18. Message From the President to the Ambassador in Vietnam (Lodge)1

I have approved all the messages you are receiving from others today, and I emphasize that everything in these messages has my full support.

We will do all that we can to help you conclude this operation successfully. Nevertheless, there is one point on my own constitutional responsibilities as President and Commander in Chief which I wish to state to you in this entirely private message, which is not being circulated here beyond the Secretary of State.

Until the very moment of the go signal for the operation by the Generals, I must reserve a contingent right to change course and reverse previous instructions. While fully aware of your assessment of the consequences of such a reversal, I know from experience that failure is more destructive than an appearance of indecision. I would, of course, accept full responsibility for any such change as I must bear also the full responsibility for this operation and its consequences. It is for this reason that I count on you for a continuing assessment of the prospects of success and most particularly desire your candid warning if current course begins to go sour. When we go, we must go to win, but it will be better to change our minds than fail. And if our national interest should require a change of mind, we must not be afraid of it.

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This message requires no direct answer but if you do wish to reply, your answer should be unnumbered and headed “For President Only, pass White House directly, no other distribution whatever,” and referencing White House cite number.2

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, Staff Memorandum, MG Bundy. Transmitted in telegram CAP 63465 with the notations: “Personal for the Ambassador from the President” and “No Department or other distribution whatever”. The source text is a copy that Bundy sent to Clifton under cover of a Top Secret Eyes Only memorandum of August 30, which reads as follows:

    “The enclosed envelope should be opened by the President only, and when he has read the messages it contains you should destroy them. The reason for this extraordinary procedure is that these messages are not in the normal series and their existence is not known except to the President and to the Secretary of State, so I do not want them in a message file that may be seen by others who believe themselves privy to the most classified material. You should tell the President, however, that I discussed the outgoing message in draft with the Secretaries of State and Defense who concurred in it. The Secretary of Defense in particular thought it was a wise and necessary cable.

    “You may wish to ask the President after he has read the messages whether he wants to send any further message to the Ambassador on this topic. My own advice is not to do so at this time, but to be ready to call his attention to this question again if the developing situation makes it advisable.

    “I am sorry to be so cryptic.”

    The other message included in the envelope for the President was Lodge’s reply; see footnote 2 below.

  2. Lodge replied in WHASA 16262 directly to the President with no other distribution whatever, August 30, noon, as follows: “1. I fully understand that you have the right and responsibility to change course at any time. Of course I will always respect that right. “2. To be successful, this operation must be essentially a Vietnamese affair with a momentum of its own. Should this happen you may not be able to control it, i.e. the ’go signal’ may be given by the Generals.” (Ibid.)