Mr. Michael R. Beschloss
c/o Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Dear Mr. Beschloss:
I've just finished reading Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 , your compelling and invaluable first volume of the LBJ tapes. I thought I should read it before commenting on a statement you made while being interviewed on National Public Radio by Terry Gross on October 8, 1997.
Shortly after playing Johnson's May 27, 1964 conversation with McGeorge Bundy, where Johnson is heard agonizing over the dilemma of Vietnam, you comment: "And [this private view of LBJ] is so different from. . .for instance, the Oliver Stone view of Johnson when you remember in JFK , Johnson comes to office, comes to power, is just desperate to get involved in Vietnam, to help the military/industrial complex. This is a very different portrait."
There is a widespread misconception that Oliver Stone went beyond the historical evidence when he portrayed President Johnson as immediately willing to get the United States deeply involved militarily in Vietnam. In JFK, Stone has Johnson say: "Gentleman, I want you to know I'm not going to let Vietnam go the way China did. I'm personally committed. I'm not going to take one soldier out of there ëtil they know we mean business in Asia. . .(he pauses) You just get me elected and I'll give you your damned war." (JFK, The Documented Screenplay, Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, Applause Books, 1992, pages 183-184).
Stone and Sklar cite Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History, Viking, 1983, as authority for their Johnson dialogue:
Johnson subscribed to the adage that "wars are too serious to be entrusted to generals." He knew, as he once put it, that armed forces "need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic," and that they would drag him into a military conflict if they could. But he also knew that Pentagon lobbyists, among the best in the business, could persuade conservatives in Congress to sabotage his social legislationunless he satisfied their demands. As he girded himself for the 1964 presidential campaign, he was especially sensitive to the jingoists who might brand him "soft on communism" were he to back away from the challenge in Vietnam. So, politician that he was, he assuaged the brass and braid with promises he may have never intended to keep. At a White House reception on Christmas Eve 1963, for example, he told the joint chiefs of staff: "Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war." (p. 326)
As John M. Newman points out, Karnow's book is loosely sourced. But Vietnam: A History, was, and still is, extraordinarily popular and widely read, and it was the basis for a multi-episode documentary on PBS. A revised and updated edition was published in 1991, eight years after its first publication. We can assume that between 1983 and 1991 the book was read critically by journalists, historians, and government and military officials. Still, in the fact of all this scrutiny, the passage relied upon by Stone remains unchanged in the new edition. (Penguin Books, 1991 p. 342).
Apparently, the reinterpretations began only after Oliver Stone took the Johnson quotation ("Just let me get elected, and them you can have your war.") at face value. Indeed, after Johnson's reelection, they did get their war. So how can Stone's portrayal of Johnson be faulted?
That said, I found your commentary in Taking Charge very balanced and insightful. And I eagerly await future volumes.