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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, May 28, 2004

JFK news management: never underestimate the outright lie

As regular readers will be aware, I've been looking at Daniel Hallin's Uncensored War for a little compare and contrast action with the present sorry state of US political news coverage.

On May 22, I mentioned a flat Kennedy lie from 1962 that proved very effective in killing a nascent story on the use of US troops in combat in Vietnam.

But the Kennedy Administration was required early on to get into the business of the downright lie to preserve their Vietnam options: Hallin (p26ff) looks at the coverage the New York Times gave to the Taylor-Rostow Mission [1], that set off on October 15 1961.

Gen Maxwell Taylor's report (the Evaluation and Conclusions section- executive summary, kinda - was mostly written by Walt Rostow, I gather) of November 3 1961[2], supported by Robert McNamara and the JCS [3], was for the deployment of a limited number of US combat troops [4]. Discussions in appendices to the Taylor Report canvas the possibility of the large-scale deployment of forces from the US or SEATO [5]; such deployment is ruled out in the short-term, but leaving open the possibility should the dire military and political state of South Vietnam (described in the Report) go from bad to worse.

News management of the Report, and the Administration response, was designed to ensure that there was no news.

Now, as we know, for something to acquire the status of news generally requires an event - which requirement the Mission, the Report and the response would all fulfil; but also some change of position. An report of stasis - All Quiet on the Western Front - will not normally count.

(Hallin refers (p29) to Korea as an object-lesson for a Democratic president: avoid a limited land war in Asia. But - to protect his right flank - the need to avoid seeming soft on Communism - not something Kennedy was instinctively prone to being. Standing firm fitted the bill: but this image would clearly be undercut by a change in policy as significant as deploying combat troops to Vietnam.)

On top of this (p30)
One sure way to arouse the Right was to reject military advice.

Yet Kennedy's decision was to reject the Pentagon's proposal for 8,000 combat troops to be introduced for Mekong flood relief. How could the circle be squared?

By lying, of course. And avoiding Administration leaks, natch.

In the middle of October, Hallin says, the New York Times was already seeding the eventual party line [6]:
Military leaders at the Pentagon, no less that General Taylor himself, are understood to be reluctant to send organized US combat units into Southeast Asia.

The Times reported on November 4 1961 [7]:
The General declined to comment directly on whether he would recommend sending United States combat troops...

However, when General Taylor was reminded at the airport that his remarks before leaving Saigon had been interpreted as meaning that [Diem's] problem was not manpower, the General replied,

"That is correct. It is a populous country."
Officials said it was correct to infer from this that General Taylor did not look favorably on the sending of United States combat troops at this time...

Although some officials at the White House and State and Defense Departments are known to favor the dispatch of American forces, there would be considerable surprise here if General Taylor recommended such a move.

The Pentagon Papers [8] says
The submission of Taylor's Report was followed by prominent news stories the next morning flatly stating (but without attribution to a source [plus ├ža change!]) that the President "remains strongly opposed to the dispatch of American combat troops to South Vietnam" and strongly implying that General Taylor had not recommended such a commitment.

The section continues by pointing out that President Ngo Dinh Diem was unusually helpful:
Diem himself had given one of his rare on-the-record interviews to the New York Times correspondent [which?] in Saigon while Taylor was on his way home, and he too gave the impression that the further American aid he expected would not include ground troops.

And goes on:
Consequently, the general outline of the American aid that would be sent following the Taylor Mission was common knowledge for over a week before any formal decision was made.

The PP gives some context: other foreign stories competing for the news-hole included the (only recently ex-Belgian) Congo and the standoff with the USSR over Berlin, where
there had just been a symbolic confrontation of Soviet and American tanks.

The Times was called in, in the manner of air support, to give the Administration cover over the entire Cold War front:
The Administration was so concerned about public reaction to Soviet aggressiveness and apparent American inability to deal with it that a campaign was begun (as usual in matters of this sort, reported in the Times without specific attribution) to "counter-attack against what unnamed 'high officials' called a 'rising mood of national frustration.'" The Administration's message, the Times reported, was that a "mature foreign policy" rather than "belligerence of defeatism" was what was needed. What is interesting about such a message is what the necessity to send it reveals about the mood of the times.

So, a smooth news management operation on combat troops: public opinion conditioned to expect the decision ultimately made.

Not entirely. The PP go on (emphasis in the original):
The story appearing the day after the report was submitted, despite the flat statements against the use of combat troops, also stated that Taylor had recommended "the dispatch of more specialists in anti-guerrilla warfare to train Vietnamese troops, communications and transportation specialists, and army engineers to help the Vietnamese government combat its flood problems." The November 5 story was more explicit. It is noted that officials seemed to rule out the use of U.S. combat forces, "the move considered here a few weeks ago." But "at the same time it appears that Army engineers, perhaps in unusually large numbers, may be sent to help on flood control work and other civil projects and to fight if necessary." This last phrase was explicitly (and correctly) linked to the fact that the area in which the floods had taken place (the Delta) was precisely the area of greatest Viet Cong strength.

