Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 14/15
Previous segment |Next segment | Contents | Archive | ZNet

4. Kennedy and the Political Norm

A methodological point is perhaps worth mention. Suppose that we were to concoct a theory about historical events at random, while permitting ourselves to assume arbitrary forms of deceit and falsification. Then in the vast documentary record, we are sure to find scattered hints and other debris that could be made to conform to the theory, while counter-evidence is nullified. By that method, one can "prove" virtually anything. For example, we can prove that JFK never intended to withdraw any troops, citing the elusiveness of NSAM 263 and his unwillingness to commit himself to the withdrawal recommended by his war managers. Or we can prove that the attempt to assassinate Reagan was carried out by dark forces (Alexander Haig, the CIA, etc.). After all, Reagan had backed away from using US forces directly in Central America (unlike JFK in Vietnam); he was cozying up to the Chicoms; he had already given intimations of the anti-nuclear passion that led him to offer to give away the store at Rejkjavik and to join forces with the arch-fiend Gorbachev, whose perestroika was a transparent plot to entrap us; his associates were planning off-the-shelf international operations, bypassing intelligence and the Pentagon. Obviously, he has to go. Or suppose there had been an attempt to assassinate LBJ in late 1964, when he was refusing the call of the military to stand up to the Commies in Vietnam, pursuing Great Society and civil rights programs with a zeal well beyond Kennedy, and about to defeat a real alternative, Barry Goldwater. Nothing is easier than to construct a high-level conspiracy to get rid of this "radical reformer." The task is only facilitated by a search for nuances and variations of phrasing in the mountains of documents, usually committee jobs put together hastily with many compromises.

This is not the way to learn about the world. In particular, the widespread belief that JFK was a secret dove has to be explained on some grounds other than his position on Vietnam.

Are there other grounds? Another favored idea is that JFK had become a demon to the military-industrial complex because he was going to end the Cold War. To assess the thesis, we may turn again to the speech he was to give in Dallas on the day of the assassination, with its proud boast about his vast increases in Polaris submarines, Minuteman missiles, strategic bombers on 15-minute alert, nuclear weapons in strategic alert forces, readiness of conventional forces, procurement, naval construction and modernization, tactical aircraft, and special forces. JFK military Keynesianism had raised Pentagon spending from $45.3 billion in 1960 to $52.1 billion in 1962, along with a huge increase in the space budget from $400 million in 1960 to $5 billion in 1965, much of it for the jingoist "man-on-the-moon" extravaganza. By the end of JFK's term, over 78 percent of all R&D was funded by the federal government, overwhelmingly military and space (barely distinguishable), almost all for the "private sector," a huge increase in three years. Recall further that all of this had been achieved on the pretext of a fabricated missile gap and other fantasies about how Eisenhower was "frittering away" our wealth in "indulgences, luxuries, and frivolities" while the country faced "the possibility of annihilation or humiliation" (senior Kennedy economic adviser Walter Heller). At Dallas, JFK intended to call for more of the same, because "we dare not weary of the task" of confronting "the ambitions of international communism," his "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy."50 Reagan could hardly claim more.

Perhaps the Dallas speech can be explained away by the "delude the right" gambit. More imagination would be required to deal with some facts that JFK did not intend to share with his audience: namely, his knowledge that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had undertaken huge cuts in active Soviet military forces, verified by US intelligence, including elimination of half the tactical air force (with two-thirds reduction in light-bomber units) and removal of about 1500 aircraft from the Navy, half of them scrapped and the rest turned over to air defense; that Khrushchev had withdrawn more than 15,000 troops from East Germany, calling on the US to undertake similar reductions of the military budget and in military forces in Europe and generally; and that in 1963 Khrushchev had proposed further reciprocal cuts -- options privately discussed by Kennedy with high Soviet officials, but dismissed by the President as he expanded his intervention in Vietnam.51

This does not seem too promising a path.

The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) is regularly invoked in this connection. On its import, we may turn to McGeorge Bundy, hardly one given to downplay the achievements of the Kennedy Administration, or its peaceful intent. The LTBT "was indeed limited," he writes, and did not impede the technological advance in nuclear weaponry, which is what was important to US strategic planners. Bundy agrees with Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under Kennedy and Johnson, that "what produced the treaty was steadily growing worldwide concern over the radioactive fallout from testing," along with Kennedy's ability to show "moderation" after facing down Khrushchev at the missile crisis, and the latter's interest in appearing to be "on the same level" as the US after that demonstration of Soviet weakness. The same show of strength enabled JFK to deliver a "peace speech" in 1963, Bundy observes.52

It also set off the next phase of the arms race, as the USSR tried to compensate for the weakness that had been exposed by JFK's military build-up and uncompromising public posture, which helped bring the world all too close to nuclear war.

Another common belief is that JFK was so incensed over the failure of the CIA at the Bay of Pigs that he vowed to smash it to bits, sowing the seeds for right-wing hatreds. Again, there are problems. As historians of the Agency have pointed out, it was Lyndon Johnson who treated the CIA "with contempt," while JFK's distress over the Bay of Pigs "in no way undermined his firm faith in the principle of covert operations, and in the CIA's mission to carry them out." JFK promised to "redouble his efforts" and to "improve" covert operations. He fired the CIA's harshest critic (Chester Bowles) and appointed as Director the respected John McCone, who "revitalized the intelligence process," though persistent failures kept the Agency from returning to the "golden age." Nevertheless, the CIA was " White House favor" and became a "significant voice in policy making" under Kennedy, particularly in 1963, "as covert actions multiplied in Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and Africa" (including new instructions in June 1963 to increase covert operations against Castro). Under JFK, the CIA Director became "a principal participant in the administration, on a par with the Secretary of State or of Defense." The enthusiasm of the Kennedy brothers for counterinsurgency and covert operations is, of course, notorious.53

Roger Hilsman, Director of State Department Intelligence under Kennedy, writes of the efforts of the Administration to streamline intelligence operations and make them more "effective and appropriate," overcoming the incompetence of recent operations so that later ones would better serve US interests. The intent is well illustrated by Hilsman's discussion of CIA Director Allen Dulles's defense of the successful overthrow of the governments of Iran (Mossadegh) and Guatemala (Arbenz). "Dulles is fundamentally right," Hilsman states. If the Communists remain "antagonistic" and use subversion, then we have a right "to protect and defend ourselves" -- by overthrowing a conservative parliamentary regime or a reformist democratic capitalist government and imposing a murderous terror state.54

Go to the next segment.

50 Dallas speech cited by Paterson, Kennedy's Quest; Raskin, op. cit., from Public Papers of the Presidents. Du Boff, Accumulation, 101. Heller cited by Richard Du Boff and Edward Herman, "The New Economics and the Contradictions of Keynesianism," Review of Radical Political Economics, URPE, Aug. 1972. On these matters, see MacDougall, Heavens.

51 See DD, 26; 501, ch. 3, n. 12.

52 Bundy, Danger, 460-1.

53 Jeffreys-Jones, CIA; Ranelagh, Agency. See also Blum, CIA.

54 Hilsman, To Move a Nation, 85f.