Correspondence with Noam Chomsky (1989-1995),
By Michael Morrissey
June 18, 1992
Your letter arrived in the same mail (May 25) as Newman's book, which I've now read. I don't like being at an impasse with you on this, if we are, so I want to try to pin down as precisely as possible what we are disagreeing about.
I do not have access now to the new internal documentation you and he mention, so I can't evaluate that. On the whole, Newman's "deception within a deception" theory isn't much different from what occurred to me--that withdrawal on the basis of "mission accomplished" (not the same as victory) was a ploy on JFK's part, in order to withdraw without losing face and the 64 election. I agree, though, that if we discount O'Donnell et al., this is speculation, and Newman doesn't add anything to what we already know (or don't know) about what Kennedy himself thought.
He does seem to make a good case that Harkins and Taylor (and, less clearly, McNamara) were lying (i.e. lying about winning so Kennedy wouldn't pull out). This is different from the standard Bright Shining Lie à la Neil Sheehan (also the Pentagon Papers story), which says everybody at the top (except a few lower down the line like Vann), including Kennedy, actually believed they were winning.
I'm not convinced, though, that JFK could have or needed to have "deceived the deceivers." More plausible to me would be that Harkins, Taylor and McNamara were simply playing Kennedy's game--and probably reluctantly. If the top brass were really working against Kennedy, before the assassination, surely they could have thought up a more effective tactic to prevent withdrawal, such as staging a Tonkin-like "act of war" on US troops. In the context of a coup theory, if the military advisors felt they had been sorely misused (by being forced by JFK to lie about the true military situation), this would have added to their sense of moral indignation and made it easier for them to support a coup.
The two basic questions Newman addresses are: 1) Were the top brass really optimistic, and 2) Was Kennedy really optimistic? The standard answer (the "false optimism" hypothesis) is yes to both (e.g. PP Gravel, Vol. 2, 160-200). Newman says no to both.
I'm willing to leave both questions in abeyance, since it's not likely that we'll learn much more about what anybody "really" thought.
Still, before I go on, I have to comment on the "false optimism" argument. What it really means is stupidity. The top brass and/or Kennedy were too dumb, naive, incompetent, indifferent, etc.--I'll just collapse this as "stupid"--to read the writing on the wall. We should note that this is the standard explanation for anything the US government does that threatens to be perceived as wrong. The whole war was a "tragic mistake," i.e. stupid. "Wise Men" and all, they were just too stupid to see what should have been obvious to any child--that US national security was never in danger in Vietnam, that it was an indigenous revolution, that the Saigon regime was hopelessly corrupt, that we shouldn't have been there, etc. Skipping up to the most recent war, we find the same explanations. Why did April Glaspie tell Saddam the US didn't care about his border disputes? Stupidity. Why didn't Bush at least try to get the foreigners out of Kuwait after the invasion, before sending in the troops (upon which Saddam took them hostage)? Stupidity. Why didn't they go on to take out Saddam Hussein? Stupidity. Why did they leave Saddam his helicopters and elite troops? Stupidity. Why did they get the Kurds to revolt and then abandon them? Stupidity.
No matter how skillfully the rhetoric may disguise it ("well-intentioned errors"), the "explanation" always boils down to plain old stupidity. (Well-intentioned stupidity is still stupidity.) I just don't buy it. I never thought I was smarter than McGeorge Bundy (to take my favorite hate-figure).
One alternative explanation is the propaganda model. I think it is valid and powerful, but it doesn't explain everything. For one thing, doesn't it too boil down to intellectual blindness and self-deception, and aren't those just fancy words for stupidity? Should I believe that McGeorge Bundy was so blind, propagandized, self-deceived--or stupid--that in 1963-64 he didn't know what I knew (at the age of 17-18), namely that Vietnam was (at least) a mistake?
The most obvious cases where the propaganda model fails are the assassinations. I suppose one might explain the execution of Fred Hampton (which you talked about in one of your books) in terms of the propaganda model, given the mindset of the Chicago police and the situation. But this will not do for JFK, RFK, and MLK--just to name the biggies. These were conspiracies, both the executions themselves and the subsequent cover-ups, and the evidence for high-level, long-term government complicity is overwhelming.
One could explain this complicity in terms of a propaganda model too, I suppose, i.e. if it was ultimately "well-intentioned." They did it for what they were convinced was the good of the country. But you could say the same about Hitler and anyone else. At this point, the notion of conspiracy disappears altogether, because the notion of right and wrong also disappears. If the "conspirators" are convinced that their goals are good and their means are justified, there is no conspiracy from their point of view. From our point of view, we can say they are (willing) victims of propaganda, but if we disagree with their idea of "good" we have to call it conspiracy (a plan by more than one person to do something bad).
To return to the question at hand, let us assume no more than what the paper record tells us, omitting all speculation about what anyone really believed and when, omitting Scott's thesis (that NSAM 273 confirming the withdrawal plan was a lie), omitting Newman's thesis (that the top brass were lying and Kennedy was pretending to believe them to justify withdrawal). We can also omit the question of the conditionality of withdrawal on continued battlefield success. You say the condition was crucial and explicit, but in the McNamara-Taylor recommendations implemented by NSAM 263 it is only implied ("we should be able..."), unless I've missed an if-clause. In any case, the importance you attach to this depends again on what you think people actually believed. If nobody really believed that there was any success in the first place, as Newman says, the question is irrelevant.
PP Gravel 2, 160-200 tells us that the withdrawal plan started in the summer of 1962, began wavering in December 1963 (p. 191-192, 276), and ended by March 27, 1964, at the very latest:
Thus ended de jure the policy of phase out and withdrawal and all the plans and programs oriented to it. Shortly, they would be cancelled out de facto (p. 196).
This means that withdrawal was still policy on Nov. 22, and it changed under Johnson. Johnson reversed Kennedy's withdrawal plan. This--no more, no less--is fact. Do you agree?
I think the problem may be that we are coming at this from different directions. I think you are more concerned with making sure that JFK is not remade into a dove. I am more concerned with getting at the truth about the assassination. I guess I was wrong to say last time that I didn't mind if Stone et al. fall into the Camelot syndrome, because if it leads people closer to the truth about the assassination it would be in the right direction. There is no reason to compromise there, even for "strategic" reasons. You're quite right, of course, JFK was a hawk. But there are hawks and hawks. Hawks can have withdrawal policies. Reagan withdrew from Lebanon. Bush withdrew from Iraq. Nixon finally withdrew from Vietnam.
You might say that sure, the whole history of the war was based on a phony "withdrawal policy," which is true in a sense, but I refer again to the Pentagon Papers account. The withdrawal policy that ended by March 1964 was real and had nothing to do with Nixon's "secret plan" to end the war and eventual retreat.
There doesn't have to be a connection between the assassination and the withdrawal policy reversal. It is a theory, but a good one. I would hardly presume to remind you, of all people, that there is a difference between good theories and bad ones. The theory that Hinkley shot Reagan because he thought Reagan was a closet Leninist is a bad one. It's bad because there is no evidence for it and it explains nothing.
There is plenty of evidence, however, that the assassination and coverup was a government conspiracy, a coup d'état, without going into the Vietnam question. But if you add to all this the fact--which is all I am trying to establish here--that Johnson reversed Kennedy's withdrawal policy, you certainly have a basis to postulate that one reason for the assassination was to affect the policy change.
