About a decade ago I fell out of love with the liberal blogosphere. Prior to that time, I had read many of their sites assiduously, e.g., Think Progress, Daily Kos, Firedoglake and so on and so forth. Then, in December of 2008, I came across a rather mindless attack by Jane Hamsher at her Firedoglake site on Caroline Kennedy. That irresponsible and jejune jeremiad was picked up by Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos. It was about whether or not JFK’s daughter was fit to serve in the Senate seat that Hillary Clinton was going to leave to become Secretary of State under President Obama.
I was taken aback by the lack of any historical perspective, by the fundamental errors, and—there is no way around it—the deliberate distortion of the record. I decided to reply, and my reply ended up evolving into a three part series. This was the beginning of the end of my romance with the so-called “liberal blogosphere”. Later on, someone who worked for one of those sites read my series and confirmed all of my fears about what it had become. When I mentioned in my series the hopes some had for a revival of the likes of Art Kunkin and LA Free Press and Warren Hinckle’s Ramparts, he said, “Art Kunkin? You are dreaming my friend.” He then added words to the effect that: These people fell into this field. They don’t understand at all what real journalism is, let alone investigative reporting and research. And, what is worse, they are not interested in learning about it.
Evidently my series did not have much of an impact, because someone named Paul Street has now repeated the hit piece begun by Hamsher and Moulitsas. Street writes for journals like Z Magazineand Counterpunch, former homes to the likes of Noam Chomsky and the late Alex Cockburn. They are part of what I call the doctrinaire Left that has done so much to lead so many good-hearted people astray in both history and politics.
What is the occasion of Street picking up the cudgel to attack both President Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, Senator Kennedy? Well, it is similar to the occasion that Hamsher embarrassed herself about. Street did not like the fact that the Democratic Party chose Bobby Kennedy’s grandson, Joseph Kennedy III, to counter President Trump’s State of the Union address. As far as I could tell, Street did not mention anything that Congressman Kennedy said in his speech. Nor did he point to his attacks on Trump’s tax plan, or the Affordable Care Act, both of which were vigorous and effective. So, right at the start, we know that Street is going to be playing the usual shell game in his screed. This consists of distorting the adduced record, leaving key points out, and relying on folklore and not scholarship to jimmy together another cheap smear job.
This gaming begins with the title: “Joe Kennedy III, Just Another False Progressive Idol, like JFK”. So from the outset, Street has no equivocations about what he is about to say, even though almost none of his essay is footnoted. Like many before him, he begins with the whole mildewed cliché that JFK has a stellar image today because of his glamorous wife, his charisma, and his two cute kids. Yawn.
If you can believe it, Street begins his assault by referring to a book that is over forty years old, Bruce Miroff’s musty and obsolete Pragmatic Illusions. From here, Street now begins to argue that Kennedy was part of the upper class—what we would call the 1 per centers today—who wanted to perpetuate inequalities and had no interest in altering the “established socioeconomic arrangements.”
How anyone could write something this false and have it published by any kind of journal—whether electronic or print media—is almost beyond imagining today. And why would one use Miroff’s book on the subject and ignore Donald Gibson’s classic volume on Kennedy’s economic policies, Battling Wall Street? Gibson’s book was published almost twenty years after Miroff’s and constitutes the most definitive statement in the literature on Kennedy’s economic program. Thus, right off the bat, Street shows us that he is not being honest with the reader; he has an agenda about a kilometer wide. Gibson’s volume was an example of real scholarship. He used documents and reports that had never been discussed in any kind of depth before. And after presenting these materials, reviewing President Kennedy’s showdown with the steel companies, and analyzing the long-term design of his national and international economic plan, he concluded that Kennedy’s economic concept was the most progressive he had seen since Franklin Roosevelt’s.
One of the many valuable things Gibson did was to demonstrate the split between David Rockefeller and President Kennedy (Gibson, pp. 73-74). To anyone who knows anything about the structure of the Power Elite at that time, such a split would not have existed if Kennedy were part of that “one percent” exclusive club, for, as Gibson points out, when Kennedy took office, David Rockefeller had emerged as its leader. (Gibson, p. 73) In an exchange of letters, Rockefeller requested that Kennedy place reins on spending; that he raise interest rates, and also tighten the money supply. As Gibson notes, Kennedy shunted aside each of these requests. Kennedy’s chief economic advisor was Walter Heller, a noted Keynesian. Heller had nothing but derisive scorn for the rising policies of the Austrian School of Economics, soon to be popularly represented by Milton Friedman, who would become the darling of the GOP Eastern Establishment. Further disproving Miroff, both Henry Luce’s Fortune and the Wall Street Journal strongly attacked Kennedy’s expansive and remedial domestic economic policies and programs. (Gibson, pp. 58-67) For instance, in 1962, Kennedy instituted the Manpower Development and Training Act and attempted to pass a Medicare bill. (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, pp. 187, 256-57) Questions for Street: How would those programs uphold the status quo? And why doesn’t he mention them?
