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Saturday, 02 May 2020 20:02

Counterpunch, JFK , and Vietnam

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Jim DiEugenio once again responds to the incomplete and inaccurate history of Vietnam, and of JFK's role, presented by Counterpunch, noting that if, as the article claims, most American leaders did not understand what the war was really about, Kennedy did: that was why he was getting out.


As readers of this site will understand, Counterpunch has consistently been one of the far left’s bastions of ideological purity. They do some good work from that vantage point. But one of the problems with that point of view is that it tends to sweep up all of history into a sanctimonious vacuum. And one of the things that gets swept up and homogenized is the issue of John Kennedy and Vietnam. (Here is a previous example.)

Their latest in this vein was posted on April 30, 2020. It is another of their “Letters from Vietnam” series. This one is from an American living in Vietnam named Mark Ashwill. Ashwill is an educational entrepreneur. The occasion for him writing his letter is the 45th anniversary of America leaving Indochina in 1975. This was due to the agreements that were negotiated by Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig under Richard Nixon’s supervision in Paris.

Ashwill writes the letter as if he were a citizen of Vietnam (which he may well be) and is preaching to his former countrymen about the evil that they visited on his new nation. I would like to inform the editors of Counterpunch and also Mr. Ashwill that this history lesson is not exactly new. It has been going on at least since the rise of Students for a Democratic Society early in the sixties. It was given popular voice in the pages of Ramparts magazine, and was in book form during that decade through the work of men like William Appleman Williams and historians influenced by him who created New Left studies.

In fact to go through his rather antique complaint today is kind of boring. Most of us know that Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam free from French domination at the end of World War II. That he used American historical documents like the Declaration of Independence to do so. Many, many years ago Williams produced the letter that Ho sent to Harry Truman in 1945 asking the American president to cooperate with his cause against France. We also know how that letter was ignored and Harry Truman and his later Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to side with France. And America ended up bankrolling about 80% of the French war effort. We also know the rest of Ashwill’s litany: how the defeat at Dien Bien Phu led to the Geneva Accords, and how President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sabotaged that agreement by not holding elections in 1956. And that this key event inevitably led to the USA getting involved in a second war against North Vietnam. This would have been prevented if the Geneva Accords had been honored.

Ashwill now makes a large leap to 1961 and President John F. Kennedy. The reason I say this is a large leap is because by leaving out 1956-60, in his own David Halberstam-ish way, the author eliminates a central point. John Foster Dulles clearly ran the American participation at Geneva. The attorney realized that his oral agreement with the Accords could easily be broken if he did not sign them and this is what he advised the president to do. (William Blum, The CIA: A Forgotten History, p. 137)

Within days of the end of the conference, Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, director of the CIA, began a long series of clandestine actions in order to create a new country called South Vietnam. These actions were supervised by General Edward Lansdale, who was in reality a high-level CIA action officer. It included a psychological terror war in the north to convince the Catholics that they would be persecuted by Ho Chi Minh and they should flee to the south. This helped prop up America’s chosen leader of this new country, the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem. Once this creation was completed, Foster Dulles made the infamous assertion, “We have a clean base there now, without a taint of colonialism. Dien Bien Phu was a blessing in disguise.” (Blum, p. 139). Leaving out Lansdale and the Dulles brothers is not just reminiscent of Halberstam, it is also what Ken Burns and Lynn Novick did more recently in their long dud of a documentary series called The Vietnam War.

There was no South Vietnam before this. Eisenhower, the Dulles brothers and Vice President Richard Nixon created it. Once it was created, the USA was committed to propping it up any way it could. It was through Diem that America formally cancelled the scheduled unification elections. (Blum, p. 139) This also meant using the fig leaf of communist infiltration from the north as a pretext to invoke the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) as a mutual defense doctrine. Omitting these details thus ignores the fact that those four men had split the country in half and then fabricated a civil war for their own purposes. It was this threat that gave Ho Chi Minh pause about enforcing the Geneva Accords and forcibly holding the elections––which could have easily been achieved. ((Blum, p. 139)

The USA now began to send new military advisory units to Saigon in further defiance of the Geneva Accords. Lansdale began to rig elections to keep Diem in power. The Dulles brothers were not furthering democracy. They had installed and now supported a dictator. And they trained his security forces at Michigan State University. (Blum, p. 140) These techniques included torture and imprisonment in the infamous “tiger cages”.

