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Capturing History as it Really Happened in October 1962 

Sheldon M. Stern

HNN April 20, 2015

President Kennedy meets in the Oval Office with General Curtis LeMay – Wikipedia

Historians are obviously familiar with research based on old or new primary sources as well as with work that synthesizes both primary and secondary sources. Historical investigation based on audio recordings, however, is clearly distinct from these more traditional categories of historical investigation because, as Max Holland and I wrote in 2005—

the historian shoulders an even larger burden in this new genre. He or she is obviously selecting, deciphering, and making judgments about a primary source, much like the editor of a documentary collection. But, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also creating a facsimile—while still endeavoring to produce a reliable, “original” source. In essence, the historian/editor unavoidably becomes the author of a “new” source because even a transcript alleged to be “verbatim” is irreducibly subjective at some level. As a result, the historian’s responsibility in this genre is a very unusual one, and requires the most careful scholarship imaginable. No other task of discovery and/or interpretation in the historical canon is quite comparable.

As the audio recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies have gradually been made public, historians have been drawn to this extraordinary challenge. As Columbia University’s Alan Brinkley concluded, “No collection of manuscripts, no after-the-fact oral history, no contemporary account by a journalist will ever have the immediacy or the revelatory power of these conversations.”

My own work, which includes the three books cited above on the JFK Cuban missile crisis tapes, has underscored the unique value of these recordings, for example, by demonstrating—conclusively and incontrovertibly—that Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days should no longer be taken seriously as a historically reliable account of the October 1962 White House ExComm meetings.

Last month the History News Network ran my short piece about a fascinating and surprising exchange between President Kennedy and Republican House Minority Leader Charles Halleck at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. In fact, there are many such dramatic and revelatory exchanges on the ExComm tapes and editor Rick Shenkman has agreed to my suggestion to periodically offer HNN readers additional historical snapshots of some of the most striking moments on these unique recordings.

The Context

On Sunday, October 14, 1962, U-2 photos revealed solid evidence of Soviet ballistic missile sites in Cuba. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundybrought the photos to the White House early on October 16. President Kennedy, his face and voice taut with anger at Soviet duplicity, reeled off the names of key members of the National Security Council and told Bundy to organize a meeting later that morning. He then summoned his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to the White House. “Oh shit! Shit!, Shit! Those sons a’ bitches Russians,” RFK exclaimed after seeing the U-2 pictures. The Kennedys had tried over forty back channel contacts with an official at the Soviet embassy in an effort to deter Khrushchev. Their efforts, as a result of calculated Soviet deception, had come to nothing.

The Soviets and Cubans, of course, were aware of the Kennedy administration’s own deceptions, namely the secret war in Cuba, which included sabotaging the Cuban economy and plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Nikita Khrushchev claimed that the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba were defensive—to protect Castro’s revolution against another American attack. Khrushchev also anticipated that Kennedy would accept the deployment in Cuba as a reasonable counterweight to American missiles in Turkey and Italy. But, the Soviet leader grossly underestimated the intensity of American fears of a communist military outpost in the Western Hemisphere.

October 16, 1962

As the president’s advisers entered the Cabinet Room, the human implications of the situation was made poignantly plain when they found JFK talking with his nearly five-year-old daughter, Caroline. She quickly scurried from the room and the meeting began. The fifteen men gathering that morning were stunned that the Soviets had taken such a gamble just ninety miles from the Florida coast and infuriated that the administration had been deceived by top Kremlin officials. President Kennedy assumed that if the U.S. took military action against Cuba, the U.S.S.R. would move against West Berlin. The U.S. would be forced to respond; the Soviets would react in turn—and so on—escalating towards the unthinkable. A reckless or careless move could set in motion an irreversible and catastrophic chain of events.

Nonetheless, the tone of the discussions was nearly always calm and businesslike—making it difficult for the listener to grasp that the stakes were potentially nothing less than human survival. The meetings were also remarkably egalitarian, and participants spoke freely with no regard for rank. Indeed, there were repeated disagreements with the president—sometimes bordering on rudeness and disrespect. There were also moments of laughter, clearly an emotional necessity in coping with what became nearly two weeks of unrelenting, around-the-clock anxiety and uncertainty.

The overriding question was clear at the outset: what exactly were the Soviets doing in Cuba? JFK and most of his advisers had little or no experience in photo analysis, and the strange objects in the U-2 pictures could easily be mistaken for trucks or farm equipment. Arthur Lundahl, director of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, and missile expert Sydney Graybeal were on hand to explain the evidence. The president pored over the photos using a large magnifying glass and participants later recalled that he appeared nervous and exasperated.

