Video: 1963 JFK tapes released

  1. Closed captioning of: 1963 JFK tapes released

    >>> 2 weeks after starting plavix.

    >>> tonight for the first time anywhere, the john f. kennedy presidential library in boston is allowing us to broadcast president kennedy 's voice from some once secret audiotapes, and while they take place concerning another war at another time in this nation's history, they have bearing on the discussion going on in this country right now. and with us tonight to help us through this are presidential historian and author michael beschloss . michael , let's set the scene. it's 1963 , for example. vietnam war has claimed 118 americans. it's really just getting started.

    >> it's at the beginning, and kennedy is in august of 1963 deciding what to do. he's worried about the president of south vietnam , whose name was diam had a powerful brother named nu. kennedy thought these guys were corrupt and would have a war there. here we hear a president in secret plotting a military coup against diam and nu.

    >> these are hardly science. they are early tape recordings. they are hard to hear. we put the words on the screen. the first of three snippets now. e vvocative of something else, going in deep, having assured chances of success.

    >> absolutely. two years earlier, as you know, he tried to topple fidel castro in cuba with a coup with the bay of pigs . a huge failure. kennedy was embarrassed, wanted to make sure it did not happen again. the next thing we're going to hear is kennedy talking about the possibility that coups can get out of control. diam and nu might be assassinated. he wanted to make sure that did not happen.

    >> let's listen to that portion.

    >>> michael , we should foreshadow this third bit. the coup was launched. as i remember, president diem was taken in back of a van and was indeed assassinated. now, historians like yourself have debated whether or not kennedy was protesting too much on tapes for history, how much he knew, didn't he expect he was going to be killed?

    >> he knew it was a possibility that sometimes this happens in a coup but there's nothing on these tapes that suggests that kennedy deliberately caused the killing of diem and his brother.

    >> here now the third and final of these snippets of the kennedy tapes.

    >> so we know the history from there. we know president johnson escalated the war further. it has a lot of bearing on these times, michael .

    >> it does. what we wouldn't give to be able to hear tapes of president obama right now having similar conversations -- not about a coup with president karzai but about what we do in afghanistan, if we could have gone back in history and told john kennedy about the lessons we know now.

    >> as always, a pleasure having you. michael beschloss , our presidential historian. there's more on our website, nightly.msnbc.com.

    >>> we're back with more right

By AP Diplomatic Writer
updated 11/3/2009 3:40:05 PM ET 2009-11-03T20:40:05

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 today in dealing with Afghanistan's shaky government.

Obama is beset by questions about President Hamid Karzai's popularity, honesty and management of the war against Taliban, while Kennedy dealt in 1963 with President Ngo Dinh Diem and his inability to turn the tide against Viet Cong insurgents.

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

Forty-six years ago this week, Vietnamese generals, confident they had the support of their U.S. allies, overthrew Diem's government in Saigon. But Kennedy, conflicted by a State Department green light to the generals in their coup, 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.

Riddled with corruption
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, riddled with corruption and out of touch with its citizens.

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 released tapes showed his reservations, the tapes did not show whether Kennedy tried to stop the coup.

Cable 243 was transmitted by the State Department without the direct 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."

Disagreement over tactics
During the discussions, State Department officials said they felt it was too late to step back from supporting a coup. 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."

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Video: ‘We should not withdraw’ 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.

With the cable, the United States "started down a road that we really never recovered from," Robert F. Kennedy is quoted as telling historian Arthur Schlesinger.

The battlefield situation gradually worsened for South Vietnam and the United States, and the conflict drew to a close under President Richard M. Nixon.

All U.S. ground troops were gone by March 1973, and the United States evacuated Saigon in April 1975. Normal relations were established with Hanoi in 1995.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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