If Kennedy had lived, would history have been different?
November 21, 2003 | Page 10
THIS NOVEMBER 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a traumatic experience for people in the U.S. and around the globe. Those old enough to remember can tell you the exact spot they were standing when they heard the news. Kennedy seemed to represent a new, vigorous, liberal leadership, after the gray Eisenhower years, committed to reforming American society and making a better world.
Many liberal Democrats also believe there was a deeper tragedy in Kennedy's death--that it literally altered the course of U.S. history. As they see it, the so-called "turmoil" of the 1960s--the ghetto uprisings, the war in Vietnam and the resulting triumph of conservative politics--all would have been avoided if Kennedy had lived.
Is any of this true? Here, JOE ALLEN explains why Kennedy's political history reveals not only an utterly conventional American politician, but an ardent Cold Warrior who brought the world the closest it's ever been to nuclear annihilation.
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WHILE JOHN F. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president when be beat Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1960, he and his family had a long political record. His grandfather, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was mayor of Boston, and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a rich businessman with a growing influence in the national Democratic Party.
Joe Kennedy also had extensive ties to the underworld, ties he built during the Prohibition era that lasted a lifetime. He had so much money and influence that President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain in 1937.
The Kennedys, like other rich Catholic families in the 1930s, were extremely anti-Communist and anti-Semitic. They outrightly supported fascist Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and sought to "appease" Hitler, fearing that another war in Europe would lead to revolution as it did in 1917. Joe Kennedy was eventually recalled as ambassador by Roosevelt, thus ending his hopes of being the first Catholic president of the U.S. He transferred those ambitions onto his sons.
John Kennedy parlayed his military experience in the Second World War into running for political office. He was elected to Congress from a predominately Irish and Italian working-class district in North Cambridge, Mass., a seat later held by Speaker of the House "Tip" O' Neil.
Kennedy came to Congress in 1947--the same year as his future archrival Richard Nixon. While they were from competing political parties, both embraced the anti-Communism sponsored by the Truman administration. They also supported the programs and policies that turned the U.S. into the dominant imperialist power in those years, from the creation of the CIA to NATO.
With the help of his father's cash, John F. Kennedy defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952. Kennedy's years in the Senate coincided with the fever pitch of McCarthyism. Kennedy supported some of the most repressive anti-Communist legislation of the era, including the McCarran Act. His brother, Bobby, worked on McCarthy's staff, and Joe Kennedy saw him as a political ally.
Kennedy spent most of his Senate years planning his jump to the presidency. He had a book ghost-written for him, Profiles in Courage, which chronicled the lives of past Senate leaders. It won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1957.
Kennedy sought to raise his profile around issues that would give him national exposure. He and his brother chose union corruption, particularly the mob-tied Teamsters union lead by its new leader James R. Hoffa.
The labor movement was ravaged by the purge of Communists and socialists after the war. And the Taft-Hartley Act, passed during the same period, criminalized many of the labor movement's prized tactics. Now corruption and the mob ties of labor leaders were used for a new round of congressional hearings--lead by the Kennedys--that resulted in new federal laws regulating trade union activity.
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THE 1960 presidential race was shaped by the Cold War, with Kennedy charging that the Eisenhower administration had allowed "missile gap" to develop between the U.S. and the USSR. Not only was this charge completely fictitious, but after he took office, Kennedy began a new ballistic missile race with Russians.
During the election, Kennedy tread lightly on the issue of civil rights. To ensure Southern Dixiecrat support of his campaign, Kennedy chose Texas senator Lyndon Johnson--a segregationist--for his running mate.
In the end, Kennedy won by a little more than a 100,000 votes out of 69 million cast. Moreover, Kennedy's victory was insured by outright vote fraud, particularly in Illinois. His brother Robert was largely appointed attorney general to prevent any serious investigation into vote fraud from taking place.
For people angry at Bush for stealing the 2000 by vote fraud in Florida, it may come as shock that a liberal icon like Kennedy came to power in the same manner. Much of what people know about Kennedy comes from his inauguration speech, with its rhetorical flourishes that seem to inspire liberal activism.
They are largely misinterpreted. It is a conservative, Cold War, anti-Communist speech. When Kennedy declared: "Ask not what you country can do for you but what you can do for your country," he wasn't asking people to go out and fight poverty, he was saying don't expect the federal government to hugely expand social welfare programs.
