Introduction to National
Security Action Memorandum Number 273
By Greg Burnham
Part One: “The DRAFT”
Perhaps the most powerful evidence indicating
that select Senior Administration Officials and Senior
Military personnel may have had foreknowledge of the plot
to assassinate the 35th President of the United States,
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is found in the DRAFT of National
Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) Number 273. There are
several smoking guns, but the one that initially stands
out as the most obvious is the date of the DRAFT, which
was subsequently signed by McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant
to the President for National Security. The DRAFT was written
and dated November 21st, 1963 less than 24 hours before
the assassination. It was ostensibly the result of the
meetings that took place the previous day at the Honolulu
Conference. The text of the DRAFT of NSAM 273:
NATIONAL SECURITY ACTION MEMORANDUM
The President has reviewed
the discussions of South Vietnam which occurred in Honolulu,
and has discussed the matter further with Ambassador Lodge.
He directs that the following guidance be issued to all
remains the central object of the United States in South
Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country
to win their contest against the externally directed and
supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions
and U.S. actions in this area should be the effectiveness
of their contribution to this purpose.
objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal
of U.S. military personnel remain as stated in the White
House statement of October 2, 1963.
is a major interest of the United States Government that
the present provisional government of South Vietnam should
be assisted in consolidating itself and in holding and
developing increased public support. All U.S. officers
should conduct themselves with this objective in view.
is of the highest importance that the United States Government
avoid either the appearance or the reality of public recrimination
from one part of it against another, and the President
expects that all senior officers of the Government will
take energetic steps to insure that they and their subordinates
go out of their way to maintain and to defend the unity
of the United States Government both here and in the field.
specifically, the President approves the following lines
of action developed in the discussions of the Honolulu
meeting of November 20. The office or offices of the Government
to which central responsibility is assigned is indicated
in each case.
should concentrate our own efforts, and insofar as possible
we should persuade the Government of South Vietnam to concentrate
its efforts, on the critical situation in the Mekong Delta.
This concentration should include not only military but
political, economic, social, educational and informational
effort. We should seek to turn the tide not only of battle
but of belief, and we should seek to increase not only
our control of land, but the productivity of this area
wherever the proceeds can be held for the advantage of
(Action: The whole country team under the direct supervision
of the Ambassador.)
of military and economic assistance should be maintained
at such levels that their magnitude and effectiveness in
the eyes of the Vietnamese Government do not fall below
the levels sustained by the United States in the time of
the Diem Government. This does not exclude arrangements
for economy on the MAP account with respect to accounting
for ammunition and any other readjustments which are possible
as between MAP and other U.S. defense resources. Special
attention should be given to the expansion of the import
distribution and effective use of fertilizer for the Delta.
(Action: AID and DOD as appropriate.)
respect to action against North Vietnam, there should be
a detailed plan for the development of additional Government
of Vietnam resources, especially for sea-going activity,
and such planning should indicate the time and investment
necessary to achieve a wholly new level of effectiveness
in the field of action.
(Action: DOD and CIA)
respect to Laos, a plan should be developed for military
operations up to a line up to 50 kilometers inside Laos,
together with political plans for minimizing the international
hazards of such an enterprise. Since it is agreed that
operational responsibility for such undertakings should
pass from CAS to MACV, this plan should provide an alternative
method of political liaison for such operations, since
their timing and character can have an intimate relation
to the fluctuating situation in Laos.
(Action: State, DOD and CIA.)
was agreed in Honolulu that the situation in Cambodia is
of the first importance for South Vietnam, and it is therefore
urgent that we should lose no opportunity to exercise a
favorable influence upon that country. In particular, measures
should be undertaken to satisfy ourselves completely that
recent charges from Cambodia are groundless, and we should
put ourselves in position to offer to the Cambodians a
full opportunity to satisfy themselves on this same point.
connection with paragraphs 7 and 8 above, it is desired
that we should develop as strong and persuasive a case
as possible to demonstrate to the world the degree to which
the Viet Cong is controlled, sustained and supplied from
Hanoi, through Laos and other channels. In short, we need
a more contemporary version of the Jordan Report, as powerful
and complete as possible.
(Action: Department of State with other agencies as necessary.)
The first sentence
is indeed quite revelatory of its dubious nature: “The President has reviewed the discussions of South
Vietnam which occurred in Honolulu, and has discussed the matter
further with Ambassador Lodge.”
