(I vanquished DiEugenio, so my challenge to Oliver Stone to debate is still on the table)
“When Oliver Stone heard it, he immediately called me, as he was excited about the result.” And thus
Kent Dorfman James DiEugenio, aka “Jimmy Die,” received the imprimatur of his mentor and lord that he had done well.
Stone was referring to a debate I recently had with DiEugenio on the topic of the JFK assassination and the conspiracies Stone and others have laid out over the years, claiming that the “deep state,” including the military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies, and maybe even the Vice President’s office, had Kennedy killed because he was going soft on them—preparing to withdraw from Vietnam, normalize relations with Cuba, and end the Cold War. (You can hear the debate here). DiEugenio has continued his barrage of insults directed at Noam Chomsky and me, along with the tired old theories and anecdotes and misinformation, so I’m writing a last response to him. If Oliver Stone wants to enter the debate, he’s always welcome to join Scott Parkin and me on Green & Red Podcast.
In 1998, the consulting firm Booz Allen prepared a report for the Pentagon on declassification procedures and the use of the internet, still fairly new, on declassification strategy. It had to consider openness and cost effectiveness, but it had a category headed “Diversion” which said the govt could list “interesting declassified material—i.e. Kennedy assassination data” (my emphasis).
So it was clear then that the ruling class saw the JFK conspiracy as a distraction, a way to get the populace, and scholars, to avoid a systemic analysis of American power and subversion and divert attention from real history, real politics and real crises to chase a chimera.
Prior to the past few months, I’ve never been much involved with Kennedy conspiracy theories. Obviously, everyone in America is aware of the JFK assassination, one of the most-discussed events in modern history, but I had never read about or researched it in anything but a cursory manner. Obviously, as a historian of the post-Civil War United States, I was aware of the various theories about the killing, the critique of the Warren Report, the fascination with Lee Harvey Oswald, and so forth. I had no strong opinion on any of this until Oliver Stone made it a cause célèbre with his 1991 movie JFK and recent documentary, written along with DiEugenio, titled JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.
While I had/have no dog in the hunt of the Warren Report or Oswald theories, I always believed that Stone’s argument that the military or the CIA or some other dark forces in government had Kennedy killed because he was becoming too dovish were evidence-free and thus absurd, as well as politically reactionary for they replaced analysis and activism with hero worship. Yet, Stone’s views have gained great traction—a rare instance of a media, pop-culture figure driving a legitimate historical debate. About 60 percent of Americans believe there was some kind of conspiracy to kill JFK, a number that’s been steady for a while. More distressingly, the Left, the political community with which I identify, increasingly accepts Stone’s view, and just in the past few months popular liberal/left media like Jacobin, Counterpunch, Majority Report, and The Empire Files (to name just a few) gave Stone favorable ink and air time to pontificate about the JFK killing.
At that point, mostly out of frustration at the Left accepting Stone’s theories so easily, I interviewed Noam Chomsky, author of Rethinking Camelot, a debunking of Stone’s arguments published in 1993, on the Green & Red Podcast, which I co-host with Scott Parkin. Then Scott and I did another show on it, based on my own work on JFK’s foreign policies and my own lifetime of research and writing about Vietnam. (See interview with Chomsky here, and my episode on it here).
During our podcast and on social media, to inject some levity, I challenged Stone to a debate, knowing of course that Oliver Stone has no idea who I am and would never take my dare. Surprisingly, DiEugenio took the challenge and so we debated on March 28th (listen to the introduction of the podcast of the debate to get some idea of DiEugenio’s antics, link above).
More recently, DiEugenio wrote another piece to respond to my articles and the introduction to the podcast which he called “cleaning up” after the debate. (You can read it here). It’s simply more of the same from him . . . isolated and circumstantial events pieced together in no logical manner, anecdotes rather than evidence, bombast rather than reason. It’s the way they roll—the Cult of Kennedy, the Cult of Stone.
DiEugenio began the recent article by excoriating me because, he said, I supported the Warren Commission’s report and argued that Oswald as the lone gunman. The reality, however, is that I said repeatedly that I wasn’t interested in the minutae of Oswald’s movements or that other detritus and the new info didn’t change our overall knowledge. The conspiracists aren’t just absent a smoking gun, but offer nothing conclusive enough to prove their conspiracy theory. As I pointed out—and I can’t stress enough—the Conspiracy-Assassination Complex loves to talk about Oswald’s whereabouts, Dealey Plaza, and conversations recalled decades later, Curtis LeMay’s presence, or not, at JFK’s autopsy, but the key to this entire issue—as Stone himself wrote in JFK in 1991, is why?
