Before opening Larry Tye’s biography of Robert Kennedy, I had some qualms about it. Why? Because when I turned to the back cover I saw that none other than Henry Kissinger had given the book his endorsement. The man many commentators think should be tried as a war criminal, who, for instance, supervised Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos, was praising a book about Robert Kennedy. I then noted another blurb by journalist Marvin Kalb. In 1974, Kalb, along with his brother Bernard, wrote one of the first biographies of Kissinger. (Historian Theodore Draper called it a hagiography.) The Kalbs compared the validity of Kissinger’s diplomacy to George Washington’s likeness on a dollar bill. A judgment which, to say the least, does not hold up today. These endorsements, quite naturally, gave me pause.
After reading the book, that pause was justified. Approximately the last 75 pages of Tye’s work are adequate and, in one or two places, actually moving. The problem with that observation is simple arithmetic: the book contains 447 pages of text. Therefore, those last 75 pages comprise about 1/6 of the volume. The rest of the book is not just below average; in many places it is worse than that, and in more ways than one.
Tye tips us off to his agenda quite early. In his preface, he calls Robert F. Kennedy a commie baiter who was egged on by his father and Joe McCarthy. He adds that Kennedy practiced Machiavellian tactics to win his brother the presidency. He then says that he was also part of the plots to eliminate Fidel Castro. He tops this off by writing that “an assassin halted his campaign of conciliation.” (p. xi) I wrote in my notes: “Tye is off to a bad start.” I was correct.
Tye titles his first chapter “Cold Warrior”. In order to make this stick, he employs what military experts would call a pincers movement. He wants to envelop young Robert within the grasp of his father Joseph Kennedy, and his first legislative boss, Senator Joseph McCarthy. How anyone today could compare RFK with his father is really kind of inexplicable. But this is one of Tye’s unrepentant and recurrent proclamations. (Tye, p. 5) In this reviewer’s experience and knowledge there can be no better witness to this issue than Jackie Kennedy, since she was close to Joe Kennedy, and was even more familiar with his three surviving sons. She told Arthur Schlesinger that RFK was the son who was least like his father. (See Robert Kennedy and His Times, p. 102) For instance, RFK did not have any interest in or aptitude for business. In fact, by 1957, he was a pro-labor advocate. Also, unlike his father, he was a devoted family man. Again, unlike his father, and more like President Kennedy, he was not an isolationist in his foreign policy outlook. Another point: RFK was quite aware of and sensitive to the plight of both the poor and minority groups. So where Tye gets this comparison is rather puzzling. After reading and taking notes on his book, in my view he does not come close to proving it. Jackie Kennedy appears correct on this point.
It is interesting to note how Tye shoehorns RFK into this Cold Warrior box. One way he does so is by leaving out the name of Edmund Gullion. In 1951, in preparing for his run for the Senate a year later, congressman John Kennedy took a trip to the Far East. One of the places he visited was Saigon, South Vietnam. He was determined to find out the true status of the colonial war there between the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh on one side, and the colonial government of France on the other. After all, the USA was bankrolling a large part of the French war effort. One of the men that John Kennedy consulted with was a man he had formed a glancing relationship with in Washington a few years before. Gullion met with the 34-year-old John Kennedy at a rooftop restaurant. He told him that France would never win the war. Ho Chi Minh had fired up the young Viet Minh to such a degree that they would rather die than go back under French colonialism. France could not win a war of attrition. The home front would not support it.
In 1983, when it was first reported at length in Richard Mahoney’s book JFK: Ordeal in Africa, this meeting had a jarring effect on the reader, for the simple reason that about 99% of President Kennedy biographers had left it out. But since that time, several other authors—like this reviewer—have not just mentioned it, but detailed it. So it is hard to imagine that Tye is not aware of it. The reason that it should be important to him is simple: Robert Kennedy was there. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second edition, p. 21) RFK later said that Gullion’s words had had a profound impact. As Arthur Schlesinger writes, when JFK opposed American intervention at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, RFK agreed. (ibid, p. 125) And on the issue of anti-communism and its relationship with anti-colonialism, RFK pretty much mirrored his brother: You could not consider anti-communism in the Third World without considering the impact of colonialism. (ibid, p. 133) RFK wrote in the pages of New York Times Magazine “… because we think that the uppermost thought in all people’s minds is Communism …. We are still too often doing too little too late to recognize and assist the irresistible movements for independence that are sweeping one dependent territory after another.” In his visit to Russia in 1955 with Justice William O. Douglas, which Tye mentions, RFK saw a different side of Russian life and became rather sympathetic with its citizens. He even wrote down some of the good things about the USSR. (Schlesinger, p. 134)
But the main way Tye tries to turn Robert Kennedy into a Cold Warrior is through his service as assistant counsel under McCarthy on his Senate investigative committee. He partly does this by using some rather questionable and controversial sources, like M. Stanton Evans and Ralph de Toledano. The former was present at William F. Buckley’s estate when Buckley founded the Young Americans For Freedom. Evans actually wrote the charter for that right-wing group. He then went on to work for Buckley’s National Review for 13 years. Just a few years before Evans died in 2015, he wrote an apologia for Joe McCarthy. De Toledano was so anti-communist that OSS chief Bill Donovan would not include him in covert operations in Europe during World War II. He then became a close friend of Richard Nixon during the Alger Hiss trials, and later was a co-founder of National Review. He wrote a quite negative book about Robert Kennedy in 1967, in anticipation of his run for the presidency. (In this regard it is important to note that Tye also uses two other dubious sources in this section: conservative hit-man Victor Lasky’s Robert F. Kennedy: The Myth and the Man and Burton Hersh’s absolutely atrocious Bobby and J. Edgar.)
Robert Kennedy served as assistant counsel on McCarthy’s committee for about six months. According to most observers, he composed one of the very few reports that had any value to it. This was a documented study of how some American allies—like Greece and England—extensively traded with China during the Korean War, consequently being part of the effort against the USA in that conflict. Even McCarthy’s liberal critics described the report as being factually accurate and soberly written. (Schlesinger, p. 108) Unlike most of Chief Counsel Roy Cohn’s work, it did not accuse people of being traitors. And Robert did not take part in the hunting down of alleged subversives in the State Department. (ibid, p. 106)
In fact, RFK and Cohn bumped heads at this time over the way the chief counsel was conducting the committee. Bobby also complained to McCarthy that although Cohn’s recklessness was attracting a lot of press, it would eventually collapse the committee. He likened what Cohn was doing to a toboggan ride down a slope ending with a crash into a tree. (ibid, p. 110) But McCarthy decided to stick with Cohn. So, in the summer of 1953, RFK resigned.