One has to admire the subtlety of in unusually large numbers!

As it happens, between the McNamara paper of November 8, and the McNamara-Rusk paper of November 11 1961 [9], the idea of sending troops for flood relief has disappeared - PP fingers Kennedy - who else would it be? - as responsible: no doubt, later historians have teased out the details.

The NSC met to approve the response to Taylor-Rostow on November 15; NSAM 111 was approved on November 22.

On November 16, the Times reports [10]:
President Kennedy has decided on the measures that the United States is prepared to take to strengthen South Vietnam against attack by the Communists.

The measures...closely followed the recommendations of Gen Maxwell D Taylor, the President's military advisor.

The United States plans do not include the dispatching of combat units at this time. They call for sending several hundred train the forces of President Ngo Dinh Diem. The plans also call for fairly large-scale shipments of aircraft and other special equipment.

Officials emphasised that the President and the National Security Council had not foreclosed the possibility of sending ground or air combat units if the situation deteriorated drastically. The President, it was said, does not wish to bind himself into a "never position".

However, the President and General Taylor agreed, according to reliable information available here, that the South Vietnamese government is capable of turning back the Communist threat.

Mission accomplished.

Hallin (p31) identifies some of the features of the case:
  • Policy decisions should appear routine, incremental and automatic.

  • For which, the intra-USG debate should be kept private.

  • To make such silence credible, pessimistic reports should be suppressed.

  • Management of expectations, establishing a comparison level, is important.

  • A decision to escalate appeared to be a decision not to escalate.

  • The open-endedness of the commitment was obscured; the decision was an Initial Phase.

  • The size of the maximum commitment ultimately envisaged - the 205,000 number [11] - is could not be guessed at from the information publicly available.

Clearly, I'll be coming back to this. But the overall impression is of an Administration every bit as contemptuous of the media and disregarding of the voters as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co.

And the New York Times might as well have been edited by Judith Miller for the amount of independence on display!

  1. All the Vietnam volumes of FRUS for the Kennedy - the 1961 volume - and Johnson Administrations are now online.

    There is also the Pentagon Papers - complete? - available in HTML - on the site of Mount Holyoke International Relations prof Vincent Ferraro - an Aladdin's Cave of online materials on the subject. (The Pentagon Papers links are at the bottom of each page.)

    The PP Glossary may well come in particularly handy.

    There is also the PP section of Edwin Moise's essential online Vietnam bibliography - which I am amazed has only had a hundred thousand hits in six years!

    There is no definitive edition of the PP. The Ferraro site has the Gravel Edition: Moise says that

    some of [Senator Gravel's] choices were rather haphazard.
    Moise also flags the Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech - which has a substantial portion on the House Armed Services Committee edition United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by The Department of Defense - he calls it the GPO Edition. Unfortunately, to judge from a little tinkering, I found the Archive tricky to work - lack of server capacity, apparently. And, by Moise,
    In some cases the scanning was very disorganized
    His biblio handily gives a concordance of the Gravel and GPO editions.

  2. The Pentagon Papers treatment starts on this page at V. THE FALL DECISIONS-I and goes on to this page.

  3. Memorandum to the President November 8 1961, #227 on this page.

  4. A huge bone to pick with Hallin here! Having merely skimmed this stuff several years ago - my interest at the time was the period around the Tonkin Gulf Incidents - it had slipped my mind that the combat troops that were being proposed for Vietnam service

    1. were only 6-8,000 in number; and

    2. were to be inserted to assist following the all too genuine flooding of the Mekong River.

    Taylor does not mention numbers in his report: it's in the Eyes Only telegrams he sent to the President from Saigon and the Philippines on his way home (towards the bottom of this page - in Gravel, but not in FRUS!)

    Now, it's true that the McNamara Memorandum does refer to the number - that just so happened to have stuck in my head! - of 205,000, which was the maximum number of US forces suggested in a CINCPAC plan as necessary to defeat both North Vietnam and China. And the flood contingent would also have served the function of being a target for Vietcong fire - the Mekong Delta was infested with them by this stage.

    But even so.

  5. What? Precisely. I'm not even sure it exists any more.

    The PP text discusses the pantechnicon quality of the Report at the top of this page.

  6. This a piece that Hallin couldn't find in the NYT archives, but got from the PP - this page.

  7. Article (page 1 - probably the lead) by EW Kenworthy - seems to write a deal of Vietnam-related stuff for the Times at this time - the hed: President Cool on Asia Aid; Sees Gen Taylor

  8. This Gravel page - starting at VI. THE FALL DECISIONS-II.

  9. Not in FRUS. Copy in PP.

  10. Another EW Kenworthy front page piece (again, probably the lead): the hed: US To Help Saigon with More Experts and Planes.

  11. Strange how numbers stick in the mind: 205 was one the numbers suggested by Joseph McCarthy as the number of [Commies? security risks? whatever?] in the State Department back in February 1950...

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