‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Two: ‘Riding the Tiger’

As yesterday, I’m not going to try to review or summarize the entire episode. You can go watch it any time at the website.

Anyway, I wasn’t able to concentrate on it straight through. For whatever reason, the AT&T Uverse listing had the wrong time, and it was halfway over before I knew it was on. So I watched the second half, then the first. During it all, my real focus was on what was happening in Dominica, as you might imagine. So I went back after — we were up anyway, hoping for news out of the Caribbean — and watched some parts a third time.

But as I did yesterday, I’ll mention one thing that sort of blew me away.

It was that little voice memo that JFK left to posterity a few days after the coup in Saigon that resulted in the deaths of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu.

Make no mistake, Diem was bad news. When the U.S. leaned on him to get him to stop oppressing the Buddhist majority in the country, and Kennedy decided to send heavyweight Henry Cabot Lodge as his new ambassador to emphasize the point, Diem waited until the old ambassador left and Lodge had not yet arrived, cut all wires leading to U.S. offices in Saigon, and rounded up thousands of monks and others across the country.



Like I say, bad news.

But the coup was badly botched from its inception. A memo was sent by a junior state department official to the generals plotting against Diem that urged them to go ahead. He ran it by JFK — over the phone, while Kennedy was on vacation at Hyannis Port. Kennedy didn’t hear the entire contents of the memo, and OKed it thinking his senior policy advisers were on board. They were not, and many would not have been.

A total clusteryouknowwhat.

But that’s not what impressed me. What impressed me was this a historical footnote that sent shivers down my spine. You might think it a small thing.

When narrator Peter Coyote says, “Three days later, he dictated his own rueful account of the coup, and his concerns for the future,” I thought to myself, It would be amazing if we could hear that account in his own voice, but I assumed that was impossible.

So I was amazed when I actually did hear Kennedy himself expressing his regret and self-blame. Apparently he said it into a Dictaphone or some other recording technology of the time.

You can hear it above. The most powerful part of it:

I, uh, feel that uh we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of August in which we suggested the coup.

I, uh, should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference.

I was, uh, shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu… the way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent.

I found what Kennedy said to be stunningly frank. He took responsibility and analyzed his own failings as dispassionately as though he were examining an ant under a magnifying glass. Beyond his trademark “uhs,” which always punctuated his speech, there is no hesitation.

It was even more striking to me giving our current maddening experience with a president who is never at fault, who owns up to nothing, who lashes out childishly at anyone who might suggest that he could be. A man whose grasp of world affairs… well, go listen to his appalling speech at the U.N. today.

Knowing it was to be left to posterity, Kennedy could have tried to burnish his reputation, fix blame elsewhere, obfuscate. After all, it was a complicated situation, and very smart people in his administration were saying the development was on the whole a positive one. But he didn’t. His honesty, and the clarity of his thinking amid such shocking events, is startling.

Three weeks later, he was dead….

jfk consent

26 thoughts on “‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Two: ‘Riding the Tiger’

  1. Doug Ross

    When was the Kennedy recording released to the public? (Haven’t seen the episode).

    If it was years later, it’s not exactly something that presents Kennedy in a positive light. The truth doesn’t need delay.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      So you’re saying this should have been speech or something?

      That’s utterly absurd, and utterly ignores the way the world works. Presidents who go before the nation in real time and say, “Blame it all on me” — think Jimmy Carter when the hostage rescue failed — lose all ability to lead. And it’s not just an ego thing. We need for our presidents — those who have a brain, unlike the one we’re currently saddled with — to be able to act effectively.

      Lincoln may have blamed himself for the utter fecklessness of McClellan, but he didn’t go before the nation and say, “I blame myself for our continued failure to end this war.”

      Yeah, I know that you don’t respect, even a little bit, the strategic calculations that are necessary to being successful in politics — such as choosing one’s public words carefully, and doing what you can to maintain whatever leadership capital you may have.

      The point here is that Kennedy clearly saw his mistake, and learned from it. (Which, as I said, makes him infinitely more suited to the office than Trump.) We probably would have seen the lessons learned in subsequent policies from his administration.

      Except, you know, he was dead three weeks later….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I want to know that my country has a leader who is capable of seeing things clearly and realistically, and learning from mistakes. I don’t need him to stand at a podium and share all his thoughts with me.

