We thank that whole generation for making America strong, for winning WWII, winning the Cold War, and for the great gift of service which brought America 50 years of peace and prosperity. My parents inspired me to serve, and when I was a high school junior, Kennedy called my generation to service. It was the beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights, for the environment, for women, and for peace. We believed we could change the world. You know what? We did.
–John Kerry, Acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention Jul 29, 2004
When discussing the poor, the blacks, the Jews, “he used to say, ‘Poor bastards.’ That was it. There were a lot of poor bastards in this world. There were people who either didn’t get jobs they wanted or they didn’t get programs they wanted. That phrase covered so many times when he would have turned someone down for a job, or would have turned down some legislation that was being pressed on him. You know, ‘Poor bastard, they’re going to feel terrible.’” Kennedy seemed to believe that “people who are different have different responses. The pain of poor people is different from ‘our’ pain.”
–An unnamed former lover of JFK, quoted in Seymour Hersh’s “Dark Side of Camelot”
On January 8, 2005, obituaries for JFK’s 86 year old retarded sister Rosemary appeared in all the major media. Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of this American dynasty, treated her like a character out of a 19th century Gothic Tale. Associated Press reported that “In 1941, Joseph Kennedy was worried that Rosemary’s mild mental retardation would lead her into situations that could damage the family’s reputation, and he arranged for her to have a lobotomy. She was 23.” The AP obituary quotes Laurence Leamer’s “The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family”: “Rosemary was a woman, and there was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace.”
If the criterion were social propriety, then the one person who probably should have suffered a lobotomy was Joseph Kennedy himself, rather than his unfortunate daughter. (Nor would it have occurred to the patriarch to control his son Jack’s philandering in this fashion, who suffered from a chronic venereal disease.)
In keeping with Balzac’s epigraph to “Pere Goriot” that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” the Kennedy dynasty owed its place in history to the ongoing criminal activities of Joseph Kennedy.
In “The Outfit,” Gus Russo’s definitive study of the Chicago mob, we learn that Joseph Kennedy made his millions through a combination of white-collar crime and bootlegging. Using the same kinds of illegal insider trading that people like Michael Milken made infamous, Kennedy sold short just before the 1929 crash and walked away richer than ever. As a banker-investor, Kennedy plundered the stock of Pathé Films in the 1920s, giving insiders like himself stock worth $80 per share, while leaving common stockholders $1.50 per share. When Kennedy attempted a hostile takeover of the California-based Pantages Theater chain in 1929, he paid a 17 year old girl $10,000 to falsely claim that she had been raped by the chain’s owner, who then served part of a fifty-year prison sentence that was ultimately reversed. Kennedy got control of Pantages at a bargain basement price.
With respect to bootlegging, Russo reports:
Kennedy was up to his eyes in illegal alcohol. Leading underworld bootleggers from Frank Costello to Doc Stacher to Owney Madden to Joe Bonanno to Meyer Lansky to Lucky Luciano have all recalled for their biographers or for news journalists how they had bought booze that had been shipped into the country by Joseph Kennedy. On the receiving side of the booze business, everyone from Joe’s Hyannis Port chums to the eastern Long Island townsfolk who survived the Depression by uncrating booze off the bootleggers’ boats tells tales of Joe Kennedy’s involvement in the illegal trade.
Connections made in this period would prove useful during JFK’s 1960 Presidential bid. Murray “Curley” Humphreys, the brains behind Al Capone, and his chief executioner Sam Giancana (nicknamed “Moony” because of his psychopathic reputation) had inherited control of the Chicago mob after Capone’s death and built up powerful alliances in the trade union bureaucracy all around the country that helped to tip the balance in Kennedy’s favor in the 1960 primaries race.
Using mob lawyer and ex-state attorney general Robert J. McDonnell as a liaison, the Kennedys met with Giancana in Chicago in 1960. According to Russo, a quid pro quo was worked out at this meeting. In exchange for the mob’s help, a Kennedy Justice Department would go easy on them. According to Humphreys’ widow, the mobster was leery of making a deal: “Murray was against it. He remembered Joe Kennedy from the bootlegging days–called him an untrustworthy ‘four flusher’ and a ‘potato eater.’ Something to do with a booze delivery that Joe had stolen. He said that Joe Kennedy could be trusted as far as he, Murray, could throw a piano.”
The gangsters focused their efforts on West Virginia, a key swing state. Mob-controlled jukeboxes all across the state began featuring Jack Kennedy’s campaign song, while a Kennedy aide paid tavern owners $20 each day to play it over and over. Meanwhile, a Giancana associate doled out $50,000 across the state to cash-starved local politicians. These bribes paid off handsomely, as Kennedy beat Senator Hubert Humphrey by a 60-40 margin.
