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Kennedy, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone's big lie.

By claiming that the President was assassinated to prevent him from pulling U.S. troops out of the war, the movie "JFK" distorted history for the sake of propaganda.

IN THE 1991 film, "JFK," director Oliver Stone's protagonist Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) warns the audience that "Hitler always said the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it." Hypocritically, Stone then proceeds to practice Adolf Hitler's "big lie" strategy in "JFK." He charges that the military-industrial complex, including the FBI, CIA, and "the nation's highest officials," with Vice-Pres. Lyndon Johnson's "connivance," murdered Pres. John F. Kennedy to prevent him from withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam. The basic premise on which this accusation hinges is false--Kennedy did not plan to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam.

To support this motive for the assassination, Stone shows an interview with Kennedy by Walter Cronkite on Sept. 2, 1963, with the President saying, "We can help them; we can give them equipment; we can send our men out there as advisers; but they have to win it--the people of Vietnam against the communists." However, Stone flagrantly distorts Kennedy's words by expunging JFK's next comment to Cronkite: "But I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a mistake. That would be a great mistake."

In alleging Kennedy's plan to withdraw from Vietnam, Stone repeats a canard begun by Kenneth O'Donnell, the President's appointments secretary, in a 1970 article in Life. To shield him from blame for the Vietnam disaster, pro-Kennedy historians, including William Manchester, Theodore Sorenson, and John Newman, who advised Stone for "JFK," had described a "plan" to withdraw from Vietnam.

A principal proponent of the withdrawal myth is historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., adviser, friend, and biographer of John and Robert Kennedy. In a 1978 biography of Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger cites private remarks JFK made in 1963 to Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, Michael Forrestal, Sen. Mike Mansfield, and O'Donnell about Vietnam and concludes that Kennedy "left a formal plan, processed successfully through the Pentagon, for a withdrawal of American advisers by the end of 1965." Schlesinger even contends that the tragedy of Vietnam might have been avoided "if Kennedy had lived long enough to carry out his plan for American withdrawal" in 1965. In a 1986 book, The Cycles of American History, Schlesinger refers to "Kennedy's plan for a complete withdrawal of American advisers from Vietnam by 1965--a plan canceled by Johnson a few months after [JFK was assassinated in] Dallas."

Why, then, did Kennedy continue to order American troops to Vietnam after supposedly deciding as early as July, 1962, to remove all American forces in 1965? To this crucial question, Schlesinger offers a bizarre rationalization. Quoting from O'Donnell's book, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, he maintains that, after deciding to withdraw, Kennedy told Mansfield, "But I can't do it until 1965--after I'm reelected." Schlesinger asserts that Kennedy told O'Donnell, "If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected."

Schlesinger wants us to believe that Kennedy decided in 1962 or early 1963 to withdraw all U.S. forces, but continued to maintain troops in South Vietnam because he feared losing the 1964 election. The unavoidable conclusion from this tale is grotesque. If Schlesinger is right, the President willfully sacrificed American lives for political profit. During the Kennedy Administration, 108 Americans died and 486 were wounded in Vietnam, and these figures increased from the time of his assassination in November, 1963, until November, 1964, after the presidential election when Schlesinger maintains Kennedy would have begun to withdraw U.S. troops.

Furthermore, if the Schlesinger-Stone thesis is correct, Kennedy is responsible for the death of more than 58,000 Americans and millions of Southeast Asians. Had JFK withdrawn U.S. forces in the spring of 1963, when Schlesinger claims he decided to do so, but declined for political reasons, the U.S. might not have become deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson, who correctly believed he was following his predecessor's policy in Southeast Asia, probably would not have reintroduced military forces after Kennedy had removed all U.S. troops.

Schlesinger's and Stone's allegation is wrong. Evidence does not support their corruption of Kennedy's Vietnam record. The thesis that JFK reached a firm decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by 1965, regardless of the consequences in Vietnam, is denied by Schlesinger's own source (the Pentagon Papers), Kennedy's public statements, and the President's closest advisers, including Robert Kennedy.

