I really hope the answer to the question posed by this article's title is no. Why? Because Street's latest exercise in fruitiness is nothing but a recycling of two previous columns he wrote. His current article, which was supposed to be a salute to the memory of Martin Luther King, is really no such thing. It is actually a cheapening of King’s memory, because Street chose to elevate King at the same time that he denigrates President Kennedy. But beyond that, the article is ironically titled, “Against False Conflation: JFK, MLK and the Triple Evils”, since Street himself is guilty of conflating one column he did in January on King with another he did in February on Kennedy. The latter was posted at Truthdig; the former at Counterpunch. What he does in his current effort at the latter site is largely a cut-and-paste job of the two articles. Which is what I mean about hoping he does not get paid for this stuff.
I demolished his February piece on Kennedy at length already. (See Paul Street Meets Jane Hamsher at Arlington for the ugly details) But what he does now is make believe that demolition did not happen, and he simply modifies it slightly to serve as the first part of his worthless essay. So if he is getting paid, it’s easy money.
When I heard of what he had done, I emailed Counterpunch and asked if I could reply on site. After four days I received no reply. Therefore, I will reply here again. And to place Street on warning: whenever I hear about more of his nonsensical writing on the subject, I will reply in the future. Especially since his scholarship is so bad that this is like shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, Kennedys and King may end up with a special section called “Street is a Dead End”.
As I stated, Street slightly modified the first part of his hatchet job on President Kennedy. He opens his article by aseerting that he does not pretend to know the full stories behind who killed Kennedy or King. But he cannot help but list the lone gunman option first. Anyone who has the slightest interest in the subject would howl with laughter at anyone who would proffer that option today. That Street leaves it open tells us a lot about the argument he wishes to make. For if he did admit that JFK was killed by a high-level plot, it would tend to undermine his nonsensical thesis.
This is especially true in light of the fact that so many of President Kennedy’s policies were altered and then reversed after his death. For example, there were no American combat troops in Vietnam on the day Kennedy was killed. By the end of 1965, not only were there 175,000 combat troops in theater, but also Rolling Thunder—the greatest air bombardment campaign in history—was operating over North Vietnam. We can make other comparisons to the same effect from the scholarly literature that Street refuses to consult. For example, by reading Richard Mahoney’s JFK: Ordeal in Africa, one can see that a very similar trend followed in Congo. By reading Lisa Pease’s essay about the giant conglomerate Freeport Sulphur, one can see the same trend line in Indonesia. (See JFK, Indonesia, CIA & Freeport Sulphur) By reading just a few pages from Donald Gibson’s masterful volume, Battling Wall Street, one can see that it occurred in the Dominican Republic as well. (See pages, 76-79) By reading Robert Rakove’s fine overview of Kennedy’s revolutionary foreign policy, one can see that the same thing happened in the Middle East, where Kennedy favored Gamel Abdel Nasser. After his death, Johnson and Nixon moved back to favoring Iran and Saudi Arabia, with disastrous results. (See Kennedy, Johnson and the Non Aligned World.) The story of Africa outside the Congo also followed a similar plot line. And the reader can see that by reading Philip Muehlenbeck’s Betting on the Africans.
What is remarkable about Street’s articles is that there is no evidence at all in any of them that he read any of this material. Consequently, in addition to the ignorance he shows on the subject, there is also a tinge of arrogance involved. Does he think that since he knows better, somehow he is above reading the latest scholarship on the subject? Well, that is one way that he can keep his screeds coming, isn’t it?
The other point that he implies with his opening is that the assassinations of the Sixties are not really linked in any way. Again, this is quite a difficult thesis to swallow. Lisa Pease and I wrote a 600-page book on that very subject called The Assassinations. There, with rather intricate and up-to-date evidence, we tried to show how the four major assassinations of the decade—President Kennedy, Malcolm X, King, Robert Kennedy—all shared similar characteristics in both their outlines and design, and in the cover-ups afterwards. We also offered a final essay in which we tried to show that it was the cumulative effect of those murders that brought us to the election of 1968: the coming of Richard Nixon and the rise of the hard right to power—a phenomenon that drastically altered the social and economic landscape of this country, and from which it may never recover. One only needs to look at what happened after Nixon left office: how Jerry Ford allowed Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to bring the Committee on the Present Danger into the White House and do battle with the CIA over their estimate of the Soviet Threat, an unprecedented event. The people they brought in—Paul Nitze, Paul Wolfowitz—thought as Rumsfeld and Cheney did: namely, that Henry Kissinger, Nixon, and Alexander Haig were too moderate. (See Jerry Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis.)
That remarkable, little noted occasion had two effects. First, it gave birth to the neoconservative movement, and its later cast of characters, e.g., Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle. Second, it was the final burial of Kennedy’s progressive, visionary foreign policy. And I do not just mean his attempt at détente with Cuba and the USSR. I also mean his attempt to mold a policy concerning the Third World which was not bound to Cold War ideology, but which was characterized instead by an effort to understand and ameliorate the problems of nations coming out of the debilitating state of European colonialism.