About six months later, he returned. He wrote a letter to a friend at this time, saying, “I think I will enjoy my new job.” (ibid, p. 115) This time he was chief counsel to the Democratic minority. He spent about three times longer in this role as he did as assistant counsel to Cohn. Therefore, some dramatizations of this episode use his role as minority chief counsel and discount his prior work. (See the HBO film Citizen Cohn) He went head to head with Cohn, and more often than not, he came out in front. In fact, the two became such bitter rivals that, on one occasion, they almost came to blows. (ibid, pp. 117-18) Even a local newspaper, The Boston Post, went after RFK for his determined and public opposition to Cohn.
As RFK predicted, McCarthy imploded. One cause was Cohn’s close friendship with David Schine, a draftee who Cohn tried to get special privileges for in the army. Bobby Kennedy wrote the questions for each Democratic senator on this issue. (ibid) The second cause was McCarthy’s fatal showdown with attorney Joseph Welch, who had been hired to specifically defend the army against the McCarthy/Cohn assault. Welch’s famous “Have you no decency sir” riposte punctured McCarthy in front of 20 million spectators.
When the Army-McCarthy hearings ended in June of 1954, Bobby Kennedy wrote the minority report. It was highly critical of McCarthy’s leadership. Parts of it were so extreme that the committee would not sign off on the whole report. RFK wrote that there was no excuse for McCarthy’s failure to rein in Cohn. Or how irresponsible many of Cohn’s charges turned out to be. He then concluded with: “The Senate should take action to correct this situation.” (ibid, p. 118) For all intents and purposes, this was the beginning of the movement to censure McCarthy. That motion arose on the Senate floor a month later. It was passed on December 2, 1954.
Under the new leadership of Sen. Karl Mundt, Robert Kennedy had even more power. He used it mainly to wrap up what was left of Cohn’s charges: the Irving Peress, and Annie Lee Moss cases and the accusation of communist infiltration of defense plants. No charges were ever filed.
From the above synopsis it’s fairly easy to deduce that RFK was stuck in a bad situation and he tried to make the best of it. When he could not, he resigned. Given the opportunity to return under more propitious circumstances, he atoned for his earlier errors. Based upon that, it’s not justified to call Bobby a Cold Warrior, or to have the episode cast a shadow over his entire career.
The next major section of the book deals with RFK’s confrontation with Teamsters’ leader Jimmy Hoffa. In 1956, the Democrats took control of the Senate and with that, the leadership of the sub-committee on investigations passed to Senator John McClellan. Because he appeared to be eminently fair in wrapping up the McCarthy/Cohn fracas, a few journalists got in contact with Robert Kennedy, trying to interest him to use his chief counsel’s office to go after a real danger: organized crime influence on labor unions. Kennedy and McClellan went in that direction and this resulted in RFK’s four-year long pursuit of Hoffa. Tye seems to have no serious problems with this episode in young Kennedy’s career. The worst he can say about it is that it was used to boost Senator John Kennedy’s profile in his attempt to attain the White House.
|JFK & RFK on the McClellan committee|
Which is kind of ridiculous. The reason JFK ended up on the committee was because of complaints by Teamster leaders Dave Beck and Hoffa. They protested that McClellan’s committee was the wrong place for these hearings; they should be held before the Labor Committee. McClellan resisted this since he thought that committee was too friendly with labor and would not pursue the complaints vigorously. Because they did have a valid point, the solution was to form a special committee, half from McClellan’s committee and half from the Labor Committee. Since JFK was on the latter, that is how he got on the special committee. Is Tye saying that Beck and Hoffa brought up this objection at the request of RFK to get his brother on the committee?
What is odd about this section is that the reviewer could find few, if any, questions or comments by Tye about some of the techniques used by RFK to finally imprison Hoffa. Some distinguished authors, e.g., Victor Navasky and especially Fred Cook, have raised some serious questions about the methods used by Kennedy’s office to enlist witnesses to testify against Hoffa. Many of these methods were employed by Kennedy’s investigator Walter Sheridan, who remains pretty much untouched by Tye. (For a look at these charges, see Cook’s multi-part series in The Nation which culminated in his article “The Hoffa Trial” on 4/27/64.)
Another oddity about this section is that much of the political background of the issue goes unexplored. The Republicans on the special committee, for instance archconservative Barry Goldwater, wanted RFK to delve into the Teamsters so they could use that issue to tar labor unions in general. But once they saw how RFK was bringing in organized crime as an influence on Hoffa, they actually began to side with Hoffa, since this would detract from their real aim. (See review of James Neff’s Vendetta, by Alex Lichtenstein, Washington Post July 17, 2015.) When John Kennedy tried to pass legislation aimed at this particular influence in order to sanitize union elections, the Republicans hijacked his legislation and turned it into the union weakening Landrum-Griffin bill. That act was such a twisting of JFK’s original intent that he took his name off of it. (Schlesinger, pp. 188-92)
|Walter Reuther & RFK |
Another fascinating aspect of RFK’s service on this committee was the Kohler company investigation. And again, Tye pretty much discounts the episode. The Republicans on the committee, especially Goldwater, wanted RFK to inquire into this long running UAW strike against Kohler plumbing in order to investigate UAW leader Walter Reuther. Goldwater did not foresee the consequences. First, Reuther turned out to be a forceful witness for the rights of labor and abuses by corporations. Secondly, Bobby Kennedy actually visited the home of Kohler in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He was appalled at some of the working conditions there, and at what the company called a “lunch break”, which lasted about five minutes. (ibid, pp. 183-87) This had two effects. First, it resulted in a strong personal and professional relationship between RFK and Reuther. For example, Kennedy later called on Reuther to bus in as much of his membership as possible to attend Martin Luther King’s 1963 March On Washington. Second, it ended in the largest fine ever awarded over a strike. Kohler was ordered to pay three million dollars in back wages to the strikers and to give their pension fund another 1.5 million.
