OLIVER STONE portrays President Kennedy's assassination as the result of a plot engineered by a self-interested all-star cast of military, political and corporate leaders opposed to his alleged efforts to pull the United States out of Vietnam.
This picture is seductively appealing to conspiracy lovers and to those whose only exposure to the assassination history will be the compelling version in Mr. Stone's motion picture production. It is also attractive to those wanting to believe that Kennedy was an anti-Cold War liberal who, if he had lived, would have prevented America's subsequent agony in Vietnam. The historical record to date simply will not sustain the fiction that JFK sought exit from Vietnam on any terms less than victory. Mr. Stone's claim for a planned Kennedy withdrawal and reversal of HTC the policy by Lyndon Johnson, a key participant in the supposed murder conspiracy, rests primarily, if not entirely, upon two National Security Action Memos, NSAM 263 and NSAM 273. (See Mr. Stone's article, Other Voices, Jan. 10.)
NSAM 263, issued with Mr. Kennedy's approval in October 1963, authorized the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. military personnel from South Vietnam by the end of the year with the possibility that two years later the "bulk" of remaining U.S. forces could also be removed. Then, according to Mr. Stone, four days after the president's death Lyndon Johnson undermined and canceled JFK's policy of de-escalation via NSAM 273 after consultations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed by John Kennedy's favorite general, personal military adviser and key consultant on Vietnam, Gen. Maxwell Davenport Taylor, whom the late president appointed in 1962.
The fact of the matter is that NSAM 263 was approved by Mr. Kennedy on the illusory assumption that victory in Vietnam was at hand, a conclusion loudly proclaimed in a well-known report delivered to the president on Oct. 2, 1963, by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and none other than General Taylor. Both men were at the time unabashed hawks on the war. Mr. McNamara would eventually change his mind and leave the government in 1969.
General Taylor never altered his views and remained an unreconstructed advocate of U.S. involvement.
The McNamara-Taylor report, concurred in by all the foreign policy-making agencies of the government, declared "the military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress." In view of the favorable military situation (and in the expectation that it would continue), Mr. McNamara and General Taylor recommended that 1,000 U.S. personnel be withdrawn from South Vietnam by the end of 1963 and the rest "by the end of 1965."
South Vietnamese troops were to be trained to assume the advisory and combat responsibilities from the Americans. Part of the motivation for announcing the proposed pull-out of U.S. forces was to induce the South Vietnamese to mount the necessary effort to prosecute the war, a war John F. Kennedy was convinced should be won and believed was being won.
In the wake of President Kennedy's assassination and after meetings with the same advisers JFK consulted, Lyndon Johnson endorsed NSAM 273, which repeated Mr. Kennedy's Vietnam directives, including the projected U.S. force withdrawals, while reiterating that "the central objective of the United States in Vietnam [is] to win the contest against the externally directed and supported communist conspiracy.
The reversal of the U.S. military withdrawal strategy by President Johnson, on which Mr. Stone places so much weight, came as a direct result of revelations that optimism about the way the war was going was totally unwarranted. Evidence for this revised view began to emerge in the aftermath of the November coup (sanctioned by the Kennedy administration) against the South Vietnamese Diem-Nhu regime but was only confirmed when Mr. McNamara visited South Vietnam following the president's assassination and reported to his boss on Dec. 21, 1963, that there had been "significant deterioration in the war" since the preceding summer.
This gloomy assessment and others which came after it prompted Mr. Johnson to change the strategy and further widen the scope of United States actions in Vietnam.
But John Kennedy was no dove and had himself dramatically escalated America's intervention in Vietnam. He tripled military assistance to South Vietnam, increased the number of Americans from 658 to nearly 16,000, allowing significant numbers of them to participate in combat for the first time, launched the ill-conceived strategic hamlet (concentration camp) program, approved the introduction of defoliants and herbicides such as agent orange into the war and rejected advice that the United States seek a political solution to the conflict.
There indeed are unanswered questions about John Kennedy's tragic death, and all relevant records concerning the assassination should be opened. But no one will ever know what JFK would have done in Vietnam had he lived. One thing, however, is certain. John Kennedy did not die because he was abandoning the war in Vietnam. He was trying to win it.
Henry W. Berger, associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, teaches courses in U.S. foreign relations, including the history of American involvement in the Vietnam War.