Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter Two: Interpretations Segment 15/15
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Furthermore, as Robert Spears points out, those most incensed by JFK's efforts to improve the efficiency of the CIA after the Bay of Pigs fiasco were not right-wing jingoists, but the "Bold Easterners," a group not unlike the "action intellectuals" of the New Frontier. The "decline in the reputation and standing of the CIA" paralleled the "decline in the abundance and power of the Ivy Leaguers." LBJ reduced their role in the decision-making process, and Nixon "consciously sought to exclude the CIA from power" because of his contempt for the "Ivy League liberals" who still dominated the Agency, he felt. The Nixon years were "the nadir for the CIA."55

Johnson and Nixon, then, should have been the targets for CIA resentment and plots, not JFK. There seems to be little promise here.

Others have argued that Kennedy's threat was to the business elite and the wealthy, a position hard to square with fiscal policies that overwhelmingly benefited higher income groups, according to an analysis in the National Tax Journal, including the 1962 investment credit ("a bribe to capital formation," in Paul Samuelson's phrase) and the Revenue Act of 1964 proposed by Kennedy just before his assassination, which "provided for regressive personal and corporate income tax cuts," economists Du Boff and Herman observe. Note also that no policies relevant to the various theories about Kennedy-the- reformer were reversed under LBJ; those most opposed by the right were extended.56

Some have brought forth Latin America as the sign of Kennedy's incipient radicalism. Cuba poses a certain problem for that thesis, notably Kennedy's terrorist war after the Bay of Pigs, which broke entirely new grounds in international terrorism. The threat of invasion it posed also appears to have been a significant factor contributing to the missile crisis. It is often alleged that Kennedy helped end the crisis by committing the US not to invade Cuba. That is not true, Raymond Garthoff pointed out in his authoritative insider's account. There was no such commitment, public or private; the "studied silence" on the matter was "a considered position maintained throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations," to be ended in August 1970, "when for the first time American leaders unequivocally accepted the mutual commitments" of 1962. After the crisis ended, Kennedy initiated a new sabotage and terror program, and still sought to "dig Castro out of there" (memorandum of private conversation, March 1963). US-based terrorist operations continued until the assassination, according to reports from the FBI, which monitored them; though "with the assassination, ...the heart went out of the offensive," Michael McClintock observes, and the operations were terminated in April 1964 by LBJ, who regarded them as "a damned Murder, Inc. in the Caribbean."57

One of the most significant legacies left by the Administration was its 1962 decision to shift the mission of the Latin American military from "hemispheric defense" to "internal security," while providing the means and training to ensure that the task would be properly performed. As described by Charles Maechling, who led counterinsurgency and internal defense planning from 1961 to 1966, that historic decision led to a change from toleration "of the rapacity and cruelty of the Latin American military" to "direct complicity" in "the methods of Heinrich Himmler's extermination squads." The aftermath is well known, including the establishment of the death squads of Central America; the meeting of Central American presidents in March 1963, chaired by JFK, was "the landmark event in the formation of the national security apparatus" in the region, Alan Nairn comments.

These improved modes of repression were a central component of Kennedy's Latin American policies, a companion to the Alliance for Progress, which required effective population control because of the dire impact of its development programs on much of the population. Related projects helped subvert democracy and bring on brutally repressive regimes in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, British Guiana, Chile, Brazil, and elsewhere. The export-promotion policies of the Alliance brought about comforting "economic miracles" in the technical sense. Unemployment increased from 18 to 25 million and agricultural production per person declined during the "decade of development." The "economic miracles" turned into the crisis of the '70s, setting the stage for vastly increased US-backed terror and forecasts of new "economic miracles" as the old policies are reinstated. Six military coups overthrew popular regimes during the Kennedy years, ten more later; in several cases, Kennedy Administration policies contributed materially to the outcome. In 1962-1963, Kennedy's CIA initiated its (successful) program to subvert the 1964 election in Chile, because, as the NSC determined, "We are not prepared to risk a Socialist or FRAP [Allende] victory, for fear of nationalization of U.S. investments" and "probable Communist influence." The role of the Kennedy Administration in bringing about the Brazilian military coup of 1964 was still more significant.

Putting aside the catastrophic investor-oriented economic policies, there is no serious question that "Through its recognition policy, internal security initiatives, and military and economic aid programs, the [Kennedy] Administration demonstrably bolstered regimes and groups that were undemocratic, conservative, and frequently repressive. The short-term security that anti-Communist elites could provide was purchased at the expense of long-term political and social democracy" (Stephen Rabe).58

Without proceeding any further, it is not easy to make a case that JFK represented some departure from the norm of business rule.

In fact, there are striking resemblances between the Kennedy and Reagan Administrations. Both came into office with impassioned denunciations of the wimps in power, who were presiding over America's decline while the Evil Empire pursued its implacable course towards world conquest. Both were "full of belligerence," "sort of looking for a chance to prove their muscle" (Chester Bowles on JFK); they warned the country that "the complacent and the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history. Only the strong...can possibly survive" (JFK). Both were enthusiastic innovators in the art of international terrorism and state terror. Both launched huge military build-ups on fraudulent pretexts, with the traditional twin aims of using their muscle abroad and extending the taxpayer subsidy to high-tech industry. Both initiated regressive fiscal programs for the benefit of investors. In both cases, corporate and financial sectors called for limits on these Keynesian excesses; rhetoric became more muted and conciliatory and military spending levelled (though in the Kennedy-Johnson case, Vietnam intervened).

There were also differences. In the early '60s, the US remained the world's dominant power, and could afford to flaunt prospects of "great societies at home and grand designs abroad" (Walter Heller); 20 years later, the great societies would have to go. Kennedy made a play for the intellectual community, whom Reagan treated with contempt. The imagery, accordingly, is much different; the reality, less so.59

It seems more than coincidental that fascination with tales of intrigue about Camelot lost reached their peak in 1992 just as discontent with all institutions reached historic peaks, along with a general sense of powerlessness and gloom about the future, and the traditional one-party, two-faction candidate-producing mechanism was challenged by a billionaire with a dubious past, a "blank slate" on which one's favorite dreams could be inscribed. The audiences differ, but the JFK-Perot movements share a millenarian cast, reminiscent of the cargo cults of South Sea islanders who await the return of the great ships with their bounty. These developments tell us a good bit about the state of American culture at a time of general malaise, unfocused anger and discontent, and effective dissolution of the means for the public to become engaged in a constructive way in determining their fate.60

Go to the bibliography.

55 Spears, in Jeffreys-Jones and Lownie, North American Spies.

56 Du Boff and Herman, op. cit.; Du Boff, Accumulation, 101.

57 Paterson, in Paterson, Kennedy's Quest; Garthoff, Détente, 80; McClintock, Instruments, 187, 185. See NI, 274-5. On JFK's terror against Cuba, see Hinckle & Turner, Deadly Secrets. Missile Crisis, see 501, 148.

58 Rabe, in Paterson, Kennedy's Quest. Nairn, Progressive, May 1984. See TTT, and sources cited; Walter LaFeber, "The Alliances in Retrospect," in Maguire and Brown, Bordering; Williams, Export Agriculture. Kennedy and Brazil, 501, ch. 7.3. On "economic miracles," see 501, ch. 7.

59 Bowles, Oral History; Kennedy, Public Papers of the Presidents, 1961, cited by Paterson, op. cit., 19, 136. See TTT, ch. 4.

60 See 501, ch. 11.