Schlesinger's evidence refutes his arguments. In criticizing Norman Podhoretz's book, Why We Were in Vietnam, he writes. "Mr. Podhoretz's research in the Pentagon Papers might have led him to the plan for the phased withdrawal of American military personnel in Vietnam by the end of 1965."

Although the Pentagon Papers analysis does reveal a contingency plan to withdraw troops, the study shows clearly that this was not irrevocable and was predicated on a premature assumption made in July, 1962, which was corrected later, that the Vietcong and North Vietnam would be defeated. The Pentagon Papers analyst states that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam "was begun amid the euphoria and optimism of July 1962 and was ended in the pessimism of March 1964." He continues, "only the micawberesque prediction could have led decision-makers in Washington to believe that the fight against the guerrillas would have clearly turned the corner by FY '65."

According to the Pentagon Papers, the crucial condition that corrected Kennedy's hasty prediction about victory in Vietnam was the military overthrow of South Vietnam Pres. Ngo Dinh Diem; his assassination on Nov. 1, 1963, three weeks before Kennedy's death; and "the resulting political instability and the deterioration of the military situation" which immediately "led decision-makers to set aside this planning process." After the Diem coup, writes the Pentagon analyst, "all this planning [of a U.S. withdrawal] began to take on a kind of absurd quality as the situation in Vietnam deteriorated drastically and visibly. The phaseout policy was overtaken by the sinking after-effects of the Diem coup." The Pentagon analyst concludes that phased withdrawal "was overtaken by events."

Thus, Schlesinger's source, the Pentagon Papers, contradicts his assertion that JFK planned to withdraw all U.S. forces from Vietnam by 1965. Furthermore, unless it is to be believed that the President repeatedly lied to the American people about Vietnam to conceal his "secret plan" to withdraw, Kennedy's numerous public statements supporting South Vietnam are compelling evidence that he opposed a withdrawal.

In the 1950s, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy was one of the leaders of the American Friends of Vietnam, an organization described by co-founder Joseph Buttinger as a group of liberal intellectuals who became "Diem's most effective defenders." Kennedy was one of South Vietnam's strongest champions. He told an American Friends of Vietnam convention in 1956, "If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents. This is our offspring. We cannot abandon it; we cannot ignore its needs." After he became president, Kennedy backed his strong personal commitment to a non-communist South Vietnam by ordering 15,000 troops to aid that nation. To the very day he was assassinated, Kennedy publicly pledged American support to South Vietnam.

On Sept. 9, 1963, Kennedy explained to David Brinkley that he believed in the domino theory in Southeast Asia. "I believe it. I believe it," the President repeated and then expressed his categorical opposition to withdrawing from Vietnam: "What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say because they don't like events in Southeast Asia or they don't like the government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the communists. I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw." At a news conference on Sept. 12, 1963, Kennedy emphasized that "what helps to win the war we support. What interferes with the war effort we oppose."

Understanding Kennedy's Vietnam Policy

Timing is crucial in understanding Kennedy's Vietnam policy. His private statements about withdrawing U.S. troops were made prior to the Diem assassination, after which, according to the Pentagon Papers, "the phaseout policy was overtaken by the sinking aftereffects of the Diem coup." When the President mentioned withdrawal in 1963, he did so on the assumption that the war would be won. As Robert Kennedy indicated, "we were winning the war in 1962 and 1963. Up until May or so in 1963, the situation was getting progressively better. The situation began to deteriorate in the spring of 1963."

On Oct. 11, 1963, JFK issued National Security Action Memorandum 263, calling for a plan to accelerate the training of the South Vietnamese army to allow American forces to withdraw in 1965. However, NSAM 263 was not incontrovertible, and the President made other contingency plans to increase U.S. forces in Vietnam. According to Sorenson, Kennedy "ordered the departments to be prepared for the introduction of combat troops, should they prove to be necessary."

Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Special Military Representative to President Kennedy, on whose on-site reports JFK based his hope for a troop withdrawal, explains in Swords and Plowshares that "the 1965 date was feasible only if the political situation did not worsen and affect the military effort, which it soon did, and if Diem carried out needed internal reforms, which he did not."

