Posts Tagged ‘Robert Kennedy’

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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The FBI vs. Martin Luther King: Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s «Suicide Letter» to Civil Rights Leader

Democracy Now   November 18, 2014

It was 50 years ago today that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made headlines by calling Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the “most notorious liar in the country.» Hoover made the comment in front of a group of female journalists ahead of King’s trip to Oslo where he received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest recipient of the prize. While Hoover was trying to publicly discredit King, the agency also sent King an anonymous letter threatening to expose the civil rights leader’s extramarital affairs. The unsigned, typed letter was written in the voice of a disillusioned civil rights activist, but it is believed to have been written by one of Hoover’s deputies, William Sullivan. The letter concluded by saying, «King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. … You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.» The existence of the so-called «suicide letter» has been known for years, but only last week did the public see the unredacted version. We speak to Yale University professor Beverly Gage, who uncovered the unredacted letter.

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The Still Elusive Joseph P. Kennedy

HNN June 29, 2014


Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the paterfamilias of the Kennedy clan, continues to be scrutinized in lengthy biographies as well as in numerous studies of his most famous progeny.1 The reasons for this persistent interest are not especially difficult to understand. Kennedy’s intriguing career is well documented in print, in archival collections, in recordings, and on film. Of course, much the same can be said of the life of Senator Prescott Bush, the founder of the Bush clan. However, the Kennedy family story has taken on a unique and almost mythic quality because of the dramatic historical events which destroyed JPK’s own political ambitions and the tragedies that consumed his sons and two of his daughters.

Historian and biographer David Nasaw, the most recent scholar to take on the JPK story, was offered unrestricted access by the Kennedy family to the papers of Joseph P. Kennedy at Boston’s Kennedy Library. Nasaw insists that there were no strings attached—that he received permission to read and cite any and all materials in the JPK papers. However, he has acknowledged in a TV interview, that even after he agreed to write the book it took nearly 18 months to finalize a legal agreement between the Kennedys and the author—inevitably creating speculation about the precise nature of the issues which required such lengthy negotiations.

When I was a graduate student in history in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1960s, I was offered $10,000 [about $80,000 today] by my next door neighbors, the granddaughters of Congressman Oakes Ames—disgraced in the great railroad stock scandal of the Grant administration—to write an exculpatory account of their ancestor. That would have been the ultimate example of a strings attached biography! There are, however, more subtle ways in which an author, whether deliberately or not, can shade the evidence to give the benefit of the doubt to his or her subject and their family. And there are some legitimate questions—not accusations—along these lines that historians should ask about Nasaw’s JPK biography.

The most fundamental question is: has Nasaw, in a laudable effort to be fair and balanced, gone too far in filing down the rough edges of Joe Kennedy’s personality and career? Early in the last decade, for example, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz described David McCullough’s widely acclaimed biography of John Adams as “a prudent but deeply admiring study of an enormously talented and remarkable patriot.” But, at the same time, Wilentz wondered if McCullough, in emphasizing the “goodness” of Adams’ character, had all but lost sight of Adams’ “suspicious, pugnacious, and at times pig-headed” intellect as well as his political “ponderousness, his pettiness, and his sometimes disabling pessimism.” Has Nasaw, whether consciously or unconsciously, also opted for a kinder and gentler JPK?

Nasaw covers Kennedy’s extraordinarily successful business career in about 130 pages—1/6 of the 787 page book. We learn about his remarkable ability “to jiggle numbers and accounts” and to profit from a bull market. But, “when it came to making money,” Nasaw tells us, “in up markets and down markets, good times and bad, Joseph P. Kennedy was in a league by himself.” In Hollywood, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he substantially increased his net worth. Nasaw makes clear that Kennedy used all the tricks of the trade (such as stock pools, insider trading, and selling short). These practices were rife in the rampant market speculation of the 1920s. And, of course, they were not yet illegal.

But, for example, in his detailed account of the sale of Pathé to RKO in 1931, from which JPK made a great deal of money, Nasaw fails to mention that Kennedy allegedly shafted Guy Currier, the man who had helped launch his early career with a position at the Fore River Shipyard. Currier’s daughter and granddaughter, quoted in Ronald Kessler’s 1996 JPK biography, insisted that Currier had been betrayed and “didn’t realize how corrupt he [Kennedy] was.” If Nasaw disagreed with Kessler on this question, he should have dealt critically with the Currier episode instead of disregarding it.2

Likewise, Kessler weaves a sordid tale of how Kennedy apparently fleeced Alexander Pantages, the owner of some sixty luxurious “movie palaces” through the use of bribes, payoffs, and even false charges of rape. Again, it is entirely possible that Kessler’s account is inaccurate and even false. But Nasaw never mentioned Pantages and did not list Kessler’s book in his bibliography.

