Category Archives: 9-11
Here’s a much more informed review of “American Sniper” than I can provide by a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Brock McIntosh (“As a Veteran, I See ‘American Sniper’ as Dangerous, But Not for the Reasons You’d Think,” posted today on the Common Dreams website:
“After watching the movie ‘American Sniper,’ I called a friend named Garett Reppenhagen who was an American sniper in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. I asked him if he thought this movie really mattered. ‘Every portrayal of a historical event should be historically accurate,” he said. ‘A movie like this is a cultural symbol that influences the way people remember history and feel about war.’
Garett and I met through our antiwar and veteran support work, which he’s been involved with for almost a decade. He served in Iraq. I served in Afghanistan. But both of us know how powerful mass media and mass culture are. They shaped how we thought of the wars when we joined, so we felt it was important to tell our stories when we came home and spoke out.
I commend Chris Kyle for telling his story in his book American Sniper. The scariest thing I did while in the military was come home and tell my story to the public – the good, the bad and the ugly. I feel that veterans owe it to society to tell their stories, and civilians owe it to veterans to actively listen.
Chris Kyle didn’t view Iraq like me and Garett, but neither of us have attacked him for it. He’s not the problem. We don’t care about the lies that Chris Kyle may or may not have told. We care about the lies that Chris Kyle believed. The lie that Iraq was responsible for 9-11. The lie that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The lie that people do evil things because they are evil.
The film ‘American Sniper’ is also rife with lies. This was not Chris Kyle’s story. And Bradley Cooper was not Chris Kyle. It was Jason Hall’s story, a one-time actor in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and screenwriter for ‘American Sniper,’ who called his film a ‘character study.’ Don’t believe him. His movie is as fictional as Buffy Summers.
In the movie’s first scene, Cooper faces a moral dilemma that never happened in real life. Cooper suspects a boy is preparing to throw an improvised explosive device, or IED, at a convoy of approaching Marines on the streets of Fallujah. Either he kills a child or the child kills Marines. A soldier next to Cooper warns, ‘They’ll send your ass to Leavenworth if you’re wrong.’ In writing this line, Hall implies that killing civilians is a war crime for which U.S. military members are sent to prison. If U.S. soldiers, including Kyle, don’t seem to be getting punished for killing civilians, then they must not be killing civilians.
Garett and I agreed that even if that boy was a civilian, nothing would have happened to Cooper for shooting him. Americans have responsible for thousands of Iraqi and Afghan deaths and almost none have been held accountable.
The movie leaves out the American bombardment of Fallujah that destroyed the city. An officer explains that the city has been evacuated, so any military-aged male remaining must be an insurgent. Conveniently, every Iraqi that Cooper kills happens to be carrying a rifle or burying an IED, even though the real Chris Kyle wrote that he was told to shoot any military-aged male. Obviously, every non-insurgent did not evacuate Fallujah.
‘Many Iraqis didn’t have cars or other transportation,’ Garett explained. ‘To get to the nearest town, you’d have to walk across very hot desert, and you wouldn’t be able to carry much. So a lot of residents just decided to stay indoors and wait it out.’”
To review the history of what happened in Fallujah (according to Wikipedia), “The United States bombardment of Fallujah, a city 43 miles southwest of Baghdad, began in April 2003, one month following the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. In April 2003 United States forces fired on a group of unarmed demonstrators protesting the invasion and occupation of their country. US forces alleged they were fired at first, but human rights groups who visited the site of the protests concluded that physical evidence did not corroborate their allegations and confirmed the residents’ accusations that the US forces fired indiscriminately on Iraqis with no provocation. Seventeen people were killed and 70 wounded. Iraqi resistance fighters were able to claim the city a year later, before being ousted by a siege and two re-invasions by US forces. These events caused widespread destruction and a humanitarian crisis in the city and surrounding areas. As of 2004, the city was largely ruined, with 60% of buildings damaged or destroyed, and the population at 30%–50% of pre-war levels.
On March 31, 2004, Iraqi insurgents from the Brigades of Martyr Ahmed Yassin in Fallujah ambushed a convoy carrying supplies to a US military base, killing four American private military contractors. The contractors were dragged from their cars, beaten, and set ablaze. Their burned corpses were then dragged through the streets before being hung over a bridge crossing the Euphrates.
In response to this incident, US Marines surrounded the city, attempting to capture the individuals responsible as well as other insurgents. On April 9th, the occupying force allowed more than 70,000 women, children, and elderly residents to leave the city. After this, at least one US battalion had orders to shoot any male of military age on the streets after dark, armed or not. In violation of the Geneva Convention, the city’s main hospital was closed by Marines, and a US sniper was placed on top of the hospital’s water tower. There were also reports of the use of cluster bombs by US forces in Fallujah during this time, and a spokesman for the city’s governing council said U.S. military snipers were responsible for the deaths of many children, women and elderly people.
At the beginning of May 2004, the US Marine Corps announced a ceasefire due to intense political pressure. Still, throughout the summer and fall of 2004, the US military conducted sporadic airstrikes on the city, all supposedly intelligence-based strikes against houses used by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an insurgency leader linked to al Qaeda. In October and early November 2004, the US military prepared for a major offensive with stepped-up daily aerial attacks against militant ‘safe houses,’ restaurants, and meeting places. There were reports of civilian casualties.
On November 7, 2004, Marines, US Army soldiers, and allied Iraqi soldiers stormed into Fallujah’s western outskirts, secured two bridges across the Euphrates, seized a hospital on the outskirts of the city and arrested about 50 men in the hospital. US forces prevented male refugees from leaving the combat zone, and the city was placed under a strict night-time shoot-to-kill curfew. In 2005, the US military admitted that it used white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon in Fallujah in violation of the Geneva Convention.” Fallujah is now in the hands of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq.
Back to McIntosh’s article… he asks, “What brought Bradley Cooper’s character to Iraq? Early in the film, Hall sets the stage for the moral theme of the movie. When Cooper was a child, he sat at a kitchen table with his father, who explained that there are only three types of people in the world: sheep who believe ‘evil doesn’t exist,’ wolves who prey on the sheep, and sheepdogs who are ‘blessed with aggression’ and protect the sheep. In this world, when Cooper watches the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings on television, there is only one explanation: evil wolves being evil. So, he joins the military.” Cooper sees the same thing behind 9-11, and continues his war against the wolves.
