John F. Kennedy Goes Hollywood: Oliver Stone’s Fantastic History (Part 1)

John F. Kennedy

Jim Garrison: I never realized Kennedy was so dangerous to the establishment. Is that why?

X: Well that’s the real question, isn’t it? Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia. Keeps ’em guessing like some kind of parlor game, prevents ’em from asking the most important question, why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?

That brief discussion between characters played by Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK remains at the heart of this entire issue as a documentary about and new cut of the movie are coming out more than three decades later, and it’s a question that Stone has never been able to answer in any meaningful way. The “why” of Kennedy’s assassination, the famous director has contended. was that the young president was breaking away from the entire path of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the post-1945 era.

JFK, Stone claimed, essentially had a Road to Damascus and realized that constant wars and interventions, sabotage and meddling in other countries, immense military budgets and a politically-powerful military-industrial complex, far too-independent intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and government groups like the National Security Council, and an entire government apparatus profiting from militarism and war had brought the globe to the brink of disaster or even annihilation, especially during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and had to end. And so Kennedy was set to withdraw U.S. military forces from Vietnam, ending the growing conflict there, and reach out to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries to thaw and ultimately end the Cold War. And that provided the answer to “why?”

For this turn toward peace, this commitment to beat swords into plowshares, those very forces Kennedy had identified as the beneficiaries of military budgets and espionage and wars conspired to have him killed. While much of the Kennedy conspiracy theory (or theories) focus on the intricacies of Lee Harvey Oswald’s past and his movements, anti-Castro Cubans and mafiosi, magic bullets and grassy knolls, the Texas Book Depository and other physical elements that affected the events in Dallas on 22 November 1963 — an there is abundant documentation on those things — Stone is correct that it’s mostly scenery for the public. The real question, the one that has historical immanence, sui generis, is the “why.” What Stone posits is so massive, so world-historical — a large cabal of state agents working together to conspire to murder the leader of that state for political reasons — that it has to be presented, should have been invented, with a profound and surgical focus on “why.”

Stone’s response, that the military and intelligence communities wanted JFK dead because he was on to them, is more than unfulfilling. It is intellectually specious and an epistemological void to offer up such a theory, and offer no substantial evidence to back it up. The idea that perhaps thousands of state functionaries worked together, secretively, to plot to kill the president, and then maintained that perfidy for decades, is hardly the stuff of rigorous intellectual inquiry. The fact that it has become accepted by a significant number of thinkers, scholars, journalists and others, especially on the Left, is frightening, for it substitutes heroic myths for solid research.

And so this is my response to Stone’s argument that the military-industrial complex, the CIA, even perhaps the Vice President all joined together to kill JFK. It’s a simple argument — that there is nothing in the actual historical record to validate Stone’s claims about Kennedy’s apparent change of heart about peace in Vietnam without victory or ending the Cold War. In fact, the opposite is more true — Kennedy entered political life as an aggressive, militarist liberal who morphed into perhaps the prototypical Cold Warrior of his generation.

In order to show this I’m going to present my argument in three sections. First, I will offer a brief analysis of the reality of Kennedy’s decisions in Vietnam, with a specific emphasis on the U.S role in the coup of November 1963, hardly the action of someone seeking a way out of a conflict, with some discussion of NSAM 263, one of the favorite documents of Stone and his conspiracy followers.

In part two I will discuss a vital yet mostly ignored aspect of this decision — the fact that U.S. military leaders, whom in Stone’s world were so upset by Kennedy’s weakness on Vietnam than they wanted him dead, were in fact themselves never supportive and mostly against any type of military commitment to the state the U.S. had invented in southern Vietnam. I also will discuss JFK’s aggressive foreign policies beyond Vietnam in this section, with a focus on his national security policies in Europe.

Finally, in part three, I will discuss Kennedy’s programs and plans for Latin America and internal security and debunk Stone’s claim that the Cuban Missile Crisis had caused Kennedy to look at that region differently and decide to seek peace with Cuba and other Left movements. To conclude, I’ll consider the strange way that partisans of the idea that Kennedy was ready to leave Vietnam only revised their stories long after the president was assassinated, and then I’ll add a few ruminations about the mythology and meaning, and danger, of making JFK a hero, especially on the Left.

See Part II, at https://medium.com/green-and-red-media/john-f-kennedy-goes-hollywood-oliver-stones-fantastic-history-part-ii-da579d9ffd45

(See also Noam Chomsky’s discussion with me about this topic, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nd0cN7MVHk&t=350s.)

******

In 1991, millions of Americans plunked down their money to see Oliver Stone’s epic film JFK and today are watching and talking about his new documentary “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass” and a new director’s cut of the original movie. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), Stone suggested, had seen the futility of the Cold War and was ready to withdraw from Vietnam and create global peace when the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] , the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], the Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS], the military, other representatives of the military-industrial complex, the intelligence bureaucracy, and even Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, fearing that his new-found pacifism was bad for business, had him assassinated.