When Kennedy said, "Let every nation know...that we shall pay any price, bear any burden...in order to insure the survival and success of liberty," he was not talking about the U.S. defending the right of nations to self-determination but that the U.S. would intervene against any threats to its power, like in Cuba, that just had a revolution against a U.S.-backed dictatorship.
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KENNEDY'S PRESIDENCY is remembered for a series of crises. The three that reveal the most about the Kennedy administration were its policies toward Cuba, civil rights and Vietnam.
The 1959 Cuban revolution had a traumatic effect on the U.S. ruling class. Not only did the U.S. have extensive investment in Cuba and see it as a valuable source of raw materials but, until the revolution, the U.S. had been largely unchallenged in its "backyard" of Latin America.
The Kennedy administration was committed to the destruction of the Castro government as much as the Eisenhower administration. Under the previous administration, the CIA had trained an exiled army to invade Cuba and restore a pro-U.S. government to power. When Kennedy came to office in January 1961, he gave the green light for the operation.
The invasion at the Bay of Pigs was a massive failure. The CIA army was swiftly defeated, and the U.S. was quickly exposed as the force behind the operation. Kennedy was humiliated by the failure but continued operations to overthrow Fidel Castro's government, including plans to assassinate him with the help of the American Mafia.
It was largely due to U.S. belligerence that Castro allowed Russia to put ballistic missiles in Cuba in hopes that this would keep the U.S. from carrying out any further military adventures. After U-2 surveillance revealed Russian missiles in Cuba in October 1962, Kennedy responded with a military blockade of Cuba and the threat of nuclear war if they weren't removed.
"We will not prematurely...risk the cost of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths--but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced," Kennedy declared in his address to the nation on October 22, 1962. The Russians didn't run the blockade and withdrew their missiles. And this is how the world came the closest ever to nuclear holocaust--under John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy administration coincided with the growing power of the civil rights movement. While Kennedy courted the Black vote in the North during the 1960 election, he also wanted to maintain the support of the Southern wing of his party.
As Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins spread throughout the South, Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general, attempted to get the more militant wing of the movement, led by the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality, to cease their militant actions. "I'll get you tax-free status for voter registration, if you cut-out this sit-in shit," Bobby Kennedy said.
While Kennedy hosted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others after the 1963 March on Washington, he put enormous pressure on them to make sure there was no criticism of his policies at the march. Civil rights activist John Lewis had part of his speech censored by march organizers because it criticized Kennedy.
While Kennedy gave high-profile speeches on civil rights, his timid action infuriated many, including one writer who described him as showing "more profile than courage" on the issue.
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THE AREA in which Kennedy's legacy is subject to the most mythmaking is the Vietnam War, with the argument being that, if Kennedy had lived, he would have withdrawn from Vietnam after the 1964 election. Not only is there no evidence for this, but it misses the more important point that Kennedy escalated the U.S. presence in Vietnam that Johnson merely built upon later.
Soon after Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, Gen. Edward Lansdale--a veteran CIA operative in the Far East--met with Kennedy and presented a report on the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. Lansdale's report urged increased support for the pro-U.S. regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. During the meeting, Kennedy is reported to have turned to Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Walt Rostow and said: "This is the worst one we've got isn't it?"
After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and being bullied by Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna summit, Kennedy didn't want another defeat on his hands. Kennedy was determined to re-establish U.S. "credibility" in the world. In his own words, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place."
Kennedy escalated American involvement in South Vietnam to the point where the U.S. was essentially fighting a proxy war on the ground. The revolutionary nationalists of the National Liberation Front (NLF) were committed to the overthrow of Diem and the unification Vietnam.
Kennedy was determined to prevent this, fearing that an NLF victory would inspire revolutionary nationalists around the globe. From several hundred American military advisors, Kennedy increased the number to over 15,000. When Diem became a liability, Kennedy ordered his assassination and the overthrow of his government in early November 1963.
Soon Kennedy himself was killed by an assassin's bullet. If Kennedy had lived, he would have undoubtedly pursued the same policies of total war that Johnson did. Looking back four decades now on the presidency of John F. Kennedy, it's clear that, in spite of the rhetoric, he was prepared to have us pay any price and bear any burden to defend American capitalism.