Deputy CIA director General Marshall Carter began by identifying fourteen canvas-covered missile trailers, sixty-seven feet in length and nine feet in width, photographed on October 14 at an MRBM site in San Cristobal. Lundahl pointed to small rectangular shapes and whispered to the president, “These are the launchers here.” President Kennedy then asked how far advanced the construction had been when the photos were taken. Lundahl admitted that his analysts had never seen this kind of installation before. “Not even in the Soviet Union?” Kennedy pressed. “No sir,” Lundahl replied.

The CIA had kept careful tabs on Soviet missile bases, but Lundahl reminded the president that surveillance had been suspended after a U-2 was shot down in 1960. “How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile?” Kennedy asked. “The length, sir,” Lundahl responded patiently. “The length of the missile?” Kennedy replied, examining the photo, “Which part?” Graybeal handed the president photos of missiles from the U.S.S.R.’s annual May Day parade. JFK then asked grimly if the missiles in Cuba were ready to be fired; not yet, Graybeal declared. The bases, however, were being assembled more rapidly than similar sites previously observed in the U.S.S.R., and no one could be sure when the missiles would be ready to launch their deadly payloads at military sites or cities in the U.S.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara pressed Graybeal further—were Soviet nuclear warheads also in Cuba? “Sir, we’ve looked very hard,” Graybeal replied. “We can find nothing that would spell ‘nuclear warhead.’ ” He added, however, that the warheads could be mounted on the missiles in just a few hours. General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also stressed that the sites could rapidly become operational. McNamara insisted that the Soviets would never risk a military confrontation over missiles that did not have nuclear warheads: “There must be some storage site there. It should be one of our important objectives to find that storage site … but it seems extremely unlikely that they are now ready to fire, or maybe ready to fire within a matter of hours, or even a day or two.” The missile bases apparently did not have to be attacked—at least not immediately. One decision quickly commanded a consensus: the president should authorize further U-2 flights to locate any other missile bases and the elusive warheads and storage sites.

General Taylor, however, deepened the uncertainties facing the president by acknowledging that it was impossible to be certain exactly when the missiles sites would become operational and, in any event, air strikes would not destroy “a hundred percent” of the missiles. Secretary of State Dean Rusk agreed, and cautioned that if the Russians “shoot those missiles,” before, during, or after air strikes, “we’re in a general nuclear war.” McNamara agreed that air strikes had to be carried out before the missiles became operational: “if they become operational before the air strike, I do not believe we can state we can knock them out before they can be launched, and ifthey’re launched, there is almost certain to be chaos in part of the East Coast or the area in a radius of six hundred to one thousand miles from Cuba.” Less than an hour into their first meeting, the president and his advisers were confronting the possibility that millions of Americans might be only hours away from a nuclear attack.

One key question remained—what was the Soviet motive for a nuclear presence in Cuba? “There must be some major reason for the Russians to set this up,” JFK speculated. “Must be that they’re not satisfied with their ICBMs.” Taylor agreed that Soviet short-range missiles in Cuba supplemented “their rather defective ICBM system.” But, no one in the room raised the possibility that Khrushchev might be trying to protect Cuba from the Kennedy administration’s covert war against Castro’s government.

– Dr. Stern is the author of numerous articles and “Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), “The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), all in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000. 

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PREVENTING ‘ANOTHER CASTRO’: JOHN F. KENNEDY AND LATIN AMERICA

In December, Presidents Barak Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would be taking steps to normalise US-Cuban relations thereby ending decades of animosity between the two governments. In a public statement, Obama declared it time ‘to cut loose the shackles of the past’ and do away with the enmity that brought about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although Cuba is currently in the headlines, the Caribbean island does not figure as prominently in US politics as it once did. During the Cold War, developments in Cuba had a profound effect on US policy towards Latin America as a whole. In particular, Washington officials feared that the Cuban Revolution would pave the way for other communist governments, allied with the Soviet Union, to emerge throughout the region. For President John F. Kennedy, this prospect made Latin America ‘the most dangerous area in the world’.

As a senator, Kennedy had initially called for a ‘patient attitude’ towards Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro who, after coming to power in January 1959, repeatedly denied being a communist. However, as Castro nationalised US property, delayed elections and accepted aid from the Soviet Union, Kennedy’s view shifted. 1 In the run up to the 1960 election, he repeatedly argued that Latin America was threatened by future communist revolutions.  ‘I have seen Communist influence and Castro influence rise in Latin America’ he declared and asked ‘By 1965 or 1970, will there be other Cubas in Latin America?’ 2

As President-Elect, Kennedy’s fears were supported by a government report which warned that ‘the present Communist challenge in Latin America resembles, but is more dangerous than, the Nazi-Fascist threat of the Franklin Roosevelt period and demands an even bolder and more imaginative response.’ A response came as, once in office, Kennedy established the ‘Alliance for Progress’ which ostensibly aimed to undermine support for radical social movements by funding Latin America’s economic development. 3  Kennedy asserted that the Alliance should aim to ‘eliminate tyranny’but as historian Thomas C. Field Jnr has revealed, in practice, US aid was used to support the increasingly authoritarian regime of Bolivian President Víctor Paz Estenssoro. 4

