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The withdrawal-without-victory thesis is typically understood to subsume a second one: that LBJ immediately reversed policy from withdrawal to escalation; NSAM 263 (October 11) and NSAM 273 (November 26, with a pre-assassination draft) are commonly adduced in evidence, but they sustain no such conclusion. The major effort to establish the dual thesis is John Newman's book. As noted, this "ten year study" received much attention and praise, over a broad spectrum. It was the basis for the influential Oliver Stone film JFK, and is taken by much of the left to be a definitive demonstration of the twin theses. The book was strongly endorsed by Arthur Schlesinger, who describes it as a "solid contribution," with its "straightforward and workmanlike, rather military...organization, tone and style" and "meticulous and exhaustive examination of documents." Former CIA Director William Colby, who headed the Far East division of the CIA in 1963-1964, hailed Newman's study of these years as a "brilliant, meticulously researched and fascinating account of the decision-making which led to America's long agony in Vietnam"; America's agony, in accordance with approved doctrine.32
The book is not without interest. It contains some new documentary evidence, which further undermines the Newman-Schlesinger thesis when extricated from the chaotic jumble of materials interlarded with highlighted phrases that demonstrate nothing, confident interpretations of private intentions and beliefs, tales of intrigue and deception of extraordinary scale and complexity, so well-concealed as to leave no trace in the record, and conclusions that become more strident as the case collapses before the author's eyes. By the end, he claims that the National Security Council meetings of 1961 "more than resolve the question" of whether Kennedy would have sent combat troops under the radically different circumstances faced by his advisers in 1965, a conclusion that captures accurately the level of argument.
Newman's basic contention seems to be that JFK was surrounded by evil advisers who were trying to thwart his secret plan to withdraw without victory, though unaccountably, he kept giving them more authority and promoting them to higher positions, perhaps because he didn't understand them. Thus JFK thought that Taylor was "the one general...who shared his own views and that he could, therefore, trust to carry out his bidding." Shamelessly deceived, JFK therefore placed him in charge of the Special Group on counterinsurgency, promoted him to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and relied on him until the end, though Taylor was undermining him at every turn; Taylor became "the second most powerful person in the White House," Newman observes, making no attempt to resolve the paradox. From the beginning, the "record leaves the reader with the unforgettable image of a President pitted against his own advisors and the bureaucracy that served under him."33
There are a few "good guys," but in the chaos, it is hard to be sure who they are: perhaps Harriman, Forrestal, Hilsman, and McNamara, though even they joined the malefactors who beset our hero on every side (Harriman and Hilsman "mired Kennedy in a plot to overthrow Diem" , etc.). McNamara's role in these imaginative constructions is particularly intriguing. On November 26, 1961, Newman explains, Kennedy took command of officialdom in the "Thanksgiving Day Massacre," carrying out "a sweeping change of personnel" so that his own men would be in a position to implement his plans. "The person who emerged that day as Kennedy's point man on the Vietnam War was Robert Strange McNamara" -- who, at a meeting three weeks earlier, had taken a prominent role in favor of deploying US military forces in Vietnam, and was "still anticipating a decision to commit U.S. combat forces," as he advocated, on November 13. On November 26, McNamara was therefore made "personally responsible" for executing the President's policies. And so he did, we read: McNamara "was determined to execute the Commander-in-Chief's intent: a genuine withdrawal from Vietnam" (October 1963). As in the case of Taylor's rise to the top, no explanation is given for these curious shifts and decisions, or for McNamara's role under LBJ.34
The withdrawal-without-victory thesis rests on the assumption that Kennedy realized that the optimistic military reports were incorrect -- or, as Newman claims, an elaborate effort to deceive the President. Newman's treatment of this issue is therefore central to the story.
Closely paraphrasing the account in the Pentagon Papers, reviewed above, he describes the July 1962 events as the beginning of "the lengthy paper trail on the Kennedy withdrawal plan for Vietnam." By then, he writes, "The Americans were ready to declare victory and come home," and expected to bring "the Vietnam problem `to a successful conclusion within a reasonable time'." McNamara gave Harkins instructions to "come up with a plan to wrap things up and come home" (Newman). Harkins considered the war almost over, but McNamara urged that "we must assume the worst," taking the "conservative view" that "it will take three years instead of one year" and making plans accordingly. Unequivocally, the goal was withdrawal after victory, by 1965.
Into the fall of 1962, Newman writes, "the deception was working, and Kennedy, like McNamara, had come to believe the perception delivered by the uninterrupted string of false reports emanating from Vietnam." But by March 1963, JFK had "figured out...that the success story was a deception." There is "hard evidence" for this, he claims, citing an NBC documentary eight months later that questioned the optimistic intelligence reports. The remainder of the evidence is that "in his heart he must have known" that the military program was a failure. Unlike his advisers (at least, those not in on the various "deceptions"), Kennedy "had to notice when the military myth was shaken by Bowles and Mendenhall in late 1962," and by Mansfield's pessimism. "When the drama of the Wheeler versus Hilsman-Forrestal match ended up in his office in February 1963, the implication that the story of success was untrue could no longer be overlooked" (by JFK, uniquely); the "drama" is the difference of judgment as to the time scale for victory, already reviewed (see pages 69-71).
These conclusions are presented on faith. A closer look shaves the sliver of evidence even further. Consider the timing. We read that "By the fall of 1962 the deception was working," but JFK "had to notice" the reports of Bowles and Mendenhall "in late 1962" -- in fact, in August 1962. Putting that problem aside, both of these reports are ambiguous, and Mendenhall's, as Newman notes, "did not go higher than the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs"; it is unclear, then, how JFK "had to notice" it. As for Bowles, he had been cut out of policymaking sectors long before. Unmentioned is the further fact that Bowles visited Vietnam in July 1963 and sent a highly confidential report to McGeorge Bundy, which, in this case, the President may have seen. Bowles wrote that "the military situation is steadily improving" although "the political situation is rapidly deteriorating," repeating the standard view. He also warned that "We cannot achieve our objectives in Southeast Asia as long as Diem and his family run Vietnam." He recommended that the US support someone who will "overthrow Diem" and send "U.S. special service troops and advisors into Laos to beef up and train the best Laotian troops," using Thai mercenaries and ARVN as well for this purpose; he also appears to be calling for Thailand to occupy part of northwestern Laos, though some sentences are not declassified. With "a bit of luck," we may "turn the tide" and "lay the basis for a far more favorable situation in Southeast Asia than seemed possible a few months ago."35
On these grounds, we are to conclude that JFK alone understood that official optimism was unwarranted.
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32 Colby, jacket cover. On the reaction to Newman's "examination of documents" by the first historian to check his files, see ch. 1, n. 92.
33 Newman, JFK, 457, 127, 180, 49. See p. 367 for a sample of Taylor's alleged treachery.
34 Ibid., 141, 137, 154, 147.
35 Ibid., 285f., 319f., 290-1. FRUSV, III 518f.