Category Archives: Conspiracy theories
Recently, “Alternative Radio” rebroadcast “The JFK Assassination & the Gangster State,” a talk given by Michael Parenti, in Berkeley, CA on 11-22-93. You have to listen to Parenti (alternativeradio.org) to get the full effect of his sarcastic (and funny) delivery, but here are some key elements of what he said (edited, as always for brevity and clarity – also, for those of you who groan at my long, dry, mostly quoted blogposts, this is pretty important, and I make some comments of my own at the end)…
“I’ve been looking at history, and I’ve been impressed and depressed by the fact that it’s a chronicle of immense atrocities. Whenever there’s more than a subsistence economy, some portion of the population does everything it can to enslave and expropriate the labor of the rest of the people – whether it’s a slave society, as in ancient Greece and Rome, or a feudal society, with people reduced to serfs, or a capitalist society, where people are driven to the edge of insecurity and made to work faster and harder. One of the things that’s used in that arrangement is a very conscious instrument of control: the state, ‘an organization,’ as Max Weber, who wasn’t a Marxist, called it, that has a ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of force.’
Even in democratic France, democratic England, or democratic U.S.A., all countries have instruments and agencies that act like a bunch of gangsters, repressively, using surveillance and every dirty trick in the book – unequal enforcement of tax laws, bringing drugs into neighborhoods and communities, trumped-up murder charges, and assassination. In the middle of even a so-called democracy you have the state-within-the-state known as the national security state that’s capable of the most unspeakable crimes that you can think of, perpetrated against its own people and people all around the world.
Not long ago I got a letter from a woman who was a community organizer in Chicago. She said, with grief in her heart, ‘I remember the tremendous democratic organization and leadership that was developing in Latino and African American communities during the 1960s. And every one of those leaders is either dead, shot by the police, or in Marion Prison on trumped-up charges. I also remember the demoralization that took place with the shattering of those organizations, including the coming in of drug traffickers, aided and abetted by federal agents.’ This is a state engaged in domestic counterinsurgency, preferring an unorganized and demoralized population than one effectively fighting for its democratic rights. Because if it’s organized and it’s effective, it will start cutting in on the interests that those police and undercover people are dedicated to protecting – protecting the status quo, protecting those with property against those who don’t have it.
By the way, for the last thousand years we’ve had theorists who have proudly made that point. Adam Smith said, ‘As the divisions of property become increasingly unequal, it is more and more necessary to have a state to defend those who have property from those who do not.’ John Locke: ‘The purpose of the state is to defend those who have property from those who do not.’ James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others said similar things.
Throughout the world, dominant economic interests have enlisted the efforts of assassins and torturers. The CIA and other such agencies in this country and others have sponsored violence, torture, death squads, and drugs in scores of countries, from Zaire to Angola to Mozambique to El Salvador to Guatemala to Indonesia, and to western Europe, the U.S.A., Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. They’ve systematically targeted the clergy; peasant, student, and labor-union leaders; intellectuals; journalists; workers; and community activists. Tens of thousands have been murdered and assassinated to prevent social change, to destroy any kind of redistributive politics, any kind of government, or any kind of social movement not willing to reduce its people to economic fodder.”
Having made these points, Parenti goes on to the JFK assassination in which “the gangster nature of the state is revealed. To know the truth about the JFK assassination is to call into question the entire state system and the entire social order it represents. This is why for 30 years the mainstream press has suppressed or dismissed out of the hand the findings about JFK’s death by independent investigators like Peter Dale Scott, Harold Weisberg, Carl Oglesby, Mark Lane, Anthony Summers, Philip Melanson, Jim Garrison, Cyril Wecht, and dozens of others. They’re called “assassination buffs,” a limiting and marginalizing and diminishing term. Would you talk about “Holocaust buffs”? No – they are serious investigators of a serious crime, which leads to serious understandings about the state. This is why the mainstream media and the opinion leaders and the political leaders of this country relentlessly attack or ignore this literature. This is why they give fulsome, gushing, ready publicity to the likes of Gerald Posner, with his book Case Closed, which got put into every major magazine. I couldn’t put the TV on all week without seeing this guy’s face and hearing him blather these kinds of cliché statements whose credibility is dependent on your being totally ignorant of what the investigators for 30 years have been uncovering and the questions they’ve been raising.