In 1961, Kennedy’s advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger cautioned that ‘Bolivia might well go the way of Cuba’ and argued that ‘we simply cannot let another Latin American nation go Communist; if we should do so, the game would be up through a good deal of Latin America.’ 5 By providing Paz with financial support and military hardware, Washington was able to ensure that the country’s leadership maintained an anti-communist stance and liberalised the national economy against the wishes of armed, left-wing trade unions. Yet the authoritarianism that Washington encouraged ultimately inspired civilian and military revolt against Paz, culminating in the 1964 coup that overthrew him. 6

Fears of ‘another Castro situation’ also informed Kennedy’s attitude towards British Guiana which, by 1963, was taking steps towards independence from the British Empire. At the time, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) held a majority in the colony’s assembly but US officials had concerns regarding the possible ‘communist connections’ of its leader Cheddi Jagan. Fearing that British Guiana would emerge as a ‘Castro-type state in South America’, Washington was keen to see the more conservative Forbes Burnham, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), assume leadership of the colony following its independence.

The US government persuaded London to alter British Guiana’s electoral system to proportional representation and, in 1964, despite receiving the highest share of the popular vote, Jagan’s PPP lost its majority status in the legislative assembly to a coalition led by the PNC. Subsequently, in May 1966, the colony became an independent state, renamed Guyana and led by Burnam. 7

The Kennedy administration’s interventions in Latin America took a number of forms with each aiming to prevent ‘another Castro’.  As Thomas G. Paterson has argued, US officials were gripped by the ‘fear that the Cuban Revolution would become contagious and further diminish United States hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.’ 8 Now, with the Cold War concluded, this fear has diminished and at least some US officials desire a more cordial relationship with Havana.

Significant steps have already been taken to improve US-Cuban relations with prisoners released and the announcement that Washington will ease restrictions on commerce and travel between the two countries. Fidel Castro has tentatively backedhis brother’s rapprochement with Obama who intends to set up an embassy in Havana but tensions remain as officials from both countries have continued to criticise the others’ human rights record. While the future of this relationship is uncertain, it seems unlikely that Cuba will ever again be so central to US foreign policy as it was during the Kennedy presidency.

Mark Seddon completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2014. His research focuses on British and US interventions in Latin America during the Second World War and Cold War. You can find him on Twitter @MarkSedd0n.

For an overview of Kennedy’s policy towards Latin America see: Stephen G. Rabe, The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999)

Notes:

  1. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 124-125. 
  2. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29403 
  3. Jeffrey F. Taffet, Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York, NY, 2007), pp. 11-28. 
  4. Thomas C. Field Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (New York, NY, 2014). 
  5. Ibid., p. 14. 
  6. Ibid., pp. 189-196. 
  7. Stephen G. Rabe, U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (Chapel Hill, NC), pp. 105-151. 
  8. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), p. 127. 

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When J.F.K. Secretly Reached Out to Castro

Michael Beschloss

The New York Times    December 17, 2014

In December 1962, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, greet newly freed Brigade 2506 members, who had been captured by Fidel Castro’s government in the previous year’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Credit Cecil Stoughton/The White House, via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

President Obama’s surprise effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, concurrent with an economic embargo, recalls the two-track approach — economic and sometimes military force, along with secret, sporadic attempts to find some kind of accommodation — that formed American policy toward Cuba during the most dangerous years of that relationship.

On Monday evening, Nov. 18, 1963, at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach — four days before his assassination — President John F. Kennedy, wearing black tie, told the Inter-American Press Association that only one issue separated the United States from Fidel Castro’s Cuba: Castro’s “conspirators” had handed Cuban sovereignty to “forces beyond the hemisphere” (meaning the Soviet Union), which were using Cuba “to subvert the other American republics.” Kennedy said, “As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible.”

The president had asked his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, for language that would open a door to the Cuban leader, although, as Sorensen later observed, the audience was “a very tough anti-Castro group.”

That same day, Ambassador William Attwood, a Kennedy delegate to the United Nations, secretly called Castro’s aide and physician, Rene Vallejo, to discuss a possible secret meeting in Havana between Attwood and Castro that might improve the Cuban-American relationship, which had been ruptured when President Eisenhower broke diplomatic ties in January 1961.

Attwood had been told by Castro’s U.N. ambassador, Carlos Lechuga, in September 1963, that the Cuban leader wished to establish back-channel communications with Washington. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy worried that such talks would leak and embarrass his brother on the eve of his 1964 re-election campaign, but the president quietly encouraged Attwood to pursue the matter.

Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, told Attwood that J.F.K. wanted to “know more about what is on Castro’s mind before committing ourselves to further talks on Cuba.” He said that as soon as Attwood and Lechuga could agree on an agenda, the president would tell him what to say to Castro; in the meantime, J.F.K. had to make a trip to Texas.

Had Kennedy survived, the Attwood back channel might conceivably have led to some improvement in the relationship between Havana and Washington, but the odds against it were formidable. By allying Cuba with the Soviet Union, Castro was in flagrant defiance of America’s Monroe Doctrine, and Kennedy was eager to stop it.

In April 1961, he had authorized an invasion of Cuba by C.I.A.-supported Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. When that failed, Castro’s regime jailed more than a thousand members of the invasion brigade, who were released in December 1962 in exchange for $53 million in medical supplies and food. President Kennedy greeted the freed prisoners at the Orange Bowl in Miami. They presented him with their battle flag, which J.F.K. pledged to return to them “in a free Havana.”

Trying to recoup from the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Kennedy administration covertly unleashed Operation Mongoose, which included sabotage, paramilitary raids, guerrilla warfare and – although differences remain to this day over how much the president knew about them – efforts to assassinate Castro.

Kennedy saw Operation Mongoose as a substitute for authorizing a full-fledged American invasion to remove Castro from power. But the Cuban leader mistakenly presumed that Mongoose was actually the prelude to such an invasion, and he asked the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to do something to keep the Americans out. Castro’s request was one of the reasons that, in the fall of 1962, Khrushchev ordered nuclear-capable missiles sent to Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kennedy settled the crisis, in part, by pledging that the United States would not invade Cuba; however that pledge was conditioned on the presumption that Castro would stop trying to encourage other revolutions like his own throughout Latin America. But Castro was furious that Khrushchev had not consulted him before making his bargain with Kennedy to end the crisis — and furious as well that U.S. covert action against him had not ceased. (In fact, on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination, the C.I.A., in Paris, gave a disaffected comrade of Castro’s a poison pen that was to be used against the Cuban leader.)

In September 1963, Castro appeared at a Brazilian Embassy reception in Havana and warned, “American leaders should know that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, then they themselves will not be safe.”

Late on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1963 — the evening before President Kennedy’s final full day at the White House — the C.I.A.’s covert action chief, Richard Helms, brought J.F.K. what he termed “hard evidence” that Castro was still trying to foment revolution throughout Latin America.

Helms (who later served as C.I.A. director from 1966 to 1973) and an aide, Hershel Peake, told Kennedy about their agency’s discovery: a three-ton arms cache left by Cuban terrorists on a beach in Venezuela, along with blueprints for a plan to seize control of that country by stopping Venezuelan elections scheduled for 12 days hence.

Standing in the Cabinet Room near windows overlooking the darkened Rose Garden, Helms brandished what he called a “vicious-looking” rifle and told the president how its identifying Cuban seal had been sanded off.

Helms (who died in 2002) told me in 1987 that he realized that in response to this evidence, Kennedy “wasn’t going to invade Cuba,” but that he was certain the president’s “real energy” on Cuba was directed toward covert action. Helms insisted that J.F.K.’s quiet efforts to communicate with Castro were at best “a feint” — “like most two-track policies, try everything.”

Helms’s skepticism about Kennedy’s back channel to Castro no doubt reflected the president’s careful efforts to show no sign of weakness on Cuba in front of his covert action director. And indeed, as Helms later related to me, Kennedy responded to the sight of the Cuban rifle by telling him, “Great work!”

The president reminded the C.I.A. man that he would be leaving on Thursday morning for Texas. He told Helms, “Be sure to have complete information for me when I get back from my trip.”

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America’s conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

From 9/11 to McCarthyism, we have a long history of conspiracy theories — and government acts have encouraged them

Salon. com  November 3, 2014

America's conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

(Credit: AP/Seth Wenig/Bridget Besaw Gorman)

Hey, did you hear that President Obama purposefully allowed Ebola to enter the United States so America will be more like Africa?

That’s what conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said earlier this month, after the first Ebola case reached our shores. In the darker corners of the Internet, others suggested that Obama was spreading Ebola to justify the imposition of martial law; still others charged that government health officials had conspired with pharmaceutical companies to foster the disease and then to hawk a vaccine to cure it.

How could anyone believe that our government would plot to harm its own citizens? Because it’s happened before. Over the past century, the American federal government has repeatedly conspired against the people who elect it. And that’s why so many people suspect that the same thing is happening now.

From 1932 until 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service denied potentially lifesaving treatment to syphilitic African-American men as part of a study of their disease. And starting in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly tested LSD and other drugs on psychiatric patients. It also hired prostitutes to lure unwitting patrons to CIA safe houses, where the agency slipped LSD into their drinks and observed their reactions.

Meanwhile, the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally wiretapped and harassed thousands of civil rights and antiwar activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI even sent a tape recording of King making love with one of his mistresses to his office, where the package was opened by his wife.