As Stone had the character X say, the rest of the plot, like Oswald or Cuba or the mafia—was “scenery” or a “parlor game” to distract away from the question of motive. Isn’t it ironic that the Stoneians are doing that themselves? They’re still talking about the new documents released by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) to ruminate over Oswald’s connections to either Communists or the CIA, whether Oswald was actually in Dallas on 11/22/63 (apparently he wasn’t according to some of them), and, most “curiously” (I’ll use a nice word), whether LeMay disguised his whereabouts to attend the JFK autopsy.
Why did, as they allege, dark forces in the government—either the military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies, or more specifically as Jimmy Die argues, James Jesus Angleton and LeMay, design an elaborate plan involving multiple government officials operating in a number of locations (without anyone spilling a word)—want Kennedy dead? (Just as an aside . . . Jimmy Die claims LeMay was a, maybe the central figure in the plot against JFK because his schedule on 11/22/63 changed at the last minute and he landed at a different base in D.C. and was present at JFK’s autopsy. If you’re pulling off the biggest conspiracy of all time, wouldn’t it be more important to keep your regular routine? Not leave breadcrumbs?) As I said, I’m not interested in the minutae of the assassination itself, but in the course of this trip into Stone-land, a couple people who debunk DiEugenio, Fred Litwin and Steve Roe, started tagging me on social media so if you want to see how they reject the conspiracy, look them up).
My point has always been—and I emphasized it in the debate—that the argument that dark forces in the military and intelligence communities, and even perhaps Vice President Lyndon Johnson, had JFK killed because he was going to withdraw from Vietnam, was normalizing relations with Cuba, and was moving to end the Cold War simply and utterly lacks any evidence. I’m not interested in scenery and parlor games.
JFK’s Record on Civil Rights
DiEugenio then spent several paragraphs defending Kennedy’s civil rights record—which was not one of the issues in the debate but was invoked by Jimmy Die at the outset as an example of Kennedy’s virtue and love for all mankind. I simply said he should be careful about praising JFK on those grounds, and we moved on. On this issue, he has again ignored voluminous and significant evidence of the president’s record—spotty and inconsistent at best—on the Civil Rights movement, a “bystander” according to a popular book on the topic. I’m not going to go into detail here because there’s a vast literature on this and, unlike the residents of Stone World, I don’t like to pontificate on topics that are not germane to the debate. As a professor of U.S. history who’s written a book on the 1960s, I obviously am informed about the Civil Rights Movement and Kennedy more than most—and certainly more than DiEugenio. And most of my knowledge on this topic comes from reading the main books in the field, so when Jimmy Die claims to be schooling me, I don’t take him seriously.
To be brief, JFK was tentative at best on Civil Rights and really had wished the topic would not have appeared and tried to wish it away. Kennedy won the 1960 election with heavy southern support—he won the electoral votes of both Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and the border state of Missouri. He understood the delicate and soon to be incendiary nature of racial politics in that region and tried to walk the tightrope, but made it a priority to keep southerners as happy as he could—his judicial appointments, for instance, were made to placate southern politicians far more than civil rights advocates.
While he did help Martin Luther King get out of jail before the 1960 election, he also was frustrated by the movement’s insistence on directly challenging the apartheid system in the south with direct action. King was not even invited to the inaugural or his initial meeting of Civil Rights leaders at the Whie House. The sit-ins and the freedom rides upset JFK because they called attention to American racial violence and forced his hand. He was especially alarmed by the violence surrounding the freedom rides and had to ultimately send in federal marshals because the imagery was so brutal, but was as frustrated with King and other Black activists as with the southerners attacking the riders. King himself implored the president to act “in the area of moral persuasion by occasionally speaking out against segregation.”
But he repeatedly asked King and others to “go slow” and “wait” and he and his brother even sanctioned the notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to conduct surveillance and wiretaps on King, and kept a dossier on his sex life (of which Berl L. Bernhard, staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights from 1958 to 1963, said the president was aware). And since Jimmy Dielikes to invoke historians whom he claims buttress his adoration of Kennedy, it’s worth nothing that biographer Robert Dallek, not really a critic of 1960s Liberals, concluded that “the president’s words did little to advance the cause of civil rights or ease the tensions that were erupting in sporadic violence.” Even on issues that were not being highlighted on the nightly news, JFK delayed and wavered. When activists pressed Kennedy to issue executive orders to end Federal mortgage loan discrimination, he stalled and finally put out a tepid order in November 1962 and let a proposed bill to address discrimination in public facilities expire.