Stone has been promoting his documentary on this topic recently, claiming that JFK was murdered by domestic enemies with renewed vigor and citing new documents that have been released since the 1990s. Kennedy was a “rebel against the establishment” and was a “warrior for peace,” Stone argues, and he challenged the military and intelligence communities as they gained bigger and bigger budgets and more power. Their interest in money and power and continued global conflict to justify their roles, “is what Kennedy understood,” the filmmaker believes, “and this is what he paid for with his life.”[1]

As the late, great muckraker Alexander Cockburn explained it years ago, Stone had bought into a right-wing view that the state was afraid of the liberal peacemaker Kennedy and had him killed on 22 November 1963, because, in Stone’s mind, “Kennedy was moving to end the Cold War and sign a nuclear treaty with the Soviets; he would not have gone to war in Southeast Asia. He was starting a back-door negotiation with Castro.” In In order to stop this new progressive American Canaan, the deep state engineered “the first coup d’etat in America.”[2]

Stone originally based this theory on the work of others, most significantly Fletcher Prouty, an officer assigned to work with the JCS, and John Newman, an Air Force veteran who also worked with the NSC. Both argued that Kennedy was a victim of what is today frequently described as “the deep state” — various intelligence and military agencies who operate the levers of the state in secret and eliminate, in many ways, people who challenge them. More recently he has gotten backup especially from David Talbot, whose book on Allen Dulles and the CIA perpetuates the theme that the deep state saw Kennedy as a threat and wanted him eliminated.[3] Others, including many ex-Kennedy officials, provided fodder for Stone with their arguments that the young president had decided to quit Vietnam, though their statements were usually made after JFK had been killed and the war had gone very wrong.

Ironically the revival of the JFK conspiracy theory, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the release of the JFK movie, has been well-received across the political spectrum, not just by typical conspiracy theorists on the fringe. Jacobin, Counterpunch, and Majority Report, for instance, have presented discussions favorable to Stone’s documentary, while on the far right, QAnon supporters have also long believed that Kennedy was killed by the deep state, and just recently went to Dallas on the anniversary of the assassination to await the return of his late son, John F. Kennedy Jr.[4]

Stone and his allies have also stressed the release of new documents about the assassination from the Assassination Records Review Board[5], in large measure a continuing response to Stone’s allegations from the 1990s. In particular, they are contending that new information about surveillance by state agencies like the CIA, FBI, and Army against Lee Harvey Oswald has offered even more powerful, if not “smoking gun”-level, evidence of the plot against JFK. Because the new records show that various government agencies were aware of Oswald’s political leanings and whereabouts in 1963, the conspiracy theorists are convinced that dark government forces knew what Oswald was planning and did nothing to deter him.[6]

While the new documents do add detail to Oswald’s movements before 22 November 1963, various reports, including the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978–79, had already shown that state agencies had Oswald, a public supporter of the Cuban Revolution, in their sights. The new records definitely add more detail, but do not come close to proving anything remotely like a government conspiracy to allow Oswald to kill JFK. In fact, Oswald’s political ideologies were well known long before the JFK assassination. He was on the radar already. Right now, one can purchase a “Fair Play for Cuba” pamphlet from August 1963 with Oswald’s name on it as the public New Orleans contact for the group on EBay, hardly the stuff of deep state machinations.[7] All historians want more documents declassified at a better pace, so the release of these new materials is welcome, but the does not change the story of JFK’s role in Vietnam or his assassination at all. While Stone’s supporters have been jamming social media with shrieks of “look at the new records,” once one does, there’s nothing to change what we have already known. The song remains the same.

This fascination with conspiracies and the deep state is similar to the current right-wing movement in support of Donald Trump’s lies about the election and various QAnon theories about the CIA and FBI. Though not as pernicious, Stone’s claims about various dark forces operating outside of normal bounds to rig elections, overthrow governments, and assassinate national leaders do the Left no favors. They substitute circumstantial evidence in the place of analysis and they look for heroes rather than creating resistance and organizing. Of course the CIA and other American agencies have a long record of malicious behavior, overthrowing governments abroad, assassinating foreign leaders, and repressing unions, socialists, women, African Americans, Native Americans, environmental and animal-rights activists, and other forces of liberation inside the United States. One can find that in the pages of corporate media and in public government documents. It is policy, not conspiracy. The ruling class’s behavior has been well-known for years — if it’s hiding, it’s in plain sight.