I think it would be more accurate to compare this theory with your propaganda model. It's not the fact that it can't be disproved that makes it a good theory. It's a good theory because it makes sense, explains more of the facts in a coherent way than other theories, etc.
That just about does it from my side for the essential point, but I'll go through your letter to make sure I've covered everything and in some cases to ask for information.
You say JFK knew that escalation was highly unpopular. What is the evidence for this? Certainly it was just the opposite among most of his own staff, and there must have been at least as many hawks as doves in Congress and in the population at large, inasmuch as anybody was even thinking seriously about it in 1963.
I can't find any references in Newman to Shoup advising Kennedy to withdraw, or any at all to Ridgeway or MacArthur. I've read elsewhere that MacArthur advised JFK in 1961 never to get involved in a land war in Asia, but I didn't know either one advised him later on Vietnam.
What happened in Honolulu on Nov. 20 still seems a mystery, but I see no evidence whatsoever that the official withdrawal policy changed, whether the military reports had become more pessimistic or not. (Newman's argument is that the new pessimism only increased JFK's desire to withdraw, but let's ignore that.) The second paragraph of NSAM 273, both the Bundy draft and LBJ's version, confirms that the withdrawal policy was to continue.
If you consider the possibility of a coup d'état, the motives of people like Bundy, McNamara, etc., as well as Johnson, are highly suspect, to say the least, so there is no point in debating whether that Bundy draft was written "for Kennedy" or not. It doesn't matter.
I would feel like I am belaboring the obvious, except that it isn't. I mean, what should be obvious is not obvious at all to the people who should know. The standard accounts do not say what PP Gravel says quite clearly. They say the opposite. They say (like Cockburn) there was no change of policy, meaning the policy of escalation. What should be "obvious," however, and what the PP say, is that there was no change in the policy of withdrawal until after Kennedy's death. There's a big difference. Almost no one says that Johnson continued Kennedy's withdrawal policy, and then reversed it. They say Johnson continued Kennedy's policy of escalation.
Here are a few examples I've collected, quite at random (emphasis added):
...President Kennedy...began the process of backing up American military aid with "advisers." At the time of his murder there were 23,000 [sic] of them in South Vietnam. President Johnson took the same view of the importance of Vietnam...(J.M. Roberts, The Pelican History of the World, 1980, p. 988-989).
Although Johnson followed Kennedy's lead in sending more and more troops to Vietnam (it peaked at 542,000, in 1969), it was never enough to meet General Westmoreland's demands... (Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987, p. 405).
By October 1963, some 16,000 American troops were in Vietnam... Under President Johnson, the "advisors" kept increasing...
Lyndon Johnson, who had campaigned in 1964 as a "peace candidate," inherited and expanded the Vietnam policy of his predecessor (Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, A Pocket History of the United States, 1981, p. 565-566).
I haven't read Schlesinger's RFK, but you're right, he certainly doesn't mention the withdrawal plan in the earlier book.
The "earlier book" was A Thousand Days (1965). Chomsky's point, later elaborated in Rethinking Camelot, was that Schlesinger and other "Camelot hagiographers" changed their recollections of Kennedy's intentions in Vietnam after the Tet offensive in 1968, which was the turning point in the war, i.e. when Johnson's "wise men" (key advisers) finally decided the war was not winnable and to withdraw.
He buries a brief reference to the Oct. 2 White House statement in a context which makes it seem both insignificant and based on a misapprehension of the situation by McNamara, who
...thought that the political mess had not yet infected the military situation and, back in Washington, announced (in spite of a strong dissent from William Sullivan of Harriman's staff who accompanied the mission) that a thousand American troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year and that the major part of the American military task would be completed by the end of 1965.
This announcement, however, was far less significant than McNamara's acceptance of the Lodge pressure program [on Diem] (A Thousand Days, 1965, p. 996).
Schlesinger does not indicate that this "far less significant" announcement was a statement of official policy, implemented nine days later by NSAM 263, confirmed at the Honolulu conference on Nov. 20, and (supposedly) reaffirmed by Johnson in NSAM 273.
Stanley Karnow, instead of citing the documents themselves, substitutes his own convoluted "analysis":
...what Kennedy wanted from McNamara and Taylor was a negative assessment of the military situation, so that he could justify the pressures being exerted on the Saigon regime. But Taylor and McNamara would only further complicate Kennedy's problems (Vietnam, 1983, p. 293).
This image of a recalcitrant McNamara and Taylor presenting a positive report when Kennedy expected a negative one is absurd, first because both McNamara and Taylor were in fact opposed to withdrawal, and second because if Kennedy had wanted a negative report, he would have had no trouble procuring one. Karnow goes on to say that McNamara and Taylor's true motivation for recommending the withdrawal of 1,000 troops by the end of the year was "to placate Harkins and the other optimists" (p. 293). First McNamara and Taylor are presented as defying the president's "true wishes," and then as deliberately misrepresenting the situation to "placate" the commanding general (without bothering to explain why troop withdrawals would be particularly placating to the general in charge of them). There is no mention of NSAM 263, and the reason is clear. If the recommendations were "riddled with contradictions and compromises" and contrary to the president's wishes, as Karnow says, why did the president implement them?
Karnow also tells us why the recommendation to withdraw all US troops by 1965 was made: it was "a prophecy evidently made for domestic political consumption at Kennedy's insistence" (p. 294). But as I've mentioned, I know of no evidence that there was more public or political opposition to engagement than there was to disengagement (plenty of the latter even within the administration). Karnow has Kennedy wanting a negative report, getting a positive one, and then insisting on announcing it publicly for a political effect that would do him at least as much harm as good.
I could go on and on. Very rarely do we find a deviation from the standard myth, such as Richard Goodwin:
In later years Johnson and others in his administration would assert that they were merely fulfilling the commitment of previous American presidents. The claim was untrue--even though it was made by men, like Bundy and McNamara, who were more anxious to serve the wishes of their new master than the memory of their dead one. During the first half of 1965 I attended meetings, participated in conversations, where the issues of escalation were discussed. Not once did any participant claim that we had to bomb or send combat troops because of "previous commitments," that these steps were the inevitable extension of past policies. They were treated as difficult and serious decisions to be made solely on the basis of present conditions and perceptions. The claim of continuity was reserved for public justification; intended to conceal the fact that a major policy change was being made--that "their" war was becoming "our" war (Remembering America, 1988, p. 373).
Thanks to accounts like those of Schlesinger and Karnow, the general public has not even been aware that there was a withdrawal policy, much less that Johnson reversed it--despite the clear account in PP Gravel.
If the Stone film has informed people of this much, it has performed a public service.
You say JFK's most trusted advisers, after the military assessment changed, proceeded haltingly and ambiguously toward committing US combat troops.
"Taylor, for one," Chomsky had told me, "was dragging his feet on this well into 1965. The chiefs remained ambiguous. Shoup called publicly for withdrawal, in the strongest terms, in 1965, at a time when all the Kennedy folk were still extreme hawks" (5/21/92).
