My film and recommendations for 2010: Virtual JFK

I strongly recommend seeing the movie Virtual JFK.  The book is even better. They are not just about history, they are about our present.  And our future.

Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived
Available at Amazon.

 

Among the wealth of insights this provides, I draw your attention to two points.

  • The press conferences.  By comparison with Kennedy and the journalists, today’s conference looking like kindergarten children playing at being adults.
  • The mind-bending aggressiveness of the generals, whose advice history shows to have been largely wrong.

Synopsis of the movie

Virtual JFK investigates one of the most debated “what if” scenarios in the history of US foreign policy” What would President John F. Kennedy have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated in 1964?

The resulting firm employs what Harvard historian Niall Ferguson calls “virtual history”, assessing the plausibility of counterfactuals – “what ifs” — and the outcomes they might have produced. The firm makes use of an array of resources including recently declassified and never-before-seen archival footage, documents, and audio tapes, and testimony from a critical oral history conference including Kennedy and Johnson administration officials. The heart of the film deals with the question” Does it matter who is president on issues of war and peace?

Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived : Virtual JFK
Available at Amazon.

The book is even better

The movie is the hors d’oeuvre, the book is the entrée: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived : Virtual JFK by James Blight , Janet M. Lang , David A. Welch (published March 2009).

Excerpt from the Prologue.

The American war in Vietnam was among the bloodiest conflicts of the last half of the twentieth century. Over 2,000,000 Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans were killed, and many times these numbers were wounded, displaced, and imprisoned. In the course of the war, North and South Vietnam were nearly destroyed as functioning societies, while American society was torn apart over issues related to the war.

It is ironic that both the U.S. and Vietnam achieved their principal goals: communism did not spread in Southeast Asia, and the Vietnamese unified their country under the leadership of the communist government in Hanoi. In light of this outcome, the question inevitably arises: Was this catastrophic war necessary? Was so much death and destruction required between two countries that have subsequently established full normal political relations (in July 1995) and trade relations (in July 2000), even though both adversaries retain their individual systems of governance that seemed so important and antithetical during the war? The U.S. two-party system of democracy, with its capitalist underpinning, still contrasts starkly with the stronghold the Communist Party retains throughout Vietnam, yet relations between the two countries are “normal.”

Might the U.S. and Vietnam have achieved their goals at far less cost in blood and treasure? If so, how? Which aspects of this tragic history would have to have been different for the war to have been avoided?’ In this book, we examine the most famous variant of this question-a variant with obvious and powerful resonance to the situation in which the U.S. finds itself now in Iraq. The question is this: if John F. Kennedy had lived and been reelected in November 1964, would he and his administration have initiated, escalated, and prosecuted the war in Vietnam more or less as did his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, or would JFK have withdrawn U.S. forces from Vietnam, effectively ending direct U.S. involvement there and thus avoiding the Vietnam War?

This is the most debated and controversial what if in the history of American foreign policy. We tackle the question in a way that maximizes the dependence of our answer on empirical evidence-on declassified documents, oral testimony of former officials, and the analysis of top scholars of the war in Vietnam. Our research is based on a new approach to historical what if questions called virtual history, an approach that avoids the fictional excesses of so-called counterfactual history-fantasies about the “history” of what did not happen.

An excerpt giving the core of their argument

Their sophisticated 400+ page analysis cannot put in a nutshell, but the following shows the skeleton of their thesis.

Here, in outline, are some of the principal lessons  we now believe “actual JFK” learned from Cold War crises we investigated   before deciding to tackle the issue addressed in this book.

April 1961, the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Just before taking office, JFK is told that he has inherited from Eisenhower, his predecessor, a CIA scheme for regime change in Cuba, using 1,200 Cuban exiles as an invasion force that, according to the CIA, will incite a popular uprising against the Castro government. JFK is told before the invasion that the operation will almost certainly succeed. Then, as it is failing miserably, he is told that it can still succeed if he agrees to use U.S. air power and to send in U.S. Marines, who are positioned on U.S. ships almost within site of the Bay of Pigs. His advisers at the CIA and at the joint Chiefs of Staff are almost apoplectic with disbelief when he refuses their request to bomb Cuba and invade the island. …

Winter/Spring 1961, the Laos crisis.

