Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 12/15
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Newman's claim requires some interesting assumptions, given the internal record surveyed earlier. Not only must MACV have been lying to McNamara and JFK, but the military were lying to one another from field officers on up, everyone was lying to the CIA who were lying to everyone else, State was in on it, and so on. Discipline has been so remarkable that no trace of this huge "web of deception" appears in the record, and in 30 years no credible voice has come forth to expose any part of it; unusual, to say the least. We also have to assume extraordinary stupidity on the part of the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA, the head of State Department intelligence, and other top advisers of the President -- who, alone, "must have known" the truth "in his heart." Newman finds the optimistic projections by Harkins inexplicable (288), implying perhaps (it is hard to be sure) that Harkins was somewhere within the webs of deception. He ignores the explanation given by Krepinich, the military historian on whom he relies throughout. Given the plausibility of Krepinich's explanation, Newman's theory of the evil military command conspiring to deceive the isolated peacenik at the helm also fades away -- not to speak of the views of the military, which he never examines (see chapter 1.13).

Though JFK allegedly put his secret plan in motion in early 1962, as of August 26, 1963, Newman reports, "the most basic questions remained unanswered," specifically, whether to "move our resources out or to move our troops in" (Rusk) if the plans to overthrow the Diem-Nhu regime fail. The alternatives, Newman observes, were stark: "withdrawal while losing or massive American intervention." The choice was not made at the August 26 meeting, or even discussed. JFK raised a few questions, nothing more. What "irresistibly impressed itself on the President," Newman states, was "whether the coup was necessary to win the war." In short, victory remained the condition for withdrawal.

Newman does not report the follow-up meeting on August 28, at which JFK gave his usual answer to the "most basic question." Rejecting both horns of Newman's stark dilemma, JFK urged that everything should be done in Washington and Vietnam to "maximize the chances of the rebel generals" to overthrow the regime. The reason was that without a coup, we "must withdraw" and "cannot win the war" (JFK, Harriman, Hilsman) -- an unacceptable option for the President and his dovish advisers.43

We have now reached the end of August, 1963, with evidence for JFK's secret plan nonexistent. Continuing, we find that as of October 2, when the McNamara-Taylor withdrawal recommendations were presented, "So far, it had been couched in terms of battlefield success." It was not until after the November 1 coup that the truth filtered to the top, with a "sudden turnabout of reporting in early November." "As the Honolulu meeting approached the tide turned toward pessimism as suddenly and as swiftly as the optimistic interlude had begun in early 1962," Newman writes. The participants in the November 20 meeting received "shocking military news." "The upshot of the Honolulu meeting," he continues, "was that the shocking deterioration of the war effort was presented in detail to those assembled, along with a plan to widen the war, while the 1,000-man withdrawal was turned into a meaningless paper drill." The fact that prior to the "sudden turn toward pessimism" the entire discussion of withdrawal had been "couched in terms of battlefield success" thoroughly undermines Newman's thesis, as becomes only more clear if we introduce the internal record that he ignores.44

The way Newman handles these problems is again instructive. Instead of drawing the obvious conclusions, he marvels at "the irony of the elaborate deception story, begun in early 1962," "originally designed" by the military to "forestall Kennedy from a precipitous withdrawal," then reversed by JFK, "judo style -- to justify just that." JFK's plan was "brilliant," "duplicitous," "imaginative"; to be more accurate, imaginary, since not a particle of evidence has been offered. As the slender case disappears into the mist, we find that O'Donnell's memoir and a few similar post-Tet recollections come to be the definitive evidence that JFK intended to withdraw. That he intended to withdraw without victory is proven by his secret thoughts. LBJ's sordid plots are demonstrated in the manner reviewed. The facts now readily fall into place, whatever they may be: they simply illustrate layer upon layer of intrigue and deception.

A few examples illustrate: "what is particularly striking about Kennedy's behavior is the length to which he went to disguise his intent, and the way in which he used the story of success -- a fiction for which he had been the target -- against its perpetrators"; "we already know that Kennedy planned to withdraw gradually..." and that his public pose was deception, knowledge granted to us by stipulation; JFK's strident public call for victory and against withdrawal only "highlights the desperation of his dilemma and the poignancy of that moment," as he tries to "erect [an] alibi" for his plans, secret from everyone, including his top advisers and closest associates. And so on.

We then wander further along paths "shrouded in mystery and intrigue," guided by confident assertions about what various participants "knew," "pretended," "felt," "intended," etc. The facts, whatever they may be, are interpreted so as to conform to the central dogma. Given the rules of the game (deceit, hidden intent, etc.), there can be no counter-argument: evidence refuting the thesis merely shows the depths of the mystery and intrigue.45

Newman discusses the McNamara-Taylor withdrawal proposal, the November 20 Honolulu conference, and the first Johnson document (NSAM 273). Putting aside hidden "intents," "realizations," "apparent feelings," "webs of deception," etc., his account adds little to the record already reviewed from the Pentagon Papers and the official history, and is factually inaccurate.46 I will not pursue the convoluted interpretations -- in particular, his effort to find a "significant" difference between the draft of NSAM 273 and the final version, which falls apart when one examines the record, already reviewed. Nothing lurks beneath the shrouds.

Newman's media role is hardly more impressive. Responding to critics of the movie JFK in the New York Times, he claims that "Kennedy's public comments in 1963 are sharply contradicted by his private ones," which is false, if "private ones" are taken to be those in the internal documentary record, not just the post-Tet reconstructions. He writes that "Recently declassified documents reveal" that Kennedy was "privy to intelligence that exposed optimism about the war to be unfounded." That could be true, as it certainly is true for Kennedy's advisers. The question is whether anyone accepted these more pessimistic reports, and if so, why they continued to profess optimism in internal discussion; why, as Newman puts it, everything was "couched in terms of battlefield success" until the "shocking" revelations after the November 1963 coup. But whether true or not, the statement is irrelevant without evidence that JFK understood what all of his associates failed to see. None appears in the book, beyond mystic insight.47

Go to the next segment.

43 Ibid., 351f. FRUSV, I 638f., Aug. 26; IV 4f., Aug. 28 (see p. 32, above).

44 Newman, JFK, 410, 423-5, 435.

45 Ibid., 410, 325, 403, 387, 359.

46 Thus Newman traces the planning of "South Vietnamese operations against North Vietnam" to May 1963, the "seed" for what became OPLAN 34A "and the secret American actions that led to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in August 1964." The seeds "sprouted in the November 20 [1963] Honolulu meeting"; plans were "scaled back" in the draft prepared for Kennedy, but "the dam broke when NSAM-273 was rewritten" and adopted on Nov. 27, "the most significant of all the changes" made to the draft (375f., 446f.). This is mostly incorrect. As discussed earlier, covert operations against the North had been underway since mid-1962, apparently with US and third country participation, and appear in the internal record from Jan. 1963, endorsed in April by Hilsman. NSAM 273 is not different in any relevant way from the draft. Furthermore, the record shows no increased US participation in OPLAN 34A to the Tonkin Gulf incident (in fact, denies it), though DE SOTO intelligence patrols were then underway.

47 Letter, NYT, March 23, 1992.