Newly Released JFK Recordings Bring to Mind the Involvement of Torby Macdonald

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The recent release of audio recordings made in the Kennedy White House jogged my memory about a story I heard one night many years ago in Malden about Torbert H. Macdonald, Harvard football star, World War II naval hero, lawyer, spouse of a Hollywood starlet, Congressman, and lifelong friend of JFK. It was a tale hinting strongly of intrigue and uncertainty at one of the early, critical junctures of the war in Vietnam.

On January 24, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston declassified and released to the public the final 45 hours of White House recordings that the president secretly made of meetings in the Oval Office. The batch included a conversation the president had on September 10, 1963, with Army General Victor Krulak and Joseph Mendenhall, an advisor to the State Department, regarding a fact-finding visit they had made to Vietnam at the behest of the president.

Kennedy was perplexed that two intelligent men had come back with such different impressions of one country. The war against the Viet Cong, the general said, "will be won (by the United States) if the current U.S. military and sociological programs are pursued." But the man from the State Department wasn't buying it. "The people I talked to in the (South Vietnam) government," Mendenhall said, "when I asked them about the war against the VC (Viet Cong), they said that is secondary now -- (that) our first concern is, in effect, in a war with the (allied) regime here in Saigon. There are increasing reports in Saigon and Hue, as well, that students are talking of moving over to the Viet Cong side."

After a pause, the president asked, "You both went to the same country?" There was nervous laughter, then Kennedy said, "I mean, how is (it) that you get such different -- This is not a new thing. This is what we've been dealing with for three weeks. On the one hand, you get the military saying the war is going better and, on the other hand, you get the political (opinion), with its 'deterioration is affecting the military'...What is the reason for the difference? I'd like to have an explanation what the reason is for the difference."

In the fall of 1963, there was growing disenchantment in the Kennedy administration with the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and with the influence exerted by Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and Nhu's imperious wife, "Madame Nhu," on the affairs of their war-enfeebled nation. Our ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, was pressuring Diem behind the scenes to banish his brother and sister-in-law from the government. And according to secret State Department cables that were made public years later, President Kennedy's doubts about Diem's reliability as an ally in the war against the communists were so great that he was ready to explore the establishment of an alternative government in South Vietnam.

On November 1, 1963, six weeks after Kennedy's Oval Office colloquy with Krulak and Mendenhall, and three weeks before Kennedy would be killed in Dallas, there was a coup in South Vietnam. Both Diems were killed. Madame Nhu was sent into exile. To this day, the supposition persists that the Kennedy administration supported the overthrow of the Diem regime, actively or tacitly.

In the late-1970s, I was a reporter at the Malden (MA) Evening News, covering city government. My attendance at all meetings of the City Council and its various committees was required. At that time, Joseph Croken was the Malden City Clerk, meaning he took care of all of the Council's paperwork, helped run the Council meetings, and maintained all Council records. Previously, Croken had been the top aide to Torby Macdonald during Macdonald's 22 years in the U.S. Congress as the representative from the Seventh Massachusetts District (1954-76). Macdonald served until his death in the spring of 1976 at the age of 58.

One night, close to 10 o'clock, after a particularly long and drawn-out City Council meeting, Croken told me that Macdonald had traveled to Vietnam just before the coup against the Diems. I cannot remember the date, or even the year, when I heard this from him, and I have only a vague memory of the story having been prompted by some matter concerning local Vietnam veterans that was a topic of discussion at that night's Council meeting.

I had followed Croken to his office across from the Council chamber to photocopy a document in his possession, and as I was copying, we somehow we got talking about the war. "You know, Torby went to Vietnam not long before the president died," Croken said. "I was never sure why he went. He said very little to me about the trip. I always thought maybe he'd been sent there by the president on sort of a personal diplomatic mission."

"Wouldn't that have been around the time the Diems were killed in that coup?" I asked.

"That's right," Croken said.

"Do you think he (Torby) could have been checking things out in Saigon for the president, maybe to verify information Kennedy had been given, or was carrying a personal message from the president to someone in the government?"

"It's possible, I guess," Croken said. "Torby, like I said, never talked much about the trip. And before we knew it, the president was dead, Torby was devastated with grief, and the war went on. The thing (the trip) just faded."

If there was a secret at the heart of Macdonald's 1963 trip to Vietnam, it most likely died with him. He was a true friend and confidant of Kennedy's from their freshman year at Harvard, when Kennedy's father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, insisted that his son room with an athlete because he didn't want his son to become an Ivy League twit, and Kennedy was placed with Macdonald, a handsome and gifted athlete who had grown up in Malden, the son of a renowned high school football coach. They remained close throughout Kennedy's life. Macdonald was an usher, for example, in Kennedy's wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier, and Macdonald would frequently visit with Kennedy at the end of his White House work days. Macdonald, however, was scrupulous about not trading on the fact he was close to the Kennedys.

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to speculate that the president sent Macdonald, who had significant military experience, to Vietnam in order to benefit from his first-hand impressions, and perhaps to help him find his way to the truth through the contradictory reports he was receiving from the State Department and the Pentagon. Any conjecture beyond that gets pretty wild.

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