JFK is told that the Soviet resupply of communist insurgents in Laos must forcibly be stopped using U.S. regular forces, but possibly also by using tactical nuclear weapons. He is told that if he fails to Americanize the conflict, the communists will overrun Laos and threaten all of Southeast Asia. Kennedy neither orders U.S. troops into Laos nor does he authorize the use of U.S. air power against Soviet assets in Laos. He is appalled at the thought of using nuclear weapons in Laos or anywhere. Instead, he works with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to resolve the crisis via a political compromise: a neutralist government for Laos. …

August-October 1961, the Berlin Wall crisis.

JFK is told, as the Wall goes up in Berlin, that he must threaten the Soviets with both conventional and nuclear weapons until they capitulate, tear down the Wall, and refrain from harassing U.S. personnel in East Germany en route to and from Berlin. Kennedy refuses to intervene or risk a military engagement between U.S. and Soviet forces in Berlin. As a result, he encounters stiff public criticism and bitter internal dissension from his hawkish advisers. Nevertheless, Kennedy tells his representative in Berlin, former General Lucius Clay, to back off, and Khrushchev reciprocates. The Wall goes up and stays up, tragically closing off the principal route for East Germans to escape to the West, but a war in the heart of Europe is avoided. …

October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis.

JFK is told point-blank by most of his civilian and military advisers that the U.S. must bomb Soviet missile sites in Cuba and invade the island as soon as possible in order to ensure that Soviet military capability on the island is destroyed and the Castro government removed. Kennedy personally restrains his U.S. military advisers, who are aghast at what they take to be his timidity and cowardly reluctance to use the deployment of Soviet missiles as a pretext to destroy the Cuban Revolution. But JFK works out a compromise with Khrushchev and, we now know, is ready to absorb enormous political heat rather than risk war with the Soviet Union. …

… If we had to choose a single word to characterize the actual JFK who has emerged over the twenty years during which we have become retrospectively acquainted with him, it would be skeptical. JFK arrived at the White House mistrusting slogans and easy answers as well as servile and self-serving advisers. He was bored and irritated by yes-men. He seems to have been almost instinctually skeptical of immediate, emotional responses to crisis situations. But after the humiliation he brought on himself and his administration by allowing the Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward, he seems to have become an even more skeptical exemplar of a principle of leadership attributed to one of his historical heroes, the French diplomat Maurice Talleyrand: “Above all,” Talleyrand proclaimed, “no zeal.”

Over the past 20 years, as we have listened to the Kennedy tapes, read the written record of decision making during the Kennedy administration, and cross-examined those who served in it, we have become struck by how clearly Kennedy the skeptic appears over and over again. He is a president who often asks the toughest questions and whose skeptical proclivities often stand out in sharp relief from the Cold War boilerplate often served up to him by his advisers.

In claiming that JFK was a war-averse decision maker, a skeptic on the overt use of military force, we are not endeavoring to recruit Kennedy retrospectively into the ranks of pacifism. That would be silly. He had been a patrol boat commander fighting the Japanese in World War II. Kennedy was no pacifist, but he was a serious student of history, especially diplomatic history.

 

11 thoughts on “My film and recommendations for 2010: Virtual JFK

  1. Fabius, the film and book look excellent… thank you for the recommendation.

    Another aspect of the Vietnam War which had terrific import lay in the lessons it taught the foes and would-be foes of America, namely that our forces could be defeated using what we now know as 4th generation tactics. John Boyd, as detailed in Robert Coram’s fine book “Boyd,” undertook his pathbreaking studies of conflict only after observing that the US armed forces, which possessed every visible advantage, were in fact being defeated in that conflict. How the NVA and VC fought the war has served as a template for irregular forces since then.