        What we saw here, with him sharing his private thoughts, was that Kennedy was that kind of leader that I think we need….

        1. Doug Ross

          You want a leader who tells the people he serves one thing while thinking another. Or maybe you just prefer a leader who sugar coats everything so that people don’t question their motives or capabilities.

          I don’t. I respect people who are honest in public and in private. Kennedy was no saint, no genius. He was a gifted politician and speaker.

          “Yeah, I know that you don’t respect, even a little bit, the strategic calculations that are necessary to being successful in politics — such as choosing one’s public words carefully, and doing what you can to maintain whatever leadership capital you may have.”

          There is a difference between choosing one’s words carefully and misleading the public. But, yes, I don’t respect any of the “strategic calculations” that are necessary for a politician to be successful in politics — since their definition of success is getting elected and re-elected and trying to gain power for their party with all the personal benefits that come with that. My definition of success would not include sending men to their deaths for political reasons and overseeing the deaths of thousands of innocent people. You consider that a strength…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Just stop and think for a minute, Doug.

        So the coup was a cock-up. The fact was, the reality was, that Kennedy now had to find a way to work with the new government in Saigon. Also (if I remember right), his own man on the scene had FAVORED the coup. He could have replaced Lodge, but sending him there had been a strong statement in opposition to one of the worst abuses of the Diem regime — the persecution of the Buddhist majority. We had somebody in place with some prestige whom the generals might see as on their side, somebody they might listen to.

        A leader has all kinds of responsibilities to all kinds of people. It’s not just about him and his personal misgivings.

        This is a guy who’s trying to find a way to succeed at what he’s doing. This is not a guy with an omniscient Doug Ross perspective of “The Vietnam War was always wrong, and everyone has always known it!” perspective. And it’s completely wrong to judge him from that perspective.

        One of the things I hope comes out of this series is that antiwar people (the ones who have won the argument in the national conversation) get past their pat conclusions and understand just how complex and difficult the situation was. I’ve always understood that, which is why I couldn’t be one of those antiwar people. At the same time, I was conscious of the fact that I didn’t know NEARLY as much as I should about that war.

        And I’m learning from this series, getting answers to a lot of my questions. At the same time, it’s making me more befuddled than ever.

        For instance, I’m even more confused about North Vietnam’s relationship with China and the Soviet Union. All my life, it’s seemed to me that it was a client state of one or the other, but it was hard to tell which.

        This series seems to tell me both, and that there was a tug-of-war between the two — the Russians pulling back and the Chinese pushing forward.

        It always seemed to me that it would have to be one or the other, given the bitter split between China and the Soviets in the 1960s.

        But there’s still so much I don’t fully understand….

        1. Doug Ross

          Well, you were lionizing Kennedy for being willing to admit his mistake as a counterpoint to Trump. My view is that admitting a mistake in private isn’t that great of a character trait – politician or otherwise.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Again, you’re missing the point. I was impressed that that was his personal assessment. Few people are so intellectually honest with themselves. I’m sorry you don’t see that or appreciate it….

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I would be absolutely STUNNED to hear Donald Trump, in private or in any other context, show that kind of insight, understanding, and self-criticism.

              Can you imagine it? I cannot…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                As a little kid in 1960, I wanted Nixon to win the election.

                When I hear something like this, I want to go back in time and vote for JFK. Although I’d take Nixon as a consolation prize…

          2. Claus2

            I rewatched the 2nd episode last night, interesting concern of Kennedy’s was that if he were to pull out of Vietnam now (after a series of mistakes) it might cost him the re-election. So was Kennedy more concerned about his political future or the country at that moment?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              One of the things you concern yourself with in a representative democracy is whether you can continue in office to implement your policies. And that requires winning elections.

              A politician who can’t stay in office is no good to anybody.

              Then there’s the larger question: In a democracy, we DO expect leaders to do the will of the people. And whether they are doing it is something we determine via elections.

              By the way…

              When I interviewed Ted Sorensen — the guy who WROTE so many of Kennedy’s powerful speeches, probably including the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” — 10 years ago, I asked him about Vietnam.

              He said, if I recall correctly, that he was convinced that Kennedy was about to pull us out when he was killed. I remember thinking that was probably wishful hindsight on Sorensen’s part. Over the years, his party has come to demonize anyone responsible for Vietnam, so he looked back on JFK with rose-colored glasses — that’s what I was thinking.

