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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 Galbraith’s 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 1965—if 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 victory”—JFK’s invariant condition. JFK (and his advisers) recognized that the war was unpopular at home, but regarded such lack of support—as well as GVN initiatives toward political settlement—not 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 Galbraith’s 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 Schlesinger’s virtual day-by-day account; the fact that JFK’s 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 JFK’s policies with “wise caution” (Ball), urging that LBJ’s “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 Scott’s 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 Scott’s departure from his usually careful work is irrelevant here, so there is no need to pursue it.

Rather surprisingly, Galbraith relies heavily on John Newman’s 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 one—even JFK himself—could 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 Galbraith’s account, as is done in the extensive literature to which he refers, while evading its evidentiary base, and adding nothing of particular relevance.

Kennedy-Johnson State Department official Lincoln Gordon, later president of Johns Hopkins University, once warned against “Camelot myth-making”—an observation that merits some reflection.

—Noam Chomsky


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 war—except 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 Kennedy’s 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 Chomsky’s claim that other historians “use the same documentary record” to reach opposite results can look for themselves at the materials cited. It isn’t 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. Kennedy’s October 1963 decision to withdraw happened. But Kennedy was nevertheless prepared to leave U.S. soldiers in harm’s 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, and insubstantial.

Originally published in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review

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