Big Government Turf War: Stone Vs Schlesinger

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Dwight MacDonald, defending the Warren Commission, once made the valid point that if rightists did kill Kennedy, the liberal Lyndon Johnson would have been delighted to expose them for political gain.

Such an argument was ignored by Oliver Stone in his ultra-paranoid JFK, in which he accused “fanatical Cold Warriors” of killing JFK because he was seeking to end the Cold War; and of particular importance to the Vietnam-obsessed Stone, ending the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam.

It is here that Camelot spear-carriers could have taken advantage of this thesis. Identifying the plotters as rightists validates their efforts to portray their President as an apostle of peace.

But, oddly enough, the chief proponent of Camelot, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., did not buy into Stones conspiracy theories. The reasons have as much to do with Schlesinger’s political philosophy as it does his anti-conspiracy views regarding American history.

As expected, Schlesinger did support Stone’s assertion that Kennedy would have normalized relations with Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro (which is rendered invalid as two weeks before his death, JFK authorized a series of sabotage operations against Castro). And he was equally supportive of Stone’s view that Kennedy was going to withdraw all U.S. military advisers from Vietnam.

But Schlesinger could only go so far. He strenuously objected to Stone’s gargantuan conspiracy of “the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, the FBI, the military-industrial complex, the anti-Castro Cubans, the mob and LBJ” murdering JFK, and then “covering up the deed.” Schlesinger denounced this theory in strong terms, labeling it “reckless, paranoid, really despicable fantasy, reminiscent of the wilder accusations of Joe McCarthy.”

In particular, Schlesinger took aim at the “deep throat” character in the film, an ultra-paranoid military official based on L. Fletcher Prouty (whose assertions range not only to Stone’s gargantuan conspiracy but also to claims that Winston Churchill had FDR killed):

“Nothing is more ludicrous in JFK than the scene in which Major X explains” with the “serenity of a madman how the evil cabal is running and ruining the U.S.”

Schlesinger concluded regarding the immaturity of the conspiracy schools, “Conspiracy theory makes it dangerously easy to explain away all objections.”

It must be said that Schlesinger’s sober approach is much more realistic than Stone’s; after all, the CIA was hardly skilled enough at wet-work to take out JFK, since, despite considerable funding, could not kill Castro.

But Schlesinger’s criticism of Stone may have stemmed from the historian’s big-government sympathies. Schlesinger, a propagandist for the New Deal, pined for its return under Democratic Presidents (his beloved JFK disappointed him on this score by implementing the first capital gains tax cuts—a measure that would be later implemented by the historian’s bete noir, Ronald Reagan.

By refuting the notion that a big government murdered Kennedy negates his own notion of growing government to address economic and social issues. With Stone, however, Schlesinger was forced to choose between defending JFK as a dove, and arguing that on one score, big government doesn’t work.

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Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.