“Hall and Cooper’s war is about al Qaeda, which in real life followed the United States into Iraq after we invaded.” US forces are depicted killing Iraqis, never helping them. “Except for the military’s interpreters, every Iraqi in the movie, including the women and children, are either evil insurgents or collaborators. The sense is that there isn’t a single innocent Iraqi in the war. They’re all ‘savages.’
Finally, it seems that a voice of criticism will be heard through the character of Marc Lee. When Lee voices his skepticism, Cooper asks, ‘Do you want them to attack San Diego or New York?’ Later in the film, Navy SEAL Ryan Job is shot in the face. Distraught, Cooper decides he should lead a group of SEALs out to avenge Job’s death, which is portrayed as the heroic thing to do. While Lee and Cooper are clearing a building, an Iraqi sniper shoots Lee in the head. The audience is then at Lee’s funeral, where his mother is reading the last letter that Lee sent home expressing criticism of the war. On the road home, Cooper’s wife asks him what he thought about the letter. ‘That letter killed Marc,’ Cooper responds. ‘He let go, and he paid the price for it.’ What makes Cooper a hero, according to the film, is that he’s a sheepdog. In Jason Hall’s world, Lee stops being a sheepdog when he questions US actions in Iraq. He becomes a sheep, ‘and he paid the price for it’ with a bullet from a wolf.
Hall claims his film is a character study, yet he shamelessly butchered Marc Lee’s real story (and part of Kyle’s) to promote his moral fantasy world and deny legitimacy to veterans critical of the war. Here’s the truth: On the day that the real Ryan Job was shot, the real Marc Lee died after stepping into the line of fire twice to save Job’s life, which apparently was either not ‘sheepdog’ enough to portray accurately in the movie or would have taken the focus off of Cooper’s heroics. And Kyle never said those things about Lee’s letter and never blamed Lee for his own death for being skeptical of the war.
Chris Kyle was like so many soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He believed in doing the right thing and was willing to give his life for it. Was Kyle wrong that the Iraq war had anything to do with September 11th, protecting Americans, seizing weapons of mass destruction, or liberating Iraqis? Without a doubt. But that’s what he was told and he genuinely believed it – an important insight into how good people are driven to work for bad causes. Was Kyle wrong for calling Iraqis ‘savages’? Of course. In one interview, he admits that Iraqis probably view him as a savage,’ but that in war he needed to dehumanize people to kill them – another important insight into how humans tolerate killing, which was left out of the movie.
Enough about Chris Kyle. Let’s talk about Cooper and Hall, and the culture industry that recycles propagandistic fiction under the guise of a ‘true story.’ And let’s focus our anger and our organizing against the authorities and the institutions that craft the lies that the Chris Kyles of the world believe, that have created a trail of blowback leading from dumb war to dumb war, and that have sent 2.5 million veterans to fight a ‘war on terror’ that persists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Pakistan. Critics and nonviolent organizers can be sheepdogs too.”
Yes! Thanks, Brock. And apologies for editing your article in the interests of brevity.
Denouncing terrorist acts like the recent attack on the office of a French satirical journal in Paris is easy. Understanding what motivates such actions, and thus beginning to find ways to make them fewer, is more complicated. Putting quotes around the word “terrorism” is a start, since one man (or woman’s) terrorist is another’s freedom fighter – though a strict definition of the word is terrorizing a population by whatever means in order to influence behavior. By this definition, American drone strikes against Muslim populations in places like northwest Pakistan and Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank are terrorist attacks. In fact, I would say the use of the US and Israeli “defense” forces are in general terroristic, though other motives are also involved.
Note that most of this overbearing and preponderant Western force is used to kill civilian Muslim populations. Some members of these populations may have committed crimes against, say, the US or Israel, but they haven’t been convicted of any crimes in a court of law, and there is always “collateral damage”: death and destruction of innocent civilians and their homes and livelihoods.
In fact, if not in theory, the predominantly Christian (and Jewish) “West” is committed to a war, a latter-day Crusade, against Muslims – or at least peoples who all happen to be Muslim…a “clash of civilizations,” as Samuel Huntingdon famously and erroneously described it.
What’s the struggle really about? Most of the targeted populations are simple tribal peoples only a few of whom have recently been recruited by jihadists. And what they mostly want is just to be left alone, free to determine their own destiny.
What motivates the jihadists? I wouldn’t begin to know, but I would guess a complicated mixture of thoughts and motives, despite the apparent simplicity of their message. The men who commandeered four US airliners on September 11, 2001, for example, were mostly Saudis with no connection to Afghanistan or Iraq (largely secular at the time), and many of them habitually violated tenets of Islam involving drinking alcohol and engaging in other secular, “Western” activities.
Could their motivation – and that of Osama bin Laden, the most famous Muslim executed without trial, along with members of his family, by American commandos – have been at least partly resentment of US superpower imperialism and domination of their home territory for oil?
Could it be that all people just want to be left alone, in peace, to determine their own destiny, including the disposition of their country’s resources? Is it possible that if we respect and stop “othering” each other, if we agree to share resources equitably, all this violence would stop? I believe it would.
If I’m right, cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo mocking others’ religion in a consciously incendiary way would be curtailed voluntarily. We would all self-censor, respecting each other, and doing unto others as we would wish they would do unto us.
In favor of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, weren’t they really attacking other peoples’ religious beliefs because they thought those beliefs motivated mistreatment of others, including violating their freedom to act and believe according to their own consciences? Using humor for these reasons can motivate positive change, but it has to be constructed carefully in order not to constitute just more fuel for the judgmental and antagonistic fire. It’s possible to puncture someone’s bombastic self-importance in a way that makes the reality obvious to almost everyone, perhaps even the person him- or herself. Gentle shaming, in other words, in the overarching context of group – human – solidarity. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were just guilty of not thinking it through and knowing their deepest motivations. Freedom of speech is important to a degree, but it isn’t the highest value.