That is false. The majority of those who attended the Honolulu
Conference arrived on the 19th and the remainder arrived
in the early morning of the 20th. The conference itself
took place on the 20th and part of the 21st. The DRAFT
was written on the evening of the 21st. JFK and Jackie
left Washington aboard Air Force One for their 2-day, 5-city
“whirlwind” Texas trip on the 21st. So, the conference
took place all day on the 20th and part of the 21st in
Hawaii without the President in attendance. Since he and
the First Lady were en route to Texas from Washington on
the 21st, it is therefore quite clear that the President
could not have reviewed the discussions conducted in Honolulu
in depth, nor could he have spoken with Ambassador Lodge
in a meaningful way about the conference before the DRAFT
of NSAM 273 was written. After all, the attendees were
still in Hawaii and JFK was still in Texas on a very tight
schedule. The next day he was dead (on the 22nd). So, to
which President does this document refer in its first sentence?
The official record can aid us
in answering this question. The Gravel Edition of the Pentagon
Papers states, referring to the Honolulu Conference: “But the meeting ended inconclusively.
After [Ambassador] Lodge had conferred with the president
a few days later in Washington, the White House tried to
pull together some conclusions and offer some guidance for our
continuing and now deeper involvement in Vietnam”. [emphasis
As shown above, it could not have
been the sitting president, JFK, as he was in Texas at the time.
The record confirms that the first and only President to ever
review the discussions conducted at the Honolulu Conference and
further discuss them with Ambassador Lodge in Washington was
LBJ. How do we know with certainty? JFK never survived Dallas.
He never returned to Washington to meet with Lodge or anyone
else. He returned to Washington in a casket. The only person
to whom this DRAFT document could therefore refer by implication,
is LBJ. Although he was not yet president at the time it was
written—LBJ is the one who met with Ambassador Lodge in Washington
and is the one who signed the final version of NSAM 273 on the
Moreover, in the above quote from
the Pentagon Papers, note the almost palpable “impotence” of
the President as expressed in the words: “…the White House tried to pull together some
conclusions and offer some guidance to our continuing and now
deeper involvement in Vietnam.” That does not even remotely
resemble the relationship between the military and their Commander-in-Chief
as envisioned by the authors of the Constitution. Instead, it
appears to be an act of patronization. JFK may have been many
things…but he was not one who would tolerate patronization. But,
that is a moot point. He was already dead.
The next sentence says: “He [POTUS] directs that the following
guidance be issued to all concerned…”
Insomuch as the policy changes contained in this document, written
the day before his assassination, serve to begin the undermining
of JFK’s recently established Vietnam withdrawal strategy, its
authors remain suspect. The deception is obvious.
As of October 11, 1963 it was the policy of the USG to withdraw
the bulk of all US personnel from Vietnam as per an EXISTING
National Security Action Memorandum (263). Yet, this DRAFT
of NSAM 273 states:
"It remains the
central object of the United States in South Vietnam to
assist the people and Government of that country to win
their contest against the externally directed and supported
Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S.
actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their
contribution to this purpose."
Again, consider the
simplicity of NSAM 263 -- JFK, after reviewing the McNamara-Taylor
Report, approved only the recommendation to WITHDRAW. Done
deal. Are we really to believe that just over a month later,
the central object of the US would shift from total withdrawal
to total commitment? Yet, Bundy's NSAM 273 draft directs
that the central object of assisting the South Vietnamese
so that they will "win their contest
against...the Communist conspiracy" be given precedence
over all other considerations! There's only one looming problem
with this scenario. No such "central object" as
described by Bundy existed on November 21, 1963 as such a
plan was in direct opposition to the then Commander-in-Chief's
(JFK) standing order to his military to withdraw.
Once again, relying
on the official record serves to confirm these conclusions.
Note what the purpose of the Honolulu Conference was, as
stated in the JOINT STATE / DEFENSE Department Cable, reproduced
below. It is dated November 13th 1963. It directs the participants
as to the topics that were to be discussed at the conference.
