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"We thank that
whole generation for making
Acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention
When discussing the poor, the blacks, the Jews, "he used to say, 'Poor bastards.' That was it. There were a lot of poor bastards in this world. There were people who either didn't get jobs they wanted or they didn't get programs they wanted. That phrase covered so many times when he would have turned someone down for a job, or would have turned down some legislation that was being pressed on him. You know, 'Poor bastard, they're going to feel terrible.'" Kennedy seemed to believe that "people who are different have different responses. The pain of poor people is different from 'our' pain."
--An unnamed former lover of JFK, quoted in Seymour Hersh's "Dark Side of Camelot"
If the criterion were social propriety, then the one person who probably should have suffered a lobotomy was Joseph Kennedy himself, rather than his unfortunate daughter. (Nor would it have occurred to the patriarch to control his son Jack's philandering in this fashion, who suffered from a chronic venereal disease.)
In keeping with Balzac's epigraph to "Pere Goriot" that "Behind every great fortune there is a crime," the Kennedy dynasty owed its place in history to the ongoing criminal activities of Joseph Kennedy.
In "The Outfit," Gus Russo's definitive study of
With respect to bootlegging, Russo reports:
"Kennedy was up to his eyes in illegal alcohol. Leading
underworld bootleggers from Frank Costello to Doc Stacher
to Owney Madden to Joe Bonanno
to Meyer Lansky to Lucky Luciano have all recalled
for their biographers or for news journalists how they had bought booze that
had been shipped into the country by Joseph Kennedy. On the receiving side of
the booze business, everyone from Joe's
Connections made in this period would prove useful during JFK's 1960 Presidential bid. Murray "Curley" Humphreys, the brains behind Al Capone, and his chief executioner Sam Giancana (nicknamed "Moony" because of his psychopathic reputation) had inherited control of the Chicago mob after Capone's death and built up powerful alliances in the trade union bureaucracy all around the country that helped to tip the balance in Kennedy's favor in the 1960 primaries race.
Using mob lawyer and ex-state attorney general Robert J.
McDonnell as a liaison, the Kennedys met with Giancana in
The gangsters focused their efforts on
In the general election, the same pattern could be seen.
Trade union bureaucrats poured into Curley Humphreys' office to receive their
marching orders. According to Russo, "Among the regular visitors were
Murray Olf, the powerful
Sam "Moony" Giancana would turn up again in another capacity. After John Kennedy became President, he would call on Mafia figures to assassinate Fidel Castro. Apparently, the Kennedys had as much respect for Cuban democracy as they did for their own. What could not be won through bribes on the revolutionary island would have to be taken through outright violence.
Connections between the CIA and such hired assassins had
already been made during the Eisenhower presidency. Top Howard Hughes aide
Robert Maheu, who had freelanced for the CIA over the
years, was asked to assemble a hit squad to kill Castro. Maheu
then contacted Giancana and Santo Trafficante,
a top figure in the New Orleans Mafia. Both men had a vested interest in toppling
the new Cuban government, since they owned substantial assets in
Just as Robert J. McDonnell served as a go-between in the
earlier contact with the
If none of the mobsters had any success in getting rid of
Fidel Castro, neither would the counter-revolutionary army assembled and
supported by the Kennedy White House at the
After the counter-revolutionary guerrilla force was smashed,
the Kennedy White House continued to threaten
This prompted Castro to seek a powerful shield against an
invasion that took the form of
Although former NY Times editor Max Frankel's recently published "High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis" is intended to flatter the foreign policy sagacity of the Kennedy White House, any impartial reader will not be reassured by the following excerpt:
McNamara's blockade idea was gaining favor, but there was as yet no
limit on the kind of action the Kennedy brothers were willing to examine. If
the choice was to attack, the president still preferred a surgical strike at the
missiles alone, but he told the chiefs to plan also for a full-scale invasion.
Robert Kennedy even strained to find a pretext for invasion. He toyed with the
thought of staging a fake attack on the American naval base at
These were attitudes brought over from a separate high-level meeting
that day in which Robert Kennedy had complained about the slow pace of sabotage
and subversion against
Eventually, Kennedy and Khrushchev struck a deal. In
exchange for the removal of Russian missiles, the
Based on his reading of this period, Nation Magazine editor and staunch John Kerry supporter Eric Alterman decided to include Kennedy in his 2004 "When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences." In his NY Times Book Review of Alterman's book, one-time Presidential candidate Gary Hart tried to salvage Kennedy's reputation:
"It is unclear how the disclosure of the implicit trade
of Jupiter missiles in
For many radicals, especially those who believe that the Democratic Party is not a "lesser evil," it is difficult to grasp why John Kennedy has any kind of progressive reputation. Differences over how to assess the Kennedy White House, especially in the context of his role in the emerging Vietnam War, came to a head around the release of Oliver Stone's "JFK."
Based heavily on lawyer James Garrison's version of the
Kennedy assassination, the film argues that Kennedy had to be removed in order
to pave the way for an escalation of the war. Lyndon Johnson is seen as a tool of
the defense industry and rightwing military officers. By contrast, John Kennedy
is a reasonable man who had the good sense to make plans to begin de-escalation
and eventual withdrawal from
It is no accident that left journalist and scholar Michael Parenti agrees with this perspective, given his support for John Kerry. Despite its obvious futility, the search for enlightened bourgeois leadership seems never-ending.
