Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture

Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture

by Noam Chomsky


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ISBN-13: 9780896084582
Publisher: South End Press
Publication date: 07/01/1999
Pages: 172
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. A member of the American Academy of Science, he has published widely in both linguistics and current affairs. His books include At War with Asia, Towards a New Cold War, Fateful Triangle: The U. S., Israel and the Palestinians, Necessary Illusions, Hegemony or Survival, Deterring Democracy, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

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From Terror to Aggression

1. The Doctrinal Framework

To understand Kennedy's war and the aftermath it is necessary to attend to the thinking that lay behind the policy choices. Kennedy planners adopted doctrines already established. Too much independence ("radical nationalism") is not acceptable; the "rotten apple" effect of possible success enhances the need to eliminate the "infection" before it spreads. The Indochina wars are only a special case, which happened to get out of hand. In this general context, independent nationalism was unthinkable, and was never seriously entertained as an option.

By 1948 Washington planners recognized that the nationalist movement was led by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Ho was eager to cooperate with the United States, but not on the required terms of subordination. Furthermore, top policymakers feared, Vietnamese independence might fan "anti-Western Pan-Asiatic tendencies in the region," undermining the "close association between newly-autonomous peoples and powers which have been long responsible [for] their welfare"; in Indochina, the responsible authority was France, whose tender care had left the countries devastated and starving. Chinese influence, in contrast, must be excluded "so that the peoples of Indochina will not be hampered in their natural developments by the pressure of an alien people and alien interests"; unlike the US and France.

The US right to restore the "close association" is axiomatic.

It follows that any problems that arise can be attributed to illegitimate nationalist aspirations. On these assumptions, the CIA warned in September 1948 that "The gravest danger to the US is that friction engendered by [anticolonialism and economic nationalism] may drive the so-called colonial bloc into alignment with the USSR": Third World nationalism is the cause of the "friction," not imperial concerns. The traditional "colonial economic interests" of the industrial countries must prevail if "friction" interferes with US global plans. Southeast Asia would have to remain under "its traditional subordination," Melvyn Leffler observes, reviewing a broad scholarly consensus.

The major concern was Japan, the "superdomino" (John Dower). Internally, the old order had to be restored and Japan protected from what the State Department called the "concealed aggression" of the Russians, referring to internal political developments that might threaten business rule. And Japan had to be deterred from independent foreign and economic policies, from "the suicide of neutralism" (General Omar Bradley) and accommodation to China. The only hope for achieving these goals, George Kennan argued, lay in restoring for Japan "some sort of Empire toward the South." In effect, the US must provide Japan with its wartime "co-prosperity sphere," now safely within the US-dominated world system, with no fear that US business interests would be denied their proper place.

The guiding concerns are articulated in the public record as well. Outlining the "falling dominoes" theory in a news conference on April 7, 1954, President Eisenhower warned that Japan would have to tum "toward the Communist areas in order to live" if Communist success in Indochina "takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area." The consequences would be "just incalculable to the free world." Walter LaFeber observed in 1968 that "This thesis became a controlling assumption: the loss of Vietnam would mean the economic undermining and probable loss of Japan to Communist markets and ultimately to Communist influence if not control." Eisenhower's public statements expressed the conclusion of NSC 5405 (January 16) that "the loss of Southeast Asia, especially of Malaya and Indonesia, could result in such economic and political pressures in Japan as to make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan's eventual accommodation to communism." Communist domination of Southeast Asia "by whatever means" would "critically endanger" US "security interests," understood in the usual sense. The "loss of Vietnam" would therefore be of great significance; that it is ours to "lose" is again axiomatic.

Given such doctrines, it is clear why the diplomatic settlement at the 1954 Geneva conference was regarded as a disaster. Washington reacted vigorously. A few days after the accords were signed, the National Security Council decreed that even in the case of "local Communist subversion or rebellion not constituting armed attack," the US would consider the use of military force, including an attack on China if it is "determined to be the source" of the "subversion" (NSC 5429/2; my emphasis).

This wording, repeated verbatim annually through the 1950s in planning documents, was chosen so as to make explicit the US right to violate the basic principles of the UN Charter, which bar any threat or use of force except in resistance to "armed attack" (until the UN Security Council acts). The same document called for remilitarizing Japan, converting Thailand into "the focal point of U.S. covert and psychological operations in Southeast Asia," undertaking "covert operations on a large and effective scale" throughout Indochina, and in every possible way undermining the Geneva accords.

This critically important document is grossly falsified by the Pentagon Papers historians, and has largely disappeared from history.

