Photo credit – Vietnam…Lance Cpl Gordon Duff squad cleaning weapons after night ambush “evening job”, and daytime patrol
…by Michael David Morrissey for VT
Oliver Stone says he heard about Prouty, the real-life “Mr. X” in Stone’s film JFK, from Jim Garrison. But I know he heard about Nigel Turner’s documentary The Men Who Killed Kennedy, in which Prouty also features prominently, from me.
How do I know this? After I sent him (Stone) my review of the Turner film, he replied on July 14, 1989: “I will look for the film you mention, but I am fully occupied now with three films and cannot pursue at this point.” One year later he was meeting with Prouty in Washington. I surmise from that that Stone watched the Turner film, was as impressed with Prouty’s performance as I was, and created a role for him in JFK.
The Turner film aired in the US in September 1991, three years after it had come out in the UK and internationally. I saw the German version, Präsidentenmord, in November 1988. JFK came out in December 1991. Why did it take so long for the Turner film to appear in the US?
It’s a better film, in my opinion, if only because it is not fiction, and has a much greater emotional impact (at least it did on me), but it was immediately overshadowed by the Stone blockbuster and the ensuing firestorm of controversy. I was and remain skeptical of Time Warner’s motives in producing the film, as I wrote in May 1992 and later in the introduction to Looking for the Enemy (1993):
When information and ideas gain enough momentum on their own to become dangerous, that is, when they spread among the population despite monumental efforts of the mainstream media to confine them to marginalized political groups (“extremists,” left and right) and wackos (“conspiracy buffs”), the strategy of suppression–since it cannot become overt–is replaced by a direct offensive. Fire can be fought with fire, as long as the firefighters are under control. Hence JFK.
JFK was released in December 1991, three months after the Turner film was finally given limited exposure–on A&E cable in September 1991. This was no accident. The Stone film tells the whole story, but as a work of “fiction,” it is much easier to discredit than a documentary. Whatever impact the Turner film might have had was lost in the furor over JFK. I don’t doubt Oliver Stone’s intentions. He is a vet, i.e., a victim; I was a draft-dodger and protester. But we feel the same rage. The question is, what was Time Warner’s interest in producing the film? Money is one answer, of course, but it is not enough. The largest propaganda machine on earth is not in the business of fomenting revolution, even for big bucks. And there is no doubt that JFK is a – potentially – revolutionary film. Why should Big Brother’s favorite mouthpiece make a revolutionary film?
The answer is clear. JFK was intended to be exactly what it has become: the assassination film to end all assassination films. Stone wrote the message loud and clear across the silver screen, but the media campaign against it was louder. The result was a general consensus among the skeptical that the truth was unknowable, and even deeper resignation among those of us who believed the film was the truth. I’m not the only person who has asked himself: “If that doesn’t do it, what will?” Thanks to JFK, despite Stone’s good intentions, the assassination is a burnt-out case. It will not flare up again soon. It is Old News.
I think the past 27 years have proved my point. The big guns were ready and waiting as soon as the film hit the theaters. Officialdom was certainly well aware of everything Time Warner was doing, Garrison had published On the Trail of the Assassins in 1988, fingering the CIA and Kennedy’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam as the perpetrators and the primary motive, respectively, just as he had in his earlier (1970) book A Heritage of Stone. The difference was that this time Oliver Stone read the book. He was given a copy in December 1988 and, according to Patricia Lambert, was
“deeply moved and appalled” by Garrison’s story. Until then, he had thought little about the assassination and had accepted the conclusion of the Warren Report… Garrison, Stone said, opened his eyes… In Garrison’s story, Stone had found his own personal Rosetta stone, an explanation for why he had ended up in the jungles of southeast Asia.
Garrison and Prouty had both published in Freedom magazine (Prouty’s articles therein were the basis of his 1992 book JFK and Vietnam: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy) and Prouty read the manuscript of Garrison’s book, so all three were well acquainted by the time Stone contacted Prouty in July 1990 and asked him to consult on the film. But Prouty was not the only “military expert” consultant on the film. After the film came out, and after Prouty’s book was published, he wrote to me (Oct. 14, 1992):
[John] Newman is an active duty U.S. Army Major in Intelligence. He lives in Odenton, MD on the border of Ft. Meade which is the headquarters of the National Security Agency. I believe he is on duty with them and that he was told to infiltrate the Stone organization with his phoney book [JFK and Vietnam, Warner Books, 1992]. He tried hard to get me to work with him; but I recognized his game and then he got mad at me. He is the guy who gave all the lies to Robert Sam Anson for that libelous job that appeared in Esquire [“The Shooting of JFK,” Esquire, Nov. 1, 1991] Newman is bad news…but I know the type all too well. Stone had no protection. I had warned him; but the NSA/Newman approach was too smooth. Newman screwed up the film’s accuracy.”
One of the things Prouty emphasized strongly was that everything in Vietnam up until March 1965 was under the control of the CIA, not the military. “Researchers and students fail to see in JFK’s hard-hitting words, ‘the bulk of U.S. personnel out before the end of 1965’ that he was not predicting the end of a war we were not ourselves fighting; but that he was getting the ‘make-war’ gang of the CIA out of Southeast Asia” (his letter to me, Jan. 19, 1993).
As for the putative “secrecy” of JFK’s withdrawal plan (as elaborated by Newman in JFK and Vietnam, 1992), and the putative “conditionality” of withdrawal on “victory” (as elaborated by Chomsky in Rethinking Camelot, 1993), Prouty said:
His [JFK’s] policy was not predicated on some “military campaign progressing well,” And of course no one in 1963 was so stupid as to say, “If we win the war, we will withdraw.” If we had had a war to win, then winning would be victory and that is an unconditional term by itself. We could win and stay there as we have done in Germany and Japan, since the end of WWII. Instead we lost [in Vietnam] and then left. That’s a hell of a difference. [His letter to me, Jan. 19, 1993]
So for Prouty, Kennedy’s withdrawal plan was aimed at the CIA, not the military:
We had military personnel there aiding the Vietnamese and supporting the CIA. It was like the Indonesia rebellion and the Bay of Pigs. We had military there but only in a support role. After all that was the limit of the NSC [National Security Council] authority that established the parameters of my own office, i.e. support.
No one had ever visualized that such a minimum cadre was there on any “assumption [my word; Chomsky insisted on “condition” — see below] of military success.” The military did not arrive until 1965.The removal of “U.S. personnel by the end of 1965” was simply that. JFK was not going to add to what was there, in fact he was taking 1,000 men home in 1963. He was just leaving and letting the South Vietnamese do the best they could with our aid and money. [His letter to me, Jan. 19, 1993]
Prouty describes his first meeting with Newman, which must have been sometime in 1990:
After several calls Newman pleaded with me to meet with him. I did not know him and did not know that he had somehow gotten into the Stone group. I had turned him down many times because I saw no reason for it. One day I was going to be at the National Press Club; so I told him I would be there. I went after I had had lunch with someone else and expected it to be brief.
He introduced himself as a student working on a Ph.D. He did not call himself Major, nor did he mention the Army, Intelligence or NSA. Nor did he mention Stone. He said he needed some help with his thesis on the subject of NSAM #263. He wanted to know if it existed and if so was it formal, etc. I could not believe that someone who claimed to have studied Vietnam for 15 years did not know about NSAM #263 and its great significance. I told him to go to the library, get the Gravel edition of the Pentagon Papers, open Vol. II and find NSAM #263. That would be the Bundy “Cover Letter” only. He would have to turn back many pages and find the content, i.e. McNamara/Taylor “Trip Report.” Put that together and he’d have NSAM #263. I got up to leave as he still pleaded with me to stay and discuss other things. Then he said something about wanting to work with Stone. I just turned and said something like, “You had better do your own homework first.”
I was completely perplexed by that meeting. How could he be an expert, and be writing a book? How could Stone need him? To get that question off my back I called Stone’s office and asked if some fellow named Newman had been there. The answer was “Yes” but they could not explain in what capacity. (I know all too well that the CIA and the NSA use ranking go-betweens to open the door for special agents such as Newman. That could be his role, i.e. the role of a mole.) From that time on I just avoided him.