I don't see the point. Surely you don't mean to imply that the chiefs were doves. (I would be interested to see that quote from Shoup, but in any case 1965 was not 1963). Do you mean that if they had been in on a coup, they would have sent the Marines in immediately? That would have been too obvious. There had to be some transition period, some pretext that the military situation had changed, before the big commitment was made. It didn't take long, and there was plenty of time, once Johnson was in the White House. They didn't need Goldwater.
Chomsky had referred to "the CIA, or whoever," who would have had far more reason to knock off LBJ in favor of a real alternative: Goldwater. LBJ "was more dovish than JFK had been a year earlier," and Goldwater was an extreme hawk, so the putative warmongers would have profited from getting rid of LBJ more than from JFK (5/21/92).
He [Goldwater] also would have been too obvious a change. The goal was to establish and perpetuate precisely the myth that endures today--that "there was no change in policy."
This is the whole point I am trying to make. Once this myth is shattered, one way or another, the question of a connection between the policy change and the assassination is inevitable.
I quite agree that the JFK-Vietnam issue is narrow, if you define it as whether US imperialism should take the form of counterinsurgency (JFK's preference) or full-scale war. But that, for me, is not the issue at all.
The issue is whether the government is so corrupt, so powerful, and so much in control of our minds that it can murder (even) the president and keep it secret for more than a quarter of a century. It's not a matter of Kennedy as a person; his life was worth no more or less than anyone else's. I guess I'm thinking "strategically" again, but if the assassination was a coup, it is the most dramatic and powerful demonstration of the illegitimacy of the government, of the structures of the government, of the necessity for radical change that I can imagine. If anything like ideas can be the stuff of revolution, this is one, and I simply do not understand how you can deny the political significance of it. Do you believe the Warren Report, or even give it the benefit of the doubt? If you do in this case, where there is so much evidence to the contrary, how can you doubt their word about anything?
Re Prouty (haven't heard from him in a while), if he turns out to be a raving fascist I'll be more than a little embarrassed. What makes you say so? Maybe I've been overly impressed with his "insider" account, but he seems sincere. He was wrong to associate himself with Liberty Lobby, and he's no scholar, and maybe a raving conspiracist, but why "fascist"? I'm surprised that you say "serious journalists dismiss him," since we both know how much that is worth.
I think Epstein is the one who thinks the KGB did it, which is why I haven't read him. The best books I know on the assassination are Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Marrs' Crossfire, and Groden and Livingstone's High Treason. Prouty has a book coming out in the fall, but I haven't seen it.
You ask what makes me assume that JFK knew more of the truth about the war than McNamara, Taylor, Bundy, Hilsman, etc. I didn't mean to imply that. After reading Newman, I believe Taylor and Harkins, at least, knew the truth, and lied. How much JFK knew about the true military situation, and when, what game he was playing, and whose side McNamara and Bundy, etc. were on, I suppose will go unanswered.
We do not need any of these answers, though, to make a rational connection between the assassination and the withdrawal policy reversal. It cannot be proved, but it is the best theory of the assassination I have heard. If that--the desire for rational explanation--is wish-fulfillment, then it is wish-fulfillment.
I don't see what "right-wing nuts" have to do with it one way or another.
Chomsky had referred to "Philip Green in the last Nation," who had suggested that "maybe right-wing nuts thought" JFK was going to abort their war. "Sure, maybe," Chomsky wrote. "On that 'theory' anything that happens gets an explanation: it was done by right-wing nuts, who may have thought... That's desperation, not political analysis" (5/21/92).
Are you a right-wing nut if you "believe" (but cannot prove) that the CIA helped assassinate Allende, Lumumba, Trujillo, etc.?
The pro-war forces surrounding Kennedy were not "right-wing nuts," in the usual sense of the term. They were the Vice President, Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, McCone, the Joint Chiefs, etc. And, you will want to say, JFK too. But look at what we know. We know there was a withdrawal plan, and it was his plan. We cannot know if he would have carried it out, but we know that it was still his official policy on the day he was shot. What is irrational about suspecting that the pro-war forces would have assumed that he would do what he said he would do, that they feared he would do what he said he would do? Instead, we have a quasi-universal consensus that he would not have done what he said he was going to do. That is the point where the question of rationality, belief, and wish-fulfillment should be asked, in my opinion.
Kennedy was the only one of the bunch that we can say with certainty did support the withdrawal policy, because he was the one ultimately responsible for it. He is also the only one we can not say supported the policy reversal, because he was dead by the time it occurred.
Everything else is speculation. But the plain facts--the assassination and the policy reversal--suffice to support the hypothesis that Kennedy was killed in order to ensure that the withdrawal policy would be reversed and that the war, eventually worth $570 billion to the warmongers, would take place. The curious thing to me is how this not only rational but (one would think) obvious thesis has been suppressed in the mainstream. As I said last time, it strikes me as a perfect example of Orwell's problem.
I hope I've been able to hammer out some common ground, because frankly I'm surprised to find us (apparently) disagreeing on this. On the other hand, it confirms what I feel--that the assassination is the key to a lot of things, not only Vietnam. If it was just another US government-sponsored murder, I don't think we'd be talking about it at all.
With best regards,
In his reply of 7/1/92 Chomsky said he had finished about 100 pages of a manuscript (which I presume became Rethinking Camelot) attacking the "Schlesinger-Newman-Stone (etc.)" thesis that JFk "had a secret plan to withdraw." It would be hard, he said, "to find a historical thesis more utterly refuted by the evidence."
Rather than try to summarize this lengthy letter (10 pages, single-spaced), most of which is in Rethinking Camelot anyway, I will refer to it in notes to my reply.
Aug. 3, 1992
Your letter does help to clarify things, and I guess we've just about scraped bottom on this. Your position, at least, is clear, but I don't think I've made myself clear on a couple of points.
In sum, all I am saying, as far as "the record" goes, is what PP Gravel says: Johnson abandoned, i.e. reversed, the withdrawal policy by March 1964 (at the latest). You can say, as the PP also say, that policy changed because conditions and assumptions changed, but the fact remains that the policy changed, and it changed under Johnson, not Kennedy.
You say that the policy did not change, that it was "victory, then withdrawal" under both Kennedy and Johnson. I think this formulation skews the issue. This may be a question of what people call "semantics," but it is still important, since what the "facts" are always depends partly on how they are presented, and our discussion seems to be a good example of this.
What "withdrawal policy" are we talking about? I am talking about the one PP Gravel describes in 2:160-200. If you wish to say this policy did not change, you are using the term in a quite different way than the PP use it. The PP summary which I quoted, and which you say is accurate, says: "Thus ended [by March 27, 1964] de jure the policy of phase out and withdrawal and all the plans and programs oriented to it (2:196)." The first indication of this change came the day after the assassination: "The only hint that something might be different from on-going plans came in a Secretary of Defense memo for the President three days prior to this NSC meeting [on Nov. 26]." Johnson "began to have a sense of uneasiness about Vietnam" in early December and initiated a "major policy review (2:191; my emphasis)."
The PP also support your point that the withdrawal plan was conditional on military success, but I think it is more accurate to say that it was based on the assumption of success. I don't read the condition in the McNamara-Taylor recommendations as explicitly as you do.
The recommendations were:
# 2. A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time.
3. In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963. This action should be explained in low key as an initial step in a long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort (Pentagon Papers, NY: Bantam, 1971, pp. 211-212).
