Today I finished L. Fletcher Prouty’s JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. There are some of you that will read the title of this book and discount it entirely. However, I think Prouty has something to offer, if not on the JFK assassination itself, then about what went so horribly wrong in Vietnam.
I picked up the book months ago as Oliver Stone recommended it. Prouty was the basis for the Mr. X character in the film JFK played by Donal Sutherland. Prouty was a controversial character in real life as he not only believed JFK assassination was a coup d’etat, but made other controversial claims as well. However, with his military experience and his close connections with high ranking military officials, you can’t discount everything that he says either.
I think it is important when reading any book that deals in some way with history to read with a grain of salt. A book like Prouty’s one has to read with even more of a critical eye than usual. Surprisingly, the actual assassination of JFK only takes up maybe the last 15% of the book. Most of the book is telling the history of the Vietnam War, what went wrong there, what our involvement really was there, and why there was a hostile climate surrounding Kennedy due to the decisions he was making about that war prior to his death.
I have seen some of the claims Prouty makes about Vietnam made in other places. We entered the war with a Cold War mentality, we didn’t understand the local culture, we made many mistakes that turned the local population against us, etc.
The book also goes into such details as how much money there was to be made in the military industrial complex due to things like helicopters. Not only did the war create a giant market for helicopters and other weapons, but the helicopters themselves were a very inefficient way of fighting the war because of the amount of support staff that was needed and the fact that they weren’t very dependable given the kind of terrain and conflict that took place in that war.
Up until JFK’s death we only spent between 2 and 3 billion dollars in Vietnam. Afterwards we spent around 220 billion dollars.
The book also goes into detail about the culture of Vietnam and how we either didn’t understand it or were at times willfully ignorant. Much of the conflict was the result of things that we and the Diem government did that uprooted the traditional life of the Vietnamese peasants who had been living like they did before the war for hundreds of years. We tended to view everything through the communist/capitalist lens of the Cold War while many of the enemy combatants didn’t fall neatly into that prism. We did a lot to create our own enemies.
The sections dealing with the Vietnam War are very thought provoking and well detailed. It is in his claims about the assassination where I feel that Prouty overreaches and makes bold claims without a lot of detail to back it up. However, he does provide a pretty convincing thesis on at least why JFK was despised by many members of the US power structure.
This was a fascinating read. Even if you don’t buy into Prouty’s theory of the assassination, or even skip that part of the book entirely, I think the rest of the book justifies itself. It is especially thought provoking when it takes an inside look at the mindset of those carrying out the Cold War.