Noam Chomsky’s attempt to obfuscate President Kennedy’s policy to withdraw from Vietnam turned out to be rather unsuccessful. If one recalls, at the time that Oliver Stone’s JFK was released, Chomsky wrote an article for Z Magazine and then published a book called Rethinking Camelot. Beneath all the excess verbiage, Chomsky was saying the following:
- That NSAM 263, issued in October 1963, did not actually mean what it said. Namely that Kennedy was planning on removing all American advisors from Vietnam.
- NSAM 273, signed by LBJ after Kennedy’s death, did not actually impact or alter NSAM 263.
- All the witnesses that John Newman, Fletcher Prouty and Peter Scott adduced to bolster the fact that Kennedy was withdrawing from Vietnam, these men were all either biased or wrong.
- Vice-President Johnson was not really all that bad of a guy. And there was no real break in Vietnam policy when he took over. After all, he and Kennedy were essentially the same man in the sphere of foreign policy.
To put it mildy, Chomsky’s attempt to promulgate this line was not effective. Especially when the Assassination Records and Review Board unearthed even more documents supporting Kennedy’s plan. These were enough to influence even the mainstream media into writing news articles about Kennedy’s plan to withdraw from Vietnam. (Probe Vol. 5 No. 3 pgs. 19-21) These new documents were released by the ARRB on December 22, 1997. Within days, the New York Times headlined a story with, “Kennedy Had a Plan for Early Exit in Vietnam.” The Associated Press story read, “New Documents Hint that JFK Wanted U.S. out of Vietnam.” The Philadelphia Inquirer story was bannered, “Papers support theory that Kennedy had plans for a Vietnam pullout.”
The work of the ARRB on the Vietnam issue also influenced academia. Scholars like Howard Jones, David Kaiser and Gordon Goldstein wrote a number of new books. Each of them ignored Chomsky and endorsed the Newman/Prouty/Scott view as expressed in the Stone film. This culminated in a milestone event. In 2005 a group of nearly 20 authorities on the subject met at St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. After two days of reviewing documents and debating the subject, a vote was taken. Half the attendees said Kennedy would not have escalated in Vietnam as Johnson did. (Virtual JFK, edited by James Blight, p. 210) This conference resulted in both a book and film, Virtual JFK, which argued that President Kennedy and Vice-President Johnson had different views on the war. Wisely, and pointedly, Chomsky was not invited to this conference.
Soundly defeated on this issue, Chomsky did not retreat with his tail between his legs. Instead, he has now navigated to a different aspect of Kennedy’s foreign policy: Cuba.
President John F Kennedy in his office during a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Vice-president Lyndon B Johnson, at the White House in Washington, DC, 1961.
Photograph: Henry Burroughs/AP
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chomsky has chimed in with an article for The Guardian of London. (It can be read here). This article confirms what has been clear to many for a long time. Chomsky is not a historian. And when he gets anywhere near having to deal with the Kennedy assassination, or Kennedy’s presidency, his work is so bad as to be embarrassing. In that regard, he is really a polemicist. Polemicists, by definition, can’t write good or accurate history. And for anyone who did not understand that, this useless article proves it once more.
Today, there have been at least three books published based upon the actual transcripts of the deliberations of the so-called ExComm. That is, the committee of Kennedy’s advisers assembled to discuss paths of action during the thirteen days that constituted the crisis. The first was The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. The second, Averting ‘The Final Failure’ is by Kennedy archivist Sheldon Stern. The third is called The Presidential Recordings, edited by May, Zelikow and Tim Naftali.
These books are absolutely essential to understanding who President Kennedy really was. Because in this instance, you actually do not have to rely upon memoirs, or memoranda written later. You actually have the words of the participants as spoken right in front of you. And for any objective person, these discussions show just how different Kennedy was from the vast majority of his advisors. This includes Vice-President Johnson, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. At one stage or another these three men all advocated armed intervention to resolve the crisis. And Johnson did not even like the ultimate resolution to the crisis: withdrawal of the American Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Russian withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba. He talks about it as leaving the impression “that we’re having to retreat. We’re backing down.” (May and Zelikow, p. 586) Johnson said this even though the Polaris missiles--which were to later serve the same purpose as the Jupiters--were much more modern in both range and accuracy. And since they were submarine launched, they were more difficult to detect and preemptively target. Towards the end of the crisis, Johnson was actually using Kennedy’s nationally televised speech of October 22nd--in which he alerted the pubic to the danger of the Russian installed missiles--against him. The vice-president was saying that the public was going to be disappointed in Kennedy’s performance when compared to his words: “The president made a fine speech. What else have you done?” Even Johnson’s rather friendly biographer, Bob Caro, points out in The Passage of Power that, compared to JFK, during these discussions, Johnson was much more militant in tone and confrontational in approach.
