Fifty years ago today, I was sitting in an assembly hall at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, when an announcement was made by an Army officer: “The President has been shot.” It was as though a gun shot exploded in that room. Resisting an urge to duck, I thought: just days ago, the president of South Vietnam was killed—and now the war has followed me home.
Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-picked leader of the Republic of Vietnam, died on November 1, 1963, killed in an overthrow of the government in Saigon by his own generals, an assassination carried out under the umbrella of the U.S. Military Command in Vietnam that President Kennedy had created to protect this Cold War ally. On November 22, Kennedy was assassinated in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
As I sat stunned in that gathering of fellow soldiers at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School, my dream of attending West Point and having an illustrious military career dimmed considerably. The killing of the leader of South Vietnam by American-trained military officers made a mockery of the military mission in Vietnam where I’d served the previous 10 months. We clearly were not waging war for democracy in Vietnam, as we troops had been informed.
The duplicity of the Diem assassination by military officers we trained struck me hard. Now I thought, is Kennedy’s assassination tied to this? A few days before Diem’s overthrow, as I was awaiting a flight to the States from Saigon to report to Ft. Belvoir, rumors of an impending coup against his government were openly discussed in a nightclub frequented by Vietnamese and American military officers. Barely two weeks later, the rumors I’d heard—and thought were just drunken chit-chat—proved to be true.
Or perhaps one of the other secret operations U.S. forces were engaged in under Kennedy’s presidency triggered his death.
In a year and a half in the Army, I’d encountered many incredible tales of covert actions, including soldiers’ stories about the U.S.-organized invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro groups that foundered in the Bay of Pigs debacle, hush-hush Special Forces operations in various parts of Southeast Asia, and the back-story of how the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by a secret agreement by Kennedy to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey, installed within close firing range of the Soviet Union, in exchange for the Soviets removing the nuclear missiles they set up in Cuba within close range of the United States.
Somewhere in these secret maneuvers was the trigger that fired the bullet that killed Kennedy, I felt. And this cast a huge shadow over my dream of becoming a West Pointer and following in the footsteps of statesmen-generals like Eisenhower, Grant and, harking back to the origins of our nation, Washington. If our military forces couldn’t protect the president of the United States—and the leader of an allied nation whose army we created, advised, supplied and paid—what kind of career was that to aspire to emulate?
And so began my unexpected, emerging career of asking questions, rather than salute and blindly follow orders.