RFK’s focus on Hoffa’s ties with organized crime caused his interest to spread into a general inquiry into the workings of what had become known as the Cosa Nostra in America. As a result, in 1959, the McClellan Committee was nicknamed the Rackets Committee. For the first time the American public was exposed to organized crime figures like Anthony Provenzano and Sam Giancana. Many authors have concluded that it was this part of RFK’s congressional service, his exposure of Mob influence in labor unions and on the national scene, which really made him into a national figure.
From here, Tye segues into the 1960 presidential election and RFK’s role as his brother’s campaign manager. At the beginning of the chapter he writes that what Bobby did in this campaign would later embolden the likes of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. (Tye, p. 87) That theme is repeated later on. (see pp. 106, 121) One has to wonder: What in God’s name is Tye up to with those comparisons? Does he really think that no one remembers what Richard Nixon and his political hatchet man Murray Chotiner did to, first Jerry Voorhis in the 1946 congressional race, and then Helen Douglas in the 1950 senatorial race? These have become famous today because of the new low they hit in creating red baiting campaign tactics. Tye also seems to trust the reader not being aware of revelations about how Allen Dulles helped finance Nixon’s run against Voorhis, a man who was opposed to both big banking and big oil, which Dulles represented at his law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. (David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard, pp.162-63) Or how Nixon was on the take from private companies in 1946 because he would not run for office at a financial sacrifice to himself. (ibid, p. 165) Chotiner portrayed the anti-communist Voorhis as a tool and fellow traveler of the Kremlin. This included voters getting anonymous phone calls during the last week saying that they should know Voorhis was a communist before they voted for him. (ibid, p. 166)
What made it all the worse was that Nixon knew it was all a fabrication. When a Voorhis backer later confronted him with those last minute phone calls Nixon took the opportunity to give him an education in realpolitik. He coolly replied, “Of course I knew Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a communist. I had to win. That’s the thing you don’t understand. The important thing is to win. You’re just being naïve.” (ibid) I could continue on with Nixon’s run against Douglas which was, in some ways, even worse than the Voorhis campaign. But the point is obvious: What could someone as corrupt and feckless as Nixon learn from Robert Kennedy?
The comparison with Johnson is just as bad. Maybe worse. One just has to conjure up the lawlessness of Texas politics in the thirties and forties, which is when LBJ got his start. Through the efforts of several Johnson biographers, we know about the associations of LBJ with such unsavory characters as Herman and George Brown of Brown and Root, the giant construction firm that eventually evolved into Halliburton. In return for steering contracts their way, the brothers financed Johnson’s congressional and senatorial campaigns. (Joan Mellen, Faustian Bargains, pp. 7-9) When a government accountant tried to expose the illicit relations between LBJ and Brown and Root, he was framed for soliciting contributions from his staff. He was acquitted, but decided to leave government service. Johnson also used extortion tactics to gain newspaper endorsements. (ibid, p. 9) There is also circumstantial evidence that the Brown and Root connection helped finance Johnson’s purchase of KTBC radio in Austin, which was the beginning of Johnson’s personal fortune in media.
But this is all prelude to Johnson’s infamous 1948 race for the senate against Coke Stevenson. The results of that race shifted back and forth for a solid week after the election was over. Johnson actually wiretapped Stevenson’s phone lines. Johnson had made a deal with south Texas political boss George Parr to rig the vote. This culminated in the notorious Box 13. This was a late arriving vote tally—five days after the polls closed—in which 203 ballots were “discovered”. Those results tilted the election to Johnson. Of the 203, a miraculous 202 were votes for Johnson. Which was even worse than the Parr controlled Duval county results, which were 94% for Johnson. Curiously, those 203 names were assembled in alphabetical order. When eleven of the 203 voters in Box 13 were interviewed, they said they had not even voted. Journalist Ronnie Dugger later found precinct official Luis Salas, who admitted he had performed the fraud for Parr and Johnson. Salas had a picture of the smiling officials who held the ballot box in their hands. The capper to all this is that when Dugger interviewed LBJ for his biography, Johnson had the very same picture. (Click here for Jason Matteson’s essay on this subject)
Are we really to believe that Tye is not aware of this whole tawdry affair? It has been written about extensively since at least 1982, when Dugger’s book on Johnson, The Politician, was first published. Are we also to think that Tye is not aware of Johnson’s later associations with the likes of Billy Sol Estes and Bobby Baker and his bribery actions with Don Reynolds? (For the last, see Mellen, pp. 160-64)
But in practical terms, in his book, does Tye excavate anything like the above to make his bombastic comparison stick? He mentions some dirty tricks in the primary campaign against Hubert Humphrey, but he admits he cannot trace these through to Bobby Kennedy. And his prime attempt at doing the same in the general election smacks of desperation. In 2011, over a half-century after the election, the Washington Post published an article by Mark Feldstein. (1/14/2011) This was yet another reworking of a story that was published in 1962. Since then it has been reported several times, for instance in the book Empire, a long biography of Howard Hughes by Donald Bartlett and James B. Steele. Somehow, Tye ignores all the previous reporting and accepts this one at face value (Tye, p. 123), even though in serious ways it contradicts the others.
Back in 1956, Howard Hughes made a loan of $205,000 to Donald Nixon, Richard Nixon’s brother. Donald’s business enterprise, named Nixon burgers, was a kind of fast food place mixed in with a grocery store. It was about to go under unless it got a fast infusion of cash. Hughes was always attuned to these situations since he was all too intent on compromising politicians or their next of kin. After Nixon and Eisenhower won re-election in November, Hughes supplied the loan in December of 1956. Up until that time, the IRS was resisting granting Hughes a large tax exemption for Hughes Medical Center. They recognized it as a scam that was simply a way for Hughes to dodge taxes on profits from his other divisions. But, lo and behold, one month after Hughes notified the Vice-President that all was in place with the loan, the IRS reversed itself. Hughes got the phony exemption, which allowed him to save millions. The loan was supposed to be mortgaged by a plot of land in Whittier—except the land value was estimated at only 50,000 dollars. By most measures one would have to conclude that Hughes was buying influence, not making a business transaction. (Bartlett and Steele, p. 204)
Through Drew Pearson, the story got out in a fragmentary way in the waning days of the 1960 election. Very few newspapers picked it up and Nixon dismissed it as a last-minute smear unworthy of comment. In 1962, Nixon lied about the loan in his book Six Crises, saying that the Whittier property more than covered the amount of the loan. That year, Nixon decided to return to politics by running for governor of California. This time, the Hughes loan would be a much larger story since now editors were ready for it. The Long Beach Press Telegram decided to run a long story on the loan since they had editorialized about it back in 1960. That story was published in that newspaper and in the magazine The Reporter in April of 1962. James Phelan, who many people in the JFK field have qualms about—including me— wrote it. But in this instance, Phelan did not seem to have a dog in the fight. And there were adequate records to back up what he wrote. And later reporting by, for example, Hughes manager Noah Dietrich, has also borne out the basic facts as he presented them.