Do we need an attack from outer space to get it straight? No. We just need to stop falling for the propaganda of our respective power-mongers. In our case – in the West, it’s state governments and leaders, who only fulfill the needs of small elites. In their case – groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, it’s individual leaders using legitimate needs and grievances, to advance jihadist Islamic fundamentalism. Or Zionism in the case of the increasingly unreasonable Israeli government (a “Jewish state” amid a multiethnic population can never be free and democratic). In both cases, it’s easy, simplistic mob-think, appealing to our worst tendencies.
Think for yourself. Recognize the legitimate rights of others. Beware states, borders, and patriarchal religious movements. No one belief or idea is right for everyone.
A look a few trusted sources reveals the holes in the current (yet ever-changing) U.S. plan to deal with the Islamic State. Peter Lee writes in today’s Asia Times that action is needed, but he doesn’t think anything effective is being contemplated. “It looks like what we’re getting is a collection of ineffectual half-measures justified by hyped-up ‘threat to the homeland’ agitation whose main purpose is to exploit the crisis in order to enhance US clout in the region.”
Lee says that “IS took root in Iraq and Syria, in large part because of the Obama administration’s willingness to enable a jihadi solution to its dump-Assad problem and the bad decision of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to support the operation.” He thinks the current plan is essentially more of the same. “Instead of cooperating with the only Middle Eastern state willing to field an army against IS – Syria – the US will train and equip an anti-Assad and anti-IS force, reportedly in Saudi Arabia, that is less of a US-backed militia of venal ‘insurgents’ and more of a controlled and disciplined military strike force created, controlled, and deployed by the CIA and, unlike our most famous previous experiment in this vein, the Bay of Pigs invasion, this force will have lots and lots of airpower. The idea, presumably, is that as IS is pummeled by drones and air strikes and retreats, a US-backed force will advance and occupy the vacated territories before Assad can.
Assad, Russia, and IS are, of course, not going to stand idly by as this clever plan is implemented. My prediction is that the US will experience its usual success in the counterinsurgency nuts and bolts of clearing territory, and its usual difficulty in the complicated political task of holding it. My expectation is for several more years of inconclusive and expensive bloodshed as the people of Syria and Iraq suffer through (and the US security/military/think tank complex profit from) another overoptimistic US geostrategic experiment.
Westerners mock the Islamic State’s pretensions, but it seems to strike a chord among quite a few Muslims as an effort to reestablish theocratic rule in the Umayyad/Abbasid caliphate heartland, turn the page on a disastrous century of colonial/postcolonial rule, and replace fragmented/corrupt states with united Islamic power.”
Pepe Escobar, another writer for Asia Times, wrote an article about ISIS and U.S. foreign policy on 6-20-14 in which he said (under the subtitle “Slouching towards Hardcore Sunnistan”), “It’s all extremely fishy about ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Abu Dua, born in Samarra in 1971, a Saddam ‘remnant’ but – crucially – a former prisoner of the US government in Camp Bocca from 2005 to 2009, as well as a former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It’s no secret in the Levant that ISIS Men in Black were trained in 2012 by US instructors at a secret base in Safawi, in the northern desert of that fiction disguised as a country, Jordan, so they could later fight as Western-approved ‘rebels’ in Syria.
It was al-Baghdadi who sent a batch of Men in Black to set up Jabhat al-Nusra (‘good terrorists,’ remember?) in Syria. He split from Jabhat in late 2013, and is now in charge of a vast desert wasteland from northern Syria to western Iraq. He’s the new Osama bin Laden (the gift that keeps on giving), the all but certain emir of an Islamically correct desert caliphate in the heart of the Levant.
A hardcore Sunnistan between Iraq’s Kurdish north and the Shi’te south, swimming in oil, extending all the way to Aleppo, Rakka and Deir ez-Zor in Syria, between the Tiger and the Euphrates with Mosul as capital, back to its ancestral role of pivot between the twin rivers and the Mediterranean. Sykes-Picot, eat your heart out. [This is a reference to the 1916 secret agreement between Britain and France dividing the Middle East into postwar spheres of influence].
The ISIS-Ba’athist coalition of the willing was brokered by none other than Bandar Bush [Saudi Prince Bandar, ambassador to the U.S. 1983-2005 and a close ally of the Bush family] while he was still in action, with crucial, lateral input from Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan.”
Meanwhile, Escobar notes, Iraq’s dismemberment is complete, a Kurdish state in the north all but official, and Shia militias being organized from Baghdad south (according to Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s declared jihad) by “the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim, who’s resurrected their formidable paramilitary, the Badr Corps, and Muqtada al-Sadr, who’s launching ‘peace brigades’ to protect the Shi’te holy cities and Christian churches.”
On a more constructive and less sarcastic note, Chelsea Manning wrote in an op-ed piece for the Guardian UK yesterday that the US should let the Islamic State “fall on its own sword, because bombs will only backfire.” Manning believes that “if properly contained, ISIS will not be able to sustain itself, and will begin to fracture internally,” adding that based on her experience as “an all-source analyst in Iraq during the organization’s infancy…ISIS is fueled by the operational and tactical successes of European and American military force…The Islamic State’s center of gravity is, in many ways, the United States, the United Kingdom, and those aligned with them in the region.
When it comes to regional insurgency with global implications, ISIS leaders are canny strategists with a solid and complete understanding of the strengths and, more importantly, the weaknesses of the West. They know how we tick in America and Europe – and they know what pushes us toward intervention and overreach. This understanding is particularly clear considering the Islamic State’s astonishing success in recruiting numbers of Americans, Britons, Belgians, Danes and other Europeans in their call to arms.
When the West fights fire with fire, we feed into a cycle of outrage, recruitment, organizing, and even more fighting that goes back decades. This is what happened in Iraq during the height of a civil war in 2006 and 2007, and it can only be expected to occur again.
Avoiding direct action with ISIS can be successful. For instance, in 2009 and 2010, forerunners to the ISIS group attacked civilians in suicide and car bombings in Baghdad to try and provoke American intervention and sectarian unrest. But they were often not effective in their recruiting efforts when American and Iraqi forces refused (or were unable) to respond, because the barbarity and brutality of their attacks worked against them. When we did respond, however, the attacks were sold to the Sunni minority in Iraq as a justified response to an occupying government favoring the Shia government led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Based on my intelligence work in Iraq during that period, I believe that only a very focused and consistent strategy of containment can be effective in reducing the growth and effectiveness of ISIS as a threat. So far, Western states seem to have adopted that strategy. With very public humanitarian disasters, however, like the ones on Mount Sinjar and Irbil in northern Iraq, and the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, this discipline gets tested and can begin to fray.”
