|(This was written for Revolution Magazine in New Zealand.)
"We thank that whole generation for making America strong, for winning
WWII, winning the Cold War, and for the great gift of service which brought
America 50 years of peace and prosperity. My parents inspired me to serve,
and when I was a high school junior, Kennedy called my generation to
service. It was the beginning of a great journey - a time to march for
civil rights, for voting rights, for the environment, for women, and for
peace. We believed we could change the world. You know what? We did."
--John Kerry, Acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention Jul
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'
--An unnamed former lover of JFK, quoted in Seymour Hersh's "Dark Side of
On January 8, 2005, obituaries for JFK's 86 year old retarded sister
Rosemary appeared in all the major media. Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of
this American dynasty, treated her like a character out of a 19th century
Gothic Tale. Associated Press reported that "In 1941, Joseph Kennedy was
worried that Rosemary's mild mental retardation would lead her into
situations that could damage the family's reputation, and he arranged for
her to have a lobotomy. She was 23." The AP obituary quotes Laurence
Leamer's "The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family": "Rosemary was
a woman, and there was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace."
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 the Chicago mob, we learn
that Joseph Kennedy made his millions through a combination of white-collar
crime and bootlegging. Using the same kinds of illegal insider trading that
people like Michael Milken made infamous, Kennedy sold short just before
the 1929 crash and walked away richer than ever. As a banker-investor,
Kennedy plundered the stock of Pathé Films in the 1920s, giving insiders
like himself stock worth $80 per share, while leaving common stockholders
$1.50 per share. When Kennedy attempted a hostile takeover of the
California-based Pantages Theater chain in 1929, he paid a 17 year old girl
$10,000 to falsely claim that she had been raped by the chain's owner, who
then served part of a fifty-year prison sentence that was ultimately
reversed. Kennedy got control of Pantages at a bargain basement price.
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 Hyannis Port chums to the eastern Long
Island townsfolk who survived the Depression by uncrating booze off the
bootleggers' boats tells tales of Joe Kennedy's involvement in the illegal
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 Chicago in 1960. According to
Russo, a quid pro quo was worked out at this meeting. In exchange for the
mob's help, a Kennedy Justice Department would go easy on them. According
to Humphreys' widow, the mobster was leery of making a deal: "Murray was
against it. He remembered Joe Kennedy from the bootlegging days--called him
an untrustworthy 'four flusher' and a 'potato eater.' Something to do with
a booze delivery that Joe had stolen. He said that Joe Kennedy could be
trusted as far as he, Murray, could throw a piano."
The gangsters focused their efforts on West Virginia, a key swing state.
Mob-controlled jukeboxes all across the state began featuring Jack
Kennedy's campaign song, while a Kennedy aide paid tavern owners $20 each
day to play it over and over. Meanwhile, a Giancana associate doled out
$50,000 across the state to cash-starved local politicians. These bribes
paid off handsomely, as Kennedy beat Senator Hubert Humphrey by a 60-40 margin.
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 Washington lobbyist, Teamster official John O'Brien, and East
St. Louis boss of the Steamfitters Union, Buster Wortman."
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
Havana through partnerships with Meyer Lansky.
Just as Robert J. McDonnell served as a go-between in the earlier contact
with the Chicago mob, Kennedy's mistress Judith Exner would play the same
role now. Since Exner was having an affair with Sam Giancana at the very
same time she was sleeping with JFK, she was made to order. Exner became a
bagwoman for Kennedy during the 1960 campaign, taking up to $250,000 in
cash to Giancana on trips to Chicago. These payments were intended as
bribes for trade union bureaucrats that Giancana and Humphreys had lined
up. Eventually Exner would split up with Kennedy when he showed up at one
of their trysts with another woman for a threesome.
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 Bay of Pigs. Although Kennedy has been portrayed
as a dove in comparison to Richard Nixon, the truth is that Kennedy
positioned himself as a hawk on Cuba, blaming the Republican incumbents for
inaction on Communist subversion in the Western Hemisphere. Since Nixon was
forced to keep the impending invasion a secret, he could not defend himself
from JFK's hawkish attack. Kennedy himself had learned of the plans from
Richard Bissell, a CIA official who was friendly with his father. He
hammered away at Nixon cynically, knowing full well that the Republican
candidate could not reveal the secret plan. Appalled by Kennedy's
bellicosity, some liberals actually kept their distance from him, while
falling short of supporting Nixon. Liberal icon Murray Kempton wrote in the
New York Post that "I really don't know what further demagoguery is
possible form Kennedy on this subject, short of announcing that, if
elected, he will send Bobby and Teddy and Eunice to Oriente Province to
clean Castro out."
After the counter-revolutionary guerrilla force was smashed, the Kennedy
White House continued to threaten Cuba verbally and to provide clandestine
support for smaller guerrilla bands. American subversion cost the island at
least $1 billion in the year following the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban
revolutionary leadership understood that it was only a matter of time when
a new invasion was mounted, this time involving the US marines rather than
an ineffective surrogate force.
This prompted Castro to seek a powerful shield against an invasion that
took the form of Russia nuclear missiles. When Kennedy learned about this,
he provoked one of the most dangerous confrontations of the entire Cold
War. It did not matter to him that Cuba was a sovereign nation or that the
USA had already supplied atomic missiles on the Soviet border in Turkey. In
foreign policy, some countries were clearly more equal than others.