It is the phrase "without impairment of the war effort" in this last sentence that Chomsky insists is the "explicit condition." I am trying to make the (simple, I thought) point that saying "My plan is to paint the living room without ruining the rug" is not the same as saying "If I can do it without ruining the rug, I will paint the living room." I was astounded by Chomsky's consistent refusal to acknowledge the point, since it is quite clear from a linguistic as well as common-sense point of view.
McNamara and Taylor's recommendations were based on their conclusions, the first of which was:
# 1. The military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress. (p. 211).
There is a difference between saying "If we continue to win the war, we'll leave by 1966" vs. "The military campaign continues to make great progress. We should be able to leave by 1966." The latter is only implicitly conditional. I assume you take "without impairment of the war effort" in the third recommendation as the explicit condition, but I also see a difference between "We should be able to withdraw without impairment of the war effort" vs. "If it does not impair the war effort, we will withdraw." Under the latter formulation, the withdrawal decision has not been made, and there is no indication of what the decision will be. Under the former, which is what McNamara-Taylor say, the decision has been made, and the prediction is that the withdrawal will probably not impair the war effort.
That would be the only point I would insist on. One could argue further, though, if one wanted to stretch it, that the phrase "without impairment of the war effort" refers more to how the action "should be explained" to the public (i.e. "in low-key") than to a real condition: the public should get the impression that the war effort will not be impaired. This interpretation is not illogical, because propaganda purposes aside, how could the military (or Kennedy) really have thought that withdrawal would not impair the war effort? It would have to.
You say that there was "no policy change" and no withdrawal policy, only a "first victory, then withdrawal" policy (until Tet). But this formulation gives the word "withdrawal" such a general sense that it means virtually nothing. Everybody, in that sense, wanted to withdraw, just as everybody wanted peace. The same is true of "victory."
First of all, you use the word with much more insistence than Kennedy did. McNamara-Taylor speak repeatedly of "progress" and "success," but only in one place of "victory," where they feel immediately compelled to qualify it as "the reduction of the insurgency" (PP Gravel 2:757). Their 6th recommendation defines this further as "reducing it to proportions manageable by the national security forces of the GVN, unassisted by the presence of U.S. military forces" (2:753). Kennedy omitted this qualification in the public statement, but he does not talk about "victory" either, nor about "winning," as Johnson did in NSAM 273.
Secondly, the question of what would constitute "victory" was the crux of the problem JFK and his successors faced throughout the war. A policy of defeat, of course, for any of them, would have been unthinkable. Therefore, all their policies had to be policies of victory, or at least appear to be so. What we are discussing is whether Kennedy came to the same conclusion about what would have to constitute "victory" as Johnson did. This question will probably remain unanswered, with arguments such as yours suggesting "Yes" and others (O'Donnell, Mansfield, etc.) suggesting "No." To say that Kennedy and Johnson both wanted victory, therefore, says little.
Whether this is "semantics" or not, we end up with two opposite versions of the "facts": there was/was not a withdrawal policy; it did/did not change; Johnson did/did not change it.
Why would you object to formulating your case in this way: JFK thought we were winning, so he planned to withdraw; Johnson decided we were not winning, so he reversed the withdrawal policy. This would put the discussion on the level where it belongs--of speculation: Did JFK really think we were winning? Did he really want to withdraw? Did LBJ really want to continue the withdrawal policy? Did LBJ really change his mind about the war sometime between December 1963 and March 1964? Would JFK have changed his policy, as Johnson did? These questions can be discussed separately from the facts, plainly established in the PP, that there was a withdrawal policy, and Johnson reversed it.
What is the problem with saying that Johnson reversed the withdrawal policy because conditions changed? Your basic argument would still apply: JFK was a superhawk and would not have withdrawn without victory, and thus would have done the same thing Johnson did. But the argument, formulated in this way, is conjecture, and of course can be countered by conjecture. So what? But to insist that there was no withdrawal policy, or that if there was one it never changed, and that therefore Johnson did not reverse it, seems specious to me, frankly.
This is essentially the same problem I have with the other historians I quoted, with the significant difference that you are confronting the issue head-on. The tradition has been to avoid it. LBJ continued or expanded JFK's Vietnam policy, period. If the withdrawal plan is mentioned at all, it is glossed over. It is never stated plainly that Johnson reversed the withdrawal policy, or even that he reversed it because conditions changed. That plain truth is easily statable, and provable simply by citing the PP, but it does not happen.
True, it is happening now, and we have people like Schlesinger and Hilsman admitting it. That is Step 1, and these two even verge on Step 2, saying it is at least a "defensible premise" that JFK would have withdrawn completely. They draw the line at Step 3, calling the Garrison/Stone theory "palpable nonsense" (Hilsman) and "reckless, paranoid, really despicable fantasy, reminiscent of the wilder accusations of Joe McCarthy" (Schlesinger). Note that neither one makes the slightest attempt to justify his opinion in this regard, and that Schlesinger's hysterical reaction, implying that Stone is a fascist, is typical. This is what children do: "You're a creep!" says one kid. "You're a creep!" says the other. Stone is saying that the assassination was a fascist coup, so that makes him a fascist. This shows how hard the idea hits. "It was a fascist coup," says Stone. "What?" says Schlesinger. "And I didn't know it, still don't know it--or do you mean that I was in on it or went along with it? Why, that's despicable! Reckless! Paranoid! Why, you fascist, you!"
This is an interesting development, but not surprising. Neither JFK hagiography nor self-promotion explains it completely. Look at it through the propaganda model. If until now it has been impermissible to see the JFK-LBJ Vietnam policy as less than a perfect continuum, it's not surprising that opinions to the contrary have been few and far between. If it is now permissible, or becoming permissible, we would expect these opinions to multiply. Why would it be becoming permissible now? Because the truth will out, given time. The rush of conspiracy theories in the past few years, culminating in the Stone film, has resulted in too many people thinking impermissible thoughts. Damage control becomes necessary (a limited hang-out, as the CIA calls it). Ok, LBJ reversed the withdrawal policy, and maybe JFK wouldn't have--though this is unknowable. But a connection with the assassination? Unthinkable, or, when thought, "reckless," "paranoid," "despicable," etc.--exactly Schlesinger's reaction. Which does not mean Schlesinger is in on the conspiracy, but merely a victim of propaganda, like everyone.
How else do you explain the fact that the overwhelming majority of historians have tried so hard to avoid saying that Johnson reversed the withdrawal policy, despite the clear evidence to the contrary in the PP? (The reasons in your case, I assume, are different.) As you say, this "fact" has been known all along. But it has not been presented this way, as I tried to illustrate. I'm sure if I had the energy I could make the point convincingly.
Just one more example: the NYT PP. I don't know why the NYT PP is generally referred to as an edition of the PP when it is only a summary by NYT reporters, with some documents added. The Gravel edition has the actual text, and is significantly different. The Gravel account gives 40 pages to the history of the withdrawal policy. The NYT reporters gloss over it in a way that cannot be simply to save space. NSAM 263 is not mentioned at all, and Kennedy's authorization of the McNamara-Taylor recommendations is mentioned only in passing, and inaccurately:
# [The report] asserted that the "bulk" of American troops could be withdrawn by the end of 1965. The two men proposed and--with the President's approval--announced that 1,000 Americans would be pulled out by the end of 1963 (p. 176).
