The Freedom of Knowledge, The Power of Thought ©

Correspondence with Noam Chomsky (1989-1995),
Part 1

By Michael Morrissey
September 2000

In the first edition of Looking for the Enemy (Kassel, 1993, 50 offset copies), I included one entire letter from Noam Chomsky, and some quotes from others of his letters, along with some of my replies. Chomsky, upon receiving the copy of the book that I sent him, objected strenuously to this, so I expunged this material from the version of the book I put on my website.

On the other hand, Chomsky is widely considered one of the most important intellectual figures of our time, and our discussion was about matters of public interest. I consider it my duty, therefore, as well as my right to share this conversation with the public, to the extent that copyright law allows me to do so.

It is my every intention to report what Chomsky said clearly and accurately. I would far prefer to include his letters here verbatim, but since that is not legally possible I will just have to do my best. I will be happy to show the original letters to anyone who wishes to see them.

There was no one I respected and admired more than Noam Chomsky when I started writing to him in 1989. Being a linguist and a rather leftist veteran of the antiwar movement in the 60s, I had read a number of his books and articles in both politics and linguistics and felt a strong affinity with him.

My (retrospective) comments are in italics. For summary comments, see "My Beef with Chomsky."

26 May 1989

Dear Prof. Chomsky,

Thank you so much for writing. It was quite a thrill to get your letter, and to know that you found my review of interest is enormously satisfying.

In my first letter to him, in April 1989, I had included my review of the Turner film, The Men Who Killed Kennedy, which I had seen a few months earlier and had so turned my head around. He replied (5/15/89) that the review was "interesting" and that he "didn't know about the events" I described.

I've sent it off to Covert Action, which I am also glad to know about.

See "My Beef with Chomsky."

I am very interested in your structural analysis of what I suppose we can call the capitalist ideology, particularly the role of the media, because it is the only way to explain how the forces of evil (for lack of a better term) work in a relatively free society. I am not paranoid by nature, but I am afraid the idea of conspiracy at the very top is plausible enough to be taken very seriously. It is quite plausible that these forces of evil are individuals powerful enough to make things happen on a grand scale with virtually no one knowing about it. The function of politics, from this point of view, is to obscure what is really going on. The Kennedy assassination seems the most obvious example of this.

Another possible example is AIDS. I don't know if this is being discussed in the States, but there has been some discussion here of the possibility that the virus originated in germ warfare research laboratories. Whether this is true or not, and whether it was accidental or not, remains to be seen (perhaps), but it does seem likely that the African monkey theory has been propagated mainly to divert attention from this at least equally plausible hypothesis. After all, these laboratories exist for the expressed purpose of developing just such viruses, and they would seem to be the most logical place to look first. I believe the monkey theory appeared around 1984, just about the time there apparently was some speculation about an artificial origin.

If people are moved to believe that AIDS is God's doing, it is certainly rational to suspect that it is rather the doing of certain people playing God. I do not find it inconceivable at all that human beings, given the means, might take it upon themselves to eradicate homosexuals and drug addicts, even if that also meant sacrificing a few "innocent" victims in addition. Hatred of communists and homosexuals also fits the ultra-conservative mind-set: they are all sinners. Few would doubt that Khomeini might be tempted to use a virus, if he had one, that would kill off large numbers of people he considers satanic. If the virus affected only or primarily blacks, like a more virulent form of sickle cell anemia, I suppose it would be even more suspicious.

I know this sounds (to most people) even crazier than the Kennedy conspiracy "theories" (though these, despite popular belief, are no longer theories but established fact), but who would have believed, in 1939, that in the next decade 6 million Jews would be exterminated? Prof. Jakob Segal, a biologist at Humboldt University in East Berlin and to my knowledge the most qualified supporter of the artificial origin thesis, is also a survivor of Auschwitz, which perhaps gives him a more realistic view of how such things can happen.


Michael Morrissey

Shortly after this, in late summer 1989, I sent Chomsky an early (1986) paper by Segal in English and a copy of his first book, Aids: Erreger aus dem Genlabor (Berlin: Simon und Leutner, 1987), which, though in German, I thought he would be able to read. (After all, I had to pass a German reading exam to qualify for my Ph.D. in linguistics!)

He thanked me (8/26/89) for "the surprising and very interesting material," without further comment. I had surprised him with the "very interesting" argument that the Pentagon had created AIDS, but this was all he had to say.

14 Sept. 1989

Dear Prof. Chomsky,

Thank you very much for your letter.

Prof. Segal gave a talk here a few days ago, and we had a little chat afterwards. He is an extremely alert, clear-thinking, and articulate 78. I told him I had sent you the material. If [Dr. Robert] Gallo thinks he is a KGB agent, his opinion of Gallo is even worse: he calls him "ein ganz großer Ganster." For Segal, Gallo is not only responsible for creating the virus but also for the disinformation campaign afterwards, and even for deliberately falsifying evidence to get credit for having isolated it first (before Montagner). This seems illogical, if he created it in the first place, but I suppose money and megalomania would explain it. Segal told us a little story about a visit they got from the US embassy (CIA) in 1986: Frau Segal asked them if they didn't think Gallo was a Mafioso, and instead of reacting indignantly, they just said, "You know, there are millions of dollars involved in this." They invited Segal to Atlanta, but he didn't want to go anywhere on the invitation of the CIA. I told him, naively I guess, that even if he went at their expense he wouldn't have to say what they wanted him to, but he has a different idea about that. I asked him if he would go to the US if invited by someone other than the CIA, and he said he probably would, provided he could get a visa. Britain has apparently barred him, and France has made it difficult; the only western country he has been able to move freely in is West Germany.