              But who knows? Maybe he remembered it right.

              JFK was having these misgivings within a month of his death. Also, I think he might have had the confidence that LBJ lacked on foreign affairs, and been bold enough (and he would have had to be bold, because it would have been unpopular) to withdraw.

              I don’t know. But it’s interesting to speculate…

        2. Bryan Caskey

          “The fact was, the reality was, that Kennedy now had to find a way to work with the new government in Saigon.”

          Eh. It seems pretty clear that we supported a pretty awful guy in Diem. He didn’t even seem to be that interested in being an open, Western-style democracy with all the secret police he had, their hostility to the press, freedom of religion, etc.

          It seems like we were doing everything we could to work with the folks in Saigon, but it seems like they weren’t really interested in working with us or really listening to our advice. Frankly, I don’t think the coup was that awful an idea given how bad the situation was with Diem. The problem seems that we viewed everything through this Cold War lens, and let this struggle take on an importance that it didn’t really have.

          Part of this may be that I didn’t live through it, and hindsight is 20/20, but every time they start talking about the falling dominoes thing, my big response is “SO WHAT?” Who cares if some tiny country in Southeast Asia (or a few of them) become communist. The problem of communism wasn’t going to be Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. It was always going to be Soviet Russia…you know, the really big country on the map. These small countries were part of Asia, and seem so trivial.

          Maybe it was just accepted conventional wisdom, but wasn’t there anyone who was contrarian and just sort of said: “Who cares if Southeast Asia goes commie?”

  2. Mark Stewart


    We have both Trump and Lindsey Graham out to destroy our country today. How about the present, first? Though yes that does require an appreciation of the past…

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Watched Episode Two last night. I honestly didn’t know how much of an absolute mess everything was at the outset. Hindsight really is 20/20, because the whole thing just seemed so doomed to fail. I can’t honestly see any point in time when the US thought things were going well.

    Big mistakes:

    1. The US failing to be an honest broker between the French and the Vietnamese. DeGaulle threatening to throw in with the Soviets if we didn’t back France.

    2. The US seeing the issue purely through then lens of the Cold War, rather than as simply the end of colonialism.

    3. Allowing Diem to even be elected in the first place seemed like a bad idea since the whole plan in Geneva was to have a national election/referendum in two years to resolve the whole issue. By having South Vietnam elect Diem, it effectively killed that national referendum.

    4. The US failing to condemn Diem’s oppressive regime. Heck, his wife is so awful, every time there was a quote from her, it made me want to join up with Ho Chi Mihn. Her referring to the self-immolated monk as “barbecue” was just ghastly. She’s so lucky that she was out of the country when the coup happened, because I’m sure there was a whole boatload of folks really hoping to take her out.

    5. The military of South Vietnam’s reluctance to fight should have really been the end of it. When the actual people we were trying to help were being reluctant warriors, we should have pulled the plug.

    It’s all so awful. And we’re seeing Afghanistan start to slowly morph into this. A bitterly determined enemy, no compelling reason to be there, a lukewarm and corrupt ally, and no end in sight.

    Heck, even the special forces guy they interviewed saw the writing on the wall when he compared Vietnam to the American Revolution.

    We’ve got a great military. They’re really good at their job. Our political leaders are the problem. No one seems to learn from history, and it’s just so politically difficult to say “We’re done here.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of all you say, this is the strongest point: “The military of South Vietnam’s reluctance to fight should have really been the end of it.”

      Of course, as always, the reality was more complicated than that. There were some ARVN people who WERE willing to fight (you see some in the series). There were some South Vietnamese officials who were NOT corrupt. So if you’re a policymaker at the time, what do you see, and what makes the impression that tips the balance for you?

      Take our situation in Afghanistan: What if our allies ARE ineffectual, or corrupt? Does that change the goal of preventing the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, as it was for bin Laden?

      But your point is a strong one because we see that LBJ and others were fully cognizant of the failings of South Vietnamese forces. And maybe that could have been “the end of it.” But Johnson — a guy who really didn’t want to deal with Vietnam, preferring to work on his ambitious Great Society programs — chose to send our boys in to do the job for them…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        “There were some ARVN people who WERE willing to fight (you see some in the series). There were some South Vietnamese officials who were NOT corrupt. So if you’re a policymaker at the time, what do you see, and what makes the impression that tips the balance for you?”

