Thursday, October 7, 2010

Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived

The CCiiff Film Festival ended last night when the final film, Empire of Silver (Bai Yin Di Guo), VO Chinese with English subtitles, screened in Revel. The festival was truly a bringing together of many cultures, with films coming from China, Africa, Europe, South America, USA, ..., with many points of view and in many languages, subtitled in French or English.

Of the 13 films which I saw in the ten days of the festival, there was one which gave me some new perspective on my own country and where we are today: Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived, which screened last week in Soreze at the Abbaye auditorium.

Virtual JFK focuses on "the way President Kennedy dealt with six important foreign policy crises (Cuba to Vietnam) without going to war. The film puts forth the argument that "critical decisions about the use of restraint and coercive diplomacy often require greater acts of courage than the use of force and that character matters greatly in Presidential leadership." Koji Masutani, Director of Virtual JFK

Masutani was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1981. He spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong before attending a private boarding school in Massachusetts. He received a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Brown University in 2005.

The six crises with which Kennedy dealt during his presidency that are the focus of this film are: Bay of Pigs (April 1961), Laos Crisis (1961), Berlin Wall Crisis (August-November 1961), Showdown over Vietnam (November 1961), Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) and, finally, the Vietnam Withdrawal (October 1963).

The movie uses archival footage to review the ups and downs of Kennedy's presidency and the public and staff/advisor pressures that were put on him at and after each of the crisis decision points.

In dealing with Vietnam shortly before he died, JFK agreed to a plan devised by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to withdraw most Americans in South Vietnam by late 1965, with the first 1,000 to be withdrawn within three months.

JFK’s plans were reversed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who decided to increase the American presence in Vietnam to 500,000 troops. The war stretched across several generations and killed more than three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

You can read a more thorough synopsis of the film on this Virtual JFK site page under Press Material.

One of the things I liked about this film was that I did not find it polemical, but rather felt that it invited viewers to draw their own conclusions.

When Kennedy was elected in the Fall of 1959, I had just turned 11 years-old and was living with my family in a house out in the countryside in Hertfordshire, England. My father was a Lt Colonel in the US Air Force and was on assignment there. We did not have a television at home for our entire stay in England. Our main source of news and entertainment in the evening was the BBC on the big old radio in the living room. We did not return to the US until the summer of 1962, when we moved to our next posting at Langley AFB in Virginia.

As I remember it, my father felt connected to Kennedy and proud of his election to the presidency. They were both of Boston Irish Catholic stock, my father from Quincy, on south Boston Bay, and Kennedy originally from Brookline, some eight miles inland from Quincy; both had red hair and three brothers; both went to Catholic school and fought in WWII in the Pacific theater.

But after watching this movie, I suspect my father must have felt conflicted as the Kennedy presidency progressed, for Lt Col Wm J Norton, my father, was a committed, career Air Force man who, I discovered through recent research, was part of the support team (a weather group commander) for spy missions over central Europe and Russia. As Virtual JFK documents, Kennedy decided time and again, against the advice of his military advisers and to much scorn from hawkish Republicans, not to use military force.

A lot of the old film footage from the Kennedy years showed him fielding questions from an auditorium filled with reporters. He gave smart, powerful, informed answers often balanced with humor. In comparison, the presidential press conferences I have seen through much of my adulthood seem overly managed, the president often ill-informed or less than candid. Admittedly, I generally avoid broadcast television and have done for much of the past thirty years. But you cannot avoid seeing clips and I have watched my fair share.

I was a sheltered and naive 14 year-old and just starting the ninth grade when Kennedy was murdered. I remember being stunned and knowing in my gut that this was a very bad thing for the US. I had similar feelings, astonishment and dismay, after watching Virtual JFK.

That is what a strong, intelligent president who is willing to stand up for peace looks like, I thought. I wasn't old enough to realize that at fourteen.
What a loss.

"The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war...We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just."
Excerpt from John F Kennedy
commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C.,
June 10, 1963

Hugs from Afar,


Ms. Moon said...

This just makes me so damn sad.

Ken said...

I think retrospectives are interesting and thought provoking, but unfortunately, JFK did not live and we became involved in Vietnam and we are still doing the same things.

One of the problems with folks is that they don't seem to learn from one generation to the next.

The history of our species is replete with behavior that is in our short-term interest yet detrmental in the long term. And why not, we cannot see into the future.

Johnson may have screwed up, but I doubt that was his intent. We, the US, were frightened of Communism--rightly or wrongly, who knows? It is easy too look back and figure out what went wrong. Not so easy at the time it is hppening.

Gail Larrick said...

Thank you for your thoughtful review of the film, Nancy, and thank you to those who commented. Such a range of perceptions arises when the Viet Nam War is discussed--from Ken, who was inside it and is now telling his story through the Bravo Project, to me. I came to San Francisco from a job at a proving ground where I edited tests plans and reports of much of the equipment used under the wings of planes--and what was in those canistersm chemicals now familiar to us all. I marched in some of the biggest peace marches of the '60s with hippy exuberance and the naivete that may have gone along with it. I can't believe how much we've forgotten about that war as we dive into the quagmire of several more.

N2 said...

Thanks for coming by to read and leaving your thoughts!

@Ms Moon: Me, too. It made me feel like crying and I had to write through to the why.

@Ken: An unexpected pleasure to have you stop by and leave your thoughts. We are both in the thick of projects which deal with Viet Nam. Hope your film work is going well.

@Gail: Thanks for your always reflective comments and for the glimpse into your own experience re: the Viet Nam war.


Laura Paine Carr said...

I haven't gone to movies which deal with the Viet Nam war. Usually I say something lame like, "I can't bear to see this again, from any angle."

Perhaps it is just, as Ms. Moon says, so damn sad.

I am waiting for more of your own project!

N2 said...

Aahh, but LC, ma cherie, this movie was not "about the Vietnam War", per se, but about the process of deciding whether or not to go to war and about the character of a President who makes the final decision.

What is "so damn sad" for me is that we haven't seemed to elect a man or woman of such character in the US since Kennedy was shot.


Elizabeth said...

This is so interesting and profoundly depressing, too.

N2 said...

Elizabeth: Thanks for visiting. Hopefully the depression caused by this post was depression about the state of politics in our country. All we can do, I think, is change the way we live our daily lives. I know you fight the good fight every day for your kids.


Denny Coates said...

We were living in Lakenheath, England (my dad was a USAF fighter pilot)when Kennedy was killed.

We spent the next years in Europe, had no idea what the US was going through. My father later commanded a squadron in Viet Nam, flying daily missions into Cambodia. We know now that the risks he faced every day were unnecessary. As were the lives lost in that war. There is no heroism in fighting unwinnable battles away from home.

N2 said...

Thanks for visiting Denny. It seems we were living nearly parallel lives there for a bit. Did you go to Bushey Hall school as well?

Glad your dad made it out of Viet Nam alive.
All the best. N2

Mikey said...

Although Kennedy had his weaknesses as we all do, it says something important about a person's character when they come from a position of "The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war." That was what I learned and knew as 'truth' about the United States when I was young. Its unfortunate presidents since Kennedy seem to have forgotten that essential truth.

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