In 1992, John Newman prepared to celebrate finishing his Ph.D., securing a book deal with Warner Books for the release of his dissertation, JFK and Vietnam, and having worked directly with Oliver Stone as consultant on the film JFK. But a brief call from the National Security Agency put all of that in jeopardy. Newman was warned that his book had been classified and could not be published, beginning a series of curious obstacles that kept his work widely unavailable until he republished it again himself just this January.
As someone who had worked in the Army for 18 1/2 years, Newman had no idea why the NSA would block the release. Even worse, he feared the loss of his security clearance and pension funds. A few months after the call, Newman arrived in LA for the JFK premiere and the NSA contacted him again. At 4:00 the morning before the film’s big press conference, he received word the book could be published after all. Newman’s conclusion: “They didn’t want me to go in front of the press and say that the NSA is trying to block my book,” he says. “But I can’t know that for sure.”
Despite the sudden reversal, his book would still never reach a wide audience. Despite an initial printing and reviews in both Kirkusand the New York Times,no book tour was organized and no significant promotion took place. Newman says that after a few months, “the publisher took it out of the stores and wouldn’t answer my calls.” JFK and Vietnam essentially disappeared from bookstores—a traumatic experience for a newly published author that Newman now refers to as “suppression.”
As far as Newman is concerned, no other book has been suppressed in the same manner. “Especially if the book was good,” he adds. And by all accounts Newman’s book was considered good. Newman argues that by 1963 President Kennedy had made up his mind to end all operations and never move in ground troops. However, the president continued a public face of support and potential escalation in order to win the upcoming election. Newman’s book depicts Kennedy as scared of both the right and the left on the Vietnam issue, worried that decisive action either way would spell certain political defeat. Reviews praised Newman’s meticulous research and passionate presentation of newly declassified documents. At last, it seemed Newman had convincing evidence to settle the debate over JFK’s true intentions for Vietnam and what might have occurred had he lived.
“Out of all the books up to that point, my dissertation was the first to argue that we were going to withdraw, the first written by any credentialed historian,” Newman says. “All the other books up to that point didn’t know anything about the withdrawal plan and assumed Johnson was following Kennedy’s policies.” Even though the general public lost access to Newman’s thesis, academic responses at the time speak to the potency of his material. “I got hit from both sides. Harry Summers on the far right saying I vilified Kennedy and Noam Chomsky saying I made a saint out of him. I wondered if they even read the same book.”
Newman still does not know why Warner decided to suppress his rather sober, academic arguments. His most reasonable guess is that they did not want to detract from other Kennedy books taking the opposite view. “But you can’t just pay somebody to get the rights and then deep six the book without even telling them why,” Newman says. “I don’t know whether it was always a hostile buy but it certainly ended up that way.”
Luckily for Newman, economics and public policy professor James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin found one of the few released copies when the book was originally published—although his students were never able to obtain it when he put it on a syllabus. After Galbraith intervened on Newman’s behalf, the book’s rights were returned to Newman. Of course, with no digital copy, Newman, now an adjunct political science professor at James Madison University, had to retype the entire book by hand. “It was a very useful exercise,” he notes. “I saw things I didn’t see before.”
Newman also included new material that had been on his consciousness all these years. An expanded introduction details the strange relationship he later developed with Robert McNamara, the controversial secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, eventually convincing him to open up about his feelings about Vietnam and make his oral histories public. Several appendices in the new, self-published edition address the suppression of JFK and Vietnam.“I wanted to write the rest of the story,” Newman says, “because I think the story and the story about the story are important.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator currently based in Paris.