Sunday, 11 July 2021 22:00

Jonathan Chait meets Michael Kazin

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Jonathan Chait joins Michael Kazin in publishing another non sequitur hit-piece on the JFK presidency in the mainstream media, so Jim DiEugenio, once again, continues his yeoman's work of setting the record straight by sharing the undisputable facts of the JFK presidency and exposing the shoddy research and poor analysis of the mainstream media.


Almost any notice in the media about John F. Kennedy will supply an excuse for someone in the MSM to write a derogatory article about him. As we have seen, Michael Kazin used the occasion of a recent book about Kennedy to do a hit piece on him in The New York Review of Books. (Click here for details) Recently, a panel of scholars for C-SPAN did a poll ranking past presidents, including Donald Trump. Journalist Jonathan Chait didn’t like it. Why? Because Kennedy ended up in eighth place. Chait thinks this was unwarranted. Therefore, New York Magazine let him do a Kazin: that is a hit job on the slain president. (June 30, 2021)

What is immediately noticeable about these rants is this: None of the writers knows very much about Kennedy or his presidency. But they pretend they do. For instance, Chait writes that Kennedy made some promises on civil rights in his presidential campaign, but abandoned them when he saw this would offend southern conservatives. The thinking being that it would stop the passage of his other domestic programs.

As I have explained before, this is a liberal orthodoxy that has a serious problem with it. It isn’t true. This author spent months studying the issue for a four-part series about the Kennedys and civil rights. (Click here for that series)

Kennedy did not abandon civil rights at all. He was advised by his specialist on the issue, Harris Wofford, that it would be very difficult to pass an omnibus civil rights bill in his first year and probably even in his second year. After all, there had been nine different attempts to pass such a bill since 1917 and they all failed. (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, p. 39) Wofford therefore advised Kennedy to issue executive orders and also to rely on the court system, through the Attorney General, to further the cause. The hope being that this would create a furor over the issue that would tilt the balance in the House and Senate. That would then make it possible to pass such a bill.

That is what Kennedy did; and that is what happened. Anyone can read about this in more than one book (e.g. Wofford’s Of Kennedys and Kings, or Irving Bernstein’s Promises Kept). (Bernstein, pp. 40–41, 48–50)

To list all the things that Kennedy did for civil rights in just his first year illustrates the utter fallacy of what Chait is trying to sell. Right out of the chute, JFK and his brother intervened in the New Orleans school segregation court case, something that President Eisenhower had avoided. (Jack Bass, Unlikely Heroes, p. 122) Eisenhower’s failure to act allowed the state legislature to pass laws attempting to curtail and avoid the court’s decision to implement Brown v Board. When Bobby Kennedy got the news about this scheming he replied, “We’ll have to do whatever is necessary.” (Bass, p. 131)

The Kennedy administration did something that the Eisenhower administration would never have dreamed of doing. The Attorney General filed charges against the state Secretary of Education, Shelby Jackson. The idea was to stop the governor’s attempt to cut off funding for integrated schools. (Bass, p. 135) When a trial date was set, Jackson backed off and said he would not interfere. This episode began in February of 1961, a month after Kennedy’s inauguration.

A similar case occurred in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Due to scheming by the governor and legislature, Prince Edward County had no schools to attend. Again, Eisenhower said he could not do anything about it. Shockingly, he even said states were not required to maintain a school system and, therefore, the president was “powerless to take any action.” (Brian Lee, Ph. D. thesis, A Matter of National Concern, p. 50)

Again, the Kennedys reversed Eisenhower’s course. The president now began to remake the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals governing Virginia and nearby states. (Lee, p. 6) But the Kennedys also began doing two things that were, again, unprecedented. First, they joined the NAACP lawsuit as a plaintiff, not a friend of the court. Secondly, realizing the court reworking would take time, they appointed family friend William Vanden Heuvel to raise a large amount of money. The idea was to build, from scratch, a free school system to educate the African American students, so they would not fall further behind. (Lee, pp. 145–50)

Did Chait miss all of this? Well, no surprise, since he also missed those two executive orders that Kennedy signed for affirmative action. The first was written in his first year, which again, no president had ever done before. (Bernstein, p. 56) Finally, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy made it a point to speak at the University of Georgia Law School. He spent half the address talking about civil rights. He said he would enforce the Brown v. Board decision. As historian Carl Brauer wrote, this was the first time anyone could recall an Attorney General speaking out on the issue in the South. (Carl Brauer, John F Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction, p. 95)

That was in May of 1961. Again, we are to assume that Chait missed all of this, which is weird, since it was all unprecedented in the field. But that was just the beginning of a crescendo that led to the submission of Kennedy’s omnibus civil rights bill in February of 1963. (For the rest of the story, click here)

Chait leads off his article by saying that Kennedy was elected due to his youth and his campaigning about the missile gap. He leaves out the fact that there was only a four-year difference in age between himself and his opponent Richard Nixon. Considering his second point, in Kennedy’s acceptance speech in Los Angles at the Democratic convention, there was no mention of a missile gap. He talked about things like separation of church and state, racial discrimination, the plight of the poor, and said this was no time to try and uphold a status quo that was not working. (Click here for the address) At a famous speech in September, which he gave before the Liberal Party in New York, again one will find no mention of a missile gap. But one will find the following: Kennedy tried to define what he thought the word liberal meant in a political sense, as opposed to how the Republicans defined it:

But if by a Liberal, they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties—someone who believes that we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if this is what they mean by a Liberal, then I’m proud to say that I’m a Liberal.

