Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 14/27
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The same natural connection was established in 1968-1969, when an authentic withdrawal was initiated. It was combined with the most devastating and ferocious campaign of mass murder yet undertaken by the US expeditionary force, though downplayed by the cultural managers in favor of incidents that could be treated as "aberrations" by GIs in the field. The withdrawal was also accompanied by a huge expansion of the assault against the civilian societies of Laos and Cambodia, also suppressed by the loyal media, who falsely accused Richard Nixon of deceiving them about the slaughter and the decisive US role in it, when he fell out of favor. Again, the association is a natural one: withdrawal is conditioned on victory.47

Not everyone was as optimistic as the military command. A few days before the President heard Wheeler's upbeat report, he received a memorandum from Hilsman and Forrestal (January 25) that was more qualified. They condemned the press for undue pessimism and underplaying US success, and agreed that "The war in South Vietnam is clearly going better than it was a year ago." They praised ARVN's "increased aggressiveness" resulting from the US military escalation, reporting that GVN control now extended to over half the rural population (compared with 8 percent under VC control), a considerable gain through late 1962. But "the negative side of the ledger is still awesome." The VC have increased their regular forces, recruiting locally and supplied locally, and are "extremely effective." "Thus the conclusion seems inescapable that the Viet Cong could continue the war effort at the present level, or perhaps increase it, even if the infiltration routes were completely closed." "Our overall judgment, in sum, is that we are probably winning, but certainly more slowly than we had hoped." They made a variety of technical recommendations to implement the counterinsurgency program more efficiently, with more direct US involvement; and to improve the efficiency of the US mission to accelerate the "Progress toward winning the war."48

The 1963 assumptions were to come into far more serious question after the US-backed coup that replaced the Diem-Nhu regime on November 1. High-level civilian and military officials finally came to recognize that their optimism was based on fraudulent reports. It became increasingly clear that the crucial condition for the withdrawal plans -- that victory be assured -- no longer obtained. Through 1964, the situation continued to deteriorate. Calls for actions against the North then increased, but on different grounds than in early 1963: with the US position collapsing in the South, the last hope was to coerce the DRV to order the southern insurgents to desist. From 1965, the US took the war over directly in the South and expanded it to a full-scale attack on the rest of Indochina as well. The dovish alternative was an "enclave strategy" with the US troop level frozen at under 100,000 men.

Returning to the period of optimism, on April 18, 1963, the Director of the State Department's Vietnam Working Group, Chalmers Wood, recommended that "We should veto any further requests for increases [in troop level]...and quietly support McNamara's intention to achieve a significant reduction by the end of the year, provided things go well." He felt that "1,000 military could be pulled out of Saigon tomorrow and things would go better." He recommended "that a substantial number of American military should be pulled out of Viet-Nam by the end of this year, provided we make the progress suggested by [Brigadier Robert] Thompson," the respected head of the British Advisory Mission. Thompson had recommended to McNamara that "if progress during 1963 continued good," it might be wise to withdraw about 1,000 men.

On May 6, McNamara stated that military advisors should be the last category removed, and requested a plan for withdrawal of "1,000 or so personnel late this year [1963] if the situation allows." Secretary of State Dean Rusk approved (May 13), as did Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor (August 20), Kennedy's most trusted military adviser. The "fundamental objective" remains unchanged, Michael Forrestal advised the President on August 27: the US must "give wholehearted support to the prosecution of the war against the Viet Cong terrorists," and "continue assistance to any government in South Vietnam which shows itself capable of sustaining this effort."49

The reference to "any government" relates to the increasing concerns of the Kennedy Administration over the Diem regime. One problem was that its repression was evoking internal resistance, which was interfering with the war effort. Another was that Diem and his brother Nhu, considered "the power behind the throne," were pressing their demands for US withdrawal with increasing urgency. On April 22, the CIA had reported that Diem and Nhu "were concerned over recent `infringements' of Vietnamese sovereignty," and "after building up a strong case, [Diem] plans to confront Ambassador Nolting and USMACV Chief General Harkins with irrefutable evidence of U.S. responsibility, demanding a reduction in the number of U.S. personnel in South Vietnam on the basis that the force is too large and unmanageable." A week earlier, a source (not declassified) had reported that in an April 12 conversation, Nhu "repeated his view that it would be useful to reduce the numbers of Americans by anywhere from 500 to 3,000 or 4,000." In a front-page interview in the Washington Post, May 12, Nhu stated that "South Viet Nam would like to see half of the 12,000 to 13,000 American military stationed here leave the country."50

Administration planners feared that the GVN pressures for withdrawal of US forces would become difficult to resist, a danger enhanced by exploratory GVN efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement with the North. The skimpy political base for Kennedy's war would then erode, and the US would be compelled to withdraw without victory. That option being unacceptable to JFK and his advisers, the Saigon regime had to get on board, or be dismissed.

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47 See AWWA, PEHR, MC.

48 FRUSV, III 49-62.

49 FRUSV, III 243-5, 193, 270, 295, 591, 659.

50 Ibid., 246, 223, 294n.