I've sent the enclosed report to a few newspapers and magazines (including the Boston Globe, NYT, CAIB, etc.), without much hope of getting it published, but at least I'll feel I did something.



The enclosed "report" was a short article I had written summarizing Segal's theory ("Is AIDS Man-Made?"). Of course it was never published.

Chomsky thanked me (9/22/89) for the "information" I had sent him, which he called "most intriguing," but again had no further comment.

29 Nov. 1989

Dear Noam,

I enclose another probably unpublishable review ["The Herman-Chomsky 'Conspiracy'"]--but I'll give it a try. On the off chance that someone might publish it, is it ok to use the quote from your letter on p. 6? (I haven't sent it off yet.)

Enclosed also are the pages of the Hearings Segal refers to.

The 1969 MacArthur testimony. See "Was There an AIDS Contract?"

The silence in general about AIDS, at least here, is deafening. Segal seems to be totally isolated, though he cites people who agree with him in private.

Perhaps you won't mind if I ask you straight out what you think. Is it possible to find out if Segal is right or wrong?



On 12/28/89 Chomsky thanked me for sending and writing the Lemann review, and wished me luck in getting it published. As for the MacArthur testimony, he said it "sends a chill up the spine." It was "very far from his field" and he had "no scientific judgment." "But," he added, "it is hard for me to believe that one can't obtain a scientific judgment from some knowledgeable and unprejudiced source." He didn't know anyone in AIDS research, he said, "but there are plenty of them around."

There was a hiatus in our correspondence at this point for about a year. In the meantime came the Gulf War build-up and war. We agreed completely on that.

I wrote again on Nov. 30, 1990, enclosing a letter to the editor of the local Kassel newspaper denouncing Bush's war plans (which was actually printed!) and another article (never published) about Segal and AIDS

30 Nov. 1990

Dear Noam,

Enclosed is a letter that appeared in the local paper which I thought you might like to see, since we both believe that every little bit helps.

On the second front, AIDS is getting bigger and bigger and quieter and quieter. Segal is the Jim Garrison of AIDS. Fletcher Prouty has told a lot of people (including me) that MONGOOSE had the JFK contract and that Lansdale is the guy walking away in the "tramps" photo in Garrison's book (On the Trail of the Assassins). Segal, Garrison, Prouty--they're all crazy, of course. Me too.



Chomsky thanked me (12/17/90) for my letter and AIDS article, commenting only that the latter was "quite a story." These were to be his last words on the subject to me.

I did hear from LOOT [Lies Of Our Times- journal], however, where I had also sent my AIDS article, ten days later. Bill Schaap wrote (12/27/90) that they had "real problems with the Segal material," that "the most credible critic in this country of the standard medical establishment line is Dr. Peter Duesberg," and that although "incredibly significant," the AIDS origin issue was not, as I had called it in my letter to him, "'the biggest coverup since JFK.'"

He said LOOT or CAIB [CovertAction Information Bulletin-journal] would be interested in a "general piece on the failure of the media (U.S. and Western Europe) to cover alternative theories in general, which would not have to accept any particular theory, but would show how conferences which take the establishment line get considerable coverage whereas those which do not are barely, if at all, covered." See "My Beef with Chomsky."

3 Jan. 1991

Dear Noam,

Thanks very much for your letter and the articles.

I fully agree that the Cold War is not over; only the terms of the propaganda have changed. The real war has always been between the Haves and Have Nots and will not change soon.

The current pas de deux between Hussein and Bush, threatening to crush thousands beneath their stinking feet, has already achieved the major aims of both: pan-Arab leadership (of the people if not of the governments) for Hussein, a new credible threat for the US military, and higher oil prices for all.

The ideological fanaticism you speak of, quite evident among the government's media mouthpieces (less so, hopefully, in the general population), is as impressive as the passion of a used car salesman. This spectacle of King George the Wimp flouting the law of the land, not to mention common sense, while Congress and the press sit by and (mostly) applaud looks like a rerun of Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Fascism on low burn? Surely Hitler had no more "charisma" than Bush (or Reagan), and maybe that is the key: the Führer must be an empty shell in order to absorb all the contradictions, ignorance, and frustrations which have been engendered in the people, building up to the explosion.

The level of cynicism and hypocrisy and just plain lies is truly staggering. It does my heart good to see you lay into people like Moynihan.

If we confine morality to the propaganda department on both sides, it is clear that Hussein and Bush are both getting what they want, whether there is a war or not. Hussein clearly was encouraged to invade, and the excuse that this was April Glaspie's diplomatic mistake or that Hussein took more than was expected is simply ludicrous. Just as ludicrous as the idea propagated by the Pentagon Papers that US strategy in Vietnam (since 1965) was driven by a stupid Pentagon and stupid presidents, in defiance of the wise voice in the wilderness: CIA.

For example, John Ranelagh says in The Agency (NY: Touchstone, rev. ed. 1987.):

This is a perennial problem for the CIA: it does the work, provides the information and analysis, and watches helplessly as its intelligence falls on the deaf ears of policy makers. All too often what the CIA says is not absorbed until it is too late.