On Oct. 31, 1963, the day before the Diem coup, Kennedy carefully qualified his withdrawal memorandum, telling a press conference, "It would be our hope to lessen the number of Americans there by 1,000 as the training intensifies and is carried on in South Vietnam."

Kennedy's "hope" for removing U.S. troops from Vietnam was dashed by the Diem coup and, in the Pentagon Papers analyst's words, "the resulting political instability and the deterioration of the military situation." Consequently, at a news conference on Nov. 14, eight days before his death, the President conceded the unlikelihood of withdrawing 1,000 troops by December, thus setting aside his Oct. 11 memorandum. Kennedy was asked, "Mr. President, in view of the changed situation in South Vietnam, do you still expect to bring back 1,000 troops before the end of the year, or has that figure been raised or lowered?" JFK hedged: "No, we are going to be bringing back several hundred before the end of the year, but I think on the question of the exact number I thought we would wait until the meeting of November 20th."

That meeting, on which Kennedy said he would base his decision for a troop withdrawal, took place in Hawaii between U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Maxwell Taylor, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and produced a pessimistic report on military and political conditions in South Vietnam. Lodge subsequently reported to the new president, Lyndon Johnson, that "It was all bad in Vietnam, that hard decisions were ahead and not far ahead."

Johnson's resolve to continue Kennedy's policies led him to approve a small troop withdrawal in December, 1963, even though he believed "it became increasingly questionable" whether the withdrawal was based on "a valid assumption" about conditions in South Vietnam. In fact, the Pentagon Papers analyst argues that Kennedy would not have withdrawn troops in December as Johnson did.

Kennedy endorsed U.S. military support to South Vietnam until his death. On the morning of his murder, the President told the Ft. Worth Chamber of Commerce, "without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight. I don't think we are fatigued or tired. We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom, and I think we will continue to do as we have done in our past, our duty."

In his last prepared speech, which he was to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas on Nov. 22, JFK pledged aid to nations opposing "the ambitions of international communism." He pointed out that "our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky, and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task." The President identified nine nations, including Vietnam, that did not have "the resources to maintain the forces" needed to resist "the threat of communist aggression." Kennedy warned that he might be required to send combat troops to Vietnam: "Reducing our efforts to train, equip, and assist their armies can only encourage communist penetration and require in time the increased deployment of American combat forces." The President closed that speech by boldly proclaiming, "We in this country, in this generation--by destiny rather than choice--are the watchmen on the wall of world freedom."

To believe Schlesinger and Stone, we must dismiss Kennedy's strong public statements supporting South Vietnam and conclude that he was one of the biggest liars in American history. In rejecting Stone's withdrawal thesis, McGeorge Bundy, JFK's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, states, "Kennedy didn't hide his views: his public statements were what he believed."

Schlesinger's and Stone's contrived Vietnam withdrawal plan is refuted by Schlesinger's own source, the Pentagon Papers, by the words of Kennedy himself, and is denied emphatically by JFK's closest advisers. Ted Sorenson, Special Assistant to President Kennedy, often described as JFK's "alter ego," explains the Vietnam policy Kennedy held in November, 1963, in his biography of the President: "He was simply going to weather it out, a nasty, untidy mess to which there was no other acceptable solution. Talk of abandoning so unstable an ally and so costly a commitment |only makes it easy for the communists,' said the President, |I think we should stay.'"

Secretary of State Dean Rusk told the BBC he doesn't believe Kennedy planned to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam after the 1964 election: "I had hundreds of talks with President Kennedy about Vietnam and on no single occasion did he ever express to me any ideas on that line." He adds that "Kennedy never said anything like that to me, and we discussed Vietnam--oh, I'd say hundreds of times. He never said it, never suggested it, never hinted at it, and I simply do not believe it." Rusk rejects on moral grounds Schlesinger's callous claim that Kennedy sent Americans to Vietnam for political reasons: "If he had decided in 1962 or 1963 that he would take the troops out after the election of 1964, sometime during 1965, then that would have been a suggestion that he would leave Americans in uniform in a combat situation for domestic political purposes, and no President can do that."