    Admittedly, there were and are many other lessons available to irregular warriors, i.e., the Algerian insurgency to name one, but Vietnam cannot help but have had an enormous effect on 4GW since then.

  2. Does it matter who is President on issues of war and peace? I think so. I don’t claim to know what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam had he lived. Questions like that ultimately have no answer, although it can interesting and fun to speculate. At the very least, I suspect that Kennedy, had he decided to fight in Vietnam would have adopted a different strategy than LBJ. What it would have been, and what difference it would have made I do not know.

    Regarding Kennedy’s skepticism, I think he was at times not skeptical enough. He had more faith in covert action than was warranted. I am not referring so much to the Bay of Pigs, which he inherited, and which would have been hard to cancel (Disarming the Cuban brigade would have been trickey, but the later operations against Cuba made little sense. The overthrow of Diem was a mistake as well. That is not a judgement on Diem, but rather a judgement on the wisdom of involving America in Vietnamese politics.

    The movie looks interesting. I want to see it.

  3. Let me add one thing. Whether we simply gave our approval to the overthrow of Diem or were more actively involved, it still shows a lack of appropriate skepticism.
    .
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    FM reply: I have no idea what that means. The record is clear that we gave tacit approval to the coup d’etat.

  4. Fast forward to the present day. How much of a skeptic is O? Or W? Or Silly Billy? I can’t remember any pres. since Nixon showing any skepticism. I once heard a tape of a telcon on CBC of LBJ talking to a boll weevil senator. LBJ kept saying over and over: “I don’t know about this VietNam, I just don’t know”. LBJ was skeptical and was fishing for a commitment to either jump in or stay out. LBJ got neither and followed his advisers. The rest is history. One thing I noted about W and Silly Billy is the way the DC establishment chewed them up and spit them out. Perhaps the great lesson of the JFK killing is that, as pres., you better play along or expect a bullet in your head. Skepticism is not allowed.

  5. FM: “I have no idea what that means. The record is clear that we gave tacit approval to the coup d’etat.

    I phrased my first comment badly, and thought it could have been taken to mean that Kennedy was more involved in Diem’s overthrow than simply having given approval of it. Then again, perhaps the first comment was clear enough. For reasons I won’t bore you with, I got about an hour’s sleep out of twenty-four.

  6. “Does it matter who is president on issues of war and peace?”

    Yes but not very much (witness the O=W foreign policy). Kennedy may have resisted the more aggressive counsels of his generals (which sound positively insane from this remove, as does much of that Strangelovian era), but his Vietnam policy was in essential continuity with LBJ’s. If he had lived he might have managed the details of the unfolding disaster better, but the strategy was ultimately the same: escalate the war in South Vietnam to win quickly before domestic popular opposition grows too large, escalate pressure on North Vietnam limited by what the political climate will allow, and shore up domestic support by rhetorical invocation of the cosmic stakes involved.

    In “Vain Hopes, False Dreams” (1992) Noam Chomsky uses the historical record to pretty well debunk the popular leftist thesis that Kennedy planned to withdraw from Vietnam (this was published during the height of Camelot Fever and the release of Oliver Stone’s movie). He shows that Kennedy planned to withdraw, yes, but only after victory was assured by escalation. Hardly a radical stance. Diem was removed because he appeared to be wavering and ready to negotiate.

    I would like to see the press conferences, though. Affairs of state in those days at least had the aura that there were adults present . . .

  7. Timing matters. JFK would have had an uphill struggle against legions of bipartisan Cold War Hawks were he to overtly call it quits in Vietnam. Nixon found a better solution — “Vietnamization” and the substitution of massive US airpower for ground forces. After he pulled the troops out in 1972 North Vietnam made its obligatory push and failed, with heavy losses and much infrastructure damage in the North. Hanoi concluded that they could not prevail in the South with the US in the war, so they made peace and waited upon events. Who knows how long they might have had to wait had not Nixon self-destructed over Watergate?