Kennedy also opposed Rockefeller in his international economic policy, as exemplified by the Alliance for Progress, which extended loans to Latin America from the Treasury Department, thereby bypassing the IMF and Export-Import Bank. In fact, after Kennedy’s death, Rockefeller expressed his relief that Lyndon Johnson had done much to eviscerate this program. (Gibson, p. 84) But further, as Philip Muehlenbeck and Robert Rakove have also pointed out, Kennedy eschewed using military force in the Third World and instead wanted to use aid and loan programs to curry favor with nationalist leaders in these emerging nations, e.g., Sukarno of Indonesia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. (See, respectively, Muehlenbeck, Betting on the Africans, pp. 73-96, and Rakove, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, pp. 148-49)
Continuing with his exercise in absurdist theater, Street now goes on to say that, somehow, President Kennedy and his brother Robert were also on the wrong side of the civil rights issue. He even writes that the Kennedy brothers were calculating their moves in this arena by counting how far they could go without losing white votes in the South. Before Mr. Street wrote that, he should have read the opening pages of John Bohrer’s new study of the Attorney General. The Revolution of Robert Kennedy begins with the AG pondering whether or not he should resign his position because he has lost the South for his brother due to his aggressive backing of Martin Luther King’s cause. That was on November 20, 1963. The reason for his quandary was that, from the beginning—when Robert Kennedy was being questioned by Senator James Eastland of Mississippi during his confirmation hearing—Eastland reminded him that his predecessor had never brought a legal action against discrimination or segregation in his state. (Harry Golden, Mr.Kennedy and the Negroes, p. 95) That was true. But in one year it all changed. In that time span, RFK doubled the number of lawyers in the Civil Rights Division, and in 12 months he had more than doubled the amount of cases that President Eisenhower had filed in eight years! By 1963, the number of lawyers in the Civil Rights Division had nearly quintupled. (Golden, p. 105) RFK then hired 18 legal interns to search microfilm records for evidence of discrimination in voting rights; and that led to him opening up 61 more cases.
This was all a part of a preplanned strategy by President Kennedy. In October of 1960, Kennedy had told his civil rights advisory board that this was the legal strategy he planned on using in order to break the back of voting discrimination in the South. (Golden, p. 139) President Kennedy felt that with the Brown vs. Board decision, plus the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960, his brother would be able to win these court cases and defeat the voting rights problem in the Southern states.
President Kennedy had chosen this path since he understood that he could not get an omnibus bill through Congress because it would be filibustered in the Senate. In fact, when President Kennedy submitted one in 1962, it went nowhere (Robert Kennedy in his Own Words, p. 149, edited by Edwin Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman.) Therefore, as he had been advised by civil rights advisor Harris Wofford, he kept on using administrative actions as far as he could, e.g., the New Orleans Schools case (Guthman, pp. 80-82), the integration of interstate busing through the ICC (Guthman, p. 100), the integration of higher education at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama, the formation of the 1961 Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, the Fair Housing Act of 1962, and the industry agreements to hire minorities involving all federal contracting (Golden pp. 60-61). There were many more, all of which Street is either ignorant of, or deliberately ignores in order to complete his hatchet job.
In conjunction with the legal proceedings, what these unprecedented administrative actions did was to inspire African American groups and individuals to heights they had not scaled before. James Meredith applied to go to the University of Mississippi the day after Kennedy’s inauguration. (Bernstein, p. 76) As can be seen on the DVD of the film Crisis, Vivian Malone defied George Wallace in Tuscaloosa because she trusted the Kennedys to protect her, which is what RFK did by assembling over 3,000 federal troops against Wallace’s 845 state troops. All of this, and much more, gave the leaders of the civil rights movement more ballast and backing.
