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The JFK Vietnam Myth

[ 67 ] July 17, 2011 |

Worst president of the 20th century, I dunno, but the idea that Vietnam should be laid primarily at LBJ’s feet is ridiculous. I think Oliver Stone’s fervent belief that JFK’s assassination was inevitable because of his left-wing radicalism on foreign policy and civil rights makes JFK one of the funniest movies ever made…

Comments (67)

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  1. Erik Loomis says:

    I’m right with you on the JFK is overrated thing, but that article is ridiculous. First, it judges JFK solely on foreign policy, which isn’t fair. There’s no question his foreign policy was bad (and this doesn’t even talk about the Alliance for Progress), but wasn’t it really pretty standard fare for mid-twentieth century America. Second, how can someone seriously argue that Kennedy is worse than Nixon or Hoover or Harding? Even on foreign policy, was Kennedy really worse than Eisenhower, who approved of coups in Iran and Guatemala and began the road to both the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam? Absurd and unserious.

    • DocAmazing says:

      Seconded. American involvement in Viet Nam predates Kennedy, and all of Southeast Asia had CIA and other assorted ratfuckers crawling all over it by the early ’50s–hell, Wild Bill Donovan’s retirement gig was envoy to Thailand.

      It’s as silly to hang it all on JFK as it is to hang it all on LBJ.

      • Robert Farley says:

        I think a pretty compelling case can be made that JFK was worse on foreign policy than Eisenhower. Say what you will about Guatemala and Iran, they were premised on the notion that the US should avoid direct military intervention in those areas. Viet Nam… not so much. Ike also managed to avoid war over Hungary and stay out of the Suez crisis. Wouldn’t have trusted Kennedy on those points…

      • Erik Loomis says:

        “It’s as silly to hang it all on JFK as it is to hang it all on LBJ.”

        To go a step further, the blame really falls on the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment. It’s not like any legitimate presidential candidate would have done anything differently, at least until 1968. If anyone deserves extra blame, it’s Nixon for undermining the 1968 peace talks, invading Cambodia and Laos, and then settling for essentially the same agreement that could have been had in 68.

        • Robert Farley says:

          Again, I’m not convinced. Kennedy’s foreign policy was premised on a more assertive reaction to perceived Soviet aggression. In the campaign, Kennedy rejected the idea that deterrence should form the basis of the US response to Soviet behavior, while at the same time inventing a “missile gap”. I think it’s very, very easy to make a case that Kennedy was appreciably more interventionist than Eisenhower was or than Nixon likely would have been.

          • John says:

            Surely we should take into account the continued existence of the human race when judging Kennedy’s foreign policy. The Cuban Missile Crisis may have occurred in part because of mistakes Kennedy made in his early dealings with Khrushchev. But it really was an impressive achievement to work his way out of it on terms that achieved the US goal of getting those missiles out of Cuba and without there being a nuclear war.

            It’s even more impressive when you look at the details and see that Kennedy was virtually alone in taking a more dovish stance than pretty much anyone else on the NSC. Bundy and McNamara and the rest were saying that he had to launch a pre-emptive strike on Cuba. He resisted them, trusted his own instincts, and made his way out without blood being shed. LBJ’s unwilingness to buck those same advisors is what got him mired in Vietnam. I don’t know what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam had he lived (I think it likely he would have gotten the US involved, but it seems reasonable to speculate that he might have admitted it was a mistake sooner). I strongly suspect, however, that Johnson would have been just as unwilling to contradict the hawks in the Cuban Missile Crisis as he was to do so in Vietnam. And given what we now know about tactical nukes in Cuba, that might have been utterly disastrous.

            Given the shortness of his presidency, I think the Cuban Missile Crisis has to weigh heavily. To the extent that Kennedy did bad things on foreign policy (and he did), they were the same bad things that everyone else in the foreign policy establishment supported. To the extent that he disagreed with the establishment, it was in a more dovish direction, whatever nonsense he spouted on the campaign trail.

