Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 11/15
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LBJ enters the story again at a White House meeting of August 31, 1963, where he complains that he is not being informed and expresses doubts about the planned coup, "harsh and aggressive remarks" (actually, mild objections) that "had a chilling effect," as "attested to by the fact that no one said anything in reply" -- presumably because the Kennedy intellectuals considered him a Texas lout.40

The picture of LBJ the sinister plotter is a fundamental part of Newman's theory about the "reversal of intent with respect to combat troops" as LBJ took the reins after the assassination. Here is Newman's crucial evidence:

A comment that Lyndon Johnson made in December [1963] underlines the far-reaching and profound nature of this reversal and demonstrates how the tragedy of Dallas affected the course of the Vietnam War. While Kennedy had told O'Donnell in the spring of 1963 that he could not pull out of Vietnam until he was reelected, "So we had better make damned sure I am reelected," at a White House reception on Christmas eve, a month after he succeeded to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson told the Joint Chiefs: "Just let me get elected and then you can have your war."

Truly a dramatic demonstration of a historic reversal -- until we check the source, Stanley Karnow's popular book Vietnam, which is "loosely sourced," Newman observes elsewhere, disparaging it when Karnow questioned the thesis of the Stone film. Putting aside doubts about reliability and about "what Kennedy had told O'Donnell," here is what Newman's source says about LBJ and the White House reception:

[Johnson] knew that Pentagon lobbyists, among the best in the business, could persuade conservatives in Congress to sabotage his social legislation unless he satisfied their demands. As he girded himself for the 1964 presidential campaign, he was especially sensitive to the jingoists who might brand him "soft on Communism" were he to back away from the challenge in Vietnam. So, politician that he was, he assuaged the brass and the braid with promises he may have never intended to keep. At a White House reception on Christmas eve 1963, for example, he told the joint chiefs of staff: "Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war."

In short, Karnow attributes to Johnson very much what O'Donnell attributes to Kennedy; assuage the right, get elected, and then do what you choose. What LBJ chose was to drag his feet much as JFK had done. That is Newman's evidence of the "far-reaching and profound nature of this reversal" that changed the course of history.41

Newman concedes that JFK's public statements refute his thesis, but that's easily handled, as we have seen: JFK was cleverly feinting to delude the right by preaching about the high stakes to the general public -- who largely didn't care or were uneasy about the war, as JFK and his advisers knew, and could only be aroused to oppose withdrawal by this inflammatory rhetoric.

As for the internal record, it reveals only JFK's advocacy of withdrawal after victory is secure, and exhortations to everyone to "focus on winning the war." It reveals further that the failure of the Diem-Nhu regime to show sufficient enthusiasm for that task was a factor in the effort of JFK and his advisers to overthrow it, only enhanced by the Diem-Nhu gestures towards political settlement and the increasingly insistent calls for US withdrawal. These were regarded as a dangerous threat, not an opportunity to carry out the alleged intent to withdraw. Newman skirts these issues, and nowhere considers their import. Nor does he consider the fact that JFK refused to exploit the high-level military opposition to the war to fend off the jingoist right. The fact that JFK's closest associates either knew nothing about his secret intentions, or were concealing them with remarkable uniformity (pre-Tet, that is), also passes without mention. Nor is there an explanation for the fact that the basic principles of JFK's policies persisted after the assassination, with tactical modifications as dictated by changing assessments, and implemented by Kennedy's most trusted advisers, while the most extreme doves among them lauded LBJ for his "wise caution" in rejecting the twin perils of escalation and withdrawal (Mansfield, Ball).

The withdrawal policy, Newman contends, can be traced to a JFK comment of April 1962 with "profound implications": he told Harriman and Forrestal that "he wished us to be prepared to seize any favorable moment to reduce our commitment, recognizing that the moment might yet be some time away" (Newman's emphasis). The "implications" are virtually zero. Note that Newman disagrees with advocates of the withdrawal thesis who trace JFK's secret plans to a post-missile-crisis conversion. The "institutional origin" of JFK's secret withdrawal plan came in May 1962, Newman continues, when McNamara ordered General Harkins to initiate plans to turn "full responsibility over to South Vietnam" and to reduce the US military command -- at a moment of great optimism over the prospects, as Newman fully concedes, thus pulling the rug out from under his thesis.42

Newman's efforts to deal with that problem are not easy to unravel. He asserts that the 1962 optimism was generated by conscious "deception within deception" by MACV. The military knew the reports of progress were false, he claims, and were spinning "webs of deception" to hide the failure of the war effort from McNamara and the President. Evidence for all of this is zero.

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40 Ibid., 355-6. FRUSV, IV 74.

41 Newman, JFK, 448-9; Karnow, Vietnam, 326. Newman on Karnow, BG, Jan. 14, 1992. Newman's references are often unreliable. Another example is a discussion (408) of John Mecklin's reaction to the official statement on the McNamara-Taylor proposal of October 1963, which he found "sickening" at first but later came to see as a "brilliantly realistic and imaginative" White House plan; in context, the citation gives the impression that Mecklin recognized JFK's plan for "genuine withdrawal," whereas he was in fact discussing the "compromise" of a "politician...between the two U.S. factions" that differed on how best to pressure Diem. Similarly, Newman makes much of the fact that on Nov. 12, 1963, Kennedy said only that we should stay on in Vietnam until South Vietnam can maintain itself "as a free and independent country," permitting "democratic forces within the country to operate"; this comes close to advocating political settlement, Newman states, reflecting the President's intention to withdraw. Virtually the same statement, also implying nothing of the sort, opens NSAM 52, May 11, 1961 (426; PP, II 642). There are many other examples.

42 Newman, JFK, 236, 254.