Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 2/15
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No one was closer to JFK than his brother, the Attorney-General. Sorenson notes that as RFK fully acknowledged, his own role "was one of complete support for the U.S. commitment," which he had expressed in 1962: "The solution lies in our winning it. This is what the President intends to do... We will remain here [in Saigon] until we do." In a 1964 oral history, RFK said that the Administration had never faced the possibilities of either withdrawal or escalation. Asked what JFK would have done if the South Vietnamese appeared doomed, he said: "We'd face that when we came to it." "Robert's own understanding of his brother's position," his biographer Arthur Schlesinger reports, was that "we should win the war" because of the domino effect. RFK said further that by late 1963, the President had become "very unhappy" with his dovish adviser Averell Harriman, who was expressing skepticism about the optimistic reports from Saigon. JFK's annoyance was so great that Harriman "put on about ten years during that period...because he was so discouraged." If indeed JFK intended to withdraw without victory, he was fooling both Harriman and his brother, it appears. The problem with Diem, RFK added, was that we need "somebody that can win the war," and he wasn't the man for it. Accordingly, it is no surprise that RFK fully supported Johnson's continuation of what he understood to be his brother's policies through the 1965 escalation. By mid-1965 he was advocating negotiations while condemning withdrawal. Schlesinger traces his break with Johnson's escalation policy to July 1965, Sorenson to February 1966. He never proposed withdrawal, or indicated that his brother had such a plan. According to Schlesinger, RFK's position as of December 1965 was stated privately in these words: "I don't believe in pulling out the troops. We've got to show China we mean to stop them. If we can hold them for about 20 years, maybe they will change the way Russia has."3

The last of the early accounts of the Kennedy Administration was written by Roger Hilsman, a representative of the dovish faction of the Administration (along with Harriman and Forrestal, he notes), and a high-ranking official particularly well-placed to know about Vietnam policy. He wrote shortly before the Tet offensive, when the US troop level had peaked and protest against the war had reached a substantial scale, and well after severe doubts about the war were raised at the highest levels, including McNamara. (The latest source Hilsman cites is August 15, 1967.) Because of his position and the timing, Hilsman's account is of particular interest.

Hilsman takes it for granted that the goal throughout was "to defeat the Communist guerrillas," and speculates that the overthrow of Diem had offered "a second chance" to achieve this objective. Had JFK lived, "he might well have introduced United States ground forces into South Vietnam -- though I believe he would not have ordered them to take over the war effort from the Vietnamese but would have limited their mission to the task of occupying ports, airfields, and military bases to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese that they could not win the struggle by escalation either" -- the enclave strategy advocated by Ball and Taylor in early 1965, then publicly by General Gavin and others. Hilsman feels that LBJ "sincerely even desperately wanted to make the existing policy work," without US combat forces, citing LBJ's statement of September 25, 1964 that "We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys"; to emphasize its importance, Hilsman also gives this LBJ quote as one of several opening his Vietnam section.4 As we have seen, his conclusion about LBJ is supported by the internal record.

On withdrawal plans, Hilsman adds nothing of substance to what was published in the press at the time. His only comment is that the optimistic predictions on which withdrawal was conditioned would come "to haunt Secretary McNamara and the whole history of American involvement in Vietnam." The "real tragedy," Hilsman writes, "is that many of the ranking American officers in Saigon and the Pentagon believed it." He reports his feeling at the time that unless the Diem regime responded to US pressure to dedicate itself to victory, or was replaced by generals who would, "in six months to a year the Viet Cong would control the country -- or we would have to take over the war with American ground forces, which President Kennedy was convinced would be a tragic error. But the real hell of it was that, even if something did happen [in Saigon], the situation might still come to that choice." The question of how to respond to a collapse of the Saigon regime was delayed, in the hope that it would not arise. "We'd face that when we came to it," as RFK put it in 1964.5

Hilsman's reservations about Johnson's war in this late 1967 account are subdued. He reports the objections he shared with Harriman and Forrestal to Rostow's "well-reasoned case for a gradual escalation," including ultimate bombing of the North, the "fundamental" objection being "that it probably would not work" (recall Forrestal's shift toward Rostow's position by March-May 1964). He writes that the March 1964 memo that he sent LBJ "as a sort of political testament on my departure concentrated on warning against the bombing of North Vietnam," a highly contentious issue by late 1967. This reference to the memo is not accurate. Bombing of the North is raised in only 3 of the 19 paragraphs. The memo concentrates on counterinsurgency, and secondarily, on ensuring "political stability" in Saigon, where talk of "neutralization" must be terminated and a Marine battalion might be dispatched to prevent another coup. With regard to bombing of the North, Hilsman's memo raised only tactical objections, calling for such bombing as a "useful supplement" to counterinsurgency while repeating his recommendation of a year earlier that covert actions against the North be continued, "keeping the threat of eventual destruction alive in Hanoi's mind." He also suggested "selected attacks on their infiltration bases and training camps" after sufficient progress had been made in suppressing the southern insurgency.6

In short, four years after the assassination, this dovish Vietnam policy insider has only limited objections to Johnson's already highly unpopular war. He praises LBJ for his "sincere" and "desperate" efforts to implement JFK's policies, and gives no indication that JFK planned to withdraw without victory, or had even considered withdrawal beyond his (tepid) authorization of McNamara's recommendations, based on the precondition of victory. He considers the withdrawal issue insignificant, so much so that he adds essentially nothing to what had been prominently published before the assassination. In retrospect, he feels that JFK might have made different choices than his senior advisers, but offers nothing to support that belief. Again, we face the same three alternatives, and are left only with the third as a plausible contender: the President had no plan to withdraw short of victory.

The internal record of 1964 shows that Kennedy doves saw matters much as described in the 1964-1967 memoirs, and therefore continued to support Johnson's policies, some pressing for further escalation, others (Ball, Mansfield) praising Johnson for choosing the middle course between escalation and withdrawal. All of this material adds further confirmation to the record of public statements and internal deliberations.

This completes the review of crucial evidence: the pre-Tet memoirs conform closely to the other sources of evidence. The conclusions are unambiguous, surprisingly so on a matter of current history: President Kennedy was firmly committed to the policy of victory that he inherited and transmitted to his successor, and to the doctrinal framework that assigned enormous significance to that outcome; he had no plan or intention to withdraw without victory; he had apparently given little thought to the matter altogether, and it was regarded as of marginal interest by those closest to him. Furthermore, the basic facts were prominently published at the time, with more detail than is provided by the early memoirs.

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3 Sorenson, Kennedy Legacy, 213-4. Giglio, Presidency, 254; Schlesinger, RFK, 727, 713, 715, 730, 733-4.

4 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, 580, 537, 411.

5 Ibid., 531n., 536f., 510f.

6 Ibid., 527ff. FRUSV-64, 179-82.