The Civil Rights activists finally forced Kennedy’s hand by continuing their direct action, and it came to head in Birmingham in May 1963 when media all over the globe highlighted images of police attacking peaceful black protestors with clubs, dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses, which obviously anguished JFK and forced him to propose the Civil Rights Act. Kennedy then was caught in a dilemma as southern Democrats, the very people who helped put him in the White House, filibustered the act, leading King and others to organize the March on Washington in August. Every account of that event makes note of Kennedy’s anxiety over the march and points out that White House officials had instructed officials there to pull the plug on John Lewis if his speech became too incendiary. At the time of Kennedy’s death, the bill still languished and his successor, the Texas Lyndon Johnson, used far more political pressure and moral suasion to get it over the finish line.
Kennedy’s tentative and piecemeal approach had not succeeded. On November 22d, 1963, his words about civil rights remained unfulfilled. (There’s a significant literature on JFK’s lackluster record on Civil Rights, but most recently you can look at Nick Bryant’s The Bystander).
Vietnam: The Linchpin of Stone’s Fantastic History
DiEugenio then of course invoked Vietnam, and, as he always has, accused me of simply parroting Noam Chomsky’s Rethinking Camelot to prove that JFK was not a dove on Vietnam and had no intention of withdrawing without victory. I am, in his words, “Chomsky’s useful idiot.” See it here.
I obviously support Chomsky’s position on this issue and he has been an inspiration to countless scholars and I consider him a mentor and associate, but his book is definitely not the basis of my own views. As I said repeatedly during the debate (and you really should listen to it if you want the full flavor of DiEugenio’s lack of knowledge and dissembling) my views are based on my own work, which was based in extensive archival research. I have a long reputation as a scholar on Vietnam and in the course of writing my book Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era I visited every relevant presidential, military, and diplomatic archive on the topic, as well as published government sources. I mentioned the document collections put out by the always-indispensable National Security Archive. I’ve read virtually every page of The Pentagon Papers. My arguments do not rely on Chomsky, or Alex Cockburn, or anyone else. I’ve done the work myself. I am a scholar. Jimmy Die is a polemicist and an Oliver Stone fanboy. (You can see the article I wrote in response to Stone’s and DiEugenio’s conspiracy theories here).
Because JFK’s alleged intent to quit Vietnam is the linchpin of Stone’s conspiracy, I’ll just provide a précis of my argument here rather than again go into the detail you can find in my books or my article “John F. Kennedy Goes Hollywood: Oliver Stone’s Fantastic History.” I made five essential points to show that JFK was committed to fighting in Vietnam and, more importantly in light of Stone’s argument, winning in Vietnam.
First, Kennedy was a prototypical Cold Warrior who vastly expanded the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and poured “advisors,” military supplies, armor, helicopters, napalm, and other equipment into the RVN. And even before that he was instrumental in giving birth to the state that the Americans invented below the Seventeenth Parallel—Kennedy was a friend of Ngo Dinh Diem, whom the U.S put in charge in the south, and in 1956, the year elections to reunify the country were canceled by Diem, JFK said
Vietnam represents a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia. If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents. We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we have helped to shape its future. As French influence in the political, economic, and military spheres has declined in Vietnam, American influence has steadily grown. This is our offspring – we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence – Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest – then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible; and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.
It’s also worth noting here that part of DiEugenio’s “proof” of JFK’s awareness of the perils of a war in Vietnam included a meme with a 1951 quote from diplomat Edmund Gullion telling Kennedy that the days of western empire in Asia were numbered. Of course, within 5 years JFK played a pivotal role in putting Diem in power in the country the U.S. invented and making sure American aid continued to flow there. As for Gullion, who’s a dove in DiEugenio’s world…he became dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts where students firebombed his office in 1971 due to his support of the war and the school’s involvement with government programs in Vietnam. Indeed, Jimmy Die likes to talk about Gullion . . . a lot, giving him an importance far beyond what other, credible, scholars on Vietnam do and what he deserves (see here). This is a great example of the way the Stoneiacs operate, taking a minor figure, or incident, and giving it outsized importance.
