(I vanquished DiEugenio, so my challenge to Oliver Stone to debate is still on the table)
“When Oliver Stone heard it, he immediately called me, as he was excited about the result.” And thus Kent Dorfman James DiEugenio, aka “Jimmy Die,” received the imprimatur of his mentor and lord that he had done well.
Stone was referring to a debate I recently had with DiEugenio on the topic of the JFK assassination and the conspiracies Stone and others have laid out over the years, claiming that the “deep state,” including the military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies, and maybe even the Vice President’s office, had Kennedy killed because he was going soft on them—preparing to withdraw from Vietnam, normalize relations with Cuba, and end the Cold War. (You can hear the debate here). DiEugenio has continued his barrage of insults directed at Noam Chomsky and me, along with the tired old theories and anecdotes and misinformation, so I’m writing a last response to him. If Oliver Stone wants to enter the debate, he’s always welcome to join Scott Parkin and me on Green & Red Podcast.
In 1998, the consulting firm Booz Allen prepared a report for the Pentagon on declassification procedures and the use of the internet, still fairly new, on declassification strategy. It had to consider openness and cost effectiveness, but it had a category headed “Diversion” which said the govt could list “interesting declassified material—i.e. Kennedy assassination data” (my emphasis).
So it was clear then that the ruling class saw the JFK conspiracy as a distraction, a way to get the populace, and scholars, to avoid a systemic analysis of American power and subversion and divert attention from real history, real politics and real crises to chase a chimera.
Prior to the past few months, I’ve never been much involved with Kennedy conspiracy theories. Obviously, everyone in America is aware of the JFK assassination, one of the most-discussed events in modern history, but I had never read about or researched it in anything but a cursory manner. Obviously, as a historian of the post-Civil War United States, I was aware of the various theories about the killing, the critique of the Warren Report, the fascination with Lee Harvey Oswald, and so forth. I had no strong opinion on any of this until Oliver Stone made it a cause célèbre with his 1991 movie JFK and recent documentary, written along with DiEugenio, titled JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.
While I had/have no dog in the hunt of the Warren Report or Oswald theories, I always believed that Stone’s argument that the military or the CIA or some other dark forces in government had Kennedy killed because he was becoming too dovish were evidence-free and thus absurd, as well as politically reactionary for they replaced analysis and activism with hero worship. Yet, Stone’s views have gained great traction—a rare instance of a media, pop-culture figure driving a legitimate historical debate. About 60 percent of Americans believe there was some kind of conspiracy to kill JFK, a number that’s been steady for a while. More distressingly, the Left, the political community with which I identify, increasingly accepts Stone’s view, and just in the past few months popular liberal/left media like Jacobin, Counterpunch, Majority Report, and The Empire Files (to name just a few) gave Stone favorable ink and air time to pontificate about the JFK killing.
At that point, mostly out of frustration at the Left accepting Stone’s theories so easily, I interviewed Noam Chomsky, author of Rethinking Camelot, a debunking of Stone’s arguments published in 1993, on the Green & Red Podcast, which I co-host with Scott Parkin. Then Scott and I did another show on it, based on my own work on JFK’s foreign policies and my own lifetime of research and writing about Vietnam. (See interview with Chomsky here, and my episode on it here).
During our podcast and on social media, to inject some levity, I challenged Stone to a debate, knowing of course that Oliver Stone has no idea who I am and would never take my dare. Surprisingly, DiEugenio took the challenge and so we debated on March 28th (listen to the introduction of the podcast of the debate to get some idea of DiEugenio’s antics, link above).
More recently, DiEugenio wrote another piece to respond to my articles and the introduction to the podcast which he called “cleaning up” after the debate. (You can read it here). It’s simply more of the same from him . . . isolated and circumstantial events pieced together in no logical manner, anecdotes rather than evidence, bombast rather than reason. It’s the way they roll—the Cult of Kennedy, the Cult of Stone.
DiEugenio began the recent article by excoriating me because, he said, I supported the Warren Commission’s report and argued that Oswald as the lone gunman. The reality, however, is that I said repeatedly that I wasn’t interested in the minutae of Oswald’s movements or that other detritus and the new info didn’t change our overall knowledge. The conspiracists aren’t just absent a smoking gun, but offer nothing conclusive enough to prove their conspiracy theory. As I pointed out—and I can’t stress enough—the Conspiracy-Assassination Complex loves to talk about Oswald’s whereabouts, Dealey Plaza, and conversations recalled decades later, Curtis LeMay’s presence, or not, at JFK’s autopsy, but the key to this entire issue—as Stone himself wrote in JFK in 1991, is why?
As Stone had the character X say, the rest of the plot, like Oswald or Cuba or the mafia—was “scenery” or a “parlor game” to distract away from the question of motive. Isn’t it ironic that the Stoneians are doing that themselves? They’re still talking about the new documents released by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) to ruminate over Oswald’s connections to either Communists or the CIA, whether Oswald was actually in Dallas on 11/22/63 (apparently he wasn’t according to some of them), and, most “curiously” (I’ll use a nice word), whether LeMay disguised his whereabouts to attend the JFK autopsy.
Why did, as they allege, dark forces in the government—either the military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies, or more specifically as Jimmy Die argues, James Jesus Angleton and LeMay, design an elaborate plan involving multiple government officials operating in a number of locations (without anyone spilling a word)—want Kennedy dead? (Just as an aside . . . Jimmy Die claims LeMay was a, maybe the central figure in the plot against JFK because his schedule on 11/22/63 changed at the last minute and he landed at a different base in D.C. and was present at JFK’s autopsy. If you’re pulling off the biggest conspiracy of all time, wouldn’t it be more important to keep your regular routine? Not leave breadcrumbs?) As I said, I’m not interested in the minutae of the assassination itself, but in the course of this trip into Stone-land, a couple people who debunk DiEugenio, Fred Litwin and Steve Roe, started tagging me on social media so if you want to see how they reject the conspiracy, look them up).
My point has always been—and I emphasized it in the debate—that the argument that dark forces in the military and intelligence communities, and even perhaps Vice President Lyndon Johnson, had JFK killed because he was going to withdraw from Vietnam, was normalizing relations with Cuba, and was moving to end the Cold War simply and utterly lacks any evidence. I’m not interested in scenery and parlor games.
JFK’s Record on Civil Rights
DiEugenio then spent several paragraphs defending Kennedy’s civil rights record—which was not one of the issues in the debate but was invoked by Jimmy Die at the outset as an example of Kennedy’s virtue and love for all mankind. I simply said he should be careful about praising JFK on those grounds, and we moved on. On this issue, he has again ignored voluminous and significant evidence of the president’s record—spotty and inconsistent at best—on the Civil Rights movement, a “bystander” according to a popular book on the topic. I’m not going to go into detail here because there’s a vast literature on this and, unlike the residents of Stone World, I don’t like to pontificate on topics that are not germane to the debate. As a professor of U.S. history who’s written a book on the 1960s, I obviously am informed about the Civil Rights Movement and Kennedy more than most—and certainly more than DiEugenio. And most of my knowledge on this topic comes from reading the main books in the field, so when Jimmy Die claims to be schooling me, I don’t take him seriously.
To be brief, JFK was tentative at best on Civil Rights and really had wished the topic would not have appeared and tried to wish it away. Kennedy won the 1960 election with heavy southern support—he won the electoral votes of both Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and the border state of Missouri. He understood the delicate and soon to be incendiary nature of racial politics in that region and tried to walk the tightrope, but made it a priority to keep southerners as happy as he could—his judicial appointments, for instance, were made to placate southern politicians far more than civil rights advocates.
While he did help Martin Luther King get out of jail before the 1960 election, he also was frustrated by the movement’s insistence on directly challenging the apartheid system in the south with direct action. King was not even invited to the inaugural or his initial meeting of Civil Rights leaders at the Whie House. The sit-ins and the freedom rides upset JFK because they called attention to American racial violence and forced his hand. He was especially alarmed by the violence surrounding the freedom rides and had to ultimately send in federal marshals because the imagery was so brutal, but was as frustrated with King and other Black activists as with the southerners attacking the riders. King himself implored the president to act “in the area of moral persuasion by occasionally speaking out against segregation.”
But he repeatedly asked King and others to “go slow” and “wait” and he and his brother even sanctioned the notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to conduct surveillance and wiretaps on King, and kept a dossier on his sex life (of which Berl L. Bernhard, staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights from 1958 to 1963, said the president was aware). And since Jimmy Dielikes to invoke historians whom he claims buttress his adoration of Kennedy, it’s worth nothing that biographer Robert Dallek, not really a critic of 1960s Liberals, concluded that “the president’s words did little to advance the cause of civil rights or ease the tensions that were erupting in sporadic violence.” Even on issues that were not being highlighted on the nightly news, JFK delayed and wavered. When activists pressed Kennedy to issue executive orders to end Federal mortgage loan discrimination, he stalled and finally put out a tepid order in November 1962 and let a proposed bill to address discrimination in public facilities expire.
The Civil Rights activists finally forced Kennedy’s hand by continuing their direct action, and it came to head in Birmingham in May 1963 when media all over the globe highlighted images of police attacking peaceful black protestors with clubs, dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses, which obviously anguished JFK and forced him to propose the Civil Rights Act. Kennedy then was caught in a dilemma as southern Democrats, the very people who helped put him in the White House, filibustered the act, leading King and others to organize the March on Washington in August. Every account of that event makes note of Kennedy’s anxiety over the march and points out that White House officials had instructed officials there to pull the plug on John Lewis if his speech became too incendiary. At the time of Kennedy’s death, the bill still languished and his successor, the Texas Lyndon Johnson, used far more political pressure and moral suasion to get it over the finish line.
Kennedy’s tentative and piecemeal approach had not succeeded. On November 22d, 1963, his words about civil rights remained unfulfilled. (There’s a significant literature on JFK’s lackluster record on Civil Rights, but most recently you can look at Nick Bryant’s The Bystander).
Vietnam: The Linchpin of Stone’s Fantastic History
DiEugenio then of course invoked Vietnam, and, as he always has, accused me of simply parroting Noam Chomsky’s Rethinking Camelot to prove that JFK was not a dove on Vietnam and had no intention of withdrawing without victory. I am, in his words, “Chomsky’s useful idiot.” See it here.
I obviously support Chomsky’s position on this issue and he has been an inspiration to countless scholars and I consider him a mentor and associate, but his book is definitely not the basis of my own views. As I said repeatedly during the debate (and you really should listen to it if you want the full flavor of DiEugenio’s lack of knowledge and dissembling) my views are based on my own work, which was based in extensive archival research. I have a long reputation as a scholar on Vietnam and in the course of writing my book Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era I visited every relevant presidential, military, and diplomatic archive on the topic, as well as published government sources. I mentioned the document collections put out by the always-indispensable National Security Archive. I’ve read virtually every page of The Pentagon Papers. My arguments do not rely on Chomsky, or Alex Cockburn, or anyone else. I’ve done the work myself. I am a scholar. Jimmy Die is a polemicist and an Oliver Stone fanboy. (You can see the article I wrote in response to Stone’s and DiEugenio’s conspiracy theories here).
Because JFK’s alleged intent to quit Vietnam is the linchpin of Stone’s conspiracy, I’ll just provide a précis of my argument here rather than again go into the detail you can find in my books or my article “John F. Kennedy Goes Hollywood: Oliver Stone’s Fantastic History.” I made five essential points to show that JFK was committed to fighting in Vietnam and, more importantly in light of Stone’s argument, winning in Vietnam.
First, Kennedy was a prototypical Cold Warrior who vastly expanded the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and poured “advisors,” military supplies, armor, helicopters, napalm, and other equipment into the RVN. And even before that he was instrumental in giving birth to the state that the Americans invented below the Seventeenth Parallel—Kennedy was a friend of Ngo Dinh Diem, whom the U.S put in charge in the south, and in 1956, the year elections to reunify the country were canceled by Diem, JFK said
Vietnam represents a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia. If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents. We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we have helped to shape its future. As French influence in the political, economic, and military spheres has declined in Vietnam, American influence has steadily grown. This is our offspring – we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence – Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest – then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible; and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.
It’s also worth noting here that part of DiEugenio’s “proof” of JFK’s awareness of the perils of a war in Vietnam included a meme with a 1951 quote from diplomat Edmund Gullion telling Kennedy that the days of western empire in Asia were numbered. Of course, within 5 years JFK played a pivotal role in putting Diem in power in the country the U.S. invented and making sure American aid continued to flow there. As for Gullion, who’s a dove in DiEugenio’s world…he became dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts where students firebombed his office in 1971 due to his support of the war and the school’s involvement with government programs in Vietnam. Indeed, Jimmy Die likes to talk about Gullion . . . a lot, giving him an importance far beyond what other, credible, scholars on Vietnam do and what he deserves (see here). This is a great example of the way the Stoneiacs operate, taking a minor figure, or incident, and giving it outsized importance.
Second, Kennedy grew disaffected with the Diem regime and the U.S. approved of and helped organize a coup against him and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in November 1963, a critical point not mentioned by the Stone Campists. The coup occurred at the very same time that DiEugenio and other assassinologists argue that JFK had made a decision to withdraw 1000 troops in 1963 and to pull out wholly by 1965. Of course, the coup presents a powerful rebuttal to that. Kennedy had already sent hundreds of millions of dollars, tolerated the southern regime’s vast human rights abuses, and made Vietnam the cornerstone of American policy in Asia, so eliminating the regime would inevitably set off chaos (as it did, as the South had about a dozen governments in the next 16 months) and make withdrawal harder than ever.
In fact, Kennedy’s sanction of the coup also undermines DiEugenio’s argument that the president wanted a neutralization settlement in Vietnam. As George McT. Kahin showed in Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam, Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu had been making backchannel overtures to Hanoi to end the war with some sort of neutral government put in place. Of course, everyone knew that any settlement of that sort would inevitably lead to the Communists and NLF taking over fairly quickly, so JFK needed Diem gone. While publicly the U.S. soured on Diem because of his repression of the Buddhists, it’s just as important to note that JFK was wary of peace—a coalition government that would signal American defeat—breaking out as much as, if not more than, Diem attacking Buddhists.
DiEugenio and Stone here also like to stress NSAM 263 as their Smoking Gun to prove JFK was going to withdrawal. That document emerged from Maxwell Taylor’s report on a trip to Vietnam in September 1963, and it did envision the withdrawal of troops in 1963 as the initial step in “a long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort” (my emphasis).
As the Americans considered this plan of action, the memorandum made it clear that “the situation must be closely watched to see what steps Diem is taking to reduce repressive practices and to improve the effectiveness of the military effort. We should set no fixed criteria, but recognize that we would have to decide in 2-4 months whether to move to more drastic action or try to carry on with Diem even if he had not taken significant steps.” And then it included a long list of actions to use as leverage against Diem and a listing of coup possibilities. DiEugenio also stressed that JFK was against sending combat troops into Vietnam. But no one ever said he would . . . no American planning at that time ever envisioned the deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. Again, these actions were not an indication of Kennedy preparing to withdrawal, but a statement of intent to make sure the U.S. did not “lose” Vietnam to the Communists.
Third, in September 1963, before the Diem coup and his own assassination Kennedy held interviews with Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley where he said he did not ““agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like to see Americans to be engaged in this kind of effort… But it is a very important struggle even though it is far away.” A week later he emphasized that point once more, acknowledging that Americans would get anxious or impatient about Vietnam, but “withdrawal only makes it easy for the Communist. I think we should stay.” When Stone included these interviews in JFK, he chopped them to exclude those remarks.
Then, in his final speech, at Fort Worth on 11/22/63, Kennedy admitted that “without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” And much more telling were the remarks he was scheduled to deliver at the Dallas Trade Mart that evening. The entire document in bellicose and unwavering, and it should be read in full to get a real sense of where JFK’s foreign policy ideas stood at the moment he was allegedly targeted by the military and intelligence complexes for being a dove. Kennedy’s speech both boasted and warned enemies of American strength.
Fourth, neither Stone nor DiEugenio or any of the other conspiracy theorists even mention the U.S. military’s reservations and pessimism about war in Vietnam. If the military-industrial complex wanted JFK dead, which is the key element in their theory, then the fact that military officials were opposed to a war there clearly refutes their argument. My book Masters of War provides a detailed account of the military’s own views on Vietnam so I’ll not detail them here. Suffice it to say that military officials had no desire for war in Indochina and even Maxwell Taylor in September 1963 said he “would not be associated with any program which included [a] commitment of U.S. Armed Forces.”
Fifth, there was great continuity between both personnel and policy before and after November 1963. LBJ did not change course because he was opposed to an alleged withdrawal by Kennedy. There was no shift in Vietnam policy. In fact, William Westmoreland, one of the architects of the war and the most hawkish military official in the Vietnam era, said in 1964 that he “did not contemplate” putting U.S. troops into combat; that “would be a mistake,” he told Taylor, because “it is the Vietnamese’s war.” In late 1964, again insisting that “a purely military solution is not possible,” Westmoreland did not even mention using ground troops in his reports to Washington. In probably his most prophetic analysis, in January 1965, just ten weeks before the introduction of combat troops at Da Nang, he and his staff urged a continuation of the flawed advisory system, but no combat troops.
The United States, they recognized, had spent vast amounts of time and money to develop the ARVN, with little luck, and “if that effort has not succeeded, there is even less reason to think that U.S. combat forces would have the desired effect.” The involvement of American troops in the RVN, the military staff in Saigon concluded, quite amazingly, “would at best buy time and would lead to ever increasing commitments until, like the French, we would be occupying an essentially hostile foreign country.”
Kennedy’s Aggression in Cuba, Latin America, and the Rest of the World
He also tried to rebut my claims about JFK’s continued commitment to oust Castro in Cuba and the American role in coups d’etat against João Goulart in Brazil and against Karim Qasim in Iraq. He doesn’t address the evidence, again, and I’d simply suggest anyone interested read my article on JFK’s aggressive militarism and intervention about those two episodes as well as many others.
I would, however, briefly like to comment on JFK’s position on Cuba, since one of the other main arguments that the Stone clique makes is that the Cuban Missile Crisis shook Kennedy so much that he was on the path to normalizing relations with Cuba. Once again, the record, the archives, the documents tell a very different story. In December 1962, post-missile crisis, JFK ended the year in Miami paying public tribute to the Cuban Invasion Brigade and pledging that Cuba would be made “free” with Alliance for Progress and American help. In an April 1963 meeting, JFK made clear he had not given up on removing Castro but insisted it had to be a Miami-Cuban effort and wondered “whether active sabotage was good unless it was of a type that could only come from within Cuba.”
At the same time Bromley Smith, the executive secretary of the NSC, presented an analysis that made it clear that Kennedy had decided to end the “restraint” he had shown on Cuba and was recommitting American assets to the campaign against Castro with harassment, sabotage, and economic damage—and as we know, assassination attempts against Fidel continued.
And on Castro’s end, despite claims by Stone and others, like journalist Peter Kornbluh, that the Cuban leader was warming up to JFK, he continued to be as wary as possible about the U.S. president. At a reception at the Brazilian embassy in Havana on September 7th, Castro held a spontaneous interview with an AP reporter where he called JFK a “cretin” . . . the Batista of his times . . . [and] the most opportunistic president of all time.” He also denounced the continuing American-sponsored raids on Cuban territory and said “we are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. U.S. leaders should think if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.”
In fact, in Kennedy’s last public words about Latin America, in Miami on November 18th Kennedy emphasized the need to aid the region against Castro and said that “my own country is prepared to do this.” He urged states throughout the hemisphere to “use every resource at our command to prevent the establishment of another Cuba in this hemisphere. . . .”
