Jump to content
The Education Forum

JFK, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone


Recommended Posts

This article originally appeared on the History Matters website:

http://www.history-matters.com/essays/viet...ver%20Stone.htm

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].

Notes

[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.d...EOPLE/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.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for posting this article. I must have missed it over at historymatters. By pure coincidence I saw Oliver a week ago, at a screening of the French Film Z. He took questions afterwards from film critic Leonard Maltin, and then from the audience. He kept mentioning that Z was the single biggest influence on his film JFK, and how making JFK was the most important thing he's done as a film-maker. So I asked him why he kinda disappeared after his film came out and after the JFK records he fought so hard to get released were finally released. He answered by saying that if he ever looked into it again it would probably kill him. His world-weariness was evident. It's clear his making JFK took a professional and personal toll.

Those still angry at Oliver for basing his opus on Garrison's investigation, should rent Z if they can find it. It's the story of an assassination in Greece, and the subsequent investigation. The audience follows the story as level after level of the conspiracy is exposed. It's clear that Stone was impressed by this approach, and ENTERTAINED. He wanted to tell a detective story. So he picked Garrison's story. His belief in Garrison extended beyond his desire to tell a detective story of course. He mentioned that he read Joan Mellen's book and was impressed.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for posting this article. I must have missed it over at historymatters. By pure coincidence I saw Oliver a week ago, at a screening of the French Film Z. He took questions afterwards from film critic Leonard Maltin, and then from the audience. He kept mentioning that Z was the single biggest influence on his film JFK, and how making JFK was the most important thing he's done as a film-maker. So I asked him why he kinda disappeared after his film came out and after the JFK records he fought so hard to get released were finally released. He answered by saying that if he ever looked into it again it would probably kill him. His world-weariness was evident. It's clear his making JFK took a professional and personal toll.

Those still angry at Oliver for basing his opus on Garrison's investigation, should rent Z if they can find it. It's the story of an assassination in Greece, and the subsequent investigation. The audience follows the story as level after level of the conspiracy is exposed. It's clear that Stone was impressed by this approach, and ENTERTAINED. He wanted to tell a detective story. So he picked Garrison's story. His belief in Garrison extended beyond his desire to tell a detective story of course. He mentioned that he read Joan Mellen's book and was impressed.

I agree about the importance of Z. Along with Battle of Algiers it is probably the best political film ever made.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065234/

The film is based on the assassination in 1965 of the peace activist Gregoris Lambrakis. He was the leader of the anti-Vietnam War protests in Greece. There is evidence that the CIA was behind the assassination. They were definitely the ones behind the military coup in Greece in 1967. As one can see, there are strong links between Z and JFK.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregoris_Lambrakis

Link to comment
Share on other sites

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065234/

The film is based on the assassination in 1965 of the peace activist Gregoris Lambrakis. He was the leader of the anti-Vietnam War protests in Greece. There is evidence that the CIA was behind the assassination. They were definitely the ones behind the military coup in Greece in 1967. As one can see, there are strong links between Z and JFK.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregoris_Lambrakis

Oliver saw some of the possible links between Z and JFK as well. I had a question all prepared for him about Tom Pappas and the possible ties between the Kennedy Assassination, the Greek military coup, and the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, and he kind of cut me off at the pass by bringing up Pappas on his own. So I asked him about the JFK records act instead.

Edited by Pat Speer
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It really angers me that even today with much more evidence available to us than in 1991 most journalists I hear speak of JFK still dismiss it and deny there could be even a small element of truth in it.

Last night I heard a British journalist who lives in New York and who has worked as a political correspondant for independant radio in the UK. He was talking about the 10th anniversary of the explosion of the flight TWA 800 went on to talk about the conspiracy theories surrounding it, how they were all nonsense and then mentioned JFK as another conspiracy that people like to believe because it is 'more exciting' than the truth. He said the film JFK had been 'totally discredited'. I'd love to know how he came up with that statement. He would know if he took the time to look into it that this is nonsense. He wasn't challenged at all by the host of the radio show on which he was appearing via phone. Probably because he is thought of as 'an expert' on these matters.

Therefore everyone is supposed to take his word for it. I've heard him speak on the JFK assassination before and I think about the only book he has read is case closed which he said explained everything. He said that he once went to Dealey Plaza and stood near the window on the sixth floor of the TSBD. After looking out of the window, he was convinced that Oswald's 3 shots were 'possible'. That's the extent of his 'research'?

More scary is the fact that he teaches journalism, in New York I think.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Francesca,

When I stood near the sixth floor window and on the "X" in the street, I came to a very different conclusion. But, more than anything else, I just felt sick, instantly aware of the lies and coverup that our government perpetratrated on us. I don't see how anyone could go there and be convinced that all (or) any of the shots came from the "sniper's nest". As it has been mentioned so many times before, the shot from that location would have been a frontal on Houston Street. I wonder how many other people had that same feeling that I had. I arrived in Dealey Plaza at 2:00 A.M., and the streets were empty. So, I was able to walk down Houston, turn the corner on Elm and continue down to where "X" marks the spot. Just a layperson's opinion, which doesn't mean much, but the shot at Z313 came from the front.

Terry

Edited by Terry Adams
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It really angers me that even today with much more evidence available to us than in 1991 most journalists I hear speak of JFK still dismiss it and deny there could be even a small element of truth in it.

All of us are victims of our own biases, the strong tendency to believe what we want to believe, and the selective attention we pay to messages we like vs. messages we don't like. The fragmentation of the media in recent years has made this phenomenon stronger I think than it was a generation ago, and is likely to be at least in part responsible for the deepening political divide.

Having said that, it's fascinating to watch the people who claim to be the most free from such biases to be among the worst examples of it. The JFK case is a great case study because it's possible to watch the process over a 42-year period in some detail. A much more recent example is the "exit poll discrepancy" in the 2004 Presidential election. In the same month that it became a "wild conspiracy theory" to use massively "wrong" exit polls to point to election fraud in the U.S., U.S. leaders decried the Ukranian election 20 days later, using exit polls as prime facae evidence of a crooked election. That election was subsequently invalidated.

I don't know how these people keep a straight face anymore - there must be classes taught for that.

p.s. If you are interested in the 2004 election exit poll issue, I highly recommend Freeman and Bleifuss' "was the 2004 presidential election stolen?". It includes discussion of the problems with the Mitofsky report which is purported to have explained why the exit polls were wrong.

Rex

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...