December 2003/January 2004
Chomsky and Galbraith on Vietnam
To the Editors:
Having worked through the relevant
documentation that James Galbraith cites, I was curious to see how
he could reach his conclusions in his article Exit Strategy
(October/November 2003), at variance with the mainstream of scholarship
and other commentary, as he notes. The basic method turns out to
be simple: deletion.
As for others, the centerpiece of Galbraiths
discussion of the withdrawal plans is NSAM 263, in which JFK gave
qualified approval to the recommendations of Robert McNamara and
Maxwell Taylor, who were greatly encouraged by the military prospects
in South Vietnam and were convinced that the Viet Cong insurgency
could be sharply reduced in a year and that the U.S.run war
effort should be completed by the end of 1965. They
therefore advised An increase in the military tempo
of the war throughout South Vietnam and withdrawal of some troops
in 1963 and all troops in 1965if this could be done without
impairment of the war effort and with assurance that the
insurgency has been suppressed or at least sufficiently
weakened so that the U.S. client regime (GVN) is capable
of suppressing it (my italics; the crucial condition throughout).
Once again they stressed that the overriding objective
is victory, a matter vital to United States security.
JFK approved their recommendations, while distancing himself from
the withdrawal proposal and approving instructions to Ambassador
Lodge in Saigon stressing our fundamental objective of victory
and directing him to press for GVN action to increase effectiveness
of its military effort so as to ensure the military victory
on which withdrawal was explicitly conditioned. The president, Lodge
was informed, affirmed his basic statement that what furthers
the war effort we support, and what interferes with the war effort
we oppose, the condition underlying NSAM 263, as consistently
throughout the period and beyond.
JFK and his advisers were concerned
with the crisis of confidence among Vietnamese people which
is eroding popular support for GVN that is vital for victory,
and the crisis of confidence on the part of the American public
and Government, who also do not see how our actions
are related to our fundamental objective of victoryJFKs
invariant condition. JFK (and his advisers) recognized that the
war was unpopular at home, but regarded such lack of supportas
well as GVN initiatives toward political settlementnot as
an opportunity for withdrawal, but rather as a problem to be overcome,
because it posed a threat to the military victory to which they
were committed. The significance of these facts for the thesis under
discussion is obvious.
Virtually all of this was deleted from
Galbraiths account of NSAM 263, and the tidbits that remain
he clearly misinterprets. Thus he does quote the qualification that
troops can be withdrawn only when they are no longer needed,
but fails to recognize that this is simply another reiteration of
the unwavering commitment to military victory.
By this method, Galbraith is able to
draw the conclusions rejected by virtually everyone he cites, who
use the same documentary record (in all relevant cases) but without
crucial omissions and misreadings. His treatment of his own prime
example is typical, as interested readers can readily discover.
Galbraith also deletes much else of
crucial significance, including: the shifting plans of Kennedy and
his advisers that are closely correlated with changing perceptions
of the military situation, clearly a critically important matter;
the absence of any record by the memoirists of any thought about
withdrawing without victory, e.g., in Arthur Schlesingers
virtual day-by-day account; the fact that JFKs most dovish
advisers (George Ball, Mike Mansfield, etc.) reiterated their firm
commitment to victory after the assassination, and in the months
that followed praised LBJ for carrying forward JFKs policies
with wise caution (Ball), urging that LBJs policy
toward Vietnam was the only one we could follow and strongly
opposing the withdrawal option and diplomatic moves advocated by
Wayne Morse (Mansfield), as did Robert Kennedy, who, as late as
May 1965, condemned withdrawal as a repudiation of commitments
undertaken and confirmed by three administrations; and a great
deal more of very considerable relevance to his thesis.
There is no need to review
these matters, which are covered in detail in literature that Galbraith
claims to refute, including my Rethinking Camelot, which also documents
the revisions of the record that were introduced after the war became
unpopular, the basic reason why such material (including much on
which Galbraith uncritically relies) is unreliable for any historian.
Galbraith claims further that this book was immediately refuted
by Peter Dale Scott, but here there is another rather significant
omission. Galbraith fails to point out that his claim is logically
impossible: Scott does not even mention the book in the epilogue
to which Galbraith refers, and was plainly unaware of its existence.
