The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS series on the Vietnam War has set me to thinking about how history changes.
For human beings, it changes mainly because individual humans make decisions that bend the “arc.” We study the decisions of presidents, the discoveries of scientists, the work of artists and humanitarians, the leadership of Generals.
People of merit and substance.
But the American who was the most influential in changing our history in the last part of the Twentieth Century was not a person of merit or talent or even great skill.
A nobody, really.
It was Lee Harvey Oswald.
The only thing of note or importance Oswald ever did was purchase a mail order 6.5x52mm Carcano Model 91/38 infantry rifle and one day in Dallas kill John F. Kennedy. At Least John Wilkes Booth was a well known actor before he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, I believe that in killing John F Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald bent the “Arc” of History toward a darkness of spirit and confidence that cover us still like a shroud.
Had Kennedy lived there is no way to know for sure how things would now be different but we do know what happened after his death.
The war in Vietnam escalated to the greatest tragedy of our national lifetime since the Civil War. We revisit it nightly on PBS. We feel it daily in the political and societal mores of our nation. Our sense of who we are as a peoples and where we stand in the World is different.
Had Kennedy lived I believe that after he was re-elected in 1964 (which by the time of his death already appeared highly probable) he would have ended American military involvement in Vietnam instead of escalating it.
I believe we would have then been better off as a peoples, better off as a nation and respected leader in the World.
About Vietnam, Kennedy told Walter Cronkite in September 1963: “I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Viet-Nam, against the Communists.”
That he said in pubic. According to several people close to Kennedy, he told them privately that after he was re-elected and free from any political imperative he would absolutely withdraw. I talked to one of them.
Mike Mansfield, the Senate Democrat leader of the time, who after his Senate career served as the U S Ambassador to Japan, was by the 1990s fully retired. However, now in his own ‘90s, Mansfield was still coming down to his downtown Washington office.
I called him on the phone one day and he took the call.
“Senator,” I said, “I hear that you were one of the people President Kennedy told that after he was re-elected he intended to withdraw our military forces from South Vietnam. Is that true, did he tell you that?”
“Yep, that’s what he told me,” replied Mansfield.
“Can I come down to your office with cameras and interview you about that,” I asked?”
“Nope,” said Mansfield. Mike always was a man of few words.
But my feeling is not just based on what Mansfield or others said Kennedy told them. After all, Lyndon Johnson early on in his presidency confided in his friends he wasn’t keen on getting further involved in Vietnam.
In fact, when Johnson was running for election in 1964, he actually said in a public speech: “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Anyone’s mind can change, including Kennedy’s.
However, there is a difference about the two men that makes a big difference in evaluating their similar expressions about withdrawing from Vietnam.
John Kennedy had been taken in – I believe the expression is “rolled “ – by the CIA with the Bay of Pigs plan in 1961. And in the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, the Pentagon Military brass and most of his own staff and civilian “gray beard” advisors were all for bombing the Soviet missile sites in Cuba and against the last minute “deal” Kennedy made with Khrushchev which probably prevented World War III from erupting. The Brass was wrong and Kennedy saw that he was right.
By the fall of 1963, Kennedy, tested in difficult circumstances, felt sure of his own judgement and certainly was no longer intimidated by four stars on anyone’s shoulder. Finally, when re-elected, there would be (as he reportedly said) no more personal political consideration to take into account.
On the other hand, Johnson came to the presidency is some awe of the military (particularly the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor) and of the Kennedy administration civilian “hawks” whom he had inherited and kept on – McNamara, Bundy and Rusk.
They were for pushing ahead. And with the American pubic still wanting to “fight the dirty ‘commies’ wherever they were found” and looking ahead to another term with the election of 1968, Johnson found himself in a quagmire he didn’t fully understand and couldn’t handle.
That’s the difference. That’s why I believe Kennedy would have done what he told his friends he would do whereas Johnson didn’t do what he had told the public he would.
And all this because the nobody Lee Harvey Oswald made a decision and took rifle and History in hand.
But such “decisions” can cut both ways. Consider what happened in the case of a young man, about Oswald’s age, named Georg Elser.
Georg Elser saw that the leader of his Country was heading toward war and resolved to do something about it.
He successfully installed a bomb beside the podium where the leader was to speak. He set it to explode at 9:20 pm, midway through the time set for the speech. The bomb exploded right on schedule, raining down the roof on the speaker’s podium and killing eight people but not the man Elser was after.
At the last minute the Speaker, Adolf Hitler, moved his speech up by thirty minutes and when the bomb went off in November of 1939 Hitler had departed the podium eight minutes earlier.
Now, think how the World might have changed, how many millions of people might have been saved, if like Oswald, Elser had succeeded.
Just one nobody and eight minutes could have changed the “arc” of History for the better.
Something to think about.