That this "announcement" was in fact a White House foreign policy statement is cleverly disguised (McNamara made the announcement, but it was Kennedy speaking through him), along with the fact that the president also approved the more important recommendation--to withdraw all troops by 1966.
Earlier, the NYT reporter quotes a PP reference to the 1,000-man pullout (again ignoring the more significant total planned withdrawal by 1966) as "strange," "absurd," and "Micawberesque" (p. 113). Then he mentions a McNamara statement that
# ...the situation deteriorated so profoundly in the final five months of the Kennedy Administration...that the entire phase-out had to be formally dropped in early 1964.
The reporter's conclusion is that the PP account "presents the picture of an unbroken chain of decision-making from the final months of the Kennedy Administration into the early months of the Johnson Administration, whether in terms of the political view of the American stakes in Vietnam, the advisory build-up or the hidden growth of covert warfare against North Vietnam" (p. 114).
Notice how different this is from the actual (Gravel) account. It implies that the change in the withdrawal ("phase-out") policy began well within Kennedy's administration; Gravel says the change began in December 1963. The "unbroken chain of decision-making" and "advisory build-up" amounts to an emphatic statement that there never was a withdrawal plan, and that those 40 pages of the PP do not exist.
I think these differences are significant, particularly since the establishment line has followed the NYT version in this regard. Still, most historians should know that the Gravel edition presents a different picture, and one would not expect this kind of unanimity, if the propaganda imperatives were not at work. The Gravel account is simply ignored in this respect, except by the "wild men," who are in this case the "conspiracy buffs," though it does not require a conspiracy theory to state the facts as the Gravel PP state them.
Let me risk an analogy. Suppose Roosevelt had accepted his advisers recommendation not to drop the bomb, and made this policy by issuing a NSAM to that effect. "The war is going well and I don't want to kill that many Japs," he supposedly thought. He is murdered. Truman immediately orders a major review of the no-bomb policy and shortly thereafter, citing unforeseen developments in the progress of the war, drops the bomb.
Of course, the analogy is weak because we are talking about Japs as the victims instead of 58,000 of our own red-blooded, but still, would you be comfortable saying Truman's decision to drop the bomb was a matter of "tactics"? Would you say there was no policy change, that Truman did not reverse Roosevelt's decision, that Roosevelt and Truman in fact had the same policy about dropping the bomb? Would you insist on saying this, as opposed to saying "Truman reversed Roosevelt's no-bomb policy because conditions changed"?
Add to this fictive scenario that Roosevelt's murder occurred under very suspicious circumstances, much of the evidence (and lack of it) pointing to the military-industrial-intelligence establishment, who badly wanted the bomb dropped for various (the usual) reasons. Would it be unreasonable to suspect a connection between the smaller crime of the murder and the larger one of the dropping of the bomb?
You say (p. 9) that "if all of the claims about JFK's alleged policies and intentions collapse, then so does the interest of the assassination." That is partially true (not collapse but probably diminish), but so is the converse: If interest in the assassination collapses, so does the interest in JFK's Vietnam policy. Likewise, as the Stone movie shows, the more interest in the assassination, the more interest in Vietnam.
In my opinion, this is why the assassination coverup has been maintained so long. People may not care too much about the murder of a president, even if it was a coup, but they still care about Vietnam. This is why it has taken a quarter of a century for people (including me) to start thinking about the possible connection, and why it is so important for the establishment to denounce the Stone movie. The idea that the conspirators not only took over the government and killed JFK and dozens of witnesses is one thing; the idea that they killed 58,000 Americans is quite another.
In any case, the issues of the assassination and Vietnam will not be separated until the assassination is clarified--which may take a while. It is not possible to separate them by clarifying the question of what JFK would have done in Vietnam, because the answer is unknowable. We are left with the fact of the policy change, which is now, thanks to the movie, entering the realm of permissible knowledge, the fact of the assassination, the many facts (and lack of them) that implicate the government, and the many as yet unknown, but knowable, facts such as how big is the hole is the back of JFK's skull, which could be ascertained simply by exhuming the body. (They dug up Zachary Taylor last year, but they are not likely to dig up JFK until he is as important to us as Zachary Taylor is, i.e. not at all.)
You say it would be a good idea for those interested in the assassination to stay away from discussions of Vietnam, and I'm sure, unfortunately, that the ruling elite could not agree with you more.
Chomsky had said: "I think it is a good idea for those who find the assassination an important issue to keep away from policy questions where there is a record that can be investigated."
But I think all voices should be heard. People can decide for themselves what is the truth, and should. If Stone, Prouty et al. get the facts wrong, it should be discussed. That's what we are doing, and if this shows anything it shows that it's not so easy. I don't mean to defend either one of these guys, but I don't think either deserves the names they have been called. Conjecture is one thing, but lying and distorting "facts" is another, and I don't see that they have done this. We are focussing in our discussion on one such "fact" presented in the film--that LBJ reversed JFK's withdrawal plan--which you deny is a fact. But the coup theory is clearly a theory, and I see nothing fraudulent, fascist, reckless, paranoid, despicable, or fantastic about it. Depressing, yes.
I am not particularly happy that I seem to share some of the ideas of people like Lyndon LaRouche, Liberty Lobby, John Judge, Fletch Prouty, Jim Garrison, Oliver Stone, etc. (not to put these in the same category). But I don't suppose that you are overjoyed, either, to be agreeing with 99% (guessing) of the establishment (and perhaps 10-20% of the population at large) that there is no reason to suspect a connection between the assassination and Vietnam, and that there is no evidence of conspiracy or political significance in the assassination.
I think it would be fair to bear in mind that since much of the left has taken the position, willy nilly, of the establishment on this issue, all the disadvantages of radical dissent are on the other side. It's even worse than usual, because here the dissenters must dissent to the dissenters (e.g., me to you) as well as to the establishment. I don't consider Newman's faculty status, Prouty's reputation among "serious researchers," or the imprimatur of the National Academy of Sciences as an indication of anything. Why should the latter be more credible than the Warren Commission--as in fact it isn't, since their well-funded findings were shown by a lone researcher (Gary Mack) to be invalid (see Jim Marrs, Crossfire). Certainly it's what people say that counts, not their rank in the system or their reputation, neither of which necessarily represents their degree of competence, honesty, or freedom from mind control.
Here's another way of looking at it. Suppose there was as much uncertainty in 1963 among certain powerful elements about what JFK would do in Vietnam as there is now about what he would have done. If the war was important enough to them, this uncertainty could have been enough to bring about the coup. This has to be taken into account too: ultimately we are dealing with the question not so much of JFK's actual intentions but of how those intentions were perceived by the (possible) coup plotters.
Going through your letter, I find that most of the points you make that I would quarrel with are covered by what I've already said. My objections would disappear if you said "Assumptions changed, therefore policy changed" instead of "Assumptions changed, but policy didn't." There is plenty of room for argument about the assumptions, but we seem to be arguing--perhaps unnecessarily--about the facts. If you can point to new evidence that Kennedy changed his assumptions about the war after Oct. 11 (or after Nov. 1 or 20 for that matter), that would support the thesis that he might have changed his withdrawal policy, but it would still be speculation, and it would not change the fact (i.e. what I consider a fact but you don't) that he did not change his policy, and Johnson did.
