Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 7/15
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Post-Tet, the October 1963 decisions, emerging from their earlier obscurity, become "the first application of Kennedy's phased withdrawal plan," as Kennedy masterfully withstands efforts by his aides to deepen the US commitment, to limit his flexibility, and to delete any reference to troop withdrawal (Schlesinger's sources are oral reports, with little relation to the documentary record, imaginative readings apart; the New York Times account of 1963 was more informative). JFK's plan to withdraw, unmentioned before, now serves as prime evidence that he had separated himself from the two main "schools": the advocates of counterinsurgency and the purveyors of the McNamara-Taylor "party line." He was opposed to "both win-the-war factions, ...vaguely searching for a nonmilitary solution." His undeviating public call for winning the war is apparently to be understood as a ploy to deflect the right-wing; his equally insistent call for victory in the internal record is unmentioned.

Overriding the objection of the Chiefs, Schlesinger writes, in July 1962 "Kennedy instructed McNamara to start planning for the phased withdrawal of American military personnel"; in the pre-Tet version, we read only about the optimism of Harkins and McNamara in mid-1962, with no mention of any withdrawal plan (896). Post-Tet, the July 1962 instructions were the origin of the October 1963 plan, which, for the President, put a limit on escalation and was "the reserve plan for extrication," though the disruptive generals saw it only "as a means of putting pressure on Diem" -- as did Mansfield and other doves, and Schlesinger in his marginal pre-Tet reference to McNamara's recommendation.

As we have already seen, the July 1962 instructions were predicated on the assumption that victory was within reach and that any delay beyond 1965 would make it difficult to contain domestic opposition to the war. In short, JFK's goal was withdrawal after victory -- by mid-1965, McNamara thought, though to the end, JFK remained unwilling to commit himself. The top military command disagreed only in that they were more optimistic, expecting to wind it up in a year. All this is omitted, though the basic facts were available in the Pentagon Papers.

Continuing with the post-Tet version, Schlesinger writes that by 1963, withdrawal was turning from a "precaution...into a preference." That is what "the evidence suggests." What the evidence actually suggests is that withdrawal was always a preference, but only after victory; and so it remained in 1963. The evidence that Schlesinger cites is the O'Donnell-Mansfield material, already discussed. His only further evidence is Kennedy's public statement in September 1963 that "it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it...." Recall that this point was made to the President by his top military commander in Vietnam, General McGarr, in February 1962, and was reiterated after the assassination by LBJ, McNamara, and Generals Westmoreland and Taylor. By the same logic, they must have shared JFK's secret intent.

By late summer of 1963, the post-Tet version continues, "Kennedy was still playing out his public hand while secretly wondering how to get out" -- so secretly that no trace is left in the record and his closest associates knew nothing about it; the "public hand" was the inflammatory rhetoric that could only serve to undermine withdrawal. On November 14, Schlesinger reports, Kennedy told a press conference "somewhat confusedly" that the upcoming Honolulu conference would focus on "how we can intensify the struggle, how we can bring Americans out of there. Now that is our object, to bring Americans home." The confusion results from "Kennedy's private determination to begin, at whatever cost, a strategy of extrication," a doctrine for which not a particle of evidence has been adduced. With that doctrine abandoned, JFK's statement unconfusedly reflects his awareness of domestic discontent and his commitment to intensify the war and withdraw after victory, explicit in the internal and public record.

Schlesinger notes that "In May 1963 Nhu proposed publicly that the United States start withdrawing its troops," adding that "sooner or later we Vietnamese will settle our differences between us." He reports inaccurately that Nhu's hints about treating with Hanoi were not "taken seriously in either Saigon or Washington" (citing William Bundy); the record shows that they were taken quite seriously, and were a factor in the Kennedy Administration decision to overthrow the government. "No one knew then whether the explorations had any reality," Schlesinger adds correctly, without, however, giving the reason: JFK and his advisers feared that these explorations had all too much reality, and acted to destroy the threat, another crucial fact that undermines the withdrawal-without-victory thesis. A "Diem-Ho deal could have been the means of an American exit from Vietnam in 1963," Schlesinger correctly observes, so that "An opportunity of some sort was perhaps missed" -- though not because of ignorance, as he suggests. Rather, it was understood that such a deal would force the US to withdraw without victory.

Post-Tet, Schlesinger adopts the thesis that the assassination of the President led to a dramatic reversal of policy.26 He argues that LBJ abandoned JFK's withdrawal plans at once, shifting to escalation. His evidence is the opening paragraph of NSAM 273 of November 27:

It remains the central objective of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported communist conspiracy.

Schlesinger highlights these words to show that LBJ was undertaking "both the total commitment Kennedy had always refused and the diagnosis of the conflict" that Kennedy had "never quite accepted." The highlighted words appear regularly in both the public and private Kennedy record, as does the diagnosis; numerous examples have already been given, including JFK's own demand that everyone must "focus on winning the war." The draft of NSAM 273 written before the assassination by Kennedy's top advisers, expressing his policies, opens with the same paragraph.27 The October 2 White House statement approving the McNamara-Taylor recommendations is hardly different. The hidden meanings and implications are in the eye of the beholder.

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26 RFK, 725f.

27 In both, the word "object" appears instead of "objective."