Later as with the Anson case I kept discovering that Newman was constantly setting me up, even with Stone, from behind the scenes. [His letter to me, Jan. 19, 1993]
Prouty’s book appeared in the same year as Newman’s book, but Newman beat him to it (February 1992). According to Anthony and Robbyn Summers (“The Ghosts of November,” Vanity Fair, Dec. 1994), Newman did not retire from US Army Intelligence until August 1994 (his last assignment was as Executive Military Assistant to the Director of the National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, 1988-90; see here) , so he was still on active duty with the NSA while he was writing his book and consulting on the Stone film. This in itself raises questions about the motives and intentions of someone coming directly from the heart of the military and intelligence establishment and supposedly supporting the thesis that the president was assassinated by the same military and intelligence establishment. I still fail to understand why I seem to be the only person, even within the so-called assassination “research community,” to have even brought this up. I wrote an Open Letter to Newman in November 1994 to which, strangely, only Michael Parenti replied, defending Newman from my “attack,” but as I replied to him, my letter had been courteous and fully appropriate. The only other person to react to my letter was Fletcher Prouty, who wholeheartedly approved and wrote a long letter in response on Nov. 5, 1994, which is not in my book but which I have now posted on my website.
In January 1992, before Newman’s book appeared, Alexander Cockburn wrote in The Nation, Jan. 6/13 (“J.F.K. and JFK”):
Newman’s JFK and Vietnam first came into the offices of Sheridan Square Press, Ray and Schaap’s publishing house, whence it was passed on to Stone, who assisted in its dispatch to Warner Books (part of the conglomerate backing JFK), which is publishing the book in February.
So Cockburn had an advance copy of the book, which he proceeded to savage mercilessly. This would not be noteworthy except for the underlying relationships of the people involved. Cockburn tells us that Bill Schaap and Ellen Ray also published Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins (1988) and, as already mentioned, gave a copy to Stone, and were also the publishers of Covert Action Quarterly (formerly Covert Action Information Bulletin) and Lies of Our Times (both now defunct). Noam Chomsky was a frequent contributor to LOOT, and he told me in his letter of May 15, 1989 that CAIB was “Quite a good rag. I write for it a lot.” This was puzzling since I could find only two articles of his in all the back issues, one of which (No. 32, summer 1989) was simply an abbreviated version of the other (No. 26, summer 1986) both identically titled “Libya in US Demonology.”
Obviously Schaap and Ray differed sharply with their former close colleague Chomsky over the Kennedy issue, and Cockburn puts his acerbic touch on it:
Ray…has long felt that history did a U-turn for the worse when conspiracy laid J.F.K. low. Why the publishers of Covert Action Information Bulletin and Lies of Our Times should take this position I’m not sure, unless we take a biographical approach and argue that maybe it all goes back to Ellen’s Catholic girlhood in Massachusetts, with an icon of J.F.K. on the wall.
I was corresponding intensively with Chomsky at the time (1992-93), and I asked him if he knew Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens (another Nation columnist): “Yes,” he said. “Very well, in fact. In the case of Alex Cockburn, we are in very regular contact, and have a good deal of exchange as well” (March 3, 1992). In May I published my own review of the Stone film, and I sent Chomsky a copy. He replied (May 21, 1992), in the first of several long letters, that Cockburn’s review was, “so far,”
the only one in print that does justice to the factual record. Perhaps I should abstain from comment on this, since I did a lot of the background research for it (though what he wrote is his way of using it).
The reader of Cockburn’s review, then, should not be surprised to recognize the same arguments reappearing, first in Chomsky’s article in Z magazine in September 1992, “Vain Hopes, False Dreams,” and later in his 1993 book Rethinking Camelot.
In his July 1, 1992 letter (11 single-spaced pages!), Chomsky said the only positive thing he ever said about any of my arguments: “Your letters, incidentally, have helped me clarify the issues to myself, as I hope will show up in what I’m writing about this.” He said he had “about 100 pages in draft” (July 1, 1992). The book, Rethinking Camelot, turned out to be 148 pages, plus index and footnotes — in which by the way I found no acknowledgement of my “helpful” arguments!
Chomsky’s “Vain Hopes, False Dreams,” a prequel to the book, appeared in the September issue of Z, and I wrote a letter to the editor about that, with a copy to Chomsky. Z did not print my letter, but Chomsky replied in what I suppose he hoped would be our last exchange on the subject:
I’m afraid that I’ll have no more to say about this matter unless you can come up with some particle of evidence, however fragile, to suggest that your beliefs about JFK and the assassination have some merit, and some reason why the huge mass of evidence to the contrary must be entirely disregarded and ignored, as you demand. [January 7, 1993]
Just to recap briefly (I have documented our whole correspondence here, that is, with all of my letters and summaries of his, since he would not allow me to publish them), Chomsky said (and still does) there was no withdrawal plan, ergo there could have been no reversal of it. This despite Ch. 3, Vol. 2 of the Gravel Pentagon Papers (of which he himself edited Volume 5) titled “Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964” because, Chomsky said, Recommendations B 2-3 of the McNamara-Taylor report of Oct. 2, 1963 constitute an “explicit condition of victory” on the proposed withdrawal, so that it was not a “withdrawal policy” but a “withdrawal after victory” policy. I kept insisting that this is not what the document says, that it could only be interpreted as based on an assumption of “military progress” (“progress” not being the same as “victory”), not a condition.
Painfully aware that I, one of the least famous linguists in the world, was arguing with the most famous linguist in the world about the difference between an assumption and a condition, I repeatedly pointed out that the wording of the McNamara-Taylor report, i.e.:
I.A.1 The military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress.
I.B.2 …It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time [the end of 1965].
was exactly analogous to sentences like:
Barbara is doing well with her studies.
She should graduate by the end of next year.
But I got nowhere. Withdrawal was absolutely conditioned, if and only if there was “victory.” And never mind that “victory” was defined in the same document (B 6) as “reducing it [the Viet Cong insurgency] to proportions manageable by the national security forces of the GVN [South Vietnamese], unassisted by the presence of U.S. military forces,” or that if “victory” had been understood in the usual sense of, say, the Allied victory in World War II, there hardly would have been a need for a “withdrawal plan.”
The closest I came to any kind of agreement with the famous professor was when I finally managed to get him to use the word “assumption” rather than “condition.” He wrote on Jan. 7, 1993:
Let’s distinguish two different theses: (1) the M-thesis (yours), and (2) the C-thesis (mine). The M-thesis holds that there were plans to withdraw from Vietnam, “predicated on the assumption of military success” (your words). The C-thesis holds that JFK planned to withdraw without victory, that is, whether the assumption of military success were to hold or not.
What he called the “C-thesis” he should have called the “N-thesis,” since it was John Newman’s thesis that he was really attacking, as he did in the book that appeared later that year (Rethinking Camelot). His own “C-thesis” was precisely the opposite — that JFK did not plan to withdraw without victory. Hurray, I thought, he got my point. However:
The M-thesis is uncontroversially true, and completely — totally — without interest. Furthermore, it has been known to be true, and uninteresting, for almost 30 years. The basic content of the withdrawal plans was made public at once, in October 1963.
The C-thesis (the Newman thesis), however, said Chomsky, is refuted “across the board, without exception, from whatever angle we approach it.” He says of Newman’s book:
Newman’s work is perhaps the most incompetent and comical piece of work ever called “history.” … I wouldn’t say that Newman totally destroys his [own] withdrawal-without-victory thesis, but he certainly weakens an already hopelessly implausible case. [His letter to me, July 1, 1992]
Strangely, although Chomsky devoted virtually the whole of Rethinking Camelot to demolishing Newman’s book, Newman, who has gone on to produce the first three of a multi-volume study of the JFK assassination and has a website devoted to the subject, has never seen fit to respond directly to any of Chomsky’s arguments or even mention his name, except to say in the Appendix to the revised edition of JFK and Vietnam (2017) that “Noam Chomsky claimed that I had made a saint out of JFK.”
