Back Channel The Kennedy Years
Inside the John F. Kennedy White House

June - November 1, 1963

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VII. June – November 1, 1963

Policy Disputes – Domestic and Foreign


Although I was bone tired from nearly 48 hours of non-stop work, when I quietly eased into bed next to Chantal (and was sleepily greeted by a dreamy, “Hello, darling,” and her warm hand on my shoulder), I just could not get my head to turn off. I was worried about the unnaturally high level of tension that was building up in the White House. It arose – and was steadily increasing – from at least three different sources. Domestically, the largest single issue was the Civil Rights legislation which the President had submitted to Congress on June 11th. It was roundly decried and opposed by all of the Congressional Representatives and Senators from the Southern states. Here the President was truly on the horns of a dilemma. He felt it essential to do as much as possible to eradicate the systemic mistreatment of the blacks in the South, but he also knew that he would have to have the support of the Southern states to get reelected. It seemed to be a nearly insoluble conundrum but one that absolutely demanded a solution.

The other big problem was South Vietnam and it consisted of two parts – the problems in South Vietnam itself and the problems arising from opposition in Washington to the President’s withdrawal plans. The autocratic Diem government was increasingly losing touch with its own people. There was a general consensus within the Administration that Diem had to be replaced but no one had any good answers to the questions of how quickly, who would engineer the coup to depose Diem, who would take Diem’s place, what would the Administration’s role be in the coup and what might be the consequences if the coup failed?

The second part of the Vietnam dilemma arose from the fact that there was very powerful and vocal opposition within the Administration to the President’s plan to withdraw 1,000 U.S. personnel by the end of 1963 and to withdraw substantially all U.S. personnel by the end of 1965. The main opponents of this plan were in the top ranks of the military, but there was also serious opposition coming from the State Department and even from some of the President’s advisory staff in the White House – particularly from National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. The Vice President was also strongly opposed. Presidents are not dictators. As long as an administration presents itself to the outside world as a united front speaking with a single voice, the playing field between the administration and its foes is a level one. If there is any outward sign of internal dissent within the administration however, moving forward with a particular policy or plan becomes far more difficult if not impossible. The President was staring down the business ends of several gun barrels.

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