This discrepancy between policy and intelligence became increasingly acute as the United States pledged itself to deeper and deeper involvement in Vietnam. As The Pentagon Papers--the official, top-secret history of the United States' role in Indochina--later showed, apart from the earlier period in 1963-64, the agency's analysis was consistently pessimistic about U.S. involvement in South Vietnam's war against communist guerrillas supported by North Vietnam. In spite of this, first President Kennedy and then President Johnson poured hundreds and then thousands of U.S. troops into the war, first as support for the South Vietnamese military forces and then as front-line units, as policy diverged from reality and as domestic political considerations were, naturally enough, placed before conditions in Vietnam. Ironically, this process began in the Kennedy White House among those who prided themselves on being realists and who insisted on quantifying everything before making policy decisions. The members of this group--including Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, and Rostow--stayed on after Kennedy died to fight the war under Johnson. In retrospect, their problem was that they often concentrated on details, losing sight of the big picture (pp. 417-18).

This propagates not only the myth of a competent and well intentioned, though sorely misunderstood, CIA, but also the myth of continuity in US Vietnam policy in the Kennedy-Johnson transition. This, as we will soon see, became the main--and unresolvable--bone of contention between Chomsky and me.

A caller on C-Span the other day dared to say the obvious--that the main beneficiaries of the Gulf crisis are the oil companies (and dependent industries). David Ignatius (Wash. Post) dismissed this straightforward observation as "conspiracy theorizing," which reminded me of Nicholas Lehmann's crazy reaction to Manufacturing Consent.

Some (fortunately, a small minority) of the reactions to my letter to the local paper have forced me to see a further danger with espousing (or hinting at) conspiracy. Some of the people who agree with me, and not necessarily the least intelligent or least well informed ones, turn out to be neo- or unreconstructed Nazis! This is very depressing.

I think it is difficult to conceive of a conspiracy of the king, or of those in the shadow of the king, against his subjects. If the government is bad, it cannot be the government itself which is to blame, but something else which controls the government. A scapegoat is needed; hence the fascist leap--typically, of course, fastening on "the Jews," equated with Zionism.

The basic problem seems to be a deep psychological barrier to accepting the idea that the government itself is the enemy--whether "conspiratorial" or not. (If "they"--the government consisting of more than one person--are the enemy, they are by definition conspiratorial.) I suppose this should not be surprising, given the propaganda machine. On the other hand, at some level, the inherent evil of government is common knowledge, reflected in truisms like "All politicians are crooks," "Money rules the world," etc.

I am interested in this as a psychological problem because it seems essential. No matter how many facts are brought to bear, there seems to be an attitudinal or emotional bedrock that remains unmoved by rational arguments. Perhaps it is just the fear of radicalization, of marginalization, of no longer being or feeling part of the larger community.

What David Yallop says in In God's Name about the relationship between the Vatican and P2 strikes me as an excellent analogy for the relationship between the US government and the CIA (i.e. the "intelligence community"), and also for the relationship of individuals to the institutions they "believe in," whether it is the Catholic Church or the USA. Not everybody in the Vatican is a crook, but the degree of corruption (and conspiracy) is such that, rationally, one would think that even a devout Catholic would feel compelled to reject the institution. Yet, for the most part, they don't. Somehow, they accommodate the contradiction between doubt and belief, between reason and propaganda ("faith"), because they see no alternative. If Yallop is right, how can they continue being "good Catholics"?

The same is probably true of Americans' reaction to radical dissent, assassination theories, etc., all of which threaten to topple their fundamental belief in the goodness of their country, which they (wrongly) identify with the goodness of themselves, I suppose.

I have gotten an interesting reaction from some students in talking about the Segal thesis. I watch them trying to deal with it and try to get them to express what it is about it that troubles them (if it does at all--some are forever oblivious). A couple have said, "If this is true, I think I would commit suicide." This is a startling reaction, but an honest one, and I think (hope!) what they really mean is that they simply cannot conceive of a world where this is true, or where they believe it to be true, or even where they believe it may be true. Perhaps they would kill themselves only metaphorically, with a new self replacing the old--which doesn't sound so bad. Better than handing things over to the cockroaches, in any case, as you put it.



Chomsky replied briefly on 5/20/91 and 12/12/91, expressing his discouragement at the American war fever and "anger relieved only by constant speaking and writing." We seemed to be in full agreement on that issue, which was keeping both of us busy, and I did not write again until a year later, when Oliver Stone's JFK appeared in German theaters.

2 Feb. 1992

Dear Noam,

Enclosed is a review of the Stone film ["X, Y and JFK"] and a comment on some recent Newsweek hype.

I know that Prouty has associated himself, indirectly at least, with Liberty Lobby (so has Mark Lane, who defended them against H.L. Hunt), which is unfortunate, given the (not entirely undeserved) "fascist" reputation of that organization. However, I think the media campaign against them has more to do with their opposition to the Bush-Reagan regime (Gulf War, October Surprise, etc.) than with their reputed racism and anti-Semitism. Much of what The Spotlight (Liberty Lobby's newspaper) says is right in line with LOOT etc., even if they do support David Duke. I think people like Prouty and Lane end up more or less in their camp simply because it gives them a forum.

I suppose by saying a good word about Prouty, then, I'm taking a little risk, but what the heck. In the review I admit to "being" a "Thoreauvian conservative," the "conservative" part coming from you, i.e. in the true sense. I would have said "leftist Thoreauvian conservative," but don't think many people would make sense of that. "Anarchist" is another possibility, or as you said somewhere (in an interview, I think) "syndico-anarchist," but for most people the word evokes images of skinheads throwing Molotov cocktails.