Hughes tried to cover up the loan by using two layers of disguise. The first was a lobbyist by the name of John Waters. But since Waters had done some work for Hughes, the trustee of the mortgage was changed to an accountant named Philip Reiner. Complicating the matter was that, after Donald Nixon eventually went bankrupt, a gas station was built over the Whittier lot. Reiner was sent the rent checks by the station, which amounted to $800 per month. When Reiner surrendered the check to Nadine Henley at Hughes headquarters in Hollywood, it was returned to him. Hughes wanted no paper trail linking him to the lot. So Reiner spent the money. But later, an accountant at Hughes Tool Company in Houston began raising a ruckus about what had happened to the loan for $205,000, well over a million dollars today. Reiner’s cut-out, a lawyer named Frank Arditto, now asked him what happened to the payments, knowing full well that he had given Reiner permission to cash the checks. Realizing he was being made the fall guy, Reiner hired an attorney. With an election coming up, the consul realized that his client would make a good asset for the Democrats, who would protect him. He got in contact with Robert Kennedy, who turned him over to an assistant named Jim McInerney. McInerney decided to subsidize Reiner for the money Arditto was demanding, sixteen thousand dollars. McInerney then put together a package of documents, affidavits, trust deeds, and receipts. He gave them to three outlets: St Louis Post Dispatch, Time magazine, and Drew Pearson. No one would run with it since it was so late in the campaign.
But Nixon then made a mistake. Hearing about McInerney’s report, he launched a preemptive cover story to conceal the actual circumstances of the loan and the role of Hughes. These lies infuriated Pearson. He now decided to publish the story. (These details are in Phelan’s 1982 book, Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels. Reiner later sued Hughes and won a $150,000 out of court settlement. See The Desert Sun, 2/22/72)
When one compares this with the Post version, as adapted by Tye, it is unsettling. That version opens with Nixon complaining that the 1960 election had been stolen from him. It then says that the document package was picked up at McInerney’s office, not sent out. In a completely unprecedented twist—with no evidence advanced—it states that the Hughes cash was given to Dick Nixon to purchase a home in the Washington area. The wildest part then states that RFK acquired the story for money, and then a burglary was arranged at Reiner’s office to get the documents. In his text, Tye never mentions the earlier version of this story; therefore, he does not point out the differences between the two, which means he does not have to attempt to reconcile them. In his footnotes he does not even alert the reader to the other version. But the worst part of the improbable tale, and its innate spin, is that all culpability by Nixon is now gone. That poor Red-baiter Nixon is reduced to a helpless victim pondering what happened to him at the hands of Kennedy power. In this new version, there is not even a note of irony about how Voorhis and Douglas must have felt. Talk about (multi-leveled) historical revisionism.
In this review, I will not divert much from the main topic in order to critique at any length or detail some of the comments that Tye makes about John F. Kennedy. If I did, the review would be about 50% longer. I will simply note that some of the things the author says about John Kennedy are rather obtuse, and not supported by the record. For instance, at the beginning of Chapter Four, dealing with JFK ‘s entry to the White House, the author writes that neither Eisenhower nor Wilson had been as brazen as Jack in running for President as an untested leader. I don’t understand what this means. The only elected political office Woodrow Wilson held prior to winning the presidency was a two-year stint as governor of New Jersey. Which is two years longer in office than Eisenhower. In comparison, John Kennedy had served in Congress and the Senate in Washington for 14 years prior to the 1960 election. About the 1960 race, Tye also writes that the politics of Nixon and Kennedy did not differ much. (p. 121) This is a Chris Mathews style blurring of the record. To use just two examples which occurred while JFK was in the Senate and Nixon was vice-president: 1) Kennedy opposed 1954’s Operation Vulture, the White House plan to use atomic weapons to aid the French at Dien Bien Phu; (op. cit Talbot, p. 361) 2) Kennedy’s monumental 1957 speech about why the USA should not support the doomed French colonial war in Algeria provoked barbed and snide remarks from Nixon in the White House. (Richard Mahoney, JFK: Ordeal in Africa, p. 29)
Tye’s depiction of Robert Kennedy running the Justice Department is, to be kind, equally myopic. The author is adequate in describing the new Attorney General’s war against organized crime. (Tye, pp. 142-45) He describes Kennedy’s attempts at fairness in going after Democratic politicians who had broken the law. (ibid, pp. 145-47) He also briefly describes RFK’s final neutering of the Smith Act by having the sentence of CPUSA member Junius Scales commuted. (p. 157) Again, when it comes to the complexities of the Hoffa case, he seems to have little problem accepting the prosecution’s dubious witness Ed Partin. In fact, he actually adds on to Partin’s sensational charges of Hoffa’s intent to kill RFK by adding the late arriving and dubious Frank Ragano story about Hoffa trying to choke Bobby to death at the Justice Department. (Tye, p. 152) To be fair, he does say that RFK’s pursuit of Hoffa was so unrelenting, so single-minded, that it created sympathy for the Teamster leader.