It does NOT indicate discussions of any reversal or modification
of JFK’s Vietnam withdrawal policy, quite the contrary. The
part of the cable discussing the military (item 2) refers
to implementation of the recommendations contained in the
McNamara-Taylor Report. If you recall, the only part
of the McNamara-Taylor Report that the President approved
concerning US military policy is the section incorporated
by direct reference in his National
Security Action Memorandum Number 263 which
called for the withdrawal of
the bulk of all US Personnel by the end of 1965. See
Gregory Burnham's Introduction to NSAM 263
Therefore, the author(s) of the DRAFT of
NSAM 273 either: 1) disregarded the content of the actual discussions
from the Honolulu Conference—assuming the discussions were consistent
with JFK’s withdrawal policy—and falsely represented them in
this draft, or… 2) perhaps this document is the product of discussions
that were conducted in a manner inconsistent
with JFK’s Vietnam withdrawal policy.
We may never know which way this
went, but it can’t be both ways. However, either scenario indicates
foreknowledge. In the first case, foreknowledge by the majority
of attendees. In the second case, foreknowledge by only a few
of them—perhaps only one. If the document accurately indicates
the nature of the discussions in Honolulu, it implicates more
of the attendees. However, if the DRAFT was based on discussions
whose content is fictitious, then only a few attendees necessarily
had foreknowledge of the assassination that would take place
less than 24 hours after McGeorge Bundy’s signature appears at
the bottom. At the absolute very least: that one individual seems
Lyndon Johnson signed the final
version of NSAM 273 on November 26th, 1963, just four days after
the assassination and one day after the funeral.
Two: The Honolulu Conference Cable:
Although it's true that there was a significant
political change in South Vietnam as a result of the assassination
of the Diem brothers, which took place about 3 weeks after
the signing of NSAM 263, there remains no evidence that the
coup altered Kennedy's withdrawal plan. The following CABLE
was sent nearly 2 weeks AFTER the coup had occurred. It directs
what the AGENDA of the Honolulu Conference would be, including
discussions consistent with NSAM 263. Most notably, it says:
"(2) MILITARY, INCLUDING REPORT ON
PROGRESS IN ACCOMPLISHMENT OF TASKS ASSIGNED AS A RESULT
OF THE MCNAMARA, TAYLOR MISSION, AND OUTLINING PLANS
FOR CONTROL OF INFILTRATION AND SPECIAL REQUIREMENTS
OF THE DELTA CAMPAIGN."
Again note that the ONLY portion of the McNamara-Taylor
(Mission) Report that was approved by JFK was the part recommending
a complete withdrawal of the bulk of all US personnel by
the end of 1965. There is no indication in this cable that
he had changed his mind or that he was re-considering his
earlier decision--not even in light of the changed political
situation in South Vietnam. That the conference spawned the
DRAFT of NSAM 273 while JFK was still the POTUS remains a
disturbing and inadequately addressed chapter in American
In order to appreciate the actual content of
the November 20th Honolulu Conference itself one might consult
the official record. Unfortunately, the STATE Department's
account also appears grossly lacking in relevant content.
After reviewing the
The Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-63 Volume
IV August - December 1963 documents referencing the memorandum
from the Honolulu Conference of November 20th, 1963, I
made the following observations:
Each and every instance where any mention is made of the
then current US plan to withdraw from Vietnam by the end
of 1965 (in other words, any reference to Kennedy's NSAM
263 and/or the relevant section from the McNamara-Taylor
Report) a conspicuous lack of notation exists. Moreover,
(by my count) the withdrawal plan is mentioned ONLY thrice
in the entire memorandum of the Honolulu Conference! On
those three occasions, the bulk of the content of what
was discussed is NOT included in the FRUS Volume, only
that "it" was,
in fact, discussed. Save for a few very brief paragraphs,
we learn nothing from this so-called official record. Yet,
many apparently less urgent aspects of our presence in
Vietnam were discussed in depth and are included in the
memorandum--in great detail.
For instance, the first of the three times "withdrawal" is
mentioned, appears on page 610:
Finally, as regards all U.S. programs--military, economic,
psychological--we should keep before us the goal of setting
dates for phasing
out U.S. activities and turning them over to the Vietnamese;
and these dates,
too, should be looked at again in the light of the new
political situation. The
date mentioned in the McNamara-Taylor statement of October
2 on U.S. military
withdrawal had--and is still having--a tonic effect.