        Sure, sure. Not everyone was corrupt. But even a little can be toxic, especially when it’s high up. That’s why the chain of command needs to function – the field commanders out in the countryside need to report back to the flag officers who report to the POTUS. Then POTUS can make the decision based on the best information he’s got. It’s not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got. In the early 60’s it seems like we had the information, and it wasn’t perfect, but it certainly didn’t paint a picture of a committed ally.

        “Take our situation in Afghanistan: What if our allies ARE ineffectual, or corrupt? Does that change the goal of preventing the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, as it was for bin Laden?”

        Is that our goal? “To prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists”? That seems to be a pretty tall order. Basically, if that’s our goal it sounds like our goal is to take Afghanistan and turn it into NOT Afghanistan.

        What does “not a safe haven” look like anyway? If the goal is to turn Afghanistan into NOT Afghanistan, we need to send in a couple hundred thousand soldiers, bring in a couple hundred thousand teachers, doctors, engineers and other civilians to basically build them a new country, stamp the Afghanistan culture out of them, and do it over a couple of generations. You know, sort of like we did with the Native Americans.

  4. bud

    No one seems to learn from history, and it’s just so politically difficult to say “We’re done here.”

    But it shouldn’t be. The folks who continue pushing for military interventions are the same people who were wrong about the last military intervention. That is why I was so opposed to the selection of a man called ‘Mad Dog’ becoming Sec of War, I mean Defense. And predictably we are escalating Afghanistan again. Why is this obvious lesson so hard to learn?

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Mattis is the best thing about the current administration’s foreign policy. If you knew anything about Mattis other than one of his nicknames (he’s got a few) you would agree with me.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The problem here, and one I hope the series will succeed in addressing, is that Bud and millions of others think the “lesson” is “obvious.”

        And of course, one “obvious” lesson far too many came away from Vietnam with is, If that Mattis was in the military, he must be a bad guy….

        1. bud

          Sheesh. Mattis may not be a be a ‘bad guy’. That comment is an assinine conflation of my point. Talk about completely missing the point. The rules were changed to allow a recent military guy to be eligible for sec of war. I maintain the rule was a good one. And the escalation in Afghanistan supports my concerns. Mad Dog is much too close to his recent military life to make recommendations that consider options that may not require military measures. The one time when Trumps instincts were actually right and he listens to a man called Mad Dog.

  5. Phillip

    Bryan hits the nail on the head. So what if Vietnam went commie? That, in retrospect, is the obvious question. First of all, neither China nor Russia were about to occupy extra territory by invading Vietnam: if nothing else was clear, it should have been obvious to any reasonably intelligent person that the Vietnamese detested ALL outside occupiers on their soil. So this was obviously not a WWII-style German blitzkrieg invasion of Western democracies that had to be stopped in its tracks.

    And most obviously of all, Vietnam was never a threat against any Americans at all before this war. At least in the case of Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern situations one can say, hey, radical Islamic terrorists have attacked the US on and off our soil and so we have to do something about that. (Side note: isn’t is amazing in these first episodes to hear how the US couldn’t understand that to destroy a village meant you were going to create more enemies than you destroyed—and 40 years later we are still unable to learn that message as regards the struggle against violent radical Islam?)

    To adapt Muhammad Ali’s famous statement, Vietnam (whether they chose to live under Communism or not) was no threat to the US whatsoever, nor really to other Asian democracies like South Korea, the Philippines (OK, at the time not really a democracy but that didn’t really matter to the US), or Japan.

    I’ve only gotten through the first two episodes at this point, but I’m glad to see the series working hard to be fair to the mindset that initially got us involved (this is what Brad means by getting past “pat conclusions and understand just how complex and difficult the situation was.”) But Brad, what I think you are missing is that most so-called “antiwar” people (and really, shouldn’t everybody be anti-war, when you think about it?) like myself are less angered about the initial mistakes than by the stubborn doubling down and escalation and prolongation of US involvement in Vietnam long past the point where basic truth, facts, morality, and recognition that this was Vietnam’s dilemma to resolve should have made it obvious to us that the time had come to get out.