Recall that "subversion," like "concealed aggression," is a technical concept covering any form of unwelcome internal political development. Thus the Joint Chiefs, in 1955, outline "three basic forms of aggression": armed attack across a border (aggression in the literal sense); "Overt armed attack from within the area of each of the sovereign states"; "Aggression other than armed, i.e., political warfare, or subversion." An internal uprising against a US-imposed police state, or elections that come out the wrong way, are forms of "aggression," which the US has the right to combat by arbitrary violence. The assumptions are so ingrained as to pass without notice, as when liberal hero Adlai Stevenson, UN Ambassador under Kennedy and Johnson, declared that in Vietnam the US is defending a free people from "internal aggression." Stevenson compared this noble cause to the first major postwar counterinsurgency campaign, in Greece in 1947, where US-run operations successfully demolished the anti-Nazi resistance and the political system and restored the old order, including leading Nazi collaborators, at the cost of some 160,000 lives and tens of thousands of victims of torture chambers, and a legacy of destruction yet to be overcome (along with great benefits to US corporations). Similar premises are adopted routinely by apologists for state violence; thus Sidney Hook condemned the "incursions" of the indigenous South Vietnamese resistance, praising the US for using armed might to counter these crimes despite the "unfortunate accidental loss of life" in such exercises as saturation bombing by B-52s in the densely-populated Delta.

The character of the intellectual culture is indicated by the reaction to such thoughts.

In accordance with the plans laid out in NSC 5429/2, Washington moved at once to subvert the Geneva settlement, installing a client regime in the South: the GVN (RVN), which regarded itself throughout as the legitimate government of all Vietnam. With US backing and guidance, the GVN launched a massive terrorist attack against the domestic population and barred the planned 1956 elections on unification, which were the condition under which the resistance had accepted the Geneva accords. The subversion was recognized to be successful: as Kennedy's chief war manager Robert McNamara observed while once again rejecting diplomatic options in March 1964, "Only the U.S. presence after 1954 held the South together under far more favorable circumstances, and enabled Diem to refuse to go through with the 1954 provision calling for nationwide 'free' elections in 1956."

The facts are described with fair accuracy by US military intelligence. A 1964 study observes that after the Geneva agreements of 1954 that "partitioned" Vietnam, the DRV (North Vietnam) relocated 100,000 people to the North, including 40,000 military personnel, leaving behind "Several thousand political agitators and activists" and some military forces "with orders to remain dormant." "In 1956, the US-backed president of the RVN — Ngo Dinh Diem — blocked the referendum called for by the Geneva Agreements which was to decide the form of government that would rule over a reunited Vietnam. The Communists, who saw their hopes for a legal takeover of the whole country vanish by this maneuver, ordered their dormant 'stay behinds' to commence propaganda activities to put pressure on the new and inexperienced government of the RVN," perhaps hoping "to overthrow the government without having to resort to military activity." By 1957, they "instituted a program of proselytizing RVN armed forces officers and men to the VC cause," also following "the standard Communist tactic of infiltrating and subverting legal political parties." In 1958-1959, "having achieved a degree of popular support in the rural areas through pressure, argument, terror and subversion," the VC began to organize guerrilla groups among the local populace, later supported by southerners returning from the North (all military infiltrators being "veterans of the French Indo-China War who had served in the area now governed by the RVN" through 1963, this MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] Intelligence Infiltration Study reports).

It is only necessary to add a few minor corrections. The Geneva agreements did not "partition" Vietnam but separated two military zones by a temporary demarcation line that "should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary," pending the unification elections of 1956 that were the heart of the accords. Intelligence is adopting "the standard US tactic" of denouncing political action that is out of control as subversion. The US client regime was carrying out wholesale terror to block such "subversion" and destroy the anti-French resistance, finally compelling the latter to resort to violence in self-defense. JFK raised the level of the US attack from international terrorism to outright aggression in 1961-1962. Apart from Americans, the only non-South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam were US mercenaries, primarily South Korean and Chinese. That aside, US intelligence has the story more or less straight.

Well after regular US bombing of North Vietnam began in February 1965, North Vietnamese units were detected in border areas or across the border, though Korean mercenaries alone far outnumbered North Vietnamese as of March 1966 and matched their numbers until the Tet Offensive (also, incidentally, providing 20 percent of South Korea's foreign currency revenue and thus helping to spark the later economic miracle). There were also Chinese forces, namely mercenaries from Chiang Kai-Shek's army introduced by Kennedy and Johnson, six companies of combat infantry by April 1965. North Vietnamese regular units, estimated by the Pentagon at about 50,000 by 1968, were largely in peripheral areas; US mercenary forces, in contrast, were rampaging in the heartland, as was the US military itself. Korean mercenaries, who were particularly brutal, reached 50,000 by 1969, along with another 20,000 "Free World" and over a half-million US troops.

Washington's principled opposition to political settlement continued without change. From the early 1960s, there was intense concern over French President Charles de Gaulle's proposals for neutralization, as well as initiatives towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict by Vietnamese on all sides, including the Diem regime and the Generals who replaced it. A political settlement might have extended as far as neutralization of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam, as advocated by the National Liberation Front (the "Viet Cong" of US propaganda). As discussed above, the US was adamantly opposed to any such possibility. Fear of neutralization was one factor in the Kennedy-inspired coup that overthrew Diem, and considerable pressures were exerted to bring de Gaulle to retract his initiatives, which appeared still more threatening in the context of Kennedy's concerns about his role in promoting the "suicide of neutralism" in Europe.