At one point, in apparent contradiction to much of the rest of what you say, you put it just this way (p. 8): "As assessments of the precondition changed, so did policy." That is, if you mean Johnson's assessments, and Johnson's policy. In any case, you do acknowledge here that policy did change.
You say (p. 1), that the Schlesinger-Newman-Stone thesis is that JFK "had a secret plan to withdraw." This might apply to Newman, who says JFK was pretending to agree with Harkins et al. that the war was going well so that he could withdraw, but not to Stone or Schlesinger, who merely acknowledge that JFK planned to withdraw. It was no secret. NSAM 263 was secret to the public, but not to insiders, the White House statement on Oct. 2 was not secret, and neither were the press reports at the time, as you point out.
You say (p. 3) "If JFK had had the slightest intention to withdraw..." But what does NSAM 263 express if not his intention to withdraw? You say it expresses "virtually nothing," that it "authorizes" the McNamara-Taylor recommendations, but that "there is no commitment to implementing anything." What, then, would constitute such a commitment, in your view?
Then you say JFK was "reluctant to make the commitment to withdrawal recommended by his advisers," which implies that he did make the commitment--again a contradiction.
You say (next paragraph), apparently referring to the White House statement (or to NSAM 263?), that JFK "insisted on weakening" the recommendations and "dissociating himself from any time scale." But the time scale ("end of this year" and "end of 1965") is explicitly mentioned in the both the public statement and in the recommendations authorized by NSAM 263.
You say (same paragraph) that the withdrawal plan, which JFK "weakened," "had been drawn up by the JCS." Do you mean to imply that the JCS (or McNamara or Taylor) were less hawkish than Kennedy? Do you think that they would have drawn up anything that Kennedy didn't want to have? Do you think, if it were not for JFK's more hawkish influence, that McNamara and Taylor would have produced an even stronger case for withdrawal? You say (p. 4) that the internal record does not show that JFK was "more reluctant than his advisers to move towards withdrawal," implying that everybody but Kennedy was anxious to withdraw. This is precisely opposite to all the accounts I have read, which indicate that almost all of his advisers were urging him to escalate and against withdrawal. Taylor said Kennedy was the only man reluctant to send in ground forces. The initiative for withdrawal (based on success) came from JFK, not McNamara or Taylor. I think we saw exactly what McNamara and Taylor wanted after the assassination. The only puzzling thing might be that McNamara and Taylor recommended withdrawal at all, but it is not puzzling if we consider that on Oct. 2, 1963, they were still working for Kennedy.
You say (p. 3) that NSAM 273 differs slightly from the McNamara-Taylor recommendations because by then there were different factual assumptions. These assumptions, however, and the changes in them, are not evident in the document. What is evident, and explicit, is that the withdrawal policy should continue. Whether there was a change in factual assumptions or not, there was no change in policy.
The Bundy draft complicates matters, for the very reasons you mention. The appearance of this document now is very convenient, much too convenient. After all, the CIA has known about the Scott thesis for twenty years. Now Schlesinger pops up, saying just what Scott said, that 273 constitutes a reversal of JFK's withdrawal policy. Together with the argument that Bundy wrote the draft on Nov. 21 "for Kennedy," the conclusion is that JFK reversed his own withdrawal policy the day before the assassination! Of course, this makes a fool (and/or a tool) of Schlesinger, but I doubt that he cares.
In my opinion, the Bundy draft is either a plant (inauthentic), or, if he did actually write it on Nov. 21, he wrote it for Johnson. If it was a coup, Bundy was in on it for sure.
By the way, you know who called off the air strikes at the Bay of Pigs, don't you--nine hours after Kennedy had given his official approval? Why did Bundy refer Cabell and Bissell to Rusk, who was completely outside the chain of command in this operation? Why did Cabell and Bissell then refuse to talk directly with JFK about what they knew perfectly well--as did Bundy--would ensure the failure of the invasion? They did not hesitate to talk directly with him at other points in the operation, when it was not crucial. Bundy is a very clever fellow, and the cleverest thing he did was not getting fired along with Dulles, Cabell and Bissell. The Dulles brothers, Cabell brothers (Earle was mayor of Dallas when JFK was shot, controlled the motorcade route, etc.), the Bundy brothers (McGeorge was Bissell's student at Yale)--all of them CIA all the way.
As far as I'm concerned, the Bundy draft is totally irrelevant to our discussion. Kennedy didn't see it and didn't approve it. You can take it as evidence that JFK did not change his mind about withdrawal (para. 2), that he did (para. 6), or that Johnson did, or did not. All the possibilities are open. This is how the CIA likes to have things. But I for one am not going to waste a second thinking about what Bundy might have been thinking when he supposedly wrote something that Kennedy never saw, and I certainly won't accept it as evidence for what Kennedy might have thought. This particular lying genocidal fascist scumbag is still alive, so if anybody is interested in his views they can ask him. I wouldn't bother.
As for establishing "the record," I have already conceded that 263 and 273 do not differ regarding the withdrawal policy, which you agree with. Where we disagree is, you say it never changed, or not until after Tet, and I agree with the PP that Johnson changed it between Dec. 1963 and March 1964. (And it changed again after Tet, of course.)
There seems to be no reliable documentary record of the Honolulu meeting, and as far as I know there is no indication that Kennedy knew any more about what happened there than we do, and no evidence that he changed his mind about how the war was going, before or after Honolulu, or after Oct. 11, or after Nov. 1. More to the point, there is no evidence that he changed his policy.
You say it was assumed by NSAM 273 that the GVN was solidly behind the war after the Nov. 1 coup. Johnson, Rusk, McNamara et al. had been against the coup, however, because they saw no viable alternative to Diem. What made them change their minds?
What you see as the second assumption contradicts the first. If the GVN were now ready to fight, the military situation would have been more favorable, not less. In any case, I don't see either of these assumptions in NSAM 273.
I agree with you that some of Kennedy's public statements contradict his policy. That is quite normal. I also agree that a president who wanted to get out and didn't care about losing face or maintaining the support of his own administration, the military, the ruling elite, and the conservative elements in Congress and the population at large, would have acted differently. But as you say, JFK was a political animal. He could not ignore these things. His problem was to get out under the pretext of success, if not victory. That was still possible in 1963, when only about 50 Americans had died in Vietnam.
When I said that Stone deserves credit for informing people about the withdrawal plan, I meant the general public today. Despite the press reports at the time, and despite the PP (Gravel, but not NYT), the consensus of historians has been that JFK got us into Vietnam, and Johnson got us in deeper. I'm sure that if you had taken a survey of college students before the film came out, you would have found that almost all of them thought this, but almost none of them knew about JFK's withdrawal plan--unless they had read some of the assassination literature.