Second, Kennedy grew disaffected with the Diem regime and the U.S. approved of and helped organize a coup against him and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in November 1963, a critical point not mentioned by the Stone Campists. The coup occurred at the very same time that DiEugenio and other assassinologists argue that JFK had made a decision to withdraw 1000 troops in 1963 and to pull out wholly by 1965. Of course, the coup presents a powerful rebuttal to that. Kennedy had already sent hundreds of millions of dollars, tolerated the southern regime’s vast human rights abuses, and made Vietnam the cornerstone of American policy in Asia, so eliminating the regime would inevitably set off chaos (as it did, as the South had about a dozen governments in the next 16 months) and make withdrawal harder than ever.
In fact, Kennedy’s sanction of the coup also undermines DiEugenio’s argument that the president wanted a neutralization settlement in Vietnam. As George McT. Kahin showed in Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam, Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu had been making backchannel overtures to Hanoi to end the war with some sort of neutral government put in place. Of course, everyone knew that any settlement of that sort would inevitably lead to the Communists and NLF taking over fairly quickly, so JFK needed Diem gone. While publicly the U.S. soured on Diem because of his repression of the Buddhists, it’s just as important to note that JFK was wary of peace—a coalition government that would signal American defeat—breaking out as much as, if not more than, Diem attacking Buddhists.
DiEugenio and Stone here also like to stress NSAM 263 as their Smoking Gun to prove JFK was going to withdrawal. That document emerged from Maxwell Taylor’s report on a trip to Vietnam in September 1963, and it did envision the withdrawal of troops in 1963 as the initial step in “a long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort” (my emphasis).
As the Americans considered this plan of action, the memorandum made it clear that “the situation must be closely watched to see what steps Diem is taking to reduce repressive practices and to improve the effectiveness of the military effort. We should set no fixed criteria, but recognize that we would have to decide in 2-4 months whether to move to more drastic action or try to carry on with Diem even if he had not taken significant steps.” And then it included a long list of actions to use as leverage against Diem and a listing of coup possibilities. DiEugenio also stressed that JFK was against sending combat troops into Vietnam. But no one ever said he would . . . no American planning at that time ever envisioned the deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. Again, these actions were not an indication of Kennedy preparing to withdrawal, but a statement of intent to make sure the U.S. did not “lose” Vietnam to the Communists.
Third, in September 1963, before the Diem coup and his own assassination Kennedy held interviews with Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley where he said he 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 emphasized that point once more, acknowledging that Americans would get anxious or impatient about Vietnam, but “withdrawal only makes it easy for the Communist. I think we should stay.” When Stone included these interviews in JFK, he chopped them to exclude those remarks.
Then, in his final speech, at Fort Worth on 11/22/63, Kennedy admitted that “without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” And 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.
Fourth, neither Stone nor DiEugenio or any of the other conspiracy theorists even mention the U.S. military’s reservations and pessimism about war in Vietnam. If the military-industrial complex wanted JFK dead, which is the key element in their theory, then the fact that military officials were opposed to a war there clearly refutes their argument. My book Masters of War provides a detailed account of the military’s own views on Vietnam so I’ll not detail them here. Suffice it to say that military officials had no desire for war in Indochina and even Maxwell Taylor in September 1963 said he “would not be associated with any program which included [a] commitment of U.S. Armed Forces.”
Fifth, there was great continuity between both personnel and policy before and after November 1963. LBJ did not change course because he was opposed to an alleged withdrawal by Kennedy. There was no shift in Vietnam policy. In fact, William Westmoreland, one of the architects of the war and the most hawkish military official in the Vietnam era, said in 1964 that he “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.”
Kennedy’s Aggression in Cuba, Latin America, and the Rest of the World
He also tried to rebut my claims about JFK’s continued commitment to oust Castro in Cuba and the American role in coups d’etat against João Goulart in Brazil and against Karim Qasim in Iraq. He doesn’t address the evidence, again, and I’d simply suggest anyone interested read my article on JFK’s aggressive militarism and intervention about those two episodes as well as many others.
I would, however, briefly like to comment on JFK’s position on Cuba, since one of the other main arguments that the Stone clique makes is that the Cuban Missile Crisis shook Kennedy so much that he was on the path to normalizing relations with Cuba. Once again, the record, the archives, the documents tell a very different story. In December 1962, post-missile crisis, JFK ended the year in Miami paying public tribute to the Cuban Invasion Brigade and pledging that Cuba would be made “free” with Alliance for Progress and American help. In an April 1963 meeting, JFK made clear he had not given up on removing Castro but insisted it had to be a Miami-Cuban effort and wondered “whether active sabotage was good unless it was of a type that could only come from within Cuba.”