Then came Watergate, when President Richard Nixon and his aides conspired to spy on their political enemies and then conspired to cover all of it up. And the 1980s brought the Iran-Contra conspiracy, in which federal officials sold arms to Iran and illegally funneled the profits to rebels in Nicaragua.

And when the government wasn’t conspiring against Americans, it was spreading false conspiracy theories of its own. The great master of the genre was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who blamed the Yalta accords, the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and the Communist takeover of China on “Reds” inside America. Indeed, McCarthy charged, the so-called fall of China reflected “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Yes, a small handful of duplicitous Americans passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. But the idea of a vast Communist conspiracy within the United States was itself a lie, hatched by McCarthy and others to whip Americans into a frenzy of fear.

To combat accusations of his own conspiratorial activities, meanwhile, Nixon spread false conspiracies about his predecessors. One Nixon aide faked a cable implicating John F. Kennedy in the murder of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, then leaked it to the press.

In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, finally, the George W. Bush administration invented a conspiracy between the hijackers and Saddam Hussein. Just hours after the attacks Bush instructed counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke to investigate Saddam’s role in them, turning aside Clarke’s protests that “al Qaeda did this.” Then Vice President Dick Cheney went on television to declare that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague several months before the attack, even though FBI agents found records indicating that Atta was in the United States around that time.

No wonder that over one-third of surveyed Americans in 2006 said that the Bush administration had either planned the 9/11 attacks or knew about them beforehand and did nothing to stop them. And after so many years of government conspiracies, real and invented, no one should be surprised when Americans announce that Ebola, too, is a plot by their government.

Let’s be clear: There is no evidence whatsoever for the claims about President Obama spreading Ebola. The people who spread these lies are reprehensible demagogues, and we should do everything that we can to expose them as such.

But we should also keep challenging government secrecy and duplicity, which provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists of every stripe. After last year’s revelations that the government was secretly collecting phone records of millions of Americans, whether they were suspected of a crime or not, many Americans got a bit more suspicious of their government. Didn’t you?

When the government creates conspiracies, it encourages the rest of us to do the same. But if it’s transparent, we’re more likely to trust it.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books.

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By ROBERT DALLEK

New York Times  November 21, 2013

O.O.P.S., Photograph by George Tames/The New York Times

O.O.P.S., Photograph by George Tames/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he remains an object of almost universal admiration. And yet, particularly this year, his legacy has aroused the ire of debunkers who complain that Kennedy is unworthy of all this adulation.

“John F. Kennedy probably was the worst American president of the previous century,” wrote the journalist Thomas E. Ricks. “He spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”

He was, they say, all image and no substance, a shallow playboy whose foreign policy mistakes and paltry legislative record undermine any claim to greatness. His assassination, personal attributes of good looks and charm, joined to Jacqueline Kennedy’s promotion of a Camelot myth, have gone far to explain his popularity.

Such criticism not only gives short shrift to Kennedy’s real achievements as a domestic and foreign policy leader, but it also fails to appreciate the presidency’s central role: to inspire and encourage the country to move forward, a role that Kennedy performed better than any president in modern memory.

The litany of complaints against Kennedy is a long one. Critics scoff at his image as a devoted family man: They complain that he was, as Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic, “a compulsive, even pathological adulterer,” whose reckless self-indulgence threatened to destroy his presidency.

Critics also point to his hidden health problems: Would voters have elected him over Richard M. Nixon if they had full knowledge of his Addison’s disease or other potentially disabling ailments? And what does it say about his character that he concealed his condition?

As for his presidency, critics find it difficult to understand why anyone would consider him more than an average chief executive, if even that.

They are especially critical of his civil rights record. His delay in signing an executive order ending segregation in public housing, which he had promised during the 1960 campaign; his appointment of segregationist federal judges; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s complaint that Kennedy lacked the “moral passion” to fight for equal treatment of blacks — all of this has convinced some historians that Kennedy’s later decision to ask for a civil rights law was pure political expediency.

Kennedy’s critics also find fault with his foreign policies, especially on Cuba and Vietnam. The Bay of Pigs failure and Operation Mongoose, the plan to assassinate or at least depose Fidel Castro, supposedly opened the way to the missile crisis and demonstrated his inexperience and the poor judgment of an overzealous cold warrior.

And Kennedy’s decision to increase the number of military advisers in Vietnam, combined with his alleged support for the coup that killed South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, are said to be preludes to Lyndon B. Johnson’s disastrous war.

All of this has merit. But Kennedy’s thousand-day presidency is more impressive for its gains than its shortcomings.

Most notably, he saved the world from a nuclear war with his astute diplomacy during the October 1962 confrontation with the Soviet Union over Cuba. As he privately said at the time, the military leadership wanted to bomb and invade, but no one alive then would survive to tell them they were wrong.