Nasaw also discusses JPK’s 1937 effort to rescue his friend William Randolph Hearst from possible bankruptcy by arranging a bank loan “predicated on Kennedy ‘taking over the financial management of all the Hearst properties.’” Kennedy would reorganize Hearst’s empire “and spin off the magazines into a new company that he would control.” Hearst’s financial advisers rejected the deal and Kennedy denied that he was “stealing the magazines from Mr. Hearst.” Armand Hammer, a businessman who dealt personally with Hearst at the time, is quoted by Kessler as claiming that Kennedy’s plan was “self-serving” and that the $8 million price offered “was only a fraction of what the properties were worth.” Nasaw did not cite any of the contemporaneous critics of Kennedy’s proposed deal.

Later that same year, FDR decided to appoint JPK to the post of American ambassador in London. It was a daring move; Kennedy would become the first Irish-Catholic to hold that post. Nasaw concludes that Roosevelt needed someone to provide reliable intelligence about Europe’s political situation and the thoughts of its leaders, industrialists, press and public. “This Kennedy might be able to provide. Say what you might about the man,” Nasaw concludes, “he was a superb analyst and reporter, a clear-headed, tough-minded, independent thinker who appeared not to be swayed by ideology, belonged to no political faction, was beholden to no industrial sector, and was loyal to the president.”

This judgment, however, seems to contradict not only many other far more critical assessments of JPK, but much of the evidence in Nasaw’s own book. JPK may not have been beholden to any specific industrial sector, but he was certainly closely bound to the financial/banking/stock market sector. Kennedy’s loyalty too, was very malleable. After working in and contributing to FDR’s 1932 election campaign, JPK reacted furiously to the fact that he was passed over for any significant position in the new administration. Roosevelt brain truster Raymond Moley recalled that Kennedy’s disappointment “turned very soon to deep indignation. … I heard plenty of Kennedy’s excoriation of Roosevelt, of his criticisms of the President-elect, who according to Kennedy, had no program—and what ideas he had were unworthy of note.” One of Moley’s associates later claimed that JPK had been “spreading malicious stories about the president.” Kennedy’s close friend and loyalist Arthur Krock predicted in the New York Times that Roosevelt was planning to move far to the left by 1936 and was distancing himself from conservative businessmen and former advisers such as Joseph Kennedy. It seems highly unlikely that Krock would have named Kennedy without the latter’s prior knowledge. Soon after, as American Ambassador in London, Kennedy told his diplomatic and political contacts not to worry about FDR’s hostility to Nazism because after the 1940 election his friends would be in the White House.

Likewise JPK soon demonstrated that he was very easily swayed by ideology, political/economic self-interest, and group-think in his not very “clear-headed, tough-minded” evaluation of the growing Nazi threat in Europe. In 1934, he essentially endorsed an assessment by Joseph Kennedy, Jr., who had visited Germany and seemed to be parroting what Nasaw calls “a script prepared for him by Nazi propagandists.” JPK’s eldest son argued that Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies were a “well founded” response to a situation for which the Jews themselves were responsible. He observed that the “brown shirts were very nice and polite … and one sees no sign of brutality.” JPK noted that Nazi racial violence may “be covered up” in the presence of foreigners, but nonetheless praised his son’s “very keen sense of perception” and added, “I think your conclusions are very sound.” Kennedy, Sr.’s stance on Nazi racial policies seems to have been all but decided long before his appointment as ambassador in London.

In a similar vein, when discussing JPK’s pressure on President-elect Kennedy to appoint Robert Kennedy as attorney general, Nasaw concludes that JFK’s “past experiences had proven to him that more often than not Joseph P. Kennedy knew what he was talking about.” The book, on the contrary, is littered with examples of JPK’s opinions, which more often than not demonstrated that he did not know what he was talking about. For example: Kennedy told FDR that Hitler was bluffing on annexing Austria—and was proved wrong within hours; JPK praised Chamberlain because, unlike Roosevelt, he had been a businessman and still thought like one—which was a plus; the ambassador declared that the crisis between Czechoslovakia and Germany “will solve itself without interference” by other European powers and that Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia was “the beginning of a step in the right direction;” Kennedy told his wife that the Munich agreement “may be the beginning of a new world policy which may mean peace and prosperity once again;” he even argued that “if we had to protect our lives we would do better fighting in our own backyard” rather than in Europe; on the first night of the blitz in London, he told an aide: “I’ll bet you five to one any sum that Hitler will be in Buckingham Palace in two weeks;” when Chamberlain resigned, Kennedy told him that “Your conception of what the world must do in order to be a fit place to live in is the last sensible thing we shall see” and predicted that “Democracy is finished in England. It may be here [in the US].”

In 1940, he told his wife, “My God how right I’ve been in all my predictions. I wish I’d been wrong. … I know more about the European situation than anyone else and it’s up to me to see that the country gets it.” During the Battle of Britain, he callously grumbled to Lord Beaverbrook, “The bombers may be tough in London but the ill-disposed newspapers are tougher in America;” in 1944 he complained again to Beaverbrook, “I wonder if this war will do anything for the world;” and, even after the defeat of Nazism and Fascism, and the indisputable proof of the Holocaust, he asked Churchill in early 1946, “After all, what did we accomplish by this war?”