At the same time Bromley Smith, the executive secretary of the NSC, presented an analysis that made it clear that Kennedy had decided to end the “restraint” he had shown on Cuba and was recommitting American assets to the campaign against Castro with harassment, sabotage, and economic damage—and as we know, assassination attempts against Fidel continued.
And on Castro’s end, despite claims by Stone and others, like journalist Peter Kornbluh, that the Cuban leader was warming up to JFK, he continued to be as wary as possible about the U.S. president. At a reception at the Brazilian embassy in Havana on September 7th, Castro held a spontaneous interview with an AP reporter where he called JFK a “cretin” . . . the Batista of his times . . . [and] the most opportunistic president of all time.” He also denounced the continuing American-sponsored raids on Cuban territory and said “we are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. U.S. leaders should think if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.”
In fact, in Kennedy’s last public words about Latin America, in Miami on November 18th Kennedy emphasized the need to aid the region against Castro and said that “my own country is prepared to do this.” He urged states throughout the hemisphere to “use every resource at our command to prevent the establishment of another Cuba in this hemisphere. . . .”
Once again, the documents offer a markedly different version than Stone’s and DiEugenio’s anecdotes do. The U.S. attempt to oust Castro did not end after the missiles of October 1962, and both the U.S. and Cuba were aware that the acrimony, interference, and subversion was continuing. Indeed, on the day Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a Cuban asset close to Castro, code-named AM/LASH, was in Paris receiving a poison pen from a CIA officer in a ham-handed effort to have Castro killed.
I would also like to respond to DiEugenio’s charge that I was unaware of the date the Cuban embargo was put in place. Since the Stone thesis gives significant agency to Allen Dulles and the CIA, I pointed out that JFK had replaced Dulles in late 1961 and then put the Cuban embargo in place in February. DiEugenio pointed out that I didn’t even know that there had been an embargo in place prior to that point. But in the debate I said that and pointed out that Kennedy escalated tensions and tightened the embargo in February 1962, after, importantly, he had removed Dulles—my point being that Dulles was not driving Kennedy’s hardline against Cuba. For DiEugenio to disingenuously make such allegations surely says a great deal about his knowledge and character. (The February embargo notice is here).
His apologetics for Kennedy regarding Brazil and Iraq are simply not worth any response. Again, I’d urge anyone interested to look at my longer piece on this here .
As for Khrushchev and the Soviet Union, everyone who’s studied the Cold War in any detail, and who has done research using documents and archival collections, is aware that the Soviet leader understood that his country was far, far behind the U.S. in terms of military power and weapons (the U.S. had almost 20,000 nuclear weapons and the USSR had about 1600) and made overtures to thaw the cold war from the earliest part of the Kennedy presidency. In response, JFK built up military budgets and weapons systems, and increased military aid to “friendly”—i.e. anti-Communist—regimes globally. His signal achievement, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, was a long-standing and popular goal that had wide the p bi-partisan, and military, support, and in no way at all indicated that Kennedy was trying to end the Cold War.
Liberal Imperialism . . . is Still Imperialism
Rather than repeat the points I made in my writing or in the debate, I’d like to here explain to DiEugenio and the rest of the Stone fan-club that Kennedy’s rhetoric about democracy and modernization, and his grief at Lumumba’s assassination (a point Jimmy Die brought up to “prove” he was a man of peace), are not symptoms in a change in ideology or doctrine. In Stone-World power is wielded through force, and if Kennedy did not use force, he must have been beating swords into plowshares (having said that, they also embarrassingly downplay the myriad instances of Kennedy’s use of force—39 times in less than 3 years). But power and imperialism can be wielded many ways, and the most interventionist of 20th Century presidents were Liberals—Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK and, later, LBJ, Carter, and Clinton. Liberals were not doves. Liberals believed in the expansion of American hegemony to the utmost degree. Simply look at the work of Gabriel Kolko, William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Marilyn Young, Lloyd Gardner, Arno Mayer, and Bruce Cumings, to name just a few, to understand the inherent need for strength and power in Liberal global policies.
JFK understood that too. He entered the White House in the aftermath of Bandung, as Mao Zedong was becoming a beacon to Third World nationalists and revolutionaries, as Khrushchev promised to support wars of national liberation, as a global decolonization movement was on the offensive. To be sure, most notably in Vietnam and Cuba and throughout Latin America, JFK used American military strength to try to quash those movements. But he also understood, as in the Congo crisis, the need to meet the global Left on other terms—to try to offer a better world with economic development and modern institutions to the less-developed nations. So the Alliance for Progress, as I show in my longer article, was intended to “modernize” Latin America but in reality it “militarized” the region even more, and as such it followed the model created by Wilson and FDR, especially in the Good Neighbor Policy.