Once again, the documents offer a markedly different version than Stone’s and DiEugenio’s anecdotes do. The U.S. attempt to oust Castro did not end after the missiles of October 1962, and both the U.S. and Cuba were aware that the acrimony, interference, and subversion was continuing. Indeed, on the day Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a Cuban asset close to Castro, code-named AM/LASH, was in Paris receiving a poison pen from a CIA officer in a ham-handed effort to have Castro killed.
I would also like to respond to DiEugenio’s charge that I was unaware of the date the Cuban embargo was put in place. Since the Stone thesis gives significant agency to Allen Dulles and the CIA, I pointed out that JFK had replaced Dulles in late 1961 and then put the Cuban embargo in place in February. DiEugenio pointed out that I didn’t even know that there had been an embargo in place prior to that point. But in the debate I said that and pointed out that Kennedy escalated tensions and tightened the embargo in February 1962, after, importantly, he had removed Dulles—my point being that Dulles was not driving Kennedy’s hardline against Cuba. For DiEugenio to disingenuously make such allegations surely says a great deal about his knowledge and character. (The February embargo notice is here).
His apologetics for Kennedy regarding Brazil and Iraq are simply not worth any response. Again, I’d urge anyone interested to look at my longer piece on this here .
As for Khrushchev and the Soviet Union, everyone who’s studied the Cold War in any detail, and who has done research using documents and archival collections, is aware that the Soviet leader understood that his country was far, far behind the U.S. in terms of military power and weapons (the U.S. had almost 20,000 nuclear weapons and the USSR had about 1600) and made overtures to thaw the cold war from the earliest part of the Kennedy presidency. In response, JFK built up military budgets and weapons systems, and increased military aid to “friendly”—i.e. anti-Communist—regimes globally. His signal achievement, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, was a long-standing and popular goal that had wide the p bi-partisan, and military, support, and in no way at all indicated that Kennedy was trying to end the Cold War.
Liberal Imperialism . . . is Still Imperialism
Rather than repeat the points I made in my writing or in the debate, I’d like to here explain to DiEugenio and the rest of the Stone fan-club that Kennedy’s rhetoric about democracy and modernization, and his grief at Lumumba’s assassination (a point Jimmy Die brought up to “prove” he was a man of peace), are not symptoms in a change in ideology or doctrine. In Stone-World power is wielded through force, and if Kennedy did not use force, he must have been beating swords into plowshares (having said that, they also embarrassingly downplay the myriad instances of Kennedy’s use of force—39 times in less than 3 years). But power and imperialism can be wielded many ways, and the most interventionist of 20th Century presidents were Liberals—Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK and, later, LBJ, Carter, and Clinton. Liberals were not doves. Liberals believed in the expansion of American hegemony to the utmost degree. Simply look at the work of Gabriel Kolko, William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Marilyn Young, Lloyd Gardner, Arno Mayer, and Bruce Cumings, to name just a few, to understand the inherent need for strength and power in Liberal global policies.
JFK understood that too. He entered the White House in the aftermath of Bandung, as Mao Zedong was becoming a beacon to Third World nationalists and revolutionaries, as Khrushchev promised to support wars of national liberation, as a global decolonization movement was on the offensive. To be sure, most notably in Vietnam and Cuba and throughout Latin America, JFK used American military strength to try to quash those movements. But he also understood, as in the Congo crisis, the need to meet the global Left on other terms—to try to offer a better world with economic development and modern institutions to the less-developed nations. So the Alliance for Progress, as I show in my longer article, was intended to “modernize” Latin America but in reality it “militarized” the region even more, and as such it followed the model created by Wilson and FDR, especially in the Good Neighbor Policy.
Understanding that your rivals were making a more effective pitch to the 3d World doesn’t make one a peacemaker. It means you find new strategies for hegemony, and that’s what JFK was doing, while subverting other states, spending more money on weapons, and posturing against the Communists.
JFK was following in the footsteps of American presidents who, since the later 1800s, had understood that financiers and manufacturers and other capitalists could use investment money and products to gain a foothold and power in areas where they could establish markets for consumer goods, gain access to raw materials, get strategic outposts for military bases, and find cheap labor. It was, in the old equation, the idea of “replacing bullets with dollars.” Doing that doesn’t make one less of an imperialist or less hegemonic. It’s a difference in strategy, not intent. And to be clear, Kennedy did not, and never meant to, engage with Vietnam, Cuba, Brazil, Iraq, Indonesia, or any of those other countries DiEugenio likes to invoke, as an equal or a country worthy of respect. JFK always took account of the world within the context of U.S. power—how could he benefit from American involvement in those regions and what means would he have to use to assert U.S. strength!
Anecdotes Aren’t Documents, and Not All Documents are Equal
While the Stone platoon relies heavily on recently-released documents from the ARRB, I do find it more than ironic that a group of people who’ve dedicated their lives to rejecting the government’s claims on JFK’s assassination are now leaning so heavily into documents released by…..that very same government. I’ve spent more time than I ever wanted to looking into the ARRB documents, and they come from the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies. Why would you suddenly have faith in government record-keeping? If they’ve lied to you since Nov 22 1963, why would you think they’re telling you the truth now?
Ultimately, their conspiracy thesis really relies on stories, connections they’ve created out of thin air, untenable connections like DiEugenio’s use of Gullion noted above, interviews conducted years after the fact, and anecdotes. If you enter a research project with your conclusion made, it’s not hard to find “evidence” to support it. Prior to my dissertation research, which became Masters of War, most scholars wrote that the military was supportive or hawkish on Vietnam, so I began with that idea in my head. But as I read more and more documents, another powerful theme emerged. Military officials were constantly expressing their wariness, pessimism, and even outright opposition to any kind of military involvement there. As I visited more archives and read more documents, that military reluctance and opposition became an expanding theme, to the point where I had no choice but to emphasize and write about it. Had I simply been looking for examples of military hawkishness, I could have found those. But that’s not what the full record told me ultimately.
Documents are tools, not sacred texts. I’ve collected many tens of thousands of pages of documents on Vietnam. Many are useful but the vast majority aren’t worth much at all. Often they simply retell something that you could find in the daily papers at the time. Sometimes they give you a real insight into what’s going on, but you might find that in the official records of The Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Department of Defense for the National Security Council or the White House as well. Sometimes the documents themselves provide what I called a non-sequitur approach to policy—the military knew what JFK and LBJ wanted to hear and wouldn’t come right out and dismiss them, but wrote frank appraisals of what it was seeing in Vietnam along with telling the presidents what they wanted to hear. None of this was happening in smoke-filled rooms.
The government’s classification system is also Byzantine and often impossible to understand. I’ve done a huge number of mandatory records reviews and more often than not when I get the papers I requested my first thought is that the particular document never should have been classified in the first place, there’s nothing in it of any real value or nothing that needed to be kept secret. And sometimes I get documents back that are totally redacted. And sometimes I’ll get a document 10-15 years after I requested it and it’s the same document that was in a published collection years ago, and sometimes it’s a blank page. One could cherry-pick those documents to find evidence of a conspiracy, but it wouldn’t pass muster against the backdrop of the entire archival collection.
It’s also worth noting, that in the entire archive system at least as of 10 years ago when I was still looking for documents in government collections on Vietnam, the JFK library was the worst, keeping documents classified and not responding to review requests for long periods of time, unless you were Doris Kearns Goodwin or Michael Beschloss or someone like that. But there’s a reason the large majority of scholars, including the most critical Left scholars, of Vietnam don’t agree with Stone’s conspiracy; they’ve done exhaustive work in the records, and they’ve found no evidence of it. There’s just no evidence that JFK was about to reverse the centuries-long record of American intervention and war and usher in a new era of global comity.
DiEugenio also likes to cite books written on the topic by the likes of David Kaiser, Howard Jones, Robert Rakove and others, and charges that I’m not familiar with them. Of course I am. I’ve been studying U.S. foreign policy, especially Vietnam, for decades and I’m well aware of the literature. I just don’t think those books have anything valuable to add and they make weak arguments about JFK’s alleged peaceful intentions. For DiEugenio, a book that agrees with his view is valuable, and those that don’t, aren’t. It’s a terribly immature way to look at history, but DiEugenio isn’t a scholar so it’s not surprising.
Pop Culture, Conspiracies, Heroes, and Reality: Why Stone Harms the Left
This will be my last response to DiEugenio. I entered this fray because not to convince him and the rest of the Stone’s Conspiracy Cohort that they were wrong—that’s impossible as they have a evangelical fervor on this issue that’s immune to evidence or reality—but to urge the Left principally not to fall into the trap of looking for mythical heroes and conspiracies in lieu of analysis, organizing, activism, and action–it’s shameful that Jacobin, Counterpunch, Majority Report, The Empire Files and other lefty celebrity media have fallen into this conspiracy abyss. Stone and DiEugenio and the other assassinologists make all kinds of twists and turns to try to make their argument make sense—Kennedy wasn’t aware of the plots against Castro, Mexican peasants cried when he was killed, Nasser and Sukarno were sad on 11/22/63, and so on. It’s the detritus of people desperate to believe in the myth of a glamorous young warrior for peace cut down in his prime. And it’s not relevant or convincing.
While the issue of JFK’s actions on the global stage deserve further consideration—and I’m working on a manuscript on the topic right now—I think the larger issue concerning Stone’s popular theories is that they do a disservice to the study of history and to our understanding of how the ruling class operates and what needs to be done to challenge that oligarchy. Hollywood treatments of historical events can be great entertainment, and can even be educational (I’ve used clips from Grapes of Wrath, Paths of Glory, Norman Rae, and Matewan in my classes, to name a few), but they don’t take the place of documents, archives, government records, and, well, facts…..
In this regard, the Kennedy assassination is a great example of the misuse of popular culture to teach history.
Some people look for heroes and villains, instead of doing a systematic analysis of historical episodes.
Some people find conspiracies because the reality is too uncomfortable or contrary to the answers they find. Affluent Liberals benefit from conspiracy theory because it dissuades a structural analysis of class and power, of a system from which they often benefit.
Some people see dark forces and the deep state and don’t consider doctrine, material conditions, hubris, caprice or just plain incompetence to explain historical episodes.
There’s a reason some people make movies and some people write history books. The standards are very different. They can both tell a story, but one doesn’t allow you to create a reality that doesn’t exist in the record. And Stone’s film and documentary are, at the core, about reality vs. wishes and fantasies
Stone has created a great story that creates a hero who was cut down in his prime by dark forces before he could create a new society. Who doesn’t want to have that?
But it’s not so, no matter how many contortions he and Jimmy Die make. No matter how many old interviews they pore over. No matter how many anecdotes they piece together like a rag doll and present as a fine Saville Row suit. No matter how many new documents get released. It’s been almost 60 years and it’s the same old song.
The Kennedy-Assassination-Conspiracy Industry would suggest that the deep state feared that Kennedy had discovered a Cold War, a permanent wartime economy, subversion abroad, and a society saturated in war…..and had him killed before he could change all that.
But there’s a huge and unforgiving hole in that theory…..Kennedy was one of them. He was in and of that ruling class. He was a Kennedy!
He wasn’t an apostate, but a full member. And on top of that, there’s no evidence. You’d have to find evidence of the military and other government officials breaking with him. Not fictions of the mind. Real evidence.
JFK was one of them. Where is the proof that these people wanted him dead? JFK was going to end permanent wartime economy? Ridiculous. You’re trying to prove the most amazing conspiracy, the biggest conspiracy, of all time. I’m held to a different standard. I’m a historian not a movie maker.
Stone has created “Schrodinger’s Kennedy”—Trying to get out of Vietnam and end the Cold War while simultaneously ramping up the American intervention in Southeast Asia, trying to overthrow Castro, increasing the military budget, and taking a hard line toward Khrushchev
Open the box what do you see? They see conspiracy while the rest of us see Kennedy for who he was. And that’s what a real examination of Kennedy’s actions as president shows, someone who acted consistently within the Cold War/Interventionist framework of his time, someone who sought to overturn revolutions in Vietnam and Cuba, and elsewhere, someone who believed in big military budgets, big weapons, and big showdowns. No swords were beaten into plowshares, no new worlds were built. As the great historian Tom Paterson, who edited a great collection about JFK’s foreign policy said, he had his chance and he failed.
On Conspiracies . . . Last Thoughts
There is a growing, and disturbing, obsession with conspiracy theory to explain history—from Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy Assassination to more recently the Wuhan Lab Theory or Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election. Conspiracies energize people, sometimes to violence, and make it harder if not impossible to speak in realistic and evidence-based ways about what happened.
In this case it’s worth noting that a conspiracy to kill a president of the U.S. would have to be immense—including various departments and government officials. Yet, JFK had personal relations with the key actors. Probably his closest military adviser was Maxwell Taylor, whom he named Chair of the JCS in 1962, and on Vietnam, the reality is that Taylor was far from gung-ho and always was wary of a war there. The Army Chief of Staff was George Decker, who was very reluctant to escalate in Vietnam (as was his successor, Earle Wheeler), as was Marine Commandant David Shoup (and Commandant Wallace Greene too)—both appointed by JFK and wary of seeing their services fight a land war in Asia. The Air Force Chief of Staff was Curtis LeMay, famous for wanting to bomb Vietnam to the stone age but in reality urging airpower to avoid a long and costly war there, and another Kennedy appointee. And CIA Director John McCone was appointed by JFK in December 1961
What would their motive be? There’s no evidence of any. A Texas D.A. might indict a ham sandwich, but he would certainly no-bill Stone’s case for this immense conspiracy.
Speaking of conspiracies, there are a couple people I’d like to invoke here—Israel Feinstein Stone and Stephan Jay Gould. Stone was highly respected with good sources inside government, and he read the voluminous Congressional Record cover to cover, finding news stories in the public domain. “All my adult life as a newspaperman,” he observed, “I have been fighting, in defense of the Left and of a sane politics, against conspiracy theories of history, character assassination, guilt by association and demonology.”
Gould, in a takedown of the Piltdown Conspiracy, explained that “coincidences recede into improbability as more and more independent items coagulate to form a pattern. The mark of any good theory is that it makes coordinated sense of a string of observations otherwise independent and inexplicable.” He’s a scientist, but good research is universal. It doesn’t rely on interviews done years after the fact, 3d person stories, books written by people in the same circle, people coming out of the woodwork, long social media arguments over the detritus of a murder in Dallas. It’s based on what actually happened, not on alchemy.
James DiEugenio refers to himself as a scholar and an activist. He is neither.
Finally, I’d like to just refer to one of his many insults directed at Chomsky, who obviously has defended himself against Stone-type slanders for decades. Jimmy Die said, “I would like to append one last point about how leftist ideology clouds the picture of who Kennedy was. Peter Scott wrote an essay for the Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971. That essay was one of the earliest efforts to detect that Kennedy was withdrawing from Vietnam at the time of his death. The editors of that series were Chomsky and Howard Zinn. They did not want to print that essay, because to them it would indicate that whoever is president makes a difference. I do not know any clearer way of showing that Chomsky’s concept amounts to writing history according to ideology. And to me, that is not writing history. Its [sic] polemics.”
So I sent this paragraph to Noam Chomsky, and he responded in an email
The claim is of course based on zero evidence, and happens to be pure nonsense, as is perfectly obvious. On his idiotic grounds, why did we publish the essay? Did someone force us to? Maybe the “deep state”?
I was personally responsible for the essays. Howard was involved, but doing other things. At the time I was writing extensively about the PP, which I had (from Dan, and Tony) before they were released. For Reasons of State, was mostly about the PP, both the Gravel and government editions.
I solicited the essays, including Scott’s. He was a personal friend. I had just spent a semester at Berkeley, where there was then an active antiwar faculty group, and we worked together in it. I also greatly admired his work. Neither Howard nor I found his (rather tortured) essay impressive, but decided to include it anyway, as an interesting point of view. What he says here is totally “unhinged.”
Conspiracies, and looking for heroes, amounts to wasting your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from the streets. I’d like to quote someone here, who (correctly) dismissed the idea that Castro was involved in the JFK assassination and said in 2017 “if you can’t make your case in 54 years, I think you don’t have one.” Those are DiEugenio’s words.
It’s been almost 60 years now for the JFK Conspiracy-Assassination Industry, and they haven’t made their case . . . . And we’re still waiting…..
Jim Garrison: I never realized Kennedy was so dangerous to the establishment. Is that why?
X: Well that’s the real question, isn’t it? Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia. Keeps ’em guessing like some kind of parlor game, prevents ’em from asking the most important question, why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?
That brief discussion between characters played by Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK remains at the heart of this entire issue as a documentary about and new cut of the movie are coming out more than three decades later, and it’s a question that Stone has never been able to answer in any meaningful way. The “why” of Kennedy’s assassination, the famous director has contended. was that the young president was breaking away from the entire path of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the post-1945 era.
JFK, Stone claimed, essentially had a Road to Damascus and realized that constant wars and interventions, sabotage and meddling in other countries, immense military budgets and a politically-powerful military-industrial complex, far too-independent intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and government groups like the National Security Council, and an entire government apparatus profiting from militarism and war had brought the globe to the brink of disaster or even annihilation, especially during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and had to end. And so Kennedy was set to withdraw U.S. military forces from Vietnam, ending the growing conflict there, and reach out to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries to thaw and ultimately end the Cold War. And that provided the answer to “why?”
For this turn toward peace, this commitment to beat swords into plowshares, those very forces Kennedy had identified as the beneficiaries of military budgets and espionage and wars conspired to have him killed. While much of the Kennedy conspiracy theory (or theories) focus on the intricacies of Lee Harvey Oswald’s past and his movements, anti-Castro Cubans and mafiosi, magic bullets and grassy knolls, the Texas Book Depository and other physical elements that affected the events in Dallas on 22 November 1963 — an there is abundant documentation on those things — Stone is correct that it’s mostly scenery for the public. The real question, the one that has historical immanence, sui generis, is the “why.” What Stone posits is so massive, so world-historical — a large cabal of state agents working together to conspire to murder the leader of that state for political reasons — that it has to be presented, should have been invented, with a profound and surgical focus on “why.”
Stone’s response, that the military and intelligence communities wanted JFK dead because he was on to them, is more than unfulfilling. It is intellectually specious and an epistemological void to offer up such a theory, and offer no substantial evidence to back it up. The idea that perhaps thousands of state functionaries worked together, secretively, to plot to kill the president, and then maintained that perfidy for decades, is hardly the stuff of rigorous intellectual inquiry. The fact that it has become accepted by a significant number of thinkers, scholars, journalists and others, especially on the Left, is frightening, for it substitutes heroic myths for solid research.
And so this is my response to Stone’s argument that the military-industrial complex, the CIA, even perhaps the Vice President all joined together to kill JFK. It’s a simple argument — that there is nothing in the actual historical record to validate Stone’s claims about Kennedy’s apparent change of heart about peace in Vietnam without victory or ending the Cold War. In fact, the opposite is more true — Kennedy entered political life as an aggressive, militarist liberal who morphed into perhaps the prototypical Cold Warrior of his generation.
In order to show this I’m going to present my argument in three sections. First, I will offer a brief analysis of the reality of Kennedy’s decisions in Vietnam, with a specific emphasis on the U.S role in the coup of November 1963, hardly the action of someone seeking a way out of a conflict, with some discussion of NSAM 263, one of the favorite documents of Stone and his conspiracy followers.
In part two I will discuss a vital yet mostly ignored aspect of this decision — the fact that U.S. military leaders, whom in Stone’s world were so upset by Kennedy’s weakness on Vietnam than they wanted him dead, were in fact themselves never supportive and mostly against any type of military commitment to the state the U.S. had invented in southern Vietnam. I also will discuss JFK’s aggressive foreign policies beyond Vietnam in this section, with a focus on his national security policies in Europe.
