Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 21/27
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9. LBJ and the Kennedy Doves

Kennedy's more dovish advisers recommended the policies that Johnson pursued, and generally approved of them until the 1965 escalation, often beyond. They lost no time in making clear that JFK's commitment to victory would not be abandoned. On December 10, Forrestal, Ball, Harriman, and Hilsman, reiterating JFK's consistent stand, assured Lodge that "we are against neutralism and want to win the war." The same unwavering commitment was reiterated by George Ball, perhaps the most consistent dove among them. On December 16, he informed Lodge that "Nothing is further from USG mind than `neutral solution for Vietnam.' We intend to win." A year later (November 1964), having returned to a more active role in Vietnam planning, Ball held that the Saigon regime must continue to receive US aid until the Viet Cong is defeated and agreed that "the struggle would be a long one, even with the DRV out of it." In July 1965, he advised LBJ that "Securing the Mekong Valley will be critical in any long-run solution, whether by the partition of Laos with Thai-U.S. forces occupying the western half or by some cover arrangement." These recommendations illustrate what "dove" meant in Camelot.70

Ball and other JFK doves continued to support Johnson's policies, which they regarded as a continuation of Kennedy's. Writing to the Secretary of State on May 31, 1964, Ball praised "the President's wise caution" and refusal to "act hastily." Against that background, Ball added, he and Alexis Johnson had "considerably slowed down the headlong crystallization of a plan for enlarging the war" developed by other advisers, including some considered doves.71

Ball's later reflections on Kennedy's attitudes are also worth noting. He writes that he had "strongly opposed" Kennedy's November 1961 decision to commit US forces to South Vietnam, predicting to him that it would drag the US into a morass with "three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles." These pessimistic predictions "were not words the President wanted to hear," and he responded "with an overtone of asperity" in terms that Ball says he never quite understood. "Kennedy's reaction deterred me from expressing opposition to the war until after the Tonkin Gulf incident" in August 1964, Ball adds. Ball notes that had he lived, "Kennedy would almost certainly have received the same advice and pressures from the same group of advisers who persuaded Johnson to deepen America's involvement." He has no clear opinion as to how JFK would have reacted. Noting further that "some historians have adduced bits of evidence to show that President Kennedy had reserved in his own mind the possibility of withdrawal," Ball writes that he can "venture no opinion." Note that the most he contemplates is that JFK might have had the possibility in mind.72

In his attempt to show that JFK favored withdrawal, John Newman claims that Ball, who replaced the more dovish Chester Bowles as Under Secretary of State in November 1961, "was acceptable to Kennedy because he too opposed sending U.S. combat troops to Vietnam" -- as doubtless he did, along with much of the top military. But Newman's unsupported judgment about Kennedy's reasons does not quite square with Ball's own.73

Bowles became Ambassador at Large, then Ambassador to India. Like John Kenneth Galbraith and others who favored political settlement over military victory, he was distanced from policy planning by Kennedy, and scarcely appears in the internal record. There was no place for such views in JFK's Vietnam programs.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield is another interesting case. A regular participant in high-level meetings with a special interest in Asian affairs, he is depicted in much later commentary as an advocate of withdrawal to whom Kennedy confided his secret plans; for Schlesinger and Newman, this claim takes on central importance, as we shall see. Neither the internal nor public record treats it kindly.

Like other influential Senators, Mansfield had been concerned over the consequences of Kennedy's war. His objections, however, were tactical and qualified. There was no real US interest at stake that would justify spending "countless American lives and billions of dollars to maintain an illusion of freedom in a devastated South Viet Nam," he felt. It would be dangerous to find ourselves "bogged down" in a region that is "peripheral to [US] interests," he advised JFK in August 1963. Mansfield therefore suggested that "rhetorical flourishes" be abandoned and that "We should stress not the vague `vital importance' of the area to the U.S.," but its "relatively limited importance"; and that as a warning to Diem, who was not fighting the war successfully, some 1500 military advisers should be withdrawn "as a symbolic gesture, to make clear that we mean business when we say that there are some circumstances in which this commitment will be discontinued." The first of these proposals JFK flatly rejected; as we have seen, to the end he stressed the "vital importance" of victory. Whether he accepted the second is a matter of interpretation of hidden intentions: if so, it is hardly comforting to the withdrawal thesis.

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70 FRUSV, IV 695, 710. PP, III 242, 237; IV 618.

71 FRUSV-64, 401.

72 Ball, Past, 366f.; New York Review, Feb. 13, 1992 (virtually the same).

73 Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 141.