JFK, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone

Gary Aguilar
November, 2005

Oliver Stone would scarcely have elicited more righteous indignation by lecturing Baptist ministers on the evils of Christianity than he did among journalists and historians by releasing his popular film JFK. Pundits by the pack bristled at Stone’s contempt for the Warren Commission. One of the outrages that provoked particular vehemence was Stone’s revisionist representation of Kennedy as a president who threatened The Establishment because he would not have taken the country to war over Vietnam. But the outcry wasn’t just about his bad history. It had at least as much to do with the director’s chutzpah in trespassing onto turf owned by career journalists and historians.

In the Washington Post, George Will called JFK a "three hour lie from an intellectual sociopath."[1] Noam Chomsky dedicated an entire book – “Rethinking Camelot” – to debunking Stone’s notion that under Kennedy the history of Southeast Asia would have been altogether kinder and gentler.[2] Leslie Gelb sneered from the pages of the New York Times that the "torments" of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson over Vietnam "are not to be trifled with by Oliver Stone or anyone."[3] A banner headline on the cover of Newsweek barked: "Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can't Be Trusted."[4]

Stone’s crackpot history had apparently imperiled the public not only by throwing mud at perhaps America’s most respected murder investigation, but also by rewriting American history to push his leftist, anti-American agenda. The message was that there was danger when moviemakers forgot their place. Theirs was the business of entertaining, not interpreting history. That business was best left in the capable hands of credentialed authorities.

Across the political spectrum those authorities derided Stone’s war-wary peacenik on grounds his “JFK” bore no resemblance whatsoever to the historical JFK. Behind a pacific façade, received wisdom had it, Kennedy was really a clanking Cold Warrior spoiling for a fight – in Southeast Asia, in Cuba and perhaps elsewhere. In the context of his treatment of Diem, Stone's critics placed JFK's occasionally fierce, if conflicted, rhetoric.

"By November, sanctioning a coup against an ally in the name of winning the war had been added," wrote Robert Bartley in The Wall St. Journal. "Then withdraw? Joe Kennedy's competitive kid? The 'bear any burden' guy? Give me a break. Acolytes love this myth dearly … ." [5] Another historian, William Gibbons, said that it “is absurd” to imagine that Kennedy would have pulled out.[6] In The Nation Magazine, Alexander Cockburn wrote, “The public record shows JFK was always hawkish.”[7] And in no less than the respected Reviews in American History, Max Holland, a Nation Magazine contributing editor, declared that it was a “fantasy that Kennedy was on the verge of pulling out from Vietnam.”[8]

The years that followed have not been kind to those who had stoned the director. “Received wisdom” has been swamped by a tsunami of new and credible scholarship brought about by the declassifications of literally millions of pages of government secrets. The impetus for their release came directly from Stone, who publicly nagged about the absurdity of the government saying the case was “open and shut” while suppressing mountains of the evidence.

No doubt to the dismay of Stone’s detractors, a strikingly different and more favorable – even more Oliver Stone-like - view of Kennedy has recently emerged. In March 2005, long after similar accounts had been widely reported elsewhere, The Nation finally acknowledged that the real JFK, despite his considerable personal peccadillos, was worlds away from the hawkish hooligan The Nation had been peddling for so long.

On March 14, 2005 The Nation reported: “We also now know that Kennedy that same spring [1963] ordered the Pentagon to plan to have all US troops out of Vietnam by early 1965, shortly after what he assumed would be his re-election – and further ordered that the troop pullout begin by the late fall of 1963. But he did not, of course, live to see their withdrawal.”[9] This was an amazing metanoia for the leftist outlet that had not only hard-pitched the opposite a decade earlier, but had also used its letters pages to savagely beanball two well-known advocates of the withdrawl thesis:  it’s originator, Peter Dale Scott, and Oliver Stone’s consultant-historian, John Newman.[10]

Tardy or no, The Nation had finally joined the growing consensus of recognized historians and journalists. Naval War College historian David Kaiser, for example, wrote that his book, American Tragedy,[11] documented the “numerous occasions during 1961, 1962, and 1963 on which Kennedy did exactly that [‘stopped the United States from going to war in Southeast Asia’], rejecting the near unanimous proposals of his advisers to put large numbers of American combat troops in Laos, South Vietnam, or both.”[12] That conclusion was not at all what some informed observers had expected to find among the secrets.

