The late Alexander Cockburn was an influential figure on the American Left for a long time. Born in Ireland, he moved to London and became both a journalist and author in his early twenties. About ten years later, in 1972, he moved to America and became a regular columnist for The Village Voice. In 1984 he moved over to The Nation. In 1993 he helped establish the bimonthly journal CounterPunch. He stayed an integral part of CounterPunch until his death at age 71 in 2012.
Cockburn had a loyal following on the Left and this allowed him to publish about 20 books. I could never understand his appeal, as I learned little from either reading his columns or his books. He seemed to me to be more of a showman and self- promoter than a serious author or researcher. To me, his ambition was to be a trendsetter on the Left. Yet at the same time he did very little to justify that ambition or do anything to establish, configure, or revivify the Left. I felt that way about him both before and after his attacks on Oliver Stone’s film JFK. One of those polemics actually featured an interview with Wesley Liebeler of the Warren Commission. He never once challenged one thing Liebeler said.
Cockburn specifically attacked one of the central features of Stone’s film: namely, the thesis that, at the time of his murder, President Kennedy was intending to withdraw from Vietnam. In advancing that thesis, Stone had relied on the work of both the late Fletcher Prouty and Dr. John Newman. Newman published a volume in 1992 that was the first book-length treatment of the subject. JFK and Vietnam was a milestone in modern American historical studies. It confronted one of the most established shibboleths of both the Left and Right: Lyndon Johnson continued John Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. Not only did the book disprove that concept, it demolished it. To the point that, after reading it, one had to think: How did that myth ever get started?
The answer to that question was in some of the tapes declassified by the Assassination Records Review Board. The culprit was Lyndon Johnson. As shown in James Blight’s valuable book Virtual JFK, knowing that Kennedy was withdrawing, President Johnson deliberately set out to conceal that fact by coopting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to the point that he even wanted McNamara to write a memo saying that he did not really mean it when he announced American advisors were coming home from Indochina. The verbatim transcripts of these conversations are sometimes startling. (See Blight, pp. 304-10) But Virtual JFK is not the only new book that abides by the Newman/Prouty thesis. Other books published since that time do the same, and with new evidence; e.g., David Kaiser’s American Tragedy, Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster, and Jim Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable, to name just three. But further, in surveying those books, one will note that all of Kennedy’s military and national security advisors are on record as stating that President Kennedy was not going to enter combat troops into Indochina. This would include Secretary of Defense McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Maxwell Taylor.
In addition to those three men, there is the written evidence of the withdrawal plan: National Security Action Memorandum 263, and the Taylor/McNamara report. The latter was the underlying basis for the former, which ordered the withdrawal of a thousand advisors by the end of 1963, and the rest by 1965. As both Prouty and Newman showed, that report was not written by Taylor or McNamara. It was written by General Victor Krulak and Prouty himself in Washington under the supervision of Bobby Kennedy, who was carrying out the orders of President Kennedy. (Newman, p. 401) It was then jetted out to Hawaii and handed to Taylor and McNamara in bound form. (Douglass, p. 187) That is how determined President Kennedy was to control the report so he could base his withdrawal order upon it.
As Jim Douglass demonstrated in his popular book, there were several witnesses JFK had confided in about his intent to withdraw from Vietnam. Two examples would be the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson, and journalist Charles Bartlett. (Douglass, pp. 181, 188) As Douglass also noted, in his last conversation about the subject, right before he left for Dallas, Kennedy confided in someone who wanted to commit combat troops in theater, but who later admitted he was wrong about this and Kennedy was right. This was National Security Council assistant Michael Forrestal. Forrestal stated that Kennedy told him the USA had virtually no chance of winning and he wanted to educate his advisors to that point of view, so that they, like he, would begin to question the underpinnings of American intervention there. (Douglass, p. 183)
Perhaps the most important document declassified by the ARRB was the record of the May, 1963 Sec/Def meeting in Hawaii. That document was declassified in late 1997. It actually made headlines in the MSM—for example, The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. McNamara had requested timelines for each department’s withdrawal from Vietnam. When he got them at this meeting, he rejected them as being too slow. (Douglass, p. 126)
Professor James K. Galbraith has recently done a similar summary of the case for Kennedy’s withdrawal plan. The evidence in this regard is today so plentiful that Galbraith uses a number of items not mentioned here. But still, there are elements of what this author calls the doctrinaire Left that resists this evidence. In addition to the founders of CounterPunch, there are also Tom Blanton and John Prados of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Blanton is a case study in himself. When Michael Dobbs’ book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, One Minute to Midnight, was published in 2009, Blanton used the occasion to say that Dobbs now showed it was not JFK who saved the world from Armageddon, but a Soviet submarine commander. This was in spite of the fact that Dobbs had said on national television that Kennedy’s conduct of that crisis marked him for greatness. And anyone can see this if they read a previous book on that event, The Kennedy Tapes. That book is a near complete account of the discussions during the 13-day episode that has led even MSM authors like Fred Kaplan to pay homage to JFK’s stewardship.
