Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 10/27
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4. Kennedy's Plans and their Import

JFK's aggression was later escalated to a full-scale attack against all of Indochina, becoming one of the most destructive wars of the 500-year conquest. The war also had a long-term impact on the US and global economies, and on political and cultural life. Public indignation over US crimes, though long delayed and never remotely commensurate with their scale, spread to substantial parts of the population. The war stimulated the popular movements of the 1960s, which proliferated and expanded through the Reagan years. The ferment brought previously marginalized sectors into the political arena to pursue their concerns, causing the "crisis of democracy" that liberal elites found so ominous. The ideological institutions of the West have devoted substantial energies to reimposing discipline on a public that was falling out of control, with mixed success. These have been highly significant features of the post-Vietnam years.

The Kennedy-Johnson transition of 1963-1964 assumes a special interest in this connection. It is particularly enlightening to see how Vietnam policies were portrayed by the Kennedy intellectuals at the time, then reinterpreted after the enterprise turned sour and the disaster had to be dated to November 23, 1963 so as to preserve the image of Camelot and the reputations of the courtiers. This is an intriguing chapter of cultural history, still unfolding.

The significance of the issue is enhanced by its alleged relation to the Kennedy assassination, a topic that has aroused much attention and indeed passion, peaking in 1991-1992. In this case, as noted earlier, it is largely grassroots elements (often called "the left"36) that have taken up the cudgels in the defense of President Kennedy, on the theory that he was assassinated by powerful groups that perceived him to be a dangerous "radical reformer." These dark forces are variously identified as the CIA, the far right, militarists, etc. Many on the left accept this perception as accurate, holding that JFK was about to withdraw from Vietnam, end the Cold War and the arms race, smash the CIA to a thousand pieces, dismantle the military-industrial complex, and set the country on a course towards peace and justice. Others hold only that the assassins exaggerated his reformist zeal. Some popular variants bring in other assassinations, real and alleged. The plot also becomes intertwined with theories of a "secret team" that has "hijacked the state," bringing us to our current sorry pass.

Quite broadly, the assassination is depicted either as bringing to a close an earlier age of innocence (at least, political legitimacy), or as aborting JFK's plans to lead us toward that condition, in a radical departure from the historical norm. Under either interpretation, the legitimacy of authority was lost in fundamental ways with the assassination, never to be regained, a matter of great importance. These tendencies, which have received strong support from leading Kennedy intellectuals, have come to consume a large part of the limited energies and resources of the left.

Vietnam policies of 1963-1964 play a central role in these conceptions. That is not implausible, given the timing of the assassination and the subsequent escalation. The sense that this was a historical turning point is fortified by other factors: the appeal of Kennedy imagery, the deterioration of the conditions of life for a large part of the population since the early 1970s, the failure of the civil rights movement to realize its early promise, and the growing recognition that the political and economic systems are not responsive to the needs and concerns of the general public.

When Kennedy was assassinated, the war was still at the level of extreme state terror but limited aggression. We then face the central question: Did JFK plan to withdraw without victory? The thesis currently prevalent among Kennedy intellectuals and large segments of the left is that Kennedy was indeed carrying out such a plan, aborted by the assassination, and that Johnson at once reversed this policy and escalated the war; the two groups then part company on what this indicates about the assassination.37 The thesis is understood to imply that JFK would not have responded to changing conditions in the manner of his closest advisers and war managers.

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36 I will use the term, though with a cautionary note, such terms as "left" and "conservative" having been largely deprived of significance, along with much of the terminology of political discourse.

37 The suggestion of a significant change dates to an interesting analysis by Peter Dale Scott in 1972 (PPV). Whatever plausibility the idea may then have had, it is not easy to reconcile with the extensive documentation now available.