Last November was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. It provoked one of the most bizarre, depressing and extreme displays of MSM irresponsibility in recent memory. Even though respected pollster Peter Hart found that 75% of the public still believed that the Warren Commission verdict of Lee Oswald as the lone assassin was wrong, this meant nearly nothing to the media. Show after show, news segment after news segment proceeded as if we were still in 1964, and the Warren Commission had not been utterly discredited. This culminated with an absolutely Orwellian spectacle in Dallas on November 22nd. Mayor Mike Rawlings was clearly in the pocket of the Dallas Morning News and The Sixth Floor Museum. Rawlings literally blockaded Dealey Plaza. He had called up about 200 policemen to place wooden barriers around the site at incoming intersections. Only those who had been awarded tickets by a (pre-screened) lottery were allowed in the Plaza itself. There, inside the Missile Crisis type blockade, he and a few others gave some of the dullest and most pointless speeches ever made in the name of murdered president John F. Kennedy. It was one of the most wasted opportunities in recent history. There was literally a colony of media trailers on the site. With nothing to report; which, of course, was the aim of the whole exercise.
There was one documentary that managed to break through the physical and mental blockade. Unfortunately it had very limited exposure through Direct TV. This was Cory Taylor's JFK: A President Betrayed. Taylor's film is now available at Amazon Instant and also for DVD purchase. After the reader sees it, I think he or she will agree that this was, by far and away, the best original production for anyone to see last November. And that is not at all a purely negative statement, that is, because most everything else was so poor. There are many good things in Taylor's film.
Taylor had previously mostly worked in television. Although he has several producer credits, he has worked mostly as an editor. And almost all of that work has been on documentaries and reality TV. But in looking through his credits, Taylor's past work shows a strong social conscience, something lacking in Hollywood today. Therefore, we were lucky to have someone like him approach the Kennedy case at the 50th anniversary.
That last statement is a bit misleading. For Taylor does not really approach the Kennedy case from a forensic or investigative viewpoint. What he does in his two-hour documentary is take a look at Kennedy's foreign policy during his presidency, and try to show how some people within his own administration opposed it. To me, it is clear that the main inspiration for the film is the influential Jim Douglass tome, JFK and the Unspeakable.
One of the main attributes of the film is that it uses some credible, and new, sources as interview subjects. And it bypasses the accepted mainstream historians who have, in reality, done little real research on JFK. Or, even worse, ignored Kennedy's genuine interests. Therefore, to Taylor's credit, one will not see the likes of Robert Dallek, Richard Reeves or Larry Sabato pontificating boringly and deceptively in this film. Some of the main academics in the documentary are University of Texas professor Jamie Galbraith, son of Kennedy aide and later Ambassador to India John K. Galbraith; Gareth Porter, a lecturer, journalist, and author who has written four books on the Vietnam War; former Wall Street journalist and editor Frederick Kempe, author of Berlin 1961; University of New Orleans professor Gunter Bischof, a specialist in Eastern European history. In addition to that, we see journalist Michael Dobbs, author of one of the better studies of the Missile Crisis, One Minute to Midnight, Peter Kornbluh, author and editor of Bay of Pigs Declassified, and Robert Schlesinger, son of Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger. This collection of commentators all makes for a notable improvement over the usual Dallek/Reeves/Sabato banal tendentiousness.
But where Taylor has really done some interesting work is in the direct witnesses he has secured. For instance, Taylor interviews the interpreters at the Vienna Summit Conference, the late Viktor Sukhodrev (translator for Nikita Khrushchev) and Alex Akalovsky (interpreter for President Kennedy). In addition to Sukhodrev, there is also Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Russian premier. Also on screen is the rather seldom seen Thomas L. Hughes. Hughes was an assistant to Chester Bowles in the Kennedy administration, and later succeeded Roger Hilsman as director of Intelligence and Research at the State Department. Lawyer Willam Vanden Heuvel was an advisor to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and later wrote a book about RFK. Finally, in a real surprise, Taylor tracked down Andrea Cousins and Candis Cousins Kerns. These are the daughters of Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins. Cousins had been a tireless advocate for nuclear disarmament since, literally, the day after Hiroshima. As Douglass pointed out in his book, Cousins served as a kind of go-between between the Vatican, the Kremlin and the White House in their mutual efforts to construct a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He then wrote about it in his (much ignored) 1972 book, Improbable Triumvirate. It's quite a promising roster. And it does not disappoint.