But there seems to be an almost unwritten law with the doctrinaire Left that the more one holds out against appreciating JFK, the more credence one has. This idea seems to me to be utterly silly as it is both anti-historical and anti-intellectual. One relatively recent example of this was displayed by another co-founder of CounterPunch, author Ken Silverstein. In 2015, Silverstein went public with an offer he said was made to him by Bobby Kennedy Jr. Kennedy was preparing a book on the Michael Skakel case and he asked Silverstein to be his researcher. Silverstein turned him down and said words to the effect that he would not be part of a cover up since Skakel was obviously guilty. Silverstein made a retroactive fool of himself, since Kennedy’s fine book on that case showed that Skakel had been the victim of an almost maniacal frame-up. That effort was led by the likes of Dominick Dunne and Mark Fuhrman. (See my review)
The occasion for the preceding discussion is a recent article in CounterPunch. As part of a kind of Indochina travelogue series written by Matthew Stevenson, the author brings up Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. The title reveals the puerility of the piece: “Why Vietnam Still Matters: JFK Should have Known Better”. After an introduction describing smog problems today in Vietnam, Stevenson gets to the main theme of the piece. He describes Kennedy’s withdrawal plan as nothing but “often-heard speculation”. In other words, all that I have described above—NSAM 263, the rewriting of Taylor/McNamara, the Sec/Def meeting of May 1963, the testimony of Bundy, McNamara, and Taylor—all that and more somehow does not mean what it says.
But Stevenson goes further than that. He traces Kennedy’s record back to his 1951 trip to Saigon. At that time France was involved in a war to regain control of its former Indochina colony. Stevenson does two very tricky things in this part of his piece. It would seem impossible today to describe that 1951 journey without mentioning Kennedy’s discussion with State Department official Edmund Gullion. But Stevenson manages to do so. That discussion was first described by Richard Mahoney 35 years ago in his seminal book, JFK: Ordeal in Africa. Gullion told Kennedy that France would not win the war because Ho Chi Minh had inspired the Viet Minh to such an extent they would rather die than return to a state of colonialism. France could not win a war of attrition in Vietnam because the home front would not support it. (Mahoney, p. 108) The strong influence this conversation had on Kennedy is evidenced by the fact that he called Gullion into the White House in 1961 to become, first his point man on, and then the ambassador to, Congo. Throughout that three-year struggle, Gullion advised Kennedy not to give in to the imperial designs of Belgium and England. Which Kennedy did not. Kennedy stayed true to the secret alliance he had made with U. N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold and ultimately approved a United Nations military mission there to hold Congo together in the face of Belgian/British efforts to break off the wealthy region of Katanga. (See Hammarskjold and Kennedy vs the Power Elite) That policy was altered and then reversed after Kennedy’s death by the CIA and President Johnson. (Mahoney, pp. 225-31) If you don’t mention Gullion, one does not have to mention his White House influence or relate this key angle of Kennedy’s foreign policy.
