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On November 4, 1963 President Kennedy sat alone in the Oval Office recording his recollections of the death of President Diem. In the midst of his sober reflections, his son, John Jr, interrupted him. (pp. 726-728)


Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 19, pp. 726 - 728

Two days later Kennedy sat in the Oval Office. "One two three four five," he said into a Dictaphone. "Monday, November 4, 1963. Over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place."

For a man who stood at the epicenter of power, the president was extraordinarily dispassionate, not only in the decisions he made but equally in how he viewed them afterward. In this private moment he did not attempt to polish his image. He was his own best historian, treating himself as but another player in the complex tragicomedy of life.

Kennedy went through the major players one by one, accurately outlining where each man had stood on the coup. At times great events were determined not by principles or ideologies but by nothing greater than personal pique. In Kennedy's assessment, McCone had opposed the coup "partly because of an old hostility to Lodge, which causes him to lack confidence in Lodge's judgment, partly as a result of a new hostility because Lodge shifted his station chief."

If Kennedy ever wrote this history, he would have first filled his pen with irony. He saw his own culpability not in any strong, willful action he had taken, but in nothing more dramatic than the sloppy drafting of a cable at the outset. "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… That wire was badly drafted. It should never have been sent on a Saturday. I should not have given my consent… While we did redress that balance in later wires, that first wire encouraged Lodge along a course to which he was in any case inclined."

Kennedy went on to talk about the military situation. "Politically the situation was deteriorating," he said. "Militarily it had not had its effect. There was a feeling that it would." For all the president's insights into the world of men and politics, and his ability to spot the justifications and self-promotion of those around him, he had fallen for McNamara and Taylor's tragic fantasy that the war was going well, and that soon the Americans would be able to go home, leaving their victorious partner behind.

As Kennedy went on, John Jr. entered the room, his entrance signaled by a high-pitched squeal. "Say hi," the president said.

"Hello," John Jr. said, speaking into the microphone. "Naughty naughty, Daddy." An endearing little boy to whom the White House was a great castle, John Jr. would be three years old later in the month, and he already had the public presence of a child actor.

"Why do the leaves fall?" Kennedy asked, turning this moment into a learning exercise both humble and poetic.

"Because," John said.

"Why does the snow come on the ground?"

"Because."

"Why do the leaves turn green?"

"Because."

"And when do we go to the Cape?" the president asked. Hyannis Port was the scene of the most profound and joyous moments of his family life, first as a child and now as a father.

"Summer," John Jr. answered, though summer was far away.

When John Jr. left his father, he let out a great whooping laugh. It was not like the laughs the president usually heard, calculated gestures modulated by what seemed to please him. This was a pure thing, a loving, taunting, wondrous laugh from a son who saw only the happiness of the world.

As his son left, Kennedy turned finally to the most painful matter of all, and he spoke of it without a hint of emotion:

"I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu. I'd met Diem with Justice Douglas many years ago. He was an extraordinary character. While he became increasingly difficult in the last months, nonetheless over a ten-year period he'd held his country together, maintained its independence under very adverse conditions. The way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent. The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government or whether… public opinion in Saigon, the intellectuals, students, etc., will turn on this government as repressive and undemocratic in the not-too-distant future."