Tuesday, October 28, 2003

A lot of people get attached to romantic notions that just don't comport with the real world. Some people, for instance, want to believe that the whole traumatic Vietnam conflict would have been avoided if John F. Kennedy had stayed in office. For years, this notion has been denounced as being completely at variance with the well-studied historical record. Even Noam Chomsky has mocked its adherents as hopeless romantics. But some people just won't let go.

And now, we have tapes, made in the oval office in October of 1963, containing the voice of JFK ordering a complete and unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam within two years, "victory" or no. And he is backed up by the strong urging of, of all people, Bob "Body Count" McNamara, who had already concluded that prospects for victory were doubtful at best.

All this flies in the face of a historical record which has been consistently read to assert an essential continuity between Kennedy's Vietnam policy, and what Lyndon Johnson did afterwards. In fact, the most astounding part of James (son of John K.) Galbraith's account of the controversy is his discussion of just how much had to be buried to create that impression. Quoth Galbraith:

The President of the United States does not make decisions in a vacuum. Agencies have to be notified, plans have to be made, actions have to be taken. Part of the enduring doubt over Kennedy's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam surely stems from the failure of this decision to cast a shadow in the primary record, and particularly in the Pentagon Papers, on which so many historians have relied for so many years. Furthermore, a persistent skeptic can still point to the "it should be possible" language of the McNamara-Taylor Report with respect to the final date of 1965 as leaving an "out" for the case where the military situation might turn sour. In two years and two months, much can happen, as events would prove.

But as Scott already pointed out to Chomsky in 1993, the primary record available to date has been heavily edited. Documents from November 1, 1963, through early December are conspicuously missing. So, we now learn, are many others.

These include about 900 pages of newly declassified archives on defense plans from 1963, which confirm the withdrawal plans and give further specifics on the timing. What gets particularly odd about this is that the documents in question were edited out of even the Pentagon's own secret history of the conflict, the Pentagon Papers, whose revelation in 1971 was itself a major scandal due to all the other stuff that was left in. Someone meant to bury this very deep.

And even that isn't the creepiest part of this article. That would be a tossup between the news that the CIA began its preparations for covert escalation the day before Johnson issued his secret orders authorizing the move, and this eerie footnote:

My father [John K. Galbraith] retains a distinct, chilling recollection of LBJ's words to him, in private, on one of their last meetings before the Vietnam War finally drove them apart: "You may not like what I'm doing in Vietnam, Ken, but you would not believe what would happen if I were not here."

It's impossible to know what Johnson was referring to, though the historical record resounds at this point with ugly possibilities, from staged attacks by covert US forces on America itself meant to kick off a larger war, à la Operation Northwoods, to the not-well-concealed longing of some elements of the American military structure (notably Curtis LeMay, as Richard Rhodes documented extensively in his Dark Sun) for a nuclear first strike while the US could still "win". Beyond that, a further discussion of the implications of this news would have to touch on the mother lode of American conspiracy theorizing, the Kennedy assassination, on which Galbraith is carefully, almost studiously, silent.

Most Americans today were not born when any of this happened. What does it matter to them? Well, as I first noted about a year ago,

it's not as if Cheney and Rumsfeld are just Bush I retreads trying to redo the Gulf War. It's important to remember they're older than that. They are, in fact, Nixon administration retreads trying to redo Vietnam --- a war where technical superiority and early large set-piece victories (the lonesome cry of the cold war hawk: "The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong!") didn't exactly prefigure success...

And now, they have another military victory to play with...


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