    It’s also worth tossing out Harry Summers’ theory that we should have radically changed our strategy through a massive deployment of US troops across Laos, extending a fortified DMZ all the way to the Mekong, thereby isolating the South and forcing Hanoi to fight a war more or less on our terms. Sort of like recreating Korea, where after a long interval a strong, popular regime emerged in the South with respectable military capabilities of its own. (Our military presence there is really more symbolic than real, in my opinion.) Would such a solution have had any traction in the mid-60s? It’s worth debating.

  8. Ralph Hitchens wrote: “Nixon found a better solution — “Vietnamization” and the substitution of massive US airpower for ground forces. After he pulled the troops out in 1972 North Vietnam made its obligatory push and failed, with heavy losses and much infrastructure damage in the North.”

    It’s not really all that much better. I’ve just finished reading Powerful and Brutal Weapons by Stephen P Randolph. He argues that the Easter Offensive fell short of the Hanoi’s hopes, but met their minimum conditions. It ended in a ceasefire that got us out, and left the NVA in an advantageous position for the continuation war that followed. Vietnamization meant that we got to leave before the roof caved in. What else it accomplished I do not know.

    As for the Summers theory, I read his book and was underwhelmed. You can form a Maginot line across the Laotian panhandle, but however long you hold it you’re still going home eventually. After that, the NVA will still be there, and the South Vietnamese still won’t be able to hold.

  9. Comments by Hitchens and Shepherd :

    Laughable, sheer madness, speculation in the realm of fantasy and illusion and terribly indicative of the streak in America that just LOVES War and the violence that brings an overwhelming sense of envigoration to the mundane elements of the ordinary events of life. E.G.:
    “Who knows how long they might have had to wait had not Nixon self-destructed over Watergate?”
    “It’s also worth tossing out Harry Summers’ theory…”
    “….we should have radically changed our strategy through a massive deployment of US troops across Laos, …”
    “I’ve just finished reading Powerful and Brutal Weapons by Stephen P Randolph. He argues ….”
    “You can form a Maginot line across the Laotian panhandle, but however long you hold it you’re still going home eventually.”

    Ah the bloody beauty of it all….50,000 DEAD—500,000 WIA! Where were you two guys during TET?

  10. “Greg, I missed Tet but not the Easter Offensive. What were you doing back in the day?”

    Burke, my comments about the Easter Offensive were a weak echo of the historian Ronald Spector, who concluded (in his book, After Tet) that the failure of the Easter Offensive convinced Hanoi that they had to get the Americans out of the war at any cost. They didn’t want the cease-fire — they needed it. They didn’t want to freeze the status-quo with the Saigon regime still in place, but I believe (like Spector) that they had no choice. In this context Watergate can be seen as a fortuitous reward for their policy of patiently waiting on events.

    Re. Summers, we built a Maginot Line in Korea and stayed there for many decades; nobody thinks it was a bad idea.
    .
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    FM reply: We built a “Maginot Line” — more of a lightly armed trip-wire — in Korea after the war. It was not built during the war, so the situations are not at all comparable.

    “and stayed there for many decades”

    Not in combat mode, but as troops in forward-deployed bases. No KIA, far less cost — big differences. Again, not at all comparable.

  11. “It is ironic that both the U.S. and Vietnam achieved their principal goals: communism did not spread in Southeast Asia, and the Vietnamese unified their country under the leadership of the communist government in Hanoi. In light of this outcome, the question inevitably arises: Was this catastrophic war necessary?”

    Nothing ironic about it! The United States wanted BOTH outcomes!

    What would have been the result, of an American “victory” in Vietnam? Big, honking, American military bases, right smack on the border of China! The Chinese would have gone ballistic, seeing this as the staging for the coming war with America. They would have beleived this to be an existential war, it would easily have gone nuclear, if not started so. Why spend ten years to contain Chinese Communism, just to see the effort vanish in a nuclear cloud?

    It was imperative, to lose the Vietnam war. It was the only option, after achieving the goal.

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