It culminated in Birmingham. It was there where Governor Wallace and Police Commissioner Bull Connor overplayed their hand. The ugly images of fire hoses and barking dogs repelled Americans outside of the South, and even many in the South. Dick Gregory was on the scene. One night he left Alabama to fly home. When he got there, his wife told him that President Kennedy called and said he wanted him to phone the White House. Gregory said, “But it’s midnight.” She replied, “He said it didn’t matter what time it was.” Gregory called the White House. Kennedy picked up the phone. He told the comedian, “I need to know everything that went on, even the stuff not on TV.” Gregory spoke for about ten minutes. After he was done, Kennedy said, “Good. We’ve got those bastards now.” Gregory started to weep. (Author interview with Gregory on the Joe Madison Show in 2003)
It was things like that, and the public face-off with Wallace, that allowed Kennedy the leverage to make his epochal civil rights speech to the nation in June of 1963. That speech is commonly referred to as the greatest presidential oration on civil rights since Lincoln. A month later he became the first white Washington politician to endorse King’s March on Washington, which occurred that August. (Bernstein, p. 114) This was the beginning of the passage of the two bills that guaranteed both civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans throughout America. It is why King, in 1968, told his advisors they would back RFK over Gene McCarthy. (Martin Luther King: The FBI File, edited by Michael Friedly and David Gallen, p. 572) I will take King’s judgment over Street’s any day of the week.
But, Street actually outdoes himself when he begins to address President Kennedy’s foreign policy, ignoring the fact that the day before Kennedy made his civil rights speech, the president delivered his famous Peace Speech at American University. In the face of that address, Street can actually call Kennedy’s foreign policy record “militantly imperial and militarist.” He ignores not just Sukarno, who Kennedy backed to the end of his life, but also Patrice Lumumba, who the CIA helped to get rid of before JFK was inaugurated because they knew once he was in the Oval Office Kennedy would try to restore Lumumba to power. (James DIEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, p. 29) Street also ignores the new work by Australian Greg Poulgrain, who has broken new ground with his discoveries about the informal alliance between Kennedy and UN Chairman Dag Hammarskjold over Congo and Indonesia, one that Kennedy continued by himself after Hammarskjold was murdered. (See Poulgrain, The Incubus of Intervention, pp. 71-83)
Street writes that somehow Kennedy was involved in the planning of the coup to overthrow President Goulart in Brazil. As A. J. Langguth wrote, the group behind the coup was called the Business Group for Latin America. It was headed by David Rockefeller. As we have seen, and as Donald Gibson has demonstrated, Rockefeller was not on good terms with President Kennedy. In fact, he had been given the cold shoulder by JFK for three years. But once Kennedy was killed, this all changed. With President Johnson in the White House and his new assistant on Latin America Thomas Mann in charge, Rockefeller and his group were now warmly received. (Langguth, Hidden Terrors, p. 104) Within a few months, a CIA operation, which Warren Commissioner John McCloy was part of, was aimed at Brazil. It was codenamed Brother Sam and this overthrow, plus Johnson’s 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, essentially spelled the beginning of the end of the Alliance for Progress. (Kai Bird, The Chairman, pp. 551-53; Gibson, pp. 78,79)
In keeping with his utter ignorance of the declassified record, Street now turns to Cuba and Vietnam. He repeats the mantra that somehow the Kennedy White House was behind the plots to kill Castro. This was discredited with the declassification of the CIA’s Inspector General report in the nineties. There, the Agency admitted that there was no plausible deniability for them on this issue. But as William Davy has further discovered, when the Church Committee interviewed the co-author of that IG report, he admitted the same thing. He then went further and said the CIA had deliberately deceived Robert Kennedy about the plots being terminated. (Church Committee interview with Scott Breckinridge, June 2, 1975, pp. 30-33, 49)
On Indochina, Street now says that somehow there is still a debate going on over whether or not Kennedy was going to withdraw troops from South Vietnam. Again, this completely discounts the declassified record, either out of pure ignorance or by purposeful design. The record of the SecDef meeting in May of 1963 was probably the single most important declassified document released by the Assassination Records Review Board. That document shows that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had ordered all State Department, CIA officers, and Defense Department employees from Vietnam to show up in Hawaii with withdrawal plans in hand. When McNamara read the plans, he said the schedules were not fast enough and had to be hastened. (DiEugenio, pp. 336-37) This is all in black and white; it is not a Rick Perlstein/Noam Chomsky stunt over language. If Street has not read these records, then a conclusion is necessitated: He should not be writing about the issue, for the simple reasons that he is misinforming his readers and therefore resorting to propaganda. And it is this deliberate approach that allows him to ignore a very simple fact: When Kennedy was killed, there was not one combat troop in Vietnam. By the end of 1965, Lyndon Johnson had inserted 175,000 in theater. By the end of Johnson’s presidency there were over a half million there.
If one can believe it, and by now one can, Street concludes his discussion of JFK’s foreign policy by saying that the kudos Kennedy gets over his leadership of the Missile Crisis is nauseating. Yet he somehow finds room to praise Nikita Khrushchev’s actions instead.
