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The Untold Story: How America Became a Dangerous Empire

Director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick offer a major reexamination of modern American history in “The Untold History of the United States,” which has many strengths.

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For me, the most disappointing chapter in the first half of the book is on John F. Kennedy. The first third of this chapter wraps up the Eisenhower years, devoting attention to Ike’s Farewell Address and its warning about “the military-industrial complex.” But the authors do not mention the U-2 incident which marred the Paris Peace Conference and may have led to what Eisenhower said in that address. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 289)

The book offers a fairly simplistic account of Kennedy’s political career prior to 1960, calling him a Cold War liberal who ran in 1960 as a hawk. This was the first time I felt the book really fell down in its scholarship because to make this rubric stick, there is no mention of Kennedy’s battles with Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers in the Fifties over things like Vietnam and Algeria.

The authors then say that, under Kennedy, foreign policy was still in the hands of the Establishment figures from the Council on Foreign Relations, without saying that Kennedy was never in the CFR. Although the book does mention Kennedy’s try for a cease-fire in Laos, it completely ignores his efforts to beat back the colonialists in Congo and Indonesia in 1961.

Misreading Mongoose

The authors say Operation Mongoose against Cuba began in November 1961 and that one of the objectives was to assassinate Fidel Castro. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 304) I was really surprised to see that in a book co-authored by Oliver Stone, since the operation did not actually go into effect until February 1962, when CIA officer Ted Shackley arrived in Miami to take over the JM/Wave station. (William Turner and Warren Hinckle, Deadly Secrets, p. 126)  And as the CIA Inspector General’s report on the Castro assassination plots reveals, the killing of Castro was never part of the Mongoose operation.

The book then blames the Missile Crisis on Mongoose. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 304) Yet anyone can see by readingThe Kennedy Tapes that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s agenda was really to attain a first-strike capability in order to deal with the question of Berlin. (May and Zelikow, p. 678)

The discussion of Kennedy and Vietnam is also disappointing. The book states that Kennedy was intent on standing up to the communists in Vietnam (Stone and Kuznick, p. 304), to which I would reply, “With what? Fifteen thousand advisers against the combined forces of both the Viet Cong and North Vietnam?”

I was surprised to see some of the sourcing in this chapter. In addition to citing JFK’s purported mistress Mimi Alford, a lot of it was to books like David Halberstam’s  obsolete and discredited The Best and the Brightest and to New York Times’ correspondent Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes. There was not one footnote to John Newman’s milestone book JFK and Vietnam, or to works based on the declassified record like James Blight’s Virtual JFK. This baffles me.

And the authors fail to mention a wonderful meeting which could have provided an ironic cap to the chapter on Kennedy (which, at least does end with Kennedy seeking détente with the Russians and Cubans.)

This meeting was occasioned by Harry Truman’s op-ed in the Washington Post on Dec. 22, 1963, a month after JFK’s assassination.In that essay, Truman wrote that the CIA had strayed far afield from the mission he had originally envisioned for it, i.e. an emphasis on objective intelligence gathering and analysis.

It turns out that ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles, who at the time was on the Warren Commission investigating JFK’s murder, was so upset by the op-ed’s implication that he personally visited Truman at his home in April 1964. Dulles tried to get Truman to retract the criticism.

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