In his probing study of the Kennedy administration titled "Rethinking Camelot," Noam Chomsky takes up the arguments of Oliver Stone, Michael Parenti and historian John Newman, author of "JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power," another book which tries to prove that Kennedy intended to abandon Vietnam. In his scrupulously documented style, Chomsky hoists Kennedy on his own petard:
In internal discussion, Kennedy's consistent position was that everyone must "focus on winning the war." There can be no withdrawal without victory; the stakes are far too high. One can accuse the President of no duplicity. His public rhetoric accords closely with his stand in internal discussion.
Although one obviously prefers Chomsky's take on Kennedy to that of Parenti, one might feel a sense of lingering disappointment that Chomsky refused to apply the same stringent criteria to John Kerry, who was just as bellicose as Bush, if not more so. One might attribute that to the kind of immense pressure applied to the left by the ABB campaign. With the abject failure of the Kerry campaign to deliver on its promises, one hopes that intellectuals such as Chomsky can return to the position of public critic of war and imperialism that they have served so well in the past.
What about Kerry's claim that 1960 "was the beginning of a great journey - a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights?"
Certainly there was a struggle for black liberation in this period, but the Kennedys could hardly be represented as being in the vanguard. In "Nixon's Piano: a study of Presidents and racial politics from George Washington to Bill Clinton," historian Kenneth O'Reilly's chapter on the Kennedy White House is most instructive and can be described as an exercise at damning with faint praise.
Kennedy came into the White House with a goal to hire as
many token black faces as he could. This combined with New Deal social spending
would keep black
Kennedy saw the Justice Department as the main instrument of
his civil rights agenda, not the Civil Rights Commission that had been
established in 1957 under Eisenhower as part of the Civil Rights Act. Several
degrees to the left of Kennedy, the Commission was seen as something akin to Reconstruction
and, therefore, unwelcome. In his best-selling "Profiles in Courage,"
Kennedy referred to Reconstruction as a "black nightmare…nourished by
Federal bayonets." When the Civil Rights Commission announced its
attention to investigate racist violence in
Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as "niggers" and "chimpanzees." Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as "basically second-rate." Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would "invite people over for the weekend and tell them to 'pick out a nigger girl and a horse!' That was his way of showing hospitality."
Even in their selection of voter registration as the least
confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys
were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK
targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F.
Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said,
"We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people
protection." This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists
felt free to kill activists in the
One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down
in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist
policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no
authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with
the state of
The mass movement against racial discrimination continued
unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963
Despite Robert F. Kennedy's specious comparison of the Civil Rights Commission to HUAC, he had no problem directing a witch-hunt against Martin Luther King Jr. When the FBI told the President that King's advisors included a couple of Communists (Sanford Levison and Jack O'Dell), he directed the attorney general to put wiretaps on the civil rights movements most important leader's telephone. He even met with King at the White House and told him, "They're communists. You've got to get rid of them." To his everlasting credit, King refused to kowtow to the red-baiters. Robert F. Kennedy would complain, "He sort of laughs about these things, makes fun of it."
Relying on J. Edgar Hoover's snitches says volumes about the character of the Kennedy White House. Feeling no constraints from its master, the FBI would eventually send letters to King's wife accusing him of infidelity. It would also fail to protect civil rights demonstrators, who were obviously seen as Communist subversives.
If the Kennedy White House was about managing image, perhaps nothing succeeded on their own terms better than the Peace Corps. Embodying the President's rhetoric about "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," this nominally volunteer program would benefit the world's poor without asking for anything in return.
Beneath the rhetoric, the Peace Corps was a variation on a
very old theme, namely the tendency for colonial powers to use civil
administration as a means to co-opt hostile populations.
Of course, key to bringing civilization to the savages was a
properly functioning civil service and an educational system that could
inculcate the values of the colonizers. Seen in this light, the Peace Corps's
main function, according to Windmiller, is "to
develop pro-American, English-speaking elites, and to make
Windmiller focuses on the example
of Rhoda and Earl Brooks, a husband-and-wife team who served in
Kennedy himself occasionally spoke more candidly about the goal of initiatives like the Peace Corps. In National Security Action Memorandum No.132 directed to the Agency for International Development, that was cc'd to the Peace Corps director as well as the CIA, the President declares his intentions:
"As you know, I desire the appropriate agencies of this Government to give utmost attention and emphasis to programs designed to counter Communist indirect aggression, which I regard as a grave threat during the 1960s. I have already written the Secretary of Defense 'to move to a new level of increased activity across the board" in the counter-insurgency field.
"Police assistance programs, including those under the aegis of your agency, are also a crucial element in our response to this challenge. I understand that there has been some tendency toward de-emphasizing them under the new aid criteria developed by your agency. I recognize that such programs may seem marginal in terms of focusing our energies on those key sectors which will contribute most to sustained economic growth. But I regard them as justified on a different though related basis, i.e., that of contributing to internal security and resisting Communist-supported insurgency."
Eventually, some returned Peace Corps volunteers saw through
the imperialist aims of their higher-ups and joined the
1. Eric Alterman response to Gary Hart's review: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/14/books/review/letters-final.html
2. Noam Chomsky, "Rethinking Camelot": http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/rc/rc-contents.html
3. Gary Hart review of Eric Alterman's "When Presidents Lie": http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507E1D61538F933A25753C1A9629C8B63
5. Kenneth O'Reilly, "Nixon's Piano", The Free Press, 1995
6. Gus Russo, "The Outfit",
7. Marshall Windmiller, "The Peace Corps and Pax Americana", Public Affairs Press, 1970