Manning suggests countering ISIS propaganda, especially as it’s used in recruiting disaffected youth; preventing the group “from maintaining stable and reliable sources of income;” and letting it “succeed in setting up a failed ‘state’ in a contained area and over a long enough period of time to prove itself unpopular and unable to govern. This might begin to discredit the leadership and ideology of Isis for good.”
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, appeared on Democracy Now! on 9-15-14, explaining why she’s opposed to the U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria. Bennis told the show’s host Amy Goodman that President Obama’s plan “is almost entirely military, even when he himself is saying there is no military solution. What we need is a diplomatically based solution. The U.S. should be engaging in a much more direct, open and public way with Iran on the question of persuading the Iraqi government to move towards a more inclusive kind of government.” It should also, Bennis says, be cooperating with Russia on Syria, despite tensions over Ukraine. (Iran and Russia are key allies of the Syrian government.)
“We need a broader diplomatic mobilization going back to what was tried at the UN for real regional and global mobilization diplomatically to end the war in Syria,” Bennis says, along with “a massive campaign towards disarming the area. We need an arms embargo, and that’s only going to happen if it happens on all sides. So the U.S. and its allies need to stop arming these massive numbers of opposition forces in Syria. That will give them a better position to be able to pressure Russia and Iran to stop arming the Syrian regime.”
“Finally,” Bennis says, there needs to be “a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian support that the U.S. is providing. That kind of a policy is what we should have heard from Obama the other night. Unfortunately, what we heard was a four-part military strategy, which is absolutely not going to work.”
When Nermeen Shaikh, Democracy Now’s co-host, asked Bennis why she thinks Obama didn’t consider diplomatic options, Bennis said, “Unfortunately, much of this is politically driven.” She added that our leaders often fail to offer all the options in their public statements, so that often it’s either “go to war” or do nothing. “This time around, we saw an immediate response, partly around the humanitarian crisis that was happening on Mount Sinjar, although we were told a story that turned out not to be true. There weren’t 30,000 people starving on the mountain; there were about 3,000, and most had already been safely escorted off the mountain, not because of U.S. airstrikes, but because of the work of the Syrian Kurds who escorted people down the mountain, through Syria, and back into Iraq. Then we had the political response to the horrific crime of ISIS when they beheaded two American journalists. This was a horrifying act, that allowed the politics of revenge – very much like 9/11 – to take over. There was this fear in Washington, I think, of looking like we weren’t doing anything, because ‘anything’ is always described as military.
The press coverage hyped the horror of this, as if it was the only time that such horrific acts had taken place. The New York Times was the only mainstream media outlet that reported in late August, for example, that the Free Syrian Army, the so-called moderate part of the Syrian rebels, who the U.S. wants now to increase aid to, had itself beheaded six captives. This is a war in which war crimes, acts of utter brutality, are taking place on all sides. Responding militarily to these kinds of horrific criminal acts isn’t going to work any better than it did back in 2001.”
At this point, Amy Goodman pointed out that it was the same “moderate” Syrian rebels who “sold Steven Sotloff [one of the beheaded journalists] to ISIS.”
[I would point out that the only brutal murders and dismemberments that get attention in the Western press are those of Westerners at the hands of jihadis. Non-Westerners, including those Sunni Muslims killed and dismembered by American and Israeli bombs and drones, are unnamed and unnoticed.]
Bennis then said that “there’s actually been a truce signed between ISIS and a major component of the Syrian opposition, agreeing that as long as the Assad regime is in power in Damascus, they won’t fight each other. So, this notion that somehow the Syrian opposition is going to fight ISIS is false. It also means that the U.S. weapons and training sent to at least those parts of the Syrian opposition” could easily end up in ISIS’s hands
Bennis added that, in addition to Iran and Russia, we need to be negotiating directly with the Assad regime in Syria, including talking with them about what to do about ISIS. “Two years ago, when the UN began trying to put talks together to deal with the emerging civil war in Syria, the United States said Iran can’t be a participant. And somehow, everybody else went along with that. And not surprisingly, if you don’t have everyone at the table, diplomacy fails. The same thing is likely to happen this time. It’s objectively in the interest of the Syrian government to have ISIS be the target. Interestingly, we didn’t hear in the president’s speech a repeat of his constant call for that regime to be destroyed. Clearly there is some agreement between the U.S. and the Syrian regime that right now the target is going to be ISIS.”
Bennis added that “when the U.S. goes after ISIS, the perception among Sunnis in Iraq is: Here’s the U.S. acting as the air force for the Shia and the Kurds against us. Ordinary Iraqi Sunnis are pretty secular people. They’re not trying to go back to the 7th century, like ISIS is. But despite all of that, they’re prepared to ally with ISIS because the repression they face from the Iraqi government has been so profound that they’ll ally with anyone who’s prepared to fight it.”
Finally, in response to a question from Amy Goodman, Bennis pointed out that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is a key funder, privately and perhaps governmentally, of Islamic fundamentalist movements like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, “the official franchise of al-Qaeda in Syria. Some of it probably comes from the government, although that’s never been confirmed. But this is a very tightly controlled society, where if there was an interest by the government in stopping its own citizens from funding these organizations, it could be contained. The Saudi government has been very eager to keep ISIS out of Saudi Arabia. The fact that the U.S. has an enormous base in the region makes it very vulnerable for those who see the U.S. role as something to be opposed. The Saudis don’t want to talk about that alliance with the United States. But there is $60 billion worth of arms that they’ve been engaged in buying from the United States over the last two years, and many of those arms are the ones ending up in the hands of ISIS. It’s U.S. arms and it’s Saudi arms that are ending up there. Whether it’s individuals or whether it’s part of the government, that money is coming to a large degree from Saudi Arabia, and from other parts of the region, as well – from Qatar, from Kuwait, and from the UAE, but Saudi Arabia is very much at the center of this. And the U.S.-Saudi alliance is such that if the U.S. chose to challenge the arms sellers in this country who are making a killing on this new war, and thus challenge the Saudi government, there could be a real effort to put a stop to the funding and arming of these terrible organizations like ISIS.”