            • partisan says:

              You can’t say Nixon/Eisenhower would have chosen a more judicious road than Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs, since it was their idea in the first place. It’s not so easy to say what would have happened in Vietnam. But it is true that at the end of his presidency Eisenhower had helped impose a particularly unconvincing puppet in Laos, that it caused a major crisis, that Kennedy managed to resolve this crisis with a much more convincing pro-American leader, that Eisenhower and Nixon endlessly criticized Kennedy on this, and indeed consistently criticized the Democrats on the right from Vietnam notwithstanding their own repeated failures of analysis.

    • Bill Murray says:

      how can someone seriously argue that Kennedy is worse than Nixon or Hoover or Harding?

      or Reagan

    • patrick II says:

      I have read that JFK signed a NSAM with the intention of beginning of a drawdown of troops in Vietnam. Is that view totally discounted in this conversation?

      • TT says:

        The evidence is uneven but fairly compelling that JFK was seriously entertaining withdrawal from VN after securing reelection. He was privately a realist on the issue, or at least became one. See http://bostonreview.net/BR28.5/galbraith.html. Rarely, in fact, has a president allowed his public rhetoric and much of his policymaking on foreign affairs to so thoroughly contradict and subsume his private opinions.

        I would say that JFK’s record on foreign policy was mixed at best, trending toward negative. Domestically, on civil rights he was AWOL until he could no longer afford to be so, politically or morally, and his economic policy by 1963 had morphed into a warmed-over Reaganomics nearly two decades before there even was a warmed-over Reaganomics, i.e. cut taxes and massively jack up defense spending.

  2. John Emerson says:

    Kurt Gödel voted for Eisenhower because he didn’t like Kennedy’s warmongering.

    • Bill Murray says:

      Why would a man running for Senate and then a Senator make that big a deal in the Presidential race?

      • Warren Terra says:

        I assume Emerson meant to say Godel voted for Nixon in protest against Kennedy’s bellicosity, or perhaps meant that Godel wrote in Eisenhower’s name in 1960.

        • John Emerson says:

          Right. Goedel liked Eisenhower and voted for Nixon.

        • Hogan says:

          “You might also warn him, just to be fair, that I have been bull goose loony on this ward for nigh onto two years, and that I’m crazier than any man alive.”

          “Mr. Bibbit, you might warn this Mr. Harding that I’m so crazy I admit to voting for Eisenhower.”

          “Bibbit! You tell Mr. McMurphy I’m so crazy I voted for Eisenhower twice!”

          “And you tell Mr. Harding right back”–he puts both hands on the table and leans down, his voice getting low–”that I’m so crazy I plan to vote for Eisenhower again this November.”

          “I take off my hat,” Harding says, bows his head, and shakes hands with McMurphy. There’s no doubt in my mind that McMurphy’s won, but I’m not sure just what.

    • Cool Bev says:

      Briliant mathematician, but certifiably insane.

      • John Emerson says:

        He was pretty sensible when not paranoid. He was not of the Vienna elite and took to American life (and American pop music very well), and paid close attention to politics. Hao Wang’s variosu works about Goedel are worth a look.

  3. mark f says:

    At least Kennedy was a true believer, wrong as he was. LBJ was pretty certain he was leading the country into a deepening fiasco based on a stupid theory but he did it anyway, ‘cuz, you know, you can’t have anyone thinking Nixon has bigger balls.

    • Murc says:

      Kennedy wasn’t a true believer.

      Kennedy did a really good job of presenting that persona. But in fact Kennedy and his closest allies and associates were deeply, deeply distrustful of true believers.

      Read The Best and the Brightest. Kennedy really distrusted anyone he felt was a passionate believer in liberalism. The feeling was they’d hamper his ability to do what he wanted and would be more loyal to ideals and principles than to him personally.

    • timb says:

      When is Caro’s next volume coming out? At least do the VP years. He’s gonna die before he finishes that book

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Here’s a recent piece on the ongoing 4th volume. Hopefully, Caro lives to be 100 because it doesn’t sound close.

        http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11156/1150985-44-0.stm?cmpid=books.xml

        • Warren Terra says:

          If what you want is completed works about LBJ, you’ve got options. If what you want is books by Caro, you take what you can get when you eventually (oh, so eventually) can get it. And you’re damn grateful. I wouldn’t trade a completed series for skimping in the books he has published.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Am looking forward to it. I’m guessing that Master of the Vice Presidency, 1961-2 (1,923 pp.) will come in 2019.