With actor Morgan Freeman narrating, the film begins with a brief discussion of a meeting Kennedy had on July 20, 1961 with, among others, CIA Director Allen Dulles and JCS Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer. The subject was the feasibility of a nuclear surprise attack on Russia in the fall of 1963. Apparently, Dulles and Lemnitzer figured that such a first strike would eliminate all the Russian missiles and bombers accumulated at that time. And therefore, push back against their imminent effort to match the atomic arsenal of the USA. In other words, America would now be the unchallenged superpower as far as nuclear arms went. Kennedy asked some probing questions about Russian casualties. He then closed the meeting by asking the attendees not to talk about the discussion. Afterwards he said to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "And we call ourselves the human race."
This episode was first written about in that fine journal, The American Prospect back in 1994. A brief memorandum of the meeting had just been declassified in June of 1993. A little over a year later, Galbraith co-wrote the article with Heather Purcell, which the magazine featured as its cover story. As Dulles noted during the meeting, the fall of 1963 would be the optimum time for such an attack since America would be at its greatest advantage for strategic missiles vs. the Soviets. The backdrop to this meeting was the interim between the Vienna Conference and the Berlin Crisis. In fact, about two weeks later, Kennedy would make a speech in which he declared that the Russians would not drive the USA out of Berlin. Therefore, this opening is quite appropriate in that it shows Kennedy's national security advisors trying to egg him on to do something incredibly violent; in fact, probably apocalyptic; while he quietly, yet resolutely resists. All against the backdrop of rising Cold War tensions, this time in Germany. This pattern will repeat itself a year later. But, in 1962, the backdrop will be Cuba.
After this episode, Taylor now sets the historical era by introducing previous presidents Truman and Eisenhower and the beginnings of both the Cold War and the Nuclear Age. Kempe comments that the exit meeting at the White House between Eisenhower and Kennedy featured a 70-year-old president giving way to the youngest president ever elected. Vanden Heuvel comments that Kennedy quite consciously planned the New Frontier as a distinct break from Eisenhower. Sid Davis, a reporter of the time, says that in covering Kennedy, he found him to be very well versed on foreign policy and also quite articulate about his ideas.
The film now addresses the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Taylor writes that Kennedy had been misled about the operation, but he does not get specific as to how. Which is odd, since Kornbluh edited what I think is one of the very best volumes on the subject, Bay of Pigs Declassified. There is a comment in the film as to how the planners at CIA though that the US would commit militarily but Kennedy would not. Further, one of the commentators, journalist Evan Thomas, actually says there was a lack of air cover. As more than one person, including myself, has explained in detail, the whole lack of air cover myth was manufactured afterwards by the CIA to shift the blame for the debacle from them to Kennedy. (See Chapter 3 of Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, especially pgs. 54-56). Also, there is no mention of the investigations that took place afterwards, and how these caused Kennedy to fire Director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director Charles Cabell, and Director of Plans Dick Bissell. This was important because it was these inquiries that led JFK to conclude that the plan was never meant to succeed. That the enterprise was contingent upon him caving in and sending in the Marines. Which is what Allen Dulles eventually confessed to in a famous essay published years later based upon his notes for an article he was going to co-write for a magazine. (ibid, p. 47) Even considering the time restrictions, this is probably the most unsatisfactory of the episodes. To repeat, I am surprised Kornbluh was not used more at this point.
From here, the film now goes to the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Kempe states that, upon Kennedy's inauguration, Khrushchev made some small moves toward an accommodation with the USA. Sergei Khrushchev chimes in and says that his father wanted to improve relations with the Americans under Kennedy. But, as the film notes, Kennedy was bothered by a speech Khrushchev had made about starting small wars of national liberation throughout the globe. And this is how Taylor sets up the third major episode, which is the Vienna Conference and the Berlin Crisis.
The Soviets were losing about ten thousand emigres per month in Berlin. As Bischof informs us, that was the approximate amount of German citizens flowing from the east to the western part of Berlin in 1961. This was not just a public embarrassment, but it was a serious loss to the economy of East Germany. For as both Bischof and Kempe state, it was mostly the cream of the east; that is educated, professional people; that were fleeing. When the Vienna summit was arranged, the Russians had this subject, Berlin, at the top of their agenda. The Kennedy brothers wanted to tell Khrushchev that the Bay of Pigs had been a mistake, and they were ready to talk about improving relations. But, as Bischof and Sukhudrev explain, the meeting got off on the wrong foot. Khrushchev made a comment about Kennedy's youth, comparing it to his son who had died in World War II. Then, the discussion turned ideological. As Bischof explains, Khrushchev, a thorough communist ideologue, naturally had the advantage there. From this, Khrushchev now turned to Berlin. The Russian threatened to isolate, even blockade West Berlin. Khrushchev was that desperate to get some kind of overall treaty on the issue. Like Stalin, he did not like the fact that West Berlin was a part of East Germany. Therefore causing the huge refugee problem. As the film notes, Khrushchev actually became vocally belligerent about the issue, even threatening war. To which Kennedy replied, "It will be a cold winter."