And while critics focus on the minutiae of those 13 days, Kennedy’s real success was what came after.

Eager to avoid a replay of Soviet-American tensions over Cuba, he followed the crisis with private expressions of interest in a rapprochement with Mr. Castro. More important, he reached an agreement with the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev for a nuclear test ban treaty that eliminated radiation fallout in the atmosphere.

As for Vietnam, what matters is that Kennedy successfully resisted pressure to send anything more than military advisers, a stance that was a likely prelude to complete withdrawal from the conflict. There is solid evidence of his eagerness to end America’s military role in that country’s civil war.

And while Kennedy did not achieve as much in terms of legislation as he wanted, his record has to be seen in context.

His legislative agenda was held hostage to a conservative Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers who saw his reforms as a threat to racial segregation. In response, he established a formal system for communicating with every allied member in Congress and kept a systematic accounting of various bills and their weekly progress. His decision to put a civil rights bill before Congress in June 1963 was a shining moment of political courage; it jeopardized his hold on Southern voters who had given him a slim margin of victory in 1960.

Moreover, had he lived to run against Barry M. Goldwater in 1964, Kennedy would have undoubtedly won a large victory and been in a position to pass his major bills. It would have won him acclaim as an impressive reformer in a league with Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. His health problems and womanizing cannot be ignored, but they were neither unique to him nor proved to be a problem in office.

But Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.

Kennedy saw the presidency as the vital center of government, and a president’s primary goal as galvanizing commitments to constructive change. He aimed to move the country and the world toward a more peaceful future, not just through legislation but through inspiration.

Kennedy’s presidential ambitions rested on his understanding of what Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and F.D.R. had done. Like them, he relied on the spoken word, but he had the advantage of television in reaching millions of people around the globe. And like those predecessors, he saw the need for actions that gave meaning to his rhetoric.

The requests in his Inaugural Address — for Americans to put their country ahead of their selfish concerns and to peoples everywhere to join in a new quest for peace — found substance in the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. His call in May 1961 for a manned mission to the Moon and his “peace speech” in June 1963 urging Americans to re-examine their attitude toward the Soviet Union were aimed at promoting national unity and international accord.

Compared with other recent presidents whose stumbles and failures have assaulted the national self-esteem, memories of Kennedy continue to give the country faith that its better days are ahead. That’s been reason enough to discount his limitations and remain enamored of his presidential performance.

Robert Dallek is a professor emeritus in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author, most recently, of “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.”

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Why Lee Harvey Oswald Pulled the Trigger

by Steven M. Gillon
HNN   November 20, 2013

ce- 133a

Image via Wiki Commons.

It has been fifty years since that tragic day in Dallas, but Americans remain fascinated with both the details of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and its meaning. This year will see the publication of nearly a dozen new books, and a flood of reprints, as the assassination cottage industry shifts into high gear. A number of television networks have produced documentary specials devoted to the assassination.

The question that is appropriate to ask at this point is: Is there really anything new to learn? While writing my new book, Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live, I went back to the standard narrative of that day — the Warren Commission. How well does it hold up in light of five decades of attacks?

In September 1964, The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, popularly known as the Warren Commission, concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, had fired three bullets from the sixth floor of the school book depository building.

The Warren Commission initially received a warm reception. Before the release of the report, a Gallup poll found that only 29 percent of Americans thought Oswald acted alone, while 52 percent believed in some kind of conspiracy. A few months after the release of the report, 87 percent of respondents believed Oswald shot the president.

Over the next few years however, critics turned public opinion against the report. In 1966, Mark Lane published his best-seller Rush to Judgment. Later that year, a New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, launched a highly publicized, but deeply flawed, investigation of his own which purported to reveal a vast conspiracy. At the same time Life Magazine published color reproductions of the Zapruder film under the cover: “Did Oswald Act Alone? A Matter of Reasonable Doubt.” The editors questioned the Commission’s conclusions and called for a new investigation.

Most of these early skeptics used the Warren Commission’s own evidence against it. They focused on contradictions among some of the witnesses about the number of shots and from where they were fired. Some witnesses claim they heard gunfire from the grassy knoll, an elevated area to the front, right of the presidential limousine. A favorite topic was the so-called “magic bullet.” According to the Warren Commission, Oswald fired three shots in less than eight seconds: the first shot missed, the second shot struck Kennedy in the back, exited through his throat, and then hit Governor Connally, breaking a rib, shattering his wrist, and ending up in his thigh. Critics claimed the bullet, which remained largely intact, could not have been responsible for all of the damage. Also, if Connally and Kennedy were hit by different bullets in a fraction of a second, then it meant there had to be another shooter.

The most serious threat to the Commission’s credibility, however, came not from the army of investigative reporters and self-styled assassination experts, but from new government investigations.