But one cannot make the leap from the fact that these groups have done horrible deeds to the conclusion that they thus killed JFK. Kennedy was one of them[8] — he firmly bought into the doctrine of containment, which he dressed up with talk of “development” and “modernization” in the Third World; he was a Cold Warrior; he invaded Cuba and contemplated a first-strike nuclear attack on Berlin within his first months in office[9]; he supported repressive Third World states per his newfound emphasis on “counterinsurgency”; he tried to overthrow Left governments abroad; he used the military to oppose national liberation movements across the globe; and he used the state to attack domestic enemies, most notably Martin Luther King (whose murderer, an illiterate drifter, was caught in London with a forged passport . . . if you’re looking for a conspiracy theory). The fascination with JFK as a young leader struck down because he was going to forge a new path away from the Cold War (and the Vietnam War more importantly) is utterly baseless and it is politically toxic, the product of nostalgia over a handsome young president who evoked images of Camelot, American exceptionalism, and innocence in the last days before racial conflict and the Vietnam War scarred the country in ways that might have been unimaginable on 20 January 1961.

The Reality of Vietnam

Stone’s conspiracy theories, his movie, and now his documentary have created great splashes in both popular culture and in the intellectual communities which study such things. Historically, however, they are nightmarish. With Vietnam as the linchpin of the thesis that JFK was killed because he was going soft on Communism and was going to end the power of the military and intelligence complexes, and specifically was going to de-escalate and withdraw troops and end the war by 1965, it becomes essential to look at Kennedy’s actual plans, policies, and actions with regard to the conflict there.

In truth, JFK, in less than three years, committed American soldiers, treasure, and credibility to the Republic of Vietnam [RVN], the American-invented state below the 17th Parallel, and dramatically enlarged the American role there. By 22 November 1963, the United States, rather than pull out, was deeply involved in the revolution-cum-civil war in Vietnam. Far from being a dove, Kennedy was the driving force behind that intervention in Indochina. His record in Vietnam, far from being a cause for the so-called deep state to want him dead, was opposite what assassination conspiracy theorists claimed that it was.

Kennedy had risen to power as a Cold Warrior and strong supporter of Joseph McCarthy and other witch hunts against alleged subversives, and the U.S. role in Vietnam from January 1961 to November 1963 continued those hardline policies upon which he had accomplished political success. The noted linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky has dissected Kennedy’s approach to Vietnam with great detail and provides overwhelming evidence that the president always sought military success in Vietnam with constantly-escalating commitments.[10] He did not waver and was not going to withdraw.

Inside Vietnam, in late 1960, the northern Vietnamese Communist Party finally agreed to organize armed resistance in the RVN, and hence the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Viet Cong (VC) were born. These groups represented a life-or-death challenge to the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was repressive and lacked significant public support. Just weeks after the creation of the NLF, Kennedy pledged to Diem and the RVN that the U.S. would meet any new challenges with them.

As he took office on 20 January 1961, he famously pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Kennedy had run to the right of Richard Nixon in the 1960 campaign, alleging that the administration of Dwight Eisenhower had allowed a “Missile Gap” to emerge (and he had — the U.S. had about 20,000 nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union had about 1600), warned of the Soviet Union’s growth in intercontinental ballistic missiles, and pledged to increase and revitalize American nuclear forces.

Ironically, outgoing President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, had warned against the growing militarism in American society and such bellicose rhetoric, but JFK sent an opposite message. Though Kennedy had not specifically referred to Vietnam in his speech, the Diem regime could feel comfortable that their old friend would not let them down. In 1956, as a senator, Kennedy had called the RVN “the cornerstone of the free world in Asia”; it was, he admitted, “our offspring, we cannot abandon it.”[11]As president, he would not.

Vietnam had not been crucial to JFK as he entered the White House; in fact, Eisenhower had warned him that events in Laos would be more difficult in 1961. But, just months into his presidency, Kennedy was beset with challenges and failure. In Laos, he had to agree to the formation of a government which included the Communist Pathet Lao. Worse, in Cuba the U.S.- backed Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco. The leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, added to Kennedy’s woes, pledging support for wars of liberation in the Third World, refusing to remove the Berlin Wall, and treating the American president with disdain at a summer meeting in Vienna. Kennedy thus believed that he had to make a stand somewhere — “that son of a bitch won’t pay any attention to words, he has to see you move,” he told reporters — so why not Vietnam? Walt Whitman Rostow, one of his closest advisors, suggested that “clean-cut success in Vietnam” could erase the stain of disaster from the Bay of Pigs. In Saigon, the head of the American Military Assistance Advisory Group [MAAG], General Lionel McGarr, likewise noted the “strong determination” in the White House to stop the “deterioration of US prestige” in April 1961.[12]