JFK is getting more sensible reviews here (the worst one was in Spiegel) than what I've seen from the States. That is, the first paragraph or so will (predictably, as in the Gulf War) parrot the imported American Establishment line, but the rest often takes the film at least halfway seriously.

I don't think things like the assassinations and the origin of AIDS and the coverup of the truth about them should be subordinated to a structural analysis--by which I mean the sort of thing you do so well--nor vice versa. They go hand in hand. One can say the capitalist system bred Vietnam which bred the assassination, but most people will understand more readily the other way around. I think it makes a big difference, given the natural inclination to move from the particular to the abstract.

With me, for example, despite opposing the war (Vietnam) and all that, I never really could believe the government was the enemy, and when I see how some of the "radicals" of the sixties have turned out, I don't think many of them really believed it either. That was the point of much confusion and some unhappiness. I don't want to be too dramatic about it, but the assassination freed me. Der Groschen war gefallen, as they say here. How often does that happen in a lifetime--once or twice (if you live long enough)?

Best regards,


Chomsky replied to this promptly (3/3/92) and at length. I had touched a nerve. This was the beginning of our discussion of the withdrawal plan. In all this amounts to about 25 single-spaced pages on his part, much of which, if I were free to reproduce it here, would be familiar to readers of Rethinking Camelot. When the book came out, I realized that Chomsky had been using me as a sounding board, and at at one point (7/1/92) he said I had helped him "clarify the issues to myself, as I hope will show up in what I'm writing about this." This was a rather backhanded compliment, though, since by then it was clear that our views were radically opposed.

Yes, Chomsky said, he knew Cockburn and Hitchens, "very well." He had not seen the Stone film and did not intend to. He said he had read "a good bit" of the critical literature but had "no firm opinions" on the assassination and saw no "strong reason to believe that there was anything of political significance" in it, "though it is possible that there was."

"The question that does interest me," he said, "is JFK's actual policies." He had been over the documentary "very carefully, including the Newman book, which is a travesty." Despite his great respect for Peter Dale Scott, whose essay suggesting a post-assassination policy reversal Chomsky included in Volume 5 of the 1972 Gravel edition of the Pentagon Papers, which he edited, he found Scott's argument "unpersuasive." Since then, he added, new evidence has left "little grounds for believing that there was a JFK-LBJ policy reversal."

There is no significant difference between NSAM 263 and 273, Chomsky said. JFK was fully committed to "victory" in Vietnam, that is, "battlefield success" and success "in imposing the rule of the terrorist client regime" the US had established in Saigon. Kennedy supported the coup against Diem, out of fear that he was planning a negotiated settlement "that would end the conflict without a US victory." Nevertheless, Kennedy approved (with NSAM 263) the McNamara-Taylor recommendations (for withdrawal) "on the 'optimistic' assumptions then prevailing."

Then, Chomsky said, after Diem was killed, the negative truth about the war began to get back to JFK, and "was presented at a high level for the first time at the Honolulu meeting." This resulted in McGeorge Bundy's draft of NSAM 273 (Nov. 21, 1963), whose differences from the final version (Nov. 26) are "trivial," despite Newman's argument to the contrary.

So whereas Newman argued for a significant change between the 273 draft, written for JFK, and the final version, written for LBJ, Chomsky was saying the difference is between 263 and the 273 draft. The Nov. 21 draft, Chomsky said, expressed the "essence of JFK's policy, but written after the factual assessment of the war had changed." In other words, if there is any significant difference between 263 and 273, it is attributable to Kennedy, not Johnson, because Bundy wrote the draft the day before Kennedy was shot.

Although it is possible that JFK would have followed a different path than LBJ, Chomsky said, there is little reason to think so. The best evidence for this thesis, he said, has been ignored: Douglas MacArthur's warnings against getting involved in a land war in Asia, by which Kennedy was "much influenced."

The anecdotal evidence that Kennedy told O'Donnell, Mansfield and Morse that he would withdraw from Vietnam, said Chomsky, lacks credibility, because "the JFK crowd" could be expected to "put the best spin" on anything concerning their icon. Moreover, even if he did tell them he would withdraw, he was more likely just telling them what they wanted to hear, "political animal" that he was.

There is little, Chomsky concludes, "that is convincing in the work that has attempted to show that JFK was changing course." Kennedy "was and remained a thug," and (among other things) escalated the war in Vietnam "from state terror to outright aggression."

March 19, 1992

Dear Noam,

Thanks very much for your last letter. I can't imagine how you find the time and energy to do all you do and also write letters to obscure admirers like me, but you said somewhere you work like a madman and I believe it. Anyway, you are truly a phenomenon and an inspiration.

Re Cockburn, if he's a friend of yours he can't be all bad, but to be honest I am even more suspicious of him now, after reading his reply to letters from Zachary Sklar, Michael Parenti and Peter Scott in The Nation (3/9/92), which is even worse than his original article. He argues unfairly. I'll spare you the details, but just to take one example, after finally being forced by Scott et al. to discuss NSAM 263 (not even mentioned in the original article), he only mentions the 1,000-man withdrawal, not the plan to pull out all the troops by the end of 1965. Time magazine did exactly the same thing (2/3/92, box "Was It a Plot to Keep the US in Vietnam?"). There are other examples that are similar to the way Time and Newsweek do their thing, which is propaganda.