We should set dates for
USOM and USIS programs, too. We can always grant last-minute
extensions if we
think it wise to do so. [END]
Then on page 618:
Item B 2--Prospects and measures proposed by Country
Team for improved
prosecution of the war under the new government (Military,
including a report on
progress in accomplishment of tasks assigned as a result
of the McNamara-Taylor
Mission, and outlining plans for control of infiltration
requirements for the Delta Campaign) [END]
The last paragraph of the entire memorandum
reads thusly (page 624):
[QUOTE] Here follows discussions of
Item C 1, "Revision of Military Comprehensive
Plan;" Item C 2, "Status Report of FY 64 MAP;" Item
D, "Outline in terms of
forces, timing and numbers involved, the projected program
for reduction U.S.
military forces by end FY 65;" and Item E, "Country
Team suggestions for
revision of current reports to develop a consolidated
country team reporting
there is nothing recorded about the "discussion
that here follows..." at all in the FRUS Volumes!
The next entry in the FRUS is for 8:00am on the morning
of November 22nd 1963, where Bundy is presiding over the
Daily White House Staff meeting.
I find this significant for several reasons. Again,
in the joint State - Defense Department Cable of
November 13, 1963 regarding the agenda for the Honolulu
Conference, among other things: the attendees were
directed to discuss
certain military matters, namely, the implementation of
the items from the McNamara-Taylor Report that were APPROVED
by the President (JFK), i.e.,
withdrawal by the end of 1965.
Yet, according to the FRUS Volume IV, out of approximately
16 PAGES that were published by STATE to memorialize the
memorandum from the Honolulu Conference, only 3 small paragraphs
were dedicated to what should have constituted the MAIN military
discussion, as withdrawal would have been a huge logistical
challenge needing immediate attention.
That the FRUS Volume fails to provide the content
of the discussions that ostensibly led to McGeorge Bundy
writing a DRAFT of a document that was in clear opposition
to JFK's policy is very troubling.
DE RUEPCR 129 13/1958Z 1963 NOV 13
INFO WHITE HOUSE
DEF 944589 FROM OSD
THIS IS A JOINT STATE-DEFENSE MESSAGE
1. SECRETARY RUSK AND SECREARY MCNAMARA
PLAN ONE-DAY CONFERENCE PACOM HQ 20 NOV 1963. THEY INVITE
COMMENTS AMB LODGE ADM FELT AND GENERAL HARKINS ON FOLLOWING
A. COUNTRY TEAM REVIEW OF SITUATION:
(4) PROVINCE SUMMARIES
PRESENTATION NOTE: A (1), (2) AND (3) SHOULD
HIGHLIGHT OVERALL SITUATION.
A (2) SHOULD INCLUDE A REVIEW OF STATISTICAL INDICATORS
WITH INTERPRETATION AND NOTE OF TRENDS. UNDER A (4) LIST
NAMES OF PROVINCES NI WHICH SITUATION IS NOT CRITICAL AND
ABOUT WHICH NO MORE NEED BE SAID. FOR REMAINING PROVINCES,
BRIEFLY SUMMARIZE THE POLITICAL, ECONOMIC, AND MILITARY
SITUATION IN EACH PROVINCE.
B. PROSPECTS AND MEASURES PROPOSED BY COUNTRY
TEAM, FOR IMPROVED PROSECUTION OF THE WAR UNDER THE NEW
(1) POLITICAL, INCLUDING POSSIBILITY OF
IMPROVED RELATIONS WITH NEIGHORING STATES.
(2) MILITARY, INCLUDING REPORT ON PROGRESS IN ACCOMPLISHMENT
OF TASKS ASSIGNED AS A RESULT OF THE MCNAMARA, TAYLOR MISSION,
AND OUTLINING PLANS FOR CONTROL OF INFILTRATION AND SPECIAL
REQUIREMENTS OF THE DELTA CAMPAIGN.
(3) ECONOMIC, INCLUDING ANALYSIS OF GVN ECONOMY. MILITARY
AND TOTAL BUDGET EXPENDITURES. MEASURES PROPOSED TO SOLVE
GVN BUDGETARY PROBLEMS AND PROBLEMS OF US AID IN FY64 AND
(4) STRATEGIC HAMLET PROGRAM - ASSESSMENT
OF AND FURTHER REQUIREMENTS FOR THE PROGRAM.
C. STATUS REPORT ON FY64 MAP AND REVISION
OF THE MILITARY COMPREHENSIVE PLAN AND ASSOCIATED COUNTRY
D. OUTLINE IN TERMS OF FORCES, TIMING, AND NUMBER
INVOLVED, THE PROJECTED PROGRAM FOR REDUCTION OF US MILITARY
FORCES BY END OF CY 1965.