    I will try hard to keep an open mind as I watch the episodes from this point forward—but my feeling has always been that some “pat” conclusions are OK—e.g., there are not “good people” on both sides of the Charlottesville protests, it was an unequivocally good thing that Nazi Germany was defeated, and every American death and Vietnamese deaths at the hands of Americans after about, say, New Year’s Day 1966 can be laid on the doorstep of LBJ, Nixon, and Henry Kissinger, thus making them three of the most significant war criminals in American history. I can understand and excuse the mistakes of 1959, 60, 61, 62, 63. But not much beyond that. That was long enough to understand what was going on. From that point on it was a matter of hubris, arrogance, and yes, racism (the idea that the societies of non-white peoples around the world don’t have agency of their own, but rather exist only as chesspieces to be acted upon based on the geopolitical aspirations of the US or other western powers).

    1. Doug Ross

      I have a psychological take on the (dwindling) number of people who still can rationalize the Vietnam War. I’d hazard to guess that most of them had some personal connection to troops who served there – whether themselves or a parent , relative, or friend. And many of those who went didn’t come back or came back damaged mentally and physically. One coping mechanism to deal with that loss — or deal with the impact that having a parent away from home in harm’s way for several years — might be to convince one’s self that the Vietnam War was so necessary, so important, that it was worth the sacrifice. Because to think otherwise would mean that person’s sacrifice was meaningless and that can be a difficult thought to accept.

      I’ve only watched episode one so far and while I appreciate the backstory, it just feels like one bad decision after another driven by a post-WWII “we’re the kings of the world” mentality combined with the Cold War escalation.

      Also thought it was interesting as they rewound the events at the beginning of episode one to hear LBJ do what Brad thinks is a good thing: lie to the American people about how great the war was going “General Westmoreland’s strategy is producing results. The enemy is no longer closer to victory”. Now if you actually disassemble those two sentences they can be taken as positive or negative. That’s the trick now. “General Westmoreland’s strategt is producing results”. But that doesn’t mean they are good results. right? Just results. “The enemy is no longer closer to victory”. A very odd choice of words. Were they close before and nobody let the American people know? Why didn’t he say “We are close to victory”? Because he knew (and Westmoreland and McNamara knew) that we weren’t.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      “So what if Vietnam went commie?”

      Sorry, I can never be as sanguine about that as you. (Or is the word phlegmatic? I get those confused…)

      And a statement like “whether they chose to live under Communism or not” misstates the case.

      I’m reminded of another problem with the way Muhammad Ali and others spoke of the war — like it was about big ol’ white bullies going over and oppressing poor little brown people. Or worse, killing them for the hell of it.

      No, it was about defending some little brown people from other little brown people who wanted to impose what THEY chose, from the barrel of a gun.

      All you have to do is listen to the testimony of the many idealistic young men who wanted to go there and risk their lives to do exactly that.

      Is that all there is to the story? Of course not. It’s a LOT more complicated than that. Which is why I keep saying that the war — like everything — is something people should stop thinking of in simplistic, absolute terms.

      I particularly, adamantly reject such statements as:

      … and yes, racism (the idea that the societies of non-white peoples around the world don’t have agency of their own, but rather exist only as chesspieces to be acted upon based on the geopolitical aspirations of the US or other western powers).

      When we had men going over there willingly to give their lives for those Vietnamese who did NOT choose Ho Chi Minh’s way, I think a statement like that is grossly insulting to them.

      Not that I’m demonizing Ho here. As I said earlier in the week, Ho didn’t have to be our enemy. That’s why I think the death of Lt. Col. Dewey in 1945 may well have been the most tragic American death in Vietnam. As late as the mid-60s, he was a guy who was appalled by the North’s involvement in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. But by then, he was being swept along by trends bigger than he was — just as LBJ was.

      Speaking of LBJ, I’m learning things I hadn’t thought about before. Such as the fact that LBJ was no more about foreign policy than many post-Vietnam Democrats. Like them, he was all about his domestic social policies — which are his great legacy.

      He saw the war as a distraction from that. He was also insecure on that front, the series tells us, which is why he retained Kennedy’s national-security team. He followed their lead.

      In retrospect, it makes sense. But I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

      To the antiwar liberal, he will always be this Machiavellian villain, forcing this war upon our nation as well as Vietnam. He’s the bad guy, along with Nixon (the guy who, remember, actually got us out).

      But, and I know I sound like a broken record, it was more complicated than that…


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