This is why they savaged Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK,” a movie that was very accurate about the specifics of the murder, a movie that reached millions of people, and that was attacked six months before it was released in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek, and for a year after it was released. This is also why in this past week, for the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, they kept up the relentless propaganda campaign to show that Oswald was the lone assassin. All the serious investigators have a different question, and Oswald wasn’t one of the people who shot Kennedy – he was just a fall guy.
If you want to know why they do this, just listen to what they say. The propagandists of the right and the center know why they’ve got to trash and contain this issue. Tom Wicker of the New York Times has never written a movie review in his life. But when “JFK” came out, this Washington columnist for the Times suddenly became a movie reviewer, and instead of getting the usual movie-review length of 800 words, he got 2,000 words, a whole page. He tells us that ‘if the wild assertions in Oliver Stone’s movie are taken at face value, Americans will have to accept the idea that most of the nation’s major institutions conspired together to carry out Kennedy’s murder. In an era when mistrust of government and loss of confidence in institutions, the press not the least, are widespread and virulent, such a suggestion seems a dubious public service.’ So truth has nothing to do with it – the question is institutional legitimacy.
In 1978 the House Select Committee reported after an investigation that there was more than one assassin shooting at Kennedy and therefore there was a conspiracy. In response, the Washington Post immediately editorialized, ‘Could it
have been some other malcontent whom Mr. Oswald met casually?’ [Laughter] ‘Couldn’t as many as three or four societal outcasts, with no ties to any one organization, have developed in some spontaneous way a common determination to express their alienation in the killing of President Kennedy? It’s possible that two people acting independently attempted to shoot the president at the same time.’ Possible, but not at all likely. Sometimes those who deny conspiracies create the most convoluted fantasies of all. David Garrow, for example, who wrote a biography of Martin Luther King, benignly, patronizingly looks at you, the public, and says that ‘a large majority of the American people believe in assassination conspiracies, allowing events to have large, mysterious causes instead of small, idiosyncratic ones.’
But the question of conspiracy has to be decided by an investigation of evidence, not by unscientific and patronizing presumptions about the public mind. In any case, the evidence in King’s assassination doesn’t involve large, mysterious causes but very immediate actualities. And investigators like Peter Dale Scott, Harold Weisberg, and Mark Lane weren’t impelled by some yearnings; they were impelled by questions of evidence, by things that didn’t seem to make sense, by immediate, empirical things. These independent investigators demolished the Warren Commission.
If you watched television this week you heard, for the 78th time, that Oswald was a ‘loner,’ an incompetent, not very bright. You heard he was emotionally disturbed. Gerald Posner got on TV, turning instant psychiatrist, and said Lee Harvey Oswald ‘had a disturbed childhood,’ and was ‘passive- aggressive.’ Passive-aggressive? A passive-aggressive assassin? That explains why he used a rifle that couldn’t shoot straight. He was also ‘a leftist,’ according to Alexander Cockburn. The truth is something else. All of Lee Harvey Oswald’s IQ tests show that he was of above-average intelligence, a bright guy, a quick learner. Lee Harvey Oswald also spent most of his adult life not as a lonely drifter but directly linked to the U.S. intelligence community. In the U.S. Marines at the age of 18, he had secret security clearance and was working at Marine Air Control in Atsugi, Japan, a top-secret base from which the CIA launched some of its U2 flights and did other kinds of covert operations in China. The next year, at the age of 19, he was assigned to El Toro Air Station in California with a security clearance to work radar. Here Oswald started playing Russian-language records at blast level in his barracks, addressing his ‘comrades’ in Russian, and touting Soviet communism as ‘the best system in the world.’