In 1975 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence headed by Idaho’s Frank Church, revealed that American intelligence agencies had systematically hidden important evidence from the Warren Commission. Both the FBI and the CIA had lied by omission to the Warren Commission. One prominent senator told a television audience that “the [Warren] report… has collapsed like a house of cards.”

These revelations led to the creation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). In December 1978, after two years of work, the committee was prepared to issue a report that supported all the major conclusions of the Warren Commission. It found no evidence of a conspiracy. No second shooter. But in the final weeks the committee changed its opinion and concluded that although Oswald was the assassin, there was a conspiracy involving a second gunman.

The committee relied on the highly questionable, and now  discredited, acoustical analysis of a police dictabelt recording from Dallas police headquarters. It contained sounds from a police motorcycle in Dealey Plaza whose radio transmitting switch was stuck in the “on” position. Two acoustics experts said there was a 95 percent certainty that the recording revealed that four shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade. As a result the House Committee came to the bizarre conclusion that a second shooter fired at the president but missed.

Coming in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the HSCA report added to public cynicism about the Warren Commission conclusions. At just the time that Americans were learning that the government lied to them about Vietnam and Watergate, they now discovered it had lied about aspects of the assassination of President Kennedy. If the CIA and the FBI had lied to the Commission, the reasoning went, then they clearly had something to hide.

There were now two conspiracies: The conspiracy to assassinate the President and, potentially, an even larger and more insidious plot among powerful figures in government and the media to cover it up.

In 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone tapped into these doubts, and added his own paranoid twist, to create the wildly popular movie JFK. The film portrayed an elaborate web of conspiracy involving Vice President Johnson, the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, the KGB, pro-Castro and anti-Castro forces, defense contractors, and assorted other officials and agencies. The movie makes it seem that First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the only person in Dealey Plaza that day who was not planning to murder the president.

The movie ended with a plea for audience members to ask Congress to open up all Kennedy assassination records. The plea worked. In 1992, Congress passed a sweeping law that placed all remaining government documents pertaining to the assassination in a special category and loosened the normal classification guidelines. The legislation led to the most ambitious declassification effort in American history — more than five million documents in total.

What we have learned from the new government investigations and from the flood of declassified documents is that Warren Commission got it mostly right. There have been no shocking revelations to challenge the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Moreover, there has emerged no convincing alternative explanation of what took place in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Yet the new information does highlighted one major flaw with the Warren Commission: its failure to present a convincing explanation for why Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. Much of the final commission report represented an indictment of Oswald. It failed to ascribe a single motive, but it made a strong case that Oswald was little more than a disaffected sociopath who was in desperate need of attention. It spent a great deal of effort showing how the events in his childhood – growing up without a father, feeling isolated, moving often, and dealing with an overbearing mother – turned him into an angry, embittered sociopath.

Many of the new documents and information, while fragmentary and often contradictory, reveal that Oswald was driven as much by ideology as he was by personal demons. None of the information reveals a conspiracy, or proves the involvement of any outside group, but it does reinforce a possible political motive to the assassination, highlighting that Oswald was driven by a desire to prove his fidelity to the Cuban Revolution, gain Castro’s respect, and possibly travel to Cuba as a conquering hero. In his fantasy world, Oswald probably assumed that he would be welcomed in Cuba as the man who killed the American devil, not appreciating that neither Castro nor the Soviets would wish to incur the wrath of the United States by harboring JFK’s assassin.

Why did the Warren Commission fail to highlight Oswald’s political motives? Cold War fears likely chilled the Commission’s desire to place too much emphasis on Oswald’s pro-Castro activities. The Commission knew a great deal about Oswald’s politics: his early embrace of Marxism, his defection to the Soviet Union, his involvement in pro-Castro groups in New Orleans, and his attempted assassination of right-wing retired general Edwin Walker a few months before he killed JFK. It pointed out that while he was being interrogated Oswald asked to be represented by a lawyer, John Apt, who represented many Communist party figures. It mentioned that Oswald had traveled to Mexico City where he shuttled back and forth between the Soviet embassy and the Cuban consulate in search of a visa. Yet it refused to connect the dots.

More importantly, the Commission lacked the proper context for evaluating Oswald’s motives because it was denied relevant intelligence information. Recently declassified document reveal that American intelligence agencies had kept close tabs on Oswald in the months before the shot JFK. The CIA took pictures of Oswald outside the Soviet embassy and even recorded his phone calls. But none of this evidence was turned over to the Commission, and all of it was later destroyed. The Commission, for example, never saw a memo prepared by J. Edgar Hoover that reported that Oswald had threaten to kill JFK during his trip to Mexico City just three weeks before the assassination.

In the most important omission, the CIA refused to provide the Commission with any of the information related to its activities in Cuba, including proposed assassination plots against Castro. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who oversaw the administration’s anti-Castro campaign, deliberately misled the Commission, denying that he was aware of any relevant information.

