Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 8/15
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Schlesinger also claims that by emphasizing that American military programs "should be maintained at levels as high as those in the time of the Diem regime," NSAM 273 "nullified Kennedy's extrication intent." His source is the Pentagon Papers analysis (III, 18), which makes clear that it is the aid programs that are being discussed and that the statement "served to indicate continuance by the new President of policies already agreed upon." Schlesinger's source continues: "The objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel remain as stated in the White House statement of October 2, 1963." As noted, that White House public statement had also emphasized that "Major U.S. assistance" would be maintained as long as needed by the client regime. The phrase Schlesinger cites from NSAM 273 nullifies no "extrication intent," in fact changes nothing.

Schlesinger's account of what followed is hardly more persuasive. Thus he cites a high-level Kennedy official as writing that the Kennedy brothers "regarded Vietnam as a massive source of vexation and concern but not as intrinsically important in itself -- only as a counter in a larger game." These words, which Schlesinger again highlights, are supposed to prove that "As civilized, well-educated Americans they were totally devoid of the obsessive attitudes that characterized President Johnson under the influence of the `hard-liners'"; the wording expresses the boundless contempt of the Kennedy intellectuals for the boorish Texas interloper defacing the elegance of Camelot. The cited phrase is from 1970, post-Tet; a page earlier, Schlesinger had quoted a letter from RFK to Johnson in June 1964 in which he described Vietnam as "obviously the most important problem facing the United States."28 As for the "obsessive attitudes" expressed by JFK and his top advisers, enough has already been said. Finally, it was Kennedy's personally-chosen and trusted senior advisers who were influencing LBJ and directing his war, with his brother's firm support, until things began to go awry.

Schlesinger elaborates in his 1992 review of Newman's book. Endorsing Newman's "withdrawal without victory" thesis, Schlesinger writes that he himself had made the same point in his A Thousand Days, where he reported JFK's view that "it was a Vietnamese war. If we converted it into a white man's war, we would lose." He does not mention that LBJ later made similar remarks: we do not want "our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys," he proclaimed during the 1964 election campaign -- not quite the same as the JFK-Schlesinger version because for LBJ, it was a point of principle, while for JFK-Schlesinger, it was sheer expedience, a question of how to win. Furthermore, as noted, the same point had been made by the military command before and after. The sharp pre- vs. post-Tet contrast again passes unexamined.

The third pre-Tet Kennedy memoirist, Roger Hilsman, has written several letters to the press responding to critics of the withdrawal thesis, in the course of its 1991-1992 revival. In them, he takes a stronger stand on JFK's intent to withdraw than in his pre-Tet discussion.29 But a close reading shows that Hilsman is careful to evade the crucial questions. He says that JFK wanted to withdraw, which is undeniable; so did Rostow and LeMay -- after victory. He says also that JFK was determined not to let it become an American war. The same is true generally of his advisers, who then did just that as circumstances drastically changed, leaving them no other choice, they concluded, on the premises they shared with JFK. While serving in the LBJ Administration, Hilsman largely agreed, as we have seen. Hilsman's current interventions skirt the issues, only clouding them further.

Consider Hilsman's latest intervention in the debate, as I write.30 Here he addresses the charge that he waited until 1992 to make it public "that President Kennedy intended to withdraw from Vietnam." Not true, Hilsman responds. Kennedy himself had made this clear in his news conference of September 2, 1963, in which he said that "In the final analysis it is their war. They have to win it or lose it." After the assassination, he continues, Johnson "made it clear to people in his administration dealing with Vietnam that he had dropped Kennedy's last three words": that is, he would not allow the war to be lost. Hilsman then refers to his objections to LBJ's decision to bomb North Vietnam, offered "most extensively" in his 1967 book. He claims further that "it is difficult to make yourself heard," alleging suppression by media and historians of Hilsman's efforts to inform them "that Kennedy, before his death, had begun to implement a plan to withdraw from Vietnam." Defense rests.

Note that Hilsman adduces no evidence that Kennedy intended to withdraw from Vietnam without victory, the only point at issue. The charge of suppression is not particularly convincing; surely Hilsman could have found some journal willing to allow him a few words. That aside, he had nothing to make public: the initiation of the withdrawal plan had been prominently reported in October 1963, less fully in his 1967 book. Furthermore, his objections to LBJ's bombing in that book are hardly "extensive." Indeed they are quite pallid, as we have seen; hardly a surprise, since he himself had called for measured escalation against the North while serving in the JFK and LBJ Administrations. Finally, consider the claim that LBJ dropped the last three words in JFK's statement that "They have to win it or lose it." To claim on the basis of these three words that Kennedy intended to withdraw without victory makes as much sense as to attribute the same intention to LBJ on the basis of his statement, a year later, opposing the dispatch of US troops. Or to attribute the same intention to the top US military command throughout, on the basis of similar statements. That is why Hilsman makes no such claim in his 1967 memoir, in which he emphasizes LBJ's statement that "We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys" to show his "sincere" and "desperate" effort to carry out JFK's plans. Recall also Hilsman's observation in his 1967 book that 10 days after the three-word deletion on which he now hangs his case, JFK's public commitment to "win the war" and not "see a war lost" became "a policy guideline," as, indeed, he had recognized a few days after in internal planning (see pages 46 and 75).

However informative they may be with regard to the tasks of cultural management, the post-Tet revisions by leading Kennedy intellectuals have no value as history. Rather, they constitute a chapter of cultural history, one that is of no slight interest, I believe.

The post-Tet reconstruction is highly serviceable, therefore likely to endure irrespective of fact, at least in circles that derive their inspiration and imagery from Camelot. By early 1993, it was gaining the status of background information. Thus in reviewing a biography of Robert McNamara in the Boston Globe, Robert Kuttner writes that though McNamara had been "taken in by the bogus statistics supplied by Gen. Paul Harkins," by late 1963 his "powers of skepticism revived." "With Kennedy, he embraced a plan to increase assistance but turn the show over to the Vietnamese, win or lose, by 1965."

In the biography under review, Deborah Shapley is much more cautious. McNamara told her that he and Kennedy had agreed to withdraw without victory, Shapley writes, but she found herself suspecting that "his sincere belief that Kennedy would have gotten out of Vietnam was something he arrived at later when the war had become tragic and traumatic for him and the nation." His "reverence for John Kennedy" might have led him "to self-deceive, to believe that his hero and mentor would have wisely guided them out." "No hard evidence for McNamara's claim has come to light." "Hard evidence" is substantial, but as we have seen, it consistently undermines the claim. Shapley writes that McNamara and Kennedy "may have had a different, private agenda"; her sources are Newman and Schlesinger's "interesting theory" of 1978, concocted without a shred of evidence or a word about the still more interesting pre-Tet silence. All other sources cited are post-Tet, in part second-hand: private reminiscences of 1970 (Gilpatric) and 1986 (McNamara), and current interviews.31

In short, the belief remains pure faith, held in the face of abundant counter-evidence from every relevant source.

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28 RFK, 728-9.

29 Hilsman, letter, NYT, Jan. 20; TLS, April 3, 1992 (responding to Grenier; cf. note 1); letter, Tikkun, Summer 1992.

30 Ibid. The "news conference" appears to be the Cronkite TV interview; To Move a Nation, 497, where the wording is given slightly differently.

31 Kuttner, BG, Jan. 17, 1993. Shapley, Promise, 262f.