On April 6, 2019 Truthdig joined the likes of Paul Street and Counterpunch in its disdain for scholarship on the subject of the career and presidency of John F. Kennedy. To say the least, that is not good company to keep in this regard. (see, for instance, Alec Cockburn Lives: Matt Stevenson, JFK and CounterPunch, and Paul Street Meets Jane Hamsher at Arlington) What makes it even worse is that the writer of this particular article, Major Danny Sjursen, was a teacher at West Point in American History. In that regard, his article is about as searching and definitive as something from an MSM darling like Robert Dallek. The problem is, Truthdig is not supposed to be part of the MSM.
Sjursen’s article is part of a multi-part series about American History. The title of this installment is “JFK’s Cold War Chains”. So right off the bat, Sjursen is somehow going to convey to the reader that President Kennedy was no different than say Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, or Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson in his foreign policy vision.
Almost immediately Sjursen hits the note that the MSM usually does: Kennedy was really all flash and charisma and achieved very little of substance in his relatively brief presidency. And the author says this is true about both his foreign and domestic policy. Like many others, he states that Kennedy hedged on civil rights. I don’t see how beginning a program the night of one’s inauguration counts as hedging.
On the evening of his inauguration, Kennedy called Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon. He was upset because during that day’s parade of the Coast Guard, he did not see any black faces. He wanted to know why. Were there no African American cadets at the Coast Guard academy? If not, why not? (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, p. 52) Two days later, the Coast Guard began an all-out effort to seek out and sign up African American students. A year later they admitted a black student. By 1963 they made it a point to interview 561 African American candidates. (Harry Golden, Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, p. 114)
This was just the start. At his first cabinet meeting Kennedy brought this incident up and said he wanted figures from each department on the racial minorities they had in their employ and where they ranked on the pay scale. When he got the results, he was not pleased. He wanted everyone to make a conscious effort to remedy the situation and he also requested regular reports on the matter. Kennedy also assigned a civil rights officer to manage the hiring program and to hear complaints for each department. He then requested that the Civil Service Commission begin a recruiting program that would target historically black colleges and universities for candidates. (Carl Brauer, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction, pp. 72, 84) Thus began the program we now call affirmative action. Kennedy issued two executive orders on that subject. The first one was Executive Order 10925 in March of 1961, three months after his inauguration.
Kennedy’s civil rights program extended into the field of federal contracting in a way that was much more systematic and complete than any president since Franklin Roosevelt. (Golden, p. 61) In fact, it went so far as to have an impact on admissions of African American students to private colleges in the South. As Melissa Kean noted in her book on the subject, Kennedy tied federal research grants and contracts to admissions policies of private southern universities. This forced open the doors of large universities like Duke and Tulane to African American students. (Kean, Desegregating Private Higher Education in the South, p. 237)
I should not have to inform anyone, certainly not Major Sjursen, about how this all ended up at the University of Mississippi and then the University of Alabama. The president had to call in federal marshals and the military in order to escort African American students past the governors of each state. In both cases, the administration had helped to attain court orders that, respectively Governors Ross Barnett and George Wallace, had resisted. That resistance necessitated the massing of federal power in order to gain the entry of African American students to those public universities.
After the last confrontation, where Kennedy faced off against Governor Wallace, he went on national television to make the most eloquent and powerful public address on civil rights since Abraham Lincoln. Anyone can watch that speech, since it is on YouTube. By this time, the summer of 1963, Kennedy had already submitted a civil rights bill to Congress. He had not done so previously since he knew it would be filibustered, as all other prior bills on the subject had been. Kennedy’s bill took one year to pass. And he had to mount an unprecedented month-long personal lobbying campaign to launch it. (Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century, p. 63) When one looks at Kennedy’s level of achievement in just this one domestic field and locates and lists his accomplishments, it is clear that he did more for civil rights in three years than FDR, Truman and Eisenhower did in nearly three decades (see chart at end).
The reason for this is that the Kennedy administration was the first to state that it would enforce the Brown vs. Board decision of 1954. The Eisenhower administration resisted enacting every recommendation sent to it by the senate’s 1957 Civil Rights Commission. (Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, p. 21) As Michael Beschloss has written, Eisenhower actually tried to persuade Earl Warren not to vote in favor of the plaintiffs in that case.
