Saturday, August 25, 2007

Vietnam War: The August Memo

The August Memo

While the Diem coup in 1963 did not take place on the 25th as the CIA had warned, American ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge soon became deeply involved in the ongoing intrigue. In a memo to the Department of State, Lodge described a meeting that took place with a top Vietnamese general who intimated that “the U.S. has only to indicate to the generals that it would be happy to see Diem…go, and deed would be done.” Lodge then counseled the State Department to be patient: “Action on our part would seem to be shot in the dark…I believe we should bide our time.” In even considering giving the generals support for a coup, Lodge signaled a stark shift in U.S. policy at the Embassy level, dismissing the earlier approach of “graduated pressure” and strict support of Diem that was practiced by Nolting.

In response to Lodge, the State Department approved what became known as the “August memo,” a highly controversial shift in policy that elicited disagreements immediately after it was first drafted and denials years later. The memo, drafted August 24th, is quoted here extensively given its importance in narrowing the plane of possibilities and subsequent rhetoric, from tolerance of the Diem regime to a Coup as an only acceptable alternative:

"U.S. government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhu’s hands. Diem must be given chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with best military and political personalities available. If, in spite of all your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved…Concurrently with above, Ambassador and country team should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem’s replacement."

It did not take long before sharp disagreements erupted within the top echelons of the Kennedy administration, primarily from the military establishment. General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1962-1964), thought the memo did not give enough opportunity for Diem to reform, that the various departments did not have enough input into the writing of the memo and finally, that the memo reflected “the well-known compulsion of Hillsman (assistant Secretary of State) and Forrestal (member of the National Security Council) to depose Diem.” Indeed, this memo hinted at a schism that would exist throughout the Kennedy administration’s involvement in Vietnam: the State Department and other civilian officials on the one hand, with the Military leaders and the CIA on the other.

Lodge himself addressed the memo later by offering a partial repudiation of it. Writing in his memoir The Storm Has Many Eyes in 1973, Lodge referred to a 1967 Defense Department study which quoted the August memo, concluding that the U.S. had “variously authorized, sanctioned and encouraged” a coup. Lodge denied this, claiming that that memo had not been approved “at the highest levels” and that in any case, a subsequent memo on August 30 had in effect cancelled any previous instructions about launching a coup. Lodge did not specify in his memoir which memo he was making reference to. But surveying the documents from the day in mention, one can find no such repudiation; in fact, one memo dated August 29th sent to Lodge from the DOS specifically stated that the United States government would support a coup if it had a good chance of succeeding. Furthermore, there really was no doubt whether the memo had been approved “at the highest levels,” given that President Kennedy himself subsequently regretted having approved it to begin with.

The August memo, in retrospect, was a point of no return. While concretely, it could have been easily reversed by a simple pronouncement from the President (this would never be forthcoming in any event), it had done its damage by legitimizing a Coup as a possible course of action to be taken. The rhetoric of a Coup had now been introduced and it served to remove any remaining psychological barriers to its use. The irrevocable slide towards the events of November 1st began and Ambassador Lodge wasted no time.

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