Kennedy, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone's Big Lie

By Loebs, Bruce | USA TODAY, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Kennedy, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone's Big Lie


Loebs, Bruce, USA TODAY


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.

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