Howard Jones entered the fray in 2003 with Death of a Generation, which according to the summary on Amazon “argues that Kennedy intended to withdraw the great bulk of American soldiers and pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Vietnam….Jones argues forcefully that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, his withdrawal plan would have spared the lives of 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese.” Here again, Newman is cited copiously (35 times), but Chomsky not at all. James Douglass, whose JFK and the Unspeakable (2008) is considered by many to be the “definitive” work on the assassination, also accepts Newman’s version of the Vietnam issue and cites him 24 times, but doesn’t mention Chomsky at all.
I seem to be the only person who has gone toe-to-toe with Chomsky on this issue, in our correspondence, which I documented as thoroughly as I could and posted on the internet in 1993 and published later as an addendum to Looking for the Enemy (2007), and also in my articles “Chomsky on JFK and Vietnam “ (1993), “Rethinking Chomsky” (1994), “My Beef with Chomsky” (2000), and “Chomsky and Newman – The False Debate” (Nov. 2009).
In 2003 there was an exchange between Chomsky and James Galbraith, a respected historian and son of the famous economist, who wrote in the Boston Review (“Exit Strategy,” Oct./Nov. 2003) that “most Vietnam historians…have asserted continuity between Kennedy’s policy and Lyndon Johnson’s.” That is precisely the point I made to Chomsky in my letter of June 18, 1992 and became Ch. 2.3 of Looking for Enemy. Chomsky’s reply at the time (July 1, 1992) was:
The quotes you give to illustrate that histories have falsified the record are, in this case, pretty much accurate. As far as any evidence goes, LBJ “took the same view of the importance of Vietnam” as JFK. He did “follow Kennedy’s lead” in all important respects, and JFK’s advisers agreed until the thing began to go sour and they sought ways to distance themselves from the disaster. LBJ did indeed “inherit and expand the VN policy of his predecessor.” I don’t know why you find these statements questionable. They are completely supported by the huge internal record. JFK’s policy was withdrawal after victory; LBJ’s was the same. As assessments of the precondition changed, so did policy. That’s about it.
In other words, most historians have asserted continuity because there was continuity.
Galbraith, though corroborating my point on the false impression of continuity given by Vietnam historians, makes a puzzling remark about the Pentagon Papers (henceforth PP Gravel unless otherwise noted):
You will not find it [Kennedy’s decision to withdraw] in Leslie Gelb’s editorial summary in the Gravel edition of The Pentagon Papers, even though several documents that are important to establishing the case for a Kennedy decision to withdraw were published in that edition. Nor, with just three exceptions prior to last spring’s publication of Howard Jones’s Death of a Generation—a milestone in the search for difficult, ferociously hidden truth—will you find it elsewhere in 30 years of historical writing on Vietnam.
But Gelb’s summary of Ch. 3, Vol.2, “Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964,” begins with the sentence: “A formal planning and budgetary process for the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam was begun amid the euphoria and optimism of July 1962, and was ended in the pessimism of March 1964.” Perhaps Galbraith’s emphasis on the word decision, as if it had an exceptional meaning, is the point, but why should that word be more important than the word policy, which is used more than three times more often in the document and almost always collocated with withdrawal? Where there is a policy, there must have been decisions, and policy was set, as I think everyone agrees, with the issuance of National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, which was signed by McGeorge Bundy for the president on Oct. 11. What difference does it make whether the decision to sign it was made on Oct. 2, 3, 5 or 11?
Galbraith, following Newman, favors Oct. 5 as decision-day, and quotes Newman quoting Michael Forrestal’s memo of a meeting with the president on that day:
The President also said that our decision to remove 1,000 U.S. advisors by December of this year should not be raised formally with Diem. Instead the action should be carried out routinely as part of our general posture of withdrawing people when they are no longer needed. (Emphasis added.)
Galbraith treats this, as Newman does, as if it were a discovery:
The passage illustrates two points: (a) that a decision was in fact made on that day, and (b) that despite the earlier announcement of McNamara’s recommendation, the October 5 decision was not a ruse or pressure tactic to win reforms from Diem (as Richard Reeves, among others, has contended but a decision to begin withdrawal irrespective of Diem or his reactions.
But this has been part of the record since PP Gravel: “Three days later, on 5 October, in another meeting with the President, followed by another NSC meeting, the McNamara-Taylor recommendations themselves were addressed. The President ‘approved the military recommendations contained in the report.’” PP Gravel also says “The President approved the military recommendations” at a meeting with McNama and Taylor and the NSC on Oct. 3. Furthermore, the president would never have ordered the public White House statement of Oct. 2 unless he had already decided to accept the recommendations. PP Gravel says this “statement of United States policy was approved by the President,” so the approval must have occurred on or before Oct. 2. It is true that the text of NSAM 263 mentions the Oct. 5 meeting at which the recommendations were “considered” and “approved,” but the important date is still Oct. 11, when the NSAM was issued.
So I do not understand why Galbraith accuses Gelb of ignoring JFK’s decision to withdraw since it is obviously the subject of both the summary and the body of Ch. 3, Vol. 2 of PP Gravel. But more importantly, I think, and what Galbraith, Newman and as far as I can tell everyone else seem to have overlooked is how the popular version of the PP, which is quite different from PP Gravel, also ignores Kennedy’s withdrawal plan and creates the same illusion of continuity, so that we can add this to Galbraith’s list of “30 years of historical writing on Vietnam” guilty of this distortion. This “popular version” of the leaked PP was published by more than a dozen newspapers (see here), and it would be interesting to find out if and how the other newspapers treated the material differently than the New York Times. But I will use the New York Times version (henceforth PP NYT), which they also published as a paperback in 1971, to make my point.
PP NYT became available in July 1971 and was not really a “version” or “edition” of the PP at all; it was a summary by NYT reporters with some excerpts from the actual documents, the complete (and only) edition of which is the four-volume so-called “Gravel edition” (PP Gravel) published by Beacon Press in October 1971 (plus a fifth volume of essays edited by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, 1972). As I also pointed out in Looking for the Enemy (and to Chomsky in my letter of Aug. 3, 1992), PP NYT glosses over the entire chapter of PP Gravel covering the “Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964” thus:
The Pentagon account [i.e., the actual Pentagon Papers, of which this is only a summary], moreover, 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. [Bantam, 1971, p. 114]
This is simply not true. PP NYT does not mention NSAM 263 at all, the “advisory build-up” is mentioned as if there were no “advisory build-down,” i.e., “phased withdrawal,” at all, and the “hidden growth of covert warfare” is presented quite slyly as having begun under Kennedy, whereas it actually began under Johnson:
Particularly in the sphere of covert operations against North Vietnam, which became a prelude to the Tonkin Gulf clashes in 1964, the Pentagon narrative describes a smooth transition in the decision-making process. The Honolulu conference, set up under President Kennedy, ordered planning for a stepped-up program of what the account calls “non-attributable hit-and-run” raids against North Vietnam. In his first Vietnam policy document, on Nov. 26, President Johnson gave his personal sanction to the planning for these operations. [PP NYT, p. 189]
The Nov. 26 policy document, of course, was NSAM 273. At the end of this chapter PP NYT offers in addition to their summary a few “key documents” from PP Gravel, each adorned with a boldface heading. This one, NSAM 273, is titled “Order by Johnson Reaffirming Kennedy’s Position on Vietnam” (pp. 232-233) and includes some “excerpts” from NSAM 273 and, in italics, “the study’s paraphrase” of this document. The excerpted paragraphs are Paragraphs 2, 4, 5 and 3, in that (jumbled) order. NSAM 273, however, was not declassified until May 1978, so how did these paragraphs, even in jumbled order, get into PP NYT in 1971? They are not in PP Gravel. It would seem the NYT had access to documents that were not in the PP at all, and published them as if they were. I find it hard to believe this, even as I write, but I see no other explanation.