To skip over all this, plus the large amounts of aid we were giving Diem, is to paper over why it was not easy to get out. The Saigon government was a creation of Washington. And, to say the least, Diem was not a good choice for its leadership. But in doing all this, it created a tactical and strategic commitment that had not existed in 1952. In my opinion, it is not something that can be discounted or ignored, since in historical terms, it is crucial. To make this Bob Beamon leap to President Kennedy and 1961 is bad history, even for an informal letter.

What makes it all worse is the fact that the editors at Counterpunch then placed a picture of President Kennedy at the top of the article next to a map of a divided Vietnam. As if, somehow, Kennedy was involved in the decision to split up the country. This is misleading not just because he was not involved, but because Kennedy was one of the very few voices in Washington to oppose the Dulles/Eisenhower policy not just in Vietnam, but throughout the Third World. This conflict between the senator and the White House was documented by Richard Mahoney back in 1983 in his important book, JFK: Ordeal in Africa. In that book, Mahoney specifically noted Kennedy’s 1957 landmark speech about the ongoing French colonial war in Algeria. During that speech Kennedy harked back to Dien Bien Phu and said what happened in Indochina will happen in Algeria, and that it would thus behoove America to be on the right side of history this time. (The Strategy of Peace, edited by Allan Nevins, pp. 66-80)

So there is ample evidence that Kennedy understood the appeal of nationalism in Third World countries emerging from the shackles of colonialism. (For more current scholarship describing Kennedy’s familiarity with the issue, please read Betting on the Africans, by Philip Muehlenbeck, and Kennedy, Johnson and the Nonaligned World, by Robert Rakove.) But further, what Ashwill does with Kennedy’s presidency in relation to Vietnam is, well, the best word I have for it is “minimalist”.

Ashwill describes a meeting between Kennedy and French President DeGaulle in May of 1961 in Paris where the former French resistance leader warned Kennedy about the quagmire he would be getting into if America intervened in Indochina, that it would be an endless entanglement America could not win. He then quotes DeGaulle as later saying that Kennedy listened to him but that events proved he had not convinced him.

First of all, this discussion between Kennedy and DeGaulle is again an antique bit of news. To cite just one source, it was already described back in 1972 by Dave Powers and Ken O’Donnell in Johnny We hardly Knew Ye. (p. 13) But Kennedy was not just getting this kind of advice from DeGaulle. He also got it from General Douglas MacArthur. The retired general warned him that even if he placed a million men in Asia, it would not work. (Powers & O’Donnell, pp. 13-14). He also got the same advice from Senator Mike Mansfield. (p. 15) And most importantly, he heard the same thing from his ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith.

This is why during the debates in the oval office in November of 1961, Kennedy refused to commit combat troops into the theater. And that was a line that he never crossed. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, pp. 136-39). But, as Galbraith biographer Richard Parker demonstrates in the above link, Kennedy went further than this. He sent Galbraith to Saigon and asked him to write a report, knowing that the ambassador would advise against any further involvement. (Virtual JFK, edited by James Blight, pp. 72-73). Galbraith did write such a report, and when the ambassador returned to Washington in April of 1962, Kennedy had him hand deliver it to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (Newman, pp. 236-37). One month later, McNamara arranged to meet with all the inter-agency chiefs of all American forces in Vietnam. After going through the regular agenda items and adjourning the meeting, he called aside General Paul Harkins, the overall commander of American forces in Indochina. He told Harkins that it was time to switch responsibility for the war over to the ARVN, the Army of South Vietnam, and he wanted to begin the planning on the reduction of American advisors as soon as possible. This was the beginning of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan. (Newman, p. 254)

