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Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
It was a very sad affair—one that caused a serious break within the ranks of the Kennedy team. The cable you mention was dispatched to Saigon without normal clearance at the instigation of a few of the President’s advisers who were convinced that “we can’t win with Diem” and hence he must go. The cable amounted to a major change in policy. It authorized [Ambassador Henry Cabot] Lodge to tell Vietnamese officials and generals in effect that the U.S. would no longer support Diem on his present course but would favor a move to replace him.
Actually, little happened in Saigon for quite a while during which the generals hesitated to move. But on November 1 the coup took place and both Diem and his brother were assassinated. We were meeting in the Cabinet room when the news came, and President Kennedy, who always had insisted Diem never suffer more than exile, jumped up and rushed out of the room. I had never seen such a look of shock and dismay on his face before.
You’ve called the August 24 cable an “egregious end run.” How did it all come about?
It’s well known now what the sequence was. The group was led by Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman, Assistant Secretary of State [Roger] Hilsman, and Michael Forrestal of the White House staff. That Saturday they drew up the cable, cleared it with Under Secretary George Ball, who was out playing golf, and got a telephone clearance with the President in Hyannis Port. It was then dispatched without the concurrence of the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the CIA, all of whom had a vital interest in its contents. Yet when we all got together the following Monday morning, its authors couldn’t explain what the cable actually meant. At least they couldn’t answer the questions we put to them.
The death of Diem drastically altered the situation, didn’t it?
The assassination set in motion a sequence of crises, both political and military, that eventually forced President Johnson in 1965 to choose between introducing American combat forces and accepting defeat. And I’m convinced it also provided encouragement to the communists to exploit the removal of their mortal enemy. So I would assess this unfortunate episode as one of the great tragedies of the Vietnamese conflict and a cause of the costly prolongation of the war into the next decade.
Would you say that the subsequent death of President Kennedy was a turning point in this nation’s history?
It’s impossible, really, to take any historical event and say positively it is a turning point. Yet in my mind this one was. To what extent would this very promising young man have fulfilled his apparent potential? He had two bad counts on his record with the Bay of Pigs and this August 24 affair, but he had many other things in his favor. Certainly his ability to attain the confidence of the American people during that period, that augured well. Camelot was more than an apt phrase. The Kennedy White House generated a certain electricity. It was a stimulating environment. After the President’s death, that atmosphere gradually dissipated, at least in my biased view, and has never been quite the same since. [His death] was critical to the outcome in Vietnam, and since Vietnam was lost, everything has gone downhill. Moreover, the loss of the Kennedy brothers has had an international impact. They had impressed themselves on the foreign world far more than any other Americans of recent times.
You became a close friend of Robert F. Kennedy, who named one of his sons after you. What kind of President do you think he would have made?
Well, again, one never knows. Bobby was quite different from his brother. He was a man of strong character, often abrasively aggressive; at the same time he had a real sense of empathy for the small people. He had the ability to move people. I recall once when he got up on top of a truck and talked to a crowd in Indonesia. They didn’t understand a word he said but they cheered. He had that spark his brother had, which I call the x factor that produces inspiring leaders. If there ever was a deputy President in American history, Bobby Kennedy was the one.
You have maintained for years that this nation is not skillful enough in the manipulation of all the components of its vast power. Is the United States making any progress along these lines?
Not very much. We have let our military strength decline and have done nothing to improve our diplomatic skill to mobilize our vast economic power in support of our national interest.
Why do you believe Americans are “reluctant” to use their power?
It’s hard to say. You can be reluctant for a lot of reasons. You can be reluctant because you’re averse to using power in principle or because you don’t know how to use power, or the President may get contrary advice from his experts. For a time we’ve been restrained by the memory of Vietnam. So we give the impression of the shackled giant we read about.
Speaking of politics, have you ever been tempted to run for public office?