It's not just that I disagree. I disagree with you too on this (the first time ever, I believe!), but I certainly do not have the feeling you are being dishonest. I hope I'm wrong abut Cockburn, and I probably am wrong to jump to conclusions, but it wasn't exactly reassuring to learn that he was living with Katherine Graham's daughter in 1979 when he was "asked," according to Deborah Davis (Katherine the Great), to attack Davis's book in the Village Voice. When I made the remark about his "strange bedfellows in the establishment," I didn't mean it literally, but it seems there's more truth in that than I thought.

Another blast, Davis says, came from David Ignatius of the Washington Post, and this name struck me too. As I think I wrote to you some time ago, I was impressed by a remark he made on C-Span in December 1990 when I happened to be watching. A caller said the primary reason we were defending Kuwait was economic and that the primary beneficiaries of the whole thing were everybody in the oil business except Iraq--a perfectly straightforward observation, and correct, in my opinion. Ignatius's response was that he didn't believe in conspiracy theories! I believe he also writes spy novels, which may indicate his true interests and loyalites.

Ok, that may be a little paranoid, but it is 1984 + 8, and the assassination, especially, does seem to bring out the smoke and mirrors, both inside and outside of people's minds. As you say in Deterring Democracy, it's unproductive to try to dig into people's minds to figure out why they say what they do or if they really believe it themselves or not. Still, one can't help wondering.

Now on to more substantive issues. I'm very glad to have your thoughts on this because I haven't seen anything in print you've done on it.

The political significance of the assassination is nil, of course, if the Warren Report is correct. If it is incorrect, as it seems to me the evidence overwhelmingly indicates, some version of the Garrison (coup d'état) theory must be correct, and the significance of that is clear. I say it must be correct because I see no possibility that anyone could have pulled off the coverup without the complicity of the government and the press. Not pro- or anti-Castro Cubans nor Russians nor the Mafia nor "renegade" US intelligence agents. None of these groups could have faked the autopsy, manipulated the Warren Commission, sabotaged the House investigation, etc. and managed the press non-coverage for more than a quarter of a century. However that complicity operates--by "manufacturing consent," conscious conspiracy, or (more likely) a combination of the two, it is real.

What Garrison's theory does not explain, but your propaganda model does, is the refusal or inability of the intelligentsia to take Garrison et al. seriously--a prime example of Orwell's problem and of education as the best form of propaganda in a "free" society.

The "propaganda model" is the one proposed in Manufacturing Consent. It is not complicated: the interlocking and pyramid-like connections of ownership explain the media's subservience to government and big business, which amount to the same thing. Orwell's problem, as Chomsky has expressed it, is "How is it that we know so little?"--as opposed to Plato's problem, which is "How is it that we know so much?"

Why else would 99% of elite opinion be so vehemently against the Stone film, when half the US population thought Garrison might be right (i.e. that the CIA or military were involved)--even before they saw the film? I suspect the even higher percentage--73% according to Time--of the public who believe the assassination was a conspiracy would correspond to a much smaller figure among mainstream journalists and academics (both left and right), if a poll were taken just of them.

According to a Time/CNN poll taken just before the film was released, 73% of Americans thought the assassination was a conspiracy, and 68% of these (i.e. 49.6% of all Americans) said the CIA or the US military may have been involved (Time, Jan. 13, 1992, European ed., p. 40).

Stone has at least informed the public and put the question on the table. How many people had even heard of NSAM 263 before the film? How many would have dared to talk about this "terrifying" hypothesis (and it is terrifying for most people, I think), even if they had heard of it? The film has at least made the subject discussable. I'm sure Time Warner is working a quite different agenda, counting on a burn-out effect (already apparent), but that is a different question.

Now the (putative) Vietnam connection. First I have to say that I haven't been able to get hold of Newman's book yet (one of the joys of living here--takes weeks and often months to get books), so I don't know what new evidence has come out, but I'll try to respond on the basis of what you say and the bits Cockburn refers to.

Taking it chronologically, Kennedy's public statements prior to October 1963, including the much-cited September TV interviews, are clearly subject to interpretation. Of course he was playing politics, since pulling out would be the unpopular course, both with the population in general and in his own administration. Rusk, McNamara, Johnson, Bundy, McCone of CIA--all the top people were against withdrawal. Cockburn and others have said the withdrawal plan was "political," as if Kennedy intended it to make him more popular, but how could it have? There was no political pressure for withdrawal, or at least less than there was for continued escalation.

The "McNamara-Taylor" report, according to Fletcher Prouty, doesn't represent McNamara's opinion at all. It wasn't written by either him or Taylor, but back at the Pentagon, strictly according to Kennedy's wishes. They flew it to Honolulu and handed to McNamara and Taylor there for them to give to JFK as "their" report when they arrived in Washington. McNamara's true opinion was expressed to Johnson as president the morning after the assassination (Scott, p. 224-225), though it was no secret before then.

Prouty also says, by the way, that although JFK was for the coup against Diem, he planned to have him and Nhu evacuated by air to Europe immediately afterward. They were actually on the plane when for some reason they returned to the presidential palace and were later murdered in an military vehicle. I know there are different versions of this and I don't know where Prouty has his from, but by all accounts Kennedy was genuinely surprised when they were murdered. I don't mean to defend Kennedy here, but it looks to me like another CIA sabotage operation. CIA (and Rusk, Johnson, etc.) wanted to keep Diem, and when Kennedy insisted on his removal, they knew he would be blamed. Nixon later had Lucien Conein deliberately spread the word that JFK had been behind the murders (according to Jim Hougan, Spooks).