Finally, the staggering fact of the “Final Solution” makes it is essential to confront one of the most contentious issues relating to Joseph P. Kennedy—his purported anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic thread, Nasaw documents incontrovertibly, runs consistently through JPK’s life and career. Kennedy went to Hollywood in the 1920s to rescue the industry from “the unscrupulous, money-hungry, immoral Jews,” pants pressers “who didn’t understand business, banking, or accounting—and never would.” He cast himself as “Hollywood’s white, non-Jewish knight,” a Harvard-educated financier who would rescue the film industry “from the suspicion that its pictures were not to be trusted because they were produced by men who through breeding and background were morally untrustworthy.” His films would be “American films for Americans.”

A decade later, as US ambassador in London, Kennedy quickly fell under the spell of Lady Astor and the Cliveden set—sharing their enthusiasm for appeasement and anti-Semitism. (The boy from East Boston, aspiring to social acceptance by the condescending British elite, was able to overlook the Astors’ openly anti-Catholic views.) Nasaw asserts that JPK was not a “member” of the Cliveden set and was not “unduly influenced by their views.” But, he acknowledges that Kennedy—a foreign diplomat expected to avoid becoming entangled in internal British politics—“had no problem with Lady Astor’s pronouncements about the Jews, in large part because she was simply saying in public what others, Kennedy included, were saying in private. Kennedy had no intention of staying away or encouraging any member of his family to do so. … He continued to see a great deal of the Astors, almost in defiance of those who criticized him for doing so.” The claim that JPK was not a “member” of the Cliveden set, (whatever that means) is a rhetorical distinction without a real-world difference, and it certainly fails to let him off the hook for blatantly undiplomatic and disloyal behavior that infuriated FDR and Cordell Hull, the secretary of state.

In June 1938, Kennedy met with the German ambassador in London and declared that Hitler’s desire to “get rid of the Jews” was entirely justified, but deplored the unnecessarily “loud clamor” associated with these measures. He claimed to understand Nazi racial and religious policies because he was from Boston and Jews had been barred from private clubs there for fifty years—casually equating this comparatively trivial example of the pervasive Irish-Catholic anti-Semitism of that era with Nazi Germany’s persecution, dispossession and murder of its Jewish citizens.

When his appeasement was criticized in the American press, he attributed the attacks to a vast Jewish conspiracy that controlled both the press and the State Department. He simply ignored the fact, “that in numbers and ferocity, his gentile critics far outnumbered the Jewish;” His chief detractor, Walter Lippmann, was Jewish, but so was his most influential defender, Arthur Krock—“jokingly referred to” by members of JPK’s own family as “the ambassador’s spy in Washington.” He also claimed that the Jews were “so powerful in that they were steamrolling their proposals for [Jewish] refugee resettlement through Washington.” In fact all these efforts failed miserably; Jews had no influence whatsoever in the State Department or over US foreign policy.

Shortly before the 1944 presidential election, Kennedy warned FDR that some “old line Democrats—the Irish and the Italians” might not vote for him for a fourth term because he was “Jew controlled [sic].” The former ambassador specifically mentioned the ostensibly excessive influence of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Roosevelt responded defensively, “Why, I don’t see Frankfurter twice a year.” JPK, increasingly convinced of the power of this elusive and secret Jewish conspiracy, replied: “You see him twenty times a day but you don’t know it because he works through all these other groups of people without your knowing it.”

The reader, therefore, is left with no doubt about the author’s conclusions about Joe Kennedy’s anti-Semitism. But, when Nasaw spoke about the book at the JFK Library, he stressed that he had tried from the beginning to determine whether JPK was indeed an anti-Semite:

I concluded that to be an anti-Semite, like Henry Ford, like Lindbergh, like Lady Astor… a real anti-Semite has to believe there’s something in the genetic make-up, in the blood of Jews which makes them sinister, evil and destructive of Christian morality. I think Henry Ford believes that. I think Lindbergh believes that. They have a real, racist, racial understanding. Kennedy doesn’t believe that at all.

On the other hand, Kennedy believes that—and he’s brought up that way—that the Jews are another tribe. They’re different; they’re culturally different. They look after themselves, just as Irish Catholics look after themselves. The Jews are smarter because they’re better organized in the United States than Irish Catholics. The Jews get what they want. But his admiration of the Jews allows him, permits him, encourages him to buy into thousand-year-old anti -Semitic myths while he is ambassador to Great Britain. And it is frightening, indeed. And I’m glad that his family didn’t have to read some of his letters and some of his diaries, and some of his conversations that other people recorded.