Kennedy endorsed that decision when he was a senator. In fact, he did so twice in public. The first time was in New York City in 1956. (New York Times, 2/8/56, p. 1) The second time he did so was in 1957, in of all places, Jackson, Mississippi. (Golden, p. 95) Attorney General Robert Kennedy then went to the University of Georgia Law Day in 1961. He spent almost half of his speech addressing the issue: namely that he would enforce Brown vs Board. Again, this speech is easily available online and Sjursen could have linked to it in his article. So it would logically follow that in 1961, the Kennedy administration indicted the Secretary of Education in Louisiana for disobeying court orders to integrate public schools. (Jack Bass, Unlikely Heroes, p. 135)
Once one properly lists and credits this information, its easy to see that the Kennedy administration was intent on ripping down Jim Crow in the South even if it meant losing what had been a previous Democratic Party political bastion. (Golden, p. 98) Kennedy’s approval rating in the South had plummeted from 60 to 33% by the summer of 1963. He was losing votes for his other programs because of his stand on civil rights. But as he told Luther Hodges, “There comes a time when a man has to take a stand….” (Brauer, pp. 247, 263-64)
In addition to that, Kennedy signed legislation that allowed federal employees to form unions. (Executive Order 10988 , January 17, 1962) This was quite important, since it began the entire public employee union sector movement, today one of the strongest areas of much diminished labor power. In March of that same year, Kennedy signed the Manpower Development and Training Act aimed at alleviating African American unemployment. (Bernstein, pp. 186-87)
On April 11, 1962 Kennedy called a press conference and made perhaps the most violent rhetorical attack against a big business monopoly since Roosevelt. Thus began his famous 72-hour war against the steel companies. Kennedy had brokered a deal between the unions and the large companies to head off a strike and an inflationary spiral in the economy. The steel companies broke the deal. Robert Kennedy followed the speech by opening a grand jury probe into monopoly practices of collusion and price fixing. He then sent the FBI to make evening visits to serve subpoenas on steel executives. No less than John M. Blair called this episode “the most dramatic confrontation in history between a President and corporate management.” (Donald Gibson, Battling Wall Street, p. 9) When it was over, the steel companies rescinded their price increases.
Three months later, Kennedy tried to pass a Medicare bill. It was defeated in Congress. But on the day of his assassination, he was working with Congressman Wilbur Mills to bring the bill back for another vote. (Bernstein, pp. 256-58) In October of 1963, Kennedy’s federal aid to education bill was passed. This was the first such bill of its kind. (Bernstein, pp. 225-230)
At the time of his assassination, due to the influence of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, Kennedy was working on an overall plan to attack urban poverty. As careful scholars have pointed out, the War on Poverty was not originated by Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy had been working on such a program with the chairman of his Council on Economic Advisors, Walter Heller, for months before his murder. (Edward Schmitt, The President of the Other America, pp. 92, 96) As more than one commentator has written, what Johnson did with the Kennedy brothers’ draft of that plan was quite questionable. (Wofford, p. 286 ff.) To cite just one example, LBJ retired the man—David Hackett—who the Kennedys had placed in charge of the program.
I could go on with the domestic side, pointing to Kennedy’s almost immediate raising of the minimum wage, his concern for lengthening unemployment benefits, his establishment of a Women’s Bureau, the comments by labor leaders that they just about “lived in the White House”, etc., etc. In the face of all this, for Sjursen to write that Kennedy’s administration contained “so few tangible accomplishments” or did nothing for unemployed African Americans, this simply will not stand up to a full review of the record.
Sjursen’s discussion of Kennedy’s foreign policy is equally obtuse and problematic. He begins by saying that Kennedy fulfilled “his dream of being an ardent Cold Warrior.” He then writes that “Kennedy was little different than—and was perhaps more hawkish than—his predecessors and successors.”
In the light of modern scholarship, again, this will simply not stand scrutiny. Authors like Robert Rakove, Philip Muehlenbeck, Greg Poulgrain, and Richard Mahoney—all of whom Sjursen ignores—have dug into the archival record on this specific subject. They have shown, with specific examples and reams of data, that Kennedy forged his foreign policy in conscious opposition to Secretaries of State Dean Acheson, a Democrat and Republican John Foster Dulles.
This confrontation was not muted. It was direct. And it began in 1951, even before Kennedy got to the Senate, let alone the White House. His visit to Saigon in that year and his meeting with a previous acquaintance, State Department official Edmund Gullion, about the French effort to recolonize Vietnam, was the genesis for a six-year search to find a new formula for American foreign policy in the Third World. Congressman Kennedy was quite troubled with Gullion’s prediction that France had no real chance of winning its war against Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. Upon his return to Massachusetts, he began to make speeches and write letters to his constituents about the problems with America’s State Department in the Third World. In 1954, Senator Kennedy warned that
… no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, an enemy of the people which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.
