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Summer and Fall of 1963

“So, let us not be blind to our differences-but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

With its new, courageous rhetoric JFK’s speech at American University represents a powerful outreach to the Soviet Union and shows how the attitude towards the Cold War had changed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It helped promote what Kennedy would later consider one of his greatest achievements: the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

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Remarks upon signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Americans and Soviets had been debating a nuclear test ban for years. The negotiations proved to be difficult because of disputes concerning the inspection of underground testing sites. While the Soviets were concerned about spying at the sites, Americans argued that inspections were necessary because it was difficult to distinguish nuclear testing from seismic activity in the area. In the end, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty did not include inspections and it was limited in many other ways.
Nevertheless, the treaty was an important step towards the control of nuclear weapons and a better relationship with Russia. “Yesterday a shaft of light cut into the darkness,” Kennedy said after the signing of the treaty.

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Signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston/Robert Knudsen.

Despite the significant changes JFK was eager to make, Vietnam remained a trouble spot. Like presidents before and after him Kennedy worried that if one country fell to communism, the neighboring ones would soon follow. In an NBC interview in September 1963 Kennedy addressed the so called domino theory.

Mr. Brinkley: Mr. President, have you had any reason to doubt this so-called "domino theory," that if South Viet-Nam falls, the rest of southeast Asia will go behind it?

Kennedy: No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Viet-Nam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya, but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.

Mr. Brinkley: In the last 48 hours there have been a great many conflicting reports from there about what the CIA was up to. Can you give us any enlightenment on it?

Kennedy: No.

Kennedy reacted the way he often did when asked about details regarding U.S. activities in Vietnam. He did not want to draw public attention to the issue partly because he did not want the U.S. to seem like an aggressor in the conflict, partly because he was indecisive about the further course in Vietnam. On the one hand, Kennedy had initiated a plan to withdraw 1,000 advisors from Vietnam, on the other hand he had already authorized the use of defoliants in November 1961 and repeatedly stated that pulling out of Vietnam was not an option.

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President Kennedy with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The issue grew increasingly difficult for JFK when the South Vietnamese government began to suppress Buddhists in May 1963. Images of self-immolations of Buddhist monks went around the world, seriously undermining the Kennedy administration's claim that in South Vietnam Western concepts of freedom and democracy were being defended. Beginning in late August, a possible coup against South Vietnamese president Diem was discussed in Washington. On August 24, the State Department sent a cable to U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon, in which the administration stated the U.S. would not intervene to stop a coup. The idea was put into practice and the South Vietnamese government was ousted on November 1. Although the plan included sending Diem and his brother into exile, they were executed during the overthrow.

Kennedy learned of the assassination of Diem and his brother during a meeting of the National Security Council. According to General Maxwell Taylor, JFK “leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before.” In a personal memo Kennedy later documented how he regretted having given his consent to the coup, especially without consulting Taylor and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who were not in Washington when the cable was sent. The reason why Kennedy made these recordings is unclear but historians assume he might have wanted to use them when writing his memoirs.

"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. In my judgment that wire was badly drafted, it should never have been sent on a Saturday. I should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference at which McNamara and Taylor could have presented their views."

Later in the recording, he expressed his shock about the “particularly abhorrent” way Diem and Nhu were killed. In the last weeks of his life JFK was troubled how to proceed in Vietnam. It is highly debated whether the Vietnam War would have taken a different course had Kennedy lived longer. The challenge was passed on to President Johnson, who authorized the escalation of the conflict the following year.


Alica Fischer