March 9, 2014– Roger A. Hilsman has passed away. He passed at home, in Ithaca, two weeks ago. Hilsman was a controversial figure during the Kennedy administration. He is remembered mostly for his involvement in President John F. Kennedy’s Vietnam war decisions, but there was more to Hilsman than that. From World War II through the Johnson administration Roger Hilsman was in some interesting places at key moments. I haven’t much time today but I wanted to post at least a little bit on him.
Historians of the Vietnam war are divided over Hilsman’s role in the South Vietnamese military coup that, with United States support, overthrew the government of Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963. According to some, Hilsman and a “cabal” of other U.S. policymakers, actually engineered that American support. Others think differently, that the policy was Jack Kennedy’s and that Hilsman served merely as a loyal acolyte. (At the National Security Archive website last November, I posted an “electronic briefing book” which examines the evidence for Hilsman’s role much more closely than is possible here.) Whatever his role actually was, I can testify that Hilsman was certainly a Kennedy acolyte–I studied with him as an undergraduate student at Columbia, where he taught from 1964 to 1990, participated with him in various functions as a graduate, and we renewed our acquaintance assorted times, most recently I believe in 2005 when we were together at a Canadian forum on intelligence issues. In any case, the stories Hilsman told and the views he expressed left no doubt he was close to the Kennedy clan. It happens that Jack Kennedy’s brother Bobby numbered among those who insisted Hilsman was one of that Vietnam policy cabal. Bobby had a clear interest in moving responsibility for the Diem coup away from his brother, the president. Roger Hilsman was loyal enough to take the rap while preserving the friendship, though he squirmed under the charge. In 1967, when Bobby was positioning himself for a run for the presidency, Hilsman was among RFK’s foreign policy advisers.
Another Vietnam issue where Hilsman had a hand was in the strategic hamlet program, one of the counterinsurgency initiatives that repeatedly failed in that war. This reflected his own experiences. In the Big War, Hilsman had fought in Burma with Merrill’s Marauders, transferred to the OSS and worked to create partisan bands behind Japanese lines, the Kachin Rangers. He retained a lifelong interest in guerrilla warfare. When Kennedy came to the presidency and sought to spark U.S. government action on counterinsurgency, Hilsman edited a book excerpting writings on the subject, one well-received at the Kennedy White House.
Hilsman’s proudest moment came in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At that time he headed the State Department’s intelligence unit and helped interpret the evidence on Soviet missiles in Cuba for President Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. He also served as an intermediary in the important backchannel contacts between KGB Colonel Alekandr Fomin and ABC TV correspondent John A. Scali, which began to show a path away from war. In class and in conversations Hilsman would regale his audiences with vignettes from that intense period. Asked about the Cold War for an epic television series that Turner Cable did back around the millennium, Hilsman reflected that “there’s no war that’s inevitable.” He’d be remembered more kindly, perhaps, if he had applied that same analysis to Vietnam.