What does Chomsky say about this most important Kennedy/Johnson juxtaposition? Not a word. Which is about what he said in comparing the policies carried out by President Johnson in Vietnam after Kennedy was killed. In the game of poker, this is called a ‘tell’. Or as Peter Scott terms it, it’s a negative template. Chomsky won’t touch this evidence since it pretty much disintegrates his argument that there was no difference between Kennedy and Johnson in foreign policy.
So Chomsky now devises another way to attempt to explain why Kennedy sounded so much more dovish during these debates than nearly anyone else in the room. He says that since Kennedy had ordered the installation of the taping system, he knew they were being recorded while the others did not. Again, Chomsky leaves out two important points here. The first is the reason Kennedy ordered the recording devices installed in the first place. As professor Ernest May has stated more than once--for example on ABC’s Nightline--he installed the system because he was upset about how many participants had misrepresented what they said during the discussions leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion. With the taping system, there could be no argument about who said what and when. Secondly, these tapings were not made public for nearly four decades after Kennedy’s death. If there was some kind of plan to get them out sooner--and show how statesmanlike JFK was compared to everyone else--it was not very effective.
But the point which Chomsky again avoids is this: Kennedy sounds dovish and level-headed here just as he did during the debates in November of 1961 over whether or not to send combat troops into Vietnam. (See the notes of military attaché Howard Burris dated 11/15/61 in the book Virtual JFK, pgs. 281-83) In other words, it is all of a piece, because it’s the same man. And the taping system is irrelevant to the issue. Why? Because it was not installed in 1961. In that instance, as he was during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy was virtually alone in holding out against the commitment of combat troops to Southeast Asia. And almost every commentator has noted this point, from David Kaiser to Gordon Goldstein. For his own personal, polemical reasons, Chomsky cannot.
Another piece of flapdoodle that Chomsky tries to peddle here is the actual cause of the crisis. He says that the Russians moved the missiles onto the island in reaction to Operation Mongoose, the secret war against Cuba. To preserve this mythology, Chomsky ignores two pieces of evidence. First, the subterfuge Khrushchev practiced in transporting the weapons across the Atlantic, and second the size and scale of the deployment. Concerning the latter, the eventual arsenal was to consist of the following: 40 land based ballistic missile launchers and sixty missiles. The missiles were of both the medium (1,200 miles) and long--range variety (2,400 miles). These missiles were much more powerful than those used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 9 missile sites were to be protected by 140 air-defense missile launchers. In addition there were to be 40 IL-28 bombers, each capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. This air arm would be supplemented by a submarine pen made up of 11 subs, 7 of them capable of launching nuclear missiles. In other words, the Russians could now threaten America with a nuclear missile arsenal capable of hitting the 100 largest American cities by land, sea and air.
In addition to this, there was to be a Russian army of 45, 000 troops, with 250 tanks, supplemented by a wing of the latest Russian fighter aircraft, the MiG 21. There were also 80 nuclear-capable cruise missiles for coastal defense. Each of these had the explosive capability of the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. (May and Zelikow, pgs. 676-77) And, as Kennedy later discovered through U2 photography, the Russians had even given the Cubans a number of Luna ground to ground rockets with a 30 mile range and 2 kiloton warheads. Because of their short range these were termed tactical nukes since they could be used in battlefield circumstances. (ibid, p. 475)
With these facts on the table, here is my question to the former MIT professor: What use would these nuclear weapons be against a speedboat full of Cuban exiles with rifles, grenades and dynamite sent in to blow up a power plant? Would this not be equivalent to the antique analogy of using a cannon to kill a fly in your house? Why blow up your house trying to kill a fly? Could the Russians and Cubans be this stupid?
Which relates to the subterfuge. What made Kennedy so suspicious about the deployment was the secrecy surrounding it. Multiplying that was the Russians lying about it. For instance, to choose just one instance, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko lied to Kennedy on October 17th by saying that this was only a defensive deployment. If the aim was simply to try and neutralize Mongoose, then all that was needed was the conventional forces. And Khrushchev would have won a great international propaganda victory by announcing a Cuban-Russian military alliance in public, for instance at the United Nations. He could have claimed the diplomatic high ground by saying that this was purely a defensive alliance to defend Cuba from external aggression. If the idea was to fend off a possible invasion then the tactical nukes would have done the trick. And again, an alliance made in public would have been sympathetic to most of the world.