        THe real tragedy is that the LBJ series didn’t really get humming until the third book. I wish the first two mediocre ones — when he still seemed convinced that LBJ was Moses rather than nearly the opposite of Moses — had been consolidated into one.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          In defense of the first book, Caro does a wonderful job of describing the Hill Country of central Texas and the culture of that time and place that produced LBJ. It was long and perhaps could have been consolidated, but it was also pretty masterful. Even if Caro didn’t yet like LBJ.

          • In Means of Ascent, Caro portrays LBJ as wholly corrupt and loathsome, in contrast with the noble cowboy, Coke Stevenson. I don’t know whether it was a desire to expose LBJ or to canonize Stevenson, but both portraits were suspect to me. Nobody slogging through the swamp of Texas politics could have been completely clean, especially the winners.

          • mattc says:

            The story of the ’46 Senate primary in Means of Ascent is one of the most riveting political narratives I’ve ever read. I’m very glad that it got it’s own volume. It deserved the detailed treatment.

          • Ed says:

            The first book is the best of the bunch and the one I would recommend to anyone not already interested in the subject. Certainly the one I most enjoyed reading. Wonderful treatment of Johnson’s family and background. There are digressions, but fascinating and relevant ones.

            The feeling was they’d hamper his ability to do what he wanted and would be more loyal to ideals and principles than to him personally.

            That’s hardly pecular to JFK. No politician likes the sort of person who is truer to ideals than the Leader. Exactly the sort of person who’s likely to go off the reservation or resign at some inconvenient point.

            I don’t think JFK is overrated any more, rather the opposite these days. The thing that stands out for me regarding presidential policy in Vietnam is the continuity from president to president, in something of the same way Obama has continued paths set by Bush in his second term. JFK might well have gotten stuck with the tar baby, but at least he would not have been overawed by his own advisers as the less secure LBJ was.

            • I don’t think JFK is overrated any more, rather the opposite these days.

              Seconded.

              JFK was so overrated for so long – up there will FDR and Lincoln on greatest presidents lists – that the inevitable backlash produced an overreaction.

  4. If you’re going to make an argument about setting us on a path in Vietnam and treating subsequent presidents’ actions as inevitable, then you have to go back to either Eisenhower or Truman. If you accept this inevitability theory, then the point of no return was either the decision to cancel the 1956 elections, or the decision to accept the French policy of re-colonization after the war (which was made in order to make sure France remained firmly within the western military bloc).

    • Murc says:

      And that worked out GREAT after they withdrew from NATO and became enormous free-riders on said western military bloc. :)

    • Jay C says:

      Really: which is what the Pentagon Papers pointed out quite clearly (and was yet another reason for the US Establishment to want to cover them up) – the fundamental pivot-point in Vietnam was when the US decided (1946) to acquiesce to De Gaulle’s decision to re-impose a French colonialist regime in the country (kicking Ho Chi Minh under the bus). Everything else from Dien Bien Phu onwards hinged on that. And the Kennedy Administration could no more have escaped that fundamental bad decision any more than their predecessors; or, their successors: IOW, a clusterf*ck all around…

  5. Scott de B. says:

    the idea that Vietnam should be laid primarily at LBJ’s feet is ridiculous.

    No love for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution?

    • howard says:

      scott de b., thank you: it took until your comment to get to the point i wanted to make.

      as a number of people have already noted, the decision to involve the us in the end of french colonialism and the ensuing civil war predated lbj, but it was lbj who turned a minor military presence into a major one.

      i am of the opinion that had lbj made a different decision in august, 1964, he could have been regarded as the greatest president of the 20th century….