As anyone familiar with the newly declassified record should know, in May of 1963, McNamara called another such meeting, this time in Hawaii. At this meeting the withdrawal schedules were submitted to the Secretary. He said that they needed to be accelerated. He wanted a thousand advisors withdrawn by the end of the calendar year. He directed that those plans be drawn up. (James Douglass, JFK the Unspeakable, p. 126). In October of 1963, Kennedy signed National Security Action Memorandum 263 ordering the first thousand advisors to be withdrawn by the end of the year and the rest by 1965. (Douglass, p. 188). In other words, there was not one more combat troop in Vietnam at the time of Kennedy’s death than there was when he took office. And he was in the process of removing all advisors.

Somehow, Mark Ashwill missed all of this with a completeness that is astonishing. But the Vietnamese educator also missed a chance to have this confirmed by a source in his adopted country, namely, the son of the late North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap. If someone visiting Vietnam from the USA could do this, then why couldn’t Mr. Ashwill?

From here, Ashwill takes another leap forward. This time to 1966. By the end of that year, Lyndon Johnson had committed 385,000 combat troops, with 60,000 sailors stationed offshore. In just that one year, 6,000 Americans would perish and 30,000 would be wounded. Ashwill discusses a speech by Ho Chi Minh in which the North Vietnamese leader says America took “the wrong fork in the road”. Ashwill never explains how America went from having no combat troops in Indochina to having nearly 400,000. The man who took the wrong fork in the road was Lyndon Johnson. And if any president’s picture should be at the top of the article, it should be his.

As any serious study of the Vietnam War reveals, there were three events that took place––a meeting and two specific orders issued––that overturned Kennedy’s withdrawal plan and replaced it with an escalation plan that was quite apparent by 1966. These were the first Lyndon Johnson meeting on the war on November 24, 1963; the last draft of NSAM 273 signed on November 26th; and NSAM 288 finalized in March of 1964.

At the November 24th meeting, the principals realized that Johnson’s attitude and style about Vietnam were both quite different from Kennedy’s. He said things that Kennedy never did. For instance: “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way that China went.” (Newman, p. 442) Kennedy never expressed these kinds of Cold War sentiments about Indochina. He simply did not think Vietnam was imperative to American security. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy agreed with this evaluation in comparing the two presidents. And he expressed those characterizations in discussions with both James Blight and his biographer Gordon Goldstein. (Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p. 231)

NSAM 273 was altered to allow direct American naval involvement in patrols against the North Vietnamese coast. According to Bundy, it was altered by Johnson. (Newman, pp. 445-49) This allowed for the OPLAN 34 A plans and the so called DE SOTO patrols. The former were hit-and-run attacks by speedboats, the latter were American destroyers meant to decipher where return fire from North Vietnamese bases was coming from. In December, Johnson requested these types of covert actions against the North, with the help of Americans forces if need be. The operations ended up being largely American. (Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, pp. 5, 7-8, 14) As many commentators agreed , including those inside the White House, these patrols were, in fact, provocations. (Moise p. 68; Goldstein, p. 125)

NSAM 288 was Johnson’s specific preliminary design to escalate the war, including an air war against North Vietnam. This included 94 bombing targets. In three years Kennedy had never even contemplated this. The combination of the DESOTO patrols with NSAM 288 resulted in the casus belli the White House sought in order to escalate the war. (Moise, pp. 26-28) This was of course the Tonkin Gulf incident. And this is what Ashwill skips over to get to 1966.

The rest of the article is a listing of all the damage inflicted on Vietnam, in bombs, land mines, defoliants, and so forth. Which, of course, any interested party already is cognizant of. Are we supposed to believe that the editors at Counterpunch do not know that 99% of all this happened after Kennedy’s death? And if his plan had been left intact, we would not be having this discussion? That is not speculation. Today, with the declassified documents of the Assassination Records Review Board, it can be proven.

Near the end, Ashwill says that the American leaders did not understand what the war was really about. As I have labored to show, President Kennedy did know what it was about. That is why he was getting out. Just ask General Giap’s son.

Last modified on Saturday, 16 May 2020 13:44
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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