Finally, in part three, I will discuss Kennedy’s programs and plans for Latin America and internal security and debunk Stone’s claim that the Cuban Missile Crisis had caused Kennedy to look at that region differently and decide to seek peace with Cuba and other Left movements. To conclude, I’ll consider the strange way that partisans of the idea that Kennedy was ready to leave Vietnam only revised their stories long after the president was assassinated, and then I’ll add a few ruminations about the mythology and meaning, and danger, of making JFK a hero, especially on the Left.
In 1991, millions of Americans plunked down their money to see Oliver Stone’s epic film JFK and today are watching and talking about his new documentary “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass” and a new director’s cut of the original movie. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), Stone suggested, had seen the futility of the Cold War and was ready to withdraw from Vietnam and create global peace when the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] , the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], the Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS], the military, other representatives of the military-industrial complex, the intelligence bureaucracy, and even Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, fearing that his new-found pacifism was bad for business, had him assassinated.
Stone has been promoting his documentary on this topic recently, claiming that JFK was murdered by domestic enemies with renewed vigor and citing new documents that have been released since the 1990s. Kennedy was a “rebel against the establishment” and was a “warrior for peace,” Stone argues, and he challenged the military and intelligence communities as they gained bigger and bigger budgets and more power. Their interest in money and power and continued global conflict to justify their roles, “is what Kennedy understood,” the filmmaker believes, “and this is what he paid for with his life.”
As the late, great muckraker Alexander Cockburn explained it years ago, Stone had bought into a right-wing view that the state was afraid of the liberal peacemaker Kennedy and had him killed on 22 November 1963, because, in Stone’s mind, “Kennedy was moving to end the Cold War and sign a nuclear treaty with the Soviets; he would not have gone to war in Southeast Asia. He was starting a back-door negotiation with Castro.” In In order to stop this new progressive American Canaan, the deep state engineered “the first coup d’etat in America.”
Stone originally based this theory on the work of others, most significantly Fletcher Prouty, an officer assigned to work with the JCS, and John Newman, an Air Force veteran who also worked with the NSC. Both argued that Kennedy was a victim of what is today frequently described as “the deep state” — various intelligence and military agencies who operate the levers of the state in secret and eliminate, in many ways, people who challenge them. More recently he has gotten backup especially from David Talbot, whose book on Allen Dulles and the CIA perpetuates the theme that the deep state saw Kennedy as a threat and wanted him eliminated. Others, including many ex-Kennedy officials, provided fodder for Stone with their arguments that the young president had decided to quit Vietnam, though their statements were usually made after JFK had been killed and the war had gone very wrong.
Ironically the revival of the JFK conspiracy theory, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the release of the JFK movie, has been well-received across the political spectrum, not just by typical conspiracy theorists on the fringe. Jacobin, Counterpunch, and Majority Report, for instance, have presented discussions favorable to Stone’s documentary, while on the far right, QAnon supporters have also long believed that Kennedy was killed by the deep state, and just recently went to Dallas on the anniversary of the assassination to await the return of his late son, John F. Kennedy Jr.
Stone and his allies have also stressed the release of new documents about the assassination from the Assassination Records Review Board, in large measure a continuing response to Stone’s allegations from the 1990s. In particular, they are contending that new information about surveillance by state agencies like the CIA, FBI, and Army against Lee Harvey Oswald has offered even more powerful, if not “smoking gun”-level, evidence of the plot against JFK. Because the new records show that various government agencies were aware of Oswald’s political leanings and whereabouts in 1963, the conspiracy theorists are convinced that dark government forces knew what Oswald was planning and did nothing to deter him.
While the new documents do add detail to Oswald’s movements before 22 November 1963, various reports, including the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978–79, had already shown that state agencies had Oswald, a public supporter of the Cuban Revolution, in their sights. The new records definitely add more detail, but do not come close to proving anything remotely like a government conspiracy to allow Oswald to kill JFK. In fact, Oswald’s political ideologies were well known long before the JFK assassination. He was on the radar already. Right now, one can purchase a “Fair Play for Cuba” pamphlet from August 1963 with Oswald’s name on it as the public New Orleans contact for the group on EBay, hardly the stuff of deep state machinations. All historians want more documents declassified at a better pace, so the release of these new materials is welcome, but the does not change the story of JFK’s role in Vietnam or his assassination at all. While Stone’s supporters have been jamming social media with shrieks of “look at the new records,” once one does, there’s nothing to change what we have already known. The song remains the same.
This fascination with conspiracies and the deep state is similar to the current right-wing movement in support of Donald Trump’s lies about the election and various QAnon theories about the CIA and FBI. Though not as pernicious, Stone’s claims about various dark forces operating outside of normal bounds to rig elections, overthrow governments, and assassinate national leaders do the Left no favors. They substitute circumstantial evidence in the place of analysis and they look for heroes rather than creating resistance and organizing. Of course the CIA and other American agencies have a long record of malicious behavior, overthrowing governments abroad, assassinating foreign leaders, and repressing unions, socialists, women, African Americans, Native Americans, environmental and animal-rights activists, and other forces of liberation inside the United States. One can find that in the pages of corporate media and in public government documents. It is policy, not conspiracy. The ruling class’s behavior has been well-known for years — if it’s hiding, it’s in plain sight.
But one cannot make the leap from the fact that these groups have done horrible deeds to the conclusion that they thus killed JFK. Kennedy was one of them — he firmly bought into the doctrine of containment, which he dressed up with talk of “development” and “modernization” in the Third World; he was a Cold Warrior; he invaded Cuba and contemplated a first-strike nuclear attack on Berlin within his first months in office; he supported repressive Third World states per his newfound emphasis on “counterinsurgency”; he tried to overthrow Left governments abroad; he used the military to oppose national liberation movements across the globe; and he used the state to attack domestic enemies, most notably Martin Luther King (whose murderer, an illiterate drifter, was caught in London with a forged passport . . . if you’re looking for a conspiracy theory). The fascination with JFK as a young leader struck down because he was going to forge a new path away from the Cold War (and the Vietnam War more importantly) is utterly baseless and it is politically toxic, the product of nostalgia over a handsome young president who evoked images of Camelot, American exceptionalism, and innocence in the last days before racial conflict and the Vietnam War scarred the country in ways that might have been unimaginable on 20 January 1961.
The Reality of Vietnam
Stone’s conspiracy theories, his movie, and now his documentary have created great splashes in both popular culture and in the intellectual communities which study such things. Historically, however, they are nightmarish. With Vietnam as the linchpin of the thesis that JFK was killed because he was going soft on Communism and was going to end the power of the military and intelligence complexes, and specifically was going to de-escalate and withdraw troops and end the war by 1965, it becomes essential to look at Kennedy’s actual plans, policies, and actions with regard to the conflict there.
In truth, JFK, in less than three years, committed American soldiers, treasure, and credibility to the Republic of Vietnam [RVN], the American-invented state below the 17th Parallel, and dramatically enlarged the American role there. By 22 November 1963, the United States, rather than pull out, was deeply involved in the revolution-cum-civil war in Vietnam. Far from being a dove, Kennedy was the driving force behind that intervention in Indochina. His record in Vietnam, far from being a cause for the so-called deep state to want him dead, was opposite what assassination conspiracy theorists claimed that it was.
Kennedy had risen to power as a Cold Warrior and strong supporter of Joseph McCarthy and other witch hunts against alleged subversives, and the U.S. role in Vietnam from January 1961 to November 1963 continued those hardline policies upon which he had accomplished political success. The noted linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky has dissected Kennedy’s approach to Vietnam with great detail and provides overwhelming evidence that the president always sought military success in Vietnam with constantly-escalating commitments. He did not waver and was not going to withdraw.
Inside Vietnam, in late 1960, the northern Vietnamese Communist Party finally agreed to organize armed resistance in the RVN, and hence the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Viet Cong (VC) were born. These groups represented a life-or-death challenge to the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was repressive and lacked significant public support. Just weeks after the creation of the NLF, Kennedy pledged to Diem and the RVN that the U.S. would meet any new challenges with them.
As he took office on 20 January 1961, he famously pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Kennedy had run to the right of Richard Nixon in the 1960 campaign, alleging that the administration of Dwight Eisenhower had allowed a “Missile Gap” to emerge (and he had — the U.S. had about 20,000 nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union had about 1600), warned of the Soviet Union’s growth in intercontinental ballistic missiles, and pledged to increase and revitalize American nuclear forces.
Ironically, outgoing President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, had warned against the growing militarism in American society and such bellicose rhetoric, but JFK sent an opposite message. Though Kennedy had not specifically referred to Vietnam in his speech, the Diem regime could feel comfortable that their old friend would not let them down. In 1956, as a senator, Kennedy had called the RVN “the cornerstone of the free world in Asia”; it was, he admitted, “our offspring, we cannot abandon it.”As president, he would not.
Vietnam had not been crucial to JFK as he entered the White House; in fact, Eisenhower had warned him that events in Laos would be more difficult in 1961. But, just months into his presidency, Kennedy was beset with challenges and failure. In Laos, he had to agree to the formation of a government which included the Communist Pathet Lao. Worse, in Cuba the U.S.- backed Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco. The leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, added to Kennedy’s woes, pledging support for wars of liberation in the Third World, refusing to remove the Berlin Wall, and treating the American president with disdain at a summer meeting in Vienna. Kennedy thus believed that he had to make a stand somewhere — “that son of a bitch won’t pay any attention to words, he has to see you move,” he told reporters — so why not Vietnam? Walt Whitman Rostow, one of his closest advisors, suggested that “clean-cut success in Vietnam” could erase the stain of disaster from the Bay of Pigs. In Saigon, the head of the American Military Assistance Advisory Group [MAAG], General Lionel McGarr, likewise noted the “strong determination” in the White House to stop the “deterioration of US prestige” in April 1961.
Thus JFK, if not desperate at least anxious for a Cold War success, began to increase significantly the U.S. commitment to the RVN and prepare to conduct an aggressive war there. In January, he authorized the Counterinsurgency Plan for southern Vietnam, which called for training the southern army in anti-guerrilla tactics, not just conventional warfare. He then approved expanding the Army of the RVN [ARVN] by 20,000 troops, to 170,000, and then by another 30,000, while enlarging the Civil Guard from 32,000 to 68,000 troops. To pay for these reinforcements, the White House sent Diem an additional $42 million in 1961, on top of the $225 million per year he was receiving already. And in May, Kennedy sent Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson [LBJ] to Vietnam as a public relations measure. While in Saigon, the Vice President told the media that Diem was “the Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia,” though he privately laughed later that “shit, man, he’s the only boy we got out there.”
Recognition of Diem’s repression and America’s limited choices did not deter the White House. Indeed, JFK refused to even talk with Ho Chi Minh or the NLF, warning that negotiations would make him look weak: “If we postpone action in Viet-Nam to engage in talks with the Communists, we can surely count on a major crisis of nerve in Viet-Nam and throughout Southeast Asia. The image of U.S. unwillingness to confront Communism — induced by the Laos performance — will be . . . definitely confirmed. There will be panic and disarray.” To the president, American credibility — appearing strong against Communist advance — would thus be a major factor driving his Indochina policy, and he would not back down. Nor would his Secretary of Defense, Robert Strange McNamara, who informed military officials that the administration “had made the decision to pursue the Vietnam affair with vigor and that all reasonable amounts of resources could be placed at the disposal of the commanders in the area.”
And so, in 1962, it was done. In January, a new commander, Paul D. Harkins, arrived in Vietnam convinced that America’s technological superiority would reverse conditions there. The war was going badly, with the NLF’s political influence growing and the armed wing of the insurgency, the VC, holding the military initiative. To Harkins, and the White House, American tanks and aircraft could be used to flush out the VC and destroy them. In 1962, then, JFK went big and deployed Army helicopter companies, fixed-wing aircraft, a troop carrier squadron, reconnaissance planes, air controllers, crop defoliants to destroy the VC’s jungle cover, Navy mine sweepers, CS gas and napalm — a gasoline gel that seared human flesh. He also authorized the development of strategic hamlets in the RVN — a disastrous program in which Vietnamese peasants were removed from their homes and possessions and relocated to allegedly safe hamlets where they would be protected from the NLF, but which in fact alienated even more villagers from the government and helped VC recruiting efforts.
At the same time, the number of U.S. “Advisors” in Vietnam, 800 in January 1961, rose to 3400 in April 1962 and over 11,000 by the end of the year, and would go up again to 16,700 by the time of Kennedy’s assassination. The ARVN grew again too, to 219,000, while the Civil Guard increased to 77,000. That level of commitment and the introduction of American firepower had the desired impact. The VC fled in horror as U.S.- provided weapons and ammunition rained down on them. As Harkins put it, the napalm “really puts the fear of God into the Viet Cong . . . and that is what counts.” McNamara was similarly pleased with the “tremendous progress” in 1962, and the American commander was assuring him that “there is no doubt we are on the winning side.”
As the evidence made clear, Kennedy was deeply committed to success in Vietnam with heavy firepower and a growing commitment, and believed that he had gained the upper hand in Indochina in 1962. The administration was so flush with success and optimistic that the war would be over quickly, in fact, that it later approved the withdrawal of 1000 American troops (a point Stone would later use to argue that JFK was souring on and planning to get out of Vietnam).
Breakdown 1963: The Coup and “I think we should stay”
The optimism of 1962 was short-lived. On 2 January 1963, the VC routed the ARVN, even though it had a 4 to 1 troop advantage, artillery, armor, and helicopters, at the village of Ap Bac, 35 miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong. The enemy struck, eluded the southern army, and struck again, killing three Americans and downing five helicopters in the process. ARVN commanders, under orders from Diem not to lose troops, did not force their men to fight and so allowed the VC to take the initiative and then escape from Ap Bac. For the NLF, the battle marked a turnaround from the previous year, and its prospects would improve throughout the next twelve months, while Diem’s took a corresponding downturn, militarily and politically.
There was grave internal crisis in 1963 as well, particularly religious turmoil. The Ngo family had favored Catholics in administrative and military matters since 1954 and began to repress the majority Buddhists — which they saw, with reason, as a political enemy — more intensely in the spring, forbidding them from celebrating Buddha’s birthday and even sending troops into their temples to attack and kill the faithful. Then, on 10 June, the monk Quang Duc famously sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon street, doused himself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire to protest Diemist repression.
International media, tipped off by the Buddhists, was there and Quang Duc’s story and photo were front page news worldwide. For his part, Diem continued to strike at the Buddhists. After nearly a decade of supporting the RVN and the Ngos, it was finally clear that Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were beyond rehabilitation. The United States, which had followed a policy of “sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem,” finally agreed he had to go.
RVN Generals launched a coup against Diem and Nhu on 1 November, deposing and murdering them in a van rather than allowing them to flee to Paris. While there is abundant evidence of Kennedy’s commitment to escalate the war in Vietnam to achieve success from early 1961 onward, Stone and others argue that by later 1963 he had developed strong misgivings and was prepared to withdraw, thus prompting dark forces in the intelligence and military communities to assassinate him. With that in mind, then, the U.S. role in the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu is a critical piece in debunking Stone’s argument about Kennedy. The coup took place just three weeks before Kennedy himself was killed, so the president’s role in deposing the Ngos offers overwhelming evidence that JFK or other government officials were doubling down in Vietnam, not preparing to get out.
JFK himself had been critical to Diem coming to power and the U.S. inventing the RVN and subsequently sending immense funding and weapons to southern Vietnam — and he was immersed in the deliberations over what to do about Diem in the autumn of 1963, that pivotal point where Stone claims Kennedy was making plans to withdraw from Vietnam. Indeed, even before deliberations over ousting Diem became organized, the White House began to express its concerns over instability in the RVN due to Diem’s repression and in a 9 July briefing with the Director of Central Intelligence, CIA officials told the White House that “South Vietnam continues restive over the unresolved Buddhist issue and a coup attempt is increasingly likely,” that the ARVN Commander Tran Van Don had told CIA officers that military was planning to overthrow Diem and Buddhist leaders were becoming more engaged in anti-Diem struggle, and that RVN officials were blaming anti-regime activity on the American media for its reporting on the Buddhist protests and Diem’s corruption and repression in general.
By late August the crisis in the RVN was much more grave and in a meeting to discuss the well-known “Hilsman Cable,” an important document in which Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger Hilsman had laid out in bleak terms a situation in the RVN that was “pretty horrible to contemplate.” The U.S. government, Kennedy’s main military and diplomatic officials agreed, “cannot tolerate [a] situation in which power lies in Nhu’s hands,” especially after another series of pagoda raids he had just directed. “Diem must be given [a] chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with best military and political personalities available,” but if “Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.” Officials in Saigon and Washington who were in contact with RVN military officials opposed to the Ngos were also directed to tell potential coup-planners in southern Vietnam that “we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown [of the] central government mechanism.”
Just days later, JFK discussed the Hilsman cable with his national security officials. Kennedy began, “if we’re unsuccessful here, and these [RVN] generals don’t do anything, then we have to deal with Diem as he is . . . Then the question, what do we do to protect our own prestige and also to make it — see if we can have this thing continue on successfully?” Hilsman, like most U.S. officials, believed Nhu, not Diem, was the key problem and that he was “basically anti-American” and showed signs of “emotional unstability [sic].” To Hilsman it was “most important” to recognize that key elements in the southern government and the army were abandoning Diem in the wake of the Buddhist uprisings and that “the situation will rapidly worsen.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk said much the same, adding that “we’re on the road to disaster” and the U.S. could “take it by our choice, or be driven out by a complete deterioration of the situation in Vietnam, or move in such [U.S.] forces as would involve our taking over the country”
After hearing such bleak appraisals, Kennedy suggested talking with McNamara, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, and Harkins to get their views, and JFK was already considering removing Diem and his brother — ”I don’t think we ought to let the coup . . . maybe they know about it, maybe the [RVN] generals are going to have to run [the Ngos] out of the country; maybe we’re going to have to help them get out of there.” Kennedy remained cautious, advising to defer action on a coup “unless we think we got a good chance of success.” The president concluded “we’re not really in a position to withdraw” [my emphasis] so he would rely on Lodge and Harkins to advise him on whether to go forward with the action against Diem and Nhu. But ultimately, the administration was on board, with JKF, Secretary of State Dean Rusk (who said that if JFK signed off he would give “a green light too”), Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and General Maxwell Taylor, chair of the JCS, all signing off on the hard-line recommendations. There is no evidence that Kennedy was reconsidering his commitment to war in Vietnam. Indeed, the opposite was the case.
In fact, at that very same time Rusk reported that the U.S. was prepared to supply RVN military coup-planners in the field with arms, ammunition, and logistical support, Kennedy ordered his advisors to compile a list of potential successors should the ouster take place. Rusk made it clear what was at stake, admitting that if a coup failed the U.S. would be “on an inevitable road to disaster. The decision for the United States would be . . . to get out and let the country go to the Communists or to move U.S. combat forces into South Viet-Nam and put in a government of our choosing.” So JFK, like everyone else, knew exactly what was in play regarding the potential coup against Diem, and made no move to stop it, for the memorandum ended with the statement that “there was no dissent from the Secretary’s analysis.”
Already, in late August, American planning to oust Diem and Nhu was well underway with the president’s support, a far cry from Stone’s argument that Kennedy was ready to withdraw from the war. It was clear, as diplomatic and military officials in southern Vietnam had reported “that the war against the Viet Cong in Vietnam cannot be won under the Diem regime,” and at a 29 August meeting at which Lodge and Harkins reported that JFK asked if anyone had reservations about the current campaign of seeking alternatives to Diem and Nhu, the president answered his own query by asserting that “if Diem says no to a change in government there would be no way in which we could withdraw our demand.” The White House, quite clearly, had drawn a line in the sand and the Ngos had to either change dramatically and enact serious reforms or they would be ousted.