What would Kennedy have done

The American public can not know what specific military strategy Kennedy would have followed to meet the crisis in Vietnam in late 1963 and 1964. In December, 1963, Robert McNamara, following another inspection trip to Vietnam, told Pres. Johnson, "the situation is very disturbing. Current trends, unless reversed in the next two or three months, will lead to neutralization at best and more likely to a communist controlled state." In March, 1964, McNamara and Taylor returned from South Vietnam to inform LBJ that conditions had "unquestionably been growing worse." Later in 1964, ominous developments changed the entire nature of the ground war in South Vietnam. According to Mike Mansfield, who headed a special Congressional delegation to Vietnam, "about the end of 1964, North Vietnamese regular troops began to enter South Vietnam" armed with the sophisticated AK-47 communist weapons system.

To meet this crisis, would JFK have escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1965? According to Robert Kennedy, "we'd face that when we came to it. It didn't have to be faced at that time." Given his longstanding determination to aid South Vietnam, reaffirmed on the day of his death, Pres. Kennedy probably would have met the growing emergency with U.S. military force. According to Sorenson, JFK would "not turn back from that commitment. He ordered the departments to be prepared for the introduction of combat troops, should they prove to be necessary."

Walter Rostow, one of Kennedy's advisers for national security affairs, explains that, "had President Kennedy lived, he would have been forced to follow the same course toward escalation of the Vietnam War that President Johnson did, and possibly would have done so earlier." Kennedy told Rostow, "I've got to hold Southeast Asia come hell or high water."

Significantly, Kennedy's principal foreign policy advisers--Rusk, McNamara, Lodge, Taylor, and Rostow--were retained by Lyndon Johnson. Firm in their recommendations to Johnson to fight in Vietnam, would they have advised Kennedy differently?

Convincing testimony against the Schlesinger-Stone withdrawal thesis comes from Robert Kennedy, described by Schlesinger as "his brother's total partner." Robert Kennedy frequently expressed JFK's determination to stay in South Vietnam. Sent by the President to Southeast Asia in 1962, he told a Saigon news conference, "we are going to win in Vietnam. We will remain here until we do win."

In May, 1964, six months after the President's death, Robert Kennedy explained his brother's Vietnam policy in a private interview with John Bartlow Martin for the oral history program of the John F. Kennedy Library. He stated unequivocally that the President did not plan to withdraw troops from Vietnam: "The President felt that he had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam." Martin asked, "There was never any consideration given to pulling out?" Kennedy responded, "No." Martin asked, "But the President was convinced that we had to stay in there?" Kennedy replied, "Yes." Martin asked, "And we couldn't lose it?" Kennedy answered, "Yes."

Without proof that John F. Kennedy planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam, Stone's basic thesis in "JFK" collapses. According to the Dec. 23, 1991, issue of Newsweek, "If there was no clear sign that Kennedy was going to pull out of Vietnam, there is no clear motive for Stone's grand conspiracy to kill him."

In 1992, Richard Nixon bluntly discarded with an epithet Stone's repugnant accusation that the U.S. government, including Lyndon Johnson, killed Kennedy. If Stone's premise is true--that the military-industrial complex would murder presidents to prevent them from withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam--these assassins killed the wrong president. Why would they assassinate Kennedy, who had opposed withdrawal, and spare Nixon, who, beginning in 1969, removed all 549,000 U.S. combat troops from Vietnam?

Stone's "JFK" can not be dismissed as a mere movie. Despite his pious pronouncement in the film that "the truth is the most important value we have," Stone instead follows Hitler's maxim, as stated in Mein Kampf, that "the masses fall victim more easily to a big lie than a small one," and, "even with the explanation of the matter, the masses long hestiate and vacillate and accept at least some ground as true. Consequently, from the most bold lie something will remain."

It is clear that much will remain of Stone's big lie. Stone is a brilliant propagandist, and his film is powerful and persuasive. For many people, "JFK" will be the correct account of the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy.
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Title Annotation:John F. Kennedy
Author:Loebs, Bruce
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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