This distinction is, to say the least, an incredible stretch. The “genetic make-up, in the blood” arguments were largely a product of late 19th century “scientific” and “racialist” anti-Semitism in Europe (for example, in the writing of Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain). Joe Kennedy’s historical/religious/theological anti-Semitism had flourished for more than a thousand years before genes were even discovered. As Jean Paul Sartre famously declared, the anti-Semite’s experience did not produce his view of the Jew, rather his view of the Jew explained his experience: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”3

It is striking that Nasaw utilized this historically artificial distinction at the Kennedy Library, allowing him, in that particular setting, to fudge the issue of whether JPK was an anti-Semite—which he did not do in the book. Also, the ambiguous final sentence in the Kennedy Library quote, referring to the “frightening” anti-Semitism in JPK’s letters, diaries, and conversations “that his family didn’t have to read,” hints that Nasaw may have chosen to leave at least some of these very disturbing remarks out of the book.

Finally, there is a compelling irony about Joseph Kennedy’s toxic convictions about Jews. JPK was dogged throughout his life by charges that he was a corrupt banker and Wall Street operator, an insular, amoral, ruthless, greedy, selfish, conniving and secretive robber baron who believed that everyone had a price and anything could be bought. For example, soon after Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Kennedy met with King George VI who concluded that the American ambassador spoke “a different language” and calculated “everything from the angle of his own investments.” In other words, JPK himself exhibited the same stereotypical behavior which anti-Semites associate with Jews.

“It can be argued,” Doris Kearns Goodwin concluded in 1987,

that Kennedy embodied many of the traits traditionally associated with the Jews. It was said that the Jews did not cultivate the earth or work at mechanical trades, preferring to live by their cunning and wit in the ‘unproductive’ role of creditors, speculators and middlemen. It was said that the Jews were unscrupulous profit-takers who made their gains from the labor of others. It was said that the Jews were pushing for social acceptance too hard and too soon, while their voices were still uncouth and their sense of tact still in the stage of the pushcart peddler. All of these charges could be equally laid against Joseph Patrick Kennedy.4

During my years as historian at the Kennedy Library, I heard JFK’s pal Dave Powers tell a revealing story about “old man Kennedy.” When 13-year-old Edward Kennedy was a student at the Fessenden School, he would buy candy bars during lunch break and then sell them at wildly inflated prices to his hungry fellow adolescents during the afternoon. Joe Kennedy thought Teddy’s behavior was admirable, but joked that perhaps a Jew had gotten over the fence and secretly infiltrated the family in the distant past. It obviously never occurred to Kennedy, Sr. that his youngest son did not need an allegorical or mythical Jewish ancestor to explain his behavior; he was emulating someone very close at hand—his own father.

1For example: Richard Whalen, The Founding Father: the Story of Joseph P. Kennedy, 1964; David E. Koskoff, Joseph P. Kennedy: A Life and Times, 1974; Doris K. Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, 1987; Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth, 1992, Ralph G. Martin, Seeds of Destruction: Joe Kennedy and His Sons, 1995; Ronald Kessler, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded, 1996; Amanda Smith, Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy, 2001; Lawrence Leamer, The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963, 2001; David Nasaw, The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, 2012.

2Kessler’s book is relentlessly hostile to JPK; but, as the author of nine books, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and the winner of sixteen journalism awards—including two George Polk Awards—he should not be ignored.

3Jean Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, Schocken Books, 1965, p. 13.

4Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, Simon and Schuster, 1987, p. 473


Sheldon Stern received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970 and 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), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000. 


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Brazil Marks 50th Anniversary of Military Coup

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 465

April 2, 2014

Edited by James G. Hershberg and Peter Kornbluh

JFK and Goulart 2

President Kennedy and President Joao Goulart on a state visit to Washington April 2, 1962.

Washington, DC, April 2, 2014 – Almost two years before the April 1, 1964, military takeover in Brazil, President Kennedy and his top aides began seriously discussing the option of overthrowing Joao Goulart’s government, according to Presidential tape transcripts posted by the National Security Archive on the 50th anniversary of the coup d’tat. «What kind of liaison do we have with the military?» Kennedy asked top aides in July 1962. In March 1963, he instructed them: «We’ve got to do something about Brazil.»

The tape transcripts advance the historical record on the U.S. role in deposing Goulart — a record which remains incomplete half a century after he fled into exile in Uruguay on April 1, 1964. «The CIA’s clandestine political destabilization operations against Goulart between 1961 and 1964 are the black hole of this history,» according to the Archive’s Brazil Documentation Project director, Peter Kornbluh, who called on the Obama administration to declassify the still secret intelligence files on Brazil from both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.

Revelations on the secret U.S. role in Brazil emerged in the mid 1970s, when the Lyndon Johnson Presidential library began declassifying Joint Chiefs of Staff records on «Operation Brother Sam» — President Johnson’s authorization for the U.S. military to covertly and overtly supply arms, ammunition, gasoline and, if needed, combat troops if the military’s effort to overthrow Goulart met with strong resistance. On the 40th anniversary of the coup, the National Security Archive posted audio files of Johnson giving the green light for military operations to secure the success of the coup once it started.

