Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 15/27
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7. JFK and Withdrawal: the Dénouement

By the end of August, JFK and his most dovish advisers (Averell Harriman, Roger Hilsman, George Ball) agreed that the client government should be overthrown. On August 28, the President "asked the Defense Department to come up with ways of building up the anti-Diem forces in Saigon." He called for actions "which would maximize the chances of the rebel generals" and said, "We should ask Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins how we can build up military forces which would carry out a coup." Harriman said that without a coup, "we cannot win the war" and "must withdraw." Hilsman "agreed that we cannot win the war unless Diem is removed," as did Ball, while Robert Kennedy also called for efforts to strengthen the rebel generals. Secretary Rusk warned JFK that "Nhu might call on the North Vietnamese to help him throw out the Americans." Hilsman urged (August 30) that if Diem and Nhu make any "Political move toward the DRV (such as opening of neutralization negotiations)," or even hint at such moves, we should "Encourage the generals to move promptly with a coup," and undertake "military action" if the DRV tries to counter our actions, letting them "know unequivocally that we shall hit the DRV with all that is necessary to force it to desist," bringing in "U.S. combat forces to assist the coup group to achieve victory," if necessary. "The important thing is to win the war," Hilsman advised McGeorge Bundy; and that meant getting rid of the Saigon regime, which was dragging its feet and looking for ways out. The President concurred that "our primary objective remains winning war," Rusk cabled to the Saigon Embassy.

The CIA had been reporting for months "that Nhu policy was one of ultimate neutralization and unification of Vietnam," in accord with the 1954 Geneva agreements, and continued to warn that "the GVN, the DRV, and the French may have been engaged of late in exploring the possibilities of some kind of North-South rapprochement," which might lead to a GVN demand for US withdrawal (September 26). In a September 30 memorandum, William Sullivan reviewed a long discussion with the French Chargé in Saigon and the Canadian and Indian International Control Commission (ICC) officials. They discounted current rumors about North-South dealings, but "all of them insisted that we should not discount the possibility of such a deal in the future," perhaps "three or four months," the well-informed French Chargé felt. Such reports could only increase the alarm in Washington, intensifying the fear of a peaceful settlement.51

Particularly disquieting was a public statement of August 29 by French President Charles de Gaulle, expressing the hope that the Vietnamese "could go ahead with their activities independently of the outside, in internal peace and unity and in harmony with their neighbors." In a memorandum preparing the President for a September 2 TV interview with Walter Cronkite, McGeorge Bundy focused JFK's attention on de Gaulle's statement, while advising that he continue to "ignore Nosey Charlie." He warned against the "specter of neutralist solution," reviewing de Gaulle's apparent belief "in neutralizing Vietnam" and advising JFK to express incomprehension, calling instead for France "to share in the work of resisting Communist aggression in Vietnam." Kennedy followed Bundy's advice. When Cronkite asked about the de Gaulle statement, he responded that the US had "listened" but without interest, indeed, with irritation:

What, of course, makes Americans somewhat impatient is that after carrying this load for 18 years, we are glad to get counsel, but we would like a little more assistance, real assistance. But we are going to meet our responsibility anyway. It doesn't do us any good to say, "Well, why don't we all just go home and leave the world to those who are our enemies."

Kennedy reiterated his resentment in private. In a White House conference the next day (September 3), he asked "what the French are doing toward assisting the Vietnamese." After being shown a paper on the subject, "The President commented that the French were trying to get for Vietnam what had been done in Laos, i.e., neutralization," which "was not working in Laos" and was no model for Vietnam. He also wondered why Walter Lippmann proposed the Laotian model. Asked whether France would protest his comments about de Gaulle in the Cronkite interview, "the President said he doubted [French] Ambassador Alphand had the guts to protest." JFK remained adamant in his opposition to a diplomatic settlement that would entail withdrawal without victory.52

The consensus remained that "the war in the countryside is going well now" (Ambassador Lodge, September 11), though discordant notes were being sounded. There was substantial urban unrest, and the Diem government was not considered trustworthy. In a September 11 paper, Hilsman wrote that "The U.S. policy objective should continue to be the maintenance of a viable, strong and free area in South Viet-Nam capable of maintaining its independence, successfully resisting Communist aggression, and susceptible to U.S. influence." Accordingly, "we should tell Diem that we are ready to prosecute our program to annihilate the Viet Cong menace with renewed vigor and that we expect full cooperation from him in this endeavor" -- or else. Diem must "focus on winning the war," Hilsman added in a September 16 memorandum.

This memorandum outlined a plan that the President had requested in the light of Diem's recalcitrance. Delivered to the President on that day, Hilsman's plan stated that "Withdrawal by the U.S. would be immediately disastrous to the war effort." To attain our "overall objective," which is "to win the war against the Viet Cong," we must support "what helps win the war" and "oppose" what "interferes with the war effort," in accord with the "policy guideline" that the President had stated on September 12 (see page 46).53

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51 FRUSV, IV 1ff., 27, 50f., 75-8, 89, 295f., 325. On Hilsman's later interpretation of his Aug. 30 memorandum, see next chapter, n. 21.

52 Ibid., 55n, 81f., 94, 100.

53 Ibid., 171, 177-9, 221ff. Also Gibbons, US Government, 177f., with additional detail (and slightly different wording, used here).