But he did not. There is no evidence he even contemplated such a public announcement. Why? Because the real motive behind the massive deployment was much wider in scope. It was a way for the Russians to close the missile gap. At the time, only twenty of the Soviet long-range missiles could hit the USA from Russian territory. With what was going into Cuba, the Russians now had a formidable first-strike effort stationed 90 miles away from Miami. And anyone who understands the nuclear terminology of that day will understand how important a credible first strike force was. Secondly, once the secret installation was complete, Khrushchev could then announce it and ask for the thorn in his side to be removed: namely West Berlin. (See Slate, “What the Cuban Missile Crisis Should Teach Us”, by Fred Kaplan. See also May and Zelikow, pgs. 678-79, 691)
This had been something that had seriously bothered the Russians since the days of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. And, more recently, Khrushchev had hectored Kennedy about it at their summit meeting in Vienna in 1961. This would be a significant change in the political calculus of Europe. What Chomsky does by covering up these key facts is to falsely blame President Kennedy while excusing some very irresponsible and reckless gambling by Nikita Khrushchev.
Chomsky continues in this jingoistic mode when he then names what he thinks should be called the most dangerous moments of the crisis. One of them is on October 27th, when the U. S. Navy, trying to enforce Kennedy’s blockade, had orders to make the Russian submarines surface before they violated the quarantine line. Each Russian submarine carried a nuclear tipped torpedo. American destroyers were to drop depth charges to make the subs surface. Naturally, Chomsky does not reveal the actual instructions given to the American destroyers. They first were to drop “four or five harmless explosive sound signals”, after which the subs should emerge and proceed due east. And, in fact, the State Department told European governments about this technique, including the Russians, in advance. (National Security Archive, Briefing Book No. 399) The problem was that the Russian subs were not getting much information from Moscow and never got this message. They were monitoring Miami stations instead, which of course were carrying much more militant messages. (New York Times, 10/22/12)
The other moment that Chomsky details is the round the clock B 52 bombers holding their fail safe points in the sky in case of an attack. He states that one pilot, Don Clawson, revealed that there was little control over these flights from Strategic Air Command, and that a rogue pilot could have easily started nuclear war. Chomsky does not say that his source for this is an almost do it yourself book published nine years ago by Clawson himself. The book is a rollicking memoir written 40 years after the fact. In other words, there was no formal input from SAC HQ about what measures really were in place in case this occurred. And Chomsky did not crosscheck his source to see if there was. (This last is a recurrent polemical practice of Chomsky’s.)
If anyone were to list the most dangerous moments of the crisis, they would have to include three events that need no cross checking. For they have been in the record for decades. The first would be the episode that caused the only fatality by enemy fire during the entire 13-day crisis. That would be the death of Rudolf Anderson. Anderson was America’s top U-2 pilot in 1962. The plane he was flying was clearly marked with Air Force insignia. Khrushchev had assured Kennedy that the Russians would only fire if fired upon. (May and Zelikow, p. 571) The U-2 was a surveillance plane. It was not furnished with missiles or machine guns, only cameras under its wings. And everyone knew that. But, apparently, the Cubans decided to use their Russian furnished surface to air missile sites (SAM’s) near Banes, Cuba to knock the plane down and kill Anderson.
The information about Anderson’s death was turned over to President Kennedy during an ExComm meeting at 4 PM on October 27th, the day before the crisis ended. (ibid) It gave needed ballast to the hawks in attendance, e.g. General Maxwell Taylor and Assistant Secretary of Defense, Paul Nitze. (ibid, pgs. 571-73) It also seems to have been one of the reasons why Defense Secretary Robert McNamara became more militant during the last two days of the crisis. (The other factor influencing McNamara seems to be Johnson’s not very subtle war mongering.) Following the news of Anderson’s death, there were pleas by Taylor, Bundy and Nitze to immediately take out the SAM sites. (ibid, pgs. 571-72) McNamara moved to take out the Banes SAM site and begin a much larger air attack against the island on the 31st. (ibid, pgs. 571, 575) Kennedy dutifully listened to these proposed courses of action due to this provocation. He then skillfully bent the discussion around to formulating a reply to Khrushchev’s letter requesting a deal for the Jupiters. (ibid, p. 576) There ended up being no retaliation to this reckless shoot down of an unprotected surveillance pilot. (Which, one could argue, was really tantamount to murder.) In fact, there was actually a contingency plan in place which necessitated an agreed upon retaliation. Kennedy overruled that plan and held back the air strike. (ibid, p. 695)
Another dangerous moment came when Castro actually wanted to launch nuclear missiles against the USA. (ibid, p. 688) In other words to strike first, therefore surely starting a chain reaction leading to nuclear Armageddon. Or as Fidel Castro put it none too subtly to the Russian representative, he was ready to launch against the USA and risk incinerating Cuba in a counter attack. Alexander Alekseev was shocked. But he dutifully relayed the message to Moscow. (The Armageddon Letters, edited by James Blight and Janet Lang, p. 116) At the conclusion of the crisis, Khrushchev chastised Castro for even proposing such an act under these circumstances. He characterized such a proposal to carry out a nuclear first strike against enemy territory as “very alarming”. He continued with: “Naturally you understand where that would lead us. It would not be a simple strike, but the start of thermonuclear world war.” (May and Zelikow, op cit.)) Apparently, since Castro was and is a Marxist, in Chomsky’s book, these kind of inexcusable acts are to be ignored. To dramatize the polemicist’s double standard: Imagine what Chomsky would say if President Kennedy was on record uttering such a thing. But not only does Chomsky not comment on this nutty request by Castro, he does something even worse. He does not tell the reader about it. That act of censorship tells you all you need to know about Chomsky’s fairness and honesty in this article.
