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If true, the thesis is important, lending weight to the belief that Kennedy was indeed a remarkable if not unique figure. If it is groundless, then it becomes reasonable to inquire into the roots of the picture of innocence lost, or prospects destroyed.
Versions of the thesis have reached a wide audience from the late 1960s in books by Kennedy associates and assassination theorists. It became a major national issue with the 1991 release of Oliver Stone's film JFK. According to Stone and his colleagues, their primary historical source on Vietnam is a "ten year study" by John Newman, published in 1992 by the conglomerate that produced the film. Presented as a major historical work, Newman's study is the most ambitious effort to defend the withdrawal-without-victory thesis, which he and others take to be established by his research. The film was released with a major publicity campaign, with PR specialist Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedy's former campaign manager, in charge of Washington press relations, and reached a huge audience.
Stone's film elicited a vigorous response, including harsh attacks and favorable reviews, and opinion pieces and letter exchanges across the spectrum, sometimes with considerable passion. Liberal critics tended to support Stone's thesis about JFK, while denouncing him for concocting assassination conspiracies and "[running] away from the serious question, which is why the American policy elite, and the American political class and press, all of them acting with good intentions, should have gone so wrong, and done so much evil" (William Pfaff). The film was granted a rare front-page story in the New York Times, reporting the awed response of viewers to "the only shining star that ever crossed the American political sky," and their amazement to learn "what [JFK] might have done, what they stopped" -- "they" having the intended ominous ring. Other viewers asked "Why has this been ignored?," suggesting a link to establishment efforts to disguise the truth about the assassination. That the Warren Commission Report is a fraud is assumed by a majority of the population, hardly a surprise, given the enormous publicity the charge has been accorded in the mass media. It is not even surprising to learn that when a faulty transmitter disrupted cable TV service in San Diego, delaying transmission of a film on "the JFK conspiracy," dozens of viewers called the station denouncing this CIA plot. Books condemning the Warren Commission Report dominated the best-seller lists in early 1992, while its critics protested establishment suppression of their skepticism.
Stone's film traced the Kennedy assassination to a high-level conspiracy: CIA, military-industrial complex, and others, perhaps even LBJ. The film, Stone informed the National Press Club, suggests that Kennedy was assassinated "because he was determined to withdraw from and never send combat troops to Vietnam" (that he was "withdrawing from Vietnam" and "had committed himself firmly...to oppose the entry of U.S. combat troops" has been "unequivocally" demonstrated, Stone added, citing Arthur Schlesinger and John Newman). At a Town Hall (New York) forum sponsored by the Nation, Norman Mailer told an enthusiastic audience that "If Kennedy was going to end the war in Vietnam, he had to be replaced. Lyndon Johnson was the man to do it." Stone's film presents the "overarching paradigm" for all further inquiry into the assassination, Mailer went on, though not the complete solution to the mysteries surrounding this "huge and hideous event, in which the gods warred and a god fell," a cosmic tragedy that casts its pall over all subsequent history. The judgment, shared by many others, was articulated by the lead actor, Kevin Costner, in his role as the film's hero, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison: "We have all become Hamlets in our country, children of a slain father-leader whose killers still possess the throne."38
Newman's book was favorably received, notably, in a prominent review in the New York Times by JFK's close associate and chronicler, Arthur Schlesinger, who lauded Newman's scholarship and endorsed his main conclusions, as he did elsewhere as well. Other reviewers also found Newman's argument convincing.39 These enthusiastic reactions, and Newman's own media interventions, contributed to the 1991-1992 fervor. In a spectrum ranging from the left to leading Kennedy liberals, Newman's book is taken as the basic source establishing the withdrawal-without-victory thesis, with all of its broad implications.
For many reasons, then, it is worthwhile to have a close look at the presidential transition and the issue of withdrawal-escalation. The question of what Kennedy might have done, or what was hidden in the secret recesses of his heart, we may leave to seers and mystics. We can, however, inspect what he did do and say, an inquiry facilitated by a rich documentary record.40
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38 Newman, JFK and Vietnam; Stone, Cineaste, no. 1, 1992. Zachary Sklar, co-author of the screenplay, also describes Newman's book as "largely what were lied on" (ibid.). Town Hall Forum, March 3, 1992; William Grimes, NYT, March 5, 1992. Michael Specter, "Explosive Imagery of `JFK' Igniting Debate in Audiences," NYT, Dec. 23, 1991. Pfaff, LA Times Syndicate, for release Jan. 11/12, 1992. San Diego TV, AP, April 16, 1992. Costner quoted in the Nation, Jan. 6, 1992, by Alexander Cockburn, whose criticisms of the film and alleged historical background aroused impassioned denunciation in the left press.
39 Schlesinger, NYT Book Review, March 29, 1992. Among others, see Guy Halverson, Christian Science Monitor, March 19, 1992.
40 See the introduction, n. 32