Thus JFK, if not desperate at least anxious for a Cold War success, began to increase significantly the U.S. commitment to the RVN and prepare to conduct an aggressive war there. In January, he authorized the Counterinsurgency Plan for southern Vietnam, which called for training the southern army in anti-guerrilla tactics, not just conventional warfare. He then approved expanding the Army of the RVN [ARVN] by 20,000 troops, to 170,000, and then by another 30,000, while enlarging the Civil Guard from 32,000 to 68,000 troops. To pay for these reinforcements, the White House sent Diem an additional $42 million in 1961, on top of the $225 million per year he was receiving already. And in May, Kennedy sent Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson [LBJ] to Vietnam as a public relations measure. While in Saigon, the Vice President told the media that Diem was “the Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia,” though he privately laughed later that “shit, man, he’s the only boy we got out there.”[13]

Recognition of Diem’s repression and America’s limited choices did not deter the White House. Indeed, JFK refused to even talk with Ho Chi Minh or the NLF, warning that negotiations would make him look weak: “If we postpone action in Viet-Nam to engage in talks with the Communists, we can surely count on a major crisis of nerve in Viet-Nam and throughout Southeast Asia. The image of U.S. unwillingness to confront Communism — induced by the Laos performance — will be . . . definitely confirmed. There will be panic and disarray.” To the president, American credibility — appearing strong against Communist advance — would thus be a major factor driving his Indochina policy, and he would not back down. Nor would his Secretary of Defense, Robert Strange McNamara, who informed military officials that the administration “had made the decision to pursue the Vietnam affair with vigor and that all reasonable amounts of resources could be placed at the disposal of the commanders in the area.”[14]

And so, in 1962, it was done. In January, a new commander, Paul D. Harkins, arrived in Vietnam convinced that America’s technological superiority would reverse conditions there. The war was going badly, with the NLF’s political influence growing and the armed wing of the insurgency, the VC, holding the military initiative. To Harkins, and the White House, American tanks and aircraft could be used to flush out the VC and destroy them. In 1962, then, JFK went big and deployed Army helicopter companies, fixed-wing aircraft, a troop carrier squadron, reconnaissance planes, air controllers, crop defoliants to destroy the VC’s jungle cover, Navy mine sweepers, CS gas and napalm — a gasoline gel that seared human flesh. He also authorized the development of strategic hamlets in the RVN — a disastrous program in which Vietnamese peasants were removed from their homes and possessions and relocated to allegedly safe hamlets where they would be protected from the NLF, but which in fact alienated even more villagers from the government and helped VC recruiting efforts.

At the same time, the number of U.S. “Advisors” in Vietnam, 800 in January 1961, rose to 3400 in April 1962 and over 11,000 by the end of the year, and would go up again to 16,700 by the time of Kennedy’s assassination. The ARVN grew again too, to 219,000, while the Civil Guard increased to 77,000. That level of commitment and the introduction of American firepower had the desired impact. The VC fled in horror as U.S.- provided weapons and ammunition rained down on them. As Harkins put it, the napalm “really puts the fear of God into the Viet Cong . . . and that is what counts.” McNamara was similarly pleased with the “tremendous progress” in 1962, and the American commander was assuring him that “there is no doubt we are on the winning side.”[15]

As the evidence made clear, Kennedy was deeply committed to success in Vietnam with heavy firepower and a growing commitment, and believed that he had gained the upper hand in Indochina in 1962. The administration was so flush with success and optimistic that the war would be over quickly, in fact, that it later approved the withdrawal of 1000 American troops (a point Stone would later use to argue that JFK was souring on and planning to get out of Vietnam).

Breakdown 1963: The Coup and “I think we should stay”

The optimism of 1962 was short-lived. On 2 January 1963, the VC routed the ARVN, even though it had a 4 to 1 troop advantage, artillery, armor, and helicopters, at the village of Ap Bac, 35 miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong. The enemy struck, eluded the southern army, and struck again, killing three Americans and downing five helicopters in the process. ARVN commanders, under orders from Diem not to lose troops, did not force their men to fight and so allowed the VC to take the initiative and then escape from Ap Bac. For the NLF, the battle marked a turnaround from the previous year, and its prospects would improve throughout the next twelve months, while Diem’s took a corresponding downturn, militarily and politically.

There was grave internal crisis in 1963 as well, particularly religious turmoil. The Ngo family had favored Catholics in administrative and military matters since 1954 and began to repress the majority Buddhists — which they saw, with reason, as a political enemy — more intensely in the spring, forbidding them from celebrating Buddha’s birthday and even sending troops into their temples to attack and kill the faithful. Then, on 10 June, the monk Quang Duc famously sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon street, doused himself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire to protest Diemist repression.

International media, tipped off by the Buddhists, was there and Quang Duc’s story and photo were front page news worldwide. For his part, Diem continued to strike at the Buddhists. After nearly a decade of supporting the RVN and the Ngos, it was finally clear that Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were beyond rehabilitation. The United States, which had followed a policy of “sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem,” finally agreed he had to go.

