The Providential Hero

WILLIAM PFAFF

January 13, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- Oliver Stone's new movie on the Kennedy assassination contends that had Kennedy lived he would have given us a decade of peace. The enemies of peace -- arms manufacturers, CIA, Pentagon, who knows else -- had him killed because they wanted war.

This is the conspiratorial interpretation of history at its most childish, but also expresses a belief in the providential man in politics -- the hero who could have changed everything had he only survived. It is a soft-left version of the right-wing Fuehrer-prinzip. All depends on the hero-leader, whose vision is beyond that of other mortals.

The argument that John F. Kennedy was a thwarted peace-maker must deal with the historical fact of Kennedy as war-maker. Kennedy told James Reston of the New York Times, after his encounter with Nikita Khrushchev's bullying at the Vienna summit in 1960, that he was going to make American power ''credible'' to the Soviets and that ''Vietnam is the place.''

He increased the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam to 800 ''advisers'' in 1961, rising to 16,000 by 1963, with American air units flying combat missions disguised as training for the South Vietnamese Air Force. Other U.S. forces took an active part in the war as early as the summer of 1962, when I myself spent time at a Special Forces encampment near Ban Me Thuot, in the highlands north of Saigon. They were working with a force of Montagnard aboriginals whom they had recruited for intelligence work and interdiction of the Viet Cong supply lines.

It is a tenable argument that had President Kennedy survived he would eventually have reversed the course he was on and withdrawn U.S. forces, allowing South Vietnam to fall to the communists, as almost certainly would have happened. He was an intelligent and courageous man and had no reason to feel the blustering doubts about America as ''pitiful, helpless giant'' that afflicted both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

There is, however, more reason to think that he would have followed the same course of escalation to which his successor, Lyndon Johnson, committed the U.S. The people who advised Kennedy -- and whom he had sought out and appointed: Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor -- all believed that the war in Vietnam was the crucial element in a much larger struggle with Communist China which would decide the course of 20th-century history.

There is little evidence that the president took a different view. After hearing a deeply pessimistic assessment of the war from Sen. Mike Mansfield in late 1962, he indicated to Kenneth O'Donnell, an assistant, that if he were re-elected in 1964 he might withdraw U.S. forces. To say that he would actually have done so is speculation.

Both Kennedy and Johnson acted on the beliefs about communism in Asia held by the majority, or at least the majority of the most influential, of American foreign-policy specialists at the time -- the foreign-policy ''establishment.''

To argue that the prosecution of the war after Kennedy's death in 1963 was the result of conspiracy among criminally disloyal officials and soldiers and politicians is an implicit attempt to re-establish the populist myth of American innocence -- of an America that goes wrong only because bad men deceive and manipulate a good people, killing the hero who might otherwise have saved them. It runs 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.

The presidential system in the United States tends to reinforce the heroic conception of history and politics, the belief that everything depends upon the qualities and decisions of a providential leader. It is a distinct national political weakness, responsible for a personalization of politics to the neglect of issues, and in recent years producing a massive trivialization of political debate.

It also undermines the conception of national responsibility. Mr. Stone's message is that we, the people, are not responsible for our history. We are innocent, the victims of conspirators. But only children are innocent; and America is supposed to be grown up now.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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