Sadly, the latest news today is that General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that U.S. ground troops may be needed in Iraq as part of the Obama administration’s offensive against the Islamic State. Dempsey’s remarks came less than a week after President Obama told the nation, “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” Obama is expected to visit U.S. Central Command headquarters today to discuss strategy in Iraq and Syria. The House meanwhile is expected to vote today on a request from Obama for authorization to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.
Tuesday’s Senate hearing was repeatedly interrupted by peace activists from CodePink, who rose to protest U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria. CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin, addressing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said “U.S. intervention will only make matters worse. We know that there is no military solution. It is counterproductive. Look at the last 13 years of war. What is the product? The U.S. intervention that opened the way for ISIL. The U.S. military will not be a solution. It’s counterproductive. Don’t drag us into another war. We’ve had 13 years of war already.”
Déja vu all over again, as John Fogerty would say (check out his great song with that title).
Let me know what you think.
Two days ago we remembered President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. In honor of that milestone and of the man I began admiring in 1960 at the age of 16, I bring you yet another article from the Rolling Stone. This one’s by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., detailing his uncle’s vision of world peace and how the US military and CIA opposed it. Kennedy doesn’t say — and maybe doesn’t even believe — that this is what got JFK killed, but I will.
Along with the majority of Americans, I reject the official version of this critical event. Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill President Kennedy — he was a left-wing radical patsy, murdered himself two days after the assassination so as to preserve the lie. The real assassin or assassins were put in place by the powers-that-were (and still are) behind the scenes, with CIA leadership or involvement probable. The later assassinations of Robert Kennedy, who would have been elected president in 1968 instead of Richard Nixon, and Martin Luther King, Jr., two months earlier, were part of the same pattern. King, campaigning for radical changes in the capitalist and imperialist systems at the time of his death, was a major threat to the established order. Now we know how any real threat to that order will be dealt with. Figures with less authority — like Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, advocate of campaign finance reform and opponent of the Iraq War — have met the same fate: Wellstone died in a suspicious plane crash in 2002 on the eve of his reelection. Everybody now knows the limits.
In case you’re wondering, the answer is “Yes;” I also believe that the Bush administration, specifically Vice President Dick Cheney, allowed the 9-11 attacks to occur in 2001 in order to facilitate the Iraq War for increasingly precious oil, as well as the reduction of civil liberties in the so-called “Patriot” Act. Some day I’ll put my book notes on these conspiracies up on the site, but for now — here’s RFK Jr.’s article (also available at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/john-f-kennedys-vision-of-peace-20131120).
The speech JFK was going to deliver in Dallas indicates that, even though he was bucking the national security establishment to a degree it evidently found intolerable, he was still very much in the mainstream. The text, available online, shows that, by no means a pacifist, he planned to emphasize the US lead in nuclear weapons, space, and military force. He also, however, was trying to make the point that things like education and securing equal rights for all US citizens were equally important to the nation’s security.
John F. Kennedy’s Vision of Peace by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Rolling Stone, 11-20-13
On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, his nephew recalls the fallen president’s attempts to halt the war machine.
On November 22nd, 1963, my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, went to Dallas intending to condemn as “nonsense” the right-wing notion that “peace is a sign of weakness.” He meant to argue that the best way to demonstrate American strength was not by using destructive weapons and threats but by being a nation that “practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice,” striving toward peace instead of “aggressive ambitions.” Despite the Cold War rhetoric of his campaign, JFK’s greatest ambition as president was to break the militaristic ideology that has dominated our country since World War II. He told his close friend Ben Bradlee that he wanted the epitaph “He kept the peace,” and said to another friend, William Walton, “I am almost a ‘peace at any price’ president.” Hugh Sidey, a journalist and friend, wrote that the governing aspect of JFK’s leadership was “a total revulsion” of war. Nevertheless, as James W. Douglass argues in his book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, JFK’s presidency would be a continuous struggle with his own military and intelligence agencies, which engaged in incessant schemes to trap him into escalating the Cold War into a hot one. His first major confrontation with the Pentagon, the Bay of Pigs catastrophe, came only three months into his presidency and would set the course for the next 1,000 days.
JFK’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had finalized support on March 17, 1960, for a Cuban invasion by anti-Castro insurgents, but the wily general left its execution to the incoming Kennedy team. From the start, JFK recoiled at the caper’s stench, as CIA Director Allen Dulles has acknowledged, demanding assurances from CIA and Pentagon brass that there was no chance of failure and that there would be no need for U.S. military involvement. Dulles and the generals knowingly lied and gave him those guarantees.
When the invasion failed, JFK refused to order airstrikes against Castro. Realizing he had been drawn into a trap, he told his top aides, David Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell, “They were sure I’d give in to them and send the go-ahead order to the [U.S. Navy aircraft carrier] Essex. They couldn’t believe that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face. Well, they had me figured all wrong.” JFK was realizing that the CIA posed a monumental threat to American democracy. As the brigade faltered, he told Arthur Schlesinger that he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”
The next confrontation with the defense and intelligence establishments had already begun as JFK resisted pressure from Eisenhower, the Joint Chiefs and the CIA to prop up the CIA’s puppet government in Laos against the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas. The military wanted 140,000 ground troops, with some officials advocating for nuclear weapons. “If it hadn’t been for Cuba,” JFK told Schlesinger, “we might be about to intervene in Laos. I might have taken this advice seriously.” JFK instead signed a neutrality agreement the following year and was joined by 13 nations, including the Soviet Union.
His own instincts against intervening with American combat forces in Laos were fortified that April by the judgment of retired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, America’s undisputed authority on fighting wars in Asia. Referring to Dulles’ mischief in southeast Asia during the Eisenhower years, MacArthur told JFK, “The chickens are coming home to roost, and [you] live in the chicken coop.” MacArthur added a warning that ought to still resonate today: “Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined.”