E. COUNTRY TEAM SUGGESTIONS FOR REVISION OF CURRENT REPORTS
TO DEVELOP A CONSOLIDATED COUNTRY TEAM REPORTING SYSTEM
AS A SUPPLEMENT TO THE ESSENTIUAL INDIVIDUAL POLITICAL,
MILITARY, AND ECONOMIC REPORTS. REPORTING SHOULD BE DESIGNED
SPECIFICALLY TO IDENTIFY THE OVER-ALL COUNTERINSURGENCY
OBJECTIVES AND TO MEASURE PROGRESS TOWARD THEIR ATTAINMENT.
F. CAS-MACV RELATIONSHIPS:
(1) PLANS FOR REDUCTION IN NUMBER AND COMPLEXITY
OF IRREGULAR FORCES, AND FOR THE ABSORPTION OF THEIR FUNCTIONS
INTO THE REGULAR MILITARY STRUCTURE.
(2) RESPONSIBILITY FOR COMBAT INTELLIGENCE
TEAMS AND FOR CONDUCT OPERATIONS IN NORTH VIETNAM AND LAOS.
(3) CURRENT STATUS OF TRANSFER BORDER SURVEILLANCE
(4) REVIEW OF FUNDING REQUIREMENTS AND ARRANGEMENTS.
2. TENTATIVE TRAVEL ARRANGEMENT AND LIST
OF PARTY. WASHINGTON PARTY WILL DEPART ANDREWS AFB IN TWO
PLANES. FIRST PLANE DEPARTS 1630 WASHINGTON TIME, 19 NOV.
ARRIVES HICKAM 2200 WITH FOLLOWING PASSENGERS: SECRETARY
MCNAMARA, GENERAL TAYLOR, ASD (PA) A. SYLVESTER, DASD (ISA)
W. BUNDY, AID ASST. S. JANOW, VADM RILEY, MGEN V. KRULAK,
DIR SEA AFFAIRS H. KOREN, COL J. KENT AND LCOL S BERRY
SECOND PLANE PARTS 0030 WASHINGTON TIME,
20 NOV, ARRIVES HICKAM 0600 WITH FOLLOWING PASSENGERS:
SECRETARY RUSK, AID ADMINISTRATOR D. BELL, SPEC ASST MCGEORGE
BUNDY, PRESS SECRETARY P. SALINGER, ASST SECR. HILSMAN,
ASST SECR. MANNING, MR M. FORRESTAL, SPEC ASST E. LITTLE,
OIC VN AFFAIRS P. KATTENBURG, MRS ROTHE AND A STATE SECURITY
DIRECTOR OF CIA J. MCCONE WILL ARRIVE COMMERCIAL
THOSE RETURNING TO WASHINGTON WILL DEPART
HONOLULU IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING CONCLUSION CONFERENCE. SECRETARY
RUSH AND NSC PARTY WILL DEPART HONOLULU AT 0820, 22 NOVEMBER
FOR ONWARD FLIGHT TO JAPAN.
3. VIP KIT EQUIPPED C-135 WILL BE MADE AVAILABLE
FOR AMB LODGE AND GEN HARKINS. PLANE SEATS 12 WITH BERTHS
FOR 11. WHEN SHOULD IT BE IN PLACE? INDICATE ETA HAWAII.
FLIGHT TIME SAIGON-HONOLULU IS 12 HOURS.
4. SECRETARY RUSK, SECRETARY MCNAMARA AND
GENERAL TAYLOR DESIRE 30-MINUTE CONFERENCE WITH AMB LODGE,
ADM FELT, AND GEN HARKINS PRIOR TO FORMAL SESSION.
[HANDWRITTEN CORRECTIONS ON COPY OF ACTUAL
CABLE: NOTE SECOND PLANE DEPARTURE FROM WASHINGTON AT 0200
INSTEAD OF 0030, AND ARRIVAL AT HICKAM 0730 INSTEAD OF
SOURCE: JFK Library JFK National Security
Files 1961-1963, Box 202 Country Files: Vietnam, Vol XXIV,
6-15 November, 1963 Defense Cables] [emphasis added]
This work was presented by Gregory at the 2010 COPA Conference
in Dallas. The presentation is in two parts.
Part one: http://vimeo.com/17699759 Part