Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 4/15
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Given the power of the US propaganda system, as well as shared values, loyalists elsewhere uncritically adopt its doctrinal verities. The Washington bureau chief of the London Economist writes that "The war was a tragedy, which did much damage inside and outside America. But that is not at all the same thing as saying that it was wrong, and is very far from substantiating the view that those who believed the war was necessary were mistaken." The war may even have done a bit of damage to some heathen Indochinese, but the inheritors of centuries of British culture and experience do not tarry over such childish concerns. The editors of the Toronto Globe and Mail caution the US not to overreach in its idealistic efforts to construct a new world order of heavenly virtue: "to career around the globe on a white charger invites disaster. (Remember Vietnam?)."12 The debate over "humanitarian intervention" in late 1992 may have reached even lower depths of moral cowardice, with its musings on the "lessons of Vietnam," which showed how difficult such enterprises can be, how costly to us.

Gorbachev's Russia could face up to its crimes in Afghanistan, evoking much self-righteous smirking here. But the intellectual class in the United States, and their associates elsewhere, must acknowledge nothing and concede nothing. These are among the perquisites and responsibilities of power.

The dominant cast of mind was exhibited in the attempt to portray the media, which had always loyally supported the crusade and continued to do so, as dangerously adversarial, even a threat to the survival of free institutions. This application of the lesson taught by Tacitus (see page 6) was spearheaded by a two-volume Freedom House study of the Tet offensive purporting to show that in their anti-establishment frenzy, the media had falsely portrayed an American victory as a defeat for the forces of freedom, thus undermining morale at home; the same charge was levelled against the Soviet media by the military and Communist Party hierarchy under Brezhnev, with no less merit. The conclusions of this "scholarly study" have become established doctrine, though it was demonstrated at once to be a pathetic mélange of falsehoods and fabrication, which reduces finally to the claim that the media were too "pessimistic" in their advocacy of the noble cause (though less pessimistic than US intelligence, the Pentagon, and the President's top advisers, as the Freedom House scholars chose not to say).13

For the totalitarian mind, adherence to state propaganda does not suffice: one must display proper enthusiasm while marching in the parade.

Interestingly, the media welcomed the Freedom House attack on their integrity, far preferring it to the readily-established truth: that they generally did their work with professional competence, but rarely straying from doctrinal purity. The preferred self-image is not the competent though compliant professional, but rather the anti-establishment crusader, who may go too far in the courageous defiance of power and institutions. Self-image aside, the crucial doctrinal goal is thereby achieved: discussion is bounded by the hawks, who say that the noble cause could have succeeded with better tactics, more commitment, and proper control over the "anti-Americans" who undermined it; and the doves, who "all prayed that the hawks would be right" but now see that our "blundering efforts to do good" were misplaced, an "error" based on misunderstanding and naiveté.

The high-level shift of policy after Tet called for a revision of the earlier record. Since everyone was now an "early opponent of the war," the same must have been true of the grand leader. The enterprise had soured; the picture of John F. Kennedy must therefore be modified. The Kennedy Administration was unusual in the role played by people sensitive to imagery and doctrine, and in a position to shape them. The love affair of the intellectual community with Camelot is in part a reaction to this unaccustomed whiff of (real or imagined) power. The liberal intelligentsia naturally felt the "need to insulate JFK from the disastrous consequences of the American venture in Southeast Asia," Thomas Brown observes in his study of Camelot imagery. "Kennedy's role in the Vietnam war is unsurprisingly...the aspect [of his public image and record] that has been subjected to the greatest number of revisions by Kennedy's admirers... The important thing was that JFK be absolved of responsibility for the Vietnam debacle; when the need for exculpation is so urgent, no obstacles -- including morality and the truth -- should stand in the way."14

No less important is another factor that Brown brings up in discussing the split among JFK's war managers over escalation: "The `doves' in this debate," he notes, "were not advocates of complete withdrawal from Vietnam but of greater reliance on counterinsurgency measures." Termination of the attack against South Vietnam was unacceptable -- indeed, unthinkable, the concept of US aggression being barred from the intellectual culture. To guard the faith, it is important to ensure that debate over the US war be constrained within the dove-hawk spectrum: the imaginable policy options lie between US-supported terror (allegedly JFK) and expansion of JFK's aggression to a full-scale attack on all of Indochina (LBJ, most of the Kennedy advisers who stayed on). And all choices must be sanitized: they are defense against "the assault from the inside" in JFK's words -- the "assault" by indigenous guerrillas against a foreign-imposed terrorist regime that could not survive political competition. If discourse is constrained within these bounds, the propaganda system will have done its duty.

Brown's comments on such obstacles as "morality and the truth" relate specifically to one of the early post-Tet efforts to revise the image: White House aide Kenneth O'Donnell's 1972 memoir. Two of O'Donnell's stories have assumed center stage in the post-Tet reconstruction.15 The first is that Kennedy had informed Senator Mansfield that he agreed with him "on the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam." But he explained "that if he announced a withdrawal of American military personnel from Vietnam before the 1964 election, there would be a wild conservative outcry against returning him to the Presidency for a second term." The second is that afterwards, JFK made a private comment to O'Donnell that he presents verbatim:

In 1965, I'll become one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. I'll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don't care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected.

In 1975, Mansfield told columnist Jack Anderson that Kennedy "was going to order a gradual withdrawal" but "never had the chance to put the plan into effect," though he had "definitely and unequivocally" made that decision; in 1978, Mansfield said further that Kennedy had informed him that troop withdrawal would begin in January 1964.16 Noting Mansfield's (partial) confirmation of O'Donnell's report, Brown points out that "one need not reject this story out of doubt that it was a firm statement of Kennedy's intentions in Vietnam. Like many politicians, JFK was inclined to tell people what they wanted to hear." Every serious historian discounts such reports for the same reason: "Kennedy probably told [Mansfield] what he wanted to hear," Thomas Paterson observes. The same holds for other recollections, authentic or not, by political figures and journalists.

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12 Lewis and others, see MC, 170f. Kann, WSJ, Sept. 9, 1992. Michael Elliott, BG, Oct. 27, 1991. G&M, Feb. 27, 1992.

13 See MC, ch. 5.5.2, App. 3.

14 Brown, JFK, 34ff.

15 O'Donnell, Johnny, cited by Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 322f. Also Schlesinger, RFK, 711-2.

16 Newman, JFK, 324; Schlesinger, RFK, 712. Note that withdrawal had begun a month earlier, with ample publicity. Possibly Mansfield had forgotten.