Toward that end, the he offered a summary of actions to be taken which included Harkins and the CIA approaching southern generals about a coup; authorizing Lodge to announce a suspension of U.S. aid to the RVN when the time was right according to the White House; making no announcement of any movement of U.S. forces to the area in support of a coup; and giving Lodge authority over all operations to get rid of Diem and Nhu, overt and covert. At another meeting on Vietnam later that day, McNamara urged a final overture to Diem because he doubted any successor government could run the country, to which, according to the minutes of the meeting, “the president asks who runs it now; that it seemed to him it was not being run very well.”
The positions taken and decisions made in late August regarding the U.S. determination to eliminate Diem and Nhu were made with a clear goal of regaining some initiative in the RVN and stalling what American officials recognized as an inevitable march to victory by the NLF and VC in the south. There was no idea given to leaving Vietnam. In fact, in two important interviews with TV anchors Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley just shortly before his own death, Kennedy doubled down on his commitment to Vietnam.
While Stone and others have cited the interviews where JFK admitted that the situation in Vietnam was going badly, they left out key parts that attested to the president’s resolve. During a 2 September interview with Cronkite, the president said that it was the RVN’s war to win or lose and that “all we can do is help,” but did not “agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like to see Americans to be engaged in this kind of effort… But it is a very important struggle even though it is far away.” A week later he told Huntley essentially the same thing. Although Americans would get anxious or impatient about Vietnam, “withdrawal only makes it easy for the Communist. I think we should stay.”
At the same time Kennedy was publicly reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Vietnam, the president sent McNamara and Taylor to Vietnam to appraise the situation there. Their report formed the basis of National Security Action Memorandum [NSAM] 263, which Stone and the Kennedy conspiracy cult have cited as their smoking gun to show JFK was ready to leave Vietnam. Like the rest of the Stone theory, this episode has been misrepresented to make a claim opposite of the truth. In Vietnam, McNamara and Taylor heard Harkins talk of the “great progress” in the war there and came back and told the president that he should publicly report that he was going to withdraw 1000 military personnel and anticipated the bulk of American troops could be phased out by the end of 1965. Even so, the White House issued a statement again making clear its support of the commitment to the RVN.
On October 11 Kennedy then authorized NSAM 263, which approved of the McNamara-Taylor recommendations to withdraw 1000 troops, though not publicly announce it, and said a “major part” of military tasks can be done by end of 1965, or 24 months in the future. The Americans continued to insist that South Vietnam improve its military performance, and stressed that the U.S. would have to emphasize training the Vietnamese to take over “essential functions” of warfare by late 1965. In other words, NSAM 263 continued the U.S. approach to Vietnam that had been in effect the entire Kennedy presidency, as it remained the “central object” of the U.S. in South Vietnam “to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S. actions in actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contributions to this purpose.”
Rather than a striking break from the U.S. war in Vietnam that would indicate a change of heart by JFK, NSAM 263 was a continuation of the American doctrine in the Cold War from the end of World War II forward. It was essentially a restatement of the Truman Doctrine and NSC-68, yet Stone and his followers created a myth to substitute for the obvious reality and have convinced huge numbers to believe it. In fact, even after the assassination, U.S. policy in Vietnam remained the same. (And, just a few days after the assassination, Lyndon Johnson signed off on NSAM 273, which had been prepared under Kennedy and, again, emphasized that America’s “central objective” in Vietnam was still to take the actions necessary to prevent Communist victory in the south.)
So the evidence of Kennedy’s continued commitment to the war in Vietnam was overwhelming as the coup planning continued. In late October, in two of the later meetings regarding a potential coup, the State Department and National Security Council produced separate check-lists of possible actions in the event of an overthrow of Diem. All the options involved deep U.S. involvement and all were based on the high likelihood, if not certainty, of a coup attempt.
On the morning of 1 November, as the coup in Saigon began to unfold, Kennedy again met with his advisors. Rusk was concerned that the U.S. get the support of the RVN’s vice-president so “the façade of constitutionalism would thus be preserved.” Kennedy himself did not suggest regret about the coup (though by all accounts he was aghast that Diem and Nhu were murdered) and stressed that all officials publicly deny any role in the ouster of the Ngos. Strikingly, he was concerned with public relations, that he and his advisors might have to reconcile supporting this coup against an ally in the RVN and recognizing a new government after recently refusing to recognize a rebel government which had overthrown the government in Honduras, and he directed that a paper on the topic be prepared “so that everyone in the government would be saying the same thing in response to this question.”
JFK himself would be assassinated 3 weeks later in Dallas, but there is no reason for the so-called deep state to have wanted him dead because he was trying to get out of Vietnam and usher in a new era of global peace. In a speech early on 22 November in Fort Worth, Kennedy admitted that “without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.” Much more telling were the remarks he was scheduled to deliver at the Dallas Trade Mart that evening. The entire document in bellicose and unwavering, and it should be read in full to get a real sense of where JFK’s foreign policy ideas stood at the moment he was allegedly targeted by the military and intelligence complexes for being a dove. Kennedy’s speech both boasted and warned enemies of American strength.
“In this administration,” he said firmly, “it has been necessary at times to issue specific warnings — warnings that we could not stand by and watch the Communists conquer Laos by force, or intervene in the Congo, or swallow West Berlin, or maintain offensive missiles on Cuba. But while our goals were at least temporarily obtained in these and other instances, our successful defense of freedom was due not to the words we used, but to the strength we stood ready to use on behalf of the principles we stand ready to defend.” He added that his administration had increased the number of Polaris submarines by 50 percent, the Minuteman Missile purchase program by 75 percent, raised the number of strategic bombers on 15 minute alert by 50 percent, increased the total number of nuclear weapons available in strategic alert forces by 100 percent, and raised the level of tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by 60 percent.
The U.S., he also boasted, raised the number of combat-ready army divisions by 45 percent, and had doubled the number of tactical aircraft, while ship construction and army procurement of materiel had also risen by 100 percent. In finishing his laundry list of the vast military build-up, he pointed out that he had increased special forces by nearly 600 percent, and those new troops “are prepared to work with our allies and friends against the guerrillas, saboteurs, insurgents, and assassins who threaten freedom in less direct but equally dangerous manner.” Finally, Kennedy detailed the aid that the U.S. was giving to other nations to fight against Communism and pointed out that “our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task.”
Civilian Hawks and Military “Doves”
A centerpiece of the JFK conspiracy theory is that the military wanted Kennedy gone because it wanted to be unleashed to fight in Vietnam. Kennedy’s actions as president, however, up to his role the anti-Diem coup just weeks before his own assassination, offer overwhelming evidence that the president was committed to a military solution in Vietnam with an ever-escalating presence, and it powerfully debunks Stone’s argument. But there are more firm reasons to refute the filmmaker’s theory about Kennedy withdrawing from Vietnam and ending the Cold War, and thus prompting the military-industrial complex and others to have him killed. In reality, the U.S. military was far more “dovish” on Vietnam than Kennedy and his civilian advisors. There would be no motive to want to harm Kennedy because he was going soft on Vietnam, because the military itself was never eager to fight there.
In the early 1950s, leading military officials from all the services had time and again voiced their reluctance to fight in Vietnam, including Generals Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin, General and later Ambassador Saigon J. Lawton Collins, and others. During the Kennedy years, the military’s opposition was not as pronounced, but it stood in juxtaposition to JFK’s hawkish approach to Vietnam. From 1961 to 1963 the military was variously ambivalent, critical, or even internally contradictory with regard to Vietnam. Leading officers might not have opposed war as strongly as their predecessors a decade earlier, but neither did ranking military figures — including CINCPAC Admiral Harry D. Felt, General McGarr, and Marine Commandant David M. Shoup, and even Maxwell Taylor — behave according to the hawkish caricature that many liberal critics have developed over the years.
Most officers in Washington and Saigon in fact tended to be critics of the war or were aware of the political stakes in taking on the president so did not challenge him directly but did recognize the perilous situation in Vietnam. Most were never eager for combat, understood the obstacles to success, and were aware of the domestic political implications of warfare in Indochina, yet within two-and-a-half years, as Kennedy intensified the war in Vietnam, they had to put their reluctance to intervene on the backburner and began to pursue a military solution in Vietnam per JFK’s plans. Although they followed Kennedy’s lead, military officials — some of whom, like Generals Gavin and Maxwell Taylor, had campaigned for JFK and received posts in his administration — recognized that U S prospects in Vietnam were always uncertain and that American combat role would not ensure success and should be avoided. By November 1963 then, the U.S. military, obedient if not in concert with Kennedy’s political objectives, was involved in a war in Vietnam that would serve neither U.S. nor Vietnamese interests.
As he took office, Kennedy had a strong relationship with the military and had begun to make good on promises to give it more assets and bigger budgets. The brass certainly appreciated the money but did not share Kennedy’s enthusiasm for involvement in Vietnam. The heads of the Air Force and Navy, which would fight at a distance and take far fewer casualties, were willing to consider a military role in Indochina, but they were not a majority. More typically, Marine Commandant David Shoup rejected calls for intervention while the Army Chief of Staff, General George Decker, thought that “there was no good place to fight” in Southeast Asia. 
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harry D. Felt, was also “strongly opposed” to troop deployments, especially because he anticipated that the ARVN would fight even less if American troops were there to bail them out. Felt, like most officers, believed that the United States should limit its role to training and supplying the south Vietnamese military to take on the VC by themselves [what would become “Vietnamization” when Richard Nixon was president]. Perhaps no officer received as much publicity for his criticism as Colonel John Paul Vann, whose leaks to the New York Times revealed that the ARVN was avoiding battle and that the heavy use of American firepower and air strikes was killing huge numbers of civilian villagers — the very people that the Americans were trying to “save” — throughout the South. As one Army report from 1962 concluded, “the military and political situation in South Vietnam can be aptly described by four words, ‘it is a mess.’”
As the Kennedy administration sent more resources and money into Vietnam, the military went along with Kennedy but continued to express conflicting views about Vietnam policy. Military officials generally supported Kennedy, especially after he replaced holdover brass with his own generals and because he put forward budgets with a projected increase for the Pentagon of $17 billion over five years. Optimism also grew within the military, as we have seen, with Paul Harkins’s arrival and the introduction of technological warfare and helicopters, among other resources, and even critics of the war fell in line as money flooded into the military and resources poured into Vietnam. However, U.S. officers continued to recognize that the Viet Cong was stronger and committed to conducting long-term, attritional warfare that could not be defeated with a conventional military response.
They also continued to lament the incessant political repression and chaos in Saigon which ultimately led to the Diem coup, and in the case of John Paul Vann and others pointed out the politicization and shortcomings of the South Vietnamese military forces. And, whatever their opinion of the wisdom or risks of intervention, virtually every American military official assumed during this time that the United States would not even contemplate sending combat forces into battle in southern Vietnam. The military had to take its cues from Kennedy, who was preparing to go all-in in Indochina over its the reservations, reluctance, or at times opposition. Stone’s position that the military feared or hated JFK enough to plot to kill him is absurd on the surface, but even more irrational, if not risible, when viewed within the context of how the military really felt about Vietnam and JFK.
Even more telling is that the military’s pessimistic evaluations and often-cautious recommendations essentially hardened after the assassination. If the military wanted Kennedy out of the way so it could go all-out against the Revolution in Vietnam, then ranking officers would have been sending along sanguine reports and urging a full-on war. Yet, Throughout 1964 and 1965, as the Johnson administration repeatedly escalated the war in Vietnam, the military remained unconvinced of the need for or value of intervention. Indeed, both Generals Taylor and William Westmoreland, the ambassador and commander who are remembered as hawks on Vietnam (indeed, some vets derided the commander as “General Waste-more-men”), strongly opposed the introduction of combat troops in the crucial 1964–65 period, as did ranking officers in every service.
In an address at Marine headquarters in late 1963 the incoming Commandant, General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., explicitly rejected American participation in the war in Indochina, lamenting that “we’re up to our knees in the quagmire [in Vietnam] and we don’t seem to be able to do much about it.” Greene hoped that the current Marine presence in Vietnam, about 550 troops, would remain low. “Frankly, in the Marine Corps we do not want to get any more involved in South Vietnam because if we do we cannot execute our primary mission,” he admitted. With more important commitments elsewhere, he feared that the Corps would be overextended in Vietnam. “You see what happened to the French,” Greene ruminated, “well, maybe the same thing is going to happen to us.” Generals Victor Krulak, who was assuming command of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific [FMFPac], and Donald Bennett, director of strategic planning for the Army, had similar reservations about expanding the U.S. role in Vietnam, with Bennett later charging that “certainly from September of 63 on, the forcing [into war in Vietnam], as far as I could tell, came from the civilian side.”
To Taylor, it was neither “reasonable or feasible” to expect Caucasian American soldiers to take on the duties of Asian guerrilla warfare. As soon as American troops entered the RVN, the Vietnamese would “seek to unload other ground force tasks upon us” and would perform even “worse in a mood of relaxation at passing the Viet Cong burden to the U.S.” Taylor even went so far as to suggest that LBJ reduce the U.S. role to sending in advisors, or maybe even “disengage and let the [RVN] stand alone.”
Westmoreland was likewise reluctant to fight in Vietnam. In September 1964, the commander “did not contemplate” putting U.S. troops into combat; that “would be a mistake,” he told Taylor, because “it is the Vietnamese’s war.” In late 1964, again insisting that “a purely military solution is not possible,” Westmoreland did not even mention using ground troops in his reports to Washington. In probably his most prophetic analysis, in January 1965, just ten weeks before the introduction of combat troops at Da Nang, he and his staff urged a continuation of the flawed advisory system, but no combat troops. The United States, they recognized, had spent vast amounts of time and money to develop the ARVN, with little luck, and “if that effort has not succeeded, there is even less reason to think that U.S. combat forces would have the desired effect.” The involvement of American troops in the RVN, the military staff in Saigon concluded, quite amazingly, “would at best buy time and would lead to ever increasing commitments until, like the French, we would be occupying an essentially hostile foreign country.”
More than a year after JFK’s assassination, then, the military, which Stone and others would want people to believe plotted to have the president killed because of his reluctance to fight in Vietnam, were continuing to be far more hesitant and pessimistic about the war than the civilians were. . . .
Beyond Vietnam: Kennedy’s Record of Aggression and Intervention
National Security Policies
There are some who have argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 tempered Kennedy and made him more dovish, and they point to the establishment of the hotline between Washington and Moscow, and, even more, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to suggest that JFK was moving to dramatically deescalate and eventually end the Cold War. Kennedy did in fact take measures to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and United States, but the idea that he was becoming so dovish that state agents had him assassinated is preposterous and without evidence.
To Stone, the alarming events of October 1962 caused JFK to take a hard line against the Soviet installation of missile sites in Cuba which ultimately forced Khrushchev to back down, and was “the greatest single act of human courage the world ever witnessed with that much at stake.” More to the point, Stone and other partisans of the conspiracy to kill Kennedy believed that the crisis made the president realize how dangerous nuclear weapons were and thus reappraise life-long held beliefs about the Cold War and global conflict.
Yet Stone also contends, contradictorily, that suspicions arose that Kennedy was “soft on communism” because he failed to use military force in October 1962. In any event, Kennedy in truth took a hard line, imposing a blockade on Soviet ships that could have led to armed conflict or even a nuclear exchange. And the American people saw it that way, with 82 percent saying U.S. power had increased after the missile crisis, while 70 percent had a favorable view of his foreign policies, and 74 percent believed he would be reelected in 1964.
So, in truth, Kennedy’s political position had improved by late 1962, and in fact he did use that momentum to take some important measures with regard to the Soviet Union. In early 1963, the president established a hot line (a teletype machine, not a “red telephone”) to provide instant communication between Washington and Moscow in the event of conflict or emergency, and, more importantly, convinced congress to pass a Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty in September 1963, which prohibited nuclear tests under water, in the atmosphere, and in outer space, and pledged all signatories to end the arms race.
But even this particular accomplishment was not indicative of any change of heart by Kennedy. JFK had been advocating a nuclear test ban since his days as a senator in the mid-1950s, and it had strong support in both parties by January 1961. Indeed, the final vote on the treaty was 80–19, so the idea that the military or intelligence communities were so angry that they would try to assassinate JFK over this issue (which was of the same nature as Eisenhower’s pursuit of the Open Skies Treay in 1955 anyway) is, again, without evidence or merit. Indeed, in the period between making the agreement with Khrushchev and holding the senate vote, a large and diverse group of political figures publicly supported the test ban — officials from the Atomic Energy Commission, prominent Republicans like Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Everett Dirksen, former President Harry S. Truman, and various labor and church groups. Over 60 percent of Americans supported the treaty, while less than 20 percent opposed it.
Most importantly, even the JCS supported the nuclear test ban. In the first deliberations about the treaty, the chiefs were reluctant to agree to limiting nuclear testing, but began to soften their positions in July, after Kennedy assured them that “we cannot reduce our military readiness if an accord is reached, for the whole situation could turn around in six months.” Feeling less apprehensive, the JCS consulted with CIA Director John McCone, AEC Chair Glenn Seaborg, various nuclear physicists, and other scientific and political officials. Their answers, according to the official history of the period “plainly eased JCS concerns.” Even hawkish Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, who wanted the U.S. to develop a 100 megaton bomb to match the Soviet Union’s “Tsar Bomba,” knew that it would be to U.S. “political disadvantage” if it did not ratify the treaty. McNamara, the chiefs’ civilian boss, sent them a draft endorsing the treaty and recommending ratification, and in mid-August the JCS abandoned its reservations. Overall, the JCS said, “the US at present is clearly ahead of the USSR in the ability to wage strategic nuclear war, and is probably ahead in the ability to wage tactical nuclear war.” Ultimately, the Chiefs concluded that the treaty was “compatible with the security interests of the US” and supported its ratification.
Kennedy’s national security policy, the record indicates, was consistent throughout his presidency, both before and after October 1962, and it was aggressive and based on military strength. In June 1962, the Policy Planning Council prepared a draft of the U.S. Basic National Security Policy that was complete with boilerplate Cold War analyses and recommendations. It began by reiterating that “now and for the foreseeable future U.S. military policy is a crucial determinant of the fate of the free community because our military strength is proportionately great in relation to our population and command over resources, and because the security of our allies is intimately dependent on our strength and will to exercise it.”
The planners behind the report did not anticipate that the Soviets would take any aggressive actions abroad (this was pre-missile crisis) but also were committed to keeping the U.S. military deployed abroad and well-funded in the event some crisis with the USSR did emerge. The report also discussed what the U.S. perceived as the Soviet threat in some measure and was open to changing the U.S. “no first strike” with nuclear weapons policy in the event war broke out. It also discussed America’s need not just for nuclear arms but also chemical and biological weapons, urged an increased commitment to supporting American allies and having adequate funding and production for U.S. military materiel at home, and said that the U.S. had to “be prepared to fight locally in direct conflict with Sino-Soviet forces.”
In early 1963, as the dust settled after the missile crisis, JFK did not shift policies, but continued his aggressive and militarist approach, in rhetoric and action. In his State of the Union Address, the president continued to argue for a hardline against U.S. enemies. He could “foresee no spectacular reversal in Communist methods or goals,” but would be open to peace overtures from Moscow. However, until Khrushchev made that choice, “the free peoples have no choice but to keep their arms nearby.” Accordingly, Kennedy promised “the best defense in the world,” which meant a rising defense budget because there was no “bargain basement” way to achieve security.