France's position on Vietnam was explained by Foreign Minister Couve de Murville, in response to a request (April 1964) to clarify what France meant by the term "neutrality." Couve's reply was: "Quite simply, the Geneva Agreements of 1954," which he interpreted as meaning "the division of Viet-Nam with a commitment by both sides not to accept military aid from outside (sic) and not to enter into military alliances — which is really neutrality." "The South Vietnamese people are out of the game," Couve added. "All you have is a professional army supported from outside."

The Kennedy and Johnson Administrations knew very well that the generals are "all we have got" and that "We are at present overwhelmingly outclassed politically" (Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, January 1964). That is precisely why Washington always regarded diplomacy as anathema: lacking political support, the US could put forth no credible negotiating position. So the story continues right through to the end.

The basic reasoning about diplomacy is stated clearly in the internal record. As the US position was collapsing in 1964 and calls were mounting for an attack against the North, William Bundy wrote that diplomacy could be considered "After, but only after, we have established a clear pattern of pressure hurting the DRV and leaving no doubts in South Vietnam of our resolve" (his emphasis). First force, then diplomacy — a last resort, if we are sure that we are powerful enough to win.

For similar reasons, opposition to negotiations and diplomacy has been a characteristic US policy stance in Latin America and the Middle East, and remains so, as documented in extensive detail elsewhere. Commentators assume as a matter of course that diplomacy is a threat to be avoided. The principle is considered uncontroversial, a truism, perhaps even more so than in the past. In January 1993, when the West alleged that Iraq was moving missiles within its territory contrary to US wishes (but in accord with UN resolutions), the United States demanded that they be removed. In response, Iraq called for negotiations on all disputed issues, "An exchange that recalls the maneuvering before the gulf war," the New York Times reported, highlighting these words. "The ultimatum and Iraq's reply today recalled the maneuvering before the Persian Gulf War, in which the allies set a firm deadline for Iraqi compliance while Baghdad sought unsuccessfully to fend off military action with diplomatic tactics," the front-page story reported. Pursuit of peaceful means as required by international law and the UN Charter is a crime that Washington must resolutely resist, keeping to the weapon of violence, in which it reigns supreme; that is unquestioned dogma.

It is natural that those who are militarily strong but politically weak will prefer the arena of violence. Apparent exceptions typically reflect the failure of force or perceived advantage. The solemn obligation to pursue peaceful means is notable by its absence in affairs of state. It is part of the responsibility of the cultural managers in every society to cloak such facts in pieties about the high ideals and nobility of leaders, and to reshape the facts for public consumption.

States are not moral agents; those who attribute to them ideals and principles merely mislead themselves and others.

Public rhetoric reflecting the guiding policy doctrines sometimes rose to near-hysteria. In June 1956, Senator John F. Kennedy stated that:

Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the Keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and, obviously, Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam ... Moreover, the independence of Free Vietnam is crucial to the free world in fields other than the military. Her economy is essential to the economy of all of Southeast Asia; and her political liberty is an inspiration to those seeking to obtain or maintain their liberty in all parts of Asia — and indeed the world. The fundamental tenets of this nation's foreign policy, in short, depend in considerable measure upon a strong and free Vietnamese nation

— which was then enjoying its "inspiring political liberty" under the Diem dictatorship, a Latin American-style terror state dedicated to the murder and torture of people committed to the Geneva settlement and other forms of "concealed aggression."


Excerpted from "Rethinking Camelot"
by .
Copyright © 1993 Noam Chomsky.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface to the 2015 Edition, vii,
Introduction: Contours and Context, 1,
Chapter 1 From Terror to Aggression, 49,
Chapter 2 Interpretations, 131,
Notes, 185,
Bibliography, 197,
Index, 201,

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Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Another brilliant dissection of American foriegn policy by professor Chomsky. I read the book unlike the previous reviewer who 'laughably' referred to Mr. Chomsky as a 'conservative.' Noam Chomsky continues to serve as a lone voice in the wilderness crying out to those who care to think for themselves and challenge established thought.
bmyrab More than 1 year ago
Noam Chomsky is a fraud. A fake lefty. This book is a pack of lies in which he smears President Kennedy as a hawk. Read "JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters" for the facts. Kennedy was, by his own words, "a peace at any price president." With Vietnam, for which he'd just signed NSAM 263 for FULL withdrawal of ALL US personnel by end of 1965. With Russia, with whom he'd signed a nuclear test ban treaty after years of effort. Over and over he proved it. Listen to his masterpiece speech at American University: Chomsky props up the official lies on President Kennedy, and on his murder by the government in the 1963 presidential coup. He masquerades as a dissident in order to confuse actual dissidents.