Understanding that your rivals were making a more effective pitch to the 3d World doesn’t make one a peacemaker. It means you find new strategies for hegemony, and that’s what JFK was doing, while subverting other states, spending more money on weapons, and posturing against the Communists.
JFK was following in the footsteps of American presidents who, since the later 1800s, had understood that financiers and manufacturers and other capitalists could use investment money and products to gain a foothold and power in areas where they could establish markets for consumer goods, gain access to raw materials, get strategic outposts for military bases, and find cheap labor. It was, in the old equation, the idea of “replacing bullets with dollars.” Doing that doesn’t make one less of an imperialist or less hegemonic. It’s a difference in strategy, not intent. And to be clear, Kennedy did not, and never meant to, engage with Vietnam, Cuba, Brazil, Iraq, Indonesia, or any of those other countries DiEugenio likes to invoke, as an equal or a country worthy of respect. JFK always took account of the world within the context of U.S. power—how could he benefit from American involvement in those regions and what means would he have to use to assert U.S. strength!
Anecdotes Aren’t Documents, and Not All Documents are Equal
While the Stone platoon relies heavily on recently-released documents from the ARRB, I do find it more than ironic that a group of people who’ve dedicated their lives to rejecting the government’s claims on JFK’s assassination are now leaning so heavily into documents released by…..that very same government. I’ve spent more time than I ever wanted to looking into the ARRB documents, and they come from the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies. Why would you suddenly have faith in government record-keeping? If they’ve lied to you since Nov 22 1963, why would you think they’re telling you the truth now?
Ultimately, their conspiracy thesis really relies on stories, connections they’ve created out of thin air, untenable connections like DiEugenio’s use of Gullion noted above, interviews conducted years after the fact, and anecdotes. If you enter a research project with your conclusion made, it’s not hard to find “evidence” to support it. Prior to my dissertation research, which became Masters of War, most scholars wrote that the military was supportive or hawkish on Vietnam, so I began with that idea in my head. But as I read more and more documents, another powerful theme emerged. Military officials were constantly expressing their wariness, pessimism, and even outright opposition to any kind of military involvement there. As I visited more archives and read more documents, that military reluctance and opposition became an expanding theme, to the point where I had no choice but to emphasize and write about it. Had I simply been looking for examples of military hawkishness, I could have found those. But that’s not what the full record told me ultimately.
Documents are tools, not sacred texts. I’ve collected many tens of thousands of pages of documents on Vietnam. Many are useful but the vast majority aren’t worth much at all. Often they simply retell something that you could find in the daily papers at the time. Sometimes they give you a real insight into what’s going on, but you might find that in the official records of The Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Department of Defense for the National Security Council or the White House as well. Sometimes the documents themselves provide what I called a non-sequitur approach to policy—the military knew what JFK and LBJ wanted to hear and wouldn’t come right out and dismiss them, but wrote frank appraisals of what it was seeing in Vietnam along with telling the presidents what they wanted to hear. None of this was happening in smoke-filled rooms.
The government’s classification system is also Byzantine and often impossible to understand. I’ve done a huge number of mandatory records reviews and more often than not when I get the papers I requested my first thought is that the particular document never should have been classified in the first place, there’s nothing in it of any real value or nothing that needed to be kept secret. And sometimes I get documents back that are totally redacted. And sometimes I’ll get a document 10-15 years after I requested it and it’s the same document that was in a published collection years ago, and sometimes it’s a blank page. One could cherry-pick those documents to find evidence of a conspiracy, but it wouldn’t pass muster against the backdrop of the entire archival collection.
It’s also worth noting, that in the entire archive system at least as of 10 years ago when I was still looking for documents in government collections on Vietnam, the JFK library was the worst, keeping documents classified and not responding to review requests for long periods of time, unless you were Doris Kearns Goodwin or Michael Beschloss or someone like that. But there’s a reason the large majority of scholars, including the most critical Left scholars, of Vietnam don’t agree with Stone’s conspiracy; they’ve done exhaustive work in the records, and they’ve found no evidence of it. There’s just no evidence that JFK was about to reverse the centuries-long record of American intervention and war and usher in a new era of global comity.