The other trick he uses is to present a long quote from David Halberstam’s obsolete book The Best and the Brightest. What Halberstam always wanted everyone to forget, and what Stevenson goes along with is this: Halberstam wanted more, not less, American involvement in Indochina up to at least 1965. That is when he published his book The Making of a Quagmire. That book was perhaps the most extreme condemnation of American policy in Vietnam written to that point in time. And it was an attack from the Right! Kennedy knew that Halberstam’s reporting made it more difficult to execute his withdrawal plan, because it asserted that America was losing. Kennedy was using the false intelligence reports that America was winning to implement his withdrawal plan. This is why he was upset with Halberstam’s and Neil Sheehan’s reporting in 1962-63. Again, Stevenson does not elucidate this state of affairs. (See part 2 of my review of the Burns and Novick Vietnam documentary)
After this alchemy, Stevenson then writes that Kennedy changed his tune on the issue in the mid-fifties. He can say this because he ignores Kennedy’s great Algeria speech made on the floor of the Senate in June of 1957. That speech assailed the French colonial war in Algeria and explicitly stated that the US should not ally itself with that conflict since we saw what happened to France three years earlier in Vietnam. (Mahoney, pp. 20-24) As Mahoney notes, Kennedy was attacked on all sides for this speech, including by the leaders of his own party like Dean Acheson. Now it is true that Kennedy tried to make the best of Ngo Dinh Diem. But Senator Kennedy had little or nothing to do with his installation. That was done by the Eisenhower administration, i.e., CIA Director Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. And it is strange that they are absent from this article. Because it was those two men, along with Vice-President Richard Nixon and President Eisenhower who made the commitment to install Diem. As Anthony Summers noted in his biography of Nixon, it was Nixon who first said America should commit combat troops to save the French from defeat in 1954. It was Foster Dulles who proposed using atomic weapons at Dien Bien Phu. A policy that Senator Kennedy strongly objected to. (Mahoney, p. 16) It was Foster Dulles and Eisenhower who then reneged on the Geneva Accords that were supposed to reunite the country after national elections. The Eisenhower administration then backed up Diem for five years as he and his family usurped all power and began to imprison tens of thousands of dissidents in the cities and summarily execute rebels in the countryside. In other words, Kennedy was presented with a problem that should not have been there if the free elections allowed for by the Geneva Accords had been held.
One of the most ignorant statements in the article is the following: “Kennedy could only view Vietnam and Diem through the prism of the Cold War.” This is ridiculous. Kennedy had decided not to bail out the Bay of Pigs operation. He had opted for a neutralist solution in Laos. As noted above, the record today shows that he was willing to leave Vietnam after the 1964 election.
After this, another statement of colossal ignorance follows. Stevenson writes that although it was LBJ who sent in combat troops and started Rolling Thunder, he was “singing from Kennedy’s hymnal together with his choir.” If anything shows the utter intellectual bankruptcy of Stevenson’s piece it is this statement. As shown above, if this happened, Johnson was unaware of it. As Virtual JFK shows, Johnson consciously overturned Kennedy’s policy and then coopted McNamara into going along with that change. I mean, how much clearer can it be than this taped conversation: “I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the president thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.” (Blight, p. 310) This plainly indicates LBJ knew that Kennedy was withdrawing and that McNamara was his point man on that plan. LBJ was so opposed to it that he thought it was “foolish”. He suffered through it because he was in a subordinate position. If one needed any more proof, in another conversation, just two weeks later, Johnson asked McNamara to take back his announcement of the withdrawal plan! (Blight, p. 310) The idea that Rolling Thunder and the troop insertion were “singing from Kennedy’s hymnal” is utter and complete malarkey. It’s a statement made not with support from the record but in defiance of the record.
To conclude his piece of piffling, the author brings up the overthrow of Diem and the subsequent assassination of him and his brother Nhu. The author actually quotes Roger Hilsman and Averell Harriman—whom he calls Harrison—in the drafting of the infamous “coup cable” of August 1963. He then says that Kennedy went along with the telegram.
Again, this is not writing history. It is fulfilling an agenda. There are two good sources for what happened with this cable. The first is in JFK and Vietnam by John Newman. The second is by James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable. Newman clearly delineates the maneuvering in the State Department by those who wished to be rid of Diem. (pp. 345-51) This included Hilsman, Harriman and Forrestal. Which is why it is not good to use them as sources. After the South Vietnamese defeat at the Battle of Ap Bac, this circle had become convinced that Diem could not win the war. (Newman, pp. 302-04) They therefore hatched a plot to deceive Kennedy into approving their plan to confront Diem with an ultimatum. As Newman describes it, they waited for the weekend of August 24, 1963, when most of the principals in the cabinet were out of town. They then manipulated the phones to get approval for a cable to Diem. They told Kennedy that CIA Director John McCone had approved the cable. This was false. (Newman, p. 348) The cable essentially told the ambassador to tell Diem that, in light of the Buddhist crisis, he must begin to discard his brother Nhu as commander of the security forces. If he did not, America would look elsewhere for leadership. If Diem refused, then the ambassador should inform the military commanders of the situation.