Let us be clear about this: Khrushchev provoked the crisis by secretly moving a first strike force into Cuba. This included all three arms of the nuclear triad: bombers, submarines and ICBMs. All told, there were well over 100 delivery systems in this armada. Enough to knock out every major city in America except those in the Pacific Northwest. (DiEugenio, p. 60) The Russians lied to Kennedy when he wanted to discuss their presence there. They did this knowing he had repeatedly warned Moscow not to do what they had just done. Even after this Soviet subterfuge, and ignoring most of his advisors, Kennedy resorted to the least violent alternative: a blockade. He refused to bomb the missile silos since he felt too many civilians would be killed. And he refused to authorize an invasion even after the Cubans had knocked down an unarmed U2 plane, killing the American pilot. Which was the only fatality of the 13-day crisis. If one reads the transcripts of the tape-recorded discussions, any rational person—which Street is not—would admit that Kennedy was the person who saved Cuba from both a bombing campaign and an armed invasion. And it was his brother who helped defuse the crisis through his secret meetings with undercover KGB agent Georgi Bolshakov and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. All one has to do to see the difference is to read what almost everyone else was saying toward the end, especially Lyndon Johnson. (The Kennedy Tapes, pp. 590-91, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow) Not just Kennedy’s advisors, but Senators Richard Russell and William Fulbright were also for a full invasion. (DiEugenio, p. 64) By the end, one can safely say that it was John Kennedy who rammed through a deal with Khrushchev: he would get his missiles out of Cuba, we would pledge not to invade the island and get our Jupiter missiles out of Turkey and Italy.
Needless to say, Street makes not one mention of the détente that Kennedy was working on with both Castro and Khrushchev at the time of his assassination. Or the pain that both communist leaders felt about his death once they heard the news. Or that both men also believed that Kennedy had been the victim of a high-level government plot. This is the crazy cul de sac one arrives in following on the heels of Noam Chomsky.
The truth is that Kennedy’s foreign policy—like his plan for civil rights—was largely arranged before he entered the White House. It was germinated on his first trip to Saigon in 1951 and his meeting with State Department official Edmund Gullion. It was later honed and refined until it was eloquently stated in his 1957 speech on the Senate floor attacking Eisenhower’s support for the French colonial war in Algeria. (The Strategy of Peace by Allan Nevins, pp. 66-80) In that speech, Kennedy directly referred to Eisenhower, Nixon and the Dulles brothers as repeating the same mistake they had made three years prior in Vietnam by not negotiating a peaceful way out before the inevitable French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Did that tragic episode not teach us that, whether France likes it or not, admits it or not, or had our support or not, their overseas territories are sooner or later, one by one, inevitably going to break free and look with suspicion on the Western nations who impeded their steps to independence?
Kennedy went on to say, “The problem is to save the French nation, as well as free Africa.” If Street can point out any other Washington politician who made these comments in public at this time I would like to read them. As Audrey and George Kahin wrote, in their book Subversion as Foreign Policy, at no time since World War II
… has violence—especially on a militarized level—in the execution of covert American foreign policy been so widespread as during the Eisenhower administration. Especially was this so with respect to US relations with Third World countries … .” (p. 8)
All one needs to do is recall Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran, the attempted coup against Sukarno, and the murder plots against Lumumba. Kennedy formulated his foreign policy in opposition to this Dulles/Eisenhower/Nixon backdrop. And he specifically said on the eve of the 1960 Democratic convention that he had to win, because if the nominee was Johnson or Stu Symington, it would be a rerun of Foster Dulles or Dean Acheson. (Muehlenbeck, p. 37; I should note that Kennedy was correct about Johnson, as exhibited in Vietnam, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Greece.) As George Ball said, Kennedy’s policies stated that if we did not encourage nascent nationalism, then America would be perceived as part of the imperial status quo and we would lose out to the USSR. Therefore, to compete with the Russians we had to side with those promoting change. (Muehlenbeck, p. xiv)
It was these ideas about the Third World which stopped Kennedy from bailing out the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion, prohibited him from admitting combat troops into Vietnam, and prevented him from bombing the missile sites in Cuba during the October, 1962 crisis. This gestalt concept is easy to understand if one studies Kennedy’s career. And I have been at pains to elucidate these distinctions on more than one occasion. The last time I did so, I pointed out how Kennedy’s ideas were opposed to the stated objectives of the Council on Foreign Relations, proving once more that Mr. Street is flat wrong about Kennedy being part of the Eastern Establishment.
As I wrote, the occasion for this leap into the abyss is Street’s outrage over Joseph Kennedy’s speech answering Trump. He is about as reliable and honest on the younger Kennedy as he is on JFK and RFK. For example, he writes that the congressman is against single payer health care. Not true. And he does not link to his speeches on Trump Care or Trump’s tax plan.
As I noted at the start, I left the liberal blogosphere a decade ago. From reading Street, I made the right choice.