If you disagree with Newman's conclusion that the top brass were lying about the war, how do you explain his numerous examples of negative reports from the field that were deliberately suppressed? This deception need not have been as elaborate as you say, or elaborate at all. All you need are a few key people to keep the screws on, and I can't think of any organization where this should be easier than in the military or (especially) the CIA. If a lot of people were optimistic, it doesn't mean they all knew the truth, or were in a position to know the truth, or had any reason (or the guts) to doubt what their superiors and colleagues were saying. It's easy to spread lies from the top. Look at the Warren Commission. For every "authority" who lies, there can be thousands or millions who assume it is the gospel truth. This applies to Vietnam as well as to the assassination. The "huge edifice of deception," as you call it, does not mean everybody is lying, just that everybody is deceived. Even within the Warren Commission, most members may have been merely deceived, with just a few (Dulles, Ford, Warren) the deceivers. Accepting, believing and repeating lies doesn't make people liars.
My point about "stupidity" was not that this explains anything: just the contrary. This is what the public is often left with as an "explanation," though of course it is expressed differently. Glaspie was not "stupid," she made an "unfortunate mistake." Vietnam was an "unfortunate mistake." That, in plain language, means stupidity. I don't know what the Arab leaders knew about Saddam's plans, but with 200,000 Iraqi soldiers poised to invade Kuwait, for Glaspie to say the US doesn't care about Arab border disputes was stupid--assuming the US (and I'm sure Glaspie was saying exactly what Washington told her to say) did not want Saddam to invade. I believe Bush wanted exactly that. Saddam was sandbagged.
When I said I knew that Vietnam was a "mistake" in 1963-64, I meant I felt then the way most people do now. This is, again, what we are asked to believe: that bright guys like Bundy make mistakes. But as I said, what always bothered me was that I never believed I was smarter than somebody like Bundy. The result was extended puzzlement.
I don't feel that way now. Of course Vietnam was not a mistake. Of course Bundy wasn't stupid. They accomplished exactly what you say--and don't forget the $570 billion for the warmongers, the domestic economic stimulus, the war as a distraction from the civil rights movement, and (to get real nasty) the reduction of the Third World population at home and in Southeast Asia.
No, planners are not stupid. What I meant was, the establishment's historical explanations, i.e. propaganda, lead us to that conclusion, if we are willing to call things by their right name. This is a dead end, a conundrum, unless we go one further step and realize that they are not only not stupid, they are not on our side. As long as we are prisoners of the propaganda that the government is on our side, i.e. "well-intentioned," we must accept that they do stupid things (if we do any thinking at all), though we know they are not stupid. Once disabused of this, what we have been forced to view as mistakes and stupidity, i.e. the established version of history, appears quite differently.
What I meant about the propaganda model was simply that it makes sense, and is a good theory, even though it can't be proved. I said that because you compared the Garrison/Stone theory to a theory that Hinkley shot Reagan because he thought Reagan was a closet Leninist. You said they could be said to be equally good theories because neither can be disproved. But a theory is not good because it cannot be disproved, e.g. the propaganda model/theory. Furthermore, if a good theory is one that provides the best explanation for the most facts (and lack of facts, including evidence withheld, destroyed and manipulated), then the coup theory of the assassination is a good one.
You say there isn't a shred of evidence for this theory, that it is remote from the factual record and would have required phenomenal discipline of thousands of people. I think just the opposite is true on all points. We needn't get into the morass of details on the assassination; there are plenty of books on that. But I see no place where it deviates from the "factual record," inasmuch as there is one, including the fact we are discussing here: that Johnson reversed the withdrawal policy. I don't think thousands of people were actively involved in the murder--maybe a couple of dozen. The propaganda model takes care of the rest. Take the people present at the autopsy, for example--although they have not all been identified. Nearly all of them, even Humes at one point--have described wounds quite different from those shown in the official photos and X-rays, at least the ones that have been published. This means the latter are fakes, as many of the medical personnel have unequivocally said. Who could have done that? Not most of the people present at the autopsy. And so it goes. It doesn't take many people to manipulate others, just the right ones. Fear, intimidation, propaganda, false sense of duty, ideological blindness, etc. do the rest. Everything you say about the propaganda model applies here. Nevertheless, over the years, people have come forward, and much evidence has come out.
Aren't you applying a much more restrictive standard for evidence in this case than in others? The Church committee turned up no evidence that the CIA had ever assassinated anyone or been involved in any assassination plots other than the one to kill Castro, but does this mean there was no evidence? Is there more evidence for US government involvement in the assassinations of Diem, Lumumba, Trujillo, Allende, etc. than in the case of Kennedy? On the larger scale, what evidence is there that US foreign policy is guided by economic and not humanitarian interests? What evidence is there that the US was not fighting for the freedom of the South Vietnamese, or the freedom of the Kuwaitis?
In all of these cases, arguments are based on "evidence," but what makes this evidence so much better than the evidence in the JFK assassination that theories in one case are considered tenable and in the other untenable? Suppose the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there is no evidence that the US is an imperialistic country or that Washington is the terrorist capital of the world, as you have written.
Chomsky had offered me the following example of conspiracy craziness:
# Thus when the National Academy of Sciences refutes by careful experiment the one reason offered by the House Committee to question the Warren Report, we can simply conclude that the scientists are in on the conspiracy. Anyone who knows them personally knows that this is laughable...
I was surprised by the intensity of his faith in the integrity of Academy scientists.
Would that settle the matter and relegate all such claims to the realm of pure speculation? You say in reference to the JFK/coup theory that "all counterevidence can be eliminated simply by appeal to the assumption"--I guess meaning the assumption that the theory is correct. Isn't this how all theories are investigated and tested? How do you investigate and test the theory (or assumption) that the Vietnam War was a war of aggression by the US against the South Vietnamese people for global strategic and economic reasons? Do you not eliminate the counterevidence by appeal to the assumption? Do you really think there is more evidence for this than for the theory that the assassination was a conspiracy, or for the coup theory?
Of course I would like to have what you've written on the withdrawal thesis, if you care to send it. In the end I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. No harm done. I understand your position, but frankly I find it inconsistent with your thinking on other subjects. I can understand the need to excise the Camelot blubber and debunk the "JFK-as-dove" mythology, but the withdrawal plan doesn't make JFK a dove any more than Reagan's withdrawal from Lebanon makes Reagan a dove. One could argue that no president, by definition, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, can be a dove. However, "the man who escalated international terrorism to outright aggression" (p. 1), i.e. counterinsurgency to war (commitment of US combat troops), in Vietnam was not Kennedy; it was Johnson.
I admit that my interest in the withdrawal policy reversal follows from my interest in the assassination. I don't care about Kennedy's historical image and have no illusions about the sublimity of leaders. But I did not mean to suggest that "assassination theorists should separate themselves from consideration of JFK's secret plans" (p. 9).
Chomsky had told me he thought it was "a good idea for those who find the assassination an important issue to keep away from policy questions where there is a record that can be investigated."
Why should they? Assassination theorists need not be Camelot enthusiasts (though many are, regrettably), and they need not be concerned with secret plans, since the withdrawal plan was not secret.
Your position on the assassination(s) puzzles me. I agree that the assassinations of Hampton and King are politically significant, but why is that of King only "possibly so" and that of the Kennedys not at all? The two great popular movements of the sixties, civil rights and antiwar, were historically intertwined, and in terms of their political impact remained a combined threat to the establishment beyond their ideological split. The largest common denominator was the war. King was killed not long after he (finally) came out against it, RFK likewise. It's not difficult to imagine the enormity of the threat posed to the ruling elite by MLK, with blacks and the poor behind him, and RFK, with the white middle-class antiwar movement rallying behind him (after McCarthy chickened out), both at the height of their popularity in the summer of 68.