The final Commission report states, without any supporting evidence, that Oswald became disillusioned with Castro and Cuba after he was denied a visa to enter that country in late September. There is tantalizing evidence that just the opposite is true: As the Hoover memo suggests, it is more likely that Oswald killed Kennedy in order to convince Cuban authorities to accept his petition for a visa.

If the Commission had known about the administration’s covert campaign against Castro it would have seen Oswald’s pro-Castro actions in a new light, and could have investigated further some of his actions and associations.

The new more complicated portrait of Oswald does not change the fact that he pulled the trigger, but it does muddy the waters about why. Since he was killed before he confessed or was placed on trial we will never know for sure. Unfortunately, the Warren Commission’s incomplete portrait of Oswald and his motives has fed the conspiracy frenzy and served to undermine public faith in its lone-gunman theory.

Steven M. Gillon is the Scholar-in-Residence at The History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live.

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HNN   November 18, 2013
Image via Wiki Commons.

In a recent piece entitled JFK Holds Complex Place in Black History, AP writer Jesse Washington attempts to explain the unique bond African Americans shared with the thirty-fifth president. According to Washington, since his murder in November of 1963, Kennedy has enjoyed a special place in many African American households, pictured prominently in art and iconography with Jesus and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Although he makes an interesting case for why Kennedy holds this special place, both his conclusions and understanding of John Kennedy’s relationship with the African American community are insufficient.

First and foremost, he misidentifies the popular threesome often depicted in portraits and paintings from the period. As I recall from my own youth during frequent visits to both my grandparents, as well as friends homes, the ubiquitous portrait of Jesus always enjoyed a privileged and separate place. It was not the Christ, but the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby, who shared space with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. This is significant, as we pause to reflect on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK, for in reality it was not John alone, but the Kennedy brothers who shared a special bond with the black community.

As Washington and many of the scholars he interviewed readily admit, few today associate President Kennedy with the more profound victories associated with the civil rights movement. In reality, he proved lukewarm on civil rights. In most cases, he had to be forced into action; he responded too slowly — for example, to the violence visited upon civil rights demonstrators during the Freedom Rides in 1961 and in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

But African Americans who lived through the turbulent decade of the 60s, rarely mention President Kennedy without also referencing his brother. From the time John entered the White House, with Bobby serving as his attorney general, the Kennedys became fixed in the public imagination. In his capacity as head of the Justice Department, Bobby spearheaded much of the action on the civil rights front, but even this does not account for his place on the mantle of many homes.

For it is less what the Kennedys did while in office, but rather the frustration of hope they came to represent in death that defined them for a generation of Americans. In April of 1993, Life Magazine, in an issue dedicated to Bobby and Martin, succinctly captured the other Kennedy’s close association with the leader of the civil rights movement. “Twenty-five years after their deaths,” the caption noted, “we remember what they meant to us – and imagine what might have been.”

The key word here, of course, is “imagine.” In reality, the Kennedys barely lived up to the expectations fairly or unfairly placed on them. In life, the relationship was much more complicated. John and Bobby Kennedy supported civil rights, but it was also the Kennedy administration, prompted by the FBI, that first authorized wiretaps on Dr. King.

In office, John was the master of the political gesture. On the campaign trail in 1960, he raised hopes by intervening on behalf of King while he languished in jail. Like other politicians before him, he pleaded for patience once in office, famously calling for a cooling off period during the Freedom Rides. Notably, he delivered key speeches to indicate the administration’s unqualified support for desegregation in 1963. Though slow, the timeliness of his pronouncements and actions should not be dismissed although his cautious approach to the civil rights revolution taking place perturbed more radical voices within the African American community. Malcolm X was especially critical of Kennedy’s stance on the civil rights bill and later characterized his assassination as a case of “chickens come home to roost.”

In death, however, Kennedy took on the role of martyr, especially after the Johnson administration sought to frame the Civil Rights Act as a tribute to the slain president, helping to solidify his place in the movement’s greatest legislative victory.

It was in the wake of on the MLK assassination in April of 1968 that Bobby Kennedy emerged as the nation’s new dreamer. His strong identification with the poor and disaffected boosted his popularity among African Americans. His decision to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency once again raised expectations.

His assassination, eighty-one days into the campaign, sealed the place of the Kennedys American history. In death, especially in the African American community, the brothers were elevated to the rank of martyrs, bookending King.

In death, King and the Kennedys remain important symbols of the power of hope and the promise of a just democracy.

Even today, Bobby Kennedy’s powerful affirmation of hope as a pathway to justice is often commemorated during Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” Kennedy explained in 1966, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” Those “ripples” he concluded” build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” It is the ripples of hope that the lives of each of these men, imperfect as they were, represent for African Americans and why for so many years they have shared a privileged place in the hearts and minds of so many.

Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams

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