John F. Kennedy Goes Hollywood: Oliver Stone’s Fantastic History (part II)
Civilian Hawks and Military “Doves”
A centerpiece of the JFK conspiracy theory is that the military wanted Kennedy gone because it wanted to be unleashed to fight in Vietnam. Kennedy’s actions as president, however, up to his role the anti-Diem coup just weeks before his own assassination, offer overwhelming evidence that the president was committed to a military solution in Vietnam with an ever-escalating presence, and it powerfully debunks Stone’s argument. But there are more firm reasons to refute the filmmaker’s theory about Kennedy withdrawing from Vietnam and ending the Cold War, and thus prompting the military-industrial complex and others to have him killed. In reality, the U.S. military was far more “dovish” on Vietnam than Kennedy and his civilian advisors. There would be no motive to want to harm Kennedy because he was going soft on Vietnam, because the military itself was never eager to fight there.
In the early 1950s, leading military officials from all the services had time and again voiced their reluctance to fight in Vietnam, including Generals Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin, General and later Ambassador Saigon J. Lawton Collins, and others. During the Kennedy years, the military’s opposition was not as pronounced, but it stood in juxtaposition to JFK’s hawkish approach to Vietnam. From 1961 to 1963 the military was variously ambivalent, critical, or even internally contradictory with regard to Vietnam. Leading officers might not have opposed war as strongly as their predecessors a decade earlier, but neither did ranking military figures — including CINCPAC Admiral Harry D. Felt, General McGarr, and Marine Commandant David M. Shoup, and even Maxwell Taylor — behave according to the hawkish caricature that many liberal critics have developed over the years.
Most officers in Washington and Saigon in fact tended to be critics of the war or were aware of the political stakes in taking on the president so did not challenge him directly but did recognize the perilous situation in Vietnam. Most were never eager for combat, understood the obstacles to success, and were aware of the domestic political implications of warfare in Indochina, yet within two-and-a-half years, as Kennedy intensified the war in Vietnam, they had to put their reluctance to intervene on the backburner and began to pursue a military solution in Vietnam per JFK’s plans. Although they followed Kennedy’s lead, military officials — some of whom, like Generals Gavin and Maxwell Taylor, had campaigned for JFK and received posts in his administration — recognized that U S prospects in Vietnam were always uncertain and that American combat role would not ensure success and should be avoided. By November 1963 then, the U.S. military, obedient if not in concert with Kennedy’s political objectives, was involved in a war in Vietnam that would serve neither U.S. nor Vietnamese interests.
As he took office, Kennedy had a strong relationship with the military and had begun to make good on promises to give it more assets and bigger budgets. The brass certainly appreciated the money but did not share Kennedy’s enthusiasm for involvement in Vietnam. The heads of the Air Force and Navy, which would fight at a distance and take far fewer casualties, were willing to consider a military role in Indochina, but they were not a majority. More typically, Marine Commandant David Shoup rejected calls for intervention while the Army Chief of Staff, General George Decker, thought that “there was no good place to fight” in Southeast Asia. 
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harry D. Felt, was also “strongly opposed” to troop deployments, especially because he anticipated that the ARVN would fight even less if American troops were there to bail them out. Felt, like most officers, believed that the United States should limit its role to training and supplying the south Vietnamese military to take on the VC by themselves [what would become “Vietnamization” when Richard Nixon was president]. Perhaps no officer received as much publicity for his criticism as Colonel John Paul Vann, whose leaks to the New York Times revealed that the ARVN was avoiding battle and that the heavy use of American firepower and air strikes was killing huge numbers of civilian villagers — the very people that the Americans were trying to “save” — throughout the South. As one Army report from 1962 concluded, “the military and political situation in South Vietnam can be aptly described by four words, ‘it is a mess.’”
As the Kennedy administration sent more resources and money into Vietnam, the military went along with Kennedy but continued to express conflicting views about Vietnam policy. Military officials generally supported Kennedy, especially after he replaced holdover brass with his own generals and because he put forward budgets with a projected increase for the Pentagon of $17 billion over five years. Optimism also grew within the military, as we have seen, with Paul Harkins’s arrival and the introduction of technological warfare and helicopters, among other resources, and even critics of the war fell in line as money flooded into the military and resources poured into Vietnam. However, U.S. officers continued to recognize that the Viet Cong was stronger and committed to conducting long-term, attritional warfare that could not be defeated with a conventional military response.