RVN Generals launched a coup against Diem and Nhu on 1 November, deposing and murdering them in a van rather than allowing them to flee to Paris. While there is abundant evidence of Kennedy’s commitment to escalate the war in Vietnam to achieve success from early 1961 onward, Stone and others argue that by later 1963 he had developed strong misgivings and was prepared to withdraw, thus prompting dark forces in the intelligence and military communities to assassinate him. With that in mind, then, the U.S. role in the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu is a critical piece in debunking Stone’s argument about Kennedy. The coup took place just three weeks before Kennedy himself was killed, so the president’s role in deposing the Ngos offers overwhelming evidence that JFK or other government officials were doubling down in Vietnam, not preparing to get out.

Masters of War by Robert Buzzanco

JFK himself had been critical to Diem coming to power and the U.S. inventing the RVN and subsequently sending immense funding and weapons to southern Vietnam — and he was immersed in the deliberations over what to do about Diem in the autumn of 1963, that pivotal point where Stone claims Kennedy was making plans to withdraw from Vietnam. Indeed, even before deliberations over ousting Diem became organized, the White House began to express its concerns over instability in the RVN due to Diem’s repression and in a 9 July briefing with the Director of Central Intelligence, CIA officials told the White House that “South Vietnam continues restive over the unresolved Buddhist issue and a coup attempt is increasingly likely,” that the ARVN Commander Tran Van Don had told CIA officers that military was planning to overthrow Diem and Buddhist leaders were becoming more engaged in anti-Diem struggle, and that RVN officials were blaming anti-regime activity on the American media for its reporting on the Buddhist protests and Diem’s corruption and repression in general.[16]

By late August the crisis in the RVN was much more grave and in a meeting to discuss the well-known “Hilsman Cable,” an important document in which Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger Hilsman had laid out in bleak terms a situation in the RVN that was “pretty horrible to contemplate.” The U.S. government, Kennedy’s main military and diplomatic officials agreed, “cannot tolerate [a] situation in which power lies in Nhu’s hands,” especially after another series of pagoda raids he had just directed. “Diem must be given [a] chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with best military and political personalities available,” but if “Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.” Officials in Saigon and Washington who were in contact with RVN military officials opposed to the Ngos were also directed to tell potential coup-planners in southern Vietnam that “we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown [of the] central government mechanism.”[17]

Just days later, JFK discussed the Hilsman cable with his national security officials. Kennedy began, “if we’re unsuccessful here, and these [RVN] generals don’t do anything, then we have to deal with Diem as he is . . . Then the question, what do we do to protect our own prestige and also to make it — see if we can have this thing continue on successfully?” Hilsman, like most U.S. officials, believed Nhu, not Diem, was the key problem and that he was “basically anti-American” and showed signs of “emotional unstability [sic].” To Hilsman it was “most important” to recognize that key elements in the southern government and the army were abandoning Diem in the wake of the Buddhist uprisings and that “the situation will rapidly worsen.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk said much the same, adding that “we’re on the road to disaster” and the U.S. could “take it by our choice, or be driven out by a complete deterioration of the situation in Vietnam, or move in such [U.S.] forces as would involve our taking over the country”[18]

After hearing such bleak appraisals, Kennedy suggested talking with McNamara, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, and Harkins to get their views, and JFK was already considering removing Diem and his brother — ”I don’t think we ought to let the coup . . . maybe they know about it, maybe the [RVN] generals are going to have to run [the Ngos] out of the country; maybe we’re going to have to help them get out of there.” Kennedy remained cautious, advising to defer action on a coup “unless we think we got a good chance of success.” The president concluded “we’re not really in a position to withdraw” [my emphasis] so he would rely on Lodge and Harkins to advise him on whether to go forward with the action against Diem and Nhu. But ultimately, the administration was on board, with JKF, Secretary of State Dean Rusk (who said that if JFK signed off he would give “a green light too”), Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and General Maxwell Taylor, chair of the JCS, all signing off on the hard-line recommendations.[19] There is no evidence that Kennedy was reconsidering his commitment to war in Vietnam. Indeed, the opposite was the case.