      • mattc says:

        but the only viable alternative to expansion of the war in ’64 was withdrawal, and NOBODY IN THE ENTIRE U.S. GOVERNMENT thought that we could withdraw! Even the relative peaceniks like Russel and Fulbright who cautioned LBJ against sending in the Marines would not countenance withdrawal. But if we didn’t withdraw, the Communists were going to completely take over South Vietnam in short order. The only suggestion of folks like Walter Lipmann who also told Johnson not to escalate was some airy fairy idea of a “negotiation” with Ho Chi Minh, but the North Vietnamese were refusing all entreaties to talk. And let’s not forget the fact that there were plenty of folks in congress and the military and across the country who were demanding much more dramatic escalation, up to and including massive bombing of N. Vietnam and the use of nuclear weapons, which Johnson was terrified would bring Russia into the war as a nuclear-slinging belligerent. His “middle course” was the wrong one, but that’s largely because nobody in (and few people out) of government had the imagination or foresight to countenance the only right course: withdrawal.

  6. FMguru says:

    Eisnehower certainly had his share of adventures and interventions (Quemoy/Matsu, Guatamala, Iran), but he deserves credit for staying the hell out of Dien Bien Phu and Suez. Did Kennedy ever flat-out reject an imperial opportunity? About the only one that comes to mind was his refusal to bomb or invade Cuba during the Missile Crisis (as noted upthread).

    JFK was bad history and worse mythology, but I’d say it was a pretty good film. The leading JFK assassination theories have an enormous number of moving parts in them, and Stone managed to get most of them on screen, in an understandable and well-presented fashion. That’s no small achievement.

  7. JFK, the man, was all about counterinsurgency. Vietnam was the place the US was going to showcase its new counterinsurgency strategy and tool, the Green Berets. Oliver Stone was soooooo grasping at Myth-making in his film. It is kind of funny, but also very sad that he leans so heavily on myth.

  8. urban meemaw says:

    I recommend JFK And The Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters by James W Douglass. He contends that JFK was a conflicted Cold Warrior to some extent, but JFK also realized since the early 50′s that the US could never win in Vietnam. Douglass presents evidence that prior to his death he did inititate efforts to ensure US withdrew resources from Vietnam. He also covers at great length the dynamics of the Cuban Missle Crisis negotiations with Kruschev. I agree with John above that Kennedy should be credited for his courage and wisdom during Cuban Missle crisis.

  9. strategichamlet says:

    The apologetics for both JFK and LBJ on this thread are pathetic. They also sound just like what we hear about GWB and Iraq (“Gore would have done it too!!”). JFK came to the presidency wanting to play cowboy, and did, until he got his fingers burned. LBJ took a minor, already failed, military adventure and escalated it into the defining military fiasco of the American experience (so far). If it was so inevitable, why did LBJ have to lie and play tricks to get his escalation? And even if it was the “establishment” who pushed the war I’m naive enough to think that the president takes the full blame for his own actions regardless of whether some other president would have done it too. There’s no way to argue that this was foisted on either of them.

    I know we all love LBJ for the CRA but that should not forgive him for being one of the worst foreign policy presidents ever. Depending on how consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan carry with us for the next 50 years, he may still keep the top spot.

    • witless chum says:

      What about Woodrow Wilson? He invaded most of the western hemisphere in little colonial wars and joined World War I after running on a promise not to. (The Zimmerman telegram partially excuses that. The Germans were quite stupid.) His diplomatic scheme after the war ended up leading to World War II. He invaded Russia, too.

    • Recognition of structural causes of politics != apologetics

      Recognition of context != absolution of blame

      Personality-based, great man theory of history != sophisticated

      • DocAmazing says:

        Agree with the first two; not seeing a citation of “great man of history” notion in what strategichamlet has written. Being the US president means that you carry a lot of clout, not that your personality drives the tides of history, and I think strategichamlet fairly accurately portrays that in these remarks.

      • strategichamlet says:

        You don’t respond to my question of how you can invoke structural effects if LBJ had to use fabricated incidents to push escalation through.

        Have to agree to disagree about absolution of blame. I certainly see that in the comments above, just like I do in comments conservatives make about how Gore would have invaded Iraq, etc.

        Acknowledging some individual agency for the president != great man of history theory

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