The U.S. Marine Corps in 1958 wasn’t exactly known as a bastion of liberal tolerance and freethinking. It constantly surveils anyone who acts the way Oswald did. But in this instance his commanders didn’t mind. He kept his security clearance, and had a wealth of sensitive information from black operations, as they were called. If Oswald was a Soviet spy or a Cuban spy, as some people now claim, he certainly had a novel way of building a cover. In February 1959, Lee Harvey Oswald failed the Marine Corps proficiency test in Russian. Six months later he was practically fluent in Russian. In 1974, a document was released that showed that Oswald had attended the U.S. Army Monterey School of Languages. Now, Monterey is not open to anyone who just happens to have a language hobby. You go only for serious training and you are sent by the government. And it must be related to government work in a language picked by the government which is related to specific assignments. Oswald was also given an early discharge from the Marines because his mother injured her foot. A jar had fallen on her toe. He put in the request and got it within a week. His fellow Marines were astonished at the velocity of the release. The jar fell on her foot a year before the discharge, but she was unhappy: it wasn’t healing right. This was only one of a number of very strangely favorable treatments that the U.S. government gave Lee Harvey Oswald. He then defected to the USSR. To get to Russia in those days it would have cost $1,500. Lee Harvey Oswald’s bank account showed a deposit of only $203. He arrived in Helsinki from London on a day when there were no available commercial flights that would have allowed him to make it in one day. He had some kind of private transportation. In Russia, he announced – in the U.S. embassy – that he was renouncing his U.S. citizenship and that he had secrets he was going to give to the Soviets. The Soviets didn’t bite. They let him stay but at no time thought he could be an agent of any use to them. He worked in a factory, and belonged to the factory’s gun club, though he showed no particular interest in guns. He used to join in rabbit shoots, and could never hit the rabbit. He was a miserable marksman, as he had been in the U.S. Marines. Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t hit the side of a barn.
What’s done in all defections, definitely those connected with government and military, is that there’s a damage assessment. No damage assessment was ever made on Oswald’s defection. Why? After two and a half years, he applied to return to the U.S. Instead of being grabbed when he came out and tried as a traitor, the U.S. accepted him back. He says he was never debriefed, but in fact, he was debriefed in Amsterdam, though the CIA has no record of this. Their explanation before the Warren Commission was that there were so many tourists coming in and out that there was nothing about him that would catch our attention. After the assassination, the CIA claimed that they suspected he was a Soviet spy. The State Department at this point gave Oswald money to travel back to the U.S. and get set up. They paid all his and his wife’s travel and moving expenses, and he was given back his passport with full rights to travel anywhere. His wife was exempted from the usual immigration quotas – no waiting, no exclusion for having belonged to the Soviet Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, a violation of U.S. immigration laws.
Once back in Dallas, Oswald settled in under the wing of George de Mohrenschildt, a right- wing Russian with CIA ties. Based in Dallas and New Orleans, he then made short-lived forays into the public eye as a leftist. He started a one-person Fair Play for Cuba organization in New Orleans, but in all this time never once contacted anyone in the Communist Party or any other left organization, though he wrote lots of letters to the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party, two groups which at that time weren’t even talking together. Dear Comrades, How are you? We fight. Forward. What should I do? Send me instructions. He blazed a trail: local TV, fistfights, inflammatory incidents, leaflets. One of the leaflets shows that his organization was on Camp Street in the same building that Guy Banister, an FBI agent, had his office. A number of right-wing Cuban émigré groups were also there. Oswald’s personal relations were with right-wing anti-Communist Cubans, right-wing crypto-fascists, and CIA types like Robert Morrow, a right-wing businessman who worked for the CIA, and David Ferrie, the same. So while he supposedly was this leftist – and if you ever heard any of the tapes of him speaking and explaining what communism was or socialism was, it’s laughable – all his personal associations were with right-wing people linked to the intelligence community, including Jack Ruby.
Now, they would have us believe that this man who couldn’t hit the side of a barn took a Mannlicher Carcano rifle, whose sights weren’t even set – an Italian weapon, which the Italians said had never killed anyone on purpose – fired it, and killed the president of the United States. That he got a job just at that time at the Texas Book Depository, three weeks before, when nobody knew that Kennedy’s limousine was going to pass right in front of the depository, and fortuitously happened to be up there that day. That he would forego shooting President Kennedy when the latter was coming right at him down Houston Street, but waited till the car turned down Elm Street. And as Kennedy went by and had only his head and a little portion of his shoulders visible, firing through the trees, he rapidly got off three shots in a few seconds, something which the best marksmen in the country weren’t able to emulate until after much practice and after the sights on the Mannlicher- Carcano were reset, brought into a laboratory and fixed. Right through a tree that was later cut down. We’re asked to believe that a bullet would go through John Kennedy, pause in midair for 2 seconds, change direction, wound Governor Connally in two places, and then reappear intact on a stretcher, having fallen out of Connally’s body. By the way, this magic bullet didn’t reappear on the stretcher as if it had fallen out of someone’s body – it was apparently intentionally wedged into the side of the stretcher. We’re asked to believe that a treasure trove of physical evidence, the interior of the presidential limousine itself, which should have all sorts of evidence, bits of shrapnel, blood, and lines of fire, was just accidentally taken, instantly torn out, destroyed, and totally rebuilt, and that this wasn’t a deliberate cover-up. We’re asked to believe that Kennedy’s brain just disappeared, that the X-ray, which now shows a reconstructed head with no exit wound is, oddly, taken with no jaw, so it could be anybody’s – you can’t do any kind of dental identification. That the autopsy was just botched innocently.