In fact, at that very same time Rusk reported that the U.S. was prepared to supply RVN military coup-planners in the field with arms, ammunition, and logistical support, Kennedy ordered his advisors to compile a list of potential successors should the ouster take place. Rusk made it clear what was at stake, admitting that if a coup failed the U.S. would be “on an inevitable road to disaster. The decision for the United States would be . . . to get out and let the country go to the Communists or to move U.S. combat forces into South Viet-Nam and put in a government of our choosing.” So JFK, like everyone else, knew exactly what was in play regarding the potential coup against Diem, and made no move to stop it, for the memorandum ended with the statement that “there was no dissent from the Secretary’s analysis.”[20]

Already, in late August, American planning to oust Diem and Nhu was well underway with the president’s support, a far cry from Stone’s argument that Kennedy was ready to withdraw from the war. It was clear, as diplomatic and military officials in southern Vietnam had reported “that the war against the Viet Cong in Vietnam cannot be won under the Diem regime,” and at a 29 August meeting at which Lodge and Harkins reported that JFK asked if anyone had reservations about the current campaign of seeking alternatives to Diem and Nhu, the president answered his own query by asserting that “if Diem says no to a change in government there would be no way in which we could withdraw our demand.” The White House, quite clearly, had drawn a line in the sand and the Ngos had to either change dramatically and enact serious reforms or they would be ousted.

Toward that end, the he offered a summary of actions to be taken which included Harkins and the CIA approaching southern generals about a coup; authorizing Lodge to announce a suspension of U.S. aid to the RVN when the time was right according to the White House; making no announcement of any movement of U.S. forces to the area in support of a coup; and giving Lodge authority over all operations to get rid of Diem and Nhu, overt and covert. At another meeting on Vietnam later that day, McNamara urged a final overture to Diem because he doubted any successor government could run the country, to which, according to the minutes of the meeting, “the president asks who runs it now; that it seemed to him it was not being run very well.”[21]

The positions taken and decisions made in late August regarding the U.S. determination to eliminate Diem and Nhu were made with a clear goal of regaining some initiative in the RVN and stalling what American officials recognized as an inevitable march to victory by the NLF and VC in the south. There was no idea given to leaving Vietnam. In fact, in two important interviews with TV anchors Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley just shortly before his own death, Kennedy doubled down on his commitment to Vietnam.

While Stone and others have cited the interviews where JFK admitted that the situation in Vietnam was going badly, they left out key parts that attested to the president’s resolve. During a 2 September interview with Cronkite, the president said that it was the RVN’s war to win or lose and that “all we can do is help,” but did not “agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like to see Americans to be engaged in this kind of effort… But it is a very important struggle even though it is far away.” A week later he told Huntley essentially the same thing. Although Americans would get anxious or impatient about Vietnam, “withdrawal only makes it easy for the Communist. I think we should stay.”[22]

At the same time Kennedy was publicly reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Vietnam, the president sent McNamara and Taylor to Vietnam to appraise the situation there. Their report formed the basis of National Security Action Memorandum [NSAM] 263, which Stone and the Kennedy conspiracy cult have cited as their smoking gun to show JFK was ready to leave Vietnam. Like the rest of the Stone theory, this episode has been misrepresented to make a claim opposite of the truth. In Vietnam, McNamara and Taylor heard Harkins talk of the “great progress” in the war there and came back and told the president that he should publicly report that he was going to withdraw 1000 military personnel and anticipated the bulk of American troops could be phased out by the end of 1965. Even so, the White House issued a statement again making clear its support of the commitment to the RVN.[23]

On October 11 Kennedy then authorized NSAM 263, which approved of the McNamara-Taylor recommendations to withdraw 1000 troops, though not publicly announce it, and said a “major part” of military tasks can be done by end of 1965, or 24 months in the future. The Americans continued to insist that South Vietnam improve its military performance, and stressed that the U.S. would have to emphasize training the Vietnamese to take over “essential functions” of warfare by late 1965. In other words, NSAM 263 continued the U.S. approach to Vietnam that had been in effect the entire Kennedy presidency, as it remained the “central object” of the U.S. in South Vietnam “to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S. actions in actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contributions to this purpose.”[24]

Rather than a striking break from the U.S. war in Vietnam that would indicate a change of heart by JFK, NSAM 263 was a continuation of the American doctrine in the Cold War from the end of World War II forward. It was essentially a restatement of the Truman Doctrine and NSC-68, yet Stone and his followers created a myth to substitute for the obvious reality and have convinced huge numbers to believe it. In fact, even after the assassination, U.S. policy in Vietnam remained the same. (And, just a few days after the assassination, Lyndon Johnson signed off on NSAM 273, which had been prepared under Kennedy and, again, emphasized that America’s “central objective” in Vietnam was still to take the actions necessary to prevent Communist victory in the south.)[25]

So the evidence of Kennedy’s continued commitment to the war in Vietnam was overwhelming as the coup planning continued. In late October, in two of the later meetings regarding a potential coup, the State Department and National Security Council produced separate check-lists of possible actions in the event of an overthrow of Diem. All the options involved deep U.S. involvement and all were based on the high likelihood, if not certainty, of a coup attempt.[26]