«I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do,» President Johnson instructed his aides regarding U.S. support for a coup as the Brazilian military moved against Goulart on March 31, 1964.

But Johnson inherited his anti-Goulart, pro-coup policy from his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. Over the last decade, declassified NSC records and recently transcribed White House tapes have revealed the evolution of Kennedy’s decision to create a coup climate and, when conditions permitted, overthrow Goulart if he did not yield to Washington’s demand that he stop «playing» with what Kennedy called «ultra-radical anti-Americans» in Brazil’s government. During White House meetings on July 30, 1962, and on March 8 and 0ctober 7, 1963, Kennedy’s secret Oval Office taping system recorded the attitude and arguments of the highest U.S. officials as they strategized how to force Goulart to either purge leftists in his government and alter his nationalist economic and foreign policies or be forced out by a U.S.-backed putsch.

Indeed, the very first Oval Office meeting that Kennedy secretly taped, on July 30, 1962, addressed the situation in Brazil. «I think one of our important jobs is to strengthen the spine of the military,» U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon told the President and his advisor, Richard Goodwin. «To make clear, discreetly, that we are not necessarily hostile to any kind of military action whatsoever if it’s clear that the reason for the military action is…[Goulart’s] giving the country away to the…,» «Communists,» as the president finished his sentence. During this pivotal meeting, the President and his men decided to upgrade contacts with the Brazilian military by bringing in a new US military attaché-Lt. Col. Vernon Walters who eventually became the key covert actor in the preparations for the coup. «We may very well want them [the Brazilian military] to take over at the end of the year,» Goodwin suggested, «if they can.» (Document 1)

By the end of 1962, the Kennedy administration had indeed determined that a coup would advance U.S. interests if the Brazilian military could be mobilized to move. The Kennedy White House was particularly upset about Goulart’s independent foreign policy positions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although Goulart had assisted Washington’s efforts to avoid nuclear Armageddon by acting as a back channel intermediary between Kennedy and Castro — a top secret initiative uncovered by George Washington University historian James G. Hershberg — Goulart was deemed insufficiently supportive of U.S. efforts to ostracize Cuba at the Organization of American States. On December 13, Kennedy told former Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek that the situation in Brazil «worried him more than that in Cuba.»

On December 11, 1962, the Executive Committee (EXCOMM) of the National Security Council met to evaluate three policy alternatives on Brazil: A. «do nothing and allow the present drift to continue; B. collaborate with Brazilian elements hostile to Goulart with a view to bringing about his overthrow; C. seek to change the political and economic orientation of Goulart and his government.» [link to document 2] Option C was deemed «the only feasible present approach» because opponents of Goulart lacked the «capacity and will to overthrow» him and Washington did not have «a near future U.S. capability to stimulate [a coup] operation successfully.» Fomenting a coup, however «must be kept under active and continuous consideration,» the NSC options paper recommended.

Acting on these recommendations, President Kennedy dispatched a special envoy — his brother Robert — to issue a face-to-face de facto ultimatum to Goulart. Robert Kennedy met with Goulart at the Palacio do Alvarada in Brazilia on December 17, 1962. During the three-hour meeting, RFK advised Goulart that the U.S. had «the gravest doubts» about positive future relations with Brazil, given the «signs of Communist or extreme left-wing nationalists infiltration into civilian government positions,» and the opposition to «American policies and interests as a regular rule.» As Goulart issued a lengthy defense of his policies, Kennedy passed a note to Ambassador Gordon stating: «We seem to be getting no place.» The attorney general would later say that he came away from the meeting convinced that Goulart was «a Brazilian Jimmy Hoffa.»

Kennedy and his top aides met once again on March 7, 1963, to decide how to handle the pending visit of the Brazilian finance minister, Santiago Dantas. In preparation for the meeting, Ambassador Gordon submitted a long memo to the president recommending that if it proved impossible to convince Goulart to modify his leftist positions, the U.S. work «to prepare the most promising possible environment for his replacement by a more desirable regime.» (Document 5) The tape of this meeting (partially transcribed here for the first time by James Hershberg) focused on Goulart’s continuing leftward drift. Robert Kennedy urged the President to be more forceful toward Goulart: He wanted his brother to make it plain «that this is something that’s very serious with us, we’re not fooling around about it, we’re giving him some time to make these changes but we can’t continue this forever.» The Brazilian leader, he continued, «struck me as the kind of wily politician who’s not the smartest man in the world … he figures that he’s got us by the—and that he can play it both ways, that he can make the little changes, he can make the arrangements with IT&T and then we give him some money and he doesn’t have to really go too far.» He exhorted the president to «personally» clarify to Goulart that he «can’t have the communists and put them in important positions and make speeches criticizing the United States and at the same time get 225-[2]50 million dollars from the United States. He can’t have it both ways.»