The new ambassador in Saigon was Henry Cabot Lodge. As Douglass notes, Lodge disobeyed the instructions on the cable. He showed it to the military before he showed it to Diem. (Douglass, p. 164) When Kennedy returned to the White House on Monday, he was enraged when he found out what had happened. He said, “This shit has got to stop!”. When Forrestal offered to resign, Kennedy barked back, “You’re not worth firing. You owe me something … .” (Douglass, pp. 164-65) As Lodge later stated in the 1983 PBS series, “Vietnam: A Television History,” Kennedy sent him a cable that cancelled the coup. And it did not go through, at least at that time. (Newman, p. 355) But since Lodge had shown the cable to the generals, there was a perceived incentive for them to proceed at a later time.
There had always been a question as to what ignited the coup that took place several weeks later. It turns out that Jim Douglass was correct on this point. In his book, he describes a meeting between Kennedy and AID officer David Bell in September. At that meeting Bell informed the president that the CIA had already cut off the commodity support program to Saigon. Kennedy asked him to repeat what he just said. Bell did so. Kennedy then asked him, “Who the hell told you to do that?” Bell replied that it was done automatically when deficiencies mounted with a client government. Kennedy shook his head and muttered, “My God, do you know what you’ve done?” (Douglass, p. 192)
William Colby was the Far East chief at the time of the Diem overthrow. Prior to that he had been the CIA chief of station in Saigon. His top-secret testimony on the matter before the Church Committee in 1975 was declassified last year by order of the JFK Act. He confirmed that the suspension of the commercial import credit program was the critical factor in reigniting the coup. (Colby testimony, June 20, 1975, p. 37)
But getting all of this wrong, and ignoring the declassified record, this is still not enough for Stevenson. He then says that with the killing of Diem and his brother Nhu, America took ownership of the war and the debacles that were to follow. As we have seen, before Kennedy left for Dallas, he told Forrestal America had virtually no chance to win, and when he returned he wished to lead a discussion of how the USA had even gotten involved. This was after the overthrow of Diem. On November 14, 1963 Kennedy replied to a reporter’s question that an upcoming meeting in Hawaii was about how we can bring Americans home. He then added, “Now that is our object, to bring Americans home, permit the South Vietnamese to maintain themselves as a free and independent country.” (Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p. 96) In other words, America had done as much as it could do to aid Saigon. And Kennedy was not going to commit American combat troops to save the day. Again, those comments were made after the Diem overthrow. It was Johnson’s decision to enter combat troops into Vietnam. There were none in theater at the time of Kennedy’s death. There were 175,000 there at the end of 1965. And Bobby Kennedy, who knew what his brother was up to in 1963, tried to convince Johnson not to militarize the conflict. (John Bohrer, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, p. 70)
Stevenson ends his piece with some of the most unimaginable nonsense that I have recently read on the subject. He says that Kennedy was not able “to separate the Cold War or the lessons of Munich from regional or local politics.” In Mahoney’s book, one will read an entire chapter on how Kennedy did just that from 1951-57 in written and oral communications for the entire world to see. This culminated in his Algeria speech in 1957. After that he became a hero in Africa and the unofficial ambassador to that continent, while working hard as both senator and president to decolonize the continent. The idea that somehow Kennedy thought about losing Vietnam being the equivalent to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler at Munich, is actually laughable, since that is precisely what he planned on doing after the 1964 election. He could not do it before, since it would create too many political liabilities. (Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye, p. 16)
Can Stevenson really not know how ignorant he is revealing himself to be? It was not Kennedy, but Johnson who voiced that opinion of Vietnam. He did so in quite literal terms, to his biographer Doris Kearns. He told Kearns the following:
Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression. And I knew that if we let communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate … that would shatter my presidency, kill my administration and damage our democracy. (Blight, p. 211)
In other words, not only does Stevenson attribute a false psychology to Kennedy—there is, in fact, no evidence that Kennedy ever valued Vietnam as a prime national security interest of the USA—but it was actually Johnson who thought that way about the matter. And that was the difference in the two men and their conduct of the war. If Stevenson was not aware of this then he is simply ignorant of important matters. To the point that his essay finally descends into a grotesque parody of the facts.
CounterPunch is at times a valuable journal. In fact, I used some information from it for my book JFK: The Evidence Today, which will be released in early April. But apparently they cannot outgrow the legacy of Alec Cockburn, which they perceive as some kind of banner of lefty bona fides. As seen above, what Cockburn represented on Kennedy and Vietnam was a gross distortion of historical fact. Which is a shame when it’s done by the Left as well as the Right.