They also continued to lament the incessant political repression and chaos in Saigon which ultimately led to the Diem coup, and in the case of John Paul Vann and others pointed out the politicization and shortcomings of the South Vietnamese military forces. And, whatever their opinion of the wisdom or risks of intervention, virtually every American military official assumed during this time that the United States would not even contemplate sending combat forces into battle in southern Vietnam. The military had to take its cues from Kennedy, who was preparing to go all-in in Indochina over its the reservations, reluctance, or at times opposition. Stone’s position that the military feared or hated JFK enough to plot to kill him is absurd on the surface, but even more irrational, if not risible, when viewed within the context of how the military really felt about Vietnam and JFK.
Even more telling is that the military’s pessimistic evaluations and often-cautious recommendations essentially hardened after the assassination. If the military wanted Kennedy out of the way so it could go all-out against the Revolution in Vietnam, then ranking officers would have been sending along sanguine reports and urging a full-on war. Yet, Throughout 1964 and 1965, as the Johnson administration repeatedly escalated the war in Vietnam, the military remained unconvinced of the need for or value of intervention. Indeed, both Generals Taylor and William Westmoreland, the ambassador and commander who are remembered as hawks on Vietnam (indeed, some vets derided the commander as “General Waste-more-men”), strongly opposed the introduction of combat troops in the crucial 1964–65 period, as did ranking officers in every service.
In an address at Marine headquarters in late 1963 the incoming Commandant, General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., explicitly rejected American participation in the war in Indochina, lamenting that “we’re up to our knees in the quagmire [in Vietnam] and we don’t seem to be able to do much about it.” Greene hoped that the current Marine presence in Vietnam, about 550 troops, would remain low. “Frankly, in the Marine Corps we do not want to get any more involved in South Vietnam because if we do we cannot execute our primary mission,” he admitted. With more important commitments elsewhere, he feared that the Corps would be overextended in Vietnam. “You see what happened to the French,” Greene ruminated, “well, maybe the same thing is going to happen to us.” Generals Victor Krulak, who was assuming command of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific [FMFPac], and Donald Bennett, director of strategic planning for the Army, had similar reservations about expanding the U.S. role in Vietnam, with Bennett later charging that “certainly from September of 63 on, the forcing [into war in Vietnam], as far as I could tell, came from the civilian side.”
To Taylor, it was neither “reasonable or feasible” to expect Caucasian American soldiers to take on the duties of Asian guerrilla warfare. As soon as American troops entered the RVN, the Vietnamese would “seek to unload other ground force tasks upon us” and would perform even “worse in a mood of relaxation at passing the Viet Cong burden to the U.S.” Taylor even went so far as to suggest that LBJ reduce the U.S. role to sending in advisors, or maybe even “disengage and let the [RVN] stand alone.”
Westmoreland was likewise reluctant to fight in Vietnam. In September 1964, the commander “did not contemplate” putting U.S. troops into combat; that “would be a mistake,” he told Taylor, because “it is the Vietnamese’s war.” In late 1964, again insisting that “a purely military solution is not possible,” Westmoreland did not even mention using ground troops in his reports to Washington. In probably his most prophetic analysis, in January 1965, just ten weeks before the introduction of combat troops at Da Nang, he and his staff urged a continuation of the flawed advisory system, but no combat troops. The United States, they recognized, had spent vast amounts of time and money to develop the ARVN, with little luck, and “if that effort has not succeeded, there is even less reason to think that U.S. combat forces would have the desired effect.” The involvement of American troops in the RVN, the military staff in Saigon concluded, quite amazingly, “would at best buy time and would lead to ever increasing commitments until, like the French, we would be occupying an essentially hostile foreign country.”
More than a year after JFK’s assassination, then, the military, which Stone and others would want people to believe plotted to have the president killed because of his reluctance to fight in Vietnam, were continuing to be far more hesitant and pessimistic about the war than the civilians were. . . .
