Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 6/15
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In the pre-Tet history, General MacArthur's views merit a passing phrase as an "opinion" offered the President. There is no indication that JFK paid the slightest attention; they are not mentioned in the 600 pages that follow. In the post-Tet version, we read:

In late April, Kennedy discovered an unexpected ally -- General Douglas MacArthur, who assured him that it would indeed be a "mistake" to fight in Southeast Asia. "He thinks," the President dictated in a rare aide-mémoire, "our line should be Japan, Formosa and the Philippines... He said that the `chickens are coming home to roost' from Eisenhower's years and I live in the chicken coop."

By April 1992, we discover that A Thousand Days had recorded JFK's "delight in General MacArthur's opposition to a land war in Asia," a surprise to the reader of the earlier version.20

Pre-Tet, it was JFK and Arthur Schlesinger who rejoiced over the defeat of "aggression" in Vietnam in 1962. Post-Tet, it is the New York Times that absurdly denounces "Communist `aggression' in Vietnam," while "Kennedy was determined to stall." And though RFK did call for victory over the aggressors in 1962, he was deluded: he was following "the party line as imparted to him by McNamara and Taylor," failing to understand the huge gap between the President's views and the McNamara-Taylor party line -- which Schlesinger had attributed to the President, with his own endorsement, in the pre-Tet version. The post-Tet revision offers no explanation for these innovations, or for JFK's decision to delegate responsibility to run the war to one of the men who peddled the party line he so disdained, while promoting the other to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- a curious reaction to their betrayal of the President's cause.

The doves are identified as Harriman, Hilsman, and Forrestal, who called for counterinsurgency and social reform, not escalation. Nothing is said about their doctrine that "there are no quitters here" or their actual role in the Kennedy Administration, reviewed earlier; or their later thoughts as optimistic assessments changed. True, all the details were not in the public domain in 1978, though enough was; and it is hard to believe that an Administration insider would not have had at least the general picture.21

In the post-Tet version, the Joint Chiefs join the New York Times, McNamara, and Taylor as extremists undermining the President's moderate policies. Commenting on JCS Chairman General Lyman Lemnitzer's invocation of the "well-known commitment to take a forthright stand against Communism in Southeast Asia," Schlesinger writes sardonically that "For the Chiefs the commitment may have been `well-known.' But they had thus far failed in their efforts to force it on the President" -- who regularly voiced it in still more strident terms. Many examples have been cited, including Schlesinger's own report of the President's fears of upsetting "the whole world balance" if the US were to retreat in Vietnam. Or, we may recall JFK's summer 1963 comment on the need to establish a "stable government" in South Vietnam and to support its "struggle to maintain its national independence": "for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there." These were "temperate words" in Schlesinger's pre-Tet version. Compare Lemnitzer.22

In his laudatory 1992 review of Newman's book, Schlesinger joins Newman in casting blame on military crazies. Both cite what Schlesinger calls "a hysterical [January] 1962 memorandum" (and Newman describes as "extraordinary") in which the Joint Chiefs predict "that `the fall of South Vietnam to Communist control would mean the eventual Communist domination of all of the Southeast Asian mainland' and that most of Asia would capitulate to what the military still stubbornly called the `Sino-Soviet Bloc'." "Such hyperbole confirmed Kennedy's low opinion of the military," Schlesinger writes. Checking back to the pre-Tet version, we read that it was JFK's State Department that babbled on about the "Sino-Soviet Bloc" while Kennedy in 1963 regarded China as the "long-term danger to the peace"; the USSR, in contrast, was merely the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" intent on world conquest. The Chiefs' "hyperbole" about South Vietnam, furthermore, sounds pretty tame in comparison to JFK's own rhetoric, as we have seen.23

To illustrate Kennedy's moderation and concern for social reform in contrast to the military, Schlesinger cites the 1956 speech quoted earlier (page 45), excising its inflammatory content, which George Ball described as "one of [JFK's] more purple passages" with "a whole bagful of well-worn metaphors" about dominos and huge stakes.24

In Schlesinger's pre-Tet book on John F. Kennedy (1965, 1967), there was only a bare mention of withdrawal plans, with no indication that JFK had ever considered the matter (recall that the basic facts were public knowledge). There is no hint that anyone considered withdrawal without victory. In his 1966 "anti-war" book The Bitter Heritage, still pre-Tet, Schlesinger rejects withdrawal outright, upholding JFK's banner, he claims.

The post-Tet biography of Robert Kennedy (1978) is radically different. Here JFK's alleged withdrawal plans merit a full chapter, even though the book is not devoted to JFK but to his brother, whose "involvement in Vietnam had been strictly limited before Dallas" and "was nonexistent" after, Schlesinger tells us. This startling difference between the pre- and post-Tet versions is not attributed to any significant new information, indeed is not mentioned at all. Schlesinger's explanation for the chapter on withdrawal is that "because [RFK] later had to struggle with his brother's Vietnam legacy, it is essential to understand what that legacy was." Perhaps. But one would then want to know why the legacy appears nowhere in the pre-Tet publications.

In 1992, Schlesinger went a step further, claiming that he had put forth the JFK withdrawal thesis all along.25

Go to the next segment.

20 See note 1.

21 Schlesinger refers to Hilsman's hawkish August 30, 1963 memorandum, omitting its most inflammatory content (RFK, 720; see p. 00, above). He reports Hilsman's private statement to him discounting it as a response to a query by Rusk that offered "the whole range of possible responses." The document in fact proposes a single "U.S. Response" to each of the "Possible Diem-Nhu moves," each such response having several components; they are not presented as alternatives, indeed could not be, given the wording.

22 1000 Days, 902-3.

23 Review of Newman (see ch. 1, n. 39); 1000 Days, 825. On Schlesinger's review, see LL, letter 17.

24 RFK, 701; Ball, Past, 364.

25 Review of Newman.