Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 26/27
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12. Militarily Strong, Politically Weak

The basic problem that McCone had stressed in December 1963 was well understood. The VC "believe in something," Lodge reported in January 1964: "the Communists have conveyed to these men [a] clear picture of a program which they think will make life better. We have not. They are also well organized politically; we are not." The US client regime has overwhelming military advantages, but "the VC have simply shifted from military to political tactics and are defeating us politically," following "the old Mao Tse-tung maxim." "We are at present overwhelmingly outclassed politically." We must "enunciate a political program" and organize precinct workers. The US is militarily strong but politically weak, unable to enlist support for its plans for the Third World, a persistent problem in Indochina as elsewhere, always a mystery to the planners.

US disadvantages were compounded by a problem discovered by Hubert Humphrey on a June visit: "the relatively indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and napalm are not calculated to win the support of the people," he found. Furthermore, "A political base is needed to support all other actions toward gaining victory," and we should guide the Vietnamese to develop such a base, which the Vietnamese, unlike the Viet Cong, sorely lack. He too rejected any thought of withdrawal without victory or permitting "a `neutralist' solution," which would signal "to the people of southeast Asia that we have lost confidence in them and that the game is lost." "The people" are our favorite generals, for this shining light of American liberalism.88

In November 1964, Ambassador Taylor wrote a think-piece on these political problems, revealing the astuteness that caught the eye of JFK, whom he had impressed as "an intellectual who quoted Thucydides" as well as an expert in "unconventional warfare," Newman writes (127, citing David Halberstam). Taylor deplored the "national attribute which makes for factionalism and limits the development of a truly national spirit" among the Vietnamese, perhaps "innate" or a result of their history of "political suppression" under the French. This "national attribute" makes it difficult for the Vietnamese to confront the Viet Cong, who "have an amazing ability to maintain morale" and are able "continuously to rebuild their units and to make good their losses," exhibiting "the recuperative powers of the phoenix." This is "one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war," JFK's specialist on political warfare lamented, adding that "we still find no plausible explanation" for it. Since "we are playing a losing game in South Viet-Nam" (the political game), "it is high time we change and find a better way": pressuring the DRV to direct an end to the southern resistance.89 Only North Vietnamese orders can now compel the VC aggressors, who are so radically different from the Vietnamese in their innate and acquired characteristics, to end their "assault from the inside" (JFK) and to dismantle the political base that we cannot duplicate.

Such thoughts appear throughout the internal record, as in public commentary. For the planners, as for the political class generally, it is never easy to comprehend why backward peoples to whom we minister do not comprehend our magnificence, why "their side" looks ten-feet tall while "our side" are crooks and gangsters, suffering from defects that may even be "innate." And in contemplating these mysteries, they easily fall into musings, even self-contradiction, that would be comical if the consequences for the victims were not so disastrous. These are enduring themes of the 500-year conquest, sure to persist.

13. The Military View

One might ask why the military command failed to recognize the truth about the situation in the countryside. The matter is addressed by the military historian on whom Newman heavily relies, Andrew Krepinich, who explains that the top command was guided by a "Concept" drawn from World War II doctrine, which was challenged by negative reports from the field; these were accordingly disregarded, a fact that will surprise no one familiar with military history -- or Tolstoy's novels.90

After the Diem assassination (which the military opposed, predicting accurately that it would cause the military situation to deteriorate), the bureaucratic structure eroded and the truth began to filter through, leading to revision of planning. But false reports from the military command continued to mislead the top civilian leadership up to the 1968 Tet offensive. One close associate of Johnson's, who sat in on the highest-level planning meetings in those years and was also briefed regularly by field-grade officers and CIA personnel, informed me privately that pessimistic reports from the field were regularly transmuted to encouraging signs of progress as they reached the President's highest advisers, through the natural process by which subordinates tailor their reports to what they know is preferred, and people hear what they want to hear.

As is often the case, the top military leadership were sharply divided over the war. In April 1961, General Douglas MacArthur warned JFK that it would be a "mistake" to fight in Southeast Asia altogether, and that "our line should be Japan, Formosa and the Philippines." The same stand was taken by MacArthur's successor as Army Chief of Staff, General Matthew Ridgway, who "argued in a continuous barrage of memoranda that the United States should steer clear of an Asian land war," Marcus Raskin notes. Ridgway had strongly opposed US intervention in 1954. Even a limited US presence in Southeast Asia "had an ominous ring," he wrote in 1956, for it would inevitably lead to a commitment of ground forces. On US air support, Ridgway recalled Korea, finding it "incredible...that we were on the verge of making that same tragic error," as Kennedy did shortly after. Later too he "passionately opposed intervention in Vietnam," military historian Robert Buzzanco writes. Army Plans Chief General James Gavin also warned against US intervention, and continued to criticize US involvement in Indochina through the Eisenhower years, later advocating the "enclave strategy." In a 1954 planning study commissioned by Ridgway, Gavin found that intervention would require vast military resources. He also warned against the effect of interservice rivalries in driving policy, noting in the late 1950s that "What appears to be intense interservice rivalry in most fundamentally industrial rivalry." General J. Lawton Collins was another critic of intervention, saying later that he did not "know of a single senior commander that was in favor of fighting on the land mass of Asia."

"Indeed, more than any other institution -- in or outside of government -- the U.S. armed forces worked against military involvement in the first Indochina war," Buzzanco concludes, from July 1949, when the Chiefs warned that the "widening political consciousness and the rise of militant nationalism among the subject people" could not be crushed by force and that Vietnamese nationalism "cannot be reversed." The Chiefs were "unanimously opposed to the commitment of any troops," Defense Secretary Robert Lovett wrote NATO Commander Eisenhower in 1952. The NSC civilian leadership, in contrast, favored a troop commitment. The JCS "insisted that the United States must not be committed financially, militarily, or economically" to intervention in Southeast Asia, the Pentagon Papers analyst concluded. A 1954 JCS report concluded that "no amount of external pressure and assistance can long delay complete Communist victory in South Vietnam," without a strong base of popular support. Army planners had estimated in 1950 that 80 percent of Vietnamese supported Ho Chi Minh, and of those, 80 percent were not Communists, an assessment that did not change. US government studies of VC defectors and prisoners 15 years later found that "few of them considered themselves Communists or could give a definition of Communism," or were aware of any North Vietnamese role in the war "except as a valued ally."91

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88 Ibid., 17-8, 480-1.

89 Ibid., 950-1.

90 Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 287-8, 282.

91 Schlesinger, 1000 Days, 316; RFK, 703. Sorenson, Kennedy, 641. Raskin, "JFK and the Culture of Violence," AHR forum (on the Stone film), American Historical Review, April 1992. Buzzanco, "Division, Dilemma and Dissent: Military Recognition of the Peril of War in Vietnam," in Duffy, Informed Dissent; "The American Military's Rationale against the Vietnam War," Political Science Quarterly, 4, 1986; "Prologue to Tragedy," Diplomatic History, forthcoming. VC attitude studies, APNM, 243, 282; FRS, 5; Anthony Russo, Ramparts, April 1972; excerpts from RAND studies, Ramparts, Nov. 1972. Raskin adds that Ridgway's successor, Maxwell Taylor, disagreed with Ridgway; Taylor's position "held sway, and it led quickly to dramatic escalations." The latter conclusion is not accurate. Recall that Taylor recommended the October withdrawal plans that JFK endorsed with hesitations; see below, on his continued opposition to US combat troops.