The national commemoration for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was held on Saturday, August 24, original date of the march was August 28. But it also managed to overshadow another moment that had a golden anniversary that warrants our observance.
On Saturday, August 24, 1963, Roger Hilsman Head of the State Department's Far East Bureau issued Cable 243 to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Ambassador to South Vietnam, it read:
"It is not clear that whether military proposed martial law or whether Nhu tricked them into it, Nhu took advantage of its imposition to smash pagodas with Police and Tung's Special Forces, loyal to him thus placing onus on military in eyes of world and Vietnamese people. The 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, we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved."
The message was clear; Diem must jettison his brother or face the reality that a similar fate awaits him. Hilsman also told Lodge that he "should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem's replacement if this should become necessary."
Cable 243, the Kennedy Administration's most significant policy decision on Vietnam, occurred under the most inauspicious circumstances.
Fifty years later, it is hard to believe that proposing a major policy shift was drafted on a Saturday while President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were out of town.
The following Monday, with most of the key administration officials back in Washington, began a series of meetings with opposing sides lobbying for their perspective. Kennedy was reportedly critical of Hilsman, Harriman, and Ball for their hasty approach. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and CIA Director John McCone were opposed to overthrowing Diem.
But the more senior members of the administration, in spite of the madcap manner in which Cable 243 came into fruition, were unable to impede its progress. Soon, it would be the new policy of the Kennedy Administration.
Never was there a definitive decision to whether to support or discourage a coup. Without official discouragement from the administration, Lodge, who wanted a coup, took it as de facto support.
Paul Kattenburg, chairman of the Vietnam Working Group, who had recently visited Saigon, opposed the to the overthrow of Diem, advocating instead a total American withdrawal from Vietnam-- "It would be better for us to make the decision to get out honorably," he said.
Kattenburg was soon reassigned as the Ambassador to Devil's Island.
The desire to overthrow Diem methodically gained momentum until President Kennedy had no choice but to offer his reluctant support.
The coup took place and Diem was murdered on November 2, twenty days before President Kennedy was assassinated. But by January 1, 1964, South Vietnam changed presidential leadership more times than the United States.
Cable 243 became the line of demarcation between supporting a nine-year policy under Diem's leadership that was never achievable and overtly replacing the French, although with far more tragic outcomes.
This would prove to be a catastrophic policy that ignored theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's warning that the choice of military intervention is seldom between good and evil, but rather between evil and more evil.
But the irony of Cable 243 may be best summed up by Kennedy's words to Walter Cronkite on the subject of Vietnam in September 1963, "In the final analysis, it's their war." By end of 1963, that honor would belong to the United States.