JFK: Oliver Stone and the Vietnam War
By Stanley Karnow

From Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (Henry Holt, 1995), © Agincourt Press 1995. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission.

SINCE ITS BIRTH, THE MOVIE INDUSTRY HAS spawned evangelists of nearly every stripe. D.W. Griffith asserted that he had been ordained by Christ to produce pictures exalting the "brotherhood of man." Chaplin's later films preached world peace, Louis B. Mayer celebrated middle-class virtue, and John Wayne personified patriotism. Oliver Stone's lofty purpose, he has asserted, is to "start to change things" by "looking at the '60s not as history but as a seminal decade for the postwar generation coming into power in the '90s." Without crediting either, he cites Shakespeare and George Santayana to punctuate his point: "What is past is prologue. To forget that past is to be condemned to relive it." Yet Stone's cinematic crusade often borders on the zany.

The following essays critique Stone's "JFK:"

His defining moment was Vietnam, where he served as an infantryman. He won Academy Awards for directing two fine war pictures, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, but flopped with Heaven and Earth, a commendable attempt to recapture the ordeal of a Vietnamese woman trapped in the conflict. In between he made JFK, which deals with Vietnam as well. Stone based JFK on the book On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison, who also features as the movie's hero. A controversial former New Orleans district attorney, Garrison had a checkered career debunking the Warren Commission's version of the Kennedy assassination. The film, embracing his interpretation, indicts a cabal of high-level hawks for covertly engineering Kennedy's murder to prevent him from pulling out of Southeast Asia after his 1964 reelection. The culprits supposedly responsible for this coup d'état range from the military and the Dallas police to the intelligence community and multinational corporations, with Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover "accomplices after the fact."

Released in 1991, the movie was widely excoriated by politicians, commentators, and scholars as a preposterous, even alarming, deformation of reality. The outcry boosted Stone's stature in Hollywood, which thrives on publicity. But Stone isn't gratified by mere attention. Far more than his show-business colleagues, many of whom believe fame makes them experts on everything from health care to arms control, Stone desperately yearns to be respected. He went ballistic over a piece in the Washington Post by George Lardner, who referred to JFK as "the edge of paranoia." Such attacks seem to confirm Stone's view of himself as a victim of the entrenched Establishment. In a furious response to Lardner, he evoked the campaign by the Hearst newspapers to suppress Citizen Kane. By implication, the same demons who plotted Kennedy's death are out to demolish him.

I lack the credentials to judge Stone as a filmmaker — though many critics, including some who regard its thesis as repugnant, applaud JFK as a technical masterpiece. Nor am I competent to assess the picture's rendition of the Kennedy assassination, which has been scrutinized and debated again and again, yet still perplexes most Americans. However, I feel qualified to comment on the movie's Vietnam perspective, having covered the wars there for more than forty years — from France's futile struggle to retrieve its Asian empire to the helicopters frantically lifting off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. I reexamined the subject in depth while preparing my book Vietnam: A History, as well as for the PBS documentary series "Vietnam: A Television History."

In a pivotal scene, Jim Garrison meets with "Mr. X" (right, above) in Washington, DC, and "X" gives Garrison the "inside scoop" on the assassination. The "X" character is based upon — and mouths many of the words of — L. Fletcher Prouty, a former Air Force officer and Pentagon staffer. Prouty, unfortunately, has a history of making crackpot statements and associating with unsavory groups.
Central to JFK is Stone's premise that Kennedy, had he lived, would have abandoned Vietnam. As evidence he cites a Kennedy plan to repatriate one thousand U.S. advisers by the end of 1963 as the prelude to a complete withdrawal. But Johnson, he alleges, was determined to intensify the war and, shortly after taking office, countermanded the order. I appreciate the difficulty of coping with complicated situations on the screen. Yet Stone, to buttress his proposition, twists the episode out of all recognition.

Early in 1963, South Vietnam's rigid President Ngo Dinh Diem was cracking down on internal dissidents, throwing the country into chaos. Fearing that the turmoil would benefit the Communist insurgents, Kennedy conceived of bringing home one thousand of the sixteen thousand American military advisers as a way of prodding Diem into behaving more leniently. Kennedy's decision was codified in National Security Action Memorandum, or NSAM, 263. Its aim was to "indicate our displeasure" with Diem and "create significant uncertainty" in him "as to future intentions of the United States." Kennedy hoped that the scheme, which also scheduled a reduction of the U.S. force over the next two years, would give the South Vietnamese the chance to strengthen themselves.

Kennedy's Public Rhetoric

Nothing in Kennedy's public utterances, however, suggested that he even remotely envisioned scuttling Vietnam. During an interview with Walter Cronkite in early September 1963, he affirmed his faith in the domino theory, adding, "I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw." He echoed that line in a talk with Chet Huntley: "We are not there to see a war lost." Had he delivered the address he was slated to give in Dallas, he would have declared that the involvement in Southeast Asia might be "painful, risky, and costly . . . but we dare not weary of the task." Robert Kennedy repeated the same thesis in an oral history interview, saying that the president "felt that he had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam, and that we should win the war . . . . " When asked if his brother ever contemplated "pulling out," Bobby replied, "No."

Three days after Kennedy's assassination, the Johnson administration issued its initial Vietnam directive, NSAM 273. With slight modifications, it perpetuated the Kennedy policy. A six-second bit in JFK shows the two documents — an effort by Stone to dramatize Johnson's switch to a new, more belligerent approach. But Professor Larry Berman of the University of California at Davis, an assiduous student of the war, has tapped virtually every available source on the period without discovering any evidence of a real change.

Other resources on this site include:

President Kennedy had made it plain that the repatriation of the U.S. advisers depended on the performance of the South Vietnamese troops; unless they were trained to take over, the Americans would stay. Johnson carried out the U.S. withdrawal, though it was essentially an accounting exercise. As one thousand men returned home, another thousand arrived; by December 1963, the force was the same as it had been.

Lifting a Quote Out of Context

In one of JFK's most pivotal scenes, a secret agent tells Garrison about a late 1963 White House reception at which Johnson told the joint chiefs of staff, "Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war." Stone, by his own admission, borrowed the anecdote from my book, and I am convinced of its accuracy, having heard it from Gen. Harold K. Johnson, then the army chief of staff and a guest at the party. I used the story to illustrate Lyndon Johnson's practice of making different promises to different factions. In this instance, he estimated that by placating the brass he could rally their conservative allies on Capitol Hill behind his liberal social agenda. At the same time, as I wrote, he confided to members of Congress who had qualms about Vietnam that he had no intention of getting immersed in that "damn pissant little country." However, Stone, to depict Johnson as a warmonger, lifted the story out of context.

Quite apart from JFK, there remains the question of what Kennedy would have done had he lived: Would he have pulled out of Vietnam or, as Johnson did, escalated the war? Nobody will ever know. My guess is that he would have behaved just as Johnson did, given the Cold War climate of the time. But Stone may have the final word. Friends who teach high school and college courses on Vietnam tell me that, for most of their students, JFK is the truth.

Oliver Stone's movie "JFK"
Kennedy and Foreign Policy
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