We’re also asked to believe that Jack Ruby, a gambler and gangster with links to right-wing Cuban exiles, who once worked for Congressman Richard Nixon for the House Un-American Activities Committee in Chicago when his name was still Jack Rubenstein, took it upon himself to kill Oswald because he was so moved by the suffering that Oswald had caused the Kennedy family. Ruby a year later in jail repeatedly kept alluding to the fact that, ‘You don’t know the whole story,’ and, indeed, there is much more behind all of this. We’re asked to believe that the 21 witnesses, persons or persons otherwise related to the case in some close way, with some information, privy to some conversations, all of whom met violent deaths, were part of a colossal coincidence, like the one the Washington Post was talking about. That later on, in 1978, a second round of killings started after the House Select Committee investigation, sixteen more dying violently. One of those sixteen was George de Mohrenschildt, killed by a gun blast to the head 3 hours after a House Assassinations Committee investigator tried to contact him to set up an interview. George de Mohrenschildt was not only close to Oswald, but in his telephone book there was found an insert to George ‘Pappy’ Bush; he was a close friend of George Bush and there was a correspondence between them. The sheriff’s office in Palm County, Florida, found that his shooting was ‘very strange,’ and it was ruled a suicide. William Sullivan, a third guy in the FBI, who was supposed to appear before the House committee, was shot outside his home by a man who claimed to have mistaken him for a deer and was charged with a misdemeanor. Sam Giancana died from natural causes when his heart stopped beating after a bullet went through it, one day before he was to testify about mob and CIA connections, while under government protection. There are linkages between the CIA and mob families. After all, the mob can do the kind of dirty things that the CIA may sometimes want them to do…I have a whole bunch of other things. And I find I’ve run out of time.”
“Keep going! keep going!” the audience shouts.
“The people have spoken. There are even some on the left, like Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, who argue that interest in the assassination comes from a ‘Kennedy revival,’ a ‘Camelot yearning for a lost messiah.’ Cockburn, Chomsky, and others challenge the notion that Kennedy was assassinated for intending to withdraw from Vietnam or undo the CIA or end the Cold War. These things couldn’t have led to his downfall because they weren’t true. Kennedy was a cold warrior, a counterinsurgent who wanted a military withdrawal from Vietnam only with victory. Chomsky, Cockburn, and others have also claimed that the change of administration that came with JFK’s assassination had no large-scale effect on policy, or even tactics. In other words, if Kennedy had lived, he likely would have fabricated a Tonkin Gulf casus belli; he would have introduced ground troops and a massive land war, as Lyndon Johnson did; he would have engaged in merciless B-52 carpet bombings of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as Richard Nixon did; and he would have risked destroying his own electoral base, proving himself a mass murderer as bad as Nixon. Chomsky and Cockburn don’t tell us how they know all this, but we do know is that Robert Kennedy became an antiwar critic, broke with the Johnson administration, and he said that his brother’s administration had made terrible mistakes. John Kennedy, in fact, observed Cambodian neutrality and negotiated a ceasefire and coalition government in Laos, which the CIA refused to honor. They preferred to back a right-wing faction that continued the war.
Chomsky says much about troop withdrawal. He just wrote a whole book on this, Rethinking Camelot. But he says very little about troop escalation other than to offer Roger Hilsman’s speculation that Kennedy might well have introduced U.S. ground troops in the South Vietnam. In fact, Hilsman noted in the New York Times not long ago that in 1963 Kennedy was the only person in his administration who opposed the introduction of U.S. ground troops. He was the only obstacle to an escalation of the war.