In 1963, that would mean spending $15 billion on nuclear weapons systems alone, “a sum which is about equal to the combined defense budgets of our European Allies.” In addition, JFK pledged improved air and missile defense systems, improved civil defense, a strengthened anti-guerrilla capacity, and “of prime importance” — more powerful and flexible non-nuclear forces (part of so-called “flexible response). In less than three years as president, Kennedy and McNamara oversaw one of the largest increases in military spending in non-wartime conditions in U.S. history.
Around this time he also proposed the establishment of the Multilateral Nuclear Force (MLF), which would put integrated North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] forces together on nuclear submarines and ships, and, most controversially, include personnel from West Germany to have partial control over nuclear weapons, less than two decades after the end of World War II. The Soviet Union, not surprisingly, was outraged by the idea of giving the Germans authorization over nuclear weapons and believed that Kennedy was making nuclear proliferation more likely. Though the U.S. had drafted a Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 1963, the MLF, as Khrushchev saw it, was exacerbating European instability, not limiting it.
In fact, JFK supported the MLF even though one of America’s key allies, France, opposed it. “Our interest,” Kennedy said at an NSC meeting in January 1963, “is to strengthen the NATO multilateral force concept, even though de Gaulle is opposed, because a multilateral force will increase our influence in Europe and provide a way to guide NATO and keep it strong. We have to live with de Gaulle” (who was causing problems that “are not crucial in the sense that our problems in Latin America are”). At that same NSC meeting, Kennedy pointed out that one of “our big tasks” would be to persuade the Europeans to increase their defense forces. JFK, more than his predecessors, was also willing to assert American power and act unilaterally with regard to Europe and NATO. Kennedy did not believe that the “approval of the alliance was a condition that pressed on him.”
“If we are to keep six divisions in Europe, the European states must do more,” he said. “Our forces in Europe are further forward than the troops of de Gaulle who, instead of committing his divisions to NATO, is banking on us to defend him by maintaining our present military position in Europe. While recognizing the military interests of the Free World, we should consider very hard the narrower interests of the United States.”  Once again, JFK was hardly going soft as a result of the nuclear crisis a few months earlier in Cuba. The MLF never became a reality, but Kennedy’s determination to expand Europe’s nuclear capability, with ex-Nazis involved in operational control of NATO weapons, showed his true colors. The president also showed his commitment to Germany, and his continued Cold War bona fides, during a visit to the wall in West Berlin in June, as his words assured the West Germans that they could rely on the U.S. for their security and condemned communism. “There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future . . . And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists . . . And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress,” and Kennedy admonished them, “let them come to Berlin” and finished with his famous declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “I am a Berliner.”
Late into the year, even as Kennedy, in NSAM 270, announced the redeployment of some personnel and units from Europe, the U.S. still was keeping six ground divisions in Germany “as long as they are required.” Even with the drawdown of some units and equipment, the U.S. was not withdrawing from Europe, as Dean Rusk made clear in an address in Frankfort at the very same time as NSAM 270 was authorized. “When we say that your defense is our defense,” he assured the Germans, “we mean it. We have proved it in the past [and] will continue to demonstrate it in the future. We have six divisions in Germany. We intend to maintain these divisions here as long as there is need for them — and under present circumstances there is no doubt that they will continue to be needed.” Rusk also stressed that U.S. had established “the world’s largest logistical system” in Germany which kept forces in the “highest state of readiness with the most modern and powerful equipment . . . . and they are backed by nuclear forces of almost unimaginable power.” Finally, Rusk reminded the Germans that the U.S. had 2.7 million active troops, with about 1 million outside the U.S. and would maintain security not just in Europe but worldwide with its power.
JFK’s national security policies, from his time in the senate until the end of his life, were based on traditional concepts of power, containment, and nuclear superiority. Even as he agreed to a limited test ban, he was always sure to maintain vast American superiority and flex military strength if needed. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Kennedy had any plans that would fundamentally shift U.S. cold war doctrine and there was simply no reason for the military to have any deep conflict with him, let alone reason enough to want him killed. Again, Stone’s argument fails in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Latin America and Internal Security
Kennedy’s supporters point to his approach to the so-called Third World to assert he was charting a new path on foreign policy. JFK was familiar with the work of revolutionaries like Mao Zedong and understood that the social conditions in poverty-ridden, underdeveloped countries often led to communist success, both in organizing communities and in politics, and he was aware that Khrushchev had vowed to support wars of national liberation, creating more problems in parts of the world where western states had occupied an imperial role for decades or more. So Kennedy would help those places where the Left was growing with an alternative path to progress — the key ideology would be “modernization” and the centerpiece program would be The Alliance for Progress.
Modernization had been an increasingly popular idea among liberals in the Kennedy era, especially associated with Walt Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Modernization would use the lure of development and reform, rather than intervention and repression, to create better and more equitable societies in the Third World and thus make communism unappealing to the masses. The U.S. had tried out such ideas in other forms before, during the days of “Dollar Diplomacy” or with the “Good Neighbor Policy” for instance, but this would be more nuanced and much bigger, with the Alliance for Progress as its showpiece program. In reality, Kennedy’s policy would not be a departure from America’s past in that region and would, again, be based on militarization rather than modernization. JFK would support authoritarian regimes, exert diplomatic and economic inducements and threats, subvert Left movements and governments, and use American military forces to change the internal structure of other states.
Kennedy’s words about U.S. options in the Dominican Republic after its dictator Rafael Trujillo was murdered have often been quoted because they sum up his views so well — “there are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first but we cannot renounce the second until we are sure we can avoid the third.” Of course, in his first 100 days Kennedy tried to “avoid” the third option at the Bay of Pigs, which was a spectacular failure. But moving onward, JFK, Stone’s dove who was going to thaw relations with Cuba after the missile crisis and renounce America’s imperial past, continued long-standing U.S. policies.
The main Kennedy-era document on Latin American internal security was NSAM 134, adopted in early 1962. It was full of typical Cold War condemnations of communism and the Left, which was using “now-familiar techniques of pressure, infiltration, and division in weakening the will of governments for taking effective action, and of initiating violence principally in rural areas and on issues where internal security forces are vulnerable.” It provided a laundry list of areas where local U.S.-allied governments faced “critical problems in internal security” exacerbated by political and class divisions — Colombia and Bolivia, which required urgent attention; Peru and Ecuador, which were on the edge of crisis; and Venzuela, Brazil, and Argentina, which risked sudden deterioration. Of course there was no need to mention Cuba, where the U.S. imposed a brutal embargo in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion and continued to do so post Missile Crisis and had been trying to assassinate Fidel Castro, as chronicled by the Church and Pike Committees.
Despite the rhetoric of modernization and the public relations hype of the Alliance for Progress, the U.S. was still going to rely on force to ensure its interests in Latin America, increasing the American Military Assistance Program, supporting and training military forces in that region, and developing local forces to not just fight conventional warfare but also to meet the challenge of internal subversive movements of the Left. And, counter to Stone’s claim that JFK was going to thaw relations with Cuba, JFK’s pressure on the island did not abate and Castro was cited as the justification for the use of force in Latin America in virtually every statement and document produced by diplomatic and military officials.
Post-Missile Crisis, the time when Stone and other Kennedy supporters claim he was softening on Cuba and militarization, JFK did not shift course, but continued the U.S. obsession with Cuba and communism in Latin America. In November 1962, U.S. officials continued to insist that “the problem of Cuba and security transcends nuclear arms and purely military operations. Every Communist is dangerous. Cuba directly affects all the small nearby countries. These countries must develop socially and economically to offset Marxist propaganda. Communism will be no menace if countries are ruled democratically, and if assistance under the Alliance for Progress is forthcoming.”
The continued U.S. assault on Latin America also belie the claims of Talbot and others that the president had alienated the CIA and was trying to weaken it, thus causing agents, especially those loyal to Dulles, to want him dead. Both before and after Dulles’s time as DCI, JFK used the CIA and other American groups (including prominently the AFL-CIO) to undermine and even overthrow Latin governments. Whether it be the JCS, NSC, FBI, or CIA, Kennedy was always involved in subversion, aggression, and intervention — at home and abroad.
In March 1963, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Edwin Martin wrote a pamphlet on Communist subversion in the area which again showed that democracy and the Alliance for Progress were fig leaves for continued imperium. The U.S. had two goals in the region, to “isolate Cuba from the hemisphere and discredit the image of the Cuban revolution” and to “improve the internal security capabilities” of America’s allies there. Toward that end the U.S. had been training Latin American military personnel in riot control, counterinsurgency, intelligence and counterintelligence, psychological warfare, counterguerrilla warfare, and in other areas to maintain “public order” at U.S. military schools in the Canal Zone and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Castro was the “aggressive element” that the U.S. had to confront, and JFK was even considering creating a Caribbean forced to use against guerrilla or insurgent groups.
There was no hard evidence that JFK was having a change of mind or heart regarding the traditional U.S. role in Latin America. In May National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy presented the president with a report on Soviet “penetration” in the western hemisphere, and described the so-called Kennedy Doctrine. It was old Monroe Doctrine/Cold War wine in new casks. The declaration against the Soviet Union accepted the established premise that the extension of communist influence in the hemisphere was hostile to American interests and “such intrusion cannot be accepted,” and the U.S. and Organization of American States [OAS] would take the measures needed to prevent it “in the interest of freedom.” It also assumed that “the United States would take unilateral military action if necessary to prevent a Communist takeover of a Latin American government,” even thought that would raise “grave problems” between Washington and Latin America.
The group working on this study understood how delicate the issue of U.S. intervention on the internal affairs of another country was, so it had to be made effective with minimal opposition within the hemisphere. The declaration could be “surrounded with a good deal of hemispheric mood music,” but it would be a “major unilateral U.S. move” and would be met with “a lot of Latin American twittering” — especially in Brazil and Mexico. A potential way around that would be to have the declaration “issued in the context of some crisis in which in fact our decision to act would be generally approved. The hypothetical British Guiana case in the scenario is an example.”
While Stone and others may claim JFK was prepared to thaw relations with Havana and open dialogues with other such groups to deescalate or even end the cold war, the record shows nothing of the sort. Kennedy ended 1962 in Miami paying public tribute to the Cuban Invasion Brigade and pledging that Cuba would be made “free” with Alliance for Progress and American help. In fact, the U.S. campaign of subversion and sabotage had continued even amid the Missile Crisis and afterwards. Kennedy did for a time try to tamp down the raids being conducted by Cubans out of Miami because they threatened to reignite a global political crisis with the Castro government and the Soviet Union, but never gave up on his goal of ousting Castro, even well into 1963. In an April meeting, JFK made clear he had not given up on removing Castro but insisted it had to be a Miami-Cuban effort and wondered “whether active sabotage was good unless it was of a type that could only come from within Cuba.”
At the same time Bromley Smith, the executive secretary of the NSC, presented an analysis that made it clear that Kennedy had decided to end the “restraint” he had shown on Cuba and was recommitting American assets to the campaign against Castro. “This paper,” Smith began, “presents a covert Harassment/sabotage program targeted against Cuba; included are those sabotage plans which have previously been approved as well as new proposals.” The NSC acknowledged that “while this program will cause a certain amount of economic damage, it will in no sense critically injure the economy or cause the overthrow of Castro.” It could however “create a situation which will delay the consolidation and stabilization of Castro’s revolution” and that was worth the U.S. effort.
In fact, in Kennedy’s last public words about Latin America, in Miami on November 18th, he paid lip service to development or modernization — “There can be no progress and stability if people do not have hope for a better life tomorrow,” he said — but stressed the need to be on guard against communism in the region and be prepared to assist any state fighting off the Left. His rhetoric and plans for Latin America were not different than they had been in April 1961 when the U.S. invaded the Bay of Pigs. Communists were subverting and destroying development and if the U.S.-Latin alliance, manifested in the OAS, was to survive, it had to be prepared to aid any government requesting aid against forces deemed similar to Castro, and Kennedy emphasized that “my own country is prepared to do this.” He urged states throughout the hemisphere to “use every resource at our command to prevent the establishment of another Cuba in this hemisphere. . . .”
So Kennedy, at the end of his life, was still a committed cold warrior in Latin America, not just in rhetoric but in practice as well. There are two key examples which demonstrate JFK’s continued hardline polices in the region, Brazil and Guiana. In Brazil, Kennedy laid the groundwork to oust the presidency of João Goulart, who was deposed finally in March 1964. Goulart was not himself a communist (in fact, there were just 25–40,000 communist party members in all of Brazil, a country of 75 million) but was allied with labor unions and other civil groups that had Left members and was pursuing a reformist agenda. In March 1963, Ambassador Lincoln Gordon began notifying Goulart that he would have to remove “anti-American” politicians from his inner circle or risk economic pressure from Washington. From then on, the CIA and Department of State were in frequent contact with anti-Goulart elements in the military, and also were creating paramilitary groups, to oust Goulart. Meanwhile officials from the AFL-CIO were making contact with labor representatives in Brazil to neutralize a group that once been allied with the government. Again, there is no evidence the Missile Crisis had forced JFK to reevaluate his hawkish policies or that he was trying to de-escalate the Cold War.
Guiana, the hypothetical country in the May report, was also targeted by Kennedy. Kennedy showed no dovish epiphany as Stone and others would suggest when confronting the government of Cheddi Jagan, who “imperiled Latin America and the Alliance for Progress and threated the security of the United States,” as the administration saw it. Guiana, as part of the decolonization movement after World War II, was on the path toward independence, but Kennedy wanted Britain to “drag out” the process, while he also sent U.S. agents to the colony to undermine Jagan’s campaign and stir up racial tensions. Ultimately, Kennedy rejected Jagan (who was responsive to participating in the Alliance for Progress) and embraced a coup that later brought an authoritarian government to power in 1964.
Such action, it should be noted, took place in areas beyond the Western Hemisphere too. In Iraq, Kennedy continued Eisenhower-era policies of opposing the government of of General ‘Abd-ul-Karim Qasim, a nationalist who’d overthrown the monarchy in 1958 and challenged the Anglo-American Iraq Petroleum Company’s (IPC) power. Because of U.S. opposition, Qasim sought more aid from the Soviet Union while also trying to reunite Iraq and Kuwait to reclaim the IPC’s oil concession. Kennedy increased the pressure on Iraq and the CIA worked closely with the Ba’ath Party and other groups in Iraq to oust and execute him in February 1963, after which the U.S. provided the new regime in Baghdad with military equipment, including weapons to use against Kurdish rebels, agricultural surpluses, and Export-Import Bank loans, while also encouraging private corporate investment in Iraq.
Even the New York Times, decades later, detailed the U.S. role in 1963, in an op-ed by ex-national security official and establishment scholar Roger Morris, who wrote that “Using lists of suspected Communists and other leftists provided by the C.I.A., the Baathists systematically murdered untold numbers of Iraq’s educated elite — killings in which Saddam Hussein himself is said to have participated. No one knows the exact toll, but accounts agree that the victims included hundreds of doctors, teachers, technicians, lawyers and other professionals as well as military and political figures.”
Far from changing the U.S. approach to Latin America and other underdeveloped areas that had been doctrine since the days of James Monroe, Kennedy, as even moderate scholars who reviewed the record and the secondary literature about JFK in Latin America recognized, “in spite of his rhetorical promises, . . . was just another in a long line of cold warriors. Hence his efforts on behalf of the Third World were designed to combat communism, and only incidentally to improve the lives of people.”
Revising Kennedy’s Legacy Post-Tet
Another piece to the story of Kennedy’s supposed desire to get out of Vietnam and reverse the Cold War that Stone did not engage is the fact that most of JFK’s associates who claimed that the president had soured on Vietnam and was going to withdraw did so much later, after he was assassinated and, importantly, after the war had taken a turn for the worse, especially after the Tet Offensive.
Kennedy’s friend and court historian Arthur Schlesinger’s “evolution” on JFK and Vietnam is quite telling. While the president was alive, Schlesinger agreed with him about the need to defeat the Revolution in the RVN and was optimistic about American prospects there. In his prize-winning A Thousand Days, published in 1965 with reprint in 1967, Schlesinger never made any mention of any plans to withdraw from the war (he did write that McNamara mentioned withdrawal as a possibility amid the Diem coup planning). Schlesinger then began to slowly turn when writing about Vietnam but even then questioning the war from the right, not in any dovish way. When his friend and hawk Joseph Alsop predicted victory in 1966, Schlesinger responded that “we all pray that Mr. Alsop will be right,” though he had his doubts by then. But he also wrote that withdrawal “would have ominous reverberations throughout Asia.” Presented with a chance to suggest JFK was going to get out of the war, Schlesinger did not say a word.
Theodore Sorenson, another Kennedy insider, made no mention of withdrawal in his 1965 book about the president but in fact said that JFK’s “essential contribution” was that he “opposed withdrawal or bargain[ing] away Vietnam’s security at the conference table.” JFK, he concluded, was going to “weather out’ the war. The president’s closest confidante, his brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said in 1962 that the solution in Vietnam “lies in our winning it. This is what the president intends to do . . . . We will remain here until we do.” Like virtually everyone in the administration, Bobby Kennedy’s concern about the ability to win with Diem in charge was that he was damaging America’s efforts in Vietnam and stressed that the U.S. needed “somebody that can win the war,” and after 22 November 1963, he continued to support Lyndon Johnson’s continuation of his brother’s policies there until a break a few years later.
Hilsman, who was directly involved in Vietnam planning from the first, wrote in 1967 that the U.S. goal throughout his time in the administration was “to defeat the Communist guerrillas” and he suggested that JFK “might well have introduced United States ground forces into Vietnam . . . but would have limited their task to occupying ports, airfields, and military bases to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese that they could not win the struggle by escalation either.” Indeed, all of Kennedy’s closest advisors and friends, in the aftermath of the assassination, saw his efforts in Vietnam as positive if not laudatory. He was standing up to communism, had made early efforts to stem the tide of the Left and saved the RVN, and was prepared to do more as necessary to maintain the RVN as an independent state. There was no teeth-gnashing over a fallen hero who was about to reverse course and end the war struck down before he could bring peace.
A few years later, though, as the public began to turn against a war that was dragging on and as more Americans were being sent to, and dying in, Vietnam, JFK partisans began to revise the record, especially after Tet. Writing after that country-wide offensive that laid bare America’s dim prospects, Sorenson was “convinced” that Kennedy would have found diplomatic alternatives to war, and he began to stress the 1963 plan to withdraw 1000 troops in NSAM 263, though not mentioning it before. And he left out the key element in that plan — the precondition that troops would leave based on U.S. military success. Schlesinger took it further.
In a 1978 biography of Robert Kennedy, his version of JFK’s efforts in Vietnam diverged greatly from his work a decade or so earlier. Now, JFK’s likelihood to withdraw from Vietnam was worth a full chapter (even though the book was about Bobby Kennedy, who had little to do with Vietnam policy). He emphasized the withdrawal plans from NSAM 263 and claimed JFK had rejected both proponents of counterinsurgency and of military victory, he was opposed to “both win-the-war factions . . . vaguely searching for a nonmilitary solution.” He did not discuss the coup, JFK’s interviews with Huntley and Cronkite, or the Trade Mart speech. By 1992, in reviewing John Newman’s book, upon which Stone heavily relied, Schlesinger took things several steps further, and actually contended that he had always put forth the idea that JFK was going to withdraw from Vietnam.
We Don’t Need Another Hero: The Meaning and Myth of JFK
Campaigning for the senate in 1952, John Kennedy invoked the Soviet threat to stress the need for American strength. “We are faced by an enemy . . . unrelenting and implacable who seeks to dominate the world by subversion and conspiracy and when all else fails military force.” Kennedy went on to falsely claim that the Soviet Union had military superiority and that it “may choose to plunge the world into the most destructive war in the human race’s long history.” Though the world faced myriad problems “all . . . are dwarfed by the necessity of the West to maintain against the Communists a balance of power.”