|JFK responds to U.S. Steel's defiance |
(click image for YouTube video)
Tye deals with the 1962 steel crisis in about one page (pp. 163-64). His account is so skeletal, so skimpy, that one would think all the commotion was about whether or not FBI agents should phone business executives late at night. To get my bearings back on this momentous event, I reviewed what is perhaps the best account: Donald Gibson’s chapter-long treatment in Battling Wall Street. Gibson begins his discussion by quoting the late, illustrious economist John Blair, who called the episode, “The most dramatic confrontation in history between a President and a corporate management.” (Gibson, p. 9) The only other instance that rivals it was Harry Truman’s intervention in a steel strike ten years before, but that was during a full-blown war in Korea. President Kennedy had worked on an industry-wide labor agreement for a year, mainly through Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg. In late March, he thought he had one. But it was broken via a personal visit to the White House by US Steel chairman Roger Blough. He told JFK he would announce a price increase in 30 minutes, which is what the President and Goldberg had been promised would not occur. The President then uttered his famous quote, “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons-of-bitches, but I never believed it until now.” (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, p. 143) Within 24 hours JFK went on national television to condemn the steel companies. He said that Americans would find it hard to accept that “a tiny handful of steel executives … can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185,000,000 Americans.” (Gibson, p. 13)
One day later, RFK announced formation of a grand jury and the delivery of subpoenas. Records, both personal and corporate, were seized. The aim was to establish if criminal conspiracy laws had been violated. The Attorney General also had the FBI march into executive offices for interviews. (Schlesinger, p. 421) Within 72 hours the crisis was over and the price increase rescinded. There can be little doubt that the Attorney General’s actions hurried the settlement. Especially in light of the fact that, in 1961, as a continuation of an investigation under the Eisenhower administration of price-fixing by electric companies, RFK had actually placed seven business executives in prison. Five were from General Electric and Westinghouse. (See The Great Price Conspiracy by John Herling.) And contrary to popular belief, and what Tye implies, based on information from the 1962 steel inquiry, RFK began new actions against US Steel in late 1963. (Gibson, p. 13)
This same pattern, shrinking a large achievement, is followed with respect to the Attorney General’s actions in the civil rights arena. In this instance, however, Tye’s writing is even more problematic, since RFK’s achievements there are clearly epochal, no prior Attorney General coming even close to them.
|Harris Wofford & JFK |
Tye does something with the subject that I don’t recall seeing before. He begins his discussion of the Kennedy program in 1963, at a meeting RFK had with some militant black leaders like James Baldwin. Most accounts of the Kennedy civil rights program begin with a review of what had been done by the Eisenhower-Nixon administration and then segues into the memo written by Harris Wofford. After campaigning for Kennedy, Wofford was appointed JFK’s special assistant on civil rights. In late December of 1960, before the inauguration, Wofford wrote a memo that outlined a program for achieving equal rights for black Americans. He then recommended his friend and colleague, attorney Burke Marshall, to be the Justice Department lawyer in charge of the issue. (Bernstein pp. 42-43)
Just the information above counters two observations Tye makes. First, that the Kennedy administration had no plan to attain civil rights, and second, that RFK took on issues willy-nilly. (Tye, p. 205) Wofford, a central figure by anyone’s estimation, is discounted by Tye. Surprisingly, he is only mentioned once in his chapter on the subject. Yet his memo was both acute and realistic, and it was more or less followed by the administration. He wrote that the only branch of government that had achieved anything so far was the judiciary. He then wrote that the administration would have to press the issue through executive actions in order to put pressure on Congress to pass legislation, something that, for political reasons, Congress would not be ready to do in the first year or two. Wofford also mapped out the country geographically and recommended what actions needed to be taken and where. For example, he recommended legal assaults on states that restricted voting rights, and strictures in contracting to open up corporations to black employment. (Bernstein, pp. 47-48) As historian Irving Bernstein notes in his book, once Robert Kennedy became Attorney General, he followed this program. (See Promises Kept, Chapter 2)
When the Kennedy administration took office, it was evident that the Brown vs. Board decision, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were not having any kind of real impact. One reason for this was the Eisenhower administration’s lack of rigor in enforcing them. Senator John Kennedy, during the debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1957, said he championed Title 3 of that proposed act because it allowed the Attorney General to enter into individual states to attack cases of voting discrimination and school segregation. And this is what Robert Kennedy was doing once he became Attorney General. On May 6, 1961, at the University of Georgia’s Law Day, RFK announced that, unlike his predecessor, he would strongly enforce the Brown vs. Board decision. And RFK also began filing lawsuits in southern states based upon the low rates of voter turnout there. In his first year in office, RFK filed more than twice as many cases than Eisenhower had in his entire second administration. As writers like Harry Golden have pointed out, this plan was not just recommended by Wofford’s memo. Candidate Kennedy had approved it in no uncertain terms during the campaign in a meeting with his civil rights advisory board. (Harry Golden, Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, pp. 105, 139)
In the face of all this, how does the author actually begin his chronicle of the administration’s civil rights campaign? He ignores much of what I have noted above. He begins his actual chronicle with the Freedom Riders campaign, which started in May of 1961. He uses this for two reasons. He wants to show that 1) RFK was behind the curve, and 2) He uses the incident to call the AG a liar. He achieves the first in part by ignoring the comment that Senator James Eastland made to RFK after his confirmation. He told Kennedy that his predecessor had never filed a voting rights case against his home state of Mississippi. The next day President Kennedy wrote a note to his brother telling him to begin filing cases. (Golden, p. 100) This, of course, preceded the Freedom Riders campaign.