Beyond Vietnam: Kennedy’s Record of Aggression and Intervention
National Security Policies
There are some who have argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 tempered Kennedy and made him more dovish, and they point to the establishment of the hotline between Washington and Moscow, and, even more, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to suggest that JFK was moving to dramatically deescalate and eventually end the Cold War. Kennedy did in fact take measures to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and United States, but the idea that he was becoming so dovish that state agents had him assassinated is preposterous and without evidence.
To Stone, the alarming events of October 1962 caused JFK to take a hard line against the Soviet installation of missile sites in Cuba which ultimately forced Khrushchev to back down, and was “the greatest single act of human courage the world ever witnessed with that much at stake.” More to the point, Stone and other partisans of the conspiracy to kill Kennedy believed that the crisis made the president realize how dangerous nuclear weapons were and thus reappraise life-long held beliefs about the Cold War and global conflict.
Yet Stone also contends, contradictorily, that suspicions arose that Kennedy was “soft on communism” because he failed to use military force in October 1962. In any event, Kennedy in truth took a hard line, imposing a blockade on Soviet ships that could have led to armed conflict or even a nuclear exchange. And the American people saw it that way, with 82 percent saying U.S. power had increased after the missile crisis, while 70 percent had a favorable view of his foreign policies, and 74 percent believed he would be reelected in 1964.
So, in truth, Kennedy’s political position had improved by late 1962, and in fact he did use that momentum to take some important measures with regard to the Soviet Union. In early 1963, the president established a hot line (a teletype machine, not a “red telephone”) to provide instant communication between Washington and Moscow in the event of conflict or emergency, and, more importantly, convinced congress to pass a Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty in September 1963, which prohibited nuclear tests under water, in the atmosphere, and in outer space, and pledged all signatories to end the arms race.
But even this particular accomplishment was not indicative of any change of heart by Kennedy. JFK had been advocating a nuclear test ban since his days as a senator in the mid-1950s, and it had strong support in both parties by January 1961. Indeed, the final vote on the treaty was 80–19, so the idea that the military or intelligence communities were so angry that they would try to assassinate JFK over this issue (which was of the same nature as Eisenhower’s pursuit of the Open Skies Treay in 1955 anyway) is, again, without evidence or merit. Indeed, in the period between making the agreement with Khrushchev and holding the senate vote, a large and diverse group of political figures publicly supported the test ban — officials from the Atomic Energy Commission, prominent Republicans like Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Everett Dirksen, former President Harry S. Truman, and various labor and church groups. Over 60 percent of Americans supported the treaty, while less than 20 percent opposed it.
Most importantly, even the JCS supported the nuclear test ban. In the first deliberations about the treaty, the chiefs were reluctant to agree to limiting nuclear testing, but began to soften their positions in July, after Kennedy assured them that “we cannot reduce our military readiness if an accord is reached, for the whole situation could turn around in six months.” Feeling less apprehensive, the JCS consulted with CIA Director John McCone, AEC Chair Glenn Seaborg, various nuclear physicists, and other scientific and political officials. Their answers, according to the official history of the period “plainly eased JCS concerns.” Even hawkish Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, who wanted the U.S. to develop a 100 megaton bomb to match the Soviet Union’s “Tsar Bomba,” knew that it would be to U.S. “political disadvantage” if it did not ratify the treaty. McNamara, the chiefs’ civilian boss, sent them a draft endorsing the treaty and recommending ratification, and in mid-August the JCS abandoned its reservations. Overall, the JCS said, “the US at present is clearly ahead of the USSR in the ability to wage strategic nuclear war, and is probably ahead in the ability to wage tactical nuclear war.” Ultimately, the Chiefs concluded that the treaty was “compatible with the security interests of the US” and supported its ratification.
Kennedy’s national security policy, the record indicates, was consistent throughout his presidency, both before and after October 1962, and it was aggressive and based on military strength. In June 1962, the Policy Planning Council prepared a draft of the U.S. Basic National Security Policy that was complete with boilerplate Cold War analyses and recommendations. It began by reiterating that “now and for the foreseeable future U.S. military policy is a crucial determinant of the fate of the free community because our military strength is proportionately great in relation to our population and command over resources, and because the security of our allies is intimately dependent on our strength and will to exercise it.”
