235. Memorandum of a Conference With President Kennedy1
- Secretary Rusk, Secretary McNamara, General Krulak, Under Secretary Harriman, Assistant Secretary Hilsman, Mr. Alexis Johnson, Mr. William Bundy, Mr. Mendenhall (State), Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Mr. Forrestal, Mr. Bromley Smith
A revised cable to Ambassador Lodge was circulated to the group (copy attached).2
The President commented that he was not so concerned now about the kind of a government which would exist after the coup as he was about the correlation of pro- and anti-Diem forces.
Secretary McNamara agreed and asked that the draft cable stress our objection to a situation in which there would be major fighting between the Diem forces and the rebel Generals.
The President said the burden of proof should be on the coup promoters to show that they can overthrow the Diem government and not create a situation in which there would be a draw. We can discourage a coup in ways other than telling Diem of the rebel Generals’ plans. What we say to the coup Generals can be crucial short of revealing their plans to Diem. The paragraph referring to post-Diem government matters should be dropped. Lodge should be told that from here we can see that a disaster could take place and that if the rebels can’t win, it would not be sensible for them to go ahead. Lodge feels that the coup is comparable to a stone rolling down hill which can’t be stopped. If this is so, then no one can say that we are to blame for the coup, no matter what we do.
In reviewing a request for a country team assessment of the coup situation, the President asked that we make clear to Lodge the doubts we have concerning the military strength of the rebel Generals and ask him to ask the rebel Generals how they plan to deal with a situation in which their military strength is apparently inferior to that of the Diem regime.
The President reiterated his suggestion that Lodge should tell the Generals that they must prove they can pull off a successful coup or, in our opinion, it would be a mistake to proceed. If we miscalculated, we could lose our entire position in Southeast Asia overnight.[Page 473]
The President said that he agreed that Lodge should return to Washington by military plane, the time of his departure to be left up to him.