PP NYT concludes the section on NSAM 273 in italics, which means this is “the study’s paraphrase,” that is, the words of Leslie Gelb and his team of writers, as follows:
…And in conclusion, plans were requested for clandestine operations by the GVN against the North and also for operations up to 50 kilometers into Laos; and, as a justification for such measures, State was directed to develop a strong, documented case “to demonstrate to the world the degree to which the Viet Cong is controlled, sustained and supplied from Hanoi, through Laos and other channels.”… [P. 233]
Now, where did this text come from? I could not find anything like it in PP Gravel, and I searched through all the chapters of Volumes 2 and 3. The portion enclosed in quotation marks is from Para. 10 of NSAM 273, but again, this text was still classified in 1971 and does not occur in PP Gravel. So where did it come from? Wherever it came from, it is inaccurate, because the actual text of Para. 8 of NSAM 273, which we now have, is:
With respect to Laos, a plan should be developed and submitted for approval by higher authority for military operations up to a line up to 50 kilometers inside Laos, together with political plans for minimizing the international hazards of such an enterprise. Since it is agreed that operational responsibility for such undertakings should pass from CAS to MACV, this plan should include a redefined method of political guidance for such operations, since their timing and character can have an intimate relation to the fluctuating situation in Laos.
As a side note, we might note that “CAS” is a “code name for CIA” according to the glossary at the back of the NYT book, and the transfer of responsibility from the CIA to MACV (the military) accords with what Prouty told me had been JFK’s plan since the Bay of Pigs: to get the CIA out of the “make war business.”
But yet again, where did this text come from? I can find no mention of “clandestine operations by the GVN against the North,” either in PP Gravel (which is all the NYT supposedly had access to) or in the actual document (NSAM 273).
Galbraith seems to follow Newman and Peter Dale Scott in asserting that LBJ’s NSAM 273 shows a significant departure from JFK’s policy. In his 1972 essay in Vol. 5 of PP Gravel, Scott reconstructs the then still classified NSAM 273 and tries to show that it differs significantly from the McNamara-Taylor recommendations of Oct. 2 (that are in PP Gravel). According to Newman (in JFK and Vietnam, 1992), the draft of NSAM 273, written on Nov. 21 for JFK but not seen or approved by him, differs significantly from the version written for and approved by LBJ on Nov. 26, namely, in the revision of Para. 7. Both Newman and Chomsky spend a lot of time making and rebutting this argument, respectively, in JFK and Vietnam and Rethinking Camelot), but I don’t think it matters at all. Like the question of exactly when JFK made the decision that resulted in NSAM 263, the question of exactly when LBJ reversed that decision is not important since we know that it came almost immediately after the assassination, as described in Ch. 3, Vol. 2 of PP Gravel.
What strikes me as noteworthy about this draft of NSAM 273 is the date of its declassification: Jan. 31, 1991. I would like to know who requested this declassification. The final version was declassified in May 1978. When and why did the draft become important enough to require declassification in 1991?
I will speculate: it provided a straw man for people to argue about. JFK (the film) would appear in December of that year (1991) followed by a host of articles pro and contra, conveniently collected in JFK: The Book of the Film (Applause Books, 1992), Newman’s book a couple of months later, and Chomsky’s book the next year. Here is the relevant chronology:
Nov. 26, 1963 (at the earliest) – March 1964 (at the very latest) Reversal of JFK’s Vietnam withdrawal policy
… Many years of silence, that is, depiction of continuity.
1988 Publication of Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins; release of Turner’s The Men Who Killed Kennedy.
1991 Release of Stone’s JFK; declassification of draft of NSAM 273
1992 Publication of Newman’s JFK and Vietnam
1993 Publication of Chomsky’s Rethinking Camelot
I agree, then, in principle with Galbraith that the policy reversal after the assassination (depending on which date between Nov. 22 and March 24, when “the policy of phase out and withdrawal and all the plans and programs oriented to it” ended “de jure”) was a “difficult, ferociously hidden truth…in 30 years of historical writing on Vietnam,” although I disagree on the dates. He seems to be taking the 30 years (actually 32) between the publication of the PP (1971) and the publication of Howard Jones’ “milestone” Death of a Generation (2003), but I see the “milestones” differently. I see the first one as the thing itself, the thing people have been ignoring for decades and then, much more recently, arguing about, which is the policy reversal. The second milestone is the Stone film in 1991, which finally publicized that event and its possible significance — the event that Chomsky says is “uncontroversially true, and completely — totally — without interest” and “has been known to be true, and uninteresting, for almost 30 years.”
Galbraith begins his article asking: “What, at the moment of his death, was John F. Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam?” We must note, first of all, that this has only become a public question since Stone’s film. It is true that the withdrawal plan was announced publicly on Oct. 2, 1963, and subsequently reported in the newspapers. For example, I have a copy of the front page of the Pacific Stars and Stripes of Oct. 4, 1963 with the banner headline “U.S. Troops Seen Out of Viet by ‘65.” The front page UPI story says:
The White House said Wednesday night after hearing a report from a two-man inspection team that the U.S. military effort in the Republic of Vietnam should be completed by the end of 1965.
The question is, however, how deeply this news penetrated the public consciousness, and the answer can be amply provided by a search of the newspapers after the assassination. Was there any outcry, any questioning whatsoever, about the change in policy that occurred in the days or weeks following Nov. 22? I would be very surprised to find such protest, because as PP Gravel says:
On 22 November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. The consequences were to set an institutional freeze on the direction and momentum of U.S. Vietnam policy. Universally operative was a desire to avoid change of any kind during the critical interregnum period of the new Johnson Administration. Both the President and the governmental establishment consciously strove for continuity, with respect to Vietnam no less than in other areas. In Vietnam this continuity meant that the phase-out concept, the CPSVN [Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam] withdrawal plan, and the MAP [Military Assistance Program] programs probably survived beyond the point they might have otherwise.
Chomsky, and as Galbraith says, “most Vietnam historians” are merely reinforcing the idea that there was no policy change (what I call “The Second Biggest Lie,” the first being the Warren Report). In accordance with this principal requirement of maintaining the appearance of continuity, the popular (i.e., widely read) “version” of the PP, PP NYT, as I have shown, simply ignores the chapter in PP Gravel which nevertheless presents the facts clearly enough that if they had been widely publicized, as opposed to being merely published in a four-volume hardcover book that few people would buy or read, the consequences might have been different.
The only work I know of that reacted astutely to the policy change is a book written in 1966 called The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam, by Franz Schurmann, Peter Dale Scott, and Reginald Zelnik (Greenwich: Fawcett Publications). The book is now out of print so I will quote the relevant passages entirely (pp. 32-34):
…precisely at a moment when neutralist sentiment was increasing in Saigon and elsewhere, the shift from a moderate to a militant government in Saigon was accompanied by a shift in Washington’s declared policy from limited to unlimited support for the Vietnam war. It is important to recall, in this regard, the stated intention of the Kennedy administration, as announced by McNamara and Taylor from the White House on October 2, 1963, which was to withdraw most U.S. forces from South Vietnam by the end of 1965.*
*Footnote: Three weeks after the assassination, on December 19 and 20, 1963 [sic: actually 27 days], McNamara and CIA chief John A. McCone visited Saigon to evaluate the war efforts of the new Saigon government. “McNamara told the junta leaders that the United States was prepared to help…as long as aid was needed” (NYT, January 2, 1964, p. 7).
The first public indication of a change in the U.S. intentions came in a letter from President Johnson to Duong Van Minh at New Year’s, 1964, which promised “the fullest measure of support…in achieving victory.” The New York Times commented, “By implication, the message erased the previous date for withdrawing the bulk of United States forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965” (NYT, January 2, 1964, p. 7).*
*Footnote: The letter reportedly renounced unequivocally “any prospect for a neutralist solution for South Vietnam…at a time when neutralist sentiment has been gaining currency in some political and intellectual circles here” (in South Vietnam). (NYT, January 2, 1964.)