As the CIA continued to report on various plots against Goulart in Brazil, the economic and political situation deteriorated. When Kennedy convened his aides again on October 7, he wondered aloud if the U.S. would need to overtly depose Goulart: «Do you see a situation where we might be—find it desirable to intervene militarily ourselves?» The tape of the October 7 meeting — a small part of which was recently publicized by Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari, but now transcribed at far greater length here by Hershberg — contains a detailed discussion of various scenarios in which Goulart would be forced to leave. Ambassador Gordon urged the president to prepare contingency plans for providing ammunition or fuel to pro-U.S. factions of the military if fighting broke out. «I would not want us to close our minds to the possibility of some kind of discreet intervention,» Gordon told President Kennedy, «which would help see the right side win.»

Under Gordon’s supervision, over the next few weeks the U.S. embassy in Brazil prepared a set of contingency plans with what a transmission memorandum, dated November 22, 1963, described as «a heavy emphasis on armed intervention.» Assassinated in Dallas on that very day, President Kennedy would never have the opportunity to evaluate, let alone implement, these options.

But in mid-March 1964, when Goulart’s efforts to bolster his political powers in Brazil alienated his top generals, the Johnson administration moved quickly to support and exploit their discontent-and be in the position to assure their success. «The shape of the problem,» National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy told a meeting of high-level officials three days before the coup, «is such that we should not be worrying that the [Brazilian] military will react; we should be worrying that the military will not react.»

«We don’t want to watch Brazil dribble down the drain,» the CIA, White House and State Department officials determined, according to the Top Secret meeting summary, «while we stand around waiting for the [next] election.»



Document 1: White House, Transcript of Meeting between President Kennedy, Ambassador Lincoln Gordon and Richard Goodwin, July 30, 1962. (Published in The Presidential Recordings of John F. Kennedy, The Great Crises, Volume One (W.W. Norton), edited by Timothy Naftali, October 2001.)

The very first Oval Office meeting ever secretly taped by President Kennedy took place on July 30, 1962 and addressed the situation in Brazil and what to do about its populist president, Joao Goulart. The recording — it was transcribed and published in book The Presidential Recordings of John F. Kennedy, The Great Crises, Volume One — captures a discussion between the President, top Latin America aide Richard Goodwin and U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon about beginning to set the stage for a future military coup in Brazil. The President and his men make a pivotal decision to appoint a new U.S. military attaché to become a liaison with the Brazilian military, and Lt. Col. Vernon Walters is identified. Walters later becomes the key covert player in the U.S. support for the coup. «We may very well want them [the Brazilian military] to take over at the end of the year,» Goodwin suggests, «if they can.»


Document 2: NSC, Memorandum, «U.S. Short-Term policy Toward Brazil,» Secret, December 11, 1962

In preparation for a meeting of the Executive Committee (EXCOMM) of the National Security Council, the NSC drafted an options paper with three policy alternatives on Brazil: A. «do nothing and allow the present drift to continue; B. collaborate with Brazilian elements hostile to Goulart with a view to bringing about his overthrow; C. seek to change the political and economic orientation of Goulart and his government.» Option C was deemed «the only feasible present approach» because opponents of Goulart lacked the «capacity and will to overthrow» him and Washington did not have «a near future U.S. capability to stimulate [a coup] operation successfully.» Fomenting a coup, however «must be kept under active and continuous consideration,» the NSC options paper recommended. If Goulart continued to move leftward, «the United States should be ready to shift rapidly and effectively to…collaboration with friendly democratic elements, including the great majority of military officer corps, to unseat President Goulart.»


Document 3: NSC, «Minutes of the National Security Council Executive Committee Meeting, Meeting No. 35,» Secret, December 11, 1962

The minutes of the EXCOMM meeting record that President Kennedy accepted the recommendation that U.S. policy «seek to change the political and economic orientation of Goulart and his government.»


Document 4: U.S. Embassy, Rio de Janeiro, Airgram A-710, «Minutes of Conversation between Brazilian President Joao Goulart and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Brasilia, 17 December 1962,» December 19, 1962