I see no reason to assume that Morse, Mansfield, Powers and O'Donnell lied about what Kennedy said to them privately, or that Kennedy lied to them. It makes sense--both the public dissembling and the private candor. Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that O'Donnell et al. are telling the truth, what else could Kennedy have done in the situation? He could not tell the world, "Ok, we failed, we're going home." Of course he was wrong to have us in Vietnam in the first place, but how could he admit it at that point? The only alternative was to declare the mission accomplished (not "victorious") and beat an orderly retreat, putting as good a face on the affair as possible: "We've done what we can, but it's their war."

The McNamara-Taylor report did not talk of "victory" (the word Cockburn repeatedly puts in their and JFK's mouth) but of "progress." It's "optimism" was in my opinion (and I gather in Newman's as well) a ploy under which to effect the pullout without it looking like complete abandonment of the South Vietnamese. Kennedy was also getting completely opposite reports from the field, i.e. pessimistic assessments, and the political situation was clearly bad--"deeply serious," as the White House statement said. Kennedy would have had to be a complete idiot to have thought the war was being "won" (in the sense that Johnson obviously wanted to win), but this is exactly what the "false optimism" argument implies. I know of no other cases where Kennedy, whatever else one might think of him, has been accused of being such a numbskull.

It is true that Kennedy's statements on Nov. 14 continue to present a belligerent front, but note that the first objective mentioned was "to bring Americans home," and none of these statements for public consumption can deny the overriding significance of the withdrawal plan implemented by NSAM 263. That was policy; the talk about "staying the course" was rhetoric. Again, what else could he have said?

All I know about the Honolulu meeting is what Scott says about it, based on references to it in the Pentagon Papers and the press at the time: the Accelerated Withdrawal Plan was confirmed. Are the documents related to that meeting still secret? What new information has been revealed to make you (or Newman) think Kennedy was not aware of the truth about the war before then?

I am skeptical of that Bundy draft of NSAM 273. You say he wrote it in Honolulu, Cockburn says the next day (Nov. 21) "back in Washington." I thought Bundy and virtually the entire Administration (except for JFK, LBJ, RFK and a couple of others) were still in Honolulu on the 22nd. The whereabouts of all these people at the critical moment is strange enough, but be that as it may, why would Bundy draft such an important document before he had even discussed the results of the Honolulu meeting with the president--especially if new information had been revealed there?

It is clearly foolish of Newman to try to find differences between that draft and 273, since they are almost identical. He should look at the big picture instead. We are talking about the possibility of a coup d'état. If it was a coup, it is even more likely that Bundy was in on it than Johnson, being No. 2 in the national security hierarchy (above the vice-president)--and this throughout the "transition." Of course Bundy would claim that there was no policy change, that Kennedy would have signed the same NSAM that Johnson signed, continued the war the same way Johnson did, etc.

And of course Johnson had to claim that Kennedy's withdrawal policy would continue, as formulated in paragraph 2 of NSAM 273. This is indeed the heart of the story: if Kennedy was killed (among other reasons) because of his withdrawal decision, every effort would have been made to conceal the fact that the successor to the throne disagreed with and reversed that decision. How convenient to have documents drafted both the day before the murder and two days afterward, neither of which JFK ever saw, much less approved, but which he supposedly would have signed and which supposedly show that there was a seamless continuation of policy!

What does it really mean to say, as Cockburn and others do, "there was no change in policy"? It means that both JFK and LBJ wanted and planned and implemented a policy to withdraw all US troops from Vietnam by the end of 1965. This is NSAM 263, confirmed by paragraph 2 of 273. Why is it never said this way? Because the inescapable conclusion is that Johnson not only reversed JFK's policy, he also reversed his own policy. Saying "Johnson continued Kennedy's policy" sounds harmless enough, but if it is true it is only half the story. The other half is "...for a short time, then he reversed it." In other words, whether paragraph 2 of 273 is a lie or not, two things are incontrovertibly true:

1. Kennedy's plan was to withdraw all troops by the end of 1965.
2. Johnson reversed this policy.

Seen in this way, the differences between 263 and 273 are irrelevant. Whether Johnson reversed the (JFK's, or JFK's and LBJ's) withdrawal policy on Nov. 24 or a couple of weeks or months later, the fact remains that he reversed it.

The significant thing to me is that all the historians bend over backward to avoid acknowledging these facts, determined to make it appear that there was no policy change, period, which is patently false. Why?

Because there are three, not two, facts to consider--rather, to avoid considering:

1. Kennedy's plan was to withdraw all troops by the end of 1965.
2. Kennedy was murdered.
3. Johnson reversed this policy.

One these facts are stated plainly--which is never done (except in the dissident assassination literature)--it is obvious why the historical engineers have struggled so long and hard to avoid doing so. The question then becomes inescapable: Is there a causal relationship between 1-3? Since the question is not permissible, 1 and 3 must be suppressed by all possible means. I've looked into this a bit and it is truly amazing what gyrations the "responsible" commentators go through to avoid making these simple and well-documented facts clear.

Questions are not proof, of course, but the point is that even the question must be avoided. It is not permissible, any more than it is permissible to ask, Is Washington the terrorist capital of the world? [Chomsky has said and written this on many occasions.]

Maybe for publicity-starved kooks like Garrison and war-crazed vets like Stone, but not for responsible journalists and historians.