In 1956, he made a speech for Adlai Stevenson in which he criticized both the Democratic and Republican parties for their failures to break out of Cold War orthodoxies in their thinking about nationalism in the Third World. He stated that this revolt in the Third World and America’s failure to understand it, “has reaped a bitter harvest today—and it is by rights and by necessity a major foreign policy campaign issue that has nothing to do with anti-Communism.” (Richard Mahoney, JFK: Ordeal in Africa, pp. 15-18) Stevenson’s office wired him a message asking him not to make any more foreign policy statements associated with his campaign.
My question then to Mr. Sjursen is: If you are too extreme for the liberal standard bearer of your party, how can you be “little different than” or even “more hawkish” than he is?
This was all in preparation for his career-defining speech of 1957. On July 2 of that year, Kennedy spoke from the floor of the Senate and made perhaps the most blistering attack on the Foster Dulles/Dwight Eisenhower Cold War shibboleths toward the Third World that any American politician had made in that decade. This was Kennedy’s all-out attack on the administration’s policy toward the horrible colonial war going on in Algeria at the time. He compared this mistake of quiet support for the spectacle of terror that this conflict had produced with the American support for the doomed French campaign to save its colonial empire in Indochina three years previously. He assaulted the White House for not being a true friend of its old ally. A true friend would have done everything to escort France to the negotiating table rather than continue a war it was not going to win and which was at the same time tearing apart the French home front. In light of those realities, he concluded by saying America’s goals should be to liberate Africa and to save France. (John F. Kennedy, The Strategy of Peace, pp. 66-80)
Again, this speech was assailed not just by the White House, but also by people in his own party like Stevenson and Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson. (Mahoney, p. 20) Of the over 130 newspaper editorials it provoked, about 2/3 were negative. (p. 21) A man who was “little different” than his peers would not have caused such a torrent of reaction to a foreign policy speech. To most objective observers, this evidence would indicate that Kennedy was clearly bucking the conventional wisdom as to what America should be doing in the Third World with regards to the issues of nationalism, colonialism and anti-communism. As biographer John T. Shaw later wrote about these speeches, what Kennedy did was to formulate an alternative foreign policy view toward the Cold War for the Democratic party. And this was his most significant achievement in the Senate. (John T. Shaw, JFK in the Senate, p. 110) But for Mr. Sjursen and Truthdig, this is all the dark side of the moon.
By not noting any of this, Sjursen does not then have to follow through on how Kennedy carried these policies into his presidency. A prime example would be in the Congo, where Kennedy pretty much reversed policy from what Eisenhower was doing there in just a matter of weeks. The man who Kennedy was going to back in that struggle, Patrice Lumumba, was hunted down and killed by firing squad three days before the new president was inaugurated. Eisenhower and Allen Dulles had issued an assassination order for Lumumba in the late summer of 1960. (John Newman, Countdown to Darkness, p. 236) After he was killed, the CIA kept the news of his death from President Kennedy until nearly one month after Lumumba was killed. But on February 2, not knowing he was dead, Kennedy had already revised the Eisenhower policy in Congo to favor Lumumba. (Mahoney, p. 65) In fact, this was the first foreign policy revision the new president had made. Some have even argued that the plotting against Lumumba was sped up to make sure he was killed before Kennedy was in the White House. (John Morton Blum, Years of Discord, p. 23)
How does all of the above fit into the paradigm that Sjursen draws in which the Cold War heightened under Kennedy and his vision had no room for nuances of freedom and liberty? Does anyone think that Eisenhower would have reacted to Lumumba’s death with the pained expression of grief that JFK did when he was alerted to that fact? Eisenhower was the president who ordered his assassination. (For an overview of this epochal conflict and how it undermines Sjursen and Truthdig, see Dodd and Dulles vs Kennedy in Africa)
One of the most bizarre statements in the long essay is that Kennedy was loved by and enamored of the military. The evidence against this is so abundant that it is hard to see how the author can really believe it. But by the end of the 1962 Missile Crisis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were openly derisive of JFK. They told him to his face that his decision to blockade Cuba instead of attacking the island over the missile installation was the equivalent of Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler at Munich. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, p. 57) They were also upset when he rejected the false flag scenarios outlined in their Operation Northwoods proposals, e.g., blowing up an American ship in Cuban waters. These were designed to create a pretext for an invasion of the island. He also writes that Kennedy deliberately chose the space race since it was a popular way to one-up the Russians. This ignores the fact that Kennedy thought it was too expensive and wanted a joint expedition to the moon with the Soviets. According to the book One Hell of a Gamble by Tim Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko, Kennedy actually attempted to do this earlier, in 1961, but was turned down by Nikita Khrushchev.