Upon his return to Washington, Kennedy was clearly worried about Berlin. He brought in Dean Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State. Acheson was the Democratic equivalent of John Foster Dulles, though not quite as extreme. There then came a battle of memoranda. Acheson prepared the hard line reaction to the threat. Arthur Schlesinger prepared the soft line. Acheson wanted to declare a national emergency, raise taxes, and prepare a troop build-up. In other words, a preparation for war in Germany. Kennedy was determined not to back down, but he essentially split the difference between Schlesinger and Acheson. He called out the reserves, but there was no enlistment drive. He went on television, but did not declare a national emergency. And he did not raise taxes for a military buildup.
We all know what happened. The Russians backed down from both the war threat, and the isolation of West Berlin. They decided to solve their emigre problem by constructing the Berlin Wall. This was a very sad and drastic solution, and the film shows how it separated families in Berlin. But as Kennedy commented, better a wall and not a war. Acheson had a different reaction. As Gareth Porter notes, Acheson said to a small circle of like-minded individuals, "Gentlemen, you may as well face it. This nation is without leadership." He later stated the same sentiments in a letter to his former boss, Harry Truman.
As the film notes, when the crisis was over, the Russians broke a pledge to Kennedy. They resumed atmospheric nuclear testing. Although the film does not specify it, this was not just another test. In October of 1961, the Tsar Bomba explosion took place. That bomb had a yield of 55 megatons. To this day it is by far the largest atomic blast ever. The Russians were now saying two things: 1.) We are resuming testing because there was no agreement on Berlin, and 2.) We are making progress in catching up to your atomic arsenal. In other words, the Dulles/Lemnitzer warning about the nuclear advantage being dissipated was coming to fruition. The USSR was closing the gap.
In reaction, and reluctantly, Kennedy decided to resume testing. At this point, I wish Taylor had included some key information. As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out, the West German government had previously requested atomic weapons from Kennedy. To Konrad Adenauer's chagrin, JFK had not given them to Bonn. In retrospect, and in spite of the strain it placed on West German diplomacy, that seems like a wise decision on his part.
The film turns to the debate over inserting combat troops into Vietnam. This formally took place in the White House in November of 1961. Porter briefly mentions Kennedy's knowledge and experience of the failed French struggle in Indochina in the fifties. And then, for me, the film reaches a dramatic high point. Taylor plays a black and white video clip of Rep. John F. Kennedy from 1953. Kennedy says that there will not be peace in the area until the French hand over more control to the people of Vietnam. Until they do, the communists will have the advantage in the struggle since they are not seen as an imperial power. He then demands that the people of Vietnam be given a promise of independence before the United States intervenes there. If not, any American attempt to intercede will be futile.
It's really good that Taylor dug up this clip. It's one that not even I had seen before. But this is only one warning among many that Kennedy had given in public about Southeast Asia. (ibid, pgs. 25-31) And I wish that Taylor had mentioned the man who had caused Kennedy to make those perceptive comments. He was State Department official Edmund Gullion. Gullion had met with congressman Kennedy in Saigon in 1951 and explained to him how France could not win the war. That conversation, as proven by Taylor's clip, greatly impacted Kennedy. (ibid, p. 21) When he became president, Kennedy brought Gullion into the White House to manage the immense Congo crisis.
The film now returns to the result of the troop debate. Vanden Heuvel and Galbraith comment that because of his beliefs about colonial struggle, Kennedy was not willing to insert troops into Vietnam. Only advisors would be sent, so that the USA would not be actually fighting the war in the front ranks. But as Porter adds, this decision also met with internal resistance. For almost all of Kennedy's advisors wanted him to commit combat troops, and the Pentagon thought it could win in Vietnam.
The last part of the film deals with three main topics: the Missile Crisis, the rapprochement attempts by Kennedy with Cuba ad Russia afterwards, and Kennedy's issuance of NSAM 263, the orders to remove all American personnel from Vietnam.
Dobbs is a main interviewee for the first segment. He introduces it by saying that the Pentagon was not satisfied with the results of the Bay of Pigs. They wanted an all out invasion of Cuba and they submitted plans for this to Kennedy in early 1962. The Russians were worried about this possibility. So later in the year Khrushchev made the decision to move all three levels of the Russian nuclear armada onto the island, i.e. bombers, submarines and land based missiles. (There is a large debate about precisely what the motive was. For the simple reason that the amount of weapons the Russians moved onto the island was much more than enough to deter an invasion. It actually constituted a first strike capability).