In the general election, the same pattern could be seen. Trade union bureaucrats poured into Curley Humphreys’ office to receive their marching orders. According to Russo, “Among the regular visitors were Murray Olf, the powerful Washington lobbyist, Teamster official John O’Brien, and East St. Louis boss of the Steamfitters Union, Buster Wortman.”
Sam “Moony” Giancana would turn up again in another capacity. After John Kennedy became President, he would call on Mafia figures to assassinate Fidel Castro. Apparently, the Kennedys had as much respect for Cuban democracy as they did for their own. What could not be won through bribes on the revolutionary island would have to be taken through outright violence.
Connections between the CIA and such hired assassins had already been made during the Eisenhower presidency. Top Howard Hughes aide Robert Maheu, who had freelanced for the CIA over the years, was asked to assemble a hit squad to kill Castro. Maheu then contacted Giancana and Santo Trafficante, a top figure in the New Orleans Mafia. Both men had a vested interest in toppling the new Cuban government, since they owned substantial assets in Havana through partnerships with Meyer Lansky.
Just as Robert J. McDonnell served as a go-between in the earlier contact with the Chicago mob, Kennedy’s mistress Judith Exner would play the same role now. Since Exner was having an affair with Sam Giancana at the very same time she was sleeping with JFK, she was made to order. Exner became a bagwoman for Kennedy during the 1960 campaign, taking up to $250,000 in cash to Giancana on trips to Chicago. These payments were intended as bribes for trade union bureaucrats that Giancana and Humphreys had lined up. Eventually Exner would split up with Kennedy when he showed up at one of their trysts with another woman for a threesome.
If none of the mobsters had any success in getting rid of Fidel Castro, neither would the counter-revolutionary army assembled and supported by the Kennedy White House at the Bay of Pigs. Although Kennedy has been portrayed as a dove in comparison to Richard Nixon, the truth is that Kennedy positioned himself as a hawk on Cuba, blaming the Republican incumbents for inaction on Communist subversion in the Western Hemisphere. Since Nixon was forced to keep the impending invasion a secret, he could not defend himself from JFK’s hawkish attack. Kennedy himself had learned of the plans from Richard Bissell, a CIA official who was friendly with his father. He hammered away at Nixon cynically, knowing full well that the Republican candidate could not reveal the secret plan. Appalled by Kennedy’s bellicosity, some liberals actually kept their distance from him, while falling short of supporting Nixon. Liberal icon Murray Kempton wrote in the New York Post that “I really don’t know what further demagoguery is possible form Kennedy on this subject, short of announcing that, if elected, he will send Bobby and Teddy and Eunice to Oriente Province to clean Castro out.”
After the counter-revolutionary guerrilla force was smashed, the Kennedy White House continued to threaten Cuba verbally and to provide clandestine support for smaller guerrilla bands. American subversion cost the island at least $1 billion in the year following the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban revolutionary leadership understood that it was only a matter of time when a new invasion was mounted, this time involving the US marines rather than an ineffective surrogate force.
This prompted Castro to seek a powerful shield against an invasion that took the form of Russian nuclear missiles. When Kennedy learned about this, he provoked one of the most dangerous confrontations of the entire Cold War. It did not matter to him that Cuba was a sovereign nation or that the USA had already supplied atomic missiles on the Soviet border in Turkey. In foreign policy, some countries were clearly more equal than others.
Although former NY Times editor Max Frankel’s recently published “High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis” is intended to flatter the foreign policy sagacity of the Kennedy White House, any impartial reader will not be reassured by the following excerpt:
McNamara’s blockade idea was gaining favor, but there was as yet no limit on the kind of action the Kennedy brothers were willing to examine. If the choice was to attack, the president still preferred a surgical strike at the missiles alone, but he told the chiefs to plan also for a full-scale invasion. Robert Kennedy even strained to find a pretext for invasion. He toyed with the thought of staging a fake attack on the American naval base at Guantanamo or staging another ship disaster in Havana–”sink the Maine again, or something.” He remarked with satisfaction that an invasion would get rid of Castro as well as the missiles.
These were attitudes brought over from a separate high-level meeting that day in which Robert Kennedy had complained about the slow pace of sabotage and subversion against Cuba under Operation Mongoose. But his wild mood shifts were surely confusing to the conferees as they tried to discern the direction of the president’s thinking. Only that morning, at the first ExCom meeting, Bobby had scribbled a note to Ted Sorensen saying, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.”
Eventually, Kennedy and Khrushchev struck a deal. In exchange for the removal of Russian missiles, the USA would promise to not invade Cuba and to remove its own missiles from Turkey. In keeping with the general refusal of the Kennedy White House to tell the truth to its citizenry, this deal was not made public. Instead, Kennedy was portrayed as a fearless gunfighter who forced the Russians to back down.