The planners behind the report did not anticipate that the Soviets would take any aggressive actions abroad (this was pre-missile crisis) but also were committed to keeping the U.S. military deployed abroad and well-funded in the event some crisis with the USSR did emerge. The report also discussed what the U.S. perceived as the Soviet threat in some measure and was open to changing the U.S. “no first strike” with nuclear weapons policy in the event war broke out. It also discussed America’s need not just for nuclear arms but also chemical and biological weapons, urged an increased commitment to supporting American allies and having adequate funding and production for U.S. military materiel at home, and said that the U.S. had to “be prepared to fight locally in direct conflict with Sino-Soviet forces.”
In early 1963, as the dust settled after the missile crisis, JFK did not shift policies, but continued his aggressive and militarist approach, in rhetoric and action. In his State of the Union Address, the president continued to argue for a hardline against U.S. enemies. He could “foresee no spectacular reversal in Communist methods or goals,” but would be open to peace overtures from Moscow. However, until Khrushchev made that choice, “the free peoples have no choice but to keep their arms nearby.” Accordingly, Kennedy promised “the best defense in the world,” which meant a rising defense budget because there was no “bargain basement” way to achieve security.
In 1963, that would mean spending $15 billion on nuclear weapons systems alone, “a sum which is about equal to the combined defense budgets of our European Allies.” In addition, JFK pledged improved air and missile defense systems, improved civil defense, a strengthened anti-guerrilla capacity, and “of prime importance” — more powerful and flexible non-nuclear forces (part of so-called “flexible response). In less than three years as president, Kennedy and McNamara oversaw one of the largest increases in military spending in non-wartime conditions in U.S. history.
Around this time he also proposed the establishment of the Multilateral Nuclear Force (MLF), which would put integrated North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] forces together on nuclear submarines and ships, and, most controversially, include personnel from West Germany to have partial control over nuclear weapons, less than two decades after the end of World War II. The Soviet Union, not surprisingly, was outraged by the idea of giving the Germans authorization over nuclear weapons and believed that Kennedy was making nuclear proliferation more likely. Though the U.S. had drafted a Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 1963, the MLF, as Khrushchev saw it, was exacerbating European instability, not limiting it.
In fact, JFK supported the MLF even though one of America’s key allies, France, opposed it. “Our interest,” Kennedy said at an NSC meeting in January 1963, “is to strengthen the NATO multilateral force concept, even though de Gaulle is opposed, because a multilateral force will increase our influence in Europe and provide a way to guide NATO and keep it strong. We have to live with de Gaulle” (who was causing problems that “are not crucial in the sense that our problems in Latin America are”). At that same NSC meeting, Kennedy pointed out that one of “our big tasks” would be to persuade the Europeans to increase their defense forces. JFK, more than his predecessors, was also willing to assert American power and act unilaterally with regard to Europe and NATO. Kennedy did not believe that the “approval of the alliance was a condition that pressed on him.”
“If we are to keep six divisions in Europe, the European states must do more,” he said. “Our forces in Europe are further forward than the troops of de Gaulle who, instead of committing his divisions to NATO, is banking on us to defend him by maintaining our present military position in Europe. While recognizing the military interests of the Free World, we should consider very hard the narrower interests of the United States.”  Once again, JFK was hardly going soft as a result of the nuclear crisis a few months earlier in Cuba. The MLF never became a reality, but Kennedy’s determination to expand Europe’s nuclear capability, with ex-Nazis involved in operational control of NATO weapons, showed his true colors. The president also showed his commitment to Germany, and his continued Cold War bona fides, during a visit to the wall in West Berlin in June, as his words assured the West Germans that they could rely on the U.S. for their security and condemned communism. “There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future . . . And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists . . . And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress,” and Kennedy admonished them, “let them come to Berlin” and finished with his famous declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “I am a Berliner.”
Late into the year, even as Kennedy, in NSAM 270, announced the redeployment of some personnel and units from Europe, the U.S. still was keeping six ground divisions in Germany “as long as they are required.” Even with the drawdown of some units and equipment, the U.S. was not withdrawing from Europe, as Dean Rusk made clear in an address in Frankfort at the very same time as NSAM 270 was authorized. “When we say that your defense is our defense,” he assured the Germans, “we mean it. We have proved it in the past [and] will continue to demonstrate it in the future. We have six divisions in Germany. We intend to maintain these divisions here as long as there is need for them — and under present circumstances there is no doubt that they will continue to be needed.” Rusk also stressed that U.S. had established “the world’s largest logistical system” in Germany which kept forces in the “highest state of readiness with the most modern and powerful equipment . . . . and they are backed by nuclear forces of almost unimaginable power.” Finally, Rusk reminded the Germans that the U.S. had 2.7 million active troops, with about 1 million outside the U.S. and would maintain security not just in Europe but worldwide with its power.