Kennedy went on to say that he also believed “…in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and full responsibilities.” He continued by saying that when government “has a job to do, I believe it should do it.” This was then exemplified by his above actions in his first year on the civil rights issue, which, as I showed, were starkly different than Eisenhower’s. (For the whole speech click here)

One of the nuttiest things that Chait writes is that Kennedy was a man out of his time period, because he thought there were no great problems to solve, no great dragons to slay, and no great compromises to be made. That Chait could borrow that comment from one of the worst biographers of Kennedy, the late Richard Reeves, tells you just what his game is, because Kennedy says just the opposite in both of these speeches. A constant refrain is his haranguing the GOP for not facing up to the problems as he perceives them: of the urban poor, of dispossessed farmers, of creating an imaginative foreign policy. And he clearly implies that a party of Coolidge, Hoover, and Taft simply could not really do anything about these dilemmas. He contrasted that with people like FDR, who chose to act in a time of crisis. And he compared the 1960 election to that of 1932. In other words, the Democrats could do something and would use government to solve problems.

Chait tries to define Kennedy’s foreign policy by using the Bay of Pigs as an example. He then says, in regards to the Missile Crisis, that the president bungled his way into a nuclear showdown over Cuba. I hate to confront Mr. Chait with the facts, but I must. It was the Russians who placed a first strike capability in Cuba. This featured all three arms of the nuclear triad: long and medium range missiles, bombers, and submarines. In addition, they had 45,000 troops on the island and had also given Fidel Castro tactical atomic weapons. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, second edition, p. 66) These would have annihilated any large invading force. This was all done in secret, knowing that Kennedy had insisted there be no offensive weapons in Cuba. And when, due to U2 photography, Kennedy inquired about them, the Soviet foreign minister lied to him about their presence. (Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 169) When it came time to confront the situation, Kennedy chose the least provocative action: no invasion, no air strikes, but a blockade. Choosing that option gave each side time to resolve the crisis peacefully. Anyone can read the transcripts of these taped conversations. Clearly, Kennedy was keeping the hawks at bay almost throughout. For a good example, read the record of his meeting with the Joint Chiefs, especially note their derisive comments about the president after he leaves the room. (May and Zelikow, pp. 173–88)

As we can see, Chait’s article, like Kazin’s, is not factually based. His real point is to try and reverse the concept that somehow there was a step down in class and achievement from Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson. For instance, he writes that two programs that Kennedy was trying to get passed, but could not, were federal aid to education and health care for the elderly. As Irving Bernstein has written, Kennedy did get federal aid to education through the senate in October of 1963. (Bernstein, p. 241) Kennedy failed to get a Medicare bill through in 1962, but what Chait leaves out is that Kennedy was bringing it back for consideration through powerful congressman Wilbur Mills in 1963. And on the morning of November 22, 1963, Kennedy’s congressional liaison, Larry O’Brien wrote that “with Mill’s objections met, the passage of Medicare was assured.” (Bernstein, p. 258) In other words, Kennedy had set the table for Johnson on these two bills.

This meme is continued when Chait lists the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the War on Poverty as Johnson’s achievements, giving no credit to Kennedy or anyone else. As I have mentioned several times, the idea that Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed is a myth supported by establishment figures like Robert Caro. Clay Risen, who wrote a book about the passage of the act, has shown why it is a myth. (Click here for details)

President Johnson told Martin Luther King that he could not get the Voting Rights Act passed on his own. The only way he could so was if King did something to give him the torque to implement it. King did so by staging the Selma demonstration, which he was already arranging before Johnson told him this. (Louis Menand, “The Color of Law”, The New Yorker, 7/1/2013)

The War on Poverty began after Kennedy read Dwight MacDonald’s review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America. (Thurston Clarke, JFK’s Last Hundred Days, pp. 242–43) In June of 1963, JFK was already thinking past the Civil Rights Act he had submitted to congress. So he called in his chief economic advisor, Walter Heller, and they began to formulate a plan to counteract pockets of poverty. After Kennedy was assassinated, Heller told Johnson about this plan he and Kennedy had formulated. In other words, the War on Poverty was not Johnson’s concept. It was Kennedy’s. In his jihad to inflate LBJ and downgrade Kennedy, this is how anti-historical Chait becomes.