A more explicit official indication of reversal of policy came in the testimony of Secretary McNamara before the Armed Services Committee, on January 27, three days before the coup [of Jan 30, 1964; my emphasis]:
The survival of an independent government in South Vietnam is so important to the security of Southeast Asia and to the free world that I can conceive of no alternative other than to take all necessary measures within our capability to prevent a Communist victory. (M. Raskin and B. Fall, The Vietnam Reader, New York, 1965, p. 394)
Immediately after the coup, James Reston reported from Washington:
We are probably coming to the end of the period when the United States would neither fight nor negotiate. And we are probably approaching a new phase when both fighting and negotiating will be stepped up (NYT, January 31, 1964, p. 26).
Military developments in 1964 were to confirm Reston’s prediction with respect to the fighting, if not to negotiations. In retrospect, it is hard to deny that, shortly before the coup, the United States had made the crucial decision to reverse the policy, announced during the last days of President Kennedy’s administration, of gradually withdrawing U.S. troops from South Vietnam. Was it all a coincidence that a change in leadership in Washington was followed by a change in policy, and a change in policy by a corresponding change in Saigon’s government?* [My emphasis]
*Footnote: Hanoi Radio on February 4 also saw in the coup evidence that “the United States had blotted out its decision to withdraw part of the United States troops from South Vietnam” (FBIS Daily Report, February 5, 1964, JJJ6)
Administration officials have never yet seen fit to defend publicly this important reversal of policy; thus they have not identified the threat that brought it about. Was it a radical increase in the strength of the opposing forces? As far as we know, none has ever been alleged. Or was it a radical decline in Saigon’s will to resist, with a corresponding disposition toward the political proposals of de Gaulle and the NLF? [My emphasis]
One conclusion can be asserted unequivocally: The United States increased its commitment to a prolongation of the Vietnam war at a time when the drift of the Saigon junta and of public opinion was in the direction of negotiations for a neutralized Vietnam. The threat of a serious divergence between Washington’s interest in the war and Saigon’s was temporarily postponed by the success of the January coup.
It is interesting to note that this book was cited by Noam Chomsky in his 1967 essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in a footnote to illustrate his point that “the power of the government’s propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact.” The book, he says, resulted from a “Citizens’ White Paper” and “presented evidence of American rejection of UN initiatives for diplomatic settlement, just prior to the major escalation of February, 1965…”
He could just as well have said that the peace overtures ignored by the US were “uncontroversially true” and “known to be true” to people like himself and Schurmann et al. who read the newspapers assiduously, but precisely the point he is making is that “known to be true” is a very relative thing. To whom is it known, and by how many? The “government’s propaganda apparatus” controls the mass media and therefore what the mass of people know, or think they know, and therefore what they think.
So why does this same Noam Chomsky tell me that just because something is “on the record” or “known to be true” by some people, it is therefore of no interest? He knows better than this, as he says in this 1967 essay. What some people know is not the same as what many or most people know. Again,” thinking back on this exchange, I am just astounded at having to make a point that is not only screamingly obvious, but one which Chomsky himself has made many times, including in this 1967 essay. He even has his own term for it: “Orwell’s problem,” as opposed to “Plato’s problem”; cf. Preface, Knowledge of Language: It’s Nature, Origin, and Use, 1986.
But unlike Schurmann et al., Chomsky pays no attention to the question whether it was “a coincidence that a change in leadership in Washington was followed by a change in policy.” It is clear that he agrees that the 1964 peace overtures were ignored by the US in favor of escalation, but at the same time as he is demonstrating his resistance to the “propaganda apparatus” by acknowledging these facts, he seems quite oblivious to the other glaring fact that Schurmann et al. point to, namely, the “coincidental” reversal of policy following the “coincidental” murder of the policy-maker (the president). He completely ignores this. Why? Even if he hated JFK with a purple passion, as a cognitive scientist, or as a natural scientist, or as a person of common sense, he could not have helped being struck by this “coincidence,” especially after reading and citing with approval a paper by others who made the point explicitly.
The question Schurmann et al. asked, apparently alone in 1966, but was not asked again until 1991, still stands: Was the policy reversal a “coincidence” or not? Galbraith says “After Newman’s book, no one seriously disputed that Kennedy was contemplating withdrawal from Vietnam,” and that the question now is “Did the withdrawal plans depend on the perception of victory?” But this falls right back into the trap of “the false debate.”
The real debate should be about what Kennedy did, and what others did after he was gone. Was there a withdrawal policy or not, was it reversed or not, and if so, why? The first two questions did not even have to be asked by Schurmann et al. in 1966 because the answer was clearly Yes to both — and this was five years before the Pentagon Papers. The question why still stands, and the question whether the assassination was merely a coincidence follows inevitably from that.
The false debate, as framed and prosecuted by the main antagonists, Newman and Chomsky, is about what Kennedy may or may not have been thinking, what he may have been secretly planning to do, and what he might have done had he lived. All of these questions are inherently unanswerable and susceptible to infinite prolongation. Who started it? Newman, I think. As one enthused reader wrote on Amazon, and which Newman liked enough to repost on his website:
This essential work examines in detail the Shakespearean machinations of deception and counter-deception that took shape in the hidden maneuverings of a president who was determined to avoid being trapped and determined to never again repeat the mistakes of the Bay of Pigs.
Chomsky, replying to Galbraith in the Boston Globe in December 2003, dismisses 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.
By “elsewhere” of course he means Rethinking Camelot, to which as I have mentioned neither Newman nor anyone else except Galbraith, 16 years ago here — and me, 26 years ago here, here, here, and here — have deigned to respond. Chomsky, in his reply to Galbraith a full ten years after the publication of Rethinking Camelot, may feel entitled to a bit of vitriol, but his argument has not changed a bit, asserting for the umpteenth time that there is “no hint in the record that he [JFK] contemplated withdrawal without victory.” (The word victory occurs in his 1104-word article 10 times, that is, ca. once every 100 words.)
Chomsky — and the multitude of his admirers — certainly does seriously dispute that Kennedy was contemplating withdrawal without victory from Vietnam,” an argument which I have tried to show is completely specious, but Galbraith re-opens the debate by saying the questions “focused” (after Newman) on four questions, the first of which is: “Did the withdrawal plans depend on the perception of victory?” This moves the ball right back into Chomsky’s court. “Depend on” means “conditional,” and “victory” means “victory.” These are Chomsky’s words, and they are his terms for the debate. If you accept them, he wins. But they are inaccurate. So we are back to Step 1, where I was with him in 1992-93.
I’ll give it one one try. The withdrawal plan was not conditional. It did not “depend on the perception of victory.” It was based on an assumption of military success. These are the words that Chomsky would not allow into the discussion, as I have described, except ever so briefly, only to dismiss them as “uncontroversial” and “uninteresting.” They are, however, much closer to the wording and intended meaning of the documents being discussed (mainly the McNamara-Taylor report of Oct. 2, 1963). The reason he would not allow this vocabulary, as I also told him, is obvious: Once you accept the fact of the policy reversal, you have to ask if it was related to the assassination. This is exactly what Schurmann et al. did. But if you insist that there was no policy reversal because there was only a withdrawal after victory policy, which never changed, at least until the Tet offensive in 1968, as Chomsky does, then you can say that there was no reversal of the policy because there was no victory.
One more analogy. Jack is friends with Bill, who is fighting Bob, so Jack joins Bill in his fight against Bob.
In one scenario, Jack says, “We seem to be winning, Bob, so I’ll stop fighting very soon and let you carry on by yourself. The next minute Bob suddenly appears to be getting the upper hand, and Jack decides not only to stay in the fight but to fight harder.
In the second scenario, Jack says, “We seem to be winning, Bob, so I’ll stop fighting very soon whether we continue to win or not. The next minute Bob suddenly appears to be getting the upper hand, and Jack decides not only to stay in the fight but to fight harder.
In the third scenario, Jack says, “We seem to be winning, Bob, so I’ll stop fighting very soon but if and only if we continue to win. The next minute Bob suddenly appears to be getting the upper hand, and Jack decides not only to stay in the fight but to fight harder.