The second objective is achieved by saying that RFK was alerted to the incident in advance. Yet the AG said he was not aware of the demonstration. To use one example, as an FBI informant later revealed, J. Edgar Hoover was well aware of the planned violence against the Freedom Riders. That information was not passed to Hoover’s boss, the Attorney General. (Schlesinger, p. 307) A letter that the demonstration organizer had sent to the Attorney General was routed to Burke Marshall instead. He either never got it or he did not inform Kennedy about it. (Bernstein, p. 63)
But beyond that, is Tye implying what I think he is implying? That somehow, even if he had known about it, RFK would not have anticipated the violence the Freedom Riders would encounter? That is: vicious racists attacking the buses with baseball bats, lead pipes and bicycle chains. With people being pulled off the buses, thrown to the ground and then beaten and bloodied. All this while both the police and FBI did nothing. In this regard, I should note the following. At his meeting with President Kennedy about taking the job, both men understood there were going to be battles in the civil rights area right off the bat. (Ronald Goldfarb, Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes, p. 10) But also, I could find no mention by the author of the protest RFK made as a member of the Harvard football team when a southern opponent refused to let a black member of the team stay in the same hotel. That was in 1947. (Schlesinger, p. 71) Secondly, Tye seriously underplays the actions Kennedy took as leader of the Legal Forum at the University of Virginia in 1951. RFK invited black diplomat Ralph Bunche to speak there. He knew it would raise a ruckus, since UV was the team that did not want to play Harvard back in 1947. What made it more problematic was that Bunche wrote Kennedy a letter saying that he did not wish to appear before an audience that featured segregated seating. Yet, state law required this. More or less on his own, Kennedy took the case through four levels of campus government saying that he would not give up, since he thought disallowing Bunche would be morally indefensible. (Schlesinger, p. 90) Bunche ended up speaking to an integrated audience that was about 1/3 black. But beyond those personal experiences, the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins had taken place in North Carolina during the presidential campaign of 1960. And further, RFK was already supervising the New Orleans school desegregation crisis against the likes of Leander Perez in early 1961. (Robert Kennedy in His own Words, edited by Edwin Guthman and Jeffery Schulman, p.81)
What really happened with the revolution in civil rights that took place under Bobby Kennedy is fairly simple to understand. First, the failure of the Eisenhower administration to use any of the judicial and legislative achievements attained in the fifties built up large amounts of pent up frustration. For example, from 1955 to 1960, the courts had made a series of rulings that segregation in busing was not constitutional. If those rulings had been enforced, there would have been no need for the Freedom Riders. (Bernstein, pp. 62-63) But John F. Kennedy’s candidacy represented something different to black Americans. From his speeches on European colonialism in Africa back in 1957, to his speech in Jackson, Mississippi that year, telling southerners they must abide by Brown vs. Board, to his comments in New York during the 1960 primary that he would risk losing the south since this was a moral issue to him, and his later call during the general election to Coretta King while her husband was in jail, all these and more, caused that frustration to unleash itself once Kennedy won the election. Finally, someone was in the White House who was ready to do something about civil rights. For instance, it was John Kennedy’s election that inspired James Meredith to apply to the University of Mississippi. (Bernstein, p. 76)
And they were correct. By the summer of 1963, in less than three years, that synergy had turned the tide. With John Kennedy’s landmark speech in June of 1963 on the issue, and Robert Kennedy’s stewardship of King’s March on Washington, the battle was essentially won. Kennedy’s civil rights act was going to pass. As Wofford predicted, it could not have passed earlier. But I must note, even with this—the reversal of a century of Jim Crow and segregation in less than three years—Tye is still not satisfied. About President Kennedy’s nationally televised speech he writes that Kennedy had wanted to redefine America’s place in the world, but he had not come close before. (Tye, p. 229) To say the least, many would disagree. For example, President Kennedy reversed the Eisenhower agenda in Third World nations like Congo, Indonesia, and Laos in 1961. Tye also states that Robert Kennedy’s confrontation with Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama was “scripted”. If one watches the classic documentary about this showdown at Tuscaloosa, Crisis, the viewer will see that all the way through, the AG did not know what Wallace was going to do. Wallace had deliberately decided not to talk to RFK to settle the matter in advance. So at the White House, the AG suggested that the students might have to be forced through one of the furthest doors Wallace was standing in front of. If the episode had been scripted, RFK would never have suggested such a dangerous alternative. After all, Wallace had 900 state troopers there, and Bobby Kennedy had brought in 3000 guardsmen.
But in the long run Wallace and his henchman, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, had won. By creating these dramatic confrontations at Tuscaloosa and Oxford, they had made it appear that Bobby Kennedy was invading the state. Which conjured up images of President Lincoln and General Grant marching on Richmond in 1865. So even though Wallace lost on integration, he won the larger political stake: the South was lost to the Democrats after 1964. And this followed from the fact that, unlike Hoover, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Eisenhower and Nixon, Bobby Kennedy viewed this as something that had to be done. Indeed, at times RFK sounded like Malcolm X on the issue: “We’ll have to do whatever is necessary.” And what made it even worse is that RFK was fully aware of what was happening in the political arena. He was writing off state after state for his brother’s re-election in 1964. (Guthman and Shulman, pp. 76, 82) This whole tragic dimension—the moral plane losing out to the political factors—is lost on Tye.
But it wasn’t lost on Martin Luther King. In 1967, it was Bobby Kennedy who suggested King lead his Poor People’s March to Washington. (Schlesinger, p. 911) And for the 1968 primary election, King made it clear to his advisors that he was backing Kennedy over Lyndon Johnson and Eugene McCarthy, and there was no real question about it. (Martin Luther King: The FBI File, p. 572)
I began to lose a lot of faith in the author when, about halfway through the book, he began to insert the work of the late David Heymann. (pp. 191-92) And while we are at it, Tye also sources writers like Kitty Kelley, Chuck Giancana, and Ron Kessler. To be clear, towards the end, he doesn’t actually endorse Heymann; he throws his work out there for discussion. The problem is that Heymann has been discredited about as far as an author can be discredited. And since that discreditation has been well publicized, it is hard to believe that Tye doesn’t know about it. He even gives play to Heymann’s book, saying that RFK and Jackie Kennedy had an affair after JFK was killed. That book, and Heymann’s reputation, was thoroughly savaged by Lisa Pease. And today, it has been shown beyond any doubt that Heymann was a professional confabulator, one who not only made up interviews he did not do, but even created interview subjects who did not exist. Beyond that, he even manufactured a fictional police department so he could refer to their reports. (See this Newsweek story) Tye uses a story about RFK making out with Candy Bergen that was vehemently denied by a furious Bergen in 2014 in an article for Newsweek. That Newsweek story was published two years before the author’s book. Can he really have missed it? Meanwhile, Tye does not quote what the late FBI officer in charge of domestic intelligence for Hoover said about Kennedy’s party life. In his book The Bureau, William Sullivan wrote that Hoover would send agents out to follow Kennedy around at night. They could never find him in any compromising situations. He would nurse one drink all night and then leave the party.
