Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 20/27
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8. The Presidential Transition

At the Honolulu meeting of November 20, a draft was prepared (signed by McGeorge Bundy) for what became NSAM 273, adopted after the assassination but intended for JFK with the expectation that he would approve it in essentials, as was the norm. Top advisers agreed; Hilsman made only "minor changes." The State Department history states that the draft "was almost identical to the final paper," differing only in paragraph 7.

NSAM 273 was declassified in May 1978; the November 20 draft, on January 31, 1991. The draft is not published in the State Department history, but its assessment is quite accurate. Both documents reiterate the basic wording of the early October documents, and call for maintaining military and economic assistance at least at previous levels. On withdrawal, the NSAM approved by Johnson is identical with the draft prepared for Kennedy. It reads: "The objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel remain as stated in the White House statement of October 2, 1963," referring to the statement of US policy at the NSC meeting, formalized without essential change as NSAM 263. As for paragraph 7, the draft and final version are, respectively, as follows:

Draft: With respect to action against North Vietnam, there should be a detailed plan for the development of additional Government of Vietnam resources, especially for sea-going activity, and such planning should indicate the time and investment necessary to achieve a wholly new level of effectiveness in this field of action.

NSAM 273: Planning should include different levels of possible increased activity, and in each instance there should be estimates of such factors as:

Plans should be submitted promptly for approval by higher authority. (Action: State, DOD, and CIA)

The final phrase is attached to other paragraphs.66

There is no relevant difference between the two documents, except that the LBJ version is weaker and more evasive, dropping the call for "a wholly new level of effectiveness in this field of action"; further actions are reduced to "possible." The reason why paragraph 7 refers to "additional" or "possible increased" activity we have already seen: such operations had been underway since the Kennedy offensive of 1962, apparently with direct participation of US personnel and foreign mercenaries.

As reviewed earlier, the military had advocated in January 1963 that operations against the North be continued (perhaps intensified) as a counterpart to the plans of the hawks for withdrawal after victory, with the agreement of Hilsman and reportedly the President. No direct US government involvement is proposed in NSAM 273 beyond what was already underway under JFK. Subsequent plans developed by the DOD and CIA call for "Intensified sabotage operations in North Vietnam by Vietnamese personnel," with the US involved only in intelligence collection (U-2, electronics) and "psychological operations" (leaflet drops, "phantom covert operations," "black and white radio broadcasts").67

These two NSAMs (263 in October, 273 on November 26 with a November 20 draft written for Kennedy) are the centerpiece of the thesis that Kennedy planned to withdraw without victory, a decision at once reversed by LBJ (and perhaps the cause of the assassination). They have been the subject of many claims and charges. Typical of the 1992 revival is Oliver Stone's Address to the National Press Club alleging that John Newman's study "makes it very clear President Kennedy signaled his intention to withdraw from Vietnam in a variety of ways and put that intention firmly on the record with National Security Action Memorandum 263 in October of 1963," while LBJ "reverse[d] the NSAM" with NSAM 273. Arthur Schlesinger claimed that after the assassination, "President Johnson, listening to President Kennedy's more hawkish advisers and believing that he was doing what President Kennedy would have done, issued National Security Action Memorandum 273 calling for the maintenance of American military programs in Vietnam `at levels as high' as before -- reversing the Kennedy withdrawal policy." The co-author (with Stone) of the screenplay JFK, Zachary Sklar, also citing Newman's book, claims further that the draft prepared for Kennedy "says that the U.S. will train the South Vietnamese to carry out covert military operations against North Vietnam" while "In the final document, signed by Johnson, it states that U.S. forces themselves will carry out these covert military operations," leading to the Tonkin Gulf incident, which "was an example of precisely that kind of covert operation carried out by U.S. forces" (his emphasis).68

Such claims, which are common, are groundless, indeed are refuted by the internal record. Newman's book adds nothing relevant to the available record, which gives no hint of any intention by JFK to withdraw without victory -- quite the contrary -- and reveals no "reversal" in NSAM 273. The call for maintenance of aid is in the draft of NSAM 273 prepared for Kennedy, and was also at the core of his tentative withdrawal plans, conditioned on victory and "Major U.S. assistance" to assure it. Furthermore, Kennedy's more dovish -- not "more hawkish" -- advisers approved and continued to urge LBJ to follow what they understood to be JFK's policy, rejecting any thought of withdrawal without victory. The final version of NSAM 273 does not state that US forces would carry out covert operations in any new way; nor did they, in the following months. There were covert attacks on North Vietnamese installations just prior to the Tonkin Gulf incident, but they were carried out by South Vietnamese forces, according to the internal record.

The two versions of NSAM 273 differ in no relevant way, apart from the weakening of paragraph 7 in the final version. Furthermore, the departure from NSAM 263 is slight, and readily explained in terms of changing assessments. Efforts to detect nuances and hidden implications have no basis in fact, and if pursued, could easily be turned into a (meaningless) "proof" that LBJ toned down Kennedy aggressiveness.

The call in paragraph 7 for consideration of further ARVN operations against the North is readily explained in terms of the two basic features of the post-coup situation: the feeling among Kennedy's war planners that with the Diem regime gone, the US at last had a regime committed to Kennedy's war in the South, offering new "opportunities to exploit"; and the increasing concern about the military situation in the South, undermining earlier optimism. The former factor made it possible to consider extension of ARVN operations; the latter made it more important to extend them. In subsequent months, Kennedy's planners (now directing Johnson's war) increasingly inclined towards operations against the North as a way to overcome their inability to win the war in the South, leading finally to the escalation of 1965, undertaken largely to "drive the DRV out of its reinforcing role and obtain its cooperation in bringing an end to the Viet Cong insurgency," using "its directive powers to make the Viet Cong desist" (Taylor, November 27, 1964).69

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66 FRUSV, IV 637ff. "Draft, National Security Action Memorandum No. ___," McGeorge Bundy, declassified 1/31/91.

67 FRUSV-64, 4-5; Joint Draft plan, the basis for Operations Plan (OPLAN) 34A-64, Jan. 3. Ibid., 28f.

68 See note 38. Schlesinger, "`JFK': Truth and Fiction," Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 1992. On Schlesinger's efforts to establish the reversal, see ch. 2.2.

69 PP, III 668-9.