The main problem with the deployment was it was done in secret. Therefore when it was discovered, it was perceived as an attempt at a surprise attack. As most of us know by now, the Joint Chiefs, and most everyone else, wanted a show of force. Either tactical air strikes, a full invasion, or a combination of both. As Dobbs comments, Kennedy deserves much credit; he actually uses the accolade "greatness"; for not giving into the hawks and persevering through intense pressure to get a negotiated settlement. This consisted of a no invasion pledge, and a mutual withdrawal of atomic weapons: the Russians from Cuba and the Americans from Turkey.
In the aftermath of the crisis--which had brought the world to the brink of atomic warfare--Kennedy decided it was now necessary to attain some kind of detente with the USSR. So he began to move forward, with the help of Cousins, in order to attain some kind of nuclear test ban treaty. It's here that the two daughters of Norman Cousins now take some screen time to talk about certain events in April of 1963. In what has to be a film first, they discuss; with pictures; a meeting they and their father had with Khrushchev at his private resort on the Black Sea, a kind of Camp David for the premier.
They also reveal why Kennedy agreed to this informal back channel: Because he was very conscious of the power of the Pentagon and how they would look askance at formal talks toward detente. Khrushchev told the girls to take a dip in his pool while he talked to their father about Kennedy's request. Khrushchev told Cousins that although he was interested in nuclear disarmament and detente, he was as much hemmed in by his own hawks as Kennedy was. Cousins concluded that what was necessary was for Kennedy to make a bold move, perhaps a speech, to break through the impasse. He therefore told Kennedy that a meeting of the Central Committee was scheduled for June of 1963. That would be a good time for some kind of milestone speech, one about the necessity of peace in an atomic world. This, of course, was the origin of Kennedy's famous American University speech, which figures so importantly in the Douglass book.
We then shift to the other back channel Kennedy had constructed in 1963. This was with Castro. Kornbluh, who discovered some long secret documents in the early nineties, reviews this whole movement by Kennedy with the Cuban leader through a series of intermediaries. These maneuverings ended with a mission by French journalist Jean Daniel to Castro with a direct message from Kennedy about how he felt detente could be achieved. Kennedy said it was not really important to him that Castro was a communist. He could deal with that. Castro was overjoyed at this message and was jubilant about the possibilities. Which, as he predicted, were all dashed with the news of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.
Finally, there is the Vietnam strand. Porter and Galbraith talk about two documents. The first is the set of papers discovered by the former about Averill Harriman's thwarting of Kennedy's attempt to get an agreement about Vietnam through India. This had been at the initiative of John K. Galbraith, who was the ambassador there at the time. In fact, Jamie Galbraith says that this was one of the purposes Kennedy had in mind when he moved his father out of the White House. When Galbraith wrote to Kennedy and said he had everything in place for negotiations to begin, Kennedy handed over the assignment to Averill Harriman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. Harriman said he would send Kennedy's memo--which included instructions on how to begin negotiations--by cable the next week. (Douglass, p. 119)
But Harriman did not forward Kennedy's instructions as he wished. He actually changed the language from one of de-escalation, to one of threatening escalation. When Harriman's assistant tried to restore the cable to its original intent, Harriman killed the communication altogether. (ibid)
But Kennedy still forged forward in his attempt to disengage from Vietnam. Galbraith talks about the issuance of NSAM 263 in October of 1963, which ordered all American advisors to be removed from Vietnam by 1965. He also relates Kennedy's discussions with assistant Mike Forrestal just before he was assassinated. He told Forrestal he wanted a complete review of American policy in Vietnam, including how we ever got involved there. Considering Kennedy's view of the French experience in 1951, this could only mean one thing.
The film ends with an attempt to summarize Kennedy's presidency. Journalist Evan Thomas says he symbolized the good image of public service, the image that faded with the escalation in Vietnam and then with Watergate. Andrea Cousins says that Kennedy should be remembered for his willingness to risk going against the grain. Her sister Candis concludes that Kennedy took a stand in the face of the nuclear threat. Even though he knew it would be difficult, and perhaps even dangerous.
All in all, this is one of the better documentaries about Kennedy's presidency. My only regret about it is that, although it presents much of the information from the Douglass book on screen for the first time, the Douglass book is not state of the art any more. Books by Philip Muehlenbeck and Robert Rakove have, in some significant ways, superseded it. (See here and here). These two books show that Kennedy's foreign policy was even more revolutionary than depicted here.
But that is a cavil. This film is much worth seeing. And it deserved a much larger platform than it got last year. Right now, it's the best screen depiction of Kennedy's foreign policy that I know of.