About six months into his administration, JFK went to Vienna to meet Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with high hopes of beginning a process of détente and mutual nuclear disarmament. Khrushchev met his proposals with bombast and truculent indifference. The Joint Chiefs and the CIA, which had fulminated about JFK’s notion of negotiating with the Soviets, were relieved by the summit’s failure. Six weeks later, military and intelligence leaders unveiled their proposal for a pre-emptive thermonuclear attack on the Soviet Union, to be launched sometime in late 1963. JFK stormed away from the meeting in disgust, remarking scathingly to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
As JFK’s relationship with his military-intelligence apparatus deteriorated, a remarkable relationship with Khrushchev began. Both were battle-hardened war veterans seeking a path to rapprochement and disarmament, encircled by militarists clamoring for war. In Kennedy’s case, both the Pentagon and the CIA believed war with the Soviets was inevitable and therefore desirable in the short term while we still had the nuclear advantage. In the autumn of 1961, as retired Gen. Lucius Clay, who had taken a civilian post in Berlin, launched a series of unauthorized provocations against the Soviets, Khrushchev began an extraordinary secret correspondence with JFK. With the Berlin crisis moving toward nuclear Armageddon, Khrushchev asked KGB agent Georgi Bolshakov, a top Soviet spy in Washington, to communicate directly with JFK. Bolshakov, to the horror of the U.S. State Department, was a friend of my parents and a frequent guest at our home. Bolshakov smuggled a letter, the first of 21 declassified in 1993, to JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, in a folded newspaper. In it, Khrushchev expressed regret about Vienna and embraced JFK’s proposal for a path to peace and disarmament.
On October 27th, Gen. Clay made an unauthorized threat to knock down the Berlin Wall using tanks equipped with dozer plows, seeking to provoke the Soviets into some action that would justify a nuclear first strike. The Kremlin responded with its own tanks, which met Clay’s forces at the border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. A 16-hour face-off ensued. Through my father, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Bolshakov, JFK promised that if Khrushchev withdrew his tanks within 24 hours, the U.S. would pull back 20 minutes later. Khrushchev took the risk, and JFK kept his word. Two weeks later, with tensions still running high, Khrushchev sent a second letter to JFK: “I have no ground to retreat further, there is a precipice behind [me].” Kennedy realized that Khrushchev, too, was surrounded by a powerful military and intelligence complex intent on going to war. After the confrontation, Gen. Clay railed against JFK’s unwillingness to “face the risk of nuclear war” against the Soviets.
One year later, on October 16th, 1962, Kennedy saw aerial photographs proving that the Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of reaching much of the eastern U.S. seaboard. The next 13 days were the most perilous in mankind’s history. From the outset, the Pentagon, the CIA, and many of JFK’s advisers urged airstrikes and a U.S. invasion of the island that, as a Soviet military commander later revealed, would have triggered a nuclear war with the Soviets. JFK opted for a blockade, which Soviet ships respected. By October 26th, the standoff was de-escalating. On October 27th, it reignited when Soviet forces shot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane, and the brass demanded overwhelming retaliation. Castro was also pushing the Kremlin military machine toward a devastating first strike. In a secret meeting with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, my father told him, “If the situation continues much longer, the president is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power.” That night, many people in our government went to sleep wondering if they would wake up dead.
On Monday, October 29th, the world moved back from the brink. An artfully drafted letter my father wrote with Ted Sorensen pledging that the U.S. would not invade Cuba – plus JFK’s secret agreement with Khrushchev to withdraw obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey – persuaded the Kremlin to back down.
My father was not exaggerating to Dobrynin the fragility of White House control over the military. During the 13 days, the president’s hold on power became increasingly tenuous as spooks and generals, apoplectic at JFK’s reluctance to attack Cuba, engaged in dozens of acts of insubordination designed to trigger a nuclear exchange. CIA spymaster William Harvey screamed at the president and my father during a White House meeting: “We wouldn’t be in such trouble now if you guys had some balls in the Bay of Pigs.” Defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who years later leaked the Pentagon Papers, reported, “There was virtually a coup atmosphere in Pentagon circles.” Incensed brass were in a state of disbelief at what they considered treason by the president. Spoiling for a war to end all wars, Gen. Curtis LeMay, the man who pioneered the use of napalm against civilians in Tokyo during World War II, found consolation by allowing himself to believe all was not lost. “Why don’t we go in there and make a strike on Monday anyway?” he said.
Khrushchev said afterward that Kennedy had won his “deep respect” during the crisis: “He didn’t let himself become frightened, nor did he become reckless. He showed real wisdom and statesmanship when he turned his back on the right-wing forces in the United States who were trying to goad him into taking military action against Cuba.”
Today it’s fashionable to view the quagmire of Vietnam as a continuum beginning under Eisenhower and steadily escalating through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. But JFK was wary of the conflict from the outset and determined to end U.S. involvement at the time of his death.
When Eisenhower left office, there were 685 military advisers in Vietnam, sent there to help the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem in its battle against the South Vietnamese guerrillas known as the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese soldiers deployed by Communist ruler Ho Chi Minh, who was intent on reunifying his country. Ho Chi Minh’s popularity in the south had already led Dulles’ CIA to sabotage national elections required by the Geneva Accords, which had ended France’s colonial rule, and to prop up Diem’s crooked puppet government, which was tenuously hanging on to power. At home, Republican militarists were charging JFK with “losing Laos” and badgering him to ramp up our military commitment.
In JFK’s first months in office, the Pentagon asked him to deploy ground troops in Vietnam. He agreed to send another 500 advisers, and eventually committed 16,500 of them, technically forbidden from engaging in combat missions. He told New York Times columnist Arthur Krock in 1961 that the United States should not involve itself “in civil disturbances created by guerrillas.”
For three years, the refusal to send combat troops earned JFK the antipathy of both liberals and conservatives who rebuked him for “throwing in the towel” in the Cold War. His critics included not just the traditionally bellicose Joint Chiefs and the CIA, but also trusted advisers and friends, including Gen. Maxwell Taylor; Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; McNamara’s deputy, Roswell Gilpatric; and Secretary of State Rusk. When Vice President Lyndon Johnson visited Vietnam in May 1961, he returned adamant that victory required U.S. combat troops. Virtually every one of JFK’s senior staff concurred. Yet the president resisted, saying Saigon would have to fight its own war.