The first scenario is what Chomsky, in his letter to me (see above), called the “M-thesis,” but we can just as well take “M” for “McNamara” because this is what the McNamara-Taylor report actually says. The second scenario is what Chomsky called the “C-thesis”), but he should have called it the “N-thesis” because this is what Newman, and those following him, believe; e.g., “John F. Kennedy had formally decided to withdraw from Vietnam, whether we were winning or not” (Galbraith’s conclusion.) The third scenario is what we can better call the “C-thesis,” because this is what Chomsky believes.
The second and third scenarios, I submit, do not even make sense. The first one is the only one that makes sense. And if you add to this analogy that Jack mysteriously disappears between the first and second sentences and is replaced by Lyndon, the question of why Bob suddenly started getting the upper hand, if this was indeed so, and to what extent this justified Lyndon’s going all out to beat the crap out of Bob (and in the end losing!) must be asked and discussed, along with the question of whether Jack’s disappearance at the crucial juncture was only a “coincidence.”
What I have called the false debate is about the N and the C theses (Scenarios 2 and 3 above) — and more particularly, about the first half of these theses. What about the second half? Why did Bob suddenly get the upper hand in the fight? Why did the Viet Cong suddenly start winning? These are the questions Schurmann et al. asked in 1966. There was no question about the withdrawal policy, or about it being reversed. The question was, what happened in the situation in Vietnam to cause that policy reversal? Or did anything happen? Why did the US ignore all peace initiatives and choose war?
If I were a government propagandist concerned with the potentially dangerous idea that JFK was assassinated because he was threatening to deprive the warmongers of their lucrative Vietnam war ($1 trillion in 2017 dollars; “cost” being income to the war industry and others who profit) I would have seen trouble brewing with the Garrison investigation that started in late 1966. As Garrison recalled in On the Trail of the Assassins (1988):
Certainly, it never crossed my mind that the murder of President Kennedy and the subsequent arrival of half a million members of the American military in Vietnam might be related. [Pp.12-13]
It was a chance remark by Senator Russell Long expressing doubt about the Warren Commission’s findings that piqued his curiosity and started him on his search for the truth about the assassination. The actual trial (against Clay Shaw) was unsuccessful in that the defendant was immediately acquitted, but it got a lot of publicity and brought much hidden information (such as the Zapruder film) to light, with the help of a number of volunteer investigators. The most important of these was a Philadelphia lawyer named Vincent Salandria, who helped Garrison write his first book, A Heritage of Stone (1970). Garrison’s conclusions were certainly enough to make the government take notice. As the book is now out of print, I will quote the passages that Salandria quoted to me in his letter of April 6, 2000:
The question of who killed John Kennedy evolved into the more meaningful query of why he was killed (p. 22).
The President recognized his inherited obligation and increased the American advisory contingent in South Vietnam. However, he never budged from his refusal to send over American soldiers for combat in its swamps and jungles…The problem grew, however, in the form of Pentagon opposition to his restraint:…” (p. 225).
John Kennedy’s desire to prevent an American war in Vietnam was remembered well by men who were close to him” (p. 227).
In the fall of 1963 he issued an order, over the objections of many around him, to reduce American military advisers in South Vietnam immediately by bringing home one thousand U.S. soldiers before the end of 1963. In the spring of 1963, reports his key White House aide, Kenneth P. O’Donnell, he had made up his mind that after his reelection he would at the risk of unpopularity, make a complete withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. “In 1965, I’ll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don’t care.”
Shortly before his murder, the public announcement was made by Secretary of Defense McNamara that by 1965 all American personnel would be brought back home. McNamara’s announcement was made not from the Pentagon but from the steps of the White House (p. 228).
Salandria had a lot to do with Garrison coming to these conclusions. A year and a half before A Heritage of Stone was published, Salandria, who had published the first critique of the Warren Report in 1964 and worked closely with Garrison from 1967 to 1969, spoke at an antiwar rally in Central Park in New York City on June 9, 1968 (archived here), three days after the murder of JFK’s brother Robert and 66 days after the murder of Martin Luther King. Salandria said:
… almost all the people who have investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy recognized that the killing was motivated by the desire to perpetuate the Cold war which President Kennedy sought to end. We feel that the shooting of President Kennedy was a foreign policy killing done at the behest of military circles in the United States and executed by operatives under the control and in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency.
What changed following the assassination of President Kennedy was our foreign policy and our form of government. Three weeks after the assassination the junta leaders in Saigon were told that the United States was prepared to help as long as aid was needed. We had made the critical decision to reverse the policy announced at the end of the Kennedy administration to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. In Latin America, the Johnson government immediately signalled the end of Kennedyism by supporting the military regimes in the Dominican Republic and Brazil. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was generated by the military as a monumental fraud– perpetrated on an all-too-unskeptical Congress–to provide excuse for further escalation in Vietnam. So President Kennedy’s courageous efforts to end the Cold War were shot down with him, and the Cold War then grew in intensity and the democratic processes in the United States eroded in favor of more power to the military.
…There was a Bay of Pigs in which the CIA betrayed President Kennedy. There was a detente with Russia, followed by a test ban treaty which encountered heavy military resistance. And when Kennedy sought to change the Vietnam policy, he was himself fired by the military — killed on his watch. Upon his death, the military became the dominant force in our government.
Salandria said “almost all” the JFK assassination researchers felt the same way he did. But who was listening to them, and who was listening that day in Central Park? Salandria had read Schurmann et al., and quotes from that book in an essay he published in 1971 in a magazine with a tiny readership called, improbably enough, Computers and Automation. He adds):
That there should have been a change in Vietnamese policy so immediately after the murder of Kennedy when the external situation in Vietnam did not evoke it, raises serious questions about what caused it in our internal situation. What is at stake here is the issue not of how the assassination was accomplished, but the fundamental question concerning why it was done and which elements were and are behind it. At issue are questions of war and peace that involve the whole of humanity. For the movement for peace in Vietnam not to raise these questions is and has been irresponsible.
This hits the nail precisely on the head, and for the first time, as far as I know. Likewise the rest of the article which is titled “The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy:
A Model of Explanation.” The article defies summation and must be read in its entirety — not because it is difficult to understand but because it makes such devastating common sense.
17 years later, In 1988, Garrison wrote his second book, this time with the additional input of Fletcher Prouty, who had written The Secret Team: The CIA and Its Allies in Control of the United States and the World (1973) and a series of articles in Freedom magazine (where Garrison also published) in the 1980s which became the basis of Prouty’s second book JFK: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (1992). Garrison and Prouty had the same message as Salandria: JFK was killed by the CIA, primarily because he was withdrawing from Vietnam. Garrison wrote in On the Trail:
By June of 1963 President Kennedy had directly and eloquently renounced the Cold War in a landmark speech at American University in Washington, D.C., underscoring that the United States and the Soviet Union had to live together peacefully on one small planet.
But none of these policy changes was as significant, in retrospect, as Kennedy’s intention to withdraw all American military personnel from Vietnam. [P. 177; my emphasis]
What remains as the only likely sponsor with both the motive and the capability of murdering the President is the covert action arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. [P. 289]
In retrospect, the reason for the assassination is hardly a mystery. It is now abundantly clear from the course that U.S. foreign policy took immediately following November 22, 1963, why the C.I.A.’s covert operations element wanted John Kennedy out of the Oval Office and Lyndon Johnson in it. [P. 293]
Is all this plausible? It might not have seemed so 25 years ago. However, now that we know some of the true history of the C.I.A. and its covert operations, the answer is a distinct yes. Assassination is precisely what the Agency knows how to do and what it has done all over the world for policy ends. [P. 295]
Books are bad enough from the point of view of the propagandists, but as Allen Dulles reportedly said about possible reactions to the Warren Report, “The American people don’t read.” The audio-visual mass media, movies and TV, are much more dangerous because they reach greater masses of people more or less simultaneously. The Turner film came out in the UK and Europe in October 1988, the Stone film three years later. What to do? If I were chief propagandist, here is what I would have done in order to keep the damage at a minimum — which turns out to be exactly what happened.