One may say that the "Wise Men" had already decided to start winding down the war by then, but it wasn't just the war that was at stake. I don't want to get into another discussion over whether RFK would have ended the war any quicker than Nixon did (!), but from my recollection of the temper of the times, and confirmed by everything I've read, if I had been one of the 1% running the country at that time I would have been scared to death. Scared that the war would end too soon and too abruptly, scared that the truth about it (that it never should have occurred) would come out too fast, scared that the truth about the JFK assassination would come out, scared that too many people might get the idea they really can change the government if they get together, scared that that pushy bleeding-heart knee-jerk liberal phony little Kennedy brother might give that Commie bimbo King the idea that niggers are people too, etc.--in short, that all hell would break loose. I know that the record shows that Johnson did much more for blacks than either Kennedy did, but that is not the way they were perceived. Nobody doubted that Johnson was a racist; there was some doubt (justified or not), even among many blacks, about the Kennedys. For keeping blacks in place, i.e. running in place behind the carrots that new legislation offered them, Johnson was a safer bet than the Kennedys, and I'm sure this was the consensus not only among Texas oilmen.
To demonstrate or even claim the political significance of any of the assassinations, one has to get into conspiracy theory. It has become clear to me that the left traditionally eschews conspiracy theories, and it is true that fascists have abused such theories in the past (and continue to do so). So what? I am not going to eschew Marxist arguments because Erich Honecker uses them (or used them). The claim that there is an ideological difference between "institutional" and "conspiracy" theories (re. Michael Albert's recent Z Magazine article) is not only wrong, but counterproductive. They can and should be part of the same analysis.
On the question of "evidence," it should be obvious that if we are content to wait for the government to indict itself, and in the case of JFK to declare itself illegitimate, which is exactly what we expect if we depend on investigations like the Warren Commission and the House committee, we'll wait forever--just as long as we'll have to wait for some president to declare Washington the terrorist capital of the world. Nor can we wait for the truth to be revealed in a court of law (but see Mark Lane's Plausible Denial), by a congressional committee, or by the National Academy of Sciences. When the politics becomes important enough, there is no science, only scientists, no matter how respectable they may be. The Magic Bullet theory is proof enough of that.
This doesn't mean the "evidence doesn't mean a lot" (p. 9), or that it doesn't exist. It is massive.
Chomsky had said that assassination conspiracy theorists are "in a realm where evidence doesn't mean a lot," because they can eliminate all counterevidence "simply by appeal to the assumption," that is, by assuming the counterevidence is part of the conspiracy.
I don't see how anyone can read much of the assassination literature and come to the conclusion that there is no evidence of conspiracy and no evidence of government complicity, which seems to be your position. Obviously, if you believe that, there is no reason to be interested in the question (p. 10) if the government is so corrupt (and the population, particularly the journalistic and academic elite, so propagandized) that it can murder the president (and Fred Hampton, MLK, RFK, etc.) and keep it secret for decades.
Note, however, that what the government and the mainstream media may keep as an official secret need not always be, and in this case is not, a secret to the majority of the population. Opinion polls have consistently shown that in contradistinction to the journalistic and academic elite, most Americans believe the JFK assassination (and probably the RFK and MLK assassinations, though I have seen any figures on these) was a conspiracy. According to a Time/CNN poll before the Stone film, half the population thinks the military or the CIA might have been involved. Compare this with the press coverage of the film. It is the best example I can cite of the gulf between common sense and manufactured elite consent--a point you have made on other issues many times.
By now I think it's clear that the Stone movie will have no lasting effect or political impact, whether one approves of it or not. I would like to see people on the streets demanding answers, but instead of that we see Ford and Nixon "demanding" the release of the classified files, which of course will reveal nothing except perhaps further disinformation to cloud the trail and keep the "buffs" busy. I suppose it will take a catastrophe at least equal to Vietnam to reach the critical mass of 1968 again, and our job is to prepare ourselves and others for that.
Not a very encouraging note to end on, but all I see is apathy, people waiting for the fire to reach their butts. I guess there's nothing new about that.
I'm glad my letters have been helpful to you. Yours have been a big help to me too, and I am very grateful and flattered that you have taken the time and effort to write them.
With best regards,
But I found that agreeing to disagree was not that easy, especially after I read Chomsky's article in Z magazine in October. I decided to write a letter to the editor, and send Chomsky a copy. Z didn't publish it, but it later appeared in slightly different form in The Third Decade ("Chomsky on JFK and Vietnam," 9.6:8-10, 1993; see Appendix). This was the article that caught Vince Salandria's attention and led to my joining his correspondence group.
25 Dec. 1992
This may seem a strange thing to be doing on Christmas day, but I sent the enclosed letter off to Z yesterday, and we are driving to Prague tomorrow for a few days' change of scenery, so I figured I might as well get this off today.
I don't think they'll print the letter since it's a bit late--I didn't get the copy of your article until a few days ago, sent by a former student who subscribes to Z--and probably too long. Of course I had the manuscript copy you sent me, but I didn't know where it would appear.
On re-reading I see that I've made at least one mistake. You do of course mention the PP account, but not the parts I quote, which I think are the point. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, it's a fair reading of what you say and of the points I made back in August. I realize that it's strong, but I feel strongly about the issue. In my last letter I said we'd have to agree to disagree, but I am finding that difficult. If it were anybody else but you--and I mean anybody--it wouldn't bother me so much. As it is, I can't help feeling that one of us is very wrong on a crucial issue, and that does stick in the gut.
Chomsky responded (1/7/93) that my letter to Z made it "even clearer that we've left the bounds of rational discussion." That he was not pleased was clear. "I'll omit the sneering rhetoric," he said. This was presumably in reference to my article ("Chomsky on JFK and Vietnam"). "That's your problem," he added, "not mine."
My "effort to distinguish 'assumption of military success' from 'condition for withdrawal," he said, was "entirely without merit. If plans are made on the assumption of success, and the assumption proves wrong, it is logical to expect the plans to change. "The case that maybe they would have been carried out anyway, even with the explicit assumption on which they were based withdrawn, is too outlandish to merit consideration." I was "now really grasping at straws," which was not surprising, given the "overwhelming evidence" against my position. "NSAM 263, like the rest of the documentary record, is explicit about the condition of victory."
The "M-thesis" (mine)--that the withdrawal plan was based on the assumption of military success--is "uncontroversially true, and completely--totally--without interest." The "C-thesis"--that JFK planned to withdraw without victory--has been "refuted across the board and without exception." Kennedy was committed to "victory" in Vietnam, went along with the withdrawal plan only "reluctantly" and "on the explicit presumption of victory."
Chomsky should have called the "C-thesis" the "N-thesis," since he meant Newman's thesis, but the confusion is understandable considering that it is really Chomsky's thesis too in the sense that this is the one he is determined to refute.
"On this," Chomsky said, "we seem to agree, except that (for reasons that are unclear) you think the M-thesis is important. It is not." Everyone, including the hawks, was "looking forward to withdrawal by the end of '65 on the presumption of victory." JFK too. I had failed to why these "uncontroversial matters" were of any interest at all.
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