University of Alabama historian Howard Jones said that when he began his study he “was dubious” about the assertions of “Kennedy apologists [that] he would not have sent combat troops to Vietnam and America’s longest war would never have occurred.” But “what strikes anyone reading the veritable mountain of documents relating to Vietnam,” Jones admitted to his own surprise, “is that the only high official in the Kennedy administration who consistently opposed the commitment of U.S. combat forces was the president.”[13] “The materials undergirding this [Jones’] study demonstrate that President Kennedy intended to reverse the nation’s special military commitment to the South Vietnamese made in early 1961.”[14]

Echoing Jones, journalist Fred Kaplan wrote that, “the argument that Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam becomes truly compelling only when you place [JFK’s] skepticism about the war in the context of his growing disenchantment with his advisers … .”[15]

Historian Robert Dallek came to much the same conclusion. “Toward the end of his life John F. Kennedy increasingly distrusted his military advisers and was changing his views on foreign policy. A fresh look at the final months of his presidency suggests that a second Kennedy term might have produced not only an American withdrawal from Vietnam, but also rapprochement with Fidel Castro’s Cuba.”[16]

Dallek produced a quote that gives a sense of the newly visible JFK: “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”[17] This is much closer to the crazy director’s version of JFK than Noam Chomsky’s, George Will’s or The Nation’s.

Once-secret records demonstrate a pattern in Kennedy we are unaccustomed to seeing in presidents: rather than JFK following his senior advisers on critical issues – the way “good” presidents usually do, the way LBJ did – Kennedy often ignored it.

He withstood pressure from the CIA and the military to follow-up the foundering Bay of Pigs invasion with a military assault on Cuba.[18] He rejected advice to use force in Laos, pushing against the defense establishment to achieve an ultimately successful negotiated settlement.[19] He shouldered aside the defense and intelligence establishments to advance a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets.[20] And as historians Ernest May and Philip Zelikov discovered from live voice recordings made during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was often “the only one in the room [full of the highest officers in the country] who is determined not to go to war.”[21]

This is the same Kennedy we discover in Perils of Dominance, an important new book by Gareth Porter.[22] Porter documents in chilling detail that, in isolation and with virtually no real allies to help him, Kennedy orchestrated numerous Machiavellian ruses to frustrate the “national security bureaucracy’s” determination to march headlong into war.

So Oliver Stone, the brash, Bronze Star-winning, Vietnam veteran mountebank, turns out to have been right all along: JFK wasn’t going to budge on Vietnam; just as he wouldn’t budge on the Bay of Pigs invasion; on the war in Laos; on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It was precisely because Kennedy was not a hawk that he was a threat to The Establishment. He did represent change – right up until the moment the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.

Given that Stone’s vindication comes directly from secret government files that the director himself had forced into the light, files that “credentialled authorities” now agree prove that Stone’s JFK had gotten JFK and Vietnam right, could the “intellectual sociopath’s” victory be any sweeter?[*] 

[*]Those inclined to dismiss Stone’s victory as “beginner’s luck” would do well to pick up a copy of the Kansas University Press-published book, “Oliver Stone’s USA.” [Robert Brent Toplin, ed. University Press of Kansas, 2000.] In fascinating and spirited exchanges, the director defends himself against respected historians charging that he has irresponsibly “stoned” history in his films on El Salvador, Nixon, and Vietnam and, yes, JFK. Although Stone’s version of history is not always as successful as his version of JFK and Vietnam, he more than holds his own against the experts. In the process, he has demonstrated that, to borrow from JFK, one must watch the historians and journalists and avoid feeling that just because they are recognized authorities that their opinions on history matters are worth a damn.

[editor's note: for a forceful presentation of the argument that JFK was indeed proceeding with an unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam in 1963, see James K. Galbraith's essay Exit Strategy at http://www.bostonreview.net/BR28.5/galbraith.html].