There was another nominee for most dangerous moment. And again, you will not find it in Chomsky’s article. During the crisis, CIA officer William Harvey—a man who despised the Kennedys—secretly dispatched several teams of Cuban exile paratroopers onto the island. (Larry Hancock, Nexus, p. 80) Harvey never fully revealed what the mission of these men actually was. But since he constantly assailed the Kennedys for not having the guts to get rid of Castro once and for all, one can imagine what he had in mind. Furthering this thesis was the fact that these men were on a secret radio frequency, so that when Bobby Kennedy found out about it, he could not recall them directly. (ibid, p. 70) RFK was enraged when he found out what Harvey had done. And this was the beginning of the end for Harvey’s storied CIA career. The reason Chomsky will not touch this incident is that it violates another aspect of his special and peculiar ideology. Namely, his belief that the CIA only performs functions requested by the president. Yet, under Kennedy, the CIA often enacted autonomous actions.. (And there are many examples in both Hancock’s book and Jim Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable.) But Chomsky cannot admit this, no matter how foolish it makes him look. Because it would indicate that, 1.) The CIA and President Kennedy had different aims, and 2.) The Agency did not just enact policy. At times, it made its own.
Let us continue with just how bad the Marxist leadership was leading up to and during the crisis. On September 4th, after getting preliminary intelligence reports about construction on Cuba, Kennedy had specifically warned the Russians about using the island as a forward base in the Americas. And he told Russian ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that he would not tolerate purely offensive weapons in Cuba. He then said the same in public. (Blight and Yang, pgs. 58-59) In his reply to Kennedy’s warning, Khrushchev again lied. He said the only nuclear missiles he had trained on the USA were based in Russia. (ibid, p. 62) In July of 1962, Castro asked him: What would happen if the USA discovered the installation in progress before it was completed? Khrushchev responded with a reply so ridiculous that it must have disheartened Fidel. The Russian premier said he would send out the Baltic fleet as a show of support. (May and Zelikow, p. 677) This silly response, from a man who held the fate of the world in his hands, showed that Khrushchev had not thought through all the possibilities the dangerous installation entailed. To top it all off, the premier tried to end game the worst scenario. That is the Americans launching a counterforce attack on the Cuban missiles. The premier felt that even if this was 90% effective, “even if one or two big ones were left—we could still hit New York, and there wouldn’t be much of New York left.” When Khrushchev was ousted from office in 1964, his irresponsible actions before and during the crisis were named as prime reasons for his removal. (May and Zelikow, p. 690) Again, none of this is deemed worth mentioning by Chomsky. Probably because in his world no Marxist can do anything wrong.
