"I don’t want to die!"
-----crying Los Angeles schoolchildren at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis
"I cut his balls off."
-----President Kennedy, exulting in what he took to be Premier Khrushchev’s humiliation in backing away from nuclear war
“End this madness,” Bertrand Russell cabled John Kennedy, imploring the American president to come to his senses while the world waited to discover if Kennedy’s game of “nuclear chicken” was destined to relegate Hiroshima and Nagasaki to footnotes of the atomic age.
In order to prevent Washington from staging a second Bay of Pigs (i.e., repeat invasion of Cuba) the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles on the island in the fall of 1962. Though a negotiated settlement carried the least risk of catastrophe, the Kennedy administration rejected diplomacy for allegedly carrying the taint of moral weakness. At a time when nuclear-armed Soviet submarines could hit U.S. territory from the ocean, Kennedy opted to blockade Cuba, and he did so (in violation the U.N. Charter), cutting off Soviet access to the island.
Soviet supply ships with submarine escorts steamed toward the American blockade while the largest U.S. invasion force since WWII prepared for war with 42,000 nuclear-armed Soviet troops awaiting them in Cuba. The Strategic Air Command deployed its bomber fleet to pre-selected airfields throughout the United States, and nuclear bombs were loaded aboard planes on SAC bases in Britain, Spain, and Morocco. Nuclear-equipped fighter-bombers went on alert in Europe, preparing to hit assigned targets in the Soviet bloc. Polaris submarines possessed of enough firepower to destroy every major city in the USSR left Scotland to patrol the North Atlantic.
At the height of the crisis, Khrushchev broadcast a letter to Kennedy on Radio Moscow offering removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba and a non-aggression pledge to Turkey in return for a U.S. withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Turkey (Washington had apparently already issued a withdrawal order for those missiles) and a non-aggression pledge to Cuba. But Kennedy ignored the offer, pressing for unconditional victory with millions of lives in the balance.
According to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the official JFK historian of his White House years, this was “the most dangerous moment in human history.” How close did the world come to nuclear war? Participants in a 2002 conference between former Kennedy administration officials, former Soviet military officers, Cuban officials, and scholars from all three countries, concluded that nuclear war was averted only because a Soviet submarine commander countermanded an order to launch nuclear-armed torpedoes in response to U.S. destroyers firing depth charges to force Soviet submarines to the surface. “The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the (private) National Security Archive.
Among the documents pored over at the 2002 conference in Havana was a declassified 1961 Defense Department memo describing a three-step plan for the “US endeavor to cause the overthrow of the Castro government.” The strategy was to carry out intensive military exercises near Cuba to provoke a defensive reaction, which would then give the U.S. a pretext with which to “destroy Castro with speed, force and determination.” Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defense secretary and a conference participant, conceded that Cuba’s fears that they were going to be attacked by the U.S. were justified. “If I were in Cuban or Soviet shoes, I would have thought so, too.”
Exulting in the lucky outcome, Kennedy did not renounce Washington’s ongoing terrorist war against Cuba, which included chemical and biological attacks against the island and numerous attempts on the life of Fidel Castro. In fact, he had already effectively declared war on all of Latin America in order to prevent a second Cuban-style revolution in the hemisphere. Robert McNamara had announced in early 1962 that Latin American states receiving U.S. military assistance would henceforth change their mission from “hemispheric defense” to “internal security,” i.e., making war on their own peoples. Through the Agency For International Development, Latin American police were promised training in the use of gas guns, helicopters, anti-riot equipment, and torture. As the numbers of mutilated and dead mounted, the U.S. School of the Americas, where Washington’s counterinsurgency training was carried out, became known in Latin America as “the school of coups.”
Kennedy’s jingoist politics shouldn’t have surprised anyone, as they were a matter of longstanding record. Elected to Congress in 1946 as a rich war hero, JFK spent his time in the House condemning the “betrayal” of Poland at Yalta, thundering against the Truman administration’s “loss” of China, and voting for the McCarran Act (the Patriot Act of its day) which required that organizations tainted by “Communism” register with a Subversive Activities Control Board. Members of such organizations lost their right to travel, to hold government jobs, and to work in defense plants. In 1952 Kennedy was elected to the Senate, where he avoided condemning Joe McCarthy, who was a close friend of the Kennedy family (Bobby named him godfather of one of his children). According to Kennedy speech-writer Theodore Sorenson, the Massachusetts senator believed that military force was “the bulk of diplomacy and disarmament only a dream.” Preoccupied with shaking his fist at the Communist world, Kennedy paid little attention to the 1954 Brown decision ordering desegregation of the nation’s apartheid school system, dismissing school integration as “a judicial problem, not a legislative one.”
