made it clear to all his approach to Vietnam was much more militant, much more confrontational than JFK's"
No wondering at this if LBJ was also the one who engineered Henry Marshall's execution, and removed Kennedy to get his Vietnam War.
Too cynical and disingenuous? Then you need to do much more research on the Kennedy - Johnson document background to the Vietnam War, and into the JFK assassination itself.