This is all apropos of Tye’s chapter on RFK and Cuba, and also other foreign affairs. That chapter is surely one of the worst in the book. In order to discuss it, we must briefly mention President Kennedy’s policy, since Tye does so. Near the beginning of the chapter, Tye writes, in relation to Operation Zapata, the code name for the Bay of Pigs invasion, that “The new president was determined to act.” (Tye, p. 242) This is contrary to just about everything that has been written about Zapata. Even Allen Dulles, the progenitor of the operation, has stated that the project was a kind of orphan child that Kennedy had adopted, but he had no real love or affection for. (Trumbull Higgins, The Perfect Failure, p. 103) When Arthur Schlesinger asked him what he thought about the concept, JFK replied he thought about it as little as possible. (ibid, p. 102) Contrary to what Tye states, the CIA had to entice the new president into going along with it. They did this in a variety of ways. This included presenting him with false estimates of the resistance to Castro on the island, having Dulles wildly overstate the possibilities of the project’s success, and actually predicting that once the invasion landed, much of the Cuban militia would defect. (Peter Kornbluh, Bay of Pigs Declassified, pp. 294-95) But beyond that, Tye persists in the idea that President Kennedy cancelled D-Day air strikes. (Tye, p. 242) Thanks to the declassification of Lyman Kirkpatrick’s Inspector General report, and the availability of General Maxwell Taylor’s White House report, this has been exposed as a myth propagated by the CIA.
Now, what did Robert Kennedy have to do with Zapata? Just about nothing. He was briefed on the operation four days before the invasion force was launched from Central America. (ibid, p. 301) The importance of RFK in regards to Zapata is his role afterwards in serving as President Kennedy’s watchdog on the Taylor review board. This was a panel set up by President Kennedy to delve into the CIA’s creation and launching of the invasion. Tye seriously underplays RFK’s role on Maxwell Taylor’s board. For instance, he does not mention RFK’s cross-examination of Allen Dulles; or Joseph Kennedy’s aid in helping uncover the Bruce-Lovett report, which had previously been critical of Dulles; nor does he mention the termination of director Dulles, Deputy Director Charles Cabell, or operations supervisor Dick Bissell. (Tye, p. 245) JFK did this because he came to the conclusion he had been lied to about every aspect of the operation. Why? Because Dulles knew the plan would not succeed. The director had banked on Kennedy sending in American forces when he saw it failing. Kennedy did not. With the declassification process on Zapata, several respected authors, including Jim Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, have demonstrated this was the case. It is questionable whether the president could have understood all this without his brother’s role on the Taylor panel. As far as I can see, this is all left out by Tye.
As Tye recognizes, it was largely RFK’s part on the Taylor board that convinced the president not to trust the CIA or the Pentagon. Thus Robert Kennedy assumed a larger presence in foreign policy matters. When Operation Mongoose—the secret war against Cuba—was formulated, RFK served as a kind of ombudsman over that project. As David Corn wrote in Blonde Ghost—his biography of the project’s administrator Ted Shackley—the CIA greatly resented this. For now they had to present detailed plans to RFK for every raid into Cuba.
This gives Tye the opportunity to do what I thought he would. He tries to say that Mongoose included the elimination of Fidel Castro and since RFK knew all about the project, he had to have known about the plots to kill Fidel. (p. 253) This is wrong on two scores. First, it is clear from the declassified record on Mongoose that assassination plots were not a part of the program. The CIA had arranged plans to liquidate Castro, but these were apart from official plans. Secondly, the CIA Inspector General report on the plots specifically states that they were kept from the Kennedys. This includes the phase of the plots that CIA officer William Harvey was supervising with mobster John Roselli during Mongoose. (The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, p. 327) When RFK found out about them he called in Director John McCone and Director of Operations Richard Helms and he made it clear that this kind of thing was disgraceful and had to be stopped. (Goldfarb, p. 273) But the CIA deliberately deceived RFK and continued in them. In fact, when JFK was assassinated, they had a representative meeting with a Cuban national codenamed AM/LASH, delivering him murder weapons. Again, the CIA lied about this and said it had been authorized by Robert Kennedy. It was not. (David Talbot, Brothers, pp. 229-30)
After all this rather flawed history—about Zapata, about Mongoose, about the CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro—Tye concludes with a remarkable reverie. (p. 254) I actually had to read it twice. He says that the clandestine operations against Cuba were the inspiration for things like Ronald Reagan’s war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and Richard Nixon’s CIA overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. Somehow, Tye leaves out the fact that the CIA had been doing this kind of thing long before the Kennedys came to power. Can Tye really not be aware of the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953? The Agency overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala the year after? Or their attempt to militarily overthrow Sukarno in Indonesia in 1958? Or the backing by Eisenhower and Allen Dulles of the murder plots against Patrice Lumumba of the Congo in 1960? The idea that this kind of thing was all new in 1961 is a little ludicrous. And as more than one author—for example, Jim Douglass—has shown, the Kennedys were attempting to both halt and reverse these regressive actions in the Third World.
But the main focus of this dubious chapter is the 1962 Missile Crisis. As is his consistent tendency, Tye’s goal seems twofold: 1) He wants to label Robert Kennedy a liar, and 2) He wants to blame RFK for the crisis in the first place. He does this by saying that the reason for the Russian placement of the atomic armada in Cuba was because of Mongoose, and the possibility of a second invasion. Therefore, he concludes that RFK was not forthcoming about the real cause of the crisis in his book on the subject, Thirteen Days. (Tye, p. 239)
Again, to say this is flawed history is understating it. One way Tye achieves this is by not revealing the full expanse of the nuclear arsenal the USSR had secretly moved into Cuba. That arsenal included 40 missile launchers and 60 medium- and long-range nuclear tipped rockets. The former could fly 1,200 miles; the latter 2,400 miles. Consequently, the long-range missiles could reach almost any major city in the USA, excepting the Pacific Northwest. There were 140 surface to air missile defense launchers to protect the launching sites. Those batteries would be accompanied by a wing of the latest Soviet jet fighter, the MIG-21, plus a detachment of 45,000 Soviet combat troops. That troop detachment included four motorized rifle regiments and over 250 units of armor. To finish off the nuclear launch triad, the Russians had sent in 40 IL-28s, an armed nuclear bomber which had a speed of 560 MPH and a range of 4,500 miles. Finally, they had constructed a submarine pen with 11 subs, 7 of them with 1-megaton nuclear weapons. That explosive power is about 80 times the torque of the Hiroshima blast. (Probe Magazine, May-June 1998, p. 17)
That array made it possible to hit every major city in America. One would use the bombers and subs for the southeast quadrant, targeting cities like Houston, New Orleans and Miami. The missiles could be used for targets in the northeast, Mideast, Midwest and southern California. With that revealed, here is my question: How was this designed to thwart a Cuban exile boat raid into say Varadero on the Cuban north coast? Do you incinerate 200,000 people in Atlanta in response to an eight-man raid that sabotaged an electricity plant? As many commentators have noted, it would be like killing a fly with a cannon—you would blow up your house in the process. To stop another invasion, all one would have needed to do was to give Castro tactical nuclear weapons, which the Russians did, and/or the SAM missiles and MIG jets. But such was not the case, not by a long shot.