As president, Kennedy appointed shrewd technocrats - almost all from the upper class - who were clueless about social justice, but well-practiced in the exercise of power. Dean Rusk, a John Foster Dulles protege and president of the Rockefeller Foundation, became Secretary of State. C. Douglas Dillon of Wall Street’s Dillon, Read and Company was named Secretary of the Treasury. Robert McNamara, president of the Ford Motor Company, was selected to be Secretary of Defense. Other top Kennedy officials were Averell Harriman of Brown Brothers Harriman, Paul Nitze, of Dillon-Read, Roswell Gilpatrick of another Wall Street firm, John McCone, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and William C. Foster. John J. McCloy, who Kennedy appointed to be his special adviser on disarmament, had a background, according to Arthur Schlesinger, that “combined the Republican party, the Pentagon, the Ford Foundation, the Chase Manhattan Bank, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the Brook and the Links.”
From such a cast progressive policy was hardly to be expected, and indeed, it was not forthcoming. In Southeast Asia Kennedy changed Washington’s Vietnam policy from support for state terror to outright aggression, which led to the disastrous U.S. engagement that claimed the lives of millions of Indochinese, as well as more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers. Contrary to much Camelot romanticism, Kennedy never considered any policy other than military victory. Just three weeks before his assassination, in the wake of the overthrow of the Diem regime, he remained hopeful about the prospects for an intensification of the war, telling the press that he thought there was a “new situation” in Vietnam, which would lead to, “we hope, an increased effort in the war” (emphasis added). He added that the U.S. policy should be to “intensify the struggle” so that “we can bring Americans out of there” - after U.S. forces had subjugated the country, a goal he never renounced.
The carnage involved in attempting to fulfill such an aspiration was, as might be expected, appalling. Children were burned alive with napalm. Fragmentation bombs ripped villagers to shreds. Charred bodies fertilized the fields of “free Vietnam” and bullet-riddled corpses of Buddhist demonstrators lay crumpled in the streets. When external support for state terrorism proved inadequate to the task, Kennedy sent the U.S. Air Force to bomb rural South Vietnam (October 1962), driving hundreds of thousands of peasants into “strategic hamlets,” where, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, they were “protected” from the guerrilla movement the Pentagon conceded they were voluntarily supporting. By the time of Kennedy’s death, over half the population of South Vietnam was engaged in forced labor in such “strategic hamlets,” with the Kennedy administration planning to incarcerate nearly the entire rural population of the country to prevent it from acting on its political convictions.
The human cost of U.S. policy in Vietnam was devastating. According to the Bertrand Russell war crimes commission, by 1963 the Vietnam war had already yielded 160,000 dead; 700,000 tortured and maimed; 400,000 imprisoned; 31,000 raped; 3000 disemboweled with their livers cut out while alive; 4000 people burned alive; 1000 destroyed temples; and 46 instances of villages attacked with poisonous chemicals.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Kennedy did little to aid the desegregation movement, which he considered a trivial affair until worldwide publicity forced him to pay attention (Arthur Schlesinger’s book on the Kennedy presidency treats the theme in the 35th of 37 chapters). While pacifist civil rights activists endured savage attacks at the hands of racist mobs in an attempt to topple Jim Crow, Kennedy dismissed them as “sons of bitches” (SNCC) who had “an investment in violence,” a harsh judgment he could never bring himself to make about the segregationist terrorists the SNCC activists were being beaten and killed by. He refused to back civil rights legislation until well into 1963. Among civil rights leaders, what the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins referred to as Kennedy’s “supercaution” evoked almost universal condemnation.