DiEugenio also likes to cite books written on the topic by the likes of David Kaiser, Howard Jones, Robert Rakove and others, and charges that I’m not familiar with them. Of course I am. I’ve been studying U.S. foreign policy, especially Vietnam, for decades and I’m well aware of the literature. I just don’t think those books have anything valuable to add and they make weak arguments about JFK’s alleged peaceful intentions. For DiEugenio, a book that agrees with his view is valuable, and those that don’t, aren’t. It’s a terribly immature way to look at history, but DiEugenio isn’t a scholar so it’s not surprising.
Pop Culture, Conspiracies, Heroes, and Reality: Why Stone Harms the Left
This will be my last response to DiEugenio. I entered this fray because not to convince him and the rest of the Stone’s Conspiracy Cohort that they were wrong—that’s impossible as they have a evangelical fervor on this issue that’s immune to evidence or reality—but to urge the Left principally not to fall into the trap of looking for mythical heroes and conspiracies in lieu of analysis, organizing, activism, and action–it’s shameful that Jacobin, Counterpunch, Majority Report, The Empire Files and other lefty celebrity media have fallen into this conspiracy abyss. Stone and DiEugenio and the other assassinologists make all kinds of twists and turns to try to make their argument make sense—Kennedy wasn’t aware of the plots against Castro, Mexican peasants cried when he was killed, Nasser and Sukarno were sad on 11/22/63, and so on. It’s the detritus of people desperate to believe in the myth of a glamorous young warrior for peace cut down in his prime. And it’s not relevant or convincing.
While the issue of JFK’s actions on the global stage deserve further consideration—and I’m working on a manuscript on the topic right now—I think the larger issue concerning Stone’s popular theories is that they do a disservice to the study of history and to our understanding of how the ruling class operates and what needs to be done to challenge that oligarchy. Hollywood treatments of historical events can be great entertainment, and can even be educational (I’ve used clips from Grapes of Wrath, Paths of Glory, Norman Rae, and Matewan in my classes, to name a few), but they don’t take the place of documents, archives, government records, and, well, facts…..
In this regard, the Kennedy assassination is a great example of the misuse of popular culture to teach history.
Some people look for heroes and villains, instead of doing a systematic analysis of historical episodes.
Some people find conspiracies because the reality is too uncomfortable or contrary to the answers they find. Affluent Liberals benefit from conspiracy theory because it dissuades a structural analysis of class and power, of a system from which they often benefit.
Some people see dark forces and the deep state and don’t consider doctrine, material conditions, hubris, caprice or just plain incompetence to explain historical episodes.
There’s a reason some people make movies and some people write history books. The standards are very different. They can both tell a story, but one doesn’t allow you to create a reality that doesn’t exist in the record. And Stone’s film and documentary are, at the core, about reality vs. wishes and fantasies
Stone has created a great story that creates a hero who was cut down in his prime by dark forces before he could create a new society. Who doesn’t want to have that?
But it’s not so, no matter how many contortions he and Jimmy Die make. No matter how many old interviews they pore over. No matter how many anecdotes they piece together like a rag doll and present as a fine Saville Row suit. No matter how many new documents get released. It’s been almost 60 years and it’s the same old song.
The Kennedy-Assassination-Conspiracy Industry would suggest that the deep state feared that Kennedy had discovered a Cold War, a permanent wartime economy, subversion abroad, and a society saturated in war…..and had him killed before he could change all that.
But there’s a huge and unforgiving hole in that theory…..Kennedy was one of them. He was in and of that ruling class. He was a Kennedy!
He wasn’t an apostate, but a full member. And on top of that, there’s no evidence. You’d have to find evidence of the military and other government officials breaking with him. Not fictions of the mind. Real evidence.
JFK was one of them. Where is the proof that these people wanted him dead? JFK was going to end permanent wartime economy? Ridiculous. You’re trying to prove the most amazing conspiracy, the biggest conspiracy, of all time. I’m held to a different standard. I’m a historian not a movie maker.
Stone has created “Schrodinger’s Kennedy”—Trying to get out of Vietnam and end the Cold War while simultaneously ramping up the American intervention in Southeast Asia, trying to overthrow Castro, increasing the military budget, and taking a hard line toward Khrushchev
Open the box what do you see? They see conspiracy while the rest of us see Kennedy for who he was. And that’s what a real examination of Kennedy’s actions as president shows, someone who acted consistently within the Cold War/Interventionist framework of his time, someone who sought to overturn revolutions in Vietnam and Cuba, and elsewhere, someone who believed in big military budgets, big weapons, and big showdowns. No swords were beaten into plowshares, no new worlds were built. As the great historian Tom Paterson, who edited a great collection about JFK’s foreign policy said, he had his chance and he failed.