If we had "won" the war, à la Gulf, maybe the truth could have been allowed to emerge. Then one could conceivably argue that "victory" was so important that Kennedy's assassination was necessary for "national security" reasons. But as things turned out, this excuse is impossible. Theoretically, one could still say, "Well, we thought the Vietnam War was so important that JFK had to be sacrificed," but it wouldn't work. In reality, it is impossible to admit the truth about the assassination because it violates the necessary illusion that such things don't happen in the USA. The irony is that exactly the same excuse is acceptable, as long as the president's assassination is omitted: "Well, we thought the Vietnam War was so important that 58,000 Americans and a couple of million Vietnamese had to be sacrificed." That is a perfectly acceptable truth, violating no illusions, since it is quite normal for us to sacrifice our own lives and other worthless entities for the good of the State--but not the life of a president.

You say the best evidence that JFK intended to withdraw is that he respected MacArthur's advice not to get involved in a land war in Asia. But that was rather early, wasn't it? JFK's initial escalation shows that he had something in mind--probably exactly what happened up to 1963, not full-scale war but counterinsurgency along the lines his hero Taylor recommended, using indigenous cannon fodder and mercenaries (as in Laos), with direct US participation limited to CIA and special forces. This conforms to what he told O'Donnell--that he would never send draftees to Vietnam. But certainly the best evidence--proof, in fact--of his withdrawal intention is NSAM 263.

I do not share the "Camelot" illusions, though one cannot help but observe that JFK was the last president to have any charisma and independence of mind whatsoever--neither of which are desirable qualities of leadership in a national security state. He did stand up to the Mafia and the CIA, which doesn't necessarily make him any less of a thug or less dangerous, but in fact it made him more dangerous--to his handlers. He bucked the Joint Chiefs and the CIA at the Bay of Pigs by refusing to send in the Navy and the Marines, and there was similar pressure to attack the Russian ships during the missile crisis. He defied them again ("them"=the military-industrial-intelligence-complex) with the Vietnam withdrawal decision. It was the Bay of Pigs all over again.

My theory about the Bay of Pigs, which I have written up in some detail based on a close reading of Operation Zapata (the minutes of the Taylor investigation), is that the CIA sabotaged it themselves. (Sent this to CAIB along with some other stuff but they never even acknowledged.)

This article did appear, two years later, in an "assassination research" journal called The Fourth Decade ("The Bay of Pigs Revisited,"), and I gave a talk on the same theme at the founding meeting of COPA later the same year.

The purpose was to put Kennedy in exactly the position he ended up in: send in the troops or face disaster. The scenario was repeated in Vietnam. The clandestine involvement had built up since at least 1954 and probably since 1945 (when Ho Chi Minh was still an ally), climaxing in the fall of 1963, when again it was: call it war or quits. Kennedy refused again, for the last time. These snafus don't occur any more. In the Gulf War, it was not necessary to maneuver Bush, CIA's own, into position; it was only a matter of getting congress into position, which was accomplished by Jan. 12: fight or be humiliated (after drawing a 500,000-man line in the sand and months of name-calling).

I have no inclination to defend Kennedy's record otherwise. He probably did what was expected of him on most occasions, but in that office you can't make too many mistakes. Witness Noriega, Saddam, etc., who also got out of line. Even Bush can make mistakes, like his hesitation about sending the troops into Iraq last April. Whatever the particularities were in that case, I doubt that it was a coincidence that Bush changed his mind the day after the New York Times published Gary Sick's October Surprise story (after ignoring the whole thing for years). In the end, JFK was a victim, just like the rest of us. He may have been a thug, but he was an inconvenient thug, and not enough of a thug for the people who really run the show. (I don't know who these people are but I'll bet McGeorge Bundy does.)

If others want to play up the significance of the test ban treaty, the rapprochement with Cuba and the Soviets, JFK's (albeit reluctant) commitment to civil rights, his opposition to Big Oil, the Federal Reserve, the Mafia, and the CIA, and so on, frankly I don't mind, because the arguments are going in the right direction. I doubt that any of those factors alone could have brought about the assassination and cover-up, but the war was bigger than all of them put together. It's interesting to note that the JFK reviews (Cockburn being an exception in this respect) do their best to obscure this point, usually burying the Vietnam thing in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of the article among all the "other possible" reasons. There are no headlines that read: "Was JFK Killed Because He Wanted to Withdraw from Vietnam?" But this is the main message of the film, as most people who see it will confirm. It's that impermissible question again: ok for the movies but not for the papers. Damage control.

To change the subject just a bit, I must mention Michael Albert's terrible essay in Z Magazine (Jan. 1992) pitting Craig Hulet as an exemplar of "conspiracy theory" against you as one of "institutional" critique? I don't know anything about Hulet, but it's interesting that Cockburn mentions him too. I don't know Albert either, but this article is really a crock of do-do. Time Newsweek, Cockburn, Albert--they all form a united front against "conspiracy." Albert at least allows for the existence of "progressive and left conspiracy theory," which I guess is the category I would fall into, but I reject this dichotomy. I see a continuum, from the particular to the abstract, conspiracies as particular manifestations of -isms.