Indonesia and Congo offer the two most notable examples. And if Street had done a little bit of reading on the subject he would have known better. For as Susan Williams wrote in her study of the murder of Dag Hammarskjold, Harry Truman made a curious comment when he heard about the UN Secretary General’s death. He said, “Dag Hammarskjold was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice, I said ‘When they killed him.’.” (Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjold?, p. 232) Why on earth did Truman say this? We did not learn why until Australian scholar Greg Poulgrain published another book Street has never read. It is called The Incubus of Intervention. In examining how Kennedy’s Indonesian policy was opposed by Allen Dulles, the author talked to George Ivan Smith, a close friend and colleague of Hammarskjold’s at the United Nations. Smith revealed that Hammarskjold and Kennedy were secretly cooperating not just on the Congo, but on the problem of Dutch occupation of West Irian, which Indonesian leader Achmed Sukarno felt should be a part of Indonesia. Smith added that Kennedy had let former Democratic president Truman in on that cooperation. That is why Truman made the comment he did. (Poulgrain, pp. 77-78. For a fuller discussion of the Hammarskjold/Kennedy nexus, see Hammarskjold and Kennedy vs. The Power Elite)
What is so remarkable—in fact, admirable—about this revelation is this: Kennedy kept his pledge to Hammarskjold even after the UN Secretary General was killed! As anyone who reads Mahoney’s book, or Lisa Pease’s essay, or Poulgrain’s book will see, Kennedy was diligent throughout his abbreviated term on both fronts. He personally visited the United Nations on two occasions to ensure that the UN would not forget what Hammarskjold was doing in Congo after he died. And Kennedy allowed American troops into battle to stop the secession of the Katanga province, a move sponsored by Belgium and, to a lesser extent, by England. (See Desperate Measures in the Congo)
The same was true of Indonesia. Kennedy stuck by Sukarno until the end. He engineered the ceding of West Irian to Indonesia under the negotiated guidance of his brother Robert. President Kennedy had also arranged a state visit to Jakarta in 1964, in part to stave off the confrontation between Sukarno and the United Kingdom over the creation of the Malaysia federation. When Sukarno wanted to expel foreign corporations, Kennedy negotiated new agreements with them so that Indonesia would benefit from the profit split, which JFK requested be 60/40 in Indonesia’s favor. After Sukarno was overthrown, that split was 90/10 in favor of the companies. (Poulgrain, p. 242) Without Kennedy, Sukarno lasted less than two years. President Johnson now backed Malaysia in the dispute with Sukarno, and consequently, Sukarno withdrew from the United Nations. As Lisa Pease notes in her above-referenced article, President Johnson altered Kennedy’s policy towards Sukarno very quickly, and within 12 months the CIA started to plot his overthrow.
These are just two examples. But they typify President Kennedy’s overall foreign policy. If Street can show me another president since him who did these kinds of things in two separate instances—that is, attempt to foster a revolutionary, nationalist government against European imperialists, and work with the United Nations to do so—I would very much like to hear about them.
Ignoring the above two cases, Street brings up Vietnam in relation to the issue of Kennedy and the Third World. Here Street says that there has been since 1991 an ongoing debate on whether Kennedy was going to withdraw. He states that the debate was between Oliver Stone and Jamie Galbraith on one side, and Noam Chomsky and Rick Perlstein on the other. He then claims that, somehow, the latter two writers have won that debate. First off, Chomsky has not done any new work on Vietnam since before 1991. But secondly, other authors have done new and important work that is based on new material. Real historians like Howard Jones, David Welch and David Kaiser have uncovered new evidence to make the original argument, first offered by John Newman in 1992, even stronger. For Street to even bring up Perlstein shows just how threadbare he is. For Perlstein did nothing but reiterate Chomsky’s dated, musty and unconvincing polemics. To note just one difference in the quality of scholarship: Welch offered up declassified tapes of Lyndon Johnson actually admitting that he knew Kennedy was withdrawing from Indochina and thus had to cover up the fact he was breaking with that policy. (Welch, Virtual JFK, pp. 304-14) I ask the reader, how much more proof does one need? Well, how about Assistant Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric revealing that his boss Robert McNamara told him that Kennedy had given him orders to wind down the war? (Welch, p. 371) Is Street, who was not there, going to say he knows better than Johnson and Gilpatric, who were in the room?
This relates to the overall comparison of King with the Kennedys. As anyone who studies American history understands, after the Civil War, the states of the former confederacy passed local and state laws which created the conditions of segregation throughout the southeast: from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean. No one wanted to challenge these laws out of fear of violent retribution from white terrorist groups, but also because of the political price that was going to be exacted. The most that any president did was Harry Truman, who decided to integrate the armed forces. Which really did not cost him much politically, since it was invisible stateside.
From the beginning, the Kennedys decided that they were going to take the issue on, no matter what the price. They decided they were going to use the Brown vs. Board decision as a legal basis to break down the structure of segregation. Kennedy announced this before he was elected. And he stated he was prepared to lose every southern state at the Democratic Convention because of that stand. (Harry Golden, Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, p. 95) Which, of course, completely contradicts Street’s dictum that the Kennedys were constricted on civil rights because of votes in the South.