Chomsky also tries to imply that the resolution to the crisis was done by the Russians alone. He mentions the arrival of Khrushchev’s letter of October 26th at the State Department. This letter outlined a deal that would entail the removal of the Russian missiles in return for a pledge by Kennedy not to invade Cuba. The Russians later added that they also wanted the Jupiter missiles removed. Kennedy agreed to both parts of the deal. But what Chomsky leaves out is that Kennedy himself proposed the Jupiter swap more than a week before. At an ExComm morning meeting of October 18th he specifically proposed a direct trade of the Jupiters in Turkey for the Russian missiles in Cuba. (May and Zelikow, p. 137) On October 23rd he authorized his brother Robert to create a back channel to Russian Ambassador Dobrynin through Russian representative Georgi Bolshakov. (ibid, pgs. 343-46) This culminated in a formalization of the Jupiter deal as an adjunct to the no-invasion pledge. Chomsky criticizes Kennedy for not announcing this at the time. He leaves out the fact that JFK anticipated that Castro would create problems with verifying the removal of all arms of the nuclear triad from Cuba. And therefore it would take awhile for the Russians to complete their part of the deal. He was correct about this. It took over a month to complete the negotiations for verification. (May and Zelikow, pgs. 664-66)
Chomsky’s failings as a historian are nowhere more obvious then in his discussion of Cuban-American relations in 1962-63. For instance, he writes that a plot to assassinate Castro was apparently initiated on the day of Kennedy’s murder. Chomsky is referring to the so-called AM/LASH plot. This maneuvering of the CIA with disenchanted Cuban national Rolando Cubela was not initiated in November of 1963. It had been going on for many months. And it had nothing to do with the Kennedys. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, p. 73) The CIA deliberately kept it secret from JFK since they knew he would not approve it. Chomsky cannot admit this, even though it’s true, because it again shows the CIA and Kennedy at cross-purposes. He follows this by saying Mongoose was terminated in 1965. Wrong again. Mongoose was ended on November 29, 1962 at an NSC meeting of that day. (See Volume XI of Foreign Relations of the United States, Document 217) Chomsky mentions an attack on Cuba of November 8th. What he does not say is this was a response to a devastating Cuban attack in Venezuela that “had reportedly destroyed or disrupted one-sixth of the [oil] refining capacity of Venezuela….” (May and Zelikow, p. 639. Chomsky adds a reference to a contemplated invasion of Venezuela here. This appears to be fabricated since there is no such mention of any such event in the transcripts.)
But the real point is that Kennedy began to dismantle Mongoose almost immediately after the Russian removal was verified. Cuban exile operations were severely curtailed, stipends were withdrawn, and groups were disbanded. By mid-1963, for all intents and purposes,Mongoose had been all but eliminated. As CIA official Desmond Fitzgerald wrote to President Johnson in 1964, in the second half of 1963 there were all of five raids against Cuba. The entire commando force consisted of fifty men. (Op, cit. DiEugenio, p. 70) Kennedy had clearly decided to pursue back channel negotiations with Castro with the goal of achieving normalization of relations with Cuba. The goal appeared to be in sight when Castro got the news of Kennedy’s death. He then turned to Kennedy’s representative Jean Daniel and said, “Everything is changed. Everything is going to change.” Castro was correct. Johnson showed no interest in continuing Kennedy’s goal of détente with Cuba. (ibid, pgs. 73-75) When Chomsky writes that the majority of Americans favor normalization of relations with Cuba, yet our leaders dismiss this opinion, one does not know whether to laugh or cry. Johnson cut off Kennedy’s eleven months of negotiations to achieve just that. And no American president since has ever come as close as JFK did to doing just that. And Castro himself admitted this at the time.
The silliest part of this all too silly article is toward the end. Chomsky writes that war was avoided in 1962 “by Khrushchev’s willingness to accept Kennedy’s hegemonic demands.” When he writes something like that, one wonders if, unawares, Chomsky has Alzheimer’s disease. It was Khrushchev’s attempt to establish hegemony over West Berlin that originated the crisis. It was his insistent ignoring of Kennedy’s warnings over this first strike capability that brought the crisis to fruition. It was the premier’s lies about his intent that exacerbated it all. It was Castro’s orders to kill an American pilot that almost escalated the crisis beyond saving. And it was Castro who wanted to launch a first strike that would have led to Armageddon. The deal that Kennedy had contemplated all along was a good one for the Russians. Cuba stayed protected as a Marxist bastion, as it has to this day. After negotiations with NATO ally Turkey the Jupiters were removed. All that the USA got was the removal of a first strike threat—one which should have never been installed. And needless to say the Russians eventually caught up and actually surpassed America as a nuclear power. Gaining no real advantage at a great financial cost.
Chomsky has now been proven both wrong and misleading on both Kennedy and Vietnam, and the Missile Crisis. But it’s worse than that. Chomsky simply has no regard for facts or evidence in the two cases. The mark of a good historian is that he provides balance and proper context first. He then produces the totality of the evidence, or close to it. His conclusion then follows inductively from the evidence. Chomsky violates each one of these strictures. Which is why his conclusion is so easily reduced to absurdity. In fact, his performance here is so bad, that when linked to his record in defending Pol Pot, his friendly ties to Holocaust deniers, and his flip-flop on the question of Kennedy’s assassination, the best thing his friends and colleagues can do is advise him to retire. The man is 84 years old. And his mental faculties seem to be failing him. Rather than embarrass himself further, it would be better if he spent the twilight of his life fishing off the Massachusetts coast. That would be better for him, the historical record, and us.