As scholars who have studied the crisis for decades have concluded, what Nikita Khrushchev was assembling in Cuba was a first strike capability. Something that the USSR did not have at the time, and would not attain for about four more years. In the nuclear planning policy of deterrence, this capability was considered necessary to stop your opponent from executing their first strike. In fact, in a meeting in July of 1961, Allen Dulles had asked President Kennedy to do just that: to launch a first strike against Russia. Kennedy not only refused, he walked out of the meeting. (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 235)
The most respected scholar in the field, Harvard’s Graham Allison, has concluded that with this first strike capability, Khrushchev was going to maneuver Kennedy into surrendering West Berlin. (Essence of Decision, p. 105) In their Vienna Summit in the summer of 1961, Khrushchev had made the question of Berlin a real bone of contention with Kennedy: since West Berlin was within East Germany, it should be a part of that Russian dominated country. Kennedy did not see it that way. He felt that if he surrendered Berlin, it could unravel the whole American/European alliance. Something he was not willing to do. In fact, during the meetings in the White House on this subject, Kennedy repeatedly referred to Berlin as the reason for the crisis. (op. cit. Probe, p. 18)
Another point that Tye scores his subject on is that RFK pondered whether an air strike would be enough to get the missiles out, or if there needed to be an invasion. At this first meeting President Kennedy had just listed four options his advisors had mapped out for him. Robert Kennedy then chimes in:
We have the fifth one really, which is the invasion [which was already raised by Maxwell Taylor]. I would say that you’re dropping bombs all over Cuba if you do the second, air and the airports, knocking out their planes, dropping it on all their missiles. You’re covering most of Cuba. You’re going to kill an awful lot of people, and we’re going to take an awful lot of heat on this. And then—you know the heat. You’re going to announce the reason that you’re doing it is because they’re sending in these kinds of missiles.
Well, I would think it’s almost incumbent upon the Russians then, to say, Well we’re going to send them in again. And if you do it again, we’re going to do the same thing in Turkey” or “we’re going to so the same thing to Iran.” (The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, p. 66)
Does this sound like RFK is pushing for an invasion? He is making an overall air strike, which is what Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had described, sound very unappealing. As Steven Schneider writes, Bobby Kennedy was against even the air strike option, comparing it to what the Japanese did to America at Pearl Harbor. So how could he have been for an invasion? (Robert F. Kennedy, pp. 56-57) In fact, after an unsettling meeting with congressional leaders who thought the agreed upon blockade of Cuba was too weak, the brothers were shaken by the sabre rattling. They both agreed that the blockade was the least JFK could do without being impeached. (op. cit. Probe, p. 16)
The crisis was resolved by the blockade, meetings between newsman John Scali and KGB agent Alex Feklisov, Khrushchev’s annoyance with Castro’s recklessness, and a meeting between Robert Kennedy and Russian ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. The arrangement was that the Russians would remove the atomic arsenal from Cuba, in return for a no invasion pledge on Cuba from Kennedy, and the later removal of American missiles from Turkey. Kennedy wanted the last to be kept under wraps since he thought it would hurt American standing in Europe. But Robert Kennedy had assured Dobrynin that this would be part of the deal at his meeting with him. Needless to day, Tye scores both RFK and Ted Sorenson—who edited Thirteen Days after Kennedy’s death—for not making the deal more explicit in the final version of the book. This is really kind of penny ante even for this book. Bobby Kennedy’s diaries made the deal explicit. Sorenson edited them to make it less so, since that is the way his boss, John Kennedy—for reasons stated above—wished it to be. (See “Anatomy of a Controversy”, by Jim Hershberg at the online National Security Archive.)
This is largely what Tye uses to call RFK a liar and accuse him of being a hawk during the Missile Crisis. But then he goes beyond that. He actually writes that the stance taken in Thirteen Days is what influenced Lyndon Johnson to do what he did in Vietnam! (p. 273) This is wild even for Tye. First, LBJ was at most of the meetings during the Missile Crisis. When you read those transcripts you will see that he was more hawkish than the Kennedys. (See especially the meeting of 10/27/62, Probe, op. cit. p. 23) Secondly, Johnson was against Kennedy’s policy of no American combat troops in Vietnam from 1961! Against Kennedy’s wishes, on his trip there in May of 1961, he suggested that Premier Diem of South Vietnam request combat troops from Washington. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, p. 72) Later, after John Kennedy was killed, Johnson told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara how he had been against withdrawing from Vietnam, as Kennedy was planning to do; but he kept his mouth shut since he was only Vice-President. (Virtual JFK, by James Blight, p. 310) Does it get any clearer than that? But in the end the claim is actually nonsensical, for what reasonable person could even compare the two situations? In one you had a superpower secretly moving a first strike nuclear capability 90 miles from Florida, thereby upsetting the balance of power; in the other, you had a years-long, anti-colonial, peasant rebellion 9,000 miles away—one that had no direct impact on America's national security. Not even Johnson could possibly equate the two. If I didn't know better, I would say that Tye is trying to blame Johnson's epochal disaster in Indochina—which was expanded and completed by Nixon and Kissinger—on Bobby Kennedy's book. Which, in view of the record, is absurd.
As the reader can see, most of the book is like this. Is it worth reading? No, because of all the textual problems mentioned above. Is it worth buying? No, since I can see no real value for it as a reference work. Which leaves the final question: Why did the author write the book? Only Larry Tye can answer that question.