Scott did mention an article of mine, which he apparently read so
hurriedly that he seriously misunderstood its topic and was unaware
of the documentation on which it was based, crucially, thousands
of pages of recently released documents which, though I did not
specifically refer to it, undermined Scotts speculations to
which Galbraith refers, published 20 years earlier in a collection
of essays on the Pentagon Papers that I edited. Galbraith, like
Scott, believes that I was relying on the Pentagon Papers; a look
at the opening paragraphs suffices to correct this quite crucial
error. But Scotts departure from his usually careful work
is irrelevant here, so there is no need to pursue it.
Rather surprisingly, Galbraith
relies heavily on John Newmans deeply flawed account, which
establishes its conclusions by elaborate tales of deception
of JFK by those around him, though in his heart [JFK] must
have known the truth so we can ignore the documentary record
which leaves no trace of what JFK, alone, had to notice.
This strange performance too is reviewed elsewhere in detail, and
need not be discussed here.
No oneeven JFK himselfcould
have known how he would react to the radically changed assessments
of the military/political situation immediately after his assassination.
It is conceivable that he might, for the first time, have made decisions
counter to those of his closest associates and advisers and chosen
to withdraw (or perhaps to escalate more sharply). There is, however,
no hint in the record that he contemplated withdrawal without victory,
as we discover when we fill in the crucial blanks in Galbraiths
account, as is done in the extensive literature to which he refers,
while evading its evidentiary base, and adding nothing of particular
Kennedy-Johnson State Department
official Lincoln Gordon, later president of Johns Hopkins University,
once warned against Camelot myth-makingan observation
that merits some reflection.
James K. Galbraith Replies
Confusion over these matters could
be reduced by a little more care in specifying what is and what
is not at issue.
In October 1963 there
were 17,000 U.S. military advisers in Vietnam. They
were doing some fighting, and taking some losses, but in the main
their mission was to train and assist the South Vietnamese army,
which was more than 10 times larger. They faced an insurgency involving
as yet few North Vietnamese forces. U.S. withdrawal at that time
would not have meant the early collapse of South Vietnam. It would
not have ended the warexcept from the point of view of direct
involvement of U.S. soldiers.
It is therefore reasonable
that, into the early fall of 1963 when official military forecasts
were still fairly optimistic, the administration should simultaneously
plan to intensify the war effort and plan for withdrawal
of our soldiers. Three key facts that have since emerged are these.
First, the official optimism was disbelieved at the very top of
the Kennedy administration, notably by McNamara. Second, Kennedy
set a course for a decision to withdraw, from which he was not deterred
by what then became a deteriorating official military prospect.
This explains Kennedys concern, evident on the tapes, that
the withdrawal be implemented in low key and not be tied to the
perception of military progress. Third, the decision to withdraw
was taken and then carefully, but not altogether completely, edited
out of the record available to historians until the late 1990s.
I believe that the work
of Peter Dale Scott, John Newman, and most recently Howard Jones
will stand, when the dust settles, as the path toward truth in this
matter. My article mainly provides a synthesis of their work. Readers
who want to check Noam Chomskys claim that other historians
use the same documentary record to reach opposite results
can look for themselves at the materials cited. It isnt so.
Let me add that I am
disturbed by the suggestion about Camelot myth-making.
An antiwar activist in my early life, I only became involved in
this matter at the time of the Newman-Chomsky-Scott debates in 1993.
My impression of Newman (a career military officer at the time)
and of Scott (with whom I have only corresponded) is that neither
can fairly be accused of Kennedy worship. Kennedys October
1963 decision to withdraw happened. But Kennedy was nevertheless
prepared to leave U.S. soldiers in harms way for two more
years, mainly (I believe) to reduce the political consequences of
pulling them out before the 1964 election. This should have, as
my essay states, an ambiguous effect on his reputation.
In 1993 Chomsky clearly
laid out key questions that had to be answered. Having said that,
answers are available now that were not available then. Chomsky
is mistaken when he denies this. Readers may safely treat his
latest intervention as being what it appears to be: hasty, heated,
Originally published in the December
2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review