Embarrassed by the screaming headlines and distressed at the propaganda coup the Kremlin was reaping from his studied inaction in the face of horrifying brutality, Kennedy moved only belatedly and reluctantly to support the black freedom movement. While thousands were attacked and jailed throughout the South, and Medgar Evers was murdered on his front porch in Mississippi, FBI agents took notes and filed reports, but did not move to protect the lives of black people, or even properly investigate when white supremacists shot them dead. Worried about his support in Congress, Kennedy moved to shore up his Southern political base, appointing racist judges to the bench, including one in Georgia who sought to prevent “pinks, radicals and black voters” from overturning segregation, and another in Mississippi who saw no point in registering “a bunch of niggers on a voter drive.” And when the March on Washington threatened to include an indictment of federal government policy, Kennedy convinced black leaders to tone down their critical rhetoric and cancel plans for civil disobedience, provoking Malcolm X to dismiss the choreographed event as “the farce on Washington.”
In many ways Kennedy was Ronald Reagan. Although criticized for his participation in the McCarthy-led witch hunts (he was on a Senate committee that doggedly abused UAW leader Harold Christoffel for swearing he wasn’t a Communist, and also supported a bill that included concentration camps for heretics), he inspired admiration at home and abroad for his unwavering faith in American “democracy” (i.e., capitalism). Heir to a bootlegging fortune and helped into the White House by mob connections, he became president after besting Richard Nixon in televised campaign debates in which he promised to end the nation’s economic slump and pursue a more aggressive anti-Communist policy with Moscow once elected. While Nikita Khruschev radically cut back Soviet armaments and military forces - calling for reciprocal action by the U.S. - Kennedy ignored the plea in favor of a huge military build-up, warning repeatedly of the U.S.S.R.’s alleged “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy to take over the world.” He was obsessed with overthrowing the Cuban government (as Reagan later was with toppling the Nicaraguan Sandinistas), which he denounced as a Soviet proxy. To avoid the spread of the Cuban policy of nationalizing resources in order to raise the quality of life for the masses, he strongly supported military dictatorships throughout Latin America. He also supplied military advisors to Vietnam, enthusiastically backing their efforts to destroy popular organizations and terrorize the population into submission. To mobilize budgetary support for his massive increases in war spending, he warned the Congress and the public about a non-existent missile gap that supposedly favored the Soviets. On domestic policy, he advised restraint on social programs and a tax cut for business, which he argued would stimulate economic growth and lead to trickle down benefits for all Americans. (However, in the first five years of Kennedy-Johnson policy corporate profits increased 76.5%, but wages only 18 percent, demonstrating that JFK’s economic policies redistributed income from the poor to the rich.)
In short, an honest account of JFK’s legacy must include (1) an anti-Communist fanaticism that nearly blew up the world, (2) aggression in Vietnam that reached almost genocidal levels in subsequent years (3) contempt for civil liberties at crucial moments (4) equivocation in the face of K.K.K. terror (5) an invasion of the sovereign state of Cuba and years of terrorism against the island after the invasion failed (6) reverse Robin Hood economics.
Marion Lloyd, "Soviets Close to Using A-Bomb in 1962 Crisis," Boston Globe, October 13, 2002
Cedric Belfrage and James Aronson, "Something To Guard: The Stormy Life of the National Guardian, 1948-1967,"(Columbia, 1978)
Kenneth, O'Reilly, "Racial Matters - The F.B.I.'s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972," (Free Press, 1989)
Taylor Branch, "Parting the Waters - America in the King Years, 1954-1963," (Simon and Schuster, 1988)
Lawrence S. Wittner, "Cold War America - From Hiroshima to Watergate," (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1978)
Walter LaFeber, "Inevitable Revolutions - The United States in Central America" (Norton, 1984)
Cedric Belfrage, "The American Inquisition - A Profile of the 'McCarthy Era'" (Thunder's Mouth, 1989)
Arthur Schlesinger, "A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House," (Houghton Mifflin, 1965)
Todd Gitlin, "The Sixties - Years of Hope, Days of Rage," (Bantam, 1986)
Howard Zinn, Postwar America - 1945-1971," (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973)
Howard Zinn, "A People's History of the United States," (Harper, 1995)
Seymour Hersh, "The Dark Side of Camelot," (Little Brown, 1997)
Bertrand Russell, "War Crimes in Vietnam," (George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1966)
Noam Chomsky, "Rethinking Camelot - JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture," (Verso, 1993)
Noam Chomsky, "Year 501 - The Conquest Continues," (South End, 1993)
Noam Chomsky, "World Orders Old and New," (Columbia, 1994)
Noam Chomsky, "Hegemony or Survival - America's Quest For Global Dominance," (Holt, 2003)