THIS MUCH, at least, is definitely true: In 1963, there was a coup d'etat brewing at the highest levels of the government of a superpower, involving both the number-two man in the succession hierarchy and the heads of the military-industrial complex, which feared the lessening of Cold War tensions if a reform agenda was allowed to go ahead. But the superpower was not the USA, and it was not LBJ out to get JFK; it was the Soviet Union, with Leonid Brezhnev preparing to depose Nikita Khrushchev. Coming soon to a theater near you: NSK.
Now, I don't know anything about ballistics or magic bullets or grassy knolls. I have no idea whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Maybe the Warren Commission botched its report, and maybe it didn't (I'm certainly not going to read the thing). I am an assassination agnostic. But JFK, Oliver Stone's conspiracy epic, isn't satisfied to leave it at that.
Instead, Stone leads us to believe that what happened on November 22, 1963 was nothing less than a "coup d'etat" by Lyndon Johnson and the military-industrial complex, who feared that John F. Kennedy '40 would wind down Vietnam and the Cold War and thus put them all out to pasture. This theory is based on nothing more than the say-so of a mysterious character who identifies himself only as "X" (George Kennan, maybe?) and claims to have been involved in running U.S. covert operations. At this point, we wind up, as Stone's protagonist, Jim Garrison, says in the film, "beyond the looking glass."
Truly. Never mind the ballistics, watch the politics. For Stone's coup theory to work, there are a couple of historical premises that must be established. One, Kennedy really was going to wind down the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. Two, Johnson wrecked everything. Three it was all planned--so sayeth "X," who appears to be the unfortunately named L. Fletcher Prouty (what could the L. stand for that's worse than Fletcher?), a cranky aide to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
To put it in really simple terms: JFK good, LBJ bad. That is not even facetious: in Stone's own words, "[u]ltimately, [Kennedy and Garrison] were good guys." You can tell, because they wear white hats.
Stone is peddling an appealing thesis, because everyone is uncomfortably aware of the paradox that the sainted JFK was a good guy and that the Vietnam war was bad, bad, bad. How could the former be even partially accountable for the latter? To resolve that unseemly dissonance, Stone indulges in what is at best a ridiculous oversimplification of some very complicated politics, and at worst deceit.
ALTHOUGH you'd never know it from watching JFK, Kennedy was the chilliest of Cold Warriors. As David Halberstam '55 writes in The Best and the Brightest, "at best he was cool and cautious and not about to rush ahead of events or the current political climate by calling for changes in the almost glacierlike quality of the Cold War." He won a reputation, as a journalist put it admiringly in 1960, as "a Stevenson with balls." With him came a whole coterie of equally tough young advisors, proud to call themselves hard-nosed realists, including the likes of McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor.
When Kennedy ascended to the Presidency, his electoral victory was narrow and evidently depended somewhat on his impressive sweep of the crucial "dead people" vote. That was certainly no mandate on which to wind down the Cold War, especially for a candidate who campaigned by railing against a so-called missile gap that was the product of fevered anti-communist imaginations, and topped that off with a fire-eating inaugural speech about "a long twilight struggle" with the Russkies. He was, in short, exactly the kind of leader you would expect to get a lot of Americans up to their knees in Indochina.
Indeed, Kennedy did so even after Eisenhower left the hapless French, stuck on the wrong side of history in their bitter little colonial war, to their fate when Dienbienphu fell. To get around these inconvenient facts, Stone uses the passive voice: Kennedy somehow finds himself in this mess. Stone somehow manages not to mention that Kennedy made his bed and then he, and after him Johnson, slept in it.
As for the nefarious military-industrial complex, it had never had it so good as it did under Stone's favorite peacenik. For the Pentagon and its suppliers, Eisenhower's massive retaliation doctrine had meant slim pickings, for under it a few relatively cheap missiles did all the work of national defense.
Kennedy came into office warning direly of a missile gap, which he had to eliminate at no small cost, and also of the need for a flexible response doctrine. Where Ike's idea of international security was threatening to blow up the world if anyone annoyed the United States sufficiently, JFK preferred to meet small threats with proportionally small forces. That meant, in practical terms, building a whole array of conventional and covert task forces, and client regimes and proxies in the less developed parts of the world. Under Kennedy, the defense budget soared by $17 billion, the single largest peacetime increase until Reagan went goofy in the early '80s.
When handed a plan to increase the South Vietnamese army's (ARVN) handout by $42 million a year, above the $225 million already slated for the ARVN, Kennedy wrote "Why so little?" in the margins. Bundy told the State Department that his President was "really very eager that [Vietnam] should have the highest priority for rapid and energetic action...."
In 1961, Kennedy authorized the use of U.S. helicopters in Vietnam, which began to use their superior mobility, devastating firepower and napalm to help the flagging ARVN. Enormous American armored personnel carriers called M-113s, impenetrable to Vietcong weapons and armed with terrifyingly powerful machine guns, began hauling ARVN troops around. There were no American ground troops, and Kennedy steadfastly refused to commit any, but Americans were piloting helicopters, fighter bombers and APCs, and serving in that most ambiguous of roles, as military advisors. Beyond hardware, the Kennedy Administration never came to grips with the true politics of the war and of Vietnam; instead, they stood by the hopelessly corrupt and unpopular regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and complained about getting bad press. (Interestingly, the Administration toyed at one point with the idea of getting rid of Diem's vicious and powerful brother, one of the more sordid features of a generally sor-did South Vietnamese government, by sending him off to teach at Harvard.)
This escalation is a key part of the history of America's involvement in Vietnam, but it is conspicuously absent from JFK.
About the nicest thing that can be said about Kennedy's record on Vietnam was that--when he wasn't being a full-blown hawk--he was timid as the war grew, indecisive, and left the details to others (some of those others, like Ambassador Frederick "Fritz" Nolting in Saigon, were blind and inept; some, like McNamara, were too clever for anyone's good).
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