On the morning of 1 November, as the coup in Saigon began to unfold, Kennedy again met with his advisors. Rusk was concerned that the U.S. get the support of the RVN’s vice-president so “the façade of constitutionalism would thus be preserved.” Kennedy himself did not suggest regret about the coup (though by all accounts he was aghast that Diem and Nhu were murdered) and stressed that all officials publicly deny any role in the ouster of the Ngos. Strikingly, he was concerned with public relations, that he and his advisors might have to reconcile supporting this coup against an ally in the RVN and recognizing a new government after recently refusing to recognize a rebel government which had overthrown the government in Honduras, and he directed that a paper on the topic be prepared “so that everyone in the government would be saying the same thing in response to this question.”[27]

JFK himself would be assassinated 3 weeks later in Dallas, but there is no reason for the so-called deep state to have wanted him dead because he was trying to get out of Vietnam and usher in a new era of global peace. In a speech early on 22 November in Fort Worth, Kennedy admitted that “without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” Much more telling were the remarks he was scheduled to deliver at the Dallas Trade Mart that evening. The entire document in bellicose and unwavering, and it should be read in full to get a real sense of where JFK’s foreign policy ideas stood at the moment he was allegedly targeted by the military and intelligence complexes for being a dove. Kennedy’s speech both boasted and warned enemies of American strength.

“In this administration,” he said firmly, “it has been necessary at times to issue specific warnings — warnings that we could not stand by and watch the Communists conquer Laos by force, or intervene in the Congo, or swallow West Berlin, or maintain offensive missiles on Cuba. But while our goals were at least temporarily obtained in these and other instances, our successful defense of freedom was due not to the words we used, but to the strength we stood ready to use on behalf of the principles we stand ready to defend.” He added that his administration had increased the number of Polaris submarines by 50 percent, the Minuteman Missile purchase program by 75 percent, raised the number of strategic bombers on 15 minute alert by 50 percent, increased the total number of nuclear weapons available in strategic alert forces by 100 percent, and raised the level of tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by 60 percent.

The U.S., he also boasted, raised the number of combat-ready army divisions by 45 percent, and had doubled the number of tactical aircraft, while ship construction and army procurement of materiel had also risen by 100 percent. In finishing his laundry list of the vast military build-up, he pointed out that he had increased special forces by nearly 600 percent, and those new troops “are prepared to work with our allies and friends against the guerrillas, saboteurs, insurgents, and assassins who threaten freedom in less direct but equally dangerous manner.” Finally, Kennedy detailed the aid that the U.S. was giving to other nations to fight against Communism and 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.”[28]

Professor Buzzanco is a professor of history at the University of Houston and has written extensively on the war in Vietnam, including the award-winning Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era. He currently co-hosts the Green and Red Podcast, which discusses politics and history.

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[1] Interview with Oliver Stone, USA Today, 22 November 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2021/11/22/jfk-oliver-stone-assassination-anniversary/6338062001/.

[2] Alexander Cockburn, “Why Bother to Conspire Against J.F.K.? : Oliver Stone has bought into the fascist fantasy that Kennedy was a father-leader-hero,” Los Angeles Times, 26 December 1991, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-12-26-me-1179-story.html.

[3] Fletcher Prouty, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (New York, 1992); John Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York, 1992); David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (New York, 2016).

[4] See, for example, “Oliver Stone Talks to Jacobin about JFK’s Killing,” 23 November 2021, https://jacobinmag.com/2021/11/oliver-stone-talks-to-jacobin-about-jfks-killing; Jefferson Morley, “JFK Revisited: Oliver Stone and the New JFK Fact Pattern, Counterpunch, 31 December 2021, https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/12/31/jfk-revisited-oliver-stone-and-the-new-jfk-fact-pattern/ ; Jacob Hornberger, “Max Boot’s Rant Against Oliver Stone,” Counterpunch, 4 January 2002, https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/01/04/max-boots-rant-against-oliver-stone/ ; and regarding QAnon, the delegation to Dallas to greet the resurrected JFK Jr. was widely reported, including Steven Monacelli, “Hardcore QAnon Believers, Regular Old JFK Conspiracy Theorists Converge in Dallas,” Rolling Stone, 22 November 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/qanon-jfk-jr-conspiracy-theorist-convention-dallas-dealey-plaza-1261278/.

[5] Guide to Assassination Records Review Board, at https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/review-board.

[6] See, inter alia, Jefferson Morley, “JFK Revisited: Oliver Stone and the New JFK Fact Pattern City Watch LA, 3 January 2022, https://www.citywatchla.com/index.php/375-voices/23459-jfk-revisited-oliver-stone-and-the-new-jfk-fact-pattern.

[7] House Assassination Records Review Board, chapter 6, in https://sgp.fas.org/advisory/arrb98/part08.htm; Oswald “Fair Play for Cuba” pamphlet on EBay at . https://www.ebay.com/itm/163638525116.