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 Guantanamo or staging another ship disaster in Havana--"sink the Maine
again, or something." He remarked with satisfaction that an invasion would
get rid of Castro as well as the missiles.
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 Cuba under Operation Mongoose. But his wild mood
shifts were surely confusing to the conferees as they tried to discern the
direction of the president's thinking. Only that morning, at the first
ExCom meeting, Bobby had scribbled a note to Ted Sorensen saying, "I now
know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor."
Eventually, Kennedy and Khruschchev struck a deal. In exchange for the
removal of Russian missiles, the USA would promise to not invade Cuba and
to remove its own missiles from Turkey. In keeping with the general refusal
of the Kennedy White House to tell the truth to its citizenry, this deal
was not made public. Instead, Kennedy was portrayed as a fearless
gunfighter who forced the Russians to back down.
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 Turkey for intermediate-range Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba was
crucial to undermining the public trust, particularly since the Jupiters
were to be replaced soon anyway by sea-based Polaris submarine missiles.
Let's assume the worst -- that Kennedy was trying to fend off a right-wing
backlash for bargaining with the Soviets. That seems much more like
political self-preservation, which in any case did not result in loss of
American lives and in fact may have saved millions of them."
In a November 14, 2004 letter to the NY Times, Alterman tears Hart's
defense to pieces. He quotes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who told
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in reply to the question of whether
such a deal had been struck that: ''Absolutely not . . . the Soviet
government did raise the issue . . . [but the] president absolutely refused
even to discuss it. He wouldn't even reply other than that he would not
discuss the issue at all.'' The same sort of lie was heard from Dean Rusk.
It is no accident that both men would become associated with the Vietnam
War, as both architects and dissemblers.
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 Indochina.
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
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 Fort Worth, a few hours before the assassination, Kennedy made his last
statement about Vietnam: "Without the United States, South Vietnam would
collapse overnight." In the speech he was to give in Dallas, he intended to
say that "Our successful defense of freedom" in Cuba, Laos, the Congo, and
Berlin can be attributed "not to the words we used, but to the strength we
stood ready to use"; fair enough, with regard to his selection of Third
World illustrations of his "defense of freedom." Kennedy extolled his huge
military buildup, undertaken to blunt the "ambitions of international
Communism." As the "watchman on the walls of world freedom" the US had to
undertake tasks that were "painful, risky and costly, as is true in
Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task."
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
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 America mollified. Kennedy's only true civil rights initiative was a
voter-registration campaign modeled after the modest efforts of the
Eisenhower administration's final six months in office. He hoped that the
largely judicial axis of such an initiative would help to short-circuit the
more confrontational boycotts and sit-ins being pushed by CORE and other
militant groups. He also hoped that increased black electoral numbers would
strengthen the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
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 Mississippi,
Robert F. Kennedy likened it to HUAC "investigating Communism."
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
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 Evars, 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 Mississippi!
The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without
the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in
Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor
who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass
arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA "look bad
for us in the world." His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors
had no idea what they were demonstrating about.
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
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. Great Britain had perfected these
techniques in India. Marshall Windmiller, a professor at San Francisco
State who had participated in Peace Corps training programs in the early
1960s, spells out his disillusionment in "The Peace Corps and Pax
Americana." Referring to Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), he
characterizes the Peace Corps as an exercise in "Macaulayism." As a
functionary in India, Macaulay argued that "To trade with civilized men is
infinitely more profitable than to govern savages."
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 America's role in world affairs,
whatever it may be, more palatable."
Windmiller focuses on the example of Rhoda and Earl Brooks, a
husband-and-wife team who served in Ecuador from 1962 to 1964. They did the
usual things that Peace Corps volunteers did, from teaching English to
clearing streets of garbage.
When the USA intruded into Ecuadorian fishing waters during their sting,
Communists organized protests against the "pirates." Naturally, the Brooks
felt compelled to present the American case. In their English conversation
classes and at their homes, they tried to convince the Ecuadorian youth of
the benefits of "democratic capitalism," for whom many the word
"capitalist" was synonymous for murderer. Because the Brooks were seen as
modest and idealistic, their ideas were more easily accepted than if they
came straight from the American consulate. That, of course, was the whole idea.
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
"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
Eventually, some returned Peace Corps volunteers saw through the
imperialist aims of their higher-ups and joined the Vietnam antiwar
movement. Indeed, their number and the numbers of civil rights activists
disgusted and radicalized by White House inaction probably numbered in the
tens of thousands at the peak. One might conclude by saying that the main
benefit of the Kennedy White House is that it spurred idealistic young
people to transcend the limitations of an administration that was guided
more by image than by substance.
1. Eric Alterman response to Gary Hart's review:
2. Noam Chomsky, "Rethinking Camelot":
3. Gary Hart review of Eric Alterman's "When Presidents Lie":
4. Seymour Hersh, "Dark Side of Camelot", Little Brown, 1997
5. Kenneth O'Reilly, "Nixon's Piano", The Free Press, 1995
6. Gus Russo, "The Outfit", Bloomsbury Press, 2001
7. Marshall Windmiller, "The Peace Corps and Pax Americana", Public Affairs