Read those words and then parse the speech he was to deliver on 22 November 1963 in Dallas and they are virtually identical. While Stone, other Kennedy supporters, various assassinologists, and self-described liberals and radicals throughout America continue to believe that various crises like Laos, the behavior of Diem and Nhu, or especially the missile crisis “educated” JFK or led him to epiphany about throwing out U.S. cold war doctrine and beating swords into plowshares, there is just no meaningful evidence to show that, any more than there is confirmation of Kennedy’s commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, another piece of the JFK hagiography that Liberals promote.
Kennedy emerged as a national political figure immediately at the end of World War II and outset of the Cold War. I once had a professor of diplomatic history, very moderate and measured, who said that the three main Cold Warriors of that era were Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, and John F. Kennedy. JFK’s ideology was no secret to anyone who followed the operations of state. Indeed he was much more aggressive and unyielding in foreign affairs than his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, whose “Cross of Iron” speech eloquently lamented the emphasis on warfare rather than education and labor and whom even warned of the military-industrial complex on his way out of office, or one of his successors, Richard Nixon, who finally ended the Vietnam War and created détente with the communist powers. Eisenhower and Nixon were not doves either and they overturned governments and used force against liberation movements, but the point is that Kennedy was very similar to them. They were cut from the same imperial and militarist cloth.
Indeed, there is voluminous proof, in deed and rhetoric, gathered over six decades, that John Kennedy entered political life as a cold warrior and remained so until he died. In Vietnam especially, despite Stone’s claims, JFK never wavered in his commitment to preserve the state he helped bring to life, the RVN. The contortions that the conspiracy theorists undertake to explain how NSAM 263 is a smoking gun are more vertiginous than the magic bullet theories they invoke to claim that the dark state had Kennedy killed because he was really a dove. Yet, 58 years after his death, and 30-plus years after Stone’s movie was released, more people than ever continue to insist that dark forces in the military and intelligence communities conspired to kill him. At this point, there is virtually no possibility of them ever changing their views no matter how exhaustive the evidence presented against their arguments is . . . they have a bibilical faith in the specter of JFK. No doubt there were domestic forces like the Miami Cubans and the Mafia who would benefit from Kennedy’s departure, but the countless theories about their machinations to kill him in concert with the deep state have never been proven, despite Stone’s circumstantial circus of claims.
As we have seen, there’s an abundant record to show that Kennedy was deeply committed to “winning” in Vietnam despite a clear awareness of the problems there and reluctance and pessimism by leading military advisors. As conditions in Vietnam worsened, he ramped up the U.S. commitment by sanctioning a coup against Diem and Nhu, the least likely measure to bring stability and create an atmosphere in which withdrawal was more likely. In his overall conception of national security, JFK never wavered from his promise to spend more money on the military and build more weapons, and he was willing to consider war and even nuclear weapons during crises over Berlin and Cuba. In the Third World, he never hesitated to use the rhetoric of modernization as a camouflage for counterinsurgency, supporting bloody regimes that contained “the Left,” constant interference in internal affairs, increased “training” of paramilitary and police forces in defense of local oligarchs, and, of course, frequent intervention, often coordinated by the CIA, another part of the deep state that allegedly wanted JFK dead, if Stone’s equally preposterous ally David Talbot is to be believed.
All of these theories, contrived interpretations, and conspiracies make for bad history. But the problem is bigger than that, for many people on the Left subscribe to them, as Stone has been featured in various progressive media outlets to great fanfare to continue his crusade against the deep state and his rectification of JFK. But as Alexander Cockburn pointed out after the movie JFK came out, the deification of Kennedy served right-wing purposes, as the links between Stone’s crew and QAnon today demonstrate.
Stone has somehow convinced large swathes of the Left that various government agencies and even the vice-president contrived an immense conspiracy, one that would have necessarily involved a huge number of people, many hundreds or thousands perhaps, and everyone fell in line, did not raise any objections to a plot to assassinate the most powerful political figure in the world, and then remained fully silent about it forever after. As we have seen time and again — in Watergate, in Iran-Contra, in Trump’s current lies about the election, in various COVID conspiracies involving ideas about everything from Wuhan labs to Ivermectin — any plan that involves more than a couple people is inevitably leaked and becomes a public scandal; less than a year after Trump left office we now have a spate of insider books detailing his efforts to monkeywrench the election. To suggest that what would arguably be the most incredible and biggest conspiracy in history could take place and remain silent at the time and survive 58 years of conspiracy theorists digging into every single atomic particle of JFK’s life and assignation without any real proof of it is too amazing to even contemplate . . .
The Left doesn’t need heroes like JFK. It needs analysis, organization, and resistance. Waiting for the “truth” about JFK sets no one free but in fact keeps political people hostage to a nostalgic past that never was. It is not different than Confederates who seek a mythic past in preserving statues of Robert E. Lee, or conservative politicians who pray to return to “the American we grew up in,” or countless individuals of all political stripes who insist, despite repeated debunking, that 9/11 was an inside job. Kennedy was no more going to rescue the country from the clutches of deep state operatives than was Trump. The deep state that both Stone’s followers and QAnon invoke is “the state.” The CIA, FBI, NSC, and military do horrible things of which many of us are aware, while others are kept in the dark by media. Even today, journalists and scholars talk of the “secret war” in Laos and Cambodia even though millions of tons of bombs were dropped on those countries. That’s not a conspiracy; that’s the way the ruling class media works. That war was no “secret” to the people of Indochina on the targeted end of those bombings.
The fact that these U.S. institutions do terrible things abroad — coups d’etat, subversion, interventions — in no way creates some kind of circumstantial proof that these same agencies had Kennedy killed. JFK was not their enemy. He was in their world and of their world. He did nothing heroic and while it is certainly possible that the cold war might have thawed a bit more had he lived — and remember that it was cold warriors and war criminals Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger who reached out to Moscow and Beijing — there is no reason to believe that he was going to pull out of Vietnam, call off the dogs in Cuba, stop sending money for “internal security” in the Third World, build fewer bombs, or spend less money on the Pentagon. Nothing he had done in the past would indicate that and Stone’s belief in a Kennedy epiphany is nothing more than the wishful thinking of someone raised on the myth of Camelot.
The lamentations about a fallen hero whom we hardly knew, a warrior for peace slain before he could bring olive branches unto the world, are the stuff of fantasy. We have to live in the world of deeds and evidence. And as the noted historian Thomas Paterson observed long ago, and which holds true today, “he had his chance, and he failed.”
 Fletcher Prouty, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (New York, 1992); John Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York, 1992); David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (New York, 2016).
 For a thorough overview of Kennedy’s militarist approach to global affairs, see, inter alia, Walter S. Poole, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 1961–1964. History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Volume VIII (Washington D.C., 2011).
 Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston, 1993).
 In United States, Government Printing Office, Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents (Washington, D.C., 1961), 267–70; Kennedy in Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, (New York, 1991), 58–9.
 Kennedy in Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days (Boston, 1965), 391; Rostow, 24 April 1961, in Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1992), 16–9; Telegram From the Chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Viet-Nam (McGarr) to the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Felt), 10 May 1961, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], Vietnam, 1961, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d50.
 In David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York, 1972), 167.
 Kennedy, 14 November 1961, in George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York, 1986), 137–9, see also McNamara quoted in editorial note, Notes of Colonel Howard Burris, FRUS, Vietnam, 1961,https://history.state.gov/ /frus1961–63v01/d329.
Ibid., and Chapter 4, Pentagon Papers — Gravel Edition,[PP-Gravel]Volume 2, “The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November 1963” https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon2/pent7.htm. Kennedy’s biographer (and apologist) Arthur Schlesinger later claimed that JFK had misgivings about his approval of these actions against the Ngos and took a softer line. Those claims, as we will see, came years later, after JFK was dead and the war had turned out badly, and his reversals were never backed up with documentary evidence. As we shall see, JFK’s position on the coup did not weaken a bit through the autumn of 1963.
 Kennedy interviews with Cronkite, 2 September 1963, in Roger Hilsman Papers, box 4, JFK Library; with Huntley, 9 September 1963, PP-Gravel, 2:827–8.
 White House Statement approved by President Kennedy, 2 October 1963, “Statements by President Kennedy on Vietnam,” NSF, Memos to the President, Walt Whitman Rostow, box 8, folder: volume 6, June 11–20, 1966 [2 of 2], LBJL.
The following materials are derived from Masters of War, 155–7; Peter Dale Scott and others suggest that NSAM marked a clear departure from Kennedy’s policy on Vietnam and set the United States on the path to war. The final draft of 26 November, however, was virtually a verbatim copy of earlier efforts, and the commitment to the RVN was precisely the same. Scott, The War Conspiracy. For an excellent refutation of Scott’s thesis, again see Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot.
 The following paragraphs derive largely from my book Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (New York, 1996), especially chapters 4 and 5.
Decker, 29 April 1961, in House Committee on Armed Services, U.S.-Vietnam Relations, 11:62–6.
Felt in Edward Marolda and Oscar Fitzgerald, The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, vol. 2: From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959–1965 (Washington D.C., 1986), 104–9; Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York, 1988); officers’ report, August 1962, in Krulak to Army, Navy, and Air Force Chiefs, 27 December 1962, John Newman Papers, JFK Library.
 Wallace M. Greene, Jr., “A Marine Corps View of Military Strategy,” tape #6276, MCHC, my transcription; Victor Krulak, Oral History, June 1970 interview, MCHC; Donald Bennett Oral History, section 7, 30–4, Military History Institute, Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA.
 Taylor memoranda of 6 January, 1 February, 22 February, 16 March 1965 in NSC History, “Deployment of Major U.S. Forces to Vietnam,” microfilm edition, University Publications of America.
Taylor to State Department, 4 September 1964, Declassified Documents Reference System, 84, 737; Westmoreland Question and Answer Report, November 1964, William Westmoreland Papers, box 4, Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, TX; Westmoreland in Taylor to Johnson, 5 January 1965, NSC History, “Deployment.”
 See Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, and “Vain Hopes, False Dreams,” Z Magazine, September 1992, https://chomsky.info/199209__/; on Kennedy revisionism, see especially Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston, 1965), reprinted 1967, and Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston, 1978); Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy (New York, 1965); and Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (New York, 1967).
It’s been refreshing, for the past decade or so, to see Capitalism become an increasing topic of discussion in the media, among activists, and even in the political classes. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st Century, Americans focused so heavily on whatever rival ideology existed, especially Communism, that they took for granted that the U.S. system of private ownership of the means of production and financial and services institutions with heavy government input through tax breaks, subsidies, favorable laws, state suppression of labor and other perks (socialized debt and private profit) was just the natural order. But the Great Recession of 2008 and subsequent crises, especially the 2020 pandemic with the attendant economic crises and the clear failure of the U.S. healthcare system made it impossible to ignore Capitalism’s flaws any longer.
Still, we could know a lot more about how this system works. We’re seeing workers take a more assertive role in their work lives right now—with organizing drives and strikes at places like Amazon, Starbucks, John Deere, and elsewhere—but one of the biggest labor, or more accurately anti-labor, actions just occurred not with working-class people but with a group of billionaires going on the attack against a group of millionaires—the Major League Baseball lockout, which lasted 99 days and just ended a couple weeks ago.
I’m not here to write about the lockout, but to suggest that, even though we’re talking about a labor conflict that involved 1 percenters vs. 1/10 percenters, it’s a good way to understand how Capitalists operate. And when you’re talking baseball, there’s no better example than the most famous franchise in sports history, the New York Yankees, and its owner, Hal Steinbrenner (Steinbrenner had a big role in the lockout too, but that’s a story for another day).
The Yankees are the most valuable baseball franchise by a lot, valued at figures between $5.25 and $6.75 billion (see Forbes estimate and Sportico numbers). Most striking, that’s about $2 billion more than the next wealthy franchise the L.A. Dodgers, which has the highest payroll in the major leagues. The late George Steinbrenner bought the franchise in 1973 for $10 million (not a typo), and spent freely to purchase free agents and try to win championships (the Yankees won 7 World Series during his ownership before his death in 2010), but now his son Hal runs the club, much differently than his father. According to Forbes, the Steinbrenners are among America’s 75 wealthiest family, estimated at about $4 billion (according to Forbes ). By comparison, the Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and K.C. Royals are the least valuable franchises, worth about $1 billion each. The Yankees also own the YES Network, which broadcasts its games, and which it purchased for about $3.5 billion in 2019. As Alex Rodriguez, ex-Yankee and now a broadcaster on ESPN, likes to say, “The Yankees print money.”
The Yankees are the Microsoft or Apple or Amazon of the sports world, a financial behemoth which operates in the biggest market in the country, with a national following (really a global following….in Cuba in 2017 I had a Yankees shirt on and it started conversations with about a dozen people), a decided competitive advantage, and tons of cash. Yet….as we’ve seen recently, the Yankees like to make money, not necessarily spend it, and that’s how Capitalism works. Just as Amazon or Starbucks is trying to keep its wages down despite record profits, the Yankees would rather get the benefits of league-wide TV and marketing contracts and (despite constant hand-wringing about the game going downhill) massive attendance numbers, while not spending as much as they could, or as wisely as they’re able…….
The franchise has not won a World Series since 2009, an eternity in Yankee years, yet its value continues to rise. It’s also, like virtually every other pro sports team, benefited from a great amount of public largesse—which, despite the rhetoric of “free markets” and “keeping the government off our backs” is precisely how Capitalism was always designed to work. Every major industry and its leading corporations, banks and services receives huge amounts of government aid (fossil fuels, the biggest global industry, receives $5.9 trillion in subsides all over the world and about $20 billion, a conservative estimate, in the U.S. alone). Yankee Stadium, the ballpark-cum-shrine where the team plays, was built in 2008 and cost more than $2.3 billion. The Yankees were on the hook for about $670 million of that and the rest, $1.2 billion, came from public money and tax breaks.
And just as other corporations put the bottom line, profits and value, above the product or services they provide (Boeing has seen its planes crash in Indonesia, Ethiopia and China since 2018 with 478 people killed, yet none of its executives have been held legally liable and its stock prices have barely fallen and remain above what they were just a few weeks before the crash). the Yankees don’t seem to be interested in putting the team in its best position to win another title. To be clear, fatal air crashes and lackluster baseball are not equivalent, but both show how Capitalists are more concerned with profits than product, and yes, Boeing is an extreme example, but it’s also a useful one because that’s how the oligarchs operate.
In the recent offseason, the Yankee-Capitalism model was on full display as the team, coming off several disappointing seasons in a row, had the opportunity to significantly upgrade on the field. It was a banner year for free agents, ballplayers whose contracts with their previous teams expired and were thus able to sign with anyone else, and especially at key positions the Yankees needed. Most striking, shortstops like Javier Baez, Trevor Story and especially Carlos Correa were free agents, as was First Baseman Freddie Freeman, and those two positions were the Yankees’ biggest needs. Additionally, other high-end players at those positions were available via trade.
Amid this bumper crop of free agents, the most valuable sports franchise did……nothing. In fact, they did worse than nothing. They actually let the Minnesota Twins hoodwink them into a trade for aging 3d Baseman Josh Donaldson and mediocre-to-adequate Shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who combined make about $30 million a year, which opened money for the Twins to sign Correa on what was a bargain in baseball terms—a 3-year deal for $105 million with opt-outs after the first two years. So the Yankees got a good but often-injured 3d baseman and a run-of-the-mill shortstop for just $5 million less than Correa’s contract. Freeman also escaped the Yankees—who made no serious run at any decent free agent, though they did re-sign their own First Baseman Anthony Rizzo to a relative cheap $16 million deal—and signed with the Dodgers, who have had no problem throwing their money around, and have been in 3 of the past 5 World Series.
Currently the Yankees are also in a dispute with their best player, and one of the 5 best players in Major League Baseball, Aaron Judge, over a contract extension. Judge in in arbitration right now because he asked for $21 million, a bargain for someone with his skills, and the Yankees lowballed him at $17 million. While there’s a good chance the sides come to agreement on a settlement soon, the very optics of it show how Steinbrenner views his company. Judge is already financially secure for life, but that $4 million difference in salary proposals at that level is not unlike the way bosses nickel-and-dime low wage employees as well.
And there’s one group that I haven’t mentioned and is completely left out of Yankee planning and considerations . . . the fans. The Yankees are always in the top 2 or 3 in attendance in the major leagues, averaging 3 to 3.5 million people attending the 81 home games in the publicly-subsidized stadium. Gate receipts alone account for about $250-300 million in revenue annually (which is more than Yankee payroll) and that doesn’t include the money spent on parking, concessions, and Yankee shirts and other souvenirs. The Yankees also get about $100 million from their local TV contract, plus their cut from MLB’s national television deals with ESPN, FOX and other media. According to Forbes, total revenues for the team are $482 million. As one NFL owner years ago described their business model, regarding the league-wide TV and marketing deals, “basically, we’re 28 Socialists who vote Republican.”
Probably a big majority of Yankee fans (of which I am one) judge the team’s performance by one criteria—winning the World Series, and the current run—just one title since 2000—is the worst in the franchise’s famous history. In fact, the Yankees have not only just not won a World Series since 2009, but haven’t even been the American League champions since then. In that period from 2000 to the present, their hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox, have won 4 titles and the San Francisco Giants have won 3; the St. Louis Cardinals have 2 titles in that time and the Chicago Cubs won their first championship since 1908; even the Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals, generally near the bottom of the standings, have each won as many titles as the Yankees have. In the past few years, the Yankees have been disappointing, with only two American League Championship Series appearances even since 2012.
So Yankee fans were impatient during the offseason, after investing so much passion and especially money into following the team, and expected Steinbrenner and General Manager Brian Cashman to go out and spend to get free agents. As noted above, they did not. So the odds on the Yankees breaking their drought and winning the World Series aren’t great. With the baseball playoffs expanded to 6 teams, a playoff appearance is quite possible if not likely, but Las Vegas bookies aren’t real strong on the team’s chances to win it all. Again, fans are likely to be disappointed and lighter in the wallet.
In fact, Hal Steinbrenner, while boasting of historically high payrolls and goals of winning championships, made it clear in a widely-tweeted comment that did not please the team’s fan base that his job was to “maker sure that we’re financially responsible.” He pointed out that “I’ve got a lot of partners & banks & bondholders & things like that I answer to.” This commentary is not to suggest that Yankees players are somehow an oppressed working class—the league minimum salary is $700,000, more than most Americans would make in a decade or so—but that discussing a famous sports franchise and its financial operations make it easier to understand how Capitalism works.
The Yankees “going cheap” and putting out an inferior product is exactly how the economy operates. Now, take that business model and apply it nationally, or globally, to people who are struggling for a living wage and you see why people are living in precarity all over the world. Baristas and fast-food workers and Amazon warehouse employees and miners and meat-packing industry workers and pretty much everyone else is feeling the pinch, stuck between owners who, like Steinbrenner, won’t put out their best product and need to be “financially responsible” and workers who are paying more due to inflation while wages have not kept up and the minimum wage hasn’t budged in 13 years now, remaining at an unlivable $7.25 an hour.
Billionaires vs. Millionaires isn’t a great example of class struggle and it’s nothing that Karl Marx envisioned, but it’s a good way to explain the economy. No one needs to feel any deep sympathy for MLB players to see how billionaires control markets, give priority to financial issues rather than product or performance, have little regard for consumers, spend unwisely, and alienate employees in order to understand how American Capitalism works.