- I would delay the US release of the Turner film long enough for it to be overshadowed by the Stone film. This was done (Sept. 1988 UK, not shown in US until Sept. 1991; Stone’s JFK Dec. 1991).
- I would make sure I had a preview and some control over the Stone film. This was done, via Time Warner.
- I would insert a “military expert” into the Stone organization via my contacts in Time Warner in order to control the “historical narrative.” This (says Prouty) was done in the person of John Newman.
- I would make sure the film contained enough “dancing with facts,” as some reviewers quipped, as well as facts, in order to clearly qualify as fictional. This happened. Stone himself describes the film as a “counter-myth” to the Warren Report.
- I would mention the Vietnam issue in the film but make sure the blame for the assassination is widely dispersed among “members of the CIA, the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, Secret Service, FBI, and Kennedy’s vice-president and then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson.” This was done, as the citation from Wikipedia shows.
- I would mention and even flash on the screen (at the end of the film) some of the documents (e.g., NSAM 263, 273) that would be discussed in the anticipated controversy later. This was done.
- I would declassify the draft of NSAM 273 to provide fodder for the anticipated debate over the significance of NSAM 263, 273, and the 273 draft. This was done on Jan. 31, 1991.
- I would publish a documented screenplay of the film including a range of pro and contra critiques and various documents useful for discussion. This was done with JFK: The Book of the Film (Applause Books [Warner Bros.], 1992). Unfortunately this was published too soon to include Chomsky’s rebuttal to Newman, but it didn’t matter because for those (few, according to Dulles) Americans who did read, the debate continued in book form (see next) .
- I would have a “credible” book published with a controversial, speculative and vulnerable thesis, i.e., that JFK had a secret plan to deceive the deceivers and withdraw from Vietnam regardless of the military situation, which would keep researchers busy and discourage them from asking more dangerous questions, like those that Schurmann et al. asked in 1966. This was done with Newman’s JFK and Vietnam.
- I would immediately attack this book with an equally (and for many, much more) “credible” counterargument. This was done by Cockburn, Chomsky, et al.
At the same time, I would encourage the publication of as many books as possible identifying possible conspirators and motives for the assassination in order to make sure focus is not focused only on the Vietnam issue, and not only on the CIA (as per Garrison, Salandria, and Prouty). For example, I would have been pleased to see the publication of David Scheim’s The Mafia Killed President Kennedy (the US title is Contract on America) in the same year as Garrison’s book, 1988. This is a lengthy (480 pp.) and well-resourced book, with 53 pages of footnotes, and describes Kennedy’s withdrawal policy quite accurately:
On October 2, 1963, Defense Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor reported that it was their objective to terminate the “major part” of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam by 1965. [WH Allen, 1988, p. 187]
Quite surprisingly, in retrospect, Scheim even accepts the idea first proposed by Scott in 1972 (“Vietnamization and the Drama of the Pentagon Papers,” PP Gravel, Ch. 13, Vol. 5, Beacon Press, 1972) and not taken up again, as far as I know, until John Newman revived it in 1992 after the Stone film: that NSAM 273 in itself expressed a policy reversal:
Also aborted by Johnson was President Kennedy’s attempt in his last months, as outlined earlier, to pull America out of its Vietnam quagmire. Two days after his murder — the day Ruby shot Oswald — Lyndon Johnson called a meeting of his top advisers to discuss this issue. The results of the meeting were embodied in National Security Action Memorandum 273 of November 26, 1963, parts of which were released in the Pentagon Papers. [*] This memorandum pledged total commitment to ”denying” Vietnam to communism, authorized “specific covert operations, graduated in intensity, against the DRV” (North Vietnam), and reversed President Kennedy’s movement toward a military disengagement. [**] The remaining 780 of the 1,000 troops that Kennedy had ordered out of Vietnam were never withdrawn under Johnson. And after Johnson won the 1964 presidential election by styling himself a peace candidate, his administration began to escalate American involvement. [Pp.273-274].
The casual reader might well think that Scheim is quoting from NSMA 273 here, but his footnotes (indicated here by asterisks) are to an essay by Scott called “The Death of Kennedy and the Vietnam War” in Sid Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian, Government by Gunplay (1976), which includes Scott’s reconstruction of NSAM 273 (not declassified until May 1978). Scott’s reconstruction includes this sentence from Ch. 4, Vol. 4 of PP Gravel, in the Chronology:
26 Nov 63 NSAM 273
Authorized planning for specific covert operations, graduated in intensity, against the DRV.
There is no such sentence, however, or anything similar, in the text of NSAM 273, which we can now read. I have already shown how PP NYT misrepresents PP Gravel on the question of “continuity” in Kennedy and Johnson’s Vietnam policy, and here is an example of PP Gravel misrepresenting itself with regard to the content of NSAM 273. Perhaps this supports Scott and Newman’s argument that the policy reversal is manifest in this document, perhaps (according to Chomsky) not.
Far too much attention has been given to this paper chase, which started when Newman, in 1992, following Scott’s lead in 1972 (and in subsequent articles, such as the one Scheim cites), have made it an issue, and Chomsky then inflamed it by vehemently contesting the Scott-Newman argument. In short, it has been much ado about nothing.
Ch. 3, Vol. 2 of PP Gravel tells us all we need to know about the origin, implementation, phase-down, and end of JFK’s withdrawal plan. It ended de jure on March 27, 1964, and as Chomsky himself writes:
The first report prepared for LBJ (November 23) opened with this “Summary Assessment”: “The outlook is hopeful. There is better assurance than under Diem that the war can be won. We are pulling out 1,000 American troops by the end of 1963.” “The next day, however, CIA Director John McCone informed the President that the CIA now regarded the situation as “somewhat more serious” than had been thought, with “a continuing increase in Viet Cong activity since the first of November” (the coup). Subsequent reports only deepened the gloom. [Rethinking Camelot, p. 81]
It doesn’t matter a whit whether the reversal started on Nov. 23, 24, 26 or sometime in December or January. It happened.
My point in mentioning Scheim’s book is that it was not only the first book I had read about the assassination, it was also the first time I had heard about the withdrawal policy. The Turner film hadn’t mentioned Vietnam, but it made immediate sense when I read about it in Scheim’s book a few weeks later. I wrote in my review:
General recollection also has it that Kennedy got us involved in Vietnam, but in fact he had already ordered the first withdrawal of troops when he was killed, and had planned major withdrawals by 1965.
I suspect this is exactly what millions of Americans thought and felt when they saw the Stone film in 1991-92. Yes, it had been reported in the press in 1963, but it did not become common knowledge, and in fact was “ferociously hidden,” as Galbraith says, by Vietnam historians (whom Chomsky defends in this respect), for decades thereafter.
In my case it was the combination of the Turner film and Scheim’s book that made what Chomsky called “uncontroversially true, and completely — totally — without interest” probably the most important event in my adult life. It turned me, almost instantaneously (because the primary shock was watching the Turner film) from a “disaffected” American into a raging dissident. What Chomsky told me in his letter of Jan. 7, 1993 had been “known to be true, and uninteresting, for almost 30 years” (he must have been counting from the McNamara-Taylor announcement on Oct. 2, 1963) was complete news to me, and was as “uninteresting” to me as if the roof of my house had fallen on my head or I had fallen through the floor. I don’t want to over dramatize my personal reaction, but it is important because nobody — not even the renowned Noam Chomsky whom I had always admired (and still do in many respects) — can tell me that it is “uninteresting” to put these two facts together, the assassination and the Vietnam policy reversal, or that doing so cannot have exactly the profound emotional effect that it had on me. I am my own Exhibit A for that fact, which I later expressed in a poem:
I felt like a volcano, watching itself erupt. [“Butcher Shop,” 1995]
Scheim, of course, as the title of his book makes clear, while revealing — rather, publicizing — this important truth about the assassination, at the same time buries it, submerges it, subordinates it to his main thesis, which is that “The Mafia Killed President Kennedy.” It is interesting, especially after 30 years have passed since my first reading — to see how Scheim subordinates the Vietnam connection to the main theme, e.g., in the first mention of it on p. 58:
The Florida Mafia boss [Santos Trafficante] could thus hardly have favored two foreign policy initiatives of President Kennedy in the fall of 1963: moves toward accomodation with Castro and the ordered withdrawal of one thousand American troops from South Vietnam, an underworld narcotics stronghold.