If one can comprehend it, Chait even tries to elevate LBJ at Kennedy’s expense over what became Johnson’s disaster in Indochina. With all we know about Vietnam today, I would have thought no one would even think of doing this. But one should never underestimate the stubbornness and perversity of the MSM. Chait begins by saying that it is an unproven assumption that Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam. That worn out standby is not sustainable today. With all the information that the Assassination Records Review Board declassified, combined with the work of writers like Gordon Goldstein, Howard Jones, David Kaiser, Jim Douglass, James Blight, and the revised version of John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam, there is little or no question about the issue: Kennedy was getting out of Vietnam. We have a veritable cornucopia of evidence to prove it. And he was going to enact that withdrawal around the 1964 election. (Click here for details)

Johnson was aware of this plan and within 48 hours of the assassination he started to reverse it. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, p. 310; also see Chapter 23 of the 2017 version of Newman’s JFK and Vietnam.) Contrary to Kennedy, Johnson’s concept was to work his escalation plan around the 1964 election. In other words, as he was saying things like he wished no wider war and he did not want to send American boys to die in a war that Asian boys should be fighting, he was arranging to do just that. This has been proven by too many scholars to belabor the point here. But to name just three: Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster, Fredrik Logevall’s Choosing War, and Edwin Moise’s Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War.

Chait now writes that Kennedy’s policies laid the groundwork for Johnson’s escalation; due to the calculation that no Democrat could lose a territory to communist expansion. I threw my arms up at this one. If Kennedy was withdrawing at the time of his death and Johnson stopped that withdrawal, planned on going to war in Indochina, effectively declared war on Vietnam, and then invaded the country with hundreds of thousands of combat troops—how did Kennedy lay the groundwork for that? In November of 1961, with NSAM 111, Kennedy drew the line: he refused to send combat troops to Indochina. He never crossed that line. There was not one more combat troop in Vietnam on the day he was killed than on the day he entered office. Johnson not only sent half a million combat troops there, he also initiated one of the largest American air wars ever devised, Rolling Thunder, to try to bomb North Vietnam into submission. Does any credible person think that Kennedy would have countenanced these things, let alone allowed them to happen?

This relates to Chait’s other point about the fear of “losing Vietnam.” Kennedy simply did not think that Vietnam was worth going to war over. Just like he did not want to commit combat troops to Laos, even though Eisenhower had advised him he might need to do so. (Newman, p. 9) Kennedy was a more sophisticated thinker about the Cold War than Johnson was. For him, Berlin was a flash point, since he was not going to let the Atlantic Alliance be challenged, but Vietnam was simply not worth the price. And this indicates how uninformed Chait is about JFK. Kennedy understood just how hopeless an imperial conflict would be in Vietnam. He comprehended this due to his relationship with diplomat Edmund Gullion in Saigon way back in the early fifties, where he saw firsthand the doomed French effort to recolonize the area. (Click here for details) He also understood the problem from his Ambassador to India, John K. Galbraith who wrote him a memo to counter the hawks who wanted him to intercede in 1961. (Click here for more)

Compare that to LBJ. Johnson actually said that, if he left Vietnam, he would be doing what Neville Chamberlain did at Munich with Hitler and Mussolini. He then compared losing Vietnam to losing China and that the former would be even worse than the latter. He concluded that reverie with the following:

Losing the Great Society was a terrible thought, but not so terrible as the thought of being responsible for America’s losing a war to the Communists. Nothing could possibly be worse than that. (Blight, p. 211)

Can anyone conceive of Kennedy saying such things? There is no evidence for it. In fact, as I noted in my review of John Newman’s revised version of JFK and Vietnam, Kennedy told many people that Vietnam was a hopeless struggle, which America could not win. Therefore, he was getting out. (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 183) What is so incredible about Chait’s abomination is that, at the end, he concludes that Kennedy’s rating in the poll is due to a lack of analysis. We have just seen what analysis does to Chait.

Make no mistake, Chait’s handiwork is not an accident. As Jeff Morley wrote in his recent e book about his lawsuit against the CIA, no one ever got ahead in the journalistic world trying to expose new facts about Kennedy’s assassination. Well, since 2013, the same figure applies to Kennedy’s presidency, especially in light of the fact that we now know what happened in Indochina as a result of his death. And since that switch in policy came so fast, perhaps—just perhaps—the two events were related. And if such was the case, how could the MSM have missed it with such completeness?

As noted at the start, I recently wrote about Michael Kazin’s similar hatchet job about Kennedy’s presidency, disguised as a review of Fredrik Logevall’s book JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century. Well, if one looks back to 2013, Kazin did the same in the pages of The New Republic. At that time, he was allegedly reviewing Thurston Clarke’s book JFK’s Last Hundred Days. (July 15, 2013) As was the case of Kazin with Logevall, it was a review that was not a review. It was a way to downgrade Kennedy and wonder out loud: Geez, why does anyone pay any attention to this guy at all? The title of the article was: “On the Fiftieth Anniversary of JFK’s Assassination Don’t Bother with the Tributes.”

As I have written before, the MSM drive to conceal who Kennedy really was has become as systematic and assiduous as the attempt to cover up the circumstances of his assassination. As noted above in regards to Vietnam, it’s pretty obvious as to why.

Mr. Chait meet Mr. Kazin. Future employment for both is secured.

Action suggested:

Contact at twitter: https://twitter.com/jonathanchait

The editor of New York Magazine is David Haskell, david.haskell@gmail.com

Last modified on Saturday, 17 July 2021 21:16
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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