[8] For a thorough overview of Kennedy’s militarist approach to global affairs, see, inter alia, Walter S. Poole, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 1961–1964. History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Volume VIII (Washington D.C., 2011).

[9] Fred Kaplan, “JFK’s First Strike Plan,” The Atlantic, October 2001, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/10/jfks-first-strike-plan/376432/.

[10] Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston, 1993).

[11] In United States, Government Printing Office, Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents (Washington, D.C., 1961), 267–70; Kennedy in Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, (New York, 1991), 58–9.

[12] Kennedy in Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days (Boston, 1965), 391; Rostow, 24 April 1961, in Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1992), 16–9; Telegram From the Chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Viet-Nam (McGarr) to the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Felt), 10 May 1961, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], Vietnam, 1961, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d50.

[13] In David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York, 1972), 167.

[14] Kennedy, 14 November 1961, in George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York, 1986), 137–9, see also McNamara quoted in editorial note, Notes of Colonel Howard Burris, FRUS, Vietnam, 1961,https://history.state.gov/ /frus1961–63v01/d329.

[15] Harkins in Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation (Garden City, N.Y., 1967), 16; see also Pentagon Papers — Gravel Edition, 162–4; “Record of the Sixth Secretary of Defense Conference, Camp Smith, Hawaii,” July 23, 1962, FRUS, Vietnam, 1962, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v02/d248

[16] DCI Briefing, 9 July 1963, document 1, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN01.pdf in John Prados, National Security Archive, JFK and the Diem Coup, National Security Archive [NSA] Electronic Briefing Book №101, Posted — November 5, 2003, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/index.htm. Hereafter cited as NSA briefing book with specific document designation.

[17] State/Saigon Cable 243 (“The Hilsman Cable”), 24 August 1963 (drafted by Hilsman, Harriman, Forrestal), document 2, in NSA Briefing Book, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN02.pdf.

[18] Transcript and audio of Kennedy meeting with NSC Officials regarding Diem, 26 August 1963, Miller Center exhibit, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/educational-resources/diem-coup.

[19] Ibid., and Chapter 4, Pentagon Papers — Gravel Edition,[PP-Gravel] Volume 2, “The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November 1963” https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon2/pent7.htm. Kennedy’s biographer (and apologist) Arthur Schlesinger later claimed that JFK had misgivings about his approval of these actions against the Ngos and took a softer line. Those claims, as we will see, came years later, after JFK was dead and the war had turned out badly, and his reversals were never backed up with documentary evidence. As we shall see, JFK’s position on the coup did not weaken a bit through the autumn of 1963.

[20]Memorandum of Conversation, “Vietnam,” 26 August 1963, document 3, in NSA Briefing Book, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN03.pdf.

[21]Memorandum of Conference with the President, 29 August 1963, document 10, in NSA Briefing Book, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN10.pdf, and Memorandum of Conversation, “Vietnam,” 29 August 1963, document 11, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN11.pdf.

[22] Kennedy interviews with Cronkite, 2 September 1963, in Roger Hilsman Papers, box 4, JFK Library; with Huntley, 9 September 1963, PP-Gravel, 2:827–8.

[23] White House Statement approved by President Kennedy, 2 October 1963, “Statements by President Kennedy on Vietnam,” NSF, Memos to the President, Walt Whitman Rostow, box 8, folder: volume 6, June 11–20, 1966 [2 of 2], LBJL.

[24] National Security Action Memoranda [NSAM]: NSAM 263, “South Vietnam,” 11 October 1963, https://irp.fas.org/offdocs/nsam-jfk/nsam-263.htm

[25]The following materials are derived from Masters of War, 155–7; Peter Dale Scott and others suggest that NSAM marked a clear departure from Kennedy’s policy on Vietnam and set the United States on the path to war. The final draft of 26 November, however, was virtually a verbatim copy of earlier efforts, and the commitment to the RVN was precisely the same. Scott, The War Conspiracy. For an excellent refutation of Scott’s thesis, again see Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot.

[26]Department of State, “Check-List of Possible U.S. Actions in Case of a Coup,” 25 October 1963, document 17, in NSA Briefing Book, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN17.pdf, and National Security Council, “Check List for 4 PM Meeting, 29 October 1963, document 18, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN18.pdf.

[27] Memorandum of Conference with the President, 1 November 1963, document 22, in NSA Briefing Book, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/VN22.pdf.

[28] Kennedy’s undelivered remarks of 22 November 1963 at Remarks for Nov 22: https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/dallas-tx-trade-mart-undelivered-19631122; see also Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, 47–8.

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Robert Buzzanco

Robert Buzzanco

Co-host of Green and Red Podcast. History Professor. Author of books/articles on many aspects of U.S. History, including wars, protest, Vietnam era, economics.

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