Stamped “Top Secret,” the Defense Department memo set forth a bold and risky course — a plan to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam. In stark terms, it warned President John F. Kennedy that quick action was needed. More than half the country, it stated, was already under some degree of communist control.
“The Viet Cong over the past two years have succeeded in stepping up the pace and intensity of the attacks to the point where South Vietnam is nearing the decisive stage in its battle for survival,” the April 27, 1961, memo stated.
Calling the situation critical but “not hopeless,” defense officials called for a strong show of US support, a sense of urgency that would “impress on our friends, the Vietnamese, and on our foes, the Viet Cong, that come what may, the US intends to win this battle.”
The document was among some 7,500 pages of records released Wednesday from Robert F. Kennedy’s tenure as US attorney general in the 1960s, long-contested documents that scholars have been anticipating for years.
“It’s invaluable,” said Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which has pressed for the documents to be made public.
Kornbluh said the trove of documents should shed light on the Cuban Missile Crisis and US involvement in Vietnam, among other topics.
“The mosaic is finally being completed on the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy,” he said.
Researchers have sought the records for years, but the documents remained sealed under a controversial agreement between the National Archives and Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow, that gave the Kennedy family control over the papers’ fate.
Critics have argued the public deserves to view the archives, which include many top secret government documents, and accused the Kennedy family of resisting their release.
Under growing pressure, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester released seven boxes of Robert Kennedy’s papers on Cuba last fall, and on Wednesday made 25 more available.
The library said it would release the remaining 30 boxes “in the near future.”
The documents provide a direct look at the Kennedy administration’s policies, including its relationship with Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam.
In a 1962 intelligence document, requested by President Kennedy, the State Department assessed the strength of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Beyond the insurgency’s regular forces, it had 100,000 supporters and sympathizers. Using guerrilla tactics, it had been inflicting roughly 1,000 casualties a month on Vietnamese forces and civilians.
“The struggle for South Vietnam, in sum, is essentially a battle for control of the villages,” it stated. “It is the people and the villages of South Vietnam that are the Viet Cong’s real source of both supplies and recruits.”
That is why it was so critical to deny the Viet Cong access to villages, the document warned.
“Two or more Viet Cong will be recruited for every one that is killed,” according to the document.
A 1964 CIA memo focused on Cuba, assessing the staying power of Fidel Castro’s regime.
“The appeal of Castro’s revolution is wearing thinner, but Castro himself retains firm control over the instruments of power,” it stated. “We believe that there will be further erosion of popular support for his regime over the next year or two. Unless he dies or is otherwise removed from the scene, however, we think the chances of an overthrow of the regime or a major uprising against it during this period will remain slim.”
Castro had developed a remarkable ability, it noted, to preserve a “workable degree of unity” among disparate groups. Cuba had taken on the character of a police state, it concluded, using huge numbers of informants to infiltrate counterrevolutionary groups.
“These informants appear to be active in almost every block of every Cuban city,” it stated. “In addition to spying and reporting on their neighbors, they distribute food rationing cards, hand out propaganda, and organize ‘voluntary work’ groups.”