JFK’s national security policies, from his time in the senate until the end of his life, were based on traditional concepts of power, containment, and nuclear superiority. Even as he agreed to a limited test ban, he was always sure to maintain vast American superiority and flex military strength if needed. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Kennedy had any plans that would fundamentally shift U.S. cold war doctrine and there was simply no reason for the military to have any deep conflict with him, let alone reason enough to want him killed. Again, Stone’s argument fails in the face of overwhelming evidence.
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. He just published a three part series of articles titled “John F. Kennedy Goes Hollywood: Oliver Stone’s Fantastic History” on Medium.
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 The following paragraphs derive largely from my book Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (New York, 1996), especially chapters 4 and 5.
Decker, 29 April 1961, in House Committee on Armed Services, U.S.-Vietnam Relations, 11:62–6.
Felt in Edward Marolda and Oscar Fitzgerald, The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, vol. 2: From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959–1965 (Washington D.C., 1986), 104–9; Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York, 1988); officers’ report, August 1962, in Krulak to Army, Navy, and Air Force Chiefs, 27 December 1962, John Newman Papers, JFK Library.
 Wallace M. Greene, Jr., “A Marine Corps View of Military Strategy,” tape #6276, MCHC, my transcription; Victor Krulak, Oral History, June 1970 interview, MCHC; Donald Bennett Oral History, section 7, 30–4, Military History Institute, Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA.
 Taylor memoranda of 6 January, 1 February, 22 February, 16 March 1965 in NSC History, “Deployment of Major U.S. Forces to Vietnam,” microfilm edition, University Publications of America.
Taylor to State Department, 4 September 1964, Declassified Documents Reference System, 84, 737; Westmoreland Question and Answer Report, November 1964, William Westmoreland Papers, box 4, Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, TX; Westmoreland in Taylor to Johnson, 5 January 1965, NSC History, “Deployment.”
 Interview with Oliver Stone, The Guardian, 15 April 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/15/oliver-stone-america-went-wrong
 JFK Library, “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/jfk-in-history/nuclear-test-ban-treaty; and “Address on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” 26 July 1963, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/july-26-1963-address-nuclear-test-ban-treaty.
 See Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War. Ithaca, NY, 1999)
 Poole, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 1961–1964; Alex Wellerstein, “An Unearthly Spectacle: The Untold Story of the World’s Biggest Nuclear Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 29 October 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/11/the-untold-story-of-the-worlds-biggest-nuclear-bomb/.
 Draft Paper Prepared by the Policy Planning Council, “Basic National Security Policy,” 22 June 1962, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume VIII, National Security Policy, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v08/d93.
 John F. Kennedy, “Annual Message on the State of the Union, 14 January 1963,” https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/annual-message-the-congress-the-state-the-union-3.
 Some data on Kennedy’s commitment to military spending is below.
Year $ billions % GDP
1964 53.4 8.05
1963 54.56 8.83
1962 54.65 9.33
1961 49.88 9.16
1960 47.35 8.99
Year $ billions
 “Kennedy-Khrushchev Exchanges,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume VI, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v06/comp1?start=1.
 “Remarks of President Kennedy to the National Security Council Meeting, Washington, January 22, 1963,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v13/d168. The satirical singer Tom Lehrer even called out the U.S. over this episode in his “MLF Lullaby,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB7PRY1Aqds.
John Kennedy, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, 26 June 1963, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-26-1963-ich-bin-ein-berliner-speech.
 National Security Action Memorandum №270, October 29, 1963. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v13/d216.
 Dean Rusk, “Toward a New Dimension in the Atlantic Partnership,” Address in Frankfurt, FRG, 27 October 1963, Department of State Bulletin, Vol XLIX, №1272, November 11 1963, HathiTrust, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293008121729&view=1up&seq=198&skin=2021&q1=toward%20a%20new%20dimension.