So when bosses complain that “people don’t want to work” or that raising the minimum wage will make it difficult for them to survive, think of the way the most famous and wealthy sports franchise in America operates. If the Yankees don’t care enough about their fans and their team performance to spend a few extra million dollars, then you can be sure Starbucks isn’t going to want to give a barista a couple extra bucks and hour and Wal-Mart isn’t going to provide good benefits to its employees, and will forcing them onto the public dole where taxpayers will provide SNAP aid and other benefits, essentially subsidizing billionaires.
I’ve seen Yankee zealots complain on social media that Steinbrenner isn’t a good businessman because he’s not spending a slightly bigger portion of his abundant wealth to win a title. But in reality he’s doing exactly what a Capitalist does……..
Copyright by Green & Red Media, Robert Buzzanco, and Scott Parkin.
The Remarkable World of Kelsey Niccolò Sandino Buzzanco, 26 December 1988-11 March 2010
I went outside to ask him if he was hungry and he told me “no, I have the sun in my mouth.” That was Kelsey when he was 3—he was thermonuclear but it came naturally. The sun was his fission and he led a life full of meteors, sun flares, eclipses, shooting stars, and dark midnights.
Nothing was easy for him, nothing was mundane. It was all a series of galaxies and lightning and thunder and volcanoes—he was fulminous. When he was little he never stopped moving, like a shark. His mind was always running, far ahead of the rest of him, and often thinking about things that little kids don’t think about, can’t think about. Don’t get me wrong—he enjoyed little kids books and videos and games and the monkey bars and swings and playing with other kids, but there was something else going on inside of him too. He was so smart and yet so lost. Like he didn’t have a home in this world anymore for his mind and soul—it just all went by so fast.
(Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night. Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light)
He always liked the kids who were on the outside of the circle. He walked toward kids who were bullied, kids who didn’t have a lot of friends, kids who weren’t from River Oaks or didn’t have parents who drove luxury cars. He felt at ease, like he was one of them. He liked being in a room with rounders, and also really smart people–the kind of people I had around a lot. He fit in.
Some of Kelsey’s preference was due his own sense of self-limits. There were times when he didn’t really like himself or what he did. But a lot of people who are self-loathing do it for a reason or purpose, because they do awful things and when they get called on it they want to be the victim. They’re incapable of remorse and regret, but he wasn’t. He owned what he did, and very few people do that; it’s a sign of wisdom and self-awareness, which is really ironic for someone whose mind worked in the Rube Goldberg kind of way that his did.
But he also had a good heart. He loved dogs. What’s a better test of character than that? Lots of times I told him he was a Somali Pirate, but he was sometimes Mr. Rogers too. He was full of joy playing with little kids. We watched countless episodes of “The Simpsons” together and laughed and messed with each other—and that’s a beautiful memory. But an odd kid…..Nothing was consistent. He had moments of joy and laughter, and if you look at pictures of him with his friends, all the way through his final days, he was often laughing and smiling, and they remember him that way.
(I don’t feel good don’t bother me/I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind/America when will you be angelic?)
But I saw different versions of Kelsey, different seasons. Occasionally it was Spring, with cool breezes and a mild sun. But it was often a season of ice with him, a season of darkness, a season of anger and fear, winter….that’s how his mind was built. I think everything about Kelsey was in the genomes…….
I once thought that Kelsey looked at life like there was a broken mirror in front of him all the time. On one side it was him—whole, real, one person, unified. But he didn’t know that person, so he always looked at the other side, the broken mirror, with 100 different versions of himself, all cracked, different angles, different images, different ideas. And he never figured out which one was real, so they waged battle in his head and created dust and smoke and a brilliant sense of humor and no fear of crossing dangerous lines or fear of even death. It was just all part of the same thing—all was seamless. Being led into nothingness, existence took you to non-existence, living bled into the Big Sleep. Nothing had to be decided. Things just took care of themselves…..something always came up.
Now, Kelsey’s darkness was also his brilliance. He was the smartest guy in the room more than a couple times but where I reveled in that, he hated it. Being considered smart created expectations, which he hated more than anything. But he understood things when he was 10 that I didn’t get until I was twice that age. He just “got it” and kept it in his mind. He picked up a violin and was really fine at it. He had great musical tastes, not the computerized gravel-grinding people listen to today. I explained currencies to him and he understood the Bretton Woods System. I took him to the park and threw him a few pitches and he hit line drives (though baseball was far, far too boring for him—he had to always be moving). He signed up for his SATs—I made him take them on campus while I was teaching so I’d make sure he got to them—and did zero preparation, and pulled in a 2100+. He had the second highest PSAT in his high school, yet his grades sucked. They weren’t the lowest in Faber history but they were the worst in Buzzanco family history—and yet he was the smartest Buzzanco I’d ever met.
We were frustrated with each other a lot. I tried to get him to just stay out of trouble. He said “all you do it bitch at me all the time.” And I’d respond “Just stay out of trouble!” After you Alphonse—no you first Gaston. We had a lot of joy together, I don’t want to forget that. We rode bikes—he was a maniac on his R6 and I was the dignified guy on the Moto Guzzi. He was pure energy (thermonuclear, remember?) and I was like and old man in a Cadillac. But we had fun. We went kayaking a lot and he’d always just leave me in his wake. We rode bicycles all over Houston and often relaxed and made a lot of jokes. We shot jumpers at the hoop I put up in the alley. We went out to eat all the time. He was a connoisseur. Most little kids wanted hot dogs and chicken tenders. He’d eat steaks, sushi, Thai food, and once made me take him out for duck quesadillas. He told all his friends about how great my Italian food was, which always made me happy. He also ate steaks raw. That’s not a typo. Not rare……
But it was never a complete package. Months of “normalcy” might lead to crisis, without knowing why. The season of ease became a season of tumult, and no one knew why and it became a season of death. Genomes…..? He’d go from just chilling out, going to work, watching “Office Space” ten times a week, to a world full of pitchforks, heavy winds, rising tides, crows flying, sabers rattling, and dogs baying. Like a New Orleans funeral and I suspect his head was full of kettle drums and tambourines. I’ll never know why but I’ve quit trying to figure it out. Seasons changed with no warning. The answers are literally gone on the wind and his energy is just floating around the cosmos. Meantime, I, and his mom, have grief and loneliness—indescribably, immeasurably, infinitely.
(Oh we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness Could never be friendly ourselves/And in the future when no longer Do human beings still treat themselves as animals/Look back on us with forebearance).
Death is brutal teacher but you learn lessons that you can’t get anywhere else. Suicide especially makes you lonely and scared. You see people at their worst when someone dies—that’s my takeaway. People run away, as if your tragedy is contagious. Those who knew you well now look at you like you’re a killer—you couldn’t keep your kid alive (and I’ve felt that way every day for a dozen years now). People give you assurances and then disappear. You’re weakened, and what doesn’t kill you still kicks the shit out of you, and you feel it in every failure, every disappointment. You’ve already had the worst day of your life, but that doesn’t mean the rest isn’t painful too. People see your weakness after tragedy, your vulnerability, and they pounce, and then walk away casually. But I’ve never been mad at Kelsey or blamed him. He was troubled, he struggled, from the first. Whatever was inside his head was both beautiful and toxic, serene and explosive, and they weren’t separated.
(The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity).
The angels and demons were were integrated, unified, homogenized, and excessive too. That mix was who he was and it was beautiful. And I’ve learned from it. People will tell you they care about you, that they’re loyal, that they’ll be there for you, and then they’ll just go away. Kelsey disappeared, without warning, without a discussion, without any instructions……but that was, I think, always going to be the way he left the building. He didn’t think anything could get better, and the pain was too great. I couldn’t save him, but I don’t know if that was even possible…..
The was a lot of despair and disgust in his life. Like Dylan said, I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast. But who can figure it out? Genomes. He was honest. He never faked being happy or content. He’d unleash on me and rely on me. I signed him up for classes at UH, took care of his parking tickets, got him lawyers when he needed them, and I always had 50s and C-notes around the house to give to him when he visited. Like my father was to me, I was Kelsey’s consigliere and bodyguard. Genco and Luca all in one. Until I wasn’t…..
I don’t believe in any kind of conscious afterlife—and I’m not sure what he thought about that mystic shit either; I don’t think he gave much thought to spending time with either Jesus or Old Scratch. We live in this world and we’re part of the dirt after. He’s not going to some magical place where he’s playing with Ginsberg and talking to my dad. He lives every day in my mind, always. Every moment. And I hope there are always people who remember him.
I think that’s why we live—so we can be remembered when we’re gone, not just flushed away like our life was no big deal. We don’t want to be easily disposable, unloved, and yet we are. Kelsey reinforced the lessons my Sicilian father taught me—trust only the closest family and assume everyone else has malign intent. The world is full of horrible and shitty people, and you have to ride it out. We offer up our innocence and get repaid with scorn. It’s a dark and depressing view of the world, especially in these times, but I haven’t been disabused of it……
Kelsey finally met up with the Grim Reaper, as we all will. He had more than a few brushes with him before March 11th, 2010, but this was the big one. The Grim Reaper is undefeated—he knocked out Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and Ali—who else has done that? Kelsey was another best mind of his generation destroyed by madness. Kelsey’s with The Elders now, his atoms floating around in the cosmic dust. I told him an old Italian adage my dad used on me, “O mangiar questa minestra o saltar questa finestra,” and maybe he took it to heart all the way.
It’s been a dozen years since he left the world, without even saying goodbye. The ultimate ghosting, huh? Every day I wake up and there’s a nano-second before I’m conscious where I think of him, as if he’s still around. It’s literally less than an eye-blink. Then my heart sinks and I know he’s gone. I look at his pictures and usually I just say “I love you Kid” and sometimes “you crazy little bastard.” But it’s always with a smile amid the tears.
(I’ll look for you in old Honolulu San Francisco or Ashtabula You’re gonna have to leave me, now I know But I’ll see you in the sky above In the tall grass in the ones I love You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go)
No matter the season, I’m thinking about him—seasons of hope, seasons of despair, seasons of ice and darkness. Winter. He’s always there. As death gets nearer, day to day, I think about him more.
The world he’s missed out on for 12 years has been a rotten one. Maybe he had some kind of ESP to look into the future and wanted out. But I wish he was going through it with me now. I have conversations in the dark with him, but he doesn’t answer. I guess butterflies took away his tongue.
Green & Red had a hell of a year in 2021! It wasn’t the best of times. It was mostly the worst of times. But we did some fantastic shows.Here’s a (too long) list of some of my favorites (not really in any specific order, I just listed them as they came to mind. They’re all great!). We’ve seen a really big increase in listeners this year, so keep spreading the word about Green & Red so we’re more than the best lefty podcast people haven’t heard……
Yesterday’s elections have provided a great example of the futility and fecklessness of the Democratic Party not even one year into the Biden Administration. In Virginia and Buffalo, the Democrats undermined their own agenda and sold out the people who voted for them in November 2020, and now you can be sure they’ll go looking for scapegoats rather than be self-reflective. In the end, it’s more proof that electoral politics, while a tactic that can be used productively (like getting rid of Trump), is wholly inadequate to actually fix the various systemic crises we face and to make a better world.
Notes On the State of Virginia
Ronald Reagan once infamously said “facts are stupid things,” and that’s more true than ever. But still, it’s useful to discuss the reality of what happened in Virginia yesterday.
We’re seeing a ton of post-mortems blaming “the left” for McAuliffe’s dismal defeat–it’s on Sanders, AOC, etc. for not “compromising enough” on the BBB bills, while Carville blames “woke politics” for the Democratic disasters.
Here’s what’s real. It’s not a “left” bill, it’s Biden’s original plan, one that was strongly popular when announced last winter, and it’s only half of that now in fact. The “left” didn’t kill it, The Squad, despite some rhetoric about it, always fell in line. It enjoyed big support but that waned over time because nothing got done. That’s on Manchin and Sinema, and hence Biden, but not Sanders, et al.
Family leave and reduced med prices are hugely popular, yet Manchin etc. has killed them without any real resistance from the White House. And today Manchin is invoking the Virginia results as vindication for his support of GOP politics and absolving himself for sinking any real bill that might help people in need rather than take care of oil companies and oligarchs.
I’ve followed the VA race a bit the past couple months, and the polling there showed McAuliffe in trouble weeks ago. And the polling also showed a high level or dissatisfaction or anger with the failure of Biden and the Dems to do anything, such as actually enact programs that big majorities of Americans supported. Significant numbers of voters who chose Biden last year either didn’t vote or opted for Youngkin because the Democrats have done nothing. So the fingerprints on this defeat go all the way to the White House.
Yes, Youngkin’s bullshit about Critical Race Theory and a teenaged boy being traumatized by Beloved didn’t help, but the reality is that McAuliffe and Dems, lived up their status as the #WashingtonGeneralsofPolitics, and never really took that on in a strong way.
Liberals love to be on the defensive and love to be victims so they can blame others for their failures rather than be held accountable for being so elitist, condescending, and inept.
And maybe most importantly, McAuliffe is an old, recycled Clintonian hack as well as a Carlyle Group alum. In 2016, the thumping Jeb Bush took in the GOP primaries should have been a canary in a coal mine for all politicians, but only Trump seemed to get it. McAuliffe was Clinton’s main money guy, and is a corporate lackey all the way. The Dems almost suffered the same fate in New Jersey, where Phil Murphy, a mega-rich Goldman Sachs executive, barely won reelection in a state where Dem registration outnumbers the GOP by over 1 million voters. The Dems are still living in 1992, or 2008 if I want to be charitable.
They have no new blood, no new candidates, no new ideas. They keep putting out the same lineup even though they look more like the 62 Mets than the 98 Yankees. They live for “moderation,” which means constant right-wing drift without any benefits for the people–the working class and poor–they claim to represent.
I’m sure liberal hacks like E.J. Dione, T.B. Edsall, and the fetid Ruy Teixeira will be gloating “I told you so” that the left killed McAulliffe, but Neera Tanden fanboys don’t have a clue. Despite the rhetoric of reform, the Democrats haven’t done anything meaningful since 1/20/2021 to indicate they actually care deeply about the interests of working-class or poor people, and we saw the consequences of that yesterday at the polls.
Shuffle Off to Buffalo
In Buffalo, India Walton, a self-described democratic socialist, won the Dem primary against the incumbent Byron Brown and would have cruised to victory in the general election.
But Brown won yesterday as a write-in candidate.
How did that happen?
As soon as Walton won, the NY Dems began a huge attack on her and supported and coordinated Brown’s write-in campaign. It was an inside job by the Dems.
The GOP embraces the craziest and most dangerous people in politics. They have QAnon members and sex offenders in the U.S. House of Reps, and they’re fine with it.
The Corporate Dems meanwhile actually reject the will of their own voters and defend and remain loyal to people who are enemies of those voters.
Upon minimal reflection it’s not surprising that the Dems lost Virginia and stabbed their own candidate in the back in Buffalo, and you can expect 2022 to be bloodbath and Trump 2024 seems more likely each day . . .
Electoral politics is a tactic, but as a solution to the crises we face, it’s a dead end. Organize autonomous communities, start mutual aid groups, start or join a union, go on strike, union or not, and get into the streets to put pressure on politicians, the business community, the schools, and any other group that has any kind of power–you know, like the Right has for decades now.
It’s been clear for a loooooong time that the Dems aren’t gonna save you and the GOP is simply going to double down on its cruelty and ignorance because there’s no real opposition to stop it.
It wasn’t the first time either I or the Green and Red Podcast had specifically endorsed articles or essays in support of the Cuban people and the Cuban state amid a 60-year war of aggression coming from the United States and more specifically after a series of protests in Cuba on July 11th that many self-described leftists supported.
New Politics and writers associated with it like Samuel Farber (a Cuban-born socialist who’s made a career by attacking socialists and communists), Charlie Post, and Ashley Smith had been writing strong endorsements of the July 11th protests since they happened (and not responding to Green and Red’s critique of their pieces, choosing to ignore us rather than defend their position). This wasn’t surprising since New Politics has for 60 years considered itself a Third Camp publication, neither capitalist nor “authoritarian or totalitarian” Left. Their writers are experts at “equivalency.”
New Politics, in its articles and its response, took a “both sides” approach to the Cuba issue, rightly offering rhetorical condemnation of the U.S. embargo but strongly supporting the protests as an organic and legitimate expression of the democratic rights of the Cuba people to stand up to a dictatorial regime. This was not a position exclusive to the magazine as other people on the left and self-described anarchists on social media also weighed in on the side of the protests. What was striking about the New Politics editorial, however, was that it offered no specific reason to support the Cuban protests, but merely repeated and cited arguments and articles it’s been making since it began publication. It took several ideas that it has been cooking for decades, put them in the microwave for 3 minutes, and then served them disguised as a new gourmet meal.
My point, like many others on the Left (and I’d especially recommend a Manolo De Los Santos and Vijay Prashad article “If You Grew Up With the U.S. Blockade as a Cuban, You Might Understand the Recent Protests Differently”), was that no discussion of Cuba can take place without an overwhelming emphasis on the U.S. embargo and six-decade war of aggression, heightened by a new set of 200+ sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after the beginning of a thaw between Washington and Havana initiated by Barack Obama and Raul Castro, and that any protest inside Cuba, no matter the intention, was going to have U.S. and Miami fingerprints on it and serve the interests of the Miami mafia and the American “National Security” establishment.
Condemning the embargo while supporting the protests, I contended, was intellectually vacuous and politically reactionary and served no purpose but to strengthen the forces that would remove socialism from Cuba and turn it into its pre-1959 status as an economic outpost for American oligarchic interests. Nothing in Cuba takes place without some, substantial in fact, involvement from Miami, and it’s been that way since January 1st, 1959. In addition, these supporters of the protests neglected to consider just how much progress Cuba had made under socialism, with a gold-standard health and education system and support for liberation movements worldwide.
The best example of my argument came during an episode of Green and Red Podcast with my co-host and comrade Scott Parkin which we titled “What the Left Owes Cuba” and which, I strongly presume, no one at New Politics heard or watched (I also spoke on this at some length in an interview on “Flashpoints” with Dennis Bernstein). Perhaps if some of these “even-handed” leftists had listened to our argument, they’d have been able to offer some substance to their critique, rather than condemn it because it didn’t fit their ideological predispositions.
What Cuba has Done
I don’t see any point in repeating what we said on that podcast in detail here. If New Politics editors or anyone else on the Left wants to understand our support of Cuba, it can listen to our detailed explanation on the podcast. But there are a few things worth mentioning as a rejoinder to the shameful position that people who call themselves socialist but support the Miami-inspired attempt to overthrow socialism in Cuba have taken.
On the podcast Scott and I discussed with many specifics the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution. They are well-known and can be heard on that episode or easily researched on the internet. Just to name a few, Cuba now has a life expectancy exactly the same as the U.S (see World Bank data on Cuban Life Expectancy here ). Cuba’s health care system ranks 39th in the world, just two spots behind the U.S., yet its health care expenditures are 181st, while the U.S is 1st. The U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba, and African Americans have an infant mortality rate three times higher. Cuba spends more on education than any country in the world, 13 percent of its budget.
Health care in Cuba is obviously socialized, so no one is denied medical treatment and no one goes bankrupt due to illness. More recently, Cuba has a COVID rate of about 250 deaths per million, which is about one-eighth of the American COVID death rate. It’s now vaccinating children as young as 2 against COVID and has developed vaccines for cancer and hepatitis. Its medical internationalism is well-known as Cuban doctors have saved lives across the globe (anecdotally, I was in Italy at the outbreak of COVID in early 2020 and while the European Union sat on its hands, Cuban doctors arrived in hard-hit Lombardy to help deal with the Coronavirus outbreak and the Cubans are appreciated and loved by a large segment of Italians).