Not only is it a false dichotomy, it plays right into the hands of the CIA and their ilk, who would like nothing better than to see all "conspiracy theorists" branded as fascists, which is the usual implication (Cockburn's too). Why mention Craig Hulet (whoever this guy is) or Lyndon LaRouche (who some people, like Ramsey Clark, don't think is quite as crazy as he's made out to be), and not Peter Scott? (Cockburn, to his credit, does deal with Scott--by misrepresenting him--but more as a "fantasizer" than a "conspiracist.") The notion that "conspiracists" are fascists or even extremists is disproved by the great majority of Americans who think the assassination was a conspiracy and are not fascists or even extremists--yet, though they may be driven to fascism if their common sense understanding of the conspiratorial nature of government continues to be refuted by elite opinion. According to my dictionary, "conspiracy" and "government" are practically synonyms, and ordinary people seem to understand that much more easily than the better-propagandized elite. What governments do not plan bad things in secret? I see no contradiction between Jim Garrison and Noam Chomsky. Why can't they both be right?

The question is, why is what Scott calls "deep politics" and "parapolitics" (I guess to avoid saying "conspiracy theory") consistently "resisted by the establishment left (The Nation) in almost the same terms as the establishment center (the Times)"? Scott's answer is that the left writes out of "false despair," and, like the center, "out of false consciousness, to rationalize their disempowerment," but I don't see that that explains anything. (Garrison is more depressing than Cockburn, everybody rationalizes their disempowerment, and I have no idea what "false consciousness" is.) Cockburn's answer seems to be that if the conspiracists are right,

Out the window goes any sensible analysis of institutions, economic trends and pressures, continuities in corporate and class interest and all the other elements constituting the open secrets and agendas of American capitalism (Nation 1/6-13/92:6)

which is so foolish I can't believe he means it. Why should Garrison, Scott et al. render Chomsky et al. (and Cockburn for that matter) invalid or superfluous? We don't need this confusion. Hasn't anybody thought of trying to consolidate the revolutionary (peaceful of course) elements in these supposedly disparate analyses rather than insisting on driving them farther apart than they really are? I see now why Z Magazine rejects my stuff; it violates the anti-conspiracy doctrine. But if that Albert article is their idea of "sensible analysis" I am unimpressed. Oh well, there's still the computer network (no editors!).

Best regards,


Chomsky replied (5/21/92) that we were "at a bit of an impasse about JFK." He said he had now been through all the "internal documentation," which "undermines the case almost entirely." He mentioned his "friend Peter Dale Scott, a fine scholar," again, and having "recently had a long discussion with Peter about this and what it came down to was his belief that some still classified material might support the theory." But, Chomsky added, "we simply have no reason to believe it, and the evidence to the contrary is quite compelling."

The "theory" Chomsky was referring to is Scott's early theory, later elaborated by Newman, that there was a significant difference between JFK's NSAM 263 and LBJ's 273. But this Chomsky had already conceded, in his previous letter to me. The significant difference, he had said, was between 263 and the draft of 273, which was written by Bundy for JFK, and which was not significantly different from LBJ's 273. Newman, agreeing that the draft 273 was written for JFK, says it is significantly different from the 273 LBJ signed.

In the end, then, Chomsky was agreeing with Scott and Newman that 273 shows a policy change, but disagreeing with them that the change came with Johnson. Bundy's draft 273 proved that it came with Kennedy.

He went on to review "several types of evidence." The public record, he said, was clear, and everybody (including Scott and Newman) agreed that "JFK was, publicly, an extreme hawk, until the very end, holding that withdrawal without victory is unthinkable and would be a disaster." He did not want to withdraw because "he knew that escalation was highly unpopular, both among the public and in the Senate," and that therefore, if he had wanted to withdraw, he would have said so publicly because "he would have received enormous support." Instead, he kept "using his bully pulpit to drive the general public in a more hawkish direction, as much as he could." The record makes clear "his unwillingness to withdraw without victory." If he had planned to withdraw, he "could have drawn on highly respected military authorities to back him up," such as MacArthur, Ridgeway, and Shoup.

The McNamara-Taylor report of Oct. 2, 1963, Chomsky said, concluded "that the military part of the war was going so well that if the 1964 battle plan succeeded, US forces could be withdrawn by the end of 1965." But all of this "was explicitly contingent on the success of the 1964 plan." By October 1963, JFK was concerned about the deteriorating political situation in Saigon and afraid that Diem and his brother Nhu would negotiate a settlement with the North, "which would lead to neutralization and force the US to withdraw." To this JFK was adamantly opposed, "because it would lead to withdrawal without victory." After the coup against Diem, negative facts about the progress of the war began to filter in, leading to the Honolulu meeting and the draft for NSAM 273, "adapted to the changing assessment."

If Kennedy had been planning to withdraw, "he surely had a great opportunity when the Diem family was negotiating with the North for a settlement." In that case his public utterances would have been different, there would be some trace in the internal record, and "he would have given prominence to the highest military brass who were strongly opposed to escalation, etc. None of this is the case."

Prouty, Chomsky said, is "utterly untrustworthy" and "a raving fascist," avoided by "serious journalists" such as Edward Epstein, "who does think there was an assassination conspiracy."

Oliver Stone had misinformed the public, spreading "fantasies about NSAM 263."

In sum, it was "pretty clear" to Chomsky "that no one with even a shred of rationality could have thought that getting rid of JFK had anything to do with the war in Vietnam." Maybe "right-wing nuts" thought so, but there was no evidence for it, just "belief and wish fulfillment." He lamented the "ugly name-calling and irrationality" that was causing "movement circles" to "tear themselves apart on this," when there were "so many important issues to address."

Continued Part 2


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