Whether or not there are certain left analysts who think Kennedy was or wasn’t a progressive or liberal and thinks that the CIA had no reason to kill him or other people had no reason to be dissatisfied with him, the fact is that entrenched interests are notorious for not seeing the world the same way that left analysts do. In 1963, people in right-wing circles, including elements in various intelligence organizations, didn’t believe Kennedy could be trusted with the nation’s future. Some months ago on a San Francisco talk show, I heard a guy come on who said, ‘I never said this before, it’s the first time I’m saying it. But I worked for Army intelligence, and in 1963 I was in Japan. The accepted word then was that Kennedy would be killed because he was messing too much with the intelligence community. And when word came of his death, all I could hear were delighted comments like “We got the bastard.”’ JFK’s enemies fixed on his refusal to provide air coverage to the Bay of Pigs, his refusal to go in with U.S. forces, his unwillingness to launch another invasion of Cuba, his no-invasion-of-Cuba guarantee to Khrushchev, his atmospheric test ban treaty with Moscow, his American University speech calling for re-examination of our Cold War attitudes towards the Soviet Union, his unwillingness to send ground forces in a massive form into Vietnam, his antitrust suit against General Electric, his fight with U.S. Steel over price increases, his challenge to the Federal Reserve Board, his warm reception at labor conventions, his call for racial equality and responsiveness to civil rights leaders, and his talk of moving forward to a ‘New Frontier.’
I disagree with people who say that the Warren Commission did a hasty, slipshod job. The Commission sat for 51 long sessions over a period of several months, and compiled 26 volumes of testimony and evidence, with the investigative resources of the FBI and CIA at its command. Far from being hasty and slipshod, it painstakingly crafted theories that moved toward its foreordained conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin. It framed an argument and moved unfailingly to fulfill that argument. It failed to call witnesses who saw something different from what it wanted to hear, who saw – who not only heard but who saw – people on the grassy knoll shooting. It ignored or reinterpreted what little conflicting testimony crept into its proceedings. All this took deliberate and painstaking effort. But the American public hasn’t bought the official explanation: 78% say they believe there was a conspiracy. Chomsky and Cockburn tell us we mustn’t reduce great developments in history to conspiracy, for then we lose sight of institutions, class, and other systemic factors of American capitalism. I don’t need them to tell me about systemic factors in American capitalism – I use a structural analysis in all my writings. Besides, in investigating the JFK conspiracy we’re hitting upon the nature of state power in what’s supposed to be a democracy. Conspiracy isn’t something that’s in contradistinction to structural analysis; it’s part of it. The ruling elites will use conspiracy or legitimacy, they’ll finance elections, use publicity campaigns, set up liberal-ish organizations and alternative trade-union movements, and use assassins or death squads. They’ll use every conceivable thing there is. And this was one of the things they used. When they had someone who was giving them trouble, when they had someone who was standing in their path because he was too bright and too shiny, and when they had an agenda to save southeast Asia from communism, they killed one of their own.
That’s a tremendous and startling revelation, opening the eyes of the American public to the kind of a gangster government and national security state we really have in this country and what it does around the world. ‘The great continuities of corporate and class interest’ – Cockburn’s phrase – don’t happen of their own accord. There’s a conscious interest being pursued here, and these events are created by policymakers intentionally pursuing specific interests. It’s the essence of the state and the function of state institutions to act consciously to create and recreate the conditions of politico-economic hegemony. That’s what it’s there for. To achieve their goals, state leaders, especially those within the national security state, will resort to every necessary form of mass manipulation, deception, and violence, even against one of their own whom they’ve come to see as a liability.
Our interest in this is born of democratic struggle – a desire to know what’s going on, a desire to have rulers who are worthy of our name and the name of democracy. Thank you.”
I would add as an anarchist that we also have the alternative of self-rule – no “rulers.” ‘Cause that’s where the trouble starts.
I also want to add that all of this reminds me very strongly of the TV series “Homeland,” which I’ve been watching with a friend. The show also reveals, dramatically, the amorality of the CIA, which will do anything, including attacking one of its own, to maintain the bare power of the United States, domestically and around the world, and to maintain its own power, or the power of its current director, as well. Not an institution compatible with democracy. I assume the FBI is the same, along with all entities charged with “national security,” which of course involves lots of secrets.
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.