Vietnam does not come up again until more than a hundred pages later, when “the ordered withdrawal of one thousand American troops from Vietnam” is mentioned as one of several policies that aroused the wrath of a loose coalition including the Mob, extreme right wingers and elements of the CIA that had been drawn together in the early 1960s in a common campaign to eliminate Cuban Premier Fidel Castro. [P. 183]
These other policies were “the test ban treaty and announced armaments reductions, civil rights initiatives…and the escalated war against organized crime.”
In the next chapter, “The Anti-Castro Coalition,” Scheim presents in one and a half pages an accurate enough summary of the antagonism between Kennedy and the CIA after the Bay of Pigs and his peace initiatives toward the Soviets after the Missile Crisis, which does not differ significantly from the more detailed account, for example, in James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable (Orbis, 2008), concluding with a long paragraph about Vietnam:
In the spring of 1963, President Kennedy told aide Kenneth O’Donnell of his determination to withdraw American forces from Vietnam after the November election, commenting, “I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser. But I don’t care.” On October 2, 1963, Defense Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor reported that it was their objective to terminate the “major part” of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam by 1965. Specifically, they predicted that 1,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from there by the end of 1963. On October 31, in a news conference, President Kennedy reaffirmed his administration’s intention to pull out these 1,000 troops. The first 220 of them were withdrawn on December 3, 1963, as directed by Kennedy’s prior order. [P. 187]
In the next paragraph, with no logical transition, Scheim returns to his main theme of the loathing of the extreme right, anti-Castro Cubans, and Mob-connected elements of the CIA for Kennedy, whose “aspirations,” he concludes, “were dashed by President Kennedy’s steps toward détente, his civil rights initiatives, and the Vietnam troop withdrawals he ordered” (p. 194).
There follow 79 more pages about Jack Ruby’s Cuban and Mob connections, “Nationwide Mob Contacts,” etc. Scheim concludes that the “assassination of President Kennedy succeeded in stopping the administration’s crushing assault on the Mob” but “also aborted other initiatives of President Kennedy that the Mob’s allies in the anti-Castro coalition found objectionable.” These included a “major cut in defense spending,” “moves toward accomodation with Cuba,” support of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic (who opposed the Mob and might have returned to power), and then, finally, the long paragraph quoted above about JFK’s attempt “to pull America out of its Vietnam quagmire.”
Scheim embeds the Vietnam policy reversal within his larger thesis, reducing it to merely
the first of several hints that the sinister alliance between the underworld and elements of the CIA that surfaced in assassination plots against Castro was resurrected after President Kennedy’s death. The point of collaboration this time was narcotics… For all but the Mob heroin traffickers, the Vietnam War was thus one of the most unfortunate consequences of the murder of President Kennedy. [Pp. 274-275]
If I were a state propagandist, I would welcome a book like this. First, I would be glad to see the facts about JFK and Vietnam (the withdrawal policy reversal) getting out into the broad public where they can be seen, heard, smelled, and tossed around. This, as one may learn from inoculation theory, is a way to expose people to potentially dangerous knowledge in an attenuated form so that they will build up a resistance to it when a stronger variety comes along. Here virtually the whole truth about the assassination is inserted into the body politic but in attenuated form, as only part of the much larger context of a conspiracy involving a sinister alliance of Mobsters, rogue “elements” of the CIA, anti-Castro Cubans and extreme right-wing fanatics.
The process of subordinating one truth to another one, perhaps both equally true from an evidentiary point of view, but where one is presented as the main, “larger” truth, and the other as the subordinate, “smaller” truth can be called co-option. Here, the “smaller” truth of the policy reversal is embedded in, overshadowed by, co-opted by the “larger” one of the sinister Mafia alliance controlling almost everything, including foreign policy. In the case of the two JFK films, the Turner film is co-opted by the Stone film.
These two processes, inoculation and co-option, pursued energetically, lead to a place which I call Ronaldland, after Stephen Leacock’s hero who “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” There we will find John Newman working on the fourth or fifth volume of his JFK assassination research and his colleague Peter Dale Scott engrossed in “parapolitics” and “deep politics” (both terms he invented). To see how this relates to “Who Killed JFK?” Scott says we must look beyond (or under) “Texas oilmen, organized crime, the Dallas police, and army intelligence” to find “the key to a credible model for what happened” and to understand “the deep political system” comprised of “connections and relationships of long standing, immune to disclosure, and capable of great crimes” (Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, Univ. of California Press, 1993). Echoing David Scheim, Scott says:
The postwar international alliance between intelligence and drug traffickers is perhaps the best-documented instance of such a connection, one where denial persists despite limited revelations about the 1960-63 plots to murder Fidel Castro. It is not the only such connection, and indeed merges with others, notably unassailable networks responsible for gambling and prostitution in the United States.
There are two other special reasons for suspecting the intelligence-sanctioned drug networks in particular. One is their role in connecting so many disparately centered different networks, from FBN [Federal Bureau of Narcotics] and FBI to foreign casinos to local corruption in Dallas and elsewhere. The other is their key role in transnational connections to the deep politics of Mexico and Nicaragua, two countries clearly involved in the assassination story. [Pp. 299-300]
This exhaustively (and exhaustingly) complex “model” must be compared with the brilliant but simple common sense of Vincent Salandria’s 1971 “Model of Explanation,” which inspired not only Jim Garrison but also James Douglass’s highly acclaimed bestseller JFK and the Unspeakable (2008). Like Salandria and Garrison, Douglass says:
We have no evidence as to who in the military-industrial complex may have given the order to assassinate President Kennedy. That the order was carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency is obvious. The CIA’s fingerprints are all over the crime and the events leading up to it. [Kindle edition, 2011, Ch. 4, pp. 414]
In the course of experimenting in the dark truth of JFK’s death, the ongoing, deepening historical hypothesis of this book has been that the CIA coordinated and carried out the president’s murder. [Kindle edition, Ch. 6, p. 811]
He waffles only slightly when he goes on to say:
To tell the truth at the heart of darkness in this story, one must see and accept a responsibility that goes deeper and far beyond the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA was the coordinating instrument that killed the president, but the question of responsibility is more systemic, more personal, and more chilling. [Kindle edition, Ch 6, p. 811]
The “unspeakable” truth involves not only the silence of various witnesses but “a larger conspiracy of silence that would envelop our government, our media, our academic institutions, and virtually our entire society from November 22, 1963, to the present.” [Kindle edition, Ch. 6, p. 827]
This reminds me of how I ended my 1993 book Looking for the Enemy: “In the end, it is we who are the enemy,” which I meant much as Walt Kelly meant it when he wrote “We have met the enemy and he is us” and which Douglass puts this way, quoting JFK speaking to a group of Quakers:
“The military-industrial complex is very strong. If you folks are serious about trying to get our government to take these kinds of steps [towards disarmament], you’ve got to get much more organized, to put pressure on the government to move in this direction.” [Kindle edition, Ch. 6, p. 846]
I don’t expect to see any serious challenge to Douglass’s book. Noam Chomsky, I’m sure, would be no more inclined to embrace the Vietnam “withdrawal without victory” thesis as embraced by Douglass than he was in 1993 when it was put forward by Newman or in 2003 when embraced by Jones and Galbraith — and much less would Chomsky be likely to agree that “Because JFK chose peace on earth at the height of the Cold War, he was executed” (Kindle edition, Afterword, p. 1195]. But I think the discussion is over. We can think of JFK as a hawk or a dove, as we wish. Barring another Turner or Stone film, nobody is going to get too excited about it. Time works in favor of the propagandists, and this is what they have wanted all along.