[1] George F. Will. ‘JFK’: Paranoid History. Washington Post, 12/26/91, p. A- 23.

[2] Noam Chomsky. Rethinking Camelot - JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture. Boston: South End Press, 1993. http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/rc/rc-contents.html

[3] Leslie H. Gelb. Kennedy and Vietnam. Op-ed, New York Times, 1/9/92. Reproduced in: Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar. JFK – The Book of the Film. New York: Applause Books, 1992, p. 391-392.

[4] Cited by Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun Times, 12/21/91. On-line at: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19911222/PEOPLE/212010306

[5] Robert L. Bartley. "Kennedy's Vietnam", Wall St. Journal, 6/16/03, p. A-15.

[6] Quoted by George Lardner, Jr. in: “Or Just a Sloppy Mess.” Washington Post Outlook, 6/2/91. On-line at: http://www.jfk-online.com/lardner91.html

[7] Alexander Cockburn. “Cockburn Replies” [to Michael Parenti]. The Nation, 3/9/92. Reproduced in: Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar. JFK – The Book of the Film. New York: Applause Books, 1992, p. 479.

[8] Max Holland. After Thirty Years: Making Sense of the Assassination. Reviews in American History 22(1994):208-209. On-line at: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/holland.htm

[9] Richard Parker. “Galbraith and Vietnam.” The Nation Magazine, March 14, 2005. Available on-line at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050314/parker. Accessed on October 24, 2005.

[10] See: Jousting After Camelot. The Nation. Volume: 254 • Issue #: 0009, 3/9/92. Letters by Cockburn, Alexander & Scott, Peter Dale & Sklar, Zachary & Parenti, Michael. On-line at The Nation magazine archive: https://ssl.thenation.com/archive/individual/.

[11] David Kaiser. American Tragedy. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2000.

[12] David Kaiser, letter to the editor, Harper’s Magazine, June, 2000, p. 15.

[13] Howard Jones. Death of a Generation – How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 1.

[14] Howard Jones. Death of a Generation – How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 11.

[15] Fred Kaplan. The War Room -What Robert Dallek's new biography doesn't tell you about JFK and Vietnam. Slate/ MSNBC. Posted on-line, May 19, 2003, at 7:31 PM ET. Available at: http://www.slate.com/id/2083136/

[16] Robert Dallek. JFK’s Second Term. Atlantic Monthly, June 2003, p. 58.

[17] Robert Dallek. JFK’s Second Term. Atlantic Monthly, June 2003, p. 61.

[18] Robert McNamara. In Retrospect – The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books for Random House, 1995, p. 96 – 97. [“During the Bay of Pigs crisis in April 1961, against intense pressure from the CIA and the military chiefs, [JFK] kept to his conviction—as he had made explicitly clear to the Cuban exiles beforehand—that under no conditions would the United States intervene with military force to support the invasion. He held to this position even when it became evident that without that support the invasion would fail. I saw the same wisdom during the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis … .”]

[19] See: David Kaiser, American Tragedy, Chapter 2, “No War in Laos,” Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 36 – 57.

See also: Gareth Porter. Perils of Dominance – Imbalance of Power and the Road to Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, p. 143 – 152.

[20] Michael Bescholss. The Crisis Years - Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960 – 1963. New York: Edward Burlingame Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 1991 p. 632. [“McNamara privately told the Joint Chiefs, ‘If you insist in opposing [the Nuclear Test Ban] treaty, well and good, but I am not going to let anyone oppose it out of emotion or ignorance.’ … [JFK] was told that congressional mail was running 15 to 1 against the treaty. His aides were astonished when [JFK] told them that, if necessary, he would ‘gladly’ forfeit his reelection for the sake of the treaty.”] And see Beschloss at pp. 620 – 632 for a good discussion of JFK’s spirited campaign to win approval of the Test Ban Treaty.

[21] Ernest R. May & Philip D. Zelikow. The Kennedy Tapes--Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 692.

[22] Gareth Porter. Perils of Dominance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.