As a stalling tactic, he sent Gen. Taylor to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission in September 1961. Taylor was among my father’s best friends. JFK was frank with Taylor – he needed a military man to advise him to get out of Vietnam. But Taylor, persuaded by military and intelligence “experts,” came back recommending U.S. intervention. To prevent the fall of South Vietnam, Taylor suggested sending 8,000 U.S. troops under the guise of “flood relief” – a number that McNamara said was a reasonable start but should be escalated to as many as “six divisions, or about 205,000 men.” Later, Taylor would say, “I don’t recall anyone who was strongly against [sending troops to Vietnam] except one man, and that was the president.”
Frustrated by Taylor’s report, JFK then sent a confirmed pacifist, John Kenneth Galbraith, to Vietnam to make the case for nonintervention. JFK confided his political weakness to Galbraith. “You have to realize,” he said, “that I can only afford so many defeats in one year.” He had the Bay of Pigs and the pulling out of Laos. He couldn’t accept a third. Former Vice President Richard Nixon and the CIA’s Dulles, whom JFK had fired, were loudly advocating U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. The New York Times agreed, warning that “the present situation is one that brooks no further stalling.” Public sympathies in the summer of 1963 were also 2-to-1 for intervention.
JFK told Schlesinger. “They say it’s necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer, and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we’ll be told we have to send more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off and you have to have another.”
In 1967 Daniel Ellsberg, a wavering war hawk and Marine veteran researching the history of the Vietnam War, interviewed my father. He asked how JFK had managed to stand against the virtually unanimous tide of pro-war sentiment. My father explained that his brother didn’t want to follow France into a war of rich against poor, white against Asian, on the side of imperialism and colonialism against nationalism and self-determination. Pressing my father, Ellsberg asked whether the president would have accepted a South Vietnamese defeat. “We would have handled it like Laos,” my father told him. Intrigued, Ellsberg pressed further. “What made him so smart?” Three decades afterward, Ellsberg would vividly recall my father’s reaction: “Whap! His hand slapped down on the desk. I jumped in my chair. ‘Because we were there!’ He slapped the desk again. ‘We saw what was happening to the French. We saw it. We were determined never to let that happen to us.'”
In 1951, JFK, then a young congressman, and my father visited Vietnam, where they marveled at the fearlessness of the French Legionnaires and the hopelessness of their cause. On that trip, American diplomat Edmund Gullion warned JFK to avoid a similar trap. Upon returning, JFK isolated himself with his outspoken opposition to American involvement in this “hopeless internecine struggle.”
Three years later, in April 1954, he made himself a pariah within his own party by condemning the Eisenhower administration for entertaining French requests for assistance in Indochina, predicting that fighting Ho Chi Minh would mire the U.S. in France’s doomed colonial legacy. “No amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy that is everywhere and at the same time nowhere . . . [or an enemy] which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”
By the summer of 1963, JFK was quietly telling trusted friends and advisers he intended to get out of Vietnam following the 1964 election. These included Rep. Tip O’Neill, McNamara, National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Sen. Wayne Morse, Washington columnist Charles Bartlett, Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson, Gen. Taylor, and Marine Commandant Gen. David M. Shoup, who, besides Taylor, was the only other member of the Joint Chiefs JFK trusted. Both McNamara and Bundy acknowledged this in their respective memoirs.
That spring, JFK had told Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, who would become the Vietnam War’s most outspoken Senate critic, “I can’t do it until 1965, after I’m re-elected.” Later that day, he explained to Kenneth O’Donnell, “If I tried to pull out completely from Vietnam, we’d have another Joe McCarthy Red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected.” Both Nelson Rockefeller and Sen. Barry Goldwater, who were vying to run against him in 1964, were uncompromising Cold Warriors who would have loved to tar JFK with the brush that he had lost not just Laos, but now Vietnam. Goldwater was campaigning on the platform of “bombing Vietnam back into the Stone Age.”
The Joint Chiefs, already in open revolt against JFK for failing to unleash the dogs of war in Cuba and Laos, were unanimous in urging a massive influx of ground troops and were incensed with talk of withdrawal. The mood at CIA headquarters was even uglier. Journalist Richard Starnes, filing from Vietnam, gave a stark assessment in the Washington Daily News of the CIA’s unrestrained thirst for power in Vietnam, quoting high-level U.S. officials horrified by the its role in escalating the conflict. They described an insubordinate, out-of-control agency, which one top official called a “malignancy,” doubting that the White House “could control it any longer.” Another warned, “If the United States ever experiences a [coup], it will come from the CIA and not from the Pentagon.”
Defying such pressures, JFK, in the spring of 1962, told McNamara to order the Joint Chiefs to begin planning for a phased withdrawal. On May 8, 1962, following JFK’s orders, McNamara instructed a stunned Gen. Paul Harkins “to devise a plan for bringing full responsibility [for the Vietnam War] to South Vietnam.” The general ignored the order until July 23, 1962, when McNamara again commanded him to produce a plan for withdrawal. The brass returned May 6, 1963, with a half-baked proposal that didn’t complete withdrawal as quickly as JFK had wanted. McNamara ordered them back yet again.
On September 2, 1963, in a televised interview, JFK told the American people he didn’t want to get drawn into Vietnam. “In the final analysis, it is their war,” he said. “They are the ones who have to win or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment. We can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam.”
Six weeks before his death, on October 11, 1963, JFK bypassed his own National Security Council and had Bundy issue National Security Action Memorandum 263, making official policy the withdrawal from Vietnam of the bulk of U.S. military personnel by the end of 1965, beginning with “1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.” On November 14, 1963, a week before Dallas, he announced at a press conference that he was ordering up a plan for “how we can bring Americans out of there.” The morning of November 21, as he prepared to leave for Texas, he reviewed a casualty list for Vietnam indicating that more than 100 Americans had died there. Shaken and angry, JFK told his assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff, “It’s time for us to get out. The Vietnamese aren’t fighting for themselves. We’re the ones doing the fighting. After I come back from Texas, that’s going to change. There’s no reason for us to lose another man over there. Vietnam is not worth another American life.”
On November 24, 1963, two days after JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson met with South Vietnam Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, whom JFK had been on the verge of firing. LBJ told Lodge, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw southeast Asia go the way China went.” Over the next decade, nearly 3 million Americans would enter the paddies of Vietnam, and 58,000 would never return.