In line with JFK’s decision at the Excom meeting on December 11 to have «representative sent specially» to talk to Goulart, the president’s brother made a hastily-prepared journey to «confront» the Brazilian leader over the issues that had increasingly concerned and irritated Washington-from his chaotic management of Brazil’s economy and expropriation of U.S. corporations such as IT&T, to his lukewarm support during the Cuban missile crisis and flirtation with the Soviet bloc to, most alarming, his allegedly excessive toleration of far left and even communist elements in the government, military, society, and even his inner circle. Accompanied by US ambassador Lincoln Gordon, RFK met for more than three hours with Goulart in the new inland capital of Brasília at the modernistic lakeside presidential residence, the Palácio do Alvorada. A 17-page memorandum of conversation, drafted by Amb. Gordon, recorded the Attorney General presenting his list of complaints: the «many signs of Communist or extreme left-wing nationalists infiltration» into civilian government, military, trade union, and student group leaderships, and Goulart’s personal failure to take a public stand against the «violently anti-American» statements emanating from «influential Brazilians» both in and out of his government, or to embrace Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Turning to economic issues, he said his brother was «very deeply worried at the deterioration» in recent months, from rampant inflation to the disappearance of reserves, and called on Goulart to get his «economic and financial house in order.» Surmounting these obstacles to progress, RFK stressed, could mark a «turning point in relations between Brazil and the U.S. and in the whole future of Latin America and of the free world.» When Goulart defended his policies, Kennedy scribbled a note to Ambassador Gordon: «We seem to be getting no place.» JFK’s emissary voiced his fear «that President Goulart had not fully understood the nature of President Kennedy’s concern about the present situation and prospects.»


Document 5: Department of State, Memorandum to Mr. McGeorge Bundy, «Political Considerations Affecting U.S. Assistance to Brazil,» Secret, March 7, 1963

In preparation for another key Oval office meeting on Brazil, the Department of State transmitted two briefing papers, including a memo to the president from Amb. Gordon titled «Brazilian Political Developments and U.S. Assistance.» The latter briefing paper (attached to the first document) was intended to assist the President in deciding how to handle the visit of Brazilian Finance Minister San Tiago Dantas to Washington. Gordon cited continuing problems with Goulart’s «equivocal, with neutralist overtones» foreign policy, and the «communist and other extreme nationalist, far left wing, and anti-American infiltration in important civilian and military posts with the government.»


Document 6: Excerpts from John F. Kennedy’s conversation regarding Brazil with U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon on Friday March 8, 1963 (Meeting 77.1, President’s Office Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston)

On March 8, 1963, a few days before Dantas’ arrived, JFK reviewed the state of US-Brazilian relations with his top advisors, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, his ambassador to Brazil, Lincoln Gordon, and his brother Robert. Unofficially transcribed here by James G. Hershberg (with assistance from Marc Selverstone and David Coleman) this is apparently the first time that it has been published since the tape recording was released more than a decade ago by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. As the comments by Rusk, Gordon, and RFK make clear, deep dissatisfaction with Goulart persisted. «Brazil is a country that we can’t possibly turn away from,» Secretary of State Rusk told the president. «Whatever happens there is going to be of decisive importance to the hemisphere.» Rusk frankly acknowledged that the situation wasn’t yet so bad as to justify Goulart’s overthrow to «all the non-communists or non-totalitarian Brazilians,» nor to justify a «clear break» between Washington and Rio that would be understood throughout the hemisphere. Instead, the strategy for the time being was to continue cooperation with Goulart’s government while raising pressure on him to improve his behavior, particularly his tolerance of far-leftist, anti-United States, and even communist associates-to, in JFK’s words, «string out» aid in order to «put the screws» on him. The president’s brother, in particular, clearly did not feel that Goulart had followed through since their meeting a few months earlier on his vows to put a lid on anti-U.S. expressions or make personnel changes to remove some of the most egregiously leftist figures in his administration. Goulart, stated RFK, «struck me as the kind of wily politician who’s not the smartest man in the world but very sensitive to this [domestic political] area, that he figures that he’s got us by the—and that he can play it both ways, that he can make the little changes…and then we give him some money and he doesn’t have to really go too far.»


Document 7: CIA, Current Intelligence Memorandum, «Plotting Against Goulart,» Secret, March 8, 1963

For more than two years before the April 1, 1964 coup, the CIA transmitted intelligence reports on various coup plots. The plot, described in this memo as «the best-developed plan,» is being considered by former minister of war, Marshal Odylio Denys. In a clear articulation of U.S. concerns about the need for a successful coup, the CIA warned that «a premature coup effort by the Brazilian military would be likely to bring a strong reaction from Goulart and the cashiering of those officers who are most friendly to the United States.»


Document 8: State Department, Latin American Policy Committee, «Approved Short-Term Policy in Brazil,» Secret, October 3, 1963

In early October, the State Department’s Latin America Policy Committee approved a «short term» draft policy statement on Brazil for consideration by President Kennedy and the National Security Council. Compared to the review in March, the situation has deteriorated drastically, according to Washington’s point of view, in large measure due to Goulart’s «agitation,» unstable leadership, and increasing reliance on leftist forces. In its reading of the current and prospective situation, defining American aims, and recommending possible lines of action for the United States, the statement explicitly considered, albeit somewhat ambiguously, the U.S. attitude toward a possible coup to topple Goulart. «Barring clear indications of serious likelihood of a political takeover by elements subservient to and supported by a foreign government, it would be against U.S. policy to intervene directly or indirectly in support of any move to overthrow the Goulart regime. In the event of a threatened foreign-government-affiliated political takeover, consideration of courses of action would be directed more broadly but directly to the threatened takeover, rather than against Goulart (though some action against the latter might result).» Kennedy and his top aides met four days later to consider policy options and strategies–among them U.S. military intervention in Brazil.