But prior to that, during the debate over the 1957 civil rights act, Kennedy stressed the prime role of Title 3 in the bill. That clause allowed the Attorney General to enter into a state to enforce school desegregation. When Kennedy, in no uncertain terms, came out for Title 3, he began to lose support in the South. It got worse when he made a speech in Jackson, Mississippi—let me repeat: Jackson, Mississippi—where he reiterated that he supported the Brown vs. Board decision as the law of the land. (Golden, p. 95) Again, this is before he entered the White House.
It did not change once he was elected. Kennedy had his civil rights advisor Harris Wofford draft a long memorandum on how to strategically attack the segregation problem. Wofford advised that the president use a series of executive actions to forge a path and build momentum until it was possible to pass a bill over a filibuster in the Senate. (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, p. 47) To anyone who studies Kennedy’s presidency, it is common knowledge that this memorandum furnished the design of his plan to attack the bastions of southern racism.
His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, understood this out of the gate. To the Kennedys, civil rights were simply a matter of doing the right thing. As RFK said, “it was the thing that should be done.” (Robert Kennedy in his Own Words, edited by Edwin Guthman and Jeffrey Schulman, p. 105) The Attorney General announced this in public at his famous Law Day speech at the University of Georgia in May of 1961. In other words, three months after the inauguration, RFK went into the Deep South and said he was going to support Brown vs. Board in the courts. Does Street think this helped him get votes for his brother in the South?
Quite the contrary. But, as many have noted, what these pronouncements did was provide a catalyst for the civil rights movement. They finally had someone in the White House who was on their side. This sparked King and his allies to incite even larger displays of civil disobedience. As Bobby Kennedy noted later, the emerging images and films of Bull Connor’s actions to stamp out the Birmingham demonstration were the impetus that made his civil rights bill possible. JFK used to joke about it by calling it ‘Bull Connor’s Bill’. (Guthman and Schulman, p. 171) It was that, plus Kennedy’s showdown with Governor Wallace at the University of Alabama, that provoked Bobby Kennedy to suggest his brother go on national television and make his famous speech about civil rights. That powerful oration was then followed by the Kennedys helping King arrange the March on Washington in August of 1963. (Bernstein, pp. 103; 114-15) This provided the ballast to start Kennedy’s civil rights bill on its path through Congress.
One of the most bizarre things Street says in his article is that, somehow, the Kennedys were responsible for things like the killing of civil rights workers in the South. In his mad crusade, is he trying to blame the Kennedys for the rise of the Klan? That began about ninety years before Kennedy entered the White House. Or is Bobby Kennedy to be blamed for J. Edgar Hoover’s lack of rigor in counteracting white racists? As Burke Marshall, who was in charge of the civil rights division at Justice, once noted, it was Bobby Kennedy who had to push Hoover and the FBI into investigating civil rights matters. (Guthman and Schulman, p. 139)
In his zealous jihad, Street can do what he wants to rewrite history and rearrange the make-up of government bodies. He can blame the whole Reconstruction Era on President Kennedy. He can ignore what Hoover failed to do. He can discount all the previous Attorney Generals before RFK. He can erase the record of all the presidents from Lincoln to Kennedy who did next to nothing on civil rights issues. He can cast a blind eye to the virtual inaction of President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon in the six years after Brown vs. Board. But there is one simple truth that no one can deny: the Kennedys did more for civil rights in three years than all the previous 18 presidents did in nearly a century. That is an ineradicable fact.
And Street’s hero, Martin Luther King, knew it. This is why, in March of 1968, King told his advisors that he would be behind Bobby Kennedy in the election. At this time, both McCarthy and President Johnson were in the race, but RFK had not formally declared. King preferred Bobby Kennedy over McCarthy for the specific reason that Kennedy had a stronger record on civil rights than the Minnesota senator. And he knew Kennedy would withdraw from Vietnam. (Martin Luther King, Jr: The FBI File, edited by Michael Friedly and David Gallen, p. 572)
But further, as Arthur Schlesinger revealed through Marian Wright, it was Bobby Kennedy who gave King the idea for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. He suggested it to her, and then she relayed it to King. (Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, pp. 911-12) So much for Street’s charge that the Kennedys never wanted to redistribute wealth. King very much liked what RFK offered as a candidate. As he told his inner circle, Bobby Kennedy could become an outstanding president and there was no question that King was going to formally endorse him. (Schlesinger, p. 912) But I am sure Street would say: Well, King was wrong about that one. Even though he was there.
The judging of presidents is a comparative exercise. There is no absolute standard to propose. Mother Theresa, or an equivalent, would not have been a viable candidate. With the declassification process we have had—and which Street is apparently oblivious to—presidents like Johnson and Nixon have looked worse, Nixon much worse. But the more documents we get on JFK, the better his administration appears. Street does not read them, so he does not know. But whether he denies it or not, the bottom line is simple: King was right.
It’s always nice to be able to hoist a pretentious gasbag on his own petard.