On Conspiracies . . . Last Thoughts
There is a growing, and disturbing, obsession with conspiracy theory to explain history—from Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy Assassination to more recently the Wuhan Lab Theory or Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election. Conspiracies energize people, sometimes to violence, and make it harder if not impossible to speak in realistic and evidence-based ways about what happened.
In this case it’s worth noting that a conspiracy to kill a president of the U.S. would have to be immense—including various departments and government officials. Yet, JFK had personal relations with the key actors. Probably his closest military adviser was Maxwell Taylor, whom he named Chair of the JCS in 1962, and on Vietnam, the reality is that Taylor was far from gung-ho and always was wary of a war there. The Army Chief of Staff was George Decker, who was very reluctant to escalate in Vietnam (as was his successor, Earle Wheeler), as was Marine Commandant David Shoup (and Commandant Wallace Greene too)—both appointed by JFK and wary of seeing their services fight a land war in Asia. The Air Force Chief of Staff was Curtis LeMay, famous for wanting to bomb Vietnam to the stone age but in reality urging airpower to avoid a long and costly war there, and another Kennedy appointee. And CIA Director John McCone was appointed by JFK in December 1961
What would their motive be? There’s no evidence of any. A Texas D.A. might indict a ham sandwich, but he would certainly no-bill Stone’s case for this immense conspiracy.
Speaking of conspiracies, there are a couple people I’d like to invoke here—Israel Feinstein Stone and Stephan Jay Gould. Stone was highly respected with good sources inside government, and he read the voluminous Congressional Record cover to cover, finding news stories in the public domain. “All my adult life as a newspaperman,” he observed, “I have been fighting, in defense of the Left and of a sane politics, against conspiracy theories of history, character assassination, guilt by association and demonology.”
Gould, in a takedown of the Piltdown Conspiracy, explained that “coincidences recede into improbability as more and more independent items coagulate to form a pattern. The mark of any good theory is that it makes coordinated sense of a string of observations otherwise independent and inexplicable.” He’s a scientist, but good research is universal. It doesn’t rely on interviews done years after the fact, 3d person stories, books written by people in the same circle, people coming out of the woodwork, long social media arguments over the detritus of a murder in Dallas. It’s based on what actually happened, not on alchemy.
James DiEugenio refers to himself as a scholar and an activist. He is neither.
Finally, I’d like to just refer to one of his many insults directed at Chomsky, who obviously has defended himself against Stone-type slanders for decades. Jimmy Die said, “I would like to append one last point about how leftist ideology clouds the picture of who Kennedy was. Peter Scott wrote an essay for the Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971. That essay was one of the earliest efforts to detect that Kennedy was withdrawing from Vietnam at the time of his death. The editors of that series were Chomsky and Howard Zinn. They did not want to print that essay, because to them it would indicate that whoever is president makes a difference. I do not know any clearer way of showing that Chomsky’s concept amounts to writing history according to ideology. And to me, that is not writing history. Its [sic] polemics.”
So I sent this paragraph to Noam Chomsky, and he responded in an email
The claim is of course based on zero evidence, and happens to be pure nonsense, as is perfectly obvious. On his idiotic grounds, why did we publish the essay? Did someone force us to? Maybe the “deep state”?
I was personally responsible for the essays. Howard was involved, but doing other things. At the time I was writing extensively about the PP, which I had (from Dan, and Tony) before they were released. For Reasons of State, was mostly about the PP, both the Gravel and government editions.
I solicited the essays, including Scott’s. He was a personal friend. I had just spent a semester at Berkeley, where there was then an active antiwar faculty group, and we worked together in it. I also greatly admired his work. Neither Howard nor I found his (rather tortured) essay impressive, but decided to include it anyway, as an interesting point of view. What he says here is totally “unhinged.”
Conspiracies, and looking for heroes, amounts to wasting your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from the streets. I’d like to quote someone here, who (correctly) dismissed the idea that Castro was involved in the JFK assassination and said in 2017 “if you can’t make your case in 54 years, I think you don’t have one.” Those are DiEugenio’s words.
It’s been almost 60 years now for the JFK Conspiracy-Assassination Industry, and they haven’t made their case . . . . And we’re still waiting…..