Based on his reading of this period, Nation Magazine editor and staunch John Kerry supporter Eric Alterman decided to include Kennedy in his 2004 “When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.” In his NY Times Book Review of Alterman’s book, one-time Presidential candidate Gary Hart tried to salvage Kennedy’s reputation:
It is unclear how the disclosure of the implicit trade of Jupiter missiles in Turkey for intermediate-range Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba was crucial to undermining the public trust, particularly since the Jupiters were to be replaced soon anyway by sea-based Polaris submarine missiles. Let’s assume the worst — that Kennedy was trying to fend off a right-wing backlash for bargaining with the Soviets. That seems much more like political self-preservation, which in any case did not result in loss of American lives and in fact may have saved millions of them.
In a November 14, 2004 letter to the NY Times, Alterman tears Hart’s defense to pieces. He quotes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in reply to the question of whether such a deal had been struck that: ”Absolutely not . . . the Soviet government did raise the issue . . . [but the] president absolutely refused even to discuss it. He wouldn’t even reply other than that he would not discuss the issue at all.” The same sort of lie was heard from Dean Rusk. It is no accident that both men would become associated with the Vietnam War, as both architects and dissemblers.
For many radicals, especially those who believe that the Democratic Party is not a “lesser evil,” it is difficult to grasp why John Kennedy has any kind of progressive reputation. Differences over how to assess the Kennedy White House, especially in the context of his role in the emerging Vietnam War, came to a head around the release of Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”
Based heavily on lawyer James Garrison’s version of the Kennedy assassination, the film argues that Kennedy had to be removed in order to pave the way for an escalation of the war. Lyndon Johnson is seen as a tool of the defense industry and rightwing military officers. By contrast, John Kennedy is a reasonable man who had the good sense to make plans to begin de-escalation and eventual withdrawal from Indochina.
It is no accident that left journalist and scholar Michael Parenti agrees with this perspective, given his support for John Kerry. Despite its obvious futility, the search for enlightened bourgeois leadership seems never-ending.
In his probing study of the Kennedy administration titled “Rethinking Camelot,” Noam Chomsky takes up the arguments of Oliver Stone, Michael Parenti and historian John Newman, author of “JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power,” another book which tries to prove that Kennedy intended to abandon Vietnam. In his scrupulously documented style, Chomsky hoists Kennedy on his own petard:
In Fort Worth, a few hours before the assassination, Kennedy made his last statement about Vietnam: “Without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” In the speech he was to give in Dallas, he intended to say that “Our successful defense of freedom” in Cuba, Laos, the Congo, and Berlin can be attributed “not to the words we used, but to the strength we stood ready to use”; fair enough, with regard to his selection of Third World illustrations of his “defense of freedom.” Kennedy extolled his huge military buildup, undertaken to blunt the “ambitions of international Communism.” As the “watchman on the walls of world freedom” the US had to undertake tasks that were “painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task.”
In internal discussion, Kennedy’s consistent position was that everyone must “focus on winning the war.” There can be no withdrawal without victory; the stakes are far too high. One can accuse the President of no duplicity. His public rhetoric accords closely with his stand in internal discussion.
Although one obviously prefers Chomsky’s take on Kennedy to that of Parenti, one might feel a sense of lingering disappointment that Chomsky refused to apply the same stringent criteria to John Kerry, who was just as bellicose as Bush, if not more so. One might attribute that to the kind of immense pressure applied to the left by the ABB campaign. With the abject failure of the Kerry campaign to deliver on its promises, one hopes that intellectuals such as Chomsky can return to the position of public critic of war and imperialism that they have served so well in the past.
What about Kerry’s claim that 1960 “was the beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights?”
Certainly there was a struggle for black liberation in this period, but the Kennedys could hardly be represented as being in the vanguard. In “Nixon’s Piano: a study of Presidents and racial politics from George Washington to Bill Clinton,” historian Kenneth O’Reilly’s chapter on the Kennedy White House is most instructive and can be described as an exercise at damning with faint praise.
Kennedy came into the White House with a goal to hire as many token black faces as he could. This combined with New Deal social spending would keep black America mollified. Kennedy’s only true civil rights initiative was a voter-registration campaign modeled after the modest efforts of the Eisenhower administration’s final six months in office. He hoped that the largely judicial axis of such an initiative would help to short-circuit the more confrontational boycotts and sit-ins being pushed by CORE and other militant groups. He also hoped that increased black electoral numbers would strengthen the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Kennedy saw the Justice Department as the main instrument of his civil rights agenda, not the Civil Rights Commission that had been established in 1957 under Eisenhower as part of the Civil Rights Act. Several degrees to the left of Kennedy, the Commission was seen as something akin to Reconstruction and, therefore, unwelcome. In his best-selling “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy referred to Reconstruction as a “black nightmare…nourished by Federal bayonets.” When the Civil Rights Commission announced its attention to investigate racist violence in Mississippi, Robert F. Kennedy likened it to HUAC “investigating Communism.”
Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”
Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.
One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!
The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.
Despite Robert F. Kennedy’s specious comparison of the Civil Rights Commission to HUAC, he had no problem directing a witch-hunt against Martin Luther King Jr. When the FBI told the President that King’s advisors included a couple of Communists (Sanford Levison and Jack O’Dell), he directed the attorney general to put wiretaps on the civil rights movements most important leader’s telephone. He even met with King at the White House and told him, “They’re communists. You’ve got to get rid of them.” To his everlasting credit, King refused to kowtow to the red-baiters. Robert F. Kennedy would complain, “He sort of laughs about these things, makes fun of it.”
Relying on J. Edgar Hoover’s snitches says volumes about the character of the Kennedy White House. Feeling no constraints from its master, the FBI would eventually send letters to King’s wife accusing him of infidelity. It would also fail to protect civil rights demonstrators, who were obviously seen as Communist subversives.
If the Kennedy White House was about managing image, perhaps nothing succeeded on their own terms better than the Peace Corps. Embodying the President’s rhetoric about “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” this nominally volunteer program would benefit the world’s poor without asking for anything in return.
Beneath the rhetoric, the Peace Corps was a variation on a very old theme, namely the tendency for colonial powers to use civil administration as a means to co-opt hostile populations. Great Britain had perfected these techniques in India. Marshall Windmiller, a professor at San Francisco State who had participated in Peace Corps training programs in the early 1960s, spells out his disillusionment in “The Peace Corps and Pax Americana.” Referring to Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), he characterizes the Peace Corps as an exercise in “Macaulayism.” As a functionary in India, Macaulay argued that “To trade with civilized men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.”
Of course, key to bringing civilization to the savages was a properly functioning civil service and an educational system that could inculcate the values of the colonizers. Seen in this light, the Peace Corps’s main function, according to Windmiller, is “to develop pro-American, English-speaking elites, and to make America’s role in world affairs, whatever it may be, more palatable.”
Windmiller focuses on the example of Rhoda and Earl Brooks, a husband-and-wife team who served in Ecuador from 1962 to 1964. They did the usual things that Peace Corps volunteers did, from teaching English to clearing streets of garbage.
When the USA intruded into Ecuadorian fishing waters during their sting, Communists organized protests against the “pirates.” Naturally, the Brooks felt compelled to present the American case. In their English conversation classes and at their homes, they tried to convince the Ecuadorian youth of the benefits of “democratic capitalism,” for whom many the word “capitalist” was synonymous for murderer. Because the Brooks were seen as modest and idealistic, their ideas were more easily accepted than if they came straight from the American consulate. That, of course, was the whole idea.
Kennedy himself occasionally spoke more candidly about the goal of initiatives like the Peace Corps. In National Security Action Memorandum No.132 directed to the Agency for International Development, that was cc’d to the Peace Corps director as well as the CIA, the President declares his intentions:
As you know, I desire the appropriate agencies of this Government to give utmost attention and emphasis to programs designed to counter Communist indirect aggression, which I regard as a grave threat during the 1960s. I have already written the Secretary of Defense ‘to move to a new level of increased activity across the board” in the counter-insurgency field.
Police assistance programs, including those under the aegis of your agency, are also a crucial element in our response to this challenge. I understand that there has been some tendency toward de-emphasizing them under the new aid criteria developed by your agency. I recognize that such programs may seem marginal in terms of focusing our energies on those key sectors which will contribute most to sustained economic growth. But I regard them as justified on a different though related basis, i.e., that of contributing to internal security and resisting Communist-supported insurgency.
Eventually, some returned Peace Corps volunteers saw through the imperialist aims of their higher-ups and joined the Vietnam antiwar movement. Indeed, their number and the numbers of civil rights activists disgusted and radicalized by White House inaction probably numbered in the tens of thousands at the peak. One might conclude by saying that the main benefit of the Kennedy White House is that it spurred idealistic young people to transcend the limitations of an administration that was guided more by image than by substance.
1. Eric Alterman response to Gary Hart’s review: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/14/books/review/letters-final.html
2. Noam Chomsky, “Rethinking Camelot”: http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/rc/rc-contents.html
3. Gary Hart review of Eric Alterman’s “When Presidents Lie”: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507E1D61538F933A25753C1A9629C8B63
4. Seymour Hersh, “Dark Side of Camelot”, Little Brown, 1997
5. Kenneth O’Reilly, “Nixon’s Piano”, The Free Press, 1995
6. Gus Russo, “The Outfit”, Bloomsbury Press, 2001
7. Marshall Windmiller, “The Peace Corps and Pax Americana”, Public Affairs Press, 1970