Cuba, with all its problems, is a model for the less-developed world, with quality-of-life indicators superior to most American-supported countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and even some of the larger states like India or Russia. And I’d also suggest that the residents of a typical poor neighborhood in a larger American city (Detroit, New Orleans, D.C., Cleveland, and others) would gladly trade their standards of living and healthcare with Cubans without thinking twice about it. Yet Leftists in the U.S. rather than showing solidarity for Havana, are undermining it and ignoring so many of its accomplishments.
Oh, and they know how to rebuild from a hurricane too.
Is Cuba a Repressive State?
The key point in the New Politics and other Leftists support of the July 11th protests is that it was an organic and internal expression of displeasure with the regime. And on this point, there is no doubt that a number of Cubans surely had and continue to have grievances with the government in Havana. There is no place in the world that does not have people who are unhappy or angry. Cuba is a very poor country which has taken even more serious hits the past couple years, especially with the Trump sanctions and the huge loss of tourism money during COVID. Any state would have serious problems weathering such crises, yet the Cubans have been living under such duress for decades now and made impressive progress nonetheless.
Anecdotally, I spend a couple weeks in Cuba in 2017. I arrived the day after Trump reversed the Obama program for rapprochement and introduced new sanctions, and I heard a significant number of Cubans—drivers, vendors at the local market, people who stopped me to talk about baseball because I had a Yankees shirt on, and others—complain in strong terms about the situation there (and I make no claim to being an expert on Cuba after two weeks there, but I have studied Cuban-American relations throughout my academic career and have read extensively in the literature on Cuba and countless documents released by the NSC, CIA and other government agencies and have communicated with Cuban scholars and many Americans who’d been to the island with the Venceremos Brigade and other groups…..so I do know a little bit).
They told of not getting as much food as they had before, of paying high fees for licenses to drive or sell goods at the markets, of a small number of Cubans holding the majority of dollars, of neighbors snitching on them. Universally, they expressed their contempt for Trump but also spoke of wanting to visit New York, Miami, and even Houston. A few, while pointing out how safe Cuba was (a vital point that rarely gets mentioned in these condemnations from the Left), also used the term “security state” to describe the way the government ran the country. There are documented cases of opposition political leaders who have been harassed or detained or jailed. No one the Left really supports a system where people get in trouble for free expression, but political conditions in Cuba are not easily described and not always what they seem to be, especially when an immense embargo and Miami-sponsored terrorism is involved.
So, yes, of course, there are disaffected and angry Cubans, but the ease with which they complained also undermined the idea that Cuba is a totalitarian state where free speech is policed and forbidden. Especially when compared to other societies, like the U.S., say, Cubans experience political limits on par with most other places. I don’t know if there are Cubans who call the police on Black men who are bird-watching at local parks, but I do know that the Cuban authorities don’t kill people at anywhere near the rate that American cops do. Again, a few anecdotes which really were enlightening (and in the absence of official data, sometimes narrating experiences is useful). . . . .
When I arrived, I met up with an educator with whom I had an acquaintance in common. We walked to Old Havana and while on the way encountered large numbers of Cubans just living their lives. They were outside with their neighbors, drinking rum and listening to music. They were hawking cigars on the street. We walked past a busy park where younger men and women were showing off their cars (and Cuba’s restored cars are well-known and a sight to behold) and listening to music and dancing and drinking and he nudged me, smiled, and said “look at all that repression in Cuba.”
On the day I was leaving to go to the airport, the woman who was taking care of the apartment where I stayed (who came from a working class family with a daughter finishing medical school) was seeing us off when a fumigator sent by the city came to the door (yes, Havana sends out people to kill cockroaches) and she told him to come back because the guests were still there. My Spanish is really limited, but I could make out that he wanted to get the job done at that point but she admonished him to come back later, and he left.
But the incident that stood out the most, especially when compared the way police in the U.S. act, occurred one day as I walked along the Malecón. Two young men, probably late teenagers, were walking along with their shirts off. A cop, who was unarmed by the way, told them to put their shirts on, which of course was a ridiculous expression of power. But what shocked me was that the kids started mouthing off to the cop. I was frightened for them, assuming that the police would use coercion to force compliance. But they continued to argue back and forth for a minute and finally the cop made an expression with his hand as if he was writing, to imply that he’d issue a citation to the kids. So they finally began to walk away, but ever-so-slowly put their shirts on and looked back at the cops and made hand motions the whole time. It was the behavior of teenagers anywhere in the world, but it was also immediately clear to me that the precise same encounter in the U.S. between young Black kids and American cops would possibly, if not likely, end up with the young people arrested, pinned to the ground, or maybe even shot and killed.
The question of basic freedoms and liberties in a socialist state is not one that any Leftist should take lightly. Ideally, we’d all live in societies where we could express ourselves freely without any fear of penalty or retribution. Cuba has over the years taken a hard line against and even imprisoned some critics of the state. While I believe (see below) that these critics are wittingly or not working on behalf of the interests of the Miami mafia, it’s still unfortunate. But at the same time it’s important to understand that Cuba’s restrictions on civil liberties are, unfortunately, typical of any state in the world.
It’s also worth noting that on July 11th, amid the protests, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel went out into the streets of Havana and talked to some of the demonstrators, which is something Fidel Castro did countless times as well. Compare that to Donald Trump’s armed photo op at St. John’s last summer and the distinction could not be more obvious.
Moreover, when compared to repressive states in the so-called Third World, like Colombia or Guatemala or Haiti or El Salvador or Honduras or Brazil, Cuba genuinely stands out for the comparative freedom its citizens have–I always use the phrase “at ease” to describe the Cubans I met; they’re not constantly anxious or angry and living on Xanax or anti-depressants. But even here in the most wealthy state in the world, I as a professor in Texas have been told I am not allowed to even mention to my students that they should wear masks amid a massive deadly pandemic. And last summer we all saw how the forces of order attacked peaceful protestors, including medics and journalists and walls of moms, in the streets. So the idea that Cuba is somehow uniquely oppressive is simply wrong. We’re not talking about the Khmer Rouge here (and even the Miami mobsters, while generically condemning the government in Havana, don’t allege anything like you’d see in various U.S. client states), yet the people at New Politics and elsewhere offered little nuance in their condemnations.
Cuba’s not paradise, as we all know, but it’s hardly the repressive caricature that Miami or New Politics have put forth.
Who Benefits from Cuban Instability?
Obviously, Cuba’s main enemies are just north of the island. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Cuban oligarchs fled to the U.S., especially Miami, and basically set up a rump state there and began organizing and conducting terrorist activities against the government in Havana, the best-known of which was the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. In fact, in my research I’ve seen stories about various terror groups training in the Everglades and elsewhere that were so matter-of-fact that they read like an engagement announcement on the society page.
Despite that American-sponsored invasion and countless other attempts to subvert Cuba or assassinate Fidel Castro—well-documented in the Church Committee findings—socialism in Cuba survived, but at a huge price. The U.S. has placed the most brutal embargo in history on Cuba for six decades, causing perhaps $1 trillion in damages to the Cuban economy (U.S. estimates are much lower but still substantial), a massive price for a small island of about 11 million people.
Indeed, on June 23d, 2021 the U.N. voted on a Cuban motion to end the blockade, and it was supported by 184 countries while two, the U.S. and Israel, voted no. It was the 29th year that the U.N. voted to end the embargo.
And it was the 29th time the U.S. ignored the U.N. Helen Yaffe, a well-known scholar and author of We Are Cuba, an incisive look at the way that Cubans have dealt not only with the embargo but also the end of Soviet support in the 1980s and 1990s, has shown how the Cubans have introduced select market reforms (which are obvious to anyone visiting the island), while it maintained important social programs, created a sustainable agricultural system, developed globally-recognized biotech industries, created an important energy sector, and kept its gold-standard health system. But, as Yaffe wrote, “Cuba’s critics blame the government for the daily hardships Cubans face, dismissing US sanctions as an excuse. This is like blaming a person for not swimming well when they are chained to the ground. The US blockade of Cuba is real. It is the longest and most extensive system of unilateral sanctions applied against any country in modern history. It affects every aspect of Cuban life.”
The American Left doesn’t have to like everything the Cuban government does; it doesn’t have to expect every “victim” to be upright and beyond reproach (what I call “the Rosa Parks Syndrome”). It’s simply facile to suggest that the Cuban government should be condemned for having an imperfect and at times illiberal political system when its internal conditions are so often conditioned by outside forces it cannot control, and when we tolerate far worse elsewhere, including inside the U.S. New Politics has expectations and set standards for Cuba that no state, especially a smaller and poorer country under siege, could meet, and yet it condemns it for containing forces that would overthrow its entire social system.
American politicians, especially Cuban-Americans, have also had a huge role in suppressing Cuban development and keeping Cubans impoverished. Senators from Florida and New Jersey, as well as many representatives from the southern Florida area, have led the long-term American effort to tighten the embargo against Cuba in the hopes of ousting the socialist government there. Various foundations, working closely with the U.S. government, have worked with anti-Castro groups that have used propaganda and terrorism (most notably the bombing of a civilian airliner which killed all 76 people on board masterminded by Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile working with U.S. government agents and later given refuge in Florida) against the people of Cuba. Their goal is simple: to overthrow the Cuban government and return to power the thugs and gangsters and U.S. corporate allies who ran the country during the Batista years, when Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth became bigger than U.S. Steel.
In the most recent protests the U.S. media and many of these leftist anti-Cuban writers have emphasized the role that “marginalized youth” as well as rappers, rock musicians, artists, and journalists have played in the street actions of July 11th, spouting the slogal “Patria y Vida,” or “country and life,” a contrast to the revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte,” homeland or death.
But those groups are not simply organic pockets of protest but bear the imprimatur of Miami. In a recent article in The Intercept by Max Blumenthal (if that troubles you, just imagine it was written by “Joe Smith” and appeared in The Nation because the information is spot on and vital, and the article was reprinted in MR Online) he detailed how groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID, working with Department of State officials and other right-wing Latin American groups (like those that have supported the claims of U.S. client Juan Guaido’ in Venezuela) have sponsored the “San Isidro Movement” and other protestors who claim to be merely Cubans disaffected with the government but are actually doing Miami’s dirty work. Indeed, the San Isidro group even received an award from the “Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation,” a Republican-affiliated think tank that includes Nazi soldiers in World War II on its list of the victims of communism.
Again, the role of Miami in undermining, subverting, and terrorizing the people of Cuba is well established and can easily be researched. That doesn’t mean that Cubans went out to protest with the intention of aiding Miami, but any disaffection in Cuba is generally engineered and absolutely and inevitably exploited by Calle 8.
What’s Your End Game?
Finally, I think the crucial question, perhaps the one that overwhelmingly matters the most, is “what are you trying to do with your criticism?” To the editors of New Politics and to other self-described radicals who attacked the Cuban response to the protests of July 11th and supported the people in the streets (and, by the way, it’s useful to note that the “massive” protests described by many of these critics involved perhaps 500-1000 people in about 8 cities) I would ask “what’s your end game?”
What will Left criticism of Cuba accomplish? How will it benefit the people in the streets of Cuba protesting? Where’s your solidarity?
Díaz-Canel isn’t going to read New Politics and say “well, the U.S. Left is critical of me……I better change course,” nor should he. The underdeveloped world will continue to remember the solidarity, the spirit of Tri-Continentalism, that Cuba has displayed over the past sixty years. Indeed, the day after the protests, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador did not support the demonstrators but instead said “the truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba as the majority of countries in the world are asking. . . . That would be a truly humanitarian gesture. No country in the world should be fenced in, blockaded.”
What will the so-called left attack on Cuba mean? People on the Left in the U.S. and Europe are pretty well established in their support or opposition to the Cuban government. The response to the July 11th protests fell along traditional lines, with many on the Left supporting the Cuban government while others, especially Trotskyists like you can find at New Politics and elsewhere, supporting the protests. The impact on the Left of these critics was negligible if there was any at all.
Ah, but what did it mean in Miami? New Politics and other Leftists who attacked the Cuban government due to the protests served Miami’s interests. Let’s not go overboard here and suggest that Miami needed help from insignificant Left publications, but the reality is that any time a U.S. “radical” criticizes Cuba or any other socialist or non-Capitalist country it serves the interests of the Empire. Miami Cubans can, and have, said that “even American radicals” know that Cuba’s government is a dictatorship. They can call for armed intervention against Havana and invoke Americans who have criticized the government. They can advocate for even more sanctions and an even harsher embargo because the U.S. media has featured alleged Leftists who have supported the protests.
The U.S. has no foreign power attacking its sovereignty or clamping it down with the biggest embargo in history or meddling with domestic groups to serve its own interests (indeed, look at how incensed and often irrational Americans became at the RUSSIA! story), so Americans have no sense of what it’s like to be under 24/7/365 siege. Under such conditions in Cuba, any demonstration is a gift to Miami and any support shown for those protestors is a blow to the Cubans. The events of July 11th, which were limited in scope and then enlarged by the U.S. media, have been already used by the Empire and its apologists against Havana and they will continue to be invoked to justify intervening against and eliminating socialism there.
The U.S. Left is not big enough or important enough to have a huge role in American policy toward Cuba—if it was, the embargo would be spoken of in the past tense—but it is adds another piece to the Miami attack on Cuba and when it serves the interest of empire, as Farber, Post, Smith and others have done, it will be used by the ruling class media.
And finally we should remind ourselves and our comrades on the Left, especially those who are so critical of socialist states, as Vijay Prashad did in a recent discussion over the work of David Harvey, that “you live on the other side of imperialism.” There are plenty of governments in the world that are both repressive and are victims of the U.S. empire. One need not support the regimes in Beijing or Damascus or anywhere else to oppose the empire, but in the case of Havana, defending the benefits of its revolution and its global solidarity isn’t a hard call. And in any event, no matter where, the U.S. Left must take an unconditional stand against the Empire. The Left needs to give anti-imperialism equal billing to class solidarity at home. They’re symbiotic and you can’t demand fundamental change inside the U.S. and simultaneously defend meddling in Cuba.
If I were to give the Left 100 reasons to support Cuba, numbers 1-100 would be simply “End the Embargo.” Publicly undermining Havana doesn’t help the Cuban people, as anyone on the Left who has called for an end to sanctions against Venezuela or Iran or other places in the U.S. crosshairs already knows. For sixty years, the U.S. goal has been to destroy the chance for socialism in Cuba to develop and mature, and it has failed for sixty years, but at a great cost to the Cuban people. The American aggression continues unabated and with the help of New Politics and others on the Left helping with the heavy lifting.
Inside the U.S., most people on the Left support African Americans who are on the receiving end of police violence and kept under siege by a racist state without reservations. Most people on the Left support a women’s right to an abortion without conditions. Most people on the Left support the right of working people (cops aren’t proles) to organize unions and strike without any hesitation. Most people on the Left unwaveringly support the right of Palestinians to self-determination regardless of the deeds of the P.A. It’s easy to claim neutrality, but at some point you have to declare whether you’re a union man or woman, or a thug for J.H Blair.
It’s one of the most fundamental questions the Left can ask and answer—which side are you on? New Politics, wittingly or not, has chose Miami.
We recently had a great, lengthy discussion with Noam Chomsky about the 1960s radicalism, the New Left, The Black Panthers, SDS, the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, Student protests, feminism, “woke” politics, and much more. We also provided some edited clips of his interviews on our YouTube channel to highlight some of the more intriguing parts of the discussion.
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As we’ve seen with right-wing Texans, when they’re caught doing something despicable (as in their handling of COVID and the recent power grid failure), they double down.
And so it is with Collin College, as President Neil Matkin, a right-wing ideologue himself who fired Jones and Heaslip simply for questioning the schools COVID reopening policies and being active members of the Texas Faculty Association Union (and he wasn’t cryptic about it, making it clear publicly that the reason for their termination was clearly retaliatory) has now fired another professor, Lora Burnett.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, in the context of the Jones and Heaslip firings: “To muddy the whole episode up a bit more, another professor at Collin, Lora Burnett, has been put on notice that her job is in jeopardy because, during the Vice-Presidential debates she put out a tweet basically calling Mike Pence demonic. She received the now-to-be-expected online attacks and threats, and the school essentially joined in, condemning her words and not defending her right to have her own opinions. Burnett’s Tweet, Matkin said, was “hateful, vile, and ill-considered.” Like unionization, free speech is in Collin College’s crosshairs too.”
“The fact that you are no longer paid and your maniacal, obscene rhetoric no longer supported with Collin County taxpayer dollars is a win! A BIG WIN!”
Burnett then pointed out that she was still employed, to which Leach responded with a gif of a ticking clock
After Burnett informed Leach that she’s still employed, he responded with a gif of a ticking clock.
Even though Leach had outed himself as a conspirator with Matkin to fire a professor because of her tweets–a First Amendment exercise of free speech–Matkin hasn’t backed now and has now fired Burnet.
This situation isn’t just critical to three professors who have lost their jobs–meaning they’ve lost their paychecks and insurance–but to all of us, whether in education or not.
A situation as outrageous as this really deserves a national show of support to the 3 women who have been fired, whether they’re well-known academics from the East Coast or “just” professors at a community college outside Dallas.
If these attacks on higher education, free speech, and unions continue, then we’re all at risk and any one of us could be next.
Please share this story and do what you can to help.
To start, you can send a message to the Collin College Board of Trustees, click here
Among the many utterly ridiculous claims made by the Texas GOP and “energy” industry, is that they couldn’t have foreseen a “Black Swan” event like the winter storms in Texas (because the 2011 Super Bowl Storm, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/05/us/05storm.html, was so long ago) and it would have been too expensive to weatherize the infrastructure–natural gas, coal, nuclear, and oil (because wind, the scapegoat for Texas politicos right now makes up barely 10 percent of the power grid and wind turbines can work perfectly fine in cold weather, as in Antarctica and Alaska).
So below is some data on just how much the major energy companies in Texas raked in. I guess when you’re making $9-12 billion a year, you can’t afford to plan for a rain, or snowy, day. Maybe a GoFundMe page is in order?
NRG Energy annual/quarterly revenue history and growth rate from 2006 to 2020. Revenue can be defined as the amount of money a company receives from its customers in exchange for the sales of goods or services. Revenue is the top line item on an income statement from which all costs and expenses are subtracted to arrive at net income.
NRG Energy revenue for the quarter ending September 30, 2020 was $2.809B, a 6.24% decline year-over-year.
NRG Energy revenue for the twelve months ending September 30, 2020 was $9.261B, a 3.71% decline year-over-year.
NRG Energy annual revenue for 2019 was $9.821B, a 3.62% increase from 2018.
NRG Energy annual revenue for 2018 was $9.478B, a 4.45% increase from 2017.
NRG Energy annual revenue for 2017 was $9.074B, a 1.78% increase from 2016. ****************************
CenterPoint Energy annual/quarterly revenue history and growth rate from 2006 to 2020. Revenue can be defined as the amount of money a company receives from its customers in exchange for the sales of goods or services. Revenue is the top line item on an income statement from which all costs and expenses are subtracted to arrive at net income.
CenterPoint Energy revenue for the quarter ending September 30, 2020 was $1.622B, a 2.17% decline year-over-year.
CenterPoint Energy revenue for the twelve months ending September 30, 2020 was $12.120B, a 41.24% increase year-over-year.
CenterPoint Energy annual revenue for 2019 was $12.301B, a 16.17% increase from 2018.
CenterPoint Energy annual revenue for 2018 was $10.589B, a 10.14% increase from 2017.
CenterPoint Energy annual revenue for 2017 was $9.614B, a 27.71% increase from 2016. *******************