Sjursen blames the failure of the Bay of Pigs on Kennedy. First of all, the Bay of Pigs invasion was not Kennedy’s idea. And anyone who studies that operation should know this. It was created by Eisenhower and Allen Dulles. Dulles and CIA Director of Plans Dick Bissell then pushed it on Kennedy. They did everything they could to get Kennedy to approve it, including lying to him about its chances of success. The important thing to remember about this disaster is that Kennedy did not approve direct American military intervention once he saw it failing. This had been the secret agenda of both Dulles and Bissell, who knew it would fail. (DiEugenio, p. 47)
Kennedy later suspected such was the case and he fired Dulles, Bissell and Charles Cabell, the CIA Deputy Director. There is no doubt that if Nixon had won the election of 1960, he would have sent in the Navy and Marines to bail out the operation. Because this is what he told JFK he would have done. (Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 288) And today, Cuba would be a territory of the USA, like Puerto Rico. Again, so much for there being no difference between what came before Kennedy and what came after.
Sjursen then tries to connect the Bay of Pigs directly to the Missile Crisis. As if one was the consequence of the other. Graham Allison, the foremost scholar on the Missile Crisis, disagreed. And so did John Kennedy. After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy had a meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna. He found the Russian leader obsessed with the status of Berlin. So much so that during the Berlin Crisis in the fall of 1961, the Soviets decided to build a wall to separate East from West Berlin. In the fine volume The Kennedy Tapes, still the best book on the Missile Crisis, it is revealed that Berlin is what Kennedy believed the Russian deployment was really about. (See Probe Magazine, Vol. 5, No 4, pp. 17-18) That whole crisis was not caused by Kennedy. It was provoked by Nikita Khrushchev. And again, Kennedy did not take the option extended by many of his advisors, that is, using an air attack or an invasion to take out the missiles. He insisted on the least violent option he could take. One person died during those thirteen days. He was an American pilot. Kennedy did not take retaliatory action.
I should not even have to add that Sjursen leaves out the crucial aftermath of the Missile Crisis: that Kennedy developed a rapprochement strategy with both Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev. Both of these are well described by Jim Douglass in his important book JFK and the Unspeakable. (see pp. 74-90 for the Castro back-channel; pp. 340-51 for the Kennedy/Khrushchev détente facilitated by Norman Cousins) The rapprochement attempt with Russia culminated with Kennedy’s famous Peace Speech at American University in the summer of 1963. Which, like Kennedy’s Algeria speech, Sjursen does not mention.
Predictably, Sjursen ends his essay with Kennedy and Vietnam. He actually writes that Kennedy’s policies there led the US “inexorably deeper into its greatest military fiasco and defeat.” What can one say in the face of such a lack of respect for the declassified record?—except that all of that record now proves that Kennedy was getting out of Vietnam at the time of his murder. (Probe Magazine, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 18-21) That Johnson knew this at the time, and he consciously altered that withdrawal policy, and then tried to cover up the fact that he had. And we have that in LBJ’s own words today. (Virtual JFK, by James Blight, pp. 306-10) There was not one combat troop in Vietnam when Kennedy was inaugurated. There was not one there on the day he was killed. By 1967, there were over 500,000 combat troops in theater.
Many informed observers complain about the censorship and distortion so prevalent on Fox News. But I would argue that when it comes to this subject, the journals on the Left do pretty much the same thing, ending up with the same result: the misleading of its readership. I would also argue the very process—from the editor on down to the choice of author and sources used—skews the facts and sources as rigorously and as stringently as Fox. On two occasions, I have asked Counterpunch to print my reply to anti-Kennedy articles they have written. I sent an e-mail to Truthdig to do the same with this essay. As with Counterpunch, I got no reply. This would suggest that there is a Wizard of Oz apparatus at work, one which does not wish to see the curtain drawn. Such a contingency reduces this kind of writing to little more than playing to the crowd. With Fox, that crowd is on the right. With Counterpunch and Truthdig, it is on the left. In both cases, the motive is political. That is no way to dig for truth.