Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 13/27
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6. JFK and Withdrawal: the Early Plans

The major withdrawal decisions were reported at once in the press, and the basic facts about the internal deliberations lying behind them became known 20 years ago, when the Pentagon Papers appeared. Discussing the "Vietnam problem" as perceived in July 1962, the analyst writes that "At the behest of the President, the Secretary of Defense undertook to reexamine the situation there and address himself to its future -- with a view to assuring that it be brought to a successful conclusion within a reasonable time." At a July 23 "full-dress conference" in Honolulu, McNamara was impressed with the "tremendous progress" that had been made (his words). He called for "phasing out major U.S. advisory and logistic support activities." MACV Commander General Paul Harkins estimated that the VC should be "eliminated as a significant force" about a year after the Vietnamese forces then being trained and equipped "became fully operational." McNamara, however, insisted upon "a conservative view": planning should be based on the assumption that "it would take three years instead of one, that is, by the latter part of 1965." He also "observed that it might be difficult to retain public support for U.S. operations in Vietnam indefinitely," a constant concern. Therefore, it was necessary "to phase out U.S. military involvement." On July 26, the Joint Chiefs ordered preparation of a Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam to implement McNamara's decisions. The stated objective was to ensure that by the end of 1965, the Saigon government would take over "without the need for continued U.S. special military assistance." The crucial operating assumption was that "The insurgency will be under control" by the end of 1965.

On January 25, 1963, the Comprehensive Plan was presented to the Joint Chiefs. General Harkins's plan stated that "the phase-out of the US special military assistance is envisioned as generally occurring during the period July 1965-June 1966," earlier where feasible.44

A few days later, the Chiefs were reassured that this was the right course by a report by a JCS investigative team headed by Army Chief of Staff Earle Wheeler that included leading military hawks. The team had been "asked to form a military judgment as to the prospects for a successful conclusion of the conflict in a reasonable period of time." Its report was generally upbeat and optimistic: "the Government of Vietnam is making steady and favorable progress" in the US-guided military offensive, and the "common people" show increased confidence that "the government is going to triumph." A new "National Campaign Plan" ("Operation Explosion") is in place, assigning "greater initiative" to the Saigon army than in the past, a counterpart to the MACV Comprehensive Plan "designed to prepare the armed forces of South Vietnam to exercise control of their territory, without our help, by the end of calendar year 1965." Prospects for both were hopeful. Their anticipated success would allow a "concurrent phase-out of United States support personnel, leaving a Military Assistance Advisory Group [MAAG] of a strength of about 1,600 personnel." All of this was considered feasible and appropriate by the top military command.

Technical suggestions were presented to implement these plans, including a recommendation to relax the rules of engagement for US armed helicopters, already deployed "in an escort role, under combat conditions"; they should be allowed to attack "Viet Cong targets of opportunity, in a combat situation," even if not fired upon. US Farmgate operations, disguised with Vietnam Air Force markings, already had such authority under Kennedy's war. Another recommendation was to go beyond "the minor intelligence and sabotage forays [1 line not declassified]" to "a coordinated program of sabotage, destruction, propaganda, and subversive missions against North Vietnam," keeping the US "wholly in the background while at the same time conducting the anti-North Vietnam campaign as a powerful military endeavor rather than as an ancillary [1 line not declassified]." Wheeler's team recommended that the US should "intensify" the training of Vietnamese military forces for these missions "and encourage their execution of raids and sabotage missions in North Vietnam, coordinated with other military operations" [another two and a half lines not declassified].

Wheeler then reported directly to the President on February 1, informing him "that things were going well in Vietnam militarily, but that `Ho Chi Minh was fighting the war for peanuts and if we ever expected to win that affair out there, we had to make him bleed a little bit'." The President "was quite interested in this," General Wheeler recalled in oral history (July 1964). His dovish advisers were also impressed. In April 1963, on assuming the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Roger Hilsman proposed to "continue the covert, or at least deniable, operations along the general lines we have been following for some months" against North Vietnam with the objective of "keeping the threat of eventual destruction alive in Hanoi's mind." But "significant action against North Vietnam" is unwise on tactical grounds: it should be delayed until "we have demonstrated success in our counter-insurgency program." "Premature action" against the North might also "so alarm our friends and allies and a significant segment of domestic opinion that the pressures for neutralization will become formidable"; as always, the dread threat of diplomacy must be deflected. With judicious planning, Hilsman said, "I believe we can win in Viet-Nam."45

We thus learn that in January 1963, in an atmosphere of great optimism, the military initiatives for withdrawal went hand-in-hand with plans for escalation of the war within South Vietnam and possibly intensified operations against North Vietnam. We learn further that "intelligence and sabotage forays" into North Vietnam were already underway -- since mid-1962, according to JFK's National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy. On December 11, 1963, as the new Administration took over, Forrestal confirmed that "For some time the Central Intelligence Agency has been engaged in joint clandestine operations with ARVN against North Vietnam." Journalist William Pfaff reports that in the summer of 1962, at a Special Forces encampment north of Saigon he observed a CIA "patrol loading up in an unmarked C-46 with a Chinese pilot in civilian clothes," taking off for a mission in North Vietnam ("possibly into China itself"); "Some were Asians, some Americans or Europeans," who "certainly were not going north to give advice."46

The connection between withdrawal and escalation is readily understandable: successful military actions would make it possible for the GVN to take over the task from the Americans, who could then withdraw with victory secured, satisfying the common intent of the extreme hawks, war manager McNamara, and JFK.

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44 PP, II 175ff.; FRUSV, III 35ff.

45 Ibid., 73-94, 191-2. Feb. 1 date, 94-5, 97. Forrestal, whose optimism was more qualified than Wheeler's (see below), criticized the latter's "rosy euphoria" to the President (97).

46 Bundy, Jan.7, 1964; FRUSV-64, 4. Forrestal, FRUSV, IV 699. Pfaff, op. cit.