Former CIA director Allen Dulles, fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs, returned to public service when LBJ appointed him to the Warren Commission, where he systematically concealed the agency’s involvement in various assassination schemes and its ties to organized crime. To a young writer, he revealed his continued resentment against JFK: “That little Kennedy . . . he thought he was a god.”
On June 10, 1963, at American University, Kennedy gave his greatest speech ever, calling for an end to the Cold War and painting the heretical vision of America living and competing peacefully with Soviet Communists. World peace, he proposed, would not be “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” He challenged Cold War fundamentalists who cast the world as a clash of civilizations in which one side must win and the other be annihilated. He suggested instead that peaceful coexistence with the Soviets might be the most expedient path to ending totalitarianism. He also acknowledged that now, “above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either humiliating retreat or nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy – or a collective death wish.” Different ideologies could be allowed to flourish, he said, and the immoral and destructive Cold War replaced by productive competition that, instead of “devoting massive sums to weapons,” would divert them “to combat ignorance, poverty and disease.”
He concluded by proposing a blueprint for bringing the Cold War to an end. “Our primary long-range interest,” he said, was “general and complete disarmament, designed to take place by stages permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms.” He announced unilateral suspension of atmospheric nuclear weapons and proposed immediate disarmament talks with Moscow.
It’s hard to understand today how heretical JFK’s proposal for coexistence with the Soviets sounded to America’s right wing. It was Cold War boilerplate that any objective short of complete destruction was cowardice or treachery. In his bestselling 1962 diatribe Why Not Victory? Barry Goldwater proclaimed, “Our objective must be the destruction of the enemy as an ideological force. . . . Our effort calls for a basic commitment in the name of victory, which says we will never reconcile ourselves to the communist possession of power of any kind in any part of the world.”
Despite opposition to the treaty from the generals and Republican leaders, including liberals like Nelson Rockefeller, Kennedy’s words electrified a world terrified by the prospect of nuclear exchange. JFK’s recognition of the Soviet point of view had an immediate salving impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. Khrushchev, deeply moved, later told treaty negotiator Averell Harriman that the American University address was “the greatest speech by an American president since Roosevelt.”
Knowing that America’s military-industrial complex would oppose him, JFK had kept the text of his speech secret from the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department. His call for a unilateral test-ban treaty shocked his own National Security and his military and diplomatic advisers.
In the month leading up to the speech, he had secretly worked with British prime minister Harold Macmillan to arrange test-ban negotiations in Moscow. Khrushchev embraced JFK’s proposal, agreeing in principle to end nuclear testing in the atmosphere and water, and on land and in outer space, and proposed a nonaggression pact between NATO and the Soviet satellite countries of the Warsaw Pact. Kennedy supervised every detail of the negotiation, working at astounding speed to end-run his adversaries in the Pentagon. On July 25, 1963, he approved the treaty. The next day, he went on TV, telling America, “This treaty can symbolize the end of one era and the beginning of another – if both sides can, by this treaty, gain confidence and experience in peaceful collaboration.” Less than a month later, the first arms-control agreement of the nuclear age was signed. Historian Richard Reeves wrote, “By moving so swiftly on the Moscow negotiations, Kennedy politically outflanked his own military on the most important military question of the time.”
Caught off guard, the military-intelligence apparatus quickly mobilized to derail the treaty, which still needed to be ratified by the Senate. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had announced months earlier that they were “opposed to a comprehensive ban under almost any terms,” joined CIA director John McCone in lobbying against the agreement in the Senate. The Pentagon tried to sabotage its passage by hiding information about the ease of detecting underground tests.
Initially, congressional mail ran 15-1 against the treaty. JFK ordered his staff to pull out every stop to mobilize the population, saying that he was determined to get the treaty passed, even if it cost him the 1964 election. By September, a monumental grassroots White House campaign had flipped public opinion to support the treaty by 80%. On September 24, 1963, the Senate ratified the treaty 80-19. As Ted Sorensen noted, no other single accomplishment in the White House “gave the president greater satisfaction.”
On October 10th, after signing the atmospheric-test-ban treaty, Khrushchev sent JFK the last of his personal letters. In that missive, Khrushchev proposed the next steps for ending the Cold War. He recommended the conclusion of a nonaggression pact between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations, and a number of steps to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and prevent their use in surprise attacks. JFK would never see the letter. State Department officials hostile toward Khrushchev intercepted it.
Khrushchev had already secretly proposed to his own government radical reductions in the Soviet military, including the conversion of missile plants to peaceful purposes. After JFK’s death, Kremlin war hawks viewed Khrushchev’s plan as a treasonous proposal for unilateral disarmament. Less than a year after Dallas, Khrushchev was removed from power.
JFK, at the time of his death, was planning his own trip to the Soviet Union, knowing nothing would do more to end the Cold War. Forty years later, Khrushchev’s son Sergei wrote that he was “convinced that if history had allowed them another six years, they would have brought the Cold War to a close before the end of the 1960s. . . . But fate decreed otherwise, and the window of opportunity, barely cracked open, closed at once. In 1963 President Kennedy was killed, and a year later, in October 1964, my father was removed from power. The Cold War continued for another quarter of a century.”
JFK’s capacity to stand up to the national-security apparatus and imagine a different future for America has made him, despite his short presidency, one of the most popular presidents in history. Despite his abbreviated tenure, John F. Kennedy is the only one-term president consistently included in the list of top 10 presidents made by American historians. A 2009 poll of 65 historians ranked him sixth in overall presidential performance, just ahead of Jefferson. And today, JFK’s concerns seem more relevant than ever: the dangers of nuclear proliferation, the notion that empire is inconsistent with a republic, and that corporate domination of our democracy at home is the partner of imperial policies abroad. He understood the perils to our Constitution from a national-security state and mistrusted zealots and ideologues. He thought other nations ought to fight their own civil wars and choose their own governments and not ask the U.S. to do it for them. Yet the world he imagined and fought for has receded so far below the horizon that it’s no longer even part of the permissible narrative inside the Beltway or in the mainstream press. Critics who endeavor to debate the survival of American democracy within the national-security state risk marginalization as crackpots and kooks. His greatest, most heroic aspirations for a peaceful, demilitarized foreign policy are the forbidden debates of the modern political era.
This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.