Document 9: Excerpts from John F. Kennedy’s conversation regarding Brazil with U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon on Monday, October 7, 1963 (tape 114/A50, President’s Office Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston)

«Do you see a situation where we might be-find it desirable to intervene militarily ourselves?» John F. Kennedy’s question to his ambassador to Brazil, Lincoln Gordon, reflected the growing concerns that a coup attempt against Goulart might need U.S. support to succeed, especially if it triggered an outbreak of fighting or even civil war. This tape, parts of which were recently publicized by Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari, has been significantly transcribed by James G. Hershberg (with assistance from Marc Selverstone) and published here for the first time. It captured JFK, Gordon, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and other top officials concluding that the prospect of an impending move to terminate Goulart’s stay in office (long before his term was supposed to come to an end more than two years later) required an acceleration of serious U.S. military contingency planning as well as intense efforts to ascertain the balance between military forces hostile and friendly to the current government. In his lengthy analysis of the situation, Gordon — who put the odds at 50-50 that Goulart would be gone, one way or another, by early 1964 — outlined alternative scenarios for future developments, ranging from Goulart’s peaceful early departure («a very good thing for both Brazil and Brazilian-American relations»), perhaps eased out by military pressure, to a possible sharp Goulart move to the left, which could trigger a violent struggle to determine who would rule the country. Should a military coup seize power, Gordon clearly did not want U.S. squeamishness about constitutional or democratic niceties to preclude supporting Goulart’s successors: «Do we suspend diplomatic relations, economic relations, aid, do we withdraw aid missions, and all this kind of thing — or do we somehow find a way of doing what we ought to do, which is to welcome this?» And should the outcome of the attempt to oust Goulart lead to a battle between military factions, Gordon urged study of military measures (such as providing fuel or ammunition, if requested) that Washington could take to assure a favorable outcome: «I would not want us to close our minds to the possibility of some kind of discreet intervention in such a case, which would help see the right side win.» On the tape, McNamara suggests, and JFK approves, accelerated work on contingency planning («can we get it really pushed ahead?»). Even as U.S. officials in Brazil intensified their encouragement of anti-communist military figures, Kennedy cautioned that they should not burn their bridges with Goulart, which might give him an excuse to rally nationalist support behind an anti-Washington swerve to the left: Washington needed to continue «applying the screws on the [economic] aid» to Brazil, but «with some sensitivity.»


Document 10: State Department, Memorandum, «Embassy Contingency Plan,» Top Secret, November 22, 1963

Dated on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, this cover memo describes a new contingency plan from the U.S. Embassy in Brazil that places «heavy emphasis on U.S. armed intervention.» The actual plan has not been declassified.


Document 11: NSC, Memcon, «Brazil,» Top Secret, March 28, 1964

As the military prepared to move against Goulart, top CIA, NSC and State Department officials met to discuss how to support them. They evaluated a proposal, transmitted by Ambassador Gordon the previous day, calling for covert delivery of armaments and gasoline, as well as the positioning of a naval task force off the coast of Brazil. At this point, U.S. officials were not sure if or when the coup would take place, but made clear their interest in its success. «The shape of the problem,» according to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, «is such that we should not be worrying that the military will react; we should be worrying that the military will not react.»


Document 12: U.S. Embassy, Brazil, Memo from Ambassador Gordon, Top Secret, March 29, 1964

Gordon transmitted a message for top national security officials justifying his requests for pre-positioning armaments that could be used by «para-military units» and calling for a «contingency commitment to overt military intervention» in Brazil. If the U.S. failed to act, Gordon warned, there was a «real danger of the defeat of democratic resistance and communization of Brazil.»


Document 13: Joint Chiefs of Staff, Cable, [Military attaché Vernon Walters Report on Coup Preparations], Secret, March 30, 1964

U.S. Army attaché Vernon Walters meets with the leading coup plotters and reports on their plans. «It had been decided to take action this week on a signal to be issued later.» Walters reported that he «expects to be aware beforehand of go signal and will report in consequence.»


Document 14 (mp3): White House Audio Tape, President Lyndon B. Johnson discussing the impending coup in Brazil with Undersecretary of State George Ball, March 31, 1964.


Document 15: White House, Memorandum, «Brazil,» Secret, April 1, 1964

As of 3:30 on April 1st, Ambassador Gordon reports that the coup is «95% over.» U.S. contingency planning for overt and covert supplies to the military were not necessary. General Castello Branco «has told us he doesn’t need our help. There was however no information about where Goulart had fled to after the army moved in on the palace.


Document 16: Central Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Cable, «Departure of Goulart from Porto Alegre for Montevideo,» Secret, April 2, 1964

CIA intelligence sources report that deposed president Joao Goulart has fled to Montevideo.



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